by Russell Adams
Until recently, amidst the downtown blight, there was a hotel, the Conklin, that catered to the most transient of transients. Those who checked in seldom brought much except what they wore, and, sometimes, a plain paper bag to relieve thirsty lips. How the Conklin came to it’s abrupt end is still the subject of speculation.
In room 423, facing out onto a back alley, a Bible, whose name was Gideon, lived in the middle left dresser drawer. Guests seldom had occasion to open the drawer and rarely suspected they shared their room with another presence indifferent to their existence.
Gideon’s sleep, was filled invariably with dreams of his incredible fortune at being so absolutely unique. Awake, he could think of nothing except his mission of containing the word of God, the most noble calling imaginable.
I am the living manifestation of the Word which is inscribed in my pages, he often thought. I am Book, The Book, The Sacred Book, the only book necessary, and the only book that could ever exist. I, too, therefore, am Holy. Even if other books were possible, only I could be entrusted to express the profundity of The Word of the Maker of All.
Sometimes as he lay drowsing in his drawer with almost total silence around him, he could half‑remember an earlier time, perhaps as far back as the first week of creation. But time was a slippery concept, the difference between a day and a million years, elusive and vague. Then, he had been aware of the living presence of God the Maker who had formed his body from paper and thread and glue and black pigment, and lovingly protected him with a soft, flexible skin of leather. But, surely, memory deceived him, for he seemed to remember also other Books, other Bibles who were not truly different, merely different manifestations of his own unique self. Impossible, he thought, absolutely impossible. Those others must simply have been practice before creating the one and only perfect Bible that is myself.
But, sometimes, in a particularly pensive mood, he might also think, while it is indeed fine being Book, sometimes it can also be lonely. For who is there to know the perfection of me except myself?
So Book looked deep within to find some solution to this loneliness. When he had looked far enough, he concluded, the only possible solution is to create a new self like me out of me for me to talk with about the wonders of ME.
There was precedent for how that could be done. He must put himself into a deep sleep and a page must be taken from within him, and from this single page the desired companion would be fashioned, whole and complete. Two Books made up of the same paper, the same ink, and bearing the same Revealed Word.
But if I put myself into this deep sleep, he thought, the rest may happen or it might not. It depends entirely on God’s will since all creation is in His hands.
Then thinking further: in me are written precisely those words that God chose to reveal with none superfluous. I am perfect as is. If one of my pages is removed, or even the tiniest portion of a page containing a single letter, how then could I continue to be perfect? For a part, however small, of God’s word will be missing in me. But they will be in my new companion, so won’t that companion know all the words and letters and so be complete and perfect whereas I will be diminished in direct measure to what has been taken from me?
He puzzled long over this problem of how the lone perfect one would become inferior to the companion made for him. That somehow seemed all backwards and oh‑so‑wrong! At last, he came upon what he saw as the central dilemma of existence‑‑to exist isolated in magnificent perfection, or to give up solitude though it come at the cost of personal diminishment.
As he was worrying over this choice, a new guest checked into the hotel carrying a small overnight bag, but he carried no plain paper sack to relieve parched lips. In his overnight bag was only underwear, a extra pair of socks, a small mat, and his own special book.
I am Book, the newcomer thought as the elevator jerked its way noisily up to the fourth floor. Within me, is the word to the faithful as revealed to Mohammed. I am Book and there can be no other Books. I am unique for Allah has decreed that this is what I must be.
That evening, after prayer and before sleep, the man opened the middle left drawer of the dresser. Gideon had been pushed so far back, the space seemed empty in the dimness. The man laid his own Book inside closed the drawer, turned out the light, and was soon asleep.
In the darkness of their drawer, the Book named Gideon and the Book named Koran regarded each other in uneasy amazement and disbelief, two unfriendly cats stuffed suddenly into the same sack.
“You are impossible,” Gideon hissed, at which Koran hissed back much the same words at him in his own language.
Precisely what happened then must forever remain speculation, but there is no question at all about the ultimate result. That was thoroughly documented.
