One Phone Call Allowed
Mary had no idea how to operate this dang thing. The Blackberry her son had bought her shrilled in her fist like a terrified parakeet. What the hell did he think she was, some Wall Street power broker? Sheesh. She peered at it from beneath her eyeglasses and decided to press the green button, which hopefully wouldn’t send activate a computer meltdown or cause a revolution in some Third World country.
“Hello and why are you calling me on this thing?” she said.
“Mom, there’s been an accident with the car,” came the voice over the receiver. Mary’s son was at his late-night shift at the pizzeria.
Across the room the grandfather clock struck 11:15 p.m. “Jesse, are you all right?”
“Mom, I’m dead.”
Mary snorted. “So you’re high on a marijuana cigarette or something?”
“The car skidded off River Road and hit a tree. Ice. I didn’t feel a thing. I’m sorry, Mom.”
She removed the Blackberry from her ear and examined it. Had she pressed the button for “The Twilight Zone?”
“All right, what kind of joke is this?” she demanded. “What are you going to say next, Jesse – if that is you? That you’re calling on ‘Ma Donna Bell?’ You just scared the shit out of me! What do you want to do – collect your inheritance? Well, you’ll get it soon enough anyway.”
“Mom,” his teenage voice cracked, “I won’t be collecting anything now. I’m not coming home tonight. Or ever.”
“Stop this now, Jesse,” she said, her face flushing. “I don’t like this talk. I’m hanging up now. Just get home at a reasonable hour.”
“What can I say to convince you?” he sighed. “I talked to Grandma. She told me about Guy – that he wasn’t my real Dad. I know all about it now, Mom, and I understand.”
She felt a chill surge through her flannel shirt. She sat down. Her own mother had been the only person she’d trusted with her secret and when she died that secret died with her. Jesse had been barely one year old when she died, so she never could have told him while alive. Tears welled up in Mary’s eyes. She sat down, faint, disoriented. Well, she thought, my son’s dead but at least he didn’t call collect.
“Mom, I just wanted to say goodbye….one last time.”
She wiped her face with one hand, for fear that if she put down the Blackberry she might lose him permanently.
“Aw, Mom, don’t cry,” he soothed. “It’s really great.”
“What –,” she sputtered, “what’s it like?”
“I’m not really supposed to say,” he said. “Nice, though. One thing I don’t understand is that I can’t find Dad up here – or I guess I mean Guy. He died five years ago and no one’s ever heard of him here.”
It figured, she thought. It was the last place Guy would be. But she’d bet her that Ed from years past was there – if his time had come, that is. Ed, 17 years her senior, with piercing brown eyes that spoke of serene, well-earned wisdom. Ed, who had always been late for their dates. Ed, who had been more cherished than he’d ever know, had been drafted into the war. She remembered kissing him at the waterfront near the black waves that would take him away. Weeks later she discovered she was pregnant with his child. Then Ed was missing in action. Everyone believed he’d been killed – even his family. Now, in that day a girl needed security. With her Ed gone, she bluffed her way into wedding Guy, which turned out to be the mistake of her life. It was her secret shame and she more than paid for it. Following one year of a miserable marriage to Guy, Ed returned to town with a purple heart pinned to his chest. She and Ed avoided each other. She’d heard Ed moved away years ago. She’d had Jesse late in life, so she was now in her late 50’s. Ed had to be approaching 70. Nowadays she couldn’t bear to scan the obituaries for his name.
“Anyway,” Jesse said into her ear, returning her to the present, “everything is OK. I really gotta go now.”
“No!” Mary screamed. She couldn’t part with him now and her fingers tightened on the phone. “Are they feeding you all right?”
“The Last Supper I just finished was out of this world – really!” he joked. “But I gotta hang up. There’s a line for the phone.”
She started playing with the knitting needle on the table. She was thinking hard.
“Listen, Jesse,” she said, “I want you to come back home.”
“I can’t, Mom.”
She sank back in her chair. “I want to switch places with you.”
