A stubborn, arid wind galloped past his ear as he walked on the pavement. Golden stings sent forth by the ball of fire landed on his face. He tried to use his coat to protect himself from the attack, but the wind didn’t relent. A dry storm is on its way, he thought. In that moment of irony he smiled a clandestine smile. With one sweeping movement he lurched into the tiny restaurant below his building. I’ll need something to eat before I can bring myself to walk into home.
Familiar faces looked at his haggard state. They nodded, he nodded back. The knowing look on their faces confirmed what he thought—a storm is coming. The air circled lightly close to the ceiling, and he could smell the dirt and sweat on him. I’m never going to make it through this day. A jar of water was kept on his table and the attendant stood waiting for him to order. He poured the water into a glass and spilled most of it. His hand wouldn’t stay steady. For how many days haven’t I eaten? The attendant poured some water for him and waited again. The usual, he said. The attendant screamed at the bar man. A pitcher of beer landed on his table. Ice melted rapidly in a glass that came with it. He poured himself some beer, spilling most of it too. I should eat instead, he thought again. The attendant returned, poured him some beer, and screamed toward the kitchen. He drank the contents in one long gulp. The world seemed to wake up around him. The tree outside lifted his head, and the wind stopped in its tracks and looked at him through the glass. His hand seemed like he could hold the pitcher now. A plate of sandwiches was slammed next to him, and the attendant sat on the chair opposite him. Haven’t eaten for a while, have you?, questioned the attendant. He began chewing on the sandwich. The bread felt alien in his mouth. It was like chewing on cardboard. Sauce dribbled from the side of his mouth. He wiped it with the sleeve of his shirt. A lingering smell of lavender reached his nose. I’m dreaming. This can’t be happening. He looked at the attendant who was staring at him. He looked at the attendant’s dark brown eyes and in it the reflection of himself. He propped up on the table and peered into the eyes to look at himself. The attendant didn’t move. He saw his face, his unkempt beard and his greasy hair. He looked like the beggar outside his workplace. He stared hard at himself and saw his eyes look back at him. Then he stopped, slumped and went back to chewing cardboard. The attendant got up and went back to serving other customers. The sun was beginning to set outside, but the heat wouldn’t go away. Evening brought no respite.
I made this happen. This weather is a direct result of my sins.
Oh don’t give yourself so much importance, said the attendant. He realised he had spoken out loud.
Do you need anything else, or you want me to take you upstairs?, he was asked. He didn’t reply. He tried to decide whether he wanted to go home or not. The attendant returned to serve other customers. A lot of people were swearing and cursing the heat. Loudly they vented their misplaced anger about their wives and bosses. They also complained about the food, but no one picked a fight as long as the beer kept coming to their tables. He kept sitting at his table and refused to move. No one cared more than they needed to. After every hour the attendant kept asking if he wanted to be taken home. In response, he asked for more beer, and just sat there.
The radio began playing and some people hooted. Some others sang along. Yet again, the attendant came to ask if he wanted to go home, and, as if to reply he sang with the song.
I ain’t got anywhere to go,
I’ll sit here waiting for the stars to glow.
And when they do my heart will know,
a God’s up there and he’ll make it snow.
The attendant smiled at his word-play. The last line of the song was, you’re right here and you love me so. It was the heat indeed. As the attendant turned around he said, Sit down! Let’s have a drink. It’s on me. Everyone was singing loudly; the attendant sat down and poured another glass of beer.
So, you believe in God, he asked.
What’s there to believe?, said the attendant.
I mean, do you “believe”?, he hushed.
Exactly, what’s there to “believe”?, the attendant mimicked.
Do you believe He’s going to punish me for my sins?
How do you know God’s a He?
He laughed. I don’t want to sound like a prick. But don’t everyone say He’s a He?
The attendant was amused. Oh yeah, they do. So what about Him?
Do you think He’ll punish me for almost beating up my boss to death?
Do you think you should have beaten him?
Oh! He’s been such a pain. I just had to.
Did God tell you not to beat bosses?
He did, didn’t He?
Well, I don’t know. I remember meeting God once, I wasn’t told any of that.
You did?! When?
Oh, it was when I was young. Younger than I am now, I mean.
What did He say?
Not much. God just had beer with me.
Hah! And I thought I was on a high!
I’m serious. God just sat down next to me. It was a hot night, I remember. Like this one. I asked the eternal question.
What was that?
What’s the purpose of life? That’s what I asked God.
What did He say?
God just looked at me and smiled. There were no clouds, so the sky was clear. God took a sip of the beer, looked up at the stars, and stayed silent.
Then I followed suit. I sipped my beer, looked up at the stars, and stayed silent.
Then? His eyes were eager. He felt incredible. Blood rushed to his brain. He would know the truth any second now.
Then we just stared at the constellations in the sky, finished our beers and sat in utter silence. I was starting to get irritated, but it was God you know. So, I held my peace. I thought the answer was in the stars above, so I just kept looking.
He didn’t speak. He listened with rapt attention. He couldn’t hear the singing in the background or feel the weather around him. His brain felt at peace. This sordid day would have some meaning after all, he thought. The attendant continued.
I waited for a long time. God didn’t seem to answer my question. I thought it was a test of some kind. So, I kept quiet. I was scared God wouldn’t answer my question if I broke my silence or stopped looking at the stars. So, I just did as I saw.
And then, the night started getting cooler. I thought a miracle was happening. I thought my head was clearing up an I had an epiphany. I thought that the milder wind was a present for me for staying silent. I was overjoyed.
It must have been.
So, I kept quiet some more. I sat there with God all night looking at the stars, waiting for my answer. Before morning came, God got up and left. God disappeared.
Yes, God disappeared.
The sounds around him started coming back, the singing was louder than ever. He started feeling hot and sticky. His mind was flooded with all the fears from the day and he wished he was in bed.
Take me home. I’m done here.
Sure, said the attendant.
The attendant opened his apartment door for him like the countless times before this. He stumbled on his sofa and was about to give in to slumber when he recalled their conversation.
What did you think God meant by meeting you like that?
Remember how you felt when you waited for the answer and you felt that you almost had it?
Yes, for that speck of an instant I felt content. I was at peace. But I’m sure it was the beer.
I went back to that place where I met God several nights after that, and I kept looking at the stars for some sort of answer. For many days, I did it out of agitated curiosity. I felt that if I kept pleasing my idea of what God wanted me to do, I’d feel happy.
No. I did this for many days. Until one day I realised that the time I spent looking at the stars was when I felt content. After a point of time, the answer to the question did not matter. The fact that doing that activity made me feel at peace mattered. That is when I decided that was the purpose of life—to find peace within myself.
And did you find peace?
I did, smiled the attendant and moved to close the door.
Wait up! Was God a man or a woman?
The attendant looked at him with her dark brown eyes, smiled affectionately and asked, What do you think?
He smiled in return. He could smell the lavender as she walked out the door, and he fell into a deep sleep.
The air around seemed cool, and the stars twinkled in the sky.