Rex crafts and tells stories the way a jukebox plays music. Except you don’t have to put money in Rex. Just sit with him a while and Rex will tell you a story. Actually, I don’t think he can help it, in much the same way as Robin Williams can’t always decide when and where to erupt into stand-up comedy. Rex’s gift (amongst many gifts) is to see the human experience in stories. He sees the world in parables.
I met Rex in 1969. I was 12. He told me stories then. He tells me stories now, 44 years later. In my Rex Hall of Fame is one particular story. I was in college. We were sitting around the fire pit in his back yard. In heaven, I hope I get to sit around a fire pit with Rex.
Anyway, here’s that story, as best I can recollect the moment:
“Steven, let’s say it’s many years from now. You’re an old man, lying on your death bed. I come to visit you. We talk. Suddenly my eyes go wide. I shake my head in disbelief. I say, ‘Remember that time back when you were in college, and we sat around my fire pit, talking?’ And you say to me, ‘Yes, I remember.’ And I say: ‘I’m so sorry! It just slipped my mind. Earlier that day, I got a telegram for you. It said that you had a long-lost relative who died, but left you ten million dollars from his estate. I set the telegram on a pile of papers, thinking I’d give it to you when you came over. But then I just got busy, and I forgot.’ Then I take the telegram, yellowed and faded, out of my pocket and say, ‘Here’s the telegram.’ And you sit, stunned, holding the telegram and say: ‘You mean I was a millionaire all this time? And I never knew it?’ “
I can still feel the heat from that fire pit. I can hear the crackle of the flames. These stories would often stop just like this, with no obvious punch line. Rex would just puff his pipe and let me figure it out.
I offered that he didn’t mean the story literally. Because, if he did, then the moral of the story would be as simple as me, the dying man, trying to give him one good whack with my cane before I breathed my last. Or perhaps rendering an obscene gesture.
Rex puffed his pipe.
I wax for a moment about how I didn’t care if I ever was a millionaire. Still too literal, as evidenced by more pipe puffing and the long-suffering, patiently impatient stare. I’m thinking this is the same stare that Jesus often gave his disciples.
“Wait,” I say. “You’re saying that, if I’m alive, then I’m a metaphorical millionaire?” And now Rex’s eyes fill with impish love.
If there is such a thing as Judgment Day, then I suspect it will be like being a “zonked” loser on the game show “Let’s Make A Deal,” circa 1960s. Some geek would trade in his prize for a chance at the big prize. He would pick one of three doors. The door would open, and there would be, like, a live goat. But then it would get worse. Way worse. Host Monty Hall would say gleefully, “Jay, show him what he could have won!”
Then, on national television, with the studio audience clapping, the poor doofus would stand grinning and nodding while narrator Jay Stewart would say, “He could’ve won a new car! And he could have gone to Rome! And he could have won this beautiful mink coat! And …”
Oh, Jay would go on and on.
If there is such a thing as Judgment Day - if we are indeed obliged, finally, to see our lives in the light of uncensored truth and asked to account for those same lives - I don’t think it will feel like getting into trouble for being bad. I think it will be more like feeling silly. Like someone who was a millionaire all his life, and never knew it.
Heaven forbid that, at the end of my life, a Voice might say: “Show Steven what he could have won! He could have loved! He could have been grateful! He could have been loved! He could have been less afraid! Less anxious! Less self-absorbed!”
I think Rex meant to say that, if you’re alive, then you’re a millionaire. And that you should know that.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.