The Inner Crab


I had made up my mind. I was going to end it all. By ‘all’ I meant my life, not the universe, although that would have been fine too. Ending the universe would take much more work than I had time for, so I settled on ending myself. I had made a spreadsheet listing all the reasons for living and all the reasons against living, weighting and ranking each entry by importance and relative pleasure or grief. Being alone was at the top of the against pile, and also number seven on the for pile. Losing my girlfriend Beth to a rival was number two on the against pile, even though it happened eight years ago. I had heard through the grapevine, in the years that followed, that she had become a junkie, and then a born-again Christian, and then a vegan. My friends tried to point out that our breakup was for the best, given her changes. While I would have almost certainly broken up with her myself if that had happened while we’d been dating, it wasn’t all that comforting.

Number four on the against pile was my utter failure as an entrepreneur; sure, I had some good clients, and they were number five on the for pile, but I was deep in debt and always a hair away from being broke. Much of the debt was to relatives, which made it worse in my mind. At least with a bank I’d know that the employees weren’t going without because of me. I had researched my life insurance policy to make sure it had been in force long enough to cover self-inflicted death; it had, and it would, which meant my relatives would at least get their money back. I wasn’t sure whether to put this in the for pile or the against pile, and I didn’t feel like making a neutral pile, so I left it off.

Number one on the for pile was my writing, and number two was computer games, but neither of those things could compensate for the loss of most of my friends to marriage or moving, which was number three on the against pile. I just didn’t make friends as easily as I once did – what was the point, I figured, if they were only going to move away or get married someday? On the other hand, there were many fine programs on TV, either new or in syndication, and that was something. On the other other hand, TV just didn’t seem to love me as it once had.

I weighted and scored and added for the better part of a week, and when I was done the tally was 75 points for living and 962 points against. One could probably argue that it wasn’t a very objective list, but I wasn’t really in a mood to be objective. I decided against leaving a note, because that was just too predictable. Besides, what could I say in a note that my spreadsheet didn’t spell out in gruesome, futile, multicolored detail? Spreadsheets, it should be noted, were number twelve in the for pile.

I had never killed myself before, so I was a little unsure of how to accomplish it. Pills seemed like the simplest way, so I went to the grocery store and bought a bottle of sleeping pills and some eggs, because I was out. When I got home, I made myself a cheese and mushroom omelet and contemplated the bottle of blue pills. I’ve never been a good pill-taker, which I probably should have considered before settling on pills as my method. I’d had a friend who could take a handful of pills dry, with no water or juice, but the very thought made me want to gag. I finished my omelet and did the dishes, and then I decided to watch some TV before killing myself. There was nothing on but reruns, and three hours later I felt that I’d been mildly entertained but remained generally dissatisfied, so I figured it was time.

I got a gallon of apple juice from the refrigerator and sat down with a glass at the dining room table. I dumped the pills out of the bottle and divided them into piles of two, which made twenty-five piles in all. Two pills at once was the most I’d ever been able to swallow, and that was an accomplishment by itself. It occurred to me that I had no idea how many pills I’d need to take to complete my task. I briefly considered looking for that information on the internet, but it seemed like cheating somehow, so I dismissed the idea. I’ll just take them all, I decided, and poured myself a large glass of juice.

I put the first two pills on my tongue and began guzzling from the glass. The pills didn’t want to go down, so I kept drinking, trying to slide them toward the back of my throat with my tongue. I finally got them far enough down that I’d either have to swallow them or gag them back up, and my throat decided to cooperate. Down they went, carried by the last mouthful of juice in the glass. I took a minute to breathe, fairly pleased with my achievement, and noticed that there were still twenty-four piles of pills to go.

Thirty-six glasses of juice and water and herbal tea later, I had finished off nearly all of the pills, and I supposed that was probably good enough. Best to leave a few on the table, I figured, so whoever found my moldering corpse would know that my death wasn’t the result of foul play. I changed into my blue pajamas, selected because they complemented the blue pills I’d taken. I kind of liked the thought of color-coordinating my death. I brushed my teeth and peed voluminously, and then crawled between the blankets of my bed. I could feel the sweet oblivion of sleep pulling me down like an anchor in the sea, and I sighed with contentment.

