A Budgeted Life by Bill Capron
Josh Ehrens death was a mystery to no one else. Just me.
That’s not so unusual. My entire life goes against the logic of things, like some sort of metaphysical oxymoron. It’s a bit like my vision; I am profoundly color-blind, so I see a lot of things others miss. Where the rest of the world is cued by color, I search for shapes. It’s the basis for what makes me different, but I didn’t know it until I had my eyes forced open. Even after six years, that experience is about as painful as vision can be.
Like the visible part of an iceberg, most people focus on their attention on the world of the good. It is, with good reason, an exclusionary kind of vision, selectively discriminating. Lately though, it’s the other seven-eighths that floods my senses, a ghostly nether land the average citizen can ignore until it crosses over to do him pain. Even then, he usually closes his mind to it and gets on with the good life, eyes wide shut. I don’t do that. My past and future are enmeshed in the warped space between good and evil, where cops and criminal lawyers are the prime human species, and the animals run wild. Yes, I live there, visually, if not physically, just below the smooth surface, and it’s a bit scary sometimes, and a lot too mean. And I can’t avert my eyes, so I can’t escape all the nastiness. Still, when it comes right down to it, that’s my business, confronting nastiness. Sometimes it happens to my friends.
I’d known Josh Ehrens for twenty years, ever since we worked together for a cable television company in Philadelphia. In many ways he was a throwback to a more mature time; but mature is the wrong word, maybe more measured. Josh appeared to be from a harder era when men hoarded their dollars, conserved their feelings, and measured their words. Where Josh, if he ever thought about it, might say he never wasted his feelings, others would say he never gave them the light of day because he didn’t have them. It’s possible they would both be right. I’ll side with Josh.
From my perspective, Josh had no extremes in his life. He almost never smiled or frowned, keeping a placid ‘I’m listening to you’ look of expectancy on his face when I was speaking, or a ‘held in suspense’ look when he wanted to say something. But he was a happy man, it’s just that one had to look hard to see it. And he was happiest when today was just like yesterday, or when someone else paid for lunch, or when no one made any demands on him, mental or physical.
It took me a long time to figure Josh out. Back twenty years ago, I’d thought him secretive, unhappy, scheming, but that’s because we weren’t that close, and the then-me, well, I didn’t see deep enough. We later went our separate ways, and after fifteen years of traveling, I settled in Portland, Oregon, my final stop. I got rich, lost what mattered most to me, and took up my profession to deal with my loss, or maybe my new vision. Anyway, four years ago I was working a stakeout in the city when I saw Josh eating lunch in the corner of a small cafeteria style restaurant off Front Street. He looked secretive, unhappy, scheming, just as I remembered him. I forced myself to say hello. He recognized me and smiled. It was a nice thing. At the time I recalled wondering if it was a nice smile because he had changed, or because I had changed. I’ve since learned it was me. Josh never changed. That was one of the great things about him.
Josh came to Portland because his wife, Jocelyn, was transferred by Delta Airlines. It was a big deal to him, moving, that is. He didn’t look forward to the new challenges, especially a new job – he’d still worked for the same company where we’d met since he left college. For Josh it was just change, and he didn’t much take to it. When Delta wanted her to go to Atlanta, Josh said no. Back to Philadelphia, maybe; Atlanta, no. It had been seven years since the family left him. So Joce sent out his two sons for two weeks every summer. It was enough for him. It was enough for them. In fact, it was the same day I saw him that he’d dropped them at the airport. I didn’t know that then, because Josh didn’t tell me. But after a while I learned about the kids, in dribs and drabs, the only way Josh tells anything.
Thinking back, I wonder if a man can really love his children if they’re not like him. I don’t mean not like him at a given moment, I meant not like him ever, and never going to be like him. I know this is probably true of every generation, except with Josh, it was as if two or three generations separated him from his sons.
Josh was more like my grandfather on my father’s side of the family than like me, as if he’d lived through the Depression. But I don’t think it was any one thing. Maybe the first time he got excited about something, it was taken away, or the first time he got caught drinking, he got a beating or he was arrested. He was a guy who considered seriously every bad thing that ever happened to him, recorded it in a ledger, then never did it again. It was certainly a learned behavior, but I’m sure the genes played a part too, though it might be one of those generation skipping traits. I’d have to know more to verify it, but even then I might miss it. There’s no way any psychiatrist could ever dig it out, but then Josh wouldn’t want him to, because it wasn’t important to him.
