I hadn’t budged from supine reverie for two hours when the doorbell rang.
“Just a minute,” I mumbled, flopping from La-Z-Boy to wheelchair and then rolling my diabetic tuber of a body to the front door of my studio apartment.
Standing there soaking wet, in the hallway five stories above Lake Union, was Andy Rohrbacher, my oldest friend. He looked ridiculous with water dripping from his yellow slicker and Gloucester fisherman rain hat, as if it were still raining inside of the building. A sodden umbrella lay on the floor. Even with the hat and the umbrella, a big droplet had formed on the tip of his nose. Some New Yorkers just never learn how to adjust to the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s only eight o’clock,” he said, looking at my faded grey sweatpants and holey tee shirt. “Were you in bed already?”
“Yes. With Angelina Jolie.” Then I yelled toward the bedroom, “Angie, sweetheart, it’s just Andy. No need to get dressed.”
“Where can I plug in?” said Andy, holding his laptop under his arm, not even smiling at my joke. “I’m almost out of juice.”
I had first met Andy at a Vietnam War demonstration in 1969. Henry Kissinger was speaking at the Waldorf Astoria. Andy had brought a banner that read “Bring the War Home” and needed someone to hold the other end. Over the next thirty years, we belonged to three different socialist organizations, each of which had resulted from splits in its predecessor. We walked picket lines, demonstrated, went to meetings, argued over leaflets, went to more meetings. It was our life.
“You got coffee?” he asked. “I have something to tell you.”
Andy always had something to tell me. In the past he’d have a sheaf of rumpled papers somewhere on him that he would thrust at me immediately– the latest bulletin, the latest analysis. Nowadays his scribblings were interred all neat and tidy inside his computer, and it was just his clothing that was rumpled. Unlike me, he was thin, but his upper body had started to slump like a sand castle. He still had the trademark shock of curly hair and sported the same goatee that he’d had in college when people used to call him “Dr. Leon” because he looked so much like Trotsky. But the whiskers had turned white over the years, and now he looked more like Trotsky’s grandfather.
I, on the other hand, had blown up like one of my Aunt Sadie’s knishes. Or like Aunt Sadie herself. If Andy was Trotsky, I’d turned into Nikita Khrushchev schvitzing on a chaise lounge by the Black Sea.
“It’s been months,” I said.
He threw his wet raincoat on the floor, and, holding his laptop plug aloft in one hand, announced, “I have a great idea.”
“Nice to see you, too. Put that plug down. You look like Diogenes and the lamp, or whatever his name was. You’re making me nervous. The socket is by the toaster.”
He found a spot amidst the egg-encrusted plates, coffee cups, bills and takeout menus that nested on my combination kitchen-den-office-living room table, and wedged in his computer.
“Coffee,” he said. “I need coffee.”
“I heard you the first time. You want decaf? It’s late.”
“No, the real stuff,” he said plugging in.
“Aren’t you going to complain about the traffic on I-5?” I wheeled around to make coffee for him and to pull out some leftover Chinese food from the fridge. Three years I’d lived in this apartment, and it was his usual opening remark when he drove up from the Central District, how Seattle traffic had become as bad as any city in the country.
He didn’t respond.
“Aren’t you going to say how pretty the lake is, but too bad it’s so polluted?”
That was his usual second remark.
But not tonight.
When he was satisfied that his laptop had booted up and was on the right page, he looked up from the screen. “Al, we have to talk.”
“Your coffee will be ready in a minute.” I said, looking for a clean enough cup. “You want some Szechuan chicken?”
We‘d both come to Seattle after college when the organization decided that what the revolutionary movement needed was two monolingual New York Jews to organize west coast cannery workers. Somehow they hadn’t realized that canning was on the way out and high tech and brew pubs were on the way in. After the canneries closed, Andy became the main writer for our organization’s newspaper, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” until it folded. Since then, he’d been teaching at North Seattle Community College, publishing books, and writing a blog, which I tried to keep up with, but usually unsuccessfully.
Me, I’d gone into social work. With two kids and a mortgage, I figured until capitalism was overthrown, I could make a living patching up society’s wounded and sending them back out into the fray. And after twenty-five years, wouldn’t you know, it gave me a nice little pension. I didn’t get outside the apartment much. What was the point? A retired, divorced fatty in a wheelchair, I preferred to face life from a horizontal vantage point gazing at either the television or the lake below. Admittedly, I sometimes went to sleep with the thought of revolution on the edge of my brain, as when a child stops sleeping with his favorite stuffed animal but still keeps it somewhere on the bookshelf in the bedroom to remind himself of youthful fantasies and earlier times. But generally I left politics to the two-legs. At this point, life was to enjoy as best as I could.
