Did you ever have a family member who seemed perfectly sane and reasonable in every way, except for when they claimed to see the ghost of their dead spouse? It gave me the creeps when Grandma Cole said she saw her late husband Wayne.
Wayne, or as we called him, Grandpa Cole, died of heart failure in his workshop in the back yard of my grandparents’ house. When he didn’t come inside at bedtime, Grandma Colewent out and found him slumped over his workbench.
Two weeks after Grandpa’s funeral, we were visiting Grandma Cole. My Mom and Dad, my five-year old brother Jeff, and I, age ten, were all sitting in Grandma’s living room.
Out of nowhere, Grandma Cole said, “I saw him a few days ago.”
“Saw who, Mama?” asked my father.
“What do you mean?”
“I was in the den, last Tuesday night, watching the news. I got up off the sofa, turned off the TV, and was headed to bed. When I walked into the hallway, Wayne was standing there, in the bedroom doorway. He looked like he wanted to say something.”
“Oh, Mama,” said my father softly.
“I screamed!” declared Grandma. “I screamed and fainted, right there in the hallway.”
My father said, “Maybe it was a dream.”
“No,” she said calmly. “No, I’ve dreamed about Wayne since he died, but this wasn’t a dream. I saw him standing there when I was awake.”
My brother and looked at each other. I started to say something but my father caught my eye and shook his head. The subject passed, but Grandma Cole told that story more than once over the years to more people, even after she moved into the Elm Shade Nursing Home, and her story never varied.
Once a month, a bus from the Elm Shade Nursing Home rolls up in front of the Publix grocery store, where I was recently promoted to Manager. A group of elderly men and women, including Grandma Cole, invade the grocery store, accompanied by a couple of caretakers. Some of the old folks leave their walkers at customer service and use shopping carts to steady themselves. One little granny wears slippers and a bathrobe wrapped over pajamas, but most of them dress more-or-less properly for this outing. A withered man wearing a pale green 1970s leisure suit has a gauze pad taped over the entire side of his head. After the man walks by and is out of earshot, two of my bag boys speculate as to whether or not the man’s ear is missing.
Then one of the bag boys looks toward the entrance and says, “Here comes the Borg Twins!”
People cringe in embarrassment at the phrase “Borg Twins,” being a Star Trek reference to creatures that are part human and part machine. Nevertheless, the two old men smile and wave like celebrities at the bagboys. They don’t mind the nickname, being old science fictions buffs themselves who play chess together and debate everything from the merits of Ray Bradbury versus Isaac Asimov to the theories of evolution versus creation. The “Borg Twins” are two old fat guys, Pops and Agee, who can’t breathe normally because they have emphysema, so they carry portable oxygen tanks in the top section of their shopping carts. Plastic air tubes run from the oxygen tanks to their nostrils. Borgs. They stroll side by side, each pushing a shopping cart, basking in latter-day recognition by youthful nerds.
“How’s it going, Pops?” asks a bagboy.
“It sucks!” says Pops, a real wise-ass.
Pops is bald on top, with wild tufts of white hair sticking out over his ears, bushy eyebrows, sloping nose and forehead, and a wide grin.
Loudly, Pops proclaims, “I’m thinkin’ about hopping a freight train outta here!”
Agee smiles quietly. He is a black man, not quite as fat as Pops, who sports a beret, a goatee, and bifocals with heavy rectangular frames of dark burgundy.
Pops and Agee continue speaking to the bag boys as they plod along, pushing the shopping carts with oxygen tanks in them.
“What’s the problem, Pops?” asks a bagboy.
“That dammed loony bin they keep us in, that’s what! How would you like to live with all those crazy motherfuckers?”
Agee says, “Watch your damn language, Pops.”
“Oh, by all means!” says Pops sarcastically. “I wouldn’t want to corrupt these unblemished lambs!”
As they shuffle past the bagboy, Agee looks at the teenager and chuckles, “Got to keep the loonies on the path.”
“Hey, that’s from Pink Floyd,” says the bagboy. “You know Pink Floyd?”
“Sure!” says Agee.
“Yeah,” adds Pops. “Wish you were here!”
Both men walk on toward the produce department, laughing.
When you were a child, did you ever think something should be true, and in spite of all logic, you almost believed it was true because it seemed right? For example, even though it took ninety minutes by car to get from my family’s house to my grandparents’ house, I thought maybe the houses were really side-by-side, separated by only a tall hedgerow. My basis for idea was simple. A scary old woman named Mrs. Buttner lived at the end of our street and the tall, squarely trimmed row of shrubs in her yard looked just like the row of shrubs that backed my grandparents’ property. I hypothesized that we drove for ninety minutes on some convoluted route, which eventually, subtly took us back to our own neighborhood, whereas if one were able to go into Mrs. Buttner’s yard and sneak through the hedge, one would emerge in my grandparents’ yard immediately on the other side! By way of confirming this theory, I set out to make it a reality to my younger brother, Jeff.
We arrived at my grandparents’ house and after the prerequisite greetings, hugging, and shaking of hands, everyone went out back. The parents and grandparents sat on the back porch sipping drinks while my younger brother Jeff and I played in the yard. “Playing” consisted mainly of Jeff toddling around and me filling his head with bullshit.
