They were all back in their limos when the earthquake hit. As they rolled out of the cemetery on soft springs they never felt a thing. I should have been with them, but I didn't want to be around all those sad people.
I was not sad. I stood by the fresh-turned earth that held the mortal remains of my friend and I was not sad. He had finished here, done all there was to do, conquered the world. I laughed at the Astroturf draped over the fresh mound in the Earth. They had spread plastic grass to hide the fresh-turned earth, trying to make our most recent loss something long forgotten.
I stood by the grave, free at last from the false solemnity I had been forced to carry for fear of giving offense. I smiled. "God damn," I said, "You finally escaped." I pulled a beer from the inner pocket of my big jacket and fished out my keychain with its bottle opener. I popped the top off the bottle and took a healthy swig, then poured a sip onto his grave. "Save me a seat," I said.
The Earth heaved beneath my feet, flinging me to the ground. A fissure appeared at my feet, infinitely deep, exposing his casket so recently interred. I watched as dirt, Astroturf, and the simple pine box that held his empty shell were drawn into the heart of the planet. The land was moving, and I was on all fours clinging to the neatly-mown grass. I scrambled back from the edge of the pit; I was not ready to go where he went. There was another lurch and the fissure closed again with a jet of superheated air from the depths. It almost sounded like a chuckle, far below the range of the human ear, audible only to the heart.
I sat up and collected myself. "You can't just lie there like everyone else, can you?" I asked. "You always had to do things big." But that was why I had liked him so much. He did everything grandly, but not ostentatiously. The earthchuckle could have happened when everyone was around, but that would have ruined their funeral. He had waited until only I was there, to share the joke with him.
Once, before I knew he was sick, he had asked me, "Do you believe in life after death?"
I thought. "I'm not so sure I believe in life at all."
He shot me one of his crooked little smiles. "But there's no stopping it, is there?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Thinking back on the old days, What do you miss the most?"
I had to ponder for a while. There wasn't much of anything I missed enough to want to have again. "I miss long summer days," I said. It was November then.
He nodded. "I love those. Especially with fireflies. Those little mothers are cool."
He and I had sat once, on a back porch in Arkansas, a bottle of bourbon between our two decaying lawn chairs. We watched without comment the silent symphony in the hedge across the yard. Light had flashed and rippled and moved through the dusk, each question only leading to other questions, radiating out from the source and ending finally in darkness, before another spark pierced the unknown all over again.
Finally night asserted herself. The cicadas quieted and the stars shone feebly in the heavy air.
"God damn," he said. I sipped my whiskey. There was more to say, but only after we had enough time to contemplate the beauty of what we had seen.
Eventually I slapped at a mosquito and said, "Did you see how some of the fireflies went short-long, while others went long-short?"
He nodded. "Their world is small, man. You got different dialects in different bushes."
I laughed softly. His answer was not rooted in science, but everything he said had larger meaning. A punch line. Always he had that quirk of a smile, the light in his eye that said, "That was a joke, son."
Almost to the end he had that smile. Almost. I had already had my own funeral for him, my own wake, several days before his heart stopped beating. I was by his bed the moment when he simply wasn't there anymore, a moment startling in its clarity. He had departed. He was never one to outlast his welcome.
He had been in the bed a long time while his own body destroyed itself. I came to visit often, to laugh with my friend. There was a lot to laugh about. The stories, past, present, and future, all mildly absurd, all filled with innocent wonder; those stories believed themselves.
We were in the fading moments of his life and savoring the residue of a good laugh -- a story that might have been or might never be, I don't remember and it doesn't matter -- when he asked me again. "Do you believe in life after death?"
"No," I said.
He shook his head. "I do. There's plenty of life. It's just not your life." His papyrus hand clung to mine. "Damn I'm tired of this bed. You know what hell is? It's the same old shit every day."
"I've been in hell a long time, then."
I turned away from his wasted face as he laughed. "No, my friend. You ever been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee?"
I exhaled heavily, remembering my time there, drifting from one tourist trap to another, appalled, just hoping to hear a little blue grass.
He shook his head. "I'm not a religious man," he said, "but I guarantee you Hell has a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum."
I crossed my legs and settled onto the grass, the real grass, and I felt the moisture from the lawn being drawn up into my borrowed suit pants. There was still a small crack that ran through his grave, dark and mysterious. I leaned forward and peered down, but could see nothing. I tossed a pebble down but heard nothing. I still had a little beer left, so I spared a few drops for the fury below. "Thanks," I said to no one in particular. I watched intently as the last reluctant drop left the lip of the bottle and plunged into the void. The Earth smiled, shrugged, and closed the gap forever.
The Earth had opened, the Earth had closed. My friend is gone, leading where I dare not follow. Gatlinburg is still there, I am still here. The days are longer now, and the fireflies dance in the twilight, sending their secret messages of life and desire.
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-11-21