“Will the defendant please rise?” said the judge about to pass sentence on a burglar.
Margold James, the lawyer, and the defendant to whom the judge referred, got to their feet.
The tired and shopworn courtroom smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The carpet, spotted with coffee stains and black dots from discarded gum, covered the floor like a blanket of mold. The tables were scratched and marred, the chairs soiled by human grease; unwelcoming and uncomfortable. The judge’s bench loomed so far from the counsel tables it might as well have been on another planet, contributing to its black-robed occupant’s air of aloofness, superiority, and power.
Six foot seven inch Margold stood, his fingertips touching the table to stay the shaking of his hands, a habit he had developed early in his twenty-five year law career when fear wracked his mind and body at moments like this. His hands shook no more, but he steadied himself on the table out of habit. The defendant’s file lay open before him.
His client, a tall athletic college boy from a well-to-do but not rich family, gazed forward with fearful eyes. The lad had entered a plea, and everyone, including the prosecutor, expected him to get a slap on the wrist, and be home smoking weed and jerking off in his upper-middle-class bedroom by lunchtime. Margold’s mind had already turned to the question of whether he would have two or three olives in his martini.
The judge, a man in his sixties known for leniency (due to being a former public defender), gazed straight ahead while the defendant got to his feet. The prosecutor, a young woman, plain of face, uninteresting of figure, and dressed in a less than flattering black pantsuit, remained seated, eyeing the defendant, arms crossed, wearing a crooked smile of hopeful satisfaction.
With lawyer and defendant standing, the judge lectured the boy at length, sometimes loudly and with great animation and pounding of bench. Margold considered this to be a good sign. A loud public ass-chewing is often followed by a lenient disposition. Yet, Margold grew impatient. Even after practicing law for many years, he felt as though the judge addressed him personally when berating a client. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know what he did, all against the peace, dignity, and government of the State. Out with it.
The judge grew quiet, took a drink of water, and wrote something on a form. Two deputies moved in behind the defendant.
Margold’s pulse quickened; the boy was going to jail.
In a calm voice, the judge addressed the defendant. “Young man, you are an enigma to me. You come from a good home. You have parents who care about you. You have had many advantages and privileges that few enjoy. And yet—”
His mother stood. “Your honor?”
“Please, ma’am,” the judge said, “don’t interrupt. You’ve had your say.”
“But nothing. Kindly sit down and be quiet, or I’ll have to remove you from the courtroom.”
Margold turned to her and held up his hand for her to stay calm and sit down.
She glared at Margold with a face that at once said fear, panic, and loathing.
The judge continued. “And yet, you break into other peoples’ homes. I’ll never understand it.”
A terrible silence filled the room as the judge shuffled papers on his desk.
The boy’s face had flushed.
At last the judge said, “You are a very lucky young man. Mr. James has done an excellent job of protecting your rights and working to mitigate your punishment. But punishment there must be. After considering argument of counsel in mitigation, and after considering the pre-sentencing investigation, I hereby sentence you to five years in the penitentiary—”
His mother cried out, “No!”
“Silence!” the judge said. “All suspended but ninety days.”
Oh boy. The lad had his pockets full of God knows what, wore a belt, carried a cell phone, and had a wallet the size of a Volkswagen, none of which was allowed in jail.
The boy’s mother began to scream and cry. Her husband, his face red, brow furrowed, and mouth tight in a faint forced smile, as though expressing embarrassment for himself and sympathy for his wife, put his hands on her shoulders to calm her. The prosecutor watched the scene with her mouth open, as even she didn’t expect the little parasite to go to jail.
The judge called for order. One of the deputies handed Margold all the boy’s things, put the cuffs on him, and led him from the courtroom. Margold turned to face the crying mother and stunned father, and handed them the boy’s belongings.
“It’s all your fault!” the mother shouted at Margold.
Lovely. It was not because his client went to jail that Margold was unhappy. Little William would have gotten five to ten if it weren’t for him. The little bugger did a lot more than he got punished for. The real bitter herb that called for about a gallon of gin to wash out of his throat was the fact Margold knew the boy’s mother blamed him. It was all Margold’s fault the boy went to jail, although she ought to be on her hands and knees thanking him, crawling around barking like a dog in gratitude that he only got ninety days. He’d be out in sixty if he behaved himself. Fucking enabler.
On the other hand, he sympathized with her. Here they were, professional people with a fine, intelligent son. Tall, handsome, well-spoken, athletic, going to a good university, who did something so out of character with their image of themselves, and their social standing, that they were beside themselves. Easy to blame others under those circumstances.
When they left the room, the boy’s father smiled politely, shook Margold’s hand, thanked him, and said good-bye. The boy’s mother glowered at him with large, red, tear-filled eyes, then turned her back.Margold left the court house and headed for his car. He reached into his pocket for his wallet to pay the parking garage. The pocket was empty. He patted himself down. Nothing. He had his court ID and his keys, which he always carried in the front pocket of his trousers, but that was it. He had left his wallet at home in the suit jacket he wore the previous day. He had no driver’s license, no credit card, no ID, no money, no nothing. Not one cent, and no way to get it.
Although he had many cases in this jurisdiction, his office was in another county, and he didn’t know many people here. He didn’t want to go back to the court house because his client’s unhappy family no doubt lurked there planning his death. Maybe he could sweet-talk the girl at the parking lot gate. She always seemed nice. But that was probably because he just paid his bill and was not a pain in the ass.
The prosecutor emerged from the court. He’d had other cases with her and they got along quite well.
He trotted across the street to meet her.
“Hey, Sue, that was a bit of a surprise.”
She gazed up at him. He stood six foot seven, and she was five feet in heels. “Yeah, I didn’t expect him to go to jail.”
“Neither did his mother. She doesn’t seem able to take a joke.”
She laughed. “No, I’d say she was a tad bit unhappy.”
He looked back over his shoulder toward the court house. “That’s an understatement.”
They walked together toward the parking structure.
