Authors: Howard Fast
Time and the Riddle
Thirty-One Zen Stories
For Jerome Fast
father, mother, brother
and dear friend through
From the time we are very young children, we are curious about the mysteries of life. The questions we ask early on are simple ones (“Where do I come from?” “Do angels really exist?” “Can insects think?”). And while the questions grow in number and complexity as we grow older (“What is time?” “Why can man be so brutally unkind to his fellow man?”), the answers remain a mystery.
So here are a group of stories that ask some questions and try to answer others. While many of them were written during the fifteen years after 1960, others have lived in my mind since I was able to think. I don't know whether you would call them science fiction stories or fantasy stories or just stories. But they are my very personal explorations of these things in life that I have always found most unexplainable, most curious, most mysterious. And, perhaps because of this, I cherish them more than any other writing I have done.
Throughout these speculative stories I have used elements of humor and horror, irony and illumination. But above all, I hope you discover in them my firm belief in man's ability to endure, despite life's most profound uncertainties.
I think you may read these stories with pleasure, perhaps with delight, certainly with skepticism, and, I hope, with the feeling now and then that Howard Fast might just have hit the nail on the head.
Robert Louis Stevenson, in his poems for children, observed that “the world is so full of a number of things, I am sure we should all be as happy as kings,” and while happiness is by no means certain, even in a child's world, the number of things are countless. In these stories, I touch upon the mysteries. Life is filled with mysteries that defy solution, but the mystery itself is of the essence.
I say to you: read and wonder.
Howard FastÂ Â Â Â
New York City
1989Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
ou never read in bed,” Mr. Nutley said to his wife.
“I used to, you remember,” Mrs. Nutley replied. “But then I found it was sufficient simply to lie here and compose my thoughts. To get my head together, as the kids say.”
“I envy you. You never have any trouble sleeping.”
“Oh, I do. At times. To be perfectly honest,” she added, “I think women fuss less than men.”
“I don't fuss about it,” Mr. Nutley protested, putting aside his copy of
The New Yorker
magazine and switching off his bedside light. “I just find it damned unpleasant. I'm not an insomniac. I just get a notion and it keeps running around in my head.”
“Do you have a notion tonight?”
“I find Ralph Thompson a pain in the ass, if you can call that a notion.”
“That's certainly not enough to keep you awake. I must say I've always found him pleasant enoughâfor a neighbor. We could do worse, you know.”
“I suppose so.”
“Why are you so provoked about him?” Mrs. Nutley asked, pulling the covers closer to her chin against the chill of the bedroom.
“Because I never know whether he's putting me on or not. I find writers and artists insufferable, and he's the most insufferable of the lot. The fact that I drag my butt into the city every day and do an honest day's work makes me what he refers to as a member of the Establishment and an object of what I am certain, he regards as his sense of humor.”
“Well, you are upset,” said Mrs. Nutley.
“I am not upset. Why is it that I must wait at least an hour before I can think of the proper witty rejoinder to the needling of a horse's ass?”
“Because you are a thoughtful and honest person, and I am thankful that you are. What did he say?”
“The way he said it,” Mr. Nutley replied. “A kind of a cross between a leer and a snicker. He said he saw a flying saucer come sailing out of the sunset and settle down in the little valley across the hill.”
“Indeed! That isn't even witty. You probably fell into his trap and insisted that there was no such thing as a flying saucer.”
“I am going to sleep,” said Mr. Nutley. He turned over, stretched, wriggled into the bedclothes, and relapsed into silence. After a minute or so he asked Mrs. Nutley whether she was still awake.
“Well, I said to him, why didn't you go down there and look at it if you knew where it landed? He told me he doesn't trespass on millionaires' property.”
“Does he really think we're millionaires?”
“A man who sees flying saucers can think anything. What's got into this country? No one saw flying saucers when I was a kid. No one was mugged when I was a kid. No one took dope when I was a kid. I put it to youâdid you ever hear of a flying saucer when you were a kid?”
“Maybe there were no flying saucers when we were kids,” Mrs. Nutley suggested.
“Of course there weren't.”
“No. I mean that perhaps there were none then, but there are now.”
“Well, it doesn't have to be nonsense,” Mrs. Nutley said gently. “All sorts of people see them.”
“Which proves only that the world is filled with kooks. Tell me something, if there is such a silly thing as a flying saucer, what the devil is it up to?”
