Good Man

A man contemplates the relative "goodness" of his life.

     I watched the people arrive in assorted vehicles. They walked up the grassy slope to join the rapidly gathering crowd. Some of them greeted new arrivals while others held themselves aloof, standing off to the side. My family was up at the front holding each other close, Papa supporting Mama as they stood next to a waist-high carved block of granite. I glanced at the inscription. The words etched in the stone were what one would expect: the deceased’s name, the sentiment Beloved Son and Friend, and the date of birth and death.

     The number of people who came surprised me. I wasn’t expecting such a large crowd. I expected my family and friends and some of my neighbors, but the majority of my employees were there as well as many of my business acquaintances. Of course, she was there, too, looking as beautiful as ever.

     A few weeks ago, I showed up at her apartment with a white pastry bag. She nearly fell over on three separate counts. First, I knocked instead of letting myself in as I usually did, but I was trying a new tack out of respect for her privacy. Second, I brought donuts, her favorite treat in the world. And third, I actually ate a jelly donut while she plunged into her second Boston cream. I never indulged in sweets, and she knew it. We sat silently chewing…well, I was silent and she gave out the occasional low moan of pleasure as she savored the sweetness.

     She didn’t say anything until she reached for her third donut. “Okay, what’s the catch?” she asked.

     She knew I didn’t like it that she ate so many sweets, and I’d never purchased them for her before. So, she was puzzled why I brought her donuts now. I could see the gears turning in her mind. She was so easy to read. She was thinking, ‘He must have bad news?’ It had to be that or maybe I was going to ask a really big favor of her…one she would normally say no to. Her guard came up.

      “What do you mean?” I asked, amused by the way her mind worked.

      “Why did you bring me donuts?” she asked between bites.

      “Because I know it makes you happy.”

     She stared, mid-bite, at me as I stretched my legs out under the dining room table. Her mind was racing a mile a minute trying to figure out if I had a hidden agenda. She changed tactics. “Why are you eating a donut?”

      “I wanted to see what it felt like to be that happy.” I popped the last of the cloyingly sweet pastry into my mouth and let out a throaty sound, trying it on for size. It always seemed to work for her, but for me it did nothing. However, I loved hearing her enjoy her food.

     She studied my blank face searching for minute clues as to my state of mind. “Well?” she asked.

      “Sweet, very sweet,” I replied, letting a slight frown show on my face.

      “Of course it’s sweet. That’s what makes it so good,” she exclaimed.

     I continued, “I understand why you like donuts…and cake, and anything else sweet, Babe. It has to do with the pleasure receptors in the brain.”

     Now her face scrunched up into a frown. She hated when I reduced her pleasure to simple biological fact. I knew the best way to erase that downturn of her mouth.

      “But this is how I prefer to stimulate my pleasure receptors.” I leaned across the table and licked the last bit of sweet cream from her lips before giving her a soft kiss. Her frown disappeared and her eyes got big, but she couldn’t hide the start of a smile. “I think you just need to try a different kind of stimulant,” I grinned, pushing back my chair.

     She rolled her eyes. She still wasn’t used to us being together, as a couple. For me, it just felt right…finally. We were still feeling our way through this new relationship, taking it slow. Don’t get me wrong…the sex was incredible. But she had decided we shouldn’t move in together yet, so I was biding my time and figuring out ways for us to spend more time together. Like bringing over donuts for breakfast.

