The is the first of the godstories I wrote. It’s quite silly. I trust God can handle silly.
The Berovian National Orchestra
While passing by Earth on his way to a barbecue the Qwilps are throwing in his honor, God moves through the usual tide of human prayers like a sewer worker in waders. Humans are big prayersâ€”me, me, me, me, please, please, please, please, why, why, why, why. Make me good, make me rich, make me forget, make an appearance, make a religion, make the bastards pay. Thy will be done, kingdom come, save my bum, thank you, thank you, thank you. Forgiâ€”
â€œOh, leave off it,â€� God mutters and stops just long enough to interrupt Larry King Live to say he wants to ask humansâ€”his favorite species in all the universe, he assures Larryâ€”to do him, God, a personal favor: â€œIâ€™d like a concert,â€� he says. â€œSomething real pretty. Iâ€™m especially fond of the Brandenburg Concertos, but anything will do. Surprise me. Mornings are good. Iâ€™ll plan on January 26th. Sorry I donâ€™t have time to talk, but Iâ€™m expected somewhere else.â€� Lots of somewhere elses, actually, but God doesn’t elaborate.
â€œSure,â€� says Larry King, speaking on behalf of the people of Earth. â€œWeâ€™ll get right on it. It will be the most beautiful concert the world has ever heard. You saw it here first, ladies and gentlemen! Live! God, ladies and gentlemen! God!â€�
It isn’t really Larry King, but a digital simulation. The real one, the Live one, has long since been pushing up daisies. But people don’t care about that. Nothing’s really real, right? But God, that’s like truly unique. The Easter Bunny, the Bogey Man, the Tooth Fairy of the Universe is actually real? This is awesome, though nobody says awesome anymore. Maybe this will bring awesome back. People ponder these and other questions as they clean up wrapping paper and mail in warranty cards and attempt to determine just how much assembly is required.
January 26th is exactly one month away.
* * * *
Right away the President of Freedom Enterprisesâ€”the largest (indeed, the only) corporation in the world (the One, True Company, as the President likes to call it)â€”calls an emergency meeting “to initiate the process to ultimately determine who will represent the human race and Freedom Enterprises in arguably the greatest undertaking Earth has ever known: Making a Beautiful Music Before the Lord!”
Don’t ask the President what it means, though he thinks the last line sounds a little too touchy-feely. But he doesn’t make this stuff up himself, you understand. He’s got a fresh batch of writers on the job. The President likes these new guys better than the last ones. He never knew what the hell those guys meant either, but they were always getting him in trouble. These new guys make him sound smart without pissing anybody off. So what if the oldest one is 24? She has a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and sheâ€™s cute as a button.
Lucky for the human race, government has been privatized, assuring the availability of the fullest range of options, so that Earth might focus its efforts on successâ€”and accept no less. The President practices this line and two or three others in his head as the room fills up with important people. He doesn’t know what any of the lines mean, but they sound good. Very leader like. Itâ€™s a very high power crowd.
The President is particularly excited about a clone of Ann Landers whoâ€™s been rushed to completion to help with the big decision. The President has always wanted to meet her. He considers her a key shaping influence in his formative years. He was having some problems, he wrote her as HAPLESS IN HOUSTON. His wife, his girlfriend then, helped him write it, well, wrote it, actually, but anyway, Ann answered and set him on the path to success. So the President figured it was payback time when the Clone Ann project needed funding.
As he approaches her with his hand outstretched, he worries maybe theyâ€™ve rushed her a little too much: She looks pretty whacked, like maybe she has a wee problem with cocaine and tequila herself. Just as they’re about to shakeâ€”you can always tell a good clone from the handshakeâ€”some flake from California, who managed to crash the meeting by pretending to be a journalist, interviewing anyone who tried to stop her, mounts the podium and calls out: â€œFellow humans, no decision is necessary, let us all, the whole world, hum, sing, and whistle a tune in unison, each according to his or her abilities, making of the human race, a living orchestra, a tribute to the Creator of all music, the Lord God of the Universe!â€�
No need to call security to toss her out. She’s laughed right out of the room with that one. Especially that “each according to his or her abilitiesâ€� crap. God is all about the best, right?
No, make no mistake about it, this is a job for a professional orchestra, the best orchestra, obviously, in the whole world. The President uses one of his three lines he believes comes closest to saying that, adding off script, “I think you good people know what I mean.” Then they get right down to business. One of the important people suggests one orchestra, and then an equally important person suggests another. Pretty soon all the important people are arguing bitterly about which orchestra is better and how their orchestra makes all the rest of them sound like a bad AM radio.