“On the other hand, you can’t say that justice wasn’t done,” she said.
“No, absolutely.” He patted his pockets. “By the way, I seem to have left all my money and my wallet home this morning.” He turned his pockets inside out. “Might you be able to spot your old buddy about five American to get his car out of hock?”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. There is justice in the world after all.”
He laughed. “Come on. We’re both really on the same side. We both want justice.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen you in action, Margold. Justice is not necessarily your goal.”
“Oh, now. Depends on what you mean by justice.”
She shook her head. “I’ll give you the money, but don’t forget that I’m a government employee, not a big rich defense attorney. Pay me back.”
“No problem, as soon as the client pays me.” He immediately regretted letting that slip. He didn’t really need to wait until he got paid, he had a very successful practice. He intended for it to be a joke, but after he said it, it didn’t sound all that funny.
She furrowed her brow. “You’ve got to be kidding. You haven’t been paid?”
Margold detected a hint of perverse pleasure in her voice. He scrunched up his face as if in pain. “Not all I got comin’.”
She laughed as though watching clowns at the circus. “Here, I only have a twenty.”
She handed it to him.
He folded it and put it in his shirt pocket. “Thanks.”
“Pay me back, even if you have to borrow it from your secretary.”
“My secretary has cut me off.”
She slowly shook her head.
“I’m good for it. You'll see.”
“That’s what my brother says.”
“There’s one in every family, but I’m the good son.”
He shook her tiny hand, which disappeared into his giant paw. “Thanks again. Take it easy, and good doing business with you. See you next time.”
“No problem, Margold, see ya. And don’t forget, I know where you live.”
“I’ll pay, I’ll pay. Jeez, you’re worse than my secretary.”
He crossed the street to the parking garage. Nice girl. Up close and friendly, out in the street away from all the conflict, she didn’t look all that bad. She didn’t have good skin, it being pale and pot-marked from acne as a youth, but there was something attractive about her. She was slender, and something in her eyes said she could be a lot of fun with a little tequila in her.
When he entered his office his secretary was sitting at her desk typing. In her seventies, with short gray hair, ashen skin and deep raspy voice of a smoker of many years (now reformed), she began working at the law firm before Margold went to law school. Although her beauty had been obscured by booze, time, and tobacco, Margold would like to have seen her fifty years ago.
She knew every client the firm had for the past forty-five years, what their case was about, the outcome, and probably the file number. And she knew where everything was. It was like watching a magician. When he would ask for some obscure long-forgotten thing, and she would cause it to materialize before him, he would wave his hands around checking for strings and mirrors. The best part was that her name was Evelyn. Nobody had named a kid Evelyn since Roosevelt.
“I hope you’re looking at the keys,” he said, closing the door behind him.
“Ha, ha. You and Soupy Sales.”
He laughed. “Jesus Christ. Soupy Sales? No one under fifty knows who that was.”
“Too bad, he was funny.”
“I know. But did you know that we put a man on the moon, and Eisenhower is not president?”
She threw a pencil at him. “What happened to William?”
“He got five years.”
Her eyes grew large. “They took him to prison?” she wheezed, her voice like a saw cutting drywall.
“No, no. To the detention center. The judge suspended all but ninety days.”
“He’s actually going to jail for ninety days?”
“Yep, although it will probably be less with good behavior.”
She frowned. “Serves him right.”
“You have no sympathy. He was a good boy. It wasn’t his fault.”
“Then whose fault was it?”
He poured himself a cup of coffee. “It was obviously mine. His mother even said so.”
She shook her head. “Why do they always blame the lawyer?”
“Who else you gonna blame? Mom and Dad? Hell no, they only raised him. Was it his fault? Of course not; he was the victim in all this.”
“He was the victim?”
“Yeah. Somehow, in their minds, he was driven to this by circumstances beyond his control. He’s the perfect son; the model citizen. And for the court to treat him that way was just plain wrong.”
She put her gray head in her old hands.
He blew on his coffee and took a sip. “He’s obviously going to jail because his lawyer didn’t do his job. What they fail to understand is the reason he’s not going to the penitentiary for twenty years is because I pulled a frickin’ rabbit out of my hat.”
She looked up. “He was just a spoiled brat who always got away with everything.” She slammed a file drawer shut. “There were never any consequences for his actions. His mother always covered up for him, or made excuses.”
She fixed her eyes on him. “Did he pay you?”
“What do you think? It’s all I could do to get out of there with my skin.”
“Guess what. Not counting today, he owes you ten grand.”
Bile rose in Margold’s throat and screamed for gin. His first instinct was to shout every cuss word he knew, and he was pretty much a walking encyclopedia of obscenity. “Obese probability of ever seeing any of that.”
Evelyn mumbled something under her gravelly breath and noisily shuffled papers on her desk.
“Anything else I need to know about?” he asked.
“Not really. Mr. Whozits called about his neighbor again, but that’s it.”
“He can wait. I’ve had enough fun for one day. I'm going home. See you tomorrow.”
On the way home he picked up a six-pack of India Pale Ale, a big bag of corn chips (nice and salty), a big jar of hot salsa, and a can of jalapeño peppers. There was a football game on tonight, and he liked his salsa hot and his beer hoppy.
Outside the the store stood Frank, a homeless man who was no doubt younger than the hundred years he carried. Gaunt, unshaven, and crowned in a halo of filthy red hair, he leaned on the grocery cart he used to haul his stuff around. Frank looked at Margold with tiny wet blue eyes that sparkled, in spite of the unfortunate head from which they shone. Frank smiled.
“There you are,” Margold said. “How are you, Frank?”
He rubbed an eye. “Can’t complain. You’re early today. They let you go?”
Margold laughed. “No, Frank, I own the joint. I just took a few hours off.”
“Well, ain’t that nice.”
Margold reached into his pocket. He still had five bucks from what the prosecutor gave him. “I’m a little light today, but I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.”
Frank took the money and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. “Thank you kindly.”
“Now, you take care of yourself.”
