I’ll Be

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Jimmy Brewster’s hands were pulsating with steely warmth the day he woke up dead. “Whew!” Jimmy blinked twice and shook the dew off his eyelids. “How about that. How about that.”

In was August 18th, 1909. Jimmy had spent his whole life as a touring comedian on the small-town bar and vaudeville circuits. It was an odd way to spend one’s living years and required a personality that was at once gregarious, overwhelming, and comfortable with long stretches of solitude. He was surprised to be dead but not shocked.

“I wonder if she strangled me.”

Jimmy rubbed his hands together because the warm sensation was making them itch. He stretched his shoulders and took stock of his surroundings. It was a clear sunny day and he couldn’t tell the season. There weren’t any dogs or travelers and things were generally quiet. His skin felt crackly like paper on a radiator.

“Queer, that’s what it is, awful queer…Now wait a minute!”

Jimmy leapt to his feet and held his palms to his eyes. Or maybe he didn’t. Jimmy’s arms had turned invisible, or transparent, or gone altogether. He could feel them, and the powerful waves of heat wafting through them, but by all visual accounts they weren’t there. Neither, for that matter, was the rest of him. Jimmy’s eyes scanned the horizon and he drifted into absentminded contemplation.

He picked a blade of grass and chewed it slowly. Sour green juices spread across his tongue and dripped down his throat, and the crispness in his sinuses snapped him from his thoughts.

“Toss it.”

Without taking the time to articulate it further, Jimmy decided that since he could still taste and swallow he may as well forget about his corporeality for now. Jimmy was a funnyman, and a good one at that, and like the old men on the circuit liked to say, a good funnyman can trust in his gut whenever things get weird.

“Wink and a grin, old boy, a gag and a song. In the game of life you’re never the dealer. I would fight a guy for a toasted ham sandwich.”

Jimmy rotated in place and looked around for something that might have a kitchen in it. He was buzzed and lightheaded with hunger. His surroundings offered nothing.

“Grass. Sure, okay, that’s swell. Guy can’t eat grass. Guess I’ll walk somewhere.”

He walked half a mile over gentle sloping hills dotted with apple and pear trees. Under-ripe fruit hung heavily from unassertive boughs too slender for their load. Jimmy tried a few; each bite flooded his sinuses with terrible, overwhelming pungency, like a swamp of rusty copper, as though the dirty little green apples were angry with him. He saw that the ground beneath the trees was scattered with the same hardened bitter fruit that was hanging from the branches, prostrate in the grass and slowly rotting. There were no leaves or branches on the ground beside them. They had not fallen in the wind. There was no wind. They had simply fallen too soon.

Jimmy walked another half-mile, crested a hilltop, and was met by a change of scene and a dusty panorama. The lazy grass was behind him now and the precipitous slope at his feet was all red dirt and pumice. The hillside dropped down a hundred yards to an improbably flat plateau, which itself gave way to a canyon. The canyon was wide and shrouded in fog. Jimmy could not see the other side of the canyon, the bottom, or for that matter, the edge nearest him, which was surrounded by a teeming crowd of suitcase-wielding travelers in their church clothes. Innumerable quivering individuals pressed their shoulders together and sluggishly jockeyed for position, each trying to move subtly towards the canyon’s edge. They were all facing the canyon. Jimmy saw their coattails, haircuts, and luggage.

“Now this is something!” Jimmy bounced down the slope and jogged across the plateau. Jimmy was an entertainer, and the sight of all those people was enough to make him forget his piercing hunger pains.

“Hey friend, what’s the story?”

A tall and ghastly man in a dusty gray overcoat turned to face him. The ghastly man said nothing.

“Well, how about this canyon? Why, I can hardly see across! She’s the widest thing I’ve seen since my mother-in-law! Eh?”

The tall man’s face did not change. Jimmy coughed. “So how about all this? What’s everyone up to?”

The tall man narrowed his eyes ever so slightly, and turned away, back to the unrevealing fog. Jimmy decided to try an old woman standing nearby.

“Excuse me, miss? I couldn’t help but admire your hat. My mother had one just like it, and every time I see a red rose on white lace it makes me smile.”

“Not now.”

“Pardon me?”

“I need to cross the canyon.”

“Oh, I getcha. Is that what we’re all doing here? Waiting to cross?”

“That’s right. So leave me be.”

“Excuse me for persisting, ma’am, but you do so remind me of my mother, and I just feel so warmly towards you on account of that feeling, so let me please—”

“Can’t you hear?”

“I can hear you, yes ma’am, but if you’ll please permit another little question—what do you figure is going to take you to the other side?”

“We’ll know when the fog clears. When the—darn you, darn you, leave me be! Let alone! You’ll make me miss it!”

“Ma’am, I—”

“Let alone, I said, I’ll have no more!” And the woman pushed her way towards the front of the crowd, eliciting muttered protests and curses from the others. Jimmy lost sight of her hat, which was amazing, considering the museum-piece brightness of her red rose. Befuddled, he returned to the tall man, and tapped his shoulder.

“Again?”

