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TO JASON BISHOP, THE FACT that Murder Hill was still standing was something of a relief; it meant the world hadn’t completely changed. The industrial ruin towered above the river at that last bend between Garrison and Cold Spring like always, a rusted sentinel that rivaled nearby Storm King Mountain in legend, if not in stature. A graffiti-festooned beacon that challenged the young and dumb to climb its summit, to pilot their skateboards, stolen shopping carts, or Rollerblades down the steep cement chute to the swift and bracing waters flowing past. Some tried, most failed, and the sensible chickened out at the last second. To Jason, it was the rusted signpost welcoming him back to the home he swore he’d never return to, but no matter how far he roamed, Cold Spring always found a way to drag him back. Jason had been one of those rare few who’d challenged Murder Hill and lived to tell the tale, but that was a story for another day. Today, he was returning home to bury his father.
“Cold Spring,” the bored-sounding PA announced. “Next stop, Cold Spring.”
Jason’s mouth tasted like old coffee. He’d tried to wash the taste away with periodic nips from the flask he’d stowed inside his jacket pocket, but the buzz just made him more tired than he already was. The puzzle book he’d brought with him to pass time on the train sat forgotten on the seat beside him. He hadn’t slept since he was handed the news about his father. There was no need to ID the remains, thankfully; it didn’t take much imagination to know what a fifty-floor plunge off a high-rise did to the human body. He gazed out the passenger window as it filled with crimson. The October sun had bathed the entire valley molten and soon those leaves would fall, like Dan Bishop fell.
But Dan Bishop didn’t fall. Dan Bishop jumped.
A suicide, they said. Leapt from the roof of the Four Seasons in Midtown, they also said. Dan Bishop had swan-dived onto East 57th between Madison and Park, 140 blocks south of The Locksmith, where Jason had been working that very night. What Dan had been doing at the Four Seasons was a mystery, as was his father’s request his funeral be held in Cold Spring. Dan had barely spent more than a few hours there at any given time, usually to check in on Jason, occasionally to drop off a birthday or Christmas present, and most often to make excuses as to why he couldn’t stay longer. By the time Jason was fifteen, Dan was pretty much just the name endorsing the checks that arrived in his absence.
But why Cold Spring?
Did he think the familiar environs would somehow make Jason feel better that Dan hadn’t bothered to say goodbye before his big plunge? That was an answer only Dan could furnish.
Jason tugged at the collar of the dress shirt, chafing uncomfortably against his neck, and loosened his necktie. To look at him, you’d think he’d finally gotten a respectable job in a bank, not one slinging drinks in Inwood. He hadn’t worn his suit since Owen’s funeral the year before; now it would help usher Dan out of his life for good. His mind drifted to the flask in his breast pocket. He wanted another belt but decided to hold off. He didn’t want to lapse into bad habits again. He’d partly landed the job at The Locksmith because he didn’t drink, and he didn’t want to jeopardize that job. He had enough drama in his life, the primary cause of which was sitting across from him.
Winnie looked resplendent, the Holly Golightly look she’d perfected fitting her like a second skin. In her black dress and matching purse and shoes, her dark complexion seemed Nordic by comparison. Her iPhone rested against her thigh and while she tried to make it look like she hadn’t been checking messages the entire trip, he knew she had been since they boarded the Metro-North. To her credit Winifred Hobbes had stepped up after the news had come with barely a thought, like she’d in been training for just this moment since they’d met. It was Winnie who made the arrangements, not Jason. It was Winnie who told him to call Rich and tell him he’d be taking a few days off, and he had. It was Winnie who’d consented to the bout of sympathy sex Jason had thought would make him feel better, but had just made everything worse.
Winnie had handled everything pertaining to Dan’s funeral, like she enjoyed the distraction. Like she was glad to avoid a conversation long overdue, one he had tried to start several times in the preceding days that she’d dismissed. When they’d first met, they seemed to be looking for the same thing. But now it was like she’d found what she wanted and was growing tired of waiting for him to decide if it was what he wanted, too.
But there’d be time for that talk on the return trip.
“This is taking forever,” he sighed. “We should have rented a car.”
“I suggested a car. You wanted to take the train. ‘For old time’s sake,’ you said, remember?”
“I should have listened to you,” he said.
And that was that, the most words they’d exchanged sequentially since Grand Central.
She was right though; he had wanted to take the train. Growing up, the train to New York had meant freedom—a steel link to the world beyond. Now it was whisking him back in time; up the Hudson and past Murder Hill to Cold Spring. Those bends in the track were as familiar as they ever were, but everything had changed. He was just a tourist now, there to watch the autumn leaves change color and fall.
