The Book of Joe
What Happens When You Lose Everything?
CHAPTER 1- The wager
The Author sat in the dim room as the monitor illuminated his face. As he slowly typed, the thoughts of so many of his stories came flooding into his mind. So many characters he had written into existence over so many years. Some with happy endings; some not. So much tragedy, yet so much joy. He was content with all of them, from the strongest and most courageous characters to the weakest and most broken. He thought about how each of them held a special place in his heart as he began putting the final touches on his prized collection of stories. He went to great lengths to make sure that every event, setting and character was described with just the right amount of detail; that each story held its own meaningful place among the others.
As he continued to write, the lights began to flicker. The room suddenly grew dark and the air became stale and awkwardly silent as the constant white noise from the air conditioning ceased. Noticing the change, he gently smirked and continued on with his work. Moments later, the soft whispers of many voices, as if from multiple conversations taking place at one time, began filling the silence of the room. The voices seemed to be emanating from the corner to his left, yet he continued to type, ignoring the sounds as if they were a familiar nuisance.
The voices grew louder and he raised one eyebrow and looked annoyingly up from his keyboard. Exhaling with impatience, he abruptly yelled, “Silence!”. The whispers immediately ceased, the lights came back on and the air conditioning resumed. He paused, leaned back in his chair, and peered into the corner. He exhaled once again and shook his head slowly side to side. “You may enter”, he said with an abrupt and commanding tone. The shadows in the corner of the room became distorted as the lights again began to flicker. The darkness spiraled inward, opening the portal.
Out of the nothingness, she stepped into the room. A slender, fashionably dressed woman walked towards him sweeping the dark blonde, oily strands of hair out of her eyes. She was dressed entirely in black, from her tight-fitting jeans to her studded leather biker jacket, and silver chains swung from around her waist. She walked slowly toward him with a confident gait, striding as if she were a model walking down a catwalk, clicking her high heel shoes against the hardwood floor. She had an alluring and youthful appearance from a distance, but as she approached, the wrinkled lines on her face and hands revealed a weathered and middle-aged look. The clothes that seemed so hip and trendy from afar appeared more aged and worn as she approached and the smell of cigarettes now filled the room.
“Where have you been?” asked the Author, still leaning back in his chair.
“Oh...you know... just roaming around as usual”, she replied. She paused in front of the desk and then circled around it, walking even more slowly and methodically and peering towards his computer screen with an inquisitive, mischievous expression on her face.
“Can I help you with something?”, he asked.
“No, just curious what you’re writing these days”, she said. “I’ll never understand why you create such depressing characters”, she said sarcastically as she continued to walk slowly around the desk. “Always so weak and easily broken”.
“There’s beauty in the brokenness”, he said.
“Beauty?” she said with a giggle, “Really? Are you sure we’re talking about the same stories? Your characters are all train wrecks! The thing I don’t understand is that you can write these characters however you’d like, but you choose to allow them to alter their own plots. You and I both know how that always ends. They screw it up every time.”
He stared at the screen and smiled. “This one is different”, he said, nodding toward his computer screen.
“Different? How?” She scoffed in disbelief.
“He’s special,” he answered.
“Special? So, you’re changing the rules with this one? Finally throwing that free-will garbage out the window?” she teased.
“Oh no, he has free will just like all the others. But whatever the story throws at him doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s not changed by the story line.”
Her curiosity was now peaked as she leaned in over his shoulder to get a closer look at what was on the computer screen. “May I?” she asked.
“Be my guest.” He gently pushed his chair away from the desk and stood up gesturing with his hand toward the screen and inviting her to take his seat. She grabbed the mouse and began scrolling down and reading intently.
The Author walked around the front of the desk and sat down in the facing chair. He sat in silence, chin in hand, while she read the story.
Moments later she began laughing under her breath. Annoyed, The Author pulled his glasses from his face, rubbed his eyes and asked, “What’s the problem?”
Seems to me like you took it too easy on this guy. How do you know he won’t fold like all the others when you create a REAL challenge?
“I just think you gave him all the right circumstances, and so it’s, ummm…”
“It’s too easy for him.” she answered.
“No,” he quickly argued. “Joe’s always been that way, no matter what.”
“Next topic,” he interrupted.
“Wow...defensive!” she replied with brows raised. “Do you really have that much faith in him?”
She paused, dropped her feet, and slid her hand across the desk a few times. “Care to make it interesting?” she said without looking him in the eye.
Cocking his head left, he glanced at her over the top of his readers. “Are you kidding?” he mocked. She moved only her eyes towards him and smiled. He continued, “You’re talking about changing the plot, setting...”
“Characters too!” she interjected.
He hesitated and almost told her to get lost, but then it occurred to him how nice it would be to prove her wrong...yet again. He thought about Joe and reconsidered how sure he was that Joe could handle it. If anyone can...it’s Joe. He walked back around to where she was seated, and then slid the keyboard over to her.
As she reached for it, he grabbed her hand and reminded her, “Remember, you can’t kill him, and you can’t mess with free-will.”
Smirking again she replied in a higher pitch, “Of course!” and began typing. She typed quickly and with confidence, hesitating only to think of great adjectives for exact descriptions. She’d clap her hands as new ideas came to her, and then type again. When she was done she hovered her middle finger over one key and gave The Author one last glance.
He sighed and almost changed his mind. Then he finally sat up straight, looked her square in the eye and gave her the command, “Do your worst.”
And with that she tapped ENTER.
CHAPTER 2- Meet Joe
Joe pulled the door shut gently so as not to wake his son. Then he peeked in on the girls to make sure their light was off. He’d spent over half an hour getting them tucked in and read to.
“They okay?” Lena asked as she placed her novel on the bedside table and pulled up the covers.
“Yep. All’s quiet on the western front.” he yawned.
They talked about their day and plans for tomorrow, then drifted off. Their large Manhattan apartment was dark and quiet, and the security alarm was now active.
The next day was filled with summer camp activities for the girls and a summer job for J.J. While Lena went to yoga and an economics seminar, Joe went to a business lunch.
