Jack is spinning spontaneous confessions in order to survive and pursuing the narrative threads multiplying around the bed that has become his prison.
The following is the transcript of my first confession. They write down everything you say here. No falsehood, no specious sigh, is left unrecorded.
I was hired and subsequently trained by an ultra-secret subgovernment organization as an assassin. I was at loose ends at the time and looking to do something adventurous. For some reason, perhaps shyness, I never bothered to verify the credentials of the shadowy men that hired me. Initial contact was established through an unstamped letter dropped through my mail slot, offering me the opportunity for well-paid, fulfilling work with the added bonus of exotic travel while serving the unannounced interests of my country.
Nothing in the recruiting flyer suggested that killing might be part of the job description. The offer came with a questionnaire, which would indicate or not whether I had the right stuff for the job. I filled out the questionnaire in my usual fanciful way and expected of course never to hear from whoever it was again. Three weeks later I got a check in the mail for fifty dollars, which if signed and deposited would represent acceptance of their offer including an all-expenses-paid invitation to their training facilities in New Mexico.
I agonized over the decision, but a week later when a check for $200 arrived in the mail, I provisionally accepted their offer.
The training was very much like the preparations for the football season at my high school. A lot of it had to do with the testing and sharpening of reflexes. A notable exception was the weaponry work in our regimen. I suppose I should have known that if they put guns in your hands for practice, eventually they’ll ask you to use them for real. The thing is, they kept us so busy we didn’t have time to reflect on the implications of what we were doing. Anyway, my weaponry instructor, a woman virtually my own age, was very encouraging, complimented virtually everything I did in the shooting-at-human-targets class, said I had a natural gift for this kind of work.
My first assignment was to be my final exam for the completion of the course so they sent a shadowy figure with me to grade my performance.
I assumed that this would not be an actual assassination, just a realistic approximation, that we were just going through the motions to test how well I had assimilated the training. Consequently, it was a shock to discover, watching the news on TV that night, that the public figure I had lined up in the sights of a high-powered rifle had been shot between the eyes from some unseen distance.
The discovery threw me into a funk and my immediate supervisor sent me home for rest and recovery. Eventually, obsessive regret turned into amnesia and I felt absolved for whatever it was I had done. So I was feeling okay about myself when my second assignment arrived through the mail slot in my door in an unstamped envelope.
The assigned target was a public figure I had always instinctively disliked so I thought to myself, I’ll do this one for the payday and then quit, change my name (which they had already changed) and go somewhere unexpected, a place no one would think to look.
As much as I disliked the target, and possibly for that very reason, I couldn’t kill the man when faced with the opportunity. It made no sense, but that’s the way it was.
When I reported my failure to my superior, she said not to move from the booth I was phoning from, that they would send someone I knew to bring me in for debriefing. The someone they sent, a man I had trained with in New Mexico, took a shot at the phone booth from a roof across the street.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, there was someone else in the booth at the time. Instinct had led me to wait elsewhere.
When they discovered their mistake, they came after me again, and again, and in the process, mostly in self-defense, I ended up killing more people (sometimes bystanders got caught in the crossfire) than if I had continued my aborted career as an assassin.
So the killing didn’t stop, as I had hoped, but became a way of life predicated on the instinct to survive, the body count far beyond anything I could have imagined.
When the secret government agency got tired of sending their own operatives after me, they framed me for capital crimes in places I sought sanctuary so that the local authorities would do the job for them. Even in places I had never been before, I was an established public enemy, thought to be armed and dangerous, my face on file on virtually every electronic screen.
During this period, I was in constant motion, eating and sleeping on the move, so tuned to impending danger that everyone on my radar screen seemed a potential assassin.
If there was no safe place to go, the only way to break the pattern was to get myself killed. The idea came to me when I met this derelict, who looked enough like me to pass as my twin. This is not a story I am particularly proud of so I will not go into the unappetizing details. Suffice to say, a week or so after I was reported dead, the agency that hired me and had been doing their damndest to get me off their books, gave up their pursuit.
When I surfaced again with a new identity, new fingerprints, new face, I was a free man until unfortuitous circumstance put me in your hands, if indeed you are the same bloody-minded secret agency, once again.
