a short story by Frank Diamond
You order a bowl of French onion soup and a turkey sandwich with avocado and bacon, hoping that the avocado will appease your surly arteries.
“Here you are,” the waitress sings, serving your beer.
Indeed, here you are.
But how exactly did you get here? Was it a vision? A ghost? A mirage? Or just your eyes playing tricks? It was certainly something. A feeling? A remnant of a dream surfacing? Whatever, it brought you here.
Not that here’s a bad place—the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton. No, not bad, necessarily. Two hours earlier, you’d been in your modest suburban home in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Watching the first flurries of the blizzard out the window and fielding final regrets via texts and a few phone calls. So much for your Christmas party. McCarter Theater had cancelled its production of A Christmas Carol for 2020—no surprise there, really, in a world ruled by COVID-19 (hell, 2020 itself had been cancelled)—but you told everybody that the party was still on.
“Sorry, Dad,” your daughter, Emma, said when she called; talking about the avalanche of last-minute cancellations.
“An act of God, Punk.”
“What about all that food?”
“I’ll think of something.”
You’d stuffed the food into both refrigerators—in the kitchen and in the basement—and any available coolers in the house. The non-perishables filled the dining room table. You think of your nephew and his wife and their two kids. That crew can chow down. And one of the nephews on Shannon’s side has seven kids, one has five, and another has four. Irish—what can you do?. Shannon’s been dead for six years, but you’re still close to your late-wife’s family. That food will get eaten, damn it.
“Do you want me to come up, Dad?”
Emma lives in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia with four other young women.
“For what? Stay home! Stay safe!”
The weather forecasters had been chanting for hours some variation of: “Don’t drive unless you have to.” You sing it to the tune of the intro of “Come Together.”
Lennon’s first almost hissed line: “Don’t drive.” Instead of “Shoot me.”
Then McCartney’s bass line becomes: “Unless you have to.”
Ah, stream of consciousness. We’re either beasts who’ve broken the chains of evolution or angels who are slumming inside time.
The calls and the texts started the night before and when Emma reached out, you’d already cancelled the party.
While talking to Emma, that’s when it happened. It. You’d been standing by the window watching the snow. That’s all you were doing. The flurries swirled suddenly, as if caught in a little tornado and you hear your name. Clearly, and as if someone stands a little to the side and behind you. The blind side. They’re connected somehow—the sound and the flurries—as if the dancing snow throws its voice. You spin about, but nobody’s there. Then you lose your balance—who knows why?—but you stumble back and the only reason you don’t hit the ground is because you hit the lounge chair first, a hard landing.
“Dad!” You must have let out a yelp.
“I’m OK, sweetie,” you say, but you’re out of breath.
“What’s going on?”
“I tripped, is all.”
“Oh, Dad.” It’s so you. You’d always been clumsy.
“It’s nothing, nothing,” you insist.
But the currents of young adulthood already carry her on.
“Got to go, Dad.” One of the roommates needs help assembling an office chair for makeshift workspace.
She’s gone and you’re alone with whatever just happened. You’re right. “Nothing,” in fact, frightened you. Nothingness always frightens you. The thought of eternity—the impermanence of the world. Mortality. Whatever embraces Shannon now—scares you and, unlike most people, you can’t always shove it aside. That’s what the meds are for, right? Perhaps an excuse to take a Xanax? Outside the snow spins again, and you wince, but no voice this time.
Still, who needs this shit?
That’s when you decide, and you call Uber. It probably helped that you were going for a relatively long ride; that made it worth the driver’s time and your tipping history didn’t hurt, either.
She pulls into your driveway in a Ford Expedition. Good in snow.
A young woman, younger than Emma, probably, so you begin climbing into the back to let her know that you’re not a creeper.
“My heater isn’t working. Will that be a problem?”
It does feel sort of ice-boxy, but you don’t want to wait for another Uber.
“No, not at all,” you lie.
“Do you have a winter coat, sir?”
Do you? You’re one of those whose body generates heat and the only time you’re really in the cold is when walking from your car to the house, or into work. When it’s zero degrees out, or, like now, snowing, maybe you add layers and put on gloves and a woolen hat.
