“The Death of Paul Shephard” by Kristoffer Newsom

They rode together in silence for some time, the old man and the young one. Paul looked out the window, his blue eyes cloudy with cateracts, his vision clouded with anger and resentment, the emotional cocktail adding to the wrinkles on his aged face. His stare deliberately evaded Stephen, whose youthful skin hid his own feelings much better than Paul’s. Still, it was clear he was frustrated with the man. His shoulders were pinched and high, and several times he wet his lips as if he were about to say something and each time he stopped himself. This was the third time in recent memory he’d had to drive the white-haired man someplace; familial obligations are what they are. When an arrest is made, next of kin is almost always notified, besides – who else would bail Paul out?

They passed an animated billboard with young-looking people enjoying themselves on a beach – an advertisement for “Eternaril”, with the little yellow pills superimposed on the perfectly-rendered three-dimensional picture of pristine smiling faces. The old eyes followed the image of youth until it passed from view, snapping him back into his own skin.

“Just say it,” Paul muttered through clenched dentures and white-stubbled lips.

“What’s left to say?” Steven sighed. This is the second time this month I’ve had to bail you out.

“Just tell me what a disappointment I am, what a disappointment I’ve always been to you.”

Stephen sighed again, his frustration easing into a more ordinary sadness. “You’ve never been a disappointment. It’s just… you have so much to live for, it kills me to see you throw your life away-”

“Just drop me off at the corner, I’ll find my way home.”

“Paul.”

“Stephen, just let me out of the car, if you’re going to lecture me again. I’ve heard it enough. I’m 73 years old, for Pete’s sake.”

“Then why can’t you act like it?”

Paul chuckled ironically to himself. “Hell, I thought I was.”

Stephen sighed again, and laughed once. “Soliciting an undercover cop and then asking her for a freebie when she tells you she’s on the job is ‘acting your age’?”

“That bitch. All I wanted was a fuckin’ hand-job. Coulda been worse, I could’ve offered her double.”

Stephen’s smooth skin cracked in a grin as he laughed for real this time. Paul had always made him laugh, and it almost made the pain he caused him on a regular basis somewhat more bearable. The electric car glided silently into the driveway of a suburban condo. The old man and the young man looked at each other finally, nodding in some unspoken man-code of apology and forgiveness. Eye to eye, their faces shared a strong resemblance, even for a father and son. For two men that looked remarkably alike apart from age, they couldn’t be much more different.

“Try not to get into any more trouble for awhile?” Steven asked.

“No promises.” Paul cracked the door and very slowly shifted his old bones out. He turned briefly and gave Stephen a pat on the leg. “Thanks for the lift.”

“Paul…”

“Yeah?”

“Would it make a difference if I begged you to take your pills?”

The white-haired man leaned down so his worn blue eyes could look into Stephen’s perfect ones. “No. Love you.”

Stephen smiled sadly, looking down at his hands. “Love you too.”

Inside, the 73 year old man carefully peeked through the blinds of his front door, eagerly waiting for Stephen’s silent electric car to creep away. It did, at 5 MPH below the speed limit and Paul shook his head. For all Stephen’s kindness, he never was much fun.

Finally, a grin spread on Paul’s stubbly cheeks as the car slowly slipped out of sight. With the enthusiasm of a teenager, he grabbed his keys from off the counter, and headed for the garage. The sun was setting. It was almost time.

Several hours later, and at least a dozen miles up the road, in the glare of the headlights of his lifted Land Rover Defender, Paul held a small round object. He twisted it around several times, ensuring it was well exposed to the light on all sides. Bending over between he headlights, he placed it on a small tee several feet in front of the truck, retrieved a 3-wood from where he’d left it on the hood, and let loose with a drive that probably would have been pretty dang good if he was still young and strong. Once the golf-ball left the aftermarket lights of the shiny black British truck, a green streak of glowin-the-dark plastic rapidly escaped his sight.

“Eh, I’ll find it,” Paul said with a shrug as he placed the club back in in the golf bag strapped down to the pickup bed. Climbing into the driver’s seat, he took a deep pull from a 24- oz bottle of IPA, which fit neatly in the cupholder. “They sure thought of everything.”

