Over the flatiron building, the fog drifts not like Sandburg’s cat on soft feet but like the downy white hair or beard of God in popular cartoons of long ago, although He is still depicted as such an image from time to time—even in this time of recycled outrage wherein recent thinking has mostly freed us, like cotton in the wind, from anything of the past, these feelings turning us into idols, far from the alchemist’s ancient dream of making gold from Earth’s common things, such as the seeds of who we are inside, not what we are to be, billowing at the tips in full bloom like a tree carried from one place to another and replanted often in different weather from where it originated and thrived under certain conditions, this new rhetoric bypassing the old idea of the inevitable return to dust, life pulverizing and equalizing us all in the end—which reminds me of a joke my friend told, the punch line grown from centuries of tragedy and comedy and is more of a lesson hiding like a warm-feathered bird in cold-crusted bushes, which Ethan, my friend, told me is the root of Jewish humor, the joke’s opening starting off that once there was a young man who had his bar mitzvah, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” my friend paused to chortle with Happy Hour drink in hand, and Ethan, his yarmulke crowning his head, turned to the crowd, and I don’t remember if the young man in the story is named the same as my friend, but he is here because Ethan is a good name from the Old Testament and the original covenant between God and Man, this bond justifying ways not always seen through a selfish cloud, so go pieces of this phrase from a book written by a blind Protestant poet whom no one reads anymore for various reasons, such as his daughter improving his manuscripts when he could no longer see, and Ethan in the joke sighs, but it’s not a smug sigh, as though he has something to prove to everyone who has nurtured him that day with gifts, love, and support, but his sigh says Something is weighing on my shoulders and in my heart, and I need to say itI need to be me, which is an expression that he would confess today, were he seeing this part in himself, but those older Ethans, both of them, the one in the joke, the one telling the joke, said this to me when I had a four-walled job and everything appeared guaranteed, and Ethan looks at his family and friends, especially the cute girl he has a crush on, whose floral dress and angelic smile throw him off for a second, and says, “Thank you, but…” and then staring down the rabbi, says, “I don’t believe in God,” his voice squeaking because he has hit puberty, but he recovers by emphasizing the monosyllable of the Unspeakable Holy Name, the microphone echoing his pronouncement and dragging it across the auditorium, like thorns on roses, to which his grandmothers, both of them, gasp as they should, as would my Christian grandmothers were I to say such a thing, which I once did, many years ago but to my father who folded the newspaper, nodded, and told me to clean up for dinner because my mother had worked hard in the kitchen preparing the meal, something she loved and wanted to do for my sisters and me, and for me to show up without respect and thanks, even a lack of moral respect and thanks, was inconsiderate and self-absorbed, even if I had started weeding out religion from my life at seventeen after reading about so much to deconstruct in the world around me, and Ethan is confident but not cocky, sweat forming on his pale skin underneath his black curls, and his father blusters, “We’re having a talk after this,” and his mother, more confused than concerned, says, “Ethan, what exactly are you saying?” and Ethan looks at Rabbi Davidovich, which, at the time my friend told me this, I didn’t realize the surname referred to the son of David, the son of a Biblical character whom the Lord chose to be more than what he started out as, little shepherd boy with a gift for music who defeated Goliath, a metaphor still used today for all the giants standing in the way to be killed, and by this act the rustic boy became king, this king sinned, the sinner repented, and the Rabbi responds to Ethan, who has been waiting for a response from the middle-aged man from under whom Ethan has figuratively pulled the rug, this tall and stout teacher dressed in black and wearing a scarf, which I know is symbolic and has a Hebraic name, but I, for the life of me, can’t recall but can see the pattern and colors in my head as clear as a path winding through a forest backlit by the sun, and Rabbi Davidovich smiles, but it’s not a friendly smile, nor is it a smile to put the newly minted teenager in his place, but it is a smile that cushions what has just been delivered, this revelation that cuts into the main trunk of belief, a no-teeth-lips-pressed smile that acknowledges a personal and local but not universal truth, and Rabbi says, “Do you think God cares?” and I remember chuckling with my friend Ethan and clinking our beer bottles, complaining about the Cardinals’ bullpen, and talking about which of our office colleagues were not three-dimensional outside of their cubicles, and how he was going to temple for Passover and I was considering Mass again, both of us admitting that our decisions were based on the emotions of holidays and blood relatives from whom we cannot run, did not chose, and must, at times, love the person but not approve the action, those few days with family when disagreements are set aside for a little while, like rabbits calling a truce from ransacking the vegetable garden, from what they naturally cannot help but do, and all this talk of ours unfurled in the middle of the country where, Ethan said, the Tribe wandered to, laughing as he did, and though it never parted down the middle for them, crossed the Mighty Mississippi like our common hero Twain who had spent time in California during the Gold Rush, commenting that a mine is nothing more than a hole dug by a gambler for the naïve to pay for, and who said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer in San Francisco,” but I don’t know if he ever mentioned the fog, which probably was merely called fog back then but now has been classified by scientific observation and eagle-eyed inquiry as layers of vaporous phenomenon between air, land, and water, which doesn’t diminish the dream-like effect of walking into it in late afternoon or, before it descends, under it, like a shadow surrendering whatever it has disguised, what anyone below or within can feel at certain times when basic elements reemerge from where they had been taken and held for so long in the sky, in plain sight.




William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (2016, Black Rose Writing), a 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist for contemporary fiction. Recent work has appeared in BULL, Crab Orchard Review, Gravel, Permafrost, and Slush Pile Magazine.