Scott pushed through the windowless door, leaning his shoulder against the burgundy wainscoting in anticipation of its heft. The door gave easily and he stumbled inside before righting himself. He could still feel the vibrations in his limbs, like those of an approaching train. Standing in front of the mirror across from the door Scott pressed his right heel back into his shoe. He reached up to his forehead and gingerly pressed his skin, feeling for blood and finding none. He shook his head quickly and stood facing his reflection. You got this, Scott, you got this, he told himself. Leaning inches from the mirror he took deep, controlled breaths as he fixed the part in his mussed hair. Next, he ran his tongue across the backs of his teeth to ensure no bicuspid was away without leave. Breathe Scott, he thought. He dusted off his jacket. Just like any other day, he thought, turning to inspect his profile. He straightened his spine, lifted his shoulders, and stuck out his chest to ensure his lithe build hadn’t twisted. He tucked in the loosened corner his shirt. As always, Scott stood sideways with his feet pointed left of the mirror. He took in his good side, to erase from existence, if only for a brief moment of reflection, his unsightly left ear. Good, he thought, ignoring the tired betrayal he saw in his own eyes, Good but not great. Standing at attention he treated himself to a subtle wink and grin. You got this, Scott, you got this, he thought as he entered the bar.
Walking up to the bar Scott blinked rapidly at the hanging light fixtures, six-foot pendants with seven-inch diameter shades and, most likely, compact fluorescents. He recognized the style and specs, intricate and high quality. Definitely a custom job, he thought, nodding as he appraised the craftsmanship, And not a cheap one. Moving towards the light he thought of a train in the night, its headlights growing larger with each step. The salesman within him took the reins, an ever-present alter ego he no longer controlled. Always be selling, the mantra played in his head, Always means always. Scott sat in a barstool and looked up at the fixture. No compact fluorescent, but instead a suspended ball of glowing amber shone down on him. He bolted upright and faced forward, eyeing the back of the bartender’s navy vest. His left hand steadied the shaking of his right. He shut his eyes, reminded himself, I’ve got this, and put on his best salesman’s smile. Ready for a cold pitch Scott whistled for the bartender’s attention as the negligent employee continued cutting lemon wedges at the opposite end of the bar.
Waiting to ask for a manager Scott sat down, this time with his back against the bar and his elbows cocked behind him like chicken wings. He took in the room, an open space with high ceilings above oak rafters. An immense clock hung behind the bar, with no hands and cast iron roman numerals, and along the walls not a single window to the outside world. For the Midwest’s top up-and-coming salesman of lighting fixtures it was an easy sell and a dream client. He played his usual sales call pump up song in his head, but his heartbeat outpaced the heavy metal snare. He didn’t notice the arrhythmic drumming of his fingers on the bar as he nodded his head with a practiced exactitude that allowed him to feel the music without messing up his hair. He sent a thin stream of carbon dioxide from his lips to push a loose bang from his eye, only for it to fall back a moment later.
Scott looked over the crowd seated sporadically at the low tables. Everyone had a half finished drink but nobody was drinking. Two men sat with their backs to him in the corner, mumbling. Somehow, whether through a newfound confidence in his intuition or some subconscious sensory awareness, Scott could tell they were Russians. A woman at a table in the center of the room sobbed into her hands, a dirty martini evaporating beside her. Short waves of silver hair bobbed beneath her hat as the surface of the briny liquid dipped a quarter inch and an olive disappeared from her glass. She must have seen it too, for her soft sobs intensified to high-pitched wailing. Scott’s head tilted as he scrutinized the invisible intake. He pushed his fingers along his parted hair three times, feeling a layer of perspiration accumulate at its roots. At the far end of the bar a middle-aged man ran laps around the brim of his pint glass with a thin index finger, orbiting the bubbling tawny brew. His head rested on his opposite hand as he faced the wall beside him. The pump up song disappeared.
Scott sensed a vague familiarity about the man at the bar. Without seeing his face he recognized how the man sat with his shoulders scrunched in against his neck, the way he scratched behind his ear, and the way he emanated a proud sadness. Scott stopped tapping the bar and made to approach him when the bartender spoke.
“You got ID?”
Scott performed an about face. He stood up, offered his million–dollar smile, and engaged in the incredulous, primitive dance of the flustered traveler robbed in the foreign marketplace, slapping at his legs, hips, chest and backside in search of his missing wallet. He came up empty handed and shrugged with open palms, still grinning; a subconscious tilt of his head to the right exposed his imperfection in an appeal for sympathy. But he spoke only to the bartender’s back. “Sir, it looks like I must have lost it on the way over. But I’m not here to drink. What I’d really like to do is speak with your manager about a great opportunity to….
