DINNER WITH FRIENDS - JAKE HINKSON
Maggie liked the Bannermans, but I wasn’t too fond of them. Nathan Bannerman was a wrestling coach at his son’s junior high school. He was a five foot two tower of insecurity, and when I stood next to him I always got the faint impression he was trying to size me up for a leg sweep and a choke hold. When I was with him, we talked about sports and traffic, and I amused myself by thinking up different ways to kill him with whatever happened to be nearby. Nancy Bannerman was an profoundly overweight woman who kept putting on pounds in new areas of her body. Her chin had disappeared into her neck, which in turn had disappeared into the fleshy sphere of her torso. Because she relied so much on the charity and tact of other people, she was effusively nice. But I felt the Bannermans were both secretly shallow and boring. If they were thin, attractive, and successful, I think they would have been unbearable. Still, Maggie and Nancy were cousins, so a few times a year I had to endure a dinner with them.
We were sitting at a seafood restaurant one night listening to Nathan Bannerman rattle on about some unruly eighth grader, and I let my mind wander back over the day. That afternoon, I had killed a man named Art Thomas in a spacious loft apartment in lower Manhattan, within walking distance to the man’s job in the financial district. I don’t know what hedid for a living, but he must have been good at it to afford such a swank place that close to all the money in the world.
Nathan Bannerman leaned over to me, “I told that little bastard,‘I’m a grown man. You’re an eighth grader. Got me, buster?’” Bannerman stared at me, eager to see if I was impressed.
“Whoa,” I said. “What’d he say?”
I knew that would elicit a five minute reply, so while Bannerman yammered on, I thought about Art Thomas. He had been a pudgy gray haired man with wire rim glasses and when I saw him today, he was wearing a thousand dollar pair of pants.
He came up his stairs, unlocked his door, and was sorting his mail at the kitchen counter when I walked out of his bedroom and shot him in the back of the head. He hit the counter and slumped to the floor, and I shot him twice more in the back of the head. By that point, there wasn’t much left to shoot.
The piece had come from Thomas’s bedroom closet. I left it at the scene, and shoved my latex gloves into a large McDonald’s cup. I carried the cup downstairs and over to Broad Street where I dumped it in the trash before I caught the subway uptown.
Maggie and Nancy laughed at something Bannerman had said. I chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder.
The waiter came over and suggested dessert, and before I could say anything, my wife asked to see the menu.
“Oh, I shouldn’t,” Nancy said.
“Oh, c’mon. We’ll spilt it,” Maggie suggested. If history was any kind of teacher, though she’d have to race Nancy for the last bite.
Bannerman asked me how the business was going.
“Pretty well,” I said.
“Maggie said you went up to Connecticut today.”
“Yeah. Had a meeting with a guy.”
“Yeah, I had some meetings today, too.”
Bannerman was incapable of asking two questions in a row. It was simply too much time spent away from the subject of his own utterly banal existence. He seemed to feel he was losing ground if the discussion wasn’t about his shitty job, his dreary personal life, or his uninformed, backwater political views.
He finished a beer—his fourth—and I thought about smashing the glass over his nose and slitting his throat with a shard of the breakage.
Bannerman sighed. “Yeah, I don’t know. Those people up there at the school, they’re a good bunch. They try to be, anyway. But they haven’tbeen the same since old Dale Hudson died.”
That stopped me.
“Dale Hudson died?”
“Yeah. Last year.”
“Last year,” Nancy affirmed.
Maggie looked at me. “Who’s Dale Hudson?”
“He was the principal,” I told her.
I’d attended Edward Q. Brooks High School the year my father died. My mother had married a man from our church within a few months of my father’s death, and we had moved to another town to live with him and his two sons. The boys, both of them a little older than me, were never very nice to me, but they mostly left me alone. When I started attending school with them in the fall, they kept their distance from me in the halls and the cafeteria. I suppose it was lonely, though it could have been worse.
Dale Hudson was a tall, gray haired man with a paunch and a seemingly endless supply of short-sleeved white shirts. The kids mostly either mocked him or hated him, though I don’t recall him being particularly absurd or cruel. He was just a bored functionary, a man going about a job. I hadn’t given him any thought in twenty years.
