Here comes “The Life” a new short story by Jamie Marincola. It reminds me of “The impostor syndrome” but with a totally different twist! I hope you will enjoy it! Thanks Jamie.
Funeral of a Carabiniere in front of the Cathedral of Pizzo – July, 2017. Photo by F. Marincola
It was a warm winter morning. The kind of morning you don’t mind getting out of bed in the dark. Jerry got out of bed that morning and died. He took off the few bits of clothes he had slept in, jumped in the shower, and died. Something about the warm water on his skin made him faint and hit his head as he went to the ground. The doctors said he had a stroke, but it was definitely the impact of his skull on the side of the shower that did him in. His wife called the EMTs who brought him to the hospital, but it really didn’t matter: he was already quite dead.
Jerry woke up in the afterlife. This was a new experience for Jerry. He was born and raised a Christian, but never believed in any of it. By the time he died, he was thoroughly atheist, or perhaps agnostic. He really didn’t know what to think except that the whole notion of heaven and God and the stories of Christ just seemed too random to be true. They seemed just as fabricated as the many gods of Hinduism or Greek mythology; stories that we told our kids and discussed with our friends as a way to share a common theological language and impart values. He had lost faith that there was any sort of meaning to life long ago.
Looking around, Jerry noticed he woke up sitting in a waiting room of some sort. There were other people in the waiting room, but none of them seemed to be paying much attention to him. There was a mother to his left scolding her children for causing a raucous and to his right was a man about a decade younger than himself dressed in a suit, paying close attention to the headphones in his ears. Across from Jerry, was an elderly man reading the day’s news alongside a companion who was sitting politely with her arms crossed wearing a pleasant and patient smile. The woman vaguely resembled Jerry’s own mother.
As he gazed across the room at the mother figure, she locked eyes with him and nodded politely. Out of her lips came a friendly, “hello.”
Jerry felt comforted by her. He wasn’t sure how to approach the issue that was nagging him at the moment, so he decided to be frank. Jerry leaned forward and asked, “Are you dead, too?”
She chuckled briefly before offering a response, “Oh no, I’m not dead since I was never alive to begin with!” She paused and looked around the room. “No one in this room really exists except for you. We’re simply fabrications to make you feel comfortable with your transition. You seem to be taking it quite well.”
She was right about that. Jerry was calm and deliberate. He reasoned he was probably in shock, but intrigued to learn about his new surroundings. “What are we… I mean… what am I doing here? Am I waiting for someone?”
“Yes, dear,” she responded collectedly, “You’re waiting for you.” She hesitated before elaborating, “Once you’re ready, an assessor will welcome you into his office to go over your life with you.”
Despite the absurdity of the situation, everything seemed to make perfect sense to Jerry. He was waiting in a waiting room until he was done waiting. He looked down and then back up almost immediately as another question surfaced in his mind, “Is the assessor real or a fabrication… like you?”
For a moment, Jerry was worried about offending this lady who had been so helpful and forthcoming with him, but was soothed by her maternal qualities. He left like he could converse with her freely like she was family. He imagined that she was here for this purpose. He thought briefly about contextualizing his question or thanking her for her serenity, but then realized she probably didn’t care because she wasn’t real.
The woman looked towards the door to what was presumably the assessor’s office. The door was metal with a sheet of translucent glass on the top. He hadn’t noticed it before, but Jerry now realized the door was the only one in the waiting room and that there was no other way in or out.
The woman returned her gaze to Jerry and replied, “yes, the assessor is real, but not like you. The assessor is God.”
Jerry tightened up. He was about to meet God himself. Although he never really felt like he had a relationship with God before, there was certainly a lot of hype around the guy. It was like meeting a celebrity who you didn’t really care for, then gloating about it to your friends. If he ever saw his friends again he would definitely gloat.