Joe was a big teddy bear with an even bigger heart. He’d been raised in a middle-class home in the Midwest. His mother died when he was only eight, so he and his brother were raised by their father, Dan. Dan was a factory worker who raised his boys to believe in hard work, good education, faith in God, the importance of family, and humility.
Joe and Lena had been married for almost 22 years. They’d met at Baylor University in a statistics study group. He’d majored in economics and she in marketing. Together they started her online company in their small duplex, and within six years it was flourishing. During the lean years, they’d had their first child, Joe Jr. Now J.J. was a college sophomore and was also attending Baylor. Kandy and Kelli, were a result of a conversation that began with “Just because we’re almost forty doesn’t mean we’re too old to have another child.” and ended with twins.
Somewhere during the course of the pregnancy (after the first sonogram confirmed that there were two of them), Lena tried to pick fights with Joe over whether or not forty really was too old. Joe would just nod his head and try to reassure her that he’d be around a lot more this time and would do more to help her out. She’d have a hormone meltdown, lie down for a nap, and then come into his office hours later and apologize. By the third trimester, their excitement grew as anxiety melted away. Once the girls were born, he kept his promise by taking days off to play with the girls when he could. Something about J.J.’s strong character made Joe feel that he and Lena were good parents. He looked forward to rearing the girls even more than he had the older one. He didn’t think it was possible to enjoy fatherhood more than he had fifteen years before, but his love and appreciation of it had grown with each passing year.
“What a blessing.” he’d say to himself as he rocked one on each knee. “What a joy to see the little bundles you create grow up to be smart, caring, hardworking and loving towards you and other people.”
Joe always found a positive way to look at failures throughout his life and took pride in his successes. If he had to rank his biggest successes in order from top to bottom, they’d be: first...my devotion to God and my wife, second...my children, and finally...my business. He felt unusually blessed to be paid to do what he loved. Every boss he had loved him, and every client trusted him. He’d determined years ago that as much as he’d hate to see anything happen to the firm, as long as he had his faith and his family, he could find a way to live without his work or the money. In general, Joe was a pretty happy guy...content in most things; even the ones that weren’t always desirable.
That’s not to say that their lives had been easy. The downturn in the housing market left them stuck with a property they couldn’t sell the year after they got married. Joe was laid off from the firm that he’d just started working at, and they almost had to declare bankruptcy. Lena had also had two miscarriages the year before she had J.J., and another two years after. They weren’t “third-world” problems, but they were real problems nonetheless.
By now things were calm. They were settled, and they were happy. Even in bad times, Joe never complained. Lena was a little less patient, but she was a good mom and appreciated Joe’s mild mannered personality.
Joe was glad that it was summer and the kids were out of school. He was happy when they spent time with each other and played outside. He was never bothered by the occasional temper-tantrums. His childhood had been quiet, so he was glad for the controlled chaos and signs of life that were spread out across the apartment and that racked up charges on his monthly credit card bill.
Work was good, too. There were other brokers who were “at the top” and made more than he did, but most of them were ruthless and often unethical. I don’t need THAT much money that bad- he’d thought to himself when outsiders would compare him to others. Joe concerned himself with quality rather than quantity. The SEC would sometimes come to him for advice and had even asked him to be on their advisory board. He’d done it for a few years, but eventually resigned when the long hours became too much and took him away from family.
The secretaries always gave Joe Christmas and birthday gifts. Every year Edith would cry and say, “I just don’t know what this place would do without you, Joe. You’re such a genuinely good person in an industry that needs a lot more people like you.”
With his entire six foot six inches and two hundred and sixty pound frame, Joe would give her one of his bear hugs and reply, “Now Edith, I appreciate the kind words, but you know that when you cry it makes me cry, and a crying stock broker makes clients nervous.”
Edith would laugh and continue telling him how wonderful he is. Whatever bonuses other firms gave their secretaries and staff, Joe would always give twice as much. “Happy employees mean not having to hire new ones.” he’d explain when the partners questioned the amounts. “Unhappy ones gossip about you, show up late, do sub-par work, and eventually…they quit. I don’t have time for that.”
His employees and coworkers frequently sought his advice too. He was (unofficially) the wise mentor that everyone turned to. Whether looking for suggestions on how to handle a client, or a shoulder to cry on over marital problems at home, Joe always seemed to know what to say and when to say it; or to just listen and say nothing.
Now it was the second Friday in August, and Joe threw his headset on the small desk and logged out of his laptop. He rubbed his eyes with his thumbs, then scratched his scalp. The phone rang. He tapped the speaker button.
“Hey Joe, McNally’s on the line and has some questions. Should I put him through and then conference in Thad?”
“No, no! I’m done for the day.”
“Are you sure? They sound pretty confused about…”
“Answer whatever questions you can and tell them I’ll get back to them on Wednesday. I’m officially on family time!”
“Wednesday? I thought you were just taking Monday...”
“Changed my mind. I promised them I’d quit early today and we’d do three days in Nassau.”
“Okee dokee, Joe. I’ll hold down the fort as best I can.”
“I have complete faith in you, Sarah.”
“You’d better watch out, that may one day be your downfall mister.”
Joe chuckled. “Take it easy and I’ll call you on my way back Tuesday.”
He stepped out of the small six by eight foot office and looked around the boat cabin for a 2 liter of anything he could find with carbonation. He spotted a diet cola, filled a football mug with ice and poured the cola until the fizz almost ran over the edge. He pulled his shirt off over his head and climbed the three steps that took him up onto the deck. Lena was already turning a golden brown while the twins played Barbies in the hull.
“Daddy-y-y-y-y!” the girls yelled in unison.
“There’s my girls!”
“Can we play video-golf now?”
“I have a better idea. Let’s hit some real golf balls out into the ocean.”
Kandy asked, “But how will we get them back?”
“Well, I have about fifty of them in this bucket, so we’ll just let the ones we lose stay lost. How about that?”
“But mommy says we shouldn’t pudute the ocean.” Kelli said with a lecture tone in her voice.
“You mean we shouldn’t POLLUTE the ocean,” he replied. “and we won’t because these are special balls made out of recycled wood that dissolves in salt water.”
“Cool!” both girls exclaimed in unison.
