Get Me Out of Here

I don’t want to be here, dammit. The longer I’m here – and I’ve been here a long time – the more I think it’s some kind of hellish afterlife where you pay for your sins by losing everything you thought you wanted, everyone you loved.

I was told this was the great resurrection, when everybody was made whole and no sickness or sadness could persist, and death would have no dominion. Really? That’s not what I’m seeing.

— You’re trying too hard to control it, Joe said. He was sitting in the sunny windowsill of the place I’m trying not to consider my cell. Even if it doesn’t look like a prison, I know I’m in one. –Let go and let the change come.

— I don’t want to wait, dammit. I have a life to get back to. I have clients who need to see me. How the hell am I gonna pay off the mortgage on my condo? What about the lease payments on my car?

–You see anybody around here driving a car? Joe asked. He was chewing on a toothpick, moving it easily from one side of his mouth to the other.

— Not the point, I said. This was my condo, my car, my life.  Besides, everything around here seems to be going to you-know-where in a hand basket.

— Lemme show you something. Joe hopped off the windowsill.

–Something like what? I asked. We walked down the road for a while before Joe answered.

— What’s the most important thing to you? he said. Before you died and ended up here. What did you hold the most precious? Now, I want you to think about this, Asher. Joe stopped in front of me so I could see every wrinkle in his old-man face, the hard twinkle of his pale blue eyes.

I didn’t have to think. I already knew. But I didn’t want to tell Joe. It would be embarrassing. He might even laugh at me.

We passed a field of people working, tilling the soil, planting crops or whatever. I don’t know from agriculture. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, although how anybody could enjoy standing out in the hot sun for hours on end, I don’t know. Beats me. Joe stopped in front of the fence separating the field from the road.

— See anybody you know? he asked.

I scanned the little group of people. There was nobody I knew, just two older women busy scraping the ground with hoes, and four young men down on their hands and knees, widening a hole that they’d probably use for planting a tree. They worked quietly, talking to each other now and then in low voices. One of the young men sat back on his heels and took off the straw hat he was wearing against the sun’s head, and fanned himself with it. He gazed at Joe and me, seemingly without interest, until he lurched to his feet and ran to where we were. He’d tossed his hat away and his dark blond hair caught the wind. I knew he would have blue eyes. He would have blue eyes as clear as a prairie sky. I knew he would.

Jamie. I’d just about given up all hope of ever seeing him again.

— Asher. He was panting, out of breath. He bent over and put his hands on his knees.

— In the flesh, kid. I tried hard to sound cheerful. I tried hard not to sound clutching or desperate, while inside I was screaming his name over and over JAMIEJAMIEJAMIEJAMIEJAMIE!

— I’ve been looking for you. He glanced at Joe, then shot a questioning look at me.

— It’s okay, I said. He’s safe.

— Ash. In one fluid movement, he jumped the fence. Oh my God, Ash.

He opened his arms and I went into them.

Flowers

I’ve been keeping myself busy – well, Joe has been keeping me busy. He likes to give me lots to do. He thinks he’s keeping me out of trouble. I’d like to know what kind of trouble can I get into here? As far as I can tell, all the trouble has been sucked out of the world, and we’re supposed to behave ourselves and do good works and all that stuff. I asked Joe how he thinks I’m going to make a living doing good works. That’s when he hit me with a real kicker: there’s no money anymore.

I know. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard it. No money?

“You get whatever you need,” Joe told me. “Just go to the store and ask for it.” I told him he was nuts, but he just laughed. “You gotta try and get your head around it, Ash. The world you knew is gone.”

We take a walk to the edge of town, where the houses fade away into farmland. It’s a nice place. I often go there myself when I need to think things over, to ‘get my head around’ things. It hasn’t been easy, but at least when I come here I can breathe in the fresh fragrance of growing things, and feel like I’m still somehow in the world.

We passed a group of young people planting flowers around the doorway of a big red barn – beautiful flowers, all kinds, in every color you could imagine. Two young women wrestled a large shrub into a ready-made hole in the ground, and were busy scraping dirt around it. A third girl was planting what looked like daffodil bulbs in a small raised bed, while a fourth lifted blooming hyacinths out of a cardboard box.

A young man pressed flowers into the ground, patting the rich, dark earth into small mounds around the new plants. He was wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans over his taut, slender frame, and he seemed to take special care as he planted the flowers, checking each one to be sure it was securely rooted. His dark blond hair stood up in tufts all over his head. He glanced up when we passed by, and that gaze galvanized me like nothing else ever has.

“Jamie.” I’d been looking for him almost since the first moment I awoke in this place, and now he was here, right here in front of me. I started forward, but Joe hooked a hand around my arm and stopped me. “Why can’t I talk to him?” I asked.

Joe shook his head. “Not just yet, Ash. There’s still some things to figure out.”

Day 3

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.

 

 

 

 

Day 2 – I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues

So I’m still here, wherever this place is. Today I spent a couple of hours in the common room – that’s what they call it, but it’s not a room, not really, more like an arboretum. It’s a towering space with a glass roof that lets in the sun. I’ve never seen light this clear before. It’s like there’s no air pollution, no smog, none of the crap we’re all used to seeing, living in, breathing. There are more kinds of trees here than I can even begin to recognize, and there’s fruit on some of them – apples, bananas, peaches, plums, and some exotic fruits I’ve never seen before, in freaky-ass hues of brilliant pink and neon green. They encourage us to pick as much fruit as we want to eat, and there’s a spring with cold, clear water that tastes better than Perrier or Evian. I’m not kidding. If somebody had never tasted water in his life, and he woke up on that very first morning and tasted this, he’d say ‘yeah, I think I’ll call this stuff ‘water’.’

