Tell Me Your Story- A Chapter from "At The End of All Things."
On a frigid, snowy February evening in Chicago sat a pub several blocks east of Wrigley Field, not a tourist spot but a neighborhood pub beloved by the locals, a warm and inviting place where framed pictures of the locals hung on the walls. The pub had been closed for a week because of the blizzard that consumed the Second City, but tonight the pub reopened, and to no surprise to the bartender, the place was dead. Besides two local drunks, the pub was just her and her misery.
The bartender didn’t mind the slow business and expected to close early; tomorrow was the second anniversary of her fiancé’s death. The bartender was known to be chipper and warm to her patrons, but they all knew not to bother her on the night before and on the anniversary of his death. She liked to go to work on those two nights because it helped her to stop thinking of her beloved.
The man who killed her fiancé was an exhausted local plumber who drove over black ice and lost control of his work truck just as her fiancé was crossing the road. The police investigation found the man not guilty of any crime, and he wasn’t arrested. The fiancé’s family, a compassionate people, forgave the man for killing their son, but the bartender could not, for he was the love of her life. If there were every such a thing as soul mates and true love, then she had it with her fiancé. He was perfect to her, and they both adored each other so much that every day they had together was like dating for the first time. He had shown her so much beauty in her life, but now on this night, she was reminded that people, romantic notions, and happiness die. Every day for a year she begged for death to take her. A life without him was not a life worth living, and tonight she contemplated killing herself. Part of her wanted to live, but the other part of her wanted to die so that she could find relief from her broken heart.
Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros began to play over the pub speakers.
The bartender ran to the stereo system and turned it off. Before last year, she would sing for the patrons on the weekends, for her voice was as lovely as the sound of summer rain falling on a roof. People would fill the pub and gleefully listen to her voice as she sang just for the joy of singing, but Home was the song she only sang for her fiancé when he visited her at work. The song had played when they met. He had played it during his proposal to her. Since his death, she had stopped singing and cringed in pain whenever she heard it play.
The night was growing older, and she busied herself with cleaning behind the bar until she saw the two local drunks sloppily don their heavy coats and stumble into the frigid night. The bartender sighed as she was now alone in the bar. Twenty minutes went by and nobody else walked into the pub. The bartender looked at her watch. It was five minutes to midnight. She decided to close the pub early. She walked into the back to retrieve the envelopes for the bank deposit and was startled to find a man sitting at the end of the bar. The bartender did not hear the door open, and she was only gone for less than ten seconds.
She regained her composure and quickly accessed the mysterious man sitting at her bar. The man was wearing an immaculate black suit with a black silk tie and a white French cuff dress shirt. He looked to be in his late twenties, but something in his dark brown eyes made him seem older. The bartender was mesmerized for a few moments as she tried to figure out why he looked both young and old at the same time, but then he smiled and it snapped her back into the moment. It was a bright reassuring smile that made her feel comfortable. She felt he meant no harm.
Walking to him, she asked politely, “What can I get for you?”
The man eased forward on his bar stool and scanned over the selection of spirits on the wall. “I’ll have an Old Fashioned. Make it neat,” he said, still giving her that reassuring smile.
The bartender began muddling the orange and cherry into the rock glass, then asked, “Did you just come from a date?”
The man, seemingly confused by the question, took a moment to realize why she’d asked and then answered, “Oh, because of the suit. No, I just came off work.”
The bartender thought this was odd because it was close to midnight, and she didn’t see an overcoat on any of the coat racks. “So what is it you do?” She served him the Old Fashioned.
The man sipped the cocktail. He appeared to savor the drink before swallowing. “I’m a judge,” he answered modestly.
“Really? Judge who, and of what?” she asked, wondering his name.
“Judge Jaydee, but I’m not the type of judge you’re thinking of,” he said, as he picked up the glass and took another swig.
Confused by the answer, the bartender was hoping “judge” wasn’t code for a hitman or if Jaydee was just the name for a yuppie high of some glamour drug. “What type of judge are you?” she asked.
He reached for the bowl of pretzels and remarked, “I’m a judge of man.”
“Like you judge men for competitions?”
Jaydee smiled and sighed. “In order to explain what I do, I would have to tell you a story, but I have two terms before I tell you this story.”
The bartender felt sudden unease. The man didn’t look threatening, if anything he was putting her at ease, but there was something off about him. Curiosity was getting the best of her. “Name the terms,” she said.
