Cassie Hogan wanted to save the world. Starting in childhood, it was her most cherished desire.
It wasn’t necessarily her only desire. For a time in fifth grade she also wanted to be a rock star. But even that ambition was subordinated to the other: she would be a rock star singing to save the world.
She did like clothes. And sometimes she yearned to own a certain pair of boots. These wishes embarrassed her, seeming so far off the mark from the primary goal, so trivial. Nonetheless, she occasionally succumbed to them.
For a long time she thought she had to keep her ambition a secret, not so much because it would sound silly—that went without saying—but because revealing it might somehow diminish its power.
But then, at the age of 35, she decided to come out of the messiah-wannabe closet.
The problem was who to tell. Her father was out of the question. Disdainful of people who “sat around solving the world’s problems,” he already suspected Cassie of a dangerous tenderheartedness. Once, years before, when he’d taken her to the Greyhound station to catch a bus back to college, she impulsively said, “I love you!” as she was receiving her goodbye hug. Her mother called the dorm that night to report that Cassie’s father was in “a complete tizz,” declaring that Cassie was too emotional and that this condition would be her downfall.
Unfortunately, her mother was out as well. Though Cassie was open with her, and they shared a deep bond, her mother tended to prefer concrete problems she could solve.
For instance, when Cassie and her last serious boyfriend, Mitchell, a struggling musician (is there any other kind?) broke up after four years, Cassie called her mother one night when she was feeling low. “I miss Mitchell.”
There was radio silence at the other end of the line. “I don’t know what to say to that,” her mother finally said, after a very long time.
But Cassie hadn’t been looking for a solution. All she wanted was something along the lines of “I know” or “Poor baby” or, as her friend Lee said when she called him later, “It’s okay to miss him. Just don’t take him back.”
There were no takebacks, but she wound up settling on Mitchell as the person with whom she would share her secret ambition. Though she’d moved out six months before, she and Mitchell were still having what he referred to as the “post-relationship relationship,” which in their case consisted of meals, beers, and even occasionally falling asleep on the other’s couch for the night—though not the falling back into bed together that often comprised the post-relationship relationship for other people.
Cassie decided to broach the subject on the night she took Mitchell out for his thirtieth birthday. At Mitchell’s insistence, the celebration took place at a bar called Totem’s. It was housed inside a log cabin featuring cathedral ceilings, huge wooden rafters, and walls plastered with the heads and skins of animals.
While they waited for dinner, Mitchell filled her in on what he’d been up to since their last meeting. This mainly seemed to consist of him getting drunk and then being late for work.
Cassie tried to look politely interested and refrain from scathing remarks. Finally he turned his attention toward her. “So what have you been up to? Besides buying new boots?”
“I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do with my life,” Cassie said, glancing down fondly at her feet.
“And what have you concluded?”
“Well, I seem to have this tendency to, you know, want to save the world or something,” she stammered. “So I’m trying to figure out what I can do with that.”
“Ah yes,” said Mitchell, nodding sagely. “Cassandra Hogan and her redeemer impulses.”
“No, listen, I think it’s great. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward a cure.”
“At least I want to do something constructive! It’s better than wanting to drink the entire world!”
“Oh, right. Like the quest for universal redemption isn’t also about appetite.”
Cassie looked at Mitchell with grudging admiration. This was exactly the problem with him. Her mother and Lee and her other friends could dismiss him because of his lack of steady work and his drinking and his fanatical devotion to his music that nonetheless never seemed to amount to anything—but then he went and said something like that, something just right, something that made Cassie question herself and her motives in the most interesting way.
“I still want to save the world, even so.”
When Cassie got to work the following Monday, the servers were down. The phones were ringing off the hook, and everyone on the other end of the line was mad.
She barely had time to regret all the decisions she’d ever made in her life before she was taking her first call.
Cassie had fled grad school rather precipitately, no degree in hand, in 2008. At first, she just picked up some extra shifts at the pub where she was already working part time. She assumed it would be a temporary arrangement until she figured out what to do with the rest of her life.
After a few months, one of her friends at the restaurant, a line cook named Lee, got a tech support job at a software start-up in Murray, a Salt Lake suburb. During his final shift at Desert Edge, he offered to set up an interview for Cassie as well. Three weeks later, she was a Tier I support agent at Time-It, Inc.
