a short story by Frank Diamond
Virgil Knotts puts his shoulder into the door of the trailer to open it—that door always needs a little convincing—and even before he crosses the threshold, the question’s thrown at him.
“Is it done?”
“You know the answer,” Virgil says.
“I knew the answer when you left this morning.”
Virgil sighs. The person asking the question—his ex, Gwen—isn’t real. Well, she is real; she exists somewhere. Last he heard in one of those towns in Western Pennsylvania brought back to life by fracking. Living with “Doctor Dubious,” the man she’d left Virgil for about 10 years ago. Gwen’s in the world, in other words, unless she died. People do die. People are even murdered. But one murder didn’t happen on this day.
Virgil takes the pistol out of his winter coat pocket, places it on the workbench he uses as a coffee table. He gets down on the ground, his belly squishing so that it’s hard to breathe. The familiar pain assaults his calves. Grunting and gasping, he reaches, grabs the pistol drags it across the floor to his other hand and shoves it all the way under the couch. He fights his way back to standing. He brushes himself off, limps to the window.
It’s flurrying. He’s tasted it in the air all day and it finally appears. Outside, flakes scurry about in the dusk settling over the collective of trailers parked according to some strategy devised by the charity that dumped them here; probably something to do with COVID-19. In the year 2020, everything’s about COVID-19. The charity castles squat in the parking lot behind the manager’s office, segregated from the rest of the trailer park.
“He destroyed our lives and you let him get away with it.” Gwen, again. Living rent free in his head.
“It wasn’t just Paul Seaver, Gwen.”
This is not actually the way Gwen—the real Gwen—behaved. If she had complained shrilly during their marriage, it might have been better, in a way. Virgil wouldn’t have been quite so blindsided when she ran off with Doctor Dubious. No, this Gwen-voice unveils what his wife had not spoken those years when the foundation of their marriage buckled under the weight of disappointment.
“You never recovered,” Gwen-voice reminds now. “We never recovered.”
“You’re OK, last I heard.”
“We never, ever recovered.”
If Virgil had killed Paul Seaver that day, would it have been murder or self-defense? Well, sure, society and its legal system would rule murder. The heat of a moment left to simmer for more than decade. An angry ex-employee—that’s probably a pretty common motive. But how far back would the cops trace the dots? It would be a mystery movie cliché´ in which umpteen people would have motive. No. Time erases dots. That’s the thought that sent Virgil out that morning on the hunt. He’d get away with it. It’s why he dragged himself into his battered 2014 Honda Civic with the 227,000 miles on it and the windshield wipers that smear more than wipe. He’d beaten the snow home. Give him that.
“Big whoop,” Gwen-voice says.
“Go away!” Virgil says, cracking open a beer.
Gwen-voice statements are what psychiatrists would call intrusive thoughts. Virgil’s learned to label them as such and let them swim around in his head until they swim off for a while. Sometimes, though—like now—he’ll make a stand and they back down; vampires shown a cross. But usually him trying to fight them off only strengthens them. He used to take medication, but he’s not currently insured. He’s not currently working. He’s not currently living—much—just existing on the little bit of money he’d inherited a few years ago when his mother died.
Virgil watches the first brittle coat of snow stick to the grass and the roofs of the other charity castles. Weather watchers say … what? Four inches? At least? Well, it’s not as if he’s going anywhere.
But who would find me if I died?
It’s a pathetic, lonely man’s question, he knows. He doesn’t plan on dying here but he did venture out today, passing too close to some people who hadn’t bothered to wear their COVID masks. He quaffs half his beer. Maybe the alcohol will act as a disinfectant.
Virgil avoids his neighbors. The one person who might care if Virgil died would be that Meals on Wheels fellow, Brian. He talks to Virgil when Virgil’s in the mood. Virgil told him some of his recent history, how he worked odd jobs that kept getting odder before the pandemic hit. He hasn’t looked for full-time employment since he went on disability when a 500-pound tool box fell on the back of his legs a few years ago. He couldn’t sue. He’d signed a waiver. These corporations, so many run by total incompetents who screw everything up. Yet, when it comes to firing or laying off people? That’s their Mona Lisa. At those things, they’re artists.
Virgil didn’t think that what Paul Seaver, that rat, did to him would have changed the course of his life. He’d worked for one company for many years in management and then a foreign owned company, J-TRON Diagnostic Services, bought the old company and the first thing J-TRON did was cap the severance of someone getting laid off at nine weeks. Scumbags. Virgil had been working at the company J-TRON had purchased for years. If the old regime had laid him off, he’d have gotten at least a year’s severance. Big difference.
