11 Jan, 2017 — Ann Arbor, Michigan
Waking up is like tearing himself out of a chrysalis of covers and confusion. In the world he inhabits, composed of one part waking and two parts dream, the struggle seems to last forever. It takes forever for Bill Geisler to even remember who and where he is, and his actual surroundings get so small a vote in the process that he doesn’t know it was the phone that woke him up until he hears a voice finishing a message on the answering machine. And then he has no idea what it just said, except that it didn’t sound much like a government advertisement. After returning from a sleepless day—visiting Patrick and then impulsively driving up to Whitmore Lake with the rental car—Geisler collapsed into sleep around the time he would usually have been waking up at 5pm, violating a rule he has lived by for more than a quarter century. Stumbling toward the desk, Geisler looks at the clock and sees that it’s almost 8pm. The sun set more than two hours ago. Well, he knew that—or would have if he’d thought about it—when he decided not to come home on time.
This is a message for William Geisler, the machine says when he manages to hit the button, still clumsy from his long nap or short sleep. Your services as a night security guard at the Ann Arbor CoMerica Building will no longer be required.
He sits down at the desk and continues to listen as the dispassionate voice advises him concerning his final paycheck. When the voice starts to talk about time limits on his retrieval of any personal effects that he may have left at the building he strikes the machine with his fist and it stops talking.
Geisler puts his hands on the desktop, staring at the broken machine, then pushes himself up from the chair and stalks to the window and looks down Huron to the CoMerica just over a block away, its upper floors stepping back and back like the courses of a ziggurat. The CoMerica may be the richest building in town, but it’s certainly not the only one that needs nighttime security. There’s Chase Bank, for one, only a block to the south. He’s been by there many times at night. He could just walk in, talk to whoever they’ve got there, maybe be able to put in an application. And then of course there’s the clubs, the drug places. Those places always need somebody. They tend to burn through people pretty quick. He could—
An image comes into Bill Geisler’s mind of a 65 year old man working as a bouncer at the front door of the club downtown called New World Odor. Or how about over on the east side, vetting the headbangers waiting to get into Psycho-Fancy? Or, more pitifully still, going hat in hand to the HomeSec-approved AAPD. Hey, remember me guys? I’m the burnout from a million years ago you might have heard about. No? Bill Geisler? Anybody?
Nobody needs you.
He turns away from the west window, taking a step sideways, and look into the darkness at the back of the apartment where he has spent half his life, presses his hands together in front of him in a gesture that is a cross between prayer and isometric exercise, and breathes explosively a couple times. Then a couple more times, before he turns away from the darkness, this time to face the apartment’s north window. He doesn’t unclasp his hands until he reaches it and leans on the sill, feeling cold air filtering down from the glass: the winter night trying to enter his room, and perhaps his soul, by osmosis.
Looking up Fourth Avenue he can see all the way to the shuttered bell tower at Kerrytown and the farmer’s market area. The old county buildings just across Huron are no taller than the Embassy. Geisler stands at the window, staring out over snowy Ann Arbor towards the darkness in the north with the intersection’s traffic light casting its changing colors into his window. He doesn’t see any of these things.
Turning away from the north window, Geisler goes to his desk and takes an old wooden Bolivar cigar box from the top drawer: a gift from the guys when he retired long ago. A remnant of an ancient world that you can still get the scent of more than a quarter century later. Sliding the top off, he takes a thick wad of cash out. All small bills, unfortunately: fifties and hundreds. Seeing the count, he grimaces. There’s a bundle of ten thousand, still rubber-banded together, and on top of that only fifteen hundred. It’s barely enough for two months, even at the I-love-you rates he gets from the Embassy.
Putting the paper money away again, he moves to the bed, lifts the corner of it, and bends down to grasp the bottom of the metal tube leg. The foot of it can turn to stabilize the bed on the Embassy’s ancient wooden floors. What is less obvious is that the portion of the metal tube just above that foot can also turn, and Geisler unscrews it not with some difficulty. He pulls it down to reveal a length of cloth-wrapped black iron pipe, capped at both ends like a homemade bomb. Sitting at the desk, Geisler unscrews one endcap from the heavy pipe and upends it into his hand, and carefully spreads a stack of eighty-five silver half-dollars onto the desk’s surface. They are Franklin and Standing Liberty halves, all well worn, all tarnished with age. All are more than half a century old, and a few of the Standing Liberties are almost a full century. He remembers the Franklins from his childhood, when one of them was a lot of money for a ten-year-old boy. Now, each one of them is a lot more money for the sixty-five-year-old man. These are his real savings. With this pipe, plus the others he has concealed around the apartment, he could last years with no income. Probably the rest of his life.
