The Freaking Meaning of Life

April, 1987 — Ann Arbor, Michigan

At least the office late at night is quieter than it is during the daytime, but the small hours of the night do not add any magic or mystery. The rows of desks stacked with paperwork do not look any neater, and the florescent lights that hang from the ceiling still make everybody in the room look like a two-day-old corpse. The only person currently unfortunate enough to be thus afflicted, in the small hours of a Friday night, is Detective William Geisler of the Ann Arbor Police Department. In his current mood, looking like a two-day-old corpse seems just about right.

He takes a manila folder off a short stack to his left, opens it to briefly examine the first page of its contents, closes it, and puts it on the larger stack to his right.

Outside, a cold wind is beginning to stir in advance of the early spring dawn. For the last few minutes it’s been rattling the old windows, which doesn’t interest Geisler particularly. But when one of the bullpen office’s front double door suddenly opens, he does at least look up.

And looks down at his folders again, seeing that the man coming through the door is his former partner, Detective Sergeant Patrick Leonard. Leonard looks like a five-year-old boy’s idea of the perfect uncle: a face that looks like it was made to be cheerful, a fringe of neatly trimmed gray hair around a tanned balding head, and a body still fit enough to play touch football with.

Less fortunately, the bastard is also quite smart enough to know where to find a younger ex-partner who was apparently broadcasting his emotions a little too clearly at the bar a couple hours ago.

“Well, how about that,” Leonard says, perching on a neighboring desk. “I thought I might find you here.”

“Wow,” Geisler replies without looking up. “You oughta be a detective.”

Leonard chuckles and extracts a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He lights two in his mouth then leans forward to hand one to Geisler who takes it while continuing to read his latest folder. Closing that one as well, he takes a drag from the cigarette and blows smoke at the stack.

“Yeah,” Leonard says. “I am a detective, as it turns out. I think the question back at the bar was starting to sound like—is that what you are?”

Raising an eyebrow, Leonard blows two perfect smoke rings that drift, dissipating, into the still air.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “You’ve been doing the job for two years, William, and you’re doing fine.”

“Oh yeah?” the younger man looks up. “Fine?

“Well,” Leonard grins, “you know I like to be polite.” He becomes serious. “You’re doing it well enough that you can keep it if you want. The question is—do you want? It doesn’t take a private eye and a polygraph test to see that your heart isn’t in it, my friend.”

“Well—” Geisler’s frustration breaks out on his face, “look at this shit!” He waves an angry hand at the big stack of rejected folders, misjudges the distance, and strikes the stack hard enough to send half of them sprawling to the floor. “Ah, fuck.

Somebody’s had a few more after they left the bar, I take it?”

“Is this it?” Geisler looks up at his veteran partner, only half angrily. The other half is hoping that the older man might actually have an answer. “Patrick? Is this all there is? I’m investigating petty thefts and hundred-dollar grass dealers, for fuck’s sake! Is this the good stuff?”

Regarding the younger man, Leonard nods in acknowledgment and slowly hits his cigarette again. Leonard is fairly certain that he was never as idealistic as Geisler is now. In fact, he believes that he was pretty much born cynical.

“You know, buddy,” Leonard says, the murder capital of the world is just about forty miles thataway.” He hooks a thumb toward the windows on the east side of the big room, toward Detroit.

“Yeah, I know that,” Geisler says disgustedly. “But I’m from here, not there. I went to school here, not there. If I can’t find it here, then what’s next? You know damn well that Detroit will just be the same stupid sordid bullshit, except with more blood. And when I get bored with that—then what? Go to China? Africa? The frikking Himalayas? Wander the Earth until I’m as old as—”

“Me?”

Geisler looks up at Leonard, then down at his desk again.

“I just want—” He pauses and shakes his head angrily. “Fuck, I don’t know what I want.”

Leonard considers for a moment and judges that his partner is sufficiently inebriated to allow him to ask the Scary Question.

“You ever think about going back to school?” he says casually.

Instead of the anger that Leonard is half expecting, Geisler reacts with a laugh.

“Oh, yeah! That would be terrific. I can think of a few people who would be very amused by that! Hi, I’m back! I fucked up at being a cop, too! Can I try again here? Maybe I could teach freshman 20th Century Literature! No,” he shakes his head slowly, remembering, “you don’t know what that world is like. In the room the women come and go, talking of who they gonna blow, and it sure ain’t Michelangelo. Unless he can give them tenure.”

“Shit,” Geisler continues, puffing out smoke. “I didn’t even get five-year. No, that world is even farther away from—” He stops, and frowns.

“Aha!” Leonard points with what’s left of his cigarette. “Farther away from what?

