UNDERTOW

© 2010

I remember the exact moment that I realized and accepted the aching brevity of my life. It literally rocked my peripheral vision, and felt like a hand clutching my throat, and another squeezing my balls. Some people would dismiss such an experience as nothing more than a pampered man’s mid-life crisis, but it was life altering. Sleek sports cars and nubile maidens could offer no solace or wrench my gaze away.

This internal time bomb clicked to zero right as my boss was chewing me out over a mediocre marketing report. He was right, I didn’t care. My world tilted, his face went out of focus and the sound of his voice seemed to float away. I must have mumbled an appropriate response out of habit, or he mistook my sudden sweat for something he inspired, because he left with a satisfied look on his face.

That was also when I realized I had to kill Maggie. The combination of these two epiphanies; the pathetically limited time of a human life and realizing what I had to do with what remained of my own became a cosmic joke ratcheting inside me, changing my DNA, and for whatever strange reason, it gave me a boner that could test the tensile strength of cotton.

I read the news after I fled, how Dr. Samuels said I had snapped from years of feeling powerless, but that’s not true. I never felt powerless with Maggie; powerless over her, perhaps. But no, at that moment, I felt liberated by death’s proximity and the cold recognition of what seemed to me a rather logical and MacBethian outcome to my life. Finally turning on the lights and coming eyeball to eyeball with elusive demons is more than a relief – it’s transcendent.

Now I’m here. Mexico isn’t bad once you relax into the heat and get to know the rules. I bring good mescal around to the police station on occasion and lounge in the meager shade of mesquite trees with grizzled officers, sweating and drinking, swapping stories of bravado and pussy. They think I’m okay. I told them I’m a novelist finishing a book, seeking seclusion. That was enough. Lucky for me, the authorities here have an ingrained tradition for avoiding personal questions. Here, every man knows that every man has deep levels of darkness, unwholesome places where secrets are best left to decompose in silence. It’s convenient for the authorities to view me as a harmless, spoiled foreigner seeking prolonged solitude. Of course, they would skin me alive if they thought there was profit in it, and knowing Maggie’s family, I’m sure there’s enough to interest the most discerning assassins. It won’t be easy. I paid a kings ransom for radical surgery and a new persona, completely documented, and stashed enough money in an offshore account to make a modest expatriate lifestyle possible. I don’t have to worry about forensics here, either. That science only swabs at the sins and sores of civilizations many miles, mountains and worlds away. But none of this has anything to do with what I want to say about Maggie and me, and the answer to the question everyone was asking.

I’ve decided that humans are lemming-like. We know our cliff is out there somewhere as we run, faster and faster. We don’t know why but we run anyway because there’s nothing we can do to stop ourselves. And sometimes, we run just because the cliff is out there, yawning and empty, waiting for our dusty feet. It felt that way with Maggie. We met for what we shared as the light faded from her eyes, but I’m getting ahead of things again…

If you’ve ever spent time in Boston, you may have walked amongst the graceful bastions that make up Harvard Yard, where Maggie and I first met. She was a psych major and I was running toward a popular cliff known as the Ivy League business degree. Neither of us had any interest in politics or art, nor did we possess more than the minimal requirement of devotion to academia. If anything, our mutual lack of interests was the vacuum that nature abhors, and it brought us together more profoundly than any shared aspirations.

I think Maggie dated me because it drove her mother crazy. I was on scholarship and working part-time at a local bookstore to keep noodles in the cupboard. Her family was old money, bonafide American banking royalty, but you probably know that. Her mother, one of the most powerful matrons on the Eastern seaboard, hated me instantly, right on cue. She’s a woman who views regular luncheons with world power as one of the many gratuitous flowers blooming within the vast stretches of her estate. I choke on that mausoleum-filtered air, which suited Maggie’s requirements for someone she could flaunt before her family’s Yankee propriety like her very own, 6-foot-3-inch middle-finger.

Our courtship was brief, as Maggie wished. Her relatives and about six hundred beau monde politely held their breath as we took our vows during an obscenely expensive ceremony in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Their collective exhale kept our private jet aloft all the way to Monaco, where we honeymooned for a few weeks, then yachted around the Greek islands to return home bronzed and happily exhausted from the novelty of sanctifying our sex.

For the next ten years, we took refuge in Manhattan’s definitive embrace. Maggie never wanted to live anywhere else but she also traveled a great deal. I’m sure she had the occasional affair, as did I during more extended separations, but there were never any scenes because we stoically avoided all subjects that could lead to sticky and regrettable revelations.

We never had children. I felt neutral about it, and since she was the primary vessel for such miracles as creating life, I figured the decision belonged in her court. She never brought it up, and we settled into a cordial, loosely-structured routine. As long as I dutifully showed up in correct attire for Maggie’s chosen soirees, she seemed satisfied with me as her escort and official lover. I guess that’s how we managed to maintain a marriage for almost twelve years without ever talking about anything of significance. I don’t think we were radically different than a lot of couples in that regard.

It was shortly after our eleventh anniversary when I walked in on her crying in the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the marble Jacuzzi, looking exhausted, staring at nothing. Her eyes were red, swollen. Anxious to avoid the yawning chasm of personal excavations, I apologized for intruding and turned on my heel, but she stopped me by uttering the words that every man dreads to hear: “We need to talk.”

She met someone in Spain, she explained. It was serious and she wanted her freedom. I nodded (noticing that the maid hadn’t cleaned that week), as she went on and on, pelting me with soggy sentiments and soap-opera cliches of remorse. I listened, mildly surprised that I didn’t feel anything.

The legal unwinding of our lives was sensible and quick. In spite of the respectable duration of our marriage, Maggie’s family was visibly relieved to hustle me from their rarefied air. As usual, Maggie was flawlessly generous and offered much more than our pre-nups. In addition to a sizable settlement, she bought me a spacious loft on the Upper West Side (completely refurbished by a top designer), to soften the blow or ease her guilt – maybe both. I loved the space; she knew me well.

Once the divorce was final I lost status at work. Her uncle owned the firm, after all, and he no longer felt inclined to endure my minimal efforts and talent so passively. They shuffled me into a smaller office, reduced my title and rank but left my salary intact, their point made. Money is a language spoken with hushed reverence by Maggie’s people. Shame someone if you must, but mess with their cash flow and you best be prepared for a nasty, protracted war. I didn’t really care, but the dichotomy in our ethos was refreshing in that it served me, for a change.

Maggie took off to indulge her Spanish lover, who turned out to be quite the digger. They lasted as long as it took him to blow through her account in Monte-Carlo. He should have waited until they married. In any case, it had been a costly year for Maggie, what with our divorce, New York real estate deals and scraping Senor off her sandals. She came back to the city eventually, as she always did, followed quickly by sightings reported by friends and paparazzi.

