Just a Memory

 

“Yeah, I don’t have anything to say,” I said to no one in particular.  It’s the motto I’ve repeated every so often simply because it represents my current state of mind.  It’s what you say when the muse has left and inspiration has run dry.  When your brain’s been reduced to mush to the point where the most it can consume is the daily soap opera watched on the DVR from the safety of a comfy old couch, there’s a point where any hint of intellectual curiosity you may have ever had morphs into something perverted.  Such a slovenly existence might be excused if one were perhaps afflicted with a trauma resulting in a massive fugue state.  First comes the lightning blinking bright then the crack of thunder then BOOM!! You’ve been struck and just barely escape a foray into the land of the comatose, but that’s not me nor is it my story.

I was listening to The Rolling Stones one night recently thinking of an old flame prompted by the lyrics of “Memory Motel” when suddenly I came upon a revelation- actually more like a vision.  It was that of the life that could have been if things had worked out and Lisa had decided to stay with a man with no direction or ambition to do anything beyond gaze at the stars at night after reading a good book. You see I’ve always been a contemplative person, but I’be been told that contemplation is not what’s best suited for relationships. Women tend to like men of action and I’m not exactly the Charles Bronson type. In fact, I think Chuck Norris could probably beat me up by just blinking at me very hard.  Quite frankly Walker Texas Ranger puts me to sleep every time I try to watch it.  If ever there was a sedative needed for a good case of insomnia, just put on a random episode of that show and that’s all you need.   Maybe it doesn’t appeal to me because it’s one of those shows that’s supposed to be a “man’s man” kind of show.  Hence, it’s why I could never relate to it since just the thought of opening a toolbox gives me anxiety.  Who needs tools anyway? The point is that while Chuck Norris may be all kinds of awesome and all men everywhere wish they could be him, he isn’t quite in touch with his feelings.  No, I’m not saying he should be either.  There are some people who clearly wouldn’t benefit from any kind of enhancement in their emotional intelligence.

Well, I was listening to “Memory Motel” one night and to be honest these feelings could have equally been stirred by “Far Away Eyes,” which is a song on another album but I digress.  I listened to that song and while Mick Jagger isn’t exactly the poet laurate of Rock N Roll, the song spoke to me or at least it made sense for me in my life. I mean Mick Jagger is the man, a total rock star and I’m well . . . I’m just me so of course we’d have to be on the same wave length when it comes to our lives.  I’d like to think of myself as the Mick Jagger of my own universe with tons of stories to tell and wisdom to share about women.  In my case, it’s been far fewer women.  Okay, maybe it was just one woman who allowed me close enough to feel like I touched her heart as much as she touched mine, but she had so many sides to her that she could have easily been twenty women.  Haha! Take that Mick Jagger!  Needless to say she was complicated, but I like that.  The worst thing anyone could do to themselves is to fall in love with someone who is uncomplicated unless they happen to be uncomplicated themselves. Lisa might have been complicated enough for the both of us.

Every time I picture Lisa in my mind, her hair is wet and the drops drip down over her wet clothing and although she thinks she looks a mess, she looks immaculate to me.  On our first date we saw a movie. It was a science fiction film that later became a cult classic called Contact.  It’s the one with Jodie Foster and her dead father.  That’s all I remember about it other than the fact that it’s based on a Carl Sagan novel I never read, but each time I think about that movie it brings back the memory of our first date and our first kiss. I later regretted not walking her home or at least to her train station.  Perhaps I was too nervous, maybe I was scared.  No, actually I was stunned, shocked, and awed by the fact that Lisa would even sit next to me in a dark room let alone kiss me after a movie.  Back in high school I kissed Sally Fulson and Mary Templeton, but kissing Lisa Falkner when we were just eighteen that was something.   We were both so young back then, and maybe that’s why she still means so much to me now. We had the world ahead of us.  Little did I know that she would move on to bigger and greater things and I would just stay behind and settle into a comfortably solitary life.

It was about two months ago that as a curious observer of Lisa’s online profile, I began to notice that her friends and family did not know where she was.  I didn’t think it was unusual at first, but then some of the messages started to become somewhat desperate and panicked. For about a day, I convinced myself that it was nothing to worry about. Lisa was always a free spirit.  She probably just ran off somewhere without telling a soul.  Indeed, that was one of the main differences between us.  I was always attached to her while she was shall we say “unattached.”  Deep down inside, I knew she loved me while we were together at that time but her motto – the line I consistently hated to hear coming out of her mouth – was always, “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back, it was meant to be.”  When I first heard it, I knew it was something I didn’t want to hear. No, not from her.  It sounded like a trite little bit of psychobabble from a Hallmark card, but then every time we argued, she’d always whip out that saying.  It just hung on me like an albatross during our entire relationship.  Of course, no man wants to hear that they need to set their girlfriend free.  That just sounds preposterous especially for a guy like me who isn’t quite attractive enough to readily replace said girlfriend at will. At the time I thought to myself, She could say that all she wants but no way will I ever let her go, and yet the thing about holding onto people too tight is that you run the risk of suffocating them.  I think I understand it better now, and I readily admit that my need to hold onto her probably drove her even further away, but when we were together this kind of deep reflection about the nature of our relationship had somewhat escaped me.

You see every guy wants to think that their girlfriend’s universe revolves around them.  In some cases, that’s exactly what they get and I suppose if both people are happy then bully for them. In most cases though it’s just not like that. You should never get to fully possess the person you love because then there’s no mystery about that person and when the mystery is gone then so is the love.  At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case in my limited experience.  Besides, all that stuff about soul mates and finding “the one” is all fairy tale bullshit society tries to push upon us starting from the time that we’re toddlers.  It’s all bullshit, and really the only people who have “perfect” relationships are shallow phonies with nothing real to say to the world or each other for that matter.

Anyway, I exhausted all of my patience hoping for Lisa to turn up somewhere and say “GUESS WHAT!  I’m not missing after all and you people are so foolish to think that I was!  Can’t a woman just get away from the patriarchal trappings of our society and escape to her own sanctuary of peace and quiet once in a while without friends and family members constantly worrying where she is as if life was some cheap primetime melodrama where every time a woman goes missing every character she’s ever been close to panics and says ‘SOMETHING TERRIBLE MUST HAVE HAPPENED TO HER!’  FOR THE GODESS’S SAKE LET ME JUST HAVE SOME PEACE WHILE YOU WATCH YOUR EXPLOITATION FUELED LAW AND ORDER: SVU EPISODE!!!!”

Now, while I’m confident that those wouldn’t be her exact words, I was quite sure that her natural response to such panic about her well-being would most likely be in that vain.  Far be it for me, a person who won the gender lottery and was born a man and therefore didn’t have to deal with patriarchal subjugation or menstruation cycles, to put words in her mouth. Is there any wonder how I fell in love with a woman with such zest for candidness and feminism?

Well, that’s the thing I did just that. It was the summer of 1997 and we were both employed at a bookstore.  Even then, I had the gut feeling that while I would remain a second rate clerk behind a counter, she would be destined for something greater.  From the instant I first saw her, I marveled at her magnificence.  Her beauty radiated both inwardly and outwardly.  There was no denying she was a diamond in the rough.  Time and circumstances may have landed her in that spot within my vicinity, but life has a way of separating the weeds from the roses.  I’ve never had any doubt which one of us was which in that analogy.  There she was at that time in 1997 wearing a tight button down cream blouse greeting a customer with that beautiful smile.  I swear if there’s one image I’d like to take to my grave with me it would be that smile of hers.  It might even bring me back to life it’s that powerful.  As she was talking, her eyes glanced at me for a moment and I was in heaven. It might have been for a microsecond but I knew and recognized that look of mischief that she shot me so I approached cautiously and found that she was dealing with the kind of person that we in the customer service industry like to refer to as “assholes” or “quite a bit dickish” if we feel like being polite.  Trust me there are quite a number of people who’ve earned the title.  Most of them are registered Republicans although to be fair there are quite a number of asshole liberals too. This particular piece of filth was giving Lisa a hard time because he noticed that there were more pro- Clinton books on the New Nonfiction table than there were Reagan biographies or some other such nonsense.  It’s funny how the more things change the more things stay the same.  My present day store has now flatly refused to do an election table in an election year because the fervor from both sides gets so nasty, however, 1997 was a year of kinder and gentler political discourse. . . well, I suppose it depends upon who that discourse happened to be with.  I mean Democrats were just as likely to be against gay marriage as Republicans and feminism wasn’t as universally embraced by the Left as it appears to be today.  At any rate, I could tell Lisa needed some help so I remembered the spider scene in Annie Hall where Diane Keaton calls over Woody Allen to kill a spider after they’ve already broken up.  First he notices a program for a Rock concert and suggests that the guy who took her to the concert should come over and kill the spider, then Diane Keaton hands Woody a copy of the National Review and an astonished Woody replies, “Wonderful then why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider.”  Of course, William F. Buckley along with his deplorable views on AIDS and homosexuality had a new book that had come out recently calling it “An Autobiography of My Faith” or something equally pedantic (Conservatives and their faith, HA! More like hypocrisy!!Now there’s a subject I could write an epic about).  Well, after shooing the customer away from Lisa and recommending to him this atrocious William F. Buckley book, I finally had a chance to speak to her.

“Now before you judge me for knowing about Buckley’s new book, just know that the only reason I remembered is because of the spider scene in Annie Hall.  I’m about as Left as they come although perhaps not too Left.  More like Gore Vidal if Gore Vidal wasn’t a genius or educated or creative or talented at all.  That would be me.  I’m a stupid man’s Gore Vidal”

She chuckled, “I’ll take a stupid Gore Vidal over a William F. Buckley worshiping asshole any day of the week.  I’m Lisa by the way.”

I noticed that she looked at my name tag with a bit of bemusement, and finally I remembered. . . Beowulf. Curses!

“I’m Jake although don’t let the name tag fool you.  I actually despise Beowulf.  My friend Bill wrote down ‘Loves Beowulf’ as a joke underneath my name on my name tag and I just went with it.”

“I hate Beowulf too,” she said, and like all great romances in the world we bonded over despising both Beowulf and right wingers.  Unlike Woody in Annie Hall, however, I don’t think I would have ever let her off so easy for having a copy of The National Review readily available in her household even for the express purpose of killing a spider although of course we both still lived with our parents at the time going to college and working at the bookstore part time.  Trust me, her parents would never let the National Review anywhere near their house if they could help it either so at least we were all in good company.

So now with Lisa was missing in 2016, I was more determined than ever to find her.  I took two weeks off from work, and proceeded on my journey. I just needed to know that she was alright because she meant so much to me and when I think about it the happiest times of my life were with her so rather than sit and refresh a social media page for days on end I decided to take action. I booked a flight to New Orleans where she was known to go on her writer’s retreats.

“It’s the atmosphere, Jake,” she would say back when we were together.  “I don’t understand how you don’t feel it Jake.  Doesn’t being in this city make you feel more ALIVE than what you feel in New York?  The music, the food, the people, the drinks…. It’s all so transcendent!”

I thought New Orleans was just “okay” but I’ve always been attached to New York.  I’ve never been able to quite feel comfortable in any other city.  The best thing about New Orleans for me was the food especially the sandwiches at Mama’s but as for the trip and the city, I just didn’t feel what she felt.  There’s a special rooming house where she likes to stay while she’s there.  When were each 25 years old, we went to New Orleans together for the first time and that’s where we stayed for our first major trip together.  It was a bed and breakfast type place.  She would write for about 4 hours in the morning while I read my Ian Fleming James Bond books to pass the time. Occasionally she’d give me shit about the Bond franchise exploiting women, but I would counter with the story of the woman I believe to be the unsung hero of the earliest Bond films, Johanna Harwood.  She was assistant to Harry Saltzman, one of the original producers of the Bond films, and he tasked her with adapting the Fleming novels.  She even wrote her own Bond short story, which unfortunately is somewhat difficult to find.  Anyway, Hardwood co-wrote the screenplay that became the first film, Dr. No (1962) and contributed to the second film, From Russia with Love (1963).  Unfortunately, her role has been overshadowed by Richard Maibaum and the unfair treatment she received from the director of the films, but she was right there at the very beginning crafting an iconic piece of cinema history. Lisa would argue, “But isn’t the fact that so few Bond fans know about her prove my point that the franchise and Hollywood in general is just a patriarchal system of oppression that women must navigate?”  I couldn’t really win these types of arguments with her maybe because I knew she was right. In any case, it was a happy time in our relationship, but as each day passed, I would grow more eager to get back home.

I checked into the place we used to stay and promptly asked the manager as well as the staff if they had seen her but they all said no they hadn’t. Part of me figured that she wouldn’t have come to New Orleans to get away from everyone if that’s what she wanted, but I had to try. I stayed in New Orleans for the weekend though booking a flight to Puerto Rico for the following Monday.

During my stay I started to wonder what life would be like if Lisa and I had stuck together.  What would we be doing right now?  What would this trip to New Orleans be like if she were there with me?  Would we have kids?  Would she have been able to settle down in any one spot?  Would I have ever solved the mystery that kept me so attuned to her? I didn’t have answers to any of these questions.  I just grew irritated.  I would walk down the French Quarter and see couples drinking, singing, partying, just having a good time, but all the while I felt disconnected.  I felt like a voyeur watching lives I could never come close to living.  It’s like when you watch Star Trek: The Next generation and you see Data observing human behavior and wondering what it’s like to be human.  Well, I know what it’s like to be human and there are times I wish I wasn’t.  I wish I didn’t care so much. I wish I wasn’t so attached to certain people who don’t feel the same way about me. I wish I could just go about my day without a care in the world without socializing or talking to a single soul in the world, and I wish I could just live and breathe and just be, but then I think of Lisa and I wish I could have a life with her.  Oh, the contradictions inherent to desire! Everywhere I turned, it seemed like there was some kind of joy and happiness to be experienced that I just couldn’t grasp.  It always feels like everyone is in on some secret and they all just laugh at me behind my back when they think I’m not looking only I am and it hurts.  I couldn’t wait to leave New Orleans.

On the Sunday night before my flight I crawled into a nearby dive and drank bourbon for the first time in years. I’d become a caricature of a man driven to drink by a woman, the oldest and most unoriginal story in the world and yet it’s the stuff of legend.

I dragged myself to the airport Monday for the flight to Puerto Rico.  It’s where Lisa and I would have had our honeymoon if we had gone through with our marriage.  When she called off the wedding, the engagement and the whole shebang, I just crawled into a hole for months.  She, however, went on our honeymoon.  You could imagine that I wasn’t pleased, but once we had patched up our friendship she explained that it was a necessary part of her growth.  “It’s where I needed to let go of you as a lover in order to welcome you back into my life as a friend,” whatever that meant.  I’ve come around to the realization that I wasn’t cut out for marriage anyway.  Lisa felt the same way about herself for a couple of years until she married her partner in a nice ceremony in Jamaica.  The wedding was lovely and her wife, Becky was a lovely person but the marriage didn’t last long.  When she called to let me know she was divorcing after 5 months, she declared, “Now I could fuck whoever I want but don’t get any ideas!”  Apparently, lesbian relationships can also be prone to having one partner try to hold on too tight to another. Maybe it’s just that Lisa doesn’t want to be held onto by anyone for too long.  Maybe it’s just her.  Maybe it’s just a part of who she is.

So, I landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico and proceeded to the resort where Lisa and I would have stayed on our honeymoon only to find that there were no guests listed under the name Lisa Faulkner.   That probably didn’t mean anything as perhaps she would have stayed somewhere else on the island but I could just feel that she wasn’t there.  It makes no sense whatsoever, but there’s a feeling I get when she’s close.  I don’t know why or if there’s any kind of scientific explanation for it, but it’s just a weird feeling in my gut.  I just knew I had yet again come to the wrong place even though there were many other resorts I could have checked on if I was being thorough.

Just as I was about to gather my thoughts and return to my hotel room, a strange woman pressed a room key into my hand.  She was wearing a red dress with a zip down the back.  Her prominent cleavage pressed up against me.  Up close I could tell she wore a wig, but she had such a strikingly stunning face.  For a moment I thought maybe she was famous.  She looked like Kerry Washington. “I hope you speak English,” she said.

