When I was five, I wanted to be a cowboy.
That was it. Cowboy. No question. A gun, a white hat, and a big silver star pinned to my chest. The whole shebang. I wanted to ride through town and look down at people from a big white horse.
When I was ten, I wanted to be Audie Murphy. Kill Nazis with machine guns. Get a medal from the president.
At a very earnest fifteen, I wanted to follow in my cousin’s footsteps and become a Catholic priest.
Then, by eighteen, it was Hugh Hefner. (Maybe that’s the best example, that one. It shows you the way I can really reverse myself on things.) I wanted to live in a mansion somewhere and bed a different woman every night.
At 21, I wanted to be a Ph.D., like my hip college professors.
At 25, I wanted to become an account executive by the time I was 30.
At 30, I just wanted to keep my job.
At 35, I wanted to marry Jaqueline Anna Stephenson of Coldwater, Michigan. And I did.
At 37, we had Teddy, and all I wanted in the world was for him to be happy. (Isn’t that nice?)
At 45, I wanted to be 30 again. Or maybe 25. Forty-five felt like being a third-string athlete. Technically still on the team, but riding the bench when women were around. They would still walk by and smile, but it wasn’t as if we had something to say to one another.
At 55, I thought about how 70 was only 15 years away. Seventy. Jesus. Fifteen years and I’m playing checkers with a quilt over my knees. (That’s what I thought, anyway.)
At 60, I took a buyout and retired. It was good money. Enough to last. One swift move, and I was gone.
Then at 62, I started giving guided tours of the historical Underground Railroad stops in town—for the tourists, you understand—just to have something to do.
And when I was 68, I decided I wanted to be buried next to Jaqueline Anna.
I hope you can see, in the grand scheme of my life, how minor a decision that was…how insignificant it was—at least in terms of a position you could later choose to…reevaluate.
It only came up because she got sick. Pancreatic cancer, and that was that. Gone in four months. Toward the end, one of the things I told her—one of the many, many details that felt unsavory and I didn’t want to talk about—was that I’d buy a family plot for the two of us.
It was a small funeral. Teddy came back from Oxnard with his family. One of Jaqueline Anna’s sisters came. We hadn’t been to church in years, so it was an awkward bit there with the priest.
Anyhow, the grave.
Have you looked at gravestones recently? I suppose you have. But it was all new to me. And apparently, twenty years ago or so, they started being able to sort of engrave them in this new way—with lasers or something—so you can put pictures on that look realistic, like a photo. I went with a massive headstone with an engraved picture of Jaqueline Anna and myself at our wedding. It had the dates of Jaqueline’s birth and death, the date of my birth (with an ominous dash after it), and the date on which we’d been married. Then at the top, engraved in the old-timey style, it said “FOREVER.”
And I thought, okay. There was a sense of completion there. A sense of having peeked ahead to the end of the book, and having seen how things looked when they were finished. And they looked all right.
But then 70. And I’ll tell you something about 70. You’re not dead.
Sure, you remember how you used to look, and then you go and peek in the mirror and see your face now and think “What the fuck is up with this?” But, you know, you go on. You think about that grand-uncle who made it to 98, and think maybe you’ve still got another thirty years. That’s a lot.
I’d sometimes think: “Kids could get born, join the army, and die fighting overseas in the time I’ve still got left.”
Round about 72, I stopped caring. Or counting. Whatever happens, happens, I decided. Who knows how long I’ll live?
And that was when I met Sally.
It was on the job. I was giving the Underground Railroad tour. Sally was a local, and her cousin was visiting from France, if you can believe that. Sally was taking her on the tour to show her what there was to see in Adrian, Michigan.
My tours are usually small. I get to know everybody in the group, most times.
And there she was. This articulate, sweet woman whom I had apparently lived alongside for years and never met. Turned out we shopped at the same grocery store. Her uncle had even been the mayor a few years back. (I remembered his stupid slogan: “Win with Idoine!”) I couldn’t believe we hadn’t run into one another before.
