Excerpts from Bulletface, a Novel in Progress

1.

I picked up the gun with my left hand and immediately snapped off the safety without having to look at the weapon. This was not going to hurt.

Simon, I thought, this is right now; this is not going to hurt at all very much.

The gun came up in my hand toward my open mouth when Lin emerged so fast that I had no time to flinch. He took an immense step toward me, through the open door and into my office. My left arm and wrist were bent so I could get the nine millimeter’s barrel past the open rows of my teeth. I was waiting with open eyes to feel the touch of the cold metal nudge into the roof of my mouth, then squeeze.

He flowed across the space separating us, his hands open, arms extended, all of him growing larger until his eyes were a foot from my own, locked on mine with a simple intensity that I can still see very clearly if I blink to remember. As I uselessly tried to protest, he snapped the gun away from my bent wrist with one hand and clenched my trachea with his other. He didn’t choke me hard. But his fingers made such a cold line across my throat that I gurgled in surprise. A second later he had taken his hands away, quietly backed up two steps, and closed the door, which he locked by pressing the center doorknob button. He had arrived, or I had willed him into existence in this moment, as if conjured forth by the logic of my dream to escape.

I blinked several times. He put his arms by his sides and looked at me for a long second or two. I felt a spin come on, then fade. Reaching out with his free hand, he lifted the extra chair that I kept in my office and placed it closer to me. The gun made no sound as he set it lightly on the corner of the desk I was sitting behind.

He looked at me again as he sat in the chair, took out a slim platinum torch lighter, a pack of Dunhills, and fired up.

“Deep breath, Simon, deep breath,” he said. “You’re done. You’re dead.”

News writers like to mythologize the amount of loneliness and unhappiness that suicidal people feel. They dramatize the situation in print and invent these wild neuroses for a real-life character like a white, middle-class, thirtysomething father “who worked hard to keep his family afloat during America’s first tough year after 9/11.” I could picture the unshaven schmuck generating this story late at night in a quiet newsroom downtown. But beyond the myth, in my life, it’s the short intensity of suicidal thoughts that horrifies you with their logic, and the understanding that the accompanying fears are beyond your control. The roots of it are made out to be an impulse that affects only the weak, who are to be pitied and prayed for. From my experience, these feelings aren’t so rare and anthropologically remarkable. They wait inside most everyone, like the herpes we all have that causes cold sores.

That said, I felt my depression easing me towards death and sought help a few months ago, in August. In the short time that I knew him I never asked, but it’s possible that Lin could’ve been watching me back then, too.

My consulting company offers solid benefits and access to an Employee Assistance Program, a nice name for when you need to see a shrink, go to rehab, get a family lawyer, or some combination of all three. I was mildly optimistic that counseling might help my morale. Why not? It was free, after all. I left work an hour early on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to drive out to the counselor’s office, but my hope evaporated when I saw who’d be trying to help me.

He looked unreal, like he’d seen an image in a magazine years ago and groomed himself through childhood and his teens to achieve that effect. The man was like a polished marionette of rectangles. Rhomboid skull with hair trimmed low, boxy torso adorned with a cheap shirt and blue silk tie, thick arms, short legs covered in gray fabric, brown shoes the size of bread loaves. If he’d opened his desk drawer and pulled out a pound of crisp bacon to snack on during our session, I wouldn’t have blinked. He was a perfect soul, healthy enough to burn through pig fat and come out glowing only brighter. His voice was dry, confident.

“Well, tell me why you’re here.”

I tried to smile back at him and his pragmatic tone.

“Uh, because … I feel pretty angry, I guess.”

“Angry? About what?”

“The, uh, the way things are at home for me right now aren’t, I mean, she isn’t —”

“At home? Not at work?” he cut in.

He was a stone, a granite linebacker of well-paid resolve.

“Work’s not too great either. No,” I said.

“Why’s that, Simon?”

“It’s pretty boring. Not too boring on most days, but I get —”

“You seem upset.”

My fucking eyes had started to water. I took a tissue from a pink cardboard box on the black coffee table between us. It was hard to talk. This man was a stranger doing his job. People are so fucking good at what they do these days. He let the pause grow until I calmed down. It was humiliating for a moment, but I felt more relaxed when he’d shut up for a few seconds.

