In Baton Rouge, three years later, I was shot. The date was April 27. I think it was a Friday.
Peter and I had just appeared before the state legislature to receive a special commendation for deploying three mobile Sack farms and half of our national staff to Louisiana after two back to back hurricanes turned the state into a wasteland. I shook hundreds of hands during the three day trip, maybe thousands. I remember thinking that the reward always goes to the wrong people. Certainly, Peter and I were directly responsible for growing the Sack empire and amassing more wealth and resources than we could fathom, but the idea for sending out mobile squads of medical professionals came from a research associate in our Houston facility. The rescue operation was not my idea, and I did not participate directly in the relief effort. Even the decision to participate was largely made by Peter and a cluster of board members, who felt that our image would benefit greatly from the donation.
My sole contribution to the effort was to say "okay" and sign-off on an announcement that was delivered company-wide, inviting any of our staff to go to Louisiana with a company expense account in tow. The hundreds of employees who accepted the summons set up triage centers, distributed food and saved tens of thousands of lives. However, in this economy, those who finance heroes somehow get to wear the capes when the cameras begin snapping photos. I intended to join our teams, but changes at home prevented me. This was, in fact, my first trip to the area in five years!
The loss in productivity and resources from supporting this effort deeply annoyed some of our board members and many of our shareholders when they were apprised of the situation, but they could not publicly complain without facing tremendous backlash. Even though some facilities suffered massive backlogs, especially those in the southern United States, our stocks significantly gained as a result of the endeavor. People around the country bought stock as a sign of solidarity. Amazing!
I uttered the following during my short speech in the Louisiana state capitol:
"Some of our board members and advisors were displeased with our decision to use the corporation to finance a portion of the relief effort. Perhaps they were afraid they might have to tighten their belts, maybe even drive their own cars. Fortunately, for these folks, they did not have to struggle as such. The attention and goodwill directed towards us while we directed ours towards the state of Louisiana was astonishing. The only sacrifice truly faced by corporations when they seek to assist those in need is a little ink and a little time."
Outside of the capitol, Peter and I stopped to answer a few questions from reporters. Moments later, the procession of officials and local luminaries ushered us towards the waiting fleet of limousines. I never saw the assassin's approach.
The bullet went through my upper chest and shattered a glass door behind me. I remember turning around and thinking, holy shit, someone just fell through that door! The capitol steps were infested with journalists and legislators, occluding my view of the glass. Everyone behind me seemed just as bewildered by the crashing noise and craned their necks to see the door. When I turned back towards the street, I noticed two security officers chasing after a man, and I began to feel more perplexed. I thought it odd that security would chase after a man who just fell through a door.
Then the man turned and fired towards the officers. A news director by the name of Johnny Johnson, who was standing next to his van conversing with someone on his phone, went down like a bundle of marshmallows, his phone never leaving his ear.
"That man is hurt," I said to Peter, taking a step forward. The security detailed fired back at the shooter, popping rounds into his bulletproof vest and knocking him flat on his back.
I took another step towards the fallen news man, and noticed a tickle in my leg, the kind you might associate with a pinched nerve or loss of equilibrium. I lowered myself onto one knee, suddenly aware that it was difficult to breathe. I felt as if someone had slipped his hand under my skin and was squeezing my lung. I suspected another breakdown was imminent, until I touched my wet shirt.
I pulled my hand away and noted the clichéd bloody hand. 'Really?' I asked myself, just before my other knee dropped. I rolled onto my back on the ground and stared up at the sky. A puddle of syrupy blood filled my mouth, spilling out of the sides. Peter was instantly hovering over me, supporting my head in his hands.
"Help me get him to the car, now!" He yelled, a cloud perfectly framing his head like a poof of bushy hair. I smiled and tried to point to it. His face blurred in different directions, and I heard other voices coming in over me.
"No, we're not going to fucking wait!" Peter shouted. "We need to get him to a hospital immediately!"
Several hands slipped under my arms and legs, easing me up into the air. The capitol loomed over me like a menacing, phallic needle. It seemed to be falling towards me.
