Every man is an author. His autobiography is his masterpiece. Each day, he writes a sentence or more; each year, enough pages to tell a story; every decade, a chapter of his life is completed. Though he is master of his destiny, his work remains an incomplete one, for he cannot write the final sentence. That task is left for another.
I _ The Professor
Dr. Judson D. Fordyce, professor of philosophy and chairman of the School of Humanities at Wainwright University, had feared this day since a bout with rheumatic fever at the age of six had left him with a weakened heart. Standing of medium stature with piercing green eyes and a haughty expression, his shaved head and meticulously trimmed gray-white beard offered a scholarly bearing, engendering the respect of student and colleague alike. Erudite yet profane, his ever present Meerschaum pipe tilted to his left, his love of Eagle Rare bourbon and the aphrodisiac of intellectual give-and-take with only the most gifted of women, overcame whatever trepidations a feeble heart may have presented in a life lived larger than many.
A master logician and disciple of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fordyce loved debate and detested religion. Suffering little patience for proselytizers, his response to “those religious crackpots” was an insistent “the only God is Achievement, the only Jesus is Knowledge and the only Holy Spirit is man’s Will to triumph over adversity.”
As he lay on the operating table anticipating his new heart from “probably some twenty year old fool with a lead foot and impaired vision”, the professor’s thoughts turned to the folly of the afterlife,”that peculiar fantasy, best left to an Asimov or a Clarke(1), that was conjured by those who lack fulfillment in the real world and believe that if they trust in whatever god makes them worthy, they’ll find it in some cosmic palace”.
Awaiting the anesthesiologist, he thought it strange what the mind might contemplate while one’s life hung in the balance. He recalled a student from the late eighties, a certain John Beeman, if he was correct, who never failed to inject religion into any discussion, argument actually, that the two had engaged. “John the Baptist” Fordyce had taken to calling him, to the delight of many in the classroom. It was Beeman who had told him that “doctors can save your heart but only Jesus can save your soul”. “Sorry, Mr. Baptist”, Judson considered, “but I’ll put my faith in my heart transplant specialist”.
Within moments, the magic of the anesthesia had taken its effect, and the life of Dr. Judson D. Fordyce, professor, bon vivant, and master of self-assurance, was in the hands of the only god he had ever known … his fellow man.
II _ The Library
Judson Fordyce was alone, his body caressed by a fog that was cool and refreshing. He felt invigorated. “That’s some kind of anesthesia”, he celebrated, “much better than the psychedelics I tripped on back in the sixties”.
He stood in the middle of a deserted street that was paved in silver. In the distance, a dim glow of lights beckoned him. For a moment, the professor felt as if he had become a wanderer in a giant snow globe. Overwhelmed by the solitude that enveloped him, the silence soothed his senses. His heart, stilled by the surgery, was purged of every anxiety, fear and doubt that had ever plagued him. Exhilarated, he felt a sudden urge to float, but the call of the lights hastened his steps.
As he walked toward the glow, his feet were massaged by the coolness of the silver and it reminded him of those early autumn mornings of his childhood, his toes tickled by the dew as he gathered wild apples from his back yard that his mother baked into the best apple pies he had ever tasted. Fordyce swore that he could smell them now, fresh from the oven.
Approaching the end of the boulevard, Judson marveled. Peering through the fog, he was greeted by the sparkle of lights, blazing like a multitude of torches on a moonless winter night, which heralded a towering monolith of polished dark red and flamed crème sandstone that disappeared into the mist that hung above him. The edifice, of Gothic architecture, featured enormous towers and spires, and was accented by windows of stained glass of every color. Adorning the towers were carvings of angelic beings, triumphal in pose, exulting over fallen creatures, grotesque in appearance. Sculpted into the facade of the building in massive Blackletter(2) script were the words “The Library Of Man”.
Reverentially, Fordyce ascended the ten marble steps before him. At the top, he was greeted by a great oaken door. Above it was a semi-circular arch sculpted with symbolic faces representing the three races of Man: Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid. Beneath the faces was carved an inscription which read: “He, whose journey ends at this door, begins another beyond it”. “A rather dramatic way to introduce reading”, Fordyce quipped.
Upon entering, the professor wondered at the expansiveness of the interior, gaping at the splendor of its vaulted ceiling and buttresses and admiring its marble floor, gleaming as if polished moments before. Catching his breath, Judson was impressed by the modernity of the Library and felt as though he had entered a new world, the Library’s state-of-the-art technology contrasting with the medieval majesty of its exterior. At the center of the Library’s Great Room stood the central desk, gleaming of gold, with people of every race waiting in line before it. To his right, was a vast chamber of many desks with men in maroon robes transcribing into books. To his left stood a granite archway beyond which were handsome bookcases, sparkling of polished rosewood.
