THE LAST ACT OF KINDNESS
Jerry was tired, beaten down. The whole neighborhood was on his case, trying to bring him around, he was the last holdout, the last fool.
How it had come about, he wasnít quite sure. It seemed that things had been different once, but they had been this way for so long that the memory of how things used to be began to seem like a delusion. "You are a dinosaur," Mrs. Eldridge from Apt. 2B told him one day. "Why donít you just lie down in the snow and die?"
"Yes, why donít I?" he thought.
"You canít teach old dogs new tricks," Bob from 3C had told Mrs. Eldridge, when she suggested that Jerry try going back to college, to get some new ideas in his head. Bob, who kept his last name to himself Ė on the doorbell he was just Bob C. - was a strong working man with bulging muscles who liked rock music and enjoyed sharing his favorite bands with the world. Mrs. Eldridge was of Jerryís generation, but somehow she had managed to cross the divide between the past and present to continue living in harmony with what was. Reality did not matter so much as that one was in harmony with it. For his part, Bob knew nothing but the now. He didnít even want a last name. They had very little in common, the gray-haired matron sewing sweaters for her grandchildren, and the construction worker who lived in the daze of someone elseís guitars, except for the building that they lived in and their intense dislike for Jerry.
But it was over, now, Jerry assured them. He had changed, he had committed the last transgression, the last involuntary reflex of a vanished time. "Youíre right," he said, "youíve won, I must go along."
The decision had been made at the end of an awful day.
It had begun with the little walk down the street, only one and a half blocks around the corner, to the subway station. A band of kids Ė harmless, loud, children of the rich Ė were postponing their descent down into the pit where the dark raging trains, filled with the inertly discontented, rumbled to offices and schools, to temples of production and factories of the mind. The cold, red-faced boys were throwing around a globe-ball on the gray autumn morning Ė a colorful ball with the continents and nations painted on it Ė a favorite dating back to Jerryís own time. Only in his day, the game had been "Catch the World" Ė youíd throw the ball and try not to let it fall. Now the game was "High and Far" Ė how high could you throw the ball, and how far? Not thinking, forgetting what age he was living in, his skull haunted by the ghost brain of who he had once been, of who he had once been able to be, he saw the flash of the ball flying by, he just reacted like a deer in the forest reacts to a sudden movement bounding through the brush. He reached out for the ball, desperate like a father, he seized it with one hand, lunging with the agility of youth which he forgot he was incapable of. As soon as he had the ball in his hand, he realized what he had done. "Oh no!" he thought. "Iíll hear about this!"
"Damn you, mister, you messed up my throw!" cried one of the kids. "No fair!" he shouted as his friends jeered, "You lose!" "No, no fair! He stopped it from going farther! It was going all the way past the fire station! No fair, itís a do-over!"
Jerry tossed the ball back to the kids. "Sorry."
"Yo, what a fogie, he thinks this is thirty years ago! Hey, how is George Washington?"
"Careful," another of the kids warned, "heís f**ked up like a war veteran. You know, they hear a firecracker and they hit the deck. Donít talk to him, he might eat you up!"
"Yo, creep!" the kids yelled, as he anxiously sought the sanctuary of the subway station, plunging down the frozen cement steps like Persephone into the underworld of utility.
But there things did not improve. Not at all.
Jerry had been on the train for hardly two minutes, fortunate to find a seat as masses of people, as colorful and dead as autumn leaves, fell from the branches of their homes into the screeching steel cars bound for sorrow that chose not to speak. Thatís when the new disaster struck. A pregnant woman, huge with swollen belly, her face prematurely aged by some private care, her eyes unanswering like a blind manís, yet somehow intensely focused on something inside herself, something simple, like not vomiting or fainting, appeared above him, hanging on the bar. To Jerry, she seemed like some prisoner of the Inquisition, hanging from the ceiling by her wrists. She was so short and the bar so high! Trying to hold onto it, and to simultaneously keep her feet on the floor, she was practically being pulled in two! And right beneath her, in the shadow of her agony, there he sat in the hard plastic seat that for her must be like a throne. He could not bear it, could not remember that he was in another time, could not remember how the inner map of man had changed, how new countries of thought had appeared and old ones vanished since he had been young. He simply stood up before they had reached a station, before he had an excuse, and said, "Mam, would you like to sit?"
