The old man tried to remember how long he had been running through the routine. Every day, up at six, a breakfast of a slice of toast, a glass of milk, and a bowl of “Fruity-Qs” cereal. Then, a leisurely glance through the daily newspaper, which took until 7:30, then a walk. His constitutional took 45 minutes, no longer, and then he went home. Feed the cat. Then, a shave and a bath, never a shower. By nine in the morning the old man was clean, dressed, and ready for the day. But he no longer had anything to do.
He tried to remember when he first moved to Portland. He hadn’t been born in the city, or in Oregon. He knew he was 88 years old and in as good shape as an 88-year-old man can be. He hadn’t seen a doctor in 30 years, but he knew his body. He took his walk, breathed deeply, did exercises later in the day, never smoked, rarely drank alcohol, and kept active, even when he had nothing to do. But recently, his memory had begun to slip. Many elements of his life had drifted away, and the old man found himself drifting with them. The routine, for instance. It was part of his life, but it hadn’t always been so. His life in Portland, another example. People said fine things about the Northwest city, and he had moved there. When? The 1980s? ’70s? Earlier? He couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else than his modest ranch home in the Southeast quarter of town, yet he knew he had. He couldn’t imagine ever doing anything other than his daily routine, yet, again, he knew he had. But the dates, the particulars, which had once been his strong suit, were no longer there for him. It distressed him.
He remembered when he first held a gun, an ancient Colt .45 revolved that his father kept in his dresser drawer. His father’s creed was “They can’t take you away if they’re dead,” which the old man remembered in a different language, not English. His father let him handle the gun, and the old man recalled its oily feel, its menacing black barrel, its deadly chamber, clicking off the rounds in a man’s life. His father had said both and his sister (her name … Marguerite? Maria?) would have to learn how to shoot, so “they” couldn’t take them away like “they” took their mother. The old man had no recollection of his mother, and only the barest glimmer of his sister. Marguerite (Maria?) was long dead, killed by reactionary police troops for harboring political dissidents. No, that wasn’t it. She was killed by rebels for being part of the “bourgeois elite.” No, she was raped by her husband and left for dead on the side of the road, and died crawling to the nearest inn …
The old man sat on his porch from nine in the morning until noon, wrestling with memory and watching the world pass him by. And every day, he would tick off the fact he knew about himself: his age, his name (Joseph Peregrini, of that there was no doubt), his birthday (14 November 1908), his financial status (which was very secure, if the monthly statements he received from a man in New York were to be believed), and his location. Everything else was subject to questioning. And every morning, shine or rain, Joseph would think, putting together the pieces of his past and then scattering them again. Nothing ever made perfect sense.
At noon, Joseph would go inside, pour himself a glass of water, and slice pieces of bread from whatever loaf happened to be in the pantry. He bought his bread at the Grand Central Baking Co., and always tried to get something different. He toasted one slice of bread, put a piece of ham and a piece of smoked gouda on the other, then spread jam on the toast – he preferred marionberry but didn’t always use it – and ate his simple lunch. After lunch, Joseph went for his second walk of the day. This one usually took him up toward Hawthorne, which was the busiest street in the area. He liked to watch the swirl of humanity along the road, an eclectic bunch of artists, yuppies, kids, and trend-seekers. Whenever he walked along Hawthorne, he always strained for more memories. The one on this day surprised him: A rifle scope; looking through it; sighting a target; checking for win; the target at least 100 meters away; a head in crosshairs; squeeze the trigger gently, like he’s been taught, like touching a woman; the kick in his padded shoulder; the head exploding. The memory threw him. He clutched his head in his hands, massaging his temples.
“You okay?” a voice to his left said. Without thinking, he whirled, striking out with his hand at a young woman standing a few feet away. His right hand came up quickly, leveled at her, thumb perpendicular, index and middle finger extended, a handgun pose. Her eyes gazed fearfully at him.
He was shaking as his eyes focused on his Samaritan. She was young, with jet-black hair, obviously dyed, and large green eyes. She was a slight woman, wearing a large clunky sweater, a straight black skirt, and ragged boots. Still shaking, he withdrew his hand and stammered an apology.
