Joe asked me, when we were walking the other day, “Ash, will you tell me something true about yourself? Something from life?” It was relatively early in the morning, maybe eight o’clock. I’d woken up after the best sleep of my life, and for the first time in a lot of years, there were no bad dreams. No jerking up out of sleep, gasping for breath, no startling at phantoms in my room. It’s the way you sleep when you’re a little kid, on a summer’s night, after playing all day and you’ve just worn yourself out, and your mom puts you to bed and the window’s open and for those few precious moments, everything is right with the world. You slide into sleep like a dolphin cutting through deep water.
In recent days and years, my sleep resembled a half-submerged epileptic seizure, full of bad memories and even worse dreams and I could count on the fingers of one hand the nights I didn’t wake up – literally – screaming.
This is what happens when you think you’re getting away with something. You never really do. You might think you do, but the only one you’re kidding is yourself.
I didn’t know what Joe meant with that question and I said so. “I’m a lawyer,” I said. “Or rather, I was a lawyer. I don’t know what I am now. Nothing, probably.” Then Joe got this look I’ve noticed, this face he makes when something I say irritates him, this flat-eyed expression that reminds me of a dead fish. “Alright, okay. Just turn off the look, will you? Jeez.”
I thought for a moment. We were walking along this little pathway that wound in and out of a grove of trees. All kinds of trees, some I didn’t recognize, and birds singing in the trees. I remembered there was a park near where I used to live, and I’d walk there sometimes, early in the morning, if I had a difficult case I needed to work out, get my head around. It nourished me. “Something true about myself.” I stopped walking. I decided to tell him the truth, without embellishment. “I cry a lot when I’m alone…and I’m alone a lot.”
“Why do you suppose you’re alone?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do know.” Joe reached to pluck a leaf from an overhanging branch. It was a bright, vivid green, juicy-looking, bursting with life. He held it up to the sun so the light shone through it, showing all the little veins and capillaries, the delicate cells that made it what it was.
“I’m alone because…” I hated talking about myself like this. I don’t “do” personal stuff. Come in, sit down, tell me your troubles, that’s what I do, it’s my job. I don’t make friends with my clients. I don’t fraternize outside the office or the courtroom. “I’m not a nice man.”
Joe clasped a hand at the back of my neck, kind of like a father would do, or your favorite uncle, the one who only came to visit maybe twice a year, but all the same you knew he loved you. “That’s not why.” He squeezed my nape, then let his hand drop.
“Because I’m a lawyer, and everybody hates lawyers?” I asked.
“No,” Joe said, infinitely patient. It’s not hard to imagine him as a career cop. He’s the guy who’d interrogate you for hours, and never get tired. Good cop; bad cop. He’s one of them, or both. “Try again.”
We moved off the path and onto a space of lush green lawn with benches and a bubbling fountain. Flowers of every hue and description bloomed all around us. Your Honor, the Zoë is attempting to lead the witness. Objection. Overruled, Mr. Lipinski, stop wasting the court’s time. “I don’t open myself up to people, okay?” I sat down on one of the benches and crossed my arms, hugging myself. “I’ve learned not to. It’s safer that way.”
“It’s lonelier that way,” Joe said.
“Rebuttal: I’d rather be safe than sorry.” A handful of pigeons fluttered down in front of where we were sitting and started making the whirring noise every pigeon anywhere on the globe seems to make.
I love birds. I’ve always loved birds, and when I was—
When I was alive—
“You’re alive now,” Joe said. “You’re more alive now than you’ve ever been. Remember that, so I don’t have to keep repeating it till I’m blue in the face.”
“But it’s all different now,” I argued. “Come on, you can’t honestly expect me to believe that some great sky fairy took pity on me in the last moments of my life and decided to give me a do-over?” I made a derisive noise.
“When you put it that way…” He turned on the bench so we were facing each other. “Asher, look at me.”
“I am looking at you.” I didn’t want to raise my head and see what was in his eyes. I knew what it was going to be, the same thing I saw in everybody’s eyes when they looked at me: contempt. And boy howdy, I deserved it. I have done more reprehensible things in my 48 years…
“Regular Hitler, eh?”
“Stop reading my mind.” The fact that he could essentially see inside me freaked me out. It meant he had access to all my secrets. My usual spin wouldn’t work on him. I couldn’t bluff my way out of anything with Joe. Yeah, I was learning that real quick. “I’ve done a lot of unforgivable things.” I wasn’t about to listen to some New Age bullshit about how much God or the Universe or Whoever loved me, and how everything was forgiven, the slate wiped clean.
Joe drew a long sigh. He sat forward and tossed some seed to the pigeons. I don’t know where the seed came from but, with him being what he is, I suppose he can conjure things out of the air if he wants to. “The only one who needs to forgive you, Ash, is yourself.”
That’s never going to happen.