The Truth about Josh Enloe
When Josh Enloe died, word travelled in that electric way unique to small towns, and for the next two weeks he came up in every conversation. Some waiter talking to an old-timer as he frowned over a plate of fried eggs: “You know, Josh Enloe used to always make such a fuss if we got the yolks too firm.” Some lady talking to the supervisor in the self-checkout line: “You know, Josh and Mary Enloe never had any kids, but I imagine if they did they’d look just like the boy on this detergent label. Can’t you just see it? Yes, it’s the ears.” But mostly folks just stuck with generic eulogies like, “He was such a talented guy, you know. Still had a lot to offer the world. Shame.”
But Josh Enloe was not dead. He was, in fact, definitely, observably alive.
This problem first presented itself to Richard Munson, the vice president at the bank where Josh was president. As he swung his car toward the reserved space near the front door a Camry cut him off and he slammed his brakes. His tires screeched. He stopped a foot from the other car’s bumper. As Richard inspected his steering wheel from half an inch away the Camry’s driver-side door swung open and out stepped Josh, a hand cupped over a coffee mug, a tan line visible at the collar of a gaudy Hawaiian shirt festooned with bananas and parrots.
“Watch where you’re driving, Richie,” Josh said. “Scared me for a second there.”
Richard stared a moment, trying to register the smell of sizzled rubber and the swell of adrenaline and the bananas on that shirt. He peeled his fingers off the steering wheel, but by the time he got a second look all he caught was a flash of red shirt disappearing into the glass front doors.
Inside, Josh nodded good morning to everyone as he passed the teller’s counter. They each noticed him in turn and went wide-eyed in order, Dave, Claire, Tyrell, Cindy. Josh blew on his coffee as every eye followed him through the lobby and to his office, where he found a box containing his personal items on top of his desk.
“What’s all my stuff in a box for?” He called to no one in particular. A teller walked in from the back room at the same moment, and when she heard his voice she dropped a glass jar filled with change to the floor. The jar exploded with a heavy pop that froze everyone in place. Josh hurried over to help, told her not to worry about it so much, she looked like she’d seen a ghost, and spent the rest of the day at his desk catching up on emails. Thus the matter of his reappearance remained unaddressed until he walked out to his car at day’s end to find Richard standing there.
“Josh.” He said it in a way that was neither question nor statement.
“Hey, Rich. You going to vote on that bond issue tomorrow? Voting’s at the grade school gym. Democracy and all that.”
Richard shifted his weight, scuffed his shoe on the ground. Josh clarified that the bond was for the school that Richard’s daughter attended.
“Um, okay,” Richard said. “How. How are you?” He looked over Josh’s shoulder and shook his head.
Josh followed his gaze and discovered half of his coworkers huddled together, staring at them through the window, nostrils pressed into pig snouts against the glass. “Is everything okay, Rich?”
Richard cleared his throat and reached into his pocket and handed Josh a newspaper clipping. A picture of a car in a wooded ditch, the front end tissue-papered around a tree trunk. The windows reduced to squinting black slits. Two firefighters worked at the driver’s side door with a large piece of equipment. Josh read a section of the article.
State Highway Patrol said the 5:15 a.m. crash happened on Highway 19, east of Highway B. A 2017 Ford Mustang driven by J. Enloe was headed eastbound when it veered off the road and struck a tree. Enloe was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. Open containers of alcohol were found in the vehicle.
“No relation to me,” Josh said. He passed the clipping back to Richard, and understanding struck him. “Wait. Did you think that was me?”
Richard folded the clipping, rubbed his mouth. “I just… I mean not just me, Josh. The whole town. We all heard about it and got it in our heads that…”
“Oh, God. You really thought. Oh my God, Rich. I’m sorry.” He patted himself down. “Well, as you can see, I’m all in one piece.”
Richard nodded at the pavement, scratched his check. “I know. It’s just that the paper said…”
“I know. I read the caption.”
“Everyone’s been saying you died, Josh.”
“I understand that. But here I am, of course. And you know I don’t drink. The article said—”
“I’m just telling you what I think.”
“You mean thought.”
Richard opened his mouth slowly and then closed it again.