Lena noticed his bulky silhouette through the mainsail and removed an ear bud.
“Hey sweety. I didn’t hear you come up. You done for the day?”
“Yep, we’re gonna hit balls into the ocean.”
“Really?” she said as she laid her head back down. “I’m sure the EPA will appreciate...”
“Daddy says these are the ones that don’t pudute!” Kandy immediately replied as if ready for her mom’s comment.
Joe stepped around the sail and whispered, “Boy, I thought YOU were tough.”
Lena smiled, “She’ll be the family attorney one day, and you’ll have me to thank!” They both smiled and watched the girls struggle to hold their clubs while balancing the golf balls on a deck that was slowly being rocked by the waves.
For a moment, a small, unexpected wave pulled the front of the boat up slowly, and then dropped it down quickly. Joe steadied himself against the boom, Lena grabbed her water bottle before it rolled away, and Kelli fell to her hands and knees. It scared her more than it injured, but she cried just the same. Joe stepped across a row of ropes to help her back up. Still looking down, she shook her head and continued to cry. He knelt down, lifted her face, and used his large thumb to wipe away her small tears.
“You’re okay, baby girl.” he reassured her as he comforted her.
“That hurt!” she whined as she sniffed.
“It did?” he replied sympathetically. She nodded without looking up. He lifted her to her feet and said, “I’m sorry you got hurt.” They faced each other quietly as he kissed her hand. Then he asked her, “Why does God let us fall down?”
She sniffed again and replied, “So that we can learn how to get back up again.”
He smiled and nodded. “That’s right. And that’s why you’re my tough girl...because you always get back up when you’re down.”
She nodded back at him.
“You okay now?”
She nodded again. Just then Kandy yelled for her to come down and play inside the boat. Kelli hugged Joe’s neck for a quick second, then ran off.
Joe watched her with a smile, then stepped into the hull, pulled two ropes and grabbed the wheel firmly. They were cruising at five knots along the coast of Florida. From Jacksonville, they’d head south only about a hundred miles before they’d turn east towards the Bahamas. The air was hot, but the breeze was perfect and the afternoon showers had missed them by less than two miles. This was Joe’s life, and life was good.
Later that night, Joe and Lena sat on the side of the bed staring at the mirrors on the ceiling. They both laughed together as they spoke.
“I’m sorry, but it just makes me uncomfortable.” She said, staring up.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. I mean, they seemed like nice people when I bought it from them.”
“Didn’t you look in the bedroom before you bought it?”
“Yes, but I guess I was so excited about the price and size of the boat, that I just didn’t notice.” He said with a chuckle.
She turned her head and squinted her eyes at him. “Sure you didn’t.” she said slowly and sarcastically. Then she looked back up, “I just can’t believe they’d show it without taking them down first.”
He began to kiss her neck. “You gotta admit, it might be kinda fun to…”
“No way is that gonna happen until they’re gone.”
“Oh come on. Let’s just try to…”
She stood up quickly, raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms.
He let out a heavy breath. “I’ll get my drill.”
The next morning Joe found J.J. in the mini dining room looking out over the ocean with a cup of coffee. He was reading The Times on his tablet.
“That stuff will put hair on your chest ya know.”
“Your cousin Stevie didn’t start drinking coffee until after college.”
“Do you remember that weekend I stayed with him over spring break?”
“Yes.” Joe answered as he pulled out the comics.
J.J. raised his eyebrows and said, “That was the beginning of my new addiction.”
“Oh that’s nice. I suppose he dragged you to wild parties and séances while you were there, too.”
J.J. laughed, “Right, can you see Stevie at a frat party? He’d be the only one there with a bottle of water in one hand and a novel in the other.”
Joe laughed. “He’d hang out for ten minutes so as not to offend whichever buddy had invited him, and then slip out the first chance he got.”
J.J. almost spit coffee through his nose and came back with, “Better yet, he’d find a way to politely call ‘em first and say ‘sorry but I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with something and I wouldn’t want to infect your guests.’ ”
Joe shook his head with a smile and said, “Poor Stevie, I hope I never get that predictable.”
“Trust me dad, you’re the most unpredictable person in the family. Stevie definitely took after grandpa.” He read a couple of the comics to himself, then pointed out the really good ones to Joe.
“So what should we do today?” Joe asked.
“Can we go to that reef and snorkel for a few hours?”
“I don’t see why not. I’ll check with mom and see what she says.”
“Oh, and I REALLY want to go back to that place at the pier with the great conch fritters. Can we go there for dinner?”
“Oh man, I was thinking about those the other day. We’ll hit that place at least twice before we head back on Sunday. Is soft shell crab in season yet?”
“You’ll have to ask mom about that. She’s the seafood connoisseur.”
That night, despite his better judgment, Joe sat in the mini hot tub on the deck before finishing his emails. He knew that after a day of swimming and sun, it would render him exhausted and useless, but did it anyway. Sure enough, by the time he’d dried off and tied a robe around himself, he was ready for bed.
“I’ll send the emails in the morning.” He mumbled to himself as he folded down the lid on his laptop and crossed the hall from office to bedroom. Before he dozed off and with his eyes still closed, he said aloud, “brush teeth, say prayers”.
He sat for a moment, then forced himself out of bed, brushed pieces of conch and corn fritter out from between his teeth, then knelt down by the bed resting his head on his hands and a pillow.
As he fought off exhaustion, he forced the words out, “Dear Lord, you sure are good to me. I know I work hard, but a lot of people work hard. Not all of them are as blessed as I am. I’m not sure why you chose to bless me, but I sure am grateful. Please watch over J.J. Keep him safe and help him to continue on the path that you want him on. Thank you for helping him become the great man that he’s turned into. If it’s your will for him to get married someday, help him to find the exact person you have planned for him. Don’t let him settle.”
He mentioned Lena and the girls, his employees, extended family, and other friends. Then rolled into bed and dozed off before he could shut off the lights.