Andy looked me in the eye. “You know how I’ve been complaining about feeling nauseous all the time?”
“Honestly, I don’t track your digestive system that closely.” I spooned some extra hoisin sauce onto the noodles that surrounded my cold chicken. “But what about it?”
“Well, I went to the doctor.”
I put down my plate. “What kind?” I asked quietly.
“Pancreatic.” Our eyes stayed locked. “Stage three.”
I was quiet. If I’d have been younger, I would have been furious at the injustice of it. But at our age, terminal illnesses are frightening, yet no longer shocking. We’re all just waiting for the news.
“Andy, I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, I’m sixty-five years old. And no one lives forever, right?”
No, I thought, but these days most of us get past sixty-five. “Are you in pain?”
“No, I feel fine. They gave me some Vicodin, but I’m not taking it. I’m telling you I feel fine. But let me tell you about this idea of mine; it’s making me feel like I’m thirty-five again.”
He fiddled with his laptop, his hands shaking slightly as they darted over the keyboard. “You remember Jack Miller?”
“Andy, this sucks. How long have you known?”
“A while. Al, you’ll have plenty of time for feeling crappy and sad, if you want. But I’m not going there now. So, do me a favor, and answer my question. Do you remember Jack Miller?”
“I don’t want to talk about Jack Miller,” I said.
“Well, we need to.”
“Look, you need to get a second opinion.”
“It’s cancer,” said Andy. “They’re sure. Anyway, Jack Miller just moved out here. Mercer Island. To be near his grandkids.”
“Who’s your doctor? I know a great oncologist at Swedish hospital. Dr. York, I think his name is.” I couldn’t believe Andy was so calm.
“I think we should take him out.”
“My wife’s cousin, Barry. They thought he had cancer too. Turned out it was gallstones. This guy York figured it out. He’s a genius.”
“Al, did you hear me?”
“Yes, yes. Jack Miller lives on Mercer Island and you want to take him out. Why are we talking about him? Let me call this guy York.”
“No, Al,” he said, somewhat irritated. “I want you to listen to me.”
“I’m listening,” I said, getting somewhat irritated myself. “You want to take out Jack Miller. Where do you want to take him, Pike Place Market? Why don’t you show him the houseboats from Sleepless in Seattle? Maybe he’ll fall in the lake.”
“No. Take him out. Eliminate him.”
“What do you mean, eliminate him?”
“Rub him out. Get rid of him. Let him swim with the fishes.” He had a frightening twinkle in his eye.
“I have six months to live, maybe less. Jack Miller needs to be punished. He has been a very bad man.”
He sat there, at my kitchen table, all 145 pounds of him, looking frail and white, like a shell fragment on the beach, with the same kind of blue jeans and plaid shirt he’d worn since college, telling me he wanted to murder a former government official. I would have laughed, but this was the same man who had organized a hundred students, mostly white, to fast in solidarity with the Black Panther Party in 1969. And later, the same man who helped organize three successful cannery workers strikes. I’d never known this man, even in his later years, to not do what he intended to do, and he seemed absolutely serious.
“What are you, Tony Soprano all of a sudden?”
Andy’s facial expression didn’t change.
“Why don’t we knock off a few banks while we’re at it?” I continued. “I could use a few extra bucks.”
“Jack Miller is an absolutely evil creature. He’s a war monger, a polluter and he’s a Jew who’s helped turn Israel into the South Africa of the 21st century. And he’s made a fortune doing it. Why should he live out his old age in peace and comfort? And now I’ve got nothing to lose. Is that coffee ready yet?”
I could see the glow in his eyes and the beads of sweat on his brow.
I also remembered something about Miller and Andy from years earlier. “Didn’t you used to know him?”
Andy nodded. “Stuyvesant High School, New York City. We were on the student council together. He was a putz even then.”
I poured him a cup of coffee and then wheeled over to sit next to him at the table. “That’s right. I remember. Andy, can I ask how you’re feeling right now?”
“I’m feeling really good, mister social worker. Brimming with clarity. I can see your shrink’s mind working. Andy gets a cancer diagnosis and wants to act out, or some such nonsense.”
“Of course it’s connected to my cancer. If I had twenty more years, I’d keep doing what I’ve been doing…educating and organizing. But I don’t have twenty years, I’ve got six months. I have time for one last act.”
“And when they arrest you?”
“’Won’t happen. After I do him, I’ll turn the gun on myself.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m going to be dead soon anyway. Might as well take the bastard with me. And the best part is that an hour afterwards, my blog will come out, and the whole world will know.”
