The J

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Nathaniel Tower


The other day I was reading a book I had purchased online a few years back. It was Ulysses, by Joyce. I was finally on the last chapter, the one with no punctuation, the one from the woman’s point of view—not sure if those two ideas are related or not, but I guess it makes sense.

So I had just started the chapter, a glass of wine, a Pinot Grigio, in my hand. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but I kept reading anyway because I was once told that the most intellectual accomplishment a human being could achieve in this day was to read Ulysses cover-to-cover. There I was, on the brink of achieving some intellectual brilliance that I didn’t fully comprehend but was proud of anyway, when I accidentally tipped my Pinot, sending the swirling liquid in a waterfall to my newly planted carpet.

In haste, I sprang from the comfort of my recliner, spilling the immortal genius of Joyce in a far less tragic accident, the heavy volume crashing with great force upon my naked big toe. Although the massive words hurt, I resisted the urge for profanity, instead stooping quickly and silently to rescue the pages from the wine that was seeping into my carpet.

After bouncing off my foot, the book had landed oddly, its spine down, flipped open to pages 364 and 365, words I had read many weeks ago, words that now stared at me wistfully, begging for another glance.

And then I noticed it. Lodged between those two pages was a tiny white envelope.

How had I not noticed this before?

I could feel the dampness soaking into my foot, ruining my carpet, but I paid no attention.

Was this an omen? A sign? Had someone planted this envelope possibly when I had dozed for just a brief moment while reading on the park bench?

Without hesitation and with great curiosity, my clumsy fingers tore into the small white envelope, forever breaking the bond between paper and licked glue.

KILL J

In big block letters. One word and one letter. No punctuation. A tiny space separating them.

KILL J

“Who the hell is J?” I asked aloud.

No one answered.

I flipped the book closed, not caring that I had lost my place, and stared at the picture of Joyce that graced the cover.

“Who’s J?” I asked his reproduced image.

He stared back, but did not answer. I flipped through the book, but the pages offered no further clues.

A swarm of question buzzed through my mind. Who wrote the note? Was it intended for me? Who was J? Was I to kill J? Was Joyce the J, and this was just some jokester’s attempt to suggest we stop reading his works? Was this a reference to the novel that I had somehow missed? Had someone accidentally switched books with me and left his reminder to kill J in the wrong hands?

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and gathered myself. The questions ceased.

Out loud, I made a list of all the Js I knew well. “Jane, Jared, John, James, Jim, and Janet.” I thought about it again, and decided to add all of the last names I knew. “Johnson, Jurotich, Jackson, Jerinnian.”

I repeated the list, trying to order them according to whom I would most want dead. Of all the names, two stood out: Jim and Jurotich.

Jim was a two-timing snake, someone who stabbed you in the back before you even turned around. On top of that, he was a pervert who had twice been arrested for doing unmentionable perverted things.

Jurotich wasn’t a terrible person, but every time he spoke, he irritated to core of your soul.

I continued to think, wavering back and forth between the two despicable characters. At last I came to the realization that it was Jim. Someone wanted Jim dead. That someone wanted me to kill Jim. I understood what I had to do. I was the chosen one.

I made another list, this time of all the people I thought might want Jim dead. Once I had a dozen names, I folded it gently and placed it in my pocket. I returned the envelope to its shelter between the pages of the book, and headed out for the park where I frequently read, leaving the soaking wine to forever soil my new carpet. Oh well, I told myself later, it was bound to happen eventually.

In the park, I sat on my usual bench, a bench of sturdy wood and cracking gray paint, and held the book just below eye level so the world could easily see what I was reading. Actually, I wasn’t reading. My eyes were glancing over the top of the book, peering stealthily into a world that did not know I was watching. Strategically I had placed the jagged torn end of the envelope so that it also peered out, the rest of its body clenched together by two pages halfway through the book.

I studied the people that walked by.

There was a tall rabbi, a man who did not even glance my way.

There were three or four women jogging, two of whom studied me as they ran slowly by, possibly admiring my intellect.

Two men walked by talking about a woman one had “boned.” They repeatedly and loudly used the word as they neared me.

There were a handful of squirrels, none of whom paid any attention to me whatsoever.

There was a police officer who eyed me suspiciously for a moment before continuing his beat.

There was a sketchy bearded man in a trenchcoat and sunglasses. Of all the people present, he seemed most likely to be the one to want someone dead. But he didn’t approach me either, although he did stand within a dozen yards for quite some time. Perhaps it was I who should have approached him, I began to wonder.

Finally, after several hours of waiting—eventually I realized how suspicious my lack of page turning must have looking—a young woman I didn’t think I had ever seen before approached and sat on the bench beside me. She caught me off guard, at a moment of weakness where I was actually studying Joyce’s words, so I didn’t get much of a glimpse at her, but I could see how maybe she would want someone dead. She certainly didn’t seem the type to do the deed herself.

