I was once told by a girlfriend that I was an “experience junkie, willing to try anything new because of the adrenaline rush I got from it.” I admit there’s truth to that. “You’re an addict to thrills,” she told me.
My drug-of-choice wasn’t anything like the heroin I’d shot into my veins or the coke I snorted up my nose. I never had the fortitude, or the patience, it takes to be addicted to substances. That takes more time and effort than I was willing to put into any experience. I wanted immediate gratification, that moment of excitement that shot through my body like a jolt of electricity. Most of my thrills – but not all of them – were obtained in the same way others got theirs, parachuting from a plane, jumping from a bridge with bungee cords tied to my ankles, swimming in shark-infested water. Those sorts of things.
Up until my encounter with Gail Hunnington, any crime I committed didn’t involve doing something that involved violence toward another person. It had never been a thrill I sought out. When I saw her standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change so that she could cross the street, I didn’t know who she was. She was just a little old lady with a purse hanging from her arm. My response to seeing how vulnerable she looked was impulsive and immediate. How was I supposed to know she had enough strength in her scrawny arms to hold onto the purse all the while being swung around by me as I tried to snatch it? When the straps on the purse snapped free sending her flying into the lamp post head first, she looked as surprised as I was. I hadn’t anticipated bloodshed as part of the thrill of theft. I tucked her purse under my shirt and ran off, leaving her crumpled body lying on the curb. I ran down the subway stairs taking three of them at a time. It’s a golden rule that the trains always run the slowest when you most want them to run ahead of schedule. I leapt into the first train that came along, not even certain where it was going. When I plopped down on a seat, my heart was nearly pounding out of my chest. I clutched Gail Hunnington’s purse against my body. Was I thinking about her at that moment? No. I didn’t even know who she was. Did I feel more alive than I had ever felt in my entire life? Yes.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later and transferring to different trains several times that I arrived at the station near my apartment building. It was the same station where I once stood on the tracks deep inside the tunnel and waited until a train was only yards from where I stood before I jumped out of the way. The whoosh of the train as it sped by and the echoing of its whistle were exciting, but anticlimactic. It left me wanting to experience actually being hit by the train. Did I have a death wish? There’s no thrill in being dead.
When I got to my apartment, I tossed Gail Hunnington’s purse onto the sofa, stripped off my clothes and got in the shower. It took nearly half an hour of standing in the spray of nearly scalding hot water that I felt I had washed the stench of sweat and fear from my body. Have I forgotten to mention that fear was essential in order to feel what I experienced was real? Fear is an intoxicant and I could get drunk from it. The smell of it clinging to my skin was both real and imagined. It was nearly dark and I could see the purples, reds and blues of twilight spreading out across the sky; a bruise expanding to the horizon. I sat down on the sofa and opened the purse and took out a wallet. It was then, when looking at her social security card, I discovered her name. Gail Hunnington. There was nineteen dollars in the wallet and a small change purse that contained ninety-five cents. Also in the wallet was her subway pass card, an identification card with her address and a photo of her face on it, a debit card, and pictures of children and several photographs of a large cat. The purse also contained a package of Kleenex, keys on a ring, and a prescription bottle of tablets. Lasix. The only thing of interest to me were her keys that I jingled in front of my face. I had her address.
And her keys.
They burned a hole in my pocket. Those keys. I carried them around for a week, going to and from my place of work at a travel agency, when I went out with friends, or just walked about at night in the darkest and most dangerous parts of the city, tempting the fates, looking for an adrenaline rush. When I was a kid I would spread my arms and jump from top of the garage, waiting for that moment when I would suddenly begin to fly. Each time I hit the pavement, usually injuring myself in one way or another, it wasn’t the danger of the jump that I remembered, it was the excitement that at any moment I would rise into the air. The anticipation of flying.
On those streets at night, while carrying Gail Hunnington’s keys, could I escape a mugger or worse? Could I fly away?
A few times I took the subway to the part of town where she lived and walked up and down her street, past her apartment building, checked her name on he mailboxes, and gazed up at what I thought were her windows. They were always dark. There was nothing to prevent me from walking up the steps and going into the building. That would have been too easy, though. There was no excitement to just opening the door to her apartment with her keys.
I once went to the zoo and climbed over a fence, landing in the rhinoceros paddock, but I made certain I did it while there were others watching me. The rhinos ignored me and I got out before the zoo security guards showed up, but like a man who exposes himself on a crowded street, I had gotten my addict’s fix.
I had decided if I was going to enter Gail Huntington’s apartment, it had to have that seem feel. It needed to be risky and border on the dangerous.
On the night just before my twenty-sixth birthday I stood on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from her building. It was still early, around 7 PM, and there were people walking past me, returning from work or going out for the evening. The air was balmy. That sensation – an electric current that surged through my body before I would feed my addiction – had not begun, but I knew it was coming. I only needed the right opportunity, some moment of serendipity, to present itself. The excitement about illegally entering Gail Hunnington’s apartment, wasn’t just about being seen doing it, but going in, getting out, and getting away. In the back of my mind, whatever happened with this minor crime might very well determine the course of the rest of my life.
