By Mike Magnuson   Published Sep 27, 2006 at 5:44 AM Photography: Eron Laber
(Note: This is the first installment of Mike Magnuson's series, "The Falls," an fiction exclusive. Please note that the series may contain adult language and situations.)

1) Telling It to the Dead Man


Tom's life took a turn for the better, finally, when he least expected it would, when he was deep into feeling sorry for himself one January Monday morning in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, not long before daybreak, earlier than Tom had been awake to begin the day for at least twenty-five years, and colder, too: Jesus God, the temperature was five degrees below zero. That was so cold the air burned Tom's lungs and made him feel like hiding in bed, under thick blankets, for the rest of his life. Oh, Poor Tom: forty-three years old, separated from his wife and so broken-hearted about it that he sold his restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, and left his wife there living with her Pilates-instructor boyfriend and moved halfway across the country back to this place, the Falls, his hometown, to try and pull himself back together. Three weeks he'd been home, and the best-case scenario, in his estimation: he was not back together; he was freezing his ass off.

But he did give himself credit. He was trying as best he could to move on. He had gotten up early this morning and started his 2005 Volvo wagon at his townhouse apartment -- last townhouse in the row behind the True Value -- and driven down Menomonee Avenue to the YMCA, where the plan was to get the new week off to a cracking start with a vigorous two-hour, forget-all-about-the-wife workout. So far, so good. The wife was front and center in his mind, true -- Marissa, North Carolina mountain hippy girl from way back turned over the years into a middle class, middle-aged woman with an appreciation, she told him not long ago, for the flexibility and the strength, and not just physically, that her new life in Pilates gave her -- but Tom had persevered through the mental misery and the cold this morning and made it to the YMCA and parked his car in the lot. Now all he had to do was leave the heated comfort of the car's interior and step outside.

He hated the intense cold, especially after all those years he'd been gone from it, living in the southeast, where a brutally cold night would be twenty-five degrees above zero, but he didn't hate the cold enough because, hey, he was living in Wisconsin now. If a person wanted to live in Wisconsin, a person could not hate the cold; otherwise, a person would have to kill oneself.

This was certainly true: Tom needed to start accepting a lot of things.

He twisted the keys in the ignition to off and grabbed his gym bag from the passenger seat and opened the door and stepped into the raw air over the snow-dusted lot. He flexed his upper body muscles and his arms to try warming himself and only succeeded in tweaking a little muscle in his neck. The muscle stung as if an unseen force had poked a thumbtack in it.

"This sucks," Tom said. "What am I doing here?"

He looked around the lot to see if anybody had heard him and would voice agreement with him or tell him to shut the fuck up, but nobody was there. He could hear, close by, his warm car engine creaking in the bitter cold and, in the distance, vehicles driving hither and yon. He thought he heard a bird, too, but decided no way, what would a bird have to sing about in temperatures like this?

He was so cold he felt like running but he couldn't. He was afraid of slipping and falling and breaking himself, so he walked toward the YMCA building in shivering, shuffling steps, his shoes squeaking in the snow, and when he reached the end of the row of cars where he'd parked, he looked in between two minivans and saw a man who was dead.

Tom knew the man was dead, not an observation based on any professional expertise in differentiating those living from those were not but because in this cold, if a person were breathing, Tom would see steam escaping, wouldn't he? But emerging from this guy's mouth and nose: nothing. The dead man was thick-faced, a broad Polish nose and heavy cheeks covered with a graying, trimmed beard that clearly had the opposite effect the man intended; the beard made his face appear even fatter. In Tom's opinion, the dead man was a classic standard-issue middle-aged white fat Cheesehead: cheap green parka, a Packers hat, black full-fingered gloves, jeans, and dirty white tennis shoes. Tom could see streaks in the dusting of snow on the ground where the man's tennis shoes had apparently slipped, looked like both feet simultaneously out from underneath him. He must have flipped backward and whacked his head on the hard ground, but the daylight at the moment wasn't strong enough for Tom to tell if blood was behind the man's head. Blood behind the head would be proof -- and this had held true since the dawn of civilization -- that life had moved in the wrong direction.