“No.” The word came like a dart from the Blackberry. Why did voices sound so tinny on cell phones? Jesse continued, “It can’t be done, Mom. It’s impossible.”
“Jesse, you put me on with whoever is in charge there! I don’t care how long it takes! You tell them it’s your mother!”
She looked at the Blackberry again, scanning the alien buttons for one that could teleport Jesse back to her.
“Mom, I won’t switch places with you!” he cried. “People in line are getting annoyed. The last guy on the phone with his terminally ill wife did it, and it took forever.”
“A-ha!” she yelled. “Then it can be done!”
Silence. Then Jesse cracked: “Somehow – I don’t know how – when I was in high school and I’d been out drinking or smoking, you’d always get me to admit it the next morning. Well, you did it again.”
“I knew there was a way to get up there,” she beamed.
“Oh, Mom,” he sighed. “They allowed me one phone call. I’m just thankful for that.”
“You can’t go, Jesse. You’re just too young.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. It just…happened. And I’m sorry about the car, too. It’s kinda totaled.”
“I want to switch with you,” she intoned. She pondered whether she should tell him why.
“It’s my life. I have to take responsibility for what’s happened to it. Isn’t that what you always taught me?”
“Jesse,” she said in a low voice, squeezing the Blackberry in her hand until her fingertips were white, “right before you called, I was about to kill myself.” She cradled the Blackberry between her ear and shoulder. With a sad expression, she picked up her knitting needle and poked it into the palm of her hand. “You see, I was going to commit hare-krishna.”
“Mom?” his voice cracked. “Do you mean hara-kiri?”
“Oh…yes, that’s what I mean.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Not at all.”
Pause. She put down the needle.
“Mom – why?”
“Hon,” she said, “I haven’t told anyone about this.” She took a deep breath as she prepared what she had to say. “I went to the doctor last week. He said I have cancer of the liver.” Then she switched ears, cradling the Blackberry, and took off her wedding ring. She reached out and grabbed the knitting needle. “I’m dying.” With the needle she pushed her removed wedding ring off the table. It clicked to the tiled floor and rolled into the corner.
She held her breath.
“Mom, you never said anything,” he whispered.
“I didn’t want to worry you.” She noticed her voice sounded stronger with the wild words she saying. “You have your whole life ahead of you. Besides, I planned to take care of it quickly…by kamikaze.”
“Mom, it’s hara-kiri. And I don’t believe any of this.”
“Denial is one of the stages of grief, Sonny-boy. You’re just in it right now.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “But now my death will serve a purpose: to restore your life.”
“I can and I will.”
“Listen – just don’t!” he sounded hysterical. “Mom, please….”
“You just work out a deal with whoever’s in charge up there.”
“Jesse, if you don’t, I’ll kill you!”
She switched hands and poked the knitting needle into her other palm.
“Jesse, don’t make your mother blackmail you. You don’t want Tammy Wyler finding out you soiled your pants when you were five, do you?”
“I just called to say goodbye and you’re still embarrassing me in my afterlife! Bad enough nothing ever happens here. You’ll never find me drinking or smoking here. And you won’t ever find me making out with a girl here.” A muffled sob. “It’s just that it’s all so new — I’m sorry. I’m hanging up now….”
“Listen, Jesse,” she said, “talk to them.” She smiled as his crying subsided. “Because I’m coming up soon – and if I see your handsome mug, you’re going to be in for it, you hear?”
“Not another word.”
“You’re too much,” he sniffled. “OK, I’ll ask but I don’t know if they’ll do it. Hold on.”
She heard muffled talk on the other end. She vaguely wondered if a celestial telephone operator would cut in, or if she would hear a quarter drop.
Then he returned. “Mom, they said yes but I don’t know –”
“Jesse, don’t make me come up there and whip you butt. What is the plan?”
“I don’t believe I’m doing this,” he said. “There are three conditions for the switch.” He hesitated. “One, you must have a car crash near the scene of my death.” Mary nodded her head. “Two, you have only a half hour from right now to do this. And three, you have only one chance. The crash must be fatal. It’s the only way the switch will work. It’s a one-shot deal, Mom, and I don’t want you to –”
“You leave me the worrying to me. But I’m not afraid.”