Cassie figured this too would be a short-term thing—just something to tide her over until she learned how to save the world. But then she’d started dating Mitchell, a bass player. The stability of the call center had seemed comforting compared to the chaos of a musician’s life.
And now here it was four years later, and she had no Mitchell and was still in this dead-end job.
All morning long her mind raced over this timeline over and over again as she tried to placate customers for whom she had no solution. Finally, right before her lunch break the developers got the servers back up, the queue cleared, and Cassie found herself in Ready mode for the first time all day. But she’d barely begun to savor the moment of peace when her boss appeared in the mouth of her cubicle.
He was only a couple years older than her. His name was Bill.
“Can you join me in my office for a moment?”
Removing her headset, she logged out of the ACD software and followed him to his office with trepidation. She did enough to skate by at Time-It, but just barely. She was always half-expecting to get fired.
When they reached Bill’s office, he shut the door behind her as she took one of the guest chairs. Then he rounded the desk, sat down, and tented his fingers in front of him. Finally he spoke. “How far back do you think we would have to go to kill Grok?”
Cassie relaxed. She wasn’t getting canned, at least not today.
Grok was Bill’s name for the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) of all salespeople. Grok was the first guy who broke a wheel, patched the pieces together with mud, and sold it “As Is” to his caveman neighbor.
Clearly, Grok has a lot of descendants. Bill figured that was because, while the other cavemen were out on the Great Woolly Mammoth Hunt, taking risks and, more often than not, taking themselves out of the gene pool, Grok hung back at the caves, selling disability insurance and seducing the cavewomen.
Bill was kind of obsessed with Grok. Over the past few months he’d developed an elaborate Grok mythology, often enlisting Cassie’s aid to fill in the details. At this point, Cassie figured her willingness to indulge Bill on his Grok cosmogony contributed as much to her continued employment as her tenuous tech skills. She sent a silent shout-out to Dr. Foreman, her cultural anthropology professor. Turns out all those years of grad school were paying off after all. Sort of.
Bill was feeling particularly ill-willed toward Grok that morning because the Time-It sales team had grossly oversold the company’s current capacity to offer Software as a Service, resulting in tech support disasters like the server failure.
Having personally spent the morning slogging through the aftermath of their mistakes, Cassie sympathized, but she also thought there was more to it. “I don’t think we can say this morning’s crisis was entirely the fault of Grok and his descendants.”
Bill’s eyebrows arched. He wasn’t used to being contradicted while dissing Grok. “Really?”
“Really. Because this time, the salespeople were abetted in their crime by the Big Gulp Brigade.”
Bill nodded. The Big Gulp Brigade was their sobriquet for the software developers, so named because they tended to move in a pack, and because they carried the largest imaginable refillable mugs with them at all times.
Since Time-It was in Utah, the Brigadiers’ mugs were filled with Mountain Dew, the beverage of choice of Mormon software engineers. Non-Mormon developers, of course, have the additional options of coffee or amphetamines to perk them up.
Members of the Brigade were the polar opposites of Grok’s extended family; but opposites aren’t necessarily enemies.
Cassie figured that was because way, way back, when the MRCA of the Big Gulp Brigade, Fortran, went on the Great Woolly Mammoth hunt, he hung back, not being the most mesomorphic of cavemen, and observed the goings-on.
After a while, he noticed that his comrades tended to get trampled when they got too close to the mammoth with their stone knives.
So Fortran went back to the cave and invented the bow and arrow.
Grok saw what he was doing and said, “If you let me handle the marketing of your new product, I’ll split the profits with you 50-50.”
Fortran wasn’t sure what profits were, but he’d noticed that Grok seemed to have a way with the caveladies. So he agreed.
And you know who had to train the customers on the new product, which wasn’t really stable for another 9,000 years?
That’s right: Tron, the MRCA of all tech support agents.
When Cassie got home that evening, her neighbors were clustered around the picnic table in the yard drinking wine out of plastic cups. They waved her over.
She’d moved into this place after the breakup. They’d decided Mitchell would stay in the old apartment, so she had to find somewhere new to live. So she’d gone out and found her dream apartment.
She knew it was her dream apartment because it matched a page she’d cut out of a catalog years before. The catalog showed a room with distressed wood floors, an old-fashioned radiator, and six-foot windows. Its decor was monastically simple: a futon on the floor, a lamp, a book. Only the duvet the company was hawking showed any sign of opulence.