“You got a number?” Scott’s jaw hung agape as the man worked at the mundane, endless tasks of his industry. He polished a burgundy glass as vacuous as a fishbowl and placed it in a row on a shelf, then took stock of the unlabeled, crystal decanters one shelf below. Scott absorbed the sting of blunt indifference, bit his tongue, reminded himself that he’s got this, and painted on another winning smile.
“Hey, pal,” Scott knocked twice against the bar with his knuckle, straining to maintain a tone of blue-collar camaraderie, “Let me start over.” The bartender sighed without turning around. “I want to help you brighten this place up, I’ve got some great ideas on some fixtures that would change the whole look of the place, bring in a lot more customers. You’re not getting any natural light without windows, but I know how you can fake it. People love natural light, makes them feel alive.”
“You know why we don’t have windows, kid?” The bartender’s voice echoed against the wall and reflected back to Scott. “Because there is no outside. And trust me, we’ve got plenty of customers and none of them gives a damn whether they feel alive. So quit your business and go take a number up front.” He pointed over his shoulder towards the entrance. “Then you’ll get your drink.”
Reeling from the slight Scott walked back to the entrance with the meek, defeated gait of a reprimanded toddler. The entrance had vanished. Scott rubbed his palm against the drywall where the door once stood. No outside, he thought; then where am I? Scott approached the mirror and leaned in close to examine his face. The perimeter of the mirror’s surface blurred and undulated, a horizontal puddle of chrome framing his face. The centers of his cheeks burned, sweat beaded behind his ears and down his neck, where fine hairs stood on end. Scott couldn’t move his legs. He leaned closer and saw in his reflected pupils the headlights of northbound train 2366 bearing down on him. He felt the cool steel against his legs, the rush of air that preceded the impact, the tremors reverberating through the cavities of his body. He shut his eyes for the impending collision.
He died. The sound of the train faded to a distant hum in the back of his mind as his pupils once more reflected their cavernous blackness. Impossible, he thought. Scott thought of the Freemont High School contract he was about to ink. An order big enough to warrant a promotion. The deal that would make his career. He tried to remember the principal’s name but couldn’t. He thought of the second date he’d planned with Rachel, but struggled to recall her face, her scent. He thought of his mother’s birthday the following Sunday. His head drooped and shook with pendulum steadiness, each turn erasing the memories of his existence like a child with an Etch-A-Sketch.
Scott touched his face and made sure it was in order. He looked past his reflection at the customers, huddled over their drinks, and knew with doubtless clarity that they, too, were dead. The tension left his legs, and he stepped back, staring at his feet. This isn’t heaven, he thought, and it isn’t hell. He fixed his posture, rolled his neck across his shoulders to loosen some muscles, shook out his arms and took several deep breaths while bouncing on his toes. Okay, he thought, Okay Okay Okay. Again Scott approached the mirror, pulling his hair back behind his left ear. Even in death, he thought, I’m afflicted. He touched the inflamed cartilage at the top of the ear, digging his fingernail to ensure he could still feel pain. He drew sharp breaths between his teeth and realized that life endings don’t negate nerve endings.
“Relapsing polychondritis,” the doctor told him just after his eleventh birthday, “A rare disease. Often runs in the family.”
“Uncle Harvey has it too,” Scott’s mother chimed in with a hand on his shoulder. “Had it, I mean.” She corrected herself and gripped the young Scott’s shoulder more firmly.
Growing up, Scott detested his ailment. He grew his hair long to cover it, but the kids knew, and they’d never let him forget. Looking in the mirror now, he stroked it with paternal pride. As an adult, he’d found that people respected him for overcoming the imperfection, sympathized with him for wearing his problems on his face and taking on the world in spite of it. Besides, he often thought, it only makes the rest of me look better.
As he leaned his face closer to the mirror, petting the top of his bulbous ear, he noticed a red take-a-number ticket dispenser, the kind his mom would always let him grab from at the deli in the supermarket, floating behind him where the door had been. Scott checked his teeth, white, straight and impossible not to envy; then he turned and grabbed a number: #43. Smiling and shaking his head he slipped it in his pocket. The ticket dispenser receded into the drywall. Wide–eyed and open–mouthed, Scott tried to follow it with his finger, poking the wall and feeling an icy chill run through his finger and up his forearm. Something tells me I’m not closing any sales today, Scott thought, rubbing warmth back into his arm and walking aimlessly back into the establishment. He glanced at the handless clock above the bar, shook his head in concession, and decided if he couldn’t beat ’em, then he’d try to join ’em.
