by John Chrostek
Jean Goodman loved getting to work before everyone else. It was his pride and drive to be a fixture of the office’s morning rituals. He believed that that first hour of social interaction was pivotal in establishing the tenor of the collective energy for the day, and was often justified by his observations of its effect. The practice provided him time to catch up with his coworkers, one by one, and gently guide them through emotional distractions, blanketing the cold glass sectional walls of CruciaFax with a warm downy cover of reciprocity and support. It was this togetherness that, in his mind, propelled the company to the top of the triple-encryption data transfer app industry. It was a shame that no one else could see Jean’s invisible guiding hand, especially from his position in the data entry department, but he contented himself by pushing ever onwards, making each day better than the last and growing into ever better, ever brighter iterations of himself.
It was a cool April morning, and the air was wet and clear from an early rain. Jean watched the sun rise over the high-rise apartment complex they were building in the old wharf district. He loved the way it splintered the sun and clouds, making the view cozy and shaded. He could hear the traffic of the interstate like waves on a cliffside, complementing the quiet bubbling boil of water in the office kettle that would become his morning chai. Today will be important. I will not lose composure. I will not feel jealousy or hatred or spite. I will extend my hand in greeting, I will smile with sincerity and grace. Today will be good. It will be, and I will be, and so it will. Jean put ginseng and honey in the cup and stirred. The fresh steam kissed his lips like a loving ghost.
The first to arrive was Maggy, one of his favorites in the office. She mostly worked as a marketing coordinator, but lately she’d been branching out and picking up team lead experience. She was fantastic at volleyball and had a semi-successful social media account advertising her dog-walking side gig. Maggy of course made enough to not need a second job, but her warm, accepting personality and enthusiasm coupled with a rotating cast of content-friendly animal clients was a genius investment towards her larger brand. She hadn’t said anything, but he was sure she would be angling for a book deal in three years if her numbers stayed consistent.
“Morning, Jean!” Maggy was in good spirits today.
“It’s a beautiful one, isn’t it?” He replied, sounding sated.
“Oh, absolutely. I took a run with Pig Pig this morning.”
“Pig Pig is the French bulldog?” He asked, as if he did not remember.
“No, that’s Percy. Pig Pig’s a Havenese.”
“Of course. Those P names get me every time.”
“I get their names mixed up constantly! That’s why I run dogs and not children.”
He grinned warmly. “I bet there’s good money in children running.”
“If you’re brave and careful enough to avoid some easy lawsuits, I’d bet on it.”
They shared a laugh as Maggy shook out her windbreaker and draped it on the coat hanger. She stepped into the kitchen and went to make her own cup of coffee when Jean offered her the kettle, still full of water after his turn.
“You’re a doll, Jean.”
“I just made the pot, Maggy, nothing special.”
“You always leave extra for us, though. It’s the thought that counts.” She smiled. Her praise came easy and often, and she always meant it. Jean felt his interior walls fortify. Today would be good.
“I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous about today,” he confessed.
She hadn’t remembered. That was alright. He had been careful not to overemphasize it.
“The new H.R. staff starts today.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh yeah, you really wanted that job, didn’t you?”
He sighed cooly. “I did. But it’s alright. I’m sure there’ll be other opportunities.”
“Totally. You’re great with people, Jean. Keep your chin up.”
“You know I will, Maggy. I always do.”
A meeting was called at eleven. Blake and Adrienne, the Vice Manager and COO, called most of the local branch in to synch and talk weekly goals. Sixteen in total were gathered into the conference room, where Blake was fiddling with the projector set-up in the center of the table before abandoning it to begin.
“Just wanted to start by thanking you all for coming in on a rainy Wednesday to have a face meeting instead of working remote. We’ve gone ahead and ordered coffee and donuts from Glory Hole that’ll be here in about twenty minutes.”
The energy level in the room ramped up three notches.
“Nice! Glory Hole?!”
“Did you get the Venetian cream?”
“Of course I ordered the Venetian cream, Holly, what is this, amateur hour?”
“Hell yes!! They know exactly what they’re doing, man. Their brand game is on point. Did you see that post with the fig churros? Classic.”
“Alright, let’s focus, everybody,” Adrienne chipped in. The room grew quiet with a few errant chuckles. “Today, the main focus of our meeting is going to be on improving our privacy standards and discussing a few advertising changes. You’ve seen the headlines. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low, which is really saying something. This is exactly the time for us to take action and raise brand awareness. We need easy, engaging proof that our security is secure.”
