Reflection (Ginger Man 3H)

“An’ — eyefergaught sumpin.” Charlie wiped his face with his right hand. “Dere uz dis woman — ol’ woman — lib necks ta ‘er.”

“The daughter?” Maggie turned the car into the dirt path that lead to the trailer on Charlie’s parents’ home.

” ‘corse imenna darter! An’ she done hear ’bout wha’ happen, ena ole woman, she sez — ”

“We’re home.” Maggie stopped the car, slammed the gear shift into park, turned the key. The engine quieted, and died.

“Bu’ yi ain’ finit!” The dome light above Charlie illuminated as Maggie opened her door. Charlie saw an image in curved, blurry windshield in front of him; it took him a second to realize the pathetic bloated thing that he saw was actually his reflection.

SLAM. The dome light flicked off as Maggie closed her door. Charlie blinked, looked up at the windshield again — and screamed. Leering at him was the face of Mike, left side of his head bloody and maimed, right side of his mouth curled up in an evil grin.

“Jesus, Charlie!” Maggie flung the passenger door open, the dome light coming on and banishing Mike’s image from the windshield.

Certain that Charlie was suffering from an alcohol-induced panic, Maggie didn’t press for an explanation as she rushed him into the trailer.

Three Problems (Ginger Man 3G)

To the best of his inebriated ability (and with the aid of several probing questions from Maggie), Charlie summarized the story he had begun at Jack’s Joint.

“An’ dey come ‘n putta de fur — ”

“Fire?”

“Yeah, ‘na nex day, de inference — ”

“The what?” There was a mocking laughter in Maggie’s voice which Charlie for some reason found reassuring.

“IN. SHUR. ENTS.”

“Insurance?”

Charlie slumped back in the passenger seat. “Yeah. Dat guy. Bu’ he sez de fadder, he donnit paid hid premum, so — ” Charlie opened his mouth wide, stuck out his tongue, closed his lips and blew hard — “PPFFFFTTTTTT!

Maggie’s laugh was filled with a light that cut through the darkness of the night. “You ARE gonna wipe down the insides of my car termarrer, right?”

If Charlie heard her question, he either didn’t care or was not able to respond. “An’ den de darter, she git dis call, from dis guy, sez he gonna call a lawya if he doan git his money, an’ she like, WHAT? Anna necks day, her unca vizits an’ sez he broak, kenshe gittim sum monee?”

“Sounds like she’s got some serious shit to deal with.” Maggie’s eyes remained focused on the road ahead of her car.

Straight Ahead (Ginger Man 3F)

Skrunch skrunch skrunch Light bounced among the darkness “Ease up” Maggie’s soft shoulder under his arm splish aw jeezus whadda muh doin “Just ease up almost there” brown red metal that looks like yer car “It is my car you damn fool” stop. Maggie’s arm reaches in front of him, pulls, the brown red metal opens there’s a light inside hand on his head “Ease up, nice and slow” whadda hell you pushin me fer “Shut up and get the fuck in” whacha mowf something hits his left elbow oww his right leg’s getting pushed in wilya wacha SLAM jeezus skrunch skrunch skrunch “Why on EARTHdo I put up with this?” KLUT light shines above him jeezus blue neon light in front JACK’S JOINT head-shaped shadows dance in the windows kah HEH A HEH ruuum going backwards jeezus stop, going forward, turn left.

Charlie tried following the lights as they passed, until his stomach was finally register its discomfort past his inebriation. He barely had enough sense to remember that the best thing to do when feeling sick in the car was to look straight ahead. So he did. And his stomach seemed to settle down.

Then he remembered. “I dinna finif — duh storee.”

“What?” Maggie sounded annoyed.

“I ‘uz — tellen a sto-ree. Sumpin Mike toll me, uns.”

“Jesus. Now’s not that time.”

“But I — wuz almus — finit.”

“Tomorrow — ”

“The Gingah Mayun! Issa ’bout Gingah Mayun!”

Maggie sighed. “All right. Tell me Mike’s story about the Ginger Man.”