“Of course, I . . .”

“Shut up,” she said covering my mouth with her hand.  I could tell she had used hand lotion recently.

“What the. . .”

“Just go to room 235 in 3 minutes.  Ask for Manuela,” She said. I could tell she was American.  “I will reward you quite kindly.”  She hovered her lips over my ear in an insinuating fashion.

Men who look like me don’t get these kinds of invitations all that often so I did as she said fully expecting to be let down.  I went to the room, asked for Manuela, and a manila envelope was placed in my hand by what looked like one of the resort’s housekeeping staff. The same woman said, “She’s in room 358.”

As I went up the stairs to room 358, I saw two men with guns.  They didn’t look like Puerto Ricans.  They had that classic FBI attire you see in movies. I’d be surprise if they spoke a word of Spanish. The next thing I hear is yelling from the direction of the room I had just left. Then the distinct pop of shots fired.  I halted right in my tracks and heard footsteps in quick succession running towards me.  I bolted up the flight of stairs. As luck would have it, Rm 358 was the first door on the left. With no time to deliberate, I knocked and then the door opened suddenly.  It was her.  She ripped the envelope from my hands, pulled me inside, and said, “Moan for me.”

“What?”

“Act like I’m pleasuring you.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, pretend I’m giving you the best blow job of your life.”

I did as she suggested.  The footsteps came closer.  They paused outside the door.  She squeezed my inner thigh with her long sharp nails and I yelped so loud I thought I was going to cry.   Then, I heard a snicker as the footsteps passed away.

As I heard the footsteps outside moving further away, I closed my eyes and opened them quickly hoping I’d wake up from a dream, but we were both still there, me in my sweaty khakis and she in a new loose fitting white blouse and jean shorts she had just changed into.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Jake,” I said.

“You got a last name?” she said. “You may not know it but I kind of just saved your life.”

“When you said you’d repay me for that favor, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.”

At that she laughed, “Ha! I bet it wasn’t, but don’t be disappointed, sex rarely ever lives up to the lustful expectations you men build it up to be in your head.  It’s not to say that it wouldn’t be good, but trust me you wouldn’t know how to handle me. I’m afraid you’d be the one having all the fun just as it played out in our little routine.”

“It’s Gleeson. Jake Gleeson.”

“Any relation to Jackie Gleeson?”

“None whatsoever and I’m sick and tired of people asking me that when I give them my name.”

“I’m Bernice Callaghan.”

“Funny you don’t look Irish,” I said.

“My father was Irish American.  Mom was from Jamaica.”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what we’re doing here.”

Bernice said, “If I did, I’d have to kill you and so far, you don’t seem so bad.”  She adjusted her blouse and as she got up I could see a holster strapped around the belt buckle of her jean shorts. Her smile revealed a warmth and glint of danger. Then she turned her back to me, “It’s about that point in the story where I make sure it’s safe for you to leave and you go, don’t you think?”

“What if I want to stay,” I found myself saying.

“You could get killed and besides I don’t need a balding overweight clingy overzealous sidekick to worry about.”

Just then we heard a loud crash from outside the door.  The bad guys seemed to have thought that she was hiding in the room right next to us.  Within seconds we could see the knob moving on the door for the adjacent room leading into ours.

“Quick!” she said.

I followed her onto the balcony.  Before I knew it we were shimmying down a drainpipe albeit she did so more gracefully than I.  She waited for me at the base and then we ran down a dirt road alleyway back around to the hotel parking lot when she froze.

“No! He’s given us away.”  I saw who she was looking at and it was a bearded man in white suit leaning against what was presumably her car.

“Bernice, Bernice, Bernice how lovely of you to join me,” he said. He then instructed one of his goons to remove Bernice’s gun.

“It was you all along wasn’t it?”

“The envelope, I know you have it.”  Then, the man turned towards me and said, “It’s a pity you’ve downgraded to such a pathetic specimen of a man.”  His Latin American accent sent chills all over me.  I thought I was about to die and if that was the last voice I ever heard I don’t think my final brain murmurs would have generated any sense of happiness or inner peace, which is all you could hope for if you die seeing as I’m a devout atheist.  All I ask is that my final moments before my consciousness fades into oblivion be somewhat pleasant, a happy memory if you please instead of sheer terror and utter despair.  Is that too much to ask for these days?  It probably is.

While my panic attack commenced, I saw Bernice hand the man the envelope.  She had folded it and placed it between her waist and her belt before we shimmied down the drain pipe. Then, the man in the white suit took out a gun, pointed it at me, but in the last instant turned the gun at Bernice while walking closer to her. Then he lowered the weapon quite deliberately aiming at her left thigh and fired.  Bernice fell straight to the ground her skin and flesh leaving an awful stain on the ground.  Her body struggled to absorb the pain.  Then, like a fighting pit bull she rose up on her good knee and snarled. “You think that’ll keep me from finding you and ending you, Consuelo?”

Consuelo smiled. “Now you look just as pathetic as your friend.  You should both thank me for my mercy but I know better than to expect that from you.”

Consuelo turned and joined his entourage.  When, he was gone, I bent down on my knee to help Bernice but she pushed me away. “You better leave.  If they see us together after this, they will most definitely kill you.”

I tore my shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound ignoring her advice.  Then, she smiled that mischievous smile and winked at me.  “You just don’t listen do you,” she said.

“I’ve been known to get quite attached to certain women especially after they’ve saved my life.”

Bernice refused to go to a hospital and instead insisted that we drive to a doctor that she knew in a small province called Humacao on the east side of the island. The problem was that despite my best efforts she kept bleeding and it would be a 3-hour drive.  We crawled into her red Toyota Camry and drove.  There were additional garments in the vehicle that we used to tighten my original tourniquet.  The drive felt longer than any drive I had ever known.  We stayed on the main thruway, but the terrain felt ominous as we drove.  The further and further we got from San Juan, the more dread I felt as if I was treading where I didn’t belong.  The road signs warned against stopping alongside the road and picking up hitchhikers.  When we finally reached the exit, the sun was going down leaving a crimson streak across the sky that reminded me of the blood Bernice had been losing from her thigh. I saw mango and banana trees.  A poor lady had been selling cocoanut water at the side of the rode.  She watched as I slowed down the car wondering what we were doing in her neck of the woods.  I could see what I later learned to be Candelero Hill along the green landscape.  It felt like that hill watched me for the remainder of my stay.

We found her doctor friend just before Bernice started to pass out.  I later learned that we made it just in time.  Dr. Colon seemed to work out of an abandoned church.  The place looked so immense on the inside with its stain glass windows and marble floors.  I wondered why the worshipers allowed it to go unused.  I sat in a pew while the doctors and his makeshift nurses took care of Bernice. It’s the kind of setting that makes you want to think aloud. I said to myself, “What am I doing here?”

“Seeking guidance from our Lord it would seem,” came a voice from behind.  It was a nun, one of Dr. Colon’s nurses.  I wanted to tell her that it was all just a momentary lapse that none of this faith stuff is real for me, but it seemed inappropriate for me to disagree.  I simply nodded and turned back to where the altar had been.  It now looked more like an empty stage, and part of me knew that at one time it had been glorious whether or not it was a house of God. Minutes turned into hours and night turned into dawn. I must have slept unknowingly.

I awoke to a kiss on the forehead.  It was Bernice in all her glory.  She smiled, looked at me, and said “Not bad for an overweight ugly sidekick.”

She told me that both she and Consuelo had worked undercover for a rum manufacturer who happened to be selling weapons to terrorists.  The manila envelope contained all the contents they needed to bring down his operation also including the names of collaborators within our own government along with how much cash each of these nefarious types had received. The events in the hotel parking lot meant that Consuelo had double crossed her and revealed her identity to Fernando, the big boss behind it all.  A man so powerful he was even able to recruit his own shadow force from corrupted American agents.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We go to the south of France.”

The drive back to San Juan was quiet.  I drove as fast as I could watching the Spanish exit signs fly past one by one. I started to think of Lisa again wondering where she could possibly be.  What would she think of this formidable adventure’s I’ve now found myself in? The American radio station played Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and I boldly sung along.  Bernice just stared out the window for half the song and then shot a toothless grin back at me.  Her black hair glistened in the sunlight.  Then, the oddest question came out of her, “Do you think you’ve earn the right to sing that song as a man?”

“What kind of question is that?” I shot back.

“Bruce earned the right to sing this song.  He’s Bruce.  Who do you think you are?”

“Well, that’s mighty brazen.  I’ll have you know that while I may not be anywhere near as in touch with humanity as Bruce Springsteen, I’ve lived a working class life and have had on occasion longed for a woman the way he does in this song.”

Bernice smirked, “I’ll bet you’ve done plenty of longing.”

I lost my patience and said, “You know not everyone finds their niche in the world as easily as others.  I suppose you must have such a high opinion of yourself because you’re a spy and I’m just some fat loser who works in a bookstore for a living.  It must be good to have that self-confidence about you with every move you make but for people like me . . . we go through our entire lives feeling awkward and insecure.  The least you could do is refrain from openly insulting me especially after I’ve done all I can do to help you, Lisa.”

There it was- the slip of the tongue that I wished I could have taken back as soon as I said it.  I accidentally called Bernice Lisa, and why not?  The two of them were like peas in a pod. They were each so uniquely individual and yet so similar it felt like they were interchangeable. The last thing any woman wants to hear, however, is that they remind you of someone from the past.

Bernice turned to me, “Please, don’t tell me you called me Lisa because I remind you of some ex-girlfriend who dumped you years ago.”

This time I was the one who was brazen, “It was a slip of the tongue but maybe you do.  What of it?  As a matter of fact the only reason I came out here to Puerto Rico was to look for Lisa because it would appear that she’s gone missing.”

“I don’t have time for this immature nonsense.  Did it ever occur to you that perhaps this Lisa woman of your dreams is missing because she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Yes, that has occurred to me of course. I just want to be sure she’s okay though.”

“Yeah, and then what? Do you think she’ll jump into your arms and thank you for your concern or do you think she’ll just want to be left alone to live her life in peace and maybe enjoy herself with someone other than you?” she said.

I thought for a minute then said, “Probably the latter.”

I gave Bernice the rundown of my relationship with Lisa and I got the sense during that ride that maybe part of her grew a little sympathy for me or at least I’d like to think so.  She still thought I was crazy to go out of my way to actively look for Lisa, but I think she thought it was cute that I cared so deeply about someone who might not care as much about me.

When we arrived at the airport, Bernice inquired about tickets and we were told that there were seats available on the next flight to Miami leaving in just under an hour where we could then spend the night and take a flight out to southern France early the next morning. As we sat next to each other on the plane, we both nodded off and went to sleep, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to saying I slept with an attractive female spy.

Upon arrival in Miami, we headed straight to the Fontainebleau Hotel where we both had separate rooms. I was mildly amused by the fact that some scenes from the James Bond film Goldfinger had been shot there.  Before drifting off to sleep again, I thought about James Bond and how cool Connery had been in the 1960s, how that natural swagger of his just emanated a natural charm that attracted women to him. As they said, “All women wanted to be with him and all men wanted to BE him.”  I wonder what would be made of this set of circumstances: an alluring female spy with her unattractive sidekick gallivanting around the globe – she with all the wit and magnetism of a female version of Connery and me and my clumsy awkwardness draining the scenario of any sense of class or style.

Unsurprisingly, my dreams were fueled by an overwhelming sense of fear, danger, and lust.  Faceless gunmen, drops from perilous heights, and finally Bernice’s naked flesh percolated in my mind’s eye throughout the night in no particular order.  At one point, Lisa’s naked body melted away to reveal Bernice’s naked body underneath her nipples (as I imagined them) sharp as knives poking out at me.  I’d like to think of myself as a decent man, and yet my own sense of decency is betrayed by my baseless shameful desires.  I’m pretty sure I loved Lisa and lusted after Bernice but there are times when the line between those two emotions (or even those two separate women) becomes indistinguishable.  I still question where one ends and the other begins yet I’ve fully convinced myself that I loved and lusted after both women although I only ever experienced the love of one.

Whether she remembers it or not, I’m pretty confident Lisa loved me at least for that time we were together.  For a while, we were quite the pair of young lovers if I remember correctly.  Those were the days when she fussed after me and called me and seemed to always look forward to the next time we’d see each other.  Then after a few years, something just changed.  It seemed like we just started to go through the motions to be in each other’s company, and I could tell she grew more and more disinterested in me as her lover with each passing day.  Neither one of us admitted what was clearly going on as the distance between us grew and grew until she decided one day to pull the plug.  Actually, it was me who pulled the trigger out of anger and she who finished it off.  When she called to cancel on me one day after a series of previous other cancellations, I just blew up at her over the phone and said, “Why don’t we just call it quits!”

I was such a coward.  I became that guy who breaks up with a woman over the phone.  This was in the era before text messages on smart phones so it was literally the lowest way to end a relationship.  Lisa became hysterical, which led me to panic and try to take it all back only to have her call my bluff and actually end things with me for real.  I could tell it hurt her but it irreparably hurt me even though the whole thing had been instigated by my outburst.  Just weeks before, we had become engaged and had even begun the process of booking a venue. We got as far as booking the honeymoon.  It was a honeymoon she would go on alone.  When she returned, she made the effort to mend our friendship, but our intimate relationship was over.  It’s something that broke my heart and broke me as a man for years to come.  I coped by eating junk food.  I find that the current trend of our weak millennial culture is this notion about being in touch with your feelings and over-reliance on therapy, however, I think you can add the word “therapy” to any vice or addiction in order to rationalize just about anything.  Perhaps it all started with aroma and hydrotherapy although I’ve neglected to do much research on the topic.  For instance, every time I have McDonald’s I call it “McDonald’s Therapy.”  Doing this makes my nasty junk food habit okay and a lot easier to have it align with current societal moods and notions.  I’d advise anyone reading this try this with any of their vices: Oversleeping Therapy, Prostitute Therapy, Procrastination Therapy, Heroin Overdose Therapy, Suicide Therapy – don’t each of those ugly things have much rosier connotations now?

I woke up early the next day hoping to have a head start on Bernice, but when I arrived at her room there was no answer.  The hotel administrator told me she had checked out and that she left me a note.  I read it trying to stay calm, trying not to care, trying to adapt a casual state of indifference but failing miserably:

Dear Jake,

You’re probably not surprised to see that I’ve left.  Despite our little tiff yesterday I really think you’re a nice guy. Thank you for helping me when I needed you.  You can sing Bruce anytime you want from now on and I won’t be there to bust your chops about it, I promise. Take care and stay safe.  Above all, don’t try to follow me.  It’s too dangerous and I don’t want you to get killed. If it’s any consolation I think Lisa might have lost the one man who maybe cares for her the most.

Your friend always

Bernice

I can’t say was surprised, but then something stirred in me after reading that note which I hadn’t felt in a long while.  I was more determined than ever to first find Lisa and also help Bernice some way somehow within my own limited means.  I got on the next flight and quickly determined the fastest way to get to Côte d’Azur.  Every fiber of my body vibrated with anticipation fueled by adrenaline. I hardly remember renting a vehicle or the beautiful countryside of the French Riviera, but I remember feeling like was being pulled to Monaco.  Having been a big 007 fan, I remembered that Roger Moore owned a house there once but there was something else.  It felt as if I was following some kind of Northern Star leading me to a fateful destination and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.  I was starting to get a little tired and hungry but there hadn’t been anywhere to stop for a while so I soldiered on until I reached a rather large and quite lovely chalet.  I half expected the owner to shoo me away seeing as how I was one of those “ugly Americans” who the French have had a tendency to despise, but I was pleasantly surprised to see an elderly Irish woman.  She appeared elderly but not very frail. I could tell she still had her wits about her despite being in her mid to late 80s.  I got out of my car as she carefully approached.  I explained that I had been on the road for some time and that I wasn’t quite sure where I was going.

