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CONVERGENCE


by

Ryan Miller



Things happen that you don't understand.  And unless they touch you in some individual way, have an impact on your existence, they remain little more than casual, momentary disturbances, isolated fragments without connection, without meaning within the context of the world in which you live. 

More often than not you read about them in the newspaper, see them on the evening news.  These incidents become something to mention to your wife at the dinner table.

Two silvery jetliners collide and fall out of the sky into the shimmering blue sea; hundreds die.

You think, "How could this happen with today's technology?" then you change channels until you come upon the intelligent new sitcom on Fox.

News of terrorists hijacking a busload of German tourists in a dusty white city on the coast of North Africa comes to you via the internet.  You read with incomprehension the demands that the terrorists make.  Religion and politics intertwine.  Governments around the world stand fast in a multilateral refusal to give in to extortion.  You watch a small, jumpy video image in poor resolution, a live feed; you see the bus set ablaze with the Germans still inside.  Anyone attempting to escape is greeted with an angry fusillade from an automatic weapon.

You say out loud, "My God, what are they doing?"  But these events do not concern you, hold no real importance for you.  Then you double-click on a brightly colored link to a web page that someone you do not know has e-mailed to you.  You are led to the home page of a pornographic site that specializes in images that have been taken into Photoshop and manipulated.  The participants appear to be well-known actors, celebrities, elected officials.  Rubrics guide you to other pages with names like Political Acts, Animal Farm, and Children of the Rich and Famous.

On the way to work one morning, ensnared in motionless traffic, you hear on the public radio station a report about an explosion at a sprawling garbage dump near Mexico City.  Half a dozen are killed, a score badly burned. 

You ask yourself, "Why were those people living there?"  You change stations and listen as a pair of morning DJ's belittle a young woman who has called in hoping to win a pair of tickets to a rock concert that will be held in a sports arena named after a biotechnology firm.

These events are remote, occurring outside the visible spectrum of your narrow existence and often taking place at a great distance from where you live.  You learn about them one way or another, then attempt to reforge a link to the things with which you are familiar, to get back to what you know and understand.  You glimpse only snippets of this other, alien world and a small voice inside you says, "This will never happen to me."  You are comforted by this voice, but not convinced.   

There are times, however, when something occurs on a personal level, an event, though small, which is equally incomprehensible, apparently random, and often not without tragic consequences.  Something incoherent converges with your life and you try to bring it into focus, to make it part of the world you recognize.

My wife, my beautiful wife, frequently had to work late. 

Beth was the love of my life.  I knew the instant I first saw her.

Translucent blue-gray eyes, fair-haired.  A rounded face with high cheekbones and a smooth, summery complexion.  Small-breasted and long-limbed.  She was quiet with a radiant smile.  A joyous laugh made her appear far more outgoing than her initial, almost somber, reserve led people to believe.  I fell in love with her on a bright, blue day in May with massive cottony thunderheads swelling in the southern sky.

Following graduate school, we married and I believed then, as now, that I had married for life.  I have always been old-fashioned. 

Her late nights at the office were something to which I had grown accustomed.

"What are you doing?" she asked one evening after I had picked up the phone.

"Not much," I said.  "Just fooling around on the internet."  I had been reading a news article about a ship with 200 children on it.  The children had been sold into slavery.  The ship was seeking to find a port that would allow it to dock.

As we talked, I continued to navigate from one site to another. I knew this was a bad habit, an annoying habit.  I made an effort to shove the mouse aside, to concentrate on our conversation, to give her my undivided attention.

"Don't tell me," I said.  "How late?"

"Who knows?"

I offered to make her dinner.  "You can heat it up when you get home."

"Don't bother," she said.  "We've already ordered something."

Right before she hung up she said, "No need to wait up." 

Into the dull hum of the handset I said, "Goodbye."

She was busy, distracted -- a hundred things to do -- I understood.   

I placed the phone back on its cradle, then checked the e-mails one last time before preparing my solitary dinner and that's when I discovered it.

