Risk Adverse

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It was a Dark ‘N’ Stormy night. This was Victor’s third. The ice cubes did not clink against the side of the glass. He appreciated that. Sometimes you have to expand the search for good news. Plus, the taste of the nicotine gum was almost gone.

Victor missed the inquisitor gulls, the ones that came and sat on the harborside railing posts and gave you that sideways, one-eyed, unblinking, all-knowing, pitying gaze. They were never there at night, when their presence might be more meaningful, like after the third Dark ‘N’ Stormy when the suspect might feel more inclined to confess. He checked the time on his phone. It was an hour past when the Wentworths had agreed to meet. He’d been stood up again. This was getting old, but it was just as well. He had nothing more he could tell them. They’d already gotten more than their money’s worth. He left.

This was the best time of year on the island. All the rich asshole kids were back wherever else they didn’t belong, and the September breeze off the finally warm bay was kick-back perfect. Also, the roads were relatively free of drunks. There had been a time when Victor hadn’t been a paranoid driver, but that was before the accident. Now, he preferred deserted streets. Sylvie liked big words and called it thanatophobia. He called it physical risk avoidance. After all, wasn’t that his profession—risk-avoidance consultant?

The secret of his specialty—only it wasn’t a secret, he just couldn’t explain it—was field sense. Most people instinctively focused on the up-close personal details and missed everything else, everything important. They put themselves at the center and tried to figure out was happening from that disadvantaged perspective. Everything was about them, when really very little of what was coming down had zip to do with them. They were blind to the big picture—the forest for the trees thing. Paranoia. The eye of the bullseye is the worst place to avoid risk.

The Wentworths were a perfect example. As far as they were concerned, Tuckerson was their sworn nemesis. But Tuckerson wasn’t even sure who they were. The fact of the matter always—unless your supposed opponent is an obsessive psychopath—is that he or she or the corporate them doesn’t give a shit who you are, know nothing about you, and would like to know even less. They were your enemy only in your eyes.

Victor liked what he had learned about how Davy Crockett and those other old guys with their flintlock long guns used to bark squirrels. If you hit a squirrel with one of those fifty-caliber slugs, all you would get was a red splosh on a tree limb and an explosion of fur and guts. So, you aimed instead beside it, so that just the tree’s bark, like organic shrapnel, would bring the critter down. Victor had never eaten squirrel. There were risk-free ways around Tuckerson.

Victor had discovered his calling back in college, counseling draft dodgers. The ones who followed his advice never ended up drafted or in Canada or in jail. He was semi-retired now—the accident—and just took local clients, divorces and estate stuff mainly, and that drawn-out patent case in Providence. There was just the one stretch on the highway over the canal, then he could get back onto side streets again to home. His cataracts turned oncoming headlights into kaleidoscopes, and he did not need another DUI. Fuck the Wentworths. He’d send them a final bill. Wasn’t his first piece of advice to them to pay their bills?

Procrastination was another big mistake—a variety of magical thinking. Real risks don’t go away, they just got bigger. Ignored fuck-ups are breeders. If you bury dead things quick, they don’t stink. Things in closets don’t stay hidden. Etc. People never wanted to hear that.

He was listening to the news. Victor always listened to the all-news-all-the-time stations when he drove. Well, he wasn’t really listening as in paying attention. He had it on. It was an old habit. The stories just rolled over anyway. If you always listen to the news, nothing is ever really new. Sylvie only listened to recorded books, sometimes the same ones over again. Same thing.

Close to home, Victor stopped for a nightcap at his pub. Matt was there, asked for Sylvie. “Fine,” Victor said, “fine.” He had no reason to think otherwise, even though it had been a week—no, ten days, if this was Thursday—since she’d left. Victor was a record keeper, a numbers man. He knew exactly how many drinks he’d had each day, how many cigarettes he’d sneaked. He could tell you unerringly how much cash he had in his billfold. He knew to the added monthly interest how much he owed. He found comfort in counting things. There was order there, if little elsewhere. But recently, freelancing, he sometimes lost track of what day of the week it was. Seven was a funny number to group things by. And such strange names. Fifty-two times a year everyone paid homage to some Norse god named Thor, while Christ had only one day a year named after him. Not that Victor gave a shit about it.

