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Kill Me Excerpt

His Story

It started simply enough.

Progress Notes—1st session
Pt is a 44 yr old mwm in nad c/ only vague complaints.
Dx: ? ? Has apparent fatigue. Irritability. Anxiety? R/O: 296.82/309.24
Impression: Pt is smart, elusive, sarcastic. Goals unclear. Trust?
Rx Plan: Short term? Confront resistance, est. trust. Long term?
TWT.

AG

     I was his clinical psychologist. I scribbled those notes after our first session.
     I ended up treating him — the "married white male in no apparent distress" — for three weeks. In therapy-years, that's an eye blink.  
     What was I treating him for? I didn't have an answer to the diagnostic question until the last time I saw him. That first day I was ruling out Atypical Depression and Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety. They were both safe guesses.  
    
     Why all the doubt? Because I'm no clinical genius. And because patients lie. Anyone who has been doing healthcare for more than a week knows the feeling, the nagging sense that something a patient is saying doesn't ring quite true.
     The establish-trust part of my treatment plan was pro forma. "TWT"? That's my shorthand for time-will-tell. In therapy I typically wait things out. As days pass, untruths become unimportant or untruths become truths of a different species.
     It turned out that he didn't have time and that I never appreciated how crucial the answer to the question of why he was in psychotherapy was going to turn out to be. All I knew back then was that there were pieces that felt incomplete.
     Usually, early in therapy, that wouldn't be important.
     That's what I thought this time, too.
     Until the end.
     The end changed everything.

From Chapter 1

     Where to start with this guy? This shrink?
    
Honesty?
     Eventually, maybe. Soon, hopefully.
     Not the first day, though. Certainly not the first hour.
     Not with a stranger. The stakes were way too high.
     The first day? The first day—it was a fine autumn day—he'd have to settle for the truth.
     Not the whole truth, not nothing-but-the-truth. But the truth.
     We'd both have to settle for that.

