He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.
He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.
“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.
“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”
He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”
“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.
He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.
I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”
His reader and test kit are out in a flash.
“Yes, sir. But, sir?”
In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”
“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”
We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.
The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”
“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”
He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”
I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.
“What if he’s a runner?”
I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.
“Sir? I asked…”
“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”
“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”
“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”
I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.
“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.
Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.
“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”
We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.
“Okay, let’s go.”
We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.
That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.
“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”
The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.
“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”
We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.
The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.
The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.
The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.
“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.
They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.
The patron finally approaches.
“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.
“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.
“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”
The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.
“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”
“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.
The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.
When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.
“Musical preference, sir?”
The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.
“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”
“Love Elvis. Any song?”
“How about, Fools Rush In.”
I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.
Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”
I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.
“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.
“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”
The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.
“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.
I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”
“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.
“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”
“Yeah, me too,” he says.
“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”
“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.
The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”
“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”
“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”
“Yeah, a sight to see?”
His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.
“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.
The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.
“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”
And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.
The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”
“Time?” I repeat a little louder.
“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”
“Time?” I scream, staring him down.
We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.
The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”
“Good. Mark it.”
The kid fiddles with some buttons.
“Marked. Announcement sent.”
There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”
Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”
“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”
He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.
“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”
He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”
We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.
“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”
Jonathan Pickering is an emerging writer and teacher from a suburb of Boston. He is the author of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives, a collection of oral histories from the men and women who served in these conflicts. For more from Jon, please visit www.jonathanpickering.com.