What bad luck that it happened on an express train! That there was not an imminent local stop to save him, an exit; only this long, twisted passage thirty blocks long clogged by morning traffic, only this merciless crawling through the darkness of a tunnel not able to deliver the velocity it was built for. Utterly exposed, with no way out, Jerry felt as though he were in the hands of a lynch mob, but it was too late to undo what he had done. He was already standing up, and the words must have been heard by a dozen people.
"How dare you insult her!" a woman gasped, barking at him, it seemed, like Cerberus, himself, the Hound of Hell, the guard dog of the dead.
"What?! Did he offer her a seat?!" others were asking.
"Sorry," he said, but it was impossible to calm the crowd. "He offered her a seat!" he heard someone, at the far end of the train saying, he felt the rage, like an electric current passing through a wire.
"Hey, buddy, what the hellís wrong with you?" a big, hairy man with threatening tattoos on his hand in spite of his white shirt and tie, demanded. To Jerry, he seemed like one of Dr. Moreauís savage animals struggling to walk upright; civilization painted on a beast. "We donít do that shit anymore! Donít mess with our way of life! Donít f**k with our values!"
"Yeah, people have fought and died for our way of life, donít disrespect it!"
"Fool!" someone else was saying, "you think that actually helps? You think that makes the world better?"
The sick woman was sitting down, now, it was pure instinct, or maybe just gravity; her eyes were shut, reveling in the possibility of being able to keep down the contents of her breakfast just a little bit longer. She was trying hard to be a statue, because any little movement, even a slight tilt of her head, might empower her nausea to turn her into a rush-hour pariah. She had no energy with which to defend her benefactor.
"You ought to go live in another f**king country!" snarled a furious man who seemed as if the job he was going to must not have submitted him to a background check. "In some god-damned latrine, some hellhole without freedom!"
"Look, Iím sorry!" protested Jerry. "I was raised this way. I forgot!"
"I was raised that way, too," said an elegant lady, grateful, like a typecast actress to have a chance to play a different part, maybe a pit bull. "Get over it! Live and learn!"
"Propaganda," someone else explained. "In those days, they beat it into them, they told them up was down and down was up, they scared them to death with fairy tales about greedy little kids who always got eaten up by the monster, and they misinterpreted Biblical passages to make it seem like Jesus wanted people to disempower each other! Schools and families molded them like clay! They didnít have minds of their own!"
"Our very own version of Hitler Youth!" someone else agreed.
"Why do you do this?" a man with a close-cropped white beard, and confident penetrating eyes, asked Jerry from the gun emplacement of his seat. So finally, a mind was here to lend itself to the wolf pack!
Jerry, in lieu of an answer, said only, once again: "Iím sorry."
"Do you hope to win the gratitude of the person you have helped? To infiltrate them with a psychological debt, and then manipulate and control them by means of the obligation you have implanted in them during their moment of need?"
"Control freak!" someone spat. "Abuser!"
"Or is this your way of trying to overcome your own guilt, to make up for some defect in yourself, to balance out a crime with a Ďgood deedí, to cover up a transgression? Are you burying her will so that you can feel better about yourself; breaking her wings to placate some inner demon, some ghost that haunts you?"
"Yeah, itís all about you, isnít it???? Selfish bastard!"
"Or maybe, on the other hand, this is an act of war against us. Maybe you want to make us look bad, to shame us, and to dominate us through our shame. To construct the myth of your holiness with people like her, and then subjugate us by pretending to be better!"
"You ainít no Jesus, you god-damned, subversive bastard!"
Jerry was trembling, now, the combination of the clever intellectual and the unschooled mob running about with pieces of his ideas horrified him, he felt like Oedipus surrounded by the damning voices of the Greek Chorus, he felt he might be torn to pieces at any moment, and never make it to the job that he detested, but now desperately wished to reach. Oh, to see those beautiful, ark-like filing cabinets once again!
