Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘To Hell and Back: The Damned Busters’
Through all this, the young woman was leaning against the elevator’s back wall, her arms crossed over her chest and her chin tucked down. The polished toe of one patent leather pump tapped up and down. When she heard the faint tinny music coming from the phone at Chesney’s ear she rocked forward and one hand made a circular gesture that said, “We need to move this along.” Aloud she said, “Look, we can’t be more than a foot off the ground. Couldn’t you just pry open the door and we’ll get out?”
“Um,” said Chesney. He looked at the phone in his hand as if it might convey some useful information, but it had moved on to the next song in its repertoire: an electronic version of “The Sunny Side of the Street.”
Chesney had long known that his few successes in life had been confined to areas that he thought of as being filled with distinct pools of light. The pools represented those relatively narrow areas where he knew he had solid, certain footing–areas like mathematics and the arcane details of the often-complex alternate universes captured in comix. But these oases of illumination were hedged around by great swathes of murk and darkness, huge lightless plains of dimly lit terrain that was full of unseen pits into which he could blindly stumble. One of the darkest corners was that part of human existence that involved conversing with an attractive woman. If only more such women–or, in Chesney’s actual experience, any such women–had ever engaged him on the topics on which he was expert, he might have built up sufficient confidence to explore the dark savannas. But they hadn’t, and so he hadn’t.
As “The Sunny Side of the Street” came to its nderplayed final bars, the young woman made an exasperated noise somewhere deep in her perfectly formed throat and reached down to slip off one shoe. She forced the end of one stiletto-thin heel into the crack between the elevator doors, creating a gap large enough to insert her fingertips. Then she looked at Chesney and said, “Hang that up and help me.”
He did, and together they pried the doors apart. As she had said, they were no more than a foot above the lobby floor. She stepped down and, with a single backward glance that dismissed him forever, she entered the next elevator. Chesney descended from the stuck car and watched the doors close. Behind him, the phone struck up “The Girl That I Marry.”
Later, Chesney told his co-workers an edited version of the incident, in which he had taken the initiative in prying open the doors. He also told them of some fairly witty remarks he had passed during the experience, which had calmed the young woman’s initial fears and even made her laugh. One of the other actuaries asked for a closer description of the rescued maiden and when told about the small mole below the corner of one cornflower-blue eye, had said, “That was Poppy.”
“Yes,” said Chesney, “I think that was what she said her name was. I was a little busy telling off those idiots from the call center in Bombay.” But when he saw how the others in the group reacted to the name, he said, “What?”
“Poppy,” repeated the one who had identified her. “As in Poppy Paxton. As in W.T. Paxton. As in,”–the man pointed a thumb at the ceiling–“. . .God.”
Then, two Sundays after the elevator incident, Chesney saw Poppy Paxton jogging toward him along the path that led past the hot dog stand. She didn’t notice him. But it occurred to him, as she ran past and away, that if she tripped and fell, he could be right there to help her, could get some ice from the chili dog vendor’s soft drink compartment so soothe her ankle–of course, it would be just a minor sprain–and perhaps she would sit with him on the bench until she felt well enough to walk. They would talk, and he would say wise and interesting things, and she would nod and say, “I never thought of it like that. What an intelligent observation.” And then…
But Poppy Paxton never jogged past Chesney’s bench again, even though he had sat there every Sunday since, sometimes eating three chili dogs over the course of the morning, which meant he had heartburn most of the afternoon. And today not only did Poppy not come, but none of the other jiggling bosoms passed by. After a single bite of the hot dog, he set it down on the bench and let it go cold. The man who sold them was closing up his cart. Now he pushed it slowly toward the parking lot.
“What’s going on?” Chesney said, aloud.
“You talking to us?” said a voice behind him.
He turned. The speaker was one of a group of young men, in their teens and early twenties, whom he had sometimes seen playing ball on the single-basket court. They were tough guys, wearing clothes that showed their muscles and their gold chains, two of them with red bandanas tied around their shaven heads. Usually, they swore a lot and played loud rap music from a boom box. Sometimes they shouted at Chesney when he went past, words that he only partially heard and always pretended that he didn’t, walking by with his eyes averted.
“No,” he said, trying to keep a tremor out of his voice.
“Oh,” said the one who had spoken, olive skinned with a sparse mustache, a chain tattoo encircling his neck, “that’s okay. My mistake.” They walked away, and Chesney noticed that none of them moved with their customary macho swagger.
“What,” he said again, “is going on?”
Monday morning, the stock market went phut. At least, that was how the cable news reporter put it in the report that ran while Chesney was eating his corn flakes.
