I tend to be the kind of person who shares things I’m thinking or doing, but I have more trepidation with this one. Although I have published probably hundreds of thousands of words of non-fiction, I don’t think I’ve written any fiction since about 1988 in high school. Here we go.
Henry was a book man. He was the type of fellow who purchased far more books than he would ever be likely to actually read, especially in an age when his reading competed with streaming video and social media. It was always easier to do something other than reading, but so great was his attachment to books he continued to compile them. Even if his consumption of books had lost pace, he still liked the way they looked stacked up in his home and office. They were beautiful to him. He’d rather look at a shelf of books than most paintings.
Like almost everyone else, he had begun to buy books from a gigantic online seller where he could find almost anything used or new that he might want. On one hand, he delighted in the ease of it. On the other, he resented the slow extinction of the many bookstores that once dotted towns and cities. Even in a world with EverythingMart.com, he still liked the idea of slowly making his way through a bookstore and letting his eyes run across the titles of all the volumes collected. The thing about a bookstore is that you could find things you didn’t know existed. There was a process of discovery. No, even that is too clinical. It was more like a quest.
Henry enjoyed the process of working his way through his favorite sections of used bookstores. He happily regarded the piles of cheap paperbacks on everything from philosophy, self-help, religion, and, of course, the serialized adventures of pulp heroes such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Destroyer. Henry especially loved the genres of science fiction and the kinds of books written for Christians with an intellectual bent. C.S. Lewis crossed over those categories and represented a special treasure. A few hours spent crawling through shelves and aisles would leave him tired and happy, especially if he could walk out with about a dozen cheap books.
It was on such a day that Henry found something unusual. On the bottom shelf of a stack of books way in the back of a store, the dustiest part, he saw an old leather-bound book with nothing but a title embossed in gold on the spine. Although he wasn’t the type of book seeker who collected for profit, he looked at it wondering if it were, indeed, valuable. The title read Modest Requests. He was intrigued. It was late. He needed to get home for the family meal. The inside cover had a surprisingly reasonable price considering the handsome cover. He added it to his pile, paid, and left.
After dinner with his family and a small tv binge session with his wife (watching an English mystery series), Henry went to the office on the side of the house where most of their books sat on shelves (while others balanced precariously in haphazard stacks in various locations such as nightstands). He perched on a stool at the small desk and looked over his purchases from earlier in the day. Again, his eyes fell upon Modest Requests.
He opened the book and saw that each page was divided in half with a line running down the middle. The column on the left had a heading that read “Requests.” On the other side of the divide, the column bore the title “Answers.” Before he could really take in the actual content of the material in the columns, Henry did notice that the capsules of text on the left always had parallel writing that simply read “Yes” or “No.” He also observed that the words in the parallel columns under the headings were all hand-written. The book appeared to be one in which people wrote as though for record-keeping or as a diary of sorts.
Deeply intrigued, Henry began to read through the entries in the columns. After making his way through a few pages, he observed a clear pattern. It was like this:
Written on the left: “I would like a million dollars.”
Written on the right: “No.”
Written on the left: “I want Jeremy to ask me to marry him.”
Written on the right: “No.”
Written on the left: “I want my sister to open and read the letter I send her asking for her forgiveness.”
Written on the right: “Yes.”
Henry jumped involuntarily. There was gravity associated with that “Yes.” After reading through several more entries of this type, he began to feel fairly certain he grasped how the journal worked. The key to getting an affirmative answer was, indeed, to make a reasonable or “modest” (as the title of the journal indicated) request.
He thought about what he’d read. If he took it at face value, there seemed to be some sort of power available that could grant these requests if it chose to do so. He couldn’t resist taking a chance. Writing in the right column, he scrawled, “I would like $200,000 to pay off the mortgage on my home.” That struck him as more modest than asking for a fortune like a million dollars. Perhaps predictably given what he’d read, but also shockingly and chillingly, an invisible hand (or so it appeared) went to work. A word appeared in the column on the right next to his expressed desire on the left. “No.”
