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Fiction Friendship

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

It was fortunate for old George Rube he was already dead. Otherwise, I would've throttled him myself. It would've been justified, trust me.

 Seriously, what eighty-eight-year-old writes a will and then never signs it?

"He wanted to be buried next to my mother," Daniel said to Julia and me. "But I can't. Do you know how much that would cost?" Then he told us as I eyed the signs in the cemetery's parking lot. They said 24-hour surveillance cameras here. This place might not be happy with what we had planned. I didn't care what George would've thought. He deserved this, especially when his son was a stocking clerk. In such instances, one can't expect too much, right? George could haunt the cemetery's owners if he was angry. They shouldn't be charging thousands of dollars just to bury some ashes, especially these days. It was 2021, yes, but everyone was still reeling.

 Still, I wondered if scattering ashes on a grave was breaking some sort of law. It would be interesting to explain to my daughter Jan why I was missing her college graduation.

Sorry, but I'm in the Dade County lock-up. Pay my bail or find your own ride home.

 Worse, I'd have to explain it to my mother. I'd never hear the end of it. They'd tell that story for generations to come. Now I was sweating, and not just from the Florida sun.

Great, I thought. Explain why we came here again?

Daniel is one of your closest friends, said a voice inside me. Someone you love, so you thought you should be here today.

Yes, and I'd also like to kill him. He didn't tell me we were doing this on the sly. 

I agree, said the voice. Shame there are witnesses. Four, to be exact. A small group for a funeral. But better, I suppose, than nothing.

****

Daniel says the date we met was September 2, 1993. He knows this because, oddly enough, he had to attend someone's baby shower. I remember thinking, what is up with this guy?

Daniel agrees he could've dressed better.

My friend Mary was dating a man named Rob. We were at his house, and I was the third wheel. Maybe Rob felt sorry for me, I don't know. In any case, he called Daniel. A cloud of Old Spice followed the man in. He was wearing a Buffalo Bills t-shirt, which looked like it was from 1970, and jeans. Daniel has a long nose, black hair streaked with purple, and eyes that reflect the sky. One can't help but notice that blue, with a hint of storms behind them.

One also can't help but notice the way he walks. As if he can't sober up.

At the age of ten, Daniel was in a car accident. It took his mother and left him with a brain injury. So, he drags one leg and his left hand trembles. His voice is low and gravelly. When he laughs, his whole body shakes. And somehow, we became friends. It's one of those things that outlast marriages. At least it outlasted mine. He never married.

 Now, he's balding and has to use a walker. My hair is salt and pepper. I have one bad knee and probably will never lose this weight. I think about this as I stand in Daniel's house, waiting for him. We would go to his friend Julia's house, and she would drive us to the cemetery. There we would scatter his father's ashes on his mother's grave. If George didn't like that, oh well. Should've prepaid that funeral or taken out life insurance.

We had gone about two blocks when Daniel said we had to go back. That was typical.

"Why?"

"We forgot Dad. Can you get him? He's by the TV where we can watch shows."

I nodded, thinking about how he said it. As if this was a stubborn man we had to coax into the car. I wondered if I'd talk about my parents that way someday. Like they were still alive, even as their ashes sat on my coffee table. Hoping somewhere, somehow, they could hear me and smile. Then there was George, who once owned an electrical business. Did he ever watch TV with his son? And if not, what did they talk about?

****

Lately, I've been wondering about God and fate. Why some things are.

See, it's bad enough a man has to deal with a handicap, his mother's death, and an absent father. But hitting him with bipolar disorder on top of that is just bullshit. No better word for it.

As I'm sure Job said, what the hell, God?

Daniel's eyes held stormy weather. None of us knew why then, including him. Honestly, losing his mother like that would've driven me mad. Still, I thought something was wrong. Daniel had a bad therapist or wasn't trying. He cycled through depression and back out. He would push me away, then try to pull me back. Daniel regretted we weren't closer. I didn't. I was afraid of how dark those clouds could get. I knew he needed something I couldn't define, much less give. Eventually, I had to set boundaries. I hate the term friend zone, but it's what happened. At least I talked to him. Mary stopped, saying he was a downer. It's not easy to watch someone invite others to hurt him. He'd let people, especially women, use him. For what little money he had, for car rides and shelter. We also had our own lives to tend to. So I told myself.

 Years passed. I married, had kids, then divorced. Daniel got diagnosed, but wouldn't give me details. He got somewhat better. The man still got depressed and sometimes called me. They usually ended with him hanging up, ashamed. But over time, calls like that lessened. I hoped he truly felt better. I couldn't entirely leave, and I wasn't sure why. I assumed it was because Daniel is a here's my shirt sort of person. You needed him; he was there. The man also had a great sense of humor.

For example, the sundae.

Once at Friendly’s, Daniel wanted their bacon sundae. Bacon. With dairy. So, I called him a disgrace to Judaism. I said it broke every kosher law in existence and would make Moses cry. Daniel broke out in that body-shaking laugh, and I did too. I can't remember if he actually ordered the sundae. I hope so. I just remember the laughter.

When my ex died, he came to the funeral. Even though they never got along. He did it for our sake.

Jan met a few of my gentleman friends. Daniel was the only one she liked. Go figure.

****

In 2019 I was with my brother in Tennessee when Daniel called. He told me he fell and broke his bad leg. He added he'd had to crawl outside.

"Wait. What the fuck did you do?"

"My phone was dead," he answered. "So I crawled to the door and yelled. Fortunately, a neighbor heard me. They're going to do surgery, then I'm going to rehab." Daniel’s voice shook. “What am I going to do after?"

"After what?"

"After I come--look, Michele, I live alone. What if this happens again and I can't get help?"

I said something about rehab getting him stronger, to hang in there. “I wish I was there right now,” I added. Daniel got better and went back to the house his grandmother had left him. Soon after, his father moved in. Perhaps it was to help his son. I like to think so. But I also knew George's girlfriend Susie had died, and he had to move out of their rental.

Then in late 2020, the father passed away.

***

A dead man's ashes are heavier than I thought.

They were in a carved, wooden box, perhaps the length and width of a composition notebook. Small for a human, actually. But it weighed me down, especially when Daniel didn't know precisely where his mother's grave was. As usual, I thought, as we searched while he waited. It was George's friends and me. Jim, Julia, and another couple whose names I've forgotten. Jim was a lawyer of some sort. I believe the others were retired.

"Stay there," Jim said. He craned his neck as if trying to see something miles away. "Are you sure it's in this area?"

"Yes!" Daniel shouted back. "I think Michele is on the right track! Along that path." He pointed at me as I walked, the box bumping my hip. I had a long skirt and heels that did my feet no good whatsoever. It was hot for April, and rain clouds were gathering. I was about to suggest old George spend eternity with the next poor soul I saw when Jim shouted he found it.

Well, George, you just got lucky. I went back for Daniel. We walked across the grass, passing by an old oak tree. Its thick roots blocked our way, and I told Daniel I'd help him. I took the front of the walker and eased it across the roots, my hand on Daniel's back. We did that a few more times.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?" He's always apologizing. But all Daniel did was shake his head. And I walked alongside until we reached the grave. Then, tired, he sat in the walker's seat facing the headstone. It seemed new, gray, but still bright after all this time, with sharp cursive handwriting. It read, Barbara Rube, born 1925, died in 1973.

"She was born in 1925?" I said. "Wow. When did she have you?"

"She was thirty-five or so," Daniel said. "Grew up in Cuba," he added, looking at the grave. "She couldn't immigrate here during the war, so she went there. It was safer as a Polish Jew."

One of the women suggested Daniel say a prayer.

"I don't know how to pray," he answered, his head still down.

"Say whatever you want," I said, because I couldn't think of anything either. The Our Father probably wasn't going to cut it here. A hymn might work, but none came to mind. But Daniel remained silent.

"We'll say the prayer for the dead," Julia said. With that, we all gathered around the gravestone. The women said something in Hebrew. Perhaps it was part of The Kaddish. When I asked, Julia just said the word death was not mentioned, that it was about celebrating the person's life. I wondered if she knew the translation herself. I didn't ask Daniel, since his learning probably ended with his Bar Mitzvah. After, Jim suggested we scatter the ashes. I pulled the box out.

"Ah hell," I said. "It's screwed shut!"

"Here," said Jim. "I have a Swiss Army knife." He unscrewed the box, and we opened it. Inside was a plastic bag taped shut. Jim cut the tape away and then walked back to Daniel. “Okay, Dan, how do you want to do this? Should we use all of it or save some?"

Daniel looked to the left, then the right, as if a ghost somewhere would answer. None did.

"Take your time," said Jim, with a lawyer's patience. I turned around. The women were in the shade of a large oak tree about three yards away. Looking back, I saw someone had poured some of the ashes at the foot of the stone. Probably Jim had done it. Daniel was crying, his head down, his arms wrapped tightly around his body.

 "Let it out," Jim said, kneeling next to Daniel. Perhaps as a lawyer, he was used to comforting crying clients. I, on the other hand, was embarrassed by this. Anxious and frozen.

Does he have to cry like that? Loudly and all?

Yes, you idiot, said that voice inside of me. Now, are you going to do anything or just stand there?

I went to Daniel and rubbed his back as he cried. I smelled Old Spice, felt him shaking. I wished I knew what to say, but it didn't seem to matter. The only thing that did was the mound of whitish ash at the foot of the stone.

"He was a good father," one of the women behind me said.

"He did his best," I said. I hoped that was true. It was always what I told Daniel, because what else could I say?