Months passed without any contact, so I was stunned as well as half-asleep when she showed up at my loft at 2:00 a.m., all tears and regret. I buzzed her up, grateful that Susan had left twenty-minutes earlier. In retrospect, it might have been better if that ambitious intern had emerged from my sleeping loft tangled, half-dressed, and asking for me, but as fate would have it, in rising to the occasion again with Maggie, I initiated our final descent.

We resumed our relationship with the tentative ardor of new lovers, attended a few public events, became fodder for gossip and society columns. She seemed pleased. It was painless and familiar for me to spend time with a happy Maggie, while my loft continued to provide sanctuary for exploring the orgasms of other women. We maintained separate residences, and I assumed Maggie diversified, as well. True to form, we never discussed it, which turned out to be much more than a mistake.

We had been seeing each other again for about six months when Maggie’s path happened to cross with one of my diversions. I can’t remember where they ran into each other, but I have no problem remembering the results of that collision. Maggie, pounding on my door a little after midnight and my answering – not so lucky with the intern’s sense of departure this time. It was quite a scene. Maggie was flinging daggers over Liz the Debutant as Susan the Intern crept down the spiral stairs from the sleeping loft, tucking in her blouse and wafting fresh sex. Muttering apologies, Susan slipped cat-like out the door and into the unquestioning arms of the city, while Maggie stood in my kitchen silently aghast – for one blessed moment – before raising a tempest and the hairs on my neck.

That’s how our final ending began. Maggie had me followed, then she stalked me, made hysterical demands, always begging me to feel as she did. But I couldn’t; it wasn’t in me. I don’t know why.The cool, sophisticated Maggie I had always known spiraled into Dante’s Hell as I watched, helpless, unable to love her the way she wanted, which according to her was the only lifeline that would do. I could have gone through the motions, spoken words of hollow promise, but I couldn’t offer her a necromancer’s rope leading nowhere. Besides, she always knew when I lied.

She started using heroin. It became her drug of choice. She snorted it first, drilled the poison deep later. Soon there was little left of the defiant beauty who could once lead me to anything, anywhere. It was hard to witness such a long, hard fall. Public scenes damaged her the most. She would make an entrance, some simpering Adonis du jour on her arm posing for status, before dragging her off in hopes of free drugs. Her escapades and tirades got press, of course. Her family tried to intercede, her friends, too. Maggie refused rehab, and her counter attacks became so vicious that everyone gave up after a while. They tried to recruit me, but I was the cause not the cure, and could offer no solution.

One evening I came home to find Maggie outside my door, out cold on the floor, her expensive clothes torn and covered with grease. God only knew where she had been. I picked her up and carried her inside, laid her on the couch, cleaned her up as best I could, then went to bed exhausted. When I woke she was gone, door wide open, no note. That was the same day that Death tapped on my shoulder, and from the window of my Manhattan office, Maggie’s vesperal boat became fixed on all possible horizons.

It was surprising how effortless it was to line up all the details with offshore accounts, appointments with reputable yet discreet surgeons in Rio, new identities, travel arrangements. Not a single snag arose, which only bolstered my resolve. Everything was ready the next time Maggie appeared.

She was standing this time, with generous help from a wall. She gave me one of those I’m-peering-into-your-soul looks as I keyed the lock and pushed the door open. She gazed up at me without saying anything, then put her hand over my heart and stared. Finally, she sighed and looked away, gave my chest a few pats and wobbled inside.

She flopped down on the couch and dug around in her purse, got frustrated, upended it. She found her cigarettes, pulled one free and put it between cracked lips.“Light,” she said. I obliged, then sat beside her, not too close.

She kicked off her shoes, put her feet on the table and blew dense, mercurial curtains between us. Her head lolled over as she assessed me, her gaze crazy and intense, her eyeliner well beyond smeared. “Youhave been a busy, busy bee,” she intoned in metronomic rhythm, then smiled and laughed weakly.

I gave no response; not that she wanted one.

“All those account changes,” she went on, wagging her finger. It seemed to exhaust her. Then she pulled on her cigarette deeply, and exhaled as she spoke, “Plannin’ on going somewhere?”

Maggie, my suicidal, heiress junkie ex-wife, now looking like a starved, demented dragon, had sources as well as resources. My financial activities were supposed to be confidential, but money like Maggie’s can buy…so I told her I was leaving.

She brought her feet down and hugged her stomach. After a dripping-thick silence, she leaned forward and put her cigarette out on the coffee table she bought for me, almost exactly a year before. “I won’t let you,” she declared flatly, staring at the lacquer bubbling black beneath the red-hot cherry of the butt. She looked hard at me. “I promise. You’re not leaving.”

It didn’t make me angry. In fact, the tenderness I felt startled me a little. I reached over and caressed her cheek. She leaned into my hand and kissed it, mistaking the forgiveness I sought with my fingertips for acquiescence to her will.

She brought her legs up and stretched across my lap. I looked down at her and smiled, kept stroking. My heart was racing, either from the task before me or from the sharp edge of her suffering, I don’t know. Both were acute and interwoven. She sighed and closed her eyes, relaxed into me. I stroked her white neck, hypnotized by a blue vein throbbing softly there. Pulled by its rhythm, I willed my heart to match. Her breathing deepened. She looked like a little girl.

I shifted slightly to get both hands around her throat. She was so thin, too thin. I finally tightened my grip. She must have fallen asleep, because it took a moment for her to react, then her eyes flew open and locked with my own.

Nothing could have prepared me for what passed between us then. Words are such clumsy, inefficient tools for describing an exchange between souls, but they’re all I have for offering this truth, what no one knows. With her eyes, she questioned, and with my own, I answered my regret. Her expression showed comprehension. Tears rising, she nodded – yes.

We both knew this final act, like our path together, was both incomprehensible and inevitable. Still, I faltered, my heart aching, and I loosened my grip. She frowned, put her hands over mine, pressed down, punched my arms and pulled, crying, nodding wildly yes, yes! I began squeezing again, tightening my fingers around her neck and she calmed down.

We never lost eye contact. With nothing to hide anymore, we saw each other for the first time, offering everything. Not once did she struggle. Then it was over. I brushed the lids down over her vacant eyes, her face at peace, and cradled her against my chest for a long time, several hours I think, before I laid her body down and fled. In those final moments, Maggie and I made up for everything we previously withheld.

The rest you probably saw on the news or read in the papers.

Now I’m just passing time, waiting for my end, however that occurs. I’m not afraid. With all this time to dig, I’ve come to realize that, in spite of endless speculation, nobody really knows what it is that brings two people together. No one can say for certain what elements wrestle the paths of separate lives into one course. I’ll never know why Maggie bound herself to me. It could have been nothing more than the warm fit of our bodies, or because when she looked in my eyes, she found no judgment.

I write this now to sort it out, to get it out of my head, even in this small space, a journal that probably won’t survive. I don’t have any illusions. I know I’m the only one who will understand what happened between Maggie and me. I’m the only one who will ever know the truth, and nothing will ever change that.

