He likes Jodie Foster. She was just a kid in Taxi Driver but better than De Niro: more subtle, more true. He still probably wouldn’t kill for her, though. He always had trouble picking the valid reasons for violence. Spread an idiot’s nose over his face for backhanding his girlfriend and you’re a hero. Stomp a cat with a broken leg to put it out of its misery and everyone’s appalled. He once saw a boy stabbed five times for setting fire to the flag, and the man who’d done it grin with pride as he wiped the blade clean on his sleeve. No, he only kills – and dies, too, as it turns out – for money. Everything else is just Jodie Foster in hot pants.
As he sees the girder falling, he thinks: I knew it! Okay, okay, he didn’t know he’d die this ridiculous, cartoonish death. (He’s half-disappointed not to see stars, moons, and tweeting birds.) He just knew it wouldn’t be a gun. After six suicide attempts, he’d proven razors and pills mean stitches and stomach pumps. A gun was all he needed, and when he finally got his trembling hands on one he thought he’d be dead by morning. Instead it turned his death wish inside out. He was reborn! How could this perfect, gorgeous thing ever hurt him? How could any of its brothers or sisters? The girder now flattens him to the floor like a concertinaed Looney Tune – but he never once felt a bullet’s kiss.
Heart beating, blood pumping, eyes ungouged, back unbroken: he’s alive! Upside down, but alive! He’s sure that this – suspended, swinging back and forth, blood rush supercharging his thoughts – is a miracle meant to change his life forever. He begins counting everything he’s ever killed as a kind of penance. Three women. Seven men, one of them only hours ago. Two dogs: one a pet, one a stray. A cat he told everyone he’d killed by accident until he almost believed it himself. Insects don’t count. In fact, he refuses to feel guilt over anything smaller than a human fist. No mice, no spiders, no worms. He’s still counting, single digits from redemption, when something pops in his head. It sounds like a door slamming shut.
When you’re a kid, you’re always asked what you want to be when you grow up. At least that’s how he remembers it and his memory is painfully accurate. He’d give anything to forget. Anyway, other children would spout the usual: firemen, ballerinas, veterinarians. He’d just say: dead. His parents thought he’d grow out of it. He never wore eyeliner or ankhs or velvet pants but as a teenager he would lie in his bed and think about what’d it be like. But how do you picture a world without you? You’re still the one imagining it, so your imagination infects it. Ignoring the pain, he now tries to pinpoint the moment the knife cuts away his noisy consciousness and only silence remains.
If he wasn’t losing so much blood he’d be blushing. He looks like an idiot waving this wrench over his head. He knows it because he’s felt it before. He was dancing at his son’s wedding to a dim, plain-faced girl. She demanded he dance with her, and he tried, but he became too aware of his rhythm and limbs and pained expression. The same awkwardness struck again as he kissed his wife that night. His hands were like rubber on her body, clumsy and useless. She told him it didn’t matter; he left her within the month. He’s jealous of men like his killer. Look at him. Look at the way he moves that knife! Effortless. Graceful. This man could dance to anything.
He wishes he had a daughter who needed surgery. In desperate need of new organs or experimental therapy or a Swiss doctor who’ll only fly by private jet. That way he could spend all the money he’s made by killing on his little girl and feel fine. It’s a lot of money, collected in thick yellow envelopes, and it always seemed wrong to spend it on food or rent or booze. He’d told a cab driver about Ellie (he decided the sick daughter would be an Ellie) and the man wouldn’t take his fare. He said it was a gift “from one father to another.” Now it’s too late to give it to charity. Whoever finds Ellie’s money will just spend it on crap.
Before every mission, he makes a list. I am loved. I leave three good sons behind. I have a true friend who knows what I do and does not care. I have slept with many women much more beautiful than me, and I have travelled the world and seen rare, precious things. It ends with him pounding his own chest, staring himself down in the mirror, and thinking: I can die today. But when you are about to die – when you’ve seen three others sliced up in seconds and know you’re next – your list is somewhat different. Not yet, it says. Just those words in smeared, desperate handwriting, filling a thousand pages, falling to the floor and lying there unread. Not yet.