“The first is to be open minded regarding the story I’m about to tell. It will be unbelievable, but I assure you it’s true. You’ll think I am mad and a liar, but you’ll be right on one of those accounts. I ask you please to listen until the end; this story has a message. Do you agree with the first term?”
She nodded, “What’s the second one?”
“Please make me another Old Fashioned, sweetie,” he said as he gulped the one in his hand.
The bartender made him another and handed it to him. As she pulled her hand away, he gently grabbed it and looked her in the eyes, saying, “Please listen until the very end.” His face, being of a young man’s features but with the eyes of an old man, seemed sincere and no threat to her. “I will,” she said, “just tell your story.”
He sipped his Old Fashioned and asked, “Do you believe in angels and demons?”
“For most, people believe that there are angels and demons, but they do not know about the other beings. Sometime after the beginning of man’s era on earth, the devil and God met to talk about the souls of man. The devil argued with God about who should be the one to determine if man should go to paradise or into the inferno. Since both sides did not trust each other, they came to an accord; the fate of humanity would be placed in man’s hands, so the judges were created. Judges would be formerly deceased men and women who had shown to be impartial in difficult decisions and who were known to have an innate ability in judging a person’s character.”
A cold chill crawled down the bartender’s spine as she realized she was now alone with a madman. She considered hitting the panic alarm underneath the bar counter but something told her to keep listening.
“God believed man would be of better fit to weigh the souls of humanity because man knew the struggles humanity had to go through in life. While the devil believed the accord would get more souls on his side because mankind would let bias, hatred, and irrational thinking get the better of itself.” Jaydee stopped swig from his Old Fashioned and signaled for the bartender to make another. “Now the judges aren’t Death. They’re a different department. You can think of us as processors and Death, or reapers as we call them, as logistics. We meet with someone who’s about to die within twelve hours of his or her death—”
“Why twelve hours?” the bartender interrupted as she made another Old Fashioned.
“The future is unpredictable up to a certain point with us, too many variables, especially with humans. The judges get their assignments within twelve hours, and we meet with the person anytime within that timeframe. Sometimes we have time to meet with the person in a private location, say the person’s bedroom, where we talk and have him or her forget before letting the person go out on his or her last day. Other times, we meet with the person within the last moments of life, in which we slow down time and begin listening to the person’s story.”
She took a deep breath and argued with herself if it was wise to feed into the man’s morbid delusions, but her curiosity won out. “Why make them forget? They’re about to die that day, so why make them forget? And how can you stop time?”
“It’s the whole predicting the future thing. We work on the same relative dimension as you, and we know how to take liberty with physics, but predicting the future is difficult because of the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, so—”
“Google it later. Just know the variables become drastically reduced within the twelve-hour time frame where we can predict a person’s death. The variables take in account for the person’s health, age, job, time of day leaving work, yada yada yada. That technical stuff usually hurts my head. I leave that science to the section of the judges who hand out the assignments. We make them forget because we can’t let them change their minds about the decisions they will have to make on their last day. You might be thinking it would be nice to give 'em a heads up on their last day, but there are grave consequences.”
“A person . . . or people might take their places,” he said dryly. “When your time is up, then it’s your time to leave.”
The bartender began to relax a little and decided to play along with Jaydee’s delusions. It was the most creative and intriguing story she’d heard in a long time. “So, do you guys have offices?”
“Believe it or not, we do, in every major city and township across the planet. We even have an office in Antarctica too.”
“Since you are ‘judges,’ I take it you have formerly living judges and attorneys as colleagues?” the bartender asked.
“Ironically, no. I mean we do have some former judges and lawyers, but they’re a minority within the department. I did meet two former US Supreme Court justices happily working in the afterlife. We have doctors and nurses, a few politicians, garbage men, farmers, but a good bulk of us come from first responders and former military. We have former generals and privates, medics and corpsman, EMTs and freighters, and police.”
“Why so many of you guys?”
“It’s because we chose professions in which we had to make the difficult decisions to help save lives. The reapers on the other hand are not grim or macabre as stories lead them to be. They are extremely warm and sympathetic people. No matter what verdict we hand out about the souls, they always calm the person as they take their last breaths and gently guide them to the next life. The reapers come from medical careers, such as nurses and doctors, and former members of religious order, nuns, monks, and priest.
“So what did you do before you died?”
Jaydee’s face became solemn as he put his drink back on the bar top and looked down in silence for a moment. “I was a cop,” he said, studying his drink.