Heading back to the bar Scott noticed the woman in the center of the room, still crying into her palms. The martini glass at her table nearly emptied by another phantom sip, leaving only the sedimentary dregs of her cocktail. She moved a hand away to steal a glimpse of her drink and wipe the tears from her cheek. Sure that his eyes had deceived him Scott moved towards the woman, bumping his thighs into the ornate wooden chairs but not breaking his stride.
Scott tried to put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. Still keeping her hands to her head like blinders she shook her entire body from side to side to ward him off. Standing beside her his palm hovered above her back. She would not be consoled. He pulled out the chair across from the woman, scraping its heavy legs across the stained hardwood floor. She wore a wool felt bucket hat in a dark purple shade and a muted grey dress that covered her shoulders and encroached over the base of her neck. “May I sit down?” Scott asked, hoping to satisfy his curiosity under the guise of good intentions. The woman’s face stayed hidden beneath her hands, obscured by her hat brim. Scott made a fist to keep his fingers from twitching in anticipation.
The woman dropped her hands and looked up just as the final sip of her martini vanished from the glass. “Number 15!” The bartender called. Scott glanced over his shoulder at the bartender and blinked rapidly. He saw the man who wouldn’t face him had no face, only a formless expanse of skin. Scott deflated into the chair without breaking his stare. His heart thudded in his chest and sweat crept from his underarms. Scott turned away, patting his own face to ensure the integrity of its features and turned his head, discovering the woman now standing beside him. She looked down on him without eyes as he clenched his teeth to contain their trembling. She patted his shoulder twice and walked to the bar with her number fifteen ticket moistening in her tear-soaked fingers. She handed her ticket to the bartender, who escorted her to the far end of the room where he helped her up a stepladder into a glass encasement. Once settled inside on a small bench the faceless woman nodded to the bartender and interlocked her fingers in her lap. The bartender inserted the ticket into a slot at the edge of the glass cubicle. The case rattled in place, sending tremors through the floorboards and up through Scott’s legs. He saw the train closing in on him.
The woman sat, paralyzed, as the case filled with light. Not blinding light, but a soft, dim warmth. 7 watt, Scott couldn’t help but think, Ideal for expectant mothers planning a nursery. The enclosed space went dark. The Russians clapped twice in some odd ritual, attracting Scott’s eye long enough to see their blank slates of wrinkled skin in place of facial features. When he looked back at the glass encasement it had disappeared, and with it, the woman. Scott glared at the mirror. He touched his nose, his eyelash, his lips, his hair.
“Don’t worry Scotty,” A familiar voice laughed out. “You’re all there. And all grown up too!”
The voice came from the end of the bar. Scott braced for another ghostly expanse of pale skin. Instead, he saw a complete human, smiling from ear to ear beneath a hawkish nose and bright blue eyes. “My god, Scotty, is it ever good to see your face. Any face would be nice, but yours especially.”
The man left his bar stool and stretched his back, wobbling a bit on his knees. He steadied himself with his non-drinking hand along the bar, using each stool as a cane. He gave a sheepish grin. “Give me a second, I can’t remember the last time I got up.”
He made his way along the bar and sat across from Scott at the low table, collapsing into the chair and catching his breath. The man placed his beer glass down, still smiling, and waited for Scott to say something. In the silence Scott looked at the round top table, its layers of varnish creating a funhouse reflection of the man across from him. The man’s glass loomed large on the small surface, designed to keep groups of guests crowded near their drinks. The smaller the tables, Scott’s business mind spoke up, The more you can squeeze in. Scott looked at the Russians in the corner, the only other patrons, and wondered why a bar without customers needed so many tables. The man spoke first. “You know something,” he said, “You look a lot like your mom when she was your age.”
Shuffling in his seat Scott tried not to look up, blushing with equal parts shame and embarrassment. “Uncle Harvey.” He stated his recognition. The man reached out his hand for a proper reintroduction. The hand, extending out towards him, brought it all back. The waves lapping around him, the crying out, lifeguards in the periphery, and the eyes of his uncle as the man extended himself to rescue his nephew from the current.