“We just launched this new campaign a month ago, it’s been playing well on our posts. The new copy and CSS are driving numbers up, what’s the problem?”
“We’ll get into that soon. Have it stewing in the back of your minds for later. But let’s get the new guy in here first and get introductions out of the way,” Adrienne replied.
“Alright, everyone. As I’m sure you all know, we just hired a new H.R. rep for CruciaFax that is going to be handling benefits, conflict resolution, and rights talks moving forward. We all miss and remember Lauren well, but we’ve gone a month now without someone filling in and that’s been causing issues, as I’m sure we’re all aware.”
A sad murmur of agreement passed through the room. Jean remembered the long nights spent filling in for Lauren after she fell off that cruise ship in the sea around Ibiza. How he’d helped Lauren’s fiancee Penny collect her unpaid wages and benefit cash-outs to pay for the funeral. The vigils he led, the cards passed out and mailed, the healing sessions he’d organized. All of it for nothing.
“So before we invite them in, we just wanted to remind everyone to treat your coworkers with respect. This is a new member of CruciaFax, and we have to make them feel like family, so say hello, keep an open mind, and don’t make any awful jokes you’re gonna regret in a few weeks, okay?” Blake emphasized that last point, his eyes passing briefly over Jean. It felt intentional and venomous. It’s his fault I didn’t get it. Does he think I’m some loose jaw idiot who can’t tell he’s the bottom of the totem pole?
Adrienne nodded and got up to the door. “Thanks for waiting, we’re ready now.”
She held the door open as a thin man with long hair and a full beard came in. He was wearing a well-tailored cream business shirt and smooth grey slacks, projecting a clean but confident image. His deep-set eyes were glimmering with patience as he waved sheepishly at the assembled staff, pulling the wave-pull- back-chuckle-wave that read to everyone and no one.
“Hello. I’m looking forward to getting to know you all. I’m Jesus.”
The room erupted in laughter. Blake and Adrienne looked frustrated.
“You’re a dead ringer for him, that’s for certain,” Bob O. said.
“I get that a lot,” he replied.
“Bob, please,” Adrienne interjected sternly.
Blake rubbed his forehead, looking for words.
“Sorry if that sounded like a joke. My name is actually Jesus. ‘Gee-zuz’ Jesus. You can call me whatever you like, though, I understand it’s distracting. I go by J.C. a lot, actually.”
Bob O. couldn’t let this go. “Is your last name-”
“Legally, yes,” he nodded solemnly.
Jean felt sick at his stomach. This is a joke, this is a sick weird joke. This must be an internet guy, a troll. A fucking freak!!
“No fucking way that was twenty minutes. Bob, go down and get the donuts. The rest of you, enough chatting and focus. You can ask J.C. any and all questions you have after we actually get some work done, how does that sound?”
The room was silent in disarray. Jesus took a seat by Jean, fully aware of the energy in the room. After a moment, he noticed Jean’s eyes on him and nodded in greeting. Jean’s skin was clammy, his breath weak. He fought the urge to stab his leg with a mechanical pencil and thought of nothing but metrics, nothing but donuts, nothing but Lauren, still sinking somewhere in the waters of the Balearic Sea.
The sun had comfortably melted into the orange creme of dusk as an inebriated Jean sucked aggressively at the butt of his last cigarette. His hands twitched and shivered as he fiddled with the flint of his lighter. He was desperate not to step back into the bar his coworkers had dragged him to after work had ended. He considered slipping out to have a quiet night of affirmations at home, but he’d left his jacket at the booth with his house-keys inside. He was a wolf at the bottom of a ball pit, a pigeon flying into glass.
“Everything okay out here?” It was Maggy. “…Have you been chain smoking?” She asked, looking down at the six burnt-out cigarette butts in a dry puddle around Jean’s feet.
“Sorry, yeah. I… feel a little too drunk. I don’t think I ate enough today.”
“Well, let me know if you need a cab home. You don’t have to stay if you’re feeling weird, you know.”
Jean felt a wave of rage rise up uncontrollably within him. “Thanks, Maggy.”
Maggy felt it. “Sure.” She went inside.
