The sun had completed its descent into the horizon and the lower part of the sky was cast with a warm tangerine afterglow vanishing upwards into deep purple and then dark blue. The evening tide rolled in, gently lapping the shore, alternately blanketing and revealing seashells, weeds and bits of trash which the last high tide had left. It had been 12 hours since I received the phone call that changed my whole day and, most probably, my whole life as well.
As I sat facing the sea on one of the concrete benches lining up the sidewalk, as I had for the last four hours, one thought kept racing through my mind: I must make a decision pretty soon.
It was going to be the biggest decision in my life—the life-altering kind that might just spell the difference between rags and riches, between obscurity and popularity, between merely living alone in a drab middle-income, two-room bungalow somewhere far north of the nearest metropolis and living it up with any woman of my choice in a posh 400-square-meter air-conditioned condo unit overlooking lights coming from affluent houses and buildings at night. Admittedly, the difference in those scenarios seemed too huge to even merit second thoughts. Then again, such decisions, especially those concerning criminally easy windfalls, always come with certain risks. Sometimes they even prove fatal, especially since this forthcoming decision of mine might also spell the difference between an utterly mundane and unluxurious but relatively safe life and a lonely and miserable life in prison. I had to think it over carefully.
The instructions were clear enough. Tomorrow morning at eight, I would discreetly stroll to the cubicle of our senior loans supervisor, who at the time would be conveniently called to the room of an accomplice, and use his computer to approve an otherwise unworthy loan application worth sixty million bucks. Then, I would as discreetly hurry back to my own cubicle at the far end of the room. Simple. Too simple, in fact. I would be receiving a cool six million for the deed the very next day.
The gig was so easy that it was terribly tempting. The senior loans supervisor, Mr. Fall Guy himself, the unwilling and unknowing accessory, already had previous charges of dishonesty, although they were relatively petty ones—creating padded expense vouchers, maintaining unliquidated representation allowances, and reimbursing fictional expenses. Fortunately for him, none of these had ever been proven. Still, his performance record was far from being spotless. The company had merely been keeping him in his job because he had been working there for twenty years, and besides, nobody wanted his risky job. Chances were, he would get the blame for my deed and nobody would even believe his claims of innocence. Poor fellow. When I get my money, I will send his wife a hundred grand anonymously. That will just about cover her husband’s inconvenience, I thought. That would also just about cover any remorse or guilt that I might feel afterwards.
I wasn’t really pressured into doing it. My real accomplice said that if I wasn’t up to it, he would simply ask someone else to do the task. However, I needed to make a decision right away and call him up at nine that evening. That gave me three more hours to decide. Three short hours too soon.
I was relieved that the sun had set, which meant that the sky above the horizon before me would soon be totally dark and the absence of distracting details in my field of vision would help me focus my thoughts on the matter at hand.
The tranquil view of a dusk-veiled seascape had always helped me think. That particular time, however, was different. No matter how hard I tried to focus my thoughts and weigh the pros and the cons of the plan, I remained frustratingly irresolute.
I needed something to help me decide. I needed guidance. I needed Divine Intervention even. But then, if God really intervened in my dilemma, He would definitely tell me to stop thinking about this bullshit and go on with my life totally guilt-free (although still hopelessly destitute). So that wouldn’t help either.
Like Mr. Fall Guy, I had never been a saint. I used to regularly bring home office supplies and gave them away as presents on Christmas or used them for my own personal purposes. I had always thought that such supplies were merely there for the taking and would not be missed. Besides, the company wouldn’t go broke because of a few missing Mongols and reams of “Best-buy” bond paper.
I also used to tamper with my time card to show that I was at work on a day when I was actually at home enjoying a good, naughty DVD and a few bottles of pale pilsen. There were also times when I, like Mr. Fall Guy, would slightly pad an expense report for a client meeting so that I would be reimbursed an amount a bit more than what I actually spent. The difference between me and my clueless associate, however, was that I had never gotten greedy and had done my thing sparingly. I knew how to stay under the radar. He, in turn, was voracious.
Despite all these small instances of mendacity, which had been a constant source of guilty pleasure for me, I had never been involved in something as big as what was to go down the next day.
As my thoughts wandered to the pros and cons of living inside a prison cell, I felt a presence on the bench to my right. A ragged man in his fifties or sixties, who had seemed to come out of nowhere, was seated next to me and was gazing at the quickly darkening seascape. Oh great. A distraction, I thought to myself.
“Too bad I didn’t catch the sunset,” he said a little meekly, brushing his purple overcoat which was full of holes and tears and reeking of a lethal mix of alcohol, sweat, and sewer.
“You didn’t miss much,” I said flatly. “It was the same as yesterday and the day before.”