Scott hesitated before taking the hand and smiling. Both men looked upward as another hanging pendant appeared above the table, encasing the pair in a cone of soft yellow light. A dark haze settled around the cone, leaving the rest of the bar an unfocused abyss. They brought their eyes back to level. Scott snatched his hand back and crossed his arms.
“I’m really sorry.” Harvey said, his smile fading with sincerity. How many nights have I sat up in bed, Scott thought, Imagining, dreading this impossible conversation? He stared at the beer, noticing another had joined it, full, on his side of the table, frothing and loaded with pockets of air that danced and floated in the golden liquid. He watched the beer as long as he could, enduring the silence but unwilling or unable to face the glittering blue eyes of his overjoyed uncle seated across the table.
“How did you go? So young, I mean.” Harvey asked.
“Train.” Scott closed his eyes and the headlights came rushing at him before transforming into the terrified eyes of Uncle Harvey, disappearing below the surface, bobbing in and out of the water. “I must have fallen on the tracks, but I don’t know how.” Scott reached for his beer.
“Whoa now, go easy on that. Best not to speed things up.” Scott set his glass down, noticing Harvey’s glass still three-quarters full beside it. Scott’s eyebrows curled in as he focused on his glass and ran his fingers through the swoop of his hair. He looked over his shoulder to where the glass room appeared earlier, a supernatural carnival dunk tank for lost souls. He squinted, but outside the cone of hanging light the bar sank into a deep purple mire. “You look a little lost, Scott.” The nephew rose in his chair with the natural grace of a plant extending towards sunlight and tried to mask his confusion behind a knowing grin. “Relax Scott,” Harvey said, “The reason you’re here, the reason you can see me,” Harvey’s index finger drew a frame around his beaming countenance, “is because we’ve been deferred. Heaven and Hell, it’s not as cut–and–dry as you might think.
“It’s a shame you died so young Scotty, but I’ve been sitting at this bar waiting for you for a long time. We need each other, I guess. That’s why you can see me. In purgatory you only see what you need to see. Those Ruskies in the back, you need to see them, but these empty tables aren’t as empty as they seem.” Harvey read the confusion in Scott’s face and paused. He pointed to Scott’s beer. “When your drink is up, they’ll call your number and you’ll get a turn in the case. I’ve been here long enough to know that’s the right play. If you lose patience, go ahead and gulp the sucker down, bypass the system, take your chances in the glass.” Harvey stuck a thumb over his shoulder towards the Russians in the darkness. “Since the day I got here I’ve never seen it work out for a single one of these poor noseless bastards.”
Scott nodded. He touched his shoulder where the faceless woman patted him.
“I haven’t touched my glass, and it hasn’t dropped a sip until today. I guess that means it’s show time.” Harvey studied his nephew with concern. “Scotty, I’d like to say I’m glad you’re here, but I’d never wish purgatory on anybody. Especially family. I guess it’s in our genes, huh?” He pointed to Scott’s left ear while touching his own right; “Not so different you and I.”
Scott tried to smile but couldn’t. Harvey still doesn’t know, he thought, How can I tell him now? Scott denied it for so long, shifted blame for so long, it didn’t seem true anymore. It wasn’t your fault, his mother said. Scott touched his ear, his punishment, his one permanent reminder of the unforgivable sin of his childhood. No, he couldn’t tell him now. What good could come of it?
“What’s your number, Scott?” Scott had forgotten and fished the ticket from his pocket. “Forty three,” Harvey caught it from across the table, “I suppose it doesn’t really matter, we should be ready to move on up in no time.”
“What do you mean?” Scott said, noticing the meniscus had dipped a bit lower in his glass.
“Whatever it is you’re here for, Scott, you’ve got one drink to make peace with it. Harvey nodded towards the area where the glass cubicle appeared earlier. “Didn’t work out so well for the old lady, but I sure as hell don’t miss the sobs.”
“What I’m here for?” Scott asked, though he’d known since hearing Harvey’s voice that it wasn’t a coincidence he’d be facing him in the afterlife, only he always assumed Harvey would have found out, through some implied afterworld omnipotence, about his nephew’s disgrace.
“We all have our demons, Scott. And now that you’ve arrived here, I feel it’s time for me to face mine.”
“No.” Scott said, holding up his hand and shaking his head; “Harvey, wait.”
