I’m fascinated by the failure of Senator Ben Sasse’s S.130 bill last monday, February 25. The bill failed, 53-44, as it needed 60 votes to pass. For all intents and purposes, the bill was about outlawing infanticide. I’m having difficulty grappling with the various permutations and possibilities that the vote portends. And, in that light, I wrote a short story to examine two different possible subtexts within the cauldron that is Washington DC.

I understand that writers are advised not to be political, as this might alienate readers. However, to be honest, I’m not particularly concerned about alienating people as opposed to simply approaching life with open eyes. There’s much more to life than selling books. At any rate, these days everything seems to be politicized, so what’s the point in tiptoeing through the minefield?

“The Painting”

As expected, the bill outlawing infanticide failed in the Senate.

Senators Smith and Jones walked back to their offices after the vote. The corridor behind them, past the security guards, was crowded with media scrabbling at the metal barriers and barking questions. The two senators ignored them.

Smith was from the northwest, Jones from the northeast. They were not friends, but they chose to be friendly due to the common goals of their party. 

“Closer than I would have liked,” said Smith, frowning slightly. It was her first term as a senator. She was a tall, slender woman dressed in a dark pantsuit. Her blonde hair was tied back in a severe bun.

“It won’t be as close next time,” said Jones. He was much older than her, shorter, pear-shaped and dressed in a well-cut charcoal grey suit. His forehead shone with sweat and he dabbed it lightly with a handkerchief. “And that’s a fact.”

She nodded coldly at him, uncertain as to his confidence, but respectful of his longer years in office.

They parted ways and went to their respective offices. The mood in both of their suites was jubilant–applause, smiles, some cheering. Both senators doled out handshakes where appropriate. Both senators went to their private offices. Their inner sanctums where they could relax in silence.

Both of them shut and locked their doors.

The private offices of Senators Smith and Jones were remarkably alike. They both had a window, a comfortable couch, several chairs for visitors, a closet, and a large desk. Smith’s desk was made out of dark mahogany. Jones’ was of black walnut.

Oddly enough, both of them had the exact same painting on the wall, though they did not know this. If either of them had discovered the similarity, I imagine they would have been first surprised, and then irritated, because they both secretly regarded themselves as highly individual people.

Jones tossed his jacket on the couch and then dragged a chair in front of the painting. He frequently did this when he needed to think or clear his mind. He found the painting to have a focusing effect on his thoughts. He sat down and stared up at the painting.

The canvas was all black. At first glance, it looked like pure, solid black. Just a big black rectangle. But, if you stared at it long enough, you could start to see the brush strokes, different thicknesses of paint, the movement and energy in the painting. You would start to see the artistry in it, the sheer genius, the living soul of the thing. Lately, Jones was convinced that he could see more in the darkness of the painting. That, somehow, in the brushstrokes and layers of black, he could see a hallway stretching deep into the painting. A long black hallway of black walls, black ceiling, black floor, and black shadows. And, at the end of the hallway, deeper and far away, a black figure sat on a black chair.

The figure was looking at him. He was sure of it.

Jones stared up at the painting.

“We did it, master,” he said softly. “The bill failed.”

He blinked, and the figure seemed closer. 

“Just as you said it would.”

Jones mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. He felt strangely dizzy. All of a sudden, he had the sensation that he was looking down at the painting. That it was somehow below him, that the room had turned ninety degrees on an invisible axis,  and that he was about to topple off his chair and fall into the painting. Tumble down that long dark hallway toward the man sitting on the chair. The man waiting for him.

That’s when he heard a sound coming from deep within the painting. A rasping sound. A hoarse, chuckling laugh.

In her office, Smith did not drag a chair in front of her painting. She merely stood in front of it, her arms crossed on her chest. She stared at the painting. Its simplicity and elegance pleased her. Black. All black. No details, no shapes, no meaning. Just black. 

To her, the painting represented the totality of what life meant. Nothing. Life meant nothing. Life had originated due to chance, however many trillions of years ago. The cosmos had blundered along on its way until conscious life had crawled out of the random collisions of stardust. Even that event was meaningless. It was only dust and time and the slow, crippled hand of blind chance.

Life.

Death.

They both meant the same thing. Nothing.

Though, for some reason, death seemed to make more sense than life. Perhaps it was because death was a return to the original state. The ancient beginning of the universe. It was where the universe yearned to return. The lifeless cold and infinite darkness before the stars ignited.

Maybe that’s why the painting resonated so much with her.

She stared at it, entranced.

Her eyes suddenly widened. She took a deep breath. But then she shook her head, a faint sneer curling her lip. 

For a brief moment, she thought she had heard a sound coming from the painting. A hoarse, chuckling laugh.

But that was ridiculous.

It was just a painting.

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