July 15, 2015

Because You Can’t Die Now

Because You Can’t Die Now

 Welford_Road_Cemetery_wide_view

By Nathan Knapp

1. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR HAS AN IDEA

At the funeral of his ancient great uncle Rick, Henry Lomar sits near the front of the church. Though he himself is only forty-three and in reasonably good health, at the thought of his uncle’s death he feels a shiver go through his entire body.

In a moment, Henry will be asked to step forward and help carry the casket out to the hearse, exit stage right. But now, in the moment before the preacher steps away from the pulpit and the last song is sung, an idea strikes Henry. I could make some money off all this, he thinks. Henry is not the kind of guy who thinks often of money. He has spent most of his adult life barely able to make rent. He’s worked as a grocery bagger, as a deli meat slicer, and as a post office mail-sorter. Once, before it became legal in Washington state, he spent a few weeks working at a medical marijuana dispensary before it got raided by men with helmets and bulletproof vests and assault rifles. In his forty-three years, he’s delivered newspapers, driven a beer truck, scooped globs of ice cream, pulled espresso shots in the naked light of dawn for people headed to better jobs living better lives. For great heaving stretches of time, too, he’s lain on his sofa eating microwave popcorn and hoping for the phone to ring. This last mode of employment is his current one.

Once, although it seems like years ago, Henry had aspirations for art. He’d paint, still, if he could afford the paint to do it. And now, as he sits near the front of this church not thirty feet from his great uncle Rick’s dead and unmoving body, he has an idea about his own death, and a way to make some money off it. What if he was to sell advertising space on his own gravestone? And perhaps the gravestones of others? A one-time flat fee to be paid by the interested advertiser to the eventually-to-be-deceased client—for advertising space, upon the client’s death, for as long as the gravestone lasts.

A slow smile stretches across Henry’s lips, which, his father, sitting next to Henry, mistakes for a smirk. His father elbows him in the ribs. Stop smiling, his father whispers. You’re embarrassing me. His father is sixty-nine years old. He looks like the Marlboro Man, minus the cowboy hat. And the cigarettes.

Henry tries to erase the smile but can’t, so he stands up—his smile stretching from mouth corner to mouth corner—walks down the aisle, and exits the church.

He’s forgotten that he was even at a funeral, much less that he was supposed to help bear the pall.

 

2. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR SPEAKS WITH HIS FATHER

The next day Henry’s father calls him and asks why he left in the middle of the service. You’ve always been strange, his father says, but that was inexcusable. Henry tries to compose his thoughts—after he left the service he spent most of the night working up a business plan. Then, after he finished the business plan, he drank a lot of whiskey to celebrate the dream of his new and more successful life. He tries to explain the business plan to his father. The line is silent for a long moment. Then his father says, Hmmm. This does not feel like a good sign.

Dad, you’re totem-poling.

I have no idea what that means.

You want me to climb your totem pole, Henry says. You know. The regular pole that most people have to climb.

His father snorts. I’m afraid I don’t understand, Henry.

I’m building my own totem pole. MY OWN.

Henry then hangs up on his father, and tries, unsuccessfully, to pull out his own beard.

 

3. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR HAS A THERAPEUTIC ENCOUNTER

The next day Henry goes to see his therapist. While he rides the bus to his therapist’s office, which is near Green Lake, he works on his business plan, scribbling in a purple sixty-sheet notebook with his favorite black pen. Maybe, he says, after he explains his idea to the therapist, Maybe the reason I’m starting this business is because it gives me something to look forward to about dying.

Well, his therapist says, I think the important question might be this—why do you need a reason to look forward to dying?

I’m not crazy, Henry says. I’m not crazy, right? I’m self-employed.

Right, says his therapist. That’s better.

Henry Lomar likes his therapist a lot. These sessions are productive, he says.

 

4. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR ENCOUNTERS FRUSTRATIONS OF VARIOUS KINDS

Unfortunately, when Henry begins presenting his idea to potential investors, most of them tell him that his idea is in bad taste. This makes Henry sad. These are hard times, Henry tells them. Hard times for people everywhere. Don’t you watch the news? Everywhere, people need money—and more importantly, people need money while they’re alive, not while they’re dead. But no one seems to understand this last point. They simply lean back, shake their heads for a moment, and then get up to leave.