“Andy, let me call this Dr. York.”
“It’s all arranged. I’m doing it tomorrow morning at the Erikson Health Spa. I’ve already joined the place and checked it out. He’s there every Monday through Thursday soaking his crooked back at six AM, rain or shine. I’ll be done by 6:30. The blog will be on a timer and be out by seven.”
“You have a gun?” I wanted to see how serious he really was.
“Right here in my bag.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out a camouflage pistol case.
“Camo? You’ve got to be kidding. Did you join the fucking NRA, too?”
He handled the case carefully as if it contained a piece of sculpture, his hands trembling slightly, and unzipped it on the table. The inside was lined with sheepskin, and the gun lay there, ugly and nasty, like a coiled snake on a child’s bed. “Glock 26, semi-automatic. Austrian. Best gun on the market. I’ve been practicing every day.”
“Why not an AR-15?” I snorted. “Turn him into Swiss cheese.”
“Remember how we used to practice with those heavy Smith and Wessons?” he asked, smiling.
I remembered. As a requirement for membership in the organization we had to own and learn how to use a pistol. Every week we’d go to the range, a handful of nervous intellectuals trying to be nonchalant with the hunters and creepy white guys who hung out at those places.
Andy picked up the gun, gripping it with two hands as cops do on TV. He aimed it at the wall over my head, his hand quivering slightly. With his skinny wrists and liver spots, he looked ridiculous.
“Put that thing away, you’ll hurt yourself. But I think you’re on to something. After you kill Miller, I bet lots of other old lefties with terminal illnesses will come out of the woodwork and start whacking rightwing big shots. The revolution will start at last.”
“I’m serious about this, Al,” he said, returning the gun to its case. “And when it comes out in my blog, I guarantee you thousands of people will read it. Maybe millions. Everyone in the world will know about all the evil he’s done. And how he didn’t get away with it. That’ll do as much good as all the writing and organizing we’ve done our whole lives. Maybe more.”
“Don’t try to talk me out of it. I’ve thought this through. Amy died two years ago and we never had kids. There’s no living relative who will suffer psychological damage or be hounded by the press. There’s no one that Miller’s heirs can harass or sue. The organization doesn’t exist anymore, so there’s no one there that the government can go after. I don’t believe in God or an afterlife. And I don’t want to end my life in agony, doped up on morphine in a hospital bed somewhere. Frankly, I can’t see any downside at all.”
He kept looking at his computer screen, going through his documents. Except for his wrinkled skin and white hair, he could have been a cub reporter on deadline.
“You actually want to kill him. And yourself.”
He didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “No, I’d actually rather live for another twenty years. But I don’t have that option.”
The usual Seattle mist had steamed up my picture window and, even though it was May, outside it resembled a Nordic December night. My usual companion, the television, was as black and silent as the lake below. I would have much rather have been watching ESPN than having this conversation. Jamie Moyer was pitching, and since he was from Pennsylvania, I’d been thinking about ordering the special South Philly pizza from Pagliacci’s – cheese steak, sausage, mushrooms, and tomato sauce. But that would have to wait.
“Andy, if you’ve got a year or whatever, why don’t you enjoy yourself? Have a three way. Go someplace you’ve always wanted to go to. Lie on a beautiful beach. Something. I could give you the money. If I could get around better, I’d go with you.”
“No thanks,” he said grimly, squinting into his computer screen. “I still have important things to do.”
I put my chicken plate in the pile in the sink. “Well, even if I agreed with your idea, which I don’t, why go after Miller? He’s done his damage. Why not someone still in power?”
“Because I can get to him. And I know him. Think of how it will look when one of his own, a Jewish kid who went to the same New York high school as he did, delivers the blow. Not a Muslim, not a foreigner. It’s got poetry to it.”
“Poetry. Oy vey.”
“You know, maybe I shouldn’t do it at the health club. There could be people around, and the bullet could ricochet off of all that tile and hurt someone. Maybe I should do it in front of his house. I could just go up to his car window like I was asking for directions.” He paused for a moment. “No, I like the hot tub. I want him to be naked and helpless. Besides, I’ve never seen anyone else but Miller in there at that time of morning. It’ll be okay.” He sipped his coffee. “This has to be the worst coffee in Seattle.”
“Thank you. For a dying man you’re pretty picky.” He cracked a small smile. Maybe I could get him to relax. “What was Miller like in high school?” I asked.
He didn’t go back to his computer, which I took as a good sign. “Pimply,” he said. “And arrogant. He bragged about reading The New York Times from cover to cover on the train every morning on the way to school.”
