Harry Dunning graduated with flying colors. I went to the little GED ceremony in the LHS gym, at his invitation. He really had no one else, and I was happy to do it.
After the benediction (spoken by Father Bandy, who rarely missed an LHS function), I made my way through the milling friends and relatives to where Harry was standing alone in his billowy black gown, holding his diploma in one hand and his rented mortarboard in the other. I took his hat so I could shake his hand. He grinned, exposing a set of teeth with many gaps and several leaners. But a sunny and engaging grin, for all that.
“Thanks for coming, Mr. Epping. Thanks so much.”
“It was my pleasure. And you can call me Jake. It’s a little perk I accord to students who are old enough to be my father.”
He looked puzzled for a minute, then laughed. “I guess I am, ain’t I? Sheesh!” I laughed, too. Lots of people were laughing all around us. And there were tears, of course. What’s hard for me comes easily to a great many people.
“And that A-plus! Sheesh! I never got an A-plus in my whole life! Never expected one, either!”
“You deserved it, Harry. So what’s the first thing you’re going to do as a high school graduate?”
His smile dimmed for a second—this was a prospect he hadn’t considered. “I guess I’ll go back home. I got a little house I rent on Goddard Street, you know.” He raised the diploma, holding it carefully by the fingertips, as if the ink might smear. “I’ll frame this and hang it on the wall. Then I guess I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the couch and just admire it until bedtime.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said, “but would you like to have a burger and some fries with me first? We could go down to Al’s.”
I expected a wince at that, but of course I was judging Harry by my colleagues. Not to mention most of the kids we taught; they avoided Al’s like the plague and tended to patronize either the Dairy Queen across from the school or the Hi-Hat out on 196, near where the old Lisbon Drive-In used to be.
“That’d be great, Mr. Epping. Thanks!”
“Jake, you bet.”
So I took Harry to Al’s, where I was the only faculty regular, and although he actually had a waitress that summer, Al served us himself. As usual, a cigarette (illegal in public eating establishments, but that never stopped Al) smoldered in one corner of his mouth and the eye on that side squinted against the smoke. When he saw the folded-up graduation robe and realized what the occasion was, he insisted on picking up the check (what check there was; the meals at Al’s were always remarkably cheap, which had given rise to rumors about the fate of certain stray animals in the vicinity). He also took a picture of us, which he later hung on what he called the Town Wall of Celebrity. Other “celebrities” represented included the late Albert Dunton, founder of Dunton Jewelry; Earl Higgins, a former LHS principal; John Crafts, founder of John Crafts Auto Sales; and, of course, Father Bandy of St. Cyril’s. (The Father was paired with Pope John XXIII—the latter not local, but revered by Al Templeton, who called himself “a good Catlick.”) The picture Al took that day showed Harry Dunning with a big smile on his face. I was standing next to him, and we were both holding his diploma. His tie was pulled slightly askew. I remember that because it made me think of those little squiggles he put on the ends of his lower-case y’s. I remember it all. I remember it very well.
Two years later, on the last day of the school year, I was sitting in that very same teachers’ room and reading my way through a batch of final essays my American Poetry honors seminar had written. The kids themselves had already left, turned loose for another summer, and soon I would do the same. But for the time being I was happy enough where I was, enjoying the unaccustomed quiet. I thought I might even clean out the snack cupboard before I left. Someone ought to do it, I thought.
Earlier that day, Harry Dunning had limped up to me after homeroom period (which had been particularly screechy, as all homerooms and study halls tend to be on the last day of school) and offered me his hand.
“I just want to thank you for everything,” he said.
I grinned. “You already did that, as I remember.”
“Yeah, but this is my last day. I’m retiring. So I wanted to make sure and thank you again.”
As I shook his hand, a kid cruising by—no more than a sophomore, judging by the fresh crop of pimples and the serio-comic straggle on his chin that aspired to goatee-hood—muttered, “Hoptoad Harry, hoppin down the av-a-new.”