“You see those shrubs?” I asked Jeff.
“Well,” I said. “If you crawl through those shrubs, you’ll come out on the other side in Miss Buttner’s yard. Remember the shrubs in her yard?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“They’re the same shrubs.”
Young though he was, Jeff suspected trickery, but a couple of wasp nests prevented him from calling my bluff.
“Why does it take so long to get here?” he asked.
“Road and pavement regulations,” I told him with a hint of scorn in my voice, as though he should have known it. “No streets can intersect past the city limits so we have to go around. When the Federal Government finishes building the Interstate Highway System, we can get here a lot quicker. Didn’t you hear Dad say so?”
Here was the genius of my assertion. We always heard our parents and grandparents talking about how much time the Interstate would shave off the trip.
In fact, the advent of Interstate 81 reduced our travel time from ninety minutes to fifty minutes, nowhere near as instantaneous as the mythical shrub passage would have been, had it existed.
Years later, I learned that space could trick me in just the opposite way. Landscape design can create the facades necessary for Americans to feel like we still live in the wide-open spaces of our ancestors. I was surprised, for example, to learn how close the little league baseball field was to my house.
Bonnie and I had bought a small, cinderblock house in a nicely shaded, lower-middle-class neighborhood. It was perfect for us. For one thing, the price was right. The banks would not approve us for a house with two bathrooms or a pool. Also, we felt comfortable in this neighborhood. The people seemed less judgmental than, say, the residents of those gated communities that don’t allow cars up on blocks or weirdly painted houses. Our neighbor across the street drove a van with “Lawn Care Larry” airbrushed on the side.
Driving to work every morning, I had to crisscross the neighborhood through several blocks of residential streets just to get to the main road, which had four traffic lights, followed by the Lakeshore Bridge. After crossing the short bridge, I passed the Elm Shade Retirement Home on the left. A block further, just after the Lakeshore Little League ball field, I turned right into the parking lot of Publix.
Soon after we moved in, the neighborhood had a 4th of July block party. By sunset, the whole street rocked with music, people talking, drinking beer, and shooting off illegal fireworks. Kids ran up and down the street waving sparklers. Bonnie and I stood in the middle of the road talking to Larry and his wife, Kyoko.
That’s when I saw the unearthly glow in the distance, over the treetops.
“What the hell is that?” I asked in awe.
“Lights from the ball field,” said Larry. “Lakeshore Little League.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I drive past it on the way to work. I didn’t think it was so close.”
“The landscape can trick you,” said Larry. “We used to play in those woods when I was a kid. Our tire swing is still there.”
“Oh, I want to see it,” said Bonnie.
“I’ll get my flashlight and four more beers,” said Larry.
Bonnie and I walked with Kyoko and Larry to the cul-de-sac at end of the street, where a small dirt path lead into what Larry called “the woods.”
“These woods took up a few acres when I was a kid,” said Larry as we walked. “Now it’s a lot less.”
The path ended in a small open space where an old tire hung by a rope from a high tree limb.
“Fifteen years ago,” said Larry, “When I was ten or eleven years old, I climbed up that tree and out onto that limb, with the end of the rope tied to one of my belt loops. I lowered the rope down to a kid named Eddie Johnson. He tied the tire to it and hoisted it up by the other end of the rope, to the right height, and I wound it around the limb a few times and tied it as tight as I could. And if you were to walk further on, through that dense, thorny brush, which I don’t recommend, you’d see what’s left of a fort we made from a couple of shipping crates.”
“They must have been big crates,” said Bonnie.
“Not really. See, that’s the thing. When we were kids, they seemed big. I mean, to us it was this grand fort, you know? But a few years later we went back and I almost thought we were in the wrong spot. Just two dinky boxes, falling apart, covered with lichens. Man, we used to see owls, foxes, all kinds of things out here, but not anymore.”
That was a few years ago.
Recently, people have been seeing more snakes in their yards and in parking lots. It was on the local Six O’clock News. Construction companies are cutting down the small wooded areas to build more housing developments, and this was driving snakes, turtles, and armadillos from their natural habitats.
The dirt path at the end of my street is no longer a dead end. It extends past brand new houses, where the woods and rope swing used to be, and connects to the road beside the ball field. Now I can walk to work quicker than I could drive. It’s almost a magical feeling, as if that impossible childhood thing had come true.
Did you ever lay in bed after having sex with your wife and talk about the future? One exultant night, after Bonnie and I had sex, I rolled onto my back and held the used condom dangling over the right side of the bed, between the bed and the wall.
“I hope you’re not just going to drop that on the floor,” said Bonnie.
“I’ll pick it up later,” I said, letting go of the used condom. “Right now I just want to lay here, with you.”
“That’s an excuse for laziness, and you are nasty.”
“You know what we need?” I asked.
“What? A trash can on your side of the bed?”
“No. This house needs more than one bathroom. We need a bathroom connecting right here,” I said, tapping the wall beside me on my right. “I could get out of bed and walk right into the bathroom.”
“Yeah,” said Bonnie. “Well, how much would something like that cost?”
“Not much if I did it myself,” I said. “I bet Larry would help me. Knock out part of this wall for a door . . . there’s plenty of room in the backyard for an extension.”
“Oh, look at that,” she said.