Everyone loves to watch the sun set. I myself used to go out of my way at times to just catch a glimpse of the sun proudly breaking downwards from the hovering clouds and silently settling into a darkening sea as if to bid all whose eyes are upon it goodnight. That evening’s sunset was no different. It was beautiful.
“Nothing today is the same as yesterday or the day before, my friend,” he said. “Today, everything is different, as all the coming days will be.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I snapped back, trying to avoid a superficial discussion and end the conversation quickly. Whatever was on his mind, it was something I didn’t particularly care for. I had something to think about; something I needed to resolve and I didn’t need a rather pointless conversation to divert my attention.
“Makes one think about whether tomorrow will be the same as today, doesn’t it?” The man seemed intent on carrying on so I started straightening up my tie to leave and find another place where I could be alone in my thoughts.
When I faced him to politely say so long, something odd struck me and left me seemingly paralyzed for a second or so. On his left ring finger, he was wearing a silver band, plain except for a small, solitary bluish crystal gem right smack in the middle. It was the exact kind of ring that I was wearing on the exact same finger of my left hand. That was weird.
I also noticed that his left hand had creepy linear burn marks and his other fingers, except for the one with the ring, were scarred and grotesquely twisted and most probably useless.
“Where did you get that ring?” I asked curiously, pointing to the band.
“Oh this,” he said nonchalantly. “My mother gave it to me.”
“That’s odd. I have one exactly like it and it was given to me by my mom as well. Wow. What are the odds.” I showed him my left hand but he seemed not even slightly intrigued by the coincidence.
At this point, I was getting a bit curious about who this person was and where he came from. I thought that my ring was the only one of its kind, considering that mom had it made-to-order as some sort of a wedding gift for her sister. The wedding didn’t push through so mom decided to keep it. When I first saw the ring when I was 14 years old, I was struck by its simplicity and decided to just wear it without her permission. When my mom saw me wearing the ring a few days later, she explained to me what it was and told me that I could keep it. She died of a heart attack the very next day and I’ve been wearing the ring ever since.
The man beside me was wearing the same ring, or something very much like it. The only difference was that his was a darkened silver of neglect and suffering. Mine was bright and shiny with hope and potential.
“That means yours was not the only one of its kind, my friend,” the stranger said, seemingly reading my mind.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied, trying hard to sound casual and unaffected. “So what happened to your hand?” I immediately asked while painfully glancing at his distorted fingers, all the while feeling my cheeks violently twitching.
“A few overly zealous friends in my community decided to test the barbecue grill with it,” he said, almost matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” I started picturing in my mind prisoners in government-issue orange overalls grilling his ringed left hand and taking turns taking ravenous bites out of it. That should hurt. I suddenly felt sorry for the old man.
Without really noticing it, I was already engaged in a mildly interesting conversation with this stranger. We talked about, well, mostly him—his experiences inside prison and the kind of people he met there. I suddenly wanted to know what life was like in jail for it occurred to me that in the next few days, I might just find myself beginning to spend the rest of my life inside it. I figured it would be helpful to get the inside scoop from someone who had been there. From what this stranger had told me so far, prison life was indeed not unlike being in hell. But I knew that. I always had.
As he told me stories of his twenty-year stay in prison, he kept on looking at me with eyes obviously made dry and lifeless by years of waiting—perhaps for another chance at freedom, or for some sort of redemption. They’re the kind you see in terminally ill patients who know that their time is at hand but are still hoping against hope for a miracle to happen.
His face, which was strangely familiar, was deeply creased and seemingly worn out by years of doing forced labor, sleeping in dank, dry cells, and consorting with unpleasant and overly zealous members of his community.
His voice was soft and almost pleading. It was as if he was trying to convince himself that whatever he did that sent him to prison was wrong. I found this rather bizarre. For someone who had already endured his sentence and was already free, he still seemed bent on telling himself that what he did was wrong, as if he still wanted to change what had already happened. It was as if it would still make a difference.
“The thing is, my friend,” he said, “I shouldn’t have gone to prison in the first place. If I only did the right thing. If I was just strong enough to avoid the temptation of big bucks. If only I got good advice.”
“But isn’t that what they all say?” I retorted. Surely, all those who go to prison, except for insane serial murderers and rapists, regret the crime they have committed, although in differing degrees. This stranger wasn’t any different. I suddenly wondered what he was in for.
Before I could ask the question, however, he suddenly grabbed my hand, looked at me straight in the eye and said, “There will be times in your life when you will need to choose between two things, my friend. The right thing and the wrong one. Oftentimes doing the right thing will lead you to a life that you don’t want—boring, routinary, and plain. The wrong one promises big things but if it gets out of hand, as it often does, consequences could be tragic and you might end up living a life worse than the one you wanted to get away from.”
