In the Spring of 2015, I agreed to meet with Paul for an hour to talk. He had been hounding me since before the new year. Over and over again I declined his offer to meet, no matter what he put on the table. I had known Paul for a very long time, and I knew he was nothing but trouble.
By the Spring I was in the mood for trouble. I told him that any meeting between the two of us would have to be in public and it would have to be during the day.
“You mean, like, lunch?” he asked me in an email. I had stopped using phones by then.
“Yeah. Some place really expensive.” I replied.
We agreed upon a place down in the Village, during the middle of the last week of April. Ah, New York. Once a hellhole, always a hellhole, as they say. I dressed in an old suit and took the subway. It was a beautiful day, and the clouds hung about the blue sky. It had rained that morning, washing away the stink of the city. The pleasant weather made people’s moods buoyant.
My mood rose. Maybe this will be okay, I thought. Maybe Paul has changed. Maybe everything has changed. Maybe this time things will be different.
When I arrived Paul was already there. I had not seen him for three years. He was neat and fit. He was dressed in white pants and a white polo shirt. He wore black shoes and had a large silver watch on his wrist. His head was shaved, a look that a lot of black men favored then. Same thin silver glasses on his face from what I remember. Paul had always been sentimental.
He rose from his seat when I arrived. I went to shake his hand but he clasped me in a percussive hug.
John!” he said, his eyes bright. “Long time no see, man.”
“It’s good to see you too, Paul,” I said. Emotion stirred in me as well. It might have been a business meeting, but we were old friends. There’s people who have old friends, and people who don’t. It’s an important thing to be aware of.
“Have a seat,” he said, motioning for the waiter. “Do you want anything to drink?”
“A beer,” I said, sitting down. I was nervous, and nervous about being nervous.
Paul ordered a beer for me. I felt detached and unsafe. I hadn’t left my apartment for weeks really and all the commotion suddenly hit me. My defenses had been breached.
“It’s okay,” Paul said, sensing my discomfort. “It’s okay.”
I felt a warmth suddenly radiating in my mind. My heart rate lowered and my breath slowed. Calmness spread through my nervous system. Once I realized what was happening I turned my eyes straight to Paul’s, feeling violated.
I immediately felt him release his touch on me. If it had been anybody else, there would have been trouble. I have to admit, I welcomed what he imparted. I don’t care what anybody says – Paul did the things he did out of love; love for his friends, love for the world.
“Anyway,” I said.
“How have you been?” Paul asked.
“Busy. Insanely busy.”
“So?” I asked, cutting the shit. The waiter brought me the beer. I looked over the menu. “So?” I asked again.
Paul sighed. I knew he wanted to talk about the old days, and maybe pretend for a moment we were still living in them. I’ve never been good with people. I was never good at any shit like that.
Paul reached into his briefcase which sat on the floor. He pulled out two dark blue folders thick with documents.
“We need you,” Paul said. "What else can I say? We can’t move forward without you. And there are… warnings. Something’s about to happen. Something really soon. The Republic is prepared to offer you ANYTHING. Anything.”
"My family has left me pretty well taken care of," I joked.
"You never had a family," he argued. He handed me one of the folders. It was unmarked except for a set of rivets at the bottom of its face. I ran my fingers over them, then opened the folder. Inside was a mess of photographs, news clippings, and other documents. To a layman, it would all seem unrelated. Not to me. Some of it I was familiar with. Some of it I was not. The weight of the folder clawed my mind. I snapped it closed, laid it on the table, and rubbed my hands into my forehead.
“John.” There was an anguished plea in Paul’s voice that I hadn’t really noticed until now.
“I’m retired,” I heard myself say.
“The enemy hasn’t,” Paul said.
I caught a dark blur of movement along the perimeter of my right eye. I turned and looked. Outside the window, there was a woman passing by on the sidewalk, but I hadn’t turned in time to make out any of her features; just a black blouse, blue jeans, red hair.
The waiter returned.
“Are you ready to order?” he asked.
I ordered the first entrée I could find on the menu. After the waiter left Paul handed me the other folder.
“This is someone I want you to meet. Her name is Isabel.”
“Isabel?” I repeated, but just lay it on top of the other folder. I could see that Paul HAD changed now. His skin wasn’t as healthy as it used to be, and there was a slight sink in his shoulders. I could see behind the bold confidence, a despair, a fatigue.
I took a deep breath. “And what about you?” I asked. “You still a believer?”
“More than ever,” he replied, but I could detect a note of hesitation.
“Look, John. I just want you to think about it, okay? Just look at the files for a couple days and think about it.”
I looked out the window again. Nothing but people and cars, going about their daily lives.
“Okay,” I said.