But luckily, unexpectedly, the station arrived, the fierce doors opened, and Jerry fled, squeezing out with the human secretion of the train. It wasnít his stop, but the walk through the fresh air, out of the trap-like space of the groaning machines below, was worth the extra time. He looked at his watch, and hurried past stark, emptying branches which had free hands but nothing to hold. A lady passed by with a far-ranging dog on a leash, he swerved not to make her draw the dog back in, closer to her, forgetting that she would not do it anyway.
"Oh shit!" he gasped, as he inadvertently opened a door for a delivery man struggling to carry a delicately-balanced pile of huge and heavy boxes into a building: packages from airplanes rushed through the night to offices just opening their sleeping eyes.
"What, you think I canít open it myself?" protested the delivery man. "Iíve got my own special way, yo, you just stole my ballet! The spin and back into the door! I love that shit, how else do you think I make it through the day? Yo, thatís my skill, donít be the cloud to my sun!"
"Sorry!" exclaimed Jerry. "Really, Iím so sorry!"
"Look Ė itís one of them!" a lady with a cardboard coffee cup in her hand was whispering to a friend. "Weíd all be cripples if they had won. If the earth was theirs."
"Shhh!" her friend told her. "Donít let him hear, donít they all have guns, or something?"
The day at work was all right, it was just filing and organizing, the kind of work the great novelists of the past had done to liberate their minds for extraordinary mental excursions, propelled by boredom and enabled by the freedom of their thoughts. Make everything outside the page trivial and unchallenging, like a habit, like turning a light switch on and off. Outside, the world is bare like a city razed to the ground, but inside there is a cornucopia. Outside stone, inside a garden of roses blooming. But Jerry was working on no great novel, he knew already that his gifts had sunk in another time, and lay at the bottom of the sea of history, there was no point in speaking to walls. Even more than that, no point in leaving a trail to his home.
After work, isolated and rote, which offered no hook on which to hang the hat of his aberrations had he wanted to, he emerged once more into the street, dark and freezing with the wind of the autumn evening swirling all about. Helpless streetlights glowed without warmth, the world seemed to be dying but without knowing it, little cigarettes in peopleís hands were like tiny campfires around which suffering souls gathered. Jerry, walking slowly, recovering from the stale office air, thought maybe he should cross the street for a slice of pizza; then, changing his mind, decided to continue walking to the train, when, all of a sudden, he saw a dark shape go down in the middle of the street, some kind of animal it seemed, and heard a cry. A large and wounded animal. Without thinking, he rushed forward past the wall of red traffic lights that protected him from waiting headlights shining thoughts of home into the dark. The large and wounded animal turned out to be a huge mink coat, and within it a woman whose well-concealed age was leaking into view from her distress.
"Madam, are you all right?" he asked. "Here, let me help you to your feet, the lights are about to change, the traffic will be coming."
"My ankle!" she groaned. "My ankle! I think itís broken! Oh, so far away is Kiev!"
"They say you should never die far from where you are born."
"Hurry!" he said, alarmed by the threat of her nostalgia. "The lights are about to change!" Even before the red lights could fade to expose the woman to oncoming traffic, a speeding car was already flying into the yellow of the departing green lights, desperate to beat the stopped traffic and to turn in front of them. "Hurry!" exclaimed Jerry. Sensing the veering car coming out of the corner of his eyes, he seized the coat and dragged the woman, inside the shelter of her fur, out of the road. He felt like he had just saved a bear.
"Are you all right?" he asked her.
She wept "yes", with a few atoms of gratitude in the mountain of her misery. Her broken ankle, her distant home.
But, predictably, a crowd of bystanders had gathered on the street.
