The Greatest Spiritual Secret of the Century: Chapter Excerpt: Fired!
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The first two chapters of the book.
Even the word sounded ugly, as if you’d been put in front of a firing squad and shot.
May as well have been, Paul Abler thought as he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black greatcoat and hurried down Madison Avenue. The noises and smells of New York drifted by him as if they didn’t exist, he was so absorbed in the memory of ten minutes earlier, in a skyscraper fifty floors above the street, the Managing Editor’s corner office of one of the city’s daily tabloid newspapers. The office that he’d planned to occupy within five years.
A sharp rectangle of light drew his attention to a storefront window, where he caught a glimpse of himself. At almost six feet tall, he reached the end of the reflection. His dark hair almost black hair just touched his collar, with a few rebellious hairs curling over it. deep brown eyes pierced the glow, adding an intensity that more than a few fellow workers had recently commented on. He was glad he’d decided to walk a couple of miles each day. It gave him a firmness that felt natural, rather than the bulging muscles that some of his co-workers had worked so hard at producing in all the so-called “right” places.
Although the phrase used was “laid off,” Paul — in the interests of journalistic integrity and knowing what it meant for his career — preferred to use and think of it as what it was: fired.
Paul had stood opposite the massive, paper-strewn desk of Mack Kessler, managing editor of The New York Daily Tribune. Another desk, perpendicular to the first, held the computers that linked the M.E. into the newspaper’s intranet. Mack liked to pretend he lived in the days when newspapers were about news and editors smoked cigars and snarled a lot. In fact, he was a tall, Yale-educated, 36-year-old yuppie who wore two-hundred-dollar ties, surfed the ’net, and worked out three days a week at The Reebok Sports Club, where the membership cost more than Paul’s last car.
Still, Mack was older that Paul’s 29 years. Paul had finished his MA in Journalism five years earlier, spent a year in the “intern” slave-labor camps, a year as an editorial assistant, two years ago got a job as a real reporter for a real local daily newspaper in upstate New York, and eleven months ago landed this position in the Big Apple at the Tribune. Finally, a reporter for a New York City newspaper. Maybe in another few years – if he could break some really big stories – he could even get a job with the Times. He’d planned a great future in journalism, and he’d kept on track.
So there stood Mack, who loved to give speeches about how important investigative journalism is to a free society, telling Paul that he’s been laid off, along with fourteen other employees.
“This is really because I offended an advertiser,” Paul had said.
“No, Paul,” Mack had said, back in his office after the brief meeting in the conference room where Paul and the other fourteen people had been summoned. Paul was the only reporter in the bunch; the rest were all support staff or in administration. “This is because the owners of the newspaper think we can operate more efficiently with a leaner staff.”
“More profitably, you mean.”
“I’m sure the stockholders would applaud that, as would the American public. This is not a scandal, Paul. Layoffs happen every day of the week, all across the world.”
“But we both know there are other reporters here who are not as competent as I am,” Paul said. “I was picked because of the London story.”
“Actually,” Mack said, his fingers nervously tapping the top of his desk as if he was planning to bolt from the room at any moment, “I think it’s because some of the others here think you’re too hungry. The London story was just a symptom. You’re driven, Paul. Success at any cost, win that Pulitzer next week. I think you’ve scared the wits out of some of the people above me. You’ve also made enemies of your fellow reporters. They think you’re a rogue, a cowboy.”
Paul leaned forward and, his voice fluid with acid, said, “You’re saying I’m canned because I’m too good?”
“Too driven, Paul. You work fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. You pour everything you have into your work, and there’s nothing left over for you or anybody else. Speaking as a friend, I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Paul shook his head, knowing Mack was no friend and never would be. “Too good. I work too hard, and that scares the ones who just want to get by.” Like Mack, Paul thought. He knows I’d have his job in a year or two if I played it right.
“Of course, I’d deny it,” Mack said, “but everybody knows anyway. Layoffs are opportunities for people to settle political scores and consolidate their empires. You frightened my boss, the way you charged into that London story without even consulting anybody.” His tone softened. “I’m just sorry you weren’t here long enough to earn a severance package. But I guess it’s better for the company this way. We’ll pay you through the end of the week, although you have to clean out your desk and leave now.”
“This isn’t right,” Paul had said, but he knew as he said it that Mack wasn’t interested — the transnational corporation that owned the Tribune wasn’t interested — in the story he’d uncovered about a London company that was bribing New York politicians to get tax breaks and government business. A London company with a division that advertised heavily in the New York newspapers. And, he’d discovered, the Tribune wouldn’t defend him for the furor he’d stirred up just investigating the yet-unpublished story. If anything, Mack had pointed out, it reflected poorly on the paper; newspapers don’t take on the corporate big guys if they want to survive in the business. They haven’t in at least two decades. Reporters shouldn’t poke into corners without the lawyers and corporate owners first telling them it’s safe territory. And they should never upstage their own editors.
Mack reached over to the bowl full of different-colored Bic lighters that sat on his desk. He smoked, and was constantly losing lighters, so he kept a good supply. He picked up a red one and tossed it to Paul by way of ending the conversation. “Here, kid. Set the world on fire. And turn in your ID to Cynthia at the front desk on the way out.”