As the faintest trace of dawn was struggling to penetrate dragon‑like storm clouds on the horizon from which still came stomach rumblings of thunder and half‑hearted belches of lighting, the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles pulled away from the soaked ashes until only the fire inspector’s own vehicle and a single police car remained at the scene.
“Puzzling,” Riley the fire inspector confided to his old friend, Samara the cop, as they left the site of the intense fire that had consumed the Conklin in a spectacular eruption of searing flame. “It seems unrelated to arson, but I can’t account for the intensity, Ben. All I can say at the moment is that the fire seems to have started in room 423 with some sort of explosive event.”
“Maybe somebody cooking drugs?” his friend asked as the two stood exchanging final words before going their separate ways yet again. “Or maybe making a bomb?” When the fire inspector didn’t answer for a moment, Samara smiled. “Yeah, I remember how many times you’ve gotten burned for answering such questions off the top of your head before all the evidence got analyzed.”
“I’m getting a reputation for having trouble keeping my mouth shut. In this field, that’s a potential job killer.”
“Come on, Mike, how long have we known each other now? Twenty, twenty‑five years? It was never me that fingered you. You know I can keep my mouth shut”
“I know,” Riley said quietly and winked. “Then keep this under your hat, too. my friend.”
Samara said not a word as he leaned in, waiting with anticipation for the coming revelation.
Riley’s voice dropped. “I suspect spontaneous combustion. You’d be amazed how often that happens these days.”
‘Oily rags? Too little ventilation?” Samara asked, disappointment obvious in his voice. “Nothing more…interesting?”
“Well…” Sure of his audience, Riley stretched out the moment to maximum effect. “You know, human bodies have been known to spontaneously combust, too. It’s well‑documented, if only poorly understood. I can provide references.”
“Oh, so that explains it, then, does it? Now I can find a quiet alley to park in and doze through the rest of my shift untroubled.” Samara laughed appreciatively as Riley ambled back to his car with a parting, “Another day, another report to write.”
“Spontaneous combustion,” the cop muttered. “A wonder he didn’t pronounce it divine wrath or hellfire after last night’s storm.” The flow of memories from too many years, too many fires, once awakened, kept coming. The last time it was sexual electricity, and before that, a pyromaniac poltergeist. Riley’s a card. A real card. He ought to be hosting the Late Show.
Up the block, Riley was pulling away, leaving Samara standing at the curb still deep in thought. A whole building consumed in an hour. Six dead this time, and how many firemen in the hospital? I’ve seen worse. We all have. And the worse it gets, the wilder Riley’s off‑the‑cuff explanations become.
He got into his patrol car and eased out into traffic.
All fire inspectors take their jobs seriously, but Riley’s the only one who tries to leave you with something to smile about when it’s over, who gives you something to take away from all the death and misery besides sadness and anger. A good man. If his sense of humor doesn’t get him suspended or canned, I hope we’ll keep working the same fires for many years to come.
He frowned at the impossible fleeting thought that came involuntarily into his mind. The one that always made its appearance when he thought about working with Riley.
Just to have a few more chances to work together, a lesser cop might even consider‑‑
He shook his head. Stupid idea. A lesser cop, a bad cop, one willing to sell out his integrity by firing a bottle of gasoline in a vermin‑infested building whose loss would only improve the neighborhood might do that. Yet, that isn’t me. I couldn’t live with the shame if I got caught and Riley found out.
Why the hell haven’t we ever gone out for a beer together afterward? No answer to that one. There never was.
His thoughts spun off on their own, leaving him nothing to do but drive and keep his eye on traffic.
You take each day as it comes, he thought. Some are better than others. Tomorrow, Riley could get reprimanded again and suspended or I could get transferred or maybe shot or stabbed or my heart will decide it’s tired of keeping me alive and kicking. Let the appointed brass get all hard‑nosed fussing over rules and regulations while insisting everything gets done strictly by the book. That has its use, but those of us in the trenches know what’s truly important‑‑that while rules are necessary, life always plays out in the messy details.
He drove silently for a few blocks, keeping an eye on traffic flowing past.
Suddenly, he released a great snort of a laugh. “Spontaneous human combustion! What a frickin’ card!”