Authors: Mark Ferguson
The words flowed from the man’s mouth in time with the
of the train on its tracks, and for a moment Gabe couldn’t distinguish between the disparate sounds.
“You felt no separation between yourself and anything else. Time came to an end and then restarted. The music you heard was of a kind that you hadn’t previously known existed but that you can now hear everywhere if you’re not careful to ignore it. It was the sound of all.”
The last syllable of the man’s little monologue was still vibrating the air around Gabe’s ear when he focused back on his surroundings. It seemed like everything had been remade. The muddy brown of the seats was brighter than before, as if the sunlight coming through the windows was charged with new life.
“Don’t do that again,” said Gabe.
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, you did. When you spoke—”
Gabe thought about it harder this time. He felt it was important to say something useful. “You were at the center of it. Even when you were falling through the air, it was like your body was conducting everything else.”
The man looked doubtful. Gabe wanted to convince him but recognized that the impulse was strange. When had he started feeling responsible to this man?
“Where did you go?” said Gabe. “I thought you were dead. Or that I’d just imagined it. When you jumped off, I thought you were going to break your neck or something. Then you were just gone.”
The man looked down and smiled. “Have you fucked her yet?” he said.
“Who?” said Gabe.
“When it happens, I don’t want you to think about me.”
“Why the fuck would I think about you? I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m why you went over there, aren’t I?”
“No,” said Gabe.
“I’m sorry I messed you up by showing you what I did, but I had to. Nothing else would have made sense.”
“I don’t even know what you showed me,” said Gabe. “I was freaking out or something. Hallucinating. Then you disappeared.”
“I was still there,” said the man. “You just couldn’t see me.”
“I looked everywhere.”
The man shrugged.
“You can’t be for real.”
“I’m for real enough that I’ll probably get kicked off this train for not having a ticket in a few minutes. Unless you want to spot me.”
Gabe had the funny thought that he might be a victim of the most elaborate panhandle of all time, the man just an existential con artist, confusing his marks to near insanity over the course of days before hitting them up for train fare.
“Let me out,” said Gabe.
“I’m not keeping you here.” The man gestured to the two inches of clearance in front of his knees as if it proved his point.
“You’re in my way,” said Gabe, and he stood up.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Then, slowly, each word deliberate and full: “Did you fuck Val yet?”
Gabe sat down.
Recognition came in quick waves after that: the slight movements of the man’s eyes as he spoke, his gait, the shape of his eyebrows, his teeth when he smiled. The first thing Gabe felt was guilt at not having recognized Henry before. And then he felt like sobbing out of relief or sadness or something else that he couldn’t articulate. There were so many things he could say, so many things he’d imagined himself saying if ever he saw his best friend again, but for some reason the only thing that came out was, “You look like shit.”
Henry laughed, and it revealed the deep lines around his eyes. All the things that had prevented Gabe from recognizing him now looked totally incongruous. There was silver in his beard, long streaks that started halfway down his jaw on either side. His cheeks were sunken in, eyes dark in their sockets and as wide and strange as Joan had first described them.
“What happened to you?” said Gabe. “What’s with the cloak-and-dagger?”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you like this,” said Henry, smiling. “I feel old.”
“If you don’t want to tell me where you’ve been, that’s fine, but stop pretending like you don’t understand what I’m asking.”
“Okay,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you where I’ve been.”
Gabe let this sit, unsatisfied. He thought about how scared he’d been of encountering Henry. It seemed silly until Gabe remembered what Henry had been like on the phone. It was
Henry he’d dreaded seeing. As different as the man in front of him was from the Henry Gabe had always known, he was even further removed from the sad, raving, broken version of himself that had lived for weeks on the other end of a cell phone connection.
“You seem…Are you okay?”
“I’m not,” said Henry. “But I’m sane. For the most part.”
“Why are you sleeping in the park?” Gabe asked. “You know you can stay with me.” But that was a lie. Had Henry appeared at the door Gabe would have called Jan and the police in that order, without delay. He’d been missing too long. It would have been irresponsible to hide him. “What are you doing out there?”
