“How will you know when you’re too far gone?”
“That’s the problem, Kyle.” Duke leaned back and scratched a flaking age spot on his broad cranium. “I can see the shaking in my hand. That’s easy, no hiding it. But you can’t use your own brain to make sure your brain’s working right. It’ll always tell you everything’s just fine even when you look around and don’t know what the hell you’re doing on that street corner. That’s why I’m talking to you, why I wanted to be friends with you. Yeah, you’re a good guy but you’re also young. Got a sharp mind as far as I can tell. Hell, Kyle, I don’t even care that you’re into men.”
Kyle twisted in his chair. He looked off toward the row of beer taps, like teeth along the bar, and wished the pub’s soft reggae were a little louder.
“Ease up, Kyle. You can’t fool an old man like me. Unless he’s already gone loopy.” Duke made a curlicue in the air with his wayward hand and let it land on the brown formica table with a bounce. The frame of his body beneath the plaid flannel shirt was wide but stooped.
“So you like me because I’m young,” Kyle said. “You sound like some prowling old gay boy.”
“Ah, there’s the spark. Glad we’re over that.” Duke grinned and raised his palm to clap it against Kyle’s, but Kyle didn’t reciprocate. “I was fine sticking with women until Henrietta died,” Duke said, “and she and I held on so long that now it’s too late for anything else. Maybe … hah! Maybe you thought I was one of those good-looking prowlers. Well, that is one lightning bolt of a compliment. That’s an expression of Henrietta’s. The lightning bolt part.”
“No, I didn’t think you were a prowler,” Kyle said. “But then, you always buy the beers.”
“What else am I going to spend my dough on? Gigolos like you?” Duke sighed and wiped the beer that drooled out of the sagging left corner of his mouth, hoping Kyle wouldn’t see it. “Now don’t go all pale-faced on me, Kyle. It was a joke.”
“I don’t think you have any worries yet. About your brain,” Kyle said.
“Well, that’s very kind coming from a handsome and intelligent man I have just now accidentally insulted. And I stress the accidentally.” Duke stared into Kyle’s face, trying to get the younger man to meet his gaze. “Come on! You’re the blossom of youth and I’m counting on you. We keep meeting now and then, like over the past few months, and guzzle a few, and you tell me how I’m doing.”
“And when I spot that you’ve gone loopy I send you to the guillotine?” Kyle chopped one of his hands like a blade onto the table, mocking the old man.
Duke smiled. “Ah, there’s the spark.” He paused. “At least I know I’m repeating myself, for now. Yeah, something like that.”
“Well, guillotines have been banned for a long time, since even before you were born. And I’m not good with guns, if you want to do it that way.”
“So I can’t count on you?”
“You could give me a pill to slip into your drink when the time came.”
“Ah, Kyle, now you’re seeing things my way.” Duke clinked his mug against Kyle’s and took a long drink.
“But,” Kyle said, “I think I’ll be waiting a long, long time, especially if I get attached to the idea of you being around.”
“You got it, Kyle! That’s why it’s better you don’t like me too much. Remember the insult. Even though it was accidental. The gigolo part.”
“So do you know how much I charge for a lay?” Kyle smiled at the flush that spread quickly up Duke’s neck. “Nothing less than a thousand unless he’s got a monster lamppost.” Kyle swished his hand toward the ceiling. Duke thought Kyle’s smile had a hint of malice in it.
“Got to think big, I suppose.”
“Ah, Duke, there’s the spark!” Kyle laughed and lifted his beer. Duke followed. “Just kidding,” said Kyle. “Let’s get back to you. Think big. Think big about how you’ll do it.”
“Do what? Oh yeah. That.”
“Forget the cyanide in your soup.” Kyle clasped his hands together and put his elbows on the table. “Go for drama. Get a mission. You said you’re beyond women now, so go for something bigger.”
“I’m not into guys.”
“But you can still be flamboyant!” Kyle flung his arms into the air.
“I’m not a flashy guy, like you fairies.”
“But you’ve only got one death.” Kyle nodded to the waitress for another round. “Do you want to dribble out of this world like a puddle of wasted sperm?”
“Wasted sperm? Not me. I’ve got two kids, all grown up, and grandkids too. It’s been a few years since I saw them but they’re still mine. And Henrietta’s.” Duke felt his face heating up.