CHAPTER 3- Good friends
Joe and Eli had known each other since high school. They went to college in different states, but afterwards, they both did internships at the same firm. They played racquetball twice a week, got married in the same year, and eventually opened their own firm with another intern, Bill. Bill had a brother named Zach who was hired a year later. The four men were good at what they did and enjoyed each other’s company. Their success came quickly and when they could finally afford it, they began taking annual family vacations together. Occasionally they’d all take the kids to Florida or California, but Hawaii was the overall favorite destination.
What differentiated them from their colleagues was the weekly Monday morning prayer breakfasts. They’d meet at the same local diner on 47th street at 7:00 and pray for each other, their coworkers, their clients...even their competitors. It’s what grounded them. It’s what gave their work and the choices they made every day focus and meaning.
Although all of them had equal respect for one another, somehow Joe was the mentor that they looked up to. Whenever there was hesitation over a large decision, he’s the one they’d go to for advice.
Lena was glad he had such good friends. She was closer to Kathy, Bill’s wife, but got along with all three of the spouses. She wondered if sometimes Joe let his faith-based decisions keep him from being more successful and worried about the balance between being kind, and being a target for other brokers to take advantage of. Sometimes she’d question him about it, but then he’d remind her how lucky they were and what the cost of being more successful would come with. He, as well as the other partners, managed to keep his hours under fifty a week so that family would come first. She knew she was lucky and dropped the subject.
CHAPTER 4- Tragedy
A few months after their summer vacation, on the first Tuesday in September, an subway accident had caused Joe’s train to be delayed. As he read through the business section, the day’s reports looked worse than the day before. He knew things were looking grim and that there might be setbacks this month. He arrived more than an hour late to the office. Bill was the first to intercept him in the lobby. “Let’s talk in my office,” he insisted.
The shaky economy in Europe and the artificially inflated value of money in Asia had made them nervous for the past few weeks. Now it was hitting the U.S. stock market and they discussed how to handle it.
As the guys met and discussed strategies and damage control, Sarah buzzed in. “Joe, it’s Lena and she sounds upset.”
He walked quickly back into his office and picked up his line. Before he could say anything she stated frantically, “Honey, J.J. took the girls to the zoo this morning and there’s a chance they were on the train that crashed!”
Joe’s heart leapt for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and assured her, “There’s lots of trains that go up and down that line. I’m sure they’re fine.”
“He’s NOT answering his phone!” she interrupted with panic in her voice.
“Okay.” he replied. “Why don’t you go down to the station by the house and I’ll head towards the one down from the zoo. We’ll call when we arrive and decide where to go from there.”
She agreed, so he told Bill, Eli and Zach to let him know what they decided to do and that he’d call clients when he got back.
He took a cab to the Central Park Zoo. He walked from there to the subway entrance. His eyes strained as he studied faces on both sides of the street. He paced back and forth unsure where else to look. He finally called Lena praying in his mind that she’d had better luck. She didn’t. They agreed to meet at the scene of the crash, but when they arrived, they were redirected to Presbyterian Hospital on the East side. Meanwhile they both tried J.J.’s phone over and over. It went to voicemail, so they left frantic messages. Texts were sent with no reply.
The Uber finally dropped them at the entrance of the hospital. It only took a few minutes to find someone who could help them, but it felt like forever. They were told that police and paramedics were still finding victims. Uninjured victims had been brought to a waiting room, but the children weren’t there. The injured were slowly being put in hallways on beds, but they weren’t there either. According to one officer, the only ones left were more injured and the dead.
Prayers. So many prayers. So intense and so sincere. Both of their eyes burned as they tried not to panic and hold back tears. The lobby and halls were full of family members praying like they’d never prayed before. News cameras were now showing up in the street and on sidewalks to get a first-glimpse of anyone walking out into the parking lot. The longer it took, the more cruel it became. It wasn’t right that families had to wait on pins and needles to find out if the answer was life or death.
Finally a female RN stepped out and yelled, “Cooper?”
She took them behind a hall door and took a deep breath. “We can’t take you to the back yet, but…one male and two smaller female bodies were found that fit the…”
Lena fell against the wall and moaned loudly.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper.” she repeated over and over again. “There was nothing anyone could do. By the time the medics were able to pull them from the wreckage…”
Her words faded in Joe’s ears. The news made him light-headed and his ears rang with a high-pitched squeal. Lena screamed until her lungs were empty, and then she screamed again. Joe turned to face the wall, reached out to pull her to him, and together they slid to the floor. His body ached. His eyes burned.
He’d just had breakfast with them. They left before he did so J.J. could pick up a coffee before taking his little sisters to the zoo. How could things go from normal to...gone, just like that? Denial, anger, pain and sorrow flooded Joe’s mind as he grabbed Lena’s arms. The nurses helped pull her into a room and injected her with a sedative to prevent her from injuring herself on the furniture as she pulled on her hair and tried to throw a small table.
CHAPTER 5- From bad to worse
At 2:20, Edith hung up the phone.
Zach asked Edith and Sara to come into his office. “Things aren’t looking good with the markets, ladies.” he explained while rubbing his eyes. “Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Sara burst out in tears. Edith hugged her.
Suddenly Zach looked alarmed, “How bad is it?” he asked.
Edith held back tears while she explained, “All three of the children were on that train.” she paused and placed her fingers over her mouth, “They’re all…” she wept before she could finish.
Zach fell back in his chair. “My dear God!” he whispered. After a moment, he rose slowly from his chair and walked into the next office to tell Eli and Bill the news. They sat in disbelief on the couch, then cried as they prayed together.
That morning Joe lost all of his children. By the end of the week, the company had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. By the end of the month, there was talk of shutting their doors.
Weeks passed slowly and seemed meaningless. Joe and Lena rotated between beds, couches, and wandering the apartment building’s lobby aimlessly. At least twice a day, one or the other would wander into the kids’ rooms and hold items in their hands as if trying to feel their presence. They’d smell articles of clothing and blankets. They’d cry on the floor or in a bed.
One evening before dark, Joe stood staring blankly at himself in the large illuminated bathroom mirror. Thoughts would race, and then stop. He hadn’t noticed the shaggy beard that had grown or how badly he needed a haircut. He imagined what it’d be like if he put his fist through the mirror. He tapped it three times with his knuckles. Then harder and harder. Finally, a deliberate and forceful punch. Success. The sound was loud, but short. Pieces of silver fell and shattered. The blood flowed quickly. He stared at one side of his flattened hand, and then the other. He wanted the pain.