Henry shot him a sharp look. It seemed to say that Gabe should know better, or that there was something essential he had yet to understand.
“This is bullshit,” said Gabe. “It’s only been like two minutes and I’m already tired of asking you questions that you won’t answer.”
“Then stop asking,” said Henry, “or ask better questions.”
“Just come back.”
“Nobody else can know that you’ve seen me.”
“That’s just stupid, Henry.”
“Nobody else, Gabe. Not my mom, not Val, not anybody. I know it’s a big demand, and that it’s unfair, and that you can’t exactly take for granted that I’m in the best state of mind. But if I can’t trust you, there’s nobody.”
“I kept a secret for you before and it fucked everything up. You know how much your mom hates me right now?” Gabe could see that his words weren’t penetrating. “This is fucking crazy.”
“Careful how you use that word. And she doesn’t hate you.”
“I can’t keep the fact that you’re alive a secret from your own mother.”
“If you tell her, I’ll just disappear again.” Henry’s lack of hesitation and emotion was chilling. “It’s not your responsibility to make sure I’m okay.”
“Then what is my responsibility?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t really have one, not to me, anyway. Not right now.”
“Why are you sitting here if you don’t want help? You could have stayed missing, and from what I can tell, you plan to do that anyway. So, what? What am I supposed to do with this?”
“I don’t need your help. Not like that.”
Gabe huffed and deflated, then tapped the side of his head against the window.
“Jesus,” said Henry. “You have one break with reality and everyone is falling all over themselves to find you the kind of ‘help’ you need. Such a weird fucking euphemism. It’s not me that needs help—it’s you and my mom and everyone else.”
Gabe’s eyebrows formed the visual equivalent of
You’ve got to be shitting me.
“It’s true,” said Henry. “You just want to get me help from someone else so you can feel like you did everything you could. You’re just as powerless as I am. I don’t want your capital-
Help. I know that what I’m choosing to do right now could be problematic. I just need to talk to you every once in a while. I need to work some things out. That’s it.”
The train reached Newark Airport. Travelers wrestled rolling luggage down the narrow aisle between the benches. Henry’s ragged appearance afforded them a wide radius of empty seats. Gabe waited for everyone to sit before speaking. “I don’t know if I can do this. Why don’t you just go to your mom? You’re fine now, she’ll leave you to do whatever, and she won’t be losing sleep thinking you’re fucking dead.”
Henry looked past him out the window of the train. “I had a question for you,” he said. “A question I asked twice already. You haven’t answered it.”
Val. The sharp points of Gabe’s right cuspids found a little pad of flesh inside his cheek.
“You haven’t done anything yet,” said Henry. He sounded calm.
“What do you mean,
” said Gabe. “I wouldn’t do anything with Val.” But he knew that if he wasn’t sitting with Henry he’d be obsessing over what he’d felt that morning, telling himself it was okay to see Val how he’d seen her, to want to see her more.
Henry stared, unblinking, until Gabe felt compelled to say more.
“I went over there because of you.” It felt just truthful enough to warrant the self-righteous tone that crept into his voice.
“I don’t matter anymore,” said Henry.
he said, employing the deranged baby voice he used whenever he wanted to mock his best friend.
Gabe fought with the corners of his mouth and bit his lower lip, but he couldn’t keep from smiling.
Warm laughter gurgled from Henry’s throat.
“I’m not agreeing to keep your mom in the dark,” said Gabe.
Henry laughed again. “Bet you’ll keep Val in the dark, though.”
“Why would you say that? I didn’t fuck Val, all right? Stop testing me.”
“I was just curious,” said Henry. “It’s going to happen. And when it does, you need to know that I don’t mind.”
“Christ, Henry, just come down off your fucking cross, get some of that capital-
Help you don’t want, and get over yoursel
. Just come back to the house. We’ll figure it out from there.”
“I can’t,” said Henry. He put both of his palms on the seat between them and leaned forward on his arms, his face coming to a stop inches from Gabe’s own. “Look at me,” he said.
