Johnny Demeter killed himself last night. No, he didn’t put a gun to his head or anything like that. His sports car skidded off the road and into a wall. He always drove too fast; he liked to take risks; he enjoyed the thrill of danger. He was also lucky, but it seems his luck ran out last night on a rain-slicked curve.
We got the call very early this morning. Still half-awake, we barely understood what was being said. When the realization came, Helen and I were devastated. He had become so much a part of our life in the last few months. And then there was the ruin of all our plans for the future.
We had met him six or seven months ago at one of these big family weddings. Someone introduced us; he turned out to be a cousin of a cousin of mine. He stood out in the gathering: young, handsome, fashionably dressed, and with a striking blonde hanging on to his arm. We learned that he was rich; an only child, his father had died some years ago and left him a lot of money and property. People thought he was something of a playboy; he owned several fast cars, and seemed to have a string of girl friends. Later that evening he sought us out again, and we chatted for quite a while. The three of us were about the same age, and we seemed to like each other. Helen is shy, and doesn’t talk much, but with him she was quite animated. We enjoyed our conversation till the abandoned blonde found him and dragged him away.
A few days later Johnny came to our coffee shop. Helen and I had started this business a couple of years ago, shortly after we got married. We were just managing to keep our heads above water; in fact, we would have gone under if some of our loans hadn’t been from our families, which they were prepared to stretch out. Johnny arrived just as we were closing up. He helped us to tidy up the place, and then we went upstairs to the small apartment above the shop where Helen and I lived. He had brought along a bottle of wine, and we sat up late after supper, talking away.
Pretty soon this became a pattern in our lives. Every few days, Johnny would turn up with a bottle or two of wine, and we would eat Helen’s supper and talk and talk for hours. He seemed to enjoy it just as much as we did; perhaps he found in us what he missed as an only child. For us he became a bright light in our rather drab lives. We worked all day, and seldom had the urge to go out or meet people afterwards; we had hardly any friends. Johnny was such good company. Helen, especially, blossomed in the friendship; in the beginning, when he would tease her gently, she would just blush and laugh, but then gradually she opened up, and joined equally in the chatter and kidding around. We all laughed a great deal. We were happy together.
And then Johnny offered us a way out of the dead end in which our lives were stuck. One of the properties he had inherited from his father was a building on the Danforth in which there was a Greek restaurant. This had been running for a long time, and was very successful, but the owner now wanted to retire, and was putting it up for sale. Johnny wanted to buy it, and he wanted us to run it as his partners; his contribution would be the capital, ours would be to manage and run it. At first we thought he was joking, but he was quite serious. We talked about it, we checked out the place; Johnny had his accountant check the books; we talked to lawyers, and they began to draw up papers. From a tantalizing hope, it suddenly became a doorway into a new life full of promise. We were living hand to mouth, and always with the fear that one of the big chains would open an outlet in our neighbourhood and put us out of business. And now here was a way out. Helen and I were so excited; we talked about it all the time and made plans for the new restaurant. We even discussed how, perhaps in a year or two, we might be in a position to have a baby.
Now this terrible early morning call had changed everything. A dear friend, almost a brother, had been torn out of our lives, and so had our future. Bereft, we clung to each other and cried out our grief. Helen could not be consoled; she curled up into a ball on the bed and wept and wept. I sat beside her with my head in my hands and this awful emptiness inside me. But, finally, we had to get up and get ready to go downstairs and open up the shop.
The General came in at his usual time. He was a regular at the shop, coming in almost every day to drink his coffee and read his newspaper. Even before I found out that he had been a General in his old country’s army, I guessed he had a military background from the way he stood and sat and walked. He was tall, always well-dressed, and his greying hair added to the distinguished air about him. Most of our regulars seemed to know of him, though they appeared to hold him in some awe. A few might respectfully greet him as they walked by his table, but no one ever stopped to talk to him. He would be discreetly pointed out to newcomers, and this would usually be followed by an animated but low-voiced discussion.
