Shadows of Ourselves
The Dead don’t make much noise. At least not in New Hope, on a Wednesday morning at the Main Street Pharmacy and Convenience Store. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care. I’m standing at the register with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand, my other resting on the shiny surface of the counter. Lindsay’s next to me, her hand over mine, like always. We’ve been chatting about the weather, the possibility of a Starbucks coming to town and what that might mean for business, the Sox, though with baseball she usually lets me do most of the talking.
Mrs. Jenkins is our first customer on the day, here to pick up scripts for her arthritis and her high blood pressure and whatever else it is you get when you’ve lived a decade longer than your body is designed to carry you. With the regulars, I’m pretty good at knowing their schedules. So I know Mrs. Jenkins is a few days too early for a re-up, even though the pills are there waiting for her, because our pharmacist only comes in twice a week and fills out the regulars’ scripts days, sometimes weeks, in advance. Even on a schedule of Mondays, Thursdays, and alternate Saturdays, there’s still not much to keep you occupied here.
“Morning Mrs. Jenkins, how’s life treating you?” I offer, same as always.
Lindsay generally keeps still when the customers come in. I’m pretty sure Mr. Hanks, the owner, knows she’s around sometimes, but he won’t give me much trouble about it, as long as I do my job, which isn’t all that taxing, even on the busiest of days.
“Billy, this old body, it just keeps on goin’. Guess the Good Lord don’t need me yet!” Mrs. Jenkins says, her standard response. Her husband’s behind her, but with the sun’s glare from the street it’s hard to even make him out anymore. He sees me and I acknowledge him with a tiny nod, not worrying a lick about the missus catching on. He returns the gesture, smiles at Lindsay, too, and she responds in kind. He’s nearly transparent now, they must’ve buried him 6 years ago. It’s odd he’s still visible at all. Faders have a way of surprising you though - you never can tell which ones’ll go away fast and which ones will be floating around for a decade.
“So what can I do for you?” I ask the old lady, as she fumbles with the reading glasses hanging on a beaded chain around her neck. I’m don’t think she’s about to read anything, but after a certain point in life, you don’t have to justify much to others.
“I seem to be out of those blood pressure pills, the Tetra-whatevers, not sure about the name of ‘em,” she laughs. Mr. Jenkins moves so he’s standing next to her, and as she says this, he looks me right in the eyes, mouths ‘No!’, and shakes his head vigorously. Still looking out for her.
“You got the bottle on you, Mrs. Jenkins?” I ask her, and when she pulls it out I realize she’s managed to go through a one month supply in two and a half weeks. “How many of these are you taking a day, might I ask?” I enquire.
“Oh, just one, like the bottle says,” she assures me, as the Fader next to her throws his hands up into the air and pulls a theatrical face I can hardly make out, because the morning sun’s now passing right through the place where the outline of his head sits.
“But it would seem,” I say, doing my best Sherlock Holmes impression, “as though you’ve taken 30 in, just about, 18 days.” She looks at me, perplexed. “Have you thought about investing in a pill caddy?” I pull one out from under the counter, hold it up in front of her.
“Well my memory isn’t what it used to be, I guess, and what with all these bottles to keep track of…how much is it?” she asks.
“For a piece of plastic?!” she shrieks, but I could’ve said fifty cents and gotten the same response. The elderly are bothered by the mere existence of prices, not so much the numbers themselves. If I met his glance right now, I’m sure I would see Mr. Jenkins mouthing something about all the money he left her in his will. At some point, saving for the future becomes superfluous.
“For you, Mrs. Jenkins, let’s make it an even $5, and call it money well-spent,” I tell her, typing the price into the register manually before she can object. I’ll throw the extra cash in the till later myself if Hanks calls me on it. Which he won’t.
“Well, Steven always did say I was a scatterbrain,” she says, and for a second her rheumy eyes cloud up even further and I’m afraid she’s going to start crying. Instinctively, he reaches an arm around her, which dissolves at the point of contact with her hunched shoulders. I avert my eyes from this – it never gets easy seeing a Fader frustrated by his condition. She thanks me with her voice, he with a nod and a tip of the cap he forgets he’s not wearing anymore, and she turns to leave with his aura trundling along behind her.
Just another day at the office.
“That one’s likely to bring about her own end sooner rather than later,” I laugh to Lindsay, when they’ve gone. She smiles in assertion.
