"Hello?" The man had missed the first two phone calls before this one woke him. He had a whiskey headache and dull eyes.
"Yes, your speaking to him." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. He didn't recognize the voice on the other line, but the sadness in her tone was familiar.
"No, that can't be right. I just spoke with her the other day." It had been over a month since he spoke to his ex-wife, but time is fleeting even for the soberest of minds. He was mad that she neglected to call on their son's birthday.
"Have you told her sister? - Yes, I can give you her information." The man was sitting on the floor now, his head in his hand.
"Where did you say the services are going to be?" He looked for something to write on, but the floor was bare of any stationary or writing utensils.
"Okay. That's in two days!"He was shocked they could bury a body so soon, but he didn't know his ex-wife had been cold for a few days before someone thought to call him.
"I'll be there." The man hung up.
He thought while sitting on the floor. Death had visited him often yet, no matter how frequent it came, every passing went in its own unique way. When a person he knew died, they always took something from him that he could never get back. They seemed to leave something behind too, but that something was insufficient to replace what had been stolen. Death had visited him often, but this time he wondered if he had anything left that it could steal.
Waking The Boy
The man stood in the doorway to his son's room for a while. The blue accents were grey in the pre-dawn light, and he could barely read the large letters that spelled out his son's name above the bed.
"Obie," the man said. His voice was no louder than a whisper, but the boy stirred. He rolled over to face his dad and opened his eyes. They were bright even in the darkness. The boy had eyes that once belonged to his father.
"Dad?" the boy said.
"Come eat, we have to go somewhere." The man still had to gather up the fortitude to tell his son where they needed to go so early in the morning. He convinced himself that waiting until they began packing for the trip would be more merciful than crying together over their cereal bowls.
Father and son were silent in the car. The boy had cried a long time, so the man packed both of their bags. They had a long drive ahead of them. The funeral was in Houston and Obie and his father lived just outside of Colorado Springs. There were faster ways to get there, but the man had decided to pick up his ex-wife's sister in Taos. He knew that fractured family wouldn't call her, so he did just before leaving. She was mad at the news on the phone and said she didn't want to go, but he knew better.
It took a little more than 3 hours for them to get to Taos, and the boy slept the whole way. They pulled into the New Mexico ski town just before lunch on a Tuesday. The sister lived in a loft above an artist's shop on the main drag of town and the man parked his car in the street. Ski season was a month away so the town was quiet and there was little traffic.
She came out of the store dressed like a bohemian. Her eyes were red from tears. She didn't cry over the phone but the man was sure she hadn't stopped since they hung up. They shared a silent hug on the sidewalks of Taos, New Mexico, and the sister began to sob again. Why does death always steal from those it leaves behind in its wake?
Obie had woken up and came out of the car to join the embrace. Both adults turned to comfort the child. They knew death had taken the most from the boy. The sight of them might have drawn sideways glances from passerby's had there been any. Instead, the only witnesses to their grief were the town ghosts and the mountain to the north.
Ruth had appointments to attend to that day, so she convinced the man to stay in Taos for the night. They'd have to drive all day Wednesday in order to get to Houston in time, but staying would save them from having to find a hotel somewhere in west Texas. She left the man and Obie in her loft and went about her business for the day. They were hungry, and the man didn't recognize any of the food in Ruth's fridge. It was mostly greens, root vegetables, and mushrooms, so he decided to take the boy to lunch at a cafe nearby. After eating, the two walked to a park named after an old frontiersman and stayed outside for hours before returning to the loft.
Ruth, the man, and Obie all arrived back at the loft that evening at the same time. Ruth had dinner in a brown paper sack under her arm, and the boy had a tan from playing in the high mountain sun. They greeted each other with happiness on the street and Obie held Ruth's hand as they went up to the loft. The man took the sack from Ruth and was pleased to see two wrapped green chili cheeseburgers underneath Ruth's salad.
All three slept restless and with anxiety that night, but they were ready to leave the next day after a light breakfast. Ahead of them lay a fifteen-hour drive through some of the emptiest lands in the country only to arrive at a soon to be occupied grave. Outside the man checked the tires before opening the trunk. The man put the woman's woven bag next to his and opened the front passenger door. She started to get in when the boy reached out for her hand.
"Aunt Ruth, will you sit next to me?" he asked.
Ruth gave his hand a squeeze. "Of course," she said. Obie opened the door for her as the man walked around to the driver's seat. They all sat down in the car with the weight of the journey bearing down on them.
"Would there still be a funeral if they stayed in Taos?" thought the man. Maybe they could trick reality into reanimating his ex-wife if they all refused to acknowledge that she had died.
"Did they have to believe it was true if they never saw her again?" thought the woman. After all, her sister's death would not change her life one bit. They had been estranged for many years since her sister had left the man.
"Can we go now?" asked the boy.
The man started the first leg and made it three hours before the car needed gas. They all went in together for a break and snacks; at the register the woman noticed the man's hands trembling when he handed over a wadded twenty-dollar bill.
"Are you okay?" Ruth asked.
"Yeah. I think." He said. He noticed the tremors too.
"When did you drink last?" she asked. The cashier placed the change on the counter and Ruth grabbed it as she turned to face the man. His eyes were dilated.
