All Stories, Fantasy, General Fiction

Jack’s Back by David Thomas Peacock

I’d just walked into the office and hadn’t had time to set my coffee down when Vicki stuck her head in and said, “HR wants you to call them, it’s about Jack.”

“Is he here?” I replied.

“In his cubicle, talking to Eileen.”

I paused and let out the kind of involuntary sigh that signals imminent defeat. Taking off my coat, I collapsed in the chair and stared at the blue paper coffee cup I picked up at the bodega on my way in. “We are happy to serve you,” it announced on one side, the other proclaiming, “Thank you! Have a nice day.

The cup seemed to be mocking me.

See, here’s the problem — Jack’s dead, but he keeps showing up for work. Nobody knows what to do, so they threw it on my lap. After all, I’m the office manager, and we’re friends, so I should be able to handle it, right?

Well, I didn’t want to handle it, and I resented being asked to. Everyone liked Jack, alive and dead. Sure, at first people were freaked out, but after a while, it started to feel normal. I mean, let’s face it — who doesn’t want to be around someone who makes you laugh and feel special? This was one of his gifts; he was like the glue that binds the team together, always there when you needed him.

As I sat there trying to figure out my next move, I heard laughter and looked over to his cubicle. Now three people were standing around listening to him, looking like they were having the time of their life. As he was holding court, a fourth joined in. It looked like a goddamn party.

As I’m watching, the phone rings. I look at the caller ID: “Human Resources.” Not having any other choice, I pick up.

“Hi Aida,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “What’s up?”

“I think you know what’s up,” she said, sounding panicked and angry at the same time. Normally she was a monster whose presence was always a prelude to bad news.

“No one knows how to handle this — there’s no policy, and legal says there’s no precedent. We’re going to need you to ask him to leave.”

“Isn’t that what security’s for?’

“You know as well as I do they’ve already tried.”

It was true, security had attempted to remove him from the premises multiple times. The problem was, well, he’s dead. I mean, he looks like Jack, sounds like Jack, even smells like Jack. But if you try to physically touch him, there’s nothing there. It’s really fucking weird.

“Look, Aida — we’ve been through this. I don’t know what to do either. And honestly, he’s not causing a disruption — if anything, everyone seems happy to have him around.”

There was a pause on her end. When she spoke, her voice was shaky, like she was about to start crying. “I’m afraid they’re going to fire me if this gets out.”

“Let me see what I can do,” was the best I could muster before getting off. I didn’t want her to lose her job, but Jesus — it’s fucking HR. All they did was fire people. Cry me a river.

Glancing out my door, everyone was back at work. It looked like Jack was helping Marcel, his replacement. The phone rang on Marcel’s desk, and Jack picked up, smiling as he wrote down a message, then hanging up. Showing it to Marcel, they laughed and high-fived.

It was going to be a long day.

I guess if I’m going to tell this story, I need to be completely honest. Jack and I were more than just work friends — it’s complicated and kind of hard to explain. Have you ever met someone, and within a few minutes knew that you’d be friends with that person forever? If you’re lucky, this might happen three or four times in your whole life. Well, that’s how it was when I met Jack.

As soon as I started working here, people would assume we already knew each other before I’d even heard of him. Then when we did meet, he looked at me like we both shared a secret and made some cryptic joke to see if I would get it.

I did.

It turned out we lived on the same wavelength, understanding each other without ever verbalizing it. We shared similar childhoods, but this wasn’t something we ever talked about. At least not much.

Both of us were musicians who only worked at this shit hole to make enough money to live on; the job itself meant nothing to us beyond a paycheck. This was one of our first secrets, one that ‘normal’ adults would never understand. For us, writing and playing music made life worth living; it was everything. We had a portal to a world that most people weren’t aware of. Our musical interests were different, so we didn’t play together in the same bands. But it was our obsession with music that initially drew us together — it’s all we ever thought about. Jobs would come and go, but music was forever.

So we started hanging out, moving in different circles, but close, like brothers who’d lived through some terrible trauma and survived. We understood each other on a deep level.

That was eight years ago. Since the day we met, we took for granted that we would always be there for each other. We didn’t need to be physically close or even talk to feel inseparable.

And then one day he died.

It was three months ago and happened without warning. A brain aneurysm, some congenital defect that was on a timer no one knew was running, counting down to an explosion that mercifully took him fast. One day he was there, and then he was gone. Or at least I thought he was gone.

I waited until the end of the day when everyone had left except Leyland — he was always working late, hoping for a promotion that would never come.

Jack was by the water cooler, putting on his coat. Walking towards him, he looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Dav McDavidson.” This was a nickname he’d given me a long time ago.

“Wanna get some coffee?” I asked.

“Of course, Davy,” he answered, pronouncing it like “Avi,” wrapping the scarf he always wore around his neck like an ascot.

“Let me grab my stuff, I’ll meet you out front,” I said.

This is another secret no one else knew, or at least I thought they didn’t. Jack and I still hang out after work — not every night, but often.

On my way out, I glanced over at the last man standing and said, “See you tomorrow Leyland.” Looking up from whatever he thought was important enough for him to stay, he smiled and said, “Get home safe.” I wondered if it was loneliness that kept him here.

As soon as I came out of the building, I saw Jack standing on the street, cold air coming out of his mouth in plumes that made it look like he was exhaling smoke. His hands were jammed in his pockets in a futile effort to keep them warm. You could never get warm in Boston in the winter, only less cold.

On the next block was a food truck serving people who either couldn’t be bothered to cook at home or couldn’t afford to eat in a restaurant. We took our place in line among a small group of the sad and lonely, trapped in a purgatory of their own making, hoping for salvation that would never come.

