The brothers entered the bar at 9:30 pm. There was a good crowd. Tom scanned the bar, looking for a familiar face. He couldn’t find one. How long has it been? Eight years since college . . . twelve years since high school. I guess I wouldn’t know anybody after twelve years. The brothers grabbed a seat next to each other. They hadn’t talked much during dinner, each lost in his own thoughts.
Bill, the bar’s proprietor, was one person that both recognized. As soon as he saw the brothers he came right over.
“How’s the old man doing?” Bill asked.
“No good,” John said. “They may have to do a bypass.”
“Damn.” Bill looked at one brother and then the other. “He’ll pull through.” He spoke with confidence. “Your dad is a tough old coot.”
Tom chuckled. “He is that.”
John turned to Tom. “I feel like doing some serious drinking.”
“How do you suggest we start?”
“Let’s start with a boilermaker.”
Just like the frat days, Tom thought. “A boilermaker would hit the spot about now.”
Bill loaded the brothers up. Tom held the shot glass over his beer while John did the same. “It’s been a while, bro.”
John smiled. “Too long.”
As if on cue the twins dropped their shot glasses into the beer, waited three seconds while the foam rose, and then began chugging the potent mixture as fast as they could. Their empty beer mugs hit the bar at the same time.
“Oooohhhhhheeeeee! Did that go down goooood,” John said as he wiped his chin.
“Hhhheeewwww! It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” John agreed.
“Bill,” John called. “Two more.”
Tom laughed and then stopped. He thought of his father. When the second drinks were brought the brothers sipped them. Tom was already feeling the effects.
“I couldn’t help hearing when you were talking to Dad.” John took a deep swallow of his beer. “Um . . . you actually shot someone?”
Tom nodded. “Two. I shot two gang members who were in the process of raping a lady.”
“Damn,” John exclaimed. “I never knew you were in that kind of danger.”
“It wasn’t meant to be part of the package, it just was.” Tom clasped his beer with both hands and pulled it toward his chest until it was directly under his face. He stared into the dark brown liquid. “If it wasn’t for Ruth I never would have gotten through that. That’s the second time she was there for me.”
“You done good, Bro,” John commented.
Tom turned to John. “You really hung in there too, huh?”
“Didn’t want to go for the money?”
“The hell with the money. I want to win!”
“You’re in a job where you can win. You’re a lot more self-sufficient than me, I guess.”
“No, not so much,” John replied. “Whereas you had Ruth to lean on, I had Michele. She got me through that mess with the suicide. Christ, I didn’t know which end was up. Michele rescued me, and then damn near broke my heart.”
“That’s the funny thing about women,” Tom commented. “If you don’t respond exactly right, they will punish the shit out of you.”
“You got that right.”
The brothers’ attention was drawn to a boisterous group at the far end of the bar. They were toasting something over and over again. When Bill gave them a refill John asked him what the occasion was.
“Columbus Day,” Bill answered. “Five hundred years since Columbus discovered America.”
“I forgot all about that,” John commented. “I’ll drink to that.”
“Me too.” The brothers clinked their mugs and drank to Columbus.
“Five hundred years,” John commented. “Five centuries in the New World.”
“After five centuries the world’s not so new,” Tom replied after drinking. “You could say it’s in ashes.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I would,” Tom asserted. “Nearly every establishment or institution or belief that got Columbus across the Atlantic is in ashes.”
“Humph.” John didn’t approve of that type of pessimism. “Maybe, little brother. Maybe so, but the new values are better.”
“Let’s hope so.”
John swigged his beer again. “Do you really think it’s in ashes? What about your great philosopher Plato?”
Tom laughed. “I thought you’d forgotten all about him.”
“Au contraire. The more I work, the more I’m asking myself why.”
“Plato helps you to ask why. But to answer your question, everything that Plato proposed has pretty much been rejected.”
“What do you mean?”
“Plato, and Aristotle for that matter, proposed that something was in and of itself. In other words, there were objective values.”
“What do you mean by objective?”
