A Good Man, a short story by Aaron Perkins

 

“That’s enough, Greta,” I said as the matronly waitress poured milk into my coffee. “Thank you.”

“No problem, old man,” she replied with a smirk. I smiled back at her and she walked away.

I liked Greta. She was my favorite waitress here at Mallorie’s. She was my late friend Frederick’s favorite too. We never knew if she was actually fond of us or not, but I discovered that she was once Freddy had passed. She attended his funeral, as well as offering comfort to the likes of mine and his family—mainly his wife.

I liked Mallorie—the namesake of the diner—as well. We had known each other since middle school. I’m pretty sure I dated her once or twice. She was a resourceful, beautiful blonde in her day—resourceful enough to start her own restaurant. She’d passed as well, though. Brain tumor took her away.

I had one at the time, too; it was considerably smaller than hers, though. We were buddies throughout. Mine got removed with pills and surgery. She refused surgery and the pills didn’t work. I was out of another lifelong friend.

By then I’d only had two left, but Gail Townley, whom I’d known since kindergarten, had moved to New Mexico and Ol’ Victor had lost his mind, poor guy. Alzheimer’s or dementia—I can’t remember. I shouldn’t have said that.

As an old man, though, sometimes I just say things without thinking first. I see that as one of my greatest downfalls, but my oldest grandson says that it’s a good thing I have “no filter” when I talk.

My main curse, however, is my longevity. Many consider a long life to be a blessing, but I disagree. I have to watch everyone I love die around me, while I sit in perfect health. I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve to stay with my child and his children while everyone I’ve ever known except them passes and doesn’t get to any longer. I guess you can call what I’m feeling “survivor’s guilt”, but the tragedy I’m escaping isn’t a battle or a natural disaster or anything like that. I keep escaping death itself, and I wish I could give some of my life to the folks around me. Maybe I’m just selfish for thinking it, though, because my main motive for this wish isn’t for the people around me. I’m exhausted by the pain that death causes, especially since it’s never my own death. I’m tired of living just to watch other people die.

A man walked in that caught my eye. He was a man of a rich brown color; he looked to be of Indian descent. He had a loosely curled head of hair, jet black and glossy, but not greasy. The hair, bouncing ever so slightly as he walked in the door, was accompanied by a full beard of similar color and shine. His eyebrows were dark and thick, but trimmed nicely. His eyes seemed just as dark as his hair, with a few wrinkles underneath, signaling perhaps age, hard work, or weariness. On his chest he wore a plaid button-up, its main color a brown almost as dark as the highlights of his skin. More of a tan, I’d say. The shirt also consisted of a royal navy which crossed over the tan in a sequential pattern, offering a greyish color. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and buttoned in place with a small flap that resided within the sleeves when they were down.

He looked to be a working man, entering the diner for a bite to eat after a long shift. I used to be just like him. One thing was off, though. I was in this diner nearly every day for the past fifteen years, and I had never seen the man before.

The man smiled as he walked, and, to my surprise, sat directly in front of me.

“Hello, Charles,” he said to me. His voice was soothing, with almost an echo to it. “How are you?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I apologized. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

He just looked at me and continued to smile. I could nearly see my reflection on his teeth. He wasn’t looking at my mouth, though—he was looking directly in my eyes. He wasn’t looking at them. He was looking in them, like he could see my soul. I felt beckoned to speak.

“I… I’m doing quite well. However, I am concerned with my health a bit… my mental health, that is. I’m cursed with my longevity, but sometimes I contemplate writing my own destiny, if you get my meaning.”

“I do, Charles,” the man said to me. “However, you must persevere. Your mind can become deadlier than death itself. Your time will come, and you will know when it has arrived.”

“I’m sorry,” I stated after a long pause. “I don’t know why I told you that. Who are you? How do you know who I am?”

“I am you,” he simply replied. “I am among you. I am for you. Most importantly, Charles, I am here.”

“What?” I asked. “Who are you?”

“Call me what you’d like,” he requested, continuing his smile. “Perhaps Teddy?”

I was confused, but for some reason I accepted, with a slight adjustment: “Ted.”

“Very well. From now on, call me Ted.”

I took a drink of my coffee, still piping hot after all this time. I looked across the table at my guest, He was admiring the restaurant, from the checkerboard floors and metal barstools to the red and yellow walls and the windows looking onto Fifth Avenue. He eventually looked back at me.

