From the author: The richest man in the world dies and faces The Recorder of Time.
THE BOOK OF LIFE
By MarkR Conte
Albert awoke in a large charcoal easy chair and rubbed his eyes. He was wearing a brown chalk-stripped Hickey-Freeman suit with a lavender shirt by J. Dillon Simpson and a tie and pocket square by Antonio Fusco. There was a three-button cashmere coat across his lap and a chocolate silk scarf on top of the coat. He looked down at his Rolex and checked the time. It was five-fifteen. He didn’t seem to have that stiffness in his hands, and he was feeling rather well for a 62 year old after a night on the town. He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up quickly. There was a tall, broad-shouldered man standing in the middle of the room, about 50, Albert guessed. When he saw Albert was awake he walked over to a white marble desk and sat down. The room resembled a hospital. The walls were white. The pictures on the wall were white with gray strokes. A statue in the corner resembling the man was white stone and the desk accessories were a pale gray. Everything in the room was either white or gray, except for the man’s shirt and tie, which were matching pale blue, under a white jacket, which seemed to go well with his white hair. The man took a large burgundy book and opened it, letting it cover most of the desk. Albert watched him closely. He seemed to be some sort of official, turning pages and clearing his throat. Albert stood up rather uneasily and said, “My name is Albert Botham.”
The tall official man sat behind the marble desk turning the pages of the large burgundy book. He waved his hand in Albert’s direction. “Yes, yes, I know that,” he said.
Albert sat back down and folded his hands. The tall official man came to a page in the book and put a bookmark in it, reading from the page. After a few minutes, he looked up and said,
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” Albert said. “Though I am sure I should.”
“I am the recorder of time,” he said. “And you Mr. Botham are...” he sighed and shrugged his shoulders, “are here.”
Albert fell silent. He looked down at his hands and feet. “Have I died?” he said.
The Recorder of Time nodded.
“That’s strange,” Albert said. “I don’t recall anything happening.”
“Under the circumstances,” The Recorder said, “I should think you wouldn’t forget.” He put his thumb and forefinger to his eyes and rubbed them wearily. “I’m sorry,” he said, “of course you don’t remember. Yes, Mr. Botham, you are quite dead.”
“Odd. I never thought it would be like this.” Albert said.
“What did you expect,” the Recorder said. “Angels with white feathered wings, playing golden harps as you strolled through large pearly gates?”
“Not quite,” Albert said.
“A nice long, blissful sleep in eternal darkness then? Yes, I suppose you would have wanted that.”
“Well, surely not this. I thought I was all through with that...Oh God!”
“Ah, it’s coming back.”
The Recorder clasped his hands together and simulated a dive. “I believe they called it a swan dive off the Wharton-White bridge.” He leaned across the desk. “Killed yourself, Mr.Botham.”
“So, all of that for nothing.”
“What do we do now, talk?”
The Recorder of Time sighed. “Only if you want to. It’s one of my less enviable duties, believe me.”
“Well I have no intention of telling all or part of anything, period.”
“As you wish,” the Recorder said.
“What a terrible thing. A rotten trick indeed.”
“Oh come, come, Mr. Botham. Surely you must have known there would be something like this.”
“I wasn’t sure.”
“No,” the Recorder of Time chuckled. “They never are.” His eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you thought the universe revolved around you. End of you. Poff! End of the world.” He leaned closer to him. “Tell me, Mr. Botham, did you wise men find out when time began? What of the end of time? Time as you know it with your minutes, days, and years, can be counted forward and backward, so it must have a beginning, but where does it begin at if there is nothing to begin with? Where did all those wonderful little atoms come from?” He smiled like a man thoroughly enjoying himself. “How did you patch that up with your good common sense?”
“You wouldn’t believe how stupid we can be.”
“Oh, wouldn’t I?”
“What are you called?” Albert said.
“Certainly not Father Time. I am not your father or anyone else’s. You would think these fools would think of a more appropriate name, something with more dignity.” He turned to Albert. “Where do you people get all those absurd theories?”
“Heaven only knows...oh, sorry.”
The recorder rested his arms on the desk. “You may call me Recorder,” he said.
“Well, Recorder, what happens now?” Albert said.
….“Don’t be so hasty,” The Recorder replied. “You have an eternity before you now. We don’t hurry here. This isn’t one of your board meetings, you know.”
