Here's the first chapter of my novel, "Brilliant Disguises."
Profession of Faith
When I think back on the interview, it doesn’t seem that it was me sitting there in that office as much as somebody else. I suppose that was the whole point.
I had a similar feeling at my brother’s funeral. It was the sensation that I was a spectator, that I had stepped outside myself into some impassive, Elysian plain of existence and no longer had any control over what I was doing. Or what was happening, I should say. It wasn’t really a conscious decision — just the accumulation of a manic heartbeat and senses on a trip wire waiting for whatever might reveal itself in the next instant. I have never really understood how or why events reveal themselves like this. Perhaps that too is the whole point.
I was sitting in an office, yawning, still feeling like I had the night before — a feeling that I needed to be clean. In reality, I needed a new job. I had an interview just after lunch. Dr. Benjamin Forster of the Forster Foundation had an opening on the public relations wing of his empire and I wanted to be part of it. It easily paid twice what I was making, and I had the keen ability not to see any possible reason why they wouldn’t hire me, given my qualifications. That is, provided I got a good night’s sleep, which I didn’t.
The interviewer was Prescott — Charlie to his friends, though he didn’t make me feel like one — who identified himself as Forster’s adjutant but never quite defined what that position meant. I noticed hanging in a closet behind his desk a few suits that had just been dry cleaned, swathed in sheets of shining cellophane. I wondered if picking these up for his boss was part of the job description.
Prescott did not dress the part of what I would consider an adjutant. That is, unless the job description included no sense of fashion. The man wore a suit that accentuated his overly rounded belly, topping his ensemble off with a vulgar-looking belt buckle so shiny it must have been made of chrome. This made him look like the human equivalent of a Mack truck angling for respectability. He was a very tall man, which may have explained his ill-fitting clothes, but I would have presumed a man working for Forster would be more image conscious. I immediately wondered if I should have dressed down. On his desk, positioned for any visitor to be overwhelmed by it, was a large framed picture of a woman I learned later was Prescott’s wife, though it was natural to infer so from its prominence. On a wall near his desk were two classical Greek drama masks, with a happy face and a frowning one. Though they were meant to remind me of Sophocles and Euripides, I found myself thinking of the beginning of Three Stooges movies. How strange, the connections our minds can make.
Sitting there, waiting as Prescott looked over my resume, I realized I was wearing the same black suit that I had worn for Peter’s funeral. It still had flecks of dried dirt on the pants’ legs.
"Mr. Leon. Am I pronouncing that right?" he asked.
"Yes. Just like it’s spelled."
"Splendid." He used the word rather self-consciously, as though he wanted me to be impressed by it. "Everything seems to be in order here."
"Oh, good." I thought it might be better to act pleasantly surprised at his observation. Then I wondered if that might not sound too vain. No, I silently corrected myself, vain would be second-guessing a two-word response to a compliment during a job interview.
Prescott stood up. He must have been about six five, and the desk made him seem even more absurdly tall. His belt bucket hit the desk top, making a sound like a bullet ricochet in an Old West movie. "There’s just one question I have to ask you, Mr. Leon."
He looked mildly embarrassed. "I have to say that we’ve had your resume for more than a month and we’ve been very impressed with everything."
"I should let you know that very few people get this far. You wouldn’t believe how many apply for this position that either don’t have what it takes or wash out when we get to this point."
"I see." Or I was trying to. We hadn’t actually gotten to a point that I could see, at least one where someone would wash out.
"Do you feel comfortable? Can I get you anything?"
"I’m fine. Do I look uncomfortable?"
"Well, you do look a little tired at least. Troubled, maybe?"
My eyebrows arched involuntarily, and though I denied anything was wrong, Prescott could probably tell I was lying.
"I wouldn’t want you to feel ill at ease, especially in light of what I’m about to say." Prescott cleared his throat, came around to the other side of the desk and sat down. He looked embarrassed at first, then relaxed into something knowing and fatherly. "But there is one thing that isn’t covered in the resume." I had braced myself for what I thought he might say. I expected a short primer on the strange habits of my potential boss. Forster was largely known through his voice — he did a series of radio spots providing little homilies on how life could be lived more richly. They smacked of easy answers to difficult questions, bromides worn bare like borrowed clothes, but delivered in his sincere, booming, believing voice. He always wrapped with the same exhortation, almost ridiculous in its enthusiasm — "Have an exceptional day!" One didn’t really know what he looked like, but you guessed at some majestic, unassailable sincerity. What little else was known about him was tantalizing. Legend had it that Forster thought nothing of calling employees in the dead of night and asking the most outlandish tasks of them to be completed within hours.
