Every night that is, until a closing-time altercation with customers who weren’t ready for the party to be over. I heard there was a car chase through Thorndon Park, and somewhere on that lilac-scented hill, in the early hours of a May morning, Joe’s curly blonde head slammed against the inside of his tin can van as it careened off the curvy road. His heart stopped mid-beat.
I suppose you’d call Joe an acquaintance, not a friend. I didn’t go to his proper funeral, wherever it was, but I am going to the end-of-the year luncheon at the Orange for all staff.
My boyfriend, John, said, “I don’t want to go. Too sad. It’ll be like a wake.”
So, alone, I walk into the upstairs of the Orange and fill a submarine roll with cold meat from a platter set on a table in the middle of the dance floor. The jukebox is mute. Barb and Charles, the manager, are sitting on one side of a red vinyl booth. Henry, the old fellow who owns the place, spreads out on the other side of the table.
He squints his toady eyes and sucks on a Carlton. His smoke highlights dust motes floating in the stale air. “Ya done good kid.”
Good? What is good? I mastered how to put ten bottles on my fingertips at once and release them into a chute that leads directly to crates in the basement.
“Thanks,” I manage, between bites of my humongous sandwich and slurps of free beer.
I‘m still standing in the center of the small dance floor, usually so crowded, now vast in its emptiness, when Brad walks in, the bartender who manned the upstairs bar window, and Dave the guy who worked the other side of the downstairs bar with Joe. Some girlfriends I don’t know tag along. I don’t stay long after that, just long enough to notice things I’d never noticed: the whole room stinks of bathroom cleanser, the windows are made of glass brick, the linoleum is so worn it’s hard to say for sure if it was supposed to be green. A space so thrilling in the dark, pathetic in the light of day.
Maybe John was right. I have nothing in common with the people in the room except drinking and Joe, and no one dares speak his name. I drain my cup, make my farewells, and dump what’s left of my sandwich in a trash can around the corner on M Street. I hike past the library and up the steep hill to Thorndon Park, traversing the egg-shaped drumlin until I find my favorite spot, the lilac bower in full bloom. I close my eyes. My lungs inflate with the intoxicating purple fragrance.
Maybe John was wrong. Joe’s death seems not so sad as weird, inscrutably weird. I continue to the tippity top of the park and sit cross-legged on the lawn, surveying the campus where I’ve spent four years preparing for a future which could, in an instant, be erased. I glance at my smooth thighs glistening in the sunshine with fine golden hairs. My own death seems an impossible inevitability, and yet the hulking grandson of a prizefighter was no match for the silent, sulking, force lurking just below the surface of existence. Was I drawn to this idyllic garden or magnetized to the site where Joe’s soul was kidnapped? A wave of emotion I can’t name takes me to a depth I can’t fathom.
A week later, I walk across the stage of the Carrier Dome to receive my diploma. I march in a white robe with the others whose last name begins with the letter C. Joe’s ghost still floats behind me somewhere in the D section. D for Dempsey and Death.
Was it exactly seven days between Joe’s monumental demise and my graduation? I couldn’t guarantee. In light of eternity, time blurs. The end of an era speeds up as it winds down.
In the wake of these two events, I couldn’t say which was more terrifying, a vessel sunk in harbor or launched into open seas.