You people don’t understand death at all, Henry says.

 

5. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR FINDS A FRIEND

Henry posts adds on the internet seeking investors. With most of his meager savings, he takes out an ad in The Stranger. He takes out a tiny space in the Seattle Times. When the ads run, his phone rings off the hook for a day or two, but Henry doesn’t have the guts to answer. He feels low, stretched out on his floor, surrounded by empty plastic liquor bottles, covered in a heavy horse blanket inherited from his rancher grandfather. Most of the time he lays face down with his eyes closed, a hangover the size of the Second World War pummeling the trenchworks of his brain. Eventually he answers one of the calls, though. A gruff man with a sensible tone wants to talk with him, tomorrow. Okay, Henry says. The next morning he rises and tries to trim his beard. He wants to find his suit but can’t, so he puts on his nicest collared shirt and some khakis he hasn’t worn since the late nineties, when he briefly worked at an office-supply store. He takes the bus over Queen Anne Hill and climbs out on Nickerson Street, where he staggers into a small coffee shop jam-packed with college students and mothers affixed to strollers. This does not seem like the place, he thinks, to have a serious meeting.

But suddenly he sees the man who called him the night before lumbering up to the cash register, and from just looking at him knows he’s found the man for the job: the man’s features are gigantic, and though not chiseled, his face is roughhewn, an escarpment, like he hasn’t spent more than a few hours out of the elements in the past decade. When the man sees Henry, he seems to know him automatically, too. My name is Arthur T. Gable. I come from Waco, Texas, he says, although Henry has not asked him where is from. Gable grabs a seat opposite Henry and holds out a massive, scarred hand, textured less like skin than split wood, splintery and gouged from heavy use.

Nice to meet you, Henry says, and sits down. He observes Gable’s considerable and imposing form. The man barks commands in some kind of code into a yellow walkie-talkie, and clenches a large, unlit stogie in the corner of his mouth beneath a full, graying Tom Selleck mustache. I’ll be frank—I’m a plumber by trade, Gable says. A master plumber, he adds, and points to the walkie-talkie. This is how I talk to my employees. He chomps his stogie violently. Are you a reader, Henry? I never go into a business venture with a man unless he reads. Me, I’m a Louis L’Amour kind of guy, myself. What do you read, Henry?

Well, mostly I read—

Good, Gable says. Now, let’s get down to business. Do you have things worked out on paper?

My plan, Henry says.

Your plan, Gable says. His voice sounds like sandpaper being dragged across unfinished wood.

My plan, Henry says again. My plan is to help the little guy. To give the man on the street—and the woman on the street, too—a chance to make some easy money—

Gable chops the air with his considerable hand. Cut the soporific bullshit, Henry. Get to the point.

Excuse me? Henry almost knocks off his glasses in surprise.

Cut the boring shit. What I mean is, I don’t need to know how you’re gonna pitch it to consumers. I need to know if it works.

Oh, Henry says. He explains the plan exactly as he explained it to his therapist, with a few refinements. Gable’s eyes bore into him like drill bits as he talks. In a way, too, it’s kind of like an economic stimulus plan—

A stimulus plan?

Sure, Henry says nervously. If everyone does it then everyone pockets some much needed cash and then they can go spend that cash at the businesses that buy their tombstones. And then, when people start dying, the businesses involved gain customers as soon as the graveside service begins.

Gable chomps his stogie. But how do we guarantee the people will die?

They seem to pretty regularly.

Hadn’t thought of that.

They deliberate for most of another hour. Afterwards, they shake hands and go outside onto the street, where Gable lights his stogie with a Zippo emblazoned with his initials.

I look forward to doing business with you, Arthur, says Henry. He tries, unsuccessfully, to light a cigarette with a cardboard match.

Call me Mr. Gable. Everyone who works for me does.

Aren’t we going into business … together?

Gable belches forth a massive plume of smoke. He doesn’t look at Henry, he looks forward. Henry wonders what Gable sees there.

Sure we are, Gable says. Of course, come to think of it. Call me whatever you like. Then, without saying goodbye, Gable mounts his brand new Jeep and drives away, leaving his still-burning stogie lying next to the abandoned parking spot.

After Gable’s Jeep is out of sight, Henry makes sure no one is looking, then picks up Gable’s cigar. He tries a puff, coughs. It’s a manly cigar, Henry thinks.