Finishing it, he tossed the empty to the floorboard of the passenger’s side to join its fallen brothers with a clink. He pulled the last bottle out of the cooler safely buckled into the other seat, and opened it with his dentures. “Knew these things had to be good for something.” With a swig, he closed the door, put the truck in gear, and spun all four wheels across the beautifully manicured fairway to get to his ball, aiming deliberately for several sand traps along the way and very nearly clearing one of them entirely in the air. Stephen often derided his choice of transportation as a “juvenile antique,” but Paul didn’t care. It made him happy.

Two more strokes, and Paul’s practiced (though seriously inebriated) hands wrote down a 3 in the box beneath the number 18 of the score sheet. How he’d managed to make it through the entire course in his Rover in the middle of the night while drinking profusely was a mystery he’d never solve, but the satisfaction of playing one of his finest games ever (and in precisely the fashion he always wanted) immediately dispelled any misgivings he might have had beforehand, despite the fact that there had been nobody around to see it. All the homes lining the posh course were quiet and dark. If anyone had heard the roar of the Rover’s V-8 engine as he tore through sand-traps and cut muddy swaths through fairways, they had been too cautious or afraid to do anything about it.

He climbed into the back of the pickup, the V8 still idling, and shouted at the silent edifices drunkenly.

“You damned fools! You’re all so careful and so perfect, and what’s it ever gotten you? Look at me, I’m old, I’m 73 years old – I’m dying and I’m more alive than you’ll ever be!”

The houses remained impassive as Paul shook his head in disgust.

“Go on, then. Keep living your poor pathetic perfect lives forever. Morons.”

In the distance, the wail of a police siren was his cue to The Death of Paul Shephard 4 In the distance, the wail of a police siren was his cue to go. The mandatory enforcement arm of the “quiet and cautious approach to life” would neither be amused nor sympathetic to his cause.

***

He awoke with a headache. In spite of drinking copious amounts of water and taking 4 ibuprofen at 3AM, Paul had a hangover. Not that he wasn’t getting used to them. Paul remembered that Kaz, the third-generation Iranian-American who had inherited the family ‘Stop-n-Rob’ had named Paul his favorite customer, while discussing the hundreds of micro-brewed beers they carry in the long row of refrigerators. He’d been drinking a lot lately, and while it wasn’t specifically to annoy Stephen, the fact that it did was a nice perk. He disabled his smartphone’s alarm and checked the calendar app – yep, today was the day.

He sat up abruptly, quick for a 73 year old man in his shape, his head instantly clear with anticipation. He quickly dressed and left the house without breakfast, only coffee – for today, he would jump out of a perfectly good airplane.

***

The black Defender found parking easily at the airfield. There weren’t many small-craft pilots these days, and several of the hangars were altogether empty. He made his way to the open hangar door, where he came face to face with a sleek antique twin-engined prop plane being inspected by a tall middle-aged looking man with a hint of grey in his blond hair. The flashlight fell to his side as he caught sight of the whitehaired man standing before his plane, and he grinned his way.

“Hey Paul – God, you look like shit.”

Paul laughed and approached him. They embraced briefly as old friends, and he pointed out the grey in the tall man’s hair. “Taking a page out of my book, Scott?”

The man shrugged. “Eh, you know what they say – ‘getting old isn’t for sissies’. I haven’t taken anyone up in months… been over a year since anybody asked for a dive. This is me doing you a favor, you know that, right? I’m retired.”

Paul nodded, keeping an arm around Scott’s shoulders. “I know, old buddy, I know. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it, either.”

Another man, also with a creeping bit of white in his tightly curled black hair in spite of smooth ebony skin, came around from the tail section of the plane.

“If the love-fest is over, you two should get packing your chutes. I’m almost done here.”

Paul grinned again, shaking the heavy-set black man’s hand vigorously. “Hey, Derrik. Thanks for this.”

Derrik grinned back. “Hey yourself old man. Wouldn’t miss it, Paul.”

