The Diner and That Same Old Feeling Again
by Jeff Brown
|Table of Contents|
Part 2 appears
in this issue.
|part 3 of 11|
The Island and the One Left Behind
As the world began to swim around him Dale could hear a distinct sound in the distance. It was the sound of a boat motor as it pulled away from the island.
They’re leaving me, he thought. It was his final thought.
The Lies and Guilt and I Can’t Believe I’m Dead
“I can’t believe I’m dead,” Dale said as he sat back in the booth he had always sat in at Nick’s Diner. He was shaking his head in the ultimate of disbelief that there was.
Across the table from Dale was the tall stranger he had just recently met. He was no longer a stranger to Dale, but an aged friend who looked somewhat different from the way he remembered. It was his old friend, Calvin, the guy that was not-so-affectionately referred to as “Big Bird.” He had wrinkles on his face and his hair had darkened but it was still blond. He had come back into the diner after Dale had thought back to the moment in time when his life had ended; a moment his soul had erased for almost fifteen years.
Dale chuckled slightly, a half smile crossing his face.
“What’s so funny?” Calvin asked.
“I’m dead,” Dale responded. “That would explain why things always felt so familiar — each day was repeating itself.”
“Oh, yeah?” Calvin responded.
“Yeah,” Dale said, the smile still on his face. “I’ve been feeling like I have spent a lifetime in this booth, in this diner, and I guess I have.”
Mrs. Martha strolled toward Dale and Calvin. She looked down at the two of them, at their long cold coffee on the table in front of them.
“Yah gonna have anything else?” she asked. Her eyes shifted from Dale to Calvin then back to Dale.
“No, Ma’am,” Dale said politely.
Mrs. Martha grunted at the two of them then turned and began to walk away in her ancient woman’s hobble. Dale chuckled again as he watched her round the corner of the counter and head back toward the kitchen.
“I’m guessing she’s dead, also,” Dale said as he thumbed in the direction Mrs. Martha had went.
“Yeah,” Calvin said. “She’s as dead as you are. And so is Nick, the guy in the kitchen.”
Dale looked down at the counter and saw the newspaper he had been reading. He began to fold it neatly, putting it in order as he went until finally the front page was facing him. The date on it caught Dale’s attention. It said June 18, 1987.
“So, what year is it?” Dale asked.
“What?” Calvin responded.
“What year is it, Big Bird?” Dale repeated. “You’ve aged a little since I last saw you, so I’m guessing I’ve been dead a while.”
“Well, it was the year 2002,” Calvin said. “But, I’ve been looking for you for a while now.”
Dale took a deep breath in complete surprise of Calvin’s answer. He tried to take in the now very real fact that he had been dead for at least fifteen years.
“Two thousand and two?” Dale asked in amazement.
Dale closed his eyes and shook his head. When he opened them...
... the diner was gone. In its place was the island. Dale was standing on the red clay of the shore looking down at the sand that trailed into the trees. His hands were dug deep into his pockets making him look like a saddened loner deep in his own thoughts. In reality that’s exactly what he was — or had been — for the last fifteen years or so. He had been alone, in his own thoughts and... dead.
Alone? Dead? Weren’t they one and the same all at once?
He stood there, as real as the ground beneath him; as real as the sky above him; as real as the trees in front of him and the water behind him. He was as real as the four men running toward him (with fear on their faces and in their eyes) and passed him. He was as real as the sounds of the machine guns in the distance.
It was an odd thing for Dale to watch a memory he didn’t have unfold before his eyes. What made it even odder was to watch Calvin’s memory unfold before his very eyes. It was as if Calvin was baring his soul right in front of him, laying the guilt down that he had been carrying over the last fifteen years — a burden of the memory of a friend’s death. It was a burden that hadn’t released Calvin, even in his own death.
Calvin stood, watching also, as the four men ran by him, one of them being a younger version of himself. He had turned to watch as they argued, as he had turned to look back to the trees when they grabbed him, pulling him into the boat and speeding away. After several long minutes Calvin turned to look at Dale. Tears had formed in his eyes and ran down his face. He could hear his own voice loud in his ears, screaming to turn back.
Dale looked at him. Though they were both dead they both still had emotions ravishing through them. He could see the pain (true pain, not that fake pain that celebrities often showed when they were caught doing something they should not have been doing) in Calvin’s face. He felt a pang of pain in the pit of his stomach as he looked at his old friend.
In the distance the gunfire started again. A few moments later the four men came running from the trees again and toward the boat. The memory was reliving itself again and again and again. As the boat sped off across the lake Dale began to walk toward the trees.