“A second ago, you mentioned something about a ‘she’ at home who isn’t — isn’t what? But your boss is a woman, too, right? Is it both women, your wife and your boss, that you’re having trouble with?”

“Yes, both. But no, I just got promoted, and it’s really my wife who is … we’re not getting along, I guess.”

“And your boss being a woman isn’t a problem?”

“No. I mean, I never really thought so. Not because of being a woman.”

“Okay. Well, you said you feel angry and that may be. But anger’s not my specialty. And I don’t think anger is really the issue, although I could be wrong, since we just met …”

He uncrossed his legs and looked me in the eye.

“I do more life coaching than this sort of thing. I’m happy to talk to you, but I think you’ll really benefit much more and get your money’s worth from someone who specializes in domestic issues and couples counseling. You just got a promotion, and you have a new child on the way. You’re dealing with a lot. I know some people who can help with this sort of thing exactly. Does that sound okay?”

I nodded.

“It’s okay. Lord knows marriage can be frustrating,” he said, and grinned.

The table would’ve made a satisfying crunch if brought down hard atop his beautiful head.

“I’m going to call two people and see what they say, all right? When one of them has time — it shouldn’t take more than two or three days — their office will call to set up an appointment. Okay. Good enough?”

Open-shut. It was over. We stood up, shook hands, and I wandered over to a window counter that was built into a small office door. The woman sitting behind it gave me papers to sign. I handed over my insurance card for her to photocopy. She was slim, her short blond hair swept in varying directions and held in place with pleasant-smelling gel or spray. Her large breasts were nicely accentuated but not flaunted in a well-cut, light blue business suit. She gave me my card, a copy of the bill, and a pamphlet entitled “Your Benefits and How to Get the Most Out of Them.” Her manner was very deferential and friendly. “Have a good day.”

I left, crossed the empty parking lot, and dropped the tissue on the asphalt as I got into my Acura. The whole session had taken less than 20 minutes. I knew I’d never call back this other counselor he was going to find for me.

Through a tall thin window, I saw inside as the man walked over and stood by the woman’s counter. They began to talk. A life coach. A box-man you could collapse when necessary and reassemble on short notice. He laughed at something one of them had said.

I was on file now, back there in the cabinet of this office in a newly constructed business park in view of the suburban four-lane highway. Small wonder I had cried a little. In high school you laugh at these bastards all day for several years, and sleep well at night. You never dream — how could you even imagine? — that one day you’ll be facing empty moments like this, speaking to efficient and beautiful people, reaching out only to wind up clutching a snotty tissue. It had been my first time seeing any kind of shrink. I’d imagined scenes from Woody Allen movies, when the doctor tells you that you’re not really all that ticked off or suicidal, pal, you just need some relaxing sex and a nap.

Inside the building I saw the man turn around and he lost his great smile when he saw me sitting in my car looking at him. Treatment centers must have strict protocols to deal with folks who don’t leave quickly enough after their tough-love counseling. The man pretended not to care, swiveled back to the woman, and used both hands to adjust the tail of his shirt under the waistband of his gray chinos. If I’d owned a larger, more powerful vehicle and backed up to the far corner of the parking lot, I might have been able to get enough momentum to crush through the side of the office. A midsize truck with a bunch of sand bags in the back would’ve had sufficient mass to smash the outer wall and pin the receptionist inside her closet-sized office.

I never told my wife, Sarah, that I’d gone to see the counselor, and that it hadn’t done the trick. And now that I look back on it, I never told anyone that I felt bound to kill myself one day.

Pete was born two months later.

2.

Sarah was screaming in the delivery room as I stood beside her white and chrome bed and gently nibbled the infected cuticle of my left middle finger. I wasn’t nervous, just disappointed that I had to be there. This was it, the kid had plumped up each month and there I stood, foolishly wondering if I had enough nerve to make a quiet escape from the hospital. Behind my glazed look of calm, I understood with a great amount of disgust that I had waited and watched her belly for too long, too morbidly curious to avoid seeing an event I dreamed she might not survive, while knowing she’d probably be fine.

