Reuben drained his beer and pushed the empty glass across the bar. “A man stands on a platform as the 3:10 train enters the station. His wife has run off with his business partner. His bank accounts have been cleaned out. The enormity of the disaster clogs his mind. He sees nothing, tastes nothing but ashes.”
I signaled the bartender for refills. “Clogged mind? Taste of ashes? Where did you read that drivel?”
“It was a blog about suicide.” He grinned. “I added a few descriptive phrases to flesh out the bare facts. Artistic license.”
“Right. So what happened to the guy? Leave out the artistic crap.”
“You always were a barbarian.” Rueben sipped his beer. “The man put his briefcase down and walked off the platform. He never looked at the train. His death had a very ordinary quality. Like the milkman delivering a quart of milk and a gallon of ice cream. Routine. A box checked. One suicide. Drive on.”
“Happens every day. What’s your point?”
“I’m not sure there is one,” said Reuben. “But for the last couple years, ever since I saw that guy jump from the Golden Gate, I’ve been reading about certain kinds of deaths.” He shrugged.
I’d heard his description of the San Francisco suicide. “People jump off that bridge every year. He was just one more statistic.”
“Maybe. But I was there. Not twenty feet from him. No way he planned that jump.”
“Come on, man. You showed me the news accounts. He had cancer. No job. No insurance. He decided to avoid the pain, to take a fast way out.”
“He found a way out all right.” Reuben fell silent.
I let him be. We go a long way back, to high school and the Army. We both did Vietnam tours, but not together. He spent a year as a rifleman, I went over later as a helicopter pilot.
After a while he went on. “Some people find an escape route. People like the guy who stepped in front of the train and the man I saw take a header off the Golden Gate. Fate has pushed them into a corner. They were desperate, but not suicidal. Not yet. Maybe not ever.”
“They killed themselves. That equals suicide.”
“No. The jumper took off his backpack and leaned it against a girder, then placed his cap on top of it — a Raiders cap. I remember that and the calm look on his face.”
“How the hell did he get up on the rail without someone stopping him?”
“Nobody was closer than me. He was up and gone before I took two steps.”
“We’re not as fast as we once were.”
“Yeah. Ain’t it the truth.”
It occurred to me that Reuben might be feeling guilty for not stopping the jumper. “Sounds to me like he was at peace with himself and his decision.”
“He was at peace. But he wasn’t looking down at the water and his expression wasn’t anything like what we’ve both seen on the faces of dying men.”
I nodded, remembering a co-pilot gripping my arm, bleeding out, eyes glazing, face surprised, uncomprehending, accusing. There were others. Only the unconscious ones slipped from life to death without displaying an opinion on the manner of their exit. “There’s no standard expression for dying.”
“Were you ever around anyone who knew their number was up? Knew that if they went out one more time — that was it.”
I shivered. “Once. A captain. Flew gunships. Gave me a letter one morning. A letter for his folks. He was shot down and killed a few hours later.”
Reuben nodded. “Do you remember the look on his face when he gave you the letter?”
That memory hadn’t faded. “Yeah. Serene. No more worries. Death is coming, but it’s okay. That’s how he seemed to me.”
“I knew a sergeant did the same thing. A letter. He also gave me his personal .45 Colt. I still have it. He died in an ambush the next day. I remember how calm he was. He wasn’t afraid anymore. Like he’d found a way out.”
“Jesus, Rube. Let’s switch to coffee before I start believing in your escape route.”
“It’s there. If you get desperate enough, down on your luck, betrayed by a friend or your wife. In a combat situation you might be damn sick and tired of being scared. Then, you might be in the right frame of mind to understand the doorway.”
“A door? Like Alice’s mirror?”
“Something like that.”
“You’re calling it an escape route. Escape to where?”
“How the hell would I know?”
I forced a smile. “You ain’t about to give me a letter and that old .45, are you?”
“Your son is getting the .45. It’s in my will.” He pulled something from his shirt pocket. “I might give you this, if I was of a mind to leave early.”
It was a strip of blue metal with a stylized flintlock rifle surrounded by a wreath, a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the CIB. Only his wife, when she was alive, meant more to him.
He took it back. “See that it goes in my coffin.”
I touched his arm. “Rube.” Black dread enveloped me.
“Sometimes I feel like a spiritless shadow.”
“Yeah. I know.” Hands trembling, I fished out my pilot’s wings, unwrapped them. “I was thinking about giving you these. You know — just in case.”
He glanced at them, shook his head. “When the time comes, I know what to do with them.”
I carefully wrapped the wings, tucked them away. I breathed deep. The dark mists retreated — for now. I called for refills.
Rube punched me. “I think the Reaper can find us all by himself.”
I remembered something we used to say. “It don’t mean nothin’, man.” It was our Nam mantra. Back then we pretended to believe the lie.
He nodded. “Don’t mean nothin’. Just drive on.”
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.