And that’s your intention—layers, gloves, hat—when you (a bit sheepishly) walk back into your house. But then you remember the parka. You hadn’t worn that in … you can’t recall. Shannon had bought it for you and it disappointed her that you hardly ever used it. You know exactly where it is. You know exactly where everything in your house is. It’ll be quicker and wherever this adventure leads, it just might require a parka, who knows?
You reach far back into the mudroom closet, lift the parka off the hook. You wrestle yourself into it almost as if it fights back. There are gloves in the pocket, and you put them on.
“Look at me: Nanook of the North,” you tell the driver when you return.
“But least you’re not freezing.”
“I’m just glad I was able to get a ride. Do people mind about the heater?”
“Some do. I let them know when they order. I texted you.”
You hadn’t seen it. You’re still a little shaken by whatever just happened to you. The voice. Did you hallucinate? That possibility carries no comfort. You’re hearing things; your name spoken in the tone of someone wanting to point something out to you. What?
“Does the snow worry you at all?” you ask the driver.
“Nothing stops me,” she says. Or, at least you think that’s what she says. Both of you wear masks.
“Anywho, why Princeton?” she asks, and this you do hear because you’re settled in and on your way.
“Visiting old friends.”
Polite chit-chat. She’s a warehouse manager furloughed due to COVID. She might not get the job back; another casualty of the plague.
“I’m sorry,” you say.
“You didn’t do it.”
You don’t know how to respond, or even if you should. Was that a hint? OK. A quiet ride.
But then she says: “So, you’re visiting old friends,” obviously not buying it.
You’re on Route 1 now, which had been salted and re-salted, but the going’s slow nonetheless, except for the occasional idiot swerving in and out of lanes like it’s the Indy.
“Well, I just really needed to get out.”
She laughs. “I guess so. In a blizzard, no less. These must be special friends.”
“OK, you got me. I’m not visiting friends.”
“Then what? If you don’t mind me asking?”
You shift, the coat makes you itch a little.
“I am sorry, sir. I’m just interested in people. Comes with the job. But some don’t like it one bit. I’ve been accused of prying.”
“It helps me to figure things out. I guess I’m chasing down memories.”
“There you go. See, now that I like. Happy memories?”
“Mostly. I just need to get out of my funk.” And away from that voice.
“We all get the blues.”
“No excuse for the blues. I have so much, and I can still wallow in self-pity.”
She doesn’t answer right away, and you feel yourself blush. You’re laying a lot on this stranger.
Finally, she says: “But, anywho, you’re aware of it and you’re fighting it. Little girl down the street from me? She’s like 10? They just had to operate? Ovarian cancer? Aggressive? That cyst was big?”
“There are many stories, I know,” you say. “I’ve had a good life. A great life.” You don’t say a wonderful life. Yes, Shannon died young. You still think about Shannon everyday, still miss her terribly. Your brother was killed in Vietnam when he was 20. You don’t think about him every day (it’s been 40 years), but often enough. It’s not so much a matter of you not letting go, as it is some things not letting you go.
What else not so great? Well, last year, after more than 20 years at the same job, they laid you off at the age of 52. But you lucked into a new job right away, except the new job annoys you. Corporations act like cults, these days, with their pillars of excellence and their “team” this and “team” that. You see an email slugged “Team!”, and you know you’re about to be hit by a squall of bullshit. Still, these are just some of the normal ups and downs of a normal life. A blessed life overall.
“This little adventure is probably a big step back,” you tell this girl, this fellow passenger to the grave, as nephew Fred put it to Scrooge.
“Or a big step forward,” she says. “You’re doing something. You miss Shannon.” Yes, somewhere along the road, you’d told the driver her name. “Anywho, you’re paying homage to her. You know, like a pilgrimage.”
“Except I’m not going to her grave. Whoa!”
They fish-hook as she brakes for a light.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Will I be your last ride?” You don’t add: “In this life?”
“I’m OK. I just need to be a little more careful, is all.”
It’s mostly music from there on out. The Beatles. You wonder if she really likes them or she knows what certain demographics like. What a man like you likes. You’re a type. You might even be a stereotype. Now there’s a depressing thought. On the other hand, you’re hearing voices, seeing ghosts (perhaps). Isn’t that a bit unusual? Maybe you’re just the crazy type.