The TV was on at low volume. Bonnie reached for the remote and turned up the sound so we could find out why the Elm Shade Nursing Home was on the Eleven O’clock News.
Taped earlier that day, a woman wearing sunglasses and a scarf spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent to a reporter. We could see the Elm Shade Nursing Home in the background.
The woman said, “It was never a problem in the past! I could come here and visit my mother any time I felt like it! Now, just because they are closing…”
“What?” I said. “Elm Shade is closing?”
“Shhhh!” said Bonnie.
The Brooklyn lady continued, “My job switches me from day shift to evening shift and then back again. I need flexibility when it comes to visiting my mother here at the Home.”
The news reporter concluded the segment, speaking to the camera, “A spokesman for the Elm Shade Nursing Home told us that the more restrictive visitation schedules are a result of increased concerns for the safety of the Home’s residents. Elm Shade has confirmed that they will soon close their doors permanently, but they reassure the public that they will work with each and every family in relocating their loved ones to other suitable retirement homes.”
“That must be what the letter is about,” I said.
“You got a letter from the nursing home?” chided Bonnie. “And didn’t open it?”
“I was going to open it,” I said. “They send a newsletter every month, usually asking for volunteers or donations.”
“Well, tomorrow I guess you’ll have to read it and find out what day and time you can visit your grandmother.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “I agree with the woman on TV. I’ll visit my grandmother whenever I feel like it.”
“Which is . . . hmmm . . . almost never?” said Bonnie
“I know, I know. I’ll stop by and see her tomorrow, after work,” I said. “What’s tomorrow, Friday?”
“Yeah. Larry and Kyoko are coming over tomorrow evening. We’re cooking out on the grill.”
“Perfect,” I said. That’ll be my excuse not to stay too long.”
“You’re terrible,” joked Bonnie.
The next day, a strange atmosphere of curiosity mingled with apprehension filled the lobby of the Elm Shade Nursing Home. People milled around in the lobby, waiting to see someone, or filling out paperwork, or complaining quietly about the new visiting restrictions.
At the counter, a middle-aged woman with heavy make-up and a bejeweled chain hanging from her eyeglasses asked, “How may I help you, sir?”
“I’m here to sign papers to transfer my grandmother, Katherine Cole, to Baptist Retirement Village.”
“Ah, yes, transfer authorization. Do you have the acceptance form from Baptist?”
“They said they would fax it to you.”
“Oh?” she said, in that tone of concern and puzzlement so often heard in medical facilities when the simple processing of paperwork is involved.
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe you have it?”
“I’ll have to check. I’m sorry. It will only take a moment.”
“Would it be okay if I went, just for a minute, to say hi to my grandmother?”
“Well, we have to check the schedule,” the woman said, tapping on her keyboard. “Let me see, Cole is the last name? Oh, this darn thing…ah, there it goes… C, O, L, E… ”
“I know where her room is.”
“I’m sure you do,” said the woman. “It’s a safety concern, sir, and they’re very strict about it. Ohhh, dear, it shows your visiting hour is Sunday, in the courtyard…”
“I just want to go to her room. I could have already been there and back!”
“I know it sounds picky, but your visitation site is the courtyard, and the garden paths in the courtyard are regulated for safety. If we exceed the capacity, we get fined.”
“For God’s sake, it’s not a night club!” I said a bit louder than I intended.
“There’s a greater risk of injury, sir,” insisted the woman.
A man behind me said, “You’re fightin’ a losing battle, sport.”
I turned to see a burley but good-natured police officer, in uniform.
“What?” I asked.
“I said you might as well not argue the point. This lady is just doing her job, it’s not her fault.”
“What, they have Police now to keep people from seeing their grandparents?”
“I’m here to see MY mother,” said the cop. “And don’t get smart with me.”
The woman behind the counter was watching us both, and finally said quietly, “It’s the ones who flaunt the rules that are usually the quickest to sue when someone gets hurt.”
The cop looked at me and shrugged.
“Fine,” I said. “Where’s the form I came here to sign?”
“Well, let’s see,” said the woman. “Do you have the acceptance form from Baptist, or, did I already ask you that?”
“They said they FAXED it to you.”
“Oh? I’ll have to find out if we can accept a faxed copy. It really should be the original or a certified copy. Did they say which number they faxed it to?”
“How about if I sign your form now and bring you the other one Sunday when I visit my grandmother?”
“Our business office is not open on Sundays. You would need to bring it on Monday.”
“But that won’t be possible, either,” she said. “We’ll be completely closed down by then, and everyone will have been transferred to their new residences.”
I signed the form and went home to drink a beer and prepare for the cookout.
The doorbell rang.
“Hey, it’s Lawn Care Larry and his wife, Lawn Care Kyoko!” I said when I opened the front door. “Come in, folks.”
It rained, so we all sat in the living room, eating hamburgers and potato salad from paper plates. I told Larry I wanted to expand my house.
“Best thing to do,” he said, “Is put up a big mirror. Mirrors make the place look twice as big.”
“Great,” I said. “Then I can just piss on the mirror and watch it splash back on me.”
“What?” His disgusted face made me laugh. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Bonnie said, “He wants to add a bathroom, Larry.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Jeez!”
