Published in Third Wednesday – Winter 2018
WAITING FOR EUGENE
I am perfectly sane. Ask anyone who knows me. Not that they’ll use that exact word. “Old Virgil, he’s a sane one alright.” No, that would be crazy. They’ll say that I’m rational, dependable, not one prone to flights of fancy. Mr. Flannery, he always gives me the accounts with strict deadlines and complicated fact patterns. He knows I’ll deliver. And that’s part of sanity, right? The ability to analyze data, draw logical conclusions. One would not be out of bounds to declare my sanity unquestionable. Which is makes it so odd, so head-scratchingly strange, that I see my dead brother on a regular basis.
I see Eugene in the produce section at Whole Foods thumping melons. In line at the DMV to renew tags for a car I didn’t know he owned. Arguing with a parking lot attendant over whether the twenty-five minute grace period should begin when one takes a ticket or when one finds an empty stall.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean I see people who look like him. Men with some passing resemblance, sandy hair and a thin nose, say. Or a certain squint of the eyes that reminds me of the time he told me Nancy wouldn’t be coming around anymore and disrupting our orderly life with her incessant chatter and general untidiness. I also don’t see him in the “I see dead people” way. Apologies to Mr. Shyamalan, but come on, that kid was crazy and we all knew it.
No, I actually see Eugene in the flesh. If you’ll pardon the expression.
I understand that this is impossible. As the lead actuary for the United Financial Life Assurance Company, I deal in probabilities. I snort with derision at notions of serendipity, fate, destiny. You can be certain that I do not believe in ghosts. Yet there he is, reading a menu at Philippe’s, ordering his French dip with a side salad instead of onion rings.
Beyond the mere impossibility of dead people walking the earth, I understand that my sightings are illogical. Father Richard says the departed go to a better place. While I find the fair trade coffee at Whole Foods to be superior to supermarket brands, the soups are salted with a heavy hand. I don’t think St. Peter, or whoever’s in charge of such things, would approve. No offense to the good people in the kitchen, I just prefer my soup without a side of defibrillation.
So I get it. As any sane person would, of which I number myself in their ranks. All I can say is that Eugene is dead, I see him, and he is quite real, improbable as those facts may be.
I wasn’t always so certain. Once, as a test, I crept up behind him and whispered “Frau Blücher.” He didn’t whiney. Instead, he turned and looked me straight in the eye, shook his head ever so slightly, then walked away. Not a “who the heck are you?” shake. Not a “you have me confused with someone else” shake. He was warning me off, like maybe someone was watching and he didn’t want me to get ensnared in something dangerous. He’s always looked out for me, fancied himself my protector, even though he was only older by one minute and forty-two seconds.
Now I keep my distance, don’t intrude on his earthly errands. I pretend to check the fabric content of a t-shirt, or engross myself in relative pixels counts of flat screen TVs. All the while observing his movements, jotting notes on the small pad I keep in my windbreaker pocket for this express purpose.
Lunch hours and after work I look for Eugene, wait for him to tip his hand, give me the clue that will reveal the truth. I may go months between sightings, then pick up his trail three times in one week.
I track his locations and activities on Excel spreadsheets, perform regression analysis when each new fact presents itself. Patterns emerge and then fade, purposes assert themselves and then recede. My original hypothesis, involving a faked death and the witness protection program, was ultimately disproven by deeper analysis. True, the authorities didn’t let me see the body, but after further study into Newtonian physics, I’ve come to accept their explanation: A fall from thirty-eight stories onto a concrete sidewalk renders a person unidentifiable, both as a specific human and as a member of the human race.
Not that I accept the official cause of death, mind you. Suicide, the death certificate screams. Now that is crazy. The handwriting was his, but the note could have meant any number of things; seven, to be precise. Two words, eight characters. Nine if you count the space. Even I don’t know its exact meaning after six years of cryptanalysis.
I’m not criticizing the medical examiner. I’m sure he — or she — is quite competent. However, competence is not an acceptable substitute for personal knowledge. If anyone knew him, could vouch for his sanity, his inherent stability, it was me. For fifty-two years and seventeen days we spent nearly every moment together. We passed as one through childhood, shared the occasional double date, and, once his pointless Nancy flirtation ran its course, we settled together into a quiet bachelorhood. We sat side by side in matching desks at the United Financial Life Assurance Company for twenty-nine years, eight months and three days. We never spent a single night more than a wall’s width apart from one another. If he was suicidal, I would have known.
He fell while trying to feed the pigeons that roost under our living room window. Or he was murdered for accidently uncovering a plot to assassinate the president. Or some other explanation I have not yet extracted from the available data.
Some nights I lean my head out the window at precisely 2:37 a.m., close my eyes and listen. I listen for his heartbeat, the rush of air against his ears. Listen for his last thought. Was it of me? Listen as his – our – life shatters into pieces against the cold concrete below.
“I’m sorry, too,” I say into the dark night.