* * * *

Some kids from the village are down on the beach below my house. Their excited yells drew me outside. These are the same innocent faces, with missing teeth that make their grins more appealing, who rush to carry my groceries or fetch me a cold cerveza from the local cantina. All tattered clothes and glistening skin, the children are arguing and taking turns thrusting sticks at a sea turtle that lays close to the water’s edge, its movements barely discernible. It may have been wounded by sharks, or by the cruel nets of the cannery ships that loom on the gulf’s blue horizon. Or maybe, it was lost and simply too tired to go on. I watched, hidden in my shadows, acutely aware of my pounding heart and the irony that binds us, as those beautiful children fell upon the pitiful creature, and beat it to death.

~ The End

BY ANY OTHER NAME

(c) 2010

People are attracted to me because I look like Jesus. This isn’t easy to peg on a woman. Trade the facial hair for breasts and…voila, instant confusion. I’ve watched reactions my entire life, shadows flitting across people’s eyes revealing avid interest – or discomfort. But for the longest time, I didn’t consciously realize what people were seeing in me and they sure didn’t seem to know. Sometimes our ignorance brought us together.

I finally realized what was happening while working freelance at a mom and pop ad agency in Chicago. One of the owners called me into his office. “I’ve always found you attractive,” he began, leaning back, his chair lamenting his girth. “But when I analyze your features, you’re not what I would typically call pretty.” He held something in his hand and studied it, then me, back and forth several times.

“Uh-huh,” I said, hoping this wasn’t a weird come-on.

“Then I realized what it was,” he said, and handed me his palmed mystery.

It was wallet-sized, and coated with finely-grooved plastic. When you tilted it one way you saw the Shroud of Turin. When you tilted it another way it changed into an artist’s rendition of Jesus taken from that infamous bit of cloth. Shroud-Jesus/Jesus-Shroud. My own face winked back at me from the icon.

My head started buzzing. Comprehension rushed in as iron filings to a magnet. I handed back his beloved. “Weird,” I said. Then I left to pad my invoice and ponder the implications.

That’s when I realized that people’s reactions to me were probably based on their relationship with J.C.   When I saw fear, I realized that they must be feeling guilty about perceived flaws or some outstanding, egregious sin. That’s a serious draw back if I need something from them. So now, when I get one of those, I give them my “I-know-everything-about-you-and-love-you-anyway” expressions and they melt in my hands; works every time. I used it consciously after that and things really went my way. I was getting the subtleties of this Jesus-thing down.

* * * *

It wasn’t long before I scored a better freelance gig at a big ad agency. They paid me outrageous fees to come up with ideas for their Virgin Records and El Al Airline accounts. That’s right, Jesus sells as well as saves.

It was a few days before Christmas. I had worked late to meet some deadlines. When I finally left the office and stepped out onto the sidewalk, the street was empty and hushed. Dense shafts of snow, washed with undulating colors from street lamps and flashing neon signs, fell ponderously, on a mission to bury everything. Overhead, high-rises slashed the starless sky into inky Picasso angles. It was beautiful, magical – and freezing-ass cold. I headed for Michigan Avenue, famous breeding ground for taxis at all hours. I was enjoying the sound of the new snow breaking under my boots, sweetly sharp against the unusual silence. Crunch-crunch-inhale, crunch-crunch-exhale. It put me into a blissful trance of solitude and rhythm. That was when the man vaulted at me from out of the shadows.

I didn’t react fast enough to prevent a collision. His hands made icy contact, one against my neck and the other on my wrist. His touch stung before he slid away and sprawled face down, graceless. I managed to keep my balance and step back, heart pounding, a bit dizzy. I expected him to rise, but he just lay there. I nudged him with the toe of my boot as the dizziness passed. He didn’t respond. His clothes were shabby, dirty and challenging to physical contact. I looked around. The street was empty but for the two of us. A gust of wind cut my face with icy fingers. I decided the guy wasn’t my problem, shrugged deeper into my coat and left him there, still as a sleeping baby.

In spite of the hour, Michigan Avenue was still sprinkled with hardcore shoppers swaddled like fat ninjas. They geisha-stepped across icy sidewalks before slipping into stores for a credit card embrace. Shop ‘til you drop folks, it keeps me working. I caught a cab easily. As we merged into the dribble of late night traffic, the image of the man in the snow returned and persisted like a corrupt politician. I gave in, dug for my cell phone, called 911, gave them the area, man down, send help, no I don’t know him, no I don’t know what’s wrong, I told you he looks homeless and it’s freezing, haven’t you been outside? I hung up convinced idiots run the world. That call was the extent of my Samaritan action. It was a lot for me.

* * * *

The frenzy of the warm-fuzzy season passed without much personal disruption. An acquaintance invited me to a New Years party. I got smashed there among beautiful people and beautiful things, all artfully arranged in a penthouse. Superficial chatter ruled the soiree as city lights billowed below us, the proverbial jeweled carpet. I said as little as possible to anyone who mattered and, preferring sure things, prayed for all the forced merriment to go away.

Later that month, I was standing outside a restaurant after power lunching with co-workers when I noticed a man, standing alone and studying me openly. I was more discreet. He was roughly attractive, mature, average-height and clean-shaven, with a face cut deep with experience. His choice in headgear was a black beret. His gray wool coat and black scarf said “Goodwill.”

I had made the occasional enemy in my scramble up the ladder, and something about this guy was familiar, so I declined the communal cab ride back to the office, citing errands. As their cab pulled away, I returned the man’s gaze without pretense. He smiled broadly and moved to close the distance.  I readied my Jesus card.

“Excuse me,” he said, “Forgive my intrusion, but…did you…did you encounter a homeless man? A few days before Christmas?”

“A homeless man?”

“Yes,” he said, turning to point, “About eight blocks that way.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m certain it’s you,” he continued, “I’ll never forget your face.” He smiled and gazed at me with open adoration.

Uh oh; red flag. “Look,” I said, opening my hands and offering a line I keep ready as a loaded gun, “I’d like to help, but I only carry credit cards. Sorry.” I started to walk away. He made quick steps through the snow; touching my sleeve, forestalling escape.

“Please,” he said, “I don’t want your money, just a minute of your time. I need to thank you.” His eyes searched mine. “And I need…to know that you know.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, stepping away. He smiled, dug for words. He didn’t seem crazy and yeah, I know that’s what the neighbors say after they find the bodies. I could have walked, but my business is hooks; I know ‘em when I feel ‘em. Icy piranha teeth in the air, against your skin, stops time.  “Look, it’s too cold to talk out here,” I said, glancing around the street. “Let’s go into that Diner. I’ll buy you a coffee.”

His face lit up with gratitude.

