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Fly in a Coney Island
Pulled in by a gust of wind through a doorway propped open to cool customers, a housefly zips around a Coney.
Disoriented by the indoors, he lands on a balding head, nestled safely between stray hairs.
He gains his bearings and listens for a moment.
"You ever eat a pickled egg with pop rocks in your mouth?" his jovial host asks another diner seated two stools to his left.
"No," the man replies, plainly.
This won't do, the fly decides, retaking flight in search of something more comfortable.
He lands on a muffin.
"Everything is horrifying, and it's a wonder we aren't all running around screaming with our hands in the air all the time," says the muffin's owner, to no one in particular, before shoving the banana muffin in his mouth.
The fly escapes just in time and moves on down the counter, eavesdropping on one halfway voluntary conversation after another.
"If squirrels had thumbs, they'd be way ahead of us as a species. They'd have spaceships and sugarless sugar by now," he hears from atop a soggy french fry.
There's some polite laughter, and the fly moves on.
He eventually finds the perfect spot, on a drop of spilled, sugary tea, next to an aromatic bowl of tomato basil soup.
"God is good," says his latest host, closing his eyes thankfully before spooning into his soup.
A quiet moment is broken by the next man over.
"Is he?" asks the next man down the counter, shaking his head energetically. "I'm not so sure, sometimes."
"The devil is a liar," the religious man responds, softly.
"Sorry," the other replies, sipping his coffee. "I just can't relate. I'm an atheist. I'm a non-believer — but I respect religious people, I do. You know? I don't advocate for atheism.
"I don't want to convince ANYONE else not to believe in God. That's horrifying. We need religion, you know?"
The religious man nods quietly.
"We take for granted," the talker goes on, "that we aren't all slitting each other's throats in the night to steal each other's salt.
"We think, 'Do people really need religion? Do we have to believe in fairy tales in order to be motivated against killing and stealing? Are we really that low-down as a species, that we have to make up a higher power just to keep us from cheating and swindling and murdering our neighbors every chance we get?
"But you know what? The answer is yes. Yes, we do. We do need a real reason to be decent. A reason to be afraid to do wrong."
The religious man slurps loudly, as does the fly, hoping to drown out the talker.
"Maybe some people don't," the talker goes on. "Maybe if you've lived a sheltered life, you have a natural inclination to be good to other people ...
"But some of us ... some of us will kill you."
The religious man, for the first time, stops slurping his soup, slightly turning his thick neck for a side-eyed glance at the talker.
"If there's no God, and no Heaven," the talker goes on, "I'm not mowing my lawn. Why should I? If a person doesn't believe in divine reward and punishment, but still feels the need to respect his neighbor and his neighbor's property, just because you happen to have been raised well and believe it's the right thing to do — THAT's the cult. That's the weird crackpot phenomenon that saps get suckered into — not religion. Religion is the rational way to go.
"If there's no God, I'm coming for your jewelry. I'm coming for your women. I'm coming for your throat. I'm getting ahead ... Sorry. Is that scary? Sorry."
"You wanna know what the really scary part is? I am an atheist!"
The religious man, scowling from head to toe, annihilated the poor fly with a rolled-up newspaper, clutched tightly in his hand as he glared directly into the eyes of the talker — who could see the fury of God in the religious man's wide brown eyes and flared nostrils.
The talker, now quiet, wide-eyed, but meek, goes back to sloppily eating his coney.
A waitress disdainfully slaps a pair of bills in front of the talker.
"You're paying for his lunch, Al. It's the right thing to do."
Khalil AlHajal, a news editor at MLive.com, lives in Southwest Detroit with his wife, Emily, and cat, Moonshine.