The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 9


 “It won’t fall out, because there’s no point in trying radia-tion or chemotherapy. Aw, Jesus, it just seems so . . . I was going to say unfair, but life’s unfair, everybody knows that. What it seems is so fucking arbitrary. Do you know what I mean? God picks your name out of a hat and you’re it.”

 “What causes it, do they know?”

 “Not really. Statistically alcohol and tobacco seem to be factors. Much higher incidence among drinkers and smok-ers. Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons hardly ever get it, but they hardly ever get anything. It’s a wonder they don’t all live forever. What else? A high-fat diet may play a role. And they think there’s a connection with coffee consump-tion, but it’s hard to tell because eighty percent of the popu-lation drinks the stuff. Not Mormons, of course, or Seventh-Day Adventists, God bless ’em. All they do is beat their goddamn drums. Well, that’s about all I do, isn’t it? I drank for as long as I could, and I smoked like a chimney for years. And of course I’ve always been a heavy coffee drinker, and that’s one vice that certainly didn’t stop when I got sober. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

 “Is that why you’ve been staying away from it lately?”

 “Of course. What else do you do once the horse is stolen?

 You buy a new lock for the stable door.” She heaved a sigh. “Although I swear I don’t think coffee had a damn thing to do with it. And I think the real reason I stopped drinking it is because that kind of behavior is automatic for people in Twelve-Step programs. What do we do in times of stress? We give up something that gives us pleasure.” She got to her feet. “I’m going to have another cup,” she announced. “Can I bring you some?”

 “Sit down. I’ll get it.”

 “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I don’t have to conserve my strength. I’m not an invalid. I’m just dying.”

 A little later she said, “I don’t want to give you the impres-sion that I’m sick of the world and can’t wait to get out of it. Every day is very precious to me. I want to have as many of them as I possibly can.”

 “Then what do you want with a gun?”

 “That’s for when I run out of good days. I went over to the library and read up on the subject, and it seems that when the good days run out the bad days are pretty bad. You don’t just turn your face to the wall and expire. It’s apt to be pretty agonizing, and it can go on for a while.”

 “Aren’t there things they can give you for the pain?”

 “I don’t want that. I missed whole chunks of my life be-cause I was too full of Smirnoff’s to know what was going on. I don’t want to jump out of this world and into the next one with a head all muddled with morphine. I had Demerol after surgery and I couldn’t stand the way it made me feel. I made them take me off it and give me Tylenol instead. ‘But you’ve got breakthrough pain,’ the resident said. ‘Tylenol won’t touch it.’ ‘Then I’ll live with it,’ I told him, and it wasn’t so bad. Do you think I was being a martyr?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “Because I don’t think so. Dammit, I’ve got too much in-vested in a sober life to settle for anything less than a sober death. I’d rather have the pain than something to cover it up. What the hell, this is the hand I was dealt. I figure I’ll stay in the game as long as I possibly can. Then I’ll fold. It’s my hand, I can fold when I want to.”

 I looked out the window. It had grown darker still, as if the sun were setting. But it was hours too early for that.

 “I don’t consider it suicide,” she said. “There’s a part of me that’s still Catholic enough to find suicide unacceptable. God gives you your life and it’s a sin to take it. But I don’t see this as a case of taking my life. I’d just be giving myself a gift.” She smiled gently. “The gift of lead. Do you know the poem?”

 “What poem?”

 “Robinson Jeffers, ‘Hurt Hawks.’ He finds an injured hawk in the woods near his home and he goes on about how he ad-mires hawks, how if the penalties were the same he’d sooner kill a man than a hawk. He brings food to this one and tries to help it, but the day comes when the only thing he can do for the bird is put it out of its misery. ‘I gave him the lead gift in the twilight,’ I think that’s how the line goes. Meaning a bul-let. He shot the hawk, and then it was able to take flight.”

 I thought it over, and said, “Maybe it works better with hawks.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “Gun suicides are messy. And they don’t always work. When I was fresh out of the academy I heard about a guy who put a gun to his temple and shot himself. Bullet glanced off the bone and plowed a furrow up the side of the skull, tunneled underneath the scalp and came out the other side. The poor bastard bled like a stuck pig, deafened himself per-manently in one ear, and had a headache he couldn’t even begin to describe.”

 “And lived.”

 “Oh, sure. He never even lost consciousness. I’ve known of other cases where people managed to put a bullet in their brain but lived anyway, including a Housing Authority cop who’s spent the past ten or twelve years in a profound vege-tative state. But assuming you’d get it right the first time, is it really the kind of gift you want to give yourself? It’s such a violent physical insult to the body. You wind up with the top of your skull gone and your brains all over the wall. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be graphic, but—”

 “That’s all right.”

 “Aren’t there gentler ways, Jan? Isn’t there a book on the subject?”

 “Indeed there is,” she said. “I’ve got a copy on my bedside table. I had to buy the damned thing, too. I went to the li-brary and there were sixteen people on the waiting list. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I was at Zabar’s trying to buy half a pound of lox. You want to kill yourself in this town, you have to take a number and wait.”

 “How do they get it back?”

 “How does who get what back? You lost me.”

 “The book,” I said. “If it does its job, who’s around to re-turn it to the library?”

 “Oh, that’s rich,” she said. “You’d have to make a provi-sion. ‘I, Janice Elizabeth Keane, being of sound mind—’ ”

 “That’s your story and you stick with it.”

 “ ‘—do hereby request that my just debts and funeral ex-penses be paid, and that my copy of Final Exit be returned forthwith to the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library—’ ”

 “ ‘—in the hope that others may get as much out of it as I have.’ ”

 “Oh, Christ, that’s wonderful,” she said. “And then they call the next person on the list. ‘Hello, Mr. Nussbaum? We have the book you requested. Please get your affairs in or-der.’ ”

 How we howled.