With his bloody right hand, he opened the drawers below. He drew out the clippers and its long, black chord. He held its parts in both hands and turned it as if to study it. He took a deep breath and shook small pieces of mirror from his knuckles. He looked at himself in the mirror, then looked down at the faucet. Without looking up again, he forced the plug into the wall socket. He flipped on the switch and without hesitation began shaving everything from the back of his head up and around to the bottom of his lumberjack beard. Brown and gray locks and strands fell onto the counter and floor, into the sink and the edge of the small garbage can that managed to catch a few pieces. Some blood stuck and dropped with the hair; some dropped by itself. Over and over he covered every inch of face and head. When the deed was done, he clicked it off and dropped the device onto the floor without unplugging it. He rinsed his hand for only a moment to loosen the larger pieces of mirror and blood, but didn’t bother picking out the rest. He stared past the hand, and broken mirror, and the counter top for several minutes.
Finally, he fell to his knees, his mouth quivered, and tears flowed. Glass and hair pressed into the skin on his legs. Slowly he began to speak in a low voice, “Oh God! My life is but a breath; I will never be happy again. I’m ready to die!” In a louder voice he continued, “I will not keep silent. I will speak my anguish. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I a monster? I see them in my dreams. When I wake up I want to die. I hate my life. Why do you even care about us? Why do you test us every moment?” Joe was now on all fours, and lowered his face to the floor as his voice weakened. “God, God. Leave me alone and let me die. Have I sinned? Have I become a burden to you?”
The tears came heavier and his face burned. “I don’t get it!” he whispered loudly, “and I don’t understand it.” He wept uncontrollably before he could continue. Air and saliva came rushing out of his nose and mouth. His body leaned forward as his head supported him against the cabinet door.
Finally, he took a deep breath and stated, “You are God, and I am...I am not. I was born with nothing, and I will die with nothing.” He shifted from all fours to sitting on one hip, his head still leaning on the cabinet. “You have given to me, and now you have taken away. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come." Over and over he whispered and wept, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come...”
As he spoke, his body weakened onto the floor, and he fell into a deep sleep.
Chapter 6 - the wager continues
She walked around the dark room, chewing on only the white sucker stick. “Impressive.”
The Author lowered his head into his hands with a heavy heart. “Are we done here?”
“Hey, you said only his life and his will. I still have a lot of...creative changes to make.”
He rolled his head around to give her an angry glance, then stood up and walked to the corner.
She sat in his seat, tapped her chin twice as she thought, then began typing again.
Chapter 7 - more challenges
Lena was in a terrible state and still on suicide watch. Joe had finally agreed to small doses of Xanax to get him from one part of his day to the next without breaking down and forgetting what he was doing or where he was. Once Lena was finally released from the hospital, she had agreed to take larger doses of various sedatives.
The guys at work, along with their wives, had taken turns staying with the family, cooking, cleaning, answering calls, and helping with other arrangements. There were documents to sign concerning the city transit lawsuit that neither Lena nor Joe cared about, so Zach agreed to take all paperwork with him and handle those details.
Days later the sores on Joe’s hands and knees became puffy and red. At first, he ignored them. A week later he finally got around to pouring peroxide on them. By the next week they were infected.
Eli approached him. “I know you don’t want to take care of yourself, but Lena needs you right now. Between the sores and that cough, you’re declining quickly, buddy. I’m worried about you.”
“I’m fine.” Joe mumbled as he took a sip of water and flipped over cards on his Solitaire game.
Later that night Joe walked into the bedroom where Lena was lying and turned on only a small table lamp. She was not sleeping. He sat beside her and pulled a strand of hair from in front of her eyes.
“Should we at least try to get out and maybe get some food?” he asked.
She shook her head. Her expression did not change.
“I took a shower earlier for the first time in days. Do you want me to fill up the tub for you.”
She didn’t respond. After several minutes she sat up, stared at the far corner of the room, and finally said, “Do you know what I want?”
She whispered, still staring, “I want my children back.”
His heart sank. He nodded his head in agreement.
“I want Kelli to stand at her bedroom door and yell at Kandy for not sharing her toys.” Her voice grew louder. “Do you know what I really want?”
Joe grasped her hand, but she yanked it away.
Now she was yelling, “I want my three dead children to NOT be in boxes underground! I want to be dead and cold and all alone in their place. And if that can’t bring them back, I’ll settle for just being there with them. Can you make that happen!?” she asked with a scowl looking at him.
Tears ran down Joe’s face. “I want that, too.”
She stood from the bed and walked to the corner and cried. She pounded the wall twice with the palm of her hand.
He continued, “I think that same thing every day. I don’t know why God has chosen to allow this to happen, but…”
She turned to him suddenly. “God? Are you seriously still praying to God?”
He looked up at her, tears running down his face. “I have to. This is when we need Him most.”
“Need Him?” she mocked, “NEED HIM?!” she wiped tears with both hands and her voice grew angrier. “I ‘needed’ Him to protect my children while they were on the subway. I ‘needed’ him to not destroy everything that mattered in our lives. And you, you ‘needed’ Him to not end your business and cause us to not be able to make mortgage payments on this house...not that it matters without the children here.” she threw her hands up and yanked two tissues from the box on the dresser.
“Are you seriously still maintaining your...your belief? You still believe in God?
Joe blinked in confusion. “I’m devastated, and my heart hurts every day, but that doesn’t change who God is. We can’t accept good from God without ever accepting the bad too. It’s just part of...”
She began to laugh. He stopped speaking.
She spoke slowly and in a lower voice. “What kind of God kills children? What kind of God destroys the lives of two people who have been nothing but good and kind to others and leaves them to survive something so horrific? If...IF...God exists, which I no longer believe, then I don’t want to know Him any more. And neither should you.”
He walked towards her and began to wrap his arms around her. “Oh honey, I know how much you’re hurting, but don’t say…”
“Don’t touch me!” she yelled as she yanked herself violently away from him. Lowering her voice again she said slowly, “You need to curse-God-and-die!”
