by Nicholas LaRocca
Jesse figured he could use it. The way he saw it was, you don’t go shooting yourself in the stomach, getting yourself an inch away from death, have the doctors sew you up and shove you back out, and not use it. So it didn’t embarrass him to tell it to me: he had caught his wife in bed with another man, had come home early from work to surprise her, and had heard noises even from the front door—if you believe the way he told it to you. And from then it was this walk, this agonizing walk, as the noises got louder, inside and across the house, one of those old Florida houses with additions and alterations, along a hall, turn, and behind the door. He heard his wife’s voice. He heard another man.
It was his custom to lay his government issue down on the table next to the door when he first got home, waiting until he settled in to lock it up in the safe, a custom that probably saved two lives and that, even in the midst of knowing something was wrong, he had practiced. He went back down the hall and got the pistol, intending to bust right through the bedroom door and shoot them both, then turn the gun on himself. But he didn’t make it back to his bedroom. Instead, without the silly ceremony of Hollywood, he turned the gun on himself right there by the front door, and it wasn’t his life flashing before his eyes, but just the notion, as he pulled the trigger, that maybe he had been hearing things, or maybe his wife was watching a porn in the bedroom. Something besides an affair.
But it was an affair. It always is. When his wife heard the gun go off, she got up and rushed down the hall. I talked with her about it, and when she admits it—and she’s a piece of work, that one, but with a body like you wouldn’t believe—she was worried there was a killer in the house. Jesse wasn’t supposed to be home. He’s an F.B.I. agent like me, and we never come home early or come home for lunch, not down here in South Florida, at least. There’s never that kind of time.
When she saw Jesse lying on the floor, she turned, naked, to the man she had been with, whose name was Carl Driscoll. “Call 9-1-1,” she said. Then she fainted, right there on the spot.
Carl was the only one left, and to hear him tell it, he went and got his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1, stepping over her body where she had just fainted in the hallway. He went over to Jesse. He held Jesse’s hand and said, “Now you just don’t die. That’s all. Help is coming. You just don’t die.”
“Jesus Christ,” Carl cried into the phone, when he saw how Jesse was bleeding everywhere, his shirt soaked with blood, and blood running onto the floor. Jesse was moaning in agony.
“What did you do to yourself?” Carl said.
He looked back at Samantha just as she was coming to.
The operator was saying, “Talk to him. Let him hear your voice.”
And a thought flashed through Carl’s mind of the life of the operator, of how many times she had been on the other end of this kind of terrible phone call and what that would do to a person.
“Stay right the fuck there!” Carl said to Samantha. At that moment, he hated everybody in the world but that operator.
When the paramedics came, Jesse got lucky. Maybe. They came in immediately with a transfusion, stabilized him, and got him to the hospital, which was only two blocks away, so it took them just minutes to get to the house and minutes to get back.
I think Jesse knew all this. I don’t think he wanted attention. I think he really did want to die. But at that moment of truth, when he could have put that gun in his mouth, he got more apathetic than suicidal and said to himself, If I live, I live. If not, then not. I mean, why shoot yourself in the stomach? This guy’s in the Bureau. He knows how a gut shot works, even a bad one, and usually you have to bleed out. Or maybe that was how he wanted to die, in slow agony, just like the walk from the front door to the bedroom. I can’t tell.
Jesse was always fucked up. He didn’t have good parents. His father was in prison, believe it or not. Cocaine in the 80’s. Made all the Cubans religiously follow Reagan’s drug war because cocaine was killing Cubans in South Florida. Everyone thinks Cubans are conservative because of their religion, which they couldn’t practice in Cuba, but it’s never that principled—or that abstractly principled. It has more to do with cocaine. And Jesse’s father got caught up in it, which meant his mother got caught up in it, too. She spent most of Jesse’s teen years in rehab.
So Jesse, who was the oldest of five, raised his brothers and sisters mostly on his own. He went to college at Florida International University in Miami, got his law degree there, and joined the F.B.I. in 1996, just as South Florida was starting to tame. Thirteen years he worked in the field for the Bureau. Like all of us, he dealt with 9-11, when he was reassigned, as almost every agent was, to counterterrorism. He was involved in the bust of that group of morons living in Miami who had threatened to blow up buildings but, it turned out, was like a pack of matches threatening to blow up a building for the chance they might actually pull it off.