But then, I’m used to that already, considering last night, I thought.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Mr. Leon…Cameron… can I call you Cameron?"
"Cameron, have you ever been born again?"
It was at this point that whatever illusions of control I had over myself left me, for reasons I’m still not quite sure about. "Excuse me?"
"Born again." He repeated the two words slowly, in a grave voice but with an inappropriate smile.
"I’m not sure I follow," I said. I remember squinting and leaning forward in my chair, probably because I felt like I needed to do … something.
"Are you a Christian?"
I wanted to be sure. "A Christian?"
There is probably a moment in every job interview where the applicant realizes the secret agenda at the heart of the querying. The prospective boss relays through gesture or statement what the position entails, or what is expected of the would-be employee, or what kind of man the employer is, and the interviewee immediately tailors his gifts, his experience, his very life with neat scissor snips until a workable, passable garment emerges for inspection.
A more intelligent person than myself would probably have said something different from the next thing that came out of my mouth. "You mean, like, with that Jesus guy, right?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed, as a game show host might for a contestant who suddenly recalls the answer to a question. "That same guy. I presume you’ve heard of Christianity?"
As ridiculous as my question had been, he responded with an off-putting level of ernestness and an annoying acceptance of my flippancy at face value. I had expected him to be suitably offended, thus pleasing me. But he didn’t. And so we did this strange dance, with me alternating between the kind of self-interested lying to get a job that applicants routinely indulge in, punctuated by glib, sarcastic responses to questions I was sure were none of his business.
"Yes, yes, of course. Born again?" I said.
"I’m sorry. We’re sort of fundamentalist around here. It’s second nature to say it like that. It’s something, a term you might say we use to identify ourselves to ourselves."
"Sort of like a code word, you mean? Or a secret handshake?"
"Hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Cameron. What do you say?"
"I’m not quite sure what to say, really. If you mean God, I mean, I saw ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Twice." This was actually a lie. The second time I had wandered into the wrong theatre. It took a few minutes for me to realize it because I didn’t remember Tom Hanks’ hair being that long.
"Well, that’s a start, I suppose," Prescott said, in all earnestness. "I take it you do believe in God."
"Was that a prerequisite for the job?"
"You see, I told you not many people make it through this part of the process. I’ve seen people leave here…"
"I don’t see…"
Prescott held up his hand, nodding his head as if pleading for patience. "This is a foundation, Cameron, a multi-million dollar operation. A lot of money and effort goes into what we do, and we don’t want to waste the opportunity. But you must also realize this is a ministry. Mr. Forster believes heavily in a sense of mission. And that means that the job you’ve applied for carries, in a very real sense, some of the spirit of that …Spirit, if you take my meaning."
"I do," I said. I was lying again, but I suppose I wanted the job badly enough at that point and sensed it was ascending beyond my grasp.
"I would assume then, Mr. Leon…"
I didn’t like the way he lapsed back into the formal. "Cam, please…"
"Sorry, Cam. I would assume then that you’re not a Christian? Do you belong to a church?"
"Um, I gave some money to the United Way. Once."
"Do you remember how much it was?" Clearly, he wasn’t taking the bait.
I thought for a minute. Then I realized I had pledged to send money but never actually made out the check. I stayed quiet for a second until he gave up on getting an answer.
"You’re not a Christian."
"I did once get a Bible trivia question right when I watching ‘Jeopardy!’" I couldn’t quite remember what it was.
"You’re not a Christian," he repeated.
"Well, no, not as you define it."
"How do you define it, Cameron?"
"Well didn’t Jesus say, ‘Live and let live?’ That’s always been my motto."
Prescott never gave me the pleasure. "No, actually He never said anything like that."
I cleared my throat. "Why do you ask?"
Prescott began talking with his hands, gesturing like an after-dinner speaker. "I’ll be frank. Cameron, our benefactor, I’m sure you’re aware, is a very driven, very opinionated man. He feels strongly that if our work is to succeed, everyone must be of one mind, and one body."
"The body of Christ, I mean."
I should tell you that some of my responses to his questions were because of my lack of sleep. But I didn’t feign much of my ignorance. I don’t want you think of me as a ignorant man. I suppose what follows will convince you one way or another. Let me just say that the one remove of reality I was grappling with at that moment, the darkened glass I was looking through, if you will, kept me from associating what his words were with actual meanings. And as far as that moment was concerned, I didn’t truly know my own body, let alone Christ’s.