Dreams took me almost immediately, and they seemed to fixate on my anchor in the sea metaphor. I dreamed of waves crashing against the shore, boats being tossed in the sea, dams bursting, rivers flooding, and the time I wet my bed when I was six. I awoke with a start and realized that I had to pee again.

For the next fourteen hours I slept and dreamed and woke and peed and slept and dreamed and woke and peed. My alarm clock, which I had neglected to turn off the night before, started blaring at 9:01 the next morning. I awoke, groggy but surprisingly refreshed, and realized to my chagrin that I wasn’t dead. It must’ve been all the peeing, I figured, that kept me from falling deep enough asleep; that, or I’d diluted the pills too much. I dragged myself out of bed and put on a pot of coffee.

There were two messages on my machine, one from the relatives-to-whom-I-owed-money, and one from Mary Jane. Mary Jane was young woman who lived in my in my apartment building. She was very pretty, and sweet in all possible senses of the word. She would occasionally come by to borrow one of my books or a cup of sugar or whatnot, and to taunt me with her involvedness with a guy named Chet. Although I had never met Chet in person, I hated his guts. He was, in fact, number twenty-nine in the against pile. Mary Jane was number seventeen in both piles. If I were the analytical type, I’d probably try to figure out the numerological significance of her occupying the same spot in both piles, but as it was I chalked it up to coincidence.

My relatives were calling just to say hi and to remind me that they loved me. I noted that they didn’t say anything about the money I owed them – they hardly ever did, in fact, which made me feel even more guilty. Mary Jane was calling to share some big news with me, which she didn’t leave in the message. I took this to mean that she had gotten engaged or pregnant or dropped one of my books in the bathtub while she was bathing with Chet, and deleted the message.

I had made some client appointments for the day, which I hadn’t planned on keeping because I expected to be dead. I imagined that they’d wonder where I was, since it wasn’t like me to blow them off, and that, as a result, someone would eventually come looking for me. I decided that as long as I was alive anyway, I might as well keep the appointments.

My first appointment of the day was old Mrs. Bertram, who had dropped her mouse behind the computer desk and wanted me to fish it out for her. While I wrestled with the enormous oak desk, she updated me on the health of her various cats and made me some hot cocoa with marshmallows. She kept me there for an hour longer than I’d intended, which was mostly spent chatting and reminding her how to do all the things I’d shown her every other time I’d been there. She insisted on paying for the full amount of time despite my offer to discount it because we’d been chatting. After I pocketed her check, she kept going for another ten minutes until I realized I was late for my next appointment, thanked her again for the check and the cocoa, and politely excused myself.

I hated late days, those days when I was late for every appointment and every one made me even later for the next. It looked like today was going to be a late day, and the prospect of all that stressed-out rushing around made me glad I’d be dead soon. Nice as she was, Mrs. Bertram was draining. I made a mental note to move good clients down a notch on the for pile.

Thankfully, my next appointment was pretty laid back about meeting times, so they didn’t mind that I was a few minutes late. “We have a big job for you,” they said, and proceeded to outline what promised to be a very big and very complicated job indeed. I took diligent notes so as not to give away my impending doom, because that’s just a little too personal to share with a client. “I’ll need a few days to get a bid together,” I said, crossing my toes in my shoes. “No rush,” they said, because they always said that. They were good to me. I erased my previous mental note about moving good clients down a notch.

I spent the rest of the day visiting more clients and running errands. Money-wise, it was a pretty good day, especially with the prospect of the big job from my one client, but all in all it had been very wearying. Despite my long sleep the night before, I was just too tired that night to kill myself again. I made some dinner, read a new magazine that had arrived in the mail, and went to bed.

The next day was Friday, and because I rarely scheduled appointments on Fridays, I didn’t have anything pressing to do. I puttered around the house for a while, organized some of my personal papers to make things a little easier to find, and finished reading the magazine I’d started the night before. The mailman was late, and by the time he came it was well after 4 o’clock. I had two bills, no checks, and a letter from Pretense, a literary magazine I’d submitted a story to a few weeks back. I tossed the bills on the dining table and tore open the letter.