She told me her name was Johanna. “Welcome, come in and have some tea,” she said. “I was just in the middle of having a lovely conversation with a most remarkable young woman.”

Then, that familiar feeling reappeared in the pit of my stomach as I followed her inside and that’s when I saw her.  It was Lisa as I live and breathe.  She wore this James Bond tank top that I had given her for her birthday last year, which she happily accepted despite the fact that it’s a bit awkward for a guy to buy clothes for his ex. On the front was a depiction of the classic woman in gold paint motif with the word “Bond Girl” written over the top.  She looked marvelous. To me, Lisa was the ultimate Bond Girl, and I say that knowing that the notion may go against the grain of a noted feminist like her.  At the time I wasn’t sure she’d accept it since she had gently given me a ribbing for suggesting that the critique of sexism in Bond movies is invalid.

“Jake what are you doing here?” Lisa asked.

“I should say the same about you.  People are worried sick about you.”

“Oh you mean on social media?  I’ve decided to give it up social media altogether.  It’s just not worth it.  Besides I’m up to something more important.”

“Lisa, your parents, your sister, none of your family knows where you are.  I decided to look for you.”

“And how on earth did you find me here?  Did you know about my plans to interview Johanna Harwood for my book?

“No.  Wait. Johanna Harwood?”

Incredulous, Lisa laughed that lovely laugh of hers.  Then, she walked over to me embraced me, gave me a peck on the cheek. “You’re the only reason I know about her because you told me about her when we were together.  You mean you didn’t know that was her?”

I did a double take, “That’s Johanna Harwood?”

“Yes, and I’m interviewing her for my book on feminism in Hollywood.  One of the earliest chapters will be devoted to her story which I know because you told me all about her.  She was the assistant of Harry Saltzman who co-produced the James Bond movies along with Cubby Broccoli and … You know all this already.”

“Yeah, she co-wrote the screenplays for the first two Bond movies.” I said with enthusiasm. “Is it really her?”

“Yes,” Johanna piped in from behind with a tea kettle in her hand and an empty coffee mug.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Harwood.”

“Why thank you.  I’m surprised this many people know who I am.”

I replied, “Well, I know who you are and when Lisa and I were dating I told her what I knew of your story. Little did I know that she would actually track you down for an interview for one of her books someday.”

Lisa jumped in, “It’s a fascinating story how  Johanna was essentially the first writer assigned to adapt the Ian Fleming novels but then had most of the credit taken away from her once the producers hired Richard Maibaum.  Moreover, the director of the first two movies was reportedly a terrible sexist and kept referring to her as a ‘script girl’.”

“All of that is true, but you know I don’t think I would trade in my experience working for Harry and Cubby back in those days for anything in the world.  I was on the ground floor of something brand new and exciting back then. “

Lisa then asked, “But wasn’t it unfair that these men took all the credit for the work that you did and minimized your contributions?”

Johanna smiled, “You would be right to think that it was unfair.  Perhaps it was, but for some reason I don’t feel bitter about it. I went on to write on other projects, but I never got to direct a film, which was a real dream of mine.”

Lisa jumped in, “Even now it’s very hard for female directors in the entertainment industry.  There are clearly not enough opportunities out there and that’s really what’s going to be at the core of my book.”

“I hope I was of some help to you,” said Johanna. “Now if you’d excuse me it looks like something strange is going on outside.”

I turned around and looked out the window to see a white car approaching with its windshield blasted out and plume of grey smoke rising from behind.  It glided slowly as if it was a wounded animal and then I saw his face.  It was a face I hoped to never see again. It was Consuelo.  The car halted to a stop in the middle of the road and I could see the blood dripping from his forehead all over his suit.  He eyed the chalet and approached.

“We gotta get out of here,” I said.

“Maybe he needs help.  I’ll call an ambulance,” said Johanna.

“No.  I know him.  He’s dangerous,” I said.

“What’s going on?” said Lisa.

“No time.” I said.

I soon determined that exiting the chalet from the back would leave us trapped in Johanna’s open field garden with nowhere to hide so I quickly asked Johanna for the best hiding spot in the house and she suggested the wine cellar.  There was some cover separately for each of us in the corners of the room if we angled ourselves just right behind and in between the racks.  We just had to pray that Consuelo wouldn’t venture down there because we’d each be quite visible with just a little bit of light.

I sucked in my stomach as much as possible to try to fit behind the rack, but it just wasn’t happening.  Before we knew it there was a crash and footsteps stomping hastily on the floorboards above us.  I then heard another car approaching.  More henchmen perhaps? I just listened trying to determine what was going on.

Then, I heard her just outside the entrance to the chalet.  It was Bernice.  She called out, “I know you’re in there Consuelo.  The operation is over.  You lost!”

Then, a gunshot fired and what seemed like sawdust fell into my eyes.  I moved to swipe it away and then I clumsily swiped at a bottle causing it to fall off the rack instead.  Before I knew it, Consuelo bolted down the staircase.  He saw me immediately. “You!” he said. Grabbing me by the collar with a gun to my head, Consuelo led me outside.  My heart sank when I saw the look of dejection on Bernice’s face.

“It’s not over as long as I got your big ugly boyfriend,” he said in his terrible accent.

Bernice lowered her weapon and dropped it to the floor.  I dreaded having to explain to her that this was all just happenstance.   Yes, I was trying to find her, but no, I wasn’t trying to find her quite this way. Everything happened the way it did because I was just . . . me.   That’s what it comes down to really.  I began to reflect that my entire life has been a series of disappointments.  Every essential thing about me from my aspirations of becoming a writer to my relationships with women has all been tainted with failure. I was trapped in a cycle of underachievement and it all appeared to come crashing down on me in what I thought were my final moments.

Surely, Consuelo would shoot me once I stopped being of use to him.  He would use me to secure his escape and administer a prompt injection of led to my skull at the first opportunity.  I began to fathom just how much I’ve let everyone down.  To Lisa, I was this inadequate needy lover who she had to free herself from.  To Bernice, I was this clumsy fat sidekick she never asked for. Finally to myself, I just never amounted to anything.  All those dreams I had of becoming a successful writer one day would now turn to ashes.  Whether I died right now or 70 years from now, in that moment I thought I would never amount to anything.  As the Springsteen song goes, “You sit around getting older / There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me.”  That’s me. The joke isn’t on me.  It is me. Time for some death therapy to set it all to rights.

Just while I was about to fade into the depths of despair, a loud crash caused Consuelo to loosen his grip on me. I turned around to see Lisa with a shattered wine bottle in her hand.  She had clocked Consuelo from behind.

“Jake, duck!” yelled Bernice.

The gunshots fired with a nasty precision as I crouched to the ground.  The bullets pierced Consuelo’s chest and he collapsed onto the ground like a sack of dead weight.

A look of relief crossed Bernice’s face.  Then she approach to see if I was alright but soon after her attention drifted to Lisa.

I caught my bearings and began to introduce them, “Bernice this is…”

“Lisa.” Bernice guessed correctly.  “Jake has told me all about you.”

Lisa smiled and approached Bernice.

The authorities arrived soon after.  We all gave statements.  Johanna’s niece came to take her away to stay with her family while the scene at the chalet would be investigated and cleaned up.  Before she parted, Johanna marveled at the fact that she never guessed she’d be at the center of a real spy story.

Lisa and Bernice drifted off together and soon after I could tell where it was leading so I sauntered back to my car and drove.   In the end it doesn’t matter that I finally found Lisa.  She was never truly lost.  It doesn’t matter that I helped Bernice back in Puerto Rico, my clumsiness in the chalet nearly allowed Consuelo to get away. My life only adds up to a series of missteps and mishaps that will soon be forgotten.  What becomes of those of us who just never fit in?  We’re all too socially awkward to form a support group and to be quite honest I wouldn’t care to join such a group anyway.  It doesn’t matter because once we’re dead none of us will mean anything to anyone anyway.  It won’t matter to Lisa that I dreamed of a life with her while listening to Bruce Springsteen songs. It won’t matter to Bernice that I tried to be her spy sidekick at a time when I thought she needed one.  Once I’m dead and buried none of this will matter, and I feel foolish for believing that it ever would.

I doubt Bernice and Lisa will last very long together if they decide to pursue a relationship but maybe I’m wrong about that since I’m wrong about so many things.  In fact, I think in this case it would be Lisa who will learn the torment of desiring someone who cannot be held onto very long given Bernice’s life as a spy.  I suspect Bernice will ultimately treat Lisa as her own disposable Bond girl if she hasn’t done so already, but I find myself regretting such cruel thoughts.  I must ask myself instead what have I become.

I now regret having any of those terribly despairing unbecoming thoughts.  After all, I should be above this kind of pettiness.  I think back on the good and the bad of my life and think to myself what’s the point of any of it at all?  The answer never comes.  The only one that does is the cold truth that we all die alone this day or the next.  The only comfort in that is the memory of Lisa’s love and how it warms my heart even now to think of a time when I meant everything to her and she to me. Like the Rolling Stone’s song “Memory Motel,” which motivated me to write this all down goes she’s “just a memory of a love that used to be.”

 

The Lips of a Killer

Intro:  This was a story I wrote for submission to The First Line, a literary magazine where they provide the first sentence and then you – the writer – must complete the story using their first line.  I found out about it a couple of days before the due date so I really didn’t have much time to come up with something more original. I just thought I’d just give it a shot and write something quick in time to submit using their line: “Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  So, off I went and wrote this story and sent it.  It’s not the greatest thing I ever wrote, but the whole point is to try to do something creative and original.  It’s a bit derivitive of the Mickey Spillane stories I’ve read except it’s told in the 3rd person and I get my detective in a jam that he asbolutely won’t get out of.  It’s a one-off in the truest sense of that phrase since the character isn’t one that I plan to revisit.  As a nod and a wink I named his secretary Vicki using another “V” name.  Mike Hammer’s secretary was named “Velda” in the Spillane stories, but Vicki isn’t quite the same as Velda and you’ll see why.  Needless to say the story was rejected, which is no surprise to me since it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel centering on a typical detective’s encounter with a femme fatale.  Since it was rejected, I can now share it here.  It’s rare for editors to give any kind of feedback.  I suppose they may have written this to everyone who had a story rejected, but here’s what they wrote: “Really well done, Jack. Several similar submissions, but I enjoyed yours. Just missed. Try us again.” So without further ado, here’s the rejected story.

_______

“Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  The smirk on Mary’s face spelled it out all too well.  Harry took solace in the only source of comfort available to him in that moment – the way she held her cigarette in those delicate fingers, the way her lips curled just before letting out the smoke which seemed to envelop her in all her radiance.  That red gown she wore just for this occasion told him the one thing he should have known all along: that she was dressed to kill.  He had a habit for falling for the wrong type of dame and why should Mary be any different.  Everything about this case felt off right from the start ever since she sashayed into his office like a tigress waiting to pounce upon its willing prey, and yet he was drawn to her.  Even in this moment of ultimate betrayal, even now when there could be no uncertainty, no doubting her unbridled cruelty, he couldn’t resist that face and those curves on her body.  If in some sadistic fashion, she decided to kiss him in this very instant, he would kiss her back and that kiss would be both passionate and sincere.  Despite the very fact that she seemed to be just seconds away from extinguishing his life, he still desired her perhaps even loved her.

As she drew closer to him, he saw the Beretta 9mm pistol in her nonsmoking hand.  Her eyes peered into his as she said, “You were never supposed to see that file on me, Harry.”

Struggling up a smile, Harry replied, “Well then why don’t we pretend that I haven’t, sweetheart.”

Her bare shoulders shrugged conveying her sarcasm, “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” said Harry hoping in vain for some kind of reprieve knowing she’d never fall for it.

Putting down her cigarette, Mary shimmied over to him with all the grace of a ballet dancer holding the gun almost like a toy in her tiny hand, her finger around the trigger.  Mary pressed the business end of the pistol point blank against his chest and proceeded to caress the upper buttons of his shirt. “No dice, Harry,” she said in a mousy voice that would have been unattractive coming out of the mouth of any other woman.

Harry held his breath anticipating the moment of his demise wondering if he’d even hear the sound of the bullet firing.   He had frequently told himself that he didn’t care if he lived or died and that in fact he was prepared to die if the circumstance ever came down to it, but now that death became almost a certainty he wasn’t so sure.  It’s one thing to occasionally flirt with death and to even resign yourself towards an occupation where your life is on the line, but to actually die, to actually take that final breath knowing it to be your last, knowing that every sensation and memory you’ve ever had could just cease to exist at that very instant? Being privy that kind of knowledge could just about terrify any man even one who had already spent decades risking his life.  Harry had been in gun fights before.  Gunfire was nothing new to him, but he had always been armed.  He always had his piece on him.  This was the first time he was disarmed with a pistol pointed at him just inches away from his flesh.  The sweat on his brow intensified while his eyes searched the room for some kind of salvation, some kind of miracle object that might get him out of this trap, and yet there was nothing.

The ornate furniture of Mary’s bedroom had always left Harry bemused. Now the thought of dying in this very room sickened him.  He always found the room dank, but his objections were usually silenced by the dropping of garments in front of him followed by the squeezing of her wanton flesh.   Right now, Harry wished he could summon just about any pleasurable memory of the numerous other women he’d been with but in these final moments she was the one in front of him and therefore his mind would be occupied solely by her.  His rational mind searched for any other alternative only to come up empty.  In this very moment Mary was the only woman who existed. His last and only thoughts would be of her and he found himself both aroused and repulsed by this woman who now stood ready to kill him in cold blood.

Strangely enough she seemed to be reading his mind as she said, “I bet you’re gathering your final thoughts in that internal monologue you’ve got going in your head.”  She paused, “It’s okay to admit it.”

“What is it that you want me to admit?”

“That you’re thinking of us, more specifically me,” she said with a sadistic smile. “I can’t begin tell you how many men have fantasized about me just as they were about to die.”

“That file could tell me,” said Harry.

Mary laughed to herself, “Yeah, I suppose it could.”

“So Sacramento, Seattle, San Antonio, and now New York.  That was all you. Same modus operandi. One bullet in the head and one for each testicle.”

Mary stood quiet and smirked that little grin of hers.  Harry’s brain worked hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together knowing he stood nothing to gain but determined to solve one last mystery nevertheless.  He focused his thoughts on all the things that transpired to get him to this point.  The moment Vicki, his secretary, announced that he had a prospective new client, giving him that special look she reserved for those times she knew there’d be trouble. He knew he was in for a doozy.  Vicki had recognized Mary’s face from the newspapers.  When she walked through the threshold of his office door, he recognized her too as the recent widow who the coppers had deemed fit to book for her husband’s murder.  Turns out the doughnut squad got it right the first time, but a whole lot of good that did him now.  Mary must have known that he couldn’t resist. Poor Vicki.  Harry imagined she’d take his death the hardest.  There’d always be that night cap she invited him for after a night at the pictures a couple years back.  Vicki may just be the most loyal woman alive because somehow she never let him feel even a hint of remorse for getting back to business as usual the next day when she had clearly wanted more, when every inch of her body felt like it had achieved the ultimate ecstasy with his every touch as he took her that one night. If only he could have brought himself to commit to her instead of brushing her off after one evening of bliss. Harry struggled to remember the sensation of his lips kissing her, but the memory of that sensation escaped him now returning him to the cruel woman standing before him.

“Men are so easy to manipulate,” said Mary. “When I came to you with my sob story about how the cops had railroaded me, you were only too eager to take on my case.”

“For my usual fee,” said Harry.

“But soon after we got to know each other better,” said Mary with a wink, “You began to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case.  You never figured that I was capable of murder, did you?”

“How could I?” said Harry.

