Player One – Douglas Coupland
[Having figured all of this out] Luke remained unsure what to do. Cultural irrelevance be damned, he hadn’t had a date in over a year. A date: he cursed himself for his self-censorship; Luke hadn’t gotten laid in years.
He smiled back at the blonde, who actually seemed a bit awkward. With his head, he motioned her over to the bar. She froze, and Luke thought, Oh crap, too forward. But then she stood up and walked over to Luke with a strangely mechanical gait. He wondered if she was a model, and if that was how models were walking these days. She’s so beautiful, Luke thought. Cartoon beautiful. She’s a Barbie doll.
She approached Luke, touched the stool beside him, and said, “I am going to sit here.”
She sat on the stool, but her body language made it seem as if she’d never sat on a bar stool before and it had a learning curve, like learning how to ice skate or juggle. She stabilized and stared at the bottles against the bar’s mirrored wall. Luke looked at her, and she seemed unconcerned about being stared at. He said, “A guy walks into a bar, and the bartender looks at him and says, ‘Hey, what is this — a joke?’”
If Luke wanted a reaction, he didn’t get it. “My name is Luke.”
There was a pause. “My name is . . .” There was another pause. “. . . Rachel.”
“Nice to meet you, Rachel.”
Luke felt way out of his league, and awkward as all get-out. He needed to order more drinks, and maybe some snacks, but what do you feed a woman like this — hamburgers made of panther meat? Peacock livers on Ritz crackers? Do beautiful women even eat food?
“Can I order you a drink?”
“Oh. Yes. A ginger ale, please.”
“Great. Bartender?” Luke called for Rick’s attention but got only part of it, as Rick was watching the loving Internet couple interact.
“What can I get you?”
“A ginger ale for Rachel here, and a Glenfiddich with ice for me.”
Luke reached into his jacket pocket for one of the wads of cash and threw a fifty-dollar bill on the bar, and suddenly he was carried away back in time — back to when he still thought of himself as a good person; back to when every moment made him feel as if he was getting away with something; back to when he didn’t need to loot twenty thousand dollars from the church bank account to land himself that feeling; back to when every moment felt like a drink with a beautiful woman at a bar; back to when he felt that his prayers still counted, still made a difference, when praying sent a beam out into the heavens as powerful as a sunbeam breaking through clouds at the end of a prairie day, like a light beamed from a sidewalk outside the Kodak Theater at the Academy Awards. Luke didn’t feel lost, but he didn’t feel found, either.
On the mute TV above the bar, there was an ad for something colourful, useless, and no doubt destined to clog the planet’s overtaxed landfills with more crap, and for some reason, a computer-animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was endorsing the product. Luke said, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in July? We need Christmas in July like a hole in the head.”
The beautiful Rachel said, “You mean Rudolph the Useful Reindeer.”
“It’s a fact, Luke. If Rudolph hadn’t been able to help the other reindeer, they’d have left him to be eaten by wolves. I think the other reindeer would have laughed while the fangs punctured his hide. Rudolph was an outcast who became an incast only because of his utility. That’s not a judgement. It’s a statement of fact.”
Luke looked at Rachel. He had a shivering sensation that he was speaking with someone not even human, temporarily given human form. Was he simply being insecure about her beauty or was she genuinely alien? Or perhaps she was the desired end product of an entire century’s eugenic efforts at physical perfection, and with that perfection now having been achieved, humanity was now left free to pursue other avenues of perfection. He said, “I take it you’re not a big fan of Christmas?”
“I have no orthodox beliefs. I have no pictures of an afterworld for myself. In the past, I have tried to convince myself that there is life after death, but I have found myself largely unable to do this.”
Alcohol loosens tongues, and Luke knew he was in the presence of an unusual mind. He asked Rachel, “Do you believe in sin?” As he asked this, he was wondering if she considered him hot. At the same time, he was wondering if he had a chance with her. At the same time, his subconscious was churning through a list of random images: the church basement on a Tuesday morning, lit by a cold sun through the south window and quiet as abandoned Chernobyl; fragments of old Battlestar Galactica episodes beaming from his TV while he watched from the kitchen, eating Campbell’s soup straight from the can; a trio of sparrows outside his bedroom window, fighting over who got control of the ledge.
Rachel said, “I believe only in human behaviour. And I think that if your brain forces you to believe in sin, then you at least ought to calibrate sinning. Religions seem to have no Richter scale of what’s worse than something else. If you do one thing wrong, no matter how small, you’re cast away for eternity. I also find it interesting that no religion has any dimension of ecological responsibility.” Rachel paused. “Luke, I get the impression that you once believed in religion but you no longer do. Am I correct in thinking this?”
Part of Luke was wondering about Rachel’s speech patterns; hers was neither an indoor voice nor an outdoor voice — something like robotized phone menus for United Airlines: The estimated waiting time for the next available member of the United Airline’s quality assurance team is . . . seventy-five minutes. The rest of Luke was thinking about all the dark secrets he knew about his former congregation — might as well start thinking about them in the past tense now — and he thought about his family members and all the crap they put everyone else through. And he thought about his friends and their families and their ongoing family scandals. And he acknowledged that every human on earth is a bubbling cauldron of dirt and filth. Then Luke became slightly spaced out and looked once more at the TV monitor above the bar: BUS CRASH INJURES THREE. HYDRO RATES TO INCREASE 1.5 PERCENT. OPEC MEETING GENERATES CONFLICT. All the crap and evil and meanness in the world — every single person on the planet! — and the best the news can come up with is BUS CRASH INJURES THREE?
Luke looked at Rachel. “Yup. I no longer believe in God.”
“Oh. Okay. Why is that?”
“Because one morning I saw a sparrow yawn.”
“Yawning as in waking-up yawning?”