Winter was fast approaching. This morning there had been a lot of ice on my windshield. It was way too much ice for a quick scrape and go. My fingers were nearly blue before my car was drivable. I needed to clean out the garage. Only my wife’s car fit, because of the junk that had accumulated since my last garage purge.
When I got home from work, I started on my mission. I was determined to have a climate-controlled parking space before bedtime. I cleared a significant hole after a couple of hours, more than sufficient to allow me to park my car.
“Yo, babe, you’re almost done!” The wife cheered as she stuck her head in the door.
“Yes, indeed, it’ll be warm and toasty for me tomorrow. “ I replied with satisfaction. “No more chipping away at the icy windshield before going to work.”
“Why didn’t you ditch all those newspapers while you had the garbage bin pulled in here?” Bobbi asked pointing to the yellowed stacks I had arranged near the door.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think they are a commodity now.”
“What?” she asked, and then adding, “Stacks of old newspapers are trash!”
“I am sorry. I need this stack of newspapers. There are just too many things I do around here that require taping and masking et cetera”, I responded too firmly. When one is on the autism spectrum one can appear to be gruff without actually feeling the emotions that others attach to the tone. “I know newspapers used to be trash, but now they are scarcer, and they still have uses.”
My practical wife considered how long ago the newspaper subscription had been cancelled. She considered how much the country really had changed. The world she knew as a little girl was long gone. Picking up the newspaper every morning in our driveway had devolved to just picking it up on Sundays to never even seeing a newspaper in our driveway any longer. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. How many years do you think we have there?”
“I don’t know.” I reached over to the oldest looking stack and pulled out the bottom newspaper. “1996, from the 20th century, can you believe it? There are decades here. Incredible!”
“Yes dear. That is quite a long time. Dinner will be ready soon.”
Bobbi never seemed amazed by anything. She was down to earth and practical. I guess that is why I loved her as she balanced me out. Sometimes I felt I spent too much time contemplating the universe, and not enough time making real world progress in my life. If Bobbi thought the same, though, she never said it.
The paper in my hand intrigued me. I had always found it interesting reading old newspapers. Hindsight being 20/20, one can see some really glaring errors of prognostication reading over old news stories. I sat down and began leafing through the jaundiced text. Jaundiced it was, for sure. Especially diseased were the news stories proclaiming a Pax Americana on the globe after NATO put an end to Balkan violence by leveraging American air power. The ghost of Archduke Ferdinand would finally be put to rest, the writer crowed.
It was disheartening, how wrong that prediction had been, a Pax Americana, hmm? I skipped forward into the piles and picked another paper. Now I read about the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks. I found this even more disturbing, so I moved forward into time and, read about searches for WMDs followed by more and more controversy with the occupation of Iraq. I was distressed that the stacks contained so much about war. I skipped ahead again and stumbled upon an article on the drone wars under Obama. I was sad that the “Pax Americana” predicted in the first paper I picked up had not come to pass.
I moved to the top of the most recent stack of Sunday papers. I had been purchasing these papers periodically, perhaps once every hundred days for a number of years now, just to maintain a supply of a useful commodity. I reflected on how the commodity was not the news or any of the writing on the pages, but the paper itself. What a precarious business model the newspaper game turned out to be, I thought. Newspapers used to be the backbone of this society. I sat and considered the fact that newspapers were physical manifestations of the ideas of the past, and now the ephemeral newspapers that were online had no physical manifestations and could revise past stories as easily as writing new ones. I wondered if this was a “good” thing. The introspection started to feel too heavy and serious.
I grazed through the relatively recent paper I had just snagged until I found the local section. Surely, there would be no geopolitical nonsense in there that would drag me back to my pensive melancholia. I rarely paid as close attention to local events as I did global, but right now I thought it a light diversion from reading about global politics and organizing my garage.
I drifted through the local section. The local police log was pleasantly sedate. This small town on the outskirts of suburbia was a bit remote, but I did not mind. The sixty mile commute to downtown was a hell mission, but it allowed me to shield my family from the rapidly spreading urban and suburban blight. A couple of D.U.I.’s, a wife beating and a juvenile petty theft in the local police log were mild in comparison to the home invasion robberies, rapes and murders taking place in the neighborhood where we used to live.
Beneath the police log there was an announcement. A retired fireman was being buried that day. The cemetery was on my commute to work. The fireman had been born in a nearby township over fifty years ago. He had left as a teenager. He was being returned as requested by his will.
His name leapt off the page at me. An Italian name, I had not thought of in a while, Anthony Benito Barone. It was my stepfather! A name I had not seen in decades. I thought it must be just someone with the same name. It could NOT be my stepfather. Last I heard he was a fireman in Norwalk, not in Northern California. I read the obituary and the details were clearly those of my stepfather, since they did name his children. Nothing was mentioned of a wife or of his stepchildren, but I knew his children in youth, so I could verify it was the same man.
