excerpt #2 continued...
The boy was tall and angular and wary. He was a senior at Montpelier High, very smart, Sam thought, but also odd and standoffish. Ricky’s mom, Clara, was a case worker for state human services and she sat on the Montpelier school board. His dad, Carver, was a woodworker who made fine furniture and was almost mute by disposition. Sam and Donna bought an oak table from him years earlier.
The couples had been friendly since Ricky’s older sister Meg and their own daughter Sarah were in fifth grade together and played soccer. The parents had huddled on the sidelines, cheering, cold, and commiserating. The girls were now out of college, out in the world.
For Sam, though, the friendship with the Stillwells, going on fifteen years now, had always been stressed by discord over religion.
People in Montpelier mostly avoided the subject of religious belief. Those who went to church sang hymns and listened to homilies, and when that was done, they preferred to talk about community projects. Or the place of religion in history, such as the recent book discussion at the synagogue about Jews in the Middle Ages. Others swore that last week’s film at the Bijou, a grim documentary about receding glaciers, was spiritual.
But they did not talk frankly and openly about the content of their beliefs. What do you believe about God? Does God intervene in human affairs? Does the soul exist outside the body? These were questions best avoided, as if they would invade a person’s privacy, like asking when you last masturbated.
Ricky’s mom, Clara Stillwell, was different. From the start, Clara, a devout believer in the divinity of Christ, corralled Sam Jacobson during occasional picnics or dinners at the Jacobson house, or even as they congregated at the perimeter of the soccer fields, standing elbow to elbow or seated under blankets in their fold-up chairs, where she examined him like a hostile witness. She thought Sam exhibited an unholy and incongruous mix of Judaism and atheism. Sam agreed his beliefs were unholy. But incongruous?
On more than one occasion, provoked by the righteous Clara Stillwell, Sam had made an effort to explain he was a Jew because of history, not faith, and an atheist because of reason, again not faith. “Look,” he said, sounding pompous even to his own ears, “I just don’t believe in the truth of the scriptures or a supreme being or the eternal soul, or karma for that matter. Not literally, anyway.” Metaphorically, fine; he could abide metaphors, as long as they were marinated in humor, but a sense of humor did not feature prominently in Clara’s repertoire. As he put it to Clara in his lawyerly way, he would follow the evidence and believe what the evidence revealed.
“Oh, I have evidence,” she said one time while they waited for breakfast to be served at the venerable Byway Diner out on Route 302, where they liked to take the kids on Saturday mornings after early soccer practice. The girls and Ricky—he was about five at the time—occupied their own booth, out of hearing distance. Donna and Carver sat mute, tolerating their spouses.
“No,” he argued, tugging in frustration on the beard he wore in those years, “one person’s anecdote is not good evidence.”
“Millions of people,” she retorted.
“What you have is millions of people who believe,” Sam instructed. “But belief doesn’t bootstrap itself into knowledge. People believe all kinds of things. I mean, millions of people believe in astrology.” Bad example; maybe she believed in astrology. “And angels.” Maybe she believed in angels too. He thought of a better example. “Millions believe in Santa Claus, for Christ’s sake.”
Clara peered at him, her brown frizzy hair pulled back and held tight by a clasp in the shape of a fish. “Now you want to compare God to Santa Claus?” She had an intimidating way of leaning forward from her hips, her spine rigid. The waitress brought their omelets and poured more coffee.
“Oh, jeez,” he said with typical irritation, and then realized she was right. “Okay, yes, Clara, in a way. God is a character who appears in literature around the world for the last three millennia. Or perhaps lots of characters. At least there are lots of versions of him. He’s complex and interesting,” he would give her that, “but a fictional character nonetheless. And a cruel one, by the way,” he added. “If you remember Job. These are stories.”
Clara bristled. “First God is Santa Claus, now he’s”—she searched for the right reference—“Captain Ahab. Or maybe Sherlock Holmes. There’re lots of fictional versions of Sherlock Holmes. I saw one on TV who’s nothing like the original Sherlock Holmes from the BBC. So you think God is a made-up sea captain with OCD, or he’s an arrogant English detective with a cocaine addiction. That’s your position, Attorney Jacobson?”
Donna, eating toast, tilted her head at Carver and smiled with her blue-grey eyes. Carver raised one eyebrow in silent acknowledgment of their comradeship.
“Elementary, my dear Clara,” said Sam, who wished sorely to defuse the argument but did just the opposite. “Well no,” he then clarified, “God is definitely not Sherlock Holmes, who is the paragon of rationality, nothing like God.”
“You have too much faith in rationality,” she said with a note of triumph.
“You have too much faith in faith,” he said. And just so he could end on a winning strike, he added, “And by the way, Clara, the original Sherlock Holmes was not the one from the BBC.”
He signaled the waitress for the check. “For that table too,” he told the waitress, nodding to the kids’ booth. “I’ll cover it this time,” he said to Clara and Carver.
His Jewishness was something else again; he had inherited a history, a story of a people, a race. “I don’t choose to be Jewish,” he told Clara another time. “It was dished out to me.”
Not like Christians, he didn’t add, who are the masters of conversion and possess an uncanny aptitude for being born again.