Each month, in coordination with our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests. This month, we will feature readings by Shalom Auslander and Leelila Strogov (for full details, please see sidebar), and the excerpt we have chosen to highlight is “Prophet’s Dilemma,” a short story from Auslander’s new collection, “Beware of God.”
And behold God spoke to Schwartzman late Tuesday evening, right in the middle of Leno’s monologue, saying, “Make for yourself an ark, for you and for your entire family, for I have found you righteous in your generation.”
“Now?” asked Schwartzman.
He had to be kidding. It was 11:50 p.m. on a week night — Schwartzman had an 8:30 with a client the next morning, a 9:30 breakfast with the head of his department and a shrink appointment with Dr. Herschberg at 11:00 which meant that he’d have to catch the 6:00 a.m. to Grand Central at the latest.
“It’s almost midnight.”
“Shh!” spat Mrs. Schwartzman.
Mrs. Schwartzman liked Jay Leno a lot more than she liked God.
Jay Leno didn’t show up at their house at whatever unholy hour he wanted. Jay Leno didn’t threaten to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth. Jay Leno didn’t tell her husband to build a golden altar in their backyard and sacrifice upon it one she-goat.
Which, by the way, is called a doe.
“Can’t we do this in the morning?” whispered Schwartzman.
Mrs. Schwartzman aimed the remote control at the TV set and turned the volume up as high as it would go. She held the button pressed for a few extra seconds — in case He missed the point.
“We’ll be right back with more headlines,” said Jay.
“I will make you into a great nation,” said God, “and I will bless you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” whispered Schwartzman. “Tomorrow.”
If you ever hear a voice in your head telling you that he’s God and he’s going to bless you and your children and your children’s children, pretend you didn’t hear Him.
Schwartzman, like so many others before him, had made the classic mistake.
“Who’s that?” he called out when first God spoke to him. “Hello? Who’s there? Who’s talking?”
The two long years since had been filled with one ludicrous, Lordly request after another. Slaughter this, banish that. Go there, leave here. Wear this, cut off that. I’ll kill you, I’ll stone you, I’ll flood you.
Then there had been the complaints, of course, mostly from his irate neighbors who would no longer even speak to him.
When he’d applied for a building permit to reconstruct the ancient Babylonian temple in his backyard, the Kleins down the road complained. He’d tried explaining to God the intricacies of residential zoning restrictions, but God wasn’t hearing it, and the Kleins eventually filed a restraining order against him.
His letter to the president demanding he “let my people go” brought with it Secret Service surveillance vans on the street and ominous black helicopters in the sky; his claim that “God told me to write that” only brought tabloid reporters and camera crews.
And then there was the morning Mrs. Epstein opened her bedroom window, looked out the window and saw Schwartzman next door, wrestling a young goat across the yard and dragging it up the ramp of a crudely built altar. Cursing and swearing, Schwartzman finally managed to get the poor animal to lie down. He lifted a hatchet high above his head and buried it deep in the she-goat’s neck. Blood sprayed across the lawn. It sprayed onto the swing set, and onto the deck and onto the white picket fence separating the Schwartzmans’ yard from hers. It took quite a bit of hacking before the goat’s head was finally severed and fell with a thud to the ground. Covered in blood and drenched in sweat, Schwartzman threw down the hatchet, held out his arms and looked up to the heavens. “There!” he shouted. “Happy?”
Mrs. Epstein screamed.
Schwartzman held up his hands. “Just a sin-offering, Mrs. E!” he called out. “Mrs. E?”
But Mrs. E had already dialed the police.
In the days following, she registered formal complaints with the mayor, the governor and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
A small crowd of animal rights activists met on Schwartzman’s lawn. “One, two, three, four! Don’t you kill no goats no more!”
This was no way for them to start a family.
“This is no way for us to start a family,” Mrs. Schwartzman had said.
She had made it clear very early on that she didn’t want God around when the baby arrived.
“It’s difficult enough to raise a child these days,” she had said.
