"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it." Matthew 7:13
Jesus said..."I am the gate..." John 10:9


Deus Ex Machina
By G. K. Werner

He knows what is in the darkness . . .
                                   Daniel 2:22

            “It’s garbage!”  Irving Zimmerman’s big hand pounded the manuscript atop his cluttered desk.  “Gar-bahge!”  He displayed his palms to Norman—There, he’d said it!—and sprawled back in his desk chair, his lanky form overflowing the upholstery.  What the heck—Norman Gates wasn’t the only writer Irving handled.  Manuscript towers made the veteran agent’s office look like a miniature city.
            Thunder rumbled in the distance, out beyond Irving’s floor-to-ceiling windows.  Lightening walked the rooftops away in the Bronx.
            Irving stared at the trim, medium size man in the client’s chair whose mood darkened as rapidly as the Manhattan skyline—Norman Gates, the unpredictable, angst-driven horror writer who’d just been rejected for the first time since achieving fame.  By his best pal!  That had to hurt.  But Irving had had no other choice.
“H-How can you say that?” murmured Norman, dwarfed by the wingback’s leather expanse.
            “You pay me to say that,” said Irving, finger-combing an ill-behaved shock of hair off his forehead.  “To be honest about your writing.  Or neither of us make a living.”  This wasn’t easy.  He and Norman went way back.  They’d been like brothers.  Till Norman found Jesus—or whatever!
“Garbage?”
“That’s not quite accurate.”  Irving had to hang tough.  “Garbage has an aroma.  Flavor.  A distinct presence that lingers long after it’s hauled away.  Your story’s so bland it could cure my ulcers.”
“But what about the scene with—”
“Bland.”
“Or the part where—”
“Bland!”
“And I suppose the—”
“Bland!  Bland!  Bland!”
            Norman rose to his feet grabbing fistfuls of his own brittle gray hair like the madman in his first bestseller.
            “Now don’t go nuts on me, Norm.  My blood pressure won’t take it.”
“But my manuscript—”
“It’s just not up to the standard you set, OK?  I’m sorry.  You’re pushing me into a corner on this.  It’s one thing to target the Christian literary market—”
            “I write from the heart Irv, you know that.”  Norman shouted across the desk.  “This isn’t a marketing ploy.  I’ve turned to the Lord and—”
            “I know, I know already.”  And didn’t need to hear it yet again, this time from Norman Gates, the angry rejected writer.  “But the story’s drivel.  Your readers won’t buy it.  You want them to transition with you from dark fantasy and graphic horror to . . . to . . . whatever genre this is?  You can’t insult their intelligence.”
            “Oh, I’m insulting their intelligence now, am I?  I’m not just boring–”
            “Bland.”
            “—bland.  I’m insulting their intelligence.”
            Thunder drummed, nearer now.
            Irving Zimmerman took a pill bottle from his drawer, upended it into his mouth.  “The modern reader’s too sophisticated for a plot like this,” he rumbled through crunching pills.  “They’ve outgrown deus ex machina.  They want—”
“Deus ex machina?” railed Norman.
            Mouth open in mid-sentence, Irving considered his former top writer, his past tense drinking buddy.  “It’s Latin, Norm.  Means god from the machine.”
            Norman squinted down at him in disbelief.
            “In ancient Greek and Roman theatre this crane would lower an actor playing a god.”  Irving’s long arm simulated the crane.  “The god would snatch the hero out of—”
            “Norman spoke slowly.  “I know what deus ex machina is, Irv.  Don’t insult my intelligence!  You’re saying my ending is contrived.  Artificial!”
            “Well it’s certainly an easy out for a writer who’s written his hero into a corner.  God waves his magic wand and—”
            “Magic wand?”  Lightening flashed, nearer still.  “Y-You calling the cross a magic wand?”  Thunder rolled over the roof.
            “Whatever.  Your hero has this sudden change of heart and the conflict’s resolved.  I don’t buy it, Norm.  The house won’t.  Literally!  It’s too improbable.”
            Norman held up a schoolmarm’s finger.  “When all impossibilities have been eliminated, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
            “Wait!  Don’t tell me.  Sherlock Holmes?”
            “Conan Doyle, actually.”
            “Right.  Ya wanna quote authors, Norm?  Try Damon Knight from Creating Short Fiction.  Your hero has to resolve the central conflict by his own means.  He can’t be bailed out.  It leaves the reader unsatisfied.  Happy endings went out with Cinderella.”  And Irving Zimmerman knew it well.  He’d drunk and caroused himself into massive liver and kidney disease, an ulcer you could drive a delivery truck through, a heart pumping more cholesterol than blood—a pain for every part of his body.  No one was going to miraculously bail him out at the last second.  It just didn’t happen in real life.
            “Don’t give me that, Irv.  People still love a happy ending.  History has a happy ending-”
            “According to Norman V. Gates.”
            “According to Scripture.”  Norman wagged a finger at him.  “The same Scripture your mother read to you as a child, by the way.”
            “Leave my mother outta this.”
            “The Old Testament has the whole story in it, you know.”
            “Save your breath, Norm.”
            “Save your soul, Irv!”
