Vanity – By J.J. Daniels
They were filthy, every single one of them. He could barely stand to look at them as they wandered down the grocery store aisles in their sweatpants, cut-up jeans, t-shirts and tank tops, carrying with them the unshaven, foul-smelling stench of poverty. Not a single ounce of self-respect remained among the lot of them; because of that, they had lost all respect from the rest of the world.
Joe Dublin slid the iced-over glass door to the dairy case shut while he checked the expiration date on the milk carton. He glanced up, but tried not to stare at the miserably average men and women who walked the store like the futureless wrecks he knew them to be. He could not help but watch them as he walked up the aisle to the checkout, cringing every time one of them glared back at him. He knew they were jealous of his leather gloves and shoes, which had cost enough to feed their families for a month, or his suit, which was worth more than most of their run-down cars. Joe smiled in spite of himself; they must hate to see him so successful, especially given he was just half their age. Most of these human doormats could work five lifetimes and never see the kind of money that he made in a year.
Joe chuckled to himself.
His success enabled him to have Mia, his personal assistant, who usually took care of menial tasks for him, like picking up a fresh carton of milk or giving him the occasional back massage. Unfortunately, Mia was sick, and in his need to have fresh milk to drink with his post-workout protein shake, Joe had lowered himself to the common man’s level to pick up the fresh dairy himself. With milk in hand, and having seen firsthand the scum that he despised so much and had worked his entire life not to become, it was time to return home to his corner suite in the downtown towers and relax with a glass of chardonnay and a warm body beside him.
Joe strolled to the express register and fell in line behind a pregnant young mother holding her checkbook in one hand and her squirming toddler in the other. The teenage cashier scanned the woman’s diapers once, then twice, then a third time.
“I have a coupon for those.” The young mother sat her purse down on the register and dug around inside with one hand while her son pulled at her hair and moaned.
Joe rolled his eyes.
“Here it is.” She handed the teenaged cashier a crumpled-up coupon.
He scanned it in. “Thirty-five cents off,” he mumbled before continuing to scan the mother’s baby food and a cheap collection of make-up.
Joe looked at the woman. All the make-up in the world isn’t going to help her become any more attractive. He admitted, though, that in her miserable little existence, some cover-up and cheap eye shadow would trick her into believing that she had become a better person. Joe smirked.
The cashier swiped some baby wipes, but the computer beeped in anger. The cashier tried once more with no luck. He flipped a switch, and the light above his register turned red. “It will only be a minute,” the cashier spoke to Joe, glancing around nervously.
Joe rolled his eyes and tapped his foot.
“Oh,” the young mother said, diving into her purse once more. “I have a coupon for those.”
Joe tapped his foot even louder. He watched the mother dig in her purse as her toddler threw himself back and forth in her arm, whining that he wanted “down.” The cashier watched the woman as well, waiting for a response to his red light beacon. The toddler squirmed more, and the mother readjusted him in her arm before turning back to her purse.
“Oh for God’s sake!” Joe yelled, pulling a twenty dollar bill from his money clip and throwing it down on the register. He held up his milk to show the cashier. “Keep the change!” He pushed past the mother and her struggling child and the still-waiting cashier and headed for the front doors.
It was times like these when Joe absolutely knew that he was better than ninety-nine percent of the world—all those people who spent their lives waiting in grocery lines and scrounging to save thirty-five cents, only to die poor, miserable, and unhappy at the end of it all. Sure they might be able to recall a handful of good times, but the majority of their lives were spent worrying. They worried about money, about food, about diapers for their children and gas for their run-down cars. And they kissed up to others—anyone, really—just so they could gain a foothold on life for their miserable children’s futures. Joe did not know where the deceased went when their time on earth was over, but he was convinced that the poor and average men and women of this world were better off six feet under the dirt than standing upon it.