I was sad to hear he was dead, and that was a bit unexpected as our relationship had been rocky. I got up to get a beer and dropped the paper. The beer felt cold, but good in my hand. I felt dreamy after a time as I sipped at the bottle while looking out over my shaggy, but very green lawn. The bees were flitting from clover head to clover head. I watched the girls work in the fading sunlight. I shut my eyes and dreamed a dream…
I knelt by a grave. The tombstone must have read Anthony Barone, but it was illegible to me in this state, but somehow I knew what the name was. I stared at a pile of grass on the grave. I knew I had just pulled it up. The cup where the flowers were to be placed was completely overgrown with invading tendrils of grass. Obviously, no one had placed anything on this grave in quite a long time. I continued to pull at the grass until the edges were clear and exposed
Where were his kids? Why didn’t they come here? I knew they had not been very close to their father. His first divorce was after only five years of marriage. Not much time to build a lasting relationship. His marriage to my mother had lasted almost ten years, which was longest, but I knew they never talked. I wondered about the subsequent marriages I had heard about. Now that he was dead, was there really no one that would visit his grave? Apparently, the answer was no.
I was only a stepchild. What was I even doing here? Yet I was here, though I lacked the blood relation. I’m just overly sentimental, I thought to myself. It seemed so very sad that the little receptacle should be filled with weeds. I finished pulling the offending grass away.
“Ralph, is that you?”
Astonished to hear my name, I looked up. There he was. Tony Barone was standing right there in front of me.
“Whaa…Uhhh?!” I stammered. As I stood up and backed away, I tripped and fell on my backside.
I started sliding on the grass away from the apparition.
“No, Ralph, wait!” implored the image.
I stopped sliding on my butt and asked, “Are you a ghost?”
“Yes…I guess I am. It is so good to see you after all this time. How long have I been dead?” My stepfather asked.
“You don’t know?” I replied.
“No, I have spent my afterlife floating in a kind of limbo. I have no perception of the passage of time. “
“What do you mean?”
“I do not know. I feel unusually whole tonight, though. That I know with certainty. I rarely feel anything or have any sense of a physical presence, except when someone needs to populate their dreams with strangers.”
“I don’t understand.” I said.
Just then the cemetery began to flicker and fade away. When my eyes refocused, Tony Barone and I were standing on a golf course in bright daylight underneath a beautiful blue sky.
“You boys ready to play?” A tall middle-aged man yelled as he walked toward us. A shorter, younger man walked beside him and waved as they approached.
“Of course, we’re ready.” My stepfather shouted back.
I felt my arm rise up and wave back at them, as if I knew the two men. I had no idea who they were. I turned to speak to my stepfather, but I had no control of my body. Instead, I walked over and shook the strangers’ hands.
“Don’t worry Ralph. We are in someone else’s dream. We can communicate to each other through our thoughts, but the dreamer controls our actions and speech.”
I tried to think my question, “What do you mean, dreamer?”
At the same time, as I did this, my physical body slapped a tremendous drive down the fairway. There was a collective, “Ooooooh!” from the other three men in the foursome.
“I am not sure. Other souls have communicated with me as I am communicating with you. They explained to me what was happening. You see, there is someone dreaming. They needed a couple of spirits to fill out this foursome. The dreamer knows the other two actors in this dream.”
“Wow” was the only response I could manage to this revelation.
“Those other two feel their physical bodies as if they are alive again. You see, when someone who knew and loved you in life dreams of you after you are dead, it is like you have been brought back to life. When you are just an ancillary character, it is only like being half alive” explained Tony Barone.
“How am I in this dream? Am I dead?” Suddenly, I became very fearful that I had died. My mind turned to Bobbi and how alone she would be. I could not be, I would not be, dead.
“No, I do not think so, because your thoughts do not feel quite the same as those of other spirits I have met. I do not know why I understand this.”
“Are you sure I am not dead?!”
“Thank you for coming to visit my grave. I have not felt this alive since I died.” Not answering the question is the most disturbing of responses.
While this internal conversation between my stepfather and I went on, we all finished our initial drives onto the fairway. The four of us began walking down the course.
“Doesn’t anyone dream of you, Tony?” I had always called my stepfather by his first name. Behind his back, I had often called him Pop Barone. It had been a nickname one of my teenage friends had given him. I had used it as a sign of disrespect, I guess.
“No, Ralph. No one ever dreams of me. I had no close friends and my family life left much to be desired. All my ex-wives hate me, but surprisingly not enough to ever have a dream about me. I have had much time floating in limbo to think of how I lived my life.”
“That is very sad.”
“Yes, it is.”
Just then the golf course began to waver and disappear.
“Well Ralph, I guess our dreamer has awaked. Our visit is ending. I feel myself slipping back.” said my stepfather as he began to fade.
“Tony, I’m sorry.” I stuttered lamely.
