I hate my job.
I hate selling days of my life while barely earning enough to sustain it. I hate my boss who tells me I’m lucky to find stable work in such an uncertain world. I hate my friends who treat dreams like an unfortunate symptom of youth that need to be outgrown.
And most of all, I hate myself for not doing anything to change. I keep waking up at the same time everyday to sit in traffic. I read the same lines on the same billboard with the same happy models leering down at me. I don’t think I could go on if I thought that this was all there was, but if I’m waiting then I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
That’s why I started listening to self-help tapes in the car. Motivational speakers would tell me about how I had the power to change my life, and for a few minutes at a time, I’d believe them. That obstacles no matter how great were only in my mind, and that anyone could be happy if they just willed it hard enough. And if I wasn’t happy yet, then I just had to buy another book and keep trying.
My favorite speaker was a guy named John Fallow who claims he used to be a day laborer making less than minimum wage. When there weren’t any jobs available his fellow workers would play cards or chat, but he kept going door-to-door, knocking on businesses until he found one that needed work done.
Pretty soon John had enough clients and extra money that he started hiring the other laborers to work for him instead. The more jobs he got, the more workers he hired, until lo and behold he was running a business of his own. Then they had a second location, and a third, and before you know it he was a millionaire with five hundred stores across the country.
But it was never about the money, says the guy selling $30 audiobooks. He gave it all up so he could give motivational speeches and help others achieve their dreams. And sure it was a lot of hard work and took many many years, but he was the man he wanted to be doing the things he loved to do, and that’s all that mattered in the world.
“Of course, hard work isn’t the only way to solve your problems,” John said on one of his tapes. “In fact, there’s a lot of you who are probably getting discouraged right now because you were hoping for a shortcut. Well I’ve got good news for you, because there’s a solution as easy as apple pie. You go on now and kill yourself tonight.”
I couldn’t believe I heard that right. I had to rewind, but there it was.
“Are you too fat? Well diet and exercise is a lot of work, but you could put a gun in your mouth and never eat again.
“Or maybe you’re feeling down because your relationship didn’t work the way you wanted? No problemo. Just slip on that noose and suddenly your ex will be the one who hates herself, not you.”
John’s warm, bubbling voice didn’t miss a beat as he proceeded to list a number of foolproof ways to die, 100% satisfaction guaranteed.
“Now some of you are probably skeptical that this is the right choice for you, but don’t you fret about it. I’ll be hosting live demonstrations around the country, so check my website for details and come see if suicide is right for you.”
Part incredulous, part morbid curiosity, I visited his website and found he was hosting an event in my city next week. Sure enough, his website had a video of him standing on stage with a man who hung from the rafters by his neck. The crowd was cheering like wild as the dying man’s body was wracked with its final spasms. John Fallow lifted the dying man’s hand to reveal it giving a thumbs up, and the crowd cheered even harder as though their team had just scored the final goal.
I bought a ticket and printed out the confirmation code. I don’t know why I did it, but for the first time in a long time I really felt like I had something to look forward to.
John was a man’s man, rugged and handsome as they come. He wore a cowboy hat pulled low over one eye, faded Levi’s, and a button up shirt the day of the event. He greeted everyone at the front door with a firm handshake and a beaming smile, laughing and carrying on with people he’d just met like they were his oldest friends.
I expected there to be at least a little outrage, but everyone who showed up seemed legitimately happy to be there. The feeling was contagious, and by the time I sat down with the rest of the audience, I already knew several people by name.
“Silly old me, I forgot what speech you all came to hear,” John Fallow announced from the stage. “Was it the one about working hard from morning till night, day in and day out?”
“No!” chorused a hundred voices around me. I was half surprised to recognize my own as one of them.
“How about the speech about it being your fault if you aren’t happy because you ain’t trying hard enough?”
“So you telling me all you fine folks showed up just to hear how to fix all your problems at once in less than five minutes? That what you want to hear?”
The enthusiasm was deafening.
John Fallow mimed whipping out a pair of pistols from an imaginary belt and rattled off shots into the audience. Everyone remotely close to the line of fire made a dramatic show of taking the bullet and collapsing back with great big grins on their faces. Then cheers again, an ocean of sound beating against my eardrums.
“Well let’s get started then,” John roared. “How about a volunteer? Come on now don’t be shy. There ain’t nobody going to look down on you where you’re going.”
A sea of hands like a flock of birds all taking flight at once. John stepped down from the stage and took the open hand of a middle-aged woman to help her into the spotlight. He led her to a stool where she sat down.
“What’s your name, gorgeous?” he asked. The woman swooned and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
“Katylin, is that right?” John said in his booming voice. “Tell me Katylin, what’s wrong with your life? Loud and clear, come on now.”
“I was supposed to get promoted this year,” she said, her voice trembling but audible. “They gave the job to some young slut instead.”
“Well you aren’t getting any younger, sweetheart. It’s only going to get worse from here.”
She nodded and smiled as though that’s exactly what she wanted to hear.
“I got just the thing for you though,” John said. “A little medicine for what ails ya.”
He produced a pill from a small leather bag in his pocket and offered it to her. She snatched it gratefully and clutched it in both hands.
“That’s gonna take the sting right out. Go on now. One quick swallow. Cyanide tastes just awful if you let it dissolve in your mouth.”
