The Risks of Empathy, A Novella
Harry Mahoney massaged his temples with his right hand and held a paper cup of stale coffee in his left. He felt old, and well he should have, for although he looked like he was about fifty, Harry was ninety-six years old. He had been called out this evening and taken away from a nice dream about kids and the lake he and his parents had visited so many years ago. But now he stood at the base of the old McGreggor Building at the corner of Main and Second. There didn’t seem to be much left of the jumper. The twenty-two-story drop had splashed her for half a block. The roads were slick from the oily wet mist that seemed to hang over the city these days and a trickle of water ran down the back of Harry’s neck.
“Why the hell do they even call us for jumpers anymore?” he asked to no one in particular.
The paramedic with the squeegee looked at him and just shrugged.
Harry signed something for the medic and turned and walked away tossing the mostly empty coffee cup into the gutter along with the rest of the garbage. He had seen four jumpers this week.
Harry looked up at a clock on a building: a little after three. No point in going back to bed; by the time he got home it would almost be time to get up. Harry glanced up and down the street and saw the dim neon sign: Jim’s Lounge.
Walking through the door Harry stepped into a small dark smoky bar with the odor of old plastic, old beer, and old urine combining to create a comfortable womb-like haven. Harry settled into a booth and noticed through the haze that half a dozen other people were seated around the room. The bartender came over and tossed down a coaster and took Harry’s order for an Old Crow highball. What the hell, the day was going to be a long one anyway.
A woman walked up and sat down across from Harry in the booth.
“Startin’ early aren’t ya?” she inquired.
Harry looked at her with the practiced eye of seventy years as a detective. She was small and had a dark mustache that belied the blond of her wig. Her nails were painted a dark blue that failed to entirely hide the dirt under her nails. She smiled at Harry and revealed teeth that had not been brushed in a very long time.
“Buy a girl a drink?”
Harry motioned for the barkeep and she ordered a Pink Lady.
“Name’s Rita. I haven’t seen you in here before?” Rita looked at Harry with veiled interest.
“No, I was on the way home. It’s been a long night. I was called to investigate the jumper down the street. Maybe you heard the sirens.”
“Yeah, I heard them. You a cop or something?”
“Detective Mahoney. Call me Harry.”
“Was it a man or a woman?” asked Rita. “I got a theory that it’s mostly women jumpin’.”
“A woman; what’s your theory?”
“Well Harry, it goes something like this: You might not believe it to look at me, and I know it ain’t polite to say, but I’m a hundred and ten fucking years old and I’m damn tired.”
Harry knew what she was getting at and nodded; he was tired too.
“Well, what’s the fuckin’ point anyway? If I live to be two hundred god-damned years old, I mean what’s the fuckin’ point? See, I think women get it better than men. Men always think that if they just try hard enough, or maybe get the right fuckin’ breaks that they can fix any god damned problem that comes up.”
“Maybe you could find something interesting to take up your time,” began Harry, but Rita cut him off.
“That’s what I’m fuckin’n talkin’ about. I tell you about a problem and you think you got the answer, but you’re full of shit.”
Harry was beginning to realize that Rita had been drinking long before he came in. Alcoholism didn’t really matter any more; you couldn’t tell people they were hurting themselves - sclerosis was one of those ancient concerns like cancer or AIDS. He couldn’t even suggest that she see a priest; churches had disappeared as new bars opened. It seemed people didn’t really care too much about salvation any more in a world where death and disease had been essentially beaten.
Harry stood up and laid a fin on the dark oily tabletop. “Have another on me,” he said as he put his hat back on and headed towards the door.
“Right,” Rita said as he stepped out the door, “like you got somewhere to go and something to do that matters.”