Monday, May 3, 2010

The Almost Man

Jack Glenfinnan was a bigwig. He wasn’t a bigwig in his own right. No, he was a bigwig because he was a courtier to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Jack was well-known for being well-known to the well-known.

A somewhat parasitic identity, to be sure, but as long as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fortunes were on the rise, Jack’s own stock rose accordingly. But when the career of the Young Pretender took a downward turn, Jack’s standard of living suffered a corresponding blow.

A pious man he was not, but he took comfort in the fact that he would live on in the hearts of his loved ones. So the afterlife came as something of a rude shock to jack. When they pulled the bed sheet over his head, he wanted to protest. He wasn’t dead! He wasn’t!

Couldn’t they tell? He could see them—clear as day! He tried to speak. To scream. To shout. He tried to push the bedcovers back. But his body was inert.

Then he noticed that he wasn’t looking up at his grieving loved ones from the bed. Rather, he was looking at himself from behind. Over their shoulders. Like a spectator.

Wait! How could he be seeing himself? How could that be “him” on the bed if he was looking at it?

He glanced in the mirror, but saw no reflection. He could see, but he couldn’t be seen.

Was this the afterlife? He wasn’t in heaven. On the other hand, he wasn’t in hell. At least, it wasn’t the lake of fire—or outer darkness. No wailing or gnashing of teeth in the distance. Maybe the Bible was wrong.

One second thought, maybe this is what theologians called the intermediate state—in this case, the intermediate state of the damned. Like a holding cell before the final judgment. Bonnie Prince Charlie had a chaplain who once held forth with a long boring sermon on the topic. There was an intermediate state for the redeemed as well, but—of course—their accommodations were much nicer.

So he was an earthbound spirit or ghost. At first it was fun to be a ghost. You could move so freely from place to place.

But it was also a rather frustrating existence. You could see, hear, and smell. But you couldn’t be seen. You couldn’t touch anything. You were just a bystander. An outsider, with your ghostly nose pressed up against the windowpane. You could only observe what other people did.

As the years passed, Jack began to suffer blackouts. He lost track of time. There were gaps, as if he nodded off and woke up a few weeks later.

Then it suddenly occurred to him that he was cursed to quite literally live on in the hearts of his loved ones. As long as they remembered him, he was self-aware. For the first few weeks and months after his death, his loved ones thought of him daily. And if one wasn’t thinking of him, another one was.

But when his wife died, and his death lay ever further in the past, whole days would pass when his children never gave him a second thought. His existence took on a very intermittent and haphazard quality. He was conscious as long as someone was conscious of him. If his son or daughter remembered him for a few fleeting moments, he would awaken for a few fleeting moments—too disoriented to get his bearings before he lost consciousness.

At other times, if they wrote about him in a letter or a diary, or read his own diary, he might be self-aware for a few minutes or a few hours. There was no telling how much time he’d have before they ceased thinking about him, at which point he’d cease thinking. So he had to make the most of these lucid moments. He’d visit his favorite spots when he was a boy, and a young man, and a family man.

After his children died, decades would pass before anyone had occasion to remember him. No one laid flowers at his grave. Sometimes a person strolling through the cemetery would read the epitaph on his tombstone. He would become momentarily self-aware, then revert to unconsciousness.

Every now and then a historian would write a book or article about the Jacobites, in which he received a footnote. Every now and then a professor would lecture on the Jacobites, or a student would read a book or write a term paper—where Jack’s name made a cameo appearance.

The first thing Jack would do, if he had the time to compose himself, was to go to a newspaper stand and find out what year it was. Jack suffered from future shock as he saw his old world change. And saw it change, not year-by-year, but in this utterly sporadic fashion.

He would then try to find the way back to his old stomping grounds—hoping to spend a few wistful minutes or hours recalling his boyhood, his youth, and his manhood. He hoarded these hasty, fitful moments—clinging to every last dying instant.

But the landmarks had changed. And even if he could find his way home, there came a time when there was no home to be found. His old stomping grounds were bulldozed, paved over, long gone. Forgotten haunts, remembered by forgotten men.

Jack had become the almost man. A parasite feeding on a vanishing, evanescent host.