After a few more minutes pondering and looking around, Jerry decided he was ready. Right as he was about to tell the lady across from him that he was prepared to meet God, the door swung open and a man with a striped tie burst through bellowing, “Jerry! Right on time! Come in, come in!”
Naturally, after a brief acknowledgement to the woman who had helped him, Jerry jumped to his feet to follow the man with the striped tie. As he passed the threshold to the doorway, Jerry inquired, “Are you…?”
“The assessor! Yes! So glad you’ve already heard of me!” The man replied in bursts. The man was pleasant, but not particularly divine. Surely, this wasn’t the person who managed the entire universe.
As if to make small talk, Jerry continued, “So you’re God?”
Immediately and without hesitation the man responded, “Sort of, yes. I am an extension of God. Don’t you know? God is everywhere.” The man funneled Jerry through a corridor of cubicles and offices. He went on, “I am a single manifestation of God. God is busy doing many things right now, but one of those things is being here with you in the form of me. Got it?”
“Oh.” Jerry stopped. The assessor stopped with him. Jerry was confused. “Are we here? Is this your office?”
“If you want it to be!” After only a brief hesitation, the assessor charged into the room that Jerry was standing in front of and sat at the desk. He opened the first drawer and pulled out a big file. “This is your life, Jerry!”
Jerry looked at the file. It looked like some sort of permanent record. Jerry sat in the chair across from the desk.
“I hope you weren’t waiting too long out there,” the assessor commiserated. “Some people are out there for days, weeks, sometimes even years! They get it in their head that there’s another way out of limbo other than forward through the door. It can be hard to come to terms with the death of yourself, you know?”
“I suppose so.” Jerry reflected, but didn’t really empathize. He hadn’t dwelled on death too long. Death was simply a fact of life.
“So what’s going to happen now, Jerry, is that I’m going to go over your history so we can evaluate what sort of person you are.” The assessor in the stripped tie, who was in fact an extension of God, explained. “Then, after we hopefully reach some sort of mutual consensus, we can decide where to place you. Sound good?”
“Place me?” Jerry didn’t know how to feel about the ominous process laid out before him. He parsed his words before clarifying, “like heaven or hell?”
“Yes! Precisely! Just like heaven or hell!” The assessor appeared relieved that the conversation was proceeding so smoothly. He opened the folder and started thumbing through the documents.
After sitting there for only a few moments, Jerry began to feel impatient. He decided to inquire further about the process, “Are we going through the whole file today?”
“Oh goodness, no!” The man expressed amusement. “First of all, days don’t exist in the afterlife! Not unless you want them to, anyway. Second, there really aren’t many moments in your life we need to review to determine whether you were a good person: only the highlights. How you treated people you cared for, how you treated people who cared for you, how you treated people you didn’t care for, and how you treated people you didn’t know. Stuff like that. Quite simple, really.”
“Logical.” Jerry didn’t really have a basis for judgment, he was just going with the flow; he just wished the flow would hurry up already. “So I’m to sit here while you read through my file looking for the interesting parts?”
“No, no, not at all!” The assessor seemed enthralled by Jerry’s daft inquisition. “Remember: I’m God! I already know everything! Why would I need to read anything?” He chortled. “I’m simply flipping through these papers for your benefit! You see, it makes the process feel less personal if I’m reading through a file rather than reciting your life to you by memory. That would make an awkward experience much worse! You ready?”
He wasn’t really, but responded that he was.
“Good, good.” God looked down at his records. “So it says here that you and your sister had a pet chinchilla when you were children.”
“Yeah, sure. I think its name was Furball.”
“Yes, Furball. I see it here.” The assessor observed as he pointed to a word on a sheet of paper which may or may not have actually said anything on it at all. “It also says that you killed Furball after tossing him in the air and accidentally not catching him. You then went on to try to blame your sister, Emily. Is that correct?”
Jerry reflected on the sore moment in his life before giving a tacit confession.