Cassie’s bedroom in the dream apartment came with the floors, the radiator, and the windows. She added a futon on a pale wood frame, austere white bedding, and an ungainly Madonna and Child painting she’d picked up at a thrift store.
It was like a nun’s room. For weeks after the breakup, she would stand in the doorway, crying and marveling that she had such a beautiful bedroom. It was confusing to feel so lucky about her apartment at the same time as she was feeling so sad about Mitchell.
The apartment was on the second floor of a two-story house. Originally built in 1910, it had eventually been divided into four apartments, two up and two down. The property managers, Rob and Terri, lived downstairs in number 1. A guy named Shawn lived across the hall from them in 2. Later Shawn was replaced by his friend Ben, and later still by Cassie’s friend and coworker, Lee.
Cassie was upstairs in 4. Number 3 was vacant when she moved in. A month later, a biologist named Barry took occupancy.
Living there was kind of like living in a monastery. All the tenants were introverts who would experience sudden bursts of sociability. Weeks would pass during which Cassie would hardly see her neighbors at all, then suddenly they’d all be sitting at the picnic table in the yard bumming smokes from each other and drinking wine until 4 in the morning.
This week was obviously destined to be a social week. A few hours later, Cassie found herself ensconced in Lee’s living room, watching Iron Chef with Lee, Barry, and Terri.
Iron Chef was a Japanese show, half cooking program, half game show. It was Lee and Terri’s favorite thing. And even Cassie had to admit it was fun watching a man in a puffy chef’s hat making a custard dessert out of, say, shark’s fin.
The show featured a stable of house chefs who competed against a rotating cast of challengers. Each week the challenger picked which house chef they wanted to compete against, leaving the others free to stare ominously down at the challenger. Whether because of these intimidating stares or not, the safe money was always on the house chef.
The show was dubbed into English. In what must have been an attempt to retain the flavor of the original, the producers had the dubbers address each other using the Japanese “-san.” As in, “Ota-san, what’s happening now?”
“Well, Xi-san, it looks like the challenger is putting the shark’s fin into a big blender!”
Naturally, this led to much “san”-ing in the living room, particularly as the night and the beer drinking wore on.
“Barry-san, this ice cream is truly delightful,” Terri said. Barry had whipped up a batch of homemade ice cream. “Cassie-san, don’t you agree?”
“Indeed I do, Terri-san. And I must say, Barry-san, I think the decision to go with strawberry instead of shark’s fin was a prudent one.”
“Thank you, Terri-san and Cassie-san,” Barry said. “If I do say so myself, I think I could be an Iron Chef.”
“That would be your dream job, wouldn’t it?” Terri said. “I, on the other hand, would prefer to be an Iron Gardener.”
“What about you, Cassie?” Lee asked. “Would you like to be an Iron Support Technician?”
“No!” Cassie sputtered indignantly.
Suddenly she saw it, clear as the picture on the TV. “What I’d really like to do is go back to South Jersey and buy an old house or church in the beach town where my parents live, and convert it into a temple.”
“A temple to what?” Lee asked. “Gucci, the God of Shoes?”
“Shush, I want to hear this,” Terri said, waving him off. “Go on.”
“The Goddess of Compassion, I think,” Cassie said, blushing.
Terri took this in stride. “What would you do there?”
“And aren’t you supposed to be a virgin for this gig?” Lee added.
“Oh, you know, I’d keep the place tidy—sweep the altar and stuff—and when people brought offerings for the goddess, I’d make sure they were used properly,” Cassie said, answering Terri’s question first.
“As for being a virgin, you know perfectly well it’s much too late for that,” she told Lee. “Besides, I don’t see any reason a Priestess of Compassion needs to be a virgin. Sex should be part of a Priestess of Compassion’s repertoire.”
“I’d have to agree with that,” Terri said.
“Plus, I’d like to retain certain privileges. You know, the priest of some primitive vegetable god might stop by.”
Lee tilted an eyebrow. “So besides getting it on with some primitive vegetable god—”
“—The priest of some primitive vegetable god,” Terri said.
“—the priest of some primitive vegetable god, excuse me—does this job entail anything else?”
“Of course. I’d tidy up, and eat whatever people brought me. At first, that would probably be mostly sandwiches from my mom. But gradually I think other people would start to trickle in. They’d sit for a spell; it would be peaceful; after a while they might want to talk about whatever was on their minds, and I’d just sit and listen.”
