"Lock the door Frank," I yelled from the back as I pulled off my pointed party hat. It was 5:00 and I was not wasting another minute in the Tateville post office. As I often did, I looked up at the small mirror ball we kept in the corners of the ceiling next to the doorway. The hat had made some of the remaining hairs on top of my head stand on end. I hated being bald. I carefully licked them back into place. I paused in a stare at the wrinkles around my eyes. Did I actually look 40? My brief mental pause was interrupted by the sound of Frank attempting to lock the door.
Frank fumbled for the keys and managed to get them out just in time for another patron to come through the door. "What an old fart," I thought. Frank looked frustrated and just responded to my disapproving look with a shrug. He stood there and waited for the lady to leave. Once she walked out the door, he scooted slowly to lock the door behind her.
I walked up front and thanked the two of them for the present and the doughnuts. The present was a new fishing rod that Frank and I had discussed. We had both seen it a Wal-Mart last week and spent a rather lengthy lunch talking about fishing rods and the fishing condition at Meyer's lake.
Without a word, all three of us went into our routine close-up ritual. Betsy counted the drawer and filled out a few ledger books. Frank swept the floor and cleaned up his sorting station. It was my duty to go through all the administrative paperwork and get things ready for Monday. I thanked heaven above for having a Saturday off for a change and made a resolution that World War III would not get me back in here tomorrow. I had made arrangements for Bob to take care of Mom tomorrow so I could go fishing at Meyers lake. It would be the perfect opportunity to try out that new pole. I have plans tonight to restring it with a new fishing line that was supposed to double the weight of normal lines.
As I packed my gear into drab green filing cabinet, I did a quick count of how many birthdays I had celebrated in this building. It was hard to believe and accept that I had 21 out of 40 birthdays celebrated in this building. In an effort to avoid the depressing thought, I took a quick glance around to check on the progress at some of my coworkers.
Frank, who worked in the sorting department, was in his late 50s and was sweeping the floor. I call it the sorting department, but, in fact, Frank is the department. Frank is a short and wrinkled old man. His normal posture consisted of being in a permanently slumped over position. A large hearing aid adorned his right ear and large black-framed, government-issued glasses sat at the end of his nose. I found myself constantly wanting to walk up and push the glasses up onto his face where they should be. His post office uniform was clean but slightly wrinkled and covered his shoes as he shuffled around. Frank had been here when they opened the building. It was well known all over town that Frank lived alone and was quite the sad case. His existence consisted of work, a trailer, and a cat. He often relied on his son-in-law to drive him in on his way to go to work at the cabinet shop manufacturing company. He loved to fish and was often seen at the lake sitting on his favorite log. To the best of my knowledge, I cannot remember anyone ever saying they actually saw him catch anything.
Betsy was busy cleaning up the remainder of my birthday party mess. Her hands quickly dumped the contents of the table into a nearby waste basket. I could tell she was in a hurry to get home. She was not a pretty woman, but sexy in a trailer-park-trashy sort of way. I saw the years of hard life in the lines of her face. It was often a problem that she would return the next day with mysterious bruises on her arms. The rumor was that her husband Ed would quite often get mad if he came home and supper was not on the table at the proper time.
"Do not worry about that Betsy," I said with a comforting tone. "Go home now. I can finish." She gave me an appreciative smile and said "Thanks." In one motion she grabbed her purse and was out the back door. The door shut with the normal locking thud.
"Well it is just you and me Frank. Did you remember to get the liquor and the strippers?" I blurted to Frank in a half laugh. Frank stopped sweeping, turned around, and with a partial straightening with the back slowly put his hand to his hearing aid and cupped his ear. He looked over his glasses in a blank stare. It being obvious that he had missed the joke, I waved my hand and shouted "Never mind."
I attended to the rest of my paper work. About twenty minutes went by before Frank came in to the back. "Can I go home now?" He asked in a muffled voice. I took one last look at what I was doing and looked up at Frank. "Yes Frank. Need a lift?" I said taking the reading glasses from my face. I chuckled once I realized that I had been wearing them on the end of my nose like Frank. Frank looked at me inquisitively and did not say anything. "Do you need a ride home?" I said in a louder voice. Frank shook his head affirmatively and I decide that was enough excuse to put off what I had to do until Monday. I clicked the light off, threw down my pen and escorted him out of the door.
Frank and I climbed into my Chevy Impala. I noticed that the car need washed before I got in and made mental note to do that this weekend. Frank opened the door and I scurried to push the debris from the seat to the floorboard. The result was a pile of debris even with the top of the seat cushion. Frank climbed in and buried his feet in the trash. I apologized for the mess but he ignored. I really did not think he even noticed.
A couple pumps of the accelerator and a turn of the key resulted in nothing. Only a dead silence followed the clanging of the keys against the steel steering column as I pushed the keys forward. I remembered that when this car did this I needed to wiggle the shift lever on the steering column while holding the key forward. After a few wiggles and holding my mouth just right, the car started and Frank and I were on our way.
The trip home was only about twenty minutes and Frank lived on the way. Getting out of the five building downtown area of Tateville involved waving to at least thirty people. I found it strange that I knew just about everyone I saw. I knew their name, where they lived, spouse, how many children, and every other topic that can possibly come up on small talk conversation.
