The Undertaker - Sample Chapter
Boston: where California meets Jersey…
I knew I was in trouble when Gino Parini shoved that .45 automatic in my face and made me read my own obituary. I’m not talking about something vague or California-cosmic, like the San Andreas Fault will turn Nevada into beachfront property, or those McDonald’s French fries will seal my arteries shut, or second-hand smoke will give me lung cancer. I’m talking about my own honest-to-God black-and-white obituary ripped from page thirty-two of that morning’s Columbus, Ohio newspaper:
TALBOTT, PETER EMERSON, age 33, of Columbus, died Sunday at Varner Clinic following a tragic automobile accident. President and founder of Center Financial Advisors of Columbus. Formerly of Los Angeles, a 1999 graduate of UCLA and a lieutenant, US Army Transportation Corps...
That was me. I was Talbott, Peter Emerson, 33 years old, and formerly from Los Angeles. I had graduated from UCLA and I had been a lieutenant in the Army. Coincidence? I didn’t think so. There was only one of me and I didn’t die in the Varner Clinic or anywhere else last Sunday. I was an aeronautical software engineer and I had never been to Columbus or heard of Center Financial Advisors much less been its President. Still, when you’re looking into a set of hard, dark eyes and a .45 automatic, it’s hard to argue the fine points.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
That day began normally enough. For the past two months, I had been settling into a new job as a systems designer and software engineer with Symbiotic Software in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was one of a hundred programming shops in those big, mirror-glass office buildings that dot the Route 128 Beltway around Boston. You know the kind: no hard walls, no doors, just dozens of low, pastel-colored cubicles filled with a mixed bag of grungy 20-somethings in every size, shape, color, orientation, and gender. My cubicle was like all the others, except for the cheap plastic nameplate that said “Peter E. Talbott, Senior Systems Engineer” hanging at the entrance. Inside, the wall behind my chair featured a framed poster of Eric Clapton, signed by The Man himself, ripped-off from a LA record store back in my younger and much crazier days. On the wall across from my desk hung a beautiful Air Mexico travel poster: a color shot of a beach at sunset near San Jose down on the Baja, with a thin, solitary young woman in a bikini walking away down the sand. That was where Terri and I were supposed to go that last fall, but she got sick and we never made it. Other than the simple 8” x 10” photograph of her sitting on my desk smiling up at me, the Baja beach poster was easily my most prized possession.
It was already 5:30 PM. Headset on, I stared at my big, flat-screen computer, pounding away at the keyboard, dressed in my treasured, but badly faded, Rolling Stones 1995 Voodoo Lounge World Tour T-shirt, blue jeans, and a worn-out pair of Nikes. Like the shoes, I was a tad older and more scuffed than the rest of the hired help, so clothes helped me fit in during those first awkward weeks after I moved there from LA. Anyway, I had just finished a crash project and was slowly coming back down as I listened to the last tracks of a two CD set of Clapton’s Greatest Hits.
When I really get into a problem, the building could go up in flames, and I’d never notice unless my monitor went blank.
I leaned back in my chair, eyes closed, playing air guitar riffs along with “Tears in Heaven,” when a cold hand lifted one of the ear pieces and whispered in my ear. “Earth to Petey, you are going to have the sub-routines done by tomorrow, aren't you?”
“You said “tomorrow”, as in “close-of-business tomorrow,” not “tomorrow-tomorrow,” or “tomorrow morning”, or “today-tomorrow,” I answered.
“I know, but I’ve got a problem and “tomorrow” just became first thing tomorrow.”
Looking over my shoulder was Doug Chesterton in his “harried boss” costume: a wrinkled white shirt, a cheap necktie with soup stains, and a pocket full of pens. It read MIT all the way – smart as hell, but dumb as a rock.
“Douglas,” I smiled. “Having anticipated that you’d be a completely disorganized and unreasonable asshole...”
“And your brother-in-law, your boss, and the magnanimous owner of the company.”
“They’re done. I e-mailed them to you twenty minutes ago.”
