Second Thoughts

I had everything one could want. A long, stable marriage. Grown, independent kids and grandchildren. A comfortable house and bank balance that had been nicely supplied by the company I owned.

Everything one could want. With some qualifications.

My marriage had devolved to an exercise in inertia. I honestly couldn’t say it was loveless, but the love would be hard to locate. It was not a happy marriage, nor was it terribly unpleasant. I sometimes imagined how much better life could be outside of it, but there was no other situation that guaranteed any measure of happiness that would be worth the pain of a divorce.

I saw the grandchildren infrequently, because our kids were indifferent to me.  I could not say that their indifference was due to some lack of parental qualities on my part or some character flaw on theirs. It wasn’t interesting or productive enough to figure out.

My company, which had provided us with a better-than-average lifestyle, was struggling. I agonized over the second round of layoffs, plotted with my worried CPA on how to catch up on payroll taxes, and could see a point in the not-too-distant future where the doors would be closed permanently. Aggressive marketing or a different approach in the evolving economy could perhaps save it, but I was getting too old for the energy that was needed.

A malaise of the spirit gripped me. I knew I was going through the motions of life without feeling them. This had gone on for years. I’d never wanted to live a life that breathed meaningless constantly. I yearned for surcease. But to take my own life, to inflict fatal trauma on myself, or deliberately give myself toxins in some deadly dose, was unthinkable. I was cursed, it seemed, with an overwhelming desire to cease the life I had combined with a survival instinct that would not allow it for myself.

As the conundrum gripped me over days, weeks, months, years, I engaged in fanciful planning; and then, one restless night, chanced upon an avenue that seemed real. Several months back, I had an ominous visit at the plant from two men, one of whom did the talking. He had made some edged remarks about possible labor and other problems and had offered for other man to come visit me at inconvenient times. After they’d left, I had worried over it; but then, less than two weeks later, read in the paper where he had been arrested on racketeering charges. The second man was not mentioned, and I’d never heard from either of them again.

I began a surreptitious investigation to find the second man. Between the numbers that had been left to me and patient Internet searches, I was narrowing it down. Then at the office, I got a call on my cell phone.

“I understand you’re looking for me.”

My heart picked up the pace a bit. “Yes, I am.”

“Not a good idea. What do you want?”

I explained.

He replied, “McArthur Park, tomorrow, 10 a.m., a park bench on the east side of the lake. Sit, and I’ll come to you. Bring $10,000 cash. Can you do that?”

A knot started forming in my stomach. Fear? Anticipation? I wasn’t sure. “Yes, I can.” He hung up.

It hardly seemed possible, now moving so fast after such a long time of imagined scenarios.

Over the rest of that day, I spent time getting cash from various accounts. I figured that after my death, there might be questions raised about the money movement, so I tried to make it as discreet as possible. I worried a little bit over the future of the factory and my wife, but my superintendent was a younger, energetic man. He might be able to do better than I in directing the company. And while my finances are troublesome, I had a healthy estate and a substantial amount of life insurance. My wife would be all right.

The morning came with a slight cold drizzle. At 9:30, I told my superintendent that I need to run an errand. I headed to Mac Park. The drizzle had stopped, but the benches still had a sheen of moisture. I walked to the east side of the lake and found a seat.

15 minutes later, as I was growing ever colder, the man strode up and sat next to me.

“Let’s have the money.”

I said, with forced lightheartedness, “Want to see today’s news?” and handed him a rolled-up paper, the money inside. His lip curled, and I wasn’t sure if he was amused or scornful of my oh-so-furtive way. He took the paper, keeping it rolled up. Then he turned to me.

The outside noises dimmed, overwhelmed by a humming in my ears. I suddenly knew he was going to take out a gun and kill me on the spot.

“Tell me about yourself and what you do daily.”

I breathed a little easier and started talking, haltingly. He prompted me with questions, and the answers started flowing ever more smoothly. I’d been in court before, of course, as any business owner must and had been on the witness stand and in depositions. He was the most skillful interrogator I’d ever seen. In an amazingly short time, he had a comprehensive verbal dossier on me.