“Okay, Rich. I’m confused here. What do you think?”
Richard squinted at the clipping and read the caption back to him. “Enloe was pronounced dead upon arrival.”
“Yeah. Jamie or James or Jessica or something. There are bound to be other J. Enloes out there. And I don’t drink. And I don’t drive a Mustang. I have a Camry. Here it is,” he said, knocking on the car’s roof.
“We just know that you left two weeks ago and then the accident happened and you never came back to the office.”
“Well I was out of town. For work. For the bank. Everybody knew that.”
“Everyone’s been talking about it.”
“I mean, what are you trying to say? Are you really trying to tell me—”
“I have to go,” Richard said, and he slid into his car and drove off.
Confusion melted into laughter as Josh drove home. He called his wife to tell her the whole crazy story. It went to voicemail. She’s still at the lake house with the girls, Josh thought as he pulled into his driveway. He went inside to find the living room walls newly painted, furniture huddled under a drop cloth, and every family picture evidently stored in a closet somewhere. Josh considered the shade of green Mary picked for the walls. Didn’t we agree on blue, Mary? He grunted and decided that putting the room back together should brighten appearances. He searched every closet for the pictures to no effect and furthermore, when he pulled the drop cloth off the furniture he discovered a new couch and love seat. Rose print on white upholstery. He crawled into bed, waiting for Mary to get home so they could talk about that paint.
Mary didn’t come home that night. Josh headed for work early and called her on the way. Voicemail. Breakfast with the girls on the way back from the lake house, he decided. Nothing unusual. At the bank his key to the front door didn’t work. He called Richard, which resulted in another voicemail.
Josh paced around, kicked small pieces of asphalt across the parking lot. It was at least an hour before anyone would arrive at the bank to let him in so he walked the three blocks to the grade school where already clusters of people stood around campaign signs at precisely the legal minimum distance from the front door. Half of them stooped around a blue sign as if it were a bonfire while, ten feet away, the other half stood around a red sign with their hands plunged into their pockets, advocating whatever might be the opposite stance advocated by the blue sign. Josh went in through a side door and found two of his wife’s best friends, Elaine Crede and Janice Benton, sitting behind a folding table.
Elaine’s spine stiffened and she let out a little puff of breath. “Hello,” she said, then to Janice, “It’s cold in here all of a sudden. You feel a draft, Janice?”
“I feel it still,” Janice said, pulling a jacket closed at her neck.
“Elaine,” Josh asked, “What are you doing here? Weren’t you at the lake house with the girls?”
“Sure,” Elaine said. “But Janice and I always volunteer on voting days so everybody just decided to leave earlier than we’d planned. Last night, probably five o’clock, don’t you think, Janice?”
“I thought it was four thirty.”
“Last night?” Josh asked.
“Was Mary with you?”
“Oh, of course,” Janice said. “It wouldn’ta been a party without Mary along.”
“Well she didn’t come home last night.”
“Come home?” Elaine said. “We dropped her off at home at five o’clock. And come to think of it, just who are you asking about all this anyhow?”
“Are you here to vote, sir?”
“No. Well yes, but. Elaine. It’s me, Josh Enloe.”
Elaine frowned. “Now that’s not any kind of funny joke,” she said. “We’re all still getting over that around here yet.”
Josh shook his head. “Getting over?”
“Over his passing. He was a great guy.”
“Yes, Janice. He was a very good man. A little clueless at times, maybe.” To Josh: “You know, I’m never one to talk bad about anybody, but Josh used to bring up this embarrassing story about me sometimes. From thirty years ago when we were in high school. It didn’t matter what the situation was. If we were in the same room, he’d say, ‘Elaine, remember that time,’ and off he’d go, laughing his head off while he told it. I always hated when he brought up that stupid story.”
Janice smiled. “It was a pretty funny story, Elaine.”
“Well maybe I should start sharing some funny stories about you, then, Janice. See how much you like it.”
Janice huffed and pinched her jacket at the neck.
Josh drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “What is this? Did Munson put you up to this?”
“Richard Munson?” Janice asked.
Elaine said, “I never talk bad about anybody, but I don’t particularly like Richard Munson either.”