Had William Hudson Becker killed me that day, some unfortunate things would have been avoided for my friends and family, and maybe for the rest of humanity (at least, temporarily). There is no doubt this is true, as my most unethical maneuvers had yet to be seen. Am I sorry that I did not die that day? When I search myself, look past a quick and altruistic reaction, I can humbly say, no. My reasons now differ from the ones I would have listed as I lay in my hospital bed clinging to life. Youth and denial still occluded my mind, and I had not the capacity to appreciate death, to embrace it. I still fought against it, like an umbrella against a forty foot wave. As I sit here today, waiting like a sick lover for death's cold, dry kiss, I am glad for the life I led, for better and for worse. The mystery still persists, and whatever claims us at the end wishes us to wait, suffer through the life granted to us, and render ourselves when the body dies.
You didn't know this, did you? You think every deathist is just a fool who is too lazy for suicide? That we're all just failures at life or clinically depressed? You should really read through Rev. Oldham's A Coming Darkness I Seek if that's the depth of your knowledge. (I promised myself I would not proselytize deathism, but I do get gassed when I think of all the gossip out there. Cultural misrepresentation is a pet peeve of mine.)
Becker and I escaped martyrdom that day and began a short, intersecting relationship in the media and within the same walls. We were ferried to different floors of the Baton Rouge General Medical Center, his monitored by police and disgusted doctors, mine staffed by the best and brightest in the state, including Peter.
I remember flares of light after the shooting, oozing over my eyes like gloomy filters, distorting what people and objects I could detect. Popping off of this murky tableau was Jeff, standing just behind me wherever I went. He helped push the gurney, monitored my anesthesia during surgery, checked my vitals the next day when I awoke. As my wits gathered around me, I no longer saw him. Good, I thought. I'm not ready for you, yet.
"Gregor's going to be there in two days with the mobile unit," Peter informed me while checking his email from his phone. He sat in the visitor's chair and wore a lab coat, giving him an ironic posture. The coat was on loan from the hospital who allowed Peter every privilege afforded to a tenured resident.
"He's bringing three kits with mature lungs, just to be sure we get a good specimen for the transplant."
"Good. Thank you." I spoke with a rasp followed by a breath. My injury had been stabilized, but the damage filled my lung with liquid that periodically needed to be drained. The new organ Peter spoke of would solve this problem.
"You sound terrible."
"Yes," I mumbled. "At least he didn't shoot my face."
"There's that," Peter replied, leaning forward to inspect his work.
"Claire's coming tomorrow."
"I think I'm the one who told you that," he said, easing back into his chair.
"Yes," I said. "I just wanted to say it out loud. Makes me feel better."
"Sure, Charlie. I get it," he said, patting my leg.
"Is he still here?"
"I want to see him."
"It'll never happen, Charlie."
"I saw on TV that he is a mechanic from Shreveport." I stopped to breathe. "That he's very religious and…"
"Easy, Charlie," Peter demanded. "You're not ready for this."
"And that he has two sons, ages 6 and 2. And a wife with cancer."
"And he's the guy took a shot at you. Not exactly a model citizen."
"Neither am I."
"Okay," Peter replied, loosening up a smile. "I agree. That is irrefutable."
"I want to see him."
"Won't happen, so stop asking."
I did stop asking Peter, but as soon as he retired for the evening, I buzzed the night nurse and requested a representative from the security detail in charge of Becker. I asked for the meeting and was denied, so I threatened the officer.
"I will see him," I postured.
"I'm sorry Dr. Fleischman, but I cannot allow that to happen."
"I will see him under your guidance, or under your replacement," I said. "You realize that I can make this happen, right?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"My apologies, officer. Let me be clear. I will call in every favor I have to see this man, and I will have every blockade removed temporarily or permanently. I have given Louisiana millions in aid. I will not be refused."
The officer peered at his feet and sighed.
"I wish you wouldn't do this. It could jeopardize our case against him."
