The representative had a dream. In his dream, he has just assumed office and his immediate assignment is to attend one of two meetings that are part of an emergency conference. He pores through a small guidebook that has been provided to him filled with indecipherable characters and symbols from an unknown language, searching for a clue to his assigned destination. He realizes in a paroxysm of the kind of subconscious clarity that occurs in dreams that he is standing outside of a long hallway that runs off to the right as far as he can see.
He glances at the guidebook and the number 343 comes into his mind, although it doesn’t seem to appear on the page. He moves down the hall past a series of doors until he arrives at 343. He opens the door and sees a cavernous banquet room filled with serious men talking urgently in small groups. He can make out no specific conversation but the sum of the voices produces a soothing, collegial din. No one pays attention to him as he walks slowly through the room. It occurs to him that he has made the wrong choice – he must have been needed at the other meeting. Just as panic begins to seep in he sees a man standing alone before a closet-sized, alabaster box. He goes up to the man and says “Excuse me, I’m a newcomer and I’m required to attend one of these meetings, but I can’t make sense out of the guidebook I have.”
The man looks at the guide and laughs quietly.
“No wonder you’re having trouble,” he says with an avuncular shake of his balding head. He gestures at the box and a sliding door opens to reveal a gilded video terminal showing a conference schedule on a continuous loop. The representative is transfixed by the video screen, which shows bland nature scenes with subtitles listing each conference meeting. Ambient music accompanies the views and for a moment he feels like he has just fastened his seat belt before takeoff.
He realizes at once that the men have left the room and he is alone. On a table to the right of the closet is a large, leather bound book labeled “Conference Directory.” He decides to take this book since it appears to have been left behind along with unfinished food and drink. Now that the men are gone he also sees that the tables are strewn with open boxes of expensive cigars, bottles of the finest port and cognac and string pouches filled with gold coins minted in denominations he doesn’t recognize.
Somehow he has acquired a shopping bag, and he begins to stuff it with the cigars, some of which unravel as he hastily bags them, cramming in bottles of liquor and bags of coins until the sides begin to rip.
“This is what being a leader of men is all about,” he thinks with pride, congratulating himself on his quick-wittedness and skill at acquiring the wealth.
Back in his room he is filled with a sense of self worth he has never experienced before and begins to fashion warm, sure-handed expressions of patriotism. His eyes fill with tears of grandeur as he contemplates his great fortune and his leadership ability.
The balding man enters the room without knocking. He looks at the loot and utters a quiet laugh.
“I can see you thought those things were for the taking,” he reasoned. “Actually they are a tribute to God. We are under attack and this urgent meeting was called to appease his wrath. Many secret riches were offered. But I can see you were not greedy and took only what your bag could hold and no more. You are prudent. God looks favorably on the patriot who measures his plunder. If you had known the goods were not for the taking it would have gone hard on you, but since you are new here you will be allowed to keep everything you carried from the room, providing that you fulfill the requirements of being a good representative.”
The representative was overwhelmed by such largesse. What a great God it is that gives such riches to the humble!
“Of course,” he heard himself say. “What is required of me?”
The balding man sat down. “Right now you are required to do nothing,” he responded.
“God works in mysterious ways,” the balding man continued, measuring his tone carefully, pronouncing each word slowly, like an incantation. “Many of your people have angered Him. There will be a terrible catastrophe that will destroy them in great numbers. You will be required to do nothing, that is, until this disaster takes place. Then you must join with all of us and declare God’s superiority over all other gods. At that point we will begin the final war, the war that will lead us to the end of time when we will all be with God forever.
“Excuse me, but what good will these riches do me in that case?” he found himself asking.
“Owning them is its own reward,” the balding man said sternly. “Enjoy them while you can.”
And so he did.
The representative awoke and realized he had been dreaming. He knew he desperately had to return to the dream state to alter this terrible outcome. He forced himself back to sleep and returned to the room, where he found the balding man once again.
“Excuse me, but what if there is no God?” he found himself asking.
“The wrath of God surely exists,” the balding man said sternly. “Even if God does not.”
About John Swenson:
John Swenson is a rock critic colleague of mine who wrote the highly prophetic fictional story above a couple of days after September 11, 2001. John emailed the file to me and few other friends but for some reason has never bothered to publish it, which is a shame, because it’s brilliant. While John lives here in NYC, he owns a home in New Orleans which was destroyed in the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. I couldn’t stop thinking about John’s story as I rode home on the bus yesterday, and when I mentioned to John in an email how much his words have continued to haunt me, he gave me permission to print Election Day on my website. A few people who’ve read it tell me that the story is “too arty” for them, but I don’t even know what they’re talking about. I mean, isn’t a story supposed to be a piece of art? All I can say is that I hope John’s words will at the very least provoke some thought.