They must have believed something I told them. Today Molly, who has been eluding me for years, comes to visit. Her appearance, if possible, is a greater surprise than the visit last week from my dead and cremated parents, though any company in this place, even the company of someone who has lost all her illusions about you and then some, is better than being alone.
“I was hoping to rescue you from your kidnappers,” I say, “but as you can see I got kidnapped myself on the way. They keep asking me to confess but then they don’t believe what I tell them.”
“Before we go any further,” Molly says, “I need to get this said. Okay? This is not intended as a friendly visit.”
“No?” I say, reaching out an imaginary hand to her (my hands are tied behind my back), which she ignores. “Anyway, I’m pleased to see you.”
“Every time I see you, I feel angry,” she says. “It makes me angry to feel angry all the time. I know you understand what I’m saying, though I also know you’ll do your best to pretend not to know what I’m mean. I’ll tell you what I’m here for. I’d like to review our time together so I can internalize the total experience and so, you know, move on.. You owe me this, okay?”
“You’ve already moved on,” I say. “You’ve moved on and on and on.”
She cries, a sudden unpredictable change in the weather, a local storm with extra-terrestrial implications. “I can’t do this by myself,” she says. “Will you help me or do I have to look elsewhere?” She puts on her denim jacket, which resembles—I have been noting this since her arrival—a former jacket of mine.
“You dumped me for a better offer,” I say.
“No,” she insists. “Anyway, my therapist says the process will only work if we start from the beginning. Okay?”
There is no beginning, I want to say, or this is the beginning. Instead, I apologize for not having lived up to her expectations.
“I told Henry it was a mistake to come here,” she says. “Everything is amusing to you, even pain. You have no capacity for ….” She leaves the sentence unfinished. “Did we like each other when we met. I can’t remember. We must have, don’t you think?”
“We met in a supermarket,” I say. “You asked me why I had only one item in my cart. I didn’t think it was any of your business but I was too polite to say so. The next thing I know we were in a motel room together.”
She smiles wistfully through her tears. “We played catch, do you remember, with a balled up pair of socks.”
“It sounds familiar,” I say, “but I remember it as rolled up silk panties. Even in a ball, they were hard to hold on to. They had no weight.”
“It was socks,” she insists. “You were showing off and throwing the ball—the ball of socks—behind your back.”
“It could have been socks,” I allow.
“It was socks,” she says. “And what happened next? How did we get from throwing the socks around to the fatal bed?”
“One of my errant behind the back throws landed on the bed,” I say. “Then we each made a mad dash to the bed, hoping to get to the socks before the other.”
“I remember you pushing me out of the way,” she says. “You were always so competitive.”
“No,” I say. “You were the one who was pushing me out of the way. After the pushing, whoever was doing it, there was a readjustment of priorities. We forgot about the socks and the socks forgot about us.”
“That’s your story,” Molly says. “Even while we were making love, I was thinking that as soon as this is over, I’m going to retrieve the socks before he does.”
“For me,” I say, “the sexual interlude in a socks-catching game has more enduring interest than the game itself. I don’t remember where we went from there.”
“I went back to graduate school,” Molly says, “and we wrote letters back and forth. That was a time when people still wrote letters. Between the letters, when the socks were still floating in the ether, we each married different people.”
I had forgotten all of this. It’s hard for me to remember anything when my hands are tied behind my back. Still, it’s a relief not to have my arms strung up over my head, which was the former regimen. “The people we married were not the kind to throw balled-up socks back and forth,” I say. “Or were they?”
“You were the only one I ever had a socks catch with,” she says. “I lost my socks-catching virginity with you. And then we met again wholly by chance. We did, didn’t we? We had to have met somewhere or we never would have ended up married to each other. Yes?”
“It seems to me,” I say, “that we never met again, though managed to get married anyway.”
“That’s why we split up,” Molly says, “because you have an over- developed sense of the absurd. Nothing is serious to you..”
“Everything,” I say, feeling misunderstood. “You were sitting next to me in a movie when we made connection again and you were jabbing me with your elbow. You were born with a sense of yourself as someone with a divine right to public armrests.”