His name wasn’t Matt. It was Gregg. Matt was the other bartender, the one whose wife had just died. Or was that Gregg’s wife? None of it really mattered. Sylvie was fine. Sylvie would always be fine, a little strange maybe but fine. It was actually a relief not having her around.

 

Sylvie’s cat was still around, though, and Victor had to feed it. Victor didn’t understand about pets, especially cats. What was there to understand? They were a pointless, expensive, shit-making, frivolous complication. It was like growing things you couldn’t eat. There was something almost immoral about it, keeping something living captive. Nowhere was it mentioned that Buddha or Mohamad or Jesus had pets. When he opened the door to his house, what did he smell? Cat stink. It wasn’t strong, but it was there, the odiferous equivalent of white noise.

The cat had a name, but Victor never used it. He called it cat, or fucking cat when Sylvie wasn’t around. It was there in the hall when he came in the door, rubbing against his pants leg. Sylvie said the cat didn’t like him, which was fine and meaningless. What was a pet but an object of the owner’s projection? The cat was an agent of her disesteem for him. Witches could turn into cats in superstitions. The cat didn’t mind begging him to be fed.

Ever since the accident, bending over was a form of torture. He had put off the operation because he had no insurance and couldn’t afford it just now. He had to bend over to get the fucking cat’s dish, the one with all the pretty fishes. He held onto the counter to keep from falling and gritted his teeth. He fed the cat.

Victor was soaking his back in a hot tub when the phone went off in the other room. It went through to his voice mail. The message was from Sylvie’s Uncle Vermin and Aunt Petty, both of them, taking invective turns. They’d been calling every day since the day after Sylvie vanished. They were certain Victor had done something to her. They had already reported her as a missing person. Now they were going to the police with their suspicions. The cops had already been there once, to get a photo and description of Sylvie and ask him questions.

 

The cops came back the next day. They had new info that Victor had threatened Sylvie. They wouldn’t say where they had gotten the tip, but Victor could guess. It was true. He had recently threatened her—with taking away her credit cards—but he didn’t tell them that. He just said no. They knew about his DUI. They knew about his concealed-carry permit. My business, he explained. They asked to see his gun, so he went to get the Glock to show it to them. Only, it wasn’t there beneath his socks in the bureau drawer.

Sylvie must have taken it, he told them. Why hadn’t he reported it stolen? Because he hadn’t known it was gone. He hadn’t touched it in months, not since the accident. The news of the missing gun brightened the detectives’ mood. Now they were getting somewhere—not only a missing, allegedly abused spouse, but a missing lethal weapon as well. Were there some soft courtroom trial testimony days in their future?

“Look, she took all her stuff with her,” Victor said. Including her credit cards, he thought. Couldn’t they track her that way? Her cellphone?

“Or you got rid of all her stuff along with her, including the gun.”

“Let me report it stolen to you now, seeing as I just discovered it. You’ve got a description of it from my permit. It must have been stolen eleven days ago by Sylvie.”

When they left, they didn’t take him with them, but Victor figured they’d be back. What was the big deal? Weren’t people allowed to leave? If Sylvie wanted to disappear and reappear somewhere else as someone else, if she thought that might make her happy, more power to her. She wasn’t breaking any laws. To be sure, she’d be happier away from him. It had come to that awhile ago. Let her max-out her credit cards. He’d been considering declaring bankruptcy anyway. Her departure dowry. He missed having the gun in the house, though. He didn’t like the thought of Sylvie having it.

He decided to call her. He hadn’t tried to reach her before. She obviously wanted no contact with him. Maybe he would threaten her with theft for taking the Glock. She had no permit for it. She could mail it back to him from wherever she had gotten to. When he called her cellphone number, it rang two times then went dead. He tried again, same results. She’d had his number blocked. Sylvie had definitely gone solo.

 

The doctors had cut off his oxycodone. Victor called his stepson Warren. In the neighborhood where Victor had grown up, every Irish family had to have one member, either priest or nun, in the clergy. These days, every family needed a pusher. Warren, Sylvie’s youngest, had accepted the calling. Warren said he could get him something stronger, but Victor said no, just prescription strength, well, 60 or 80 mg if he could get it. Why be kind to pain? Victor knew better than to ask Warren if he had heard from Sylvie, knew better than to even mention her name. It was a long story he didn’t know, didn’t want to know. Victor knew Warren wouldn’t come to the house. They arranged to meet in a Dairy Queen parking lot.