That day I gave the tour is still etched in my mind like a first-time from when I was a teenager. That beautiful fall day. We start at the old statehouse downtown. She’s wearing this white puffy coat and talking in French to her cousin. We go to the Beardsley house. Then the Palmer. Then the Wexner with its impressive caverns in the basement. The whole time I am listening to Sally talk French and almost forgetting my script. I remember coming up out through the storm doors in the back of the Wexner and Sally smiling at me and the leaves falling all around her from the giant maples.
At the end of the tour, I found out which coffee shop she went to. By the end of the week, I had made a plan to run into her there. Sat there drinking coffee until my stomach hurt, wondering if it was bad for my blood pressure, and then she came in one afternoon, and it was all worth it.
I her asked on a hayride.
We started seeing one another regular-like, and I’ll tell you, it never felt weird or wrong. Not ever. She knew about Jaqueline Anna, and I learned about a husband named David who had passed on fifteen years before.
It all felt, natural. Right.
So do I have to drag it out?
I mean, I’m sure you can guess why I’m here tonight.
Or can you?
Sally and I were married. We sold both our houses, and bought a new place together on Highway 12 out towards White Pigeon—a small, cozy ranch house with a few acres out back—all wooded with a creek running through it. We even bought some dogs (yes, yes… well aware they might outlive us).
Years passed. Wonderful years… The dogs grew. We shrank. (At least a little.)
Soon I was 75. Then I was 80.
And then I was 82, and the seizures started.
I won’t bore you with the details of the tests up at the university hospital, the strings of doctors who just look at test results and shake their heads and then refer you to other doctors who just look at test results and shake their heads… It should suffice to say that I eventually learned it’s a degenerative condition. I am degenerating. I’ve almost degenerated by now, I suppose, as I’m near the end. (My mother always called me a degenerate. I disagreed at the time, but now it appears she was right.)
Sally handled it better than I did. Stayed optimistic test after test, and then even when we learned there was nothing to be done, she only counted our blessings. How lucky we were to have found each other. How many wonderful years we’d been blessed with. How we might still have a few good months left. Maybe even more than that.
This was when I started contemplating the end, and spending it with Sally.
“Don’t let them take me to the hospital,” I told her one night. “Not even when I’m about to go. I want to be here with you.”
She assured me that that would be the case.
“I want to be with you always,” I told her. “I love you. You are my wife.”
“Yes,” she said.
“And when I’m buried, I want it to be next to you,” I told her. “I want to be with you forever.”
She cried a little, but nodded, and we both went to sleep.
Then, a few weeks later, something happened.
It was two in the morning. I woke from an uneasy sleep and couldn’t calm back down. (I get up early these days, but two is pushing it, even for me.)
I thought about a little food, and that seemed like a good idea. I crept to the kitchen and got out the bread and the ham and the mayonnaise. The dogs perked up and came over. I played with them quietly for a while. Then I took a seat and started to eat. The dogs sat at my feet, hoping for scraps.
Suddenly, the dogs started acting strangely. They stood up. Their tails twitched, but in this weird, anxious way. They weren’t interested in my food anymore.
I thought there might be something outside, but the dogs stayed away from the window. Soon, they headed for the family room, too anxious to stay in the kitchen.
I looked through the glass doors to the backyard. Something moved. I’d left my glasses back on the nightstand, and couldn’t make out many details. The shape was travelling along the line of trees in the back of the yard. Slow. Graceful. Deliberate.
Whatever it was, it was large. Not like a badger or raccoon.
More like a deer.
It seemed to be approaching the house.
I sat at the table looking out the window, trying to detect more movement. I squinted hard, but it didn’t help.
Then I noticed something to my direct left, and assumed one of the dogs had come back in the kitchen.
I looked over, and Jaqueline Anna was sitting on the wicker chair next to me, clear as day. She was right there. I didn’t need my glasses to see her.
I forget everything else.