“Values that are true for all time.”
“Sure. According to Allan Bloom, and he’s right, we’ve embraced a subjective morality.”
“That’s fucked up. You mean that if I feel it’s good for me to steal then that’s okay?”
“There are as many codes of morality as there are people. Everyone is free. Existentialism.”
“Existentialism, huh? Tom, I don’t know a damn thing about existentialism.”
“It started with Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, was brought to its zenith with Nietzsche, and pretty much has wound up with Sartre, although Camus is sometimes thrown in for good measure. Perfervid individualism!” Tom drank. “The universe is absurd. Mankind has absolute freedom.”
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It goes like this, from Plato to existentialism man was value-seeking. We felt there were absolutes: God, science, nature. There were values that guided the absolutes, and all we had to do was find them. A moral code was simply a refinement of those values. Our freedom of action was judged in relation to that code. Existentialism states that man is value-creating. Nietzsche: God, the source of all values, is dead. There are no absolutes. Value is that which make it to be.”
“I think I need another beer,” John commented.
“Me too.” Tom ordered another round and then continued. “I read some Nietzsche. I was doing fine, you know, reading and reading . . . going yeah, yeah right to all those crazy ideas. Then one night I actually believed that man was value-creating.” Tom took a deep swallow. “That was a rush of terror like I have never felt before. Do you know what it’s like to believe that there are no values save for that which we create? Nietzsche’s abyss. I plunged into it headfirst.”
John was entranced. “So what happened?”
“When I was falling and falling I was desperate to find a value . . . anything that I could hold up as indisputable. Everything went rushing by: laws, schools, philosophies, memories . . . it was all relative. I fell, all the while in stark terror, but eventually I did find a value and managed to get out of the abyss.” Tom stopped talking and stared off into the distance.
“What? What was the value?”
“It’ll sound corny.”
“Goddamnit! Tell me.”
Tom turned to John. “Just plain, pure love for another human being. Love was the value.”
“Damn, that’s good.” John smiled. “That’s good.” He sighed heavily. “What about the feminists?”
“Yeah, that’s all Michele’s been filling my ear with this election year. How do they fit into your philosophical scheme? Objective or subjective?”
“Feminism is existentialism in a wig.”
“Ho! I’m going to have to tell Michele that!” John laughed.
“It is. Trust me, I slept with one for four years. It is no coincidence that one of the founding mothers of feminism, Simone De Beauvoir, was Jean Paul Sartre’s live-in lover. Simone wrote the Second Sex. Mr. Existentialist and Ms. Feminist . . . doesn’t it make sense? Subjectivism of a gender.” Tom took another swig.
John was still chuckling. “Well, I am sleeping with one and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like good topics to throw at Michele where we can go round and round.” He laughed again. “This one ought to be good for a week’s worth of argument.”
Tom was pleased. “Damn, John, it’s good to talk to you like this.”
“It is, little brother, it is.”
“Before I heard you open up to Dad I was . . . angry . . . really pissed off at you.”
John nodded. “I caught your look, and it set my anger raging.”
“Are we just talking to each other now because we’re drunk?”
“Maybe,” John answered. “You and I are opposites. Marx and Ford.”
“Marx and Ford.” Tom ordered another round. His head was spinning. He turned to John. “I am not a socialist. I believe that we should help one another. I believe that we are too wrapped up in our personal interests for the health of the society.”
“Same thing,” John commented. “I believe that the election talk on the polarization between rich and poor is just that: talk. What’s worse is that it is right out of the writings of your namesake Karl Marx.”
“So you’re the objectivist and I’m the subjectivist?”
“Sure.” John was feeling loose in the tongue. “You’re the subject and I’m the object.”
“You’re an object, all right.”
“Subject, object, subject, object.”
“We’ve covered that.”
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
“Zen and what?”
“It’s this book I read. I meant to tell you about it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I must have read this book four times over the last few years.”
“What’s it about?”
“Quality. In it Pirsig claims that the ancient Greeks fought among themselves as to which would be supreme: the subject or the object. Plato and objectivity won, and when they did science was born.”