***

At 12,500 feet AGL, the plane leveled off. A green light appeared in the cabin, and Derrik flashed back a “thumbs up”. Scott shouted over the loud hum of the propellers. “You sure you want to do this?”

“Damn sure,” Paul shouted back. “You only live twice, you know.”

“You’d better make sure you pull that ripcord! If you decide to end it all, I could lose my license! First timers are only supposed to jump tandem!”

“I thought you said you were retired?”

Scott looked at Paul for a moment, unsure if he was joking. He hit the button on the side of the plane, opening the door anyway. The roar of the wind was deafening, the temperature was suddenly frigid for Southern California – the jumpsuit he’d borrowed barely kept him warm at all. Paul looked below at the expanse of roads drawn like pencil lines amid a mixed patchwork quilt of alfalfa farms, and even the mighty Colorado River looked like a trickle from here.

“Ok, you’ll go out first on the count of three, and I’ll be right behind you,” Scott shouted above the roar. “One! Two-”

Paul didn’t wait for three – he was already out the door, tumbling like a leaf in a hurricane. Everything Scott tried to teach him about finding his pose and resting on the air beneath him got left on the plane. He tried to read the altimeter on his wrist, but he couldn’t get his arm to hold still enough. “I’ll have to count,” he thought. “One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand…”

Suddenly, Paul realized the futility of counting. If he kept tumbling like this, he’d lose consciousness, or tangle in his chute. Wincing in pain, he thrust his arms out to his sides, abandoning the default fetal position he’d been hurtling towards the planet at well over a hundred miles per hour in. His legs spread apart, knees relaxed. His feet flailed, kicking himself in the posterior repeatedly. “I always said I was so hard I could kick my own ass,” he thought with a grin. The tumbling ceased, and the adrenaline-soaked rush of the chaotic fall was replaced by sheer euphoria. Never in his life had the feeling of flight been so present.

Sheer euphoria was quickly replaced with a sinking dread that it’d been awhile since he checked the altimeter. In fact, he hadn’t checked it at ALL. Desperately, he tried to hold his arm still in front of his face, but his muscle-tone wasn’t what it used to be. He braced his left arm with his right and began to tumble. Somehow, he spotted the needle on the altimeter already in the redzone.

“Here goes nothing.”

Paul pulled the chute, certain that he’d tangle and be the ire of Scott for the rest of the poor bastard’s life, but somehow, he didn’t. The parachute opened cleanly, and Paul glided the remaining 300 feet as smooth as can be.

On the ground, Scott made his way to Paul who sat stoically nursing a sprained ankle beside a country road in the shade of another “Eternaril” sign, the yellow pills and youthful faces almost taunting the injured man who suddenly looked older than ever. Flying is easy – landing, isn’t.

“You scared the hell out of me, you know,” Scott said. “Scared the hell outta myself. …and that’s not all. I hope you’ve got a good cleaner for this jumpsuit.” Scott laughed, sitting next to him. “I was gonna throw that one out anyway. Keep it.” The two old friends sat quietly together for awhile. “The best things are always over before they begin.” “They don’t have to be, you know.” “Yeah. Yeah, they do.”

Only a week later, Paul was dead. It wasn’t the drinking, the recklessness, a bad traffic accident, or even an overzealous cop that ended his life, just a simple aneurysm caused by arterial hardening brought on by his advanced age.

The plaque where his ashes were entombed reads as follows:

“Here Lies the Mortal Remains of
Paul Jacob Shephard.
2008-2085
Lover of life, breaker of rules,
killed before his time by a preventable disease.
Paul is survived only by his father, Stephen.”

 


Kristoffer Newsom is an independent, multidisciplinary artist operating under the moniker, “Rogue Planet Art”. Professionally, Kristoffer works as a CNC Machinist, Cinematographer, Editor, Designer, Inventor, and Entrepreneur. Using scientific terminology as a metaphor for his artistic endeavors (a “Rogue Planet” is a planetary body not caught in the gravitational orbit of a solar-system) is a deep reflection of his values as a person, and his approach to art – based on a combining a scientific approach and mind with an emotionally intuitive and sensitive spirit. Kristoffer is a father of one and lives with his partner in West Hollywood, CA.

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