When I woke up on the couch at about four, the dogs were sleeping on the carpet beside me like nothing had happened. Jaqueline Anna was nowhere to be seen.
I put the mayonnaise away, and crawled back into bed next to Sally.
A couple of days later, I went to Mulligan’s. I can’t drink on all these medications of course, but I like to go and just have a ginger beer. It’s nice to be around people.
That afternoon was cold. The first real day of winter—winter here to stay—that one you always get in early December.
I sat there hoping I didn’t have a seizure and wondering if I would live to see summer. Likely not.
It was getting on toward quitting time, and dinner and bed were already sounding pretty good to me, but I wanted to be there when the after-work crowd came in. I wanted to be around that “press” of people, if that’s the right word. I wanted to hear their conversations and smell the smoke on their clothes.
Sure enough, by 5:30 the place was filled up. There were combine workers, construction workers, those two odd, thin young men from the Humane Society, and the lawyers from the law office across the street. Everyone was talking—not loudly, but it was enough.
The heat of all the bodies frosted up the glass. On the window on the far side of the bar—the one facing the sidewalk—I noticed that the frosting was uneven in one place. I looked closer, and it looked like someone had written something.
Curious, I picked up my empty ginger beer and walked to the other side of the bar. (I travelled slowly, like a person with pneumonia. People in the bar quieted as I toddled by, as if loud words might blow me over. I felt bad about that.)
After a long time, I got there. Sure enough, there was writing on the window. One word.
It said: “FOREVER.”
I looked around, but nobody was sitting close to the window. It was empty in that part of the bar. I couldn’t guess who had written it.
I took my palm and smoothed-over the word “FOREVER” until it was just a streak the width of an old man’s gnarled palm.
Things happen in threes, right? I heard that somewhere.
Anyhow, that was the way it went for me. Three things.
The third was…
I didn’t like the third. Let me just get through it quickly.
Jacqueline Anna had always been an emotional woman. Liked to fight just so we could cry and make up. That sort of thing…
When she wanted to be sweet, it was heaven. But when she wanted to fight dirty…then, well, that was what she did.
It was a few days after Mulligan’s that this third thing happened.
It was getting dark earlier and earlier. It was very cold.
I’d been outside to get the mail and see to the dogs, and thought I was due for a hot shower.
I get it going—nice and steamy, y’know?—and step inside. I work up a good lather, soaping myself all over, and I happen to look down and suddenly my dick is blue. Like, my whole entire dick is a sickly dark blue. I squinted and squinted and rubbed the water out of my eyes, but there was no mistaking it. You’ve heard of blue balls? Well, this was nothing like that. This was a penis that was physically blue.
I’d have been genuinely concerned for my health if I’d never seen my penis look like that before. But the thing was, I had.
Many years ago—this would have been right after we were married—Jaqueline Anna and I were in the kitchen acting stupid one night. She was making a cake, and I thought I’d be all suave and put the moves on her while she was still in her little apron. (It didn’t take much to get her going back then. Or me.) So we got naked, then and there, on the kitchen floor. Sure enough, I roll against the table leg and send the little vial-container of blue food coloring all over my groin.
And she said something sweet, that I don’t completely remember. Something like: “I’ll always love you, even if your thing stays blue forever.” (It didn’t stay blue, of course, but it was a while before it got back to normal.)
There, in the shower, I found it had happened again. I scrubbed at it a little, with no discernable result. The dye was strong, just as it had been so many years before.
I sighed and turned off the shower and just stood there, dripping wet. Then I toweled off and put my shorts back on.
When I remembered to look at it again—when I went to pee later—the blue was gone. My manhood was back to normal. A regular old cock.
For the rest of the afternoon I sat in my chair, thinking.
So you can see—I hope—why I wanted to talk to you. Jaqueline Anna knows what I’m thinking about doing, and she doesn’t like it. She wants me to change my mind.
What happens if I disobey her—if I get buried next to Sally instead? Something? Nothing?
