The novel begins with an unnamed, omniscient narrator counting down the last sixty minutes until the death of the protagonist, Eddie. It is an ordinary day at Ruby Pier, an amusement park on the ocean where the elderly Eddie has worked in maintenance for all of his life. Eddie knows Ruby Pier inside and out, and everyone greets him by name. Making his usual rounds, he takes two eager young boys with him on a ride to check the ride’s function. The novel then briefly flashes back to Eddie’s childhood, when he brutally fought another young boy in defense of his older brother Joe—a story kids at Ruby Pier still tell one another. Back in the present, Eddie walks and feels the loss of his youthful strength and health.
For its visitors, Ruby Pier is a place to get away from their ordinary lives, but the irony is that for Eddie the amusement park represents nothing but routine—“maintenance.” Eddie’s job is to know everything about the physical realities behind the magical experiences. By counting down to Eddie’s death, Albom draws attention to the inescapable power of time and the importance of every small action as that time runs out.
The narrator continues the countdown of minutes to Eddie’s death. With 30 minutes left to live, Eddie encounters Dominguez, a cheerful young man who works with him in maintenance at Ruby Pier. Eddie gives a very appreciative Dominguez 40 dollars as a gift for his upcoming trip to Mexico, and tells him to buy something special for his wife. Dominguez then checks on a small fishing hole the two men keep behind their office. No fish have been hooked, but Dominguez promises Eddie that one day they’ll catch something. Eddie thinks to himself that Dominguez is unrealistically optimistic. Eddie reflects privately on his disappointment that after “the war,” he failed to follow through with his plans make a life for himself outside of Ruby Pier.
Maintenance work isn’t enough to make Eddie feel happy with himself and his life, but Dominguez appears to be content working in the same place, doing the same kind of work. While it may be a matter of age difference, it also appears that for Dominguez, his relationships—his family, his wife, even his work relationships—are what bring him happiness, and are more important than job satisfaction. In contrast, Eddie’s ambitions were what gave value to his life, and his failure to achieve them makes him feel like his life was a disappointment.
With 26 minutes left to live, Eddie tiredly pounds his cane to warn a group of balking teenagers to get off the dangerous boardwalk railing. Recounting another rumored story about Eddie’s youth, the narrator describes Eddie as a brave soldier who won many medals in war and came home a hero. However, the story also goes that Eddie’s bad leg injury was the result of a fight with another soldier, in which the fate of the other soldier is rumored to have been far worse.
To the kids at Ruby Pier, Eddie is apparently legendary, and the stories about his youth all show him to be tough, even brutal. These stories contrast with Eddie’s current role of keeping people safe at Ruby Pier. Not only has time taken Eddie’s strength, but it has also transformed the energy he once spent on fighting into a protective energy.
With 19 minutes left to live, Eddie sits down in an aluminum beach chair behind the rides, in what is described as his “usual spot.” Sitting there, he begins to remember the day he met Marguerite, his “one true-love.” This was years before, when they were both teenagers at Ruby Pier. They danced to big band music by the ocean, and Eddie remembers the dark color of Marguerite’s hair falling over her shoulder as she waved goodnight. Eddie went home that night and told his brother Joe that he was going to marry Marguerite. In the present, Eddie has a coughing fit, thinks about his recent Shingles diagnosis, and thinks of how painful it is to remember Marguerite.
The memory of Marguerite shows that Eddie hasn’t always been alone. Both the vividness of his memory, as well the pain that the memory brings, betrays an intense capacity for love and longing. In examining the rich inner life of someone seemingly unexceptional and “ordinary,” Albom aims to emphasize the value of all human life. For Eddie, Ruby Pier provides a place where the past and present collide. He is unable to escape the hold of the past there, and yet these memories are his company.
The story flashes back to a night three months earlier, when a teenager named Nicky lost his car key on one of the rides at Ruby Pier. The narrator comments regarding this incident that, “No story sits by itself.”
By stating that “no story sits by itself,” the narrator sets up Nicky’s lost key to become a crucial detail. This line also connects to the novel’s end, and Albom’s overall message about the interconnectedness of all humans.
With 14 minutes left to live, the novel returns to Eddie, warmly remembering his first dance with Marguerite at Ruby Pier on the dance floor once called the “Stardust Band Shell.” The Judy Garland song, “You Made me Love You” plays in his head against the sounds of Ruby Pier and the ocean waves. A little girl, whom Eddie thinks of as “Amy or Annie,” comes up and addresses him by name as “Eddie Maint’nance.” She eagerly asks him to make her a pipe cleaner rabbit—a trick Eddie has been doing for years for kids at the park.
As Eddie nears his death, the past and present begin to converge. The music from his first dance with Marguerite sounds as real to him as the ocean waves in the present. While deep in his memories, Eddie still pulls himself back to reality to pay attention to the little girl. Apparently Eddie connects with people at the park through small, kind gestures.
Eddie suddenly hears a woman screaming, and he moves as quickly as he can towards the noise. He sees a cart full of passengers about to tip on one of the rides, which is called “Freddy’s Free Fall.” Eddie mentally reviews the structure of the ride while a crowd of people gathers. Eddie directs the nerve-wracked Dominguez and Willie to climb a ladder and secure the cart long enough to help the passengers out. They do so, but while the crowd is cheering the rescue, Eddie realizes that the cart itself is going to fall. He tries to alert the crowd to get back, but amidst the cheering nobody hears him. Suddenly, he sees the little girl “Amy or Annie” standing directly beneath the hazardous cart. Hoping he can make it in time, Eddie runs to save her. Just as he dies from the falling cart, he feels two small hands taking his own.
Though Eddie’s job in maintenance seems ordinary and mundane, his knowledge of the rides allows him to act heroically to save the riders. While the crowd and the other workers are panicked, Eddie is able to think and give orders clearly and quickly. Old age and injury have taken much away from Eddie, but he is still able to act like a soldier in a crisis. Eddie doesn’t know the little girl well, but his act of sacrifice connects them intimately. It seems that it is the little girl’s hands that Eddie holds as he dies, but we will later learn that this isn’t the case.