I submitted this to a few publications, but just didn’t find the right spot for it. Oh well- maybe at some point! Enjoy.
The man leans his elbows on the bar, shadows lining his face as he motions for the bartender to pour another glass of the smoky whiskey he’s been drinking for hours. He’s not sure how many hours, he has never had occasion to mark the passage of time.
The bartender’s long grey hair hangs in a greasy ponytail down the middle of his back. His ice-blue eyes don’t betray the slightest emotion. He’s been at this gig for so long his motions have the smooth delivery of a machine, a machine made for pouring this exact glass of whiskey. Over and over again, for an eternity.
“Business isn’t what it used to be, Noe,” the man at the bar sighs. “I’m just fuckin’ tired, you know? I mean, sure, anything gets repetitive. Work is tiring. But there has to be something you get out of what you do. For me, there’s no joy in it anymore.”
Noe shrugs, staring into the distance. “It ain’t like there’s supposed to be joy in work. Work is work.”
The bar is dark, lit with red bulbs and a sputtering Miller High Life sign in the corner near the door to the bathroom. The long wooden bar is nicked with a thousand years of glasses, rubbed smooth with a thousand sinners’ hands. A few old initials are carved in the darkest corners where the carvers’ knives could have gone unobserved. It’s cold, the air conditioner vents blowing directly into the face of the only patron. An old jukebox is playing Johnny Cash songs, one after the other, on an endless loop. The room smells vaguely of vomit, and more strongly of beer and the old dishrag used to mop up the spills. Some people would walk past the door of this bar and never see it. It’s tucked between a massive concrete office building and a decrepit apartment complex, hidden in the shadows of the alley. Another kind of people, though, were compelled to enter. They could not walk past without being propelled, almost against their wills, into its stale depths.
The man tosses some money on the bar, downs his whiskey, and salutes in Noe’s direction. “See you next time. I’ve got places to be. I’ve got a plan in the works. Next time, you won’t hear complaints. You’ll hear about the little place I’ve got down in Mexico.”
Noe doesn’t move, and says nothing. His eyes haven’t left the spot on the wall where they’ve been fixed.
“I wondered when you’d drop by again.” The scruffy man with wild dark hair and wide, surprised eyes is speaking Spanish. He is sitting on the curb behind a taco joint. An empty bottle of Sol beer rests on its side at his feet, dribbling a little golden fluid onto the dirt where it pools and resembles piss. The alley is empty, or appears to be. If someone had noticed this man, they would just have assumed he was talking to himself, just a loco, and they would have kept walking.
“Do you even know anyone else, señor?”
Señor laughs. It’s the patron from the bar. “I know everyone. I just like you more.”
“I don’t know what’s so special about me. I’m tired.”
“We’re all tired, Moises. Especially me.” The man sits down beside him on the curb. “All the time we’ve spent together, over the years…I’m ready to stop all the traveling. All the work. I’m ready to just be. Didn’t you ever just want to BE? And everyone else be damned.”
Moises nods, looking away down the alley. A scruffy little dog sniffs through the piles of garbage piled behind a building proclaiming “TACOS” in red, uneven painted letters. The mutt’s ribs are visible, its big brown eyes forlorn. The dog gulps down what looks like a piece of paper, then digs deeper until only his black tail is visible, reaching straight toward Heaven. The man glances that way, upward.
The tail stiffens, and choking is heard among the garbage. For several minutes, the dog chokes, then collapses with a last pitiful shriek.
“Why did you have to do that, senor?” Moises asks, though he hadn’t moved to help. He glances down at his feet, not looking in the direction of the dog. Tears glisten at the corners of his eyes. “Never mind. I’m listening.”
The man shows all of his teeth, not quite a smile. “Soon, I won’t have to think about any of this. No more hassles, no more day-to-day drudgery. The only thing I’ll notice is the ocean, the stars in the night sky. I’ll hear the waves roll in on my deserted beach. Doesn’t that sound perfect?”
The man now sits in a waiting room, leaning deep into an uncomfortable chair upholstered in what looks like carpet from an airport, all muted tones and shapes reminiscent of motion, of going places. He’s looking out over Los Angeles, taking in the smog and the glitter of the windows like eyes blinking at him from all of the downtown financial buildings. The US Bank Tower stares back at him, its three levels of 72 stories, separated by a layer of reflective glass, appearing like three stacked robots blankly awaiting a command from the Master, arms by their sides.
He shifts in his seat, his crisp black suit registering no folds, no wrinkles. His hands clasp in front of him on his lap, and it is as if he is not in the room; instead, somewhere on the other side of the planet. The receptionist doesn’t look up. The man gets up, walking to the floor-to-ceiling window, and paces slowly back and forth in front of it, his steps measured. Time passes, and he fails to notice. Outside, the sky begins to darken, angrily.
The room feels breathless. The clock ticks in measured beats, and with each tick the air grows heavier. The man feels more at home as the atmosphere gets more oppressive.
Finally, the receptionist raises her pretty face, pasted with a smile that is contained to her mouth. The rest of her face continues in its bland aggression. “Mr. Stan? The partners will see you now.” She stands, and ushers him to a massive boardroom door. Its black surface gleams, unmarked by handprints or the slightest warmth or color. The door slides open as the receptionist waves her hand in front of it. It disappears seamlessly into the wall. Behind the door, a long black table matches the door perfectly. It is as if the door has flattened itself into a table, which is surrounded by men in suits. They are various shades of grey, pinstripe, navy. Their generic salesman faces raise to watch Mr. Stan enter. They stare hungrily, like a pack of dogs. Tongues lolling, eyes wet.
They notice his suit, tailored perfectly to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist. His shoes glitter, polished to a diamond shine.
“Those look Italian,” thinks the chairman. His eyes flash and roll, numbers on a slot machine. Cha-ching! The men notice his Cartier watch. His perfect tan. If you had asked them to recount his face, later, they would have been unsure. “He had…brown eyes, I think.” “Yes,” another would say, “Definitely brown, and medium hair.” “I wouldn’t forget his hands,” the chairman would say.
The door slides silently shut behind him, and he stands gazing at all of them for a moment.
His voice is measured, smooth, commanding. “I won’t take up much of your time, gentlemen. Thank you for taking this meeting with me. Across the entire planet, right now, I have delegates meeting with any company who currently offers life insurance. As you here at GetLife are the largest such company in North America, and therefore the world, I wanted to meet with you personally to give you the chance to be at the forefront of this global movement. As you are aware, the current administration will soon be adding the requirement that every citizen carries a life insurance policy. I want GetLife to have the first opportunity to manage this requirement throughout the country, and soon, throughout the world. Mergers, anyone?”
The men shift forward in their seats, glancing at each other, shuffling. A hum of repressed conversation and excitement begins, a low rumble of building steam and brimstone.
“This means adding a small clause to every contract you write. For this almost negligible action, I am prepared to pay a lump sum for every single client. Every single one. Worldwide. I expect you will find a way to make your services completely required for every last human on this planet. Sort of the way the cell phone insinuated itself into every African village. By this time next year, 95% of the world will own or have access to a cell phone. My challenge to you is to make life insurance that indispensable. It may take 50 years, or it may take 100. But I am prepared to wait.”
he timeline doesn’t seem to register, the fact that the man expects to be around in 100 years. Laughs of derision erupt – clapping, foot stomping, and the conversation breaks through. The men talk over each other, until the chairman is able to quiet them.
“Mr. Stan…you do realize how many customers GetLife has? And if you say this offer is extending worldwide….well…it’s completely impossible.” He smiles, shrugging.
