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Tod Goldberg is the author of the novels Living Dead Girl, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Fake Liar Cheat, as well as the short story collection Simplify, a 2006 finalist for the SCBA Award for Fiction and winner of the Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize. He teaches creative writing at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.
When you're a spy, the word belated gets eradicated from your vocabulary. You don't send belated birthday cards. You don't send belated Christmas cards. You don't send belated wedding, anniversary, graduation or congratulations cards. You don't even bother to send belated wishes via e-mail. You tend to miss physical events like birthdays and baptisms and Bar Mitzvahs, because it's nearly impossible to tell a Taliban assassin you'll have to halt his inquisition until Monday so you can make it to T.G.I. Friday's for your buddy's fortieth.
If birthdays, weddings and holidays meant a lot to you, you wouldn't be traveling the world under diplomatic cloak; you'd be sitting in a cubicle, rigging the Secret Santa lottery, drafting memos about the need for casual Fridays, and fantasizing about the person who services the photocopier. Being a spy means never being forced to eat potato skins in a T.G.I. Friday's surrounded by men in Dockers or expressing your emotions through the mystery of Hallmark.
When you're no longer a spy, however, you learn pretty quickly that there's no card that says, Sorry I missed the last dozen Mother's Days. I was busy doing black ops. And yet there I was, in the middle of Target in midtown Miami, staring at row after row of greeting cards, trying to find one that might justifiably say that very thing.
My ex-girlfriend/former IRA operative/current business associate/confusing-person-of-romantic-interest Fiona Glenanne handed me a card. "This one is cute," she said.
The cover read: I'm Sorry . . . The inside said: . . . For being a terrible son. Happy Mother's Day!
"Subtle," I said.
"I think it would speak to your mother." She handed me another card. This one had a photo of a line of identical puppies trailing behind their mother. On the inside it said: It could have been worse. There could have been ten just like me. Happy Mother's Day!
"A lovely sentiment," I said. "But no."
"Have you thought about composing your own card?"
"Fi," I said, "I don't even want to buy a card. Why would I want to make one?"
"I don't know, Michael," Fiona said. "Maybe to show your mother you appreciate her carrying your vile existence for nine months."
She had a point. The problem was that if I started making my mother handmade Mother's Day cards now, next year at this time expectations would be astronomical, and next year I planned on being out of Miami permanently. It may be a big city, but when you're essentially trapped in the city limits by your own government, every day it seems to shrink by an inch.
One moment, I was a covert operative in fine standing, negotiating a wire transfer with a Russian gangster over a Nigerian oil refinery. The next moment, I was an excovert operative in exceptionally poor status, running for my life. Subsequently, I've been ensnared here, in Miami, trying to figure out the truth behind who issued my burn notice, thus placing me on a blacklist the world over, my movements alternately watched by the FBI and ignored by the FBI. As long as I don't leave the surrounding area, I won't heat up. So for the last year, I've been forced to take jobs helping people while I try to gather evidence on the people who turned my dossier into a bible of lies, learning along the way that I've been moved like a pawn and how difficult it is to find the king.
That's the easy part compared to navigating my mother Madeline's emotional ballistics. I've spent nearly forty years on this planet, have dodged bullets and missiles, have killed men, have blown up buildings, have found myself disavowed by my own government. . . . And I would do all of those things again, twice even, if it meant I wouldn't need to find an appropriate Mother's Day card.
"Why don't I just take her out to dinner?" I said.
"You should make her dinner," Fi said, and handed me another card. "This one is nice."
On the front was a huge mushroom cloud erupting over a '50s-era tract home. I didn't bother to open it up. "This isn't, technically, helping,"I said.
"Suit yourself, "she said. "I'm going to the garden section. See if they might have anything I can later use to incinerate your loft when you invariably disappoint me again.
"That sounds like a great plan," I said.
I watched Fiona walk away. Both men and women followed her as she passed. She paused for a moment in front of a display of scented candles, let her fingers idle on one, leaned forward to smell it, like she was putting on a little show, letting people know she was in the building, in case anyone hadn't noticed her yet.
A Cuban kid wearing a wife beater and with a barbed-wire tattoo that climbed up the middle of his throat stopped behind her and ogled her ass. He didn't realize it, but depending upon Fiona's mood, he was potentially about five seconds away from losing a vital organ.
Fi must have been in a good mood, since when she turned around and saw the kid she just smiled and whisked away.
She had that thing. There wasn't anything physically imposing about hershe was small, really, barely over 5'3", maybe weighed a hundred pounds with a gun strapped to her anklebut she walked like a panther, carried herself with a confidence that said she could sleep with you or kill you and it really made no difference to her which outcome won. In a different world, I suppose it would be a lot easier to just be with Fiona, but there's nothing easy about being in a relationship with someone recognized as an international criminal, particularly when you're a spy. Or used to be a spy. My own identity crises probably didn't help the situation.
I spent the next ten minutes thumbing through cards. None of them appealed to me. I kept looking for one that said something along the lines of I love you, despite it all, but Hallmark didn't seem to have that one available this season.
Things were getting dire. I called my younger brother, Nate, to see what he was planning on doing. He answered on the fifteenth ring.
"Bro, if someone doesn't answer after five rings, that means they aren't home," Nate said. He sounded like he'd been sleeping. For days.
"What are you getting Ma for Mother's Day?" I said.
"You don't say hello?"
"I thought you weren't home," I said. "I was leaving a message."
"What time is it?"
"Crap," he said. "I'm late."
"Where do you ever have to be?"
"I've got appointments," he said. "People depend on me."
Nate has never had a real job. Doesn't have a real job. Will never have a real job. He periodically drives a limo, which isn't a real job. Driving all day and getting nowhere does not qualify as actual work. Even a hamster would agree. I suspect one day the IRS will want to have a long, involved chat with him.
"You driving to jai alai or the track?"
"If you must know, jai alai," Nate said. "And then I have a few drops at Indian casinos."
"You running people or bets?"
"I have a vested interest in the success of the sport and in the gambling industry as a way of helping the Native Americans."
"It's Mother's Day, Nate," I said.
"When has that ever mattered to you?"
"I'm just saying," I said. "Listen. I'm going blind staring at cards. Tell me what you got Ma and I'll let you go."
"The same thing I get her every year."
Dealing with Nate is often a delicate exercise. He doesn't react well to authority. He also doesn't think of me as authority, which compounds things.
"Right," I said. I picked up another card. This one featured a picture of a morbidly obese woman in a bikini. The inside said: I might be responsible for your stretch marks, but at least you're not this fat. Happy Mother's Day! "When did greeting cards get so mean?"
"Where are you?" Nate said.
"Aren't you all domesticated now?"
"I even eat with silverware. You were about to tell me what you got Ma."
"If you had a yard, you could get one of those blow-up pools. Get Sam to play lifeguard to the neighborhood kids. He was a SEAL, right?"
Nate was talking about Sam Axe, my de facto watchdog and partner, who was indeed a SEAL, but was now essentially Jimmy Buffett with a license to kill.
"Not likely. Listen. I need you to focus. What did you get Ma?"
"Maybe Fiona could take up baking," Nate said.
"Are you done yet?"
"Oh, I could go all day."
"Just tell me what I need to know and I'll let you back to your life of leisure and won't even tell Fi about that baking remark. Save us all a lot of problems."
Nate said, "You're the spy. Figure it out." And then he hung up. I called him back, but after twenty rings I figured he'd made his point.
A woman wearing an outfit made entirely of pink and green terry cloth pulled her cart up beside me and started leafing through the cards. She was about my mother's age, maybe a few years older, and she smelled vaguely of cigarettes and a floral perfume that immediately made my head hurt.
When you're in a hot zone and aren't sure of local custom, it's wise to capture and interrogate someone who will give you the information you need to survive. Better to deal with certainty than to be the victim of assumed intel.
"Pardon me," I said, and when the woman turned to regard me, I smiled at her with all the gusto I could manage. "What's your name, ma'am?"
"Evelyn, if you were my mother, what would you want for Mother's Day?"
Evelyn pondered my question for a moment and then brightened up. "A Crock-Pot."
"Absolutely. Or a toaster oven. Cost of gas these days, a toaster oven makes a lot of sense."
"What about in terms of cards?"
"Something with Snoopy. I've always liked Snoopy." She scanned the racks and then handed me a card with Snoopy grasping his chest with glee, little red hearts bursting all around him. On the inside it said, simply, Happy Mother's Day.
"Would I need to add anything to this? Some kind of salutation?"
Again Evelyn pondered silently before answering. "Well," she said, "you don't seem like someone who really knows how to express emotions very well. So I'd say no."
That sounded reasonable. "Good. Good. Great, actually. Great. You are correct. Snoopy card and a toaster oven. Precisely." And here I pointed. I'm not sure why, but it made me feel less like an emotionless cyborg that even a woman caped in terry cloth could see through.
"Is this some kind of contest?" Evelyn said. "Have I won something?"
"Yes," I said. "Yes. Absolutely." I took Evelyn's hand and shook it vigorously. "You have indeed. Target thanks you for your support. Everything in the store is twenty percent off. Enjoy. Happy Mother's Day."
After the woman skittered off to shop to her heart's content, the entire world 20 percent brighter and filled with more possibility, I finally located the appliance aisle about a city block away and grabbed a silver toaster oven and a matching silver Crock-Pot, figuring, What the hell? Might as well come big.
It was still odd for me to be walking through a place like Target without feeling like there was an actual target on my back. You spend the majority of your life in foreign countries, taking care of other people's problems, you tend to feel a tad claustrophobic in an enormous box with only one marked exit, never mind that seeing so many people wearing red uniforms made me think I was being tracked by the Coldstream Guards.
You either decompress quickly or you become a cautionary tale. I've known guys who, the moment they were decommissioned, began to think every letter was a letter bomb, every white powder was anthrax, every woman who showed even the slightest bit of interest in them was out to cut their throat for something they did when Germany still had a wall dividing it. Those guys got departure interviews, retirement packages and health benefits and still couldn't stop feeling it.
I got a burn notice, a one-way ticket to Miami and an open invitation across the world for people to come looking for me. One way or another, you either adapt or you died, literally, metaphorically, whatever.
This is why I should have immediately recognized David Harris, a kid I went to high school with, when he entered the small cooking appliance aisle.
I was busy pondering the existence of egg cookers in this world when I saw him. The exit behind me was blocked by a woman pushing a baby stroller. She and the baby stopped in front of a display of blenders and both seemed equally transfixed on the wonder of it all. Had I immediately recognized David, I could have knocked down the metal shelves on either side of me like dominoes and then sprinted over them and out of the store. I could have conceivably fired a couple shots into the air-conditioning unit humming above my head, which would cause a huge fireball to erupt in the interstate of ducts crisscrossing the store, and everyone would be so confused they'd have no idea who they thought they might have recognized from third-period science. I could have grabbed a can of PAM, lit a match and created a blowtorch.
But none of that happened.
"Mike? Mike Westen? Westy? Is that you?" I looked at the man in front of me and tried to place him. He had a receding hairline that he tried to hide by keeping it cut close to his scalp, but he also had one of those Bimini islands in the middle of his head that made him look indecisive.
There is bald and there is not bald.
He hadn't figured that out yet.
He wore jeans and a Polo shirt, the real kind with the guy on the horse and everything, and a Rolex diving watch, though I had real doubts he'd ever been deeper than his backyard Jacuzzi. I noticed a bulge around his midsection that was hidden slightly by how high he wore his pants, but not by much. All of which gave me the sense that we didn't storm a weapons warehouse together in the Sunni Triangle.
"Nope," I said. "Wrong guy." I tried to push on past him, but he'd angled his cart in such a way that I'd have to actually split the atom to get around him. It was a consideration.
"Do you remember me, Mike?" he asked. "David? Davey Harris? AYSO? Civics with Mr. Dunaway? Ringing any bells?"
I'd made it a point to avoid running into anyone I might have grown up with, which is difficult when your hometown is a tourist mecca, never mind probably a decent place to spend your adult life provided you aren't a former spy on the run. Which I guess is probably a fairly small sample.
"I've got a slight case of tinnitus," I said, "bells are just outside my range."
He leaned over and slapped me on the back with a bit more enthusiasm than I was comfortable with. "Man, you still got it," he said. "I heard you were back in town but didn't believe it. I think the last time I saw you was the day before graduation. Remember? We got that party ball and sat on the fifty-yard line? I think it was you, me, Gordon, Zander, Coop, DeWitt and, I think, Robertswho I just found on Facebook. You on Facebook, Mike?"
"Man, it's like a digital class reunion. You should get on there. Man. So good to see you." He reached over and pinched my stomach. "All trim and cut up, and here I am with this gutreal turn of the screw, eh, Westy? Not like the old days."
If he touched me once more, I was going to break his wrist. "Who told you I was in town?"
"Oh, my mom ran into your mom at Publix a couple months ago. Told her you were a spy or something crazy."
"Unbelievable," I said, because it truly was unbelievable. International crime syndicates would pay hard cash to get a bead on my movements, and all they needed to do was corner Ma at Publix. Maybe they'd been shopping at the Winn-Dixie and because of that had missed their opportunity completely.
"Yeah, well, parents, right?"
An uncomfortable silence descended on Davey. As far as I was concerned, we'd covered all of the essentials of polite conversation and could therefore back away without residual injury, but I could tell that Davey was hoping for me to say something so he could start talking about himself, which would then lead to him giving me a business card and then maybe an offer to talk about my retirement portfolio, because guys like Davey Harris always knew something about retirement portfolios.
The only thing I wanted to know was how a guy could go through life calling himself Davey.
The larger issue was that I could see Fiona walking up behind Davey, which meant that I was about thirty seconds from being in a situation beyond my control.
"What do you do these days, Westy?"
If he called me Westy again, there was going to be a problem.
"Kill people for the government," I said.
"Can you imagine? Be like James Bond, back when he was cool? I just got the whole Connery DVD set a couple weeks ago. My opinion? Lazenby could have been the best Bond."
"Look, David," I began, but Davey cut me off with a dismissive wave, which made me think breaking his wrist would be a favor to a lot of people.
"Davey. Everyone calls me Davey still."
"Right. David. No offense? But I don't remember you. I don't remember Gordon or Coop or DeWitt or any of the other guys you mentioned. I trust we went to school together, I really do, but I'm drawing a real blank here."
"We went to school together for twelve years, Mike. How can you not remember me?"
I could've told him the truth. I could've said that I'd probably replaced him in my mind with weapons training manuals for every gun produced foreign and domestically for the last twenty years. I could've told him that I needed the brain space occupied by all the memories of him and Coop for the schematics concerning how one best uses duct tape as a weapon. Or I could have told him that I'd forgotten him because I'd spent the last two decades trying to forget all I could about this place.
But then Fiona walked up and solved all of my problems.
"He's had a traumatic brain injury," she said. She swept around Davey, grazed him with her hip, which actually got him to move his cart a couple inches, something I'd been completely unable to manage, and then stood next to me. "He probably hasn't even mentioned me, has he?"
"No," Davey said, "he hasn't. A brain injury, Westy?"
"Traumatic brain injury," I said.
"Your mom didn't mention that. Man. That's awful."
"Yeah," I said.
"I'm sorry," Fiona said, "but I need to get . . . Westy . . . home before his medication wears off."
"Are you his nurse?"
This would be one of those days that would take me years to live down.
"Of a sort, I guess you could say," Fiona said, and then she shook Davey's hand in a very businesslike manner. "A pleasure to meet an old friend of . . . Westy's. But we must get going so . . . Westy . . . can have his fun time taking apart kitchen appliances before his darkness takes over, as I'm sure you know."
Davey had no idea what Fiona was saying, but by the end of the day, I suspected that anyone I went to high school with would have a fairly strong mental picture of me.
"Let me give you my card," Davey said to Fiona, his voice just above a whisper, as if I couldn't still hear him, as if he wasn't standing directly in front of me, "in case he ever needs any help planning for his future. Does he have any kind of retirement set up?"