Nothing surpasses the feeling of the fresh air that rakes through my hair; fingertips of wind fairies caress my scalp. Biscuits and gravy, with three scrambled eggs and sausage patties, are history this late on a summer morning. I’m speeding into the wide-open arms of a blue horizon on an endless Texas road. And at this speed, my Kawasaki’s engine sings to me…an aria to the road ahead. And Grandpa says, “Howdy, Mikey. How’re you doin’?”
“Whazzup, Grandpa?” And then I think…whoa, the last time I saw Grandpa was when I went to his wake eleven years ago. Looking at him up close now, he looks pretty good for a dead guy. He’s wearing one of the shirts he designed for his business. “Plumbing Supply” is embroidered in yellow script over the front pocket, and the words “We go all in” are written across the back.
“Grandpa, what…how…where… Hey, hey. What’re you doing here?”
“I’ve been with you, boy, for the past eleven years. Look around.”
My motorcycle has vanished. It was just under me, and now it’s gone. There’s no breeze in my hair anymore, and I’m having a conversation with my dead grandpa, for Pete’s sake. And now, from somewhere far away, I hear a woman wailing.
“A cattleman shot at a coyote, Mikey, and missed. You didn’t see him, and he never saw you. He was in front of you, nearly a mile away. His bullet made a neat little hole in your chest and went out your back.”
“The hell you say. I feel great.”
“Watch your language, boy. We don’t use that word at all.”
“No, the other one.”
Nothing exists other than Grandpa and me. No trees, no sunshine, no road, no blue sky…nothing. Grandpa stands in front of me, and we’re all alone in a silver-gray space that has no walls, ceiling, or floor. Wow. This is eerie.
“Grandpa, where are we? How come everything’s gone, except me and you? Who’s crying? She sounds far away.”
“Ah. It’s sinking in, boy. Good. You died on that Texas road. And now you’re here with me…we’re waiting for your transition guides. It’s your mother who’s weeping. When she heard of your accident, she cried for hours. But her bawling is just a residual effect. It won’t last long.”
“Wow. Whaddya mean, my guides?”
“You’re going back, Mikey. You still have a lot more life to live. You can’t change the plan. Your guides will explain the possible destinations, but you’ll choose wherever you want to go.”
“I have to go back? What if I don’t want to?”
“You’re going back, son, whether you like it or not. Ah, one of your guides is here. Meet Jethro Beamer.”
A middle-aged man appears next to Grandpa. He wears a plaid shirt with buttonholes that strain to contain their buttons. His work pants are secured with a wide black belt. The buckle’s prong has made the first hole in the leather much wider than it was when he bought it. Wellington boots encase his feet, and he reeks of rotten eggs.
“Hello, Mikey. I’m pleased to meet you. If you opt for Chicago, you’ll be coming with me. That’s where I lived when I died…Hah. Sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it?”
The stocky Chicagoan moves two paces toward me, and his boots make a sloshing noise; each step sounds like he’s using a toilet plunger in a bucket of sludge.
He extends his hand, and I squeeze his palm.
“Hi, Jethro; my pleasure.”
A thin film of slime separates our flesh, and I shudder.
“Sorry for the stink and sludge, Mikey. That stuff stayed with me when I crossed over. It’ll go away soon. I was a technician in a sewage treatment plant when I hit the soup and drowned. Actually, I slipped and fell into a 2,000 gallon tank of human waste. Hah. I was preparing it for treatment and never intended to do a swan dive.”
When I look into his eyes, I see an aura of love emanating from his entire being. Holy moly…there are tiny golden flies making circles around his hands and boots. Their wings are iridescent, and the noise I hear is like grains of rice cascading the length of wind chime tubes. Is this a residual effect, too? This is totally Bonkersville.
“Chicago is nice, Mikey. My place was centrally located, within walking distance of libraries and museums. My apartment, on the 22nd floor, had a wonderful view. Chicago has lots of sports and fine city architecture. And if being outdoors appeals to you, the Great Lakes are a short drive away. Do you like hot dogs? You can’t do better than bite into a Chicago dog. It’s a snappy treat.”
“Nah, I don’t think I’d like Chicago. If I can’t stay with Grandpa, I’ll go back to Dallas. I was born there; that’s the place for me.”
Grandpa interrupts, “It doesn’t work like that, son. You’ll go wherever there’s room for you. Hang on, kiddo, another of your guides is about to arrive. Oh, I forgot to tell you…wherever you go, you’ll become just like the locals.
“For example, if you choose Chicago, you’ll have all the knowledge you need for city life. If you choose Tokyo… that’s of course if you’re invited there, the same holds true. You’ll become another member of that part of the world. You’ll be fluent in their language, too.”
I’m not liking what I hear. I wonder if all this is real. I mean, hey, a water treatment plant worker from Chicago with golden flies buzzing around him? C’mon, man, it’s freak street time.
I look toward Grandpa. “I’m used to life in the fast lane, Grandpa. I have commitments to my friends, my girlfriend. Poor Becky. I wonder if Mom’s talked to her yet. Anyway, I still owe a ton of money on my bike too…not to mention my student loans.”