“Mom, I love you.”
“Stop running up Heaven’s phone bill, Jesse,” she said, out of breath but stronger just the same. She was afraid to press the red button to end the call, so she just held the Blackberry – her last connection to Jesse. Her eyes welled with tears. The liver cancer had been a bluff, as had been the part about her killing herself, ridiculous as it may have sounded. It was the only way she could’ve gotten Jesse to do it. She had to save her son.
The grandfather clock struck 11:30. Well, now she’d be able to see her mother and Ed (finally!). That is, if she could pull this off.
Mary sat in her car, the down vest hugging her hardy body. With her scalp sweating, the wool cap she wore felt like a crown of thorns. The Blackberry she’d stuck inside was still on and warm against her chest. Her foot pressed unsteadily on the brake. Her hand cupped her mouth. The headlights shone upon the snow-covered field, and on Jesse’s Chevette, wrapped obscenely around an old birch tree.
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Should she take a closer look? No, she wanted to remember Jesse the way he was – with his gangly tallness, eagle-like nose, and vibrant chestnut eyes. Besides, there wasn’t time to be morbid. She took the Blackberry from her vest. It was still on. She looked sadly at the “Talk” button. Oh God, Jesse, I’m going to miss you. The time read 11:45 – fifteen minutes to go.
She took a deep breath and looked up the road. Beyond the wreckage lay a small wooden bridge stretching way above the black waters of the river. How could she pull this one off? She was such a careful driver – she’d never once gotten as much as a parking ticket. She said a Hail Mary. Three Hail Mary’s for luck. She couldn’t believe she was actually praying because just an hour ago she’d been an atheist.
Well, she thought, she’d better get on with it. The fuel gauge trembled on less than one-eighth. She took off her seat belt – it would defeat the purpose.
She let her foot off the brake and drove past the wreckage. Then – suddenly – her car skidded a few feet and stalled. The wheels clung to a patch of snow. She mouthed the word “No!” Her Blackberry now read 11:51.
A flashing blue light in the distance appeared in her rear view mirror. Police. An ambulance would surely follow. Some dang fool must’ve gone and called them. And here she was, stuck. She jammed her foot on the accelerator. The car inched forward with a scream, but then rocked backward into the snow’s clutches. In a matter of minutes, the medics would pronounce her baby dead and take him away to the morgue. And what would she say to the police if they caught up with her right now: “Oh, kind officer, please dig my car out of the snow so I can kill myself?”
“Come on!” she muttered to the car, staring at the bridge only 50 feet away. 11:56. Still the shrieking auto wouldn’t budge. Moreover the gas meter teetered on empty. Damn it – why hadn’t she filled up the tank before coming here? She always botched things – she had forsaken the love of her life for an unhappy marriage of convenience. And why couldn’t she have picked up Jesse after work in order to avoid all this?
“Do I really want to die now?” she whispered. “What’ll happen if the crash only leaves me a gimp? And if the plan does work, what if I go to hell instead?”
Then in one glorious, all-knowing moment she saw her whole life in front of her. She realized that – damn it! – everything was exactly the way it should be. Ed, her true love, had had to go to war and had been tragically late in returning. That sucked, but it was Fate. At least they would see each other in death finally. That fact was some consolation to her. Meanwhile the flashing blue lights grew large in the mirror and now a siren wailed.
11:57. Precious gas escaped her car in billowing clouds as she gunned the engine. I’ve got to save Jesse, she thought. Maybe she should have brought the knitting needle for good measure. But she had to pull this off right. Hers son’s life depended on it.
11:58. Again she stomped on the accelerator. The wheels squealed and suddenly the car burst from the snow, splashing slush on the police car’s windshield.