J-TRON also decided to move their offices to a new building; an open-floor plan of course, which most employees hate and most top management love. They put Virgil in charge of the move. For more than a year he’d get calls at odd hours from Copenhagen (where J-TRON is based) about exactly how to go about pulling off this logistical nightmare. He had to reshuffle people, reshuffle schedules, reshuffle lives. But the life most reshuffled had been his.
“What is it with these idiot J-TRON people?” Gwen had asked.
“They are an unfortunate combination of clueless and soulless,” Virgil explained.
Gwen, a nurse, told him to ask his doc to prescribe Xanax, and an anti-depressant.
But even with the pills, Virgil’s last waking thoughts on many nights was “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” But he did do it. When the company moved into the new building they held a ceremony and Virgil was one of the—he hates say the word now, but it seemed appropriate at the time—bigwigs who made a speech.
The next day Paul Seaver laid him off. Well, Seaver, who liked to drop into conversations how he’d been in the First Gulf War, serving as an infantry captain, didn’t actually do the laying off himself. Coward. He left that to one of Virgil’s friends to do, a woman he’d known for years and who’d been an HR representative, but they’d officially moved her to another position, another department even. Still, when it came to doing the dirty work….
Virgil promised Gwen that he’d rebound. After all, he’d just pulled off something as logistically complicated as the Normandy Invasion. He was only 47; it wasn’t like in their parents and grandparents day when people his age were considered spent rockets. Why Virgil was just getting started. At the top of his game. He’d show them all. Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit, and then … and then … and then. A lot of and-thens that led Virgil to this place and this time.
He’d bought the gun during one of those and-thens when the loan sharks kept following him and threatening to and-then end him for good. Now, he’s 59.
“Yeah, but I could pass for 79,” he thinks. Drinking too much had been one of the and-thens.
He’d found out about Paul Seaver some weeks ago from the telly. The news was actually a rerun of the news given hours earlier and it played now as the lead-in to a syndicated sitcom that had petered out decades ago. The commercials were local and cheap and so awful that Virgil couldn’t look away. That night an almost familiar face popped up. A guy. Next to him, a woman.
“I’m Paul Seaver, along with my beautiful wife, Amy, and if you’ve been injured on the job, you need to see us. The always professional attorneys at Seaver and Seaver will get you every dime of workmen’s compensation you deserve.”
Virgil flicked off the TV. He needed to focus. He needed to figure things out. The trailer park Virgil lived in rested outside Philadelphia, in Bucks County. Paul Seaver, last he heard, was in Chicago. But not anymore. Obviously. There on the screen had been his phone number and business address. He wasn’t far away, about three miles down Old Lincoln Highway in an office park near Oxford Valley Mall.
“Hello, Paul,” Virgil thought. “Remember me?”
Several J-TRON bigwigs wound up going to jail for embezzlement and several others resigned during the #me-too movement. Then, the president of one division, Susan Borracki, caught her husband cheating on her and shot him dead. Talk about executive decisiveness. These were the people who could not drone on enough about how wonderful a company J-TRON was, how they kept holding up its “core values” as if they’d been chiseled on stone tablets. Four of them, as Virgil recalls: Integrity, Accountability, Something, and Something Else.
“I don’t remember joining a cult,” Virgil complained at the time. “I liked the old formula. You know, ‘I work hard for you. You pay me and basically leave me the hell alone.’” Any time he got a work email with “team” in the slug line, he winced.
“Here comes yet some more unmitigated corporate bullshit.”
Well, anyway, so much for Integrity. As one business magazine headline put it back then: J-TRON’S Rot Now in Plain View. The entire company nearly tanked. Paul Seaver wasn’t involved in any of these scandals. If he had been, if he’d been jailed and ruined it would have made things easier for Virgil. His revenge would have happened and he would not have had to lift a finger.
“Do it!” Gwen-voice had demanded. “You’ll finally be free of me!”
“You don’t exist,” Virgil pointed out.
“Are you talking to yourself, or are you talking to me, the one who doesn’t exist?”
“You need another beer, is what you need.”
For two weeks, Virgil took the bus to Oxford Valley Mall. No way he’d use the Civic; why put the getaway car in public view? People have patterns. The weather had been warm enough for Virgil to sit on a mall bench across from the office park where Seaver ran his law firm. Virgil stayed put from between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Just a guy passing time in the COVID era, reading a book in unseasonably warm late November days. Then he walked back to the mall entrance and took the bus home.
