Paying for his cup of java, Ethan turned around, expecting to see Paul still leaning against the window watching the rain, but he was gone. Ethan scanned the room and spotted him heading outside.
"Hey, Paul," Ethan called, squeezing through the crowd of milling people huddled inside Munchies to escape the passing shower. "Paul, hold up, where you going?"
Pushing his way out the door, he saw Paul climbing onto the bus at the curb, the free shuttle to the new supermarket at the edge of town. What the hell was he doing? Hiking up his collar, Ethan hurried over and stuck his head in the door of the bus and called out Paul's name.
"In or out, buddy." the driver said.
"In or out."
Feeling the rain spattering his back, Ethan stepped aboard, intending just to call out to Paul and get his attention. Behind him the doors closed and the bus pulled away. Coffee spilled on his hand. "Ow, take it easy, would you?" he said to the driver.
"Step behind the line."
His mood souring fast, Ethan looked at the interior of the bus. Jam-packed with passengers standing in the aisle reading portable devices and conversing with one another. Must have been a hundred people in here. He didn't know the supermarket was that popular. Calling Paul's name, he elbowed his way through the crowd, eliciting annoyed reactions and splashing himself again with hot liquid. When he swore under his breath, a woman with a scarf over her hair scolded him.
The rear seat was occupied by a group of chatty adolescent girls in matching cheerleader uniforms. But no Paul. Not here, not in any of the other seats. What the hell?
Forget it. At this point Ethan wanted nothing more than to pour the damn coffee over Paul's head and tell him to go screw off back to L.A. He was sorry he even picked up the phone this morning. Reaching over the head of a snoring man he pushed the strip to stop the bus. Nothing happened. No beep, no light over the driver to indicate a passenger wanted to hop off.
"Getting out here," Ethan shouted, and people turned to look at him while the bus kept going. Thoroughly irritated, he jostled his way toward the front again, past the same annoyed people, still not seeing Paul in any of the seats and not really caring. All he wanted was off. To go back to the shoe store and finish the afternoon shift, then head home. And not answer the damn phone again if it rang.
More coffee spilled. His wrist was red and throbbing. "Pull over, please," he called to the driver as he got close.
"This ain't a stop."
"I don't care. I'm getting out."
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror and must have seen something that changed his mind. He pulled over and opened the door. As Ethan stepped onto the curb the door snapped shut and the bus motored away in a belch of smoke.
"Collect call for Ethan Fowler from 1979. Will you accept the charges?"
Ethan didn't recognize the voice and figured it was a sales pitch of some sort. Still, something kept him from hanging up.
"Dude, you there?" the voice asked. "Ethan?"
"Who is this?"
"Who is this, he wants to know. Who else would call you collect from 1979? It's Paul."
"Paul? Paul Schramm?"
"No, Paul McCartney. Of course Paul Schramm. How's it hangin', dude?"
"It's hangin'… fine." Suddenly the 'collect from 1979' made sense. Back when Paul was a freshman at UCLA in the late 70s, they would call each other cross-country from phone booth to phone booth, always collect. It was a way to circumvent the debilitating long distance phone rates of those long ago days, a trick they picked up from reading Abbie Hoffman. "Wow, you caught me off guard. It's good to hear from you, man. Where are you?"
"Right here in Rising Gorge," Paul said. "I'm staying at my mom's a few days. You got time to get together while I'm in town?"
"Sure. Definitely. When?"
"How 'bout now?"
Now was fine. They hadn't seen each other in… Jesus, how long? A lot of years. After college Paul moved permanently to the coast and built a life for himself, returning less and less frequently to New Jersey. Over the years their phone calls to one another dwindled from occasionally to rarely to never.
Ethan told Paul he had to check in briefly at the shoe store and suggested they meet there.
The bus disappeared down the road. The rain had stopped. The clouds were still overhead. The sun was going down. And Ethan had no idea where he was.
Dumping the coffee down a sewer and shoving the cup after it, he looked around. Must have driven further than he realized. He had expected to find himself a few blocks from downtown, not out here in the middle of… where? He had never taken the shuttle before. His assumption was it followed Central Avenue straight out of town. This, however, wasn't Central Ave. Large, old houses set far back on hilly acres of property. He didn't remember scenery like this in Rising Gorge, although he rarely crossed the tracks to Southside. Reaching for his phone, he froze.
The belt holster was missing. His phone was gone.