“And you want them to find out after the fact how you faded away for all those years when they never bothered to visit you in the nursing home that they paid for? Find out that you finally croaked on a bed that stunk like urine? Kick up your heels, Duke, while you can still lift a leg. Put your death in the news!”
Duke frowned and rubbed his chin. “I do get Christmas cards.”
“And I’m sure they’re personalized.”
“Sometimes I get a snapshot of the grandkids.”
“Sorry I hit the sore spot, but I’ve had a lot of practice.” Kyle leaned across the table. “Look Duke, you should get a mission. A dangerous mission that you think is worth your life, which you think is fading—I didn’t say it. But eventually it does come around to everyone, no exceptions. And you should do it before you start repeating ah there’s the spark every third sentence, and before your tremor creeps into your legs and lands you on the urine mattress for good.” Kyle’s face looked honest and earnest. Duke tried hard to find another just kidding in it.
“So what are you getting at?”
“It’s easy. Think of something you love so much that you would die to save it. Or something you hate so much that you would die to kill it. And make sure people hear about your final act, so your grandkids will know the story and tell it to their grandkids and on and on.”
Duke stared at Kyle’s face and tried to figure out what to read on it.
“TV’s okay,” said Kyle, “but you have to have it in print, too, so they can make photocopies. And some still shots just as you’re doing the final act would be a good idea. Maybe you should hire a photographer for the critical moment.”
Duke shifted in his chair. “Slow down a minute, Kyle. I’m … That’s not exactly what I had in mind. You’re getting way ahead of me.”
“Look, I’m not the one who’s suicidal. I’m just trying to help you out of your predicament. And Henrietta would be proud of you.”
Duke was quiet for a long time. The repeating refrain of the reggae in the background seemed to elongate the old man’s muteness.
“Don’t you love something or hate something that much?” Kyle asked, his face solemn.
“You sound like a recruiter for suicide bombings.”
“And I’m wondering if I have any material here to work with.”
Duke took a deep breath. “I’m not a religious man, so it’s hard to hate something. Love, yeah, sure. That was Henrietta. It is Henrietta.”
Kyle reached across the table and grabbed Duke’s bony shoulders and shook him. “Concentrate on hate! It’s more reliable. Who or what do you truly hate?”
“Well.” The cloud on Duke’s face cleared away. “Well, I hate my best friend who made a pass at Henrietta when I was out of town. Forty years ago, or more. My ex-best friend.”
“Uh, Duke, that rates a ho-hum and a so what.” Kyle rolled his eyes. “Knocking him off will get you a column-inch about a deranged grandfather, something your kids will never show to your great-grandkids. Duke, you’re buying the beers, so I have to say it. You’re not thinking big.”
“He’s already dead, anyway. My ex-friend. Diabetes. I didn’t go to the funeral.”
“Don’t you read the papers? There’s plenty to hate,” Kyle said. “All those industrialists destroying whales. All those murderous dictators. All those drug lords polluting young lives for profit. All those pedophiles. All those lying politicians. All those hypocritical church-going racists and gay-bashers and wife-beaters.”
Duke was caught mid-way into a long sip. He swallowed hard to keep it from coming back up.
Kyle’s wide eyes narrowed into nickel slots. He exhaled slowly. “You beat your wife, didn’t you.” It was a statement.
Duke put the beer down with his trembling hand. He wagged his head to say no. He wished … he wished he hadn’t drunk so much beer. He felt the weight of his jowls as he nodded yes. “It was a long time ago. When we were young. I hate myself for it.”
Kyle let it sink in, more for Duke than for himself. He saw the wetness in the old man’s eyes and said, “Those are long-ago tears. Take them back. I know you loved her.” Duke’s eyes got wetter and the moisture dripped out of them onto the bags of skin below. He rubbed the bags and the eyes and they were all red when he looked up at Kyle.
“At least you have one,” Kyle said.
“The family thing.”
“Everybody’s got family, except orphans. You an orphan?”
Kyle waved a hand in the air as if he were asking to be called upon in a grade school classroom. “Yes! I’m an orphan, I’m an orphan!”
“Well, that makes me very sad. But you turned out so well. I mean—you’re the guy I’ve put trust in for my future. Okay, it’s my last hurrah before I’m over the edge. But it’s a kind of future.” Duke scratched the back of his neck. “So you’re an orphan. No. You’re not an orphan. I see it in your eyes.”
“Depends on your definition.”
“Don’t play hard to get with me, Kyle.”
Kyle felt a tug, like a fishhook had caught him in the stomach.
“So they cut you off,” Duke said, “because you’re into men.”
Kyle felt the yank beneath his diaphragm again and hunched to pull the beer mug to his lips.
“Well?” Duke pressed.
“They’re conservative folks. From the heartland. Not too far from here.”
“Well, damn, they should love you.” Duke reached across and squeezed Kyle’s hand.
“Well, damn,” Kyle said.
Three weeks passed before they met again. Duke had gone to the pub five nights in a row, and each time the bartender replied that he hadn’t seen Kyle for a good long while.
When the younger man finally showed up, Duke wasted no time and pulled a sheaf of newspaper articles from his coat. He laid them on the table, all neatly clipped.
“There’s a lot that I … I get mad about.”
“Mad is not enough. Hate. Sorry to get down to brass tacks so fast.” Kyle scanned the collection of headlines.
“Fast is okay. You know an old man like me doesn’t have much time.” Duke coughed when he tried to laugh.
“Ah Duke, there’s the …”
“Don’t say it! A spark is not enough. It’s gotta be bigger.” Duke leaned forward and winked. “I may be old, but I can still pick up a thing or two.” He spread the newspaper clippings between the beer mugs. “Okay, I hate the suicide bombers. Killing all those innocent folks just because they’re trying to make a point. I hate the haters.”
“Good as far as it goes, old man. But be practical,” Kyle said. “If you knock out a suicide bomber for global credit, you have to destroy him before he blows himself up. And if he doesn’t blow up and murder dozens, you won’t get credit for anything big. It’s a catch-22.” Kyle tilted his head back and looked at the pressed tin ceiling. “Let’s go back to what you said—hating the haters. And focus on the big dogs who pay others to drive the car bombs and obliterate themselves. Think bigger.”
Duke rubbed his knuckles across the table. “I suppose it’s like in the war,” he finally said. “You could shoot the little nobodies across the river that you spotted in your scope, who would have killed you, but it wouldn’t add up to much either way.”
“Wait, Duke. You were shooting people and I’m talking to you as if you were a newcomer at this?”
“Stupid young puppets,” Duke said. “That’s what we were, and that’s what they need in a war. Same old story. I’m not saying you’re a puppet. You’re more like a puppeteer. Makes me feel younger. Usually the puppeteers are the older ones.”
“A veteran,” Kyle said, smiling. “Maybe I am working with some good material here. Don’t worry, I won’t ask how many Germans you killed.”
“Koreans. I was killing Koreans. You want to put me in the grave earlier than I deserve?” Duke spilled foam onto the newspaper articles as he lifted his mug.
“What else do you have to show me?” Kyle pulled at the wet mat of newsprint. He peeled the layers apart until he saw a photo of a man with a big mop of hair; a large scrawl of words was penned in the margins. Kyle read the headline out loud. “Radovan Kara … Karaduzik again eludes capture by NATO.”
“It’s Kara-dzitch. Radovan Karadzic.”
“Okay, yeah, I recognize the crazy hairdo, the smirk too. The Yugoslav guy who bombed Sarajevo to bits.” Kyle’s eyes tracked the article. “And they haven’t caught the bastard yet? Now that’s a guy I could hate.”
“If you ever read the papers!” Duke grabbed the damp clipping and shook it in Kyle’s face. “This monster blasted Sarajevo and even pointed the guns at the national library. Burned up every last book. Raped my homeland! Massacred thousands. Mass graves. All his doing.”
“Homeland?” Kyle raised an eyebrow. “But you’re from here, Duke. Chicago.”
“My old man was from Yugoslavia. Okay, he was Serb, like this bastard, but born in the Bosnia part. Just being a Serb doesn’t give you a permit to murder all those people.” Duke clenched his fist.
“I suppose that just being anybody doesn’t give you a permit to murder lots of people, right?” Kyle’s face became somber. Then he grinned. “It sounds like you really hate this guy.”
“Gave a bad name to my home country, on top of it all.”
“You been there?”
“No. But I feel like I have. My old man told me stories. Taught me to talk Serb. And this Karadzic prick is a psychiatrist to boot.”
Kyle spread out the clipping. “And the psychiatrist thing?” He straightened one edge of the paper until it tore where the beer had seeped in.
“They’re all devious,” said Duke. “Always trying to twist your thoughts.”