The cool night air caught Joe’s jacket as he stepped outside the corner grocery. He pulled his suit around him tightly and buttoned the lower button. Of course, not all the miserable people were without their place in the world. Some of them had helped him get to where he was today. Joe smiled to himself. As a young entrepreneur starting his own brokerage company, certain sacrifices had had to be made. Not one of those people who sacrificed their money had ever understood that their investments were for the company’s sake, not only for their own personal wealth. If they had only listened to his sound advice, they too would be living the dream life today, with the entire world beneath them as they spent money, not saved it.
Joe reached into his pocket to click the keyless remote. The flashing lights of his sparkling silver sports car lit up the dark empty parking lot. He pressed the remote again and heard the doors unlock with a gentle click. He sighed, admiring his car, then shook his head. They had not listened to his advice, and he had been forced to separate them from their life savings. He might have felt sorry for them or held some degree of guilt, but he was beyond those emotions. He had single-handedly turned his small brokerage company into one of the largest brokerage firms in the entire nation. Today he was worth more money than one man could spend in an entire lifetime, and his company was celebrating its ten-year anniversary tomorrow. If only they had listened, Joe thought as he reached for the door handle.
“Dublin is that you?”
The distantly familiar voice interrupted Joe’s growing feeling of pride. Frustrated by the intrusion, he opened his car door, pretending not to have heard.
“Joe Dublin, how dare you show your face around here.”
The voice was closer and behind him now. Joe quickly assessed his position—the open car door, he could slide in quickly and speed away before anything happened—and then slowly turned around.
“Do I know you?” Joe asked the filthy disheveled man who addressed him.
“You should.” The man stepped within an arm’s length of Joe. “I mean, I was the top investor of Dublin Inc., back before it was even a company.”
“Sam Williams?” Joe squinted at the man’s face, trying to find some hint of his old college roommate in the man standing before him in rags, smelling of body odor. “What happened to you?”
“Like you don’t know!” Sam scoffed, waving his arm in the air. Joe recognized the tremble in that hand. “Your scheme to cut me out of the business worked even better than you planned. Not only did the rest of the company think I was a thief and a liar, the federal courts did as well. I was put away for fraud, Joe!” The man took another step toward Joe. “Eight years!”
Joe tried not to gag on the foul odor that seemed to surround him. “Sam, I didn’t—”
“Shut up!” Sam screamed in Joe’s face, staring at him for a brief moment before stepping back to pull a gun out from under his beat-up jacket. “It is too late for that,” he said, his voice suddenly calm. “You ruined my life.”
“Sam, Sam, c’mon buddy,” Joe said, frustrated with himself that he could not hide the fear in his voice. “You don’t want to do this.” He put his hands up to block his face, but all he could think about was the barrel of the gun glistening a mere five inches away.
“Oh, I think I do.” Sam twitched with a cold anger. “Do you know what my life is like, Joe? I cannot get a job to save my life, I have no credit, no money, and it is all because of you!”
“Is that what this is about, Sam? Money?” Joe slowly lowered one hand and dug in his pocket, bringing out his money clip. “How much do you need Sam? I can give it to you.”
“I don’t want your stupid money!” Sam screamed, and Joe dropped the money clip to raise both his hands again. Sam took a step forward and hissed at Joe, “I want justice.”
Joe closed his eyes, but he wasn’t sure whether it was to block out the sight of the gun or to try and convince himself that the source of the putrid smell was not standing just inches from him. “Killing me will only make your life worse.” Joe’s voice broke.
Sam took a sudden step back, and Joe exhaled loudly.
“I want the car,” Sam said. “Give me the keys.”
Joe hesitated. His one-of-a-kind European sports car with patent leather seats, wood trim, and 6.0-liter V-12? He looked at his car, then back to Sam.
“Give them to me!”
Joe reached into his pocket, fumbling for the remote. He tried to block the thought of his ex-roommate speeding around town in his car. How will I ever get the smell out? No, he could not let Sam Williams ruin his car. How dare this ghost of a man pull a gun on him? Joe pulled the keys from his pocket and tossed them toward Sam, but to the side opposite the gun. The disheveled man fumbled to catch the keys in his free hand, but missed. They fell, jingling on the cold cement below.