For the record, it didn’t “start.” It always was. As “Mom” told me later, in a tone that made it seem like it was my fault, when they got me from the agency they were told about it then. I was two years old and my natural parents, who were too young and too frightened to handle my arrival into their world, had been told I might have Down’s Syndrome or some other form of dementia. Because half the time somebody was talking to me, I wasn’t looking at them. Tests didn’t show anything, though - I was a healthy baby. Later on, my teachers in grade school thought I had ADHD (though back then I don’t think they called it that yet). They sent me to a counselor, a kindly soft-spoken fellow with square-framed glasses and a ring of chestnut hair outlining the back of his head like a funny brown ‘U’. I remember his wife, still crisply outlined, sitting next to him as he ran random Rohrsarch tests on me and asked me questions about what I liked and didn’t like to do. He noticed it, too, the fact that I was only looking at him part of the time. And, since he seemed like a guy I could trust, I told him that I was looking at the lady sitting next to him. At this point, I still hadn’t learned “the rules”, so I didn’t know that she was his wife, or that ovarian cancer had claimed her a few years earlier. I had an idea that he couldn’t see her, of course, but I hadn’t yet worked out why. As I described her to him in detail, I could see he got a bit damp around the eyes. He fingered the wooden cross hanging down on his chest. He had me admitted to a clinic.
More tests were run, more questions asked. They gave me some pills which made me tired all the time, and I took them for a few weeks until I couldn’t tell Faders from the living anymore. Then I did the smartest thing I’d ever done. I told the doctors and my “parents” I had made it all up. All the Faders, the whole thing. I was 8 years old. “Mom” and “Dad” had discussions about giving me back to the agency. Then followed nights when I wish they had given me a bedroom with a functioning lock on the door. Punishments that could’ve brought visions into the head of a kid who hadn’t even been having them in the first place. “Dad’s” mother looked particularly scornful of him when he’d use the belt on me, though, in retrospect, it was clear he was taking out a lot more on me than simply the inconvenience brought on by my delusions. She’d stand behind him, well-faded by that point, and just shake her head with disappointment. Never knew her, but she seemed like a good woman.
The afternoon is a quiet one. “Is there any other kind in New Hope?” Lindsay and I have often asked one another. I read the papers that no one’s bought, sometimes she sits and reads over my shoulder. We do couply things now, the kind you scoff at until you find someone who wants to do them with you. At about 2.30, a young lady walks in and approaches the counter like she’s got something to hide. A Fader literally storms in behind her; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so livid. He looks pretty crisp, maybe a few years older than her, still a kid, though, and, as if to reinforce this, he’s wearing a baseball uniform. It’s hard not to look back at him as he looks at me – he sees Lindsay, too, but she glides off silently to the back room, never a fan of “bad karma”, as she puts it, though I’m hard-pressed to believe such a thing exists. The girl isn’t a townie, and she’s a few years too old to be from the college. Looks like she’s lived her fair share of hardship, if the lines snaking outward from the corners of her lips and eyes are any indication.
She softly asks for a packet of condoms with so much hesitation, almost I have to ask her to repeat herself for lack of hearing. “Any special kind?” I hear myself say, though I know the answer before the words escape my lips.
“N-no, whatever’s fine, just put them in a bag, please,” she says, and I almost get the feeling she can see the Fader next to her, that’s how hard his eyes are burning into her. Normally, I don’t try to lip-read, because it’s too obvious to the Living that something is up, but a subtle sidewards glance towards him and it’s easy to make out the stream of expletive pouring from his silent mouth. He tries to pound his fists on the counter, but all I see is a blur of dissolution where they pass through the surface.
“Are, are you looking at something, mister?” she asks me, surprised.
“No, ma’am, nothing at all,” I say. The embarrassment of getting caught never lessens for me. For me, the Faders are an old story I never really feel like telling. “You from around here?” I ask, to change the topic on her.
“No, just passing through for a few days, I’m from up Miller’s Point,” she tells me, thrusting out her debit card to punctuate her sentence.
“Sorry, but it’s cash only here, I’m afraid,” and this small inconvenience threatens to destroy whatever composure she’s still struggling to maintain. She reaches into her jeans pocket and pulls out a clutch of crumpled bills, throws a few on the table, and doesn’t even wait for her change before grabbing the bag and turning to leave. Her Fader looks at me like I’m guilty of something, and, as she’s turned her back before he has, I offer an apologetic shrug to him. I point to the small placard affixed to the front of the register. Life Goes On, it says. Lindsay bought it for me a ways back, it being the best motto either of us could come up with for the situation we’d found ourselves in. He waves at me with one finger.
Lindsay comes back out then. “Poor guy,” she says to me, reaching up a hand to stroke my hair. You can’t keep secrets from the Dead.
After the incident with the child psychologist, it was just easier to keep my mouth shut. Not like the Faders were doing me any harm. Kind of, I knew this, right from the beginning. It was just a feeling I had and, as it was never proven wrong, I had no problem keeping it. Faders can’t touch anything; they can’t affect the physical world in any way at all. They’re just there, tagging along, as it were. Growing up, I loved watching old Twilight Zone episodes – they got Death so laughably wrong. Ghost, Flatliners, Always – I’ve seen all the “What happens after we die?” flicks. And maybe I’m not the only guy my age whose favorite movie growing up was Beetlejuice. But likely, I’m the only one who liked the film because Winona Ryder’s character was the closest cinematic approximation to his own life he’d ever found.