This was good. He was calming down.
“Not a one. He probably talked to me more than anyone. The boys thought he was a wuss and the girls wouldn’t go near him. All he did was study. His spine was crooked too, a birth defect or something. Kept him out of the draft. Senior year he got 1580 on his college boards and went off to Princeton. Then the London School of Economics and Harvard Law School and he ended up marrying the daughter of some big shot banker and working for George Schultz in the Reagan Administration. Those idiots made him Assistant to the Deputy Undersecretary of State for the Middle East.”
“I remember your stories about him in our paper,” I said, hopefully reassuringly. “A total oinker.”
Andy continued his narrative as if he were rehearsing a speech. “Then after Clinton won, he started hanging out with Netanyahu. They were buddies from their Princeton days. Miller lined up Jewish money in the States for Israeli business deals. He did a little consulting for Shell Oil in Nigeria. Polluting aquifers, busting unions, whatever. When the US invaded Iraq, the Reeps brought him back to DC to help with the war and gave him some bullshit title, Liaison to the Coalition Provisional Authority; but really he was a fundraiser, an ideological bag man, bundling money for the party and the war.”
He patted his laptop as an appreciative cowboy pats his horse.
“I have it all right here. You know me, Al, I do my homework.”
“I do know you, doctor, and I have to say, you’re starting to worry me.”
“I’m putting it all into my final blog.” He started reading out loud.
Jack Miller has made a career of murdering innocent people and raping the earth. His actions have caused untold deaths and suffering in Asia and Africa, and have helped to pauperize the American working class. The traumatized vets who roam our streets can thank him and his buddies for all they’ve been through. If you asked him about threats to the environment, Miller would laugh in your face. If you asked him about the thousands of people who died here and in Iraq because of make-believe weapons of mass destruction, he’d just smirk. He has never once apologized for or even questioned the cruelty and inhumanity of his deeds. He’s a Jew who learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust, and, because of what he’s done in Israel, antisemitism will flourish for generations. He is a war criminal, and I intend to punish him for being one.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I need a drink.” I wheeled over to the cabinet, found my fifth of Jack Daniels and poured us each a shot. Christ, I thought, he’d really gone off the deep end. Talking him out of this was not going well at all. Maybe I’d have to take away his gun by force. Me, who has to work to make it to the bathroom.
I’m not supposed to drink alcohol, but the whiskey went down very easily. Usually Andy didn’t drink but he downed his in two seconds as if it were iced tea.
“Thank you,” he said. “Now, what do you think?”
“I agree with everything you said about Jack Miller, and I don’t give a shit whether he lives or dies. But you’re a Marxist and humanist, not a murderer.” The rhetoric of the old days was coming back to me. “You always told us that the only way to change things was for working people to take power, and you were right. Killing Jack Miller will just make you look crazy, and it won’t do any good. You know that.”
He stood up from his chair as if he were addressing the central committee. “You think we’re doing any good right now?” He glared at me contemptuously. “We never punish our enemies. When we win, the bosses figure out a way to screw us later. And when we lose, which is usually what happens, we pat ourselves on the back for sending a ‘strong message’ or some other nonsense. The bad guys think we’re a joke. They think we’re weak, and we are.” He leaned on the edge of the table. “Well, maybe this will make the next neo-fascist think twice before dropping bombs or hurting people.” He sat back down. “This coffee’s cold.”
“Andy, you’re not an assassin. Come on.”
He looked at me with disgust. “At least I’m not someone who just sits around his apartment all day. Some revolutionary you turned out to be.”
“If that’s how you feel, why are you here?”
That shut him up. We both knew he was here because he didn’t have any one else he could talk to.
“Think of it this way,” he said, resuming his lecturing tone. “You remember the Starkist cannery strike in ’88? That strike started when Juan de la Cruz got fired for punching out the foreman who was harassing every one. That was the spark.”
“Bullshit, Andy. We worked for a year preparing for that strike. We had charts and profiles of every worker, broken down by department, shift and union sympathies. We knew who they hung out with, who they were related to, where they went to church….that campaign was organized down to the last detail. And you were the one who worked it all out. Juan’s fight with the foreman had very little to do with it.”
“Yes, but don’t you see that was what people talked about? That’s what got people to put down their tools and walk out. So now I’m switching roles, that’s all. I won’t be the behind-the-scenes guy for once. I’ll be playing the lead.”
“But Andy, no one’s going on strike if you shoot Jack Miller.”