Molly sticks her tongue out at me in unspoken dispute. “After the movie,” she says, “the four of us went to a restaurant together. When no one was looking, I stuck a card with my phone number on it in your jacket pocket.”
“There was another motel, though it was a hotel this time,” I say, “and another ball of socks catch.”
“When I was getting back into my clothes,” Molly says, “you threw your balled up socks at me. There was no back-and-forth, nothing that might be construed as a socks-catching episode. When you hit me in the breast with your socks, it touched me. I knew in that moment that it would take me years to get free of you. …Look, I forgot to mention it. They’re recording this conversation. They wouldn’t have let me in unless I agreed.”
I make no complaint.
“Anyway,” she adds, “they say it’s for training purposes only.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “I’ve long since run out of shameful stories to tell them,”
“A few months after your socks touched my heart,” she says, “we were living together. In memory, it seems like the next day, and also as if it never happened.”
“I only threw socks at you for training purposes,” I say.
“That’s just one of your stories,” Molly says. “We lived together for two years, less than two years, before we made it official. In all the years we lived together, you never threw socks at me again.”
“Would you say our marriage was something of an anti-climax?” I ask. Were we happier before we were married, I wonder.
Molly sits down on the side of the bed next to me and pokes me with her finger. “I could do that all day and you couldn’t hit me back. … All through our marriage, there was this feeling of something missing, an absence I’ve been carrying around since I was a child. It was all anti-climax after the first time.”
I am suddenly distressed by the turn in the conversation. “Then why did you move in with me?” I ask. “Why did you live with me as long as you did?”
“If I knew the answer to that question,” she says, “I wouldn’t have bribed my way in here to see you.”
“You stayed with me,” I say, having what seems like a moment of clarity, “so you would know what to avoid the next time around.”
“You goose,” she says almost affectionately. “You never understand me because you’re too busy reading other people as if they were less subtle versions of yourself. Given the same opportunities, I most likely would play out our relationship all over again. Some things can’t be usefully avoided. What do you think?”
“Then why did you dump me after what was it, eight years together, nine, seven, eleven?”
“For the usual reason,” Molly says, slightly abashed. “There was someone else.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, or nowhere. I hesitate before asking the inevitable next question. “And why was there someone else?”
“I just figured it out,” Molly says, lying down on the cot next to me. “There was someone else because I needed to dump you, needed a practical reason to dump you.”
“Isn’t that a circular argument?” I can feel the heat of her body next to me, though not the actual touch.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Close your eyes, sweetheart, and let the past go where it belongs.”
I don’t close my eyes and then I do—what else is there to do in this place—and with eyes shut, I try to square the circle of her reasons.
Then it strikes me there are more questions to ask and I open my eyes, one at a time, an extended interval between right and left. Where is Molly? I’m ready to explain myself but it is no longer possible and what I have to say makes no sense to anyone else. Molly is gone, has vanished once again. The same thing keeps happening.
There is someone else in the room, the number 3 interrogator, watching me.
Since Molly left, I haven’t had a visitor, friendly or otherwise. Not even an interrogator has come by to fill my heart with fear and loathing. I think the word on the street is that I’ve already sung all the songs I have in me to sing. What do they know? Really? The texts of confessions I haven’t yet made, haven’t even thought of before this moment, keep running through my mind. I’ve been to the north pole of evil and back and the worst of it is, the most unforgivable, is that there’s no one to tell about it. You reach a point in this place where you would gladly put up with some official nastiness just for the company.
My food appears on a tray unexpectedly, slipped in when I’m asleep.
“If you have no more questions to ask me, send me home,” I shout at the recording system in the wall.
Toward evening, two attendants deliver another cot to what I’ve thought of for some time now as my room. When they first brought me here, there was another cot in the room, but the almost skeletal figure that occupied it never spoke, except to moan during the night. Eventually, he seemed to stop breathing. A while after that—changes tend to happen in the dark here—I woke up one morning to find bed and occupant absent. When I asked the interrogators about it, they insisted no one else was ever in the room with me.
The new occupant is a lot younger, a teenager maybe though he is so painfully thin it is hard to tell his age. An IV dangles from his arm like a tentacle. For a day or so, I don’t acknowledge him. When the silence becomes intolerable, I say, “How’s it hanging, bro?” I mean what else is there to say to someone who has moved into your room uninvited.