The newspapers called her the Black Widow after her fourth marriage ended with the untimely demise of yet another husband. Everyone in the country believed she was guilty as sin but Harry became determined to prove them all wrong.  Although she openly confessed to disliking her husband and marrying him for his wealth, she managed to convince Harry that she had been innocent. Perhaps it was her warm body beneath his that did most of the convincing, but she claimed to have had an alibi for the time period when her husband had been shot.  She claimed to have been at the pictures even producing a ticket stub for the 3pm showing of Pal Joey. After some coaxing the ticket seller and a few ushers remembered her, but Harry now supposed she could have bought the ticket and ducked out of the theater to murder her husband.  What Harry couldn’t figure out was the identity of the individual who must have been helping her.  Mary had no known blood relatives nor did she seem to have many close friends yet there were too many incidents during his time with her that just didn’t add up.   There was the shooting outside his office when they were together, and of course the incident that occurred when they were trying to draw out the real killer of her husband which led to the two of them becoming intimate.

“Tell me who’s helping you, Mary.”

“I suppose you haven’t gotten to that part of the file,” she said.

“You mean it’s there?”

Her mousy voice returned, “Here I am thinking that you discovered it just as I closed the file in your hands.”

“What I saw was that all the killings in the other cities were identical to your husband’s including the details that were not in the newspapers.”

“I don’t suppose you would tell me how you got the file in the first place,” she asked.

“Not a chance,” said Harry.

It wouldn’t be so hard for anyone to figure out that Harry pulled a few favors with the NYPD to get the case file on one Mary Calhoun compiled from each city where the previous husbands had all been killed. George Calhoun, the latest victim, was the wealthiest one yet.  If Harry could only prove her innocence so that she could get away scot free, it would become her biggest score yet.  It was his closest friend, Detective Frank Fisher who had been convinced of Mary’s guilt all along, but gathering all the information on those previous case files took time as well as the pulling of strings. The other investigators from the previous cities had been less than forthcoming.  Frank had come by the office when Harry was out and left the file with Vicki or so Frank told him when he bumped into him at the coffee shop.  Something had come up and Frank had to run off, but Harry was assured that it was there. When Harry returned to the office, Vicki told him the file was gone. It had been right at her desk and it had disappeared.   It didn’t take long for Harry to figure out where it had gone to once Vicki admitted that Mary had stopped by for a visit.  He paid the doorman a fiver to let him know whether or not Mary was in the building.  With confirmation that she was still out, he snuck into her apartment and proceeded to search when he found the file tucked away in a dresser draw among her unmentionables. He flipped through it randomly observing some key evidence about the previous murders when a delicate hand closed the file from behind him.  Somehow she had been expecting him.

With Mary now firmly in control, she took hold of the file and folder and flipped it at him while securing her grip on the gun still pointed at him. She said, “Since you’re going to die anyway you might as well see for yourself.  Go to the page entitled ‘Known Associates’ and I bet you’ll be in for a shock.”

Harry flipped through the pages and there it was plain as day. There was a photo of a woman clearly in a wig but the face was a face he had known, a face he trusted.  It was Vicki and written underneath was the word “sister.”  Harry drew in a breath and stared in disbelief.

“What’s the matter, Harry?  Can’t believe that your trusted secretary would betray you?”

“It can’t be,” said Harry.

“Typical of a man, isn’t it?  You rely on your secretaries to be these loyal confidantes, to do your dirty work, to protect you, to get you your coffee when your hungover, soup when your down with the flu, to be your eyes and ears when your away and what do they get in return?  They get a pittance of a salary when business is booming and an IOU when it’s slow. Then, the kicker is when they fall for you and give themselves over to you body and soul, you treat them like yesterday’s paper in the morning and expect them to just go back to business as usual.”

Harry stood silent until finally asking, “Where is she?”

“You don’t deserve to see her again,” said Mary as she drew in closer.  Just then another figure emerged from the shadows.  It was Vicki or at least the woman Harry knew as Vicki.  Her hair was strewn about like a mess and tears covered her face.

“I never wanted this for you, Harry.” Said Vicki.

Harry’s knees weakened as he knelt on the floor.  He began to plead, “There was always a place in my heart for you, but you know how it is in this business.  It just didn’t seem right for me to be close to anyone.”

Mary laughed, “I bet he’s sorry now, Sis.  How does that song go?”  She began to sing, “Who’s sorry now?/ Who’s sorry now? Who’s heart is aching for breaking each vow?”

“Stop it!” yelled Vicki.

Harry closed his eyes and reached out for Vicki.  She grabbed his hand.  He knew that the pivotal moment was near.

“Don’t go all soft on me now, Sis.  We need to get rid of him just like the others.”

“Just like the others,” repeated Vicki.

Vicki let go of Harry.  Harry began to sob as Mary walked behind him.  In one last desperate gasp, he shouted, “I love you Vicki!”  Then the shot fired though he didn’t hear it.  His body collapsed and as his life escaped him it wasn’t Mary his final thoughts were focused on.  It was Vicki and that one special night they had together.  While the newspapers would ultimately categorize him as just another victim, a sap who fell for the wrong dame, he had one advantage over all the others. He had the blissful sensation of the lips of the woman he loved pressed upon his even if he only felt them for a half a second before his consciousness dispersed into oblivion.

 

 

 

Update

I may not be able to post as frequently as i would like to, but I will post when I can.  In addition to work and family commitments, I’ve decided to do a couple of things.  I’m going to go back into “study mode” for the next couple of months to learn more about writing, more specifically screenwriting and storytelling.  I’m going to start by re-reading Stephen King’s brilliant memoir On Writing.  I read it way back in college and I feel like I can benefit from reading it again since like so many books of yesteryear I barely remember any of it. There are aspects of my writing that I feel can improve by reading more and learning more about the craft so that’s pretty much what I’d like to do.  I intend to keep writing during this process, but I don’t really know if I’ll write anything worth posting.  I’ll just have to wait and see.

My ultimate goal for this year, however, is to adapt my own story which propelled me to start writing again. About 2 years ago I started reading the Ian Fleming Bond books and thought (like so many others before me) “what would an American Bond be like?” Of course, this isn’t a wholly original idea.  Characters like Indiana Jones, Ethan Hunt, and Jason Bourne owe a great deal to Fleming.  The creators of many of these characters have all but admited to borrowing a great deal from Bond while “Americanizing” their respective characters. My idea, however, is to not only to introduce a contemporary “noir” element to this new character but also to make it so that the character is already retired. The Bond franchise itself has flirted with the idea of the Bond character getting older, most notably with the unofficial Connery film Never Say Never Again.  In Skyfall, you get the sense that Daniel Craig’s Bond has past his prime and it takes a good deal of the film’s running time for the character to regain both his confidence as well as his physical prowess.  Towards the end of the Fleming novels, we get a sense that Bond is certainly past his prime as an agent but he’s still very capable and far from retirement even if his body had been repeatedly driven past the breaking point.

My idea stems from the prospect of a Bond-like character already in retirement but still unwilling to resign himself to civillian life and therefore he’d find himself on cases even when he’s not supposed be.  I want the tone of it to be a present day noir, and I want it have some of the elements I enjoy from both Fleming and noir writers like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.  Of course, when I wrote the story 2 years ago, it was more about just getting the story down and I really didn’t think to refine the story all that much other than to work out the basic plot. Even with my own very limited abilities and low writing standards, it took me a few weeks to complete Detective Frank’s Daytime Dilemma .  It turned out to be the first of 3 stories I wrote for the character.  I subsequently wrote Detective Frank Takes a Swing and Detective Frank Strikes Back. Then, I started writing new stories with new characters and I kind of put the character on a shelf for a long while. I hope to write more stories for the character, but I feel like I have enough material to start with to begin writing a prospective screenplay for either a series pilot or a movie. The prospect of writing a screenplay is a bit daunting to me since I’ve never attempted to write one before and until the emergence of free formatting software designed specifically for this purpose, I didn’t think it would be possible. While I’m not under any delusion that any thing grand will come out of it, I think I would regret it if I didn’t at least try.

Even though the headache of properly formatting a screenplay has been somewhat subdued, there’s still a lot that I need to learn in order to put forth my best effort.  Not only do I still need to learn about screenwriting, I also have to learn more about writing and storytelling in general. Also, while I have 3 original stories for the character written and completed as short stories on this blog, the stories themselves are far from perfect.  I have to take time to once again dive deep into these stories and figure out what I got right about them and what I got wrong before I can even begin to take the plunge of starting to adapt them into screenplays.  I need to get a better grip of what the strengths and weaknesses of these stories are as well as the strengths and weaknesses in my writing overall.

There’s a lot to think about and a lot to do if I want to follow through on this and of course there’s also real life, work, and family to consider as my priorities. So, if this blog goes a bit quiet, this is the reason.  As always, I’m very grateful for any feedback, and I’d appreciate any advice anyone has regarding all this whether it’s criticism of my stories, my writing, or just ideas that might point me in the right direction (books, websites, screenplays to read, etc.)

Many thanks for coming over to the blog and checking out my writing.

Jack

The Shelter We Seek

Author’s note:  This is a sequel of sorts to my story The Last Dame to Fall For. I thought I’d try to do a different type of continuation rather than a direct sequel. Therefore, we have this story about one of Clark White’s children years after the events of that story.

The rain came down heavy on the windshield.  Still, Tom drove down the expressway undeterred in a green Ford Cortina.  He’d reach a level of comfort or as much comfort one might feel while still on the run.  He turned the radio up only to hear the DJ make a rather telegraphed reference to the weather as he introduced the new song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” Tom laughed to himself, not at the dumb joke but at his circumstances – Who’ll Stop the Rain indeed!  He listened to the song and it resonated with him with everything he’d been through.  He glanced over to her as she sat cradled next to him in the passenger seat. She was sound asleep but even then she was beautiful, graceful, and most of all . . . innocent.  If there was anything Tom inherited from his father it was that gift of seeing into a person’s true nature and character particularly when it came to women.  There wasn’t much from his father he was grateful for, but this was perhaps the best thing he could have taken away from the old man.  Unfortunately, Tom also inherited his dad’s penchant for drinking, but right now he was more focused than ever before.  He needed to prove her innocence and he had risked everything to do it. Despite all the evidence against her, Tom stood firm in his conviction that Mary Williams did not kill her husband, and he’d even risk his own badge to prove it.

There was only one safe place Tom could think of to go. It was the address on those letters his father had kept hidden from his mom.  Clark White had been a complicated man indeed. Tom felt like he hardly knew the man until he confided in him towards the end and even then it was because he needed Tom to write down what he wanted to say in his final letter.  It was a matter of necessity as Clark had grown too frail and his hands shook and he could no longer write, not that Clark had been fond of letters to begin with.  Tom knew his dad to be a man of few words and until his final days he never thought of his father as being overly complex.  Stingy- yes, judgmental – yes, crotchety – always.  Childhood had been anything but fun, but at least it toughened him up, and when he earned his badge, he remembered his dad running up to him to give him a big hug.  It was the most affectionate the man had ever been. Tom would be lying if he didn’t admit to himself that it didn’t get to him a little.

Now, the question remained . . . who was this Beverly Davenport that his father had been desperate to write to in his final days and would she even remember Clark White or even care to help his son under these desperate circumstances nearly 18 years later.  Tom imagined that Beverly who must now be in her early 60s might even call the police and then he’d be done for – both he and Mary would each be incarcerated.  Tom had put together the story easily enough but there was still an enormous sense of doubt as to whether or not he could trust this woman his father had trusted all those many years ago. As the radio continued to play, Tom haphazardly wondered if 20 years from now people would come to regard the present day as ancient history.  It would seem that time passes indiscriminately for all of us and yet its fate that’s kinder to some than to others.  It was fate that had riddled his Dad with Lou Gehrig’s disease and caused his lungs to fail a few years after the onset of symptoms. Perhaps it would be fate that would deal the same hand to him in due time.  It was fate that drew him and everyone alive closer to the void of death where surely nothing awaits but a vast unfeeling emptiness. His father never believed in heaven and neither did he.

He pulled up in front of a modest sized house with a big lawn and a garden off to the side.  Mary stirred next him. “Where are we?” she asked.

“The only place I could think of to go. The only place I felt I needed to go for reasons entirely unrelated to the mess we’re in together.”

Mary yawned and looked as though she could use another few hours of sleep.  Tom helped her out of the car as she stood up in her tight fit blue jeans and grey “Farm Strong” t-shirt.  Her legs wobbled as she took the first few steps towards the front porch.  Tom held her hand as they approached the door and knocked. A minute later, they could both make out the figure of an older woman approaching distorted through the small glass next to the door frame.  She looked just as Tom imagined she would despite the passing of years.  His dad had described her to him perfectly: her round cheeks, her welcoming face, her chestnut brown eyes, her hair now lightly faded caressing her face.  The years may have made her figure more diminutive but this was most definitely her.

“Hi,” Tom began. “You don’t know me, but I think you knew my father, Clark White.”

The woman’s eyes brightened at the mention of the name. “Why, yes.  You’re father once helped me with a rather delicate situation. . . He saved my life.”

“You must be Beverly Davenport. My dad told me a lot about you.”

“Yes, although I’m surprised your father had much to say about me. Do come in.”

Tom introduced Mary then the pair stepped inside as Beverly guided them into the living room and invited them each to sit down. Tom observed the simple elegance of the room.  A few simple paintings adorned the walls.  One was of a sail boat depicting a man and a boy fishing.  Another was of the Empire State Building in the middle of its construction in 1931. It prompted him to recall that his father told him he had first met Beverly when she worked at the building’s gift shop.  On the glass coffee table in front of them was this morning’s edition of The New York Times and a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Beverly offered them each a refreshment, but Tom declined and insisted that Mary have something cool to drink. Beverly returned with a glass of lemonade.  Mary drank eagerly as the long trip and the nap had made her thirsty and her mouth dry.  She graciously thanked their host.

Tom felt the need to explain things, but it was difficult to start.  He himself hadn’t yet processed the precarious nature of their circumstances and he feared that as friendly as Ms. Davenport may be, this might simply prove to be too much of an imposition.  Beverly sensed this and stood over him, placed her hand on his shoulder and said, “I have a feeling you have a story to tell me.  I’m here to listen and help if I can.”

“Thanks for understanding. First . . . well, this may come as a shock if you don’t know but my dad passed away 4 years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

A faint smile crossed Beverly’s jaw.  It was an uncomfortable grin of sympathy. “I happened to come across his obituary when it occurred so I know.  He was a good man, your father. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Tom recovered his train of thought.  “Then, you might also know that he cared for you deeply.  What I mean to say is that he actually felt a connection to you through your shared experience. There is one letter he dictated to me once he couldn’t write anymore, and there are a couple letters that he had written earlier that have your address on them, which he never sent.  I suppose that’s what led me here under these circumstances.”

“Do you have his letters?”

“No, but his final letter was short and I’ve committed it to memory.  The few other ones he wrote are most likely lost or in storage somewhere.  My siblings weren’t too keen on them, and when my mother past away not long after, it just became a source of friction within the family. They are probably locked up in the old attic somewhere now that my sister took over our childhood home.”

“That I understand,” said Beverly as she grinned.

Mary listened intently.   She drew closer to Tom as she spoke and she must have realize how difficult it was for Tom to speak this way of his father because she threw her arm around his shoulder to comfort him as his voice broke up.

Tom continued, “Well, before he deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t talk, he felt the need to confide in all his children the story of his investigation with you along with the feelings he harbored for you, his desire to leave our mother for you, and well, his quite pessimistic view of humanity and women in particular with exception of you. He wasn’t a happy man by any means, and I believe my mother understood him more than he gave her credit for, but time and time again he told me that there was only one woman he ever encountered who owned the key to his heart and it wasn’t my mother, it was you. He explained that there are precious few beautiful women who naturally lack the ability to beguile. When I was younger, I thought this was all nonsensical male chauvinism prevalent to his generation, but then I myself became a police officer and then a detective within the police force and I found myself walking in his shoes, thinking his thoughts. I’ve encountered many cases in my brief time even though I’m still a relatively young man, and many times there have been women involved who have lied and deceived, some who may be guilty, and others who are not. In each and every case, they always seem to have an angle to play and in many cases they have just as much if not more at stake than the men do. If I’ve inherited anything from my father, it’s been to be able to weed out the difference between how people present themselves from what they actually are. Perhaps that’s why I’m in this mess.”

“Tell me what happened, Tom.”