And so Paul Abler, unemployed and alone, marched through the cold February streets of Manhattan, the wind whipping dust and auto exhaust through his thick brown hair. The sky was a low, gray boil of clouds, threatening snow as the temperature hovered one or two degrees below the freezing point.
I’ve got about two weeks to find something, Paul thought, glancing down at the overcoat that had set him back eighteen hundred dollars at Saks Fifth Avenue.
When he got the job with the Tribune, he’d immediately gone out and spent almost four thousand dollars on clothes. He soon discovered that the jeans and white shirt he was currently wearing were all he needed, but still, he’d told himself, he needed to be ready to be well dressed. And, truth be told, he had used the two suits he bought to good advantage when he’d been investigating the London company’s shady dealings. The clothes got him taken seriously by secretaries and underlings, and even convinced one guy he “might” be a senior assistant to one of New York’s senators.
But they cost a fortune, relatively, and he’d gone a month late on his rent to pay for them, and then that added to the cost of lunches and taxis. Before he knew it he’d pushed his credit cards to the point where he couldn’t get any more cash advances on them, and was now two months behind on his rent. The pay-now-or-we’ll-evict-you notice had been stuck under his door three days ago.
Fired, broke, and in debt. A week, maybe two, to come up with his back rent, or he’d be on the streets. And no job reference; who in journalism would hire somebody fired by the Tribune? If he couldn’t make it in a mid-level tabloid, his chances with the Times or The Washington Post were shot. His professors had lied to him, they hadn’t worked in the business for years; most probably had never left the comfortable world of Academe. A reporter’s first commitment isn’t to the truth, or to his readers, or to the public good; it’s to the corporations who pay the bills. Unless there’s a war — which is profitable to the defense contractors, which include the owners of some of the nation’s largest news outlets — a reporter no longer has any chance to break a really big story because so much is now off-limits. Why hadn’t they just told him that when he was a freshman, so he could get out and go into something where people were honest about climbing and making money, like a stock brokerage? Instead, he’d bought the myth of Woodward and Bernstein, the lie that said if you work hard and tell the truth, damn the consequences, no matter how it shakes up the world, you’ll come out rich and famous in the end.
He saw a payphone just before the next corner and stopped at it, dropped in the right change, and dialed Susan’s direct number at work. They’d been dating on a pretty regular basis for about eight months, and in the past few months Paul had slept over at her apartment, or her at his, most weekends. He took that as a good sign that she was serious about the relationship, although she disliked discussing — or “overanalyzing,” as she called it — their future.
“Susan Gordon,” she answered, in that businesslike tone that told the caller he’d reached an advertising copywriter at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. Big-shot-by-association was what Paul had called it once, offending Susan to the point where he’d had to spend two days apologizing. She finally forgave him when he sent flowers to her office.
“Hi, Susan,” Paul said. “How’s your day?”
“It sucks, like usual,” she said in a tired voice. “Sometimes I think everybody in the cosmetics industry is insane. They all have delusions of grandeur.”
“The perfume campaign giving you fits?”
“You wouldn’t believe,” she said. “I hear traffic. Are you calling from the street?”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I’m on Madison, just north of forty-fourth. I had a bit of a falling-out with Mack.”
“A falling out?” There was a subtle but unmistakable shift in her tone, an implied disapproval.
“He said I was working too hard and had made some enemies. He tried to say it was just a corporate downsize, then said it was because of that London story. I think what it’s really about, though, is that he thinks I was after his job. If I could have gotten that story into print, I would have been the hottest reporter in New York in the past two years.”
“And?” She drew it out.
“And so I kept working on it, on my own time, and he fired me.”
“Well, I suppose I could say that I was laid off, but the truth is they fired me. I don’t suppose it makes much difference.”
“It makes all the difference in the world, Paul,” she said, her voice soft as if she were talking to a child.
“I’ll find something else,” he said.
“Is this going to be the pattern of your life?” she said. “Holding a job for a year and then getting canned?”
“No, really, this was a serious issue. No editor should be willing to compromise…”
“Paul, this is the real world!” Her voice was thick and low. “It’s business. It’s all about compromise. Work your butt off if you want, climb as high as you can, I know how important that is to you. But don’t embarrass the wrong people.”
“No, it’s about journalism, not business. It’s an entirely different thing.”
“What, you think newspapers are in the truth business? Is that how they stay in business? Paul, I think your ambition has blinded you to the fact that it’s the advertisers who are paying your salary. You’re in such a hurry to make it to the top that you’re losing perspective. These aren’t the old days. The corporations have taken over.”
An ambulance with its siren on snaked its way up Madison Avenue, and he put his hand over his left ear so he could hear the phone. “I think I was just working too hard, doing too much. I was a threat to the other reporters, even to Mack, because I was showing them up as lazy…”
“Paul!” Her voice rose over the sound of the siren, and Paul felt his heart sink. “Listen to you!” she shouted. “Maybe they want to have a life, but you’re willing to throw everything over the edge just to be the next Bob Woodward.”