“Please, Scott, this is why we’re here. Both of us.” Harvey lowered Scott’s palm down onto the table, where he let his own hand linger before taking a deep breath. “It’s incredible, you know, how many times I’ve run this little speech through my head.” Scott stared at the floor beside his shoe. As long as his uncle’s hand reached out to his own he couldn’t bear to look at him. The waves splashing around him, the hot sunlight reflecting in all directions off the surface of the water. Scott tried to force the image from his mind but suppressing the memory of that moment forced the most recent memory to the forefront, and the headlights of the train made him shiver. “So many times, Scott. And now, all I can do is think of how much you’ve grown. How happy I am that you got the chance to grow up.”
“Uncle Harvey, please.” The cone of light tightened around them, the surrounding darkness filled with a crowd of other lost souls, veiled shadows huddling around low tables, once as invisible to Scott as he was to them; “You don’t have to do this.”
“Let me finish,” Harvey barked, needing to complete the long rehearsed monologue. “You survived, and I didn’t. And that’s fine. But I couldn’t save you. Whoever came for you after me, thank God for that person. But I couldn’t do it. I failed you, Scott. I couldn’t even save myself. I made mistakes in my life. Plenty. But one has continued to plague me even here. We’re here right now,” Harvey motioned with both hands to the ceiling, bringing his palms down to mime the shape of the light with a theatrical flourish; “So I can tell you that I’m sorry.”
Harvey’s eyes pooled with tears, sparkling over his irises with the same shimmer as the waters he’d drowned in. He glanced at his beer, now half–filled and unmoving. “I’m so, so sorry,” Harvey said again, his cool blue eyes hardening, still intent on the golden fluid. His apologies now directed at his glass, not his nephew, failed to produce the expected results. “I don’t understand.” Harvey’s voice lost its remorse. He yelled into the darkness in the direction of the bar. “That was supposed to be it. What else do I need to do?”
The older man clenched his fist beside Scott’s hand. He pounded the table with a short burst of fury, like a judge who’s heard enough hastily hammering his gavel, “Why the hell are you here if not for that? When the hell do I get out of this place?” Scott sat up with his hands and wrists glued to the armrests, and pulled back his head to distance himself, even by the slightest magnitude from the curdling anger across the table. Harvey pursed his lips and snorted through his nose like a bull, fuming and confused.
Before Scott could stop him Harvey raised his half-filled glass to his lips. He swigged from the glass, gulping with his head tilted back to ease in the flow of gravity. Harvey’s sleeve rode up his arm, exposing the U.S. Air Force tattoo he’d received before his unexplained discharge from service. Scott jumped from his seat and flung his weight over the low table, slapping the glass from his uncle’s lips with only drops remaining.
“Damnit Harvey!” He said, “You don’t understand-”
Scott froze. The glass he’d knocked from Harvey’s grip never reached the ground. It revolved inches above the floor and rose with the confident, steady movement of the sun across the sky. It hovered through the misty light and settled on the table, empty. Harvey winced, sniveled, and prepared for the voice of the bartender to call his number from the darkness. No voice came, and gradually droplets of tepid beer that had spilled on the table and across Harvey’s shirt migrated from their resting places and coalesced in the air above the glass. The alcoholic pilgrimage complete, the ball of liquid dropped into the cup and foamed with new life.
“Harvey,” Scott said, sitting down once more, “I know what you’re trying to do. But the truth is, all this, it isn’t about you. It’s about me.” Scott paused. His uncle stared without blinking, the same eyes he’d seen disappear beneath the waves.
“Harvey,” Scott met his Uncle’s eyes, “I wasn’t drowning.”
Scott’s head drooped low so that his chin rested flat against his chest. Wisps of hair fell over his face like a veil. Harvey said nothing.
“I wasn’t fucking drowning, Harvey.” Scott looked up at his Uncle’s sad face. “I was just a kid, I thought it would be funny.”
Across the table, beneath the dull glow that separated the two from the world, a glazed quality conquered Harvey’s face. Harvey reached for his glass again and Scott grabbed his wrist.
“Harvey, wait. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“I died for you, Scott.” His voice echoed out of the light and through ethereal void. He pointed a finger at his nephew. “You went on laughing and yukking it up for twenty years while I’ve been here. Twenty years, Scott. And I’ve thought of nothing but my sacrifice. Wondering why. Why did I get sent here? And now I know. Because my piece of shit nephew played a cruel joke.” Harvey, boiling with rage, twisted the knife in Scott’s guilt. “Damnit, I hope Lillian never forgave you for this.”
Scott thought of his mother on the shore. She wept over Harvey’s sand–coated torso as the lifeguard heaved oxygen into his defunct body. Scott felt her hands on his shoulders through the lifeguard’s towel, heard her shaking voice as she knelt down to see him face to face. “Scotty what happened? He can’t even swim. Why? Why?” He stood, silent, squinting in the sun at the terrifying face of his mother. “Scotty, please.” She sobbed.