 

6. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR REFUSES TO PART WITH HIS BEARD

It takes awhile to develop, but soon enough, money starts pouring in. At first, the only consumers willing to sign up are the terminally ill, but it soon seems as if the majority of Sell Your Stone Ltd’s client base will be young people in their mid-twenties, especially those with college degrees. Henry wonders about this. The only plausible reason for the phenomena that he can settle on: the people most comfortable with signing away the contents of their tombstones are the ones who think about death the least; if you’re not afraid to die then you don’t have to worry about what the stone above your dead body will say about you.

As business takes off, Henry and Gable realize they’ll need a proper office, so they rent out half a floor in a small Belltown high-rise on the corner of Denny and Queen Anne Avenue, a location they choose in part for its cheaper price than something downtown, and (though Henry does not tell Gable this) because of its proximity to Henry’s favorite bar, the Streamline Tavern. As business takes off Gable advises Henry to cut his beard and buy a couple new suits. Nobody trusts a man with a beard, Gable says. Henry counters by saying that Gable doesn’t seem to have any intention of cutting off his mustache. People trust mustaches, Gable says. A man with a mustache is a man you can trust.

Combing his hair becomes a daily exercise for him for the first time in decades. And though he’s making money for the first time in a long time, Henry stays in his basement apartment, where there is seldom any sunlight, because it’s one of the only things that still feels familiar to him about his life. He does, however, buy a used car, so that he can pick back up one of his greatest passions: poker. And, on his first trip up to the casino north of Seattle, he takes one detour, stopping off at an art store in the U-District, where he buys some paint—gouaches, mostly—and four or five canvases.

When he returns south on I-5, he’s down a little over a thousand dollars, and not because of the art supplies. As he follows brushing his teeth with flossing, he vows not to make trips to the casino a habit. I will not gamble away all my money, he says to himself. I won’t.

 

7. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR GAMBLES AWAY ALL OF HIS MONEY

Despite his resolutions, he takes the next Friday afternoon off, beats the rush hour traffic near the Mercer Exit onto I-5, and makes the forty-five minute trek out of the city. And he doesn’t find himself returning until nine or ten Sunday night, red-eyed and with barely enough cash in his bank account to buy a tank of gas. This is just a thing, he says on his return trip, that I do.

 

8. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR LOSES HIS VIRGINITY

The next weekend, however, he resolves not to go to the casino, and, surprisingly, manages to will his car away from Mercer Street, away from the I-5 onramp, and back to his apartment. When he gets home there’s even a cheerful ray of sunlight shining through his west-facing window (the only window he has, by virtue of being in the basement). Things don’t look so bad at home. Henry tries to read, for awhile, a Louis L’amour novel that Gable has told him he should read. The book entertains him until Henry realizes that the hero of the book is pretty much an exact representation of his own father, at which point Henry throws the book the length of his living room, where it clunks unsatisfactorily off the trashcan and onto the floor near the doorway to his tiny kitchen. In an attempt to recoup his spirits Henry calls some women he knows, says Hi, it’s Henry—and that’s about as far as he gets, number after number, that is, if they pick up at all, which most don’t. This, understandably, makes him feel lonely. The sunbeam that was coming in from the west window vanishes. It’s nine o’clock. Henry opens a bottle of Jim Beam, pours a couple fingers into a large glass. He checks the balance of his bank account online. He makes a phone call, which is answered. After he says what he wants and gives his address, he hangs up, goes out to his car, and drives to an ATM, where he withdraws a ridiculous sum of cash, and then comes back.

The escorts, two of them, arrive about an hour later.

This is going to be expensive, Henry thinks, but doesn’t care. Their names are Mari and Selene. Pretty names, Henry thinks. The women have pretty bodies, too, although they’re not quite knockouts. He offers them a drink. Mari declines, but Selene accepts a healthy glass of whiskey. For a long minute they sit silently across from each other, Henry in his grandmother’s rocking chair, the women on the sofa across from him. Nice weather, Henry says. The women agree. They don’t seem bored, exactly, but suddenly Henry can’t think of what to say.

He takes a big drink from his glass. Can I spray you guys with whipped cream from a can and then lick it off? This bursts out of him without him having consciously thought it. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, he adds.

That’ll be extra, Mari says.