He glared at her in shock, but said nothing more.
She pulled hard on a duffle bag from the top shelf of their closet, then began filling it with clothes and shoes. “I’m going to my mother’s. Don’t call me.”
On a Monday in November, Bill, Zach and Eli walked into their usual diner for their usual prayer breakfast. For the fourth week in a row, Joe declined to attend. The three friends gathered to update each other on how things went over the weekend and to pray for their grief-stricken friend. They struggled to find words for something they couldn’t make sense of. They cried together and asked God to ease their friend’s pain, although they knew that wouldn’t come soon. After the prayer, they picked at their food and said very little. They thought about their own children and how many times they’d hugged them since the accident. The reminder of how fragile life is and how quickly it can be snuffed out stung them through their hearts.
“Nothing’s changed at work, so how about we just head over to Joe’s.” Zach suggested in a somber voice. The other two nodded, they paid the check, slid out of the booth, and made their way to the nearest subway.
Joe slept through the knock at the door, so Eli checked it. No one had bothered to lock anything since the accident. The three men walked in cautiously. Most of the furniture was gone, and what was left hadn’t been cleaned up in weeks. They each walked in different directions so as to evaluate the situation. Bill opened the fridge, which was almost empty and smelled of old dairy. Zach peeked in on the bathroom, which still had broken glass, hair and blood on the floor and counter. It took a moment for Eli to recognize the hairless man sprawled out on the couch. He found a folding chair in the dining room and pulled it up in front of him and said Joe’s name several times before he responded.
Eli looked towards the kitchen and asked Bill to bring over a drink. He looked for something caffeinated that would give Joe some energy. He found a diet cola in the back of the pantry and poured it into a glass of ice.
“Come on, buddy.” Eli said once Joe’s eyes were opened.
Joe sat up and looked around in a daze. It was obvious he’d lost at least fifteen pounds or more. Eli lifted his backpack and pulled out the styrofoam box that they had the waitress pack for him. “We got this at the diner. Shelley knew it’s your favorite and said to send it to you on-the-house. Nice lady.”
Eli opened the box and held it in one hand while Bill placed the glass in his other. Joe didn’t want to eat, but took a few bites anyway out of appreciation. By now Zach was in the room with them. They all sat spread out around the room, one in a chair, one on the floor (since the rest of the furniture was gone), and the other on the fireplace hearth. They sat in silence for a long while. There was nothing to be said. The silence was awkward at first, but felt necessary.
Half an hour passed before Eli finally got up slowly and decided to find something to do. He found garbage bags under the sink and began picking up trash in every room. Moments later, Zach found a broom and dust pan and went back to the bathroom to clean up the mess. Bill took piles of towels and blankets and ran them through the washer. The three friends spent hours cleaning and straightening while Joe sat and watched them move from one area to another. His mind was still foggy from medication, but cleared as he slowly ate and drank.
One by one each man finished his tasks and then came back to the living room to sit with Joe. “Wanna watch something?” Eli asked.
“Cable’s been shut off.” Joe responded.
Zach walked to the back office and shuffled through cabinets and drawers. Moments later he walked back to his friends holding a small DVD player in one hand and a stack of movies in the other. He asked with a concerned scowl, “Is it weird that I know where all this old stuff is?”
“Whatcha wanna watch, Joe?” Bill asked.
“You choose.” he said with an uninterested look.
Zach realized it’d be a bad idea to watch something too depressing or too funny. “Matrix?” he asked the other two.
“Sure.” they agreed.
Three movies later, they realized the sun was going down and Joe was sleeping again. They helped each other fold the freshly washed linens and made the beds in each room. They each picked a room to sleep in and said goodnight. Once in bed, they texted their wives to let them know that they wouldn’t be home for several days.
The following day, they managed to get Joe off the couch, and later to take a shower. The day after that, they talked him into walking to the coffee shop, and then around the downtown library.
On Thursday, they coaxed Joe into Bill’s car and drove out of the city to the Jersey shore. It was breezy and cold as they layered jackets over their t-shirts and hoodies, but the sun was out and the air felt refreshing against their faces. Bill carried the large folded blanket under his arm that he’d brought in the trunk of his car. After walking a ways, they spread it out and sat. Small comments about the weather and getting away from the hustle of Manhattan turned into larger conversations about God and why He lets bad things happen to good people.
“I haven’t cried in days.” Joe explained. “I feel...cried out.” He rubbed his sunken eyes with the palms of his hands. “I’m so angry and…” he stared at the sand as he paused, “I’m…numb.”
The guys just nodded and listened.
“No one on earth is perfect, myself included. But I know I’ve done right by God. I know God owes us nothing, and yet I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve this.”
After a long silence, Zach finally spoke up and said, “I don’t know Joe. Everything that’s happened is horrific, and you of all people didn’t deserve this.” he shook his head and paused. “But there must be something. I mean, does God really do this for a reason? And if so, is it some unseen part of a larger plan? Or could it just be that he's punishing you for something…”
“Stop it!” Eli said. Bill spoke up too and agreed.
Zach responded, “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a jerk, but all of these things?” he asked as if it was a question. “All within days of each other? I mean, if that’s not the finger of God himself trying to tell us something then, good Lord, what else could it be?” he finished loudly with his hands raised in front of his face.
“Wow,” Joe responded sarcastically. “I’m so lucky to be in the presence of such a genius!”
“Oh come on, that’s not what…”
“Yes it is.” Joe interrupted. “Do you not think I’ve thought of that? Do you not think I’ve asked God every day what I must have done to deserve this? And what He wants me to do to make him happy? Before all this, when I prayed, God answered my prayers. It might not always be a YES, but at least it was an answer. But since this happened...NOTHING! I don’t know where He is, I don’t know why He’s done these things. Hell, I don’t know if He’s even here any more.” By now Joe was standing and pacing back and forth in front of them.
Joe opened both hands flat against the sides of his head and began smacking himself. “I curse the day I was born!” he yelled.
“Just keep praying.” Eli responded. “Sooner or later you WILL get an answer.”