I found out there was quite a story attached to the General. One day, after he had left the shop, a group around a table began to talk about him; one of them had been in the army with the General and knew the details of what had happened. Frankly, I was curious, and stopped nearby to listen. Apparently, the General had had a brilliant military career, and was expected to go, in time, right up to the top. But one day he was arrested (along with several other officers) on charges of conspiring to overthrow the dictator who ruled their country. After a short trial the General was sentenced to death. It was only after angry rumblings began in the army that the President commuted that death sentence to imprisonment for life. The General spent many years in prison, most of them in solitary confinement. He gained his freedom when the dictator was finally overthrown by the army. The new regime offered the General his choice of several high positions, but he turned them all down, and moved to Canada.
As I said, the General came to our coffee shop almost every day. He and I would exchange polite greetings, but nothing more. The only person he talked to was Helen. He would always spend a few minutes at the counter getting his coffee and chatting with her. I asked her once what they talked about. She said, nothing special. But she thought he was nice, a real gentleman. Today the General did not linger at the counter; he must have noticed Helen’s red, puffy eyes, the pale face and the shaky hands. Later, as I passed by his table, he lowered his newspaper and said, “Tell me, my friend, is something the matter?”
I had been carrying this heavy weight inside my breast all morning. It was only when the General spoke to me that I realized how much I needed to share my grief with somebody, anybody. I sat down and told him what had happened, and what effect it had on our lives. He listened gravely, his face sympathetic. When I expressed my bitterness at how a freak accident could ruin so many lives, he said softly, almost to himself, “Ah! The old war game again.”
“War game?” I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly.
“Yes,” he replied. “Let me tell you about the war game. Long ago, in another life, another country, I was once the Chief Instructor at our War College. The best and brightest colonels in the army would come to the college on a year’s training course; how they did on it largely determined their future careers: those who did really well went on to become generals, most of the others marked time till they retired. At the end of each four-month session was a war game.”
“The game was played on a large terrain model over a couple of days. The students would be divided into several teams and presented with a sequence of tactical problems. For each one the teams would make their plans and then present them to the instructors. We would then decide what the odds were of each plan succeeding, but the final decision as to whether a plan actually succeeded or not rested with what we called the Wheel of Chance. We would call in this blind janitor who looked after the model room, and he would spin the wheel; if the number that came up was within the odds that we had assigned, that plan succeeded, but if the number was greater, then it failed.”
“Later on, I realized that life is very much like this war game. We go through our lives trying to achieve goals, solve problems, overcome difficulties. In each of these efforts we use all our abilities and resources to come up with a winning plan. But all we can really do is increase the odds of success; the final outcome is still dependent on chance, a blind spin of the wheel can give us what we want, or reduce everything to dust and ashes.”
I had been only half-listening to him; I was still wrestling inside with the disaster that had hit us. Now, something in his tone made me focus back on him. He seemed to be looking far away, with an expression on his face that I could not make out. I suddenly remembered something I had heard about him. The person who had told the General’s story had remarked in wonder how trivial had been the event that had unravelled the General’s plans, and led to the arrest and imprisonment of the conspirators. I had forgotten the details, but, apparently, one of them, under some silly misunderstanding, had casually said something he shouldn’t have to the wrong person. That one slip had brought the whole thing crashing down, and shattered the General’s life. I realized that he had been talking as much about himself as about me.
He came back from wherever he was and, folding his newspaper, looked again at me. “I am truly sorry, my friend, at the tragedy that has struck you both. Some things cannot be undone, but I do hope that the future will work out for you as you would wish. Till tomorrow, then,” he said, getting up.
When the weight of worry or grief becomes too much, our minds seek relief in trivia. I caught up with him at the door.
“General.” He stopped and turned around.
“Was there really a blind janitor?”
His eyes twinkled. “No,” he said. “I used some poetic licence there. He makes the point so much better than a random number generator.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “The real point, of course, is that there is always another game in the next session. Au revoir, my friend.”
He turned and walked out.