     "You ever get massages?" I asked him.
     Yes, that's how I started the first session with him. Un-frigging-believable.
     What the hell? I thought. Where on earth did that come from?
     "You ever get massages?" Did I really ask him that?
I certainly hadn't planned to start out that way, but that's exactly what came dribbling out of my mouth, even before I'd sat down in the chair across from Dr. Alan Gregory.
     His eyes narrowed a little in response to my question. Maybe he raised his right shoulder enough that I could have considered it a shrug. Maybe not. I took the combined movements to mean "sure," but they could just as easily have meant "what difference does it make?" Most likely the gestures constituted a vague editorial about the peculiar manner that I'd chosen to begin the first psychotherapy session of my life.
     "I find that they help," I said. "Massages. I've been getting a couple a week." As an afterthought, I tagged the word "lately" onto the end of the sentence.
     Help with what? He could have asked me, maybe should have asked me. But he didn't. He sat silently, waiting for something. Was he demonstrating patience, or indifference? Time would tell. Time, though, was something I didn't have in abundance. At that moment I was feeling neither patience nor indifference. Were our roles reversed, I know I would have asked the "help-you-with-what" question.
     No doubt about it. I would have asked. Yep.
     If he had asked I would have told him I meant help with the fact that I was dying, though I wouldn't have told him yet exactly how complicated my dying was turning out to be.
     Truth, yes.
     Honesty, not quite yet.
     "The massage therapist I see? Her name is Cinda. She's good. Very good. Little-known fact: Some massage therapists do the bulk of their work one-handed. They do; it's not like with a baseball pitcher, or a cook, though. A painter, whatever. The dominant hand changes depending on what she's working on, where she's standing. Sometimes it's left, sometimes it's right. But what makes Cinda so good at what she does—truly special—is what she does with the other hand, the one that's not doing the heavy lifting."
     I felt suddenly exhausted. The lassitude came on in an instant and floored me, like I'd been idiotic enough to turn my back to the ocean and had ended up getting flattened by a twelve-foot curl of breaking indolence. If this guy in front of me had been an analytic shrink with a cracked-leather Sigmund chaise and was sitting in front of me dripping old Viennese attitude I might have stretched out and rolled over onto my side to be contrary. But he was a pedestrian Colorado Ph.D. in a pedestrian old Victorian in downtown Boulder and it was apparent that he'd organized the furniture in his office so that our time together was going to be face-to-face.
     I asked, "Do you mind if I put my feet up?"
     What was he going to do? Be a jerk, say no? He opened his hands in a be-my-guest gesture. What is this guy, I wondered, a mime? I lifted my heavy legs and rested my beat-up sneakers on the scratched wood of a table that said old, not antique. The change in posture eased my fatigue a little. Every little bit helped.
     The dramatic increase in fatigue I was feeling was a new thing. The doctors couldn't explain it. I was still adjusting to it.
     Other than his brief introduction in the tiny waiting room— "Hello, I'm Alan Gregory. Please come in." —he finally spoke his first words to me. He said, "The other hand?"
     I'll give him credit for something: He made the short phrase sound somewhat consequential.
     And he let me know he'd been paying attention.
     "I actually think of it as her 'off hand,' not her other hand." I said. "The working hand is the reason we're there, of course. It's the business hand, and she knows her business. Cinda's intuitive—she finds tightness I don't even know I have. She kneads it. Traces it. Stretches it. Finds the origin of a muscle like she's an explorer looking for the headwater of a river. Then nine times out of ten, she gets the tension to release. What I'm saying is she does the job that needs doing, but she does it mostly with one strong hand at a time. Sometimes the off hand helps—does some of the same work—but most of the time . . . no, not. It's one working hand, and one off hand."
     How did he reply to that little speech? His eyes invited me to go on. That was all. It was a subtle thing, but to me the invitation was as clear as if a calligrapher had penned it on good linen paper, sealed it with wax, and had it handed to me by a liveried messenger.
     Thea could do that, too—talk to me in complete sentences using only her eyes.
     He and I would talk about Thea later.
     Why, I wondered, was I babbling on with this guy about my massage therapist's hands? I still didn't have an answer to that one, but I went with the momentum, mostly because fighting it and doing something else would have required stamina I didn't have.
     "Despite how good her working hand does its job, her off hand is the reason I go back to her."
     He sent me another invitation with his eyes. Or he repeated the same invitation. I wasn't totally sure which.
     The rhythm of the therapy dance was becoming clear: I would appear to lead. He would appear to follow. The reality would, of course, probably turn out to be something altogether different. I reminded myself that I'd decided to be honest with him. Otherwise, what was the point?
     I said, "Sometimes she'll just rest it a few inches from where she's working with her business hand. If she's doing my lower back, she might rest her off hand on my hip. If she's working my shoulder, she might rest it on my neck. No real pressure. That's not true, maybe some pressure. A light stroke, a gentle squeeze. But no real work. The other hand is doing the work. Most of the time her off hand doesn't join in—it's not there for that. It's there for ..."
     Could he think I'm talking about sex? "I'm not talking about sex. In case you're wondering. When I talk about sex, I'll talk about sex. That's not one of my things—discomfort with sex. This is about something else entirely." I glanced at his left hand. He wore a ring. "You married?"
     He grazed the ring with the soft pad of his thumb. Involuntary? Maybe. He didn't answer me. Or maybe he did. If he did, I missed it.
     "I am," I said. "Sometimes—maybe most of the time—when my wife does things for me they're part of the deal, the marriage deal. She does x, I do y. She makes dinner; I make money. But sometimes she does something for me and I know it's meant to be a gift, something special. Something that's not part of the deal. That's what Cinda's off hand does during the massage; it's the one that says that whatever's going on at that moment isn't just a job, isn't only part of the deal, that she cares a little, that I'm not just another blob of flesh on her table, that it's not all about my muscles yielding to her fingers. That we're not only trading my money for her time."
     I inhaled and exhaled before he replied. He said, "That's important to you?"
     His words stopped me. Isn't that a universal truth? Wouldn't it be important to anybody. "Of course," I said.
     Of course.
    
"Her off hand provides . . . tenderness?" he said. "Is that a good word for what you're describing?"
     I crossed one ankle over the other, and the change in posture offered some temporary relief. "I think about it more as a caress, but 'tenderness' is a good word for it. Yes."
     "And it's the reason you go back to her?"
     "Cinda's good at what she does, but plenty of people are good at what they do. Yeah, I guess the truth is that the reason I keep going back to her is because of how she manages her off hand. For the kindness, the tenderness. It's important. Essential even." I tacked on, "For me."
     The shrink was silent for most of a minute. At first I thought he was waiting for me to start up again, but I saw something in his face that told me that maybe he was working on something. So I waited, too. Finally, he seemed to find whatever he'd been seeking. He said, "And . . . you're wondering whether you'll get it here? The tenderness? Whether I'm going to turn out to be all business, or whether I have an off hand, too?"
     Actually, that wasn't what I'd been thinking at all.
     What I'd been wondering was what it was about this bland little room, and about this unfamiliar, relatively bland man, that had somehow got me babbling about Cinda and the seductiveness of her off hand.
     "Maybe," I said.
     He let me digest my response. When he thought I'd had enough time, he added a coda. "You told me your massage therapist's name, but not your wife's."
     It wasn't a question.
     Not at all.