I grabbed for him, my intention to make him apologize, but Harry stopped me. His smile was easy and unoffended. “Nah, don’t bother. I’m used to it. They’re just kids.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And it’s our job to teach them.”
“I know, and you’re good at it. But it’s not my job to be anybody’s whatchacallit—teachable moment. Especially not today. I hope you’ll take care of yourself, Mr. Epping.” He might be old enough to be my father, but Jake was apparently always going to be beyond him.
“You too, Harry.”
“I’ll never forget that A-plus. I framed that, too. Got it right up beside my diploma.”
“Good for you.”
And it was. It was all good. His essay had been primitive art, but every bit as powerful and true as any painting by Grandma Moses. It was certainly better than the stuff I was currently reading. The spelling in the honors essays was mostly correct, and the diction was clear (although my cautious college-bound don’t-take-a-chancers had an irritating tendency to fall back on the passive voice), but the writing was pallid. Boring. My honors kids were juniors—Mac Steadman, the department head, awarded the seniors to himself—but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ooo, don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred. In spite of his grammatical lapses and painstaking cursive, Harry Dunning had written like a hero. On one occasion, at least.
As I was musing on the difference between offensive and defensive writing, the intercom on the wall cleared its throat. “Is Mr. Epping in the west wing teachers’ room? You by any chance still there, Jake?”
I got up, thumbed the button, and said: “Still here, Gloria. For my sins. Can I help you?”
“You have a phone call. Guy named Al Templeton? I can transfer it, if you want. Or I can tell him you left for the day.”
Al Templeton, owner and operator of Al’s Diner, where all LHS faculty save for yours truly refused to go. Even my esteemed department head—who tried to talk like a Cambridge don and was approaching retirement age himself—had been known to refer to the specialty of the house as Al’s Famous Catburger instead of Al’s Famous Fatburger.
Well of course it’s not really cat, people would say, or probably not cat, but it can’t be beef, not at a dollar-nineteen.
“Jake? Did you fall asleep on me?”
“Nope, wide awake.” Also curious as to why Al would call me at school. Why he’d call me at all, for that matter. Ours had always been strictly a cook-and-client relationship. I appreciated his chow, and he appreciated my patronage. “Go on and put him through.”
“Why are you still here, anyway?”
“I’m flagellating myself.”
“Ooo!” Gloria said, and I could imagine her fluttering her long lashes. “I love it when you talk dirty. Hold on and wait for the ringy-dingy.”
She clicked off. The extension rang and I picked it up.
“Jake? You on there, buddy?”
At first I thought Gloria must have gotten the name wrong. That voice couldn’t belong to Al. Not even the world’s worst cold could have produced such a croak.
“Who is this?”
“Al Templeton, didn’t she tellya? Christ, that hold music really sucks. Whatever happened to Connie Francis?” He began to ratchet coughs loud enough to make me hold the phone away from my ear a little.
“You sound like you got the flu.”
He laughed. He also kept coughing. The combination was fairly gruesome. “I got something, all right.”
“It must have hit you fast.” I had been in just yesterday, to grab an early supper. A Fatburger, fries, and a strawberry milkshake. I believe it’s important for a guy living on his own to hit all the major food groups.
“You could say that. Or you could say it took awhile. Either one would be right.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I’d had a lot of conversations with Al in the six or seven years I’d been going to the diner, and he could be odd—insisted on referring to the New England Patriots as the Boston Patriots, for instance, and talked about Ted Williams as if he’d known him like a brudda—but I’d never had a conversation as weird as this.
“Jake, I need to see you. It’s important.”
“Can I ask—”
“I expect you to ask plenty, and I’ll answer, but not over the phone.”
I didn’t know how many answers he’d be able to give before his voice gave out, but I promised I’d come down in an hour or so.
“Thanks. Make it even sooner, if you can. Time is, as they say, of the essence.” And he hung up, just like that, without even a goodbye.
