The brief news story in the Inquirer about the death shocked me. I never in my life expected to come across anything like that. It wasn't merely the fact of the death. Death happens. But the who, the how, and the why of the death froze my blood.
Let me start at the beginning: one night in a bar eight years ago. Another frustrating day at the computer over, I took a stool in the Wissinoming Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall establishment on Frankford Avenue.
The bartender greeted me. "Productive day, Mr. Horrocks?"
"I don't have productive days, Joey. I thought I told you."
"Can't be all that tough to think up a story, can it? I make 'em up for my wife all the time. Sometimes she even believes me. Hey, maybe I'd be a good character for you to put in a story."
"I'll try it tomorrow, but don't expect royalties. I don't." Joey put my usual glass of Ortlieb's in front of me.
"I got better beer than this, you know."
"So you tell me, but Ortlieb's is my wallet's favorite beer. Besides, it's Philadelphian."
"They don't make it here anymore, Mr. Horrocks. They make it in Baltimore."
"Used to, though. That's good enough for me."
Joey leaned in. "See the guy at the end of the bar?"
I looked. "What's he drinking?"
"Hot cha cha."
"Now, he's a character you could use in a story. He's been in here for over an hour jabbering my head off with nonsense. You ought to hear him. How 'bout I shoo him over to you. You'll get a kick out of him. Promise. I'll buy him a drink and say you sent it over. No need to thank me. Be worth it to get him talking to somebody else."
"Joey, no, don't ..."
I watched Joey pour a healthy Dewar's and put it down in front of the guy. Joey explained its origin, and the guy looked my way.
"Nuts," I muttered when I saw him stand up. The guy sauntered over and took the stool next to me.
"Thanks." He lifted his glass and sipped. "You believe in being born again?"
Oh, Lord, I thought. Joey didn't mention the religious nut angle.
"Being born once is good enough for me." I thought of slogging into the lumber yard tomorrow, one of the three days a week I worked. But only until I published a novel, I kept telling myself. Yeah, right. The guy got excited at my answer.
"Yes, you're right! Oh, God; once is enough. More than enough. Tell me ... oh, Skip."
"Skip?" I looked around. "Skip what?
"Skip your name? What ...?"
"No, no, no. My name is Skip. Skip Discher. "
I knew he was telling me his name all along. I hoped he might think I was soft-brained and go away. "Hello, Skip Discher. I'm Lou Horrocks."
"Would you want to be born again?"
"I don't hold much with church stuff."
"No, no, no. When this life ends, would you want to come back, knowing what you knew when you died?"
Maybe Joey was right. Maybe this nutcase would inspire a good story. I shrugged and said, "Might be interesting."
"No, no. It wouldn't be. Believe me. It's torture and torment. I want to tell you. I want to tell somebody. Bartender's too busy. You look like the kind of guy who'd listen."
I suppose he meant it as a compliment. Anyway, I took it as one.
"Will you listen?"
"Good. When I got home from the war ..."
"Iraq or Afghanistan?"
He leaned toward me and answered, "Nam."
"Nam? Vietnam? How old are you?" Skip looked in his twenties, and if my history held true, Vietnam ended almost forty years ago.
He waggled his hand impatiently as if the answer to that question would take more than a sentence or two.
"You promised you'd listen."
I wanted to be sure he meant what he said about buying, so I drained my Ortlieb's and waited. I wasn't going to listen to his silliness on my dime. He rapped on the bar for Joey's attention, pointed to my mug, and laid some money on the bar.
"You promised you'd listen," he repeated.
With a new, free glass of beer in front of me, I gave him a nod. "I'm listening."
* * *
When I got back from Nam nothing much happened for me. Three jobs in three years. The future looked dull and grim until I met Joyce. At a ballgame, no less. I found out she had the hots for Mike Schmidt. She was an only child, and her father owned Branden Paints. Big outfit. You probably heard of it. She'd just gotten out of her engagement to a fellow named Richard Shull, her father's number two guy. She and I took to one another quick and hard -- she said she loved my name -- Skip, and after seven months, we got engaged. God, how Richard -- Rick, she called him -- hated me. He didn't even try to hide it. Her old man thought I had possibilities, and he doted on his daughter, so that made him nuts about me. Plus, he'd been a World War II marine, and he liked my being a veteran big time. Rick wasn't. When Joyce and I announced our engagement, her father hired me. If Rick hated me before, imagine now.
Joyce and I set the date. I don't want to sound like a creep, but I couldn't wait to get into that family. Big house on City Line to live in. Big promotion. Big salary. Big life ahead.
Joyce's father didn't approve of people living together before marriage, and I didn't want to screw up the golden future I had ahead of me, so I didn't push it. I could wait.
One May night, three weeks before the wedding, I walked into the chintzy Oxford Circle apartment I'd been living in since I got back, and when I turned on the light, hands went around my throat.
I heard in my ear, "The wedding is off." Rick's voice! I couldn't believe it. For about five seconds, I thought what a stupid thing to do, try to scare me out of getting married. He didn't let go, though, and for the last few seconds of my life, I knew he planned to kill me. Kill me! Do you understand? I'll never forget the feeling, realizing there was gonna be no more me. Then I saw the light. You know, the light they always talk about? I saw it! I went toward it. I felt movement. I actually could feel myself moving toward the light. It was like a gateway, a barrier I aimed at, and when I reached it, suddenly, I burst out into the world; an infant. Born again.
* * *
I drained my Ortlieb's, and Joey the bartender noticed the look on my face right away. He drew a new mug from the tap and put it down in front of me.
"On the house," he said and walked off.
"Do you believe me?" Skip asked.
"So, you're dead?"
"No, I'm not dead! What a question! I'm sitting here, ain't I? Rick murdered me to keep me out of the family; out of Joyce's life, and out of the line of succession, but I was born again. Immediately! And my new family named me Skip! I died Skip and got reborn as Skip. What were the chances? Anyway, as an infant I could only act as an infant, but somehow I still knew. I had trouble remembering things at first, but I grew into it. It took a while for things to come into focus, but they did. By my eighth birthday I fully realized what had happened to me. Are you listening?"
I sat staring at Skip in the mirror behind the bar. His agitation indicated his thorough-going belief in what he spouted to me.
"I'm listening, but it's kind of hard to believe, don't you think?"
"There's more. You'll listen, won't you? You promised. Please? Let me finish."
He had me at his motioning to the bartender and pointing to my beer mug.
"Go on, Skip."
* * *
Like I said, by the time I hit eight, I knew; I remembered. Somehow I was the same Skip I'd always been but a kid now, in a different family at a different time and in a different place. Not all that different a place, I guess, since Philadelphia is Philadelphia. Anyway, we're talking a few years before computers, so I had to go to the library to look up the newspaper accounts of my demise, if it even made the newspapers. I had to tell my dad I needed to do it for a school assignment. Imagine an eight-year-old researching old newspapers. My parents thought they had a real prodigy on their hands. Ha, were they wrong. Anyway, I found out Rick got away with it. A burglar broke into my home; I confronted him and lost out. So said the Inquirer. I followed up, though. Rick eventually won back Joyce and married her. And get this. They have a daughter named Luann.
Luann's two years younger than me, and I set my sights on her right away, but I couldn't go to her high school. Wrong neighborhood. I couldn't go to her college -- Yale. SAT deficiency, you know what I mean?"
"Oh, I believe that."
"But I tracked her down and connived to meet her at an art gallery opening on Walnut Street. We chatted and I amazed her with the facts I dropped into the conversation every once in a while about her father and mother's past as well as her own past -- Yale and all. We dated under the radar for a couple of months, and believe me, I worked at her. A couple of times I thought she lost interest in me, but I kept at it, scared to death I'd lose her. I wanted back into the family to reclaim what Rick took away from me -- the big house, the big job, the big income. The paint company, by the way, had become the premier paint supplier in Philadelphia. The family rolled in money, and I had an admission ticket. Luann. I clung to her tight.
Finally, Luann took me home with her, and there they stood; the woman I nearly married and the man who murdered me. I nearly fell apart; it really shook me. Joyce still looked pretty good, but when Luann introduced me to Dad as Skip, he took an immediate dislike to me, and I could see his guilty conscience in his lying eyes. I knew he couldn't recognize the outside of me; I didn't look the same. But something in me threw him.
Attempting to date Luann in the open, though, was like applying to be president of IBM; the interview process Rick put me through got my anger bubbling like I never imagined it could. He shot question after question at me, with me giving back, I could tell, very few satisfactory answers. He obviously wanted to discourage me. He didn't want to give his daughter to me; he didn't want me in the family; he didn't want his empire coming my way; but I didn't care. I bided my time, and when I finally proposed, Luann accepted. I got a little too cocky after my triumph, though. I began to drop hints to Rick. I asked him if he knew anything about burglary, since he lived in such a nice house. Burglars could break in when you least expected it, I told him. You needed to be prepared for such surprises, I reminded him more than once. Fear of burglars had a stranglehold on me, I admitted to him. I think the "stranglehold" comment's the one that tipped him off I somehow knew things I shouldn't or couldn't. It didn't matter to me, and I kept at him. I mentioned how strong his hands looked. He didn't know what to make of that. Now, as I sit here today, the wedding's only a month off, and you should see how he looks at me, how he treats me. He's angry; he's scared. I know now I should have kept my mouth shut and married Luann quietly and carried on with the good life. Wondering what Rick's going to do about me is driving me nuts. This second time around -- knowing things, trying to fix things, is an awful way to live. I never would have done it if I'd had a chance to turn it down, and believe me, I don't plan to do it again. I'm a wreck. I can't sleep; I can't eat. All I do is drink. I'd jump off a freakin' building before I'd go through this again.
* * *
Skip rapped on the bar hard. Joey appeared and poured him a Dewar's.
"So?" I said. I saw the shot glass quiver in Skip's hand. He put it down and took a deep breath. He lifted the glass and emptied it.
"So?" he repeated. "What do you mean so? So I think he plans to kill me again. That's so."
What kind of a response could I make? I did the best I could. "You aren't going to let him, I presume."
"Ha! Damn straight, no. I have three locks on my apartment door and locks on all the windows even though I'm on the third floor. Not this time. No sir. Not this time."
I'd had about all the Ortlieb's I could drink and all the nonsense I could tolerate for one night. Besides, I had work the next day.
"Well, Skip, I wish you luck in your new life. They say love's better the second time around."
"Well, it ain't. Love ain't; life ain't. You going now?"
"Got work tomorrow."
I threw a five on the bar for Joey and left Skip knocking on the bar again.
Eight days later I went out for the Inquirer and going through it came across a story that stopped me cold.
Fiancé of Daughter of Noted Family Slain in Parking Garage.
The fiancé was Skip Discher; the daughter was Luann; the noted family was the Shulls; slain turned out to mean strangled.
What could I do? I'd never get the police to believe the story Skip told me. Even giving a hint to the police might involve me, and since Rick got away with it once, I presumed he'd be equally smart the second time around. I recycled the newspaper and thought Skip well out of it as per his wishes.
This happened eight years ago, but it's not the shocking death I mentioned earlier. Not by a long shot.
A few mornings ago I went out for the Inquirer as usual. Buried inside the paper I found a brief, sad article about another death. A suicide. As I read it, my insides turned to ice. It seems an eight-year-old boy had thrown himself off a sixth floor roof. Dead on impact. A suicide note found in the boy's pocket, a note which puzzled the parents and police alike, confirmed the death as no accident. The note read: GOOD-BYE MOM AND DAD. THREE LIVES ARE TWO TOO MANY. The article concluded by noting how deeply the grieving family felt the loss of their young son Skip.