Halfway to the pit Dale turned to look behind him. Calvin was following, a little ways behind. He looked saddened and deeply pained.
The sounds of the machine guns were growing louder. The four friends running by them became more frantic as their faces filled with fear — more fear each time they passed. And, each time they passed by, Dale turned in the direction they had come from.
“So, Big Bird,” Dales started, “how did you die?”
Calvin stopped walking. The sounds of the machine guns had died out once more and it would only be a minute or so before they started back up. He looked at Dale, a puzzled expression on his face.
“What?” he finally asked.
“Well, if you’re here with me then you must be dead... or in a coma.” Dale said this with all the matter-of-fact of someone who has come to terms with some horrible event in their life, and what could be more horrible than finding out you were dead (and had been for at least fifteen years before you found out)? “So, how did you die?”
Calvin laughed slightly. He had known he was dead. That much was obvious. But, he hadn’t thought much about it. He scratched his head, ruffling his blonde hair as he did so.
“I... umm...” he stammered at first. “I drank myself to death.”
Dale stopped walking. He turned and looked at Calving. There was a frown on Dale’s face and a look of almost shame on Calvin’s.
“What?” Dale asked as if he didn’t believe what Calvin had just said.
“Yeah,” Calvin said as he nodded sheepishly. “I was a drunk. A lush. An alcoholic. I died, I guess, in my apartment watching a football game and drinking beer after beer after ever-loving beer.” He laughed as he thought about it.
“Damn, man,” Dale said. “I would have never thought that you would die by drinking yourself to death.”
“Me neither,” Calvin said. “I guess the guilt got to me.”
In the distance, though not near as far off as before, the sounds of the Corsair’s machine guns began again. Dale turned away from Calvin and followed the gun blast. Moments later the four men who had been running by them every few minutes as if they were running in circles on an oval track passed the by again. It would be the last time they would pass them by for a while.
As Dale passed through a clump of trees he came to the pit. Smoke was billowing upward along with splintered pieces of wood and leaves. Below, inside the pit Dale saw the very thing he had been searching for: his own death.
He saw himself turn, looking toward the cockpit, as he neared the end of the wing. He saw the Corsair’s pilot, a bony piece of a man in an old air force uniform. It was rising in the cockpit with one arm extended out and toward Dale. A pistol was in the hand. The gun discharged and Dale — the once living Dale and the memory Dale — went down in a heap of flesh and bones.
In the direction the four men had run Dale could hear the boat speeding off, leaving him behind. He closed his eyes, and though he was already dead, he felt as if he were dying again, dying all over again.
When Dale opened his eyes he was still looking down into the pit, only there was no smoke or debris from the shredded foliage falling about. There were leaves, black ones. There were lots of branches and thousands upon thousands of black leaves covering any signs of the gunfire from almost fifteen years earlier. The overgrowth of plants didn’t cover the tale of the Corsair or one wing. It was a wing that looked barren of leaves and limbs. On the wing Dale could see a partial skeleton peeking out from the leaves that were spreading over it now. He watched as the black leaves overtook the wing and the remains of the body — Dale’s body — lying on it.
There was a silence in the diner that Dale had never heard before. There had always been something. Whether it was Mrs. Martha’s insistent shuffling of her feet or the constant clanging of pots and pans or the sound of something frying, there was always some sort of noise in the diner. If there was noise inside the diner Dale didn’t hear it at that moment. The only sounds Dale could hear was a single gun shot from a pistol and the rumbling noise of an old outboard motor. Those two sounds drowned out all others inside the diner or on the island.
It was his own voice that brought him back to the diner where he was sitting. It was his own voice that brought him back to Calvin who was sitting across from him. It was his own voice that made the reality set in, in all of its hard to imagine and hard to believe glory.
“Ya’ll left me behind,” he said his voice trembling.
“I tried to...” Calvin started. He sounded apologetic.
Dale looked away from him for a moment then back. There were tears in his eyes.
“I was still alive,” he yelled across the table, cutting off Calvin’s statement. “I was still alive and ya’ll left me behind to die.”
Dale halfway stood in his booth hitting his thighs on the table. He didn’t seem to notice as he scooted out from the booth and stood upright.
“Damn it! I was still alive, Calvin!”
“I didn’t know,” Calvin pleaded as tears began to form in his own eyes. He was still seated and looking up at Dale. The hurt on his face was obvious.
