Thomas Engler replied, “Okay. The church was very Southern, very charismatic, sort of scorched-Earth. Weekly services in the high school auditorium. There were times when I didn’t take the whole thing too seriously, but this was a bad year: I was hitting puberty, that Easter. But the preacher wasn’t really talking about the Resurrection. Or, well, he sort of was, but he kept coming back to the exorcism of the Garasene demoniac, which was all he ever came back to: it’s in a couple of the gospels—you know it: the guy, the ‘Garasene demoniac’ is possessed, runs out of the cave and is very...possessed, and Jesus exorcises him, you know, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many,’ and then it, it being Legion, possesses a bunch of pigs and they jump off a cliff. But so the preacher wants to show what it would be like to be possessed, to us. We did a whole similar thing every Halloween, where a bunch of the kids dressed up like demons or like people burning in Hell and it scared everyone straight for that year. Or it was supposed to. Right: that was the connection to Easter, he was trying to show how important the resurrection was, how badly we needed the grace of Christ, the miracle of the resurrection: so he has this whole...exercise in his head and he calls on me, in the congregation—he called on people all the time, the church was very game-show, and he makes me get out and into the aisle in the middle of the congregation, and everyone is looking at me, and he starts to ask questions: ‘What’s your name, son,’ easy questions. They were easy questions. But all about myself. All the questions were.
But so he tells me to pause and tells the congregation—there were probably 75 people in the audience—to start whispering to me, to whisper at me, just whisper in whatever language and he’s asking me the same questions but they’re harder to answer now because I’m distracted, and meanwhile my, um, my body is acting weird: I’m shaking a little bit but I don’t feel scared, just kind of confused; I’m physically buzzing some, but I just feel kind of flustered, and then he stops me; he is smiling really big now, and he tells them all to speak at a normal volume but to be mad at me, to pretend to be mad at me, to speak really angrily to me: and then he starts the questions over again from the beginning, which I was not expecting, and then he starts to fucking—sorry, he starts conducting the audience, like raising up his arm for them to get louder, raising the congregation like an orchestra, smiling, he’s gesturing for them to get louder, and my head starts sort of twitching and I move my hand up to my face to scratch an itch, or rub my eye, and I’m crying, like sobbing and trembling, and I start to cough, and he looks over at me, he was smiling mainly at the audience, and his smile fades a bit and he sort of gives a half-assed kind of cut-off gesture and a couple people applaud. They learned the lesson? He was sort of upset when I talked to him about it and he didn’t apologize afterwards but he came up and shook my hand and said the Lord appreciated my commitment, that was what he said, my commitment, which was maybe the scariest thing about the whole thing, but he looked a little bit shaken up. I guess.
The moment he mentioned that the object of the unnamed preacher’s questioning was himself, Thomas severed eye contact with Dr. Austin and began to rock gently back and forth in his chair: his soft, locked gaze moving up and down, sweeping the wall behind the therapist. Dr. Austin said that he was sorry something like that had happened to him, and waited for evidence that Thomas had recomposed himself before suggesting that he elaborate on why that episode had occurred to him here, or to tell what he thought the story meant.
Thomas straightened his back, reestablished proper eye contact, and took a deep breath before intentionally and discreetly adjusting the conversation to a sufficiently related topic: his childhood concern that he was undeserving of divine grace. A bit of transitional filler, then the thesis: “It’s like the truth of the promise of salvation was sensed or felt by those around me,” he said, as he’d said nearly verbatim a number of times before, “and I hadn’t been granted access to it.”
For all his prevarication, the answer to Dr. Austin’s question was accessible to him. He had not yet had the courage to apply his attention in its direction, but the answer was simple: he had been interviewing for jobs, and the interview process—the need to face those people and—lie, invent—or just elaborate, like an honestly-told story at a party?— reminded him of that Easter. One reason for his reluctance to cognize this connection, to dredge it out and drag it into the fluorescent light of consciousness, was his parallel reluctance to acknowledge that the episode still revealed something about his inner life. And, beyond even this, he hated and feared the fact that, despite years of effort, he did not fully understand the nature of the incident, did not understand its ramifications or implications; how it had shaped him, what it told him about who he was. He couldn’t tell if it was cause, or effect, or both. It was unaccountable.
Dr. Austin noted, calmly and according to familiar procedure, that Thomas had changed the subject. Would he like to answer the original question? It was fine if he did not, or could not, now, but the question would come up again, “either inside or outside of my office.”