I worked my way through two more of the honors essays, and there were only four more in the stack, but it was no good. I’d lost my groove. So I swept the stack into my briefcase and left. It crossed my mind to go upstairs to the office and wish Gloria a good summer, but I didn’t bother. She’d be in all next week, closing the books on another school year, and I was going to come in on Monday and clean out the snack cupboard—that was a promise I’d made to myself. Otherwise the teachers who used the west wing teachers’ room during summer session would find it crawling with bugs.
If I’d known what the future held for me, I certainly would have gone up to see her. I might even have given her the kiss that had been flirting in the air between us for the last couple of months. But of course I didn’t know. Life turns on a dime.
Al’s Diner was housed in a silver trailer across the tracks from Main Street, in the shadow of the old Worumbo mill. Places like that can look tacky, but Al had disguised the concrete blocks upon which his establishment stood with pretty beds of flowers. There was even a neat square of lawn, which he barbered himself with an old push-type lawn mower. The lawn mower was as well tended as the flowers and the lawn; not a speck of rust on the whirring, brightly painted blades. It might have been purchased at the local Western Auto store the week before . . . if there had still been a Western Auto in The Falls, that was. There was once, but it fell victim to the big-box stores back around the turn of the century.
I went up the paved walk, up the steps, then paused, frowning. The sign reading WELCOME TO AL’S DINER, HOME OF THE FATBURGER! was gone. In its place was a square of cardboard reading CLOSED & WILL NOT REOPEN DUE TO ILLNESS. THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS OVER THE YEARS & GOD BLESS.
I had not yet entered the fog of unreality that would soon swallow me, but the first tendrils were seeping around me, and I felt them. It wasn’t a summer cold that had caused the hoarseness I’d heard in Al’s voice, nor the croaking cough. Not the flu, either. Judging by the sign, it was something more serious. But what kind of serious illness came on in a mere twenty-four hours? Less than that, really. It was two-thirty. I had left Al’s last night at five forty-five, and he’d been fine. Almost manic, in fact. I remembered asking him if he’d been drinking too much of his own coffee, and he said no, he was just thinking about taking a vacation. Do people who are getting sick—sick enough to close the businesses they’ve run single-handed for over twenty years—talk about taking vacations? Some, maybe, but probably not many.
The door opened while I was still reaching for the handle, and Al stood there looking at me, not smiling. I looked back, feeling that fog of unreality thicken around me. The day was warm but the fog was cold. At that point I still could have turned and walked out of it, back into the June sunshine, and part of me wanted to do that. Mostly, though, I was frozen by wonder and dismay. Also horror, I might as well admit it. Because serious illness does horrify us, doesn’t it, and Al was seriously ill. I could see that in a single glance. And mortally was probably more like it.
It wasn’t just that his normally ruddy cheeks had gone slack and sallow. It wasn’t the rheum that coated his blue eyes, which now looked washed-out and nearsightedly peering. It wasn’t even his hair, formerly almost all black, and now almost all white—after all, he might have been using one of those vanity products and decided on the spur of the moment to shampoo it out and go natural.
The impossible part was that in the twenty-two hours since I’d last seen him, Al Templeton appeared to have lost at least thirty pounds. Maybe even forty, which would have been a quarter of his previous body weight. Nobody loses thirty or forty pounds in less than a day, nobody. But I was looking at it. And this, I think, is where that fog of unreality swallowed me whole.
Al smiled, and I saw he had lost teeth as well as weight. His gums looked pale and unhealthy. “How do you like the new me, Jake?” And he began to cough, thick chaining sounds that came from deep inside him.
I opened my mouth. No words came out. The idea of flight again came to some craven, disgusted part of my mind, but even if that part had been in control, I couldn’t have done it. I was rooted to the spot.
Al got the coughing under control and pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. He wiped first his mouth and then the palm of his hand with it. Before he put it back, I saw it was streaked with red.