There was an e-mail from someone whose name I did not recognize.  The space under "Subject" had been left blank.  I opened it and saw that it was addressed to my wife. 

I read it.

It was signed by someone named James Hudson, a name that meant nothing to me.  He had sent it, I assumed, from where he was employed; his return address was in care of Unibanc.com.  It was addressed to my wife at work, but, as were all e-mails that were sent to her there, it had also been forwarded here, to our home computer. 

I read it again.  It wasn't very long.

It was a love letter, carefully written, not too effusive.  I guessed that James was a bit wary to expose too much of himself as he sat at his glowing monitor at the bank, sat behind his cluttered desk in his darkened cubby after everyone had left at the end of a long day.  I imagined him alone but still a little fearful that someone might come up from behind and catch him.

I read it a third time, making sure I understood what was being said.  I could make sense of the words as individual units of meaning, but I was unable to grasp their significance within a larger scheme. 

My breathing was altered.  My heart thudding violently, my viscera hollow, my limbs weak.  I lost my appetite. 

I said, aloud, to no one, "My wife is having an affair," and still I could not believe it.

•

At breakfast the next morning I said to her, "Did you see this about the ferry capsizing in a storm in the Philippines?"  I showed her the newspaper.  "Look, there's a picture." 

She glanced with interest at the grainy photograph and asked me to pass her the raspberry jam.  

"Defective life jackets," she said. 

"Seventy-two people still missing..." 

"Safety inspectors taking bribes..."

I wanted to ask, "What time did you get in last night?" but I didn't.  I already knew the answer and I was afraid that she might lie.

"Would you like some more coffee?"  I asked.  She nodded and she did not look at me.  She continued reading an article in the business section on hoof and mouth disease that had attracted her attention.

I wanted to ask, "Are you having an affair?" but I wasn't sure that I wanted to know the answer.

•

A word from James next arrived several days later. 

If my wife found the e-mails first on her computer at work, and moved them out of the inbox into a different folder, they wouldn't show up on the machine at home.  I had left my office early one day and had opened this one before she had been able to get to it.

James was proposing that they meet for a cozy dinner that night at a quiet restaurant in the Quarter, a spot where she and I had sometimes gone. 

"Let me guess," I said to her when she phoned.  We often communicated with an abbreviated grammar, our conversations stripped down to a code which contained meanings beyond the simple words spoken.  Our gestures, intonations, and facial expressions were rife with signification.

She sighed.  "I'll be so glad when we're through with this presentation." 

My wife attempted to manufacture demand; advertising.

She said, "I shouldn't be too late."

"Who's the client?"

"It's this new account we're trying to get," she said.  "Unibanc."

"Of course," I said.  "I think I've heard of them.  Seen something on the internet."

"Really?"  A puzzled note to her voice.

"They're only now beginning their penetration into the New Orleans market."

She recovered herself and said, "It's a major bank.  Global.  They're very big."

"But small enough to listen," I said.

Beth said nothing.

"Branches all over town."  I spoke in an different voice, one deep in the sonorous tones of sincerity.  It was a voice that said I cared.  "Branches all over the world."  I paused for emphasis, then said portentously, "Unibanc."

Silence. 

"Beth?"

"I was just thinking about what you said."  She hesitated.  "That's not bad."

"Feel free."

•

I toiled as an engineer.  I performed manifold and complex structural calculations to establish the depth of beams, the size and spacing of columns, the thickness of walls.  The determinations that I made decide whether a building stands up or falls down.  It was important work, significant work with an impact on public safety.  It was unceasingly repetitive and unendurably dull.

•

Over the next several days, I tracked the one-sided electronic correspondence.   Because of the increasingly hectic pace that Beth was forced to follow, e-mails were ending up on the machine at home.  Conferences in and out of the office kept her away from her desk.  More and more she was compelled to stay late. 

Their relationship burgeoned.  Dinners were scheduled; assignations arranged.  James gave the names of restaurants and motor hotels, addresses.  He spoke wistfully about the two of them moving to Los Angeles.