She was right. Surly, bossy, paranoid, violent. God was a terrible influence.
“I’ll get rid of Him,” Schwartzman had promised.
“No, you won’t,” God had answered.
“Yes, I will,” Schwartzman had answered.
And Schwartzman arose early the next morning, and he did call out to God from behind the wheel of his Buick.
“What’s an ark, anyway?” Schwartzman asked God as the old engine warmed up.
“It’s like a boat,” said God.
“What kind of boat? A big boat or a little boat?”
“It’s a big boat,” said God. “Like a yacht.”
Schwartzman owned a hammer, a hatchet, one of those screwdrivers with the x-shaped end and what he strongly suspected was a wrench (it was a vise-grip).
“And I’m supposed to build this yacht? Myself?”
“I built the world by myself,” said God.
“Again with the ‘I built the world.’ ”
The guy couldn’t go a week without mentioning it.
Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled.
“Behold!” shouted God. “And you shall go forth from this place to the Home Depot on Route 17, or the Lord Your God shall smite you with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with …”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Schwartzman, “I know. And with the burning and with the sword and with the blasting.”
He put the car in reverse, and slowly backed out of his driveway.
“Excuse me,” Schwartzman said to the Home Depot man, “can you tell me where to find tar?”
“Tar?” asked the Home Depot man. “What’re you using tar for?”
“I’m building an ark,” said Schwartzman.
If there was anything that two years of completing God’s preposterous homework assignments had taught Schwartzman it was that there was absolutely nothing you could tell Home Depot Man you were building that would surprise him, that would get any reaction from him at all, for that matter, aside from the usual skepticism about your choice of building materials.
“I wonder if you could help me. I’m building a Babylonian temple. A messianic chariot. An altar for ritual animal sacrifice.”
“An altar, eh?” Home Depot Man had asked. “You gonna be using fire on that?”
Home Depot Man shoved the rest of his egg sandwich into his mouth, and wiped his fingers on his orange “Do-It-Yourself Superstore!” apron.
“An ark, eh?” he said, licking his fingers.
From Altars to Ziggurats! thought Schwartzman. From Abraham to Zebediah!
“What kind of wood you using?” asked Home Depot man.
“That’s what the guy wants,” said Schwartzman.
“He’d be better off with cedar,” said Home Depot Man. “Bug resistant. I’d go with cedar.”
When Schwartzman got home, he was met by an angry God and an angrier wife.
“What the hell is this?” demanded God as Schwartzman climbed out of the car.
“It’s cedar,” he said, slamming the door.
“I know it’s cedar,” said God, “I wanted cypress.”
“What is the big deal?” asked Schwartzman. The guy could be so fucking literal. “It’s bug resistant. The guy said to go with cedar.”
Ten miles away, at the far end of the Home Depot plumbing and heating aisle, a sixty-gallon water heater rolled off its forty-foot-high shelf and landed squarely on Home Depot Man below, killing him instantly.
“What the hell is this?” demanded Mrs. Schwartzman from the front porch.
“It’s cedar,” said Schwartzman.
“I know it’s cedar,” said Mrs. Schwartzman. She turned with a huff and went back into the house, slamming the front door behind her.
“Someone’s after me,” said Schwartzman.
“Mmm hmm,” said Dr. Herschberg, scribbling on his note pad.
“He’s spoken to me. He won’t leave me alone. I’ve tried to be nice.”
“He’s spoken to you?”
“He asks me to do Him favors.”
“What kind of favors?”
“Have you called the police?”
Dr. Herschberg was a prominent psychiatrist in Manhattan, with a patient list that included many famous New Yorkers. Stalkers were his bread and butter.
Most stalkers, explained Dr. Herschberg, are lonely, isolated members of society, seeking intimacy or friendship. The stalking is simply a partial satisfaction of their voyeuristic, sadistic tendencies.
“That sounds like Him.”
“You need to stop responding,” said Dr. Herschberg.
