Pandemic Files

Good Help is Hard to Find

Originally Published in May 2012 in Writes for All Magazine

There’s a large, detailed crucifix hanging on the back wall above the church altar that’s the first thing I notice when I take a seat in the front row of pews. This area’s gotta have money, to keep a cross like that up in a building this goddamn big. Creepy, all that detail in the spikes around Jesus’ head, the nails in his palms and feet, hole in his side, bloody tears on his face. I clasp my hands between my legs and bow my head. Mike sits to my left and leans in, studying me with this confused expression on his face. I see his dusty outfit from the corner of my eye and the tension rises in my throat, breath hitching in my chest.

I try not to let him get to me, but it’s hard when I just know he’s going to say something to piss me off.

“What’re we doing here Brig?” he whispers.

I stay quiet, glancing up at the cross.

Personally I’m not religious but—if I had to choose—I’d rather have one of the cheap ones, like what you see over in Little Havana, where some of the churches ain’t even really churches, just rooms in 1970’s-era buildings with lines of chairs and a picnic table. Head in there and you’re liable to see a faceless mannequin set up on a stand, replacing actual nails in his hands with small dots drawn in red permanent marker. At least then you can just feel bad about the story. Listen to the gospel, shake your head, throw a peace sign up at the sky then go on about your business.

But this five foot art-piece-of-a-crucifix they’ve got here, carved out of marble and hanging low to the ground, it makes my forehead hurt from frowning so hard. It’s no wonder Catholic people are so damn religious. That shit’d scare anybody to their knees.

I cross myself and kiss my fingers and Mike, he can’t leave it alone. He leans in towards me again.

“Brig, why’re you doing that?” he asks. “You ain’t Catholic.”

“I know that, Mike.”

“Then why’re you doing it?” I don’t answer and he shakes his head. “You don’t make no sense sometimes.”

I look over and try to see through Mike’s big block head to the other end of the pew. I do this sometimes, try to see what others see. Or don’t see. Used to be I didn’t try to see the truth. Used to be I just tried to convince myself everybody else was crazy and I was the only one left with any sense. But I know now that’s not true, which you’d think would set me free, right?

Wrong. Only in books and movies. Nothing ever gets right in real life. It just sits around until it rots and dies.

Mr. Black paid a lot a money for the shrink he sent me to after my breakdown. I mean, normal circumstances I’d have just been stuck in a hole somewhere, left to earth’s natural devices. In my line of work there’s an image you’ve got to portray: cool, calm, calculated. And standing there bawling at your boss’s daughter’s wedding then punching the groom out for patting you on the back is just not a professional way to go about things.

Mike showed up a few days after that whole fiasco, and hasn’t left me alone since. The shrink, I told him about Mike sitting out in the waiting room picking at his fingernails and the doc just stared at me and nodded and said “mm hmm, mm hmm,” over and over again until, I swear, I thought I was going to have to shoot him in his face just to shut him up.

Afterwards he told me I had stress-induced schizophrenia and I’d be alright when I relaxed and “saw things how they really are.” Handed me a prescription for Clozapine and pushed me out the door. Month later I’d gained ten pounds and got this crazy craving for pork rinds (I fucking hate pork rinds; even when I was craving them, I fucking hated them. You know what that’s like? To crave something you can’t fucking stand?). I could barely lift my gun, had to use both hands just to grip the thing, recoil damn near knocked me off my feet. And Mike was gone, sure, but I was useless, constantly confused and asking people all these stupid questions about the meaning of life and existence and all that crock of horseshit.

Mr. Black, being the man he is, he said good help’s hard to find nowadays and told me to get off the meds. Stress or no stress, I see what I see, long as I do what I do best.

But I try sometimes anyways, every once in a while. Try to understand and tell myself what everybody else’s been telling me.

Mike isn’t real.

“I’m paying my respects,” I say to him, glancing at the crucifix. “You cross yourself when you’re paying respects to a cross in a church, just the right thing to do.”

“But you don’t even believe in heaven.”

I look back at Mike, the haggard face, the rumpled shirt and wrinkled pants. Another reason I didn’t believe anybody at first, when they told me Mike wasn’t actually there, just a figment of my imagination:

Why this guy?

Mike looks like a plumber, all mushy and wrinkly and sagging around the edges. Fucker’s a foot shorter than me, couple years older too. Don’t resemble me or nobody I’ve ever known in any way whatsoever. Never met nobody liked bright colors the way he does neither: baby blue button-downs and cream shade slacks. And they’re always a mess, greasy, like he washes them in olive oil.