My wife's agency, Barnard & Cicero, was a small, aggressive firm that took pride in their novel creative efforts, their edginess, their willingness to think outside the box.  They won the Unibanc account with a campaign proposal that was relentlessly conservative.

•

There was no surcease.  Immediately Beth began to prepare for the first commercial.  Her late nights at the agency continued. 

"I might have to go to L.A. for a few days," she said.  "With the clients."

"Really," I said.  "Unibanc?"                 

She explained to me that they were considering the possibility of doing an animated spot.  The animation studio was in Los Angeles.

"You know when?"

"Couple of weeks."

I began to plot.

I have read somewhere that all plots lead toward murder.

•

In the evenings while Beth labored, I went to libraries to do my research -- never the same branch twice -- using their computers to go online.  "Fake I.D." got the ball rolling.  From one site I found a place to order template software to create a Mississippi driver's license.  I chose the name of Homer Horace Weed, having come across this name in the Pascagoula telephone directory at the library.  From a different site I was able to obtain a Social Security card in that name. 

I always paid in cash with worn one-dollar bills.  I bought my postage stamps from a vending machine near the front door of an old hardware store on tree-lined Magazine where I often went to purchase twine and tape and nails.  Letters were posted in dark blue mail boxes on the street, never the ones at the post office. 

I did not use the telephone, nor did I use my own computer for these searches.  Everything was mailed in Weed's name to a vacant apartment in a building that I knew about.

I went to a used clothing store on Dryades.  I browsed, walking happily through the poorly lit store, breathing in the rich aroma, an overpowering blend of sweat and mildew and tobacco smoke.  I selected carefully.  I bought H. H. a pair of dark slacks in a sensible medium weight fabric, a flannel shirt in subdued hues, shoes, a short khaki jacket with an elastic waistband and a well-used wallet.  This last item had old business cards and photos still in it, as well as tiny scraps of folded paper with illegible writing on them.  A trench coat caught my eye.  Near the register a rotating display stand with hats on it.  A soiled red mesh cap that had the words "Wayne Feeds" embroidered on a rectangular patch sewn to the front of it stood out.

I would dispose of all of these things later.

•

The software arrived and after an evening of work I had produced a genuine looking license.  I located a machine that could do plastic laminating at a shopping mall on the West Bank.  I aged the forgery by using sandpaper in a variety of grits, then applying to the plastic a spray adhesive.  I worked the gummy surface with a rubber cement eraser, applied dirt and rubbed some more, arriving finally at a impressive, believable patina.  The Social Security card was dampened and placed inside the wallet that I had bought, then put in the oven at low heat.  The card was remoistened as necessary.  In only a few days it looked terrible, just like my own. 

•

I took advantage of the time that Beth was in Los Angeles.  I suggested that, even though her meetings would be finished on Friday, she should stay over the weekend.

"Relax," I said.  "Enjoy yourself." 

She agreed eagerly. 

I arranged to take a day off on the Wednesday while she was gone.  After sleeping late that morning, I dressed leisurely as H. H. Weed and took the coast road to Pascagoula.  It was a pleasant, sunny trip.  

In Biloxi I stopped for lunch in a glass-walled seafood restaurant that faced the glistening waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  A great many pickup trucks filled the parking lot and a fishing boat was aground in the front yard.  On the walls of the restaurant were framed black and white photographs depicting the ravages of Hurricane Camille. 

After lunch I continued my drive past the resort hotels and casinos and the large, tall old houses built behind deep lawns lined with towering oaks.  In gritty, industrial Pascagoula I pulled into a sparkling white service station for gas and directions.  Across the street at a conveniently located supermarket, I purchased a pair of plastic framed reading glasses with a weak diopter.

Minutes later, I parked in the vast, freshly repaved parking lot at Hyper-Mart.  Several recreational vehicles were camped on the perimeter of the lot.  People sat in plastic chairs underneath roll-up awnings near their motor-homes.  Some played cards, others read, a few napped.  Televisions on plastic milk crates were tuned to informative broadcasts -- talk shows.  Nearby, small children played with a beach ball.  I parked a short distance from them, only about a quarter mile from the front door.  

