“Are we allowed to be here?” I asked as I looked down into the hole that would be a grave in a few short minutes.
He stepped in to stand beside me. “If not, they’ll make us leave,” he said.
We looked around and there was no one to make us leave, for the moment.
The mid-day air was clear and all the colors — the blue of the sky, the green of the grass, the gold arms of the casket — popped. The only sounds other than our voices were the chuk-shlu, chuk-shlu of the groundskeepers burying the coffin after lowering it in.
“How long has it been?” I asked.
“A while. A few years?” Not the first time he had answered my question with a question.
I had meant how long had it been since we met, how long we had known each other. Since freshman year of high school, would have been an answer neither of us needed to say — more than half our lives ago, on the bus from school; when he took out half the McFarlane run of Amazing Spider-Man and started talking about the Velvet Underground, I knew we’d be friends. Two weeks before the end of the school year was the Disneyland Trip of Which None Shall Speak Again, a time that was hot, expensive, and awful, except for meeting his cousin’s best friend’s brother (a connection not so complex when it had been fated that we should meet), and it wasn’t long after that when we three decided we were brothers for life. But on that day in the cemetery he answered the more important question, one we didn’t need to know or want to admit or could even prove without digging up time-stamps: how long had it been since we saw each other last?
It had always been the three of us. Nights spent together without girls we were never going to get with, Dungeons & Dragons sessions going into the morning (with my Ranger, the Barbarian, and that level-eight Paladin), lunches spent arguing about bands that had already broken up, half-hour trips to movies that weren’t worth driving to alone, the cyberpunk/vampires-versus-werewolves/Western novel we were going to write together to change the world, sitting through crappy opening bands after getting to concerts too early, elaborate plans for intimate moments when we would get with a girl. We could remember a lot of those times for a while. Then not as much.
On that day, he looked like the picture on Facebook. He had gained less weight than I had since the last time, maybe even lost some. He still couldn’t bother to shave all the way; the goatee didn’t work but it was better than the handlebar mustache he grew for that bet they both lost. The glasses were new. Less hair on top, which had never been much. He never looked comfortable in a suit, for the few times he had to dress up, as minimally as he could get away with. In all three of his weddings (when we traded off best man’s slots) he looked like he wanted to get done and be somewhere else, to get on with the rest of his life. He always seemed like he wanted to be in any moment but that one. Maybe it was a trick of my memory, but at that moment he looked more relaxed than I remembered him ever being. Like he finally stopped. Like he finally could stop.
He lit a cigarette. He had told me — over the short email that was barely a reply when I told them I was getting married — that he had stopped smoking, for the kids. He must have been too busy to answer when I congratulated him. Even if quitting had stuck, one very, very last one wouldn’t make a difference, except for making the memory of the time we had fit better.
The smoke he exhaled wafted over the coffin away from us and then dissipated. The stink of it was strongest in my memory.
“You remember — whatsername?” I asked.
“That night after Thanksgiving? When he brought that bottle of shitty tequila?” He chuckled. “I remember that chick’s tits.”
My own chuckle spurred him into a full-out laugh. As always, it started out silent, and you couldn’t be sure if he was laughing at all until you saw his head bowed and his shoulders hunched and his body bent forward, then coming up with something between a wheeze and a hiccup — huc, huc, huc. Not an appealing sound but as with anything, he didn’t care.
“And you really think you could have fucked her?” he asked, the smile lingering after the laugh. Always great teeth after he had the back ones pulled (and shared the Vicodin).
I kept smiling because he had been laughing, then my face went more serious than I wanted it to. “If — ” it wouldn’t have been the end of our friendship … “ — she’d have let me.”
His smile was genuine, and it stayed for a while.
That girl had left either right before or right after we started taking turns throwing up or passing out then we never saw her again and we never had to have another girl come between us.
We looked over into the hole becoming a grave — chuk-shlu, chuk-shlu — and at the coffin, half-obscured by dirt that could have been used to grow instead of to bury.
“Cancer,” I said, as if invoking a word could change what had happened after three years and a handful of months of text messages about a surprise from the doctor then getting prepared for the worst then how chemo made you feel like you got hit by a truck then how it was looking good again then months without hearing anything at all.
His cigarette sizzled and the wind took away the ashes of his taps. “It’s a bitch,” he said, then he inhaled deeply through his teeth, a habit I probably wasn’t the only one to notice.
I became mesmerized by the coffin but out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw him looking back at the crowd of family and friends who had come out, already having turned to leave the service.
“I — I’m sorry,” I said, a little too low. It was a stammer not because I wasn’t sure about what I needed to say but because I wanted it to sound just right (and failed).
“For what?” he said.
“For … for what happened.”
His shoulders shrugged within the suit. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It was too late,” I said.
“Enh,” he sighed. “It happened. Now it’s over. We can move on.” He looked up and dropped his hand with the cigarette. “Except for this. These fucking things,” he said, then flicked a finger as if to dismiss the whole event. “For the living or whatever.” He snapped the cigarette into the grave as another shovelful of dirt covered the last open inch on the casket.
“I gotta go,” he said.
I didn’t move, didn’t want to move, as if standing still could stretch out the moments. “Hey, we’re meeting up after. If I know these people, they’ll say they’re getting wine but they’ll break out the whiskey. And someone will bring fried chicken.”
He stood looking at me. “I have to go,” he said with a tone that made it more than words in my imagination.
I wished we could still be laughing. “I thought we’d have more time,” I said.
“Everyone thinks that,” he said. “But it never is. You have to live out what you have. Just because that’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“I wanted to set everything right. So we could be in each other’s lives again.”
“But not to apologize again, man. You’ve done as much as you’ll ever be able to. Now you just have to live with it.” He put his hands in his pockets and for once he looked like he was thinking clearly. “It’s time.”
I wanted the right words, or any words. Staring at him, I might have been giving to or taking from the pages of my memory. Remembering back, he seemed a distance away, like looking at him across that cemetery. But at that moment, he was there in front of me.
He finally offered a parting gift of a smirk. “By the way,” he said, “tell Mr. Too-Good-To-Show-Up that he and his level-eight Paladin can go fuck themselves.”
I glanced away to see if there might be a last-minute reunion in something more than spirit, but no. I might as well have been alone. We had lost a third of us to a good job, a fancy suburb on the other side of the country, and a promise to catch up later, but that hadn’t happened recently. For the three of us, “always” had run out long before.
I got distracted by the emptying chairs of who had come and were now moving on: the widow who shared with him other kinds of intimacy, his kids as genetic reminders that he had existed, the people we knew together, the people he knew that I had never met — everyone carrying memories of forever-too-brief moments with him, for however long they could hang on to them.
When I looked back, he was gone and the grave with the casket was filled.
Publab Fellow 2022
Marlan Harris is a writer/editor whose day job is a visual effects artist for movies, television & commercials. His past publishing credits include Marvel Comics. Among his current projects is a cyberpunk/horror/Western/adult novel he’s posting on Twitter and cataloging every concert he’s ever been to on a blog. He lives in Fullerton, CA with his wife and teenaged daughter. Find out lots more and contact him at www.marlanharris.com.