Night Watchman


Night moves at a different pace than the day, not slower or faster, but wider, or narrower, I’m not sure how to describe it.  It’s as if each night takes long enough to reveal whatever it has to reveal.  It’s the way the dark can feel infinite and claustrophobic at the same time, its endlessness pressing down on you.

I rise in the dark.   Out here, in the country, beyond the town limits, there are no streetlights.   I put my uniform on and join the rest of the people working in the night, people baking bread, occupying toll booths, lifting and lowering gates, driving 18 wheelers on the interstate.   We wake and we work for those who are sleeping.   Our real job is to be unnoticed, to get our work done without disturbing them while they sleep, so they wake up refreshed and well rested, with their morning papers on their doorstep and their freight delivered.

Tonight when I start my rounds, before I make it into town, it’s cloudy and black and still.   It’s still March, too early for the summer chorus of crickets, and there is no moon for the coyotes to yip and yap at.  You’d think that by now I’d be used to nights like this, but I still feel apprehension as I make my way past the silent fields and woods and farms and into the lighted streets of town.

On the west side, my first stop is Bob’s rental.   The gates to the wire fence that encloses the yard are chained and padlocked, and the door to the store is locked and secure.  Bob is an ornery and cranky old fart, but I like him.   Before I took the night shift, he’d been hit three times in four months. 

Then I patrol the neighborhood near the elementary school.   There is the occasional porch or yard light left on.   I pass where Jack lives.  Tonight they remembered to shut the garage door, I don’t know how many times he’s left it open.  I’ve told him over and over, you may as well be extending a written invitation to criminals, just because you haven’t been hit yet doesn’t mean you’re not going to be.  I shouldn’t waste my time or breath, though, because he just doesn’t listen.   I may as well talk to the wall.

After I check out the school and the auto parts store and the junkyard, I make my way down Main Street.  It’s after two now, all the bars are closed.   At the furniture store they forgot to turn off the lights again, I don’t know who they have closing but it’s the third time in the past week.  I make a note of it in my log.

At about three thirty I check out the lumber yard.  I stop on the west side of the wire chain link fence that surrounds it and pour a cup of coffee from my thermos and pull the roast beef and cheese sandwich from the brown paper bag.    I take a sip and from the corner of my eye, I detect movement, shifting shadows, from the stacks of treated four by fours in the middle of the yard.  I walk over to check it out, moving in and out of the yard lights, and as I approach the four by fours, I sense movement behind me, and as I turn I see more movement, the dark trace of shadows shifting and dissolving on the black pavement.    I finger the butt of my piece in its holster.   Then I think I hear something, and I pivot, and behind me, on a stack of two by fours, I see a splash of blood, and a feeling something like déjà vu and something like dread overwhelms me, until I realize it isn’t blood at all but the red dash of lettering they stamp on the ends of each board.   Then I hear a crash of something falling over from the north side of the yard.  I draw my revolver and put a stack of two by fours between me and where I heard the sound come from, and I can hear the rustle of something moving, it’s only about 10 yards from me, and I pull the hammer back on my revolver and step out of the shadows into the light.  “Halt!” I yell, my pistol cocked and aimed at the bundle of meshed gardening fence that had been knocked over, and then I see movement, this time three dimensional, not just shadows, and I see two yellow eyes glowing at me from the darkness, and I realize my hardened criminal is a stray cat, and I lower my gun, my heart still pounding, sweat on my brow.  I am relieved and I try to laugh it off, but then my eyes detect another splash of blood, this one the red stamps on a stack of two by sixes, and I know it is nothing but red ink, but I have difficulty processing that, I can’t get the image of blood splashed and stained across a stack of fresh lumber out of my mind.

