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"Amendments" - Bob Comenole

A hurling wind came off Lake Ontario, crazed and pitiless. It funneled down Route 3, which lay like an exposed vein, and rushed down Arsenal Street as if its sole ambition was to batter the three figures who stood shivering on the American Corner. The cold was biting, even by Watertown standards. Zak, whose eyes enclosed something wise and judicious beyond his 17 years, adjusted the fur collar of one of his compatriots, Marci. She dipped into an arctic curtsy then turned serious: “I still don’t believe you, Zak.”

                Zak nudged Coffee who rounded out the trio, “Hear that?”

                Coffee, lanky and pigeon-toed, formed what might have been a chuckle had it not been so solemn, “By the end of the night, she’ll believe.”

                The three crossed over to Court Street, pinching themselves together against the wind.  They entered the Brighton Building, where Coffee’s father ran Enrique’s Café, nestled aside Empsall’s Department store.  Christmas was three days away, and a good number of shoppers were about.

                The trio cut through the kitchen of the Café and ascended the abandoned stairwell that led them, ultimately, to the roof.

                “We don’t belong here,” said Coffee as he hunched his shoulders against the wind and the cold.  “I’ve never felt right about this.”

                “We won’t get caught,” said Zak, who was already scouting the horizon for phantom movements.

                “That’s not what I mean,” replied Coffee.

                “How long do we wait before we get back to the Java?”  said Marci, who –now sitting atop eight stories—was showing her discomfort with heights.

                “After ten minutes you won’t want to leave, Marci.”

                “How long you say you’ve been seeing this stuff?” asked Marci.

“Since the first snow,” said Zak.

                “And they only appear when it snows,” said Coffee.  “And only from the roof here.”

                Marci returned:  “The first snow was Veterans Day, when we had off from school.”

                “Right,” said Zak, pulling out a small notebook.  “And it’s snowed seven times since then.  You can read my journal; it’s got a record of everything we’ve seen.”  Marci reached for the book.  She began to flip its pages.

                “So, there was this hotel over on LeRay Street you saw burn down?” said Marci.

                “Yes, the Failing Hotel.”

                It burned down in 1865!  And you saw that… in person?”

                Zak and Coffee answered simultaneously, “Yes!”

                Zak added, “Saw it from this very spot.  I didn’t know what year it burned down until I did a little research.”

                “And this entry… you write about this thing that took place in 1899.  And this one in 1911.  And…”

                “They’re all true, Marci.  And whatever we see tonight, well, I’ll let you write up the journal entry.”

                “We even once saw Frank Woolworth!” cried Coffee.

                “Yeah, he was just walking down the street with a newspaper under his arm,” said Zak.  “Definitely him, though.  Carriages all over the place.  Bowler hats.”

                “In case you hadn’t noticed,” said Coffee, “Zak’s become quite the historian.”

                “Just gotta know where to look,” said Zak.  “Watertown’s history is pretty well documented.”

                “So not everything you witness is some disaster?”

                “Right.  Sometimes nothing more than a guy chopping wood,” said Coffee.

                “That was Hart Massey,” said Zak.  “Got his portrait right here.”  Zak tapped at his chest pocket, where he kept another binder, a sort of ready-reference book that he’d compiled.

                “He had a log cabin where the Paddock Arcade now is.  And he was just choppin’ away,” added Coffee.

                The snow that was gently falling began to intensify.

                Marci brushed the flakes from her shoulder.  Zak replaced his journal beneath his coat, and all three leaned further over the parapet

there on the roof of the Brighton Building, quietly expelling little puffs of air into the inscrutable night.

                Just then the snowfall took on a strange aspect;  it whirled in fantastic bands of ever-shifting patterns.  It was impossible to tell the direction from which it came;  in fact it was coming from every direction.  At first, the snowfall admitted more and more light to the spectators and then less and less.

                “Wait for it,” whispered Zak.

                The horizon began to wrinkle.  It gathered itself into folds that were at once sharp and wholly blurred.

                “What’s happening?” said a stunned Marci.

                “Shhh.”

                “Look, Marci—you see a cavity anymore on Public Square?”

                Marci was dumbfounded.  “It’s gone!  The hole, I mean.  There’s a building there now!”