Bonnie said, “But you know, a mirror would look good on that wall.”
Kyoko said, “In Japanese, my names means “mirror.”
“Really?” said Bonnie.
“It’s true,” said Larry. “I looked it up.”
“Cool,” I said. “Hey, I hear they really have a space problem in Japan.”
“Space problem?” asked Larry.
“Oh, you mean limited space,” said Kyoko. “That’s true. The population is dense.”
“Yeah,” said Larry. “We took a course on that when I was stationed over there. About the bubble.”
“Bubble?” I asked.
“The bubble of personal space,” said Kyoko.
“Yeah,” Larry continued. “Americans have what we call bubble of personal space around us. The Japanese don’t have room for that, so they make their own personal space inside their head.”
“Is that true, Kyoko?” asked Bonnie.
“Well, sort of, yeah,” Kyoko said. “The Japanese are much more respectful of each other in public. We speak softly. We use earphones to listen to music. Things like that.”
“I feel like getting away from people some days,” I said.
“The way my father taught me,” said Kyoko, “Is like this: If you go to a park that has trees, flower gardens, fountains and statues, when you are walking through the park, you can only be in one place at any given time. What difference does it make if many people are walking in the same park, each following a different path, as long as they do not bump into each other?”
“But I don’t like crowds,” I said.
“There would be no crowd in your mind,” said Kyoto. “Everyone minds their own business.”
“Stupid Elm Shade must have more people than it does paths,” I remarked.
“What do you mean?” asked Larry.
“On the way home from work, I went there to sign papers to have Grandma transferred to the Baptist Retirement Village.”
“Oh, that’s right,” said Kyoko. “We saw on the news that Elm Shade is closing.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, they wouldn’t let me visit her!”
“They stopped you from seeing your mother?” said Larry. “I would have told them to kiss my ass, I’m going to see my Grandma, damn it.”
“I did! I thought I was gonna be arrested!” I exaggerated.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Larry.
Bonnie said, “It’s basically about risk management. Apparently, they have some garden paths in the courtyard and if too many people walk these paths at the same time…”
“Some old fogey will get knocked down and break a hip?” I completed her sentence.
Larry laughed, “Got to keep the loonies on the path!”
Kyoko said, “Larry! That’s not very nice.”
“It’s Pink Floyd!” said Larry defensively. “From Dark Side of the Moon.”
“Pops quoted the same thing!” I said. “This old man from the Home!”
“Oh, really?” asked Larry. “Some old geezer was quoting Pink Floyd?”
“Yeah, old Pops is a trip!” I said.
Bonnie said, “Maybe that’s what he was talking about. The paths in the courtyard.”
“Well, no wonder they’re closing,” said Larry.
Did you ever act on a premonition?
One night I had to work late at the grocery store, supervising the stock crew while the regular night guy was out sick. It was almost midnight when we finished.
Driving home, I probably would not have paid any attention to the Elm Shade Retirement Home had they not recently pissed me off. I slowed down and glowered at the building as I drove past it.
Every window in the wide, flat brick building were dark, except for the glass doors to the main entrance. In the light of the lobby, a security guard sat behind the reception desk reading a newspaper. A single streetlight cast shadows of shrubbery onto the side of the building.
Suddenly, one of the shadows moved.
I stopped in the road, squinting at the side of the building. Someone was crouching down between the wall and the shrubs, creeping toward the back of the retirement home. I didn’t know if they saw me watching, so I drove a little further until I was out of their line of sight, and parked on the side of the road. I sprinted quietly to the left side of the building and crept along the left wall, toward the back of the building, while the other figure presumably moved along the right wall in similar fashion.
I eased my head around the rear corner of the building ever so slowly. There was the mystery prowler, a tall man dressed in all black, and wearing a black wool stocking cap. He walked briskly from the far corner of the building, along the rear wall, toward me. I thought for a moment he had seen me, but he stopped midway along the wall and disappeared into an entrance.
I approached the entrance and saw that it was an archway covered with vines. The archway led to the courtyard paths. These paths were technically outdoors, but trellised vines everywhere gave the feeling of enclosure. Soft moonlight filtered through the vine canopy, but even so, I could barely see where I was going. I hid behind a marble statue and watched the tall man as he scanned the ground with his flashlight.
The flashlight beam paused on a flat rock beside the path. The guy knelt down on one knee and laid his flashlight on the ground with the beam still shining on the rock. With one hand, he lifted the rock to a 45 degree angle, reached underneath with the other hand removed a small package from a hole in the ground. He let the rock drop back over the hole, stood up with his flashlight and the package, and walked out through the archway as briskly as he had walked in. I had to rotate my position behind the marble statue to stay hidden as he walked by, but I got a glimpse of long, bushy sideburns extending down past the wool cap.
What was that all about? I wondered.
A peculiar sensation crept over me - the feeling that I wasn’t alone.
I turned and looked down the dimly lit path. Something moved in the distance.
For a moment, I doubted my own eyes.
The pale form of an elderly, obese man in a hospital gown, spectral in the moonlight, shuffled toward me.
When the old man came closer, I could see his mouth stretched open in a repulsive silent scream. The horror in his eyes made my skin crawl.
Less than ten feet away, he stretched his arms toward me, knotted knuckles clutching at the air between us. I swear I could see right through him. I backed away to avoid his grasping hands.
