Margene happily wrestled with one too many recent purchases, and she was very proud of the logic of her four-times-a-year ritual. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall – at the end of each season she set out to raid the clearance sales of the trendiest retailers in town. ‘Fashion’ being a very nebulous concept these days, Margene simply picked items that suited her in every sense and thus she was dressed impeccably at all times.
She attempted to retrieve her car keys from her designer hand bag without disrupting her grasp on her bounty, and failed miserably. Packages plunked to the ground, one after another. Nothing breakable, thank goodness, she thought to herself and went about retrieving them with undampened spirit.
“Please, allow me.” The gentleman that had appeared at her side was himself extremely well dressed, causing her to like him immediately.
“Why, thank you,” she cooed, “that’s very kind of you.”
“Always glad to come to the aid of a damsel in distress,” he returned.
Margene didn’t feel distressed in the slightest, but was not inclined to correct him. “I see. I’m Margene,” she offered a leather gloved hand and a smile.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Bob,” his voice was measured, and conveyed the impression that he was a man of letters.
“Is that short for ‘Robert’?” she queried.
For a split second he was taken aback, he’d never thought of himself as ‘Robert’. “Why, yes, it is,” he’d regained his composure as quickly as it had left, “but I prefer ‘Bob’.”
“Well then, allow me to thank you once again, Robert.” Her smile had now reached her eyes.
He felt uncharacteristically off balance and had absolutely no idea why he said what he said next. “Bit of a chill in the air today, may I treat you to a cup of hot tea?”
“Well, I…” her hesitation wasn’t reticence, it was more a pause to consider her good fortune.
“There’s a fine bistro just steps from here that prepares a delightful blend, and after what appears to be a strenuous afternoon some refreshment might be in order?” He felt an indefinable need for her compliance.
“I believe I’ll take you up on that offer.”
The next twenty minutes passed pleasantly, in his estimation, peppered with just enough superficial conversation to forestall any awkwardness. He guessed that her dark hair was dyed, although expertly, and that she probably did it herself. She was definitely middle aged, but probably still two or three years younger than him. Her clothing spoke to the fact that she possessed adequate means, as did the logos on the packages he had helped with. Bob fancied himself a good judge of people, an apt observer. Still, there was something about her that he couldn’t quite pin down.
“You’re fond of the better things in life, aren’t you?” she interrupted his brief reverie.
“I certainly am, though I wonder what leads you to that comment,” He hadn’t meant to be rude, but Bob wasn’t accustomed to anyone else’s deductive powers matching his own.
“Oh, it’s fairly obvious, you’re well dressed and you enjoy this extraordinary tea – which, by the way, I had not as yet discovered myself.” She looked him squarely in the eye, yet another thing he wasn’t used to people doing often, having always felt that his inherent bearing of wisdom was a deterrent. “I must be going, Canasta with friends tonight and they tend to fuss when someone is late. Thank you once again for the lovely tea, Robert.”
“May I escort you to your car?” he tried not to panic, but something was missing, he wasn’t finished with this encounter.
“It was lovely meeting you, Robert.” He held the car door as she slid in.
“You as well, Marge.”
“I prefer Margene.”
“Oh, I see.” It was now or never. “Say, there’s a new restaurant I’ve been wanting to try,” he lied, he would have to find one, “would you care to accompany me tomorrow night?”
“An adventure of sorts! Yes, I’d be delighted.” She pulled a small, neat leather cover from her handbag and opened it to reveal a pad of paper and a pen. She recorded her phone number and handed it to him. “If you’d like to call, say around 2:00 p.m., then we can finalize arrangements.”
Bob breathed a sigh of relief as she drove away. There was something definitely unfinished with regard to Margene, but it still escaped him. Being an admitted connoisseur of what life had to offer he was accustomed to keeping company with younger women, partly because they weren’t inclined to plague him with the deeper questions of life. Weighty questions were not something that he wanted from a companion. He courted questions, yes, but he was used to delivering a straightforward answer and walking away.
Of course, that’s it! Bob silently congratulated himself. She has a question for me, and I failed to discover it. He needed that question. You see, Bob’s Gift of Answers had one fatal flaw – there could be no answer absent the proper question, and Bob was not possessed of questions.
The call to Margene was timely made, and after placing an inspired call to the Chamber of Commerce, Bob had discovered a newer upscale restaurant and made reservations. Margene’s eggplant cocktail dress was the essence of understated elegance. Bob had chosen to play it safe with a black suit, tie, and white shirt.
“You’ve purchased a new car since yesterday. Curious, as the one you were driving seemed in excellent condition.” She was good at looking him straight in the eye.
“Yes, well, I like to try new things. This one is leased until I can make a more permanent determination.” New things, different things, more things. Searching for the right thing was an important quest in Bob’s life. Answers came easily, the right things did not.
The salads arrived and Bob determined that there was plenty of time, and though he hadn’t imagined yet how to broach the subject he had every confidence in his ability.
“I don’t believe you’ve told me what you do,” she asserted. Margene had impressed him as a reasonably intelligent woman, very attractive in her own way. Her use of makeup was slight and tasteful. All in all, very well put together and very sure of who she was. None of those concrete reasons gave Bob any clue why he felt increasingly drawn to her. There was something intangible, something just outside of his frame of reference, and it unsettled him.
“What I do?” Bob repeated dumbly, the obvious intent of the question having escaped him.
“What profession you’re in, where you work, what you do,” she registered only slight surprise at having to qualify the question.
“Oh, I’m fortunate enough to have retired a few years ago,” he lied. Mundane questions did not fall within the Rules of The Gift. Fired is what I mean, fired by a young punk who thought that he was smarter than anyone else. Fired, at forty, for being too old to understand the market. Thankfully, money had never been an issue.
