Chapter 2: The Way We Get By

February 24th

i-guns-trimmed’ve been told I need to live in this moment, to reside in the Now. Told that life is a series of moments and to be stuck in something that happened in your past robs you of your present.

The news on my TV is about a murder that shocked a small community, a murder that may actually have adverse environmental consequences.

Seeing that makes it harder for me to pull myself out of that moment, harder to focus on this one. But you have to try, you know? So I turn off my tv.

But still I remember the screams.
Two Weeks Earlier

A rough night at work is finally coming to an end. A night that ended with the death of one of my coworkers, a nice young fool called Jumble.

I make it back to my side of town and slow up just enough to flash my card at the red dot that raises the arm, then slip down into the garage below my apartment building. My parking spot is only two slots from the elevator, which is particularly nice on a cold night like this, and as I’m stopping and shifting into park I see something red wedged down between the passenger seat and the console.

It’s a cap. A bright red pizza delivery cap.

It’s not polite to stare, but the cap ain’t gonna mind and there’s nobody else here to object so I take my time and let my gaze lock and my mind wander. Inside that cap there’s sure to be some stray strands of crunchy bleach blonde hair. I’ll have to get my car cleaned, professionally, and soon, which isn’t so bad because we’ve got a place for just that sort of thing, but.

Fuck me. I killed Jumble.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been assigned to retire a coworker. And as long as I’ve worked for the company I’ve never met with an associate without having that slight bit of dark apprehension that things might turn against me. All of us think that way. You learn it quick.

Jumble was too young and eager, not wise enough or jaded enough to get that yet. Guess that made doing what I did simple. Course, nothing too tricky about pulling a trigger. Any dummy can do it. Many do.

There’s a small bit of concentration needed to pull my gaze from the kid’s hat. Dead kid’s hat. Dead kid’s red hat.

Stop. Fucking mind is getting loopy.

So I grab Jumble’s hat and get out of my car, walk over to the elevator and wait as it lowers to me. Soon the shiny black doors fall open and I slip my apartment key into the slot next to the call box. It’s been awhile since I last marveled at its speed, the way it shoots up the three hundred or so feet to my floor, but tonight I fully appreciate it.

Whisking, then slowing, stopping, the doors part to reveal my home. I step out directly into my living room and enjoy sinking into the plush carpeting. Deep and sumptuous burgundy waves carry me forward. Off to the left, where the carpet abuts glossy hardwood floors, is my kitchen. The counters and appliances in there are decked out in deep silvers and flecked granites, and the faintest glow reflected up from the always-on track lighting gives the whole area a cold, ethereal glow.

Opposite that, the far wall to my right is nothing but tinted glass. You ever wonder how it is I do what I do, just look out my window. The skyline view begins six inches above my carpet and stops fourteen feet up, another six inches shy of my ceiling. High enough to look over the top of most buildings, west-facing to grant me living room access to the best sunsets. Get drunk sometime and lean forward, resting your forehead against the glass, you’ll feel like you’re flying. Unless you’re one of those antsy, nervous drunks, then it’s like falling.

I ignore the left and right for now and move ahead, on to the cream-colored two-chair one-sofa living room set. Arranged in a half circle, they wrap loosely around a polished black stone oval of a coffee table. Jumble’s red hat lands there as I sit back in one of the chairs, kick my feet up on the solid surface in front of me and point the remote at the screen mounted on the wall.

It snaps on and, god, how I love it. Long and wide, spread out before me bigger than most kitchen tables and clearer than twenty-ten vision. I scroll through the on-screen channel guide and find a late basketball game that’s not yet over. I turn to it, and again, I do love my tv. I watch as a player finishes a breakaway lay-up, and he is so life-sized and clear that I swear I could block his shot if only I cared to stand up. Which I really don’t.

Tossing the remote aside I remove my shoes and socks and let the carpet swallow my feet. In doing so it reminds me.

Six months back, a moderately successful local business executive was found dead in his garage. Seems he got in his car one night, started his engine, and ended his life. Except that’s not exactly how it happened.