The glass in front of Scott dwindled with each silent moment. Foam formed bubbling coronas around the descending liquid to mark its past. I’m here to set things straight, Scott thought as he witnessed the surface dip like sand in an hourglass, So what’s the point in lying anymore?
“Uncle Harvey,” Scott said, though the man across the table only glared into the distant darkness. “Harvey, I didn’t tell her.” He raised his eyebrows, lowered his chin, and repeated loud enough for only his ears to hear; “I didn’t tell anyone.”
Scott looked into his mother’s bleary eyes as her nails dug into his skin. “I was drowning,” He told her. He didn’t know if she believed him. Her grip shifted down to his arms, locking them against his rib cage. Her hands quivered along with her lips. “I’m sorry,” the boy said, unable to meet her gaze. He wanted to cry but he didn’t. Instead, he twisted his feet in the sun-baked sand. When she released him he picked sand from his ear with his index finger and shook the water from his hair like a dog.
“I never told anyone.”
Harvey said nothing, sitting with his jaw clenched, taking short, violent breaths through his nose. Scott watched his Uncle’s rigid posture. He hadn’t aged in purgatory, still muscled and handsome, not at his peak but not yet in decline. Scott thought of how much his mother believed in her brother, how she’d defended him. “It’s only a little money,” she’d tell Scott’s father, “And he says his business partner is a true professional. Harvey got a new job; he works for the city now. I think this one will stick. Harvey won’t make it to thanksgiving this year, Scotty, but he said he hasn’t forgotten that birthday present he owes you.”
Harvey shared his mother’s chin, and her hawkish nose. Sitting with Harvey now Scott saw the face his mother could have worn throughout his life, a face of anger and distrust, contorted by a bubbling rage just beneath the skin. This face made him glad he’d lived as he had. For her sake, if not his own. She was better off raising a son who tried to make her happy than scorning one who functioned as a source of daily anger. Beyond the low table, outside their intimate illumination, Scott sensed movement in the shadows, dense blues sliding across the deep purple landscape. Forget them, he told himself, It’s just me and you.
“Do you think it was easy for me?” Scott said. “Trying to cheer Mom up. Having her assure me it wasn’t my fault.” He pulled his hair behind his ear. “Having to look at this fucking reminder every day and listen to her nonsense about how it’s a sign from God to thank you.” Panting, Scott stood and leaned over the table on his fists. “You were a hero. You know that? A saint in her mind.” How many times, Scott thought, Did she call me Harvey by mistake and not even realize it? It was a trade. Did she really think he wasn’t at fault? Then who was? All he could do was smile. All he could do was get her to love him. Be the best son, the smartest, the funniest, most loyal and loving son he could be to maintain her love. If she could love him, if anyone could love him, he couldn’t be guilty of such a horrible act.
Harvey still didn’t move. Sitting back down at a table in purgatory Scott thought through all the relationships of his past. He ran his fingers through his bedraggled hair and thought of the teachers smiling at their star pupil, girls batting their eyelashes across the junior high hallway, coaches urging him on from the sidelines, clients shaking his hand after closing a sale, and his mother’s constant appreciation for him just for being alive. A man with no enemies had to be a good man, he thought, looking into the amber ball floating in the pendant shade. This love, this acceptance, it helped him forget that moment in the sand, the doubt in his mother’s face. The lie. His life meant he was innocent. His life had to mean he was innocent. Innocence meant nothing to the man across the table.
“How is your mom?” Harvey broke his silence.
Scott’s lips parted and shut. He looked at his uncle, still staring to the side. His breathing had softened, his chest expanding with each drawn out inhalation. Scott smiled.
“She got into yoga last year.”
Harvey smirked. “And Ted?”
“Dad died not long after, He got cancer a few years after you passed.” The beer in Harvey’s glass dwindled further, leaving him with no more than a few sips. Scott noticed and perked up. “Listen, Harvey, there hasn’t been a day in my life I haven’t thought about you.” He pulled his hair behind his ear. “I tried to tell myself it wasn’t my fault. It was. I’m responsible. Whatever happens when your number’s called I want you to know that I’m grateful for what you did and I’m sorry it happened.”