Tom looked over to Mary and whispered, “It’s okay.”  He shifted his weight away from her and focused his eyes on Beverly. “I failed to prove her innocent so I did the only thing I thought I could do. I sprang her out. The case was doomed from the start. Mary’s husband had been poisoned, and the bottle found by another detective in her pursed contained arsenic.  It was quickly determined that she had been putting the stuff in his food, and by the time I caught wind of the fact that my partner was dirty, it was too late.  Nobody would believe me.  The jury had already convened and she had been found guilty.  Judge gave her 25 to life.  That’s when I did what I think my father would have done for you.  I intercepted the transport van, risked life and limb, and somehow managed to free her after a deadly crash. After regrouping and hot wiring a new vehicle, this was the only place I could think of to go.”

Just then they all heard a knock on the door.  A cursory glance through the window indicated that a New York State Police department cruiser stood parked outside. Beverly directed Tom and Mary to the cellar, “My grandson likes to hide down there all the time. There’s a crawl space just beside the two bookshelves down by the corner to the right.  It should keep you out of sight.”

The two headed downstairs. Mary looked at Tom quizzically as a panicked expression gripped both of their faces.  The crawl space was snug but provided just enough space for the two of them. They held on to each other listening intently to the matters going on above.  They heard Beverly mention something about needing a warrant.  The car they had used to get there must have been reported stolen.  Perhaps someone had spotted them as they drove earlier through the neighborhood. Tom’s mind raced to figure out what their next steps should be. His eyes darted across to Mary’s and he thought he’d do anything to take away the anxiety she must have been feeling.  A tear streamed down her face and then she moved.

“What are you doing?” Tom whispered.

“I’m going to turn myself back in,” Mary briskly replied.

“No.”

“Tom, we can’t do this. We can’t live our lives running hoping that kind heart strangers will hide us time and time again.  It’s over. We have to face the consequences. I have to.”

“But you’re innocent.”

Mary’s face grew more frigid, “Am I?”

“I know you are.”

“I wanted him dead, Tom. I wanted him dead because of how he treated me, and then you came along and you believed me. You’ve convinced yourself that I’m this woman that Beverly was to your dad. Well, I’m not. I did it Tom.  Now, move over because I’m going to end this.  I don’t know how this ends for you, but I know how this ends for me. It ends with me in a women’s penitentiary, and maybe with good behavior I’ll see the light of day one day. That’s the best I could hope for, but the worst thing I ever did wasn’t killing my husband, it was getting you to believe me when I said I didn’t do it.”

Tom looked at Mary and did his best to contain the rage that had been summoned up within his chest.  Just as he was about to speak, Beverly’s steps gently creeped upon the cellar stairs. “Hello?  They’re gone, but we don’t have too much time.  My car is in the garage.  I’ll give you the key. I won’t report it missing or stolen, but when my son comes to visit next Sunday he’ll certainly notice it and I’ll do my best to dissuade him from reporting it. Hurry, you two.”

Tom got up and walked up the steps.  His head had been swimming. He barely comprehended what Beverly had told him, but he got the gist of it.  She was helping them at least that’s what she meant to do.  His dad had been right about her, but he had been wrong about Mary.  The three of them walked and hardly uttered a word as they approached Beverly’s red Ford Mustang.  In another frame of mind, Tom would have stopped to admire it and thrown a slew of compliments Beverly’s way. Instead, he blinked and nodded.  He got into the driver’s side, rolled down the window and started to thank Beverly.

Beverly interrupted, “No need to thank me.  I owe this much to your father.  You never told me what Clark’s final letter to me said.”

Tom looked up, laughed to himself and said, “On a cold winter’s day my father brought me close to him. I thought he was going to say goodbye to me, but instead he had me write down what he wanted to say to you. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Dear Beverly, I trust time has been better to you than it has been to me. I miss you and I often think of you and the life we could have shared, but now I’ve grown too old and too damn tired of my own dreams for it to matter much. There are a couple of letters that came before this one that I’ve never gathered up the nerve to send.  What good would they do? What good would this one do? It all comes down to this: You mean way too much to me to forget, but sometimes the life we want and the life we’re meant to live divert from each other like a fork in the road. I’ve taken my path and you’ve taken yours and never the twain shall meet.  Sometimes this makes me sad, but mostly it’s just the way of things. If you ever read this, just know that I’ll always remember you fondly. Love, Clark White.”

Tom saw Beverly begin to struggle with grief. Her eyes teared up, and in that moment he knew that this woman had not only meant a great deal to his father, his father had also meant a great deal to her. He stepped out of the car and gave her a hug that somehow felt maternal. They lingered there together for what seemed like ages.  Then, Beverly let go and said, “Good luck to the both of you. I hope you find peace somewhere, somehow.”

Tom and Mary nodded. Then, Tom turned the key in the ignition, waved goodbye, and said thanks before he pulled out of the garage.

After they had driven far enough away, Mary turned to Tom, “I suppose we’re going to the nearest police station to turn ourselves in.”

Tom turned and said, “If that’s what you want. Personally, I was thinking about Mexico.”

Mary laughed quietly to herself and asked, “And I suppose you still love me even though I played you for a fool?”

Tom pulled over to the side of the road.  He said, “I may not be as intuitive as my father, but I love you and that hasn’t changed.  I trust you had your reasons to do what you did, and even now I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done to protect you.  Whaddaya say we head off into the sunset together?”

Mary nodded, grabbed him closer to her, and kissed him.  Tom pulled back into the road and drove knowing he’ll keep driving until they could both be safe together to live wherever fate landed them.

The Unquenchable Thirst

There existed only one unequivocal thought in his mind and that is that he desired her.  Maybe it wasn’t quite love in the traditional sense or maybe it was the closest thing he felt to that insidious saccharine sentiment, but it was the one thing he felt that he couldn’t question. Harry could only admire her from a distance.  In fact he’d gone over a year without seeing her and there was nary a hint that she had ever given him a second thought since the last time they met. When last they parted, it was an awkward hug in the rain in front of Neary’s Bar on St. Stephen’s Street. For the 50th  time in his life, he had lost count of how many shots of tequila he had had resulting in a jingle jangle stutter step to the curb and a cab back to his place in Clifton.

They had each sworn in bold declarations that they’d see each other soon.  Just because their employment at the paper had ended that night didn’t mean they couldn’t stay in touch. The rain pelted his raincoat with a fury that felt like a tropical hurricane.  The wind blew her chestnut brown hair this way and that, and while she probably deemed herself to be a righteous mess in those moments that’s how he frequently thought and even dreamed about her.  She had opened the rear door of the cab bracing herself against the rain and wind as if her clothes could be ripped apart by the force of it all. In his rush to obtain a reprieve from these conditions Harry cut her embrace short, climbed in the cab, and let her close the door for him.  He drunkenly stared after her as she ran back into the bar and thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her. Then time did its thing.  There were new commitments to be made, a book to write, a dram and a drink to quell an infinite thirst, and a slow dirge marching towards middle age and death to round out a lifetime of misery.

He followed her career closely but could never quite get up the nerve to call.  Phone calls these days carry so much less weight than they used to.  It used to be that if an old friend called you, it meant something.  It might even change the course of your evening.  Now, everything was meant to be quick. People dismiss old friends easily because life gets busy and why make time for a conversation when a text would do.  Harry clung to a deep-seeded fear that she would dismiss him in this manner so he maintained to himself that it was best to avoid reconnecting with her.  It wasn’t worth shattering the illusion he had of her.  It wasn’t worth ruining the subject of his desire with such a thing as a discomforting truth.  Fiction is almost always better than fact.  He allowed the fantasy of her to reign eternally in his heart unencumbered by what must be by now her cold indifference.

He could still replay almost every detail of their first assignment and segment together.  The chief had told them, “These higher ups want us to produce these short web segments on news stories so that the website could get more hits.  Harry and Samantha, why don’t you two tackle the rising murder rate.  I want it done and up on the site by noon.”

Samantha piped in, “But I’m still working on that piece on the latest poll numbers.”

The chief replied, “Who gives a fuck about the poll numbers.  People want to see action but we’re not going to give them action. We’re going to give them two reasonably attractive talking heads talking about action.  Now, get to it.”

Harry chimed in, “Why thanks, boss. I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”

“You can whack off to me later,” said the chief.

Harry had had a crush on Samantha since she started there several weeks beforehand.  She may have been new to the paper, but she proved right away that she knew what she was doing once she delivered her first story.  It was a doozy.  Everyone loves a sex scandal.  Correction: Everyone loves a female reporter talking about a sex scandal.  Harry turned to Samantha and said, “At least he didn’t call you toots. It took Caitlyn years to live that down.  She thought about going to HR, but then decided it was best to take it all in stride.”

Samantha smiled. She shot him that alluring glance he learned to relish with her and said, “Harry, nothing ever fazes me.  Let’s get a drink together later tonight.”

That was the start of it all. They did their segment and it was a hit, but it’s what came after that stuck with Harry. The drink turned into a nightcap at her place and the nightcap turned into a make out session and the make out session turned into the kind of ferocious love making reserved for pornography. The next morning came the awkward goodbyes and “see ya at work.”  Then, the following week would yield yet another successful web segment followed by another similar evening of frolicking. Neither of them spoke of a need to define the nature of their relationship.  Even the very word “relationship” would have been poisonous to the very enterprise.  They worked fluidly together to the point where they could read each other’s minds.  Their repartee on screen was almost like music.  The paper’s website got more and more hits.  Everyone was happy and Harry and Samantha knew better than to spoil a good thing by having an actual serious conversation about their desire for one another.

Then, just like that the bomb dropped.  The paper shut down its print edition and became a web exclusive news source, which wouldn’t have been so bad if so many people didn’t get laid off. Harry and Samantha were initially spared, but then word came down that Chicago was looking for a pretty face. The morning anchor job on a network broadcast station was too big for Samantha to give up.  Harry knew it would be the beginning of the end.  His pink slip came on Samantha’s last day.  The chief walked up to his desk that morning and spouted, “Sorry, Harry.  Looks like it’s the end of the line.”

Colleagues had decided it was the perfect occasion to go out with a bang at Neary’s Bar that night.  Harry drank and drank some more repeating the phrase “onward and upward” with every shot of tequila wishing he could get one more taste of Samantha’s skin to savor on his taste buds.  He knew she wouldn’t be up for it.  He didn’t even have to ask.  Before going outside to meet the cab in the pouring rain, he staggered over to her and slurred, “It’s been fun.”

She smiled that alluring smile of hers and said, “Right back at ya, Harry” accompanied by an ever so coquettish wink.  She walked him outside to the cab and then it was over.

Harry thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her.

The funny thing about desire though is that at least for Harry it never dissipated.  He spent every night since thinking about Samantha, dreaming of that chestnut brown hair coming down on her naked shoulders.  He thought about the way her voice reduced to a whisper as she seduced him all those evenings.  Her every gesture in his memory became a lavish oil painting complete with a moving canvass. He couldn’t escape the memory of her. She became a ghost transfixed upon his brain.  Every time he’d get lucky with a new girl he’d pick up at a bar somewhere she’d disrobe and he’d find that his eyes had morphed her face into Samantha’s.

He couldn’t bear to watch Samantha at her new gig next to that pompous prick, but he forced himself to watch anyway. The clips he’d get hold of made him sick.  Those knowing glances that were exchanged, that alluring smile he thought she’d reserved only for him, the way her voice rose when she agreed with one of his talking points, all those things plagued him. Still, this was the woman he desired, and once you desire someone it’s impossible to forget that desire.

Harry decided to write a book.  He had the free time anyway.  He was working freelance and steady work was hard to come by.  He had published a novel before in the lifetime he lived before Samantha, but it had been years since he considered fiction writing again.  His editor was pleased to hear that he’d return back from the journalism front and pressed him for a first draft, but nothing came easily.  He decided he’d try to channel Samantha into his writing.  He’d devise a story about her although it wasn’t exactly about her.  It would be a facsimile of her, but even with this close approximation of her he found that it strangely brought them closer at least in his mind.  He came up with a brilliant plot and every night he wrote with fury attacking his old fashioned Royal typewriter almost as feverishly as when he made love to Samantha.  Writing this novel became his way of at the very least channeling this desire and making something productive out of it instead of letting it plague him.

The real Samantha had no idea that he was channeling her, and for a while it bugged Harry.  He thought If only she knew just how much she has inspired me. That might even be enough to at the very least get her to invite me over for a drink if I should happen to be in Chicago.  Then, who knows what else a drink might lead to. Still, he resisted the urge to call her or contact her.  Better to let fantasy rule over reality, he thought.

Months went by. The book was finished.  The galley was printed.  Everything appeared to be wonderful about his life again. On a whim, he decided to send a galley to Samantha.  He had obtained her contact information so he sent it to her home address. Inside the front cover, which had an image that had been cleverly modelled after Samantha’s likeness, he inscribed the words:

“Dear Samatha,

I plan to dedicate this book to you as it has been wholly inspired by our dalliance together.  I hope you don’t think it too forward. I promise not to use your real name but of course you will know that every word of it was written for you. I still remember the touch of your skin, and I’ll never stop desiring you.

Always,

Harry”

A week later the package came back with a note inside the book that had been returned. It read,

“Dear Harry,

I don’t have time to read books these days and anyways we hardly even knew each other. It was fun for a time but do yourself a favor and get a grip.

It’s been fun,

Samantha.”

A couple of months later after the book release, Harry returned to Neary’s bar instead of the book signing that had been arranged for him.  For the 51st time, he lost track of how many shots of tequila he downed. He never wrote another word.

The Sweet Release

He waited for her though he knew she would never come.  What time was it?  What day?  What month?  What year?  What decade?  It didn’t matter because all he could do all – and all he could think of to do was wait.  Jimmy knew he’d be stuck there and that the wait would be interminable.  Sure, he could go through long stretches without thinking of her but that would require more effort than he could muster.  A cool breeze swept over his face and he could almost detect her scent in the air.  That serene scent of roses mixed with just a tinge of magnolia reminded him of the love of his life and the pride he once felt walking arm in arm with her out of town hall when they married.  That day it was as if she had pulled him from a wreckage even though she must have felt like he was the one saving her.  That was Magdalen and she had come a long way.

Her parents brought her over on a ship from Europe when she was just 5.  They had travelled all the way from Lithuania where her father had been a doctor.  He managed to establish a respectful practice in Larose but many years of hard work and long hours had practically made her estranged from him.  When he met her that summer she often said that she had raised herself and that her mother had always been distant.  If he closed his eyes, he could just about remember her.  Those brown eyes and her those rose colored cheeks that perked up when she smiled could almost help a man forget who and what he was running from.  Back in another life, he had done some of the worst deeds one could ever imagine but almost like a baptism it seemed that almost all of it washed away the day he arrived on the bayou. Larose had always stood in his mind ever since his father had taken him fishing on what he had thought was a vacation.  No matter what his Dad had been up to, he always found time to take Jimmy fly fishing on the bayou during that summer.  The trip may have ended abruptly, but for Jimmy the streaming waters of the bayou had continued to call him throughout his maturity into adulthood.  Ugly truths and detestable deeds would pass down from father to son and the life he found himself living resembled that of his father more than he cared to admit, but the one place of solace he could find within his mind’s reach had been the streaming cool waters of the bayou in Larose.  Naturally, when it came time to go on the lam, this would be where he’d return and he would not regret it.

The glazing hot sun beat down on him that day.  It was as if the humid air anticipated his penitent soul and upon natural instinct sought out its own payment in sweat and discomfort.  It had been a long time since he had to walk in such intolerable heat but he knew there’d be some kind of toll. Jimmy had just been grateful to be granted this new life.   He had hitchhiked his way over from Atlanta where he narrowly escaped with his life.  He was determined to shed his entire life and perhaps that prior life was now melting away from his body in the form of sweat.  He had $10 in his pocket and little to no idea what he’d do to survive when he spotted the town library off Ledoux Blvd. His only thought was to get some relief from the sun.  The promise of air conditioning and perhaps a comfortable chair were enough to convince him he should head straight to where he’d find relief.