This whiskey’s great, Selene says. What kind is it?

Pretty soon, for the first time in his life, at forty-three years of age, Henry is no longer a virgin.

Afterward in bed, alone, drunk, and slightly regretful, wearing one argyle sock and nothing else, he feels like he’ll never be quite the same Henry Lomar that he was before.

 

9. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR ENCOUNTERS SOME EGGS

As business really takes off, the backlash begins. The Times sends an interviewer to his house, who asks him whether or not he thinks his business takes advantage of the dignity of the terminally ill. To which Henry genuinely doesn’t know what to say; he hasn’t thought of this before. I think it helps them pay for things, is all he can think of. Though he doesn’t think this sounds awful, for some reason, the young reporter shakes her head slightly, as if it doesn’t just sound awful, it sounds really fucking terrible.

The write-up appears a few days later, accusing Henry and Gable of taking advantage of the citizens of this city during the Recession. There are other, similarly damning accusations, which cause Henry to fall into a brief, but very bleak, pit of despair. The next night, though it is not Friday, he calls and asks if Mari and Selene can come see him again. Mari and Selene aren’t available tonight, says the voice on the other end of the line. There are other girls, the voice says, but Henry has already hung up. He crumples onto the floor and pulls the horse blanket over his body. He sobs. He doesn’t want to be thought of as someone who takes advantage of people. All he wants is to help them, and help himself, too.

The following day at work, Gable asks him if Henry pointed out that Sell Your Stone Ltd doesn’t actually charge the person selling the advertising space a dime.

No, Henry says.

Why not?

I thought it was self-explanatory. I thought they would know that already.

Gable grumbles under his breath. You’re the face of this company, Henry.

The article says I’m ruining people’s legacies, Henry says. I’m not a legacy ruiner, am I?

Gable tells him to calm down, and gives him specific instructions on what to say the next time Henry is interviewed.

However, during the next interview Henry gives, with the local television news, he does not say the things Gable has instructed him to say. He forgets. The local television news segment is rebroadcast nationally. Later, Henry watches himself on television, and what he sees and hears himself say doesn’t sound good, doesn’t sound good at all. Although the next morning he doesn’t want to go to work, he does.

When he climbs out of his car, a flying object hits him square in the face, and splatters. Egg yolk flies all over his glasses, gets in his beard. As he tries to wipe the yolk off his glasses, three more eggs hit him. The word asshole is yelled. The word capitalist scum is yelled. Then, Henry—who cannot see anything for the egg in his eye—hears laughter and the sound of footsteps, fading away. After he manages to get most of the egg off, he calls his secretary, takes the day off.

 

10. IN WHICH HENRY SPEAKS WITH HIS FATHER

At home, he feels hollow. When he feels hollow, he crawls back under his horse blanket. When he crawls under his horse blanket, he calls his father.

Dad, he says. Why is that when I try to help people they throw eggs at me? I come up with a plan to try to help people in need and all I get is abuse.

Hmmm, his father says.

What does that even mean?!

What does what mean, his father asks.

HMMM. What does HMMM mean?

Henry, I thought you were building a totem-pole. What does this have with building a totem pole?

Henry can’t think of a way to respond, so he doesn’t.

 

11. IN WHICH HENRY HAS SEVERAL DRINKS IN A ROW

All he had wanted to do, really, was help people. And Henry is helping them, or at least, he hopes he is. Of course, he wanted, when he came up with the plan at Uncle Rick’s funeral, to help himself, too, to give himself something to look forward to for the first time in a decade.

Soon, though, lawsuits start cropping up right and left, and some of the businesses that originally invested begin trying to recoup their losses, to get out of their contracts. The businesses claim that people simply don’t die fast enough.

They think they’ve been bamboozled, Henry shouts to Arthur T. Gable as they sit drinking inside the Streamline Tavern at three in the afternoon one Thursday. The bar is dark, and cool, and quiet. We’re not bamboozlers.

We’re not, Gable agrees. His arms are crossed on the bar, and he stares down into an untouched glass of whiskey, neat.  

I was talking to my father yesterday, Henry says. And he told me that if he were one of our clients, he would sue me, too.

Gable doesn’t reply.

In his eyes, I’m a failure, Henry says.  

You’re not a failure yet, Gable says, folding a cocktail napkin over and over into a little triangle.