But she was going too fast. The car swerved on the ice, out of control. Winter hills and pine trees flew by. Her mind now drifted above her body, and it seemed that no task was too big for her. Her love for Jesse demanded this sacrifice. And after all, Jesse was Ed’s child. And there was no better way to repay Ed for all the misery she had caused him that by saving their son. Wasn’t love all about sacrifice anyway? The thought never would have occurred to her an hour ago but things had changed drastically. One thing was certain, though – she had to make it to the bridge in time. She kept her eyes on it.
11:59. The gas ran out with a sputter but the momentum propelled the car forward. The police car followed, its windshield wipers flailing. Wooden boards moaned as her wheels made the bridge. On the other side of the bridge twirled more blue lights. Another police car? And it was headed straight for her! She wondered why everything was going wrong today. Or maybe it was right, after all. All she knew was there was no turning back now.
When she reached the middle of the bridge – the oncoming police car only inches away – she jerked the steering wheel and crashed through the rotting railing.
She felt herself falling in the night air, falling toward the icy water, and as the black ripples reflected her headlights, she noticed the waves looked so much like the seas that had taken away Ed years ago. Falling, she opened her arms wide. She called out, “Ed, here I come! I love you!”
Ollie and Edgar sat on stools at the coffee shop. Ollie, wearing his bulky bifocals, was reading the Journal aloud, as was his habit. He fancied himself the diner’s newscaster. Edgar wrinkled his eagle-like nose and sipped his coffee. He was above reading the local rag but indulged his friend’s whims.
“Has something ‘bout some accidents in East Fulham,” Ollie croaked and pushed back his befeathered gray hat.
“Oh, yeah?” Edgar sighed. But he really wasn’t interested in some drunk driving incident across the river. Years ago he had been done with things across the river.
“Says Mary West,” Ollie tsked. “What a shame. And her son….”
Edgar’s ears pricked up at the name. The name belonged to the woman he’d intended to marry long ago before he was shipped off to war. And despite the fact that she’d married someone else, he’d had this strange notion that someday they would reunite. On some occasions throughout the years, he would catch glimpses of her and Jesse and the grocery store or at a concert at the town bandstand. But he always kept his distance. He managed to put several towns between them. The pain was too much, especially when he saw the unhappy, drawn lines on her face. When Edgar spoke to Ollie, his voice was solemn: “Mary’s gone…. And her son, too?”
As Ollie adjusted his Coke-bottle glasses and squinted at the paper, Edgar thought of the boy. The boy was tall and handsome as he’d once been. And the boy had the same eagle-like nose. Pieces of a puzzle began to assemble in his mind.
“No,” Ollie said, “Alive. ‘Jesse Edgar West, 18, suffered a concussion and minor cuts and bruises.’ ” Ollie looked up from the article. “How ‘bout that? Lucky kid!”
“Yes…lucky,” Edgar replied. He looked out the window and prepared to leave for the hospital.
“Pretty strange ‘bout those two,” Ollie quipped as he put two lumps of sugar in his coffee.
“Yes,” Edgar said, rising. “Strange.”
“It’s for you, Ed!” a waitress yelled to him from the phone booth, her hand over the receiver. “It’s a woman – a little impatient. Mary something. She says you’re late again.”
Watch What Happens
What I found in my apartment changed my life. It entered my life so naturally as if it had always been there. I never dreamed it would leave. Of course, I’d had the same thought about Mike, now my ex “life partner.” A month ago, after three years of living together, he announced he wanted out of the relationship. Since the lease was almost up, it was the “perfect time to part ways,” he’d said. In New York, ending a relationship was like dissolving a corporation. But how could I protest? I knew the air had leaked out of our tires long ago and we’d been bumping along on flats for some time. Still, the callous way Mike had gone about it, taking our breakup as a given, awakened a fire within me. I believe it was this fire that led me to my discovery in my new apartment.
After the break up I moved into a surprisingly spacious apartment on 22nd Street in Chelsea. I didn’t have many possessions. All the furniture had belonged to Mike. The various odds and ends I’d bought – a table lamp here, a flatware set there – I didn’t want. So, I arrived at my new sixth-floor apartment with little more than three boxes of clothes, two boxes of books, and my laptop. After the Man with the Van departed, I sat on the hardwood floor, enveloped by the emptiness of the place. Then I got over myself and began unpacking. The bedroom possessed a surprisingly large walk in closet. I hung up clothes and stood on a stepladder to reach the top shelf to put away my snow boots. That was when I made the discovery.