                “That’s the Woodruff.  Which got razed in the 70’s.”

                “What’s happening?”cried Marci.

                “My grandfather said they had Go-Go girls there,” said Coffee.

                “Go-Go?” said Marci, whose captivation was now hoisted.  “Let’s go-go down there!”

                “Not yet.  Let’s wait to see what else appears.”

                “So, you can actually touch these, ya know, apparitions?  Go up to’m…into them?”
                “Y’ever heard of the Avon Theater, or the Olympic?”

                Marci shook her head.

                “Well, when they appeared, we trucked on over and took in a movie,” said Zak.

                “For real,” said Coffee.  “Straight out of the 60’s.”

                “So you can interact with all these…?  I mean, the people, too?” asked Marci.

                “Well, they were saying ‘excuse me’ when they bumped our knees.  So…”

                “But did they actually talk talk?”

                “It was so unreal we kinda forgot how unreal it was.”

                “I thought you said you can only see from the roof?”

                “True.  But once we spot something, it stays long enough for us to get to it.”

                “Last weekend, when the long-gone Orphans’ Asylum over on Franklin Street popped up, we sprinted over—cuz, ya know, they were

kids too—but couldn’t get a single soul to see us, let alone talk to us.  They were all like we didn’t exist.”

                “Look!” cried Marci, dumbfounded.

                Coffee turned again to Zak:  “Welcome the new believer, eh?”

                Marci shouted:  “That’s the Wise lot.  A parking lot!  Not supposed to be any buildings there either.”

                “There is now.  That’s the train station.  Went up in 1853, came down in, uh….”

                “1962…” came a voice from behind the trio.

                The three jolted upright and turned to spot a large man standing there in the shadows.  His face was weathered and his eyes were small under craggy brows.  He stepped closer to the three.

                Marci edged back toward the parapet.  Zak studied the man’s face.  Coffee took a step in the man’s direction:  “Mr. Mecomanaco?”

                The man smiled.  Coffee then said, “It’s OK.  It’s Mr. Mecomanaco.  He’s the—works for Empsalls.”

                “Night janitor for Empsalls,” said the man, smiling still.  “Omit nothing, Mr. Garcia, and nothing will surprise.  I also live here, at the Brighton.”

                “His apartment’s right above my dad’s café,” said Coffee.

                Marci, still marveling at the scenes, said, “So you’ve seen, too?” and she pointed breathlessly to the seemingly solid train depot.

                “For many years.”

                “Years?” exclaimed Zak.

                “More than I remember.  But I’ve got it all in books.”

                And Zak cried again:  “Years?”

                “How’s it possible?” asked Marci.

                “The how, I don’t know, but the facts are kinda hard to ignore.”  And the man reached into his jumpsuit and withdrew a worn sketchpad.  He handed it to Zak.  “At first they’d only appear when it was snowing.  But after a time, I could see them any time after sundown.  Their time is not our time, so I saw scenes from all times of day, even though it was night here on the rooftop.”

                “This whole book is almost all of the rail station,” said Zak.

                “I’ve got lots of other books.  But those images are the ones that haunt me.”

                “Why so?” asked Zak.

                “Come, let’s go to the café.  I’ll show you more of my books.  First, though, look there and tell me what you see.”

“You mean the train station?”

                “No, just beyond it.”

                “Well, there’s four platforms.  One train.  Dead silent.  No passengers at all.”

                “Look more closely.”

                “No, wait, there’s a woman on the furthest platform.”

                “I see her, too” said Marci.  “She’s walking into some sorta….”

                “That’s a tunnel.  Goes under the tracks, connects the far platform to the station—keeps ladies’ skirts from dragging through coal dust and cinders.”

                Zak displayed a page from the janitor’s sketchbook:  “It’s the same woman.”

                “Yes,” said the man with an anguished face.

                Zak flipped through more pages.  “She’s in all the drawings!”

                And the man turned sadly from the scene and said, “Come, let’s go to the café where it is bright.”

                The four took a booth in the rear, where green shaded lamps hung low, and at their elbows were the brick, red leather, and aged cherry wood that gave the café its flavor.  Above them was a series of old photos depicting the industrial hey-day of Watertown:  sepia-toned images of Bagley & Sewall, the Babcock Carriage Company, and the Taggart Paper Mill.  Zak was absorbed in the journals that the janitor had retrieved on their way down.