When Mr. Local Business got in his car after work that night I got in behind him. It didn’t take much of the tough guy act; he was conditioned to people like me coming to collect. I had him drive home, aware his family wouldn’t be around that evening. When he parked in his two car garage I pressed my gun to the back of his head and took out a roll of plastic wrap. Looping it around him and his driver’s seat was not exactly easy to do with one hand, but not impossible, either, and I am a pro. Enough plastic packaging tape and he’s held secure without any of the markings that come from rope. Markings like that make it look a lot less like suicide.

After he was fully secured I leaned ahead and restarted his car. He cried and pleaded, begged and bargained, got angry then remorseful, ricocheting through all of your basic Kubler-Ross steps. I left him, went inside his house and waited.

In the kitchen I sat at his table and had a glass of orange juice. After thirty slow minutes I went back out to the garage. The air was thick and rank and it didn’t take long for it to get to my eyes, but soon I had him cut free. Then, as I was peeling the last bits of tape off, my eyes stinging from the gas, I heard the garage door opener kick on.

I was able to duck into a storage closet just off the kitchen before anyone saw me, but ended up trapped in there with the spare towels and vacuum cleaner for the next eight hours. Now, killing the guy himself never really got to me. That sort of thing is easy to walk away from. But being held up in that closet for the night, being there when his wife came home with their two kids, hearing the cries and the sobs and the ambulance’s siren. I don’t get paid extra for that.

Anyway, this carpet that I love? That feels so good against my bare feet? I ordered it the very next day. Because if doing my job is going to make me hate a part of my life, then I’m going to show my life that my job can make me very happy, too. My job paid for this carpet, as with everything else I own.

Still, I’m not going to tell you what got me to buy the TV.

***

I’m made to sit and stew for seven days before Bobby calls me back in. I’m hoping for a casual debrief, but the timing makes me think it’s more work.

In the past week I’ve done little. I meant to throw out Jumble’s red cap but it managed to stay put on the coffee table for several days. I wanted to buy something to take the sting out of it all, but I couldn’t quite think of the proper purchase that’d make killing that kid seem like the well-paid price of doing business. All I did was move that red cap to the top of my refrigerator. Not much of a memorial, but better than tossing it out. I suppose.

So I arrive downtown and wait outside Bobby’s office hoping that the next job will be easier. There was a time I was tasked with simpler work. Sometimes shakedowns, often enforcement or security for various friends of the company. In the really early days it was your basic errand-running busy work. Those were better days, albeit lesser paying ones.

When I’m called for I enter and find he’s not alone. Standing alongside the seated Bobby is Fin Dwyer. We’ve met, but Bobby introduces us anyway.

“Fin Dwyer, Charles Wexler,” Bobby says, motioning at the two of us. “Fin, Wex. Wex, Fin.”

“I know ‘im,” Fin says with a lopsided grin.

Altogether crooked, Fin is, with his half-smiles and white blonde hair that’s now mostly one wispy lock combed to the side. Whereas Bobby Hoynes has the polished look and good hair of your television evangelist or politician, Fin Dwyer sports the low rent but thick-muscled look of a successful loan shark.

“Tell me, Wex,” Fin says, grinning down at our boss before continuing. “Just between you, me, the good Mr. Hoynes, and God his self, when you fed Jumble that bullet, did he stut-stut-stutter into his death throes?”

Fin laughs. Hoynes looks down and chuckles, shaking his head. I gaze back expressionless, fighting an inner battle to remain calm and silent, trying not to hear the kid’s stammering voice in my head.

“Aw, c’mon Wex, don’t be like that.”

“Let it go, Fin,” Bobby says. “Charles is a professional. Now how ‘bout you leave us so we can talk.”

On his way out he stops at the door. “Just remind me never to meet up with you outside of the office. K, Wex?” He leaves laughing.

Bobby waits for the door to close before pulling the file from inside his desk. “You know a small town up near Lake Burgess? Goes by the name of Huston’s Fjord?”

That’s how it starts. No small talk, no pleasantries, not anymore. Bobby used to tell me all sorts of anecdotal personal and professional stories, romanticizing our job. I used to eat them up. Now it’s just, “Hi, here’s your next assignment,” and I really couldn’t stomach any more than that.

