top of page
sideways.png

Autumn Leaves
Written by: Meghan Beaudry

The old graveyard near our house beckoned my mother with a song only she could hear. Every year at the first hint of Autumn chill, my mother would walk with my brother and me a half mile down the familiar dirt path. “My two little men,” she called us, well before we could walk and well after we both towered over her with stubble-darkened jawbones. Three decades later, the scent of decaying leaves is seared into my memory. I might not remember my high school algebra teacher or the name of my first crush, but I can still see the crumbling granite angels, the moss covered headstones.

 

My brother and I would scurry among the weeds and rocks as we searched for the perfect marker. “Mother” and “father” - could be lifted from any number of “loving father” or “devoted mother” epitaphs. But “Everett” and “Taylor” were absent from the Johns and Marys nestled in the earth. Everett and I had to cobble together a menagerie of letters before we saw ourselves on the page. An “a” from “Jane,” an “e” from “Samuel.” Each letter brought us closer to the twinkle in our mother’s eyes when we handed her our completed rubbings.

 

Maybe it was the artist in her. Maybe it was that her birthday fell on October 31. Whatever the reason, my mother cherished Halloween the way most Catholics celebrate Christmas. Back at the house, construction paper witches and black cats prowled along the window sill as the scent of pumpkin pie wafted from the oven. Yellow gourds sprouted from the mantle above the fireplace. But my mother would smile most at the rubbings taped to the icebox. Her own spooky little family.

 

As an adult, I think of the old graveyard as my black LaSabre rumbles past arboreal fireworks of red and gold. “Come as you are,” Kurt Cobain croons over the radio. My left hand steers, but my right reaches for the manila folder poking out of my messenger bag in the passenger seat. My prescriptions - “the cocktail,” my doctor calls them, rattle at my touch.

 

I lift my chin and stare straight ahead through the windshield. In my mind, I can hear the gruffness in my father’s voice when he would tell me something he knew I didn’t want to hear, but needed to. “Tough love,” he called it, resting a hand on my shoulder as if to soften the sting.

 

The small Rhode Island town where I grew up is roughly three hours from my Greenwich village apartment in the city, but it feels like a different world.

 

This year--1993--I have spent more nights in my childhood bedroom than I can count. By 1993, I’d already served five years of a life sentence I couldn’t yet see the end of.

 

My car rolls to a stop by the side of the street. I turn the key and let silence envelope me. From the doorway, my mother’s trademark cherry lipstick highlights her smile. Green and blue oil paint streaks her linen smock. In ten steps, I’m facing the oak front door with its beveled glass window. Before my one flicker of courage is snuffed out, I slip the manilla folder into her hands.

 

“I found it at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Remember how I could never find my name as a kid?”

 

My mother opens the envelope. She stares down at the rubbing. Taylor Gilchrist, 1805-1849 is emblazoned in charcoal.

 

My mother flinches as if I’ve struck her. She thrusts the paper back in my direction, her fingertips barely touching it, her body angling away as if from a weapon. “Please.” Her voice is as delicate as a dead leaf. My  resentment solidifies to guilt, sitting like an undigested lump in my gut.

 

“Happy birthday, Mom. I missed you,” I say. I take the folder from her hands and slide it back into my messenger bag. It returns to its place between the pill bottles and this month’s Life Magazine as if my mother had never seen it. Then I follow my mother as she turns and walks into the house.

 

*****

 

An old lover calling after you’ve nearly forgotten his name is like a police officer at your door on a Sunday afternoon. An unexpected intrusion, and rarely the bearer of happy news. When Brian phoned a year after our last date in the summer of 1988, a part of me already knew what he was going to say.

 

Brian and I dated briefly, if you could even call it that. In a community where every guy I met was a friend of a friend of a friend, our brief coupling seemed inevitable. I had held Brian’s hand in the dark of the movie theatre watching Dirty Dancing. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders as we sat on my leather couch chatting later that week. I sipped rosé. Brian guzzled merlot. Before the night ended, his glass would tumble from his hand to splash red liquid across my white carpet.

 

For weeks, I deleted the messages he left on my answering machine. But you can’t hide from the truth when it pumps through your veins.

