The Five People You Meet in Heaven
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This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time.
The last hour of Eddie's life was spent, like most of the others, at Ruby Pier, an amusement park by a great gray ocean. The park had the usual attractions, a boardwalk, a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars, a taffy stand, and an arcade where you could shoot streams of water into a clown's mouth. It also had a big new ride called Freddy's Free Fall, and this would be where Eddie would be killed, in an accident that would make newspapers around the state.
At the time of his death, Eddie was a squat, white-haired old man, with a short neck, a barrel chest, thick forearms, and a faded army tattoo on his right shoulder. His legs were thin and veined now, and his left knee, wounded in the war, was ruined by arthritis. He used a cane to get around. His face was broad and craggy from the sun, with salty whiskers and a lower jaw that protruded slightly, making him look prouder than he felt. He kept a cigarette behind his left ear and a ring of keys hooked to his belt. He wore rubber-soled shoes. He wore an old linen cap. His pale brown uniform suggested a workingman, and a workingman he was.
Eddie's job was "maintaining" the rides, which really meant keeping them safe. Every afternoon, he walked the park, checking on each attraction, from the Tilt-A-Whirl to the Pipeline Plunge. He looked for broken boards, loose bolts, worn-out steel. Sometimes he would stop, his eyes glazing over, and people walking past thought something was wrong. But he was listening, that's all. After all these years he could hear trouble, he said, in the spits and stutters and thrumming of the equipment.
With 50 minutes left on earth, Eddie took his last walk along Ruby Pier. He passed an elderly couple.
"Folks," he mumbled, touching his cap.
They nodded politely. Customers knew Eddie. At least the regular ones did. They saw him summer after summer, one of those faces you associate with a place. His work shirt had a patch on the chest that read Eddie above the word Maintenance, and sometimes they would say, "Hiya, Eddie Maintenance," although he never thought that was funny.
Today, it so happened, was Eddie's birthday, his 83rd. A doctor, last week, had told him he had shingles. Shingles? Eddie didn't even know what they were. Once, he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.
"Eddie!" . . . "Take me, Eddie!" . . . "Take me!"
Forty minutes until his death. Eddie made his way to the front of the roller coaster line. He rode every attraction at least once a week, to be certain the brakes and steering were solid. Today was coaster day -- the "Ghoster Coaster" they called this one -- and the kids who knew Eddie yelled to get in the cart with him.
Children liked Eddie. Not teenagers. Teenagers gave him headaches. Over the years, Eddie figured he'd seen every sort of do-nothing, snarl-at-you teenager there was. But children were different. Children looked at Eddie -- who, with his protruding lower jaw, always seemed to be grinning, like a dolphin -- and they trusted him. They drew in like cold hands to a fire. They hugged his leg. They played with his keys. Eddie mostly grunted, never saying much. He figured it was because he didn't say much that they liked him.
Now Eddie tapped two little boys with backward baseball caps. They raced to the cart and tumbled in. Eddie handed his cane to the ride attendant and slowly lowered himself between the two.
"Here we go . . . . Here we go! . . . " one boy squealed, as the other pulled Eddie's arm around his shoulder. Eddie lowered the lap bar and clack-clack-clack, up they went.
A story went around about Eddie. When he was a boy, growing up by this very same pier, he got in an alley fight. Five kids from Pitkin Avenue had cornered his brother, Joe, and were about to give him a beating. Eddie was a block away, on a stoop, eating a sandwich. He heard his brother scream. He ran to the alley, grabbed a garbage can lid, and sent two boys to the hospital.
After that, Joe didn't talk to him for months. He was ashamed. Joe was the oldest, the firstborn, but it was Eddie who did the fighting.
"Can we go again, Eddie? Please?"
Thirty-four minutes to live. Eddie lifted the lap bar, gave each boy a sucking candy, retrieved his cane, then limped to the maintenance shop to cool down from the summer heat. Had he known his death was imminent, he might have gone somewhere else. Instead, he did what we all do. He went about his dull routine as if all the days in the world were still to come.
One of the shop workers, a lanky, bony-cheeked young man named Dominguez, was by the solvent sink, wiping grease off a wheel.
"Yo, Eddie," he said.
"Dom," Eddie said.
The shop smelled like sawdust. It was dark and cramped with a low ceiling and pegboard walls that held drills and saws and hammers. Skeleton parts of fun park rides were everywhere: compressors, engines, belts, lightbulbs, the top of a pirate's head. Stacked against one wall were coffee cans of nails and screws, and stacked against another wall were endless tubs of grease.
Greasing a track, Eddie would say, required no more brains than washing a dish; the only difference was you got dirtier as you did it, not cleaner. And that was the sort of work that Eddie did: spread grease, adjusted brakes, tightened bolts, checked electrical panels. Many times he had longed to leave this place, find different work, build another kind of life. But the war came. His plans never worked out. In time, he found himself graying and wearing looser pants and in a state of weary acceptance, that this was who he was and who he would always be, a man with sand in his shoes in a world of mechanical laughter and grilled frankfurters. Like his father before him, like the patch on his shirt, Eddie was maintenance -- the head of maintenance -- or as the kids sometimes called him, "the ride man at Ruby Pier."
Thirty minutes left.
"Hey, happy birthday, I hear," Dominguez said.
"No party or nothing?"
Eddie looked at him as if he were crazy. For a moment he thought how strange it was to be growing old in a place that smelled of cotton candy.
"Well, remember, Eddie, I'm off next week, starting Monday. Going to Mexico."
Eddie nodded, and Dominguez did a little dance.
"Me and Theresa. Gonna see the whole family. Par-r-r-ty."
He stopped dancing when he noticed Eddie staring.
"You ever been?" Dominguez said.
Eddie exhaled through his nose. "Kid, I never been anywhere I wasn't shipped to with a rifle."
He watched Dominguez return to the sink. He thought for a moment. Then he took a small wad of bills from his pocket and removed the only twenties he had, two of them. He held them out.
"Get your wife something nice," Eddie said.
Dominguez regarded the money, broke into a huge smile, and said, "C'mon, man. You sure?"
Eddie pushed the money into Dominguez's palm. Then he walked out back to the storage area. A small "fishing hole" had been cut into the boardwalk planks years ago, and Eddie lifted the plastic cap. He tugged on a nylon line that dropped 80 feet to the sea. A piece of bologna was still attached.
"We catch anything?" Dominguez yelled. "Tell me we caught something!"
Eddie wondered how the guy could be so optimistic. There was never anything on that line.
"One day," Dominguez yelled, "we're gonna get a halibut!"
"Yep," Eddie mumbled, although he knew you could never pull a fish that big through a hole that small.
Twenty-six minutes to live. Eddie crossed the boardwalk to the south end. Business was slow. The girl behind the taffy counter was leaning on her elbows, popping her gum.
Once, Ruby Pier was the place to go in the summer. It had elephants and fireworks and marathon dance contests. But people didn't go to ocean piers much anymore; they went to theme parks where you paid $75 a ticket and had your photo taken with a giant furry character.
Eddie limped past the bumper cars and fixed his eyes on a group of teenagers leaning over the railing. Great, he told himself. Just what I need.
"Off," Eddie said, tapping the railing with his cane. "C'mon. It's not safe."
The teens glared at him. The car poles sizzled with electricity, zzzap zzzap sounds.
"It's not safe," Eddie repeated.
The teens looked at each other. One kid, who wore a streak of orange in his hair, sneered at Eddie, then stepped onto the middle rail.
"Come on, dudes, hit me!" he yelled, waving at the young drivers. "Hit m --"
Eddie whacked the railing so hard with his cane he almost snapped it in two. "MOVE IT!"
The teens ran away.
Another story went around about Eddie. As a soldier, he had engaged in combat numerous times. He'd been brave. Even won a medal. But toward the end of his service, he got into a fight with one of his own men. That's how Eddie was wounded. No one knew what happened to the other guy.
No one asked.
With 19 minutes left on earth, Eddie sat for the last time, in an old aluminum beach chair. His short, muscled arms folded like a seal's flippers across his chest. His legs were red from the sun, and his left knee still showed scars. In truth, much of Eddie's body suggested a survived encounter. His fingers were bent at awkward angles, thanks to numerous fractures from assorted machinery. His nose had been broken several times in what he called "saloon fights." His broadly jawed face might have been good-looking once, the way a prizefighter might have looked before he took too many punches.
Now Eddie just looked tired. This was his regular spot on the Ruby Pier boardwalk, behind the Jackrabbit ride, which in the 1980s was the Thunderbolt, which in the 1970s was the Steel Eel, which in the 1960s was the Lollipop Swings, which in the 1950s was Laff In The Dark, and which before that was the Stardust Band Shell.
Which was where Eddie met Marguerite.
Every life has one true-love snapshot. For Eddie, it came on a warm September night after a thunderstorm, when the boardwalk was spongy with water. She wore a yellow cotton dress, with a pink barrette in her hair. Eddie didn't say much. He was so nervous he felt as if his tongue were glued to his teeth. They danced to the music of a big band, Long Legs Delaney and his Everglades Orchestra. He bought her a lemon fizz. She said she had to go before her parents got angry. But as she walked away, she turned and waved.
That was the snapshot. For the rest of his life, whenever he thought of Marguerite, Eddie would see that moment, her waving over her shoulder, her dark hair falling over one eye, and he would feel the same arterial burst of love.
That night he came home and woke his older brother. He told him he'd met the girl he was going to marry.
"Go to sleep, Eddie," his brother groaned.
Whrrrssssh. A wave broke on the beach. Eddie coughed up something he did not want to see. He spat it away.
Whrrssssssh. He used to think a lot about Marguerite. Not so much now. She was like a wound beneath an old bandage, and he had grown more used to the bandage.
What was shingles?
Sixteen minutes to live.
No story sits by itself. Sometimes stories meet at corners and sometimes they cover one another completely, like stones beneath a river.
The end of Eddie's story was touched by another seemingly innocent story, months earlier -- a cloudy night when a young man arrived at Ruby Pier with three of his friends.
The young man, whose name was Nicky, had just begun driving and was still not comfortable carrying a key chain. So he removed the single car key and put it in his jacket pocket, then tied the jacket around his waist.
For the next few hours, he and his friends rode all the fastest rides: the Flying Falcon, the Splashdown, Freddy's Free Fall, the Ghoster Coaster.
"Hands in the air!" one of them yelled.
They threw their hands in the air.
Later, when it was dark, they returned to the car lot, exhausted and laughing, drinking beer from brown paper bags. Nicky reached into his jacket pocket. He fished around. He cursed.
The key was gone.
Fourteen minutes until his death. Eddie wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Out on the ocean, diamonds of sunlight danced on the water, and Eddie stared at their nimble movement. He had not been right on his feet since the war.
But back at the Stardust Band Shell with Marguerite -- there Eddie had still been graceful. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to summon the song that brought them together, the one Judy Garland sang in that movie. It mixed in his head now with the cacophony of the crashing waves and children screaming on the rides.
"You made me love you -- "
" -- do it, I didn't want to do i -- "
" -- me love you -- "
" -- time you knew it, and all the -- "
" -- knew it . . . "
Eddie felt her hands on his shoulders. He squeezed his eyes tightly, to bring the memory closer.
Twelve minutes to live.
A young girl, maybe eight years old, stood before him, blocking his sunlight. She had blonde curls and wore flip-flops and denim cutoff shorts and a lime green T-shirt with a cartoon duck on the front. Amy, he thought her name was. Amy or Annie. She'd been here a lot this summer, although Eddie never saw a mother or father.
"'Scuuuse me," she said again. "Eddie Maint'nance?"
Eddie sighed. "Just Eddie," he said.
"Can you make me . . ."
She put her hands together as if praying.
"C'mon, kiddo. I don't have all day."
"Can you make me an animal? Can you?"
Eddie looked up, as if he had to think about it. Then he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out three yellow pipe cleaners, which he carried for just this purpose.
"Yesssss!" the little girl said, slapping her hands.
Eddie began twisting the pipe cleaners.
"Where's your parents?"
"Riding the rides."
The girl shrugged. "My mom's with her boyfriend."
Eddie looked up. Oh.
He bent the pipe cleaners into several small loops, then twisted the loops around one another. His hands shook now, so it took longer than it used to, but soon the pipe cleaners resembled a head, ears, body, and tail.
"A rabbit?" the little girl said.
She spun away, lost in that place where kids don't even know their feet are moving. Eddie wiped his brow again, then closed his eyes, slumped into the beach chair, and tried to get the old song back into his head.
A seagull squawked as it flew overhead.
How do people choose their final words? Do they realize their gravity? Are they fated to be wise?
By his 83rd birthday, Eddie had lost nearly everyone he'd cared about. Some had died young, and some had been given a chance to grow old before a disease or an accident took them away. At their funerals, Eddie listened as mourners recalled their final conversations. "It's as if he knew he was going to die . . . . " some would say.
Eddie never believed that. As far as he could tell, when your time came, it came, and that was that. You might say something smart on your way out, but you might just as easily say something stupid.
For the record, Eddie's final words would be "Get back!"
Here are the sounds of Eddie's last minutes on earth. Waves crashing. The distant thump of rock music. The whirring engine of a small biplane, dragging an ad from its tail. And this.
"OH MY GOD! LOOK!"
Eddie felt his eyes dart beneath his lids. Over the years, he had come to know every noise at Ruby Pier and could sleep through them all like a lullaby.
This voice was not in the lullaby.
"OH MY GOD! LOOK!"
Eddie bolted upright. A woman with fat, dimpled arms was holding a shopping bag and pointing and screaming. A small crowd gathered around her, their eyes to the skies.
Eddie saw it immediately. Atop Freddy's Free Fall, the new "tower drop" attraction, one of the carts was tilted at an angle, as if trying to dump its cargo. Four passengers, two men, two women, held only by a safety bar, were grabbing frantically at anything they could.
"OH MY GOD!" the fat woman yelled. "Those people! They're gonna fall!"
A voice squawked from the radio on Eddie's belt. "Eddie! Eddie!"
He pressed the button. "I see it! Get security!"
People ran up from the beach, pointing as if they had practiced this drill. Look! Up in the sky! An amusement ride turned evil! Eddie grabbed his cane and clomped to the safety fence around the platform base, his wad of keys jangling against his hip. His heart was racing.
Freddy's Free Fall was supposed to drop two carts in a stomach-churning descent, only to be halted at the last instant by a gush of hydraulic air. How did one cart come loose like that? It was tilted just a few feet below the upper platform, as if it had started downward then changed its mind.
Eddie reached the gate and had to catch his breath. Dominguez came running and nearly banged into him.
"Listen to me!" Eddie said, grabbing Dominguez by the shoulders. His grip was so tight, Dominguez made a pained face. "Listen to me! Who's up there?"
"OK. He must've hit the emergency stop. That's why the cart is hanging. Get up the ladder and tell Willie to manually release the safety restraint so those people can get out. OK? It's on the back of the cart, so you're gonna have to hold him while he leans out there. OK? Then . . . then, the two of ya's -- the two of ya's now, not one, you got it? -- the two of ya's get them out! One holds the other! Got it!? . . . Got it?"
Dominguez nodded quickly.
"Then send that damn cart down so we can figure out what happened!"
Eddie's head was pounding. Although his park had been free of any major accidents, he knew the horror stories of his business. Once, in Brighton, a bolt unfastened on a gondola ride and two people fell to their death. Another time, in Wonderland Park, a man had tried to walk across a roller coaster track; he fell through and got stuck beneath his armpits. He was wedged in, screaming, and the cars came racing toward him and . . . well, that was the worst.
Eddie pushed that from his mind. There were people all around him now, hands over their mouths, watching Dominguez climb the ladder. Eddie tried to remember the insides of Freddy's Free Fall. Engine. Cylinders. Hydraulics. Seals. Cables. How does a cart come loose? He followed the ride visually, from the four frightened people at the top, down the towering shaft, and into the base. Engine. Cylinders. Hydraulics. Seals. Cables . . . .
Dominguez reached the upper platform. He did as Eddie told him, holding Willie as Willie leaned toward the back of the cart to release the restraint. One of the female riders lunged for Willie and nearly pulled him off the platform. The crowd gasped.
"Wait . . ." Eddie said to himself.
Willie tried again. This time he popped the safety release.
"Cable . . ." Eddie mumbled.
The bar lifted and the crowd went "Ahhhhh." The riders were quickly pulled to the platform.
"The cable is unraveling . . . ."
And Eddie was right. Inside the base of Freddy's Free Fall, hidden from view, the cable that lifted Cart No. 2 had, for the last few months, been scraping across a locked pulley. Because it was locked, the pulley had gradually ripped the cable's steel wires -- as if husking an ear of corn -- until they were nearly severed. No one noticed. How could they notice? Only someone who had crawled inside the mechanism would have seen the unlikely cause of the problem.
The pulley was wedged by a small object that must have fallen through the opening at a most precise moment.
A car key.
"Don't release the CART!" Eddie yelled. He waved his arms. "HEY! HEEEEY! IT'S THE CABLE! DON'T RELEASE THE CART! IT'LL SNAP!"
The crowd drowned him out. It cheered wildly as Willie and Dominguez unloaded the final rider. All four were safe. They hugged atop the platform.
"DOM! WILLIE!" Eddie yelled. Someone banged against his waist, knocking his walkie-talkie to the ground. Eddie bent to get it. Willie went to the controls. He put his finger on the green button. Eddie looked up.
"NO, NO, NO, DON'T!"
Eddie turned to the crowd. "GET BACK!"Something in Eddie's voice must have caught the people's attention; they stopped cheering and began to scatter. An opening cleared around the bottom of Freddy's Free Fall.
And Eddie saw the last face of his life.
She was sprawled upon the ride's metal base, as if someone had knocked her into it, her nose running, tears filling her eyes, the little girl with the pipe-cleaner animal. Amy? Annie?"Ma . . . Mom . . . Mom . . . " she heaved, almost rhythmically, her body frozen in the paralysis of crying children.
"Ma . . . Mom . . . Ma . . . Mom . . . "Eddie's eyes shot from her to the carts. Did he have time? Her to the carts --
Whump. Too late. The carts were dropping -- Jesus, he released the brake! -- and for Eddie, everything slipped into watery motion. He dropped his cane and pushed off his bad leg and felt a shot of pain that almost knocked him down. A big step. Another step. Inside the shaft of Freddy's Free Fall, the cable snapped its final thread and ripped across the hydraulic line. Cart No. 2 was in a dead drop now, nothing to stop it, a boulder off a cliff.
In those final moments, Eddie seemed to hear the whole world: distant screaming, waves, music, a rush of wind, a low, loud, ugly sound that he realized was his own voice blasting through his chest. The little girl raised her arms. Eddie lunged. His bad leg buckled. He half flew, half stumbled toward her, landing on the metal platform, which ripped through his shirt and split open his skin, just beneath the patch that read Eddie and Maintenance. He felt two hands in his own, two small hands.
A stunning impact.
A blinding flash of light.
And then, nothing.