The winding road to Frank's house was a beautiful trip. The temperature was in the seventies and I occasionally stuck my head out the window to suck up the clean mountain air and get a direct shot of sunlight. The intermittent sighting of an old shack and outhouse was quite the contrasting site for the majestic beauty of the mountains in the background. Although I could not hear for the rush of the air and roar of the motor, I knew the hills were full of the sounds of wildlife and mother nature herself.
"It sure is beautiful," I said.
Not getting a response I turned my head and prepared once again to repeat myself to Frank. I noticed that he was asleep and his head gently bobbed to the bumps and curves in the road. I turned back and began to contemplate the inevitable; life at forty.
Just the thought of forty made me reexamine my life to see why I felt so unfulfilled. Was it that my father had died nearly two decades ago and I had virtually forgotten everything about him. Maybe it was the fact that my mother lay in her death bed with terminal lung cancer. The old timers would call this consumption and I could see why. She was less than one-half her weight that she was just a few years ago. Maybe it was the fact that I had to take care of her and was stuck in the town as a result. I also examined the possibility that my depression was due to my younger brother Bob was unemployed and lived with us. Almost ten years younger than I, Bob was destined for a more mundane life than I. Bob had been in trouble for most of his adolescent life. He had seven jobs in the last two years.
My mind raced over all that was wrong and I felt that same self-pity that had consumed me and almost done me in a year ago. I could see how Bob could get solace from a bottle and how easy it would be just to escape. I also could see how easily it would be to go down that path without ever coming back. Up to now it had been shear will power that got me through the day to day struggle. Now it seemed that father time was preparing the cou de gras. I glanced over at the sleeping Frank.
I examined his wrinkles and failing body. I was sure that his mind was failing as well. For all practical purposes, Frank was waiting for death. Is this the fate that waits for me? I started to tear up and proceed down that dark path to depression that I knew so well. If it were not for the fact I went to wipe my eye, I might never have seen it.
The crossing rail was down and the lights were flashing. A train was coming. I stomped on the brakes. The car smoked all four tires and rotated 45 degrees. It finally came to a rest no more than three inches in front of the crossing rail. moments later, a passenger train came barreling by at top speed. The wind from the train rocked the car as the engineer blew the whistle. I sit there clinching the steering wheel and finally noticed that I had not taken a breath. As I exhaled, I turned to Frank with my mouth hanging open in sheer aghast.
Frank just sat there. Fortunately he had put on his seatbelt and was so firmly entrenched in sleeping he was now snoring. He had not even noticed how close I had come to ending his life. My astonishment turned to mad laughter. I laughed so hard and long that the train passed and the striped rail raised. My howling finally woke up Frank and he just looked around without saying anything. He turned his head side to side trying to determine what I had deemed so funny. The more he puzzled, the louder I howled. Frank finally said "What the hell is so funny?". As he said it, he grabbed his mouth and said in a muffled voice "Where are my teeth?". I fell silent for a second. After a brief scan of the area that Frank sat in, I saw them. Sure enough, the braking had caused his teeth to fly out and hit the dash. The teeth lay there on the dashboard covered with drool. I was thankful that the train incident has put the whole issue in prospective. All I could do was giggle as we continued down the windy road.
The bridge was old. It had been replaced three times since the late 1800's. The last time was 1965. I still remember my father and a bunch of guys from his work assembling the bridge. At the time I was too young to help. Mom made lemonade and her and I took glasses of lemonade to the sweating men. I still remember most of them being covered in pitch.
The bridge construction was made of huge pylons that reminded me of telephone poles, only bigger. These poles supported massive steel beams. Three steel beams spanned the river bed for a distance of nearly 25 feet and were crossed by gigantic 8 by 8 inch oak beams. The entire monstrosity was covered in pitch and tar. After carefully looking at the boards, I decided to ride the car across as I had done so many times before.
The car crossed slowly and I felt absolutely no give or sway in the bridge. Just one more time I felt immensely proud of my father and his accomplishments. I pulled next to the hose bib that stood only a few feet from the well house. I grabbed my birthday present and walked to the house.
The house was a modest home to say the least. My family was never well to-do and this house was originally built over my grandfather's home site in the mid 50's. It was not till 1978 that a fire consumed the house and reduced it to ashes. This was the same fire that claimed my father's life. The fire department said that my father had been smoking in bed. They also said we were lucky to have gotten out alive. My father and mother had an argument that night and Mom had slept on the couch. She was the first to smell smoke and immediately ran upstairs to get Bob and me out of the house. She never had the chance to return to help get dad out of the inferno.
The insurance money from the factory dad worked at was barely enough to put a double wide trailer on the old foundation. If it were not for the fact that we owned the land, I do not know what the three of us would have done.
I do not resent anything about what happened to my family. If anything, it brought us closer together. I helped Mom get Bob through the difficult years. My mother took us fishing and fixed our meals. In return, we kept up the house, property, and paid for most of the bills through my income and what little money Bob could earn.
I looked at the peeling paint on the front and noticed that all the window sashes will have to be repainted before winter. The garden Bob was keeping off to the right was doing okay. I just questioned the legality of some of the vegetation he had chosen to grow.
I opened the screen door and the spring squeaked out its displeasure of the situation. I turned the door knob and the door swung open with little effort. A quick examination of the dark living room showed Bob watching television on the couch with the shades pulled.