At first, I thought it was a telescope. When I went to take it down I was struck by its weight. I stepped down and held the object in my hands. It was a sniper rifle. It was dull pewter gray and made of a hard, unyielding alloy. And it was real.
My heart racing, I set it on the floor carefully lest it go off. I took three steps back. Holy shit – a sniper rifle. What was it doing here? Where had it come from? Was the previous tenant a hit man? Did he have to leave in a hurry or face extermination by an enemy agent? All sorts of espionage thriller plots turned in my overactive mind. In reality, it was probably forgotten by a drunken white-trash vet who worked in a ROTC supply room. I reached over and touched it, as if holding hands on a first date. The metal was cold even though it was a hot summer day. I noticed the thing had a tripod, which I set up. Then I backed off again. This was too much.
Instead of unpacking the rest of my stuff, I booted up my laptop and looked up the rifle online. It didn’t take long to discover that the host of my new apartment was a USMC DMR with an adjustable cheek piece. I also found out it was loaded with a 12.7x108mm (Russian) cartridge, carrying the most accurate kind of bullets. Geez, these fucking things were really used in warfare. It even had night-vision lenses. I read online that the model was “a sniper rifle that tended to be employed at the greatest possible distances for difficulty in spotting and engaging the operator of the rifle.” In other words, the shooter could see you but you couldn’t see him.
As I sat there on the floor, fascinated by what I was reading, I realized a dog – or dogs – had been barking for the past hour. It was the neighbor’s dog. I say neighbor as in the guy in the building next to mine. I’d ignored the warnings from my superintendent because I’d been anxious to secure a decent apartment. I also hadn’t listened to the super’s informing me that any entreaties to the dogs’ owner would fall on deaf ears. The owner even walked his screaming dogs late at night. My thoughts were now all over the place. The rifle. The dogs. As I listened to the shrill cries of the hounds, I realized how bitter I felt against Mike. I wondered what he was doing now. Breaking up was hard to do. But breaking up was also hard on your standard of living. No more living on two incomes to pay for a great place. While my new apartment was big by New York standards, it didn’t compare at all to our former Upper East Side digs. I resented Mike for that. Since Mike made more money than me, he could’ve probably stayed in the old apartment by himself. But he traded up for a sprawling loft in Tribeca. Maybe he traded up for a better lover, too.
The thought sprouted in my head and was encouraged by the barking. Very carefully I put the rifle back into the top of the closet and pretended to live a normal life. I ordered in Chinese and ate it on the floor. My friend Nadi called.
“You doing OK, girlfriend?” she said.
“Fine,” I lied.
“You sure, hon?”
“I have a great view of 22nd Street. I can see the church from my front window.”
I lay upon my new futon, staring at the ceiling. I was talking with her but my thoughts were on the rifle the whole time. I didn’t dare tell Nadi about it. She scared easily. Plus, she had a big mouth. Eventually I said good night to her and drifted off to sleep with my clothes on and surrounded by take-out cartons.
Mike walked around the apartment. He had the rifle in his hands and was pretending to be Rambo. I was alarmed and told him to stop. I went to get up and grab the rifle from him when I woke up. The dogs’ barking had started again. It was a high, shrill sound like the squealing of a rusty gate – if the gate was maddeningly persistent and mean-spirited. I looked at the clock: 3:32 a.m. The noise wasn’t coming from the street this time.
It went to the kitchen and looked out the tiny window. There, across the alleyway, was the sole window on the side of the next building. And sure enough, two dachshunds were shrilly barking while their middle-aged, bookish-looking owner sat in a chair. He was naked and the room flickered with TV light. The scene looked surreal. And the dogs’ barking was so penetrating that it pierced a closed window and a running air conditioner — plus my kitchen window, which was painted shut. I couldn’t get back to sleep.