I’m a failed son, either way.

I think you’re blowing this out of proportion.

He said that I’m a professional swindler of legacies.

We’ll see how these lawsuits turn out. We can’t afford to lose them, Arthur T. Gable says, folding the napkin into smaller triangle after smaller triangle. We’ll have to let Jimmy the Intern go.

No. Henry gulps the last half of his drink in one go, asks the bartender for another. He thinks about his father, imagines the inscrutable furrowed look he has when they speak in person, which rarely occurs anymore.

We can’t afford a paid intern, Henry.

Jimmy the Intern is my favorite employee.

Henry notices that Gable has stopped paying attention to anything he says. The Texan is hunched over the bar, his elbows on the smooth surface, both hands clasped around his drink, which he still hasn’t touched, though Henry himself has had three. The cocktail napkin he’s been folding has vanished as if, through the repeated process of folding, Gable caused it to cease to exist. This unsettles Henry. He has several quick drinks in a row, and finds, within the quiet liquid space of about twenty minutes, that he no longer cares, and feels slightly better, though he’s troubled to note when—upon returning from a trip to the restroom—that Gable has left the bar without saying goodbye.

Henry goes home. When he gets there, he pulls the horse blanket over his body, and tries to stop the shakes from getting too bad.

Later, he goes to the casino and blows—again—all of his money on three hands of No Limit Hold ‘em.

 

12. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR GETS CALLED INTO THE OFFICE

Mr. Lomar, says the secretary at the front desk of Sell Your Stone Ltd, Mr. Gable would like to see you in his office. The secretary, whose name is Larry, is a scrawny young man with the beginnings of what will one day be a mustache. Thanks Larry, Henry says. All around him the office hums, the soft plosives of humming keyboards and gentle chatter of workers taking calls fills the air. For a moment he takes it all in—the workers working, the casual gathering of employees near the water cooler—and is suddenly astonished by the fact that all of these people are there because of an idea that struck him, an idea that sideswiped his brain as he sat in a pew next to his father at his Great Uncle Rick’s funeral. He reaches out his hand, feels the smooth grain of a carpeted cubicle wall, as if to verify that yes, indeed, what he’s experiencing is real. In this moment, he feels incredibly lucky.

Gable’s office, glassed off from the rest of the floor, is at the back. Henry can see him from his place next to Larry’s desk, encased in his glass space with his large glass desk. Henry’s office is next to Gable’s, but the only real differentiating factor between Henry’s cubicle and all of the other employees’ is that Henry’s cubicle has a placard with the word FOUNDER emblazoned under his name. This is a fact that has bothered Henry but which, like most of the other things that bother him, he has tried to ignore.

Gable’s glass door is closed. The odor of cigar smoke nevertheless seeps out. It is against the law, in Seattle, to smoke inside a business establishment, a fact that does not inhibit Gable in the least. When one of the young employees—Larry the secretary, to be exact—asked him about this, Gable succinctly replied: I’m from Texas.

Henry knocks, but Gable doesn’t move. He simply sits still, puffing his cigar, staring down at a thrice-folded newspaper. Henry knocks again. Finally, after a very uncomfortable amount of time has passed, Gable glances up from his paper and gestures for him to enter.

Have a seat, Henry, he says, and returns to staring at his newspaper. There is another long stretch of silence in which Henry sits and Gable sits, and neither talk.

Larry said you wanted to see me, Henry says, after he can’t stand it anymore.

I hate to tell you this, Gable says.

Hate to tell me what?

Gable tosses the newspaper into the garbage bin. Before answering, he takes a blank piece of paper in his hands. He begins to fold the paper into little triangles, over and over.

I’ll give it to you straight, Gable says. As majority owner of this company, I think you’ve become a liability.

The words majority owner and liability scroll across the screen of Henry Lomar’s mind, as if on a ticker-tape.

I’m confused, Henry says.

You read the paperwork I gave you when we began this business, did you not?

Of course. Henry tries to remember reading the paperwork. In reality, though, he doesn’t remember anything of the sort, he’s been handed so many different pieces of paper in the past year.

Then you will recall the section, Gable says, in which it states that—because I provided literally all of the capital and because I possess the majority, if not all of the collective entrepreneurial experience in this venture—I am the majority owner of this company and may hire or fire whom I wish, as well as, in the event which it may become necessary, as it has become necessary now, buy you out.