“In My Life” plays as she pulls right up to the big red front doors of McCarter Theater.
“But how you going to get around?” she asks.
You tell her you plan to walk to the Nassau Inn.
“So it’s going to be like that, huh?”
“Dramatic. Like Charles Dickens, man!” She laughs again and this time the sound enters you, and you laugh as well. Feels good. A woman’s hearty laugh carries you along like a Golden Oldie. Shannon’s laughter scattered gloom.
“Anywho, God bless,” she says.
“God bless.” Anywho.
You stand looking at the poster: “With a heavy heart, we have made the decision to cancel all in-person performances through January 31, 2021.”
Every year you’d tear up at the end when Tiny Tim hobbled over to Scrooge to get his present; the snow globe-slash-music box that jingled a song—a gift Scrooge had gotten when he was a boy. The old man would hug the child, the audience knowing that he would not let Tiny Tim die. (In the early years, the hug would happen just between the two of them. Later, Bob Cratchit would be watching from the doorway, a sad bow to modern sensibilities honed by a never-ending stream of nauseating news about pedophiles, child porn, and sexual harassment.) The snow globe came from Scrooge’s long-dead sister—Nell, or Nan, or Fan, or whatever the hell the name might be in any particular year; either they changed it or you got it mixed up with Scrooge’s long-lost love Belle, or Anne, or Fran.
Often they were played by the same actress, which didn’t make things easier. Didn’t matter. Every stinking year: tough you, skeptical you, and—dare you say—cool you, would weep. You didn’t even have to glance at Shannon. Anytime something on TV or the movies got to you emotionally, she’d been there already—always way ahead—and you’d hand her your “snort rag,” a piece of folded paper towel that you kept in your pocket and rarely used on yourself.
Shannon really loved the play, committing lines to memory
“Business!” Marley’s ghost would cry, when cowering Scrooge reminds him of his earthly industriousness. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
You memorized it after Shannon died.
Marley’s ghost always freaked you out a little.
Now, standing before the shuttered theater, you shiver involuntarily, pull the hood up on the Nanook of the North. You’re glad you’re wearing it. The snowfall increases, drawing a heavier curtain over the afternoon. You turn and crunch your way across University Place and into the quad. The layers pile on, and now it’s above your ankles. You take careful step after careful step as if little speed bumps litter your path. You shudder a few times from the inside out; the cold wraps your bones. As you walk, spires of academia emerge like ships in a fog. Some young girls somewhere laugh, and you’ve forgotten whether Princeton decided on real or virtual classes for the fall semester. Snow brushes your face, one big flake landing squarely on your lips like a lover’s frosty greeting.
You’d been going to see A Christmas Carol at McCarter for over 35 years and only once before did you miss it—another snowstorm. You and Shannon had gotten engaged after the first time you’d gone to the play (that Christmas Eve), and the next year you went with another couple. It became a thing. You and Shannon treating different friends and family members to the play each year. And afterward everybody came back to your house for the Christmas party, where you and Shannon would often be joined by those who’d missed the play but wouldn’t dream of missing the shenanigans. You and Shannon knew how to throw a party.
It could get expensive, but life had always been too expensive; bill collectors hovering about, stretches when the calls wouldn’t stop. You work in trade publishing, Shannon had been a Catholic school teacher; occupations that don’t pay well, and you tried to give Emma everything you could, though turns out that your total attention had been the best gift of all. But, the yearly play, then party? Well for A Christmas Carol you splurged, occupying balcony box seats—best seats in the theater. And old Fezziwig himself would have stopped by your place afterward.
When Shannon died from uterine cancer, you’d decided that the tradition must continue. The Christmas party was the only one you threw all year. And hosting it—to do it well—takes more than one person (at least for you), but you managed, with some help from Emma. Instead of cooking, you ordered from the local deli. It worked out. Beer and wine and good conversation and a lot of memories about Shannon. Everybody loved Shannon, who walked in special grace through life. She truly cared about people. She was always the most interesting person in the room because she was always the most interested person in the room.
Good times. Good times. Good times.
