Epilogue (Ginger Man, Conclusion)

“Tell me a story, Daddy.”

What kind of story, Allison?

“A scary story, Daddy!”

Scary? Well, I’m not sure —

“Like the ones on TV, you know?”

I’m sorry, I don’t like scary stories.

“But you must know at least ONE?”

One? Uh, yeah. I do know — one.

“Really? Can you tell me, oh please oh please oh PLEASE!”

I don’t know —

“PLEASE!”

All right. A scary story. It’s about a monster . . . no, wait. There’s a monster in it, but the story’s not about the monster, it’s about the hero who fights the monster. The hero’s name is Mike. No — Prince Micheal. Yes. The story’s about Prince Michael, the famous monster-fighter. And the time he slew the Ginger Man.

End of “The Ginger Man”

Goodbye at the River (Ginger Man 19C)

Charlie nodded down toward the area in front of him. “This everything?” Between where he was standing and the crescent formed by his friends, on a patch of gray rocky gravel covered partly in snow, lay a series of cardboard cartons, plastic containers, shoe boxes (some covered, others not), and bags of various material, shapes, and sizes.

“Everything we could find.” As Mike’s mother spoke, Penny lay a soft hand on her shoulder.

“You sure we shouldn’t burn this?” It wasn’t the first time Jimbo had made this suggestion, and Charlie responded by shaking his head vigorously, as he had done with each suggestion. Charlie walked over to the largest object on the ground, one of the plastic containers he had searched through that day at the house where Mike lived. When he did, that was.

“I ‘member something Mike said once.” Steam blow out his mouth like a trumpet blast as he spoke, carrying the plastic container away from the crescent, toward the Indian River. There was a large rock at this location of the river, forming an immovable stone pier into the rushing stream, a popular location for fishermen in days warmer than this. Charlie stopped at the edge of the rock, raised his voice over the wind and water. “This stuff, the kinda stuff he liked, he said fire couldn’t really destroy it, fact it made it stronger.” He looked back at the crescent of his friends. “We’s all holdin’ on to Mike, in one way or ‘nuther. Lettin’ his memory haunt us. And this is the only way to get rid of it.”

Charlie turned towards the river and grunted, like an athlete competing in the hammer throw, and flung his arms across his body. Flying free from the burly man’s hands, the plastic container flew across the rushing water, then quickly dropped, splashing with a barely audible sound onto the surface of the black water on which it floated, rolling on top of one wave, a second, until enough water had finally seeped inside to sink one side of it down under the water. Another wave lapped over it, submerging all but a corner, and a moment later, it was gone.

Ten minutes later, after all the boxes and containers and bags had been committed to the black water of the Indian River, Mike’s mother stood alone at the edge of the rock, raised her hands to her mouth, kissed the palms, then raised her arms above the water, mouthing a wordless I love you. She then turned back to the crowd of Mike’s friends.

Later that afternoon, Charlie thanked Mike’s mother for hosting a meal for everyone who’d been to the river that day. He did not say anything at the time, but knew this would be the last time he’d ever be at her house.

A Gathering in the Cold (Ginger Man 19B)

But as he was driving his pickup back to his trailer that evening from his job at the post office, Charlie suddenly realized it wasn’t over. There was one more task that needed to be performed before he could close this little book that had been opened in his life.

He made the calls that evening — Rick, Mike’s mother, Rune, Jimbo, Penny. Charlie was relieved to hear them all agreed with his idea, was happy in his follow-up calls over the next two weeks to hear everyone had collected everything that was required. They met at the date and time he’d suggested; it was a week before Christmas, and everyone was bundled in parkas and hats, the chill of winter having settled in the air like a concrete foundation. But the Indian River (which Mike had always preferred over the East) was still flowing, ice clinging to the banks like a threat.

Charlie turned from the river, saw that the people he’d called had gathered around him in a crescent, exhaling their breath in white wisps of steam. He suddenly felt like a priest, officiating a funeral. He shuffled his boots in the snow, and cleared his throat.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming today, and humoring me in my weird request.”

“It’s not weird.” Maggie stepped forward from the crescent. She hadn’t been close to Mike, so Charlie hadn’t thought to include her in the plan when it first came to him. But she was living him now almost nightly, with a plan to move all her stuff in from her parents’ home in the spring; there was no way to keep the plan secret from her even if he’d tried, and once she was aware of it, there was no stopping her participation. “We all needed to do this, Charlie.”

Breakdown (Ginger Man 19A)

Charlie was glad they had taken an early lunch, was relieved to have only seven pairs of inquisitive eyes bearing down on him as his arms covered Rick, slouched over the dining room table and sobbing uncontrollably.

