Balance: a short story

photo by Marcia Sloane

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

I was the only child of elderly parents. They both died the year before I evolved out of puberty, and I was left in the care of a diminutive maiden aunt. She had absolutely no short term memory and even less money. My bedroom was my haven, my black and white television my constant companion. I was an uninspired student, a mediocre athlete, and I think it fair to say that I had no real friends, no one to confide in, no one to discuss my fears and fantasies with.

I cannot remember when I first became aware of the feeling I am about to describe. I know that I felt it when my parents were still alive, and before I could read, which means I may have been as young as four. I suppose it is even possible that I was born feeling this way, but my memory only stretches back to my late twos, when our big dark tabby cat killed a huge rat, and I saw him eating the rodent, staining the kitchen linoleum with bright blood.

And yet, even now, after all these years of living by and for this belief, I hesitate to reveal my secret. I fear it may sound trite and stupid to you. I fear you will think it little more than a poor excuse for a life poorly lived, a delusional, idiotic notion. But I must risk your contempt. It is my duty.

All my life I have been convinced that something spectacularly good was going to happen to me, though not necessarily through any particular effort on my part. That, in a nutshell, is my system of belief.

Perhaps, from this, you will make the guess that I am a lazy person. I must admit that “lacks motivation” has appeared on every report card and job evaluation I have ever received, save for the one from Mrs. Rhodes, my fourth grade teacher, who preferred her males docile. But was it laziness that made me eschew competition for quietude, or was it my philosophy? Did I survive the first fifty-seven years of a sadly uninteresting life because almost anyone can survive fifty-seven years somehow? Or did I remain a moderate optimist, despite the grotesque redundancy of my days and months and years, because I was anticipating with ever fiber of my being an unknowable event that would set me free and allow me to become whatever I was supposed to be?

It is true that over the years I passed up several higher paying jobs because I could simply not convince myself that doing so was worth the effort of relocating or re-educating myself. I never believed I could be one of those people who succeed through hard work and purposeful determination.

I did buy lottery tickets and enter sweepstakes (if they came to me in the mail), hoping, naturally, that I would win, yet knowing all the while that the winning of money was not what awaited me. No, I was certain I was going to be given something.

I never had a vision of what that something would be, but I knew it would be incredibly good, and that once I had it, I would be content. I occasionally fantasized about fabulous gifts arriving from surprising patrons, but even the effort of fantasizing seemed futile. Go along until it happens, I told myself. Don’t look for it. You won’t know it until it falls on you. Those were the guiding slogans of my life, such as it was.


So, I’m walking home from my tedious, not very difficult, fairly low stress job with the telephone company. My rather drab, comfortable, average-sized one-bedroom apartment is within six blocks of the transmission facility wherein I supervise twenty-five operators and spend my copious free time reading historical romances. The day has been a day like any other, long and uneventful, save for the obstreperous old lady who threatened to unleash the forces of evil upon me if I didn’t refund the money she claimed the pay phone ate, which I did, not wanting to take any chances with the cosmic balance, in case there is one.

I am exactly one and half blocks from home and television and reheated pizza and cold beer, when I feel something click. Do you know what I mean by click? Something both inside and outside me falls absolutely and undeniably and perfectly into place—or into various places simultaneously. Click. And I know, as surely as I have ever known anything, that the universe or whatever you wish to call this dimension we inhabit, has suddenly, or finally, lined up, synchronized all its various parts, and is now ready for whatever I’ve been waiting for all my life—a fabulous feeling, like a sudden cool breeze on a blazing hot day. All my senses are heightened. My heart picks up the pace and I feel like dancing.

I arrive home. There are two police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of the Big Tree apartments, named for our two scrawny redwoods. I am greeted by my landlord, Mr. Lester, a small man with a penchant for absurdly big white belts. He is sweating profusely, his toupee slipping.

“Try to remain calm,” he says, touching my hand. “There’s been a robbery.”  He takes his hand away. “You’ve been cleaned out.”