He knew that a camera somewhere might pick him up. But what with the mask, sunglasses, and hoodie, Virgil gambled that they’d never find him, even if they were smart enough to consider him a suspect. A good portion of the population looked like the Unabomber these days.
Seems as if Paul and Amy Seaver lunched at their desks or in the pantry, if the place had one. Except, on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On those days, Paul—without Amy—marches out the door, gets into his car and drives off in the direction of Virgil’s trailer park, south on Old Lincoln Highway.
It didn’t take long to find Seaver’s destination. Virgil took the bus, but got out at the first stop in Penndel. He went to the Wawa, ate a sandwich on the steps of a bowling alley. Then took the bus back home. The next day, he got out at the next stop down, went into a nearby pizza place, ate a slice, left, walked across the highway, and stood waiting for the bus that would take him back to his trailer. That’s when Virgil spotted Seaver turning up Bellevue Avenue.
Virgil had no way of knowing just how far Seaver would travel, but what harm in walking a few blocks up Bellevue anyway? It took less than a few blocks. The car rested in the lot of a Catholic Church. Virgil got the name of the church, went home and Googled it.
A pretty active parish with a lot of clubs and such—Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, adult choir, teen ministry and on and on. And—here we go—an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets Wednesdays and Thursdays at noon. He waited a couple of weeks, during which time the leaves fell and the weather turned and talk of the first major snowfall in the Philly area in over 600 days loomed. December 16, 2020. COVID kept spiking and the parish announced that all clubs and organizations would be suspended from December 18 until sometime in the New Year.
“How long are you going to keep putting this off?” Gwen-voice asked that morning.
“Today’s the day.”
A few hours later Virgil sits in a group of 12 masked strangers on folding chairs placed at least six feet apart. His head bowed as they recite: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The courage to change the things I can.
When Virgil first arrives and sees Seaver for the first time in over a decade, he’s thankful that his mask covers his face. Virgil knows how he appears when he silently rages. His lips are a hard line, his nostrils flair. His eyes for an instant betray the look of a sniper sighting his mark, but hopefully the glasses hide that.
Seaver greets him in a friendly but perfunctory manner, while directing the placement of folding chairs and positioning the podium further away from the group. He’s obviously in charge. Well, of course.
Virgil finds a seat in the back. Others file in. He reads them as best he can—a guy with bricklayer’s hands, a young woman with a backpack (probably a student), a man dressed in business casual (possibly just laid off). Others, he can’t quite get a bead on.
Virgil’s suddenly thirsty. He wishes he’d brought a bottle of water. Awkwardly, he stands, goes to the main lobby and slurps from the water fountain. Wipes his mouth on his coat sleeve and goes back inside.
Taking his seat again, he considers that there could be a web developer here or an accountant or a mechanic or an anesthesiologist. People who don’t forget details. People who could give the cops the information that would help them nab Virgil an hour after he pulls the trigger. Hell, there might even be a cop here. So much for the perfect murder.
“But you planned for this!” Gwen-voice reminds him.
He had. He filed down the VIN number on the Civic’s dashboard and inside the driver side door. And last night, he’d replaced his real license plate with one he’d found in the woods behind the trailer park. Sure, Virgil’s DNA will be all over the car, but—amazingly enough—he has no criminal record. After he kills Seaver, he’ll abandon the Civic and do without a car for a while. He’s lived without a car before.
Seaver looks up from the papers on the podium. The meeting begins.
“It’s difficult to tell because of the masks, but I think I see a couple of new faces,” Seaver says. “If this is your first time here, do you mind raising your hand?”
Virgil raises his hand along with a young man sitting in the back on a chair on the other side of the room and another young man in the front row, nearest the podium. So, two other possible suspects. Maybe Gwen-voice is right. Maybe now is the moment.
Seaver quickly reviews the ground rules. How you can tell your story or not tell your story. How to go about getting a sponsor. How everybody’s here to support everybody else. Seaver has put on weight and his hair’s graying. That much Virgil knows from the commercials. But something else is going on with him; something with his health. The hair on his eyelids is bright white, his breathing is labored. This man is not well.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Seaver says. “Especially you folks who haven’t been here before. Because I get emotional. I mean every time I tell my story. You’d think that by now my emotional immune system may have kicked in, but no. Anyway, here goes. My name is Paul and I am an alcoholic.”
Virgil does not completely abandon the plan during this speech. No. Paul Seaver will die for what he did to Virgil. And even if it turns out to not be the perfect murder, even if it turns out that the cops catch Virgil somehow, then Virgil will spend the rest of his life in prison. His life already is a prison.