“Sir, please join the line at the front desk ... you must be a member to browse the library”, an attendant suggested to Fordyce, though the professor would have none of it.
Forgotten for an instant, Judson crept toward the archway, his hunger for knowledge, enticed by his enduring inquisitiveness, overcoming whatever unease he had of being discovered.
His stealth successful, Fordyce was overwhelmed by the enormity of the Library-proper, stunned that this was but the first of many floors. As his mind comprehended the seemingly endless rows of books that flanked the aisle, he was reminded of the Great Library at Alexandria, the largest and most significant of the ancient world and said to have contained much of the scholarship of that time. Judson was sure that this Library of Man must be a modern incarnation of that ancient wonder and that it housed all the knowledge ever acquired by Man’s toil, intellectual curiosity, and his drive to quench the thirst of his imagination. “What a magnificent monument to Humankind’s greatness!” he proclaimed to himself.
Glancing at the first row of books, he found it odd that every volume was bound in white with either gold or black imprint. Choosing the first book, Fordyce spoke the title: “The Autobiography of Abel”. “Perhaps it was written by Cain”, he sneered, considering the volume best served in the fiction department.
For what seemed like ages, Fordyce browsed endless rows of autobiographies. Before him rested the collected works of mankind: the ancient ones whose names he could barely pronounce; the innocent child who perished in the Great Flood; the Assyrian soldier whose duty was to gouge the eyes of his prisoners; the slave who died beneath the yolk of his master; the royalty that reigned with iron fists or benevolent hands over civilizations long vanished; the mother whose only child died at birth; the warrior and the pacifist; the philanderer and the philanthropist; the humanitarian and the humanist; the criminal and the just; the mighty and the forgotten; rich and poor, young and old, their trials and triumphs, ecstasies and heartbreaks unfolded before Judson until he understood that no deed could be without consequence.
Approaching the end of the interminable floor and weary of browsing endless rows of a “genre of ego” that the professor had always found tedious, he spotted a menacing metallic door with an “Absolutely No Admittance” sign upon it and an unlighted exit sign above it. The door seemed strangely incongruous in the hushed magnificence of the library, and Fordyce was compelled to open it.
Fortuitously, a staff member had forgotten to lock it, and the professor, never one to respect authority, though he demanded it in his classroom, breached the door and slipped behind it.
Judson was repulsed by the grimy condition of the narrow corridor that loomed before him, its creaking wooden floor covered with age-old dirt. The dimly lit hallway was barely wide enough for his frame and he fought the gripping panic of claustrophobia as he wheezed from a spray of dust after brushing against its rough, wooden walls. Fordyce guessed that this must be how a coal miner felt, trapped deep within the bowels of the earth, moments before a cave-in. Ensnared by ancient cobwebs that dangled from a clapboard ceiling that he could touch with his fingertips, and mindful of the deathly silence that engulfed him, he envisioned a setting from a horror movie and yearned for a return to the misty bliss of the silver avenue that had brought him to this dreadful place. Feeling faint from the dankness and humidity that clung to him, Fordyce was about to return to the comfort of the library when he noticed the faint outline of a door at the end of the passageway. As he approached it, he detected a smell he could not identify and a muffled shriek that was beyond his comprehension. His curiosity was peaked by the door’s small, crusty window and he was tempted to peer into it but his conscience reprimanded him for his prior transgression, and, assuming that he had discovered the entrance to the monolith’s boiler room, he turned to leave, though swearing that, for an instant, he had been spied upon by a pair of eyes.
Gulping for air and soaked in sweat, he burst from the door and made haste for his escape from this Labyrinth that had once held such promise.
III _ The Book
As Judson Fordyce approached the granite archway, he was vexed by a question that had troubled him since his escape from the corridor: “Why was his operation taking so long … had something gone wrong?” His stomach, upset from the stale taste of dust that had clung to the tunnel of his mouth, churned as he feared that his contraventions may have delayed his re-entry into a world where his heart would beat strongly and its pleasures would be his reward for a life sure to be savored as much as the taste of a fine bourbon, the challenge of a lively debate, or the gleam of a comely eye.
Reaching the Great Room, the professor hurried past the front desk and its queue of nameless people, and cursed when he discovered that the front door had just locked. Feeling trapped again and resigned to his fate of waiting in line, a misfortune that he long considered distasteful, he made for the desk but paused when he encountered a brochure, with a cover photograph of the Library’s façade, lying on a chair that stood sentry beneath an ornate, golden-framed mirror. Weary, Judson sat and read from the brochure: …
The Library of Man
Before time, God was alone in his magnificence. As He observed His creation, He witnessed the panoply of human endeavor. The Grand Design of Man, his compassion and cruelties, his ingenuity and darkest enterprises, his conquests and tribulations, his every deed, unfolded before Him.