“Yes. You think there are no objective values? Let me tell you about my first job in semiconductors. We hooked our pumps to the reactors that servo to less than one Torr of pressure. We pumped in gases that could kill a man in seconds and cranked over five hundred watts of power into that reactor to create a plasma. And I looked at that plasma. Do you know what separated my eyeball from that high-energy chemical environment?”
“About a quarter inch of quartz.” John indicated the thickness with his thumb and index finger. “A quarter inch of quartz separated my eyeball from that. Let me tell you something, you damn well better have some objective values if you’re going to screw around like that. Science proves objective values.”
Tom had trouble with this idea. “I thought that once you carry scientific thinking so far that all you are left with was probabilities.”
“Quantum physics has bent a lot of minds, but when you cram a million transistors on a piece of silicon the size of your thumbnail you need something other than probabilities. Look at the ubiquitous car. Using chemistry, thermodynamics, dynamics, physics, electronics, and probably a few other sciences, man creates controlled explosions on demand to serve as transportation. That’s not probability.”
“You obviously have never driven a Vega.”
John laughed. “Look at the cars on the street. Every one of them runs on pure objective values. How did Rand say it? A moral code cast in steel.”
“Rand. Ayn Rand. I never told you about her?”
“She’s only the greatest mind on the planet this century. She wrote Atlas Shrugged.”
“I’ve heard about that book but I never read it.”
“So what’s this have to do with the subject and object?”
“Okay. Pirsig said that by destroying sophism Socrates and Plato laid the foundations for the Western world as we know it, but by doing so lost something of equal magnitude.”
“John, I think you’ve had too many beers.”
“That’s a fact, but I know what I’m talking about. Pirsig claimed that the subject and object were not opposites but pieces of the same reality.”
“The subject and object can be united in a transcendent entity called quality.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Listen, if you take all the pieces of a car apart and lay them on the road, do you have a car?”
“No, you have a pile of junk.”
“Bingo. Nothing has changed objectively with each of the parts, but until you assemble them with the expressed idea of making a car, all you have is a pile of junk. Until you pour a little bit of yourself into it, a little bit of subject into it, it remains a pile of junk. The creation of every machine took the unification of the objective values with the subjective will. It’s not solely objective . . . that’s where most colleges screw up the teaching of science . . . and it’s not solely subjective . . . that’s where the colleges screw up the teaching of liberal studies. You can will a hunk of silicon to become a DRAM until you’re blue in the face, but until you apply some objective control to it, it will remain a hunk of silicon.”
“John, you ought to drink more often. You are beginning to make sense.”
“I’m on a roll. So what all that means is that the seemingly opposite poles are actually united!” John finished. He was pleased with himself.
Tom was thrown by his brother’s reasoning. “Let’s see. What we’re talking about here is opposites or contradictions. Unite the opposing forces.” Tom nodded in agreement. “Yes.”
“It’s Zen-like, don’t you think?”
Tom laughed. “Zen Buddhism is a rejection of desires. A rejection of all passion.”
“The hell with that idea.” John recited a credo to which they both ascribed. “Passion enables the greatness of humanity. Let’s just use the ideas that make sense: the uniting of opposites, yin and yang. Kind of like me and Michele.”
“From how you describe her, I really doubt you are opposites.”
“God, I miss her,” John lamented out of the blue.
“Contradictions.” Tom was thinking of the previous line of thought. “You can have an object or a subject, but you only have a half of the whole. When you unite them, you have more.”
“Gestalt. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
“Which means,” Tom continued, “that the strength lies in the contradictions. Does that make sense?”
John was fading but the invigorating conversation kept him awake. “Let’s try it on us.”
“Yeah. Socialism and capitalism are opposites, right?”
“Now what happens if you keep them separate?”
“My housing area, it is not self-sustaining. If I step away it will implode into itself.”
“Okay, there you go,” John exclaimed. “My little company, it is too self-sustaining. It’s liable to explode into a million pieces if I don’t figure out a way to control the growth.”
