Wednesday, 6 March 2013
Cassie’s arms were numb from the elbows down. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been gripping the steering wheel on the drive to the dull orange medical building that seemed to sprout like a branch from the trunks of gray financial towers. Sitting stiffly on the thinly padded bench, staring between her knees at her red sneakers, she heard her children, Josh and Mattie, as if they were in another room and not beside her. Everything seemed empty and unreal. She imagined taking off her shoes and not finding any feet there. The room’s acoustics, formed by bright, metallic surfaces, made her eardrums ring as if afflicted by tendinitis. Bernard sat slumped over and nearly motionless in his low black power chair. Dressed in dark blue slacks, white shirt and tie, he squinted down at the crossword puzzle on the screen in his lap as if waiting for a plane at the airport. He looked, as he always did, utterly composed and placid, a scarecrow of an elderly man unaware or unconcerned about his surroundings, the time of day and why he had to be anywhere. She looked at Buster, their ailing, nine year old Golden Retriever, and let air seep out of dry lips that felt scorched. Today is the day, she had told herself as she crawled out of bed; and she thought it now. Today is the day. It was like the phrase, “this is it”: words used when we’d rather not speak our mind honestly least hysteria take over.
A writer she had read as a child called who they were about to meet “Old Man Death.” Maybe it had been better in the past, she thought, when the end came of its own accord, without the assistance (or insistence) of modern medical science. But that had been a long, long time ago, and she knew that there was no going back to some remote, idyllic past that had probably not been all that idyllic to begin with. Yes, she thought, we’ve sanitized death but is that really so terrible? Did our ancestors derive some kind of authentic spiritual being from watching so much slow suffering and agony without benefit of pain killers? Or did it just spawn cruel gods that brutalized them?
One of the workers, a thin blonde girl wearing the clinic’s loose fitting, powder blue outfit that reminded Cassie of pajamas, whose mouth was set as if hiding bad teeth, looked in their direction from the receptionist’s desk to say that Dr. Dean would be with them shortly. Josh and Mattie were now on the floor, petting and hugging Buster, chatting to him as if the dog understood them in some deep down part of his canine consciousness.
Cassie rubbed her arms and looked bleakly down at the old yellow dog. The red and blue colors of the floor’s tiles seemed to fade as she stared at them through hot, swollen eyes. The back of her head ached as if her hair had been grabbed by a machine and then spun into a knot. She wanted to say something but the right word to get anything started wouldn’t come. The kids shouldn’t be here, she told herself reproachfully. But they had pleaded with her and Grandfather, cradling Mattie in his lap, said that what children imagine is always worse than the reality of whatever they must sooner or later face.
Last night, after the children had gone to bed, she and the old man talked in the kitchen until well past midnight. Two widowed insomniacs, she thought ruefully. What a pair we make.
“Been up since four and can’t sleep,” he said in his thin, wavering voice, sipping a large mug of coffee mixed with cream, sugar and Irish whiskey. “At exactly three fifty five in the morning it occurred to me that my father was born one hundred and twenty years ago. Before two world wars, before half the state had electricity, before women could vote. And you know, the damndest thing, but I can sometimes hear him as clearly as if I had heard his voice yesterday. Kind of auditory hallucination because I can’t hear the two women I married no matter how hard I try, damnit to hell.”
Cassie nodded, averting his perpetually mournful eyes. She was well aware of how fickle the memory of voices could be, and found it frustrating that she had to rely on telephone messages she had saved to keep Tom’s voice intact in her head. The fact that she could always hear the voice of Mr.Warner, her deep throated, toad-faced high school biology teacher, made her suspect that memory has its own deep set of rules and is not the passive, mechanical recorder we like to imagine.
“He was, my old man, short, pudgy, a second-generation German,” he said. “A Church of the Brethren pacifist who hung pictures of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs instead of Jesus on the walls, a look of loneliness and disdain stamped on his face, a woodworker who lived half his life in the garage mainly, I think, to get away from my mother, the parent I took after physically but not in temperament. Always something wrong with the house, a broken heater, a leak in the roof, knobs coming off the cabinets in the kitchen and my poor mother nagging him night and day only to hear him mutter, yes dear, I’m getting to that. I had to learn how to be the handyman of the family. By seven I was up on top of the house fixing rain gutters and by eight I was driving my mother, who had bad eyesight, to the store every Saturday morning.
“Didn’t resent it. Loved the old man. I would sit with him all day in the garage, surrounded by art books, his table saw, antique radios he restored, the smell of wood and varnish. He lived to tell stories, for some reason the sadder the better. Most of them urban legends, I think, but they left their mark. They came back to me not as stories but as events I witnessed in a previous life. Funny how over time we transform memory that way.
“The one I remember the most vividly may have happened, it was passed down in the neighborhood, a real Shakespearean tragedy. Gunderson, a painter by trade, married late in life to a woman named Ruth or Helga – I’ve heard variations of the story but I’ll stick to Ruth. Has a nice, biblical ring to it, Ruth does.”
“An artist?” Cassie said.
“Gunderson? No, a house painter when that was a viable trade. A big man, powerfully built, broad shoulders, thick muscular arms. German but I always see him as Italian, with dark curly hair, square jaw, large fleshy nose and booming voice. Met Ruth one night at a dance but was too shy to say much of anything. But he met her again a week later. A summer night, the moon was full, they had a few drinks and talked. A rough, good-natured man and a girl still living at home with her parents. Not much in common but they fell in love and a year later married in the Catholic Church.”
“Is this Beauty and the Beast?” Cassie said, looking at Buster. The dog was dreaming, twitching and woofing. It had always amused her to see dogs dream. There was a time when he could run for hours in the park or on the beach. Now he only ran in his sleep. Old man, old dog and, in the not too distant future, old woman. It made her think of a line from another book. Why are we born to suffer and die? Answer: to make us feel that much better when it’s over.
“Why so it is”, he said, nodding and folding his arms across his flat, thin chest. “A Beauty and the Beast story but not fit for the little ones. Only so many stories to go around. Our lives are just variations of them. That he was madly in love with her and madly possessive is the basic motif of a very old tale.”
“And I think I see where it’s heading,” Cassie said, feeling as if she were frowning deeply inside herself. She wondered if her children were dreaming and, if they were, what of. After Tom died Josh had nightmares. For several weeks they all slept together. She awoke every morning to find herself wedged between them, Josh curled up on her right side and Mattie, thumb in mouth, curled up on her left. It helped them and it help her, too; and she wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge that there were times in the middle of the night when she wished they would climb in with her again.
“So we’ve all heard it,” he said, glancing at Buster, a look of anguish passing over his thin, deeply wrinkled face. Thoughts like lost souls seemed to hang over his head. Well, what could one do? Isn’t grief the ultimate price of love? And yet, whenever it comes to the real and bitterly painful experience of separation, nothing about it is in the least fair or right. Suckers and gluttons for punishment, we get taken every time.
“A philosophical interjection,” he said, clearing his throat. The stubble on his face was as silvery as salt. “Plato believed that learning is in reality remembering. And it’s stories like this that seem to cling to the walls of our DNA, that make us feel we’ve always known them since before we were born.
“They are a good, happy couple. He works, brags about his wife, lifts furniture, carries ladders, stirs the paint, applies layers of blue, orange and yellow colors, sometimes singing in Italian but that’s just what I hear in my head. A man happier, he feels deep down, than he should be but unconcerned nonetheless. Until one day a thin, nervous looking man with protruding eyes that never stop shifting from one side of his head to the other, a man everyone called Slick, an unknown variety of weed blown in by a diseased wind, who looked as if he had grown up eating soap, paused to look at his brush and say, ‘your brother, he visits you and Ruth?’”
“No,” Gunderson said, laughing, a fish heading straight for the bait. “Ain’t got no brother.”
“Oh”, Slick said, shrugging. “I thought I saw her with a man the other day and I thought he looked like you, only younger, wearing nice clothes. Thought maybe he is your brother.”
“Slick playing games with the big, lovable ape?” Cassie said. She liked urban legends. The first one she had fallen for had been about psychotic teenagers who drove at dusk with their lights off, following and then killing the first good Samaritans who blinked their headlights at them.
“Slick has crawled out of the pit,” Bernard said, gripping his cup in both hands to warm them. “The father of lies. A rope of dried, bloodless flesh and feverish, fetid brain in stained overalls smelling of sweat and paint thinner. The kind of kid without spirit, imagination or intellect, who tortures insects and small animals, who grows up to bully his wife and children, who assumes political power and sends men to their muddy death for glory and profit.”
“Well, there must be a lot of them,” Cassie sighed.
“Oh, they are legion,” he said softly. “Charming and utterly believable. We may resist the bait at first but sooner or later most of us bite because, deep down, we want to believe. A lie told skillfully and at just the right time goes to work like a virus, taking over its host. Most of us don’t know just how infected we are.”
The refrigerator hummed to life. Somewhere in the wall behind her wood, sawed, treated, nailed in place and plastered over, made a faint snap like a tap tapping ghost, a spirit protesting its violent removal from the forest and the green world of the living. She liked to listen to the creaks, groans and pops of the house. They made her feel as if she were surrounded by some living force. Electricity circulated through plastic coated veins like fiery blood, giving her children their television programs and video games. Were they viruses of the mind, too, telling them that violence is harmless fun; that clothes, gadgets and goopy, invented food make us happy?
“He believed the worst without a thought,” she said. “Am I right?”
“Most of us do, to be honest, and as for him, he was jealous already,” he said. “Like a walking stick of dynamite, all he needed was a spark. My father, I remember, sanded a table by hand as he told me the story. He would stop, glide his fingers over the surface, and then sand some more, careful to follow the grain. It was always cold and dark in the garage and I never liked being in there because I was afraid of spiders. So I sat there with my hands in my pockets and listened, keeping a sharp look-out for eight-legged monsters.
“Gunderson waited till his wife was out of the house and then looked through everything- drawers, closets, her old, empty purses, cigar boxes full of receipts, old gray photo albums overflowing with old, gray photos and even her collection of cheap paperback books. One day he found a frightened looking scrap of paper beneath a stack of neatly folded clothes. Ah ha, a phone number. He dialed it the next day at a drugstore, and when he heard a man’s voice hung up.”
Cassie closed her eyes and listened to the story’s climax that was no less horrific because of its predictability, seeing in her mind’s eye not the heavy, barrel chested ox Gunderson but the slim, shy boy her grandfather had been. Behind them, as if on a vast movie screen, Gunderson stalks his wife. Like Bigfoot, he is hairy, strange and terrifying, and like the mythical beast just as invisible. One day, as he pretends to be away on a job, a big black Buick parks in front of his house. A man wearing a brown suit steps out. Hatless and carrying a briefcase, the young man turns his head to the right and almost sees the lurking lug. Gunderson is dumbfounded by the man’s brazen audacity. Parked in front of the house, he seems to announce his self to the whole neighborhood. Here I am in my brown suit, spats, trim figure, strong jaw, small blue eyes and wavy hair parted in the middle to spend an afternoon of lovemaking to another man’s wife in the sad bastard’s own house.
Ruth opens the door before lover boy knocks. She has been expecting him. Of course they are formal with each other. We do as we please but we’re not putting on a show.
Still, she has on her one pair of high heel shoes and red dress. Gunderson, like a bull, wants to charge but somehow manages to keep himself under control. There are different versions about what happened next. Some say that Gunderson stormed into the house but the version passed down to Cassie’s granddad has a more natural and believable feel to it. Ruth steps out of the house to get the mail. There, on the porch, the cuckold, murderous meatball confronts her. He doesn’t take into consideration that she is completely dressed, that her hair has not been mussed, that her lipstick has not been smudged, that she looks as cool as a cucumber. He sees what his shriveled ounce and a half paint bucket of brains tells him to see.
“Frankie and Johnny were lovers”, Cassie sang flatly under her breath.
“They thought, perhaps, that they were in love,” Bernard said, leaning back in his chair. His wispy silvery hair looked wilted, like tired slivers of paper about to disintegrate. The hand not clamped to the mug trembled. “Maybe most of us only think we’re in love. The real McCoy might be a pretty rare commodity. Love could very well be the illusion most of us cling to and I suppose, if looked at scientifically, it’s only an emotion created during the evolutionary process to help us pass along genetic material. William James believed that if we are to be free we must start by accepting the possibility of freedom. Perhaps the same is true for love. They thought they were in love, and if we accept the possibility of love then they were no matter what.”
She wasn’t sure that either freedom or love can exist simply because we believe they are possible. The story of Ruth and Gunderson had long ago run out of possibilities; and the old, she thought, totter down the short road that gets narrower every day until, at the end, all the choices we’ve made lead to the same result. When she was in college her roommate never tired of the same joke. Whenever Cassie asked her what she was going to do the plump redhead, a chemistry major, replied, “Get old, get sick and die.” Tom wasn’t old when he died and now she has bouts of worry that she won’t last a long time either. All I need, she has gotten into the habit of telling herself, is twenty years to see the kids through. And then? You buy a flashy car, drive too fast, drink too much, laugh at your own jokes or get on your knees and beg God, your “higher power”, The Force or dumb luck for a second chance.
“I know what you’ve been doing,” Gunderson says.
“You do?” she peeps, paling beneath her makeup.
Gunderson takes Ruth by the shoulders, actually lifts her off her feet as if she’s a child and then smashes her against the house, crushing the back of her head, breaking her neck and killing her instantly.
For a few seconds of silence Cassie feels in her gut the full moral horror of the worst crime a person can commit. Stolen money has been known to come back. The confession of truth can restore trust and repair a damaged friendship. One may apologize, make amends; but the delicate wheels, springs and gears of life cannot be reassembled by even the master watchmaker Himself.
“A woman is murdered every minute,” Cassie says, her mouth and throat dry. “And most of the time by the idiot she married.”
The old man seemed to loom above her like an avenging judge as he said, “and now the dénouement. Mister Brown suit creeps out of the house, stares in shock at the lifeless body, feels the blood drain from his head and in an instant of understanding so terrible he knows his mind will never be the same, wails, “Oh for Christ’s sake she wanted life insurance!”
“A salesman,” Cassie says.
“The archetype of every sexual joke in America,” he replies. “And Gunderson, broken like dropped porcelain, knows the truth, perhaps knew it all along. He falls to his knees, cradles the dead body of Ruth in his arms, and says the last words he will ever utter.”
“Now I know why you turn him into an Italian,” Cassie says. “He’s a tragic figure in an opera. So what does the oaf say?”
“My father, I remember, spread his arms, threw back his head and, in his most theatrical voice, cried, “Why was I born to destroy the only one who ever loved me?”
Cassie rubs her eyes. The words are thrust at her like the dark point of a sharp knife, making her flinch. She hunches her shoulders, preparing to shrug it off, but feels herself redden anyway.
“And so what’s the moral of the story?” She says, looking him in the eyes.
“Oh I don’t know if there’s a moral to any story,” Grandfather says, drawing himself back with a face that, for the first time, looks sleepy and slack. “I thought, when I was young, that the story had to do with a particular kind of man, that it had to do with circumstances beyond anyone’s control, a tragedy decreed by fate that had nothing to do with the wider human condition. I thought most of us-at least I thought I did- lived on a higher plane of existence. And yet I destroyed my first marriage by committing acts of infidelity. After two years of therapy I married Marta. I thought we were happy but I could not stop her slow descent into depression and when she was ill I treated her as if I had turned to stone, sitting by her bed, reading books to manage my own anxiety and feelings of helplessness.”