“That’s what my wife said,” replied Schwartzman. “He’s not easy to ignore.”
“Are you afraid he might become violent?”
“If history’s any indication.”
Dr. Herschberg leaned forward.
“Every time you respond, you’re positively reinforcing his behavior. Every time you answer him, he’s getting what he wants.”
Schwartzman let out a long, deep breath, and slowly shook his head.
“He’s going to be pretty pissed off.”
“Exactly,” agreed Dr. Herschberg. “And when he gets angry enough, He’ll realize you won’t give him what he needs, and he’ll find a new person to bother.”
“And what about that person?”
“They’re not my patient.”
Schwartzman stared at the floor for a while, thinking hard about what the doctor was suggesting. He looked up at Dr. Herschberg and nodded.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it. I’ll ignore Him.”
“No, you won’t,” said God.
“Yes, I will,” said Schwartzman.
“Our time is up,” said Dr. Herschberg.
“I know you can hear me,” God said to Schwartzman through the radio of his car. Six-speaker, Surround Sound divination. Dolby harassment. “It’s not going to work.”
Schwartzman tried changing the radio station.
Howard Stern was interviewing a lesbian midget. There was a harsh crackle of electrical interference, Howard’s voice cut out and behold, God spoke again.
“Hey, Schwartzman,” said God. “Listen. I’ll tell you a little secret, okay? But you can’t tell anyone. It’s just between me and you, okay? Because I love you. I do. All right, here goes. It’s nature. Nurture’s got nothing to do with it! But you can’t tell any —”
Schwartzman angrily switched the radio off.
Ten miles away, in the oak-walled office of Dr. Herschberg, a hardcover Physician’s Desk Reference slid off the highest shelf of the tallest bookcase, striking the doctor on the head and killing him instantly.
Sunday morning, Schwartzman was having the golf game of his life.
“I shall bring floodwaters on the earth,” shouted God loudly as Schwartzman was trying to line up a putt on the ninth green, “and destroy all that is under heaven! Flinch! Fliiiinch!”
Schwartzman kept his head down, his elbow straight, and sank the putt.
Over the next two weeks, every stock in Schwartzman’s portfolio tanked.
He was mugged, carjacked and burglarized. He lost on every scratch-off card he played. He almost won two dollars at Pick Ten, but the winning numeral, 1, mysteriously transformed into a 7.
One morning he found his car with four flat tires. That afternoon, he was rear-ended on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. That evening, he dropped his wallet somewhere in Prospect Park while walking his beloved dog Sparky. That night, Sparky was struck by lightning and killed.
“Damnedest thing,” said the policeman standing over the sizzling corpse. “And you say his name was Sparky? Damnedest thing.”
His cat Millie was run over by a Federal Express truck and the hamsters he kept in
the basement escaped from their cages. They quickly took advantage of their long-awaited freedom to squirm behind the wood paneling, where they died long, wiggling deaths and then slowly decomposed.
Through it all, Schwartzman never once responded to God.
He never prayed, he never beseeched, he never begged. He didn’t repent, he didn’t give charity, he didn’t donate to the synagogue building fund.
He stopped going to synagogue entirely.
He had an Egg McMuffin with bacon and cheese every morning, and mixed his meat dishes with his dairy dishes every night.
And yet, despite all their misfortunes, the loss of every one of their pets, and the loss of every one of the pets they’d bought to replace their original pets, the Schwartzmans had never been happier.
They took long walks on Saturday mornings.
They bought nonkosher pretzels from nonkosher street vendors and covered them with nonkosher mustard.
They went for Saturday afternoon drives to nearby parks and faraway museums.
Instead of watching Leno, they made love.
And behold, one Thursday night later that summer, God spoke to a Mr. Akiva Twersky in Kew Gardens, Queens, saying, “Make for yourself an ark, for you and your entire family, because I have found you righteous in your generation.”
“Who’s that?” called out the terrified Twersky. “Hello? Who’s there? Who’s talking?”