The Father of All established the Library of Man as a repository of the life of every human being created in His image. Contained herein is the autobiography of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. Each volume documents every endeavor of that person and is the evidence of that person’s exercise of God’s gift of Free Will.
To the right of the Library’s Great Room is The Hall of Reckoning. It is here where the Library’s staff of scribes author the last sentence of every autobiography. This task, known by the scribes as the “death sentence”, is necessary because, though each person is author of his work, no one can know the moment of his passing.
Each autobiography concludes with the signature page that reads: “I, the undersigned, hereby verify that every word contained in this manuscript is a true account of my life as written by ________ (that person’s signature is required).
Situated on the top floor of the Library is the Great Hall of the Ages. Here, a member can utilize the facility’s state-of-the-art computer technology to easily construct a family tree and locate the autobiographies of every ancestor and descendant. Also, in the Hall’s video wing, members may view actual footage of special moments from their lives and have ready access to the Library’s on-demand service, enabling them to experience any of the most memorable events in the history of mankind from the Creation to the present.
The filing system of the Library is not alphabetized, but is based upon each person’s death date.
Membership in the Library of Man will be determined by the Great Librarian upon the death of each individual. …
Fordyce bit his lip. “What hogwash”, he reasoned, dropping the brochure to the floor. Arising from the chair, his composure was rattled by an announcement blaring from a loudspeaker high above him: “Dr. Judson D. Fordyce to the front desk, please … Dr. Judson D. Fordyce to the front desk.”
Surprised that anyone knew of his presence, the professor trudged to the back of the line and waited his turn.
Impatience had always been the father of reverie to Fordyce, and, as he waited, his mind journeyed to that bittersweet time that seemed so long ago. Alexis, sweet Alexis, her tawny hair and aquamarine eyes would always be a frozen picture that warmed his memory. If only her colleagues hadn’t persuaded her to attend that overseas seminar. A catastrophic midair malfunction and a watery grave were her last moments. His life’s dearest gone, it wasn’t anger that compelled Fordyce to apostasy, but, rather, that he drifted from belief the way the tide carries an empty raft from the shore until it disappears beyond the horizon.
He remembered the sweetness of her kiss and the caress of her hair against his cheek. Closing his eyes, he yearned to be stirred by the softness of her smile and his mind evoked the intellectual rapport that would bond them forever. Judson sighed, lost in his memories, but the warm emotions growing inside him were extinguished by a rude tap on his right shoulder.
“Excuse me”, interrupted a disheveled fellow, who appeared to be in his mid-forties with a ball cap, slightly askance, crowning his unkempt, red-brown hair, “but you look familiar … might you be Dr. Fordyce, from Wainwright?”
“You would be correct”, Fordyce studied the man … “unfortunately, I don’t recall the pleasure of knowing you.”
“Oh, I hardly think that you’d remember me. I was in one of your classes at the ‘Wright … name’s Beeman … John Beeman.”
“Beeman …” was the professor’s unenthusiastic response as he half-heartedly shook his former student’s hand … “don’t you mean ‘John the Baptist’, the bane of my professorship. Perhaps I should retract the word ‘pleasure’.”
Beeman cackled his honking laugh that still irritated every nerve in Judson’s body ... “Yah, we did have a good go at it, didn’t we?”
“That’s a matter of opinion”, Fordyce rebutted, ”I’ve tried to forget, how should I phrase it, our encounters, but some irritations never seem to pass.”
Ignoring the remark, Beeman continued: “Hey Doc, you have any idea what we’re doing here?”
“It’s Doctor, and I have no idea, Beeman. I’m presently undergoing a heart transplant and my assumption is that the anesthesia is playing tricks on my mind, and, after seeing you, apparently dirty tricks. What you’re doing here is anybody’s guess.”
Unshaken by Judson’s callousness, Beeman carried forth: “Well, I was just cutting my front lawn, man it was hot outside, and the next thing I know, I’m walking down some street, lost in the fog and ...”
“… I’m well aware of that”, Fordyce interrupted, “now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back to more pleasant meanderings and, as for yourself, you might consider returning to your lawn mower.”
Before Judson could turn away, Beeman reminded him of the most contentious moment of their many debates: “A heart transplant? … you recall that time in class …”
Fordyce glared at Beeman. “Yes, of course, how could I forget it … ‘doctors can save my heart but only your Jesus can save my soul’, or some such nonsense to that effect … let me tell you something, Beeman, I’m quite confident that my surgeon will save my heart, and a belt or two of Eagle Rare will do wonders for my soul.”
The icy exchange was interrupted by the Librarian …“Dr. Judson D. Fordyce … next.”
Relieved to be rid of Beeman, the professor stepped to the front desk and was greeted by the radiant smile of the Great Librarian. Tall and lean, with jet black hair, the Librarian stood impressive, garbed in an ivory robe trimmed in burgundy. Personable but professional in demeanor, with an aura of mystery about him, he addressed Judson. “Welcome, Dr. Fordyce. Your scribe has just finalized your volume and your signature is required before you may leave.”