“Huston’s Fjord?” he asks again.

“No. I’m not familiar.”

“Right, well, no surprise. It’s tiny. S’posed to be a nice spot in the summer, just off the lake. Picturesque they call it in the manuals. Course during winter it’s a frozen stretch of flat land with plenty of snow, no windbreak, and considerably less charm.”

“Sounds great. That where I’m headed?”

“It’s work, Charles, not a vacation. Pack a parka if you feel like.”

He opens the folder to some photos and a couple tourism brochures of the lake area complete with maps.

“Now the fella in this picture, he’s the one needs quieted.”

“And her?” I motion to the second glossy photo.

“His young companion. Mistress. Real opportunistic gold-digger type. She’ll be up there with him, but of no concern either way. If she has to go too, she goes. If not, don’t. Or do. Your choice. Pays the same either way.”

“I see.”

“And it pays well, too, Charles. I’m told the guy upstairs has a personal stake in the matter.”

So it’s only been a week since Jumble and I’m already being sent north to tie up someone’s loose end. Work’s not usually this steady.

***

Leaving Bobby’s office, the sky is cold and grey which is good because I really don’t want a bright sun shining down on me right now. It’s gloomy and dark but I put on my shades anyway. Walking down the sidewalk I feel it all: the stares of the people, the thick clouds, the rattle of cars and stray rays of sun puncturing the dirty canvas above us, all of it weighing down on me. All that and another job to do, another when I just want to stop.

I’m compelled to hear from a more sympathetic soul, so I make a call. A few rings are followed by an outgoing message.

“Hello, you’ve reached Jennifer Malone. Sorry to have missed your call. I’m currently away on business so please leave a brief message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I return.”

The beep sounds and I say, “Oh, where is my little black-eyed gypsy whore when I need her?” because I’m either smooth like that or really inept at leaving messages. Also, Jen’s a prostitute, and her name’s not really Jennifer Malone, it’s Jenya Malavirey, anglicized for professional reasons. “Just give me a call when you get back. It’s Wex.”

That’s too bad, because there are very few people I can talk to when I hate myself. I can be honest with Jenya. She knows me, what I do. We go back a ways.

As I walk on my thoughts continue circling the drain that is the “I want to quit, I can’t quit” vortex, until something clicks deep inside my mind: I do know someone who was allowed to walk away from this.

***

A couple days later, I’m pushing a grocery cart up and down the aisles as Frank Ellis picks items off the shelves.

“Well, you certainly can’t just quit,” he says.

He pulls down a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and sets it in the cart beside the steaks, scallions, and green peppers he’s already picked out. I’ve known Frank for a good ten years now but never knew he liked to cook. When I called him the other day, called him after having not seen or spoken to him for well over a year, he demanded I come over, insisted he would cook us dinner. I agreed immediately.

“I’ve seen how most of these retirements go,” I say.

“Most?” He turns back to look at me and raises a skeptical eyebrow. Frank is tall with a hawkish but pleasant face, a distance runner’s build and an easy smile. “All these retirements go the same way, Charlie.”

“What about you?”

Two heavy-set elderly ladies pass us and smile up at Frank.

“Father,” they say.

“Judith, Margaret,” he responds with a smile as they pass. “Did somebody tell you I retired?”

We head down the next aisle, then another. Frank pulls down a small jar of apple cider vinegar and a tiny can of cinnamon and thanks a young couple for the kind words they have regarding his latest sermon. It’s hard for us to talk about what I want to talk about here in the open. When we find a bit of a clearing I bring up another topic.

“This is weird, Frank.”

“How’s that?”

“You’re a priest now?”

He feigns thinking about it before answering. “Yes. Yes I am.”

“All those years, you never struck me as the religious type.”

“People do change over time, Charlie.”

“Yes, but.” I still can’t get over it. To see all these people smiling up at him isn’t surprising, he’s always been well liked. Even in our circle he was treated almost reverentially, and let’s face it, we’re a bunch of murderers and thieves. But that’s not what bothers me.