"No one will know," I reassured. "You and I will both deny the encounter, and the night nurse will be assuaged with a significant donation to her retirement account."
"What if I take him a message? How about that?"
"Not good enough."
The officer looked at his watched and rubbed his forehead.
"In twenty minutes, I will come," he finally blurted. "Please be ready to go."
"Ten minutes with him. That's it, okay?"
The night nurse helped me into a wheelchair and gave me a monitor, in case I started to feel faint. The officer arrived, nodded at the nurse, and personally wheeled me down to the 4th floor, where Mr. Becker was sequestered.
He had been hit five times in the chest with forty caliber bullets from the Glock 22 pistols used by the Louisiana State Police Executive Protection detail. His chest would be a purple and red topology of strike points, and I suspect a rib or two were cracked by the blow of the rounds. However, I didn't expect to see the man lying the room with no window and one heavily guarded door.
Becker's face was almost entirely wrapped in bandages, and his right arm was in a splint, suspended in the air a few inches from his chest. His left arm lay handcuffed to the side rail of his bed.
"Wow. He must have hit the ground pretty hard," I said.
"Definitely, and several times." The officer replied, no hint of pride in his voice.
"Is he awake?"
"Leave me," I requested. "I want to be alone with him."
"I'll be right outside. Just sneeze, and I'll be in here."
The officer left me in the room, so I rolled my chair back towards the door and turned the lights all the way up. The dim, peaceful room erupted into antiseptic shades of beige. Becker groaned.
I wheeled myself towards the left side of his bed, and I could see his left eye exposed under the gauze. He roused from sleep.
"Good evening, Mr. Becker," I said, taking his hand into mine and shaking it gently. "My name is Charles Fleischman, but I suppose you know that."
As his eye focused on me, Becker's anger began to light. He squeezed my hand tighter and tighter, trying to hurt it.
"If I say so, they will come in here and break this arm, too."
He relented and released my hand from his.
"What do you want?" He asked, a scab of saliva breaking apart as he moved his drug-addled lips.
"Just to talk."
"We don't have a need," he slurred, his good eye rolling upwards.
"I don't care."
"You care enough to shoot me, but you don't want to talk with me? That's unusual, even by my standards."
He lay quiet, the only sound our conspicuously labored breathing.
"I'd like to tell you something," I announced and waited. I wheeled my chair a bit closer to his bed.
"Go on, then. Go on and say your piece and leave me to mine."
"Nicely put," I applauded. "You've actually said your piece already, haven't you? To bad the statement was a little too short, eh?"
He didn't stir, didn't indulge me.
"Don't worry, I'm not here to mock you, or degrade your purpose. I came down here, at great expense, I might add, to talk with you about cars. I am a mechanic, too."
"I have over a dozen cars at home. You want to know what they are?"
He didn't move.
"Well, I've got a 1970 Barracuda, a 1971 Firebird, a 1972 Chevelle… and many others. However, the only car I would consider truly special is my 1969 Dodge Charger. Do you know this car? I'm sure you do. It was used in a famous television show about a couple of hicks, probably not unlike yourself. Except of course, these guys tried to help people, rather than shoot them."
I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and waited for a while. Becker lay unmoving in his bed, no doubt praying for my quick departure.
"Come on, Charlie, give it to him!"
I kept my eyes shut. Opening them would not make the situation any better.
"Go get a scalpel and slice his fucking neck!"
"Jeff," I said. "You know I'm not going to do that, so stop it."
"I know you want to, want to chop up the idiot and reassemble him with his arms dangling from his ears and his dick hanging right where his nose should be."
I opened my eyes and saw Jeff lying next to Becker in bed, his thin frame taking up just a few inches of space.
"Hey, baby," he said.
"Hi," I replied.
"So why did you come here, if you're not going to hurt him?"
"I came for the same reason I do everything. I get a feeling, and I go. Asking how and why presupposes that I behave as you do. I do not. The car rolls, and I'm at the wheel, steering with my teeth."