Tim Burton messed it up, too, though – the way you go out has no bearing on the way your Fader looks. Basically, you look like a decent approximation of yourself while you were alive and healthy. More or less, you keep the age you were at the end. If you get hit by a car, you’re not going to be covered in tire marks. Cancer patients get their hair back. If this makes you feel better, you’re welcome, I suppose.
I lock up the shop at 6 on the dot, and Lindsay and I stroll over the tiny multiplex on Main Street (technically, two screens is a “multiplex”, but it still seems an opportunistic appellation). On a weekday, you’re guaranteed there won’t be many people there. We sit towards the back and watch a Seth Rogen flick that isn’t half bad. He’s just a kid. The passing of time has never sat well with me. Knowing that there are leading men in Hollywood a decade younger than I am makes me feel like I missed some Big Shot I never had. If I were a baseball player, I’d be nearing retirement age. Lindsay hates it when I talk about this. “You worry about what you’ll lose while you still have it,” she tells me. It’s hard to live in the Now, I confess, no matter how many Buddhist tomes you’ve got sitting half-read on your bookshelf at home.
At home, we chat about the film, the noise from the kid next door and his drum set, that damn Starbucks. Simple things, things you talk about when you don’t feel pressure to be interesting anymore because you’ve found your Person.
It’s amazing how much time we spend in life keeping up appearances. Hiding the Faders, it felt like my whole life was a ruse. And if you play a role long enough, you might not remember who you really are. Then you find someone who wants to love you, and you don’t even know who the “you” they’re falling for is. Anyway. I cook an easy dinner, some sautéed chicken I toss over a bowl of fettuccine. I put out a big plate for me and a small plate for Lindsay, though I know she won’t eat much. Pop open a bottle of wine and discard the cork before even pouring my first glass. It’s a typical night in.
Once I realized what the Faders were, who they represented, I began to look at my situation as a privilege, giving me insight into the lives of the people around me. Like reading a page from a person’s diary without them knowing. Usually it seems like just next-of-kin that become your Faders, but I’ve seen all sorts of relations that wouldn’t make sense unless I took it upon myself to pry into things with the Living, something I’ve never felt right doing. I’ve seen Faders in situations that made it tough to hold back tears, and others so funny I had to bite my cheek to hide the laughter. It’s hard watching a baby or a toddler Fader crawling down the street behind a married couple. I’ll never get used to that, no matter how many times I see it. But when, a few days after Father Timothy’s funeral, I saw him tagging along behind Father Paul as he did his grocery shopping, looking ill-at-ease and still unsure of “the rules” himself, I truly felt I was privy to something not a lot of people in New Hope were aware of. But I’m not one to judge.
Thursday is a day off, and morning comes up crisp and autumnal, so Lindsay and I decide to go down to Willet’s Creek and have a picnic. I bring a few poetry books she loves - we still read to each other sometimes, my head in her lap or the other way around. Again, it’s one of those things I would’ve scoffed at, till I found myself doing it. On a weekday this time of year, I’m sure we won’t run into anyone, so we stroll into the small park holding hands, I throw down a blanket, and we spend the day immersed in green tea, imported cheese, the printed word, and each other’s company. I’m usually not that affectionate in public – in small towns, someone’s always got something to say, and if they don’t know what’s going on, they’ll just make something up. Lindsay’s always been a pretty modest one, as well. “I’m yours in private, too, you know,” being one of her favorite things to say if I get too amorous outside. Today, she lets me do what I like, so I run my hand along the soft skin of her arms, place tiny kisses upon her neck, smell the air around her like a hound dog sniffing out a trail. We might look strange, if I stopped to care. But I don’t. There are days when things just make sense, and that’s the best time not to question them.
A pair of old men are the only people who pass anywhere near us all day– their respective Fader wives walk along a few feet behind them, in conversation every bit as animated as that of the men they’re trailing. To be fair, from a distance, I’m not even sure which pair are Faders and which are alive. “Are you crazy?” laughs Lindsay, “Watch the way the sun hits them, it goes right through the lady on the right, honey,” she tells me. And, as they pass into a narrow clearing, I have to admit she’s right. She’s always been better at that than me.
One part of this that does get tiresome, though, is how much a Fader may freak out if they know you can see them. There’s an irony in this, the fact that the Dead are more disturbed being seen by the Living than a living person like me is of seeing them in the first place. I got used to it a long time ago, but for them, it’s something quite unexpected. I grew up in a small town, ended up in New Hope for college. I wasn’t sure how good the education was, but they gave me a free ride and that meant I didn’t have to depend on the foster parents who, by this time, had long since realized they weren’t cut out for raising a kid any more than the couple who gave me up were. By winter break of the first semester, I was already looking for work on campus, any excuse not to go home. “Mom” and “Dad” became pen pals I didn’t have much desire to write to. When hard feelings are the strongest ones, it’s easy not to worry about making room for any others.