“Don’t be.” Harvey said, a tear beading in the corner of his eye. The two men looked over the table at one another, then turned their gaze to the older man’s glass as the last droplets vanished. “No, I can’t go yet. This isn’t right. It’s not the way it’s supposed to end.” The bartender cleared his throat. “Scott,” Harvey said, “you can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
Harvey looked up in horror towards the glass cubicle, now back in its place as the bar filled with light and the shadows vanished. “Eighteen! You’re up!” Harvey froze. His ticket caught in the vise of finger and thumb. Scott saw the number 21. The Russians stood, shook hands, and raised their empty vodka glasses. One of them walked to the bar, his heavy coat hid his legs giving him the appearance of gliding. Still watching the Russian Harvey pulled at his hair with both hands, arms tense and vascular.
“I can’t take this much longer. Even when it’s my time it’s not my time.” When Harvey looked down he found his nephew measuring half his remaining beer into two equal portions.
“Now we’ve both got some time. I owe you that much.”
Nephew and uncle looked on as the Russian man handed in his ticket and followed the bartender to the encasement. The bartender held the phantom’s threadbare Cossack hat as he unbuttoned his coat, then traded back for the hat. He would not face judgment without it. After refusing assistance the faceless Russian made it up the stepladder and took his place inside the chamber. The bartender inserted the ticket and left the Russian to his fate. Again, the case filled with dim warmth, rattled, and shook. The Russian turned his empty countenance up to the ceiling and reached an arm upward towards some invisible goal. The case gleamed with white light, like burning magnesium, or as Scott thought, too bright for practical home applications, but perhaps a greenhouse or laboratory.
Harvey looked back at the remaining Russian, expecting to hear the ceremonial clapping, but the man had disappeared. Harvey clapped twice and shrugged. “It worked for him,” he said.
The case vanished, leaving only the bartender and the two men at the center table. Harvey slouched over the table holding the rim of his glass with his entire ensemble of fingertips, tracing circles on the tabletop with the circumference of its base. Scott leaned on his elbow and brushed his hair along the part away from his forehead. “Harvey,” he said.
Harvey didn’t look up, shrugged, and continued fumbling with his glass. The darkness settled back over the bar as the amber glow returned to the low table.
“Five minutes ago you were jumping out of your shoes to get out of here. Then you’re scared shitless when you think your time’s come. I’m not stupid. What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s nothing.” He spoke without opening his mouth.
“You told me not to blame myself. You told me not to be sorry.”
Harvey shot up, knocking his chair backwards and toppling it end over end. Like the glass before it the chair came to rest above the ground, half exposed to the darkness surrounding them, suspended in the air above the floorboards, floating for a moment before hovering back to its feet. This time the break from the laws of nature couldn’t distract Scott’s eye from his Uncle’s newfound fury.
“Scotty, you don’t remember shit. I’m not a fucking hero and I’m the farthest thing from a saint.” He paced in the tiny, lit area, augmenting his profanities with glares and aggressive gestures in Scott’s direction, though otherwise keeping his head down. “I knew you weren’t drowning. The whole thing was my idea.” Harvey quit pacing, wiped spittle from his chin with the back of his arm, looked at his nephew, then down to the floor; “I never wanted to rescue you at all.”
Around their small table and its cone of light the crowd of shadows pressed closer together. Where before the shadow figures streamed across the heavier darkness of the unlit walls they now stood locked beside one another. Scott tilted his head back, looking into the increasing intensity of the light, growing brighter as the surrounding world sank deeper and deeper into a subterranean void. He blinked hard, hoping to open them to a different existence, the existence now so far removed he could hardly recall its details. He squeezed his eyes tighter, but beyond the headlights of the incoming train his memory faded into the same purple shadow that had invaded his waking reality. He crossed his arms tight across his chest, as though mummified, then rubbed his shoulders and biceps for warmth. The light had gone cold, unable to withstand the growing presence of the swelling darkness around him, the endless expanse of violet night.
Harvey’s unshaven face bobbed in and out of the water. The arm extended, but never reached.
“I told you to swim too deep.” Harvey sat back down, his plaid shirt folding over itself above his frail chest. His arms lay limp over the sides of the chair and his hands, legs, and head drooped with the helpless melancholy of an unattended marionette, “I told you it’d be fine and I’d…” Harvey glanced up and choked on his words, then looked back to his feet. The light above the table flickered, a layer of light rime appeared on the edge of the pendant shade around the failing ball of amber. Neither man made notice of the change.
“I owed, Scott. A lot of money. To a lot of people…One of them got tired of waiting.” The beer in Harvey’s glass diminished some. Harvey saw it and perked up his head, “The reason I was visiting in the first place was to lay low. Nobody from that part of my life knew about Lillian. I thought I’d be safe.”
