A Life of Service


Hawthorne returns from his pre-dawn walk and opens the door. He flicks on the light switch, but the house stays dark. The breaker box is in the kitchen, past the den where I’m hiding. 

I’ve picked various ambush spots over the years, but Hawthorne’s den picked me. In here, I am surrounded with mementos of a good life: a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, campaign ribbons, a combat knife crusted with mud from a nameless, numbered hill. A tattered war diary.

Even my golf clubs are here. 

Hawthorne stole it all.

He broke into my house last week. A terrible crash jolted me awake, and I wondered if my old nightmare had finally bled into the real world. In my blackest sleep, I see clots of dirt tossed high by mortar rounds, a severed arm cartwheeling into the dark. Fifty-plus years of this damn dream. But this wasn’t in my head. It was three-thirty in the morning and the crash was downstairs. I found Agnes sprawled on the floor, clutching her chest, her fading eyes looking at the door. Outside, Hawthorne climbed into a loaded pickup.

Now he shuffles into the den. “Jimmy, look at you. Lurking like a ninja. How’ve you been, old man?”

“I’m good, boss. We got business, you and me.”

“About Agnes. I hear she’s in a coma.”

“You scared her into it and left her on the floor. She sleeps on the couch most nights because my dreams spook her.”

“Well now. You’ve spooked a few people over the years, Jimmy.”

Hawthorne hired me in 1975. I’d come home from Vietnam with a violent streak unsated by mindless body counts. He ran high-stakes poker games and loaned money to losers who thought their luck would turn. I collected from said losers who fell behind on payments. Sometimes I picked a hiding place for an ambush, like I said. But sometimes the deadbeats answered the door and brought in their families. The kids tried to hug me. The wives insisted it was a mistake. I’d beat the guy to a pulp before their eyes. You’re supposed to shield family from dark secrets. A family is for enjoying life. Agnes never asked about my bloody knuckles. But too much went unspoken between us.

“You been crying, Jimmy?”

He follows my gaze to the floor, where my war diary is torn apart. I could understand Hawthorne stealing medals and knives. Memorabilia fetches good prices. But a diary? Waiting in the den, I looked at those pages for the first time in fifty years and found fresh paper wedged in there.

Feb. 2, 2021

Dearest Agnes:

Jimmy won’t miss his Vietnam stuff. He can’t even look at it. I need money if we’re going to Mexico and I’m covering your medical bills. What about his golf clubs? He never used them. Don’t be on the fence about this trip, hon.


I bought golf clubs in ‘75, thinking Agnes and I would learn to play. She’d drive those little carts and laugh her head off. But the clubs stayed in the garage while I did my duty, collecting debts for Hawthorne, busting occasional heads and breaking random fingers. 

“She hid this note in the one place I would never look,” I say.

Hawthorne digs in his pocket, trying to look casual. “It broke her fragile heart, deciding to leave you. Honestly? I thought she was dead. Since Mexico is out the window, I planned to leave your stuff for the police to find. You’d get it back.”

I reach over and pull a nine iron from my golf bag. 

“Jimmy, this ain’t the golf course.”

It’s not a perfect swing. Had Agnes and I lived our lives, really lived, I’d know my way around a golf club by now. But I make decent contact and Hawthorne slumps against the wall, the gun falling from his pocket. Another swing and a chunk of liver-spotted scalp cartwheels into the gloom. It belongs in my dream.

 They say people in a coma can hear you talk. Well, I got things to say to my Agnes.

But for now, I keep swinging, concluding my life of service.

~ fin ~


Hugh Lessig’s short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Crime Factory and Needle, plus the following anthologies: volumes 1 and 2 of Mickey Finn 21st Century Noir, the Guns + Tacos novella series, and Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. His 36-year career as a newspaper reporter took him to Ecuador in 1997, post-earthquake Haiti in 2010, Ukraine in 2018, plus a lot of city council meetings in between.