The first time I saw Homer’s Cliff Diving School it took me more than three hours to make the two-hour drive. I almost passed the narrow breach in the wall of red maple and birch sealing the back-country road from the pitifully rutted dirt trail beyond.
“Yes, please come in,” the old man said after I drove through the underbrush and into what appeared to be a clearing, more a patch of open space, that could accommodate a few cars. “Why don’t you sit over there, and maybe you can help me with a question that’s been gnawing at my bark.”
I nodded as though I was prepared beyond curious.
“Do you think vampires get tooth decay?”
You can do this. You can do this, I had been insisting on the drive up, and for weeks and months before. “Ah, I’m not sure what you mean, sir?”
“Vampires. They’re supposed to suck the blood of their victims and turn them into zombies, or the undead, or the living dead. I don’t really follow that kind of thing.”
“Well, I don’t really know.”
“A guess? I ask strangers some pretty strange questions. I know. But it’s helpful. Keeps my mind off of all of this.”
“All of this” was a glorified shack with a sign out front that advertised “Homer’s Cliff Diving School.” Homer was exactly as the name implied, an affable, silver-bearded, heavyset man in his late seventies wearing tattered blue coveralls and a T-shirt whose identity faded decades ago.
His face spoke of kindness, his eyes of understanding.
“Well, if you think about it, vampires are supposed to last many human lifetimes so, I guess, I would think their teeth must be pretty resistant to decay or damage since, if you will excuse me, it’s the life’s blood of their work.”
“Right!” Homer said, slamming his fat fist on the arm of his chair. “Makes perfect sense. Why didn’t I see that? I feel a great weight has been lifted off my back. Wow, you are one smart fellow.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. I had expected to fill out some legal releases, hand over a bunch of money, and be shown where to jump. Maybe I took the wrong turn off the road. I knew I took the wrong turn off life. “I’m not sure about that.”
“Hey, I don’t judge people that come this far to do what they need to do. You’re here to end your life. No questions asked, that’s my motto. But the vampire thing. I owe you for that.”
“That’s how it works. We can spend a few minutes talking about what happened to get you here, or if not, I will walk you down the trail to the edge of the cliff where you can get a clear view of the Hudson and hitch you up to a parachute and leave you to do what you have to do.”
“Perfectly good parachute that has never been opened. If you’ve gotten this far, pulling on the release cord isn’t a real option. Only a legal one for me.”
“I hadn’t thought it through that far.”
“Not much to it. I don’t charge or ask many questions, if you forgive the vampire thing.”
“What do you get out of it?”
“Everyone wants to know that. I’m not sure why that’s important.”
“Sometimes strangers ask the strangest questions too.”
“Sometimes I sell the cars people leave behind, or give them away to the poor folk around here or to some volunteer organization. I have a pension and get Social Security and have savings from a couple of investments I made back when I was a lot smarter. I’m an engineer by trade with a fondness for geology and astronomy, which has nothing to do with how I got here.”
“So, how did you get here?”
“A good question that many ask, and I never answer.”
“And you’re alone?”
“Pretty much. But the school is only open a few days a week, when I’m up to it.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I show up when I get the urge to show up.”
“Then you could miss someone who came all this way.”
“Probably true, but it can’t be helped.”
The shack was larger inside than it looked from the outside and quite well outfitted with a counter, an old school desk piled with periodicals and files, a crackling fireplace that looked like it was recently fueled with a half dozen splintered logs, and the scent itself, not to mention the leather chair I was sitting in, both comfortable and comforting.
“Well, for legal reasons you understand, you need to fill out a simple form with your name and address. I don’t pay much attention to it and call everyone John. Hope you’re not offended.”
“What about women?”
“Women. Yes, women. Well, I don’t get many of them up here.”
“From what I’ve been able to gather, seems they generally don’t like the drive, or the immediacy of standing on a cliff and throwing themselves into a mound of jagged rocks that fringe the shoreline of the Hudson below. They prefer pills. Quick, clean, simple, private, and a lot less effort, and no curious strangers about.”
“Effort? I drove three hours and went by the trail twice before I found this place.”
“So, shall we go,” Homer said, lifting his bones out of his chair. “Damn!”
“Before you got here I was trying to fix my typewriter and forgot to get my morning coffee. It’s eleven and I should have had it at ten.”
“You can’t get it now?”
“Too late. Too close to lunch. I stick to my routine. Always have. Serves me pretty well.”
“Didn’t serve you well today.”