“You’d just sit and listen?” Barry interrupted.
“Fine. No doubt I’d talk back. The point is, they might feel a little better when they left.”
They all pondered this for a moment. Then Terri said, “That does sound nice.”
The following weekend, Lee invited Cassie to join him for a visit to a real life monastery. He was going to see the Trappist monks who lived in Huntsville, an hour north of Salt Lake.
Lee had hooked up with the monks through a web design class he was taking at Salt Lake Community College. They’d approached the school in search of a volunteer to design a web site for them. Lee took the gig, and in return the monks invited him for a weekend retreat.
It was approaching dusk when they turned onto the road with the “Welcome” sign hanging over it. Lee wound through farmland for half a mile, then pulled into a parking lot in front of a yellowish Quonset hut.
Cassie peered at it with interest. She’d never seen a Quonset hut
“Let’s go in,” Lee said. “I think we’re in time to catch Vespers.”
They passed through a gate, down a garden path, into the hut, and up to a set of double wooden doors. When Lee pulled the left door open, Cassie beheld one of the barest Catholic churches she had ever seen. It was virtually unadorned except for the large rose window on the back wall. The curved walls of the Quonset hut met seamlessly above them; it was like standing in a cranberry sauce can turned on its side.
A few other visitors stood among the pews. The monks were in front, looking down at choir books. They were chanting. One man led and the others followed, in a call and response similar to those Cassie knew from her youth, yet somehow different as well:
Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
For you have redeemed me, O God of truth.
Keep us as the apple of your eye;
Hide us in the shadow of your wings.
Lord, have mercy.
Let us pray for the peace of the world.
Lord have mercy!
For our civil authorities.
Lord have mercy!
For our brethren absent from among us.
For those who serve and have ministered to us.
For those who envy, and those who love us.
For those who lie in sickness.
For those who have requested our prayers.
For those who travel by sea, land or air.
For those who work in fields, factories, and scientific laboratories.
Let us pray for an abundance of the fruits of their labor.
When the service was over, most of the monks began to file out the back of the church, but one of them headed toward Lee and Cassie, his face breaking into a smile as he approached.
“Welcome,” he said, taking them each by the hand in turn. “You made it.”
“We sure did,” said Lee. Cassie just stood there grinning idiotically. The man was wearing a white hooded robe with bell sleeves. He looked marvelous.
He introduced himself as Brother Daniel. “Let’s go get you settled in the guest house,” he said. “I just need to run back to my room for a moment. Then I’ll grab the monastery car so you can follow me down to the female guest quarters.
“I’m sorry you can’t stay here in the main building,” he added, turning toward Cassie. “It’s only because in the current building the guest rooms and our rooms are right next to each other. When the new building is complete, male and female retreatants will all be able to stay in the same area.”
Lee had told Cassie the monks were hoping to raise funds so they could get out of the cranberry sauce can and into a new building that would allow more visitors; hence the pressing need for the web site.
Cassie spent an uneventful evening in the female guest quarters, which she had to herself. The next morning, Lee picked her up at 6 for the Prime service. Afterward, they had breakfast with the other visitors while the monks ate in the adjoining room. Then Brother Daniel gave them a tour of the building and grounds, introducing them to some of the other monks.
After lunch, he left them to their own devices, suggesting they should explore the grounds and go wherever they needed to get good material for the site.
Late that afternoon they stumbled upon the monastery’s small cemetery: sixteen white crosses hammered crookedly into the ground directly behind the main building. They had just taken what they hoped would be some artistic shots of the crosses and were circling back to the front of the building when they ran into Brother Barnabus.
In a community of old men, Brother Barnabus might have been the oldest. He walked with the assistance of a cane, and had a mouthful of silver teeth. But his blue windbreaker brought out the color of his amazingly clear blue eyes, and his metal grin was sweet as honey.
“Can we take your picture?” Cassie blurted, as soon as they got close to him.
“Certainly,” Brother Barnabus said, in a quavery voice. He smiled dutifully for Lee as he snapped the picture. Then he leaned toward them.
“I grew up in the Bronx, you know,” he said.
“Yes, that’s what we hea …”, said Cassie, when suddenly she realized they were not to interrupt.