"Monday night. Why?"
"You're withdrawaling. You need a drink." She turned to the cashier and gave the bills back before walking over to the liquor aisle. She returned with a couple of small bottles.
"What are you doing? I can't drink and drive." The man said.
"You're not driving anymore. You're going to be a wreck before we get to Texas. Here, drink." She handed the man one of the bottles and pocketed the other for later. Obie watched with a soda in hand.
Ruth was right. The man looked miserable as they crossed the New Mexico-Texas border. His eyes were closed, but he wasn't asleep and he was sweating. The sun was behind them now, which gave the man some relief. Obie was asleep in the back seat. He had neither been silent nor talkative for most of the drive, but instead just the right amount of company. Ruth was happy to have the boy along for the ride.
Obie was still asleep when the man began talking to no one in particular. She debated giving him the other bottle of liquor but thought it might be better to save it for when things got worse. He mostly spoke nonsense about old friends and the things that only he could see outside the car. Then he was silent again and crying. He turned to look at her with tears in his eyes.
"I failed her," he said. For a moment, Ruth took her eyes off the highway to look into his.
"We both failed her," she said. The man continued to look at her as she turned back to the road.
Ruth's sister became addicted after Obie was born. Ruth was the first to confront her; she had battled out of her own hell years prior and thought her story might save her sister from similar damnation. The man was on Ruth's side, but the addiction proved to be too formidable. In the end, she chose her fix over family.
It was a quarter until 9 a.m. when the man woke up in their motel room. Ruth drove as far as she could, but when they were a few hours outside of Houston she began to swerve out of her lane. They found a cheap place to stay for the night but could only get one bed. Ruth and Obie slept together in bed while the man took the overstuffed chair in the corner of the room.
The man looked down at his watch again. They needed to leave in thirty minutes if they were going to make it to the funeral on time. He was stiff as he stood out of the chair; his hips resisted reaching full extension and his back cracked. Ruth and Obie weren't there, but on the nightstand was the other liquor bottle Ruth had bought at the service station in New Mexico. The man's head hurt as he opened the bottle. He held it to his nose and sniffed. It was cheap stuff, more akin to kerosene than the whiskey he preferred. He turned the open bottle's bottom-up and poured its contents onto the hotel floor.
Ruth and Obie returned to the room shortly after with a bounty of treats from the convenience store next door. They sat and ate together on the bed. Ruth and the boy giggled at some inside joke they had made and the man smiled at his son. Ruth was a good woman and the boy needed that now more than ever. They finished their meal and got ready for the few more hours still ahead of them in the car. As they walked out of the room, the man put his hand on Ruth's shoulder. He wanted to say thank you, but instead, he said, "I can drive." She nodded and handed him the keys.
The car needed gas so the man drove over to one of the pumps at the same convenient store Ruth and Obie had bought breakfast from. This time he left them both in the car as he walked inside to pay for the gas.
Behind the clerk was a large digital clock and a whiteboard with the date from eighteen years ago written on it. The man compared the time to that on his watch.
"Looks like your clock is wrong," said the man. The clerk turned around.
"No, that's about right. Maybe a few minutes slow actually," said the clerk. The man looked at his watch again as realization crept across his face. He had forgotten about the time change once they reached Texas. He had been delirious then and neglected to change his watch. The funeral was starting soon and they were hours away.
All three stood away from the graveside. No marker had been placed yet, and the cemetery workers were filling the grave. There would be no last look for any of them nor eulogy to remember her by; more trinkets stolen from them by death. Left in its place were the final moments and words ever spoken to them by the woman now occupying a vault under the earth.
To the man,
"I didn't forget his birthday. I was just busy... No, I'm not high! Please, let me talk to my son... Don't make me hate you, Caleb. Let me talk to my son!"
He hung up the phone while she was still yelling at him. The last time he had seen her was the day she left Colorado. She was haggard from another argument and eager for her next dose.
"Thanks for nothing."
Her sister had come to Taos looking for a place to stay after she left the man. Ruth would have complied on the condition she enrolled in an addiction treatment program nearby. Her sister sneered at the suggestion and left her with a look of betrayal.
His father and Ruth were holding hands and crying together. Obie cried too, but his young body couldn't stand still in the sadness. He walked over to the graveside in the midst of the workers burying his mother. They stopped working and backed away from the boy so that he could have the moment to himself.
"I love you mom," he said to the hole. He kicked a clod of dirt and turned to the men. He asked for a shovel. They agreed without words, and together with the boy, filled the grave. With sand and clay, the boy also buried the last things he remembered about his mom. He threw in the lies, the hate, and shallow looks she gave him before she was gone. He gave all the bad to death in exchange for fonder memories from a different time. Death eagerly obliged and bore his bounty of strife away.
"I love you mom," said the boy. He smiled at the mound of dirt he had made and turned back to Ruth and his father. They were still holding hands but had stopped crying. He walked back to them and they wrapped him in an embrace that was like home to a refugee. They left that day together in more ways than one.
This short story is a work of fiction. The normal disclaimers about all people, places, and things being imaginary apply, and any coincidences with reality are just that.