Mike hates my dark suits, says something about them every time I’m at the cleaners. Always trying to convince me to trade my black shades in for orange or blue or even gray  would be better, Brig. It’s just—the black ones are just so damn depressing.

Looks me right in my face and says Brig, why do you dress like the devil’s son?

Gets damn annoying when you’re standing at the cash register paying for your laundry and somebody’s whispering that shit in your ears.

And he smiles a lot. Big, toothy smiles. Makes me want to punch him in his goddamn mouth.

I stand up and straighten my jacket, stepping into the aisle between the pews. Mike jumps up and follows.

“You still haven’t said why we’re here, Brig.” Mike says. “You’re not going to do what Mr. Black told you, are you?”

I walk towards the back of the church quietly.

“Please tell me you ain’t gonna do it, Brig. It’s not right.”

“It’s my job Mike,” I say.

“I thought you said you were going to quit,” he says.

I reach inside my coat to check my piece in the holster resting against my side.  The silencer sits in the right pocket, a small cylindrical bulge.

“I never said that, Mike,” I say quietly, glancing at him. “You did.”

“But this isn’t right Brig,” he says. “It isn’t right at all. It’s bad, really really bad.”

“Being broke is worse.” I say. “Being homeless is the real shitter. You want us to be broke and homeless?”

“No,” he says, pouting. “Why can’t you just get a real job?”

“How about you go get a real job,” I grumble. “See if anybody’ll hire you.”

He complains behind me as I pause beside the confession booths, sitting on the edge of the closest pew.  The booths are mahogany, shaped like coffins with wine-red curtains hanging to the floor, enclosing the benches inside. The hum of a whispering voice drifts over from the closest pew. Mike sits next to me.

“What if you become a fisherman?” he says.

I turn to face him, slowly. “A fisherman?”

“Yeah,” he says. “We could buy a boat, head down to the Keys, push off from a marina. Cruise around the ocean, catch fish, eat some, sell some, go out for more. That sound good?”

“I don’t know how to fish, Mike.”

“Can’t be that hard,” he says, bringing his hands up into fists and placing one on top of the other, like he’s holding a fishing rod. “How you think all them other people do it? You just gotta find the right spot.” He drops his hands and looks at me dreamily. “I bet we’d find the perfect spot.”

“I don’t like fishing, Mike.”

“Then what do you like?” he asks. He leans towards me, conspiratorially. “Killing people?”

“I told you,” I say. “It’s a job.”

“I hate to say it,” he says, shaking his head. “But I wouldn’t be around right now if you weren’t doing this. They put me here to help you, you know.”

I stifle a laugh. “Help?” I say. “You’re helping me? You’ve got some—” I pause. “Who is ‘they’?”

“They,” he says, motioning around the church. He turns and nods at the crucifix up on the altar. “Him.”

“Jesus Christ did not send you here to help me Mike.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” I say quietly. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Jesus doesn’t help people like me, Mike.”

“Why do you have to be so negative?” he says in a chastising tone. “Nobody’s all bad.”

“Never said I was,” I say. “Not that good neither.”

The voices in the confessional booth pause and the curtains flutter. The muscles in my shoulders bunch up, the weight of the silencer in my pocket distinct against my arm. The voices resume a few seconds later and I relax.

“We could leave right now,” Mike says. “I know you got some money saved up somewhere. We could take it and just leave the state even.”

“And go where, Mike?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Canada? England? I always wanted to go to England. Heard it’s real nice over there. England would be good for us.”

I look at him and he stares back at me with his big blue piercing eyes. I try again to see the church wall behind him, through him.

“You know,” I say, cracking my knuckles. “I used to have a partner.”

“Here we go,” Mike mutters, throwing his hands up.

“No, Mike, really. I used to have a partner. Brown. Good man, Brown. You’d have liked him.”

“I bet I would,” he says.

“Brown was there the day you showed up, you remember?”

Mike stays quiet.

“Martinez job, Downtown. I was on clean up duty when you just waltzed right in. You remember, Mike?”

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I remember.”

“You remember what happened when you showed up?”

Mike crosses his arms, says nothing.

