God had never spoken to Mr. McPhee, not once, and this irritated the old man. Mr. McPhee had known some people in his day who’d had a word with God. God told them to do this, God told them to do that. Mr. McPhee listened, he opened his heart and listened, and God didn’t say a thing.
Mr. McPhee decided he didn’t need God. He’d find out the answers for himself. He’d understand everything there was to know about life and rub it in God’s face. He was not a strong man, but he was good, and his hunt for truth was honest. He just wanted to know, you see. It was nothing more than that.
So, one morning, Mr. McPhee set out to discover the meaning of life. In truth, this morning was no different than the rest of the mornings, but maybe the sun was a bit brighter. That, or the clouds rolled away. That, or something like it. The kind of thing that makes you want to understand.
Mr. McPhee went to the library, the source of all knowledge in his seedy little town. There were no great thinkers in his town, and Mr. McPhee was no great thinker either. But Mr. McPhee did wonder. He wondered and he listened and he wondered some more, and God never bothered to answer.
But the word of God had been written down many times. God had lost his monopoly on giving answers. He’d lost it by telling too many people.
Mr. McPhee would find the answer, he knew.
The library was small and old and lit badly, with a light that makes you never want to read. You would not like it much, their library, but it was all they had. The librarian seemed surprised at Mr. McPhee’s entrance, and in truth, she was. McPhee had not been to the library in years. He had an overdue book, she said. He said he’d lost it since, and hung his head in sorrow. She laughed and said, no one else had tried to check it out, anyway.
She let him slide on the rules this time, and Mr. McPhee was grateful. He’d bring these books back right away, he said, as soon as he’d learned the meaning of life.
Oh, the librarian cooed. Is that what you’re after?
The answer was yes, which you well know.
She wished him good luck and bade him keep quiet and quiet was what he was. The librarian did not wonder much, or listen.
He checked out the Bible. He checked out the Quran. He checked out the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching. He checked out A Brief History of Time, just for good measure, though he wasn’t sure the answer lay in time. Still, it might be anywhere, you know.
The librarian scanned each book quietly. When she did, the computer said “Beep.” She did not tell the computer to keep its voice down, but Mr. McPhee knew he should not Beep along with it. He was not a great thinker, but he did know some things.
He drove along home and sat in his living room under the reading light. This was a good light for reading. It was still this morning, and maybe the sun was bright.
In the beginning, the Bible said, and Mr. McPhee made a note.
When was the beginning? He wrote. He looked at the history of time. It told him about turtles, all the way down. He looked down and saw no turtle. He trusted that the turtles might be, but probably were not.
He turned back to the Bible and read the second page. Here was written that God saw that plants were good. He wondered which plants were the best. He wondered why God had made Venus fly traps and nettle. He wrote down these queries too.
On the third page, there was a note in the margin. It was written next to the line, “let the birds fly.”
The note said:
My soul, it aches.
My head hangs low.
My dealer ran out of blow.
The Tao Te Ching told him that the thing that could be spoken was not the Tao. He wondered what could be spoken, and then, what the Tao was. The first page did not say. It only said what the Tao was not, and something about profound mystery. It too mentioned the heavens and the earth. It did not mention the beginning.
Mr. McPhee set the books aside and thought. When did it begin, and why? Was the beginning the answer? Perhaps the beginning was the question, he wrote, and everything since would answer it.
He wondered at that, and listened. The books did not say anything. They were books, you know, and they kept quiet too.
He stretched his legs out and decided to go for a walk. It was growing late in the day, and the clouds gathered again above him like great cupped hands waiting to water him. They watered him, and home he went again, wringing out his coat along the way.
He sat back in his chair and opened the Bhagavad Gita. It told of the great battle of Arjuna against a warring army. Mr. McPhee turned the page. There, scribbled in the margin beside Lord Krishna’s words of wisdom, was written:
I see England.
I see France.
Mr. McPhee rolled his eyes. Someone had defaced the word of God. They’d defaced it and they’d suffer the consequences. He shook his fist a little, to see how that felt. It felt good, so he did it again.