The train passed through a covered section of track, and when they came out on the other side the yellow-striated brown of Henry’s irises billowed out as his pupils contracted. The space between each of his eyes and temples looked like an aerial view of a river delta, the southernmost tributaries feeding deep, dark reservoirs underneath each eyeball. The rest of Henry’s face was obscured by the big flowing beard with its random patches of gray.
“Your beard,” said Gabe.
Henry cocked his head almost imperceptibly to one side and smiled. “How long do you think it took me to grow this bad boy?” he said, and he patted the bottom of his beard with an upturned palm. “And how long have I been gone?”
Gabe made no move to respond.
“So,” said Henry. “Let’s talk about the bridge.”
enry slept, deep
and dreamless, until the crunch of gravel awoke him.
“We’re here,” said 80.
Henry opened his eyes. A small two-story house rose up from an ocean of green grass as they approached. At the edges of the clearing was dense forest, and a glance in the rearview told Henry that they weren’t within sight of any road but the one they’d driven up on. 80 pulled into the roundabout in front of the house, killed the engine, and opened his door. Henry’s ears strained at the sudden silence. The air felt thin in his nose, and it smelled of grass and dust and water.
80 lifted himself up out of the car and went around to the trunk, then passed by Henry’s door with plastic grocery bags in hand. “Grab something before you come to the house,” he said.
Alone, Henry looked at the grass and listened. Birds called from every direction, not the chattering of morning but the sporadic calls of afternoon. The sound of leaves rubbing against one another in the breeze swelled and then dwindled, their liquid whisper almost indistinguishable from the faraway sound of water over rocks. Inside the house, cupboard doors slammed against their frames. Henry opened the car door and swung his bare feet out onto the gravel, stepped gingerly to the trunk, and then up to the house and through the screen door, which squealed softly on its hinges as he passed over the threshold.
“Back here,” said 80.
Henry followed the sound past a flight of stairs and through the living room. In the kitchen, 80 was carefully folding a plastic bag. He shoved it into a floor-level cabinet.
“You’ll want a shower,” said 80. “There are towels up in the bathroom. I put some clothes out for you in the room at the end of the hall to the right. I’ll make lunch.”
Henry placed the grocery bags on the floor, careful not to make any sound, though he couldn’t have said why. He stared at 80, studied the shape of his hairline, his ears. He had no doubt about who he was looking at.
“Is this real?” he asked.
“I’m asking myself roughly the same thing,” said 80.
“I remembered where you’d be,” said 80. “I wasn’t certain that I had the right day until I saw you.”
“We can talk later,” said 80. He looked like he might cry. “Just go upstairs and take a shower. Please.”
Henry made the shower water as hot as he could stand it, then sat down in the tub and let the filth of the previous few weeks slough off him. He waited until the steam made it hard to breathe before turning off the tap and drying off.
In the bedroom, he dressed. He opened a window. He sat down on the bed then, just to enjoy the feel of the air from outside, the reassuring cooking sounds from below—clinking metal, the sizzle of a pan.
By the time he got downstairs the table was set with two plates, each covered in salad and a still-steaming chicken breast. There were checkered cloth napkins, forks and knives, and two glasses of water.
“You’re not hungry,” said the old man, who was already seated. “Neither am I. It just seemed like the only thing to do. Cook a meal. I’d probably throw up if I actually took a bite.”
Henry sat down and rested his trembling hands on the table, palms down. “I feel normal,” he said. “Well, not normal, but…sane.”
“But you’re here. So. I don’t know what this means.”
80 picked up his fork, pushed lettuce around with the tines, then set it back down.
“I can’t really be seeing you,” said Henry.
“You are. And you know that.”
“The practice room.”
“All those years ago? It was real?”
“All those years.”
Henry considered all that they’d said and in how few words. “It’s not—I don’t think it matters,” he said. “Please. I was going to go get help. I’m ready to let go. I want to go home.”
“I remember,” said 80. “But not just yet.”
“Take me back. Please. You can do that, can’t you?”
“We have a lot to talk about. And for the sake of expediency, I’ll do the talking.”
Henry rankled at being shut up, but then it struck him. “You already know everything I might say.”
“That’s part of it. But I also know a lot about how you got here, and a lot about where you’re going.”
