An anti-tragedy in three acts. With props to Samuel Beckett.
By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 6 minutes
Scare Rating: 1 of 5 Ghosts
Ben Codger sighed. The tall, thin figure of his daily visitor slowly crossed the covered front porch, his dark cape sweeping aside the brittle autumn leaves as he joined Ben on the opposite end of the old wooden porch swing. As he sat, the wood planks bent just to the point of breaking under the weight, and the rusty chains squealed as the swing twisted, before settling back into their time-worn, slow gliding path.
“Today?” Ben asked.
“No, not today,” came a low, muffled reply from deep within the recesses of Death’s dark cowl.
With little variation, this was the extent of the duo’s daily conversations. Ben was tired of everything — tired, even, of the novelty of having a supernatural daily visitor. With the exception of that same query, he had plenty of time for, but no interest in, conversation. Death, likewise, was a man — a thing — of few words. Their singular shared interest, unrequited, was simple: Ben’s life. The end of it, to be morbidly specific.
The two sat on for a long time in comfortable silence, a silence that was suddenly broken by the noise from a sporty convertible that whisked around the corner. It was Dave, a neighbor from the next block, driving too fast, as he always did, down the otherwise quiet street.
The event aroused perhaps the sole remaining passion in the old man. Ben shot out of the swing and marched to the front of his porch, shouting and swinging his fist in the brisk fall air.
“Slow down, ya numbskull!” he shouted over the escaping roar of the motor. “We’ve got kids in this neighborhood! You’re going to kill someone!”
Exasperated and out of breath, Ben hobbled back and reclaimed his seat. He might have expected a smile from his companion at the notion of new business, but Death sat expressionless beside him.
“The way I see it, you’re not supposed to visit unless you’re on a mission,” said Ben on a later visit. “I know that from when we first met. The night you took Betty Lou away from me.”
Still, silence was the only response Death yielded. Continuous unsympathetic silence.
The sound of hard plastic grinding on pavement did a good job of filling the void. Alonzo, the four-something from next door, had his Big Tire trike in neutral and was rolling down the slope of his driveway. He reached maximum speed at the point where the drive met the street, and rode the momentum over the road’s gentle berm and into the neighbor’s drive across the street.
Despite himself, Ben couldn’t help but smile; in a single moment he recalled a similar adventure across many generations: his own hill-side rolls on metal skates in his youth. Watching his pre-teen son do the same on a “too-big-now-but-you’ll-grow-into-it” bicycle. And his young grandson, now moved so far away, taking the same hill on a skateboard. The stacked memories blended together so that Ben wasn’t altogether sure if he had the right boy in the correct scene or not. Not that it mattered.
The bittersweet memory broke his reverie, and he turned to his companion.
“Why won’t you take me?”. Ben insisted. His frustration was evident. “I’m ready. You sure seem ready. Let’s go!” He stood and started across the porch, as if to lead the way. He knew where he was going; he just didn’t know how to get there.
“He won’t let you go yet,” came the somber, gruff reply. There’s something He needs you to do yet.”
“I don’t know what else I could do. Not with what is left of this life,” Ben muttered. He returned to the swing, dejectedly accepting the news.
“Is it time to go yet?”
Ben let out a heavy sigh. Another winter had passed. He’d thrown off a bad flu that turned to pneumonia. The spring had arrived with uncharacteristic warmth and vigor, and yet, for Ben, the season brought no renewed cheer. The nesting birds chirped their appreciation, as did the cavorting bunnies. Even Alonzo had emerged from a boy’s home-bound winter hibernation to mount his trusty plastic steed for new adventures on the concrete pastures in front of their homesteads.
“Why do you keep coming around?” Ben again insisted. “For six years you’ve been coming. You set your scythe in the corner and walk across my porch like you own the place. You squat next to me and watch me like a buzzard over a sick calf. I’m 97 years old, dammit! I want to go and you want to take me.
“I’m tired, I ache in the morning and I hurt at night,” he added. “And I’m lonely.”
Death turned to look at him. Codger couldn’t read the expression on its hooded skull-face. Perhaps he’d offended his loyal companion, the only true company he’d had these many years.
In the distance, Ben heard the squeal of spinning tires, the high-pitched sounds traveling faster than the low roar of the big-block engine. Dave was clearly also enjoying the spring. Ben wondered if Alonzo would grow up and take after their neighbor. After all, what difference was there but in scale and power between the Big Tire trike and Dave’s convertible?
As worrisome as that notion was to Ben, he was suddenly anxious, as a vision passed across his mind. The sound of Dave’s roaring engine was thundering in his head although he wasn’t sure if it was real or from his premonition. It didn’t matter.
“Alonzo, get out of the street!” Ben shouted. He was off the swing, hobbling off the porch and toward the boy as quickly as he could. “Get up here!”
The boy was oblivious; he was working on his cornering, driving a continuous figure 8 pattern in the wide, smooth street.
“Alonzo, get off the street!”. The sounds of the big plastic wheels were louder than Ben’s hoarse voice, but the boy paused as he saw the nice man from next door approach at a brisk gait — a pace that the boy recognized as trouble, because it didn’t match the tired old frame that carried it.
Sounds and images blurred together in that brief pause. The roar of Detroit power, the sight of his mother on the porch to investigate the commotion, followed by her shrill scream of terror as the scene unfolded, and Ben, the old neighbor, running, pushing, falling and yelling “Alonzo” as the trike jerked forward and off the road under a new source of power. Squealing brakes, a loud thud and a thump, and more screams.
Alonzo’s mom embraced her son, then frantically examined him for any signs of injury. Dave stood in front of his car, also looking for damage, and still not fully sure of what had just happened. Beneath his front wheels was the limp form of a man at rest. A man at peace.
“Let’s go home,” said Ben, rising from the wreckage. He grasped Death’s bony hand and walked with him. Away from his finished life and into the light.