“Come in,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to talk about, and I think you’re the only one who might listen. Will you listen?”
“Al,” I said. My voice was so low and strengthless I could hardly hear it myself. “What’s happened to you?”
“Will you listen?”
“You’ll have questions, and I’ll answer as many as I can, but try to keep them to a minimum. I don’t have much voice left. Hell, I don’t have much strength left. Come on in here.”
I came in. The diner was dark and cool and empty. The counter was polished and crumbless; the chrome on the stools gleamed; the coffee urn was polished to a high gloss; the sign reading IF YOU DON’T LIKE OUR TOWN, LOOK FOR A TIMETABLE was in its accustomed place by the Sweda register. The only thing missing was the customers.
Well, and the cook-proprietor, of course. Al Templeton had been replaced by an elderly, ailing ghost. When he turned the door’s thumb-latch, locking us in, the sound was very loud.
“Lung cancer,” he said matter-of-factly, after leading us to a booth at the far end of the diner. He tapped the pocket of his shirt, and I saw it was empty. The ever-present pack of Camel straights was gone. “No big surprise. I started when I was eleven, and smoked right up to the day I got the diagnosis. Over fifty damn years. Three packs a day until the price went way up in ’07. Then I made a sacrifice and cut back to two a day.” He laughed wheezily.
I thought of telling him that his math had to be wrong, because I knew his actual age. When I’d come in one day in the late winter and asked him why he was working the grill with a kid’s birthday hat on, he’d said Because today I’m fifty-seven, buddy. Which makes me an official Heinz. But he’d asked me not to ask questions unless I absolutely had to, and I assumed the request included not butting in to make corrections.
“If I were you—and I wish I was, although I’d never wish being me on you, not in my current situation—I’d be thinking, ‘Something’s screwy here, nobody gets advanced lung cancer overnight.’ Is that about right?”
I nodded. That was exactly right.
“The answer is simple enough. It wasn’t overnight. I started coughing my brains out about seven months ago, back in May.”
This was news to me; if he’d been doing any coughing, it hadn’t been while I was around. Also, he was doing that bad-math thing again. “Al, hello? It’s June. Seven months ago it was December.”
He waved a hand at me—the fingers thin, his Marine Corps ring hanging on a digit that used to clasp it cozily—as if to say Pass that by for now, just pass it.
“At first I thought I just had a bad cold. But there was no fever, and instead of going away, the cough got worse. Then I started losing weight. Well, I ain’t stupid, buddy, and I always knew the big C might be in the cards for me . . . although my father and mother smoked like goddam chimneys and lived into their eighties. I guess we always find excuses to keep on with our bad habits, don’t we?”
He started coughing again, and pulled out the handkerchief. When the hacking subsided, he said: “I can’t get off on a sidetrack, but I’ve been doing it my whole life and it’s hard to stop. Harder than stopping with the cigarettes, actually. Next time I start wandering off-course, just kind of saw a finger across your throat, would you?”
“Okay,” I said, agreeably enough. It had occurred to me by then that I was dreaming all of this. If so, it was an extremely vivid dream, right down to the shadows thrown by the revolving ceiling fan, marching across the place mats reading OUR MOST VALUABLE ASSET IS YOU!
“Long story short, I went to a doctor and got an X-ray, and there they were, big as billy-be-damned. Two tumors. Advanced necrosis. Inoperable.”
An X-ray, I thought—did they still use those to diagnose cancer?
“I hung in for awhile, but in the end I had to come back.”
“From where? Lewiston? Central Maine General?”
“From my vacation.” His eyes looked fixedly at me from the dark hollows into which they were disappearing. “Except it was no vacation.”
“Al, none of this makes any sense to me. Yesterday you were here and you were fine.”
“Take a good close look at my face. Start with my hair and work your way down. Try to ignore what the cancer’s doing to me—it plays hell with a person’s looks, no doubt about that—and then tell me I’m the same man you saw yesterday.”