“Pick them up,” Sam motioned toward the keys with his gun.
Keeping his arms held up, Joe slowly knelt down along Sam’s side. Just as he started to lower his hands to scoop up the keys, he twisted slightly and lunged at Sam, pulling him to the ground before he could turn the gun on Joe. The two men wrestled on the cold cement for several seconds.
Joe heard the gun go off. He knew it was loud because his ears were now ringing, but it had seemed so distant, as if fired several blocks away. Unfortunately, Joe knew better.
Joe awoke with the luxurious feel of Egyptian cotton against his face. He inhaled deeply and stretched. He was in his bed on the thirty-second floor of the downtown towers. He smiled to himself, letting his thoughts drift back to the night before…
He sat up with a start and immediately began feeling around his chest and face for a bullet wound. He found nothing.
“It was all a dream,” Joe sighed, throwing himself back into his bed and laughing, trying to ignore how badly his hands were shaking. It had been so real! He breathed in several deep breaths, trying to calm his nerves. He finally climbed out of bed and made his way to the bathroom.
He splashed some cold water on his face, then looked at his reflection in the mirror and smiled. “It must have been something I ate.”
He turned the shower on and hopped in. The water was ice cold. Aiming the shower head away from himself, he stood shivering, waiting for the water to heat up. After a minute of frigid water, Joe stepped out of the shower. Something was not right. His apartment had its own separate water heater; his water never ran cold.
He quickly dried himself off. It must have broken overnight. He would tell the attendant downstairs to have it fixed immediately. He went to his room and opened his closet.
“Mia!” Joe yelled. “Mia is this some kind of joke?”
There was no reply. Joe tried to keep his anger in check. His home was not the place for jokes of any kind.
In place of his regular suits and ties, Joe found dozens of denim jeans and white t-shirts. Joe went to his dresser, not amused in the least, only to find more of the same: white socks and t-shirts. He was going to have to fire Mia—or at least scare the living daylights out of her.
He searched the entire suite for anything to wear other than the monstrosity in his closet, but found nothing else. Finally, he reluctantly slid on the best looking pair of jeans he could find and a t-shirt. He grabbed his keys and his wallet and raced to the car garage, desperate not to be seen wearing such average clothes. Luckily, he passed no one in the halls and was able to make it to the underground parking garage without being spotted.
If his clothes had been a practical joke in poor taste, what he saw in the garage was his own personal nightmare. Hundreds of cars, all completely identical, run-of-the-mill, light brown sedans. Apart from the names above their parking spots, there would be no way of telling any of them apart. Joe felt sick to his stomach. He slowly walked to his spot, terrified of what he would find there. He gasped at the ugly brown sedan imposter in his luscious sports car’s spot.
“Who is responsible for this?” Joe’s scream echoed off the concrete walls around him. Am I losing my mind? He turned to look at the sea of brown cars around him and felt as if he were on the verge of tears. He glanced down at the keys in his hand. He swallowed hard, then walked over to the sedan imposter resting under the sign ‘Mr. Dublin’ and inserted the key into the lock. The door clicked open, and Joe fought back a wave of nausea.
A movement caught his eye, and Joe turned to see a man in a very expensive dark suit getting into a sedan across the parking garage.
“Hey you!” Joe called out, his spirit lifting with his first glimpse of hope all morning, but the man quickly backed out of his spot and sped away.
Joe watched the man drive out of the garage, then turned back to the car in his spot. He was not going to drive this filthy old machine. He did not care if he never went to his office again.
The office! They are behind all this. Joe forced a smile. This must all be an elaborate prank, orchestrated by his company board, something to roast him about at the anniversary bash tonight. He laughed nervously. They had certainly gone through a lot of trouble, switching out all of his clothes and all the cars in the garage. He kept the fake smile on his face, in case everything was being videotaped for the evening’s celebration. He had to keep up a good show. But inside, he was seething. Every one of the board members would be reprimanded for this—severely. He let the revenge build in his heart as he jumped into the sedan and sped out of the garage.
