In the bathroom I filled the sink with hot water. I was exhausted and needed something to stimulate myself from the delirium that clouded my mind like the steam clouding the mirror above the sink. The medication that the doctors had prescribed made me numb, and my mind felt weightless as if stuffed with cotton balls. I reached for a wash cloth next to the sink and started polishing the mirror until my face and body was no longer obscured by the fine layer of mist. Seeing my self in the mirror produced a rudimentary form of consciousness. It showed that I existed, that I wasn't merely a collection of thoughts and sensations, that I had some sort of substantiality, that underneath the chaos of the senses a `self' existed. The mirror also showed the black threads sewn into my stomach and chest, where I had been slashed with a knife eight days ago. Since then I've been hospitalized.
I submerged my hands into the water and splashed my face in an attempt to dispel the dizziness. A sound came from somewhere outside the bathroom. My face, wet and dripping, lifted straight up from the sink. Gasping, I looked toward the door expecting that it would crash down.
"Matthew? Are you in there? Are you all right?"
The voice had a high, lovely, feminine tone, which I recognized. The voice belonged to Monica, the nurse. Again, she asked: "Matthew?"
"Yes?" I answered.
"Are you all right?"
I pulled the plug in the sink, then emerged from the restroom seconds later. She was standing in my room, next to my bed, wearing a nurse's uniform. After plunging my face into the towel, and rubbing vigorously, I handed her the towel. I was not in the mood to hear her grievances over my restroom habits.
"You're supposed to call me when you need to go to the restroom," she said.
"I didn't want to trouble you."
"You should not be out of bed in the first place."
"I feel fine, leave me be," I said, and moved toward the bed, again conscious of the pain. "Are those men still in the hallway?" I asked.
"Two Mexican fellows, they've been there for over an hour."
I rested my head back on the pillow and stared at the drizzle beading on the window. The room was basked in shadows of raindrops streaking down the saturated panels of glass. My instincts told me, if I didn't escape tonight the Mexicans would break into the room and push the pillow over my face while I slept. Beyond the window was a rusted fire escape.
"That was a very heroic thing for you to do," said the nurse. "And I'm proud. Not everyone would have the courage to do what you've done."
"Me, heroic?" I asked.
The nurse was giving me a sponge bath. All I did was lie there, half-awake, too lethargic to move. The wash cloth felt warm and damp over my shoulders, and I released an unconscious shutter of contentment.
"I don't think I'm all that heroic,' I said in dim, drugged voice, lying flat on my stomach.
"I said I'm no hero."
To his colleagues in the Kansas City media, Matthew Duexaidis was a womanizing alcoholic---and no more---certainly not a man who could be considered anyone's hero; defiant perhaps, courageous, unafraid to take on controversial subject matter, but he didn't think being an aggressive journalist was heroic. To some he was a sellout. His dalliances with the government infrastructure, and the corrupt politicians therein, netted him tremendous profits in various illegal activities occurring within Kansas City , drug rings mostly. But he didn't think that made him brave, either. He never used drugs, never directly dealt it or sold it, and stayed as far away as possible from the drug underworld. Heroin was, to him, a means to an end, not a life-style.
Tides and tides of beingness washed over the length of his body, drawing him irresistibly into the liquid-floating sensation of a shallow, half-conscious sleep; and it was a sleep filled with dreams. Mental images appeared and disappeared around him, ebbed and flowed through his mind, hovered like floating specters dimly glowing within a semi transparent mind-substance. He dreamt of the alley behind the Grand Emporium, of the thunder and lightning, and of the Mexicans kicking him and stabbing him in the alley, and of himself lying there, beaten to the point where he was oblivious to the pain. There was divine silence in the oblivion, a feeling of peace amidst the flashes of lightning. He was dying in the alley that night. And dying, he found, was the easiest, most natural, most cowardly thing he had ever done. It was fighting death that was heroic.
The nurse wrung the washcloth over a dish of hot water. He knew the water was hot because he had awoken and saw white tufts of steam rising from the dish and from the washcloth which she twisted in her hands. They were beautiful hands. She had shoulder-length blond hair, wide child bearing hips and eyes that had a terrific way of re-establishing his contact with reality.
Her beautiful hands turned his limp, wet, helpless body. Now, he was lying face-up on the mattress.
"These drugs are something else," he said.
"Are you queasy?"
He yawned and smiled dazedly, rather embarrassed by his nudity. The feeling of defenseless humbled him. Shyly, he reached for a newspaper lying on the bed stand.
The nurse gave him the agitated look of a school mistress.
"What are you doing, Matt?"
"I'm checking out the news, sweet heart."
"You can read the paper when you're well. Put it down."
Across the top of the local news section was the headline: KC Reporter Informs Against Mexican Gangs. That was all he read before the nurse snatched the paper from his hands. He did not say anything at first. He lowered his arms, dismayed. A feeling of dread came over him. Then he grabbed the newspaper again, and read the remainder of the article. "All efforts are being made to protect Matthew Duexaidis from possible retribution from the drug smugglers," said Sgt. Moro of the K.C.P.D.
The last sentence enraged him, and in a tirade he bunched up the newspaper and threw it against the wall. There was nothing the police could do to protect him. The Gulf Cartel, he thought, will track me down. They'll kill me, and I'll be there all over again. He'll return to that place he visited in the alley: a sheer black nothing, vast and un-ending. The near-death experience was so vivid that the actual feeling of death---of nothingness, of non-existence---preoccupied his thoughts. He saw it in the emptiness of room, in the raindrops beading on the window, in the smell of ammonia in the air, in the dust on the window sill. It was the meaninglessness of existence.
Nervously he sat up in bed. She was about to shut off the light.
"Don't leave Monica."
"What is it?" she asked, her hand underneath the lamp shade.
"I'm sorry for being difficult."
"You don't have to be sorry, Matthew."
"But I am. You've been good to me."
She sat next to me in bed. The uniform conformed tightly to her hips, giving me a shock of pleasure, an instantaneous glow.
"I have a place in the Bahamas , and it's on the ocean, and I thought it would be nice to have you around. You're awful nice."
"I have to get out town, Monica, or else I'm done for. I have to go tonight."
"I'm sure you understand by now, why. I was in Mexico last month, writing a story on drug smuggling. In the process I made the mistake of mentioning names that I shouldn't have mentioned." I took her hand gently into the warmth of my hand and kissed her above the wrist. The limpness of her fingers told me that she was unalarmed. "There's no staying in Kansas City anymore," I went on. "Tonight I'm checking into the Constantine Hotel . I'll be checked-in under the name, Frank White."
Surprisingly she said she would come. Before turning off the lights she said, "I'll see you tonight." The lights went out.
"Yes?" she answered, outlined in the doorway.
"Tell no one about the Bahamas . It's important that you don't."
"My lips are sealed. Good night."
After the nurse closed the door, and the room was thrown into darkness, he turned his head to the side; his cheek flush against the pillow, he listened to the wind blowing the drizzle against the window, and watched the beads of water growing fat and sliding down the glass. There were places in the Bahamas where life went on as if time stood still and where it would be a great pleasure to have somebody laying next to him on the white corral beaches. In Nassau , he had a bank account with enough money for a life time of sunsets, two life times, one for himself and one for Monica. He threw the cover aside and grabbed the bed frame in order to resist the light headedness that came from rising too quickly to his feet. With luck, he thought, he could make it to Nassau in forty-eight hours. The account he had set up there was under a false identity and held the money that he had saved for his retirement, drug money which had trickled down from a sophisticated safety deposit arrangement he had set up within the Swiss banking system. The money was virtually un-traceable. Across from the bed was a dresser. He got dressed in a black suit, disregarding that the jacket was wrinkled and that it was not a tie that he particularly liked, then raised his leg over the sill and climbed through the window. His trench coat repelled the cool, mist-infused breeze blowing through the fire escape; beads of water pattered against his skull. After closing the window he descended the ladder straight down for two stories; the wet, iron rails cold against his palms and numbing his fingers by the time he reached the bottom.
The street was brightly illumined; and in the brightness the precipitation seemed less mist-like. The individual drops looked like molten silver flashing through the headlights. Being among the pedestrians and automobiles produced the safe, inconspicuous feeling of being lost in the anonymity of the crowds. No one appeared to be following him. He pushed up his collar and distanced himself from the hospital before haling a cab.
Upon returning to his apartment he found that it had been ransacked; the tables overturned, art-work smashed and lying on the floor; the furniture ripped; and as a final humility, somebody had defecated on his bed. He threw a sheet over the mattress, then retreated into a walk-in closet. Underneath a shoe rack was a Smith and Wesson and box of hallow point bullets. He thrust the gun to the front pocked of his trench coat and left the apartment without hope of returning.
City workers were repairing a broken water main on Main Street . The men were wearing hard hats, luminous in the high intensity flood lights. A jack hammer operator was breaking up the concrete shell, and a back hoe was excavating the earth into a dump truck. The street was muddy and the traffic reduced to two lanes.
Matthew was on the sidewalk, on his way to the hotel and carrying a suitcase that contained important papers, a change of cloths, and some valuables. Still he could not dispel the feeling of emptiness. His eyes were ominous, encircled in black, hallow, as if turned inward on some dreadful reality. Earlier, while he was in the hospital, the medication helped him cope with the waves of depression that would come over him; but now, the medication was wearing off. People and things looked strange. Space itself looked different; it looked energy-filled, part mental, part physical. For a brief moment the backhoe created the hallucinatory image in his mind of being a giant, steel Praying Mantis with segmented arms that reached into the dead, cold ground. The loud metal-armored machines all conveyed themselves to his senses as if they were giant, apocalyptic insects.
Further down on Main Street was the hotel. The room that he was given was spacious, shag carpeted, and smelled of fresh bed linen and air freshener. After securing the dead bolt, he went over towards the bed and dialed room service. On the bed was his .44 magnum; its weight dimpled a pillow. When room service answered he struggled to remember the false name under which he was registered.
"This is. . . Frank White, room 312. Send me up a snack of some kind. A ham sandwich will do."
"It comes with lettuce, mayonnaise and tomatoes."
"That'll do. Add a half-pint of McCormick's to my order, no a full pint. Have the concierge knock two times before leaving the order outside my door."
"I look dreadful and don't want anyone coming in my room."
The hallucination had overwhelmed his nerves, and his hand was shaking when he hung up the phone. Pale and disheveled, he removed his trench coat then went into the bathroom and ran the tap. On the marble countertop lay his toiletry supplies including a blue bottle of hair dye, a plastic comb, a toothbrush and a razor; the content inside the blue bottle smelled pungent and made him wince after he smelled it. Steam rose from the sink. He did not know what he would do to occupy himself once he arrived in the Bahamas --- snorkel, boat, fish, but he also dreamt of journalism. Maybe sports journalism. Maybe politics. But then, as quickly as this thought came, he realized it was not possible; he was no longer knowledgeable in these areas; he had spent the last decade focused almost entirely on sex and money and writing yellow journalism for the local newspaper. The reality came to him: I have nothing to write about anymore. I'm a rotten nihilist.
Matthew thoroughly soaked his hair in the warm water and, with his finger tips, worked the pungent-smelling dye deep into his roots; the suds were brown and his eyes watered from the fumes.
An hour later he was nearly un-recognizable. He emerged from the bathroom, clean shaven, his mustache gone, his hair dyed a dark brown. As a final touch to his disguise he clothed himself in non-descript garments: tacky Bermuda shorts, a floral safari shirt, brand new penny loafers, knee length socks, sunglasses in the pocket. He felt ridiculous seeing his reflection in the mirror. He looked like an American tourist. Scoffing at himself, he sat on the edge of the bed. The sheets were frazzled, the room dark and the curtains rolling in the breeze blowing through the window. He disliked his new name; sounded too pedestrian. He could not picture himself, a Frank White in Bermuda shorts, strolling along the beach with a nurse named Monica. The image produced a wave of depression.
Two hard wraps came from the door, most likely room service; in case it wasn't, however, he reached for the .44. It felt heavy but well-balanced. Squinting through the peephole, he kept the muzzle pointed at the floor. Nobody was in the hallway. The convex swell to the leans magnified the tray and the four-legged stand on which it stood. He brought the tray inside the room, set it on the dresser, and quickly closed the door all within a matter of moments. Underneath the lid was a sandwich ---a ham, lettuce and tomato sandwich made from a fresh-baked roll that was light brown on top. The sandwich was for Sheila, if or when she arrived. He grabbed the bottle and read the label. McCormick's. Established in 1856. Weston , Missouri . Charcoal mellow whiskey. He paced the room, simultaneously holding the .44 and swigging from the bottle. The effect was instantaneous. The soothing warmth in his stomach became a sudden lightness in his head. Maybe, he thought, the Chiefs have a chance next year. Playoffs. Wonder if Sheila likes football. She'd make a good wife; pretty, obedient, demure, easy-to-please, bright . The girl's terrific. The door was being knocked and he was thinking: I'm going to make her the god-damned happiest woman in the world. I'm changing. I'm going to be happy being Frank White.
The bottle was empty. He tossed it into the trashcan then went over towards the door and squinted through the peephole. It was her. Through the peephole's convex swell he observed the cheap red dress she was wearing along with the matching pair of high heal shoes; her middle class simplicity was endearing, though a little irritating. Through the peephole it became apparent to him that she had been crying; her eyelashes were moist, curled above her blue eyes, conveying an image of helplessness ---and her helplessness ruined him. He swung open the door and swept her into his arms; and as they kissed, lovingly, softly, fluidly, he felt he could be Frank White forever and ever.
"I'm glad as hell you made it," he said. "I didn't know if you would show up or not."
"I'm afraid," she said in his loving embrace.
"Don't be afraid, sweet. Everything will be all right. I'll make sure of that."
"I quit my job. Everything I have is in a suitcase," which she lowered onto the floor. Tears streamed down her cheek, yet she was smiling. "You look silly, Matt."
"It's my disguise."
"You cut off your mustache. It's gone. I loved it. Oh, why did you cut if off?"
"It'll grow back, sweety. That's kind of how things work with hair. It keeps growing."
Again she molded into his arms, and again they melted into each other, and again he lavished in the warmth and softness he felt through the fabric of her dress. Behind her was the open door. He reached for it, but she was desperate and hysterical, joyful and sad, and before he could close the door she clutched his arm.
"I feel lost and afraid," she said as he wiped her tears.
"Don't be afraid, sweet. In twelve hours we'll be set up in a hotel. We can buy you new cloths and pretty dresses. You're going to be the happiest woman on earth."
"This morning I had my own life, and now, now I'm nothing."
"You're nothing. I'm nothing. We're both nothings. Everyone is nothing. The universe is nothingnessess. Me and you will face it together, us against the Nothing."
"But am I doing the right thing?"
"Sure you are. Trust me, sweet. Trust me."
"You do love me, don't you?"
"For certain," he said.
"Tell me you love me."
"I love you, I love you. Everything will be fine," he kept telling her. "Everything will be all right."
"I love you, Matt."
"I love you to, sweet, and everything will work out like pie."
After that her body fell away. That's what it felt like, to him. There was a sneezing bang, at the same time an exploding flash, and her body became heavy in his arms, too heavy to support, and she slid through his arms and fell straight down flat on her posterior. Then she rolled over on her side ---a bullet hole plunged through the back of her head. It was apparent by the way her eyes remained open that she was dead. It was a gunman who shot her. The gunman had appeared at the door's threshold bearing a .357 pistol; extending from the barrel, the silencer had muted the shot fired into a sneeze of air. The man, a middle aged Mexican with close-cropped hair, kicked the door closed without lowering the piece.
Nothing came from Matthew's lips, even though his mouth was ajar. He felt paralyzed. Such was the horror of looking down the muzzle that everything else was an abstraction. His throat swelled. All he managed to say was: "I didn't mean it," his voice helpless and desperate. "I, I, I, wasn't thinking straight when I snitched. I wasn't thinking what snitching on Pedro would do. Please, just understand. Please."
The Mexican was expressionless. When he cocked the gun Matthew jerked his head to the side expecting a blast of heat and fire to explode into his face.
"I don't have to give the DA the documents. I can vanish, and pretend it never happened. What do you say, man?"
"Documents?" the gunman said, slackening his arm, so that the gun was aimed above and not at Matthew's head.
"The Red Files,' Matthew added.
The gruff, dark-haired gunman lowered the muzzle back into Matthew's face, adding: "Listen very carefully, hombre. If you have any moral scruples about covering up for somebody, you better wake up. Understand? Where are the Red Files?"
"I have them here."
"Where are they?"
Matthew had them hidden in the suitcase---but he didn't say that. All he did was backpedal toward the middle of the room, with his hands up, careful not to make any sudden movements, all the while staring at the gun with that cold, bloodless look of his. It was like being in the alley all over again. During an intense flashback he remembered himself in the alley behind the Grand Emporium eight days ago, lying on his stomach, making feeble crawling movements while being punched and kicked. Blood issued from a deep chest wound. His fingers clawed the pavement again and again, and over and over lightning and thunder crashed through the atmosphere, the thunder surging, rising, falling, cresting in an endless circular rhythm.
In that brief glimpse into the realm of death, he saw the fundamental ground of his existence; it was like looking into infinity, but an infinity filled with pain. All things, he realized, shared in this pain. All things ended in this state of nothingness. No matter how long he lived, no matter how much he accomplished in life, re-absorption into nothingness was the eminent result of all life that exists in the universe. Yet he wanted to live. He did not want to extinguish his existence. Quickly he reached for his .44 magnum, which lay behind him on the bed; it was sunk deep within a cushiony hotel pillow. The Zetan hitman was opening the suitcase when Matthew grabbed the .44 and fired all in one motion. The gun recoiled as only a .44 can recoil, with a deafening wallop. Blood and brain painted the wall.
Matthew finally did make it to the Bahamas . Under the assumed name, Frank White, he checked in to a sea-side hotel in Nassau , and on occasion sat at the pool or on the beach. With his injuries, there was little else to do. Death was a subject that was ever-present in his thoughts, and yet no one could say he morose or ill tempered during this time period, only a little withdrawn. Alone, he lay on the warm sand and stared endlessly at the cerulean waters expanding out into the horizon, while waves rolled ashore, one after another. The cycle of nature was never more visible to his eyes than in these days of solitude that he spent seaside, attuned to wind and the water and the earth. Eventually the Gulf Cartel of drug traffickers did catch up with him in Nassau , but not before Matthew Duexaidis got the answers he was looking for, not before he didn't experience the fullest manifestation of softness, meekness and stillness. The Abysmal Nothingness imbued eternal Nature, in which he was now attuned, so that the Nothingness was continually filled and eternally pouring over into his existence.