* * *
They cabbed it from the Metro-North to the funeral home; the same where he’d said goodbye to Aunt Cathryn six years before, the same where he’d said goodbye to Owen just last year. It was less than five minutes from the station, but then again everything in Cold Spring was less than five minutes from everything else. Main Street hadn’t changed much; it was still lined with souvenir shops and cafés and restaurants all poised to lure in tourists from the city. You couldn’t make it from the Metro-North station to anywhere without running that gauntlet. The town was a place for visitors now, not its residents; or maybe it always had been that way and Jason just hadn’t noticed. But like everything he’d seen since news of Dan’s drop, it was like he was looking at the world through eyes that were no longer his own.
The funeral director who greeted them wasn’t much older than Jason (who wondered if they hadn’t gone to high school together), and had that blandly sympathetic face that seemed to be standard issue among all funeral directors, along with the dark, conservative suits. He offered his condolences, and on learning Jason was the son of the deceased, actually seemed like he meant it. He handed over a program. It read:
A Celebration of Daniel Patrick Bishop
Father of Jason
There was his date of birth and death below that, along with a photo of Dan albeit one ten or so years out of date. His hair was just beginning to turn gray in that one. By the time they’d last done a face-to-face, the gray had marched well into the black. The grin was the same shit-eating one he’d always worn, painfully earnest, and all an act. Jason could see a lot of his face in Dan’s: the cool blue eyes, the eyebrows that arched angular when he smiled. A nose not too big, a mouth not too wide: painfully average and perfectly forgettable. He opened the program. The inside cover, which normally would contain a biography, was blank. No Cherished husband or Beloved brother or Son of.
There was just Father of Jason, full stop.
“Amazing Grace” was piped through the sound system, which just galled Jason even more; he hated “Amazing Grace.” As they entered, Jason received his first surprise of the day: people had come. A good baker’s dozen all seated down at the front of the room, near the podium where a small stand of flowers stood ringing a table on which a simple pewter urn rested.
So Dan had friends after all.
But as Jason approached, he saw these mourners were dressed near identically to the funeral director. They were employees, obviously drafted to make Daniel Bishop’s next of kin not take offence at the slight turnout for the dearly departed. That was on Dan’s head, not his.
He’d made his urn and was lying in it—but two weren’t there to pick up a paycheck: an elderly man in a wheelchair, and his nurse sitting in the pew beside him. Jason recognized both. He handed his program to Winnie, told her he’d be back in a minute, and moved down to the front of the chapel to the man in the wheelchair. He knelt beside him and looked into his dull eyes.
“Hey there, Attila.” Jason grinned. “We need to stop meeting like this.”
Aaron Baile; Uncle Aaron—and once upon a time behind his back, “Uncle Attila”—stared uncomprehending at the boy he had raised from before Jason could remember. But Aaron’s memories were gone, torn away by Alzheimer’s and discarded at the roadside. A man whose deep voice and ferocious temper had terrified young Jason when he knew he’d pushed his uncle too far—a frequent act when Jason entered his teens. The man who had taken Jason fishing and canoeing, who taught him to ride a bike and how to drive a car, who’d always been there to talk no matter the hour, was now just a shadow of a memory. For the first time since the news of Dan’s suicide landed with a wet thud, Jason felt tears brew. Thank whatever god was above that Alzheimer’s had taken Aaron before cancer took his beloved Cathryn.
“How is he doing, Rita?” Jason asked.
Rita, the wide-faced, sad-eyed nurse from the rest home, smiled.
“He has his good days and his bad days,” she said. “Today’s somewhere in between. I’m so sorry for your loss, Jason. Truly I am.”
Aaron just stared, seemingly unsure whether to smile or cry, unaware he was sitting in the very same place he’d said goodbye to the wife of forty years he didn’t remember six years before. Jason patted Aaron’s arm, nodded to Rita, and made his way back to his and Winnie’s spot when someone entered his vision and he almost lost it there in the middle of the chapel.
“Jason … I’m so sorry,” Carla said.
He’d been prepared for the funeral. He’d been prepared for the emotions he knew would drain him. Hell, he’d even been prepared for Uncle Attila. But he hadn’t been prepared for Carla Rickert, née Petrozzi, not her without Owen. Carla Petrozzi, whose high-school affections Jason and Owen had once gone to war over, and whose hand and heart Owen had captured in the end. How different might all their lives have been if Jason had emerged victorious? Would it be Jason moldering in a burial plot a short drive—five minutes, naturally—away? But there she stood, the squirming two-year-old in her arms looking more like the father he’d never know than he had the year before when they’d laid Owen to rest. She’d aged five years since he’d last stood there, only then he was telling her how sorry he was. The last year had clearly been rough on Carla Rickert.
“Carla … hi…” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s so good to see you.”
