Thursday, December 13, 2007


Any life of significant duration, no matter how publicly insipid, is apt to include a few gems of private redemption, even if only compared with our worst shortcomings. I know this as fact because one particular Tuesday I bore witness to just such an example. I remember it as Tuesday because every Tuesday finds me at Jimmy’s, a local tavern in my community placed conveniently contiguous to downtown. Jimmy’s is remarkable only by its clientele and their ability to continually amaze me. Tuesday is the hidden gem in Jimmy’s week because historically nothing of importance occurs then, excluding the second week in November every fourth year and the occasional Columbus Day or Fourth of July that might happen to fall on Tuesday, the victim of random chance. Were I a statistician inclined to crunch such data, I doubt it would be significant enough to skew my model.

The mere fact that I call Jimmy’s home every Tuesday gives yet more credence to my assertions, because outside my family and limited group of friends and/or acquaintances, I am statistically insignificant. Actually, if you’re a newcomer to Jimmy’s, I’d bet even money that past a casual visual scan of the room, you’d be likely to miss me completely and even if you did notice me, you’d ignore me as part of the furniture, a mere misplaced, ugly plant resting in the third booth from the back; a promontory of sorts that allows me to view the room’s theater without metaphorically purchasing a SAG card. It’s a ‘tweener’ seat, neither the one-dollar-special nosebleed ducat nor the more expensive field-box seat one row behind the first base dugout.

I’ve spent so many Tuesdays here that the seat cushion now forms a permanent indentation in the shape of my butt. If I scoot into the booth and miss it slightly, the ridges poke my ass until I move, an unpleasant welcome of sorts. Once in the groove, I perform the same pre-flight checks as any good pilot would, sliding my beer mug to just the right position (handle towards me and centered on the coaster), making sure the filthy ashtray isn’t close enough to stink, and moving the ketchup and mustard away from the position where I rest my arm; Roger, El Toro Ground Control, Marine Quebec Foxtrot one-four-niner is five by five and square, squawking IFF one-two-one-three and requesting clearance for takeoff on runway three-five-left. Suddenly, I wonder how the astronauts feel while waiting for the three tons of liquid propellant attached to their asses to blast them to God-knows-where, betting their lives that some civil service engineers working for government wages haven’t got an axe to grind with their superiors. Tuesday… my metaphysical connection with eternity, my dreams and hopes reduced to their lowest common denominator.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

Standing before me, blocking my view of the pool table stood ‘Arnie’, a quiet man I’d seen many times at Jimmy’s. Until now, I’d assumed he quite possibly could be mute.

“Would it require that you have one with me?” Yes, I’m rude when confronted unexpectedly; it’s a character fault I’ve long detested, especially in others.

“I’m afraid it would, yes.”

Well, at least he’s honest. What the hell, I could use a little entertainment. “Sure, sit down… but I’ll warn you in advance, I’m not gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I don’t have any money to lend you.”

His face warmed slightly and a hint of a grin appeared as he slid into the booth on the opposite side of the table from me. He raised his hand and twirled his finger to alert Isabel that he needed some service. Isabel, bless her heart, signaled back and soon brought two mugs of tap beer. Isabel would never again see seventy and the arthritic knuckles on her hands bore testimony to it, but she wasn’t chatty, so I appreciated her general elegance and never failed to reward her for her professionalism. I honestly believe that one of the truest marks of a man’s character is reflected in the manner by which he treats a server.

“I’m Arnie.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I don’t know your name.”

“Yes, I know that, too.”

Arnie stared at me for a few seconds, both hands wrapped around his mug. Then, I saw the light leave his eyes as he looked away. “Okay” was all he muttered, already arising from his seat and I reached across the table and grabbed his arm.

“Hold on, man, I was just fuckin’ with you a little. My name is Earl. I’m just not used to anyone offering to buy me a beer without a motive.”

Once again he made eye contact with me, a bit more insistent now. “Who said I didn’t have a motive… Earl?”

Damn, dude… turn off the high beams! I saw passion in the man’s demeanor, not the lustful come-on approach of a stud in heat, but the deeper intensity of emotional distress. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, I offered, “Aha! Honesty… a fine trait exhibited by any man. What can I do for you, Arnie?”