“Grandfather” Cassie said, aware that she had seldom called him by that title.
“And the truth is,” he said, holding up a hand as if to ward off a blow. “I wanted her to die. At the end I did.”
Cassie felt her blood sugar drop. She felt weak and light headed. Was the man incapable of love? Had she taken in a stranger who was all brains and no heart?
“Why?” She said. Her lips felt numb. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t want her to suffer anymore,” he said, letting a careless tear wind this way and that down the folds of his face. “She was withering away right in front of me. There is nothing lovely or romantic in that kind of death or, for that matter, any kind of death. I felt guilty because I didn’t have the courage to take her life. It bothers me to this day that I didn’t.”
“I need some sugar,” Cassie said, getting unsteadily to her feet. “You want a donut?”
“No,” he said. “Maybe more whiskey.”
Cassie sat back down, chewing a glazed old-fashioned donut she had plucked out of a long box. She felt like an actor having a nightmare about being in a play she hadn’t read. It was the kind of feeling she often had in moments like these. We make up life, she thought, as we go. Scripts are for the blockheads who cherish simple, stupid rules.
“Your story,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “That you didn’t kill the only woman who loved you…”
“A hell of a thing to feel,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, wishing she hadn’t heard a word of what he had just said. It was the kind of unasked for honesty that always felt like a rock to the head. Wanting her not to suffer wasn’t the same as wanting her to die. Why do men, she thought, have to turn grief into a confession? Since we can’t control the world we’re to blame for every bad thing that happens? And the bad world always makes us do bad things that we’ll regret even if we don’t do them?
“We don’t want to see anyone we love in pain,” she said. “You were good for each other. I always thought the two of you should have been famous.”
The first time they met she had nearly been a teenager, visiting the famous ivy league university with her slightly awkward parents, feeling a bit like Dorothy in the land of Oz. She had found Grandfather, a tall lanky man with waxy skin and a hook nose, intimidating and somewhat repulsive. His second wife, Marta, was short and stocky with closely cropped, coal black hair and cold, sharp flinty eyes. She thought her stupid at the time but was astonished to learn, years later, that she had been in the presence of one of the greatest minds on the planet. Without using a computer or even a pad of paper, this brooding looking woman had solved, in her head, some of the greatest mathematical riddles belonging to a branch of physics known as string theory, a feat many scientists said should have earned her the Nobel Prize.
“I didn’t write enough books,” he said. “And anyway, I paled like everyone else next to Marta. Neither of us wanted fame. We liked our quiet life.”
“Did you know,” Cassie said, leaning over on her elbows. “That in high school I wanted to become a mathematician? I had, I suppose they were, romantic notions of being like Marta.”
“Why didn’t you?” he said, smiling just enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes.
“I majored in math for two years,” she said. “But then I got more interested in business. Practical side of me I suppose.”
“The practical side of human nature has its own romance,” he said, reaching out to pat the top of her hand.
Buster lay curled up on his kitchen bed, peacefully snoring. Can’t animals, even without language, sense the approach of death? she wondered. Do they feel its presence with a sense we don’t have? She had no premonition of Tom’s death. They had spent the last few hours of their life together in their store, talking to Rick Schofield about wine and beer for the annual Chamber of Commerce Oktoberfest. Tom complained of a headache behind his eyes, went home and died in bed from an undiagnosed astrocytoma tumor.
It was only late at night or early in the morning, when her mind refused to shut down, that she sat cross legged on the couch in the living room and let the past, a beggar always patiently tapping on the back door, in. This gave her the kind of comfort she knew she would regret later on. It was like the high she got from eating too much ice cream. Feelings of saturation gave way to feelings of emptiness, hunger and weakness. But she cannot revise the terms of this emotional contract. The beggar must be fed, and then allowed to fill his pockets before stealing away.
But for a few moments, while she imagines the sounds of her children breathing in their sleep, restless longings, like throbbing nerves, quiet. A color, or a scent, begins the process of reconstruction. If it is scent, it is of semi-sweet grass. On a summer day they are all in the backyard blissfully wearing nothing at all. She strokes his chest, brushes her lips against his, watching the children run, squealing and pink as fish, through the sprinkler.
The sun makes her drowsy, she is nearly asleep, and her thoughts, as close as they can come to forming herself physically, are of stopping the gears of time that are in everything, of staying in this perfectly happy and peaceful moment forever.
She gets off the couch to get a glass of ice water. Once, in only her night dress, she stood barefoot on the porch and let rain pelt her skin and hair. In bed she lets her hand slip between her legs but stops herself. If she is going to do that it will be while she is asleep, when Tom makes one of his rare nocturnal visits.
The store and the kids keep her busy night and day. She doesn’t think of herself as a lonely person and yet there are times during even the most hectic moments of stress and strain when an acute awareness of loss hollows her out, when she feels utterly drained, a burned out wreck going through the motions in order to prove to the world and to herself that she can go through the motions.
Two years after Tom’s death, while video chatting with Bernard, she opened up to him about how it felt to raise two small children on her own. He talked about his own loneliness after Marta’s death, and before long he had moved in.
Perhaps it had been a faulty assumption all along that bringing the old man in to live with her would forge bonds, useful in their different ways, to both of them. Everyone warned her that he was too old, too fragile and that she would end up taking care of an invalid. True, the retired professor wasn’t usually a fountain of good cheer. He was often bleak and grumpy, sometimes silent and aloof for days. Her own father, a gentle, soft spoken man who worked all day managing the legal affairs of a small city and who tended to shy away from ideas, looked at her with near horror in his big brown eyes when she told him of her plans. But Bernard, for a man who ate bacon every morning, drank coffee all day and had sucked on a pipe half his life, proved remarkably strong despite a growing list of health problems.
They were strangers who sometimes became good friends. If he hadn’t quite become a second father she hadn’t quite become a second daughter; but neither of them expected such transformations to occur anyway. They were content to see what would happen, like gamblers who had made a modest bet.
Now, as she sat in the clinic looking down at Buster, she felt the shame of giving into pressures she should have had the strength to resist. But the old man had persuaded her, using what the doctor had said to crumble what few defenses she had left. There was no hope of a miracle cure; and what was the point of needless suffering? Better to be Buster, she thought. The only one who didn’t know what was about to happen. She reached into her purse, took out one of her blue “happy pills”, and then swallowed it while no one was looking.
“Good bye, Buster,” Grandfather said, reaching down to pat the dog’s head. “You’re a good old dog you are.”
Forty-five minutes later it was over. She embraced her children, dried their wet, swollen eyes and then lifted the limp body of Buster onto the front seat, where he immediately fell asleep and began to snore.
“Granddaddy’s going to heaven,” Josh said, so softly that she didn’t know if he was talking to his sister or to himself.
Cassie climbed in, closed the door and then turned around to look at her children.
“Hey,” she said, “We’ll get to see Granddad in his new home. Now who wants ice cream?”
Posted by james-hazard
at 8:01 PM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 6 March 2013 8:06 PM PST
Wednesday, 29 August 2012
Now Playing: Reprieve
Haven’t you awakened one morning
Close to sobs or a scream,
Heaving a sigh of relief
Oh! It was just a dream.
But then you remember your doctor
Said to expect the worst
Your job may soon be history
And rent is due on the first.
The State is on the verge of collapse
And even the weather’s not right
And why can’t you talk to your mother
Without getting into a fight?
At the end of the day you’re exhausted
Worn out by desperate scheming
Let it go as you crawl into bedFor soon you will be dreaming.
Posted by james-hazard
at 11:36 AM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2012 11:39 AM PDT
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Now Playing: Going Once, Going Twice
Sid Holloway went to bed before the evening news came on, something he almost never did. It was only Wednesday but the week felt as if it had dragged on for a year. He couldn’t remember feeling so rotten. His head throbbed and his lungs worked as if they had been wrapped in cellophane. He felt like a man floating in sick, stagnant sea water.
I’m only sixty-two, he thought as he gingerly climbed into bed wearing a faded set of striped pajamas. What’s it going to be like when I’m seventy-two?
He rolled onto his right side and then tucked his knees up to his chest even though it pained his knees; but it was the position he automatically assumed when ill. Lights flashed like the after glow of fireworks in his head and he felt as if he were spinning. He hugged himself and took small breaths. Stars burst with more energy than he possessed and then disappeared. Every muscle, begging unmercifully for attention, ached. After what seemed like hours he grew tired, relaxed and then fell asleep.
At a quarter past midnight, as the moon peeped through his kitchen windows, as Australians sat down for lunch, as the air played faint melodies on the hollow sticks of a neighbor’s bamboo wind chime, the heart that had worked without complaint for 62 years, 4 months and 10 days stopped beating faster than a broken drum, and Sid Holloway died almost immediately.
In the morning he heard the coffee machine, which he kept set to start brewing at 6:15, but could not smell the familiar aroma of his morning cup. His headache was gone and his joints didn’t hurt but that was because, he realized with alarm amounting to panic, he didn’t feel anything at all. Everything had gone numb-so numb that he couldn’t even feel the pins and needles of arms and legs gone asleep.
He padded unsteadily to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and then stared aghast at himself in the mirror. When he failed to find a pulse or feel the beating of his heart, he walked back to bed, sat down and then realized what was even worse. He had stopped breathing.
I should be dead, he thought. Oh hell, what am I saying? I am dead.
This was a dilemma. What should he do now? He considered calling 911 but what could he say to the operator? I’m dead, can you please send someone to pick me up? And what would his friends and the neighbors say? It was hard enough getting anyone to come over on Christmas.
As crazy as it seemed even to him, he found himself getting dressed for work. He shaved-more out of habit than for appearance-and then trudged into the kitchen for his usual coffee and toast. But he didn’t eat or drink. What was the point? He didn’t feel hungry or thirsty anyway. He had to get on the road before traffic got heavy. After filling his lungs with air he sighed, grabbed his keys and then headed for the door.
Inside his black Audi Sedan Sid paused before turning the key in the ignition. Was there a law against driving while dead? He thought about this for so long that the garage light went out. Instead of opening the door with the remote control he sat in total darkness.
This is what it should be like to be dead, he thought. No light, no sound.
It is one thing to think that one is dead; quite another thing to really believe it. Sid had the thought that he was dead, but down deep he really believed that something had come over him and that eventually he would shake it off. Feeling would return and he would become aware once more of his own respiration and heart beat. Like most people, he thought of himself as a kind of mysterious being inhabiting a body-the world peeking at itself through a lens of flesh. Now he felt absolutely buried in flesh, as if he had been wrapped in layer after layer of moist toilet paper. But surely it would wear off. The dead, after all, don’t get up and walk around. Only crazy Hollywood directors come up with those ideas.
Telling himself that he would go to the doctor if he didn’t return to normal after a few hours, he opened the garage door with the remote, turned the engine on and then backed the car out. He drove without turning on the radio, wanting quiet so that he could think.
It could be a brain tumor, he thought. Or a stroke. No, one side wouldn’t work and I’d be confused. Maybe a virus. Call the doctor at nine as soon as the office is open. Should have stayed home. What if I pass out while driving? Feel funny, pull over and stop the car. At least I don’t have to take the freeway. Hold on, Sid. Almost there. Steady, old boy. Steady, steady.
The car seemed to float above the road. A trash truck, flashing red lights, slowed down ahead of him but he gracefully maneuvered around it. The streets were dark, just as they always were this time of year in the morning. There were only a few other, less expensive cars on the road, and that was usual, too.
But I’m dead and driving to work, Sid thought, chuckling soundlessly since his lungs were empty. I wonder what the garbage men would think about that. Hey Ed, you see a corpse just drive by?
He parked the Audi in the small lot behind the office, shut the engine off and congratulated himself for handling the car so well in such a weird state. Well, it was a great car, and he had often thought that it nearly drove itself. As he had often said, it pays to buy the best.
For a few minutes he stood in front of the door to Sea Cliff Property Management, staring thoughtfully at the white lettering on clean, clear glass. Fifty miles or so from the ocean, but his wife Sheila had the idea of calling the company Sea Cliff because it conjured up pleasant images of exotic landscapes, warm, salty breezes and happy, suntanned people living in luxury. It had seemed silly to him then and even sillier now, but he had always been eager to make her happy. And who knows? The business had done well for the last 32 years and maybe the name had helped.
Sid stood in front of the door feeling neither warm nor cold. He felt the weight of his clothes, the pressure of gravity and the way his shoes and wedding ring felt tighter than usual; but that wasn’t enough to physically convince him that he was really there, key in hand, a man occupying real space and not a phantom about to fade away like an idea in someone else’s mind. Because he didn’t feel real nothing around him seemed real; and he wondered if he was at the right place. Could he make it vanish by making a wish? Was he something only held together by thoughts? No one had seen him so far. Would they?
He looked again at the window, at the words Payroll and Mortgage, and wondered if all the numbers he had added up for so many years really represented anything. Decade after decade he had relished working on the kind of forms other people dreaded. At parties, when he spoke to strangers about what he did for a living, he could always tell, by the look in their eyes, that what they wanted to say was, “I’d be bored to death.” A woman once told him that if she had to work with numbers all day she would throw herself off a bridge.
But he had always enjoyed the work, knowing how much he helped those who placed their trust and confidence in him. The business had always been enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave him a sense of order, and the office was always warm and inviting. Now, as he looked through the glass, it seemed cold and empty, a place far removed from the hum and deep complexity of life outside of glass, screens, charts and reports.
He went to his office, closed the door and then sat down at his desk without turning on the lights or his computer. It was only then that he became aware that he had forgotten to put on his watch. A day had never gone by without the presence of a watch. Mechanical time keepers, it seemed to him, had always regulated every aspect of his life, from when he got up, ate, worked and went to bed. Perhaps time had ceased to exist. Life can be broken down into discrete, measurable parts moving through cycles of duration. Death, on the other hand, is an empty stillness so final and complete that no time can measure where it begins or ends. He had once heard death described as the infinitely small point of nothingness at the center of everything.
But I can’t be really dead, he thought as he sat without his watch in his dark office. It’s, it’s, it’s too, too ridiculous.
A minute or an hour passed. He sat quietly, looking with unblinking eyes at the blank screen of the computer. He was aware of no physical sensation other than a weight and pressure that made him feel huge, as if he had grown the size of the Hindenburg. Outside cars chugged wearily uphill, and a group of noisy children walking to school passed the office sounding like a flock of birds. He clapped his hands and then slapped his face but didn’t feel the slightest sting or tingle.
He heard Mary Aaron clatter into the office on her stiletto high heels, heard her as she snapped on the lights and then set her paper cup of coffee down. Her swivel chair squeaked, a drawer opened, papers rustled uneasily and her desktop computer hummed to life. She still had the light, trim body of an athletic teenager but in the last few years her face had grown worn and lined. He pictured her scanning the screen to see where the market was heading and the price of everything, from corn to a barrel of oil. He could almost see numbers, arranged in columns and plotted in graphs, flashing on the screen and then flowing through the thick bundle of nerves behind her eyes.