Once inside, he spotted her right away.  She was dealing with your usual run of the mill petulant teenagers.  They gave her a hard time because they had practically expected her to write their report on the English Restoration for them. “My job is to help you find the titles you asked for, and I’ve done that.  They don’t pay me enough to research and write your term papers for you,” She said.

One of the teenagers continued to harass her and the matter had escalated to some extent when Jimmy felt the need to intercede. He spoke up to the taller one whose beard looked like he had smudged dirt below his cheeks.  He said, “I’m not sure what your problem is but I think the lady has done her job.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business, pops,” said the shorter blond haired one.

“We could take this further,” said Jimmy, “But I should warn you that I don’t get pushed around.”  That’s when Jimmy took out his blade.  “You see this?”

The taller one had begun to shriek but swallowed his cry just before the sound reached his lips. Jimmy caught it and sensed his fear but more importantly the taller one knew that Jimmy sensed it.

Jimmy continued, “I’d never dream of using it over some petty squabble that could have been avoided of course, but it’s here nonetheless and I do know how to use it. “  Jimmy stared directly into the taller one’s eye and whispered, “Special forces.  Took this Schrade blade off an enemy sniper in Iraq who had probably taken it from one of ours that he hit.”

Both teens backed away.  The shorter one pathetically tried to apologize on behalf of them both but Jimmy simply waved his hands and they each practically bolted out of the building. That’s when he first noticed her. She turned towards him and though she may have been modestly dressed, his eyes studied her face and her smooth white neck. In that particular instant he thought of taking her in his arms and kissing her, but he knew that that would only have worked in a fantasy.  Though he knew he was inexplicably drawn towards her, he decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to act as casually as possible.

She spoke first, “Hi.  Well . . . thank you . . I think. Um, my name is Magdalen and although I’m grateful for what you just did, I feel like I should tell you that threatening teenagers in the library is totally not cool so if I ever catch you flashing that knife at someone again I’m going to have to ask you to leave.  So, uh . . . that’s that. I should be on my way –“

“Wait.” Said Jimmy. He was tempted to reach out for her but stopped himself. “It’s just that I’m new in town and . . . I think I need a place to stay.  I just arrived and well, I thought maybe you might know about an affordable place.  Actually, if anyone could use a hand I’m actually looking for work too . . . I know it’s a bit awkward for me to ask you like this but you seem like someone who might just point me in the right direction.

Magdalen nervously chuckled, “Well, if you know your way around a grill I know Pirot’s Diner is looking for a cook and there’s a bed and breakfast not far from where I live on Montague Street up near St. Charles. “

Jimmy boldly asked, “Would you mind taking me there?”

That’s how it all began.  The love of his life entered into it in a fashion reserved for fiction in a library no less. Jimmy now relived that first meeting many times over in his head.  It wasn’t long after that he confessed to her that he wasn’t really in the Special Forces but that he had been involved in a life calling that had been beset with violence nonetheless. It was a life that he grew into because of who his father was.  As much as he told her how much he regretted it he would never be sure if Magdalen could ever understand.  It was a risk letting her know the truth after knowing her for only one day, but he couldn’t bare to hide anything from her.  They had just made love in the quietly serenity of her bedroom in her small apartment and immediately afterwards he had become plagued with guilt.  He realized that he loved her and that perhaps if he was lucky she loved him too.

Besides, it wasn’t all bad.  The reason Jimmy had ended up on the run in Larose was because he decided to do the right thing.  Two children had been murdered during the last gang wars, victims of stray bullets.  One had been a precious little girl, a toddler just learning to walk.  When the gunfire broke out, Jimmy had been the closest person to her.  She had rushed towards him for safety and just as Jimmy had reached out for her, the splatter from the gunshot to her head covered his face. Jimmy survived that night but he could no longer live the life he was born into.  He decided to turn state’s evidence against the rival gang.  He became a “rat.” Once that happened he knew he’d lose everyone even all of his fellow gang members. He prepared himself for a lifetime in witness protection and had resolved to give up the life of a soldier in the gang wars, but then something happened. Jimmy had been wise to dirty cops before.  Growing up on the street he’d grown accustomed to knowing that just about anyone could be “on the take.”  Strangely though he never guessed that the two detectives in charge of keeping him in custody before the trial would turn out to be dirty.  He didn’t realize it until he had no choice but to kill them. It was either them or him.  Though he had sworn off guns after the tragedy of the girl, he had always kept his blade handy.

Magdalen sat next to him with her mouth agape.  She listened to his story, started to cry, then she pulled him toward her and kissed him. It was the most sensuous kiss he had ever had.  Every nerve in his body awoke and it was as if that one kiss from this immaculate woman washed away his every sin.

“Why would you trust me after what I just told you?” asked Jimmy

“Because I believe you and . . . everyone could use a bit of forgiveness,” said Magdalen

“I think I know why your parents named you Magdalen,” said Jimmy.

She smiled in her own uniquely demure fashion.

He continued, “It must be because of Mary Magdalene.  She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.”

Magdalen said, “My parents aren’t religious. They just liked the way my name sounded.”

“Fair enough,” said Jimmy, “But the love and understanding you’ve shown me. . .  Well, I don’t think of myself as anything even resembling Jesus but I think for the first time you’ve helped me feel free to forgive the person I used to be if thatmakes any sense. Sorry, if I sound too grandiose, but all my life I’ve been led to think that only certain types of people would ever be kind to me.  You’ve proven me wrong.”

She kissed him again and for many months and years they shared a life together.  They kept his identity hidden and Jimmy made quite a positive impression on both her parents and the community.  They began raising a daughter together and named her Mary, but now Jimmy found himself waiting.  The game had come to a close.  The skin he shed while leaving his previous life behind had revived itself in a twisted fashion and now he found himself tied literally in chains.

His tormentor approached, “Just what do you think is going to happen here.”

“I’m just waiting,” replied Jimmy.

“Waiting? Waiting for what?”

Not for what, though Jimmy, for whom.  He waited for her. He would wait for her even though there was no chance of a rescue. No chance of return to Magdalen or to Mary.

“Have you given much thought to what happens when you die? . . . Because you should. You see I’m pretty sure that when you die nothing happens.”  His tormentor laughed a boisterous laugh. “That’s why I’ve kept you alive for as long as I have.  What kind of punishment would it be if I just killed you and poof!”  His tormentor clasped his hands together, “Nothing . . . everything just goes blank and in a way it frees you.  No, pain and torture are much better for driving home the point to someone who’s been . . . shall we say naughty.”

Jimmy refused to speak to him.

“You must long to be dead by now.  Most people would. I mean, every recognizable thing that would make you human has been . . . brutally damaged.  I dare say your manhood isn’t even intact.  That wife of yours . . . she’ll be disappointed.”

At this, Jimmy gathered up all the energy he could muster and spit out a blob of mucus and blood directly at his tormentor’s face.

“It’ll be all over soon,” said his tormentor, “But just be warned that death may not be the sweet release it advertises itself to be.”

Jimmy steadied his thoughts, closed his eyes, and prepared himself.  He pictured Magdalen in her blue blouse as she was in the library when they met.  He held on to her image in his mind with the grip of a man clinging to life from a ledge. He held on to his memory of her naked skin, the rush he felt all over his body when he gently kissed her neck, the feeling of her lips pressed against his, the way his fingers felt running through her hair, her eyes as they locked with his, her voice whispering her love for him in his ear.  He held onto all those things until they each slipped away.  Then there was nothing.

The Lady Behind the Pistol

She stood over him watching the life drain out as a glossy haze covered those blue eyes.  The bullet had struck his neck and instead of dying instantly, he bled and bled staring back at her in utter astonishment.  It would have been amusing to her if she didn’t feel that pang of guilt.  She knew it was only the bullet that bit his flesh.  All she did was pull the trigger, and what’s a mechanism like a gun for if not to be used occasionally.  She felt powerful. This is what God must feel like when he kills and no wonder He does it so often.  The blue dress she wore would have to go, a casualty of a lover’s broken heart, but what a shame it would be since Paul had always remarked that she looked like an angel in it. Poor Paul, a young man not more than 25 who lived his life with all the wonderment of a boy only to be left to rot soaking in his own blood. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say only no one ever remarked how curiosity could dress to kill or how the cat might only be a pup and that the pup only has one meager life to live.

The smoke that rose from her pistol put her into a hypnotic trance. In that smoke she saw Paul as a baby in his mother’s arms, then as a child running amongst other children in an empty field.  Then, she saw him as the young man who wooed her away from her parents and ran all the way with her to the big city. In the smoke she thought she could glimpse fragments of his life that she never saw before.  As she watched she imagined what he’d been like before she met him.  She thought to herself, how could a boy be even more of a boy than what he is now? There he lay bleeding in his short trousers and beat-up dirty shirt and she imagined that if he could get up, all he’d really want to do would be to run off to the park and mount the monkey bars. He lacked the sophistication required to cut in the big city and in her eyes that alone was a cardinal sin. They’d run off here without a plan and without a care in the world, just two young lovers in love ready to experience life and maybe take a shot at the big time. Sure, she knew that the streets had never been paved in gold and that they both would have to work hard to earn their keep, and when life had just been about the two of them, all of it was as perfect as it needed to be.

Then she met Phil and he swept her away.  She had been working in a local jewelry store and when Phil walked in it was as if he owned every jewel there ever was including the one in her heart. He had come to buy a gift for his wife’s birthday, but from that very instance little else mattered to her.  Phil had conquered her heart without even knowing it. He flirted with her and began taking her out after her shifts. Paul had always been working.  Paul worked so hard but could only give her so little. Phil offered her the world and she took it.   They began meeting in motel rooms, sneaking away every stolen moment they possibly could.  She fell in love with Phil even though she knew he’d never leave his wife. Phil offered her a world of jazz and speakeasies.  They frequented The Cotton Club and had met Owney Madden and Hoagy Carmichael all in the same evening. She rubbed shoulders with the bee’s knees and it had all been terrific.

Once Paul found out there was little she’d thought he’d do.  She thought he’d skulk away defeated like some helpless little puppy, and at first that’s exactly what happened until one fateful night. He must have had them followed prior to this. One night, Paul burst into the motel room with Phil’s wife Delores, her hair in curlers in her tattered nightgown.  There was a woman beneath all women, she thought as she heard Delores shriek obscenities at each of them.  Well, at least Phil could be all mine now, she had thought.  Now that the game was up and the secret was out she thought maybe Paul had done her the biggest favor of her life.  She thought that every night forward would be spent with Phil beside her in their bed.

The next night Phil came by with the most serious looked she had ever seen on him. He brushed her aside as she moved in for his embrace. He turned a cold cheek as she leaned in to kiss her.  That’s when she knew she had been had.  She listened as Phil told her that they couldn’t see each other anymore and nearly fainted in disbelief as he told her he was going back to his wife. Reality came crashing down as she realized that it had all been a fling.  All those glamourous evenings, all the wine, and the passionate nights they spent had all been a dance.  She’d been taken for a ride and now she would have nothing.  Now, there was nothing to do but to return to that boy.

Life in Wyoming hadn’t been kind.  She knew all too well she came from abusive parents who wanted nothing more for than to stay put where they could control her. Paul had come from similar circumstances.  His father was a wheat farmer, but when Prohibition passed everything changed. Until then Paul’s father had been a kind and gentle man. Then, once lean times began it was as if he had been taken over by a dark uncontrollable force.  She had grown up alongside Paul and ever since they were small children it was as if she and Paul had been fated to be together.  Their parents perpetuated the lark, but then something in nature had changed everyone even her.  It was as if her spirit became hardened. Paul had been the only one resistant to it.  It was as if he was determined to remain a boy despite growing into a man’s body.  When Paul came to her window one night and suggested that they run away together, she though it had been the most adult thing he had ever thought of. She followed him everywhere when they first arrived in the city.  It was as if she was afraid to be alone.  They were the only ones who looked out for each other.  Then, they each buried themselves in work to the point where they rarely saw each other and then she met Phil and well, that just changed everything.

The gun felt warm even though the smoke had dissipated.  It radiated in her hand, but despite everything her hand did not tremble.  She coolly convinced herself that she had merely come to talk to him. The fact that she brought along the pistol that Phil had given her as a birthday gift not long ago was just a mere coincidence. In all the years she had known Paul before coming to the city, she never felt exhilarated around him. It took only one meeting with Phil to discover what true exhilaration was.  True exhilaration was firing a weapon.  Phil once remarked to her after giving her the pistol, “Now, you don’t have to take any guff from nobody.”  Holding the gun and firing it at a target now that was empowering to the point of it being nearly divine. He had prepared her for what it would feel like.  When she asked Phil what it felt like to kill a man with a gun, he told her everything.  “The first time it wreaks havoc on your stomach, but then about a minute later once you get used to the idea that the bastard got what he deserved, then it doesn’t matter much that a man is dead. Then, you realize that it only bothers you if you let it bother you.”

Phil’s words echoed in her brain. It wasn’t so much the words themselves or what they meant.  It was just the power she felt watching Paul grapple with death as he clenched his neck on the ground.  The blood spilled out of his hand like a sieve and those pretty eyes of his began fading. She wondered what he was thinking as he looked at her knowing that she had taken the only thing away from him that truly mattered to him or to anyone.  She wondered why he said those things to her if he was merely going to seek comfort in another woman at the first sign of abandonment.  That night when he brought Delores over to the motel he stood up in front of Phil’s face and told him that she had deserved a man who could share his life completely with her. Paul told Phil that she was the most remarkable woman he had ever known and that if Phil was going to take her away that she deserved to be more than a bit on the side.   Even now, she imagined those words of devotion coming out of Paul’s mouth.  It only took Phil leaving for her to see that Paul had been looking out for her the entire time, but it hadn’t been that simple.  Sometime while she and Phil had been together, Paul also fell for another woman only she hadn’t cared enough to realize it.  We love who we love and it’s never of our choosing.  No one ever truly possesses a heart that is not their own,  she thought. With that, she turned her back on Paul and walk away as the silence consumed him. . .

As the silence consumed him, Paul looked at her.  She turned her back and began walking away.  That blue dress always made her look like an angel. Her soft long white legs moved so gracefully that they looked like they reached up to heaven.  She may have been deadly but she was beautiful all the same.  He knew he was a goner.  He let go of his neck and uttered in a final breath the name of the woman he truly loved. Paul took comfort in knowing that that name didn’t match the name of the woman who killed him. The woman who pulled the trigger had long since become a stranger to him.  The woman he thought of in his final moments was truly remarkable.  She was the brightest woman he had ever met. He struggled to hold on to the few brief conversations they shared.  He also struggled to hold on to the feeling of her embrace wishing that he had been bold enough to kiss her the last time he saw her.  It could have been the beginning of something special.  He thought of how his hand might feel stroking her hair and how soothing it might be to have the freedom to embrace her whenever they wanted.  If he could only touch that lovely face one more time.  If he could only draw her closer to him, maybe he’d tell her all of the things he felt about her. He gazed one last time at the feminine creature briskly walking away. Then, he looked up at the ceiling, pursed his lips together one last time and uttered a name.  It was the name of the woman he wished he had the opportunity to fall in love with.  It was a desperate plea for a love that never came to be but a love that could have been something . . . special.

With renewed determination, the feminine creature upon hearing Paul utter that name rushed back into the tenement room and put a new bullet between his eyes. As she did so she infuriatingly shouted, “THAT’S NOT MY NAME!!!” It had only been one syllable but it was one syllable too many and she knew she didn’t have to take any guff.