Most cars these days looked pretty much the same in the rearview mirror. Highways, the great international melting pot. American, Korean, German, Japanese—all akin in shape and color. Were there still any English, French, or Italian cars on the road, aside from vintage models? He had to drive through town to get to the Dairy Queen, midday traffic. Victor didn’t know for sure, but he had the feeling he was being followed. Was he just being paranoid? There was no reason why anyone would be tailing him. He took some elusive turns but couldn’t tell. The feeling wouldn’t go away.

From his line of work, Victor was familiar with the state’s divorce laws. Desertion was sufficient cause, but desertion by a missing person was a new one on him. That could be drawn out. He should have started proceedings months ago, after that scene in Costa Rica, before the accident. But he had put it off because he didn’t feel like moving and he knew that he would lose the house because he had nothing else to settle with. All life was things falling apart or threatening to fall apart. Just listen to the news.

Victor had been waiting at the Dairy Queen five minutes when Warren’s car pulled into the space beside his. Warren had said it would be around a hundred. Victor had the cash. He pulled out his billfold. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Sylvie sitting in the passenger-side seat across from him. Her window was rolled down. She didn’t speak or say hello. She just pulled up the Glock and pointed it at him.

Instinctively, Victor buzzed up his window. The first shot missed him, shattering the window, blinding him with shards of glass. He never heard the second shot.

 

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Princeps

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5 April

There may be people who have not felt it, people too dense or too much into themselves to get it, but I can attest to it and so can you—that there are certain, rare human beings who just are leaders, whether they like it or not. I’m not too good with my own chronology. I was maybe eight or nine when I got to know Lawrence. That was his name, never Larry.

Lawrence was quiet. He wasn’t big or anything. You’d have trouble picking him out from all the other guys in our fourth-grade group photo, all lined up like props on the front steps of Mt. St. Monica’s. Who can remember names that long? I have trouble finding myself there. That’s Barbara Zimmerman, though. Who can forget her? But even then, in that group of twenty-eight, if you had asked who should speak for the class, they would have said Lawrence, even though he didn’t talk that much. It wasn’t that he was different in any way. He was just another kid like us, but, I don’t know, you could trust him to say the right thing.

Later in grade school, to no one’s surprise, he was elected class president and was captain of both the baseball team and the crossing guards, all of which duties he reluctantly accepted. He was MC of our dance and talent shows. The nuns would call him out of class to run their shopping errands. When we graduated, Lawrence was the valedictorian. He had no close friends.

All of that was sixty-some years ago. Today, I got an email message that Lawrence was dead, had died two weeks ago in Arizona. The message didn’t say what of, not that it makes any difference. At our age, death is mundane, remarkable only if you were shot robbing a bank or set yourself on fire in some stupid protest or something equally out of the ordinary.

It’s been a dozen years since my last meeting up with Lawrence. It was in L.A. I was still with the airlines. Somehow the nuns at Mt. St. Monica’s had found me. They were launching a fund raiser to try and save the school and wanted my help. Our class’s fiftieth anniversary was coming up. They wanted not only to touch me up but for me to see if I could lean on some of my classmates, such as were still around and they could track down. Lawrence was on their short list. Either they were afraid to approach him themselves or they had already tried to no response.

I thought it funny that the church needed money. Had they gone broke paying off victims of predatory priests? Maybe they hadn’t yet equipped their collection baskets to take credit cards. I sent Mother Mary Angelina a check. I tossed the list—Barbara Zimmerman was not on it—but I copied down Lawrence’s email address and number, an L.A. area code. My job often took me to LAX.

The next time I was there, I called and left a voice-mail message. To my surprise, Lawrence called back. He remembered me—third base, couldn’t bunt. He even recalled my sister Helene, who was two years behind us, and asked for her. Alzheimer’s, a home on Long Island. We arranged to meet for lunch at a Mexican place in Santa Monica. I got the impression he lived nearby.

Lawrence and I had gone on to different high schools and in different directions, but every so often I’d wonder about him. If I was back in Pittsburgh visiting my mom, I’d ask around about him, but he had pretty much disappeared. “Nam,” one person told me. Another thought he had gone into the Peace Corps. Everyone remembered him.