From Chapter 8

     I watched as he fortified himself with at least half the vodka in his glass before he said, "Listen. I probably shouldn't be telling you this, especially not right now, but I know a guy."
     "Yeah?"
     Although it may have sounded that way, my yeah wasn't simple perfunctory conversation grease. My radar had detected something monumental in Jimmy's simple pronouncement that he knew a guy.
     He went back to his vodka.
     "What kind of guy?" I asked.
     He dropped his voice another octave or two and leaned forward toward me after stealing a glance aft to make sure our three friends were still distracted with their card game. For at least six months Grant had been trying to get us all as intrigued as he was with the medieval game of Tarot. He carried a deck everywhere. Jimmy went on with me only after he had convinced himself that Grant's latest cups-and-swords seminar was proceeding uninterrupted. "I don't actually know him. He's not like a friend of mine, but you know . . . Let's say he's a contact, okay? Somebody I can ... get in touch with. If... you know."
     "Okay," I said. Jimmy was a bright guy; the sudden absence of eloquence was a sign of something important. Without trying to act too interested, I repeated, "What kind of guy?"
     "This is weird," he said.
     "I've noticed."
     He finished the vodka and chewed on an ice cube while he stole a glance at the galley, apparently considering a refill of his cocktail. Then: "What you said before on the mountain? Everybody else thought you were joking; I'm sure you know that. None of them took you seriously. But I didn't... I didn't think you were joking. I know you too well."
     "Yeah." I was agreeing that he knew me well.
     Too well? Possibly that.
     "I heard about him, you know, this guy and his . . . his business back when El was sick. Somebody I know back East knew somebody who knew about him, what he does. That kind of thing. At least three degrees of separation. Who knows, maybe more. I talked to somebody who talked to somebody who talked to somebody. Anyway, I've been thinking of telling you about him before today." He paused long enough to assess my reaction to what he'd said so far. "Because of Connie's situation. Not anything personal with you. Before what happened today, anyway."
     "Connie's situation is personal."
     Connie was my older brother, Conrad.
     He was living in New Haven, where he'd spent more than two decades enjoying his dream life teaching ethics in the philosophy department at Yale. Just shy of three years earlier he had learned that he was suffering the inexorable ravages of ALS, Lou Gehrig's debilitating legacy illness. Connie's tribulations as the disease robbed him of control over his muscles—and his freedom—filled me with terror, even from a distance of almost two thousand miles. I didn't talk about Connie's condition much, not with anyone. Jimmy was one of those rare people that I didn't have to share much detail with; he seemed to intuitively know what I was going through with my brother.
     "You said, 'business.' What kind of guy are you talking about, Jimmy?"
     "A guy who'll do what you said on the mountain." He paused long enough for me to catch up, and recognized the look of mild shock that was settling on my face, before he whispered, "That's right, kill you. Arrange for your death. If you get seriously sick, like Connie. Or if there's an accident and something happens like what just happened to Antonio."
     "Kill me?" I said.
     "It's a business. Think of it as an insurance company." He laughed nervously. "Hey, I know my insurance, right?"
     "They do this for ... money?" For some reason the thought resonated with me at a number of profound levels. I found myself locked in a series of short exhales, totally neglecting the biological imperative to inhale in between. Part of me was shocked at the concept of what Jimmy was telling me, and part of me—not the most appealing part, I admit—was busy applauding the entrepreneurial imagination inherent in starting such an undertaking.
     Grant suddenly stepped up and filled the space between Jimmy and me. Grant was a tall, light-skinned African-American; he had to stoop way over to maneuver in the plane. "We can move the game down here if you guys want to play," Grant said. To me, more than to Jimmy, he added, "I think those two knuckleheads are finally starting to get the hang of it. I keep telling them to think hearts, think hearts."
