Follow my trail of free-association.
I was thinking about my favorite pieces by Richard Cohen, little stories I think of often, that have become touchstones, permanent points of reference in my mind: one mentioned here, and another, Divinity School.
That led me back to one of the things I want to talk about in my spiritual-nomads book, which is how, today, in the light of quantum physics and the friction and even miscegenation of many traditions, we are . . . reimagining God. How outrageous that sounds, from a traditionalist point of view . . . yet how vital it feels, to the natives of now. And it struck me, not for the first time, that a lot of the people who are doing that transgressive thinking -- like Richard himself, like Michael Reynolds, in his own outrageous way -- are Jews. (Or at least half.) Of course. Who else would have the nerve, the intimacy?
That in turn made me think of a lost book I deeply love, a book I actually edited and helped to get published in 1980. It isn't lost to me: I have three copies on my shelves, and I keep coming back to it and fretting about how I can get it to Morgan Freeman for a movie. It's called Coal Mine No. 7 (I know, I seem to have a thing, a fate, with coal mines. It all started at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry), and the author, Robert Louis Nathan (yes, his mama named him after a great storyteller), is, of course, Jewish. It's a prophetic novel: the story of a Jewish "retard," Seth, too simple to learn enough Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah, who is kindly taken in by a black coal deliveryman in late 1940s Chicago, and who winds up marrying the deliveryman's daughter and moving down to Vergennes, in southern Illinois, where he becomes the only white man to work in the only all-black-run coal mine in the region.
It's a strange, eccentric, downright weird book, written in a strange style, and the black people in it, lovingly and anything but stereotypically portrayed, talk in dialect -- all probably the kiss of death in an age of naturalism and political correctness. It is, I guess, a unique work of magical realism. Because God wants something from Seth, something that is first announced in a movie theater, at this pivotal moment in Seth's larval adolescence:
Seth had been eager for the cowboy film to begin. He had luxuriated in the cartoons of the mighty bunny. The Pathé News' initial trumpeting had only sharpened his relish for the horse opera. Seth rarely paid attention to the Frolic news, for rarely did those abbreviated reels depict events or personages of interest to him.
How the segment dealing with a concentration camp revisited by its past owners had drawn his mind from its perpetual half-slumber is a mystery. But Seth, in an instant, had noted a child's slight skeleton stacked in the bottommost tier of bones. At first he had thought it to be the corpse of a dwarf or a midget. It was only after the news camera had focused beyond Dachau to the beauty queen's roses that Seth's brain could accept the bare roundness for what it had been, a child's skull.
It will be many years before Seth knows that this is when God first touched him, but an ancient, devout neighbor of the coalman's, Billy Niger, who plays "songs of God" on his fiddle, already has his number (offense alert for the dialect):
"Dat's dat white boy for sure . . . Lawd Jesus, I'se shore glad I din' shoot dat fellow [ ... ] Dat's Brother Bob's friend, an' I t'ought he was da K.K.K. come to burn da place down an' plant a fiery cross in my stable. I ain't seen a white man livin' 'round here since da twenties . . . Boys, [talking to his dogs] dat's a holy man up dere on da porch. Look at dem roots! Jesus! Wonder wha' a man wit' roots like dat t'inkin? Probably prayin' to da Lawd dat da locust comes an' destroy us sinners. I can't figure out why mens got dis worl' 'less it's 'cause we musics so nice."
Seth moves to Vergennes, becomes a husband, a father, a coal miner, and an engineer, inheriting the important job of A.C. Baker, who drove the coal train engine and left a shrine deep in the mine wallpapered with cut-outs of Jesus. But it's when he goes down alone into the flooded mine to drain it at risk to his life that Seth becomes a man. And it's when he goes drunk to A.C.'s "cathedral," embittered by his mother-in-law's cancer, that he meets God, and becomes a reluctant prophet.
Read the scene below the fold.
(from Coal Mine No. 7 by Robert Louis Nathan. © 1980 Robert Louis Nathan.)
In his frayed jacket pocket he carries a half-pint of gin. It bumps ringingly on the iron rungs as he climbs down the air passage. He enters Baker's hall of photos and with his battery light searches out the lanterns. He lights them.
"Where are you, Lord? I'm here an' ready for anything," Seth shouts, lifting the glass-sided kerosene torch. "Where the hell are you, Lord? I'm as ready as I'll ever be, but God knows what you want with me."
The room emptied of coal is answerless.
"I'm a little man, Lord, but before I married my woman an' came to Seven I wasn't any kind of man. I'm trying to say I've done okay but what kind of hell world did you engineer? My old tramp engine works better than this stinking world."