Her swivel chair squeaked, creaked and then, like an animal sensing danger, grew quiet. Something wasn’t right. Stiletto high heels tapped and a bracelet jangled toward his door. He debated hiding under his desk but decided to stay where he was. His only small hope, tiny as a speck of dust orbiting Jupiter, was that she would see his condition differently and thus turn everything around; but just like a speck of dust, it was too small to grasp.
When his door swung open the light from the front office did not hurt his eyes. He saw her shape, then her face when she switched the lights in his office on. Her mouth formed an O, she clutched her chest and then clattered and jangled backward.
“Sid,” she said. “I didn’t know you were here. Are you all right?”
He drew in a breath but said nothing. Her short hair was the color of wheat and honey. She had on a tan skirt with flecks of green in it that reminded him of a hunting jacket his father once wore. Her white blouse was open at the neck, revealing a thin gold chain on pale skin that had started to loosen and sag. Her faint blue eyes, which he always thought gave her an icy look, bore into him with wide, unblinking alarm.
Before he could say anything she came up to him with tiny, quick steps that made him think of a pigeon going after a crust of bread. She put her hand on his forehead and then drew back. Her pale skin turned paler.
“You’re cold as ice,” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid said. He looked at the little gold coins on her bracelet. They twitched and trembled, animated by the first burst of adrenaline starting to flow into her veins.
“What?” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid repeated. “I’m numb all over.”
“Sid,” she said, starting to turn around. “Stay there. Don’t move. I’m calling an ambulance.”
He had no intention of leaving but wanted to see if he could still stand up, and so he did. Rising into the air like the doomed German airship, he hovered over the floor and then moved toward the window. There was only one window in his office. In all the years he had worked there he had never stood where he stood now to look through it. He saw the parking lot, his car, a wooden fence and a strip of blue sky. But there was more to look at, he realized. The parking lot was paved with asphalt, a mixture of black and gray, bumpy, rocky and cracked. A few weeds grew in the cracks in stubborn, naked defiance. The fence was splintery and as gap-toothed as a kid’s mouth. A strand of ivy dipped over the upper right corner of the window. He wondered if it liked the glass, or if it wanted to see in as much as he wanted to see out. It seemed that everything he saw was the expression of one thing he could not name or see. The whole world, he thought, right there and right here.
The paramedics showed up in less than a minute. Both men, young, lean and in their twenties, they walked briskly toward Sid with the open, friendly expression of salesmen or hotel clerks.
“Mister Holloway,” one of the paramedics, the slightly taller of the two who had a crew cut, said. “How are you, sir?”
Sid drew in a breath.
“Don’t feel anything,” he said.
Greg and Tyler, as he learned by their name tags, put their equipment down and set to work. Within minutes their open, cheery expression changed; and by the time they had finished they looked like men who had found themselves in the middle of a horror film.
Sid had seen that expression before. As Greg paced back and forth in the front office talking into his two-way radio to a doctor, he found himself thinking about the last camping trip he had taken with Sheila.
They had driven up to Angeles National Forest in the middle of July. The heat below had been suffocating but the forest was cool, the air bone dry. Sheila put up the tent while he unloaded the car. They sat across from each other at the heavily knife marked table, sipped beer from bottles and munched on trail mix, cheese, pita bread and hummus. Kids at another campsite played rock music but they always expected that sort of thing. It didn’t spoil the feel of the sun through the trees, the smell of smoke and food cooking on camp stoves, the song of doves and flycatchers. They held hands and looked at each other without talking. She wore hiking boots, shorts that came down to her knees and a yellow t-shirt small enough, he thought, to fit an adolescent. At fifty she didn’t have an ache, pain, wrinkle or one grey hair on her head. Her face was rose tinted, heart shaped and graced by a perpetual smile. He had never known her to be petty, mean, unforgiving or ill-tempered even under the most trying circumstances; and all at once it struck him that the woman sitting across from him was perfect. Later, he often wished that he had told her that.
After dinner he took the flashlight and went to the latrine. He had the feeling, on walking back, that he had set off in the wrong direction, and blamed his confusion on too many beers. Should he have turned right or left at the door? Every direction looked the same. He decided to return to the latrine but then, moving perhaps too quickly in the dark, stumbled over a rock, lost his balance and fell. A small black and white cat ambled over to him.
Allergic to cats, he told the animal to “shoo,” but then discovered to his horror that the cat before him wasn’t a cat; and before he had time to react the vilest smelling liquid he had ever smelled in his life arced over him.
The odor almost blinded him. He wondered if this is how people feel when their clothes catch fire. For what seemed like hours he stumbled along, trying to breathe through his mouth without gagging. He lurched into the campsite but it wasn’t their campsite. A man with a fuzzy red beard, a woman holding firewood and two little girls looked at him as if he were Bigfoot. It was the same look as the paramedics.
The next day they drove home. He sat in the backseat wearing nothing but a towel. Sheila held the wheel in one hand while pressing a washcloth soaked in orange soda over her mouth. She complained of feeling sick but couldn’t stop laughing.
Two years later their son, Eric, drove home one night with his girlfriend. Stopping the car and then getting out to help an injured animal, he was struck by another car and died on the way to the hospital. The wounded animal, it turned out, had been part of a cardboard box. A star football player in high school who was never injured, he went on to serve six years in the Marine Corps without so much as a scratch. He was so gracefully built and good looking that Sid used to joke with Sheila that she must have slept one night with someone else. Everyone adored him, everything came so easily to him and yet he was the kindest boy and the gentlest man Sid had ever known. He could never answer the question of how that was possible. In two years his son would have earned his PhD. Then marriage, a good job, children. And all of it thrown away like the tattered remains of a cardboard box.
Not long after the death of their son-it seemed like months rather than years-a routine visit to the doctor gave their marriage its final blow. A lump under the right arm was found. He tried all he could to reassure her, to persuade her that the disease could be faced, fought against and defeated. But she had no fight within her. Grief, like a stone, carried her down. In less than a year, gray and as withered as a woman twice her age, she died. He held her hands and watched her go. The pain of losing her gripped him from the inside like fingers of knives, and he could only think, “Now I’m alone.”
The last surprise of his life, or existence, was the arrival of the astronauts. At least, in their protective suits, they looked like astronauts. Two of them entered his office but only one spoke.
Sid took a breath and then said, “That would be me.”
“My name is Doctor Swinson,” the astronaut said. “We need to examine you.”
“Yes,” Sid said. “Of course.”
Twenty minutes later Sid sat in the back of a large white van. Men in protective suits who acted with solemn military precision sat with him. No one spoke. The drive was so long that Sid began to wonder if they were still in California. The windows were coated with a plastic film that made it difficult to see where they were. He began to think that maybe they weren’t really going anywhere, that they were in fact just going in circles.
Sid closed his eyes once. He didn’t fall asleep and yet he had what felt like a dream. He stood in the living room of a house that didn’t seem familiar. Sheila was next to him although he couldn’t see her. The van stopped and he opened his eyes. Footsteps approached the van as the doors slid open. Wherever they were, they had arrived.
The astronauts put him in a wheelchair and then rolled him into an elevator large enough to park a car in. Then they rolled him into a room that looked like an orange plastic cube, cut off his pants, shirt and underwear, removed his shoes and socks and then gave him paper blue clothes to wear.
“Wait here, Mister Holloway,” one of them said.
Sid shrugged. What else was he going to do, go out for a dinner and a show?
For the next several hours astronauts came in and out, poking him here, poking him there, snipping his hair, drawing blood from his legs, scraping his skin and swabbing his mouth.
There was no clock in the room and Sid began to wonder if it was still the same day. Finally Dr. Swinson came in to talk to him.
Dr. Swinson, Sid realized, was a woman. He peered into her face mask and saw a young face, green eyes and short red hair.
“Mister Holloway,” she said.
“Call me Sid,” Sid said.
“Sid,” she said after a long pause. “I’m afraid the news isn’t good.”
“News never is,” Sid said.
“What I mean,” she said. “Is that your condition…”
“Am I dead?” Sid said.
“I,” Dr. Swinson said. “I don’t know quite how to answer that. All we know is that you are not the only one in your, in your condition. Cases have been found in other countries but, fortunately, not many. We don’t know yet what it is exactly. You may be alive but alive in a way we don’t understand. All we know is the trajectory of the condition or disease. Decomposition sets in and while not painful all I can say from what I’ve learned is that it is, it’s unpleasant. There is no cure but there is something we can do to put a quick end to it. It’s up to you, of course.”
Sid lay on his back, head turned to one side so that he could look at the machines they had hooked him up to. No activity showed on any of the monitors. He had difficulty focusing his eyes and didn’t know if he could control his movements any longer. Out of body, he thought. I’m the faint signal of brain waves in space. Driving a car now would have been impossible, he knew. His only anxiety was that he was evacuating his bowels or urinating in front of Dr. Swinson. Other than that, he was amazed at how calm he felt.
“Well,” he said after struggling to draw a breath. “I think we should end it, don’t you?”
Dr. Swinson only nodded.
“Can I,” Sid said, trying to prop himself up on his elbows and then giving up. “Ask you something?”
“Of course,” she said, moving closer.
“What,” he said. “Is your first name?”
“Grace,” she said.
“And are you,” Sid said. “Are you married, Grace?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “To another doctor.”
“Two boys,” she said. “Two and three and a half.”
“I had a boy,” Sid said. He couldn’t tell if he was moving his lips and wondered how much longer she could understand him.
To his relief she nodded and then said, “I know.”
“Wonderful to have kids,” Sid said. “We would have had more but couldn’t.”
“Sid,” Grace said, stepping closer and putting her hand on his arm. “There are a lot of papers to sign. We should get it done now.”
“Will you stay with me, Grace?” he said.
“I will, Sid,” she said. “I’ll be right here.”
He thought he signed, with Grace’s help, more papers than most people have to wade through to buy a house. When it was all done astronauts came in to roll him on his side. At that precise moment Sid knew that it was all a dream. It had to be. He was not in a state of terror and everything was moving too fast. In real life he wouldn’t be destroyed like a rabid dog. No, it had to be a dream, the weirdest, most terrible dream of his life; and this sudden realization filled him with the hope, bright and pure as starlight, that the death of his son and wife was part of the dream, too, and that he would see them again when he awakened.
And so as he felt the pressure of the needle on the back of his head he smiled, wanting to look serene and happy, for he was neither sad now nor in the least afraid.
Copyright 2012 James Hazard
La Verne, California
Posted by james-hazard
at 6:32 PM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2012 6:42 PM PST
Friday, 27 August 2010
Now Playing: The Man in the Plain Black Cap
Luke Pendergast rolled his red basket out of Whole Foods and stopped at the edge of the parking lot for a moment to admire the thick expanse of sky spread out before him. The day was sliding into twilight, his favorite time, and far away lightening flashed, making the air soft, cool and fragrant with the electric gathering of storms. A few drops of rain, fat and thick as oil, splattered dusty windshields but he didn’t mind getting a little wet. Southern California is known for only having two seasons, he liked to say-“blistering hot and spring time pollen”-and so he always welcomed anything resembling real weather of the life-giving forces.
His 60th birthday had come and gone but he was still lean and muscular from a lifetime of pounding nails into wood, climbing ladders, loading trucks with bags of cement and lugging sinks and toilets up flights of stairs. His medium-length blond hair, now mostly white, fell carelessly about his head and parts of his tanned, unlined face. Wearing jeans, boots, and a white shirt, he looked like a cowboy who could still wrestle a calf or tame a wild horse. To complete the look he wore a silver NRA belt buckle, complete with soaring eagle, even though he didn’t belong to the gun organization or even own a gun. He had found it at a swap meet and bought it on the spot.
The men who worked for him weren’t half his age but he could still keep up with them without breaking a sweat when he chose to. Telling others what to do came naturally to him but he still liked working with his own two hands. You want to stay strong? He told them. Eat honest-to-God food, drink distilled water and stay away from tobacco. But did they listen? They smirked, took swigs from Coke cans and puffed away on their vile cigarettes. Well, he figured he was made to build and repair, not change anyone’s life. A man has to find what he can do and stick with it, he told himself almost everyday. He knew that he wasn’t deep or philosophical and he accepted that about himself. Years ago he had quietly given his life to Jesus but he never discussed religion. No, that was a private matter, best left between him and God, whoever or whatever that is. When it came to politics he would only say that he was a life-long Republican; but he enjoyed telling people that he admired Obama. The skinny Democrat could at least put two words together, unlike the last idiot he had voted for twice. He was a conservative who privately thought that gays should be permitted to marry; and he also thought to himself that maybe it was time for the United States to settle down and stop getting into one tom-fool war after another. If we’re going to waste money, he once grumbled to his wife as they watched the evening news, we might as well waste it on ourselves.
As soon as Luke pushed his cart onto the black surface of the parking lot he saw the man from the corner of his eyes; and he knew immediately what he wanted. A panhandler. There’s no getting away from them lately, he thought with a sigh and a tightening around the corners of his mouth. Times are tough, boys, he told his crew. Be grateful you’re still getting a paycheck.
The panhandler waved an arm as if he were an old friend. The contractor always wanted to tell them to go away, get lost, but then the words of his mother always came back to him: there but for the grace of God go I. And so Luke Pendergast, a man who could still pound nails straight and true without glasses, who had built a business worth millions with just a high school diploma, who married once and sent two children to college, eyed the stranger and waited with resignation for his approach.
“Hey can you help me out, a couple of bucks for gas?” the man said. “Trying to get up to Lompoc, been out of work for the last two years but I might have a job waiting for me. I’ve been living in my car. Lost my house, lost everything. Whatever you can spare.”
Luke turned now to look straight at the stranger. The panhandler was a short, stocky white man dressed neatly in white corduroy pants, blue button down shirt and plain black baseball cap. Clean shaven, with a broad, fleshy nose, gray curly hair and wide-set blue eyes, he walked with the easy gait and erect posture of a man who always looked men in the eyes with the confidence that comes from mutual respect.
Luke summed him up. The man was out of work and out of luck.
“Sold trucks and tractors for thirty years,” the man said.
Luke nodded. The man was close enough now to shake hands with. His skin and eyes were clear and his nose didn’t have the tell-tale veins of a drinker. Luke began to fish around in his pockets for change, hoping that, if pressed, he had a few ones in his wallet.
“You know, I,” the panhandler said and then abruptly stopped. His mouth hung open slightly and his eyes unfocused. For two or three seconds he stood still as if frozen. A rain drop hit the brim of his cap. A shopping cart rattled behind him.
Luke grew uneasy. Was the man having a seizure?
“I was just thinking,” the stranger said at last. “That I should have stayed in the Navy. After ten years they told me I could have re-enlisted as a chief.”
Luke grunted. A Navy man! Was he telling the truth?
“I was in the Navy,” Luke said. “Joined right out of high school.”
“Yeah, did you?” the panhandler said with a grin. “My last tour of duty was on the George Bancroft. Fleet ballistic missile sub stationed out of Charleston.”
Luke felt as if he had been thumped in the chest. His mouth turned dry. The Bancroft. That had been his boat! Impossible. After decades of civilian life he had never run into a fellow shipmate.
“I was on the gold crew,” Luke said, his heart skipping a beat.
“Me too,” the panhandler said. “Captain Jonas Smith. My name is Toby Sheldon.”
“I know who you are,” Luke cried out. He felt like jumping out of his skin.
“Yeah, and I thought I recognized you too, Luke,” Toby said. “It’s Luke, right?”