Without blinking or losing eye contact, he whispered, “Kill me.”

A thousand horses pulling my arms in either direction could not have prevented me from smiling at this point. Fortunately, my mug sat harmlessly on the table instead of perched upon my lips, waiting for me to spit beer everywhere. “Geez, pal, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me to do that. I’d like to accommodate you, but I’m afraid my dance card is pretty full right now, I’ve been volunteering at the Suicide Prevention Clinic at St. Jude’s. As soon as I leave here, there’s a fifteen-year-old girl with a personality disorder that insists she’s not worthy to make it through the night. Nice of you to think of me, though— it’s gratifying to know that you consider a total stranger the perfect choice for your executioner. It’s nothing personal you understand, I’m sure you’re worthy of a gruesome beating, but I usually tend to delay that sort of thing until after the second date.”

Again his eyes lowered and a long pause ensued. My words cut deep into some hidden tissue not meant for exposure to insult. Languorously he rubbed the inside of his palm with a thumb. Without looking up, he mouthed “It’s okay, over the years I’ve become hardened to smugness. The premise is nothing if not stark. If it’s any comfort to you, I actually expected your reaction, but I’d like to ask you a question. What would you do if you knew that every breath you took caused pain for someone you love?”

Well, he had me there. I’ve lived alone for the past fifteen years, so the concept of loved ones being hurt by my actions seemed foreign as falafel or the Noble Eightfold Path. Any dilemmas stemming from emotional bonds to a lover or mate haven’t arisen since the ugliness in Sacramento in the early ‘90’s. At one time I’d have crawled across Hell without sunscreen for my loved ones, but now…

“Okay, I get it, but, Arnie, how does someone—anyone for that matter—get up in the morning and decide ‘Well, things aren’t any better, I think I’ll walk down to the nearest beer joint and ask some slug to end it all for me’? Honestly, if it’s that bad, aren’t there legitimate agencies somewhere in the city that are supposed to deal with this sort of thing?”

Now Arnie’s face scrunched into a grimace and he placed his fingertips across his face to support his head’s weight as shoulders shook and a chortling, rhythmic series of short gasps broke the silence. I couldn’t tell whether he was laughing or crying. Then, as quickly as it started, the outburst ceased. Arnie regained his composure and wiped his eyes with a napkin hastily grabbed from the dispenser. “Sorry… the words ‘legitimate agencies’ used together may be the ultimate expression of oxymoron. I couldn’t help but laugh.”

So much for reason… “Yea, well, tell me, Arnie, how much you had to drink today? Think it might be a good idea to go home and sober up a bit before you hurt yourself… or me? I admit, our social institutions leave much to be desired, but any sort of help is better than nothing, don’t you think?”

“Earl—do you mind if I call you Earl? You see, Earl, I’ve been to every ‘social institution’ in the state. I’ve been poked and prodded so much that I could teach hematology to lab technicians. I’ve been observed, counseled, preached to and analyzed by every psychiatrist, analyst, counselor, therapist, minister and psychologist with a diploma hanging on an office wall in the tri-state area. Don’t you see, Earl, there’s simply nothing that can be done for me. I’m not drunk, I’m terminal!”

My turn to inhale deeply came and went before anyone said anything. He didn’t stutter on a single word and I saw no evident signs of delusion or other symptoms of advanced alcoholism, so I took him at his word. Terminal… the word itself is stark and sobering. Walk into a doctor’s office one day with hopes of a long life and one word walks up behind you and smacks you in the back of the head with a two-by-four. Terminal.

“Sorry…” Well, that was brilliant… such a way with words I have. If he’s looking for hope or consolation, Arnie couldn’t possibly have picked a worse companion. But, he did get my attention. “Could you share with me what’s wrong?”

“I have Alzheimer’s.”

Missing from his pronouncement was the ‘pow’ or ‘zap’ that I anticipated. Is that all? This guy is cheating me out of AIDS or liver cancer or any one of many other dread diseases that afflict human beings. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t a person live a pretty long life with Alzheimer’s?”

