Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
Midway—or a little longer—upon the journey of our life, he found himself in a gloomy wood. Too gloomy for someone who did searches for a living. Too gloomy for a man without a flashlight. Too gloomy for anyone with eyes.
Day was departing. It was a good day, to knock on wood, a day to die for. And so David did, maybe an hour ago. He left his white Ford behind, that beat-up workhorse, now all smashed up; he veered off the road to avoid a jaywalker and met a lamp pole head-on. He left too few friends to miss him, and too many enemies to gloat. And he felt bad for the pole, let alone for his Ford.
It’s a wonder he made it to middle age. He should have died a long time ago, and not in such a pedestrian way. When you searched, you exposed a lot of truths, and some people objected to that.
So, what? Nothing is final until you die. Only death is final. But even that might be open for interpretation.
David walked effortlessly, practically gliding on the road that wound down and down, surrounded by angel’s trumpets, brambles and boulders, each with seven insistent eyes and flinty teeth to each that smell of gun powder and bitter almonds. When a heavy door barred his way, he stopped. Should he turn back? Should he knock? Should he try to kick it down? Doors are like people; we all have a weak spot. Should he talk to her, telling her the story of his life, which is pretty entertaining considering its length? Should he tell her what he wanted to do before my accident? Should he compliment her on her looks? But then the door raised herself, and he entered.
In a small lobby—black marble but no windows and so warm that he had to undo the top button on his shirt—several people in business casual sat behind the glass windows. A line of Halloween characters queued in front of each window.
One of the clerks, a bearded man, kept reading from a book on his windowsill. David coughed, and he raised his head and smiled. His hair fell to his shoulders in waves. David had never seen such lustrous hair. The man’s eyes were not ordinary at all—all whites and burning from within. Not like lasers—that would too like science fiction. They burned like two stars shooting right at you, and you can’t outrun them.
David felt his hands shaking.
“You need a haircut,” he said.
The clerk has no name. A very long number runs above his photo on his badge, and other clerks and his immediate supervisor call him, if they address him at all, by the first four. He has forgotten when he was last called by his name. He has grown a beard since they took his photo, a short one instead of the bushy one of his youth.
He’s new to this; it’s only his first week on the job. Recently certified, he had to go through an exhausting and exhaustive four-step interview process to be hired, and now he works for not much more than food and shelter. And perhaps for a bit of glory. He didn’t apply for the job but was selected. He couldn’t say no. Some things just have to be done.
He gets his meter ready, removes the sign “next window please” from the window and calls out “next” in his most professional voice. He checks out the new client, a tall and thin woman, just a teenager, really. The clerk regards the teenager’s smashed head with a vestige of sorrow and a bit of curiosity. It’s good that the clients enter one at the time and can’t see each other. It’s as frightening for them to see each other as it is for them to see us.
“A car accident?” he asks.
“An AC window unit fell on my head,” the teenager says in a raspy voice. “From the tenth floor.” Her voice box is probably damaged. The teenager speaks in Polish, but the clerk knows all 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. That was the part of his training and the certification process. And Polish is related to his native language anyway. He nods coldly. He’s a professional. He’s supposed to be impartial.
The office is flooded with clients lately. Before the clerk arrived for his shift, they used to call ad hoc or lay clerks from the downstairs department to do the job. The other clerks tell horror stories about them. They stink, they said. Sweat and sulfur, they said, a bad combination. They frightened the already scared clients, they said. They failed the audits. They sent the wrong people upstairs or the right people downstairs, they said. Totally random. No logic. It’s either ineptitude or sabotage. Ad hoc at best.
And then there is the Inspector. All the clerks talk about his imminent arrival though no one knows much about him. The only thing that is certain that he will come one day and change everything. They say he would come on a white donkey. Or maybe a horse. The clerk sees the Inspector in his dreams, on a gentle giant of a workhorse that loves sugar and blows warm air out of its nostrils.
“Name?” the clerk asks now.
“Did you do unto others as you would have them do to you, Wanda Sikorski?”
He knows all the questions by heart. He’s old, and his memory is not so good, so he had to resort to tricks. When studying for the certification exam, he held the Kindle with all the downloaded questions under his pillow so the questions would enter his head through osmosis.
“What?” Wanda Sikorski says.
“Ah, a smart one,” the clerk thinks. He wants to say, “what soeuer ye wolde that me shulde do to you, eue so do ye to them. This ys the lawe.” But he can’t. He’s a professional.
“Did you behave?” the clerk asks. “Stayed in school? Didn’t get knocked up? Stayed away from drugs?”
“I had good behavior coming out of my ears. Like, totally.” Her smile is crooked. No wonder; she is missing most of her teeth.
The clerk runs his meter over Wanda Sikorski’s head. The light turns green. He still checks the girl’s name against the no-fly list. Redundancy is the enemy of error. All clear.
The clerk knows how the meter works.
He hands the girl a ticket upstairs. “Congrats.”
In the dorm where all the clerks and the candidates for the clerkship live, most don’t socialize, though they have a giant social hall filled with great music, exquisite food and inviting furniture. They stay in their rooms. The candidates study. The clerk is not sure what the other graduates do. After his certification, the clerk mostly reads 19th century novels and thinks about his past.
The next few clients are just run-of-the-mill nursing home residents, bright and sure-footed again after a long decline.