Grandpa just nods and puts a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Don’t fret, boy. I want you to meet Batzorig. His name means ‘strong courage’ in Mongolian.”
What is it with this place? The instant Grandpa refers to someone, like this guy from Mongolia, voila…he appears on cue from nowhere. How does Grandpa do this?
The Man from Mongolia
Batzorig is much shorter than I am. When he looks at me, his entire being exudes kindness. When our eyes connect, I feel great love. I’ve never met him before, so why do I love this man so much? He removes his hat and extends his arm. His grasp encases my hand in a five-fingered vise. The timbre of his voice is smooth as mink’s fur, and my thoughts get lost in its soft depth.
“Hello, Mikey, so pleased to meet you. I’m from a place called Zuunmod, in the province of Tov. That’s in Mongolia. My name is difficult for you to say, so just call me Zorig, okay?”
“Okay, Zorig, thanks. How’d you happen to get here?”
The weathered man smiles, and I’m washed with another wave of love. His hand gestures remind me of my communications professor. Jeez, how come I think of stuff like this now, when Grandpa tells me I’m not even alive? A scent of something delicious, like yogurt or ice cream, surrounds the old man. If that’s his aftershave I smell, it must be a top-shelf brand.
“You may very well detect the aroma of Kumis on my breath, Mikey. I apologize for that; it disappears after a minute or two. I crossed over peacefully. My 93-year-old joints brought me much discomfort. Around sundown, I often sought thirst-quenching relief in two or three bowls of Kumis. It’s a popular alcoholic beverage made from mare’s milk. The aftereffects of the drink brought a smile to my face, and that’s how my friends found me. I was sitting on the ground, resting my back against the wall of my yurt. I had an empty bowl of Kumis in my hands, and my face was forever sculpted in a very pleasant expression.
“By the way, I met Genghis Khan a while ago, and he likes Kumis, too.”
“You were an old man? You look terrific, a picture of good health.”
“We’re all at our best here. See, there’s no hole in your chest now, and you look pretty good too, my friend. And I speak good English, no?”
I nod. “Yes, and what about your family, Zorig? Do you have any?”
“I have a loving wife and fourteen children. They’re all doing well and living in Zuunmod. My beloved spouse will join me soon. My children, however, have a great deal of living to do, and I’m very proud of each of them.”
I get another whiff of Kumis, although not as strong as before. “Yikes, why would I want to go to Mongolia and live in a hurt?”
“I don’t know anything about Mongolia.”
Zorig patiently explains, “No matter where your next destination is, when you get there, you’ll know everything you need to know…up to your present age. But you will not have things like your Kawasaki or your girlfriend, Becky.”
“You know about my bike and my girl?”
“Cool, that’s cool. But why would I want to go to a place like Chicago, or Mongolia, or any other place a guide might take me?”
Zorig needs no time to ponder my question. “Each location holds a thread to something that’s representative of your past life. None of us knows what it is, nor will you know when you return, but it’s there…without a doubt, it’s there.”
I’m not comfortable with his words, and I feel a tad uneasy. Surely living in Chicago or Mongolia isn’t all that good. I’d rather live in Dallas.
“Everything depends on one’s perspective, Mikey,” Grandpa remarks. “People don’t choose where they’re born; they’re just there and consider it home. It’s what they do with the hand they’re dealt that counts. It’s up to them to make things better; no one else can do it for them.”
Grandpa comes closer. “We must budget our discussion time wisely, Zorig, and we should let Mikey make his own conclusions. My grandson’s next guide is Reihaneh Abbasi; she’s from Teheran, Iran.”
I hear the sounds of muted gunfire…and a young lady appears to my right. My whole being is pressed backward by her beauty. Her face is like a dawn awakening. Her eyes are magnets of love that draw me to her, and her smile reaches out and envelops my soul.
Her head scarf slips back and reveals hair of polished ebony. My eyes lock on hers, and I realize that I’m gawking. My words get tangled on my lips, and I fail in my attempt to tell her of my love.
She steps closer and wraps me in her arms. I’m swathed in dozens of silken veils of pure unadulterated love. She releases me and steps back.
A tiny portal, the size of a small magnifying glass, opens in her forehead. I bend close and see a pulse of brilliant light, followed by something red that splatters against the opposite side of the lens. What the… Is what I’m seeing part of a zombie-type apocalypse? If so, I want no part of it, and I take a half-step back.
“Oh, Mikey, pay no attention to that. It’s a residual effect of my coming here. I’m so very pleased to meet you.”
When she speaks to me, her voice is a love song. I’m transfixed and rack my brain trying to think of something smart to say. I struggle to recover my senses.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Reih…Reihan….”
The young woman giggles. “No problem, Mikey. Just call me Raney. If you choose Teheran, I’ll be your guide.”