Josh asked, “What do you mean, ‘either?’ Nevermind. Mary didn’t come home last night, Elaine. And if you say you dropped her off at five o’clock yesterday—”
“Four thirty,” Janice said.
Elaine straightened up in her seat. “Sir, what do you want with Mary anyhow? You’re asking an awful lot of questions.”
“I’m her husband, Elaine!”
“Oh my,” Janice said. She handed a ballot to someone who promptly shuffled off to a booth. “You can’t raise your voice while there’s voting going on.”
“I think you ought to see this, sir,” Elaine said. She tapped at the screen on her phone and slid it across the table. “Josh Enloe is no longer with us. And if you’re going to continue this sick joke then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Josh picked up the phone. His online profile filled the screen. Dozens of new messages filled his page, and as he scrolled down they all echoed one another:
Couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. Josh you will be missed, your smile, your big heart, our spying expeditions LOL, thanking God for the memories! You are in a much better place but my heart is hurting.
God bless and be with you Josh. We will always remember you and be forever grateful for the good times we had.
Miss you already, Josh. Poker night’s not going to be the same without you anymore— I might actually win a hand now and then! God rest your soul.
It went on and on. “This is my page,” Josh said to no one in particular. He laid the phone back on the table and slid it back to Elaine, who shivered again as she received it. Janice pinched her jacket at the collar and asked if they weren’t sitting right under an air duct or something. “I’ve got to go,” Josh said. He called the sheriff’s office as he walked back to his car. The voice on the other end of the line picked up on the first ring.
“Thank God,” he said to himself. “Um. This is Josh Enloe. My wife didn’t come home last night, and she isn’t responding to any of her calls. It’s been almost a week since I talked to her last and I was wondering if anyone had called you—”
“Hold on. You said what?”
“My wife, Mary. Mary Enloe didn’t come home last night and—”
“No. Who is this?”
Josh recognized the voice on the other end of the phone. “Marlon, is that you?”
Nothing but electric silence in his ear then, “Who is this?”
“Marlon, this is Josh Enloe.”
Marlon said, “Prank phone calls are illegal, kid,” and hung up.
Marlon Winters wore a tan uniform that seemed half a size too small and puckered at his armpits. He flipped open a manilla folder and spread its contents on his desk and looked over the impromptu collage. When the front door thupped open and a shadow bearing a remarkable resemblance to Josh Enloe fell over his desk, Marlon sighed and plucked up a piece of the collage and squinted at it. “Devon, where’s the record on this guy? The one who stole the thing? The car?”
Another man at a desk facing the front door indicated that it should be right there in the file and Marlon said that well, it wasn’t.
Josh interrupted. “Marlon, there seems to be a major misunderstanding among a lot of folks in town, and I don’t know what all to do about it. I get that people are surprised to see me after what they heard and saw in the paper, but when I’m standing right there in front of them I just don’t see how this story is sticking. Maybe it’s shock or something, I guess. I don’t know, but anyway I was hoping maybe you could just help me find Mary and get the word out about all this—”
“Devon,” Marlon said, throwing himself back in his chair and propping a black boot on his desk, “Has that warrant come through yet? For that guy over on Fifth Street?”
Josh came around Marlon’s desk and ripped the paper out of his hand. “Do you hear me? I’m telling you that I need help.”
Marlon looked up slowly and squinted. “Devon, you see that water stain on the ceiling tile? Was that there before it rained earlier this week?”
Devon looked up and sighed. “I don’t know. Warrant hasn’t come through yet.”
Josh followed Marlon’s gaze to a point directly behind his head on the ceiling. A coffee colored stain spread out in a squiggly circle on the tile. When Marlon returned to his file Josh shoved him. His chair broke, and its splintering sound broke the quiet. Marlon’s legs kicked up and he landed hard on his back. Josh loomed over him and prodded the air with his finger as he spoke.
“You need to put aside what’s twenty years in the past, Marlon. I don’t care what you think of me, but if you still care at all about Mary then you need to help me find out where she is.”