As I make my way through the small crowd of curious onlookers, Mr. Lester calls out to me, “And they got away in your car.”

My telephone is ringing as I enter my otherwise empty apartment. The refrigerator door is open, revealing only a glaring emptiness. I find myself missing the beer more than any of my other possessions.

“Hello,” says a voice, as I pick up the phone. “This is Jenkins. Am I speaking to operator supervisor four six nine eight dash eleven seven nine six dash four one one oh one?”

“That’s me,” I reply, hearing myself as if from a great distance, realizing I must be in shock.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to break this to you so suddenly, but…”

I’ve been terminated. Twenty-nine years. Done. Major cutbacks due to competition engendered by deregulation. No desk to clean out. No security badge to return. That’s all been taken care of. They’ve changed the locks, the codes, the special procedures. Any personal belongings I may have left in the facility will be waiting for me in a brown bag at the receptionist’s desk. Thank you very much. Click. Drone. Beep beep beep.

Mr. Lester enters. “Listen,” he says, frowning at me, adjusting his wig, “I hate to do this to you, but the police feel, and I have to agree, that it’s pretty strange that only you were robbed. It’s as if you were selected for a reason. And I’m not making any assumptions, but the other tenants, as you can imagine, are very concerned, and since your lease has expired anyway, would you mind…”

I walk out into the last few moments of sunlight—jobless and homeless and without possessions. All I have are the clothes I’m wearing and the money in my…

I feel all my pockets. My wallet is gone—my identification, money, everything—gone. I remember being jostled by a slender young man in the liquor store. I had just bought a Lotto ticket.

In my confusion, it occurs to me that I have probably picked the winning numbers. The jackpot currently stands at seventy-five million dollars. But the ticket is in my wallet. My wallet is gone.

I walk down the street to the nearest pay phone. I have a friend, well, more of an acquaintance really, who might allow me to stay at his place until I can get new identification and begin collecting unemployment. I have seven cents in my pocket. I look in the change slot, hoping for a quarter. No such luck.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn. It is a policeman. He is frowning at me. “See some ID, bud?”

I begin to tell him my story. His frown deepens. “Are you saying you don’t have any ID?” he asks. “Because if you don’t…”

On the way to jail, sitting in the back seat of the police car, I try to think of someone to call for help. I can think of no close friends, no casual date, no relative, no one I am certain will help me. I have never done a consciously bad thing to anyone, but neither have I ever been much of a friend to anyone. I decide to not call anyone right away and see what happens. You might say I surrender.

I find that I don’t mind my night in jail. No one tries to hurt me, the food is edible, and the bed has a new mattress, much firmer than the one I had at the place I so recently called home. I sleep like a babe and wake up refreshed. My sense that everything is in place and ready for spectacular change is more tangible than ever. I thrill from head to toe when they unlock my cell and lead me down the hall.

I am brought into a room and told to walk out on a narrow stage with four other men. A glaring white light shining in our eyes makes it impossible to see who or what is in the audience.

“That’s him,” someone says. “Number four.”

I am taken to another building. The guard treats me roughly. He shoves me into a dark cell. I ask to make my phone call now. He ignores me. I shout at him, protesting my innocence. He continues to ignore me. I panic and call him a filthy name. He opens my door and hits my arm with his club. The pain is greater than anything I have ever experienced. I decide not to make a fuss.

A few hours later, I am taken out of the cell and shoved along a narrow hallway to a small, stuffy room. I am left in the company of three unsmiling detectives. One of them asks me if I know why I’m here. I begin to tell my story, expecting to be interrupted, but they listen to me until I can think of nothing more to say. They look at each other, communicating in a strange silent way that reminds me of something out of a horror movie. One of them clears his throat and asks me where I was on such and such a night.

“Home watching television, most likely,” I reply, shrugging. “That’s what I do every night, except…”

“Except what?”