 The problem with the book, she said, was that most of the recommended methods involved ingesting some sort of mood-altering substance. Typically you were advised to swallow a fistful of sleeping pills and wash them down with a glass of whiskey. Since one of her prime motives for sui-cide was the desire to die sober, such methods struck her as counterproductive.

 And suppose it didn’t work? Suppose she woke up twelve hours later with a hangover, and all she’d managed to do was lose her sobriety? My name is Jan and I’ve got one day back and two weeks to live. No, to hell with that.

 “They also recommended carbon monoxide,” she said. “You attach a hose to the tailpipe and run it through the win-dow. Tough to do without a car, though. I suppose you could rent one, but what would I do, park it on the street? Just as I was fading out some crackhead would break in and steal the radio.”

 So a gun seemed like her best choice. She was going to be cremated anyway, so what did it matter what she looked like? The person who discovered her body might have a bad moment or two, but that was just too bad, and life was full of bad moments, wasn’t it?

 She had thought of traveling to some southern state where they’d sell a handgun to anybody who wanted one, but she wasn’t sure just how the laws worked. Could you buy one if you were from out of state? Or did you have to show local ID? Maybe you could establish residence, the way people used to do to get a Nevada divorce. Anyway, how would you go about getting the gun back on the plane? She could al-ways make the return trip on Amtrak, but she hated the idea of spending that many hours on a train. For that matter, she wasn’t crazy about the idea of flying anywhere, either.

 “And then I thought, for God’s sake, the city’s full of un-registered guns, and it shouldn’t be that hard to get one. If schoolchildren can get them, if homeless derelicts walk around armed, how tricky can it be? And I asked myself if I had a friend who would know how to get his hands on a gun, and who maybe loved me enough to do it. And you, my dear, were the only person who came to mind.”

 “I guess I’m flattered.”

 “And thrilled in the bargain, huh?”

 Was it raining outside? It looked as though it might be raining.

 I said, “You know, I hate all this. I hate that you’re sick. I hate the idea of you dying.”

 “I’m not crazy about it myself.”

 I said, “I’ll get you the gun.”

 “You will?”

 “Why not?” I said. “What are friends for?”

 Chapter 8

 Outside, there was a cold wind blowing. You could feel the storm coming. I walked to the IND station at Canal and Sixth. I must have just missed an A train, because I had to wait fifteen minutes for the next one. The platform was empty when I got there, and almost as empty when the train finally showed up.

 I got off at Columbus Circle, and when I hit the street it was pouring fiercely. The few people unfortunate enough to be out in it took shelter in doorways, or struggled with um-brellas, trying to keep the wind from twisting them out of shape. On the far side of Fifty-seventh Street I saw a man trying to cover his head with a newspaper, and another man scurrying along with his shoulders drawn in, as if to present the rain with the smallest possible target. I didn’t bother to adopt any of these strategies. I just resigned myself to get-ting soaked and walked right on through it.

 When I hit the lobby, Jacob looked across the desk at me and whistled softly. “Lord, you better get yourself upstairs and into a hot tub,” he said. “Catch your death walkin’ around like that.”

 “Nobody lives forever,” I said.

 He gave me a curious look, then went back to the Times crossword. I went up to my room and got out of my wet clothes and under the shower. I stood there a long time, will-ing myself to feel nothing but the hot spray on my neck and shoulders. By the time I turned off the taps and stepped out of the tub, the little room looked like a Turkish bath.

 The mirror over the sink was steamed up. I left it that way. I had a pretty good idea how old and tired I looked, and I didn’t feel the need to see for myself.

 I got dressed and tried to find something to watch on tele-vision. I settled for the news on CNN but it didn’t matter what I was watching because I couldn’t pay any attention to it.

 After a while I turned it off. I’d had the overhead light on, and I turned that off, too, and sat looking out the window at the rain.

 I met Jim Faber at the Hunan Lion on Ninth Avenue. I got there at six-thirty, having walked the several blocks with an umbrella for protection. It didn’t blow inside out, either. The rain was still coming down hard, but the wind had eased up considerably.

 Jim was already there, and as soon as I sat down the waiter came over with menus. There was already a pot of tea on the table, and two cups.

 I opened the menu and nothing looked very appealing. “You may be eating for two tonight,” I said. “I haven’t got much of an appetite.”

 “What’s the matter?”

 “Oh, nothing.” He gave me a look. He is my AA sponsor and my friend, and we’ve had a standing Sunday night din-ner date for a few years now, so it’s not surprising that he can tell when I’m being evasive. “Well, I had a call yesterday,” I said. “From Jan.”


 “She wanted me to come down to her place.”

 “Isn’t that interesting.”

 “Not in the way you’re thinking. She had something she wanted to tell me. I went down there this afternoon, and she told me.”


 I said the words in a rush, not wanting to give them a chance to get stuck in my throat. “She’s dying. She’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she’s got less than a year to live.”

 “Jesus Christ.”

 “I guess it hit me pretty hard.”

 “I guess it would,” he said, and then the waiter turned up with pad and pencil at the ready. “Listen,” Jim said, “why don’t I just go ahead and order? Bring us one order of the cold noodles, an order of the spicy shrimp with broccoli, and General Tzo’s famous chicken.” He squinted at the menu. “Except he seems to be known as General Tsung at this par-ticular establishment. Another menu, another spelling. I sup-pose it’s all the same general. God knows it’s always the same chicken.”

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