A Happier Ending
“I hate ‘Fargo!'” Marcella said. “Don’t tell me you like that goddamn movie.”
I looked at her angry face and said, “Well, I didn’t say–”
“You said you thought it was funny. You brought it up when I said what I said as if I was one of them. You thought making us look like jerks was a big joke.”
“I said,” I repeated for the third time, “there were some funny moments in the film, even if you didn’t think–”
“Forget it,” she said. “Talk your way out of everything, don’t you?” I shrugged. She was sort of right, I do try to do that, sure. “What else do you want? Is this all?”
I was at the checkout counter in a Walgreens in a town north of the Cities, a town I had better not name, lest Marcella read this and get going all over again. It wasn’t White Bear Lake, that I will say. And it wasn’t Anoka, although it might well have been. She had a sort of Anoka sound.
“I want one of those big red lollipop things.”
“They’re over there, behind you.”
I turned and saw a display with suckers of varied colors radiating from it like flowers. I found the cherry one I wanted and pulled it out and paid for the razors, the Bufferin, and the candy. Marcella — that was the name on her badge, that’s how I knew – gave me change.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
I was halfway to the door when she called, “You know where they grew up? Those Coen guys?”
I stopped and waited.
“Saint Jewish Park,” she said with a coarse chuckle. “That’s where. Saint Jewish Park.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, that’s news to me. I had no idea where –”
“Yep,” she said. “With great big Jewish chips on their shoulders. Outsiders looking in, because we’ll never let them in, and they knew that, so they try to make fun of us, make us look dumb.” She rang up a bag of Cheetos and a liter of coke for a guy who looked like a trucker and he asked for a pack of cigarettes. Then, when she was done getting it, he said, no, wait, better make that two.
She turned to get a second pack but looked at me edgewise as if she expected a reply.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
But she couldn’t quite let it go, not yet. “Not a surprise, huh? I mean, what else would you expect from a couple of scrawny Jews?”
The guy laughed and he and Marcella shared a moment. She muttered something I couldn’t hear and he laughed again. She was smiling as she gave him his change.
At least she wasn’t scowling any more.
The cold wind felt like battery acid on my face. The little bit of melting from the night before had frozen when the wind changed back and there were patches of black ice all over the parking lot. I did a kind of penguin walk to keep myself upright as I went to the old black Civic I called mine. Even opening the door, holding the bag in my right hand and clicking the key with the other, I almost slipped and grabbed onto the open door. I had to go low to slide into the front seat and took the sucker from the bag and removed the crackling plastic. Once it was in my mouth, a big red ball tasting like fake sweet cherry, I licked all around it, backed out and went slow to enter the traffic paused in the street for a long red light. I gave the wave to the guy who let me in.
It took a while for the heater to heat. I kept feeling the soft air exhaling from the grill, waiting for it to warm up, which at last it did, then I turned it on full blast. I was fiddling with the controls – the old ones don’t have the screens they put in now – when I hit a car that had stopped without warning, unless you consider brake lights a warning, and I felt the front end crumple like a tin can in my hand when I finished a coke.
“Oh Jesus,” I said aloud. I turned off the engine and got out in the bitter gray cold, and so did the other guy, who was majorly pissed off and said so.
“Shit!” he said. “Mother fuck! What the fuck were you doing, texting or some shit?”
I couldn’t argue with his rage. He was looking at his back end and bumper which had both dented. No more than a few thousand dollars to fix the minimal damage. My car, though, was a mess, and I had to call for a tow truck after we exchanged insurance numbers. By the time I had gotten a lyft to go home, I thought I must have frost bite, my face hurt so bad, and I could barely breathe. It hurt my lungs to take in the icy air but at least I had my lollipop which for once I had not bitten through. Cheap candy was lousy consolation for a day which had gone to hell so fast. But really, it was all that I had.
The lyft driver was an Arab. Fahool, it said on the app. He drove an old Taurus. It was clean, though, and I didn’t care, he got me home. I didn’t live very far from the scene, maybe a mile and a half, not far enough for much of a conversation, but Fahool did his best, because he wanted me to click “fun conversation” or whatever it was when I clicked on a tip. I asked how long he had been here. Not long, was all he would say. Where was he from? Syria, he said.
