By Josh Boardman
Now I will prove the nonexistence of God. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not an atheist. I believe in His nonexistence. The language is better you see. I believe in gravity the same way. Relational nonexistence.
This is a good road to go fast down. The boy who lived down the street had stolen his dad’s pickup and I thought this was a brilliant thing to push. The engine growled down the straightaway and before spitting onto the main road my grandparents’ subdivision abruptly doglegged around a blue spruce. The tree drifted leftwise behind the windshield. The passenger window crumpled against the ground. Pineneedles partied into the cab.
The spruce caught our fall. Climbing out the driver’s side window I didn’t remember going over. The last five minutes of my life blurred like a long exposure. Sticky dripped down the tips of my fingers. A hollowness opened inside of me as if I had undergone some violent transformation, a paradigm shift, the way zealots describe epiphany. The other boy will be crying. Holy.
Last week I talked to my mother on the phone. We do this as she gets older—always me placing the call on my way between this errand and that. Last week I was talking to her about I don’t know what (a book? a cactus? wildlife she sees outside?) when she said it’s been too hard—she wouldn’t want to live her life a second time.
A little failure before moving on to other topics. A failure of eternal return.
Maybe we were talking about the book I’m writing. A novel about my brother’s death and our grief after his passing. I’ve worked a year and a half always fearing that it may be too revealing of her as a person—she was my first reader. Unrelated conversation—she told me she wouldn’t have made it through that trying time if not for God. This has become a refrain.
I wonder if she would still cling to God if she hadn’t lost so much. Meanwhile I wonder if my dismissal of her belief is a surer way of forgetting my own hardship.
I turned 33 this year. The age Jesus was crucified. All dwellers in heaven remain 33 years old. Dante wrote 33 cantos to Paradise. Both of the previous entries in the Divine Comedy comprise 34 because they are unheavenly—I have such a small window.
I haven’t gotten very far into the Bible yet but my mother is overjoyed. She shipped a fauxleather New Catholic Edition, the language updated for modern comprehension. When Rachel steals Laban’s household gods and hides them in her saddlebags she declines to climb down because she “is having [her] periods.”
King James—“the custom of women is upon me.”
I am asked to choose between vernacular and poetry. Even Dante brought dowdy Italian to a work of heaven and hell. Like a visit from Aunt Flo. I’m not sure if the Hebrew is euphemistic or not—I assume it is.
I am incapable of choosing between two opposites. Periods or the custom. Hard life or easy. Belief or disbelief. I feel helpless in their binary glare.
My father changed religions as often as his father changed hats. We’ll get to my father in a minute. But first—
People don’t wear hats anymore. Men will wear them once they start to bald but I’m not talking about that. Pick up a book written in the 50s and try to picture the hats so frequently invoked. Imagine the skittering things, pregnant with present nonexistence.
My grandfather (one of those who used to wear hats) died mere months after my grandma. A sixpack nightly in the interim. Maybe he went to church. I doubt it. He died and we cleared out his estate ourselves.
I was between highschool and college. I had just been released from the hospital. I consumed a cocktail of drugs every morning that set my stomach in motion. Atavan. Zoloft. Willing or unwilling. Nexium. Lithium. Another psychoactive I can’t remember. Healthy or unhealthy. A real disembodied fusion on opposites.
I worked my way through my grandfather’s bookshelves to the bedroom closet with my mother. The spare room where I spent every summer growing up. She was mouthing prayers as we reached the door. I stopped with my hand on the knob, noticing.
What are you saying?
I didn’t know what we had to be afraid of. I didn’t know my grandfather and my father and I all share the same indecision about the most important aspects of our lives.
We opened up the closet door—O God my mother moaned—
A wall of hatboxes toppled across the floor.
Panamas boaters stetsons fedoras ushankas ballcaps newsboys westerns buckets porkpies homburgs stormy kromers sunhats beanies bowlers/derbies ascots watchcaps berets tam-o-shanters visors deerstalkers tophats watersports floppies balaclavas trappers raccoontails bretons stingybrims campaigns gamblers mariners stovepipes 5-panels 8-pieces mortarboards a party hat fascinators cloches cocktail scarves pillboxes—
My father is a man of religious excess. Before I was born it was evangelical (my older brother calls it not pleasant). Most lately Catholic—though he has been characteristically unimpressed with the infallibility of the Pope. He recently pivoted to a radical sect known as the Society of Saint Pius X. When I was young I walked in on him (shame in my guts blush high on my cheeks) meditating.