“Maybe I can get a job with one of the news magazines…”
“And maybe they’ll have no interest whatsoever in hiring somebody who doesn’t understand the realities of teamwork and cooperation in the twenty-first century corporate world. You know what they call workaholics in the business world?”
“Powerful and wealthy is what I’d call them…” He felt like he was talking to a stranger, the change in her tone had been so rapid.
“Alone, that’s what,” she said, her tone cutting. She took a deep and loud breath. “Paul, you don’t have to end up all alone at the top. You’re incredibly talented. But you’ve got to slow down and learn to play on a team.”
“But a team doesn’t win a Pulitzer, a reporter does…”
The ambulance faded into the distance, and her voice was again clear and crisp through the cold black plastic he held to his ear. “I know.” Her tone softened. “And I understand how important that is to you.”
“Would you like to get together tonight?”
There was a pause, and he could hear her breathe. Then she said, “I have a pile of work I have to take home tonight, Paul. I’m sorry.”
“Tomorrow is Friday, and I have a date with a girlfriend to see a show that’s playing off-Broadway. Her sister is in it.”
“It’s really not gonna be a good weekend for me,” she said.
“I understand,” he said, his vision blurring in the cold wind on his face. “I’ll call you next week.”
“You do that,” she said. “And have a great weekend.” Her voice had a forced perkiness to it.
The line clicked; his coins dropped into the bowels of the phone, and a dial tone filled his ear. Paul looked at the receiver as if seeing it for the first time, his stomach feeling like he’d been punched, and slowly hung up the phone. “Good bye to you, too,” he said softly, as the receiver fell into the cradle.
He turned and stepped back into the flow of people on the busy afternoon street. She was only a friend, he said over and over in his mind. And then, It was just a casual relationship, even though I’d hoped for more. She couldn’t have helped my career, and wasn’t really interested in my future. She has her own career to worry about.
A block down, along Madison Avenue between 43rd and 42nd streets, he started to walk by a large bear of a man with neatly-cut black hair and a thick black beard, wearing a red-and-black plaid winter hunting coat and green army pants stuffed into tall black boots. The man stepped in front of him and abruptly established eye contact. Instinctively, Paul started to look away — eye contact in Manhattan can be dangerous, a lesson he’d learned well in his three years living there — but the man grabbed his right arm at the bicep and said in a loud voice, “Are you going to heaven, brother?”
“What?” Paul said, compounding his eye-contact mistake by violating Manhattan’s unspoken, never-respond-to-them rule. He immediately realized his mistake and tried to pull his arm from the man’s grip.
But the man held him tightly, the bond forged by Paul’s response, and said, “I mean are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Paul felt a return flush of the resentment and bellicosity he’d experienced just ten minutes earlier in Mack’s office. Who the hell did Mack think he was, telling Paul that a reporter shouldn’t report the news if it made a big company uncomfortable? And who the hell did this guy think he was asking if Paul was “saved”?
“Is that what I have to do to get into heaven?” Paul said to the guy, his voice trembling with outrage, as if the man were a stand-in for the hypocritical Mack who’d just shattered his life.
“Accept, believe, be forgiven, and repent!” the man proclaimed, raising the index finger of his free right hand in the air. “And you’ll spend eternity in heaven!”
“Lemme get this straight,” Paul said. “If I do these things, then I go to heaven when I die?”
“Right! An eternal paradise!”
“And you’re going to be there, too?”
“Of course!” the man roared.
Paul laughed, what he knew was a sarcastic and cutting laugh, and said: “If that’s where you’re going, then I think I’d rather be somewhere else.”
He pulled away from the shocked man’s grip and continued his walk down Madison Avenue.
“You’ll burn in hell forever!” the man shouted at his back. “You’re running scared and you better be scared, because you’re gonna die in sin and burn in hell! The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will get you, because he’s wrathful and jealous! That’s right — run away. You can run, but you can’t hide!” The man’s voice, his rant, faded into the sounds of traffic as Paul kept walking briskly down Madison, along with the sea of other people all pretending to be totally oblivious to the man shouting threats behind them.
But as he walked, Paul remembered his teenage years, the time he’d gone to Billy Graham’s sermon at Shea Stadium and walked down front for the altar call, and the church he briefly attended after that, where the pastor’s favorite theme was original sin and damnation. He eventually stopped attending the church, to a gnawing feeling of guilt.
What does it all mean? he wondered as he walked. Was everybody born evil and hated by God because of a mistake some now-dead woman made thousands of years ago? Was it possible? Would any father, even a Heavenly Father, torture and murder his own son to save the people he created from his own wrath? Could it really be that this was the purpose of life, to escape the wrath of the one who created us? Or is there something deeper, something more comprehensible, something more compassionate, perhaps even right there in the Bible?
“I’d give anything to know the answer to that one,” Paul said from his heart, half aloud, a little corner of his mind also thinking that it would be a reporter’s ultimate story. He caught himself, wondering if any of the people around had heard him talking to himself. He looked around cautiously as he stopped with the flow of people for the red light at 41st Street, but nobody seemed to have noticed his lapse. Or, if they had, they were obeying Rule One of life in New York: avoid eye contact.
