By Nightfall (Michael Cunningham)

On Friday, the strange objects floating in the sky reminded me that Autumn has arrived and we must all prepare for the coming slow march into Winter. It seemed that a good way to ignore the feeling of impending doom was to find a place to eat in the great outdoors. So I picked a place with tables in the parking lot out back of the Kmart.

I am all class.

Upon entering the Afternoon Deli, I ordered my free-range chicken sandwich at the counter. I forgot to grab a can of soda, so I fought back upstream through the line to get to the small refrigerator near the door and then swam back downstream to the counter to pay. Isn't it supposed to be Spring when the salmon do their run?

Don't get me wrong; there was absolutely no spawning going on. Not on my watch.

I like the Afternoon Deli because the woman behind the counter once recognized what pumpernickel bread is. They don't actually have any, but it was nice that someone had heard of it. I remember the time I knew what happiness was: it was a good pumpernickel bread-based grilled cheese sandwich. She gave me my little number 6 on a pedestal and I carried that, my soda, and my pumpkin-oatmeal cookie out to one of the tables on the parking lot.

I sat down and stared at the trees.

There really are pine trees everywhere here. You can't turn around without getting a needle in your eye, which means I only have to cross my heart and hope to die before the incantation is complete. Another thing I have learned since moving here from the East Coast is that even pine trees are affected by the Fall. I thought that having a yard full of pine trees would keep me from having to rake leaves, but when the earth begins to die each year, the pine trees drop their needles with just as much despair as their deciduous cousins. There is no escape from the gentle downward descent that times drags us through.

I looked down at the book in my hands and wondered whether I had the strength to open it and continue reading. I had at first worried that my imaginary Great Aunt would want to talk about the sex scenes -- she always was a lecherous old woman, and it makes me terribly uncomfortable -- but at that table facing Autumn and everything, my thoughts were interrupted by the sudden thrust of a hand that shot out to cover mine.

I jumped to my feet at this unexpected intrusion into my personal space. At the same time, the woman appeared with my food, placing the tray in exactly the spot for which my head was destined. My head and the tray connected, spilling fries and sandwich everywhere, but mostly on the table and my shirt. Luckily, my shirt was clean and the table had no obvious detritus. So I muttered apologies and blamed Annabel Lee.

The waitress nodded nervously and backed away. Annabel Lee was no help at all, since she is so irrevocably imaginary. She just sat there and smiled. She could be so... so... urgh.

"You're not happy to see me." She pouted and smiled at the same time.

"You are always a surprise is all. Can't you appear gently?"

"Aw, you like the excitement."

"I'm starting to get a little too old for excitement."

"I wish you'd say something nice to me once in a while."

"OK." I sighed. "I was worried you'd be Great Aunt Iva."

"Oh? Why?"

"Because I just finished reading this book. Every time I read a book with sex in it, Great Aunt Iva wants to have a whole book discussion and stuff. And it's embarrassing."

"There was nakedness, too."

"For sure. Look, here's what I've been wondering. There's this scene where a naked guy kisses this other guy and then the naked guy says it didn't mean anything. And they just go back to their rooms."


"You know what I'd have done? Some naked guy kisses me and says it doesn't mean anything to him, the first thing I'm going to do is look."


"Yeah, look to see if it meant anything to him."

"But it might have just been cold."

"Good point. It's hard to prove a negative." I tapped my finger and went back to looking out at the woods.

"I'm worried about you." Annabel Lee eventually said.


"Oh, you know, this book."

I stared at her. "This character and I are not anything at all alike."

She stared back at me, but said nothing.

"OK, so we're the same age. Lots of people are this age. And, yes, I'm staring at the trees thinking about my impending decrepitude. But the rest doesn't fit. I certainly don't want to kiss any of the Brunette's brothers."

"Do you want to kiss me?"

"You are not real!"

"But I think you resonated with the book?"

"I dunno. I'm not sure resonation and realism make for compelling reading. It was just a droning old man whining about his place (or lack thereof) in the world. " I finished my sandwich. "I mean, did we really need another collection of the thoughts of a man who is over-worried about his own mortality?"

"Maybe he should've gotten a blog?"

"Yeah . . . Wait a minute!" But it was too late. She was gone. I went back to contemplating the impending Winter.

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