The campus, bucolic and quiet, with hiking trails and expansive fields for ball-playing and, on occasion, study, felt like home to me in a way nowhere else ever had. When I graduated with a piece of paper that said I’d majored in History, I moved to the City for a while because it seemed like that’s what you were supposed to do.
But I couldn’t hack it. I don’t want to say it was the Faders that did it, but they certainly didn’t help. I hated getting on buses and seeing them dissipate around the Living as the seats filled up. It always made me a little queasy, though I can’t explain why. I hated the double-takes I’d have to make trying to figure out who was who – no matter how long this goes on, the newly Dead still look pretty damn solid to me. It’s like they haven’t really decided to leave yet. And when you’re the only one who can see them, trying to act like you’re looking at something else gets old real fast. Even if you know someone isn’t really standing in front of you, it’s damn near impossible to walk through them. “Cognitive dissonance” was a phrase I learned back during the one semester I took of Psychology before I changed majors. It’s hard to pretend not to see what you do. And it’s even harder to trick yourself into acting normal when you know things aren’t.
That night, winedrunk in the bedroom, waiting for sleep’s sweet arrival, I watch Lindsay sitting in a chair, running her hands through her long, golden hair, staring out into the backyard. “You look radiant,” I tell her, and she laughs. “You say that all the time,” she chides me, coming over to lie down on the bed next to me, putting her head on my chest so softly I hardly know she’s there. “I keep saying it, because I keep meaning it,” I tell her. Maybe at some point, when you’ve found something good, you can stop looking. I don’t care what’s behind Door Number 2.
“That’s beautiful,” Lindsay says, looking up at me so I can see her face. “Did I say that aloud?” I ask, realizing in the questioning that yes, I did.
Friday morning is colder; autumn changes things fast in these parts. Some years it feels like we skip right from the moist, pregnant evenings of late summer to winter mornings so bitter you can’t walk down the street without pulling your neck down into whatever jacket you’re wearing like a turtle. It’s easier to tell the Faders then - they don’t seem to change clothes. A guy walking down the street in pool shorts and thong sandals when it’s 20 below always brings a smile to my face.
The bell attached to the shop’s door clangs, and a family walks in. The guy, probably around my age, is up front, and I realize after a second, the other four people with him are all Faders. His young, pretty wife holds a child of about two, and a boy and a girl of around 8 and 10 flank their mother, holding onto her wispy winter coat with well-defined hands. Lindsay, standing next to me, gasps reflexively, and I shoot her a quick look which the guy doesn’t notice, because he isn’t looking ahead of himself as he’s walking.
“Mornin’,” I say, leaving out the “good”, because it seems clear that word doesn’t apply to the fellow standing before me. He acknowledges my greeting, wordlessly pulls out a prescription on a crisp doctor’s sheet and places it down on the counter before me.
“Haven’t seen you around here before?” I say, and phrase it like a question, hoping he’ll answer, which he does.
“Yeah, I’m from Westin, just passing through on business, forgot to get this filled back home,” he tells me. I look at the script. It’s for Lorazepam, 4mg. I turn the paper over in my hand, it’s got a doctor’s signature on it, but it doesn’t look quite right. I’m not the pharmacist, but he’s not in, and I’ve seen enough scripts to know one you could’ve bought online.
“Pharmacist’s not here today, I’d like him to take a look at this, if that’s ok,” I tell him, “4mg is a big one, I don’t think we even stock that, to be honest.”
He looks at me like I’ve just told him to go to hell. Which, in a way, I guess I have. “You can’t help me out?” he says. I don’t look at Lindsay, but I can feel her alongside me, and I’m sure she’s glassy-eyed from the Faders in front of us.
“I want to, but look, why don’t you go back to your regular pharmacy in Westin, talk to your pharmacist there, ok? I’d feel a lot better if you did that,” I conclude, returning the paper to him.
He pockets it like a kid busted with a forged hall pass. He stares me in the eye. His wife leans over him, meets my wandering gaze, mouths “Thank you.”
I put both hands on the counter and lean forward, just a bit. “Buddy, I don’t know what’s happened to you, but let me tell you something.” I pause. “It – gets – better.” I enunciate each word clearly for him. “Please believe me.” I almost reach over for a pack of gum to pass it down to the kids, then realize that wouldn’t be wise at all. Then come the waterworks. I hand him a travel packet of tissues. “On me,” I tell him. He mutters something that sounds like “thanks”.
When he reaches the door, he hardly has the strength to push it open. Four Faders leave the store. I didn’t want to be responsible for a fifth.
Lindsay is facing the wall, and I know she’s crying even before she turns around. Kids always get her choked up. “Westin,” she says to me, “two months ago, remember?” And then I do. Pizza delivery guy snaps, kills a young lady and her three kids. Father gets home, finds a large pie sitting on the dining room table, still warm, and his dead family propped up in chairs around it. Daddy’s Home.
