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Excerpt: "The Five People You Meet in Heaven"

By Mitch Albom

By

The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Hyperion
September 2003

The End

This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time.

The last hour of Eddie's life was spent, like most of the others, at Ruby Pier, an amusement park by a great gray ocean. The park had the usual attractions, a boardwalk, a Ferris wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars, a taffy stand, and an arcade where you could shoot streams of water into a clown's mouth. It also had a big new ride called Freddy's Free Fall, and this would be where Eddie would be killed, in an accident that would make newspapers around the state.

At the time of his death, Eddie was a squat, white-haired old man, with a short neck, a barrel chest, thick forearms, and a faded army tattoo on his right shoulder. His legs were thin and veined now, and his left knee, wounded in the war, was ruined by arthritis. He used a cane to get around. His face was broad and craggy from the sun, with salty whiskers and a lower jaw that protruded slightly, making him look prouder than he felt. He kept a cigarette behind his left ear and a ring of keys hooked to his belt. He wore rubber-soled shoes. He wore an old linen cap. His pale brown uniform suggested a workingman, and a workingman he was.

Eddie's job was "maintaining" the rides, which really meant keeping them safe. Every afternoon, he walked the park, checking on each attraction, from the Tilt-A-Whirl to the Pipeline Plunge. He looked for broken boards, loose bolts, worn-out steel. Sometimes he would stop, his eyes glazing over, and people walking past thought something was wrong. But he was listening, that's all. After all these years he could hear trouble, he said, in the spits and stutters and thrumming of the equipment.

With 50 minutes left on earth, Eddie took his last walk along Ruby Pier. He passed an elderly couple.

"Folks," he mumbled, touching his cap.

They nodded politely. Customers knew Eddie. At least the regular ones did. They saw him summer after summer, one of those faces you associate with a place. His work shirt had a patch on the chest that read Eddie above the word Maintenance, and sometimes they would say, "Hiya, Eddie Maintenance," although he never thought that was funny.

Today, it so happened, was Eddie's birthday, his 83rd. A doctor, last week, had told him he had shingles. Shingles? Eddie didn't even know what they were. Once, he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.

"Eddie!" . . . "Take me, Eddie!" . . . "Take me!"

Forty minutes until his death. Eddie made his way to the front of the roller coaster line. He rode every attraction at least once a week, to be certain the brakes and steering were solid. Today was coaster day -- the "Ghoster Coaster" they called this one -- and the kids who knew Eddie yelled to get in the cart with him.

Children liked Eddie. Not teenagers. Teenagers gave him headaches. Over the years, Eddie figured he'd seen every sort of do-nothing, snarl-at-you teenager there was. But children were different. Children looked at Eddie -- who, with his protruding lower jaw, always seemed to be grinning, like a dolphin -- and they trusted him. They drew in like cold hands to a fire. They hugged his leg. They played with his keys. Eddie mostly grunted, never saying much. He figured it was because he didn't say much that they liked him.

Now Eddie tapped two little boys with backward baseball caps. They raced to the cart and tumbled in. Eddie handed his cane to the ride attendant and slowly lowered himself between the two.

"Here we go . . . . Here we go! . . . " one boy squealed, as the other pulled Eddie's arm around his shoulder. Eddie lowered the lap bar and clack-clack-clack, up they went.

A story went around about Eddie. When he was a boy, growing up by this very same pier, he got in an alley fight. Five kids from Pitkin Avenue had cornered his brother, Joe, and were about to give him a beating. Eddie was a block away, on a stoop, eating a sandwich. He heard his brother scream. He ran to the alley, grabbed a garbage can lid, and sent two boys to the hospital.

After that, Joe didn't talk to him for months. He was ashamed. Joe was the oldest, the firstborn, but it was Eddie who did the fighting.

"Can we go again, Eddie? Please?"

Thirty-four minutes to live. Eddie lifted the lap bar, gave each boy a sucking candy, retrieved his cane, then limped to the maintenance shop to cool down from the summer heat. Had he known his death was imminent, he might have gone somewhere else. Instead, he did what we all do. He went about his dull routine as if all the days in the world were still to come.

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