When I was halfway across the kitchen, the swinging door opened. Hutch switched on the overhead lights, stork-walked into the room, and said, I just saw a tsunami many hundreds of feet high.
Really? I asked. Just now?
It was in a movie.
That’s a relief, sir.
Not the wave, the woman.
Téa Leoni. She was in the movie.
He stilted to the island and took a cookie from the plate.
Son, did you know there’s an asteroid on a collision course with the earth?
It’s always something, I said.
If a large asteroid strikes land—he took a bite of the cookie—millions could die.
Makes you wish the world was nothing but an ocean.
Ah, but if it lands in the ocean, you get a tsunami perhaps a thousand feet high. Millions dead that way, too.
I said, Rock and a hard place.
Smiling, nodding, he said, Absolutely wonderful.
Millions dead, sir?
What? No, of course not. The cookie. Quite wonderful.
Thank you, sir. I raised the wrong hand to my mouth and almost bit into the two wallets.
He said, Soberingly profound.
It’s just a cookie, sir, I said, and took a bite of mine.
The possibility all of humanity could be exterminated in a single cataclysmic event.
That would put a lot of search-and-rescue dogs out of work.
He lifted his chin, creased his brow, and drew his noble face into the expression of a man always focused on tomorrow. I was a scientist once.
What field of science, sir?
Hutch put down his half-eaten cookie, fished a bottle of Purell from a pocket, and squeezed a large dollop of the glistening gel into the cupped palm of his left hand.
A terrible new strain of pneumonic plague would have wiped out civilization if not for me, Walter Pidgeon, and Marilyn Monroe.
I haven’t seen that one, sir.
She was marvelous as an unwitting pneumonic-plague carrier.
His gaze refocused from the future of science and mankind to the glob of germ-killing goop on his palm.
She certainly had the lungs for the role, he said.
Vigorously, he rubbed his long-fingered hands together, and the sanitizing gel made squishy sounds.
Well, I said, I was headed up to my room.
Did you have a nice walk?
Yes, sir. Very nice.
A ‘constitutional’ we used to call them.
That was before my time.
That was before everyone’s time. My God, I am old.
Not that old, sir.
Compared to a redwood tree, I suppose not.
I hesitated to leave the kitchen, out of concern that when I started to move, he would notice that I was without shoes and pants.
Call me Hutch. Everyone calls me Hutch.
Yes, sir. If anyone comes around this evening looking for me, tell them I came back from my walk very agitated, packed my things, and split.
The gel had evaporated; his hands were germ-free. He picked up his half-eaten cookie.
With dismay, he said, You’re leaving, son?
No, sir. That’s just what you tell them.
Will they be officers of the law?
No. One might be a big guy with a chin beard.
Sounds like a role for George Kennedy.
Is he still alive, sir?
Why not? I am. He was wonderfully menacing in Mirage with Gregory Peck.
If not the chin beard, then maybe a redheaded guy who will or will not have bad teeth. Whoever—tell him I quit without notice, you’re angry with me.
I don’t think I could be angry with you, son.
Of course you can. You’re an actor.
His eyes twinkled. He swallowed some cookie. With his teeth just shy of a clench, he said, You ungrateful little shit.
That’s the spirit, sir.
You took five hundred in cash out of my dresser drawer, you thieving little bastard.
Good. That’s good.
I treat you like a son, I love you like a son, and now I see I’m lucky you didn’t slit my throat while I slept, you despicable little worm.
Don’t ham it up, sir. Keep it real.
Hutch looked stricken. Hammy? Was it really?
Maybe that’s too strong a word.
I haven’t been before a camera in half a century.
You weren’t over the top, I assured him. It was just too…fulsome. That’s the word.
Fulsome. In other words, less is more.
Yes, sir. You’re angry, see, but not furious. You’re a little bitter. But it’s tempered with regret.
Brooding on my direction, he nodded slowly. Maybe I had a son I lost in the war, and you reminded me of him.
His name was Jamie, he was full of charm, courage, wit. You seemed so like him at first, a young man who rose above the base temptations of this world…but you were just a leech.
I frowned. Gee, Mr. Hutchison, a leech…
A parasite, just looking for a score.
Well, okay, if that works for you.
Jamie lost in the war. My precious Corrina dead of cancer. His voice grew increasingly forlorn, gradually diminishing to a whisper. So alone for so long, and you…you saw just how to take advantage of my vulnerability. You even stole Corrina’s jewelry, which I’ve kept for thirty years.
Are you going to tell them all this, sir?
No, no. It’s just my motivation.
He snared a plate from a cabinet and put two cookies on it.
Jamie’s father and Corrina’s husband is not the type of old man to turn to booze in his melancholy. He turns to the cookies…which is the only sweet thing he has left from the month that you cynically exploited him.
I winced. I’m beginning to feel really bad about myself.
Do you think I should put on a cardigan? There’s something about an old man huddled in a tattered cardigan that can be just wonderfully pathetic.
Do you have a tattered cardigan?
I have a cardigan, and I could tatter it in a minute.
I studied him as he stood there with the plate of cookies and a big grin.
Look pathetic for me, I said.
His grin faded. His lips trembled but then pressed together as if he struggled to contain strong emotion.
He turned his gaze down to the cookies on the plate. When he looked up again, his eyes glistened with unshed tears.
You don’t need the cardigan, I said.
Truly. You look pathetic enough.
That’s a lovely thing to say.
You’re welcome, sir.
I better get back to the parlor. I’ll find a deliciously sad book to read, so by the time the doorbell rings, I’ll be fully in character.
They might not get a lead on me. They might not come here.
Don’t be so negative, Odd. They’ll come. I’m sure they will. It’ll be great fun.
He pushed through the swinging door with the vigor of a younger man. I listened to him walk down the hallway and into the parlor.
Shoeless, pantless, bloody, I scooped some cubes from the icemaker and put them in a OneZip plastic bag. I wrapped a dishtowel around the bag.
Pretending the confidence of a fully dressed man, I walked down the hallway. Passing the open doors to the parlor, I waved to Hutch when, from the solace of his armchair, moored in melancholy, he waved listlessly at me.
MY SCALP WAS ABRADED, NOT LACERATED. IN THE shower, the hot water and shampoo stung, but I didn’t begin to bleed freely again.
Unwilling to take the time to cautiously towel or blow-dry my hair, I pulled on fresh jeans and a clean T-shirt. I laced my backup pair of sneakers.
The MYSTERY TRAIN sweatshirt had been lost to the sea. A similar thrift-shop purchase featured the word WYVERN across the chest, in gold letters on the dark-blue fabric.
I assumed Wyvern must be the name of a small college. Wearing it did not make me feel any smarter.
As I dressed, Frank Sinatra watched me from the bed. He lay atop the quilted spread, ankles crossed, head propped on pillows, hands behind his head.
The Chairman of the Board was smiling, amused by me. He had a winning smile, but his moods were mercurial.
He was dead, of course. He had died in 1998, at the age of eighty-two.
Lingering spirits look the age they were when death took them. Mr. Sinatra, however, appears whatever age he wishes to be, depending on his mood.
I have known only one other spirit with the power to manifest at any age he chose: the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Elvis had kept me company for years. He had been reluctant to move on, for reasons that took me a long while to ascertain.
Only days before Christmas, along a lonely California highway, he had finally found the courage to proceed to the next world. I’d been happy for him then, to see his sorrow lift and his face brighten with anticipation.
Moments after Elvis departed, as Boo and I walked the shoulder of the highway, drawn toward an unknown destination that proved to be Magic Beach, Mr. Sinatra fell in step beside me. He appeared to be in his early thirties that day, fifty years younger than when he died.
Now, lying on the bed, he looked forty or forty-one. He was dressed as he had been in some scenes in High Society, which he had made with Bing Crosby in 1956.
Of all the spirits I have seen, only Elvis and Mr. Sinatra are able to manifest in the garments of their choice. Others haunt me always in whatever they were wearing when they died.
This is one reason I will never attend a costume party dressed as the traditional symbol of the New Year, in nothing but a diaper and a top hat. Welcomed into either Hell or Heaven, I do not want to cross the threshold to the sound of demonic or angelic laughter.
When I had pulled on the Wyvern sweatshirt and was ready to leave, Mr. Sinatra came to me, shoulders forward, head half ducked, dukes raised, and threw a few playful punches at the air in front of my face.
Because he evidently hoped that I would help him move on from this world as I had helped Elvis, I had been reading biographies of him. I did not know as much about him as I knew about the King, but I knew the right thing for this moment.
Robert Mitchum once said you were the only man he was afraid to fight, though he was half again as big as you.
The Chairman looked embarrassed and shrugged.
As I picked up the cloth-wrapped bag of ice and held it against the lump on the side of my head, I continued: Mitchum said he knew he could knock you down, probably more than once, but he also knew you would keep getting up and coming back until one of you was dead.
Mr. Sinatra gestured as if to say that Mitchum had overestimated him.
Sir, here’s the situation. You came to me for help, but you keep resisting it.
Two weeks ago, he had gone poltergeist on me, with the result that my collection of books about him went twirling around my room.
Spirits cannot directly harm us, not even evil spirits. This is our world, and they have no power over us. Their blows pass through us. Their fingernails and teeth cannot draw blood.
Sufficiently malevolent, however, with bottomless depths of rage to draw upon, they can spin spiritual power into whips of force that lash inanimate objects into motion. Squashed by a refrigerator hurled by a poltergeist, you tend not to take solace in the fact that the blow was indirect, rather than from the ghostly hand itself.
Mr. Sinatra wasn’t evil. He was frustrated by his circumstances and, for whatever reason, fearful about leaving this world—though he would never admit to the fear. As one who had not found organized religion highly credible until later in life, he was now confused about his place in the vertical of sacred order.
The biographies had not ricocheted from wall to wall with violent force, but had instead circled the room like the horses on a carousel. Every time I tried to pluck one of those books from the air, it had eluded me.
Mr. Mitchum said you’d keep getting up and coming back until one of you was dead, I repeated. But in this fight, sir, one of us is already dead.
His sunny smile grew wintry for a moment, but then thawed away. As dark as his bad moods could be, they were always short seasons.
There’s no point in you resisting me. No point. All I want to do is help you.
As was often the case, I could not read those extraordinary blue eyes, but at least they were not bright with hostility.
After a moment, he affectionately pinched my cheek.
He went to the nearest window and turned his back to me, a genuine spirit watching the fog haunt the night with its legions of false ghosts.
I recalled It Was a Very Good Year, a song that could be read as the sentimental and boastful recollections of an irredeemable Casanova. The poignant melancholy of his interpretation had elevated those words and that music to art.
For him, the good and the bad years were gone, and what remained was merely forever. Maybe he resisted eternity out of fear based in remorse, though maybe not.
The next life promised to be without struggle, but everything I had learned about him suggested that he had thrived on struggle. Perhaps he could not imagine an interesting life without it.
I can imagine it easily enough. After death, whatever I might have to face, I will not linger on this side of the door. In fact, I might cross the threshold at a run.
I DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE THE HOUSE BY THE front door. The way my luck was running, I would find the barbarian horde on the porch, about to pay a visit.
In my dictionary, three bad guys who between them have at least one chin beard, one set of rotten teeth, and three guns qualify as a horde.
Leaving by the back of the house meant I had to pass the parlor, where Hutch brooded about the wife and son he’d never had and about how lonely and vulnerable he was after losing them.
I did not mind if he called me an ungrateful little shit again; that was merely rehearsal for a possible visit from a representative of the horde. The quick shower, the change of clothes, and the chat in the kitchen with Hutch had cost me twenty minutes, however, and I was anxious to locate Annamaria.
Odd, he said as I tried to move past the open parlor doors with the stealth of a Special Forces op in camouflage and sound-suppressing footgear.
Roosting in his armchair with a chenille throw across his lap, as if keeping eggs warm in a bird’s nest, he said, In the kitchen a little while ago, when we were talking about what a useful bit of wardrobe a cardigan can be…
A tattered cardigan, I qualified.
This may seem a peculiar question….
Not to me, sir. Nothing seems peculiar to me anymore.
Were you wearing pants?
Later, I had the strangest impression that you hadn’t been wearing any pants.
Well, sir, I never wear pants.
Of course you wear pants. You’re wearing them now.
No, these are jeans. I only have jeans—and one pair of chinos. I don’t consider them pants. Pants are dressier.
You were wearing jeans in the kitchen?
As I stood in the parlor doorway, holding a bag of ice to the lump on the side of my head, I said, Well, I wasn’t wearing chinos, sir.