“Not today. But it’ll spark something someday. It will be like John Brown at Harpers Ferry. And when my blog goes viral, everyone in the world will know the story of how Jack Miller fucked over the people and how Andy Rohrbacher shot him dead for doing it. You don’t think that’s worth something? Al,” he continued, “you’ve just given up, admit it. I haven’t given up. That’s the difference between us.”
I was starting to feel very light-headed and frustrated. “You know, Juan de la Cruz is a cop now. A lackey of the ruling class.” Last I heard Juan was washing dishes and parking cars.
“Don’t care. He’s a hero to me.”
I started to feel a little woozy, and I got my insulin kit out of the kitchen drawer. “Excuse me, I’ve got to do this.”
I squeezed some of the suet-colored flesh that hung over my belt and inserted the needle. Even after fifteen years, I couldn’t help wincing when the tip went in.
Andy had barely looked up from his computer screen. He was as devoted as ever to his bizarre plan and I hadn’t turned him around at all.
As I was extracting the needle, there was another knock at the door.
“It’s Grand Central Station around here today,” I said. “Maybe someone wants to tell me their plans to smother Dick Cheney.” Andy quickly made sure his gun was in his backpack, and put the backpack under the table.
“Daddy,” came a voice from the hallway. “It’s me.”
“It’s Deborah,” I said to Andy.
“Don’t say a word,” he whispered.
“Okay,” I whispered back. “Your lunatic secret is safe with me.”
I wheeled to the front door and opened it. Deborah, my daughter, was standing there, smiling angelically. Occasionally she dropped by when a phone call would have done just fine, but I think she liked to see me in the flesh just to make sure I was still functional.
“I was in the neighborhood,” she said, leaning over to give me a hug.
“Sweetie,” I said. “You remember Andy?”
“Oh yes,” she said to Andy, “The writer. How are you?”
“Still at it,” said Andy, turning away to face his laptop screen.
Deborah, unfazed, asked me, “Are you coming to my seder?”
I drew a blank. “Is it tonight?”
“No, silly,” she said. “Next Thursday. Andy, you’re welcome to come, too.”
What a lovely polite young woman I had for a daughter.
“No, thanks,” Andy said, “I don’t do seders.”
Deborah shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, Dave will pick you up at five next Thursday.” One of them always picked me up. I had a car in the garage, a ten-year old Dodge van, but my family couldn’t stand the idea of me driving, and it had been months since I’d even turned the key.
“Remember, Thursday, five o’clock. Donny’s doing the four questions. He’s very excited,” she said. Donny was my grandson.
She bent down and gave me a kiss and left. Too bad for Andy that he and Amy had never had kids.
Andy grumbled at me, “Your daughter is a Zionist? An imperialist?”
“She’s not an imperialist, for God’s sake. She’s a fourth grade teacher. Not everybody who has a seder is a running dog imperialist stooge.”
“’Next year in Jerusalem?’” He scoffed at me as though I were an idiot. “What do you think that’s about? It’s code for kick out the Palestinians.”
“Well, Deborah isn’t raising her kids to enlist in the Israeli army, if that’s what you mean. You should come on Thursday.”
Andy looked at me with shock. “Haven’t you been listening to me? I’m doing this thing in a few hours. I’ve got to get everything ready.” He was starting to sound frantic.
“So tonight will be your last night on earth.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” he said and went back to working on his farewell blog.
“You sure you don’t want some Szechuan chicken?”
He ignored me and kept pecking at his keyboard.
Maybe, I thought, I could work the Passover angle. “You’re right seders are bullshit. But they’re fun. Telling stories, asking questions. Should be right up your alley.”
“Fairy tales. Al, are you still a socialist or what? I bet Miller is having a seder. Hey, maybe I’ll do him there. When they open the door for Elijah, I’ll be there on the front porch and blam.” He pantomimed shooting a pistol like Dirty Harry. Then he muttered, “No, no bystanders. Just me and him, face-to-face.”
“When you get down to it, Passover is about a slave rebellion. I’d think you would like that.”
“That’s not what it’s about now,” he said. “It’s about maintaining Israeli territory. I guarantee you that at Miller’s seder the main items on the agenda will be expanding into the West Bank and eradicating the Palestinians.”
“How do you like this line?” he continued. “I understand killing Miller won’t accomplish much right away. It won’t clean up the rivers in Africa, or help the thousands of disabled American vets who wander our streets, or get the Palestinians out of their refugee camps. But it will send a message to all the Jack Millers in the world, and all the wannabee Jack Millers, that we do not forgive you, and you will not escape unscathed.’ ”
“Too long to put on your tombstone, you sick bastard. I think you should come to Deborah’s seder on Thursday.”