By the fourth night of this, I was dead on my feet. My boss used my condition to her advantage as usual. Recently the company had been part of a merger and Kelly was de facto in charge of cleaning house. Kelly was a frowning redhead with a lot of scarf action around her neck. Her job as far as I could see was to target me for dismissal. “I count four mistakes in this copy,” she yelped from her pinched little mouth, planting a paper in front of me. “Let’s kindly try to be a little more careful, hmm? Of course, I’ll need you to stay late to make the corrections.”
I got home, weary, carrying a tuna fish Subway sandwich. I dragged out the sniper rifle that Mike had played with so gingerly last night. I sat on the floor eating the sandwich, looking at it. I tossed the Subway wrapper among the take-out cartons. The noise continued – now it was 3:02 a.m. I picked up the rifle and held it in my arms carefully, as if embracing a future lover for the first time. The cold metal yielded to the warmth of my fingers and my chin. I sat there, fancying us reunited paramours. I looked through the telescopic lenses and of course saw nothing but a blur. I’d have to use it outside for a greater range. I put it down and felt my hands shaking.
Then I went to my laptop. Here was what it said about my host: it had a “variance in the bullet’s point of impact of eight inches at 800 yards, which is considered sufficient to ensure a high probability of hitting a human shape at that distance.” Very interesting. But not for me. I stood up and started to put it away. Then I remembered that I hadn’t complained once about the barking, not to my landlord, the other building’s landlord, nor to 311, the noise complaint hotline. I guess my unconscious thinking didn’t want a paper trail leading back to me.
I went to the front window facing 22nd Street and opened the window all the way. I carefully removed the screen. Slowly, as not to attract attention of any fellow insomniacs, I pulled down the blinds and taped them to the bottom of the window sill with Scotch tape. Then I got my host and set it up near the window. This was the window where the dogs were always taken for a walk at all hours of the night.
I peered through the telescopic lenses. I curled my finger around the trigger and waited. It was only a few minutes before the sound started again. With the window wide open and the gun pointing through the blinds, the dogs’ barking climbed into your ear passages and lodged into your eardrums. I aimed the rifle and shot the first dachshund. There was no sound, no rifle report, and no flash of gunfire. All I noticed through my thumping heartbeats was my neighbor was now dragging a dead dog. I withdrew from the window, replaced the screen, and closed the window very quietly. I put away the gun.
“Goodnight,” I said to it.
I was chipper at work the next morning. I made helpful suggestions at the meeting. At lunch I talked on the phone with Nadi, who always encouraged me in my career endeavors. She declared I was “on the right track.” Kelly appeared behind me and beckoned me to her office.
The second I shut the door she yelped, “If you ever do that again, I’m going to write you up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Speaking out of turn at the meeting. It is not your job to quote prices to the vendors. That is my job, understand?”
“Since when? I’ve been doing that for years now.”
“Ned, things are changing around here. You know that.”
I stood there agape. Finally, I said, “I know that all right.” I turned and left, rolling my eyes.
That night I thought about Mike again. I felt as if I’d taken the USMC DMR and shot myself in the heart. I looked at my cell phone, obsessing over his name and number, both of which were no longer part of my life. Then the light flickered out. The battery had died. That was when the noise started again. Shrill, extended, long soprano notes of a dog’s bark. It was as if the remaining dachshund was making up for his absent companion’s noise quota.
I went to the kitchen window. There, amid the kaleidoscopic glare of the TV, it was barking to its unfeeling owner. The man was playing with his limp penis, ignoring his mourning pet. But this time the air conditioner was gone and the window was wide open. Without a screen, too. I wondered why. Did the guy have a death wish? It seemed too perfect.
I stood in the dark for the longest time, drinking a glass of milk. He couldn’t see me. I started to think the dog could. And I suspected the dog somehow knew what would happen next.
With a superhuman strength I managed to pry open the painted-shut window. I sat on the floor for a good 15 minutes, exhausted by my exertions. When I had enough strength to rise, I reached for my host in the closet. I set it up, snuggled my chin to the metal. What was that old song from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? “Cold? No, I won’t believe your heart is cold / Maybe slow to warm on a long, lonely night.”