“Jeez, I thought you were going to kill me,” she said, running her right hand through her hair. “Someone take a shot at you once, and now you’re on guard? Is that it?” Joseph watched her, puzzled. Usually people who met him quickly found a way to extricate themselves from his company. This woman was hovering like a curious bird.
He muttered something, in the hope that she would think him a loon and go away. She didn’t budge. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“Who are you?” he said, exasperated. “I am fine, isn’t that all you want to know? To soothe your conscience? The old man is fine, I can get on with my life?”
She held up her hands, surrender-like. “You looked like you needed some help. Some people might thank me. But if you’re fine, you’re fine. Whatever.”
She stepped past him, and in that moment, Joseph decided to change his routine. He reached out.
“I … apologize,” he said slowly. “You’re correct. Absolutely. I am a cantankerous old man, and you should get away from me as soon as possible. But I do thank you. I did need assistance.”
She looked at quizzically. Joseph was rarely uncomfortable in the presence of others, but the way the woman scrutinized him made perspiration break out along his scalp.
“You’re okay,” she said finally, and he couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question. “You don’t need me here.” Again, he couldn’t tell.
He thought about it only briefly. “There’s a small café not far from here,” he said. “I would like to buy you a cup of coffee, in gratitude.”
“That’s not necessary –”
And the routine was forever shattered.
Two months later, they were still meeting for coffee. The girl’s name was Morrigu. She told him her parents were good hippies and they named her after an Irish goddess. Unfortunately, she said, it was the Irish goddess of battle. Morrigu was a Portland native and liked to talk, while Joseph liked to listen. It was an unlikely friendship, but a good one. She would tell him about growing up in the Northwest. He told her very little, because he remembered so little. When he did tell her something, it was short, cursory, and occasionally invented. Joseph discovered, as he spoke to his new friend, that he had an aptitude for falsehood. He wondered about how good he was at spinning a tale out of nothing, adding crucial details to make a lie real, and what exactly he had done in his past. Traveled. Met important people. He knew that. A writer? Then what his vision the day he met Morrigu? Why was an assassination in his memory bank?
For her part, she was curious about her new friend. She enjoyed talking to him; he was a diversion from a life bogged down in graduate school, long hours at the Safeway, a boyfriend who thought sex in a Toyota hatchback was the end-all of human existence.
Joseph tried to understand her relationship. “Leave him,” he said when she told him about Douglas. He was a book critic for a local paper, and moonlighted at an art gallery downtown. In his head, he had written five novels. All that had come out on paper were tedious short stories and unsentimental, cruel poetry. When they started dating, a year ago, she had been impressed with his conversational skills and his potential. Now, she wasn’t sure why she was still with him.
“I know, I should. But … it’s like inertia. You build a little piece of something with someone, and it’s hard to break loose. It’s bound to get messy. Bloodshed, that sort of thing. Or maybe he doesn’t even care if I leave and never see him again. You see, Joseph, how fucked up I am? I psycho-analyzing Douglas, myself, you, anyone I’ve ever met, just to decide whether I should get out of this thing.”
“You don’t need to use coarse language.”
She laughed. “Always with the etiquette. Were you ever married, Joseph?”
He had thought about this often, and had come up with a response. “Yes. For a brief time.”
She asked what happened, and he told her about Claudette, who had eerie red hair, china-blue eyes, a long, lithe figure, and a heart full of love. She was a French beauty from Toulouse, whom Joseph met in 1927 while on a trip through the Languedoc. He courted her, married her, but lost her to influenza three years later. It had crushed him. As Joseph told her the story and watched her eyes sadden, he suddenly thought of the real Claudette, a waitress in Paris with whom he had a torrid, brief affair in the 1950s, before she left him for a taxi driver. An image flashed across his mind. The taxi driver, Henri by name, lying in a pool of blood, Claudette’s head next to his, separated from her body, which was in the Seine, a man (him?) standing over the driver, lips curled in a grisly sneer. “Claudette sends her love,” the man said, before putting a final bullet between Henri’s eyes. Joseph finished his fabricated tale with a tear on his cheek. It wasn’t for his dead illusory wife.