“Volleyball nights at the Y.”

“And what nights of the week would that be?”

“Tuesday and Friday,” I say, suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that without volleyball nights at the Y, I would have no social life whatsoever.

“This was a Wednesday,” says one of the men. “The night we’re interested in was a Wednesday.”

“Well, then…television,” I say, hearing how terribly sad I sound.

“Any witnesses to that?” asks another of the men.

“I live alone.”

The words reverberate in the empty chambers of my heart. I live alone. I am alone. I have always been alone. I have never known how not to be alone. Is this so strange? Am I a human aberration? Or am I more typical than any of us cares to admit? Am I not quite normal? Am I not Everyman, minus a few special acquaintances, a disenchanted wife, an alien child or two?

I open myself to the silent communication of my interrogators. I hear the hum of their desire. I hear gears meshing, teeth gnashing, bile gurgling. They are in no way concerned with my innocence or guilt. They are hungry for my death. I am a solitary rat in a dirty little corner of modern times. They are a gang of alley cats. They only know how to do one thing.

My court appointed attorney, a sweaty little man who resembles my ex-landlord to an annoying degree, tries to convince me to plead insanity.

“To what?” I ask. “They never did tell me what I was charged with.”

“Well…murder,” he says, frowning at my file. “Two people. It says here you practically confessed.”

I go into deep shock. My attorney summons a guard and I am taken to the infirmary where I am given an anti-shock shot. I fall into a deep sleep and dream I am standing on the threshold of the place where something spectacularly good is about to happen to me. I stand on the threshold for the entire dream and wake up sick as a dog, my legs aching, my head about to explode.

Two days later, at our next meeting, my attorney once again begs me to plead insanity. “The evidence,” he explains, “is overwhelming.”

Eye witnesses, massive circumstantial evidence, no alibi, no character references, no job, no home, a desperate situation, a motive.

“What motive?” I ask, coming out of my latest stupor.

“You’re penniless, homeless, bereft. You feel that society is responsible for your misery and so you decided to strike back.”

“No!” I scream. “I was happy for the first time in my life. Everything was finally, once and for all, perfectly arranged for the occurrence of spectacular good. I was in a state of pure bliss.”

“So you did it for the thrill,” he whispers. “I thought so.”

The judge rolls his eyes and the prosecuting attorneys snicker at each other when I announce my intention to defend myself. But I am determined to tell my story. I honestly feel that only I can do justice to the details of my life. I am determined to prove to the jury that I am not only sane and innocent, but that our so-called society is breaking down and they are all in as much danger as I am of losing their lives.

I am given six weeks to prepare my case. I write and rewrite the story of my life. I state and restate the philosophy that has guided me all these uneventful years. I practice in front of my cellmate until he asks to be transferred to another cell. I know that my coming moment in the spotlight is not the spectacular good awaiting me, but I am beginning to think my defense may lead me to that long awaited moment. I realize I am on the verge of modifying my belief system, of taking my actions seriously. The proximity of doom is a powerful agent of change.

I am eloquent. I am impassioned. I remind myself of every great attorney I have ever seen in a movie or on television, only I am even better because I am three dimensional. I move the jurors to tears.

I am sentenced to death.

But still, still, I do not doubt that very soon, a truly great good thing will happen to me.

In my cell on death row, I find it impossible, for the first time in my life, to watch television. But the moment I make the decision to have the set removed from my cell, I become suicidal.

Four months and three days before the date of my execution, I have my first session with a therapist, a Freudian. Two days later, I request a Jungian. Two weeks later, I wake up from a vivid dream and am shocked to find that I am in prison, on death row, awaiting my grossly premature death. I understand myself too well now for this to be a reasonable way to spend this brief flickering we call human existence. I try to harmonize my lifelong beliefs with the coming of my death, but all I get is atonal dribble.