I had been hiding behind what I later learned was a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi. In the dark, I didn’t see the little animal statues flocking around the saint’s marble feet. Backing up, I tripped over a stone rabbit and hit the ground painfully, knocking the breath out of me.
Rolling onto my side, I looked up, expecting to see the old man on top of me. He was gone.
“Where have you been?” Bonnie was still awake when I finally got home, way after midnight.
“The retirement home,” I said wearily.
“The home? Because of the missing guy?”
“Yeah. I mean no. What did you just say?”
“The missing guy,” said Bonnie. “One of the residents, a Mr. Finnegan, wandered off and nobody knows where he is.”
“No, I didn’t know about that. Did he have Alzheimer’s or something?”
“I don’t know, but his family is not very happy with Elm Shade.”
“You won’t believe what happened to me. It was crazy.”
The next day, I put the assistant manager in charge of the grocery store and went to the Baptist Retirement Village.
“I’m here to see my grandmother, Mrs. Katherine Cole,” I told the receptionist. “She was transferred here from Elm Shade.”
“Of course,” said the receptionist. “Mrs. Cole is in room 211. The elevator is down that hall to your right. I believe a detective is speaking to her now.”
“Yes. About the gentleman who went missing from Elm Shade.”
I took the elevator to the second floor, wondering what in the world my grandmother would know about Finny Finnegan. The heavy wooden door to room 211 was halfway closed. Hearing a man’s voice, I pushed the door open quietly. I saw my grandmother, propped up comfortably by pillows in her bed. The detective sat politely in a chair between the bed and window, his legs crossed in that proper way lanky men in suits cross their legs, one knee over the other, and a notepad resting on the top knee.
I walked into the room.
“Well, look who it is!” said Grandma. “Detective Poole, this is my son, Bill.”
Holding the notepad and pen in his left hand, Detective Poole stood up and reached across the bed to shake my hand. He was tall and vigorous, middle-aged with a receding hairline, long sideburns, and a youthful glint in his eye that seemed to wink when he smiled.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, before sitting down again. “We’re speaking to all the former occupants of Elm Shade about Mr. Finnegan, the missing resident.”
Unexpectedly, Grandma said, “My husband Wayne told me Finny Finnegan was lost.”
“Grandma,” I interrupted.
“Does your husband live here at Baptist?” asked Poole.
Grandma looked at me and said, “My grandson will not like what I’m about to say.”
Detective Poole looked at me, then back at her.
I spoke to her softly, the way I remembered my father speaking to her, “Grandpa passed away.”
“I know that, baby,” she said. “My husband Wayne has passed from this world to the next.” Then she looked at the detective and added, “But he visits me sometimes.”
Detective Poole surprised me with his answer. He said, “We sometimes rely on psychics to solve puzzling cases, Mrs. Cole. Perhaps this is similar.”
“The first time Wayne appeared to me,” she said, “was shortly after he died. I was in the den watching TV on a Tuesday evening. I got up off the sofa, turned off the TV, and was going to bed. When I walked into the hallway, Wayne was standing there, in the bedroom doorway. He looked like he wanted to say something. I screamed!”
Detective Poole said, “Maybe it was a dream.”
“No,” said Grandma Cole calmly. “No, I’ve dreamed about Wayne since he died, but this wasn’t a dream. I saw him standing there when I was awake. The first time I saw him, I was afraid. After that, it was okay. When I moved into Elm Shade, I was so sad because I thought I was leaving Wayne behind in the house. But there was no need to worry! He appeared to me at Elm Shade, the very first night I was there. And two nights ago, I saw him here at Baptist. He is free, not like that poor Mr. Finny.”
“What do you mean?” asked Poole.
“Wayne said Mr. Finny is trapped at Elm Shade and can’t leave.”
“We’ve search Elm Shade thoroughly,” said Detective Poole patiently. “Mr. Finnegan is not there, Mrs. Cole.”
“He is in purgatory!” said Grandma Cole gravely. “Poor Mr. Finny is suffering in purgatory!”
A chill ran through my body.
The next day I was at the grocery store, yawning from lack of sleep, when Pops and Agee shuffled in, pushing their shopping carts with the oxygen tanks onboard.
I followed them down the medicine aisle, where they stopped at a shelf full of eye medication.
“You need the Visine,” Pops said to Agee. “Got that red-eye from smoking dope.”
“If anyone uses drugs, it’s you, Pops,” said Agee.
“Don’t bullshit me,” said Pops. “You listen to jazz and smoke grass!”
“Yeah, right,” Agee shot back.
I walked up and said, “So, what’s new, Borgsters?”
Agee smiled and nodded a hello, friendly eyes framed by thick burgundy eyeglasses.
Pops said, “Hey, young fellow! Agee here needs some generic Visine!”
“Shut up, Pops,” said Agee with a smile.
I said, “What’s this I hear about someone missing from Elm Shade?”
“Finny Finnegan,” said Pops. “Finny’s been missing for a couple of days.”
“It’s a cover-up,” said Agee matter-of-factly.
“A cover-up?” I said.
Agee said, “Pops here thinks he saw Finny’s ghost one night.”