“Yes, sir. I will. You have a nice evening.”
Margold got into his car and headed home. Frank was his little secret.
It was still relatively early in the day, so his wife, Mary, was not home yet. A CPA and with her own practice, she often came home late.
He had time to rig up his salsa and let it percolate and get good and hot before the game. Although he enjoyed cooking once in a while, what he really liked to do was dump a bunch of stuff into a bowl, stir it about, and let the flavors meld. He bought the “Southwest” style salsa with corn and black beans. All he had to do was add the jalapeños, mix them in, and wait for the game.
Mary was the real cook. That’s why they had this huge and handsomely appointed kitchen. Granite countertops, a free-standing wine cooler with two temperature zones, and the finest appliances money could buy. When she got busy in there, good things happened. Tonight, though, was salsa, chips, and beer for him, and something light for her.
He put the salsa concoction in the fridge, popped the top on a beer, and retired to the patio to enjoy the late afternoon sun, and to hopefully think of something other than today’s court case. He failed on the latter, and the whole thing played over in his mind. The look of hate and terror on the mother’s face; the sounds of her squalls; all nicely blended with the grim ambiance of the court room.
Returning to the present Margold shook it off and took a large pull off the beer. The thing that always got him was how ungrateful clients could be for the help he gave them. Take this boy. He was subject to about two hundred years in the penitentiary by acts he had, without a doubt, and by his own confession, committed. Yet, he and his family expected him to prance home a free man. Did they not understand? Ninety days was a slap on the wrist. And now they will use it as a reason not to pay.
He swallowed a mouthful of beer as the garage door opener engaged. He entered the garage through the back door just as his wife pulled in. It was only about five o’clock. He opened the driver’s side door and she stepped out. He always liked to watch her step out of the car. Even in a business suit, her legs seemed to go on forever. He kissed her and said, “You’re home early.”
She reached into the back of the silver Mercedes and retrieved her briefcase. “That makes two of us. Are the ambulances on strike?”
“That’s funny. Almost.”
She closed the car door and headed for the door into the kitchen. “So, what’s up? Are you sick?”
He took her briefcase and followed her. “No, I just had enough for one day.”
She took a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator and poured a glass. “Kinda cuts down on the billable hours, doesn’t it?”
“That’s what I like about you. All business.” He put his arm around her. “You’re home now, you can stop counting beans.”
“Just making conversation.”
“I came home early because today was the sentencing–”
“Oh, right. I forgot. How’d it go?”
“Let’s just say that Mom is probably still crying.”
“And they didn’t pay me.”
“So, I’m in need of some TLC. I’m very delicate. Vulnerable.”
She laughed. “You’ve been called a lot of things, but never delicate. You are the antithesis of delicate.”
“Would a martini make you feel better.”
“Yes, that would be lovely. Dry. Three olives.”
She looked at him over her glasses. “We’ve been married, as you would say, since Christ was a corporal, and you don’t think I know how you take your martinis?”
“No harm in making sure.”
Blue light from the big TV filled the dark room and reflected in Margold’s beer bottle. His Golden Retriever, Fred, lay stretched out at his feet, snoring.
“Take a knee,” Margold calmly told the quarterback. “Six seconds left, and we’re up by a field goal. All you gotta do is take a knee, and . . .” The center snapped the ball, which went dancing across the turf. A big fat lineman from the opposing team, who never has had, and never will again have, a touchdown, scooped it up and lumbered into the end zone. Game over.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” he roared. “I want that butterfingered quarterback shot.” Fred raised his head, sighed, and put it back down. He scratched the dog behind the ear. “It’s okay, guy, go back to sleep.”
His son, Jonathan, would normally be here with him watching the game, but he had had a more pressing matter that evening. Margold got up to get another beer and to call Jonathan to commiserate. As he turned toward the fridge, he was surprised by the sight of a man sitting in one of the large leather chairs facing the TV. Margold jumped at the sight. Fred didn’t move.
Must be one of the kooks from his wife’s book club. When he was down watching football, the world could come to an end and he wouldn’t notice. Maybe he should be polite. Instead of saying the litany of obscenities that went through his mind, and in spite of the effects of six or seven beers consumed during the game, and in spite of his current state of mind as a result of the outcome of the game, all he said was, “Can I help you?”
The man considered Margold for a moment, legs crossed, wearing an expensive suit, and sporting a dapper haircut. He smiled and said, “Yes, you may. That’s why I’m here.”
Margold had learned a long time ago not to be rude and obnoxious to anyone until you knew exactly to whom you were being rude and obnoxious. At least the guy had the decency to wait until the game was over to barge in. Between the beer and the fumble, however, there was a limit to the extent of his good nature. Incivility was on the tip of his tongue. But this must certainly be a friend of his wife who came down to see whether he knew where the chai was. How else would he have gotten in, and how else would he have had the balls to sit in one of his chairs looking self-important?
“By all means,” Margold said. “Please, how may I be of service?”
“I’m not sure where to begin. I’m not accustomed to coming in like this and talking to people.”
“While you work that out, maybe I can get you a drink. How ’bout some beer? Or maybe you would prefer scotch.” Nobody was going to say a man sat in Margold James’ club room without a drink in his hand.
“Scotch would be very nice, thank you.”
Margold poured the drink without asking whether he wanted ice. Nobody was gonna put ice in this scotch in this house.
“Now,” Margold said, handing him the drink, “why don’t you get to the point? I need to drown my sorrows. Let’s just start with who are you?”
The man took a sips of the scotch, held it in his mouth, and swallowed. “Very well.” He hesitated. “I don’t know why I’m finding this so difficult, but I’ll just come out and say it.”
“Please,” Margold said, pouring himself a glass. “That’s always the best way.”
“This may sound cliché, but I am known by many names.”
“Why don’t you just tell me what your friends call you.”
Again the man hesitated, swirled his glass. “Death. They call me Death.”
Margold blinked at the man over his glasses. “What?”
“I am commonly called Death.”