Joe shook his head. “There are no answers, just pain. I’m in a pit of darkness and I can’t get out.” He began pacing again. “The thing I feared most has happened to me; I have no peace, no quiet; I have no rest, just…chaos in my mind.”
They each stared out at the ocean. After several moments Eli said, “Think about how many people you have given advice to, how you have given strength to the weak. Your words have supported our friends when they’ve struggled. Now that the struggles have come to you, you need to remember your own words and let them strengthen you. You can’t let this thing destroy you. There is hope in your goodness and in the goodness of God.
Joe kept staring as he considered Eli’s words. He knew he was right and absorbed as much of their wisdom as he could.
After a long silence, Zach stood, walked to Joe, and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Keep praying, Joe. Appeal to God; lay your grief before Him. He performs miracles that we can’t imagine. The Bible says ‘He sets the lowly on high, and those who mourn are lifted.’ Keep believing that no matter what, and He will eventually answer you.”
Joe turned away from Zach. “But does He really? Why does He let awful people like Stan Pennington and the head of that...that company in Houston prosper while others suffer? I wish I could ask Him face-to-face.” He rubbed his hands together nervously as if trying to find the answer to a mystery. “Why are we not smart enough to know these things?”
Eli waited and then mumbled, “Stan may be rich, but he’ll never know true success in life.” He thought for another moment and continued, “...plus, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna burn in hell for the things he’s done.”
Zach nodded in agreement while Bill tried not to laugh.
Joe bent down and grabbed both hands full of sand. He closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sky. “I wish my misery could be placed on a scale. It would outweigh all the sand in the sea. It feels like God’s wrath and terror has been dumped out on me. No wonder my words have been reckless. Still facing up, Joe took a deep breath. He opened his eyes with tears running down his face. “But somehow, despite everything,” Joe paused as he stifled his weeping, “in the end, I know that my redeemer lives!” He fell to his knees in the sand, and let all of his heartache pour out.
The other three sat in silence considering all of Joe’s words.
Joe wept uncontrollably while they sat with him. Ten minutes passed before he finally, slowly staggered to his feet and faced his friends. With his legs and hands covered in sand, he wiped his face with his wrists. “I have to go,” he announced unexpectedly.
They all stood. Zach asked, “Where?”
Joes took a deep cleansing breath before he answered. “I don’t know,” he replied. “They’re taking the house next week, so I have to find something starting tomorrow.”
They walked towards him. “Come stay with us, Joe,” said Eli.
Zach agreed and added, “I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean to...”
Joe suddenly grabbed them by the arms, pulled them close together in a huddle, and hugged them. “I know, I know.” The four men embraced each other and cried together.
As they wiped away tears, Joe said, “You’re all good friends and I appreciate you. But the rest of this journey must be traveled alone. I’m not going to change who I am and I’m not going to stop asking God for answers. What happened...happened. And whatever the future holds is in His hands.”
They nodded, wiped more tears, and wished him good luck. Joe walked slowly from the sand to the road, poured sand out from his shoes, hailed a cab, and took it to the bus station. He bought a ticket and traveled west. Hours later as he sat staring out the window, watching the trees that lined the highway, he closed his eyes and prayed quietly. “I know that you can do all things; your plans will never be destroyed. I have spoken of things that I don’t understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
He prayed for Eli, Zach, and Bill. He prayed for the souls of his three children. Then he prayed for Lena. His faith had been shaken, but not destroyed.
Chapter 8 - He wins the wager
The lines in her face were now more noticeable in the glow of the monitor. Her frown deepened as she stood.
“Okay, so you win.” she said as she tossed the lollipop stick in a can. “What do you want?”
He shook his head and laughed softly. “I already own everything. There’s nothing you can give me that isn’t already mine.”
She crossed her arms and looked away.
“I do enjoy watching you loose, though.” He said looking her in the eye with a smile. “It amuses me that after all these years, you still think you have a chance of winning, even though you never have.”
She kicked the chair over with the heel of her shoe like a child having a tantrum. “Doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.” she sneered.
“I’m sure you won’t.” He stood from his seat and extended his hand to shake hers. She refused it, turned and vanished back into the corner.
He sat back down and finished the ending.
Chapter 9 - The West
The Greyhound made multiple stops each day enroute to California. Each time Joe would either put down his book or wake up. He’d take a walk around the station to get a general sense of the area, use the restroom, and then board again and continue traveling. He did this through Pennsylvania, across the tops of Ohio and Illinois, then down through Nebraska and Colorado.
The sound of the decompressing engine woke him in Pueblo. Joe stretched and yawned, then made his usual trek down the steps of the bus and around the back. The winter chill seemed less biting. The air was the clearest he’d ever seen, and the sight of mountains in the distance took him by surprise. Wow! He thought. He walked another forty feet away from the bus and it’s loud, idling motor. Slowly his ears picked up the sounds of a few ravens in the distance, and the wind that whistled through dead trees and against the bus station. He’d taken a few trips to Montana and Northern California in his youth, and suddenly remembered the vow he’d made to one day see the Rockies up close. The peacefulness spoke to him. He grabbed the small bag he’d purchased at a stop in Ohio from the bus and asked the driver about nearby motels.
Joe picked up odd construction work in Pueblo throughout the winter and lived in a cheap extended-stay motel. He hated being alone at first, but soon began to realize its advantages. He spent mornings and evenings on his knees in the room next to the queen bed praying and renewing his relationship with God. At night he’d pull out his phone, swipe through photos of Lena and the kids, and cry himself to sleep.
In the spring thaw of April, he purchased a used tent and other supplies, checked out of the motel, and began hiking north. He camped near highway rest stops and in campgrounds. He spent a few days in The Springs, and then Denver before turning west again. He spoke to strangers at diners and around barrel fires, listening to their stories without ever sharing his own. He walked hundreds of miles through mountains, waterfalls, and canyons. They renewed his spirit. The occasional encounter with racoons and deer brought him new peace. He heard God speaking to him now. Not in a loud obvious voice, but in a small still whisper.