Josh was one of my regular poker guys. He had a beer, maybe two, won or lost a little, never smiled or frowned at his hand, never regretted losing, never flaunted his wins. He had a favorite baseball team, the Mariners, but you’d never guess it to watch him at the game. And he always had a girlfriend, but never for long. He was real a good looking guy, same age as me, forty-seven, in good shape, so the women were pretty. He made good small talk, responded like a regular human being, but they usually needed more, so in a month or two they were gone, replaced by an equally attractive stand-in. It didn’t bother him any. I mean that, it didn’t bother him any. If she’d stayed for a month or a year, it wouldn’t have meant a thing to him, or, at least, not that anyone else would know. But I knew, like I knew I was his best friend, and it was important to him, but that realization was a long time coming.
I know what you’re thinking, Josh was an unhappy guy. But he wasn’t. He didn’t care enough to be unhappy. Everything in his life was good. He had a good job, a nice house in a quiet neighborhood, lots of money which he never spent. He fished, and went out for a drink, and went to museums, and friends’ houses, and birthday parties, and weddings, like they were line items on a schedule written by someone else, someone who cared. But it wasn’t someone else, it was Josh, and he did care, though in his world he didn’t let on. It wasn’t on purpose, it was just the way he was.
There was a time when I thought Josh lived an unexamined life, but since then I’ve become convinced it was a too examined life. He never did anything without scanning it from every side, reducing its impact on his world. I figured it was a reflex, but maybe I was wrong, it might be on purpose at that. It was still the way he was.
As I said, I learned all this in bits and pieces. One might ask, why did I care enough to find out. Well, Josh was a nice guy, easy to like, but overtly standoffish. It’s not an expected combination, but it worked for him. I wanted to know why, it was important. Let’s say, I’m a nosy guy, and I’m in the right business for it. So I made Josh a project, and on the way he became a friend.
So, back to the sons. They’re identical twins, and about twenty now. And they are nothing like their father. Where Josh was budgeted, Jim and John were profligate. In everything. They shared nothing with their dad but their time, a paltry two weeks a year. I didn’t learn this from Josh, I learned it from my time with the three of them, mostly flyfishing, or eating on the way to or from fishing. They were nice kids, well mannered, but something important was missing. It might be that examined life thing, that they had no introspection in them. They lived to the moment, spent every second, every dollar, even emotion like there was no end to it. It might be a gen X thing, that they didn’t take anything personally, as if life was a Hollywood movie and all would be fine in the end. Well, life isn’t, and it wasn’t.
The last time I saw Josh, a month ago, he told me he’d gotten back from his wife’s funeral. He wasn’t openly sad, but I could see the edges of it. I think I was the only one who saw it. Because I’m the only man who really knew Josh. Because, unlike the women who came and went, who all could see deeper than I could because they’re women, I knew from looking so long. He told me she died in debt, that she’d spent every penny she’d earned, and a lot she hadn’t made yet. And the boys hadn’t had a clue. She had always planned on having tomorrow to replenish the account, but a car going the wrong way on the highway finished that. And the driver was an uninsured illegal, and dead. And Joce had no life insurance. And she’d let the car insurance lapse, accidentally. And the boys were pretty much penniless. He was taking over their living expenses in addition to the college tuition at Penn he was already paying. But he told them they had to get jobs, to show their good faith, so to speak. He wanted them to budget their lives, if only a little. This was all stated to me as a matter of fact, nothing like the angst I’m sure the boys expressed to their expressionless dad. Talk about a lack of communication!
It was the last time I saw Josh. A day later he was dead. He was mugged in the Southeast, supposedly picking up a whore. I didn’t for a second believe it. No, I didn’t know everything about the man, but what I knew, I knew well. Sex for Josh was not important enough to make an outward show of it, and, add to that, he never paid for anything he could get for free, like that last time I saw him, when I picked up the tab; like always.
I also knew that Josh wouldn’t have taken the occasion of his death to make so public a show of his feelings as to hire me. It wasn’t in him. So why do it? Because I’m made that way. Because I work for justice. Because my friends are important to me. Because I was picking up one final tab.
Now the cops assigned one of their best detectives, Maureen McMartin, a girl I could learn to want, if she was available, which she isn’t. We share a long history, not always good. She knows how I work, and she doesn’t like it that I don’t let the bad guys off the hook, no matter what the legal system decides. I’d say that was because she’s angry she can’t make them pay herself. But it’s deeper seated than that; she’s a ‘by the book’ kind of person, and I’m not in the book. That’s why she’s a good cop. Still, she had no reason to think Josh’s death was anything more than it looked to be, and she concentrated her efforts to take a murderous hooker off the streets. Me, I wasn’t swayed by the facts.
I knew it was the kids, but as with too many crimes, knowing and proving are two different things. Still, if I was going to exact a retribution, I’d have to be certain. Sure, I know, what makes me think I’ve got a right to make justice happen. I don’t, and no matter how certain I think I am, I might be wrong. No, what I do is create a situation where if they’re guilty, they will do something to cook their own goose. That is, I let justice happen. I’m not often wrong, but then it’s no harm, no foul. But Josh’s case wasn’t that complicated.
