Long Time Gone
By Gary Carter
One sunny morning in 1969, dressed for his job at Randall’s Business Supplies, Alfred Burns—just plain Al to most folks—pecked his wife of nine years on the cheek, walked out the door and disappeared. He was thirty-one, in good health and had given no signs of anything that would prompt him to evaporate from a life about which he had never complained or even hinted at discontent. There were no indications of foul play, and a missing person report yielded nothing.
He was not seen or heard from again until a slightly overcast afternoon in 1973 when he opened the screen door and strolled into the kitchen, walked past his wife, who froze at the sink, and the man at the table, whose arm hovered between a bowl of soup and his open mouth. Al nodded to both as he passed into the living room, where he stood and slowly rotated as if examining the elements of life within. There was a slight, seemingly pleased smile angled across his lips that were partially hidden beneath a scraggly mustache. His hair hung below his shoulders, its dark brown now streaked light by the sun. His pants appeared to be the same pale chinos he had worn the morning he disappeared, though the edges of the cuffs and pockets were frayed. Instead of the short-sleeved white shirt, which Evelyn had starched and ironed that long-ago morning, Al’s upper body now was covered by a loose-fitting blouse with billowing sleeves that was trimmed in intricate embroidery that seemed vaguely Mexican.
At least it was nothing that Evelyn could pinpoint as she followed Al into the room, stopping a few feet away to watch him spin slowly as if reacquainting himself with the place and what was in it. He came around to face her, giving her a quizzical look.
“What?” he said, his voice the same but somehow different to her ears.
She started to speak, paused, then tried again. “Where have you been?”
“Yes, Al, where have you been for the last four years? Where did you go? What did you do? Why didn’t you come home? Why didn’t you let me know where you were? Or just why?”
The words tumbled out, and Al listened politely. Then said softly, “Just why what?”
Which smashed into Evelyn like a fist in the nose, making her head jerk back and tears well in her eyes. “Goddamn you, you walk back in here like you own the place and jabber nonsense. Tell me where you’ve been, you thoughtless son of a bitch.”
Al considered the outburst, and said, “Well, I’ve just been.”
Evelyn stomped her feet and clenched her hands in front of her face. “Tell me where you’ve been,” she screamed as the other man came to stand in the doorway, his soup spoon still in his hand. His glare was hard and mean, but he didn’t come any closer, as uncertain as Evelyn about the strange visitor.
Al turned to the side, tilted his head back and gazed at the ceiling. “I’ve been just what I said, Evelyn. I’ve been. Been here, been there. Been here one instant and somewhere else another. That’s what living is about, you see. About being.” He turned back to her, his eyes brighter. “There’s the past, which is gone but still back there. There’s the future, which you can only wait for or maybe guess at. And there’s now, this instant, which is here then gone, like that.” He snapped his fingers sharply, and Evelyn flinched. “Just like that,” he said, snapping again. “Here, gone, then another and another and another and another, all adding up to something. You know, I used to think a lot about the past before, look back at things that I did or didn’t do, or things I could have or should have done differently, and it used to upset me, make me want to live my life over again. But you can’t do that, it’s all gone. There’s just now, and now is gone before you know it’s even here. And then it’s the past and what was the future is now. That’s where I’ve been, Evelyn.”
In the ensuing silence, the tick of his grandmother’s little clock on the mantle counted off each now and, in the instants between, welcomed the future to now and shuffled what was now into the past to gather dust. The man in the doorway swiveled his head from Evelyn to Al and back, as if seeking some sign as to what he was expected to do, his role in this unexpected drama unfolding in the living room like Ibsen live.
“You want me to toss him out?” the man asked Evelyn’s back. He advanced one step into the room. Only the ticking invaded the silence.
“Who are you?” Al asked, as if finally noticing the man.
Before he could speak, Evelyn said, “He’s my husband.”
“Husband,” Al said.
“Yes, Goddammit, my husband,” Evelyn barked. “I thought you were dead. No word for four years. I needed somebody. I couldn’t live alone with your ghost, wondering where you were. Or worse, why you left me without a word, never came back, never even sent me a letter or called me to tell me…to say…to let me know…”
“I’m not dead,” Al said.
Evelyn snorted. “Now I know that. But you’re dead to me, to this house, this town. You were declared legally dead two years ago. And Harold is my husband now. I have a new life now.”
Al watched as Harold moved next to Evelyn, slipping a hand under her elbow.
“Now,” Al said. “You see, Evelyn, you’re starting to get it. There was then—that’s me and you—and now there’s now—which is you and him and your new life. This instant, and now this one and this one and this one. That’s what it’s about, this living thing we do. But funny how we don’t seem to get it until…until something makes us sit up and take notice.”
Al made one more turn, took one more long inventory of the living room. Then he stepped toward Evelyn, but Harold moved in front of her. Al stopped, reached out and took Harold’s unwilling hand, and shook it briskly. Then he patted Evelyn’s bare arm. She shivered at the touch.
Saying nothing else, Al ambled from the room, and Evelyn and Harold heard the hiss of the screen and the thud as it shut. Al was never seen or heard from again.
* * *
Based in North Carolina, Gary Carter is a writer and editor whose most recently pubilshed work is Eliot’s Tale, a reverse coming-of-age road trip novel that contemplates things done and left undone.