Serialized short story: On the Way to My Grave (Part 4)

Hi there! Here’s part 4 of a longish short story I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago called On the Way to My Grave.

Part 3 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 1 is here.

……………………………………………………………………………………

“Who the fuck are you?” I said, the booze choosing my words.

“I’m the one who introduced that stupid song.”

Done to Me? How the hell did this old bastard know that song? He didn’t look much like a college radio DJ.

“Pounce,” he said. “It was our team song.”

It hit me. “Coach?”

“Coach Van Der Bruggen,” he said. “You don’t get to call me Coach.”

I twirled my finger, trying to bait him into throwing me through a window and finishing me off. But he sat there, stone faced.

“You think you’re some hot shot?” he said.

I laughed. If only he knew.

“Nobody gives a crap about you,” he said. “I may be some small-town hick in your eyes, but around here I’m a winner. I’ve coached this high school to three state championships. I coach winners.”

I discovered my mouth hanging open when a dollop of drool hit the table. Coach kept talking, oblivious: “My only regret in life is playing that stupid song. I let a cancer into my locker room—you—and look what happened. Three players from that team are dead. Congratulations.”

If he planned to kick my ass, I wanted him to get on with it. “I don’t think anybody ever killed themselves because of a dumb-ass song like Pounce.”

Unmoving, fists clenched, he said, “I’m talking about Done to Me. That song.”

I waved at him, accidentally knocking over the acrylic stand-up for the drink menu. “You never heard it until this week.”

Then, there at the table, he recited the chorus word-for-word, as if it were a poem.

I twisted around, hailing the server for another drink.

“Brett took the CD home from practice one day and fell for that depressing crap,” he said. “You should have known.”

“Who are you, the town conscious?” I couldn’t fit the ‘n’ sound in there drunk.

“Son, I am this town,” he said, clearly not for the first time. “Now, you best get out of here this minute if you want to see tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I said. “That big house on the hill with the columns… that’s your place. Wow, you really are king of this little shit town.”

He reached across the table and grabbed my shirt, pulling me forward like I was filled with straw. “Don’t make me say it again.”

~ ~ ~

I sat in my car for a half hour, clearing my head and slowly acknowledging the truth in Coach’s words. When Strangle Taffy did its only national tour, we used to hang out backstage and make fun of the dinky hamlets we played at the same moment we were pawing the local groupies like horny teens and counting our ticket receipts. Maybe a high-school football championship isn’t a multi-platinum album, but it means something to people and makes heroes of guys like Coach Van Der Bruggen. People need heroes, not indulgent, mediocre rock musicians.

Imagine that, though, I thought, my face resting on the steering wheel. All three suicides were players from the same championship football team.

All three from the same team. Odd.

I sat up.

How did Coach know to find me in the pub? Maybe Brett Denson’s little brother wasn’t so disinterested in me after all. Maybe he followed me and then told Coach where I went. But why would a bench warmer be so tight with Coach?

Suspicion aroused, I turned the key in the ignition, popped the transmission onto gear, and lurched out of my spot, almost wiping out a passing car.

~ ~ ~

As Sharon Denson opened the door for me the second time that night, I hoped the chewing gum hid the scent of booze. I guess I cared what she thought of me.

“Is Paul home?”

She sighed. “I suppose I shouldn’t let him out on a school night.”

She wanted me, of all people, to think of her as responsible, which is funny but not. “It’s ok. I’ve done a lot worse than stay out late on a Wednesday night.”

She led me to the bedroom beyond Brett’s and flipped the light switch. The space housed a twin bed, a dresser, an iPod on the night stand. A couple lamps. Nothing that indicated a teenage boy with a personality lived there. “You gave him that?” I said, pointing to a laptop.

“Christmas gift. Money’s tight since my husband passed away, but I have to do something. Kids are so status-conscious these days. When we were young—”

“And the iPod?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Coach gave it to him. He won it in a raffle and didn’t need it. He’s been awfully good to my boys.”

Coach gave it to him. “Do you know where I might find Paul?”

She pondered a moment. “Try downtown. The kids hang out on the strip in front of the doughnut shop.”

~ ~ ~

Sobered—not legally, I suppose—I cruised Main Street, passing the pub then a convenience store and a block or two of shops closed for the evening.

My gas gauge read a quarter of a tank, and I had three bucks in my wallet. If I survived the night, I might never get to leave.

Ahead glowed the yellow arches of McDonald’s across from Dunkin Donuts. A bunch of kids sat on benches outside. Two other boys laughed and shoved each other while their girlfriends looked on. I made a right by the donut shop and spotted a lone kid was attempting half-hearted skateboard tricks. Paul Denson.

He picked up his board and began to strut away as I stepped out of my car. I called his name and he stopped. I must have still showed a faint aura of celebrity.

“Hey man,” I said. “I been looking for you.” The temperature had dropped in the past hour, so I put my hands in my pockets and hurried to where he stood. He bore that same haunted look, rendered more ghostly by the streetlights, like a harbinger of something sinister and deadly. And close.

(to be continued)

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