Michael Coleman (Part 1: Injustice)

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons: George Floyd Protest Against Police Brutality in Dallas, author Matthew T. Rader

            About the middle of the 21st century there lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York a young man named Michael Coleman, the son of an English high school teacher, who was one of the most honorable as well as one of the most violent men of his generation. Until his eighteenth year this extraordinary young man could have been considered a shining symbol of civil virtues with a bright future in front of him. He had a full scholarship to Columbia University, was a track star who set New York State records in the mile (4:01.3) and 800 meters (1:49.2), and he volunteered every weekend at a local nursing home (Concord); he had not one neighbor or classmate who did not consider him generous, charming, and kind; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not experienced horrible tragedy and pursed one of his virtues to suicidal destruction. For his sense of justice would make him not only a murderer, but a hunted terrorist that would shake the very foundations of American democracy.

            One Saturday night he was returning home with his younger brother, Jaqual, from a party at a trap house (where he kissed his high school crush for the first time) when his mother met them at the door in a panic. “Boys, I talked to grannie a few hours ago and she said she’s not feeling well, and now she’s not picking up her phone, go check on her, quick!” Their grandmother lived only half a mile away on the first floor of a brownstone by herself, and the boys sprinted through the streets, desperate to save the woman they loved the most in the world (every Sunday they walked their grannie to Greater Free Gift Baptist Church). Just as it was beginning to pour with rain the boys heard a siren. A police car cut them off and four officers jumped out with their weapons raised.

            “Put your hands up!” The boys put up their hands. 

            “Stay calm,” whispered Michael to Jaqual, who knew that his younger brother had a short fuse. “Just do what they say.” A minute passed until a cop yelled,

            “On your knees!”

            “Officer, our grandma is sick, she’s alone and needs to go to the hospital, we are not engaged in any illegal activity, she lives at 101 Stockton Street and if you follow us we-”

            “Shut up! Don’t give me any of your bullshit excuses. Sprinting through the Tompkins’ projects on a Saturday night? Visiting your sick grandmother, my ass.” The other cops chuckled.

            “Officer you don’t understand, our grandmother has a heart condition and if she doesn’t receive medical attention soon she-” Jamal stood up. Michael glared at his brother. “What are you doing, you idiot?”

            “Get down!” But Jamal attempted to run past the police officers. One of them, Derek Chovin, a corpulent member of Blue Lives Matter, tackled him and pushed his face against the pavement. “Search him!” Another cop patted down Jaqual’s jacket and pulled out a dime-bag of marijuana and a swiss-army knife. “He’s carrying.” Jaqual stared at his brother and yelled,

            “Michael run!” At the same moment the police officer yelled, “Shut up, you little-” and pushed his knee against Jaqual’s neck. Michael heard, even with the rain pelting down, a distinct *crack* and saw Jaqual’s eyes roll into the back of his head. In horror Michael stood up and sprinted past the police car. The cops fired their guns, but missed. The neighbors came to their windows and watched as a young man ran away from the police and disappeared at the end of the block.

            Once Michael reached his grandmother’s brownstone, he found her lying unconscious on the kitchen floor. She wasn’t breathing. He called 9-1-1, gave her C.P.R. (breaking her ribs), and ten minutes later an ambulance arrived. Michael rode in the ambulance to the hospital, tears forming rivulets on his cheeks, while the medics used an automated external defibrillator. He told himself that he didn’t just abandon his younger brother and that everything would be all right. 

            The first few hours after a heart attack is called the critical period. Every second counts. The quicker the blood flow is restored and the treatment instituted, the better the chances of survival, and the better the chances of keeping the heart muscle alive.

            But when Michael and his grandmother arrived at the emergency room (she was immediately taken to the intensive care unit), the doctors knew it was too late. Michael’s grandmother had passed away, her soul moving on from this bitter, sorrowful world. If she had arrived a few minutes sooner, she might have survived.

            When Michael and his mother, Breonna, received the news in the waiting room, they burst into tears and held each other in their trembling arms. Michael had always acted like the father in the family, and had always tried to act stronger than the felt. But Michael knew they couldn’t waste time mourning when his brother had likely been taken in by the authorities.

            “Ma, I think Jaqual’s really hurt, I saw a police officer push his knee against his neck, then the cops fired at me when I ran away, we have to go find him.” But little did they know that the political machine of unjust law enforcement was already working against them. While Michael was with his grandmother on the way to hospital, the police at the scene of their crime were already attempting to cover up their abuse and mistakes. They interviewed neighbors, created false-witness reports, and manipulating the neighbors’ fear and lack of knowledge, had them sign the incriminating documents. The cops convened amongst themselves and agreed upon a fabricated story about what had happened: both of the boys attempted to run away, one of the boys was tackled and once the marijuana was discovered he attempted to stab the police officer with his knife, the police officer (Derek Chovin) was forced to defend himself and struck the boy in the neck with his hand, rendering him unconscious. Meanwhile, the other boy got away, shooting at the police officers while he ran. The police officers were unable to find the second boy’s gun. Meanwhile, while the cops were creating the false story (which they agreed to repeat under oath if necessary, since they were all trusted colleagues and friends, often sharing beers together after shifts), Jaqual’s body was slumped against the seat in the back of the police officer. He was completely paralyzed, as his spinal cord had been cracked, and was in desperate need of medical attention. The police officers took him to the 79th precinct instead of the hospital, and placed him in a holding cell, where he lightly groaned on a cot.

            Michael and Breonna arrived at the 81st precinct, searching for Jaqual. The indifferent and tired police officers (it was 3:55 am) made them wait for thirty minutes while they called nearby precincts. But since Michael’s story of what occurred did not match what the police officers had reported, the 79th precinct did not have any record of admitting a boy matching their description of what happened. Nonetheless, after another thirty minutes of waiting, Breonna and Michael decided to visit the 79thcprecinct anyway.

            Upon walking into the 79th precinct, Michael immediately recognized Derek Chovin behind a counter.

            “That’s him!” Michael shouted. “The cop who had his knee against Jacqual’s neck!” Michael also recognized two other police officers who had been on the scene, standing behind desks and filling out paperwork. For a moment the cops looked at one another in shock, uncertain of what to do, until the superior officer, Russel Shotski, took control,

            “Arrest him.” The police officers scurried towards Michael, pulling out handcuffs.

            “What? I did nothing wrong? Where’s Jaqual? What did you do with him?” Breonna stepped in front of Michael.

            “Where’s my son?! I want to see my son. Don’t you dare touch him! Back away!”

            “M’am, your sons both committed crimes tonight. One of them is in custody, and the one behind you fired a weapon at a police officer. Please step away.”

            “Fired at a police officer? Michael would never do that! He doesn’t even have a gun!”

            “I never fired a weapon! I ran away and you shot at me! My grandmother was dying. I had to-”

            “Take it easy boy. M’am, please step away. We don’t want to use force.” The police officers had blocked the exit and were circling the mother and son like wolves around sheep. Breonna had no doubt Michael did nothing wrong. While Jaqual had been a troublemaker growing up, Michael had never lied or had any conflicts with teachers or the authorities.

            “He did nothing wrong! I’m recording this bullshit. I want to see my son.” As she started to pull out her phone, Russel Shotski grabbed her arm.

            “I’m going to have to ask you to put your phone away. You’re not allowed to take videos in the precinct. We-”

            “Don’t you touch me you-” As Russel struggled with Breonna, his elbow smashed into her face and she fell to the ground.

            “No! You can’t-” Two officers were restraining Michael, who began shouting uncontrollably, and they managed to put his hands in cuffs. Blood streamed down Breonna’s face. She blinked rapidly, coughing and choking. Her nose was broken and she felt dizzy. One of the officers picked up her phone and put it in his pocket. They would never have done this in broad daylight. Russel attempted to help Breonna stand up.

            “M’am, I’m so sorry I knocked you down. But you need to cooperate. We’re trying to help and-” she pushed herself away and let out a scream.

            “Don’t touch me you monster!” She hoisted herself up, wiping the blood off her mouth, and glared at all the officers in the precinct.

            “Give me my phone.”

            “I’m sorry m’am, we can’t do that.”

            “I said give me my phone. That’s my private property.”

            “You resisted a police officer. You attacked him when-”

            “I ATTACKED NOBODY. WHERE IS MY SON?!” Breonna was becoming hysteric. She looked balefully at the police officers in front of her, who showed no signs of empathy or mercy, and at Michael being dragged away.

            “I didn’t do anything!” he shouted.

            “Where are you taking him?”

            “To the holding cell, where his brother is, while the investigation is pending. We promise that-” Breonna stopped listening and became aware of the hopeless, crushing futility of the situation. The sorrow of her mother’s death swelled up in her like a tidal wave. Her chest was heaving, her face was burning, and she felt a madness mounting up into her throbbing temples.

            “You will all pay for this. Every single one of you bastards. My sons did nothing wrong. You hurt my son and refused to let me see him.”

            “M’am, since you’ve arrived you have showed nothing but hostility. We are doing our duty, we are trying our best to do our jobs and you-”

            “I’m going to contact my lawyer, Albert Garner. Ever heard of him? Yeah that’s right. And every single one of you will pay. Mark my words.” Michael heard this final statement as he was dragged into the back of the precinct. Breonna ran out of the precinct, to return to her apartment to find a phone, planning on waking up a neighbor if she couldn’t find one. 

            In the holding cell, Michael saw Jaqual laid out on a cot, motionless. He collapsed next to him on his knees, felt his pulse, and verified that he was breathing. But Jaqual was drooling and staring vacantly at the ceiling. Michael heard him faintly groan.

            “My brother needs medical attention! Come back here! He needs to be taken to the hospital! Come back!” Michael shouted until his lungs ached. Two police officers returned with their hands on their ears.

