M iles returned home late that evening from the races with an empty cooler of soft drinks and a wallet full of money. His eyes sparkled and his step was light and free. He tossed his heavy wallet on the table with a dull plunk! and picked up the Tuesday paper.
“Thanks, my friend,” he said in a sing-song voice, and kissed the paper right on the picture of Barack and Michelle. “Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!” He tossed the paper onto the table and walked into his bedroom.
As he undressed for the shower, he smiled and giggled. It was great, he reminisced. Earlier that evening, he had rocked the races. Rocked them. He knew that he couldn’t win all the races, but he damn well could win enough of them, and he did.
Oh God I did. Yes, I did.
And he won just enough of them to keep the track owners and the tellers from getting suspicious. To them he looked like another flunkie who’d gotten lucky
that day. And that’s just the way he wanted it.
The shower seemed a lot more refreshing that night.
Miles woke an hour earlier than normal the next morning. He enjoyed reading the paper before work, which shone a whole new light for him. The warm weather snuck into Lawles County while he was in Houston, so the dance in his shorts to the Tuesday paper was less frantic.
He bent over and picked it up, not noticing the picture on the front. It was Senator Sturm, waving to voters at a rally. Of course he hadn’t done it yet, but will sometime later that evening. Miles shot a precautionary glance
(is that necessary anymore)
at the date under the banner, smiled satisfactorily and stepped back inside.
He read Sports on the toilet (Rangers went down 4-3), the Front Page over his coffee (Sturm is up in the polls, thanks to extensive rallying), and he read the Metro as he readied for work.
Unfortunately, his morning suddenly lurched into terror as he skimmed his eyes over the Obituaries, which rested next to the second half of a story on a new video store being built in Richland. He thought he recognized a picture of someone among the names of the dead, and that brief flash alone gave him chills.
He snapped his head back onto the Obituary page and anxiously raced his eyes over the columns and rows until he saw it again and his eyes widened. He could have sworn that, for just a second, his heart stopped beating.
it read. Miles looked at the small square picture in disbelief, as if some error or joke had been committed. He studied the photo, and nearly screamed. Stan was smiling, and the picture looked as if it were taken outside, due to the brightness in the background. He read the words underneath the names in a half-stupor.
32, Born Mar 14, 1975 in
Whitfill, Texas and passed away
Tuesday, April 16, 2011. He is preceded
in death by his mother, Grace Decker and
his father, William Decker. Graveside services
10:00 am Friday, April 19, 2011 at F. Albert
Memorial Park in Whitfill
Miles could not move. He stared at the obituary and the photo until his eyes fogged. He wiped under his eye with a finger, destroying whatever may have grown into a tear.
I can’t cry because it isn’t true. Not yet, it’s not. It’s not true, yet. It hasn’t happened.
He looked up and down the column to try to discover the when and where and more importantly, the how, but it didn’t say. He nearly tore the paper in half searching the rest of the Metro section, looking for some article on what happened, but found nothing. He was racing into the kitchen for the Front Page when he stopped short
(it hasn’t happened yet)
in his tracks, his blood turning cold
(I could stop it)
in his veins. He glanced at the clock on his microwave. The green digital numbers carelessly stared back at him: 7:23.
Stan would leave for work in seven minutes.
Miles grabbed the phone and furiously dialed the number.
Answer, Stan. C’mon, answer. Answer goddammit!
The phone rang twice. The space between rings grew.
Answer, you prick! Answer the fucking phone!
The phone rang again, and after a space that seemed endless, the call went to voicemail.
“No,” Miles whispered coldly. “Please…”
After Stan’s recorded greeting, a shrill beep sounded through the earpiece, and Miles gripped the phone until his knuckles turned white. He tried to speak to the recording, but his voice escaped him. “Stan…” he croaked, then hung up.
Maybe it won’t happen until tonight. Maybe…
Miles wasted no more time. Half of him knew it wouldn’t be true. Half of him knew that he would never see Stan again. He threw on his jacket and raced out the front door, nearly forgetting his keys.
Miles blared his horn at the lane jumpers. Traffic was much heavier this morning than normal
(you knew it would be, didn’t you, buddy old pal)
and Miles cursed himself for not taking side streets. The car in front of him inched forward and, from what he could tell, so did the thousands of cars before it.
“C’mon, dammit!” Miles screamed.
Then the cars stopped. The red brake lights pulsed vigilantly into the purple morning, and they stretched into infinity. Miles’ left leg tapped furiously and impatiently. None of the lanes moved. He rolled down the window and stuck out his head in vain attempt to find out what and how far ahead the problem was, or if he could spot Stan’s forest-green Jaguar in the bumper-to-bumper.
Of all fucking days! Of all the fucking days for this shit! Why?