I ambled across the smooth, black surface, toward the low glass doors at the entry.  Bright white lines, recently repainted, logically delineated the parking spaces.  The warm, humid air was redolent with the tangy aroma of young asphalt.  Upon my arrival the door swung open automatically and I entered the tall-ceilinged store.  The gleaming aisles beckoned and my shopping spree began.        

My cart filled with wonderful things, two polyester fiberfill pillows and snowy white pillowcases, a pair of paperback novels from the literature section, household cleansers, toilet paper, many other useful items. 

The hunting department loomed.  Locked away in a long glass case illuminated with slender flickering fluorescent tubes, I beheld what I had come for.

Handguns. 

They were arrayed in neat, carefully aligned rows with the model loftily exhibited in an open box on the top of its stack.  I inspected the merchandise, my eye drawn to the colorful boxes, the shining steel, and I caught the attention of a salesman.  He wore a black vest with a name badge -- "Hi, my name is Vern" -- several smaller badges and cloisonnι pins. 

While we talked, I cleaned my reading glasses with my handkerchief, breathing vapor onto the lenses for added authenticity.  I fitted the glasses back onto my nose and adjusted them purposefully and again bent down to admire the display of armaments.

I chose a Colt M1991A1.  I held the no-nonsense .45 in my hand, assessed its not unsubstantial weight, discovering how well it fit the hand, noting with approval its craftsmanship.  I pulled the slide back and felt the clean, solid snap as the firing mechanism locked into position.  I clicked the safety off and on, off and on.  I squeezed the trigger and I was thrilled to hear the quick, reassuring sound the action made as the hammer slammed home.  It was well-made, an object of substance.

I showed my driver's license; Vern gave it not a second glance.  I completed a simple form.  For employer I neatly printed "unemployable" and under home telephone I wrote "disconnect."  I proffered my Social Security card. 

"Oh, I don't need that," he said.  "Only the number." 

I paid cash, nothing larger than a twenty.

The pistol was irresistible in its stunning stainless steel finish.  This, I knew, was a waste of money, for I would be using it only once and then tossing it into the brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain.  It came in an attractive box with a picture of the firearm printed on it and with a small star spangled elliptical sticker in one corner which read "Proudly Made in the USA."  The salesman placed the box and the low velocity ammunition that he recommended into a large white reusable plastic shopping bag.

As if as an afterthought, just as I was about to leave, I asked Vern about a silencer.

"Well, now," he said, hesitated.  "You know, a silencer is illegal in the state of Mississippi."  He paused, then went on to say that, of course, he did not carry them.  "But you could pick one up over at Mobile this weekend.  At the gun show." 

He treated my question as if it were usual, ordinary, something that occurred regularly within the scope of his daily routine.  It was as if I had asked him where the men's room was.

"You'll need a threaded barrel, though."

I looked at him.  I knew I appeared confused.

"A threaded barrel," he pointed toward the shopping bag.  He made a motion mimicking screwing something together.  "To accept the silencer."

"Of course," I said.

He went on to explain that he was sure I could get one of those in Mobile as well. 

I smiled, nodded and thanked him.  I appreciated this friendly complicity, an unexpressed but palpable understanding that existed between those who sold guns and those that bought them.

On Saturday in Mobile, I bought an AWC Nexus sound and signature suppressor and a threaded barrel for the Colt from a soft-spoken older gentleman with very good manners who showed me snapshots of his grandchildren.  He demonstrated for me how everything fit together.

•

It was a wet Monday in October, a bank holiday.  Beth had been back from Los Angeles for a few weeks.  Her late nights away from home had become less frequent, but had not altogether disappeared.

At lunchtime I called my wife at her office and was told what I already knew, that she had gone out around eleven, would be gone a few hours.  She had an appointment, the receptionist said.