Mr. McPhee set the books aside. In the silence that greeted him, something like a meaning stirred within him. The second he noticed it, it flitted away. His mind chased it, following it blind, but it retreated evermore until it was a distant horizon. Mr. McPhee sat with all his might.
He ripped the first page from his notebook and tacked it onto a corkboard next to the chair. That was enough study for one day. He could find out the answers tomorrow.
It was nearly dinnertime, not too early to drink, and so, he went to the bar. Really, the whole idea was a bit silly. Who was he to know the meaning of life? Should he not just be content to be alive? What more was there, really, that this could give him?
He had his health, well enough. He had his house for sure. He had a few good things here and there, and that was enough for a decent man. This meaning of life business was rather absurd, he thought. If he were meant to know it, God would tell him. He didn’t need to keep up the hunt. A cold beer would wash away the impulse, and leave him halfway satisfied.
“Oh Mac,” said Mr. McPhee, “I’ve given up.”
Mac poured a second beer and passed it along to Mr. McPhee.
“What did you give up?” the bartender asked.
“Finding the meaning of life,” he said.
The bartender laughed. The bartender never troubled himself with such things. He thought it best to simply get on with things, and leave the great thinking to someone more equipped to do it.
“What’d you go looking for?”
On the television, someone scored a goal.
“What’s with the Euro crap, Mac?” a man behind Mr. McPhee asked, gesturing at the soccer game. The French goalkeeper was running around with his shirt off while the English team sulked.
“Shut up,” Mac said.
Mr. McPhee sighed. They were right, weren’t they? The game, the beer, the bar, this was his world. He was a man who got on with things. The meaning wasn’t his concern.
He drank away the need to understand. By the bottom of the third beer, the world was blurry and happy again. He would give it all up. He would take the books back to the library and forget it ever happened.
“Hey, buddy,” someone said in the corner.
Mr. McPhee turned around. From the look of it, the men in the corner were not buddies.
“What are you gonna do, pal?”
They did not look like pals. The short man in the overcoat had his fists balled at his sides while the taller man in the crumpled suit was sweating, his face set. The man in the crumpled suit punched the shorter man in the face.
“What the fuck was that for?”
The overcoat punched back.
Mr. McPhee ducked, his eyes wide as a beer bottle was hurdled across the room. Mac ducked. The other customers ducked. It hit the wall and shattered. The beer was called “The Flightless Bird.” It flew before it shattered.
The bouncer grabbed the two fighting men by the collars and hurled them out the door. There was a round of applause.
“That no good dealer needs to take his customers elsewhere,” Mac said, shaking his head.
Mr. McPhee shook his head too, his mind lost in a daze.
The bouncer was wearing cargo pants.
“What size pants are those, Ken?” Mr. McPhee called.
The bar went quiet.
“What?” Ken, the bouncer, he shouted on back.
Everyone looked from Ken to McPhee, but Mr. McPhee knew something the rest of them didn’t.
“They’re double XL, aren’t they?”
The look on Ken’s purple face told Mr. McPhee all he needed to know.
He ran from the bar and out to the street, forgetting to pay his tab.
“Hey! Mac shouted. “Hey!” Ken shouted.
Mr. McPhee ran up the road and all the way home, arriving panting on his stoop.
He rifled back through the pages of each book as quickly as he could. There it was, in Genesis:
My soul, it aches.
My head hangs low.
My dealer ran out of blow.
There it was, in the Bhagavad Gita:
I see England.
I see France.
“Okay,” Mr. McPhee said aloud, unsure at whom the comment was directed. “Okay. You have my attention.”
He scanned every book that night, not for the words, but for the margins.
There, in the Quran:
Here is the mosque,
Here is the steeple.
Do mosques have steeples?
What are they called?
There, in the New Testament:
I tried angels.
They aren’t real.
There, in the Tao Te Ching:
Tao, Now, Brown Cow.
There, on the last page of the Bhagavad Gita:
I like the forest
I like the trees.
But nobody likes
a hive of bees.
He ripped the pages out of his notebook and scribbled. He wrote down each poem and drew lines in different directions.