            “SAVE YOUR STORY NORMAN!”
            Silence.
            The window-wall lit up.
            Thunder rattled the glass, wanting in.
            Norman’s shoulders slumped.  He hung his head like a cowed puppy.  “I have no story,” he whispered.
            What?  What did he say?  Irving gaped at him.  The old Norman wouldn’t have caved so soon.
            Norman began pacing, chin on chest.  “You’re right.  OK?  You’re right.  My story lacks drive.  It’s . . . it’s . . . alright, it’s bland!  Bland!  But how do I write horror and supernatural thrillers for a Christian audience?”
            “How should I know?  You’re the Christian writer.  And quit pacing around like a maniac.  You’ll wear out my carpet.”
            The storm gathered force, assailing the building, driving rain in torrents down the full windows.
            “How?  How do I do it?  How do I mix horror’s traditional genre elements with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ?”
“I don’t know.  The old masters used to do it, didn’t they?  Stoker and Shelly and those guys?”
Norman rolled his eyes.  “Not really.  And besides, you can only kill a vampire with a crucifix so many times you know.  It’s been done to death.  No pun intended.  And, Biblically speaking, I don’t really think it would work.  And what about deus ex machina?  How do I avoid that?  Heh?  It is the message after all.  God reaching down to us in Jesus Christ, lifting us to safety.”
            “Oh for crying out loud!  That’s your problem.  Will ya siddown already?”
Norman collapsed into the big wingback.
Irving hated seeing his old buddy so wracked by despair.  He leaned forward imploringly.  “You’re a horror writer, Norman.  Be a horror writer!”  A bolt of lightening at the window made them both jump.  “There!  That confirms it.  God’s tryin’ to tell ya something.”  He picked up Norman’s manuscript and tossed it across the desk.  “Burn this piece of garbage and come up with a blood-curdling thriller with believable people facing supernatural horror.  Just like you used to.”
            “Forget it, Irv.”
“What?”
“Don’t you understand?  I HAVE NO STORY!”
        “Baaah!”  Now Irving rose to pace a track in his expensive Israeli weave.
*
            By the time Norman left his office, Irving Zimmerman’s pulse matched the clickety clack of the el below his window.  His stomach burned like a furnace.  He drank from his prescription bottle and chased the pills down with very old Scotch.  His old pal had turned into a full-time nutcase.  The guy needed a shrink even more than a book doctor.
            Thunder boomed; the building trembled, the storm now directly overhead.
            Irving swiveled his chair to watch the rain pounding the glass, the skyscrapers illuminated as though by a million flash bulbs at once, an immense publicity shoot in the night sky.  Thunder drowned out the incessant horns, sirens and whistles of city nightlife.
            Norman wouldn’t come up with anything publishable, not in his present state of mind, and suggesting he pray for a story hadn’t helped matters any.  Norman had slammed the door on his way out.
            A crack of thunder made Irving duck.  Maybe he ought to move away from the window-wall.
            As he rose from his chair, a bolt hit the steel casing and he clutched his chest with both hands.  The pain slammed him back in his chair like a jackhammer and he nearly lost consciousness.  He swam back to clarity through blinding agony.  He’d been hit by lightening and survived?  Nah!  It couldn’t be.  The pain—not piercing—crushing.
            Then it struck again.
*
            He opened his eyes.  A man hovered over him.  He looked like Jeff Goldblum.  What was Jeff Goldblum doing in his office?  Oh swell!  Another actor who thought he could write.  “Get outta here!”
            “I’m a surgeon, Mr. Zimmerman.”
            “You’re an actor.”
            “No, Mr. Zimmerman.  I assure you, I’m a surgeon here at New York Presbyterian Hospital.”
“Surgeon!  Hospital!  Presbyterian?”
            “I am Doctor Banning.  You’ve had a massive coronary, Mr. Zimmerman.  You are very lucky to be alive.”
            Then he recognized where he was—in an operating room like on TV.  He lay on his back on a more uncomfortable bed than his old GI cot, and felt an embarrassing draft.  There were others around him.  A nurse organizing a tray of silvery objects that winked wickedly in the harsh light.  Two others behind Goldblum . . . er . . . Banning.  They all wore gowns, wrapped like mummies.  A man at Irving’s head wore a mask.
            “We must operate immediately, Mr. Zimmerman.”
            “Now wait just a blame minute here!”  He tried to rise but nurses grabbed his arms, pressing him down with unexpected strength.
            “Relax, Mr. Zimmerman,” said the masked man.  A cup-shaped screen materialized over Irving’s nose and mouth, a gloved hand held an eyedropper.  “Just relax.”
“You relax!”
            “Mr. Zimmerman,” Dr. Banning scolded, a firm hand on his shoulder.  “You must cooperate with the anesthesiologist.  We’re here to help you.  Trust us.”
“Trust you!”  He felt a sting in his arm.
*
            But instead of falling asleep he sat up on the operating table like a Jack-in-the-box, fully awake, amazed at how good he felt.  Light.  And free.  So why were the doctor and his heavies still playing hospital behind his back?  Ignoring him—The bums!