“He’s still at the home,” said Pops with a devious grin. “He never left. And he’s no ghost!”
Agee said firmly, “Pops, what you described to me is a ghost.”
Pops gave a wide-mouthed mocking laugh. “I’m a man of science!” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Are you saying a man of science can’t believe in ghosts?”
“There are believers on both ends of the spectrum,” said Pops. “Agee here is a retired pastor. He literally believes the Old Testament story in First Samuel, about a witch who talks to ghosts.”
“That’s right,” said Agee matter-of-factly. “First Samuel, Chapter 28. King Saul consulted with a witch to summon up the ghost of Samuel.”
I felt a tingle up my spine. I looked at Agee for a moment, and then turned to Pops.
“What do you believe, Pops?” I asked.
His bushy eyebrows arched upwards. “I believe that we are made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and…”
“Just say string theory,” interrupted Agee, who looked at me and explained, “Otherwise he will go on all day.”
“Maybe this young man doesn’t know about string theory,” said Pops indignantly.
They both looked at me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
Pops said, “You know everything has three dimensions, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Height, width, and depth. Some people say the fourth dimension is time.”
“That’s an older theory,” said Pops. “Scientists now believe there may be eleven dimensions. Time is still a part of it, though.”
I said, “I never really understood how time could be a dimension.”
“Well,” said Pops, reaching for a box of Visine wrapped in cellophane. “Look at this box. When I lift it up off the shelf, imagine that it leaves a trail.”
“A trail?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Pops. “You know, a box-shaped trail from where the Visine sat on the shelf, extending up to where I’m holding it now, twelve inches above the shelf. You do have an imagination, don’t ya? You can’t really see the trail. You can only see the box in one place at a time.”
He put the box back on the shelf, still holding it with his thumb and forefinger, and said, “You see it here,” then lifting the box six inches, “and now you see it here. You saw it down there a couple of seconds ago. To see it in both places at once, you’d have to step out of time.”
“Okay,” I said. “So time is the fourth dimension?”
“Well, it would be, if there were only four dimensions,” said Pops. “But if you can imagine a vertical trail when I lift the box straight up, you have to consider that the Earth is turning, so there is also a trail streaming sideways off the box as the Earth turns.”
“So that is another dimension?” I asked.
“I think so,” said Pops. “But that’s not all. The Earth is not only spinning around, it is also traveling around the sun. That’s another trail. And if you believe the theory that the universe is expanding, that’s still another trail!”
Agee smiled knowingly. I realized that Agee understood Pops just fine; they just enjoyed picking on each other. He said, “Pops, tell him why we can only see three dimensions.”
“Ahhhh,” said Pops. “That’s where string theory comes in. The study of quantum physics suggests that all these dimensions fold back on themselves. They’re invisible to us!”
“That sounds crazy,” I said.
“He didn’t make this stuff up,” said Agee. “There are mathematical formulas that back it up. There is an invisible world. Of course, I knew that from reading my Bible. Pops here had to get it from the Discovery Channel.”
“Discovery Channel, my ass,” said Pops. “I worked on the particle accelerator in Switzerland. If anything, the discovery channel learned it from me!”
I looked at Agee to see his reaction.
With a knowing smile, Agee said, “It all checks out with God’s creation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“God made texture in everything,” said Agee. “Did you know that if the inner lining of your intestines were smooth, they would only have about six square feet of surface area? But the fact is, the texture of those inner walls is such that if you could spread it out, it would be 4,000 square feet. It stands to reason that our entire universe is the same way – folding back on itself.”
“And poor old Finny is lost in the folds!” said Pops.
I felt another tingle down my spine.
“I think I saw him, too,” I said. “But then again, it sounds impossible. Are you sure you guys aren’t full of shit?”
“Well,” said Pops, “If we are, then Global Interlinear sure has invested a lot of money in shit!”
That name, Global Interlinear, sounded familiar.
I remembered where I had seen it before.
In the grocery store, every available surface carries an ad. They even put ads on the floor between each aisle, glued down and laminated by some protective polymer to withstand thousands of shoes treading and shopping carts rolling. Those little plastic coupon dispensers stick out sideways from the shelves. As though the ad people discovered a new dimension to exploit. Not only are the shelves tall, wide, and deep – now they have ads that extend out into space where before there was nothing but air. In tiny letters, on all the coupon dispensers in my store, it says, Global Interlinear Corporation®. I did some research on the company.
Did you ever notice how big companies sometimes diversify into areas with which they formerly had no connection? For example, Lockheed Martin Corporation builds military aircraft, but recently, their information technology department has gone into the Child Support Enforcement business. They are bidding for contracts with several states that want to turn their Child Support departments over to private businesses.
It’s a similar thing with Global Interlinear. They started out building particle accelerators so scientists could split atoms and try to observe quarks and other tiny bits of matter. Next, they branched into advertising. Then they purchased a whole chain of retirement homes. Their public relations literature spoke of innovative ways to solve problems of overcrowding.
I thought it was more than a coincidence that Detective Poole had long sideburns like the man I had seen sneaking around in the courtyard behind Elm Shade. I went to see the detective at the Police station. He invited me into his office.
“Have a seat,” said Poole. “How can I help you?”
Have you ever wanted to say something significantly suggestive, to show that you were hip to a secret? I have, and I didn’t want to miss my chance.
