There was an accident downtown last week. The story is that a diesel truck ran a red light and t-boned a city bus. My boy was on that bus just like he was supposed to be.
“They keep saying he won’t come back, but I know he will.” He has to.
As I fall into my wheelchair, I worry if that’s one decision I should have changed. My nurse, Jeanine, pulls the lever on the wheel, releasing the brake. I don’t need to see the pitiful worry on her face to know it’s there. It always is.
If not for the headstones, the thick green grass of the cemetery might remind me of the last golf course I was on. It’s been more than a year since I played. The last time was with Henry, one of my two good friends from the Home. Well, they call it a home but it’s not. Home never had nurses making me roll over every two hours or strangers assigned to keep track of my every bowel movement, but I digress.
Henry dragged me onto the course with him even though I didn’t want to go. He’d said, “Golf is relaxing, Gerry. You need to relax.”
Henry used golf to unwind. I remember that morning, he was out of sorts because he’d talked to his granddaughter on the phone; the two had argued over something and Henry hung up on her. Somewhere near the third hole, Henry said he was going to call and apologize. In the meantime he was on fire and thought, like every good golfer, that the call might throw off his game. At the fourth hole came the heart attack. Poor guy was dead before his knees hit the green. Left stains on his best trousers.
Henry didn’t plan on dying that day. He was a good man who didn’t see death coming. That’s the way life is, I guess. Feels endless as we walk through then, in a blink, it’s passed us by. I am not like Henry. I am not a good man and I am cursed with the knowledge of exactly when Death will come for me. Only a few more days. When my boy comes back, it’ll be my turn to go. I’m not looking forward to it, but it’s better than any of the alternatives.
The groundskeeper is making the rounds here at the cemetery. His riding mower weaves through the rows of stones, passing a compact car parked near the memorial cannon that’s two rows back from Carrie’s plot. My eyes catch on a tall man with dark hair and a short, neat beard. Looks like he’s standing over my daughters’ marker. The last time I came by there were wilting wildflowers resting against her headstone. I know her brother never visits. After all these years, the pain is still too fresh. Guilt rarely loses potency, though. So I asked the groundskeeper to call me when the man came back because I wanted to know who’s been leaving flowers for her and why.
It’s a lot of work to get out of the car, but eventually, I get to my feet. “I’ll be right back, Jeanine.”
“Twenty minutes, Mr. Springer.” She reminds from the drivers’ seat between bites of her burrito.
Jeanine was kind enough to ask me along on her lunch break today. She feels bad for me because I’m old. She thinks I’m all alone in this world. I agreed to come, even though she’s wrong because I needed to get here before the mystery man left the cemetery. I was gonna take the bus, but Jeanine insisted. One of the perks of being an old fart.
The bottom of my cane presses into the grass, sinking the rubber end into the soft soil. The suction pops when I lift it—no, that’s my hip. My legs aren’t so dependable today, progress is slow and noisy.
The man is hunching over, hiding his face as his shoulders shake. Two rows away, I realize this man is no stranger.
“Elijah? Is that you?” I ask, though I’m sure it’s him. “Boy, what are you doing here?”
He turns to me wiping his wide eyes. “Mr. Springer, sir? I’m sorry. I should go.”
I haven’t seen him in years. I forgot how fidgety and irritating he can be. “I don’t own the place. You’re free to come and go as you please.” Her stone is laden with fresh flowers. I use my cane to point. “I wanted to know who was leaving those and told the groundskeeper to call me. He said you come at least once a month to see her?”
He shakes his head. I wait for him to speak, but his eyes wander.
“It doesn’t look like you’re going to volunteer an explanation as to why you’re visiting my girl’s grave, but I’m demanding one. Why are you here, Elijah?”
“I’m running late, so—”
“Not only does he cry like a girl, he runs like one, too.” The comment’s out of line but it’s alright because the boy halts his retreat.
“I’m old, not blind. I saw you from over there.” I point back at Jeanine’s car. “I’ve been watching you, trying to figure out why the hell you’d be here. Carrie was only three so it’s not like you two were close. Tell me what you’re sorry for, Elijah.”
His chin trembles as his fingers play with the pencil thin tie over his shirt buttons. “How is your health, sir?”
“Well enough to know your explanation isn’t going to kill me. I don’t need pleasantries, just spit it out.”
He nods, real twitchy, mumbling and wiping his palms on his pants. “I have been coming here once a month. Every first Thursday lately, because my work schedule changed. Before that, it was every first Tuesday.”
The cemetery clears away the flowers every Tuesday. That explains why I never noticed before. “For how long?”
“Years. I’m so sorry.” He whimpers.
“I hate Thursdays. Do you know what you were doing that Thursday night before it happened, around seven-thirty in the evening?”
“That’s rhetorical, right? I can’t remember breakfast.”
“Well, I know where I was, what I was doing.” His voice cracks. He stops, takes a deep breath, and plays with his tie some more. “I was standing on a lawn chair using a hammer to pry a street sign from the post. You know the one: diamond shaped, yellow, read, ‘Not a through Street.’”
I shake my head. Another one. “How many of you kids are gonna torture yourselves over that damned drunk driver?”
Elijah’s hands clutch the front of his button up shirt, tugging as if he’s trying to physically remove the cloth along with the pain. “I’m sorry.”
How well I recognize that suffocating shame . . . it’s just too bad that I can’t do anything about it. “Son, you’ve been holding onto this for nearly twenty years? What makes you think anything I say could relieve your precious guilt?”
He mumbles something about ‘all this’ and ‘fault,’ but I don’t quite catch it. The waste and anger in seeing him here makes me deaf to his cause.
“You know, my boy thinks it was his fault because he was with her that day and didn’t see it happen. His mother—God rest her soul—thought she was at fault for having to work to put food on the table, for not being with her baby. I thought it was mine, because I was her father and I was supposed to protect her.”
Elijah has eyes the same color as his hair: dark brown. They widen until I’m sure I can see all the way into his soul. There are secrets buried there. Intelligence, too, but when he responds its all naiveté. “How could it be your fault? You weren’t even there.”
“Neither were you. It was that worthless driver—he was the one drinking at ten in the morning. So, it’s not your fault for taking down some damned street sign that no one even knew was missing.” I have to calm down. Talking about it gets me worked up. “I forgave that piece of garbage and I’d forgive you, too, if there were any need for it.”
His confession reminds me so much of young Gerry. The boy who thought he killed his sister. I am as sure now as I was then, that some of lifes’ most painful events are the ones that shape us—make us who we are destined to become—and that shaping makes those moments unavoidable. If we are ever to meet our destiny, they have to happen.
“Elijah, no matter how much you wish you could change the past, you can’t. But you don’t have to let it control the future.”
This childhood friend of my son, this strange young man, he begins to weep. Bawling like a calf without warning. Normally, something like this would piss me off, but right now, being so close to the end of all things, the only emotion his tears draw from me is sympathy. I pat his back.
After he regains composure, we start to talk. I ask about the job he mentioned. His answer is a genuine mind-job if ever there was one. Elijah says he is a physicist. A Physicist! He’s working on his second PhD in cosmology at a university in Pasadena.
The announcement makes me laugh. He stares at me like I’m crazy because he doesn’t know what I do—that Fate has introduced a new variable into the equation that is my legacy. It multiplies my hopes for the future. His passion is my necessity. Quantum mechanics!
I have to make a move. “In case you still feel a need, I may know a way to ease your conscience.”
“That is not possible, Mr. Springer, but I would be content to try.” He answers solemnly.
“I need a decent cup of coffee. How ’bout we talk over one? I’ll tell you all about it.”
Hope for the past, present and future is restored by his acceptance. The boy will need all the hope I can give him to do what needs to be done.
Through the variant ages I’ve learned there are always two constants. The first is Nahuiollin—Death. Each encounter with him is the same; he’s violent and vengeful with delusions of grandeur. If I’d known enough to take advantage of that, maybe I could have stopped him. The second is me. I am different in every place, no matter the age. And my boy is so much like me; I bet the farm he’ll encounter the same problems. But he’s different, too. Better. He’ll only let fear push him so far. Once he reaches that tipping point, all hell breaks loose.
I laugh again, overjoyed by the forgotten thrill of possibility. It’s easy to forget that things can still get better when you’ve seen as much as I have. Gerry’s stubbornness combined with this one’s brains . . . that Snake is going to shit his pants.