I sit on top of the passenger car, surveying the nocturnal landscape. The outskirts of a small town--a meatpacking plant, a filling station, a river snaking through the night. Just as I'm figuring out my surroundings, I hear noise at the end of the train.
I climb down. A family--an old woman, two distracted adults and several small children--of indeterminate ethnicity insists that I participate in their ritual. Glowing rings appear in their hands, are tossed in the air, and all family members catch them, expertly. One ring is flipped to me. I catch it, barely, but it tries to pull from my hand. I let it go, and it flutters briefly, then clatters to the ground. Only now it is no longer a ring, its hollow center is full, like a bottle cap. All other rings, their centers also full, fall to the earth, their magical glow extinguished.
The old woman regards me with great sadness. "Death," she says. "Death will follow you."
"Follow me where?" I ask, climbing without much enthusiasm into one of the elegantly-appointed cars of the train.
"Everywhere." She pulls the door shut.
Cats and dogs, some remembered, some unknown, crawl through the car. I ignore them, drawn to the rickety steps with the railing around them, illuminated by a single bulb. A shelf runs along one side of the stairs, filled with old board games--Clue and Monopoly, sure, but also Dark Shadows and Mr. Ree! and Planet Of The Apes. That last one was mine, of course, and I want to stop and linger over it, but I continue down the stairs. There should be a little dresser at the bottom, with the bathroom on the other side, and the familiar clutter of the dining room all around--this is the house I grew up in right? Something long dead and all that?
But no. I get to the bottom of the stairs and it's just another car in the train. The club car, and really? This is the death following me? Skeletons and cheesy-looking zombies dressed in old-timey suits? This is supposed to represent what?
I slide open the door of the club car and continue on to the front of the train--or possibly the back, since I have no idea which direction I'm going. There's a car full of brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, and kind of like the cats and dogs, some are more familiar than others, but I focus on a screened-in area beside this car, filled with diffuse, unearthly sunlight. I enter, making awkward conversation with more people I barely know.
But I recognize them. They're musicians who worked briefly with my ex-wife. Some of them are perfectly cordial, some are pissy and bitter, holding inexplicable grudges against me. One is particularly vocal, and I cut him off by saying, "Hey, I just wanted her to make a halfway decent album, and you couldn't deliver."
"Yeah," he says, "but what about what she wanted?"
Death. Yeah, I get it. My marriage. Ha. Very symbolic, like that stupid MASH episode where we see everyone's dreams. Next thing you know I'll be floating in a river of severed limbs, just like Hawkeye, and please, God, can I never think of that again, or any episode of MASH from the BJ-with-a-moustache era?
The train stops.
Or simply ceases to exist, since I don't actually disembark. I stand at some sort of crossroad--ooh! symbolism!--deciding which way to go. The landscape looks vaguely familiar--kind of like the bottom of Cemetery Hill, but not really--so I just pick a direction at random and start walking.
Soon enough, I'm joined by Paul, who greets me with his usual, "Hey."
"Hey. How was the new Harry Potter?" I ask.
"Do you want me to tell you? I'll be seeing it again with you..."
"Yeah, I know, and that's why I'm thinking this whole 'death will follow you' thing just isn't making much sense. I mean, yeah, I dated your Mom, and that didn't work out, so sure, another failed relationship, another 'death'"--I make sure to deploy ironic air quotes--"but you and I still hang out."
"Yeah, we're hanging out right now."
I stop walking. "But you're not actually here."
And indeed he's not. The road has stopped at a large white house, with a neatly-trimmed lawn and a river running beside it. People sit on the steps, people I should know, dressed like cast members from The Waltons in their Sunday-go-to-meetin'-time clothes. They're portrayed by ex-cast members of Mystery Science Theater 3000 because why the hell not, but they're passing around old photos and mementos and things I should know. They're talking about Mom, but they're getting the details wrong.
"You can't know," I say. "You weren't there. I wasn't there, either, I wasn't there, even though she asked me. She wanted me to come up that Monday night, to crash at her place before I took her to the doctor the next day, but I begged off because I was tired, and so she fell and when I got there Tuesday she had that horrible bruise on her head and she was hallucinating and...Maybe if I'd been there, maybe if I'd been there..."
My tear-filled eyes make the sun-dappled water in the river shimmer more than usual, then it twinkles, and I realize there is no river, it's just an elaborate video display, and the image changes to a wall of ads for nineties hip-hop albums. There are shelves all around, books and DVDs and old LPs. Mom sits beside me in a plush leather chair.
"I'm afraid I could spend some money here," I say.
"Do you have money to spend?" Mom asks.
She smiles. "If you see something you want, you should get it. If you wait, it may not be there when you come back." Her words hang in the air, fading. I realize I'm coming back into the waking world.
There's a cat on my pillow and a cat at the foot of the bed. Janie is in my arms. I pull her a little closer as she sleeps, feeling her breathing. The fan gently blows the cord of the window blinds, and I listen as it bounces against the wall, clack, clack, clack.