“Well, you obviously washed the dye out—”
“Never used any. I won’t bother directing your attention to the teeth I lost while I was . . . away. I know you saw those. You think an X-ray machine did that? Or strontium-90 in the milk? I don’t even drink milk, except for a splash in my last cup of coffee of the day.”
“Never mind. Get in touch with your, you know, feminine side. Look at me the way women look at other women when they’re judging age.”
I tried to do what he said, and while what I observed would never have stood up in court, it convinced me. There were webworks of lines spraying out from the corners of his eyes, and the lids had the tiny, delicately ruffled wrinkles you see on people who no longer have to flash their Senior Discount Cards when they step up to the multiplex box office. Skin-grooves that hadn’t been there yesterday evening now made sine-waves across Al’s brow. Two more lines—much deeper ones—bracketed his mouth. His chin was sharper, and the skin on his neck had grown loose. The sharp chin and wattled throat could have been caused by Al’s catastrophic weight loss, but those lines . . . and if he wasn’t lying about his hair . . .
He was smiling a little. It was a grim smile, but not without actual humor. Which somehow made it worse. “Remember my birthday last March? ‘Don’t worry, Al,’ you said, ‘if that stupid party hat catches on fire while you’re hanging over the grill, I’ll grab the fire extinguisher and put you out.’ Remember that?”
I did. “You said you were an official Heinz.”
“So I did. And now I’m sixty-two. I know the cancer makes me look even older, but these . . . and these . . .” He touched his forehead, then the corner of one eye. “These are authentic age-tattoos. Badges of honor, in a way.”
“Al . . . can I have a glass of water?”
“Of course. Shock, isn’t it?” He looked at me sympathetically. “You’re thinking, ‘Either I’m crazy, he’s crazy, or we both are.’ I know. I’ve been there.”
He levered himself out of the booth with an effort, his right hand going up beneath his left armpit, as if he were trying to hold himself together, somehow. Then he led me around the counter. As he did so, I put my finger on another element of this unreal encounter: except for the occasions when I shared a pew with him at St. Cyril’s (these were rare; although I was raised in the faith, I’m not much of a Catlick) or happened to meet him on the street, I’d never seen Al out of his cook’s apron.
He took a sparkling glass down and drew me a glass of water from a sparkling chrome-plated tap. I thanked him and turned to go back to the booth, but he tapped me on the shoulder. I wish he hadn’t done that. It was like being tapped by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three.
“I want you to see something before we sit down again. It’ll be quicker that way. Only seeing isn’t the right word. I guess experiencing is a lot closer. Drink up, buddy.”
I drank half the water. It was cool and good, but I never took my eye off him. That craven part of me was expecting to be jumped, like the first unwitting victim in one of those maniac-on-the-loose movies that always seem to have numbers in their titles. But Al only stood there with one hand propped on the counter. The hand was wrinkled, the knuckles big. It didn’t look like the hand of a man in his fifties, even one with cancer, and—
“Did the radiation do that?” I asked suddenly.
“You have a tan. Not to mention those dark spots on the backs of your hands. You get those either from radiation or too much sun.”
“Well, since I haven’t had any radiation treatments, that leaves the sun. I’ve gotten quite a lot of it over the last four years.”
So far as I knew, Al had spent most of the last four years flipping burgers and making milkshakes under fluorescent lights, but I didn’t say so. I just drank the rest of my water. When I set the glass down on the Formica counter, I noticed my hand was shaking slightly.
“Okay, what is it you want me to see? Or to experience?”
“Come this way.”
He led me down the long, narrow galley area, past the double grill, the Fry-O-Lators, the sink, the FrostKing fridge, and the humming waist-high freezer. He stopped in front of the silent dishwasher and pointed to the door at the far end of the kitchen. It was low; Al would have to duck his head going through it, and he was only five-seven or so. I’m six-four—some of the kids called me Helicopter Epping.
