Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Cross Roads, Page 2

William P. Young

  Even in a struggling economy, business was steady. It was Tony who had convinced his partners to maintain a strong liquid-asset base, and now they were carefully purchasing property and diversifying into enterprises at better than liquidation values, independent of the banks that had withdrawn themselves into self-protective credit hoarding. He was currently the office hero, but this did not give him much peace. Any respite would be short-lived, and every success simply raised the bar of performance expectations. It was an exhausting way to live, but he resisted other options as irresponsible and lazy.

  He spent less and less time at the main office. Not that anyone looked for opportunities to be around him anyway. His heightened paranoia made him more testy than normal and the slightest irregularity set him off. Even his partners preferred that he work off-site, and when his office remained dark, everyone sighed in collective relief and actually worked harder and in more creatively focused ways. Such is the debilitative power of micromanagement, a strategy that Tony often took great pride in wielding.

  But it was into this space, this momentary reprieve, that his fears had surfaced, his sense of being a target, the object of someone’s or something’s attention, unwanted and unwelcome. To make matters worse, his headaches had come back with a vengeance. These migraines were usually precipitated by vision loss, followed closely by slurred speech as he struggled to complete sentences. It all warned of an impending slam of an invisible spike through his skull into the space behind his right eye. Light and sound sensitive, he would notify his personal assistant before crawling into the darkened recesses of his condo. Armed with painkillers and white noise, he slept until it hurt only when he laughed or shook his head. Tony convinced himself that Scotch helped the recovery process, but he looked for any excuse to pour himself another.

  So why now? After months without a single migraine, they were happening almost weekly. He began watching what he consumed, concerned that someone might be trying to slip poison into his food or drink. Increasingly he was desperately tired, and even with prescription-enhanced sleep felt exhausted. Finally, he set an appointment for a physical with his doctor, which he failed to keep because an unexpected meeting required his presence to resolve issues pertinent to an important acquisition that had gone sideways. He rescheduled the appointment for two weeks later.

  When uncertainty impinges upon routine, one begins to think about one’s life as a whole, about who matters and why. Overall, Tony was not displeased with his. He was prosperous, better than most, which was not bad for a foster child whom the system had failed, and who had quit crying about it. He had made mistakes and hurt people, but who hadn’t? He was alone, but most of the time preferred it that way. He had a house in the West Hills, a beach retreat at Depoe Bay, his condo by the Willamette River, strong investments, and the freedom to do almost anything he wanted. He was alone, but most of the time preferred it… He had reached every objective he had set, at least every realistic goal, and now in his forties he survived with a brooding sense of emptiness and percolating regrets. These he quickly stuffed down inside, into that invisible vault that human beings create to protect themselves from themselves. Sure he was alone, but most of the time…

  Upon landing in Portland from Boston, Tony had driven directly to the main office and initiated a particularly volatile argument with two of his partners. It was then that the idea occurred to create a list of those he trusted. Not of people he would say he trusted, but those he actually did trust. Those he would tell secrets to, share dreams with, and with whom he would expose his weaknesses. For this reason he had cloistered himself away in his hidden office, pulled out a whiteboard and Scotch, and began writing down and erasing names. The list was never long, and originally included business partners, a few others who worked for him, one or two he had encountered outside of the job, and a couple of people he had met through private clubs and travel. But after an hour’s contemplation he whittled even that down to six people. He sat back and shook his head. It had turned into an exercise in futility. The only people he truly trusted were all dead, although there was some question about the last name.

  His father and particularly his mother topped the six. He knew rationally that much of his memory of them was idealized by time and trauma, their negative attributes swallowed up by his ache for them. He treasured the faded photograph, the last one taken before a teenage partyer lost control and turned glory into rubble. He opened the safe and pulled it out, now protected inside a laminated sheet, but he tried to smooth out its wrinkles anyway, as if caressing it could somehow let them know. His father had talked some stranger into taking their picture outside the now-extinct Farrell’s Ice Cream shop, he a gangly eleven-year-old with his seven-year-old kid brother, Jacob, standing in front of him. They had been laughing about something, his mother’s face upturned with the joy of the moment written large upon her beautiful features, his father grinning wryly, the best he could do. It was enough, his father’s grin. He remembered it clearly. An engineer not given to much emotional expression, it would unexpectedly slip out anyway and almost meant more because it was not easily accessible. Tony had tried to recall what they had all been laughing about, staring his question into the photograph for hours as if it might yield the secret, but try as he might, it lay just outside his grasp, tantalizing and maddening.

  Next on his list came Mother Teresa, followed closely by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. All great, all idealized, each very human, vulnerable, wonderful, and now dead. Pulling out a small notepad he wrote down the names, tore off the single sheet, and then toyed with it between his right forefinger and thumb. Why had he written down the names of these people? It had been almost without thought, this final list, perhaps a true reflection of a source very deep and maybe even real, perhaps even a longing. He detested that word, but loved it somewhere. It sounded weak on the surface, but it had sure staying power, outlasting most other things that had come and gone in his life. These three iconic personages represented, along with the last name on the list, something larger than himself, a hint of a song never sung but still calling, the possibility of someone he might have been, an invitation, a belonging, a tender yearning.

