Normally Brooks McSwolly would have cursed the traffic and the wasted time, but on this day he was in no hurry to make his way home after work. A simply but costly transcription error caused a ladies' health club chain to receive ten thousand urinals, and cost Brooks his job as a salesman with one of the country's largest bathroom supply firms. He'd been a real up-and-comer -- skillful at his trade and popular with his superiors. He'd even won his company's prestigious "Porcelain Peddler of the Year" award. I was really going somewhere in life. . .He steered his BMW onto the exit ramp. . .But now I've got nothing.

Normally Brooks returned home to watch television sitcoms, but on this day he poured himself a drink and settled into his easy chair, uncharacteristically immersed in thought. In spite of the Jack Daniel's, his mind seemed clear, and he asked himself a searching question: What is the purpose of life? At a loss for the answer, he stared at the ceiling in frustration, as if appeal to the plaster could yield some insight from above. For 27 years he'd taken so many things for granted, felt so much confidence in his direction through life, yet he was utterly unable to answer such a simple but important question. Whatever it is, the answer must entail some type of progress toward a tangible goal. How unfulfilling to simply be born, live, then die. . .hmmm. . .but what is progress?. . .of course, my job. . .sell more toilets, regional sales manager, then vice president! My salary rises, I have more money than before. . .yes, this is progress!

Brooks reclined his chair and smiled in triumphant satisfaction. Perhaps all was not lost; perhaps he would find another job and return to the island of stability he once inhabited. But wait. . .toilet salesmen make money only so long as humans need toilets. . .Shit, just the same with money itself. . .If the world collectively decided today that it had no use for money, every vice president of every toilet company would be out of luck. . .and money. Brooks thought long and hard: Everyone works their lives away, but for what? Money. . .can't they see? It comes and goes like the wind. . .nothing lasting, eternal. They run the rat-race all their lives, just like Sisyphus, pushing his rock up an infinity of hills. But the only thing that makes it bearable is the implied end, the purpose of the struggle. That life has no purpose. . .can't they see? My life has no purpose. . . just another slave to the almighty dollar. . .then I die.

Despondent, Brooks ran his fingers through his hair. He felt like killing himself. Rising from the chair, he opened the sliding glass door and walked onto the balcony of his apartment. Leaning against the rusted metal railing, he swirled the contents of the whiskey glass, gazing numbly at the asphalt panorama before him: a parking lot filled with shiny new sports cars, the unceasing whoosh of evening freeway traffic, the putrid glow of neon signs. Like a million lemmings. . .rushing to stay with the pack. . .can't they see? Cliffs ahead!!! Brooks had to chuckle audibly at that thought. For no particular reason he began to read one of the many lighted billboards that lined the freeway. He'd passed it literally a thousand times, but never paid it any attention. Tonight, however, it made perfect sense.

LOST YOUR WAY ON THE ROAD OF LIFE?

LET US BE YOUR ROADMAP. . .

THE FIRST SHINY CHURCH OF GOD

Services: Sunday 9:00-10:30-noon, Wednesday 8:00 p.m.

Hmmm. . .guess I am lost. . . With this in mind Brooks glanced at his watch - 7:45 - he still had time to catch the evening service.

The enormous Shiny Temple protruded unnaturally from the suburban skyline; the towering metal spires and blinking neon sign advertising its presence from miles away. He parked his car and jogged inside just as the service began. He took a seat next to a well-dressed forty-something woman with two enormous diamonds on her hand and seemingly very few wrinkles for her age. As she shook Brooks' hand, her extremely large, pert breasts jiggled ever so slightly. Brooks brimmed with hope. He was among kindred spirits; people just like himself who searched for the purpose and meaning in the human struggle, who grasped for the eternal, for the answers to the real questions. Yes, they understand. . .born into sin, Original Sin. . .but live according to the Word of God, and they grow pure, then immortal. They have something to strive for, a lasting purpose. . .

