Allegory of the Cave
Rudy took up philosophy late in life. He wanted some answers, an explanation, or at least a chance to ponder the great mysteries, before it was too late - love and death, the meaning and purpose of human existence, moments of vision, the voice of God, the manifest indifference of the material universe to injustice and suffering, the insanity of war, the mysterious tug of beauty on the human heart. What did he know about these things? Not a lot. But something. He'd never had a college education. He'd turned down a basketball scholarship at Michigan State University in order to go to work for Harry Becker up in Chicago. But he hadn't peddled avocados for thirty years on the South Water Street Market without learning a thing or two about life, and Helen, his wife, had practiced all her lectures on him when she'd started teaching art history at Edgar Lee Masters, dropping her slides one at a time into the projector on the dining room table, the front end propped up on a couple of paperbacks so that it cast a slightly top-heavy image on the wall over the sideboard. So he knew a little bit about Beauty too. Beauty with a capital B: not just a pretty face or a picturesque landscape, not just a Greek Aphrodite or a Renaissance nude or a Turner sunset, but something that might shoot out of an old man's face or out of a side of beef, sharp as his carbon steel kitchen knives, sad as bent notes on his guitar, but joyful at the same time.
Rudy'd met Helen after a basketball game in Gary, Indiana, back in 1925. He'd played for a semipro team sponsored by the commission merchants on the market, the South Water Bluestreaks. Helen's uncle, who worked for the Leshinsky Potato Company, next to Becker's on the market, was one of the refs and had introduced them after the last game of the season, in which Rudy'd made the winning basket. A week later, Saturday night, they'd taken the trolley up to Rogers Park to see Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera at the new Granada Theater, and afterward they'd walked down to the lake. By the time Rudy got home it was three o'clock in the morning, but he wasn't tired.
Helen had been dead for seven years now; Meg, their oldest, had a law degree and two kids and was planning to go back to work full-time; Molly, their middle daughter, was teaching social dancing at the Arabesque Dance Studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while she studied to get her real-estate license; Margot, the youngest-a book conservator at the Newberry Library on the near North Side-had just gone to Italy on the spur of the moment, right after the big flood in Florence.
What had happened? Where had it gone? Life? His life? What would happen to him now? Looking back, he wondered about the scholarship. Of course, if he'd accepted it, everything would have been different, wouldn't it? He'd never have met Helen; he and Helen would never have bought this old house, never have had three daughters; Helen would never have gone to Italy and met Bruno Bruni, and so on. On the other hand, maybe in a parallel universe he had accepted it. And maybe in a parallel universe Helen was still alive, living in Italy with Bruni. That's what his daughter's Indian boyfriend, Tejinder Kaal, nephew of the philosopher Siva Singh, seemed to be getting at in an article that Molly'd sent him. Rudy hadn't been able to make head nor tail of the article, which had been published in a journal called Physical Review Letters. Parallel universes. What a crock, he'd thought, but then Tejinder's picture had appeared in the science pages of Time and Newsweek, along with sketches of ghostly people from parallel universes superimposed on photos of a playground (Newsweek) and a cemetery (Time). Both Time and Newsweek cited one of Helen's favorite poems, "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost, because, according to Tejinder, there were no roads not taken.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hellenga
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