This isn’t working out so good, the President thinks, but not a one of his three lines has turned the thing around. He’ll just have to wing it, no matter how many times his advisors have advised him not to. He’s the President, dammit. He can wing it if he wants to. He’s on the verge of asking the Ann Landers clone what she thinks. She hasn’t said a word but just sits there humming, and it’s getting on his nerves. If she has to talk, at least she’ll quit the damn humming. Never try to meet your heroes, he reminds himself. It never works out.
Just then the Secretary of Very Important Art, a smooth character if ever there was one, suggests that any one orchestra is not up to the task, that what’s needed is an orchestra made up of all the best musicians in the world, for only they can be said to be the best possible orchestra, and they will play for God.
â€œLike the Dream Team,â€� says the President, who isn’t a particularly smooth fellow himself but appreciates the quality in others. â€œI like it. The best of the best. This isnâ€™t any lousy bum on the street weâ€™re talking about here,â€� the President says weightily, â€œThis is God. I think we owe him our best shot. Are you with me?â€�
Everyone nods except the one person in the room who isn’t afraid of the President, and he speaks right up. â€œHe could be some bum on the street if he wanted to,â€� says the janitor, who just happens to be emptying the trash can in the meeting room, like a refugee from a Frank Capra movie. He has on a uniform with Alfonse stitched over his heart and everything. Maybe he’s an Angel of the Lord. Who knows? Whoever he is, he isn’t shy, and he speaks with a thick Berovian accent.
â€œIsnâ€™t that the whole idea of God, that he can do anything?â€� the janitor asks all the leaders of the world, who turn to the President for their answer.
â€œWho is this idiot?â€� asks the President.
And the janitor replies, â€œI am Alfonse the Janitor, and I know a thing or two about music, and I say you should get the Berovian National Orchestra, for they play the most beautiful music in all the world.â€�
â€œNever heard of them!â€� they all shout and have him thrown out into the street. Once the hubbub subsides, the President places calls to Great Musicians Magazine, The Great Music Network, Muzak, MTV, and other subsidiaries of Freedom Enterprises to find out who, in fact, the greatest musicians in the world are. And just to be safe, he also calls up Rolling Stone and Dick Clark, who still looks as young as he ever did. The President’s wife suggests a call to Leonard Bernstein, but, unfortunately, he’s dead.
After much wrangling and a complex decision making process culminating in a sÃ©ance with Leonard Bernstein and Liberace, a list of musicians good enough to play for God is agreed upon by a blue-ribbon panel of experts consisting entirely of people who know their music, know the President, or know the Secretary of Very Important Art. A couple of them know all three.
Wishing to leave nothing to chance, nor share any of the credit, the President decides to call on each musician on the list personally, with a massive press corps in tow, to inform the musicians of their good fortune in being chosen to entertain the Lord God of Hosts. He thinks this sounds a little over the top, but his advisors insist plain old â€œGodâ€� wonâ€™t do.
The Secretary of Very Important Art briefs the President on good music and musicians in the back of the limo, but he still doesn’t know a sonata from a Camaro. Doesn’t matter. The concert’s not for him. He imagines if he can pull this concert deal off, God might give him a leg up elsewhere in the universe, exporting the Freedom Enterprises concept to freedom loving customers everywhere. If he has God on his side, the President figures, he won’t need so damn many advisors.
But first he’s got to get these musicians signed, sealed, and delivered. He doesn’t anticipate any problems. Like I said, he doesn’t know much about music, or musicians either.
Their first stop is the home of Rudolf Rudolfo, the world-famous violinist, high in the foothills of somewhere gorgeous. Rudolfo is delighted to see the cameras and take the world on a two-hour live satellite feed tour of his place at two gazillion dollars a minute while the President is forced to tag along, enduring an excruciatingly maudlin story about Rudolfoâ€™s acquisition of a two-point-six-million dollar painting of a fat woman taking a mudbathâ€”or at least thatâ€™s what it looks like to the President, who usually leaves all the painting stuff up to his wife.
When the President finally gets around to popping the question to Rudolf Rudolfo, half the world is asleep, and one of the violinistâ€™s obnoxious little dogs is furiously humping the Presidentâ€™s leg. One of the cameramen zooms in on the action, and the director, whose great aunt on his motherâ€™s sideâ€”may she rest in peaceâ€”happened to be Berovian, goes with the shot, as the world waits for Rudolfo’s answer.
