James “Whitey” Bulger. [Whitey Bulger is in his bedroom, sitting on the foot of the bed. His girlfriend is on the nod, on a settee in the background. She’s barely conscious, if she’s conscious at all. Whitey is speaking.] Figuratively, he says.
Figuratively, I says to him. What? Is that supposed to be one of your bullshit college words?
I mean that what I said I didn’t mean for you to take it literally, he actually says this to me. But I know what figuratively means, and I don’t need this prick telling me. And time is of the essence here, for this guy it is anyway. Between him and lights out there are maybe thirty seconds, and the prick wants to get pedantic. And so I tell him as much, putting the barrel of my pistol to his head. And it’s this point right here when the whole situation and all its gravity, and everything that it means that the two of us are in this place, in the back room of Martino’s at 6:30 on a Sunday night begins to sink in for him, I mean really sink in. This is when it hits him that, shit, after all is said and done, Whitey’s going to go home to his dinner, maybe a little wine, a blowjob from his wife and then it’s off to bed, and the peaceful rest of the living. But this guy, this thieving little fuck, this putter-on of airs who calls himself a cat burglar—as if there’s any fucking cat burglars in the nineteen-fucking-eighties in south-fucking Boston—who always thought he was smarter than the gangsters he associated with—and maybe he was, after all, there are a lot of dumb-fuck gangsters—but that fact, him being smarter than us, right now, that is a small victory, because after all this, when I’m at home eating my Sunday dinner, he is going to be dead, and cold, and his body dropped into a lime-pit. This is what he was realizing then, his mortality. And this is the part where you always feel embarrassed for the other guy. When he knows that it’s over, but that he hasn’t yet come to the point where he can accept that fact. Some guys never do. With some guys it’s totally different. With some guys, they’ve been waiting for it their whole lives, and when it comes, they turn and face the wall and wait for it. Quietly. With dignity. But other guys. Most guys, they can never let it go. And who can blame them? How is a man supposed to leave all this behind?
The Columbians I work with sometimes talk about the Good Death.
Hemingway wrote about it, I said to them once.
No. This is different, they said. And one of the men said something in Spanish, fuck if I know what it was. It is untranslatable, Senor, he said.
Alright, I said. Tell me about this untranslatable Good Death.
People say it is dying bravely. The Good Death is the Hero’s Death and vice versa. But bravery has nothing to do with it. The tyrant is brave, but that doesn’t mean his death is a Good Death. A good thing, maybe, but not a Good Death. Christ’s death, this was a Good Death. Cesar’s death was Good also. The death that denies itself even as it is happening. The death that defies Death. This is the Good Death.
Those macho assholes. I thought of Cesar as the Columbians spoke. I thought of him looking up at the starry firmament, plotting his control over this universe even as the conspirator’s knives flashed from their sheaths in the darkness. There’s no such thing as a good death, I told them, and in my broken Spanish: Every death smells like shit.
They thought this was fucking hilarious.
But the first guy, the guy I was originally talking about, this guy was not having a Good Death. Already he’d pissed his pants; he’d tried getting on his knees, to beg me for his life, but I’d tied him to a chair, which fell forward with him and pinned him to the concrete floor, his ass in the air, like a man with his head held in the toilet.
No, he’s saying to me, No I don’t wanna die. I can’t die, Sweet Jesus don’t let me die. And he’s inching across the floor, his lips twisted into a grimace, and it takes me a couple seconds before I realize what he’s doing: he wants to kiss my feet, he wants to kiss my fucking shoes like I’m Jesus the fucking Christ.
You should have thought about that a long time ago, I said. Before you dug a hole so deep you can’t see out, much less crawl out.
I got a problem, he says. It’s a sickness.
All the more reason for you not to be gambling.
What was all this over, anyway? What was this guy’s debt? A hundred thousand dollars, maybe. The way the world pulls our strings, right? I thought about him, in the days leading up to this moment, all the times he must have considered this sum. A hundred thousand dollars. What the fuck is a hundred thousand dollars? I mean, think about it. Think of what the state of Massachusetts alone spends on roads and bridges and tunnels in the course of one year. Think how much the City of Boston spends so that all the shit and piss and tampons and used condoms and everything else we flush down the toilet doesn’t end up in the streets, or backing up into our sinks. Now think of what the Federal Government spends trying to shut down our interests in South America—and what we spend trying to keep those interests open. Think of all the money it takes to keep a system like ours going. Compared to that, what’s a hundred thousand, really? Nothing, right? A write-off, an error in someone’s ledger, an absorbable loss. But for this guy, for the guy in front of me begging for his life, this is an unfathomable amount of money. This is a sum he can’t possibly hope to get out from under. This is a sum that is so much bigger than him, so much bigger than his life. And I started thinking then just how many people out there would be unable to get out from under a sum of money like that, how little a human being is worth, in the end, compared to all the cash it takes to move the world around him.
“You had an existentialist moment,” his girlfriend said.
Shut the fuck up. That’s not what this was. It isn’t as if this thing changed me. It isn’t as if, at the end of the story, the guy in it is still walking around today because I had a change of heart. No. He’s dead. I killed him, and then I went home and I ate my dinner and I kissed my kids goodnight and then I watched a little television and got a blow-job from my wife and then I went to bed. The end.
And it isn’t as if I hadn’t thought this kind of thing before. I mean, you live in this world, you come to learn pretty quick that a human life is cheap. But this was the first time, I suppose, that there was an actual dollar amount looking at me as I thought all this. One hundred thousand dollars. A one and five zeros. Maybe less even. Is that sad? Is that number too small? I don’t know. Who fucking knows, right? It is what it is. And by the way, that’s what an American life is worth. You go other places in the world, and that number is a lot, lot less. So that’s the moral. You’re lucky to be an American. You’re lucky you were born in this country, at this time, where the going rate for a human life might not be much, considering, but it’s still the highest it’s ever been. Anywhere. So you got that to be thankful for. That and all the shit I buy you.