Morrigu didn’t speak after he finished his story. He knew why. In her mind, this is what happened to people. They met, fell madly in love, and then death claimed one of them, so the other could idealize the relationship and never admit there were flaws. Joseph didn’t know if he had loved Claudette. Suddenly he knew he had killed her new lover. It was that simple.
That night, Joseph thought again about his revelation that day in the café. Who was he? Why had he killed the man? He felt a rifle in his hands, a scope ringing his eye, a well-oiled barrel, a hard stock, a soft trigger. His father, a stout, short man, making him practice every day in the woods behind their house, shooting small forest animals and leaves off trees. Then, on to larger animals. Then …
Joseph remembered the Great War, but only in flashes. He was young; his father went off to the front and left his son and daughter with their grandparents. His grandfather, an angry old man (like himself, now?) who had fought in wars fifty years before, when wars were “for honor and country,” not like the current one, which was fought to destroy culture and raise up the international Jewish conspiracy. Joseph knew now that his grandfather was just a bitter old racist, but then, he listened intently to his grandfather’s tirades, convinced the old man was speaking the gospel truth. His grandfather told him of battles against the Prussians in Moravia, and against the French in Lorraine, and against the Turks in Wallachia. Wherever there was a fight, there was his grandfather. But always he returned to his homeland in Austria, convinced the Empire would last forever. Joseph remembered his father’s return when the war was over and the Empire was no more, and the years of living through one depression after another. And he remembered the first time he killed a man.
What was it about Morrigu that made him remember? Was it the necessity of lying, which he had to do in order to keep from her the fact that he had killed? In the years since he moved to Portland, Joseph had no need to lie because he had no interaction with others. And now that he had a friend, he was lying to her. He loathed the irony.
And Morrigu was his friend, despite the difference in their ages. She was invigorating without being cloying. Joseph felt his heart flutter in his chest whenever he was with her. One night, not long after he told her the lie about Claudette, he woke up with sweat stinging his eyes. He had dreamt about Morrigu. He was in love with her.
Joseph knew she would never know, because he would never tell her. But the knowledge of his love comforted him. It kept him strong and vital, kept him going out and seeing Portland in a different way. Just south of Hawthorne, the houses of Ladd’s Addition crouched like stuffy aristocrats on a cricket pitch, while their streets crisscrossed each other in a delicate diamond pattern. Further north in the city, the cool summer breezes floated gently through the Grotto, a Catholic retreat and church which Joseph visited for the first time with Morrigu, when she suggested they make a little trip to visit the real Portland. Walking through the serene gardens tended by small Catholic nuns, Joseph was tempted to declare himself. It would be a storybook moment, save for the fact that Morrigu would be repulsed and mock him. Not to his face, because she was a kind person, but later, as he imagined it, lying naked with her repugnant lover, she would laugh into his skinny hairless chest and the tears of scorn would flow freely, and they would share a giggle at his expense before rutting again. He clenched his fist like a vulture’s claw and kept silent. She was his friend, and would remain so. He neither wanted her pity nor her love. He just wanted to be near her.
But his memories continued to plague him. Once, soon after their trip to the Grotto, Morrigu suggested a walk through downtown. It was late September, and the weather was just getting chilly. Morrigu had just started school, and was excited about finishing her master’s degree, but she didn’t have a lot of free time because of her thesis, so she couldn’t always make it out to the café. Joseph boarded the bus to head across the bridge to the city, and had some time to think. Since his vision, the day he met Morrigu, he had been cautiously probing his memory, never trusting what he might find. But when he came up the truth, like his memory of Claudette and Henri, or of his father and grandfather, he felt relieved and joyful, like a blond man regaining his sight. Then, the meaning of the memory would hit him, and he would feel shameful. He had killed a man in a lustful fury. He had killed many men. Why? What had his father taught him? What had his grandfather taught him? Where had his money come from? Why could he remember many different places, climates, cities, people? On the bus, he sat heavily and closed his eyes. Blood pounded in his head as he searched backward in time.
Suddenly, the memories came. He remembered Palestine, 1937. A crudely made rifle, an ambush in the street, a dead Arab agitator, a payment from the Irgun. He remembered the Second World War in London, dodging Nazi bombs while looking for targets. Paris in 1955, and the mysterious death of an Algerian writer clamoring for independence. India in 1948, during the turmoil of the transition from British rule, a knife in the gut of a Hindu terrorist. Cuba in 1959, in a botched attempt on Castro’s life. Guatemala in 1953, killing a leftist extremist and his wife. Assassination after assassination. The thoughts came back to him; the words: assassin, hitman, soldier, mercenary, killer, murderer.
