Murray was like no one I’d met before. In general appearance and attitude he resembled any number of homeless freaks I’d encountered - paranoid, defensive, prone to tirade, completely devoid of personal hygiene – yet oddly at peace with himself while at work. He rolled his ample frame in his Aeron chair from computer to printer with the confidence and aplomb of any ad agency art director. Give him a good scrub, a Banana Republic wardrobe (and a brainwashing), and you could have a contributing member of society. A star, actually. He was really good at what he did. Unfortunately, what he did was completely illegal. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Man,” he said after holding my new driver’s license up to the light, “nobody can do what I do. There is no one on this whole fucking continent – on this goddamned spinning globe – who can make people like me.”
Murray was feeling good about himself. It was hard to disagree. After spending a few hours with the guy, watching him work and learning his story, I find it increasingly difficult to question his confidence. This is not to say there wasn’t a lot to question. The man was one giant question.
“No one knows, man. There’s no one left who knows,” he said after I asked him how he got into this kind of work. He cracked another beer, smiled a staged smile, raised his eyebrows and whispered cryptically, “I’m a reflection of an image seen through a mist.”
“Why? The question shouldn’t be ‘why,’ but ‘why not?’ I wonder why more people don’t check out. Look at the way this world works, man. It’s a scam. Everywhere everybody is scamming everybody else. It’s one pyramid scheme after another. To win you have to suck up one side and hammer down the other. I didn’t want to play that game.”
“But, what about…”
“Family,” he offered in a mockingly sweet singsong. “That’s the carrot to their stick, but it’s a brutal stick to my back and none too satisfying carrot for my taste.”
I let that sink in for a bit, then said, “A rather cynical view,” quietly as I, too, drank.
“I always thought it was rather romantic, to tell the truth. My big fear in life was that I’d become too much the sentimentalist.”
“No. Look, I do what no one else can do. If I was working in some office somewhere they’d tell me what they wanted and I’d have to bend my skills to their wants. They would own me, own my work, dictate what I produced. And for what? I get to spend 10, 12, 14 hours a day working, thinking, breathing their idea of what my life should be so I can then go home and worry about whether or not I’m up to snuff, whether they will one day decide they don’t need me anymore. And, I’m supposed to be comforted and consoled in all this because it allows me to have a woman and a roof over my head and the Mort-Gauge that comes with it. Those are the modern day shackles, man, and they don’t fit me.”
“That’s a rather extreme view, don’t you think, Murray?”
“Perhaps. I’m not saying I recommend it for everyone. At a certain point you just have to ask yourself what you can put up with and still salvage what’s true in yourself. Look at Gauguin?”
“Huh?” was all I could muster at that quick transition.
“The guy up and abandoned his family at 43, and for what? For art, that’s what. And not art like to paint pretty pictures, I’m talking about digging deep into a soul to find what’s nowhere else. He was willing to walk away from everything because he wasn’t going to continue not listening to that thing that kept telling him there was something else, that there was another thing that only he could know and if he wasn’t the one willing to do whatever it took to know it then no one would ever catch a glimpse of that thing.”
“Didn’t Gauguin die a drug addict,” I asked reaching back in my brain to old Art History notes.
“Hey, man, we all have our vices,” he said, stood, finished his beer with a flourish, and asked, “Ready for another?”
I looked at him and laughed. He was clearly enjoying himself. Indulging in a bit of rambling rhetoric for effect. “Sure. Why not?” I replied.
“That’s the spirit! Why the fuck not!?”
I followed him back into his catastrophe of a kitchen. “So, tell me, Murray, is there an abandoned family somewhere, wondering when their beloved will return.”
“No, man, I never got that far. Unlike you.”
That cut to the quick, and I guess I let it show. Murray, who must have noticed my hurt expression, was quick to backpeddle.
“I mean, I was never the marrying kind. I never had much luck with the ladies to begin with.”
The reality of my situation could disappear for an hour maybe two, but it always lurked there beneath the surface. I had done a tremendously stupid thing and put insurmountable barriers between myself and my family. And, let’s face it, I’m no Paul Gauguin. I don’t know what I am.
“Right,” I said, starting to think about what Murray had done, what he must do a lot. I mean this guy had just dug around in my past, poked around the present and found a new name, place and history for me. He created the new me, as such he was the link. He was a great vulnerability for me. Not only did he know all about me (he clearly knew I had run away from my wife and kid) he held the key to who I was now and how they could find me. Suddenly, I found this terribly disturbing. Who the hell was this Murray and how could I trust him.
“Hey,” I said, “what’s your role in all this?”
“You mean what’s to keep me from ratting you out?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to put it so bluntly, but yeah. You know an awful lot about me, but I don’t know much about you.”
“Listen, you could walk out of here right now and tell a cop what I’ve got up here and I’d be toast in ten minutes. But you won’t, because then you’d be toast, too.”
“And, if you were to make a phone call and report…” I pulled my new driver’s license out of my pocket and read the name, “then I could just send them right back here to discover those people-making machines of yours.”
Murray just raised his can and grinned grimly.
“Honor among thieves.”
“Yes,” he said, “there’s that. And, then there’s Jake.”
“Yes…there is Jake,” I said. “So, what do you know about Jake?”
“I know some things…”
“But you’re not willing to tell them to me.”
“I don’t know how much Jake would want me to tell you,” he said. “Right now, only I know who I am. There’s no one else who truly knows where I came from and holds all the strings that connect what I am now back to where I came from. Jake is in a different position. He has different roles to play. He has to be different people to different constituencies and at any minute those worlds can collide. He’s in a tremendously precarious spot. I can’t compromise any of that by spilling a few tidbits to you, who, let’s face it, don’t have much keeping you from a long cold stretch. And, my experience tells me folks facing a long cold stretch will do or say just about anything to avoid it. No offense.”
“None taken.” We drank a bit more than I asked, “So, what’s your story then?”
He just laughed, “I am what I am.”
“Yeah, I’m a Bizarro Popeye.”
“Swilling cans of Bud Light instead of spinach.”
“With a bulging belly instead of forearms.”
I looked out the window into the darkening space between his apartment and the one next door. It was approaching dinner time. “What do you say we go out and get something to eat?”
“What, outside?” he fairly gasped.
“Yeah, you know, like at a restaurant.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea at all.”
“Come on, when was the last time you sat down and had a decent meal in public?”
“No, lie to me.”
“You’re joking. Are you telling me you haven’t eaten in a restaurant in three years.”
“Man, I haven’t left this apartment in three years.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he said.
“It sounds pretty bad, Murray.”
“I deal with the world on my own terms.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” I told him, “but there are those that might say you aren’t dealing with the world at all.”
“Pessimists. I have everything I need right here. Look, let’s just order in. We can have Indian, Chinese…Sushi…” he pulled a handful of paper menus out of a drawer and offered them to me.
“No way. We’re going to go out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Murray, after three years you deserve a night out.”
“My work is it’s own reward.”
“A steak. A great big juicy steak. You can’t get a steak like this delivered.”
“Dine One One, man, I can get anything.”
“Listen it’s small place in Cow Hollow, we’ll take a cab. There’s no way anyone will recognize you.” I didn’t think I would convince him, but to my surprise there was a glimmer of possibility showing in his eyes. I played my trump card. “Why not, Murray? Why the fuck not?!” And with that the dice were rolled.
“What the hell. I’m not a fucking prisoner. I can choose to go out if I want to.”
“Damn right,” I concurred. “Now where’s your phone, let’s get a cab over here.”
“Oh no, no,” he said, “Don’t give them my address…”