“We used to go see the Babe. We sat way up high in the nosebleed seats. ‘Hit one out of the park for us, Babe,’ we’d call. And he’d point up at the stands. And wherever he pointed, that’s where the ball would go.
“You know, some of those evangelicals came here years ago, wanting to talk to us. And tell us about evangelicism, I guess. And one young woman was talking to me, and she asked how I would like to die.
“ ‘Sitting on the can, reading a newspaper,’ I said.
“ ‘Excuse me?’ she asked.” Brother Barnabus giggled. “You should have seen her face! ‘Excuse me?’ she said, and I told her again, ‘I’d like to be sitting on the can reading a newspaper when I die.’ ”
He lifted his arms in a shrug. “What could be more human?”
He waited for their nervous chuckles to die down before proceeding. “Do you know what Jesus means when he says ‘Pray always?’ ”
“No!” Cassie said. “But I’d like to.”
“I’ll tell you what he means.” The twinkle in the monk’s eye grew brighter. “He means, Just be your sneaky old self.”
Cassie burst into laughter. “Really?” she asked. “What a relief.”
Brother Barnabus beamed at her. “That’s right.”
When she got back to Salt Lake on Sunday, Cassie decided to head over to Mitchell’s to tell him about Huntsville. She thought if nothing else he would get a kick out of Brother Barnabus.
Arriving at their old apartment, she knocked once, then let herself in. He never locked the door, and this was always how she’d always done it before.
She was already launching into the story before she registered that Mitchell wasn’t alone. He was sitting in his armchair, a guitar on his lap. Across from him on the sofa, but so close their knees were practically touching, was a pretty young woman wearing a flowered dress and red lipstick. She was probably five years younger than Mitchell, who in turn was five years younger than Cassie.
All of a sudden Cassie felt about a thousand years old.
The thing about Mitchell was, Cassie knew a different Mitchell than everyone else. She knew that sounded delusional, but it was true. When Mitchell was around other people, even at his most sober and self-deprecating and charming, there was still some discomfort and anxiety. Often, it would manifest as hostility. Even when it was only an undercurrent, it was still there.
When they were alone, though, it was different. Not always. Sometimes when he wasn’t feeling well, Cassie got the same sardonic jerk everyone else did. But when he was relaxed and comfortable, it was a different story. That’s why, after they broke up, Cassie was able to be patient with friends and family when they said things like, “I never really got you and Mitchell.”
When he asked her to move out, people let her know what they thought of him by urging her to find someone else. “Maybe you’ll meet somebody else, who knows?” her grandmother back in Jersey said—a startling betrayal, since she’d always professed to like Mitchell and had carried on an outrageous phone flirtation with him for four years.
Mitchell knew how to spackle.
When Cassie bought a 1968 Chrysler New Yorker and on the third day it rained and she couldn’t get it started, Mitchell went out to the car and started it right up.
When they first met, he’d been devastated by life. A tumultuous five-year relationship had recently ended. His relations with his family were strained.
Frequently, in those early days, after a bunch of beers he’d become weepy. Then he’d cover his head with the thin white blanket from Cassie’s bed.
“Little Ghost,” she would say, “why don’t you come out here and tell me about it?”
When they slept, he’d wrap his limbs around her and cling like a drowning man.
She’d never had anyone hold her so tightly. It was easy to envision that he really was drowning, and she was swimming him to shore.
She had to admit: she liked it. She liked being needed so much. But of course her goal, right at the outset, was to make Mitchell stronger; so later when he was, and he swam away, what right did she have to complain?
At work on Monday, Bill called Cassie into his office again. After a little Grok talk, he told her she was being promoted.
“I’m very pleased with your progress,” he said. “I always knew you had potential, but until recently it didn’t seem like you took the job all that seriously.”
On her lunch break, she went out for a walk. Her meanderings took her past a bus stop, where a man and his daughter waited for their bus. The man sprawled on the ground beside the bench, reading a book, while his little girl tore up handfuls of grass and put them in his ears.
When her break was over she went back inside to her cubicle, put on her headset, and pressed the button to pick up a call.
“Tech support, this is Cassie.”
“Cassie, you’ve got to help me!” a woman’s voice said. “I can’t log into the program and payroll is due in an hour and I don’t know what to do.”
Cassie asked for her company information, verified she had a support contract, and then got her software working again. It took about ten minutes.
“Oh my God, I don’t know what I would have done without you,” the woman said at the end. “You saved us.”