"Where is Mom?" I inquired with a disapproving tone. I found, in the last few months, I was doing everything in my power to let him know I wished he would get off the couch and get a job.
He only responded by thrusting his head towards the bedroom and grunting.
"Get that acceptance letter from Harvard yet?" I asked with a grin. He just gazed into the television and repeated the grunt. Shaking my head, I headed into the bedroom where Mom was.
I could see her looking worse every day. She was asleep and had the oxygen tube around her face. Her pale skin hung off her bones and the labored breathing was only interrupted by the occasional cough. She was terribly thin and weak. It was obvious that she would not recover from this.
I sat on the bed and rubbed my hand across her forehead. She felt cold so I pulled the blanket over her. She opened her eyes and gazed at me. For a second I could tell she was trying to get focused and get around the sleep that would not allow her to recognize me.
"Mom? Have you eaten today?" I asked in a whisper. She responded by shaking her head no. Her face mask fogged with each breath.
"Do you want something?" I asked. She pulled the mask off and said "I could use some soup," in a weak voice.
"Sure. I will be right back," I responded. I arose from the bed and scooted into the kitchen.
The kitchen was in terrible shape. Once again Bob had failed to do the house chores. The sink was full of dishes and the trash was stacked in three different spots near the garbage can. I could smell a horrible odor and decided to take the trash out to our burn barrel. I picked up one of the bags and a roach ran out and under the refrigerator. A missed stomp at the roach sent me into a rave. "Bob!" I exclaimed.
"Bob, get your ass in here!". I yelled in his direction.
Bob slowly walked in the kitchen with a beer can in his hand. He was red eyed. He needed a hair cut and had not shaven in three days. He had worn the same shirt for almost 2 weeks and his shorts had holes in the crotch. "What?" He said in a dissident tone.
Slapping my hand down on the counter, I said "Just take a freaking look around! That's what!" I gestured towards the room. "How many times do I have to go through this?" I said in an increasingly hostile tone.
"Man I haven't felt well all day! I don't need this crap. Get off my back once and for all." Bob said as he straightened his posture.
I had seen this look before. I love my brother dearly, but his attitude was more than I could stomach. I had been in several fights with him and I know when he is close to the edge. Sometimes I would win and sometimes he did. The bottom line was that Mom needed some soup and I was not in the mood for a bloody lip at this point.
"I will get off you back when you get off your butt!" I blurted as I turned around to remove the trash. My comment was responded to by a "Screw you," as he left out the front door slamming it as hard as possible.
I threw the trash out the back into one of the large burn cans. I returned to the kitchen to put the soup in the microwave and start the dishes.
As I returned to the bedroom Mom sat up in anticipation of the soup. I laid down the tray on the table and propped pillows behind her. I placed the tray on her lap and help her with the meal. She downed a cup of orange juice and slowly started on the soup.
"Happy birthday," she said to my surprise. There were no calendars in the room and she had been in the bed for the largest part of the last two weeks. I was truly amazed that she remembered.
"Thank you," I responded in a delayed response. "I cannot believe I am forty."
"Neither can I," she replied with an innocent smile. I am sorry I did not get you anything. She took another spoon of the chicken soup and wiped her mouth.
"I almost didn't make it. Frank Parson's and I almost ran into that afternoon train that we hear every evening." She looked up as to tell me she wanted to hear more about this.
"What happened," she said.
"I wasn't paying attention and we almost ran through the light and got splattered. That Frank Parsons slept through the whole thing."
"Now now," she said. "I am sure it is not as bad as you say."
I interrupted, "Mom, the man's teeth flew out of his mouth and onto the dashboard!". We both paused and broke into laughter. It was nice to see her laugh without that nasty deep cough for once and spoil the moment. For a second, it was as it had been years ago. A good relationship between Mom and me where we were free to talk about anything.
"So what are you going to do for you birthday," she asked with a mild cough.
"Betsy Tanner and Frank gave me a fishing pole and reel at the office. I wanted to try it out at Meyer's lake tomorrow." I answered.
With a disapproving frown she said "Now Victor, a man your age should be out there looking for a young lady. How are you going to find a nice young lady in the middle of Lake Meyer. Sounds like to me you are fishing for the wrong thing." She finished off the statement with a small giggle. "What about that young girl Betty Clark. She is about you age and she used to have quite the taking for you."
"Mom! Betty Clark is a grandmother now! She has been married for years," I said with disbelief.
Mom returned a blank stare that reminded me of the stare Frank had given me earlier when he could not hear me. I noticed that she had not taken a bite in the last few minutes and could tell she was becoming tired again. "Let me take that. Is there anything I can get you Mom?" I said as I leaned over and picked up the tray while I kissed her on the cheek.
She paused as in deep though and then realized she had been asked a question. "No, No, I am fine," she said shaking her head as she lay back onto the bed.
I pulled the pillows out and tucked her in again. I offered her the oxygen mask and she shunned it away with her hand. After a kiss on the head, I said "I love you," and took the tray and stood. Mom did not reply as I left the room.