Margold shouted up the stairs for his wife. “Mare-ree!” He asked the man “Are you here for the book club? If you just wanted to get a scotch off me, all you had to do was ask. Say: ‘Hi, my name is Ethelrod, or whatever, I’m here reading Oprah’s book of the frickin’ month, and I would like a scotch, pretty please with sugar on top, no ice.’ I’d have given you a scotch, no problem. Any guest in my house can have a scotch, Oprah fan or not.”
“She can’t hear you.”
“Who?” Margold asked with his face screwed up.
“Your wife. She’s not here.”
He shouted up to the kitchen again. “Mare!”
“And I’m not here for the book club.”
“Do an old man a favor, and just scurry on out of here before I lose my temper. I have some serious and prolonged drinking to do before I go to bed. It’s already late and I have a few windmills to tilt at tomorrow.”
“You must learn to relax, Mr. James, it’s going to kill you. And you wouldn’t kick a man out before he finished his drink, would you?”
Margold yelled upstairs again.
“I told you, she’s not here.”
“If you’re not here for the book club, and my wife is not here, where did you come from and how did you get in?”
“I’m a lawyer. I deal with complications all day long. Give it a shot.”
Death held up his hand. “You seem agitated, so I’ll get to the point.”
“I am the Angel of Death.”
Margold refilled his glass and dropped into his chair. He would sit and listen to what this nut had to say, then escort him to the door, by a fist full of collar, if necessary. And from now on, the book club would be banned from the house. He can’t have these pseudo-intellectuals waltzing in begging for scotch and scaring the hell out of him. “Well, now, you must be one busy son-of-a-bitch these days.”
The man smiled. “I’m here to personally deliver a message to you.”
“A message? A message from whom?”
“From me. I wanted to give it to you myself.”
Margold swallowed a mouthful of scotch. “I’m listening, but hurry it up. My attention span is shortened with every sip of booze.”
“The message is this: you’re going to die six months from . . . right now.”
Margold’s anger rose. He stood and pointed to the stairs. “That tears it. Now get out of here.”
The man leaned back in the chair, spreading his arms across the back of it. “I understand if you’re skeptical.”
“Skeptical might not be the right word. Skeptical means I don’t believe it, but there could be something to it. I think the right word is outraged. Pissed. I’m outraged and pissed that someone would just walk in here and tell a man he’s going to die.”
“I understand your point of view, but bear with me. I’m quite serious. You have six months to live.”
“You’re warning me, is that it? In other words, you’re telling me that if I don’t watch out I’m going to be hit by a bus, or something, in six months. Be nicer. Don’t cuss. Stop drinking.”
Death shook his head and sipped his scotch. “No. I’m telling you you’re going to die six months from now, no matter what you do.”
“I’m too drunk for this. Oh, I get it. I represented your wife in a divorce.”
“No, Mr. James, I am not a disgruntled spouse. I am Death.”
“Then you’re a religious nut trying to convert me. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“No, sir. Just Death.”
Margold sat quietly for a moment swirling the scotch around, staring into the distance with unfocused eyes. He was drunk enough to believe this, but also drunk enough to do something . . . violent. God knows he feared death almost as much as he feared being disbarred. Every time he saw someone die of some disease he ran to his doctor to be tested for it. If his doctor were not also his friend, he may not have indulged him.
“It occurs to me,” Margold said, “that you have better things to do than come in here and tell lowly Margold James when he is going to die. I mean, isn’t that shit supposed to be secret?”
Death just nodded.
“Then why bother? Just let me go through what’s left of my life suffering, with my head up my ass like everyone else, until the moment of death, and leave it at that? Why tell me, and why me?”
Death held his glass out for more scotch. “You intrigue me, Mr. James. I come in contact with many people. Every day. Most of the time at the moment of death, according to my vocation. But sometimes I get advanced notice. For you, I got notice. Why? I don’t know. It just happens. But I know you. I’ve followed you— ”
Margold frowned. “Followed me? What are you talking about?”
Death held up a hand to calm him. “It’s not what you think. From my world, which is not the same as your world, I can observe people. Watch them. I watched you for many years. Since just after you were born.”
“Give me a break.”
Death stood and walked slowly to a set of bookshelves and picked up a trophy. “Margold James, center for the winning basketball team in high school.”
“So, you can read a trophy.”
“Does this trophy say that you did little Sarah Jane behind the curtain of the stage after the game? A celebration, if you will?”
Margold blinked and swallowed some scotch.
“Do you know you knocked her up?”
“What? No. She fucked every guy in the school. Could have been anyone.”
“Yes, it could have been, but it wasn’t. I know.”
Death picked up another. “Ah, the game ball from the championship football game, signed by all the coaches and players. MVP: Margold James. They sure did like having Margold James, six-four at the time, standing in as quarterback.”
“What they didn’t know is that you had a couple of your linemen intentionally break the leg of the opposing quarterback, who was much better than you were.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Could be. So maybe we should ask Jim Cavenaugh and Bill Babcock about it. I could have them here in a few hours.”
Margold felt his face flush. “We were just kids. Our moral compass was . . . off. You can’t hold that stuff against me now.”
“You have a closet full of secrets, don’t you? Shall I continue?”
“It’s not all bad. Were you watching when I did good?”
“Of course. You saved your brother from taking a good ass whipping more than once; you rescued a puppy; you have done a lot of good. I didn’t mean to say you hadn’t. I only offer proof that I know about you. Every little nook and cranny, filthy and clean. I make no judgment, I merely report. None of it has anything to do with your present situation.”
“Tell you what, Mr. Death, if you’re quite finished, take your leave by going out the way you came in. If you get out now, I won’t call the cops. I’m a criminal defense lawyer, and I’m loathe to call the cops, but I will.”
“Very well, Mr. James, I’m leaving. I know you don’t believe me, and I didn’t expect you to, but I wanted to start the ball rolling, as it were. Start the clock. You and I will talk later, but remember, your time is running out, even now.”