"Oh?  Okay," I said. 

The rain came down very hard that day and I drove slowly, cautiously, out Highway 61, careful to obey all traffic laws.  I crossed the parish line and drove farther, leaving the old city behind me.  On one side, Airline Highway was a tawdry assortment of topless bars, adult video outlets, and older motels and diners; on the other side, railroad tracks.  A great number of tire stores and shops dedicated to the repair of automobiles served as infill between the establishments focusing on entertainment and hospitality.

I cruised past the motel several times.  It was the same one where the popular and good-looking televangelist with a pompadour had been arrested with the teenage prostitute a few years ago, out near the airport.  I recognized my wife's car, the new black Mustang convertible she had recently purchased.

I parked my own on an adjacent side street and waited.  The rain came down harder still.  I reached into the right pocket of my trench coat.  I ran my fingers along the cool steel of the Colt, felt the long barrel of the silencer.  I pulled it out, once more hefting its weight.  It was significantly heavier with the silencer, but still surprisingly well balanced.  I fiddled with the safety, off and on, off and on.  Off.  I pulled the slide back and let it spring forward and laid the pistol down on the passenger seat, covering it with a section of the Times-Picayune. 

I picked up the front page and began to read a story about an atrocity committed by ethnic Albanian rebels against Macedonian security forces near the border with Kosovo.  The action was a reprisal by the Albanians for an atrocity committed earlier in the week by Macedonian security forces. 

I did not get to read much of the article.

The long slow moving freight approached from the west, about three hundred yards away when I first spotted it.  When it was a little closer, I put the pistol back in my pocket, donned a pair of natty leather gloves, got out of my car and took the two pillows from the trunk, then walked around the corner into the parking lot of the motel.  I held the fluffy pillows in front of my chest, positioning them to hide both the Colt with its long silencer and my hands.  I bent forward a little at the waist, trying to keep the pillows from getting too wet.

I went down the covered walkway until I came to the door across from where the Mustang was parked.  When the train was nearer, louder, I knocked. 

A man's voice said, "Who is it?"

"I'm from the office.  I've got the extra pillows you asked for."

The voice said something I could not understand, then I heard a woman laughing.  The door ground on its hinges as it opened just a bit.  Through the crack the man studied me, then moved away.  With my shoulder I nudged the door open and entered the room.  He was already reseated on the edge of the bed, angled slightly away from me, his head turned toward the television.  He held the remote and was preoccupied with his hunt for something interesting.  With my foot I gently kicked the door shut behind me and entered the room.  The hiss of white noise between channels.

"Just leave them there," he said, waving toward a spot on the still made bed.  He didn't turn to look at me.  He would watch one channel for a short second, then change to another, his attention captivated by the flickering images on the screen.

Outside, as the train approached a crossing, its shrill, wauling horn recalled the verbs of stridency. 

I took a step toward him -- everything moved slowly.  I saw things with extreme clarity.  Objects, as if faintly haloed with vivid, vibrant light, stood out sharply from the background.  I put the pillows down on the bed near where he was sitting and without hesitation I brought the end of the silencer's barrel to his temple in a deft movement and I whispered, "James."  He turned his head reluctantly away from the screen, just a bit toward me, and I calmly squeezed the trigger back.  A sound, pffft, somewhat like a sneeze that someone was trying to suppress.  He slumped and fell back onto the bed.  I glanced at the television, a daytime serialized drama in Spanish.

"What are you watching now?" said a woman's voice, viscous and slurred.  Then she laughed.

She came out of the bathroom, rolling down her sleeve, and stopped in the dressing alcove.  She looked at the inert figure on the bed, then at me; her face betrayed no surprise.

These events took only a fraction of a moment, but they seemed stretched out in time, appearing to extend over a far longer period.  We looked at each other, her full, pretty lips parted, her mouth on the verge of speaking as I pulled the trigger with a compact motion.

On her clean white shirt, between her breasts, I watched grow larger the small red spot.  It was then that I noticed her hair and I thought how odd that the same word should describe two colors so utterly different. 

