OLD SCHOOL TIES


By Jim Cort



I didn't shoot the guy. I know there's a dozen people say they saw me do it. I know the cops found me with the gun in my hand, but I didn't shoot him.

Listen, you're my lawyer — you gotta believe me, right? I'm going to tell you this just like it happened. Then you'll see what a crazy guy he was. You'll see it couldn't have been my fault.

First of all, I didn't even know Jack Cochran. I know what you're going to say, but I didn't really know him. It's like our paths crossed years ago, that's all. So I didn't recognize the name when I saw it on my appointment calendar. Gloria told me — she's our secretary, Gloria — she told me the guy had stopped by the office when I was out and asked for me by name. He made an appointment for me to come to his place the next evening. I was surprised he had asked for me, but I figured some other policyholder maybe recommended me, you know? Sometimes that happens.

It's not unusual me going out in the evening. There's some people, they work all day; after work is the only time they have. My wife doesn't like it I'm out so much at night, but I tell her, "You want the nice house, you want the nice things, somebody's gotta earn the dough," right? All right, so maybe sometimes I'm not doing exactly what I say I was doing. Maybe sometimes I'm with some chick somewhere, you know, getting a little. But that's not the point. The point is she should be more trusting.

Anyway, I drive to Cochran's place, It's this apartment house on Hill Street. Not the best neighborhood, but not bad. I ring the bell and he answers the door. He's this tall thin guy. He's wearing square wire rimmed glasses, and he's got this way of pushing them back on his nose all the time with his finger. He's got a short brown beard that's just starting to go gray. His hair is a dull brown color and getting seriously thin, like the guy never heard of Rogaine. The thing about his eye is, his left eye's tilted down a little and out, so half the time you can't tell where he's looking.

I'm sizing him up and I decide on the humble-but-friendly opening. "Hi," I say, "I'm Eddie Schoenfeld, Champion Insurance. I hope I'm on time. Are you Mr. Cochran?" You know, not too pushy right away. Puts some people off.

Cochran smiles and says, "Yes, I am. Call me Jack. And you're right on time. Please come in."

So, I go in. It's not much of a place. Two and a half rooms. The walls are painted landlady green. There's a sofa and an armchair, a little bookshelf, a coffee table, and a TV on a card table by the wall. I get the impression this stuff's not his, except maybe the TV, like he got the place furnished. He moves around like he's not familiar with it, like he's not really at home.

We sit down and I say, "Now, Jack, tell me how I can help you." I get the legal pad out and a pen.

He goes, "Well, it's about insurance, of course. I've been thinking. Life is so unpredictable. I mean, anything can happen. I don't have any children and my wife divorced me not long ago. But I am just about the sole support of my mother, and I'd like to make sure that she'd be taken care of if anything happened to me."

I tell him I've got just the thing he's looking for, and I go into The Routine. I am very good at The Routine. I've practiced it for years in living rooms and kitchens all over the state. A few scare stories; a lot of charts and figures, a little flattery, and I can get almost anybody in a signing mood. I got this laptop now and I can do bar graphs in sixteen colors. Really impresses people.

Anyway, I'm well into The Routine and I notice Cochran's watching me the whole time. I mean he's really paying attention. Usually after about five minutes of The Routine, people's eyes glaze over and they start nodding and saying "uh-huh" just so they wouldn't look stupid. But this Cochran guy has eyes that could go right through you. It's like he's studying me, like I'm the most fascinating thing the guy ever saw. Except with the one tilted eye you can't tell where the hell he's looking. After a while it gave me the willies.

I finish the pitch and he says he wants the policy. He takes the highest face amount he can get without a medical. It's a good plan. His Mom will be well taken care of, and I tell him that. I'm filling out the paperwork and asking a couple of questions just to wrap things up.

"What do you do for a living?" I ask him.

He goes, "I'm a librarian." This is no surprise. I ask for his age next birthday, and he tells me forty-one. I say, "That's a good age, same as me," just for something to say.

"Yes," he says, "I know. You and I went to the same high school, Eddie."

I look up at him. He's still staring at me. "You went to Saint Am's?" I say.

"Same graduating class," he says.

I don't know what to say. I don't remember him at all. I don't much care if he did go to St. Ambrose, I'm just trying to close the sale. So I say, "No kidding."

"I rode there on the same city bus you did," Cochran says. "I don't suppose you remember me. I was heavier then, and of course, I didn't have the beard."