“I don’t intend to talk to you again, if I can help it. Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but you have my permission to withdraw.”
The man didn’t seem to notice that he had dropped a twenty-dollar bill. Margold picked it up to hand it to him, but he was gone. What are they putting in beer these days? It must be the preservatives. Nut job. At least I got a twenty out of it, which is about the value of the scotch the son-of-a-bitch drank. And some watchdog you are, he said to Fred. Fred yawned and sighed.
Margold glanced at the TV. They were still showing replays of the last play of the game. Christ, why are they beating it to death? The game was still on. Margold checked the time. The man claiming to be Death had been in the room about five seconds.
He went upstairs to find his wife. He entered the kitchen just as the garage door opened and she pulled in. He hadn’t heard her leave. Where would she go this time of night? He needed to have a serious talk with her, but he had to be careful. With his great height and thunderous voice he could make Dirty Harry cry.
She met him at the door from the kitchen to the garage with two tote bags of groceries. He took the bags. “What are you doing going to the store at this hour?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”
“Hi, Honey,” she said, “glad to see you too.”
“Sorry,” he said, giving her a kiss. “How was your day?”
“Fine, thanks. I had my hair done.” She ran her hair over her dishwater-blonde shoulder-length hair. “And yours?”
“Your hair looks great.”
“Thanks.” She folded the empty totes and put them into the pantry. “How was the game?”
He showed his teeth like a growling dog. “Don’t ask, it’s technical.”
“I take it we lost,” she said as she put groceries into the cupboards.
“I’m sorry. Did you wear your hat?”
“Yes, but it did no good. I’ll get over it, though.”
“Good, I hate to see you suffer.”
He put groceries in the fridge. “There is one little thing I would like to talk to you about, though.”
“What’s on your little mind?” she asked as she poured herself a glass of wine.
“Just as the game ended, one of your friends from the book club pranced into the basement and plopped himself down in one of my chairs.”
She sipped her wine and shrugged. “Wasn’t one of my friends. There was no meeting tonight.”
“Oh, really? You have a man about my age, nice haircut, expensive suit, in your book club?”
“No, they’re all women.”
“Ah. Well, this man came down, sat in a chair, and asked for some scotch. He told me he was the Angel of Death, and that I was gonna die in six months.”
She peered at him over her glass. “I think you had one too many salt-and-vinegar chips.”
That thought had crossed his mind, particularly given the short time of the man’s visit. But he had the twenty and an empty scotch glass.
“You’re probably right,” he said, walking toward the basement stairs. “Must have been a dream.”
The next morning on the way to the office Margold thought about what the man claiming to be Death had told him. How did he want to be remembered? Would he return to the fold, as it were, as death approached? “Forget it,” he told himself. “You have enough trouble.” It was all bullshit, anyway. There’s no such thing as the Angel of Death. He was not in your basement last night, and he didn’t decide to kill you.
As he came to a stoplight he glanced over at the car next to him. There, smiling, was Death. Fuck, the guy is a stalker. He knew it! The light was still red. He thought about calling the police, but what would they do? And it would take them a coon’s age to get there. He had to do something right now. He decided to shoot through the intersection, through the red light, and get away. He checked for oncoming traffic. Clear. He punched the gas. He was met by the sickening sound of squealing tires and the acrid smell of burning rubber. A teenager in a fast car tried to beat the light from the other direction. The boy’s car stopped inches short of striking Margold. The boy, at first pale and wide-eyed, recovered sufficiently to give him the finger.
Margold’s heart pounded. He felt no offense at the boy’s gesture, as it was warranted. Margold held up his hand to say “I’m sorry,” and continued through the intersection. As he did so, one of the cars that had been waiting at the light behind him pulled out and gave chase. An unmarked patrol car, lights in the grill. Margold pulled over. The light had changed. The car in which he had seen Death rolled past with a little old lady at the wheel. “It’s worse than I thought,” he said to himself. “It’s my brain. It has turned into slop. Mary always said I drank too much. Now it’s gone. It’s calcifying.”
The cop approached the car cautiously along the driver’s side, with his hand on his gun. Margold knew these people were dangerous, so he kept both hands on the wheel where the cop could see them. The cop indicated for him to roll down his window, asked for his license and registration, and gave him a blast of shit about nearly causing an accident. Margold’s mind raced. What should he tell the cop? A bunch of lies came to mind, but the truth would be better, or at least something close to it. He explained he was a lawyer and he thought the guy in the car next to him was the husband of a client, and was stalking him. Turned out he was wrong. The cop gave him a ticket for running the red light and left it at that.
He arrived at his office and strode through the reception area. He told Evelyn, no calls, and went into his room and shut the door.
He spent most of the day staring out the window contemplating what had happened. He took no calls, saw no clients, and did no work. He simply sat in his chair, rocking. He didn’t eat lunch, and went home about three. Before he left he called Mary to tell her he wanted to eat dinner out tonight. He made a reservation at their favorite restaurant. That should make him feel better.
When he got home he went into the basement, put the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal on the stereo, and sat staring at nothing. The slow, hymn-like chords of the prelude soothed his mind. How could anyone write music this beautiful? Where did ideas like this come from? It was all he could do to put his shoes on the right feet. If Wagner had written only this prelude, he would have been remembered forever. Margold reclined in his chair. With his eyes closed, he had the sensation of floating.
He was brought out of this trance by Mary’s car coming into the garage. He went up to the kitchen to greet her.
She put her briefcase on the counter, kicked her heels off and poured herself a glass of white wine. “Martini?”
“You must be one of them mind readers.”
“No, I’ve been married to you for almost thirty years, remember?”
“Has it been that long? Seems like just last week.”
It had been that long. They had met in college, had managed somehow to refrain from getting married or getting pregnant until after finishing graduate school, then had a nice traditional wedding. She was the prettiest girl ever to pay attention to him. He still couldn’t believe it. She was not short, nearly six feet, but he was unusually tall, and drew attention to them wherever they went. Certainly, some girls were afraid of him. Others, however, were intrigued.