So he was involved in this and that, lots of drug busts, too, because make no mistake about it, the ports down here and all the private airports are still the best places to slip contraband in and out. Thirteen years, and during that time he married Samantha, a white girl and an artist, one of those hippie chicks who used to walk around when she wasn’t teaching this or that Eastern-type artsy class in a pair of yoga pants with that perfect, athletic ass of hers strutting bing-bang-boom. And they were never right for each other.
But she didn’t have much of a childhood either. Florida white, we call them, fifth-generation or so Floridians without a pot to piss in. Except Samantha was smart, had a law degree herself—they’d met in law school at F.I.U. Samantha, who had gotten into Stanford, had gone to F.I.U. not to remain near her family, with whom she did not get along, but because the students at F.I.U. were mostly South American and Cuban. She liked that sort of man, at least back then, and could handle him, too. She was not just pretty but flat-out sexual. So how could Jesse keep up with that, satisfy that, a guy gone most of the day and night? It must have been slipping away long before Jesse caught her.
I’m not married. I say, if it happens, it happens. I put stock and faith in the institution, mainly because I’m a little envious of my married friends who I know are happy, which is about half of them. They’re way happier than me. Shit, even the unhappy ones at least have someone to come home to, which is better than a Hungryman frozen dinner and the Marlins game, no matter how much they may think it’s not. But I’m just saying, it can get like it did with Jessie, and that’s torture.
So after the doctors sewed him up and he spent months in rehab, he went back to everything, back to work at the F.B.I. But with half his guts not working anymore—which isn’t the nicest way of putting it, but hey, where’s it written I have to be nice—he was reassigned to a desk job and had to take a cut in pay. He divorced Samantha, and they had taken out so much equity on their house and the divorce was timed so badly with how the market fell apart down here that he was bankrupted after the short sale and had to start over. He found an apartment, a guest house of sorts, a studio above the garage of a nice big house, and he humped over what he had left from the marriage, enough furniture to sit on and eat at and sleep in, along with the television and computer. With that, he started his life over.
He had become a different man after his “near-death experience.” I’m a skeptical guy, naturally, and I didn’t believe it, but when I went to see him one day at his apartment, I noticed how bare it was. I mean, he had Chapter Thirteen-ed it, so his debts were all but gone, and pay cut or not, the guy still was an F.B.I. special agent with a law degree, still made bucks enough. I mean, the furniture he had was nice, but there wasn’t much of it. Same with his clothes. He had six very nice suits, no more, no less. He had seven pairs of jeans and seven tee shirts. He had seven nice button down shirts for going out and seven short sleeve shirts. He had seven pairs of nice shorts. He had two pairs of shoes for work—brown and black—and he had two pairs of shoes for going out, brown and black. He had a pair of sneakers to exercise in, which he still did even though it hurt like hell. He had one pair of sandals for the beach. I shit you not: he had seven pairs of gym socks and seven pairs of dress socks and seven pairs of underwear. One silver watch.
And he kept his wedding ring next to his watch in a little plastic pouch the watch had come with, to remind himself of the person he had been and the end of it all, which was something he had come to terms with and was not bitter about, to hear him tell it.
He had basic cable. He ate only fresh vegetables. He went shopping nearly every evening for his dinner and came home and made it himself, almost never eating out. I could go on. And he got himself lean that way, ripped, not built like us guys in the field, but more like the guys who did yoga with Samantha. But with an edge, a fuller identity, let’s say. What’s that word? Ethos. More ethos.
When I went to see his apartment for the first time, he showed off the place, how he separated his bedroom, so to speak, from the rest of the apartment with these “eggplant” drapes—that was the color, to hear him describe it. They was nice, like everything else, but they were just a couple of drapes running the length of the studio. He showed me his little kitchenette, where a quaint teapot stood on the half-sized stove. He showed me his bathroom, just a shower stall, a sink, a toilet. He had a couch, a television, and bookshelves. And there it was.
He said, “Isn’t this perfect for me?”
I kept thinking, You had a house, man. But I said, “Yeah, a single guy needs a simple place.”
“That’s right. Simple. Simple and elegant,” he said. “Down the street from the library.”
I noticed Crime and Punishment sitting on his bed, face down, open to where he had left off. I had never seen him reading a novel before. He read law enforcement mumbo jumbo and the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, but never anything as elevated as classic fiction.
He walked me out to the balcony, which overlooked the cobblestone driveway of this rich couple he rented from. He had put out a pair of those plastic Adirondack chairs that everyone was putting on porches. Between them was a nice table, all a deep, Bureau blue. He had been a smoker before he had shot himself, but now there was no evidence of cigarettes, a habit he had kicked during his recovery. The table was empty. No ashtray.
He brought out a container of fruit salad and two forks, but I didn’t really eat fresh fruit. I didn’t really each fresh anything. He dug my fork into the fruit salad, keeping his in his hand, took a seat, breathed in the fresh air, and said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t miss the field, Chuck.”
That’s what everyone calls me. Chuck. When I was a kid, I had hated “Charles,” but now, I want to be called Charles. Chuck is the name of a guy you see at the bowling alley in a tee shirt shirt too small for his beer gut.
Jesse went on, “The air. I love the air. I get up at five in the morning now, even on weekends. Five in the morning, I take a walk. I’m thinking of getting a dog, now that I’m desking it.”
He took a chunk of pineapple and savored it with something like ecstasy, pointing his fork at the bowl of fruit salad and saying, “Absolutely wonderful. Have some.”
“You really don’t miss the busts?” I asked, skeptical.
“No,” he insisted, “because it’s too much chaos. And to get to the bust, you have to do everything else, and I don’t miss that at all. I don’t miss being married to the job. The truth is, I was never a very good husband to Sam. I’m not blaming myself,” he said, holding up a hand.
He winced. Excitement hurt, like when he had to stop me from opening my big trap and interrupting him the way I like to do when I get nervous, not one of my finer traits, by the way. I’m the kind of guy people say this to: “Can I please finish what I was saying?” Yup, I’m that guy.
He went on, “I’m just saying that I could have been a better husband. I’ve come to terms with certain independent truths, and I’ve reestablished my needs. I’m definitely getting a dog, maybe a black lab or collie, a pleasant dog. I would love to come home to a happy dog at the door.”
“It’s a cool set-up,” I admitted, looking around. “Beats hell out of my condo.”
I have a condo, a two-two, they call them, one of those smacked up stucco jobs in a complex with a pool and a lousy gym and old timers playing shuffleboard outside the clubhouse. I would have preferred something like what Jesse had, though it’s sort of like Charles versus Chuck. I’m probably one of those people who thinks the grass is greener, like Samantha.
“Four hundred a month. When they heard I was in the F.B.I., they gave me a discount. The husband has me look over contracts every now and again, so last month, he knocked my rent down to zero for it.”
“A law degree, though, and a special agent, living above a garage?”
“You only get depressed about something nice when you decide it should be nicer. Why? I don’t need nicer.” He sighed. It was funny. He wasn’t sighing reflectively. He was sighing at me. “Don’t be Raskolnikov, now. He got himself into trouble for thinking he was better than the people around him.”
We were quiet. He went along happily eating his fruit salad. From the balcony, you could see past these two palm trees to the quiet street. He was close to downtown, close to all the action, but you couldn’t hear it. It was really a nice spot to get it together, that was for sure. I don’t know. Maybe not for me, but for him. I can’t be like other people, I guess, and it depresses me.
“Sam says you gave her a call yesterday,” he mentioned.
I was surprised, even scared. I turned to Jesse, watched him for I don’t know what—anger, resentment, resignation—and when I saw nothing on his face but the blank expression of casual conversation, artificial or not, I said, “I wanted to see how she was doing.” I spoke way too defensively, like I couldn’t process Jesse was all right with it, probably because the entire time I had known Sam, I along with everyone else at the Bureau wanted to bang her. In my secret heart, I had been waiting on their divorce for years. I knew, no matter what I told myself, that if I ever got the chance, I would take it. That’s who I was.
“It’s no skin off my back. I talk to her once a day,” Jesse said. “She wants to get back together. I can hear it in her voice. Carl Driscoll turned out to be less heroic than she thought.”
“What do you think?”
“I would never get back together with her, Chuck. I’ve got the war wounds to remind me of our time. She was never fit to be married, at least not to me. Some part of me used to think you can educate and intelligence yourself out of moral shortcomings, hold tight to the better things about your beautiful self—man or woman. But now I know that’s not true. There are certain deeper problems, and they linger for a long, long time. Only mortality heals them, if at all. I have my own.”
“Everyone has problems,” I said.
“Yup. Have a piece of fruit,” he tried again.
He chewed another chunk, savored it. That same look washed over his face. Pineapple, I thought. Great. Pineapple. It was depressing. I felt like the conversation was slippery.
“Anyway, she has a ton of the wrong kind of love to give,” he said. “I would date her a bit, though. In the sack, she was phenomenal, and there’s room in life for that, too.”
“Sure there’s room for pussy,” I said. I felt like an idiot for using that word. Out in the field, sitting in wait, we would curse all the time. It was how you relieved tension. But now, it just didn’t feel right.
So we fell quiet. I felt ridiculously awkward, but not Jesse. He was just eating his fruit, watching the breeze in the trees, like I say. After a while of sitting out there with him, I got up. I was working that night. We had surveillance, Port Everglades, the usual shit, Columbia to Mexico to little ol’ us. It gets you thinking about what the point is.
He walked me out, telling me it was always good to see me, and that I should stop by whenever I had the weekend off. “Weekdays, I keep a tight schedule, do a lot of reading after work,” he told me. “But weekends, come by.”
“I will, when I’m not working,” I said.
“Whatever paperwork you have to do, send it my way, and I’ll push it through, Chuck. Go get ‘em tonight.”
“I’ll fuck ‘em up.”
There was a moment, I swear I saw it, this look in his eyes, this twinkle like when he was in the field. But a moment later—blink, change—there was another look, remembering the field like it was as agonizing as a perp walk, like that walk through his house when he could hear his wife in their bedroom.
“All the cursing and aggression,” he said, clicking his tongue.
I was standing there, dumbstruck. I wanted to shake my head like a disappointed school teacher and say, “We’re in the F.B.I., asshole, not the Boy Scouts.”
When I pulled out and got onto the road, I remember thinking, What a sorry son of a bitch. That’s what I was thinking, and I’m not ashamed. I didn’t know better.
That night, I was sitting with this guy Phil McKenzie, another young colleague. We were watching the northernmost pier of the port. Sometime that night, some assheads were going to arrive and head out onto a cargo ship docked right there in front of us. They were going to just mosey on in and leave carrying plastic Wal Mart bags, which was what they were using now so that anyone who saw them thought they were carrying shit they had bought at the store. Anyway, in these bags there would be either money or drugs, we didn’t know which because our informant hadn’t known which. It didn’t matter. Cash or drugs, it would be contraband.
We had a search warrant for the ship, and McKenzie, who was only a month on, said, “We should just board the fuckin’ ship now that it’s docked in our jurisdiction.”
I told him, “We’re not busting the ship, asshole. We need to find the people.”
But I knew it was bullshit. It was a human flood. We would arrest a few jerks, and tomorrow there would be ten lining up to take the place of each one we arrested.
But we had our jobs.
The operation was untidy. There were agents everywhere. One jerk, this guy named Green who I never liked, pulled up suddenly in a marked car. It sported a yellow government plate. He pulled right beside us and said, “Everything in order?”
“Get the fuck out of here,” I hissed.
“Right, right. It’s like a fucking convention at the diner down the street. If those assholes happen to stop in for a cheeseburger, the whole thing’ll fall apart. We’re fucked.” Before I could say anything, he said, facetiously, “Yahoo, motherfucker!” and headed off.
McKenzie said, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I shrugged. “They’re eating down the street.”
“Him, a few others. And some guys, probably, from the Fort Lauderdale Police, though they’re likely at their own table. A bunch of idiot bribe-takers. We should investigate them next.”
“Why do we gotta be the ones to sit out here?”
“I don’t,” I turned to him. “You do, meat. I just like it.”
“Why?” he asked.
I could see he was getting a little scared. The guys we were waiting for were not teenage pot dealers. I mean, this was the real deal, the Cuban mafia, if you wanted to think of it that way. They weren’t as shoot-‘em-up as they used to be in the stories I heard about the glory years, the Dadeland Mall massacre and all that Scarface mess, but they were still dangerous dudes.
“Do you really think they’re going to get something to eat?” McKenzie asked.
“Who?” I asked. “Green?”
“No, the targets?”
“Yeah, McKenzie, on their way to a pick up, they’re going to stop for some empanadas. What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
McKenzie was pale and wore a government-issue cap with no identifiers, just plain dark blue. He still had reddish zits on his face like a kid, and in his F.B.I. vest, he looked like he was dressed up for Halloween.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“But they could ruin it.”
“Our guys gotta wait somewhere.”
“I am worried about it,” he said, his voice starting to shake.
I reached out and grabbed his wrist. “When you worry about it, you fuck up, so don’t worry about it. You’re a government agent. These are just assholes with guns. There’s a difference between you and them. Understand?”
“But Green was saying it could get fucked up—“
“He was fucking around. Besides,” I said, turning and checking out the rearview because I saw a set of headlights, but it wasn’t our guys, at least not according to our informant, who said they would be driving a red Toyota pickup. I turned back and stared out the windshield at the boat on the water, which made, believe it or not, a pretty picture in all the lights of the pier. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll get them. But it won’t make any difference. It’s just something to do at night. You got anything better to do?”
McKenzie said, “I’ve got a girlfriend.”
“What’s she like?”
“She’s nice,” he said.
He sounded kind of sweet, so I decided to be gentle. “Yeah, well, you’ll get your name in the paper, if not your picture, and you can show it to her and get a blowjob out of it.”
This seemed to brighten McKenzie’s mood. Fucking twenty-five year-olds.
“Why did you say it’s just something to do at night?” he asked. “It seems like more than that.”
“Yeah?” I mocked him. “Wait until you’re back out here in a couple of months, making another bust, and you start wondering just how much product slipped in between tonight and the next one. Then you’ll know, there’s nothing to worry about, and that’s how you stay loose, and that’s how you get the bust. See, it’s bullshit, because you’re counting on it not making a difference so that you can stay loose enough. Understand?”
I pushed his head playfully, knocking his cap out of place. “Relax, champ. It’s all a sweet, little process. Enjoy the moment. And don’t go shooting anybody unless I start shooting first.”
I knew there wouldn’t be any shooting. This isn’t Hollywood. In real life, people don’t just start shooting guns. Shit, the last thing anybody wants, us or them, is to be shot. They always drop their guns and get down on the ground. That’s the game. To them, it’s not worth dying over. They go to jail, their families are taken care of, and they’re considered heroes. Why cause any trouble? Business will be back to normal the next morning, so, “Never shoot an agent,” is the motto they go around with. Never, ever, ever shoot an agent.
I got to thinking about that a few nights later. Of the bust, suffice it to say that McKenzie got his picture in the paper, though his face and mine and some of the others were blotted out in case we ever went undercover. We probably never would. We were probably burned. Some asshole probably had surveilled us during the arrest and had our pictures on his cell phone. They’d end up posted online.
Anyway, never shoot an agent. I got to thinking about it because Jesse called me the next evening while I was driving it off, remembering the bust, with my adrenaline still up and nowhere appropriate to go except a strip club. He was on his way home from work, and we talked about it. When I asked whether he was jealous, he casually said, “Nope.”
“McKenzie was looking like he jizzed his pants.”
That made Jesse laugh. “So it was his first?”
“Oh yeah. He wanted to board the ship like the Coast Guard.”
“Board a ship? What the hell does he know about boarding a ship?” Jesse quipped, sounding like his old self.
“So what’s new with you?” I asked.
“I was just heading home, felt like giving you a call.”
“I guess she’s fine. I didn’t talk with her. She called—she does every morning—but I didn’t bother today.”
“No shit,” I said. “In the morning, she calls?”
“She wants to keep me from being with a girl. That’s how she tries.”
I mean, you gotta picture Sam, tits and ass, flexible, sexy as hell, and jealous like that!
“I figure I’ll use it, though,” he said, laughing.
“The story. Girls love a man they can heal, especially one who works for the F.B. I. Except I won’t tell the truth. I’ll tell them I got shot in the field. How’s that for Zen?”
“Zen?” I asked.
“Look, Chuck, I deserve it.”
It was a beautiful night. And as we got to that point in the conversation, I found myself out by the port. I don’t know. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t drive out there on purpose because the port isn’t someplace you just show up to. But when I had gotten into the car, with all that adrenaline, I hadn’t intended to go there.
I parked my car. It was so beautiful and starry, and the moon was bright enough that it and the port lights lit up the rippling water. I was parked almost in the exact same spot as the night before. The cargo ship had been commandeered, it’s spot empty. Or reserved, because it would be back.
“It’s not a bad idea,” I said. I was thinking about it, about women and how you get them to like you. My mind was here and there. I was thinking about quite a bit.
While Jesse responded, I imagined what it had been like for him to come home. That phrase kept going through my mind. Never shoot an agent.
He continued, “When they see the scars, they’ll know I was telling the truth. It’s funny how you can know someone is telling the truth and they’re lying right to you.”
“Funny,” I repeated.
I started thinking about our informant. He had an angle. Everyone had an angle. Sam had an angle.
“I’m going to read out on the balcony tonight. It’s beautiful out.” He had this tone like his life was under control.
Something struck me. It’s bullshit, I know, but it struck me right then. He had planned it all. He had planned to survive, had planned using the story. A moment later, I knew that couldn’t be true. Some things work out even if you try to ruin them, and that’s what happened with Jesse. And now, he was happy.
I heard his car beep as he shut it off. I heard his door open and shut. He said, “I just got home. The couple is fighting, the ones I rent from. They don’t fight often, but they fight more often than they should.”
“People fight,” I said.
“If they believe in something they do. The easiest way to live is the hardest thing to do. You have to let it go. No pride, no concerns. Just get into the right position.”
“You really feel that way?” I asked. I mean, I knew Jesse six years.
“I’m an old man now,” he said.
“You’re forty years old.”
“My health makes me older.”
There was the regret in his voice. It came and went, but you get good at perceiving what happens in the blink of an eye when you work against criminals.
I wanted Jesse out there with me, just to shoot the shit. The funny thing, though I didn’t tell him this, was that I had liked him all right before he shot himself, but I liked him more now. I started to think that Sam probably felt the same way, that the new Jesse was someone she wouldn’t run around on. And I started to wonder if the new Jesse was someone who would run around on her.
It seemed like he was more dangerous now—desked, wounded, living above a garage. It seemed as though all that actually made him more dangerous.
It seemed like manhood.
We talked on for a while until Jesse got ready to do his reading and said he had to go. When I got off the phone, it was just me in the car. I tapped on the radio and listened to the news. There it was. They were still reporting it. A heroic drug bust, a historic take down, a victory in the war on drugs.
Yeah, right. You win some, you lose some, and it keeps going. There are certain mottos you live by, and they get you through. The rest of it is just feeling your way, gut reactions and gut shots. Every one of us, I was thinking, could end up just like those guys we busted last night or me or whoever. Every one of us but Jesse, who was on the other side.
Son of a bitch, I thought. And that other line kept going through my head—never shoot an agent—though it wasn’t a warning. It was more like a dare.
Nicholas LaRocca has published short stories and essays in several reviews and anthologies, including the Beloit Fiction Journal, Wonderful Things I Scarcely Understand, and Rush Hour, and is a recipient of the Robert Wright Prize for Fiction. He is currently Associate Professor of English at Palm Beach State College.