The dachshund, with its fluffy gray hair, barked and barked at the naked man in the chair. Then it wasn’t barking anymore. I removed the rifle from the window, put it on the floor, and shut the window. For extra measure, I found some Superglue in a drawer and glued the window back shut, making sure to sweep away all the paint bits and flush them down the toilet.
I climbed into my futon and slept as if I’d won the lottery. I rolled over to snuggle with Mike and he arched his back to meet my hips. “Michael, Michael!” We lay there spooning until morning. Then I woke up alone. I felt confused.
I dialed his number, intending to speak with him, but as soon as I heard his deep, nicotine-tinged voice saying hello, I hung up. I shook my head. It had all felt so real. Was the killing of the second dachshund imaginary, too?
I called Nadi while I ate a bowl of Cheerios. The sound of her banal voice soothed me. “See?” she trilled. “It sounds like you’re feeling better already. You and me and the girls are going to the Cubby Hole this Friday. You’re so going! But no pressure!”
“I gotta hang up now, Nadi,” I said, suddenly terrified. I heard it now. For the past couple of weeks, a prostitute with an operatically loud voice had been demanding drugs outside the SRO across the street. And she was doing it now. “Michael!” she yelled up to the dealer’s window. “Michael! Come down!”
Very gently I loaded my host into my gym bag and left early for work. I went to my gym and stored the rifle in my gym locker, putting two locks on it. I began to think about what I’d done. Absolute power was what the sniper rifle brought. And, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’d already killed two dogs – what else or who else would I kill now? I couldn’t have this power in my hands any longer. It was too much for me. Yet at the same time, the experience was…no! No more!
At work Kelly made the usual demeaning remarks about my work and even went as far as to insult my pinstripe shirt as “hopelessly ‘80’s.” I felt like taking her scarf and strangling her with it. I thought about the rifle in my gym locker and hoped it would be safe for now from any investigations from the FBI/CIA/ASPCA.
But the strange thing was there was no investigation at all. If there was any fuss about the two dead dogs, I hadn’t heard about it. It was not in the papers no on radio or TV. I checked online, Googling the news for “sniper” — but nothing. I wondered if the whole thing was in my head. But the barking was gone, after all. In my mind, I heard “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” song again: “Let someone start believing in you / Let her hold out her hand / Let her touch you and watch what happens….”
Behind me came the voice: “How many times do I have to kindly tell you not to conduct personal business during working hours?” I quickly clicked off Google News. Kelly’s red hair looked more witch-like by the minute. “Ned, I’m afraid you’ve forced me to write you up.” Yeah, I thought, if I got canned, well, we would see what happened indeed.
A few days passed and I went to transport the rifle back to the apartment, thinking it was safe. After all, who cared about some dead dogs? The world was better off without them. No one seemed to notice they were even gone.
“Michael!” exploded the cry across the street from my building as I entered the foyer. “Michael! Michael!”
I was a little unsettled by what happened next. I was carrying my gym bag down the front hallway. I made the mistake of checking my mail before trudging up the stairs. A door flew open.
My landlord, a short, bald man with a sweaty face, stopped me. “You OK?”
“Uh, fine. Why do you ask?”
“You just seem…different, that’s all. I can tell these things.”
“Not different enough to pay my rent late or be a bad tenant, right? Am I right?” I smiled. I hugged the gym bag closer to me and hoped he wouldn’t notice it.
He pointed at me, smiling. “You’re a real straight shooter.” I stiffened at his choice of words. “Did ya hear about the dogs?”
“You know, the two dogs?”
I shook my head.
“Yes, you’re all right. You’re OK?”
The noisy prostitute was demanding drugs across the street. Geez, didn’t she ever hear of a doorbell? While in bed, I looked at my watch: 4:01 a.m. Why did she have to wake up the whole neighborhood in order to sell her body to put drain cleaner in her veins? This would go on for years, disrupting everyone’s lives. I sighed, got out the rifle, and prepared the window.