The Diner was so innocuous it could have been a movie set. We chose an empty booth and slid in over splotchy turquoise vinyl that had seen better days and better asses. I signaled the equally worn out waitress for two coffees, then gave the man my full attention. I left my coat on to discourage lengthy confessions, and much to my relief,  he followed suit, but he was hesitating.

“You asked about a homeless guy,” I offered. “He came barreling out of an alley and collided with me shortly before Christmas. I wasn’t hurt, but he went down. I called 911 from my cab. All I know. End of story.”

The waitress delivered our coffee. He scanned her name tag. “Thank you, Irene,” he said sweetly. She returned his smile with a bored nod, his efforts wasted. I ignored my coffee while he doctored his with too much sugar. I made a point of checking the time on my phone. He didn’t seem to notice. He studied me while his spoon made that clinking sound that only nickel against cheap porcelain can deliver.

“I’m glad I didn’t hurt you,” he finally said. His eyes filled with love. “I dream about you. Quite a bit.”

An image of diving submarines, klaxons blaring, flashed through my mind. I opted for the nun with a ruler approach: “I left you lying face down in the snow,” I said, “And I didn’t call 911 until I was in a nice, warm cab, okay? It was nothing personal.” I leaned back, and smiled to drive my detachment home. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.

“What about the healing?” he asked.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You healed me.”

“I did no such thing.”

“Oh, but…you did,” he said, his head nodding in agreement.

I rose from the booth; this was getting out of hand. “Look buddy, I don’t have time to argue. It’s great that you’re feeling better from whatever it was that was wrong with you and all that, but believe me, (putting on my gloves), I had nothing to do with it.”

Tender fingertips touched my sleeve. “Please, you have to…you have a very special gift!”

I pulled ten bucks out of my pocket and put it on the table. The bill nailed me in my previous no-cash lie, but I was hoping he wouldn’t remember that for the sake of instant profit. “I already told you, Mister: I did nothing,” I said, and left him there, another poor crazo in need of meds. The city, as they say, is full of ‘em.

* * * *

Work was hectic, as always, and after a few weeks I forgot about the guy. Then one afternoon I spotted him standing by the same alley where we first collided. He had a companion this time, a pale, older woman also clad in thrift store chic. They were deep in conversation. Avoidance seemed best. I was about to duck across the street when he noticed me. He waved and came loping over, woman in tow. I braced myself.

“We must be lucky today!” he said in greeting, his salt and pepper locks escaping with exuberance as he pulled off his beret.

I hung my head in defeat. Alas, this man did not seem to understand even the most exaggerated body-language.

“This is my friend,” he rushed on, “Anne Marie Marquetti.”

“I’m so pleased to meet you,” she said breathlessly, extending a small, bruised hand.

“And what’s your name?” I demanded of him, ignoring her outstretched offering, which quickly joined its twin on the handle of her over-sized tote.

He looked at her with an apologetic smile before he faced me and said, “Jean. Jean Baptiste.”

“No shit,” I blurted, laughing in spite of myself.

He frowned. “I don’t think you realize how important this is.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think you realize how weird this is. But that’s alright.” I scanned the street, praying that no one from the office was observing this encounter.

And then she did it. One cold claw spanned the distance between us and clamped down on my wrist. A jolt ran through me like a high-voltage wire between heaven and earth. A tremendous, roiling energy amassed in my limbs and convulsed like a cracked whip into the ground. The woman’s eyes grew wide. Was that distant thunder? She released me and tottered back, clutching her heart.

“What the hell…” I said, grabbing onto a parking meter as the world tilted, then slowly began to right itself.

Jean was by her side, holding her up. He looked at her, concerned, then at me. “I’m so sorry. She’s desperate, you see…”

“No, I don’t see,” I said. My wrist and forehead tingled and throbbed, my brain felt like jelly. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I don’t want any part of this.”

His face dropped, his voice husky and urgent, “But we need you. Many people do.”

“Stop bothering me!” I said. “I mean it! Leave me alone!”

All I wanted was distance from these freaks with the power to bend nature and me in the bargain. Dizzy, frightened and confused, I walked away as quickly as I could.

The next thing I knew I was standing on upper Wacker Drive with no memory of how I got there. I came to myself while staring at an array of chaotic neon enticements in the window of a typical, dilapidated downtown bar. Its adjacent battered door, covered with layers of torn and faded posters layered one upon other, beckoned.

It was comforting inside, dark and warm, pungent from decades of smoke. I found an empty booth, dripping in shadow, lit only by a candle fluttering behind ruby glass. My legs shook as I slid in. I felt drained and strangely sad and abandoned, by what, I didn’t know.

The bar was almost empty, but it was early yet, even for the most devoted worshipers. An old jukebox in a murky corner cooed a lounge hymn from the 60’s as the barkeep approached. He threw a stained towel over his side-of-beef shoulder and asked what I would have. I think I said whiskey. Whatever it was, he led me to my slaughter with many more.

I woke in my own bed around noon the next day, clothes still on, feeling light-years beyond lousy. My keys were uncharacteristically dangling in my front door, which I apparently left wide open.  I called in sick. They didn’t seem to mind.  Nothing was the same after that.

* * * *

When I returned to work, I couldn’t find my groove. I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident, the strangeness of it, how sad it made me feel. Over the course of the next few weeks, my mental state did not improve. Being at work felt wrong and my ideas fell considerably short of bad. Glances lingered longer than usual, which made my stomach turn. I was freelance, after all, grossly overpaid – and I wasn’t delivering. They finally let me go. No surprise, but it sucked to lose the cash cow, just the same. And in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find more work.

My confidence now shot, I tried too hard, hesitated, gave the wrong answers and couldn’t seem to read people. I blew every interview and knew it while I was doing it, but couldn’t stop. It was as if God didn’t want me to work in advertising, anymore.

****

In the distance that lies between counting gold cards and counting pennies there are many nefarious levels. I won’t bore you with all the grisly details, but over the next eleven months, I lived in every crusty corner of my decline. I had been down before, but never like this. For the first time, I found myself completely disengaged from the game, unable to summon the smallest desire to participate – even as my collapsing infrastructures screamed of an ugly ending. Within a year I was homeless, living out of a backpack and contemplating suicide. I considered drowning myself in Lake Michigan or taking a swan dive from the Sears Tower, but I found suicide to be too embarrassing and off-the-charts pathetic. I guess a mustard seed of self-respect had survived my humiliations, after all.

* * * *

Suicide off the agenda, it had turned into a rather nice day. I was practicing my new found homeless morbidity in a little park on the lake when I spotted Baptiste. He was standing in the center of a loosely gathered crowd, gesturing, speaking and glowing with an inner light. His clothes looked new. As I studied him, it occurred to me that my life had gone sharply downhill after we met – especially after the incident. And there he was – thriving. Rational or not, his appearance at this point really pissed me off.