Time To Go (Ginger Man 3E)

Charlie brushed past Condor (who had already started moving away from the table), leaned down to pick up the notebook. But as his hand reached down, he saw Mike grab, pull it away. Mike turned to his backpack on the seat next to him, opened it hurriedly, as if it contained a bomb that needed to be defused, then shoved the notebook into a compartment, the thin cardboard cover flying open as the slender boy secured his possession.

There were drawings on the first page of the notebook, but the image passed too quickly for Charlie to figure out what they were. He looked down at his friend, visibly upset.

“I’m sorry.” It was the only thing Charlie could think to say.

Mike shrugged. “I think Maggie’s here.”

What? Charlie was twelve, he wouldn’t meet Maggie for another four, five years.

A rough hand grabbed under his right armpit. “Time to go home.” Jack’s voice was barely a whisper as he lifted the burly young man to his feet. Charlie shook his head, saw a circle on the far wall, with small red and green triangles. Next to it, a row of arcade video games. In front, a pool table.

“Let’s go.” Maggie’s voice to his left was calm, but annoyed. Charlie didn’t look her in the eye as she led him out of Jack’s Joint.

The Notebook (Ginger Man 3D)

Jack grabbed Charlie’s arms, forced them down to the young man’s sides. Charlie wrestled himself free, staggered, knocked over the bar stool where he’d been sitting.

“Charlie — ”

“I AIN’T DONE!” He suddenly felt uneasy, sensing everyone’s eyes bearing down on him. He staggered backward, his rear bumping into the bar.

They don’t want to listen.

“I — ” Confusion drove out the anger in Charlie’s face. They don’t want to listen . . .

“So why bother telling the story?” Mike’s adolescent face, scarred red with acne, looked back at Charlie with angered sadness. They were sitting in the cafeteria, in middle school. Mike had his hand on top of a spiral notebook. A moment ago he had been reading from it. Charlie liked it. But then Condor and his buddies (they played football, like Charlie, only they were starters on defense, and he was a second stringer on the offensive line) showed up, asked Mike what the hell he was reading, and that’s when his friend had closed the notebook.

Charlie remembered. He’d just asked why he’d stopped reading. Said his stories were good.

Condor, tall with a concrete chin, leaned down, grabbed a corner of the notebook. “Lemme see.” Pulled.

Mike grabbed at the notebook wildly, his eyes wide with desperation. “Let go — ”

A pair of broad hands vised into Mike’s arms. Charlie stood up, felt a stiff hand on his shoulder. Condor stared at him coldly. “This ain’t none of your business.”

Charlie remembered pointing at Condor. Telling him the notebook didn’t belong to him, give it back. Something like that. He couldn’t remember what he’d said, but he clearly remembered the fearful look in Mike’s face.

“Oh I do hope there’s no problem.” Miss Johnson was short, and frail even for someone at her age. Yet in thirty years of teaching at Bark Bay High School, she’d never lost the command in her voice.

Condor smiled, showed the notebook to Miss Johnson. “Just felt like reading a good story, is all.” Then dropped the notebook on the edge of the table, let it fall to the cafeteria floor.

A fight with the father (Ginger Man 3C)

Charlie closed his eyes, propped his elbows onto the bar, ran his hands through his unkempt brown hair. He was trying to remember Mike’s story, about the soldier who died, and his sister. He told it at school one day, at lunch.

No. Not at lunch. Before school.

Charlie opened his eyes. Stared down at his beer glass, a clear, bubbly combination of beverage and spittle oozing down the edge closest to him.

“We wuz inna cafa — tearya.”

Yes. Remember middle school? Bus dropped us off early, we had to stay in the cafeteria before the first bell rang.

“Oh.”

Charlie heard Jack walking back towards him. A voice, Jack’s voice, called his name. He closed his eyes again.

“Wha happen necks?”

The father? Remember, she talks to their father?

Charlie felt a hand grab his forearm, knew from the angle of the hold that it was Jack. “Charlie — ”

“So den she goes uppa her fadder” — Charlie looked up, brushed away Jack’s grip — “‘n she sez de lawnmowwah’s done broke, an’ he get all mad an’ stuff and sez is all her fault, so he hits her an’ she run away, goed to her frien’s house.”

Jack took the beer glass away from Charlie, nodded to someone standing to Charlie’s right. Charlie slammed his right fist into the bar. “Dammit!”

Dude, relax. It’s just a story.

“But I wanna tell it.”

Mike leaned over the bar, stared directly into Charlie’s eyes, and sighed. All right. Next, she calls —

“Her dad!” Charlie nearly knocked his bar stool over as he stood up suddenly. “‘N she call her dad, but dere’s no answer.”

Jack had come around the bar, laid gentle but firm hands on Charlie’s flannelled shoulders, eased him down to his stool. Charlie looked at him earnestly. “I ‘member, now. So her frien, she drive her back to her dad, an’ when they get dere, deres dis fire, inna back yard.” He threw his arms wide, almost hitting Jack. “Big ‘un!”

The Picture Story (Ginger Man 3B)

Charlie snorted, drank swiftly from his beer glass. “Nah, a Ginger Man’s gotta body.” He nearly tipped over the glass as he laid it back down on the bar. “That’s why he’s able ta do stuff, like steal an’ break things.”

“That so.” Jack threw his white towel, dirty and wet, over his left shoulder, and cashed out a customer. “And your friend, he wrote stories ’bout this Ginger Man?”

Charlie shrugged. “Idunno. Told me a story once, but weddr Mike wrote it. . . .” He lowered his head, looked down at his beer glass, now empty.

He saw Jack’s hand tap the bar in front of the glass. “Nuther?”

Charlie looked up. “Ittuz ’bout dis woman, her brudder got kit inna war. Week affer the fewnrul — yeah dat’s right, I ‘member, she had dis pitchur of him ‘n her, an’ one night she’s in bed an’ hears dis crash, she go out ‘n dat pitchur, it on de floor, glass all broked.”

“Sounds like somebody did a bad jobba mountin’ it.” Jack replaced Charlie’s empty glass with a full.

“Nah, but den, she go out un day ‘n tries to use dis lawnmower, but the starter cord’s been cut offinit. Her brudder, the one thas dead, he give it t’ her.”

Jack walked to the end of the bar, began talking to a customer. Charlie was glad for the break, because he was having trouble recalling what happened next in Mike’s story.

No Fairy Tale (Ginger Man 3A)

“Gingerbread Man?” Jack grabbed the towel from his left shoulder, wiped the puddle of beer from the bar in front of Charlie. “Ain’t that the story about a baker who wants to have a son — ”

Charlie shook his head while continuing to look down.

” — so he bakes a kid out of ginger, but it runs away?”

A voice from down the bar chanted, Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man! Charlie looked up, exhaled forcefully enough to make Jack step back.

“It’s Ginger Man, not Gingerbread Man. And Mike didn’t write no fairy tales for kids.”

At the mention of Mike’s name, Jack’s face softened. “Didn’t you say it was a ghost story?”

For the first time since entering Jack’s Joint that evening with his fake ID, Charlie seemed animated. “Sorta. A Ginger Man, see, wassa special kind of ghost. Now a — ” he belched — “normal ghost wassa spirit of a person who died unhappy, so he goes around haunting places, inna hope someone does sumpin to make it happy, so it can — ” Charlie winced — “move on. So, see, there’s hope for a ghost, but a Ginger Man, THAT’s diffurnt, mister man! Cuz a ghost, he knowed what made him unhappy, but not a Ginger Man, nosiree Bob! Nah, ya only ‘come a Ginger Man iffin you done died unhappy, but doesn’t knows why you were unhappy. There ain’t nothin nobody can do ever make him peaceful, so all he does is go ’round makin’ everybody else miserable, outta revenge.”

“Huh.” Jack had been listening with one ear as he continued tending his bar. “So is this Ginger Man, he got a body, or is it just a, you know” — he raised his hands to the level of his head, wiggled his fingers — “like Casper?”

The men seated on either side of Charlie laughed. Charlie frowned.

Charlie’s Dream (Ginger Man 2C)

Maggie stared at Charlie a moment, then sighed as she brushed her curly red hair back off her face. “All right. What’re you getting at?”

Charlie waited for another passing car to leave before approaching Maggie. “What I’m saying” — he was almost whispering now — “was that something had to push him over the edge. Mike was too level-headed to just throw his life away like that.”

Maggie shrugged. “He was kinda down ’bout leaving college.”

“But hell, he weren’t suicidal. This is all I’m saying–they say he and Mary Lou left Ronnie’s party at 9:30. Mrs. Johnson heard the crash at quarter past one. That’s almost four hours, and it’s only eight miles from Ronnie’s place to here. And no one saw them in between. Maggie, just look at the evidence. Something’s wrong here.”

“Police don’t think so.”

Charlie spread his arms wide, his eyes bulging. “Hell, course not. Looks simple to them, just another drunk kid crashing and burning. But it ain’t that simple, and you know it.”

Maggie shook her head slowly, took a step away from Charlie before turning back to him. “So, what happened?” This time it was her turn to point the the scarred tree without looking. “Someone murder him, put his body in the car, throw it into that tree?”

“Nah, course not.”

Maggie leaned forward, her face tense. “Then what?”

Charlie had already started walking up the embankment, towards the battered tree. He reached with his right hand, drew it back just before touching the burnt bark. “Don’t know. But it’s something. Know it is.”

Another car approached from the west, and another from Bark Bay. The car heading west passed first. As the sound of the outbound car’s engine faded, Charlie took a step back from the tree, faced Maggie.

“Had a dream last night.”

“Cripes, so that’s it.” Maggie sounded disgusted. “About Mike, I bet.”

“Yeah.” Charlie stepped down from the embankment as he spoke, his eyes watching his feet as he descended. “We was in Foster’s field, and Mike wanted me to go with him to the city. So I quit my job, went with. We drove a while — and then we got here, to Pete’s Elbow. And then I says ‘Mike, I’m glad you’re alive.’ But then the car stopped, and Mike turned to me and said, ‘Wish I was, but I’m dead.’ So I says, ‘So what’s a dead person driving to the city for?'”

He had reached Maggie at the side of the road. “Well, he turns to me and says, ‘We’re going to the only person who can help me now.’ And I asked him who that was. Now you know what he said? This is important, because it’s got me convinced that there’s something wrong here.”

Maggie sighed heavily. “What did he say?” Her voice was filled with impatience. “Who was the only person who could help him?”

Charlie smiled, darkly. “The Ginger Man.”

Three Things Mike Didn’t Do (Ginger Man 2B)

A car approached from the west. Charlie stepped onto the soft shoulder of the road, continued walking towards Maggie as the car passed, then disappeared down the road towards Bark Bay.

“Jesus, Charlie, of course it don’t — ”

“Didn’t mean it that way.” He made no attempt to hide the anger in his face. “Not like, ‘Gosh, why didn’t he know better?’ but, like, it weren’t like him at all.”

“Charlie — ”

His foot splashed mud as he stomped the ground. “Come on, Maggie. What were the three things Mike never did?”

She sighed, her shoulder slumping in resignation. “Didn’t drink. Not anytime I saw, anyway.”

“And then all of a sudden, he’s twice the legal limit. What else?”

Maggie closed her eyes, shook her head slowly twice, then opened her eyes again to stare at Charlied. “Didn’t drive fast — ”

“Christ, he didn’t drive hardly at all.” He was leaning forward, like a character actor playing a prosecuting attorney, making his case before a jury. “Had to drive that pussy all over town whenever we wanted to do something.” He raised his eyebrows. “And?”

Maggie rolled her eyes back, threw her hands into the air. “Didn’t go out with women he didn’t know.”

“Right. So one night he does all three. ALL. THREE.” He pointed without looking at the maimed pine tree. “And then the volunteer fire department’s picking up his remains from Pete’s Elbow.”

Maggie sighed away what little patience remained in her. “Hey Sherlock, you ain’t the first person who’s noticed — ”

“IT DON’T MAKE NO FRIGGIN’ SENSE, MAGGIE!”