The Last Dame to Fall For

If one were to walk across West 35th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues on a weekday morning, one might be inclined to walk past the office building next to an old Irish pub without giving the complex a second thought.  Unless you had planned to go there ahead of time, the building was inconspicuous.  The grey building almost begged to go unnoticed. You might notice the newsstand towards the end of the block and perhaps you’d peek in at the tailor’s shop or even the barber shop’s windows further down. Men and women would stop and give the newsie a nickel for their paper and perhaps even stop to get their shoes shined the next block over on a comfortable spring day. Businessmen, eager to read about what Truman might be doing concerning the steel worker’s strike, glided by the place perhaps frustrated at the prospect of a sitting duck President and the impact his actions might have on the economy of the country. In the office building at 25 W 35th street, however, the events of the nation or indeed the world economy – while of casual interest – seemed of little importance to Clark White as he stared out of his 4th floor window.   His neck itched from the fabric around his old shirt collar as he’d discovered that he smoked his last cigarette not 20 minutes ago.  The bourbon in the flask at his desk had long since been emptied and now the prospect of the wait in a long uneventful day seemed a bit of a chore to him.  There hadn’t been a new client in weeks and one by one men and women would rush past the office building as he stared after them from his office window.  None of them even gave a thought to old crotchety Larry who begged for change outside the next door pub.  They all walked past him smug and secure in their status in life knowing that wherever they had to go was so much more important -that indeed their lives themselves – were so much more important than that of a drunken hobo’s.  Clark had grown accustomed to this casual disinterest that had become humanity’s most characteristic trait. He watched, he observed, and he followed everyone who walked past and tried his best to guess where they were headed and moreover who each of them were and where they might fit in this scheme of the globe that we call life. It had become his own personal pastime and he embraced it with vigor. Besides he needed some mental exercise to keep his faculties sharp during fallow times.

Clark was truly in the nadir of his life.  Clara had upped and left taking the kids 5 months ago with barely a hint of protest on his behalf, and the solitude he’d subsequently discovered nurtured the healthy stoic bliss he felt on occasion.  It felt peaceful to be alone like sunlight broken by the branches of a row of trees leaving just the right amount of shade.  Still, these were the down times. There was hardly a client in months and he’d taken to letting his secretary, Barbara, leave early several days a week to save money.  After many years in the private detective business, he had gone through feast and famine and had come to expect each in cyclical measure.

Then, he spotted her.  He recognized her as the woman who worked the gift shop at the Empire State Building.  He had been there just last week to pick up a gift for his Aunt Myrtle. He remembered her charm and the natural grace in which she walked.  She was quite a remarkable woman.  She appeared to be about 35 years old, and though she dressed plainly in a faded blue blouse and grey plaid skirt it was as if an inner beauty resonated from her like a shining jewel. She’d look like a million bucks no matter what she wore.  Her medium length black hair had been arranged in a bun with random loose strands falling across her shoulders.  As she walked towards his building, Clark thought that she looked just as he remembered her.  Then she paused, tossed old Larry what appeared to be a dime and headed inside.  Clark assumed she must have had some business with the other office but to his surprise just seconds later he heard a simple knock on his door. It was her.

He remembered that he had sent Barbara home and leaped out of his spot by his office window into the anteroom leading to the door in the hallway remembering to straighten his tie along the way. “My apologies, Mam, as my secretary has left early for the day. Follow me.”  He led her to his office and introduced himself, “To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms . . .?”

“Davenport, Beverly Davenport.”

“Yes, I remember you from just two weeks ago. I went to the gift shop to purchase a gift for my Aunt.  I must say it made quite the impression.”

“Scale models of the building often do make good gifts, Mr. White. I’m glad she liked it.”

“So, to my original question. To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms. Davenport.”

“My sister, Cecily, is missing.  I would like for you to find her. I think she’s in some kind of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I believe she’s been kidnapped.  I found a ransom note this morning.”

“Why come to me? Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“Because the note specifically says that if I were to involve the police that they would murder her.”

“Do you have the note with you?”

“Yes, it’s right here in my purse.”

“Before I look at it.  Tell me a little about your sister. What does she look like?”

“Well, Mr. White, she looks just like me.  You see we are identical twins.  I was raised by mother on a poultry farm in Delaware while my father took charge of Cecily raising her here in the city. Our family split up when we were just babies and Mama raised me with help from my uncle Phil.  She never re-married but when Mama fell ill and passed away of consumption a year ago, I felt there was nothing left for me in Delaware, and I thought I’d relocate here in New York City to reconnect with my sister. Father wanted nothing to do with me.  My existence had been nothing but a nuisance to him and he let me know upon my arrival that I was to make my own way in the world and that I should not expect him to carry the same burden for me as he did for Cecily.  I assured him I would find work and that he needn’t concern himself with me if that was his wish. I only wanted to get to know my sister and Cecily had expressed the same interest in getting to know me. I then picked myself up by my own boot straps and secured my position at the Empire State Building gift shop, found a cheap room for rent, and these last 6 months have been some of the happiest times of my life living and working in this city getting to know my sister in the process.”

Clark became instantly intrigued by Beverly’s story. He listened as she spoke plainly and eloquently about her life.   He became transfixed by the sound of her voice and the movement of her lips and how beautiful those lips were unadorned by lipstick. Her round face gave each expression –from concern to focus to frustration over her set of circumstances to anxiety about the whereabouts of her sister – each of these expressions danced across her face like the beauty of an elegant poem, the kind Clark could never write even if he tried.  Her milky white neckline appeared to beckon him to bring his lips closer so that he might kiss her, but he knew this to be nothing more than a fit of temporary delusion. Still, he found himself drawn closer to her as she spoke.  He briefly looked at the ransom note and listened as she spoke of her sister’s impending engagement to a man named Henry Collins, a young bank teller who had been in business with her father. It was as if the room darkened around her and she was his only source of light as she described how her sister had been raised in a rather luxurious fashion and how her manners were not up to par with what her mother had taught her.  The anguish in her eyes moved him as she described how she had wished she had grown up with her sister and how her sister was the only family she had left.  Suddenly, as if becoming self-aware of his own crush he decided to speak.  He needed to say something anything to clear up his mind and re-focus though he had been paying attention to her every word ever so intimately.

“If you were any other dame I’d be suspicious of your story but I believe every word you’ve told me is true,” he said pulling himself back towards his chair reaching for a non-existent cigarette. He then added, “You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke on you, would ya?”

“No, Mr. White. I don’t smoke.”

“Nasty habit, and my advice is that you never do.  Call me Clark if you will.”

“Clark . . . why would you say you’d be suspicious if I were . . . someone else.”

“Identical twins,” Clark said, “If a woman were lying it’s because she’d need a man like me to go on a wild goose chase to serve some kind of a purpose probably having to do with a family fortune or inheritance of some kind. If she weren’t lying, and that’s what I believe, then she’d be a woman in great danger.”  Clark paused for a minute in silent reflection then blurted out, “Beverly what you need is a bodyguard not a private detective. It’s fortunate for you that you’ve come here to me because I can provide both services in one. Did anyone follow you here?”

“No, why would anyone do that and why would anyone lie about a matter like this?”

“Beverly, you may be the only woman in this town without a sense of guile. Most women . . . well every woman I’ve met anyway . . . they represent themselves one way while really being another.  No one is ever completely honest and no one is ever completely themselves.  We all show ourselves to be the way we would like people to see us.  Men do it too obviously, but women . . . society drills it into them to present themselves a certain way even if they’re not.  Men have more liberties to expose their personalities as they please.  Women don’t have that kind of freedom so they adapt and usually only a very keen eye could discern the true nature of a woman and know whether or not she is who she makes herself out to be.  I have one of those keen eyes and I after scrutinizing your every word and movement I know that you are who you say you are, and I think you’re in trouble.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.  What does this have to do with my sister and why would someone present themselves falsely?  How am I in trouble?” Beverly flustered.

“Sometimes it’s something that’s done without even thinking.  Usually, there’s no true harm meant in it.  It’s second nature for women to want to illicit sympathy and to promise a nurturing ear, shoulder, and more for the sympathizer.  That’s how women win husbands, my dear, and most of the time the deception to whatever degree that it is a deception results in the mutual benefit of two the parties.  Then, before one knows it children arrive, and legacies are made and what had once been a quid pro quo becomes a lifelong commitment that everyone is content to partake in.  It’s only when the curtain is drawn and the husband solves the mystery of his fascination that the mystery is blown and neither party can ever truly be happy.”

Beverly spoke up, “You say this as if you speak from experience.”

Clark responded, “Only those of us who have solved the mystery could truly attest to it.  Therefore, it is best to be blissfully unaware of the formula of life I’ve described to you and regard it solely to the case of your missing sister. You say your sister was soon to be married?”

“Yes, a lovely if peculiar young man.”

“How so?”

“He seemed very happy to court Cecily but had refused to ask our father for her hand in marriage.”

“As if he knew ahead of time that he would refuse?”

“Very much so, but they were so in love that Cecily had threatened that she was going to elope with him.”

“And the only reason you know that Cecily is missing is because of this ransom note asking for $1 Million which could only be paid for by your father.”

“Yes, but my sister would never go along with such a conspiracy.”

“I suspect she would and that’s why you’re in trouble.”

Clark quickly devised a plan and asked Beverly for her cooperation.  The ransom note had demanded that Beverly meet the kidnappers at Cecily’s uptown apartment with the cash. Clark knew that would have been the death of her.

Hours later Clark found himself in a lavish upscale Manhattan apartment.  There seemed to be mirrors everywhere to amplify the size of the space.  It was dark but he wasn’t alone.  Despite his objections for her safety. Beverly insisted that she come along with him. Clark agreed as long as she agreed to stay out of sight. He found a closet nearby where both of them hid. They’re cover didn’t last long. Soon they were discovered and a fire fight ensued.  Clark and Beverly took cover behind on upturned table as Cecicly’s lover fired his pistol.  It was just as Clark thought.  They were planning to kill Beverly, take the money and leave her body to be found and mistaken for her sister’s.  That hadn’t planned on Beverly bringing Clark along with her.  Clark seized the advantage when the round of shots halted, ignored the pounding thunder that echoed in his ears.  He swung from behind the overturned table, fired his revolver, and sighed a sigh of relief when the thump of the man’s body hit the ground. Outside the foyer a muffled cry struggled not to be heard.  Seconds later a woman appeared running towards Henry Collins’ body.

“You killed him! You ruined everything, both of you!” Cecily screamed with utter contempt.

Clark looked at her face, the exact duplicate of Beverly’s and pondered for a minute.  Cecily was bedazzled in jewels and had thrown off an elegant ermine muff just before she reached the body.  She had lived a privileged life and it could be presumed that she colluded with this man to strike out on her own without the burden of caring for her father.  She spared no thought for her sister.  It had been obvious that she had duped Beverly all along.  Beverly, with tears streaming from her beautiful eyes crawled out from behind the table.  Cecily’s eyes reddened with rage until she uncontrollably screamed, ”You had everything!!!!”

Confused, Beverly sobbed, “You grew up in wealth.”

“But I had father to deal with.  There’s no amount of money that could make up for that.  This was my chance to get away and live on my terms.”

Clark interjected lowering his gun, “Beverly indeed has a quality that you never possessed. She lacks the trait of beguilement.  You and all women like you have that trait in spades.  It’s what got your lover killed and it’s what deceived your sister. Indeed, I fear you have broken two hearts today, young lady.”

Beverly listened intently to Clark’s words.  His words pierced into her very heart, and she turned looked at him and thought perhaps she could love this man.  Perhaps she could say something to Clark that would demonstrate her appreciation for solving the immediate matter at hand so efficiently, but most of all she wanted him to be wrong and she wanted to prove that he was wrong.  She wanted to show him that he spoke in generalities and that human nature was so much more complex than he gave it credit for. Then, she glanced back at Cecily and felt Cecily’s rage pierce through her heart and she became saddened.  She was saddened because she had just lost her sister, her only remaining family.  She was saddened to think of the loss of not having grown up with Cecily living apart, not doing what sisters do together.  She imagined all the esoteric laughter that they never shared as girls, all her childhood running in the field that could have taken place with Cecily by her side.  She missed the fact that they would never get to talk about boys or help each other get dressed for parties or big dates.  None of that ever happened and now none of it ever would.  Staring into Cecily’s eyes, all she saw was darkness and then a shiver went up her spine as she pulled her eyes away.  She rested her gaze once again on Clark beside her and imagined a life with him and saw only loneliness, anguish, and despair. In the space of a few minutes, Beverly acknowledged to herself that she lost more than a sister.  She’ll soon lose a man who truly saw her for who she is as well.

Summer ended and with its passing came a slew of new cases.  It was as if Beverly’s case had opened up the floodgates. Clark was cast in the positive light in the papers and now the office buzzed daily with the kind of lively commotion that had seemed improbable just weeks ago.  Still, Clark thought of Beverly each day and debated the prospect of walking over to the gift shop in the Empire State Building with some flowers or some other courting gesture.  Indeed, after allowing for an extended lunch break Clark White excused himself as he walked passed Barbara to begin his exit from the building when Clara, his estranged wife appeared in the archway.  Her face timidly beckoned to him and Clark recognized all the familiar trappings.  He recognized the unwitting guile of the woman, but after an instant he couldn’t resist.  He grabbed Clara by the arm, kissed her and told her he was excited to have her back. Later on in bed as he stared at the ceiling he thought of Beverly and how undeserving he was of her.  The mystery behind that lovely face would have to remain for someone else to solve and who ever that lucky man happened to be, Clark knew he’d never measure up. Clark turned, kissed his wife as she lay sleeping, and dreamed a dreamless sleep, yet when he awoke the following morning the firmly planted image of Beverly remained warded in his mind where it would forever remain.

A Final Letter to Liz

Dear Liz

I realize the music I listen to may be a few decades behind anything you listen to but if you have the heart to do it I want you to find the song “It Makes No Difference” by The Band.  Honestly, that probably sums up my feelings about you and my whole situation – indeed, my entire life – given the fact you won’t be seeing me for a long while.  They say the law always catches up somehow and perhaps I’ve broken a few bones too many in my line of work.  Still on the eve that I go away, my thoughts are not of my impending imprisonment but of this song and of course you. It’s amazing to think that I saw you every week for five years and never once told you how I felt about you although I know you’re smart enough to guess. I think now more than ever you deserve to know and the words must be said. There’s a line in that song that goes,

“Now there’s no love as true as the love that dies untold.”

As many times as I’ve heard that song over the years that line had always failed to resonate with me until now and it’s really because it rings true for me.  There’s something about unrequited love that makes life both bittersweet yet nourishing to the noble soul. It just makes me think about the prospect of never seeing you again and how even though it’s for the best, it still hurts.  The regret is still there even though there’s nothing I can change about what caused it.

Who am I kidding?  I’ve never been a poet nor am I some highfalutin philosopher qualified to quote song lyrics as if I’ve just discovered the meaning to life. I could barely string together a few sentences on most occasions but since you’re so important to me it’s the most I could try to do so I only hope I make sense and you understand me.  I’m nothing but a runner for a bookie, but you know that already.  You knew that from the first night we met.  I walked up to your cash register and ordered my Big Mac meal with no pickles and you gave me a wink but then as the evening wore on and I conducted my business that frown appeared on your face.  You even told the manager that I was engaged in illegal gambling activities and that perhaps he should do something.  Little did you know the franchise owner himself sanctioned my little operation.  He knew I worked for the Duke of Earl.  That’s all that needed to be said, but then how would you have known that.  I mean a kid like you, how would any one expect you to be familiar with the ways of us low lives.

I apologize if this is a bit awkward to you, but there are things that I’ve been wanting to say and even though a lot of time has elapsed I still don’t quite know how to say it or even how to approach you. The briefest way to say what I’ve been wanting to tell you for years is to just admit that I have feelings for you, but as you may know, things are bit more complicated than that.  I’ve been attracted to you for a long time probably since the first time I saw you behind the cash register at our McDonalds on Nostrand Avenue. I just instantly found you to be a bright, warm, intelligent, beautiful woman with a good sense of humor and I always looked forward to seeing you every week so that’s why I made it a point to make our McDonalds my personal place to conduct my business and over time I coordinated my business meetings to coincide with your shifts so I’d have an excuse to see you – I know it sounds pathetic but I have very few real friends so try not to be creeped out by that.   You know what I do. I set up meetings with the Duke’s clients, hand out winnings to the winners, collect money from the losers, and anyone who didn’t show up at the appointed time at our McDonald’s . . . well, let’s just say I tracked them down and taught them a lesson, but this letter isn’t about me and what I’ve done it about my feelings for you.

