Tom stands upon the Earth looking over the crowd that has gathered around him to witness and celebrate the marriage of Bubba and Jen. He’d arrived the day before, knowing that Edward had already been here and was now watching everything proceed according to plan, from somewhere-else. Tom bows as another guest arrives, taking the moment to admire his new shoes. He loves his blue-suede but these shoes, he thinks, are made for walking through National Forests.
“Thank you for coming,” Tom says, nodding toward a group of fancifully dressed attendees, taking their seats. Then he bows his head again, and ever-so-slightly rises up onto the balls of his feet. These, he thinks, are what I want to be wearing for a meeting with…
Tom had just finished reading The University of Wisconsin’s 1965 Edition of John Muir’s, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. And, although Tom was tempted, he knew that if anyone was getting John Muir’s name it was going to be Edward, not some fucking stranger. Besides, Tom thinks, John screams Man, and Tom’s not certain that the person he’s meeting even has a body, let alone a gender.
While concluding Muir’s book, Tom’s friend, Mark, introduced Tom to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Aurelius was born four days after John Muir, and 1,717 years before. Tom chose the 1930 Loeb Classical Library edition over another one that matched his set. The Loeb’s contains page to page translations of Aurelius’ Greek into 1916 English. He’s got no idea what edition Mark has, but he’s looking forward to discussing the differences with him, soon.
Anyway. Tom needed a name, and Marcus Aurelius wasn’t it.
“Nope,” he says, looking up from his shoes again, scanning the park for Jen’s Mom. He’d been having difficultly deciding who to take his cues from. Of course, Jen is in charge, but she’s busy behind the curtain doing Bridal things and Bubba, well…Bubba’d rather you’d ask someone else.
Tom nods and smiles as more people arrive, doing his best to blend in from atop the Murphys Community Park stage.
Tom doesn’t know much about Jen except that she is Beautiful, Wildly-innocent, and Crazy for Bubba, who Tom had met through Jay a long time ago. Bubba and Jay are cousins. He’d invited the cousins over to watch the 2002 Western Conference Finals on the big-screen. All season long, they’d been taking turns, popping-up out of their seats to celebrate another inspiring show of team-work.
“See,” Tom said, over and over again. “Teamwork is how you win.” But by the 4th Quarter of Game 6, Tom knew, without a doubt, the game had been fix’d. And with 11.8[i] seconds left on the clock, the Kings roster knew it, too.
Remembering September 11, 2001 and Edward’s Super Bowl prediction saying, “It’s a National Morale thing,” Tom paid off all his debt, cancelled optimistic future plans and put his back into it—putting the cousins to work when and where he could.
Jay went on to MJC and got his degree in Computers while Bubba followed his Dad into the Handyman business. They all keep up with each other…
But, Tom thinks, staring at his phone, unable to remember the last time Bubba’d actually called him.
“What’s up?” Tom says, answering the call.
“Hey. You home?”
“In about an hour.”
“What’s your beer?”
Alright, Tom thinks. This is starting to get weird. Calling and coming over with beer. Something is up. Tom tries to remember the message Edward gave him on Thanksgiving Day at Deadman’s Drop…
“We’ll pick some up,” Bubba says, filling the void.
And, Tom thinks, he’s bringing a friend. “Ok,” he says and was out back throwing the ball for Kali when they walked up carrying a 4 pack.
Tom can’t help it. They are infectious, he thinks, failing to hide his grin.
“Will you marry us?” Bubba just comes out and asks, and Tom is floored by the complexities of the predicament he’d just been placed in.
He’d gotten his license for Edward’s sister’s wedding. It was a personal favor, not something he had interest in doing regularly. “Yes,” he says. “Of course. I’d be honored!”
“To a long, love filled, union,” Tom says raising his beer, and with a clink they take their drinks and Tom smiles. “Old Rasputin,” he says, reading the label.
(——————–November 2018 ——————–)
There’s something you have to understand about Tom—he’s tall. So, unless he’s taking a photo with the Basketball team, a quarterback, or Edward—he stands out, like a Saguaro living in the neutral zone between Arizona and Mexico.