            “Stop screaming you-”

            “My brother’s not moving! I think he’s paralyzed. Why is he in a holding cell?! This is against the law. You have to take him to the hospital!” The two police officers gave each other discreet, knowing looks. There had been an argument amongst the police officers upon their arrival at the precinct whether or not to take Jaqual directly to the hospital. They had agreed to fill out the paperwork first, then to transport him to critical care. This was against typical procedure, but in the complications and subconscious guilt of creating a false story they had ignored Jaqual’s deteriorating condition, his paralyzed-state, in favor of constructing viable alibies. While lifting Jaqual out of the police vehicle and into the precinct they had made his broken spinal cord even worse.

            “He…he can’t move?” stuttered one of the police officers. Taking up the cue, the other continued.

            “He could move before.”

            “NO HE CAN’T MOVE. HE NEEDS TO BE TAKEN TO THE HOSPITAL!”

            “All right, settle down kid, we’ll talk to our boss.” The police officers left and had a whispered, hurried discussion with Russel Shotski. They agreed that they should call an ambulance and transport Jaqual to the hospital immediately. Michael would stay in the cell until the morning.

            Meanwhile, back at her apartment, Breonna couldn’t find a cell phone. She desperately knocked on the door of her neighbor, waking them up, and told them the story of what had happened, and her need for a phone. They gave her a phone, telling her to seek medical attention because of her bloody face, and she typed in the personal cell number of Albert Garner, a family friend and criminal defense lawyer whose wife was also a judge. He picked up.

            “Who the hell is this?”

            “It’s Breonna. Albert I-”

            “Breonna why are you calling at this godforsaken hour. I-”

            “My boys are both in the 79th precinct. Michael thinks Jaqual was paralyzed by a police officer last night and they took my phone and-” She told Albert everything that happened. Within a minute Albert understood the gravity of the situation and jumped out of bed.

            “I can be at the 79th precinct in an hour. We’ll get your boys out, I promise. Can you meet me there?”

            “Yes.”

            “Don’t let them give you back your phone. Wait outside and don’t talk to any police officers. Don’t say a word.”

            “I won’t.” 

            At the 79th precinct the ambulance arrived and transported Jaqual to the hospital. While Jaqual’s body was being lifted off the cot, his limbs hanging limply in the police officer arms, Michael was restrained in the corner and shouting, “WHY WASN’T HE TAKEN DIRECTLY TO THE HOSPITAL?! YOU MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM! YOU MIGHT HAVE PARALYZED HIM FOR LIFE!” Then he was released, shoved into the corner, and the holding cell door slammed shut.

            With Jaqual gone, the police officers had a worried discussion in the front office about what had happened. They had done a background check on Michael and Jaqual and discovered no previous offenses. Through a google search they learned of Michael’s exemplary school record and years of community service. They knew they had a major liability on their hands and wanted to fix the situation before the morning shift arrived and they’d have to explain to their chief what they’d done wrong. One of the police officers, who had been working in the precinct all night, suggested,

            “We should let Michael go and give back his mother’s phone. He doesn’t deserve to be locked up like that. His mother needs him. This could all come back to bite us.”

            “But he shot at police officers! Didn’t you see what’s written in the report? If we let him go it will look incompetent…and suspicious! What if he goes and finds his abandoned gun and comes back here and shoots us all up?”

            “His mother needs him. His brother might die. He’s not a threat, and every second we keep him here is an injustice. You know that and I know that.” The cops came to a compromise. They agreed to release him as long as he signed a convoluted document verifying what had happened: that him and his brother had resisted arrest, that Jaqual had attacked officer Chovin, and that a friend of theirs (who the police hadn’t seen) had shot at the police officers while Michael ran away. They changed their story from the original fabrication so that Michael could be released without charges, and so that Jaqual wouldn’t be charged if he left the hospital.

            Russel Shotski approached the holding cell with a pen and the document and saw Michael pacing the back of the room.

            “Michael…I know this is a traumatic…time for you. And that you’ve never been arrested before and aren’t familiar with how the law works. But I can tell you now, your best strategy will be to cooperate with us.” He paused and cleared his throat.

            “I want you know that I understand and that I’m deeply sorry about what has happened. But I’m here to help. And I want the best for you.” Michael glared at Russel. Behind Russel stood two police officers with tasers pointed at Michael’s chest.

            “Here is a document explaining what happened. It describes the encounter you had with the police officers, the confusion, and your brother’s injury. We are not pressing charges. My officers in the field experienced gunfire, and we have written that it wasn’t you or your brother, but an accomplice who they couldn’t see.”

            “That’s a lie.”

            “Let me finish. If you sign this document, you can go free right now. And we’ll give you your mother’s phone. You can go see your mother and your brother. No charges will be pressed and your record will remain clean. If you don’t sign, a criminal process will begin, you risk having a criminal record, and your scholarship to Columbia University will be revoked.” This was another lie, but the officers had found a newspaper article online on Michael’s accomplishments, and decided to blackmail him. Michael felt a lump in his throat. He couldn’t pay to attend Columbia without the scholarship, his whole future depended on it. He had aspired to attend Columbia since he was twelve.

            “Give me the document.” The statement was ten pages long and the police officers had attempted to fill it with as much legal jargon as they could. But in essence the document removed the guilt of the police officers and corroborated their story. If Michael signed, he was forfeiting him and his brother’s rights to press charges.

            Michael took his time reading the document and deciphering what was being implied. The cops didn’t know that he had dreamed of becoming a lawyer since he was ten years old, that his role model in life was his godfather, Albert Garner, one of the most successful criminal defense attorneys in Brooklyn. The previous summer Michael had interned three days a week in Albert’s office. He knew how to read legal forms. When he finished he looked up to see Russel leaning towards him with a pen. Michael spit on the front page of the packet and handed it back.

            “I’m not signing this bullshit. Go fuck yourself.” Russel frowned, took the packet, and closed the door.

            “Suit yourself, kid. If you change your mind, give us another yell.”

            In the front office, the police officers became more and more anxious about what to do with Michael and with the fact they had illegally confiscated Breonna’s phone. They knew the longer they kept him locked up, the more culpable they became. They knew of Albert Garner’s reputation for destroying the careers of police officers. Derek snuck into the back room and deleted the security tape footage of the officers’ confrontation with Breonna. In the end, after two hours of discussion, the precinct decided to release Michael. They could say in the report that they released him “soon after” he was imprisoned, once he had settled down from the misunderstanding. 

            At the same time of Michael’s release, Breonna Coleman was running frantically through the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant back to the 79th precinct to meet Albert Garner. Breonna was a Type 1 diabetic and was experiencing dangerously-low blood sugar levels. She couldn’t afford health assurance and had been buying diabetic test strips on the black market. She had run out of strips and hadn’t tested herself for twelve hours. She was still dizzy from being elbowed in the face by Russel Shotski. She felt on the verge of passing out. 

            The sun was beginning to rise. Light glinted off of windows and the metal of parked cars. Denisha’s vision was blurry and she felt shaky, but she was determined to arrive at the precinct. She stumbled on the sidewalk, then caught herself and pressed on. 

            A minute before Denisha saw the 79th, Michael was released.

            “You’re free to go,” said Russel. “And here’s your mother’s phone.” Michael thought this was some kind of trap. He thought that the police officers would tase him and say he tried to escape. But he had to take this chance.

            Ten minutes prior here had been an argument amongst the officers in the front office. The police officers who hadn’t been with the men in the field threatened to snitch on the four culprits if Michael wasn’t let go with the phone. They blamed the four men for endangering the reputation of the precinct, and wanted to rid their hands of a model citizen, a promising young man, an innocent witness to police incompetence and brutality.

            Michael cautiously walked to the front doors, with all the officers watching him. He planned to sprint home to find his mother. Outside he turned right and saw Herbert Von King Park, where he used to play as child with Jaqual, playing tag in the field near the fenced-off area for dogs. Then he saw his mother running down Tompkins Avenue. The moment they saw one another, Breonna was overcome with a rush of relief and joy. She stumbled forward, and with a sob caught in her throat uttered, “My boy.” At the same time a car was speeding down Greene Avenue, driven by a man late for work. Breonna tripped in front of the car and was struck head-on. Michael saw the body of his mother get sucked beneath the wheels.

            The driver slammed on the breaks and jumped out. “Oh my god oh my god!” He saw the mangled body of Breonna, already bleeding, and with a trembling hand took out his phone to call an ambulance. Michael arrived at his mother’s body, glanced at the driver on the phone, then wept convulsively. The driver tried speaking to him, but Michael couldn’t hear a word past “I called an ambulance.” A part of Michael knew Breonna was on the edge of death, but another part of him refused to believe it. Her lungs were punctured and she was gasping for air. Blood seeped from her mouth.

            “Mom, I’m here, I’m here. An ambulance is coming. Hold on.”

            “Michael, my boy, my love.”

            “Please hold on, you can do this mom. I’m here.”

            “I’m dying, Michael.”

            “Mom, please. Don’t-”

            “Forgive them Michael, those who hate, for they know not what they do. Please, forgive them.”

            “Mom I love you. Don’t go.” Breonna Coleman tear-filled eyes became blank as her soul passed away, to join her mother. Michael wept on her chest, feeling the world spinning around him like a shipwreck in a whirlpool. His mother’s last words echoed in his thoughts: Forgive them. But Michael, in this moment where everything he loved was taken away, felt a force rise within him that obliterated reason, that began distorting his sanity. This force, which Michael could only attribute to the will of God, refused to forgive. My mother, my church, my community, has spent centuries forgiving, thought Michael. And where has that led us? To my grandmother dead, my mother dying in my arms, my younger brother in the hospital. More victims of police brutality. I have nothing left. The ambulance arrived and took Breonna away. Albert Garner arrived and embraced Michael, simultaneously shouting at the cops who had formed around the accident. Michael didn’t hear anything. He had entered another world, another existence, and let himself be pulled and pushed this way and that. Voices reached him like distant murmurs, images passed before his eyes like blurry photographs taken in motion. He was in a car. Then he was in a hospital. More people embraced him. More people consoled him. He nodded his head. But in the depths of his oblivion, his numb despair, the devasting force was gaining magnitude. He no longer had a life. His past was a pile of ashes that he observed from some kind of purgatory border, a desolate wasteland. All he knew was that he now had a purpose. A deep purpose engulfed in savage flames. And he knew this purpose would guide him until his death.