Marlon grabbed the desk and pulled himself up slowly, his boot heels clicking on the tile floor, his tan shirt one big pucker. Then he said, “That’s what I get for leaning back in chairs, I guess, Devon. See if you can find me another one in the closet, can you? I’m going to go over to the courthouse and see about that warrant.”
Devon said, “You mean you’re going out to a quiet spot somewhere to see about a nap.”
“Semantics,” Marlon said as he walked past Josh and plucked his hat off a coatrack by the door. “Rainin’ out there, Devon. Tell everybody to not commit any crime while I’m out, alright?” The door closed with a thup behind him.
The broken chair lay on its side on the floor. Josh picked up the broken leg and examined it, walked around the room with it. “Hello?” He waved it in front of Devon’s face. He tapped it on the top of Devon’s computer monitor. Devon continued typing. As Josh started backing toward the front door he raised the chair leg and said, “I’m taking this. I’m going to walk out of this room with something that doesn’t belong to me. Which is stealing. I’m stealing this now. From a police station.” The front door swung closed, and Josh stood on the sidewalk with the chair leg in his hand. Through the dark tint on the glass Devon’s silhouette remained visible behind his desk.
On the sidewalk a spitty rain fell in one of those cloudless showers that tilts everyone’s gaze skyward as if to check that some men’s choir isn’t taking a group piss off a nearby rooftop. Josh appreciated nature’s little beauties, but this time, rather than retreat to a doorway and take in the spectacle he closed his eyes and felt the rain, felt the cool, physical touch of it dribbling down his face, patting his hair down to his scalp. This is real, he told himself. He walked through the rain toward his car, past a row of other cars parked at meters. This is real, Josh told himself as he swung the chair leg into the door of a truck. And so is this; he took off a car’s rearview mirror with several uncoordinated chops. He stood there dripping among flashing headlights and honking alarms, waiting for someone to come out into the street and threaten to rip his head off. He hollered challenges in the street for five minutes without so much as a curious person appearing in a window. He chucked the chair leg and squished into his car and drove to work where Richard Munson’s car squatted in his parking spot. When Josh went inside he found his desk half buried in the little bobblehead dogs and other knickknacks that previously cluttered Richard’s office.
“What is this?” Josh said when Rich came out of the bathroom still adjusting himself. Richard brushed past him as if he were walking right through him and sat down at his computer and clicked at the keys on his keyboard with fat fingers.
“Are you listening to me, Richard?”
Richard tapped one of the dog’s heads and set it agoggle and went back to typing.
“So help me, Richard, I’m going to smash this place up and stomp every one of those goddamn dogs into powder if you all don’t cut this out right now!”
Richard tapped one more key like putting a period on a sentence and slowly looked up. “We’re all just trying to make sense of this too, Josh. I think you assume that we’re being unreasonable, but there is a lot I don’t think you understand yet either.”
“What is there to understand? I’m right here in front of you!” Josh shouted at Richard, at the whole lobby. “That’s a fact.”
“That’s true. But you didn’t come back after that car accident too. And the paper reported on it. Those are facts too.”
“I was at a conference!”
Richard looked at him evenly. “See. Notice how I just acknowledged the truth in something that you said, but now you aren’t doing the same for me.”
“Because it’s ridiculous! What I said. It outweighs…”
“The fact is you were still gone. And the car accident, Josh. You clearly didn’t see what we saw.” He cleared his throat. “In the casket.”
“It’s a fact, Josh. The whole town, just about, turned out for the service. It was real moving and everything. Nice eulogy. The whole works.”
Josh beat his chest, trembled and swelled as he spat out his next words. “I’m standing right here in front of you! I exist!”
Just then the bell on the front door jingled and Mary Enloe clacked into the lobby on tan heels with Marlon Winters and his puckered shirt. She pinched her purse in front of her stomach and looked around the room, bewildered. “What’s going on here?”
Everything seemed to ice over, the air to turn plastic as Josh ran to Mary and soggied her with a hug. He squeezed her, smelled her hair, the softness of her back through her dress. “Mary. You’re alright. You’re really here. I’m really here. I don’t understand what’s going on, but now that you’re here… Marlon, thank you for finding her for me.”
“Hey, Barb,” Marlon said to one of the tellers behind the counter. “You guys got any money left around here?”