“No one can remember a day like it,” the man said, standing in the middle of an empty trading floor. “It’s now two hours since the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell, and most brokers and traders haven’t shown up for work. The only trades that are being made are by automatic computer programs and some charitable foundations. Otherwise, this place is dead. Nobody’s interested in making money.”
The bus ride to work was eerily placid. No one jostled for first place on line, and Chesney even saw a teenager get up to offer an old lady a seat. The traffic was sedate; the taxis were actually yielding right of way, and nobody ran a red light.
At the office, he had barely settled behind his desk when he was interrupted by Ron and Clay. They came into his cubicle, wanting his point of view on a discussion they were having on whether their work was morally defensible.
“I think it’s ethically neutral,” Clay said. “We’re only calculating risk factors for different demographics, so that policies can be designed that balance risk and reward for the company.”
“Yes,” said Ron, “but the side effect of that process is to identify some groups that will be denied any coverage at all.”
They both turned to Chesney and said, together, “What do you think?”
It was not a question the actuary had ever considered, but he did so now. “I’d want to think about it,” he said. “Evaluating people based on categories of risk can be seen as extending from a recognition that fundamentally, life is not fair.”
“I agree,” said Clay.
“On the other hand,” Chesney continued, following the logic, “just because life is not fair, does that mean we can reinforce the unfairness? Life, after all, is not a moral being, capable of making ethical choices. But we are.”
“That’s the way I see it,” said Ron.
“On the other, other hand, if we don’t work out the risk factors, the insurance business can’t function. Ultimately, nobody gets insured, and that can’t be good.” He paused. “It’s tricky.”
Clay said, “Maybe we could calculate the net benefit-to-misery ratio inherent in the way the industry works now against the same ratio if there was no insurance for anybody.”
“But how can we be sure that benefit and misery cancel each other out?” said Ron. “Maybe an ounce of misery is worth a pound of happiness.”
“And then there’s the moral obligation we have to our employer to earn our salaries,” Chesney put in.
“But if we’re part of an immoral enterprise, our obligation is to quit,” Ron countered. “‘First, do no harm,’ as the Hippocratic Oath says.”
“Isn’t it odd that these issues have never come up before?” Chesney said.
“Well,” said Clay, “we’ll always been too busy.”
“We ought to be busy now, shouldn’t we?”
“Not if we’ve been part of a fundamentally immoral system,” said Ron.
“Or amoral,” said Clay.
“But for moral beings, can anything be amoral?”
And around and around the discussion went.
At noon, tired and hungry after a hard morning’s debate, Chesney went out to the park bench to eat his lunch. He chewed his sandwich without much appetite, wondering if it was proper for him to eat his fill when hundreds of millions of people around the world were malnourished. On the other hand, he couldn’t do much about the problem if he was underfed. “Not that I have been doing anything about it,” he said to himself. “Maybe I should.”
His eye fell on the headline of a tabloid newspaper that someone had left on the bench: “Conscience Bug” Spreads. Chesney picked it up and read the story. A scientist from the National Centers for Disease Control was speculating that there might be a viral vector for the wave of morality that was sweeping the world. Something seems to have disabled our “selfishness circuits,” the report read. Greed, anger, lust, gluttony–indeed, all of what used to be called the ‘seven deadly sins’–have suddenly stopped affecting our conduct.
It’s as if, after having spent all our lives with a devil and an angel on each shoulder, none of our devils are showing up for work.
“You are causing me a great deal of trouble,” said a genteel voice. Chesney lowered the paper and saw a dapper, bearded man-no, he corrected himself, a dapper, bearded gentleman–sitting on the other end of the bench, his hands folded over the head of a black walking stick.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“That is something I am not often inclined to give,” said the stranger. “And certainly not to you, after all that you have done.”
There was something familiar about the face and voice. it took Chesney a moment to make the connection, then he had it: the man was the spitting image of the actor who had played Kris Kringle in one of Chesney’s favorite movies from his childhood: the original 1930s version of Miracle on 34th Street. He had the white beard and the snowy hair, though his eyes did not twinkle as he regarded Chesney with an animosity that seemed to struggle with amused contempt.
“You’re not another demon, are you?” the actuary said. “I’ve told you–”
“Not another demon, no,” the other interrupted, “though I am the one they all work for.” And now any vestige of amusement went away. “Or at least they did until you came blundering along.”
“I don’t understand.”
The dapper gentleman pointed a finger at the newspaper Chesney still held in both hands. The words none of our devils are showing up for work floated free of the page and rose until they hovered in front of Chesney’s eyes, where they enlarged until they were six inches high. Then they burst into yellow-and-orange flames that died down to inky smoke that dissipated in a nonexistent wind, causing a sooty detritus to sift down onto the actuary’s thighs.
“You,” said Satan, “you ridiculous little man, have singlehandedly caused Hell to go on strike.”
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