Geisler looks at him with what Leonard thinks is the best deer-in-the-headlights impression he has ever seen. But then the shields go back up again. Geisler laughs and turns away, stubbing out his cigarette.

“Oh no you don’t!” Leonard leans forward. “Come on, buddy. You’re drunk enough. Detective, detect thyself! Quis detectiet ipsos detectes? What, exactly, is this job closer to, but not quite close enough for you? Hmm? What?”

Geisler looks at his partner with some amazement. “Jesus. OK, Father, I will confess. But no more Latin, OK? And give me another smoke.”

“You know, I can show you where they sell these,” Leonard says, but he shakes one out of the pack for Geisler and hands him the lighter. Geisler lingers for a while over the task of igniting the cigarette and taking the first few hits.

“When I was a kid,” Geisler begins, staring into the smoke drifting beyond the edge of his desk, “I thought I wanted to be a priest. That was all I wanted from as far back as I could remember. Because I thought That’s where the most important stuff is. Every Sunday, you can tell people—I don’t even remember what, now. What the hell did I want to tell them? I don’t think I ever actually figured that out, exactly. It probably seemed obvious. Tell them the important stuff. You know? I wasn’t even expecting to go to college at all, after high school. I even visited the seminary, once.”

He draws long on his cigarette, and lets the smoke escape.

“But then, by the time my senior year in high school actually rolled around, there was this girl. And I thought, Well, damn! This isn’t going to work very well in the church, is it? And then pretty soon I was finding out that the church—wasn’t exactly what the little boy had thought it was. Not at all.”

“I ended up in college just by default, you know?” He glances at Leonard, then away again. “I just didn’t know what the hell else to do with myself. In fact, I didn’t much give a shit. Good thing Michigan let me in—it was the only place I applied to. Good thing I always did well on standardized tests.”

“I just kind of fell into English, because that seemed like the easiest thing you could do with no preparation at all. And then grad school. And then,” he looks at Leonard, “I guess I ended up feeling the same way about academia that I felt about the church. It just wasn’t—” He frowns.

“It wasn’t getting you any closer to what you wanted,” Leonard says. He’s gotten people to talk things out before. Usually it’s about some criminal activity, but those cases are certainly no more challenging than this one. A lot of times the trick is just to make an encouraging remark at the right time, even if it’s content-free. This time it does the trick quite well.

“Any closer to what’s real.” Geisler finally loses his last inhibition and locks eyes with Leonard. “To what really matters. Why are we here? What’s life about? What’s the fucking point? I’ll tell you, you won’t find the answer in Intro to 20th Century Literature, and it isn’t in what priests say on Sundays. And I thought maybe—” He shakes his head and gestures helplessly at the stacks of papers on his desk.

“Oh, Christ,” Leonard says. “So you thought you were gonna find it here? The freaking Meaning of Life?”

“Well, when you put it that way, it does sound kind of dumber than shit, doesn’t it.” Geisler smiles sadly, but the expression fades. “It isn’t anywhere. Church or school or police station. It doesn’t exist. And I’m a fucking moron.”

“Oh, well,” Leonard takes a leisurely drag on his cigarette and regards the younger man speculatively as he exhales. “I’m not sure I would go quite that far. In fact,” he grins, “I might even have an idea for you.”

Geisler arches his eyebrows. “You gonna show me the meaning of life, Paddy? I don’t really swing that way.”

Leonard laughs. “Oh, yeah, you wish, sailor! No, actually, I have in mind a place where you can look for the answer to all your questions.”

Geisler frowns.

“Me and Dantonio,” Leonard continues, “and even your young cohort Johnson—we were all thinking of possibly doing a little fishing this weekend. You know, to celebrate the new kids’ promotions and all.”

Geisler widens his eyes. “Patrick,” he says, “it’s April. You’ll fucking freeze to death.”

“William,” Leonard looks at the younger man sadly, “there’s fishing, and then there’s fishing. If it’s too cold to go out on the lake—well then we just might have to,” he glances up at the ceiling, “oh, I don’t know. Maybe find some kind of drinks that could keep us warm? As well as, possibly—” he looks back down, smiling, but more warily this time, “a little warm companionship? If you catch my drift, Detective?”

“Oh, my,” Geisler leans back in his chair and strokes the beard that he no longer has. He knew that some of the guys took breaks together sometimes, but he didn’t know how interesting the breaks were.

“Or, of course, you could stay here,” Leonard says calmly, “and write sad poetry.”

Geisler smiles. “So where you going?”

“Far from the madding crowd,” Leonard says. “Down to Lenawee County, to a little place called Wampler’s Lake.”

Geisler smiles. “That does sound good.”

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