A Fall Tale

A Flash Fiction

Apparently someone was poisoning Jenkins. It was a national election year, one side promising the earth, the other side giving them hell. But all through that campaign we were concerned about Jenkins, the poor bastard, who seemed to be dying in inches.

In the middle of the March primaries, his wife gave us a call, told us to come on down and be quick about it—Jenkins had had it, would be dead by Easter. We loaded into a car that night, driving south, and the next morning we were in our raggedy hometown at Jenkins’s place, a two-bedroom shotgun that needed a coat of paint. The guy had come down in the world.

At the door his wife whispered, “He’s feeling a little better now.”

“Jenkins,” we told him, crowding against his gurney-sized bed, “you look great. Man, you haven’t looked better. Fire your doctor, buddy, get a golf coach.”

Jenkins himself mouthed something, but who could hear him in all the excitement? Truth was, he looked yellow, yellow as a summer squash, and just as feeble. In the car back north we all agreed something was undoubtedly wrong with Jenkins, maybe even some kind of poison, though there was no getting around the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the marquee. When the shoe factory bit the dust and the union folded, Jenkins had lacked the gumption to bounce back. Maybe the guy was dying of terminal dimness.

In July, during the conventions, we got another frantic message from his wife: Jenkins had one foot in the grave; this was the end. Some of us had the idea that maybe Jenkins’s wife was a hysteric, and how could that be good for a man in his condition? Still, you couldn’t just ignore a plea like that forever, so down we drove again. This go round we took our time, saw some Civil War battlefields, caught a Redskins game, and pulled into the burnt outskirts of our hometown on a perfect summer day. Jenkins had moved into a trailer on cinderblocks, something about his unemployment running out. There was a dead chicken in his driveway.

“How you been, pal?” we asked him.

“Been better,” Jenkins murmured.

“Jesus, buddy, you sound like an old woman. What you need is some fresh air.”

So we hauled Jenkins out of his bed and put him in a lawn chair on the patch of grass out front, angling his chair away from the view of that dead chicken in the driveway. His wife took a picture, all of us standing around behind Jenkins, Jenkins himself grinning a death’s-head grin from his chair, looking like an experiment with teeth. Why couldn’t the guy act normal for once? Who wants a picture like that? When we headed north we were unanimous on one score: Jenkins was a bit of a putz and, though we were sorry to say it, a whiner to boot.

In early November we got word that Jenkins was about to kick the bucket, fall off the twig, buy the farm. Nobody else wanted to go down. We all had jobs to show up to. Jenkins was unreliable. We’d done enough, been there, done that, all that jazz. But I went. The election had reached a fever pitch, too close for anybody to call.

I took a last cruise around the stomping grounds. Where the old grade school had been was a line-up of fast food joints, the trees beside them blackened with the soot of fried meat. I found myself cooling my heals in a little parking lot off Main Street, behind one of two gas stations that still plugged away. On the radio the latest exit polls had everything neck and neck and the winner anybody’s guess.

By the time I got to Jenkins’s trailer that night it was completely dark, so dark it’s possible I wasn’t even at the right place. I made a half-hearted attempt to remember the Jenkins I’d known as a kid, but the fact of the matter was, I couldn’t remember that Jenkins. It made me wonder if there had ever been another Jenkins, since the only version I could conjure was the poisoned one, the dying one, the whiner, the loser. My old friend. They were already announcing some hard numbers in the early results and I hunched forward, all ears in the dark, to find out what would happen next.