So I ask, “Do you even believe in a god?”

Frank fills a plastic bag with four Anjou pears. “Do I have to?”

“I would guess that’d be part of it.”

He sets the bag in the cart. “Maybe it’s enough that they believe.”

“Maybe?”

He smiles, and answers with a shrug.

After we finish the shopping and pack the groceries in the back of his car I pick up the original conversation.

“I’m sick of it, Frank. I can’t stand it anymore. I want out.”

“Well now, that’s not exactly so,” he says.

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” Frank says. “You want out alive. And that’s much more difficult.”

“Okay,” I say, granting him the point. “Fair enough.”

“Now see you,” and he points at me. “You’re looking for a happy ending.”

Frank settles in behind the wheel and begins driving us back to his house.

“Do you know what the great Orson Welles said about happy endings? He said that happy endings depend on stopping the story before it’s over. You see what he was getting at there?”

The car slows and he puts on his turn signal, stopping for a lady to pass through the crosswalk. “There are no happy endings, Charlie. Stick with any story long enough, it always ends badly.”

***

Turns out that, as a town, Huston’s Fjord is little more than a supplement to the lake’s seasonal tourism community. Some bait shops, now closed, a few sandwich shops, also closed for the season, and a gas station parked near the highway with one lonely attendant are all that currently exist amongst the mostly abandoned cabins scattered beside a frozen Lake Burgess.

It’s still dark, and I’m early, so I circle the area once, getting a lay of the land before parking down the road with a good view of the simple two story home. It’s an icy blue house looking out across a frozen lake. I let the car run while I wait because it’s far too cold to turn it off.

Out of the reach of my favorite radio station, I rely on some Radiohead cds to keep me company. I listen as the smudge of skyline above the lake shifts from black to dark blue, then slowly brighter. It’s almost 6:30 when the first light comes on in the house, then another. And just as the scouting report I was given says, it’s a little past seven when the target’s mistress trots out the door to go on her morning run along the lake’s west shore.

Sturdy stuff, she must be made of. It can’t be much above single digits out here, and the wind is howling. I wait a minute for her to gain some distance before turning off the car and heading towards the house. The wind whips me as I go.

It’s still dark enough and there are no neighbors so I circle the house, spying through windows to spot the target before I enter. He’s at the computer in the living room, sipping a coffee, wearing his robe and slippers. I let myself in the same door she let herself out of and step softly down the narrow hall.

The chair squeaks. I hear him getting up. I wait, pressing my back against the wall of the hallway, letting it happen. My gun in my right hand, I raise it up, straight out from my side, arm flush with the wall. A moment passes and I hear him using a bathroom that must be just off the living room.

Another minute passes. A flush is followed by a quick blast of water in the sink. Listening carefully from the dark hallway I hear him return to where he was, hear the chair squeak again as he sits back at the computer. Slowing my breath, then holding it, I hear him clicking his mouse, going from one site to the next.

I exhale slowly and step out of the hall, into the room towards him. Three steady steps, quiet not so necessary anymore. I keep the gun steady, aimed at where his chest will be. The sound my approach makes in this otherwise silent house works as it causes him to swivel around in his chair to check out the noise behind him.

There’s no panic or fear in his expression yet, just a bit of surprise. Then a puff of compressed air from my gun’s silencer plants a slug deep in his chest. His mouth spills into slack-jawed confusion, and I raise my arm and put a small black hole in the center of his forehead. There’s a specific way this is supposed to look, and the two taps like that are what was requested. It’s a message to someone, from someone. I don’t know who they are or what it says, I’m just here to write it.

I lower my arm in relief, letting out a heavy breath as he falls from his chair to the floor. I’m starting to think that this didn’t go so badly when I hear a door open and close behind me.

A voice calls out. “Honey, I forgot my gloves.”

And I realize this story isn’t over yet.

***

It doesn’t take long to get from the grocery store to Frank’s home. Even less time has us set up in his kitchen, Frank tossing a few items in a mixing bowl and setting others beside the cutting board. Myself, I sit at the counter nursing a beer he’s given me and fiddle with his radio.