The waiter brought the dessert menu and the girls chose a cheesecake. Bannerman ordered a crème brûlée, pronouncing it “cream brew-lee”, and asked for another beer to tide him over until it got there. I had coffee.
“Dale Hudson died,” I said.
Maggie watched my face.
“You seem fascinated by that,” she said.
I smiled. “I just...I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about him in along time. It’s odd to hear that he died.”
“He was an old man,” Bannerman said. “I hope I’m going strong like him in the end.”
I said, “I hadn’t thought of him as being old. I guess I thought he was still fifty-whatever years old, still schlepping the halls of Edward Q. Brooks, telling kids to get to class. I hadn’t thought about his life still, you know, still going on when I wasn’t there.”
Nancy’s bulk shifted beneath her tent-like green dress, and she said, “I think that’s as many words as I’ve ever heard you speak at onetime.”
The three of them laughed, and I smiled.
Bannerman said, “I think that’s about as many words as I’ve everheard him speak at one time, too”—which was his way of stealing his wife’s line. He did that all the time. If you said something interesting or funny, Bannerman would repeat it like he’d just thought of it himself. Insufferable little shit.
Still, as the dessert arrived and the conversation moved back to what it had been all night—Nancy’s commentary on the food and Bannerman’s commentary on himself—I stared at the little man and wondered what he did with his days.
It’s not too much to say that I lack some seemingly essential component of human compassion. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve thought about it over the years. I have two theories.
One, I am an anomaly, a freak of nature, an exception to the rule. If there’s a god—which seems unlikely—then he or she or it made me what I am. Nature just made a mistake, like a baby born without arms. My lack of compassion is a genetic defect.
My second theory is that I’m nothing particularly special. Wars have been fought every year for as long as we’ve recorded history, and most of the people who killed each other in these wars had no good reason to do it. Sadists kill because they get off on human suffering. Mothers sometimes snap and drown their children in the bathtub. Sometimes men lose their jobs and strangle their ex-wives. Gangbangers shoot each other because they’re too stupid to do anything else. And on and on.
But sometimes people decide to kill someone else just to make life a little easier on themselves: to free up some cash, or to enact a revenge they themselves are not capable of following though on. Then they talk to someone who talks to someone who talks to me. And I take care of it.
My only virtue—and it’s not much of a virtue I’ll grant—is thatI’m as cold as Pluto. I’m not a sadist or a psycho. I’m not out to rule theworld or get my kicks from watching people die. I’m coldly indifferent, yes,but I don’t think I’m at all unique in this indifference. It’s just that most people are acceptably indifferent to the pain and suffering of other people. It’s okay not to care about people dying in other countries, or even down the street, because you don’t know them. An utter and complete lack of compassion is acceptable in a macro sense. I just feel that on a micro sense.
Sure, I’ll admit I like the surge of adrenaline I get when I’m on the job. Before I started in business, I did a variety of extreme things—skydiving, rock climbing—just to get the rush. But now I get the rush from the job.
Sitting in Art Thomas’s bedroom that afternoon, I’d felt my pulse quicken as I heard the elevator down the hall. I didn’t know anything about the man other than his taste in home décor was impeccable. I didn’t know why someone wanted him dead. Maybe he molested their kid. Maybe his wife was a selfish asshole who wanted his will to kick in to effect sooner rather than later. I don’t know. But my heart was pounding when he turned the key in the door and came inside. When he walked across his living room, his shoes squeaking against his hardwood floors. When his head exploded, he hit the counter and died at my feet. My blood was pumping as I left his building and walked down the street, the sun on my face, people passing by, not paying a bit of attention to the thoroughly ordinary man walking by with a big cup from McDonald’s. I could have been anybody. Art Thomas. Dale Hudson. Even Nathan Bannerman.
I didn’t have any thing against Art Thomas. I was there as an instrument of someone else’s longing. If not me, it would have been some other instrument. If Bannerman had thought of it first, no morality would have stopped him from doing what I did.
So why shouldn’t it be me?
BIO: Jake Hinkson has been hard at work all summer long on his book about film noir. With a rush of recent evil inspiration, we are the beneficiaries of this story. You can find his fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive, Crooked, A Twist Of Noir and Powder Burn Flash, among other places. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.