“Luke Pendergast,” Luke said. “I can’t believe it. After all these years. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize you right away but now that you’re in front of me you haven’t changed a bit. The same old Toby.”
“Remember that time in Rota?” Toby said. “I was trying to pick up that girl in the bar with my broken Spanish and you wanted to buy that satin picture of the bull fighter.”
“Oh I remember that!” Luke roared. A warm wave of memories washed over him and he laughed so hard tears welled up in his eyes.
“She hit me with a bottle, smashed it right on top of my head and the bartender kicked us out with a switchblade.”
“You were drunk,” Luke said. “I dragged you back to the boat, afraid you were dead.”
“Oh those were the days,” Toby said, slapping his legs. “You were the only seaman I knew who was married. Every night there you were in your bunk, writing a letter to your wife. You still married?”
“Yep, Debbie and I are still married,” Luke said, wiping his eyes. “Had two kids and they’re both doing fine.”
“Well I’m glad to hear it,” Toby said solemnly. “God bless you, man.”
Luke reached for his wallet. He thought that he might have at least a hundred dollars in twenties. It was the least he could do for an old shipmate. A gust of cold air hit him in the back. A cloud sailing overhead threw a curtain on the sun and for a moment Toby’s face grew dark and indistinct. For a few years after leaving the service he had dreamt of meeting someone he had shipped out with but he never thought that it would actually happen. If it weren’t for the fact that he could remember every detail of what he had done today he would have sworn that this was just another of his dreams.
“Here man, I hope this helps you out a bit,” Luke said, handing Toby a stack of crisp new twenties.
“That’s too much,” Toby protested, stepping back.
“No it isn’t, not in the least,” Luke said. “And I want you to have my card, too. When you make it to Lompoc and get settled in you give me a call, okay?”
The panhandler sat in the back seat of his van. He did not smoke, chew gum, listen to the radio or look at the money Luke Pendergast had given him, but pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, waiting for the voices in his head to quiet. In fifteen minutes or an hour-he did not keep track of the time-the familiar silence returned and his muscles relaxed. He watched rain drops zigzag down the windshield as he breathed quietly and alone.
Mary Hunter pushed her shopping cart out of the store and then stopped as a gust of cold air hit her in the face. She looked at puddles in the parking lot, the darkening sky, fellow shoppers wrapped in plastic like bags of groceries and suddenly felt as cold and forlorn as a lost child. No one at home waited for her. She awakened before the alarm went off, listened to her neighbor’s wind chimes; and the first thought that went through her mind was, “I’m only thirty-four and already divorced.”
The marriage had lasted six miserable years. The problem was not lack of love. He loved her. Oh yes, he loved most of the women on the planet. Or tried to at least.
“I don’t understand,” she told him on the phone during their last conversation. “I’m a little overweight but I did everything, Craig. I mean, it’s the same basic equipment down there isn’t it?”
“It’s kind of like alcoholism,” he said. His high-pitched voice, which she had once found so whimsical and endearing, now sounded like the droning of a fat bee drowning in its own rancid honey.
She hung up, expecting anger but surprised at her tears. So her life had turned into a trite, soap opera formula. Who’s Shelia, who’s Francis, why are we getting bills from American Express for Asian House of Massage?
She looked down at her frozen pizzas and thought about putting him in the oven instead. Alcoholism? Don’t drinkers usually stick with a favorite brand? But she knew what he meant: I can’t help it, something makes me do it. Goddamn it, she thought. Doesn’t anyone take responsibility for anything anymore?
A peel of thunder rolled over the sky just as another gust of cold air made a small tornado of papers. Children ran screaming through the parking lot, stomping on puddles and swinging their umbrellas like battle axes. Mary knew that in a few hours the storm would hit full force, and the thought made her spine tingle with the anticipated pleasure of it.
Rainy days were her best childhood memories. Mom made tea and cookies, Dad spread out his coin collection, there were dolls to talk to, little plastic pigs and cows to put into the barn and the heater made it feel as if the house hugged them with its ghostly warmth. That was heaven, when there was no future to worry about, when life was simple and predictable. People loved you, and they always would.
Her parents, she knew, had been disappointed in her choice of a husband; and the icy, smug look they gave her when she sobbed like a child about the divorce only added shame to the hot, swift grief swelling up inside her.
She would never marry again, she knew. At least they had not had kids. Now there never would be kids. Well, it had never been high on her agenda anyway.
“Maybe I’ll turn into one of those crazy cat ladies,” she told her mom the other day on the phone. “I always wanted a pet to dote on but Craig is allergic to cats. I’ll go to a shelter and rescue a little fur ball.”
See? She had wanted to say. I’m not so pathetic.
She had been sad lately but was determined not to be pathetic; and so, for the most part, she kept her emotions in check, went to work everyday, sat in her cubicle and talked to people about their car insurance, read books, watched action movies and learned by trial and error how to fix up the house by herself. No woman, she thought, should define herself by her relationship with a man. So she was single. Did that make her a freak?
But lately other thoughts had crept up on her, usually late at night before sleep took her to its mercifully dreamless realm. What was her life destined to mean? Did it have any purpose? She took care of herself, worked, paid the bills, planned vacations well in advance but was that enough? Sometimes a kind of existential dread came over her. There had to be more to life than just surviving, but what? God? No, she had walked away from her childhood Catholicism long ago and without the slightest regret. The physical laws of the universe left no room for miracles and magic. Politics? That only made her depressed. Visions of herself as an old woman slumped in front of the television with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other brought her to the brink of hyperventilation. Snap out of it! She told herself at least twice a day. Something will come along and probably when you least expect it.
The man appeared in front of her as if he had materialized out of smoke. He wore a plain black cap that sprouted curly gray hair. He had a large fleshly nose and a pleasant smile that radiated confidence. A panhandler, she knew instantly, but a relatively clean cut one, unlike the man in paint stained overalls who had asked her for change at Burger King.
“Trying to get to Lompoc,” he said as if in the middle of a long conversation she had not heard. “Need a little gas money I’m afraid. A few bucks would be a big help. I hate to bother you.”
“I don’t have any change,” Mary said, irked at the man’s temerity. Didn’t panhandlers usually ask for spare change?
“That’s okay,” he said, stepping aside to let her pass. “Why, just a few minutes ago I met a man…”
Then he was behind her as she pushed her cart into the parking lot. She thought that was the end of it but heard him following her. When he next spoke the hairs lifted on the back of her neck.
“Hey, I’ve seen you before. Sure, let me think. Aren’t you Mary Hudson?”
It had been a long time since Mary had heard herself addressed by her maiden name. She stopped and then turned around, afraid and yet curious. The man didn’t seem threatening. Gulls flew overhead. A raindrop landed on her shoulder like the finger of someone seeking her attention. Maybe, she thought, this isn’t a good idea; but she had to ask.
“Do I know you?”
“You do if you went to Roosevelt High School and took drama. I’m Mister Hollister.”
“Oh my God,” Mary gasped as recognition burst in her brain like the flash of a light bulb. “Mister Hollister? Is that you?”
“Yep, it’s me all right. After teaching there for twenty eight years I was laid off last September. Budget cuts. Well, it’s how people are treated these days. My wife Janet was diagnosed with cancer and with no health insurance to pay for the two surgeries she needed we had to take on a lot of debt. When she died I had no choice but to walk away from the house. Lost pretty much everything except the car and the clothes on my back.”
“I’m so sorry,” Mary said. He had always been so kind to her. Everyone who took drama loved Mr. Hollister. He was a gentle, patient man who never raised his voice even when his flock of young thespians forgot their lines or sang off key. It was like he had some kind of magic that brought out the best in each of his students. The thought of him losing his wife and then being reduced to panhandling made the center of her forehead throb as if she had been stabbed there by the cold point of a stiletto.
“As soon as I heard your voice I said to myself, ‘I know that young woman.’ I never forget a voice, especially one as lovely as yours. You remember My Fair Lady?”
Remember! When Mr. Hollister pointed his finger at her and said, “Miss Hudson, you will be our Eliza Doolittle” she had nearly fainted. There had been a time when all she wanted was to act and sing. Could she take it up again?
She fumbled in her purse for the last of her twenty dollar bills even as Mr. Hollister protested that he didn’t want any money from her.
“I want you to have it,” she said, thrusting the two crisp bills at him.
Warmth spread across her face as she vanished from the parking lot for a moment and stood once more on stage. The night she played Eliza Doolittle had been the greatest, most perfectly happy event in her life.
It had seemed like a dream.
Copyright 2010 James Hazard
Posted by james-hazard
at 8:50 PM PDT
Updated: Monday, 30 August 2010 3:31 PM PDT
Thursday, 8 July 2010
Technology run amok!
Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at C.U.N.Y., is of the opinion that in the near future almost everything we buy will communicate with us. Tiny computers imbedded in appliances and capable of sending wireless messages will let us know when something is wrong. Imagine answering a call on your cell phone. A voice says, “Hello, Bob. This is your refrigerator. I just wanted to tell you that the milk is about to turn bad. You might want to pick up a pint on your way home. And that Chinese food you got two days ago should be tossed unless you want food poisoning.” Or imagine getting an e-mail from your shoes saying, “Hi Bob. I’m your sneakers, the white ones you bought at K-Mart four months ago. The left heel is getting a bit worn down. Come in this Saturday. We’re having a sale on all New Balance and Nikes.”
Think of computers so small that they could be injected into your body and the possibilities get even weirder. “Hi Bob, this is your personal health monitor. Now don’t get alarmed but your cholesterol level is getting a bit high. Would you like me to schedule an appointment with Dr. Reynolds? You know, just to be on the safe side.”
We could be bombarded with “tweets” not only from celebrities and friends but from everything we own, including our own internal organs. The flow of information could be overwhelming. It could even interfere with personal relationships.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you, honey, but I got an emergency call from my car about oil and then another call from the cat box saying we’re low on litter. Can I put you on hold?. I’m supposed to talk to my liver in a few minutes.”
Think this is far fetched? Growing up in the 50s I could not have imagined landing on the moon, personal computers, the internet, cell phones, stem cell research and cloning. So I’ve gotten pretty used to the idea that technology will continue to astonish me. The question is, will this technology enhance our lives or just clutter it up?
Michael Crichton, in his book Jurassic Park, warned that using technology just to see how far we can go may be a bad idea. I agree. Call me old fashioned, but the day I get a phone call from my toothbrush may be the day I get rid of my cell phone.
Posted by james-hazard
at 2:56 PM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 8 July 2010 2:58 PM PDT
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
A cup of coffee
Could the world be doomed by a cup of coffee? I’ll let you be the judge.
Two of the plates were picked clean but the third plate in front of the thin man had barely been touched. Egg yoke congealed in a yellow pool next to a forlorn pair of untouched sausage links. The thin man, bent over his cold plate with unfocused eyes, looked like a young actor playing the part of an old man. A few wisps of white hair lay on his head and his skin was smooth but slack and gray. Three vials of little blue, red and pink pills, placed in a neat row, stood at attention next to a clean fork.
His two male companions had on slacks and a white, short sleeve shirt; but the thin man was dressed in jeans and a Chicago Cubs tee shirt that looked as if it had just been used to dry dishes.
They looked with unblinking expectancy at the thin man as he rocked slowly in his chair and as he pursed his pale, trembling lips. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back as if to see something just below the surface of his nearly bald scalp.
“You see,” he said, revealing eyes that were bright blue but still unfocused. “It is the sweetest problem and...lately I can just…”
“That poor man,” a woman in red, sitting on the other side of the room, whispered to a woman in blue. “Just last year he was on the cover of Time.”
“Of course!” the thin man gasped.
A little blond boy at the next table stopped playing with his spoon and looked at the thin man until a woman with hair just as fair told him not to stare.
“I thought he looked familiar,” the woman in blue whispered back.
“For two years the damn thing’s been staring me in the face,” the thin man laughed, slapping the table hard enough to make little blue, red and pink pills jump in their vials. “Just out of sight but now it’s in plain view and…it’s child’s play, so simple, why didn’t I see it before? Clean, unlimited energy and all we have to do is…”
“More coffee?” the waitress said.
The three men jumped almost as high as the little pills had. Bright, bulging eyes turned up at the woman who stood, feet splayed, holding a glass pot in her right hand.
“Why, yes,” the thin man said, looking about him like a man who has just awakened from a dream and cannot remember where he is.
“As I was saying…”
Then his face went blank and for a second it looked as if it would melt like wax.
“God in heaven,” he screamed, clutching the sides of his head.
“Where did it go!”
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:07 PM PDT
Updated: Monday, 4 May 2009 8:38 PM PDT
Monday, 16 February 2009
Money Buys Everything
The call did not come at a good time for Brad. He had just walked six blocks to get home from In-and-Out, where his car, a 1989 Buick, had decided to die while he sat in line waiting for his cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake. Two young men, who were probably high school seniors or recent graduates, flew out with paper hats on to shove his car into the parking lot as if this were a daily occurrence only somewhat more amusing than working like cogs in a small box.
The cheeseburger was cold, the fries tasted rubbery and the shake was strawberry and not vanilla. He sat on a sofa, munching his lunch and wondering what to do about his car, a clanky, coughing rust bucket monstrosity of a money pit that had already left him so much in debt for repairs that he didn’t have the money for a new car or even a serviceable used one.
On the coffee table in front of him were a neat stack of bills in little white envelopes that made his body from the waist down feel like a sack of stones sitting on quicksand. Gas, electricity, automobile insurance, mortgage, telephone, four nearly maxed-out credit cards. On a good month-and this was not one of them-he had anywhere from two to three hundred dollars left in his titter tottering checking account. And almost every month, like vicious clockwork, he had to cough up even more money to the bank for his overdraft protection.
The DVD player on the television had recently jammed so that he could no longer rent movies, a loss keenly felt by a man who had just given up basic cable to keep costs down. His old electric razor had nipped him this morning so he knew he had to buy a new screen for it. Two lights in the living room were burned out, the carpet was so threadbare that he was ashamed to have anyone come over, his pants were starting to shred at the cuffs, he didn’t have one pair of socks that didn’t have a hole at the heel and when it rained he had to put a plastic bucket in the middle of the kitchen to catch the water.
In all of his 44 years he had never been so poor. As a chauffer he had made pretty good money, and when Brenda, a Rite Aid manager, had lived with him cash was always at hand for eating out, taking trips and paying bills. Then Hi-Life, the company that had employed him for the past 13 years, died as quickly as his Buick; and Brenda left him almost as suddenly, saying that she wanted to get married-just not to him.
He had often thought of packing up a few things and just leaving, maybe for another state, and letting the bank take the house and everything else. But he liked the house. His mother had lived there for the last 11 years of her life and so it reminded him of the house he had grown up in so many happy years ago in Tarzana. She had left it to him, along with the $100,080 mortgage which, he knew, was small in comparison to what most people owed for the roof over their head.
“I should be able to make do,” he had started muttering to himself on occasion.
Brad finished his lunch, then stuffed balled up napkins and wrappers into the white paper bag it had come in. He thought about taking a hot shower and then remembered that he had to do something about his car. After pulling out a half dozen pieces of paper, an old library card and his driver’s license, he finally found his Southern California Automobile Club card and saw that, mercifully, it had not yet expired.
There was still a God.