Buy me out?

Gable sighs. With a flick of his middle finger, he hits the paper triangle into the waste basket next to Henry. What that means, he says, is that I will pay you a sum of money upon firing you.

Oh, Henry says.

Yes, Henry, I’m sorry. We simply can’t have you blundering to the media all the time. I’ve given you many chances, but you’re hurting us bad. I don’t see any other alternative.

Henry is not entirely surprised to feel a tear roll down his right cheek, though he’s utterly shocked at the news he’s just been given.

Don’t cry in my office, Henry. Have some dignity.

Henry tries very hard not to cry. As he slumps in his chair, feeling as if every single cloud in Seattle’s sky is pressed directly onto his chest, he recalls the second conversation he ever had with Arthur T. Gable, after they initially shook hands and decided to be partners. They were seated across from each other, not entirely unlike now, at a bar in Ballard near the Locks. So I guess we’re partners now, Henry had said. Gable slid some papers across the table and said, Yep. Once you sign these, we’re in business. Henry took the papers, squinted his eyes to read the tiny print, but he’d forgotten his glasses and couldn’t make out the words. What’s this? he asked, and Gable smiled. It’s just some legalese. Don’t worry, I had my lawyer look over them, and he said it all looks fine. It’s about the money I’m fronting.

Don’t worry, Henry thinks. I had my lawyer look over them. Henry stands up on shaky legs but, unable to decide what to do or say, he sits back down again. He feels his lips move, but nothing comes out. He sits like this for a long time, trying to string together a coherent sentence, but nothing comes.

I’ll go get my things, Henry finally says.

Gable tells him that won’t be necessary; he says he’s already had that done; he’s had all of Henry’s stuff mailed to his address.

But I only live six blocks from here, Henry says. For some reason, out of all of the injustices he’s currently experiencing, this is the single one that he can question.

Doesn’t matter. I like mailing things.

Fuck you, Henry says. Fuck you for mailing my stuff when I could’ve gotten it myself. Fuck you for being a lying cheating piece of shit. You were gonna fire me the whole goddamn time.

Gable relights his cigar. Don’t make me have you arrested, Henry.

I’m not leaving here until I can get my fucking stuff.

Gable leans forward and speaks into his intercom: Would security please escort Mr. Lomar from the building? And, in something like thirty seconds or less, the security guard arrives, a man Henry has probably greeted and exchanged smiles with a hundred times or more, and grabs Henry by the shoulders, and escorts him past the bug-eyed looks of Henry’s former employees, past Larry the Secretary, into the hall and the waiting elevator, not letting loose of him until they’re out on the sidewalk.

Alone, Henry staggers away from the little high-rise. He crosses Denny Way, his breath coming in short, ragged explosions of air. Suddenly Henry wants to die, wants to die like he hasn’t wanted to in years, but he knows he can’t afford it.

 

13. IN WHICH HENRY TALKS WITH HIS FATHER

Dad, Henry says, under his horse blanket, into his phone. I am no longer solvent.

Hmmm, his father says.

Dad, I want to die.

The line is silent for a moment. Henry can feel his father scrunching up his forehead, considering this.

Well, Henry, what do you have to do besides dying?

I could apply for unemployment, Henry says.

Do that instead.

But why?

Because you can’t die now. That’s for later. Right now, his father says, you have to apply for unemployment because you have to eat. And you have to eat because you’re not as much of a fuck up as you think I think you are. He adds: You are pretty close, though.

 

14. IN WHICH HENRY DOES NOT DIE

When his father says this, when his father says the thing Henry never expected him to say, the thing which is almost the equivalent of his father saying that he loves him, Henry climbs out from under the horse blanket. He puts on some clean clothes. Because he doesn’t have any gas in his car or enough money to put gas in the tank, he goes to the bus stop, where a bus arrives, which Henry boards. He finds himself, as the bus chugs towards uptown and as the sun fades in an orange blaze over the Olympic peaks across Puget Sound, chatting amiably with the bus driver and with his fellow passengers. Even when he realizes that he has gotten onto the wrong bus, his spirit doesn’t sag. As the bus crosses the Aurora Bridge, he looks out over the Sound, sees the tugboats and the freighters, the barges headed out over the sea, toward the sun going down, and he breathes a sigh of relief, and believes that just maybe, he’s going to make it. Maybe.