As I walked into the living room with the tray, I fully expected Bob to be back on the couch with a finger up one of many orifices watching tabloid television. He was no where to be found. I put the tray in the kitchen and sat down with the remote to find my evenings entertainment. After several round-the-dial surfing attempts, I could not find anything to catch my eye. In frustration, I snapped off the television and walked out to get the paper. Once again Bob was nowhere to be found and I crossed the bridge to the paper box. Pulling out the paper I immediately went to the section with the lotto numbers. I had purchased ten tickets this morning. I had used my special system to pick the numbers. My system involved counting all the numbers picked in the lottery drawings over the last year and choosing the top six most frequently picked numbers. The best I had ever done was matching three but the purchase made for some good fantasizing.
I found the page by the time I reached the living room. I pulled out my tickets and compared. To top off my birthday, I had picked the worst numbers ever. Out of sixty numbers, I had matched one. I tossed the paper and tickets into the waste basket and thought about what I wanted to do the rest of the evening. It would be getting dark in about an hour and I did not feel like washing the car. In fact, I did not feel like doing anything. After a few minutes, boredom overtook me and I went in the bedroom and pulled out my guitar and portable CD player. I carried both outside to the porch.
After a quick tune up and battery check, I turned on the CD to make sure my favorite CD was in there. It was not long before I was into the music and singing along. For a moment or two, I drifted away in a fantasy of being a rich and famous musician. Far away from the foothills of Kentucky, playing for a massive audience that cheered at every chord. The feeling of the journey overtook me and before I knew it I was wailing away and really enjoying the flow of melodic tones. It was all to suddenly interrupted. A heavy tapping on my shoulder brought me back by shock. I turned to see my brother yelling at me. Fumbling for the off switch, his voice pierced the air once the music ceased. He was red faced angry that he had to come and get me.
"Mom was shouting through the window. I was out back and heard her screaming."
I immediately arose and ran into the bedroom to see what the problem was. Bob followed. When I went into the room, Mom was obviously flustered. She grabbed me with a hand on either side of my face and said "Are you okay Vick?" in a desperate tone.
I said "Yes Mom," struggling to catch my breath.
"I thought I heard you screaming. I thought someone was trying to kill you. What kind of satan-spawned noise was that I heard?" she said as she dropped her hands looking into my eyes for a serious answer.
Bob started to snicker as I said "Mom I was singing."
"More like howling," Bob interjected with a hysterical laugh. Bob then proceeded to fall on the floor in a massive convulsive laugh. It was not to long before Mom was in a belly laugh and I soon followed.
Yes, it was true that I did not have much of a singing voice. I had played five different instruments in high school and was known to be quite the musician. I can honestly say it was the only thing I can remember learning there that I actually used. As for the singing, I was constantly chastised and was the first person in the Tateville First Baptist Church to ever be cut from the choir.
We all finished up the laugh and Bob and I left the room after I tucked in my mother. It was getting nearly dark now so I said goodnight and turned off the light.
Bob returned to his bedroom and shut the door. After I retrieved the CD player and guitar, I returned to my room. I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the hills echoing through my open window.
A loud clap of thunder awoke me sometime in the middle of the night. The harsh sound of rain against the roof brought a deep consternation. I got up and closed the window. In the dark I turned to go check on Mom. The occasional burst of lightning illuminated the room just long enough to get my bearings. As I flipped on the hall light, I could see that she was sleeping soundly and the pesky leak in her room had not manifested in this downpour. I turned off the light and headed to the front door.
I flipped on the front flood lights. The hollow click of the switch normally echoed through the room, but was drowned out by the roar of the falling rain. A quick look outside showed a swollen river in front of the house. I had seen it a lot higher and decided to dismiss it and go back to bed. I made a mental note to check the bridge again before leaving the next morning.
The door opened slowly against my hand and delivered only a slight squeak as it stopped. I paused just for a second to prepare myself that today might be the last day of the inevitable fate that awaited my mother. I slid quietly to her side and kneeled down beside her. She lay there asleep with the oxygen mask hanging off one side of her face. Wiping a lock of her gray hair from her eye, she gently sighed and turned over while still deep in slumber. I noticed that her breathing was more regular than usual but she still had the sickly pallor that I had long since hated.
I pulled off the mask and set it on the floor. A few twists of the hand and the low hiss of the oxygen bottle ceased. I made a mental note to call the oxygen man and arrange to have the bottle replaced Monday or Tuesday.
It was still early for mother to get up so I opted to let her sleep and slowly crept out of the room. I shut the door behind me and walked back to my bedroom. While in the bedroom, I chose my favorite fishing jacket. I clipped on my portable CD player to my belt and stuffed the headphones into an oversized pocket on the inside of my jacket. I bent over in the closet and pulled out a pair of Timberline boots that I had used for years. The boots were broken in well but still had no sign of holes or problem with keeping my feet dry. My mind flashed back to a time when I put on these very boots and Mom would yell down the hall "Don't you wear those boot in my house Victor Walsh!" . She would say that every time she heard the heel of the boot hit the old wooden floor. Sometimes Bob and I would go into his room and both of us drop the boots on the floor. We would then run outside the room in our sock feet just to see her come running out of the kitchen and around the corner to voice her repetitive proclamation. She would always stop in mid sentence only to watch the two of us snicker. The incident was always punctuated with her stomping away shaking her head mutter something derogative about our sense of humor.
