Jake Everson woke up one day in New Orleans and picked up the newspaper to discover he’d died the previous morning in Spain.
He froze. Suddenly the beautiful sunlight and noise of the street melted away. He studied the photograph they’d used of him – one when he was young and starting out – his eyes burning with ambition. Yes, it was him alright. He even remembered the photo-shoot and the female photographer he’d gone on to marry and disappoint. He’d adored women but had never found the right one, and now accepted the fact that he’d probably always be alone.
His hands started trembling uncontrollably and the paper fell from them. He ran to the mirror and took a good long look at himself. He had lately avoided his reflection as he was having difficulty accepting himself as an older man. But there he was. Anxiety sweat forming on his brow and his lined face contorted and tense with the shock of his reported demise. A million thoughts stampeded through his head but all of them were rushing by too fast to grab a hold of. He looked down at the empty scotch glass from the night before and picked it up. He could see his distorted reflection in the bottom of it and his hand tightened with a mixture of panic and confusion, causing it to crack and smash filling his palm with the fragments of splintered glass. He opened his hand and saw he was bleeding. He studied this with the detached observation of someone numb with fear. He looked up at himself in the mirror again and wondered who had played this sick joke on him. Whoever it was he or she would pay. He was still a man with power. He could get things done. His name still meant something and in some circles so did he. No, he was not dead. He laughed at the absurdity of it all. Sure, his career had died many times in the past but he’d somehow been able to keep coming back. A book here, a magazine article there. But, this was different, it was there in the newspaper. This said he was really dead. Finito. Gone.
Didn’t Will Rogers once say that the only thing he believed was what he read in the newspapers? Now, poor old Will seemed so out of touch with the current state of journalism. This was the era where they can say anything they want about you and mostly get away with it. Jake had for years sadly lamented the demise of objective reporting. Will Rogers lived in a different world. A world where they reported the facts and left the reader to draw their own conclusions. These days Jake could tell a reporter’s political leanings one paragraph into a news story. He also remembered the famous William Boyd case where a newspaper reported that Boyd had been charged with murder and printed a photograph of the actor William Boyd, our beloved Hopalong Cassidy. Trouble was, it was the wrong William Boyd and killed Hoppy’s career for many years.
Well Jake wasn’t going to take it. He was going to go down swinging. He’d have his lawyers all over them tomorrow, extracting a huge settlement and an apology. Yeah. It turned him on to be so forceful. He rushed back to the bed, knocking over something in his trail without stopping to see what, and sat to re-read the article. Yep, he was dead alright. Well, as far as the press were concerned. This had to be worth millions. With a morbid fascination he read quotes from his friends and enemies alike. Now, for once, they all seemed to agree that he was a great guy and an important writer. Jake smiled. One of those smiles you give when you are engulfed by anger and feel you can just smile it away. It was a joke, surely. That’s it. A sick joke. He checked the date at the top of the page to see if it was April First. But, no, it was still March. He got an idea. He phoned the hotel operator.
“Yes Mr. Everson?”
“Ex-excuse me, but can you h-h-hear me?” stammered Jake.
“Yes of course, sir.”
“How do I sound?”
“Are you unwell, Mr. Everson? I can send a doctor to your room?”
“No…no…I’m okay. That’s right, I’m okay. I feel good in fact.”
“Do you wish to be put through to room service, Mr. Everson?”
Why not, thought Jake. I mean, if I’m dead I can’t be responsible for my debts right? He laughed. His humor had always gotten him through dire situations in the past. He was witty. His glib lines were famous amongst his associates. He’d joked his way through 3 divorces and countless lovers. Jake spoke to room service and ordered 2 lobsters and a bottle of French champagne. Oh, and some caviar. Lots of caviar. “It’s fun being dead,” he wise-cracked to himself, enjoying the joke. He’d treat himself to a feast worthy of a king, and while savouring it he’d plot the demise of the asshole who’d planted this bullshit in the press.
“Oh yes!” he muttered out loud, “That hack will wish he was dead when my lawyer gets through with him!”
Jake was good at revenge. Sometimes he’d held grudges for years. Sometimes those grudges got him through his life – hanging on, driven by the urge to have the last laugh. Then a new dread set in. His son Oliver would read this and think he’d be all alone in the world now. Jake speed dialed his son but it rang out and went to the message bank. This was all he got these days. First the public had lost interest in him. Then the publishers. Now his son.