As we stood in line, waiting to get a cup of coffee, the vendor opened a bin on the back of the truck filled with steaming gray water for the guy in front of us. In it were a few pale hot dogs, floating like dead bodies in the bay. As the driver reached in to grab one, you looked at me and said, “Look Dav — they’re barking to be bitten.”

I grinned. Typical Jack — delivered dryly, with just a hint of a smile. I looked at his face, handsome, like a dark-haired Irish working-class rock star, just waiting for the inevitable moment that never seemed to come when the rest of the world would recognize it.

I realized how much I’d missed him after he died.

We each got a coffee and then stood there, not saying anything. I always thought one of the signs that two people were close was when they were comfortable being together and not talking. If you’re paying attention, you don’t need words to communicate.

After a few minutes, Jack broke the silence. “What’s up, Davy?”

“Aida’s freaked out, she says I have to ask you to leave.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think? Maybe ‘cuz you’re dead?”

I took a sip of lukewarm coffee and waited for a response.

“Got a cigarette?”

I’d been trying to quit smoking without much success, so I removed the pack of Newports I had in my coat pocket and offered him one. Jack was what I thought of as a dilettante smoker. He’d occasionally have a cigarette but never bought them. I, on the other hand, was a full-blown addict. The goddamn things were almost impossible to quit, but that didn’t stop me from trying. We both lit up.

“Remember when we first met?” he said.

“Yeah?”

Before he could answer, an ambulance went by, sirens blaring. We stood there after it passed, our coffee rapidly getting cold.

We thought we had all the time in the world.”

I took a drag and looked down at my shoes, thinking about it.

“Why’d you come back?” I said.

When he didn’t reply, I looked up, but it was too late.

He was gone.

The next day at work, there was no sign of Jack, and no one mentioned him. It seemed odd, but I didn’t bring it up. I was tired after tossing and turning all night — his words kept rolling around in my head. I didn’t know what it all meant.

Just before lunch, Vicki approached me, looking concerned. “You OK?”

“Just tired, but thanks for asking.”

“Want me to pick up anything at the deli?”

“No, I’m good. Think I’m going to take a power nap during lunch.”

“Alright then, I’ll see you later.”

Working these day gigs was a necessary nuisance for me; I was always in some state of sleep deprivation due to my chronic insomnia, or the fact that I sometimes did gigs on weeknights. Today I felt particularly thick-headed, like my brain didn’t have enough juice to fully power up. It didn’t matter — this job required no thinking anyway.

I shut the door to my office and fell asleep.

Nothing much happened for the rest of the day. Aida stopped by late afternoon to check up on Marcel. She had a way of appearing threatening when she smiled, like she was showing you how sharp her teeth were. It was creepy. I left around 5:30; it was already dark outside.

As soon as I opened the door to the street, I saw him standing next to a magazine stand, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, cap pulled low. As usual, it was freezing.

“Davy, how was your day?” he asked, sardonically.

“What’s up, Jack?” I didn’t show it, but I was glad to see him.

“Cup of joe?”

“Sure.”

We ducked into an old diner two blocks away. It looked like a boxcar from the 1920s that had been dumped on the corner of two busy streets, surrounded by brownstone apartment buildings, bars, restaurants, and businesses. Sitting at the counter, we each got a coffee and then sat there, not saying anything.

Taking a sip, he said, “I got a gig in a band opening for Aimee Mann.”

“Jack, I’ve been thinking about last night.”

“Aren’t you going to congratulate me on my gig?”

Exasperated, I blurted out, “I love you man, but this is all too much — I don’t understand anything about what’s happening here. I mean, you died three months ago, and then all of a sudden, you show up back at work like nothing’s changed. Then last night, you said something about how we used to think we had all the time in the world, and then you disappeared. I’m starting to wonder if this is really happening, or is it just in my head?”

We both sat there, waiting for the other to say something.

“How did you get the gig when you’re dead?”

“Well, first of all, they don’t know I’m dead.’

“Yeah, but Aimee’ll recognize you.”

Jack smiled. At one point, Aimee had wanted him to play in her band, but for some reason that only made sense to Jack, he declined.

I lit a Newport and offered him one. We both sat there like an old married couple in no rush to explain anything.

“I always felt closest to you, Davy. I came back for you. You needed me.”

I sat there staring at my coffee and took a long, deep drag on my cigarette. Now I was starting to feel emotional, and I didn’t want to show it. Came back for me? I didn’t know what to say. I took another hit and turned to say “Jack…” but once again, he was gone.

No one at work ever mentioned his name again. After a while, I wasn’t sure if it even happened, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. A couple of months later, I saw a picture online of him standing next to Aimee after some gig. She looked uncomfortable. I smiled — he looked good, like the old Jack.

A lot of what happens in life can’t be explained, and maybe that’s the point. If you look too hard for an answer, you miss what’s right in front of you. Perhaps love transcends death. Who knows?

Here’s one thing I do know — all I have to do is close my eyes, and there he is.

He never left.

David Thomas Peacock

Image by Tentes from Pixabay 

7 thoughts on “Jack’s Back by David Thomas Peacock”

  1. A modern take on Bartleby, the Scrivener. No HR back then, of course. I think the living overstep their bounds when they try to tell the dead what to do. It’s like watching a parakeet attempt to boss around its reflection. Very effective piece, nice texture.

    Like

  2. Hi David,
    I loved the mystique in this.
    But that was balanced with your last few lines.
    You gave us a consideration that we can all hope for.
    This is well thought out and you leave much up to the reader, that is the sign of a confident writer.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

  3. Excellent story. I was expecting the MC to take the hint from Jack and quit his day job. Maybe he will before it’s too late. Or maybe in this world it’s never too late.

    Like

  4. Very entertaining story. Musician Jack just wouldn’t “hit the road.” I like the last line, about memory, and the bit about the hot dogs.

    Liked by 1 person

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