The last time I saw Jeff was at Elise’s party. I guess that was the last time anyone saw him, although I believe I was the only person to actually see him that night. No one else can recall.
I noticed him—that night—standing by the pool. Something about the lights: strings of lanterns draped above the deck and around railings and spindles; two round lights at the bottom of the pool—under the water—casting shimmering watery ripples over the guests and deck and house; the lights from the windows and sliding glass doors; the flicker and jump of flame from a fire-pit warming and drying a few dripping resting swimmers. All that light and its confused and conflicting shadows and reflections and suddenly there was Jeff, standing next to two women I knew—we knew—from the firm, and their husbands. I was on the other side of the pool, facing the house. He was looking at me, I think, but I couldn’t be sure. He was shimmering—barely there. He seemed to be saying something—mouthing words I couldn’t hear. It was a quiet party; we were all growing a little older. There was music, which over the years had become jazz, but it didn’t drown out the conversations—also quiet, and taking place in small, huddled groups around the fire-pit and in the kitchen and seated at a few small tables spread out over the deck. I walked around the pool, but when I got to where Jeff had been standing, I couldn’t find him. I squinted. Tilted my head. Tried to change my point of view, thinking his absence a trick of the light.
“Lose something?” Carol asked—one of the women from the firm Jeff had been standing near.
“I dropped a shrimp,’ I said. “I don’t want it to get kicked into the pool.”
“It would probably be very happy there.” The woman’s husband. They chuckled politely at his joke.
“Has anyone seen Jeff tonight?” I asked, rather than laugh along. Carol tilted her head, looked as if she were trying to remember something distant.
“Jeff? From work?” she asked.
“Oh,” said Lauren. “I haven’t seen him in so long, I forgot to look.”
That was it. That’s how it went.
I saw him on the train on the way into work earlier that week. I was looking out the window at the last of the trees before the scenery began to change to the back of the city—the side it shoves up against the train tracks. I looked up and he was in the seat across from me.
“Oh.” I was surprised. “I didn’t know you were here. Sorry.” He smiled.
“It’s OK,” he said. He began talking, but I might have dozed off because I looked up again and someone else was sitting across from me. I occasionally nod off when the scenery changes and I swing myself back into the train and the sway and the clack of the train is so soothing in the morning.
“I think you have my hat,” the someone else said. I didn’t think I did. I don’t know. I might have dreamed it.
“What’s it like?” I asked as we huddled under a small overhang in the back of the building where we worked, smoking cigarettes and trying to keep out of the rain. “Disappearing? Are you, like, invisible or something?” I thought it would be pretty cool to be invisible. Maybe it was a stupid question, but I really didn’t understand. He took a long, very thoughtful drag and let the smoke stream into the rain.
“No. Not really,” he said. “I’m not here. Or you’re not where I am.” Pause. “Or maybe when.” He was quiet for a while and I wasn’t sure whether he was going to continue. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to ask. His response had clarified nothing. “Once,” He said, flinging his cigarette butt into the rain, “I think I was ten. Another time—maybe sunlight?”
He told me at the Raven’s Nest after work one day. About a month ago. I went in and sat on a stool at the bar. I was early—or he was late. A few stools to my left were empty, but I sat next to two guys who looked like they might have been house painters. The one immediately next to me looked in my direction briefly and then back to his beer. I ordered a gin and tonic. There was a glass, half full, in front of the stool to the left of mine. I hadn’t noticed when I sat down. The news was on TV, but the sound was off. Something about another shooting scrolled across the bottom and the guy next to me asked to watch the game instead. When the bartender set my glass down there was something odd in my peripheral vision—a glare or reflection or something. I looked and Jeff was there. I may have been surprised. I may have been a little embarrassed for not noticing him come in and sit down. I didn’t think much of it.
“Why did you sit there?” he asked after a few minutes of talking about work.
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t you sit here?” He indicated his seat. He was asking why I sat right next to someone I didn’t know when there were several empty seats available. Who sits next to a stranger if they don’t have to? “Was someone sitting here when you came in?”
“No,” I said. “I just sat here. I don’t know why.”
“I was sitting here,” he said. “When you came in.”
“Nobody was sitting there when I came in. That stool was empty.”
“You sat there,” he said, pointing at my stool, “because I was sitting here,” and he pointed at his own stool. “You didn’t see, but you sensed it.”
I took a drink. It had been a long day. “Will you tell me what the fuck you’re talking about?” And he did. He told me he had figured out how to disappear. I wasn’t sure what he meant: a magic trick; avoiding people; that he’d found a good spot to hide out at work. He said he was practicing. That it was harder to disappear around people who knew him. Like me. That most people had stopped noticing him altogether.
I listened—some kind of joke, I figured—but the more he talked, the more sick of it I got and I wanted him to get to the punchline or gag or whatever. I just wanted to have a gin and tonic and relax and bitch about work.
Some things you believe right away and some things it takes a while to see are true, even though there’s really no reason not to see they’re true. He disappeared. Right there. In front of me. I saw it happen. He was sitting there. He was saying something—something about bones or stones or water—how he does it—I wasn’t hearing him right. Like he was far away. Like I was falling asleep. Like I had a head rush or the gin and tonic had hit me, but I didn’t, and it hadn’t. And then it was as if he was smoke and then he wasn’t there and I didn’t see him again until the next day and I didn’t believe that what I had seen was what had happened.
I never asked him about why—why he wanted to disappear—but I guess I get it. It was a lot—the 21st century. Right from the beginning. But at the beginning, it was something new and we were strong. Even 9/11 couldn’t tear us down. At first. About a decade and a half in, though, it was grinding away at us. It split us up and shook us around. We changed—became angry. At each other. We were so disconnected. We were lost.
At the party—at Elise’s—I’d been thinking about him before I saw him. Probably nobody else had been, that’s why they didn’t see him. They were already starting to forget. Just as I would begin to forget. His cubicle, his desk, are still empty—have been for weeks. Nobody asks, “Where’s Jeff?” Nobody looks into his cubicle for him or for anyone else or to see why it has been empty for so long because it’s as if it’s not empty—or as if it’s not there. As if it disappeared along with him and we haven’t realized yet. Its presence—like his absence—is something of which no one is any longer aware.
Ethan Tinkler teaches Creative Writing and English at Atlantic City High School in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson’s MFA program in Creative Writing and was a reader for The Literary Review for three years. His work has appeared in Ravensperch, Rosebud, Spittoon, and a few other small press journals. He has been nominated for both a Best of the Net award and a Pushcart prize.
Artwork: Doug Shoemaker, Poolside V, watercolor on paper, 26″ x 41″.