Someone is one of us when they believe in what you do, or do what you do. Usually by choice, sometimes by accident.

One of us is with us, in our midst. When they are among them, we want them to be with us. Maybe we try to make them come to us, sometimes whether they want us to or not.

Sometimes one of them becomes one of us when they have something to offer. Sometimes this is temporary, especially when the offer falls through.

Sometimes we try to make them like us, with much pain, an gnashing of teeth. Sometimes we do it for their own good but sometimes we are so afraid of their strangeness that we cannot help but try to make them less alien.

Sometimes not being one of us makes them stronger.

Those who want to fit, fall. Those who don't will lead us all...

An eerie line from Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks and an oft-repeated pop culture reference (from The Simpsons to Robert Altman's The Player).  The phrase was used by the carnival freaks to the beautiful and evil trapeze artist Cleopatra, who woos one of their own (a dwarf) to get at his money.  Cleopatra's wicked treatment of the collection of sideshow freaks results in the expected come-uppance, which involves one of the most chilling moments in cinematic history.  The freaks unite one rainy evening and hunt down Cleopatra's lover (Hercules, the circus strong-man) on the circus grounds, brandishing knives and all chanting, ”We will make you...we will make of of us...”

One particular scene burned in my memory: the expression on the face of the paraplegic, dagger firmly clenched between his teeth, worming his way through the mud with dark intent.

One of us.

Novel by Michael Marshall Smith first published in 1998. The third novel Smith had published, One of Us is similar in style to his previous works, Only Forward and Spares, written as it is in sardonic first person prose, and set in a near future version of west coast America where things have become twisted to a minor degree. This time the plot centres on Hap Thomson, a small time ne'er-do-well, ex barman who has found a lucrative line as a REMtemp taking care of people's unwanted dreams and memories. However when he finds himself burdened with a memory of a murder he is forced to find the real culprit and face up to his own past mistakes.

This is a very funny book, as all electrical appliances have been fitted with a voice and a type of AI that seems to have come from the makers of the Talkie Toaster in Red Dwarf. Hap is pursued through the book by a talking, walking, (yes there are also herds of wild coffee machines roaming the desert) alarm clock that keeps telling him it's time to get up. As usual Smith pulls the rug out from under your feet two thirds through the book with a change of direction that is becoming something of a trademark for him, and while the ending is a tad disappointing, is is not quite Neal Stephenson-esque enough to ruin what preceded it.

What if God was one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home?

The other day I had a dream. I found myself walking into a room where paintings were on display. It appeared to be a room of an art museum. A voice from behind me said, "My father's house has many rooms. In this room he makes his home."

One of the paintings began speaking to me. It was a portrait of a man I had met almost seven years ago in the summer of 1999. That man's appearance in my life had a profound impact on my journey and in many ways he had saved my life.

I had been at the lowest point in my life, lower even than where I had been on the night of my suicide in 1994. I was broke, unable to find work, hungry, tired and at the end of a long night in downtown Orlando, Florida after trying to get a job waiting tables or working in a pizza parlor. No one would have me. They said I was too intelligent and my background told them they would waste their time training me as I would leave the moment a "real job offer" came my way.

I did not have a car, the result of a chain of events involving my former mechanic sabotaging my car after giving me his cell phone number and telling me I could call him anytime. He was no longer working at the shop I went to for my automotive needs. He was working out of his house and promised he could do any needed repairs much cheaper since there was no overhead. He had a bad coke habit, I later learned, and had been fired for dealing out of the shop. Now he was messing with the cars of former clients as part of a plan to finance his habit. Unable to afford the repair bill, I had to sell him the car, confused as to how a well maintained Honda Accord with only seventy thousand miles on it managed to have its engine seize.

The blown engine started a downward spiral that left me on the edge of ruin. A few former friends set me up with odd jobs and temporary gigs for a while. Another offered to drive me wherever I needed to go, since it was nearly impossible to get to most of the interviews for potential jobs without a three hour bus trip involving multiple transfers. You'd have to have traveled on the buses in Orlando to understand, but the layout of the city does not lend itself well to public transportation at all. So, I focused my energy on downtown, which was a straight shot by bus and should have provided me with ample opportunities. At one point I cut my hair off trying to get a job taking tickets for a floor show at Church Street Station, an opportunity that never came to be because the company running things went bankrupt before hiring me. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and the one thing I considered sacred as part of my personal religious beliefs, my hair, had now been sacrificed and I felt defeated.

I had one dollar. I kept it folded up in my pocket. It was how I would pay for the bus ride to my apartment, where I was likely to soon face eviction proceedings as I was coming close to three months without paying rent. There was a cigarette pack in my other pocket. It contained a single cigarette, which I was saving for after I got home. There was nothing else.

They tried to reach God by erecting cathedrals, temples and mosques that stretched upwards towards the sky as if they expected to find Him there. They tried to collect all the riches of the world and offer it to Him, never understanding why he yawned at their efforts. They declared war in His name, forgetting His warning against taking the life of another as well as the warnings about taking His name in vain. Their vanity overwhelmed their ability to comprehend they were doing everything they could to displease the source of all energy.

They failed to compromise or negotiate with their enemies, falling back on a sense of righteousness they had no business claiming. He who does not negotiate is a zealot condemned to the fate of a zealot. He is the fallen who will lie in the blood of his own false righteousness forever. He who finds convenient excuses to strike at his enemies finds no quarter in the kingdom of heaven, for he has already sown the seeds of his own despair.

