"Stefan. How could you do this to me?"
Her eyes are fish bowls filled with dank seaweed. He raises one eyebrow and wipes his face with both hands.
"Mum. Listen to me. You haven't demonstrated an iota of regret."
"How could you!? I raised you without a dad!"
"Hugh's been trying to get you to come back for nearly 40 years. Let me at least meet my granddaughter! This is cruelty!"
Is there a tear in her eye? More shocking things have happened. Like the time he figured out how to survive in Minecraft for longer than ten minutes.
"You will not lay eyes on Izzy until you're willing to at least admit your wrongdoings. It's quite simple, actually. My brother is a criminal. Please don't insult my intelligence. I'd rather be hunted down by the FBI under your orders."
Her expression remains an exasperating ratio of too much consternation and too little betrayal of reasonableness. Not a sliver of guilt to be seen! Innocent me, what have I ever done. I wouldn't hurt a fly's baby! He smirks inwardly.
What a waste of a morning. There are one hundred fifty people waiting for the podcast to start. Two hours behind schedule. Not to mention that the food at this place is overpriced.
"Forgiveness is earned, not bought with some omelet at an overcrowded café. Let's remember, shall we? You beat me almost to death multiple times. If I hadn't left when I did, Lord knows what would have happened to me. I'd probably be dead. I have to say, death was often a better option being raised by a mother like you. I mean, consider that whenever an authority figure showed up - say, even the garbage man - you'd suddenly transform into the perfect mother! Just like that, the flick of a switch!"
He snaps his fingers and laughs despite himself.
"Would you claim to have no free will? Now you see what we have on our hands here. The egg is on your face. Literally and figuratively, Mum."
She self-consciously wipes her face with a napkin. It's too easy, far too easy, to vex this woman. Does she think it strange that he doesn't find it hard to look at her with the memories of a childhood on horrifying tenterhooks coughing up dust in the space between them? There's no suggestion of pain or anger on his face. The success of his rebuilt life lends no room for that; he knows he's genuinely moved on.
Whether her remorseless heart admires that is anyone's guess.
He glances at his watch.
"You'll never have to experience not meeting your grandchild," she glares.
"That's not an argument. But you are right. I will follow basic principles of universally preferable behaviour and not risk losing out on a relationship with my grandchildren."
"Your dad is very angry with you. Your behaviour is appalling."
She clenches her age-spotted hands. Will she hit him? Brilliant as she is, the train was always too fast for the rails.
"Sure. You haven't seen the man for decades. All he's angry over are the archaeological findings that contradict his work."
Her mouth opens and closes. Gotcha.
Somewhere in Nepal, the podcast cracks on.
"So, rational-minded people of the world, we must harness our free will to fight back. That's right, fight back, against the nihilistic religion of immoralism that threatens to overtake all. Everything! Everything we hold to be true and dear!"
"Next call from Bill Lewis of San Francisco."
"Thank you for having me on. I, uh, I admire your philosophy. I was wondering if, um, I'd like to ask if it's a good idea to forgive people. To get rid of the grudge, you know, the whole letting-them-live-rent-free-in-your-head idea."
"So, an important question. And no, forgiveness is something that you should be approaching rationally. One is not responsible to forgive the most ungodly of crimes, you understand. Murder, theft, assault, child abuse," he ticks off on his fingers.
But, you can still let go of past pain without letting evil people off for no reason, right? I won't forgive someone who doesn't bother asking for forgiveness or pretends nothing ever happened. I won't live in a lie. That makes no sense, right. Makes no sense."
He squints and looks up at his screen.
"Speak to a therapist, if you can. I spent years in talk therapy. It did wonders for me. Next."
"Stef. I can't take this anymore."
"Neither can I. Goodbye, Mum. Thanks for brunch. And no, I don't forgive you."
She turns her face away in deranged fury. Her beauty faded and the arc of her youthful days declined, all that remains is an embittered soul. Serves her right, he muses.
Out the door and into the beautiful world. Half an hour later, and the audio is adjusted just right. Another day of philosophy. Another day of peace.
"Hello, my friends. Today I would like to read you a poem I wrote for my friend's father's funeral. It was, oh, thirty years ago? As you know, my own relationship with my father was akin to burnt toast. But, I was heavily invested back then in poetry and theatre, the pangs of the human heart, and so on. You should know how to analyze poetry. It is an art form for the expression of all that is meaningful, that's right, all that is meaningful about this life!"
The analysis makes him smile. The show hasn't been this inspirational for a while. People should be receptive to this one. Good thing he happened to pluck these pages off his shelf last night.
"Now, the poem ends with a note to the mortality, the mortality of who we are. We die, and that's it. Our dreams are stardust, we're rotting in the grave. I look up to the sky, there is no father - by father, I mean a God, to greet me. All we leave behind is our children and the values we've transmitted to them."
"Okay, we're ready for the call-in show."
In a bed in Cape Town, the man of eighty-four years closes his eyes for the last time. The last picture in his mind is not of the dirt. Mounds of dirt he's stared at throughout his lifetime. Not the dirt of the excavations to unearth the mysteries of the past. Dealing with the faceless past of History was far easier than ever dealing with his own. Not the dirt of the grave he's envisioned since the cancer ravaged his body. No, it's the picture of the boy. Hanging on the wall across from him is the Stef of twenty-something who is now...well, who knows? Would he come to bury his father? He doesn't deserve that, he knows full well. Perhaps on his final trip to the dust he'll encounter the remains of his life.
"God, let him know I'm gone."
The hour flies by. He scrolls through the last comments, chuckling at the viewers' remarks.
Suddenly, it hits him. It quivers his fifty-four-year-old heart.
No God, no forgiveness, no reality. Rationality from nowhere...ethics drawn from a Mind that cannot be his own...this makes absolutely no sense.
But alas, the podcast must go on.
Sorry, Mum. Forgiveness may have to be earned, but atheism never asked for much. It only asks to be maintained.
But if there's no God, universally preferable behaviour turns to feathers in the wind.
Well, he pauses, it must naturally become a sort of empty pillow within which to stuff whatever philosophical whim flies our way.
Oh well. Can't change now, can we? The grave awaits.
At least Mum and Dad won't be interred nearby.