Death, Loss and Beer

(This is a very short fiction inspired by real events …)

One Saturday morning in the summer between my Junior and Senior years in high school, my Dad came and got me and said, “Come on with me, we need some muscle.” I must have still been half asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of Mr. P’s car. My dad was in the front passenger seat, and Mr. P. was driving.  Mr. P. lived two houses down from us on Yorkville Avenue. He was older, in his late fifties. He was always quiet and reserved, soft spoken. He didn’t drink and attended church every Sunday with his wife. He seemed to be the opposite of my dad, who loved being the center of attention, always with a story to tell.  They had one thing in common, though, that trumped all of their differences: they both drove the big rigs, eighteen wheelers, for a living, Mr. P working for a beer company out of Milwaukee and my dad for an over the road freight company.

I was only half listening to my dad and Mr. P’s conversation, and only picked up on a few nuggets.  I heard the word “cancer” and didn’t think much about it, as my dad had cancer the previous year but now he didn’t.  I assumed they were talking about him until I heard Mr. P say, “It’s a hell of a thing.  Only twenty five years old.”

Just prior to arriving at the southern edge of Main Street Mr. P pulled into the back alley and parked next to an empty wooden trailer parked in front of an old garage behind a two story house. We got out of the car, squinting in the bright sunlight as Mr. P led us up the back stairs to a porch. He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door.  Mr. P entered first, followed by my dad, then me.

We walked into the kitchen of an upstairs apartment that looked both lived in and abandoned at the same time. It was neat and tidy, yet it had a kind of musty smell, like it’d been shut up during the recent heat wave.

“This is a nice place,” Dad said.

“Yes, it is,” Mr. P. said.  “Maggie just loved it. But now, it’s just too much, for her alone …”

I recognized the name Maggie as belonging to MR. P.’s daughter, about eight or nine years older than I was. I didn’t really know her, other than she was pretty, with straight and long blonde hair.  Mr. P’s son, Bob, on the other hand, was in the same class as my oldest brother Mike, and had been one of Mike’s best friends since they were in grade school. Bob was a musician, playing guitar and bass in several garage bands over the years. Bob and his dad clashed like fathers and oldest sons so frequently did in the 1960s, the “generation gap” being a real and discernable thing.

Mr. P walked us through the apartment, showing us the living room, a small home office with a desk and chair, a bedroom, and the bathroom. The bedroom closet was filled with a man’s clothes, his shirts and trousers, and his razor sat on the edge of the bathroom sink next to a can of shaving cream, and it became clear to me where we were.  I vaguely remembered hearing that sometime in the past year or two, when Mike was still in the army, Maggie got married. I had no idea who her husband was, but it was clear that he was gone and wasn’t coming back.  At one point Mr. P opened up the refrigerator.  It was nearly empty, with just some butter, a couple of eggs, and an unopened six pack of Olympia beer.

Then we were back outside, in the glare of the sun again, walking across the alley until Mr. P took the keychain out of his pocket again and opened the pedestrian door to the garage.  There in the dusty streams of sunlight that burst through the door and the windows sat an early sixties vintage white Corvette.

“That was his baby,” Mr. P said. “Such a waste.”

“Way too young,” my dad added.  “Way too young.”

“Well, we’d better get to work,” Mr. P said.

We went back into the apartment, and we started with the big stuff, the couch and the bed, the overstuffed chair, the end tables, bending our backs as we walked them down the steps in the bright sunlight, and loaded them all on the trailer in the alley. Then we started on the smaller stuff, loading what we could into banker boxes that Mr. P pulled out of the trunk of his Buick. We’d filled the trailer to its capacity and fit whatever boxes we could into the trunk of the Buick, but there was still some random stuff left upstairs. We were all standing in the nearly empty apartment when Mr. P said, “Thanks, guys. After he gets off work, Bob and I’ll get the rest.” He said that Bob was borrowing somebody’s van and it had a hitch they’d haul the trailer with.

We got back in Mr. P’s Buick.  It was about 2:00 and it was hot out.  As he craned his neck to back out into the alley, Mr. P. said to me, “Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate your help.”

“No problem,” I said. They were the first words I’d spoken the entire day. I’d had a million questions I’d wanted to ask, about death, love, and life, and the things we leave behind, but I knew it wasn’t proper, I knew that this was not the place or the time to ask these questions, and that my dad and Mr. P weren’t the ones to ask anyways. It was obvious to even my sixteen year old self that they didn’t know the answers to these questions any better than I did.

Mr. P pulled the Buick into his driveway on Yorkville Avenue. Maggie was there.  She was wearing shorts and a white t-shirt and sunglasses. She smiled as we got out of the car, saying “Thanks, dad,” to Mr. P as he opened up the trunk.

“Don’t thank me,” Mr. P. replied. “Thank these guys. On such a hot day yet.”

“Thank you, guys” she smiled at us as she moved and stood next to her dad, facing the open trunk.

“You’re welcome,” my dad said.

Maggie reached down and pulled the six pack of Olympia out of the trunk.  She turned and handed it to me, smiling from under her sunglasses, and said, “Here, take this. Consider it payment for your hard work.”

I looked at my dad to make sure he was okay with it.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “You earned it, take it.”

I replied a meek thanks.  Dad and I went home and I put the six pack in our fridge.

That afternoon and evening, every time I’d open the fridge, I’d see the beer.  It sounded good, especially on a hot day to a sixteen year old to whom beer represented freedom and adulthood, especially since I’d worked so hard to earn it, but for some reason, I left it untouched. I couldn’t bring myself to open it because it was his, and he had touched it, and death had taken him, and no amount of work I might have done could ever stand up to death’s infinite power.

That night I dreamt I was small again, in the third grade. It was the last day of school before summer vacation and we’d just been released out into the cool June afternoon.  The wind picked up out of the east and blew the helicopter seeds off of the big Maple tree at the end of the playground, and as they took flight and whirled and twirled in the warm breeze, I felt my feet leave the ground and I was floating, too, me and a thousand helicopter seeds, free, to wherever the random winds of fate would carry us. The dream ended and I woke up in the dark thinking about not just the places I’d be taken, but also about the things and people I’d leave behind. And I thought about Maggie and her dark glasses and her pale skin, and I wondered how she could find the strength to muster up a smile from so deep in the depths of the dark shadows cast by death.  And for the first time I wondered about him, what he looked like, I wondered what his name was, and I pictured the two of them riding on an open highway in his Corvette, the wind blowing Maggie’s blonde hair back.

It was 2:30 and everyone else in the house was asleep. I got up and crept through the darkness to the kitchen.  I opened up the fridge and ripped a can of Olympia free from the plastic grip of the six pack. I sat at the dining room table, alone in the dark, and raised a silent toast to Maggie and her dead husband before I slowly finished it.  It tasted good.

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