“That's why I brought you here, big guy,” he said as he gave me a big bear hug and planted a disgustingly loud, wet kiss in my right ear, tongue and all. “You're like a bloodhound when you get the scent, Petey, you're fucking relentless.”
“Relentless with a wet ear, you moron.”
Doug leaned in over my shoulder and looked at the screen. “Then what the hell are you still working on? Wait a minute. That’s the Anderson job I gave Julie, isn’t it?”
“Don’t get pissed at her; it was my idea. She had some meetings at school with her kids, so I said I’d help her out.”
Doug laid his hand on my shoulder. “I’m not pissed. I’m glad. I know it’s been hell for you since Terri died, but you moved here to get a fresh start and Julie is drop-dead gorgeous. She’s divorced and she’s exactly what you need.”
“Julie? Oh, come on, I’m just helping her out, I wouldn’t…”
“No, you probably wouldn’t, but she would. Trust me. The faithful widower? Half the secretarial pool wants to take you home and mother you, and the other half wants to have your baby. They think you’re a saint.”
I looked over at Terri’s smiling photo. I knew he was right, but that wasn’t what I wanted or what I needed. He saw me look, too.
“She’s gone, Pete. It’s been a year now and it’s time you moved on. She was my sister and I loved her as much as you did, but that’s what she’d tell you, too.”
“I know, Doug, I know.” The truth was, Terri did tell me that, almost every day at the end and almost every day since. That was where Doug and all the others had it wrong. I wasn’t alone. I still had all my memories of Terri, and my life was full, so full I didn’t have anything left to give to anyone else. Someday, maybe, but not then.”
“Look, I didn’t come out here to bug you,” Doug said. “But accounting keeps gnawing on me about your social security number. The IRS still has your account blocked.”
“I’ve called them three times. They keep mumbling something about a “numeric anomaly.”
“It’s no anomaly. They’ve got you mixed up with somebody else with the same name and they think you’re dead. So, if you want to see a paycheck anytime soon, get the damned thing fixed.”
I shrugged and put it on my list of things to do. Maybe it was number fifty-nine, but it was there. Besides, Doug was right. He was boss. More importantly, he saved my life.
I was born in Los Angeles -- a child of the Golden West, raised on a steady diet of hard rock, fast cars, Pacific beaches, and the trend-du-jour. After UCLA, I went to work at Dynamic Data in Pasadena. It was Terri who introduced me to her MIT techno-nerd brother. We both bounced around Pasadena, going from one hot software shop to another, doing what we both loved and what we were good at. I was smart, but Doug was always smarter. He sold his old Porsche and moved to Boston with his three mangy cats, sinking every dime he could beg or borrow into his own start-up software company, which he named Symbiotic Software. The title was just vague enough to let him take on all sorts of work. However, trading the beaches and sun of Tinseltown for a long, gray winter of snow and ice in New England wasn’t my idea of fun, so I stayed in LA. Shows what we knew. Doug’s little company found a niche and he never looked back.
Back then, LA was the “land of milk and honey,” where the growth curve only pointed to “UP” and “MORE UP.” Like the white rabbit told Gracie Slick though, “one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.” Gracie had no idea how small. Outsourcing was a new word to us “left coasters.” Layoffs and downsizing were something for the Midwest autoworkers and the steelworkers in Pittsburgh with the beer guts and lunch pails to worry about. This time however, it was us smart guys with the white shirts and the glasses of Napa chardonnay who found ourselves on the chopping block. Yep, ask not for whom the HR manager tolls, he tolls for me and for thee.