Judson stared at the book lying on the counter, impressed with the immaculate white cover and its black imprint, until the title, The Autobiography of Dr. Judson D. Fordyce, screamed at him.
“Autobiography … what is the meaning of this … I never wrote this …”
“Ah, but you did, Dr. Fordyce. You wrote every word of your book every day of your life”, the Librarian explained.
“… and what of this scribe … what has he written.”
“He has written the last sentence of your book, Dr. Fordyce ... The one sentence that you cannot write … the moment of your death ...”
“DEATH! … REALLY! … well I feel quite alive for being dead but if it will satisfy you and allow me to leave this damnable place, I’ll sign the damn page”.
Anxious to depart, Judson scribbled his name on the signature page but fell victim to his insatiable curiosity. Glancing at the last sentence of the book, he read aloud: “Dr. Judson D. Fordyce died on Monday August 1st 2011 at 4:08:43 pm after suffering a perioperative stroke minutes after successful heart transplant surgery”.
Shaken for an instant, Judson inhaled and then cursed. “Tell that bastard to write somebody else’s obituary … I’m going home.”
As Judson stormed to the front door, an attendant, responding to a nod from the Great Librarian, intercepted Fordyce and accompanied him to the library exit located in the rear of the building. Before departing, Fordyce glared at the front desk, his stare interrupted by John Beeman, who was cradling a book with gold imprint as the Librarian presented him with what appeared to be a card.
For a second time, Judson strode the first floor. Reaching the end of the great hallway, he was threatened by the ominous steel door, its exit sign flashing crimson, and he recoiled at the thought of the dark memories that lurked beyond it.
“Surely, you don’t expect me to go in there”, he pleaded as the attendant unlocked the door.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Fordyce, but you must.”
“But, why here?”
Motioning Fordyce to enter, the attendant responded: “You will understand when you get to the door.”
Cursing anyone and everything that he could imagine, Fordyce entered the narrow passageway, flinching when the door behind him closed with a thud. A cold chill seized him as he heard the faint click of the key and he fought the disquieting silence that unnerved him. Gathering his equilibrium, Judson was enveloped in near blackness, the corridor’s only light emanating from a faint glow at its end. Spitting dust from his parched lips, he damned the dirt that clung to his skin. He damned the cobwebs that hailed his arrival in this accursed place. He damned the creaking of the floor that provided the lament to his lone gallows walk. As each step brought him closer to his release, he cursed God Almighty and wished for his operation to be done so he could escape what had become the nightmare of his life.
Without warning, Judson’s years passed before him and he hoped that he might be regaining consciousness. His yesterdays, which once slept in the crevices of his memory, were as vivid as if all of his days had been lived the evening before.
His face tickled from the messy licks of his boyhood pal, Rusty, the best mutt any kid could have called friend, and he longed for the innocence of those blithe summer days of youth, soaking his steaming feet in the cool water of a brook that flowed from a spring that offered the sweetest water he had ever gulped.
Holding his breath, he could hear the whirr of his first car, a rally red Chevelle, replete with black hardtop, swelling once more at that prideful moment when he sat behind the wheel, master of his universe.
He remembered his first kiss, and the lilt of her name, and his first real paycheck. He had saved some of that money to buy his mother a small diamond ring for Christmas, and he swore that her smile on that frosty morning illumined a tear in the corner of her eye.
Again, he ached for Alexis, wondering if he had bartered his soul for the cup of whatever passion would sate his thirst for a loss that would never be quenched.
Rubbing dirt from his brow, Fordyce was sure that he was being watched by a pair of eyes. Was it his doctor or was his imagination playing him for a fool?
Reaching the end of the passage, Judson froze several paces from the door, startled by an inscription, carved in angry letters, which was upon it: “All Hope and Reason, all Sanity and Mercy are abandoned beyond this door … WELCOME TO HELL”.
He wailed as he felt his heart racing. Then, he understood the cruel paradox of his life: his heart, that had stopped beating in life, would beat forever in death.
Shuddering, Fordyce realized that, beyond the entrance, his today would never end.
He thought of his autobiography, the story of knowledge won but eternity lost. It would rest on a shelf collecting dust with all the others; forgotten, save for someone with a library card and the time to explore a “genre of ego” of a man and what might have been.
Ponderously, the ancient door in front of him opened, the squeal of its arid hinges tearing at his soul. Fordyce gagged at the foul smell of sulfur and cowered at the vulgar howls of uncountable fiends, and, for the first of untold times to follow, he gasped.
He beheld the eyes.
1) Two noted science fiction authors … Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
2) Blackletter, or Gothic Script, was popular throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages. It is often referred to as Old English script.