He turned it over in his hands, read the number on the back and then picked up a slim, sliver cordless phone Brenda had brought back once from Rite Aid.
It was at that instant that the phone rang right in the palm of his hand.
For a split second he thought that maybe it was the triple A, calling him.
Hey Brad, is your car okay?
Well, that would be service.
“Hello,” he said.
“Is this Mister Loomis?” a man’s voice said.
“That would be me,” Brad said heavily, wondering what charitable organization was about to ask him for money. Boy, did they have the wrong number!
“Yes sir, that would be me,” Brad repeated.
“Well, Mister Loomis, you probably don’t remember me. My name is Chad Davis. You drove me to LAX several times. I tried calling Hi Life but was told they’re no longer in business.”
“I remember you, of course,” Brad said. “But if you’re looking for a driver…”
“No, no, I’m calling for an entirely different reason. I’m calling on behalf of a client of mine. I think you remember that I’m a lawyer?”
Brad remembered and gripped the phone hard. Great. Now what, he was being sued? Of course, the end of a perfect day.
“Anyway,” Chad Davis, attorney-at-law, continued. “As I said, I’m calling on behalf of one of my clients. Is this a good time to talk?”
“Well,” Brad breathed into the speaker. “I suppose. What’s this about?”
“I have a client who asked me to, well, select a suitable candidate. A business proposition, you might say. For some reason you came to mind. I think that it might be to your advantage to meet with him. Are you still there?”
“I’m here,” Brad said, feeling his pulse quicken. He still had his chauffeur’s license. Maybe things were starting to look up. A job driving some rich guy could be a good gig. He had always liked driving and was tired of working at a hardware store run by a fat, hot-tempered Greek with hair coming out of the back of his shirt like a thousand short fuses.
“Good, good. I’m not at liberty to tell you the name of my client over the phone but I thought that we might get together for dinner. Are you free tonight?”
“I am,” Brad said.
“Excellent,” Chad Davis said. “What about, say, six?”
Brad said that six would be fine and then gave the lawyer his address.
“Fine, fine. You decide which restaurant and I’ll meet you at six.”
Brad sat looking at the phone in his hand for so long that it started to beep. He pressed the off key and took a deep breath.
Well, that was weird. Opportunity had come knocking when he least expected it. Sometimes, he knew, things just worked out that way, although he had come close to giving up hope. As someone on the radio once said, if you know how to ask the universe will provide. Maybe without even knowing it he had asked.
Chad Davis was a young looking man with short, white hair that stood straight up on his head. He had a large mouth that smiled easily and often. His face was long and his gray eyes were close together, giving him a look that was intense but not uncomfortably penetrating. When he spoke his head moved from side to side as if everything he said could be taken with a pinch of well intended irony. He wore a navy blue sports jacket, a white, pin stripped shirt and a tie with the faint outline of little birds flying into each other and merging. His blue slacks looked crisp, as if they had been ironed an hour ago and he had on soft looking white shoes that sparkled.
Brad sat across from him in Domenico’s, an Italian restaurant, feeling like a chunk of carnival fudge next to an elegant, four star hotel dessert. He had on his best white shirt with no tie and a pair of gray slacks that felt like strips of tired cloth. His dull, heavy brown shoes must look, he thought, as if they had just come from the set of a Frankenstein movie.
“I must have sounded like a man of mystery over the phone,” Chad said, displaying rows of perfect, white teeth.
Brad shrugged. A waiter who looked as if he had spent a lifetime eating pasta was coming their way. He looked at the prices on the menu with some alarm, hoping the good lawyer would pick up the tab, telling himself not to give himself away by ordering the cheapest dish he could find.
“Well,” he said. “It did strike me as more than a little strange to tell you the truth. What’s this all about?”
Chad shrugged in turn, continuing to smile, and said, “Why don’t we order and then I’ll spill the little bag of beans I have.”
They ate in silence for the first few minutes of their meal. Brad had ordered linguini in white clam sauce and was surprised to see that it came with whole clams still in the shell. He sipped at his red wine, wishing that he had stuck to his guns and ordered a beer instead of going along with what Chad had suggested. Although he didn’t normally drink wine he did have to admit, though, that this particular red wasn’t bad.
“I have a client you may have heard of,” Chad said, winding pasta onto his fork with a spoon.
Brad looked up, nodded. He took a sip of his ice water, trying not to look either impressed or sullen. He had spent the day telling himself not to expect anything but he nonetheless couldn’t help a feeling of keen anticipation. It wasn’t everyday, after all, that a lawyer called him up out of the blue to invite him to dinner.
Brad set his glass down. In the background Dean Martin sang about the moon hitting you in the eye like a big pizza pie. He had always wondered what it would be like to be hit in the eye with a pizza. And why would a pizza be called a pie? It wasn’t anything like a pie.
“You mean,” Brad said, expecting to be told, ‘no, of course not’, “the Raymond Rutherford?”
“Exactly,” Chad said, setting down his fork as if it were a fragile piece of jewelry. “The Raymond Rutherford.”
“Raymond Rutherford,” Brad said, feeling his eyes widen to owl proportions. “Is your client?”
“Well, let me put it this way,” Chad said, picking up his wine glass by the stem. “I’ve done some consulting work for some of his firms. So you can be impressed but not too impressed.”
“He’s one of the richest men…” Brad started to say.
“Actually, according to reliable sources, he is the richest man on the entire face of the planet,” Chad said, looking straight into Brad’s eyes.
“You ever meet him?” Brad said.
“No. But I have spoken to him by phone. He wants to meet you.”
Brad put his hands under the table to see if his legs were still there. He suddenly felt as if he couldn’t hear anything even though he could hear the other diners, Dean Martin and the thudding of his own heart. A sickening feeling of weakness flowed through him and he had to resist the urge to giggle. The whole thing had to be a joke, a gag, but why? Was he sitting across from a man who was actually insane? He could not have heard that right.
“…so this is the deal, if you’re still with me,” Chad said after he had said something else Brad hadn’t caught. “If you agree to meet with him personally a driver will pick you up Saturday morning, take you to the airport. On arrival another driver will take you to Rutherford’s estate. After the meeting you’ll spend the night there, then fly back. All you have to do is say yes.”
“Why in hell would Raymond Rutherford want to see a man like me!”
“Brad,” Chad said, smoothing the napkin on his lap. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know. All I do know for sure is that it might be in your interest to see him. If nothing comes of it you have nothing to lose. You will have at least, I’m sure, a pleasant weekend with all expenses paid and a pretty good story to tell. So. It’s up to you. I’ll leave you my number if you want to think about it.”
“I don’t know what there is to think about,” Brad said. He knew that he was sitting in a restaurant and that his dead car, towed by a driver who spoke Polish on a cell phone, waited for him like a rotting carcass in his driveway. He knew that he had to wait for his next pay check to have enough money for the mortgage. He knew that his life, however sad and ridiculous, made a certain amount of sense. But this didn’t make any sense and every trustworthy cell in his brain told him to run and run far away.
“I mean, are you messing with me?”
Chad didn’t laugh, smile, shake his head or look away. He looked levelly into Brad’s eyes and said, “No.”
“You’re telling me something but you’re not telling me anything,” Brad said.
Chad picked up his napkin and then wiped his lips. His face suddenly seemed to fill up the room. When he spoke his voice was lower, as if coming from the center of his chest.
“I want to tell you something. You look at me and see, what? A suit? A big shot lawyer? When I was a freshman in college all I wanted to do was drink beer and hang out with friends who wanted to do the same. My parents didn’t think I’d amount to anything and I was determined to prove them right. One day I found out that I had just gotten a D in American history, so I thought that I’d go out and celebrate. I went to a bar. I thought that I’d have a few drinks and then go home and tell my parents that I was through with college. My big plan was to go to sea or deal cards in Las Vegas. In other words, I didn’t have a clue. And then, when I was sitting there with my beer, my whole life flashed in front of me, like I was drowning, and I felt this incredible despair. It felt like I had spent my life telling a joke that was no long funny. Then this guy at the other end of the bar starts talking to the bartender. He’s telling a story about getting into a fight with his neighbor, how it turned into a fist fight and how this lawyer kept him from going to jail. Just like that something clicked in my brain. I suddenly had a vision of what I could do. If I hadn’t gone to that particular bar at that exact time in my state of confusion, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Call it coincidence, call it an act of divine intervention, all I know is that sometimes we are at the right place at the right moment and the question is, what do we do next.
“Raymond Rutherford asked me to write out a list of names. I don’t know for sure why I wrote yours. When you drove me to LAX once I remember getting into a conversation about health and you told me that you really were one of those rare people who have never been sick a day in his life. For some reason that stuck in my mind. And as for not getting sick, it’s true. We checked. Don’t be so alarmed. No one has much privacy these days. I know that others were asked to make lists, too. For some reason you were picked. So. Here we are. The question is, what are you going to do?”
Like a magician performing a trick, Chad produced an envelope as if from thin air.
“This is for you,” he said, extending his arm. “You can keep it regardless of your decision.”
A half hour later Brad sat on his bed with the envelope resting on his lap. There was a large gold seal on the flap which filled Brad with a strange sense of dread, as if it were something that, once broken, could not be undone.
He stretched out on his back, closed his eyes and put the envelope on his chest. Visions of his parents swam up from a dark depth in his mind. They had both died relatively young, one of heart disease and the other of cancer. And yet he himself had never been sick a day in his life. Not even mumps, whooping cough, measles, flu or even the common cold. Why? And what did it have to do with Raymond Rutherford?
“I’ll wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a scar on my abdomen,” he said to himself and then shuddered instead of laughed.
Leaving the envelope with its gold seal face up on the bed, he took a long, hot shower. While lathering his face from a sliver of soap the joke about waking up in a tub of ice triggered a massive realization that left him stupefied. He could hardly believe that during his entire time with Chad he had failed to remember what had been in the headline news.
Raymond Rutherford, the 87-year-old reclusive billionaire, was dying.
Brad dried off quickly, put on an old pair of stripped pajamas and a thin blue robe his ex had given him for Christmas two years ago. He paced back and forth, looking at the envelope as if it were a bomb. Damn! Just a few hours ago all he had to worry about was his car and now this. He took out a pack of Swisher Sweet cigars but then put them back. The seal twinkled at him like a large gold eye. I see you it seemed to say.
What are you going to do?
He sat down next to the envelope, picked it up and then flapped it against the palm of his hand. All I have to do, he told himself, is open it; but when he tried his heart began to thud in his chest like a rubber hammer.
“Well, it’s here, I have it so I might as well,” he said.
The seal popped open easily. Feeling himself start to sweat all over he slid out the contents and then sat there staring with a mixture of terror, delight and awe. In his hand were a note and five crisp one hundred dollar bills.
“Dear Mr. Loomis, I hope to make your acquaintance in the next few days. Please accept this small token of my gratitude in exchange for whatever inconveniences my solicitation may have caused you.
“Jesus H Christ.” Brad, a good Catholic who rarely took the Lord’s name in vain, said.
He tried to watch television but turned it off after only a few seconds. After sitting cross legged on his bed for what seemed like hours he finally took off his robe and crawled into bed. With the light still on he stared up at the ceiling. The last time he had felt this way, he thought, was when he was four or five and afraid of monsters under his bed. He had five hundred dollars for doing, what? Getting a free meal? Having been a driver once for one of his lawyers?
It was around 3 in the morning before he fell into a restless sleep. He was in the old house in Tarzana, wandering room to room as if he were a disembodied ghost. His mother, wearing a Hawaiian print mu-mu over her large frame, took something on fire out of the oven. He floated into the living room, which quickly turned dark, and then he was outside in the driveway, looking at his dad. The old man stood in his faded blue jeans, looking up at the black sky. His salt and pepper hair was tied back in its familiar ponytail; and his body looked skeletal, as if there were not enough muscles to keep it from collapsing in on itself. He wasn’t talking but seemed to whisper directly into his son’s mind.
you know what they say, boy
money buys everything
It was called a waiting room but it was the largest waiting room he had ever seen in his life. The floor looked like a great, flowing mosaic of black, charcoal and pearl white marble. The windows were enormous, out of which Brad could see what looked like a private forest. Black sofas and chairs were arranged in a semi-circle on a huge Persian rug, bookcases made of gleaming gold colored wood lined one wall and a black grand piano slept in a corner, letting light pool and slip off its smooth ivory keys.
Brad sank into one of the sofas, looked at the new clothes he had bought with part of his new found wealth, and then looked again at his watch. After spending four hours in one plane, 45 minutes on another and then riding in a limousine for an hour and a half, he had been kept waiting in this room for over two hours and felt tired, achy and light-headed. Every 30 minutes, like clock-work, a young woman with short blonde hair and a skirt that came all the way to her ankles came in to ask him, with an apologetic smile on her bright little face, if he wanted coffee, tea or something to eat.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Brad said the last time she came in.
“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. “If you want, I could turn on a radio or a television for you.”
“I don’t think so but thank you,” Brad said, trying to hide his nervousness.
“Well, if you need anything just pick up the phone over there on the table,” she said, pointing.
“Okay,” Brad said, wondering what she would say to him once she knew that this had all been a mistake, that he had no business being there in the first place.
Oh dear, um, I’m afraid we have to ask you to leave now
There were magazines on the table but they were all Golf Digest and Southern Living. He thought that if they knew so much about him why they hadn’t bothered to leave a few football or car magazines around. Well, he was in the world of the rich now, and apparently the rich cared only about golf and gracious living on the plantation.
With every passing minute he felt more like an unwelcome guest who arrived late and now won’t leave. He got up, stretched, and then walked around the room for the eighth or ninth time, stopping to look out the window at enormous fir trees a hiker could walk around on wide, well-tended paths.
He went to the bathroom, shut the door and looked at himself in the large, gold framed mirror. Nerves tingled from the base of his spine all the way up to the back of his neck. A billionaire wanted to see him. A dying billionaire. He studied his face. A friend in high school had once said that he looked like a sleepy hippo. With his heavy cheeks, small eyes, little ears and large forehead, he supposed that he did look like a sleepy, rather stupid hippo.
“What in the hell have you gotten yourself into,” he said.
He washed his hands with soap that smelled of lavender and then dried them with the softest towel he had ever felt. When he opened the door he was afraid that the little blonde girl would be standing there, but the big room was empty. Outside, the sun tossed medallions of gold on the trunks of the trees. By his watch it was four o’clock, or at least it was four in California.
The golf magazines were as boring as he had expected. He wanted this to be over but he also wished that nothing would happen and that he would just go home. It was like the time he had joined the navy, sitting on a bus that would take him to San Diego. During the entire trip he silently prayed that the bus would never stop, that he could sit there forever and never face the horrors of boot camp.
“Well, I’m here, so I might as well get through it,” he said, tossing a magazine to the table and then looking with trepidation at the phone. What if it rang and was the automobile club?
Hey, Brad. Triple A here. We just wanted to know what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into.
Almost an hour went by before the little blonde girl came back in. For a moment he couldn’t remember her name but knew that it reminded him of a musical. Annie, that was it. Like the orphan girl with the blank, spooky eyes.
“Mister Loomis,” she said, holding her hands together in front of her stomach. “Mister Rutherford will see you now.”
Brad stood up, wishing he had taken her offer earlier of something to eat. But then his stomach clenched and he thought better of it.