“Like hell you didn’t,” Dale yelled as he swept one hand across the table, sweeping off all that was on it. The two coffee cups crashed to the floor spilling their contents across the green linoleum. The newspaper fluttered as it fell to the floor. A part of the paper landed in the spilled coffee on the floor. It instantly began to soak up the spilled coffee, staining the paper a deep brown. The napkin container hit the floor with a thud and tumbled until it came to a stop by the wall.
The sound of the argument and the sound of everything hitting the floor brought Mrs. Martha and Nick out from the kitchen. Dale looked at them as they came around the corner. They stopped short of Dale and Calvin and stared at them quietly, intently. Mrs. Martha looked from Dale to the mess on the floor. She grunted and looked back to Dale.
“Honestly, I didn’t know,” Calvin was saying.
“How could you not have known?” Dale asked. His tone was beginning to calm but he was still mad.
“They pulled me into the boat, Dale,” Calvin answered. “I tried to get them to turn around but they wouldn’t. Tony wouldn’t let Dolan turn back and go for you...
They were wild eyed and full of fear. Their faces — all four of them — were white, like a pale redhead’s skin, maybe even drained of blood. They had just experienced a terror like none other and they were fleeing, scared for their lives. They were so scared they left one of their own behind.
There was the one manning the outboard motor, Dolan. He was giving it all he had, pushing the accelerator as hard as he could with his hand, turning and turning and feeling the gas lever not budge; feeling as if the boat was creeping along in a thick mud and going nowhere except to their deaths. He kept looking back where they had come. He saw as the water had divided where the boat had split through then came crashing back on itself, closing the gap. He then looked in the direction the boat was heading.
He steered a little, keeping the boat on its course. The water splashed on the front of the boat and over it, splashing its four occupants. Dolan felt that, also. Tufts of his blonde hair stuck to his skull while thousands of short strands stood up in spikes. His blue eyes were full of fear, and more so, determination. He was the one running. He was the one who seemingly had their lives in his hands. It was the weight of their world on his shoulders.
Two of the remaining three men were on their knees in the boat. Normally they would be on their knees anyway. This time, however, they were holding the fourth member of their scared quartet down. The two men looked as if they were angered and terrified all at once. Their muscles strained to hold the other one down. They were yelling at him, words that couldn’t really be heard over the sound of the motor and the splash of the water on its sides. That’s what Tony and Pete were doing: yelling at Calvin.
Tony’s long, dark hair was soaked and looking like strands of black string hanging from his scalp. His face was reddening quickly as he strained to hold Calvin down. He hadn’t realized how strong Calvin was until now. The lanky blonde was pushing up, had almost gotten to his hands and knees several times before they had shoved him back down to his belly.
“Calvin, he’s dead,” Tony was yelling. “He’s dead, man. There’s nothing we can do for him. He’s dead.”
Pete held Calvin from the other side. He was having an easier time than Tony was, not really straining but still it was like holding a crazed dog to the ground. He was also yelling at Calvin.
“Calm down, Big Bird,” he yelled. “We’ll be okay, man.”
But, hadn’t Pete realized that Calvin wasn’t afraid of whether they would be okay?
Calvin wasn’t listening. He was yelling back at them at the top of his lungs. It was nothing coherent but it was yelling all the same. They all knew what Calvin was trying to say. He had said it many times already: We’ve got to go back! We’ve got to get Dale! We can’t leave him!
Calvin’s face was almost purple and his arms were growing red. Tears and snot were streaming down his face as was blood from a split in his lip. He received the split courtesy of Tony when he shoved Calvin’s head down into the boat, hitting it on the aluminum of its flooring.
Calvin’s yelling ended when Tony reached down between his legs and gave one good punch. Calvin took a deep, painful breath as Pete and Tony released him. He curled into the fetal position as the pain ripped through his lower extremities threatening to cause him to vomit.
“We’ve got to save Dale,” Calvin said through painful gasps of air. He repeated the words softly, almost in a whisper as he lay on the floor of the boat.
Tony looked to Dolan and raised one hand to his neck. He brought the hand across his neck and nodded at the panicky looking Dolan. Dolan nodded back then dropped the motor down to neutral.
“Dale,” Calvin moaned.
“Dale drowned,” Tony said quickly, his voice trying to sound convincing.
Dolan and Pete looked at him in surprise. They weren’t quite sure they had heard Tony right. Calvin stopped moaning and looked up at Tony also. His face was full of shock and dismay.
“No...” Calvin started.
“Yes, Cal,” Tony yelled at him. “He drowned when we went swimming. Do you understand?”
“That’s not what happened...” Calvin started again.
Tony reached down cupping a hand over Calvin’s mouth. Their eyes locked together and Calvin could see the wildness, the failing sanity in them.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Brown