“Got caught up,” he started, looking down. “Damn, ink all over my hands.”
Instinctively, I examined mine. “Mine too. Here,” I said, showing him the faint whisper of stains from our handshake.
“Come on, let’s get cleaned up,” Homer said and marched me to the sink at the back of the shack.
The makeshift space was his kitchen. There were plastic containers of cereal, a bowl of too ripe fruit, and in the corner a small refrigerator that looked like it was built before WWI. The hardwood floor was almost new and the furnishings, rugs, an oak chest, a pile of Native American baskets, and files littered everywhere.
“Here, dry off,” he said, handing me a fresh terrycloth towel.
“Wow, this feels amazing!”
“Better than great.”
“Friend nearby makes them herself. Everyone buys from her. Big stores want to buy boatloads, but she only weaves a few dozen a month.”
The sensation was soft and clinging, and warm too, as if you were slipping your hand into a toasted terrycloth glove. “Don’t think I’ve ever felt a towel like this. I don’t want to stop drying my hands.”
“Okay, I’m going to make coffee and then walk you to the cliff, and by the time I get back, it will be lunchtime. You okay with the delay?”
“Sure, what’s another few minutes of life mean? And I’ll pass on a cup.”
“Exactly,” he said, adjusting his suspenders. “Damn cliff ain’t going anywhere.”
“Did you know the lower half of the river is a tidal estuary occupying the Hudson Fjord, which formed during the most recent period of North American glaciation about at 20,000 years ago? Maybe it was 18,000? This far north the basalt cliffs are the margins of a diabase sill, formed about 200 million years ago, at the close of the Triassic Period by the intrusion of molten magma upward into sandstone. The molten material cooled and solidified before reaching the surface.”
“Never thought much of it.”
“She’s quite the lady. Starting from Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains to the Verrazano Narrows at the entrance to New York Harbor, the river is approximately 300 miles long, with sections reaching a depth of about 160 feet,” Homer recited, almost gleefully.
I leaned against the counter and watched him go through his routine. I felt at home here. And time, what was left of it, seemed less threatening. The simplicity of walking a few hundred yards through scrub and underbrush to a magnificent view of an even more magnificent river had an appeal. I wasn’t sure how my life would end. The actual mechanics of what would happen when I found Homer’s Cliff Diving School were now all too apparent, and not at all as daunting as I had first imagined.
“Yeah, can you beat that? Damn question been haunting my bones for weeks. Couldn’t shake it. Then you come walking in and come up with an answer that makes all the sense in the world.”
“Fact is, I used to be The Vampire Critic for The New York Times,” I said, bringing poor Homer’s coffee-brewing activity to a full stop. I’d felt bad the moment I’d said it. Looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“Now, boy, don’t you be playing with me about that kind of stuff.”
“Sorry, I was only jerking your chain. Didn’t mean anything by it.”
“By God,” Homer suddenly pondered, “do you think The Times actually has a vampire critic?”
Homer spilled the hot water into the cup and the room exploded with a rich, overpowering aroma as though we were standing in the middle of a fancy New York City café.
“My God, what do you have in there?”
“Thought you didn’t like coffee?”
“Never said that. Just didn’t seem to make sense to down a cup right before I jump off a cliff.”
“Actually, there couldn’t be a better time to enjoy what life has to offer right before you end it.”
Of course he was right, but only partially. I didn’t want to wait, or be distracted. “I agree.”
“So, does the condemned man want a last cup of Homer’s best?”
“No way around it now. Pour me a cup as quickly as you can, barkeep.”
“Of course, like everything else in life,” Homer instructed while going through the motions, “there is a small fee for these additional services.”
Containing my grin. “Okay, now you really have my undivided attention.”
“What with my taking the time to brew you a cup, the materials involved, and the great table service I offer, along with the stimulating chatter and educating you about the breadth and beauty of my river, my guess is three dollars should cover it. I’d prefer small, non-sequential, unmarked bills, of course.”
“I assumed as much.”
We settled back into the chairs in the front of his store. We took a few steaming sips. Probably make a fortune with his mix, whatever was in it. Like the terrycloth towel lady, I was certain the formula would die with him.
I had come here with a purpose, a rationale a decade in the making, involving a divorce, the terrible death of my parents in a car accident a year later, friends who I had abandoned as much as they had me, and my drinking which stalked me like a vampire with a single victim left on earth.
I was tired. Spent. The hopelessness, the blame, real or imagined, was killing me; it was eating me alive. I tried to make it all right, and failed. Then, again, who the fuck cares?