I was sitting at the bar in the Mex place when Lawrence came in. We recognized each other right off. He hadn’t changed much. His face had aged and his hairline had receded, but he hadn’t gotten much bigger either in height or girth. He still had the build of the compact second-baseman I remembered.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about. Christ, that was a dozen years ago. Nothing earth-shaking for sure, probably mostly about me and what I was doing at the time. He didn’t say much about himself, asked a lot of questions and listened. He was a good listener. We stayed sporadically in touch via email after that, which devolved into Facebook, the impersonal.

Via Facebook posts, I learned of Lawrence’s favored causes and political bent, none of which I shared. Normally, I dump people I don’t agree with, but I didn’t defriend Lawrence for some reason. I even followed links to a few of his sites and discovered, yep, he was the head of two of the organizations.

I said the last time I met Lawrence was a dozen years ago, but I did see him once since, by coincidence. It was in Jacksonville a year or so after our meeting. I was there on business, staying at the Hyatt, and bored silly as usual in that most vacuous excuse for a city. There was a conference going on at another hotel, and I noticed Lawrence’s name listed as one of the featured participants. It wasn’t a conference I’d choose to attend, but, like I said, it was Jacksonville. I went over. They wanted twenty-five bucks for a one-day entrance fee. I put it on my company card.

It was a panel discussion, more like a debate I gathered, though I had zero interest in what it was about. Up on stage, Lawrence was one of five people seated at a long, black-draped table, sitting at the end. He didn’t have much to say. The other panelists were all trying to sound important. They had their own special vocabulary laced with acronyms that meant nothing to me.

The auditorium was full. I found a seat in the back. I couldn’t decide whether Lawrence’s look said boredom or embarrassment. When he did speak at any length, toward the end, as they were summing up, it was only for a few minutes. He leaned into his microphone, his eyes downcast, and used simple words, simple sentences. He didn’t say anything I could disagree with. No one else did either.

I’d come with the idea of meeting up again, maybe having a drink together. But when the event finished up, there was no getting close to Lawrence, and the people around him were not the type I wanted to mix with. As I was leaving, two separate women with clipboards stopped me to get my signature on their petitions. One of them followed me out onto the sidewalk.

“You’re a fed, aren’t you?” she said. She was an attractive young lady.

“A fed what?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t really care. You’re here to watch us. I was just wondering what you think.”

“If I were a fed, would I tell you?”

“I don’t know. Would you? Why not? I’m nobody. I’m just curious.” She was younger than my daughter.

“I was only here to see my old friend Lawrence,” I said.

“I bet you have quite a file on him.”

There was an official-looking laminated ID on a string around her neck. I looked down at it now—Sarah something long and foreign. She noticed.

“Now you can start a file on me,” she said.

“Do you know Lawrence?”

“I thought he was your old friend.”

“Tell me, why did you think I was a fed?”

“You guys are everywhere. I was standing in the back. I watched you. You weren’t there to listen. You didn’t once react or clap. You were just checking out the crowd, like you were looking for someone.”

“Well, I’m not a fed, not any kind of cop.”

“You are kind of old, I guess, up close.”

“Lawrence and I were classmates,” I said. Had that been meant as some sort of defense? Why was I still standing there talking with her? She was pretty. Or was she just young? I turned to go.

“We’re only trying to make things better,” she said.

I heard from Lawrence once, too, after that—an email note of condolence when my mother died. The devil knows how he learned about it.

21 April

Damnest thing. This morning I got an email message from the sheriff’s office in Gila County, Arizona, a mass mailing to everyone on Lawrence’s email list of contacts, asking for any information on his next of kin. They wanted to know who, if anyone, wished to claim his remains. There was a number to call. I called. Hell, I got nothing else to do these days except watch the news.

I told them I was his cousin. They didn’t offer any condolences or ask for any proof. I told them I wanted him cremated, and they told me that as next of kin I’d have to arrange for that myself. I tried to do that over the phone, then gave up. I can’t reach anyone who is any help. I’ve decided to fly out. I sort of miss flying since I retired.