After a quick shave and a brush of the teeth, it was time to plan the morning. Mom would be getting up in a few minutes and I would have to get her ready for the day. It was the same weekend ritual. I would either fix her up in the living room where she could watch television or take her outside and let her sit on the porch with a good book. Mom favored the classics but would occasionally read the trashy romance novels. To this day I have never gotten over the embarrassment of having to purchase those at the local grocery store. Linda, the heavy set register girl, would always alternate a ridiculing glance between the book and me. This practice was always followed by her laughing in such a way that her entire body oscillated like a bowl of Jell-O.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Mom calling for me. I quickly ran to her door and swung it open. She was trying to get up so I skipped to her side and supported her arm. She let me help her half way and waved me off. She made the rest of the journey to an upright sitting position on her own accord.
"I'm fine, just want to go to the bathroom," she said while looking down at the floor with both hands grabbing the side of the bed. She was partially leaned over forward. She remained in the position very quietly for the longest time.
"Are you okay? Do you need help?" I said after a long pause.
"Just fine. Just trying to understand why you are still wearing those damn boots in my house." She said dryly without looking at me.
I just snickered and helped her to her feet. She gave me a smile and gingerly walked towards the bathroom. After the bathroom door closed, I walked into the kitchen to prepare her a small breakfast. I was in no hurry because I knew Moms morning routine. The ritual involved washing her entire body with a damp cloth, changing her clothes, putting in her dentures, combing her hair, and taking at least sixteen different types of medicine. The ritual lasted nearly an hour and a half so I knew I had plenty of time to fix what was to be the most paltry meal of the day for her. Anything more than a scrambled egg, piece of toast, and small cup of coffee was always greeted with the same old talk about wasting food that I knew she would not eat.
Within minutes the kitchen was full of typical morning sounds. The thud of the refrigerator door, clanking of skillets, and popping of a frying egg painted the perfect picture of a country kitchen. The clomp of my boots seemed to serve as the back beat to the entire orchestral arrangement. It was almost musical.
A quick peak around the corner revealed that Bobs door was still closed. I assumed he was still sleeping off the hangover he had so diligently procured the night before. As I returned, I increased the volume of the Walsh Family Country Kitchen Orchestra. It only took the dropping of two pans and a pie plate in the stainless steel sink to solicit a less than civilized response from Bob down the hall.
"What the hell is going on!? Are you fixing breakfast or killing it?" he shouted.
I peaked around the corner to see him sticking his head out the door. I could see through the crack that he was still in his boxers and his disheveled look almost took away all human appearance.
"My oh My! I can see you have caught up on your beauty sleep!" I said sarcastically. Laughing, I followed with "A couple of days more without a bath and you might be able to land Linda down at the grocery store."
I was first surprised that he just stood there in silence. I then recognized the look on his face as disbelief. To my aghast, the hand on the door opened the door inward to reveal that the hand did not belong to Bob. In fact, it belonged to Linda. My mind refused to believe I was sitting there with my mouth open looking at a three hundred pound woman that was nearly naked. I tried to mutter some sort of apology but words failed. The shame would not allow me to bring myself to hold a stare at her face. The quick glimpse I did get was that of a teary-eyed woman about to come apart at the seams. I blurted out and apology and slunk back into the kitchen.
I could hear muffled words exchanged and the general shuffling around. I pretended to be busy as I knew she would walk right by me on her way out of the house. As her heavy trod came closer, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I heard the door shut behind her. I could not tell if Bob had followed her out but I was to scared to look. After a few minutes I peered around the corner only to be scared out of my wits by Mom as she made the turn. She did not even look up and did not even realize that she had scared me.
Mom took a seat at the usual spot at the table. Her plate and coffee were already in place and I handed her last night's paper that I retrieved from the trash can. She waved off the paper and started to sip her coffee.
As I sat down, the front door swung open so hard that it stuck to the wall. Bob tromped in wearing nothing but his boxers and bare feet and walked into his bedroom slamming the door. He did not acknowledge that we were even there.
I slowly got up and walked over to close the door. As I did, I saw that Linda had started her large custom van. It took only a second to realize that the van was on the house side of the river. A quick glance up revealed that the river was still swollen from the rains and was tearing through the channel. The sudden urgency rushed over me in an instant. I sprinted towards the van yelling "Linda Stop!" I repeated myself several times as loud as I could. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw me running. With the van already running and aimed in the right direction, she peeled off throwing gravel in my face. One rock caught me in the forehead and dropped me on the spot. I pulled my head out of the gravel and stared through the debris spraying from her back tires. I almost could not watch. The van hit the bridge at a good clip. It was at least twenty-five miles per hour. The result was the van bounced off the first oak beam at the start of the bridge and almost landed mid way. I could see through the back window Linda bouncing out of her seat and loosing control for an instant. The bridge swayed noticeably. Linda quickly regained control. Either by embarrassment or realization of the predicament, she stomped the accelerator again and crossed the bridge in a frightful hurry. She made it across okay. I just laid there and thanked God that she had made it.
I got up off the ground and stood holding my head. After feeling the cut on my forehead, I could tell it was bleeding slightly but it was not serious. I walked towards the bridge to inspect it once again. As I approached the bridge, I could see that I had underestimated the river's disposition. The river seemed to have swollen in the short time I had been outside. As I approached the edge, I could see that the river was nearly at the bottom of the metal rails and flowing faster than I could ever remember. I examined every angle of the bridge without getting on it. It seems strong and okay but I could not see the status of the poles below the muddy water line.