As he was scanning the crowd, he glanced across the street and froze in shock. For a terrible moment, he watched in horror as a little girl, perhaps five years old, broke the grip of her mother’s hand on the other side of the street and dashed into the crosswalk. A delivery truck roared down the street, intending to run through his green light full-bore.
The girl’s mother screamed, people gasped, and Paul awoke from his trance. She’ll die if I don’t do something, he knew. Nobody was moving: the scene was eerily in slow motion. Looking at the child again, he swallowed and surged into the intersection.
Three steps out, the voice in his head was now shouting, you’re gonna die, but he didn’t stop. Just five more steps and he could shove the little girl — now frozen in horror staring at the truck, whose brakes were screeching — hard enough to knock her out of the way. One step, then another, lunging forward, his hands stretched out in front of him, his mind racing as he calculated the odds that he could get there fast enough and shove the girl hard enough to knock her out of the way. If he succeeded, he would then, himself, be in front of the truck that he knew would take his life. But even if he wanted to turn back, he’d already gone too fast and too far.
And then he was flying.
Somebody must have pushed me really hard, he thought, as his motion through the air blurred. It almost felt as if strong arms had lifted him up under his chest and the tops of his legs, as if somebody were holding him the way he’d held kids in the summer camp pool where he’d taught swimming. And then he was rushing forward, his own hands outstretched like Superman, his feet no longer on the ground from the force of the shove. He grabbed the little girl and sailed with her on past the truck, feeling its bumper nick the heel of his right shoe.
The momentum, was gone, and he fell to the ground in a pile, his cheek and fingers skinned, as the screaming little girl landed on her feet and ran into her mother’s arms.
“That was one hell of a save!” a fiftyish man in a tan trench coat said, his voice filled with wonder, as he helped Paul to his feet. “Just like Mel Gibson, something in the movies!”
Paul looked down at his scraped-up right hand and brushed the dirt from it, then shook out his coat. “Did you see who shoved me?” he said, catching his breath.
Several people had stepped back from him, not willing or interested enough to get involved. The woman with her little girl, now sobbing softly, ran up to Paul and squeezed his arm, a thankful gesture, and said, “Thank you for saving my daughter’s life. You’re a good man.”
“You’re welcome,” Paul said. “But I think I had some help. Did you see who pushed me?”
She shook her head. “All I could do was stare at my daughter and scream. You took such a chance for her.”
“I’m glad I could help,” Paul said.
She pecked his cheek with a kiss and, embarrassed, turned and walked away with her daughter in tow.
The light changed, the crowd flowed away like a river. The man in the tan coat, his hair combed up and over his baldness, shook his head and said, “That was one hell of a jump you made, to fly like that. You a professional athlete?”
“I didn’t jump,” Paul said. “Somebody shoved me.”
The man shrugged and walked off, leaving Paul shivering in the cold wind. Paul Abler’s apartment was on the twenty-first — and top — floor of a brick apartment building near Madison Square Garden, in that part of Manhattan known as Chelsea. It was a co-op built by the Garment Worker’s Union in the late 1950s.
Paul took his time, walking the mile-and-a-quarter from where he’d saved the child to his apartment, stopping along the way to buy a slice of pizza, browsing store windows. He alternated between feelings of despair at his financial, relationship, and employment situation, and attempts to convince himself that he now had a new lifetime of opportunities ahead of him in all three areas. Part of him knew it was happy-talk, but another part also knew there was a grain of truth to it. Maybe there was something out there waiting for him that was better than working as a drone in a multinational’s make-believe world of what they cynically called “news.” Maybe there was a woman out there who’d be more loving and less judgmental than Susan. Maybe life could get better now, and would.
He used his key to open the building’s front door, walked into the lobby, and nodded at Billy, the retired cop the building hired as a combination security and maintenance man. Billy glanced at Paul’s scraped face and hand, and turned his gray eyes to look out the window onto Eighth Avenue. New Yorkers learn not to ask questions.
During his walk home, a plan had formed in Paul’s mind. A short-term plan, granted, but at least it may stave off the eviction notice and keep his credit cards from being cancelled. With that plan in mind, he’d purposely taken his time getting home to arrive just after five.
In the apartment next to Paul’s, which shared a partitioned balcony with his apartment looking up Eighth Avenue, lived Rich Whitehead, lawyer extraordinaire. Rich shared Paul’s desire to make it big in the Big Apple, but was hindered by an overabundance of what Paul thought of as lust. Rich, of course, called it his love life, or conquest, or, in his more exuberant (and vodka-soaked) moments, “My contribution to making the world a better and more loving place!”
What it all meant was that Rich had gone to Columbia University’s law school specifically and only to be able to join one of New York’s largest corporate law firms to get enough money and recognition that there would be an unending stream of women clamoring for his attention. He had the very explicit goal of working his way up the firm’s ladder to the point where his income would exceed a million dollars a year, which would support a Hugh Hefner lifestyle. A partnership in the firm would be nice, too, of course, but Rich understood that that was at least twenty years into the future. But doing M & A work — corporate mergers and acquisitions — was incredibly profitable for the attorneys involved, particularly when you could find and publicize dirt on the company to be taken over, thus driving its price through the floor. And sometimes the acquiring companies would even offer the lawyers working on their cases ground-floor opportunities. The success stories Rich told — usually when his mistress-of-the-week was in hearing range — were extraordinary, although Rich was still in the building, so his income clearly hadn’t yet hit his goals.