*

            Six weeks later Breonna Coleman and her mother’s wakes occurred simultaneously in a building next to Greater Free Gift Baptist Church. Jaqual had been released from the hospital; he was completely paralyzed and strapped into a mobile machine. He could only move his eyes.

            Support and condolences poured in from all over the world. A GoFundMe account had raised over $100,000 for Michael and his brother. Journalists had written stories. News anchors had looked disappointed on television. Michael had let Albert Garner take care of all the details.

            At the wake, where Breonna and her mother’s caskets lay, the room was full of flowers. A line out the door was over half a mile long. Many of the Concord Nursing Home residents journeyed to the wake to pay their respects. But they did not find their helpful boy with a charming smile. Their boy was gone. They found a completely different man who either ignored them or glanced up at them with eyes of steel.

            Michael was sitting in a chair between his mother and grandmother’s casket, reading a tattered copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. People tried to engage him in conversation, but he kept on reading.

            Relatives, including Albert Garner, looked at each other with sad concern, trying to convince each other to say something to the victim. Finally, a distant cousin named George Floyd put his hand on Michael’s shoulder.

            “I know you’ve been through a lot, brother, but quit ignoring everybody. It’s not right.” Michael calmly looked up and stared hard at his cousin. George unconsciously backed away.

            “You see this book, George? You know when I got this book?”

            “Course I don’t know Michael. But-”

            “You wouldn’t know. You weren’t there. My mother gave it to me as a birthday present when I was ten. It was just her, me, and Jaqual. She told me, ‘This is all I can get you for your birthday, Michael. There’s no money left for more presents. But you will learn in this book that money isn’t what makes a man, nor outward success, nor prizes, nor recognition. It’s character and purpose. Never forget that.’ I read it for the first time that night. It was the best birthday present I ever received.”

            George nodded and walked away. Michael stood up and put his hand on Jaqual’s shoulder, waiting for Jaqual’s eyes to find him. Jaqual’s pupils shifted and for a moment Michael remembered running with him when they were young, drawing lines on the pavement and racing each other. Jaqual would never run again. Nausea twisted in Michael’s stomach. 

            “I’ll be right back, brother.” Michael walked to the back of the room where he had seen his uncle Jamarcus leave out the back door.

            Jamarcus, who wore a black durag, a Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt, and baggy jeans, was smoking a cigarette and fidgeting against a wall.

            “Uncle Ja, can I talk with you alone for a minute?”

            “Speak.”

            “I know we haven’t been too close. You being incarcerated during most of my adolescence…”

            “Ain’t your fault brother.’

            “I know that but…but I was wondering if you could help me out.”

            “Anything.”

            “I always knew, through ma, that you had connections…” Jamarcus inhaled his cigarette and looked off into the distance.

            “Yeh I know people.”

            “I’m talking about dangerous, criminal connections. People who can get things like…assault weapons, explosives, body amour.”

            “Oh no fucking way. Not you Michael.”

            “Listen, hear me out.” Jamarcus looked over his shoulder and around the corner of the building.

            “Is this really the goddamn time? Look I’m not getting’ you none of that. You’re the best hope this family’s got. I messed my life up. But you still got yours.”

            “No Uncle Ja. I don’t.”

            “The answer’s no. End of discussion. I’m not bringing you into that underworld. You got money now. Al’s gonna bring those police bastards to court. Columbia will let you in. Practically the whole city’s on your side. Don’t throw it all away on revenge, on violence.” Michael’s eyes became like steel again, and Jamarcus felt the strength of his nephew’s conviction hit him like a fist.

            “I’m only going to say this once, Uncle Ja, because I need to get back to my mother and grannie’s caskets. But I am going to get a hold of weapons and explosives, one way or another. Nothing will stop me. I know some petty criminals in the neighborhood, and some of my shady classmates from high school, but I don’t trust them, and I’d rather not go through them. They know what’s happened and they’ll probably betray me. But if it’s the only option I have, I’ll take it. I’d rather go through you, through family, someone I can trust. It’s up to you.”

            “Jesus Christ, this isn’t the way…”

            “Isn’t the way?” Michal felt the force rise within his chest, and a rage consume his tortured spirit. “Yeah I got money. Yeah I can go to Columbia. Take classes with privileged, upper-class kids, hear privileged teachers drone on about what it will take to succeed in their system. Yeah I can go to law school, get a job, make more money, have people congratulate me on making it out. Play the goddamn game. But then what? Read about another innocent kid killed in the streets? Worry about my son going out at night? These crimes have been happening for centuries, Uncle Ja, and I’m sick and tired of it. My life doesn’t matter anymore. All that makes is that I get justice for my brother, my mother, and grannie, that I make the world finally understand.” Jamarcus had tears in his eyes. He sighed.

            “But your godfather’s gonna get justice for you. He’s already-”

            “No he won’t. Not enough. I’ve already talked with him. The police covered their backs. The police officer who paralyzed Jaqual will go free. The cop who locked me up will be able to get off. They have the system on their side, Uncle Ja, and we can’t win. The social contract they talk about it is broken. It’s time for us to make the rules. I don’t want pity. I don’t want charity. I want real change. And now I have an opportunity to make a real difference, not as a victim eating the scraps off the table of what they call the law, but as a man who’s going to show them that they can’t away with this anymore. Is it yes or no? I gotta get back.” Jamarcus, who had spent years dealing with the most hardened criminals, stared deep into his nephew’s eyes to see how serious he was. He couldn’t find a sliver of doubt.

            “All right. I’ll introduce you to someone you can trust…who can get you…what you want. Meet me at my crib tomorrow night.”

            “Thank you Uncle Ja. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Michael started to open the door.

            “Wait, before you go, what you gonna do? What’re you planning?” Michael turned and for the first time in six weeks, smiled. But it was a cruel smile that made Jamarcus wonder what his nephew had become.

            “I’m gonna burn this shit down.”

          

           

End of Part 1, Part 2 coming soon. Subscribe below to receive an email when Part 2 is released:

Confession of Meeting a Boring Murakami

            I met that elderly author, Haruki Murakami, in a small, Japanese-style town outside of Kyoto, some three years ago. He was boring or, more precisely, very boring, but I happened to spend a night in his company.

            I was travelling around in Japan, wherever the spirits or my Lonely Planet guide book led me, when I received an email from Murakami to meet for a beer. I knew from his books that Murakami likes beer. But why would he send an email to a nobody like me to meet for a drink? I had no idea.

            It was already past 8 p.m. when I arrived at the town and got off the train. Autumn was nearly over, the sun had long since set, and the place was enveloped in that dark-blue darkness particular to places where the sun has set. A cold, biting wind blew from somewhere, sending formless pieces of trash rustling along the street.

            I walked through the center of town in search of a place to stay, before meeting the famous author, but none of the decent inns would take in guests after the dinner hour had passed. I stopped at five or six places, but they all turned me down flat. Finally, in a deserted area outside town, I came across an inn that would take me. It was a desolate-looking, ramshackle place, almost a flophouse. It had seen a lot of years go by, but it had none of the quaint appeal you might expect in an old inn. Fittings here and there were ever so slightly slanted, as if slapdash repairs had been made that didn’t mesh with the rest of the place. I doubted it would make it through the next earthquake, and I could only hope that no temblor would hit while I was there.

            The inn didn’t serve dinner, but breakfast was included, and the rate for one night was incredibly cheap. Inside the entrance was a plain reception desk, behind which sat a completely hairless old man – devoid of even eyebrows – who took my payment for one night in advance. The lack of eyebrows made the old man’s largish eyes seem to glisten bizarrely, glaringly. On a cushion on the floor beside him, a big brown cat, equally ancient, was sacked out, sound asleep. Haruki would like that cat, I thought. He would probably write ten, boring pages about it. The cat was snoring loud. There was probably something wrong with it. Everything in this inn seemed to be falling apart.

            The room I was shown to was cramped, like the storage area where one keeps futon bedding; the ceiling light was dim, and the flooring under the tatami creaked ominously with each step. But it was too late to be particular. I told myself I should be happy to have a roof over my head, a futon to sleep on, and a famous author contacting me for god knows what.

            I put my one piece of luggage, a suitcase, down on the floor and set off back to town. (This wasn’t exactly the type of room I wanted to lounge around in, especially when I had an approaching rendezvous.) I went into a nearby soba-noodle shop and had a simple dinner. I didn’t want to have an empty stomach before drinking with Haruki, because I think he drinks like a fish. It was that soup or nothing, since there were no other restaurants open. I had a beer with the dinner, some bar snacks, and some hot soba. The soba was mediocre, the soup lukewarm, but again, I wasn’t about to complain. It beat going to bed later on just beer and vomiting in the morning, because who knows if Haruki would give me food. After I left the soba shop, I thought I’d buy some snacks and a small bottle of whisky to give to Haruki (he likes whiskey), but I couldn’t find a convenience store. It was after nine, and the only places open were the shooting-gallery game centers typically found in the town (according to my guide book). So I hoofed it to the address Murakami had sent me. Our rendezvous was for 9:37pm.

            Compared with the shabby neighborhood where I was staying, the area where Murakami wanted to meet was surprisingly wonderful. The homes, which looked like Buddhist temples, were spaced far apart, the streets were clean, and the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful.

            I was approaching a house when a man seemed to appear out of nowhere at my side. Was he hiding in the bushes? “Excuse me,” he said in a low voice. I was about to shout and run away, when I realized it was Haruki. He gazed intently at my face, his eyes narrowed, for all the world like an anthropologist studying an indigenous native of a long-lost tribe.

            “How is the thing?” he asked me.

            “Um, what thing?”

            “The thing.” I was embarrassed, so I replied,

            “It’s very nice. Thank you.” My voice reverberated densely, softly, in the night air. It sounded almost mythological, not like my own voice but, rather, like an echo from the past returning from deep in the forest. And that echo was…hold on a second. What was Murakami doing here on the street? Why wouldn’t he wait for me inside his home?