“Al, I need to do this.”
“You know, Moses was the first trade unionist. He organized the workers to walk out, just like at Starkist. We could talk about all that on Thursday.”
“Yes,” Andy said with a smile, “but after he killed the overseer.”
Touché, I thought. I was hungry again and fantasized about an apple fritter, the kind they sell at Larry’s Market on Queen Anne hill, shiny with sugar and grease and big as a catcher’s mitt. Instead, I got out some crackers and cheese. Andy wouldn’t touch any, asking for some juice instead, “unless you’ve got some better coffee.” No wonder he was so thin. I was getting a sinking feeling in my stomach that I wasn’t going to be able to talk him out of this craziness, and I would have to stop him physically. That scared me.
I rolled the ten feet over to my La-Z-Boy, retrieved my laptop from under the stack of newspapers, rolled back, and set it up across from Andy at the table. We were sitting and staring at our screens like college students at a coffee shop.
I googled Passover.
“Hey,” I said after a while. “Did you know that Rabbi Akiba used a seder to plan a revolt against the Romans? First century BC.”
“Mazel tov. Did you know that Jack Miller personally lobbied Congress against the Clean Air Act in ’85.”
I kept searching. “Did you know that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was on the first night of Passover?”
“Did you know that under Miller, Shell Oil spilled close to two million barrels of oil into the Niger Delta, destroying the fish, infecting the drinking water, and destroying fifteen percent of the mangrove forests?”
I kept searching. I found outtakes from The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston flirting with Hollywood extras dressed as Egyptian slave girls, a cartoon musical version of the Passover story called “who let the Jews out (ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh),” and lots of videos and articles on how to clean your house for Passover without making yourself meshugina. Not much help.
“You know,” I said, thinking back on the story, “in Exodus, God doesn’t kill Pharaoh.”
“Al, I’m working on something here.”
“Think about it. Why do you think God lets Pharaoh live?”
“I don’t believe in God.”
“It’s because killing Pharaoh isn’t the point. The point is freedom. The point is liberation.”
“For me, punishing Jack Miller is liberation. He and his ilk are screwing up the world for the rest of us. We’ve got to stop them. Words alone don’t work. I’m a Marxist. I believe in action. You got anything else, Al? You’re not going to talk me out of this.”
“Maybe, I’ll just call the police.”
“No, you won’t. You may have given up on the revolution, but you’re not going to call the cops.”
He had me there. I might have strayed, but not that far.
There was another buzz at the door.
“Now who’s here?” asked Andy. “Did you call the police? You bastard.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s Mona.” I’d completely forgotten she was coming over tonight.
“Mona. She’s a physical therapist. Well, sort of. She’s my masseuse.”
“Your what?” said Andy, with a leering grin.
“Shut up. It’s not what you think.”
I wheeled over to the door and opened it. The silhouette of Mona Alailefaluela filled the doorway. No umbrella for her, and even without one she was barely wet, as if the rainwater bounced off her young skin. In her right hand she held a portable aluminum massage table as effortlessly as most people would carry a purse or a briefcase. In her left hand was a pink, plastic Chinatown bag full of great island food, usually fried fish, spicy potatoes and a coconut dessert that slid down your throat like soft ice cream. A massage and dinner, once-a-month, after her shift at the Ballard Rehabilitation Center was over. That had been our arrangement for years. She set the food bag down on the counter and the massage table on the floor.
“Hello, Mr. Albert,” she said smiling, her face a rising sun. “Oh, you have company.”
“Mona, this is my friend Andy.”
Mona smiled sweetly and walked over to Andy, extending her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Andy shook her hand and said hello back, his eyes widening at the sight of a woman in hospital scrubs inhabiting my small kitchen. He started to close up his laptop. Mona stood awkwardly by the stove.
“Would your friend like some mahi mahi?” asked Mona. “I have plenty.” The sultry aroma of the fish spread through the apartment.
Andy started to say something, but I cut him off by saying, “That would be great, Mona. Yes, Andy would love to stay.”
“No, I need to be going,” said Andy.
“You have plenty of time,” I said.
“I’m not hungry,” Andy said to Mona, “but thank you.”
“Well, how about this?” I said. “Mona, would you mind giving my friend here a short massage?”
Both Andy and Mona looked at me weirdly.
“Just a short one at the table here. You know, a shoulder massage. Like they do at the airport. It’s on me.”
“That’s not really necessary,” said Andy.
“Please,” I said. “You’ll like it. Do it for me. Mona, do you mind?”
“I have time,” she said pleasantly.
“You don’t even have to leave your chair,” I said to him.
