1989

I

J.M. Diener

The late summer sun settled along the dingy horizon as Richard Eldrich stepped out of the large white building of the Ministry of Truth. He hardly took any notice of the muggy air or the grungy streets of Washington D.C., his mind far off in the preparations to one of his famous speeches extolling the virtues of this great society and it’s leader, Big Brother. Loyalty to the regime and death to the enemy were always his subjects, along with the ideas of doublethink and his great admiration for Newspeak. Yes, all of his speeches had a substantial part of this language in them. And yet behind the facade of the iron party orator was an intelligence that surpassed that of many of his peers. Maybe that was why he had been narrowly passed over for that promotion.... Rich quickly suppressed the thought. Crimestop automatically stopped him from thinking any heretical thoughts against the Party. The Party knows best, he said to himself, subconsciously tugging at the breast pocket of his blue overalls. He had to hurry home and then head to the Community Center for the discussion that night. But before that he needed to pick up some shoe laces. Anita would never let him go out looking indecent when he was going to speak. Rich sighed to himself and turned off the street once called Pennsylvania Avenue and into prole territory.

Going into this territory was not forbidden, but it was not recommendable either. Even so, when you need shoelaces and the Party stores don’t have any, where else can you go? Rich steeled himself as he entered the first small dingy general store he came to. Let’s get this over with, he thought to himself. Like many of the other Party people, he didn’t like mingling with the proles, but sometimes it was inevitable.

The store was no more than 9 feet by 12 feet in size, but it was cluttered and crammed with a great assortment of things, anything from paper clips to old appliances and from buttons to books. Rich stared around the store for a moment, surprised at all of the things in it.

“May I help you?” came a voice with a distinct southern drawl. Rich looked over to see an elderly woman standing behind the small counter.

“I, ah, need some shoelaces,” Rich said.

“Brown or black?” the woman retorted. Rich looked at his shoes for a moment.

“Black, I guess,” he said. The woman nodded and bent beneath the counter, bringing up a shoe box filled with laces. “Take yer pick,” she drawled, “any pair is 25 cents.” Rich nodded and slowly looked through the box. After a few moments he had selected two, not that it mattered since all of the laces were exactly the same. He took his time because he was watching the saleswoman. She was dressed in poor colorful garb, like many proles, and yet it was very neat. Her gray hair was also neatly pinned back and there was an air of friendliness around her. She glanced in his direction and he looked down at the table quickly, not wanting to look into her fiery green eyes. He looked down the counter. A small book was lying just next to his right hand. The cover was a forest green and it had golden letters printed on the cover. He turned it towards himself carefully. The title said: Gideon New Testament Psalms Proverbs. He was suddenly intrigued by the title and for a moment he forgot all about crimestop, doublethink, and everything else he had been indoctrinated with. He picked up the volume and opened the ancient pages. His eyes fell on the table of contents. There were 29 entries listed there. The first four were names he knew. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He knew people by that name, might they have written this book?

“Have you decided what you want?” The voice of the elderly woman made him jump.

“Uh, yes, I’d like this pair and the book,” he said shoving the two items toward the little woman. She looked at his selection for a moment.

“The book isn’t for sale,” she said. “But you can have it for free,” she continued before Rich could protest. “That’ll be 25 cents,” she said and Rich put a quarter on the counter. “Have a nice day now,” she said and disappeared into a small door between two of the shelves. Rich looked after her for a moment and then left quickly, slipping the book into a pocket of his overalls. He had been here far too long.

• • •

Rich sat quietly in his kitchen, his back discreetly to the humming telescreen. In the two weeks since his purchase of the little booklet he hadn’t been able to put it down. Of course it wouldn’t do to read it openly, one could never know when the Thought Police would plug into his telescreen and watch him. You had to be careful and above all else, trust no one. And yet some of the things he read he couldn’t help but share with Anita. She stood next to the ancient gas stove and tried to put together a half-way decent meal out of the daily ration. Rich had often wondered why he married her. There was no love involved. There could be no love involved, otherwise the marriage would have been forbidden. Why then? Maybe because as loyal Party members both had realized that perpetuating the race was very important. He regarded her for a moment. In another time she would have been called beautiful, with shoulder length dark-blond hair, and a well-formed body. Her face was always very expressive and even when angry she looked very nice. But something about her demeanor destroyed all of the physical beauty. It must have been the ideology of the Party that tinted her every movement and thought.

Hold on a minute, Rich suddenly thought, running a hand through his own light-brown hair. Why am I suddenly thinking like this? Maybe it was this book. He looked at the place he had left off, suddenly wondering why this book hadn’t been destroyed. At every turn it mentioned “God.” Of course there was no God, the only reality was the Party. That was what he had been propagating from the day he had joined the Spies. His then innocent mind had been filled with Party doctrine until he thought it would burst. And now at 25 he was one of the best orators the Party had ever seen. Now look at him: he was sitting here and reading a book about “God.” He looked over the page he had finished. It was the end of the third chapter in the book, called Luke. Rich carefully turned the ancient page and looked at the first words on the page: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:1-2)

Hogwash, was Rich’s first comment. But then slowly something began to dawn on him: If this is talking about that man mentioned in the other chapters, Jesus, then maybe it is accurate. Didn’t he always talk about God being his father?

Rich read on: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:3-5) Something about this line intrigued him. He had a lot of questions and he needed answers. He stood and walked towards the door.

“Where are you going?” came a voice behind him. He turned and saw Anita looking at him. Her gray eyes shimmered in the half-light.

“For a walk,” was all he answered as he left the apartment.