“Okay,” he said with a dry mouth and dry lips that felt sticky.
He followed her into the hallway and was greeted by a young man who was also thin and blond.
“Thank you, Annie,” the man said. “Hi, Mister Loomis. Why don’t you follow me?”
Brad began to walk, wonder when he had been called mister so many times in one day. The young man wore a powder blue coat that matched the outfit Annie wore. He wondered if it was a kind of uniform.
“Sorry for the long wait,” the man said. “You have a good flight?”
“I ate some pretty good food,” Brad said. “But I’d already seen the movies.”
The young man responded with a genuine, good-natured laugh.
“Flying first class is pretty nice, uh?”
“That it is,” Brad had to admit. “And the bar in the limo was well stocked.”
“Well, I’ll show you on in,” the man said, opening a door that looked as if it were made of solid oak. “My name is Alfred, by the way. When you’re ready to come out you can eat in your room or we’ll have someone take you to one of our local restaurants. Any thing you want.”
“That sounds fine,” Brad said. “Thank you.”
He walked into the room expecting to find it dark, gloomily furnished, full of medical equipment and permeated with the smell of medicine and sickness. Instead, he walked into a large, warm but airy room filled with bright greens and comforting yellows. A glass door at one end displayed like a picture frame an outdoor courtyard with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Large, luminous landscapes hung on the walls. A few strange, Egyptian looking sculptures stood like polished black sentinels in the corners. A fire had been lit in the fireplace. There was a hint of disinfectant but more of leather and vanilla candles.
The great man himself was not in bed, as Brad had feared, but was sitting in a chair dressed in a white sweater, white slacks and a pair of brown slippers. His small head was entirely hairless. Brad had seen that kind of baldness before as he watched his father die. It said radiation and chemo. Small translucent tubes were attached to his nose on one end and a blue tank on the other. His skin was gray and slack but the eyes were bright, blue and lively.
“Please come in, Mister Loomis,” Raymond Rutherford said in a voice that was small and weak but not unpleasant. It reminded Brad of someone who had once made television programs for children.
Brad approached on carpet that felt soft and deep enough to sleep on. His hands hung at his sides, clenched and sweaty. So this is it, he thought. Rich man, poor man. Should he bow or get on his knees?
As if reading his mind the old man pointed to a chair next to him. “Have a seat, please. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Strength is our only true wealth, I’ve always thought, and mine must be carefully conserved these days.”
Brad sat down. He put his hands on his knees and tried to smile with a face that felt like a rubber mask.
“I’m so happy to meet you at last,” the old man said.
“Thank you,” Brad said in a voice he hoped was not too stiff.
“Chad said some very nice things about you. I know you must have a great many questions and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can. It was very kind of you to respond to my invitation. There must be a part of you that has a sense of adventure. A strange message from someone you’ve never met. A journey into the unknown. What is it all about?”
Brad had to suppress a nervous giggle. “Well, sir,” he said. “I can’t imagine why you would want to meet me of all people.”
Raymond Rutherford put his head down. For a second Brad was afraid that he would fall asleep. Or die.
“Call it what you will,” his host said, lifting up a face that, Brad thought, must have been handsome once. ”Fate, coincidence, the working out of divine providence. I’m not the philosophical type. I grew up working in my father’s machine shop and never made it past high school. Some questions, I believe, are better left to others. If I need to know something I ask and if something works I leave it alone. Call it a simple formula for a successful life. For whatever reason you are here, here you are. To come straight to it, I’m prepared to offer you a deal.”
He said the word deal like ‘deel’, as if to emphasize its rhyme to steel. Or steal.
“You don’t have to sign any contracts,” Raymond Rutherford said. “Just hear me out, and if you say yes I will authorize the transfer of twelve million dollars into your bank account. Having said that, do you want me to continue?”
Brad felt something in his chest cave in. This was worse than what he had expected. He wasn’t being offered a job-how could he anyway since the man was dying?-but now he knew that what he was face to face with was some kind of dementia. Still, he thought, Chad had been right anyway. Nothing ventured nothing gained.
“I don’t understand,” Brad found himself saying slowly. “What is it you want?”
“Oh a great many things,” the old billionaire said with a look of resignation on his tired, gray face. “Some of which I can get, others not. The world is in one hell of a fix, don’t you agree? I don’t think that I’m indispensable but there are a few things of importance I’d like to see to completion. Time, in other words, is what I want. What you are really asking me is what I want from you, correct?’
“Yes,” Brad said.
The old man fixed him with his blue, lively eyes and said, “it’s very simple, Mister Loomis. I want you to die for me.”
Brad felt the tip of his nose and his lips turn numb. This was far beyond dementia. This was insanity.
“The money will be yours to do with as you wish for as long as you can,” Raymond Rutherford said calmly, as if he had just asked Brad to drive him to the airport.
“I don’t understand,” Brad said. “Are you…you want to kill me or something? Donate my heart or lungs?”
“Nothing of the kind, Mister Loomis. Nothing of the kind. No operation and no one will touch a hair on your head. All you have to do is say yes and then go home. A little agreement between us is all I’m asking. You won’t have to do a thing.”
Brad sat back in his chair and emptied his lungs through his open mouth. A part of him wanted to tell the decrepit bastard to go to hell but another part said, hell, why not humor the old goat? Sure, why not? The guy was nuts and he didn’t stand to see a penny of his money but what if he did say yes? What harm could it do? He spent money every week on the lottery. Maybe this had better odds.
“Okay, Mister Rutherford,” Brad said, looking at how the old man brightened like a magician who has just pulled off a trick he didn’t expect to work. “Yes. That’s my answer.”
Two weeks later Brad awakened at his usual time even though he no longer had a job to go to. The first time he had looked at his bank statement he had felt his knees turn to wet sand. Raymond Rutherford had been as good as his word. By merely saying yes to a man who was probably not in his right mind he had become a multi-millionaire.
At first he had been happy-euphoric, really, but then something seemed to catch up to him. He sat on the edge of the bed, looked down at the floor, thought of his parents and how much he still missed them and said with bitterness in the pit of his stomach, “No, dad. Money doesn’t buy everything.”
He thought about what he had planned that day and cheered up a little. First, he would go to a restaurant and have breakfast, buy a new car (his first new car ever), come back home, put on a pot of coffee, sit at the kitchen table and begin writing out his business plan for Loomis Limousine Service. He thought that it would keep him busy and provide jobs for a few people. Not a bad reason to start any new business, he thought.
As he shuffled to the bathroom to shave and brush his teeth he turned on the television. He washed his hands, took out his toothbrush and heard the news that Raymond Rutherford had been seen in public for the first time in months at the opening of a new art gallery.
“Good for him,” Brad said, thinking about his own new life. This was going to be some day. It would be a day in which he would discover a whole new relationship to money and time.
It would also be the day he discovered a small, strange lump on the back of his left shoulder.
Posted by james-hazard
at 2:47 PM PST
Updated: Monday, 16 February 2009 3:45 PM PST
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
When I am 93
When I am 93
I will live on the far shore of a lake
Miles and a day from the city.
You won’t feel the dry
Parchment skin of my hands
Or see the folded ruins of my face.
We’ll talk by phone
On signals bounced through space.
The old cords will waver and quaver
And my words will crackle with mirth
In a voice so used to weeping.
Posted by james-hazard
at 11:12 AM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 21 January 2009 11:21 AM PST
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Pete and Emma
I was a small boy when my father told me this story. I don’t know if it’s a folk tale, a modern work of fiction or just something my father heard once when he was a small boy. If the reader knows where it comes from I would certainly like you to enlighten me; but if it remains a mystery I won’t be too unhappy. Wherever it comes from it has always seemed to me to exemplify some basic principal of our emotional makeup, which is that love, no matter where it comes from, has some enduring value. I hope that my own rendition does it justice and that you enjoy it.
On the edge of a town that lay nestled in the crook of a long, lazy, emerald green river, a man named Pete lived in a small, drafty, one room shack with his golden retriever, Emma. He had lived in that ramshackle excuse for a house since the age of fourteen and had never set foot in another state, county or town. Pete didn’t like people; he had spent almost all of his life avoiding them and the people of the town were only too happy to keep him at a safe distance as well. Tall, thin, shriveled, blind in one eye and nearly deaf, he looked like a squinting, scowling, slightly crooked scarecrow cobbled together by a bad tempered farmer intent on scaring away kids and giving crows a heart attack.
The room he lived in was full of warped old wooden furniture scavenged from the dump. Decaying stacks of paperback books swollen from rain water, yellowed newspaper and old Hollywood gossip magazines lined the walls and buried lopsided card tables. Inside dusty cabinets, some with doors, some without, were cans of beans, peaches, sardines and assorted bags of dog food.
Pete made a few dollars a week rummaging through garbage, collecting old broken dolls, radios, pill boxes, tea pots, fishing rods and anything else he could repair and then sell to those who were slightly less poor than himself. At night he’d light a kerosene lamp, feed Emma, eat a little food and then smoke his pipe with whatever tobacco he had managed to scrape together. Before he went to bed he would talk to Emma about everything they had done that day, then stroke her head and scratch behind her ears before going to sleep. They always lay back to back, which kept them both warm and comfortable.
Pete had found Emma one day at what he called his office. She had been placed in a bare cardboard box and left at the dump next to a stack of lumpy mattresses and a dresser with only two legs. Pete ran his hands over the trembling puppy to make sure she hadn’t been hurt, picked her up and then put her under his coat to keep her warm. Instead of working that day he returned to his shack, made a small bed and then set out to buy food suitable for a dog her age. It had never occurred to Pete to do anything but adopt the puppy. He had always felt abandoned himself.
They became an inseparable pair after that first day and could often be seen in the dump, fishing or in town, Emma in his back pack and then, in no time at all, trotting next to Pete.
Those years, which were the happiest in Pete’s life, seemed to pass like leaves dropping from a tree. He was 75, then 80, then 86. One day he awakened feeling unnaturally refreshed. His vision wasn’t cloudy, his right knee, which had been giving him sharp pains, moved like new, and he could hear the birds singing outside. He stood up, stretched, and then remembered something someone had said in a book.
“You get up and don’t feel no aches and pains,” the man in the book had said. “Chances are, you’re dead.”
Pete remembered those words with a chill. He turned around, looked down at the bed and, sure enough, there was his body, stiff as a board and white as the belly of a fish.
The old man shrugged and then, light as a feather, walked out the door of his shack. There before him was a marble staircase that spiraled up and up into the radiant clouds above. Pete thought that since he had nothing better to do he’d climb up those steps to see what was at the top. He wasn’t afraid of being dead; and only hoped that in heaven there would be eggs and grits.
After climbing up those hard stone steps for what seemed like hours he looked down but could no longer see his shack or the town below. When he finally got to the top he saw the most beautiful gate he’d ever seen. Pete had spent his whole life walking past old, broken fences made of wood, barbed wire or bent, rusty iron with NO TRESPASSING! signs on them but this gate was made of glittering gold, pure silver, cream colored pearl and huge, sparkling diamonds. As Pete approached it he noticed a man, sitting high above him, who looked even older than himself.
“I reckon you guard this here gate,” Pete said, wishing he had at least changed his shirt and combed his hair before leaving home.
“Yes sir I do and I’ve been waiting for you, Pete,” the man said. He clasped his hands and then hunched his shoulders, which made the folded wings on his back rise up a little. Gold rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. Except for his rather penetrating black eyes he looked like a kindly grandfather about to tell a story or whittle a doll out of a block of wood.
“Well,” Pete said, scratching his head. “I’m here all right. I don’t know what you’re gonna tell me but whatever it is you might as well say it straight out.”
“Pete,” said the old man, frowning. “I’m afraid I don’t have much good news for you. You see, it doesn’t take a great act of heroism or belief in any particular idea from a book to get into heaven. Folks don’t have to pass a test or list all the good they’ve done. Nope, we don’t demand all that much. You just have to be sociable. Why invite anyone in who isn’t at least sociable? But try as we might up here, we haven’t found a single person that will even miss you. Folks in town thought you were just an old crazy codger who hated everyone. It makes me sad to say this, but we just might have to find some other place for you. I’m truly sorry because I’ve seen worse than you get in but, well, those are the rules.”
“I figured on as much,” Pete said. “I guess I always knowed I was an old crazy codger.”
Still, he looked at the beautiful gate with longing. From where he was he could hear laughter and the music of banjos and fiddles.
“Heaven must be a mighty fine place,” he thought. “Can’t says I blame them if they don’t want the likes of me.”
He was about to turn away and walk back to whatever there was to walk back to when he and the guardian of the gate heard a long, low cry of sorrow. It was the anguished howl of a grieving dog.
“That must be Emma,” Pete said, wiping away a tear. “I guess she just found out I passed on.”
The angel stroked his chin, consulted a book for several minutes, and then cleared his throat.
“You come on back here, Pete,” he said. “According to the rules, all they say is that you have to love and that someone has to love you back. There’s nothing says it can’t be a dog.”
“But what about Emma?” Pete said. “She’s the only friend I ever had and I don’t want her to be by herself.”
“We’ll make sure she gets taken in by a good family, and in no time at all she can join you,” said the angel, who had come down to take Pete by the hand.
“Right now, there’s a concert, and plenty of folks who’d be happy and proud to help make heaven your home.”
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:22 PM PST
Updated: Sunday, 14 December 2008 5:30 PM PST
Sunday, 21 September 2008
Part One: What’s the plot?
“Close your eyes, take two deep breathes, imagine you’re at home, stretched out in bed or on the couch and that you’re drifting off to sleep on a warm, lazy afternoon.”
The young, tall and thin woman named Shelia took the blood-pressure cuff off my arm, took my pulse and then continued to talk.
“Feel the sun on your face, feel how warm and drowsy you are becoming.”
I crossed my legs, hoped no one would say I couldn’t, and then took two deep breathes. A machine on my left whirred softly. I heard someone typing on a keyboard. Shelia smelled like rose petals she had crushed with her fingers.
“I’m putting on the headset now,” she said. “They might feel a bit cold.”
The metal clamps were actually so light that I could hardly feel them. I waited for something to happen but felt nothing.
“You okay, Mister Hobbes?” she said. She leaned directly over my head. I heard another technician on the other side of the room flipping through papers on a clipboard. A door squeaked open and then shut with a faint click. The room was cold as ice but my neck was sweaty. Another set of footsteps came toward me.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Count backwards from ten,” she said.
When all that monkey business was over I took the elevator, stopped at the second floor and then walked over to room number 212, the office of Doctor Jamison. He sat at his desk looking at a computer screen and hardly seemed to know I was there.
“What the hell was that all about?” I said. “That machine supposed to put people to sleep or something?”
The good doctor kept looking at his screen, twiddling with a letter opener, moving his lips slowly as if sounding out letters to himself. He was one of those old guys who like to keep their gray hair long and tied in the back. For some reason guys like that are always skinny and shriveled looking, like those hard sticks of meat that have been stuck in a plastic tube too long.
“Oh it’ll put you to sleep all right,” he said, swiveling toward me. I didn’t like his teeth. They stuck out of his mouth at the wrong angle, like a rat’s.
“It’s just that your panel wasn’t really on.”
“I get it,” I said. “All the lights and gizmos but no juice.”
“That’s it,” he said, grinning with the tips of his rat’s teeth touching his bottom lip.