“Oh, you know about that. I was quite successful.”
“Yes, I recall noting some wealth in your book.”
“Some wealth? Why I am the richest man east of the Mississippi,” Albert said proudly.
“Was, Mr. Botham, was, and anyway, here you’ll be lucky if you rank in the first thousand.”
The Recorder leaned back in his chair. “It takes quite a bit of doing to gather in all that wealth, doesn’t it, Mr. Botham?”
“I worked hard for my money, good honest work.”
“Really? Well that’s not the Albert Botham I read about.”
“You read about me?” Albert said.
“Yes,” the Recorder said.
“You have books on people here?”
“Just one, with many volumes, called fittingly enough, The Book of Life.
Each person has a chapter in it. It’s really quite a book.”
“And you’ve read it?”
….“Of course,” the Recorder said.
….“But that’s terrible. I mean those things are sacred, aren’t they? These are private, confidential matters. I should think something like that would be locked up.”
“Locked up?” the Recorder laughed. “What an absurd little man you are, Mr. Botham. There are no secrets here.”
Albert looked away and toyed with his glasses. “I have only done what I had to,” he said.
“You would be surprised what a great multitude of sins that one statement has covered.”
Albert nodded silently.
The Recorder leaned forward. “What about your Mr. Otis? Now there was a brilliant piece of strategy. Squeezed him out of his own company, and then bought him out. How much was that one time offer good for only ten minutes? Oh that was brilliant.” He smiled. “Killed himself, didn’t he? The old gun in the mouth.”
“Yes, poor man. I never realized he would take it so hard,” Albert said.
“You tycoons amaze me. The things you will do for those little green pieces of paper. And oh! How tragic if you lose them.” He looked at Albert incredulously, “Take a life, Mr. Botham? Kill a living thing for them? Let me tell you, Mr. Botham, you people are a breed apart.”
“Why I killed no one, nothing at all.”
“Is your own life nothing?” the Recorder said.
“I don’t know how to explain that. It was...I’m not quite sure.”
“What made you go to church after all those years?”
“I don’t understand that either. I had been drinking rather heavily. We had held our Christmas party at an elegant club in town, and I was in good spirits because of the fine year we had had at Botham. I had given my driver off so he could be with his family, and thought I would take a taxi home, but when I left, there were absolutely no taxis on the street, so I decided to walk to my town apartment at the Bellevue Stratford. After all, it was only nine blocks, and the exercise would be good for me. Actually, I was feeling very good. I even stopped at a small bar and grill on 21st street, something I hadn’t done in ages, and drank some martinis with some people I met there. Later, we all went to a quaint little lounge on the Ben Franklin Parkway and toasted in the holidays and even more people joined the celebration. After a while, they started talking about their children and grandchildren. That’s when the pictures started going around. It was really a wonderful night.
“About ten O’clock, everyone shook hands and we said goodbye to each other, because it was Christmas Eve, and they had families waiting for them. I started down the Ben Franklin Parkway with a smile on my face. As I walked down the street, it began to snow. I could hear church bells ringing. I came to an old church, Saint Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, built like the fine Roman cathedrals of old, all stone and brown-grained marble. People were going in by two’s and three’s, smiling and chatting, and before I knew it, I was walking in also, looking about at all the statues like a little boy.
After a while, the priest came and the mass began. I had been drinking quite a bit, so I began to doze, my head bobbing down slowly, when suddenly I felt someone nudge my arm. I looked up and saw a little girl about nine year’s old sitting in front of me. She looked at me as if to scold, and then turned back to the mass. I tried to keep my head up, but after a few minutes I began to doze again, and I felt her tiny hands nudge me.
‘You mustn’t sleep in church,’ she said.
I smiled meekly. ‘Yes, yes!’ I agreed, rubbing my eyes and straightening up a little, but immediately after, I could feel my eyelids starting to close, and she turned again and handed me her rosary.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘would you like to say my rosary?’
“It had been quite some time since I had a rosary in my hands, and I’m afraid that I had forgotten how to say it. She watched me a moment, then smiled and said, ‘Here, we will say it together.” She leaned toward me and we began to say the rosary ever so softly.
“She was a sweet child, so serious and solemn. How wonderful it must be to have children like that.