“My truest apologies for interrupting, sir, I realize now that you’re waiting for something to take you to the other side. I promise I won’t make you miss a single event of any significance.”

“So, what?”

“Well, sir, I do so appreciate you looking me square in the eye—can you see me all right?”

The tall man laughed a dusty, hacking laugh.

“I take that to be a yes? Laughter at the sight of my face is a pretty typical reaction.”

“You must be fresh. Fresh ones can see the others, but not themselves. A few years waiting and the faces start to fade. Stick around long enough and it’s all just a bunch of floating hats. I’m not looking you in the eye. I’m just guessing from experience.”

“I can’t see me, but I can see you, but then I can’t see you?”

“That’s right.”

“How do you figure?”

“Because you’re not here, get it? None of us are.”

“Well sure I am!”

“If you’re here, then where are you? Where are your hands?”

“But I can see you—I know you’re here, you’re right here!”

“That’s because you’re fresh. That’s not a canyon, see? It’s just the edge of nowhere. Hang around a while, you’ll get the picture. Floating hats, get it?”

The tall man turned away. “Yeah, you’ll get the picture.”

Jimmy looked down at his hands, frowned because he still couldn’t see them, and when he looked up the ghastly man was gone. He stood at the rear of a vast column of travelers, an ocean of backs and necks and coattails. There were maybe ten or twelve persons between him and the canyon’s edge, a depth of bodies that stayed uniform for at least a mile in either direction.

“Golly, there must be thousands of people here. Heck—millions! Boy, what a crowd. What a crowd. Boy oh boy.”

Jimmy was a funnyman, and a good one at that. The prospect of an audience proved irresistible.

“’Scuse me folks, ‘scuse me. If I could just push up to the front, here, that would be swell. Pardon me. Hello, ma’am. Sir. Pardon me, folks.”

Jimmy stood on the canyon’s edge with his back to the chasm and his front to the people.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen! My name is Jimmy Brewster and I come to you direct from Peoria, Illinois. What’s Peoria like? I’ll tell you, folks, as far as I’m concerned, that place is dead!”

The breeze blew softly.

“Dead! Okay. Say, how about this canyon? It’s big, I tell ya, big like Teddy Roosevelt’s trousers…Roosevelt’s trousers. Can you folks hear me all right?”

Jimmy took three big steps backwards. He saw all their faces now, grey and drooping and shaded by the brims of their hats, and noticed the fine quality of their bowties and overcoats. He had seen this before. This was an after-church crowd on a Sunday matinee. He decided to hit them with a Bible gag.

“So I ask my wife for a kiss, and she says, ‘Jimmy, you know I’m a church-going girl,’ so I say, ‘Haven’t you heard of Adam and Eve?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, and I heard you were a real bad apple!’ Can you folks hear me all right?”

Jimmy took another big step backwards and all the people gasped. Their faces perked up and their eyes opened wide.

“There we go! How ya doin’ folks? My name’s Jimmy Brewster, full-time funnyman and part-time singer. If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I start singing, and yes, that is a threat.”

An old woman at the front of the crowd screamed.

“Wow! Hey, it’s alright, I may stink but I don’t bite.”

Jimmy took another big step backwards. Hundreds of faces were staring at him now, pointing and talking and holding their hands to their faces. Everyone looked shocked, or scared, or totally befuddled.

Jimmy’s shoes fell from his feet.

“This is a great crowd. Remember the good old days, when we used to gather for a live performance?”

The people erupted into a cacophony of shouting and invective. Women tugged on the sleeves of men, begging them to explain what was happening. Men yelled incoherently in a mixture of curses and unintelligible panicked hollering. Jimmy started to get worried. All he had wanted was to tell a few jokes and the whole thing blew up in his face. The rest of the waiting dead bunched up at the edge of the canyon to see what the fuss was about. People were streaming in from the furthest edges of the horizon. Jimmy tried to calm them.

“Take it easy, folks, take it easy! Hey! Everything’s fine, I tell ya, take it easy!”

Jimmy inched away from the people, which only made them more agitated. He started to wish that he would turn invisible, but then remembered that he had, and then realized if he took off all his clothes then nobody would figure where he was. The fog moved in around him and the people at the canyon’s edge got blurrier.

Jimmy took his socks off. And then his hat, his coat, his tie, his shirt, and his undershirt. Each article fluttered away and fell. Jimmy took his pants off and the crowded people shrieked in uncomprehending terror. Jimmy took his undershorts off and ran.

And just like that his feet were on land again. He sputtered to a halt and breathed hard in the misty air. There was dirt beneath his bare feet. The people were nowhere to be seen. Jimmy had accidentally crossed the great canyon at the edge of nowhere. He was alone again. His heartbeat left his face and hands and retreated into a knot in his throat.

“Well how about that. Seems like I miss ’em now. Awful queer. They never were anything but rude. Why not be friendly, now that nothing matters? Maybe there’s somebody else – somebody who’s not so dead. Somebody to talk to.”

Jimmy looked around and whistled a bar from a song he just made up. He sucked in through his puckered lips. He looked back over his shoulder into the fog. Then he looked to his left, into the fog, and to his right, into the fog, and forward, and sideways, and back where he was looking just before, and behind him again, and then he turned all the way around in two circles breathing through his mouth which produced something like a musical note. Everywhere was fog. Everywhere, everywhere was fog.

Nobody, never, had ever been more alone as Jimmy was at that moment.

“Nobody, never, has ever been more alone as I am right now.” Ordinarily Jimmy didn’t go in for this sort of perspective-taking, but the occasion seemed to demand it and he couldn’t think of anything else to think. The silence set in and tears welled up in his eyes.

Jimmy walked in some direction or other. His shoulders slumped. His ankles creaked. He was in for an indeterminate hike and he could feel it already. And then, just when he felt as lonely and sorrowful as anyone had ever imagined, nothing happened.

Jimmy walked further, the weight of his body bearing down on him, and then nothing happened again. Everywhere was fog. Nothing happened twice in a row. Jimmy felt worse and worse. It occurred to him that he might still be invisible but there was no way to tell. He couldn’t have seen his own hand in front of his face anyway. Nothing started to happen over and over again.

Days, years, eternities swelled together and washed over him like a tide. But his legs kept taking steps in spite of it all, automatic and independent, pressing forward to nowhere. Nobody, ever, in the history of thought or the encompassing memory of God Himself had ever been more alone than Jimmy was at that moment, which was all moments at the same time.

“Knock knock,” said the nine-foot frog. “Who’s there?”

“Frog.”

“Frog who?”

“Frog gone.”

“Frog gone who?”

“Frog-gonn-it it’s foggy!”

“You say foggy or froggy?”

“Hey, that’s good! Let me do it again. Frog-gonn-it it’s froggy!”

Jimmy turned around and saw the friendly nine-foot frog. He seemed nice.

“Say, frog, where are we, anyhow?”

“It’s the dandelion field, Jimmy. Wave your arm towards your face.”

Jimmy held his right hand outstretched and held it there. There seemed to be a tiny ball of flame at the joint of his wrist and his palm exuding an almost-cruel level of heat outward in all directions. He pulled his forearm in towards his eyes.

“Holy—!”

For a moment, Jimmy thought he saw his hand. But he hadn’t; he saw the hundreds of dandelion spores that had stuck to his invisible sweat and held to his invisible skin like a glove. The fog was full of them. It was like wearing cotton. Now he could see his feet and his hands, disembodied and quivering for joy at his newfound friendship and discernibility.

“Wow! Wow! Now this is something! This is really something! There must be a hundred million dandelions out here. Or a hundred billion?”

“Don’t know. Frogs can’t count.”

“Well that’s all right. I’m pleased to meet you. I’m James Brewster.”

“Naw. Everyone calls you Jimmy. Just ’cause you’re dead doesn’t mean you change or something.”

“Well all right.” “Hungry?” “Am I ever! I feel like a roast beef with horseradish, or a piece of corn. Something, golly, anything!”

“Sure thing Jimmy! It was fun talking with you.”

The giant frog sucked in through his gills. Fog and dandelion spores flowed into him and the air sacs on the side of his head began to inflate. The frog sucked in harder, so hard that Jimmy was pulled toward him. Jimmy laid down flat on the ground and dug his heels into the dirt. The frog’s air sacs grew larger and larger, taller than the frog himself, and then ten, twenty, forty feet tall. The friendly frog furrowed the space between his eyes and clenched his feet in determination. A whole world of spores and fog rushed into his chest with greater and greater intensity. Jimmy felt that this was the only really supernatural thing he had seen since he woke up dead. It felt like a tornado.

The friendly frog finally stopped once the air around them was as clear as a department-store crystal bowl. His air sacs were so full that they extended beyond Jimmy’s peripheral vision, both upwards and to the sides.

“Thanks, friend.”

“You’re welcome, Jimmy,” the frog said in a strangled voice, trying not to exhale. Then he jumped straight up and never came back down.

Jimmy looked all around and saw that he was surrounded by rose-wood tables covered in food. Fully cooked chickens and turkeys, mashed potatoes, turnips, and cucumber sandwiches. Salmon and rice and tomato soup. Pork chops with cloves and applesauce. The warmth in Jimmy’s hands surged forward into his fingertips, and backward to his elbows and shoulders and torso and down through his groin and his toes. He was a man on fire.

“Well I’ll be,” he chuckled. “Ain’t this something.”

Jimmy saw sausages floating in sauerkraut soup. He saw chocolate cakes with quietly dripping scoops of strawberry ice cream. He saw a cascading rainbow of wine bottles, from white to pink to red.

“Ain’t this something.” Jimmy laid down on his back. He looked straight up, directly at the point where he lost sight of his friend the giant frog. He put his hands behind his head. A dandelion spore drifted against the tip of his nose.

“I’ll be.”

Jimmy smiled the way that he used to smile while the audience was cracking up. All his teeth were showing. He started to laugh. Jimmy stretched his muscles across the ceaseless field of dandelions and spasmed with laughter until the pupils of his eyes overcame him and he disappeared.

Visit the author’s website at http://www.wesleykandrews.com