“Dear Rejectee,” it began, “Thank you for your recent submission. We regret—” I stopped reading. I started wadding up the letter, when I noticed that something was handwritten on the back. I unwadded the letter and smoothed it out. “I enjoyed your story,” said the handwriting, “but it wasn’t quite what our magazine is looking for. Please feel free to submit other examples of your work in the future. Sincerely, scrawl.” I rewadded the letter, threw it in the trash, and mentally added the incident to my spreadsheet. Fine, I though. Let’s do this thing.

Since the pills hadn’t worked, and I wasn’t too keen on trying to swallow even more of them, I decided the next method to try should be a little more direct. I went to my tiny kitchen (which was number 47 on the against pile) and rummaged through my utensil drawer until I found my carving knife. This wasn’t just any knife; I had plenty of regular knives. This knife was the only high-end piece of cutlery I owned, part of a set of ten that an incredibly cheap friend of mine had won in a contest and then divided up into ten separate Christmas presents. It was a testament to our bond, I guess, that I received one of the big ones. It was more like a sword than a knife: permanently sharp, perfectly weighted and balanced. This was a business knife. It could cut through a set of Ginsu knives and still remain sharp enough to slice a tomato, not that I ever did either of those things. I don’t like tomatoes, and using a knife to cut other knives just seemed wasteful.

I set the knife on the counter and turned to put the other utensils in the drawer. When I finished, I turned back around to the counter. My shirt, which was untucked and somewhat baggy, caught the knife as I turned and swept it over the edge of the counter. Some part of my brain realized what had happened, heard the scrape of the knife on the counter or felt the extra weight tugging at my shirt. As my head snapped around to where I could see the knife, time seemed to dilate. It was an interesting experience, mostly. I watched the knife fall almost in slow motion, its sharp pointy tip driving straight down thanks to the weighted and balanced handle behind it. Some spurt of brain-adrenalin sped up my thinking to the point that I actually had several complete thoughts before the knife landed: You’re not wearing any shoes, I thought. That knife is headed right for your foot. This is going to hurt a lot. MOVE!

Unfortunately, this last thought came too late to do any good. The doctor later told me that the knife could easily have severed a toe clean off if it had landed the other way; as it was, he said, the muscles between the second and third toes of my left foot would take some time to heal. He stitched me up and gave me a walking cast, told me to try to stay off my foot for a while, and prescribed a cane and some pain medication. I asked if it was available in any form besides pills, but he said that it was not.

As I was unlocking the door to my apartment, Mary Jane came around the hall corner. When she saw me, her face lit up and she came running toward me. Before I could say anything, she grabbed me in a big hug—the kind she probably gave to Chet all the time. Aside from the psychic trauma, her hug had the effect of shifting my weight and most of her weight onto my impaled foot and jamming the head of the cane I’d propped against my side into my hipbone. I screamed in as dignified a way as I knew how, and she released me. “Oh my God, Jake! I’m so sorry,” she said, noticing the cast on my foot. “What happened to you?”

I explained the incident with the knife, editing out the part about how I had planned to do myself some sort of more life-threatening injury with it. I had decided, on the ride to the emergency room, that stabbing or slicing myself with a large knife was not a very good idea after all. As my foot started to throb again, I also decided that from now on, I should try reacting more quickly to things that were hurtling toward me.

Mary Jane asked if there was anything she could do to make me feel better. I dismissed the first seven things that came to mind, and said thanks but no. I had some pain medicine to take and some blood to clean up, I said, after which I would probably go straight to bed. She apologized again and urged me to call her if there was anything I needed, anything at all. I squirmed uncomfortably, said a hasty thanks again, and went inside.

Once inside, I took a moment to survey the damage. There were bloody footprints everywhere, as if someone had been stabbed in the foot and had then run around like an idiot trying to decide how best to panic, which is pretty much what had happened. I decided to clean up the linoleum first, which was difficult since I couldn’t kneel down very effectively. I ended up lying down on my stomach and moving a Pine-Sol-soaked rag around until most of the blood was gone. That part of the linoleum was now much whiter than the rest of the linoleum, but at that point I didn’t care. I took two pain tablets and a glass of water, and fell asleep watching TV with my foot propped up on the coffee table.