After a few minutes of contemplating risking my life for the planned fishing trip, I noticed that the cut was bleeding down my nose. I put my sleeve to by head and walked to the house. As I turned around I could see Bob headed towards me. He had put on his clothes and had a pack in his hand. It was obviously in the mood to be going somewhere and not in the mood to be bothered.
As I approached him with my sleeve to my head, he underhanded a set of keys towards me. The throw was hard and the keys flew at me quickly. The heavy key chain caught me square in the chest and stung enough for my arm to come flying down for belated protection.
"Listen Bob, I am sorry. How was I to know you had that woman in there?" I said in hope of some sort of forgiveness.
He did not respond immediately. He opened the passenger door, entered, and slammed the door closed. Looking straight ahead and ignoring my plea he said "Take me to Marty's now!"
Marty was a high school buddy that lived in town. Bob often stayed there when he was in trouble. It was not a problem that he stayed there. Bob was thirty years old and was free to go where ever he wanted. I just worried about convincing him of questioning the sanity of crossing the bridge at the current time without getting in a fight.
I leaned over to the car and got eye level with him. I stood far enough away that he could not sucker punch me. "Bob I will be glad to take you, but now is not a good time. I think she damaged the bridge." I said tentatively.
"Bull!" he responded without hesitation. Without notice, he swung open the door and caught me in the forehead again. I was knocked back but managed to maintain my balance. The pain was excruciating. He threw his pack to the ground and came at me. I knew that a fight was unavoidable now.
"Wait, we don't need to do this," I shouted as I backed up with hands raised. It did not make a difference. Charging me, he put his head down and came at me as fast as he could run. His head caught me in the chest but somehow I manage to deflect his momentum by turning and he went sprawling to the ground. After a short roll, he got up to his knees and examined his hands. The palms of his hands had caught the gravel and the result was a bleeding mess. He just sat there on his knees staring at his hands. I rushed to his aid hoping to wrap his palms in my shirt. As I approached, he stood up and caught me with a clean upper cut to the chin. The upper cut was followed by a right cross that sent me slumped to the ground.
In my daze, he rifled through my pockets and extracted his keys. All I could do is lay there and collect myself. The mountains and house spun around in my eyesight. Several attempts to stand up resulted in firmly planting my butt on the ground again. In the mean time I could clearly hear him trying to start the car. I rested easy that he would never be smart enough to figure out how to start the car.
To my chagrin, the car started. Once again, the driver floored it and sent gravel to cover my body. I covered my head with both arms to protect myself from the flying debris. As I peaked through my arms I could see the same scenario. Bob hit the first beam and bounced the car at least eight feet over the front of the bridge. The bridge creaked and rocked. As the impala landed squarely, the engine stopped with a discernible clank and I could see Bob struggling with the gearshift and steering column. I stumbled to my feet as the bridge started to waver. As I ran towards Bob I could see that the first two poles were now splintered and virtually not attached.
Without thinking, I leaped over the first few beams and ran up beside the car. "Bob, you have to get out of here now! Screw the car, let it go!" My pleas were ignored as he fiddled with the key and gearshift. His hands were bleeding profusely now and I could tell he needed stitches.
"Bob get out of the car!" I screamed. At least this got a response. He looked at me with pure hatred.
"Up yours! Get out of my face before I kick your butt again!" he exclaimed with a red face. His eyes bulged and hair seemed to stand on end. I had never seen him this angry. I decided to pick another fight in an effort to get him out of the car. The risk of another pounding was worth getting him off the bridge.
"Well if you had told me you were bringing that cow home, none of this would have happened. Next time put a cow bell on her so I will know!" I said disbelieving what I was saying. I knew if this worked I was really going to get creamed. My ploy worked. For a minute Bob just sat there and stopped struggling. I could see the hatred blossom on his face. The rocking of the bridge was very intense now. The ends of the bridge swayed back and forth. I could tell the both pairs of poles on the ends were gone and the center two poles were the only thing supporting the entire structure. I backed away from the door a bit fearing another door encounter. As before he swung open the door and stepped onto the swaying bridge. I decided to take off running towards the house since the door blocked my path to the road, but I did not make it. I do not know if it was the effects of our earlier fight or the swaying of the bridge, but I lost my footing. The result was a cold plunge into the river. The last thing I saw was my brother watching me in disbelief as I was pulled away from him. He never tried to save me. He just stood there and watched me fall.
"Can anyone hear me!" I shouted as I slowly spun in a 360 degree turn. I repeat this and other inquiries several times as I walked. Nobody answered my call. After a while, I found this puzzle to be quite amusing.
"Now come on Victor. Settle down," I said to myself in a joking fashion. I relaxed my arms, stood still, and breathed deeply. A calm, rational approach should find a way out of this place. I remembered Dad telling me long ago how to get out of any maze. All one had to do was put a hand on a wall and just walk without taking the hand off the wall. No matter how complex the maze was, you would eventually make it through. This was a comforting thought and did its part to soothe my growing worry. The objective now is to find a wall. After careful thought, I decided to eliminate the possibility of my walking in circles. I started to walk in a straight line. "I am obviously not outside," so there has to be a wall somewhere," I thought to myself. So I walked for a while. In about 15 minutes of brisk walking, some frustration set in and I started to jog. In another 25 minutes, near panic settled in and I broke into an all out sprint.