     I remembered to suck some air into my lungs before I tried to speak again. I said, "It's all right, Grant. I think I'm just going to rest down here. I'm pretty sore. I don't think I'd be much fun. Anyway, I'd be at a disadvantage with all the narcotics I'm on."
     Jimmy stood up. "I'll join you guys, Grant. Deal me in for the next hand. I'll be down there in a second."
     Once Grant had returned to the table in the rear of the plane, I said, "Did he really say 'knuckleheads'?"
     Jimmy leaned over so that he was close enough that I could smell the vodka on his breath. He lowered his voice and said, "I think I can get you an introduction. With the guy. Or the guy's guy. If that's what you'd like, of course. If you were serious before—about what you said."
     I tried to act cool, cooler than I was feeling. The Percocet was helping my act. "You weren't pulling my leg? There are really people who do that? Who have a business?"
     "Come on. I wouldn't joke about this."
     "But it's a business?"
     He lowered his voice ever further. "Yes. A quiet business. Okay? Very, very hush-hush. It's not listed on NASDAQ. They don't have a Web site."
     I appreciated that clarification; the web address was going to be my next question.
     "I guess it would have to be a quiet business," I said. The ramifications of the enterprise were only beginning to become clear. "Sounds felonious."
     "Of course it's felonious. We're talking about you hiring somebody to kill you. From a legal point of view, it's no different than hiring somebody to kill someone else. No different." He touched my good arm. "You can't tell anybody I've told you this. I'll deny it. I'm actually supposed to get permission before I ... pass the word to a new guy."
     "Tell me again, how do you know about. . . somebody like whomever you're talking about? Where did you—"
     "El. Toward the end, when we learned that she was . . . terminal, an institutional liability guy I do business with in New York—a sweet guy—heard about what was going on, called me and offered to put me in touch with somebody. This liability guy, both his parents have Alzheimer's. And his older sister already has early signs herself even though she's only fifty. Fifty? Can you believe it? Although he's never said, I think he's already a ... client of these people. He's terrified of his genetic predisposition and he doesn't want to end up like the rest of his family."
     Jimmy watched my face for evidence that I'd digested what he said before he added, "This is all word of mouth. Only by introduction. You have to know somebody who knows somebody to make contact with the guy. There are no business cards. No shingle, no brass plaque. No e-mail records."
     "Referrals," I said, trying to find a mundane way to conceptualize what was so far from mundane.
     "Yes," he said, relieved that I seem to get it. "Only by referral. If you're interested, they'll check you out before they contact you."
     "Did you . . . Have you . . . ?" I asked. Despite my total lack of eloquence, he knew what I was asking.
     "That's not something you're supposed to ... talk about. You have to promise not to talk about it. Whether you decide to buy in, or not, you have to agree to keep the whole thing secret right from the start. Discretion? I'm sure you understand, right? These people can't operate with any kind of daylight." Almost in exasperation, he tagged on, "Me? I'm a single parent with young kids. My options about the future are limited. I pretty much have to catch the ball I'm thrown and run with it."
     "Ah," I said, feigning that I understood what he meant by that metaphor. But I didn't understand. Not exactly. "Jimmy, have breakfast with me tomorrow when my head's a little clearer. I'd like to hear some more about. . . the guy."
     "Yeah, okay."
     He took a step away. I said, "El didn't. . . ? Did she?"
     "No," he said instantly. "She wouldn't have. God, El never would have." He shook his head as though he'd revisited the possibility that very instant and had re-convinced himself. "No, never."
     "But you think I would?"
     "If you're offended that I brought this up, please forget I said a thing, and accept my most profound apology. I heard what you were saying on that mountain. Your reaction to Antonio's . . . situation. The fall you took. You sounded sincere. I'm trying to be a friend, that's all. If I've upset you with any of this ..."
     Jimmy turned away toward the galley, and the vodka.