She clanked several ice cubes into the shaker, added a few drops of vermouth, a fair pour of gin, shook it about, poured it into a glass, and stuck in three olives. “Here.” She handed him the drink.
He tasted it. “Beautiful.”
They went into the living room. There was still some time before the dinner reservation.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Hectic, as always. Nothing is easy.”
“I know the feeling, but that’s why you get the big bucks, as they say.”
She put both feet up on the couch and lay back. “Seems like little consolation. I read an article the other day where the author discussed happiness. He said there’s no such thing. No matter what you want, when you achieve it, you want something else. You’re always unsatisfied. He’s right. I wanted a college education, and that wasn’t enough. I got an MBA. Became a CPA. Still not enough. Grew a business. Make a lot of money. But I continue to strive for more. I’m never happy, and neither is anyone.”
Margold chuckled. “And I thought I was the cynic. I think he’s confusing happiness with being utterly satisfied. Satisfied to the point of saying ‘That’s it, I’ve arrived, I’m done.’ What I’ve found is that with every step up the ladder, it’s harder work. You can never rest.”
“That’s what I’m getting at.”
“But it’s not the arriving that is the source of happiness for people like us. It’s the struggle to get there. I know you. That’s what makes you happy.”
She nodded. “You’re right.”
“Wanting to have more, be more, or achieve more, is not the result of unhappiness. It’s what humans do.”
“Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel.”
“We’ll have a nice quiet dinner. You’ll feel a lot better.”
“I hope so. How was your day?”
He chewed an olive. “You don’t want to know.”
“Did we have a rough day?”
“We had no day. I sat in my chair staring into space. I did nothing.”
She smiled. “I’ve tried that. There’s no revenue in it.”
He sipped his martini. Cold, delicious, herbal. “Yeah, hopefully my partner billed a few hours today.”
“What was bothering you?”
“The visit I had last night.”
“That was probably a dream. Don’t worry about it.”
“I thought so at first, but when I think about it, there are a couple of details that make me doubt it.”
“Just as he was leaving he dropped a twenty-dollar bill. He also drank a glass of scotch, and I had the empty glass.”
“Oh,” she said, sipping wine.
“And this morning, I saw him sitting in the car next to me at a stoplight.”
She swirled her wine. “Maybe you should see someone.”
He frowned. “You mean a shrink?”
“A counselor, or whatever you want to call it. Just have a talk. It can’t hurt.”
He pursed his lips, considering the idea. “You’re probably right,” he said at length. “Now let’s go to dinner.”
The night was warm for the time of year, so they took the convertible, a two-seater, and drove with the top down. This always made him feel better. He popped in the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, and cranked it up. With this music, this car, and the air blowing through his hair, there were no troubles in the world. At the end of the ride waited some of the finest seafood in the city.
The parking valet greeted him with recognition and a smile, as he knew Margold would give him a nice fat tip if the car were returned clean and undented. Inside, the maître d’ greeted him by his first name, shook his hand, and took them to their table. This level of service was accomplished by not only being a regular, but by handing out twenty dollar bills. Margold believed the twenty was the key to the universe. Ten was not enough, and fifty meant you were a fucking nut trying to look like a big shot. The next step from a twenty, really, was a hundred, which made you look like a mobster. Give a guy a twenty and you look like a nice man who likes to take care of people, but not a schmuck.
They started with oysters on the half-shell (malpeques, from Prince Edward Island), and a glass of white wine for her, and a martini for him. Outside of acts of sexual depravity, there was nothing like an icy martini with raw oysters.
The soft blue lighting and soothing classical music relaxed him. Huge aquariums bubbled on the opposite wall.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. The pale blue of the ambient light reflected in her glasses and diamonds around her neck.
“Much better, thanks. Sometimes I wonder what gets into me.”
“We’ll have a nice evening. Things will look better tomorrow.”
“I expect so. Now, what are you having?”
She perused the menu. “I’m in the mood for a big fat lobster. How ’bout you?”
He pointed to the menu. “Grilled red snapper.”
“You going to order a bottle of wine?”
“Yes. I like the Sauvignon Blanc they have here.”
“Watch it, though,” he said. “You’re the designated driver.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
As they chatted, he noticed Death sitting at a table on the other side of the restaurant.
“Oh shit,” Margold whispered. “There he is. He’s following me.”
She glanced around. “Who?”
“The man who came to the basement saying he was Death. He’s sitting at the table across the room by the wall.”
She turned her head. “Let me see.”
“No! Don’t look.”
“Then I’m going to the ladies’ room, and catch a peek as I go by.”
“Fine, but be subtle.”
She got up and walked toward the restrooms. When she came out she stole another glance.
“Did you see him?” he asked.
She hesitated for a moment, sipped her wine, and said, “All I saw was a young couple.”
Margold looked over again. Two early twenty-somethings were at the table. They seemed out of place and uncomfortable. Clearly not used to this sort of place.
“He was there a minute ago,” he said, his eyes wide and excited.
She half smiled. “Okay, take it easy. Forget it and let’s eat our dinner.”
“But I swear–”
She put her hand on his. “I know, honey, but let’s forget it for now.”
When they placed their order he told the waitress to add the young couple’s tab to his bill.
He soon calmed down, but kept glancing around the restaurant for Death. They were able to finish their meal without any further sightings.
When they got home he went into the basement to think. She went to bed.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she said from the top of the stairs. “You have to work in the morning.”
“I know, I’ll be up shortly. Good night.”
He sank into a large leather chair, drinking a martini, and staring at the dark television. What was happening to him? How can this be? Perhaps he drank too much, but not so much as would cause hallucinations. At least he didn’t think so. Maybe he had suffered a stroke. Maybe he should see the doctor. And maybe he should see a shrink. See if anyone can tell him what was going on. Just as these thoughts passed from his mind into the eternal void, there appeared, in the chair to his left, Death.
“You’re just everywhere, aren’t you?” Margold said.