Nervously scratching his out-stretched neck with his finger, he grinned and resigned himself to answer, “Yes, and therein lays the problem. My bodily functions will continue as before without the aid of conscious contribution from my mind, my humanity. Every passing day carries me further away from family and loved ones. Meanwhile, they stand and watch helplessly as all their resources are invested in my lost cause. I equate it to caring for the aging family dog that the vet can’t treat and you refuse to put down. You make him as comfortable as possible, smile and pat him on the head, and watch as he eats less and less every day, all the while looking up at you with those loyal, trusting eyes, asking you to end his misery. What do you do? You can’t save him from his fate, but he’s in no immediate danger, so you ask yourself, ‘Who am I to play God?’ and you walk away. Eventually, through the anguish he suffers, he finally gives up the ghost and mercy takes him to another plane of existence. Here, in a stuporous state of limbo poised between life and death, he spends his time until his heart finally stops beating. No, you didn’t play God. You mollified your ego, you appeased your conscience, you placated your sense of right and wrong by forcing the animal to suffer from your inertia. You’re not mean, in the societal sense, who could blame you for prolonging the life of the family pet? Yet, suffer he did… and for much longer than necessary. Then, after all is said and done, if you have a conscience, it’ll start asking why you didn’t have the stones to make the right decision.”

Arnie paused, as though suddenly exhausted by his words. “Please help me. I am that dog.”

I didn’t know what to say. The man showed no signs of inebriation, and I held no doubt that his words were sincere. “I still don’t understand why you picked me. I’ve given you no reason to think you could trust me whatsoever. You walk over here, buy me a beer and ask me to commit murder? In what world does sitting by one’s self in a booth near the rear door of a beer joint qualify someone as an assassin? Is there some deep truth revealed only to you by the way I don’t say too much? You have to admit, Arnie, this is quite a bit to lay on a guy. I feel like I’ve been dropped into an episode of The Twilight Zone! If I didn’t know that Rod Serling is already dead, I might suspect that you’re sizing me up as a test-market stooge.”

“Bizarre, indeed… but why not you, Earl? I admit that I’m losing stretches of time, so I don’t really know how long you’ve been coming in here, but I don’t recall ever hearing you say more than a few words to anyone. The fact that you keep to yourself makes you an attractive candidate for the job I want done. I merely assumed that since you keep your own counsel, you’re intelligent enough to understand why I want you to end my life and the importance of silence once it’s done. But there are other considerations that make it necessary for me to act swiftly.”

“And what considerations might those be?”

“I’m married, Earl, and have a family whom I love with all my heart. Therefore, I also have some insurance on my life. However, since I’m not wealthy, I opted for a policy that won’t pay under certain circumstances, among them being suicide, death while on a private or commercial conveyance, etc. Instead, I bought a rider that pays double indemnity should I meet my maker as a result of unprovoked felonious assault. I’ve already had one stroke and I could have another at any time. If that happens, my family loses $150,000.”

“Aha! Insurance fraud! And I get to do twenty-five-to-life so that you don’t have to.”

“Assuming that you get caught, I suppose that would be a possible consequence, yes.”

“Yea, well, listen, Arnie, it’s getting late. I enjoyed our little heart-to-heart talk here, and it was damned nice of you to buy me a beer before you asked me to, uh, help you out, but I think I’m going to pass. As I said before, it’s not personal, but I usually try to avoid killing people, even if they ask me nicely. I wouldn’t want your problem, that’s true enough. In fact, I wouldn’t wish your circumstances on my worst enemy. That being said, truth be known, I don’t have the stones, as you so eloquently pointed out a little earlier. However, if you’re really serious, perhaps you could get a pistol and grab a hostage, maybe a cute little blonde girl walking home from school. Then, call the cops and tell them that if they don’t come to your house immediately, you’ll kill her. Within minutes they’ll form a perimeter around your house and start negotiations. At that point, you can put your pistol in your waistband and open your front door. I’ll personally guarantee you that as soon as you reach for that pistol, they’ll happily fulfill your most fervent desire and blow your ass away. Suicide by cop... get it? Nobody will get hurt, except you, of course, and that won’t be for very long. Problem solved; your wife gets her money and I don’t have to go to prison.”