“I was a real corporate climber,” Seaver says. “And I didn’t care who I stepped on. I’d use people and then discard them. I didn’t care. Eventually, I was only faithful to my next drunken load and faithful to that alone. Step 8. I continue to work on Step 8, which is where you make a list of everybody you may have harmed. It’s a work-in-progress that’s taking years. Step 9. Another work in progress. Make amends to those I’ve harmed when it’s possible. Still working on that one, too.”
People can change, Seaver explains. Pain makes people change. And when Seaver hit bottom—after he lost his career, his first marriage, any chance of a good relationship with his children—that’s when he said “enough.”
“I truly hope that the people that I’ve hurt in both my personal and professional lives can somehow, someway forgive me. Because maybe then, somehow, someway I can forgive myself. God already forgives me, I believe.”
Damn if Virgil doesn’t feel a bit sorry for this man who destroyed him. This man who got a chance for Act 2 and has obviously made the most of it.
Where’s my Act 2?
“See?” Seaver says, rubbing the wetness under his eyes. “Every time.”
Some of the others—those who’ve known him—titter. The newbies like Virgil simply smile, it is assumed, because, again, the masks.
“I don’t usually do this, as most of you know,” Seaver says. “I’m usually first here, last to leave but something’s going on on the work front the needs tending to. Fred will run the rest of this meeting. This week, I urge you to look at the parish bulletin online. We intend to continue with zoom. What else, right? Details will be in the bulletin.”
And just like that the intended victim escapes. Damn! It could be months before Virgil gets another opportunity. He’d already been planning to stay after, help straighten the room, put back the folding chairs and then he and Seaver would have found themselves alone.
That’s when Virgil would pull his mask down, draw the pistol.
“Do you know who I am?” he would have asked. “Do you know why I am doing this?”
Just like in that old movie “Munich.” Make sure that the guilty know why they’re dying.
Fred is speaking. “Paul just mentioned Steps 8 and 9. A nice byproduct of those are forgiveness. You’d be amazed at the capacity of people to forgive. Not everybody. Maybe not even most. But some do forgive. And then some tell me later that in that act of forgiveness, they themselves are made free. Don’t ever underestimate the power of forgiveness my friends.”
Gwen-voice isn’t letting that go unchallenged. “Never underestimate the power of justice. The power of closure. The power of knowing that the evil bastards out there will eventually get theirs.”
When the meeting ends, Virgil practically sprints by everybody. The others don’t seem to notice. Many probably do the one-and-done at AA meetings.
That was Virgil’s day.
By now the snowstorm kicks in a little more. There’s an inch on the ground among the charity castles, Virgil estimates. He sees that the snow half-covers the fake license plate on his Civic, so that’s good. His neighbors, whoever they are, might be nosy. He’d changed the plate last night. Backed the car in so that the front faces out. Still, you can’t be too careful.
He’d forgotten to panic-shop—eggs, bread, milk, beer, whiskey. The staples. Oh, well. Too late now. He goes to the fridge, checks on the supplies. Not much. He’s got bread and peanut butter. That will do for the half-day that he’ll be snowed in, despite all the hype about the storm. He sits on his couch staring at the TV, which is off.
In a few minutes, Virgil hears crunching outside, and he again goes to the window. A familiar Subaru Outback inches into the alcove and settles right beside Virgil’s Civic. Beauty and the Beast.
Virgil slips on his mask, and opens the door.
“Nothing stops you does it, Brian?”
Brian stands at the bottom of the trailer’s three steps holding a bundle of supplies by its handle. Snow makes him blink Virgil into view. An icy film covers his baseball cap.
“I’ve got enough for a week here, Virgil,” starting up the steps and extending the bag of food.
Brian hesitates. Virgil knows that his moodiness can put people off, and as he overheard someone years ago say, “You never know which Virgil you’re going to meet.”
Virgil now insists: “It is cold! Come on in!”
Brian steps into the trailer, walks to the fridge, squats and starts loading it up.
“I suppose you need to get on your way home before the roads get too messy,” Virgil says.
“They’ve done a good job salting.”
“Would you like a bottle of water? Hot cup of tea? I have something stronger, too.”
Virgil knows that part of the Meals mission is to keep shut-ins company, but it’s something that needs to be handled with delicacy. Some shut-ins don’t much long for company, including Virgil. But this day is different. This day Virgil came as close he’s ever come to killing another human being. His thought process needs an airing out and that usually happens with human contact. He remembers the late Sen. John McCain saying that the worst part of being a POW wasn’t being tortured or interrogated (often at the same time), but being locked in isolation. Denied human contact.