The bartender hesitated briefly, then asked, “How did you die?”
Jaydee lifted his head, gazed into the bartender’s eyes, and gave her a reassuring smile again. She saw a hidden sadness in his eyes.
“Back in the winter of 1966, I had just become a detective for the Chicago Police Department. It was a wonderful moment in my life because becoming a detective had always been a dream of mine, but sadly, my dream only lasted for a day. On my first official day of work, I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a pack of smokes. I remember walking in the back of the grocery store to check myself out in the mirror, as I was wearing a new suit for my first day on the job. As I walked back up front, I saw a young man sweating and nervously shaking in front of the checkout. Before I could put two and two together, the young man brandished a pistol and pointed it at the cashier. The young man stuttered, demanding the cashier hand over the money. At the time I thought the young man had tunnel vision; he never looked in my direction, so I decided to take him by surprise and reached for my .38 special.”
Jaydee gulped his drink and paused for a few moments to regain his composure before starting again. “As I raised my gun, he quickly looked in my direction, and the next thing I know, I saw multiple flashes of light. Oddly, I didn’t hear gunshots, just the loud pounding of my heart. My eyes adjusted from the flashes of light, and I realized I was staring at the tiles of the grocery store ceiling. I tried to move but had no control of my limbs. I panicked, coughing and heaving, and my lungs filled up with blood. I tried to scream for help but nobody came. Then, everything faded to black.
“As I took my final breath, I regretted only one thing in my life. I’d never fallen in love and had a family. That was the next thing I was going to set out to accomplish, but at that moment, I regretted not knowing what it was like to love and to be loved. As I thought this, I became furious and wanted to go kill the man who’d just taken my life. I felt myself taking the last gulp of air and crying, as I could no longer fight my way to life. As I closed my eyes I heard a gentle voice ask, ‘Jaydee, do you want a job?’ The next thing I knew I was sitting on a park bench in Hyde Park with a thick-bearded man who introduced himself as Edward Teach.”
“Wait, Blackbeard was your mentor?” said the flabbergasted bartender.
“Yeah,” chuckled Jaydee, “he became a judge by accident. “There was a mistake in his paperwork when he died; he was given a job instead of being judged. It took a decade for upper management to realize the mistake, but he became one of the best judges we have, so they decided to keep him working as to atone for his infamous life.
“Teach, he likes to be called that, had me shadow him for three years so that I could learn how to weigh a man’s soul. During this training, I was taught about what we must ask for before deciding their fate.”
“First, I ask them to tell me their story.”
Jaydee stared starkly at the bartender. “Yes, their story. Please don’t interrupt, because we’re getting to the important part.”
The bartender sheepishly looked away in embarrassment, but Jaydee gave her a warm forgiving smirk.
“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone deserves to have their story heard, so before we weigh their souls, we ask them to tell us their stories, after which we ask them the two most important questions in their last moments of life: What is the best thing they have done? What is the worst thing they have done?
“For the first few years, I was a miserable ass. I mean, I did my job right, but all I thought about was the man who killed me. He took my life for a handful of fucking cash! He took away my goals, my future, my dream of finding a good woman and loving her until I was old and withered. The selfish bastard took my life because he didn’t have the decency to do the hard and honest thing by getting a freaking job and doing right by society. . . .” Pausing for a few moments, Jaydee turned his head and stared out the window at the light flurries of snow falling outside. “All I wanted was to fall in love.”
“I was angry and full of regret, but I slowly began enjoying the job and appreciating the importance of it. I heard people’s stories; some were short and tragic while others were long and boring because of their fear to live. Then others . . . others were fantastic!” Jaydee’s face lit up with a feverish excitement. “Full of fire, love, and passion. Stories of love, loss, and love again; stories about enduring insurmountable odds and coming out on top. These stories were better than any book or movie because they were real, and I was fortunate to hear them.
“But then there were the dark stories. I’ve heard horrifying stories of the cruelty of which man is capable. You think demons are evil? Man can be worse.”
A chill went down the bartender’s spine. “Man can be cruel but life can be crueler,” she said, wiping the tear from her eye as she thought of her fiancé.