It’s four thirty as I leave the lumber yard, and I have one last stop to finish my rounds.  It’s on the southern outskirts of town, on a dead end street.  As I approach, the two story house is dark.   I check out the perimeter, the yard, the tool shed, the garage, and then I check the doors.  They are all locked, the windows are all shut.  I silently enter.  I make my way up the stairs.  It’s a big house for her, with her children all grown now, to live in alone.  She is in bed, lying on her side like she always did with one leg under the covers and one sticking out.  My eyes are used to the dark, and I can tell she is wearing a blue t-shirt, her brown hair spread out across her pillow.  She is breathing, soft and rhythmically.  Her eyes are closed, and she looks so calm and content and peaceful.  I want so badly to lean over and touch her, to kiss her on the cheek, but I can’t, she’d be afraid, she wouldn’t understand, that I still love her, that I’ll always love her, and that I could never hurt her, and even though we aren’t together anymore, I will still look out for her, I will protect her.  It’s what I do.

The clock radio on the headboard says it is five fifteen.   My shift is over, and the sun will be up in less than an hour.  I let myself out and head for home.   It’s starting to warm up.  The grass is thick with dew, and I can hear the waking sound of the first of the morning songbirds.   I’m tired as a faint pink line lights up the eastern horizon.  It’s just bright enough for me to make out my name on the stone.  I’m home, and it’s time to sleep again.

 

 

If the Fates Allow


(I’m going to quickly post this overly sentimental  short story before I come to my senses ….)

He sat in his recliner in the glow of the lights of the Christmas tree, listening to the radio, sipping the Crown Royal and 7-Up he had poured himself.  He wasn’t in the habit of drinking alone, but it was Christmas Eve.   Outside it was dark and cold.  It had snowed about a week before; about two inches was left on the ground.  The package sat wrapped in plain brown paper under the tree.

The radio was playing Christmas songs.    Between songs the deejay would give an update on Santa Claus’s status.   It felt like a long time since Santa Claus had played a role in his Christmas.  From beyond his door he could hear the pounding of little feet running up and down the hallway.   Those little Williams boys are worked up tonight, he thought.   And why shouldn’t they be, it’s the night before Christmas.  They were annoying and wild and disruptive as ever, but tonight he felt pity and hoped for the best for them.  They’re not so bad, he thought, they’re just little kids.   He hoped their father would remain sober long enough for them to have the Christmas every kid deserved.  He thought about his own son and model trains and hot wheels and matchbox cars, and the old house, then he closed his eyes and thought about the house he grew up in, the Christmases of his childhood, and the endless bounty that would lie under the tree in the grey light of the early Christmas morning, and his Mom, and his Dad.

He opened his eyes and saw the small tree with the single solitary package wrapped in plain brown paper underneath it.  He could hear the wind gusting outside and suddenly he felt cold and alone.  He emptied his drink and went to the kitchen counter and poured himself another.  He looked at the clock on the stove.  It was a quarter past eleven.  Forty five more minutes.  He had promised himself that he’d wait until it was Christmas.  Staying up wasn’t a problem; after all, he could sleep late in the morning.

He looked out the window to the parking lot, three stories down.   The moon was shining on the snow and reflecting off of the parked cars.  It looked cold and barren outside.   There’s something about a cold winter night that makes you appreciate being home, warm and with no place you had to go.  Home.   This was home now, this downtown three room apartment on the third floor.   He swished the drink in its glass, making the ice cubes rattle.  He raised his glass and softly said out loud, “Here’s to home”, and then he took a long drink.

He sat back down in his recliner.  The radio was between songs, and the deejay was giving a weather report.  He became aware of the silence from down the hallway and the absence of little feet in the hallway.  The Williams boys must finally be in bed.  Now if that drunk of a father and that sow of a mother got their act together, they’d be getting the presents out, setting them under the tree, getting everything ready for that magical morning.    He waited to hear them fighting again, because that would be just like them, fighting on Christmas Eve, too stupid to realize how important this night was.  Those boys, those bratty and obnoxious boys, who rode their bikes too close last fall and scratched his car, who were always running up and down the stairs, actually knocking him over that one time, if he hadn’t had a firm grasp of the railing he would have surely tumbled all the way down.  They had no decent upbringing, they were only seven and five, and their Mom couldn’t be bothered with them, holed up in her apartment all day, probably eating, while their Dad was out all the time, probably drinking.  What a pair, he thought, her eating and him drinking – they were made for each other.   Stupid kids are what they are.  Stupid kids who were raising stupid kids.  He waited to hear them fighting, but there was nothing.