I watched with horrified fascination as Katylin tossed the pill back and washed it down with a water bottle that John offered her. She gave a feeble smile as her face flushed bright red. The room watched in anxious silence as she started panting for breath, each labored heave more desperate than the last.
“Almost there, ‘hun,” John whispered, his microphone washing the sound over the audience “Let’s see those bastards at work take this one away from you.”
Katylin fell off her stool and began rolling on the ground. The audience began to woop and whistle. Within seconds Katylin lay still. Two men wearing ’Staff’ shirts hustled out to drag her off stage.
There was a brief silence when she stopped moving. I had the sense that everyone was trying to read the room, unsure of whether or to scream or cheer. Then the applause began to ripple, tentative at first, but growing by the second until the whole auditorium vibrated with its intensity.
I felt sick. An anxious feeling flooded my body, but the cheering confused me and made me think that it was alright. If we were doing something wrong, then surely someone would have said something by now. Unable to shake the uncertainty, I left my chair and headed for the bathroom to clear my head.
Outside the auditorium I saw the two men wearing ‘Staff’ shirts exit a side door. The woman wasn’t with them anymore. Was she still back there? Was she alive, or dead? Maybe she needed help.
One of the staff noticed me, his face screwing up with suspicion. I snatched a nearby trash bag and made to enter the door they’d just exited from.
“Hey, where you think you’re going?” one asked.
“Bringing some more rope for John,” I said, hefting the trash bag. “Back stage is that way, right?”
The staff nodded and I slipped inside. I could hear the audience cheering again through the wall and felt the urge to cheer with them, but I thought better of it and stayed quiet.
The hallway skirted the perimeter of the auditorium, and I was able to track my progress toward the back of the stage by the sounds coming through the wall. Another uproar—perhaps a second demonstration has concluded. Another body to be dragged off stage.
Not just a body. A human being. A father or a mother, a son or a daughter. That thought should have horrified me, but it didn’t. They didn’t ask to be alive. They didn’t make the world the way it was. So why shouldn’t they leave when they’re ready?
“Looks like we’ve got a bleeder here,” John’s voice carried. “That’s it, boy. Let it all out. You’re the lucky one—the rest of us have to clean up that mess.”
I must have been directly behind the stage at that point. The place was dark and cluttered with electrical and sound equipment. I saw no sign of the woman’s body. The thought of stumbling across her splayed out on the ground nauseated me. I shouldn’t be here.
A shaft of light tore through the room as the stage curtain was pulled aside. The staff were dragging a college aged boy by the hands. His throat was cleanly slit, and a sheet of blood soaked through his shirt and drained onto the floor. I hid behind an upright speaker and watched the staff prop the boy against the wall before turning to exit again.
“Let’s all take a break while they get this cleaned up,” John said from the stage. “Fifteen minutes, then you’ll all get your chance.”
The boy was still alive. Spitting and gurgling blood, he panted with feeble wet gasps. His red-smeared teeth were locked in a vicious grin. I started to creep toward him, but another blast of light made me scramble back to concealment.
John Fallow moved through the shadows to stand over the dying boy. The boy’s grin twisted into one of agony. He struggled to stand, but John put a boot on his chest and forced him back down.
“Shh shh,” he held a finger to his lips. “Don’t fuss. Lot of folks are dying to be you.” He laughed at his private joke.
The boy tried to answer, but the wet sucking sound which escaped his lips carried no words.
“You did this to yourself. You wanted to fit in so damn bad that you didn’t care what you had to do. Now look at you.”
It was too late to save him. The boy was barely breathing now, and the pool of blood encompassing him was still growing by the second. John dropped to his knees to bring their faces level.
“It don’t matter what other people expect from you,” he said. “The government wants you to make a lot of money to pay taxes. A holy man might tell you not to make any because it corrupts you. The people who sell burgers want you to be fat, and the people who sell diet pills want you to hate yourself for it. They all want something different from you, but you don’t belong to them. You belong to you.
The boy had stopped moving. I couldn’t make out the faintest sign that he still drew breath.
“So what if you flunked out of school? Does that make the stars any less bright, or the taste of strawberries more sour? Will you no longer feel your lover’s caress or the ocean lapping your bare feet? Fear, pain, doubt—they’re just passing clouds, and floating in front of the sun don’t mean the sun ain’t still there.
“So I’m going to give you another chance,” John continued. “You get back up and go outside and tell me what you see. And if it’s nothing but clouds, then pick one and call it beautiful and love it forever, because it’s all part of the same sky.”
With that John Fallow pulled out a syringe and stuck it in the boy’s chest. He began to buckle and squirm, but John held him down while wiping the blood from his neck with a handkerchief. It came off like makeup, leaving clean fresh skin below.
“Get out of here,” John said, “and don’t let me catch you back either.”
The boy scrambled to the door and disappeared.
“You too,” John said, looking to where I hid. “Or it won’t just be blood capsules and a temporary paralytic for you.”
I ran for it.
Outside I saw the boy with his head thrown back, looking straight up. Beside him was the woman who’d taken the fake cyanide pill, head back and staring with wild eyes. I don’t know whether they thought they’d really died and came back, or whether they knew it was a trick, but one thing I’m pretty sure is that neither of them had ever looked at the sky like that before.
I know I hadn’t.