                “You’ve got it figured out, completely figured out!”  exclaimed Zak with unabashed admiration.

                The janitor lowered his head humbly and said, “Been working at it a long while.”

                “So you can actually predict these appearances?  There’s a real method to it all.”

                “Not always.  I’m not sure there is any rhyme.  Or reason.  But sometimes I get it right.”

                “Like for tomorrow, you’ve got down…”

                “If I’m right—and I may not be—the train depot will appear again.  And there’ll be about eighty people boarding the 10:20, bound for Dayton.”

                Zak looked up from the janitor’s books, “And it’ll be January 13, 1890.”

                “Yes.”

                “And they’ll all be employees of the Davis Sewing Machine

Company, leaving town,” said Zak.

                “That’s right.”

                “Why are they all leaving?”
                “Davis had just closed the Watertown plant.  Moved everything to Ohio.  They offered free transportation to any worker who wanted to relocate.  A lot of them left everything they had in Watertown to go.  Everything.  Half of them died in Dayton—then were brought back here to be buried.”

                “So sad,” said Marci.

                The janitor bowed his head and said, “Twas so long ago, you’d think the suffering would have ended by now.  I used to think I was crazy, so I brought others up to the roof.  Trusted friends.  But no one ever saw.  Except now for you.  And I think I know why.”

                Coffee shivered as lines from the jukebox drifted over his head:  ‘suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be, there’s a shadow hanging over me, oh, yesterday came suddenly…”

                The janitor dipped his head again in some secret grief.

                Zak continued to flip through the journals, occasionally quoting from captions:  “This is cool:  ‘If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.’”

                Coffee added, “I like this, too:  ‘Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.’  And ‘Nothing that is can pause or stay.’”

                “That’s from Longfellow,” shouted Marci, beaming as she completed the verse:  “’The moon will wax, the moon will wane.  The mist and cloud will turn to rain, the rain to mist and cloud again…’”

                And, since all three sat in the same honors class, they spoke in unison the final line:  “’Tomorrow be today.’”

                For nearly an hour, the small group talked about events past.  The mysteries of life.  And the janitor regarded the words of these three youth as he would a philosopher’s or as his own, as equals.  They agreed to meet again the following night.  “You can have the books overnight, Zak, if you like.”

               

~

 

                When Zak entered the café, he greeted Coffee who was lost in thought as he sat alone in the booth.

                “Zak, there’s something I gotta tell you;  my father told me that Empsalls is retiring Mr. Mecomanaco.”

“Sure, he deserves it.”

                Just then Marci arrived and slid into the booth.  “I heard that.  Good for him.  He’ll have lots of fine time on his hands.”

                Coffee swallowed hard.  “No, I mean, Mr. Mecomanaco – they think he’s dying.”

                “What?” said Zak.

                “Are you sure?” said Marci.

                “My father got it straight from upstairs.”

                The three sat numb and speechless.

                Then the janitor arrived, a little more rested than the night before and more fully flushed in the face, which helped them refute all they’d just spoken about.  He said, “Sorry.  Running a little late.  Shall we go up?  Not much time left.”  A fretful wave passed through each of the three.

                On the rooftop, they witnessed the exodus of eighty employees of the Davis Sewing Machine Company.

                “So many families now separated forever,” said Zak.

                “Can’t anything be done to prevent all this?” asked Marci.  “I mean, couldn’t we go back and change something?”

                The janitor nodded.  “This isn’t exactly time travel, since we don’t control anything.  We only see what appears.  The fortunes of these people were cast long before this day.”

                “So there’s nothing we can do?”

                “Do you remember when Marley showed Scrooge the lost souls outside his window trying to help the young mother?  Saying,  ‘They seek to intervene for good in human affairs and have lost the power to do so forever.’  Well, we’re not so limited.  We could walk down there now and delay a person from taking his seat.  But he’d just shift to another one.  And that seat change might alter all of his destiny—or ours.  Come, let us go to the café.  There is one thing, though, we might be able to amend.”

                The janitor spoke quietly.  “See that album cover up on the wall?”

                “Oh, god,” cried Marci.  “My mother plays him constantly; my father can’t stand the guy!”
                “It’s based on a true story.  The writers Holmes and Gaudio got it from a story published by a student from JCC, a mystic.  People think the tale was a fiction, but it’s true.”

                “What’s it about?”

                “Well, the record’s about a husband who comes to meet the train

he expects his long-missing wife to be on, but she never arrives.  The real story, though, is that she does come.  Somehow she gets trapped in the tunnel, and he leaves before she’s able to get out.”

                Zak raised his head:  “She’s the woman in your sketches!”

                “Yes.  Every Christmas Eve for the past thirty years this woman arrives and tries to get through the tunnel to her waiting husband.  Neither knows the other is there.  And they’ve never connected.”

                “Terrible!”  cried Marci.

                “Every year it ends the same;  I try reaching them but cannot.  She weeps until the husband departs, and the apparition ends.  All doomed to repeat, forever.  And I – doomed to helplessness.”

                “Why can’t you get to her?”
                “Whenever I get near the tunnel, I lose my vision.  Everything goes grey.  Even my voice won’t work.  My feet get planted, and I can’t move.”

                “Well, now there are four of us,” said Coffee.

                “And tomorrow night, we help,” said Marci.

                Zak then tapped a page of the janitor’s notebook.  “We’ll have more than one task.  According to this, there’ll be another apparition.  An explosion at the J.B. Wise Ammunition Company.  It happened December 24, 1918…. And it will kill six people.”

                The janitor nodded.

                “And we know how it will happen.  A foreman by the name of Larabee will hammer on a faulty primer cap and set off a blast.”

                “This is something we can change, right?” urged Coffee.  “I mean, we know how the explosion is going to happen, so we can prevent it, right?”

                “We could, yes,” said the janitor.  “But the consequences….” Then he showed them all another journal page.  “Coffee, your grandmother will marry the widower of a woman killed in that blast.  If the man never dies, your grandmother bears no children.  Meaning….”

                Coffee paled.  “It just can’t work like that.”

                “I don’t know how it works.  Only my notes.”

                On Christmas Eve, the four met again on the Brighton roof.  Just as predicted, the train station wavered and rose up from the asphalt parking lot; in a wink, the woman was there again, forlorn, seeking her way to the tunnel.

                “Let’s go,” shouted Zak.  When they arrived at the station several towering vortices of snow, buffeting and disorienting, began to swirl

around the ensemble, at them.  The janitor was breathing hard and stumbling.  “Keep your hands in mine,” he shouted.  “You give me sight, Marci; you give me voice, Zak.  And Coffee, you… where’s Coffee?”

                In the distance, a voice:  “I just can’t let people die, no matter what…”

                Marci shouted, “Coffee, no!”

                Suddenly the trio was across the tracks from the woman who in her terrified grief saw nothing.  She stood on the lip of the tunnel, trembling.

                The janitor shouted:  “Elizabeth, don’t go in there!  Walk across the tracks!”

                The woman paused, stunned by the ancient voice.  “Who speaks?”

                The man then shouted again, “The tracks.  Come across the tracks.  It’s safe.”

                The woman rushed more quickly for the tunnel.

                “Elizabeth, please!”

                The woman stood still, trying to peer through the raging blizzard.

                The janitor cried, “Sam!  Sam!  Over here.”

                The woman turned away again.

                “Quickly, Elizabeth, he’ll be leaving soon.  The chance will never come again.”

                And against her nature, the woman stepped onto the tracks.  “Papa?”
                “Come, dear.  Come across.  Sam is here.  Waiting.”

                “Papa!”

 

~

 

                In Zak’s journal, Marci wrote a final entry; wrote of the embrace, the reunion, the revelations… She wrote of how Christmas had come to the munitions factory and how Christmas had passed, snug and preserved.

                She wrote of how they saw Mr. Mecomanaco only once more, from the roof, boarding a northbound train.  Wrote of how they descended the abandoned stairwell one last time, past a melancholy apartment, now empty, and past what was once Enrique’s Café.

                As she put down her pen, she recalled how tightly she held onto Zak’s hand as they left the Brighton that night, walking before the wind, which seemed to be heading back down Arsenal Street—as if being chased back to the lake from which it came.