“What did you retire from?” her third query bore no impatience.
“Sorry. I worked at a public relations firm.” Bob had liked his job, it was a convenience in the fact that it constantly put him in contact with people who had – questions. Sure, there was a lot of repetition, ‘who shot JFK?’ reoccurred with predictable frequency. Occasionally someone took it a step further with, ‘who was behind Kennedy’s murder?’ No one ever believed either answer, and he had decided early on that it was just as well. Then there were the incessant questions he answered about aliens and UFO’s; people either laughed at the answer, or danced away as though they’d just been handed the Holy Grail. All in all, Bob had learned to prefer the philosophical questions although they were too few and far between to suit him.
“That must have been interesting, a ‘spin doctor’ then?” she said, snapping him back into the moment.
“Only when clients came under fire for a misstep. Otherwise, we were mainly concerned with identifying target markets for new products.”
“And did these ‘missteps’ occur with frequency?” Mirth sparkled in her eyes.
Bob surprised himself by laughing out loud, recalling the arrogance of the junior executive that had handed him walking papers, “An alarming frequency”.
“So you’re a problem solver.”
“You could say that, I suppose.”
“And what occupies your time, moreover your brain power, now?”
The Moment of Truth, he hoped, “I enjoy answering questions.”
“Answering questions,” she repeated thoughtfully, “what type of questions?”
“Tough questions, preferable the toughest, the more obscure or existential, the better,” he paused to let her consider, hoping he had prompted her. “Care to try, Marge?”
The main course had arrived, and they absently mindedly picked at the food, more involved in the conversation at hand.
“I’m not sure, Robert, are there any parameters?”
“None whatsoever,” he said proudly.
“I’m intrigued, but I’ll need a moment. The salmon is delicious, don’t you think?”
“Surely that’s not your question.” he grinned widely.
“It could be,” she wasn’t smiling, “but it isn’t.”
He felt a chill. Is it possible that this will be my very first failure, ever? And why do I care? Although only a few seconds passed, it felt like hours.
“I have it!” her expression had lightened considerably, much to his relief.
“Very well then, ask away.”
She leaned forward, and laced her fingers together, a typical schoolteacher or psychologist stance. He wondered if either of those were – or had been – her profession, but this was not the moment to satisfy that curiosity. “How many significant events are there in an infinite number of significant events?” she seemed satisfied with the question.
Answer correctly or be assigned to detention. A very inopportune time for that image to have popped into his head. And how do YOU feel about that? Worse yet.
“That would, indeed, depend on which authority you ascribed confidence to.” He had never been that obtuse with an answer. What is going on here?
“Oh?” her gaze was steady, too steady.
“If you asked Carl Jung, he would say it depends on the weight of importance you place on what you deem to be significant events.” I hope this isn’t strictly pass/fail… “If you asked Deepak Chopra, he would say you must realize that you are the creator of the significance.” Wrong, this is so wrong,this is not multiple choice. “If you asked Stephen Hawking, he would say that all events are interrelated in terms of cause and effect, that one system does not operate independently of others.” Please let this be over!
“Alright, but what is the definitive answer?” Unrelenting, unforgiving, she asked.
He mentally loosened his tie, and tugged at the top button of his shirt. “The answer is --”please, please “there are an infinite number of significant events.” There. It seemed right, felt more like ‘normal’. The timely arrival of hot fudge cake so rich that it may as well have been just fudge seemed a too small reward.
She pouted. “The answer seems too obvious. The answer is part of the question.”
“Most answers are contained in the question.” Bob felt in control again, in his element again.
“Very well. I have another question.”
“One to a customer.” His self satisfaction became one with the fudge cake. The attentive waitress warmed his coffee, increasing his notion that all was once again right with the world. He thanked her, and made a mental note to tip a little too much.
“Does consciousness come to an end, or does it continue when a person dies?” She blatantly ignored his admonition, and in some inexplicable way he felt drawn closer to her still.
“Professor Hawking presents an excellent scientific case for the complete and utter cessation of consciousness.” He hadn’t meant to speak.
“That’s not what I asked,” her annoyance was expressed only in her words, not at all in her expression or demeanor. It was felt all the same. “Do you believe that it ceases?”
It doesn’t matter what I believe, don’t you get that? “Do you?” he returned.
It threw her for a moment. Good. She looked down for a brief second and smoothed the napkin on her lap. “No, I don’t,” her eyes met his again. “What is the point of consciousness if it doesn’t continue? People leave behind literary works, music that lives on, why should consciousness cease? Who is to say that one is more ‘real’ than the other? What is the point of interrelating if relationships don’t continue? If remembering doesn’t continue into other lifetimes?”
“Now we’re talking Mitch Albom? ‘The Five People You Meet In Heaven?’” He immediately regretted his condescending tone.
“Something like that, yes,” she would not be diminished.
“I suppose your argument has some validity. Of course, there’s the premise that all time is simultaneous, which I believe would render the concept of multiple lifetimes being linear a moot point.”
Dinner was obviously over, the plates had been cleared, and more coffee or wine appealed to neither of them. He felt a twinge of regret that he hadn’t asked her to dance at some point during the evening. He signaled the waiter for the check.
As he drove her home, the conversation turned to the mundane, much as it had over afternoon tea the day before, pleasant and comfortable.
He saw her to her front door, but kept a respectable distance. A goodnight kiss seemed too awkward, even given the intimacy he felt they had shared. They simply exchanged ‘thank you’s’.
Bob drove through the darkness, trying not to think, save for his wish for his chauffer. He unlocked the front door and walked straight to the sofa without turning on the lights and sat down. Bob was in trouble. For the first time in decades now, Bob had questions. He had questions about significant events. And he had no answers.