“A 31-year-old Alton man died in a car accident early Sunday morning in the 200 block of 7th Street in St. Louis. The victim was identified as Tony Roberts. The St Louis County Coroner’s Office pronounced the victim dead at the scene at 11:13 p.m. Other details were not immediately available.”
The sudden death of a friend has a strange effect on me. It makes me want to reach out and claim something that perhaps I never owned, that perhaps I never earned. It makes me want to speak to the father, the mother, the sister, the brother of the dead, to ask strange questions, to say the words that will open a door, that will elicit a response that will assure me that I had some place in the life of those who have gone, in their hearts, in their remembrances. It makes me want to be comforted as well as to comfort. It makes me want to hold onto something in this world where we can hold onto nothing. It makes me want to take unto myself forever the knowledge that something that I cherished was real and true. It makes me want to hear those words that are unspeakable and to know something that is unknowable. But, of course, I don’t. I can’t. There are no words and there is no answer.
I heard the news in the late afternoon. Tony was my friend Alicia’s son. I had known him since he was a boy. And so, he was something like a son. And he was also my friend. We had worked together for a few years at the agency. He took another job and on his last day he came into my office to say goodbye. Although we would see each other again from time to time, we would not do so on a daily basis. We would never again meet in the hall. We would not linger on the patio to catch up on things. It would be different, and we both knew it.
The last time that I saw him, the last place that I spoke to him, was at an all-night diner downtown. On the evening of the day that I heard the news, I went back there, back to the diner. I don’t know what I expected to discover there, maybe nothing. Maybe I just wanted a place to go and think about him, even a place with a tenuous connection. It was a Sunday night, and the place was quiet. And again, I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee. And I turned toward the place where I thought that he had been. He was not there. And I experienced, once again, that strange sensation that, perhaps, we all know—that unbelief that the dead are gone and yet, impossibly, the places that they knew remain, unchanged. How is it that at such times the seasons still turn and the world still goes on?
I sat in the diner for a long time remembering. I remembered how wild and bright he had been, as wild as the north wind that had breathed upon the windows on the evening of his death, as bright as the ice that had shone in the branches of the trees and on the streets that night. And I thought again of how he had been like a son. And a verse of scripture from somewhere in Genesis came to me: “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.”
I knew that I would remember him as the years passed, that I would pause at times to think of the moments that we had shared, to remember the briefness of his days and wonder what he might have done if he had lived. I knew that I would remember his death, how and when it had happened, how I had looked out my window when I had heard of it as if it had all been a mistake and I might see his living figure on the street. I would remember coming back to this place where I had last seen him, to a lonely diner in the middle of the night, as if to look for him. I knew that all things remain somewhere in the fabric of memory and that it would all come back to me at odd moments, unexpectedly, the way that we look up, startled, as a cloud passes across the sun. And I knew that such things have happened or will happen to us all and that, at such times, there are no words for what we feel. There are no words and no one to whom we can turn and speak of it all, no words to make them understand. No words.
I looked around me again. He was not there and yet, again, it seemed that something of him remained. And I remembered how spirited and reckless he had been, how he would climb into his car and drive, roaring, into the darkness as if he were invulnerable, as if there were no end to his tomorrows, as if he would never die. But as the hours passed, other things came back to me, forgotten things. I had remembered that he was reckless, but I had forgotten that he was vulnerable. I had forgotten how he could enter a room and draw others to him, could make them laugh, could make the time spent with him seem magical. I had forgotten that there was something in him that could not be quenched, something that was like faith, something that was like a flame. I had forgotten the dreams that he had reached for and what he had wanted in this world. But as the hours passed, they all came back to me. And I thought about all the living that he would miss, about all the happiness that he would never know, about all the things that he would never do. I thought how, if he had known that day was the last day, the end of magic, how he would have wrung from it every drop of living, every drop of joy. And I imagined the stillness of his features in death, emptied of the joys that used to linger there.
Had I told him that he was my friend, I wondered? Had I told him that he was like my son? Had I told all my dead that I loved them? And had I told the living? I thought of all those things that I had never spoken of, of all that I had not said, could not say, to those who are all around me, of all that they had never known but to whom it might mean everything?
Once, long ago, in a fisherman’s cottage on the island of Corfu, Lawrence Durrell wrote these words: “The dead do not care. It is the living who might be spared if we could query the message which lies buried in the heart of all human experience.”
About the Author
Mike Warden is a retired worker in the health care field. Besides creative writing, he also enjoys reading, photography, travel and meeting new friends from other cultures and backgrounds.