“Yes, but it can be so rewarding too. A year ago, I was assigned back to Chicago for a few months. At the time, I hadn’t been in Chicago since I was killed, so you can only imagine the depression I felt as I walked around my native city. For the past fifty years, I’ve made an effort of moving on by traveling the world and focusing on my job I’ve come to love. Then on an evening, much like tonight, I was given an assignment to visit an old man who was breathing his final breaths. I walked into his house unnoticed as a large congregation of the man’s family consoled each other in the living room. His family was quite large, which extended from his children to his great grandchildren. I walked through the hallways filled with photos of the man and his family on vacations, working on cars, and at holidays. It seemed like the man had a full life and it was his time to go. I walked into his bedroom and saw the old man’s wife crying as she held onto his hand while her daughter and son tried to comfort her, but they could barely hold back their tears.
“I stopped time and made my approach to the graying man. He looked up and made a facial expression of recognition before saying, ‘I knew you would be the face that would come get my soul.’ I didn’t understand why he said that but the man looked familiar to me also; maybe he was a man I’d arrested a lifetime ago. I then proceeded with the assignment.
“‘Please, tell me your story,’ I said. The old man started to tell me how the beginning of his life was filled with tragedy; his mother had died in front of him in a car accident when he was seven, and his father drank himself to death when he was ten. The old man bounced around foster homes until he turned eighteen and began living on the street. He took a job as a mechanic but was soon fired because of his growing addiction to crack cocaine, which had made its way to the streets for the first time. The old man then started stealing copper pipes and burglarizing people’s homes to help feed his addiction. I listened carefully and began feeling a growing admiration for the old man. It was obvious that he’d turned his life around from his sad origins. But the admiration quickly disappeared when he said, ‘I’ve never hurt anyone until the day I met you.’ I was confused, but deep down I knew why he looked familiar, though I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge that gut feeling.
“I stared into the man’s eyes and then came to terms with who he was. ‘That morning was the lowest I’ve gotten in my life. I was desperate for a high, and I wanted that high badly. The night before I’d broken into a house and stolen a gun from inside. I was going to hawk it, but that morning I decided to try robbing a bodega to make some quick cash. I’d never held a gun before, and I remember my hand shaking uncontrollably as I hid it in my pocket when I entered. I don’t remember anything before I fired the gun, but I’ve a vivid memory of you lying on the ground bleeding all over the floor,’ said the old man.
“I felt the rage build inside as I stared into the eyes of my murderer. A thousand feelings and thoughts flooded me at once. He ended up with the family I’d wanted and never paid for what he’d done. I was about to scream, ‘Go to hell,’ which would have literally happened if I’d said it, but I restrained myself and reluctantly asked him to continue with his undeserving life story. ‘I went to help you,’ he explained, ‘but ran out of the store when I saw your badge surrounded by an ocean of blood. I didn’t even remember thinking about running away. I just saw the badge and ran as fast as I could. I ran and ran until I collapsed in a desolate alley. I had prayed it was a dream when I awoke, but I looked down at my pants and hands with your blood on them. I vomited in that alley and wailed because I’d killed a good man. I looked around for the gun I’d shot you with, but somebody must have taken it when I passed out. I still had the cash from the robbery and decided to kill myself in a poetic justice way by overdosing. I went to the nearest dealer and bought as much as I could with the cash. I injected the large dosage and felt the last moments of bliss before my one-way trip to hell.’
“‘I don’t know why I was spared,’ he went on, ‘but when I came too in the hospital, I looked up and saw an angel helping me. She’s been with me ever since.’ Then, the old man looked over to his wife. ‘She took pity on me and nursed me back to health. I thought about committing suicide every morning, but she made me change my mind every day. She got me clean and had me working again, but every day you were on my mind. Every day I lived wasn’t deserved. You were my secret burden. The days turned into years as we started a family and my love for her grew, but I’ve never told her or anyone else of that fateful day. I could never atone for your death, and I knew hell was always going to be my final destination, but I was given a piece of heaven with her and my family before I would get what I deserved.’
“I sat there listening to the old man’s story and started to feel conflicted. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to react. All I thought about after my death was sending him to hell. To my disgust, I was starting to feel sorry for him. I asked him the questions, ‘What is the best thing you have done?’ He looked to his wife and said, ‘Loving her.’ I then asked him, ‘What is the worst thing you have done?’ The old man began to cry as he looked me in the eye and said, ‘That I let a good man pay the price for my life.’ He then reached over and opened the drawer to his nightstand, took out an envelope, and placed it on the stand. I walked over to the stand, opened the envelope, and read his confession. ‘I raised a good family. They will honor you by releasing my confession to the authorities. If you’re ready, then take me to my deserved fate.’