Geisler looks up from the desktop out the west window again, down snowy Huron Street. After some time, his lips tighten into a kind of smile. It’s always been a little dicey paying with silver, and it seems to have been getting worse lately. He doesn’t know how well it will work with a purchase as large as a car. He does know, however, that there is only one way to find out.
After Main Street, Huron slopes down all the way to the railroad tracks and makes a perfect channel for the biting wind. Geisler hunches his shoulders and turns his head, blinking to get tears out of his eyes, but keeps walking. And sees a car go by, traveling west like he is, with a man and a woman in the front seat, their faces lit by the glow of dashboard instruments. The man is saying something, and the woman is laughing.
He remembers the night that Patrick walked into the office and found him sitting at his desk. When they talked, and Patrick told him that he and some of the guys were going down to Wampler’s Lake to do some ‘fishing’. The night he came out. He told Patrick that night that he had come to the police job for the same reason he had been a teacher, and the same reason he had dabbled in the priesthood. Because he wanted to get to what was real in life. Of course it has occurred to him many times since then that the man and woman in the car that just passed by, untroubled by the winter—most likely they are the ones who have gotten to what is real in life, and fools like Bill Geisler who wander around poking at the curtains and walls that make up the set for this world that’s all a stage—they will only discover that they have missed the good parts of the show. Those people in dark clothes who lurk behind the scenes moving the furniture around? They’re no more real than the ones out front wearing the pretty costumes. But who do you think is having more fun?
There’s a club at the corner of Huron and First called LIVE! He is pretty sure they meant that as the adjective, rather than the verb, but it’s a bummer either way now since the club has been dead for at least five years. As he crosses First and continues down Huron’s steepening slope the wind hits him so hard that he can’t breathe for a second, and has to stand motionless, his legs braced against it. He feels like a buffalo in those old pictures, standing stoically with snow in their fur. What you can’t see is the thought balloon that says This Sucks.
Past the end of the long brick facade of LIVE! there is another long brick building, this one without any indication of what it used to be. Now it has become a franchise of the fastest-growing chain in Michigan, with a brand-new sign that says For Lease – Office Space. At the junction between the two buildings there’s a utility pole with advertising fliers stapled to it. The most prominent has a prosperous-looking man with dark glasses and his hands in his pockets. He is smiling out at the landscape that looks like it’s the top of the damn Himalayas or something, although he is wearing no more than a heavy windbreaker, and the stark black lettering above him says Can One Person Really Change the World?
“I’ll get back to you, buddy,” Geisler tells the smiling man, and the wind freezes his teeth.
So what are you going to do? If you’ve wasted your life so badly, why don’t you eat a bullet? The gun’s inside your coat and this right here is as good a place as any. At least Peraza won’t have to clean your brains off the walls. Assuming you have any brains.
He has always shied away from thoughts like this, afraid of where they might go, but there’s really nothing to be afraid of anymore, is there? Nothing left to protect.
OK, so why not eat a bullet? But the answer to that has always seemed too easy. The answer is: OK, but why now? You can always do it later, right? And also: why? Because life hurts too much? Boo fucking hoo. Who told you things shouldn’t hurt? And how do you know that eating a bullet will make it stop? Because that’s what all the smart people believe? And, um. What if all those smart people are—to coin a phrase—dead wrong?
For Bill Geisler the danger has never really been that he would end up killing himself. He saw plenty of people do that in his previous jobs, both before and especially after the Collapse. It did not seem especially clever. The real danger for Bill Geisler has always been that he would end up doing nothing at all. Staring out a window while a cigarette burns down to his fingertips.
You have to be fair. It’s all good clean fun to beat up on yourself to the point of considering suicide, but there is no virtue in what is not honest. The Golden Rule points in both directions: you also cannot do unto yourself what you would not do unto others. So what is your honest assessment of your life? As honest as if Patrick asked you what you thought of what he has done, untainted by self-hatred masquerading as virtue?
Passing under the railroad bridge, Geisler takes a deep breath of frigid air and prepares to give an honest assessment of his own life. On the triangular abutments of the underpass there are enormous graffiti paintings that are real works of art. The one he is passing next to on the south side of the road is a beautifully executed image of an enormous human eye, staring straight ahead, with the words Look Beyond emblazoned above it. Geisler imagines seeing himself reflected in it as he walks.