            “Shall I help you become a better writer?” he asked, his voice still low. He had the clear, alluring voice of a baritone in a doo-wop group. But nothing was odd about his voice: if you closed your eyes and listened, you’d think it was an ordinary person speaking.

            “Yes, thanks,” I replied. It wasn’t as if I’d been waiting all my life hoping that Murakami would give me writing advice, but if I turned him down I was afraid he might not invite me inside for a beer. I figured it was a kind offer on his part, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I nodded and added, “Please, help me write, as…as good as you,” and followed him into his yard then his house.

            There was no furniture inside the house except a refrigerator in the center of a big room. Haruki opened it and gave me a beer.

            “It’s got very cold these days, hasn’t it?”

            “That it has.”

            “Before long this place will be covered in snow. And then they’ll have to shovel snow from the roofs, which is no easy task, believe me.”

            There was a brief pause, and I jumped in. “So how do you write so many books that are so interesting?”

            “I just do it,” Haruki replied briskly. He probably often received questions like this and was annoyed with them. “I started writing at the age of twenty-nine, because I felt like it, and before I knew it I was selling millions of books and winning awards. I lived for quite a long time without writing, around Tokyo, working in a coffee house and a jazz bar.

            “What part of Tokyo?”

            “Kokubunji.”

            “That’s a nice area.”

            “Yes, it is a pleasant residential area with excellent transportation links. There are many parks and it is a popular location for young families.”

            Our conversation paused at this point. Haruki continued drinking his beer (I did too) and all the while I tried to puzzle things out rationally. Why was I here? Why did he invite me? Did he want something? How did he even think to contact me? This was Haruki Murakami, for goodness’ sake. 

            “I grew up in America,” I said, a basically meaningless statement.

            “I know. Americans buy millions of my books. I like that,” he said in a friendly tone.

            “What else did you think of Kokubunji when you lived there?”

            “Well, even though it is a nice place to raise a family, my wife and I decided not to have children.” This wasn’t really the answer to my question. 

            “You wanted to dedicate everything to literature?” He frowned.

            “No. We made this decision before I started writing.”

            “Oh.”

            “I like music though. Especially classical music you’ve never heard of. I’m very cultured and refined.” I decided to continue with this topic of conversation, because I knew from Murakami’s books that he was always name-dropping classical songs and writing boring pages about his opinions on composers.

            “Like who?”

            “Bruckner and Richard Strauss.”

            “You enjoy Bruckner. I often listen to Bruckner!” (I’d never heard of him.)

            “Yes. His Seventh Symphony. I always find the third movement particularly uplifting.”

            “I…um…often listen to his Ninth Symphony,” I chimed in. (I hoped Brucker wrote at least that many.)

            “Yes, that’s truly lovely music,” (Phew.)

            “So why didn’t you have any children?”

            “I am a very patient person, a person who values order and regularity above all, so no kids for me. Kids are chaos. I am a serious person whose favorite saying is that the repetition of accurate facts is the true road to wisdom. My wife is a quiet, sweet person, always kind to me. We get along well, and I hesitate to mention this to a stranger like you, but, believe me, my nighttime activities can be quite intense.”

            “Really,” I said.

            Haruki started to walk out of the room. “Thanks for your patience and for visiting me,” he said, and bowed his head. I thought his polite gratitude very Japanese.

            “Thank you,” I said. “What you said just now was…good. So, do you live in this house?”

            “I do. Sometimes. I sleep on the floor in the other room. The neighbors are kind and leave me alone. I can’t live in cities anymore. Too much attention. Here, the people don’t care if I’m a famous writer or not. They let me work and drink my beer without taking photographs.” I knew Haruki was known for being a recluse (in Japan), among other things.

            “Have you been working and drinking here for a long time?” I asked.

            “It’s been about thirteen years, off and on.”

            “But you must have gone through all sorts of things before you arrived here.”

            Haruki gave a quick nod. “Very true.”

            I hesitated, but then came out and asked him, “If you don’t mind, could you tell me why I’m here? Why you invited me?”

            Haruki considered this, and then said, “Yes, you are right to ask me that. It might not be as interesting as you expect, but I’d prefer to tell you later tonight, at a different location. Would that be convenient?”

            “Certainly,” I replied. “I’d be grateful if we also drank beer then.” (It would make his boring conversation more enjoyable.)

            “Understood. Some cold beers it is. Would Sapporo be all right?” I knew there was Sapporo at my inn.

            “That would be fine. So you like beer?”

            “A little bit, yes.”

            “Then please bring two large bottles.”

            “Of course. If I understand correctly, you are staying in the Araiso Suite, on the second floor? Let’s drink there.” This scared me a bit.

            “Ah, that’s right.”

            “It’s a little strange, though, don’t you think?” Haruki said. I thought he was going to explain how he knew where I was staying, but I was wrong. “An inn in the mountains with a room named araiso – ‘rugged shore.’” He chuckled. I’d never in my life thought I’d hear Haruki Murakami chuckle. But I guess famous authors do laugh, and even cry, at times. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given that famous authors are human too.

            “By the way, should I call you Haruki, or Mr. Murakami?”

            “Just call me friend.”

            Haruki finished his beer, put the bottle in the fridge, turned, and gave a polite bow, then walked deeper into the house and disappeared.

            It was a little past eleven when Haruki came to the Araiso Suite, bearing a tray with two large bottles of beer. I assumed he had got them from downstairs. In addition to the beer, the tray held a bottle opener, two glasses, and some snacks: dried seasoned squid and a bag of kakipi– rice crackers with peanuts. Typical bar snacks. This was one author who knew how to throw a party!

            Haruki was dressed in a peculiar way: gray sweatpants and a thick, long-sleeved shirt with “I <3 NY” printed on it, probably some kid’s hand-me-downs. Weird.

            There was no table in the room, so we sat, side by side, on some thin zabuton cushions, and leaned back against the wall. Haruki used the opener to pop the cap off one of the beers and poured our two glasses. Silently we clinked our glasses together in a little toast.

            “Thanks for the drinks,” Haruki said, and happily gulped the cold beer. I thought this was odd to say, since he brought the beer, but I went with it. Maybe he had charged them to my room? I drank some as well. Honestly, it felt strange to be seated next to Haruki Murakami, sharing a beer, but I guess you get used to it.

            “A beer after work can’t be beat,” said Haruki, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “But, for a famous author, the opportunities to have a beer with a nobody-writer like you are few and far between, believe it or not.”

            “How often do you contact nobody-writers like me?”

            “Once every couple of years.”

            “Oh.”

            Haruki had finished his first glass, so I poured him another.

            “Much obliged,” he said politely.

            “Where is your wife right now?” I asked.

            “She’s with…a friend,” Haruki answered, his face clouding over slightly. The wrinkles beside his eyes formed deep folds. “Whenever she wants to meet with a friend, go on trips or vacations with him, I contact nobody-writers who I discover on the internet. I don’t have friends. For years I thought I could live peaceably without friends, but that didn’t work. People were kind to me, but I just couldn’t connect with them, I just couldn’t express my feelings well to them. We had little in common, and communication wasn’t easy. ‘You talk funny,’ they told me, ‘You’re so boring,’ and they sort of mocked and bullied me. Women would giggle when they looked at me. I am extremely sensitive, as you probably know from my best-selling books. Women found the way I acted comical, and it annoyed them, irritated them sometimes. It got harder for me to be around people, so eventually I went off on my own. But I needed connection, so I started contacting random bloggers to meet me for a drink.”

            “It must have been lonely for you, before contacting nobody-writers.”

            “Indeed it was. I had to emotionally-survive on my own when my wife was busy or traveling. But the worse thing was not having anyone to communicate with. I couldn’t talk with people. Isolation like that is heartrending. The world is full of humans, but I couldn’t start up a conversation with whomever I happened to come across. Do that and there’d be hell to pay. The upshot was that I wound up sort of neither here nor there, not part of the common herd, nor part of the literary elite. It was a harrowing existence.” (Boring, I thought, Time to change the subject.)

            “And you didn’t know about Bruckner, then.”

            “True. That’s part of my life now,” Haruki said, and drank some more beer. I studied his face. It was red, so I assumed he was drunk. I had figured Haruki could hold his liquor, but I guess I was wrong. Or maybe Haruki’s face turned red whenever he was drinking, no matter what the quantity.

            “The other thing that tormented me, before I married, was my relations with females.”

            “I see,” I said. “And by ‘relations’ with females you mean – ?”

            “In short, I didn’t feel a speck of sexual desire for women. I had a lot of opportunities to be physical with them, but never really felt like it. I guess I regret not doing anything.”

            “So women didn’t turn you on, even though you liked them?”


            “Yes. That’s exactly right. It’s embarrassing, but, honestly, I could only be sexually attracted to a woman I loved. And I’ve only ever loved my wife.”

            I was silent and drained my glass of beer. I opened the bag of crunchy snacks and grabbed a handful. “That could lead to some real complications, I would think.”

            “Yes, real complications, indeed. Me being a sensitive and shy, there was no way I could expect women to understand my complicated desire. Plus, it runs counter to culture, where young men are supposed to have relations with many women, ‘sow their wild oats,’ they say.”

            I waited for the beer to make his conversation less boring. Haruki rubbed hard behind his ear and continued.

            “And now…” He squinted his eyes. “So I found another method of dealing with my complex desire.”

            “What do you mean by ‘another method.’”

            Haruki frowned deeply. His red face turned a bit darker.

            “You may not believe me,” Haruki said. “You probably won’t believe me, I should say. But, from a certain point, after I was married, I started using the experiences I had with women from my past, combined with the feelings I have for my wife, to create literature.”

            “How?”

            “I seem to have been born with a special talent for it. I can write from memory, add in dream-live, abstract elements, and people like it.”

            A wave of confusion hit me. Haruki wasn’t making any sense.

            “I’m not sure I get it,” I said. “When you say you mix your memories with dream-like elements, does that mean your stories aren’t supposed to have any meaning?”