As many hats as my grandfather hoarded my father gathered religions. The same ambivalence of faith swapped one denomination for another. A man who owns many hats believes in the efficacy of none. I never would’ve made it through that trying time if not for x.
Why do we Americans have such incapacity for suffering? I catch cold and I’m incapacitated for days. Fog rolls down on my mind. Once I stood for something but I no longer do—I chase anything for relief. I buy a watch imported from Switzerland. A pair of Italian leather shoes. A hunting jacket that’s dear. If I were of my grandfather’s generation I would visit the haberdashery to procure a hatbox of my own. A sniffle can be dangerous if you have a little money in your pocket.
When I was young and stupid I called myself an atheist. Even then I was more decisive than I am today. God, Abraham’s original beard, who crackles in the embers of a neverconsumed shrub. If I couldn’t hear His voice then He didn’t exist for me. If I wasn’t one of His Chosen People any belief at all was impossible.
Come closer now prodigal atheists—hear my whisper. I don’t want to convince you of the floating presence of a cartoon beard. An image of the Higher has no use when so concrete. I want you to discern your belief as clearly as a Christian’s. A little closer sweet mouse . . . let’s keep this between us. I don’t want to disgrace God and my country. You know I love them so.
God has grown weak. We are so removed from the tribesmen of Abraham that He no longer approaches us in the robes of three men to warn us of our safety. “God is dead. We have killed him”— and his absence we plated in 24 karats. The cross of history bends towards belief. You can’t disbelieve something that exists nakedly before your very eyes—and the value of currency is as invisible as gravity or God.
Nonexistence hangs heavy. Without privation there is nothing. My mother knows the weight of what’s gone—we learned the hard way. Hard life makes believers of us all.
My father thought my grandparents’ house would never sell for its unseemliness, so he tore up every tree in the yard. The white pine in the center of the front—yanked. The skinny spruce at the foot of the driveway—timber. The rosebush in the elbow between the front door and my window—everything must go.
Blue spruce on the corner of the lot. Maybe it was town ordinance but treecutters had shimmied the middle branches off so passing cars could see through. The remaining branches formed a skirt that is still dented from where it caught me as a child. In her pinecone paunch a marble rabbit crouched beside a tortoise. A fox leered down the seat that separated them.
No metaphor. No religious conversation. When my father finished clearing the estate a large stump was left and that was all.
Like the children’s book the treestump invites me to rest. I am not an old man but I need its generosity. God’s voice does not whisper through the leaves nor croak from vernal pools. It does not echo in the hollow between my eardrums. We are too distant for that.
I sit and look at my hands. They appear before me as two strange worms affixed to my body. They wriggle without permission. They clench in defense from me. I look past the foreign body I see the ravine I see the martyr trees I see the leaves of the branches of the trees. Nothing moves. Breath picks up but the world stands still.
In a single moment I float again in the blurred memory before the tree caught my fall. A woman rushes to the road and hovers around the wreck as we climb free. I do not recognize her at first—she resembles my mother only she is so much younger. There is no birdsong nor wind nor hum from the highway. Normal neighborhood sounds fold up into the skirt of the tree that’s gone.
The woman’s tears are hysterical—that’s the first thing I hear. They mingle with the machinery of the world and then life crashes back in. Blood flows down my hands a ringing splits my ears that lets me know I have returned. My mother looks like herself again—her fists beat my chest and exhort me Don’t. You. Ever. Ever. Do. That. Ever. Again.
I have felt the suck of the void. I have leavened in its peace. The lightest wind brushes me aside. The basest inconvenience. My suffering is too great! God no longer warns us of our fathers—the hats they wore, the trees they tore up.
Everything shimmers. Nothing doesn’t hurt. There is God and He is not for us.
Josh Boardman is from Michigan. He is the author of the chapbook Plantain (West Vine Press, 2018) and conducted the Latin translation project We, Romans (2015). His stories have appeared in journals such as New York Tyrant, Catapult, and Dandruff Magazine. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is working on his first novel and a collection of stories about his hometown.