 

I dialled his old number at one in the morning after downing a shot of brandy. He answered on the second ring.

 

The huskiness of his voice reminded me of old times. He sounded like he always had. Intoxicated. Friendly. Healthy.

 

And then he dropped the bomb.

 

“That thing that’s been going around? I have it.”

 

“Are you sure?” I asked.

 

Taylor. You have to get tested,” he insisted.

 

It took me six months to tell my folks. Six months of blood test after blood test that stubbornly refused to come back negative. Six months of eyeing the ledge outside the high rise where I worked. Six months of hating both Brian and myself.

 

After the words slipped out of my mouth one afternoon on the phone, I heard my mother’s breathing, ragged like a hunted animal.

 

“Mom. Are you still there?” I asked after a full minute of silence.

 

On the other end of the line, a glass shattered against the kitchen tile.

 

That was the first and last time we ever talked about my condition.

 

I tried baking soda, then vinegar, then some fancy cleaner I picked up at Dean and Deluca. I scrubbed and scrubbed. But I never could get that red wine stain out of my carpet.

 

***

 

Stepping into the kitchen of my childhood home feels like slipping through a tear in the fabric of time. The wooden countertops my father built gleam. The scent of pot roast from the oven twists my stomach into knots.

 

My younger brother leans against the raised counter between the kitchen and the dining room. The usual khaki pants, short-sleeved collared shirt, and thick-rimmed glasses. Over the years, no one had been surprised to see nerdy, high-waters-wearing Everett blossom into a talk-radio-listening, comb-over- sporting teetotaler of an adult.

 

“Everett was forty years old when he was in the womb,” my mother is fond of saying.

 

“Nice pocket protectors.” I wink at him.

 

“Nice purse,” Everett replies, eyeing my messenger bag.

 

My father pats me roughly on the shoulder. He pulls a bottle of wine from the fridge and pours three wine glasses. His stomach has swelled since the last time I saw him, and his face looks puffier. He fills a regular glass with Welsh’s and slides it across the counter to Everett.

 

“What’s the difference between Baptists and Catholics?” he asks as he carries the glasses to the table.

 

“Baptists keep their wine in paper bags under the table. Catholics keep it at the front of the church,” Everett and I answer together tonelessly. Forty years of the same joke has stripped the humor from the words.

 

Glancing at Everett, I remember the camo pants and fake rifle of his Halloween costume nearly thirty years ago. That year, Everett had hoarded his pillowcase of candy in his closet. Surrounded by hanging school shirts and rows of scuffed tennis shoes, he’d stuffed Kit Kats, Snickers, and Sweet Tarts into his mouth until he spewed vomit onto a pair of folded khakis. Maybe it’s best Everett doesn’t drink, I think.

 

I sit in the same kitchen chair I sat in every day of elementary through high school. My feet find the grooves in the linoleum worn by the chair legs. My father clears his throat, then folds his hands in prayer. My brother, mother, and I mirror his movements.

 

“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts…"

 

After the dishes are washed and the nightly news concludes, my parents retreat to their bedroom. Everett heads to his old room, but I catch his shoulder before the door shuts. “I saw a new bar down the street on my way here. We should go.”

 

Everett frowns. “Now? It’s ten o-clock at night.”

 

“It’s a bar. They’re open late.”

 

Everett pauses. I wonder if he can sense the urgency in my voice.

 

“Do they have grape juice there?”

 

I smile.

 

 

Beers Looking at You is the type of place I would have frequented as a college student with my fake ID. Neon lights spell out Budweiser, Miller, and Guinness behind the bar. The stools are sturdy pine, not yet worn smooth by regulars hoping to disappear from their lives for a while. It’s a far cry from the Tapas happy hours and upscale wine bars I know from the city. An old-timey jukebox in the corner blasts Patsy Cline. In retrospect, I couldn’t have picked a worse place for the conversation we were about to have.

 

I nurse a Heineken. Everett sips his grape juice. The juke box fills the space where our words could have been.

 

After a moment, I reach into my messenger bag and pull out a thick legal envelope. I slide it across the bar to Everett.

 

“I bought a plot. Here’s the certificate. There’s some other information in there too about the service and the home I want to use. It’s all been paid for.”