The usual crowd seemed to be watching me more than her. There was the young OB/GYN stud positioned between Sarah’s raised legs, and my porcine mother-in-law guarding the door, squinting at me like I might ask her for money on my way out. There was also the usual pair of middle-aged female nurses in light blue uniforms bobbing amongst us on their thick legs, rearranging plastic tubes, fetching the doctor whatever he needed, asking us with bored smiles if we were all okay.

The caramel-skinned doctor with white-blond hair approved of Sarah’s progress, despite her writhing and grimacing.

“Good …okay, good … that’s good … looking good,” he said as he stared impassively at her dilated vagina, or at one of the various machines propped around. He seemed to be about as interested as a tollbooth attendant, but with an unfathomably better haircut.

It was near dawn on the last Sunday in October. An early snow was predicted for later that week and people had chatted about it with a bit of surprise, like they’d forgotten that eventually summer does end. But as with every autumn, the leaves, the amount of daylight, and the sports on TV changed. Among the vast net of windows facing the street, our room was low to the horizon, a faint light, I imagined, in that immense medical facility standing high along Division Street in the cold.

My hangover worsened; I’d slipped into having a few too many drinks each night during the months after the counseling. My mind conjured a bizarre nativity scenario as I looked around me. These other people had wandered in after each being called by God to view my new addition to the big show and now they had arrived together right on time; second-floor childbirth center, Sacred Heart of Chicago, sterile dress casual.

I didn’t belong anywhere near the blessed event. But it’s one of those embarrassing appointments you have to keep. Delivery wards long ago flung open their doors to sadistic fetishists — called proud fathers — creating a new breed of men who enjoy filming their wives’ miraculous shrieks. I can’t imagine who ever thought that this behavior should be encouraged. I suppose the footage makes for good online revenge if you get acrimoniously divorced. But even if recording the gore drip by drop for posterity isn’t your thing, once you’re in the room you’re required to stand tall. You’re not afraid of a little pool of your woman’s blood, are you? Besides, even if you are, best not to admit it — you’re stuck in the courtroom of fatherly responsibility under the watchful eyes of paid professionals.

I’d seen and smelled a birth before, but I cracked at a bad moment and my gaffe almost ruined the holy air of our nativity. Sarah went into the final stage of her Lamaze hissing. I was stroking her hand, my face locked in a mien of respect and encouragement, when my daydream about escape simply became much too strong to contain.

When our tan young doctor in his green apron and pus-colored gloves said, “That’s it, c’mon now!” to make Sarah push, I inadvertently muttered my silent mantra, the comforting words I’d kept to myself since her pregnancy announcement back in January.

“Dear Lord, take me now.”

Sarah was too strained to hear me, but the older of the two nurses did, and scowled like I’d just fondled her ass in front of everyone. Embarrassed that I’d really said the phrase this time, I quickly released Sarah’s hand and turned away to pretend my wife’s pains were wounding me, too. The nurse fell for it, stopped frowning, and gave me a quick pat on the arm, causing my bicep to flex at her touch. “Buck up, soldier,” she seemed to say. It was surprisingly hard to resist kicking her in one of those chunky kneecaps.

I was 34, still had my hair, and was pretty ripped for my age. I’d been working out at least four days a week during the interminable months prior to the big day. Exercise took me away from the house and helped make Sarah’s pregnancy less agonizing for me. The absurdity of it was painful. Why was I, a recovering alcoholic, about to breed a second time with a woman who — except while pregnant — couldn’t get by without two fifths of vodka each week?

Sarah and I needed no other evidence that we could create a successful clone. We had Theresa, a healthy and wise two-year-old, and to me there is no sense in why any woman suffers labor more than once. It’s like the joke my big sister told me about meth: you scored 10 points among the cool if you tried it, but you lost 100 if you ever got high that way again. This time, I didn’t understand why I’d given in to something that was bound to fail due to our combined weaknesses, alcohol being the main one. We both worked during usual business hours and fought regularly the few times each week when we voluntarily came face to face. Errands, money, the kid, the cars, her mother, my attitude, her weight — it was nearly all bitching. Sex was that fierce half hour prior to blackout late Friday or Saturday night. We’d conceived when we were loaded, like most people do, and it seemed cruel to Theresa to have another kid. How many thousand miracles a day can one world stand, anyway? It seems impossible that enough sustenance exists here to feed each being that sifts its way through the heavens to suffer a lifetime on our planet.