"He did," said Julia, standing behind us. Eventually, he stopped crying, and we headed back to our cars. Jim pushed Daniel in the walker while I walked alongside. I hoped the small wheels held up. The ground wasn't easy to move that walker along.

Later in the car, I realized something. I've seen Daniel fall many times, his balance worsening until he had to go to a cane, then the walker. But it was the first time I'd ever seen him not walk out of a place.

****

I didn't want to leave right away. Daniel would be alone soon enough, and that would be hard. He likes driving and talking with me in the car. So we took a ride along Miami Beach, staring at the art deco buildings, the high-rise hotels that hid the blue water from my sight. The cars absorbed the smell of saltwater. Perhaps I smelled nothing because our windows were up. People crowded the sidewalks, their masks the only indication we were in a pandemic. I wondered, as I always did, what was in their heads. Were these people happy or just pretending for their kids, spouse, or friends? Did they enjoy that ice cream they ate, or were they fretting over those forty dollars they just paid for parking? I knew I would be depressed. That money could get me a nice dinner somewhere. I wished for the beaches of the Treasure Coast, where I could at least see the dunes and water.

"I'm sorry," Daniel said again, his hands tight on the wheel.

"For what?"

"You had to see me cry."

"Like I never have before," I said. "Who cares?" 

"It was harder than I thought it would be." Silence, then he said, "I think that's the hardest thing I've ever done."

Harder than hospitalizations? Rehab? But my parents are still alive, and I’ve never broken anything. Instead, I said, "I'm sure if it was my father, I’d be a wreck."

"Yeah?"

"Hell yeah."

A group of teens ran across the street in front of us. Daniel watched them cross, then spoke. "Dad was there for me, except when it came to his business."

 I said nothing. Daniel would know better than me. I suspected George was ashamed of Daniel. I had felt it, too, early on. When Daniel speaks too loudly or tries to flirt with the waitress. Mary had said as much to me. Of course, I had defended him. To both of us.

Why did Daniel always apologize? He didn't always know himself. What did his father think all these years? Then one day, George's girlfriend died. Having no other plan, he moved back in with his son. Maybe George had to follow Daniel's rules. Or tried to make his own, most likely. What was it like for them to live together? 

Like Robert Frost said, George had to go to that place where they have to take you in. Home.

Daniel continued, "Even if my mom or Susie needed him, his business came first." Then he said as if reassuring himself, "still, he was there. Besides, I was a terrible son. I needed a lot of help, and..." his voice trailed off. Then, "Dad said the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I'm on it. I suppose," he wiped his eyes, "that makes me a failure."

“You're not. If you're upset, please pull over."

"I'm all right," Daniel said. "Besides," he gestured. "Traffic ain't moving right now."

That was true, thankfully. Daniel pressed his radio button, and the CD played, We are the Champions.

"That's a fitting song."

I must have been louder than I thought, for Daniel said, "What do you mean?"

"You're the strongest person I know."

He turned away, and I didn’t blame him. Daniel's actions still drove me crazy. Especially the company he kept. I'd often threatened to hit him with his own walker, and every time he said go ahead, I deserve it. Daniel made terrible financial decisions. I knew when he was depressed because he'd cancel plans. But he still got up, went to work, and came home every night. Even after his injury, he wore out shoes doing that job. Sometimes he even broke his leg brace. Collecting carts in the hot sun and stocking isn’t easy. Daniel didn't drink, do illegal drugs, or smoke. And now he had to deal with truly being alone.

This was why I stayed. It just took me years to see it. 

“Know what I think? That the road to heaven is paved with our failures."

Daniel stared at me. "Say what now?" 

 "It’s gotta be,” I said. “ It's slick with our blood and tears. The road’s broken with every fall. Every goddamned ditch we've ever climbed back out of. So if you're heading anywhere, it's-"

"Not if you don't accomplish nothing. There’s no difference. It's all still bullshit."

I thought about this, wishing I'd kept quiet. Maybe what I'd said made it worse. Maybe Daniel would think I was patronizing him. We'll I'd started this, didn't I? "On hell's road, they intend something but never do it. People like you get up and try again." Even if you're crawling. I continued, "That’s the difference, and God sees that. Besides, your dad can’t talk. Who doesn't sign their will for Pete's Sake?"

Daniel gave me a sad smile. He squeezed my hand. "You're crazy," he said.

"You just now noticed?" I smiled back.

Later, I bought a Swiss Army knife. I made sure both screwdrivers were on it.


May 21, 2022 01:25

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2 comments

Melissa Woods
19:11 May 26, 2022

Daniel is an intriguing character! Reading this, it feels like you really know him (and so we--the readers--do, too). I would like to know what happens to him, as his life continues--he pulls at my heartstrings!

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Michele Duess
12:35 May 27, 2022

I'm glad you liked the story and you identified with the character. Thank you for your comments.

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