“During your search for the missing man,” I said smugly, “I assume you left no stone unturned in the courtyard.”
Poole did an almost imperceptible double take and looked quizzically at my face. Then he relaxed and leaned back in his chair.
“Ahhhh,” said Detective Poole. “It was you. I thought I heard someone following me.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, my smugness turning quickly into fear of authority. “I was worried about my grandmother.”
“I believe you,” said Poole. “I caught the guy I was looking for.”
“What was under the rock?” I asked.
“Pain medication,” said Poole. “One of the orderlies was stealing boxes of drugs and stashing them under rocks in the courtyard. Later, he would come back and get them.”
I felt like I was in on some secret Police matter.
“We’ve already arrested the guy,” added the detective. “It’s in the newspapers.”
“I guess I’ve been too busy to read the papers,” I said. “So, by any chance, was it an old man?”
“No, a young guy. An orderly. He tried to get a plea bargain by turning evidence on the retirement home. He told us he only stole medication from residents who were deceased.”
“He said Elm Shade was covering up deaths, and not allowing people to visit their relatives because the relatives were dead. But his story didn’t check out.”
“What about Finny Finnegan?” I asked. “He’s missing.”
“Yes, and his family is suing Elm Shade’s ass off. That’s the main reason they’re going out of business.”
“Global Interlinear is going out of business?”
“No, no, they’ve got billions of dollars. They’re just cutting their losses, getting out of retirement home business.”
“Well, listen,” I said. “I saw an old man in the courtyard that same night I saw you there!”
“That’s hardly possible,” said Detective Poole. “The place had been thoroughly searched by then.”
“No wonder Elm Shade had strict visitation times,” I told the detective. “They only had half the residents available at any given time. Maybe the others were there, but they were in the folds of space, where the dimensions fold back on themselves!”
“Where did you come up with that far-fetched notion?” asked Poole. “Your grandmother?”
I continued, “When Elm Shade came under scrutiny, they had to bring everyone back. You shut them down before they had time to bring back Finny Finnegan.”
“A fantastic scenario,” said Detective Poole sarcastically.
“You said yourself that sometimes you rely on psychics,” I said. “How is this any more fantastic?”
“I didn’t want to hurt your grandmother’s feelings,” said Poole. “But I don’t really take that stuff seriously.”
“You were pulling my grandmother’s leg?”
“What if that crazy stuff is true?” I asked.
“You want to believe it’s true, don’t you?” said Poole.
“I’ve always felt that there was something more,” I said. “Something hidden from our sight. When I was a kid, I thought I saw a space-warp between my parents’ house and my grandparents’ house.”
“Oh, man,” said Poole. “I thought the same thing!”
“It was in the shrub hedge,” I said.
“Mine was the ocean. My mother and I lived near the ocean. So did my grandparents. When we visited my grandparents, we went by plane, but I always thought that if we had a boat we could get there quicker. You see, when I looked out at the ocean, I saw these trawlers on the horizon.”
Detective Poole closed one eye and pointed his fingers at an imaginary little trawler in a distant sunset.
He continued, “Way out there, the trawlers always looked the same, whether I saw from my mother’s house or my grandparents’ house. I thought they were the same ships. I though if we could just take a boat out there, past those fishing ships, my grandparents’ house would come into view, just over the curve of the Earth.”
“But they weren’t the same ships?” I asked.
“No,” he laughed. “They couldn’t be. It wasn’t even the same ocean. I grew up in Monterey, California. My grandparents were retired in Florida. I figured it out when I got older.”
“Maybe children sense things that adults don’t,” I said.
“Maybe children are naïve and ignorant,” laughed Poole.
That evening, I asked Lawn Care Larry to go with me to Elm Shade.
“It’s not that I really believe all that shit about space folding back on itself,” I said. “But something is going on. When I told the detective I saw that old geezer, he didn’t even hesitate in saying I was wrong. As much as the police want to find Finny Finnegan, and here I am telling him I saw somebody in the courtyard, wouldn’t you think he’d give me the benefit of the doubt and rush back over there?”
“Damn straight,” said Larry. “Unless…maybe he didn’t want you to know what they know! Do you think the old guy is still there?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not. Either way, I can’t get my mind off the place. I want to go back and check it out.”
“Buy us a twelve pack of Budweiser and I’ll do it,” he said.
Bonnie and Kyoko insisted on going with us. We decided not to drive. We took the shortcut, walking down the neighborhood road, across the deserted baseball field, through the Publix parking lot. Larry and I each carried one side of the plastic beer cooler by the handles.
We stopped at a row of square-cut shrub hedges backed by a privacy fence.
“We’re behind the Elm Shade retirement home,” I said. “On the other side of this wall is the entrance to the courtyard.”
We put our empty beer cans in the cooler with the rest of the full cans. Squeezing between two shrubs, we stood on the beer cooler to facilitate climbing over the wall.
“Leave the cooler,” said Larry, when we all stood on inside the courtyard. “The shrubs will hide it.”
Larry, shining one of those big Maglite flashlights like the ones the police carry, walked through the arched entrance first. Kyoko followed him, carrying one of those square flashlights with the handle on top.
Bonnie and I heard Kyoko say, “Larry! Where did you go?”