When a yellow Taxi pulled up to the curb in front of Gail Hunnington’s building I didn’t realize its significance until two people got out of the back. As it pulled away, standing on the sidewalk were none other Gail Hunnington herself, looking frail and leaning on a cane, and a young woman in a blue nurse’s aid uniform. It took no longer than a few seconds for the adrenaline to pump through my entire system. I ran across the street, stopped briefly in front of the two women, so that the old woman, in particular, would see who it was dangling her keys in front of her face. She only smiled, a smile so full of knowing and awareness that I wanted to slug her. What did she know that I didn’t? What gave her the right to look at me with such pity? I turned and dashed up the steps, into her building, bypassed the elevator, and ran up the stairs to the third floor where she lived.
Nearly delirious with excitement I unlocked her door, stood still for a moment as the aromas of dust, age and the unmistakable scent of old books wafted out, and then went in. It was like a small library. Every wall in the living room was lined with shelves overflowing with books. In her bedroom a twin bed sat in the middle of the floor surrounded by stacks of books.
At the sound of police sirens my excitement reached a feverish pitch. I quickly looked about, but saw nothing of value to take. To leave empty handed would have dampened the thrill. From a stack of books in her bedroom I hastily grabbed a book without looking at its cover.
I ran from her apartment, down the back stairs, and into the alley. Getting home from there only required me to take one step after another.
The book I had taken from Gail Hunnington was a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The book jacket was ripped and the pages were yellow with age. On the inside cover was a stamp that said the book was the property of the city’s library. A goddamn library book! It was worthless. Worse yet, she seemed like the type who would never keep a library book without good reason or forget to return it. She had probably bought it at a charity sale to raise money for the library. Her name wasn’t on or in it anywhere. In all likelihood with as many books as she had, she’d never notice the one I took was gone. I flung it out my apartment window as I cursed Gail Hunnington’s name. I had been robbed of my fix. I opened a new travel brochure that I had gotten at the office. It offered a tour of a live volcano that could erupt at any time, a chance to walk in the crater with molten, boiling lava only a short distance below. By the time I went to bed at midnight I had decided to book my tickets to the volcano the next morning as soon as I got into the office.
That night I dreamt of Gail Hunnington’s face, the subtle mockery in her expression.
A goddamned useless book of all things!
The feeling of need for revenge, I discovered, was as powerful as the shock from having live electrical wires attached to my balls. At work I forgot all about the volcano and went through the day as if in a fog that I couldn’t see through or make sense of. The after-effect of an unsatisfactory thrill was, like always, to feel as if the earth dropped out from under me. This time I had fallen all the way to China. I had uppers in my desk drawer, and gave thought to standing on the ledge of the roof above the twenty-first floor and seeing how far I could lean out, as I always did when I needed a quick pick-me-up, but the idea of taking pills or the thought of placing myself in danger did nothing to elevate my mood. As much as I tried to suppress the thought, the only thing I wanted was for Gail Hunnington to pay the price for killing my buzz.
I left work early and slowly meandered across the city, arriving at the spot I had stood less than twenty-four hours earlier, across the street from Gail Hunnington’s apartment building. I stood there waiting for the juice to kick in, for the surge of excitement to begin to rise from deep inside me, for the hunger for a fix that would eat at my insides. Nothing came. I was empty, except for the revenge. I looked up at her windows and shoved aside the thoughts that my feelings about the old woman were irrational. What fault was it of hers that I had chosen to steal her purse and then break into her apartment?
When I was a boy I heard lots of “no.”
“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t touch the stove. You’ll burn your hand.”
“No! You’re being a bad boy. Don’t play ball in the street. You’ll get hit by a car.”
“No You’re being a bad boy. Don’t pull the dog’s tail. He’ll bite you.”
Childhood, as I remember it, was a long period of being held back from doing the things I wanted to do the most. If Gail Hunnington hadn’t tried to keep me from taking her purse, she wouldn’t have gotten hurt. When she looked at me as I dangled her keys in front of her face, just before I entered her apartment, I saw that look also. She was telling me “no.” No to what? She had just gotten out of the hospital and was in no physical condition to stop me from doing anything.
Standing there, I showed her an answer to her “no.” I picked up a rock and busted out one of her windows with it. It didn’t give me the adrenaline jolt I was hoping for, but it was something.
During the next week I walked across a wire strung fifty feet above the ground between two buildings, wrestled an alligator in an illegal wildlife wrestling event held in a warehouse on the docks, allowed myself to be forcibly raped by two gang members, and on Friday night I entered Gail Hunnington’s apartment and strangled her with my own two hands.
# # #
Before I get a lethal injection, I, Jacob Beetlemeyer, offer my life as a cautionary tale. I’m not being given the opportunity to sit in the electric chair and have a final thrill, the ultimate in being jolted with electricity. Other than feeling the mild responses to the drugs they give me that will ultimately put me to sleep for good, I’m being robbed of a last exaltation. It is the final “no.”