“Yes. When kept separate they cause friction like between you and I.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you mix rather than resolve contradictions, you make the situation much worse.”
“Capitalism: there are only a few capitalists who get rich.”
“Socialism: there are only a few socialists who rule.”
“In a big way. Look at this upcoming election. But!” John was reaching the triumphant conclusion. “What we just suggested was that there was a transcendent unifying force.”
Bill, the barkeep, had approached the twins to see if they wanted a refill. Upon hearing a portion of their conversation, he quickly retreated to the other side of the bar.
“This force unites socialism and capitalism.”
“And is stronger than either.”
“So,” Tom said, “from the ashes that were the old values . . . a new code?”
“A new code.”
“Existentialism says that you cannot escape responsibility for your actions. You have total freedom. You can’t blame your genes, your parents, or anything for what you are. Your choices make you what you are.”
“All power comes from within.”
“Objective means that your actions are held to a higher standard that is outside yourself. Power may come from within, but power is still power and must be recognized as such.”
“Subjective means that what you seek to achieve is your choice and your choice alone.”
“Objective means that whether your choice is mediocre or a reach for greatness, transcending what we are is a matter outside ourselves.”
“Damn,” Tom exclaimed. “I haven’t heard a contradiction yet!”
“If it’s that easy, why is everyone at each other’s throat this election year?”
“They’re not resolving the contradictions. They’re only polarizing the country into camps.”
“That’s damn sure true in Clinton’s case.”
“Leave Clinton out of this.”
“Sorry, but I view my pursuit of happiness as the freedom to spend my money however I choose without having to look over my shoulder from year to year as to how much more of my efforts will be stolen by the point of a gun.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“This is what Rand taught me: money represents the best efforts of man. Money is not a stagnant quantity for governments to play with to buy votes. It is the sum total of achievement, excellence, and efforts. When I give a man a dollar I am trading a dollar’s worth of my best efforts for a dollar’s worth of his. Anything that detracts from the value of money is evil.”
“You said Ayn Rand, huh?”
“You got it.”
“What did she say about uniting subject and object?”
“She didn’t. Her philosophy was called objectivism. It was a backlash against all the soft subjectivism of the fifties and sixties. She subordinated everything to reason.”
“Like Nietzsche,” Tom commented. “Only he subordinated everything to will.” Tom turned and looked at John wide-eyed. “They were both exactly half right.”
“There is something that unites reason and will. What do we call it?”
“You need the passion of will and the objectivity of reason to achieve anything.” Tom pondered this point. “What the hell is that?”
“It’s the force that turns the universe.”
“What do we call it?”
“No, it’s much more powerful than that,” Tom commented.
John looked at Tom. “Yes. The élan vital.”
“Very good. The life force, a higher consciousness . . .” Tom remembered a saying that he had heard in old black and white newsreels. “The code for individuals to follow: full use of one’s abilities along the lines of excellence.”
“Yeah,” Tom nodded. He was fading fast. If I could only concentrate. He tried to focus, but it was no use. He’d simply drunk too much. His head was swimming.
“I’m smoked.” John was fading as well. “What do you say we call it a night?”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
The next day boded bad news for the twins. Their father was definitely going to need a bypass. Alan was depressed at this news, and the brothers did their best to cheer him up. The doctors had decreed that a good deal of rest was required to enable Alan to build up his strength. As Alan needed a lot of sleep to do this, the brothers had time to visit their old haunts. One of the first places they went was to their old high school.
“Look,” Tom exclaimed as John pulled near. “The football field.”
John pulled up beside the field and stopped the car. The twins left the car to walk on the field for the first time in twelve years. The grass was wet and muddy from the practices and games. As if guided by an unseen force the brothers walked to the portion of the field where “the Block” had taken place. They stopped and soaked in the aura. Old places and smells combined to enhance the nostalgia.
Throw me the ball on the flat and I’ll take it in.
Shut up, John.
I promise. I’ll catch it.
THROW ME THE GODDAMN BALL!