But lately, you’ve felt an undertow of guilt. Perhaps not surprising. You’ve been fighting anxiety and depression for years, now. From about the time when Shannon had been first diagnosed and Emma went off to college. You take your meds. You tell yourself that you’d been a true and good husband. You never cheated on her. Technically. Still, someone once told you that the real test of whether you should do or say something is would you do or say that something if your spouse were in the room. That test, you failed. There were flirtations, emotional attachments that came close to crossing the line.
“That happens in every marriage,” one of the shrinks told you.
“Shannon deserved better,” you said.
You witnessed how Shannon conducted herself as death approached; still giving, still thinking of others, still lifting you up. How do people like that become people like that? Married 28 years, and you never figured it out.
At one point at the end in the hospital she’d cried (one of the few times she cried—so incredibly brave) and told you that she loved you and that you are good.
“You are my sunshine girl, you’re not going anywhere,” you promised.
But she did.
That you still mourn, that you still think of her everyday, that Emma says that if she ever marries, she’d liked to have a relationship like her parents’: These things you tell yourself, but you still feel dishonorable. How do you get honor back? Is that what you’re looking for now?
When you finally trudge your way to the Nassau Inn, you pull down the hood and strap on your mask as you approach the front desk.
“I’ll be staying the night,” you tell the fellow behind the counter.
“You’d better, my friend! No one’s going anywhere right now.” He possesses the cardinal virtue that anyone needs when dealing with the public: He genuinely likes people. Or seems to.
In normal times, you’d linger a bit to get his story. Not everybody is interesting—bores abound—but enough people are to encourage you to banter. Bantering is one of your favorite things, in fact. Or was. But then came the COVID masks. Not seeing half of a person’s face makes communicating so much more difficult. The eyes alone don’t reveal as much about somebody as you’d thought.
“I can check you in now,” he says.
“Right now. Be here now at the Nassau Inn.”
“I’ll eat first,” you say. “The tap room’s open?”
“Everyday of the year, my friend. And because…” his gesture takes in the great outdoors, as if you’re on a mountaintop “…there should be no trouble seating you.”
And there isn’t. Years ago (how long ago was it?), you and Shannon carved your initials into one of these tables. Which one? Shannon would know, even though your initials had probably been carved over, or faded out within a week. That happens to most, but the owners and patrons consider some names sacred, leaving them unmolested. For instance “Einstein” can still be seen.
The huge fireplace throws warmth and light, and while you wriggle out of the parka you hear something inside the coat. It’s a crinkle in one of those well-hidden pockets that you didn’t even know existed. You turn the coat practically inside-out, find the compartment and take out a folded piece of paper, open it.
And there it is. A list you’d made long ago. You remember compiling it, and then lost track of where you’d put it, consoling yourself that it would turn up. Eventually. When you finally moved out of the house, perhaps then you’d find it.
When Shannon died, you typed out some of the text exchanges you’d had during her last year, after the recurrence, on hard copy, fearing that a smartphone’s death might kill that bit of your past. And, in fact, a smartphone did die and those texts did disappear from ether-space. When you couldn’t find the hard copy, you’d been surprised by how not distraught you’d been. Strange faith descended upon you; you knew that list would turn up.
And here it is.
You had divided the list into SENT and RECEIVED.
Some of what you wrote:
YOU WILL WIN!!!
Sunday, June 8, 4:35 p.m.
YOU WILL WIN!!!
Tuesday, June 3, 9:38 a.m.
The Joker, the Lover, and the Treasure forever!
Friday, March 7, 7:20 a.m.
When Emma was 4-years-old, she’d come up with those nicknames for the three of you. They were so apt. Emma is indeed treasure, and Shannon’s love umbrellaed the three of you. And you added comic relief. You’d been such a happy little family.
Some of what Shannon wrote back:
I will with you!
Sunday, June 8, 5:35 p.m.
Yes I will
Tuesday, June 3, 10:38 a.m.
Love you XXXXX. We can do this. I have good vibes.
Thursday, March 13, 8:42 a.m.
I’ll drink to that tomorrow!
Friday, March 7, 7:46 a.m.
Thanks. I need you.
Friday, January 1, 7:02 a.m.
I LOVE YOU XXXXX!!!!
Friday, January 1, 7:02 a.m.
Love you too XXXXX! Have a happy day.
Monday, October 21, 7:14 a.m.
Wednesday, August 28, 2:01 p.m.
Cant they will all see. Hows work?