He who hoards riches while his neighbor goes without may be misguided in ignorance, but when he claims a right to more than his share of the bounty of God, he is truly lost. There is plenty. There is enough for one share for each who walk the earth but too many go without because of the hoarding of those who find reasons to justify this sin. For those who starve while another lets his stockpile of food go rotten there is reward in the kingdom of heaven. For the one who stockpiles, believing in his right to do so, there is only eternal suffering as he does penance for his sin against his brother and against the spirit.

For the lowest of the lows, those who profit from the misery of their brethren, the penalties are much more severe and only they will know the path that finds them as their usury becomes the weight they have chosen to carry into the next life.

The man who appeared to me in the painting in the dream also appeared to me that night. I was sitting alone, waiting on the last bus of the night to take me home and was growing concerned. I was at the main bus depot downtown and most of the buses arrived ten minutes or so before their departure time. It was nearly time for my number 40 bus to depart, according to the clock behind the cashier's window and the bus had not shown. I was afraid the schedule had changed and that the late bus had been cancelled, but there was no one at the window to answer my questions.

There was only a stout dwarf of a man walking with aluminum crutches, the kind with the hoops that go around the forearm, ambling towards me with a smile. He had dark hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and wore a very out of date three-piece suit. He looked like he had once been a college professor who at some point lost his mind and wandered off campus never to return.

"Can I bum a cigarette off you?"

The odd thing was that I had not been smoking. The only cigarette I had was concealed in my pocket and there were dozens of other people around who were smoking openly, but this man approached me without so much as giving a glance to the others in our midst. He centered on me and his focus never wavered. I looked into his eyes. They were dark brown and sparkled as if concealing a joke I would someday discover the punchline to. I gave him my last cigarette without giving it a second thought.

"What bus are you waiting for?"

"Number forty."

"Forty is right behind the thirty-seven over there and it is getting ready to leave. Last one of the night, I believe. You better get going, son."

He was right. Had I avoided him or responded by brushing him off and telling him I had no cigarette to spare, I would have spent the night in downtown Orlando. Maybe I would have been able to track down a friend who could have come to my rescue, but at that point I had already leaned too heavily on friends for help. My pride would have caused me to walk all night through some of the roughest sections of town where something terrible may have fallen into my path. I was too proud, too arrogant and too unwilling to compromise to have survived that night without his intervention.

I rushed to the bus, which was preparing to depart. I waved anxiously to the driver, who stopped and opened the door for me. Another minute and there would have been no chance. Perhaps another bus could have gotten me close to home. Perhaps there would have been another way, but I was tired, hungry and defeated. This stranger had saved my life.

I turned back to where the man had been standing, held upright by his crutches, smoking my last cigarette with a smile, and there was no one there. I slipped my dollar into the box and climbed on board, looking out the windows and trying to see where the stranger had gone. He had disappeared completely.

When I got home that night, I went out onto my balcony. I reflected on what had happened and the dire straits my life had fallen into. Then I remembered how years before I had often stuck a twenty-dollar bill into the pocket of my winter coat when spring arrived, figuring it would cheer me up when the winds of winter began whipping up. I went into the closet and started going through my coat pockets. In the pocket of one I found a twenty-dollar bill and a full, unopened pack of cigarettes.

A voice in my head said, very simply, "There is plenty."

Since that day, I often am reminded of the significance of those events. At least three times since then, I have been approached by a homeless man who asks me for a cigarette. Every time I am asked, there is only one left in the pack. Every time I am asked, I give the cigarette to the stranger. When he looks back at me and offers his thanks, there is something about his eyes that sees through me and smiles upon me. During my last encounter I was with a noder and the stranger was on an old bicycle with a collection of junk hanging from bags and baskets. At first we thought it was an old woman, but it turned out to be a fairly young man. I gave him my last cigarette and he asked me about the leather jacket I was wearing. He wanted to know how old it was.

"Ten years or so," I told him.

"Funny. Doesn't look that old. Thanks for the smoke."

That leather jacket had been part of my identity for many years. I wore it whenever the weather called for it and had met some of the most essential people in my life's history while wearing it. I had not worn it much since moving to Florida, since the weather was far more mild than it had been in New England. The stranger was telling me it was almost time to return home. He was right.

The leather jacket never left Orlando. Over the next few months it simply disappeared.

In the dream, the man appeared within the frame of a painting. When I asked him who he was, he told me he was God. Then he chuckled, saying that did not mean as much as it seemed to. I asked him some questions, which he answered without pause. He told me he was proud of me, that I had done good work in translating the words passed to me through one of his angels. He told me there was still more work to be done and miles to go before I slept. He told me not to fear what was to come because he believed in me.

He told me about his son. In my arrogance I asked him if I was also his son. He laughed. He then told me I was right about the coming of the third age and the completion of the trinity.

"Who am I?" I asked him. It is a question I have longed to have answered for some time.

The man behind me, the one who had told me about the many rooms, asked me for a cigarette. I found a pack in my hand with only one cigarette inside. I gave it to him. He asked for a light. A cigarette lighter appeared in my hand and I lit the cigarette in his mouth for him.

"Haven't you figured it out yet? You are the one who baptizes with fire."

One day I will ride the bus again. When I am ready. When I have prepared myself.

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."
--Matthew 19:24

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