“Oliver, this is your dad. Just wanted to say don’t read the newspaper it’s full of crap. Your father’s not dead. In fact, I’ve never felt better. Whoever is responsible for this will pay, so help me God. By the time Brent, Cowan, Zachman, and Garber get through with him I’ll own the newspaper!… Anyway, hope you’re well son…and having a good time. I love you. Bye…Oh, call me sometime.”
Jake hung up and kicked the bedside table. He was seething with rage. This is not the way things were in all the stories he’d written. He’d always tied things up. Clarified. Resolved loose ends. A final paragraph filled with hope, new beginnings. Now he realized why he’d become a writer in the first place. He had control over life in his stories. He was God. Well, actually a kinder, more caring God than the real guy. Everything made sense. Everything added up to something. Maybe that’s why they call it fiction. He frantically dialed his agent’s number.
“Hello Marie?…Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Mr. Everson. Would you like to be put through to Mr. Craig?” Jake sighed, relieved,
“Yes put me through to Jeff please.”
He waited for what seemed an eternity. His agent was probably schmoozing some new hip writer.
“Hello, Jake?” answered Jeff in an upbeat, friendly voice.
“Jeff, am I dead?”
“No, Jake, the reviews have been mostly positive.”
“I mean, really dead? I just read about my death in the morning paper. They even quoted you saying what a tragedy this was for the literary world. Listen, Jeff, if this is some practical joke or a sick publicity stunt to boost sales, I am going to fucking kill someone, got it? I’m Jake Everson! It’s not over till I say it is, alright?…Alright?!!”
Jake realized he was screaming. There was a silence. Then, in a tone he’d come to know so well, “Jake, are you okay?…Have you been drinking again?”
“No, not a drop since January. But it’s things like this that remind me why I drank. You need to get onto this newspaper publisher and read them the riot act. I want a retraction. I want an apology. I want compensation! Hear me?!
“But…” attempted Jeff.
“But fucking nothing! For the first time in your life will you actually do what I tell you?!!,” hissed Jake.
There was a deathly silence now. Jake took a deep breath and tried to find a more reasonable pitch, “Listen, Jeffrey, I read the morning paper here and there’s a whole article in it about my…death.”
Jeff laughed, “It must be another Jake Everson.”
The air that rushed through Jake’s mouth and into the receiver convinced Jeff to change tact.
“Okay, okay, Jake…fine. But I need you to calm down. Let me call them and get to the bottom of it. It’s probably another person with the same name and they’ve done a William Boyd with it. Did I ever tell you the William Boyd story?”
“About two hundred times,” sighed Jake, suddenly feeling weary from the energy he’d dissipated, “They printed my photo, they mentioned my books, my friends, my marriages, the whole shebang.”
“What?! I haven’t spoken to any reporters about you. This is bullshit!”
Now Jeff was pissed, “Jake, you are not dead. You are speaking to me on the phone, alright? There’s obviously been some mistake and I’ll get right onto it. Trust me, I’m going to rip ’em a new asshole!””
“It says I died in Spain.”
Jeff then took on the tone of someone speaking to a child, “Jake, where are you?”
“Alright then. New Orleans is not Spain. And it’s a fucking long way from Heaven, trust me.”
Jake closed his eyes as tears of relief welled up. He felt stupid about getting so worked up over this. What a fool he must sound like.
“Jake, have the front desk fax me a copy of the article and I’ll get right onto it.”
“Thanks, Jeff…sorry…I feel like an idiot but…”
“Don’t worry about it, my friend. As soon as I have the article I’ll phone the editor and he’ll be the one wishing he was dead!”
Jake loved it when Jeff talked tough. He’d had so few people in his life stand up for him. Jake hung up. He ripped the article out of the paper, stuffed some money into a pocket, and rushed down the stairs, not even waiting for the elevator. He told the guy at the front desk to fax it immediately and gave him Jeff’s number as well as a twenty dollar bill for his trouble.
“Yes, Mr. Everson, I’ll fax it straight away.”