Once he reached the Great Salt Lake, he turned south. The Salt Flats and arid deserts were scenes he never knew existed in the world, much less in the U.S. The heat of summer was intense, but he loved the dryness of it. It was nothing like the summers back east. By the time he reached southern Utah, everything had turned red. The buttes, the massive crevasses in the ground, the boulders that hovered dangerously at the tips of cliffs and other smaller rocks...all red. How had he never seen these places before?
Joe came to a small tourist town filled with mostly beatniks in their twenties, and environmental scientists. There were no restaurant chains or large hotels; only local inns and diners with no air conditioning. Their doors and windows were all propped open so the desert wind could flow through.
He camped here for several weeks before deciding to stay indefinitely and find work. He was down to only a few hundred dollars in his pocket. A woman at the front desk of one of the motels offered him a night job which he accepted. Their shifts would overlap a few times a week in the evenings. Jenn would update him on the new guests for that evening, and then run to the bank to deposit that day’s cash. She’d return with two cups of coffee and sit on the side couch along the lobby wall. The first few weeks were mostly small talk about her former life as a legal assistant and her two year old, Kevin. Joe would talk about his former job on Wall Street and his now ex-wife, but avoided other details.
Once the walls came down, they embraced their mutual need for a fresh start. Jenn was almost ten years younger than Joe, but she was an old soul and a gentle spirit. The following summer, at the age of forty five, Joe found himself married again with a three-year-old step son who was already calling him daddy. The small city outside of their town was growing fast, and Jenn’s brother owned a real estate company that was growing too. He hired Joe to manage the office and helped him get his realtor’s license.
By the time he was fifty, he and Jenn had three girls. As usual, Joe was the top selling realtor in the office and everyone in the surrounding three counties trusted him for real estate and other advice. As his life and family grew, so did his faith. At the age of fifty three, a close cousin of Jenn’s passed away suddenly and left them with custody of her twin boys.
Here was Joe, less than a decade after the unbearable tragedy, raising six children and growing new businesses across southern Utah, Northern New Mexico, and northern Arizona. He thanked God daily for every blessing, and never forgot to include Lena, Eli, Bill and Zach in his prayers. Although Lena never spoke to him again after the divorce, he and the guys kept in touch, and would meet in a different location once every year...but never in New York.
He considered his new family an unexpected blessing. “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away...and sometimes, the Lord gives again.” he’d smile and say to Jenn as he watched her pin back her curly red hair in the mornings.
She’d look at him in the mirror’s reflection, smile and say, “You’re darn lucky to have me, Joseph Cooper!” Then she’d laugh and kiss him as she walked out with the little ones in tow.
He’d grin and know she was right.
Chapter 10 - Joe’s final chapter
A few months before Joe turned seventy, he sat in a low aluminum chair with a fishing pole between his legs listening to an old radio propped up beside him. He was lost in deep thought as he concentrated on the baseball game being described play-by-play by a woman with an energetic voice. He fumbled with his glasses in one hand and an orange lure in the other.
Suddenly a small boy from behind him on his left and a small girl on his right slapped him on the back simultaneously and yelled, “Boo!”
Joe jumped and acted more frightened than he actually was for their amusement. They both giggled and were proud of themselves for pulling off the surprise. Joe pushed aside all of his items and slowly rose out of his chair.
“Do you know what happens to little children who frighten old men?” he asked in a slow, eerie voice.
“No-o-o!” they replied with giggles.
His voice grew loud and strong, “They are tossed into the watery pit of dragons!” He grabbed them one at a time and tossed them over the side of the yacht into the cool waters of Lake Powell. Their little heads popped up like bobbers, as three other grandchildren stood watching and laughing along the edge of the boat.
“You think that’s funny, do you!” he yelled as he grabbed and tossed them too. They squealed and tried to act like they didn’t want to be thrown, but enjoyed every second of it.
As their arm-floaties bounced them up and down in the gentle waters next to the boat, Joe proclaimed in his big, booming voice, “Whatever you do, do NOT push the side of this boat and cause me to fall into the watery pit of dragons!”
Their faces lit up at the idea, and without hesitation, they pushed with all their might against the smooth, white, fiberglass side. Although their efforts were too small to create any force, Joe pretended to lose his balance. Small wobbles at first, “Wo-owe.” The children giggled and tried harder. “Wooooow!” he yelled louder as he crashed into the water next to them.
They screamed with delight as he flailed his arms and acted helpless. “We got you, grandpa!” they yelled as he splashed water at them.
A moment later a small shadow appeared above them. Joe covered his eyes as he looked up at Jenn and their oldest daughter leaning over the side. “Does everyone have floaties on?” she asked.
“Yes, grandma!” they all answered.
The daughter, whose boys now bobbed in the water with Joe, reminded them, “Lunch is in fifteen minutes, guys.”
Joe noticed the smell of the grill. He growled and said, “Dragons must have meat!”
Holly, his youngest of sixteen grandchildren replied, “You’re not a dragon, grandpa.”
He smiled and wrapped his arms around her as he helped her to the ladder and onto the platform of the fifty foot pontoon boat. The name Memories of Manhattan was spread across the back edge in large, blue letters. He smiled at it as the children climbed up one-by-one. He pulled himself up and sat on the platform, and then stared at the remarkable red cliffs and blue sky that surrounded him. The boat floated gently, tied between the other three boats that were occupied by his children and grandchildren. The dark blue waters of the lake sparkled between the red-rock canyons of the desert.
IN THE END...
By the time Joe died at the age of one hundred and two, the Author had restored his fortunes and given him twice as much as he had before. All his family and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted him in the hard times, and congratulated him in the good times.
The Author blessed the latter part of Joe’s life even more than the former. He had many companies and owned much land. He enjoyed his wealth, but also used it to create shelters for the homeless and clinics for the sick, both at home and around the world. He had three sons and three daughters. Nowhere in all the tri-state area were there found children as beautiful and gracious as Joe’s. Their father left them an inheritance of wisdom, wealth, character, and faith.
He saw his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren grow into strong men and women of God. And so, Joe died an old man, full of years.
About the Creator
Teacher, mom, believer in peaceful politics! Please feel free to send [constructive] criticisms on any of my works. My genres are: dark fiction, spiritual fiction, & articles on everything from improving politics to gardening & food.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.