“You don’t?” I say, patting my stomach with faux-satisfaction. “Well, allow me to jog your memory, Mikey. Gladly. You walked in and—you remember this? You walk in, I tell you to get the fuck out, Brown asks me who the hell I’m talking to, I point at you, all of a sudden Mr. Black’s sending me to a shrink and Brown wants a new partner.” I pause for a second to stare at him, and he’s looking at the windows and the pews and the floor and the confession booths and everywhere but in my direction. “Now I’m stuck with you, alone, but not really alone, right? That sound about right, Mikey? Now, everybody thinks I’m crazy as all hell and I’ve got to hang out with your stupid ass all day long because you decided that I, quote unquote, ‘needed your help.’”

I spin away from him, wiping the corners of my mouth and chuckling contemptuously. “If this is your idea of help, my friend, I’m alright. Just fucking alright.”

“Come on, Brig,” Mike says, turning his head to the side and giving me a pleading look. “You can’t swear in church. It’s sacrilegious.”

“It’s a building.”

A figure emerges suddenly from behind the wine-red curtain, a young dark-haired woman in a tight dress and high heels. I duck my head as she crosses herself and walks quickly around the back pew to the center aisle, heading towards the giant altar. Her heels clack against the floor, the sound bouncing off the walls like a loosed atom, ringing all the way up to the concave ceiling. I keep my face turned away from her, wait until she’s out of earshot then stand up and approach the confession booth.

“Brig, you don’t have to do this,” Mike says from behind me.

I pause, clench my fists, then reach into my jacket for my piece. Pushing the curtain to the side, I sit down in the booth and drop the gun on my lap, pulling out the silencer from my other pocket. It touches the barrel of the gun with a soft metallic click and I screw it in tightly. Deep breaths drift over from the other side of the wall, accompanied by the scribbling sound of pen on paper. I gently pop the clip and check it before sliding it back in quietly. I open my mouth to start the conversation and the curtain in front of me suddenly swishes to the side, Mike’s large dome appearing in the opening. My chest hitches again, gun shooting up reflexively to point directly at Mike’s forehead, finger hovering over the trigger. Mike jumps back, scrunching up his face as if about to get a punch to the nose.

“What the fuck, Mike?” I hiss, bringing the gun down.

“Look at you, Brig,” Mike says, pointing at the gun. “You’re wired, man. You don’t want to do this. This is a bad idea, Brig, you know it. We have to go.”

“I’m trying to work,” I whisper. “What’d I say about bothering me while I’m working?”

“I’ve got a real bad feeling about this, Brig. Come on, let’s just leave. Please.”

“No,” I say firmly, snatching the curtain out of his hand and pulling it closed.

“Is everything okay?” says a light, slightly effeminate voice from the other side of the booth. It’s eerie, that disembodied sound in my ears. I’ve got to peek through the small mesh screen separating us just to make sure there’s somebody actually sitting on the other side. I glimpse wrinkled skin and a white collar and relax a little. “Yeah,” I say. “Just…nothing.”

“That doesn’t sound too convincing, my son,” he says.

I twist the silencer tighter on the gun and flip the safety off, my hands trembling for the first time I can remember in a while.

“Yeah,” I say. “Well…I’m not too convinced myself.”

“What’s the problem?” he asks.

“I just came to, uh—confess,” I say. “Isn’t that what you do around here?”

“Yes, my son,” he says gloomily. “That is what we do here.”

I grip the gun in both hands. On the other side of the curtain Mike’s feet face me, barely visible in the small slit of light peeking in from the main part of the church. As I watch, Mike’s feet turn and disappear, soundless.

“I’m losing my mind, father.”

The priest stays quiet.

“Lost it already, actually,” I add.

“Why do you say that?” he asks.

“It’s Mike,” I answer, loud enough for Mike to hear, then I squeeze my eyes shut and rub my forehead. “Not Mike, me. And Mike.”

“Okay,” the priest says skeptically. “Who is Mike?”

“That’s the thing,” I say. “He’s nobody. He’s not even real. He’s in my head, but I think that’s the problem, you know? He’s in my head. He knows me. He’s under my skin, making me second guess myself. Making me think that maybe—I don’t know.” I fiddle with the silencer again for a moment. “Like maybe I should reconsider some things, you know? But I—I don’t know.”

“It sounds like you are at a crossroads,” he says.

“Yeah,” I mutter. “But thinking like this can get you killed in my line of work.”

“What is this line of work?” the priest asks, and I’m suddenly reminded of the head shrink’s office, how he kept asking me questions, kept me talking, kept drawing circles and happy faces on his notepad in his lap like I didn’t notice. I realize then that Catholic priests are the equivalent of holy psychiatrists, and the idea seems so ridiculous that I laugh, long and hard until the priest clears his throat.