Then Jake turned towards the open doors. There was some kind of parade going on outside. Ah, that’s right. It was Mardi Gras time in the Big Easy. The sound and movement of life. He found himself gravitating towards it. Next thing he was out on the pavement as clowns, men on stilts, beauty queens, brass bands and drunken freaks wearing masks passed him by. He pushed his way through the crowd but no one noticed him, there was too much else going on. He felt strange. As though he was looking at Life for the first time. He stared at people and noticed things that normally his busy schedule would have blurred. Most passers-by thought he was just another drunk. One alcoholic even wanted to fight him for some reason that only seems logical after a bottle of cheap scotch. Jake laughed uncontrollably. What did it matter if someone struck him? It felt good to still be here.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, a man in the way, amidst the sea of moving bodies. It was as though time had stood still. Maybe five minutes passed, maybe an hour. He didn’t care, he had plenty of time to kill. This explained why he wasn’t at the hotel when Jeff phoned to ask why he’d faxed an article about trout fishing.
Jake saw a boy with a kite looking skyward and laughing. The kid then let go and watched his kite fly towards the heavens, swooping and soaring like an eagle. A homeless man asked for some change and Jake, uncharacteristically, took the time to actually look into the poor unfortunate’s eyes and acknowledge his existence. He even asked the man his name before emptying his pockets to him. He passed a gypsy lady reading tarot cards and she screamed something at him but it sounded like a trombone and merged with the deafening passing cacophony. Jake realized he was still in his pajamas but it was okay. No one noticed. No one cared. He looked down at his bare feet, now dirty from the street, and thought about his mother for the first time in years. Oh, how he suddenly missed her. A tear came to his eye and he wanted her to find him and hold him to her breast and whisper in his ear, “Now, now, Jakey, it’s alright…it’s alright.” Her little boy was lost. That’s all. But his mother was lost too. Taken by an unfeeling God who played with us like we were pawns in some bizarre game only He could make sense of. Did it give the Almighty pleasure to take a young mother from her little boy? If so, Jake hated Him. Come to think of it, he hated so many. Most of all he hated what didn’t make sense.
He made it through the moving throng and found himself in the middle of the road in some side street. He saw a beautiful woman on the corner. She looked like an angel, young, brunette, exquisite features. The kind of girl he always lost his heart to in the days when he was young and had dreams.
“Hello!” he yelled.
She turned and fixed him with those dark, mysterious eyes. She yelled something back but her voice was drowned out by the brass bands and party atmosphere of the celebrations. He couldn’t hear her. Nor the siren of the approaching fire-truck. She was the last thing he saw before the blinding light.
He drifted, as he had done most of his life, towards this light. Yes, he guessed he was really dead now. Holy fuck. This is more like he imagined it would be. It made more sense. He looked back down and saw what remained of a body. Momentarily he didn’t even recognize it was him. How could it be? This man seemed older than his years, and weary. How embarrassing, his bald spot was totally exposed and people were gathering. His once youthful handsome face had, in recent years, been replaced by a bitter, defeated look. That look you get from too many “no thank yous.” It pained him to see himself with such clarity. He turned away and looked up as his eyes adjusted to the light and his body felt a warmth that can only be explained as having a warm bath internally.
When he was finally totally engulfed by what appeared to be a white room he stopped floating, and a dark figure made his way to him. A man in a black bowler hat and a dark suit, or so it seemed. He shook Jake’s hand in the manner of a bank manager greeting a new customer.
“It’s alright, Mr. Everson, we’ve been expecting you. Sorry for the theatrics but we needed to get you out of your damn room so you could make our appointment. What you saw was a copy of tomorrow’s paper. You were very well loved y’know? – and will be sorely missed. But I guess you already know that now, huh?”
“But the newspaper said I died in Spain?”
“No, that was a typo. The editor was still hung-over from the festivities. There’ll be a correction in the later editions.”
“What about my son?”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. He grows up to be a very successful writer. Even more so than you.”
“Where is God? I have a few things I want to tell him!” hissed Jake.
The man in the bowler hat smiled, “Most people do. He’s heard it all before y’know but, if it helps you, by all means get it off your chest.”
Jake continued walking with this stranger towards the light and with each step seemed to feel more relaxed and accepting of his fate. All the anger and regret of his life fell away step by step. He was almost there when suddenly he thought about the lobster, champagne and caviar waiting in his room. He laughed uncontrollably again. The kind of convulsive laughter you don’t think will ever stop. He thought to himself that it was so typical of his life, and wished he could write about it. He then found his laughter had turned to sobbing. A bittersweet sobbing. He felt so alone. Why did he always end up alone?
Just then he heard his mother’s voice, “Now, now, Jakey…it’s alright…it’s alright…I’ve been waiting for you. You never have to be alone again.” And with that, she took his hand and together they walked. Just like old times.
(c) Frank Howson 2013