November 3, 2016

Fiction by Harlan Yarbrough: "The Big Bang Theory"

Graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, a physics teacher, and a city planner. Harlan lives in New Zealand but returns to the US to perform.



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Big Bang Theory
     Despite land and sea searches, they never found Ralph. They found his car, of course—he'd made no effort to hide it. Several hours later and half a mile away, they found a couple of roof racks, which they later said had definitely been on his car. From that, they deduced he had probably brought a boat and launched it in the little bay. In the car, they also found his note: “Don't waste a lot of resources looking for me. You won't find me, and that's OK. Just leave it be. Best wishes to all my friends and family.” That, they totally—well, almost totally—ignored. They brought in a helicopter and conducted sweeps out to sea until dark that first day.
    
The next morning, the sheriff made a statement: “Extensive aerial reconnaissance has turned up nothing. In accordance with the missing subject's expressed wishes, therefore, we have suspended the search until such time as we obtain further information.” The only further information the authorities obtained didn't seem clearly related to their missing person case: some fishermen reported hearing a distant “boom”, like thunder or an explosion, well astern late in the morning as they headed back into port.
    
Ralph apparently never divulged his plans to anyone but me, and he made me promise not to say anything for at least a year. I argued like hell to try to persuade him to abandon the enterprise he proposed. For weeks I hectored him to give it up, to back off for awhile, but he wouldn't budge. He'd listen politely and thank me for my concern, then ignore everything I'd said. I sorely wanted to tell someone. I wanted to go to his family, maybe even to the police or something, but a promise is a promise.
    
That's always been a hugely big deal with me. I lost respect for anyone who broke a promise. I lost respect for my parents, each time one broke a promise, until I hardly had any respect for them at all. I have done stupid things in my life. I've even done hurtful things (and always regretted them), but I have never willingly broken a promise. I felt extremely upset with myself for making my promise to Ralph without having thought of the implications. I wanted to dissuade him, but I kept my promise.

    I kept my promise. That's important to me, although I hate what happened, and I didn't let it go without a lot of effort. I listened to Ralph until his throat was sore, and I talked to him until mine was. Day after day, and in several all-night conversations, I tried to steer Ralph in a different direction, tried to get him to look at things in a different way. He refused to consider any alternatives.

    “It's perfect, don't you see,” he said. “My kids are grown up and gone; they don't need me. My ex- has another partner; she doesn't need me. I'm no longer teaching; no students need me. I'm not gigging anymore; no bandmates need me. It's perfect.”

    “Your friends need you,” I replied. “I need you, f'r crissakes!”

    “Awww. That's really sweet,” he would say, “but it isn't true. You don't need me.”

    “It is true. There's noone to take your place.”

    “Come on! You have lots of friends.”

    “Yeah, but only one of them is you.”

    “I suppose so, but you still don't need me.”

    How many times did we argue like that—I don't know, maybe fifty, or more like a hundred. It went on so long I almost began to hope maybe Ralph would eventually just get tired of the whole operation or forget about it. I should've known better; I s'pose I did know better, really. Once Ralph had analysed something, anything, he would remain steadfast until and unless he got new data. I didn't have any new data—I just kept telling him we wanted him here with us. That wasn't enough for him, but I never quit arguing.

    “Like I said, it's perfect,” he insisted so many times. “Usually, people leave a huge mess for other people to clean up. I wouldn't want to do that to anyone, so I've worked out the perfect solution. No muss, no fuss, no bother.”

    “It would bother me—and your other friends—a hell of a lot, so why don't you just drop the whole idea.”

    “Oh, yeah, I s'pose it'll bother you for awhile, but you'll get over it. You wait and see.”

    Maybe he was right, I don't know. It's been two years, and I'm not over it yet. Maybe if he hadn't told me, if I hadn't made that promise, maybe it'd be different. Maybe I'd be over it. Everybody else seems to be. Ralph's ex- seems happier than before, now that she doesn't have to worry about him missing her. His kids were upset for a few weeks, but they're busy with their own lives and don't have much time to think about things like that. A bunch of Ralph's students raised some money and got the school to put up a brass plaque with Ralph's name on it, but then they had to study for exams and all that. A bunch of ex-bandmates put on a memorial concert—what a crowd! Two thousand people in this little town!—but then went back to trying to hustle enough gigs to pay the rent. Am I the only one who hasn't got over it—I don't know. Maybe.

    Ralph seemed confident he'd covered all the bases. He'd looked at his plans from every angle and seemed almost certain—as close to certain as I've ever seen him—that everything would go just the way he intended. Maybe he was right about that, too. A lot of people seem convinced he's still alive and just slipped away and is living overseas somewhere. The police say they're keeping the file open, but they don't think Ralph's still alive. A couple of 'em have confided to me privately that they're surprised Ralph's body never washed ashore. They say he must've gone a long way out, and I think they're right about that.

    Nobody has any firm idea what actually happened to Ralph, and even I'm not sure. I think he carried out his plan, but I wouldn't put it past him to have disappeared to live somewhere else. He had always struck me as a such a positive, usually happy, person. He liked people, and people liked him. That would almost give me hope, except that he didn't take any of his instruments. They were all sitting at home, neatly put away, and with a list giving the value of each one so his kids could easily sell off the ones they didn't want. Still, he could always buy other instruments—so even I don't know for sure.

    I know I wish I could've talked him out of it. I tried. How I tried. Ralph had an answer for every objection though.

    “See, if they can't find anything at all, then those who want to think I've just gone somewhere can do that. That might comfort some folks. And nobody has to clean up my mess.”

    Ralph never did tell me where he managed to buy dynamite without a license. One stick would've completely obliterated the little dinghy he could've carried on his roof racks, but he managed to amass twelve of the suckers. I felt nervous visiting him, after he had them at his place, while he waited for a calm enough sea to get as far out as he wanted to go. Ralph's theory was that, if he went out as far as a full tank of fuel would take him, nothing could ever wash ashore except splinters of wood too small to be recognizable. Apparently, he was right.

~Harlan Yarbrough



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