“Nice day,” she said casually.

“Uh huh,” I responded, lost in my book.

“You like Joyce?”

“I’m trying to,” I added curtly. I wasn’t about to play coy with her. This wasn’t a situation for coyness.

“Yeah, he’s hard to get into.”

Something about her voice forced me to look up from the words that didn’t really have my attention. Looking over her face, I noticed she was strikingly beautiful, the type of woman that would likely have inspired someone like Joyce to write a poem. I wished for a moment that Joyce had been there to capture her beauty with his magical pen.

“Is this your first battle with Ulysses?” she asked with her glistening green eyes the color of emeralds shining in the morning sun.

“No. Yes. I’m not really sure,” I stumbled over my clumsy tongue in a very un-Joycean manner.

She laughed comfortably at my words, taking my clumsiness for some cute form of flirtation.

“Look,” I said, lowering the book and looking away from her sharp eyes, “I know why you’re here.”

“Oh really?” she asked, blinking but surprisingly not blushing.

“I sure do.”

“But you don’t even know my name.” She spoke incredulously.

My fingers gently played with the frayed edges of the protruding envelope. Her eyes watched my subtle movements.

“Perhaps it’s best we not get too personal here.”

My brown eyes met her green eyes. Hers pierced mine and I looked away.

“But don’t I want to get personal?” she asked cryptically, as women are wont to do.

“No, you just want to kill J. Or have me do it.”

“Oh.” She began to slide away from me as if I were some leper.

“Look, I’ll do it, but I need a little help.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.” She looked down at the ground, her dragon-colored eyes searing the pavement below us.

We sat in silence for several minutes. I could feel the heat rising from the ground, circling around me, engulfing my soul.

“So is this how it’s going to be?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.

“I told you I need help.”

“And I told you I couldn’t help you.”

“Can you at least tell me who J is? I mean, I think I know, but how can anyone be sure? And this is far too serious to risk picking the wrong J.”

She sighed and stood. “I’m sure you can figure it out,” she said unsurely. For the first time, I noticed more than just her eyes. She was actually not as strikingly beautiful as I had initially thought. In fact, she was rather plain. “So are you going to do it?”

“If I can figure it out.” Secretly, I decided I no longer would. There seemed no clear reason for such an act, and I couldn’t very well just go kill someone because a normal-looking woman who happened to have somewhat enchanting eyes asked me to.

“Oh, you’ll figure it out,” she added, her back turned to me as she walked away.

And that’s when I noticed it. Attached to her bag was a single letter, straight at first, then hooking into a miniature U at the bottom. Together, the two shapes formed a golden J.

I reached into my pocket and removed the small revolver. Pointing the gun, my hand quivering, I debated for a moment. Was I sure? Was this what she wanted? Could I really kill someone I had just met? Then again, who was I to not kill someone who really wanted me to do it?

Before she could get out of range, I decided to pull the trigger. As the smoke rose from the barrel, her body collapsed to the grass, falling like a sack of potatoes, a strange sight from such a small woman.

I stood, looking around to assure myself there were no witnesses, then ran to the body and scooped up her bag before sprinting away from the scene. As I ran, the image of blood-painted grass clung to my mind.

Back in the security of my apartment, I searched the contents of her bag. It was filled with dozens of small white envelopes. I tore into one after the other, the same five letters staring at me repeatedly.

KILL J

KILL J

KILL J

KILL J

After a couple dozen, I stopped my frantic search for meaning. I removed the golden J from her bag and studied it carefully. It looked so out of place in my hand. I turned it over repeatedly. It was nothing but a plain gold J.

I tried to reason with myself that I had done the right thing. Clearly she had been the purveyor of the note, but still I wondered how it had gotten there, and still I wondered why she had been so cryptic. I tried to focus on some logical explanation, but I couldn’t see anything clearly except her cold green eyes blending into the grass as her body fell to the ground.

Throwing the J to the ground, I decided to turn to Joyce for help. After all, the book was where the story had all began. Perhaps the ending would clear things up. So I read the last few pages, desperately searching for some sign to indicate that I had done the right thing, to confirm that I wasn’t completely insane.

And in the end, I found the confirmation I needed. There, on the final page of Joyce’s great work, the final sentence of a chapter without sentences, a solitary affirming word. That single “Yes” caused me to breathe the greatest sigh of relief that had ever been emitted from my lips. Smiling, I closed the book and rested it atop the mountain of notes.

At the precise moment of my victory, the police showed up.
pencil

Nathaniel Tower writes fiction and teaches English. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cantaraville, Mud Luscious, Bottom of the World, Inscribed, Skive, Toasted Cheese and many others. He is also the founding editor of the online literary magazine, Bartleby Snopes. He currently lives in St. Louis, MO with his wife. E-mail: bartlebysnopes[at]yahoo.com

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