“That’s it,” he said. “Through that door.”
“Isn’t that your pantry?” Strictly a rhetorical question; I’d seen him bring out enough cans, sacks of potatoes, and bags of dry goods over the years to know damn well what it was.
Al seemed not to have heard. “Did you know I originally opened this joint in Auburn?”
He nodded, and just that was enough to kick off another bout of coughing. He stifled it with the increasingly gruesome handkerchief. When the latest fit finally tapered off, he tossed the handkerchief into a handy trash can, then grabbed a swatch of napkins from a dispenser on the counter.
“It’s an Aluminaire, made in the thirties and as art deco as they come. Wanted one ever since my dad took me to the Chat ’N Chew in Bloomington, back when I was a kid. Bought it fully outfitted and opened up on Pine Street. I was at that location for almost a year, and I saw that if I stayed, I’d be bankrupt in another year. There were too many other quick-bite joints in the neighborhood, some good, some not so good, all of em with their regulars. I was like a kid fresh out of law school who hangs out his shingle in a town that already has a dozen well-established shysters. Also, in those days Al’s Famous Fatburger sold for two-fifty. Even back in 1990 two and a half was the best I could do.”
“Then how in hell do you sell it for less than half that now? Unless it really is cat.”
He snorted, a sound that produced a phlegmy echo of itself deep in his chest. “Buddy, what I sell is a hundred percent pure American beef, the best in the world. Do I know what people say? Sure. I shrug it off. What else can you do? Stop people from talking? You might as well try to stop the wind from blowing.”
I ran a finger across my throat. Al smiled.
“Yeah, gettin off on one of those sidetracks, I know, but at least this one’s part of the story.
“I could have kept beating my head against the wall on Pine Street, but Yvonne Templeton didn’t raise any fools. ‘Better to run away and fight again some other day,’ she used to tell us kids. I took the last of my capital, wheedled the bank into loaning me another five grand—don’t ask me how—and moved here to The Falls. Business still hasn’t been great, not with the economy the way it is and not with all that stupid talk about Al’s Catburgers or Dogburgers or Skunkburgers or whatever tickles people’s fancy, but it turns out I’m no longer tied to the economy the way other people are. And it’s all because of what’s behind that pantry door. It wasn’t there when I was set up in Auburn, I’d swear to that on a stack of Bibles ten feet high. It only showed up here.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked at me steadily from his watery, newly old eyes. “Talking’s done for now. You need to find out for yourself. Go on, open it.”
I looked at him doubtfully.
“Think of it as a dying man’s last request,” he said. “Go on, buddy. If you really are my buddy, that is. Open the door.”
I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t kick into a higher gear when I turned the knob and pulled. I had no idea what I might be faced with (although I seem to remember having a brief image of dead cats, skinned and ready for the electric meat grinder), but when Al reached past my shoulder and turned on the light, what I saw was—
Well, a pantry.
It was small, and as neat as the rest of the diner. There were shelves stacked with big restaurant-sized cans on both walls. At the far end of the room, where the roof curved down, were some cleaning supplies, although the broom and mop had to lie flat because that part of the cubby was no more than three feet high. The floor was the same dark gray linoleum as the floor of the diner, but rather than the faint odor of cooked meat, in here there was the scent of coffee, vegetables, and spices. There was another smell, too, faint and not so pleasant.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s the pantry. Neat and fully stocked. You get an A in supply management, if there is such a thing.”
“What do you smell?”
“Spices, mostly. Coffee. Maybe air freshener, too, I’m not sure.”
“Uh-huh, I use Glade. Because of the other smell. Are you saying you don’t smell anything else?”
“Yeah, there’s something. Kind of sulphury. Makes me think of burnt matches.” It also made me think of the poison gas I and my family had put out after my mom’s Saturday night bean suppers, but I didn’t like to say so. Did cancer treatments make you fart?
“It is sulphur. Other stuff, too, none of it Chanel No. 5. It’s the smell of the mill, buddy.”