Pickpocket was his first thought. Damn it, the world had gone straight to hell. Thieves and crooks everywhere, even suburban Rising Gorge. Then he remembered the wobbly belt clip, and realized it might have been knocked loose while he squeezed through the crowd on the bus. Didn't matter. He was phoneless. And lost. And although it wasn't raining at the moment, the skies could open up any time, judging by those clouds.
He looked around to get his bearings. Okay, downtown, where he got on the bus, had to be north. The road he stood on was long and straight, with no cross-streets visible in either direction. Out here a block could last for miles. That meant to head north the fastest route would be to cut through yards.
So be it. Off he set, across waves of green grass and past a sprawling three-story house with a multi-gabled roof. Soon he was crossing rolling hills in a sparsely wooded area. Alien territory, not the Rising Gorge he knew. Too late he realized he should have simply stayed on the bus and ridden all the way to the supermarket, then caught the next one back. Idiot.
As the sun dipped out of sight he came to another perpendicular road. On the far side stretched a long, black wrought-iron fence, disappearing in the distance to both left and right. Wonderful. His path was blocked. Then he noticed the gate a few hundred feet away, and made a beeline for it.
"Now this is seriously freaky," Paul said, standing in the doorway of ShoeTopia, dressed in a dark turtleneck and jeans. "This place looks exactly like it did when your dad owned it. It's like stepping back in time."
That felt oddly like an insult, although Ethan was sure it wasn't intended as one. "Well, you look different, anyway. Put on a few pounds, I see."
"Happens when you get older. Wanna take a stroll? Last time I was in the Gorge I think Kurt Cobain was still trying to score a record contract."
"Sure, give me… ten minutes?"
"I'll wait outside. Take in some local air."
Jeannie was nowhere to be found. Knowing what that meant, Ethan headed in the back and stood outside the bathroom door. "Jeannie, you in there?"
As if there were any doubt. He could smell the cigarette smoke from out here. Teenagers today… were no different from teenagers in his day. Shouldn't be too harsh on her. She told him she'd be right out and she was, and as soon as he checked the incoming orders and shot off an e-mail to Chicago he told her he was going out for the afternoon, she could handle the store by herself till he got back.
"So what brings you to town?" Ethan asked as they wandered down Broad Street.
"Funeral yesterday. Another relative. Getting more and more common nowadays. I'm tired of burying people."
"Tell me about it. Getting old sucks."
"We're not getting old. We're getting ripe."
"How's your mom?" Ethan asked.
"Eternal. The woman's a machine. I'll be gone long before she will, that's for sure. We're crashing at her place."
"We? You brought your family?"
"Maxine and Tommy, yeah. Teddy flew back this morning. He's got an exam he can't miss. He's at USC, you know that?"
"Little Teddy? He's what, nine years old?"
"I wish. Wants to go into movies like his old man. He can do things with a computer that'll blow your eyeballs out the back of your head. I think he's got a future in animation."
"God bless him."
"He'll need it."
They sauntered past a Gap and a Verizon outlet on their way through town. Two old friends who hadn't seen each other in years walking aimlessly, hands jammed in pockets. "I'm surprised Maxine let you off your leash for a day," Ethan said.
"You kidding? She and my mom are like clucking chickens. Put 'em together they could gab right through the apocalypse. I bet the pair of them are gossiping about me right now. You still living at your mom's?"
Was that a dig? "At the old house, yeah. She's gone, you know." Ethan's mom had died four years earlier, six months after his dad succumbed to emphysema. Ethan wasn't sure if she was worn out from suffering alongside dad all those years or if she simply refused to live without him.
"Yeah, I heard. I'm sorry. I don't recognize this place."
Ethan followed his gaze. "What, the bubble tea joint?"
"Any of it. All these shops, they're all new. The restaurants. What happened to this town?"
"The twenty-first century happened, that's what." When they were kids, Rising Gorge was an old-fashioned town proud of its colonial heritage. Nowadays it was filled with franchises and chain stores and banners hanging from the light posts declaring, "Rising Gorge--A Cool Place!"
"Remember buying albums at Clef Records?" Paul asked.
"What's an album?"
"And toy models at Rick's Hobby Shop?"
"Where I got my bike stolen out front."
"I told you you shoulda locked it."
"Yeah, you told me. Afterwards. Try earlier next time."
"I'll do that," Paul said, laughing.
South Entrance read the metal sign over the gate. That insinuated there was a north entrance, and the driveway passing under the sign ought to lead there. Through the gate Ethan hurried and up the winding drive and then when the pavement curved right he continued straight over the hill toward downtown Rising Gorge. That's when he realized he was in a cemetery.