From Chapter 11

     It turned out that New York City was the center of the Death Angel universe. That's where I had my get-acquainted meeting with Jimmy Lee's contact, his "guy." The meeting took place in the interval between my tumble in the Bugaboos and that board meeting in Santa Barbara. Late spring, early summer, 2004. My left wrist was still adorned in a cast. The rest of me had healed nicely, thank you.
 
     Even though I'd been given a hint at what to expect that first time, the reality was disconcerting. In a quick phone call from a taciturn man two days earlier, I'd been instructed to walk slowly down the west side of Park Avenue in Midtown between 53rd and 54th over the lunch hour and to be prepared to be greeted by someone pretending to be an old friend. I should be agreeable, I was told. Jimmy must have warned somebody that I was capable of being less than agreeable.
     The "old friend" who approached me on Park Avenue turned out to be a lovely, sophisticated woman a half-dozen or so years younger than me who called my name and pranced up to me on impossibly high heels. She gave me an embrace of the kind of profound exuberance that is usually reserved for airport terminals or wayward grandchildren being reacquainted with bubbes and zadies.
     But the woman mashed her chest into mine the way few bubbes ever do and ran her hands up and down my back and tenderly down my sides before her long fingers ended up on my cheeks. All my cheeks. First the southern cheeks, then the northern cheeks. She finally planted a not-quite chaste kiss on my lips. As she pulled away she smelled of spices and flowers and something that made me think of crisp sheets that had been dried in the sun.
     I was quite aware that I had just been frisked for the second time in my life, and that I hadn't really minded it. The first time had been by a razor-burned Oklahoma State Trooper on the desolate shoulder of Interstate 35 due east of Enid on a miserably hot July afternoon when 1 was nineteen years old. My memory's reflection was that it hadn't been anywhere nearly as enjoyable an experience as this time had been.
     A black Town Car like ten thousand others in New York pulled to the curb next to us. This woman who was my newest, best, old friend opened the back door, smiled, and said, "In."
     I obeyed. She followed me.
     "Where are we—"
     "Shhhh," she said, while she used a compact to check her lipstick and, it appeared to me, to look down the street to see if any other vehicles had pulled over to the Park Avenue curb anywhere behind us. When she was comfortable that we weren't being shadowed and that her perfectly swollen lips were perfectly edged and perfectly glossed, she scooted her perfectly shaped ass next to me on the back seat, and undid the shoulder belt that I'd reflexively fastened across my chest. In a practiced, sultry, last-call voice, she murmured, "My advice? Close your eyes and enjoy this."
     If I thought that I'd been frisked on the sidewalk on Park Avenue, then what I got in the back seat of the Town Car that was carrying us downtown was something much closer to a full-body massage. Was there a part of my anatomy that she didn't trace or palpate with her probing ringers?
     Let me think.
     No, there wasn't.
     Not a one.
     I took only part of her advice, though. I certainly did enjoy it, but I didn't close my eyes. She was much too lovely for that.
     When she was done with her examination, I said, "Thank you very much. Is it my turn now?"
She laughed a laugh that told me clearly not only that the answer to my question was no, but also told me that if I ever got to know her I'd probably like her a lot. The laugh told me, too, that I would never get to know her.
     I don't know why, but I'd already come to the conclusion that she wasn't my Death Angel. She had a role in all this, but she wouldn't be pulling any literal triggers. Call it intuition.

     Over the years I've spent a lot of time doing business in New York, and I knew the local landscape and mores pretty well, but I wasn't an honorary native by any means. Without a neighborhood map in front of me I couldn't just take a quick look outside the windows of a car speeding toward Downtown from Midtown and tell you at a quick glance whether I'd crossed a boundary line between Tribeca and Soho, or between Chelsea and Nolita, or between the Meatpacking District and the Village. The Town Car finally pulled to a stop on a nondescript block in one of those places, though I didn't know which one. Nor, I suspected, was I supposed to know which one.
     "You're here," she said, and she stepped gracefully out of the car. I followed her out the same door, though not quite so gracefully.
     Not we're here.
     "Where is here?" I asked.
     She made a disappointed face. She was playfully letting me know she had expected more from me.
     "You're not joining me?" I said. "My treat. My pleasure."
     She scrunched up her nose and eyes in a way that she knew was as cute as could be, took my hand, and led me into a crowded restaurant that had a sushi bar on one side. I recognized that she had succeeded in distracting me with her flirtation, which was probably her intent. Admittedly, I'd been paying more attention to the subtle curves of her butt than I had been to the identity of the place I was entering. I didn't even know what restaurant I was in.
     We strolled past the front desk to a table along the wall beyond the windows. A deuce with only one empty chair. The empty chair was the one that faced away from the front door.
     "Have a wonderful meal," she said, offering me one last boob-crushing embrace to remember her by. I couldn't discern any tactical advantage that she might have gained with the final hug, and I allowed myself the luxury of believing that it was, at the very least, a sincere tease on her part. Pulling back, she air-kissed me on one cheek and then the other, apparently intent on playing out her assigned ruse until the curtain dropped and the house lights came up.
     To the man who had stood as we approached the table, the one who was holding a napkin in his left hand, she whispered simply, and deferentially, "Clean as a baby's conscience."
     The man turned to me and said, "Please, have a seat. Thanks so much for joining me."
     Before I sat, I watched my temporary consort turn at least a dozen heads—both male and female, she was that kind of gal—as she sashayed back out of the room. She'd distracted the attention of anyone who might have inadvertently noted the low-key introduction that had just occurred between my Death Angel and me.
     Was this a guy who had a finger on the literal trigger?
     My instinct said "yes."

 

Kill Me by Stephen White

Signet (USA) Paperback, 2007, ISBN 0451220714

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