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To Darkness and to Me

by Jeremiah Minihan

Barry Hadley wondered: Why haven’t I noticed this place before? He must have seen it, since his walks through downtown Boston took him to all sorts of out-of-the way alleys and courts. He started to push on, keeping track of his route and distance, but then he stepped close to the building, peering as well as he could through the dirty plate-glass window.

The interior was a restaurant, that was clear, but it had a 1950’s appearance, with metal tables and chairs and reddish-looking plastic on the chair seats and other surfaces. There were no indications of what kind of restaurant it was — no flat metal ovens for pizza, for example — only a wide door in the rear that must have led to the kitchen. The odd thing was that the room seemed clean and neat, no dust or fleecy cobwebs.

It was puzzling.

The restaurant was on one of those narrow streets near Chinatown. Hadley was sure that he had seen the place before. When he stood back, almost in the street to get a better view, he realized that the brick building that housed the restaurant was dull, ugly and squat; one of those indistinguishable buildings that clutter up the city until they are pulled down and replaced with structures equally shoddy.

The next day, he found himself staring at the building again. He looked at the pedometer he had bought at the end of winter, and planned out his route. Unless there was a meeting in the afternoon, he was not tied to a particular schedule. The walks helped him, complemented his visits to the gym, and were part of the regimen he thought best for someone in his forties.

As he walked, he thought about the rapid-fire basketball games that he used to play with his colleagues from work. But that was before the relentless downsizing and the relocation of the office to less desirable locations. By the time he got home to Jamaica Plain, it was usually too late to run or even walk. So the lunch-hour outing worked best.

Barry smiled; he thought that the interior had not changed since the day before. How could it? Why would it? This time, he watched while others passed the restaurant. Some did as he was doing, looking through the dark glass; but most whipped past as though they had either seen the place before or had no curiosity about looking into it at all. He checked the time and decided to head back, afraid for a moment that he would be entranced by the gloomy, silent room.

He raced through the corner of the Common and entered the drab lobby of his own building. Once, the firm had occupied the best floors of an Art Deco building on Federal Street, but that was before the economy tumbled, requiring more transient, cheaper space for most of the staff at the office park in Dedham.

“Barry, how was the walk?” The man who greeted him as the elevator doors opened was younger than he, taller, and somewhat thinner. Barry never knew how to take James’s comments or questions. James was one of the new managers, brought in from the outside to stir the pot. Maybe James’s questions were innocent, but Barry usually felt that these had an edge to them, a twist.

“Good, James; the weather is pretty decent for a May afternoon.”

And you had to remember that James was always called James. God help anyone who called him Jim or Jimmy.

James hurried off, which was just as well, since Barry had to get back to the project plans. As Barry eased into his cubicle, he managed to give a short grin to the older men and younger women near him. He was their boss, but he occupied the same small workspace with them.

* * *

“Go for it.”

Barry nodded in response and then pushed his head down, driving his feet aggressively on the pedals. The young woman who stood casually near him wiped her forehead with a small towel. His knew that the gym discouraged members from taking too close an interest in others’ exercise, but this was all right, he felt.

“Boy, that was tough, Sam.” When Barry said this, he remembered to smile, straightening up as carefully as he could, and moving near Sam. He remembered a basketball injury he had suffered some years ago. The pain bothered him so much that he had gone to see his doctor. The doctor had looked at him with an expression between sympathy and contempt and slowly said, “You have to remember that you are not a young man anymore.”

Barry and Sam continued their easy conversation, holding to the safe topics that were always best in these situations. In years, he supposed that Sam was not all that much younger: mid-thirties was a safe bet. But he had never asked her out or even casually suggested something like that. Short and solid, she had the trim breasts, legs, and behind that anyone would expect a passionate exerciser to have. When you thought of it, he was not sure how he knew that she was passionate. He just assumed that she was.

“You’re still here, most days,” she said, slugging on her water bottle.

“Why, didn’t think that an old guy would be able to keep at it?” They were sitting on opposite ends of the little bench, watching the others strain and race.