"Damn this is a big building," I yelled out of breath. I was running at full speed. I started to tire, but pushed my endurance to the maximum. In a few minutes I collapsed to the floor. As I lay there it did seem that I had not moved an inch. I pounded the floor in frustration and cried out. Was I dead and this was some sort of limbo? This fleeting thought passed through my mind. I immediately dismissed it only to rethink the idea a few seconds later. I dismissed the thought again and decided to rest up before starting to walk again. My original logic was sound and I was going to pursue that line of thought until something better came to mind.
As I sat on the floor catching my breath, I search my pockets to take inventory of what I had. During an initial pat I realized that the pants I had on still have the portable CD player attached to the belt. I flipped it open and sure enough my CD was still in there. Another pat over the inside pocket revealed that the headphones were still where I kept them. I plugged them in and put the head phones on to see if the water had damaged the unit. As I pressed play, I was scared out of my socks. The volume had been pressed to maximum and my ear rang. I immediately threw off the head phones and fumbled for the volume switch. I carefully put the earphones back on and tried it again. It worked and was crystal clear. I leaned on my back and closed my eyes and tried to regain some of my strength.
It was somewhere through the third song that I realized something had changed about the room. At first I wasn't sure but I just stared up towards the ceiling and noticed a change in light. The room became brighter and grayer at the same time. If anything, the room certainly pointed out certain deficiencies in the English language that would not allow me to describe the environment with justice.
The change became so noticeable I finally sat up and swiped the headphone from my ears. Stuffing the phones in my pocket, I slowly looked around. I was careful to examine the smallest detail to see if I could further identify the cause of the change. By this time, the change had become so noticeable I decided to stand up. Now I could hear something. A low hum. A low hum like the sound of an air conditioner running in the far distance. I walked towards what I thought was the source of the light. It only took me a few seconds to see the source of the change.
At the point of actually standing in front of what I saw, I realized that something was not real about this experience. For what I saw could not be real in any sense that I knew. What I saw was a tunnel. The tunnel was swirling slowly. The walls were like marble although the pattern was not static. Instead the pattern swirled and morphed very slowly. Almost too slowly to notice. The tunnel stretched as far as I could see. Inside the tunnel I could see for what seemed to be miles. At the very end was a small light and it seemed that it may be daylight. Although I had gotten closer to the tunnel, the noise had not changed in pitch or volume. It seemed that the low hum was air rushing through the tunnel. To test my theory, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a match. After lighting it, I held it up to the tunnel entrance and the flame flickered out immediately in the direction of the tunnel. This sealed it. The air was flowing into the tunnel and it seem that this was my way out. So I decided to enter.
Slowly I put my hand in and touched the sides. The sides were solid, smooth, and cool to the touch. I ran my hand up and down one side and the warmth of my hand seemed to change the pattern of swirling. It was almost like running you hand through cigarette smoke or steam and watching the clouds dance over your fingers. This struck me as odd, but the structure did seem sound, so I stepped in.
The tunnel seemed small and enclosing, but fortunately it was large enough that I could stand upright and touch both walls at the same time. I started to walk and immediately noticed that my steps had no echo. As a matter of fact, the big timberline boots could not even be heard landing on the floor. I stopped and stomped a few times to test my discovery and, sure enough, no matter how hard I stomped I could not make a sound. After puzzling over this for a moment, I chose to continue. I must have walked for an hour with the tiny little dot not seeming to get any closer. The hour turned into what seemed to be three and I finally saw that the end of the tunnel was getting closer. Continuing to pace myself, I refused to stop and kept the regular pace. At this point I was amazed that the boots had not caused blisters on my feet. It was at this time I realized that I could listen to music and get the monotony out of my head. I put on the head phones, cued up the player, and pressed play. A sudden thought occurred to me that this floor had the potential of having holes in the bottom of it. I changed my walking posture from looking at the light to looking down and making sure I didn't worsen my situation by falling in a hole.
About and hour went by before I realized that the floor was becoming easier and easier to see. I stopped and looked up and noticed that I was suddenly at the precipice of my goal. I was certain that I had not walked that long. Had the end of the tunnel moved? The light at the end of the tunnel was there before me just a few feet away. Swiping the headphones from my head, I instinctively backed up from fear. The light was bright but I did not need to shield my eyes. Instead of the blue light I expected to be coming from the sky, the light was solid white and radiating. This had come up on me so fast I could not ever remember being this startled. I backed up further until something else caught the corner of my eye. Images lined the walls of the tunnel. Hundreds of home-movie-quality images flickered with no sound. Looking at the incredible number of images made me realize that there was no way I had just walked by this. It had just appeared. I examined one of the images a little closer. My amazement had turned to shock. The image I was looking at was of my father and three men lifting a timber onto the bridge that was in front of the house. It was exactly how I remembered it. There was my father as big as life straining against the weight of the pitch treated timber. All of the men were practically covered in the black pitch. My attention turned to another image. The image was of Bob and me fishing on Meyer's Lake when he was just fifteen. We were in a Jon boat. This was the day Bob fell in and I had to jump in after him and put him back in the boat. Other images consisted of Mom, Frank, Betsy, Bob, and a host of other memories that I had long since forgotten. As my head spun trying to examine all of the images, my shock went into terror. I realized that this was not of my world. I now feared the light desperately. I started to run back to my original point.
