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Story by Thomas White (Read author interview) June 15, 2008

Art by Lee

Our friend is not at the funeral home when we get there to pay our respects to her father. It would have been an easy bet to win, her not showing up, but I know no one will take me up on it. I hope we can just sign the guest book and leave, but Joe and Maire insist that we wait. Maire says our friend needs to know that we came. I think maybe one of the people there will line us up next to the urn of ashes and take our photo like a studio portrait to go in an official album. Maybe there’s some secret funeral agent to report to her that all three of us did show up. I look through the crowd trying to determine who has been assigned the task of confirming our presence. The smell of roses makes me nauseous. All we know about her family is that she has a sister she doesn’t get along with.

After a few minutes of wandering among the strangers, we find out our friend got into a fight with her sister and left. We really should leave, I say, meaning I want to go eat, or go to a movie, just anything else. Joe and Maire insist that we go find her.

We work our way through the parking lot in the cold to be sure she’s not still there, maybe hiding in the back seat of some car. It is quiet outside in the dark, other than the murmur of voices from men smoking just outside the door. More ex-boyfriends, I think. I lean against a car. I can see my curved reflection in the window. I think about a picture of a Joshua tree that hangs over her couch. It’s the same as any other photo of a tree in a desert, its branches reaching up and out, yearning for exposure to light and rain. I wonder if her reflection is stretching out from inside some car there in the lot. I wonder if her reflection still reaches for the same things as before I left her.

I wait by the car fiddling with the receipt in my pocket for the new black wool coat I’d bought that morning; she is still wasting my time and my money. Joe walks up. She isn’t answering her cell phone, he says.

We decide to go check her apartment. I know she won’t be there. There is a bar she spends more time in than any other place. I don’t mention it, but I know Joe and Maire are thinking the same thing. As long as none of us say it, we can give her some kind of moral dignity that isn’t really part of her character. Going to check at the bar can wait until last. It will give her time to get back to the funeral home and we can all pretend that there isn’t smoke in her clothes and liquor on her breath when we hug.

Her apartment is in the older, less maintained section of a complex along the river. Newer condos are appearing around it, making the place look like the rotten center of some architectural beach-party, like some bar-fly in the middle of a dance floor filled by teenage super models.

The snow on the riverbank is gray in the dark, the water is black ripples. I wait in the car while Maire climbs the outer stairs to her second-floor unit. Joe checks down at the dock. I dial her number on my cell, nothing. I dial Maire, nothing. I dial Joe, nothing, nothing.

A couple comes out of one of the lower apartments. Their voices are murmurs and laughter. Through the rearview mirror, I can see them embrace. Her arms are around his neck and he leans in to kiss her. It’s a diamond commercial. I flip the mirror up. Cut it off.

Joe and Maire come back to the car. I get in the back to let Joe drive. Maire wants to wait fifteen minutes, just in case. She sends a text message. We watch 20 minutes click by on the car’s digital screen without saying anything. Joe backs out of the parking space and we leave. We all know where we’re going next.

Joe circles the gravel slush among the cars in front of the bar, but we don’t see her car anywhere. One guy is outside propped against the wall, his head hanging forward. Joe yells out to him and he waves a bottle to us. He’s on the wrong channel, the wall a blank screen. If he wasn’t so drunk, he could probably tell me she was his best bar-friend forever. She always has been, I would think. Nobody mentions calling her again and we don’t wait. We go back to the funeral home.

I sit in the back of the car watching the lights from stores and houses as we pass, dark figures walking on the sidewalks, none of them her. I imagine her on the bank of the river, maybe sifting her father’s ashes into the air, mixing them with the falling snow, thinking she is happy. I see it in my mind like one movie over the top of another, her throwing ashes into the air by the river on top of the lights of the houses and the buildings, sidewalks, and people. I see both movies again when Joe and Maire hug her back in the parking lot of the funeral home. I know I am going to cry, just a little.

About the Author

Thomas White is the associate editor at SLQ. His previously published work has recently disappeared from sites such as Southern Hum and The Write Side Up. His stories can still be found at Dead Mule, Muscadine Lines and upcoming in the Birmingham Arts Journal. He placed third in the Tennessee Mountain Writers 2008 Short Story competition.

About the Artist

Lee’s art can be found at http://nuthinfancy.blogspot.com.

This story appeared in Issue Twenty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Twenty-One

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