Jack Gates should have known something was about to happen. His morning had felt so strange. Something about it seemed different, almost distant, like scenes played in slow motion.
Anxious to get his blood moving again, he shifted uneasily in the cheap swivel chair and glanced around the hotel conference room—a room that was feeling smaller by the minute. Is everyone here as zoned out as I am? He studied a few of the forty or so faces lit by the big-screen video in front of them. Amazingly, they were still paying attention, and some were even scribbling notes. Incredible, Jack thought.
He had been sitting for hours at the seminar on professional and personal fulfillment. Twisting his wrist toward the light of the screen, he glanced at his watch, a Tag Heuer rip-off. 11:48. Twelve minutes till lunch. An eternity.
He stared again at the PowerPoint statements on the screen, leaned back, exhaled, and slipped both hands in his pants pockets. In one of them, he felt a piece of paper. He pulled it out—for the third or fourth time this morning—and discreetly set it beside his yellow pad on the table in front of him. Folded, it looked like a creased twenty-dollar bill. But when you opened it, you discovered it was some sort of religious tract—a trick designed to make you pick it up.
It had worked well enough on him. Hurrying to the seminar room this morning, Jack had turned a corner and seen it lying on the hallway floor. Just as he reached down and grabbed it, he heard others approaching behind him, and he was too embarrassed to drop it after seeing what it really was.
In the room’s dim light, he squinted to read again the first line inside:
If you died today, do you know for sure you would go to Heaven?
He hadn’t bothered reading the rest. Nor had he framed any answer to the question, except to wonder for a fleeting moment how anybody could respond to such a thing in any reasonable and objective way.
He was hungry. 11:51. Where should he go for lunch?
The seminar leader clicked faster through a few more PowerPoint slides. Bringing his presentation to a climax, he turned to the group, folded his arms, and asked, “If you could do anything in the world and not fail at it, what would you do?”
Pointless question, Jack thought. Real people can’t just do whatever they want.
Several people shot back responses that were at least half-serious. “Play professional golf.” “Gamble for a living.” “Take over the company.” “Retire at thirty-five.”
Jack had heard them all before. Over the past decade he must have sat through half a dozen seminars like this one. They were supposed to help you better understand yourself and make your work and your whole life more effective and gratifying. Jack didn’t mind learning more about himself, but he despised being put in a box and labeled for who he was supposed to be or how he was certain to act in various circumstances. At the last seminar, they said he was a beaver—something about being creative and a hard worker. At the one before that, they pegged him as melancholic, which infuriated him. True, he wasn’t exactly the life of every party, but he did have a few friends that he could have a good time with just about anywhere.
He should have looked forward to getting out of the office for these things, but they always got under his skin. Plus he hated sitting still for hours.
His mind was drifting.
Become an artist. That’s what I’d do.
When he was a boy, Jack’s hobby had been art. He would draw on anything he could find: scrap paper, gum wrappers, pizza boxes—anything. He could sketch a fairly realistic face when he was only five. For years his mom kept the refrigerator covered first with his finger paintings, then with his colored-pencil drawings, and then with his watercolors.
But he hadn’t picked up a brush since his twelfth birthday.
Jack scribbled on the fake twenty with his superfine-point pen, shadowing Andrew Jackson’s face and profile until his identity began to change. He flipped the bill over and added lines around a couple of the White House windows, growing them into doors. He added a tiny handle and hinges to each one as his mind backtracked.
Heaven? Do you know for sure? If you died today?
He crumpled the paper and pushed it back in his pocket.
The seminar leader clicked on a slide showing a Far Side cartoon with a herd of cows at a museum. Chuckles sounded throughout the room. Jack didn’t think it was funny. Something about it made him recall his father. He pushed the thought away.
Overhead, the fluorescent lights flickered on. “We’ll see you back in an hour,” the leader called out as everyone stood.
“Hey, Jack!” The shout came from the back of the room where some of his department coworkers were sitting. “Wanna join us for Chinese?”
Jack turned as he stretched his shoulders and arms. “No thanks, Greg. I have to take care of some stuff.” It wasn’t totally a lie. He just didn’t feel like being with these guys, none of whom he counted among his real friends.
Real friends. At this time in his life, Jack counted four of them for sure—an assessment he’d made just last week while taking stock of his life on his birthday, when he turned thirty-four.
Jack further stretched his stiff muscles as the room quickly emptied, leaving him standing alone in the place he’d been so desperate to escape only moments earlier. He cracked his neck by slowly moving his head back and forth a few times. It was a bad habit, but he’d done it ever since he’d fallen backwards while roller-skating in his junior high years. It happened at his fourteenth birthday party during his first couple’s skate—it was with Sydney.
Holding on to the memory, Jack put on his navy blue suit jacket, which had been draped on the back of his chair, then stepped out of the conference room and down the empty hallway toward the hotel lobby.
He’d never forgotten that look of concern on Sydney’s face after he’d fallen. At the time, as he lay there trying to get back his breath, the pain was more than worth it.
Twenty years ago. Where had the time gone?
Then he replayed the angry conversation they’d had just last night, the kind of conversation that had become so common for him and Sydney. Where had they gone wrong? The question brought a twisting ache in his stomach. But the papers would be signed in a few weeks, and it would all be over.
A fresh start, he thought as he pushed the lobby doors open and stepped outside.
Just being outdoors made him feel better. The sun was bright, and he covered his eyes with a pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses as he headed down the street, his dress shoes clicking as he walked. Sunlit posters in a travel agency window briefly brought to mind strolls on Caribbean beaches with Sydney on their St. Bart’s honeymoon. Those moments now seemed too far away to have ever been real.
At the corner, he stopped to push the crosswalk button. As he waited, his eyes flicked upward to a massive billboard atop a brick building across the street. With white block letters on a black background, it looked like a movie ad:
Feel the agony.
Experience the pain.
Witness the triumph.
Don’t miss…THE THORN.
Reading more, he saw it wasn’t a movie, but some kind of church production. In the dark background was the grim figure of a man’s head, Jesus with a crown of thorns. Blood dripped down his cheeks and from his chin.
Jack knew the story. He’d seen the Mel Gibson Passion movie with Sydney, and for days afterward they actually stopped bickering. It was weird the way the film’s images stayed with them. Sydney told him she couldn’t understand why Jesus seemed so determined to die. She couldn’t get over it. Jack had wondered, too, why Jesus didn’t simply take a stand for truth and fight back.
The traffic light changed. Jack took another glance upward at the billboard as he crossed the street. Then a surge of music broke into his thoughts.
He loosened his tie as he walked and began mouthing the words to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” blaring over loudspeakers above a café’s sidewalk tables.
And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson…
Nearing the next corner, he was tempted to enter an art gallery but kept walking. The street scene itself was like an art display to him—looking down the block, he took in the entire perspective, noting the interplay of shapes and angles from the storefronts and shop windows and mentally accenting their colors as if he were conceiving a portrait of the place.
The music kept trailing him.
Jesus loves you more than you could know. Wo, wo, wo…
The aroma here was a mixture of carnival food and exhaust. Just in front of him was a vendor selling hot dogs and sodas. Popcorn and cotton candy, too, just like at the circus. The smells made Jack remember a day when he’d left work early so he and Sydney could take the kids to a traveling fair. Sydney bent over laughing when they discovered little Judd trying to stuff as much pink cotton candy as possible into the mouth of one of the twins in their double stroller. Jack had since forgotten whether it was Andy or Maggie. For some reason the whole thing had struck Sydney as hilarious. Her hysterics got Jack to laughing uncontrollably as the kids stared at them wide-eyed.
The twins would have been barely a year old at the time and Judd five. Almost four years had gone by since then. The pink cotton-candy day—it was a good one. I need more of those, Jack thought.
He’d considered buying a hot dog from the vendor but now decided he really wasn’t hungry after all and kept walking. He turned a corner and came to an open, brick-paved plaza. He stopped and joined the crowd listening to a one-man band, a leathery old man sitting on a foldout camp stool and holding an accordion. A string connected his left foot to some cymbals, and a horn and harmonica protruded from over the accordion’s backside. Out of the apparent chaos of his getup, the man played an old gospel number with all the style and soul of the best band out of New Orleans.
He wore sunglasses, and a white walking cane lay next to his feet on the bricks. For just a brief moment, Jack wondered for some reason if the guy might be faking blindness.
When the song ended, the crowd eagerly applauded. A few onlookers tossed bills into a flipped-over straw hat at the man’s feet, the kind of hat they used to punch fists through in old movies.
Jack made his way forward. He leaned over the man and added twenty dollars to the hat, making sure he didn’t throw in the fake bill.
The man lifted his head slightly, apparently sensing Jack’s presence. “Thank you, Jack,” he said hoarsely.
Jack froze. How does he know my name?
The raspy voice continued. “And are you ready?”
Jack whispered a reply. “What do you…? But how did you…?”
“I said, ‘Are you ready?’”
“Uh—yeah. I guess. But…”
Suddenly aware of the staring crowd, Jack stood and shrugged, then moved along down the sidewalk. When he heard a few notes sounding again from the accordion, he glanced over his shoulder. The musician’s head was turned toward Jack, staring at him with blind eyes. Looking right through him.
Jack turned and walked faster, sensing eyes on his back.
Ready? For what? He quickly crossed another street and checked his watch.