Judy and I were kicking back, a few drinks with friends. Everything was funny. Jim was mocking a preacher on TV, some guy with teased up hair quoting Leviticus, pounding his podium, and raging about homosexuality. Jim limped his wrist and lispingly wondered about the preacher himself.
Julie couldn’t stop giggling. Her glass went thunk on the carpet. The preacher’s wife wore something like a fright wig and enough mascara to make you think of a raccoon. Kenny said some Florida doctor shot his wife and told the judge he mistook her for a raccoon.
Everyone roared. Barbara said a guy in Connecticut killed his girlfriend, fed her to a wood chipper. The tabloid headline read: HE LOVED HER TO PIECES.
The phone rang. It was Ned’s wife, Anne. Ned was one of my college housemates. He lived up north, in Maine. My heart began to bang away like it wanted out. I got tunnel vision. Ned was supposed to be out of the hospital by now. I’d planned a visit, already had my airline ticket. Hearing her voice, not his, I somehow knew.
Across the living room, Judy’s expression asked, What? I waved her off like it was nothing. Without even thinking, I told Anne I’d be there. She could count on me. I’d call her back. Sweet Jesus.
I poured myself a drink and hit the bedroom to think. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a factor, but cost came to mind. I’m not rich. Two kids in college. I was pretty sure the airline wouldn’t rewrite the ticket, one of those supersaver deals. Full fare would be impossible. I knew about bereavement rates from when my mother died, but that meant immediate family only. Still, it was worth a shot.
After an endless muzak hold, I explained our closeness, Ned’s heart surgery etc, but before I had even finished my spiel, the agent goes, “I’m sorry, that’s our policy.” A company robot—no tear ducts, formaldehyde for blood.
I thought about driving. Sixteen hours, at least. No way. There were still two other airlines. I dialed again and got this recording saying that my business was important to them, first available operator etc.
There was a great clap of laughter in the living room. I looked around our bedroom, at family photos, and listened to an oldie on the hold recording—”Brandy,” by the Looking-Glass, popular when my son was born. Poor Ned. Jesus. Finally this snippy voice comes on and says the same: bereavement means immediate family. Click. Back to Square One. What to do? Lying occurred to me. This guy I work with, Lee, lies about everything and never gets caught. How would they verify kinship? Would an airline rep actually phone the funeral home? Yeah, this is Suspicious Airlines . . . Are you holding services for a Mr. Ned McDead?
I decided to try again where I still had that no-refund ticket. I thought about getting pushy the way characters do in certain movies: I demand to speak to your supervisor. This time I was connected immediately. The voice surprised me by saying, “Are you okay?”
I said, “Not exactly,” or something like that. The voice said I sounded out of breath. There was this familiar musing quality about the voice. I couldn’t decide whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Everything slowed. You could hear other operators and the tock tock of computers. I gave my name and told the story. The voice sighed, “I’m really sorry.”
I said I thought that the immediate-family policy for a bereavement price was unfair. “What about people with no families, just very close friends?”
“I’m with you,” the voice said. “My family wrote me off. Friends are my only family now.”
I sipped my drink.
“Excuse, please hold.”
I looked at the photos of my son and daughter. What would it take for me to write them off? My son was into piercing, green hair, and hip-hop threads but—
“Sorry. Your friend—he wasn’t alone I hope?”
“His wife was there,” I said.
There was a kind of listening silence again. This was crazy. Wasn’t this what shrinks did? For a second I thought the voice was going to ask me if they had a good marriage, if Ned ever cheated on his wife. Instead, it said, “You stayed friends, that’s good.”
“Just about every year,” I said. “he and his family spend a week on the Carolina coast. That’s not far from here, so we get together.” But the truth was Judy sometimes thought Ned and me and my other college buddies weren’t quite right. After a few drinks, we often got on the phone, sometimes late at night, called each other “Sweetheart,” lisped, and pretended to be gay. I found myself saying, “Hey, you ever had a close friend who—”
“Yeah.” I drained my drink and listened. There was a hollow sound, like the backwash of surf. The voice finally sighed, “Yeah, more than once.”
I decided it was a guy. “Then you know why I’ve got to get to this funeral.”
He started calling me by my name. “Okay, Jeff, please hold. Don’t hang up, okay? I’ll be a few minutes.”
The party raged in the next room. Linda was laughing about her minister, a guy who cried in the pulpit almost every Sunday, over almost anything. She did an imitation. For a moment, I hated her. Then Kenny told a joke about Michael Jackson becoming a priest. More laughter. Julie cackling and stamping her feet.
“Okay. Jeff, you still there?”
I said I was.
“Good, I’ve got you set for—” Then the voice got muffled and I heard, or thought I heard it say, I’ll worry later. “Sorry, I’ve got you set to leave two days earlier. Same flight. No extra charge. Pick up your new ticket at the check-in counter.”
I was beside myself. “How did you do that?”
“You delete one number, substitute another.”
I said, “I hope you don’t get—“
“Not to worry.”
“God, I don’t know what to say.”
“Just remember,” he said. “Just . . .”
I don’t know whether or not he was going to elaborate but before I could say anything, he switched to a business tone, like a supervisor might be listening in, gave me a confirmation number, and thanked me for flying whatever-it-was airlines.
I just sat there, watching the ice cubes in my glass melt and shift. This guy—he had a familiar voice and tone that somehow got to me. But I wasn’t remembering him or Anne or even Ned. What came to me while I was sitting on the bed—God knows why—was high school, the hallway traffic. One of your buddies would really slug you hard in the shoulder. The rule was you couldn’t hit back; you had to pass it on, slug somebody else. One day this swishy kid, Joey Kitchen, came down the hall and . . . God, that was years ago, and not something I wanted to think about. Just remember, he said. Remember what?
Laughter grabbed at me again from the living room. I sat there thinking I could never go back.
originally published in The News & Observer