 

Everett recoils as if I’ve burned him.

 

“Can’t you go find a support group or something? Jesus. I hope you don’t talk to Mom and Dad about this stuff.”

 

My eyes follow the wood grain of the bar as I peel the paper from the side of my bottle. “You walk by and I fall to pieces,” Patsy Cline croons.

 

Everett finishes his grape juice. I take a sip of lukewarm beer, then push the bottle aside. In the dim light of the bar, Everett ducks his head. Our eyes don’t meet again. After a beat, he slips the envelope inside of his coat. We walk to my car, the night air brittle with our silence. I push the power button on the stereo, trading Patsy Cline for Cobain. As we pass clapboard houses and picket fences, I remember a day many years ago. A different car. Different music. A different conversation that didn’t happen.

 

I was sixteen. It was the Sunday two weeks after the first time I kissed another guy-- a clumsy, confusing, intoxicating fumble with a teammate after track practice. I slumped against the hard back of the pew. “Man shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22.” Father Barcus’s voice floated over to the pew where I sat with my parents and Everett.

 

“Homosexuality is against God’s law.”

 

With my father and mother to my right and Everett coughing and sucking on his inhaler to my left, I felt only a burning shame in my stomach. As Father Barcus droned on, the heat spread to my arms and legs, then my face.

After church, my father chatted with the other Knights of Columbus over coffee. My brother followed me like a stray cat as I wandered the halls, studying the patterns in the carpet and avoiding conversation. My mother hurried off to the bake sale committee meeting, where she would “oh” and “ah” over Gertrude Leventhall’s cranberry muffin recipe.

 

The air in the car on the drive home was stuffy with our silence. Not even Diana Ross could lift the mood.

 

“Weather should warm up a bit in the afternoon. Might be a good time to salt the stairs to the garage before tomorrow’s storm,” my father said.

 

My mother stared out the window. Everett and I sat facing away from each other.

 

“I don’t know about you boys, but I’m hungry for some donuts!” Dad tried again.

 

Neither Everett or I replied.

 

“I heard the Harris family switched to St. Bernadette’s. They have that new young priest, Father What’s-His-Name,” my father said after a moment.

 

Everett reached for his inhaler. “I don’t like our church,” he whined. “It’s too cold and it’s hard to breathe.”

 

My father rested a hand on my mother’s shoulder.

 

“Honey? What do you say we try St. Bernadette’s next week?”

 

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my mother’s pursed lips.

 

“Honey?” my father asked again.

 

My mother turned towards him. “For heaven’s sake, yes! I’m so sick of Gertrude’s darned muffins!”

 

I rolled my eyes. Donuts. How could he be thinking of donuts right now? As a teenager, I knew I was the only boy in the world whose parents cared more about dessert than their son.

 

Over drinks years later, I told Brian the story of how my family had abandoned me that Sunday.

 

“What is it about you?” he’d asked, his tone of voice flat, his head cocked to the side.

 

“What?” I’d said.

 

“You always think the worst of people.”

 

*****

 

I think of Brian as I climb into the same twin bed I’d slept in elementary through high school. The same silver moon shines through the window, as if to trick me into thinking the world hasn’t changed.

 

Unlike Everett with his Welsh’s, I’m no stranger to bars. During my first year in the city, I frequented one called Last Call. Perhaps frequented is too strong of a word. Every night on my way home from work, I’d get off the train a stop early and trudge two blocks out of my way to walk past Last Call. Men clustered around the bar, spilling out onto the sidewalk to talk, laugh, and smoke.

 

I stood on the sidewalk one night after working late, holding a map of the subway system and pretending to study my route.

 

“Hey.” A masculine baritone cut through the smoke. “Can I buy you a drink?”

 

Something kept my feet rooted in place. My mouth opened, then closed again before my words could betray me.

 

The man leaned forward, so close I could smell the delicious scent of his aftershave, the hint of whiskey on his breath. A smile tugged his lips upwards. The corners of his eyes crinkled in understanding. “Hey,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with just making friends, right?”

 

Over the next year, I would meet Mickey, then Carson, then Andy and Kevin. We would laugh at Andy’s stories about growing up in rural Iowa and try cigars for the first time on Kevin’s balcony. We’d sip rum and cokes and talk late into the night. We’d commiserate about our families.

 

Andy was the first to go. When his hair started falling out, his father and brother showed up in a truck and whisked him back to Iowa.

 

One by one, I would watch them quit their jobs and move in with their parents or to group homes. Their skin shrank around their bones. Their eyes grew fearful, then sorrowful, then vacant as the disease that shadowed us picked us off one by one like a sniper on a battlefield.

 

It’s not that the thought of my body wasting away doesn’t scare me. For years, the fear caught me like a blow to the stomach in the middle of brushing my teeth. It exploded in my chest during a conversation with a client. It sucked the air from my lungs as I watched Seinfeld sprawled in my recliner.

 

Sometimes late at night, I picture my parents gathered around our dinner table. My mother’s hand clasps my father’s across the dinner table. Everett scoops mashed potatoes onto his plate across from my empty chair. There are times, alone in my apartment, when I have a fleeting sense that the devastation of this disease will linger far beyond my last breath.

 

 

The razor glides over my skin as I stand at the sink the next day. Never a morning person, I’d developed a habit of shaving in the evening before dinner. The avocado green wallpaper and orange bathroom tile whisk me back to my teenage years. For an instant, my brain tells me to start on my math homework before I ground myself in time.

 

I finish shaving, then wipe the lather from my face. I clean my razor. It fits neatly into its plastic container which I then seal in a Ziplock bag.

 

Sometimes I still see his face in my dreams. Strawberry curls and a sly grin. No phone number. A first name I’ve long forgotten. He shook his head when I offered him a condom. “It feels better without,” he’d said, and in that suspended reality after Brian but before the phone call, I’d believed him.

 

I want to shake myself. I want to cram the rubbing--Taylor Gilchrist, 1805-1849--down my own throat. Because nothing will ever feel good again.

 

My mother still keeps Scrubbing Bubbles and sponges under the sink. I spray the sink with foam. Then I scrub every trace of myself from the white ceramic.

 

“Dinner!” my mother calls from the kitchen.

 

My mother loves three things: Halloween, her family gathered around our oak dinner table, and a pumpkin bundt cake with orange glaze. With a jack-o'-lantern grinning from the kitchen counter and the scent of pumpkin wafting from the oven, my mother practically skips through the kitchen.

 

My father and Everett had loaded a tackle box and rods into my father’s old truck the day before I arrived. Their catch -- a few marlin, some bonefish-- lay on platters, battered and fried. As a child, I’d craved the hours spent with my father on the dock, the salty breeze carrying smells both familiar and unknown. I’d chatter on about algebra or my best friend’s secret crush. Back then, I’d imagined my name gracing the cover of a book in a shop window. My father listened as I wove tales of knights storming the walls of a castle or dragons breathing forests to ash. We sat until orange and red streaks tinged the sky, our words falling from the pier and into the gentle waves below.

 

“Happy twenty-first birthday yet again!” My father kisses my mother's cheek as he clears away the dishes. A soft pink spreads across her cheeks and she ducks her head like a schoolgirl.

 

I pull a cartoon of ice cream from the freezer. Vanilla Cinnamon Swirl. My mother's favorite, even though most stores don't stock it. Whenever my brother and I see it hiding behind the plain Vanillas and Neopolitans, we snatch two from the shelves. Candles flicker atop the pumpkin bundt cake. My father raises his arms like a conductor. But before the first note of “Happy birthday” rings in the air, the doorbell jolts us to attention.

 

“Trick or treaters!” my mother exclaims, clapping her hands together.

 

She scurries across out of the dining room, through the living room, and down the short hallway to the front door, grabbing the plastic pumpkin overflowing with Butterfingers from the coffee table. My father, brother, and I hear the door creak open from the kitchen.

 

Twick-a-tweat!” a child yells.

 

A voice I recognize but can't quite place calls out, “Laura Gilchrist! Is it really you?”

 

“Arlene Smythe!” my mother exclaims.

 

Mrs. Smythe was my old English teacher and my mother’s old coworker at the high school where they both taught.  Back in the day, Mrs. Smythe and my mother were thick as thieves. Lunches together in the teacher’s lounge, recipe swaps, teary-eyed hugs on days when seventh period got out of hand. And Mrs. Smythe had always harbored a soft spot for me. “He writes like Franz Kafka,” Mrs. Smythe had crowed to my mother.

 

“These are my grandchildren!” Mrs. Smythe’s voice sounds the same as it did twenty years ago.

 

“They’re adorable!” my mother beams.

 

Then my old teacher’s voice changes.

 

“Laura,” she says softly. “How are you holding up?”

 

The candles on the pumpkin cake flicker briefly, as if a ghost has passed through the dining room. My father stiffens.

 

“What do you mean?” My mother’s voice falters.

 

“I know,” Mrs. Smythe whispers. “I heard from the mother of one of his old school chums.”

 

My mother’s shoulder slump forward. I feel as if I’m watching a vase shatter in slow motion.

 

“He was always such a smart boy, such a gifted writer-”

 

“Is,” my mother whispers.

 

Before Everett or I can speak, my father bounds across the dining room and through the living room in two strides. He wraps an arm around my mother’s shoulders. All six feet and two inches of his frame fill the doorway.

 

“You have the wrong house,” my father growls, then slams the door shut on Mrs. Smythe’s round O of a mouth.

 

For a moment, the four of us remain frozen, as if the air has turned to tar. And then a sudden burst of energy sends our bodies springing in four different directions. My mother slips into the master bedroom, pulling the door shut behind her. My father lunges for the pork rinds in the pantry, then the liquor cabinet like a drowning man grasping a life raft. The front door jerks open, swallowing Everett. Minutes pass before I find myself in my old room, rummaging through my suitcase, tossing boxer shorts and rolled up white socks behind me until my fingers close around the comforting spine of a book. Then I remember: nowhere is there a manual on how to mourn yourself while you’re still alive.

 

The doorbell peals several more times last night before someone - my father? - sets the plastic pumpkin full of candy outside and flicks off the porch light. I snap awake at 6am, although the house is silent. I roll over onto my side and close my eyes, but my internal switch has already been flipped from asleep to awake. I climb out of bed, in search of coffee.

 

An edible war zone stares back at me from the kitchen table. The entire tub of vanilla cinnamon swirl has melted into a sticky puddle of white and brown goo. Dried wax mingles with frosting where the candles have burnt themselves into the cake.

 

I tip my head back and groan. Then I grab fistfuls of silverware and dump them into the sink. Forks and knives clatter against the steel sink bottom in a jarring avalanche, but I don't care who I wake up. The carton of liquid ice cream thunks against the bottom of the trash can when I pitch it.

 

I'll scrape their plates clean. I'll scrub the stains from their counters. I'll keep it to myself when my body implodes like a dying star.

 

We don’t talk about our problems. We cover them up. This is a behavior so imprinted in my genetic code that twenty-something years of adulthood and a diagnosis of impending doom have not beaten it out of me.

 

I haul the trash bag to the bin outside. Everett’s car is parked haphazardly, half on the street and half on our front lawn. One of his hubcaps is missing. When I lift the lid of the bin, the putrid stench of vomit rises from its depths. I drop the bag inside and quickly close the lid. Half-digested mush coats the outside of the bin. Last night, I’d tossed the last empty roll of paper towels in the trash. Then I remember the rags in my mother’s art studio in the backyard.

 

I jiggle the handle and push the shed door open. The smell of turpentine and oil paints rush to greet me. I cough and cover my mouth. As children, my brother and I would sit at my mother's feet with our toys, her brush dabbing at the canvas in front of her. But when my brother and I grew older, the shed became a place of solitude for my mother.

 

“Nothing much to see in here,” my mother would chirp when we started to troop into the shed with our spelling books and subtraction homework. She'd lure us back to the house with promises of cake and milk now or bedtime stories later, then seemingly disappear through the walls of the house and materialize in her studio.

 

 My eyes scan the room. Paint brushes, feathery tips pointed up. Blank canvases sit on a shelf, awaiting their turn at the easel. The clean rags sit folded in a wire basket in the corner. Something between a snort and a laugh escapes from my lips. Only my mother would fold cleaning rags.

 

The easel in the center of the room catches my eye.

 

At first glance, the painting in front of me is little more than a canvas painted black. Lumps of oil paint. Thick textured swirls of ebony, like the terrain of an alien world. During my mother’s photo-realism phase, she’d churned out pencil sketches of squirrels, chickadees on branches, autumn leaves so life-like they might float off the page and onto the carpet. She’d later experimented with expressionism. The picture perfect animals and woodland scenes had blurred at the edges, softened, as if the particles that composed them had melted and stretched in the sun. But through whichever period my mother traversed, she brought with her her characteristic lightness. Playful lines and brushstrokes, like ferns unfurling. Soft yellows. Pale greens. The color of joy. I could spot my mother’s work in a gallery of a hundred artists.

 

I squint at the painting in front of me. As I lean closer, another color fights its way through the murky black. Hints of a blood red base coat, visible under the black only in clusters of five parallel lines, like a mouth opened in a scream with a hand covering it.

 

The lines. They are the imprint of my mother’s fingernails when she raked her bare hands across the canvas, over and over again.

 

Not joy. Agony.

 

There is no trace of the mother I know on the canvas. Yet somehow, she exists in every inch of it.

 

I think again of the grave rubbing in my satchel and a sick heat floods my body. I cover the easel with the sheet, then flee my mother's studio without the rags.

 

 

By the time I finish the dishes, I’m exhausted. I walk to my bedroom and climb into bed. The clean counters and cake preserved in plastic wrap show no sign of last night’s wreckage.

 

After what feels like minutes, a voice cuts through the fog of sleep. Whiskey and aftershave burn my nostrils. Dad, I think. Which is why I’m surprised when I hear my brother’s voice.

 

“Wake up,” Everett says. I murmur and roll onto my side.

 

“Mom wants to know what church you prefer. St. Bernadette’s or St. Helen’s.”

 

“St. Mattress by the Springs. I’m already there,” I mumble.

 

Everett sighs dramatically. His eyes look bloodshot. If I didn’t know him better, I’d assume he spent the night out drinking. He smells as if he’s bathed in aftershave.

 

I turn away from him and say nothing. After a few minutes, I hear the growl of the garage door followed by blessed silence.

 

 

Caught in the surreal world between sleep and awake, I don’t notice him until the chair by my old desk creaks under his weight.

 

“The year you were born was one of the hardest years of my life.” My father’s voice is barely audible over the mechanical swish of the ceiling fan. I blink, but don’t roll over to face him.

 

“Your mom had quit her teaching job to take care of you. The month after you came into the world, I lost my job at the insurance company and couldn’t find another one. We were poor as church mice.”

 

I blink sleep from my eyes, wondering if I’m still dreaming. I grab a fistful of sheet to ground me in reality. I’m awake.

 

“Your mother and I would nurse a can of pea soup for days so we could keep you in diapers and formula. I never felt such shame, knowing I couldn’t provide for my family.”

 

My father takes a deep breath. The chair groans, and I imagine he’s leaving, but then he continues.

 

“One night, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I caught a bus to the Division Street bridge and stood by the railing.”

 

Now fully awake, I force my breathing to be shallow and slow, afraid to miss a word.

 

“They say your life passes before your eyes when you’re about to die. But that’s not what happened to me. A life did unfold, clear as day, but it wasn’t mine.”

 

My father paused to clear his throat.

 

“It was yours. I saw you as a toddler, hanging on your mother’s knee as you learned to walk. I saw your first day of school, your first lost tooth clutched in your little hand. I saw you standing proud in your cap and gown. I saw the day you left home a man.”

 

My father’s voice cracked.

 

“And I knew I couldn’t miss it for the world.”

 

The crocheted blanket is suffocating me. Every atom in my body is buzzing with an emotion for which there are no words. Language has failed me.

 

The chair creaks again.

 

“Your mother and I will always be your parents. And we’ll always be here for you, whatever you need.”

