By Mike Magnuson   Published Nov 15, 2006 at 5:43 AM Photography: Eron Laber
(Note: This is the second installment of Mike Magnuson's series, "The Falls," an fiction exclusive. Please note that the series may contain adult language and situations. Read the first installment here.)

And Tom questioned:  Would a life be worth living if living essentially were a form of being dead?

When he was alone, which he always was, he focused a great deal, because he really had nothing else to do but focus on things a great deal, on the subject of resignation, of all the things to which his life was resigned.  For instance, he was resigned to having a squad car tail his Audi hither and yon around the Falls because it still had North Carolina plates on it, signifying to the authorities that this one thing, and this person driving it, was definitely not like the others.  This person had to be up to something.  Tom was, in fact, resigned to not being up to anything, which made him somehow sad.  He was resigned to being stupid, too.  Thus:  How the hell could he have been stupid enough to leave Asheville?  Leave his old-hippie friends and the vegetables they grew?  And who cared if they were full of shit when they said they grew vegetables with their souls?   Why wouldn’t they?  Their vegetables did have soul.  After all, organic smelled of shit. Shit was organic. Not to mention the tree-topped mountains rising from their midst and fog clearing over their ridgelines at midday! 

So what.  Tom thought a lot about that, too.  Who gave a shit?  He had blown it.  His wife left him, and he should have stood his ground and kept his restaurant and just dealt with it, but nope, he had run here to the Falls at the worst time of year, January, when the daily high temperatures were colder than an average walk-in freezer, and oh boy, Tom, didn’t you feel sorry for yourself for running away?

And for what?  Because he had to buy mid-rate vegetables from Pick ‘n Save?  Or eat the duck a l’orange at the Odyssey diner on Appleton Avenue and fantasize about severing the chef’s hands and throwing them into a pot of simmering vegetable stock, accented with bitter lemongrass and cumin?

Tuesday morning, he rose again early and stumbled outside his townhouse and cranked up his Audi and said, “Freezing my ass off will help my body better tolerate freezing my ass off.”  He then began scraping ice off the windows as if scraping burnt toast and, yes, freezing his ass off for who knew how long?  Why would it matter?  Why would the temperature feel any more moderate the longer he stood out in it? 
When he got inside the car, he blasted the heat even more -- an attempt to flash-roast himself as best he could in the four minutes it took to drive to the YMCA.  But he felt resigned to feeling better.  People would smile at him when he entered the building and make no mention that a man had died in the parking lot the day before; not even look the slightest bit concerned or saddened or in communication with higher powers about the endlessly uneventful eternity the church promised awaited us. Why would anyone want eternal life?  Go on like this?  Forever?  You had to be kidding.

He exercised for two hours, same machines as the day before, the ones requiring a sort of docile shuffle:  the NordicTrack, the Stairmaster, the elliptical trainer. His mind relaxed and did not dwell too long on one idea or another, and his mood began to improve.  He realized he was happier at this moment than he had been in weeks, but he was still as miserable as shit!  This made him laugh, and it felt good to laugh.  Afterwards, in the locker room, he whistled they way he once had whistled when preparing Marissa’s favorite dish -- spinach raviolis stuffed with spaghetti squash and swimming in her favorite shitake cream sauce.  Forget that.  Forget Marissa.  Forget the shitakes. He performed the ablutions necessary for suburban civilianhood:  sauna, shave, shower, apply deodorant, powder balls, tuck shirt into trousers, comb hair, affect smile to disguise an absolute belief that humanity, let it be not said otherwise, was fucked up.

And of course he drank plenty of water.

When he remerged into the parking lot, to his vague pleasure, he did not feel as cold as he had before dawn.  The daylight was dim.  Clouds formed an oppressive-looking crud overhead, but this boded well for air temperature.  Clouds in winter held the warmth near the ground the same way a straightjacket held a psychotic’s arms to his ribcage, still strong and dangerous but tempered and temporarily under control.

On that fine note, Tom resigned himself to maintain a pleasant attitude for the day.

He returned to his townhouse and made an espresso and sipped it from a Dixie cup and dicked with his internet for a few hours:  checking his stocks, reading the Asheville paper online, particularly the local kissass restaurant reviews that pissed him off, and checked his email every three or so minutes, hoping Marissa would write him and tell him that this was all a huge miscommunication:  She didn’t mean to fuck that Pilates instructor and fall in love with him; she meant something else!

His stocks neither rose nor fell.  Marissa never emailed.  He made a turkey sandwich for lunch and read the events calendar at and thought, sure, loads of Asheville-like existence occurred in Milwaukee:  concerts, plays, lectures, poetry readings, real restaurants, and other ways to elevate the facile mind in an otherwise godless, liberal life.  But the Falls -- he looked out his window at the piles of dirty snow surrounding the parking lot, at the other townhouses with their shades drawn, at a landscape that seemed to Tom closed in and needing a nap -- what would elevate the mind here?

Mid afternoon, he went to Target and pushed his cart through the house wares department and bought some Emerilware:  a sauté pan, a couple of pots, a strainer, et cetera.  Tom believed Emeril Lagasse signified the end of artful cooking in America.  The guy put enough garlic in every recipe, and enough hot pepper, to kill the entire population of North Korea.  It was possible the government planned on using Emeril in their war against everybody who didn’t agree with them.  North Korea?  Bam!  Iran?  Bam!  Don’t want to shop at Target?  Bam! 

No matter.  TV food was, as most entertainments had been throughout history, bullshit.  You were supposed to look at it, not eat it.  Tom purchased Emerilware, therefore, to prove he could accept that most aspects of the planet existed beyond his control.

These were a few uncontrollable items that crossed his mind:
  1. Humans misunderstanding other humans.
  2. The United States government. 
  3. Wisconsin in January. 
  4. The Falls. 
  5. His middle-age. 
  6. His marriage on the slag heap.
  7. Who cared?
Maybe his brain was stuck here:  When Marissa broke the news to him, middle of October in Asheville, a day basically like today in the Falls except fifty degrees warmer and with the odors of patchouli and sandalwood and clove cigarettes and organic food in the air, she couldn’t even do it face to face.  She called him on the cell.  Tom stood outside his restaurant’s service entrance, kicking at pebbles breaking loose from the asphalt, and he listened to the ancient melody of his wife’s North Carolina voice:  “I can’t help it, Tom.  I love him.  I don’t love you.  We’re still young, after all.”

Tom fixed his eyes on his restaurant’s big green Dumpster and hoped a rat would scurry along below it, proof that earthly life always manifested itself in verminous ways, but no rat appeared.  No sad rain poured down from the clouds.  No bird chirped disconsolately on the rooftop.  Nothing happened at all.  He wandered back into the clang and the bang of his kitchen and simmered a vegetable stock for a shitake cream sauce he wanted to serve over raviolis with pan-seared scallops that night, and he emptied what was left in his pitcher of milk full of human kindness into a glass and drank it.

After he left Target, he went to Pick ‘n Save and lingered among the fresh vegetables, sniffing for aroma in the yellow peppers and smelling only the cardboard in which they had been shipped to Wisconsin, and he tried to lock eyes with the suburban housewives while they selected large bunches of green bananas and set them in their carts, but not one of them looked back at him.  Why would they?  He bought some thick asparagus, some carrots, some onions, a thick pork tenderloin, a cheap magnum of Bardolino, and he drove back to his townhouse and cooked for himself and drank too many glasses of wine and pretended a crowd applauded each bite of supper he took.  When he was drunk, he decided the most essential human need was applause.

On Wednesday morning, he had proof.  Tom found out the dead man’s name had been Tom, too:  forty-three years old, born and raised in the Falls, went to East high instead of North high but otherwise, except for being dead, he was the same as Tom.  

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a small item on the Tom who died:  Man Named Tom Found Dead in the Falls.  The man had, as Tom surmised, slipped and cracked open his skull, a lucky bastard even in death on account of anyone hearing the manner of his death would feel instant pity.

Dead Tom: the family man married for 25 years to his high-school sweetheart.  He had four children, three boys -- 22 and attending UW-Madison, 21 and attending Marquette, 18 and a standout both on the footfall field and in the classroom -- and one girl, 16, who wrote enthusiastically for the school newspaper and ran cross country and the middle distances in track and field.  Dead Tom had been a regular church-goer, Deacon for six years at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church; a guy with a business degree from UW-Whitewater who worked his way up the corporate ladder at a variety of firms in the Milwaukee area; who had bought the house across the street from his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Menomonee Falls, both living, both doing very well, of Hillcrest Drive.  Funeral Services would be held -- and there was a memorial fund -- and somebody would be certain, at least in passing, to mention how Dead Tom would be an excellent candidate for sainthood -- and the more the living Tom thought about it the more he knew what he needed to do.

He attended the funeral dressed in jeans and a wool sweater a lesbian artist from Asheville had made for him a few years ago, when he had friends, when he felt like he was part of something.  He entered the church and walked up the aisle toward the casket and did not recognize a soul among the bereaved.  He watched them weeping and staring into their hands, and he approached the casket and kneeled before Dead Tom.  He looked thinner and healthier somehow in death.

Tom said, “You, Tom, are who I should have been.”

And the Dead Tom seemed to accept that.  He was smiling and would be for a very long time.

Later, when Tom emerged from St. Mary’s into the ten-degree air, he looked to the artic blue sky and said a prayer for increased global warming and decided he would go get a cup of coffee and see, since what the hell, he was single, if he could get laid.

Wanting coffee was a good sign.  He had to admit that.