He then looked at the display case he had built.  He was proud of the work, of his craftsmanship, of the wood inlays and the glass paneled doors that opened and shut.  It was a quarter to twelve now, only fifteen minutes before he could open the package from Handelman’s engravers.    He was getting excited now, and he went to the closet.   He was shaking when he took the duffel bag out.   He hadn’t looked at it in months, since he had the idea, since he ordered the engraving, since he talked to the owner of the land, since before he began working on the display case in the shop at work.

The radio had quit playing Christmas songs and was now broadcasting some news show.  A man’s voice droned on and on.  Down the hallway it was still quiet.    He became aware, as he removed the Louisville Slugger from the bag, that he couldn’t stop thinking about how quiet it was.   He took out the glove and the small case that held the ball with Robin Yount’s signature on it.  He looked at the package, then at the display case he had built, but his mind was still preoccupied with the couple down the hall.  He wondered if they were still awake.   He went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway.   Down the hall, under their doorway, he could see a sliver of light.  They were still up.

He went back inside his apartment.  Suddenly, for the first time, he questioned his plans.  Why a memorial?   Who was it for?    What would it change?  He looked at the clock on the stove.   It was five minutes before midnight.   He didn’t have time to answer these questions, to think these things through.  His gut was telling him what to do now.   He put the items back in the duffel bag and in what felt like the same motion, he went down the hallway.    He gently knocked on the door.   The father opened it; he was wearing a two day growth of whiskers and a ratty flannel shirt, but he appeared to be sober.

“Oh, hello”, the father cautiously greeted.

“I’m sorry to disturb you”, he muttered.  “May I come in?  It’ll only take a second.”

“Sure, sure”, he said.  Beckoning to his wife, he said “Honey, it’s Mr. Johnson, from down the hall.”  She got up from where she was kneeling under the tree.

“Merry Christmas”, she said.  Apprehension leaked out of her forced smile.

“Merry Christmas”, he replied.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your Christmas Eve, but I was going through some old things, and I thought maybe your sons would enjoy them.   Lord knows I’ll get no use out of them”  He handed the duffel bag to the father.  “It’s just some baseball stuff, a bat and a glove and a ball.”

“Thank you”, the father said, starting to go through the things.

“I hope they like baseball.   They’re getting to that age.”

“Oh, they do, or, they will”, the father said.  Examining the ball, he said “Who’s Robin Ount?”

“Yount”, he corrected, his opinion of the man as a moron now confirmed.  He was just about to explain when the mother interjected,

“Robin Yount, you must have heard of him, dear.  He was a famous Milwaukee Brewer.”

“Oh, right, right, Robin Yount”   It was pathetically unconvincing.

“Mr. Johnson”, she said, “thank you so much, but we couldn’t take these things.  That ball is probably worth some money.”

“No, no, please take it.  I’d rather see the bat and glove come to some use.  I think your boys would enjoy it.  As for the ball, please, do with it what you want.”

“But we couldn’t”

“You don’t understand.  These were things I bought for my son, a long time ago.  He never got to use them.   So please, it’d mean so much to me to see your boys playing with them next spring.  Please.”  He became aware of the tears that were beginning to form behind his eyes.

“I don’t know what to say.  Let us pay you something.”   Her eyes were moist now.

“Don’t even think about that.  This is a Christmas gift.  To your boys”

They thanked him, and offered him some hot chocolate.   He was surprised to see that that was all the father was drinking.  Maybe they got it after all, he thought, even if the husband was too stupid to know who Robin Yount is, maybe they understood what he didn’t all those years ago, that Christmases are numbered.   He declined their offer and they exchanged pleasant good nights.