Triangles, cows, mosques, and trees, Mr. McPhee didn’t know what any of it meant.
The triangle could be a symbol of the trinity. The fractured but unified nature of reality. He wrote that down. The cow, a holy symbol in Hinduism. The source of so much of human life. We destroy what we worship? We eat it? He wrote that down. Mosque, the worship site in Islam. The poem mentioned not knowing much about a mosque. We worship things when we don’t understand them? He wrote that down. Trees, trees, trees. Where we came from, our origins? And the bees. The evil within us? The part no one wants to admit to, but is always there?
He wrote, he wrote, and he wrote.
Then, he sat. He sat and looked at what he had written.
It all looked meaningful enough.
He decided that was enough for the night, and Mr. McPhee went off to bed.
Mr. McPhee awoke the next morning and went to make coffee. The clouds had come in. It looked like rain.
He poured the coffee into his mug and looked at the window.
Still, he thought, it didn’t quite add up.
What about England? What about France?
What about the cargo pants?
As he took a sip, it all made sense again.
The poems, they were not the answers. They were a map. They were a map to the answer, and the answer would be waiting for him there. He knew. He knew God spoke through him.
He eyed the coffee to see if God was in there. It looked brown and like coffee.
“Okay,” he said. “Tell me where to start.”
He spent all morning drawing lines between the poems. England and France had led to the cocaine dealer. No. They’d led to the cargo pants. No, they’d all led to each other.
It wasn’t linear. It didn’t work like that. They all came at once, to make an impression.
Was there meaning in them? What was the meaning?
“Wait,” Mr. McPhee told himself.
This was all insane.
He lived in a seedy town. There were seedy people at the bar. The bouncer was a big man, he always wore cargo pants. Mac liked soccer. The Euro Cup was on.
None of it was meaningful. None of it was a sign. It was just life, and he’d seen something in it that wasn’t there.
“Are you laughing at me, God?” Mr. McPhee asked.
The rain hit the window as a reply.
Mr. McPhee sighed and stretched out his armchair. This was stupid. God wouldn’t write bad couplets. If God had written anything, it was the books this “poet” had defiled.
He would take them back to the library. He would take them back and put the whole business behind him.
Mr. McPhee tucked the books in his bag, grabbed his umbrella, and trudged off to the library through the rain.
He noticed something, there on the edge of town. Something he had not noticed much before. He came down the hill from his house, and there, on the opposite hill, was a church.
It wasn’t a church. There wasn’t a cross on it. Mr. McPhee blinked. He stopped. He blinked again.
Then he ran at the mosque like his life depended on it.
The run took him down a hill and up another. There were very few Muslims in the town, and the mosque was set on a hill near the very edge of town. Mr. McPhee ran to it, breathless. He tried the door. The door was shut.
“NO!” He cried and pounded the door.
The rain had stopped falling.
Mr. McPhee slumped against the door of the mosque and put his head in his hands. He was insane. Certifiable. To think that God was speaking to him through marginalia? Absurd.
The mosque was on a little lane that ran out into the country. It was noted that drivers should yield to oncoming traffic. The yield sign.
“TRIANGLES ARE REAL,” Mr. McPhee shouted. He tore off down the lane.
He wandered out into the country until he saw the field of brown cows. He shook his fist at the sky.
“You wry bastard,” he said. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
The certainty gripped him. He moved past the cows, past the beehives, and there he was, on the edge of the forest.
Mr. McPhee walked through the trees. There was a little path that spiraled around, curling up the hill. He followed it, on and on and on, turning this way and that. At last, it led to a clearing.
The sun broke through the clouds. There was a single tree in the center of the clearing, lit up green by the sun. Carved into the tree was a poem, that maybe wasn’t even there, but this is what Mr. McPhee saw:
Here is your answer,
This ain’t a riddle.
This is a tree.
Mr. McPhee laughed at the tree. He laughed and hugged the tree tight. The joke, he felt, was funny. God spoke through him in that laugh. Mr. McPhee understood, then, all there was to know about life, and that was funny too.