“How tall are you?” Tom’s been asked that question his whole life, maybe a thousand times. People notice you when you are tall. So, Tom couldn’t figure out how Edward interpreted ministering a wedding as low profile? Literally, the minister stands between Bride and Groom like a wall that everybody wants to tear down.
How did he get here? Tom’s been wondering the same thing. He’s also been wondering which side he’s on, and has begun to question whether or not sides even exist. He’d agreed to Edward’s meeting, thinking it was part of TOM’S KURE. But, things got weird after Edward sent him a package, containing (among other things) an older model blackberry cell phone which, when accidently turned on, received the following message:
O’ what wicked webs we weave when first we plan to text and receive.
A day or so later, another one arrived.
Hope is well.
And, this is where it gets complicated. The conversation goes on for a while about beginnings and ends leading to the same place when observed from a longer, than Life currently allows, amount of time. And then…
Dead men tell no tales. Drop by,
Be Grateful and see.
Thanksgiving morning, Tom wakes up early. He’d helped a friend do some house painting, knowing what that would mean for him. And he was right. It crept in while he was sleeping. It was all Tom could think; to breathe and unclench his fists and drop his shoulders. In through your nose, out through your mouth… “Let it go,” he tells himself over and over, unclenching his jaw—again and again. Paint fumes or not, he thinks, I’d be awake, thinking about Edward and Deadman’s Drop.
Migraines are warzones inside a person’s brain. There’s no escape, because there is no escaping your own head. There is no other place to go, nowhere else to hide—and that’s alright with Tom, because, sometimes he does his best thinking when he’s under duress.
But, he hadn’t factored James’ new girlfriend into the equation. Tom had heard James was spending Thanksgiving with her family, and Tom knew they lived in the San Jose area. He didn’t realize she had any living in Modesto. So, Tom didn’t realize that they’d be staying with him and Betty, which meant he didn’t see the little clues Betty’d been dropping about having breakfast that morning.
While migraines are good for focusing things through, they’re not so good for speaking out loud. In fact, Tom can be abrupt and unappreciative in tone and mannerisms, as he tries to keep his head from being ripped apart like the atom. So, he’d planned to be gone before the house woke up. But, even that didn’t go according to plan.
Warzones exist in a constant state of conflict. Alliances change so-very quickly that sometimes you end up fighting with people who are trying to protect you.
“Giving up today is the right thing to do,” Tom says grabbing his gear in a huff and leaving the house a mess. He didn’t care. Death changes the meaning of everything. Being thankful is an everyday obligation, not a pseudo-political/religious cover-up of an indigenous’ genocide. I intend to be grateful every day, Tom thinks while crossing Encina Avenue, heading north down Covena. “And,” he says, dropping into the park, “I reserve the 4th Thursday of November for thoughtful mourning and grateful appreciation toward what’s been lost and what’s been gifted.”
Tom slows his pace. I got time, he thinks, turning east at the bottom of the hill, heading away from Edward and Deadman’s Drop. Like it or not, Tom thinks, my clock keeps Indian-time. Edward’s too. He’ll wait or he won’t.
Crossing under the “Old” Oakdale Road / El Vista Avenue Bridge, Tom looks over the chain-link fence, into the flowing creek, and remembers how it used to be—back in the 1980s. Back, when this was the end of the line for all but a few adventurous souls willing to push their bikes through the sand trap that ran the length of the golf course.
But, even before the sand, you had to stand up and pedal hard all the way to the top of the driveway at El Vista Avenue. Some people lived in the two-story house, just east of the bridge, close to the creek. Tom walks beneath the palm tree that had grown near the back of the house. He remembers this path and the Oak Grove (which Modesto planted in celebration of the Dragons born between January 01, 2000 and December 31, 2000) being off limits. There was only up and around.
But, Tom thinks, once you got to the other side of the sand, it was BMX Paradise. He smiles…
“Fuck,” he says turning around.