I became a WOOWCP-WFP as we Southern Californians called ourselves -- or at least the ones who still had a sense of humor. That’s a White-Out-of-Work-Computer-Programmer-With-Few-Prospects. The big aeronautical engineering firm in Glendale that I was then doing software design for was spinning off people faster than an Oklahoma tornado. Half of the parking lot was empty and the signs on the executive parking spaces had hastily painted-over names or no names at all. We’d been downsized and out-sourced to India and Pakistan and most of my friends were now calling themselves house-husbands, shoe clerks, the Orange County Militia, or alcoholics. My defense mechanism had always been a cynical black humor, but even that gets real old, real quick. So does the weekly humiliation of the unemployment line, a McJob that wasn’t worth going to, or sharing my afternoons with Oprah. When Doug phoned me from Boston and offered me the job, I packed the Bronco, did a reverse Horace
Greeley, and headed east. Why not? Terri had died of cancer the year before and there was nothing holding me in California anymore. All I had left were my memories of her, but I soon discovered they were surprisingly portable. I could take her with me anywhere I went, and she never complained, not once.
Terri and I met at a Bruce Springsteen Concert in Oakland when we were young and Bruce’s liver was a lot older. She was a reporter for an on-line weekly e-paper and rock blog in Mendocino, a stringer actually, all bright-eyed and serious, hoping to catch the big break with an in-depth retrospective piece on the inner meaning of Springsteen’s lyrics. Me? I had cut class for the week and hitched my way up the coast from LA, hoping to catch the music and some fun with the tailgaters and groupies in the parking lot. Don’t ask me why, but for some strange reason we stuck. The unity of opposites? Who knows, but we had eight incredible years together and a lot of good times, right to the bitter end. When it came, I was left with a lot of pain and a gaping hole where someone else should be -- a hole I thought could never be filled. Fortunately, I had all those good memories of her too. Memories. Without my memories of Terri, I would never have made it. They were the parts of her I could tuck away in the back corner of my mind and pull out whenever things got really bad, when the hurting parts of me ripped loose and started to fly away. Those were the times I needed something firm to hold onto until I could pull myself back together. That was why they could kill me if they wanted to, but I refused to let them hi-jack my memories of Terri. They were too precious. I owed them everything.
There’s an old saying, “that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger,” but it’s not true. Things can maim and hurt too, and leave you an emotional cripple. I’ve got to hand it to Terri. She fought the disease for many months and as she did, she taught me what real determination and courage were all about. When she finally did die, I fell into a black hole. I couldn’t help it, but I had had more than I could stomach of doctor's offices, hospitals, medicine smells, denatured alcohol, pill bottles, flowers, funeral homes, and the musky smell of freshly turned dirt. Funeral homes. I swore I would never enter one again, not on my feet anyway. Even today, the smell of cut flowers and organ music can push me right over the edge, and all because of one tiny little lump, a growth no bigger than a pea.
I was numb at her funeral. When it was over, I piled into my Nissan 350-Z and headed south to Mexico, determined to drink them out of tequila. The next three weeks were a blur. Like Jimmy Buffet, I ended up with a blown flip-flop, an unwanted tattoo, and vague memories of too many barroom floors. I'm still not sure where I was or what I was doing, but they say my 350-Z hit a semi head-on out on the main highway. The Mexican cops found a charred body inside. Everyone assumed it was me, but it was probably some poor, dumb Mexican kid having the time of his life in a drunken gringo's Japanese sports car. Whatever, they packed the crispy critter back to LA and buried him next to Terri, and I’m told they threw me one Hell of a funeral. Coming right on the heels of Terri's, our friend's worst problem was to make sure they wore a different dress or a new tie.
They didn’t even have to ask for directions. It was sympathy squared, with tons of tears and an instant replay for those who missed the first show.
Whatever, the crispy critter wasn't me. I saw a copy of the Mexican death certificate and the florid obituary that somebody wrote for the Pasadena newspaper. The eulogy was so stirring; they said Doug never did stop crying. When they finally let me out of the drunk tank in San Jose and I talked my way back across the border a few weeks later, it really pissed off a lot of people. Talk about your emotional pratfall. All those tears wasted, all those interrupted vacations, all the schedules that had to be rescheduled -- how rude.
That was their problem. Me? I had hit bottom. No, I had crashed through bottom and landed in my private little hell somewhere below the sub-basement. Funny though. Even when I sank to the lowest point I could get, after mopping up half the bars in Baja, Terri didn't abandon me. I saw her face staring up at me from the bottom of every tequila glass I downed.
She was watching me from the dark shadows in the corner of the filthy hotel room I crashed in. Whenever I paused to raise my blood-shot eyes to the puffy, fast-moving clouds in that high, blue Mexican sky, I saw her face up there on the clouds looking down, watching over me. No, Terri had not deserted me. She would always be there, but I knew she was not very happy watching what I was doing to myself.
When I got back to LA, they put me on medical leave. They called it stress, but the place was shutting down anyway. Four months later, they locked the doors and I found myself standing at the end of the unemployment line like everyone else. Let's face it, there was nothing left for me in LA and I was ready for a change of scene. I’d proven I couldn’t in fact drink all the tequila in the world no matter how hard I tried, and that there were easier ways to kill myself if that was what I really want to do. But I didn’t. Terri was up there watching me. I couldn’t put up with her frowns and unhappy looks any longer, so I got myself dried out. No AA or twelve-step method, I simply took a good look at myself in the mirror one morning and stopped cold.
Two months later, the phone rang. It was Doug, desperate for a systems programmer. He didn’t need to ask twice. Most people wouldn't look forward to a five-thousand mile drive all by themselves, but it didn't bother me one bit. I’d spent most of the year practicing being alone and had gotten good at it. Besides, it was easier for me to drive across the country for a week than to spend another night alone in LA.
In a way, I came to enjoy those long days in the Bronco. My first choice would have been to have Terri in the front seat next to me, anytime and anywhere, but out on the open road I had our music and our memories to keep me company. The truth was, I still had her. Every now and then, even cold sober, I heard her speak to me. Not always in so many words, but I understood what she was telling me. And I would get those looks.
She was up there in the clouds looking out for me, as she did down in Mexico. She was worried about me, not that I could blame her. If I had a brain in my head, I’d be worried about me too. I understood what she was saying. It was the same thing she said to me that last night in the hospital before she died. She wanted me to get out of LA, she wanted me to make a new life, and she wanted me to find someone I could be with, for my sake as much as for hers. If I didn’t, she told me she would haunt me forever, and we both knew what a single-minded pain-in-the-ass Terri could be when she wanted to.
It was shortly after 9:30 PM when I finished the stuff for Julie and switched off my computer monitor. The old Chinese janitor who was vacuuming the aisle glanced up at me as I walked by. He was probably wondering why the Barbarian was working this late. My back and legs wondered too. I was bleary-eyed and in a computer-induced fog as I grabbed my empty thermos and headed for the door.
Outside, I looked up at the night sky, as had become my habit in the past year. Just checking in again, I told her as I took a few deep breaths. After a long day in air conditioning, the warm, damp evening air felt good. I guess there were a couple of dozen other cars scattered about the parking lot, not that I paid them any attention as I trudged toward my dirty red Ford Bronco sitting in the middle. It was a grizzled veteran of the commuter battles on the LA expressways. Our friends jokingly referred to it as the “OJ Simpson” model. It didn’t get good mileage, but it had a big gas tank and the cops could chase you all day in it.
I pulled out my remote key and pressed “unlock.” Totally brain dead, I heard the doors pop open and got inside. I tossed the thermos in the back seat, pulled the door closed and fastened my seat belt. I stuck the key in the ignition and was about to crank the engine when the passenger door opened and very large guy slipped in next to me. His slick, jet-black hair was pulled back into a stubby ponytail and he had a weight lifter’s body that stretched the seams of his sharkskin sports coat. He wore a dark-red silk shirt open at the throat and a half-dozen gold chains around his neck. More importantly, he held a chrome-plated .45 caliber automatic pointed at my chest. Having spent two years in the Army, I knew what a .45 could do to on the pistol range. I didn't want to know what it could in the front seat of my Bronco.
“You Peter Talbott?” he asked, glaring at me.
“You want the Bronco? It's yours.”
“No, I don't want the freakin' Bronco.”
“It's yours, really,” I told him as I reached for the door handle.
“Look, Ace, this ain't no carjack, and if it were, I'd pick something better than an old piece of shit like this,” he said as he raised the .45 a few inches higher and I stopped moving. “Now, you Talbott, or not?”
“Yes, yes, I’m Talbott.”
“Peter Emerson Talbott? 33 years old?” I nodded, ready to agree to anything. “From California? Went to freakin’ UCLA? UCLA?” His eyes narrowed as he repeated the name of the school. “You know, I lost two large on those dumb bastards in the NCAA tournament last year. I oughta ...”
“Yeah,” I kept nodding. “They’re real dumb bastards, really dumb.”
“But you weren't there then, were you? Says you graduated back in ‘98.”
More nods, wondering where this was heading. “I guess I can't blame you then, can I?”
“Uh, no, I wouldn't.”
“Shut up! You were in the Army and then you went to work for something called Netdyne out in LA. Right?”
“Yeah, software and aeronautical engineering computer stuff,” I kept nodding as the feeling of stark terror was beginning to wear off. After all, he hadn't shot me yet.
“You moved here to Boston two months ago and you're living in that little suck-ass apartment over in Lexington? So where's your wife?”
“Where’s my wife?” Now it was my turn to get pissed. I sat up and glared.
“She's dead. She died a year ago back in LA.”
“Yeah? You freakin’ sure about that?”
“Yeah, I’m freakin’ sure about it!” The .45 or not, I’d had enough.
“Okay, Ace, then how do you explain this?”
He reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a bad Xerox copy of an old newspaper story, and dropped it in my lap. One glance and I knew exactly what it was:
TALBOTT, PETER EMERSON, age 33, died last Tuesday in a tragic automobile accident in Baja California. A 1998 graduate of UCLA and former lieutenant in the US Army Transportation Corps, he was a software engineer with Netdyne Systems in Long Beach and the husband of Theresa June Talbott who preceded him in death here last month following a lengthy illness. A memorial service will be held at the Montane chapel in Long Beach at 2:00 PM on Thursday.
“Oh, not this again,” I laughed and shook my head, recognizing the old obituary from the LA Times.
“You see something funny, smart guy?”
“That obituary, it was all a big mistake.”
“A mistake?” He raised the .45. “I'm all freakin’ ears.”
I tried to explain to him about the trip to Tijuana, the 350-Z, the semi, the dead Mexican kid, and the memorial service in Long Beach.
The guy sat and listened, as he said, he was all ears. When I finally finished, he sat there for a minute as if he was studying me. “Okay, then how do you explain Columbus?”
“Yeah, Columbus. In Ohio. You never heard of it?”
“Sure, I've heard of it.”
“So what were you doing there? Having more funerals for the hell of it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I‘ve never been there.”
“Never?” he glared, looking deep into my eyes. “What about that dip-shit accounting office of yours down on Sickles?”
“Accounting office? I’m a software engineer, a computer programmer; I don’t know anything about accounting. Look, whoever you’re looking for, I’m not him.”
“Okay, if that's the way you want to play it, how do you explain these?” he said as he dropped two other slips of torn newsprint in my lap.
They were two more obituaries. I picked the first one up and read:
TALBOTT, PETER EMERSON, age 33, of Columbus, died Sunday at Varner Clinic following a tragic automobile accident. President of Center Financial Advisors. Formerly of Los Angeles. A 1998 graduate of UCLA and a lieutenant, US Army Transportation Corps. By authority of Ralph Tinkerton, Executor. (See also TALBOTT, THERESA JUNE, wife, accompanying). Funeral services for both at 2:00 PM tomorrow, Greene Funeral Home, 255 E. Larkin, Peterborough, Ohio. Internment, Oak Hill Cemetery, following.
“You making a fuckin’ hobby out of these?” he asked, but all I could do was stare at it. Coincidence? How many 1998 graduates of UCLA were there? How many were thirty-three years old and from Los Angeles? How many of those were alumni of the “Fighting” Transportation Corps, “an officer and a gentleman by Act of Congress” named Peter Emerson Talbott? Only one that I could think of. I had never heard of a company named Center Financial Advisors, much less owned one, and I had never heard of the Varner Clinic or a man named Ralph Tinkerton, either.
Worse still, I looked at the other one. It was the companion piece for Terri:
TALBOTT, THERESA JUNE, age 33, of Columbus, died Sunday at Varner Clinic following a tragic automobile accident. Loving wife of Peter. (See also TALBOTT, PETER EMERSON, Husband, accompanying). Formerly of Los Angeles and a 1999 graduate of Berkeley. By authority, Ralph Tinkerton, Executor. Funeral services for both at 2:00 PM tomorrow, Greene Funeral Home, 255 E. Larkin, Peterborough, Ohio. Internment, Oak Hill Cemetery, following.
This was no mistake. That couple in the newspaper was supposed to be Terri and me, no doubt about it. It was a lie and in that instant I got very angry. They could do what they wanted to me. My name and my reputation meant nothing, certainly not after Baja, but when they dragged Terri into it, something inside me snapped. This was worse than identity theft. It was memory corruption. They were stealing her, stealing my memories of her, wrapping their greasy fingers around them and warping them. Something snapped inside me and I knew that was something I couldn’t let happen. I didn’t care about this Bozo with the Soprano suit and the .45, and I didn’t care about the odds. I was going to stop them. It’s funny how when you have nothing to lose, as I did back then, it’s easy to think really stupid thoughts like that.
He stared at me. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“More than you'll ever know. Where did you get these?”
“This morning's Columbus Daily Press.”
“Today? I don't get it.”
“Yeah, neither do we. You ever heard of Jimmy Santorini?”
I shook my head.
“How about Rico Patillo? Bayonne? East Orange?”
“In New Jersey? You're kidding, right?”
His eyes grew hard. “Do I look like I'm freakin’ kidding? I don't suppose
you ever heard of Ralph Tinkerton either?” He stared at me, trying to read my eyes as I shook my head again. “Ah, shit,” he finally said in disgust, then opened the passenger side door and started to get out. He turned and looked back at me, pointing the .45 at my old blue jeans and the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge World Tour T-shirt. “Freakin’ California. Ain't you a little old for that shit?”
I looked at his gaudy chain and the sharkskin “lounge-lizard” jacket and replied, “Freakin New Jersey. Ain't you a little young?”
“A smart ass, huh?” he answered with a glint of humor in his eye as he got the rest of the way out. “I like that, but you be real careful, Ace. Keep both hands on the steering wheel, drive straight out of the parking lot, and don't look back until you reach that “suck-ass” dump you’re renting in Lexington. You got that?”
“But what about...”
“Forget about it. Tinkerton may have made one mistake, but he won't make a second one, and neither will I. So get out of here. Forget all about everything I told you and forget all about me. You got that? ‘Cause if I see so much as a brake light come on, you'll get a slug through the rear window.”
I did what he said. I drove away and I didn't stop, not that I thought he really was following me or that he’d shoot that big cannon at me, but there was nothing to be gained by finding out. I drove to Lexington, pulled into a parking space next to my little “suck-ass” dump and turned off the motor.
Too bad I couldn’t turn mine off. It was just getting going. Screw him, I thought, as I leaned over and opened the glove compartment. I pulled out my dog-eared Road Atlas. That was when I noticed the three newspaper clippings lying on the floor. The grease-ball had dropped them there. He wanted me to have them. I had to give him credit; he was pushing all the right buttons and there was nothing I could do to stop myself. Not that I really cared what kind of scam they were pulling or what they were using my name for, but they had crossed the line when they began messing with Terri. She was out of bounds.
Columbus, Ohio. I opened the Road Atlas to the mileage table on the back page. My finger ran down the left hand column until I found Boston column, then ran it across to the Cs until I found Columbus. It was 783 miles from Boston, about a twelve-hour drive in the Bronco. I looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was 10:17 PM. Plenty of time to run inside, make a fresh thermos of coffee, throw some stuff in an overnight bag, and make it there my funeral at 2:00 PM tomorrow. After all, I missed the one in LA and I would feel really bad if I missed this one too.