The Man at Table Five
by Pedro Blas Gonzales
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“My boyfriend and I followed him home one evening. Freddy and I were driving around on a Saturday night, just after sunset, and we spotted him walking across the road in front of us. We immediately recognized him. He was coming from the woods. We decided to stop the car and follow him.”
“Go on. What happened next?”
“We left the car and followed him through the woods from a distance.”
“Then what happened?”
“We lost sight of him once he reached the front of the house. You have to remember that it was dark. Then... well, he simply vanished.”
“Vanished? How do you mean?”
“He just disappeared.”
“You mean he went inside the house?”
“Not exactly. We didn’t see or hear anything else.”
“So you didn’t go inside?”
“No. But we looked through a first floor window.”
“And... what did you see?”
“It was very dark. But I did see a vague light that moved around at the back of the house. You really want to know what I think. I have an idea.”
“Tell me, please.”
“First you tell me what you think.”
“Oh, I think he’s depressed and probably poor, and in bad health.”
“That’s it? That’s all you can see in this man? That’s all your imagination can come up with? Is that what all you university types think? You people have a theory for everything, don’t you, eh? That crazy professor friend of yours, what’s his name, Sledge?”
“Membridge, you mean.”
“Yeah, him. He did tell me something that I haven’t forgotten. He said that you university people have a theory for everything and know nothing about anything.”
“Is that what he said? Go ahead, tell me your idea.”
“Dead,” she said, taking a sip from her coffee cup. “I think he’s dead.”
“Dead? You must be joking.”
“Why not? Think about it. Tell me what do you know about the dead? Nothing, right? Don’t you know that the dead walk amongst us, right here, right now? And that...”
“Wait a minute, I look around this place and I see people eating, others cooking and you talking to me. But nowhere do I see dead people. Come now, be serious.”
“Ah, you see, there’s where you’re wrong, prof. The dead don’t just let us see them. They are only visible to people who they allow to see them.”
“Auto-suggestion. We call that auto-suggestion.”
“I know, you have a name for everything, your friend said so himself. But how do you explain the fact that no one has ever seen that old man except you?”
“You don’t really expect me to believe that? You see him, don’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, I see him. But it is only you and I who can. I am willing to bet you that no one will see him tomorrow morning. Don’t you find it weird that he was sitting in that little table in the corner by the bathroom, with all the boxes on it?”
* * *
The next day I arrived at the diner at 6:18 a.m. Upon first seeing me, the waitress smiled. She walked over, said good morning and began to take my order. She smiled at me as she walked into the kitchen. Apparently she was amused by our conversation wager that she had drawn me into. I sat and watched people coming and going.
At 6:27 a.m. the old man walked in. I watched him closely. Opening the glass door, he moved in slowly. I could see the waitress looking at him and smiling from behind the counter. I watched her. The old man didn’t smile. He began to walk back to the little table by the bathroom.
My food arrived.
“Excuse me,” I said. She smiled at me as if she had known me for a long time.
“Well. There he is. Why don’t you go over and talk to him?” she suggested.
“Talk to him? About what? What would I tell him? Remember this has nothing to do with that poor soul. This is just between you and me.”
“You’d be surprised. That poor soul might be very interested in you.”
“No. I’d rather watch the man and amuse myself, more or less,” I said.
“But there’s nothing to see. You’ve already watched long enough.”
“I want to see him interact with others.”
“Won’t happen,” she said, sipping from her coffee cup. "It won’t happen. I already told you. You better be sure of that.”
“I’m a patient man.”
“I hope you can be patient for eternity.”
The waitress left.
As I ate my breakfast I hardly took my eyes from the old man. She then took him a cup of coffee. They spoke for a few minutes. Then, as she began to walk away, the old man looked at me. He looked at me intently. I imagined that the waitress had mentioned me.
I now became self-conscious as I had never been before in my life. I also became nervous, confused. I felt the old man’s penetrating look riveting through my body. I took out my wallet and placed some money on the table and began to get up to leave. But I could not move. I began to feel myself glued to the chair. This is the strangest sensation I have ever experienced. The waitress returned. She was still smiling.
“Are you all right? You look pale.”
“I’m fine. Just fine.”
“You don’t look that good to me. Are you sweating? Is it too hot in here?”
“It’s not hot. I just feel bloated. I think I ate too fast. It’s probably something physical, you know.”
“Mister, do you always have an answer to everything?”
“What do you mean? Every question that we come up with has an answer. Haven’t you noticed?” I answered, somewhat irritated.
“Not me. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of things.”