In his five years with the firm, Rich’s power had grown to the point where he currently presided over an empire of two junior lawyers, a paralegal, a clerk, and two secretaries. He passed out thousands of dollars a week in paychecks, and had told Paul many times that he was on the cusp of making Big Money himself.
Maybe, Paul thought, Rich could use a good writer. It could tide him over while he sent out résumé’s to newspapers around the country and hit Time and Newsweek.
Paul walked to the elevator, took it up to the twenty-first floor, and knocked on the door next to his own. A moment later the peephole flickered, then Paul heard the sound of the three locks being undone and the door pulled open to reveal Rich, standing in a dark-blue terrycloth bathrobe and holding a glass with ice cubes and a clear liquid. He stood a half-foot taller than Paul at about six foot six, with a large barrel-shaped middle. He wore gold wire-rimmed glasses and his pale blue eyes, too close together and small like pig’s eyes, were exaggerated in the thick lenses. Rich’s hair was short and corporate, but still an unruly mass of light brown waves.
“Hi, Paul,” Rich said, a touch of reserve in his voice that Paul took to imply he’d interrupted something. “What’s up?” He glanced at the abraded side of Paul’s face and added, “What happened to you?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Paul. “I fell on the street, up on Madison. Pushed some kid out of the way of a truck.”
“Playing the hero?” Rich smiled. “Maybe we should sue the trucker.”
Paul smiled and shrugged. “It was really no big deal. Got a minute? This won’t take long.”
Rich stepped back and waved into the room. “Come right in.”
Paul walked into Rich’s living room, which was decorated in black leather, glass, and chrome. It smelled of pot and shampoo and leather. Signed Dali prints adorned the walls, and the carpet was a startling pure eggshell white. A big-screen TV dominated the far corner, near the window out over the balcony, and in a chair next to it sat a stunning blonde woman, wearing only a silk bathrobe with a dragon embroidered down one side. Her hair was damp, and she looked like she was in her very early twenties. She looked Paul up and down quickly, and turned on a professional smile, all teeth and eyes, and said, “Hi!”
Flustered, Paul said, “Hi,” and turned to Rich. “I didn’t realize you had company…”
“No problem,” Rich interrupted. “Paul, this is Cheryl. Cheryl, Paul. Paul is my next-door neighbor, a hot-shot reporter for the Tribune.” He turned to Paul and said, “Cheryl is a model and student at FIT.” FIT, Paul knew, was the Fashion Institute of Technology, just down the block at 27th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and a magnet that drew beautiful women from all over the world…a fact not lost on Rich when he was deciding where in Manhattan to live. Plus, the neighborhood was experiencing a bit of a renaissance, with lots of trendy restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops opening. Great places to meet the women from FIT.
Rich sat down in a chair next to Cheryl, and gestured Paul to the black leather couch that faced the window. “Would you like a drink?”
“I think I’ll pass,” Paul said. “I don’t want to interrupt you two…”
“We just took a shower,” Rich said with a wink. “I’ve got to head back to the office in a few hours, so we’re going to dinner at Krour Thai after this drink.” Defining the parameters of the time available to Paul, which was to say very little.
“Well,” Paul said, “I left the Tribune today.”
“Hey!” Rich said, standing up and saluting with his glass. “Congratulations!” He took a sip, while Cheryl watched with a Siamese-cat expression on her face. Paul often wondered who was the user and who was the used; the women Rich picked up often seemed far more intelligent — or at least far wiser — than Rich himself.
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t something I’d probably have chosen. We had a disagreement about the meaning of the phrase ‘work ethic.’”
Rich raised his right eyebrow. “They thought seventy hours a week was too little?”
“They thought it was too much. I was making people nervous.”
“Ah, so. Same in the law. Build your alliances first, line up your allies. Establish your empire. Then you go for the jugular.” Rich sat back down, nodding his head like a wise old man who’d seen it all. “So now you’ve learned a good lesson and you’re free for a new beginning.”
“I guess so. Somewhere out there is a newspaper who’s not afraid to hire a real investigative reporter. In the meantime, though, I’m a little tight, cash-wise. So I was wondering if you knew of any opportunities at your firm for part-time work. I’m a pretty competent wordsmith.”
Rich glanced at Cheryl, who smiled back at him, then took a long, slow sip of his drink. “You know, the Russians make the best vodka in the world,” he said. “And the worst. The secret, of course, is knowing which is which.”
Paul nodded, having heard many times Rich’s story of when the firm sent him to Moscow and he learned All About Vodka And Russian Women.
“Anyhow,” Rich continued, “I don’t know. I’ll ask around. Sometimes we hire temps or freelancers, although usually they’re paralegals or lawyers who just work on the side, if you know what I mean.”
“But I’ll check it out!” Rich said with a decisive tone, standing again. “I’ll certainly check it out and get back with you.”