Henry wasn’t sure whether he should burn the book in the face of such apparently mystical power. Or perhaps he was the victim of some kind of elaborate prank. Was there a camera recording his reaction? He carefully put the book away where no one in his household would find it and joined his wife in bed. His mind was racing. What sort of modest request would he or could he make? How should one utilize a power (albeit a constrained one) of the kind that seemed to have become available to him? He thought and thought until he finally drifted off to sleep, exhausted by possibility.
After reflecting deeply on the nature of his own desires and about what it might mean to make a modest request, Henry arrived at something that had been troubling him for a long time. He decided to formulate a modest request related to his life and his heart. And when he finally wrote something that he thought matched the scale and the spirit of what he’d seen in the book, an answer appeared in the left-hand column. It said, “Yes.
Victoria Ten Eyck wrote for one of the premier newspaper companies in the country. Unlike a long list of once great organizations that now scraped by, Victoria’s paper continued to command large numbers of readers and revenue. In fact, the technological advancements of the age had ultimately only magnified the influence of the corporation for which she worked. At this disruption-defying, rich and powerful organization, Victoria was one of the most well- known writers. That meant she was at the top of her profession and was guaranteed an opportunity to exert some influence on the biggest questions of the day. In particular, she had become a prominent commentator on issues of human sexuality. Her Ph.D. in American studies combined with her unusual capability to write in an accessible and entertainingly sharp manner had brought her to this place of prominence on the national scene.
In addition to her regular job writing op-eds reaching millions, she was a fellow at a national think tank, and occasionally taught seminars at the nation’s finest universities. Victoria was powerful, well-compensated, and fashionable. Almost any version of the American elite included her. She was as comfortable appearing on a campus as she was on daytime television.
As she scanned through her email and social media channels, Victoria prepared to crank out a column. She was a fast writer and typically could produce something quotable and relevant in less than an hour.
Today, though, she was a little unsettled. She’d had a dream. Maybe a dream is the wrong way of describing it. She’d had impressions as she slept. It was as though she was seeing things through someone else’s eyes or maybe feeling them through their heart. Some rooms opened up on the inside of her. Rooms where she didn’t even know what exactly they contained. But she felt as though she had touched another person.
Victoria geared up and began typing. She was going along smoothly until she produced a sentence referring to “fundamentalists whose faith is a cover for bigotry toward LGBTQ+ men and women as surely as white sheets cover the identities of vicious racists.” It didn’t sit right. She wasn’t sure why. This kind of statement was coin of the realm for her. But now, it just looked ugly and maybe not really fair. It occurred to her — maybe she always realized this but hadn’t engaged the thought — that bigotry has to do with irrational hatred and that perhaps there could be other relevant motives or explanations other than that to explain the people she was writing about.
Victoria got rolling again and produced “The authority of scripture is a ridiculous pretext for interpretations that serve nothing other than the causes of oppression and privilege.” She realized that while she identified strongly with the belief she’d just expressed, it was possible that the people she charged with such malign intent could well be thinking and feeling differently. It wasn’t like her to wonder about the justice of her advocacy in the direction of those she was criticizing given her overriding confidence in the righteousness of her cause. And yet, here it was, a concern she couldn’t quite shake. The license she normally gave herself felt more tenuous than usual.
Perplexed and somewhat stymied, Victoria went down to the lobby for Starbucks. When she returned, nothing had changed. But Victoria hadn’t gotten to where she was agonizing over moral dilemmas when the world needed to hear from her regularly. She closed the file and opened a new one in which she riffed on the need for more female CEO’s in the Fortune 500. No speedbumps there. Her fingers flew.
Henry returned home from work and looked for Modest Requests. He had been eager to try and formulate another entreaty and to see whether he could cause another “Yes” to materialize on the paper. But the journal was gone.
Modest Requests sat among the remnants of a library sale in a half-abandoned downtown area halfway across the country where it waited to be found again. Someone did find it a couple of weeks later. Her curiosity drove her to examine the odd volume with the attractive leather cover. She looked through the entries and noticed the final one, one accompanied by a “Yes.” It read, “I wish someone important understood people like me better.”
As she paged through the entries in the book and began to form an idea of what might be going on, her imagination began buzzing. Her thoughts formed concentric circles around what it would take to generate a “yes” and what might be worthy of such an answer. She began to write.