I thought that preachy speech was off-key but I brushed it off as something that ex-convicts normally rant about and decided to humor him. “But life does have its risks, doesn’t it? No pain, no gain.”
“Yes, but can you handle the pain?”
“If the risk promises things that I can otherwise not have any other way, then I might be willing to give it a shot.”
I knew that in spite of its simplicity, what I was planning to do was also terribly dangerous. The stakes were high and if the caper didn’t go as planned, I would lose my job and would surely go to prison. But that was a long shot. I knew I would get away with it. Nobody would ever suspect me—an honest, good-looking, and trustworthy employee with a spotless record. And by the time the company could figure out what had happened, the money would have been safely transferred to a dummy account and I would have my posh condominium unit. Maybe even an SUV. Oh but that would be a dead giveaway to the authorities. The car would have to wait.
“I thought that I would get away with my crime, too,” the stranger said, once again seemingly clairvoyantly, snapping me out of my thoughts. “But things got out of hand.”
“Think of it this way—you’ve already paid your dues. You’ve done your time. You’re out,” I said, still trying to find a way to put an end to the conversation politely.
“I’m still trying to work my way out, my friend,” he answered, again rather enigmatically.
“But you’re already out.”
The conversation had turned from strange to absurd. It was hard to determine whether this man was merely perceptive or plain crazy and I didn’t have the time to figure out what it really was. I decided to stand up and leave.
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said. I only had a couple of hours to arrive at THE decision. I desperately needed to be alone. I needed to decide on my own. After all, it was my life that was on the line. Not his.
“It was nice talking to you, too,” he said, in a soft, sad voice. “But could you please stay for five more minutes and listen to an old man’s prattle? Please? It would mean the world to me.” The way he said that last sentence was as if my staying actually meant the world to him, literally. So despite myself, I sat down again.
I then noticed that the ring in his injured hand was no longer as darkened as before. In fact, it was a tad shinier. But then I saw that the full moon was out and was beaming down on us and this was probably what gave his ring, and mine, an eerie, almost ghostly shimmer. In fact, the whole surrounding area seemed remarkably luminescent. The stranger was looking at his ring as well. Seemingly satisfied, he looked at me with a hint of a smile in his chapped lips. It was the first time that he wore any semblance of a smile during the whole conversation although I still felt a lingering sadness in his demeanor.
“Thank you,” he said, “for staying a while longer.”
“It’s okay, but I really have to do something so I can only stay for just a bit,” I replied.
“I know. I hope that will be enough,” he said. Again, this man was talking in riddles; something that I wasn’t too pleased about. It was enough that my mind was about to explode with whats, what-ifs, whys and why-nots. I didn’t need to think about other things anymore—like him and his dreary, dead-end life. And this man was puzzling me to the point of distraction. All I learned from talking to him was that prison was like an eternal holiday in Iraq, his community buddies weren’t a particularly amiable lot, and he stunk like hell. I had to leave.
“I’m sorry, but I do really have to go,” I said sharply.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said in apparent resignation. His face was red and swollen and tears were beginning to well up in his eyes. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone now. I know you hate me for talking out of turn, but I had to do something. I had to try, one way or another. I’m sorry for taking up your time,” he continued, with a smile that hinted of surrender. “But whether you realize it or not, you and I are alike in more ways than one.”
That last remark stunned me. No, it scared the shit out of me. For a few moments, I gazed out into the barely visible horizon and thought that, yes, this man surely had problems which were probably even bigger than my own, but we were not and will never be alike in any way. Not in a million years. Not even in twenty!
I didn’t want to be mean to this man, this stranger, this distraction, who had spent almost half his life in a place he didn’t want to be, but he was already really bugging me. Suddenly, and strangely, everything seemed clear. I hated this man. It wasn’t like I hated him for no reason at all, but there were things about him that I abhorred. I found his way of talking in meaningless statements annoying. I disliked his overly large purple overcoat that was full of tears and holes. I hated his smell. I hated the discomfort of seeing his grotesquely burnt hand. I hated feeling sorry for him. I hated the inescapable thought that I just might end up like him.
I needed to dwell on the plan and make a decision. My life was on the line. Not his. And I hated him more for wasting my precious time.
Before I could do anything else, the stranger got up and brushed his purple overcoat once again before starting to leave. As he finally started to go on his way, I saw by the amber light of the nearby lamp post that his left hand strangely no longer carried burn scars and his fingers were no longer deformed. And his ring, which was exactly like mine, started to shimmer brightly, or was it merely an illusion?
The man slowly walked away and eventually disappeared from view. I had an uncanny feeling that I would never see him again. But the fact was, I knew that whatever would happen to me in the next few hours, I would carry the image of this disgusting, useless old man with me the rest of my life. And I didn’t even get his name.