Novel excerpt by Scott Thompson
The sticky and warm South Carolina air lingered from the marsh and felt good on Clive Kinsella’s face as he lifted the last piece of camping gear onto the roof rack of his car. He was finally free to explore the country, then the world; and the freedom made him feel young, a feeling he had forgotten. He stepped back from his car to inspect the alignment of the tent and the full hiking packs he had bought just for this adventure. The trunk was filled with one suitcase of clothes for him and the rest for his wife’s luggage, which took up more space than he had planned.
Clive deserved this trip. He had done everything he was supposed to do in life, but that meant that he never got to travel like he had planned many years before, when he was a young man. He had given much of his life to others: his wife, his children, his mother, and his job. That was fine, but now it was his turn. He guessed that he only had a decade before there would be no denying that he was old, but he was still strong and he would use these years of retirement for himself.
He leaned over and picked up a coil of rope when a muscle pulled in his back and pain shot through the left side of his chest like the blade of a thin filet knife. He would have squawked, but a bulk of weight landed on him like a thousand days and it pushed him to the ground into a seated position. His sense of youth flew from him with the marsh wind that buzzed in the heights of the live oak trees. Something was wrong.
How could this be? He was finally getting his chance to see the world; then this. He lifted his right arm to wipe a cold sweat from his eyes when his vision blurred. Dizziness. He melted into his driveway and looked through the last haze of life at the blue sky. It was a good day to travel.
Clive Kinsella looked at his body in the coffin and thought how much it reminded him of a stuffed bass. He had several fish mounted on his walls back home, and this must be his payback. It was odd looking at his body. He was dead. No, that wasn’t right; he wasn’t dead and he wasn’t at peace, like everyone kept saying, but there was no fear. Apprehension about what was next, yes, but not fear. He could feel that something was coming in the same way your gut warns you to slow down in traffic, just before a wreck.
“Well, I bet I’ll finally get the answers to life,” he said to himself. No one could hear him. He walked away from the coffin, then reached down and touched his leg. It didn’t hurt. There hadn’t been a day in his adult life that his leg didn’t hurt and, with the pain gone, he was standing straighter now.
Clive had lived a good life by most standards, although he hadn’t won any big awards. A few plaques had collected dust on his walls next to his stuffed fish that his wife hated, but the mayor, or anyone else of even moderate importance, had never presented him with a key to the city or a medal. He had never won any national writing awards. He had never had the chance to save a life or to become a hero. But he had raised two boys who grew into loving fathers and husbands. Clive tried to tell himself that was enough.
Had he done enough? “I never got to travel,” he said, “I screwed up too many times.” Why was he still haunted? He had just heard his minister tell his family that his pain was over, that his purpose in life was now fulfilled. But he didn’t feel fulfilled.
During his entire lifetime, his birthday had been part of his identity. Now his death date would be added to his description and those who gazed upon his tombstone would see little more than a name, a birth date, and expiration. But he hadn’t expired. Death was a transition and life had not ended. It had only changed.
If he had been given more time, maybe he could’ve traveled. Seen the places he wanted to see, but he died without ever going to the faraway places that he had read about in travel magazines and seen on TV. He wanted to see Europe. He wanted to see Half Dome in Yosemite and maybe climb some of the trails around the valley. He had lived his entire life in the same town except for his time in the army and college. He had expected grand adventures in the army, but he had missed the war, the adventure. After the army, he went to Young Harris College in North Georgia on the GI Bill. He loved the mountains so much that he almost stayed there, but he thought that he was destined for big cities and a big career that never came.
“I’m not finished,” Clive mumbled. “How will Annabelle make it without me? Life was too hard. I did everything I was supposed to do and still got the short end of the stick and I’m not ready. I want to stay.”
“Stop worrying. It was your time,” Clive heard a man’s voice say, “There was nothing you could do about it. “
“You can hear me?” he asked turning around toward the voice, expecting either an angel or a demon.
“Yes, Clive, I can hear you. I’m on this side, like you,” an old man said.
The man’s face was familiar, but Clive was confused. Who was this man? He knew him? Clive was comfortable around him. Then recognition came like a missing boat returning from a voyage on a fog-covered sea. It was his grandfather.
“Pachu, is that you?”
“Yes, boy. It’s me.”
Clive grabbed his grandfather’s hand and shook it. Then he hugged him. His grandfather smelled like Vitalis hair tonic and weathered skin, just as Clive remembered him. Clive felt tears welling up in his eyes. He had never seen his grandfather cry (and he mimicked this throughout his own life) and now he felt guilty for crying.
“I’m sorry, Pachu.”
“For crying. I know I shouldn’t.”
“It’s okay, my boy,” Pachu said and pushed back from his grandson. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, too.
“We’re only human,” Pachu said while he walked to the casket. He looked inside and shook his head before walking away down the middle of the chapel past a few pews before returning. Pachu didn’t recognize the aged body of his grandson in the casket. What Pachu saw was a timeworn and empty hull, not the Eternal image of Clive who stood before him now as a young man with the dark brown hair and heavy blue eyes he remembered. Pachu was used to the difference because the Eternal looked how they perceived themselves.
“You’ve got a lot of flowers,” Pachu said, taking care not to look into the casket again, “Seems many folks loved you.”
Pachu looked the same as Clive remembered him, with white hair that stuck out a half inch above his ears and a white beard to match. His gray eyes disappeared between snowy, unkempt eyebrows and bags built by years of concern. Pachu loved being a grandfather and so his ideal image was that of a grandfather, except that he wasn’t frail. He was an old man in appearance, as Clive remembered, but he moved smoothly and stood with confidence and balance. He even swaggered when he walked. Clive had never seen that confidence in his walk, but he had heard about it. His grandmother spoke of how she first noticed it years before. It was Pachu’s trademark when he was a younger man.
Pachu’s real name was George Kinsella. When Clive was learning to talk he couldn’t say Papa, only Pachu. George was an intimidating man physically, but he had a soft spot for children and never had the heart to correct his grandson. So he became Pachu. Men moved away from his glare, but children enjoyed being near him. The intimidating stare he once held over his face like a burn scar was now gone. There was peace. Long ago, Clive had seen that peace in Pachu’s rare smile, but now it was constant.
Clive was three when his father died. George lost a son and the two remaining Kinsella men bonded, as George became the little boy’s male guide. George thought he was too old to be a father to another kid, but he loved Clive, so he became a father again, while trying to be a good grandfather simultaneously — two very different jobs.
Every day, George visited with young Clive and together they healed. Part of Clive’s healing was to forget his father. It made the pain possible to live with. George’s healing came in teaching his grandson how to play baseball and how to defend himself. He taught Clive how to be a man and how to treat a girl. Clive had the male role model he needed and, even though he didn’t realize it, Pachu’s influence saved him from a lost life.
George Kinsella outlived his wife by a decade. Longer than he was supposed to live, but he was given those years to be there for Clive. But still, those years expired and George passed, leaving a sixteen-year-old Clive to navigate the rest of his life without a father or a father figure.
“Pachu, I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. They let me watch you until you became a man,” Pachu shook his head approvingly, “A good man, I might add.”
“I don’t know about that, but if I did anything right, it was because of you,” Clive said. He watched a group of former coworkers take a seat in the chapel.
“Pachu,” Clive said, turning his head slightly to the side in curiosity. “Are you taking me to Heaven?”
“That’s up to you. You have to go through your Reckoning.” Pachu looked at the receiving line for a moment and then back to Clive. “I’ve been selected to review your life with you. We have to set a few things straight in your soul. Then you can move on. If you can get them straight.”
“What the hell? A reckoning?” Clive held out his hands with his palms facing the ceiling. “I have to review my life?” Clive squeezed his eyes and opened them again. He wasn’t dreaming. “I thought I’d go straight to Heaven.”
“Not right off. We all have to do it.” Pachu twisted the side of his mouth. “We’ll review your life for as long as it takes to set you straight. It’ll be painful so, in return, each day, you’ll get to go someplace special here on Earth.” Pachu opened his arms wide and raised his voice, “Anything. You get to pick.”
Clive shook his head, discouraged, and looked at his body in the coffin. The smell of flowers reminded him of other funerals. He hated the smell of funeral flowers. His family was sitting on a church pew welcoming guests and an old friend from elementary school was shaking hands with Clive’s sons. They were all laughing and he could only imagine which story his friend had just told them.
“I never traveled like I wanted to. Can I visit Europe? Maybe Yosemite?”
“Sure, but first you have to stay for your funeral.”
Clive’s wife, Annabelle, didn’t cry during the sermon because she was trying to be strong for her sons, who were walking to the stage to speak about their father. Clive and Annabelle had been married for decades. Clive had wanted them to travel more, but then his mother became sick and they stayed in Georgetown with her. He wanted to move away from the small South Carolina coastal town. He wanted to go to San Francisco, maybe New York. He wanted to write for one of the big newspapers, and he could have, but the machines of life squeezed and pressed him into a specimen of what he had to be. A new marriage, then kids, then his mother — there was always something keeping him in Georgetown. The pages of the calendar were torn from the wall and thrown away until a lifetime had passed. Time: the killer of freedom. Then life ended and Clive was mounted in a box like a trophy fish.
Annabelle had been young when she met Clive. He was older, and handsome, with bright blue eyes and a smile that brought her peace like the river that flowed near her home. She felt safe with him from the first date and went home and told her mother she was going to marry him. Two years later, she did. He had been a good father, a good husband, and she wondered if she would ever see him again. Then she forced the thought from her mind. No tears. If her sons saw her crying, they wouldn’t be able to finish the memorials they had stayed up all night writing. Her sons were also being strong for her, she noticed. They had learned that from Clive.
Clive’s oldest son gripped the podium with both hands. Then he reached into the pocket of his dark blue suit and pulled out a piece of folded white paper. His younger brother stood behind him and stared at the floor. Both were grown men and had children of their own. Clive’s enduring legacy. They understood what it meant to be fathers — and sons.
James, the oldest, began, “‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ Those words describe my father. He was a good man. He loved until it hurt. He wasn’t famous. He wasn’t rich. He didn’t do much that stood out in the bigger world, but he was my dad, and that was everything to me. Even when I got screwed up on drugs in high school, he stood by me. Man, was he pissed off, but he never left me. When I spent a night in jail, he sat in the waiting room all night. He told the police officer to leave me there overnight, but my daddy never left. I didn’t know that until years later, when the officer who brought me in told me this. He let me get my punishment — something that changed my life for the better — but he took it with me. He was there when I needed him.” Clive’s oldest son looked directly at him — maybe he sensed him — and said, “I miss you already.”
Clive leaned over and whispered to his grandfather, “Why is he making me out to be a saint? I barely pulled it off and left so many things unfinished.” Clive looked confused, “I tried, yeah, but I wasn’t the man he’s making me out to be.”
“That’s not the way your boys see it. They think you’re one of the greatest men who ever walked the earth. They know you weren’t perfect, but they know you did great things with what you had and they’re proud of you for it.”
Clive appreciated Pachu’s words, but he didn’t believe them. He didn’t believe any of what was happening. He turned away from his grandfather and walked to his son, passing his own coffin. He looked down and saw an old man. It wasn’t how he thought of himself. In his mind he was a lean man in his late twenties. Strong arms and chest and, sure, he had love handles; he was never perfect, but that was close enough. The body in the coffin was wrinkled with strands of hair brushed back on the sides and bald on top. His dark brown hair had long since turned white. Liver spots covered hands that were folded over a dark suit jacket and a new tie. He hated suits.
Clive stepped on the sanctuary and put his hand on his son’s back and said, “I’m still here, son. I love you.”
Clive’s son smiled and said, “I love you.”
Clive’s youngest son, Simon, walked to his family in the pews and took a little girl’s hand and brought her back to the sanctuary where he slung his left foot up the first step and then the next with some difficulty. He picked up his daughter and hugged her before putting her down and wiping a scar on his cheek, hidden under a bush of facial hair, like it was a food smudge that could be removed.
Simon began, “This is my father’s granddaughter. He had little boys and didn’t know much about girls, but you couldn’t tell. He was firm with us and taught us to be tough, to be men, but he treated his granddaughter with tenderness. Yesterday, she told me that she is beautiful. I laughed and agreed with her. Then she told me she knew this because her granddaddy told her so. He gave pocketknives and toy cars to his grandsons, but he gave flowers and books to his granddaughter. But most of all, he gave her the kind of love that a little girl needs.”
Clive listened as his friends spoke and tuned out the preacher who spent his time trying to convert the attendees. If there was anyone left in South Carolina who wasn’t saved, he was going to find them.
Pachu silently motioned for Clive to follow and he led him out of the funeral hall and through a door that somehow opened to the graveyard across town. The trick caused Clive’s head to spin and he grabbed his grandfather’s shoulder for stability and said, “What the hell just happened?”
“Sorry, should’ve warned you about that,” Pachu laughed. “You’ll get used to it after a few transitions. I suppose they could let us travel through time and space any way we want, but things like doors and shadows make it easier to work it out in your head, especially when you’re new to this. It’ll get easier. You’ll see.”
Humidity from the river floated into the graveyard and filled the spaces between the live oaks and worn-down tombstones like mustard gas. Strands of grass fought to grow through the mix of black dirt and sand. The Eternal men walked to a tent and looked into a hole that would soon hold Clive’s body in its casket. Sweat streamed down faces and shirts stuck to the funeral attendees like wet newspaper.
“Eerie isn’t it?” Pachu said.
“Yes, sir. I’m glad I’m not going down there,” Clive said looking down into the dark, rectangular hole in the South Carolina soil that would hold his remains.
“Good attitude. It’s just a body and it’s used up for now. This part’s tough for some.” Pachu looked at his great-grandchildren, who were fidgeting and kicking at the dirt. “If you’re ready, we can leave.”
“Leave?” Clive asked, “You mean leave for Heaven, or my… What did you call it? My Reckoning?”
“Yes.” Pachu nodded toward the grave. “Unless you want —”
“No, I don’t want to stay long, but can I see my family once more?”
“Sure you can, for a moment, but we should leave soon.”
Pachu remembered waiting too long at his own funeral. Everyone had left except for young Clive, who sat on the ground and wept into his palms. His own guilt was in leaving Clive — something he had to deal with during his Reckoning.
At Clive’s funeral, the preacher read scriptures from the Holy Bible, while Clive’s sons scooped the first piles of dirt onto the wooden casket. Clive’s youngest son, Simon, wiped tears from his eyes and smeared the black and white soil mixture into his beard and cheek. He leaned down to pick up his daughter and she wiped the dirt from his face.
“Clive, we should go. It’s time to begin your Reckoning. You’ll get to see your life and deal with the things you hid away. Your guilt, pain, regrets. You’ll see all the things that life broke in you. It’s gonna hurt.”
“What if I can’t deal with it?”
“You better,” Pachu said before scratching his head in mock thought, “Now, what should be first?”
“Nothing. I can’t think of anything. I died in a good place and I can’t think of one single thing that needs fixing.”
“You’re not as resolved as you’d like to believe, but we’ll see. In fact, we’ll see your life like a movie,” Pachu paused and breathed in the humid Lowcountry air, “A deeply personal movie.”
“How can we view my life? How’s that possible?”
“It’s a recording of sorts,” Pachu said, “If humans can invent video cameras, don’t you think God can, too?”
“But what if I don’t want to see my life again?”
“Then you don’t get to move on to Heaven.” Pachu’s face tightened. “You’ll be stuck here, in the in-between. It’s a lonely thing being a ghost, my boy. A lonely, sad existence.”
Scott Thompson is the author of two novels, Young Men Shall See and Eight Days. Both are available from Amazon as are his two short stories.