Jean sighed. He wasn’t angry at Maggy specifically. But it was getting harder and harder to stay composed as the night went on. The moment Jesus entered the picture, the world had shifted on its axis, and Jean wasn’t sure he could adjust. I thought the longer I’d listened to him, I’d find something to grab hold of, some weakness. But he’d never met a man like Jesus Christ before.
When the group had first arrived at La Tombé, Jean had wasted no time.
“So, tell us all about this cute name of yours, superstar.”
Maggy, Bob O., Corinna, Tim, and Percival had all agreed, ordering a pitcher for the table. Jesus seemed flustered at the question. It drove Jean wild. He must have this spiel practiced to the smallest expression. There was nothing genuine about him, nothing true! How could there be?
“I’ve had to tell this story a lot, so I’m sorry if it sounds canned. The long and short of it is, my parents were devout Catholics named Mary and Joseph Fink. A big part of their relationship was how much they related themselves & their story to the original Mary and Joseph. They’d get asked to do nativity scenes, private parties, shit like that for years and years until the day my mother got pregnant with me. They got excited thinking of names, exclusively Biblical. Jesus was a regular one of my mom’s ideas. Dad was against it. Too sacrilegious, too on-the-nose. But as the pregnancy went on, it became obvious it wasn’t going to be an easy one for my mother.”
Corinna gasped quietly.
“The doctors told my parents either I needed to be aborted, or my birth might kill her. My parents were both violently against abortion, but my father was desperate. He pleaded with her to abort me, to try again, but she refused. She kept insisting I really could be the next Jesus, that her pain meant something & my life would be… a miracle. Her last words insisted on the point. My father couldn’t lose her and deny her, so I was born Jesus Fink.”
Maggy put her hand on Jesus’ arm. “I’m so sorry. Your mother sounds like a beautiful woman.”
“I’m sure she was. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of photographs. She was. But when I was a kid, I didn’t care. I hated being Jesus. Kids at school absolutely tormented me for it. Something about the name just makes some people angry. It didn’t get easier when my father changed our last names to Christ in junior high. As the years went on, he’d only bought into the fantasy deeper. He was convinced I was the Second Coming.”
“No offense, man,” Bob O. interjected with a chuckle, “but you don’t seem too celestial.”
Of course he doesn’t! Jean screamed internally. There is no such thing as God & this story is fucking insane!
“Of course I don’t. I know I’m just a regular person, a Fink! But when I fought with my dad about the name, he’d snap. One fight pushed him to a dark place and he ended up under observation for weeks. I couldn’t bear to hurt him anymore, so I kept the name.”
“So, are you waiting to change it after your father dies?” Jean asked.
“Jean!” Maggy exclaimed. Everyone looked at Jean with disgust. He recoiled instantly in terror.
“O-or are you going to keep it, to h-honor him?” He quickly added.
“I don’t know. On the one hand, I’ve endured a lot of hardships for the name. Life would certainly be easier without it. But in a way, I’m thankful to my parents for forcing it on me. I’ve had to learn patience because of it, practice mercy and forgiveness. I don’t consider myself a religious person or anything, it all seems silly to me, but I’ve learned to try and see the good in people, no matter how they treat me. Turn the other cheek, so to speak.”
The group erupted in praise. Bob O. ordered another round for the table. As Maggy complimented Jesus on his outlook, Jean caught a glimpse of some fire in his eyes. They met, glance to glance, for just a moment, and Jean felt the floor give out beneath him. In Jesus, he had found an enemy without compare, a man whose grace and narrative were beyond dispute, who won the hearts of strangers, a forever victim-king.
Two hours passed. Bob O. left to pick up his kid for the weekend. Tim had an allergic reaction to the soy in a featured cocktail. Jean had tried to recoup his losses, acquiescing to Jesus, pampering him. He would not be the asshole here. He, too, was noble. He too had suffered. He wanted more than anything for the others to see. As Corinna talked at length about her issues with her sister, Jean formulated a story to redeem himself to Maggy, to Jesus. He played it over in his mind as he thoughtlessly drank glass after glass, needing it to sound genuine, tender, and raw, needing it to sing.
“You know, I’ve lost somebody, too.” He started, interrupting Corinna.
“What?” She asked, frustrated.
“Do you remember Lauren?”
Maggy’s eyes grew incredulously wide. “He’s talking about our last H.R. rep, Jesus.”