I hoped the someone who gets my car will appreciate the new tires and carburetor.
Homer put down his cup. “I don’t think you need to wear a fancy shirt to jump off of a three-hundred-foot cliff.”
“No, I just realized I put some of my favorite old flannel shirts in the trunk last week to take to a seamstress.”
“How about we get them out beforehand and then I walk you to the cliff. I know a great seamstress who makes magical terrycloth towels. I’m sure she will mend them good as new.”
Two of the three were given to me by my son on my forty-fifth birthday when he was eleven. He was so proud that he had picked them out of the catalog himself. Of course my wife helped. A year later, Kevin was dead of a rare bone cancer.
Nothing was the same after that. Molly and I died inside. We drifted apart. My drinking didn’t help. Nothing helped. And then, one day, there was nothing left to get out of bed for, or to live for, or to care about, or to care for.
The darkness of nothingness is impenetrable and absolute. It has a mission you can’t escape from. Mostly, you just get tired of hoping and trying, and collapse under your own weight.
“Okay, let’s get this show on the road,” Homer said and shot himself out the door.
I followed obediently and unlocked the trunk of my car.
Homer reached in. “My, oh my, these are wonderful. I’m glad you remembered them. Could have given the car away and these could have wound up being cut up for rags. A damn shame that would have been. Feels like Molly’s magical terrycloth towels.”
“Molly Turner. Lives a piece down the road. Makes the towels.”
“Wrong. No. Nothing’s wrong,” I said and gently lifted the shirts from Homer’s grasp. “Can you—and I don’t want to make this complicated for you—but can you give me her address, and I will drop them off myself? Just to finish up loose ends. I’ll be right back and you can walk me to the cliff.”
“Of course, of course,” Homer repeated. “Twenty-eight Stanford. Make a right on the road, and go a mile into town and you can’t miss Stanford. Tell Molly you were just here and wanted to donate the shirts yourself. She’ll be delighted.”
“You sure you’re okay with this? I mean you’ve been so kind and patient and all.”
“I’ll be here when you get back. You take care of what you have to take care of, and I will take care of the rest. Now, go on, get these to Molly. Probably get a hug out of her in the process.”
“Thanks for being so understanding, Homer,” I said, jumping into my car. “You’re a good man.”
Molly was a delight, a spry seventy-year-old with the clearest blue eyes I’d ever seen and a wicked sense of humor. She took great care, examining each shirt like it was a rare tapestry worth a fortune.
And it was. At least to me. Molly told me to come back in a week.
The first thing I did when I got home that night was burn the envelope containing a lengthy, mostly self-indulgent, wandering monologue detailing why I was going to do what I had to do, and why I had no other choice.
I now had a choice. And Kevin’s shirts were as good a reason as any to try life again. God bless my son for reaching out from the grave to save my life, something I couldn’t do for him.
And I certainly wasn’t going to disappoint another Molly. I’d made that mistake once already. Once was more than enough for one lifetime.
Later that first week, I realized I had never paid Homer for my coffee! “Shit,” was all I could muster, for the man who had saved my life, and more than likely, the life of many others.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, and appeared as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing.
Since 2012, over seventy tales of horror, dark fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, crime, epic adventure, magical realism as well as literary/mainstream fiction have been published, and he was featured in a quarterly, single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories 2017.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Do Vampires Get Tooth Decay?”
We couldn’t resist the simple beauty and perfection of this story by Arthur Davis. It could easily have been titled “How to Save a Life,” but “Do Vampires Get Tooth Decay?” is perfect because it shows two levels of misdirection. First, it misdirects the reader by posing an interesting question. Although we quickly see that the story has nothing to do with vampires, we then discover that the question also misdirects the main character.
After that, it unfolds the emotional and heartbreaking story of a man who believes he no longer has a reason to live… until he’s shown that he does.
Excellent story; excellent writing. I’m new to the world of short stories and this story surprised me several times, with the focus veering from vampires to suicide to the simplicity of life to humanism to memory and memory of loved ones. Terrific read.
“There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? I appeal as a human being to human beings; remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
― Bertrand Russell
This tale of a near-miss redemption is written in a way that you truly feel the deep pain and self-disgust of the protagonist, leave you in awe of the unexpected savior, and is truly a tale that will stay with you.
Excellent short story, I really enjoyed reading this.
Homer seems like a classy guy… I’d like to meet him someday.