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Fiction Issue 2009: Dear Life

"It'll be fine, Alex. Just relax and don't get excited. FBI's a bunch of limp-wristed handjobs anyway."

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Late one night, I'm watching reruns when Daniel called and said sometime the next day the FBI would stop by with questions about the company's books. Those words alone and I was ready to dig a hole to climb into. But Daniel knew how to handle me so I didn't get spooked. The way he talked was like honey dripping off a spoon. It'll be fine, Alex. Just relax and don't get excited. FBI's a bunch of limp-wristed handjobs anyway. They don't know which way is up. And with your brain? They'll eat right out of your hand. You're done in half an hour tops and I'll pop for lunch downtown. I tried to believe him. I hung up the phone and got in bed. But I didn't sleep ten minutes all night and my restless feet kept rubbing against each other like tadpoles squirming in the mud.

The next day was Wednesday, a week before Christmas. Not quite noon and I had already burned through half a pack of cigarettes sitting at the kitchen table. I usually had the house to myself during the day, but that week Alex Jr. was home with a fever. I was about to heat up a can of soup when the doorbell rang.

He said his name was Agent Wilkie. Just the sight of him and my mind's jukebox burst into the first few bars of "Hail to the Chief." Handsome kid in his early 30s. Jawline chiseled from stone under a blond buzz cut. Definitely not a local boy. Something glowed off him that made you hear cornstalks rattling through a blue midwestern breeze. The type whose senior portrait still hangs proudly outside the principal's office. The old-timers at the VFW remember him quarterbacking the team all the way to the state championship. What's that Wilkie doing now, one of them asks. He's a federal man now, don't you know. Went to the big city to put away all the bad guys. You don't say? See, I knew that boy would make out good. Then they clink a couple longnecks in honor of Wilkie the all-American boy who fell through the sunshine and landed on my front porch.

He said Daniel sent him my way because I knew the books better than anyone. Could he come in for a few minutes, he asked. No warrant or anything like that. And I let him stroll into the kitchen without so much as a word, resigned to some pecking order between us that I felt way down.

From Daniel's setup I was ready for Wilkie to prod at me with some vague you-know-that-I-know routine. But this guy had it all together. From a snappy black briefcase out come a dozen or so manila folders on the table. Inside the folders were documents with everything I'd been doing for the last six years. Wire transfers, deposit slips, bogus receipts, dummy payrolls. Spreadsheets with perfect columns stapled to photocopies of phony bills of lading and forged invoices. These steady waves of paper rolled out of the briefcase and crashed against me. Wilkie's presentation was cool and unhurried. My handwriting on balled-up pieces of paper that must have been rooted out of the Dumpsters behind Daniel's warehouse. The pages smoothed out and laid flat in laminated coating. It must have taken months to put it all together. So much attention put in you'd think it had to be love.

A rash scorched a trail through my scalp. After he rolled out everything, Wilkie said what this amounts to is a federal case for money laundering, wire fraud, insurance fraud and half a dozen more things they'd work up when the time came.

I twisted in my chair and fought the urge to chomp my fingers into stubs. I mumbled something about since when is it a crime to be in the restaurant supply business. Real feeble stuff that went nowhere. This wasn't the cakewalk Daniel promised. I didn't have the first clue on how to bullshit my way out. The sweet talk was never my forte. The thing I did well was jump decimal points around a spreadsheet and create enough paper make-believe so that a truckload of cigarettes vanished before the state could stamp and tax them. I worked Daniel's books into an imaginary world where money floats in a whirlwind never to come down and get counted.

I sat there while Wilkie ticked off his list, my eyes fixed nowhere in a frozen sulk. I worried that Alex Jr. could hear this stranger talk down to me like I was the town lowlife. I looked over my shoulder and down the hall now and again to see if his door was still closed.

According to the federal guidelines, Wilkie said, I was looking at 300 months in prison. Twenty-five years, he said. Oh man, you can't mean that, I said. But he was serious. That's a life sentence for a man your age, Mr. Block. My ears buzzed as though a swarm of hornets was coming through the walls. Your best move is to talk with the U.S. attorney, he said. Make the smart play and talk about Daniel. Because you know what? Not even 24 hours ago, I was sitting at his kitchen table and you know what he said, don't you? Sure you do. Talk to Alex, talk to Alex, talk to Alex. You try to stand tall on this and you'll end up with skid marks down your back. But you know all about that.