“That’s a dandy scenario, Earl, one that I realized early on. Only one problem— the felonious assault rider wouldn’t kick in for the double indemnity payment since the police would be well within their rights and duty. An attorney assured me that the language is very specific and enforceable. I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline, but I appreciate the effort.”

With that, Arnie got up, shook my hand and walked out the back door. I spent the better part of the next hour sitting in that booth, drinking several more beers and contemplating the situation. At one point, Isabel came back and asked me if I was okay. I allowed as how I was, thank you very much.

Isabel placed both hands on the table palm down, leaned over and moved her head a little closer to me than I deemed comfortable and asked, “Did he ask you to kill him?”

“What? Naaaa…” I lied, not wishing any further complicity in this sordid business. “He just wanted to, uh, borrow some money.”

Isabel gave me her Okay, liar… have it your way glare and walked away. I wondered how many times she’d had that conversation with other patrons. Then it occurred to me how terrible it must be to spend the last years of one’s life not knowing whether you’re coming or going… or neither. Suddenly, the beer tasted flat and warm; time for me to go home.

The short walk to my car in the back parking lot started out like any other. The dimly lit area offered haven to the occasional itinerant enjoying a flask of cheap Sangria while propped against the building, so when my car lights flashed on the human form lying against the concrete abutment forming the curb, I almost didn’t stop. But I recognized the coat—it was Arnie’s coat. After shutting the car off, I took my flashlight out of the glove compartment and walked over to the unmoving hulk. Carefully rolling the shoulders around so that I could see the face, I realized that it was Arnie. A quick check of his carotid revealed no pulse or signs of a struggle, so I sighed and looked around. Damn you, Arnie, this is hitting below the belt! How dare you stroke out on me? I walked back over to the car, took my gloves out off the seat and put them on, and unhooked my tire iron from its holder in the trunk.

Walking back to the body, I rehashed our one and only conversation. Finally, satisfied that I was doing what Arnie would have wanted, I swung the tire iron as hard as I could and felt the thud as it made contact with Arnie’s head. Then, I took his wallet from his pants pocket, removed the seventeen dollars inside and threw the leather holder next to the corpse.

Double indemnity… I’m sure Arnie would have considered the seventeen dollars small enough payment to insure his legacy. It could only have happened on a Tuesday.

Bob Church©2007


Shirley said...

Wow, that is a heavy story. Your details of Alzheimer's scare me they are so real. Even with all you mentioned there is so much more suffering involved with this disease that goes unmentioned. The loss of bodily functions, the falls, the violent outbursts and worst of all the cries for Mama and Daddy. You have touched on a soft spot with this one. And, I've said so many times myself that I wouldn't let my dog suffer that's truly inhumane. Kudos for showing the desperation that is the beginning as soon he would have forgotten that he had insurance or even a family! Great write Bob.

Jo Janoski said...

Amazing story! One of your best, truly. It stings with credibility since everyone can relate to this disease.

Bubba said...

Thanks, ladies. Jodi wrote me a long letter about her feelings regarding this story as well. Honestly, I hoped it would have this sort of impact. I had an uncle who suffered terribly with Alzheimer's before they had a name to put on it. Everyone considered him 'prematurely senile'. Hopefully, researchers will find the cause and cure for this terrible disease.

hfurness said...

Another great tale. Your situations and characters are always so real. And the little twists that you build in make always make it interesting.

Dan said...

Bob you're short stories are awesome! You really should put them together for a publisher someday.
Don't suppose you're the one I need to talk to about sending this snowstorm my way.

Bubba said...

Hi, Dan...

No, I'm not the one... if I were, you'd already have it. We've gotten about 4" today, and it's still snowing, so...

As for getting published, I've sent my stories to so many agents and publishers that I'm exhausted by the process. Yes, if an agent approached me and asked to see my work, I'd happily show her/him, but I'm no longer actively pursuing a publisher. I'm just... tired of it, I guess. But, thanks for reading some of my stuff, it makes me happy to know you enjoyed it.