• • •

His walk was aimless and before long he found himself walking along a small side street in the center of prole territory, his right hand loosely holding the green booklet. He had been reading as he walked and he had found more interesting things: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet all who received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:10-14)

What does that mean? Rich wondered. If this “Word” really was God and he came to live among men, that would be something else. Big Brother doesn’t mingle with the Party members. But if God did, then that would be really amazing. But what about the rest? Can’t someone explain it to me?

“Excuse me, sir?” Rich turned to see a man dressed in prole garb walking up behind him. Instantly a warning light clicked on in his head, but there was something about the eyes, they weren’t the eyes of a prole, and not the eyes of a Party member, empty and hopeless. No, this man’s eyes were filled with a fiery light and warmth.

“Sir,” the man continued, “you said you wanted help?”

Did I speak out loud? Rich suddenly wondered. “Well, I have some questions.”

“We all do, sir,” the man answered. “Maybe I can help you with some.”

“Well, it’s about this book,” Rich said holding up the booklet. The man’s flaming eyes filled with surprise.

“Where did you get that?” he asked in a half-whisper. Then he looked over his shoulder. “Come with me,” he said quickly and pulled Rich into the shadow of a doorway. “It has been years since I  saw one of these,” the man said earnestly. “Do you know what this is?”

“It’s a very interesting narrative, especially...”

“Sir, that is the Word of God!”

“This is the Word that came to earth?” Rich asked incredulously.

“John 1:1,” the man said cracking a broad smile. “That is talking about Jesus Christ, God’s son. He is a real part of history, not just a figment of a man’s imagination, like many of the comrades written about in the Post or any other paper for that matter. And God is real, too, not like Big Brother.” Rich was shocked. What this man had said was bordering on blasphemy.

“Now, sir,” the man said. “You have some questions?”

“Yes, this here,” Rich said pointing to the section about “his” being in the world.

“Ah, yes,” the man said, nodding. “This is one of the harder parts to understand. ‘He’ is Jesus. And here is the reason he came: to give ‘light to every man.’“

“What is that?” Rich asked.

“How much have you read?”

“The first three chapters of this book.”

“Good, then you know what Jesus did.”

Rich nodded. “He came and died on a — a cross.”

“Right,” the man said nodding. “But he didn’t stay dead. He rose again from the dead and he is still alive now!”

“Wait a minute,” Rich said, shaking his head. “You say that this, uh, Jesus isn’t dead?”

“Yes,” the man answered, his fiery eyes earnest. “But he went back to heaven to be with his Father. Here,” he said, “let me show you.” Rich gave him the book and the man quickly turned the pages and read: “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:10-11)

“See,” the man continued. “It says right here that he went to heaven and will return.” Rich was intrigued, but still had some questions, especially about his death.

“Why did this man die, even though he didn’t do anything wrong?” Again his companion flipped the pages and read: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 2:22b-23)

“What does ‘sinned’ mean?” Rich asked.

“‘Sin’ means missing the mark, it means that you did what God has said is wrong and done bad things.”

Rich laughed. “Well, I guess this doesn’t really count for me. I’m a good person.” But inside he knew that these were hollow words, bolstering an ego that was slowly being broken by divine tools.

“Oh no, my friend,” the man said, “didn’t you hear what it said? ‘All have sinned.’ That means that you have sinned and I have sinned and every person in this dying world has sinned.” He paused for a moment letting his words sink into Rich. Slowly the emptiness inside Rich began to become a pain.

“What happens to those that don’t follow Jesus?” he asked his companion. The man looked dead serious as he answered, “They will be separated from God forever and thrown into the lake of fire.”

• • •

In the silence of his bedroom Rich mulled over what he had heard today. His friend had given him more information, and even offered him a chance to accept the forgiveness of Christ, but Rich found it too much to accept at one time.

“I just don’t think I can do it now,” he told the man.

“I will pray for you,” were the other’s words as they parted. “I will be here if you wish to talk more.” Then he had vanished into the crowd. But now as Rich mulled it over he cursed himself for not accepting the gracious offer of his companion. Come on, Eldrich, said a small voice inside him. This is just a bunch of hogwash made up to send you to the Ministry of Love. Then why do I feel so empty? he asked himself. Why can’t I get any peace at my present job? He rose and dressed, stepping out into the night air off of his balcony for a few moments.

“God,” he whispered. “Help me.”

The following day he headed back into the prole section of town, his mind made up. He was surprised to find his companion already waiting for him by the doorway.

“I knew you would come sooner or later,” the man told him.

“Have you been praying for me?” Rich asked, afraid that the answer might have been a “no.”

“Yes, I have,” was the answer.

“Then, my friend,” Rich said, “please tell me again: what must I do to be saved?”

“Believe in Jesus Christ and give your heart to him and you will be changed.”

“Oh, I will,” Rich cried.

“Then kneel and pray with me,” the man said and they knelt. “Repeat what I say, Rich,” he said with an authoritative voice. And he prayed a simple prayer. Rich repeated it:

“Oh, Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner and I know I need you. Cleanse my heart and come live in me. Thank you that you do. Amen.” As he opened his eyes, Rich suddenly felt as if something had been broken away from him. He felt free, as if he wanted to dance and sing. He stood and suddenly his new-found friend embraced him.

“Welcome to the family,” he said to Rich. Tears of joy were pouring down Rich’s cheek as he stepped back.

“Thank you, my friend,” he said to the man. “You have helped me greatly.”

“Then let me help you again,” the man said, pulling a thick brown book from his jacket. “I want to exchange your New Testament for this.”

“What is it?” Rich asked taking the book.

“It is the whole Bible. It has the things you have already read in it and more. Take care, for persecution will come, Rich. It will.”

“Thank you again, my friend,” Rich said. “And will I see you again?”

“Oh, most definitely, though maybe not in this life,” his friend said turning to leave. “See you.”

“Bye,” Rich said, watching the man go.