We looked at each other and walked through the entrance. Like I said before, the wooden framework covered with vines formed a canopy that gave the area a semi-enclosed feeling. My keychain penlight beam darted all around against shrubs, benches, and statues as I searched for any sign of Kyoko and Larry, but I saw no one.
“Where are they?” I asked, but when I flashed my penlight in Bonnie’s direction, she was gone, too. Stranger still, I couldn’t see the entrance we had only seconds ago passed through. There was no longer a way out.
“Bonnie!” I called out.
Have you ever stood between two full-length mirrors and seen that seemingly endless repetition of “rooms” generated by reflections of reflections of reflections? This is what I saw now, but with a terrifying difference. My reflected images faded from every frame, while the frames remained visible. Old men and women, in shroud-like gowns, lumbered through the infinite halls in both directions, like souls lost in purgatory.
In the distance, an old woman walked slowly in my direction, leaning on a handrail attached to the wall. Someone had tied her wrist loosely to the handrail with a strip of white cloth. I had seen this done before to keep senile patients from wandering when the orderlies were busy. She stopped and tugged at the cloth when one of the wall brackets blocked her advance. After a moment of facing the wall, the old woman turned around, the bound arm crossed in front of her, and padded slowly in the other direction, only to repeat these actions at the next bracket down.
A squinting, skeletal man, arms extended like a sleepwalker, groped at the air as if clearing cobwebs.
Someone sat in a wheelchair, wrapped from head to toe in a thick blanket, only their knobby hands visible as they struggled to roll the wheels forward, but only succeeded in rotating the chair slowly, 360 degrees one way and then back the other way, a corner of the thick blanket wedged under one wheel.
Someone walked up behind me and touched my shoulder. Startled, I turned around and saw a boney hand pull away quickly. My gaze followed an appallingly withered arm, afflicted with pustules, to the face of the old man I had the last time I was here. He was still in a hospital gown, but now, instead of obese, he looked emaciated, and loose skin hung from his arms and the jowls of a mummy-like face, filling me with a mixture of fear, pity, and revulsion.
I took a couple of steps backward and turned away from the old man. When I turned, my right arm disappeared up to the elbow! It felt like I had plunged my arm into a vertical pool of water, and in fact, I saw ripples on the invisible mirror pane, emanating from where my arm vanished. About ten feet away I saw my forearm, disembodied, floating, extended toward me from another vertical surface. I extended my right arm further, until it disappeared up to the shoulder, and watched the disembodied forearm lengthen into an entire limb. Involuntarily, my shoulder and the side of my head crossed over into the mirror pane and I realized that some force was tugging at me, drawing me in. I tried to pull back, but the harder I pulled, the stronger it tugged at me, like an invisible, vertical pool of quicksand. I fought against an overwhelming urge to look at my body emerging from the opposite plane, sensing that once I saw my face over there, there would be no turning back.
But the urge was too strong. I looked. Expecting to see my own face, I saw only a one-armed, headless body in an unnatural half-crouch. The only thing to do now was to finish crossing over by walking all the way into the first mirror so my body could emerge whole from the mirror across the room.
The form of a running man suddenly came into view. The tall form tackled my body violently, virtually ripping me free from the vertical space-plane, and we both fell to the ground.
“Sorry I brought you down so hard,” said Detective Poole. “It’s like pulling a man off a live wire without getting yourself electrocuted. If you had crossed over, we might not have got you back.”
Crazy lights danced all around us. It was Bonnie, Kyoko, and Larry, suddenly visible, waving their flashlights about. We were all standing within a few feet of one another.
“Where were you?” asked Larry.
“Where were you?” asked Kyoko.
The mirror panes and old people were gone. Everything looked normal again. Even the exit had reappeared.
Standing, Poole extended a hand to help me up.
“Why did the old people disappear?” I asked.
“Because,” said the detective, “I shut down the Global Interlinear grid as soon as I got here, but it takes a couple of minutes to power down. It still had enough power to pull you in, obviously, even as it faded.”
“What the hell!” demanded Larry.
“None of you are supposed to be in here,” said Detective Poole with possibly a bit of anger in his voice. “Come on, let’s go. Out, the way you came in.”
Pool followed us back over the fence, where Larry immediately started handing out beer from the cooler to everyone. He offered a beer to the detective, who waved it off.
“Can’t the Police shut that thing down for good?” I asked.
“We thought we did,” said Poole. “But we had to boot it up again when we realized some people were missing.”
“Some people?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said the detective. “I guess there’s no reason not to tell you now. We haven’t released this to the public. Finnegan was the only one whose family blew the whistle on Elm Shade, but according to records we found, there are others missing.”
“Others what?” asked Larry, wiping beer from his chin.
“How could that be?” I asked. “What about their families?”
“The best we can tell,” said Poole, “The other missing residents have no close family members living in the city. Or maybe anywhere. We’re still looking.”
The next day, the Police found the body of Finny Finnegan. The coroner’s report said that Finnegan had been dead, from starvation, for almost a week.
I don’t know which mystery is harder to explain: That Finnegan could appear to me when he was already dead, or how living people could disappear into the folds of another dimension.
State Troopers guard the supposedly empty Elm Shade Retirement Home around the clock.