     Now that I’d finally admitted I loved her, without any qualifiers, I realized how good we were together. We worked well as a team serving as complements to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We both worked as bond enforcement agents, more commonly known as bounty hunters. I was able to help her train a bit to shore up her physical stamina and self-defense skills. And she kept me smiling and even laughing out loud at times. I’d never been happier. My employees didn’t know what to make of my good mood. I was still amazed we made it this far without any roadblocks.

~~~~~

     We'd been friends and business associates for several years, and I'd tried on numerous occasions to move our relationship out of the friend category. But she had a long-time boyfriend that she kept seeing and then breaking up with, and then they'd get back together again. In those in-between times, I would try to insert myself into her life.

     Nearly a year ago, when they were in another one of their "off" phases, I approached her and did my usual testing of her guilt factor, expecting her to turn me away, as she usually did. She didn’t. Before it went any further than a heavy make-out session, I stopped. I wanted her; I’ve always wanted her. But this sick three-way cycle between her, him and me had become tortuous, and I needed to put an end to it. I couldn’t bear to have her to myself for a night or two, only to have her return to him in a few days.

     I assumed rejecting her like that would anger or hurt her, but either way it would send her back to him. I was wrong.

     I continued to keep my distance for months waiting for her to take back up with him. She didn’t. Not for lack of his efforts or her mother’s. They both went all out in their attempts to get her safely married and ensconced in his house and his life. But my Babe held strong and refused to go back to him, repeatedly telling him they were over. I heard all this through my second-in-command, who kept up on the local gossip through his girlfriend, who was friends with my Babe.

     After six months had passed, I started showing back up at the bail bonds office instead of having my second-in-command pick up the files on those fugitives who had skipped out on their court dates, forfeiting their bonds. The first time I ran into her there it was a bit awkward between us. She was cool to me, which was to be expected after I’d rejected her earlier advances. I wanted to do it right this time.

     I began by asking her to partner me to bring in several high-ticket skips. I was impressed. She came fully "dressed" with her gun in her shoulder holster. She was prepared for any number of scenarios. She hated guns but was finally learning to use them and keep them maintained. A couple of the skips required late night stakeouts and on those nights, we’d shared a casual dinner afterwards. When I dropped her off at her apartment, I gave her a searing kiss goodnight, but didn’t push any further. Just a little something for her to think about as she drifted off to sleep.

     She obviously wasn’t sure how she felt about me…about us. Nothing had really changed. I hadn’t offered a commitment, but I’d stepped up my game and was much more attentive.

     Things progressed slowly between us, but they progressed. She accepted my offer of a dinner date. A real date that involved dressing up, going to a nice restaurant, conversation and then…either I’d get invited up to her apartment or I wouldn’t. After the third date, I finally got invited up. That night was better than our first time together, which was saying a lot.

     A few weeks later, I asked her to move in with me, though I still hadn’t told her how I felt about her. She hedged, saying she wanted to take things a bit slower. I left it there…temporarily.

     Then, before I could make my big move…the one she couldn’t say no to…I was called up for a black op mission in South America. Several years ago, when I was discharged from military service, I had signed a contract with Uncle Sam to be available for certain special assignments that made use of the skills I'd acquired as a Special Forces operative. This was to be my last out of country assignment. My government contract was finally ending.

     A lot happened during that mission, including the entire team being captured by the local drug lord and held in isolation cells for two weeks. Solitary confinement, with nothing to do in between the torture sessions, gave me a lot of time to think…about life in general…and about my life in particular.

     I made some decisions and my Babe was one of those decisions. I’d waited long enough. I wanted a permanent relationship with her, whatever way she’d have me. I was also more than willing to compromise…hence the donuts.

~~~~~

      She reached for the final pastry…a cake donut with chocolate icing and rainbow sprinkles. Despite my personal aversion to the sugar and lard bombs, I knew all her favorites and I’d picked well. She relaxed as she bit into the donut. Her fears about me giving her bad news or an unpleasant job assignment were put to rest. She seemed to accept I did this just to please her.

      “You’re a good man.” She smiled and proceeded to polish off her last bit of breakfast.

     Her comment struck an odd chord within me and it caught me unaware. I knew she was just referring to me bringing her sweets, but I couldn’t help thinking about it in a much wider context. In fact, the more I thought about it, the stronger the chill that shot up my spine.

     During my recent imprisonment, I’d thought about a lot of things, but I hadn’t contemplated my level of ‘goodness’ versus hers. There was no doubt about her goodness. While she struggled with her own personal demons at times, her actions were basically good ones. She lived a decent life without hurting others.

     I couldn’t say the same about me. I’d taken many lives in self defense, but I’d also killed many of my targets in cold blood. I also knew that my actions had resulted in the deaths of many innocent lives. Some of their faces still haunted me when I let my guard down on sleepless nights. I could justify my actions by saying they were government-sanctioned kills or assassinations, but they were murder all the same.

     And being Catholic, though not a practicing one, I was pretty sure what fate awaited me. I didn’t think any amount of Hail Marys would grant me access to the pearly gates. It was doubtful my Babe and I would end up in the same place.

     It left me doubting my decision to start a permanent relationship with her. We both believed there was some kind of life after death. Was it fair to tie her down to me in this life when I wouldn’t be around for the next?