I met Lindsay in Green’s Tavern, a cheap, dark watering hole for townies and college kids who don’t care if there aren’t any drink specials or the bartender doesn’t smile. This was some years after I’d graduated, and shortly after I’d moved back to New Hope, looking for work at the college or anywhere that would have me, completely directionless after spending a good chunk of my twenties in the City chasing money I didn’t want and getting angered when I couldn’t get it.
Meeting women has always been a problem for me. It’s common knowledge that every one of us carries baggage. But most people don’t have to see it sitting down next to them at a dinner date. Most people don’t have to make love to a girl while her dead father looks on from the corner of the room like he’s going to kill you. For a very brief while, I tried dating this college girl who’d lost her ex- in Iraq. The jarhead tried to take a swing at me every time I went to kiss her. And, while I knew he wasn’t capable of doing any damage, I guess I still flinched a little, because she definitely noticed it. Damn cognitive dissonance, getting in the way again. My foibles were such that it wasn’t worth explaining them to would-be lovers. I know I’m not crazy, but it sure would sound that way. It got to the point where it was just easier to be alone.
But Lindsay. I saw her sitting at the bar by herself. No Faders, no friends. I smiled, she smiled back, we struck up a conversation. She was studying Lit, Women’s Lit, but she wasn’t a feminist, and she wasn’t into ladies, which was a definite revision of my stereotypes. She was kind of bummed out she’d ended up in New Hope for a two-year stint - it was the only grad school that had offered her a partial scholarship, but she knew it wasn’t going to be her scene before she even got here. In academia, as in life, sometimes you go where they’ll take you. After we’d chatted for a while, she caught me staring at a girl across the bar with two older female Faders standing alongside her, an odd sight, one of those that left you thinking.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, pointedly.
“Nothing, I think, I thought, I knew, know, that girl from an undergrad course I took a while back, but maybe I’m wrong,” I said in a horrible attempt to justify my gaze.
“Those two with her, I don’t get that at all,” she said to me, just like that. “I mean, sisters? They’re too old. And she can’t have two mothers. And why would her aunts be following her?”
I actually dropped my glass. No joke. I dropped my beer glass. As the bartender dismissively handed me a towel so I could clean up my own mess (townie bars…), she answered before I could continue:
“It’s not that big a deal. I saw you didn’t have anybody with you. You’re not the first I’ve met.”
“You – what? How did you - ? But I’ve never –“ I started three sentences and couldn’t finish a one of them.
“Maybe you just didn’t ask,” she said, shaking her head, like I was the dumb one.
Everybody wants to feel they aren’t like anybody else. But just because you’ve never found someone like you, still might not mean you’re all that unique.
That night I found out I wasn’t alone. And, for a pleasant change, I didn’t sleep that way, either.
Though it’s Friday evening, we don’t have any plans, the weekday/weekend delineation means progressively less the older you get. The TV’s on, but I wouldn’t say we’re watching it, some French film on IFC with minimal dialogue and just enough libidinous scenes to keep things interesting.
“I always feel that I should like foreign films more than I do,” I tell her. “I guess I’m just a philistine,” I conclude.
“That’s why I love you,” she giggles.
The house phone rings. At this hour, there’s no way it’s going to be a personal call.
“Good evening!” sounds the saccharine voice of a telemarketer. “May I speak with Ms. Lindsay Channing please?”
“No,” I reply, and leave it there.
The voice on the line pauses. “Is – is there a better time when I could call back?”
“No,” I say again, “there isn’t.”
Lindsay shakes her head at me, waves an admonishing finger, “Be nice!” she scolds.
The guy fumbles for something – this isn’t in his script. “I, well, ok, sorry, and, um, you have a nice evening then, sir.”
I hang up the phone.
“You don’t have to be rude,” she chides me, “they’re just doing their jobs.”
“Well then, if they’re working, I should feel even less guilty about being impolite – they’re getting paid for it. I thought I had our number put on the ‘blocked’ list a long time ago anyway.”
Her anger is fleeting. “It’s a good thing you don’t believe in bad karma, Mister,” she tells me, shaking her head, “because sometimes you create a ton of it.”
Sometimes when you meet somebody, it’s like you pick up the conversation in mid-sentence. That’s how it felt with Lindsay. Of course, the Faders were a big connection. She actually coined the term – having no one to talk to about them, I never saw the need to name them. She, on the other hand, kept journals about the phenomenon. She’d even published a few short stories based on things she’d seen. Under the aegis of “fiction”, of course. She was more comfortable about the whole thing than I’d ever thought I could be. She helped me feel like she did. She was also newer to town than I was, so I filled her in on who was trailing who and why. For fun, we’d take a bus into the City and concoct bizarre back stories for all the Faders we saw there. We’d really wind each other up. One person staring at something nobody else sees is strange; two people staring at something nobody else sees is an in-joke. It doesn’t take much to make you stop feeling like it’s you against the world. It’s good to have somebody on your team.