Slinging my backpack over a shoulder, I strode to where he stood, pushed my way into the little crowd and planted myself front and center. He was laughing as his gaze brushed past me, then stopped and quickly returned. His eyes grew large, then he threw his arms open and yelled, “Hal-le-lu-iah!”

Much to my dismay, he embraced me with total commitment, lifting me off my feet, laughing and spinning me around.

I escaped his embrace with difficulty, pushing him away. “Stop that!” I huffed, pounding on his shoulder and chest stupid girly-style. He lowered me and stepped back. “Damn it, Baptiste. You are the worst piece of shit luck I ever attracted,” I said, pulling my shirt  into place. His eyes filled with sorrow. “My life was great before I met you. Great, you hear me, you…” I said, “then you sprang your friend on me. What was her name again? Granny Thunderbolt? You cursed me, you…you…”

It was as though some metal fragment ripped free from my chest. I could feel the tears coming, so I flopped onto the ground, pressed my face into raised knees and blocked out the light. I stayed that way for a while, sobbing, until I could coax the lump in my throat into something resembling submission. It seemed that everything in my life had turned into a bad joke.

When I looked up, Baptiste was sitting next to me, taking in our surroundings with the look of a child discovering the world for the first time. He appeared twenty-years younger than the last time I saw him, his expression that of quintessential peace, contentment and joy.  I was wondering who the hell this character was and had swept my hair back to ask when he made eye contact and smiled, correction – he high-beamed. Then he showed the good sense to dim his wattage in response to my pained expression.

“I am so sorry if I hurt you,” he said.

I shook my head, “Who the fuck are you!?”

He stared at his hands, folded in his lap. They were beautifully shaped. “No one special,” he said, looking up. “Do I seem different?”

“Are you kidding? You’re…transformed.”

“Because of you.”

“I already told you I don’t believe that, okay? I mean…look at me! I’m living out of a backpack for Christ’s sake!”

He studied me with monk-like patience, then said, “I was in the same shape when we first met. Even worse.”

“You’ll get no argument there,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” he said, lowering his gaze, “I had pancreatic cancer.” He let that sink in, nodding as he saw the light of comprehension on my face.

“Isn’t that…”

“Oh, fatal. Very much so. They said I had a month. I was homeless, my spirit was utterly crushed. I started binge drinking, cursing my fate – cursing God.” He stared into the light dancing on the water, his sight on some painful inner movie. “The night we met I was out of my mind with pain, of every kind, tormented and hounded by remorse, truly at the bottom of my existence. Then I stumbled into you and – well, you know. I was healed.” He gave me that loving, grateful, clear-eyed gaze again. “Before the ambulance came, I dreamed of you and you told me to be whole. When they took me to the hospital, I told them about the cancer. They ran tests, but it was gone – not a trace. They didn’t believe me until my clinic confirmed it.” He shrugged, smiled, “They finally labeled me an ‘official mystery’ before sending me off. But I knew – I was healed because of you.”

He lost himself in the grass, toying with the blades, “And now, for the first time in my life, I’m happy. I feel…complete. I never knew that before.” He looked at me again, squinted against the brightness of the day, and tilted his head in apology. “I didn’t mean to hurt you in any way. I just had to find out if you knew about this gift, how special it is.”

I stared at him. He was profoundly changed and obviously speaking his truth, but his conclusions fluttered in my chest. “I want you to listen to me, Jean,” I said, “I know I look like Jesus, okay? I’ve used that fact to get what I want from people for a long time now. What happened to you must have been from something else, mixed up files, your own beliefs or…I don’t know, but not me.”

“Those answers crossed my mind,” he confessed, nodding, “that’s why I brought my friend along. What did you call her – Granny Thunderbolt?”

I have no idea why, but we both laughed at that.

When we grew quiet, he resumed, “She was healed from your touch,  just as I was.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but damn if I didn’t already know.

“She had lymph cancer; metastasized, stage three, far beyond anyone’s help.”

My mind cried in protest.

“She’s visiting her family in Ohio now,” he continued, “celebrating ‘the resurrection of her life,’ as she calls it.” He smiled, thinking of his friend.

We sat in silence. Sea gulls circled overhead, calling, diving, laughing at human folly. A vendor barked offers of fish and chips, and in the distance somewhere, a baby cried.

“I don’t get it,” I finally said, “I’ve never been a religious person. I’m not even a good person. So…why would I suddenly have this? Why me?”

He shrugged. “It’s isn’t to the righteous that redemption comes, but to the hopeless and the broken, the hookers and bums,” he answered, as though quoting from somewhere.

“I guess I would fit in there somewhere,” I admitted.

“Me, too,” he said, his smile dancing in his eyes.

We sat together breathing, for the longest time; breathing and being. High clouds parted lazily as the late sun poured golden light on everything before us: dogs and children rejoicing in awareness without apology;  homeless men asleep on benches, dreaming of hot meals and better days; workers on hurried paths home;  lovers strolling arm in arm or trading deep kisses on haphazard blankets; new mothers parading babies in festooned strollers – the sun shone equally on us all. Everything seemed lit up from within, brighter, more distinctly defined, outlined like stained-glass. The wind gusted and the trees nodded in agreement that all was as it should be when something inside me gave in. I still didn’t understand it, but every ounce of me knew – Baptiste’s story was true.

Over the course of the past few months, everything that I thought I was had fallen away, or more accurately, had been ripped from my grasp and identity, leaving this blank page of self sitting here, taking all of this in. And I had to admit, I felt more alive than I ever had, flowing with the force that animates all things. I gazed at Baptiste and smiled, hoping to ease his burden of bearing my obstinacy, “What now, Baptiste? What do I do?”

Jean contemplated, his brow furrowed. “I’ve told some people about you,” he finally said, gauging my reaction. “Would you…care to meet them?”

My stomach audibly growled before I could respond in any other way. “Will they feed me?” I asked, grinning, “I’m afraid my miracles don’t include food tricks.”

Jean laughed as he got up and helped me to my feet. “Not a problem,” he said, swinging my backpack over his broad shoulder. “Maybe you’ll learn those later.” His entire being seemed rejuvenated by my willingness. Then he grew somber as he studied my face in the fading light. “It is uncanny, though. The way you look like…”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just set that all aside for another day. Okay?”

He shrugged a nonchalant acceptance, and together we left the park as though our feet were on an path forged long ago, waiting only for our footfalls to arrive.

~ The End

GHOST TOWN

c 2011

“Set me up, Chester,” Elliot Stillwater says as he settles in his usual spot: the third bar stool from the door at The Watering Hole, the only remaining bar open for business in the dying town of Wallace, Texas. The third stool is where Elliot always sits when he comes in at 5:00 p.m. exactly, every Wednesday and Friday.

Chester immediately places a napkin and a cold Whiskey Sour in front of Elliot, having made the concoction at 4:55 p.m.  just as he does every Wednesday and Friday in anticipation of Elliot’s arrival.