OK. First of all, this business about envying the man and his wife in the car—that’s obvious bullshit. Do you really believe that being well-off makes people’s lives happy and meaningful? How long were you a detective? If you had lived a life like that you would be asking yourself the same questions right now. Maybe even thinking about eating the same bullet, except the gun would be a Walther instead of a CZ. The rich are different, you know.
It’s idiotic to imagine that this life or that life is inherently more meaningful, more real. That bit of reality that you encountered thirty years ago—demonstrably you could have met it as a farmer or as a detective. Which meeting would have been more real? And even if a cop gets a more complete view of life than a farmer does—and that is very arguable—does that mean that everybody in the human race should go become a cop? Who would grow all the donuts?
Passing a still-functioning auto service place, an idea stands up to be counted: Reality is normal curves. Everything about human beings (and everything else) happens in normal curves. There aren’t short people and tall people, there is a normal curve of height, with a mean of 5 foot 7 inches and a standard deviation of 3 inches. There is also not one set of of people who are insiders and another set who are outsiders. That’s a normal curve too—people exist all across a spectrum of insiderness-to-outsiderness. One state is not more real than the other. The human race needs this spectrum. All of it. It is important that the great mass of people should be living a certain kind of life, the kind that results in reproduction and the successful raising of children, but it is also important that a certain percentage—a small percentage—should always be out on the edge, existing on the fringes of life. These are the ones who will find promising new directions, and are also the ones who identify dangers to be avoided. Sometimes by getting eaten by them.
Geisler’s life, he realizes, has been no more real than any other, but has merely occupied a different, equally necessary position on the normal curve of humanity. A position farther out on the edge, from which he can—
The wind pauses, and little ice crystals in the air all pause, becoming individually visible for the first time. The streetlight that illuminates them is one in front of Enterprise Rental across the street, his goal. He still has fifteen minutes before they close. But Bill Geisler pauses, because he is finally seeing his whole life.
The thought that presented itself to him was A position farther out on the edge, from which I can warn people, or show the way.
For the first time, he realizes that this is what he has always tried to do, whether as a teacher of literature, a priest, or a cop. He has tried to get out on the edge, to see what’s there. To lead toward the good parts and protect from the bad. That’s why he’s not really worried about getting fired: because this calling has always been his real job. It’s why he has spent the last thirty years the way he has, and that’s why he is here right now.
It’s why he will be going back to Whitmore Lake.
Blowing out a puff of air into the frosty night, Bill Geisler crosses Huron and walks into Enterprise Rental Car.
The proprietor of Enterprise Rental Car looks up as his office’s front door bangs open and a snow-dusted apparition of an old man stomps in. Well, oldish man, anyway, the proprietor thinks uncomfortably, who is himself pushing fifty with a rather short stick. His first thought is This guy is a cop. But an instant later he’s not so sure. Only then does he recognize the man as one of his customers from earlier in the day.
“Ah, we were just about to close—”
“That car I returned today was a piece of shit,” the man says, helping himself to a chair in front of the proprietor’s desk.
“Um. It got you there and back, didn’t it?”
“It needs brake pads, the rear left suspension’s pretty well shot, and if the front tires still have an eighth of an inch of tread on ’em, I’ll eat ’em. And one of the structural members that’s holding the back together is, I believe, a two-by-four.”
The proprietor’s frown dissolves in a bark of laughter. Dennis Carter leans back in his creaky chair and puts his hands behind his head.
“Well, yeah, OK. But it runs good doesn’t it, ah, officer?”
“Detective,” the man says. “Retired. The car’s a piece of shit and it’s only because I have a soft spot in my heart for local businesses that I, against my better judgment, am prepared to offer you thirty for it.”
“Thirty grand?” Carter says, leaning forward again. “Are you nuts? I can get a hundred for it by driving it down to Briarwood!”
“Not thirty grand,” the ex-cop says. Taking a small white cloth bag from his coat pocket, he unties the neck and carefully empties a pile of half-dollar coins onto the desk. “Thirty ounces.”
“Oh, shiiit.” Carter instinctively glances up to make sure nobody else is—what? Peering through the window at nine o’clock on a snowy January night?
“Make it fifty,” he says quietly, looking into the older man’s eyes.
“You know,” the ex-cop says, he picks up one of the half dollars and carter’s eyes follow it. “Two months ago, this was good for thirty-five gallons of gas. Today it’s worth forty, even with how much gas is going up. What would you rather have two months from now? Thirty—” the cop hesitates minutely, “five ounces? Or that car?”
Carter looks up at the man’s weathered face and grins.
“Forty,” he says.
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