“It’s kind of like belonging to a secret society you don’t want anyone to know about,” she rationed. “If you want to find others like you, you have to figure out the right way to ask.”
I found it hard to agree. “Oh yeah, I usually just go, ‘I know we haven’t been friends for long, but I wanted you to know that I can see dead people walking around, basically everywhere.’ Not the easiest thing to drop on a person, is it?”
“Yes, but if I hadn’t done it, you never would have found me,” she explained, punctuating the remark with a quick kiss. I couldn’t argue with that logic.
If it had just been about the Faders, though, we probably wouldn’t have fallen for each other like we did. She was an adopted only child, too. Her foster parents had both passed; neither of them showed up post-mortem to hang around her. It was the little things, too. I looked at the bookshelf in her apartment and thought someone had switched it with my own. The first time I had dinner at hers, she put on the same Zero 7 CD I would’ve played if we’d been at mine. We both prefer red over white, dry over sweet. Dark chocolate over milk. Crossword puzzles over Sudoku. We both use too much garlic when we cook. There are hundreds of little ways in which you can end up not liking somebody, even when you really want to. But none of those things happened with us. It felt like I’d put together a checklist for a partner, and she went down it ticking off every item, laughing all the way. And I’ve never been the type of person who thinks that we all have our “One” out there somewhere, but damn, I couldn’t have designed a much better partner for myself if I’d tried.
The first morning I woke up next to her, she was staring at me from her pillow. “What?” I asked her, running the back of my hand down her cheek. “This is right,” she said to me, “and I’m not afraid to say it.”
“Ok,” was the most romantic response I could muster. But I wasn’t scared, either. You only fear commitment until you find someone you want to commit to. Big decisions aren’t always hard ones.
It’s a little after noon on Saturday, and we’re at the IGA picking up food. I don’t like to go on the weekend because it’s crowded, and I have no excuse not to go during the week when it’s quieter. This week I was lazy, though, so here I am. I throw a box of Ring Dings into the cart because they’re on sale, and because they’re Lindsay’s favorite. She puts a hand on my arm, shakes her head. “You know I don’t eat those anymore, and you don’t need them, either,” she says, patting me on the stomach.
At some point in my early thirties, my metabolism just stopped. The last few years, I’ve found myself avoiding my reflection in the mirror when I get out of the shower. Lindsay doesn’t mind, but for the first time in my life, I feel “soft”, and I always prided myself on being able to stay thin without making much of an effort. Aging isn’t fun. Looking at the customers around me trailing Faders in their wakes, though, I realize that the alternative isn’t much better.
Coming around a corner at the front of the frozen food aisle, we are accosted by a frantic Fader. She’s around my age, and so Faded I can see the fluorescent lighting of the freezer cabinet shining right through her. I have to focus in on her face to get a good look at her mouth, and even then the lips are so faint there’s no chance I’m reading what she says. She grabs at Lindsay, though you’d think if she’s this faded she’d have long since realized that won’t do any good.
Probably, we’ve seen her before, because she doesn’t seem surprised that we can see her now. She turns, we follow, and a few aisles down we see a kid of about 8 sitting on the floor, holding an opened box of long matches and striking them lit. He’s in the household goods aisle, with a stack of paper towel rolls piled in front of him. How nobody else saw this is kind of perplexing - for a second I think the kid might be a Fader too, before realizing the matches wouldn’t be in his hand if he was. The woman gives us a gesture that says “Do something” in his direction.
“Hey, buddy, whatcha doin’ there?” I ask the kid.
“Making a barbeque,” he tells me.
I reach out a hand for the matches, “Can I see those for a minute? I don’t think it’s a good idea to be playing with those next to all this stuff.” I’m not good with kids, but I am a lot bigger than him, so he hands the box to me without argument. Who are you here with, chief?”
“Where is he now?”
“Well, whatsay we go and take a look for him,” and I reach out a hand, throw the box of matches into my cart, and we find the kid’s father a few rows down. He’s got a shopping cart full of canned soup and snack packs, a younger child stuffed into the front end of the carriage, and another kid clinging to his pants leg.
“I believe this one’s yours,” I tell him, leading the kid back to him.
“Thanks,” he says, then, to the kid, “Danny, where did you go?”
“Nowhere,” Danny says, looking down.
“I found him playing with these,” I say, handing the box of matches over to dad. “He said he was making a barbeque.”
He grabs the kid’s arm so hard that Lindsay and the Fader lady recoil with shock. Since neither of them are going to say anything, I opine, “Hey, you don’t have to do that, he probably didn’t know any better.”