â€œItâ€™s the lights makes him do that,â€� Rudolfo observes, then tells the world the maudlin story of how he originally came to be blessed with the humping little cur banging the President’s shin for all the world to see, before finally getting around to answering the Presidentâ€™s question: â€œOf course, I will be delighted to perform for God,â€� says Rudolf Rudolfo, with a charming little laugh. â€œI will play first violin, and I hope you donâ€™t waste your time and mine on the likes of Uzu Uzulu or Simone Simone or Isaac Isaacsâ€”for they are all second-rate hacks unworthy of even thinking about performing for God, and certainly not on the same stage with me!â€�
Well, it so happens that Uzu Uzulu, Simone Simone, and Isaac Isaacs are the other names at the top of the President’s list. And when he asks them to play, they all say the same thingâ€”they all must be first violin, of course, but since they weren’t asked first, they refuse to play at all! But at least the President is spared their houses, their art, and their dogs.
And so it goes with every instrument except the worldâ€™s greatest triangle player who’s touched the President thought to ask, and would be glad to play, but he doesn’t think there’s a triangle part in the Brandenburg Concertos. He plays accordion, too, he says, and he offers to play for God on that. â€œYou can play anything on the accordion,â€� he says, but the President isn’t buying it.
Even so, he clearly has to give up on the idea of the best of the best and figure out who the hell he can get to play, no matter how many important people he pisses off.
It doesn’t go well.
By mid January, all the really big, important orchestras have said they can’t possibly be expected to play for God on such short notice, and why weren’t they asked in the first place?
There’s no question the President has bungled the whole thing. Rumors are flying, and shares of Freedom Enterprises are plummeting like Lucifer from Heaven. It will take a miracle, he figures, to save his bacon. But it isn’t all his fault. Godâ€™s reputation doesn’t help matters any. What if God doesn’t like it? everybody wants to know. He has a violent temper, it’s said, always smiting somebody or something on some flimsy pretext or other. â€œVengeance is mineâ€� isn’t a clause anyone wants in their contract. In short, nobody wants the job, and they haven’t even talked conductors yet.
By the time it’s January 25th, the President has run out of options. He feels he’s being personally tested. Heâ€™s never been good at tests, though he once excelled at cheating and had an Ivy League degree to prove it. Lot of good that does him. His old fraternity brothers who helped him cheat won’t even return his calls now. The President is on his own. As heâ€™s done plenty of nights already, he kneels beside his bed and prays. Me, me, me, me, please, please, please, please, why, why, why, why….
* * * *
Meanwhile, Alfonse the Janitor keeps himself informed of everything by emptying the right trash cans at the right time in the right place, even while the President is praying. Somehow Alfonse has kept his security clearance in spite of being tossed out on his ear. By the Grace of God maybe? It helps that as long as he doesn’t speak up, he’s generally invisible to anyone more important than himself, which is just about everyone. James Bond notwithstanding, and despite the unlikelihood of their ever inheriting the Earth as long as Freedom Enterprises is running the show, the meek make damn good spies.
But sometimes just knowing everything isnâ€™t enough. Sometimes you have to act on what you know. As he listens to the President praying, he comes to understand that he, Alfonse the Janitor, will have to take matters into his own hands like a trashcan full of shredded documents that need dumping. He leaves work early and goes to his cousin Mike, who happens to conduct the Berovian National Orchestra, and tells him they should play for God tomorrow.
â€œYouâ€™re kidding,â€� says Mike. â€œWeâ€™re nobodies.â€�
Berovia, you see, is a tiny country halfway between Asia and South America and Africa. They do things a little differently there, and everybody who’s ever heard of the Beroviansâ€”maybe a half-dozen non-Berovians altogether, think they’re pretty weird. Their orchestra, for example, only plays music nobody has ever heard ofâ€”all composed by Beroviansâ€”unpublished, of course. There are no publishers in Berovia, which is just one of the many reasons nobody’s ever heard of them.