Tuesday, August 27, 10:35 a.m.
Hi XXXXX boring meeting!
Tuesday, August 27, 10:30 a.m.
Thanks XXXXX love you too! Have a good day
Monday, August 26, 6:44 a.m.
Thanks XXXXX for loving me so much and telling me. I LOVE YOU TOO!! Monday, August 26, 6:44 a.m.
Love you too. Seeing Doctor Reilly at 3
Thursday, August 22, 12:16 p.m.
Thanks XXXXX I love you too!
Wednesday, August 21, 12:04 p.m.
Memory fun-house-mirrors life, distorts it. Just the way you recall favorite scenes from movies or TV shows and then see them again to realize that you’d gotten it wrong. But here it is, in your hands. How much you and Shannon loved each other. How you tried everything to keep her with you but God—sometimes God, He’s got other plans.
“You might be staying here for longer than you thought, sir.”
You look up to find the guy from the front desk hovering over you with a case of soda on his shoulder. The mask and the cap; it’s hard to judge his age. He’s younger than you but, then, so are most people.
“Now, they say it might break records.”
“Will the Inn….”
“We will stay open,” he insists. “They put staff up in rooms when something like this happens.”
And then he’s off; one of those unable to throttle down, even though he now has all the time in these end-of-times-like world to do so. But as the snow piles up outside, and the glow from the lights in the tavern pull back, it is not winter that you think about.
You once read somewhere that Dickens pulled the long arm of coincidence out of its socket. His characters would just happen to bump into each other thousands of miles from their homes. But Dickens, as was so often the case, was on to something.
You recall such a coincidence. It happened the April Emma graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. In about two months, Shannon would be dead. The cancer had recurred, but on that trip she had been more or less herself. You travelled across state with Shannon’s sister and your sister in two cars to attend Emma’s graduation. At one point during that weekend you dropped the four of them off (using the bigger car) in front of the Cathedral of Learning, a huge Hogwarts-like building in the middle of campus, while you parked in a lot further up the street.
It was a beautiful day, sunshine and clouds lingering like empty thought balloons too mellow to hold a thought against a sky so blue it made you dizzy when you looked up. That kind of day. Hundreds of people bustling about on this graduation weekend. So what were the chances that by the time you walked back to the waiting group, Emma’s favorite professor would be there? You alway wanted to find out: 1 in 10,000?, 1 in 100,000? Perhaps not 1 in a million, but….
And what that teacher said about Emma. She praised Emma’s ingenuity and persistence, Emma’s level-headedness, Emma’s emotional intelligence, Emma’s … well, on and on and on and almost embarrassingly on…. Until the teacher pointed at Shannon and said “and young people don’t learn those things in group activities or in school or in books or online or from friends. They learn that in the home.”
That was your cue.
“That is thanks to her,” you said, gesturing to Shannon. “Thanks to my wife.”
“No,” Shannon said. “That’s all Emma.”
The teacher smiled at Shannon, whose response amounted to an “Amen!” to her mini-lecture.
“Well, I need to run. It was so nice meeting Emma’s family.” To Emma, with a hug: “You stay in touch, girl!”
On the ride back (Emma would stay in Pittsburgh, returning home for good only the week of Shannon’s death), Shannon said almost every five minutes: “And did you hear what that teacher said about Emma?” “And did you hear what that teacher said about Emma?”
You feel Shannon’s presence, now. Right now, at the Nassau. Peace settles into you, a peace you’d experience only a few times in your life.
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild.
Shannon once told you in a dream that everything will ultimately be all right. And it will. Death does not rule the universe, love does, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
These printed text messages; they could be initials carved into one of the tables right here at the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. You quaff beer, and bring the mug down on a carving you hadn’t noticed. “Shannon Loves You!” Not XXXXX, your name. But “You.” It’s deep in the table, as if someone had branded it there. You trace it with your finger a few times. It’s real, all right. It can’t be a message from beyond; spiritual beings don’t communicate in such material ways. Then again, how the hell would you know?
You decide to text your daughter.
“Yo Punk! I’m not letting this stop me! The Christmas party is not cancelled, merely postponed until next week. What do you think about that?”
It takes a few minutes for the phone to buzz.
Comes the answer: “Why am I not surprised?”