  The last name was the most difficult and yet the easiest: Jesus. Jesus, Bethlehem’s gift to the world, the woodworker who supposedly was God joining our humanity, who might not be dead, according to the religious rumors. Tony knew why Jesus was on the list. The name bridged to the strongest memories he had of his mother. She loved this carpenter and anything and everything to do with him. Sure, his dad loved Jesus, too, but not like his mom. The last gift she had ever given him lay inside his safe, in the foundation of the building that housed his secret place, and it was the single most precious thing he possessed.

  Not two days before his parents were so forcefully stolen from his life, she had inexplicably come to his bedroom. The memory was etched into his soul. He was eleven years old, working on homework, and there she stood, leaning against the door, a slip of a woman in a floral apron, flour highlighting one cheek where she had brushed away hair that escaped the tie holding her tresses up and away from activity. It was because of the flour that he knew she had been crying, the trail of tears running a jagged course down her face.

  “Mom, are you okay? What’s wrong?” he had asked, getting up from his books.

  “Oh,” she exclaimed, wiping her face with the backs of her closed hands, “nothing at all. You know me, I sometimes start thinking about things, things that I am so grateful for, like you and your brother, and I just get all emotional.” She paused. “I don’t know why, my dearest, but I was thinking about how big you’re getting, a teenager in a couple years; then you will be driving and off to college and then you’ll get married, and as I thought about all this, do you know what I felt?” She paused. “I felt joy. I felt like my heart was about to burst out of my chest. Tony, I am so thankful to God for you. So I decided to make you your favorite dessert, Marion-berry Cobbler, and some caramel rolls. B
ut as I was standing there, looking out the window at everything we have been given, all the gifts, and especially about you and Jake, I suddenly wanted to give you something, something that’s especially precious to me.”

  It was then that Tony noticed her clenched fist; she was holding something. Whatever it was fit in the small grasp of this woman already shorter than he. She held out her hand and slowly opened it. Curled up on her palm was a flour-anointed necklace with a gold cross at the end, fragile and feminine.

  “Here.” She held it out. “I want you to have this. Your grandmother gave it to me, and her mother to her. I thought I would one day give it to a daughter, but I don’t think that’s going to happen and I don’t know why, but as I was thinking and praying for you, today seemed to be the right day to give it to you.”

  Tony had not known what else to do so he opened his hand, allowing his mother to drop the finely woven thread onto his palm, adorned with the small delicate gold cross.

  “Someday, I want you to give this to the woman you love, and I want you to tell her where it came from.” The tears were now rolling down her face.

  “But Mom, you can give it to her.”

  “No, Anthony, I feel this strongly. I don’t exactly understand why, but it is for you to give, not me. Now don’t get me wrong, I plan to be there, but just like my mother gave it to me to give, I now give it to you, for you to give.”

  “But how will I know—”

  “You will,” she interrupted. “Trust me, you will!” She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him long, unconcerned for the flour that might be transferred. He had not cared either. None of it had made any sense to him, but he knew it was important.

  “Hold on to Jesus, Anthony. You can never go wrong by holding on to Jesus. And know this,” she said as she pulled back and looked up into his eyes. “He will never stop holding on to you.”

  Two days later she was gone, swallowed up in the selfish choice of another barely older than he. The necklace still lay in his safe. He had never given it away. Had she known? He had often wondered if this had been a premonition, some warning or gesture by God to give him a remembrance. Her loss had destroyed his life, sending it careering down a path that had made him who he was, strong, tough, and able to withstand things that others struggled with. But there were moments, fleeting and intangible, when the tender longing would slip in between the rocks of his presentation and sing to him, or begin to sing as he would quickly shut such music away.

  Was Jesus still holding him? Tony didn’t know, but probably not. He wasn’t much like his mother anymore, but because of her, he had read the Bible along with some of her favorite books, trying to find in the pages of Lewis, MacDonald, Williams, and Tolkien a hint of her presence. He even joined, for a short time, the Young Life group in his high school where he tried to learn more about Jesus, but the foster system in which he and his brother landed shuttled them from home to home and school to school, and when every hello is just a good-bye waiting to happen, social clubs and affiliations become painful. He felt that Jesus had said good-bye like everyone else.

  So the fact that he had kept Jesus on the list was a bit of a surprise. He hadn’t given him much thought in years. In college he had briefly renewed the quest, but after a season of conversation and study had quickly relegated Jesus to the list of great dead teachers.

  Even so, he could understand why his mother had been so enamored. What wasn’t there to like about him? A man’s man, yet good with children, kind to those unacceptable to religion and culture, a person full of infectious compassion, someone who challenged the status quo and yet loved those he challenged. He was everything that Tony sometimes wished he was, but knew he wasn’t. Perhaps Jesus was an example of that bigger-than-yourself life, but it was too late to change. The older he got, the thought of transformation seemed increasingly remote.