At least during her second pregnancy we knew better what to expect from one another and had fewer tantrums. We agreed that he should be called Peter. We shopped peacefully six times to restock the baby’s room with boys’ things instead of girls’. Before these errands, I cleared the room of its clutter. In three trips out went a short stack of magazine and DVD porn, two useless VCRs, a small television, and a toaster oven I’d never managed to repair. The look on Sarah’s face as I tidied up the room showed she was pleased out of all proportion. I would’ve cleaned if she’d asked. There was no need to get knocked up again just to get more housework out of me.

Overall, she endured carrying Pete much better than Theresa, and delivered him that cold Sunday morning almost as if birth was the miracle it is in the movies. That is to say: I think even she was aware it was a fine performance. My bad line about death was the only hint that the kid was Sarah’s 11th-hour effort to save the marriage.

The young doctor removed his blood-covered gloves and used a hand dusty with latex powder to slap my shoulder. We were indeed brave men.

“A boy,” he said.

“Yeah, we knew. We’re calling him Pete.”

The doctor nodded as he looked around the room and took a last glance at Sarah’s mangled crotch.

“It’s always a blessing to have a child born on the Sabbath,” said Sarah’s mother.

I stifled a laugh. Katherine Hepburn couldn’t have said that hokey line any better. She was right, though; I was glad not to be in church and had a perfect excuse to miss another sermon.

Sarah held Pete close and looked down, making much different noises for him now. I kept my distance and no one seemed to care. There he was, alive and well, no complications for mother and child, or dad nearby. The dawning light brightened and shone through the window, as if on cue. Thank God I had health insurance.

3.

“Deep breath, Simon, deep breath,” Lin said. “You’re done. You’re dead.”

I took a small breath and it hurt slightly as I exhaled in two little heaves. My arms began to shake. Sitting alone with the gun was as far as I’d planned. My own thing. Both hands jerked involuntarily toward my lap and a few knuckles rapped hard against the desk. The words Jesus and fuck almost came out as my eyes swelled and tears ran in little ribbons over my face.

He looked completely prepared to watch me cry. I guess that’s why he lit up. He had to occupy himself and calm down from the excitement of what he’d just accomplished.

Blood tingled back into my left hand, which was numb and trembling from being twisted so hard. I swallowed to see if his grip on my throat had damaged anything. Lin was right on time. That’s the training, as I would learn, to get in when you only have the chink of time between the gun being raised and the bullet fired. You get in and steal from death. You don’t need words. It’s just timing and action, like a pickpocket. Some might call the act salvation or rescue. It feels wonderful to do. However, without a doubt, when you’ve been pulled, it’s a fairly severe interruption.

I was so sure I’d been alone, prepared. It’s shameful to have a stranger in a very nice coat just walk in, swipe your gun, and park in a chair next to you, like a buddy who left to get a beer and is back to catch the last few minutes of a hockey game. I looked at Lin and used my sleeves and cuffs to absorb the snot and tears on my face.

“Hell of a panorama you’ve got up here,” Lin said, nodding at the window.

“Who do you work for?” I said. “The cops? Or the FBI, what?”

“Am I a secret agent man?” he said, and laughed through his nose. “Can’t say that I am. Can’t say that the FBI would have much interest in someone like you, or me, for that matter. Not with all these jihadi airline pilots chomping at the bit. We’re small potatoes. After all, we are at war, Simon. Even you must know that.

“I am here on behalf of my employer, who feels — ah, who believes that you possess certain remarkable and indispensable talents, and he doesn’t care if you were about to blow them all to hell and gone. He believes that would have been most regrettable.

“Three hundred and fifty thousand base salary, with any additional money you may need, within reason. Off the books entirely. My name is Lin. I’m one of the Corregidor Group’s happiest and busiest worker bees, and I would like to welcome you into the fold.”

