Saturday – 2 PM
Standing among the trees, I shuffle awkwardly alongside the red, orange, and yellow leaves swirling with the wind’s cool touch. The afternoon sun peaks between the branches to warm my skin against the dark mood brewing underneath. I don’t want to be in this place. I want to believe that I am somehow in a movie, that somehow this scene isn’t my broken reality.
A beautiful melody plays softly in the air as a final tribute to my young wife. The outdoor funeral service is almost over. I am not sure if it’s what she would have wanted, as these things are not discussed when you are young and in love. The setting is fit for her, however; the comfort of fall’s changing season brought joy to her heart and we honor that on this, the first day of autumn. The brilliant colors falling all around me are all I can see among the flickering images of her infectious smile.
Firmly planted to the side of the service near a large maple, my feet weigh heavily on the soft earth. As the music ends, the quiet sniffles among the crowd gradually rise and people come to offer me condolences.
I shake hands with them, seeing only an endless sea of blank faces. Politely, I continue to nod and hold back the welling of tears in my eyes. My feet stand still, as I am unable to be anything but robotic in this moment for fear of the emptiness greeting me once everyone has gone and I am once again left all alone with the many versions of regret and loneliness. I feel torn between competing emotional outbursts—one of sadness, one of rage—both leading me down a path I am too weak to follow. A road twisted and darkened; where the memory of her lies hidden in the fog, with no signs of guidance to lead my broken heart out of the haze.
The faces continue unregistered until a familiar man casts his shadow on me, his large frame blocking out the sun at his back. If he is here, that means the diner is closed.
A small place, the diner was built in the sixties by his father, and he has worked there since he was a boy. Now the owner, he smells of grease just like the walls that complement the red vinyl booths lining one side and the chrome, mounted barstools admiring the view into the kitchen on the other. Located in the old part of town, the diner is near the decaying industrial buildings along the train tracks, reminiscent of a different time. It was once a busy place, catering to factory workers and businessmen alike. Now, however, it sits away from the newer part of town that the university occupies. But the regulars have their favorite spots, and the quiet charisma keeps the undergraduates at bay.
Despite the charm and the delicious food, the diner barely scrapes together a profit anymore. The large owner now standing before me always likes to joke that I am his favorite customer since I have bought him every shirt he has owned for the last three years. I never complained about the situation and neither did he, always whistling away happily at his work. I was proud to use my federal grant money from my graduate program to patronize the place and keep a clean shirt on his back. It was the best spot for studying, the best for sustenance, and the best for meeting friendly faces.
Approaching quickly, he wraps me in a large hug, ignoring any unease at my loss of personal space. Being closed for the day will be hard on him financially, even with most of the regulars gathered here with us, but he doesn’t seem to care. Instead, his grease-burned arms hold me tightly, squeezing the emotion out of my chest, and I realize that the simple gesture of his presence is more powerful than any words we could exchange.
Letting my heart flow over me, I sink into his large frame. The feeling of grief overwhelms my attempt at a calm, collected demeanor. He smells of the diner I will never forget, leading my mind to the fond memories there. How my darling wife and I had met at his diner. I, a grumpy reclusive college student, and she, a new waitress only trying to work her way through culinary school.
How brief it all felt. The time I spent studying in the corner booth while she was working, my glass of milk and plate of cookies never empty even late into the night. I recall fondly how I stayed up past closing to help her lock up just so we could take our time walking home together… hand in hand.
This big diner owner had taken her under his wing. He was a father figure where hers had never been. I had been so nervous asking him to use the diner for a surprise proposal and engagement party, but the nerves washed away when he extended his large hand and offered a boisterous smile. The experience culminated shortly thereafter in pure joy, when she said yes and her friends came bursting out of the kitchen saloon doors while he quietly whistled over the hot grill behind them.
Delightful thoughts of the past quickly fade as my eyes well with tears at the sensation of her hand in mine, warped from warm afternoon picnics to the steady pulse of her hospital respirator. My life torn apart again right before my eyes. Fleeting images of happiness are too easily replaced by red and blue flashing lights, of choked conversations that my mind has no intention of comprehending.
She had been in the community garden. The one she started as a place to mentor and teach troubled kids about hard work and fresh food. A kid, someone she knew and had saved from the depths of drugs and crime, brought back to the light. He had been texting and driving too fast… losing control of the single-cab white pickup… swerving off the road and catching the curb at just the angle required to flip it over. The rolling hunk of metal and rubber barreling through the garden’s rickety picket fence. The rotting posts with chipped paint weren’t even obstacles for the large machine… but the shattered splinters of collapsed rails were enough to pin her underneath.
It had occurred where her heart toiled, a positive place of change and kindness, her hands driven to toil in the dirt by the promise she saw with every emerging sprout. Now it has become only a place I see every time I close my eyes, my heart bleeding out over and over again in every memory, soaking the dirt with misery.
The teenage driver took his last pathetic excuse for a breath at the scene, the top of his truck smashed in on itself. My darling had not been as fortunate, making it to the hospital, where she clung to life with broken ribs puncturing her lungs and bleeding behind her skull, the light of her character unwilling to fade.
Those twenty-four hours were the fastest and slowest of my entire life. I never got to hear her voice again or look lovingly into her eyes; I only just caught a flicker of her bright and beautiful soul before she left this world.
In the moment, when alarms sound and nurses rush past you, all you want to do is erupt in violent protest. To tear down everything and anything in the vicinity with a profound and indeterminate hatred. I wanted desperately to rip life from the bastard driving the truck that killed my best friend, but I couldn’t. I was forced to live with the pain, the desire for retribution, and bottle up the rage inside. I was forced to lay blame where I couldn’t find a place to lay it. I felt lost, without purpose; a man with no direction. I became an encapsulated fire of grief and vindictiveness, my only desire a deep longing to do something about it.
I had been a recluse before her, a socially awkward genius relocated to a life of solitude and hiding from making any connection with humanity. She had changed all that, providing the course correction to my life that was so desperately needed. Her heart released me to embrace myself and the fact that I was worthy of love. She showed me what it meant to be part of the world, to enjoy the simple smell of rain and the sweet tender taste of fresh fruit picked by your own hand. Those tiny moments adding up to a lifetime of happiness now taken from me.
My heart longs to hate, to curse the boy who took her from me. And it is the flooding of pain that fills my heart once again instead of one of gratitude as I stand embraced by the large man who had been there with us from the beginning.
Pulling back, he takes hold of me by both shoulders so he can look me in the eye as he speaks: “Will, I know that words cannot ease the heartache you feel, and we’ll always feel the loss of our dear, sweet Maggie. I just wanted you to know that we are both better men for having known her… the diner is always open if you need me.”
I struggle to return his gaze for fear of the tears overwhelming me. Finally managing to look, I see a single tear roll down his cheek. The delicate, emotional response from him moves me in a way I thought impossible. It gives me hope. It tells me that it is OK to be sad and that I won’t be alone.
The great man that I respect deeply nods and steps aside so the next person could offer their sympathy. In his absence, a glimpse of the crowd behind comes into view. It is at this point that I notice him: a kid, surely the same age as the one who drove the truck, sitting with his chin tucked and his eyes cast downward… looking at a cell phone.
Any hope or relief I feel disappears as the chemical reaction burns a chasm in my consciousness. One side politely nodding and shaking hands, the other filling with the same violent hatred that grows deep inside my veins. I stare deep blazing holes into the top of his crown, willing like everything that a single-cab white pickup would come barreling into his heartless body.
The disrespectful pile of indecency thinks that I won’t come over there and break that thing over his tiny, insignificant head. My hatred boils over as I take a slight step toward him, only to be cut off by the pastor who presided over the service. I immediately want to toss his ass aside and scream that this isn’t about kind words anymore—this is about retribution; this is about action!
But the pastor is perceptive; he has seen the phone and the new fire lit behind my eyes. Quickly he moves in front of me, taking my arm, guiding me toward the trunk of the large maple tree.
At first I resist, but his grip is strong and his resolve complete. He guides me farther away. To anyone else, it looks as if he is just consoling me, quietly crouched next to me and walking in stride.
Shutting my ears to what I know will be some garbage about rashly acting in the name of sorrow, I instead catch what he says. He tells me that to truly triumph over evil, you must seek it at its base. You must root it out of its cave, face it head-on, and destroy it at the source. The words only ignite me further.
The words of a religious man, of peace and turn the other cheek… now putting me on the path, enforcing my determination. The pastor saved that idiot kid and his phone on that day, but he did not save him for long. And even though I am torn in two by sadness beneath the autumn trees, I realize, in this moment of blood-pounding reflection, that this kind of kid is but the product of a society. A society that is accepting of indifference, of staring at their phones, incapable of experiencing the beauty of real life for fear of a moment’s loss of instant gratification. A society whose selfishness has grown like a cancer, an entire generation lost to their own self-interests.
I swear in this moment, even among the beauty of a fresh blanket of leaves draping my soulmate to rest… I swear that I will burn a fire so great that it will incinerate that cancer down to its core. I will bring to light the relevance of life through painful inconvenience. I will tear the nation apart from its comfortable existence, brick by brick, and there is nobody out there who can stop me.