“How come they let you walk away from the job?” I say.

Frank takes a knife to a large green bell pepper. Before he finishes his answer, it’s carved into long, thin strips.

“Don’t really know that I have. My phone could ring tonight, could be Bobby. What I think happened was I got old enough that when I went on my extended bit of leave they simply forgot about me.”

Nice thought, but I don’t see how that could’ve happened. The man was almost an institution, a real pro’s pro. Frank trained lots of the newbies, trained me. At least what accounted for the training we got, it mainly consisted of watching him work.

“You think maybe I should ask for some time off? Take a break like you did and just not come back?”

Frank wipes slices of green peppers into a metal bowl and starts in on a red pepper, then a yellow.

“No. If they suspect you’re losing your stomach for it then asking for some time will just alarm them. They’ll smile and nod and give you what you want, but sometime in some dark night someone would come for you.”

As I tune the radio I watch him chop and dice and in a weird way it reminds me of the times when I’d watch him work. There was something about the way he’d tackle an assignment. Frank was always efficient and professional, never mean but always appropriately violent. You could see it, the targets could feel it. It’d be easy to say that he was like a shark, but it wasn’t that, because he wasn’t ever unfeeling. Frank could kick your ass and make you feel almost like you should apologize for making him work so hard, like you were letting him down.

“So I can’t quit.”

“No, you can’t. But the good news is that you don’t have to.” He lays out the tender slabs of red steak on the board and cracks some black pepper over the top of them. “You just need to readjust the way you look at your life, Charlie. You need to find a way to get by.”

“Maybe it’d be better if I just stopped looking at my life.”

“Wrong. That’s what you were doing. That won’t work anymore. No, you need to change the way you frame the world. You need to stop thinking that doing bad things makes you a bad person.”

“Is that so?”

“Don’t be skeptical, kid. How do you think I’ve reconciled it all?”

“Wouldn’t it be best if we were to just stop doing it?”

“No one stops. No one does, no one can.  Especially not us.” From inside the fridge he pulls out some potatoes and begins washing them. “We’re all sinners, Charlie.”

“So you want to equate killing people with, with, I don’t know, with a husband cheating on his wife, or some kid cheating on a test, or something?” I’m not always so eloquent.

“I don’t equate. I observe. But that husband you speak of cheating on his wife, you and I both know he’s living in a much different world than we are.” He starts peeling the potatoes. “It’s a poor comparison, him to us. Not that either of us are better or worse for it, just different. You have to look at each situation through its own kaleidoscopic circumstances. Once you realize the myriad choices you’ve been given, you’ll see more clearly.”

I finally find my radio station on his analog radio dial. A Spoon song is just ending. “What choices would those be?”

“Every time Bobby calls you into his office you’re faced with a kill or be killed scenario. And it might seem wrong, but we do what we must to survive. If you still wish to equate, compare your motivation to the cheating spouse chasing some elusive gratification. You’re not looking to simply get off, Charlie, you’re looking to live. Besides, if you say no to Bobby, that job’s still going to get done. Just because you don’t do it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.”

An hour later we’re sitting across from each other at his kitchen table enjoying the meal he’s cooked for us. I’m finishing my meal when he brings up a new point.

“You need to see that each moment in your life stands independently from the next. It’s only through our own mental fallacy that we string everything together into one long story of cause and effect.” He cuts off another bite of his steak before continuing. “You want to live with yourself now, in this moment? Then you need to understand that the you that did what you did last night is different than the you that drives home from here tonight.”

“Is this your way of saying that today is the first day of the rest of my life, Frank?”

“I’m saying that you always have a choice as to what you are going to do next, except when you don’t. I’m saying that what you did before doesn’t have to factor into what you’re going to do next, that who you were yesterday is not necessarily who you are today. Each moment is independent if you let it be. Do not let what happened in your past rob you of your present.”

He downs a mouthful of garlic potatoes before continuing. “There doesn’t have to be a carryover effect from the harm you do in your professional life to the things you do in your private one. You may have to do your job to live, but your job does not need to be your life.”

I think about what he’s said as I finish my beer.