 

15. IN WHICH HENRY LOMAR EXITS THE BUS

The bus, however, does not make it.

As the bus crosses the bridge, getting closer and closer to the northern side, the bus driver—just as he begins to answer a question Henry has asked him—experiences a brief explosive feeling in his chest. Henry watches it all happen, standing beside the driver in the aisle, holding the support bar. At first it is impossible for Henry to tell what is happening. He notices the driver’s dark brown hands grow pale. The driver’s face, which Henry can only see in profile, grows tight, then slackens. The man’s mouth falls open. He lets out a short, chest-fluid sound—uhrghuh. Henry asks him what’s wrong.

That’s when, as if shot, the bus driver, who is not wearing a seatbelt, topples heavily towards Henry, who tries to catch him. But the bus driver is a big man, and he pitches over Henry like the foremost stone in an avalanche, and as he pitches over Henry the bus swerves, causing everything and everyone in the bus to swerve with it, and the sound of screeching metal roars through the bus cavity as the bus crashes into the concrete barrier that divides the road from the pedestrian path—and from the rail which divides the pedestrian path from open, sheer air—and as the roar grows louder the heavy bus driver falls against the door and the door creases, but does not open because it is pressed against the concrete divider, and there is a further jolt as the bus slams into a car in the left lane, and all the time Henry Lomar, momentarily crushed by the heavy driver, hangs on, hangs on, hangs on, and the bus swerves again, and he feels the bus—which, being of the long variety, is connected in the middle by an accordion structure—turn horizontal against the vertical push of traffic and roll over. There is more screeching metal, a loud rhwump and then, blessedly, nothing.

Henry opens his eyes, then. He’s had them closed ever since the bus driver toppled over him, as he hung on for dear life. The bus rests on its right side. He can hear the sounds of moaning and car horns and someone—several someones—screaming. Soon he will hear sirens. He looks down and sees the bus driver, half-in, half-out of the bus door, which opened against his weight when it was no longer pressed against he barrier. Blood is everywhere. No sound comes from the driver, except a vast bubble of blood which inexplicably blooms out of his mouth, and bursts in a gaping red shimmer. My name is Fred, the man had said just before he slumped over. Fred Wheeler.

My name is Henry Lomar, he’d been about to say.

Now, instead, he cowers next to the support bar he’d been clinging to, until the sirens arrive, until emergency workers help everyone off the bus—somehow, everyone except for the driver is, for the most part, okay. When Henry climbs out of the husk of the broken bus he lurches away from the emergency workers, towards the rail of the bridge.

He staggers away from his life and everyone in it, away from Gable and from his father, from his therapist, from his great uncle Rick, from Selene and Mari. Yet somehow they are all there, amidst the wreckage on the bridge, with the emergency workers—Mari and Selene are dressed in white lab coats, with nothing under the lab coats, and his great uncle Rick and his father are standing there, too, and his father, dressed in a black suit, is looking at his watch. Gable, cigar in his mouth, holds a paper in his hand. He’s folding the paper, over and over. Hi, Henry, they all say. They wave. He pitches towards the rail. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Gable flick the paper toward him. It hits him in the chest, and for a long moment the sound of everything—sirens, people crying, the whir-chop of a helicopter in the air above—vanishes. Only Henry is left, in a vacuum of sound very much like being under water, like being at the bottom of a pool. And there is the piece of paper. Henry picks it up with one hand. With the other he supports himself against the railing. He opens the paper. For a moment he can’t see the words themselves, only the shapes of the words, the arcs of curved letters and the harsh strikes of the thin ones, but gradually he makes each letter fit to another letter, each word to another word, affixes all of the words together into sentences, and he realizes he’s looking at a contract for the sale of space on a gravestone for a potential advertiser, and that this is not just any gravestone—it’s his gravestone.

The silence in his ears begins to ring, and that ring collapses into the sound of the world all around him on the bridge, and he sees his father’s face unknowable before him, and knows that he’s seeing it for either the first or the last time.

 

 


Nathan Knapp‘s stories and essays have appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Frequencies, Yalobusha Review, Parcel, and many other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from Oklahoma State University and edits The Collapsar.

Photo: NotFromUltrecht, used freely under Creative Commons license.