“How are you managing?” she asked. “I know you and your father weren’t…”
“We weren’t.” He nodded. “And I’m fine. I’m managing, I mean. Are you?”
Carla smiled sadly.
“We’re managing. It’s not easy; I don’t think it ever will be. But, we’re managing.”
Jason nodded, he hoped, knowingly. He didn’t know what else to do and had even less idea what to say to her. The silver lining to the cloud that had been his best friend’s death was that it had been sudden. Owen had gone into the kitchen of their small house in Cold Spring—Owen, unlike Jason, hadn’t left—to fetch Noah’s bottle. A heavy crash had sounded through the house, and by the time Carla raced in with Noah, Owen was lying on the linoleum, a bottle of formula spilling its contents beside him, dead before he could feel the warm liquid touch his skin. Owen Rickert, dead of a cerebral hemorrhage at thirty-one, leaving a wife to mourn him, and a child who’d never know his father. That had been Owen’s greatest fear when he told Jason about his impending fatherhood. That nightmare had come true, for all who loved him. The turnout for Owen’s funeral was massive, standing room only in the same chapel that was cavernous by comparison now.
“I can’t stay,” Carla said. “I just wanted to offer my condolences.…”
“It’s all right, thanks—”
“I have to get Noah to the sitter’s; I have to get to work—”
“Carla.” He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze that lingered probably a little too long for both of them. “It’s great to see you. I’m sorry I haven’t been around. I know I promised I’d check in but things have been crazy…”
Carla smiled, but sadness remained buried behind it.
“Owen’s parents help out when they can but they’re getting on.”
“How are your folks?”
“They moved, to Greensboro—we’re joining them at the end of the month.”
“You’re leaving Cold Spring?” Jason couldn’t hide his surprise.
“There’s nothing for us here now,” Carla said. “I can’t afford to keep the house and it’s a buyer’s market and … I have to think of what’s best for Noah.”
But Owen, he’ll be all alone up in the cemetery. What about him?
Noah was still studying him intently, like he thought he should know Jason from somewhere but didn’t know how or why. The boy stared at him, then his mouth widened into a wide, happy grin that was too familiar. Jason had seen it before, many times, many years ago.
Jesus, he looks so much like his father.
“I won’t keep you.” His voice struggled to stay even. “If you need any help, you know, packing…”
“We’ll be fine, Jason.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “Just take care of yourself, okay?”
She kissed his cheek. There was a moment—a very brief one—where her eyes met his and in them he saw every possible future they might have had. Then she hefted Noah and wiped her eyes clean. She wanted to get out of there just as badly as he did. He watched her carry Noah back up the chapel to the entrance, and as she passed, Winnie gave her a barely perceptible side-eye.
“We’re ready to begin, Mr. Bishop,” the funeral director said. He was standing at the chapel entrance, where Carla and Noah had departed, gazing calm but impatient.
“Is there a restroom?” Jason asked.
* * *
By the time he made it to the god-awful peaches and cream–colored restroom the tears were almost flowing. He gripped the cool porcelain of the sink and staunched them. But the sad display wasn’t for Dan or Owen or even for himself; it was for Noah. He was going to have a hell of a time no matter how loving his mother or grandparents were. There would always be that hole in his life, like the one Jason had from the mother he’d never known, like a piece of himself had been ripped out and cast away never to be found. He just hoped Noah got it together in time; he hadn’t, and the tired face staring back from the mirror was evidence enough of that fact.
Jason Bishop. Age thirty. Bartender. That would be his epitaph if he died today, and his funeral would draw an even sadder crowd than Dan’s.
He fumbled for his flask, uncapped it, and sucked it dry. The whisky burned down his throat and settled like a ball of fire in his stomach. He ran the tap and filled the flask with water to rinse it out. He looked to the mirror, and stiffened sharply.
There was someone standing in the bathroom mirror behind him. Someone who hadn’t been there an eyeblink before. Like he’d materialized out of thin air. That was impossible; there’d be no missing this guy. He was dark-skinned and built like a linebacker, his salt-and-pepper hair shorn close to a slightly bullet-shaped skull. A finely manicured mustache and goatee framed his wide mouth, and he towered a good foot over Jason.
He was holding something in his hand: a deck of cards.
“Do you like magic?” the man asked. His voice was British, deep, and smooth as silk.
Jason turned the water off.
“Not particularly,” he said. “And certainly not right now.”
“Another time perhaps,” the man said.
Jason capped his flask and turned to face the man directly—
But there was nobody there.
The man had vanished. Like he hadn’t been there at all.
Like he’d been a ghost.
Someone walked over Jason’s grave and he stifled a shudder as something crackled underfoot. He looked down and saw it there, sticking out from under his polished black oxford.
It was a playing card. The King of Hearts.
Copyright © 2017 by Brad Abraham