“So,” I said, leaning back in my chair. There were all kinds of framed credentials, certificates, degrees and awards on the walls, all written in fancy script no one can read. There was a big glass jar on his desk filled with red, yellow and blue jaw breakers. The guy’s a doctor of something or other and he has jaw breakers on his desk, I thought. I wondered what he would look like with his jaw broken and the rest of his head crushed.
“Fill me in on the plot,” I said.
“I wanted you to have an alibi, that’s all,’ he said, lacing his fingers.
“I don’t need an alibi because no one’s gonna know I was anywhere,” I said. “You think Hobbes is my real name? As far as you or anyone else is concerned I’m in Washington State right now and was never here.” Of course, I’ve never been to Washington State in my life but now was not the time to open up and share.
Fact is, the egghead was already starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t like the fact that we were in his office, number one. With all the hardware this place had how was I to know someone wasn’t listening in?
He slid a fat envelope toward me. I picked it up, smacked it against the palm of my other hand and then put it in my pocket.
“You don’t want to count it?” he said.
“You better hope you counted it,” I said.
“It’s what we agreed on,” he said, looking at the jar as if we were talking about goddamn jawbreakers.
“Okay, then,” he said, twiddling with the letter opener again. “Then…I’ve got a plane to catch for a conference in Oakland.”
“And I’ve got a conference to go to myself,” I said.
The silly old bastard actually let out a giggle. Some job this is going to be, I thought as I got up to leave.
“Thank you Mister Hobbes,” he said, turning to look at his screen again.
“Yeah it’s been a hoot,” I said as I went to the door.
Chris was on the bed rubbing some kind of white stone on her feet when I got back to the motel. She didn’t look up when I walked in. The woman lived for three things-her feet, her nails and her hair.
“How was it?” she said.
“A bunch of crap with computers,” I said, sitting down with my back to her on the other side of the bed. The air conditioner was on, sounding like a small plane warming up for takeoff. “The guy’s as nutty as a fruitcake. We gotta go up to Oakland to collect the rest.”
I opened the envelope, flipped through the bills and then pulled out the slip of paper that had the address of the conference and the hotel he’d be staying at.
“Make it quick and clean, Harry,” she said. “This place is making my skin dry.”
I took a long, hot shower, something I always do when I want to think. Newspaper headlines ran through my head. Wife of Prominent Doc Found Dead, a Victim of Apparent Home Invasion Robbery. Yeah, that was the idea, but there was another headline in my head somewhere. I just couldn’t make it out. The complimentary shampoo smelled like coconut. I washed my hair twice, trying to make out the words but they wouldn’t come. Something was wrong with this job, I felt it in my guts. What was that crack about an alibi supposed to mean? Why would he risk someone seeing me in his office?
“Did I ever tell you how much I hate New Jersey?” I said as I dried off.
Chris was using a stick to sandpaper her fingernails. She had the television on but wasn’t watching the screen. It looked like a children’s show about nature was on.
“I think you mentioned it once or twice,” she said.
“I want to go to Canada,” I said, trying to figure out how to turn on the hairdryer.
When I had finished drying my hair and getting dressed I checked my duffle bag to make sure I had everything I would need. This is not my usual job and I was not completely sure of myself; but as I sat and looked at my watch I thought that maybe it was time to expand my professional skills and look for more lucrative opportunities like this. One must diversify in order to survive, I had once heard on a radio talk show. One must also be flexible and willing to adapt, too. If that meant taking on risks, well then, so be it. Anything was better than the usual nine to five. I hadn’t done that in twenty years and I wasn’t about to go back now.
“I want to go and get something to eat,” Chris said. “You want me to wait till you get back or should I just bring you back something?”
“Bring me something back,” I said. “You know what I like. No fries, though. I don’t like them when they’re cold.”
“Okay. I’ll just go across the street to that Burger King. You know what I’ve been thinking about?”
“No,” I said.
“I could become a foot model.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I knew a girl once who did it. Worked for shoe catalogs, just took pictures of her feet. Someone told me once that I have perfect feet. So I could do that. Don’t you think?”
“It’s a way to make a living,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. That way I won’t have to dress up or wax my bikini area.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
I looked at the door and tried to conjure up that other newspaper headline but it refused to materialize. A long time ago I attended a few AA meetings. I never stopped drinking but I did stop getting drunk and I attribute that to getting in touch with a higher power. Maybe that’s what I was doing then, getting in touch with my higher power, waiting to see if it was trying to tell me something. Rational people, I think, shouldn’t be afraid of conversing with mysterious powers. Chris would never understand that and so I never said anything about that to her. I figured that one day I’d do what I usually do. Go to a K-Mart or Wall Mart, tell her to pick up some cosmetics while I looked at exercise equipment, and then get in my car and drive off. It’s good to get out of co-dependent relationships. That’s something else I got from an AA meeting.
At eight thirty I gave Chris a peck on the cheek. She told me to be careful and I said that I would. I got in the car, drove to a gas station that had a pay phone, and then made a phone call.
“Hi,” I said after the woman answered. “Is this Cynthia Jamison?”
“Wallace Feldman from Secure Home Advantage.”
“Hi. I was just calling to confirm your appointment. I should be there in about ten minutes.”
“Let’s see,” I said, trying to sound as if I were reading off an appointment book. “You’re at 22 Archer Way.”
“Third house on the left side of the street,” she said.
“That’s fine,” I said. “See you in a few minutes, then.”
I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. So far so good. I walked back to the car, got in, adjusted my tie and checked my hair, wondering if I looked like a man who worked for a home security business. Well, I thought, close enough. Evidently the good doctor had done a good enough job of convincing his wife that they needed a burglar alarm but, wouldn’t you know it, the man could only come to give them an estimate while he was out of town. Not bad. It could work.
As I drove I concentrated on two things: my driving (a ticket now would mess everything up for sure) and filling my mind with positive thoughts. I had once read a whole book devoted to the science of positive thinking. Egg heads like the doc probably smirk when people talk about positive thinking but I’m a big believer and so far it’s worked. You have to visualize what it is you’re trying to accomplish. This is what athletes, artists and business people do. So I thought about what I was going to do in as much detail as I could. And it worked. It greatly increased my sense of confidence.
I parked in front of the house, unzipped the duffle bag and then took out everything I’d need. A couple of weeks ago I went to a place called T-Shirt World. You’d think that would be a big store but it was only a tiny hole in the wall run by some left-over from the sixties, a balding guy who still braided what hair he had left into a pony tail. I bought a blue cap and a blue windbreaker jacket and had SHA in big gold letters stitched on them. I put them on and then took out the transparent clipboard I had bought at Sandy’s Stationary World. Boy, by the way people name their crappy little businesses you’d think they had egos the size of Jupiter. I put in a few sheets of graft paper on the clipboard, made sure that I had a few nerdy looking pens, calculator and company brochures in my breast pocket (there really is a company called Secure Home Advantage) and then put on a pair of glasses that had clear plastic lenses. It was brought to my attention once-I think by a guy I knew in prison-that women have more trust in a man who wears glasses. Last, I took out the flashlight that I taken apart the day before and filled with lead pipe wrapped in bubble wrap. Time to get this show on the road, I thought.
The porch light turned on as I walked up the front steps. Before I could press the doorbell with the edge of the clipboard a short woman with medium length black hair and a plain face appeared at the metal security door.
“Misses Jamison?” I said.
“Hello,” she said.
“Wallace Feldman from Secure Home Advantage. How are you?”
“I’m okay,” she said, not unlocking, I noticed, the security door.
“I just need to look around for a quick estimate,” I said briskly. “It should only take a few minutes of your time. The estimate is free, as I told your husband, and then the company sends you a quote by mail so you won’t feel pressured into buying anything you don’t want. Can I come in?”
She opened the door, which hadn’t been locked, and then stepped aside. Cynthia Jamison wore a gray sweatshirt with UCLA on it, white short pants that came down to her knees and house slippers with bunnies on them. I liked the slippers and wondered if Chris would want to wear a pair like that. They would make a great Christmas present, I thought.
“You went to UCLA?” I said.
She looked confused for a half second, as if she had forgotten what she had on. I looked around at shelves of leather-bound books, a curio cabinet filled with crystal, a sofa and love seat combo with dark mission style end tables.
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I did my undergraduate work there.”
“I ask because my daughter is there now, studying anthropology. She’s in her third year.”
“Well, I hope she likes it better than I did,” Cynthia Jamison said.
“She gets homesick,” I said. “But other than that she’s fine with it. Uh, let’s see now. You have the front door, and then two back doors, one of them sliding, right? And then there’s an attached garage?”
“That’s right,” she said, standing in the middle of the living room with her arms down at her sides. Her legs were short and stocky and I imagined a body under that sweat shirt that was beginning to look slightly egg shaped. There were red marks around her nose from glasses and it looked as if she were having to squint to keep me in focus. Dumpy, flat footed and nearsighted, she was not going to be a difficult target.
“What I need to do is start at the back of the house,” I said. “Then take a look at the garage, then come back here and we’re done.”
“This way,” she said, starting to pad across the bare wooden floor in her bunny slippers.
The master bedroom was enormous, with one of those king sized beds that you can make go up and down with a remote control. I see them advertised on television all the time. The walls were a soft, light pale green and covered with oil paintings of lakes, mountains and sail boats. I smelled flowers and thought about that girl in the lab who smelled like roses. There were open books and magazines on the bed. I looked at them and saw squiggly numbers and symbols I couldn’t recognize. The carpet was deep and soft, the kind that’s perfect if you don’t have pets.
“If you can open up the sliding glass door,” I said, holding up the flashlight that was beginning to make my arm ache. “So I can take a quick look at the areas around the door, then I can check out the garage.”
She turned around to look at me. Her face was expressionless but there was a tightening around the corners of her mouth, I noticed.
“What do you need to do that for?” she said.
I shrugged, hoping she didn’t know anything about burglar alarms.
“I just need to let the technicians know if there are any places that are not fully secure,” I said. “You can have all the fancy electronic equipment in the world but a latch that doesn’t work, a chipped area around a door, and.”
She didn’t wait for me to finish but turned around and began to unlatch the sliding glass door.
I threw the clipboard on the bed and then quickly stepped behind her, raising the flashlight over my head. She may have seen my reflection in the glass because she started to turn around. It had to be now. I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline and took a deep breath. The angle and amount of force had to be just right or I would only initially wound her and that was not my intent. I wanted her to feel as little as possible. Call me weak or sentimental, but I think that there is far too much suffering in the world and I’ve never had the perverse desire to see people suffer. A bam! and then LIGHTS OUT is what any true professional should strive for. My dad once told me that whatever you do you should try to be the best at it. Maybe my dad, at that instant, was my higher power.
He skipped town before I was in my teens; but who knows?
She went down on her knees. The shock of the blow twisted and rammed my shoulder and spine. I tasted blood in my mouth and guessed that I had bitten my tongue.
“Gug!” she said.
I stood there for a second, vibrating. My heart felt as if would explode. The room danced around me. I tried to breath through lips that felt too big, then knelt down for the final blow.
When it was over I dropped the flashlight and tried to refocus my eyes. There was a strange thudding in my ears as if a padded bell rang in my head. My hands shook so much that it took me what seemed an hour to take the latex gloves from my pocket and then put them on. So much sweat poured down my face that for a moment I was blind.
I felt around the base of her throat but could feel no pulse. For good measure I felt her wrist.
When I heaved myself to my feet I nearly blacked out. Christ, I thought. Maybe this really isn’t my line of work.
I fell back on the bed and put my rubber hands to my face. That’s when I heard the footsteps behind me.
“Is she dead?”
I got up slowly and then turned around.
“Doc…” I said.
“Is she dead?”
“As a doornail,” I said.
He stood in the doorway wearing jeans and a white t-shirt that had the logo of a Las Vegas casino on it. Down at his side, in his right hand, there was a little snub nosed revolver. Of course. Why wouldn’t there be?
It was in the last moments of my life that I saw the headline I had tried so hard to picture.
Professor Kills Intruder
Wife Tragically Killed
And then came the other headline, the one that wouldn’t, of course, be published.
Doc Makes Himself Look Like a Hero and Saves $50,000 on His Hit-Man Fees.
It could work.
I thought, what the hell, and took a lunge for him, felt the top of my head come off, wondered what Chris had got me for dinner, heard a beep beep beep instead of KA-Pow, and
awakened to feel the metal clamps taken off my head.
Too much light. I had to keep my eyes closed.
“He’s out!” Someone screamed.
Hands, a hundred of them, easing me down then lifting me up. I couldn’t get enough air and my heart galloped like a crazed horse.
“Hobbes, you’re out.” Lawrence said.
I went down to the floor and then felt my back on the gurney. A blood pressure cuff squeezed my arm.
“Law…,” I gurgled.
“Don’t try to speak right now,” Doctor Parker said. A hand rubbed alcohol on my shoulder. A needle injected drowsy painkiller into my bloodstream.
I would later be told that I was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Wooorse nidemare,” I babbled just before passing out.
Part Two: A Job to Do
My debriefing lasted a very long time. When I was finally allowed to return to work I sat in front of my computer and slowly tapped out my report. I met with my team several times. Everyone seemed to be very enthusiastic about the results. Doctor Sherry Spiegel told the team that she had been a showgirl in Las Vegas; Doctor Greg Haas reported being an airplane pilot and Doctor Donald Webber said that he had been a reporter on the trail of Big Foot somewhere in the Oregon wilderness. I was the only one who had committed a crime.
My wife Sissy worried about me. She noticed right away that I had lost weight and was having trouble sleeping at night. I told her that I was fine, that the experiment had taken a lot out of me but that I was basically okay.
She didn’t believe me. Neither did I.
I thought about all the lives I could have made in my virtual world and then wondered why I had created the truly scummy, God-awful one I had. The other members of the team hadn’t cured cancer but at least they hadn’t turned into contract killers.
While earning my PhD in psychology I had undergone therapy and the worst revelation about violence that I had made to my counselor, a genial old Gestalt therapist named Burt, was that I had once brought a tomato to pre-school and had hit a boy named Vic in the seat of his pants with it.
Of course, I didn’t think that crime was not in my nature. You don’t study psychology and come away with a sunny picture of the human psyche. But I didn’t steal a watch or forge a check. No, my crime was the big one, and the worst part of it for me was that I had planned and committed it as if it were laundry.
I began getting out of bed at one or two in the morning, wandering the house, feeling the walls and wondering if they were real, if I was real. At odd times during the day I began to experience panic attacks that grew in intensity. In elevators I had trouble breathing, and when anyone walked up behind me I flinched and almost ran away. I could no longer sleep with Sissy and began spending nights on the couch.
Over and over I saw in my mind the back of Cynthia’s head and felt her skull give way from the blow of the flashlight. She was not a fictional character to me, some thing I had dreamt up, but a flesh and blood human being.
One night Sissy crept downstairs in her pajamas to sit next to me on the floor as I lay on the couch. I could tell by the thickness of her voice that she had been crying. This surprised me because my wife is not a woman who cries easily. One night she found our cat Buster on the street in front of our house after a car had killed him. In the morning she told me that she had buried him in the backyard. As I got up, wiping my face, she went downstairs to cook breakfast. On a fishing trip we went on in Florida she snagged her thumb on a hook and even then, as blood ran down her arm, she didn’t shed a single tear or even cry out. After graduating with a PhD in anthropology she spent three years in the jungle as a Peace Corps volunteer; and I always pictured her as a young woman wearing boots and smoking Camels, an intellectual toughened by growing up in Brooklyn in a family of Marines. Tougher than me, a whore who grabbed his PhD in psychology and headed straight into the waiting arms of The Company.
