As I type this, it is nine degrees outside. Two days ago it was six. Later today, the snow will starting falling, and it won’t stop until Tuesday, which is Groundhog Day. The odd custom of the groundhog and the shadow never made much sense to me until I realized that February 2 marks the midpoint of the season. If the groundhog sees his shadow, spring will come in just six weeks—but if he doesn’t, it’s six more weeks of winter. Actually, it still makes no sense.
For me, this has always been the coldest, gloomiest, most depressing time of year. We have already endured frigid temperatures, wind chill, snow, icy rain—and we’re only halfway there. This time round, the 11-month-long quarantine intensifies the collective cabin fever. And despite the relief of Biden’s victory, the news continues to be bleak. Today the U.S. will eclipse 440,000 deaths from covid-19, well more than war deaths in the Second World War (405,399).
The saving grace is that, despite the bleakness, there are reasons for optimism. The rest of the winter will see the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump—an historic event that may, when all is said and done, see the disgraced former president, choked off from his media platforms, abandoned by his attorneys, attempt to defend himself on the charges of inciting insurrection. The participants in the besieging are being arrested and charged; that Q Shaman snowflake is not getting his organic food. The Biden Administration is right now determining how badly Trump/Pence/Kushner fucked us with the vaccines, and is moving heaven and earth to make things right, so that normal life can resume this summer. Virginia Heffernan has a Substack. WandaVision is really, really good.
Take heart, my friends. Kimberly Guilfoyle may be a deranged banshee, but she was right when she said the best is yet to come.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” is a short story by my friend Ben Loory, who is known for what I would term modern-day fables. His collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, is delightfully quirky; the stories are like waking dreams. This one is called, appropriately enough for the day of the week, “God,” and it ran originally in BOMB Magazine.
Once there was a man who was tired of breathing.
It’s just such a drag, he said.
So he decided to stop, but found that he couldn’t—the air just kept going in and out.
Hmm, said the man.
He went to see a doctor.
How do I stop breathing? he said.
You don’t, said the doctor, looking at him strangely. If you stopped breathing, you’d be dead.
Dead? said the man.
He went home and thought. He sat in the kitchen for a while.
Well, he said, I guess I’ll have to be dead.
And he went and took the necessary steps.
When he woke up in heaven, the man looked around.
How’d I get here? he said.
He looked down and saw that his lungs were still pumping.
This is exactly what I didn’t want! he said.
At that very moment, an angel came by.
Excuse me—who’s in charge here? the man said.
God, said the angel, and pointed to a hill.
He lives right up there, the angel said.
Oh? said the man. And what’s this God like?
The angel frowned. He scratched his halo a bit.
Well, he said, he is definitely benevolent, but some might say he’s a little strict.
Strict, said the man.
He walked up the hill. He knocked on the door of God’s house.
Coming, said a voice.
The door opened—it was God.
Yeah, what’s the problem? God said.
The problem, said the man, is that I’m still breathing!
You don’t like breathing? God said.
And he reached out and grabbed the man in his hand, and squeezed him.
Is that better? he said.
No! said the man—or at least tried to say. The problem was, he couldn’t say a word. He couldn’t do anything—he couldn’t even breathe—God’s hand was so incredibly strong.
Uh-oh, thought the man, inside of his head, as everything started to go black.
And the consciousness of the man faded away to a point, and then the point flickered, and went out.
And God looked down at the man’s body in his hand.
Ugh, he said, and tossed it away. Then he wiped his hands on the front of his pants and went back to watching TV.
And meanwhile, outside, the man’s body fell—down it fell, lifelessly, through the clouds. And the wind whipped on past him—great gusts of wind.
Then the wind went into his mouth.
Oh! said the man, as he came alive again.
And suddenly, it felt great to breathe!
Wow! said the man. It’s so great to be alive!
Then he saw the ground rising up beneath.
Oh! said the man. Oh God, no no no!
He squirmed and tried to grab hold of something. But of course, there was nothing—he was plummeting through the air.
And eventually, he started to laugh.
Well, said the man. I guess that is that.
He watched as the world came rushing up.
And he thought of his life—now coming to an end.
Well, this is unfortunate, he thought.
Because suddenly the man’s mind was crammed full of things—all the things that he had never done. He’d never climbed a mountain, never been to the Bronx. He’d never even learned how to sing.
Well, thought the man, I guess mountains are out. And the Bronx—can’t get there from here.
And so, somewhat shyly, the man cleared his throat.
And then he started to sing.
He sang a little song he made up on the spot, just some lines about things he remembered. The people and places he’d known, dreams he’d had, different stories that people had told him.
He sang about thoughts he’d had while driving in his car, about his best games down at the bowling alley. He sang about the girl he’d asked out in high school, and also about the guy she’d married. He sang about his cat who’d got run over by a car; he sang about the shows on TV. He sang about ice cream and tapioca pudding; he sang about a hundred million things.
The man sang arias and carols and hymns. He sang ballads and lullabies and rounds. The man sang pop songs, then country and blues. He found jazz and began to improvise.
The man sang and sang and sang as he fell.
And up in heaven, God watched it on TV.
And after a while, God picked up the phone.
He dialed a number and then let it ring.
Yeah, God said, when someone finally answered. You watching this? Channel 40,000,012? I wanna renew this guy for another season.
Of course I’m sure, he said, and hung up.
And immediately, down below, the man’s descent slowed—he was at that point about to slam into the ground—and instead of barreling into it at top speed and dying, he landed daintily with both feet on the ground.
Oh! said the man.
He stood there wobbling a bit.
Then his knees buckled and he sat down.
He was sitting in a field. He put a hand to his chest.
He was breathing quite rapidly in and out.
It’s okay, said the man, and gave a little laugh.
That was an adventure, he said.
And when he finally caught his breath, he stood and walked on home.
And he started singing again as he did.
Ben Loory is the author of Tales of Falling and Flying (2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (2011), both from Penguin. His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Sewanee Review, and A Public Space, and on the programs This American Life and Selected Shorts. Find him at benloory.com.