“I shoulda stopped him . . . tackled him, or sumpin’ . . . kept Mike outta that goddam car — ”

“Easy, budy, easy.” Charlie had never hugged another male who wasn’t a relative as firmly and sincerely as he held onto his friend.

Rick lifted his head, showing his reddened, tear-streaked fact to Charlie. “I jus’ stood there . . . watched ‘im go when I knew he weren’t right . . .”

“Nuthin’ about him was right, after he flunked outta college.” Charlie recalled the uncomfortable conversations, the unreturned phone calls and text messages, the doors slammed in his face. The darkness that had infected his friend like a virus. “Lotta people tried to stop him, including me. We all failed, Rick. You were just — ” Charlie stopped, not knowing how to finish his statement in a way that wouldn’t make Rick feel worse.

“GODDAMIT!” Rick had buried his face on the table again. “Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry . . . Mike, MIKE!”

“It’s all right, Rick. It’s over.”

One Good Story (Ginger Man 18C)

Mike butt-pushed himself off the car’s fender, shuffled unsteadily a few feet from the car; reached the edge of the woods, stopped, shuffled, and urinated, the stream falling peacefully on the pine-needled ground. Rick had never seen Mike wasted like this, and being wasted himself, could think of nothing to say.

Mike zipped his fly. “Rick . . . buddy. Wanna you to to me, a . . a favor, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Mike turned, began staggering back to the car, his eyes focused on the ground in front of him. “You ever find any-a muh stories — you know, someone mentions they got one — hell, ask ’round, if you think about it — but I wanna you –” and he looked up, made eye contact with Rick — “burn ’em. Every one. They ain’t no good no more.” He looked back into the car, at the red-headed girl lying on the back seat. “Christ, can’t even get me laid now.” He looked back at Rick. “Think you can do that?”

Rick nodded.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said, smiling comically and extending his hand. Rick looked at the hand a moment, saw it sway back and forth as if controlled by nervous puppeteer. Then Rick took his hand, raised to shake it — and felt Mike fall to his knees, his body spasm with tears.

Rick had let go of his hand. He stood in front of his kneeling friend, who was crying uncontrollably, his hands banging the sides of his head. A long moment later the sounds of his crying softened, his body seemed to relax, and Rick felt certain his friend was about to collapse, pass out.

But then Mike looked up at him, his face grim and determined. “All I ever needed . . . was one good story. Something that would really impress people. Hell, if I could do it, just one friggin’ time. That stuff I wrote as a kid–hell, all that ever did was bullshit people. A good story, it really screws a person over, you know? And I can’t do that.” His face pinched in frustration. “God – DAMMIT, I can’t.”

Rick reached down, touched Mike on the shoulder. He was about to tell him that he was going to be OK, when Mike stood up suddenly.

“Goddammit!” Mike nearly knocked Rick over as he stagger-rushed to the car with the sleeping girl, which a moment later spun wildly in the dirt driveway in front of Rick’s trailer, Rick watching in stunned silence as the vehicle careened onto the paved county road, heading in the direction of Pete’s Elbow.

Losing Control (Ginger Man 18B)

Tired, drunk and annoyed, Rick fought the impulse to throw Mike out of his trailer. But there was an urgency, a desperation he saw in his friend that he wasn’t accustomed to seeing. Mike never asked anything of him, but there he was, sucking on a beer can (Rick had never seen his friend do that either) and bouncing unsteadily on his feet, waiting for an answer. He couldn’t articulate why, but he felt certain that kicking him out was the worst thing he could do at the moment.

So he thought, rubbing his stubbled chin with his hand. “Hell, Mike.” He rubbed his chin again. “I dunno. Been years, think I threw all them stories away, long time ago.” Rick lowered his arms, shrugged. “Sorry.”

Mike stared back, his body swaying around like ice cubes in a glass. A frown descended on him, and he staggered backwards, his body losing control and falling into a wall behind him. Rick walked over to help him stand up again, but Mike let his body slide down the wall until his ass landed on the floor with a fump. He blew air through tight lips, letting them vibrate, frrrrrrrrrrbt.

Rick looked down at his friend, and knew better than to ask if he was all right.

“Dammit.” Mike raised the beer can to his lips, tipped it up. Drew his head back, letting it hit the wall. Raised the beer car high over his head, as if to demonstrate it was empty, then threw it across the room. “Mary Lou really wanted to see them stories.”

Rick’s face brightened with inspiration. “Why don’t you bring her in here?”

Mike rolled the back of his head against the wall, left to right, then back left. “Nah. She’s passed out in the back seat. I was going to wake her up if you had anything.” He lifted his head, seemed to look around in the dark. Then threw his head against the wall again, closing his eyes. “Dammit.”

“I’m sorry–”

“Gotta go,” and suddenly Mike was standing, walking quickly to the front door of the trailer. Rick followed him out the door, to a car he didn’t recognize. He saw a girl sleeping in the back. She had red hair (when Rick told the story to Charlie nearly six months later, he insisted on this detail of the red hair).

Rick heard a sound behind him. He turned, saw Mike leaning his back against the front fender, his head buried in his hands. He looked like he wanted to cry, but was now filled with regret over having forgotten how.

“Hey Mike — ” his friend did not move — “why don’t you just go to your place, and get one of your own stories?”

Mike was silent a moment. Then his head rose slowly from his hand, was illuminated faintly in the moonlight. “Don’t have them no more.” His voice sounded distant. “Got rid of them–about a week ago. Right after I got back from college.”

A Surprise Arrival with Bright Lights (Ginger Man 18A)

Rick had been sleeping on the couch when someone began pounding on the door of his trailer. He rose slowly, still drunk.

“RICK! RICK!”

He staggered to the door in the dark as whoever it was continued to pound and scream.

“Jesuf CHRIST what’s WRON’ with you, goddammit RICK–”

Rick almost fell onto the door. “All right, all right.” He pulled, headlights from a car parked immediately in front blaring into the open doorway. Rick staggered back, blinded.

“BUDDY!” Through the fog of his inebriated confusion, Rick was barely able to identify the voice of the person who was now barging into his trailer as Mike’s. “Git anyfin tah drink?” The body that animated the voice was staggering towards Rick’s fridge.

Rick turned away from the assaulting headlights, reached out blindly and found the back of a chair. He held the chair like a crutch. “Jesus . . . –”

“Was WRON’?” Rick sensed Mike (he was sure now it was Mike’s voice) was standing just in front of him. He opened his eyes, but the headlights burned into his eyes like boiling water on an open wound. “The door — close the door — ”

He heard something fall, sounded like a can, heard Mike’s voice swear, then walk with heavy footfalls over to the door, slam it closed. Rick opened his eyes, let them adjust to darkness. There was someone standing in front of him, he could not make out the features but he recognized the outline.

“Mike?”

Mike fell to the floor, his body spasming with wild laughter. “Jesuf CHRIST you goddam bum you’re even more FRIGGIN’ drunk than I AM!” He picked up a can from the floor (Mike assumed it was what he’d heard fall earlier), stood up, and drank. The scent of dirty beer finally registered with Rick’s senses.

“Mike, what the hell you want.” Confusion was quickly giving way to anger.

“Say RICK!”

“Look–”

“You remember all them . . . them STORIES I used to write when we was KIDS?”

Rick thought a moment. “Yeah.”

“You GOT any of them just LYING around here?”

“What?”

Mike pounced on him, putting an arm across the back of Rick’s shoulders. “You see, RICK BUDDY, I got this girl in the car with me, Mary Lou — ” the tone of his voice lowered, he sounded uncertain now — “don’ think she’s from around here — ” his bombastic tone returned — “ANWAY, I pick her up at Ronnie’s tonight. Started TELLING her about them STORIES I used to tell. Said I WROTE some of them down, and well you see she wants to SEE them.”

Mike released his grip from Rick, stepped back, drank quickly from the beer can. “So — you got any of them?”

 

Confrontation in a Mailroom (Ginger Man 17A)

“Morning, Rick.”

Charlie saw the smile on Rick’s angular face disappear at the sound of his greeting. Rick murmured a reply, and walked briskly over to the other end of the room.

Gonna have to ask him what the hell’s going on, Charlie thought. He’d called a couple times earlier that week, after hearing Rick was going to help with the holiday rush, but Rick neither answered nor returned the messages he left. Maybe he had the same first reaction Charlie had when his father told him that his friend Otis Rainey, who’d been Bark Bay postmaster for near two decades now, was willing to give him a job at the post office. Sounded boring to him, tedious, but Charlie knew he didn’t have many options for work, not after the way he’d lost his job with Johnson. And yes the work was tedious, but it was honest, and Charlie saw almost immediately how important daily mail service still was for many people in town. Three months into the job, and Charlie found himself actually looking forward to coming in to work in the morning. Mr. Rainey — Otis — said he had a good future. His government exam was next month.

Charlie had hoped to tell Rick all that before today, but it had become clear over the past several months that Rick wanted no business with him. If Charlie were to send him a letter, it would have been returned, unopened.

“Ain’t seen you around much lately, Rick.”

“Been busy.”

“Doing what.”

Rick shrugged. “Nothing.”

Charlie stared at him across the mailroom. Rick glared at the floor.

“Let’s get the local stuff out of the way first,” Charlie said.

Rick nodded, walked over to the wall and grabbed a sack. He began to carry it over to Charlie, waiting for him at the sorting station, when he tripped over a power cord. The sack, which Rick had forgotten to close, fell onto the floor and spilled its contents.

Charlie laughed. “Nice job, smoothie–”

Rick cursed, loudly, repeatedly.

“Hey, take it easy . . . ”

Rick kicked the sack, sending letters all over the mailroom floor.

Charlie stared at him, silently. After a moment, Rick looked up at him. His face was filled with the fear of a man silently confronting a horrible truth.

He walked over, extending a cautionary arm. “Rick, — ”

” — there’s something I gotta tell you. It’s about Mike.”

A few minutes later, Charlie walked into Mr. Rainey’s office, and said he needed to take an early lunch.

A Drive (Ginger Man 15C)

Charlie heard the sound of an engine, so he looked around and saw he was in the front passenger seat of a car he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t see out the windows, but the engine was roaring, and the car was shaking as if it feared that it couldn’t maintain its current speed.

“Hello Charlie.” He looked to his left and saw Mike, smiling sloppily. Charlie remembered Mike looked like that on the night he had died, before he remembered that he hadn’t been with Mike that night.

Hey — hey buddy. You awake? Charlie handed the phone to Mike, said somebody wanted to speak to him.

“Dead people can’t talk on the phone, Charlie.” He took the notebook from Charlie, began writing in it with his golden pen. Mike did not look drunk any more, but the car kept speeding down the road.

No he’s alive, but his skin’s cold, not responding, we gotta call an ambulance. Charlie asked Mike if he was going to turn into a Ginger Man.

“No such thing.” Mike looked like Charlie remembered him from high school, carefree and open. “I mean the Ginger Man was a thing, but a story thing. Gotta be careful with stories, man. You take them too seriously, they become more real than what’s really real.”

The car continued humming down the road. OK, lift him gently. Charlie thanked Mike for the advice, said they should stop now. Mike shook his head. “You know I gotta keep going, right?” Charlie said he understood, even though that wasn’t in his heart. “But you’d better go, buddy.” Mike had that returned-from-college look again. Charlie said OK, opened the door of the car, then turned again to Mike, asked if he was going to be all right. Mike laughed. “You know the story.” Charlie nodded, stepped out of the car, and his world turned black again.

The Question (Ginger Man 15B)

Charlie twisted his head in the direction of the sound. Being suspended upside-down in the dark distorted his vision, like a farsighted man wearing glasses to correct myopia, but he was still able to make out a shape, stepping out of the forest into the clearing. But it was just a shape; Charlie couldn’t make out much more detail than that. And the words he heard from that shape seemed not to so much spoken, but rather to have appeared inside Charlie’s head.

(You know the rules. You have found me, and I cannot let you go — unless you can answer my question.)

Charlie remembered that detail from Mike’s story. The shape remained silent a moment, filling Charlie with dread temporarily as he dangled upside down. But then, it suddenly came to him — yes. He knew not only what the question would be, but what answer he would give.

(Who am I?)

Charlie released his hold on the tree root, let his body swing back to its original location at the center of the clearing. Spinning, he lost track of the shadowy shape a moment, and on locating it again, could not help himself from laughing.

“Nothing.” Charlie wanted to laugh again but suddenly his body erupted in a spasm of tears, salt jelly spilling out of his eyes, down his temples, through his hair, onto the dirt of the forested floor.

He no longer cared about locating the shadowy shape. “You — you think you’re this Ginger Man, from that story Mike made up one time. One of the stories he made up, when we was kids, when the world seemed so big, too big for any of us to understand. He made up that story ‘cuz he was scared, and I liked that story ‘cuz I was scared, too — I just weren’t honest about being scared, like Mike was.”

He pressed his palms on the ground to stop his body from spinning around his suspended ankles. “Mike’s stories were always good, ‘cuz they helped us think about what made us afraid, gave it a name. Those stories, they helped me and Mike grow up.”

Charlie let another spasm of tears pass through. “But — but we ain’t kids no more. We growed up. And Mike, he went to college, but it didn’t work out so he came back, but he weren’t right.” He sniffed loudly, and spit out the phlegm that had congealed down into the roof of his mouth. “And then, then he died. Mike went to that party, and he did stuff he shouldn’t’ve done, and he got in that car and drove too fast and he hit that tree at Pete’s Elbow, and he died.” He thought he saw the shadowy figure again. “HE. FUCKING. DIED.

Charlie spit again, swallowed. “He was my — ” Charlie whimpered, made no attempt to hide his pain — “he was my friend, and he dead. And you — ” he pointed to the spot where he last remembered seeing the shadowy figure — “you’re just — nuthin.”

Charlie let his arms fall loose, the back of his hands hitting the cold dirt. He sobbed uncontrollably, no longer caring what happened next, and not remembering later how long it took for him to lose consciousness again.