The only cemeteries he knew in the Gorge were the tiny Colonial Cemetery across from the old church--he definitely wasn't in that one--and Crooked Creek, way on the edge of town. Was it possible he was in Crooked Creek? Could his bearings be that far off?
Wherever he was, he needed to be elsewhere. Home. Forget the shoe store, he wanted a hot shower and bed. Tombstones rose all around him as he scurried toward the north entrance of the graveyard. Far away he heard thunder as the sun slowly winked out.
In the distance he spotted the building. The main office. At the top of a rise between several thick trees. And as luck would have it there was a light in the building.
Thank God. Doubling his pace, Ethan headed for the light. He prayed someone would be there. Or at least a phone so he could call a cab. Get him out of here. Get him home.
"Hello," he said tentatively as he set foot inside the building. When nobody answered he reluctantly raised his voice and tried again. Didn't want to disturb anybody, not in here, not if he could help it. "Anybody around?" Silence greeted him. Closing the etched glass door behind him he stepped into the building and up to a counter, behind which stood several desks, all of them empty. Again he called out, louder this time, and again no one answered. Getting edgy, he lifted the flap on the counter and headed inside toward the desks. Only to discover that none of them held a phone.
What kind of place didn't have phones? Yes, he recognized the world had gone mobile, but still, a cemetery? If anyplace should have landlines, this was it. The customers certainly weren't going anywhere. He tried opening a drawer and found it locked. As was the next one, and the one after that. Ridiculous. These people were way too obsessed with safety. Who was going to break into desks in the main office of a cemetery? Unless of course they were lost and in desperate need of a cab.
Exiting into the foyer Ethan headed for the adjoining room, where he stopped short at the sight of a coffin on a bier, its lid open. Rows of folding chairs faced the coffin, all of them empty. The coffin had to be empty, too. Nobody would leave a corpse lying around unattended. Would they? For God's sake, they locked their desk drawers. Shouldn't they at least shut the coffin lid?
Paul and Ethan wandered past the theater and across the street and without either one suggesting it they strayed into the park, their standard after-school hangout back in the day. The gazebo where they used to kill long afternoons and weekends with their wastrel buddies--smoking joints and sipping illicit beers and telling lies about girls--was currently undergoing repairs and sealed off by yellow tape, so they aimlessly wandered the circuitous paths.
"You know what's funny," Paul said. "That funeral I went to."
"Was strangely uplifting. Listening to the guy's accomplishments, I mean. Sounded like he led a full and happy life. Everybody had good things to say about him."
"It's a funeral. People don't usually badmouth the dead."
"Yeah, I know. But it sounded like he really made a difference in people's lives. Got me reflecting on my own life."
"You're writing your own obituary now? That's morbid."
"It's not, really. It's actually kind of refreshing. Thinking about my life, I feel pretty good about myself."
"You should. You've got a terrific life," Ethan said.
"I do. Great wife, two great pain-in-the-ass kids I got to watch grow up and coach in soccer and teach how sex works and why they should keep their dicks in their pants until they're married."
"Sounds like fun."
"I never became a film director, but you know what? I'm doing what I should be doing, and I'm good at it and I love it. That's better than achieving a dream that was wrong for me. Make sense?"
"Sure." Growing up, Paul wanted nothing more than to be Alfred Hitchcock or Roman Polanski. Instead he went into special effects and now worked for one of the most prestigious effects houses in Hollywood.
"Life steered me right," Paul said. "What about you?"
"Me?" Ethan smiled and shook his head. "I'm good."
"You ever travel these days? You write anymore?"
"Nah. That was a long time ago." Back when he thought he might be a journalist. Or a travel writer. When he was still a dumb kid, before his priorities changed, before dad got sick and Ethan took over the family business and settled down, settled into habits and patterns.
"Ever get married? Seeing anybody?"
"I'm married to the store," Ethan said, and laughed. "No, I'm cool the way things are. No marriage, no divorce, no kids, no soccer, no dick lectures, no charities in my name, no nothing. Which is exactly the way I like it. I'm perfectly comfortable being solo and unexceptional."
A low rumble sounded in the distance. The sky had darkened perceptibly while they wandered. "Looks like rain," Paul said. "Maybe we should head back into town."