I say, "I thought that name sounded familiar," but I'm lying like a rug. I pass him the application and show him where to sign and how to make out the check. I don't want to lose any momentum. As he's signing his glasses slip down his nose and he pushes them up with his finger, and all at once I remember him: a tubby kid with a stammer. The glasses were different — he had black plastic rims — and there was nothing wrong with his eye. But that was him: one of those geeks in the Honor Society; always hanging around the library; dressed like an old man. We even had a nickname for him: The Finger, because he was always doing that with his glasses.

This blows me away. This guy is somebody I never expected to see again. I mean, I barely remember him, I hardly knew him in school, he wasn't in my crowd. He's writing out his check and I'm stealing another look at him. He looks terrible, like he hasn't been taking care of himself.

Cochran says, "That was a long time ago but I still remember you. I knew who you were when I made the appointment with your secretary. I wanted to see if you'd remember me."

I say, "Sure I did. It just took me a minute." I can see he's got the signed check in his hand. I'm thinking, just give me the damn check and I can get out of here.

But he gets up and says, "Listen, this is a kind of reunion, isn't it? Let's both have a drink. Scotch all right?"

I tell him scotch is fine and he pulls a bottle and two glasses from the shelf and pours us each a drink. No soda; no ice. I take a taste, and I'll tell you, Cochran might have been a brainy guy, but he didn't know anything about scotch.

So then he says, "I've got something here you'll really be interested to see." Before I can stop him he leaves the room. He's still got the check, see? He comes back and says, "I've got my copy of The Falcon. I dug it out when I knew you were coming."

And there it is: THE FALCON 1989 SAINT AMBROSE REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL. Same blue vinyl cover, it even smells the same, like slick paper and ink. I couldn't tell you what happened to my copy. I gotta confess it was kind of a kick to see it again. For a minute I forget all about the check. I start flipping through the book.

There I am with hair down to here. There's all my old my buddies. Just to be polite I look up Cochran. His name's there, but no picture. I just mention this in passing and I notice he's staring at me like he was before.

"No," he says, "there's no picture. I couldn't have my picture taken. You had something to do with that, do you remember?"

I say, "Me? No."

He goes, "I do. I remember it very clearly. We were going home on the bus. You were in the back with your friends, smoking and making a lot of noise, yelling and laughing. You sound like a horse when you laugh, Eddie. Did anybody ever tell you that?"

I'm starting not to like the turn this conversation is taking, but I keep quiet.

"There I was trying to read," Cochran says, "and you crept forward — someone told me later it was you — and dropped a lighted cigarette down the back of my seat. I didn't feel it right away, I suppose because I was leaning forward. By the time I did notice it, it had burned quite a hole in my jacket. I remember jumping up like some clown in a Mack Sennett movie, everyone laughing at me. Don't you remember that, Eddie? You thought it was pretty funny at the time."

His voice is starting to sound choked up, and his eye, the one that's tilted, starts to tremble. I'm getting a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach looking at it, like I always got when I was making up some story for Brother Whitehead back at Saint Am's, or for my wife. I say, "I don't recall anything like that." That kind of thing, it was like giving somebody a hotfoot, you know? We never meant any harm.

"Jeez," I say, "you're still not mad about something like that, are you?"

Cochran smiles, but it doesn't make me feel any better. "I stopped being angry about it long ago," he says. "But you probably never found out what happened after that bus trip. You didn't know that my father drank more than was good for him. He never could hold down a job for very long. If I hadn't won a scholarship I could never have afforded to go to Saint Am's.

"My Dad was drunk when I got home with that hole burned in my jacket," he says. "I never had a chance to explain. He beat the living crap out of me. He broke my jaw that day. I spent the whole next month with my face wired up. That's why I couldn't get my picture taken. But you never knew that, did you, Eddie?"

I say, "Hell, no. That's awful. I had no idea." It's just starting to dawn on me now, this guy is crazy. I mean, what else can he be? He's going on about this thing that happened twenty-something years ago, and he's blaming me.

Cochran's still smiling this sick little smile. He says, "You know, Eddie, It's funny how one little thoughtless act can have the most far-reaching consequences. It's like dropping a stone in a pool. The ripples spread out and you can't call them back, and in no time they're much larger that the thing that made them."

Then he starts talking about a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon and pretty soon it's raining in Oklahoma or some damn thing. I'm lost; I don't know what the hell he's talking about.