     I took one last look at her smiling face before I left her to the day. She had an aura of light and goodness about her. I, on the other hand, reeked of sin, of darkness and wrongdoing. I had some more to think about before I took the next step with her. 

~~~~~

      I reflected long and hard on that last mission. When the rescue team liberated us from the dungeon we’d been kept in, we were able to finish our mission with the added troops. After being held and tortured for two weeks, my team was in no mood for mercy. We did our best to level the jungle compound through the use of grenades and C4. We routed out the drug cartel’s men from every hiding place. No one was spared.

     My original target was the cartel’s El Hefe. For years, he’d been a bane in his country’s side as well as ours, running not only drugs, but also guns and human slaves. He was not a good man.

     After a fierce gun battle, I stood over the prone but conscious drug lord. He’d taken several shots to the chest and abdomen and didn’t have much longer to live. As he lay dying in the ruins of his empire, he spat out those memorable words that now came back to haunt me. “¡Te veré en el infierno!” [I’ll see you in Hell.]

     The flames were creeping into the room we were in. Did I put him out of his misery with a shot to the head or did I leave him to burn, in preparation for where he was going? He was right. I was going to Hell.

     Up until now, the thought hadn’t bothered me. But now that I’d decided I wanted a life with my Babe, I wanted the whole thing. I wanted her now, and I wanted to be with her forever. I obviously hadn’t thought this thing through.

     My team and I spent the rest of the day making sure no one in the compound survived. As we marched through the nearby village on our way to the extraction point, several of the locals stopped us and offered food, drink and their heartfelt thanks.

     The drug lord and his men had murdered anyone in the area who defied him, and enslaved the rest to do his bidding. The people in the nearby villages lost their sons to him as he recruited them for his army, and their daughters were taken as household slaves and prostitutes for his men.

     The next generation of young people in this village would escape that fate, or at least until the next drug lord moved in. That realization helped with my "goodness" dilemma. Every time I took out the head of one these ruthless syndicates, I saved many innocents who would never be impacted by them or their drugs. Like a ripple effect. Eliminating each El Hefe might save thousands of lives both in South America and across the world. But I still didn’t think that tipped me into the Heaven-worthy category.

     I know the priests would say I just needed to be truly repentant, and God would grant me eternal salvation. I also knew I would never be truly repentant. The men I’d killed deserved to die, and I would kill them again in a heartbeat. Even if I could say the ritual words to save my soul, He would know the lie.

~~~~~

      A couple of weeks after my donut breakfast with my Babe, I was on call for the graveyard shift. The alarm sounded in the middle of the night. One of the apartment buildings my security company managed was on fire. I called up my second-in-command to meet me there. I got there before him and before the fire department.

     There were people standing across the street in pajamas, dazed and milling about aimlessly. Suddenly, arms pointed to the burning building. I looked up. A young boy was beating his fists against a window on the third floor as thick black smoke billowed up around the building. There was no time to wait for the firefighters.

     I raced across the street and into the lobby, taking slow shallow breaths to keep the smoke inhalation to a minimum. In my race up the stairs, it looked like the fire started on the second floor and was moving rapidly upward. By the time I made it to the third floor, the halls were filled with heavy smoke. I stayed low trying to avoid the worst of it.

     I broke down the door to the apartment I thought the child was in and started searching. He was there, collapsed by the window, but still breathing. I scooped him up and retraced my steps. The smoke was so heavy I couldn’t see five inches in front of me. I held my breath for the several minutes it took to make my way down the stairs and out into breathable air again, but the smoke had taken its toll on my lungs. I could barely stand.

     A woman rushed up to me, holding out her arms and crying, “¡Mijo! Mijo! Gracias, Señor!” [My son! My son! Thank you, Mister!] I transferred the boy to her just as he coughed and started to cry. The mother burst into hysterical laughter and hugged her son to her chest. I led her across the street away from the leaping flames and crumbling structure.

     Before I turned away, the woman reached out with her free hand and grabbed my arm, saying, “Es un hombre bueno. Gracias.” [You’re a good man. Thank you.]

     A good man? I couldn’t help but think, ‘How many good deeds would I have to do to make up for my past sins?’ Could I even make up for my past?

     I was shocked out of my reverie by another screaming woman. She was shouting that she couldn’t find her child anywhere and feared he had gone back into the building to get his stuffed animal. I asked her what floor and apartment. She pointed to the corner apartment on the second floor.

     Again, I raced across the street and into the lobby. Flames were now in the first floor hallways. I made it up the stairs and to the corner apartment. The door was standing open and smoke filled the upper reaches of the room. I crawled on my hands and knees searching for a body. I found the toddler huddled under the dining room table. He reached out one chubby little arm to me while grasping his well-worn stuffed toy in his other. I lifted him up and wrapped him in my jacket, trying to protect him from the intense heat. He never said a word, but his fists doubled around my shirt as he clung to me.

     By the time I reached the hallway, flames were shooting up the walls and across the ceiling. I ran back into the apartment, grabbing a metal table lamp as I raced for a window. When I reached the living room window I swung the lamp into it, breaking the glass, and then used the lamp base to knock out as much of the remaining glass as I could. I leaned my upper body out as far as I could and sucked in a deep breath. A shout sounded from below, and I saw a welcome sight. My second-in-command was standing on the walkway beneath me. 

     I held out the child and he nodded. Dropping my precious bundle into his waiting arms, I slipped my upper body back in the now burning room and stuck one leg out the window just as the building collapsed around me.

~~~~~

      The crowd was now quiet and stood around the open grave. They listened as the priest spoke about a life well lived…blah, blah, blah. There was the occasional sob and, of course, my Babe was tucked under her father’s arm and cried uncontrollably. She never could stay dry at a funeral. Her father was talking quietly to his distraught daughter. I moved closer.

      “Honey, I know I’ve said this before, but if he had to go at such a young age, at least he died the way he lived, a hero, saving a child’s life.” She dropped her head to his chest trying to control her tears. I appreciated his words, and his gentle care of my Babe. He surprised me though when he told her about my visit to him the week before.

     He said, “There’s one thing I didn’t tell you. He came to me last week to ask for my blessing for you to get married.” She looked up and gave out a gasp. He went on, “We talked about a lot of things, including his company and his government contract. We also talked about our war experiences. He was concerned his past actions might negatively impact or harm you in some way. He was very protective of you.” Her father choked up a bit, but took a deep breath and continued.

      “I know local gossip made him out as a dangerous man, but, Honey… he was a good man. He loved you with all his heart and soul. I would have been proud to call him my son.” That started a fresh round of tears from my Babe. But when she saw the sadness in her father’s face, she put aside her own pain.

     Touching his cheek, she exclaimed, “I can’t believe he came to you and asked for your blessing. He obviously respected you, Dad.” She gave him a big hug.

     Her voice was soft, but I could still hear her words. “We wasted so much time, but the last few months were incredible. I know he loved me. He believed in me. He showed it in so many ways. Even in his will, he made me a partner in his business. I have to live up to his expectations of me. He made me want to be a better person. He was the best man I knew, besides you, Dad.” She tucked her head into her father's shoulder, and I could hear her racking sobs.

     I would give anything to be able to hold her one last time and tell her again how much I loved her…how much I was looking forward to our life together…to having children with her. Tell her how she changed my life for the better…made me want to be a better man. But I had nothing to give, nothing with which to bargain.

     My three best friends and business partners moved over to my Babe and her father. They had been my three brothers in arms when we were in the Army, and now they were acting as my brothers again. They surrounded my Babe in a fierce hug trying to ease her pain. I know her tears tore them to bits as it always did me. I watched helplessly as they and her father led her to a waiting car. They would have to take care of her and protect her now.

     I turned back to look over the last remaining attendees. My abuela was standing alone next to the grave, but suddenly stumbled. I reached out to help her, but of course, failed. Startled, she looked up, staring directly at me and spoke, “Nunca duda, mijo, tú eres un hombre bueno.” [Never doubt, my son, you are a good man.]

     I glanced down at the headstone and saw that something had changed. I swear the last phrase hadn’t been there a few moments before. It still started out with my name, followed by Beloved Son and Friend, but then something new had suddenly appeared. The phrase "He was a good man" was now etched in the granite.

     The darkness that had surrounded me the last few days left and a light filled me with hope…and love. I felt weightless, with no worries, no burdens, just an urge to move upward, toward the light. I had intended to fight leaving…to stay with her as long as I could, but now I knew we would be together again and, this time, it would be forever.

 

Never The End

 

 

tanna@tannathornburg.com © Tanna Thornburg 2014