“So you know how this is going to work out,” said Henry.
“I do, unfortunately.”
Suddenly an intense square of honey-colored light beamed through the window above the sink. A cloud must have passed, giving way to the sun. The light gave the room a glassy feel, and it felt like a sign, but of what Henry wasn’t sure. “And why is it unfortunate?” he said.
“I thought I could save us,” said 80.
“And you can’t?”
“Well, I haven’t. Not yet. That much is clear.”
“Save us from what?” he said, but he knew. Val had left and taken Annie. He had fucked it all up. “I can’t get them back?”
80 shook his head.
Henry looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. “What happens now?”
“We go to the living room and get comfortable. I tell you what I know. When I’m done, we figure out what to do next.”
They rose and walked out of the kitchen, their food untouched. The old man took the couch. Henry lowered his aching body into a big plush chair.
“Are you comfortable?” said 80.
“The first time I was your age, I left the house just like you did. I passed out on the bridge, saw myself in the basement, and ran back. But nobody came to save me. Someone in the neighborhood must have called the police—you know how it is around there. Everyone’s bored, paranoid. These two young officers came. They didn’t arrest me, not officially, but I wasn’t making sense. I cried and wailed until they put me in the squad car and drove me to the hospital. I told a nurse I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, that I’d jumped into the past. She brought a doctor. He brought a psychiatrist. I said all they had to do was go to the house and they’d find me there,
I told them, the one who hadn’t left the house yet.
“Then Val came—be glad I spared you the pain of seeing the look on her face.
Just go back to the house,
I told her. I wouldn’t give it up. Eventually she made a deal. She’d drive back to the house and if she didn’t find another me there waiting for her, I’d do whatever she asked.”
Henry could picture it, vaguely. Val would have said no a thousand times, would have refused to play along with his delusions. The fact that she gave in was terrifying proof of just how scared she must have been. “She didn’t find you, I guess.”
“No,” said 80. “Much later, I figured it out. I passed out on the bridge in the afternoon, woke up there that same morning. I shifted just about eight hours into my own past. By the time Val got to the house I had already left again. She was too late. But at the time I didn’t know that, I didn’t understand. I thought she was lying, told her she had to be wrong because I’d seen myself with my own eyes. There was some violence. Not toward her, nothing like that. I just wanted to go check for myself. They restrained me and I fought. Later, after all the meds had had time to build up and I was a good, obedient patient, I
wouldn’t deny what had happened to me. I hated Val for not believing me. It wasn’t fair, but I did.”
“And Annie?” said Henry.
“She was too young to understand. After I came back and Val and I split, I got ‘visitation’ rights. An awful word. You don’t visit your own blood. I was living alone, doing well, but it didn’t matter to Annie. When she turned fourteen she asked to be freed of her weekend obligation to me. She said it was too hard to go back and forth. I felt like I was losing her, so I sat her down and tried to…I started from the beginning. I thought if I could only explain—”
“I wanted her to know the truth. And I don’t need you telling me how bad a decision
was. From then on all I got from Annie was begrudging pity, and all I got from Val was disdain.”
“You deserved it,” said Henry.
“And imagine how much worse that made me feel. Before you think of scolding me, consider that you would have done the same. I just picked you up to
you from being as stupid as I was.”
“You want to undo this,” said Henry.
“And you think it’s impossible.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s possible or not. It’s over. This is dangerous. It’s crazy.”
“Annie is grown now,” said 80. “She’s incredible. A woman cast in the mold of her mother. Sometimes she comes over on holidays. I give her no joy—I’ve known that for a long time. She has kids of her own, a boy and a girl, and I see the way she watches me when I’m with them, like I might break them. They like their grandpa, but when they get old enough she’ll tell them what she knows about me. I’ll watch them catch her fear. And then? When I’m gone? I’ll be remembered but not missed. It will be a relief to everyone who knows me. I’ll finally be the disembodied subject of family lore. Crazy old Grandpa. A joke.”
“And Val?” Henry asked. “She never forgave you?”
80 shook his head. “She’s been gone a few years.”
“Gone?” said Henry. He was about to ask to where but then he understood and was overcome with a feeling like drowning.
