THE SECRET OF LIFE

By John Thomas Tuft

Sitting over a plate of grilled stickies, hot coffee at the ready, a mulcting for getting started with his day, Jerry looked around at the other diners in the Eat n Park.  Retired men gathered around a table, their eggs, pancakes and decaf punctuated with loud laughter and the freedom of no wives present. Nearby some college students studiously ignored their books and chatted about Tinder vs. Grindr. Across the room a couple of families with small children did the dance of eating of expectations and expectations of eating. A tiny woman in an old-fashioned pill hat and worn thin overcoat sat at the counter and ordered oatmeal and a bran muffin. Jerry made a mental note to pick up her check on his way out. A server with a beautiful smile poured him more coffee and he watched her walking away. Which is how he missed noticing when the stranger slid into the opposite bench of the booth, settling himself across from Jerry.

“Hi, neighbor,” said the man. “Do you know the secret to life?” Jerry’s head spun back to the table. “What are you, Mister Rogers?” The man threw his head back and laughed a deep laugh. “No, but I do need a minute to think about the people that made it possible for me to be here.” Jerry grew annoyed. ”Look, buddy, there’s other tables. Why don’t you and King Friday XIII take it somewhere else?” The man smiled. “Because you have been chosen. You have no control over that.” Jerry sipped at his coffee. “Chosen for what? Publisher’s Clearing House?” The man sat back, and his smile vanished. “You get to decide which is more important, more valuable: your life or your love.” He slid a piece of paper across the table. “Take this. Use it when needed.”

“Why should I? Maybe I don’t want to be chosen.” The man thought about Jerry’s response a moment, shrugged and spread his arms out wide. “The response time for fire and police here is seven minutes. It takes ten minutes to evacuate this building. In five minutes, this place will be devastated by a bomb hidden in the kitchen near the gas lines.” He paused to look at his watch, fiddled with the time and pushed a button. “Ten minutes ago, your ex-wife and your children left home, traveling west on the road you see out that window. Your wife left her cell phone at home. If she’s not stopped, in five minutes a drunk driver is going to smash into the car. The clock is started. What is the secret to life?” With that he nodded, got up and left.

Jerry stared after the man. Finally, he glanced at the piece of paper. His eyes grew wide, and he looked around in a panic. He jumped to his feet, rushing past the retirees, the college students, the families and the woman in the pill hat. He shoved past the server and crashed into the kitchen, all the while mentally ticking down the seconds. He shouted at the cooks, “Gas, gas? Where’s the gas line?” Food flew and some man in a white apron tried to tackle him, but Jerry cast him aside and knocked pans and plates of food aside. He thew open the door to the pantry and frantically searched. Finally, he spied a large briefcase with a blinking red light attached to a timer ticking down past three minutes. Panting for breath he grabbed it and retraced his steps through the restaurant, ignoring the shouts and curses.

Outside, he dashed through the parking lot, his mind filled with images of his family heading down the road to tragedy. A car flashed past him at high speed, weaving across lanes and turning onto a ramp to the expressway going the wrong way. He glanced at the timer. Under two minutes. Tears of frustration filled his eyes and his chest ached from the exertion. Up ahead there rose a small hill, overlooking the expressway. Jerry held the briefcase close and struggled to force his legs to go up the slope. Less than a minute to go, the flashing light seemed to mock him. Sirens sounded in the distance, too late to be of help. As he reached the top, he turned to face the traffic down below, so no one could miss seeing him.

Back in the restaurant the server picked herself up from the floor and went to Jerry’s booth. As she picked up the piece of paper, a loud explosion rocked the establishment, rattled the windows, followed by a quiet silence among the diners. She looked outside and saw that traffic on the expressway had come to a complete stop. The manager came over to check on her. “What was that all about? What was that crazy guy trying to do?” The woman tried to speak, but nothing came out. She handed him the piece of paper. He read it, shrugged, folded it over and tossed it back on the table for the bus boys to take care of.

A breeze blew it open so that any passing that way who cared to, could read the words, written in ancient Aramaic: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

Words are magic and writers are wizards.