By John Clise
I was standing on a street corner in my Sunday best all the way down to my gold toed cowboy boots and string tie smoking a cigarette for the first time in 20 years. Just as I leaned against a street sign pole someone yelled from a car window that smoking would kill me. If it was a regular habit, it probably would have I thought.
Cops showed up to block the streets and there you were in a black 1963 Cadillac Hurst with chrome everywhere, with your funeral cortege being escorted on the main drag of town headed to the final resting place of your earthly remains.
I watched the cars go by until a red shiny ’66 GTO slowed down and the driver waved me over to get in the back seat. I flicked the cigarette into the gutter and jumped in the car as it rolled on down the street.
A familiar face in the front seat handed me an envelope of pictures in silence. It was pictures of you and me and the girl in the front seat from 25 years ago maybe 30. We looked like kids even though we weren’t. The pictures made me smile for the first time in years. I let my spirit soar in freedom to think about happy times.
I remembered back to when the three of us were living in that little house on Cherry Street. It was so small we had to go sit on the sidewalk to have a private moment. I’m still not sure how three of us managed that tiny bathroom. I remember you suggesting we all three shower together to save time and water. That idea was vetoed by two of the three house residents. I remembered our Thanksgiving dinners there. And Christmases. We were our own little family for a few years.
How you been Angel I said as I passed the envelope back to the woman in the front seat. Livin’ Charlie, just livin’. How about you? Stoned mostly. Still running like hell from anyone who might love me. Oh, and running from responsibility. Neither one of those things were ever my deal.
The driver spoke and I immediately knew who he was when he said Maybe it’s time to quit that. You’re about old now, aren’t you? Hey Walter, yep, I’m getting a little long in the tooth. Aren’t we all Angel chimed in.
And then we were there. The Mount Ernest Cemetery. You’d wanted your final resting place to be there since we were teenagers. You said it was peaceful. We found out that day your granddad and dad were also there.
You were placed near a big old oak tree. You got the morning sun and shade in the afternoon from the tree. I suspected you would enjoy that. I remembered how much you loved the morning sun on your face.
After the service we made our way to that shit shack pizza place you loved so much. The one that served bread sticks with nacho cheese as God intended you always said. It was hometown famous for sure.
The place was packed. There were tables with colorful umbrellas set up in the parking lot. It was like an old school block party. Old people were dancing, kids were laughing, people drinking beer by the keg.
Strangers stopped to see what was going on and were invited to take part. It was just as you wanted. No one was turned away, no one paid a dime. Nobody cried much. Some cried because they laughed so hard remembering all of the silly things you did. I’d forgotten those times. My mind was likely a seized-up gear that got oiled.
We talked about when you staged the “Greatest Event Ever Seen by Mankind.” You rolling in an old oil barrel over King King Mountain. You even put an ad in the paper. There must have been 500 people there.
I remembered how much we cried when I moved out. That was the worst day of my up until now. After I left, I fully embraced bouts of alcoholism, drug use, homelessness all though I didn’t have to. There were many chances. I could have stayed there on Cherry Street. After while I couldn’t figure out how to come back.
Even old Mr. Angotti made an appearance with his grandson Ray who runs the place now.. He made a few pizzas. He was a 104. He laughed about your love of bread sticks and nacho cheese. I had to order an extra five pound can a week to keep him supplied told the folks there, and he laughed as did everyone else. We lived on those things and Big Red for a while.
We set off fireworks. We set off a lot of fireworks. Someone called the cops and old Sharky showed up. He waved at the people on the porch as he lit a giant bottle rocket. He shook my hand and said welcome home as his work lit up the night sky. He;s the chief of police now. Our old neighbor Tommy brought the good stuff in fireworks.
The party must have lasted six hours. Angel, Walter and I stayed the whole time. I hadn’t planned on it. I actually was going to watch you go by and hit the road though I wasn’t sure where I was going.
After it was all over and cleaned up there were still a few candles burning on tables and a few strings of lights still lit they offered me a place to stay with them and a job on their small farm. About 25 acres. $150 a week, free room and board and an invitation to go to church with them on Sunday and Wednesday.
To their delighted surprise I took them up on their offer. I was weary of sleeping in my car and having no place to rest my head. No one had given me a chance in years, so I took it.
A safe place to sleep, three squares a day, hot water with people who somehow still loved me after all of these years. It wasn’t really my thing, but I went to church every once in a while. I liked it. It was nice being close to Jesus like that. I even got a Bible. I thought that was pretty cool. Wednesday night sermons were casual sort of and even fun sometimes. I won a Bible trivia game on Wednesday night. I thought about you a lot. I began to remember phone calls we had over the years and letters we exchanged.
Walter said he would get the pills and the weed out of me with work. He wasn’t kidding. He worked that shit right out of me. We worked so much there was no time to think about weed or pills or running off. Farm work is hard. So is being sober. Both are rewarding just like you told me in one of your letters.
Remember Kat from school? I have a date with her this Friday. The kids call it a hang out or meet up these days or something like that. More like two middle aged people having dinner. Angel has been prepping me on what say and what not to say. Dating is hard, too.
I have a nice stable life now. It’s curious. I even mow the lawn every Saturday morning. That’s weird.
Your headstone is just like you wanted it. Peace sign on the front. On the back It is inscribed with “I’d rather be here than in Jasper, Ind,” as inspired by the old coach. You’ll be glad to know you’ve offended many people and made laugh hysterically.
I’ll see you again soon in the stars. Soon in this context is a relative term you know.
Most of all, thanks for always being with me even when I did my best to run away. You never did really leave me.