Authors: Cliff Hicks
A Comedy Of The Afterlife
Copyright © 2013 Cliff Hicks
Cover by Topher Charnley
Cover composition by Greg Dean
All rights reserved.
For a whole lot of people...
...but mostly FOR me...
oday was going to turn out to be the strangest day of Jake Altford’s life, and the worst part of it was that he was going to go to Heaven, escorted by an angry Cherubim named, of all things, “Bob.” People tell you to think of this day, whichever day it actually is, as the first day of the rest of your life. For Jake, that would simply depress him, because his daily life bored him. Today, though, would shatter his entire worldview and change Jake for all eternity. Today would
the rest of his life. For now, though, all of that was simply ahead of him. He was completely ignorant of the day to come, and simply pondering the morning.
And mornings always sucked.
The sky was overcast and gloomy, that sort of ugly gray that fills up the morning and poses the question, “Is what you have to do today
worth getting out of bed for?” With the window open just a little, the crisp fall air had seeped into the room and left the bed a warm haven from which Jake did not want to get out of. He knew that he should, of course, but some days the very act of getting out of bed could take more effort than splitting the heavens.
Jake got up anyway.
In a half-dozing stupor, he shambled into the bathroom for his morning ritual, his three S’s – shit, shave and shower, preferably in that order, but it varied from day to day. As his eyes were prying themselves open, Jake thought to himself about how absolutely mundane life could get, his life in particular.
He stared at himself in the mirror and was struck by how amazingly ordinary he looked. Average looking face, average build, average brown hair, average brown eyes. An average-looking twenty something white Midwesterner male. There wasn’t anything remarkable about him in any way. He looked… just like everyone else. Anyone else. He was 100% forgettable, as disposable as the cheap plastic razor in his hand. If he had been anyone else, he’d probably have forgotten that the face in the mirror was his own. If he had it his way, he’d rather have forgotten himself entirely.
It wasn’t as though Jake hated himself. He didn’t. He simply felt like his life was in a rut, one he couldn’t shake, one he couldn’t break free of. Every minute of every day was routine, a routine of routines. An assault of predictability. Each day just like the one before and the one after.
The next hour and a half were mostly one slurred experience that was identical to a hundred other morning experiences he’d had this year alone. He could live his life in his sleep. By the time he hit work, he was still mostly on autopilot, not entirely awake yet.
His coworker Nathaniel greeted him with an elaborate handshake that seemed complicated when they first did it, but now was almost autonomous. It had originally been to distinguish them from everyone else, to make them stand out from the herd… but now the herd was doing it. They’d probably drop it soon enough. It was hard enough to be different when everyone else wanted to be different like you. (Or Nathaniel, really. Jake hadn’t come up with the handshake.) The collective center always moved towards the most visible point, and Nathaniel was nothing if not highly visible.
Jake, bro, how’s the life?” Nathaniel threw out by way of greeting as he finished up his cigarette outside of the nondescript office building. “You look like crap, m’man.”
I’m fine,” Jake lied. He hadn’t felt fine for some time. He’d felt listless, lethargic. Of course, he had his reasons for that. His entire life was, after all, an overwhelming pattern of monotony, and that the only changes he ever saw were for the worse. In short, his life was going nowhere, and he really didn’t know how to change it, not that he’d made much of an effort to try, he supposed. “Life’s in progress, I guess.” He shrugged, leaning up against the lightpost as Nathaniel plucked the cigarette butt from his lips and cast it to the ground, rubbing it out beneath his heel.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m supposed to put it in the can, but screw’em, what’re they gonna do, fire my ass?” Nathaniel grinned, pushing a wave of blonde hair out of his face. Nathaniel called his haircut a flop, which was easy to see, because it kept flopping over his face. But with the line of work they were in, it wasn’t exactly necessary to look one’s best, you just had to sound fine. Like most things in the world, perception was nine-tenths of reality. The rest was just in how you played it.
