Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reckoning (Part 3)

“I haven’t kept track,” said Julie. We were sitting close together, and it was late at night in the college graveyard. Alumni were buried here – the neat white stones had little university insignias, and many of the families had whole buildings and departments named after them. It was a beautiful place – not creepy at all at night. It was a good place to talk. Julie was telling me about her headaches.

“It might have started a few months ago,” she said, and she wouldn’t look at me. I was holding one of her hands. There was something about the way she smelled – it wasn’t perfume she used; it was a kind of soap or shampoo. I’ve looked for it everywhere, even now. I couldn’t describe it. I’d know it in a second if I smelled it again, and that night it was all around us, filtered through the sweet newly cut grass and the pine.

“Go ahead.”
“A sharp pain started.”
“Go ahead.”
“Really bad headaches. I’ve had migraines – these were worse. But the doctors I have back at home won’t listen to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want a full examination. I’m not making this up,” she said. “I know people make this sort of thing up all the time, but the pain I feel is not – I’m not making it up.”
“But what if…”
“I’m not saying…”
“I know, I know. I know what you’re saying.”
“It’s not like you’re making it up if…”
“I know – you can have those kinds of symptoms, and you might not even know it,” she said, and she was getting a little impatient. Like there was some big matter she was going to come to, and now she was getting farther and farther away from it.
“It’s not the same as making something up. But with the pains, I was having terrible bleeding. Nosebleeds would just happen to me, and with the blurry vision, I was thinking it was something they ought to check out. Some real neurological event. Something you ought to get a CAT scan for because…”
“Because we could be talking about…”
“A tumor,” she said, and flinched when she said it. And neither of us said anything for a long time. I heard noises nearby – kids making their way through the graveyard, jostling each other, laughing and having fun. We both sat there looking at each other, listening to the laughing recede.

“So why didn’t you get it checked out?”
“The doctors were friends with my dad. They didn’t see anything wrong, and they didn’t want other people to check me out.”
“Why were they friends with your dad? I mean, why does that have anything to do with it?”
And then she pulled up her shirt, and showed me something about the size of a golf ball below her breast. It was oddly shaped. I couldn’t figure out what it was – it was too dark to be a bruise. Even in the night I could see how black it was.
“My dad did this with the base of a candlestick holder when I was 13. The edge hit me, and broke a lot of blood vessels under the skin. The bleeding was so bad that it permanently dyed my skin like a tattoo needle. I have one on my leg, and I have this…” Here’s where she showed me the fracture mark just under her hairline. She took my hand in hers and brought it to her scalp. I followed it all the way to the top of her head where it met the part in her hair, and I felt a thrill that still makes me ashamed.

“He stopped at some point,” she said. “I got too old, and he got too old, and I think I could kick his ass now.” She snorted. “But my mom said if I ever went to a doctor they’d both disown me, and I wouldn’t be able to pay for college.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and the wind was colder, so she shivered, and without thinking, I put my arms around her. But it was okay. We both fell asleep, and at some point the morning came up gray over the headstones, and when I woke she’d been up for some time. Her eyes were red. I didn’t say anything, but we went back to the dorm and didn’t speak for the next week.


“You’re not listening to a word I’m saying,” my boss tells me. He’s right, and I smile, but it’s not okay. He goes back to talking about all these leases in our file I have to check. While he talks, he keeps glancing up at me, so I have to keep focused on him. But I can barely manage it, because right over his shoulder is the window, and out the window and across the street is a window washer with a belt harness that won’t work properly. He adjusts it and readjusts it. He goes back to his work and then suddenly looks down at the clasps – there’s something wrong. He goes back to work again and suddenly looks down once more. And once I catch him stumbling. I’m looking carefully at my boss describing papers in a file I have to retrieve of a property I’m never going to see, and suddenly the figure off to the side – as small as an insect from where I’m sitting – makes quick flailing movements, and then catches himself. He opens his window and leans inside – taking a break. And all that goes through my head is the cool possibility that I might watch him quickly fly below my line of sight, and I’d be certain that he was dead without hearing anything more. There’s a thrill that goes through me, and that also makes me ashamed.

But my boss goes on and on, and I know everything he’s going to say, because I’ve done this sort of thing before. I will leave his office and assemble some papers, copy them, note little numbers on a spreadsheet, and I almost saw someone die and that’s just one more fact. And I feel very little, except when I search the web at night alone in my cubicle, and I browse through the jumbled details of people’s lives and see what the times have done to them.

I was important to Julie back then. She needed to tell someone her problems, and I was there, and now I’m not important to anyone. All these years have passed, and one day I realize how angry that makes me.

That night, I check the web for information on how to tap someone’s phone line. I find a company that sells books about it. There’s a blurb about the difference between cell phone traffic and landlines. There are two separate procedures, and I send for the book and look for more information. It’s not that hard. I wonder about a gun – I have a friend in Virginia who knows people who sell guns with the serial numbers filed off. But that might create more problems than it would solve. He could go to the police, and if there were an investigation, the details could come together.

No, if I bought a gun – especially if I bought it in another state besides Maryland – it wouldn’t come up unless I was specifically targeted. And why would I be targeted? I worry about all the web surfing, but then I realize I’m not going to be on anyone’s list unless they know I’ve done something illegal. No one’s going to search records from more than a decade back just on the off-chance that the man’s killer is an old college acquaintance. (An acquaintance once removed, remember. Remember Julie.) No, I’m safe as long as I don’t do anything stupid. And knowing that, knowing that I’m thinking this way, makes me realize that I’m really going to do it.

A week later I ask my boss for a Monday off.
“Where you going?”
“Jersey shore. If you’d like, I’ll leave a number.”
“Don’t do that,” he says. “What, you want us to call you?” We laugh. I like my boss.

And later the same day I get a package with two books – Surveillance A to Z, and Wiretap! I tuck the books away in my desk. Over the next few nights I visit a couple of hardware stores. That weekend I search the Virginia state website for information on how to get a driver’s license. I don’t want to give up my New York ID, so I’m going to claim it was lost. I check gun laws in the state. I might have to wait. But I’m going to have to wait anyway. I have to be sure.

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