“I get around.”
“You’ve got to stop just appearing like that. What if I was looking at porn, or something?”
“I’d know it, anyway.”
Margold turned red, sipped his martini, and ate the olive. “Where are my manners? Can I fix you a martini?”
“That would be very nice. I hate to see a man drink alone.”
Margold fixed the drink and handed it to him. He wore a suit and looked quite dapper for one in the business of hauling the dead off to wherever it was he took them.
“Now that we’re all comfy,” Margold said, “what are you doing here, and why do you keep appearing to me?”
“Didn’t they teach you in law school not to ask more than one question at a time?”
Margold chuckled. “No. They didn’t actually teach me much. Everything I know about being a lawyer I learned after law school. Answer the questions.”
“I’m here now because you do not yet believe, and I’m afraid you’re wasting what time you have left. You have better things to do than sit in your chair all day and stare into space.”
“And what? In my book that answers both questions.” He peered over his martini at Margold, smiling.
“Then I have another question. Let’s assume you are who and what you say you are. You wouldn’t mind giving a skeptical and jaded old lawyer a little proof, would you?”
Death gazed into his glass. Without looking up, he said, “We shall have a demonstration.”
“Wonderful. Can we start with that quarterback?”
“No. No people. Think of something else.”
Margold sipped his drink. “I have it. How about that yapping dog next door? The woman has a shit toy poodle she leaves out all night, and the son-of-a-bitch barks and yaps at all hours.”
“Let’s go find the rascal.”
They went into the yard looking for the dog.
“Where do you think he’d be?” Death asked.
“He is either on the woman’s front porch, or wandering around the yard.”
After a few minutes the dog’s high-pitched bark filled the air from the other side of the house.
“There the son-of-a-bitch is,” Margold said. “How are you going to kill him? I hope it’s slow and painful.”
“And here I thought you were kind to dumb animals.”
“Oh, I am. I love dogs. The only real friend I have in this world is my dog, Fred. But I don’t love this one. What are you going to do?”
“For a man of your culture and refinement, you sometimes lack subtlety and finesse.”
“That has been said about me.”
“Behold,” Death said, with a subtle gesture with his hand. One of the ugliest dogs Margold had ever seen trotted up the street.
“What the fuck is that?” Margold asked, stepping back a bit in the direction of his front porch.
“That, my good man, is a coyote.”
“I’ll be damned. I heard they were around here, but I haven’t seen one.”
“Watch and learn, dear boy.”
The coyote trotted up the street on long and gangly legs. It crossed in the direction of the little dog, which at the same time came running around the corner. By the time the little mutt saw the coyote, it was too late. The dog turned to run. In two quick steps the coyote had hold of it by the throat, ran back in the direction of the wooded park at the end of the street, and vanished into the darkness.
“Christ,” Margold said. “Let’s get back inside before someone sees us.”
They returned to the basement to finish their drinks.
“What do you think now?” Death asked.
“Okay, Mr. Death, you’ve got my attention.”
“That’s better. But let me tell you that every time I have to educate you, the demonstration will become more personal, if you get my meaning. ”
With that, Margold found himself alone again.
“Guess who visited me again last night?” he said to Mary the next morning over coffee.
“Very funny. He’s not a spook. He showed up bustin’ my balls about why I didn’t believe him.”
“What’d he say?”
He told her.
“What’d you tell him?”
“I told him I wanted proof.”
She raised her brow. “And?”
“Let’s just say that the problem with the noisy dog next door has been resolved.”
Her eyes grew large. “Don’t tell me . . .”
He nodded and told her what happened.
“Oh my God!”
“It wasn’t me, it was him, although I suggested the possibility.”
She put her hand to her forehead. “What are we going to tell Cynthia?”
He took toast from the toaster and began to butter it. “We’re not going to tell her anything.”
She was bordering on hysterics. “Oh my God, I don’t believe this. She’s going to be running around the whole neighborhood crying that something happened to her dog.”
He held up both hands to calm her. “I suggest we keep our mouths shut about it. Act all sympathetic when the subject comes up. In any event, I believe him now.”
“You believe him? You mean you believe he’s the Angel of Death and you’re going to die in six months? Is that all it is to you?”
She was quiet for a moment, sipped her coffee, and slowly shook her head. “Do me one favor.”
“Go see your doctor.”
He handed her a piece of toast and nodded.
“And you may want to talk to a psychiatrist. Maybe the doctor can give a referral.”
“I’ve already thought about that. I’m going to the doctor this afternoon.”
“Good. And you probably should not drink so much.”
“You said one favor. That’s three. And as far as the drinking, there’s no reason to get wacky about it.”
She furrowed her brow. “I’m serious.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, his mouth full of toast.
Margold sat in the examination room, waiting. Next to his chair stood the monstrous table upholstered in black vinyl, over which was stretched thin white paper from a roll. He hated to go to the doctor because it usually involved discomfort and pain. The smell of the place, that antiseptic smell, scared the hell out of him. He feared needles, and all the silvery metallic instruments in the place. He remembered being chased around one of these tables as a kid so the nurse could give him a shot in the ass.
Paintings of pleasant Mediterranean resort towns with flowers, painted in light blues, pale pinks, and misty greens, hung on the wall to make the place less intimidating. It didn’t help. The table with the paper roll was nothing less than a torture device. A rack. After a few minutes, the doctor came in.
“Hi, Margold,” the doctor said. “How are you? What can I do for you?”
“I think I’m going to die.”
The doctor laughed. “Care to elaborate?”
“I just had this feeling, that’s all. Maybe I need a test, or something.”
“You’re as fit as one can expect, given your advanced years. You had a complete physical less than six months ago, which included all the intrusive exams I could think of—”
“Tell me about it. I still can’t stand to look at a rubber glove.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with you, other than you probably drink too much.”
“You been talking to my wife?”
“No, I’ve been to your house for dinner, remember?”
“See what I mean?”
“I’m not going to die?”