When the mass was over, she held on to my arm like a little lady, taking care to walk slowly, for she thought I was very old. “We walked out of church together and I accompanied her to her home to make sure she reached there safely. She invited me in to meet her mother and father, and I accepted, mainly because she was so sincere. “When I walked into the house, well, you can’t imagine how poor these people were. It was so depressing. They invited me to share Christmas cookies and eggnog with them. The children, there were two others, boys aged four and five, sang carols. Then, they opened their gifts. They did not give new gifts bought from the store, but something of their own, something they held as special or precious. A favorite sweater, a ring, their very own special toy. It was quite touching.
“At the end of the night they gave me a large bag filled with food and cakes. I knew it was a part of their Christmas meal, yet I could not refuse it because it made them so happy. They thought I was a lonely old man, and they were so kind.
“We said goodbye and I walked down the quiet streets until three or four O’clock in the morning. I did not even know where I was. All the streets were deserted and there was no traffic due to the snow that was falling heavily now. Suddenly I saw a small one-lane bridge. The barrier was down and a sign was posted indicating the bridge was closed. There was a walkway on the side of the bridge, so I decided to walk on the bridge and look out over the water. When I was less than halfway across I stopped and looked down at the water. It was indeed a silent night. Then as I stood there watching the ripples in the water, I began to remember things. Little things, at first. Things I had thought were long forgotten. I saw the faces of the people I knew as a child. I saw my parents also, but in a way I hadn’t experienced since early childhood. I remembered the hunger and the bitterness also, and how determined I was to climb above the filth and squalor of poverty, to build a fortress of wealth, even if I had to crush and destroy every living thing in my way. “Well, I built my fortress. There I was alone on a tiny bridge at Christmas Eve, the richest man in the East Coast. I had everything but the things I wanted most, a precious little girl like that marvelous child. A family. A house full of laughter, and the love that they shared. I raised my fist in anger at the heavens. ‘You,’ I shouted. ‘You did this to me. You have cheated me. You have blinded my eyes with hate. Why?’ I shouted. But there was only silence. ‘Was it not enough that my life was empty? Did you have to show me how much I lost? Did you have to rub my face in it? Damn you. Damn you to hell.’ There was no crashing of thunder. No lighting struck me down. There was only the snow, falling softly on the water. I watched for a very long time. It looked so peaceful there...”
“Yes,” the Recorder said. “I know.”
“You?” Albert said. “How could you know?”
“I have lived with you many times,” the Recorder said.
“Well, then you know why I had to take this path.”
“You chose your own way,” the Recorder said.
“Yes, but I had quite a bit of help. The world was cold, and so my heart turned cold also,” Albert said.
“Pride defeated you.”
“Yes, there was that,” Albert said. He looked down at his feet again then turned to the Recorder. “You must be every man’s conscience.”
“Better,” The Recorder said. “You can lie to your conscience.”
“I guess we lie better to ourselves than to anyone else,” Albert said.
He took off his glasses and stared at them a moment. “Well,” he said. “What else do you need to know?”
“I,” the Recorder said. “I do not need any information about you. It is of no value to me.”
He looked closely at Albert. “Are you under the impression that I am to judge you?”
“Why yes,” Albert said.
“No, no, Mr. Botham. Every man is his own judge. Frankly, they do it so much better than we can.”
“But how are you to determine where I am to go?”
The Recorder arched his left eyebrow, “I know where you are going.”
“It’s settled then?”
“Then why have I gone through all this?”
“It was you who did the talking.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Albert said. “Have I bored you?”
“No,” said the Recorder. “Every one who comes here feels a need for what you call confession. I have heard many things. I will hear many more.”
“Then I am not the most wicked man to come?”
The Recorder smiled. “No, I would say not.”
Albert clasped his hands together. “Tell me, Recorder, there was a girl,
a long time ago. Is she? That is ...”
“Well, you’ve finally come around to that? A bit late, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Albert said. “I suppose she married a good man and lived a happy
life. Well, she deserved it.”
“As a matter of fact, no, she never married. That affair you two had
created quite a scandal in that small New Jersey town. They never forgot
it, the old people, and they made sure she never did. Forty-two years ago
it was quite a scandal for a teenage girl to get pregnant, and then of course the illegal abortion her father made her do with that mid-wife.”
“It was a terrible thing to happen, I know,” Albert said. “but I had to get out, moved
to Philadelphia which turned out to be a very good move for me.”