Even though Berovian refugees are in every major city and in a few of the minor onesâ€”wars are always raging at their bordersâ€”no one notices them. They never open restaurants for one thing. Berovian foodâ€”stews mostly, that really get good about the fourth dayâ€”give most non-Berovians gas. They don’t believe in televised sports, so no Berovian athlete’s ever inspired millions or been arrested. They steal all their folk dances from other countries and change them to 5/6 time, making them impossible for anyone but Berovians to learn. For these and many other reasons, there has never been a famous Berovian person, place, or thing, except maybe to other Berovians. Thatâ€™s what Mike means when he says Berovians are nobodies, and both he and Alfonse, like all true Berovians, are damn proud of it.
â€œBut howâ€™s it going to look when God shows up tomorrow,â€� Alfonse asks his cousin, â€œand there’s no music? How often is it God asks us for something?â€�
â€œI see your point,â€� says Mike. â€œWeâ€™ll give it a try.â€�
So Mike calls up the orchestra. They all take off work, calling in sick mostly, and practice all night. Lots of trashcans don’t get emptied that night, lots of floors don’t get mopped and buffed, lots of sidewalks aren’t swept, lots of donuts aren’t fried.
Most of the Berovians practice in uniform, their names stitched across their hearts, for Mike caught them as they were going out the door to catch the bus, or try to get their old cars started. Berovians make Cubans look like theyâ€™re trying to keep up with the Joneses. When they called in sick, 32.7% of them were told by their bosses, if they didnâ€™t come in to work, they could forget ever coming in again, which they promptly did, a distinctly Berovian skill, and by morning, after a night of practicing, they sound terrific. Some might say awesome, if anyone said awesome anymore.
Nobody has remembered to rent tuxes, and by the time they hunt in vain for a place that’s open, they don’t even have time to shower and change out of their work clothes. They have a long drive to the Freedom Enterprises Stadium where Godâ€™s concert is to be held. They all pack into the Broad Street Local, driven by the piccolo player, who gets to the end of his route and just keeps driving right on out of town. In addition to the 32.7% mentioned above, the cameraman and the director who went with the dog-humping-President shot mentioned above that, and now the piccolo player bus driver, dozens of people lose their jobs over this loopy concert before it’s over. That’s the trouble with Godâ€”He can stir up trouble without half trying. But He’s got to know that, right? He’s got to know everything.
* * * *
Early on, the President generously offered the Freedom Enterprises Stadium for the concert to stem the tide of suggestionsâ€”Jerusalem, Mecca, Mt. Everest, Gracelandâ€”that kept pouring in. He made an executive decision based on sound principles: His stadium is the biggest. God obviously likes things big. He’s a big guy. There isn’t time to build one bigger. End of discussion. Who’s going to argue with the President of Freedom Enterprises? Musicians, thatâ€™s who, for they’ve all refused to play. Still, the place looks great, and it’s packed. The President always likes to see it full.
As usual, the public has been kept completely in the dark, where they’ve been having a wonderful time getting ready for Godâ€™s Concert Day as everyone calls itâ€”an instant media event that’s been gaining momentum for one endless month. No end of cute shindigs are being thrown on Godâ€™s Concert Day to make it truly special. New Yearâ€™s scarcely got a nod. Times Square was deserted. Everybody was gearing up for Godâ€™s Concert Day. The last few days you couldnâ€™t go half a block without hearing some version or other of the Brandenburg Concertos. Even Alvin and the Chipmunks were brought out of retirement to do a cover. Most people believe the identities of the musicians who will actually perform for God are being kept secret as part of the fun. The President only wishes.
All attempts to pray for a postponement have gotten him nowhereâ€”but the President doesn’t think it’s a good idea just to stand God up. Since negotiations with both the mossback Rolling Stones and the 101 Strings fell through in the middle of the night, the President has finally run out of options. He’s thought about calling up the accordionist, but he just can’t go there. Does God like polkas? Zydeco? Flaco Jimenez? “Lady of Spain”? He can’t take the chance. He’s been brought up right, in spite of a few youthful indiscretions. He knows what God likes. This is his chance to be one of those heroes his speech writers are always on about. He doesn’t have a bad tenor voice, with a natural vibrato. He’s prepared to sing, if sing he must, â€œAmazing Grace,â€� over the loud objections of both his wife and the Secretary of Very Important Art. He told them they could sing if they didn’t like it, and that shut them up.
There’s always the chance, of course, that God won’t show. He’s notorious for standing people up, letting them down, leading them on a wild goose chase through some wilderness or other. Maybe it wasnâ€™t even God at all who showed up on Larry King a month ago but some special effect cooked up by a crazy hacker living in a little cabin or cave somewhere, laughing at everyone, at the President especially. If that turns out to be the case, the President muses, a military solution might be in order. He hates worse than anything being laughed at.