I stood and paced the room and looked for something to switch on or off. Sure, just give up Daniel and everything's fine. Wilkie watched me mince around with an icy smirk. The itchy feeling had spread all over me by then. And there was something about this FBI man that set me off in a strange way. Another blue suit with the same folders and maybe I would have kept it together. But Wilkie was like the genuine article. A freckle-faced astronaut waving to the camera in a sunny home movie, backing a Corvette out of the driveway on his way to the launch pad. Be like him and you can slip into that ray of pure light everyone's looking for. I didn't even know that angle worked on me until this guy showed up. I asked again if he wanted coffee and he said no.

We'll meet with the U.S. attorney and work out a plan, he said. Very casual. As if all we were doing was paying down my Master Card a little at a time. A picture of the federal building downtown flashed through my mind in a sour pop. I had a sick feeling I'd be there sooner or later to beg for whatever I could get. Wilkie studied me close for a second and could see how frayed I'd got. Just think about it, he said. Then he plunked his card down on the table, backed out of the kitchen and left the house, taking all the air from my lungs with him.

The house went limp from the quiet that followed and a hollow ache bumped through me. Alex Jr. was in his room on the video games. After Wilkie left, he walked into the kitchen asking who was that. Forget him, I said. Just a Mormon wants to know would we come to services on Sunday. What's a Mormon, he asked. Forget it and go back to your Star Wars or whatever. He stood there a few beats more, just to see if I'd say something else, knowing I was jerking him around.

I tried to pick up with the sports section again but my mind was falling through a weedy hole. Some wide receiver was crying about not getting the ball enough. A black with a diamond earring the size of an almond. Hey brother, do you know where most of your people are right now and you're crying about the ball? Cheer up, pal. I'm 56 and I'm going back to jail for the rest of my life. Get yourself a high-hard fuck in the ear.

I was feeling hot and started breaking up some with the tears. Here you go again, you jackass. My own voice in this schoolyard I-told-you-so singsong. I have two daughters from my first wife. Missed a big chunk of their growing up when I was locked away. There's only so many of those early years to begin with and they don't come back. No clue about either of them now. When I got out of prison they were way down the road. The oldest was supposed to be in a ballet company out west but this was ancient news. It looked like now I wasn't going to be there for Alex Jr. on account of the same bullshit. My mind melted to red. I couldn't breathe steady or link two thoughts together. Go for a walk, I said. Your son sees you like this and he'll grow up to be a candyass.

I threw on my coat. Alex Jr.'s room was dark but for these frantic streaks of light spewing out of the TV. His fingers fluttered on the controller in a wild blur. You ever hear of sunlight, I asked. Casts a glare on the screen, he said. Bombs exploding and heavy artillery fire over muffled, hard-charging guitars that sounded like raw meat was stuck in the frets. Posters on the wall of comic-book heroes posing with futuristic guns. All of them with buggy mutant eyes scowling at a world fallen into permanent midnight. I once asked who the good guys were and he just looked at me weird.

I said hold down the fort while I get lunch for us. OK, he said. He still liked the between-the-guys talk with me. But the cracks were showing. June would say he's just like the other 12-year-olds. But every day he wears black from head to toe, I'd say. How come there's never any buddies sleeping over? People would laugh and tell me how they'd give their eye teeth to have their kids in the honors classes. They get good marks and that's all anyone cares about. There was a gap with Alex Jr. and it was getting bigger. And now things were set to roll off a cliff.

I drove downtown to find Daniel. I had to tell him how turned around he was on what the FBI knew. How Wilkie had just showed me a particularly high level of detailed information to where I felt the cold weight of handcuffs cinching into my wrists. He hated it when someone with a pinch in his ass came crying what do I do now boss, what do I do. I wanted to have some idea worked out to show him I was on top of things. Like I had some vision or something. Look Daniel, here's the problem and it's kind of a jam, but here's what I think we can do. But I never was that guy and there wasn't any use in pretending now. I needed him to tell me the next move.

I parked on the square and walked around the corner to the Galaxy Inn where the same old scene was playing out. Russ was perched behind the bar with the crossword on his lap, nibbling on the tip of a pencil. Never much light in the Galaxy and the smell of urinal cakes met me at the door. Christmas tree lights were stretched in a line behind the bar along with some cotton balls made to look like snow. Three or four lifers sat hunched over their drinks, hardly enough voltage churning through their heads to power up a single thought among them. It was a big miracle when those guys could get it together long enough to have a pizza delivered to the bar. They'd huddle around it, smiling like they'd just knocked over an armored car, cheesy strings dangling from their mouths and their woozy eyes catching a triumphant sparkle.

Russ started in about all the snow we were supposed to get and wouldn't it be a sight for the holidays. He was from the south somewhere and had this hickory-smoked cheer he forced down your throat. I wanted to ram that pencil through his eye just to get my turn to talk.

I asked whether Daniel had been in and Russ said he hadn't seen him all week. That didn't sound right. Daniel owned the Galaxy and a half dozen other spots downtown. He stopped by all of them at some point during the day. A bolt of pain shimmied down my arm and I rubbed at it. There was a twisting grip in my jaw. Russ said you look like you're about to fall out and asked if I was OK. I'm fine, I said. Just if you see Daniel, let him know I came by looking. Whatever it was passed and I felt all right again but for a dull burn in my shoulder. I reached over the bar and opened the drawer for a pack of cigarettes. Not my brand but it was a chance to show Russ who was top dog between us. He didn't even see it that way though. Just gave this big howdy-do wave as I left.

There was a fat lady clanging a Salvation Army bell on 16th and Independence right where I was trying to get my thoughts straight. The chamber of commerce had dingy red ribbons hanging from every lightpole. Big smiles here and there. Merry Christmas, Alex. Say hi to June and Alex Jr. for me. Everyone acted like this was the middle of Christmastown, USA. To me it all looked like a gray hell. I tried to play along with a Burt Reynolds grin that said I'm on top of the world. But I didn't know that feeling too well and only smiled that way when I tried to push down something awful.

Sounds weird, but I could feel Wilkie looking at me. His blue high-beams looking down on me, brow crinkled up in confusion, trying to understand why a certain type of person chucks his life down the chute. I wished there was a way to explain it to him. To talk on his level. I tried to get with it. Breathe, dummy. Don't follow that kind of thinking, I said. Don't get defeatist.

I got out of prison nearly 13 years ago for a check-kiting charge. Did every single day of a seven-year sentence because I wouldn't point the finger in Daniel's direction. Just before I got out, the group counselor gave me these tapes on positive thinking and how to picture yourself in a place you want to be. How one bad thought starts another and another until you don't even get out of bed. On the tapes was an old Indian guy who talked while sitars and chimes played in the background. He'd say things like you'll never have a moment's peace until you can be friends with yourself and that the helping hand you're looking for is right at the end of your arm. The first time through it sounded like a wimpy cloudburst. But I must have played those tapes a thousand times just to stay nailed down. As I walked up and down the square, I tried to hook on to something the Indian might say, but nothing rang out.

Nobody I spoke with had seen Daniel. Very unusual. Go back home and call him from there, I thought. I stopped at the House of Yao to get a noodle soup for Alex Jr. I gave old Mrs. Yao my order in the feeble whisper of a boy locked overnight in the reptile house. And I must have looked worse. Without a word, she toddled from behind the counter and led me to a table making a sort of praying gesture with her bony hands sit down and rest, weary traveler. I tried telling her I was in a rush, but she wasn't having it. I didn't know why, but Mrs. Yao always liked me and showed it in a way I never second-guessed. She had this solid gold smile that can only be true. The old lady made me a pot of jasmine tea while I waited for the order.

The dining room was empty as usual. Yao's did mostly carryout business. A dozen or so pictures of the Yaos posing with the local bigshots were tacked to the wall. The Yaos with the mayor. With the governor. The guy from the 11 o'clock news and so on. A Yao on either side and a white guy in the middle was the theme. Some pictures were faded, others were new. There was a picture of them with Daniel, too. Local businessman and all-around good guy. Gap-toothed smile full of life, but looking past the camera and out the front door, his mind on the next move.

A teenage girl I figured for one of the Yaos' grandkids wiped down tables and bopped along to whatever pulsed through the beady white headphones plugged in her ears. I'd screw with Alex Jr. when he wore headphones in the house, floating through his own universe. If you're in the room, then be in the room is how I saw it.

So what's good, I asked. She doffed her headphones and said pardon me, just a touch annoyed at the interruption. She had on one of those bow-tie uniforms you see in Chinese restaurants with a worn shine from too many turns through the laundry. What's good, I asked. I just meant it like how are you, what's up. But she must have thought I was asking about the menu, because she let slip a grin and looked around to see who was in earshot gearing up for a joke. She said nothing's good, it's just edible. Then she broke into this tinny chuckle that made her shoulders roll a few times. I shook my head and turned to the window. There's a mighty fine how-do-you-do, I thought. Your grandfolks set you up with a cushy job and you talk down the product. Poor Yaos. They opened up when I was in high school 40-some years ago. People here didn't know a Chinese restaurant from teatime with the queen. Straight off the boat they threw everything they had into the place until it shined in its own little way.