An older man strode across the stage, rather insignificant-looking compared to the towering backdrop of the temple, with his grandfatherly white hair and conservative attire. He intoned in a voice more soothing than his looks: "Good evening brothers and sisters, and welcome to our service, here in the beautiful Shiny Temple. I'd like to talk to you tonight about finding peace and contentment in this sometimes crazy world. . ." Brooks listened raptly. ". . .The greatest sin one can commit, brothers and sisters, is the sin of self-comparison. It is so easy to get caught up in the 'rat-race' at work, comparing oneself to co-workers and bosses, their expensive cars, their big homes and salaries. God has a plan for us all; some of us are destined to make lots of money, some of us aren't. As soon as we accept God's plan, we find contentment and peace, regardless of our station in life. Live out God's plan until you die, and the eternal glory of heaven will be yours. And now, before the hymn is sung, I ask you all to place a monetary donation into the collection plates as they pass. If you don't have enough money to give, don't worry. But if you do, please reach into your pockets and pour out your love for God. . ."

In disbelief Brooks intently followed the pastor as he walked offstage. Is that it? Is that it? Startled by a tap on the shoulder, Brooks glanced upward to see a ridiculous-looking man standing in the aisle, wearing an Italian suit and a beaming fake smile: "Please pass the donation plate, brother." With a scornful expression, Brooks yanked the plate from the man's hands, then stomped toward the door after tossing it to his silicone-enhanced neighbor, who flinched in amazement.

Answers? Hmph! It all revolves around money. How did they build that gaudy metal temple? With money. They didn't put up that billboard to help me; they just want my damn money! Brooks seethed with a combination of anger and disillusionment as he drove home. And what the hell is "God's Word?" God's Word is what that man says it is. . .he needs money, so he has to appeal to the people, make them want to give him money. . .soothe them. It's all so perfect - if you're poor, it's just your destiny, so be happy. If you're rich, don't feel guilty on account of those who aren't. . .give money to the church. . .God will use it. . .God needs money. . .God needs you! What bullshit! God gets richer, but what use does HE have for money? God's Word is supposed to be unchanging. . .a path to immortality. . .to transcendance of this physical world. Churches and religions. . .hmmm. . .just products of the whims of men over time and space. . .

Somewhat dejected, but still intent on finding his answers, Brooks returned home and hurriedly packed a suitcase. Got to get away from man. . .the answers must come from something. . .more. He also grabbed his expensive but little-used fly rod, a Christmas present from an ex-girlfriend. You never know... Packing his gear in the trunk of the car, he was soon on the road with no destination in mind.

At sunrise two days later, Brooks crossed into a national forest in the mountains of Montana. He pulled his car off the road in the base of a valley and gazed to the east, into the pink sunlight that roused the vast plains from their slumber. Oblique rays of sunlight reflected brilliantly from a stream, giving the icy cold water the appearence of molten iron as it snaked eastward across the grasslands. Stream changed to river, then river to horizon. Turning westward, Brooks followed the stream to its hidden origins amongst the great peaks of the Rocky Mountains. To distract himself from the pangs of utter loneliness and insignificance that he felt in the face of such a scene, Brooks decided to occupy himself by fishing in the stream. He climbed down the roadbed, rod in hand, and sat on a tree stump while he prepared his equipment. Water gurgled around rocks, rushed through shallows, idly flowed through deep pools. Fish rose to the surface periodically, slurping doomed insects from the water's surface with swift, effective pops.