Jake offered a weary shrug, rubbing his eyes a bit. He’d chastised Nathaniel before, but the younger man never took to Jake’s words, and so he’d stopped lecturing him. Why bother telling him again, Jake thought to himself, he’s not going to listen. “Just don’t let Andrew catch you doing it, otherwise you know he’ll throw a fit,” he said with a sigh. “And lord knows, they seem to take great delight in pointing out that while the company can’t live without us a group, it doesn’t need us as individuals.”
Nathaniel scratched his head then waved a hand at Jake. “They couldn’t live without us and they damn well know it. We run this company, we’re the lifeblood of the empire. You kill us, you kill this company. Death to the Empire!” Nathaniel thumped his chest with his fists in his best primate impression. He looked at Jake expectantly, waiting for a response.
Nice speech,” Jake chuckled dryly. Nathaniel found his antics funnier than his audience did, as always. He glanced down at his watch, that digital gatekeeper of the world. “We gotta get in there. Why the hell they wanted us here half an hour early is beyond me. Especially on a Monday.”
His colleague offered back another shrug, then cocked his head to one side. “Bigwigs probably want to give us mad props for kicking so much ass. Heard we broke record last month. Gonna be caviar and fine lookin’ women for me, mmm mmm MMM!” It was moments like this were Jake felt infinitely older than Nathaniel even they were only a few years apart. Nathaniel was perpetually in horny fifteen-year-old boy mode, while Jake would try and just blend into the scenery whenever Nathaniel got on a roll. In fact, if Jake could’ve just disappeared when Nathaniel (not Nate, never Nate) got going, he would have. “Tellin’ you, m’man, they’re gonna have ice sculptures pissing champagne and buckets of money to pour over our heads.”
He nodded in return, humoring him. He somehow doubted Nathaniel was right, but there seemed no harm in letting the younger man dream big. “Maybe. Well, let’s get in there.”
The two men headed inside. The interior of the building was just as nondescript as the exterior. Off-white walls were unadorned all around them. One of the women at the front desk had hung a picture once in one of the maze-like hallways. It had been removed within the hour, and the woman had been scolded. Landmarks, it appeared, were forbidden. Nothing that might make it easier to find your way around, Jake supposed. The better to keep them trapped inside the building, he thought; if they couldn’t get away, they couldn’t run to better jobs, places where they were appreciated. Past the labyrinth of hallways lay a sea of cubicles. Not even full cubicles, either. They were these annoying waist-high cubicle divisions. It was if the main floor had been put together expressly so that management could keep tabs on them at all time, but that they were divided from one enough just enough to prevent any real camaraderie. Or escape. Even with the exit signs, there was really only one thing the entire building said to anyone…
no way out.
Floor’s empty,” Jake commented to himself.
Nathaniel nodded as they strolled down one of the corridors between the minicubes. “Everyone’s prolly in the big meeting room already. We got a couple of minutes to burn, but you know what Andrew always says…”
Five minutes early is the new on-time,’” the two mimicked together. They both rolled their eyes in disgust. Their boss, Andrew, would be the kind of person to tell you that to call him a perfectionist wasn’t perfect enough. Both men despised him, or would if they could have been bothered to care about him that much. In the end, Andrew was pretty harmless. He liked to preen and strut and claim that he “needed to talk” and then never follow up on any of it. He was fairly typical of a lot of bosses in the world, Jake supposed. They always had something “urgent” but if you could stall off five minutes, which was never as hard as it should be, the urgency had passed and they would regale you with a story about their latest golf game or some other mindless claptrap.
Really, Andrew would forget less than two minutes after his big speeches that he’d ever said anything in the first place, so the whole company tended to take him with a shaker of salt, rather than a grain. Jake wondered if this would be another one of those meaningless “big” speeches about the wonders and joys of the additional parking space that had been added to the lot, or some other tiny thing they “should” get excited about, but never were. Management’s idea of “big improvements” and the employees’ ideas of “big improvements” didn’t share hemispheres, much less regions.