“You’re not such an old guy. It’s just that with the better spring weather, I thought you would be more apt to do this exercise stuff outdoors.”

“Well, sort of. I take longer and longer walks at noon, when the weather is decent. But I can’t give this place up.”

She started to laugh as she stood up. “You know what they say about gyms. Once they start stripping the money out of your account each month, they’ve got a winning proposition. You almost have to beat the odds by showing up as often as you can.”

“Got that right.”

One or two days passed before he had a chance to speak to her again. This time, it was at the beginning of the session. After the jokes and the teasing and the plans for that day’s work, Barry began to ask: “I know you have done some reporting—”

She laughed quickly. “I would not call it real reporting. I’ve had a couple of stories in the paper, and I guess I am struggling for some sort of permanent by-line.”

“Sure, sure. I know what you mean. I was wondering if you could do some digging about a closed restaurant near Chinatown.” When she nodded, he gave her the street and number. “Just weird and all. Looks like it has been closed for years. I wonder if you could look into it.”

“Why me, Barry? Isn’t this the kind of thing you could do yourself?”

“Well, sure, but I thought you might like to tackle it. You know, it might make a good story.”

She smirked at him, and he accepted the put-down, but she did say she would investigate.

Demello’s. That was the name of the restaurant. On his next visit to the building, he noticed the faded, worn letters of the lower part of the glass. There must have been a larger sign at one time, but this was all that was left. He was not sure of the letters first, but it made sense the more he looked at it.

This time it was different. He wondered whether he had come later or earlier than his usual time, but that was not the case. He checked his watch, thinking for a moment how silly it was to carry a watch these days, with electronic devices to keep one on target. Still, this watch had been a gift from Julia. He knew that it was expensive, far more costly that anything they should have bought during their young days.

But then the accident happened and things changed forever. He still thought about her, of course, but he had to admit that those images kept getting grayer and grayer. Still, he had the watch and wore the watch, and that was that.

This time he saw something, something inside. With his nose nearly on the glass, he was sure that something had moved near the back of the restaurant. That was the oddest thing. If the restaurant had look and feel of the restaurant as the 1950’s, then this figure definitely did not fit.

Tallish, the man — he was sure now that it was a man — was standing near the black space that must have led to the kitchen. He had a waiter’s broad apron wrapped around him, but he had the long hair of someone from the late 1960’s. His wide tie looked pretty foolish, since no one had worn ties of that style in decades. The man seemed to be looking dreamily out onto the sidewalk. Barry could not tell if the man was smiling, but he sensed that he was.

Barry was not sure if his gaze was reciprocated or if the man in the restaurant merely stared impassively at whatever — or whoever — appeared on the street. Barry looked about him as others passed on the sidewalk. Perhaps some of those other pedestrians looked into the place and saw the man, perhaps they did not. If any of them did, they would not think anything was odd or amiss.

Barry kept looking in. The man inside had not moved from his position but had turned slightly toward one of the tables. Like the others, it was empty.

* * *

Barry and Sam walked out of the gym together, both giggling like schoolchildren. When Barry said, “We’ll have to stop meeting like this,” he regretted it, since it must have made him seem like an old fart. To compensate, he pulled himself up slightly and tried to walk with a quicker pace.

“Not much luck with that place you asked me — Demellos. I tried to search for information, but of course there wasn’t much. When I was in Copley Square, I had a chance to look at some of the archives.” She turned and patted his arm. “No, I did not make a separate trip just for that. I had some of my own real work to do there.”

“Well, you hadn’t forgotten.”

She shrugged and went on. “The place has been closed since the 1960’s. There was a small article about the closing, and there was some reference to a crime being committed there. To be honest, I couldn’t really follow it. I would have to go back and look at some earlier editions.”

“That’s it?”

She tossed him a sharp look. “Yeah. They did have a picture of the restaurant when it closed. Looked like a 1950’s place to me.”

He nodded slowly and said, “Yes, I know what it looked like.”

They had reached the end of their walk together, and each headed toward different train stations.

* * *

The next time Barry paid more attention to the man inside Demello’s. He thought that the waiter was grinning at him, but that was just a guess. How could there be any reaction at all? This time he was close enough — or maybe the glass was clean enough — that he could see the details and prices of the menu. The prices were absurd. No one had charged such amounts for years. Maybe he was not looking carefully enough. The error had to be his. That was obvious.

The man in the restaurant was younger than him, and his long hair was almost completely black. There might be a faint thinning near the forehead, but perhaps not. Barry thought for a moment that the man had raised his arm as a sort of greeting, but not really a greeting. Then the figure turned slightly toward the back of the restaurant as though he was waiting for someone to come out or speak.

* * *

That evening, Barry and Sam looked rested and refreshed looking, nothing like how they would look when their routines — their punishments, as he called it — were over. They had a few words of greeting and conversation. He told Sam that with the June heat, he would be coming to the gym more often. Unless he got up very early, which he seldom did these days, he would not want to go running.

“Me, too,” she said briskly. She added something about the late work hours, but he did not pay much attention to her.

“I still go by that old restaurant. It’s a mystery. I keep wondering about it.”

“Do we have to talk about it again? I mean it is getting a little old.” She was looking at him in an odd way, in a way he had not really expected.

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be such a pest, really.” He gave a quick laugh. “What about something later? Coffee or a drink? We have talked about it.”

“Can’t. Too busy. I told you how things are right now.”

He nodded and turned to the equipment he planned to use that day. He felt uneasy. When he saw her talking to a young guy later that hour, he wondered even more. Perhaps she was giving up on him, but that was stupid, since there was nothing really to give up on.

Maybe he was making it all up.

* * *

He wondered, later, if he knew the day that it all would happen. There was nothing special about the day, a hot Thursday in July. He could spend more time looking in, because his work situation now allowed him the time. James had told the workers that there would be some staffing changes since the rest of the Boston contingent would be moving to Dedham at the end of the summer. Barry wondered why James had done that. Surely some would be tempted to jump before then. They might also do some destructive things. But then it was clear to him that James felt as his underlings must have felt: no one really cared anymore.

Sam seemed indifferent when he told her. “Might be a good thing,” she said cheerily. And then she was off. He knew that they had much less to say to each other lately. Her choice, not his.

Afterwards, when he was alone — of course he would be alone then — he had not realized that this would be his final visit to the restaurant. Nothing had changed, of course, and the interior of the place looked the same. He thought that he recognized some of the passersby and suspected that they were slyly smirking at him. It just felt that way, whether it was true or not. And what you feel is always more important anyway.

He thought that the man within had advanced a little toward the front. There was something about the shadows or streaks of light that made him think so. The man’s clothing looked especially silly. His mother used to call such clothing “loud.” He had the odd sense that the man was trying to speak to him. He was sure that the guy had moved or waved his arm, almost beckoning him.

Later, he would know only that they had switched places. But it was not as simple as just switching places. He had been aroused, as if from a dream, and began to look around at his surroundings. He was in the restaurant. The room was quiet and cool, something you did not expect in a restaurant. He could walk around now, if he wanted to, to feel the plastic table cloths and the metal chairs. But he did not want to move. He remained where he was, as though he were fixed to this spot in the floor.

Yes, he was now on the inside, trying to make sense of the darkened room but, at first, he did not know where the other fellow was. Much later — and hour or so, maybe — he saw someone looking in through the dirty window. At first he did not recognize the guy since the clothes and longish, out-of-date hair had been exchanged for a more contemporary appearance. But it was the same man, with the same distant, almost blank expression on his face.

And then the man on the outside was gone, and Barry could see the pedestrians briskly walking along the sidewalk, fast for a day in July. He felt as though he had been standing for hours, but he was not tired at all. You could also say he was not particularly excited about his new circumstances. He would have to wait now to see what would happen next.

Copyright © 2020 by Jeremiah Minihan

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