Where were you? I asked. In the north. Where I lived, there is nothing now but rubble. Children dead in the rubble and the stench of their bodies. Have you ever smelled a decaying body? It makes you vomit.
No, I admitted. No I had not.
They bombed everything, he said. They bombed hospitals and doctors and schools. The doctors stopped wearing their symbols which made them targets. There was wailing and crying and screaming all the time, and explosions, and horror, and more blood than you can imagine. Nobody much was left in the town except the soldiers who came in on tanks and laughed and acted as if they had won a great battle, when what with the Russians and Assad bombing us all the time, all they did was ride into death and celebrate their victories.
How did you stand it? I asked.
I was lucky, I got out. I have the nightmares, of course, and the horrors. Do you know, four million had to cross the border? Now they won’t even let us in. Wherever we go, they hate us now. Can you imagine what it is like in the camps? The ditches run sick with piss and shit. That animal, that savage, Assad, destroyed our country so he and his friends could live in splendor and drink our blood from their cups, our blood. And what did anyone do to help?
Nothing, I said. No one did anything.
Yes, he said, that’s right. No one did anything. Americans are all talk and their hands drip with criminal blood.
I couldn’t argue with his rage. The rest of the ride we were silent, thinking about things. When he pulled up at my apartment, I gave him a big tip on the app, and five stars, and – I had no choice – I tapped “fun conversation.”
The people who ask the questions determine the answers they will get.
It would have been a good day to hang myself except I didn’t want to do that. My life was eighty per cent below water but I could still gasp for air. There was a game on that night I wanted to see and I had a frozen dinner that smelled good in the microwave. It tasted OK, what you’d expect. The red wine I drank with my simulated meal wasn’t expensive but good enough, and it did the job. My apartment was small – one bedroom, a kitchen where I ate in a kind of ell that pretended to be a nook, a living room so-called, and a bathroom. For what I paid, it was all right, and it served the purpose. The neighbors except Lars and Sven two doors down the hall, the tall conspicuous Swedes, got drunk sometimes and stayed up late and made noise enough to penetrate the walls, but the rest were OK. As far as I know, I mean. How much do any of us know about anyone else, really?
I mean, if you knew one of those Syrian soldiers, if you grew up with him and laughed with him and went to pray with him, doing your five times a day routine, would you have known he would kill babies and slaughter so many innocents because he found himself able to do it, and was willing? I have no doubt that my neighbors, in the right conditions, with the right people around them, urging them on, would kill me and anyone else. Not all of them, maybe, but most. All you need is enough men like that and the guns and bombs we sell them and orders to go do it from the people wearing braids. Fahool was right about that, our hands are dripping with blood. Our history is a nightmare. I am not cynical, I simply have no illusions about my country or fellow men – and women, I had better say, these days. Women kill too, as easily as men. They say women would rule in a kinder gentler way but I don’t believe it. Thatcher? Hillary? Aung San Suu Kai? Eva Peron? I don’t think so.
Societies hang in the dark by a thread. We’re three meals away from rioting in the streets. A virus goes around and people empty the stores of enough TP to use for a year. Canned goods disappear, the neighbors be damned. No, there are no illusions in this house. Like the driver, I felt I was lucky to get out, but I am not sure what I got out of, what I left, or where I went. I am speaking metaphorically, of course. There is no exit from the world. You don’t believe me, ask a dinosaur how it felt when the rock hit the Yucatan.
Oh that’s right, there aren’t any left, are there? Just birds. Just new attempts by life to survive. Maybe when we’re gone, the bonobos will have a better shot. Unlike us, they make love, not war, at least for now.