"I suppose," Jeff muttered, lowering his head and pushing himself down into the bed as if to get cozy. "So what now? You planning on leering him to death? Maybe a little tool talk to punish the bastard."
"My wife is pregnant."
"No shit? Good job, Charlie!"
"I think so, too."
"Name him Jeff, okay?"
"No," I replied.
"Claire's already picked out a boy's name and a girl's name. It's going to be a boy."
"Come on, Charlie, she'll give in if you want to name your boy after your dead friend!"
"That's probably true."
"Good old Charlie. Ever a pussy."
"I knew that you'd be here, trying to bring out the worst in me, trying to tear me down. Fact is, I'm just better at living that you are." The words, while they came from me, felt more as if they fell through me, clanging and cutting me as they passed right through my throat. I felt compelled to say them, but could not conjure the origin of their idea.
"Now that's just mean, Charlie. Not my fault I had cancer, and you didn't."
"You only show up when it's convenient for ripping on me. I've saved the world while trying to save you, and yet you pop in to make the most of any misfortune I have. Why is that? Is this your purgatory or mine?"
Jeff smiled at me.
"God, Charlie, you keep this up, and I might think you don't need me anymore."
"A better question would be whether or not I ever needed you. I give your death credit for putting me in this position, for why I'm not on a houseboat, but I wouldn't be on that houseboat either, if I never met you. Maybe I would have found my way here without you."
"To being gunned down on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol?"
"One thing is clear; I don't need you to highlight my failings. I've got a half-dozen major news outlets and legions of nuts like Becker to do this for you."
"Okay, Charlie. Tell me then, who am I except for the guy that kicks you in the ass?"
"I miss you Jeff, and this version of you is making me despise my memories."
"Jesus. Now I'm starting to get the funny feeling in my gut."
"That's guilt," I said. "I've read about it."
I laughed, and Jeff joined me.
"You're crazy," Becker whispered, his one eye glaring at me.
"He's right," Jeff agreed.
"I am not crazy, Mr. Becker. I'm so sane, I feel no compulsion to hurt you or rob you of your life. I'm just like your Jesus."
"Shut your mouth," he garbled.
"If your Jesus were in this room, who do you think he would stand with?" I asked. "You—the man who just shot another man? Or me, the scientist responsible for saving hundreds of lives every day, every minute of every day? Who, Mr. Becker?"
"You do the devil's work," he uttered, a glob of spit lobbing onto Jeff's leg.
"Hey, there sloppy!" Jeff yelled.
"So I'm the devil?" I wheezed.
"One of his ilk. Those Sacks are an abomination."
"You know, Mr. Becker, I actually agree with you," I replied. "Even as we prepared the first production models, the site of them made me uneasy. Big blobs of flesh, capable of growing any bit of you, laying in a bowl, jiggling to the touch. Definitely disturbing."
Becker continued to glare at me.
"What changed it all for me was that first lung that we pulled out. It was an exact match for my best friend's missing lung. I held it in my hands and realized that any ill feelings I possessed only pointed towards a prejudice. That lung, in my hands, it was life! Had my friend survived long enough to receive it, he might have lived. But he didn't. He died, and I lost him forever."
I winked at Jeff.
"Now, I'm the one who's going to get a new lung because you wrecked my original with your own prejudice. When they wheel me into surgery, I'll be thinking about you, and your sad little cause to stop what is already in motion. Even had you struck my heart, the world would not have suddenly turned away from my work."
"There are more of us," Becker mumbled, his fire weakening.
"I'm sure there are, and I'll be increasing my security from here on out for the sake of my family and our shareholders. However, you do realize that you've come to fight a battle that's already been won, right? Even if you crucify me, my message is out there, just like your..."
"Shut it! SHUT IT!" Becker yelled.
The attending officer rushed into the room and stood between Becker and me.
"You okay, Dr. Fleischman."
"GET HIM OUT!" Becker pleaded.
The officer turned to him, and then back to me. He grinned.
"You really pissed him off, Doc."