“Do I know you?” he asks in a surprisingly self-assured voice.
The question makes me suspicious, though I have no idea what of. “Tell me: do I look like someone you know?”
“Yes and no,” he says.
“You know what I think? I think you’ve been put in here to spy on me.”
He laughs which breaks up into a wracking cough. “If I have,” he says, “no one bothered to tell me about it. You know, you’ve always been paranoid.”
“What do you mean always?” What does he mean always? I take another look at him, but he looks like any other half-starved nineteen year old. “We’ve just met, haven’t we, though there is something familiar about you. You know who you remind me of?”
“I’ll bet,” he says.
And then we stop talking. Later in the day, though perhaps it is the next day, the number 3 interrogator makes an unscheduled appearance I salute her as she enters, but she ignores me and goes over to the boy’s bed.
“I like the way you’ve done your hair,” I call to her.
She turns to me, gives me her characteristic corner of the mouth smile. “Put a sock in it,” she whispers, immediately returning her attention to the interloper. “Has anyone here treated you badly?” she asks him.
“Only the guy with the beard on the other side of the room,” he says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says. “I have a few questions for you, Tick. You like to be called Tick. Isn’t that right? Your answers are very important to us so be careful to tell us the whole truth and only the truth.”
“Gotcha,” he says.
The interrogation goes on for awhile and I try to tune it out but there’s no way of turning off the sound—pillow over the ear doesn’t quite do it—and it drives me bananas hearing her ask him the same general questions they asked me when I was their favored suspect.
At the end of his first interrogation, she puts her hand on his groin and kisses him on the forehead. That’s unacceptable in my view. It wasn’t until my third or fourth interrogation that I got the forehead kiss and the hand on prick caress, which turned out to be a false promise in any event.
I catch him smiling, which intensifies my already bottomless displeasure with his presence. “Kid, she touched my prick too,” I tell him. “It’s no big deal. She probably does it with everyone she interviews.”
“I know what it is to feel left out,” he says. “Look I’m sorry that your day is over, Pops, but that’s just the way the cookie fucking crumbles.”
I don’t want to get into a pissing war with him so turn on my side facing away from him, though a succession of sharp-edged retorts crowd the inside of my head. “And don’t you ever call me Pops,” I say under my breath.
“Anything you say, Pops, is cool with me,” he says. “I won’t fucking call you Pops, if that’s what you want, old man.”
I wake up from a brief snooze sniffing smoke. “Who’s smoking? There’s no smoking allowed here.”
The kid brushes the smoke away with one hand while holding what looks like a cigarette behind his back. “You’ve been dreaming, Pops,” he says. “Whatever smoke you see in this room comes with the territory.”
I see what’s going on. They’ve put him in here to get under my skin, to break me down or up and my only revenge is not to let that happen. I sit up, wondering if my legs will hold me if I climb off the bed. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that he is caught up in the same or similar struggle, sliding his legs toward the edge of the bed.
It would be hard to prove without an exacting slow-motion replay, but I am the first to get to my feet. Balance is shaky. I sway from one side to the other while considering how to put one foot in front of the other while remaining upright.
It encourages me to see him stumble while awkwardly, with considerable effort, retaining his upright position
We are now, it seems, moving toward the other, huffing and grumbling, while making no notable progress. It’s like walking up a down escalator, which I’ve done a number of times but only in the imagination.
As we get closer, I work on the rudiments of a defensive strategy. It strikes me if I can land the first blow, it will be sufficient to destroy his aggressive pretensions. At the same time, I am aware that it may not be possible to thrust my clenched fist at his face while still retaining my balance.
“Back off,” I say to myself, to him to myself, but he keeps coming and so do I.
We are at the moment no more than two small hesitant steps apart.
I manage the first step, then lose my balance, fall towards him with my arms flailing.
“Fucking watch it, Pops,” he says, his knees buckling, arms flapping like a bird.
In such fashion, we close, grab at each other as we meet, holding on to keep from falling, caught by the hidden camera in the embarrassment of an embrace.
Check in with the Rail every month
for a new installment of Reruns Rezoomed.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.