The next morning I happened to peek out the window and noticed Mary Jane pulling out of the parking lot. I realized that, with all of the foot drama of the previous night, I had forgotten to ask her what her big news was. Oh well, I shrugged, and turned back to the living room There were still bloody footprints on the carpet, but they didn’t seem as bad or numerous as they had the night before. Since it was Saturday, I doubted I could find a steam cleaning place to come out. It would have to wait until Monday.

My foot still hurt like hell, so I decided to spend the day parked in front of the computer playing a nice long game of Civilization III. I found a pleasant balance of pain medicine and coffee, and whiled away the weekend in a sleepy-perky daze. The Aztecs, the Greeks, and the Persians gave me a good run for my money, but I eventually managed to crush them all. I toyed with the one remaining Aztec city while letting my civilization grow fat and sleek, and finally razed it one turn before my civilization’s space ship would have colonized Alpha Centauri and ended the game. Long live Emperor Jake.

By Monday my foot was feeling better – not great, but better. I found a carpet cleaning company that was available that day, and had them come by to clean up the rugs. When they arrived, I explained about the bloody footprints, because I didn’t want them calling the police and saying I’d killed someone in my apartment, and they set to work. While they were working, I sat on a bench outside the apartment building and considered my options. Even if I were to adjust my spreadsheet to account for the new business and the sudden increase in Mary Jane friendliness (and I wasn’t really sure whether to move her up on the for pile, the against pile, or both), there would still be a big gap between for and against. Numbers don’t lie, and the third time is a charm. These and other platitudes ran through my head as I weighed back and forth. Did I really want to know what horrid act of Chetful intimacy Mary Jane wanted to share with me? Did I really want to pay a huge doctor bill for my stupid foot? The answer to both of these was no, and by the time the cleaners came out to present me with their bill, my mind was made up. Now I only had to decide on a more effective method of killing myself. Pills and knives in any combination were out. I could try flinging myself off a bridge or in front of a bus or train, but those didn’t sound particularly appealing either. Worse, what if I was only maimed and had to spend the rest of my life as a twisted vegetable who ate through a tube? I had failed at enough things in my life; I didn’t want to be known for failing at that. Something quicker and more precise was called for, and that something, I decided, was a gun.

I had never bought or even considered buying a gun before, despite the fact that there were three gun stores within walking distance of my apartment building. I should say that normally they would have been within walking distance. I decided to drive, so I went back to my apartment to get my car keys. When I got inside, I noticed that the carpet cleaners had done a pretty good job. There were no footprints to be seen. They had even squeegeed the floor of my kitchen, or something, because it was all as white as I’d ever seen it.

There was a message on the machine from Mary Jane, who was back in town after visiting her parents for the weekend. She hoped my foot was feeling better, and promised to stop by after work. Great, I thought darkly. If only I could take Chet with me, make it look like he’d pulled the trigger, and have Mary Jane find us both, I’d have a trifecta.

I grabbed my car keys and drove two blocks to the nearest gun store, Barry’s Guns and Liquor Emporium. Barry’s prices on liquor were fairly reasonable, but his prices on guns were outrageous. The cheapest gun I could find in the battered display cases was $300, and that one looked like it could only shoot BBs. The cooler-looking guns were considerably more expensive, but I just couldn’t see paying that much for something I was only going to use once. I realized that I had no basis for comparison, never having thought about guns as anything more than an abstraction before, so I drove to the next-closest gun store. The prices there were no better, and I asked the bored-looking sales clerk if their prices were typical. “Sure, for a new gun,” he said. “You could probably pick up a gun at a pawn shop for cheap, but it wouldn’t have that new-gun smell.” I tried to nod knowingly, thanked him for his time, and left.

There were two pawn shops nearby: Pawn Barn and Barry’s Pawn. Barry was certainly enterprising. Ironically, his pawn shop didn’t buy or sell guns, and neither did Pawn Barn. I was getting pretty frustrated at this point, but the tattoo-encrusted clerk at Pawn Barn suggested I try Big City Pawn in the seedy part of town. One more try and then I’m going home, I thought.

