The Only Reason to Kill
A train trip from Cologne to Groningen in December can be a delight. The train snakes like a silver wire through a snow-clad landscape. Icy winds race south from Scandinavia, scouring the tops of fields, piling snow along hedgerows, and flinging ice crystals in dizzying bursts. Golden daylight erupts in fiery coronas, its light reflected and refracted a thousand times by the ice and snow. To see this explosion of pure and frozen light from behind great glass windows in the relative comfort of a heated cabin was why Paul Fussler had booked this trip. The light brought back to him his wife of forty years, his wife now dead for a decade, who had first made this trip with him in December thirty-five years earlier.
Unfortunately, that was not the trip he got. Dreary gray skies had rolled off the North Sea, hanging like a pall that blotted out the late afternoon sunlight. And thanks to mechanical failure, the heating apparatus was not working. Passengers stayed in their coats and hats, and their warm breath collected in drops that froze to a soft frost on the windows, further obscuring their view.
Paul consoled himself with the facts that he was alone in his compartment and that he’d brought The Brothers Karamazov with him. What better time to read Dostoevsky than under a leaden sky during short, cold days? He was old and content with simple joys, but, alas, even this joy was to be stolen, for when the train stopped in Uelsen, a tiny German town near the Dutch border, a clear-eyed young man boarded, strolled through the cars, and spotted the empty seats opposite Paul.
As the young man yanked the compartment door open, Paul dropped his head against his headrest, closed his eyes to mere slits, and feigned sleep. The young man jostled Paul with his backpack, muttered in English, and—after collapsing into a seat opposite Paul—actually poked him in the kneecap to see if he was awake. Getting no reaction, the newcomer settled into his seat, buried his hands in his coat pockets, and stared glumly at the icy window. Within seven or eight kilometers, he had fallen asleep. After another ten kilometers or so, when Paul was sure he would be safe from disruption, he sat up straight, stretched his neck side to side, and reached into his own bag to pull out his reading.
Paul Fussler cracked open The Brothers Karamazov to discover an old note, no doubt a bookmark from the last time he’d read the book, where, in asymmetrical and sprawling penmanship he recognized as his own, it said, “Remember, you may be getting old.” The note said nothing else, offered no context. He’d written it over twenty years earlier, and now he could not help but smile as the seventy-year-old wondered what could have inspired the fifty-year-old to say such a thing.
The smile lingered longer than he realized, for the young man who had joined him in his compartment in Uelsen suddenly said, “Why the smile, mister?”
Pinching the scrap between his pointer and index finger, he turned the back of his hand toward the man who’d spoken and snapped his fingers up, like a magician revealing a card to the audience. As the man leaned forward to read it, Paul said, “I wrote this note to myself when I last read this book two decades ago, and I’ve no idea why I wrote it.”
The young man read the note, looked up with his piercing blue eyes, and said somberly, “Well, they say memory loss is a sure sign of aging.” He held his look of concern for a second more before his face widened into a grin that revealed a small gap between his front teeth. He thrust a hand forward in greeting, announcing that his name was Ben Johnson.
Paul shook Ben’s hand and introduced himself as Christopher Marlowe.
“Well, nice to meet you, Chris. Is it okay if I call you Chris, or do you prefer Christopher?” Before Paul could answer, Ben rattled on, “It sure is nice to meet another American. I’m from Nebraska. Stationed with the Air Force at the base in Ramstein, Germany, but I’m on leave. Going up to Amsterdam for the weekend. Want to check out the canals and such, go to the Anne Frank house, maybe take a peek at what the red-light district looks like too. Hear there’s sexy girls in the windows like mannequins in the department store windows in Omaha.”
“Like sexy mannequins.”
“Yeah, exactly!” Ben slapped his knee with a smile that faded as he noted the smirk on Paul’s face. “Sexy mannequins, that’d be weird, right? You’re just messing with me.”
Paul shrugged. Then he decidedly moved his eyes back toward the open book in his hands.
“What’cha reading?” Ben asked.
Paul turned the cover so Ben could see it. He said, “Dostoevsky—The Brothers K.”
“What’s it about?”
“Three brothers who may or may not have murdered their father.”
“Kind of a mystery then?” Ben said.
“I suppose, yes, but less concerned with who done it and more concerned with why.”
Ben nodded sagely, rubbing his chin. Then he said, “For the money, I imagine. Right? I mean, that’s what it’s always about in the movies. Money or sex. Was it sex? Although that’d be kind of disturbing, being as the sons are the main suspects. If it was sex, then they’d be trying to sleep with their mom.”
Paul smiled and said, “Sounds Oedipal.”
Ben’s eyes widened. “Edible? Cannibalism, too? That’s some freaky stuff you’re reading, let me tell you. Of course, it could happen. There was that Dahmer guy in Milwaukee; he ate people. It’s been known to happen.”
Ben rubbed his hands together and then crossed his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits as he leaned back. He thrust his shoulders up so that his chin sunk into the collar of his coat. He looked a bit like a turtle retreating into its shell, and the action made Paul hopeful. He turned to his book once again, but the silence lasted only a moment.
“So,” Ben asked, “which was it—money or sex? You never said.”
Paul exhaled heavily through his nostrils, his only sign of exasperation. He closed the book and set it beside him on the seat. Looking at Ben, he said, “For which of these would you kill a man?”
Ben arched an eyebrow and shot back, “What kind of question is that?”
“A simple one, and you brought the subject up, so answer please. Money or sex—for which of these would you kill a man?”
Ben scratched the whiskers on his chin as he contemplated before returning his hands to the warmth of his armpits. He said, “Well, I’m no killer to start with. I don’t think I’d kill a man for either reason. What about you?”
“You would not kill a man for either reason,” Paul noted drily, “yet you allow the Karamazovs no other possible motivations. You think on too small a scale.”
The last words stung Ben just a bit, turning the corners of his mouth down. He leaned forward, his hands still clamped beneath his arms, and said, “I’m not asking about the Kara Matzahs anymore, Chris. I asked you the same thing you asked me—which would you kill for, money or sex?”
“Neither, you baboon.”
Paul could feel the tide of passion rising inside him, and he could not hold it back, nor–to be honest—did he try. One of the best things about growing old was that it gave him the ability, if not the right, to speak his mind whenever he wanted and as forcefully as he wanted.
He continued, “When I have killed, it was not for money or. . . .”
“Whoa! Wait a minute,” Ben said, his face aghast. “What do you mean when you killed?”
Paul shot him a withering glance and continued as if uninterrupted, “It was not for money or sex or power or any other superficial and contemptible motivation. No, when I killed, I killed for the only reason that justifies the taking of another human life. I killed for—”
“Self-defense,” Ben interrupted, eliciting an eye roll from Paul.
“For love, you ninny.”
He turned his face toward the frosted pane through which he could see only passing shadows, vague silhouettes like images from a magic lantern, that flickered a moment and then were ripped from his sight and thrown into their wake as the train hurtled forward. To Paul the effect was of his life rushing past in reverse, ghost after ghost rising, until—filled with the strength and the peace of those he had loved surrounding him—he was again twenty-seven years old.
“Now you’ve gotta tell me your story,” Ben demanded. “If you’re going to call me names, don’t you owe me that much?”
Paul looked up dazedly, suddenly so full of memory that he’d nearly forgotten Ben was there. He traced a clumsy finger along the icy glass and said softly, “It was a glorious Easter Sunday in Chicago, where warm temperatures tease every spring as consistently as city aldermen promise reform every election cycle. Neither ever delivers on their promise.
“But this particular Easter was sunshine and cobalt skies, with daffodils and hyacinths in riot in the city parks, and the buds on the trees swelling with potential. My wife Mary and I and our baby daughter Kate had Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, brunch at the Drake Hotel, and then promenaded down Michigan Avenue in our Easter finery, holding hands and pushing the stroller, laughing and luxuriating in the unusually warm weather. Other families were doing the same, strangers all, but we greeted each other with nods and smiles.”
Ben interrupted, “I thought this story was about you killing someone, but you’re talking about flowers and Easter bonnets.”
“Necessary exposition,” Paul said. “No exposition, no context. No context, no story. No story, and we’re left with just random acts, devoid of purpose.”
Paul picked up his book and opened it again as if to read. Of course, he didn’t want to. He wanted to tell his story. As memories had flooded his heart, he wanted desperately to tell his story, to ensconce those he had loved in the magic of language and thus bring them back. But to do so, he needed someone who was really listening, who really wanted to hear about them. The magic worked that way, every storyteller knew so.
“Well?” Ben demanded.
“You’re not really going to do this, are you? Just stop right there?”
“I’ll tell the story if you want to hear it—but all of it, the way I want to tell it. You have to promise not to interrupt.”
While Paul had not liked getting interrupted, neither did Ben appreciate being scolded. The two men stared at one another stubbornly, the cabin silent but for the hissing of the steel wheels in motion below them. Finally, after Paul feigned turning back to his reading one more time, Ben snapped sullenly, “Fine. I promise not to interrupt again. Tell your story.”
Paul smiled, set aside his book, and continued, “Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, Mary and Kate and I, walking down Michigan Avenue on Easter. We were sharing a bag of warm popcorn as we passed the Tribune Tower and noticed the commotion on the bridge over the river. A man and woman were arguing halfway across the bridge. He had beady eyes and the pronounced brow of a gorilla. He squeezed her elbow with one hand while gesturing wildly with the other. The woman wore a lilac dress, the seam across her right shoulder torn. She was screaming at him to go away. Oddly, the crowds of people had disappeared. An elderly couple watched the altercation from the south side of the bridge, and a pair of women with five or six children watched from our side. We saw no police anywhere, and the cars crossing the bridge kept zooming past as if nothing were happening. Mary and I looked at each other, communicating without words the way people who are deeply in love do, and I was off, sprinting to intervene.
“Only as I approached did I fully appreciate that the man was about six inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I. He had thinning red hair, a red beard, and no neck. His arms were as thick as my thighs. None of this boded well for me, but it all faded into background noise before his most salient feature: he stunk horribly like salami, I mean as if he’d spent the night encased in one.
“‘Everything okay here?’ I asked, my nose twitching at the stench. The woman tried to tug her arm free, but still the hulking salami wouldn’t let go.
“He turned his glassy eyes on me and said, ‘Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?’ Then he turned back to the woman as if I weren’t there, as if I were no more worthy of note than one of the nearby pigeons strutting along the sidewalks. He yanked the woman toward the railing, muttering threats to throw her over the edge, and her screams took on a note of desperation that hadn’t previously been there.”
“I stepped closer, fighting not to gag at the smell wafting from him. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and as he turned to look at me, I surprised him with a roundhouse punch to the jaw. I had hoped to watch him crumple to the pavement, but no such luck. The surprise of the blow stunned him, but the blow itself had little effect other than to ratchet up his anger. He let the woman go and lunged at me. I backed up, stumbled on the curb, and almost fell into traffic which continued to stream by, the drivers oblivious to the life-and-death struggle unfolding just outside their doors.
“He swung a meaty fist toward my head, but his girth, which was his greatest strength, was also his greatest weakness. I easily dodged beneath it.
“‘Knock it off!’ I shouted.
“The words seemed to give him pause, but in my youth I failed to recognize how complicated human beings are. As I stood in a crouch, my wary eyes trained on him, the woman sucker-punched me in the kidney from behind.”
“No way!” Ben said, his face awash with disbelief. “How could she do that to you, Chris?”
“How indeed?” Paul smiled, and found himself, to his surprise, warming to the young man across from him, the young man who was foolish and full of life, as all young men are, as Paul himself had once been.
“I have a confession to make, Ben. My name is not Christopher. It’s Paul. I was making a joke at your expense when you told me your name was Ben Johnson.”
Ben’s lips split into a wide smile, showing the small gap between his teeth, as he said, “I know. I was just glad you didn’t say you were Billy Shakespeare.”
Now Paul smiled. “You see what I mean. I have misjudged you just as I misjudged her. People are not always what they seem. Anyways, as I said, she sucker-punched me from behind.
“‘Leave him alone!’ she bawled as I stumbled forward into his grasp. My head locked in the crook of his left arm, he pulled me into his substantial belly and began raining blows on me with his right fist. The first one cut me over my right eyebrow, and I watched the blood trickling down my nose and splotching the pavement as I struggled. I knew I was in some trouble, and one thought raced through my mind: Man, you smell like salami. I HATE salami.
“The stench was revolting, and I retched. An entire Easter brunch—from rosemary roasted leg of lamb to asparagus tips in Hollandaise sauce, from cheese and charcuterie to fruit compotes and carrot cake—exploded from my mouth and nose, covering his pants and black Italian loafers. He released me, staring at his own legs with disgust. He shook a foot, trying to get off the vomit.
“I wiped my mouth clean with the back of my hand and said, ‘Sorry about that, but, geez, you stink like a meatpacking plant! You should really shower.’
“His eyes flashed rage, and he reached inside his coat. The next few moments felt like things were unwinding in slow motion. From an inside breast pocket, he pulled a foot-long salami, partially wrapped in a brown paper bag, and thrust it toward the woman whom I later discovered was his wife.
“‘I knew it!” I shouted—I couldn’t help myself. ‘I knew you stunk like salami!’
“Agitated, he pushed the hem of his coat back and reached toward his right, back hip. When his hand emerged, he held a knife with a six-inch blade. He flailed at me, the metal glinting in the light. His wife had retreated a few steps, a look of real fear on her face now, and in a flash I understood that somewhere here we’d crossed a line. Her face told me the whole truth: he was angry, he was drunk, and he wanted me dead. For the first time in our encounter, I was frightened.
“He waved the knife at me again, and I ducked. As it churned the air, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Mary had stowed the baby stroller against the side of the bridge and was running to me. She had sensed the shift in the tide, and God as her witness, she was not going to let me die unaided, not even at the expense of her own life.
“Salami man saw her too, and the hint of a smile twisted his cruel lips. Even drunk he recognized at once that she was my wife, that nothing in creation was going to stop her coming, and that he could hurt me far worse by hurting her than by killing me. And behind Mary was the stroller holding Kate, and hovering in the air above all of us the very real possibility that Kate would now grow up without mother or father, all because I’d tried to aid an innocent in need, an innocent who had turned on me rather than thanking me. The injustice of it all saddened me, enraged me, threatened to paralyze me.
“He turned toward Mary, and in that dire and dreadful moment, that moment where I felt most powerless and alone, I heard a voice miraculous. My own conscience? The voice of God? I’ll let you decide. But I heard a voice, and it uttered one simple, two-word sentence: Love does.
“‘Love does,’ I mumbled to myself, a smile slowly playing across my lips as I wiped the blood from my face. Salami man noticed too late as I gathered all my strength and exploded forward. He turned drunkenly back toward me. With a roar like a blast furnace, I plowed my head into his sternum, wrapped my arms about his shoulders, and lifted. I winced as his knife sliced my shoulder, but I never broke stride and with the sort of strength that only grows out of love, I half-pushed, half-pulled him over the railing. Locked in each other’s arms, we plummeted toward the river.”
Paul broke off from his story and studied Ben, who, engrossed, was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees.
“Do you ever think about what it will be like to die?” Paul asked.
Ben sat back, crossed his arms, and puffed out his cheeks. His lips fluttering like a horse’s, he blew out a long sigh and said, “No, Paul, I don’t. At least I try not to. That’s morbid.”
“And that is why you waste time and energy to see sexy mannequins, why you find something so pathetic to be titillating. It is why you think money and sex are the only reasons anyone would kill another person. No, being cognizant of your own death is not morbid, Mr. Johnson. It’s honest.”
Paul held up his copy of The Brothers Karamazov and continued, “Did you know that Fyodor Dostoevsky, the person who wrote this book, underwent a fake execution when he was a young man? The czar dropped him in front of a firing squad and let the soldiers get as far as aiming their guns at the poor man before a horseman burst through their lines, waving a stay-of-execution order. That became the defining moment of Dostoevsky’s life. Only in facing his death did he recognize what a precious gift life was.
“Toppling off that bridge on Michigan Avenue, I underwent something similar. As we plunged into the shadows, locked in an embrace, the gray waters of the river and the pitted hump of a concrete piling raced toward our faces. The man in my arms moaned. Our whole fall couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but our eyes locked on each other, and in his I saw sheer terror. I cannot read minds, but if I had to guess, he was begging for more time, for second chances. Or maybe he was just perplexed, uncertain of how’d he come to this point and what any of it meant.
“For me it was different. Only two words raced through my mind, over and over: thank you, thank you, thank you. Because what else can you say when it is a lovely spring day and avalanches of golden light are tumbling from brilliant skies, and you were allowed to be witness to it? What else can you say when you have been invited into a story so much bigger than you, a story with misguided louts, sure, but also with people so warm, so kind, that to see them is to see the face of God? What else can you say when you have a baby girl whose toothless smile can conquer your greatest fears, or a wife whose sacrificial love will give her the courage to catapult herself at armed giants? What else can you say when you know that love has carried you this far, and love will carry you through this terror too, even through death, if you just let it?”
The chime of a bell followed by the conductor’s voice interrupted, announcing the next stop in Groningen.
“My stop,” Paul said with a smile as he opened the bag on the seat next to him. He pulled gloves out, and he slid the book back in. “Thank you for your company, young man.”
“Wait!” Ben protested. “It was an interesting story, but how does it end?”
“It doesn’t end. That’s my point.”
The train lurched as the engineer began to brake. Paul began to collect himself to rise when Ben clamped a hand on his knee and asked, “What happened next? What happened to Salami guy?”
“He died,” Paul said simply. “The margins in life can be razor thin. When we reached the end of our fall, he landed headfirst on the concrete abutment and broke his neck. I belly-flopped on open water. It knocked the wind out of me, but that was the extent of the damage from the fall. He’d beat me up pretty good, but the fall did nothing.”
Both men rocked slightly in their seats as the train drew to a complete stop. Paul rose, straightened his coat, and slid the strap of his messenger bag over his shoulder.
“I gotta hand it to you,” Ben said as he extended his hand, “that was one helluva story. I’ll even agree that it beats sexy mannequins.”
Paul laughed as he shook Ben’s hand. Then he unzipped the outside pocket of his bag and withdrew The Brothers Karamazov. He looked fondly from the book to Ben, caressed its cover briefly with his thumb, and then tossed it into the young man’s lap.
“If you liked that story, try this one.”
Before Ben could say another word, Paul nodded and was gone.
Ben watched the old man sidle down the corridor to exit the train. Once he lost sight of his companion, he turned the book over in his lap so that its cover faced up. As he did so, a thin slip of paper fluttered to the floor. He scooped it up and read, Remember, you may be getting old.
With a smile, he turned to chapter one.
Jeffrey DeVries’ fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Inkwell, River River, The Other Side, and elsewhere. His story “Quiet Waters” won the ACP Award of Excellence for Fiction. He lives in northwest Indiana where he also teaches high school English and journalism.