Evidence of the dying town has found a home at The Watering Hole. But for the immediate bar counter, the stool where Elliot sits, and a booth next to a grimy, light-defeating window (occupied every Wednesday and Friday by Lyle and Florence Cummings, just as it is now), a dense layer of dust covers all the other stools, booths, counter tops, the broken jukebox in the corner, and every other level surface. Dust-laden cobwebs stretch from one surface to the next in the far back, where no one at all ventures anymore, while up near the entrance, where Chester mans the bar and where his few patrons established their preferred territory, the webs are but a shadowy roar.

Between running the only feed store and grocers in town, plus this place every Wednesday and Friday, there is only so much that poor, old Chester can do, and cleaning the entire place hardly seems worth the effort for only three to six customers twice a week.

Most of the townsfolk of Wallace are in the habit of buying their alcohol at Chester’s Feed Store and Grocers when they stop in to pick-up their mail. They drink later, at home, while watching satellite cable shows or listening to the howls of distant coyotes from their porch rockers at night.

The air of Wallace is heavy with a melancholy, unspoken understanding among the remaining, elderly residents that, once they’re gone, the possession of their town will most likely return to the source of those eternal howls as well as the tumbleweed that lodges in various places after rolling unimpeded down the empty streets.

“’How’s Bessie runnin’?” Chester asks, leaning back and folding his arms across his chest, his meager labor done for now. He knows Elliot will nurse his drink for thirty-minutes, order another and nurse that for thirty, then leave for home.

“She runs like she’s the only ’67 Fairlane left and has something to prove about it,” Elliot replies, taking a sip of his drink and nodding his usual approval to Chester before setting it down. He looks around and gives a nod of hello to Lyle and Florence, who smile greetings at him. “How are things at the store?” he asks, returning his gaze to his friend.

“Same as ever,” Chester says, straightening. “Bit quieter since Lorraine Steeples passed. She cooked up a storm right to the end. Used to come in thrice a week.”

“A shame,” Elliot says, shaking his head, remembering Lorraine’s legendary pies.

“Speakin’ of old folk, how’s your pa’?” Chester asks, placing a toothpick in his mouth, where it wags. “He hanging’ in?”

Elliot nods, a smile touching his lips. “Old newspapermen are a stubborn lot, Chester, and Virgil is one of the worst. He turns ninety-one next week, you know that?”

As he speaks, Elliot catches his reflection peeking from behind various bottles stacked against the mirror-faced bar-back. The fractured image that stares back, contorted by angular bottles, is of a weathered, clean-shaven face beneath hair gone mostly gray, all hovering above an archaic, red paisley bow-tie.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do when he goes,” Elliot muses to his image, “Been watching over him so long it’s hard to imagine doing anything-else-anywhere-else.”

“Hear you on that one,” Chester says, nodding. He wipes at imaginary spills, just to be productive as he lingers.

The two men swap more meager news on family and friends until eventually, they fall into the banality of weather predictions before Elliot tosses his money on the bar, waves goodbye to Flo and Lyle, and leaves for home – at six o’clock, exactly.

* * *

Andy Kruger slumps in his seat as farm lands and fields rush by his window, his new catcher’s mitt and baseball forgotten for now in his lap. He frowns at the browning fields, forlorn in the full heat of a Texas summer. Visible waves rise off the flat, parched land that seems to go on forever.

Andy feels anything but happy about moving away from his friends in Austin to Oklahoma City, where his young mother just secured her first graphic arts job since graduating.

“We’re almost there, Andy,” his mother, Eliza Kruger, says. She glances at him sideways, trying to judge his mood. “You were too young to remember visiting your grandparents in Wallace, I think. You were only four or five. But it’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?” she asks, trying to sound upbeat. “We can stay and visit for a few days, then head on to Oklahoma City and get settled into our new place. We have a whole weekend before I start work.”

Andy only shrugs, unwilling to surrender the power of his grudge to such a meager bandage.

The open fields they speed through soon give way to silos and warehouses in various states of disrepair, all perched along the remnants of railroad tracks. They soon reach the dusty, humble downtown streets of Wallace, where the atmosphere of disuse is even more palpable. Mostly boarded-up storefronts and empty side-streets offer weak greetings as they pass.

“God this place…” Eliza whispers, guiding the car slowly down Main Street, no other traffic challenging their crawl. With her arms draped over the top of the steering wheel, she slows the car evermore while scanning the storefronts, then stops the car, sits up and exclaims, “Oh! Quigley’s is closed! That was one of my favorite places to hang out when I was in high school!” She collapses a little. “Your father and I went there a lot,” she says as she scans the streets. “It’s just sad looking now, all boarded-up.”

She guides their car down a side street lined with modest and mostly-empty homes, making the occasional comment stirred by her memories of which-friend-lived-where, before pulling over in front of a small Victorian surrounded by substantial yards. An old, wooden swing hangs listless from the limb of a mighty oak out back; a stubborn witness to happier times.

Eliza turns off the ignition and a heavy, all-pervasive silence settles on them, broken only by the ‘tick-ticking’ sound of the cooling engine and the droning buzz of cicadas calling for mates.

Paint peels from the wooden sides and gingerbread trim of the house before them. Weeds poke up from cracks in the sidewalk leading to the front porch, and the short picket fence that encloses the front is listing in several places, the wood obviously rotten. They stare in silence, taking it in, before looking at each other.

Eliza takes a deep breath. “So. You ready?” she asks, smiling.

“I guess,” Andy says, noncommittal, freeing himself from his seat-belt and opening the car door. “This whole town looks like a dump, though,” he adds, slamming his door behind him.

“It didn’t always look this way,” his mother says, coming around the car to join him.

She puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes gently. “Come on. Let’s go see your grandparents.”

* * *

Andy lies on his stomach atop the huge rag-rug in his grandparent’s den. Remote in hand, he speeds through the options displayed on their antiquated cabinet television, never settling on anything for more than a second. He sighs. After being in the car all day, he wants to do something, anything; not lay here listening to the adults talking around the kitchen table. He turns the cable off, rises and tosses the remote onto a small, Early-American coffee table in front of an overstuffed plaid couch. He walks to the kitchen doorway and leans against the jamb; the adults not seeming to take note of his presence.

“Your father and I have our plots here, dear,” his grandmother is saying as she slices a piece of coffee cake for her husband. “Wallace is where we were born, raised, and raised our own. I think it’ll do just fine for our final resting place.”

“Ma,” Andy interjects.

His mother turns to him and smiles, her eyebrows lifted in a silent “yes?”

“I’m bored.”

“Nothing you like on TV?”

“I’m tired of sitting!” he says, frowning.

“Well…what would you like to do?”

“I dunno. Maybe…go exploring?”

His mother thinks about it, staring blankly at him. She looks at her parents, who nod or shrug their approval.