“That’s okay. You will get your answer eventually. You’ll see.”
“Mister, what makes you think we can know everything? Look at death. I guarantee you that you don’t know why we die.”
“But we do know. What is there to know? The body breaks down when diseased or in old age. Or we die of accidental causes. You know that. What’s so mysterious about that?”
“I bet that old man over there knows. I am willing to prove to you that he knows more about dying than all your science.”
“I’ll be hard pressed to believe that, Miss.”
“Alright, I’ll bring him over.”
She was gone before I could object. I then tried to leave the money on the table and leave, but I could not find the strength to get up. In a matter of about one minute, she returned with the old man.
Once up close, the old man looked paler than I could have ever imagined. I looked at his hands and arms and I could not make out a single vein. He stared at me while the waitress introduced us.
“I have noticed how curious you are about me,” he said, in a deep voice that didn’t match his physical stature.
“Well, you know, I am a psychologist. We study people. That’s all. That’s where we get our curiosity. Not something to be taken personal. We stick merely to the scientific. Only what we can see and hold.” I was nervous.
The old man didn’t react. I kept waiting for a response. I thought he would be angry. Instead, he merely continued to stare at me. His eyes were the only part of him where I witnessed any vitality. The old man and the waitress looked at each other in passing glances, as though they knew each other but wanted to conceal it. My uneasiness increased.
“It’s been my pleasure meeting you, sir, but I must now get back to my office. You too, Miss,” I said, trying to get up, but I suddenly began to feel faint, tired beyond anything I have ever felt.
“What’s wrong?” asked the waitress. “Not feeling well?”
“I’m fine. Just tired, sleepy I think,” I responded, the old man’s eyes piercing into mine. It seemed that the more I looked at him, the fainter I became.
“Take my hand,” he proposed. “I want to show you something.”
He took my right hand in his. Immediately I could feel that his body temperature wasn’t normal. His hand was frigid. I was shocked to feel how cold he was.
At that moment, I had the strange sensation of sitting in the corner table where he had been sitting, and looking back at myself talking to him and the waitress.
“Did you enjoy the new perspective?” the old man asked.
“Yes, being out of your body. What do you think that was? You seemed to be confused by the whole thing.”
“How do you know?” I asked, feeling like I had to go to sleep.
“Let’s just say I know. Moving outside our bodies takes a great deal of energy.”
“I think you’re crazy, if you don’t mind me saying so. I’m just dizzy and disoriented. Probably something I ate. I just want to go to work.”
“You say you like to study people, right? Why don’t you meet me tonight, say, at 7:00 p.m. in front of my house, the old McPherson house on the outskirts of town, down by the river?”
“We can talk some more about your physical condition. I can introduce you to a lot of very interesting souls.”
“What, are you a doctor?” I snapped, losing my patience.
“I guess you can say that. I like to think of myself as a kind of soul doctor. What do you have to lose? You may even save your soul.”
“Can I come, too?” asked the waitress.
“Of course you can.”
“Come on, Mister. Let’s go. Like he said, what do we have to lose? We’ll have fun. Let’s go just for the curiosity.”
“I don’t know. I’m rather busy. I’ll see.”
“Come on, don’t be so glum. It’ll be a party. Right?” the waitress said, addressing the old man.
“Yes, you can think of it like that,” the old man said.
“Alright, I’ll come. But remember, my main objective will be to conduct some research into whatever you have to say.”
* * *
I parked my car under a tall, wide, and very old banyan tree. The house was dark, with the exception of a light that came from somewhere at the back. I found it curious that there were no other cars there. I imagined that I was the first to arrive.
I got out of the car into what seemed to be the darkest night I have ever witnessed. Looking about me, I began to have second thoughts about my abrupt association with people I knew nothing about. I then began to feel faint. I wanted to sit down. My hands felt clammy and even though it was a cool night, I began to sweat.
Leaning against my car, I decided that I would drive off as soon as I felt up to it. I rubbed the sweat from my face. Then, removing my hands from my face, I saw the old man standing before me.
“God, man, you scared the hell out of me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rattle you. I just saw your car and...”
“Where did you come from? I didn’t hear you.”
“From inside the house. Where else?”
“Where are the others?”
“Is the waitress here?”
“Yes, she’s inside.”
“Where’s her car? How come I see no other cars?”
“They’ll be here. I promise.”
By now I was feeling very uneasy about the whole thing.
“Man, how do you get around in this infernal darkness?” I asked. “Do you live here alone in this desolate area?”
