JUST AS THE LATE WESTERN SUN was setting on Seward Avenue, Hubie Schumacher peered through the window of his garage and across a broad span of his lawn to the edge of his property. There, standing still as a statue, was a dark and shadowy figure of a man. His back was to the fading light, creating a near halo effect. A dog, sitting motionless as well, was heeling beside him. Both were gazing in his direction.
Not again, he sighed.
Not another hallucination...
He breathed deeply. “When will these damned things end?” he muttered to himself. “When they put me in a box?”
This was deeply unsettling to the retired postmaster. Especially since he’d spent such a pleasant couple of hours in his garage. A dusting of spring snow had fallen, with the threat of even more to come. But he had stayed warm and comfortable and content, thanks to the wood-burning stove he had installed more than a decade earlier.
This had been one of his better days, though now the bad ones usually out-numbered the good. For his seventy-fourth birthday, back in September, his daughter Joanne had given him one of those fancy radios that was linked to some satellite service. You can tune into any program anywhere, she had said. Any sports network in the world if you want.
Whatever, he responded, unimpressed. His ancient General Electric set, with its plastic yellow casing, cracked in a few spots from dropping it on the concrete floor, and knobs for tuners, worked just fine thank you very much.
His garage was his lair, his sanctuary. It was always where he found solace. Where he could spend some time caring for his guns, maybe drink a few beers, read the newspaper. The Times wasn’t a bad rag for these parts, though much of its coverage was consumed by the Republican race for president. Talking heads on Fox yesterday said there could be as many as fifteen candidates going for the prize: governors, senators and God knows who else.
But there was not a Ronald Reagan among the whole sad lot, he figured. That man was a giant among men, one of our greatest leaders. Now there was speculation that that bombastic reality show host, the New York casino owner with the lemony comb-over, would throw his hat into the ring. What makes him think he was qualified for President? The world’s a mess, he thought, thanks to Bush’s wars, the root cause of all the mayhem around the globe today. The promise of terrorism was now permanent, making everyone afraid of their shadows. Good thing I’m an old man, he thought. Won’t be around to face the real music.
He was proud of his gun collection, an assortment of cannons that he had once aimed at moose, deer, game-birds and the odd black bear. Of course, they were padlocked safely to a rack he had found in Canada about twenty years back. Well, not all of them were in the garage; he always kept a Glock in his den or—if need be—stuffed in the glove box of his truck. Just in case.
Not that he had much need for these firecrackers of late. Last summer, when he was given his death sentence—he called himself a ‘dead man walking’—his daughter and his sister and everyone else had ganged up on him. Didn’t want him to play with guns any more. Who did they think he was? Some kid with his first pellet gun? He had, after all, owned muskets of many kinds for nearly fifty years, and knew how to use them. His first came when he was sixteen, saving enough money from his job as a stock boy in the Alleghenies to buy it. When things made sense in this idiotic world.
An old fool. That’s what they all think of me now.
He scanned his yard once again, and rubbed his eyes. The man was still there. Staring back. What is he doing on my property? If he’s even real, that is. Had to be all those damned drugs he was taking for his dementia, or whatever the disease was called. Apparently it was named after some German doctor who discovered the problem over a hundred years ago, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. Nor did he care. At his age, what did it matter? What did matter, now, was that he had come to dread nightfall. Like now. Because that’s when ‘they’ got worse. They, meaning the illusions or hallucinations or whatever they were. When his imagination ran wild.
Often, it started with dead or famous people. Not just any member of the deceased, mind you, but the likes of the once-famous, like Lyndon Johnson. In one recurring vision, the President seemed to be speaking to him about Vietnam—and to him only. “Young man,” the son of a bitch would say, “y’all gotta go back there and help me out! We’re losin’—badly!” Help coming from a Texan sounded like ‘hep’. Of course, LBJ was referring to the jungles of Vietnam, as if a couple of tours in the Sixties for the former Army sergeant wasn’t enough service to the nation. Damned strange things happening, but he tried not to tell anyone. Because when he did, they considered him crazy.
But, mostly, it was dead people he once knew. A common visitor was Denny Lowry, his son-in-law, the septic tank scrubber. Denny would arrive not just at night when Hubie was slumped in his chair, but anytime during the day. When he was plowing snow, or walking his dog. But mostly at night. All the bastard did was yell at him, and for what? For causing that mess next door a few years back?
“Don’t blame me for what happened to you, pal!” Talking to himself was now a common occurrence. “You deserved everything you got. Should’ve put you away myself!” Then he realized what he was doing. “So what else is new?”
The other person who visited often was Jane, his beautifully difficult daughter, the girl who loved to argue. Her words seemed to reverberate around his thick skull like pinballs under glass. He knew why she visited him. It was to make him relive the events of that fall. What was that? Eight years ago? Or nine? All he knew it was that Thanksgiving Day, and he was out in this same garage when she showed her face in Morgantown. For the first time in years. Since she was eighteen, she had created a different life for herself—in journalism and politics—without family. But she had surprised everyone by showing up on that holiday. To make amends. Before she died.