Brooks tied a #14 Adams onto the leader and casted clumsily upstream, snagging the fly on some weeds. Shit! It's been awhile. . . He waded upstream for an hour, casting ineptly toward the wary fish without luck. What the hell am I doing here? I must be out of my damn mind, driving up here. . . Another fish rose from the cover of a large boulder, plucking a caddis fly off the roiling surface. Mustering all his concentration, Brooks made an all-or-nothing bet with himself and carefully casted his offering just beside the rock, a few inches from the hungry fish's ambush point. The trout rewarded Brooks' cast by gulping down the fake insect. Tightening the line, Brooks set the hook and felt tension as the power of the rod countered the fish's flight. Madly, the trout fought for its life, darting randomly about the stream, its metallic scales reflecting the morning sunlight to and fro like a kaleidoscope. After a short battle, Brooks scooped the small Brown trout from the water and unhooked it. As the fish gulped grotesquely for air, he admired the intricate patters on its sides; red and yellow spots underlain by a muscular bronze and silver foundation. He placed the creature back into the water, and after a short pause it darted into some hidden lair.

Brooks rested for a moment on the boulder and simply looked around, taking stock of everything: himself, his surroundings, of being in general. For a single moment, everything was clear. Indifference. Nothing around him cared if he was there, what his name was, or what he was thinking, yet he was an "insider." The stream had flowed for a million years, and would flow for a million more. He looked closely at the boulder, then to the mountains from which it originated. Inside it he noticed tiny fossilized seashells that lay suspended for an eternity, yet he stood a thousand miles from any ocean. The stream incised deeply into the core of the mountains, exposing innumerable layers of rock, exposing time itself. Brooks imagined millions of years: oceans, deserts, dinosaurs, uplift, glaciers, volcanoes - all on this spot in some unimaginably distant time. Yes, this is so much more than mere man. My path in life leads here. . .to the stream. This is my road, my destiny. . .I'll follow it to its end.

Laying his fly rod down in the grass, Brooks began hiking upstream. By his watch, he had about ten hours of sunlight before dark - more than enough time to climb the mountain and find his goal. Despite the coolness of the air, the sun beat mercilessly through the thin alpine atmosphere onto his pale white skin. He passed trees twenty times his height, car-sized rocks moved like pebbles by ancient glaciers, and mountains more than two miles high. By noon he reached the edge of the flat part of the valley and began the climb up the slope of the mountain. Here the valley deepened into a narrow gorge, overrun with thickets and trees. Fishing here would have been much more difficult, yet small brook trout eked out an existence in alcoves no bigger than a human foot. Higher yet, the stream narrowed even further, plunging over sharp dropoffs, much too small to hold fish. Finally, it simply disappeared. Brooks rested, breathless in the high mountain air. He looked at the rocks, and indeed noticed a small spring dripping from the moss-covered rocks. The setting sun conferred a luminous orange hue to the enormous evening thunderstorms that scoured the desolate plains, over a hundred miles distant. That the violent storms rose eight miles into the sky, yet appeared harmless from such a distance, made Brooks feel very small indeed. Soon, he noticed the thick clouds of a storm moving over his head as well. Between the intensifying rumbles of thunder, Brooks' whole body sensed the foreboding quiet indicative of an impeding summer storm. Throwing his hands into the air, he yelled at the top of his lungs, daring the Gods to hear him. He had followed the great river to its trickling source, in the process coming to terms with the realm of existence that transcends man's limited scope of comprehension. As if on cue, a bolt of lightning branched down from the tempest into the human lighning rod, sending a pulse of white hot current coursing through Brooks' body. The jolt of electricity killed Brooks instantly, tossing his body into the air and down the mountainside.

A torrent of water tore down the valley that night, taking rock, tree, and human body alike, down the slope. Brooks' body came to rest some miles downstream, against the boulder near which he caught the trout. To the human observer, the landscape looked unchanged. But in reality, the rock was a little smaller and smoother, the valley a little deeper, and the meanders a little different. Yet Brooks died a happy man, for he believed he had discovered the intransient side of all existence, and thus claimed for himself a piece of the transcendant comprehension otherwise reserved for the immortals. In truth, the entire universe is in flux; men, mountains, and planets all turn to dust in time. Everything is nothing, but without this first approximation to the infinities of both time and space, man's gift of self-consciousness becomes his mortal enemy.