What was the guy's name?

Tom recognized him. He'd seen him late Friday afternoon in the Y's locker room, the guy milling around near the Jacuzzi with a towel stretched around his waist, telling a friend of his: "I don't feel like eating too heavy tonight. I'll just go to the Trysting Place for fish." Tom had watched the guy laugh and say something about how, for crying out loud, a few beers just have to help wash down your five-piece batter-fried haddock.

You betcha.

Tom didn't believe the guy had exercised on Friday afternoon. Probably the guy just came in after a day on the job and sat in the sauna and took a Jacuzzi, basically coming to the gym, as so many people coming to gyms did, to get cleaned up on the outside and not on the inside. Tom remembered thinking he looked a lot like that guy, except maybe seventy-five pounds lighter, and that something about the guy's voice had sounded familiar. Tom wondered, like he did when he saw anybody in the Falls, if he knew him back in the old days. Tom had grown up here, graduated from high school here, from North, when there used to be a North and an East high, and he moved away when he was eighteen and never returned, except for the occasional Christmases when his parents were still alive, which they hadn't been for nearly ten years now: killed in a car wreck, believe it or not, on the way home from Saturday night Mass at St. Mary's. Sad, sad, sad. Still, when he moved back to the Falls three weeks ago, he thought he might recognize almost everyone in town and that people would wave and say, "There's Tom," and he would have nice pleasant conversations with his fellow native Cheeseheads. But he hadn't recognized anyone. He had been looking for seventeen- or eighteen-year-old faces he might recognize, and listening for the seventeen- or eighteen-year-old things they might say, but each of those people, like Tom, well, look at the dead guy: all Tom could recognize in him was that he was dead.

Tom said to the guy, "You're probably better off. Life's a lot easier the way you've got it now."

The time was probably 6:30 a.m. Tom supposed that the parking lot this time of the week at the YMCA would be bustle-bustle, people showing up in droves to start their new weeks in their new years in the properly regimented way, but nobody was there, only a couple dozen newer-model cars and the faintest tinkling of snow meandering past the parking-lot lights on the way to the ground. The sky was a mix of night-orange from the streetlights along Menomonee Avenue together with the pinker, more desolate light of dawn spreading across Lake Michigan and over Milwaukee and into the Falls.

Tom wondered why, of all places to run after his wife left him, he hadn't decided to run to Miami?

The dead man, as dead men will, remained in his repose -- comfortable-looking in his green parka -- and the longer Tom looked at him the more he was sure of it: this guy went to high school with Tom.

What was the guy's name?

Tom spoke to him: "Don't you remember me? Falls North? Class of '81? I've been gone from the Falls for twenty-five years. After high school, I moved away: college at Stevens Point for a year. A total bust. I was on the rugby team."

Tom exhaled some unenthusiastic desperation and turned his eyes toward the YMCA building. Through the glass foyer, he could see people inside the Y, an older man who appeared to be a custodian moving toward an inside door with a set of keys and opening the door and stepping into the room beyond it. What horrors the custodian faced in there!

Tom suddenly knew that twenty-five years of adult life had amounted to nothing; he was right back where he started; but he felt no rage.

The dead man's tongue seemed to reach upward from his mouth and into the air as if trying, in a last heroic boylike gesture, to entice a snowflake to land there.

"Look at you acting like a kid," Tom said. "That's the problem with staying in the Falls. You never grow up if you don't leave."

So Tom began telling it to the dead man: He had done some growing up all right. Flunked out of Stevens Point mostly because of rugby or because he didn't give a shit about rugby in the first place. Rugby was just something to do while he looked around for something else to do instead of college, because he believed, as college students throughout the ages had, that college sucked ass. He moved on a drunken whim that following summer to Fort Lauderdale and worked for three years as a bar back and oyster shucker at a seafood and beer-bucket place called the Oyster Cellar where the waitresses wore checkered tablecloth tops and Daisy Duke shorts and smoked menthol cigarettes and complained nonstop about fat customers pinching their asses. One day, when his hands hurt so badly from shucking oysters and loading cases of Budweiser into ice tubs, he decided he'd been participating in the restaurant business, why not figure out how to run his own joint? He took out a student loan and attended Florida Culinary Institute in Miami, which turned out, considering the almost-twenty-year successful run his restaurant had in Asheville, to be a brilliant move. FCI taught him the shit he needed to know: how to cook, to design, to do the books, to manage the people, to make things that aren't all that hip seem hip, et cetera. After he graduated from FCI, he scoped out potential restaurant markets around the country and got lucky and got a bank loan to open a wood-oven Italian place in downtown Asheville. Couldn't have gotten into the market at a better time, either, right at the very instant Asheville started becoming the town where the blue money in the southeast went for vacation.

Tom had to stop talking.

An SUV appeared in the parking lot entrance, with a minivan directly behind it, and they pulled into separate stalls. From each vehicle a woman in a stocking hat emerged, and both women slung gym bags almost simultaneously over their shoulders, not registering each other, adopting stiff, strutlike strides toward the door where their eyes were fixed. Neither of the women registered Tom and the dead man. Tom was so shocked the women didn't notice the dead man that he held his breath for a long time, to the point where he could feel small twingy pains in the middle of his chest. He released the breath through his nostrils, and it formed funnels of condensation that spread downward toward the dead man and dissipated into nearly imperceptible crystals over his nose and mustache and lips and tongue.

"See that?" Tom said. "Those women don't care if you're alive or dead."

Tom proved it.

He said his wife Marissa had waitressed at his restaurant first year it was open, become hostess the second, and married him the beginning of the third year, when the business was starting to take off. They had the kids, Stephanie and William, bam, bam, in successive years thereafter. Tom, needless to say, for business reasons, if anything else, had his vasectomy early. So when he was in his mid-twenties, Tom already had the plumbing disconnected, the kids, the hot North Carolina wife, the growing business, the cool friends, and so on, and on weekend nights, people waited in the street outside the restaurant for over an hour before they could come in and be seated. Tom talked about the nature of marriage, the way it dissolved with comfort and time and having kids and owning a business and experiencing, as we all do, a deteriorating life. Love in the long version, like life in the long version, involved getting used to a situation where you didn't pay attention to what the other person did because you knew that person would always be there. Once you knew, what was left but doom?

When Marissa finally left him for her Pilates instructor, Tom drove to the banks of the French Broad River in Asheville and gazed to the west at Pisgah Ridge looming over town, 4200 feet above sea level and wreathed in the most elegant of mists, and he decided he would have to move back to the Falls, where at least there were no mountains and therefore nothing to look up to. Now he was back in the Falls, and his eyes did not gaze upward, and nobody knew who he was, and nobody cared what had constituted his life.

"You don't remember me?" Tom said. The dead man most assuredly did not; his tongue was sticking out; his breathmaker was kaput; the guy hadn't a worry in the world.
"Then fuck you. I hope your funeral sucks."

Tom did feel better. He had to admit it. He noticed, for the first time in three weeks, that he didn't feel all that cold.

He strode confidently into the YMCA and took the steps downstairs to the locker room and changed into his gym togs and made his way to the exercise room where he shuffled on the elliptical trainer for thirty minutes and on the Stairmaster for thirty minutes and on the NordicTrack for thirty minutes. To cool down, he did thirty minutes easy walking on the suspended track over the basketball court. When he was done, he went to the locker room and took a fifteen-minute Jacuzzi and a sauna and a long hot shower, and on his way out he paused at the bubbler and pressed its button all the way in and let the water arc into his mouth and rinse over his teeth. Then he drank deeply and decided, sure, he was going to be happy after all.