EXCERPT

- A MATTER OF GRACE


It was a bet. A simple bet. No one was supposed to die. Ann McKenzie walked out of Rockefeller Center away from the offices of the Entertaining Movie Network and headed east towards St. Patrick's Cathedral. She wasn't Catholic but she would light a candle anyway and sit in the back of the church and wait. She wouldn't pray. She couldn't pray. She didn't believe anymore. Not in a God above that looked down on the innocent and protected them from harm. That God no longer existed in her mind. That God was lying dead in a pool of blood on the nineteenth floor.

*****


ANN MCKENZIE had been raised Episcopal, but her only real memory of church was growing up in Atlanta, sitting in the pews of St. Philip's Cathedral with her grandmother. The Cathedral was a grand structure made of stone and patterned after the cathedrals of Europe, designed to make the parishioners feel small and God seem huge. Every Sunday she was sandwiched between her mother and younger sisters as they stood and sang, kneeled and prayed, and kicked and pinched one another, while the preacher preached, "it's more blessed to give than to receive," and her grandmother passed out lifesavers and whispered, "but it's more fun to get than it is to give." It was a joke. But it was true; every child knew that including Ann.
Church in those days was simply a prelude to lunch—an old-fashioned Sunday dinner where the entire family would gather together over roast beef and pie and argue about the state of the nation and the future of each individual child. Ann McKenzie had been raised to believe in God and the value of hard work and a fundamental sense of justice. She had been raised to believe that with privilege came responsibilities and that she should contribute something to society. It was more than a promise; it was an obligation. Ann McKenzie was raised to believe that anything was possible if you worked hard enough and long enough. It had taken the death of her father and ten years of her life, living in New York City, to beat those dreams out of her head.
For ten years Ann McKenzie worked up the corporate ladder as a team player in the banking industry, and after ten years, she had been fired when the first major wave of downsizing hit Manhattan. At first she hadn't been frightened. At first she had gone to all the early-morning-coffee/after-hours-dinner-network-support-groups. She sat around with seventy-five other well-dressed unemployed bankers looking for work. She had listened to guest speakers give "rah, rah," pep talks about the value of cold calling and specialized resumes. Resumes that no longer highlighted your ability to work but were downplayed to appeal to an employer who might otherwise be intimidated. Degrees that were won with honor were deleted. A willingness to work long hours was stressed. All by speakers who weren't looking for work. They were paid consultants, spouting common sense and passing out forms. Personality questionnaires designed to lower your expectations and reduce your standard of living. Like coaches sitting on the sidelines of a game they were no longer playing, McKenzie began to resent their positive outlook. Their patronizing tone. Their perfectly coifed hair and insidious smiles. More than anything she hated filling out their forms. She hated writing her dreams down on paper. She hated looking at the words. It made it all too real; what she was and what she’d hoped to be. And she hated sitting around eating their rubber chicken dinners, trying not to act scared.
It had taken two years of "temping," from job to job, and a false start in publishing before she finally landed a job at the Entertaining Movie Network in 1991. A small cable company, located in the middle of Manhattan, it specialized in rerunning old movies and previously cancelled game shows.
At thirty-eight, Ann McKenzie never imagined herself in advertising sales, but the pay was good and the work was steady. At least it had been until that morning, when the rumors floated up to the nineteenth floor that the entire mailroom staff had been fired and were going to be replaced by an independent contracting company that specialized in providing temporary mailroom services. They were to come in on Monday, bring their own people, and run the department their own way. As for those employees who had worked in the mailroom at EMN, some for the past thirteen years, they were all given notice. People who had walked past McKenzie's desk everyday for two years were relegated to the street for no other reason than to save EMN the cost of paying unwanted health benefits and increase the price of the stock. Or so the rumors went.
The Entertaining Movie Network was making more money than it had ever made before and the entire mailroom staff had just been fired. The sudden downsizing around her frightened McKenzie more than she cared to admit and for the first time since she'd lost her job five years ago she found herself down on her knees, praying to God to keep the job she had now.
It was Friday. The noontime mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The church was virtually empty except for the beggars who hung around the front doors hoping for handouts from guilt-ridden parishioners; and the tourists who quietly wandered in to see the cathedral and light a candle in front of their favorite saints. McKenzie could hear the sounds of her footsteps echo against the marble floor as she walked down the center aisle and took a seat at the end of an empty pew. She bowed her head in deference to the cross and knelt in prayer. She had not come for the service but she was there nonetheless when the priest, standing in his ornate white robes bellowed into his microphone and challenged the congregation to make a bet with God asking them all if they could give a dollar a day to the same homeless beggar and say, "There but for the grace of God go I."
The statement had a chilling effect on McKenzie as she watched unable to move. The priest then pulled a dollar bill out from under his robe and waved it high above his head. Now, having caught the attention of those in attendance, he continued his sermon with a tone of righteous indignation as he questioned the congregation again. Asking them to make this bet with God. Challenging them to give a beggar a dollar a day and say there but for the grace of God go I. Daring them to do it for a week? A month? A year? The word year reverberated through the hushed cathedral and he looked at those in attendance as if they had failed him in some sacred way. He bowed his head and left the lectern and made his way down the length of the cathedral and gave the dollar bill to one of the older beggars perched inside the doorway. "There but for the grace of God go I," he intoned and the old man grabbed the money and hurried out the front door before someone could stop him and reprimand him for coming inside. "There but for the grace of God go us all," the priest admonished the congregation as he made his way back to the pulpit.
It was a grand gesture in a grand cathedral. If it had been a theater the audience would have erupted in applause. As it were they simply put an extra offering in the collection plate as it went by. McKenzie included. After all, there but for the grace of God go I, she thought and her eyes welled with unexpected tears as she focused on the crucifix and prayed.
McKenzie fully intended to go back to work that day but the wave of fear surprised her and the tears angered her. She couldn't cry in front of Lugano. It would be a sign of weakness. Joanne Lugano had no patience for fools and tears. McKenzie knew that; she had worked for her long enough to know that. She had watched her reduce others to tears and hated her for it. She wouldn't cry in front of Joanne Lugano. She wouldn't give her the satisfaction. Not today. Not ever.