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Response 4: I regret not being someone else entirely.
There is some debate over whether the attack on the colleague was premeditated. Certainly Elihu Wingate was not in the habit of inviting Dan Keegan out to MacTeer State Park to go canoeing. That they ended up hiking along the High View Trail, that Elihu Wingate chose to sit down at the Scenic Vista Overlook rather than, say, a picnic table nowhere in sight of a cliffside, seems purely fortuitous.
Dan Keegan has told us he remembers a remark Elihu Wingate made as they waited in line at the canoe rental. A question he’d brought up once before, something about why they didn’t try studying religious beliefs, and Dan had responded by suggesting that none of their usual clients would be interested in such research. “And if you can’t fund it, you can’t do it. That’s a pretty simple law of research. Supply and demand.”
He can’t precisely reconstruct those moments at cliff’s edge, Elihu Wingate on top of him, grabbing his lapels, “Just answer the question! For God’s sake, do you understand that you’re hovering over an abyss?” and Dan, in retrospect embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to come up with anything more memorable than, “Dude, what’s up?”
People had never taken Dan Keegan for a liar, but there was a fair amount of incredulity in response to his story. Even Dan’s wife found it hard to believe that Elihu Wingate was responsible, even after Dan had taken off his shirt and she had run her hand over his back, felt the dents in his skin from being pressed down on pebbly soil.
Really, can you imagine the scene? Dan Keegan knocked on his back, scuffling in the dirt, dragged to the edge of a cliff? By Elihu Wingate?
The next day Elihu Wingate walks into Dan’s office.
“I regret,” Elihu Wingate says, “that I almost killed you.”
“Not a problem, sport. I regret that I couldn’t come up with a better answer to your question.”
They shake hands.
“See you at lunch.”
Elihu Wingate looks through his Pending file, finds Question # 4: What do you regret?
He considers writing, I regret studying regret, but that isn’t true.
Still, he would like to branch out.
I regret not studying religion, in a massive, systematic, groundbreaking way.
Elihu Wingate opens a document on his computer, a letter he’s composing to the editor of Social Psychology Abstracts. “When psychologists study religious beliefs, we claim to take a neutral stance on the truth-value of those beliefs, but nevertheless our underlying assumption is that the miracles, the communication with spiritual beings, the consciousness ascribed to supposedly inanimate things (rocks, rivers, etc.), aren’t actually real. What if we carried out studies with the opposite assumption: that a religious orientation is not something we make up to comfort ourselves, but an ability to perceive specific aspects of reality—a sense, if you will, like sight or hearing?”
Elihu Wingate wants to ask new questions, capture thoughts people think only to themselves, if that. He wants to be a voice that’s more like a breath playing against your neck, or your own breathing, or a thought that comes to you on its own:
When did you first think there was something more to this life? What made you wonder? What made you hope? When did you feel the connection?
When was the first time you thought this world was alive?
At home Elihu Wingate relaxes by the pool, glass of iced tea at his elbow. He closes his eyes, listens to the voices wafting around him: “Water’s great, not too cold.” “Your serve.” “I should weed the lettuce tomorrow.”
He feels tiny porcelain hands patting him, soothing him.
“You I can believe in,” Elihu Wingate says.
Perhaps you’re wondering what part not to believe.
The lusciousness of the ex-wife’s new, young husband? His delightfully phallic name?
Those wistful conversations with the pseudonymous Scylla?
The fact that the Virgins sounded like Queen Elizabeth?
They were tiny, after all, and made of porcelain. What else would they sound like?