Retreating from the viewing room and the coffin, calling out once more, plenty loud now, not caring if he was disturbing anyone, Ethan realized for the first time there were two parallel foyers, one on the north side of the office and one on the south, with the desks situated between. Odd he hadn't noticed that before. Now he wasn't sure which side he'd entered through. The foyers looked identical, as did the doors. Whoever designed this place ought to be fired. A building should be easy to find your way around, especially a building like this. It shouldn't be a maze. It shouldn't be a mystery.
Fine. There was an easy solution. He'd stay here overnight. He'd find a place to crash and wait out the weather. In the morning people would show up, and if for some damn reason they didn't then he'd simply step out into the daylight heading north. There was only one thing.
Poking his head inside the room holding the coffin Ethan looked around again, hoping he had somehow missed someone--someone alive--but he was disappointed. An empty room. Empty of life, that is.
If he was going to stay here, he had to know. Steeling himself, Ethan took a step toward the coffin. Another. And then turned around and picked a door and headed outside into the night.
If that coffin was occupied, he didn't want to know. Better to be outside in the rain than inside, alone, with a corpse.
"Ever hear from Katie?" Paul asked. Slowly they made their way toward Broad Street as the clouds gathered overhead, preparing to unleash.
"Not in years," Ethan answered, shaking his head. "Decades."
"Any idea what she's up to?"
"You should Google her."
Ethan looked at his old friend as they sauntered along the street. "Why?"
"I don't know. Maybe she'd like to hear from you."
"I repeat: why?"
Paul had his phone out and was thumbing in text. "Here she is. Looks like she's in Seattle."
"And I'm in New Jersey. Oh well."
"Nice town, Seattle. Ever been there?"
"Not that I recall."
"Maybe you should think about visiting."
"You're amazing, you know that?"
"Hey, she's got a kid. A girl. Kelly. Cute. Katie and Kelly."
"A happy mom. Guess you can give up on your matchmaking."
"Aha. Kate's status is 'available.' You should e-mail her."
"You're crazy, you know that? I feel raindrops. Let's duck in here." Ethan held open the door to Munchies and Paul ducked in.
The interior was crowded. Apparently a lot of other people had ducked in already. "Popular place," Paul said.
"Always. Want anything?" When Paul shook his head, Ethan got on line. As a local shop owner himself he felt guilty about taking up space in the store without buying anything. While he waited his turn he thought about Katie. Tiny little pixie, charming smile. She was the reason Ethan and Paul became friends to begin with. Paul sat next to Katie in fifth grade and was friendly with her. Ethan got it in his adolescent head that he wanted to be friendly with her too, so he approached Paul and the two boys quickly bonded. Eventually, with Paul's behind-the-scenes prodding, Ethan and Katie became a couple, lasting for years until her family moved to Massachusetts. After that they kept in touch by mail--two young and passionate lovers cruelly separated by fate--with the letters gradually becoming shorter and less fervent and trailing off in frequency until one day Ethan wrapped them all in a rubber band and regretfully stuffed them in a drawer. He hadn't thought about her in years.
The grounds outside the cemetery office didn't look familiar. Good sign. Must have picked the correct door, the north one, not the one he entered through. Pointing himself straight ahead, Ethan crossed between a set of low-hanging trees and walked at a brisk pace. Before long a light rain started falling again and he turned up his collar and leaned forward, cursing Paul with every step. He was about to turn back to spend the night beside the coffin, corpse or no corpse, when a flash of lightning showed the fence in the distance. Still a ways off, but he was getting there. He would be out of this foul place soon. He stepped up his pace.
There were fewer graves here on the north side of the cemetery, and more trees. Which afforded slightly more protection from the rain while at the same time making it darker and harder to see where he was going. So he was unnerved but not overly surprised when he tripped over something and went skidding across a slick of mud.
Before he even had a chance to push himself up, a flash of lightning illuminated the grounds and Ethan was horrified to discover he was lying atop the mound of a fresh grave. Jammed into the earth at its head was a temporary marker with a name on it.
Shoving himself backwards, Ethan skittered off the grave underneath the tree and crouched on the wet grass, averting his eyes from the rectangular pile of dark earth. Something inside told him he already knew the name on the marker. Paul Schramm. Back in town for a funeral. Reflecting on his life, savoring his own eulogy. Leading Ethan here and vanishing. But why? What was the point of all this?