  And it was the God-thing that he couldn’t understand, especially as it related to Jesus. Tony had long decided that if there was a God, he or she or it was something or someone terrible and malevolent, capricious and untrustworthy, at best some form of cold dark matter, impersonal and uncaring, and at worst a monster taking pleasure in devastating the hearts of children.

  “It’s all wishful thinking,” he mumbled as he crumpled up the paper and indignantly tossed it at the garbage can across the room. Living people couldn’t be trusted. Reaching for a fresh bottle of Balvenie Portwood, he poured himself a triple and turned back toward his computer, switching it back on.

  He brought up his official Last Will and Testament and spent the next hour expressing his suspicion and antipathy by making major revisions and printing off a new copy, which he signed, dated, and tossed with the old back onto a pile of others already in the safe, locking and resetting the alarms and turning off his desk lights. As he sat in the darkness thinking about his existence and who might be pursuing him, little did he know he was drinking his last Scotch.



  God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

  He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

  —William Cowper

  Morning burst through his uncovered window with a vengeance. Bright sunlight mixed with remnants of Scotch sent his head into spasms, a morning migraine to murder the day. But this was different. Tony not only couldn’t remember how he had gotten back to his condo, but he was in the grip of pain unlike any he had ever known. Sprawled and passed out on his couch in an awkward position might account for the stiffness in his neck and shoulders, but nothing in his memory compared with this piercing pounding, as if someone had unleashed an unstoppable series of thunderclaps inside his head. Something was extremely wrong!

  Sudden nausea propelled him toward the toilet, but he didn’t make it before forcefully ejecting everything that remained in his stomach from the night before. The exertion only accentuated the excruciating pain. Tony felt raw fear, long imprisoned by sheer willful determination, now bursting its bonds like a beast, feeding off expanding uncertainty. Fighting the debilitating terror, he staggered out the door of his condo, pressing both hands hard over his ears as if it would keep his head from exploding. He leaned into the hallway wall, frantically searching for his ever-present smart phone. A frenzy of pocket rifling produced nothing but a set of keys, and he was suddenly hopelessly awash in a terrible vacancy, an absence of connectedness. His would-be savior, the electronic purveyor of all things immediate but temporary, was missing.

  The thought occurred to him that his cell phone might be in his coat, which he usually hung on the back of the kitchen chair, but the condo door had automatically locked when he exited. One eye wasn’t functioning properly, so he squinted with the other at a blurry keypad, trying to remember the code that would allow him back inside, but the numbers spilled over one another and none of them made any sense. Closing his eyes he tried to concentrate, his heart pounding, his head on fire while growing desperation continued to build inside. Tony began weeping uncontrollably, which infuriated him, and in a flurry of profanity-empowered panic he began punching numbers randomly, frantic for a miracle. A wave of blackness dropped him to his knees and he slammed his head against the door. It only exacerbated the pain. Blood now streamed down his face from a gash where he had engaged the edge of the doorjamb.

  Tony’s confusion and agony increased until he was entirely disoriented, staring at an unfamiliar electronic keypad and in one hand holding a set of unfamiliar keys. Maybe he had a car nearby? Reeling along a short hall, he tripped down a flight of carpeted stairs and out into a parking garage. Now what? Pushing all the buttons on the key fobs, he was rewarded by the flashing lights of a gray sedan not thirty feet away. Another upwelling of darkness yanked him off his feet and down he went a second time. On his hands and knees, he crawled frantically toward the car as if life depended on it. Finally he made it as far as the trunk, hoisted himself to a stand, steadied for a moment while the world spun, and once again dropped, t
his time swallowed into a comforting nothingness. Everything that hurt and tugged so desperately for his attention stopped.

  If anyone had witnessed him fall, which no one had, they might have described a sack of potatoes tossed from the back of a moving truck, collapsing in a heap as though no bones inhabited his body, dead weight pulled down by gravity. The back of his head struck the top of the trunk hard; his momentum spun him toward the concrete floor where his head bounced a second time with a sickening thud. Blood now oozed from his left ear and pooled from the gashes in his forehead and face. For almost ten minutes he lay in the dimly lit underground garage before a passerby busy looking for car keys in her purse stumbled over his leg. Her shriek echoed off the concrete. No one heard. Visibly shaking, she dialed 911.

  The dispatcher, sitting in front of an array of screens, took the call at 8:41 a.m. “Nine-one-one. What is the location of the emergency?”

  “Oh my God! He’s bleeding everywhere! I think he’s dead…” The woman was hysterical and on the verge of shock.

  Trained for this, the dispatcher slowed the cadence of her voice. “Ma’am, I need you to calm down. I need you to tell me where you are, so I can send help.” While listening she muted the call and on a separate line prenotified Portland Fire of the potential medical emergency. She quickly typed information and codes into the call log, maintaining communication to an expanding set of first responders. “Ma’am, can you tell me what you see?” She muted and switched, quickly stating, “Engine 10. M333 respond Code 3 on a UN3 at 5040 SW Macadam Avenue, cross street is Richardson Court, just north of the US Bank and beneath Weston Manor, in the first level of an underground parking garage on the river side.”