The other side is a mystery to me. But not to you, right?
Talk to me. For once, talk to me.
I need to know. In what sense does where I am buried “matter”?
Then I’m turning the tables.
We’ve never talked about you. I mean, I assume you’re buried here somewhere. You could be Judge Vorhees over there. Or Tharpe. Or Greene. I don’t know exactly. You always hover right here though, by this particular cluster of headstones.
You want to tell me which one you are? Might save us both some time. I’ll be over there—on the other side with you—soon enough, you know? Might as well tell me now.
You’re just… What? A floating mist, I guess. That’s what you’ve always looked like to me. A mist. But there’s more to you, isn’t there? More… so that sometimes I don’t like to look at you very closely.
When I stare really hard, sometimes I think I see a skull floating somewhere in there. A shiny human skull in the mist. Or it’s as if the mist is trying to make a skull, but keeps getting distracted, but then keeps trying to make the skull again.
Other times, I see stranger things. Tentacles that sort of wrap around the skull. Insects crawling out of the eye sockets. Twisting things like moths that flutter around in the grinning teeth.
That’s what you look like. A blurry skull surrounded by things an exterminator would catch.
Is that what you are?
You know, I remember how terrified I was the first time I saw you. You may recall how I screamed and ran. What was I then? Ten? Maybe eleven? Cutting through the graveyard in the middle of the night, and coming upon… you! It feels like yesterday, but it was 70-some years ago.
Jesus, I’m old.
But I came back, didn’t I? I was curious. Maybe even brave. I came back to see you again—to see what you were.
And I’ll be damned if I’ve gotten any answers from you over the years, but you always sort of mist-into-being whenever I come here. (You’re reliable…I’ll give you that.) After a while, I wasn’t even scared anymore. I liked coming to talk to you. When I had a real question—something serious I needed to work out—I always felt I could come here and talk to you about it.
You never talked back, but that was okay. I still felt like: “I talked my problem over with a ghost. A damn ghost. That has to mean something.”
But this one…
I don’t know what to think.
I wish you’d talk.
No answer, huh?
No answer again.
“Be that way,” as my grandson says.
But no, I don’t feel like we’re through here. Not by a damn shot.
There’s something I want to tell you before I go.
One summer when I was fifteen, I took my dad his lunch in a cooler. He worked on a road crew that was tearing up an old highway—ancient, like a Seedling Mile road—right outside of Adrian. I got there with the cooler—it had sandwiches my mom had made for him, and a beer. When I arrived, no one was working. The crew was all gathered around, looking at a spot where they’d had to uproot a tree.
I found my father in the group of men, and walked up and handed him the cooler. Then I looked where they were looking, and I saw that a body was intertwined with the roots. It had rotted away. It was only some clothes with a skeleton inside. The bones were old and turning black.
“What’s that?” I asked my dad.
He sipped his beer and looked down at me.
“You can see what it is,” he told me.
“Bones?” I asked.
My dad nodded.
“Just some bones in the ground,” he said.
“What do you think happened?” I asked.
“Somebody put him there,” my father said, taking another swig. “We don’t know how, but he’s been underground for a while.”
I looked at the body some more. Then I just started crying.
I tried to stop but I couldn’t. Giant sobs began bursting out of me. Heavy tears ran down my cheeks. I was shaking. It was the wrong place and the wrong time for it. At my dad’s work. In front of all his friends. In front of his boss.
Plus, the body was nobody I knew. Nobody my family knew. Like my dad said, just some bones in the ground. They might as well have been an animal’s. They might as well have been nothing.
And still, I could not stop crying.
The sight of those bones just undid me.
The other men on the jobsite noticed me. They started laughing and rolling their eyes. Soon, there were more people looking at me than at the bones. I could not recall being more ashamed.
But then, with everybody on the worksite watching, my father took a step forward and put his hand on my shoulder.
Some days, I feel like his hand is still there.
Just some bones in the ground.
These things… They’re hard, you know?