The game was boring. Games usually are until the last two minutes. I always tell myself that’s all I need to watch, just go fast through the rest and if the score is close, watch the end. But I never take my own advice. I try to avoid what I call the enabler sports, like five hundred mile races that can only be enjoyed if you are drunk or strong out on drugs. Baseball is like that, too, so slow, so I fast forward at reduced speed to see when someone gets a hit. I do not need to watch pitchers stumble around on the mound and finally throw a pitch that can’t be hit. I would rather watch birds build a nest in the tree that blocks the view from my window, but that won’t be for months. For the moment, staying inside and numbing myself with television or beating off to porn on the computer are the only options. I thought it was funny when they told sick people to quarantine themselves, to stay inside. Here, we don’t call that quarantine, we call it winter. Voluntary incarceration with high utility bills.
That might sound bitter, but I am really quite optimistic about life. I use the computer to explore the billions and trillions of galaxies and exo-planets and galactic clusters that assure me that somewhere else, somewhere in this vast mysterious universe, other life is finding a way to climb out of its genetic heritage and replace killing each other with cooperation. Of course, once they achieve a society like that, they’ll get bored, and maybe start killing each other again, just to perk up the race with a little adrenalin rush. That’s just a guess, and sure, what do I know about how life finds forms to go beyond our own grasping primitive societies, but that’s all I’ve got, idle speculation based on not much to go on, so I do it. It kills time, and I have as good a chance as anyone to be right about the fate of the stars and spiraling galaxies and clusters all around. As a species, we are more provincial than the snobs on the coasts. The data will always be partial, right? what with distant galaxies receding from our view faster than the speed of light can show us how they were, millions of years ago?
Most people seem to prefer fantasies that convince them they have a clue. I am too old for that sort of nonsense and don’t have time to waste. There is much less time ahead, much less, than time behind, and what did the time behind teach me, except I don’t know anything at all? The only ones who might have a clue are those, like me, who know they haven’t got a clue. The rest are whistling Dixie, as they say, or like Marcella, jacking themselves up by hating other people, making it easier to pretend their ignorance is bliss. Jews are easy, blacks are easy, gays are easy, trans are even easier, Arabs and Moslems and women are easy, take your pick. If they didn’t exist, we would create them — which, I guess, is what we did. Nobody starts off thinking of themselves as an “other.” That box has to be checked by someone else. They say it enough times, we start to believe it about ourselves. But it’s they, them, the dominants, who are the minority, the “other.” So fuck those idiot elites.
See how easy it is to crate a category to despise? It’s like being in a box car heading for the death camps, pushing away the ones crowding around, trying to get some air, some space, trying not to be headed where you are.
My mother escaped that fate by fucking her way through the ranks of the Gestapo. My father was one of the officers, she never knew which one, but it got her to the Swiss border and then across. She used what she had, she said, and that was all she had. Her husband Paul and her mother Marjorie and father Jack and uncle and aunt all went up in smoke. Their ashes fell on the countryside like black snow and covered the crops with nutrients. The tubers fed on nitrogen fixed in death by the ovens. We all feed on the dead and then, like they say in gangster films, forget about it. Really, it’s the only way to live.
Forget what you can, and drink over the rest.
My mother got a job at Heimie’s in Saint Paul, first in the back doing billing, then out front, once her English was good enough, selling hats. She moved to a sales job at Dayton’s when she could. Dayton’s was closer to our apartment in St. Louis Park, the only place she could rent after the war. The suburbs around it denied Jews entry, and the covenants on homes precluded a sale to Jews or blacks. She had come to the Twin Cities because someone said it was like northern Europe, and as it turned out, it was, in more ways than one. Minneapolis was labelled the anti-semitic capital of the United States in 1946 by an editor of The Nation, but of course, my mother never read The Nation, nor had she heard of it, so how would she know that? That atmosphere, toxic and claustrophobic and dense, felt like home to her. She worked hard to raise me, a not-so-scrawny Jew without the creative juices of the Coens, until she died of cancer when I was just out of high school. That took care of college. I went to work and never looked back.
I knew the Coens were Jewish. What would have availed me, had I said so to Marcella? Letting the silence close in on conversations like that seems to be a better bet.