Maybe he figured this out from the expression on my face.
"I’m telling you, Cameron, that if you want this job, you need to go home and seriously think about your salvation."
I don’t think the look on my face changed.
Prescott rolled his eyes, like a man giving up at a game of charades. "I mean, you should go home, pray about this, and ask Jesus to come into your heart."
"I thought you said something about being born again. Now you’re talking about my heart?"
"It’s a figure of speech."
"Another code word?"
"It has very definite meaning."
"I would think so. I think I remember a song about somebody not being born is busy dying, or something like that. I don’t remember if it said anything about the heart. You want my heart born in Jesus, or Jesus born in my heart, or something… I’m still not getting it. I don’t have any medical training, either in cardiology or obstetrics. I thought my resume covered that."
Prescott shook his head, still not taking the bait, still not giving up on me. "You’re sure you’ve never heard of any of this?"
I yawned, and my hand went up to cover my mouth. My eyes went down to the floor. It seemed like a gesture of shame, even though I wasn’t sure what I needed to be ashamed about. "He who would distinguish the true from the false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false," I said, finally.
"Who said that?" he asked, knowing I had to be quoting somebody.
"Very good. Interesting that that you’re able to quote Spinoza but seemingly unacquainted with Christendom." So he could give as good as he got. That kept me from thinking too long on whether, after his prying, I really wanted this job after all.
I thought he might be about to ask me to leave. I finally said, "How do I do that? This born again thing."
"I don’t want to pressure you…"
"Oh, no. Not at all."
"I mean, I realize you want this job and everything."
"Well, I do, but I’m not sure what you want me to do."
"You say you don’t want to pressure me, but you tell me I should pray about this. Is there something about me that you think is …evil?" I shifted in my chair because I was curious just how much this man knew about me, how much he could read from my face.
"No, not at all," he said.
"Well, you said something about me looking troubled."
"Right, right. No, look, I don’t think there’s anything evil about you, Cameron. I wouldn’t still be interested in you for the job if I did."
"But you still think I should…"
"I just know you’re a man."
"Yeah, even though I didn’t mention that on my resume either."
He forged on. "As a man, we’re all prone to the weaknesses of men. We struggle with ourselves. Within ourselves. We have things we aren’t proud of, things we can’t quite cope with. We all know there’s someone inside us, someone we know closer than anyone else, that we never can quite become. But in time we see all too clearly what we really are."
"I thought this was a public relations job…"
"It’s a big step, I know, but you’ll never regret it."
"You mean getting the job?"
He shook his head. "Cameron, like I said. Go home and think about it. Pray about it." He gestured again, as though he expected me to get up from my seat. Actually, he looked as uncomfortable as I probably felt.
"You’re just giving me a day on this?"
"How much time do you need?"
I looked at my watch for some unknown reason. "Today’s Friday, right? Alright, let me have the weekend."
"Fair enough. Three days is plenty of time."
I remember standing to shake his hand, though I don’t remember particularly wanting to. The whole thing was vaguely insulting. I still wasn’t sure where or what he expected me to do. It was obvious that what he wanted me to do was important to him at least, though I wasn’t sure why. He had given me vague instructions with an indeterminate goal and expected me to satisfy his requirements well enough to get the job he was supposedly offering me.
One of the great things about living in a democracy is that you can assemble a personal philosophy from the enduring ideas of the world, like someone pulling items from the shelves of a grocery. It’s not even necessary to understand the ideas or know what the words mean. They’re just words. They’re just ideas. And the people and circumstances behind them are just brand names, like Coke and Pepsi. If these ideas fail, you can be comforted by knowing they weren’t your ideas in the first place. And your own misinterpretation or willful ignorance is allowed under the Constitution. Mr. Leo Tolstoy, for example, told us that when we commit an act, any act, we are convinced we are doing it of our own free will, but examining it among the mass of mankind, we become convinced of that act’s inevitability. The more alone we are, the more unrestricted our possibilities might be. The more we are connected to others, the less free we are.
But whatever control I had over myself returned during that interview just long enough for me to ask Prescott, "They would be able to tell me what I needed to know in church, right?"
He gave me, for the first time, a skeptical eye. "It depends which church you go to."
"Tell me," I said, "Which church does Mr. Forster attend?"