“You were eight years old.” He looked up to Jerry and gave a stern look before flipping over a few arbitrary pages and continuing, “It appears a few years later, you hadn’t quite learned your lesson. At fourteen, you stood witness to a crowd of boys surround that same sister and tease her because of her crooked nostril. Instead of defending her, you offered the boys your nickname for her, ‘Nosily,’ before walking off with them and leaving her sobbing on the ground. Is that correct?”
Jerry was no longer looking up, but instead had his head buried towards his lap. The guilt of his life was beginning to mount. After several moments of belated aggravation, he owned up to his crime with a solemn nod.
“Emily died a few years back, did she not? Breast cancer.” The man in the tie behind the desk reminder him. “It says here that before she passed away, you apologized for these wrongs as well as many other ways you felt you failed her as a brother when you were younger and then later in life. Is this true?”
Looking back up, Jerry felt vindication. Although he hated thinking on his sister’s death, he did remember fondly how she forgave him for his sins while she was in her final months. He let on a soft smile and nodded again.
“Let’s look at your work life.” God was quick to change the subject. “A lawyer, huh? Don’t see many of those up here…” God looked up, smirked, and exclaimed, “It’s a joke! Lighten up!” Jerry was not in the mood.
“Seems like you defended some pretty controversial clients,” the assessor mused, “Some pretty bad people in here. How did you feel about that?”
Jerry was ready for this line of questioning. He had thought about that moral quandary many times in life and had his response ready to go. “Sir, I believe in the justice system of my country and that everyone has the right to competent counsel. It was never my place to judge right from wrong, only to offer my legal advice to the best of my abilities.”
“Was that your intent when you found a loophole allowing your client to avoid following through on a contractual obligation to donate considerable support to a nearby children’s hospital? It appears that you received special commendation from your colleagues and a sizeable bonus from your client resulting from that discovery.”
“It was an unfortunate result for the hospital, however the mistake was the fault of the regulator who created such a poorly guarded loophole,” Jerry spoke with the same candor and demeanor that he would recount similar cases at professional cocktail parties.
“I see.” God did not seem particularly bought-in to this line of reasoning, but proceeded with his assessment. “After you made partner, it seems you focused on productivity. You convinced the other partners to scratch the company’s pro bono department in favor of focusing more strictly on your bottom line. That included scrapping support for residents facing eviction from low-income housing in favor of doubling the staff defending a multi-national fast food chain. How am I doing?”
“Well…” Jerry replied, “An oversimplification, certainly, but everything you describe was merely a result of the free market. The adjustment in staff resulted in a considerable boost in revenue which, in turn, went back into supporting our community through our increased tax contribution and firm expenses.”
The striped tie assessor paused at this point to roll up his sleeves and clear his throat. He continued, “It was about that time that you took up with a junior associate at the firm. Two years out of law school. That relationship lasted almost four years. You were married to someone else the whole time.”
“Lindsey.” Jerry boasted. He looked across the table and his heart sank. He knew deep down that God was not impressed by his sexual exploits. His mood had turned once more as he attempted to turn the table, “What is this? Why do you care? We both had fun. My wife never found out. No harm done!”
“About Lindsey? No, she didn’t, but how about Molly?”
“Molly?” It took Jerry a moment to recall the name, but once he did, he winced. He knew Molly was a mistake and wished not to be reminded, but knew he would be. So, he preemptively recounted the story, “It was only one time. A waitress. Couldn’t have been much older than twenty. She kept touching my arm as we talked over the wine list. Lindsey did not like us flirting. I told Lindsey I was going home to my wife, but instead I fucked that waitress.” He began to choke up a bit. God awaited patiently as though provoking Jerry to confide further. “I may have led that girl on with a thing, or two, about a place I had in the Bahamas. Gave her a fake number. Never thought I’d see her again.”
“But you did.”
“Yes. I did. She showed up at my place a couple weeks later. Must have found me on the internet. Put a hole in my windshield with a baseball bat. Told my wife everything in the time it took the police to arrive. Lucky for me Molly didn’t know about Lindsey.”