The man stands immobile, waiting for the room to quiet. “Why don’t you read the contract?” He picks up his briefcase, flips open the case (was that alligator? … the texture of the leather is odd), and removes a thick stack of paper. He passes it to the first man on his left, and smiles. He then begins to remove stacks of neatly bound hundred-dollar-bills, which he sets before him on the mirrored surface of the table. The green reflects in the table, in their eyes.
“Even if your customers read this clause- which they won’t, no one will say no. It’s a free service…sort of like – a timeshare on the Caribbean. And it won’t cost them a dime more than you already charge.” The man grins. The men grunt and shuffle, slobber and moan. Money money money- they pant.
What kind of cologne was that? It smelled of volcano, magma, power. As he stares at the pile of money, the chairman thinks he’ll ask Mr. Stan where he can buy it.
Somewhere along the coastline of the Riviera Maya, a construction crew is building a home. They have been paid up front, half of the job’s worth, in cash. The palms hang low over a deserted beach. The waves roll in, bringing with them the salt smell of the sea.
It takes a few days for the shifts of workers to notice that the building never stops. Work lights shine all night long. If someone sits down to take a rest, they are replaced by another. No-one asks where the others have gone.
Below, the buildings take shape as well. The howling is not the wind, and the progress is much faster.
Mary sets the table in her cozy New England cottage, polishing spoons, straightening the crisp white tablecloth. The whiteness of it reassures her. The perfection of a well-set table is something she can feel from the crown of her head to her toes.
She wipes her hands on her jeans, and turns to survey her work. The man sits at the head of the table, and she gasps in fright, her hands flying upward to her hair.
“Jesus, you scared me!” Immediately she regrets her words.
He pays no attention. He seems glum. “Sorry. It’s this timeshare business. The build is going much slower than I wanted.”
“You’re going through with it, then?” Mary is his oldest friend. Since before the catacombs, they joke. He had once…inhabited her, he thinks. It was deep, their relationship.
“You should see the house in Mexico. I almost don’t believe it’s happening, but it’s in motion. I started the process with those soulless bastards down at GetLife. They were only too eager to rake in the cash the deal will bring. And of course, it doesn’t affect them or their soulless offspring personally. The first clauses should be added to the first contracts within months. The little ‘in perpetuity’ clause worked for Eve, right? Eternal damnation, and all that, for an apple. It will work for me.” He smiled, Cheshire-like. “The timeshare is just on the edge of the lake. It will hold all of them. Every last soul. They won’t even notice where they are, the Americans anyway, maybe forever. They’ll be tortured eight hours a day, five days a week. On weekends, they can play golf or bridge or go to book clubs. Every day will be exactly the same. It will be an upgrade for some people! The weather will be great, too. So warm.”
Mary shakes her head, a short bursting laugh escaping. “And what if they say no? What if people don’t want a part of your little scheme?”
“There are many levels of Home, Mary. There is a level where even I don’t set foot. Besides, no-one has ever broken a contract with me. It’s not possible. They will all sign my contract. And I will no longer have to gather them one by one.”
“Sign me up, then,” she says softly. “I’ll be your first.”
Around the man’s hand, on her white tablecloth, a singed black outline begins to appear. Acrid smoke assaults her nose.
“You ruin all my good tablecloths,” she chides, shaking her head. She isn’t angry. She has always had a thing for the bad boys.
The man tosses a stack of paper onto the bar in front of Noe. “Check it out, my friend. Here’s your contract.”
Noe reaches behind his ear, pulls out a pen, and signs. He doesn’t read it. He is damned already.
“No one will ever read it,” he says out loud. “It doesn’t even matter.”
The man lights a cigarette, the flame burning brighter and longer than a match should burn. The flare illuminates the first few lines of the thick document.
“I, the above named, do publicly declare with mine own hand in covenant & by power of free will: I give my everlasting soul to Satan, aka Stan, aka Beelzebub, aka Lucifer, aka Hades, etc. etc., as well as the souls of any and all children of my body in perpetuity, revoking their free will before their birth or their ability to form thought, forever and ever Amen…”
END, forever and ever, Amen