"I surely did," I acknowledged. "Poor Mr. Becker didn't appreciate the degree of his failure until just moments ago. I imagine he's fairly perplexed. You may want to put him on suicide watch, if you care to see him live."
"OUT!" Becker yelled.
"Out! Out! Out!" Jeff sang mockingly.
"I'm leaving now," I said to Jeff. "Come and see me when things are peaceful, okay?"
"Will do," he answered. "Oh, and one other thing. You know she will betray you, right?"
"Let's go, Doc," the officer requested. I stared intently and Jeff and then smiled.
"Alright. I've said everything I need to."
When Claire arrived at the hospital, a sigh floated in the air behind her, rushing in the door with the vacuum of her entry. I'll never forget the smile she gave me that afternoon, or the massive sunglasses that shaded her eyes, giving her an insect's visage. I sensed her relief that I sat upright, reading through an article in the American Journal of Medicine. (I remember the article was about advances made with my protein which caused cuts to heal even more quickly. And it was made by a team at Stanford no less!)
"Hi, honey," I rasped, still waiting for my new lung.
"Jesus, Charlie," she said, a waver in her voice. She laid her bags on the ground and dropped into the chair just next to me, taking my hand into her own.
"I know. But you almost weren't."
"This is true, but luckily, Mr. Becker is a terrible shot."
"Is he still here? I heard they put him in the same hospital."
"He was transferred to a prison hospital this morning, so no, he's not here."
"Good. I might have killed him, otherwise."
"That's sweet of you," I replied. "How's the bump?"
She rubbed her belly tenderly and smiled.
"Good. I haven't been sick in two weeks."
"Glad to hear."
Our unborn child was our second attempt at securing a family, the first torn from us by a miscarriage (which happened six days after the second hurricane ripped through the southern coast). After several months of recovery, Claire became pregnant once again, and we refrained from telling anyone until safely in the second half of the pregnancy. With Claire traveling far from our residence in Charlotte and in public by my side in the hospital, discretion was no longer an option.
The days of being wounded and isolated with my hampered bride were some of our best, I am discouraged to report. As if our happiness festered out of a mutual discomfort, we shared during this time a lovely honeymoon of physical ache.
After the miscarriage, we silently assented to the slow decay of our union. I had taken to slipping away from our Charlotte home and scurrying like a famished rodent back to my automotive lair. Late in the night I would phone Claire and say, once again, that work would prevent me from returning home. She never questioned these nights away, which were far fewer than the majority of my nights spent in hotels around the world. With each unnecessary overnight excursion, I let my invented passion drain another milliliter from its reservoir, allowed my hand-stitched façade to shed away from me.
During this devolution, I learned that Claire also affected a false demeanor. Under her dress a treasure for me lay, but in her heart, only the darkness of many years of unresolved depression. It fueled her art, her humor, her carefully disheveled appearance, and for a while, it haphazardly powered our marriage. For those of you unfamiliar with depression, and I write this with a knowing smile, the real trick is that it can be extremely attractive. Slightly rebellious, self-deprecating, needy, fitfully passionate, and above all else, forgiving of imperfections in others. Claire's condition gave her the ability to see past my eccentricities, or perhaps, more easily ignore them.
In me, I believe she saw a similar spirit. Hearing about the loss of Jeff and my broken family brought her soft and gentle hand over my own. When she learned of my many visits to psychiatrists and the rainbow of pharmaceuticals I ingested as a youth, she nearly tore my pants off. Unfortunately for her, when inspected closely, one will detect that my damages are polished smooth and any anxiety I suffer comes from pretending to be someone I am not. What seems like depth is actually just a reflection of the outside world as it slowly fades to black.
I occasionally overheard Claire reciting some fabrication to a friend about the remoteness in our relationship. She blamed it on the miscarriage, even though prior to the misfortune, I already spent more nights alone than with her, either due to my traveling schedule or overnight stays at my garage. Peter encouraged me to travel less, but I refused. I attended events and meetings even when my presence only hindered the actual function. Even that awful trip to Baton Rouge to accept the thanks of the state should have been left to Peter, who actually participated in the reconstruction!