The doctor pushed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. “Of course you’re going to die. We’re all going to die. But you are not going to die for a long time, unless you get hit by one of those ambulances you chase.”
“That’s real funny, Doc.”
“Do you have any symptoms that concern you?”
Margold thought for a moment. “No.”
“Then you’re not going to die any time soon.”
“But why does this guy keep appearing to me?” Christ, he’d blurted it out.
He told him.
“Maybe it’s a hallucination. Based on what you told me, at least three of the times he appeared you had been drinking. Heavily.”
Margold frowned. “Heavily is such a harsh word, but yes, I’d had a few. But one time was in the morning. I was sober.”
“Yes, but you had been drinking the night before.”
“You taking anything else? Coke, acid, pot?”
“No, never did that.”
The doctor looked him in the eye. “Then stop drinking.”
Margold recoiled in shock. “Now I think you have gone nuts.”
“Are you taking any medication I don’t know about?”
“Then lay off the booze for a while and see what happens.”
“Now get out of here, I have real patients to see. Make sure you pay on the way out.”
“Would I stiff you?”
The doctor gave him a look that said “Yes, and you have.”
“I like your bedside manner, Doc. A man comes in here with a serious problem and all you can do is bust his balls about the bill.”
“I gotta eat too.”
“I understand. Are we finished?”
“One more little thing,” the doctor said.
“Maybe you should see a psychiatrist.”
“Goddamn, you have been talking to my wife.”
“No, but you are having hallucinations.”
He knew they weren’t hallucinations, but he kept his mouth shut.
“I’m going to write a referral,” the doctor said. “Go see Dr. Weiner, he’s quite good.”
Margold took the referral. On the way out to his car he threw it into the trash.
He didn’t need no shrink. So what if he was nuts, everyone was nuts. So what if he had hallucinations? The doctor said it could be due to the booze. He wasn’t going to die from being nuts, and dying was not going to kill him, unless he got suicidal, which he wasn’t. He retired to his TV room to ponder these and other things with his mind properly lubricated by scotch. Such things could not be considered on a sober mind.
With his mind clarified by booze, he contemplated the world and his place in it. He’d suffered for decades for the benefit of others. Like Christ himself. He’d slaved his whole life so others may have things. Of course, he got some of the fruits of his labors, but the lion’s share went to others. Between banks, insurance companies, the tax man, his kid and his wife, he got little. And for these efforts all he usually got was ridicule. Did he do without? No. But he compromised. On everything. He had a nice TV, but he wanted a bigger one. He had a good stereo, but he wanted (and could afford) a better one. Everything he did was subject to the scrutiny of others. Was that so bad? No. But now he was going to take a canoe over the River Styx, and soon. What to do? The answer was not clear, at least not in its entirety. But part of it was. Whatever he decided to do was going be what he wanted to do. He had toiled long enough for others. Some might argue that in your last days you should be with your family. But his family would get along without him for a while, and would have plenty of opportunity to suffer without him, and to suffer on account of him. The paramount concern in this world is the self. One had certain responsibilities requiring sacrifice, certainly. You have kids, you have to take care of them. You take on a legal matter, you must do your best as a lawyer.
Here is the liberating thing: if you know you’re going to die on a certain day at a certain time not far in the future, there is a lot you can get away with. You’ve got to stay out of jail, but if you’re smart, you can do about anything. You could kill someone, and it may take the cops years to solve the murder. You could steal something, and even if you get caught, you’d be out on bail and dead before the matter came to trial, particularly if you have a good lawyer. You can run up the credit cards and let your heirs worry about it. Glory fucking osky.
Should he go somewhere? Take a trip? See the world? Go to Antarctica, or India? He had seen a show the other day about New Orleans. That might be a good idea. He’d been there before and liked it. Interesting place. Great food and good booze. And they had fortune-tellers. There was an interesting idea. He would see if a fortune-teller could see whether he was going to die. Maybe he would gain an appreciation for jazz, which up to now has evaded him. He immediately began to make plans.
“What?” Mary asked, over coffee the next morning. “You have got to be kidding. You have a wife, a family, a house, a law practice, responsibilities, and people who love you. You can’t just up and go to New Orleans.”
“It won’t be for long. I intend to stay for a few weeks, and see what happens. But if I’m going to die, I need to spend my last few months doing what I feel like doing.”
“You’re not going to die! The doctor said there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Then why is Death visiting me?”
She dropped her head, then looked up. “He didn’t.”
“Then where is the neighbor’s dog?”
“You did something to it. Everyone says so.”
“Oh, really? Now we’re siding with ‘everyone,’ whoever that might be.”
“It makes sense.”
This annoyed him and he felt his anger rise. “It makes sense I would want to do something to the little bastard,” he said, “because it was a fucking nuisance. But it wasn’t me, it was Death.”
“You know what? On second thought, you should go to New Orleans. Take a couple of weeks off. Relax. Then come home. I’ll give you that much. Then we’ll see where you are and where we are.”
“I’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”
She glared at him. “You already have it planned. You were going to go no matter what I said.”
“I wish you would stop saying that.”
“You won’t hear it for a while.”
She put her coffee down. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. You know we love you, and we’re concerned about you. It’s just that I’m not happy you made all these plans without talking to me about it first.”
He poured them each more coffee. “What am I supposed to do? I see Death, I talk to him one-on-one in my TV room, and I see him hither and thither. He tells me I’m going to die, although there’s nothing wrong with me, gives proof as to who he is and that he’s really there, and not a hallucination. I saw him, but no one believes me.”
“You’ve got to admit it’s a bit out the ordinary, particularly for a guy like you. Out of character, even. It will take time for us to understand what you’re going through.”
He nodded. “I’ll grant you that. I’m going to take some time to go to New Orleans, get a change of scenery, and then decide what to do.”
She smiled. “All right. Enjoy yourself. Try to clear your head. Just promise me one thing.”
“Come back to us.”
He took her hand. “I’ll be back, I promise.”
“That’s all I ask.”