Scott leaned on one elbow and rested his forehead in his hand, his fingers plowing ditches through the fields of his hair. He steeled his glare, unflinching, and nodded for his uncle to continue.
“I got word that they knew where I’d run to, you see, and that they’d be there that night.” Harvey pleaded for understanding with upraised palms, gesticulating his powerlessness; “I couldn’t run forever. I couldn’t put Lillian in harm’s way.” Harvey took a breath. “If I managed to escape that time someone else would have come after me later. Maybe not right away, but soon enough.” Again, Harvey looked up to his nephew, only to turn away with shame, unable to meet the indifferent stare.
“I wanted it to look like an accident, you know-”
“Looks like you got what you wanted, then.” Scott said. “Good for you. You got away. Mom got depressed. I lived with a lifetime of guilt. But you were a fucking saint. And she’ll still never know. You deserve this place.”
The men sat in silence beneath the fading light, their minds ignoring the onset of their private winter as their bodies unconsciously shivered. Harvey watched the floor, Scott stared through the top of Harvey’s glass.
“I deserve worse than this,” Harvey whimpered, eyes still on the floor, wearily flipping his hand in the direction of the glass case. “And I’ll get it.”
The final ounces of Harvey’s beer bubbled and dipped slow and steady into nothingness. “Scott,” he said to the ground, “I tried so hard to convince myself I wasn’t to blame. I believed it. That I wanted to help. Until you showed up here I hadn’t thought the word suicide in years.” Scott looked across the table, now shrouded in the silver light of an arctic dawn, just in time to see his uncle lift his head and shed a tear from a faceless void of skin.
Scott heard Harvey’s voice move through the frigid air and penetrate his mind. “We all want to believe we’re good men, Scott. You. Me. Maybe it’s not so bad to believe it. Maybe that’s what makes us good men.”
Harvey’s glass emptied. The case appeared on the far end of the room, its upper pane glimmering with warmth above the phantom souls of purgatory. The bartender called out Harvey’s number and without another word the faceless ghost of Uncle Harvey rose and turned to leave. He cut through the darkness uninhibited, shadows disappearing from his path and filling his wake en route to the glass case.
Scott stretched on his toes to see over the crowd. He made out Harvey’s head approaching the stepladder, could see the bartender taking his ticket. The shadows around the table closed in, infiltrating the remaining pale light around his table. Scott stood on the seat of his chair without taking his eye from the top of Harvey’s head. He knocked the inflamed section of his ear into the icy rim of the hanging pendant, sending the light swinging in chaotic ellipses, illuminating the horrified mass of shadows.
He felt his ear and saw the shining red blood on his fingertips. The light flickered and he twisted to catch it, seeing only the headlights of train 2366 flashing towards him and extinguishing to nothing. The pendant went dark.
“Harvey!” His screams couldn’t penetrate the crowd, which buzzed in anticipation, shadows turning to face the glass case. Scott leapt from the chair and put a hand on the nearest shadow, recoiling at the sharp electricity that flowed through its substantial weightiness. He shoved his way towards the case, shadow by shadow, each more unrelenting as the last. “Harvey!” He could see the deathly faceless form sitting atop the raised bench in the case and waved an arm over the crowd. A shadow needled its way next to him, occupying the space beneath his arm. Scott turned to shove himself loose and found the crowd’s grip fasten tighter against him, contorting his body into an immobilized tangle of limbs.
Scott craned his neck towards the case as the rumble of its internal gears and engines shook the floor beneath him. The case glowed with soft gold. “Harvey!” Scott yelled as the weight of the shadows enveloped him, his ear trickling blood down his neck.
All light left the bar, the darkness blurred by Scott’s tears as silence fell over the shadows.
The rumbling returned, stronger, and a blast of white light came from the glass case. Scott looked up through shimmering tears in a brief moment of visibility. He saw his Uncle standing, his hand outstretched, pressed against the front of the glass case. Beyond the outstretched hand Scott glimpsed his Uncle’s face, complete with shimmering eyes. Harvey couldn’t penetrate the surface. After one final flash he was gone.
Scott fell to his knees. The shadows disappeared around him and the bar filled with light. He heaved for oxygen on all fours, collected himself, and stood. Scott smiled, walked to his table and raised his glass to the back of the bartender’s vest, “To Harvey,” Scott toasted aloud; To a good man, he thought, gulping down the last of his beer.