When I finally pulled up outside of Big City Pawn, after missing the turn three times due to the Pawn Barn clerk’s poor directions, a flickering orange neon sign informed me that they did indeed BUY AND SELL GUNS AND JEWELRY. The jewelry part was less interesting to me, but I parked and went inside.

As I entered the small crowded pawn shop, I took a moment to marvel at the amount of crap they had crammed into such a small space. There were musical instruments, boom boxes, bicycles, sports equipment, toys, and enough gold chains to dress a rap band. There was also a man in the middle of the packed room with a twitchy look on his face and a gun in his hand, which he had stopped pointing at the elderly clerk’s head and was now pointing at mine.

In retrospect, the smart thing to do would have been to let him shoot me, since that would have activated the double-indemnity clause of my life insurance policy and paid my relatives an even tidier sum. At the very least, I should have lain down on the floor and let him go about his business. This time, as my brain clicked into overdrive again, it was apparent that it had learned a thing or two from the incident with the knife. Gun, I thought, threat-asshole-anger-fight. My two semesters of karate in college, subsequent years of practice kicking at imaginary targets when bored, and crabby-bad-day all came together and leapt at the challenge. I leaned back on my bad foot, which hurt a lot, and sprung forward, kicking up and out in a reasonable approximation of a side-blade kick with my good foot, hard. I even managed to croak out a weak kiai. My sensei…well, he probably wouldn’t have been very impressed, but that was a matter for another time.

As the blade of my foot made contact with this man’s hand, I felt a horrible tearing in my crotch. Should have stretched first, I thought, as I convulsed forward around my pulled leg muscle. An instant later, there was a loud bang, followed by several smaller bangs, and the gunman pitched forward and landed on top of me.

“Ow,” I said, muffled by the very smelly man on top of me. “Get off me.” He didn’t move at first, and then I heard footsteps and grunting. The clerk, who I later learned was the owner, rolled the dead gunman aside. “You okay, pal?” he asked in a heavy Slavic accent. I mumbled something about a gun, and then passed out.

When I awoke a while later, I was in the back of an ambulance and there were EMTs and policemen all around. When they noticed I was awake, they called a detective over to talk with me. I described what had happened: I kicked the gunman’s hand, tore a muscle, fell over, and then he fell over on top of me. It was a pretty stupid thing to do, the detective observed, and I agreed. As near as they could tell, he said, when I kicked the gun it had fired, and if I hadn’t collapsed right then it would have likely blown my head off. The bullet ricocheted off of several pieces of sporting equipment and a tuba before entering the gunman’s skull just behind the right ear. When he asked why I’d been there in the first place, I did not say that I’d come in search of a gun to blow my own head off. Instead, I explained that I was looking for an inexpensive used accordion.

It was apparently a slow news day, because a TV news crew showed up shortly after that to interview me and the detective. They ran the story on the evening news, with the tagline “Local Hero Saves The Day.” I watched the piece from my hospital bed, where the EMTs had insisted on taking me so I could be checked out more thoroughly. The hospital staff was attentive and solicitous, either because they were awed by my deed or afraid I’d do something else stupid if pressed, and it was a little unnerving but I tried to be gracious about all the attention.

A few hours later, just as the doctor was about to release me, Mary Jane showed up with a big bouquet of flowers. She gave me a less aggressive hug and explained that she’d seen me on the news. I blushed and said that I hadn’t been as heroic as it might sound, but she refused to listen. She insisted on driving me home, and since my car was still at the pawn shop, I gladly accepted.

On the ride home, she was full of questions about what had really happened, how long I’d been playing the accordion, whether I knew that Mr. Padalakis, the pawn shop owner, was her great-uncle, and would I like to join her at his house the following evening for dinner. As we walked slowly up the steps to my apartment, I remembered to ask her what her news was. “Oh, that,” she smiled, as we arrived at my door. “I broke up with Chet last week. I just thought you’d like to know.” She gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek, squeezed my hand, and walked down the hall and around the corner.


Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan