Getting Into the Story (Ginger Man 8F)

“So the next day — ”

“Wait.” Maggie placed the pot on the makeshift table. “This guy do nuthin’ the rest of the day?”

With his right hand, Charlie rubbed his thumb against his middle finger. “I dunno. Mike didn’ say much of anything ’bout what the guy did, if he had a job or sumpin’.” He stood up, walked over to a cabinet above the sink in his parents’ trailer.

Maggie twirled a long lock of her red hair with her left hand. “So the guy wakes up the next mornin’ . . . ”

“And this time, the same woman’s outside his door, just waitin’ for him. You did it again, she tells him. When I got home from my night shift, I saw you walking outside in your pajamas, like the night before. And the guy’s like, How do I know you’re telling me the truth? And she says, Tonight when I come home, I’ll bring a marker with me. If I see you sleepwalking again, I’ll write WAKE UP on your hand. See, because he didn’t wake up when she’d touched him before.” He walked over to the makeshift table, carrying two plates and forks.

Maggie spooned some of the pot’s contents onto the plate Charlie handed her. “So lemme guess — guy wakes up the next morning, and he sees WAKE UP written on his hand.”

“Exactly!” Charlie pointed across the makeshift table at Maggie, a satisfied smile on his bearded face. “See, you’re beginnin’ to get inta the story now, no more dumb questions!”

Maggie raised her eyebrows as she swallowed. “So he sees the woman again, this nurse?”

“Nosah!” His face was filled with triumph. “This is where it gets interestin’!”

Night Shift (Ginger Man 8E)

Charlie rubbed his right thumb against his middle finger, as he tried to remember what Mike had told him next. “Yeah right! So the man, he asks the woman when she’d seen him, an’ she says it was about three in the morning — ”

“Three?” Maggie poured the contents of the colander back into the cooking pot. “What wuz she doin’ up at that time?”

“She’s a nurse, was workin’ the night shift.” Charlie rubbed his thumb more vigorously. “Woulda tol’ you that, if you didn’ keep interruptin’.”

“Sorry.” She opened a sauce packet, poured its contents into the pot. “I’m guessin’ her being a nurse has sumpin’ to do wi’ the rest of the story?”

“You’ll find out. Anyway, the nurse tells the man that she saw him walkin’ in the middle of the night, in his pajamas. She tried to call to him, but he didn’t answer. I got worried, she tol’ him, saw you walking towards the street, didn’t want you to walk out into traffic —

“At three in the morning?” Maggie walked over to makeshift table in the kitchen of Charlie’s trailer. “Where they live, New York city?”

“Yeah.” Charlie rubbed his thumb. “Well, maybe. Doesn’t matter, just some city where people drive at three in the morning. Anyway, the woman says, But when you got to the sidewalk, I saw you stop, look both ways. I went up to you, touched your arm, but then you turned away, walked back to your apartment.

The Sleeping Jaywalker (Ginger Man 8D)

Maggie stood silently by the stove a moment, as the pot boiled burbulla burb pop. Charlie apologized, said he hadn’t meant to upset her, at which point she shook her head.

“Well, it’s your turn now.” She pointed playfully at Charlie. “I told you my story about Mike — now you tell me.”

“Hmmm.” Charlie leaned back into his chair and tilted his head backwards, his baseball cap nearly falling off his head overgrown with hair, and mentally sorted through the stories his late friend had told him. Burbulla pop. He lowered his bearded chin. “How ’bout the story of the Sleeping Jaywalker?”

Maggie lifted her left eyebrow. “Sleeping Jaywalker? Sounds dangerous.” She twisted, turned off the burner under the boiling pot.

“‘sit’s about this guy — don’ think Mike gave ‘im a name — wakes up one day, an’ his doorbell rings. He opens the door — ”

“He live in an apartment, or a house?” Maggie poured the contents into a colander she had placed in the sink of Charlie’s trailer.

“I dunno. Guess it makes more sense if he’s in an apartment. Anyway, there’s this woman at his door, asks him what he was doing last night. Nuthin’, he says, I jus’ stayed here and watched TV. Old woman looks at him, says, You don’t ‘member walkin’ outside in your pajamas?

“Guy wears pajamas to bed?” She lifted the colander, shook water out of the bottom. “What is he, like sixty years old?”

“I dunno. Mike never said. But the pajamas, they become important later in the story.”

A Sudden Stop (Ginger Man 8C)

Bubbla-pop, bubbla-bubbla. Maggie pushed back from the stove, turned, emptied the contents of the box into the pot of boiling water.

“You’re not gonna tell me that you and Mike . . . ” Charlie let his voice trail off.

She laughed, swiveled her smiling face behind her shoulder, her red hair falling down her back like a waterfall of juice. “”Course not.” The playfulness of her expression disappeared, and she made a final, probing connection with Charlie’s eyes before turning back to the boiling pot.

Charlie waited for her to continue. “We made out a while — he wuz like all you boys, sloppy and all over the place, licking me like he’s some puppy — then all of a sudden, he gets up and looks at me, real serious-like. Said we had to stop, I had to go. I asked him what was wrong, he’s pushing me out of his room, almost knocked me down the stairs, but I tells him no, I ain’t leaving until he tells me why he’s acting so strange — ”

“Oh.” A memory had just come to Charlie. “He say sumpin’ about this girl he met at summer camp?”

“Yeah. He finally calmed down, I got him to sit on the sofa downstairs, and promised I wouldn’t say nothin’ to nobody ’bout what happened — and ’til just now, I didn’t — then he finally relaxed, got real quiet. Said he’d been seduced by this girl, last night of camp, and since then he was afraid of girls. Said he was trying to overcome it, but it wasn’t working yet. Great story — he’d have had me fooled, if he hadn’t been reaching for my chest thirty seconds earlier.”

“Actually,” Charlie said, “that may not have been a story. I talked to a friend of his who went to the same camp, and he told me that Mike and this girl were a big item back then.”

Maggie looked shocked. “Really? Then — he might have been telling the truth to me?”

Charlie shrugged. “Perhaps.”

“Oh. Oh. Damn.”

Birthday Bike Ride (Ginger Man 8B)

“It was the day after my sixteenth birthday.” Maggie opened their boxed pasta dinner as she continued. “Was riding my bike home, and alla sudden Mike whizzes past me, dares me to race him. So I follow him, ’til I sees we’re comin’ up to his house.” She turned away from the stove, leaned against it, folding her arms. “Didn’ see his mom’s car in the driveway, an’ I knew his father was the only one who parked in that small garage they had, an’ he’d be at work.” She smiled triumphantly. “So I’d pretty much figgered out what he was up to, even ‘for he asked iffin I wanted to come in. I was like ‘what the hell,’ so’s I go in.”

Charlie had sat down again at the makeshift table. “Diddinow Mike liked you.”

“Ha!” Maggie shook her head. “Caught me by surprise too. Anyway we go in, he asks iffin I want sumpin’ to drink, and I’m like No, what I really want to see is your room.” She closed her eyes, smiled. “Poor Mike, I could tell he was pretty new to this, he looks like he’s gonna wet himself right there and then!” She looked at Charlie, mock terror on her face. “Oh. Ohhh — O.K. So I ask him where his room is, and he says it’s upstairs –”

“First door on the left.” Charlie tilted his chin up.

“Right. So I’m following him and talking about, I dunno, school stuff or whatever, trying to get him to relax, but he’s not sayin’ nuthin’, like we’re goin’ to the dentist or sumpin’. We get to his room — ”

“Was the door closed?”

Maggie opened her eyes wide, looked up at the ceiling. “Yes.” She pointed at Charlie. “I’d forgotten that. I was gonna ask him ’bout that too, but he looked so nervous at the time. He opens the door a little bit, looks in right and left, then opens it wide, walks in, looks at me.

“I step in, look around. It’s a mess, like my brothers’ rooms, ‘cept he’s got more comic books than they does. Models — I remember the models, airplanes and spaceships and monsters, all over the place. Had all these posters on the wall, superheroes and science fiction movies — there was this really cool picture of some guy with a sword, fighting a dragon.”

“Yeah.” Charlie pointed at Maggie. “I ‘member, it really wuz cool. Tried to ask him one time where he got it — ”

“Comic book shop.” Maggie looked at Charlie, surprised she was conveying new information to him. “In the city.” She pointed in the general direction of the city.

“Huh.” Charlie scratched his wiry beard. “How’d you know that?”

“Mike told me. I pointed to that picture, said it was cool, and he was like Yeah, I got it at a comic book shop, in the city. He seemed to relax a little, started talking about where he got his other stuff.” She suppressed a laugh. “Right after he explained about painting and putting together the models by himself, I touched his shoulder. He turns to me, his eyes are really wide, looks scared. So I reached down at touched his hand — said it was OK.”

 

Mike’s Room (Ginger Man 8A)

The mood in the trailer instantly lightened, like a cloud stepping aside from the power of the sun’s warmth. Charlie and Maggie worked together to prepare their dinner from a box of pasta and vegetables excavated from a mound of frost in the freezer. As she poured water into an aluminum pan, Maggie asked which was his favorite story from Mike.

Charlie replied that he didn’t know. “Never thought in terms of favorites or anything like that. Heck, I’d be hard pressed to say which ones I liked, or didn’t like. Mike, he’d jus’ tell me his stories, an’ I’d listen to ’em.”

Maggie placed the pan, three-quarters filled with water, on the stovetop. “He didn’t write ’em down? His stories?”

“Said he did.” Charlie stared up at the ceiling a moment. “Yeah, there wuz that red binder he had. Tried to show it to me one day, at school. But Condor showed up, tried to take it from ‘im, so he didn’ brung it to school no more after that.” He stared up at the ceiling again. “Think I saw it in his room a few times af’er that. But he didn’ like anyone comin’ in his room much. When I wuz up there, he would always be rushin’ us out, tellin’ me we hadta go.”

He looked at Maggie, standing at the stove with her back turned to him, and he saw her upper body heaving, up and down. She was suppressing a sound, but Charlie couldn’t tell whether she was on the verge of laughter or tears. He guessed the former. “You all right?”

She swung around, an embarrassed smile on her face, which was nearly as red as her hair. “I got a story, too. Not by Mike, but about him. About the time I was up in his room.”

Help For Two (Ginger Man 7E)

It only took a moment for Charlie to realized why what Maggie had just said was unusual. It was the first time he remembered her bringing up Mike’s name, and one of few times she said something good about him.

Maggie nodded in the direction of the makeshift dining table. “When I came here yesterday, I saw those papers you’d found still over there.” Charlie had taken those notebook pages from Mike back to his parents’ home that evening. “I ‘member turning away from them right away, but then I was like, Whoa, what’s up with that? Because it wasn’t like those were dirty pictures, or anything.”

“Right.” Charlie kept his expression as neutral as he could.

“So I got to thinking, why did I react that way? And then I thought about all the times I’ve been short with you, whenever you’ve talked about Mike, and his stories.” Another first — her face and voice were overfilled with apology, like a soup with too much salt. “Charlie — I’m angry. Angry at Mike, for dying, because people our age ain’t supposed to die, not yet anyway. And I’m angry at Mike ‘cuz of what his dying has done to you. How you’re stuck in this funk of yours, and can’t figger out how to get yourself out.”

She leaned forward, her face nearly touching his. “I got the same problem, only a little different. I can’t make myself stop being angry, just like you can’t stop being sad. We both need help, Charlie — and the thing is, I think I know something you can do, to help us both.”

He stared into her eyes. “What’s that?”

She sat back into her kneeling position next to Charlie’s chair, and smiled. “You can tell me one of Mike’s stories.”

Heart and Mind (Ginger Man 7D)

Charlie had remained sitting at the makeshift table in his trailer, his arms folded across his chest. Maggie stopped her pacing, looked down at him, and tilted her head. She opened her mouth to continue, but stopped herself when she saw Charlie finally breaking his silence.

“Sounds like you’re none too happy with me.”

Maggie knelt beside his chair, laid a hand firmly on his chest. “If I thought you were in your right mind now, that the way you’re acting is who you really are — ” she withdrew her hand, pointed without looking behind her at the front door of the trailer — “believe me, I’d be outta here in a second.” She blinked, brought her hand forward and laid it back on him, gentler this time, then blinked again. “But I know you, Charlie. I know you’re stubborn, and sometimes as numb as a pounded thumb — but you’ve always had a good heart.” She blinked again. “It’s what makes your judgment so good, so right most of the time.”

He looked at her sharply. “Right about what?”

“People.” Her voice sounded surprised at the swiftness of her answer, yet also sure of her correctness. “You’re the best judge of character I’ve ever seen.” She smiled up at him. “It’s why you started seeing me, right?”

Charlie laughed. “If you say so.” He stared up at the ceiling.

“And it’s why you were such good friends with Mike.” He looked down at her face, both of their expressions suddenly gravely serious.

Calendar Connection (Ginger Man 7C)

“‘member that day, when Dr. Kovacs’ office called?” Charlie still had his arms folded across his chest.

“What about it?” Maggie had walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door.

“When I looked on the calendar — ” Charlie pointed to a small calendar that Maggie had made him nail to the wall next to the refrigerator when she’d begun living at his trailer — “tuh see if anything wuz written on the date the doc’s office said I’d made an appoinment — I knew there wuz sumpin’ about that date, was unusual.”

Maggie closed the refrigerator door quickly. Holding a cold can of soda in her hand, she looked at Charlie in exasperation, her red hair seeming to wilt around her. “Oh gawd — you solve another mystery?”

Charlie slapped his hands on his thighs. “It was — ”

“A coincidence!” Maggie threw her soda can on the floor, the top opening slightly on impact, a thin hiss of carbonated liquid seeping. “I don’t care what it is you think you found, it was a damn coincidence, Charlie!”

“But — there’s been so many — ”

“There’s as many coincidences as your mind can imagine, Charlie!” She threw her hands over her head as she began hurriedly pacing on the tiled floor, like a patient’s spouse waiting for word from the operating room. “Things — happen to us, Charlie. Lots of things, we can’t control them. But we can control what we make of them, and how all these little things — ” she waved her hands above her head again — “connect to each other.”

“That’s right.” Charlie had resumed folding his arms across his chest. “And the connection I found — ”

Made,  Charlie.” She stopped in front of him, looked directly into his eyes, her own brimming with agitated tears. Her voice was a terse whisper. “Whatever it is, it’s a connection you’ve made, Charlie. And you had to make it — because it didn’t exist before that imagination of yours decided it was something it wanted to exist.”

Crazy Notion (Ginger Man 7B)

“For all I know, I could’of throwed that ring out years ago.” Maggie pulled off her jacket and threw it onto the couch in Charlie’s trailer.

“You remember doing that?” Sitting at the makeshift kitchen table, Charlie smiled triumphantly.

“All right, so I don’t remember.” She threw her hands over her head, surrendering. “But could you please cut the detective crap?”

“Maggie — ”

She drew closer to him. “Charlie, this is bad for you. You’re letting your imagination run wild. It’s like you’ve gone insane — I know how bad that sounds, but that’s what it’s like.”

“But how do you explain–”

“Give me a break, Charlie. Things disappear all the time.” Maggie snapped her fingers. “Rick’s family has a cat, I ‘member they bring it when they visit him — that could take care of the goldfish. Mike’s ring that he give me, like I said, haven’t looked for it in years. There’s no reason to think anything unusual’s going on.”

“I can’t buy that, Maggie. Everyone I’ve talked to who knew Mike, they all said they’d suddenly found out something they had what wuz associated with Mike in some way, it’d gone missing or broke the last few weeks. When there’s this many coincidences going on, you gotta start wondering.”

“Charlie, that ain’t it at all. You got it in your head that there’s something unusual about Mike’s accident, and you’ve been looking for ‘evidence’ to back up your story. You can twist things around to prove anything you want. Just think a moment, Charlie. What’s the logical conclusion to what you’re thinking?”

“I dunno.”

She shook her head, red hair flailing around her like flames. “Know what I’m afraid of? That you do know where this is all taking you, but you’re just not aware of it. You’ve got some crazy notion in your head, and it’s gonna lead you to do something foolish.”

Charlie had folded his arms in front of his large chest. “You done yet?” Maggie nodded. “There’s something else I figgered out today.”