For Patricia Noll
“I like myself because I am who I am.”
I stared at her, waiting for the punchline. When the woman sitting in chair across the desk from me didn’t continue, I realized that she was serious, that this one line would be the sum total of her self-reflection–and thus our session–today.
I decided to push back, just a little bit. They tell us not to do that, especially here as we evaluate the sum total of things, but I couldn’t just leave it at that. It would mean leaving half of my survey questions blank, and though the resulting math would be simple, I didn’t want to score her so low without at least giving her a shot at redemption. “And who would you say you are?”
Her face was blank as she pondered the question. Her lips formed the shape of an automatic response, and I could practically feel her desire to restate her name, but some of the desperation in my soul must have crept onto my face because she paused, lips open in a perfect circle, then cocked her head to the side.
“Who am I?” she repeated, but I knew she was just doing it to stretch out the moment. I waited patiently. I could be patient. That was the goal of these little after-death sessions, after all, to patiently examine the life lived, to quantify the quality of existence, to tally up the sum of a lifetime. The woman leaned back in her chair, head cocked to one side, and I wondered what she had been in life. Her hands still rested on her lap, nails perfectly manicured–definitely not a manual laborer then. I’d seen enough of those hands when I was down in Last Rites, old and weathered fingers and palms of people canny enough to know that this little interview was more than ordinary, that the gaps in their memories meant something more than a little bit of routine confusion. They had known.
The people up on this level, though, they rarely understood what was happening. I asked my questions, and they replied, sometimes this way or sometimes that, and sometimes the math allowed them to move forward, and other times the numbers were just too low to pass, and they went back. Back down there. To try again.
This one could probably use another go-round just to find out her name. I was still waiting, mind wandering, when I caught her peeking at the sheet on my desk, eyes roving down the line of columns to take in the numbers. I’d seen enough savvy people doing math in their head to know the look. She was adding up her score, but why?
I looked her over again, the dull expression she had pulled back on her face, covering the crafty judgement I had seen for just an instant. Was she…playing me?
“Well?” I prompted. I had heard of this–people who knew about the system, people who played the numbers and said the right thing to get where they wanted to go. I’d never met one, though. This would be a great story for the gang after work tonight.
“I am…ordinary,” she said, then looked meaningfully at my hand holding the pen waiting for me to mark her response. I made one hatch mark. “But that’s not a terrible thing,” she added. I made another two hatch marks. “Though I don’t want to stand out too much,” she blurted, and I erased one of the marks. She smiled then, a tiny nod, and then she was silent again. The moment was over.
I glanced at my evaluation. Going back down. But not all the way down. She had managed to score in the perfect sweet spot between completely oblivious to the entire system and completely frustrated because she knew too much. As she faded from my sight, I pulled out a sticky note and jotted down her identification number. She would be fun to Follow.