“Hi Linda! It’s Ralph again, from ‘New Life Start!’ calling to remind you: your very own ‘New Life Start!’ begins today! Just as soon as you mail us that check—”
“Ralph?” said the voice on the other end, flatly. “This is Linda’s daughter. Mother passed away last night, ranting about your phony prize. Me? I think there’s a special place in Hell for people like you.”
Ralph straightened the hands-free set around his chin and looked around at the subterranean squalor he called home, basement-level of a duplex in the part of Queens that hadn’t gotten nice yet.
Hmph. A place in Hell just for me?
Right, when half a brain-cell says life is Hell already? And if I gotta be stuck in Hell with these snowflakes—
Shouldn’t I be able to afford its Upper East Side?
It was good to get some of the day’s bad fortune out of the way early at least. Because, call it the gambler’s fallacy all you want; Ralph knew such things balanced out. How else to explain the juicy list of “New Life Winners!” on his desk from accomplice Sal — orderly in the geriatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital — complete with contact information, social security numbers, and, of course, diagnoses?
“Hi, is this Mr. Asmusen?”
“Guess so,” replied a gravelly voice. “Friends — my wife — called me Charlie.”
“Well hiya, Charlie; this is Ralph, from New Life Start! How are you, my friend?”
There was another pause as Ralph wondered if he’d laid the sauce on too thick. He had to remind himself; old bags liked the charm, male geezers to feel important — like they were still useful. According to Sal’s list, Mr. Charles Asmusen was 83, living alone, with severe dementia and a bad hip. A note from Sal added: “Used to own $$$ electronics shop $$$ in Midtown.”
“Can’t complain, I guess.” Mr. Asmusen sounded like he could.
“Well, Charlie, let me tell you, have I got a reason for you to never complain again!”
It was simple:
Tell them they’d won a cool 100K. That they just needed to pay “routine banking fees” on it first. Tell them: “Practically nothing. Just a few grand!” Have them send it to a PO Box in Tennessee where it would be re-routed to another accomplice in Jamaica. If they tried to track it down, they’d end up on a goose chase. If they traced his number, they’d find themselves listening to the time and the chime.
Ralph was like a gust of wind — refreshing, knocking you over — gone.
Ralph wasn’t even his real name.
Later, as the scurrying sunlight from the world above him waned, Ralph looked down at the final name on Sal’s list: Moirai Parcae, a Greek appellation, probably first-generation off the boat. According to a web search it meant something like “portion of destiny.” The diagnosis Sal scribbled was grim too; it read simply: “At the end of her rope.”
AKA easy money.
But just as Ralph began plugging numbers into “the scrambler,” his private cell began to buzz — unlisted.
Must be a job…
“Who’s this?” asked Ralph, brusquely.
“A friend, Ralph. Call me Pluto.”
“Pluto?” snorted Ralph. “Like that planet they kicked from the Solar System?”
“Well, like that rejected orb, I do know what it’s like to be relegated to a lower standing than I deserve. In fact, we share this feeling in common.”
Ralph’s dark brow furrowed – who is this guy?
“Now, I know you were planning to cheat my dear friend Moirai, and I’m afraid I can’t allow it. But Ralph, if you’re interested in a far bigger score, tonight’s your night.”
“Okay,” replied Ralph, shaken, “I’m listening…”
Ralph arrived at the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal an hour later, as instructed.
He found the plaza by the water eerily deserted — even the ticket-window lights out.
“Ralph! Yoo-hoo! Up here!”
Finally, he noticed the pugnacious-looking woman with the bulldog face beckoning to him from the railing of the docked ferry above. “Name’s Sharon,” she said once he boarded. “Pluto’s across the river.”
“In Staten Island?”
“Sure, doll,” replied Sharon — with a grin/scowl and acerbic wink.
Ralph did find it odd that the ferry was otherwise empty…
But the waters below shimmered so, like a great ballroom chandelier…
And Ralph could scarcely…
Keep his eyes…
When he awoke, Ralph found himself facing a sublime landscape: crystalline towers of amber and emerald topped rolling hills girded by sparkling streams and Monet meadows speckled riotously with wildflower.
Huh! Must be Upstate… Ithaca, maybe?
Suddenly, a blast of static — like ten thousand voices shrieking — cut Ralph’s thoughts off.
“Actually,” said the voice of Pluto from behind, “you’re farther afield than that.”
Farther than Ithaca? Ha! Is that even—
Ralph tried to turn his head but discovered himself frozen.
What’s going — ARGH!
It was the static again, worse this time.
“I hope you appreciate the view; we do strive to make each one’s place here unique. There’s Sisyphus playing his merry game, mountainside. Tantalus, studying Heraclitus in the Stream of Time. And King Midas, digging deep, in the irony mines below. And as for you, well, you’ll enjoy this luxurious vision of Elysium—”
But — ARGHH!!
“Shhh, there’s more! You see, with so many toxified souls coming in lately, we need emptied-out ones like yours to strain them clean again, like a great existential kidney! So, we expedited your arrival just a—”
“Hush! It’s not so bad. You may enjoy the traumas of others’ lives being routed through you; you did so relish causing them, once, no?”
“YES!! Every disappointment! Every deception! Indeed, every type of wound your actions ever caused — you’ll get to savor them all! And hey, maybe some ‘old friends’ will even pass by — on their way to better things! Wouldn’t that be nice? So, cheer up, my friend—
“Your very own ‘New Life Start!’ begins today!”
Benjamin A. Friedman is from Northern New Jersey, the child of a Tai Chi-loving biophysicist and a Conservative Rabbi’s daughter; his personal religion as a child was dinosaurs and space aliens. He received his BA in English and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and his major interests include philosophy, social justice, the history of civilization… and of course, paleontology and astrobiology.