But then he's talking about his broken jaw again. He says the medical bills were more than they could pay, and since his Dad was out of work, they didn't have any insurance. Before too long the old man skips out on them — leaves Cochran and his Mom holding the bag. His Mom has to take any job she can get just to pay the bills. She won't let him go to work — she wants him to go to college. And he does, too — full scholarship and he holds down two jobs to pay his room and board. Not like me. I can still hear my old man crabbing about all the money he spent so I could get drunk and get laid every chance I got for four years down at Rahway State.

I'm all confused. At first I thought he was gonna jump me or something, and now The Finger is telling me the story of his life. I don't want to listen to this. I want to get my check and get out.

And all through this whole speech he's talking about his face. Apparently, after they got finished with him at the hospital, the one side of his face droops a little. You can't tell so much with the beard, but if you look at his face long enough, you can tell there's something not quite right about it. And there's the eye, too.

Anyway, I can tell he thinks this thing with his face has held him back — like he's self-conscious about how he looks. He's got a crappy job at some library — he's always had crappy jobs. Never had the drive to improve himself, 'cause he's always worried about his face. I don't know how he ever got up the courage to get married, but he did. And after a year or two his wife can't stand to be with him, he's such a loser, and divorces him. That's how women are. He tells me he got the final papers the same day he made the appointment with me.

"I got those papers," he tells me, "and I was walking down the street feeling I had no reason to go on, and I saw your name on the agency window. I suddenly had a notion of something unfinished between us, so I went in and made the appointment. I wanted you here tonight to make things right between us. I saw the need for a kind of purging, what the Greeks used to call catharsis."

I'm starting to calm down. I figure, this guy's not going to knife me or anything. He's just The Finger, twenty years older, but still the same loser. I tell him, "Look, I don't know anything about this catharsis stuff, but I do know someone who's feeling sorry for himself when I see him. That's no way to be, Jack. It won't get you anywhere. It sounds like you've had some bad luck. Maybe I am responsible for some of it, I don't know." Hey, what the hell; I can be big about this.

"The point is you can't dwell on it," I tell him. "You can't live in the past. You have to overcome these things. You have to make the most of your opportunities. You need a little drive, that's all. It's never too late, you know?"

Cochran says, "I guess you're right, Eddie," and he hands me the check. He raises his drink and says, "Here's to drive." And we both take a sip of that sheep-dip scotch.

So I take the check and I get out of there, and I'm thinking I've had some kind of a close shave. I can't tell what for sure, but something almost happened in there. This guy Cochran is some kind of screwball. But I get commission on a screwball's business just like anybody else's.

A couple days later I come back from lunch and Gloria tells me Cochran has been in the office looking for me. I'm a little worried about this at first because I know he's got three days to go cancel the deal and get his money back. That's the law. I can't tell you how much business that's cost me. I spend all night in some stinking kitchen working my butt off to get some guy softened up to the point he'll sign on the dotted line. And then his wife or his girlfriend or somebody gets hold of him and talks him out of it and all my hard word is down the toilet.

So, this is what I'm thinking. But, no, that's wasn't what he wanted. He gave Gloria a message for me, and the message was he was sorry about what happened the other night and he hoped he could make things right between us. He didn't write a note or anything; he said this to her and asked her to tell me.

I'm a little confused at first, because I can't think of anything that went wrong, but I finally figure he feels bad about acting so weird about the thing with his jacket, so I forget about it.

But a few days later it happens again. He leaves a phone message for me saying the same thing. Then he does it again. Gloria is starting to ask me, you know, what went on, because he's making such a big deal about it. I tell her nothing, but I don't think she believes me. Gloria, she's a bit of a bungalow, you know — nothing upstairs.

The Sunday after that, I come home from playing golf and my wife tells me Cochran's been to the house with the same story. She told me he was perfectly polite, but he seemed real upset and wanted to make things right between us, that's the words he used. So now my wife is saying, "What did you do to this poor man?" I tell her nothing, but she looks like she doesn't believe me either.

I'm getting a little tired of this. Every day there's another of these screwy messages at home or at the office. I try to phone Cochran, but there's never any answer, so I go down to his apartment. I knock on the door, but nothing happens. I must have been knocking kinda hard, because I can see some of the other apartment doors opening up and the people looking out at me. Not only am I not getting to see Cochran, but I'm starting to feel like a jerk.

This goes on for about a week. I can't get hold of him, and he always seems to call or drop by with these messages and apologies when I'm not there. It's really starting to get on my nerves.

Then one night I stop by Shelly's Lounge after a sales call. I do that sometimes to unwind a bit before I go home. I have a couple and then I go out to the parking lot. I remember it was raining pretty hard and I'm hurrying out there with my head hunched down. I get to my car and up pops Cochran out of nowhere, right next to my car. Scared the living bejesus out of me. He's just standing there looking at me, no hat or anything, the rain pouring down. He says, "Hello, Eddie, nice night, isn't it?"

I'm thinking it's pouring down rain, you freaking screwball, but I don't want to make him mad. I'm getting that same feeling I got when I was in his apartment — that something was going to happen. So I say, "What do you want, Jack?"

He says, "Not a thing, Eddie." And then, I swear to God, he pitches forward all at once and bangs his head on my car, right on the chrome on the edge of the windshield. He opens up this gash on his forehead; it's bleeding all down his face. I start yelling at him, you know, "What the hell are you doing," but he's already walking away, and I lose him real quick in the darkness and the rain. I get in the car and drive home, and I'm thinking this guy is really nuts. I'm scared now, I don't know what he's going to pull next.

I know what you're gonna say. How come I didn't call the cops, right? Think about it. What am I gonna tell them? This guy keeps calling up apologizing and banging his head on my car? They'd laugh me out of town. I didn't tell anybody. It was just too weird.

The next morning I get a phone call from the bartender at Shelly's. He's a friend of mine, and he tells me Cochran showed up there, it must have been just after I drove away. He was bleeding from the gash in his head, and he tells them I did it to him, that I hit him in the parking lot. I can't believe what this guy is telling me. He says a couple people there said Cochran should call the cops, but he said no. "It's a misunderstanding," he says. "I just want things to be right between us," he says. The bartender told me they got Cochran fixed up with the first aid kit behind the bar and he left.

Are you starting to get the picture? The guy was like, stalking me. I'm ready to get some kind of court order against him. I'm so worked up I take an early lunch and go down to the Water Street Cafe to think things over. I'm sitting in a booth with a cup of coffee and here comes Cochran, walking toward my table with this bandage on his forehead. He's walking right toward me. Well, I gotta admit, my nerves were so shot that I lost it in there. I jumped up and started yelling at him. I can't even remember what I said. Something about him spreading stories about me, something about him hounding me, I guess. I remember I told him to stay away from me and from my wife. Cochran starts cringing, like I'm gonna hit him or something, and I have to confess the idea did occur to me, but I never laid a finger on him. He got out of there, and left me standing in the aisle with the whole place staring at me.

This brings me to what happened Saturday. It was about ten o'clock in the morning. My wife was out shopping. She always does her shopping on Saturday morning. Somebody rings the front doorbell and I go answer it. It's Cochran. He's standing right there on my front porch holding a bouquet of flowers wrapped up in green tissue paper. He's smiling that stupid smile, like there's nothing in the world the matter.

I was really steamed, I mean, I'd had it up to here, you know? I'm out of the house and come at him on the porch there. But it's a fine spring day and I can see beyond him all my neighbors are outside working in their yards or playing with their kids or something. I don't want to make a scene in front of them, like I did in the diner. So I get control of myself. I'm trying to be calm, you know. I tell him, "Look, if you don't cut this out I'm gonna have the law on you. I want you off my porch and out of my life."

He goes, "Don't worry, Eddie. You won't see me again after today. I just want things to be right between us." He reaches inside the bouquet and pulls something out. He lets the bouquet fall onto the porch, and he's holding this thing in his two hands and pushing it at my stomach. My hands come up to push it away, and then I see it's a pistol. I think, Jeez, this guy's gonna shoot me. But no, he's pushing the gun at me butt first, like he's handing it to me. I grab it. I want to get it away from him. I can't say for sure if my finger wound up on the trigger or not. But as soon as I have a hold of it, he wraps his hands around mine so I can't let go. He leans forward. He's got this weird look on his face and that eye of his is trembling. He says, "Here's to drive, Eddie" and then he throws his head back and yells real loud, "No, don't shoot!"

And then his hands give a kind of a jerk and the gun goes off. I don't know whose finger was on the trigger. Cochran falls backward and tumbles down my front steps. He's lying there, blood coming out of his chest, and he's not moving. I was still holding the gun when the cops arrived. I was just standing there holding it, staring at Cochran lying on my front steps, dead as a mackerel.

So, that's the story. You can see he was crazy, right? I'm the victim here. I'm not guilty of anything. You can see that, right?

What do you mean, plea bargain?


JIM CORT first introduced omdb! readers to his series character, Eddie Tinker, in a story called "Tinker," published on the website in September, 2011. A second story featuring Eddie Tinker, "Clean Money" was published online in March, 2012.


Copyright 2012 Jim Cort. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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