“Sorry,” I say, taking a deep breath, beating the hysterics back. “It’s just, I’m starting to think I shouldn’t be doing what I do. But it’s hard to think like that because I never minded it before. And it isn’t even like I mind it now, I’m just starting to think it might be—hurting me or something. Without me knowing it, you know? That’s all it is really, I just don’t want to screw myself up anymore’n I already am.” I pause. “I mean its guilt, if I gotta be honest. But not the type of guilt you’d think it was, considering. It’s not like I’m sad for these schmucks out here, nothing like that. It’s the things I could be doing that I’m not, you know?”

“What exactly—”

“I’ve got dreams,” I spit. “It ain’t like—like I grew up wanting to be in the business it just sort of—” I close my eyes, take a deep breath. “—happened. But still, it’s like, I’ve got nothing to complain about right now, you know? I was happy until Mike showed up. So I’m wondering, is it just Mike making me feel like this or is this real?” I stare at the mesh screen and wait, and when the priest doesn’t say anything right away I shake my head. “I can’t even tell what real is anymore.”

The priest still doesn’t say anything. I peek in the mesh screen again; same wrinkled skin and white collar.

“You’re a man of God,” I say. “He created all this nonsense, so you tell me, what is real? ‘Cause I can’t tell anymore. I mean, how is it that Mike isn’t real and all this crap is when everything in my head’s telling me the exact opposite?”

“My son…” the priest says, his voice sounding tired. There’s another moment of silence and I wait. The priest clears his throat again. “What are the sins you wish to confess?”

“That’s just the thing, father,” I say. “I’m not even Catholic. I’ve never confessed nothing to nobody a day in my life, with the exception of telling that shrink and the boss about Mike. And even then, I didn’t tell them how I really felt about it, just that he was there in the room. But if they had wanted to know what it was really like, I don’t know what I would’ve told them. So you asking me that, I don’t even know where to begin.” I bite my lip. “I’d never even think half the stuff I did was bad if it wasn’t for Mike. It’s just a job, you know? Just a fucking job.” I pause. “Sorry about that. The swearing.”

“This man you speak of,” the priest says. “Mike, he sounds like he’s trying to help you.”

“But I don’t need help,” I say. “At least, I didn’t. Not until he showed up.”

“Maybe he showed up for a reason then.”

“See,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m not buying that. Mike keeps spewing that same crap but I’m not buying it like—how come it hasn’t happened to nobody else?”

The priest shuffles around in his seat.

“My son,” he says again, and no doubt about it now, he sounds tired, a little bit aggravated. “Everybody is saved in different ways. It’s how the lord works”

I sit back in my seat and fiddle with the gun, the curtain fluttering a bit in front of me. On the other side, the church’s silence feels like it’s pressing into the booth, squeezing it. I imagine the dark haired woman with the tight dress and high heels on her knees at the altar, crossing herself repeatedly and staring at Christ’s agonized expression.

“I just wonder sometimes,” I say finally. “Is there a point? ‘Cause I can’t see it, if it’s there.”

“The Lord is the point, son,” the priest says. “He is the point, and his will is our reasoning.”

“That’s great,” I say. “Uplifting and all, but what if the reason I do what I do—the things Mike’s telling me I shouldn’t be doing—ain’t the reason that would necessarily piss off the man upstairs? Is there like, a person who calculates your thoughts and passes judgment on whether or not you meant to do what you done? Like, I don’t mean to hurt nobody, not emotionally at least. I just do what I’m told. And somebody else’d do it if I didn’t. Like today.” I pull back the hammer of my gun with a resounding clack. “I’m only here ‘cause Mr. Black sent me. I didn’t ask for it, I’m just doing my job, the job Mr. Black hired me to do. I don’t know you from Joe fucking Schmoe, but Mr. Black knows you. And you probably know Mr. Black. I’m assuming you do, or he wouldn’t have sent me here. Mr. Black’s a lot of things, I’ll say that, but mistaken’s not one of them.”

I stare at the mesh screen and see the wrinkled cheeks on the other side go slack.

“And,” I say. “If I don’t do my job right now, there’s a good chance Mr. Black’s going to turn me into a job, send somebody for both of us. What would you say is the reasoning behind it all then, huh? What’s the point of that?”

I wait.