More craziness, but all I said (in a tone of absurd cocktail-party politeness) was, “Really?”
He smiled again, exposing those gaps where teeth had been the day before. “What you’re too polite to say is that Worumbo has been closed since Hector was a pup. That in fact it mostly burned to the ground back in the late eighties, and what’s standing out there now”—he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder—“is nothing but a mill outlet store. Your basic Vacationland tourist stop, like the Kennebec Fruit Company during Moxie Days. You’re also thinking it’s about time you grabbed your cell phone and called for the men in the white coats. That about the size of it, buddy?”
“I’m not calling anybody, because you’re not crazy.” I was far from sure of that. “But this is just a pantry, and it’s true that Worumbo Mills and Weaving hasn’t turned out a bolt of cloth in the last quarter century.”
“You aren’t going to call anybody, you’re right about that, because I want you to give me your cell phone, your wallet, and all the money you have in your pockets, coins included. It ain’t a robbery; you’ll get it all back. Will you do that?”
“How long is this going to take, Al? Because I’ve got some honors themes to correct before I can close up my grade book for the school year.”
“It’ll take as long as you want,” he said, “because it’ll only take two minutes. It always takes two minutes. Take an hour and really look around, if you want, but I wouldn’t, not the first time, because it’s a shock to the system. You’ll see. Will you trust me on this?” Something he saw on my face tightened his lips over that reduced set of teeth. “Please. Please, Jake. Dying man’s request.”
I was sure he was crazy, but I was equally sure that he was telling the truth about his condition. His eyes seemed to have retreated deeper into their sockets in the short time we’d been talking. Also, he was exhausted. Just the two dozen steps from the booth at one end of the diner to the pantry at the other had left him swaying on his feet. And the bloody handkerchief, I reminded myself. Don’t forget the bloody handkerchief.
Also . . . sometimes it’s just easier to go along, don’t you think? “Let go and let God,” they like to say in the meetings my ex-wife goes to, but I decided this was going to be a case of let go and let Al. Up to a point, at any rate. And hey, I told myself, you have to go through more rigamarole than this just to get on an airplane these days. He isn’t even asking me to put my shoes on a conveyor.
I unclipped my phone from my belt and put it on top of a canned tuna carton. I added my wallet, a little fold of paper money, a dollar fifty or so in change, and my key ring.
“Keep the keys, they don’t matter.”
Well, they did to me, but I kept my mouth shut.
Al reached into his pocket and brought out a sheaf of bills considerably thicker than the one I’d deposited on top of the carton. He held the wad out to me. “Mad money. In case you want to buy a souvenir, or something. Go on and take it.”
“Why wouldn’t I use my own money for that?” I sounded quite reasonable, I thought. Just as if this crazy conversation made sense.
“Never mind that now,” he said. “The experience will answer most of your questions better than I could even if I was feeling tip-top, and right now I’m on the absolute other side of the world from tip-top. Take the money.”
I took the money and thumbed through it. There were ones on top and they looked okay. Then I came to a five, and that looked both okay and not okay. It said SILVER CERTIFICATE above Abe Lincoln’s picture, and to his left there was a big blue 5. I held it up to the light.
“It ain’t counterfeit, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Al sounded wearily amused.
Maybe not—it felt as real as it looked—but there was no bleed-through image.
“If it’s real, it’s old,” I said.
“Just put the money in your pocket, Jake.”
“Are you carrying a pocket calculator? Any other electronics?”
“I guess you’re good to go, then. Turn around so you’re looking at the back of the pantry.” Before I could do it, he slapped his forehead and said, “Oh God, where are my brains? I forgot the Yellow Card Man.”
“The who? The what?”
“The Yellow Card Man. That’s just what I call him, I don’t know his real name. Here, take this.” He rummaged in his pocket, then handed me a fifty-cent piece. I hadn’t seen one in years. Maybe not since I was a kid.