            Someone else was in the room.  Irving shaded his eyes from the operating theater’s bright lights and peered into the shadows.  A dark figure stood in a corner of the room.  Cloaked and hooded?  He couldn’t tell for sure.  It stood still as a tombstone and, though eyeless, seemed to be staring at him in icy silence.
            “Who the hell are you?”
            Darkness laughed—the sound of sandpaper on bone.
            The medical personnel at Irving’s back burst into frenzied action.  Wires and paddles came out.  An injection needle of nightmarish dimension!  “Clear!”
            Irving sprang from the table and spun round.  Impossibly, his body lay on the table, twitching to the defibrillator’s repeated application.  Insanity!
Darkness chuckled, closer now.
            “Nooooo!  It can’t be!  I’m dreaming.”  Or mad!  The operating theater lights grew dim, distant.  His body on the table flopped like a fish.
            “Come,” rasped Darkness.
            Irving cowered.  “Get away from me ya miserable thing.  You’re not real.  Norm invented you for his stories!”
            “It is time.”
            “Time to wake up!”  He glanced back at the operating table and shuddered.  The medical team worked feverishly.  “This can’t be happening, da—er, darn it all!
“Come!”
“Hold it!  Isn’t there supposed to be a bright light?  A tunnel or something?  A figure of light?  I could swear I read where—”
            Darkness pointed, and a pinprick of light appeared.  And grew.  An accommodatingly bright tunnel, at the end of which stood a creature of light, beautiful, with open arms and a smile to charm a publisher’s lawyer.
            “That’s more like it.”  Irving looked closer.  “I guess.”
            He took a few steps forward, away from the darkness.  Glanced back at the table one last time.  The doctor and nurses stared at the monitor—flat lined.  His body motionless.  Oh well!  Why fight it?  He felt better than he had in years.  No pain in chest or stomach or back.
            He stepped to the tunnel and the bright being met him, suddenly close at hand.  It reached for him in well-proportioned grace.  The golden face—Michelangelo’s David come to life.
            Irving cringed.  Shrank away.  Unsure why.
            Into his mind came a small, quiet voice:  There is a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death.
            “Who said that?”  Words from the Hagiographa, read to him as a child.  “Who’s there?”  The voice was in his head, yet somehow he knew it hadn’t come from the bright being or the dark one.
            What is the way to the abode of light?
There it was again.  Where was it coming from?  “Who’s talkin’?”  God had asked Job that question.  He remembered that too.
And where does darkness reside?
            A riddle?  He needed a riddle now?  “Oh God!  Is that you?”
            No answer.
            The bright being smiled benignly.  Its hand rose slowly, palm up, beckoning.
            Then Irving remembered something else from childhood!  He screamed, flinging himself back from the tunnel and its horrible beauty, away from the bright grasping arms.  Scripture mentioned only one angel of light—Lucifer.
            “MY GOD!  SAVE ME!”
            The bright being’s smile widened unnaturally.  Its eyes became black pits.
            Irving tried to block the face, crossing his arms before his own.  “My God!  Why have you forsaken me?”  Then he gasped at his words—words from a Psalm.  Looked at his crossed arms.  Hah!  And Jesus’ words on the cross!  Norman said that Jesus had died cut-off from God the Father to purchase everyone’s life.
            I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
            Jesus had said that.  Norman was always beating it into his head.  “Jesus?  Jesus is that you talking to me?  Are you here somewhere?  Lord!  Show me the way outta here!”
            I am the way!
            The truth went through him like lightening.  The God of his childhood, the God of his ancestors, the very God of Abraham, Moses and David wasn’t this bright thing before him.  Norman knew!  Maybe he’d always known it too, but had been too stubborn to admit it.  Too consumed by the life that had killed him.  Now it was too late.  TOO LATE!
            Now is the appointed time!
            But he was dead!  Wasn’t he?
At his back, a nurse cried out.  Irving turned from the blinding brightness and saw her frozen, hand to mouth, the doctor, his eyes widening—both watching the peeping monitor, its line jumping.  Again, the team burst into action around the table.
*
            He opened his eyes in weakness and pain, the old pain, and worse.  Yet peace!  A peace he’d never known.
            “We thought we’d lost you, Mr. Zimmerman.”  Jeff Goldblum still played the doctor.
            Norman was also at his bedside, smiling, patting his hand—the one the IV pierced.  “Hey!  D’ya mind!”
            “I prayed for you,” Norman told him.  “My whole church did.”
            “Ya got a lot a nerve,” said Irving, “annoying our Lord like that.”
            Norman studied him suspiciously.  Then grinned.  “You old fart.  Thought you didn’t buy it.”
            “What?”
            “Deus ex machina.”
            Irving laughed hoarsely.  “Listen pal, have I got a story for you.”

Copyright 2007, Geoffrey and Virginia Werner. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Fear and Trembling, October 2007 issue.

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