Humans are the only species that buries thier dead.
After Phineas Gage died (1860), he was buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery in San Francisco. Six years later, his brother-in-law, David Shattuck, along with two physicians (past mayors) dug him up.
Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in neuroscience and psychology fields.
Once he learned of his patient’s passing, Dr. Harlow (who treated Phineas) asked to have the body exhumed for the advancement of science. Phineas’s mother received this request and saw that it was carried out.
What is it like to unearth a member of your family?
David Shattuck (husband to Phoebe Gage / brother-in-law to Phineas Gage)
Lone Mountain Cemetery, San Francisco 1867
On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.
Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.
Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.
The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”
Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”
“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”
“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.
“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”
“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.
“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.
“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.
It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.
Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.
Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850
I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’
I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.
“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”
When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.
I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.
Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.
Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.
A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.
When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.
Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?
The Gage family was one of many who were affected by grave removals in San Francisco.
With growing pressure to make efficient use of valuable real estate, the dead of San Francisco had to make way for the living.
By the end of 1948 bodies in several pioneer cemeteries were moved to a mass grave site forty miles south in Colma, California.
Phineas Gage’s niece, Delia Presby (Shattuck) Oliver’s gravestone appears on Ocean Beach when heavy storms move sand out to sea. It was last uncovered on June 4, 2012. The lettering — still legible — reads; Delia Presby, wife of, F.B. Oliver, Died, April 9, 1890, Aged 26 yrs., 10 mos. 27 days, — Rest –
I wear an invisible cloak. Sometimes it rests on top of my clothes, people could touch it if they bumped into me.
It covers me in the shower when I have no clothes on at all.
It is there when I crawl under the covers at night, especially there, where my husband senses its vague outline. He feels it when it settles over us.
We used to take such joy in loving each other when we were learning new intimate, landscapes. We had hope, then, that our actions would lead to a new life with ten fingers and ten toes to count and kiss. We made up stories about returning to the countryside on the weekends so our mothers and grandmothers could dote on the next generation.
But hope faded month after month with dripping blood and tears. It became difficult to smile, reach out, and try again.
The cloak clings to me, squeezing like a metal band around my chest whenever we are around parents with babies and small children.
When my monthly cycle stopped, we let down our guard, the cloak went askew. We kept our secret close, not letting anyone know that we were thinking about names.
Our bubble was fragile. It glowed like a bright sun glittering in raindrops sticking to bamboo leaves in spring. And it was oh-so-brief. The gynecologist popped the bubble with a single word, “tumor.”
After that, we couldn’t even fight about our problem, blaming it on drinking, smoking, or wearing tight fashion underwear instead of boxers that allow seed pouches to cool and swing freely.
The cloak was back, making it so that we faced opposite walls, whispering, ‘good night,’ into a dark, desolate emptiness.
By the 1990s, we learned who had manufactured the cloak.
An alternate definition of rape is a violation, plunder, or abuse. What is it called when a rapist is a system, an industry operating with full knowledge about the harm they cause?
I was recruited out of high school, off my family farm in Yongin. They bussed girls into the city, providing housing. I felt so important! My mother would finally be able to buy enough food to satisfy every apatite at our table.
They outfitted us in clean suits and gloves. We looked like surgeons. In air-conditioned rooms, they trained us to etch patterns into chips. But they forgot to mention that the EGE solutions we used would penetrate our gloves and soak into our skin.
Imagine how I felt when the oncologist reported that my blood tests showed EGE levels six-hundred times higher than normal. Poison was the father of my tumor baby.
“They stopped using those in the states years ago,” the doctor said, “when they learned about their effects on reproductive health.” Pity showed in his eyes before he looked away.
I still wear my cloak to bed, it absorbs the tears that used to be for the baby. It wraps grotesquely around me, cradling my growth.
Excerpt from Phases of Gage; After the Accident Years, a novella based on the life of Phineas Gage.
Phineas is aboard the Witch of the Wave with his parents and sister, Phoebe. The ship is beginning to move through Boston Harbor. It will be traveling down the eastern seacoast to Chagres. From there, the family will cross the isthmus to Panama City and board a steamer bound for San Francisco.
As familiar territory fades from view, Phineas is feeling queasy. He reminisces about what he’s left behind.
Everything changed that day, four years ago, when I became a freak, The Man with his Brains Blown Out.
When I think about Caroline, my insides get agitated. In happier times, we dreamed of our children. I hadn’t realized how fortunate I was when I was just a man, with a girl, working for our future.
Longing and loss shoot through my heart, searing me. I blink back tears. Viewing undulating ocean swells through distorted vision doesn’t help my mood or my wily guts!
I remember a Sunday afternoon like it is perfectly preserved in an unblemished piece of golden-tinged amber. We wandered off by ourselves, walking over the hill to a peaceful meadow, out of sight of the picnic and games. Caroline discovered a patch of Quaker Ladies flowers, tiny things with four white petals and a sunny center. We set to work picking some when she asks me how many children I think we’ll have.
“Coming from a large family,” I said, “I think I’d like not so many that the middle ones are forgotten in the pack.”
She giggled saying she agreed. I chose a flower, twirling it by its stem, sniffing its delicate perfume, “What would you name our first born?” I wanted to know. I reached over, plucking the pins from her hair, watching it tumble over her shoulders. She looks like she used to when she was a girl. Her smile sets my heart a flutter.
Her eyes sparkle, “I think I should like to name her, Susan.”
“Susan!” I was surprised. “You are wishing for a girl first?”
“Yes, silly, girls are a great help around the home. She will watch the other little ones when I am laboring with the next.”
“Come here,” I said. She leaned toward me. I embed the flower stem in her loose hair so it stays in place. “Here’s to the first,” I said, kissing her. For every child we named, I added a flower, following it with a kiss. We’d be breeding like rabbits if the Quaker Ladies were a prediction of our fate!
Before we started back, a gnat flew into my eye— the left one. The hurt that the tiny bug caused was out of proportion to its size. Caroline sat me down. While pulling my lower lid away, she dabbed with a corner of her handkerchief.
“For such a big, handsome man you yowl and complain like a baby,” she observed with good humor.
When she’d gotten the critter out, she wiped at the tears running down my face, kissing the injured eye, then the other one for good measure. I had to thank her for her kind and gentle services… It was difficult to stop thanking her! But a gentleman doesn’t keep pestering a lady once she’s called a halt.
Having Caroline to myself for that space of time, I was itching to finish saving for our farm and for us to be married! The need for money was what had sent me up Cavendish way to work on the railroad.
A chilly wind crawling beneath my jacket brings me back to my place and time. Looking over the Atlantic waters, my mind conjures up my beloved. She stands beside me, her elbows on the deck rail. She leans into the wind. Her eyes are closed but she is wearing a broad smile. “Every day is a new adventure!” she exclaims.
Turning toward me, her long, loose hair, behaves like fine autumn grass overcome by a dust devil. The Quaker Lady blossoms that I placed there come away, pelting my face with such force that they sting like blasting rubble.
My stomach is tight and sour, jumpy. Saliva, like hot water condensing along the sides of a glass pot, seeps into my mouth, filling the crevices below my tongue.
It occurs to me, with finality, that I will never be a father, now. That dream is as dead as my relationship with Caroline.
I hug the rail, opening my mouth, letting my guts erupt.
“My entire life has been lies,” thought JJ as his boots tapped out a rapid tattoo. “It’s a sham, a false reality that everyone has purchased a slice of. There is no path to success. It’s just consumption, power mongering, and environmental destruction.”
JJ had left a monument in the center of his neatly made bed. His diploma from Wharton University, crumbled into a ball, and his wallet. Inside it was $250 in cash, his credit cards, and his driver’s license. JJ’s vehicle registration and passport completed the assembly. On top of everything, he’d left a cryptic note, Mom, you won’t be able to find me where I am going.
At the time that JJ had written it, he’d been seething with anger, wanting to lash out. Even in that highly charged state, he realized that it sounded like a suicide note. He didn’t want anyone to assume that he’d taken the easy way out. JJ added, When I find what I am looking for, I’ll be in touch.
His backpack was light. It contained a Swiss Army knife, a flashlight, a set of magnets his father had given him on his sixth birthday and the tiny ceramic jar (containing his baby teeth) that his mother had saved.
On the deserted road, a car’s approach could be heard from a long way off. Confidently, JJ made a fist with his thumb pointing up, holding it out.
A wind kicked up in all directions. The air buzzed and crackled. But JJ didn’t look around, he kept striding. A bright light appeared in front of him.
That made him stop. A large bubble, about fifteen feet in diameter, emerged. It undulated as if it were alive, growing increasingly fatter, straining at its surface.
With a pop, it burst. In its place, stood JJ’s dream car.
It made no sound as it crept forward, stopping at his side. The driver’s side door opened. When JJ leaned down to peer inside, he only saw darkness. For a moment, he thought about his note, maybe it was a suicide note…maybe not.
JJ got in.
Vistual Writing Prompt: WritetoDone website – in 350 words or less, write about what happened next – November 2016
Daybreak usually found Neil Thompson walking down the shore. At this early hour, the deserted Maine beach was his and his alone. Thoughts about everything and nothing formed and vanished in his mind along with the waves. At fifty-two, few were the pleasures left to him from his childhood, and fewer the moments he actually got to enjoy them.
He loved this part of the beach, his own private sanctuary off the beaten path.
Further down the beach, the waves were washing against a large object, but the dim early light and the seaweed distorted its form. Frowning, he wondered if the sea would reclaim it or if he would find trash polluting his little piece of heaven.
Wind beat on the back of his neck as he tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He left footprints that quickly washed away, while taking his time to reach the mystery item the sea had so generously brought to his feet.
His heart slammed in his chest when he finally realized what he was looking at: a dead body. Frozen to the spot, he stared as wave after wave crested over the white chest and dark trousers of a man’s corpse, and all he could think about was how much he truly wished the sea would take it back.
Holding his breath, he tried and failed to look away. His stomach felt too tight and heavy while his mind navigated a strange mix of morbid curiosity and utter disgust.
A particularly large wave crashed beside him, drawing him from his thoughts and reminding him that the tide forgave nothing on these ever-changing shores. A full minute passed before he resigned himself to the grisly duty of dragging the dead man out of the ocean’s grasp. He would need to call in the authorities on what was becoming anything but a normal day. Quickly, he dialed the number and waited impatiently.
Holding his phone in one hand, he reached for the man’s shoulder with the other. Movement met his touch, and he jerked his hand back in shock. Life still clung to this body. The man was still breathing.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
The voice on the phone caught him off-guard, and he almost dropped it.
“Yes! Hello? I’m Neil Thompson, I’m at the beach. I’ve just found a man here. He was brought in by the tide. I think he’s still breathing, but I—I don’t know what—”… to do…
The words stuck in his throat.
He’d honestly thought those were trousers. Through the dark seaweed, a hundred shades of blue glinted off each scale as the sun rose in the early hour, the sea no longer able to disguise what Neil had ignored before: A tail.
Longer than legs would have been, the tail rolled lazily with the tide, somehow at an odd angle. Instinctively, he took two steps back, almost losing his balance. Every fiber of his being screamed for him to turn around and run, but he was trapped in his fight or flight instinct.
Gentle waves reached them again and again as Neil struggled to breathe. Where knees should have been, a deep gash ran horizontally, torn flesh and scales the testimony of a gruesome accident. Closing his eyes, Neil swallowed bile.
In his ear, the dispatcher kept asking questions, though God knew about what. He wished yet again that the sea would take back what it had brought in.
“Mr. Thompson, paramedics are on their way, but we need an exact location.”
Hysterically, he looked around, a tiny part of his mind deciding this must be a prank. Somewhere, nearby, cameras were recording his reaction and one day soon he would be watching this on reality television, laughing at his gullible self.
And yet, no matter where he looked, or how much he wished it wasn’t, the beach was deserted.
This is real. God, this is real!
“Mr. Thompson? Can you hear me?”
Neil looked down at the man who wasn’t a man, coming to grips with the fact that myth had crossed into reality, and no one but him was witnessing this bizarre twist in his life.
“Yes!” he answered, snapping out of it. It didn’t matter if this was the strangest day of his life, he could only guess the man in front of him was having his worst.
“I’m here,” he reassured the dispatcher, giving his address and a good estimate of how far he’d walked away from his home. “I’m across from Cluney’s store. I’ll stand by to signal the ambulance, you won’t miss me.”
“Okay, Mr. Thompson, this is what I need you to do while help is on the way.”
The operator listed off tasks: get him safe, check his breathing, check his responsiveness to touch. Maybe there was more, maybe Neil only half understood what the woman was trying to tell him, but he had the insane need to correct his early statement. You’re not coming to aid a man.
She kept asking all kinds of questions, expecting him to do all kinds of things.
Placing the phone in his shirt pocket on speaker, he mentally went through the instructions from the dispatcher on what he needed to do. Finally, taking a deep breath, he fixed his eyes on the lifeless face. Several bruises were starting to turn purple alongside the right temple, certainly the product of one hell of a collision. Neil had to talk to him to see if he could get a response.
“Hey…” Neil whispered, his voice deserting him.
“Hey,” he tried again, sounding slightly louder. “Well, crap, I don’t know what I’m doing…” he murmured. Shutting his eyes tightly for a second, he took a moment to get his racing heart under control. He positioned himself above the head, and with trembling hands, he reached under the ice-cold armpits.
“Okay, okay, here’s the deal: I’ll move you out of the sea, and you don’t bite my head off, okay?”
The man was heavy, and with some considerable effort, Neil dragged him out of the water. Part of Neil expected the tail to turn into legs. Part of him expected those eyes to pop open and sharp teeth to start gnashing at him.
None of that happened.
He took his phone out and went back to the dispatcher. Drowning people swallowed a lot of water, she informed him. Neil had to move his unconscious victim onto his side in case he vomited.
Neil stared at the tail on his victim, and almost laughed. This man was the furthest thing from drowning that one could get. In fact, maybe he should be pushing him right back into the sea.
“Mr. Thompson, do you understand?” the dispatcher asked, concerned.
“Yes,” he said, absently nodding.
He’d just found a mermaid—merman—yet no one would ever believe that something so fantastic could happen to someone so mundane.
Turning to look down the road, he strained to hear the ambulance sirens, but all he heard was the sea. He still had time.
Hanging up, he deftly turned his phone camera on and began gathering proof of what he was witnessing. No one would ever doubt what he’d just seen.
* * *
To the untrained eye, the hospital Emergency Room was nothing more than a chaotic arrangement of people shouting at each other and working their shifts on caffeine alone.
Well, that last part is true, Gwen Gaston thought, the last drops of her coffee still tasting like heaven. She’d been crazy for a fourth cup of liquid energy since two patients ago.
From her vantage point on the opposite corner of the ER entrance, Gwen watched gurneys and paramedics come and go, their patients delivered to the capable hands of her colleagues. Being the ER on-call surgeon guaranteed she never got bored, which was the main reason why she’d applied for the position two years ago. She’d been missing the adrenaline from her early days as an emergency doctor, and the intricate puzzles and challenges each ambulance brought to her hands.
Her timer went off, the cue for getting back to work. She threw the empty paper cup into the nearest trashcan and rubbed her hands in anticipation.
She was overweight and out of shape, and she knew she didn’t look like the ideal surgeon to handle the turmoil of the ER; half her diet consisted of an unhealthy dose of soda and chips to compensate for long hours at work, but damn, was she good at what she did. Most days that included patching people up from the inside out, six cups of coffee, and a good measure of yelling.
The speaker overhead chimed and a man called a code blue for the trauma room. Her phone began buzzing with an alert at the same time: they needed her to start prepping for emergency surgery. She walked faster.
“What do we have?” she asked to no one in particular on her route to her new patient, slipping out a pair of latex gloves.
“Some idiot in a mermaid costume half drowned down the beach,” one of the paramedics told her. His partner looked anything but amused. In fact, the guy looked downright scared.
“Okay, he’s stabilizing now. Can someone get that tail out of the way?” Dr. Bill Shore ordered, sounding calm and collected despite such an odd request.
She entered the trauma room and the smell of the ocean hit her before she could even take a good look at the man. She’d been expecting a half-assed costume made out of cheap plastic in pinks and yellows, adorned with shiny fake gems to complete the look. What she wasn’t expecting was how real the disguise looked. It was decorated with hundreds of tiny bright scales, complete with thin lateral fins that were torn everywhere. The length of the tail reached all the way down to the floor where people narrowly missed it with their shoes.
“What did you page me for?” she asked, mentally shaking her head at the crazy things she had to put up with in her line of work. This close, she could see small clusters of scales framing the youthful face and parts of his shoulders, which then disappeared down his back. His ears were pointy, and his skin almost translucent.
“We’ve been having a hard time with his vitals, and I could really use your help figuring out where he’s bleeding. We can’t seem to keep his blood pressure up.”
Gwen’s fingers expertly palpated the abdomen, looking for the elusive internal bleeding. Intrigued at what she felt, she started listening with the stethoscope a moment later, while monitors kept pace with a weak heartbeat and shallow breathing. Bruises adorned the right side of their patient’s head, and she would bet good money that his right wrist was broken.
What the hell is this? She thought as she kept moving down, unable to identify the internal sounds. Something was seriously off, she just couldn’t put her finger on what.
“Can someone page neurology, please?” Bill ordered.
“Are they filming something nearby?” Jackie, the senior nurse on staff asked, while touching the line where skin became tail. “This costume is definitely professional. I can’t find where it comes off.”
Still listening, Gwen’s eyes fixated on the middle of the tail, where she could see sluggish blood pooling onto the gurney. That gash was bleeding real blood.
“It might be painted on the skin,” Gwen absently explained. She stopped listening and started seeking where real muscle became part of the disguise. Her hands methodically felt beside and beneath the smooth texture of the tail, imagining how two legs would be able to fit in the narrow outfit. Where knees should bend, she unexpectedly felt a pulse.
She looked up at Bill, who was busy checking the monitors.
“I need to see what’s going on down here,” she said, signaling the tail.
“Okay, on three!” Bill said, and deftly they moved their patient onto his side. The back was as meticulously decorated as the tail, the blue scales following the spine in a narrow line, all the way to the back of his neck. The deep gash ran from one side to the other, cutting through several layers of tissue.
“Let’s clean this wound,” Gwen ordered to their other nurse, Oscar. It unnerved her that she could be fooled by an elaborate Halloween costume. She pressed down on her newly discovered pulse point, and saw the tail twitch further down. Blinking, she pressed again, sure she was imagining things.
It twitched again.
“We really need to get this thing off,” she heard Bill saying, but he sounded so far away. “Gwen, how bad are his legs?”
“I can’t find—”she started to say, sounding equally far away. The gash hypnotized her, forbidding her to even blink. Some forty percent of the tail had been cut deep, and her surgeon’s brain automatically calculated the odds of keeping the limb or amputating it.
For the first time, Gwen saw that tail as part of a body.
“It’s not a costume,” she muttered, bewildered, but only Oscar turned to look. Everyone else kept going at it as if they were treating a human.
“What?” Bill asked while he listened to the lungs with his stethoscope.
“It’s not a costume,” she repeated louder, turning to look at Bill with round eyes. “It’s—it’s real!”
Only Oscar understood her, moving away immediately, his eyes going as big as hers.
“What are you talking about?” Bill asked, forgetting his stethoscope.
“The ta—tail is bleeding,” she forced herself to explain. “There’s a pulse, even a reflex. Bill, I can’t find any legs in here.”
This time, Jackie moved back. Frowning, Bill moved next to her to take a closer look.
“X-rays,” they said at the same time.
Hesitantly, Oscar helped her and Bill to place their patient on his back. Two seconds later, they cleared the room to evade the momentary radiation.
“I’m sure this is perfectly logical,” he told Gwen, looking through the door at the impressive tail that still touched the floor.
“Birth malformation?” she offered, equally locked on their patient’s body. “With that length?”
“Someone’s playing a prank on us,” he muttered, entering the room once more. Behind them, only Oscar entered willingly.
“Or maybe he was playing a prank on someone else and it went horribly wrong…” she reasoned, looking at the monitors, “You can’t fake these vitals.”
By the door, Jackie made the sign of the cross. On the hall outside the room, the paramedics argued with each other about who’d been right.
This is becoming a circus.
“We’re not dealing with a Disney character!” he snapped. She silently agreed: she doubted she’d ever seen a Disney character with abs like those. She chuckled at the stupid thought, barely containing a full blown hysterical attack.
“Get the labs done,” he told Jackie, the poor nurse looking paler than their patient while she fled the room.
“Get another gurney,” Gwen ordered Oscar. “We need to level off that tail.”
More people crowded the door, blocking anyone who was actually trying to work. The news of what was going on in the trauma room was spreading like wildfire.
“This is getting out of control,” she warned Bill, for the first time chaos taking over their highly tuned and efficient ER.
“Listen up!” Bill roared, walking towards the door, towering over everyone. “This is not a mermaid, and this is not a freak-show! Get back to work and let us save this man! NOW!”
They cleared out in two seconds flat.
“Are you sure?” Oscar asked, bringing the gurney Gwen had asked for into the room.
“YES!” Bill shouted, impatience showing through. “And whoever suggests otherwise—”
He didn’t finish, but the meaning hung in the air. Silently, Oscar helped her get the tail up.
“Here, let’s see…” Gwen murmured, clinical eyes looking for a better angle into the wound. They turned their not-mermaid onto his side again, and methodically she assessed the damage.
“He needs the OR,” she said aloud—for his not-tail, she privately added.
“He’s going to need a whole lot more than that when he wakes up and explains what the hell is going on here,” Bill murmured under his breath.
She couldn’t agree more.
The excerpt that you’ve just read is the first chapter the book Underneath, a merfolk tale. If you liked it, there’s more!
I had the pleasure of reading the entire manuscript as Michelle was creating it. It’s fast paced and good to the very last drop.
Follow the links below to learn about M.N. Arzú and how to get her books.
*Fan fiction. A continuation of The Age of Adaline (movie) story.
New Year’s Eve 2015
“Wow!” Ellis beams as Adaline strides into the room draped in a floor-length golden gown.
“I just need a zip,” she says, presenting her back to Ellis. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” Adaline turns to her daughter.
“I’m positive,” Flemming says, “I’ve got my date right here.” She bends down to pick up the tiny King Charles puppy near her feet.
Adaline leans in to place a kiss on Flemming’s weathered cheek, “Love you,” while she gives the puppy an affectionate pat.
“Love you too,” Flemming replies.
“I forgot my clutch…and my camera,” Adaline calls over her shoulder. She heads back down the hallway. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she does a double-take. Adaline reaches up near her temple to pluck at a single gray hair.
Holding the strand between her fingers, she marvels at its significance. Adaline doesn’t look a day over twenty-nine. She’s been that way since 1937.
“Adaline, you OK?” Ellis calls.
Smiling thoughtfully, she whispers, “Yes…perfect.”
Ellis holds out Adaline’s cloak and helps to settle it in place. He grins at Flemming, “Don’t wait up.” Flemming holds out a hand. He grasps it and gives it a brief squeeze.
He ushers Adaline toward the door.
“What are you two up to?” Adaline wants to know.
“Nothing! Have a wonderful evening, Mama.”
In the taxi, Ellis pulls Adaline close to his side. He kisses the top of her head then inhales her scent, “Mmm… you always smell so good.”
Adaline purrs a response, “I think that you are the most handsome man that I’ve ever known.”
He chuckles, “That’s because you’ve got love colored glasses on.”
“Maybe,” she reaches for him. It’s something she likes to do whenever they are alone in the dark.
Ellis captures her roaming hand, holding it still. He doesn’t want her to discover the surprise he’s got hidden. They arrange themselves comfortably for the forty-minute ride to the Fairmont.
He focuses on appearing relaxed, though his toes are tapping inside his dress shoes. He leans his head back against the neck rest and closes his eyes, leaving them open in thin slits. The city lights become rainbow-colored starbursts moving through his vision.
He is sure of her, now…mostly. It’s funny how familiarity numbs astonishment. His lips curve when he remembers this time last year. He was newly in love and adapting to all of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Adaline. Her true age, her seventy-eight-year-old daughter, and her name.
It was his dad who first figured out her mystery. He called her Adaline the moment he laid eyes on ‘Jenny.’
Ellis had brought Jenny home for the weekend to celebrate his parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary. His father, William, couldn’t stop staring.
“Adaline was my mother,” she’d explained, flustered.
“The resemblance is extraordinary. We were very close.” William kept repeating as he recounted the details of his first meeting with Adaline near London in the 1960s.
The following day, William noticed a scar on Jenny’s hand. Jenny failed to recognize the state of panic that his observation triggered.
“I’m going out for a walk,” she told him.
Once she was gone, William tore into the garage to frantically search through dusty boxes. Standing there like a statue, he held a faded photograph of the two of them. A bandage on her hand concealed seven stitches that he’s sewn over fifty years ago.
Jumping in his suburban, William raced after her. He found Jenny, alone, on the dirt road a few miles from the house. “Adaline!” he yelled as he got out of the car.
She halted, regarding him with concern. ” William, are you alright?”
“No! I’m not alright ─ I know.”
“What? ─” her face turned ashen. She started to shake.
He grabbed her hand, pointing at the scar. “It is you. I couldn’t forget that!” he ground out through labored breaths.
“Oh, William,” she cried softly.
His hard expression softened. He stepped closer, tipping her chin so that he could examine her face, “How? How is this possible?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is this why you left me?” His unruly eyebrows steepled.
She nodded, her brow furrowed. “I can’t tell you how painful that was.” Adaline’s voice sounded distraught.
“Oh, I know something about that,” he replied gruffly, “I was on the verge of proposing.” William looked puzzled as he continued to lightly trace the contours of her face.
Adaline closed her eyes. He could tell that she was holding back tears. “I wanted to stay with you, William, but I… just… couldn’t.”
He pulled her against him, cradling her in his arms. “I would have protected you if you had trusted me.”
She nodded, crying harder, “I know…”
William pulled away. Digging in his pocket, he brought out a handkerchief. Handing it to her he said, “Here, sop it up, Della.” His weak smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I take it that you make a habit of running?”
She nodded, still dabbing at her face. “It’s the only way to stay safe. I don’t usually get involved with people or put down roots. You were the first man I loved after my husband died. That was in 1937. Ellis is the second.”
“That’s a long time. Do you have anyone that you confide in?”
Adaline pressed the cloth to her eyes as a fresh wave of grief washed over her. William reached out to steady her.
“My daughter. She is the only one who knows.”
“You have a kid?” he was surprised.
Adaline chuckled, “She’s older than you are, Will.”
Blinking rapidly, he took a step back, “Ellis,” he sighed.
Her eyes widened. William could see that a flight reflex had been engaged. Clutching at her arms he pleaded, “Adaline, don’t go! Don’t do that to my son!”
Wrenching away, Adaline darted into the woods. She ran like rabid wolves were nipping at her heels. Maybe they were.
Ellis Holds On
Right now, in the prime of their lives, they are perfectly matched. They are well educated, cultured and confident. Will we stay that way? Ellis wonders.
He thinks about Flemming and her troubled story of the time when she and her mother switched relationship roles in public. Will I do that with Adaline?
Arriving at their destination, they hurry up the steps to avoid the evening drizzle. They wait among other party goers for an elevator, “The entire world celebrates your birthday,” Ellis grins down at her.
“Don’t remind me,” Adaline says with sarcasm.
They step into the small square space. Adaline moves to the back to make room for the others who will follow. Surprised to see that they are the only passengers to load, she catches Ellis’s movement as he passes a bill to the attendant. They hear complaints as the double doors glide shut.
Adaline looks at Ellis suspiciously, “You’ve been acting funny all day, what are you hiding?”
Taking both of her hands he says, “I wanted this birthday to be more memorable than most.” He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a small black velvet covered box. He hears Adaline suck in a breath.
Ellis’s hands shake, uncertainty suddenly grips him, but he forges ahead. Going down on a knee, he says, “Adaline Bowman, will you marry me?” The lid makes a cracking sound as he opens the tiny package. Resting on a pillow of white satin twinkles a large square cut emerald framed by rows of tiny diamonds.
Adaline remains silent, but stands there alternately looking at him and then down at the ring.
“Well?” Ellis says.
“Aren’t you going to answer?”
She leans down placing a hand alongside his face, “Sweetheart, you are magnificent.”
“And?” he squeaks.
“That,” she indicates the ring, “is magnificent.”
“Adaline! Are you going to say, ‘no?’” Ellis can’t keep the tinge of desperation out of his voice.
“No,” she shakes her head, eyes sparkling.
His forehead wrinkles and he stands, “No as in ‘no’ you don’t want to get married, or ‘no’ as in yes you will?”
The doors of the elevator open to reveal the couple still locked in a passionate embrace.
“Aw, common, get a room!” someone comments. Adaline thrusts out her left hand, flashing her ring and wiggles her fingers. “Oh! They must have just gotten engaged,” a female voice says.
Ellis and Adaline exit to a small round of applause.
They spend the evening lost in a bubble of contentment broken only by intermittent congratulations and well wishes from people they know.
They are swaying to the music of a slow dance when Adaline says, “Ellis, there’s something that I need to ask.”
“Uh oh, I can tell by your tone that it’s something serious.”
“You do know me,” she demurs. “This is going to sound strange.”
“Now you’ve got me worried.”
“Would you…” Adaline bites her lower lip and glances away.
“Come on, it can’t be that bad,” Ellis encourages.
“Would you adopt Flemming?”
“What?” Ellis barks out laughing. Seeing Adaline’s hurt look, he reigns in his mirth as quickly as it escaped.
“I don’t want her to feel left out when we tell her the news.”
“I love you, Adaline,” Ellis says tenderly. “We can do whatever you want. Whatever Flemming wants.”
Adaline Chips at the Ice
Ellis mentions that his dad is going to an astronomy conference in Greece, so Adaline makes a trip out to their place to see if she can negotiate a truce.
The smile on Kathy’s face dies the instant she sees its Adaline. “Go away!” she snarls while retreating to close the door. Adaline plants a hand in the center, leaning on it with most of her weight.
“You have to deal with me if you don’t want to lose your son.”
“First my husband! And now my son! What kind of a monster are you and why are you stalking my family?”
“I had no idea they were related. Both were chance meetings. But I’m in love with Ellis now, and I’m not going away.”
“What are you?” Kathy’s asks rigidly.
Adaline’s tone quiets, “Honestly, I don’t know ─ I’m just a woman for whom time has stopped.”
They stand staring at one another. Adaline is the first to speak, “I can see that you have questions. I’ve spent lifetimes running from those, but no more. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
Kathy sighs, stepping back, “Come in,” she says reluctantly. “I’m sure you can understand that I don’t want my son to be hurt.”
“I’m not planning to hurt Ellis.”
“You did a number on William…”
“That was a different time ─ a different me. The only option I could see, then, was to leave.”
“I can’t wrap my head around the idea that you’ve stopped aging,” Kathy frowns.
“It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, it’s true. William accepts it as fact.”
“Well ─ I consider William’s viewpoints, but I form my own opinions.”
Adaline looks down, hiding a smile. “I can see why he fell for you.”
Kathy opens her mouth to say something, then changes her mind. After a few moments of silence, she says, “You know, Adaline, if what you say is true….and I still think that’s a big ‘if’…. there are a lot of people who’d like to get what you’ve got.”
“I suspect you’re right,” Adaline replies, picking nervously at pills on her sweater. “But it’s not as glamorous as it seems. Youth and beauty are meaningless if everyone you love moves on without you. I’ve lived decades wishing that I could grow old like everyone else.”
It was very late by the time Adaline drove back to the city. She’d stopped along the way to phone Ellis so he wouldn’t worry. They’d had a terse conversation about the last time she’d been on this route at night. He suggested that she find a hotel and finish the trip in the morning.
“No, I promise I’ll be careful. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”
Her key was barely in the first lock when the door opens under her hand. Ellis pulls her to him. She strokes his back reassuringly. When Adaline can get a word in, she says, “See? I told you that I’d be alright.” She winks. “It’s extremely rare for lightning to strike twice.”
Ellis growls, leading her toward the bedroom. Once inside, he kisses her, hard. Lips, teeth, tongues, and facial hair mash in a ravenous welcome. Between words of love, they peel off clothes. Moaning with arrested desire, they stoke the fire that readily ignites. They move in an arousing dance as old as time.
When the storm of intensity is expended, the lovers remain entwined, gently caressing and kissing. Ellis asks about the meeting with his mother.
“She’s a tough nut,” says Adaline. “We spent a long time talking, but I couldn’t guess what she was thinking.”
“She’s always been that way. When she’s bent-out-of-shape, it takes a long time for her to work her way out of it. It sounds like you made it past the front door…” he comments dryly.
“At first, she didn’t want to talk at all, but I told her that if she didn’t want to lose you, we had better make peace.”
“I’m a mother too, I know how to aim punches.”
“You are such a bad ass,” Ellis says before leaning down to capture her lips. A leisurely love-making session sparks to life.
Later, they get up for a snack of crispy red grapes and a variety of Sonoma County cheeses. Chilled glasses of wine, cultivated in the same region, accompany the simple fare. Adaline continues her recap, “Eventually, her curiosity outweighed her annoyance when we started discussing the changing roles of women in society since the 1920s.”
“Not surprising. She’s Dean of Women’s Studies at Stanford. I’m sure she’s the reason that I am interested in history.”
“Having a career like that and raising two children ─ that’s impressive.”
“That’s my mom,” he states proudly. “Do you think she was thawing by the time you left?”
Adaline shakes her head, “I don’t know. She was quiet…thoughtful.”
Ellis sighs. “I’ll call her in few days to see if anything’s changed.”
Kathy hadn’t been speaking to her son. Ellis knew that she’d been frosty and cross with his dad too.
He is understandably nervous as he waits for his parents to arrive. He’s finished construction on his apartment, but since the engagement, they’d been adding on a connecting unit for Flemming, complete with every geriatric safety accouterment available.
When the doorbell rings, he plasters on a smile and goes to greet them. “Mom! Dad! Thanks for coming! Please, some in.”
“Hi, son,” his father grabs him in a bear hug. “It’s good to see you!”
His mom stands on the threshold looking like she isn’t sure if she will cross. “Hey, Mom,” Ellis says quietly, waiting.
She reaches out to cradle his face between her hands. “My baby,” she whispers.
“I’ve missed you,” his voice cracks.
She gives him a dubious smile. A single tear falls.
Once he’d given them a tour and explained everything that has been remodeled, they arrive at Flemming’s space. “What’s this?” his mom asks when she notices the handle grips near the commode. “It’s kind of you to be planning for us, but I don’t think we’ll be needing anything like this for a while.”
“Ahhh….” Ellis raises a hand up to scratch the back of his neck. “It’s not for you. It’s for Flemming.”
“What?” his mom looks confused. “Who is Flemming?”
Ushering them out and back toward the kitchen, Ellis attempts to salvage the situation, “Let me get you something to drink. You guys go relax in the living room while I take your bags to my room.”
Ellis returns to find his parents standing near the breakfast bar in the middle of an intense, but hushed exchange. “Hey, guys,” he calls with false cheer. He pours himself a cup of whiskey, then joins them. “So, I have some big news…”
“Oh, God, no!” Kathy cries.
Ellis compresses his lips, goes to his mom, puts an arm around her shoulders, and walks her to the couch. “Mom,” he begins once they are seated, “nothing you say or do will change the fact that I am in love with Adaline.”
He looks to his dad for help. William shakes his head. Ellis stands and approaches his father, “Dad, do you share Mom’s feelings about my relationship?”
William seems perplexed, “No ─ I completely understand. I loved her once, hell, a part of me will always be fond of Adaline. But what she and I had is long gone.” He pulls a footrest over so that he can sit directly in front of his wife. He says, “Remember our favorite Robert Browning quote? ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. It’s the last of life, for which the first was made’… Kathy, you and I are written in permanent ink. We’re unshakable, babe. You don’t have to protect me or Ellis from Adaline. She’s not dangerous, she’s just lost.”
“Oh, William,” Kathy sighs. She leans forward to press her lips against his.
Ellis takes a long sip of his whiskey as he lets the dust settle. A knock sounds at the door, followed by, “Hellooooo!”
Fleming comes in. She has a shopping bag in one hand and Deer’s leash in the other. The little Prince Charles prances delicately in front of her. “Ellis! I found a few more things that I wanted to drop by for the apartment.” She stops when she spots his guests, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, I didn’t realize…”
“That’s alright!” Ellis exclaims taking the bag and leading her toward his parents. “Guys, this is Flemming. Flemming, I’d like you to meet my parents, William, and Kathy.”
Thick silence fills the space as everyone stares. William is the first to close the gap. He stands and offers his hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, mam.”
“Oh…” she mutters, “I’ve heard so much about you.” Flemming’s concerned gaze travels over William and comes to rest on Kathy. “I can’t tell you how much I think of your son.”
The two women shake hands, “Thank you,” Kathy replies, “How do you know Ellis?”
Flemming looks to Ellis. “Do they know?”
Ellis shakes his head. He’s starting to expire.
Catching the exchange, his mom says, “Know what?”
Ellis sets his cup down, rolls his shoulders and extends to his full height. Taking a deep breath, like he is stepping in front of a firing squad he states, “I’ve asked Adaline to marry me. She’s agreed. Flemming is Adaline’s daughter…”
“Oh dear! I’ve spoiled everything,” Flemming exclaims. She presses a trembling hand to her mouth. Ellis catches her as she starts to sway. His parents help get her to the couch. She is having trouble breathing.
Kathy loosens the neckline of her blouse while William scoops up the dog to keep it out of the commotion.
Kathy feels for a pulse and asks questions, “Can you speak? Are you feeling light headed?” Over her shoulder, she directs Ellis to call 911.
Ellis and Kathy go in the ambulance with Flemming. William brings Deer and follows in the car.
Flemming is still on oxygen but resting comfortably when Adaline comes rushing in. “Darling! Are you alright?” Mother and daughter hug, hold onto each other, and cry. Adaline pulls back, “I was so worried.”
Kathy moves forward when Flemming removes her face mask, “No,” Flemming shakes her head eyeing Ellis’s mother, “I don’t need it, take it away.”
“But…” Adaline looks confused.
“Mama,” Flemming rests a hand on Adaline’s shoulder, “we both know that sooner or later my time is going to come.” Adaline squeezes her eyes closed and shakes her head. Flemming grabs her mother’s chin to still her movements, “Listen, young lady,” she says in a commanding tone.
Adaline frowns, “Hey…”
“But I don’t see you that way! I only see my little girl,” Adaline’s eyes glisten.
“I know, and I love you for that, Mama, but take a good, hard, look at me ─ I have age spots everywhere. My memory is going, my eyes aren’t what they used to be, and neither is my hearing.”
“We can get your hearing aids checked.”
“You’re missing the point. I’ve lived a full life. I don’t’ think I am going anywhere today, but when it’s time, I want you to let go.”
Adaline cries, “Never. Never.”
“You will,” Flemming states firmly, “and our new family is going to help.” She looks at Ellis and his parents. “You don’t know how happy it makes me to know that you will be there for her.”
Adaline buries her face in Flemming’s lap. Flemming strokes her hair while making soothing noises.
Ellis watches different emotions play across his mother’s face. There is a softening in her expression when she meets Flemming’s gaze.
Kathy inclines her head in answer to the older woman’s unspoken plea.
After they’ve all gotten settled and buckled in William’s car; Flemming and Deer in the front seat, and Ellis, Adaline, and Kathy in the back, Flemming asks, “Has Deer been out to tinkle lately?”
Blank looks pass between them. Ellis groans and unbuckles his belt, “I’ve got it.”
They watch in silence as he patiently follows the little dog while she chooses the perfect bush.
“I apologize for being so bitchy lately,” Kathy speaks up.
“I understand, Kath. I thought I was losing it until I figured it out,” William says.
“How did you?”
William looks into the rearview mirror. He makes eye contact with Adaline, “Dell?”
Adaline gives a stiff nod.
“Dell? As in Della?” Kathy screeches, “William! Did you name that comet after her?”
“Sheath the claws, Kathy cat.” William turns in the seat so he can look back at her, “It’s not as if I haven’t been naming heavenly bodies after you and the kids all these years ─”
Kathy crosses her arms, uttering, “Huh!”
“Back in the day,” William continues, “Adaline cut her hand. I sutured the wound. When she and Ellis were up for the weekend, I saw the scar…” He looks pointedly at his wife, “Are you going to give me grief over that too, woman?”
“Nope,” Kathy glowers back at him.
“You better watch out,” William’s voice lowers several octaves. He points a finger at her.
Adaline can’t help but notice that the edges of Kathy’s mouth turn up slightly.
“Oh no!” Flemming blurts. Everyone follows her gaze to see Ellis rolling his eyes and slapping his thigh. She digs in her purse. Flemming rolls down the passenger window and waves a blue poop bag.
San Francisco repays its residents with occasional, spectacular, days of sun ─ enough to keep her population increasing but never enough to put coats and sweaters in permanent storage.
The Chronicle of San Francisco: Church bells rang on the afternoon of June 6th, 2016 when Adaline Bowman married Ellis Jones. The ceremony was held at St. John’s church. The bride wore a stunning trumpet style gown with a sweetheart neckline. A chapel length train completed her attire. The groom looked dashing in a traditional black tuxedo with burgundy trimmings.
The groom’s father, William Jones, escorted the bride down the aisle. Kikki, the groom’s sister, was the best woman. She wore a sleeveless black three-quarter-length dress accessorized with a burgundy bow tie choker and bracelets that mimicked shirt cuffs.
The bride was attended by two matron’s of honor; the groom’s mother and the bride’s grandmother. Both of their gowns were made of jersey fabric that matched the burgundy theme.
One-hundred-and-fifty guests were in attendance. A reception was held at the Cliff House were traditional San Francisco fare was served.
When asked about honeymoon travel plans, the couple only said, “We’ll be going someplace we’ve never been before.”
The groom’s parents, however, were happy to share their second honeymoon itinerary; they will be spending two weeks in the Maldives, a week in Sri Lanka and a week in Madagascar.
One Year Later
Adaline clenches her jaw in an attempt to stifle a yawn. She leans her head against Ellis’s shoulder. He pats her thigh to encourage her to hold on just a little while longer.
He returns his attention to the speaker. “The Candace was a whaling ship that sailed into San Francisco in the 1850s. It was dismantled and used for parts in foundries and for other ships. Her story tells about the whaling industry and the development of commercial enterprise in the city. It also provides information about the Chinese workforce. Fisherman who were excluded from other jobs were employed on Spear Street….”
Adaline puts a hand on her rounded belly and whispers in Ellis’s ear, “Maybe we should name her Candace?”
“…or we could call him, Spear,” Ellis rejoins, teasing. Adaline swats his arm.
That night as they are getting ready for bed, Adaline plays a game she’s become enamored with. “I’ve gained another pound and my waist has grown by three percent.” She records this information in her pregnancy diary. “I’ve found another gray hair today. And look, Ellis! I’m starting to get crow’s feet!” she laughs in delight.
There can’t be another woman on the planet who is happier than Adaline about showing her age.
I enjoyed The Age of Adaline movie so much that I wanted to dive in deeper, crawl around inside the character’s heads. I went searching for the book. Unfortunately, this movie was not based on a book, so I satisfied my desire by writing a continuation of the story.
There have been two more fires. San Francisco, like a phoenix, continually rises from the ashes. The damages, this time, are thought to exceed $15,000,000. I can comfortably speak of the numbers. Not so—of the personal toll.
Too many friends have been taken by fate or by their own hand.
Remember the Patterson family? After their home burned, Mr. Patterson shot his wife and their baby daughter in the street. He was found lying dead on top of them.
Thomas Maguire – who owns the Jenny Lind Theatre – has lost everything six times! He jokes that one day he will write a play about it. I appreciate his candor and I admire him for not succumbing to hopelessness.
Our warehouse fell to the flames. We had to have guards at the burn site every hour of the day and night so that no one would build on our ground.
There is much talk about forming a fire company with volunteers and of construction methods that will withstand conflagration.
I ache with missing you, but I am glad that you have been spared the agony and upheaval here.
This letter is an excerpt from a book in progress. Haylee is a monster story with scene settings that are historically accurate.
Haylee is a mysterious and rare Traveler. She is time shifted from 1984 to San Francisco in 1850. While there she meets and marries Reece Keener (Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone). Having returned to her own time – Haylee and the Crystal Carrier’s Consort (working title) – Haylee discovers a series of letters that her husband wrote. This letter is one of that series.
When I was 17 and living on my own…certain that I knew more about anything than anyone around me….I took a job for a few months as a janitor at an old folks home.
My friends and I called it the Home for the Nearly Dead. It was at the edge of town like it was slowly being pushed out there to the precipice of living, far from view.
It was a sad and decrepit little place with peeling paint and linoleum floors and a funeral home next door. That part of town had its own zip code…and some of the townspeople called it the Hereafter, like it was a rest spot between living and whatever comes later.
I was dating a girl out in the sticks so I would regularly go thru the Hereafter to get near her…the way a teenage boy will for any girl.
Passing through one day I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign and answered it. They hired me on the spot.
When I told my friends I had gotten a job at the Home for the Nearly Dead they all laughed.
The people there were so old we thought they were another species. Kind of human…but not like us. Not revving to run thru the days, not trying to make some girl, not getting loaded or sleeping on the beach, or trying to figure a way to make the world their kingdom.
That’s what life is like at 17. The world becomes a simple matter of speed. And I was chasing things with all my might full of only the certainty that they would be caught.
I became the groundskeeper at the Hereafter. This meant I was a janitor and a painter for the aged and the dying. Trying to make the world look neat and trim, trying to make the calamity of isolation seem orderly, and trying to forever mop up the dread that seemed to settle in its halls.
I had to cut the lawn too. I would do it at night …after I got off my other job. And then after midnight, I’d mop floors and try to make the place feel a little less lonely, like it could be washed away.
The lady who ran the place never gave me a hard time about when I did it…as long as it got done.
I can recall cutting the lawn at night a few times. Drunk once or twice. I think I even snuck my girl in a time or two to some empty bed on the ward. The Hereafter was as good as any place to chase love…or at least the 17-year-old version of it.
I remember they didn’t pay much but I needed the money so we were a match. I guess they liked having someone around whose heart could still race instead of merely meander.
There was this old man on the main floor. His grown kids had abandoned him there.
That’s really what it is…they drive by a couple times, sign the papers, then drop an old man or woman at the far edge of town into the Hereafter.
This guy’s kids would come by once a month and, because he was hard of hearing, holler at him in a loud voice….. like he was a thousand miles away. I suppose in a way he was.
But he wasn’t an idiot…and I could see how much it humiliated him. To be yelled at by his kids…who felt like they had to make this pilgrimage every once in a while just so they could look into the mirror. I watched it a few times. It was like watching some bad rerun.‘How are you, Dad? Can I get you anything Dad?’
You know the routine. It was merely obligatory…like he was a stranger who just happened to have the same last name.
It was like they had a bill that said they owed love and respect ….but had forgotten the actual debt.
This guy was a plumber. He had crawled around under kitchens and basements on his hands and knees in tight spaces for 50 years. Whenever someone called and was drowning in their own houses he would grab a wrench and go. So he knew a busted pipe when he saw one. And proud. Fixing things for decades makes a person self-reliant and proud. And he truly believed there was nothing in this life he couldn’t fix.But he could barely walk anymore.
And try as he might there was never any way to fix the pipes of time he had left.
They were just worn out, stripped at the nut from so many days coursing through them. He was crawling under his last days and knew it.
He had spent years on his hands and knees and now just wanted to stand and walk. He wanted to wrench his way forward instead of staying stuck in the bed where they expected him to die.
So every night, very late… he’d angle himself off his bed and unsteadily grab one of those walkers with tennis balls on the legs and slowly drag himself one tiny uncertain step after another out into the hall. He’d only do it at night…when there was no one to holler at him about how he shouldn’t be up, shouldn’t be trying to move, shouldn’t be doing anything but lying in a bed waiting on Death to finally find his room.
And late at night, we would meet unexpectedly sometimes.
The 17-year-old kid racing from job to job mopping the floors late at night and the eighty something plumber who, once again in a tight space, was trying to stand on his own two feet and walk through the hallways of the Hereafter.
I’d watch him some nights creep down the hallway. It was excruciating. The steps were so small. We got so we would nod and not say anything. I really didn’t know what to say to him.
I was a little afraid he would slip and fall on my mopped floor.
And I was afraid that Death was so close to him that it might take a hard long look at me if I got too close.
So I would watch him …not to help so much as to try to save my own ass if he went down.
And I got into the habit of waiting for him to make his great escape each night and to watch him struggle against his own failing flesh. I could see how much it hurt him to make those tiny steps…and how much it hurt him not to. And caught between those two kinds of pain each night he summoned up the will to demonstrate he was still living…to himself.
I found him one-night leaning against a wall in the dark. He had slipped….and could not quite regain his footing. I remember I was drunk…and so was unsteady myself. It was after midnight so the lights were off…except his room light with an open door at the end of the corridor. I saw him there…a shadow in the darkened hall….and stumbled over and grabbed his arm trying to lift him up. The unsteady 17-year-old and the unsteady 80 something leaning for a moment on each other.
His arm felt like a twig in November. Not really bone anymore, more like the memory of it. He hoarsely whispered to me “No, No, No,…I’m fine…’
So I let go…like a person building a house of cards lets go of the last card…and moves his hand slowly away…certain it could all come tumbling down any second.
Then in that darkened hall, that old man…a shadow in the dark crept away toward the light.
This was the first time I ever saw courage. And though at 17 I could not name it, I remember being in awe of it. Much later I came to understand it is usually found in the darkened hallways of any person’s days. It appears when the floor is slippery and when a soul is most unsteady.
I still think of him sometimes when I am not quite sure if I am steady enough.
I suppose that’s a kind of immortality. I suppose the best part of us, seen even at a distance can echo like that. Echo on for years.
The old man died a few days later. There was never a pipe he could not fix, except of course Time’s. It leaks in ways that cannot be repaired. He was a plumber. A fixer of the leaks of life. Filled with a common kind of courage. So common it is hard to see.
And his kids…. who hollered at his deafness each month came and stood in his room… without a word… at last.
An old man loses his legs and he grows courage in their place. The torrent of it runs faster because there’s a hole in the pipe.
There is some strange arithmetic at work in the human heart. Take away something …something you cannot do without …subtract it…and the sum somehow becomes larger.
They grow together.
—————– Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter. His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers. It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.
My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.
This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.
But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.
Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.
His wife of 60 years was in the ward.
She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.
And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’
Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.
He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.
He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.
So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.
He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.
When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.
I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?
What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?
She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.
And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.
I would stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.
It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.
But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.
Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.
She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say, “Do you know who I am?”
Somedays she would laugh and respond, “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”
And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.
Sometimes she would understand and ask, ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.
“Never mind…never mind that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’
Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.
Once again he was gently asking, “Do you know who I am?”
There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”
Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am. I know I should…I know I should…” trying to recover what had already leaked away.
He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright. I’m here.’
‘I know I should,’ she protested.
Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’
If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?
I quit that morning and I never went back.
The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.
They grow together.
Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.
A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.
And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.
I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.
I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.
And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.
Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter. His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers.
Alberto had everything a man could wish for ─ notoriety, beautiful women, and flashy cars. His biggest problem was a father who expected perfection.
When Alberto was in fifth grade, he scored 100% on a math quiz. He remembered his father standing proudly, while proclaiming, “When you are older, you will work for the family as a numbers cruncher.”
Four years after graduating from UCLA, Alberto continued to work as an accountant in his father’s office. Last year, he’d been, ‘number one.’ His coworkers constantly pestered him to hold up his finger so that they could laugh.
Alberto sat in the hushed waiting room. He shoved his hands deep into his armpits and settled his forearms over them like a chicken adjusting its wings.
Tony, his cousin, sat opposite him drumming on a case that sat in his lap. He smirked at Alberto.
To Alberto, Tony looked like a sausage stuffed into a three-piece-suit. They’d been best friends when they were kids. Once puberty hit, Tony spent time bulking up at the gym and training to become an EMT. Tony steadily climbed the ladder in the family business because he was good at carrying out orders and cleaning up messes.
Alberto found it difficult to breathe. The seat of his chair felt like it was made from a pin cushion with the pins sticking in his ass. They were waiting for the tax preparer to check Alberto’s work.
His father strode into the room like a general about to address his troops. Not making eye contact with Alberto, he gestured in Tony’s direction. The sound of the zipper releasing its teeth had Alberto pushing against his backrest and shaking his head.
“No! No! No!” he screamed.
Tony opened the case. Nestled in a velvet lining, gleamed a razor sharp chef’s cleaver. Tony lunged for Alberto as his father lifted it and adjusted it in within his grip.
The struggle to free Alberto’s left hand was over quickly. Bracing it flat on a nearby table, Tony nodded to indicate that he was ready. Alberto’s one remaining finger ─ his index ─ lay exposed and vulnerable.
“Father! I beg you!”
His mouth formed a grim, straight line and he responded while raising his arm, “It’s our way, son. This is the price for making mistakes.”