            “No. They don’t lose their meaning. I write about my past, a fragment. But when I mix in a dream-like element it becomes less substantial, lighter than before. So I can go deeper in the memory despite the pain. Like when the sun clouds over and your shadow on the ground gets that much paler. And, depending on the memory, I become less aware of the loss. The pain transforms into a sense that something’s a little off, but also bearable.”

            “But do the women you write about know what you’re doing? That you are using their past for your literature?”

            “Yes, of course, some of them do. But most of the time the women have forgotten me. Quite a shock to the ego, as you might imagine. And when they read my stories, if they even do, they may not even recognize the character as themselves. In some cases, they suffer through something close to an identity crisis, one of them told me. And it’s all my fault, since I took the experience I had with them and turned it into literature. I feel very sorry about that. I often feel the weight of a guilty conscious bearing down on me. I know it’s wrong, yet I can’t stop myself. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but my dopamine levels force me to do it. Like there’s a voice telling me, “Hey, go ahead, write that senseless dream sequence mixed with your past with a woman. It’s not illegal or anything, and millions of people will buy your books anyway.”

            I folded my arms and studied the famous author. Dopamine? Finally, I spoke up. “And the women you write about, they are the ones you had intimate experiences with but never loved. Do I have that right?”

            “Exactly.”

            “How many women?”

            With a serious expression, Haruki totaled it up on his fingers. As he counted, he was muttering something. He looked up. “Seven in all. I have been intimately involved with seven women before my wife.”

            Was this a lot, or not so many? Who could say?

            “So how do you do it?” I asked, “Combine your past experiences with dream-like elements?”

            “It’s mostly by will power. Power of concentration, psychic energy. But that’s not enough. I need to meet with a nobody-writer to talk about what I do, before I can actually do it. Communication is the path to understanding. Because we, you and I, have no connection to each other, I can talk freely. I’m pretty skilled at talking freely about my writing.”

            “So when you need inspiration you contact a nobody-writer on the internet?

            “Precisely. I stumbled upon your blog by chance, and since I’m working on a story now and my wife is with her…friend, I sent you an email. Now I can go back to writing.”

            “So that’s it? You’re using me for literature?”

            Haruki nodded sharply. “I know it sounds lowly, but I never do anything unseemly. You won’t be in my books explicitly. I agree it’s a bit strange, but it’s also a completely pure, platonic act. I simply have a beer with a stranger, secretly, talk and talk, and it helps me write. For me, this experience is like a gentle breeze wafting over a meadow.”

            “Hmm,” I said, dreadfully bored. “I guess you could even call your complex desire, your past inability to feel sexual attraction without loving a woman, the ultimate form of romantic love.”

            “Agreed. But it’s also the ultimate form of loneliness (Here we go again, I thought. Murakami and his goddamn loneliness). Like two sides of a coin. The two extremes are stuck together and can never be separated.”

            Our conversation came to a halt here, and Haruki and I silently drank our beer, snacking on the kakipi and the dried squid.

            “Have you written about a woman from your past recently?” I asked.

            Haruki shook his head. He grabbed some hair on his head, as if making sure that he still had hair. “No, I haven’t written about a woman from my past recently. Soon, though. That’s why I contacted you. Thanks to this encounter, I have found a measure of clarity and peace. I will be able to write about the woman now, one of the seven women in my heart.”

            “I’m glad to hear it,” I lied.

            “I know this is quite forward of me, but I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to allow me to give my opinion on the subject of love.” Oh god no. Could he get any more boring? I saw that there was still some beer. I nodded my head and began chugging.

            “I believe that love is indispensable fuel for us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source, a person’ heart – including my heart – would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland. A place where not a ray of sunlight falls, where the wildflowers of peace, the trees of hope, have no chance to grow.” He seemed to be reciting something he had recently written, or was about to write. “Here in my heart, I treasure the names of those seven women I tried to love, but failed, or can’t love anymore.” Haruki laid a palm on his chest. “I plan to use these memories, along with random encounters such as this one, as my own little fuel source to burn on cold nights, to keep me warm as I live on what’s left of my own little life.”

            Haruki chuckled again, and lightly shook his head a few times.

            “That’s a strange way of putting it, isn’t it?” he said, “Little life. Given that I’m a famous author, with supposedly a big life. Hee hee!”

            It was past midnight when we finally finished drinking the two large bottles of beer. “I should be going,” Haruki said. “I got to feeling so good I ran off at the mouth, I’m afraid. My apologies.”

            “No, I didn’t mind,” I lied. At least he was conscious of how much he been blabbering on. But I mean, sharing beer and chatting with a famous author was a pretty unusual experience in and of itself. I should be more thankful. Add to that the fact that this famous author contacted me randomly online, loved name-dropping classical composers, and writes about the same, seven women from his past because he had intimate experiences with them (but didn’t love them). 

            As we said goodbye, I handed Haruki a small bottle of whiskey that I had stolen from the closed-down bar when I arrived back at the inn. “It’s not much,” I said, “but please enjoy this whiskey.”

            At first Haruki refused, but I insisted and he finally accepted it. He put the bottle in the pocket of his sweatpants.

            “It’s very kind of you,” he said. “You’ve listened to my absurd life story and writing process, treated me to beer, and now this generous gesture.” (But it was him who brought the beer, maybe he was drunk, or maybe he did charge my room.) “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

            Haruki put the empty beer bottles and glasses on the tray and carried it out of the room.

            The next morning, I checked out of the inn and went to Tokyo. At the front desk, the creepy old man with no hair or eyebrows was nowhere to be seen, nor was the aged cat who snored loudly. Instead, there was a fat, surly middle-aged woman, and when I said I’d like to pay the additional charges for last night’s bottles of beer (I assumed Haruki had charged them to my room, since he kept thanking me for the beer), she said, emphatically, that there were no incidental charges on my bill. “All we have here is canned beer from the vending machine,” she insisted. “We never provide bottled beer.”

            Once again I was confused. I felt as though bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places. Nonetheless, how kind of Murakami to buy me beer!

            I was going to bring up Haruki Murakami with the middle-aged woman, but decided against it. Maybe Haruki didn’t actually visit me, maybe the man was an imposter, and it had all been an illusion, the product of a lonely, Japanese man who looked just like Murakami preying on nobody-writers like me. Or maybe what I saw was a strange, realistic dream (thinking about Murakami so much has really made my thoughts more dream-like). If I came out with something like, “Last night the famous author Haruki Murakami visited me in my room,” things might go sideways, and, worst-case scenario, she’d think I was insane. Chances were that Murakami was a town secret, and the inn couldn’t acknowledge him publicly for fear of him moving away or getting angry.

            On the train ride to Tokyo, I mentally replayed everything Haruki Murakami told me. I jotted down the details, as best I could remember, in a notebook that I used for work, thinking that when I got back to Tokyo I’d write the whole thing as a blog post from start to finish.

            If Haruki Murakami actually met me– and that was the only way I could see it – I wasn’t at all sure how much I should accept of what he had told me over beer. It was hard to judge his story fairly. Was it really possible that he used his experiences from women in the past to write literature? Were the dream-like elements in his stories just cheap, easy ways to cope with his memories and pain? Maybe Haruki was a pathological liar. Who could say? Naturally, there are numerous famous authors with mythomania, but, if Murakami harnessed his sickness to sell millions of books, who cares if he is a habitual liar who bizarrely contacts nobody-writers for a beer and to hear himself talk?

            I’d encountered thousands of people working as a bartender in New York City during my twenties, and had become pretty good at sniffing out who could be believed and who couldn’t. A bullshit detector, you can call it. When someone talks for a while, you can pick up certain subtle hinds and signals and get an intuitive sense of whether or not the person is believable. And I just didn’t get the feeling that what Haruki was telling me was made-up bullshit. Then again, he also worked in a restaurant for years, so maybe he had developed a way to skillfully bullshit gullible people, undetected. But the look in his eyes and his expression, the way he pondered things every once in a while, his pauses, gestures, the way he’d get stuck for words – despite being boring, nothing about it seemed artificial or forced. And, above all, there was the total, even painful honesty of his confession.

            My relaxed solo journey over, I returned to the whirlwind routine of ex-pat life in a city. Even when I don’t have any major work-related assignments, somehow, as I get older, I find myself busier than ever. And time seems to steadily speed up. In the end I never told anyone about meeting Haruki Murakami, or wrote anything about him. Why try if no one would believe me? Unless I could provide proof – proof, that is, that Haruki contacted other nobody-writers for beer – people would just say that I was “making stuff up again.” And if I wrote about him as fiction the story would lack a clear focus or point, and look like I was just complaining about his writing being so boring, and not understanding why so many readers praise and read his books, when I find them achingly dull. I could well imagine a reader of my blog looking puzzled while reading my post, saying to themselves, “I hesitate to ask, since you’re the author of this post, but what is the theme of this story supposed to be?”

            Theme? Can’t say there is one. It’s just a confession about an old, famous writer who pumps out boring books and asks nobody-writers to meet him for beer in a tiny town outside Kyoto, who feels nostalgia for the women he had intimate experiences with but never loved. Where’s the theme in that? Or the moral?

            And, as time passed, the memory of my Murakami encounter began to fade. No matter how vivid memories may be, they can’t conquer time.

            But now, three years later, I’ve decided to write about it, based on notes I scribbled down back then. All because something happened recently that got me thinking. If that incident hadn’t taken place, I might well not be writing this.

            I had a journalism networking event in the coffee lounge of hotel in Akasaka. Near the end of the event I was talking to an old woman, the editor of a travel magazine. Despite being old, she was attractive: long hair, a lovely complexion, and large, fetching eyes. She was one of those passionate, energetic, ageless humans, who still have sexual appeal even when they’re elderly. She was an able editor. And still single. I think she wanted to sleep with me. We’d worked together quite a few times, and got along well. We sat in a corner and chatted over coffee for a while.

            Her cell phone rang and she looked at me apologetically. I motioned to her to take the call. She checked the incoming number and answered it. It seemed to be someone important. She talked for a while in Japanese, checking her pocket planner, and then shot me a mischievous look.