She took some waterless handcleaner from her pocket smeared it on her hands. Before he could say a word, her strong fingers were squeezing the trapezium muscles at the base of his neck. Andy sat there stiffly, like a man in an electric chair, his shoulders hunched together.
“Just relax,” she said cheerfully. “Put your head down on the table.” I could tell he didn’t want to but her presence was too powerful to resist. He closed his eyes and let his head and shoulders relax. Mona kept at it, working on his neck and the back of his head. It had been the first time since he’d arrived that he wasn’t either typing or talking.
Maybe, I thought, this is what he needed. Something to salve his ailing body. If he fell asleep, I could get his gun and end the whole thing. From the bones on the back of his neck, Mona moved up to the top of his fevered cranium.
Andy suddenly shot up out of his chair.
“No,” he shouted at me. “I see what you’re doing. I’m not going to let you stop me.”
Mona jumped back with her hands up in the air as if in the presence of a lunatic. “Sellout,” he yelled at me, corralling his backpack and laptop. “Class traitor,” he yelled again as he grabbed his coat and umbrella and fled the apartment as if it were on fire. In my condition, there was no way I could stop him.
“Oh my gosh,” said Mona, hands on her cheeks. “Mr. Albert, what is going on?”
“He’s very upset,” I said to Mona. “He’s sick.”
“He has cancer,” I said. “I’m sorry, that was a bad idea. I was trying to help him relax.”
“Oh my gosh,” Mona repeated, sitting down on the chair Andy had vacated.
I dialed Andy’s cell phone but he didn’t pick up. “Damn,” I said to Mona, “I’ve lost him.” I started rolling back and forth. Nothing I’d done or said had dissuaded him.
“Are you okay?” asked Mona. “Maybe I should leave.”
I shook my head. “Please stay. I’m sorry about Andy. He’s my oldest friend.”
“You have strange friends.”
I wasn’t going to be able to stop him alone. Not in my condition. I thought about calling some of my old comrades from the organization. Maybe they could help me. I realized at that very moment that I had lost touch with every one of them. Andy had been my last link with the movement.
“Maybe we should eat,” I said.
“I don’t know,” said Mona.
“Please, stay. You’re probably hungry. You just got off work.”
She paused, but then agreed, and silently set up the plates.
I didn’t know who to call for help. Pretty fucking sad. When this was all over, I would have to fix that.
We chewed quietly.
“Will your friend be all right?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. He’s afraid of dying.”
She nodded. “I see that at work a lot.”
The fish was delicious, as always, and the potatoes restorative. Both of us calmed down.
“How are your kids doing?” I asked, wanting to normalize things between us. She had four children and often talked about them.
“Tommy is back home. He’s so much trouble, that one. The oldest girl is good, she’s working now. But like me, no benefits. Maybe we’ll get a union one day, then we’ll get benefits.”
That made me feel good, hearing someone praise unions. And sad too that Mona did not have health coverage.
After we ate I hunted around for my old address book and finally found it in my underwear drawer. I called Barbara, who’d worked on the newspaper with Andy, and Michael, a union guy. I hadn’t spoken to them in years. They didn’t answer, and I didn’t leave any details. It would have been too strange over voice mail. I just left messages for them to call back, even if it was late. I had a number too for Juan de la Cruz, and I tried it. Juan’s son answered the phone. He said his Dad was at work. I told him I was an old friend of his from Starkist and that Juan should call anytime. However this ended up, I was going to have to re-make those connections.
“You ready for a massage?” Mona asked, wiping her mouth, apparently feeling better.
“I could use one.”
Mona went into the bathroom and came out with a bottle of massage oil and a towel. Her hair was undone, and I found myself staring as usual at the squiggly turquoise tattoos that covered her arms and neck. She helped me strip down to my shorts and hoisted me onto the massage table. She turned the lights down and started on my shoulders, pounding them down like pizza dough, then working them with her thumbs. The gardenia scent from her massage oil filled the room, and I pictured Andy driving home alone, passing the restaurants and bars full of young people that dotted the loop around Lake Union, and then passing the Space Needle, overrun with tourists. I knew he was going over his plan for tomorrow, picturing Miller’s face and mentally editing his blog for the hundredth time. In a way, he’d been writing that final blog his whole life.