The girl could see I wasn't amused and tiptoed away from me, pausing for token wipes at the other tables. My mind turned back to Wilkie. I thought about what he would make of Princess Yao here. Just as if he were sitting next to me having lunch. Sharing the same pot of jasmine tea. He'd say her whole act was a shame. That it was an honor to work in the family restaurant and then maybe one day get the chance to run it yourself. I'd nod heartily and say I'm with you 100 percent there, Wilkie. Just these few words between us was all it would take to show we were on the same page. And it's how I really felt, too. A restaurant. If something like that had been waiting for me, I would have grabbed it with both hands and held on for dear life. Whatever this goofy girl had in mind that beat running the House of Yao one day would knock her flat on her ass for sure. Funny thing is, she'd probably come crawling back here as a sad-sack plan B, going off on some nosebleed to her friends about how hard life is and there's nothing out there for me.

I stared at traffic through Yao's window while my thoughts set me on fire. Not a decent play to make in any direction. Very painfully it occurred to me that I hadn't been paying attention all that closely to what I'd been doing and where it was leading me. At my age, I'm supposed to be spending summers on the lake while the pension checks roll in. June making sun tea on the front porch and all that. Instead, I had sore feet from sloshing around in someone else's ashtray all the time, constantly waiting on my marching orders.

Daniel loved to talk down guys who snitched out and turned state's witness. None of those Marys ever get a good night's sleep the whole rest of their lives, he'd say. I didn't disagree with him. With the plea deals most of them cut, they still did a bid nearly as long as if they just took the fall. Gabe Galanter testified against a few guys from Southlake over the pension fund scam with the lobstermen's union. Sort of a nobody, Galanter, but an OK guy, or so you would think. Then he sits in the witness stand for three days spilling everything about everyone as though he'd been dying for the chance his whole life. The deal was three years instead of five or something like that. His family was so ashamed they loaded up a Ryder truck and left their house on Providence Boulevard before the jury came in. They even got the grandfather out of the nursing home and moved him. Gabe did his time and stepped back into the world looking like he was made from old rags. Daniel would point him out and say peep that lump of dirt over there. The whole car would bust out laughing like a crew of happy crocodiles.

The capitol building intersects State Street a quarter mile from the table where I sat. On top of its golden dome is a statue of some goddess. Alex Jr. told me that she carries a sack of grain under one arm and, with a long sword in the other, points east to the rising sun. I thought how I'd like to beam myself from my chair to the top of that dome. To stand up there in the clear air and see where the goddess was pointing with her sword and then beam myself there. I'd keep at it like that for a while. Beaming to the next highest point I could see in the distance. To the tops of water towers and church steeples. On and on until I beamed around so many miles away that I'd lose myself. I'd find a place where I couldn't make sense of the people or how they kept score with each other. When I'd gone far enough I'd climb down and start again. Find a job working with my hands. Keeping so busy that I wouldn't corkscrew down to the same sort of life I tried to leave behind.

There was a game I played in prison when I couldn't sleep. They open the gates and there's a car with a full tank of gas and 50 grand cash in the back seat. Where do you go? How do you know you won't wind up in the very same jail cell again? You can't outrun your head is the point. And if you're locked into thinking you're a pile of trash, then that's the world you've made for yourself.

Within three weeks of getting released, I was back working for Daniel. That's not how I planned it though. I was with June by then and her cousin pulled strings for me to work in the mall at this place that does your taxes in 90 minutes guaranteed. He checked no criminal history on the application so I'd get hired on. June said with your head for numbers, they're lucky to get you. You don't need Daniel to find work.

Most of the customers wanted me to heat up their returns. What else can you do, they'd ask. Can't you get more creative than that? Never any sign that it bothered them. Total strangers whose kids dripped blue slushie juice on my desk. I was just some loser with a clunky nametag. I'd say no deal. Most of them would clamp it but others would keep on grinding away until I shoved their paperwork back at them. I stopped showing up after a week. At least with Daniel, I thought, here's a guy who stood to the waist in the mud next to you and didn't pretend it was something else. One morning I showed up at the office and said hey, I'm back. Daniel gave me some flak about how I should have come to him straight off. How he took care of my family while I was away and weren't we supposed to be a team. You could tell he wasn't all that offended, though. We healed wounds quickly enough and I was back on the money just like that. Bottom line is that I didn't try for the second or third thing. I stayed with thinking I belonged in the trash pile and went back to it.