            “It’s Haruki Murakami,” she said to me in an excited voice, her hand covering the phone. “We used to date a lifetime ago.”

            I gasped, but, as casually as I could, I took a sip of coffee. She nodded and relayed information to the famous author on the other end of the line. Then she hung up and giggled.

            “We dated when we were teenagers.”

            “Does he call you often?” I asked.

            She seemed to hesitate, but finally nodded. “Yes, it’s happening a lot these days. I don’t know why.”

            “Does he miss you?”

            She shook her head decisively. “No, not at all. We’ve always been on platonic terms since we broke up. He loves his wife. He’s faithful. But sometimes we meet up in secret. I’ve never been able to figure him out. When we were together, he was so distant. After, when we became sort-of friends, there was this animal hunger about him. As if he desperately wanted to get closer, but just couldn’t. Maybe I’m crazy.”

            “No, I don’t think you are.”

            She squinted and thought more about it. “About half a year ago, I think, I remember I went to visit a cherry blossom orchard, near where I grew up. It was the place where Haruki and I first kissed. When I arrived he was there, wandering around the trees, with tears on his cheeks. He didn’t see me. I was so scared when I saw him, I ran away.”

            “This might be an odd thing to ask, but, when you’ve read his books, did you ever notice that some of the characters were based off of you?”

            She pursed her lips, then smiled. “I’ve never read his books. I’ve tried, but I just can’t. They are all so boring. Banal. He writes for the masses, particularly the western masses. We have a word for what he writes, in Japanese: batakusai, which means “stinking of butter.” His writing is a mish-mash of katakana and hiragana, using borrowed western terms, and his stories have no point.” 

            She took a sip of coffee. I waited for her to go on.

            “It’s a shame that he’s become the face of Japan to many westerners. He’s not really Japanese. Did you know that he says he found his voice by writing the first pages of first novel in English – then translating them into Japanese? As he gets older, his readers get younger. He’s a commercial writer, a sell-out. Not real literature.”

            I sighed quietly, but said nothing.

            “I sound like I’m bitter, right? It’s just that I’ve tried all my life to create beautiful, Japanese prose. I remember when Haruki and I were dating we talked about books all the time, about beautiful books and beautiful prose. Now he churns out vague, stinking butter.”

            “When’s the last time you met him in person?”

            “A few years ago. I forgot exactly when. It was in a small town outside of Kyoto.”

            I quickly shook my head. I wondered if I should bring up the story of my meeting with Murakami in a small town of outside of Kyoto, three years ago.

            “Hmm.”

            She looked suspicious. I knew it was risky, but there was one more vital question I had to ask.

            “What did you talk about?”

            “He told me he had just met with an American writer and was feeling inspired.”

            “Inspired?” 

            She shook her head. “Yeah, but the conversation was boring, as usual, I don’t remember anything else. He talked a lot.”

            Did Murakami meet her soon after our meeting? Maybe even the day after? Did he actually use my experience with him, then his experience with her, to write another boring book? Or was I making this all up in my head, and going crazy?

            I really didn’t want to think that Murakami was writing book after book using experiences with women from his past and nobody-writers. But he told me, quite matter-of-factly, that having seven women from his past was plenty of enough material, and that he was satisfied simply living out his remaining years quietly, occasionally vising that little town. And he’d seemed to mean it. But maybe Haruki had a chronic psychological condition, one that reason alone couldn’t hold in check. And maybe his illness, and his dopamine, were urging him to just do it! And perhaps all that had brought him to contact old girlfriends and nobody-writers, a pernicious habit.

            Maybe I’ll try it myself sometime. On sleepless nights, that random, fanciful thought sometimes comes to me. I’ll take a memory of a woman who I used to be with, focus on it like laser, contact a nobody-writer, then use a conversation about the process to pull dream-like, abstract literature out of me. What would that feel like? Could I also sell millions of books?

            No. That’ll never happen. I’ve never been skillful at weaving vague, dream-like paragraphs that have no sense but exude a bizarre atmosphere that tickles the fancy of western, literary critics. And I don’t care about the women from my past. Even if I could do that, readers would think I was just copying Murakami, because he did it first.

            Extreme love, extreme loneliness. The time-worn tropes. Even since I met Murakami, whenever I hear someone name-drop a classical composer who I’ve never heard of then spend ten minutes praising a symphony, I think of him. I picture the elderly, famous writer in that tiny, decrepit town, jumping out of the bushes, asking me “How is the thing?” And I think of the snacks – the kakipi and the dried squid – that I consumed as we drank beer together, propped up against the wall, while Haruki droned on and on.            

            I haven’t seen the beautiful, elderly travel-magazine editor since then, so I have no idea what fate befell her after that, or if she’s dead. I hope she never learned that Murakami uses their past experiences together for literature. She was blameless, after all. Nothing was her fault. I do feel bad for her, but I still can’t bring myself to tell her, if she’s still alive, about what Murakami is doing. Then again, she probably wouldn’t care, anyway, since she doesn’t read his boring books and calls them stinking butter.      

      

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The Orphan

The only places in the world that still allow the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On February 20th of 2020, Nicolas Todd Sutton died by electrocution in Tennessee, becoming the seventh man executed by the state since Tennessee resumed capital punishment in August of 2018. His last words were: “I want to uplift the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, King of Kings. I’m just grateful to be a servant of God, and I’m looking forward to being in his presence. And I thank you.”

Inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s The Foundling

            James Learner, a wealthy and respected businessman in Tennessee who owned twelve Dollar Generals, was a faithful member of his community’s megachurch. One Sunday in the late summer of 2020, as churches were opening in defiance of a resurgence of the Covid-19 epidemic (several churches even suing the government, claiming stay-at-home orders violated their religious freedom), Learner travelled to church with his twelve-year-old son, Oliver. His second wife, Rachel, stayed at home because of a splitting migraine. 

            During the service the pastor made a special announcement: he wanted to introduce a thirteen-year-old boy who had lost both of his parents to the Covid-19 virus in the past six months. The orphan, Paul, was looking for a home and the pastor implored the congregation to look within their hearts to see if they could take this young boy in, so he wouldn’t have to enter the foster-care system. James initially recoiled at this this request, thinking the pastor was overstepping his clerical bounds, but kept this disagreement to himself. 

            Later that night James told Rachel about this orphan and was about to comment on his disfavor of the pastor’s bold entreaty when his wife replied,

            “Oh the poor little boy. We should adopt him. We have the money and we have the space.” Rachel could not give birth to children herself (she was born with Müllerian agenesis), and she had been waiting to broach the topic of adoption to her husband. Their son, Oliver, was from James’ first marriage, and Rachel wanted a child they could both equally share.

            “Now’s not the time,” replied James.

            But as ill luck would have it, Olivier (who had a weak constitution) had contracted the Covid-19 while at the megachurch, and became one of the few children in the country to experience severe symptoms. A week passed, Oliver went on a ventilator, experienced lung failure, and died.

            In James and Rachel’s grief, they decided that it was their duty to God to use their despair for a better purpose, to save a life, and with Rachel’s insistence they adopted the boy from their church. After filling out the necessary paperwork and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops, James and Rachel drove home one rainy afternoon with their new son.

            During the drive James observed Paul out of the corner of his eye. Paul was handsome in a bizarrely statuesque way; his black hair hung down on his forehead and formed a straight line, hovering above a serious face with hollowed cheeks which never changed its expression. The old man asked him several questions, but he answered them only briefly; he sat there in the passenger seat, uncommunicative and absorbed in himself, with his hands in his pockets, looking pensively and diffidently out of the windows of the car as it sped along. From time to time, with a noiseless movement, he picked out a jolly rancher from a box in one of his cargo pockets, and while James quietly wept and wiped his eyes, thinking about his dead son and how life can change so quickly, Paul cracked the hard candy between his teeth. 

            Back home James showed Paul the bed in which Oliver had slept and gave him all the latter’s clothes to wear. James sent him to school where he performed well, eventually attending Princeton University, James’ Alma mater, where he majored in marketing and business, and went to work for his adoptive father. James understandably become gradually fonder of the boy, often remembering the circumstances of the adoption and proud that the boy was applying himself academically.

            Nine years later, having dismissed a manager from one of his Dollar Generals with whom he had for various reasons been dissatisfied, he hired Paul in his place, (Paul had been working in a Dollar General every summer since he was sixteen) and was delighted with the active and useful assistance which the latter gave him in his managing the store, soon giving him two more stores to manage. The only fault that the old man, who believed that everyone has their place in society, had to find with him was the excessive company he kept with the employees of the stores, who were paying very friendly and ingratiating attentions to the young man on the account of the large fortune he would one day likely inherit from his adoptive father; and Rachel’s only criticism of Paul was that he seemed to have a precocious propensity for women. For at the age of seventeen he had already, while working at one of the stores, been caught having sex with one of the employees, Tiffany Gotchim, a high-school drop-out with a criminal record; and although on James’ stern insistence Paul broke off this liaison, Rachel had reason to believe that in these delicate matters Paul was not a model of self-denial. When, however, at the age of twenty-three he married Rachel’s niece, Justine Corsino, an attractive young NYC women who had been educated in anthropology at Columbia University, this trouble at least seemed to have been cured at its source. Both his adoptive-parents were equally pleased with him, and to give him proof of this they drew up a splendid marriage gift, making over to him a considerable part of their large and beautiful mansion, leaving only a small part of it to themselves to live when they were visiting. And in short, when James reached the age of sixty-five he took for Paul the final step that a benefactor could take: he gave him legal possession of the entire fortune on which his Dollar General businesses rested, retaining only a small capital for himself, and withdrew during the winter months with his faithful, virtuous Rachel, whose worldly wishes were few, in retirement in Florida. 