Joseph snapped his eyes open as the bus rattled over the Hawthorne Bridge. His hands were shaking. Somehow he had suppressed his memories, but that was no longer possible. He could not deny what he had been. It had always been just a job, something he was good at, better than most in the world, and he had never felt the worse for killing anyone. But for some reason, he had put it back into his unconscious mind, and substituted for his life a vague recollection of the past. His friendship with Morrigu brought it all back. He didn’t know why.
He got off the bus and walked down to the Portland Building, where he met Morrigu. He looked up at Portlandia, remembering the spectacle when the giant statue arrived in the city to take her place among the landmarks. It was not long after he himself arrived in the Northwest, and not long before he lost most of the memory of his life. He glanced over at his friend, who was watching him stare up. She followed his gaze and mentioned how much she loved the city. They began to walk east, and were silent for a while. Joseph was still shaken by his revelations about himself, about how it changed everything. For years he had lived by a routine, and now, it was over. He was too old for change, but it was being thrust upon him.
They sat at a table at the World Trade Center and talked.
“Douglas is …” Morrigu started to say when Joseph asked her how her lover was. “I wish you wouldn’t refer to him that way.”
“I have no time for niceties, my dear. You know that.”
She blinked back tears; Joseph resisted the urge to stroke her hand. “You know, Joseph, you know how it is. Life’s too short, I know. You feel … alive … you feel, God, I don’t even know how to express it. You’re old enough to have been in World War Two, right? Were you there? Did you fight?”
“No. Not everyone in the world did. I was in England, true, but I did not fight.”
She seemed disappointed. “I was hoping you would know what it felt like, knowing people were trying to kill you even though they didn’t know you. And killing right back. Life and death. Important shit.” She looked up, abashed. “Sorry. ‘Stuff,’ not ‘shit.’ I mean, here I am, stuck with an asshole boyfriend, and I know I should dump him, but it’s all so … complicated. He’s an ass, but sometimes, he makes me feel alive, like I should always feel, and I was just wondering if there’s something I’m missing.” She looked at him, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t be dumping on you, for God’s sake. You’ve been through it all. I should have girlfriends to do this with. But … you’re you. Understand?”
“I can’t help you, my dear. You know that. I can offer support, understanding, rationale; I can’t make your decisions for you. If there are more important things in this world than being in love and feeling, even for a little while, that you are the center of the universe, then I don’t know it.”
“But death. Death on the battlefield. Death in someone’s eyes. I’m a pacifist, but there’s something about death. Something that makes you feel alive in the middle of it. Isn’t there?”
Joseph cast his newly re-acquired memory back to his first kill, in 1927. He was running with a gang of boys in Munich, and they had been paid to kill a man by a local politician who later went on to become chancellor of Germany. At that point, Joseph didn’t know or care who Hitler was, even after his recent notoriety; he offered money for a job his party didn’t want to do. Joseph remembered the group of them, six in all, taking turns kicking the man, spitting on him, breaking bones and skin, then dragging him to the river, putting rocks in his pockets, and dumping him. He recalled the feeling of it. He felt absolutely nothing.
He told her a lie about seeing someone die, someone close to him. His sister. (Why couldn’t he, even now, remember her name?) His sister, who was killed by policemen of the regime led by the man who paid Joseph to commit his first murder. There was nothing exhilarating about it, he said. There was only death, and then, nothing. He felt less alive than he had ever felt.
Morrigu stared like she did when they first met, with her intense gaze that made him uncomfortable. “What kind of past have you led, Joseph? You have seen so much death.”
“The twentieth century has … not been a pleasant time. I have done things that I am ashamed of. Do not be ashamed of your relationship.” She blushed. “Or your desire to end it,” he finished.
“It’s so stupid,” she said. “Here you’re talking about death, real death, and I’m talking about dumping a jerk. Apples and oranges.”
“There is nothing more real than lust. It draws us all in.”
