DEATH ON TWO LEGS
The Road Journal of Tommy Williams
Okay, I am perfectly willing to admit that that is a stupid title for my journal. How about this, we’ll have a contest where whoever sends in the best title will get a free Zombie-riffic T-Shirt sent to them, courtesy of the good folks at mysocalledundeath.com. It’s death-tastic! Get those entries in!
I’ve walked now for hours and hours. Mapquest tells me that New Haven is 50.46 miles away from my starting point, most of which is on Rte. 95. I’m actually far past that now, nearly in New York. I stopped at a rest stop on the highway for awhile to type some notes and charge my batteries (literally charge my batteries, the cell phone and the computer). Most of the folks that drifted into the rest stop were there to either use the bathroom or to get something to eat from one of the two fast food options inside, so I got a number of strange looks during my stay there, presumably because I don’t have to engage in either of those bodily functions anymore. At least one person saw me and decided to leave without buying any food. I wasn’t insulted, I was happy to think that my death might have contributed to at least one person living a little longer. Some scientists believe that certain fast foods are what cause American teens to rise from the dead, but I suspect this is a rumor circulated by the companies themselves. Yes, they are that insidious.
I spent some time just people watching, but, being dead, I needed to be careful that it wasn’t people-staring. Trads can get freaked out by that sort of thing. But there was this one guy who sat at a table not too far from me, and he had two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. I have to confess I watched very intently as he unwrapped one from the crinkly blue paper. I really liked Filet-O-Fish sandwiches when I was alive. I could smell it from where I sat and I think if he offered me one I would have taken a bite. I can honestly say that I have never felt like taking a bite out of anything since I returned to life. I have a dead friend who has eaten and drank a few things since coming back and she says there hasn’t been any ill effects but I just don’t know.
Anyhow, I must have been really staring because the man was talking to me and I wasn’t even aware of it.
“You dead?” he said.
“Excuse me?” I replied, trying to sound as trad as I could. The man was pretty big, he was wearing a cap that advertised some brand of heavy machinery above the brim and he wore a large stained army jacket, one that looked like he’d worn it as he crawled under vehicles. He looked like he was in his early sixties or so, but if he was he was a rugged, healthy sixty, overweight but with muscle underneath the extra padding. He had a round face that he shaved clean like a lot of rumpled looking but neat guys that worked with their hands. The Filet-O-Fish, which he hadn’t bitten yet, was almost invisible in his hand, like a baseball deep in the pocket of a center fielders’ glove.
He took a bite then, and chewed thoughtfully, “I said, are you dead?”
I said that I was. He nodded, and washed down his swallow with a big gulp of Sprite, just like I would have done.
“Thought so,” he said. “Got a nephew who’s dead. Stupid idiot brother-in-law wouldn’t let him in the house so my sister had to move out with him. She lives with my parents now. They’re in their eighties, still kicking as high as you please.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Whereabouts?”
“PA,” he said, pronouncing it “Pee-Ay”. “Scranton, to be exact. Terrible place for one of you to be living. Bunch of ignorant so-and-so’s out there.”
“Really,” I said. “Where were they from originally? Around here?”
He nodded. “Lived over in Groton with my dumb ass brother in law. She wanted to send him over to that school in Oakvale, the one where a bunch of you go.”
“No kidding,” I said. “That’s where I went. It’s a great school.”
Somehow he’d finished his first sandwich even though I’d only seen him take two bites.
“You don’t go there any more?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t and I tried to explain to him what I was going to try and do. When he was finished he scratched his jaw and squinted at me.
“No joke?” he said. “You’ve got some guts. There’s a lot of ignorant bastards out there. Especially down south. You’re going to have to watch yourself, you know?”
“I’ll be careful,” I told him.
And then the second sandwich was gone, and he was down to the ice in his soda.
“I gotta go jump a vehicle in Bridgeport,” he said,rising. “My name is Al Johanssen. You want a lift?”
I told him that would be great, and I started packing my stuff up.
He owned his own towing business, and he worked mainly taking calls for Triple A, jump starting cars and towing. He did most of the talking as we cruised on down the highway, which was weird because I got the sense that he wasn’t somebody who talked much. He told me that the tow truck business was a second career for him, that he used to have a pretty big heavy equipment and hauling business but he sold it all when his wife of thirty years “caught the cancer”.
“She’s been gone five years now,” he said, “That was the worst thing. The worst thing ever until Joe, that’s my nephew, got killed in a car wreck. He and a few of his buddies were goofin’ off and drinkin’ and they got in a car and that was that. Joey was the only one that didn’t walk away.”
He sighed heavily. “The only one that didn’t walk away alive, that is.”
I know this doesn’t really happen any more, but I thought I could feel the hair on my neck standing up. Most of you that read this column know that I was killed in a car wreck along with my father. I heard later the guy that hit us was drunk. I don’t remember what it was like being dead, at least before I returned, but I can remember the impact of when that car hit us, and I remember the car spinning around in a circle that almost seemed lazy to me. I remember a lot about dying.
“We never had kids,” Al told me. “Always wanted ‘em, just couldn’t have ‘em. I guess Jeanie’s plumbing was screwed up all along. Anyhow, we really spent a lot of time with Joey. Watching him for my sister whenever she wanted. I’d take him fishing. He loved fishing.”
By this time I wasn’t saying anything, I was just sitting and letting him talk. He was driving with a heavy hand slumped over the wheel. His eyes were focused on the road ahead but I could tell it was really the past he was looking into. I watched him swallow hard, and then he took a sip of the large Sprite he’d refilled on our way out.
“I really miss that kid,” he said. “He was a real comfort to me when Jeannie died.”
There was a lot he wasn’t saying, too. I could feel the weight of his silence hovering in the space between us like family ghosts.
He drove to a Wal-Mart parking lot where some harried Mommy had left her lights on while getting the shopping done. I saw her waving to us frantically from the center of the lot, breathless as she waited for Al to arrive with the big engine and the jumper cables. I pointed her out and Al nodded, but he drove over to the far edge of the lot and parked.
“I’m going to let you off here,” he said. “No offence.”
He didn’t want the harried Mommy to get spooked. I couldn’t blame him.
“None taken," I said. "Thanks for the ride.” I pulled my backpack from behind the seat where his tools were.
“You be careful,” he said. “Like I said there’s a lot of ignorant bastards out there.”
I told him I’d be careful. I had almost shut the door when for some reason, I stopped.
I don’t know why I stopped. I don’t know how the synapses in our undead brains still seem to fire and spark even though the blood and oxygen doesn’t flow. I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said, just like I don’t know why the Universe or the Fates or God or whatever force it is that came upon me when I died still allows me to talk and walk two years after my death.
“Hey Al,” I said. “You know that people in Scranton need their cars towed, too.”
And then Al looked at me, really looked at me and saw me, as though for the first time. I could tell. It was sort of like watching someone walking up. I could see something in his expression change, something beyond the smile that crossed his round, clean-shaven face as he held out his massive hand for me to shake.
“Stay safe, son,” he said.
“Thanks again, Al,” I replied, and then I started loping back towards the highway, thinking about how the dead could still influence the living, and the living still love the dead.