            There was in Rachel’s nature an element of silent melancholy, originating in a horrifying experience during her adolescence. When she was seventeen she witnessed a school shooting, and her boyfriend (who she had been dating since the age of thirteen) at the time was killed while trying to protect her. On one ill-fated afternoon a boy wearing a black trench coat and carrying a suitcase full of automatic weapons (that he had purchased legally since he was 18 years old), walked calmly into Rachel’s high school and began murdering students and teachers. Rachel was in the gymnasium at the time, with her boyfriend, and when they tried to flee the shooter entered with malicious laughter. Rachel’s boyfriend shielded her and tackled her as the shooter fired, but one of the bullets went through her boyfriend’s head. Terrified, Rachel remained motionless on the ground, feigning death, while her boyfriend’s bleeding corpse covered her. She heard the shooter walk by, shooting any students that moved or made a noise. For years Rachel would have nightmares about this experience.

            James, who had business connections with the young man’s family, and made acquaintance of Rachel at the wake and the funeral, married her five years later; he was particularly careful never to mention the young man’s name or otherwise recall him to her, as he knew that her traumatized mind was deeply disturbed by the memory. The slightest circumstance that even remotely reminded her of the time when this youth had protected and died for her sake always moved her to tears, and on such occasions, there was no comforting or quieting her. She would at once leave whatever company she was in, and no one would follow her, for they knew by experience that the only effective remedy was to let her weep quietly by herself until her grief was stilled. Many people were ignorant of the cause of these strange and frequent fits of emotion, for never in her life had she uttered one word alluding to the episode. Her outbursts were usually explained as a nervous disorder, the aftermath of a violent fever which she had contracted just after her marriage, and this account served to forestall any further inquiry into their origin.

            Paul, who despite his father’s orders had never completely severed his connection with the above-mentioned Tiffany Gotchim, had on one occasion secretly met her at a Halloween party, without his wife’s knowledge, pretending to have been invited to a friend’s house for poker night; and late that night, when everyone was asleep, he returned home dressed up as Neo from The Matrix, wearing a black trench coat. It so happened that during the night the elderly James felt unwell and Rachel had got out of bed to assist him and had gone to fetch a bottle of NyQuil from the kitchen (the bottle in the bathroom was empty). She was half-asleep and carelessly didn’t turn on the lights, and had just opened the cupboard in the corner and was standing on a chair to search among the plastic cases of bottles purchased in bulk, when Paul softly opened the door and stepped into the kitchen in his black trench coat. Unsuspectingly, without seeing Rachel, he crossed the kitchen to his side of the mansion and just made the disconcerting discovery that it was locked, when Rachel, standing on her chair behind him with the NyQuil in her hand, caught sight of him and immediately, as if stricken by some unseen horror, fell to the floor in a dead faint. Paul turned around, pale and startled, and was just about to rush to her assistance when he reflected that the noise she had made would certainly bring James to the scene; being anxious to avoid the old man’s reproaches at all costs, he snatched with panic haste at the spare keys hanging on a hook nearby, and having found the one that opened his side of the mansion, opened the door and vanished. James, ill as he was, had jumped out of bed; he turned on the lights, lifted up his unhappy wife, and presently Paul too came out of his part of the house in a bathrobe and asked what had happened. But Rachel, her tongue numbed by horror, could not speak, and since Paul was the only other person who could have cast any light on the matter, it remained an unexplained mystery. Rachel, trembling in every limb, was carried to her bed, where she lay ill for several days with an acute fever; nevertheless, she had enough natural good health to recover tolerably well, and apart from a strange depression with which it left her the incident was without consequence.

            A year had thus passed when Justine, Paul’s wife, died of breast cancer. The loss of this virtuous and well-educated young woman was an event not only regrettable in itself but doubly so in that it gave fresh occasion for the indulgence of Paul’s primary vice; his passion for women. Once again he began to linger late at night with the employees of the Dollar Generals, on the pretext of working hard to forget the sorrow of his wife’s death, although it was known that when his wife was alive he had shown her very little love or fidelity. Indeed, before Justine had even been buried, Rachel, in the course of making arrangements for the funeral, entered Pauls’ room one evening and found him there having sex with a woman whom, with her heavy make-up and large, floppy breasts, she recognized only too well as Tiffany Gotchim. On seeing her, Rachel lowered her eyes and turned and left the room without a word to Paul. She said nothing to James or to anyone else about this, and contented herself with kneeling down in her room and weeping for Justine, for the latter had loved Paul passionately. But it so happened that James, who had been out of the town, met Tiffany as he was entering the house; and well realizing what her business here had been, he accosted her sternly and induced her, half by subterfuge and half by force, to give him her cell phone, along with the password to unlock it. Fearful of losing her job, she gave him her cell phone, and he read her text messages. As he had guessed, he saw messages from Paul to Tiffany, one even being sent less than a minute prior, telling her that he wanted to see her again as soon as possible, and asking her to pick a time and place. James sat down and replied on Tiffany’s phone: “Meet me in the megachurch parking lot tomorrow morning, in front of the statue of the crucifix.” Then he told Tiffany to not interfere with his plans or discuss this encounter if she wanted to keep her job. The ruse was entirely successful: Paul left the house the next morning, under the pretense of filling in for an employee who had called in sick last minute, drove to the megachurch, and was astonished to see James and Rachel approaching him, as the statue was not something you would pass if you were going to attend the service. Paul asked his adoptive parents what they were doing, since they normally didn’t attend services on this day. But the old man, after glaring at Paul with seething anger, merely answered, “Tiffany Botcher,” then spat at his feet and walked away.

            As a result of this deeply humiliating episode, Paul was filled with a burning hatred for Rachel, whom he believed to be responsible for the disgrace which her husband had inflicted on him. For several days James did not speak to him; and since Paul nevertheless stood in need of his favor and goodwill in connection to Justine’s estate (a family lawyer was handling it), he was constrained to repent before his father one evening with every appearance of remorse and swear to give up Tiffany once and for all. He had, however, no intention of keeping this promise; on the contrary, in the face of opposition he merely became more defiant and more cunning in the act of evading the good man’s vigilance. At the same time he thought he had never seen Rachel looking more beautiful than at the moment when, to his consternation, she had opened his door and closed it again at the sight of him and Tiffany fornicating like rabid animals. A soft flush of indignation had lent infinite charm to her gentle face which only seldom showed any emotion; and Paul arrogantly thought that she had lingered in the doorway longer than necessary to admire him in primal action; in addition he thought it incredible that she, with so many attractions, should not herself occasionally get tired of her old husband, desire a younger man, and wish to partake in the indulgence for which she had just punished him so shamefully. He burned with desire, should this turn out to be the case, to repay her in kind by informing her husband; and all he needed and sought was an opportunity for carrying out this plan.

            On one occasion, when James happened to be out of the house, Paul was passing Rachel’s door when he heard, to his surprise, the sound of someone moaning in her room. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. A malicious hope at once flashed through his mind; he stooped down to listen through a crack in the door and there, great heavens! what should he see but Rachel lying, naked, on her bed with an arched back and tightly-shut eyes. But he couldn’t see beneath her torso. Was there anybody in the room? Was she completely naked? While trying to see through the crack he quite clearly heard her as, in the very accents of what seemed to be passionate lust, she whispered ‘Paul.’ With beating heart he rushed outside to the window and there took up a position from which he could watch her bedroom secretly; but it was too late; presently he saw her stand up, put on a silk robe, and leave the room. Here at last, he told himself, was the exquisite moment of his unmasking of this spurious saint: but when he ran back inside and crossed Rachel, she cast him a completely unperturbed and indifferent glance. She walked calmly into the kitchen then to the gym at the other side of their mansion. To Paul this hypocritical display of composure seemed the very height of cynical cunning; she was scarcely out of sight when he rushed to enter her bedroom. But to his amazement the room was quite empty, and though he searched every nook and cranny he could find no trace of a man, but in the bottom drawer beneath some papers he did find some faded, polaroid photographs. Paul was startled because in the pictures was a boy who looked very similar to him. But maybe he was wrong and he was merely imposing his fantasies on these images. A host of thoughts and conjectures rushed through his mind. But before he could collect and compose them he began to be apprehensive that Rachel would discover him and punish him in some way; he snatched two of the polaroid photographs, closed the bedroom door again in some confusion and withdrew.

            The more he thought about this remarkable incident, the more convinced he became of the importance of the pictures he had discovered, and the more acute and urgent grew his curiosity to know who the boy in the pictures was. For he had clearly heard Rachel moan as if experiencing an orgasm. In the uneasiness of mind that possessed him he went to Tiffany Gotchim and told her of this strange experience. Tiffany was just as anxious as Paul to discredit Rachel, whom she falsely blamed for all the difficulties that were being put in the way of their liaison; and she declared that she would like to see the polaroid photographs. For she could boast of an extensive acquaintance in their town, and if the young man in question was a person of the least consequence, the chances were that she would know him. Sure enough it happened before long that James and his wife went into the country one Sunday to visit a relative; and no sooner was the coast clear that Paul brought Tiffany to his house, accompanied by a small daughter whom she had had by a mechanic, and showed them the photographs. But no sooner had he placed the photographs in front of Tiffany and her daughter, whose name was Amber, than Amber exclaimed, “Holy cow! Mr. Lerner but that’s a picture of you!” Tiffany fell silent. The photo did indeed, the longer she looked at it, bear a singular resemblance to him. Paul tried to laugh off the sudden flush of embarrassment which came over him; he kissed the little girl and said, “Sure it does, my little Amber, it’s about as much like me as you are like the man who thinks he is your father!” But Tiffany, in who the bitter pangs of jealously were stirring, merely looked at him; and after squinting at the photos and remarking that after all the identity of the person was a matter of indifference, she took her leave of him rather coldly and left the room. 

            As soon as Tiffany had left, Paul fell into a great state of excitement over this scene. His suspicious had been correct and he remembered with delight the strange and violent turmoil into which Rachel had been thrown by his appearance on the night of the Halloween party when he was dressed up like Neo. And the thought of having inspired a passion in this walking model of womanly virtue was almost as sweet to him as that of taking his revenge on her. Having now the prospect of gratifying both desires at one and the same time, he waited impatiently for Rachel’s return and for the moment when he would look into her eyes and crown his still hesitant hopes with certainty. In this elation the one thing that gave him pause was the recollection that when he had spied on her through the crack in the door, the name she had moaned might not of have been Paul. Could it have been Rob? Col? And yet the coincidence of the photographs and his desire caused him to convince himself that it was indeed ‘Paul,’ and this reflection filled him with sweet reveries, though he could not tell why; and faced with the choice of disbelieving one of two senses, his eyes or his ears, he naturally inclined to the evidence that was more flattering to his desires.

            Meanwhile several days passed before Rachel returned from the country, where she had been staying with a cousin; from his house she brought back with her a young woman who wanted to see Tennessee, visit Graceland, and eat BBQ. And being occupied with polite attentions to this young woman, Rachel cast only a fleeting and insignificant glance at Paul as with the most amiable courtesy he greeted her in the driveway and carried in her luggage. For several weeks, which were devoted to the entertainment of her guest, Rachel was busy, visits were made to places in and outside the city which would be likely to appeal to a young and lively girl; and Paul, busy at the Dollar Generals and therefore not invited on any of these expeditions, began again to harbor keen resentment against Rachel. Bitter feelings rankled in him as he thought of the unknown man she so devoutly adored in secret; and the torment of his depraved heart reached its height on the evening after the young cousin’s departure, an evening for which he had waited with longing, but on which Rachel, instead of speaking to him, sat in silence for an hour at the dining-room table, scrolling through images on her iPad. It so happened that James, a few days earlier, had been inquiring after the whereabouts of a toy firetruck with which Oliver had played with; for since no one needed it now, it had occurred to him to make a present of it to small child in the neighborhood. Before dinner he found the firetruck and left with it to give it to the neighbor, and Paul used this opportunity to execute his plan. He sat next to Rachel and quietly placed one of the polaroid photographs beneath her iPad and waited for her to see it. With secret delight he pondered the implications of her discovery that he knew about this mysterious boy. He waited with beating heart for the moment when Rachel would become aware of the photograph. His expectations were not disappointed; for no sooner had she, in an idle moment, noticed this photo beneath her iPad and unsuspectingly leaned forward (for she was a little short-sighted) to get a better look, than she fixed a sudden strange look of anguish on Paul’s face as he sat gazing down at the photo with mocking indifference. She resumed scrolling on her iPad with an indescribable expression of sadness; she wept quietly, and a soft flush covered her cheeks. These signs of emotion did not escape Paul, who was unobtrusively watching her, and he no longer had any doubt that she had feelings for him. She grabbed the photo, and his wild hopes reached their height as she rose, laid aside her iPad and disappeared into her bedroom. He was just about to leave his seat and follow her when James entered and, on inquiring for Rachel, was told by Paul that she had felt unwell and gone to lie down. James, without seeming particularly alarmed, turned and went to her room to see how she was; and when he returned a quarter of an hour later, announced that she would not be eating dinner, and then did not mention the matter again. Paul remembered the many mysterious scenes of this kind that he had witnessed growing up, and felt convinced that he now held the clue to their meaning. 

            The following morning, as he sat gloating over his new discovery and considering how he might best exploit it, he received a text from Tiffany in which she asked him to come and see her, as she had some interesting news for him about Rachel. Tiffany enjoyed the intimate acquaintance of bartenders throughout the town, and Paul had no doubt that Tiffany must have succeeded in eliciting some information about the secret history of Rachel’s feelings in relation to the photograph which would prove favorable to his unnatural desires. There was, however, an unpleasant surprise in store for him; for Tiffany, after greeting him with an oddly roguish air and drawing him down beside her on to a lumpy couch in her apartment, declared that what she had to tell him was simply that the object of Rachel’s love was a boy who had died sixteen years ago during a school shooting. The polaroid photographs he had found in her bedroom beneath the papers in the drawer were likely taken right before the tragedy. They were of Solomon Lifchitz, who everyone called Saul. He had saved Rachel’s life. Tiffany added that she must ask Paul not to make any use of this secret, as it wouldn’t be right to rekindle such memories of trauma. Paul, flushing and turning pale by turns, assured her that she could set her mind at rest; and being quite unable to conceal from her mischievous glances the embarrassment into which this disclosure had flung him, he excused himself on the pretext of having some business at the Dollar General and took his bag, his upper lip twitching unpleasantly as he left her. 

            Humiliation, lust and a desire for revenge now conspired in his mind to engender a deed of unutterable vileness. He well knew that deception would be the only access to Rachel’s pure soul; and at the first opportunity James gave him by going for a few days into the country, he prepared to execute the satanic plan on which he had decided. He dressed himself in clothes identical to the ones in the polaroid photographs, fixed his hair like Saul did, and stealthily entered her room just before bedtime. He stood in the corner of the room and awaited Rachel’s adoring homage. And his reckoning, sharpened by shameful passion, had been entirely correct; for she presently entered, undressed quietly and calmly, and had no sooner drawn back as usual the silk curtain of the alcove and set eyes on him in the corner, than with a cry of “Saul! My love!” she fell senseless to the floor. Paul stepped out of the corner of the room; he stood for a moment absorbed in contemplation of her charms and gazed at her delicate figure now suddenly paling in the embrace of death; but presently, since there was no time to be lost, he took her up in his arms and carried her to bed. Having done this he went to lock the door, but found it already locked; and confident that even after recovering her disordered senses she would offer no resistance to the fantastic and supernatural apparition for which she must take him, he now returned to the bed and set about reviving her with burning kisses on her lips and breasts. But the Nemesis that dogs the heels of crime had decreed that James, who was to have been absent, as the wretched Paul supposed, for another few days, should chance to return to his part of mansion unexpectedly at that very moment. Thinking Rachel would already be asleep, he crept softly along the hallway; and as he always carried the keys with him, he was able to open the door without making a sound and stepped suddenly into the room. Paul stood speechless; and as there was no possibility of dissembling his disgraceful intentions, he threw himself at the old man’s feet and implored his forgiveness, vowing never to cast eyes upon his wife again. And James did, indeed, feel inclined to deal with the matter discreetly. Bereft of words of something which Rachel whispered to him as she revived in his arms and gazed with horror at her assailant, he merely closed the curtains of her bed, took a handgun from a safe in the closet, opened the door and pointed to it, indicating thereby to Paul in what direction he must now immediately betake himself. But the latter, seeing that nothing was to be gained by his show of penitence, behaved at this point in a manner worthy of the lowest, most reckless bastard; he suddenly stood up and declared that it was for James and Rachel to leave the house, for he, Paul, was now its owner by deed of gift and he would defend his title to it against all comers. James could scarcely believe his ears; disarmed by this inconceivable piece of effrontery, he put down the gun, left the house with Rachel, and drove to the house of an old friend, the lawyer Dr. Nathanial Lee. On reaching his friend’s house he collapsed unconscious in the foyer before he could utter a word. The lawyer let him and Rachel stay the night, and the next morning contacted the police to procure the arrest of the abominable Paul. But the infernal scoundrel’s legal position was strong; and while James vainly sought ways and means to dispossess him of the property over which he had already given him full rights, Paul had at once paid an enormous sum of money to a well-connected lawyer and appealed to him for protection against, as he said, the old fool was now trying to evict him. In the end, wickedness prevailed, and this prince of evil was able to induce the authorities to issue a decree confirming Paul’s title to the property and enjoining James to leave him in possession without further interference.

            Two weeks later James buried the unhappy Rachel, who as a result of the recent episode had fallen into a burning fever and died. Maddened by this double blow he went into Paul’s mansion with the injunction in his pocket, and with rage lending him strength he felled Paul, who was of a weaker build, to the floor, and crushed out his brains against the wall. There was a cleaning lady in the horse, but she did not notice James’ presence until the deed was already done; by the time she arrived at Paul’s room, to investigate the screaming, she found James holding Paul between his knees and stuffing the injunction into his mouth. Having done so he stood up, surrendered himself, called the police, confessed his crime, and was then imprisoned, tried, and condemned to death by the electric chair.

            Since James had been a faithful member of his community’s megachurch there were attempts by the religious community to convince him to receive absolution while he was on death row. When a pastor (the same one who had presented Paul in the megachurch) came to James’ cell, he refused to receive absolution. After all the arguments of religion had been vainly adduced to convince him of the heinousness of his behavior, he tried to unsuccessfully hang himself with a strip of bedsheet tied to the top of his bunk. The pastor returned and described to him all the terrors of hell in which his soul was about to be plunged if he succeeded in killing himself. He spoke to him of the glorious abodes of eternal peace if he repented: ‘Will you accept the blessed gift of the sacrament?”

            “No,” replied James.

            “Why not?”

            “I do not want to be saved, I want to go down into the deepest pit of hell, I want to find Paul again – for he will not be in heaven – and continue my vengeance on him which I could not finish here to my full satisfaction.” And so saying he told the pastor to leave and asked to see his lawyer.

            In the end the death penalty was delayed and the wretched man had to stay in his solitary confinement cell, watched 24/7 to prevent more suicide attempts. Lawyers prolonged the process and sometimes James would scream into the door, the walls, pounding his fists in bitter rage, and curse the inhuman law that forbade him to go to hell. He called upon the whole legion of devils to come and fetch him, swore he had no other wish but to be doomed and damned, and vowed he would throttle the next person who came to hand if by so doing he might get to hell and lay hold of Paul. When this was reported to the judge, he ordered that James should be executed as soon as possible; one month later James convulsively shook in the electric chair as the prison guards strapped him in, shouting his last words, “I’M COMIN’ FOR YA, YOU LITTLE FUCKER!” before a 2450 volt charge coursed through his body. Then there was nothing but silence and the smoke from his charred scalp rising up to the ceiling.

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An Exhausted Editor

Fiction

Published on July 28, 2017 in
The Fiction Pool.
Reading Time: 4.5 minutes

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The Old Man and His Dog

Fiction

Published on February 25, 2016 in
The Galway Review.
Special Thanks to Robert Sadoff
for providing the photograph
Reading Time: 7 minutes

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