The bartender was enthralled by his tale and eagerly asked, “Did you send him to hell?”
“I read and re-read his confession and then looked at his wife, his kids, and the pictures of them on the wall. The photos of his children were of them graduating from college, wearing white lab coats, winning awards and elections. I looked at the room for what it was and it was a room of love. I gave one last look at the man as he bravely embraced his fate, and then I walked out of the room and met with Kat, a reaper. ‘What’s the verdict?’ she asked. I still had the envelope in my hand as I thoughtlessly stared at it. ‘Send him upstairs,’ I told her. ‘You got it,’ she cheerfully said. Then she asked, ‘What’s in the envelope?’ I pocketed the envelope and answered, ‘Atonement.’”
The bartender was taken aback by the ending of Jaydee’s story. “Why didn’t you send him to hell?”
“I didn’t send him to hell, because I forgave him. It’s not up to God to forgive man for the sins we do to each other. Forgiveness wasn’t created to please God; it was created to bring peace to man. I found peace in the end, and I wanted my murderer to find peace also. It was time for me to move on.”
Struck by the wisdom of Jaydee and the compassion in his decision, the bartender was left speechless, as she believed his story. But in believing his story, a terrifying thought struck her. The hair on the back of neck stood as she started to back away. “Why did you just tell me your story? Are you here because I’m going to die tonight? Do I actually kill myself?”
Jaydee gave her a beautiful smile, one that could calm the wildest of mobs and the fiercest of storms, and simply answered, “No, for tonight I am only a messenger.”
“A messenger? What does your story have to do with me?”
“Life has a funny way of being kind in even the most tragic of times. The message for you comes at the ending of my story. Before leaving the old man’s house, Kat handed me my next assignment, which was marked Urgent. ‘Sorry for the late notice, but this death was just predicted and is going to happen down the street in a few minutes. Fucking logistics, huh?’ Kat said to me before I ran out the door to meet my appointment. I ran down the street and found my next assignment standing on the street corner in the bone-chilling wind. I remember him smiling in a way only somebody in love can smile. He had a bouquet of roses and was about to call you before the truck hit him.”
The bartender gasped in disbelief and fell to the linoleum floor, crying uncontrollably. In a blink of an eye, Jaydee knelt next to her and wrapped his arms around her. He reached into his breast coat pocket, pulled out a white silk handkerchief, and wiped the tears from her face.
“As he lay on the street on the frigid night, I sat next to him and asked for his story. Let me tell you, it was one of the most beautiful stories I have heard. He lived a life full of adventure and wonder, but his answers to the two questions were spectacular and I needed to hear them that night.”
The bartender gained her composure between sobs and asked, “What . . . what . . . what were his answers?”
“He told me the best thing he ever did in his life was loving you. You were the greatest thing to happen to him and every second with you was his heaven on earth. For the worst thing he did . . . was leaving you. Your fiancé lived a wonderful life, and his answers were true and beautiful. I sat there with him on that cold street and comforted him as he took his final breaths. I saw Kat a block away walking toward us and went to wave at her, but your fiancé grabbed my hand and asked me to do him a favor.”
“What . . .” she gasped in between sobs, “did he ask you to do?”
“He wanted me to tell you that one day you two will be together again because lovers can be lost but your love will never be; however, until you’ll meet again, please live your life. He wanted you to be happy and enjoy your life. He doesn’t want your story to be filled with bitterness and regret but with beauty and wonder.”
The bartender cried a little more as she hugged Jaydee. “Thank you,” she sobbed. “Thank you for giving me peace.”
Jaydee handed her the silk handkerchief. She wiped the tears from her face, then managed to break into a smirk and said, “Your drinks are on the house,” though when she looked around, she didn’t see Jaydee, the bar was empty. Her encounter with Jaydee felt as if it had taken an hour, but the clock showed a minute past midnight.
Have I gone mad with grief? she thought.
She was close to dismissing the encounter as a delusion brought on the anniversary of her fiancé’s death, until she looked down at the white silk handkerchief in her hand. She examined the handkerchief and found the initials J. D. embroidered into a corner of the silk cloth. The bartender smiled and tucked the handkerchief into her pocket, then quickly closed down the bar.
As she walked into the Chicago night, gentle flurries of snow danced in the air, lightly falling on her face as she stopped and looked up into the night sky. For the first time in a long time, the bartender felt joy and embraced her life again and she sung Home for the world to hear.