Tom knows that the quality and length of every journey is decided by God, no matter what name Life is given. John Muir uses the word Nature. And, Tom thinks, walking forward toward Deadman’s Drop, so does Marcus Aurelius.
Conversations that occur at Deadman’s Drop are need to know. And, well…you know…Tom shrugs his shoulders, balancing an invisible weight he’ll carry with him for the remainder of his life…
You can, however, see the subsequent messages received by the older model blackberry cell phone Edward had left for Tom.
Death is fall becoming winter. Climate Extremes reverse population growths. It’s likely to get hot as hell and cold as ice around here.
Tom Google’d the numbers and…of course, he thinks. Smack dab in the center of Calaveras County, birthplace of Mark Twain’s jumpin’ frog and, Tom would argue, Mark Twain himself.
Jen’s Mom looks like a blonde Jackie Kennedy in her dark navy-blue dress, Tom thinks, as she signals him that it is time. “Please stand,” he says, and everyone rises to look behind them. Tom takes a breath. He’s just more comfortable standing in the back. Even the groom’s men and bridesmaids don’t see Tom as they take their places off to each side of him, angling outward, funneling the energy toward the stage.
The Bride is late by tradition, but eventually she rounds the corner, walking down the aisle, arm in arm, with her brother—sharing a private moment between siblings.
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man, and who promises to love and support them throughout their journey?” Tom takes a breath and another and pulls another one in real deep, expanding his chest—allowing the We do‘s to quiet down.
“On behalf of Jen and Bubba, I’d like to thank everyone for joining us today. But, before we begin, Bubba’s cousin and best man, Jay, would like to say a prayer.”
Tom didn’t want to know the prayer ahead of time; he didn’t want to influence it in anyway. But, to be honest, he was having a difficult time hearing it today. His mind kept getting in the way.
“Thank you, Jay,” Tom says, then turns back to the audience. “You may be seated,” he says. “Friends and family, we have gathered here today to witness and celebrate the union of Bubba and Jen. Over the years they have been together, their love and understanding of each other has grown and matured, and today they have decided to live the remainder of their lives together as Husband and Wife.
Today you, Bubba and Jen, are committing to treat each other with respect and to remember, often, why you’ve chosen each other.
A friend of mine once told me,” Tom says, “that to be successful in marriage each person must give 51% to the relationship every day.
This means,” Tom says, “that you must, at all times, give the highest priority to the tenderness, gentleness and kindness that your union deserves. When frustrations, difficulties, and fear assault your relationship, as they have assaulted all relationships since the beginning of time, remember to focus on what is right and good between you both, forgiving that which seems to be wrong.
In this way,” Tom says, “you will ride out the storms that cloud the sun from your lives, remembering that if you lose sight of its brilliance for even a moment, it is still there waiting to shine its light upon you both. It is God’s promise that if each of you takes responsibility for the quality of your Life together, it will be blessed by kindness, compassion and joy. For every obstacle will now bring you closer together…”
Tom looks at his journal to quote the following:
“You will feel no rain, for each of you will shelter the other. You will feel no cold, for you will blanket each other. There will be no more loneliness, for you will each be companion to the other. You are two persons, but now there is only one Life before you.”
Tom looks into Bubba and Jen’s eyes. “May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all your years,” he says. “May happiness be your companion and your days together upon Earth be good and long.”
Jen and Bubba turn to hold hands, say their Vows and exchange rings.
“Jen and Bubba,” Tom says, “you have expressed your love to one another through the commitments and promises that you have made here today. Now, let it be known that what God has joined together nothing can separate. By the authority vested in me, and as witnessed by your friends and family, I pronounce you Husband and Wife.” Tom smiles at Bubba, “You may kiss the bride,” he says, adding their thing in, just before they come up for air: “May your love shine bright as long as the stars light up the night sky,” he says.
Watching the sun slip below the tree-line, Tom looks across the creek. He’d been to the Library’s upstairs, earlier that morning, but only had his sunglasses with him. Still, he managed to find a nice Reader’s Digest’s copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Memories of Sherlock Holmes. Nothing fell from its pages as Tom flipped through the book. Could still be from Edward, he’d thought and took it with him.
