Age of Empires

Wallace Burwick, 34, Caucasian male, entered a Safeway supermarket looking for two cans of garbanzo beans and a gallon jug of drinking water. As he entered the “Canned Vegetables” aisle, he saw a middle-aged woman with poufy dark hair (indeterminate ethnicity) at the beans section, standing directly in front of the chickpeas.

Mildly annoyed at being stymied, Burwick hovered near the woman, pretending to study some canned green beans (French cut) and watching her out of the corner of his eye. She was hunched over her cart, rearranging items, pausing only to reach up and take another can of beans off the shelf. Burwick could see that they were cans of garbanzo beans. What! She was taking all the garbanzo beans! Her cart was full of them!

His annoyance ratcheting up to indignation, Burwick moved closer to the woman, eyeing the shelves to see how many cans were left. There were still almost a half dozen. “Excuse me,” he said, trying to move around the woman’s cart. But the woman wouldn’t budge, or acknowledge Burwick in any way! She just kept hooking can after can into her cart.

Outrageous! And what were even the chances that he’d come here, seeking garbanzo beans — which he rarely even ate — at the same time as another garbanzo-bean-seeker, let alone one intent upon taking all the garbanzo beans!

Burwick could only stand there, hurling his impotent glare at the woman — who he now saw was not middle aged, but a crone, an ancient, decrepit crone — as she set one final can of garbanzo beans into her cart and trundled away. As soon as she was gone, Burwick bent and studied the emptied shelves, hoping to spot a stray can or two at the back. But the shelves had been picked clean.

“Fucking ass fuck,” Burwick muttered under his breath, and, with a deep, exasperated sigh, left the “Canned Vegetables” aisle in search of the remaining article on his shopping list. As he headed towards the “Water” aisle, though, he became aware of the fullness of his bladder. He paused in front of a rack of “Ruffles” potato chips and calculated the length of time (estimated) it would take to finish his shopping and drive home, where he could urinate comfortably in his own bathroom, versus the level of his need to empty his bladder, both now and projected into a future point where he would be in his car, midway between the Safeway and his house.

He concluded that his urinary urge level — which now seemed to be rising with increasing rapidity — was such that he would do well to take care of his business here, despite the fact that the Safeway men’s room (which he had visited on several prior occasions) was sub-optimal. Burwick had visited some exceptionally clean and well-maintained supermarket restrooms in his adult life, but this Safeway restroom fell well short of that standard. Whenever feasible, Burwick chose not to use it.

Pushing another weary sigh from his chest, Burwick made his way to the restrooms — the location of which he was well familiar with, despite his policy of avoidance — past the “Candy” aisle, the “Household Cleaners,” and the “Personal Care” products. He reached a set of double doors with a faded RESTROOM sticker affixed to them, and pushed through, heading to the MEN door which, thank God, was not closed. This was a single-occupant restroom, so a closed door would indicate that the room was in use.

Burwick entered and locked the door behind him. He had lucked out in one respect, that the room was relatively clean, save for some moist-looking dark smudges on the floor directly in front of the toilet. The restroom had no urinal, so Burwick stood in front of the toilet and urinated, staring at a sign above the toilet explaining, in graphical symbols, how to use the toilet. Someone had drawn graffiti on the sign, a mass of indecipherable squiggles — Burwick thought it looked like it said “AGE OF EMPIRES,” which of course was risibly improbable — with an arrow pointing to the graphical symbols explaining how to flush. Burwick finished urinating and performed the “flush” procedure according to the specified protocol.

Moving to the sink to wash his hands, Burwick noticed that the liquid soap dispenser, normally attached to the wall, was detached and lying on an open BABY CHANGING STATION, its inner compartment facing upwards. It looked like a pale yellow horseshoe crab that had been flipped onto its back.

Burwick was brought up short by this development. How did wall-mounted liquid soap dispensers even work? All he knew was that he pressed a lever on the bottom of the dispenser with his fingertips, and liquid soap oozed out onto his upturned palm. But what happens if the dispenser is out of order — if it was not even in its proper location? He had no idea how the mechanism functioned. There was a plastic bag lying in its plastic cradle, and Burwick could see pink liquid soap through its translucent skin. If he could just figure out how to get the soap out of the god damned bag!

Studying the bag more closely, Burwick saw a tiny nipple protruding from its rumpled belly. The tip of the nipple was open! He picked up the bag, turned it over, and squeezed. A pink stream of soap dribbled onto the pad of his thumb. Placing the bag back into its plastic carapace, he turned the hot water on and lathered, then rinsed, his hands. He shut off the faucet, careful not to touch the handle with his fingers — even under optimal conditions, bathroom faucets carry over 6,000 bacteria per square inch — and made his way out to the supermarket proper.

Schlepping back through the store, backtracking past the aisles of deodorants, shampoos, and cleaning products, Burwick reflected on what had just happened. All of a sudden he felt a heavy, stinging cloud descend over his heart, and his chest tightened, seized up with existential horror.

Nothing was as it should be.

Broken soap dispensers. Garbanzo-hoarding crones.

All was wrongness.

The rest of his shopping forgotten, Burwick stumbled out of the Safeway, his eyes shimmering with tears as he made his way to his “Cosmic Gray Mica” 2006 Toyota Camry. His world was wobbling off its axis, and he was helpless to do anything but watch as it all fell apart.

In his car, he took off his thick, horn-rimmed Warby Parker glasses and rubbed his face. His skin felt waxy and clammy. The world grew dim through his windshield. The cloud was everywhere now, dark and pestilent. Burwick held his face in his hands. Everything was turning black before his eyes, and there was nothing — nothing! — he could do about it.