“And Janet, your wife?”
“Oh, she was livid.” Jerry felt as though he’d rather crawl into a hole for the rest of eternity rather than face the demons of his past in order for a chance to get into heaven. “I don’t know how she put up with me. She always suspected I wasn’t faithful. But after that waitress incident, she couldn’t live in the comfortable lie she had set up with herself. At least not with me. Of course, she never told anyone else. She liked being married, you know?”
“Yes, I do. I know everything.” God sure did have a sense of humor despite the burdensome task ahead of him. “I have to say, this is not looking good for you, Jerry. These are not the sorts of things that earn you many favors in the afterlife.”
Jerry was disheveled. The angst that had been beginning to boil up in his stomach crept up his spine and onto his face. He gasped, “Listen, I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m not a bad person!” His frustration was mounting. “Where are the good stories in that file? Pull up something nice about me!”
“I’m trying to stick to the highlights, but I really want this to be a collaborative judgment, so I always encourage my creations to advocate for themselves. What would you describe as your life highlights?”
This wasn’t going how Jerry imagined death. Here he was, at his advanced age, squirming through his life assessment like an intern at a job interview. “I have many highlights! Friends whom I have treated well! And I have donated to many charitable causes!”
“Donations! Excellent!” The man in the tie flipped his papers to reach the bottom of his pile. “Let’s see here, donations for the symphony, an art studio and your undergraduate university. It seems you were so generous that they even had a seat named after you. Very generous, indeed. And smart! Looks like you timed your donations perfectly with the tax year!” The assessment was ripe with sarcasm, which stung Jerry almost to the point of tears. He prided himself on being mentally and emotionally strong, yet he could feel the muscles of his ego being torn to shreds.
“Life is complicated.” Jerry pouted. “It’s not black and white, there are many shades of gray!”
The assessor remained underwhelmed. He allowed for Jerry to finish his rant before interjecting, “If you’re done with your idioms, I actually have a few more highlights to get to…”
He heard no objection.
“I have information here which states you set up a camera in your guest bathroom to spy on female guests in the loo. Is that accurate?”
Jerry didn’t answer.
“I’ll take that as a yes. The next page mentions how you hit a biker with your car on the way home from happy hour one day. Although the biker lay sprawled on the street, you didn’t even pull over the car for fear that you may have your license revoked.” The tie man looked up once more, “Biker was fine by the way. He still has over 30 years left, actually.”
Jerry was hardly paying attention anymore. Words flew by his ears, swirled around his head, and nested firmly into his subconscious.
“…and who could forget the time you opened the gate to your neighbor’s yard and took the collar off his dog while he was at work? Certainly not me! I don’t forget anything!”
That was the last straw. Jerry broke down. But he didn’t cry. He laughed. He began to laugh and laugh.
“Do you think this is funny?” God enquired. “Was it funny when you withheld medication from your dying, senile father because he was becoming too burdensome?
Jerry laughed and laughed. He couldn’t believe that it was all true. God. The afterlife. Heaven and hell. It was all true.
God continued, “How about not telling your wife about the vasectomy? Was your own immaturity enough to justify depriving your wife of the one relationship that may have filled the void that her husband had left her with?”
What were the odds? It defied everything he believed in. It defied science. By all accounts, his meaningless existence should be over.
“You told her that not having kids must have been ‘God’s plan.’ You blamed me! Textbook blasphemy!”
At this point, Jerry put an end to his laughter and simply smiled confidently towards the Lord.
God looked back at him in defiance and asked, “What do you have to smile about?”
Jerry knew why he was smiling. He had found meaning. All the pointless inequality in the world was suddenly anchored by process. An “assessment.” In this unexpected moment, Jerry stared into the eyes of the deity across the table, his eyes filled with tears of fear and joy. He responded: