September 1999

The Commoner's Guide To Suicide.

'And that place which gave you your bearings will always reside within you complete. And of those places and circumstances, only those that offered resistance to one's being will ever produce individuals worth their words.'

    -Harper Grey, 'Street Oracle'

Step One: Life is like bread. It's great at first and as time passes it gets harder.

Eli was very quiet. And by quiet I mean that he never spoke, not that he was soft spoken. In fact, Eli didn't utter a word to another living thing until he was almost seven years old. And he did so only to get the attention of a dog so that it didn't get hit by an oncoming car. There are events in every life that shape our individuality. If that dog had heard Eli in time it probably would have gotten out of the road. As it happened, the dog didn't hear him. And Eli didn't speak again until he was seventeen. What was the point.

Eli Lemski was one of those outer rim kids that went undetected by social radar. Raised by his father, an obsessive - compulsive aeronautical engineer, Eli spent most his childhood sitting in various rooms starring at things. By the time he was twenty-one there wasn't one millimeter of any of those rooms that he hadn't spent fourteen hours looking at without moving. This, of course, made him one of the most observant people of all time. And though Eli would spend most of his early life searching for his one true worldly gift, it always escaped him that his power of observation was it. The downside to that, of course, is that it only pays if you decide to count cards at Blackjack tables. His alternative, as it turned out, was much worse.

Due to the fact that Mr. Lemski worked mostly on military contracts, Eli and his father spent a great deal of time moving from one place to another. And as Eli's speech problem became worse it didn't make a lot of sense to Mr. Lemski for Eli to attend regular schools. Being the egotist that he was he assumed that his son had inherited his intellect and wouldn't need to waste his time being dragged down by slower kids. So Eli went to school via the mail. And, to his father's dismay, it became clear that he was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. So Eli squeaked through his scholastic life and received his high school diploma in a large manila envelope. And although the water damage to that envelope had turned most of the diploma into a runny mess, Eli was still able to make out the two most important words on it. And those were Eli Lemski.

As this story's narrator (and a participant), I always found it strange that a man like Leo Lemski (PHD), would have the gall to think his son just as brilliant as himself and yet allow him to get an education by correspondence. When I first met Mr. Lemski I realized immediately that this was the kind of man that could care less whether or not Eli did anything at all with his life. Leo was so self absorbed that he rarely spoke to his son, let alone giving a damn whether or not he excelled scholastically. But he used to love using Eli's mediocrity as an excuse to blow off steam. And due to the fact that Eli never raised his voice in his own defense it just made it all the easier. Either Leo or Eli were big men. They were slight, gangly creatures with sunken eyes and hands that seemed too large for their arms. But unlike his father, Eli was not an awkward person. He was graceful and moved as though he was trying to elude some force that constantly stalked him. That was the first thing I noticed about him when we first met. That and the fact that he could shoot as if he were the god of marksmen come to earth. And that's where I come into it. I was the one that took Eli to the shooting range that afternoon when we were both twenty-one. My father, unlike Leo Lemski, was not an engineering genius. My dad was a test pilot. And before he was killed he worked with Leo on a couple of projects for the airforce. That's how I came to meet Eli. One morning my dad asked me if I would take Eli with me to the shooting range as a favor to Leo. I was staying with my dad during spring break and was due back at college a couple of days later. So, since the base was just as boring as every other airbase in the world, I figured it couldn't hurt. My dad warned me that Eli didn't talk much but I wasn't prepared for what I'd find when I met him. Of all the people in this world and out of it, Eli Lemski only chose to talk to two of them. Myself and his mother, Irene. The difference being that I was alive at the time and Irene hadn't been for almost nineteen years.

Now let me clear something up before you start to get the wrong impression. Even though I was taking Eli to a shooting range I was not a proponent of firearms. To tell you the truth if I had my way they'd all be melted down and turned into blue-steel candleholders. During my four years at Stanford an ex-girlfriend of mine was killed by a guy at a house party. He thought the gun wasn't loaded and started waving it around. Unfortunately when he got to the 'bang-bang you're dead part' the barrel just happened to be pointing at her head. So she's dead, I spent a couple years in therapy, and he did some time for involuntary manslaughter (exactly nine months, two weeks, and twenty-seven days). Sometimes having an influential father and good lawyers can get you out of anything. It doesn't matter than the gun wasn't registered or that he was stoned on cocaine at the time. Forget all that. They protested that it was all just a big accident and why ruin the boy's life. Well, I'm sure they'd see it differently if it had been their daughter on the other end. So let's just say that I was never all that fond of guns. Even before the 'accident' I never could stand them. But growing up in a military family you have little choice as a boy. If your father wants you to learn to shoot then you shut the hell up and you do it. Because sometimes the fear you have of disappointing your father is stronger than your convictions. So I did what I always did. I went and shot off some rounds at the range so the good-o'-boys down there could tell my dad that I'd done it. And on that particular occasion I just so happened to bring along a treat from them. Eli Lemski.

You know how there are some things that when certain people do them they just seem right? It's like driving or cooking or having sex. Eli Lemski was a natural marksman. He could hit anything at any range as long as the weapon could perform the task. The day that I picked him up I was initially a little peeved at my old man for making me do it. Eli was dressed in the same thing that he was always dressed in. A white button-up short sleeve shirt, dark brown pants, and old leather shoes. His hair was parted on the side and pasted to his head as if he'd bathed in motor oil, and his glasses were far too big for his face. But put a gun in that boy's hands and it's like watching God creating the universe. When we got to the range he just followed me in and watched as I squeezed off a few rounds from a 45. I offered him the gun and he meagerly stepped to the line and shot off five rounds right on top of each other without so much as blinking. His body didn't even seem to move. The flurry of reports brought over some of the regulars and we just stood there and watched him fire clip after clip. All afternoon he hit nothing but chests and heads.

So that was my first encounter with Eli Lemski. After I finished the semester at Stanford I returned to Texas in the summer of 1982 and spent a great deal of time with Eli. I even got him to talk to me a little. But that summer was the last time that I would see him for almost five years. The next time we'd run into each other would be in a Manhattan alleyway. I was puking and Eli, well, Eli was working.

Step Two: Canceling yourself because you've been stolen.

After I graduated from Stanford I spent some time working in the Bay area before I realized that I was getting nowhere and didn't like myself much. So I did what every good American kid does. I fucked off. I traveled the country in search of that thing that America is supposed to be. You never find it of course, but at least it made me realize that the 'thing' everyone's always talking about never really existed. It's just Saturday Evening Post memorabilia bullshit. How in the hell do you have a country where the cradle of our government and historical fortitude exists in a vacuum with the highest crime rate in the union? Figure me that one. The first world is a farce. It's a comedy about a comedy where perfection re-enacts day to day life and then feeds itself to the populace and convinces them that it's a reflection of continental reality. Everything's okay, damn it, everything's always a-okay. I'm sure there will come a time when we're on the other side of the fence and others will view us with pity. There will come a time when our greatness resembles that great snake which feasts upon it's own tail because there's nothing left for it to eat. We will, in short, consume ourselves through consumption. Thus is history. Just a spinning wheel that we're tied to blindfolded. And what no one knows is that the guy throwing the knives is blindfolded too. So that's what I learned in the two years that I traveled this great land. That and the fact that I should have just stayed in San Francisco and stopped complaining.

But that's how I ended up in New York. A friend of mine from college was an ad-man out there and I looked him up. At the time I was broke, looked like shit, and had two changes of clothes to my name. I explained to him what I'd been up to and it didn't seem to bother him much. You can never tell how people from your past are going to react when you show up penniless on their doorstep and they're well to do. He was one of those guys that went in for all that 'success equals happiness crap'. He and his wife had matching Mercedes with signature plates. One was 'Jack B' and the other was 'Tara B'. A little scary if you ask me but I wasn't about to bring it up. His sofa was more comfortable than any bed I'd slept on in over six months. He'd changed since school, as most people tend to, but I wasn't about to judge him for it. After all, who they hell was I anyway? So there I was. Showered, shaved, and ready to hit the town. Jack had made reservations at an upscale place near the park and had conveniently done it on a Tara's bridge night. So it was just Jack and I. We had dinner and then proceeded to get drunk at a nearby bar. That's when I began to realize that everything in Jack's life wasn't as perfect as I had suspected. He'd had affairs with younger women, was a boarder-line alcoholic, and was so in debt that bankruptcy might be his only way out. Tara knew nothing about any of it of course. Wives in situations like that rarely do. They just keep doing whatever it is that they do and don't really care. Because there's always another Jack out there. And like most Jack's, they're always good for ten years of comfortable false happiness. But that's how I ran into Eli again. Puking my guts out in the alley next to the bar.

It's expected that people you knew in your youth become things that might make you look at them differently. Take Jack. I would have never thought that he'd move to New York and live that sort of life. In school he was the guy the stayed at home and listened to heavy metal all day. But things are never what they seem most of the time. And as for the future, it never is. So there I was, puking my guts out in an alley when I caught a glimpse of someone jumping from the bottom rung of a fire escape. Now the fact that I was in New York sobered me a little. When figures jump from fire escapes in alleyways you tend to get a little wary. It wasn't until I heard my name that I calmed down enough to turn around and see who it was. And, of course, it was Eli. He was standing there with a strange grin on his face, and I say strange because I had never seen him smile or make any other facial gestures for that matter. He was wearing his usual attire accompanied by a beige trench coat. At first I thought there was a design on the coat. And then I realized that it was blood. Lots of blood. So, I did what anyone in my position would have done. I puked some more.

Unfortunately Eli wasn't in the mood to stand around while my guts churned and anti-gravity forced itself from my insides into the open world. By the time I realized what was happening I was being shoved into the backseat of some shit box half a block down. Jack was nowhere to be seen; though I would later learn that he had met a young accounting intern and had spent the night wallowing in her arms somewhere in midtown Manhattan. Coincidentally, Tara had been doing the same thing in New Jersey. It seems that she had been sleeping with some rather famous defense lawyer for quite some time. But that comes later. At the time I was concerned that Jack wouldn't let me stay with him if I was rude enough to skip out on our little get together. I was lying in the backseat of what I thought was Eli's car when we came to a sudden stop and Eli motioned for me to stay put. Chancing a quick peek out the front windshield I realized that we were somewhere near the water, but where I couldn't be sure. Some time passed before Eli returned and pulled me from the backseat only to shove me into another one. He then proceeded to pour gasoline in his car and set fire to it. And that's all I remember about that night. When I woke up the next morning I was lying on a sofa in a small apartment somewhere in the Bronx. Eli was sitting at a small table drinking a cup of what I guessed to be coffee and cleaning a variety of handguns. Oh God, what had I done.

Step Three: Strange things happen to ordinary people and visa versa...

If he had become a cop or a soldier I could have stomached it a little easier. But there was no way that I could ever come to terms with the fact that he actually killed people for money. This was the same guy that hadn't spoken for months on end. He was one of those people that looked like he wouldn't hurt a fly, let alone another person. But that's exactly what he did. He killed people for money. He had found his one true worldly gift. And to Eli that's all that mattered.

The ridiculous thing about it was that he didn't much like what he did. He didn't enjoy his work and didn't really have the mentality to go with the profile. But he had convinced himself that there was nothing else in the world that he could do as well. And, like so many others, he just simply accepted it. It might sound strange to you but it really isn't all that weird. People spend decades doing the nine to five thing and hate every second of it. But they never do anything about it. Why? Because they convince themselves that there isn't anything better out there. They're comfortable with the fact that they know their job and can do it well enough to remain somewhat unconscious day in and day out. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it always ends up creeping into every other aspect of your life. Now I'm not saying that there aren't exceptions. In lower class situations you do what you have to do. Most of the time you just don't have any choice in the matter. That may be difficult for some of you to swallow but it's the hard truth. All those lofty dreamer types out there that disagree have the luxury of disagreeing because they've never been in that position. Like the saying goes 'walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you open your big fucking mouth'. There is no dishonor in spending a life providing for your family. There is no dishonor in doing work that others might consider beneath them or trivial. There are hundreds of millions that do those jobs and are happy that they have them. That's the stoic simplicity of the blue-collar existence. Making the word go round never was that easy. But someone's got to do it.

So that's how I found Eli. Trapped in a line of work that he didn't particularly like but was good at. Besides that he hadn't changed much. When work came in someone would give him a call and he would go and pick up a package somewhere. Usually there was just a couple of photos and an address. Sometimes, if he was lucky, there was a reason provided. But Eli didn't much care about reasons. As far as he was concerned he had found his one true gift. And that was good enough for him. But as I sat there I couldn't quite put all the pieces together. How does the introverted son of an egomaniacal engineer go from a life of quite redundancy to one of a hit man? For the life of me I couldn't figure it out. So I decided to be blunt and just asked Eli to tell me. So he did.

It all started the year my father died. Eli was still living with his dad and was working part time at the shooting range. From what I could gather he took the job simply so that he could shoot after work for free. Later that year Leo Lemski suffered a stroke and Eli was forced to put him in a home. It never ceases to amaze me how things always even out in the end. I'm sure that if Leo had given a damn about his son then maybe Eli would have taken care of him. But Eli had no reservations about dumping his dad off in some home. As far as he was concerned he was just some stranger that yelled at him. So Eli ended up getting a job stocking shelves at a supermarket in Houston and got a small place of his own. And that's what he did for the better part of a year. He stocked shelves. At the end of that year he had saved up enough money to buy a used car and decided to give up his apartment in favor of living in the car. He said he did it primarily to save money but I would venture to guess that it was either the apartment or the car. So Eli was working at the supermarket and living in his car. Ain't it just like fate to make that decision seem poignant when it was nothing more than a fluke.

So here's how it happened. One night Eli left work late and was searching for an acceptable place to pull over for the night and sleep. He was driving around at about 2am when he came to a hard stop at a red light. This caused a great deal of crap to come flying up from the backseat and fill the passenger side of the car. So Eli started to throw stuff into the backseat. And that's when it happened. Parked on the other side of the street there was a van. And in the van there was a big guy sitting in the driver's seat. The rear doors of the van were open and just as Eli's eyes came upon them he saw another man hit a women and then throw her into the back of the van. Eli's first reaction was to say something. But remembering the whole dog incident from his youth he decided not to bother. Maybe the girl would be alright if he kept his mouth shut. He was good at keeping his mouth shut. It was his specialty. Unfortunately the large guy sitting in the driver's seat of the van noticed that Eli had seen what was going on. So he decided to get out of the van and walk over to the passenger side window of Eli's car. Now, any normal person would have hit the gas and gotten out of there. But Eli just froze. The guy started banging on the window and kept yelling 'you didn't see nothin' you little shit! Nothin'!' Now if Eli had simply nodded his head it would have been over right there. But Eli didn't do anything. He just sat there looking from the guy pounding on the window to the other guy standing at the back of the van. And that's when the big guy decided to smash Eli's window. The rest happened so fast that Eli couldn't really go into any detail. All that he could recall was that he went for his gun in the glove box, chambered a round, and fired through the broken window. The big guy fell to the ground and the guy behind the van went for something. What that 'something' was turned out to be was an AK47. Eli didn't know that of course. He was lost in some strange mental time warp that had taken control of his body, superceding the authority of his rationale. His primary reaction to the man's movement was to get out of the driver's side door and stay crouched behind his car. Luckily it was the right call. After producing the machinegun, the guy at the back of the van proceeded to empty and entire clip into Eli's car. But seeing as the guy couldn't shoot for shit he didn't hit the gas tank. He just took out all the windows and put some rather attractive holes in the quarter panels. Eli was hit in the leg by a bullet that ricochet off the pavement under the car and caught him in the upper thigh. So Eli's reaction was to come straight up and return fire through the blown out backseat windows. And because van boy was trapped in that 'I've got a bigger gun than you so I'm invincible' state of mind, he didn't think to take cover while reloading. And like I've said throughout this story, Eli was the best shot I've ever seen. He took the guy with a single bullet to the side of the head and that was that. The light turned green, a variety of sirens popped up in the distance, and Eli realized that there was a rather unattractive hole in his leg. So he did the decent thing. He passed out.

So here's the kicker. The girl that had been thrown into the back of the van was the runaway daughter of a New Orleans gangster. It seems that daughter and father had had an argument several months earlier and she had left New Orleans for Houston with some biker. Broke, and accustomed to feeding a hefty drug habit, she soon turned to prostitution and wound up working for the wrong guys. As it turns out, the same two guys that Eli shot dead. So when the police showed up they questioned the girl and she basically made Eli out to be her savior. The whole thing was chalked up to self-defense since the cops were familiar with the two dead pimps and didn't really give a damn either way. Eli's gun was conveniently misplaced by an officer and the girl, after being identified, was sent back to New Orleans. So now you've got this gangster that's been reunited with his only child after several months of worrying and wondering where she was and on top of it all he learns that some complete stranger saved her life. The fact that she left out the part about being a prostitute had little to do with the fact that the man felt indebted to Eli. So he decided to do something about it. And you know gangsters. When they set their minds to something, well...

The world of crime works in a very specific way. If you've got enough pull you can find out just about anything you want in a matter of hours. So all it took was a phone call from New Orleans to Dallas and then from Dallas to the Houston PD to find out the actual specifics of that night. Another quick call to the hospital that treated Eli revealed his place of employment (as he obviously had no fixed address). So after the gangster soundly beat his daughter for lying to him (and disgracing his family by whoring herself) he sent a couple of guys to Houston to pay Eli a visit. It was as simple as that.

When Eli was released from the hospital a week later he was met by two men that ushered him into the back of a limousine. At first Eli was a little concerned that the men were affiliated with the two guys that he had shot and it was curtains. But after one of the men explained the whole thing to him he found it considerably easier to relax. Eli had no thoughts either way about organized crime. During the time that I spent with him it seemed to me that he always gave people the benefit of the doubt, no matter their position in life. So he wasn't all that against the fact that he was being flown to New Orleans mere hours after being wheeled out of a hospital door. After all, we're talking about a guy who stocked shelves at a supermarket and lived in his car. So Eli got on the plane, flew to Louisiana, and met the gangster. And that's where his life took a swing for the worse. As it turns out, the gangster's idea of repaying Eli was to give him a job. And, because it paid better than stocking shelves, Eli wasted no time in accepting it.

So Eli spent some time in New Orleans doing odd jobs for the mob. At first he did menial things like opening car doors, transporting goods, what have you. It wasn't until the summer of the next year that he was invited along on a 'special assignment' with a couple of the boss's regulars. So it was in Baton Rouge on a rainy night that Eli Lemski took part in his first professional killing. He was merely the driver but that's all it took to get him started. Once his knowledge of guns became apparent to his co-workers he started taking part in more 'special assignments'. By the winter of that same year Eli was one of the boss's favorite triggermen and feared by almost everyone that surrounded him.

Like I said earlier, the world of crime works in a specific way. There were those in New Orleans that didn't like the fact that an outsider had moved from errand-boy to hit man in a little over a year. They were concerned that the boss was becoming too attached to this kid who, it has to be said, would never be a candidate for real membership. So, after the boss was tipped off that someone was going to try and rid the organization of Eli Lemski, he decided to so the decent thing. After all, Eli had saved his daughter's life and that meant more to the boss than it did to those around him. So he sent Eli to Chicago and set him free.

It was in the windy city that Eli became an 'independent'. Because of his affiliation with the mob in New Orleans he got enough work to build up a decent sized clientele. And, like any business, that's how the cream rises to the top. Eli was efficient and extremely thorough. And because he tended to keep his mouth shut most of the time, those that employed him got the impression that he had been doing this sort of thing for much longer than he had been. See, Eli's lack of verbalization gave him that whole no nonsense hit man kind of quality. It made him seem more professional and dangerous. Not that anyone in their right mind would ever consider Eli dangerous if they saw a picture of him, but if you knew what he did for a living and met him you'd understand. So his business flourished as word spread and, like some hip new bistro, Eli became the go-to-guy for all the jobs that no one else would touch. And he pulled them off. Every single one of them.

So that's how he ended up in New York. After his profile in Chicago got a bit too large (so much so that the police were watching his apartment at night) he decided to pack it in and move to New York. And that's where he was when I met up with him. Standing quietly in the middle of a shit storm observing the clouds of his eventual demise.

Step Four: There's always something better out there. It's in here that's the problem.

I spent the better part of two weeks with Eli after thanking Jack for his hospitality. He really didn't even notice that I was leaving since he and Tara had both decided to simultaneously confess to their affairs. So Jack's life went into the shitter and I took a cab to the Bronx to stay with Eli. And it was during those weeks that I found myself for the first time. In a small, lonely apartment in the middle of a mass of humanity. It was there that I realized that I, myself, would be the only one accountable for my own happiness. Everything and everyone else just didn't matter somehow. And through that I discovered that eventually I would have to make sure that they did.

Eli spent most of his time just sitting in the kitchen looking out the window. I found it sad that he had lived a life inside himself and surfaced only to find a hideous reality in which he found little comfort. Of all the people I've known in my life Eli deserved the greatest amount of happiness. Simply because he never asked for anything. Simply because nothing was ever asked. There was a time when I used to dream that Eli had settled down and got married. He'd bring his kids over to my place and we'd sit around and talk about sports and politics and life in general. But I always awoke to the realization that Eli killed people for a living and would never know the simple pleasures of such activities. And you know, somewhere in there I realized that there isn't anything premeditated about us, even though we do our best to convince ourselves otherwise. There's just a long fly ball to center field and the sun's in your eyes. So maybe you come up with the ball, maybe you don't. The only thing that separates us as human beings is the specifics of the play. Everyone's got their own different concerns. So maybe you're going back for that ball and there's runners in scoring position and your team's down a run. Maybe the bases are empty and it's only the second inning. It doesn't really matter in the end, you see. It's whether you catch the damn ball or not that matters. Because that's just you, singularly, tested by both the ball and yourself. The sun's just in your head. So let it go.

For those two weeks I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what to do next. Eli's situation, though giving me ample excuses to wax poetic on life and it's mysteries, was none the less making me rather uncomfortable. So at the end of those two weeks I decided that my great American adventure had come to an end. I rationalized this by telling myself I had uncovered everything that I had set out to find. It was a lie of course, but then again what mostly isn't these days. I came to the conclusion that I'd head back to San Francisco and give writing a serious go, even though I had a degree in biology and didn't know the first thing about publishing and the rest of it. So I left Eli standing at the door to his apartment block and got into a cab. He waved a slight wave and quickly returned to the confines of his sanctuary. I continued on to JFK and then home to Austin for a while before returning to coast. My mother had been kind enough to spring for my flights so I couldn't refuse a quick stop over at home to appease her never ending complaints that I rarely endeavor to visit or call. And that was the last I saw of Eli Lemski. We would never cross paths again.

Step Five: Guts enough to swallow hard and just do what you gotta.

As I sit here years later I am comforted by the fact that I took the time to explain myself. My wife often asks me whether or not I'm contented with the fact that I write children's books for a living. And I always reply 'it's better than stocking shelves in a Houston supermarket'. Of course, she has no idea what I mean when I say that and I've never told her the whole truth about Eli and what he did. A few years ago I published my first work of adult fiction entitled 'Street Oracle'. During my research for that book I decided to look up Eli as one of the characters was loosely based on him. To my dismay I came across his name in a New Jersey newspaper. It seems that his body was discovered in an Atlantic City dumpster a few days after his death. He was shot in the head at point blank range multiple times. It's something I try not to visualize but often do. I wonder whether his eyes were open or closed. Because it makes me depressed to think that, even in death, he was robbed of his one true worldly gift. The power of observation. And it seems strange to me that for someone that was so observant he could never see that it was always right in front of his face. Maybe if I hadn't taken him to the shooting range then he'd still be alive. Blaming myself always seems easier than looking for another reason, even if it is just a blind alley. That way a part of him remains in me and I remember everything. Because remembering is important. Maybe of the utmost importance. The thing that burns me the most is that for someone like Eli there are never any easy roads or happy endings. Life just happens like it's paint by numbers and you only have one colour. Maybe just red.

So now I write books for kids and my biggest critics are my two daughters. And you know, that ain't so bad. So this one's for Eli Lemski. And maybe a little for me as well...

Once there lived a boy who loved to look outside of his window. And on the other side of that window was a world filled with secrets that only he knew of. And so he stayed inside of his house so that he could watch all the other people stumble over and around all of his secrets. And it made him smile. Because only he could see them...

Rest easy people.