“Do you have your phone on you?” she asks, turning back.

He nods.

“Go then. But stay out of closed buildings and be back before dark,” she says. Andy dashes out the door as she calls out, “And call me if you get lost or need anything!”

Free now on the sidewalk, Andy surveys his options and reorients to remember the route his mother took to get here when she veered off Main. He heads that way, kicking stray pebbles and peering at the staring, empty windows of the homes that he passes. He finally emerges onto the main road and looks around.

There isn’t any traffic. Only four cars are parked in front of a store, across the street and one block down: Chester’s Feed n’ Grocers. It looks like the only store open, so he crosses the street and heads in that direction.

He strolls past Rose’s Bridal Shop, where in the picture window, one very old and chipped mannequin stands bald, naked and forlorn. Her hand is raised, palm up, in a philosophical gesture. “Why this?” she seems to ask. The next storefront is a hobby shop, according to the signage on the door. Andy cups his hands to the side of his face and looks in. It’s completely deserted but for an empty display counter sitting at an odd angle in the center of the room.

The next door is The Watering Hole, a bar with a dominating, red-lettered “Closed” sign displayed through the smeared glass of its door. Andy tries the knob; it’s locked. He walks to the picture window and cups his hands to peer in. He can make out little but the lettering of an unlit, neon sign hanging above the bar. From the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees movement. Yes, there it is again! Curious, he walks back to the door and tries the knob once more.

The latch clicks and the knob turns. He steps inside and closes the door quietly behind him.

The old bar is empty. Four booths run against one wall, every booth but one covered in a thick layer of fine dust. The wooden floors creak as he steps over to the bar counter that stretches behind a row of round bar stools on tapering pedestals that are fixed in place to the floor. He climbs on a bar stool and spins – until he tires of the diversion and slides off. He wanders to the back where tables and stools, boxes and crates are piled one atop the other, with heavy strands of dust-covered cobwebs claiming them all.

“Whatchu doin’ in here?” a voice demands, causing him to jump.

He jerks around to see a teenage boy wearing a white apron, wiping his hands on a towel. The boy throws the towel over his shoulder as he stares.

“You deaf or somthin’?” the boy asks. “How’d you get in here?”

Andy gestures to the front door behind him.

“Ah!” the boy says as he moves past Andy to the front door. “That damn door won’t never stay locked, it seems.” He grabs the knob and swings the door open, then squats to look at the latch mechanism, opening and closing the door repeatedly until it “clicks” shut each time. “Wood shrinks and swells with weather change. Gets outta alignment. Old doors are like that,” he concludes, rising. He puts his hands on his hips and looks down at Andy. “It’s against the law for you to be in a bar, you know that? You’re too young, even for this old, run-down excuse for one.”

The teen whips a small comb out of his back pocket and takes a few strides to stand before the bar-back mirror. He runs the comb through his longish, unstyled hair as he peers at himself, then satisfied, turns to Andy again. “You don’t talk much, do ya?”

“No,” Andy says, then stammers, “I…I dunno.”

The teen laughs. “Ah, don’t worry, kid. I ain’t gonna call the sheriff on ya or nothin’. You can come next door to the grocers if you’re lookin’ for somethin’ to do. We just got new comics in.” He holds the door open for Andy, then exits himself, locking the door behind him and rattling it to check. “Come on, kid,” he says. “Let’s keep you outta trouble.”

They walk the short distance to the grocers where Andy finds a small table with chairs near an old, pot-belly stove. The cozy corner is an island of calm surrounded by shelves filled with every imaginable need, all vying for space on every surface and with not much discernible order.

The teen grabs a soda from an old cooler case, sits down, opens it and pushes it to Andy. “You ain’t from ’round here, are ya’?” he asks.

“No. But my mom and dad grew up here. And my mom’s folks live here still.”

“What’s your name?” the teen asks.

“Andy Kruger.”

“Kruger! Hey wait a minute! Was your pa’s name Eric?”

“Yeah,” Andy says.

“Whoa! Eric Kruger’s son!? Your dad was a football hero round these parts, Andy. Nearly took us to state. A real nice guy, too. The whole town mourned when he died over there in the Iraq conflict.”

Andy has no memories of his father to compare to those of others; he feels left out.

“Well..what the heck, Andy Kruger,” the teen says. He thrusts out a hand. “The name’s Billy, Billy Whittington. And I’m pleased to meetcha’.”

Andy tentatively reaches back and Billy shakes his whole arm vigorously before letting go and bolting from his chair. “Now, whatda you say we see about those new comics?”

* * *

Elliot Stillwater enters The Watering Hole, a yellowed copy of The Houston Chronicle tucked beneath his arm. “Set me up, Chester,” he says, sliding onto his usual perch as Chester obliges. He waves and nods to Lyle and Flo in their booth before turning back to Chester, sampling his cold cocktail, and nodding his approval.

“Chester, you are a jewel among barkeeps,” he says, turning to Lyle and Flo and raising his glass to get their ‘second’ on his proclamation.

Turning back, he notices for the first time that the bar stool next to his, normally covered in the same grime as the rest of the unused portions of the bar, is now completely clean and clear. It stops him cold.

“Chester,” he says, “you been doing extra housecleaning?”

“Right,” Chester says, “like I got time for that.”

“Any new customers?” Elliot asks.

Chester laughs. “Now, why would anyone outside of Wallace come here? ‘Course I ain’t had no new customers.”

Elliot frowns, staring at the clean stool next to his own. “Then I think you should come around the bar and have a look at this mystery, old friend.”

* * *

The reverberating slam of the kitchen screen door brings Andy out of his reverie. He was trying to see how high he could get in the old swing out back; his legs pumping, his head thrown back to watch the blur of green rush overhead. A new Iron Man comic sits forgotten for now on the ground nearby.

“Andy!” Eliza calls as she stands on the landing, gesturing for him to come.

He drags his feet in the dusty earth below and jumps off as soon as he dares, grabs his new comic and runs to her.

“You should be careful on that old thing,” she says, ruffling his hair as he stands before her. “We’re going to visit your Pa over at the cemetery before we leave. Car’s all packed. Go inside now and get cleaned up. We’re leaving in a few minutes.”

Andy hesitates, squinting up at her.

“Why are we going to see Pa?” he asks.

His mother is stumped momentarily. “Well — I guess because I don’t know when we’ll be getting back here, and I think we should go; that you should go. As a sign of respect for your father. And I want to talk to him before we leave.”

“You said Pa is ’round us all the time.”

“He is, honey.”

“Then why do you need to go to the cemetery to talk to him? Can’t he hear you otherwise?”

Eliza struggles for explanations; finds none. “We just need to do this, okay?” she says. “Your grandparents are coming, too. So go on. Get in there and wash your hands…and comb your hair!” she shouts after him as he dashes up the stairs inside.

