The Diner and That Same Old Feeling Again
by Jeff Brown
|Table of Contents|
Parts 1-3 appeared
in issue 170.
|part 4 of 11|
Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself over and over, kind of going through the motions of a mundane existence? Well, the lead character in this story has that feeling — until someone vaguely familiar walks into the diner he is sitting in. Then the world takes on a new feel for him.
The Lies and Guilt and I Can’t Believe I’m Dead
“That’s the way it happened, Big Bird,” Tony said. His voice was more than angered. It was deadly. It meant for Calvin to pick up what Tony was putting down and quickly. “He drowned when we went swimming, Calvin. We tried to save him but the current was too strong. It pulled him under. We couldn’t find him. Do you understand?”
Calvin stared up at Tony. His eyes were wide and showed that he understood completely what Tony was saying, even if it wasn’t the truth. Those eyes also showed he didn’t like what he understood. He thought about biting Tony’s hand and trying to fight his way up. He thought better of it, feeling that Tony would probably throw him over the edge of the boat and leave him to swim to shore. Or drown. Just like Dale had supposedly done.
“Big Bird, do you understand?” Tony asked. He raised his eyebrows and tucked one lip into his mouth, baring his top row of teeth.
Calvin closed his eyes. He shook his head once as guilt overcame him. It was a guilt that would never fade away.
They had watched the events unfold from the back of the boat. Calvin sat on the left of Dolan, Dale on the right. It was Calvin’s memory; the one that played over and over in his head every day of his life until the day he died. Even then it played its horrible show again and again.
Dale looked over at Calvin. Again, Calvin was crying as the guilt overcame him. Even in death there seemed to be no peace for the one they called Big Bird. The innocence was gone for Calvin. He may not have murdered Dale (in fact, none of them had murdered Dale) but here he was, covering up his death. Why? He would always ask himself that question. He would go to his grave asking why. He sat on the left side of his memory of Dolan asking why.
For Calvin it would always be “why?” He would never be able to return to the relaxed state of life he had enjoyed before that day. He would try. Oh, how he would try. But even in his moments of happiness that day’s events would haunt him, bringing clouds on his sunny days.
It seemed nothing changed for him. Not even in death.
“When we were asked, we told the cops you had drowned.”
Calvin was looking at Dale. His eyes held red circles around them from his tears. His voice had become weaker as he told what had happened on that day and the days that followed.
Dale had taken his seat in the booth again. He had sat when Calvin started showing him his memory from so long ago.
As they talked, Mrs. Martha had gotten a mop and cleaned up the spilled coffee. She had swept up the glass and picked up the soaked newspaper. She seemed to grunt each time she bent over or stood up. There were even a couple of times when Dale and Calvin looked at her in disgust. On those times they both could have sworn she had let out a gust of hot air from her bowels. They wrinkled their noses up at her. At any other time they would have laughed long and hard and made jokes about the farting old lady. This wasn’t any other time. This was two dead men discussing... death.
“Of course, they suspected something,“ Calvin said. “But Tony was always pretty damned convincing. He told the story. We all backed him up.” There was that flash of shame in Calvin’s face again. “They searched the entire lake but never found your body. It wasn’t like someone hadn’t drowned in the lake before and not been found. You were ruled a drowning.”
Dale frowned. “They never found the right island, did they?” he asked.
“No,” Calvin said. “It was like the island had never existed.”
There was a long pause as they both watched Mrs. Martha hobble away dragging with her the mop bucket and mop.
“Hey, man,” Calvin started, “you wanna go to my funeral?”
The Funeral, a Ghost and a Plan
The obituaries weren’t normally something he looked at, but today he did. It was just looking that Dolan was doing, it was searching. Searching for what — or whom — he wasn’t quite sure but it still drew him to the most depressing part of the newspaper. And that is exactly what it had been: a drawing. Something had nagged at him, had told him to look in the dead section, to find someone’s...
There, his mind said suddenly as it pointed an imaginary finger toward the name in bold print. His eyes took hold and the name held him there even longer.
“Big Bird’s dead,” he said in a hushed tone. His mind seemed to freeze momentarily as he thought to that long ago day when Calvin had been the only one afraid not to die to save his friend. But Dolan had been. Dolan had been scared white, the blood seeming to have run out of him, taking his golden tan with it.