Right now, he’d just come back from a table across the creek, alongside the path leading east into the trees. He liked the feel of the place. Very riparian, he’d thought. Dark, mysterious, and vampiric—but, Tom was hoping to avoid attention, not get himself killed.
Be yourself, Tom thinks before taking another stroll across the Angels Creek foot-bridge. This time he chooses the bench closest to the creek, facing the reception that was just starting to liven up. Tom shifts and fidgets beneath a weight he cannot see.
The lights look good, he thinks, allowing his eyes to twirl and mingle across the floor and through the park. This is about to become the least obvious place on Earth, for a meeting with…
Tom unzips his jacket, slides out the stainless steel flask Betty’s dad had recently given him and holds it up to the light just long enough to decant a quick swig of its contents into his mouth.
Someone noticed that, he thinks, sealing his flask back into his inside jacket pocket just as a coldness presses in around him. Leaning back, Tom zips up his collar. No birth names, he reminds himself.
And, until this very moment, Tom still didn’t have a name for…
“Death,” he says the name again quietly to himself. Makes sense, he thinks, just like a person might call a Rattlesnake, Aneurysm or Black Widow by the same name, for ultimately the same reason—or, Tom thinks, the same result. Besides, it makes it easier for Everyone to remember the precariousness of the situation.
“Hello,” Death says, taking the seat beside Tom on the Library’s park bench.
Tom says nothing. He hasn’t decided yet. But, he’s starting to think that anytime and everywhere is as good a space as any else to die.
“You write fiction,” Death says.
Tom lets it go, trusting Nature to guide him. “Yes,” he answers, assuming he’s being asked a question, and not being called a liar.
“Explain,” Death says.
Tom behaves naturally. He has no interest in seeing what someone else is concealing. However, he thinks, you can’t help seeing something being concealed. “It’s best to bring things out into the open,” Tom suggests. “We don’t have much time.”
“Some less than others,” Death agrees.
Tom looks out across the creek, ignoring the temptation to look beside him. “Guests,” he says, “are starting to wonder where the minister has gotten off to.”
Death says nothing.
“Look,” Tom says, “neither of us wants an innocent soul wandering into a conversation they want no part of.”
Still, Death says nothing.
Fuck it, Tom thinks. “Alright,” he says. “Fiction has the ability to express truths greater than a reader’s current ability to understand allows.” He lets that sink in, before saying the same thing differently, “Fiction, like Faith,” he says again, “is greater than the sum of its parts. Humans,” Tom starts to say, but stops as he notices his having been noticed from across the creek by Betty.
“Earthlings,” Death corrects Tom. “Collectively— the Mountains, Waters, Atmosphere, Humans, and everything else of Earth are called Earthlings.”
Tom doesn’t have to speak to Betty for her to know his mind. But, sometimes she needs to hear him say things out loud. “Earthlings,” he says, watching Betty turn back to mingle. “I guess it’s comforting to know that we are in such good company.”
“Life proceeds according to God’s plan,” Death says, ignoring Tom. “Do you think either of us exists outside Life’s influence? I support God’s efforts and look to strengthen everything— everywhere I go—even Earth.”
If you want to read more about Death’s Bench, let the author know.
When Tom returns to the reception he’s exhausted and needs a drink. Bubba’s sister does too, so they each take a swig off the Minister’s flask.
“You sure this is Tequila,” she says, taking another hit.
“Yeah,” Tom says.
“Doesn’t taste like it.” She hands it back to Tom.
“It came filled with a sweet whiskey,” he says, having another swig.
“Maybe that’s it,” she says, waving the flask off. “I want my brother to dance with me.”
Tom empties what’s left while trying to decide if she’s just saying stuff, or is actually making a request.
“He won’t dance with you?”
“No,” she says…
The following morning, after helping clean up the park, Tom discovers Edward’s message and feels another migraine coming on.
The 3rd and final part of Chapter 6 is not for the weak of heart or short of breath.
Read it here—at your own risk!