Paul caught the cue and stood up, allowing himself to be guided to the door with Rich’s arm reaching over his shoulder, murmuring reassurances until Paul was back in the hallway and the door was closed.
Paul turned and walked to his own apartment’s door, used one key on the dead-bolt lock, the other on the doorknob lock, pushed the door open and walked in.
As familiar as the apartment was to him, Paul still noted the contrast between his place and Rich’s. His was considerably less elegant, with simple light brown carpet, two tan fabric sofas — one long and the other short — an easy chair, and a ten-year-old faux teak wall unit that held his TV, stereo, and books. He walked through the living room to the kitchen, poured himself a glass of white wine from the refrigerator, and went back to the living room, noticing that he was limping slightly. His muscles ached. As he reached for the TV remote control to check the day’s news, he heard a knock at the door, a rapid and forceful rap-rap-rap. He stopped in mid-reach and carried his juice-glass to the door. Pulling aside the cover to the peephole, he saw an old man in a brown tweed jacket. The fellow looked to be in his seventies, with trim white hair and beard, his jacket middle-buttoned formally over his tie, holding a clipboard. He was smiling broadly.
Paul opened the door. “Yes?”
“Hello, young man,” the gentleman said. “You’re Paul Abler, and I have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind. I’m doing a survey.” There was a faint accent to his English, a guttural quality shared by Middle-Easterners and Slavic people.
“I’ve had a really miserable day,” Paul said, thinking the man must have gotten his name off the mailbox downstairs, probably had followed somebody into the building to get past the front-door lock. “Maybe another time.”
“I hate to press, but if you answer these questions, there’s a real premium at the end of this. Believe me, this is not a gift you want to say ‘no’ to. Much larger than anything you can imagine.” Paul saw the man’s eyes glance over his scratched face, the dirt and tear on the collar of his white shirt, and a small smile — perhaps a smile of sympathy — came to the man’s face. “You look like you could use a gift.”
“I’m fine…” Paul began, recognizing the old door-to-door ploy and preparing to close the door on the man. But the man’s smile reminded him of the summer he’d spent during his first year of college selling magazines door to door, paid on commission, and all the doors that were slammed in his face. How he kept trying to smile at all the fearful or angry or apathetic people who wouldn’t even listen to how he could get them their first year’s subscription for free if they’d just sign up for two years. And they almost never smiled back. It was a miserable job, and when the end of the summer came he was relieved to get back to college. It was his first solid realization of how cold and uncaring people could behave toward strangers. He felt the doorknob, cool in his hand, and pulled it further open, thinking, I was fired today; the last thing I should be doing is making somebody else’s job harder. “What the heck,” he said. “Come on in.”
The man followed Paul into the living room, closing the door behind him, and walked to the short sofa under the window that looked up Eighth Avenue. “May I sit down for a moment?” he said.
“Sure,” Paul said, sitting on the longer couch, diagonal to the man. The pizza had upset his stomach, and he was thinking of taking a couple of aspirin and letting himself turn into a TV zombie with the remote control in one hand and the glass of wine in the other. It was a rare indulgence, but sounded appealing; as soon as the salesman left. He added, “But let’s try to get this over with quickly, ok?”
“Of course,” the man said, with a glance to his clipboard. “The first question is, ‘Do you believe in God?’”
Paul remembered the evangelist on the street earlier and felt a flush of anger. “Are you from some church or cult?”
“Oh, heavens no,” the man said, his brown eyes twinkling, smile lines showing around them. “This is for the Wisdom School.”
The smile disarmed Paul. “What’s that?”
The man got a momentary faraway look in his eyes, then looked back at Paul. “Every thousand years or so, when the secret seems the most lost, some people will step forward and share it again with the world. That’s our work.”
“Sounds like a cult to me,” Paul said.
The man shrugged. “I’m not here to recruit you. You asked for this.”
“That’s a joke.”
“No,” the man said. “It’s serious. You asked right after you so deftly handled that evangelist on the street this morning.”
Paul thought back and felt a moment of disorientation as he remembered his half-whispered comment that he wished he knew the answers to the spiritual questions that had haunted him since childhood. He looked at the man and heard his own voice drop as he said, “You were standing beside me on the street?”
“After a fashion,” the man said, smiling. His smile seemed so heartfelt and genuine, like Paul, when he was a child, had imagined Santa Claus would look.
“I don’t get it,” Paul said. “This is too weird, and I’m thinking that no matter how hard door-to-door selling is, I shouldn’t have let you in. You followed me here.”
“Well, yes, after I gave you a little bit of help.”
“Saving that little girl.” The man’s face turned serious. “That was a noble decision, Paul, but I could see that you weren’t going to make it. And I saw that you were willing to give up your life to try. That’s what I saw, and I couldn’t let that happen. So I decided to carry you across.”
Paul took a quick sip of his wine, and the memory of the experience in the intersection washed back over him. “You’re the one who shoved me?”
“No,” the man said, shaking his head. “I didn’t shove you.”
“Then how did you help?”
“I picked you up and carried you.”
“You felt my arms under your chest and legs, didn’t you?”