“Sounds like you have experience, Duke.” As Kyle reached for the piece with the photo, Duke clapped his hand down on the table.
“The man’s a demon! A mass murderer! Eight years on the lam and no one’s got the balls to find him and turn him in.” Duke’s right hand was shaking violently. He hid it beneath the table.
Kyle didn’t know whether to add to the fire or douse it. He searched Duke’s face, which was raised in defiance. “It looks like you have your man,” Kyle finally said.
Duke straightened his back and gripped both edges of the tabletop. “I’ve picked my target and the time is now. I’ve got the travel agent looking for a cheap ticket. I bought the maps.”
“Hey, wait. You said it was my call to say when you were losing your marbles and it was time to do the deed. And you’re not losing them yet. If anything you seem younger tonight, with all that rage like a rod up your butt. You on any new medicines?”
“Shush, Kyle. Just the same old blood pressure pills.” Duke leaned over the table. “And you know what we’re both thinking. If we wait till I’m loopy it’ll be too late to get this thing done. A thing that all civilized men and women and mothers and fathers who have any idea of justice—they all know it’s got to happen. If only there was one brave man.”
“And don’t forget the press, the photographers …” Kyle caught himself. “I’m not agreeing that the time is right. You’ve got more tread left on your tires and it’s fuckin’ dangerous what you’re scheming.”
“Don’t curse. Henrietta wouldn’t have it.”
“But half of NATO has been chasing the guy for years. SWAT types in armored vehicles, tanks, fancy guns, intelligence operatives, payoffs …”
“All a goddam …” Duke took a deep breath. “A toe-stubbing bureaucracy. And let me tell you, you’re talking to a postal worker retiree. Expert in bureaucracy. Bureaucracy leaves a thousand holes open. And I’m ex-army. Danger? I don’t have the purple heart to slap down in front of you, but it was close. Close more than once.”
“You have me worried, Duke. I feel like I pushed you into this.” Kyle downed another slug of beer but kept his eyes on the old man. Over the rim of the mug he said, “Of course there’s the other timing issue. And I know you know what we are both thinking.”
“That the NATO boys will get him first.”
“A good thing, right?”
Duke’s hands were back on the edges of the table, gripping it like a steering wheel. “And rob me of this, this sacrifice for my country?”
“You mean you want to be the one, for personal glory.”
“You chicken-legged fairies! Prancing all over patriotism. No idea of sacrifice, noble causes.”
Kyle knew Duke was ahead on the beers because he had been counting. “Slow down, Quixote.” He reached across and patted Duke’s knobby fingers. “And just where does patriotism get into the act? Serbia a province of America now? Maybe this is getting out of hand.”
Duke looked around at the little neon beer signs and mounted hockey sticks and back-lit bottles of amber booze beneath the American flag and the placard that said Write checks to your poor mother, not us. “Kyle,” he said, “Henrietta was a damn good mother and yesterday I put flowers on her grave with a note about what I’m up to and why, so it’s all signed and sealed. Stop being a cry baby.”
Kyle’s new snakeskin cowboy boots clomped on the floor as he approached Duke. He sat at the table.
“You sure?” Kyle put his hand on Duke’s wrist.
“Signed and sealed, just like I said last time. Leaving day after tomorrow.” Duke fumbled his hand until it grasped Kyle’s. “Bridge is burned. Shell’s in the air. That’s what we said at Inchon.”
Kyle raised his cold beer mug and pressed it against Duke’s left cheek, then drank half the pint.
“A toast to the dead?” Duke said, his jaw tight beneath the white stubble.
“Not yet. I’d say you’re still alive enough to operate these.” Kyle placed a silvery digital camera and a thumb-sized plastic device on the table.
“I know what the camera is, but what’s this other thing?”
“A voice recorder. A tape recorder. But no tape, just this little memory chip.” Kyle pressed his thumbnail against the base of the recorder and showed Duke the blue plastic strip that popped out. “When’s the last time you ever wrote a postcard?”
“When I was in Ohio. I didn’t want Henrietta to be worried about me. Or worried about what I was up to, which was no good. Maybe forty years ago.”
“This’ll be easier. You can tell me what you’re up to, if you’re okay, or in prison, or maybe worse. Press this button and talk, say whatever you want, put that sandpaper voice of yours into electrons. This end goes toward your mouth.” Kyle handed it over. “Say something.”
Duke put it against his lips.
“Not so close.”
Duke’s shaky right thumb pushed the Rec button. “Well, um, this is Duke. Sitting here with my friend Kyle. He looks skinnier every time I see him. Must be the fashion. He’s a good guy. I’m … I’m lucky to have him to talk to. Like a son or a grandson. Keeps me kickin’. No urine bed for me. I’m Duke from Chicago. And I don’t know when I’ll see him again … my friend, my good friend, Kyle …”
“That’s enough.” Kyle took the recorder. “Want me to play it back?’
Kyle pushed the Play button anyway and put the recorder to Duke’s ear. Halfway through the playback Duke said “yeah, enough” and pushed it away.
“It’s easy. Just press and talk. Then send me the little piece of plastic.”
“Easy in a way. Never heard my voice before.” Duke took the device from Kyle’s hand and rolled it in his shaky palm.
Outside the pub Duke hugged Kyle and patted his back brusquely, then he squeezed him with all his force. Kyle stood awkwardly for a moment, took a deep breath, and hugged him back. Duke’s stubble bit into Kyle’s face.
“Kyle, don’t worry. I’ve got no life anyway, except you.” Duke pushed away from the hug and grimaced. “I bet you don’t think I can do it, right? But I’ve got something, Kyle, I’ve got your stinger in here.” He jabbed a finger at his own skull. “Gonna do something with the last of my worthless life.”
Kyle shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “Just remember,” he said, “You don’t have to kill him. Just turn him in. Then come back and buy me a few more beers, if you want to.”
They turned away from each other and Duke hid the tears in his eyes by ducking his head as they parted. Kyle walked a few paces away and turned back to Duke. “I hope you get him. I want to see you in the news.”
Kyle, it’s Duke here. How much time do I have on this gadget you gave me? It’s Duke here anyway, talking to you from greater Serbia. What day is this? June Seventh. Doesn’t matter. Think I’m some kind of reporter?
I’m working the trail. I’m in Pah-lay town, just up the road a few miles from good ol’ Sarajevo. This is where they all said my target was holding out, so I thought I’d start tracking the rumors. I’m dressing like the old men here. Not the high fashion I’m used to. Ha ha. Got a cap on the bald top. Makes me look younger, so to balance that out, I don’t shave much. Keep the tottering old dope disguise, you know. Damn pretty up here in the hills, all the forests. My old man was right, rest his soul. It’s a beautiful country.
You know my line, Kyle? I’m an old Serb returned from America to serve Doctor Karadzic, the savior of the Serb race. Or at least kiss his feet and offer all my savings to help with his protection. God, I’ve got a lot of cash on me. Money pouches in my armpit, my belt, even around an ankle. Somewhere else, too, but I can’t remember where. You’ll have to buy your beers on your own now. Maybe there’s another guy. I’m not jealous. Really. Is there?
The cash. So far I’m not paying for lowdown. When you pay, you get tricky looks or made-up bullshit. Better to serve up the fanatic mumbo jumbo—we Serbs are the perfect race destined to FINALLY control our homeland. Reclaim what the Turks stole as they raped our woman a few hundred years ago, or whenever it was. Surprising how so many of the folks here have dark hair. All that Turkish infiltration. But a lot of beautiful women. And strong tall men! Just looking out for you, Kyle. You laughing now?
So my back hurts. All this hunching over and faking a limp. You’d be proud of me. Chummed up with a taxi driver, gave him my lines. And you know what? He’s ex-militia, Serb militia in Bosnia. Bragging about all the Muslims he whacked. And I laid on him I’d killed a man or two in Korea, maybe more. And that I would, you know, for the cause I’d … no question, leading him on like that. Making like a brother, talking about what rifle I like best, what kind of rounds. He ate it up, especially when I talked up how the heads exploded out the backside when you were on the mark. You see it in the scope, if it’s close enough. You bet that set him off with stories. He’s shot a hell of a lot more enemy than I have. And I believe him because he got so excited, laughing and shouting like he was holding a gun instead of the wheel, that he damn near drove us off the road. Name is Zoran. Hilarious guy, especially after we’ve loaded on a few brews. It’s good here, the beer. Called KB. The K stands for … I’m wandering off the … Wait, I’ve got it, what I was going to say. So Zoran knows an ex-militia chief who has a girlfriend whose friend is a niece or some sort of relation to Doctor K. You know how to say bingo in Serb?
It’s me again, Kyle. It’s Duke. Make that Dragan. Decided my old name’s not so bad. Never told you? School kids teased me and called me “dragon” and I didn’t like it, so my old man called me Duke to get me to stop crying. So it’s Dragan here. Little tired. Been at it a week or more now, chasing around, picking up tidbits. Couldn’t tell you the names of all the little towns I’ve been to.
That guy, name of Zoran. He turned out to be a real sicko. And I said he was like a brother. He wanted to take me on a night tour of the hills above ol’ Sarajevo. Nice views he said. Okay I said and we drove down from the Serb side. Took a lot of windy roads, to stay clear of the checkpoints. It’s past sundown and he stops on a road that looks down on a bunch of houses. He’s most of the way through a six-pack and pops the trunk and he’s got a big high-powered rifle, type I’ve never seen before with a sight that would let you shoot the nose off the moon and says let’s have some target practice, pick a window. They’re all lit up yellow. Even without the sight I could see people at dinner tables. Still got twenty-twenty, old man like me. You know that, Kyle?
He says they’re re-settlers. Muslims come back after the peace. He sucks on another beer and says you go first. Some kind of test. I tell him he should go first. For Serbia he says and slams the chamber shut. I could see the window he was aiming at. Kids down there too. Fish in a barrel. I say no let me go first, at this range it’ll be easy even for an old soldier like me, even one with a shaky right hand. Old bastard like me won’t have many more good shots like this, blah blah. He gives in and hands me the gun. Damn heavy, but it feels natural, feels good. I can see it all through the sight, like I was there at the table about to bite into some chicken myself. Mother, father, an old lady, a boy, a girl … Don’t think for a moment … Not me, Kyle. I was in my stance, with my elbows on the car roof. Zoran was breathing down my neck. I … I wobbled the rifle and fired three times quick. Wild shots off into the valley, like I was shooting birds. ‘Course he grabbed me and said what a fucking worthless old man I was and I yelled back that I had a bad hand and he said with all the goddam noise we had to get the hell out of there.
It was close, Kyle. I almost lost my cookies. Makes me wonder if I’m really the man for this job.
Kyle. It’s me. Couple of days after I dumped the psycho Zoran. Well, truth is the psycho dumped me, but I would have dumped him first if I’d had the chance. Murderer through and through, like he had to scratch an itch. I bet you know I’ve had that itch too. No fooling you, Kyle. Anyhow, I know where to find Doctor K’s niece. That drunk chump Zoran rattled that much out even before he took me shooting.
I’m in a village they call Celebeetsee. Rented a room in an old widow’s house. She had that sparkle in her eye soon as we met. ‘Course I didn’t want to turn off the charm completely, because I needed the room. No Holiday Inns around here. Not that she’s bad looking for an old girl. Well, damn. She’s banging on the door. Give me a minute. Back in a jiff.
Okay. Here again. She’s a lovely dame, the widow, and pretty shrewd too. She got me to sit on the couch, a small couch but I won’t call it a love seat. Didn’t take her long to go for the smooch. I’m not complaining but I kept my wits, asking her to get me to the niece so I could have an audience—yeah I said that, audience—with the Doctor. And Kyle, all of that was between kisses. It’s been a while but I was still thinking of Henrietta and wondering if she was looking in from somewhere and at the same time I was so focused on the mission, and I coaxed it out of the gal, and she agreed and just then she put her hand on the inside of my leg and I had to feel her up a little. Even the old gals here wear those flimsy summer dresses. And I’ve got some juice left in me Kyle, I do! Anyway the long and short is she made a promise, and a promise is real around here, to get me in contact with the niece, and so I feel like James Bond doing what it takes with the women to make the mission work and besides, Henrietta loved James Bond. Especially when that guy Connery did it and it always made me jealous and I’m getting mad about it right now even though that was fifty years ago and I can feel my pressure going up, which reminds me I didn’t take my pill this morning. Damn. I’ll get back to you, Kyle.
Kyle, Dragan here and I’ve got news. The niece likes me. Milanka’s her name, Milanka. Yeah, I gave her my lines about wanting to kiss the ring of the Doctor, and how I was finally at home with my own race, a beautiful race I might add. Well, she agreed and then she said welcome home and she shook my hand and it lasted a bit of an extra long time and I swear it wasn’t my doing, it was hers. But Kyle, Kyle! She was looking straight into my eyes. Stars in her eyes. Stars in mine, too. I read that somewhere, in some book, but here, right then, I had it for real.
The widow was there when I met Milanka, and I could feel the jealousy oozing out of the old gal. Damn near had to give her the boot so Milanka and I could have a corner to ourselves. A Serb goddess, that’s what she is, Kyle. Okay she’s not nearly as young as you. You jealous yet? But let’s say a generation down from me. Damn, I wish I was a poet so I could paint you the full picture. That’s it for now, Kyle. I’m getting a little drippy in the nose. Sentimental.
It’s Dragan here. Don’t know where I left off. Could’ve been a million years ago. A week maybe. Guess that’s what happens when lightning strikes. She’s so soft. Milanka, I mean. Tells me she was lost until she found me. Man of her life and won’t I stay in Serbia to be with her. Truth is, Kyle, I’d be with her anywhere. Antarctica. I was worried when she took the cap off the old bald head but you know what she did? She rubbed it and smacked it with a kiss. I know what you’re thinking, she’s poor and has sugar daddy in her eyes, but it’s more than that and what do you know about love? Sorry, Kyle. To be harsh. But this is real as real can be. I hope you have it like this some day. Don’t worry, I’ll be good to her. All the time. I swear I will.
Kyle. You won’t believe it. I saw the Doctor today. Kissed his hand. Milanka and I are in Belgrade now, shacked up at the Hotel Moskva. She took me to him and she hugged him. The people here love him, call him a saint. I handed him a fat envelope, and I have to say, I felt a real presence, and I was thinking maybe he is a saint, after all … Shows you how the people feel, devoted people like Milanka, that he can visit here, right in the capital, and nobody breathes a word about it.
I can’t do it, Kyle. I can hear you talking inside my head, telling me to go out in a fairytale flash. Pushing me even though you only half meant it. I’m thinking that all along you were of two minds, two contrary minds, like Henrietta used to say. Pushing and pulling. And Henrietta would be proud of me, you said. Were you having some fun with me, seeing how far you could push me? That’s okay, Kyle, you were just testing your talents. Like we all do when we’re young. Doing me a favor without knowing it. It was your call. Joke’s on you, sort of.
I can’t do it, Kyle. But Kyle … you can do it. I’m sending this chip thing by overnight mail. It’ll be there in two days, maybe one. Make the calls, alert the NATO boys, tell ‘em where to find him. I didn’t catch a number, but it’s an old apartment block, third floor, on a little street called … called Bregalnova. B-R-E-G-A-L-N-O-V-A, two blocks down from the big road, Kralja Aleksandra. K-R-A-L-J-A A-L-E-K-S-A-N-D-R-A. It’s right across from the church. And get a photographer if you want, but it’s got to be fast because the Doctor moves around a lot. By the time you get this Milanka and I will be cleared out. Suppose I should thank you for all this. Maybe later I won’t. I don’t know, it’s all kind of crazy. But Kyle? Thanks. You can do it. You can.
The male nurse felt Kyle’s quivering fingers relax. Together, their two hands grasping the recorder slid from Kyle’s ear onto the pillow near his chin.
“Is the message over?” the nurse asked.
The weak nod of Kyle’s head left his mouth open and drooling. The nurse lifted the recorder from Kyle’s fingers and placed it on the bed, just beyond the ridges of Kyle’s folded legs. He gently wiped away the drool with a tissue as Kyle moaned, his tucked body vibrating beneath the sheet.
The nurse looked at his watch and injected more morphine into the intravenous line. He put his hand on the bony prominence of Kyle’s shoulder and stroked it lightly, thinking how all the ones with pancreatic cancer ended up small and baby-like.
The night-shift resident picked up the clipboard from the slot at the end of the bed. “How’s he doing?”
“Lots of pain. But he just listened to a recording from a friend. I guess it’s from a friend, or family.”
“Canc in the panc,” said the resident. “It always goes fast.” Through the rising tide of bliss in his blood, Kyle could still hear. “He’s too young for it. Should’ve happened to an older man.”
A smile formed in Kyle’s mind but never quite made it to his lips.
About the Author: Victor Robert Lee has lived and traveled extensively in East Asia, South America and the former Soviet states—territories that serve as settings for his fiction. His first two short stories in print appeared in 2015, in Arroyo and West Branch.