“Sign here, please,” a grubby and snotty clark with eyes like beryl said, handing me an obscenely large clipboard over the counter. “Then initial and date, bottom right corner. Good, good. One more, just here, and we’ll get on with it.”
So, I signed. Why wouldn’t I? It was what I came there to do, after all.
I pretended to read the pages over, peering over the frames of my glasses, before asking, “Is this it? Just these sheets?”
Though not quite, the final flourish of my signature felt like the last rung of a pair of handcuffs, clicking shut, far tighter than they ought to be and digging into my flesh. I had signed my life away before for student loans, a mortgage, marriage, even for a handful of parking tickets, but never like this. Never with a peacock-feathered fountain pen.
“Well done. This way, please, for the first part of your orientaaation,” the clark said, drawing out the a in orientation for several beats. He snatched the clipboard from me, and it disappeared under his desk. What other eccentric treasures was he hiding under there? I probably shouldn’t even wonder.
He was slow to get up, both because of the mandatory shuffling of paper to prove his fastidious attention to detail, and because of the arthritic popping in his knees and hips. Ever fall over in slow motion? First collapsing to your knees, then onto the palms of your hands, not yet out of the woods, and finally ending the whole drama flat on your face? Well, this was how the clark stood. He sidled past me and down the hall, pausing only to urge me to follow.
“Please, we haven’t time to daaawdle. Dawdling leads to idleness. Idleness to—”
“Too much snacking? Obesity? Perhaps a new outlook on life?” I offered.
He wasn’t amused.
I followed, sure to keep well behind him, and pinched my nostrils shut between my thumb and forefinger. When I lost him around one of the labyrinth of an office’s dozens of corners, he wasn’t hard to find. I just had to listen to my nose. The song of him was as dissonant as Thai food left in the garbage disposal during a weekend trip to the dump.
Abruptly, he stopped. I’d been busy admiring the starkness of our journey. Each corridor was the same, complete with evenly spaced fluorescent bulbs, plain white tiled floors, and silver name plaques to the left-hand side of nondescript doors with monograms like C. A. Johnson and B. S. Smith.
In one room, a breakroom of sorts, its door wide open, a blonde-haired woman paced back and forth. She held a cup of coffee, occasionally bringing it to her lips for a good chug and talked through a wireless headset to someone named Huge Jackass. She said something about the keeping up of appearances and clouds and little men in diapers, but I didn’t quite catch her meaning. For a second, I could have sworn she had ivory, feathered wings. When she made eye contact with me, they disappeared, along with my memory of them, before she slammed shut the door.
I nearly ran into the mole of a man but managed to avoid him with a well-executed swim move. Either way, he didn’t seem the least bit fazed.
“Here we are, sir. Orientaaation is through that door. Step through. Have a seat, please. You will be orientaaated shortly. It won’t hurt…for long. Good luck.”
“My last job,” I said, hand hovering over the doorknob, “they sent me first-class to California for a week of training. I cruised the bay, sipped champagne, ate room service steaks every night, and kissed all the right—”
“Orientaaation is nothing like that, sir. You won’t be kissing any posteriors here, I assure you. It will be nothing like anything you’ve ever experienced. Now, please, go in and have a seat. Your file did say you weren’t a man to waaaste time.”
We didn’t shake hands; we didn’t as much as nod to each another. The clark turned and waddled back towards his desk and I, given no other choice, opened the door and took my seat. It was a bright, wide-open room, inhabited by a single folding chair.
“Hello, Sam,” a deep, god-like voice boomed down at me from tiny speakers hidden in the walls and ceiling.
“Uh, hi there,” I said.
“Relax and avert your attention to the screen if you will. I want to show you a short motion film.”
Suddenly, a projection screen dropped down on the wall and an old-timey movie reel appeared behind me without as much as a poof. It whirred to life and the tape clicked as it wound through the feed. Indecipherable words flashed by and the grainy beep, beep, beep of an equally antiquated countdown sequence began. At zero, a man appeared in black and white. He spoke with the same voice that had greeted me.
“Ahem. Is this thing on? Check, one-two. Check, check. Good. Ready to begin, young man?”
“Do I get popcorn or anything?” I asked under my breath. “Or some nachos?”
“Absolutely not,” the man on the screen said. “Pay attention.”
“Do I get anything?”
“Yes.” He sighed audibly. “You get orientated. You get freedom. You get an eternity. Most of all, you get a job. Nay, a career. Count yourself lucky, young man. There are fates worse than death.”
“Fair enough. Please, the show must go on.”
Without warning, the show indeed went on. An indeterminate amount of time passed. Image after image, scene after scene, flashed across the screen. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to look away. I was hypnotized. The whole of the universe revealed itself to me, written, directed, and narrated by the proverbial Man-Behind-the-Curtain.
I witnessed the murder of Abel, the burning of witches young and old, the slaying of kings. I tried to blink away the piles of bodies in the streets of London, only to blink to existence people leaping from burning buildings in Chicago, New York, and Berlin. All the death, all the horror, all the atrocities of the past, present, and future, unfurled on that screen, and I couldn’t even flutter my eyelids.
But there was more to it than that. The full-screen side of the disc, the side most viewers liked to play, showed beauty and hope and all the other empty words people use to try to explain life. A rose opened its bud to reveal pale pink petals. A doe walked on wobbly legs seconds after birth. A doctor handed a mother her newborn, when forty others had already told her she’d never bring a child into the world.
For the first time, I understood the duality of life. For the first time, I believed in something greater than myself.
When it was over, my first thoughts were about how big the film reel must have been. Did they even make them that size? My second thought was that I knew it all, everything, and that I had arisen from the dust of my old life to do this job.
Second chances didn’t come often. Thirds were a blessing.
The deep voice again: “Now, if you’ll please exit the way you came and follow Walter to the next part of your orientation. Your time here is ending. Thank you for watching.”
“There’s more? What else could I possibly need to know?”
“There is always more to know, young man. And things we must…unknow. Now, please exit in and orderly fashion and follow Walter to the staging area. Don’t make me ask again.”
I saluted. I can’t say why, but it felt like the right thing to do. That god-like disembodied voice deserved a little respect. Then, I left the room, which was once again empty besides the folding chair, because it was the only thing left to do.
“This waaay, please.”
“Can I ask you something, Walt?”
We made our way further into the belly of the beast. I knew the way to our final destination, no longer needed the clark, but was nonetheless thankful for his company. Company would be a rare commodity where I was going. All the people in the world would be around but not one of them to talk to.
“Certainly, sir, though I suspect you already know the answer.”
I did, of course. I’d asked a lot of questions over the years, as most people do. They seemed impossible puzzles and riddles, only solvable through God or the clever application of science or the taking of various mind “enhancing” drugs. The video made all the answers seem so simple. Simple enough for a monkey throwing poo to answer. Even Walter could answer them if he put his mind to it.
“Will I ever have to…er, visit my family?”
“In time, you’ll have to visit everyone, sir. What has a beginning must also have an end. It is your duty to bring that end. Without death, none of the rest of it has any meaning.”
“But, when I do, will they be able to see me for who I really am? Will I have to see them as I once did?”
We arrived at the end of the long passageway, which stopped at a brick wall painted stark-white like the rest of the office complex. The clark snorted noisily and cleared his throat before running his hand clockwise, then counterclockwise, on the surface of the wall. One by one, the bricks folded in on themselves, revealing a…locker room?
The clark turned to me. “They will see you however you choose to present yourself, sir. After you, then.”
Several angels, clad in matching white track suits, swung tennis rackets back and forth as they exchanged bits of high-spirited comradery. They noticed me, bowed solemnly, and avoided eye contact. Two demons across the way, dressed similarly in red and black, stood erect and triumphant. They grinned toothily at me. One of them saluted.
I winked at both parties and went on, following Walter passed a stretch of beings, some winged others horned, both recognized and unfamiliar. One wore a clock around her neck. Another sharpened a heart-shaped arrow. None of them showed any sign of bashfulness, despite their apparent sexes.
At a bend in the locker room, steam rose from underneath a shower curtain. Its occupant hummed a tune, obviously oblivious to anyone’s presence.
“Proceed, sir. The staging awaaaits.”
“Thank you, Walter. I hope to see you again someday soon.”
“Not too soon, I pray.” He sniggered.
I nodded and made my way towards the shower and the singing bather. As I came closer to the curtain, the humming stopped, as did the gentle, silvery tinkle of cascading water. The song continued to play in the background of my consciousness, as it would for the rest of eternity.
“Hand me a towel, would ya?”
I hadn’t seen a towel anywhere, but I looked around just in case. Then, draped neatly over my extended arm, hung a blue towel, soft as a lamb, with the initials J.C. embroidered in gold lettering across the bottom. I handed it over the retention bar and the man snatched it away with a grunt.
“Thanks, mate. Just finishing up. Don’t worry, I left you some hot water,” he said, stepping out completely naked. I won’t lie, I was impressed. His bald head shone like an eight ball as he leaned forward to squeeze water out of his beard and onto the floor. He winked at me. “See ya on the other side, yeah?”
“Uh, sure. Where, exactly?”
He was gone as quickly as I had arrived, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the dirty shower stall. Piece by piece, I lost my suit and left it in a messy pile on the floor before willing myself into the stall. All I had to clean myself was the splintered remnants of an orange soap bar covered in curly black hair. A pile of the same stuff clung to the edges of the stall.
The naked man hadn’t lied, though. Hot, cleansing water washed over me. No matter how many times I turned the handle, it refused to cool down. So, I let it scold my skin as I ran my fingers through my hair.
Filth I hadn’t realized I was covered in swirled down the drain between my legs. I found myself humming the same tune, a song I knew but still couldn’t place, as my sins and my desires and every memory I’d ever had washed away. I hummed louder and louder until nothing was left besides me, the tune, and my new job.
Eventually, the water stopped. I don’t remember turning it off. At the time, I was sure I must have drained the world dry. Every stream, every lake, even the oceans. It all belonged to me, in a way, both sides of the beautiful, hopeful coin.
I stood there, dripping wet and as red as a newborn, taking it all in. I should have felt overwhelmed. I should have trembled with terror, or at least shook with nerves, but I didn’t. I saw what lay before me, was blind to where I had been in the past and knew here was exactly where I was supposed to be.
There was a faraway thunderclap, a flash beyond my closed eyelids. My heart seemed to skip a beat, and my breath caught in my lungs. Suddenly, I was plunged into cold, cold darkness. Bubbles kissed my naked skin as I sunk deeper and deeper into the endless depths of oblivion.
Then, my eyes shot open, and I realized I was right where I thought I should be. I was safe in the same shower stall, lukewarm water tinkling gently to the drain at my feet.
On the other side of the curtain, right where they promised to be, hung my black cloak and bone-white scythe, the tip of which glinted and seemed to say shing. Instead of the ambient hum of office lighting, I heard only the ticking of a billion clocks and the hissing of a thousand-billion hourglasses. Sunlight seeped in through a cracked window. On the other side came the whinny of horses and clacking of hooves.
A familiar voice said, “Whoa, there. Taaake it easy, girl.”
I caught the whiff of leather-bound books, volumes of them, each labeled by name. They reminded me of all the work that still needed to be done. There was a lot of it, no matter how many centuries I’d been at it or how many more were to come. All I could do was attend to the work as best I could, one soul at a time.
Originally published in Scout Media’s A Contract of Words, 2018, and edited by Brian Paone. Visit www.ScoutMediaBooksMusic.com for additional works and services.