He stares at me, hard. “And you probably don’t have to –“, then a pause, as he lets go of the kid, and says “yeah, well, thanks. Sorry about that.” He tosses the matches up high on a shelf, out of harm’s way. The Fader rubs her face with translucent hands, thanks us, issues a silent sigh.
I’ve never believed people who say if a relationship’s a struggle, it grows stronger for the hardship. Lindsay and I never had tough times. In the beginning, I’d meet her in the library at night, where she was studying, bearing coffee and chocolate, and I’d take down a book and sit in one of the soft leather armchairs I always felt were a bit too comfy to do any real work in. “You don’t have to stay with me, you know,” she’d concede. “All-nighters are more fun when you have someone to share them with,” I’d tell her.
We’d have lunch in one of the dining centers and it felt like I was back in school with the kind of girl I’d always wished I’d dated when I was an undergrad. It was easy to stay around the college - 19-year olds don’t have that many Faders, a mom or a dad here and there, an occasional sibling taken too soon, but not much “traffic”. For a lot of reasons, things felt right.
I found work with my old faculty advisor, doing research, got my name on a few papers published in journals nobody read. I delivered pizzas during the semester to kids pulling all-nighters to study or get high, and made a decent piece of change raiding the garages and barns of the older folks in town and around the back country, looking for antiques and oddities I sold online when eBay was still something not everybody knew about.
Objectively, my life didn’t have any more direction than it had before I’d met her. Subjectively, it didn’t really feel that way. I wrote poems I’d read her half-ironically, I started novels I had no intention or hope of finishing. Lindsay’s advisor offered her a position as an adjunct, with the possibility of tenure somewhere down the road.
One day about four months after we’d started dating, I came back to my apartment, opened the fridge, and was assailed by the smell coming from a milk carton several days past its prime. My cottage cheese looked like it needed a shave. In the bathroom, half the water had evaporated down out of the toilet. “Since I kind of live here already,” I asked Lindsay that night over dinner at hers, “I’ve been thinking, why don’t I just move in?”
She put down her full salad fork and wiped her mouth delicately. “You know, I was thinking the same thing,” she smirked. “I mean, it’d be nice to have someone around here to do the dishes, at least, and take out the trash.”
I gave my landlord notice the next day.
Arugula salad with feta cheese, a French baguette, a bottle of red wine, and Netflix DVDs. Variations on this evening theme play out in thousands of living rooms across the country every night of the year. Probably not many have the fancy lettuce, though. My cell phone rings as I’m finishing dinner. I pick it up and look at the screen. It’s Wilson, a guy from Green’s I watch the football games with sometimes who invites me over to play cards and talk shit on weekends when his wife’s got the kids. I debate flipping the phone open and taking the call, but end up just staring at it as it vibrates in my hand until it stops.
“Why didn’t you answer it?” Lindsay asks. “He’s probably having the guys over tonight.”
“Yeah, good enough reason not to take the call. I’m not in the mood for a discussion of the latest issue of Maxim, and, if there’s not a game on, it’s always hard for me to keep the conversation going.”
She looks disappointed. “You don’t have to stay home for me all the time, you know.”
I grin, pick up my glass. “Well, I’m not staying home for you, I’m staying home with you, for me, how about that?” I ask.
She frowns. “Billy, you know I never get tired of being with you, but you really should get out once in a while, baby.”
I take a swill, swallow. “You know, most girls want more time with their man – you should feel lucky.” I pause. “Besides, every time I’m talking to someone else, I just wish I was here with you. With everybody else, I’m just passing time.”
This precipitates a smile. “Okay,” she says, and she moves over to straddle me before I can even put down the glass.
Sunday we sleep in late, even though it’s a beautiful day. When I finally get up at 10, I’m slow to the shower, slow to the coffee pot, slow to retrieve the bulky weekend newspaper that sits on the step in front of the door. Mr. Evers is sitting on his front porch across the street, looking lost. He died of prostate cancer six months ago, and he’s still struggling with his passing.
The same can’t be said for his wife, though. She took up with a dapper old gentleman a few weeks after her husband was buried. I wave to him because I know no one else is watching.
In the supermarket for the second day in a row, I pick up a modest bouquet of seasonal flowers and a packet of gum at the express lane register. Lindsay is dour today. “We don’t have to do this again, baby,” she tells me. “It’s been three years already.”
I put the flowers down on the conveyor belt and turn to her as I reach for money in my back pocket. “Linds, I don’t have to do anything. You’re so damn concerned about not causing an inconvenience, and you don’t realize everything I do is out of love, not obligation.” She stares back at me, wide-eyed.
The cashier, a young, pimpled, pierced girl I haven’t seen here before, looks at me, working over a piece of gum with an open mouth . “You alright, Mister?” she asks, raising the ring on her left eyebrow a bit.
I realize I may have been out of line with this display. “Yeah, fine. How much do I owe you?” She diverts her gaze from mine again as she takes the cash I hand over.