Paul paused, feeling out of breath, remembering the sensation of the strong arms holding him up and propelling him through the intersection. “But I didn’t see anything.”
Suddenly the couch was empty, and Paul gasped. There was a small depression in the cushion where the man had been sitting. “Nor do you see anything now,” the man’s voice came from the air.
Paul looked at the empty sofa and considered the frightening possibility that working too hard, sleeping too little, and being fired had finally pushed him over the edge into total insanity. This must be what it’s like, he thought. First you hallucinate, just like those people who have voices in their heads. Then you do awful things because the voices tell you that you must…
“You’re not imagining this,” the man said as he slowly reappeared. Now he had shoulder-length graying hair and a much fuller beard, and was dressed in a white toga or tunic, his legs bare, his feet in worn leather sandals. “It’s very real. You saved that little girl’s life, and I saved yours.”
Paul downed half the glass of wine in a good-sized gulp and felt it first cool, then warm his stomach. He blinked hard, half expecting his hallucination to be gone, but the man was still there. He looked at the man’s face, which was now sun-darkened and lined with age-wrinkles. His eyes were a dark brown, almost black, and his arms and legs had the ropy, muscular quality of a person who has performed decades of hard physical work.
“Who are you?” Paul said.
The man nodded. “An important question,” he said. “At least in your time and place.” His voice was soft and reassuring, deep and rumbling as if it came from an antediluvian cistern. “But first, confirm for me that you felt me carry you through that intersection. That you know this is the truth, what I am saying.”
Paul looked at his glass, lifted it to his lips, and took another large swallow. Turbulence churned his stomach, and the abrasions on his face and hand ached. He could hear the faint sound of traffic outside, a click and whir as the refrigerator in the kitchen cycled on, the creak of heated water expanding the radiator behind the man’s sofa. Through the wall, he could faintly hear the thumping bass of Rich’s stereo. “Yes,” Paul said, remembering flying through the air across the street. “Perhaps I felt something. It was you?”
“Yes. You may call me Noah.”
Paul lifted his eyebrows and said, “Like the ark?”
“The very same.”
“How’d you know my name? How did you pick me up this afternoon without my seeing you? Who are you?”
Noah stretched his arms out and put large, gnarled hands on either side of the back of the sofa. “I’m the first of your teachers. You have been accepted into the Wisdom School.”
“What is that?”
Noah ran his fingers through the hair over his ears. “The oldest Wisdom Schools go back into antiquity. They’re grounded in the priestly and shamanic mentorships that exist even to this day among the world’s Older Cultures. When the earliest dominators, or kings, built the city/states, the Wisdom Schools came into being as a way of preserving the Older Culture wisdom against the onslaught of the modern, or Younger Culture. The tradition has survived in many ways. Early Christianity was a Wisdom School before one faction of it was taken over and promoted to primacy by the Roman Empire. When it became the official state religion, the Secret had to be buried, layered over with confusion. People were told that it wasn’t really what Jesus said, or what the Jewish prophets before him said, that the Secret was really just some nice words.”
“What does the Wisdom School teach?”
“You know how Saint Francis and Saint John of the Cross and Martin Buber and Meister Eckhard and Rumi were all scorned by the mainstream church people of their times? They were called heretics and worse?”
“I remember something like that in college. Studying the history of the world’s religions.”
“They were all mystics, as were the founders of all the world’s great religions,” Noah said. “They understood the mysteries, and each one lived the Secret. Some mystics gain recognition in their time, others not until years after their deaths, and most are forever anonymous. But all walked through their time on Earth with an incredible power and knowledge and insight, which, to the average person, seems almost incomprehensible. This knowledge is now offered to you. I am here to begin your training.”
“Are you some kind of preacher?”
Noah shook his head. “Different people and different cultures have different names for what and who I am. The original people of North America called us shapeshifters. The ancient Greeks and Romans called us gods and goddesses, many of the Semitic tribes called us prophets, and modern Europeans and Americans call us ghosts, spirits, or angels. But you can call me ‘friend.’”
Paul’s breath caught in his throat, as he remembered the feeling of the arms under him, then the sight of the bearded man vanishing and reappearing on the sofa. “You’re an angel…”
Noah interrupted him with a laugh. “I prefer ghost. It better captures, at least in English, my nature. ‘Angel’ implies that I’m associated with some particular religion or belief system. Ghost is more generic: every culture in the world knows about ghosts.”
“You’re the ghost of Noah? Like in the ark?”
Noah shrugged. “I’m most comfortable with this body, this name. I first used it during the time of the end of the last ice age, when the oceans rose and many of my people drowned. My story was told over and over again, and eventually that brought me back into this world.”
Paul jumped up from the sofa and took another swallow of his wine. “This is too weird,” he said. “I’ve never believed in all this supernatural stuff. I think the stress I’ve been under has popped my mind.”
Noah vanished again. Paul spun around, but the room was empty and this time there wasn’t even the slight depression on the brown faux-velvet fabric of the sofa. “What…”
“It’s real, Paul; I’m still here,” Noah’s voice came, and he appeared in a blink by the door into the kitchen. “Of course I could just as easily be in Hong Kong. Even right now as I’m here.”