He made his way down Main St., thinking of all the horrible ways he would punish the board for their less-than-amusing act of trickery. Each new punishment brought a bigger smile to his face. He was so distracted plotting his revenge that he almost didn’t notice the people walking up and down the street. When he finally realized what he was seeing, he slowed his car and stopped in the middle of the road.
“What the–?” Joe watched as thousands of people walked up and down Main St., shopping, dining, and enjoying a cool Friday morning, and each one dressed exactly like Joe, in denim jeans and white t-shirts.
He stepped out of his brown sedan and walked to the sidewalk, leaving the automobile in the center of the road. He heard no horns honking at the abandoned vehicle, and when Joe looked back to the car, he saw the other motorists simply driving around it, as if it were a perfectly normal happenstance.
Joe turned back to the sidewalk. He approached an attractive young woman and caught her by the arm. “What’s going on here?” He tried a light-hearted laugh, but it sounded unnatural. “Why is everyone dressed like this?”
For an instant, the young woman looked at Joe as if he were ill, then she patted his arm, smiled warmly, and said, “It’s okay, honey. You’re okay.” She turned and continued on her way.
Joe stood in his spot, running his hand though his hair and turning to look at everything around him. He saw the sign for a designer clothing store and raced to it, only to find more of the same blue and white on every shelf. His mind raced for some logical explanation, but even his powerful board couldn’t orchestrate something like this. He noticed people walking in, taking clothing, and walking out, without paying for the merchandise or even talking to a store representative. He realized that there were no cash registers in the store, nor were there any price tags on any of the clothing.
“I’ve gone mad,” Joe whispered, then looked around to see if anyone had noticed him talking to himself. No one had. He walked back out to the street and noticed a local bar across the way. He walked inside, no longer surprised by the denim drones shooting pool, eating, drinking, and having a good time.
Joe ordered a shot of the establishment’s best whiskey from the bartender, who nodded and poured the liquor.
“How much do I owe you?” Joe asked quietly, testing the bartender.
The young man smiled and turned to help another customer. Joe took the shot—along with two more—before returning to the outside world.
Feeling fortified by the spirit, Joe stood on the sidewalk as the people rushed past him.
“Mr. Dublin,” a voice from a nearby sedan called out to Joe.
Joe turned to find the eloquently dressed man from the parking garage. “Who are you?”
“Get in. We need to talk.”
Joe was not sure he trusted the man, but this was the first sense of belonging he had experienced all morning. He hopped into the sedan, eager to get far away from the surreal environment in which he had been recently trapped.
“Who are you?” Joe repeated himself as the light brown sedan sped off down Main St.
“Having trouble adjusting?” The man in the dark suit never took his eyes off the road.
Joe looked at him once carefully. He had long black hair that hung low around a handsome face. His five o’clock shadow had obviously grown in early, and the black and blue suit that he wore was absolutely flawless—easily worth thousands of dollars.
“Adjusting to what? What is going on?” Joe motioned to the sea of never-ending blue and white outside the car window.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” The dark man raised an eyebrow. “That surprises me, Joe. You were always a sharp man.”
“How do you know my name?” Joe asked, anger rising in his voice. He was tired of the games this man was playing with him. How dare he treat him in this manner. If only Joe had his clothes and his car, this ordinary man in his ordinary sedan would never treat him like this.
Suddenly Joe’s heart sank. “What do you mean were?” he whispered.
The man glanced at him and raised an eyebrow.
Joe turned to the waves of blue and white, letting them wash over him as he remembered last night, the attack in the parking lot, the gunshot, and the darkness. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach intensified. It had not been a dream.
“Am I dead?” Joe’s voice was so hoarse he didn’t think the other man had heard him.
“We try not to be so dramatic here.” The dark man’s face scrunched up as he nodded slowly.
“And this is—you are…?” Joe sputtered, unable to get the words out.
“I am a Gatekeeper,” the dark man answered without pause. “Sam Williams took your life, Joe.”
“I’m in hell.” Joe fought back his tears. He felt lightheaded and rolled down the window, but felt no air.