"Why all the f**king melodrama?!" someone demanded, practically shoving Jerry. The streetlights, which had seemed only a moment ago to be feeble and unconcerned, now seemed oppressive and treacherous to Jerry, like spotlights shining over a prison camp. "Nobody was going to run her over," the angry man insisted. "What the f**k, who the hellís going to do it and get sued?! You want to make us all look like a bunch of heartless bastards? "
"Oh!" shouted a woman spectator, in mock praise, joining in the assault. "Look, itís the knight in shining armor! St. George or is it Sir Galahad? Damn!" she spat. "Trying to get yourself a piece of senior ass? Youíre nothing but a god-damned player!" And she actually slapped him in the face. "Help the damsel in distress. It ainít nothing more than the slick way to rape! Well, we women have wised up since your days!" And she slapped him again.
"No, no, thatís not it!" exclaimed Jerry, stung and frightened. "You donít understand! Wait a minute!"
But a lawyer was already handing the injured woman a card. "Miss, your injuries may have been exacerbated by this manís effort to assist you. Injured people should never be moved, except by qualified medical personnel."
"Did he grope you?" the woman was asking. "Did he grope you?"
While someone else was saying, "Oh, heís got old shoes. No use to drag him to court. He canít be worth much!"
The injured woman, as most of the people who Jerry helped in spite of the decision of history, made no effort to come to his defense, why get in the way of the firing squad? Instead, she dragged herself up by a lamppost, like an aristocrat forced to be a peasant, and hailed a taxi. "Oh, the strong, clear skies of Kiev!" she mourned, "where the cold, so bitter, had a soul!" And she told the taxi driver, "The nearest emergency room, please. My ankle! Oh my ankle! Crippled, and in a cast! To be forced to sit in my room and remember!"
The taxi slowly cruised towards the middle of the street, then picked up speed, drawn, as though by a magnet, towards a string of green lights leading deeper into the night.
"The world is ruined by the compulsion to help, it crushes the individual and becomes a social obsession which destroys freedom!" someone was lecturing Jerry; while someone far more threatening was shouting, directly in his face, "My father died for this country, you son of a bitch, and I wonít let anybody, ever, roll back the achievements of his sacrifice! My motherís tears!" And he began to weep, the child who had never got to grow up under the love of the man in the photograph came out searching for his father all over again. "You bastard!" And he half punched Jerry, and half collapsed into some place deep inside himself.
Jerry, stunned and terrified by the mob, began to leave, to scuttle away like a cockroach from people who did not think like him, and would not tolerate the danger of anyone who did not think like them. But an angry hand caught him from behind and held him before he could escape, he lost track of the screams and threats, it was all, now, horribly physical, mouths moving, fingers pointing, hands waving in his face; words were almost accidental and ideas ate themselves before they could be born. There was nothing to say. The world bowed down to a formula, there was only black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, the mob that had all the power, and Jerry who had none. "Look, Iím sorry! Iím sorry!" he pleaded and he wept. "I did not mean to disrespect anyone! I did not mean to endanger my land! I am not trying to reverse history, Iím sorry, I forgot! Times have changed, and I forgot!"
Still, they were terrorizing him, he was being shaken, a pair of hands was holding him by the throat of his jacket. "I hate you bastards!" the voice of the hands was shouting. "I hate all of you unpatriotic sons of bitches who donít appreciate the freedom your country has given you!"
"You lethally naive, ideologically blundering idiot!" another voice chirped in, whipping Jerry from the fringes of the crowd.
Jerry honestly thought he was about to die, he thought they would tear his limbs out of their sockets, strangle him and break his neck, stomp him to death like a bug on the street. And the police would not pursue the case with vigor, who would raise a finger for the dead serpent? They would wash their hands with a file, and shut his murder up inside a drawer. At last, sensing that the crowd was only rising higher into the sky of savagery, each act of cruelty building a step for the next, he cried out: "Please! Stop! I implore you! I was wrong! I was brainwashed! In my youth I was brainwashed! You donít understand how hard it is to break the conditioning, to accept freedom after youíve grown accustomed to something else! I beg you, stop! Give me a chance to learn! I can still learn! I can get used to being free! I promise: Iíll never do something like this again! I swear! This was my last act of kindness! Tonight you saw my last act of kindness! I will never again stoop so low, never again dishonor so my country!"