“Lauren was, she was special. She and I had been friends for a long time. I helped her wife, I helped Penny. When Lauren died. I helped her with the paperwork and the funeral. She’s really sad. She was sad then and also she is sad now, still.”
Corinna could not believe her ears. “Of course she’s sad, Jean.”
“Jean, stop. You’re drunk.” Maggy looked furious, or sick.
“It’s okay,” Jesus interjected. “I’m sorry about Lauren. She seemed like a lovely person.”
Jean knew nothing was coming out right. He knew he looked vile. He felt vile, and sick, like a slug, but he was beyond being able to stop. He felt, bone-deep, that he could right this ship. That he could stop the world from spinning for just a moment.
“I-I told her to go. To Ibiza. I told her cruises were fun. She said she couldn’t swim, and I told her you didn’t need to on the boat! That it was safe. I told her that as a friend, I said that it was fine! I said it would be good for her. I said, ‘You’ll be so happy. You’ll be so alive there.’ I said that to her, and then she drowned. Ploop!” He dipped his fingers in his drink. “I could’ve…”
Maggy got up. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. How dare you make our friend’s death about you? You’ve been acting insane all night!”
Jean stood up, loudly bumping the table. “I’m acting insane?! You’re the one making googly eyes at this, this CARTOON!” He said, pointing his hands at Jesus, the beer on his fingers flicking into Jesus’ eyes. Jesus wept.
“Look what you did!” Corinna shouted.
“I’m fine, it’s okay,” said Jesus, rubbing his stinging eyes.
“Of course you’re okay! You got my job, you son of a bitch!”
The table grew silent.
Maggy got her phone out. “I’m calling you a cab.”
Jesus put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. I’ll drive him home.”
“It’s fine. I’m sober. It’ll give us time to talk.”
Corinna put her hand on the table. “Are you sure? He’s acting deranged. You don’t have to do this.”
“I am not acting fucking deranged, Catherine!”
Jesus got up and walked over to Jean. “Let’s go, bud. Time to say goodnight. Maggy, can you pay the rest of the tab? I’ll clear up with you tomorrow.”
Maggy scowled. “You might not be the Messiah, but you sure are an angel for this.”
“Motherfucker called me Catherine!”
The two men quickly left the bar.
“I don’t owe you shit,” Jean muttered.
“No, you don’t.”
They stumbled over to Jesus’ car, a blue two-seater.
“You drive a smart car?”
“It’s electric. Good for the environment.”
“Oh my god, I hate you.”
Jesus lowered Jean into the passenger seat.
“Can you buckle yourself?”
Jean nodded angrily.
Jesus got into the driver’s seat and started the car. He pried directions from an unwilling Jean and took off into the night.
“Listen, I’m sorry I got the job you wanted. I can tell it’s been bothering you all day.”
Jean looked out the window. As drunk as he was, the blue of the night sky looked like the ocean floor. Everything felt heavy and wet. His lungs and heart struggled to feel free of the pressure.
“I just want people to like me. I’m a good man. That’s my name.”
Jesus looked over at Jean. “Your name doesn’t make you who you are. It’s how you act, Jean.”
“Oh my god, shut up!” Bile rose in Jean’s throat but he kept it down. “I did so much work. I got Penny money, I helped bury Lauren even though they never found her body, we just had an urn of her hair and shit, I got everyone to sign the letter. But everyone hates me! Everyone hates me and they love you, and that’s just how it is.”
Jesus hit the brakes. “Do you hear yourself, man?! Look, I don’t know you, but you sound like you don’t actually care that your friend is dead. Are you a fucking psychopath or something? Or are you really that mad about a promotion?!”
Jean had nothing to say. Jesus sighed and kept driving.
“We’re getting close to your apartment.”
Jean said nothing.
“Jean, do I have to cross under this highway or drive over it?”
“Jean, the GPS isn’t helping here. How do you get home?”
“Fine, I’ll cross!”
Jesus looked both ways. When a brief opening in the opposing traffic appeared, he hit the accelerator.
“Do you live in that apartment complex there? I like that terrace there, it’s-”
Jean grabbed the steering wheel, yanked hard to the right and everything got crazy loud and bright. At the last moment, he could swear that Jesus was already outside the car, standing whole before the rushing light, judging him with eyes that gleamed like screaming stars.
(image courtesy of depositphotos.com)