Reihaneh goes on, “I feel certain you’ll fall in love with my people and our culture. Unfortunately, the entire area is in great political upheaval right now. That’s why I’m here. My sister needed milk for her baby at two o’clock in the morning. I volunteered to go. I chose to walk to the black market grocer. We had a full moon that night. I walked along the roadside and prayed that terrorists wouldn’t spot me. The furthest thing from my mind was an improvised explosive device with a faulty detonator. I guess there was an explosion, although I never heard it. I was amazed to go from walking in the stillness of the night to finding myself upstairs with family members I hadn’t seen in years. Such a smooth segue to this dimension.”
The lens in her brow is shrinking, and the light is fading; I guess the residual effect does go away. Reihaneh is nice, and I want to talk longer with her. But I can’t think of a thing to say.
She recognizes the confusion on my face. “Oh, Mikey, I’m fine. And I know that I’ll be with my mother, sister, brothers, and grandmother again. I’m so happy that those who’ve gone before me are here; they were waiting for me.”
Something sucks the breath from my lungs. Suddenly I’m caught between a vacuum and a clap of wind. Tepid air pushes against me, and my ears tingle. Déjà vu reminds me of when I stood on a platform in an underground rail station and a subway car whooshed by without stopping.
A small silver-colored folder appears in Grandpa’s hand.
His face brightens, and he looks straight at me…and again I’m awash in torrents of overpowering love. “It’s a passport, Mikey. You’ve got a passport, boy! Congratulations, son. These are darned near impossible to get.”
“Whaddya mean a passport?”
“A passport means you don’t need a transition guide, son. I can take you straight to Dallas…if that’s where you still want to go. Wait a sec; I’ll read the note that came with it.”
“That’s fantastic, Grandpa. Good news, huh?”
He quits reading and lowers the silvery paper, snaps me a wink with his right eye. “I’m proud of you, boy. Somebody took notice of you. An elderly lady who never had a chance to thank you for your kindness. When you met her, she was crippled with arthritis. Her husband had Parkinson’s disease. They tried to live on their Social Security income, but they ran out of money every month. To help pay the bills, she took a job as an attendant at a coin-operated laundromat. It required bending and working with her hands. She never missed a day of work, even though she was in mind-numbing pain on her best days.”
“I don’t remember, Grandpa.”
“Her name is Emma Riley. She just arrived, and now she’s with her husband. She remembers you. Becky’s washing machine broke down, and you two were doing a few loads of laundry at the laundromat. While you were there, one of the machines sprung a leak, and sudsy water leaked all over the floor.
“It was part of Emma’s job to keep the floor clean and safe for the customers. She rolled out a large metal bucket, with a mop wringer attached, and tried to mop up the mess with a heavy-headed commercial mop. She grimaced in pain with every sweep of the mop. You noticed her difficulty, took over her job, and cleaned up the spill. You and Becky finished your laundry and left while she was in the back room. She never had a chance to thank you for your help.”
Grandpa tilts his head toward my passport; when he looks up again, his gaze strikes deep into my heart.
“At that moment, Mikey, you stopped putting yourself first and thought of someone else. I’m so proud of you for that. There’s more to life than having big-boy toys, gizmos, gadgets, and all the other status symbols. Forming solid relationships with your peers is more important. Nurture them patiently, and they’ll mature like fine wine.
“The take-away from living a good life is measured in the number of life-long friendships you develop over the years. Solid friends are the key to a well-grounded life.
“You should share your life with people who’ll laugh, and cry, with you. Some will grow old with you. All else in your golden years becomes fleeting bits of worthless minutiae.
“Love your family, over yourself, with all of your might. Safeguard your friendships and treasure them more than the trappings of wealth. Hold them dear to your heart.”
“Whoa, Grandpa, you’re beginning to lose me a little.”
“Nah, you found it, Mikey. You have the thread…work it, son. Be your own person, help as many as you can. Work hard, make friends, build relationships; you’ll know when and where you’re needed. Pay attention and take action when it’s necessary. Give living a good life your best shot.”
All the transition guides have vanished, and it’s just me and Grandpa again, just like before. No trees, no sky, nothing other than a silver-gray infinity in every direction; just Grandpa and me. And then he’s gone.
The coffee smells so good…the heady scent makes me force open my eyes. I see a mug of black coffee in the hand of a stumpy guy with a stethoscope around his neck. I breathe in deeply and savor the aroma.
“Good to see you, Mikey. I’m Dewayne Moore, your surgeon. I’m the guy responsible for your stitches. Hope the scar ends up looking cool.”
He smiles. “Can I get you anything?”
“Hi, doc. Coffee. Coffee, please.”
Mom and Dad visit me the next afternoon. Mom sits on a chair by my bed, and Dad stands behind her. She reaches into her purse and yanks out a long envelope. “The insurance man sent this to you, Mikey. It’s a receipt showing that your motorcycle note is paid in full. A check is included, too. It’s the amount left over after the payment. How about that, huh? You can put it toward a new bike.”
“I don’t think so, Mom. All I want…is to work in the plumbing shop and get as much overtime as I can. I need to pay off my student loan. Is that okay with you, Dad?”
Dad bows his head…and pays no mind to the tear that glides down his cheek.