Cut right, John. PLEASE, cut right and I’ll let him have it.
The clacking sound of the contact of helmets. The mighty bellow. A splash in the mud.
TOM ! WOW! . . . You knocked that son of a bitch silly!
The smell of grass and sweat.
The sound of the crowd.
“Good old number seventy-four,” John said reading Tom’s thoughts.
“Good old number seventy-four.” Tom felt goose bumps remembering. He looked at John. “God, what a team we made.”
“We were great,” John agreed. “That one moment, we were great.”
There was nothing more to say. Tom and John began walking toward the car. Tom then noticed that John had stopped. He turned to his brother.
“Look at that,” John said, pointing to a sign above the bleachers.
“Efficowski Field,” Tom read. “The town’s only millionaire. He died a few years ago.”
“I remember him telling me to create wealth.”
Tom was surprised. “You talked to Ben Efficowski?”
“Yeah,” John answered. He pointed to the bleachers. “He was sitting right there.”
“Where the hell was I?”
“I don’t know.”
Back in the car the brothers were silent for a while, both staring at the field.
“When we were doing that I thought that was as good as it gets,” John commented.
“I know,” Tom replied. “What were those efforts of youth for? Nothing?”
“I can’t believe that,” John answered. “We learned how to face adversity and try in the face of the uncertainty of victory or defeat.”
Tom agreed. “We got our first of life’s bittersweet tastes of victory and defeat on this field.”
Another haunt the brothers went to was the pool. The season was over, so it was drained and covered up. The brothers got out of the car and walked up to the fence. Tom, for the first time in his life, felt old. The place where he had spent his youth was a call to a time far in his past. A time never to be regained.
“I don’t like being thirty,” Tom said as he looked at the platform of the high dive.
“Me neither,” John agreed. He rubbed his temples. “I sure could handle the day after drinking better.”
Tom laughed. He too had felt miserable for most of the day. “No shit. What the hell were we talking about last night?”
“It’s kind of fuzzy,” John replied. “I think we agreed that Clinton is full of shit.”
“We did not!” Tom exclaimed. “I agreed that people need to take responsibility for their actions, but it is Clinton that will turn things around.”
“Tom, you are a noble man to be doing what you are in that housing area, but if you think that bigger government, more taxes, and more regulation will solve things, then you are wrong. I’m rooting for Bush, but whoever wins will have their work cut out for them.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying. I spent several months in Washington, and you’re right. Much of it is bloated and corrupt, but a small state governor is just the guy to change that.”
“Jimmy Carter tried and look what a disaster that was.”
“The hell with politics,” Tom decreed. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” John answered truthfully. “I went through such a grind at LiteMem. The reason I left HiVAC was because of the culture change when a bunch of professional managers came in from outside the company and took over. It was horrible. I discovered that managers had to know what the hell it was they were managing. I concluded that the only way for a real manager to be effective rather than being a parasite was to know what he was asking his workers to do. So at LiteMem all’s I worried about was the technology. I forgot about the people. How fucking stupid. I didn’t know. I thought that if I could do everything that would be enough. You have to roll up your sleeves and work alongside your people to make it work. You just can’t do it. You have to show them, and then they will show you.” John grabbed the damp fence that surrounded the pool. “There are sixteen people in LiteMem who stuck by me when I was being most stupid. Every day I go to work and think of them. When I think of them I just keep working my ass off to make LiteMem bigger. Maybe I’ll just keep doing that until I get rich enough to tell the world to go to hell.”
“Hmm,” Tom shrugged. “You are right about management. It’s only when the so-called leaders of a program take initiative at the ground floor that any good comes. I feel the same way about my housing area in regard to the people. There are a few families there that would probably give their lives for me as I would for them. That keeps me going day to day. But how do you ever get off the merry-go-round?” Tom wanted to know. “We’ve been going nonstop for eight years. No break in sight. How do you break the cycle?”
“Don’t know,” John answered, shaking his head and looking at the vacant remnant of his youth. “Don’t know.”