Like letting the silence close in on life at the end. We can sing hymns and tell each other stories about what joys await us in the dark but the questions we bring to the grave elicit only silence, and then the silence itself becomes the question. The game of life is crooked but the only game in town. Play as if you have a chance to win, and then, at the end, do not be disappointed when you can’t. Smile, and dance, if you still can, and let go of whatever hands you are holding, if you are lucky enough to have them around the bed. We live alone and we die alone. Being the last one in the family to die is a booby prize. Once they disappear, you miss everyone, everyone you lost, so terribly terribly much. You were the hand they were holding, and they all slipped at last from your desperate grasp. All of your anchors are gone, gone, gone.
Dinner was veggie lasagna with four glasses of red wine, followed by three pieces of cheap Sara Lee chocolate cake. I would hear from the insurance company the following day what repairing my car would do to my rates. It was just barely reparable, this side of a total loss. I thanked them for the call. At least they didn’t cancel me out, which they might have done, because of my age, and it was my second crash this year, so I was glad about that.
The game, like I said, was boring. The old familiar porn was even more boring. I was trying hard to get excited about what no longer worked. People know they are aging when they start beating off and, well, just stop. I used to spout a pulsating fountain of copious come when I came, when I was excited, but lately I am happy if I feel a sprinkle on my belly.
So I ate the rest of the chocolate cake before bed. Except for indigestion, that still sort of works. The doctor tells me to lose weight if I want to save my knees and hips, and I thank him for his advice and promise to do it, right now, you betcha, once I leave the office, then I get out into the hall and burst into laughter and head for the Shake Shack or Snuffy’s for a malt.
The simple pleasures of the poor. Like the social security check that covers the rent and food and a little more. The raise in the insurance will take a bigger bite, but I am nothing if not grateful that I can see a path ahead until, sooner than I like, it turns at a dark corner.
The game was won or lost by one or another team, I forget which, and I watched the late night news because I always did. Of course it is not news, it is snippets of this or that, forgotten once its done, but not the commercials, those I remember, as intended, even if I never buy the garbage they promote. Then there is the “feel good ” feature at the end.
I practically barf, it disgusts me so much, to see how they find some crippled kid or someone with a syndrome and show how they cheer up when a basketball player visits in their ward. The exploitation of the impaired and the transparent use of so-called celebrity sports icons sickens me to death, but not quite, I guess, because I watch it, I say aloud to myself how disgusting it is, but I do watch, sometimes, when I can stand it. That night, belching lasagna and feeling the burn from the wine, I watched it and then, for whatever reason, watched it again, and again. I watched a black athlete, six feet ten, in a two thousand dollar suit, bring a signed jersey to a kid with Downs Syndrome who also (what a find, right?) had cancer in his brain. His grin was legitimately idiotic and blissful when the star gave him the jersey and a hug. I know they do those features after testing with a focus group, they do it to pretend they give something of value, after scaring you to death, but it must work with the “older demographic” in which I admittedly fit, the ones who still watch “the news” and call it that, instead of getting everything streamed to their cell. The athlete who visits is an avatar on my TV, he is visiting me too, in my apartment in the cold, and like that dying child, I am a grinning idiot too, I must be, because I watched it three times, clicked it off, and went to bed, reassured that I would likely get to sleep another time without too much dread, that I was hugged and loved and bolstered by the simulated athlete, the world was a benevolent zoo in which our keepers were loving and kind, and after (if I am lucky) a relatively dreamless sleep, I might wake up on a new dawn, a new day, a new possibility, and therefore have the strength to swing my old legs over the edge of the bed and begin thinking of a warm hearty breakfast.
# # #.
Richard Thieme (www.thiemeworks.com) is an author/professional speaker who addresses challenges posed by new technologies, how to redesign ourselves to meet these challenges, and creativity in response to radical change. His speaking addresses “the human in the machine,” technology-related security and intelligence issues as they come home to our humanity. He has published hundreds of articles, dozens of stories, five books, and has delivered hundreds of speeches. He spoke in 2019 at Def Con for the 24th straight year. He has keynoted conferences around the world and clients range from GE, Microsoft, Medtronic, Bank of America, Allstate Insurance, and Johnson Controls to the NSA, FBI, US Dept of the Treasury. Los Alamos Lab, the Pentagon Security Forum, and the US Secret Service.