He wondered after asking if he had asked too intensely. But he felt the question’s stakes, because he thought he might be on the cusp of genuine understanding, that he might be beginning to perceive the connective tissue linking several years’ worth of relevant and revealing conversational stumbling blocks from Thomas, years’ worth of inadvertent utterances and digressions; he also knew, though, that it would take at least three more sessions’ worth of carefully aimed questions to perceive the web in its entirety, or at least enough to explain what he saw with a modicum of accuracy to Thomas himself. Besides which, he had become increasingly skeptical of this feeling of almost-comprehending, given that he had been denied, for one reason or another—or, more frighteningly, perhaps for no reason at all—that climactic moment of comprehension with several other patients thus far this year alone, to the point that he was beginning to question whether or not that moment had ever existed: whether or not he had ever experienced such a moment of understanding with any patient.
Should he have gone into obstetrics? Besides which, three weeks was too far away, for practical purposes, to matter anyway. Thomas declined to answer the question.
The ENGLER-BORSTEIN apartment. Evening. NEIGHBORS due to arrive any minute.
THOMAS ENGLER: I’m not going to drink tonight. I took a pill.
ELLEN BORSTEIN: Tommy! You’re that nervous?
THOMAS: “Sense of impending doom” is actually a symptom of —
[The doorbell rings. THOMAS breathes deeply: inhalation, exhalation.]
ELLEN [whispering]: They’ll stay for — three hours, at most.
THOMAS: It’s okay. They can take their time, this is — [trailing off, earnestly]
[ELLEN opens the door. Enter FRANCES and ELLEN KIM. They are carrying a bottle of wine. “So good to finally meet you!” etc. THOMAS coughs loudly, accidentally. They move away from the door and toward the dinner table at the opposite end of the living room.]
ELLEN B.: Hopefully the — uh, building’s been treating you well!
ELLEN K.: No complaints.
FRANCES: One of us, I think it’s my turn, might have to sneak out at some point tonight to check on Timothy, that’s our son, he’s asleep. He just turned five.
THOMAS: How does he do when you guys leave?
ELLEN K.: He gets nervous. But he’s alright.
[Somewhere in the world someone is dying of a preventable disease. The disease is contagious, and those attempting to care for this person run the risk of being infected. THOMAS remembers or realizes this — though certainly not for the first time — and he blinks, as if to shut the thought out. He holds this blink for a (conspicuously?) long time. As the ritual surrounding the KIMS’ entry to their house winds down, the way the thought flickers across his field of thought like a frame of film, or like what one sees on a news network while channelsurfing past it, makes him wonder the extent to which the form of the thought, and thereby the thought itself, are indebted to the structure of television. The two film-frames of thought pass from his mental field of vision, and he returns, as best he can, to the party. But unlike the actual field of vision, turning away does not facilitate easy unseeing: like the bodily presence of someone looking at him from behind, or like the painting underneath a painting made atop a used canvas, the frames of thought linger, somewhere, in the air of his mind, perhaps, a ringing in his ears, the glow of the sun on his retinae, dimly but forever: or at least through the end of the night.]
FRANCES: Do you guys need a hand with anything? Dinner-wise?
THOMAS: No. I think we’re good.
ELLEN B. [gesturing at the table]: Take a seat! Please! [They do.] Would you like anything to drink?
ELLEN K.: Oh, no, thank you. We aren’t big drinkers. ELLEN B.: But you brought this wine over! Not even a glass?
FRANCES [refusing]: Oh thanks so much...
[A lull. THOMAS’ heart skips a beat. He is standing on the threshold between kitchen and living room, looking at the dinner table; now glancing right, at the door. FRANCES and ELLEN K. sit with their backs against the window, facing the door. In the kitchen, EL- LEN B. pours herself a glass of wine, cracks the oven to check on the roast. THOMAS stands breathing heavily, on the threshold.]
ELLEN B.: We’re basically ready to eat. Thomas, can you come help with the baked potatoes?
FRANCES: Are you sure you don’t need anything?
THOMAS: Oh no we’re fine —
[THOMAS ducks into the kitchen as oven-mitted ELLEN B. emerges with the pot roast.]
ELLEN K.: That looks superb!
THOMAS [opens the oven, coughs loudly, looks for the oven mitts, realizes ELLEN B. has them, tries to remove the potatoes from the oven without mitts by pulling them quickly with a carving fork into a glass baking dish, burns the side of his hand, drops them]: Shit!
[FRANCES stands up quickly and comes into the kitchen.]
FRANCES [bending over next to THOMAS]: We can just wash those off, it’ll be fine. [Their clothes touch, but they do not. By the time they exit with the potatoes, the rest of the table has been set. ELLEN B. and ELLEN K. are engaged in conversation, the gravity of which seems improbable to THOMAS given how rapidly it's arisen.]