Josh stepped around Mary. “Marlon?”
“Maybe just enough,” Barb said. “Why, Mary, you’re all wet.”
Mary examined the hug-shaped wet spot on her dress, “Well, it is raining outside. Should have thought to grab an umbrella, I guess.”
Josh looked out the window. The pavement was wet dark but there was not a sprinkle in sight. “Barb, you just saw me hug her.” To Mary: “Mary, I got you wet. I didn’t mean to do it but you can see you came in here perfectly dry—”
Barb said, “It’s good to see you smiling again, Mary.”
“You can only grieve for so long,” she said. “I just tell myself that I have to look forward or I may as well have died too, you know? No sense in letting that accident kill both of us.”
Barb nodded sympathetically and asked Marlon if he wanted that cash back in any certain way. He said pennies and nickels ‘d do, and they all laughed so that their laughter gently filled the room and lapped at the walls in rhythm with Richard’s bobbleheads.
“So I guess it’s never too late, is it?” Barb said. “I hear you two are engaged again.”
“Married,” Marlon beamed. “Just took care of it at the courthouse today. I wanted to make sure she didn’t break off the engagement with me and go running off with some other guy again.”
Mary slapped him on the arm. “Hey,” she said. “That was half a lifetime ago, and I don’t want it hanging over my head the rest of my life.”
When Marlon apologized and went in for a peck on the cheek Josh grappled with him and they lobbed old man punches at one another until Mary got between them and they parted, panting like old dogs.
Josh said, “What is this, Mary? What’s going on here?”
“We all saw it, Josh. The paper said it, and we had the funeral three days after.”
“Saying it doesn’t prove anything. Ask—” he considered his options. “Ask Barb.”
Barb let out a nervous giggle, surprised to be suddenly thrust into the limelight. “Oh,” she said quietly. “Well, Josh Enloe did die. I saw his body at the funeral and I remember it vividly because it was the first time I ever got to enjoy the last item off a finger food tray with Josh in the room.” The same lapping laughter around the room. Mary said it was still too recent to find humor in it, but that Josh would have laughed himself if only he could be here now.
Josh stomped. “There was no funeral!”
Richard said, “Saying it doesn’t prove anything, Josh.”
“Yes it does for me! Could a corpse talk to you, Rich? And yet you’re talking to me right now. If I were dead, how could you possibly be talking— how am I even having to say this!” Josh snatched Mary’s purse out of her hands. “If I were dead could I do this?” He dumped its contents on the floor and flung the purse so that Barb had to duck. “I’m here right in front of you. You can’t deny me. It’s the truth. I am the truth!”
It happened that just about this time a stapler— one of those heavy metal ones that looks like it notches hogs’ ears in its free time— came flying from some part of the room and hit Josh squarely in the temple. It staggered him and he nearly got his footing again before a paperweight thumped off his shoulder and bounced away spinning like a giant coin. Mary Enloe had nothing to throw, so instead she pounced on Josh, brought him to the ground and held his legs while the rest of the room hefted various objects off the countertop. Josh screamed and thrashed as they fell on him. It was short work. Two minutes later Marlon was patting his hair back into place and complimenting Barb’s new outfit. “So how about that withdrawal?” he said.
At lunch Richard Munson leaned against the countertop and talked with Barb. He waved a turkey sandwich as he talked, punctuating his statements with flopping lettuce.
“You know, what happened to Josh Enloe was a tragedy. Taking that curve too sharp and ending up off the road like that.”
“I never thought of Josh as somebody who’d get in a car after he’d been drinking. He was always so much more responsible than that. To think he was an alcoholic all that time…”
Richard stepped aside so that the janitor scrubbing the floor could polish off the last of a great red stain on the tile. “Well,” he said. “That much we’d all better just forget about and never mention again. His good name and all.”
“Yeah. Such a talented guy, you know. Still had a lot to offer the world. Shame.”
Richard took a bite of his sandwich and nodded. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Nick Straatmann teaches writing at Lincoln University. He writes across genres including middle grade, science fiction, and literary horror. He lives in Washington, Missouri and tweets @NickStraatmann.