But what if God does show? That could be way worse.
Just then the Berovian National Orchestra takes to the stage. Theyâ€™ve had no trouble getting past security. They all have their names stitched over their hearts, and they look like theyâ€™ve been working all night. The guards figure the Berovians are probably the ones who have the place looking so great, and they aren’t wrong, since the night crew was made up entirely of Berovians who are now sitting in the stands with thousands of other gate-crashing Berovians. Word spreads quickly in the Berovian community, and they’ve come from far and wide to hear their orchestra play for God.
The President can’t believe his eyes when he sees a bunch of janitors and donut cooks and Merry Maids with instruments take to the stage. â€œWho are these bozos?â€� he wants to know.
â€œTheyâ€™re not bozos, theyâ€™re Berovians,â€� Alfonse the Janitor tells him, emptying the trashcan in the Presidentâ€™s luxury box. â€œThey play the most beautiful music in all the world.â€�
The Secretary of Very Important Art asks, â€œBut can they play the Brandenburg Concertos?â€�
â€œWell, no,â€� says Alfonse, â€œFor that you’ve got Public Radio. They’ve rehearsed something better: Boboâ€™s 12th Symphonyâ€”his most beautiful symphony of all.â€�
The President orders his two dozen bodyguards to throw the whole Berovian National Orchestra off the stage, just as God walks into the Presidential Box and sits down in the truly enormous chair made special for this occasion, shedding grace all over the stadium.
The crowd, most of whom have never seen God in person before, goes wild.
While the President is wondering what to do next, Mike, taking the applause as his cue, taps his baton on a music stand swaying under the burden of a crumpled, hand-written score smelling of sardines and strong coffee, and the Berovian National Orchestra begins to play Boboâ€™s 12th Symphony perfectly, just as Bobo dreamed it would someday be played when he composed it in his tiny apartment in Berovia, just on the outskirts of Gizbah, overlooking the Great Flat Lake.
It’s the most beautiful music in all the world, and when the last note fades into silence, God leaps to his feet, doing substantial damage to the Presidential Box, applauding wildly, shouting out bravos and whistling whistles like youâ€™ve never heard in your lifeâ€”on live satellite feed at two gazillion dollars a minute. Finally, he bends down to ask the President, â€œWho are these guys anyway?â€�
â€œTheyâ€™re the Berovian National Orchestra, Your Most Exalted Divinity,â€� the President says, in fear and trembling, thinking, I came this close to singing â€œAmazing Graceâ€� to this cosmic nutcase. Who knows how that wouldâ€™ve turned out?
â€œNever heard of them,â€� God says. â€œBut theyâ€™re really awesome.â€�
Everyone nods vigorously.
â€œAnd what was that piece they were playing?â€� God wants to know.
â€œBoboâ€™s 12th Symphony,â€� the Secretary of Very Important Art says in a hoarse, strained whisper.
â€œNever heard of it,â€� says God. He straightens up and stretches and looks quite happy, in spite of his wrathful reputation. â€œYou learn something every day, donâ€™t you?â€� Then he whistles the part in the last movement of Boboâ€™s 12th that sounds like trumpeting elephants dancing the rhumba. He does all the instruments himself. Everybody has to pretend to like it. He’s God, after all.
* * * *
After the pictures and the interviews and all of that, God invites the Berovians to his place for a party, and the orchestra plays Boboâ€™s other eleven symphonies for him. None of them are quite as beautiful as the 12th, but God doesn’t seem to mind.
He spreads the word about the Berovian National Orchestra, and now theyâ€™re the talk of the universe. Theyâ€™re already booked to play the Qwilpsâ€™ next barbecue. By then they hope to have worked in the accordion player. After that theyâ€™ll accompany the Ann Landers clone (whoâ€™s embarked upon a singing career) in her performance of an aria from Boboâ€™s recently discovered opera, The Meadowlark. Itâ€™s all part of an intergalactic Bobo symposium to be held in Gizbah on the shores of the Great Flat Lake.
Godâ€™s been invited but hasnâ€™t yet said heâ€™ll attend. Your petitionary prayers are encouraged. The proper form is available upon request from the Secretary of Very Important Art, who, incidentally, is now the worldâ€™s leading expert on Berovia and all things Berovian, even though heâ€™s never actually been there himself.