Oh, how Dolan had been scared. He had been the one that had fallen down on the way back to the boat. Calvin had helped him up, but that just made matters worse for him. He pushed the outboard motor as hard as it would go, taking them across the lake in what seemed like a crawl. The boat skipped over waves and ripples and crashed down on other ones but Dolan never slowed. Not until Tony told him to. Even then he was reluctant as hell to do so. Though the island was well out of sight Dolan felt they were a long way from safety and stopping the boat was not on his list of things he had to do at that moment.
After Tony’s lecture on what was what and how Dale had died, Dolan had kicked the boat into high gear again. This time he didn’t stop. Not until they had docked off of Turner’s Landing and were off the boat. He had thrown up hard after stepping onto the dock. The people around him thought he was drunk but said nothing.
Night was coming by then. The police were notified and the search party was sent out. It was less than a year before Calvin dropped out of their merry little group. By then he had already been drifting further and further away from them. They all knew why, but none of them said anything. It was best to let the sleeping dog — the truth — remain sleeping — dead.
It had been fourteen years, or just under, since Dolan had last seen his old friend, Calvin. Now Big Bird had finally flown the coupe for good and he wasn’t coming back.
Dolan remained sitting, his eyes still transfixed on the obituary with Calvin’s name on it. A part of him suddenly ached at the knowledge that one of his once very close friends had died. Even after so many years without contact there was that sense of loss, that pain.
Dolan dropped the newspaper to his lap. He began to wonder what Calvin had been doing over the years since they had last talked. What type of job did he have? Did he marry? Have kids? Dolan didn’t guess so — there were no names of survivors listed with his obituary. Then he wondered about himself, his own life and the misfortunes that had befallen him during it. He had a failed marriage under his belt, but thank God there were no children involved — that could have gotten messy. He was in and out of work, unable to hold a job for more than two or three years at a time. His looks were fading and some parts of his body were going south. They way things looked they weren’t going to be getting much better for him anytime soon. If they were to get better Dolan just couldn’t see how.
Dolan took a deep breath, let it out and repeated this several times. He looked toward the kitchen, envisioning the six-pack of Bud Ice in the refrigerator. He nodded his head and stood. First he would drink a cold one in honor of his lost friend. Then he would set out to doing the task of trying to contact Pete and Tony. Sometimes they were a bitch to get in touch with. Dolan hoped this was not one of those times.
There were three long rings in the apartment. After the third one an answering machine picked up. The voice talking from it was clearly Pete’s voice. It said: “You’ve reached Pete Wilcox. I’m not home, but you know what to do so do it and I’ll get back to yah.”
There was a moment of silence then a long beep. Dolan spoke on cue. “Hey, Pete,” he said not trying to sound cheerful. “It’s Dolan. If you haven’t seen the paper yet then you need to. Big Bird’s dead... umm... give me a call when you get this. You know my number — it hasn’t changed. Thanks. Bye.”
The message was short and to the point. It was the way Dolan wanted it to be. There was the click of the phone hanging up and the sound of the answering machine switching off. Pete had heard the phone but hadn’t bothered to pick it up. His head hammered too hard for him to even roll over, much less get up and cross the room to answer the phone. He had too much of a good time last night to consider doing anything if he didn’t have to. Getting up probably would’ve shook up his insides pretty good. Then he would have been lurching onto the rug. That would not have been fun to clean.
Pete’s eyes had snapped open and he had jerked up at the sound of Dolan’s voice. He cursed himself at the sudden movement that sent white hot lightening bolts into his skull. Tears formed in his eyes as he clutched his head. By the time the pain had subsided Dolan was hanging up the phone on the other end. Missing the phone call didn’t much matter to Pete. What mattered is what he thought he had heard through the insane ringing and the drums that banged loudly in his head.
Did he just say Calvin was dead? Pete asked himself. He knew the answer to the question. He didn’t even bother tying to get to his feet and walk over to the answering machine to find out. Pete Wilcox rolled onto his back. He stared at the white ceiling with empty eyes. He put his hands to his forehead feeling the remnants of the last great surge of pain that ran through his skull threatening to split it open.
Pete’s brown hair was flecked with touches of gray — prematurely, if you asked him. His blue eyes were blood shot with the red veins of little sleep and plenty of drinks. His chiseled features had settled by the time he was thirty. In the place where his rippled abs used to be was now the pot belly of a beer drinker. He hadn’t exactly let himself go, but he hadn’t continued to work as hard on looking good after he left college.
As for college, he had a degree in business that got him nowhere, and he was stuck working on houses and becoming a redneck’s redneck. He even chewed tobacco and wore those checked flannel shirts during the fall and winter months. A Dodge pick-up sat in its spot in front of his apartment, its exterior beat-up and the pain flaking off of it in places.
For Pete it was a simple case of when in Rome do as the Romans do, and most all of his buddies were in construction and just as rednecked as he was. It certainly wasn’t what he had envisioned his life to be at age twenty. Isn’t it interesting how life often doesn’t take people down the paths they thought they would lead?
It all changed for him, for all of them, except maybe Tony, on that day. On the day Dale Died... and they had left him behind.
Dale climbing the tree to try and top it was Pete’s idea. Just to see if he would do it, he would say later to no one listening to him. He didn’t have to do it. Nobody twisted his arm or put a gun to his head.
That wasn’t true, though. Pete had known that ever since that day. There had been a gun — though not a real one and not one that looked like a gun — and, in essence, it had been put to Dale’s head. That gun was Tony, Dolan and Pete and they way they pushed Dale and Calvin into things they usually didn’t want to do.
Even so, there were real guns there that day also. There were shots that rang out from the pit from guns from the plane. All of them had run, except Dale, who couldn’t run — he was trapped in the pit with the plane, the bullets and all of those black leaves that seemed to be breathing as if blood flowed through living veins in their make-up.
Pete had reached the boat first, jumping in and almost falling down as his feet hit the edge of it. Tony followed and then Dolan, who jumped in and started the motor as quickly as he could. Calvin was the only one who turned back to look toward where they had left Dale.
The argument between Tony and Calvin was brief and when Tony motioned for Pete to grab him, Pete responded quickly. Being the strongest in the group it was nothing for Pete to grab hold of the tall and lanky Calvin, pull him into the boat and shove him to the floor. He knew he had hurt Calvin when his face hit the floor of the boat but he was scared and, at the time, didn’t give a damn, as long as they could get out of there. And fast. He never needed Tony’s help holding Big Bird down even though he was straining with the determined and obviously distraught Calvin.
Pete had apologized after it was all said and done and none of them were going to jail. After all, wasn’t it Calvin who really saved their asses? At least from prison. Calvin said it was okay, that he understood, that he possibly would have reacted the same way if he had been in Pete’s shoes. But hadn’t he been? Didn’t they all experience the same thing? Weren’t they all terrified? The answer was simply: yes. And Calvin didn’t react the same way Pete had; the same way any of them had.
Pete lay in his bed, his hands firmly tucked beneath the pillow under his head. He was staring upward at the ceiling, through it; at the one moment in his life he had a chance to make a difference, to save someone else’s life. And he blew it. He would stare a while longer into space before falling asleep, awakening later in a cold sweat induced fit of shivers. Then he would call Dolan and try to catch up on the recent events of their lives.
Tony Rabbitto clocked out from his shift at the Lee County Correctional Institute. He had only been there for a little more than a year but the inmates — and guards alike — feared him. He was known for his quick temper and his heavy hands. If there was a problem with an inmate it was Tony they called to rectify the situation. Tony’s way of rectifying usually meant someone was going to the infirmary for a short stay then to solitary confinement for a long one. He was good at breaking down inmates. In his mind he was the best there was.
It wasn’t always that way, though. It had been hard for him to get into the police line of work after what happened with Dale. They may have been cleared of any and all wrongdoing but the investigation and the stories stayed with them all, especially Tony, who had wanted to be a detective instead of a prison guard (though a “damned good one” he would say). He might not have been happy about his profession but he was content with it.
As he got into his car and started it, Tony’s cell phone began to ring. He answered it in that nonchalant way he always did things — as if it didn’t matter who was on the other end they were privileged to be talking to him.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Hey, what’s up?”
The voice on the other end was Pete. Tony could tell something was wrong with him by the sound of his voice.
“Not much, Pete,” he said not trying to bring out what he knew Pete would tell him without even asking him. “I’m about to head home from work. How ’bout you?”
“I’ve got one helluva headache, but otherwise I’m alright.”
Alright? Pete never used the word alright.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Tony said. “What’s wrong?” Tony’s voice had automatically reverted to an authoritative tone — the same tone he used with the inmates.
There was a deep sigh on the other end then a long pause.
“Come on, Pete,” Tony coaxed. “Out with it.”
“Tony,” Pete started, “Big Bird’s dead.”
The word hung in the air as if in front of his face for him to read. Big Bird’s dead.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Brown