“I think you need help,” she said. “I don’t know everything that’s happening, but I know enough to be scared. Harry, let’s talk. If you can’t talk about what happened then we’ll talk about something else.”
“What do you want me to do,” I said, giggling as fluid filled up my eyes, as my voice cracked. “Make it quick and clean?”
She put her head down and was quiet. The room seemed to fill up with a silent, pulsating energy. I was downstairs, on the couch, my wife beside me. Right? I felt the sides of my head for clamps. No, no, no, I told myself. I know who I am and I know where I am. My heart began to race and I felt wet with perspiration even though the house was cold.
“If you stay here much longer,” I said, hearing my own voice as if it were coming from another part of the room. “Then I’ll have to leave.”
Two days later my wife of twelve years packed up and left to stay with a friend in Seattle. I immediately went to a liquor store, bought two bottles of Scotch and set to work drinking myself into a warm, comfortable coma every night.
One day while I was in the lab Lawrence showed up with two apes from security behind him. He had a weird, somber look on his face, like a funeral home director who has to deal with a hysterical family member.
I was looking at images of myself on a computer screen, drinking cold tomato juice with a twist of lemon and letting two extra-strength pain killers dissolve in my mouth as I fought off a headache that had fallen on my head like a safe. The cerebral transmitters-or clamps, as we called them- were on my head in the video and I looked like a man pleasantly asleep in a dentist’s chair. Then everything changed quickly. I opened my eyes and appeared to look blindly about me as I cried out. The clamps were quickly removed and then, for a moment, I disappeared from the camera’s eye as the team set me down on the gurney. I noticed the time stamp on the bottom of the screen. It read 13 minutes and 27 seconds. The test had been stopped not even half-way through.
“Harry,” Lawrence said, touching my arm as I starred at the screen. “We have to talk in my office. Now.”
“What’s with the goons?” I said. “I’m under arrest or something?”
“Please, don’t make this difficult.”
I shut down my computer and then followed him into his office. He waved me over to a black leather couch and then closed the door. We were completely alone, a rarity; but I felt the presence of the apes outside. They had guns, I knew, and were authorized to use deadly force. The project we were involved with was no joke.
“We have a situation,” he said.
“We found a spook. It’s Reynolds. For the past two years the mother…excuse my French. He downloaded a Trojan horse into his computer. For two years he was sending himself files in encoded e-mails. We have him in custody now but the damage has been done.”
“Reynolds?” I said. “The little bald-headed dweeb we always called Mister Peepers? Who the hell was he working for, Disney?”
“Don’t know yet but we do know the last person he contacted and made a hand off to.”
Lawrence took a deep breath and then rubbed his face. He looked as if he had been up all night. When he got up to walk around his desk he looked like a dazed elephant.
“Harry,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “There’s something I want you to do.”
“As a friend?” I said. “Or does this come with extra pay?”
He removed his hand from his pocket. Even before I could hear in my head the word for what he held every muscle in my body turned to cement. I was paralyzed from the neck down.
Lawrence reached down, opened my hand and then put the jawbreaker into my limp palm.
“The Mexicans have a fascinating expression for this sort of phenomenon. When you are awakening and can’t move they say that the devil is sitting on your chest.”
“The Dev…il,” I said.
“Harry, you’ve become something of a liability. You’re obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re drinking again, can’t work and your wife, Harry. Your wife. When I think about your wife and how much she loves you, Harry, it makes me glad that I’m divorced. Seriously, she loves you so much that she’s willing to take stolen information to a congressional aide in order to expose the project and save you. I don’t know where women like that get their ideas but there it is. This could really throw a monkey wrench into the whole operation and we’ve spent too many years and too much money to let that happen. You know what I mean, Harry. Christ, everyone knows that nuclear weapons have become outdated even if we don’t say that publicly. This weapon can never come to light. Not that it will, of course, but we don’t even want any scandals, any scent that will draw the attention of a reporter.
“Well, Harry, you still with me?”
“Yezz,” I said.
“That’s good because this is the worst part,” he said. “The part I’ll never be able to forgive myself for. Harry, I’m going to give you some instructions.”
“O…hay,” I said.
He turned his back to me.
“I want you to go home. You’ll leave a message on your answering machine. I want you to say, ‘this is Harry. You can leave a message if you want but I probably won’t call back.’ Then you’ll pack for a trip. You’re going to drive to the airport and then fly to Seattle. When you get there you’ll rent a car and then check into the Coast Gateway Hotel. After you check in you’ll get something to eat. When you get back there will be a gun under your pillow. So far so good?”
“Ye…p,” I said.
“You’re going to see your wife. There will be instructions for you about how to arrange that. Listen carefully to what I have to say next. Shoot her once in the head and once in the chest. Next, put the gun into your mouth, point up and then pull the trigger. We have cops working for us so the material temporarily in her possession will be safely retrieved. Everything will be wrapped up quite nicely. A crumbling marriage, alcoholism, murder, suicide. Happens to the best of us, Harry. For what it’s worth I’m goddamn sorry. If it’s any consolation you’ll know that your work-our work-will go on and so will our country.”
“O…day,” I said.
“Goodbye, Harry,” Lawrence said as he sat once more on his desk looking heavy and defeated. “You can move now. Don’t forget to say hi to Sissy.”
Like magic my legs and mouth worked. I stood up.
“I won’t,” I said.
The fact that I was going to shoot my wife and then myself didn’t concern me. A feeling had come over me that I was really at home, stretched out in bed or on the couch and that I was drifting off to sleep on a warm, lazy afternoon. Maybe this was just an interesting show on television. Everything was dreamlike, far away and unreal. I was going to murder my wife and then commit suicide but it didn’t matter. Curiosity was the only spark of emotion left inside of me.
I wanted to know how the show was going to end.
Six hours later I walked into the lobby of the Coast Gateway Hotel. A small, balding Hispanic man wearing a white suit and smiling pleasantly greeted me at the desk.
“Good evening,” he said.
I noticed that he wore a small American flag on his lapel, that his head looked slightly lopsided, and I wondered if he could have sustained fractures on one side of his face while growing up.
“I have a reservation,” I said, setting down my small suitcase. “The name is Hobbes.”
“We have you down for one night,” the man said. “Would you like to pay using the same card?”
“I would,” I said.
“Second floor okay, Mister Hobbes?”
“That would be fine.”
He handed me a receipt that a computer had printed out and a small envelope that contained my electronic key.
“Room number two-twelve,” he said.
The room was dark. I studied the switches next to the bathroom, selected one and then lit faux antique lamps on the two bed-side tables. For almost a minute I studied the large, neatly made bed in front of me as if I couldn’t remember what it was for. I set my nearly empty suitcase down and then walked to the sliding glass door on the other side of the room. It unlatched easily and opened quietly. I stepped onto the small balcony and looked down at the lights below. The air felt clean and cool and I decided to keep the door open.
An overhead fan whirred softly when I turned the light on in the bathroom. On the right side of the sink there were small, slender cakes of soap wrapped in paper and little bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A plastic sign on top of the toilet tank advised quests to please leave used towels in the bathtub. I washed my hands with one of the small, slender cakes of soap I unwrapped under a foamy stream of hot water. When I had dried my hands I walked back into the bedroom and then sat on the edge of the bed.
I starred at the wall and then looked at my watch every few minutes until it was 7:35. It was time to eat. I left the room, walked to the elevator, and then took it down to the restaurant. A young woman with spiky, yellow blonde hair took me to my table. The menu was two pages of what looked like French and American dishes. The waiter who came to my table made me think of a fat, disappointed bus driver. He had wavy black hair, one chin that was small and another that was as large as a bull frog’s, alert blue eyes, a small mouth formed in a perpetual frown and a low, pleasant voice. I told him that all I wanted was a bowel of clam chowder and a cup of coffee.
“Very good,” he said, taking the menu from me.
“Now that I think about it,” I said. “I was wondering if I could have something to go, too. Do you have sandwiches?”
“French dip, yes sir,” the kindly, disappointed bus driver turned waiter said.
“That would be fine,” I said.
“Very good,” he said again, and then waddled off.
When I got back to my room I set the large paper bag containing the sandwich on the table and then walked over to the bed. Nothing looked in the least disturbed. I peeled back the cover and then removed the pillow nearest to me. There was nothing there. I walked around to the other side of the bed and then looked under the other pillow.
Everything seemed to come to a stop when I saw what I had been looking for. It was a Glock 9MM pistol.
I ran my fingers over the barrel, trigger guard and handle and then picked the gun up. Standard issue, The Company’s weapon of choice. At this very moment, I thought, it is being reported as stolen. I set the weapon back down and then picked up the slip of paper that had been under it. For the next fifteen minutes I read and re-read the two single-spaced paragraphs of instructions and then performed the last set of instructions on the page, which was to rip it into small pieces and then flush it down the toilet.
The mattress was firm and I thought, as I opened my cell phone, that I would probably sleep well tonight. I pressed the send button and then scrolled down to Sissy’s new number. A woman I thought I recognized answered.
“It’s Harry,” I said. “Sissy there?”
“I’ll see if she wants to talk,” the woman answered warily, as if I were trying to sell her phony life insurance.
“It’s important,” I said.
I heard people talking in the background, and then my wife’s voice.
“Harry,” she said. She sounded small. I imagined looking down at her as if she were a mile below me.
“I need to see you,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. I’m at a hotel here. They want me to do something I don’t want to do. I need you. I haven’t been able to sleep since you left and I don’t feel all right.”
“Where are you?”
I told her.
“It’s near the airport,” she said. “I know where it is.”
“I want you to know everything,” I said.
“Wait for me in your room,” she said. “Don’t go outside or talk to anyone, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
As soon as I snapped the phone shut I picked the gun up and began removing bullets. I slid it under the bed. For the first time I felt as if I were back in my own body and I knew exactly what had to be done.
At 10:15 I heard a light series of taps. When I opened the door the knob felt cold, hard and real. Sissy stood looking up at me. She had on sunglasses and there was a yellow scarf around her hair. As soon as the door was closed she wrapped her arms around me.
“Everything is all right now,” I said. “Are you hungry? I got you something to eat.”
“It’s like it’s been some horrible nightmare. They turned against me, Sissy. They want you and me dead.”
“I know. I know about the experiment. Linda is downstairs. We have to go now.”
“Where?” I said. “They know you’re here. They probably listened to us on the phone. We’ll be followed.”
Sissy walked over to the sliding glass door, saying that the blinds should be closed. She must have seen my reflection in the glass because she quickly turned around.
I had taken the gun out from under the bed.
She didn’t flinch or turn away but looked steadily at me and the gun. I thought of the way she had looked at her own thumb when she had embedded a hook into it.
“Harry,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
“Listen to me,” I said. “Did you really think that they would let you destroy ten years of research? That The Company would let you ruin the most important scientific project in the history of this nation?”
“This is real, Harry,” she said, taking off her sunglasses.
“I know that.”
“No you don’t, Harry. You think that this is some kind of computer simulation.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “What we’re doing goes way beyond that.”
“They want you to think that this is some kind of illusion like the last experiment. Harry, for God’s sake, stop and think about it.”
“I have,” I said, pointing the gun at her head.
“If you kill me they’ll have won,” she said. Her voice sounded dry and gritty. She looked calm but I could tell that she was having trouble getting enough air.
“They’ll be able to control anyone. Don’t you see that? If they can manipulate a psychologist then what chance does anyone else have? Harry, listen, I’m your wife. We’ve been married for twelve years.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t know who you are. All I know is that my wife-my real wife-would never take classified information. She would never compromise the security of this nation.”
“What kind of nation is it that makes such sacrifices?” she said.
“It’s the kind of world we’re living in,” I said.
“What have they done to you, Harry?”
“I don’t have a choice now,” I said. “They don’t control me. I’m not a puppet but I don’t have a choice. Can’t you see that?”
“You once told me that people always have a choice. Machines don’t have a choice but human beings do. You’re not a goddamn machine, Harry. You’re my husband and I love you.”
The gun felt as if it weighed a thousand pounds. My arm began to shake. I had a choice. I didn’t have a choice. This was real. This wasn’t real. Something began to form slowly in my head. If I had my instructions and I was still waiting, then what was I waiting for? I glanced at the wall to my right, expecting it to turn transparent. Were they watching me at this very moment? Questions piled up in my mind, making me feel as if I were in a room filled with a maze of walls that were blinding and paralyzing me.
“You still have a choice,” Sissy said. “Harry, if they don’t control you then prove it. Come with me while there is still time.”
“The choice is,” I said. “You or me?”
“Harry,” she said, taking a step forward.
“That’s why I only left one bullet in the gun,” I said. “Because…because I… I have to think but, it’s so hard.”
“Just put it down,” Sissy said.
“No,” I said. “This has to end now. It’s too. It’s too horrible.”
She rushed at me, forming an O with her mouth as her eyes flew wide open in shock and disbelief. But this was it and there was no going back.
The barrel felt cold and had a faintly oily taste. I pulled the trigger, felt the top of my head come off, but instead of a Ka-Pow! I heard a beep beep beep instead.
I gasped like a drowning man. Hands held me down.
“Is it over?” I screamed.
“The thirty minutes is up,” Lawrence said from somewhere behind me. “The experiment is over, Harry.”
Part three: Life after retirement
That was fifteen years ago. Soon after turning myself into my own guinea pig I left The Company. My wife Shelia was very supportive of my decision, even though it meant a big drop in income. But then I stopped looking for work and for nearly a year stayed at home so that I could be closer to my pals Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker. My wife of 19 years finally decided that I had changed and not for the best. After she packed up her bags I sold the house and then moved into a crappy little apartment. After sobering up I got a job teaching at a junior college and was able to move into a larger crappy apartment.
For the next ten years I taught psychology 101 to a bunch of slack-jawed yokels barely out of high school. Then I retired. I tried to blot the experiment from my mind but every so once in a while, as I lie in bed at two in the morning, I wonder what The Company is doing with all that gadgetry I helped invent.
Are you sure you know who you are? Did that event on the evening news really happen?
For a few years I stayed at home, smoking cheap cigars, drinking black coffee all day and pouring over crossword puzzles; but that gets old pretty fast. So I started going out, hanging around bowling alleys and bars that would let me buy diet Coke.
Then I met Ed. Ed is a tall, thin man with receding, black dyed hair. He looks as if he could be made out of hard, razor sharp wire under that tough, wrinkled hide of his. One day Ed told me that he has a problem. His only daughter is married to a man who beats her up. No matter what Ed says to her, she insists on staying with the goon and getting punched and slapped when the beer isn’t cold enough or dinner is a minute late.
I told him that we could help each other out. He needs to protect his daughter and I’m looking for a new line of work.
And so today I’m getting ready to take a little drive to San Jose. All the tools I’ll need-duct tape, rope, box cutter- are in my duffle bag.
I think that I’m going to enjoy this job.
La Verne, California
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:47 PM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 21 September 2008 5:57 PM PDT
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