Somehow, the passion of his surrender jolted the mob back into human form, the beast that was many men together became a conglomeration of separate individuals who did not wish to murder a man in cold blood on a city street. The pair of hands let him go, words continued to pelt him as his tormentors first backed up, then remembered their lives, and began to disperse. Still the words came, they followed him for awhile, like little animals that belonged to him, accompanying him on the way home. After a while, he shook the final tormentor, a man whose transformation into a thug was slow to reverse itself; Jerry threw himself into the lit-up embrace of a bookstore and the tiger who now had a human head, no longer whole enough to destroy him, parted for home. Alone and shaking, Jerry sat in the store for a while, attempting to recover. With trembling hands he turned the pages of a book he had just taken from the shelf: The Triumph Of The Individual.
For several weeks, Jerry remained true to his pact with the mob, and his reconciliation with his neighbors. He did not lift a finger to help a soul. He didnít tell the man he was following about the twenty dollar bill that fell out of his pocket and flew away like a flying carpet in the autumn breeze, a breeze at the gate of winter. He did not help Mrs. Madison when her grocery bag got a hole in it, and stranded her half the way home with thirty items to carry in two hands. He did not butt in to tell two lost people with a map which way the ferry was, and, in fact, he watched them walk in the wrong direction even though it seemed that time was important to them by the way they kept looking at their watches. He did not cheat any soul of its growth, nor enfeeble the vigor of the land with superfluous acts of charity. He did not erode the power of wings by bringing the sky lower, or sabotage the forward motion of the world by looking back. He did his best to become a part of the new day, to accept the change, to admit the obsolescence of the dreams of his youth and the sermons of those who had lost.
But one day, just as the confidence that he finally fit began to flow through his veins, and the fear of being different began to fade, as he walked, in fact, towards a park to celebrate the coming of winter, Jerry came upon a globe-ball rolling in the street. A child had thrown it too far, and watched it sail beyond his reach, crying after it, as a huge truck roared towards it with too much weight to slow down for a mere childís heart. But Jerry Ė the child in him rose to the surface as soon as he heard the child calling after his ball as though it were a dog that might run home to him. In bygone days, the child that Jerry had been had run after the globe ball, had striven desperately to catch it and not let it fall, to not let the face of China or America or Russia or Africa or Germany or Brazil with their millions of people and their proud histories smash into the ground. Imagination had populated the globe-ball with beautiful, vulnerable masses who must be protected, and caught in the air before they fell, and now, so many years later, Jerry could not stop himself from running into the street after the globe-ball, as though he were still that child. The game was a reflex he could not uproot. Not for safety or for love. Furiously, as he dashed in front of it, the giant truckís horn blared at him, shot at him like a gun firing sound, the brakes screeched then gave the truck back to its wheels as Jerry made it to the side of the road. Jerry saw a savage face above a steering wheel, a giant still leaning on the horn, trying to erase him with the horn, snarling with velocity and then the huge back of the truck with its dangling flaps and array of license plates was receding, spitting at him with black fumes as it vanished down the street. Ball in hand, Jerry crossed back over to the childís side, and handed him the ball, while an angry parent stepped forward, past his childís smile, to rebuke the boyís benefactor. "You know, you shouldnít have done this!" the parent raged. "I just finished telling him that the ball was destroyed. I was going to teach him about loss, but now youíve ruined the lesson!"
An irate neighbor stepped up to join the outraged parent. "You Ė you wonít ever learn, will you? Youíre a living fossil! A relic of the past! A true dinosaur!"
Jerry, aware that he had broken his vow, that his last act of kindness had not, and would not, in fact, be his last, said only: "Youíre right. I am a dinosaur. I canít help myself. You are going to have to wait for me and my kind to die out. The world wonít be yours until we do."
And, as the child smiled behind his parentís back, Jerry slowly walked away, followed by more recriminations, words that melted, as he left, into meaningless sounds like cars driving by, like birds chirping in branches above the highway. Hearing something once more about a dinosaur, he only laughed, and said again: "You are going to have to wait for me and my kind to die out."
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents