Not A Standoff

READ SHORT STORY (about 2100 words)

“I wouldn’t call it suicide.” Not a trace of morbidity or fear was discernible in his response. “I’d call it ‘letting go.’”

“Shut up, you crazy old man!” The 23-year-old had seen reactions and apprehension when gunning for cash, but never this. “I tell you again, it’s gonna be your suicide if you don’t stop screwing around and gimme your wallet!”

In spite of oblivion being directed at his face from a hoodie-covered kid who was growing increasingly more agitated, Joshua was calm – or perhaps numb would be apt. And tired. In fact, utterly overstrained. “Just pull the trigger.”

The kid’s lips were quivering. He glanced left and right. Even though it was well after midnight, the alley was visible to anyone who might look out their apartment window from either side. He realized, too late, that he should have waited a moment longer until they were farther away from the street light.

“Do it.” Joshua observed the barrel shift from slightly trembling to more twitchy.

Although it would appear he was a victim, Joshua felt oddly in control. Although ‘control’ would be an overstatement, since, really, he now conceived this moment as preordained and he was merely living it out.

Like ocean waves slowly washing over sand, Joshua’s awareness undulated as swells of latent understanding massaged through his mind.

Compared to the initial surprise a few moments earlier that startled him out of a hazy stupor, Joshua found himself oddly at ease; even becoming detached from the experience, as if it were a movie. Indeed, it seemed he was a dilettante actor in a performance reaching a climax that was written much earlier. A performance of a script that he had never directly read, but glimpses of which had been haunting him at night, or periodically nagging him from the edges of inebriated perception. It was in this instant that he was able to reconcile the drama of the past few years with this scene as its ultimate denouement.

Yet, somewhere amid the mental fog of too much beer and bourbon, as well as the chronic morosity that guided his daily deterioration, a spark flickered. Almost too small to perceive. But it was a twinkle of hope: An appreciation that this long-due end would not only silence the suffering but might even initiate something better.

Over recent years, he occasionally contemplated how to end things, but was oddly stopped by the notion of how it might impact those he would leave behind. Such was the dilemma of trying to die while preserving a semblance of imagined dignity by not doing the deed himself. Which made this moment a sublime solution.

“I say it again, you gonna get your suicidal wish!”

The kid was breathing faster and talking louder but Joshua wasn’t moving. An instant of recognition flashed by: the desperation behind the gun reminded him of his own life before it crashed beyond any reconciliation. However, more preeminent in his mind was the urge to sleep.

“Give me your cash!”

He noticed scintillating pulses of saliva propel from the kid’s lips, glinting from the overhead light, as he emphasized his demand another time. The image prodded at his wandering attention, inviting him back to reality.

He felt sorry for the kid. He’ll be disappointed with how little was in his wallet. “Pull the trigger.” Attendant with Joshua’s recognition of the pending outcome, he hadn’t anticipated that he’d have to coax the inevitable. Even the notion of urging anyone to do what they were threatening required too much effort.

The kid waved the gun and repeated his demand louder, intending to portray a more imperiling posture. But Joshua just didn’t care. Other than hoping the kid wouldn’t chicken out. His attention continued to drift. The kid was becoming dreamy. His shouting was diminishing as if someone was turning down the volume in the theater. The movie was losing focus.

Joshua tried to get a handle on the truncated waves of insight washing over him. He mentally grasped for fragments of developing notions long-hidden in the depths of unconsciousness, now finally beginning to surface.

At first, there was an overarching realization of how years ago he could never have conceived his life to end this way. Underneath was a dawning recognition that on some larger scale, this was only one piece of a puzzle that he never realized he was assembling.

Yet, in the past, he had seen glimpses of tonight. Could he see the future? Or was he somehow creating it?

It was like the very idea of living was some kind of game that only now he was apprehending that he never understood. He was not purely a random effect of all that occurred around him, nor was his parade of losing merely a result of the prevailing winds. He had a misguided hand in it all, even though he had been long convinced it was just bad luck and betrayal.

Relationship heartbreaks flitted through his mind.

He recalled the dismay of confronting blatant injustice within the legal system and the pending loss of all he had worked. But there were hidden bad choices that preceded it all. Bad choices that had been later ‘remedied’ by further bad choices. Nonetheless, they were the choices that brought him here tonight, staggering along a long dark path of apparent inevitability, never once conceiving he could change his direction.

How fast his entire life unraveled now seemed so irrelevant.

At this point, he was just too damn tired.

He was glad it was just about over.

For everything that had gone wrong, he could at least find some paradoxical solace recognizing that in spite of all the heavy drinking, his demise would not be by alcohol poisoning. Stumbling out of the bar and being accosted by this kid was simply a benevolent collision of two worlds in freefall. Like two opposed and out-of-control fighter pilots from a distant war who were both falling to destruction, but only one was conscious of the imminent outcome.