I remember the night things changed between us like it was yesterday.  You had just been promoted to shift manager and as luck would have it two thugs walk in just before midnight and decide they want to hold the place up.  I needed to bide my time before making any sudden movements but the look of panic that crossed your face gave me a chill down to my spine.  I knew what I had to do.  I saw it as my duty to protect you.  Just as they had asked you again about the safe, I walked up behind the shorter of the two guys, grabbed his ski mask, pulled it up and stuck my gun right in his nose as he turned around.  You woulda thought the guy shit his pants.  I looked at you and saw a look of relief.  I stared the other guy down.

I told them, “You two better leave right now or else things will get ugly starting with this motherfucker’s brains on the floor!”

I got the bigger thug to take off his ski mask.

In all their nervousness the bigger one replied, “We weren’t going to hurt anyone, Yo.”

I said, “Do yourselves a favor and never come back here again.  You come back here and I’ll make sure The Duke will hear about it.  You understand?” Then I added, “Smile, you’re on camera!”

They all too eagerly nodded in agreement.

Then I said, “You want to hold some place up why don’t you give those liberal yuppies over at Starbucks and Whole Foods a scare.  Better yet, go to Whole Foods and suck each other’s dicks there so you fit right in.”

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see a smile reach the corners of your beautiful mouth.  I think it was the first time I ever truly saw you smile.  The two thugs left and you sat down at my table with me and we talked until the end of your shift.

I said, “I don’t know about you but all this organic food shit is just turning everyone into a bunch of pussies.  That’s why I come here.  Fast food may be poison but at least it doesn’t sell you some liberal self-aggrandizing fantasy either.”

I could tell you appreciated my sense of humor even if you didn’t whole heartedly agree with the sentiment.  To be honest, I don’t even agree with half the shit I say. I just say whatever I think might get a rise out of someone, but after that night things changed.  Whenever I’d walk in, my eyes instantly searched for you and I suspect your eyes greeted me with a warmth I hadn’t known until then.  You started sitting with me on your breaks and we’d talk about current events, movies, sports, or anything really.  I sometimes found myself ready and willing to lose myself in your beautiful brown eyes but I always reminded myself that we were in public and obviously it wouldn’t do me any good for any of the Duke’s clients to think I was some puppy dog in love with a girl at McDonald’s.  One time this middle aged degenerate gambler, Marco caught on and started teasing me.  I waited for the next time he lost and made sure he knew not to do that again.  Headlocks do that to people, I suppose.

Don’t think me a violent guy.  I mean I don’t resort to violence unless I have to, but in my business you find that no matter how much you may wish to avoid a conflict, conflict always finds you. It’s unavoidable. Working with the public, I’m sure you understand. How many times have you confessed to me that you were so close to slapping some bitch because she complained her coffee was too hot?  Or some uppity college kid who wants to return his burger because he asks for no pickle?  Or how about the fucking drug addicts that somehow manage to get the key to the bathroom and leave all their paraphernalia for you to clean up once they finally decide to leave hours later?  Or what about those bozos who think that McDonald’s employees are beneath them and that you should worship the ground they walk on because they occasionally drop some money there?  They remind you that you’re not smiling or chastise you for conducting their transaction too quickly when they want to talk about the weather with you?  All those people give you grief and you’ve told me all about it.  Well, I have to deal with similar things although it’s different.  There’s always the guy that doesn’t want to pay because his bet “wasn’t heard right.”  They’ll come to me and say, “I took the over not the under.  Why don’t you give me a break?”  There’s the fucking young yuppy liberal generation types that like to look down on me when they lose.  They’ll say things like, “I bet you’re real proud of yourself. You just took the money my Dad gave me for books. Guess I’m failing that class.”  Then there’s the ultimate no-no that always happens when a guy says, “Talk to the Duke. I’m good for it.”  Hehe. “I’m good for it” is code for “I don’t have the money please don’t rough me up.”

The point is we both have our ups and downs in our jobs. That’s something we have in common. We both work thankless go-nowhere jobs only the difference is that for you your job is a stepping stone to a future honest living.  For me, well this is as good as it’s ever going to be for me.  Once you’re born a low life, you stay a low life.   There’s no getting out of it once you start.  My future was doomed from the first day I made my first collection for the Duke.  Sure, maybe the Duke might give me some more action and recently he’s allowed me to put some of my own money on the street, but that’s all coming to an end now.

I’m sorry, I know this letter has rambled on and on about things that don’t matter. I have a habit of doing that.  The point is that I care for you very deeply and I think you know the reason why I’ve never told you before but let me say it anyway.  A woman like you deserves better than me.  Maybe if I had moved up in the hierarchy to the point where I had a decent no-show job so we could lie to your family about what I did maybe then perhaps if you felt the same way we could be together, but even then I know I could never truly measure up to being the man you deserve.  You deserve an honest man – someone who does something better than being a runner for a bookie, someone you could be proud of, someone who could lavish all their attention upon you, and give you all the love and affection you deserve.  It’s funny how getting to know you gave me an opportunity to just imagine what my life could have been like if things had gone differently for me. I think the happiness you’ve given me by allowing me to be your friend will be enough to sustain me in prison.  I know I’ll spend many nights imagining a life that could have been.  Hell, I’ve done that for many nights already and that’s something prison could never take away from me.

The pathetic thing is that this isn’t even the first love letter I’ve written you.  There have been many over the years but every time I came close to giving one of my previous letters to you, I always stopped myself and reminded myself why I don’t deserve you.  It all goes back to that song by The Band, “It Makes No Difference.”   There’s another line in that song that goes,

“These old love letters / I just can’t keep / ‘Cause like the gambler says read ‘em and weep / And the dawn don’t rescue me no more.”

Do me a favor and listen to that song just one time and think of me.  Then, move on with your life. Get back in school, become one of those liberal yuppies I make fun of and make something of yourself. I know you have it in you to rise above your circumstances.  You’re so smart and you’re good at everything you do.  Don’t hold yourself back. If you take away anything from your time with a loser like me remember this: Keep your head high and don’t be a sucker.  It’s the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you so take it to heart and stay away from men like me who may have a big enough heart but lack the ambition and drive to be better than who they are.

Take care, Liz, and listen to that song when you can and let that be my goodbye because “It Makes No Difference” really does sum up my life completely.

Love,

Sal

Absolution

Perhaps it’s the years I’ve worn the collar that have made me cynical and fatalistic or maybe it’s because I’ve never truly believed in God, but time and time again I look at my time absolving sins in the confessional as an elaborate game whereby I prey upon the superstitions of my congregation.  Admittedly, I realize it serves its purpose much like when George Steinbrenner apologizes to the fans or signs some up some ballplayer for big money.  It makes the player feel good because he’s hit a payday and it makes the fans feel good because they feel like they’re being rewarded.  Really, all that’s ever achieved are headlines.  Confession gives the believer the same feeling.  It’s a cathartic release for the sinner to say what they’ve done and feel like it gets washed away.  Some say they could feel the spirit of Jesus Christ within their souls the moment they exit the confessional.  They rush to do their penance and all the wrongs they’ve committed suddenly disappear like they’ve never happened.  It amuses me to think of the power religion has over these people.  They commit the most horrific deeds 6 days out of the week and then they come in at 8am on Sunday and confess so that they could deem themselves pure enough to receive Communion.

It’s amazing that so much of human behavior could be dictated by ancient fairy tales and superstition.  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” indeed.  Typically in my 30 years as a priest, I’ve dealt with your garden variety cheating spouses, the occasional remorseful shoplifter, the drunk who neglects his family, drug addicts, prostitutes, and all varieties of poor judgement and disgraceful behavior.  I’ve waved my hand and pardoned them all only to find them sitting across the booth from me time and time again confessing to different varieties of the same sin.  Humanity is nothing but a forgetful drunken fool repeating the same pratfalls time and time again.  If there were a God, we would be his court jesters trouncing upon his stage naked and unashamed for his bitter amusement.  If God exists, he is nothing but a spectator at the cinema filling himself up with popcorn and candy feasting his eyes on all sorts of atrocities, devastations, pornography, murder, violence, as well as the quiet humiliation of those who suffer in silence.  In an ironic twist, I am meant to be his vessel on Earth, and I do very much the same thing. I listen, I observe, and I pay witnesses to the destructive nature of the very human beings I’m supposed to be helping but in actuality I do nothing.  The kicker is that they admire and respect me for this just as they do the God they claim to worship. I’ll tell you, life in the priesthood is a real racket.

It must have been around this time last year when Joey Calonzo entered my confessional. I knew who he was the minute I laid my eyes on him through the shadows of the screen meant to guard his face.  The perception is that you’re supposed to be anonymous in these boothes but the priest knows his congregation.  I had performed the baptisms of his children and I knew who he was. I also knew how much he contributed to the Church. At first I figured, how bad could it be? I listened as he went through the initial motions all the while shifting on his knees.  He was a strong muscular man for a 50 year old.  I imagine he could lift his own body weight but he had weak knees.  He sometimes limped down the aisle at church telling anyone who expressed concern that he had been in a bad car wreck some years ago.  He wore a nice grey suit that day with the most remarkably flashy cuff links. His head was balding but it didn’t take anything away from the fierceness with which he carried himself.  He was a man to be feared if you saw him walking towards you on a dark secluded street.  If you actually did see him walking towards you on such an occasion, it might actually be the last thing you ever saw.  Joey was a hitman.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 years since my last confession,” he said.

“Was that around that time that Father Palisimo passed away?”

“It is, Father.  He used to hear my confessions but since he passed I haven’t felt comfortable confessing my sins until now.”

“Go on, my son.”

“I’ve seen the life leave the eyes of many men since my last confession.”

“You mean you’ve committed murder.  You realize that murder is a mortal sin.”

“I do, Father, but Father Palisimo absolved me of my sins in the past and I was hoping you might do the same.”

“What you ask is not easy. Murder is not only a mortal sin but also an egregious crime.”

“I realize that Father, but I also know that as a priest you cannot violate the Sacrament and turn me in.”

“In order to be forgiven for your sins, you must truly repent and commit to change your life for the better so that you may live in peace in the love of Christ,” I said.  I knew that his chosen profession wouldn’t permit him to do this, but I had to say something that sounded noble to reinforce the reverence he afforded me.

“Father, I admit that I cannot change but I truly regret my actions. Is that not enough?  It was for Father Palisimo.”

“Let’s set this aside for now. What other sins have you committed?”

“Father, I have also committed adultery on many occasions.  I know Anne-Marie loves me and I love her but she doesn’t satisfy me, Father. I’ve recently found myself not only lusting after other women but I also believe I’ve fallen in love with another woman.”

“What is her name?”

“Tina Vitale, Father.  I’ve sent her a single white rose every day for the last 3 months. I feel as if my heart belongs to her but I know I can’t leave my wife.”

“Divorce is against church teaching of course.”

“That and she’s liable to take me to the cleaners, Father.”

At this I chuckled. It’s strange how miniscule a petty thing like infidelity appears when compared to such a horrific crime as murder. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes.  I gave him the impression as if I had taken on the weight of the world deciding whether or not to fulfill the Sacrament. I had to do this so as to at least give the appearance of wise contemplation. In actuality, I was merely thinking about the perfect words to use to keep the ruse going.  I wasn’t about to let Joey Calonzo or his blood money leave my church for another.  I’m sure Saint Mary’s would love to have his bankroll in their pockets.

I started, “My son, you have committed deeds that are truly evil, however, I believe you’ve shown true remorse.”  Waving my hand in front of the screen I continued, “You will say 30 Our fathers and 20 Hail Marys and you will try every day to walk with Christ and show compassion for your fellow man.  You will do something kind for your wife and be a good father to your children.”

“I will, Father.”

He then said his act of contrition and left. I must admit to have felt a heavy burden on my heart since that day. Joey’s confessions became a weekly ritual, and I sat, listened, and waved my hand accordingly as he recounted crimes and details that might make your stomach turn.  The city around us was falling apart, and it felt like Joey and I were just superfluous dust meandering through a wellspring of urban decay. Not even baseball could cheer me up.  The Mets were in the gutter and the Yankees had Dave Winfield who could never come through in the clutch.  The city itself just seems to be decaying every time I turn around to look at it.  Depravity runs wild on the streets, and fewer and fewer young people come to church on Sunday morning.  More and more it’s become a haven for perfume soaked spinsters and widows.  They need someone to reassure them that their lives mean something, and I sell the snake oil they need at just the right time to prevent them from losing their minds. The kind smiles they offer me disguise lifetimes of despair and self-serving sacrifice. It’s become harder and harder to disguise my own contempt of it all.

The one comfort I have in this life is the knowledge that on the day Joey Colonzo dies, the moment his life extinguishes, he’ll know he will have been had.  He won’t see a light.  He won’t see St. Peter.  His consciousness will vanish into the ether just as everyone else does.  He’ll dissolve into the same nothingness as his victims and my knowledge of that makes me feel good about what I do.  I provide a service.  Without religion, this city would have decayed decades or even centuries ago. Men like me provide a service to keep society from complete self-destruction. Men like Joey Calonzo would have no sense of morality whatsoever and they would kill for sport instead of killing to fulfill a contract.  I’ve done more for this city than God ever could.

After all those gory confessions of murders, torturings, and fighting, I’ve become almost numb to it.  Instead, in our recent sessions I’ve come to let him breeze past those mortal sins and had him tell me more about his affair with Tina Vitale.  If one didn’t know better, after the first few minutes it might appear as if our confessions transformed into a gossip column. He’d tell me about all the wonderful things he bought her and about how he can’t stop thinking of her. He wrote her love poems, and I truly came to believe that he genuinely loved her despite his status as a sociopath.

It’s amazing how a man capable of such ugly behavior could turn around and almost appear human.  Tina’s mother passed away of cancer recently. Joey not only paid for the funeral but he also bought the most beautiful pendant for Tina’s mother to be buried with.  The damn thing must have cost about 20 grand, and it looked as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. On it he had an inscription which read, “I will forever abide in Christ as he abides in me.”  During the wake, the mourners were all invited to lift it slightly from the body’s chest to admire it and declare how beautiful it was and how peaceful Mrs. Vitale looked as she wore it in the casket.  In fact, everything about it was beautiful and graceful. It was as if her dead body had become this adorable accessory to this beautiful jewelry. I performed the ceremony taking on my usual somber reflective tone for such occasions.  My performance was exquisitely convincing, the body rested in all its peaceful glory, and the faces of the mourners took on a surrealist impression. Everything was as it should be.

As I finished my final blessing, I looked into Tina’s eyes and then I looked into Joey’s eyes and said, “Surely, she will find life everlasting as will each of us who believes in our lord, Jesus Christ.”

Joey held Tina in his embrace and nodded reverently.  Tina tried to suppress her tears and buried her face into Joey’s arm.  I embraced them both, held them in my arms, and said, “Don’t fret, Tina. Think of the saying on the pendant and let that give you comfort.”

Tina replied, “But those are just words. I don’t even know what it means”

Joey Calonzo looked to me for a sage response, but I merely stood back, smiled, nodded, and left. I could still hear him call out to me as I approached the doors.  I tried not to listen. Instead, I focused on the rain pouring down like pellets fired from a careless carbine.  The gutters would soon be awash with fresh waters from the heavens.  The streets would be cleared of those who wished to get away from the torrential downpour, and for a brief time the city would be still with the exception of the rain.  The parked cars would remain parked and the street corners would be clear of drug dealers and would-be muggers.  The prostitutes would abandon the streets and the wind and the rain would force all sins to be committed indoors far from the omniscient sight of their neglectful God.  For that moment, I felt truly free, truly peaceful, and I relished the relative solitude I was about to have for myself upon clearing the archway until my senses awakened and I heard his voice. It was clear as day and could penetrate any distance. “Bless you, Father,” he said.  I could feel the eyes on my back so I turned around, smiled, waved my hand and said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Afterwards, I returned to the rectory, retired to bed and prayed. I prayed for dear life that there should not be a God.