Slowly she began to fall, as if her body was forgetting how to stand. 

•

That evening I was preparing dinner -- a succulent Atlantic salmon with asparagus and an endive salad with a balsamic vinaigrette and red wine dressing, and this bread I prepare that Beth loved with olive oil and sea salt and herbes de Provence -- listening to NPR, when my wife came home.  I came up from behind her and I gave her a kiss on the neck and a gentle hug as she glanced through her mail that I had laid out on the dining room table.  Without really paying attention, she sorted through the usual bills and requests for charitable contributions and the colorful flyers from the department stores and the wonderful offers of low interest rate credit cards.  She seemed distracted, outside of herself. 

"How was your day?" I asked.    

She made some small inarticulate sound that I did not ask her to clarify.  She laid the mail down.

"Were you listening to the radio when you drove home?"

She nodded.  She stared down at the mail on the table, idly arranging the envelopes into a tidy stack.

"The story about the shooting at the motel on Airline Highway." 

She turned to face me. 

"Jimmy DeVoto," I said.  "The mobster."

"Drug related," my wife said dully, echoing what she had heard from the radio report.  "That's what the police say."

"No sign of a struggle."  I watched her, hoping to determine something and she looked back at me.  We had entered into a process.  She was attempting to communicate something to me in an unspoken, yet unequivocal, fashion. 

"Execution style," she said.  A nuanced eye movement, an arrested gesture made with her mouth.  The very way she spoke.  Her look said she knew. 

A short beat.

"Also in the room was the body of an exotic dancer that Jimmy had been seeing."  She said this in a distant tone, as if repeating something she had memorized but did not understand, like words in an unknown foreign language. 

"She performed at a nearby club."

"Coco Wilde," I said.  "Evidence of drug use..."

"Heroin found in the room..."

"Jimmie was supplying her..."

"In exchange..."

"Those who knew her described her..."

"Natural redhead, always laughing.  A good dancer."  She looked away from me.  She was staring off, glancing over my left shoulder, her brow somewhat wrinkled.  After a short while she turned back to look once more at me.  "She had only met Jimmy recently."

"The police have no leads."

"No witnesses have come forward," she said.  We stared deep into each other's eyes for a long time without saying anything. 

"Dinner's almost ready," I said finally.  "Are you hungry?"

She looked at me once again, smiled ever so slightly, and I saw that she understood something new, something new about me, and about us.  Beth laced her arms around me, behind my back, and gave me a very big hug.  We kissed, greedily, fervently.  She took my hand and led me upstairs.

•

At dinner we talked about events of the day.  I told her about an error our firm had made in some calculations concerning floor-to-floor heights in an office building and the consequent problems for ceiling clearances for mechanical systems.  This was an expensive error that would cost someone his job.

"Everyone makes mistakes," she said to me.

She then began to tell me excitedly about a new account that she would now be working on; Barnard & Cicero had won it from a much larger firm.  An airline account, Avione.

I interrupted her.  "Oh," I said, also excited, "I heard something else on the radio."

She looked at me with an inquisitive gaze.

"Branches all over town..."  I said this in an altered voice, deep and sincere.  We looked at each other and smiled.   

"Branches all over the world..." she filled in ably.

Together we said in happy unison, "Unibanc."

She reached across the table and gave my forearm a firm squeeze, just below the elbow, a familiar and encouraging gesture.  

 

   


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 When Ryan Miller began to write fiction, he wrote spare, lean stories mostly devoid of adjectives and adverbs. He has since come to relish the use of modifiers, often employed ironically, and he tries to have fun with the language. With degrees in philosophy and architecture, he had no academic preparation in fiction writing. In the fall semester after completing architecture school, he took his first course in writing. Another followed the following semester. He has lived in New York, New Orleans, Fort Worth, and has spent a good deal of time in Paris. He lives now in Los Angeles. "Convergence" is the first of his stories to appear in an online journal.

Contact Ryan Miller at :  edithead@mediaone.net



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