The clerk has lunch at his desk. Vegetarian, of course. They don’t serve meat here. But the cafeteria chef is a wizard in his trade, so he does miracles despite all the limitations.
The first client after the break is hardly recognizable as a human. His torso is almost gone and only the spine, a few ribs, the right shoulder and the arm remain. The remnants of his body are studded with nails and ball bearings. He holds his severed head by its half-burned hair. He smells of soot and gun powder.
The clerk frowns. This will be sensitive, he thinks. Must be impartial! Impartiality is the main attribute of a good clerk.
“Mohamed Nasr,” the client replies in Iraqi Arabic. His green-brown eyes are intact and they regard the clerk with understandable suspicion.
“A perp or a victim?”
“I am a victim of the West,” Mohamed says. “They invaded my country.”
“Did you do unto others as you would have them do to you, Mohamed Nasr?”
“They did horrible things to me,” Mohammed says. “Horrible. They killed my family. Burned them alive. What do you know about that?”
The clerk knows about that. When the redcoats surrounded his farm, he was the only one left of a family of six. At the age of twelve. Just because he’d gone fishing… But he doesn’t comment. He runs his meter over Mohammed’s head. The light turns yellow. He checks Mohammed’s name against the no-fly list. Bingo.
“Proceed to room 2541-CH for further consideration,” the clerk says. “Al-salam alaykum. Marshallah.”
Before calling the next client, the clerk regards his colleague in the next seat. Her skirt is too short for the job. He doesn’t know her name; only the number. The clerk used to be married. It was a very long time ago. If it seems like ages, that’s because it is.
He sighs. He has never talked to his colleague, but he knows that her life before the certification was, er, complicated. All clerks’ lives were or they would have never passed the exam or even been considered for it. Actually, the word “complicated’ wouldn’t do them justice.
The next client is an athletically-built man without any visible damage.
“Name?” the clerk asks.
“Reginald Smith III.”
“The cause of death?”
“Please be more specific. We keep everything in strict confidence here. Just like HIPAA.”
“Did you do unto others as you would have them do to you, Reginald Smith III?”
Reginald Smith III stretches his lips. His teeth are blue. “I want my lawyer.”
The clerk wants to say that his lawyer is not qualified to practice here, but holds his tongue. He runs his meter over the man’s head. The light turns red and the alarm goes off. The clerk shudders. This hasn’t happened to him yet. Until now. The guards run toward Reginald Smith III from all sides. They are inhumanly strong and can subdue Superman and the rest of the Avengers when they finally make it here—and they do.
At the door, Reginald, now handcuffed, turns and regards the clerk with a heavy stare. The clerk feels as if a chunk of ice and a flame touch his heart simultaneously. He’s supposed to send off the client with a phrase in his own language, but he can’t.
The clerk pulls out the sign “next window please” and puts it in the window in front of him. His union contract calls for a 15-minute break after a red light. It’s stressful. He opens his thermos and pours himself a cup of ambrosia. His hands shake and his heart races. Can he have a heart attack here? Probably not.
The clerk fights the urge to throw the thermos against the wall. The last time he threw an object of this size, through an ornate window of a moving carriage, he died from a sliver of glass embedded in his heart, and ended up here. It was probably way more than a hundred years ago; they don’t keep calendars here. He didn’t want to kill the innocent. We wanted to kill just one man. A beast, rather. A monster. An emperor. A tyrant. Did he succeed? He is afraid to ask.
The next client is a middle-aged man. About three quarters of the way through the journey of his life. The clerk has never seen such a regal posture. The blood on his white shirt is a like royal purple.
“You need a haircut,” the client says.
His voice reverberates around the room. The other clerks jump to their feet. The guards exchange worried glances. The clerk rises. Now, he realizes that he’s seen this man before. But where? On Facebook? In a magazine? It the museum of Byzantine icons?
Something will come over David. He’ll know what to do now. He will be no longer afraid. He’ll extend his hand, and the clerk will give him a small black box with three lights but no buttons or switches. The clerk’s eyes will no longer be all white and burning and his hands will stop trembling. David will realize that he’s seen him before, somewhere in the white fog of a dream, even though he wore a different face then.
David will inspect the box. He will have no idea what it’s for. But he must know. He’ll have no choice. Knowledge will not be a privilege but a necessity.
On an impulse, he’ll run it over his own head. Nothing will happen. Not a single light will turn on.
The clerk will sigh. Everyone in the room will do the same.
“There is order in this world, and impulsive behavior runs contrary to it,” the clerk will say.
“No rush,” David will say. “Give it some time. We have the eternity, brother.”
As soon as he said that, all three lights will come up at the same time. The female clerk next to them will gasp. The ceiling will open to the heavens above, and the walls will dissolve. And the clerk will scan the skies wildly as if someone just called his name.
“Go home, everyone,” David will say. “The clerks, the clients, the perps, the victims. The office is closed. It’s over. I’ll take it from here.”
He’ll turn to the clerk. “As for you, you can go, or you can stay and help me. The choice is yours.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I can tell you, but it would take me forever. Just do thought I do.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“Then let’s start with locking the door.”
Together, they will hang a padlock the size of a boulder on the door. From now on, no one will enter. That means no one will die ever again. They will learn to live with that.