But now, years later, she was making a few return visits. Only they weren’t exactly pleasant. She was there to lecture him. About Denny, and why he never did anything to save Joanne from his abuse. Just yesterday, he thought he saw her again. Not as a grown-up but as a little girl, perhaps only nine years old. Her long dark hair was parted down the middle, the way she wore it as a kid. She was standing on his lawn—come to think of it, not far from where this guy was standing now. But all she was wearing was a thin nightshirt that fell to her knees. In this cool, late-April weather, she must’ve been freezing. There she was, just staring at him, not saying a word, her pretty face expressionless. Then, after giving his head a shake, she was gone. She had disappeared.
So, now, were his eyes playing games with him again? Seeing people who weren’t there?
Maybe not this time, he thought. This man was no apparition.
He was not going away.
From this distance, he appeared to be dressed in a black leather bomber jacket and matching dark jeans, his neck protected from the elements with a thick woolen scarf. The dog at this feet was smaller than Griz and obviously much younger. Like his owner, this dog was staring in his direction, too. Instinctively, Hubie jerked his head backwards to the rear of the garage. Good, he thought, his Labrador was still asleep on his favorite blanket next to the stove. As old as he was, Hubie knew that Griz still felt the need to protect his master and his property from intruders. He worried that his old dog would awaken and come looking for him.
Hubie decided to walk towards his latest phantom figure, who, to his surprise was not fading from view. Now they were only about fifteen feet away, with Hubie gaining a better look at this broad- shouldered young man, his long blonde hair banded neatly in a ponytail. Above his right eye was evidence of a deep scar, perhaps two inches in length, as if he had been slashed with a shard of glass. On his hands were a pair of weightlifters’ gloves, the ones where the fingers were exposed.
“Can I help you?” Hubie asked, tentatively. Though on a short leash, the dog beside him let out a few menacing growls. But the younger man cut that short.
“Tucker!” he hissed. “That’s enough!” The dog, charcoal black save for a tan chest and matching paws, ceased making sounds. But his dark, dead eyes remained glued to the older man.
The man offered Hubie a calculating smile but not his hand.
“Just out walking my dog, sir.”
Hubie, squinting into the light, attempted to move a step or two to the left to avoid being blinded by the sun. But the man had noticed and shifted as well. He would maintain his advantage.
“You better hold tight to that leash, kid.”
“I have him under control.”
His answer was insufficient in Hubie’s mind. He would issue a warning. “This is my property. That makes you a trespasser.”
“Not really,” he replied, pointing to the nearby woods. “Public domain, sir.”
“Wrong,” Hubie declared. “You’re in my yard.”
Just then, the older man heard a yelp from the direction of his garage. Griz had risen from his nap and was now walking briskly towards the two men. At least as quickly as an animal his age could do. Oh, good God, Hubie now thought, this is just what I don’t need right now. Worried about a possible canine confrontation, he stopped and returned his attention towards the man in black.
“You’ll have to leave now, and not come back.”
“I’ll be moving on, sir,” the man replied, continuing to shift his well-built frame to make Hubie’s vision more difficult. This made Hubie even more apprehensive.
“You look familiar. Do I know you?”
The ponytailed man continued to stare Hubie down.
“We might’ve met once or twice before.. .under different circumstances,” the stranger replied.
“I can’t place you. What’s your name?”
“That’s not important, now, sir.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Nothing much,” he replied, calmly. “Just trying to reacquaint myself with this fine town of yours. And its equally fine inhabitants.” Hubie glanced across his lawn and beyond to a car parked in front of Joanne’s vacant lot. It was a Japanese-made clunker, he guessed. It had been parked there yesterday, too, and maybe the day before. He thumb pointed towards the vehicle.
“Is that yours?”
By now, Griz was approaching from the rear. He, too, started to growl at the strange dog sitting nervously at the feet of the young man. Suddenly, Tucker lunged towards Griz with a ferocity that Hubie had never witnessed before. His dog had had his run-ins with others in the past, but he was always able to prevent any potential carnage. Sensing that this was not the time for such a battle, the younger man let out another yell.
“Tucker! Knock it off, now!” And as quickly as the threatening charge had begun, it was over as the dog obeyed his master.
“As you can see, my dog’s still a youngster and is quite.. .let me say, exuberant. But he’s learning how to do things the right way.” But the near attack had unnerved Hubie, his heart rate quickening as he gasped for breath, with another small burst of pain crossing his chest. He patted his breast pocket in search of his nitroglycerine
spray, but it wasn’t there. He had forgotten it on the table next to his chair in the garage.
“I’ll say this only once, kid,” the former soldier said. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but get yourself and that dog off of my property, and don’t come back. ”
“Oh, just relax, old man.” Immediately, the man realized that he had replied too hastily. He was demonstrating disrespect for his elders, and that was not the way he would behave. “I apologize, sir, for my language.”
“Just leave,” Hubie ordered.
The man tugged on his leash, and Tucker was reigned in. As he began walking towards the wooded area, beyond the yard, he turned to address Hubie one last time. His guileful eyes told the story. A warning.
“Maybe we’ll meet again.. .sir?”
Before Hubie could respond, the younger man replied to his own question, “Oh, I’m sure we will. You take care of yourself now, okay?”
Hubie watched as the man and his dog disappeared down the driveway towards his car. Then, motioning to Griz to follow, the two began walking back to his house.
“Let’s get inside.”