Then he saw it, and instant joy struck him, joy that reminded him of the day that he spent at the races
(wasn’t that only yesterday it seems so long ago)
and won a small fortune. His car had been stuck in the right lane for fifteen minutes, but the shoulder was clear all the way up to the exit ramp…
Miles spent no time planning the escape route. He quickly swung onto the shoulder and raced the quarter-mile toward the ramp. Horns protested, but Miles scoffed at their jealousy. As he neared the sign that bared the exit number, he saw red and blue lights rotating across the green background.
“Fuck,” he cursed. He looked in his rear view mirror and saw nothing but jammed vehicles behind him. He glanced to the left and saw the police car, and then slammed on the brakes.
“Jesus,” he moaned.
A green Jaguar was turned on its left side. Red flares shone brightly in the still dark morning, and foot soldiers lit more of them, sending sparks streaming across three lanes of clear highway.
Behind him, he heard screams of the ambulance as it wormed through traffic. Miles did not have to look to know it was having no luck. Besides, he couldn’t if he wanted to. His eyes were frozen on the Jaguar
that lay on its driver’s side in the second lane of the freeway.
Miles didn’t report to work Tuesday. He called in to Willie Freeman and explained the whole thing. Half of him expected Willie to retort with, “Are you okay, Miles? Stan’s right here in the office. He’s standing next to me. Do you want to talk to him?” and then Stan would get on the line and say, “Ha, you jerk, you thought I was dead! How silly. You see, if I was dead, it would be in the papers.” But Willie Freeman didn’t protest, nor did he put Stan on the line. Willie told him instead, “Take two days, why don’t you, Miles. Stan will be greatly missed.”
Willie had also asked him when he thought the funeral might be, so that the office could attend. Miles lied and said he had no idea, but he did. Stan’s body probably had not made it back to the hospital yet, but Miles knew where and when the services would be.
After all, he had read it in the paper. In black and white.
Around noon, he wanted to leave the house, and even thought about going to the races again, but quickly cursed himself. He would never go to the races again, he thought. Never.
This paper is evil. It killed Stan.
But the truth nagged at him like the ambulance siren had done four hours ago. The newspaper hadn’t killed Stan. Some guy in a beat-up pickup had killed Stan. It was done on Highway 65, not in the cellars of some copy room. Stan was a victim of a car accident, not some Obit writer’s supernatural pen.
We don’t make the news, we just report it.
And Miles knew it was true.
Miles sat in the break room and flipped methodically through the pages of the newspaper. The print dissolved from thought. There were other things on his mind as he turned the page to an exclusive story about Senator Sturm.
Big deal, I read it yesterday.
He smiled cynically and folded the paper back into its place. Of course, he had read the paper this morning. The one that undoubtedly said Wednesday, April 24, on the front page. And of course, the twenty-fourth would not be until tomorrow. He glanced up at Brenda and Lakeesha. Brenda was crying.
“It’s not the same,” Brenda wept. “It’s just not the same.”
“I know, baby,” said Lakeesha. “I know it isn’t.” She yanked a Kleenex from the cardboard dispenser next to the coffeemaker. “Just try, okay? Do you want to go home?”
Brenda shook her head. “No, I’m okay,” she sniffled. She wiped at dead tears, new ones threatening her from the corners of her eyes. “Really Keesh, I’m all right.”
Miles knew she was weeping over Stan again. She had bawled endlessly at the funeral. Miles had been a pallbearer, along with Willie Freeman. It had been hard on Miles, too, but he finished his tears long before the funeral.
It wasn’t unexpected for you, was it, buddy old pal? You had a few extra minutes to prepare for it. Not enough to stop it, but you knew it would happen all the same.
Miles shook away the thought and lit a cigarette. Hadn’t he been trying to quit? He looked over yesterday/today’s newspaper once more before standing to comfort Brenda.
“You sure you don’t want to go home, doll?” he asked, resting his hand on her small back. She looked up at him with big, brown eyes which momentarily flooded.
“No,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’ll be all right.” She spoke the way women do when they lie. “Besides, I need the money. I haven’t won the lottery yet.”
Lakeesha smiled and, soon enough, Miles did too. “That’s right, baby,” Lakeesha said. “And when you do, you can take all the time off you need. But I can cover for you today, if you want.”
Miles suddenly stopped massaging her collarbone. An idea struck him briefly – too briefly – and he searched files in his memory to remember what it was.
“I’m okay, really,” Brenda smiled. “It comes and goes. Grief. It’s so funny, right Miles?”
“Yep,” he said, feigning cheeriness. But he wasn’t in the room anymore. He was deep inside the barriers of his own mind, searching for some idea.
“You must miss him,” Brenda added. A tear marched down the brim of her needle-nose. That’s what Stan always called it: a needle-nose. “You two were thick as thieves.”
Miles smiled. “Yeah, I do,” he said. “Of course I do.”
Brenda hugged him, then she and Lakeesha walked out of the break room, leaving Miles alone with a day-old newspaper.