Mrs. Yao rang a little desk bell and I snapped to. She stood at the register with a plastic bag jammed full of boxy cartons. I paid and she gave a perfect little bow that made the chords in my heart shimmer. Then there was an awkward pause like one of us should say something other than good-bye. I noticed the grandkid lurked near the counter, close enough to hear whether I would rat her out for the crack she made earlier. Mrs. Yao turned to her and said that Mr. Block coming here many years now. Good customer. That's what the pause was about. She saw how bad I looked and wanted to say something nice. To put me in a warm space even if it lasted only a few moments. Looking at me but talking to the girl again, Mrs. Yao said Mr. Block is a very nice man.

It was snowing. The first big storm of the year where everyone stands still and watches the snowflakes dance to their own time. A light feeling seemed to pass from one person to the next as though a new hope was floating around. High school kids not much older than Alex Jr. on their lunch break crowded the sidewalks. Loud knots of boys mimed roundhouse kicks at each other and shouted dimwitted battle cries in hopes that pretty swan-like girls, keeping close company, would notice them.

And then it hit me that if it was just now occurring to me to break for it, to bounce across the countryside on rooftops like in some Mickey Mouse movie, then Daniel, always three steps ahead, was long gone already. Long, long gone and never coming back. He knew how bad it was with the FBI. Nothing I could say to Wilkie was going to fix it. He probably bought himself a few days sending Wilkie to see me. But you bet your ass he's gone. That singsong voice again. My head painfully empty but for that singsong voice belting out dummy, dummy, dummy. You chewed-up dummy.

The bags from Yao's dropped to the sidewalk. I hunched down and knew that if I tipped over, my lifeless arms wouldn't answer the call to move. Hard to describe the pain in my chest. It felt like a crippled jackrabbit trapped in my heart was trying to beat off. These tiny but urgent pulsations lurching in a frantic rhythm. He's getting close but he can't quite make it. And since he's crippled, there's a hitch in his stroke that slows him down. The harder he tries, the more he throws himself off-balance so that, for every up and down, he makes a corresponding side-to-side movement to set himself right. When he finally made it, a prolonged current shot from my chest to my fingertips and stayed there as though shards of glass were rolling around in loops under my skin. There was a stinging pulse at the back of my eyeballs. My arms came back to me, but I couldn't continue to stand. I fell to my knees and held on to a parking meter to stay upright.

One of the busboys from Royal Pita extended a roll of paper towel. I tore off a sheet and wiped off the pulpy spit from the corners of my mouth. I took in the view from the ground, trying to reset my brain. There was a dog turd drying out near a trash can. Snowflakes bounced on the air, crisscrossing before my eyes. People on the sidewalk assembled around me in a half moon, whispering. Hey look, there's Daniel's guy clumped in a heap on the sidewalk. Every face said the same thing.

An ambulance siren grew louder. Its high-low peal the song of a flightless bird from dinosaur times. Donna Hammond stood outside of her nail salon in a pink lab coat. She lit up a cigarette and looked at me like I was a painting she didn't enjoy. Soy sauce packets were scattered across the sidewalk. The corners of napkins fluttered in the faint breeze, each one hopeful to catch a gust that could carry it off down the block.

My back was facing the street, but I could see the red splash of light from the wig-wags blinking against store windows. The ambulance siren cut off and its sound was replaced by the gravelly roar of the engine fighting against the cold air.

The paramedics were just kids. They lifted me onto a stretcher that made brittle clicking sounds when its joints locked into place. I'm older than both of you put together, I said. They told me be still and spoke to each other in a medical shorthand I couldn't follow. They hooked me up to machines, each made its own beeping noise that sounded off at different intervals like morning birds. A picture of Daniel in a convertible cruising an oceanside highway flashed through my mind. His free hand resting over the passenger seat tapping his fingers along to a Beach Boys song. It occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to swing the doctor's bill and June would need to dip into whatever we had tucked away for Alex Jr.'s college.

The inside of the ambulance doors were decorated with a cardboard skeleton wearing a Santa Claus hat. The siren switched on again and my head bounced off the stretcher with every pothole we rolled over. I wanted to make a deal with the paramedics. Let's make this easy for everybody. Just show me the switch and I'll flick it off. I didn't know what was coming next and I didn't want to find out, either. So just let me turn the switch off and we'll be done here. But I said nothing. I hoped someone would be on the ball enough to get Alex Jr. his lunch but thought it was unlikely. Then I stretched out with my eyes closed and tried to let go.   v

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