I keep telling them I need to call my office. Francine is gonna wonder where I am and I’ve got that McLaren case day after tomorrow – big lawsuit there, ever since old man McLaren slipped on that wet floor at Walgreen’s. I know Walgreen’s hired Benson – hah! Incompetent asshole. If he doesn’t show up drunk, I’m gonna buy myself a lottery ticket. Then there’s that Kesselman kid, the drug rap. That’ll be open-and-shut. Cha-ching! Ladies and gentlemen, please leave a generous donation in the collection plate as you leave. And I gotta call Ken back, see if I can talk him down from the fifteen years he wanted for the Lorbers. I mean, ‘tax evasion’ is a nasty set of words. I prefer “innocent oversight.”

I…I haven’t seen Jamie yet. Don’t get me wrong, worrying over that kid doesn’t exactly keep me up nights – I’m just wondering how he’s doing, you understand. Twenty eight years old, you think he’d be able to keep his ducks in a row, but not Jamie. How many times have I had to pull his chestnuts out of the fire? I ask you. The kid owes me. It’s just weird that I haven’t seen him around, especially now that I’m starting to get a handle on my situation. The old guy who comes to see me, he said his name was Joe. Used to be a cop, back in the day, which just goes to show you my instincts are still bang on the money. “How do you like your new digs?” he asked. We were sitting in the arboretum together. I was trying to do a crossword puzzles but my concentration is mostly shot these days. Maybe it’s something to do with the accident. “This place must be a step up for an ambulance chaser like you. Where’d you live before?”

“I had my own apartment.”

“Right, yeah, I remember. Over that Chinese place, what was the street? Off the Strip, if I recall.”

I always get the feeling when I’m talking to him that he recalls everything just fine. He’s just messing with me.

“It was a fine Korean restaurant,” I said, “in East Las Vegas.” Even I know this is bullshit. There’s nothing ‘fine’ in East Las.

“And they let you live,” he said, laughing in that pain-in-the-ass way he has that’s beginning to annoy the shit out of me, “just a stupid gringo ambulance chaser. You musta done okay for yourself, fixing parking tickets for all the little abuelitas. Picking up a little slip-and-fall business here and there, maybe a few skeevy divorce cases.” His small blue eyes bore into me like lasers, like ice-colored old man lasers. This bastard misses nothing. “You got to be a pretty important guero,  laundering money for the Latino gangs.”

“I never said I was auditioning for sainthood.” Who the hell let this guy in? And how much longer do I have to listen to him?

“But then you screwed up.” He peers at me like I’m an insect under glass. “Got yourself killed.”

“I had a car accident. As you can see, I’m perfectly well and healthy.”

“You sure it was an accident?” he asks. And then he tells me: the pickup truck that swerved at the last minute to drive me off the road? Deliberate. “Somebody wanted you dead,” he says, “and here you are.”

This, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is bullshit. I am not dead. I can hear and feel and think. I could get up out of this wheelchair right this minute if I wanted to and walk the hell out of here.

“You are alive,” Joe says. “You’re more alive now than you’ve ever been. You’ve been given a second chance, Ash. The question is: what are you gonna do with it?”

 

 

 

Well Isn’t This Just Peachy

So the last thing I remember is hitting the windshield. I shit you not. Right into the windshield, face first, and didn’t that just hurt like an S.O.B.  Why does crap like this always happen to me? So I wasn’t wearing my seat belt – that’s what air bags are for! This is just my crummy luck. And this is a good shirt, dammit. This is Sea Island cotton. You don’t get this shirt off the rack. I had this made for me by an Italian tailor, mother of pearl buttons, bespoke stitching, the whole nine yards.

That blood is never gonna come out.

I walked for hours after it happened but whenever I looked back it seemed like I could still see my car, lying in the middle of Route 50, out there smack in the middle of the desert. Smoke billowing out of what’s left of the wreck, thick black clouds rising into the air and some part of me knows I’m lucky to be alive. I survived. That’s got to count for something.

But something’s really off about this place.  It’s not like any hospital I’ve ever been in. It’s so quiet, for one thing. Nobody shouting over the intercom. No beeps or alarms. It’s so peaceful. I don’t know how long I’ve been lying here – there don’t seem to be any clocks in this place – and it occurs to me, you’re damn right it’s occurred to me, that maybe this isn’t a hospital at all. Maybe I’m in the morgue. Yeah, maybe I’m dead before I even hit the big time. Story of my life.

And there’s this guy, this old guy, bald as an egg, ancient-looking, like he’s a hundred years old if he’s a day. Wearing corduroys and a white t-shirt and one of those Members Only jackets. Burgundy, if you can believe it. He asked me how I was. “How you doing, Ash?” I don’t know how he knew that’s what everybody calls me. “Anything I can getcha?” Old geezer talks like he spent his life hanging around some of the tougher parts of Philly, getting into bar fights and drinking himself silly. Am I supposed to know who he is? Your Honor, may I approach the bench?

How am I doing? How the hell do you think, Gandalf? For this I spent ten years in college? Am I schmuck, or what?