I unclenched my fists. As I watched his cigarette smoke in the air, I wondered two things at once: if I had just been dosed with an elephant load of sunshine acid, and if the sprinkler system in my office building was going to go off. My hands flinched together again and Lin just looked at me. This was about as twisted as I had ever felt. It’s no exaggeration to say I was terrified, and felt numb trying to pull my psyche together after letting go of every hopeful thought I had left. I felt naked and grotesque. No matter what kind of drugs I’d partied with at Ferris State, this was my new peak. I was nearly hyperventilating, “with very small breaths very fast,” as I’d told the 911 operator on the day two years ago when my wife took several big Xanax instead of the littles and panicked.

As if demonstrating to a kid, Lin stared me in the eye and inhaled and exhaled several times while keeping his cigarette away from his face. The office ventilation system was quiet and the absence of any sound went deep as I watched Lin breathe. My heart slowed down a couple paces. He held his eyes on mine for another few seconds before he brought his smoke back to his lips.

“Little better?”

I nodded.

“Beautiful,” he said, and snuffed his cigarette into the front side of the desk. It made a dull spark and crinkled against the particle board.

“Here, Simon. You’ll like this.”

He stood up, reached into the pocket of his coat, and put a roll of cash wrapped in a pink rubber band between us on the white desk. It must have been several grand, I guessed, as I looked at it. The sight of the money seemed to steady my breathing some more. I was not going to be arrested. There would be no newspaper story about some loser caught with a gun at work. And I was being given a gift of cash. It made no sense, but the scene was real. The gun and the money were lying close to each other on the desk, as if one had fallen asleep and the other had rolled into play.

Lin was waiting for me to pick up this new gift, so I did, feeling the thickness of the roll before I plunked it back down on the table.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

I wasn’t about to thank him. He might have looked like James Bond that day, but I could make no sense of what was going on. It couldn’t be real. I figured I was busted, somehow, for something. My conscience warned that he was just baiting me while a dozen SWAT team goons crouched in the hallway, and two orderlies stood by with a syringe of liquid Trazodone and a gurney with thick Velcro straps. The cash was a nice surprise, but considering what had just happened, I didn’t care about it much.

You should, I could hear Lin say. The dead wish they could go and play.

“What?” I said and looked at him.

He took the gun off the desk, reached out, and held the black hole of the barrel an inch from my left eye. I held my breath.

Put your ear to these shells and what would you hear, Simon?

Before I could speak again, Lin turned the gun away, reached over it with his other hand, and I heard a muffled noise like an enormous steel stapler biting through cardboard. An unspent brass round capped with lead jiggered from the chamber of the gun and landed in the khaki folds of my lap. The bullet had an eerie brilliance. As I stared at it, the words I thought I could hear coming from Lin echoed in fragments — “What would you hear, Simon? Deep breath.” Dizziness returned, I smelled smoke, and my throat closed. This had almost happened. My death, or more accurately, my near-death had been untwined, pulled back as if on a fiery string across time. I had an image of a life, a wraith condensed, that this was somehow more than just one bullet from a box on a shelf in a hardware store.

Lin interrupted the feeling by ratcheting the action of the pistol again to double-check that it was empty, then ejected and slipped the magazine into his pocket.

Looking at the round he had ejected from the gun, I reached two fingers toward my lap. Raising it up, I rolled the bullet between my thumb and forefinger. If I’d been alone, I would’ve given in to the urge to tap it against my front teeth or my temple. I’d done so before at home and sitting in my car. Instead, I stowed it in my front breast pocket.

“Ah, cheer up, gloomy Gus,” Lin said. “Lord, you’re awfully depressed for a suicidal. And I’ve seen my share.

“That’s a funny, Simon. A joke. Things are going to get good again. You don’t have to come back to this job.”

“What do you mean?”

“C’mon, c’mon — keep up. How can you go back to your wife and kids and this dear old job? You killed yourself. That little nugget is your souvenir. Emotionally, psychically, whatever you want to call it, you’re the same as dead, just without the complete loss of life. And, by the way, not to beat a dead horse, but you’re welcome.”

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