"Those terrible things that happened to Marietta worse than any damn soap opera I ever listened to back in Chicago."
The [coal] breast is empty of answers. [ ... ]
Seth shouts at the face, "I'm gonna run away from Vergennes. Go out to California, leave Arley an' the kids an' see Hollywood . . . Remember when I wanted to be a rabbi? What a joke, what a dope I was. Thank God I was never Bar Mitzvahed. What a puke! Hell, any pick-an'-shovel man in Seven's worth twice any rabbi."
Seth takes the spirits from his pocket and unscrews the cap. "Well, here's to you, Lord . . . have a snort, Lord, it'll do you good."
"How the hell could you let all those people be burned up by the Nazis?"
"Wonder that anyone pays you any attention anymore."
Seth shouts to the very bottom of his lungs, "You're a damn failure, Lord!"
"I know," answers the Captain of Hosts.
Seth falls to the earth by the base of the pillar he had been leaning against while yelling at the photographs. Pleadingly he calls, "Who's that?"
"I am here."
Seth is terrified and presses his face against the stone floor while with one arm he encircles the column. "What do you want from me?"
"There's millions better, smarter than me, holy men, doctors, go talk to them, Lord!"
God speaks, "You are Seth."
The engineer is no longer inebriated. "Whatever it is, I'm not up to it."
"What man is?" He responds.
Clamped to the earth, eyes shut, Seth asks, "What do you want me for?"
"Will you be my prophet, Mister Engineer?"
Seth refuses to listen to God's request and changes the conversation's track. "Lord, when did you come to this place?"
"Long before the Armistice."
"After we dropped the A-bomb?" asks Seth.
"No, I came here before the poisoned gases."
"Oh, World War One," says Seth.
"Yes, that is the right war."
" . . . Do you like it here, Father? I mean, this is such a small place when you think of heaven."
"A.C. was my friend and the universe is a cold, dreary place."
"Have you been here often with A.C.?"
"We spent quite a few decades here. I used to play pinochle in the 1880s with Bert Evans. Do you play pinochle, Seth?"
"Any of that gin left, Seth?"
"My god, God, you don't drink gin, do you?"
"When I breathe air do I not inhale my own substance?"
"When I eat bread do I not devour my own flesh? Am I not the universe, its end, its beginnings? Is gin not a potion of the earth?"
"Here, Lord," Seth says as he holds out the bottle without looking up.
The container is taken. "It is a poor quencher, Seth. You may finish it if you wish."
"Oh no, sir."
"Do you play baseball, Mister Engineer?"
"I didn't think so. Bert Evans was a young white man who threw a wicked curve ball. I caught him after we became friends right in this room." [ ... ]
[God talks about Bert Evans and A.C. Baker and Chief Oqoinqua of the Mound Nations in 1233 B.C., their lives and the precise moment and manner of their deaths.]
"You must have loved Bert Evans a lot, Lord."
"Yes, quite a lot. Bert used to bring a girl down here for intimacy. She died of mumps one springtime. There were other girls then. After we introduced ourselves, he stopped bringing them though I told him he didn't have to."
"What did Bert die of, Father?"
"Couldn't you have saved him? I thought you did that sort of thing all the time."
God responds, "Seth, why don't you get up and come over here?"
Seth raises his head quite slowly to view dimly the form of a middle-sized man seated at a mahogany table placed before the photo-strewn wall. There is an empty chair opposite the Lord. [ ...] On the square table are a burning lantern and a deck of cards. The Lord gently commands, "Come here, Seth."
The engineer crawls to the table and with head low huddles on the chair as God speaks, "Seth, might I have a bit of your tobacco?"
The man fumbles in his jacket for the pouch. With shaking fingers he reaches it across the table. As the tobacco is taken, Seth looks up. "Why Lord, you're a colored man, Lord."
"I'm sorry, does that offend you?""
"No sir, of course not."
"I was Anglo-African for A.C. and I thought . . . would you prefer I appear as a Jew from Eastern Europe? Perhaps your great-great-grandfather on your mother's side?"
[Cameo here by Woody Allen]
Seth comments, "He died in Russia, I guess. I never heard about him."
"Isidore died in Ukmerge, Lithuania, on April thirtieth, 1841, four eleven in the afternoon, from a beating by some drunken men. It was Easter time and the village priest, Father Glotz, had been inflammatory, I fear."
"I never knew."
"That's why your mother's father came to America. His father, Reuben, whom you named your second son Reuben after, insisted. Reuben had a charming -- magnificent, really -- image of me. I wouldn't mind."
"No thank you, Lord. I'm used to colored people an' it doesn''t matter anyway, you know that." [ ... ]
[They discuss another recent death: Samuel Adams, stabbed by the husband of his lover.]
"It was terrible about Sam, wasn't it?"
"Lord, did he have to die like that?"
"No, awful waste," replies God.
"But Lord, why didn't you do something about it?"
"To breed, Seth, is not the simplicity that humankind believes it to be. Men and women had to be rewarded with storms of delight if they are to create destiny. I must have sand hurricanes of men to fulfill my universe . . . Seth, let's play a hand, cut the cards."
"I don't play pinochle."
"But you play gin rummy."
"Sure. Grandpa and I did all the time . . ."
[after the game]
"I miss grandpa, is he happy in heaven?"
"There is no heaven, Seth."
The engineer stills in his chair, the deck of unshuffled cards inert in his hands. He ventures a numb reply, "But Lord, if you are real there has to be a heaven, doesn't there?""
"No logic to that, Seth. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory, just Earth for men until they learn to sail off into the vacuum seas of my stars. Fellow like your grandpa dies and he sweetens the earth with his decay. Those were contented grubs that ingested grandpa's flesh."
Seth weeps, "Please, Lord, don't."
"The sensibiities of humankind," muses God. "They kill one another without remorse yet deny the gift of the corpses to redeem new life as do my mute worms beneath the leaf mold. If you slay your brother should you not eat him? The cannibals understood."
"Lord, the grubs, the worms, they don't love one another. People love people," the man states.
"That's right, Seth, how silly of me to forget."
"You forget nothing, Father."
"Seth, I've had enough gin rummy this evening, more would be graceless."
[Seth and God meet again, and play again, but God is losing patience.]
"Seth, pretty soon you'll have to measure up."
"What do you mean?""
"Seth, I am the universe and more. Seven is but a root. I can't pretend to be your grandfather forever."
"Lord, I didn't ask you to pretend anything.""
"Don't you think that your God has more important things to do than play cards in Number Seven?"
"Lord, you promised me you wouldn't push me."
"You must decide soon, Seth."
"If you will be my prophet."
"What would I have to do, Lord?"
"Take my Word to the furthest water veins of Earth."
"I've never met you before, have I, Lord?"
"Yes, Seth, we have met before."
"Must you ask?"
"I know," submits Seth.
"Tell me your truth," commands God.
"When I was in the men's room at the Frolic Theatre, I was finished wee-weeing and I started to cry because of the newsreel . . . the pictures of the little children's bones . . . "
"Yes . . . "
Seth places his cards to table and weeps holding his face in his hands. "I prayed that God would come and never let children be killed by war or gas chambers again. I prayed it many times. Did you hear me, Lord?"
"But what can I do?"
"I've got to be the manager of Seven. We'll show a profit next quarter, our first three months since we became a cooperative. Banker Newton said he never expected us niggers to do as well as we have. Roosevelt has done better as boss of the third level than Sam, and Laddy is an okay engineer."
"Be my prophet, Seth."
* * *
It takes pleading and sneering from tormented ghosts of World Wars I and II, but Seth ultimately capitulates. The Lord promises, "I will give you the words."
In a scene that I see as a Thomas Hart Benton painting, Seth and his modest little following, black and white, start out across the country, pitching their tents in the rolling green hills of the midcentury Midwest. Seth has been told that "multitudes" will join them, tens of thousands, but for now it's mostly his family, the miners from Seven, and a handful of people who have joined them along the way. The engineer is worried about whether they've dug enough latrines and whether the microphone will work, because he's about to speak to his "grandest crowd" yet, about a thousand people in Moline. As he steps up to the microphone, one moment he's smiling and thinking of his children, the next moment these words come out of him:
"I am Henri and I died on the battlefield of Verdun in 1917 and I am Karl who shot Henri and then I was killed by an artillery shell." Incredulous gasps at the queerness of Seth, "And I am the dead spirit of each child bombed into fragmented flesh at Nankin, at Amsterdam, at Dresden, at Pyongyang; their names are my soul.
"I am each pregnant woman who became burnt-out eye sockets in Ethiopia, Manchuria, Estonia. I am every infant who starves to death. I am every father who is executed for stealing seed to grow grain to feed his brood. I am every mother who sells her flesh to feed her empty-handed family.
"I am your victim. You and I are twentieth-century man."
(And twenty-first century man, too, it seems.)
"I stand here to end the marauder in man."
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