Reed Farrell Coleman

Hurt machine

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.

— Wittgenstein


Death, not time, is probably the only lasting remedy for hurt and even that’s just an educated guess. Maybe it was wishful thinking. I’m not usually prone to wishful thinking, but since walking out of my oncologist’s office, I’d given myself license to wish away. What damage, I thought, could wishful thinking do to me that the tumor couldn’t?

Death and hurt were pretty present on my mind. I wondered when the former would come and if the latter would ever really disappear. I wasn’t so much concerned with my hurt. I’d been long-hardened to the slings and arrows. No, I was more focused on the hurt I would leave in my wake, the damage I’d done and left unaddressed or unrepaired. Humans are like hurt machines. No matter how hard we try not to do it, we seem to inflict hurt on one another as naturally as we breathe.

“Hurt, pain… they’re God’s way of letting you know he loves you,” my late friend and Auschwitz survivor Israel Roth once said to me, a wry smile on his face.

“Then God must really love you a lot, Izzy.”

“More than some, less than others.”

“So God invented tough love. Who knew? Good thing I don’t believe in him.”

“Is it a good thing, you think? For your sake, Mr. Moe, I hope he believes in you.”

“We’ll see, I guess.”

“Yes, someday.”

Well, suddenly, that someday felt very much at hand. It’s funny, but I couldn’t make sense of what the doctor had said to me. I mean, I understood the individual words and phrases. More tests. A second opinion. Malignant. Metastatic. Surgery. Chemo. Radiation. But somehow they didn’t hang together. They didn’t add up. I couldn’t do the math. One thing he said required no math, no intricate equation. Maybe it would be a good thing to get your house in order. The one euphemism he used, I understood. That needed no further explanation. Problem was, I was at a loss for how to go about it. I could barely organize my sock drawer. How was I supposed to organize my future and my past?

One thing I was proud of: I hadn’t walked out of the doctor’s office asking, “Why me?” I had since learned not to ask that one. You ask it once and you never stop asking it. Besides, in a Godless universe, the answer starts fourteen billion years ago as a pinpoint in the void and I didn’t have that kind of time. None of us do. I actually preferred icy randomness to thinking of God as the universal hurt machine. Still, I suppose I might have asked the question had the doctor said I would die before Sarah’s wedding.

Sarah’s wedding. There’s a phrase I used to dread-now, not so much. As a matter of fact, as phrases go, it beats the shit out of You’ve got a golf ball-sized tumor in your stomach.

I liked Paul, Sarah’s fiance. More than that, I trusted him. He was solid, a state prosecutor in Vermont, and he loved my daughter so that it ached. He would take good care of her. I knew it was old-fashioned to see any woman, but especially my daughter, as someone who needed taking care of, but in a world so full of hurt, everyone needs taking care of. Anyway, since my trip to the oncologist, I didn’t give a fuck about my thoughts being out of step with the times.

Not only did I like Paul, we were connected. Paul was the biological son of Rico Tripoli, my precinct mate at the Six-O in Coney Island when I was on the job in the seventies. Rico had once been my best friend, closer to me even than my own brother Aaron. It was Rico who, back in ’78, had gotten me involved in my first case as a PI: the search for Patrick Maloney, a college kid gone missing after a school fundraiser at a Tribeca bar. While searching for Patrick, I fell in love with his sister Katy. Katy and I were married for twenty years and Sarah was our only child. So although Rico had pissed away his gold shield, committed slow-motion suicide with drugs and alcohol, and betrayed our friendship more than once, he was, in his way, responsible for both bride and groom.

At the moment, I was too busy checking my watch to worry about the train wreck that had been Rico Tripoli’s life. Pam was late for the pre-wedding party and that was pissing me off to no end. It was actually comforting to be pissed off, to be able to focus my anger on something or someone other than the fucking cancer. I reached into my pocket for my cell phone, but stopped as I noticed a woman turn the corner, heading for the restaurant. I put the cell phone back, not because it was Pam. It wasn’t. No, this woman was a piece of my past, someone who had first come into my life in 1972 and walked out of it eight years ago, taking a chunk of my soul with her.


Carmella Melendez and I had gotten married for all the wrong reasons, but with the best intentions. Perhaps it might have worked out better the other way around. The fact is, it didn’t work out. Thankfully, we dissolved things before we could chew each other up or do any lasting damage. Well, before I could do lasting damage to her. I hadn’t been lucky enough to escape unscathed. I’d been a father to Carmella’s newborn for the first year of his life and although Israel-named for Mr. Roth-wasn’t mine, I was the first man to change his diapers, to dry his tears, to tickle his belly. I didn’t know what the now nine-year-old Israel remembered of me, if anything, but I could still hear him coo and feel his tiny fingers latch onto my nose as I cradled him in my arms.

My heart was thumping in my chest. My throat was dry. I hadn’t seen Carmella for the better part of a decade and we’d barely spoken since she moved up to Toronto. The one conversation we’d had was about her changing Israel’s last name to hers, thereby erasing all traces of me in the boy’s life. Yet the sight of her still made me weak, the hurt and baggage being beside the point. The nearly twenty years in age that separated us was as meaningless now as it was the first time we met as adults. She was a young precinct detective in those days and I was investigating a corruption and murder case in Coney Island’s Soul Patch. I didn’t know then that our paths had crossed before, when she was a little girl with a different name and that I had saved her from certain death. Then it struck me that I hadn’t saved Carmella from it at all. I’d only given her a temporary reprieve. I guess every day from the day we’re born is a kind of reprieve. I wondered if I too might get a reprieve or if my ticket had already been punched.

We hugged. It was a silent, awkward embrace, both too long and not long enough, too distant, but too close. I recognized the once familiar feel of silk when the wind blew her hair against my cheek. The back of her cotton floral-print dress was damp and the raw scent of her perspiration cutting against the grassy fragrance of her perfume was intoxicating. It made me want to give in to the moment. Still, as willfully indulgent as I’d been lately, this was neither the time nor the place. And frankly, I was pretty curious about what she was doing here at all. I put my hands around her bare, light brown biceps, gently pushing her away. I needed some distance between us and, at the moment, arm’s length was the best I could do.

And for the first time since I noticed her rounding the corner, I saw Carmella Melendez with my eyes instead of my heart. Her hair, once so impossibly black, was now salted with threads of gray. She was still fit and as perfectly curved as she had been in her mid-twenties, but some of the fierceness in her eyes had vanished and the

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