24 April

Globe. Got in yesterday. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix to Globe, the Gila County seat. Two-lane black top—hot, hard, empty country. Checked into a Travelodge. This morning found a laid-back clerk at the County Courthouse who condescended to help me out. Less paperwork than I expected. For cremation they have to send the body back to Phoenix. I only had to hit a couple of offices plus a local mortuary to arrange and pay for the burn job. I offered to buy the clerk a drink in thanks for his help, and he suggested a dive across the street from the courthouse when he got off work.

I don’t know what Humphrey’s 2 Lanes Saloon is named for. There are three billiard tables. It’s purple inside. There were pool games in progress, the sound of games at all the tables. The clerk, whose name is Clark like some unfunny joke, met me there. A double Wild Turkey on the rocks.

Clark brought with him Lawrence’s case file, not a copy, the file itself inside its official brown folding file folder. “You might as well have this,” he said as he pushed it across the bar. As I flipped through the thin file, just four or five officious pages, Clark struck up a conversation with the woman bartender.

“What’s the Rock House Trailer Park” I asked. The woman gave me a funny look.

“Just what it says,” Clark said. “The trailer park up in Rock House. That’s where they found him.”

“That loner last month?” The woman asked Clark, who nodded. “Ray answered that call. He said the stench in that little trailer was even worse than the Orbach’s rotting horse.”

“Been dead a week or more the doc figured,” Clark said.

“Warm for March, too,” she agreed.

“It says here the cause of death was O.D.,” I said.

“Overdose,” Clark said. “They don’t know that for sure. Doc didn’t run no tests. They’re costly, take too much time.”

“Figures though,” the woman said. “Anybody dies alone like that out there probably did OD on something.” She went down the bar to other customers.

“But an overdose of what?” I asked.

“Don’t matter. Just OD bumps our stats up for more drug-control money.”

“Did they find any drugs?”

“If they did find any, either Ray or his partner would have taken them.”

“I heard that, Clark,” the woman said from down the bar.

I closed the file and pushed it back to Clark.

“No, you can keep that. We got no use for it. Case closed now the body’s gone. They want no record of it. I went to check about his personal effects, like that laptop they found there and any of his other stuff. I figured you might want it. All gone. No record of it. Freebies.”  Clark took a long sip of Wild Turkey. “Things get stripped clean here in the desert.”

1 May

I never did pick up Lawrence’s ashes. It was Sunday when I got back to Phoenix. The place was closed and I had a flight out. I can still fly for free and I didn’t feel like going home. So, I came on here to Maui. It’s not so much fun when you’re old. It’s funny—all these years I’ve had to edit myself from calling him Larry. Always wanted to, never did. I wonder if anyone ever called him Larry.

 

 

 

Random

Dead sign

Coincidental with the calendar change, I’ve retired a used-up spiralbound work notebook. Below, in chrono-order, is a selection of uncrossed-out marginalia.

Hereonout (nice word)

“Knowledge is only a rumor until it is in the muscle.” Goroka (PNG) saying.

Supernatural is our term for mother chaos and her husband chance.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Chionophobia—fear of snow

Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.

Pussy—possibly from Icelandic for horse’s cunt.

Whispering her own praises.

Reality is more inventive than I am.

Entheogenic—god-enabling

Book ideas: Witchcraft Cookery, Create Your Own Private Language, Midwinter’s Nightmare

Stradivarius’s first violins probably weren’t that hot.

In a land where ignorance is not just bliss but blessed.

All good books manage to satisfy and surprise.

Memory hacker.

He bought her green bananas so that she would have a reason to hang around another day or two.

The best jokes—when the punchlines are the unexpected truth.

I don’t write books. Books happen. I write scenes for my characters. I write the beginnings and ends of chapters.

Obstruction of misjustice.

A passionate person—someone on the side of their hormones.

Lost like noses from Roman busts.

Someone who feels self-righteous about not cheating at solitaire.

Prayer—the solace of thinking you are doing something while wasting your time.

Selfie death rate.

People who flaunt their intolerance wear their insecurity with pride.

A shadow mistaken for a stain.

At least I don’t have digital dreams.

Vampire dopers only get stoned after dark.

Her conversation was like verbal charades—she talked and you tried to intuit what it might mean.

“A ship is always safe at shore, but that is not what it is built for.” A. Einstein

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