Tragically, this kid’s death spiral was occurring so much younger. Perhaps their independent vortices of escalating losses had somehow synchronized into one larger maelstrom of mutual decline. A decline that was about to metamorphize into a singular moment for each. Undeniably, the kid was a victim of his own bad choices acting out in a parallel universe. But was it totally random they should meet tonight? Or, was some cosmic force channeling their mutual discontent to this instant, which was bigger than the value of Joshua’s wallet?

That value, however insignificant, was nevertheless all he had left.

The house was finally foreclosed. His wife left. He hadn’t spoken with his two grown kids in over a year. The car would be repossessed as soon it was located. His remaining bank account was overdrawn. It was a miracle he was still alive, existing off the final limits of his last active credit card.

“Pull the trigger.” Joshua repeated his request, although his boozy pall was taking a toll and he wasn’t as insistent as a moment ago.

Amidst the waves, he felt embraced by a calming peace, the likes of which he forgot existed. It was an experience so long absent that he couldn’t conceive it outside the nonstop anxiety of debt, legal struggles, anger and omnipresent stress that he had come to define as daily survival.

He accepted that, really, he died long ago, when it was discovered that his partner had disappeared after embezzling the company’s cash, forcing the business into a tailspin of unpaid bills, disgruntled and departing employees, irate vendors and cascading lawsuits. But of course, his ex-partner, criminal that he was, had his own justification for treachery. A reflection of at least one of Joshua’s earlier bad choices.

Joshua was too old to recover. It took years to become financially independent and to lose it all was more of a death than any bullet could deliver. He was tired of living in his car and taking showers at the athletic club. He wasn’t even exercising there anymore, although he still appeared in reasonably good shape for someone his age, who spent much of his life running, biking, swimming, lifting weights or taking classes in self-defense. It appeared he still had a level of residual fitness unlikely for someone drinking himself on a path to extinction.

The spark glowed inside and he felt drawn to its hope, a beckoning to something better, whatever it might be.

This was the moment.

Joshua drifted back to the situation at hand. The benefactor of a new beginning was still yelling and waving and then started coming closer — penetrating Joshua’s bubble of alcohol acquiescence — which ignited an instantaneous burst of reaction against a kid who was swinging his gun as a club, intending to bludgeon his target to submission. But the previously docile geezer reacted with a surge of energy befitting a cornered animal — except in this case he wasn’t trying to survive, he was merely trying to avoid any last-minute suffering.

Although his motions were rusty and inelegant, he instinctively grabbed and twisted the kid’s wrist — loosening his gun grip — while smashing a knee to his groin and swinging the other elbow into his throat. The kid gagged and wheezed. His eyes rolled back and he went limp.

Concurrent with the burst of adrenaline came a surge of final compassion: Joshua eased the incapacitated kid down to his knees and extracted the gun from his hand, rather than let him fall on the pavement.

It was over.

He pointed the barrel and pulled the trigger.

#

Despite writhing and gasping for air, the explosion slammed the kid’s eyes wide open and he incredulously watched the old man collapse in front of him with a hole in his temple.

The subsequent silence seemed more suffocating than his inability to breathe.

Emotions swept through, surpassing his pain and incomprehension. The kid’s faltering bravado from a moment earlier collapsed into the shock of being so readily subdued, which was then eclipsed by the horror of what he never intended: a dead man from his own gun.

For all the times he had pointed it at anyone, only this once it held bullets. The fact that it was loaded at all was because he loaned it to Sammy yesterday, who promised to pay for it if he had to ditch it. But he returned it earlier today: unused but fully loaded.

The tragedies of his past flashed by as he observed the guy sprawled across the cement, soberly bleeding an eternal finality that invoked the kid’s own mortality.

Before he left Newark for LA to start a job with a friend of his mom’s, he’d promised her he would do her proud. She argued he was a good kid and he needed to connect with different people. Otherwise, he’d become a statistic like so many before him. But after a few months, the job didn’t work out. Yet, he did meet Sammy and a few others who were on the same path he left behind in New Jersey.

Why couldn’t he shake his past? Behind every bad decision, he could see his mom — the only person who ever believed in him. He hated that conversation. But somewhere deep inside, he knew she was right — or at least he wanted to believe she was right — because he hadn’t seen much evidence of it.

Perversely, he saw himself in this stranger on the ground: a real-world specter of his own future bedeviling him about a forthcoming day that may be sooner than he conceived.

Is it too late?

For the first time since he was a child, his eyes swelled with tears and his chest constricted in anguish. It was a standoff he couldn’t imagine losing. Yet, here he was, on his knees, beaten by a drunk and on the hook to spend years in jail for a death he didn’t commit and an incident no one would believe.

The kid unsteadily got back on his feet, wiped his eyes, and started limping away, still gasping to catch his breath and steel himself against the torment. He didn’t understand what just happened, but for the first time ever, a profound cognizance impinged through his crippled consciousness: He had to find a better way.

by George Alger

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