• • •

The next day, feeling no better than he had the afternoon before, Burwick called in sick to work, and went to his church, N__ C_______ Church of God. Luckily, Pastor Bill, a tall blond Caucasian man with Germanic features and minimal facial hair, was in his office when Burwick got there. He greeted Burwick warmly, and they sat down together in one of the pews. “What’s on your mind, Wally?” Pastor Bill asked him. “You look like you’ve had a rough night!”

Burwick wasn’t sure how he’d articulate the trauma of the previous day, but as soon as he opened his mouth to speak, the words tumbled out of him. He told Pastor Bill everything, from his encounter with the old woman in the “Canned Vegetables” aisle, to his ordeal with the soap-oozing nipple on the liquid soap bag.

As he spoke, Pastor Bill’s cheery visage darkened. His ruddy brow grew furrow after solemn furrow. Pastor Bill listened silently to Burwick’s story, only occasionally shaking his head or letting out a sympathetic “Oof.”

When Burwick was done, Pastor Bill didn’t say anything for a long time. He just stared past Burwick at the stained glass windows along the wall. “Wally,” he said finally, “you’ve endured quite a trial. I can’t blame you for being shaken up. I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d react to a situation like that. The fact that you were even able to make it here today shows that God was with you yesterday.”

“But that’s the thing,” Burwick said. “I don’t think God was with me at all. I didn’t feel His presence at all in there, in that filthy men’s room. I was completely alone — alone in a black void.”

Pastor Bill shook his head. “God is always with you,” he said. “Even when you don’t know it. His hand is always on your shoulder, even in the darkest of times.”

Burwick said, “Then where was He when I went to get some soap, and the soap dispenser was broken? His hand may have been on my shoulder, but it sure didn’t put that dispenser back on the wall!”

Agitation overtook Burwick and he stood up and started pacing up and down the aisle in front of Pastor Bill. “I don’t know, Pastor Bill,” Burwick said. “Maybe God was there, maybe He wasn’t. Either way, He didn’t do a thing to help me in my hour of need. He wasn’t there to ease my suffering. I was staring into the abyss, and God wasn’t there. So why should I even bother believing in God, worshipping God, going to church and giving praise to God? In my deepest agony — my agony! — God just stood there and watched me twist in the wind.”

“Wally,” Pastor Bill said gently, “I wish I had answers to your questions, but the only response I can give is, ‘I do not know.’ Suffering carries with it an incomprehensible mystery. There is a mystery to tragedies like this that Man cannot explain, and God doesn’t offer us easy answers. As the Bible says, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness.’1 All I can tell you is, I don’t think God wants people to suffer, but God also allows us free will to make our own choices in life, whether our choices be good or wicked. And so much of the suffering that happens in this world is at the hands of other people, not God. If God intervened whenever anyone was harmed, free will would be a joke. God gives us the freedom to make our own decisions, even if those decisions harm other people or cause them suffering. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t with us in our suffering, sharing our pain, facing the abyss by our side. That may be cold comfort when we’re hurting, but keep in mind that we puny humans are seldom capable of seeing past our own immediate needs. We can’t see very far down our roads. Oftentimes, our most miserable, painful moments, the times when we’re defeated, stomped down, at the end of our ropes, are the moments that put us on the path towards destinies greater and more fulfilling than we can imagine when we’re in the midst of our suffering — destinies along paths we’d never have taken if we hadn’t gone through what we did.”

Burwick considered Pastor Bill’s words. “Okay,” he said, “but what about suffering that doesn’t lead to anything bigger and better? What about when things just get worse and worse until we die?”

Pastor Bill said, “Physical death is the death of the flesh, not of the soul. In the greater scheme of things, all human suffering is transient — ephemeral, like the rest of our lives. But if there’s a greater form of existence in the universe — and I believe there is — we don’t know how all of this will look from that perspective. Ultimately all we can do is resign ourselves to the fact that our human minds cannot encompass the whole of the truths that underlie our existence. You wanted to wash your hands, but the liquid soap dispenser was broken. That is awful — unspeakable. I would not wish such a thing upon my worst enemy. And yet, no matter how great our suffering, from a cosmic perspective it’s miniscule. Faced with that reality, we have a choice: we can either rage against God and deny Him, and live out the rest of our lives stewing in our anger and bitterness; or we can humble ourselves before the mystery, cling to the slim reed of our faith that all will eventually be made whole, and do the best we can to minimize the amount of suffering in the world.”

• • •

Burwick never found the answers he was looking for. Before him lay a long, difficult journey through the darkness, and for most of that journey he walked alone.

After some time had passed, though, Burwick discovered that the anguish of that wretched day, when he had gone to wash his hands and found the soap dispenser lying on that BABY CHANGING STATION, broken and useless, had faded in his memories. Though he could recall with perfect clarity every single moment, and would remember until his dying day, the pain of it dimmed a little more with each passing year. And where that pain had been, Burwick could make out a faint glow — of hope.

Several years later, a few weeks before his 39th birthday, Burwick met a woman. A few months after that, they moved in together, into a charming Craftsman-style bungalow in a pleasant neighborhood in G_______, California.

Burwick only spoke of the liquid soap incident to his girlfriend once, late at night, when they were both intoxicated on Wild Turkey and lying in bed. Afterwards, she held him as he wept. Six months after that night, Burwick proposed, and she accepted. They were married a month later, in a small ceremony with family and close friends at N__ C_______ Church of God, officiated by Pastor Bill.

Burwick and his wife had three children, who grew up to be reasonably happy adults. His wife died a few months short of their 30th anniversary, of complications from surgery to remove a malignant tumor in her spine. Burwick, who was diabetic, himself passed away two years later, from a stroke.