“We... I mean... I get along just fine. And no, I live with some friends. You sure ask a lot of questions. Is this all part of your research? Should we go inside?” he asked, placing his cold hand on my left shoulder.
It was now 7:12 p.m.
We walked up a path that was made up of mostly broken pieces of cement that felt very wobbly to the touch. Once at the front steps of the house, the old man motioned me to enter. The house was dark; the light from the back allowed me to see that the living room was unfurnished. From the back, I could hear soft, light footsteps coming in my direction.
“Hello. I am glad you made it,” said the waitress, kissing me on the right cheek. Her face was frigid and expressionless.
“This is my boyfriend, Freddy.”
“Oh, Freddy. You startled me,” I said, turning to greet him. “I didn’t see you.”
Then, pressing the small button that activates the light on my watch, I could see that both the waitress and Freddy were as pale as the old man.
“Is it cold in here?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Cold? I think it’s fine,” said the waitress. Are you feeling ill again?”
I was feeling very ill indeed, but I didn’t let her know it. I felt cold and heavy. My body was hindering my capacity to think. The apprehension that I felt outside the house was now gone. A part of me understood that I was transgressing the bounds of good sense, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I found myself at the very mercy of strangers.
Just when I was on the verge of mustering the strength to walk out the front door, the old man began to say some kind of prayer that I couldn’t understand. I was annoyed by what sounded like some garbled, primitive tribal chant, but I lacked the strength to come up with a response.
For the next few seconds, I stood there next to them more tired than I have ever felt. My knees felt weak. Nauseous and dizzy, I was taken over by a strange and eerie sensation, while my body felt like it was nailed to the floor. The darkness enabled me to become lost in space and time, as I now imagined myself standing in a void.
“Freddy says you remind him of someone he once met,” said the waitress.
“Uh?” I lifted my head.
“Feeling bad again?”
“I... I’m tired. I can’t explain it. I felt fine when I arrived.”
“Disoriented? Are you feeling disoriented?” asked the old man.
“Yes,” I answered.
“The problem is that your body has served as a hindrance to you for far too long.”
“Too long... What did you say about my body?” I asked.
I don’t remember what happened next.
Sitting in a chair, I looked out into infernal darkness. I no longer felt my body, while the lightness within me became the center focus of my self. Staring into the distance, I could make out a pinpoint of light, from which figures seemed to emanate. They moved past me, glancing down on me like a teacher does to a child who has stayed after school in detention hall.
At first I could not make out the faces of the people who paraded past me, or at least I didn’t recognize any. Then four figures approached me slowly.
It’s the old man, I thought. The waitress and Freddy were right behind him.
“Are these the people that you have invited?” he asked the girl, pointing to the people walking by.”
“Yes, father,” the waitress responded.
“What is this all about? They walked past me as if I were on display.”
“But you are. You are indeed the heart of the party, as it were.”
“Who’s that next to you?”
“Someone who has waited a long time to see you again.”
Then, out of the darkness, my mother walked up to me.
“Mother? Is that you? It can’t...”
“Yes, my son. It is I. You cannot know how happy I am to be together with you again.” She embraced me, but never did our bodies touch. Instead, I felt the radiance of her love as I had when she took me in her arms as a child. I began to weep. “Where’s father?”
“Look into that distant point,” she said.
A few seconds elapsed before, emerging from the void, my father appeared before me. I threw myself at him.
“Tell me this is a dream. I’ve had this kind before.”
“No. Not a dream,” said the old man. “I’m afraid that the real dream has now finally come to pass for you. Do you recall that automobile accident that you stopped at about a year ago?”
“Yes, the one where the white pickup truck hit the tree head on. Yes, those three people were in bad shape. I couldn’t make out their faces because it was so dark and... How do you know that?”
“How? I was there. So too was my daughter Shelley and her fiancé, Freddy. We are very grateful for your help that night. You stayed with us until rescue arrived. But as you can see, it was too late.”
“The three of you are...?”
“Now, I am more disoriented than ever.”
“On the contrary, that has been my job all along, to bring you to your true bearings.”
“Do you recall that first morning when you entered the restaurant?” asked the waitress.
“Yes, I was cold and agitated.”
“Do you remember what you told me when I first went up to serve you?”
“I think I said something about a traffic accident nearby.”
“Your exact words were: ‘What a terrible accident three blocks away’. What else do you recall of that morning?”
“Not much more. It was a small black car and a school bus. There was a man slouched forward on the wheel. Then I went into the restaurant.”
Then mother took my hands in hers. “Son, you were that man.”
Copyright © 2009 by Pedro Blas Gonzales