“Is that why you’re a priest now, Frank?”

“That, and I look good in black.”

“Is it your attempt to balance out the harm you’ve done in your life?”

“There’s no such thing as balance, and I can neither alter nor atone for what I’ve already done,” he says. “But you don’t need wickedness in your past to recognize that we are surrounded by people in need. As far as being a priest, the collar and Bible do help mightily when it comes to reaching an audience.”

“And about what you said earlier, the Orson Welles line.”

“Yes. Well, my parishioners get Peter and Paul, you get movie stars. A speaker’s gotta know his audience.”

“Sure. I get that. But what you said, what he said, about endings?”

“You’ve seen enough of them by now to know.”

That night when I get home I pack up a small itinerary and check the maps, plotting out the best way to get to Huston’s Fjord.

***

“Honey, I forgot my gloves.”

But her voice trips over the last word, so I’m really only guessing at why she returned. I turn around and she’s standing just inside the doorway. There’s a moment where this could break any number of ways, but what she does is go instantly from confusion to panic then fury. She charges me.

A distance of ten feet can be covered in three to four steps and is almost not enough time to raise your arm and get off a shot. Almost. She’s yelling before the gun fires, her scream far louder than its silenced report. The shot catches her just above her hip, and I circle to avoid her fall. She tumbles forward, twisting, hitting the floor at the foot of the steps. The screaming continues so I reach out and put two more in her upper chest.

That silences her. But the screaming doesn’t stop. For a split second my mind fights to reconcile the noise with the vacant face on the floor beneath me, but then everything snaps into place and I understand. The cries are coming from above.

A careful step carries me over her body and onto the first stair. I look down and see her bare hands splayed out. A glint of light off a finger and I realize: wedding ring. Not mistress, wife. Another piercing cry pulls my attention back to it. As I make my way up a cold certainty fills my center. She wasn’t running at me, she was running for the stairs. And I already know what’s waiting up there for me.

With my gun hanging loosely at my side, I reach the top and turn towards the cries, to the room with the crib and the frightened baby crying inside.

***

I drive back in silence. No radio, no cds, just me and my thoughts. I play and replay the morning. I run it back and forth in my head trying to wear it down into an old memory. I’m wondering if Bobby was simply wrong about the wife being his mistress, whether he knew about the child, or if he left all that out on purpose, and what that means for me.

After about an hour I try to mix in Frank’s advice about living in the moment I have rather than the ones that came before. I’m just not sure when one moment ends and the next begins. I’d really like for this car ride to be its own moment, but it still feels connected to what came before it.

When I finally do make it back to my apartment I try to convince myself that the elevator ride up is an acceptable line of demarcation. I reason that hours have passed, two hundred miles have been crossed, and I’ve gone from a foreign frozen land to the familiar comforts of home.

I walk to the kitchen to get some orange juice from the refrigerator. When I open the door Jumble’s red cap falls from above, hitting my arm and then the floor. I pick it up and walk it over to the trash can.

On my way to the living room I see the light flashing on my answering machine. I press play and keep walking.

“Hey there, Wexy, this is your black-eyed gypsy girl returning your call. Just got back in town and we should definitely get together. Soon. I’ve invented a new drink that you simply must try, so call and we’ll set something up. Also, you didn’t sound too great on the message. So call, okay?”

With the press of a button the television picture snaps into focus before me. I flip through the stations, bouncing around before landing on a cable news channel. They have reporters and helicopters at the scene of a small town murder that already has many in mourning.

It seems only a few hours ago a former executive for a pharmaceuticals company and his wife were killed in their home. There’s talk that he had recently been speaking with an environmental agency regarding some below the board practices his company had, about how the talk might have eventually turned into a criminal case, maybe federal, maybe a class action suit.

I flip to another news channel and it’s the same scene with different camera angles and older talking heads. The reporter here tells of early reports that the couple’s baby was in the house at the time, that there was an anonymous call to local authorities from a ‘person of interest’, and that there are few to no leads at this point.

Seeing all of this makes it harder for me to pull myself out of that moment, harder to focus on this one. But you have to try, you know? So I turn off my TV.


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