* * *

“…well, I certainly don’t think I’m being silly about this,” Elliot Stillwater says as he and Chester stand before the mysteriously clean bar stool.

“I didn’t say you were bein’ silly. I’m just sayin’ you’re makin’ more of this than it deserves, is all,” Chester says.

“How can you say that?” Elliot asks, irritated. “Out of the blue, a bar stool that’s been gathering dust for over a decade is clean: you didn’t do it, you haven’t had any new customers sitting in any unusual places, and you don’t care how it happened? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

Chester scratches the top of his bald head, staring at the oddity. “Well…no, I guess. Not near as curious as yerself, leastwise.”

Elliot rises from his seat, yanks his wallet out and tosses his money on the bar. “Well, this has been most unsettling, Chester. It just won’t do. No, it won’t do at all.” He moves to the door then stops and turns around. “I’m surprised at you, Chester,” he says. “And I don’t think you appreciate how significant this could be,” he concludes before turning and making his exit – at six o’clock, exactly.

* * *

The Wallace cemetery unfolds before the three adults and child, the only living creatures on the premises if you didn’t count the birds flying tree-to-tree, singing for the eternal residents. The rolling hills with pathways contain every variety of grave marker imaginable, while a respectable mausoleum dominates the highest hill in the center.

For whatever reason, the cemetery appears better cared for than the rest of the town, with well-mown grounds and lovingly tended graves. Fresh flowers here and there offer bursts of color in the otherwise green, brown and white landscape.

Eliza consults a small map in her hand, then points to an oak tree a short hike from where they stand. “He should be over there,” she says.

They walk in that direction together, but Andy grows impatient with the snail’s pace set by his grandparents and runs ahead, looking at the graves and reading their inscriptions.

The first one he notices is a modest headstone, with fresh flowers held in a cup buried flush with the ground. He reads: Chester Filbert, Gone Fishin’, Born Mar 31, 1922; died from a stroke Sept 9, 1967, Son of Al and Marie (Freeman) Filbert.

He wanders past more graves, noticing some more elaborate headstones clustered together and surrounded by a small fence, a family plot of six graves. He reads the one closest to the path as he walks by: Elliot Stillwater, Gone, but not from our hearts; Apr 1952 – Sept 29, 1987, Son of Virgil and Catherine (Adams) Stillwater.

He passes more gravestones mourning children, soldiers, doctors…then two graves close together with matching laurel leaf motifs: Florence Cummings; Our mother is gone, but not forgotten. Born April 5, 1884; died February 16, 1933. Then: Lyle Cummings, Selfless service to community and family. Born September 5, 1878; Died Feb 16, 1930.

Andy stops and looks back to see how his family is progressing. They seem light-years behind, so he walks on alone toward the grave of their intended destination – Eric Kruger, the mysterious figure of a football-star father he never knew, yet whose presence never seems far, haunting him with all the archetypal power inherent in the absent father.

He finds himself suddenly, surprisingly, before his father’s modest grave, and the smallness of it, the meek presence it claims within the surrounding ocean of death, startles him. He was expecting more, something grand enough to reflect the shadow he both fears and longs for. Yet here it is, nothing but a simple granite stone with lettering carved clean and deep: Eric Kruger; Beloved Son, Proud Marine and Iraq War Casualty. Taken too soon and missed forever. Born May 18, 1984; KIA January 3, 2005.

The words roll around in Andy’s head: “taken too soon, missed forever.” They dig into his guts, poke at a truth he doesn’t want to feel, and sting the young chambers of his heart with their finality: missed forever, missed forever…

A soft hand on his shoulder causes him look up to see his mother, her gaze on the same headstone, the flowers she brought clutched tightly in her other hand as though all her sorrow and anticipation channeled itself there.

She moves closer and kneels by the grave, her jeans absorbing the moisture of the still damp grasses as she brushes leaves and twigs from the graveside and places her bouquet offering at the base of the headstone. She sniffles a few times, brushes loose strands of hair from her face and looks at Andy, offering him a weak smile.

“I wish you had known your daddy, Andy,” she says softly, “He was really a great guy.”

Andy shuffles, feeling the unresolvable weight of his father’s shadow.

Eliza looks back at the gravestone, reaches out and pats it as she speaks, “But the living have to live. We have no choice but to move on.” She looks at Andy again, squinting against an early sun rising in the cloudless Texas sky, and he squirms under her gaze.

“Maybe the dead need to move on, too,” he mutters, “just like people have to move away from towns like this.”

Eliza’s expression is startled, amused, then she looks at the gravestone and sighs. “I never thought of it that way, Andy, but you might be right,” she says, rising and bending to kiss the top of the gravestone. “Good-bye, baby,” she whispers. “Me and Andy are gonna be alright. You rest in peace now.”

The sound of crunching gravel behind them announces the arrival of Eliza’s parents, who finally caught up and now stand at a respectful distance, holding hands and waiting. Eliza walks to them. “We best be off if we’re going to make Oklahoma City before dark,” she says, hugging each of them in turn. “We’ll try to come back for Thanksgiving…or Christmas, okay?”

Andy walks closer to his father’s gravestone as the adults express their love and say their goodbyes. He pulls his rolled-up, new comic book from his pocket, puts it at the base of the grave and weighs it down with a rock. “I already read this and don’t need it, anymore,” he says under his breath, conscious of the adults behind him. “The ending is pretty good. I hope you like it.”

He backs away, then turns and joins the adults as they walk back to the parking lot. His grandfather gestures to a distant area as he explains (as though it were new information), that’s where he bought two plots for himself and his beloved wife of fifty-years.

Andy can bear no more of their pace or conversation. He runs past them and through the sea of final markers, too full of the pall of death to see or read any more.

Row upon row of white and gray stone rush past the airborne soles of his sneakers, his lungs burning as he chases life itself, tears running down his face. But the tears feel good, and he senses that maybe, around this next corner, is a new life for himself and his mother, a life free of ghosts and the echos of their clamoring.

His vision blurred by tears, overcome with new emotions of hope and release, Andy races past a fresher grave, the granite headstone still polished and free of the dirt that time imposes. The lettering inscribed is sharp and perfect, the result of the latest in computer-generated, laser-cutting technology. It reads: R.I.P., Billy Whittington, Our very own Comic book Superhero – Forever. Born December 14, 1992; Defeated by leukemia August 30, 2009.

Andy sits in the car waiting for his mother. She climbs in and they wave to his grandparents before she starts the engine.

She turns to Andy. “You ready?” she asks.

“Ma,” Andy says, “More than you know.”

She smiles and nods her head as if in agreement, hopeful that her son may adapt quickly. She puts the car in gear and slowly pulls away as Andy turns to look back at the grounds receding behind them.

“R.I.P.,” he whispers, “and I really, really mean it.”

He faces forward again, to whatever lies ahead, and smiles.

~ The End

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