They sat in silence again. The room grew darker around them as the sun slipped farther down on the other side of the house.
When Henry could finally speak again, he said, “Why am I here? What do you want?”
“It seemed obvious. If I had never relived those eight hours, never raved at the doctors and Val, everything would be different. So when I got out of the hospital I started walking. I rented an apartment up on Kinderkamack Road. It was close enough to make Annie’s visits easier, close to that little concrete bridge, too. I visited that bridge once a day for several years, but I never heard the song again. Eventually I started feeding my drugs to the garbage disposal, thinking that could help. I spent nearly every waking moment listening for the music, searching it out.”
“You wanted to hear it? Even after what happened the last time—even after you lost everything?”
80 shrugged his shoulders. “I’d do it again. You would have done the same.”
“And eventually you heard it,” said Henry.
but yes. I stopped trying just the one bridge, bought a road atlas of the tristate and highlighted all the bridges I could find—countless crossings, I never realized how many there were. I visited them one by one, spending whole days driving from one to another to another. I’d find a place to park the car, walk to a particular site, stand with my eyes closed. It wasn’t a very good method, but I didn’t have any other ideas. Eventually it was little more than an eccentric hobby. Lots of old men have them. Truthfully, I didn’t have much else to live for. Then one day, right on the other side of the reservoir over here, it happened. It was only a few years ago. I parked the car at this little country diner and ate lunch. As I was walking toward the bridge I started thinking about the vacation we took up here just after Annie was born. I pictured Val nursing in the little motel room, remembered Annie’s feet, those little drumsticks, so fat she could barely flex her ankles. And Val’s face, just open, beautiful, happy, and proud.
“I forgot about my surroundings, I forgot to listen. I was just an old man reminiscing like a pathetic fool—walking on a bridge meant for cars like some senile runaway. And then it happened. After searching for thirty-five years you’d think I’d have been prepared, but I wasn’t. The song swelled up and absolutely exploded and overtook me so fast that next thing I know I’m sitting on my bony ass, my back resting against a metal railing so cold that it burns when I touch it. It was summer when I passed out, but I open my eyes and everything is a winter gray, completely quiet and still, no cars on the road. Even the Esopus Creek down below me is near silent, almost completely frozen over. Adrenaline is the only thing that gets me up on my feet, and I start to think I’ve made a huge mistake. The last time I shifted was when I was you. That was only a difference of hours, and I couldn’t ever get right again. Now I’m displaced by months? Years? So I take a few deep breaths and to calm myself I picture walking across that bridge when it was warm, my car just down the road, my stomach full of something fried and awful. And by focusing on that, ignoring the pain and the panic, I hear the music again. It’s faint at first, but then that white-noise rush just comes and takes me away, and the next time I open my eyes it’s afternoon and I’m warm again.
“I walked back to the diner. My car was there, just as I’d left it. I got in and just shook and shook.”
“So you can control it?” asked Henry.
“I need to focus on something, some time I want to be in. It’s not like in a comic book—I can’t go back and visit the Continental Congress and I can’t go into the future. I can’t focus on something I don’t remember, and I can’t remember something that hasn’t happened yet. And I can’t travel to just anyplace—I wake up on the bridge I passed out on. Really I’m quite limited.”
“Limited,” said Henry. He squinted. “Why bridges?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe there is something special about them, something acoustic or mystical, but I doubt it. It’s probably a self-imposed necessity. A result of our experience. An association, nothing more.”
“You seem to be enjoying this,” said Henry, “the chance to talk about your method, how you did it.”
“I’ve never spoken about it with anyone before.”
“I don’t care how you did it. I was about to let go of all this. I finally got to a point where I could—and then you—I just want to go back.”
“And I can take you back, but if we follow the course of my memory—how can I explain? There are things I’ve known only since this morning. I waited for you down the road from the bridge. I saw you arrive, winded and crying. I watched you collapse and I drove up. Through all of that I remained myself, but then you saw me and you understood and in that instant a whole world of memory was thrust into my mind. The memories are brand-new and yet I’ve had them for forty years. It’s hard to make sense of.”