On the seventh floor, on the corner above the store, in a room with Him, sat Edmund Grimm.
Edmund was not a saint, nor a sinner. He barely went out. His laundry was picked up, his groceries delivered. There was little need for interaction with the world. He didn’t even own a television. Edmund’s apartment was a womb and, if there is innocence in a womb, then Edmund was surely innocent.
He hadn’t always lived that way. He had loved, once. And she had died, and he grieved in the way that some people do – they lock themselves away, in a coffin made of years. They close the lid, their eyes adjust to the dark, and they wait for time to make it real. Edmund was waiting like that.
It was not to go the way he’d thought. Oh, he hung on for years. You might even say he’d developed a tidy routine, itself a kind of comfort to the shell-shocked and lost. But his slow process of winding down the affair of life was interrupted by the figure in the chair opposite, who had been there when he woke, who had only moved to take the occasional drag on a cigarette, who was smiling, close-lipped, and who seemed disinclined to announce his intentions.
There’s a moment when you wake up and know that something is wrong, or different in a wrong way, and you freeze at first, trying to decide what it is. It’s natural. No matter how tough you are, you want to make the right move, act in the most effective way to fight or flee. You rarely launch out of bed screaming, flabbergasted at the unknown. Not unless you’re haunted inwardly, already. So, for a long while, Edmund simply watched as one cigarette after another went into a stale cup of yesterday’s coffee, on the side table, next to the faux leather chair.
What is your first question in such a moment? Who are you? What do you want? How did you get in here? What the…? Which of these comes first? Or do you even ask such a question? Maybe you rage, at having your space invaded, or over feeling threatened somehow. Edmund was not inclined toward rage or to any other strong outpouring of emotion. Not since his beautiful Anne had died. He was also not particularly curious, since then – hence his severance from the outside world. He did not listen to the radio. He did not read books. He did not seek variety in his life. He did very little besides sleep and take care of bodily necessities. Sleep was his little death. Therefore, questions were not his first inclination.
Edmund merely continued to watch, as a haze of smoke settled in among the layers of the room’s dust-filled air, barely illumined by the outside. The person filling his chair was tall, polished – in the sense of being the kind to have a manicure – and was wearing an Italian cut suit of indeterminate grey. His face was clean, except for a bit of six o’clock shadow. His hair was neatly coiffed into a James Franco, and his eyebrows arched over hazel eyes that seemed to radiate from green to silver, of their own accord.
Eventually, Edmund, who could have no reason to be afraid, sat up in bed. The other man made a pursing sound, let loose a quick exhale of smoke, and stubbed out his cigarette in the cup, as if indicating it was his cue to speak. Edmund waited.
“You don’t smoke, or I’d offer you one. Can I get you anything, before we chat. There’s some juice in your refrigerator, I believe. Shall I bring you something?”
Edmund shook his head. The question, “about what?” is the one that first crossed his mind, but it seemed that information would come soon enough, and Edmund also had no reason to hurry.
“Down to it, then” the visitor said. “I’ve been assigned your case. You’ll want to know by whom, and that’ll be explained. We simply can’t allow you to proceed like this unchecked, Mr. Grimm. You’ll need to make some sort of decision by, say, the first of next week. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of questions. Shall I wait for you to ask them, or just answer them now, without the waiting?”
Edmund did not answer. He looked at the man’s hands, and at the floor next to the chair. There was no clipboard, no sign of a briefcase – no indication the person was with a government agency. And anyway, what had Edmund done wrong. He had only stayed put, wanting to be left alone. He raised his eyes to the visitor’s, which the other took as his answer and a cue to continue.
“Very well, Mr. Grimm. You’ll say to call you Edmund, so I will from now on. The world, Edmund, depends utterly on people choosing, and the most basic kind of choice is that of right from wrong. Imagine if the only choices people made were what to wear, what to eat, how to spend a few minutes of their time on the subway, the green curtains or the blue. I realize that you don’t ride subways, anymore. My point is that, without moral choices, everything else is mere existence. Life cannot be said to matter in any particular way. You have persisted, however, in exactly that kind of moral stasis, sequestered as you are in this apartment for which grey was the only possible fashion choice. I actually had to purchase something to feel properly dressed for the visit. It was tedious. But I digress.” The visitor drew out another cigarette, and began smoking it successfully, without having produced a cigarette lighter.
He continued, “you are perhaps exonerated from a great deal of past malfeasance by your significant loss but, since then, you have done nothing to stake out a clear pathway of meaning in the world, of one kind or another. You are caught in between, and that makes the bureaucratic management of your case file something of a dispute between jurisdictions, if you get my drift. We simply must resolve the matter for the sake of inter-agency cooperation and to keep the petty squabbling to a minimum. It detracts from efficiency, you know. And in the current economy, even we are effected, sad to say. So, you must make a choice.”
Edmund looked at the apartment door. It was locked, as it always was. He looked at the window and through it to the fire escape. There was no sign of forced entry. It was not clear precisely who the man was or what he wanted, but he had made some effort to communicate those facts. Edmund settled on the most obvious question that might illuminate the situation. “How did you get in here? Did my landlord give you a key, or did you break in?”
“Key? Landlord? I see you can be somewhat insulting when you first wake up. No, of course we didn’t ask permission. Breaking in is closer, though it wasn’t really necessary to “break” anything to do it. I can assure you that any entry was made completely illicitly.”