I hefted it. “I don’t think you want to give me this. It’s probably valuable.”
“Of course it’s valuable, it’s worth half a buck.”
He got coughing, and this time it shook him like a hard wind, but he waved me off when I started toward him. He leaned on the stack of cartons with my stuff on top, spat into the wad of napkins, looked, winced, and then closed his fist around them. His haggard face was now running with sweat.
“Hot flash, or somethin like it. Damn cancer’s screwing with my thermostat along with the rest of my shit. About the Yellow Card Man. He’s a wino, and he’s harmless, but he’s not like anyone else. It’s like he knows something. I think it’s only a coincidence—because he happens to be plumped down not far from where you’re gonna come out—but I wanted to give you a heads-up about him.”
“Well you’re not doing a very good job,” I said. “I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”
“He’s gonna say, ‘I got a yellow card from the greenfront, so gimme a buck because today’s double-money day.’ You got that?”
“Got it.” The shit kept getting deeper.
“And he does have a yellow card, tucked in the brim of his hat. Probably nothing but a taxi company card or maybe a Red & White coupon he found in the gutter, but his brains are shot on cheap wine and he seems to thinks it’s like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. So you say, ‘I can’t spare a buck but here’s half a rock,’ and you give it to him. Then he may say . . .” Al raised one of his now skeletal fingers. “He may say something like, ‘Why are you here’ or ‘Where did you come from.’ He may even say something like, ‘You’re not the same guy.’ I don’t think so, but it’s possible. There’s so much about this I don’t know. Whatever he says, just leave him there by the drying shed—which is where he’s sitting—and go out the gate. When you go he’ll probably say, ‘I know you could spare a buck, you cheap bastard,’ but pay no attention. Don’t look back. Cross the tracks and you’ll be at the intersection of Main and Lisbon.” He gave me an ironic smile. “After that, buddy, the world is yours.”
“Drying shed?” I thought I vaguely remembered something near the place where the diner now stood, and I supposed it might have been the old Worumbo drying shed, but whatever it had been, it was gone now. If there had been a window at the back of the Aluminaire’s cozy little pantry, it would have been looking out on nothing but a brick courtyard and an outerwear shop called Your Maine Snuggery. I had treated myself to a North Face parka there shortly after Christmas, and got it at a real bargain price.
“Never mind the drying shed, just remember what I told you. Now turn around again—that’s right—and take two or three steps forward. Little ones. Baby steps. Pretend you’re trying to find the top of a staircase with all the lights out—careful like that.”
I did as he asked, feeling like the world’s biggest dope. One step . . . lowering my head to keep from scraping it on the aluminum ceiling . . . two steps . . . now actually crouching a little. A few more steps and I’d have to get on my knees. That I had no intention of doing, dying man’s request or not.
“Al, this is stupid. Unless you want me to bring you a carton of fruit cocktail or some of these little jelly packets, there’s nothing I can do in h—”
That was when my foot went down, the way your foot does when you’re starting down a flight of steps. Except my foot was still firmly on the dark gray linoleum floor. I could see it.
“There you go,” Al said. The gravel had gone out of his voice, at least temporarily; the words were soft with satisfaction. “You found it, buddy.”
But what had I found? What exactly was I experiencing? The power of suggestion seemed the most likely answer, since no matter what I felt, I could see my foot on the floor. Except . . .
You know how, on a bright day, you can close your eyes and see an afterimage of whatever you were just looking at? It was like that. When I looked at my foot, I saw it on the floor. But when I blinked—either a millisecond before or a millisecond after my eyes closed, I couldn’t tell which—I caught a glimpse of my foot on a step. And it wasn’t in the dim light of a sixty-watt bulb, either. It was in bright sunshine.
“Go on,” Al said. “Nothing’s going to happen to you, buddy. Just go on.” He coughed harshly, then said in a kind of desperate growl: “I need you to do this.”
So I did.
God help me, I did.
It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.