Brian’s shoulders slump. He pauses, glances back at Virgil, then begins transferring the remaining few meals.
“A cup of tea might be nice,” he says.
“You’re not worried about driving. I don’t want your wife hating me in case something goes wrong on the ride back.”
“The roads aren’t that bad and these days with the working at home because of COVID my wife welcomes any break she can get from me, Virgil.”
In a bit, they are sitting in the trailer, Virgil on his couch and Brian on a chair he pulled out of the kitchen and placed more than six feet away.
“You’re right, Brian. They’re overhyping this storm. Still, you arrived like the cavalry. You see how low I was.”
“Well, you’re fine now, Virgil.”
“I wish I could give you something in return.”
Brian stares down into his mug. He stays transfixed for possibly a five-count, but that’s a large break in a conversation and Virgil wonders if maybe Brian spots a bug or something floating the tea.
Looking up, Brian says: “But you have, Virgil.”
“You have no clue, do you.”
“My name is Brian McAllister.”
Virgil says nothing.
“Does it not register, Virgil?”
“Funny, but when you laid me off you told me that it was the hardest thing you ever did. That it would haunt you to the grave.”
“Ah, now it’s coming back.”
Virgil had forgotten. Cuts needed to be made. Copenhagen had said a lot hinged on that, including Virgil’s bonus. He did it and then a few days later they did it to Virgil—he never got the bonus.
“Without the mask, I would have recognized you,” Virgil says.
“No. I don’t think so.”
Brian’s looking smug. Enough of this.
“What do you want?”
“Well, that’s where it gets complicated, Virgil. When I saw your name on the list, I thought ‘too good to be true.’ And the first couple of times I delivered, it made me feel good to see you brought so low. It did. I am ashamed to say. But it didn’t take it away.”
“Hatred. The need for revenge. Look at you. Look at this. How much lower do I want you to go? You know, I actually thought about killing you.”
“Don’t worry, Virgil. Something strange came over me. I realized that I could never, ever get rid of this feeling that’s been eating at me all these years, and killing you would make it worse.’
“I really am sorry, Brian.”
Virgil just says that, but saying it makes it real. He is sorry—and surprised.
“Don’t be, Virgil. I rebounded. I made a great living. Early retirement. Now I help out charities. Still, I realize that only one thing can make me whole.”
Virgil doesn’t ask: “What?”
“I forgive you, Virgil. It took me all this time to realize that that’s the only thing that can set me free from what goes on up here.” He taps his head. “The hells that each of us can build for ourselves.”
“I’m supposed to thank you for not killing me?”
“You gloat over my….”
“Well, that’s another thing. The Virgil Knotts I remember was a very talented and efficient and, I’ll say it, humane man. I’m on the county chamber of commerce. You clean yourself up, and I think I can help you get a job that’s somewhat a match for your abilities.”
Virgil closes his eyes. Too much information all at once. He pulls his mask down.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I told you,” Brian says. “To repay you for showing me that forgiveness is the answer. I forgave you and you will never know how freeing that’s been.”
“Let it sink in, Virgil. I know it’s a lot.”
The words seem to come from somewhere else, as if Brian throws his voice. In fact, what with the snow and the darkening day, the whole scene makes Virgil feel a bit weak. Is this real? he wonders as they they talk a little while longer, about the rough structure of Virgil’s new life; the Act 2 that this forgotten man wants Virgil to have.
“I wanted to make sure that you’d be something of a decent bet,” Brian says at one point. “I know you went to that AA meeting today at the church. That showed me. You’re worth the gamble.”
“I keep the liquor in that cabinet,” Virgil says.
“And I’ll be taking it with me,” Brian says. “That and the beer in the fridge. Can you do this?”
Brian would give him $20,000 of, as he put it, seed money for Virgil’s new life.
“I think I can do it,” Virgil says.
“Well, like I said: a gamble.”
It is dark when Virgil shows Brian to the door; or shows him to the door as much as somebody can while still social distancing.
“Forgiveness,” Virgil says.
“Worked for me.”
As Brian’s Outback begins inching its way to the highway, Virgil standing at the doorway lifts his hand, something of a wave and something of a blessing that’s not really Virgil’s to bestow. That’s when another vision intrudes. It appears in a swirl of snow under the outside light of the manager’s office. Virgil and Paul Seaver stand face to face. It must be the future because neither wears a mask. It isn’t the past because they embrace and slap each other’s back.
“Thank you,” Virgil thinks.
With that, Virgil accepts this image as destiny, and he realizes—he simply knows—that he will never again hear Gwen-voice.
He’s committed the perfect murder, after all.