Jim and John flew in the next morning, interchangeable as always. I crossed paths with them at the funeral home while they were making the final arrangements. I’d started the ball rolling with the undertaker, so it wasn’t as if I was unexpected. They shook my hand, shyly, despite them being as close to me as anyone else’s kids have ever been. I read more into it than I should have, but even looking back on it, it was really there, the reluctance.
I called my lawyer son in New York. Robin went to Penn. My story tickled his interest, so he and his wife, another alum, took the rest of the day off to investigate. Traci, his wife, worked in admissions up until her graduation from the law school two years ago, so she still had contacts. She called me around seven that night.
She verified my caller ID, “CB, it’s Traci.”
I asked her if she’d had a good day and we discussed the little things my son and I never seem to get to. Then I asked, “So, what do you know?”
Her voice sort of ululated, like she was swinging her head, “There’s not a lot to know. They’re pretty good students, B plus, with a lot of friends. They’re party boys, but that’s not unusual for juniors.” She thinks everyone grows up by their senior year, like she did. I know better. I didn’t. “They’re known for using their identities to play practical jokes, like swapping girls, and some of the teachers think they take tests for each other.”
“Well, there was one other thing. John got arrested for drinking his freshman year, got into some kind of hormone driven brawl. He was a week from eighteen, and he had a license in another name that he’d used to get service at the bar. Well, he was booked under that name, but he used his real name when he filled out the release documents. No one noticed at first. Then the cops talked to someone in admissions, and they tried to get the fake ID from him, but he said he’d destroyed it. That’s the reason it was in his records.”
With my usual insightfulness bordering on rudeness, “So, the other name?”
It didn’t phase her any. “Cameron Swayze, like the news guy from the fifties.” She surprised me with, “It takes a licking and it keeps on ticking.” She’s only twenty-six, but she’s the kind of girl who’d know that kind of thing. Robin wouldn’t have a clue. I’m not being mean, since he’s more like me than Traci.
I said thanks and told her she could name her first child after me.
“Yeah, right, CB, like any kid wants the moniker Caleb Black Green. Come on, already. Anyway, my kid’s not going to be color-blind.” On that note, she hung up.
It used to be you could fly under any name, but those days are gone. Now you need a picture ID. So on short notice you return to the old chestnuts. And they were broke, so I guessed they’d flown Delta after getting a family discount, and then called in and changed the name. I mean, why not, they never expected anyone to know about Cameron Swayze.
I took Maureen McMartin out to breakfast. She was her usual suspicious self, but she wrote it all down. She called me two hours later and said a round trip ticket in the name of Cameron Swayze had been used to fly from Philadelphia to Portland the day before Josh’s death, and the return at midnight the night he died. She said the boys were arrested at the funeral home, and the cops from Atlanta were searching their apartment in Philadelphia. Two hours later she called me to say they found the tickets and the ID.
I called the funeral home and told the manager that I’d be there in an hour to pay for Josh’s funeral and cremation. It was the least I could do for a friend. Anyway, it was the end of the final tab.
I got the urn two days later. I paid for a funeral mass. I’m an atheist, and Josh wasn’t much of a Catholic, but he’d have wanted it, even if he’d never have asked for it. There were about hundred people there, ten of us were in the regular poker rotation, the rest from his work. He didn’t make many close friends, but a lot of people liked him. It made me feel good, them being there.
I’ve since heard the sons have made a claim on Josh’s estate if they beat the rap, or when, and if, they get out of prison. I hired a lawyer to make sure that didn’t happen. I don’t leave justice to chance, ever. His parents are long dead, so I don’t know where Josh would have wanted the money to go. He didn’t have a will, and I figured he wouldn’t care enough to deny the money to his kids, but I did.
I don’t plan on going to the trial which starts some time early next year. You never learn that much at a trial. And you can never know everything. Life is a first person event, and you can never know anything about motives and intentions for certain beyond yourself, and even that has to be qualified. Anyway, they so seldom dish out justice at trials, though this time I expect the right thing will happen. If not, then I’ll have to think some more on it.
I knew Josh Ehrens better than anyone else in the world. I see in black and white, but I think Josh lived in between those, the gray middle. He had no ups and downs, no happy and sad, but he lived a good life in his budgeted way. In fact, it was the profligacy of his children that thought nothing of taking his life. They would say they valued life more than he did, even as they denied it to him. I think they had too much, it was too easy, and they valued it too little. I hope that over the next fifty years they learn the value of a budgeted life, but I’m not betting on it.