ELLEN K.: ...so it rarely comes to that, but the problem with this particular strain, yeah, is that we're seeing way more cases of acute respiratory distress syndrome than, than a normal seasonal influenza leads to. And the problem with that,
[THOMAS and FRANCES sit down.]
is that ARDS actually uses your own immune system against you, which is why so many otherwise healthy young people with very strong immune systems are dying.
[THOMAS' heart rate accelerates.]
ELLEN B.: And the other problem has to do with the antibiotics, right?
ELLEN K.: Right, the antivirals. The primary strain of H1N6 is not resistant to antivirals, but we're starting to see—oh, we should eat.
FRANCES: Not that the flu pandemic isn't great dinnertime conversation.
ELLEN K. [smiling, barely]: Dinner wasn't served yet, it didn't count.
[The two joke with a worn sharpness that signals the topic is skirting the edge of a deeper, older disagreement, the presence of which in his dining room probably frightens THOMAS more than the flu pandemic. The tension dissipates quickly.]
FRANCES: Do you all mind if we say grace?
ELLEN B.: No, not at all!
FRANCES: Thanks so much.
ELLEN K [smiling, earnestly]: It shouldn't take long.
FRANCES AND ELLEN K. [bowing their heads]: In the name of the Father
[They do the Sign of the Cross.]
the Son and the Holy Spirit:
[ELLEN B., modestly and mutedly interested, almost bemused, joins in, bowing her head]: Bless us O Lord
[THOMAS bows his head, but does not speak.]
with these thy gifts,
[THOMAS realizes that his voice's absence from the prayer is conspicu ous, but does not begin to pray.]
which we are about to receive,
[The words, which he has heard thousands of times, suddenly interest THOMAS. About to receive.]
from thy bounty,
["From thy bounty": he lifts his head and opens his eyes. Unaccountably, he begins to pray with them]:
through Christ our Lord, Amen.
[They lift their heads up, smiling, ELLEN B. included, and begin to pass the food around.] [Beat.]
THOMAS: So you two are religious?
[As soon as he asks he winces, deeply, at the sound and stupidity of the phrasing. The other three take the question in stride.]
ELLEN K.: Frances is actually a pastor!
FRANCES [smiling]: Well, not yet. I'm finishing my last year of seminary.
ELLEN B.: I had no idea!
THOMAS [strangely — he is still unnerved by the fact that he had joined in the prayer]: Yeah, neither did I.
[ELLEN glances at him subtly, with confusion and frustration, in a way that suggests she interpreted his comment as vaguely or implicitly hostile. His heart rate accelerates further.]
FRANCES [eyebrows raised in curiosity or gentle offense, or both]: And you?
ELLEN B.: I go to temple on high holidays. I used to go more regularly, but...
[She trails off, without guilt.]
THOMAS: I was raised in the Baptist church. ELLEN K.: Oh, that’s great. We’re Methodists —
THOMAS [brusquely]: I haven't been in a while.
[He is breathing more quickly and shallowly, now, and he fears that the moment he has been waiting for since he and Ellen began to plan the dinner party—the moment that he has been anticipating in a state of nervousness so intermittently acute that it, at times, approached terror—the moment which he thought would arrive suddenly, on the heels of an unanticipated silence, "a sudden lull in conversation" he thought of it as, when his appearance and the remembered remains in the minds of others of how he had responded, verbally or physically, to accidents—out of his control, of which the party was merely a series—would lead to their destruction of him in those minds and, thereby, his own; he fears, now, when the party has arrived at a topic of conversation he was not expecting, did not have time to prepare for, has not been able to properly understand or apprehend the unfathomably formative role of in his life, that the moment will instead arise from conversation itself, from inside the middle of a conversation, perhaps functioning—no!—as its climax, as the logical conclusion of the expressions preceding it; this thought was almost impossible to bear, and brought his terror to a higher pitch than he'd felt in ages, a higher pitch and louder volume than he could recall.]
FRANCES [seriously]: Do you think you feel —
THOMAS [quietly, staring at the table]: I don't think I'm going to want to have a conversation about this here, at dinner, I am not going to sit here and want to talk about my childhood, or about
[He begins to get louder]:
Jesus, or, or about my relationship with the Living Christ or the Holy Spirit or something like that I am not going to talk about myself like that, so — I let you guys pray, right, I let you guys say the prayer and I even prayed myself, and could we please drop the subject? [He is shivering. Before anyone has a chance to answer, he continues, quietly]
Could we? Could we please talk about something else? Anything else? Could we...else?
[He trails off.
The moment, perhaps — it is hard to tell — arrives.
At one point in the short silence that follows, though nobody present will notice, all four will begin to exhale at precisely the same moment, into the same air they’ll breathe for the rest of the night: they exhale into an identical century.]