That’s when I recognized it. Ted had brown skin and jet black hair. He had bright white teeth and had the appearance of a working man. Ted reminded me of myself. This man sitting in front of me was my own son, whom I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time.

“Ted?” I asked. It was no wonder I had given the man that name. Something in my subconscious must’ve told me that it was him. But why didn’t I recognize him? Why couldn’t I remember him? I hoped to God that I wasn’t facing the same fate as Ol’ Victor. “Is it you?”

“Yes,” he answered. “But no. I am not your son, Charles, though I may appear to be. I predicted that perhaps I would, but wasn’t sure. You’ve merely confirmed my assumption. However, if it makes you more comfortable to see me as and address me as your son, you may do so.”

“Okay,” I simply replied.

Something was tugging at me. Every second he looked at me, it got harder to resist. The weight of this thing inside me was like an anvil, and my resistance to it like a single strand of dry straw.

“Ted,” I started, my voice as shaky as if I were laughing or crying. “When will I die?”

I don’t know where the question came from. It was like someone was inside of my head, controlling everything I said and did while I was just a spectator with a first-person point of view.

“Charles, even I do not know that,” he proclaimed with a straight face. “Nobody does but Him.” He paused for a moment, looking down at his hands, propped on the table with their fingers interlocked. “The way I see it, you have had your time here on Earth, and you have experienced your entire life up to this moment, the good and the bad. You will continue to do this until you do not. Eventually, your time will come to pass. You’ve had your youth, and you’ve had your adulthood. You had your own story. You were a powerful young man who was on top of the world. As far as you cared, the world was yours, and you conquered it each and every day, even the days that you were down. And even though you were, in your eyes, on top of the world, you didn’t see yourself as better than anyone else, but better than the challenges that the world threw at you. You helped people, and they helped you.”

“Those were good times, Ted,” I told him. “I tried my best, I think. I lived like a young man and I’m proud to say so.”

“Those times were good times, Charles, but they’re not these times,” he said to me. “You know as well as I that you’re a man of the past.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, sort of frantically. He paused for a moment before he replied.

“Your child is of the present. Your grandchildren are of the future. You are of the past. The world grants everyone their time. There is a time, however, before and after—a transitional period.”

His words cascaded from his mouth like an elixir, and I was mesmerized by watching and listening to him speak. It was almost as if the words projected themselves in the space in front of him after he said them, and I could see them as well as hear their narration.

“The first prepares you for life—,” he continued. “For your time. It’s a state of infancy. You learn who you are, even if it lies within your subconscious. The second transitional period prepares you for your afterlife. For you, this time is now. You are being prepared for your afterlife. Your time to pass is coming, Charles, but it has not yet arrived.”

“Okay,” I uttered. I had nothing else to say. I felt like crying, but the dams of my eyes were closed, and no liquid was lost.

“Is there anything else?” he asked me.

I thought for a moment, and I almost said no. Right before I spoke, however, another idea popped up in my head.

“What’s it like,” I asked, looking up at the ceiling fan, the ceiling, and everything beyond, “up there?”

Ted smiled again, a smile that stretched so far and wide. A smile that seemed to erupt from the abstraction of happiness itself.

“It’s beautiful, Charles,” he answered, “like nothing you’ve ever seen. Hope and joy flood area like you’d need an ark to escape it. It is wonderful bliss, unique and individualistic to all who are in it. You are going to love it.”

He couldn’t stop smiling, and I realized that neither could I. It seemed as if I felt whatever emotion he did, no matter how rapidly they changed.

He giggled excitedly, and I thought I saw a tear in his eye.

“It truly is beautiful.”

I was satisfied with that answer, and racked my brain to think of another. Ted must have realized that I was contemplating because he sat in silence, waiting for my next question. Finally, I conjured up something I thought was perfect.

“Was I a good man?” I asked, but before he could answer me, I continued. “My entire life, I have tried to do the right thing, but so many people have a different moral compass. So many people have conflicting ideas on what is right and wrong and what is required of you in this life. I was never married, Ted, and I never bore kids of my own, but I adopted. I adopted a beautiful young boy, and I raised him best I could by myself. When I first adopted him, he wouldn’t separate from this little stuffed bear he had wearing a red bowtie. I named him Teddy after the bear that he carried everywhere, and eventually he was able to let go of that bear and feel comfortable… but I just don’t know. Did I do right by him, Ted? I know I ain’t talked to him in a while. We’ve kind of had a falling out. I hate it but that’s what it is, but I think I did right by raising him how I did. A… and I worked on the railroad to support him, and I helped out my coworkers there. I think I even saved a boy once by telling him not to smoke while he fueled an engine. I took care of my friends and what family I had for my entire life, but I’ve heard from some that… that’s not enough. I’ve heard that I’m not a good man, Ted. People who don’t like me tell me that, and even some people that don’t know me, and just heard it from someone else. Ted, I want to know, I have to know.”

I took a long drink of my coffee before finishing my train wreck of a speech.

“Was I a good man?” I asked finally.

“No, Charles,” he said to me, and I was instantly broken, like a hot knife had been stuck directly into my heart and burned its way out all the way through my skin. “You are a good man. You have followed your heart your entire life. That’s Him. He lives in your heart. He still does, and He always will. For as long as he does such, you will be a good man.”

“Thank you,” I responded. Somehow, with his simple speech, he brought tears to my eyes. I looked over at him and decided that if I was going to continue speaking with him, I would want more coffee.

I looked over and realized that I had a full cup, piping hot. It was odd because I remembered drinking most of it before asking my previous question. Greta must have refilled my mug, as well as added the milk that turned the coffee into a satin caramel color. That was also odd, because I usually have to tell her when to stop, and I didn’t remember doing so.

I grabbed the mug and took a sip. It was perfect. Not a harsh taste, yet still strong and rich, just the way I like it. I put the cup down and followed it with my eyes as I did so.

I glanced across the table, and Ted was gone. I peered out of the large window to my right to look for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. To help myself solve this mystery, I hailed Greta. She arrived at my table almost instantly, a pitcher of fresh coffee in her hand.

“You looking for a refill?” she asked me. I shook my head.

“No… did you see the guy that was with me? Where’d he go?” I questioned.

“Teddy? Yeah… he just left,” she answered. “Walked around the building. Good to see you two together, though.”

“Oh… thanks—me too,” I mumbled, then I thought about something. Greta had walked back into the kitchen, so I couldn’t voice my train of thought to her, but it sure was chugging along with great speed and power. I took out my phone and dialed a number. A man picked up on the other side.

“Hey, dad,” he said, and I could tell that my Teddy was grinning on the other side of the line. I smiled in response, as if he’d be able to see me.

“Hey, Ted,” I replied. “You free to talk for a while?”

“Yeah, I’m free,” he answered, and we talked for hours about everything we could think of. At one point I told him that I was proud of the man he was becoming. I got to talk to my grandkids, too.

I finally got my dinner when Greta came back. She didn’t even take my order because she already knew what it was. I talked to my lineage, adopted or not, while I ate a cheeseburger and fries. After I was done eating, I paid for my meal and tipped Greta a hefty fifty-dollar bill, and she nearly cried. I hugged her and left the diner, also saying goodbye to my son on the phone.

I ambled around the building to my car, unlocked the door with my key, and sat down in the cream leather seats. I turned the key in the ignition and rolled down my windows. I already knew he was in the passenger seat.

“Hey, Ted,” I said, but not to my Ted this time. “What are you doing out here?”

“Charles,” he started, then looked at me with that great big smile of his. “I figured I’d let you have a moment. I knew you needed it.”

He continued to stare at me while I shifted my car to reverse. I took in a deep breath, and looked back at him. I could read the message in his eyes. I put the car back in park, looked forward, and removed my keys from the ignition. I was looking at a faded brick wall, layered with moss and cracks.

“Will it hurt?” I asked him. Now that my time had finally caught up with me, I was somewhat scared of it—fearful of physical pain.

“Just for a moment,” he answered. “But it’s worth it.”

I sat for a moment, drumming my fingers on my steering wheel. How would everyone feel about this—Teddy, his wife, my grandkids? I’ve been trapped in my frail body for years. Was this the escape into eternal bliss? Would I die right here—right now?

“Are you ready?” Ted asked.

“Give me just a moment.”

 


Aaron Perkins is a junior in high school. He has had writing aspirations
since he was twelve years old.