Normally, the cubicle area would be one big wall of chatter and noise. But all the representatives were in the giant meeting hall that was usually reserved for training. Their innocuous, faceless corporate building housed a small army, an army armed with telephones.
Between nine and five thirty, Jake lived and died by the phone, much to his dismay. It wasn’t anything he’d ever wish on anyone. Every breath was a pause between sales pitches, every laugh faked, every attempt to sound sincere a total lie. What they sold changed almost weekly, but they’d gotten into a point where it was all just a routine anyway. Half the time he couldn’t even remember what they were selling – he’d just read the text without letting it sink into his brain too far.
Jake didn’t even like to think of it as anything more than a job – it was just something he did to pay the bills. Recite the lines, type in the responses, move on to the next number. He probably called nearly a hundred people a day and never felt like he really talked to anyone. He was a biological combination voice-recognition/data-entry machine. He’d jokingly referred to himself and his fellow coworkers as “talking whores.” It had sounded funnier in his head than it had come out, which was a little closer to truth than he or anyone else in the building was comfortable with. He had to remind himself every day that it was just a job, it’s just a job, it’s just a job,
it’s just a job
; you do it to enjoy your life in the real world. Of course, as of late, he didn’t have much to do outside of work either.
His day-to-day life was mostly a mirror of his work life – it felt like most of it was nothing more than another line in a call routine. Each activity, each conversation, a pre-programmed response that he simply recited because it was what he was expected to, not because he’d given it any real thought. He wondered, occasionally, would the rest of his life be like this? Was this all there was? And did he care? Mostly he went along with things because he couldn’t be bothered to have an opinion one way or the other. Eat in or dine out? He didn’t care. Watch TV or a movie? He didn’t care. Really, the most honest thing Jake could admit about himself is that most of the time, when presented with two options, neither seemed particularly better or worse than the other. So why have an opinion about it that might make the other person upset?
Just get on with it.
As they strolled through the snafu of office divisions, Jake’s eye caught on a coffee mug that was atop one of the desks. A quick glance around the room revealed that all the desks had them on them. They were bright red and said in cheerful white letters “Thank you for all your hard work!” Nathaniel snorted a bit next to him, glancing down his nose at one of them. “Just like the Man,” he sighed. “We bust our asses for them and they throw us trinkets.”
Jake tried to force a smile, but it just took too much effort. “Better than not getting anything at all,” Jake offered, half-heartedly. In his head, though, Jake knew Nathaniel was right. The company had a tendency to overlook their accomplishments and leave them with nothing more than a pat on the back. A smile and a handshake really didn’t mean much when people were making money hand over fist on your blood, sweat and tears. Corporate management rarely came down to see the grunts in action, though. Jake figured they had a hard time looking at the people who actually did the work, simply because their field was so universally loathed.
The two men moved through the hallways and both could only think to themselves how eerie it was when the cubicles didn’t have people in them. No chirping, no whispering, no sales pitches being bantered back and forth. There wasn’t even anyone at the water cooler off to the side that served as a point of momentary respite for the mindless automatons that clocked in day after day here. The place never closed. As the night watch manager always said, “It’s dinner time somewhere. There’s always someone else we can sell to.” So the calling stations were manned twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Of course, only the truly hardcore people did calls on Christmas. (The really good ones even managed to rack up some sales then. Happy Holidays and congratulations on your new life insurance premium, or whatever.)
As they reached the two doors before the big hall, both paused for a second, as if dreading going into the meeting hall. Jake looked at Nathaniel, then sighed as he pushed open the double doors like a cowboy entering a saloon and stepped into the main hall where everyone was sitting quietly in their chairs, and Andrew, the sales manager, was milling about on stage with a couple of men in suits. The entire room had the feeling of barely conscious morning and oh-god-it’s-going-to-be-another-four-hour-meeting. Over a hundred people and you could hear a pin falling well before it even hit the ground. Nobody, it seemed, cared for talking with their coworkers in the morning.