Finally, he said, “Carry on normally. This will be over soon.” He got up and strode away.

I went back to my office at the plant and forced myself to settle into my routine, knowing the routine would soon be over. And my ownership duties went quite smoothly. My sense of impending resolution expressed in a cheerful optimism with my people. They responded in kind. As working days went, it inexplicably turned into one of the nicer ones in recent memory.

I walked out to the car after work, every step tinged with the anticipation of a bullet crashing through me, a car careening around a corner to run me down. With my senses heightened, the air took on a new crispness. The sun danced through lacy clouds. The chatter of the employees, formerly so mundane, now had a special charm to them. I got in the car and, just before I started it, had a sharp stab of suspense. Was I about to be enveloped in a fiery explosion? But it started normally, and I drove to my house.

At home that night, the goodwill prevailed. My wife, whether she was buoyant with her own transient mood or was reflecting my more-vibrant feelings back, was attentive and great company. We loosened up with a very nice dinner, wine, and deep conversation. By the time we fell asleep, we’d had an entirely lovely marital evening, the best I could remember for years.

I awoke from a sound sleep, and fear suddenly gripped me. I had a sense of what a condemned man must feel on his last dawn.

I was deliberate in my morning routine, reluctant to be leaving the safety of the house. But the man had said to carry on normally, and I didn’t want to put my wife at risk by tarrying. I finished getting ready, went to my wife, kissed her good-bye as she lay in bed, and she turned toward me, smiling, her hair tousled and eyes a little dreamy, returned my kiss, and thanked me for the prior evening.

I drove to work that day with my body taut, my eyes darting, nerves hypersensitive. The world’s goings-on stood out in sharp relief. The children laughing as they walked to school. The delicate fluttering of tree leaves in the morning breeze. I parked in our lot and got out of the car. My peripheral vision caught a flash of light, and as I tensed and waiting for the bullet, a small sob escaped me. But no, it was just the flash of sun off an opening car door window.

I went to my office, sat down, and faced a truth that I would not have wanted to believe these past years: I did not want to die.

In contrast to how I had so languidly imagined my death now for a long time, my thoughts now turned furious, racing, on how to thwart it. I had no idea how to contact the man. He had called me, and I don’t know what I did in my searching that prompted him.

My life up to that point crowded my thoughts, counterbalanced with mounting fear over whatever shortening time remained. My own mortality and what would happen to me, the person I was, consumed my thoughts.

I had been raised Catholic and was still not beyond going to the church some Easter or Christmas, if the crowds weren’t too off-putting. But my former religious training now bubbled to the surface. For a man buried in the daily mechanics of work and life, suddenly my focus was on the spiritual.

Suicide was a sin. A mortal sin. You don’t get to heaven with a mortal sin.

Did I believe that? Probably not, but now I was frantic in thinking of ways that might eliminate that possibility. I couldn’t reasonably expect to contact the man again on my own. But for the sake of protecting my theoretical soul I could go to confession. I could at least receive penance. Perhaps if I went over, the priest might even have practical suggestions. I called the church’s number and got a recording that included confession times. 10 a.m. Perfect. I would be there when they were open for business.

I once again told my superintendent that I had an errand to run, and drove over to the church. Five till 10:00. No one was in the pews. I walked over to the confessional booth, entered, and sat on the small bench.

To my surprise, the door almost immediately opened on the priest’s side of the booth. Through the semi-transparent divider, I could see that he wasn’t wearing a priest’s hat. I suddenly recognized the silhouetted profile, the lean, sharp features. From yesterday.

“I thought you might come here,” he murmured at me.

Expressionless, he raised his automatic. The barrel wwas oversize with a silencer. He pointed it at me, through the smoky hazy veil of promised repentance and salvation, and pulled the trigger.

— Grandpa

Comments

  1. Wow! This story has all of the elements that put into motion a series of events that prevented me from getting up partway and warming up my coffee with a fresh new pour.  That impresses the heck out of me — anyone’s ability to slow my roll…   All in a vignette.  Good stuff, Jason.

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