“You know? I think I’m going to do it. Dump him.” She smiled. He never loved her more. “I know you’ve done some not-very-nice things, Joseph. I don’t know what they are, but I know they’re there. Does helping me with my dumb problem make up for it?”
She left before he could answer. Joseph wanted to declare himself even more when he heard her talk. Such a woman was wasted on Douglas. But again, he knew, it would never happen. It was far too late in life.
The man was waiting for Joseph that night. Joseph had long ago renounced those instincts which every good assassin needed — the quick glances backward, the scouring of the safe house before entry — because that was far in the past. In the present he was Joseph Peregrini, a man who despite having recently uncovered his past was totally divorced from who that man had been. Joseph Peregrini had no need to make sure his house was empty before entering. But the man wasn’t there for Joseph Peregrini, the old man who had come to Portland to live out his last years in peace. He was there for someone else.
“Joseph Mantigua,” the man said when Joseph entered his house that night, before he could turn on the light. Joseph felt his guts turn to ice. He was no longer an old man. He was a corpse.
He asked if he could switch the light on, and the voice told him to do so. Joseph felt only a little better as a warm glow flooded the room. The man was standing in the shadows in the corner, a perfect position to cover him. Joseph could not see his face. He sat heavily on his sofa. There were no weapons in the house.
The man stepped forward, and Joseph wasn’t surprised to see that he was at least 60 years old. Joseph hadn’t killed anyone in over thirty years. He had hurt no one young. They would let him live, he believed, if they knew.
Joseph invited his guest to sit down, and the man chose a straight-backed wooden chair across from his quarry. He held an ugly-looking gun, one that Joseph would never have used. A Magnum, he thought, inelegant and brutal. This man cared only about causing his prey as much pain as possible before he died. A bullet or two in the stomach, probably. Joseph would bleed to death in agony. The man’s eyes told him he was capable of such cruelty.
Mantigua. A name he hadn’t used all that often in his years of false identities. He had better ones, and the fact that this man knew it told him only a little. Paris in the 1950s. He rarely killed anyone there, or in France, during that time, because he considered it his home turf. Perhaps this wasn’t what it seemed. Perhaps it had nothing to do with his profession. Joseph didn’t allow himself to hope.
The man gazed for a long time at his quarry. Finally, he said, “You don’t look like the picture in my mind. You look almost human.”
Joseph sighed; he was too old for melodrama. “I don’t want to know who you are. I don’t care. I did what I did; I live with my sins. Just kill me.”
“Maybe I kill your girlfriend too?”
That brought a rise to Joseph, but only briefly; he could tell the man was lying. “Don’t talk without meaning. Pull the trigger, if it will make you feel better.”
“Maybe I tell her who you are?”
“She knows who I am. As much as you do.”
Joseph gave his adversary no satisfaction, and his death was quick. He thought of Morrigu, believed that she was ridding herself of her boyfriend at that very moment, and the bullet didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would.
[I’m fascinated by the idea of “bad guys” getting away with it and growing old – what would their lives be like? This is my weird attempt to write that, but I decided to present Joseph as someone who doesn’t look like a “bad guy” when we first meet him, and came upon the memory loss thing, which is an odd fit. It doesn’t really work, because I didn’t want to commit to Joseph having Alzheimer’s or anything like that, because I didn’t know enough about that. So that’s what’s going on here, to a degree. This is also part of my theme of people having intense feelings for someone else without sex being involved, because, as you know, I think sex is too prevalent in fiction and I try to do some different things (it’s not that I don’t want sex in fiction, I just think it’s used poorly). We saw it with Hulce, the cop, and Amy, the rape victim, and we see it here, although it’s more one-sided. There are a couple other examples in upcoming stories, too. That’s just the way it is, people! This story, you might have noticed, is pegged to 1996 – Joseph was born in 1908 and is 88 years old. This was before Warren Ellis came up with his idea of “century babies,” but I was fascinated by someone being able to interact with most of the major events of the 20th century, even if Joseph is a little young for World War One. I like Morrigu, too – she’ll be back. Will she still be dating her douchebag boyfriend (who, to be fair, doesn’t get a voice in this story, so maybe Morrigu is the douchebag?)? You’ll have to tune in to find out!]