Mona was working on the backs of my thighs and my buttocks, and I pictured Andy getting out of his car and walking into the small house in the Central District that he and Amy had rented for years. As she rubbed and kneaded, I tried to reach out to him in my mind, wishing I could comfort him as Mona was comforting me. The hours we’d spent writing together, the arguing, and the thrill of jacking up some boss or sellout politician were a part of my being. Yes, the capitalists were winning, but every time Mona touched me I could feel from deep inside my chest that they would ultimately lose, that there would be a people’s victory. As she caressed my calves, I could see the day when people like Jack Miller would be in prison, lonely and miserable, maybe mopping floors and cleaning toilets while people like Juan de la Cruz would get to relax and enjoy life. Andy, I thought, it’s going to happen.
For a blissful minute, she held her head over my back and gently swished her hair back and forth across my skin, tickling every nerve ending I had. She lay down on top of my back, her arms on my arms, her legs on my legs, letting all the weight of her healthy body press onto every square inch of mine, and holding that position for a full minute as I slipped further into oblivion. Andy wouldn’t go to sleep tonight, he’d just pace the living room and talk to himself until it was time. I thought of his loneliness and fear, and all I wanted to do was make things right.
She worked on me for close to an hour and my mind somersaulted with images of my ex-wife, and our old friends, and Andy by himself in his room with his thoughts and his facts and his blog. But damn if I weren’t alone in my room, too. I’d abandoned my friends and the struggle and I was alone. Well almost alone, God bless you Mona.
After I paid her and she left, I checked my phone. No one had returned my calls. Who knows if they even remembered who I was?
It was going to be up to me. I set the alarm and closed my eyes. At four thirty, when the alarm went off, I started some coffee and found my car keys. Then I microwaved the rest of Mona’s deep-fried island fish, and, after dousing it with Louisiana hot sauce, inhaled the whole thing and most of the potatoes too, washing everything down with coffee. I had an hour-and-a-half. I wheeled myself down the hall to the elevator, took it down to the garage, and heaved myself into my dusty old van.
It took me a full minute of playing with the ignition switch and fiddling with the wires under the dashboard to get the old hunk of junk going, but when she finally started, she roared to life like James Dean’s motorcycle. I eased out of the garage, and in a few minutes was on the freeway headed west to the wooded estates of Mercer Island.
By the time I crossed the island bridge and hit the perimeter highway, dawn had started to break tentatively over the water. There were no other cars, just the wildness of low clouds and rain whipping over the lake. When I got to the back side of the island, the one with the view of Cougar Mountain and the Cascades, I found the private road that marked the entrance to the health club. The road weaved through a wooded canyon, with no houses in sight, and ended beside a brand new Scandinavian-styled building of molded concrete with cedar beams at the water’s edge.
Except for the employee section, there was only one car in the parking lot: a new, black Mercedes sedan. Miller must have gone inside already. I opened my window partway to let the fresh moist air rush across my face, and waited. The lake thrashed with ragged edged whitecaps, and pale seagulls huddled among the cold, gray waves.
Then a baby blue Toyota Tercel pulled into the lot with a small white-haired man hunched over the wheel. As I expected, Andy was going through with it. He pulled his car right up next to Miller’s. It was up to me now. As soon as he stopped, before he had a chance to get out, I put the van in drive and drove hard into his rear bumper, denting the trunk and smashing a tail light. Then I backed up, put it in drive again, and smashed the fender and the other tail light. I staggered out of the van and, leaving my wheelchair behind, lurched to the driver’s side of Andy’s car. He opened the door with the Glock in his hand, yelling “get the hell out of here.” Without thinking, I grabbed the gun from his fingers and heaved it into the lake. Then I put my forearm against his ribcage, undid his seatbelt and dragged him out of the car. He struggled, but I pushed him to the ground and lay right on top of him, smothering him with my chest and pinning him down with my arms, almost as Mona had done to me a few hours earlier, except Andy and I were face-to-face.
“I won’t let you do this, god damn it.”
“It’s my life, what do you care?” he said, straining against me. “Get off of me, you fat load.”
I had to smile at that, him calling me fat, there in the pouring rain on the stony parking lot, as I lay face down on top of him.
“Because I love you, you jerk,” I said. “Besides, who you calling fat?”
“Revisionist pig. Look at you, protecting the capitalists.”
“Petty bourgeois adventurist,” I said, a phrase I hadn’t uttered in decades. “It’s always about you, isn’t it?” I pulled his arms out sidewise to increase the pressure of my weight on his chest and lay there on him, listening to his wheezing, hoping he would calm down.
“Al,” he said with tears in his eyes, “we failed. Our whole lives, we failed. ”
He stopped struggling and lay still, his face a pale yellow, six inches from mine. I thought I could see the cancer surging through him.
“We didn’t fail,” I said, at that moment feeling as alive as a teenager. “We just haven’t succeeded yet.”