Refusing to look at the marker, to acknowledge his fears, Ethan pushed himself to his feet and stumbled away, desperately scanning the landscape. All directions looked the same. At a lightning flash he whipped around, searching for the fence, seeing nothing but tombstones and trees and hills. Then another flash, and there it was, across the wide expanse of graves. It didn't seem any closer than before.
Thoroughly soaked by the steadily falling rain, Ethan lurched across the field toward the fence, watching intently each time the lightning flashed, praying for a glimpse of the gate, the exit, the way out of here.
A blinding flash, the brightest yet, lit up the entire terrain almost simultaneous with a thunderclap so loud Ethan flinched. The center of the storm must be directly overhead. And there, not so very far away, past a cluster of tombs and monuments, was the gate. Ethan breathed a sigh of relief and broke into a run, not watching where he was going, and tumbled headlong into the open grave.
Soft mud broke his fall. Even so, his arm twisted in an awkward angle and he cried out. Rolling over, he cradled the arm. Nothing broken. Only then did Ethan realize where he was, what had happened, and scrambled to his feet. Which wasn't easy. The floor and walls were soaked and slippery, affording no handholds or traction. But after some difficulty he managed to stand, forgetting the pain in his arm and balancing himself against the two confining walls.
His head barely cleared the surface of the hole. Surrounding him he could see tombstones in all directions, close by and facing him like spectators. Two in particular caught his eye--the two nearest to him. He recognized their shapes. His parents. He was in an open grave in the Fowler family plot.
A surging panic seized him. Grabbing handfuls of grass Ethan attempted to haul himself up but the ground came loose between his fingers. Each time he managed to rise a few inches from the grave the wet dirt crumbled in his hands and he slid back down again. The pain in his arm was forgotten as he clawed desperately in the now-pounding rain for a grip, crying out for help the whole time. Wheeling around, he reached up and dug into the mound of earth piled next to the pit, hoping to find better purchase there. Instead the dirt in the mound began to slide, a dark, sludgy waterfall, pouring into the grave and across Ethan's chest, burying his feet.
Ethan shouted, whirling about, flailing his arms, pounding on the sides of the hole, pulling his feet from the thick mud only to have them sink back in again. Rain plastered his hair to his face and filled his eyes, blurring his vision. Dirt choked his mouth. Then his fingers brushed something and he grasped at it for all he was worth.
A root. The severed end just barely protruding from the ground. Wrapping his hand around it he pulled and it held. Digging furiously, Ethan cleared enough dirt to grab the root with both hands and pulled himself upward, bracing his back against the slippery wall opposite. His feet came loose from the rising mud and he pushed them against the wall, wedging himself in the hole and then inching upward, using the root as a fulcrum.
And then, miraculously, he was out. Filthy, exhausted, heart pounding, he rolled on the grass and lay for a moment on his back, letting the rain wash over him, before forcing himself to his feet and stumbling through the graves toward the gate.
The next morning he awoke sneezing. Cold coming on, or flu, or who knows what. Didn't matter. He was alive. Last night was just a memory. A nightmare.
That's what it was. A series of unfortunate incidents coupled with an overactive imagination. Thinking back, Ethan scolded himself for even imagining that the fresh grave he stumbled over last night was Paul's. That was absurd. Somebody was recently buried there, sure. It was a cemetery, for God's sake. But it wasn't Paul.
And the grave he tumbled into, that wasn't his own. Not Ethan's. It was an open hole waiting for an occupant, someone newly dead and soon to reside underground. But not Ethan. Those surrounding tombstones, those weren't his parents', that wasn't the Fowler plot. Just strangers' tombstones. In the dark, they all looked alike.
His arm still ached and he rubbed it while making coffee. In the bright light of morning he had to laugh at himself, at his paranoid fears, his mad imaginings, as he settled back in his study surrounded by colorful travel posters on the wall. He looked around at all the exotic places he'd never been. Places he'd dreamed of going. When he was younger. Before life took him in another direction.
Maybe he should just get up and go. Leave the store behind, let Jeannette run it for a while. Or better yet, sell the damn place. Move on. Get out of the Gorge. Live life.
And just like that, he made up his mind to do it. To pack a bag and get out in the world and do what he always wanted to do. Travel. That's what he'd do. See the world.
Starting with Seattle.
x x x
Don’t know why but this story reminded me of the Dan Fogelberg song “Same Old Lang Syne.” I love all of Fogelberg’s tunes and that one has a special meaning for me. That might be why I chose this tale for this year’s line up. Of course, I might have chosen it because it’s a damn good story. You decide and tell me on our BBS. -GM