"Don't be afraid," I heard. I stopped immediately and just stood still with my back to the light. I just froze. Had I imagined this, or had a woman's voice just told me to not be afraid?
I heard again "Don't be afraid, Victor." In a soothing low tone.
Spinning around, I shouted "Who are you?" as I backed up.
"A friend." The voice responded.
It was obvious that the voice was coming from the light but I could not make out anything but white, blinding light. I mustered up a bit of courage after a few moments and responded, "You will have to be a little more specific. I think I would remember a friend with a voice as nice as yours". I followed the remark with a short smile.
A giggle followed. Realizing I was clinching every muscle on my body I tried to relax. The voice said "Yes, that is better. I was beginning to worry about you."
My feelings quickly turned to anger. I had not spent the better part of a day trying to leave this place. I was not going to waste any more time doing small talk to a big light bulb.
"Listen! What is going on here? Who are you? Am I a prisoner? How did you get those movies? Show yourself now and answer some questions!" I shouted at the light.
Once again I was answered with a giggle. "You questions will be answered in time. I can, however, answer one request though." Without warning or introduction, a figure emerged from the light. It was a woman. She was about my height, nearly six feet tall and very slender. She had long blonde hair and a very fair complexion. She was dressed in a white robe and walked very softly towards me in what almost seemed to be a glide. She smiled and seemed somewhat embarrassed.
"Stop right there," I said as I backed up. "Who are you? What am I...,"
I was interrupted in mid sentence by her making the shush motion with a finger to the lips. She moved closer and put her hand on my shoulder.
"I think you know why you are here, don't you?" She stopped and said as she looked straight into my eyes.
It was at that instant I knew the truth. I was dead. There was no question. I had died in the river. It didn't matter how or why. I was dead! I collapsed sobbing to my knees. She followed me down and never took her hand off my shoulder. As I sobbed she once again made the shush motion and moved even closer to comfort me.
"Listen Victor, I know you are thinking of your Mom right now. I also know that you are even concerned about your brother even though he let you go to your death. All I can tell you is that everything in the world you just left will work out just fine. Other than that, I cannot tell you more at this point." She pulled away and stood up. I remained kneeling.
Somehow her words comforted me and I knew she was telling the truth. The rational side of my mind made me realize that I had no choice. Mom always use to say "Never waste time worrying about things you can't control." He was right. There was nothing I could do whether or not she was lying to me. I rose and composed myself. I did know she was telling one truth. I was most certainly dead.
With that question, her face turned to serious in a very subtle way. "Heaven and Hell are not what you have been brought up to believe. Yes there is punishment for evil and reward for good, but not in the ways you would expect. Your life has been judged worthy to proceed to the next level with certain provisions." She paused before pronouncing the last word.
A multitude of questions flooded my consciousness. After I paced and paused for a while, I threw up my hand and asked "Who has been the judge here? And what kind of Provisions? What exactly did I do to warrant provisions?"
She was very calm and collected. It was as if she had done this thousands of times. I got the sense that she knew the questions before they passed through my lips.
"Your evaluation has yielded a favorable recommendation based on the fact that you have a vast history of sacrificing yourself for the benefit of another. The biggest case in point is your life for your mother after your father passed away. This in itself will allow you to pass to the next state of being that awaits on the other side of this light. The provisions can be thought of as a sort of bonus more than a test. You have sacrificed so much, it has been decided that you lack the experience of the realization of self fulfillment." She paused and waited for my response. Once again without moving.
I thought back for some contradiction in what she had just said, but I knew she was right. The endless months of depression were caused by a frustration in not realizing any goals. Always being at the servitude of another was a noble and worthwhile cause, but had left me empty. This provision was becoming more intriguing to me.
I walked towards her and stared directly into her eyes. Whispering, I said "Okay I am at your mercy. I don't have a choice and dare not second guess any being that can control fate. Just please tell me what you want me to do." My tone became more and more defeatist.
"You will be sent back. You are free to live your life however you please. You will remember everything of this experience, but be warned. This will not be a fantasy or dream. Your actions carry significant ramifications on yourself as well as a great number of other people. When you have reached true fulfillment or die you will be returned to this very spot. Remember who you are Victor Walsh and you shall reach your goal. That is the only true secret." She walked the last step to me and kissed me on the cheek. With a softer and friendlier tone she said "Good luck Vick. This is the adventure you have always wanted."
With an abrupt turn she slowly walked back into the light while she smiled and waved. The light seemed to absorb her rather than let her pass through it. Once again, the words fail me.
"What do I do next?" I yelled at the light. I turned back and looked at the long walk back. "Are you going to make me walk all the way back?" Silence answered me. I realized I was right back where I had started. In a mixture of frustration, bewilderment, and puzzlement I began to take the long trek back. Unfortunately, I forgot to watch the floor. I fell into blackness and lost all consciousness.
Stephen Lipscomb is 35 and lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter. Stephen is a Computer Scientist with a Bachelor of Science Degree. He has written his own instructional booklet on running a lawn service. Stephen is currently branching out to writing in the fiction/adventure genre.
Stephen can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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