Old Year Out
by Brandon Whited
“Old Year... out! New Year... in!”
That’s what my dad always said.
New Year’s Eve, 2008, I’m lying on the couch in Rob’s new house, and I’m the only one awake. It’s 1 a.m., one hour into 2009; one hour since Dick Clark wished us well on ABC, his speech pitifully impaired by the stroke.
Jill is asleep beside me, her head nuzzled against my shoulder, her auburn hair gracing the side of my face, smooth as silk. I can smell her shampoo. I’m betting it has some fancy name — Tropical Hawaiian Wildberry, say. I decide to call it Essence of Jill, and think that if it’s true that you’ll be doing next year what you were doing this year when the ball dropped, that’ll be fine by me.
Miles the cat hops onto the coffee table and starts picking at leftovers from mine and Jill’s sandwiches, bought at Wal-Mart only hours ago, yet last year. Strange to think, isn’t it?
The TV’s still on, the volume turned down low, almost low enough to make the Cheech & Chong movie that’s on inaudible. Is that really a bad thing?
Rob’s asleep on the larger couch, his foot propped up on the coffee table next to the unopened six-pack of Heineken. He’s snoring lightly, and I grin when I notice the crumpled bag of ketchup-flavored chips tucked under his arm. Ambrosia, his wife of six months, must have already called it a year and retreated to bed.
Brad, an almost constant guest — or pest, if you ask Ambrosia — at the Wade residence, is asleep/passed-out in the recliner. His last bottle of Guinness is lying overturned beneath the fully-reclined footrest, and Phoebe the Pomeranian is licking up a nightcap from what spilled on the floor.
I yawn and slowly uncurl my numb arm from behind Jill’s head. I have two urgent calls to answer: one from nature, the other from nicotine.
I stand, stretch my back until it pops, and head to the toilet to seek relief. Nature’s call silenced, I turn to nicotine’s. I brought a couple of King Edwards for the occasion, but have yet to light one. They’re in the inner pocket of my jacket, which I grab off the kitchen table on my way out the side door.
Out beneath the covered carport I pull one of the cigars and my Bic lighter out of my jacket and pop a squat on the brick stoop. I fire up the “cancer log” (as my mom would say with disgust) and take a long, rewarding series of puffs.
The smoke from my oral chimney drifts away into a night that is clear, cold, and silent. My eyes wander. The house next door is dark; save for the faint blue glow of a small television in what I assume is a back bedroom. I imagine the form of the home’s elderly occupant tucked snugly under a stack of quilts, snoring lightly while the cat curled up at the end of the bed purrs at roughly the same decibel.
The trailer at the end of the street, by contrast, appears very much alive. There’s a light in every window, interrupted every few seconds by the shadowy forms of people. Frat boys on Christmas break and some random chicks, eighty-percent likely cultivated from the local high school, my mind tells me, filling in the blanks left by my distant view of the party.
And now my ears are telling stories, too. The faint, almost undetectable strands of music I thought I could hear have become the last notes to Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love”, and seconds later that turns into Sean Kingston stuttering his way through one of his obnoxious hit singles.
The cancer log is down to a burnt stump. I put it out in the hard, dry soil of a piece of pottery that’s last vegetative resident died long ago.
I hear a dog yelping somewhere far away to my left, and as I turn my attention toward the sound, my eyes focus on a large square of bright light on the tip-top of the otherwise dark hill across the main road. That glow is from the always-burning interior lights of the big cemetery’s mausoleum.
My mind once again turns the volume of the frat party’s music way down and shifts my thoughts somberly to the Hereafter.
I had believed the morbid fraction of my personality had been reduced to zero years back when I took a job as a helping hand at a local mortuary and decided death wasn’t too neat after all, but my present fixation on the cemetery suggests the opposite.
Solar-powered crucifixes cast eerie glows in the darkness. I can’t help but think of ghosts, and pull the leather jacket tighter around my shoulders.
A cold, biting wind is picking up, and with it comes snow flakes. A few flurries at first, but in a few minutes’ time I’m bearing witness to the first snowfall of 2009.
It’s going to be a few months before I’m comfortable with two-thousand-nine rather than eight, and by that time it’ll be nearly half over and Twenty-Ten will be up to bat. A change in the number of the year, an addition to the number of our individual age. Both numbers adding up to one sum. For the age of time itself, who knows what the final tally will be. The sum total for each of us is just as shrouded, though we all know what it equals anyway — solar-powered crucifixes and birthday cards left to be shredded by the blades of a caretaker’s mower.
The snow is really coming down now. The ground is turning white; the road and vehicles, too. Suddenly I wish to touch it; to catch a flake on my tongue; to roll the fresh snow into a ball in my palms.
I stand, as though entranced by hypnosis, and walk to the edge of the carport. I hook an arm around one of the support posts and slowly swing outward, head tilted, eyes closed, tongue out.
I feel a flake touch my tongue. There, then gone... such as time. Such as a lot of things.
“How does it taste?”
Startled by the voice, I fall into the soft white, arms outstretched, catching myself.
A hand comes into my line of vision. Long, pale fingers, the nails painted gold. This hand looks cold, yet upon taking it I feel warmth. I feel longing. I feel... love?
I look upon the face of the person to which the hand is attached. At that moment — for me, at least — time itself stops.
Here she stands before me. Impossible, yet somehow true.
I’ve never been one to contemplate what I would do if I were to encounter the ghost of a dead loved one; as an agnostic I would have brushed off any such notion as being so unlikely as to be ridiculous. But I know there are many people out there of a more spiritual persuasion who have thought about just such a thing — actually, there’s probably more than a handful who have obsessed over the thought.
But I’m here to tell you, as far as my personal experience goes, none of those ideas about what you might say or do if you did in fact come face-to-face with someone you knew in life who “passed on” will mean much to you at that moment.
Looking upon her, I find my body is encased in total numbness. My thoughts at this moment are essentially nonexistent. I am disconnected from my body, witnessing the whole event as though it were a movie.
Her hair, fair blond, is curled (I always loved when she wore it curled) and shoulder-length. She’s wearing the strapless turquoise dress she last wore when we went to senior-year prom.
That was in May... 2005.
It was a warm, humid night; the first flakes of snow still far from mind.
Tiff always wanted us to dance in the snow; thought it would be the most romantic moment we could share. I told her one day we would...
She extends her arms, as though to embrace me.
Words come from my mouth, though I do not consciously intend them to.
“It’s snowing, Tiff. It’s finally snowing on us.”
Her reply is a smile, a smile that always lit her face up and revealed her dimples, and even now does the same. I find her brown eyes are still like burning embers. I always said those eyes could see right into my soul. Where she comes from now, that might just be true, I think.
I want to ask her how she was able to return to me, but I don’t.
I want to tell her how badly I miss her, how it felt like I died in the accident with her...
She wraps her arms tightly around my neck, pressing the small form of her body against me, nuzzling her face against my shoulder, and my mind ceases to wonder. No more questions come.
As I hug her back, I find my hands are shaking. Her body, once so familiar to my touch, now feels strange. It’s been two years since I last held her, and this, if it’s anything, is strange!
I know she is dead, but she feels so alive.
I can feel her chest lightly rising and falling against my body. She’s breathing. Do ghosts breathe? All evidence points to yes.
She kisses me and man, if that doesn’t feel real, too. More than feeling real, it feels right... as though the life I had been living for the past two years, the one where the trucker with too many drinks under his belt continued to feel such an obligation to get his cargo of Charmin to Kentucky that he felt it worthy of the life of a young girl named Tiffany Hart, were a bad Lifetime movie.
Our lips part. We stand looking into each others’ eyes for a drawn-out moment, her seemingly as amazed to see me here as I am to see her.
And now we’re at the part where, if this were a Lifetime movie, we would say “I love you” and grab one another up in a passionate embrace as the snow fell in our winter wonderland. The soundtrack would kick in, and the end credits would start rolling...
The snow is falling, and I suppose you could say this is a winter wonderland, if you ignore the white heap that, underneath, is a Sedan parked in the driveway. But now, at the part where we proclaim our love for one another and embrace, we do something very different.
We start to dance.
That’s right; we’re dancing now... dancing in the snow.
Despite the present backdrop, it feels like it’s May of ‘05 again. My ears, prone to playing tricks all night, roll the volume up on Spandau Ballet — “True” — and I will not be at all surprised if I turn around and see cardboard palm trees and stuffed parrots from our Tropical Romance prom theme setting about in the snow.
Now Tiff does something strange, given that anything could be considered strange when the person that “strange” is describing has just come back from the dead.
She pauses, lets me go, and blows a kiss right into the center of my face. My eyes shut reflexively.
I open them.
No Tiff. No footprints, either. I’m standing alone in the snow, and it’s now that I first became aware of just how cold I am. I ignore it, zipping up my leather jacket, and continue to stand statue-like (or frozen).
“Dude... the heck’re you doing?”
It’s Brad, hanging out the side door, his Nine Inch Nails hoody pulled tightly around his chubby features.
“Just...” I numbly shake my head, “watching the snow.”
He stares for a second, as though he’s looking upon someone who has just lost their friggin’ mind (and I may very well have), shakes his head, and disappears back in through the door.
I trudge back beneath the carport and stomp the snow off my shoes on the aged concrete. My hands are starting to look blue, and I barely feel anything when I brush the light layer of snow off my shoulders.
I glance back toward mine and Tiff’s wintry dance floor. There are no cardboard palm trees. No stuffed parrots, either. And definitely no Spandau Ballet.
A shudder runs down my spine. Most likely it’s the cold wind, but I swear... it feels like a hand caressing my back. Perhaps it is, my newly-revitalized spiritual side speculates.
I go through the side door and pause on the rug, bending down to untie my saturated shoes. In the living room, a late-night news broadcast has replaced Cheech & Chong. Rob, undoubtedly awakened by Brad, is discussing a video he saw on YouTube.
Now would be a good time for one of those Heinekens, I decide.
Copyright © 2010 by Brandon Whited