The spot is a few miles out of town, too far even for an ambitious walker, but an easy drive on a lazy afternoon. The tree is, of course, unmarked, and now so overgrown with hanging moss that if I didn’t know exactly where I was going, it would be impossible to find. I park the car, get out, walk over to it with the bouquet in my hand and Lindsay by my side. I put my hand against its broad trunk, clear some of the overgrowth away, find the still smooth groove left by the front bumper of the old Volvo. I rub the groove tenderly, like I always do. There is an odd comfort in the familiarity of old scars.
It doesn’t take long for my eyes to moisten. I drop the bouquet so I can wipe away what’s clouding my vision as Lindsay raises her hands in a futile effort to comfort me. With my eyes closed, I can still hear her voice, saying my name softly like a mantra. With my eyes closed, I can still feel her arms as she wraps herself around me. With my eyes closed, I can still smell her scent, that floral, earthen flavor that I loved so much to call home. But when my eyes open now, on a sunny day, like today, I can begin to see through her, just a little bit. A few times, she’s caught me looking at the fissures. It bothers her, though there’s nothing she can do about it. She tells me she wishes I wouldn’t come here anymore, but when I do she’s got no choice but to follow. I crouch down by the side of the road and wait for the grief to pass. She leans up against the tree, staring off into some middle distance where problems don’t have to be confronted. I lose the rest of the day.
The first time she caught me noticing her fade, she stepped back, put up her hand like she was trying to catch a bathrobe that had fallen off. “It’s ok,” I told her, reaching up instinctively as though I could comfort her with my touch. “You aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
Perhaps the speed of the fade is in inverse proportion to the intensity of the love. We all like to believe what makes us feel better about things, from time to time.
Lips are easy to read, gestures, too. With us, silences never were uncomfortable, and that hasn’t changed. She tells me it’s ok if I want to date, but in New Hope that’s not really much of an option. And besides, what’s she supposed to do, look the other way? “You know I would,” she tells me earnestly. She’s always been the generous one. But I tell her it’s not necessary. Her face is the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night, and her smile greets me with the light of each new morning. The Dead don’t sleep.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and catch her staring forlornly out our bedroom window, the moonlight alternately illuminating her countenance and passing through her form to paint the wall behind her in muted tones.
For what it’s worth, we still have a loving relationship. We’re still as intimate as I ever needed to be. You might want to know how, but I’m sorry - what goes on behind closed doors, stays there. All I’ll say is, I’m satisfied with what I’ve got. And that’s all that matters.
I stopped working on campus a few semesters ago, and the few shifts at the pharmacy are just to get me out of the house.
Lindsay and I didn’t believe in the sanctity of marriage, but after we’d been together a year or so and knew we were going to stay that way, we did go to a notary one day and write out wills to each other. I don’t know why we did it - neither of us had much worth leaving behind at the time. The settlement from the lawsuit changed that, though. The college kid who hit our car nearly head-on was piss drunk and fooling around with his girlfriend when he decided to drive on the wrong side of the road for a spell. His family was wealthy and not in the mood to argue. I took what they offered, because I wasn’t up for a fight, either. That, plus what the car company had to pay out when the passenger-side airbag didn’t open – hitting the lottery never felt so wrong.
I walked away with a broken clavicle and a few bruises, but Lindsay’s body ended up being pulled out of the crumpled wreck with the jaws of life. Her Fader, sobbing uncontrollably, was already sitting next to the EMT in the ambulance alongside me on the ride to the hospital. The guys in the van heard me calling her name, sure. But they didn’t realize I was looking right at her as I did it.
If I’dve been paying a bit more attention that night, then just maybe… If I hadn’t had those 2 glasses of red wine with dinner, then just maybe…If New Hope had put in the streetlights they were always talking about installing, then, just, maybe…But questions with no answers end up feeling wrong to ask. So I don’t.
I thought about leaving New Hope after, to try and forget, but with Lindsay tagging along that wasn’t ever going to be a viable option. So instead I bought the house we would’ve probably bought together one day. It was the best thing I could think to do.
If people around town notice me acting strange, they don’t say anything about it that I can hear. I doubt they know my secret, but even if they do, in a lot of cases, I’m quite certain I know theirs. We’ll call it even.
I’d like to say Lindsay’s told me all about what happens after we go, but the truth is, she’s still here, and she doesn’t know much more than I do. And with the Faders around to acknowledge us, we’re respected in a community no one else belongs to. So that’s something.
There’s no Great Mystery in life – that’s the big lesson I’ve learned. We live for a while, we eat, we work, we sleep, we die. Most of us go through the cycle and leave it no wiser than when we entered it. Maybe love’s the only thing that makes us different from animals, and once you’ve got it, you hold on to it tight, until the last vestige of it is gone.
The past stays with you, even if you don’t see it there. And, like it or not, we’re all disappearing, every day of our lives. Eventually, no matter how hard you try to hold on, everything fades away.