He went back to his apartment.  Satisfied and content, he went to bed and slept soundly.  Under his small Christmas tree, the plain brown package from Handelman’s engravers remained unopened.

Snow at Christmas


(Another experiment with short fiction – a first draft, not sure if I have something or not)

December is cold and gray and black.  Days are shorter and nights are longer, and we become nocturnal creatures, living in the dark.  Days and nights blur and blend and run into each other.  But December is also Christmas, and Christmas is a promise.   Snow is a hope.   There’s something about snow at Christmas.

That year it hadn’t snowed at all until two nights before.  It was cold, in the mid teens.   We were downtown, walking on the sidewalks, finishing our shopping.  Christmas music was playing through loudspeakers, “Silver Bells” when it started to come down.   At first the flakes fell big and soft and slow, sticking to the sidewalk, shining and glistening like stardust in the glow of the streetlights.  Then it came faster and harder and steadier, coating the sidewalks, the ground a blanket of white.  It was getting late, but neither one of us was tired.  We went into the all night diner and sat in a booth next to a window.  We took our coats off and laid them alongside our bags on the benches next to us.   She ordered a coffee, me a hot chocolate, and we each ordered a sandwich.  We settled in, warming up and laughing and watching the snow pile up outside, watching the dwindling crowds with their collars turned up and stocking caps on.     

As we waited for our food, I became immersed in reading the back cover jackets of the paperbacks I had bought at the used book store.   I was reading the blurbs on the inside copy of Catch-22 I had purchased for my younger brother when I happened to look up at her face.  She looked distracted and sad.  I pretended not to notice and looked back down at the book, and then back up at her again.   She was looking at the diner’s counter, where a few random stragglers sat.  When she looked down at her coffee, I snuck a glance, and I saw him.  I recognized him right away.  I looked at the book , pretending I was still reading, and snuck another look back up at her, and caught her looking at him again.  From the corner of my eye I could make out movement from where he was sitting.  He was getting up, putting his coat on.   I put my head down, and as he walked by us, I looked up, and she was looking at him.  It was only for a moment, I saw their eyes meet, I saw the look in her eyes, and I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew.

I watched him walk out the door, not caring any more about whether she saw me or not. Through the window I watched him move silently down the white blanket on the sidewalk.   When he was out of sight, I stopped watching, and looked at her, and she was looking at me, her eyes wide and wet, and it took no more than a split second for us to process the information we now both knew.  At the same time the waitress arrived with our food.  As she put it on the table, we sat there in stoned silence, and I looked out the window, up at the street lights, at the snow swirling and tumbling like a white kaleidoscope, my insides spinning and turning and churning the blend of cold hurt and white rage that consumed me. 

She tried to talk, tried to explain, but there was no explanation.  I just sat there, dipping French fries into the puddle of ketchup I had poured on my plate, processing the betrayal, barely hearing her inadequate reasons.   She was crying when the waitress finally brought the check.   I pulled some paper out of my wallet, still silent, refusing to speak, as we put our coats on.

“Talk to me”, she kept saying, begging, pleading, “please, just talk to me.  Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Then we were outside.  The air was cold and crisp.  The streets were nearly empty now. Everything was a smooth and pure blanket of white.   “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was playing through the speakers.   The wind had picked up and would gust and stop.

We turned down 57th street, into the wind.  She was still pleading with me to talk to her, and she kept saying she was sorry.   A strong gust blew into our faces as she said, “please, don’t treat me like this.”  The wind was cold and icy.  I felt it fill my lungs and I felt my arm rise up, and then I saw, in the street light’s glow, on the silent and white blanket at my feet, three small red circles.   I don’t know how long I stood there, cold and frozen and motionless, staring at the three red circles, but when I looked up she was gone.   I looked down again, and even though the snow and wind had covered up the three red dots, I could still see them, and I see them now, all these years later, whenever I see a fresh blanket of snow under the glow of downtown streetlights.

That Would Be Nice


(I’ve been in a fiction writing mood lately, and this scene came to me tonight)

Her breathing had become soft and shallow, and her eyelids heavy.   Rays of the evening sun shone brightly through the picture window.   The little square fan he had positioned in the small windowsill across from her labored steady and inadequate, softly pushing the stale hot air through the room and to her bed, causing a slight but rhythmic waving of the stray strand of iron grey hair that rested on her cheek.  He was sitting in his favorite chair, positioned at her bedside.

“Can I get you anything?”, he asked.

“No, no, don’t bother.”   Her voice was soft and weak.

“It’s no bother”, he insisted.  “How about a glass of lemonade?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Are you sure?  I was just going to fix a glass for myself.”

“Well, if you’re going to fix one for yourself anyway, sure, I’ll have a glass”

“With some ice?”

“That would be nice.”

He smiled and got up and went to the kitchen.  Alone in the living room, she could hear the drone of the fan, steady and soft but strong enough to drown out the ticking of the grandfather clock.  The sunlight was starting to fade and the early evening shadows were lengthening.  It was still hot and humid, but somehow, if only for the moment, between the fan’s hum and the cool darkness of the shadows, a sense of contented comfort overcame her.  In that moment, she looked across the room and saw the familiar bookshelves, the grandfather clock, the lamps and furniture, and the framed photos of children and grandchildren that were hung on the wall or propped up on end tables. In the half light of sunlight and darkening shadows, with the hum of the fan as the soundtrack, she felt a profound sense of beauty and peace, and there was no pain.  She was centered, in the world her lifetime had created, and the quiet familiarity of her surroundings was suddenly extremely satisfying.

He came back into the room with two tall glasses of lemonade, ice cubes jangling as he walked.  He set one on the night stand next to her bed, and leaned over to turn on the lamp.

“Leave it off”, she said.  “It’s nice and cool without the light”

He sat back in his chair and took a long sip from his glass.  She leaned forward and gripping her glass with two unsteady hands, slowly raised it to her lips and took a gentle sip, tilting the glass far enough back to let ice cubes brush her lip.  She held the sip, cold and tart, in her mouth for a moment before swallowing it.  It was just a swallow, but it was wonderful, as she felt its refreshing cold travel deep down inside her.  She couldn’t help it as a broad smile formed upon her face as she returned the glass to the night stand.

He saw her smile and he couldn’t help but smile, too.   He started to say something but he stopped, and they sat there, in the warm shadows of the early evening, silent with fading but contented smiles. 

She looked around the room again, then into his eyes.

“John?”, she said.

“Yes?”

“Do you think tomorrow we could go for a ride?”

He leaned forward in his chair.  She hadn’t wanted to get out of the house for weeks and he wasn’t sure she’d be strong enough.  At this point, he didn’t even know if he’d be able to get her into the wheelchair.

“Sure, sure we could. Where would you like to go?”

“I think I’d like to go by 18th Avenue and drive by our first apartment.”

“I’d like that very much,” he said.  “I haven’t been by there for the longest time.”

“We could stop and walk through the park, like we used to.  Then maybe we could stop and have lunch at Buster’s.   They always had such good lunches.  Do you think we could do that, John?” 

She looked tired, but tranquil and content, as the deepening shadows moved across her face.   

 “Of course we could”, he said.  “That would be nice.”

Highway Q


(Note:  this is quite a departure for me – a work of pure fiction.   I honestly don’t know what to make of it, I suspect it is quite mediocre.  Any comments would be welcome)

He was walking down County Highway Q, just west of where it intersects with State Highway 15 and bends sharply to the south, where it catches the shoreline of the river and runs west, following the river’s north bank.  He walked along the grassy edge of the road, pleasantly surprised at how warm it was for early November.  He unzipped his light spring jacket and filled his lungs with the brisk fresh air, content to be outside on such a day, enjoying the rolling, picaresque scenery.  Looking up river, he could see a bridge, wide and flat, crossing the river and dominating the landscape.  A half hour later, he came to the point where the highway curved and crossed the bridge.  Leaves curled at his feet, as the midday breeze blew crisp and cool.  The bridge was wide, with a lane for walkers and bicyclists, and slightly longer than a football field.  The river flowed beneath it, slow and blue, reflecting the cloudless late autumn sky.  About halfway down the bridge, he could make out the shape of a woman, sitting in the pedestrian lane with something in her hands.   He started walking across.

As he got closer, he could make out a sketch pad on the woman’s lap, and he could begin to make out her features.  She had long, flowing dark hair and pale skin and dark eyes.  The blue, quilted flannel jacket she wore was loose fitting yet somehow revealed that she was thin and shapely underneath.    The closer he got the more perfect she appeared.   As he approached her, she looked up from her sketch pad and smiled broadly at him.  He looked over the bridge, to the west, to see what she was drawing.   Ahead the river curved to the left, the south, and the trees that lined the shore had already lost most of their leaves.  The few that remained defiantly burned bright and vivid shades of orange and yellow, their colors reflected in the slow water below.

“Hi,“ he said.

“Hi,” she replied, subconsciously covering her open sketchbook with her right arm, while her left hand brushed her hair back out of her face.  He looked out over the side of the bridge to the western horizon.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said

“It sure is”, she agreed, closing the sketchbook.

“You picked a beautiful scene to draw.”

“Thanks”, she said.  “It’s one of my favorite places.  I like to come here at different times of the day and draw the shadows.”

“Mind if I have a look?” he asked, gesturing to the sketchbook.

“Oh, no, no, I couldn’t”, she said, blushing.  “I’m really not very good.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that bad.  Just a quick glance?”

“No, no, seriously, I couldn’t.”  He realized she was genuinely embarrassed and he didn’t push the issue.  He put her to be in her early to mid 20s, and he was in his early 40s.  There was just enough age difference for him to make her feel uncomfortable, to come across as creepy if he pushed things.  He didn’t want that, he just wanted to drink her in, to appreciate her, because she was stunning. 

“Okay, that’s okay, I understand”, he smiled.   “I won’t press the issue.”

“Thanks”

“Do you live around here?”, he asked.

“Not anymore”, she replied.   She was looking at the other side of the river, squinting, toward the southern shore, watching intently.  The wind was stronger in the middle of bridge and it blew her hair back. He zipped his jacket up and turned to see what she was looking at.   He could see a man walking down the road, approaching the bridge.

“Who’s that?”, he asked

“That’s my boyfriend”, she answered.  “He’s bringing me some lunch.”

“Oh, how nice”, he replied, his heart silently collapsing.   “I suppose I’d better get going, then.  It was very nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you, too”, she smiled.

He stared intently for only a split second, trying to mentally photograph her face and file it away in his brain.  She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He said goodbye and then he continued crossing the bridge.  He was almost to its end when he passed the boyfriend, short, stocky and muscular, with thick brown hair and dull eyes.   As they passed, they wordlessly nodded in acknowledgement, neither one breaking his stride.

Then he was on the other side, the south side, walking west parallel to the river, down Highway Q.  The wind picked up out of the north and blew colder.  Ahead the trees thickened and formed a canopy of leafless branches that covered the highway.  He walked for about two miles down the road.  The afternoon sky darkened as clouds blew in out of the west, until it was steely shades of November grey.  Dusk was approaching when he came to the driveway leading to a clearing to the left.

He stopped and looked down the gravel driveway and saw that it quickly faded into a lawn that had been cut out of the surrounding trees, long grass that was covered by fallen leaves.  Back a few hundred yards from the road there was a large and plain two storied farm house.  Its white paint had faded and lost its luster, and was peeling in places.  In the dimming light of the late afternoon, its windows were black.  No lights were turned on.  He couldn’t tell if anyone was home or not.  He felt a tightening ache in his thighs and his feet were uncomfortable.  He had been walking for the better part of four hours.  He walked up the driveway to see if there was anybody home.

As he approached the house, the sand and gravel under his feet fading and giving way to weedy grass,   an older woman, probably in her early sixties, stepped out of the front door on to the raised porch to greet him.

“May I help you?”, she asked.

“Yes, I was wondering if I could use your phone.”, he said.

“Sure, no problem.   Something the matter?”

“No, no”, he replied.   He suddenly felt disoriented.   “I just had some car trouble up the road a bit.”

“Well, come on in”, she offered.  He walked up the steps, and she held the door open for him and waited for him to enter.  “Getting dark earlier and earlier”, she said, as she flicked on the switch that powered the overhead light in the living room.  The room was neat and clean, the furniture traditional farm house furniture, just what one would expect from an elderly woman living in the country.  The floors were dark hardwood, with a braided rug under the coffee table that separated a couch from a love seat and a recliner and an end table.   The tables had lace doilies and country themed craft candles, the end table had a lamp with a yellow shade over it.  The walls were decorated with water color farm landscapes and small framed black and white photos of family members.  On the far wall, there was a fireplace and a mantle, above hung a larger framed oil portrait.  He hadn’t processed the image yet when the woman said, “Here’s the phone”, and pointed him to a wall mount.  It was a rotary phone, the kind you dialed by putting your fingers in the holes for the numbers.  He hadn’t seen one like it for as long as he could remember.  He didn’t think, more than a decade into the 21st century, they existed anymore.

She handed him the receiver, and, just before he began dialing, he looked again at the portrait hanging over the fireplace.  He immediately recognized the subject of the painting as the woman on the bridge, the same long black hair and pale skin, the same lovely dark eyes, the same amazing smile. 

“Excuse me”, he asked.

“Yes?” the lady answered.

“Who is that painting of?”

“Why, that’s my daughter, Emily”, she replied.

“I just met her”, he said.  “On the bridge”

“Oh, she must be drawing again.  She loves the view from there.”

“That’s what she said.”  Then he remembered that she said she doesn’t live around here anymore.  “So she must be visiting.”

“Visiting?”

“Yes, she must be visiting home.”

“I don’t know what you mean.  She lives here.”

He thought, I must have really creeped her out, if she didn’t want to tell me where she lived.  “Well, it’s a lovely painting.  You have a beautiful daughter, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Oh, I don’t mind.  We’re used to it.  She was always the pretty one.   But I’m sorry to tell you – she’s taken.”

“Taken?”

“Yes, she’s engaged to be married.”

“Oh, yes, I think I met her fiancé.  He was bringing her lunch”

“That would be Paul”, she nodded.  “Paul Hansen.” He detected a sour expression on her face, however slight, and suspected that the woman did not approve of her daughter’s fiancé.  “You were going to make a phone call?”

“Yes, that’s right.”  He had been standing with the receiver in his hand, absent minded while discussing the girl who he now knew was named Emily.   He turned his attention to the phone, and again he felt confused and disoriented.   He tried to remember the number he was going to dial, but he was drawing a blank.  For some reason, none of the digits were coming to him.  As he tried to clear his mind, he noticed there was no dial tone coming from the phone.  He tapped the on hook button, trying to reset the dial tone, but to no avail.

“It’s dead”, he told the lady.

“What?”

“The phone.  It appears to be dead.”

“Let me see.”  He handed her the phone, and she tried tapping it on-hook and resetting it, but with no luck.  “That’s odd.”

“Do you have any neighbors that I could try?”

“Only the Johnson’s, the next farm over, but I’m afraid they’ve already left for Florida.  They’re retired, snowbirds, you know how it is.  There is a bar, Schmidt’s, about a mile and a half down the road.   I’m sure they have a phone.”

“That would work.”  He noticed that it had gotten dark outside.

“I’d give you a ride, but I’m afraid my husband has the car.”

“No problem, I can walk”

She offered him something to eat, but he politely declined.   He wanted to get someone out to look at his car before it got too late.   He certainly wasn’t a mechanic, especially on these new Hybrid cars.  He just hoped he could find a Toyota dealership somewhere in the area that might have some expertise on his 2009 Prius.

On the porch, on his way out, he thanked the woman, and stepped out into the night.  It was cold and pitch black out as he found his way back to the road, County Highway Q.  Through the darkness he couldn’t see, he could only sense the river that flowed to his right.  Clouds filled the sky, so there was no moon, and no stars.   He couldn’t even see the canopy of branches that covered the road.  There was only thick and heavy darkness pressing down on him.

Finally, in the distance ahead, he could make out a faint white light.   As he walked on, it slowly got brighter, till he could see it was a solitary street light, and he could make out the silhouettes of parked cars beneath it, then the neon glow of a Budweiser sign, and he knew he was approaching Schmidt’s tavern.

As he got closer, the light grew brighter, and things took shape.  He could make out three or four pickup trucks and an SUV in the parking lot.  Schmidt’s was a typical small northwoods tavern; its lights shone through the windows and radiated welcoming warmth.  As he walked up the steps to the bar’s entrance, he could hear the warm and familiar sounds of country western music and men laughing.  Just as he was about to grab it’s handle, the front door swung open, and two heavy set men walked out.   He stepped aside and let them pass before he stepped in.

Surveying the horseshoe shaped bar, he saw on the right side, four men, sitting together with the bartender, who was leaning into them from behind the bar.  They were in the middle of an animated discussion about something, and none of them looked up as he walked in.  On the left side, at the far end of the bar, sitting and brooding by himself, he recognized the girl’s boyfriend, Paul Hansen.  He looked miserable, like he was already drunk.  Recognizing a familiar face, he took a seat a couple of stools down, just as the jukebox stopped playing.

“Hi, Paul”, he offered.

Hansen looked up, surprised to see the man he had passed on the bridge.

“You!”, he grunted.  “How do you know my name?”

“I talked to Emily’s Mom”

“How do you know her?”, he demanded, loudly.

“I, I just met her.”

“Emily said she’d never seen you before” There was accusation in his voice.

“She hadn’t”.   He looked across the bar to see if he could get the bartender’s attention.  The bartender was still absorbed in the conversation with the other guys.

“Bartender?”  He tried to get his attention.

“You tell me how you know Emily”, Paul was demanding.  Paul was beginning to piss him off.  “Tell me”, Paul loudly insisted.

 “Go fuck yourself”, he told Paul, then, turning his attention back across the bar, he asked even louder, “Bartender?”

He didn’t notice Paul getting off of his stool, he was more interested in what the fuck was so interesting that the bartender couldn’t even acknowledge him.

“He went right off the road, at that big curve on Highway Q, right after you get off of 15”, one of the guys was saying.  “Little shit hybrid Prius”

He felt his heart accelerate and then he felt Paul’s hands, one on each of his shoulder, turn him around and pull him off his stool.  He didn’t fall, he stood there clumsily, face to face with Paul.

“You tell me how you know Emily”, he was screaming.   He pushed one of Paul’s hands off of him, but faster than he could comprehend; Paul had grabbed him again, and now was pulling him to the wall, where in a display case a yellowing newspaper clipping hung.  “Look!  Look!” Paul demanded.

The newspaper clipping was a front page, from March 21, 1977.  “Hansen Convicted of Murder”, the headline read, and he could see the head shot photos of Emily and Paul, side by side.  He quickly read the story about how, on November 8, 1976, Paul had thrown Emily over the County Highway Q Bridge.  Hansen had pleaded the insanity defense, claiming he had seen Emily talking to an unidentified stranger, and lost his mind in a jealous rage.   No one else was able to corroborate the existence of the stranger.  The article went on to say that the prosecutor was going to seek the death penalty. 

Everything was spinning now, Hansen, the newspaper article, the bartender and the other four guys, one of whom was saying, “We got there within 10 minutes.  He was already dead when we found him.   They had to call his wife from down state to identify the body.  She should be up at the morgue by now.”  The spinning accelerated, he was dizzy, and then everything went black.

Sobbing, his wife nodded yes, it was him, and the coroner put the sheet back over his face.