 

Memories fill my mind, more tangible than the mattress under my body. My mother’s face hardening at the sight of my gravestone rubbing. My father suggesting St. Bernadette on a car ride home from a church he loved long ago. Everett with his creased khakis and ironed shirt, his grape juice and his pocket protectors to guard against a messy world.

 

I fling the blanket off, roll over, and open my mouth to speak. But there’s only an empty chair, rocking where my father had just sat.

 

 

That night, after my parents and Everett retire to their beds, I unlock my parent’s liquor cabinet. My fingers find the key taped under the silverware drawer--the same place my parents hid it in high school. I’m amused my mother still keeps it there. Old habits and all that.

 

I find my jacket in the closet and slip a bottle of Jack Daniels and a shot glass into the pocket. My legs propel me forward. I don’t know where I’m going until they stop at the entrance to the cemetery.

 

As the gate clangs shut behind me, I let my mind travel down a familiar path to a memory I visit often.

 

It was Kaposi's sarcoma that got Brian in the end. I went to see him one last time before the funeral. By then time had chipped away at the sharp edges of my anger towards him. I signed in at the front desk of the facility, then walked through hallways decorated in subdued pastel prints. As I grew closer to his room, the hairs on my arms buzzed with static energy. I could hear Brain’s voice in my head, ordering me a gin and tonic at a dive bar in midtown. The fresh scent of his cologne filled my nostrils. My hand closed over the doorknob. I paused, steeling myself, then opened the door. People filled every inch of the room. None of them were Brian.

 

A man my father's age with red-rimmed eyes held the hand of the woman beside him. A young woman with hair cascading down her back perched on the bed cradling an infant. On the bench beside the bed sat two men in flannel shirts wearing somber expressions. Five faces turned towards me, an unspoken question in their eyes.

 

“Is this Brian Peterson’s room?” I asked tentatively.

 

“Was. He died yesterday.” The woman answered with no inflection in her voice.

 

I was too late. Brian was no longer here.

 

“Did you know him?” The woman with the infant asked.

 

“We ran in the same circles. I--I guess we were friends,” I stammered.

 

“He always did have more buddies than I could keep track of,” the older man said. “Ever since high school. He was always popular.”

 

“Yeah. But his best buddy was Mr. Henessy,” one of the guys in flannel snorted. Wan laughter passed around the room.

 

“A friend of Brian’s is a friend of ours,” Flannel Guy said. He removed a bottle of whiskey from his jacket and poured the amber liquid into Dixie cups arranged on a tray. “We were just about to have a drink in his honor. Care to join us?”

 

As his hand stretches towards me, something in his gesture struck me as familiar. An image flashed through my mind of Brian handing me a shot with the same outstretched arm, the same slightly stooped posture as the man in front of me.

 

Startled, I stepped back into the doorway. A multitude of Brians stared back at me. The woman on the bed had the same knobby knees as Brian, the same brunette hair so dark you had to look twice to see it wasn’t black. The delicate curve of Brian’s ear peeked out from under a strand of hair. Brian’s hazel eyes flecked with green studied me from the red face of the baby. I saw Brian in the cheekbones of the woman, the broad lips of the older man.

 

Brian was dead. But he would never truly be gone. Maybe death was no match for family.

 

At the graveyard, I brush the dirt off a stone bench and sit. The night air seems to welcome me to the world of flora and fauna around me. Moss spreads like a carpet under my feet, reaching up to caress the weather-beaten grave markers. Headstones and cherubs, crosses and tree roots are bathed in silvery light as the full moon gilds the world in its likeness. I open the bottle of Jack and fill the shot glass halfway. Over time, granite cracks. Living things grow old and die. All we have left are our memories. A passageway back to those we love that even time can’t take from us. An imperfect bridge to imperfect people, but all we have just the same.

 

I watch a family of ants march along the rusted iron of the gate. Then I lift my glass to all the leaves and grass that continue to grow at night when we can no longer see the sun.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Meghan Beaudry began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma in 2014 and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Entropy, MAYDAY, Insider, NBC Today, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. In 2020, she was selected as winner of the Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest in fiction. Meghan blogs for Lupus.net. When not writing, she can be found cuddling with her rescue dogs, drinking bubble tea, and teaching students ages three to ninety-five how to play the violin.

bottom of page