Monday, April 27, 2009

My Assassin

Everyone has an assassin. Most of us never cross paths with ours is all. My assassin crept through the Great North Woods for days. All he knew was where the sun vanished and where it reappeared: over the mountains that way, from the forest over there. He countered its path through the sky with a daylong journey of his own, slashing through brush and bramble in as straight an eastward line as he could. Then the dark would come and then the cold. He never seemed closer to his goal; each new day promised nothing but night. When he awoke, the sun was there to mock him. He would eat what he could from trees and bushes. Drink from a brook. And soon set off again.

I was walking up the stairs to my apartment with a bag of wine. Hoping to avoid chance encounters with my neighbors; the requisite, awkward hellos and eye contact. I did not know that my assassin was mere days away. It was possible I might never know.

He emerged in a field and saw a highway in the distance. He followed it south, not on the shoulder where the cops would pick him up but beyond the fence, among the trees, up and down the dynamited hills. Finally he saw a rest stop: a squat, stone building with cars behind it, picnic tables, children running in the grass. He cleaned himself in the men's room as best he could and stood guard at the building's door.

"Have you heard the news?" he asked the first people to walk by, a paunchy couple in their forties with two boys in tow. No reply.

"Have you heard the good news?" he asked a slender, middle-aged woman. She walked past in disgust, chin tucked to her chest.

"Have you welcomed Jesus in your heart?" he asked a young man, who eyed him tauntingly but did not say a word.

He questioned every passerby this way, receiving nothing but mute stares, oblivious disregard or sneering nos. Finally, on the 78th try, a genial, obese man with a blond crew cut smiled back.

"You bet I've heard the good news! What's your name?"

"Uh... Jim," he croaked. He hadn't spoken a word in weeks.

"Jim! I'm Jim too! Isn't that a riot?" Jim held out his hand and shook Jim's hand.

"I guess."

Jim laughed heartily. "Hey, that's OK. You look like you could use something to eat. Can I give you a ride somewhere, buddy?"

"I need to go to New York City."

"New York City! That's a tall order. What are you doin' down there?"

"Spreadin' the word, I guess. And the deeds."

Jim nodded quickly, like he didn't specially wanna hear. "God bless you Jim. God bless you and God love you. Hey, I can take you down to Portland and then we can see if we can maybe find you a bus or something, OK?"

"Uh. That'd be great."

Jim and Jim rode together in Jim's Consolidated Christian Youth Ministries of Maine van. He ran the ministry out of Portland and had just done some evangelizing up in New Brunswick, he was saying. He was on the road a lot. Saving souls. Jim didn't much like Jim. He briefly considered killing him, but thought better of it when he thought about that ticket to the city. Jim talked and talked and talked and Jim mostly shut up and before he knew it he had a Greyhound ticket in his hand for New York City and he was standing in the bus depot on Congress Street staring at a vending machine full of pretzels, chips and candy. Jim bought a Kit Kat with the pocket money Jim had left him.

I walked down Amsterdam Avenue, fumblingly sticking my earbuds in my ear, cursing it all inside my head. It was a beautiful day, but then again it was like any other day. I had absolutely no idea that I'd soon encounter my assassin.

Jim walked the underground path from Port Authority to the Times Square station and got on the downtown 2. It was late afternoon by now, pretty empty train. He saw me sitting across the way.

"You know it's coming, dontcha?" he said.

I lifted my head warily. "Oh yeah? What's coming?"

"The end time."

"The end time for what?"

"For you, brother."

"Well, I hope not."

"Jesus doesn't give you a choice."

"That doesn't seem too Christian."

"There is a time for everything under heaven."

"So they say."

"A time to kill and a time to die."

"This is my stop," I said.

His eyes widened. "This is your stop. It's your last stop, sinner."

"I mean on the train. This is my stop on the train."

"Oh," he said. "Yeah. OK. Well..."

"Good talking to you."

"Turn your back on me, you get the evil eye."

I stood up and walked toward the door.

"Repent!" he cried.

I felt his glare between my shoulders as I stepped off the train. From the platform I looked for him through the window. He was masked by a clutch of deadpan, harried Manhattanites, newly boarded. If he was there at all. Relieved, I joined the bottleneck at the base of the stairs. Two Hispanic women labored up the steps with a stroller.

When I reached the top, my assassin was standing there waiting. I wondered whether to double back or try to run past him. Instead, I found myself standing still, open to whatever may yet come.

He lifted his right hand and made a gun with his finger.

"Pow! Pow! Pow!" he shouted, pantomiming the hammer's action with his thumb.

There was only one thing I could do. Because we live in a civilization. Because we adhere to the social contract. Because ritual actions and their requisite counteractions are at the heart of all meaningful social life.

I slapped my right hand to my heart and said, "Got me."