“Well, that depends, Joe.” The dark man slowed the car and parked it on Main St.
Joe looked around. He knew that they had been driving for a good ten minutes, but they had not moved an inch. They were still parked in front of the bar where Joe had gotten his free shots.
“Here, there is no need for individuality, no desire to excel, and no use for money.” The dark man looked hard at Joe as he spoke. “Everything is provided for you, nothing costs you—or anyone else—a dime, and all things last forever.” The man shrugged and looked around at everyone outside. “To some people, this is paradise.”
“No!” Joe hissed, shaking his head at the denim zombies marching down the street. “That cannot be true. What about my corner suite in the downtown towers? It was the same.”
The dark man chuckled. “I think you will find that corner suites are pretty…” he paused and smiled slyly, “pretty average around here, Joe.”
“No!” Joe screamed and threw open the car door. “No! I cannot stay here! I cannot live like this!” He smashed the car window with his fist and grabbed a large piece of broken glass. He braced himself as he slid the glass across his wrists, over and over again.
The dark man shook his head. “You are already dead, Joe.” He stepped out of the car and made his way over to Joe’s side of the car. “You cannot hurt yourself or anyone else in this place.” The Gatekeeper waved his hand over the broken window, which instantly returned to its normal state. “Now go on. It is time for you to be on your way.” He stood looking at Joe, then shrugged and headed back to the driver’s side of the car.
“Please, no!” Joe yelled, chasing after his and grabbing him by the arm. “You have to save me from this nightmare. You don’t understand—this may be what other people dream about, but not me. I am different. My destiny is greater than their miserable desires. Please, send me back! Please!”
The dark man shook his head. “I can’t do that, Joe. There are rules.”
“Then send me somewhere else. This place–” Joe pointed to the people around them. “This is not for me!”
“Who said there was anywhere else to go?”
“Please!” Joe dropped to his knees, pulling on the dark man’s suit. “Send me back. I still have so much to accomplish. I was murdered, for God’s sake. My life was taken from me!”
“Don’t lecture me!” Joe shot back. “I did nothing wrong. I just want one more chance. I did not deserve what happened to me, shot down in my prime by the scum of the earth. Sam should be down here—him and all the other disgusting worms that infect the city streets with their sloth. Send me back! Send me back!”
The dark man raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you truly want, Joe? To leave this place?” The Gatekeeper spoke solemnly.
“More than anything in the entire world.” Joe stood upright and let go of the dark man’s suit.
The Gatekeeper stepped closer to Joe and whispered, “Is this place really so bad, Joe?”
“The worst,” came the reply.
“Very well then,” The dark man sighed. “I will send you back.”
“Thank you!” Joe grabbed the gatekeeper’s hand and shook it hastily.
“Know this, though,” the dark man said, starting into Joe’s eyes. “If you leave now, you may never return. You will remain in your old life for all eternity.”
Joe smiled, giddy with excitement. “Send me back!”
The dark man tapped Joe on the forehead. Once more, everything went black.
The funeral was lavish, although the turnout was quite a disappointment. Joe’s immediate family sat in the front row, while a few company board members occupied the second. There was no third.
No one gave a eulogy, no one gave any words to enlighten or encourage. The small gathering remained silent throughout the ordeal. The preacher played his part, earning his pay for speaking. The ornate casket was buried quickly; no one hung around afterwards. The only flowers were from a poor, young, distraught woman who placed them on the grave quickly and ran off. They were signed ‘Mia.’
The headstone was put in place and the grave secured in exactly the same way a thousand others had been done before it. Later that night, as the graveyard hands were making their rounds, two stopped by the newly placed grave and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. They exchanged stories and shared a few drinks, clearly a nightly tradition that had helped them pass away long hours. Just before the two parted ways, one stopped and turned to look at the nearby graves.
“You hear that?” he asked his colleague. “It almost sounds like someone’s down there.”
The other worker shook his head and chuckled sarcastically. “Yeah, the dead must be coming back to life.”