Edmund tried again. “Who are you?”
“A lowly case worker, but you can call me Mark. I see it hasn’t quite settled in. Allow me to further clarify. May I?”
“Our agency, you see, encourages choices that are less wholesome, less pretentious than our counterpart. Of course, we’d prefer you fell under our jurisdiction, but the choice is entirely yours. The other option is a life of virtue, self-sacrifice, and the like. Stuffy, boring stuff, but it might be what you prefer. Some prefer Matisse, some Dali – the important thing is to pay attention to something. At this point, our main concern is that you do make some sort of choice. ”
Edmund was not slow, even if he was out of practice. He caught on quickly to most things. There was nothing to gain by playing coy, so he asked outright, “You’re telling me you’re the devil’s minion, and you’re here to make sure I choose between good and evil by early next week, in order to clear up a case management issue. Does that sum it up?”
“You’re brilliant!” said the visitor. “I take back what I said. I would really love it if we could serve you entirely from our office but, to answer your question, yes you’ve expressed it quite crudely but clearly enough. And we’re used to crudity in our line of work. Minion of a minion is more exact, though. We don’t dispatch arch-minions just for cases of grief-stricken paralysis. Jurisdictional disputes are nothing new, after all. Even a mere sub-minion is generally considered an honor, though.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be an angel on my shoulder, as well – you know, to balance out the influence?” Edmund asked.
“Understaffed,” the visitor said. “Just to get *me* out here took several months, and we have several times the manpower. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll send someone, but there just aren’t enough caseworkers to cover the kind of territory they have to manage. A sad fact of our times, with the increasing population and budget shortfalls, I’m afraid. Not that we don’t chuckle a bit around the office at being the leaner, more efficient operation. We like to think we do a lot with very little.”
“Is it possible that you’re simply mentally disturbed, and have broken in here to bestow your disturbance on someone who has no intention of sharing it?” asked Edmund. He had no reason to be delicate.
“Oh, I’ve been called worse,” said the visitor, “but of course your point is that you’ll need some kind of proof. Is that it?”
“Yes,” said Edmund.
“Of course. Asking and answering such things are just the ritual, you know. We actually expect nothing less. So, no tacky displays of fire and brimstone, the abyss opening beneath your bed, or me sprouting mediaeval horns like a goat – a silly prejudice, all that, and crafted to discourage copulation with farm animals. In any case, I’ve brought you a simple, yet classic means of answering all your questions.”
The visitor held up a piece of fruit. It looked a great deal like an apple, except it was of no variety available from the fruit stands of New York, at least to Edmund’s distant recollection. For one thing, it was slightly orangish, like the inside of a tangerine, and graduated into grapefruit pink, with tinges of key lime green and banana yellow. It seemed to shift colour as the visitor turned it, much like his eyes.
“One bite, and you will have the proof you require,” said the man in the chair.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit over the top? An apple?” asked Edmund. But he was sinking down into the mattress, feeling tired again. The thing about sleeping all day every day, is that it makes you more tired, not less.
“I think,” said the visitor, “that some symbols never lose their power, and that you’ve relatively little to lose, given your situation, but you can be the judge of that.” He tossed the fruit onto the bed, where it landed dully and rolled right to Edmund’s hand.
“The serpent offered and I did eat,” said Edmund. “I get it. But what are you going to do when I take a bite of it and don’t feel any different than i did?”
“Oh I’ll be delighted. It’s not what you’ll feel, Edmund, It’s what you’ll know. If you don’t want it, I understand. But it is the simplest form of proof. It is knowledge that no longer requires proof. It’s perception without awareness.”
Edmund held it to his face. He turned it, looking at the way swirls of colour resolved into the surface. It smelled fresh. It looked delicious and interesting. Edmund took a bite. It was also a bite full of juice. He gulped, and chewed, and swallowed. It tasted like a tangerine pear apple with a hint of chamomile. It was the best piece of fruit he’d ever eaten.
And that’s when Edmund knew. He knew that the world consisted of good and evil, and not merely continued existence. He knew that his own actions could matter, in some transcendent way, if he were to take any action beyond continuing merely to eat, breathe, and seek oblivion in his bed.
“Now you have a choice,” said the visitor.
“And if I don’t make that choice?” he asked.
“Well, that would be unpleasant. We would, of course, begin to strongly encourage you. For one thing, our visits would become more frequent. Eventually, too, you’d hear from our counterpart agency and those guys can play a bit rough.”
“I get it,” said Edmund.
“But you really want to make a choice, don’t you? We’re not aware of anyone knowing the difference who isn’t inclined to pursue one over the other. We’ve never known someone to take just a bite and not then settle on the nature of their own hunger. It’s not really something that requires persuasion. You’ve decided already, have you not? ” The man lit another cigarette, and waited for Edmund’s answer.
Edmund asked for a cigarette, though he didn’t smoke, and the two chatted for the rest of the evening, before the visitor had to leave. Not his “only appointment”, he said.
Edmund moved out of his apartment, and he began to live a life full of activity. He shopped at fruit stands and ate at restaurants. He dropped off his own laundry. He visited art galleries, and he went to coffee shops and museums and shows. He made of his life a life. The choice he made remains something he reconsiders at times, experiments with at others but, overall, he has settled into a direction he likes. Having decided wasn’t the end of grief, but it was the beginning of a life lived in spite of it.