“I-I,” the priest stutters out finally. “Mr. Black—”

“So we throw the self-defense issue in,” I say. “And I gotta ask, don’t I got a lawful and spiritual right to protect myself? To provide for myself and survive by any means necessary?”

“I told him it was a mistake last week,” the priest says, the tiredness and aggravation  in his tone lost. “Johnny came late and things just got—”

“And what about you? What about your part in this? You obviously did something to piss Mr. Black off, something which probably weren’t too Godly or whatever. Something premeditated, malicious, deceitful, take your pick. This’s just a job to me, but you?” I scoff. “So, who’s on the back end of that moral dilemma, huh? Wouldn’t I be justified in doing my job and scraping some scum off the street at the same time, assuming you are said scum? Moving on with my life, maybe getting saved in another way along the line? Or am I supposed to sacrifice myself so you can go on doing—whatever it is you do?”

“—The cash goes—”

“That’s another thing,” I say. “What about the economy? Does that account for anything? Did God take that into consideration when he created all these rules? I mean, what’s a man supposed to do, starve his way into heaven?”

“I just—” the priest says, and I think he’s crying, his voice sounds thick. “—I need a few more days, a week maybe. Please.”

I nod like he can see me. The priest coughs, a strangled sound. The gun looks dark in my hand, shrouded in shadows so much it’s almost like I’m holding nothing at all.

“I just don’t know how anybody’s supposed to know what they’re supposed to do at any given moment,” I say. “The world’s all fucked up.”

“Please,” the priest whispers. “Tell him I will pay him soon.”

“But like I keep telling Mike,” I say. “A job is a job. We’ve got to live somehow. Better to provide for ourselves than be broke and homeless.” I turn to the mesh again. “And like you just said—you just said it. People get saved in different ways. Isn’t that what you just said, Father?”

There’s a muffled, raspy sound on the other side and the priest starts sniffling.

“What are you going to do?” he blubbers.

I sigh.

“The only thing I can be sure of, Father,” I say, snapping the gun up to hip-level, pointed at the wooden wall separating him from me, “is my will. It’s all I got in this world, the only reality the way I see it.” I glance up at the ceiling. “If there is somebody up there, he should’ve made this shit a little bit clearer.”

I pull the trigger and the gun bucks in my hand with a whoomph. I pull the trigger again and my elbow knocks against the wall behind me, the whoomph a little louder. I stare at the mesh window and the wrinkled face and white-collar slump down out of view. Standing, I scratch my chin, stare at the two smoking bullet holes in the wall, then pull the curtain to the side and step out of the confession booth. I step over to the priest’s booth, pull the curtain back, point and pull the trigger two more times, then let the curtain fall back into place.

Turning back to the altar, I scan the area. The woman with the dress and heels is gone, and so is Mike. The church is empty except for me, which makes the place even creepier than it already was.

I walk back over to the altar and sit down at a pew and—at first, for a few seconds—I feel amazing. Like I’ve finally figured things out.

A minute later, though, Mike still hasn’t come back and I start to feel like a kid walking through a mall trying to find his parents.

I unscrew the silencer and put the gun back in its holster, the silencer in my pocket. Rays of sunshine jet through the stained glass windows above, leaving rainbow streaks across the walls and ceiling. It’s beautiful until the sun moves behind a cloud and the colors disappear and the church’s thrown back into darkness.

I wait a few more minutes before I stand and leave.

Outside, I get in my car and pull out the half empty pack of cigarettes from the middle console. I shake one out and stick it in my mouth.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take for you to quit smoking those things.”

The cigarette falls out of my mouth as I snatch my gun from the holster and swing it around to point right in Mike’s left eye. He doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch, nothing. Just sits there in the passenger seat, staring at me.

“That’s the second time today you’ve pointed a gun at me,” he says.

“That’s the second time today you’ve scared the shit out of me,” I say.

“Sometimes a man needs to be scared,” Mike says. “For his own good.”

Neither one of us says anything for a moment, nothing but the sound of my labored breathing.

“Can you get that gun out of my face?” he says finally.

I don’t drop my hand right away, keep the gun pointed and my finger on the trigger. The air is thick, a bead of sweat creeping down the side of my forehead. Then Mike’s mouth quivers and he breaks into a dumb smile. My mouth does the same and Mike laughs so I laugh. I put my gun away and start the car, turn on the radio and reverse out of the parking lot and Mike and I laugh the whole way home.

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