“But you went to Sunday school.”
“Did you think it possible that Jesus was speaking the truth when He said, ‘These things I have done, you shall do also, and even greater things than these’? In both the Old and New Testament are stories of people doing what I do. And in the Upanishads and the Vedas and the Koran, and in the oral history of every people in the world, in all of human history. Do you think that is an accident or mistake?”
“But you’re a ghost or an angel or whatever…”
“That’s beside the point. We’ll talk about that later. I learned the Secret and once saved the world — my world — and now it’s your opportunity.”
Paul sat back down on the sofa with a thud and rubbed the left side of his face that wasn’t scratched up. “Me?” he said. His voice sounded faint and unreal in his own head. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“No, I’m serious. You’re enrolled in the Wisdom School. You’ve been enrolled, in fact, since before your birth. It’s why you chose this life, this body, this time. It all led to this. And then you called out today, so now I’m here and this is your big opportunity.”
“But I’m just a reporter. I snoop out stories and break the news. I’d hardly say that qualifies me to save the world.”
“Each person has the potential. I’m here to tell you, to show you, yours. Surely you’ve had that intuition all your life that your destiny is a great and important one?”
Paul paused, then said, “Yes, but I also dismissed that as an ego trip. I wanted to win the Pulitzer prize.”
“It’s what drew you into journalism, what draws so many other people into their lines of work. Even an office worker, a construction worker, can save the world, one person at a time. Every person can. And you chose before you were born to do this work in a very large way.”
“I chose my destiny?”
“Everybody does. And your destiny is to live and share the message that will save the world.”
“First, you must learn the Greatest Spiritual Secret of the Century. Then you use the skills you’ve been refining all your life to tell the world, and then things will change. Think of it as the biggest scoop of your life.”
“The Greatest Spiritual Secret of the Century?” Paul could hear his own voice rising. The wine was calming him, but he also knew he needed a clear head for whatever was going on, whether it was all a hallucination or was true. He put the glass on the coffee table in front of the couch. “You mean like in a hundred years, the greatest secret?”
Noah walked over to the couch and sat back down. “Actually, you could say it’s the greatest secret of all time. And, it’s so much not a secret that it’s astounding. Any shaman in the world will tell you, every prophet has said it, Jesus told people about it. It’s being shouted at your world every day by the few tribes remaining in the rain forests and jungles and plains, as your culture destroys their homes and your oxygen supply. Six and seven thousand years ago, the founders of Hinduism were writing about it. Five and then four thousand years ago the Hebrew prophets told it, and then Buddha almost three thousand years ago, and Jesus two thousand years ago, and Mohammed in the past thousand years, and now you have the opportunity to learn it. All over again. Every few centuries it visits us again, the same message but often cloaked in different-seeming words or metaphors. But, oddly, most people can’t imagine it could be possible, or don’t hear it, or the institutions that have taken over the organized religions bury it in so many layers of nonsense that it seems lost.”
It reminded Paul of the discussions he’d had with his friend, Thomas, in college. What is the meaning of life? What is the difference between spirituality and religion? What is faith? Who made the world, and why, and how? And why are we here? Somehow those questions had all been lost in his drive to become a star reporter.
“So,” Paul said, using his reporter’s tone, “What is this Greatest Spiritual Secret of the Century?”
Noah smiled. “If I simply told it to you in one sentence — which I could do, because it’s only four words long — you wouldn’t understand, just as virtually your entire culture, the entire world, does not understand. So I am the first of three Wisdom School teachers who have been sent to give you what you must first know, so you can ultimately understand the true meaning of the Secret and become a Wisdom School teacher, yourself.” He paused for a moment, then said, “I will show you the past you must understand in order to know the present and the future. Some of these lessons may be very, very difficult for you, so, of course, you can always just say ‘no’ and I’ll leave.”
Paul looked around his apartment, scanning the brown carpet, the bookshelves with their pictures of his friends and family, the television and stereo, the five shelves of books. “I think I must be just imagining this,” he said, then felt embarrassed and glanced down at his jeans and loafers.
Noah stood up and lifted his left arm, holding his hand flat out about six feet above the floor. Below it the air began to shimmer in a doorway-shaped area. Paul stared in fascination and fear, feeling his heart race. Behind the portal Paul could see a landscape of sand and scrub brush, a distant palm tree, and a sky whose deep blue held a hot and blazing sun.
Noah stepped back and the scene remained. He waved at the portal, and said, “Will you come with me?”
“I’ve got to get another job,” Paul blurted out, immediately realizing how stupid it sounded.
“I’m here to give you a job,” Noah said in a calm voice, his hand holding the portal open. “The world is on the brink of disaster, and you are needed.”
“Will I come back?”
“Yes,” Noah said. “You’ll be back here within a few minutes.”
“Then why go?”
“Time is relative. We’ll be over there for a few hours.”
Paul looked around the apartment again, searching for reality anchors, looked out the window and up Eighth Avenue to the buildings, cars, and people hurrying from normal place to normal place in an entirely normal world. He looked at the perfectly normal clock on the wall, which said it was a normal time in the early evening, 5:25. And he looked at the portal.