“No reason to be apologetic. Why don’t you call me, Pop Barone, I do not mind. You never called me Dad, always just my first name. Pop Barone, it sounds like there might be a little affection in that name. Remember, the more peoples’ lives you touch positively, the more pleasant the afterlife.” I was sure I heard a muffled voice say after the spirit faded.
“Yes” I replied softly.
“Dream about me.” Seem to whisper in the wind.
“Yes, Pop Barone, I will do that.” I answered to the empty air of my garage as I sat straight up in the chair I had fallen asleep in. The bottle of beer went tumbling to the floor and broke.
I ignored the broken glass and I bolted into the house to tell Bobbi. “I knew he had been born up here somewhere, but I did not know it was so close.” I said while catching my breath.
“What are you talking about, Ralph?”
“Tony Barone, the fireman, my stepfather from when I was a kid, is dead. They buried him over in Hicksville cemetery. Can you believe that?! I read it in this newspaper from the stacks.” I loudly explained.
“Now that is pretty amazing. What a small world.” She said rather coldly.
“Damn, this is weird. It’s like I was destined to read that paper. I should go see his grave.”
“Why? I thought you hated the guy. To hear you tell it, the only reason for you to visit his grave would be to spit on it.”
“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think. He was very strict. I know he only thought of me as the geeky, four-eyed kid he had to support, because he had married my mother. Still, I spent ten of my most formative years, ages 7 to 17, in his presence. He is a part of me whether I like it or not.”
“OK, baby, don’t get upset. Let’s eat dinner.” Bobbi suggested quietly.
“No, I can’t. I need to go down there right now!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” She was incredulous. “You are not going to a cemetery in the dark.”
“Oh yes I am!”
“Be careful, Ralph.” Bobbi sighed. She had heard the resolve in my voice. Most of the time, I was fairly pliable, but occasionally I would dig in my heels on an issue. She knew better than to try to dissuade me.
I grabbed my overcoat and kissed her on the cheek as I went out the front door. Before I left, though, I stopped in my front garden and plucked a few purple chrysanthemums to put on his grave.
For a moment, I sat in my car and considered what I was doing. Maybe I should just go in and eat dinner. The grave would be there tomorrow and the next day for that matter.
I did not understand why I had to go right then, but I did. There was some reason I had read that paper at this moment in time. As I had grown older, I had begun to suspect…no…Sense a deeper reality than science addressed.
Exactly one year after he dies, I read about it in an old newspaper. I could not believe he was dead. Moreover, I could not believe he was buried so close to where I had ended up settling. It was too coincidental not to be acted upon immediately. Obviously, now was the time to pay my respects.
I checked the sky and was happy to find a full moon, another coincidence, which would allow me to search the small cemetery without a flashlight. The obituary gave the relative position of the service, so mourners could find it.
I backed out of the driveway, slowly. Making my way out, I did not get out of second gear, at first. Something made me hesitant, but I overcame it. I accelerated through the remaining gears and was cruising at plus sixty-five in no time.
As I crested a hill, I could see the tombstones. The full moon was especially luminescent. I pulled into the drive and got out of my car. A cold wind chilled me to the bone. I zipped my jacket up to my chin and shivered. The leafless trees cast eerie shifting shadows in the bright moonlight.
The gate was locked, so I hopped onto the hood of my car and pulled myself over the fence. I tried to land lightly, but the years had begun to catch up with me. I landed with a thud, jammed my knee and fell backwards onto my butt. I lay there for a moment and let the pain in my knee subside. I looked at the flowers I had brought. They were a little worse for the wear, but they would suffice.
“What am I doing here?” I asked aloud. After a little silent reflection, I answered myself. “Well I’m here, so I better start looking.” I often talked to myself when I was nervous. Certainly, I was nervous now.
I made my way across the grass in the direction the obituary had indicated. I walked slowly with my head down, reading the names on the headstones. Beneath the full moon, I was able to read them with surprising ease.
I reached the end of the first row. I moved over one row and started back. After several of these switchbacks, I finally found the name that had brought me here.
Anthony Benito Barone. There it was, carved in stone at my feet. I got down on one knee and ran my hand over the letters. He really was dead. A flood of memories from my childhood came rushing into my head.
I looked down at the flowers in my hand. I was glad I had brought them. The cup had a little water from the recent rain. I placed the flowers into the cup. Suddenly, I began to cry. Trying to get a hold of myself, I choked back a sob. I only cried harder. Intellectually, I believed we had not been very close. In my heart, though, I guess there lurked some powerful feelings that I had suppressed all these years.
I stood and stared at the grave for another few minutes, incredulous. There was the pile of grass I had pulled out of the receptacle in my dream earlier??? I could not understand how that could be, but strangely I did feel that it was OK for it TO BE. I felt no need to know how it could be.
I knelt down, straightened the chrysanthemums and put my hand on the headstone. I said a little prayer for my stepfather’s soul and then hurried back to my car. Time was short. I had many old friends to call and new ones to meet. Of course, I, also, had some dreams to dream.