She was in pain, I told myself. She needed to be put out of her misery. The sooner, the better.
The back of her head was in my crosshairs. I could see the strands of her unwashed brunette hair. I pulled the trigger and she fell face-down in the street. Silent – that was the key. I withdrew from the window and collapsed on my futon, embracing the rifle. I woke up in the sunlight cutting through the blinds. I looked around the bright room and realized what had happened. The gun’s metal chilled my chest. I pushed it away and curled into a ball in the corner.
At work at my desk, I read in the newspaper about the shooting of the prostitute. Her name had been Helene Mae Wright. She’d been 36 and unemployed. The drug dealer at the SRO, Michael Childs, was brought in for questioning. Yet no murder weapon was produced. Turned out Helene Mae’s pimp claimed he had other information. My heart was practically being chewed between my teeth now.
Kelly passed by and saddled up to my desk.
I said, “Don’t start with me. I’m gay and I will sue you and this company for harassment. So leave me alone.”
She moved away, having nothing to say for once.
That evening I took to looking out the window. The air was hot, as I hadn’t bought an air conditioner when I’d moved in. Phone in hand, I dialed the number.
“Hello?” came the voice.
“Mike, It’s Ned.”
I swallowed with a big gulp. “Mike, I just wanted to say ‘hi.’”
“Yeah, I just wanted to check in, you know.”
A pause. “Oh sure, I’m glad you did.”
More silence. “Well, Ned, I’ve really gotta go. I’m kind of in the middle of something here right now.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Listen, Mike –”
“Do you think I could call you again sometime? I mean, when you have more time?”
A pause. “Ned, listen, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. I mean, it hasn’t been that long since — You know how it is.” He sighed. “Maybe with time.”
“With time,” I repeated. “OK. Well…see ya.”
I snapped the phone shut. The phone rang again and my heart leapt. But it was Nadi. I let it go to voice mail.
I was trying to work out some mental problem. The evening news announced that the pimp was now shot. Curtis C. Shaw, 34. He was a victim of the same bullet that claimed the life of Ms. Helene Mae Wright. I couldn’t remember the circumstances. I counted the bullets in the cartridge and they added up to the exact number of people and dogs that were shot. This included the pimp. Trouble was I couldn’t remember shooting the pimp. But there it was, all over the TV news and tabloids. The police had declared the violence as the result of a drug war. Where was the accountability? I didn’t even recall doing it, so how could I feel responsible?
I sat in Kelly’s office. Her face was particularly pinched and her hands were folded across her desk, like sharp metallic rods. She was giving me a bad performance review, one that would surely doom me to be laid off soon. The review was unfair, I protested. She countered with written examples of what she considered a bad job on the projects I’d worked on this year. “Well, I guess there is nothing left to say here,” I said, rising. I nodded to the report. “You can file that under ‘Fiction’ and fuck yourself. I’m fighting this.”
I took the subway home during lunch. I went to the closet and used the stepladder. Suddenly my heart raced.
The rifle was gone. I searched the whole apartment, turning my spare furniture upside-down. I threw the futon across the room. I tore the blinds from the windows in a rage. The rifle had disappeared from my life as quickly and mysteriously as it had appeared. I sat down on the wood floor and pondered my loss. Maybe the owner had returned for it. Maybe the landlord or superintendent had grabbed it. Maybe some guardian angel disposed of it before I could do anything more drastic than I’d already done. Or maybe I’d thrown it away and forgotten about it, like the incident with the pimp. I didn’t know. I realized I was crying. I missed the feeling of the cold metal against my check and in my hands, the cool sheen to cling to and to warm. Well, I supposed I was romanticizing it a bit. I heard “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” song again: “Let someone with a deep love to give / Give that deep love to you / And what magic you’ll see.”
I took out my cell phone and found Mike’s number. I stared at it a while. Then I exhaled deeply and deleted it.
Time to go back. I rose and walked out the door, back into a world outside where, sadly enough, we all were targets.