I recall the story of Job and the stories of Kafka. I think of archetypes and heroes and the three times in my life when I turned down the opportunity to have sex with really terrific women. I think of black men lynched for being black, Jews slaughtered for being Jews, wars being waged for corporate gain, and me, a passive white man being murdered for being a passive white man with no alibis and a belief in something other than a vengeful God.

I begin to dream of escaping. But in these dreams escape is always secondary to where I escape to. I invariably find myself in an alpine meadow, hiking uphill toward the summit of a snow-covered peak. I have a child on my back and he or she is whispering in my ear.

Two months to go. I attack a guard in an attempt to actualize my dreams—the first overtly aggressive act of my life. I am severely beaten and thrown into a lightless confinement cell. After three weeks of near total sensory deprivation, I begin to believe that maybe I did murder those two people, whoever they were. I know I did not, I know I have never broken a law, but the brutality and senselessness of my ordeal demands of my wounded psyche that it come up with a reason for this hellish turn of events. Surely, a voice cries within me, torture and death are not prerequisites to the happiness we have postponed for so many years.

Two weeks to go. I am on the verge of accepting that I am insane. I am sticky with the feeling that my twenty-nine years with the phone company was all a vividly boring hallucination. What if my lack of ambition and my absolute belief in impending spectacular goodness is nothing more than a misfiring synapse in an otherwise perverse and murderous brain? What if I am a murderer? What if I only know the very surface of things seen on television?

I ask to go to the library. I am escorted there by two heavily armed guards. The selection is small. I close my eyes, reach out, and touch the spine of a small book. It is an account of the life and trial of Joan of Arc.

The day of my execution arrives. Joan is with me now, not so much in me, but riding lightly on my shoulder. She gives me good courage. I feel, as a matter of fact, quite calm.

And yes, it occurs to me that death may be that spectacular good I have been awaiting, that my moment of release will be the best thing that ever happened to me in my otherwise unnecessary existence. But I still don’t believe I’m going to die. I continue to believe in…well, divine intervention.

The warden arrives to tell me that my request for a pardon from the governor has been denied. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise or upset me.

A priest is admitted to my cell. We are left alone, the door closed. This is unusual, but I don’t question it. I surrender. I give myself, body and soul, to the glorious principles of Universe.

The priest is a terribly skinny man with sunken cheeks. He does not look at all well. He asks me to confess. I tell him I am not a Catholic. He asks me to confess anyway. I tell him everything I just told you, only in much greater detail. I lose all sense of time. The past and present merge.

At the end of my story, the priest smiles faintly and says, “We thought so. Our evidence corroborates everything you’ve just told me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, the back of my neck tingling.

“I mean that we have known of your innocence all along,” he explains, coughing into a handkerchief.

He shows me the handkerchief. It is stained with blood.

Quickly, he explains that he belongs to a secret organization fighting inhumanity and needless violence around the world. He has been chosen, because he is about to die of an incurable disease, to die in my place. We exchange clothes. He gives me his realistic fake moustache and heavy framed dark glasses. Before I leave the cell, he tells me exactly what to say and when and where to say it. We embrace, and in our embrace I feel the first stirrings of love.

Moments later, I am outside the prison walls, opening the door of a late model car. As I roll along the highway, making sure not to speed, I activate the tape player.

“Welcome. It is our pleasure to save you. You will find your new identification, a valid passport and one million Swiss francs in unmarked bills in the glove compartment, along with a first class airline ticket to Zurich. Don’t worry. All will be well.”

I drive to the airport, park the car, check my suitcase, and make my way to the departure gate. My reservation is confirmed. I am handed a boarding pass. I walk down the sloping hallway to the softly purring jet. I take my spacious window seat in the first class section, and buckle my safety belt, though I have every reason to believe I won’t need it.

How do I feel? I feel fantastic, swollen with life. Everything I see is sharply focused. Every sound is rich with meaning. Every moment is bursting with opportunity. I am free of the doubt that enslaved me. Every moment is now.



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