“I think you need to know this. She started hemorrhaging after the abortion and they had to perform a hysterectomy to stop the bleeding,” The Recorder said.
“My God, what a terrible thing,” Albert said.
“They kept it a secret for years,” The Recorder said. “She became a teacher, taught second and third grades all her life. She was wonderful with those children. They always went back to see her.”
“I was a stupid jerk then,” Albert said.
“Yes, most men that age are. Sometimes they never grow up. You know,” the Recorder said. “I have always thought it odd that women always think that they are somewhat less than what they are, and men are always sure that they are more then what they are. Why is that, Mr. Botham?”
“We have such damn big egos,” Albert said. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. “I never married either, well, you know that. There never seemed to be anyone quite like her.” He removed his tie. “I suppose she hated me.”
“No, on the contrary, when we spoke..”
“She was here,” Albert cut in.
“How was it for her? I mean her death.”
“Very gentle. She was asleep when it happened. Her heart just stopped.”
“I’m glad,” Albert said. He hunched forward. “She spoke of me?”
“Yes. She made a very dear confession of your affair. She said she
wasn’t sorry. She was explicit about that. She had loved you then and she still
“Oh God! What a fool I am.” Albert said.
“Yes, Quite,” The Recorder said.
Albert rose and put on his glasses. “Well Recorder, I’m ready.”
The Recorder rose. “Yes,” he said. “I believe you are.” He walked around the desk and placed his hand on Albert’s shoulder. “Life is not perfect,” he said. “It is not meant to be perfect, not for you, not for anyone. It is almost like a series of trials, and it is not important how you survive these trials, but that you do survive. There are enough carrots; sex, money, power, and love to get you through, one of which you can actually take with you.” He motioned for Albert to rise and he led him to a large gray door. “In the end,” he said. “You are all going to go through this door.” He opened the door. A short chubby man in a striking black suit was sitting in an outer desk. He jumped up and went over to the Recorder.
“Evens is not here yet!” he said.
“He’ll be here soon,” The Recorder said, then to Albert, “This is Mr. Santucci, from The Renaissance.”
“Fifteenth century,” Santucci said, “Milano.”
A thin elderly man in a red blazer and pink striped tie came sprinting up to the three of them.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “It’s been a busy day. Busy, busy. Sorry.”
“Evens,” said The Recorder, “This is Albert Botham.”
Evens smiled. “Sorry,” he said again. The Recorder turned to Albert.
“Evens will take you now. He will show you the way.”
Albert looked up at the Recorder. “Should I be afraid?”
“No, no, Mr. Botham. There is no anger here.”
“I don’t suppose she will be where I am going,” Albert said.
“Yes, Mr. Botham, she is there, but of course, there are no guarantees.”
“I’d like to have a second chance.”
“Well then, you have it.”
“You mean? .. Oh thank you, Recorder,” Albert said.
“Why,” The Recorder said. “I have done nothing. That is where you are all to go.”
“Well, thank you anyway, for everything,” Albert said as he walked out the door. Evens stepped beside him and they began to walk down the huge hall. Albert was so excited Evens had to slow him down. Suddenly Albert turned back to the Recorder and called out, “Merry Christmas, Recorder!”
The Recorder was taken aback for a moment, then he smiled and said, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Botham,” in as gentle a voice that he could muster.
“How do you do that?” Santucci said.
“Practice, Mr. Santucci. Practice.”
The Recorder turned and walked back inside his office with Santucci almost at his heels.
“You should have told him he doesn’t have a chance,” Santucci said.
“Why would I tell him that?”
“Because she died at 41. He’s now 21 years older than her.”
“I doubt that she will even notice,” the Recorder said.
“Haven’t you noticed, Santucci? Love is blind. It comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.”
“Blind?” Santucci said.
“Completely, Mr. Santucci. Completely.” He walked around his desk and sat down.
“Who’s next?” he said.
Santucci took out his notebook and flipped through the pages, then he raised both of his arms, making a V for victory with each hand and said, “I am not a crook!”
The Recorder leaned back in his chair and let out a laugh so hard it bellowed down the hall and echoed around the corners of the building.
“Well, send Mr. Nixon in, Santucci. Send him in.”
This story originally appeared in Consuming Tales anthology, Crimson Cloak publishing.