“Just what does that mean?”
“Well,” said Mrs. Nutley, “we are curious, they are curious. Why not?”
“Because that kind of thinking is exactly what's wrong with the world today. Wild guesses with no foundation. Do you know that yesterday the Dow dropped ten points because someone made a wild guess and put it on the tape? If people like yourself were more in touch with the world and what goes on in the world, we'd all be better off.”
“What do you mean by people like myself?”
“People who don't know one damn thing about the world as it really is.”
“Like myself?” Mrs. Nutley asked gently. She rarely lost her temper.
“Well, what do you do all day out here in the suburbs or exurbs or whatever it is sixty miles from New York?”
“I keep busy,” she replied mildly.
“It's just not enough to keep busy,” Mr. Nutley was off on one of his instructive speeches, which, as Mrs. Nutley reflected, came about once every two weeks, when he had a particularly bad bout of insomnia. “A person must justify his existence.”
“By making money. You always tell me that we have enough money.”
“I never mentioned money. The point is that when the kids went away to college and you decided to go back and get a doctorate in plant biology, I was all for it. Wasn't I?”
“Indeed you were. You were very understanding.”
“That's not the point. The point is that two years have gone by since you got that degree and you do absolutely nothing about it. You spend your days here and you just let them slide by.”
“Now you're angry at me,” said Mrs. Nutley.
“I am not angry.”
“I do try to keep busy. I work in the garden. I collect specimens.”
“You have a gardener. I pay him one hundred and ten dollars a week. You have a cook. You have a maid. I was reading an article in the
about the aimless life of the upper-middle-class woman.”
“Yes, I read the article,” said Mrs. Nutley.
“You never let me get to the point, do you?” Mr. Nutley said testily. “We were talking about flying saucers, which you are ready to accept as a fact.”
“But now we're talking about something else, aren't we? You're provoked because I don't find a job in some university as a plant biologist and prove that I have a function in life. But then we'd never see each other, would we? And I am fond of you.”
“Did I say one word about you getting a job in some university? As a matter of fact, there are four colleges within twenty miles of here, any one of which would be delighted to have you.”
“That's a matter of surmise. And I do love my home.”
“Then you accept boredom. You accept a dull, senseless existence. You acceptâ”
“You know you mustn't get worked up at this time of the night,” Mrs. Nutley said mildly. “It makes it so much harder for you to get to sleep. Wouldn't you like a nice warm glass of milk?”
“Why do you never let me finish any, thought?”
“I think I'll bring you the milk. You know it always lets you sleep.”
Mrs. Nutley got out of bed, turned on her bedside light, put on her robe, and went down to the kitchen. There she heated a pan of milk. From a jar in the cupboard she took a tiny packet of Seconal and dropped the powder into a glass. She added the hot milk and stirred. Then she returned to the bedroom. Her husband drank the milk and she watched approvingly.
“You do put magic into hot milk,” Mr. Nutley said. “It's not getting to sleep that makes me cranky.”
“It's just that I think of you all alone all day out hereâ”
“But I do love this old place so.”
She waited until his breathing became soft and regular. “Poor dear,” she said, sighing. She waited ten minutes more. Then she got out of bed, pulled on old denims, walking boots, shirt and sweater, and moved silently down the stairs and out of the house.
She crossed the gardens to the potting shed, the moon so bright that she never had to use the flashlight hooked to her belt. In the potting shed was the rucksack, filled with the plant specimens she had collected and catalogued over the past three weeks. They were so appreciative of the care with which she catalogued each specimen and the way she wrapped them in wet moss and the way she always left the fungi for the very last day, so they would be fresh and pungent, that she would be left with a warm glow that lasted for days. Not that she wasn't paid properly and sufficiently for her work. Mr. Nutley was absolutely right. A person with a skill should be paid for the skill, and she had an old handbag half full of little diamonds nestling in the drawer of her dressing table. Of course, diamonds were as common in their place as pebbles were here, so she had no guilt about being overpaid.
She slung the rucksack onto her shoulders, left the potting shed, and took the path over the hill into the tiny hidden valley behind it, where the flying saucer lay comfortably hidden from the eyes of the cynical doubters. She walked with a long, easy stride for a woman of fifty, but then outdoor work tended to keep her in good condition, and she couldn't help thinking how beneficial it would be for Mr. Nutley if he could only spend his time out of doors in the country instead of in a stuffy city office.