Ten minutes after Claire's arrival, Peter ambled into my room with Dr. Jian Cheung in tow. Cheung, the foremost pulmonary surgeon in China at the time, perhaps the world, happened to be conferencing in San Diego when he heard of my near death. He made contact with Peter flew in the following week to assist with the lung transplant. Even with two of the pre-eminent surgeons at my disposal, I still had yet to recognize the vast difference in care received by the very rich. Jeff's minor celebrity afforded him slightly better than average care, whereas celebrity compounded with extreme wealth elicited everyone to provide you with the best they had. A wicked man might believe this to be a reasonable occurrence, and surely, if you are the one in need, you may not question any advantage to your situation.
When Peter noticed Claire, he paused. I watched his face mutate from a shocked expression to intense scrutiny of her body and, finally, warm smile. The transition occurred in less than a second, and I almost missed it. Truthfully, I did miss it. At the time, I had no reason to analyze his reaction, other than to document it and store it away for late retrieval.
"Claire," Peter managed to say. "You're here."
He held his smile for a moment and then took a step forward and kissed her cheek.
"Congratulations," he said quietly to her. "You too, Charlie."
"Thanks," she replied, returning his smile.
"Oh, sorry," Peter began, moving back from her. "Claire, this is Dr. Jian Cheung, the best heart surgeon in the business. He's here to help with the lung transplant."
Claire stood and bowed to him. He bowed back and then extended his hand to shake hers.
"Thank you for helping us, Dr. Cheung," she said, taking his hand.
"The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Fleischman," Cheung replied. "Your husband is very important to the world. We mustn't let him depart prematurely."
"I appreciate that," Claire responded, still holding onto Cheung's hand. With her other hand, she patted her belly. "He's important to us, too."
"Having children is a miracle and should be treated as such," Cheung offered, finally releasing his hand from Claire's. "My three young daughters remind me of this frequently."
"Three daughters! Oh my, you must be very busy!"
"Indeed, Mrs. Fleischman. I have little trouble finding sleep in the evenings."
"We're having a boy," I interjected.
"Boys make excellent men," Dr. Cheung replied with a grin.
"We don't really know," Claire corrected. "Charlie's just convinced he knows."
"You should listen to him," Peter urged, moving to the side of my bed. "He's got some strange sort of intuition."
The three of them stood around my bed, smiling at me, over me, as if I was dead and they had just finished crying. I knew our child was a boy just as I knew he would not die, just as I knew our first would. Peter was right about my intuition. With each year that passed, my visions refined further and further until they became flashes in the dark, images of what would be. I remained unable to discern meaning for most of these glimpses, but could always find some sense of orientation.
One night while tinkering with a '67 Malibu, I saw Claire sitting on the bathroom floor of our home, vomiting into a wastebasket, a growing pool of blood emanating from between her legs. I stopped working on the car and phoned her. Claire seemed annoyed by this second call of the evening, but she did confirm that she and the baby were fine. A week later, while working on a paper at our home, I heard her shouting and crying. I rushed upstairs and opened the door to the bathroom.
Our son would be born and grow into a man, just as Cheung humorously predicted. I knew this before I came to Baton Rouge. What I didn't know before Baton Rouge was that Peter had already infiltrated my family, and while his gestures had not amounted to more than friendship and conversation, Claire's comfort with my absence was surely a reflection of this relationship with him.
Two days later, as my gurney creaked its way towards surgery, Claire and Peter each walked along with me, like foster parents attending a sick child. As we waited for the elevator to arrive, I saw Claire look up and smile at Peter. I didn't need a vision to show me the future.
The elevator doors opened, and they helped roll me inside.
"Peter," I whispered.
"Get out of the elevator."
"I don't want you in the operating room."
"What are you talking about? Of course I'm going to be in there."
"Don't make me say it again."
Peter held up his hands and shook his head slightly.
"Fine," he said. "I'm out of the room."
"Charlie, what are you doing?" Claire asked.
"Following my intuition," I flatly replied to her.