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The Easy Out

by Bob Meeks

As hurricane Andrew made a howling landfall in southern Florida, my great friend James left this world with a shuddering sigh. It was a coincidence of timing and not location. He passed in the care of his wife Kathy, in their Phoenix home, while his infant son napped in the arms of his sister. Andrew was the talk of the nation for days, ultimately claiming more trees as newsprint than were toppled by the storm. James got a tiny paragraph in the local paper. I still have the clipping. Small is plenty when it’s personal.

The viewing opened at noon on a working Monday. It was a hasty arrangement, a family nod to local friends, and a road stop on his final trip to hometown Michigan. I left work at eleven thirty with no intention of returning, still fresh from accomplishing nothing that morning. I arrived at eleven fifty, hoping to avoid the crowd, and found a group of five already waiting. Four were engineers from the plant—known to me only as familiar faces—and the other was my pal Lawrence. He was doing slow laps around the guest log and didn’t look like he’d worked much either.

“Going back in this afternoon?” I asked.

“Silly man,” he said.

The funeral director entered the lobby as I signed in. He greeted our group with studied empathy, professionally solemn in look and tone, and announced that the family awaited us in the Chapel. He then glided to a set of stained glass doors, opened them, and faded to the side, allowing us to pass. I glanced at Lawrence. His tight-faced look told me that the guy gave him the willies. He wasn’t alone.

Once inside, things went like they always do. I was the last from the lobby to enter and, rather than joining the family line, stepped wide and went forward. Within a framework of white flowers was a polished metal box, muted lavender in color, lined on the inside with white pillows, on which some person reposed, a stranger, a cancer thin wax figure, allegedly the remains of my friend. I stayed a moment, brushed a dried petal from one lapel. Adios, amigo. Now the line was behind me, so I turned and walked to the family. I shook hands with his sister and somebody’s mother. I held the baby. I said something heartfelt but unmemorable to Kathy, who hugged me and made me cry, then I kissed her on the cheek and left the building. Lawrence joined me within five minutes.

“Beer?” he asked.

“Two. Probably three.”

It turned out to be four. We stopped at a north Mesa bar and grill that was in line with our respective paths home. The lunch crowd had mostly cleared and the bar section was empty. We chose the bar. The room was lit with neon beer signs and three televisions—one was tuned soundlessly to ESPN and the others played CNN coverage of the storm. We grabbed a table with three tall stools next to one of the CNN boxes. It was 1992, a time when you could still smoke in Mesa bars, and we did. I snagged a spare ashtray from another table, lit an extra cigarette, and placed them both near the empty stool. Lawrence looked sideways at me.

“It’s for James,” I said.

“I didn’t think he smoked.”

“He didn’t.”

“Ah. So I guess it won’t hurt him to start now.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

A waitress arrived, took our order, and was back in a flash with three beers in frosted mugs. One of the three went to James and we raised the other two.

“To James,” I said.

“To James,” he replied. He pulled down a third of the mug. I pulled down half.

“That sucked huge,” he said.

“Yeah. I’m glad it’s over.”

He leaned toward me. “Did you get a load of that mortician?”

“Yeah. Creepy guy.”

“He used to have a TV show, you know.”

“Which one?”

“The Addams Family.”

“Cute,” I said.

“Seriously, though. Did you see when he went to open the doors? I don’t think he moved his feet. He just kind of floated over.”

“Who floated over?” This was from our waitress. She already had our second round.

“A funeral director that we met. He was a bit eerie,” I said.

“Ick,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Lawrence. “A buddy of ours passed away. We just left the viewing and came here to salute him.”

“Well. That sucks,” she said.

“Huge. So, how’s your day going?” he said.

“Better than that. Hell of a hurricane, huh?” she said, changing the subject. Coverage of death and mass destruction was evidently more comfortable than viewings and funeral directors. We all looked at the TV. Canned footage of wind-bent trees segued to roaring floods.

“Nasty storm,” said Lawrence. “Man, I don’t know how people live there. It seems like Florida gets stomped every year.”

“Warm weather and great beaches,” I said. “No place is really safe. Step outside and you can fry an egg on our sidewalks in two minutes. Dozens of Mexicans die in the desert every year, just trying to make Tucson.”

“It’s pretty in Florida,” she said. “When I was fifteen I spent a summer with my aunt in West Palm Beach. God, I feel so bad for them.”

I didn’t know if she was feeling bad for her relatives or Floridians in general.

“To Florida!” I said.

“To Florida!” they replied.

Lawrence and I pulled our first round dry and reached for the second. James hadn’t touched the beer and his cigarette had burned out like a slow fuse. The waitress lingered at the table and finally took the third seat.

“You’re sitting on James,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“That’s the guy who died,” said Lawrence, “that’s his spot.”

“Jesus Christ!” She jumped down and looked at the stool like there was a snake on it.

“He wouldn’t mind, you know,” I offered.

“Not at all,” agreed Lawrence. “In fact, I think you just made his day.”

"The true lottery winners in life are the contented souls who depart while sleeping."

It was easy to see that she didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t. She wandered away and Lawrence gave me his “boy, you’re smooth” look. We tried small talk but my heart wasn’t in it. He could tell. When she brought our third round, he poured on the charm, obtained forgiveness, and the two of them flirted for the remainder of our stay. I watched the news and thought dark thoughts. There is a term associated with the end of our days, all of us, every one. It could be hurricane or cancer, train wreck or wet step, heart attack or pissed-off spouse. By the end of the fourth beer, I decided that to go easy is to go good. The true lottery winners in life are the contented souls who depart while sleeping.

“Lawrence,” I said, “I must go now, or stay here forever.”

He slowly assessed our surroundings.

“It’s not all that nice,” he said.

We both left the waitress a five-dollar tip and stood to leave. I lit another cigarette and put it in James’ ashtray. We passed her as we left, thanked her in harmony, and I asked if she would give James a moment to finish his smoke. She said she’d be happy to never go near there again.

We parted ways at the curb and that could have been the end of the story. It wasn’t. James had something to say.

Whether soon or late, my beloved dead always visit after their passing. Most of them do it badly, though certainly with the best intentions, arriving suddenly and without context in the universe of my dreams, startling me to wakefulness and leaving me with a chill. Not so with James. A few years after his death, he entered my nightscape with the announcement that I was dreaming. It was a clever approach that buffered the shock I normally feel in the presence of the deceased. He looked great—nothing like the mannequin that had occupied the coffin—and the joy in his smile erased all possibility of fear.

“Wow,” I said.

“It’s nice to see you, too,” he said.

“Are you okay now?”

“Yeah, I’m better than okay. I’m better than ever.”

“No more glasses, huh?”

“No longer necessary.”

“Hair still looks a little thin.”

“Only to you.”

“So, it’s good where you’re at? Is it all that they say?” I asked.

“Yep. It’s like going to the favorite place of your childhood, like grandma’s house, or the beach during summer, but a lot better. The trip sucks. Once you’re there, though, it’s very cool.” He stepped closer. “Before I go, would you like to take a peek?”

I must have said yes. The dreamscape was flooded in light as dense as water and I felt my consciousness pulling away from the body moorings. The radiance was cyclonic, swirling to a destination that I could sense but not see, drawing me, I felt, into the possibility of a one-way trip. I resisted; the light vanished.

“No. I can’t do this yet,” I said.

“That’s okay,” he said. “Another time. We’ll meet again. For now, wake up, walk around a little, and you’ll shake it right off. When I touch your shoulder, you’ll be wide awake.”

He did and I was. I left the bedroom, somewhat dazed, the memory of his touch stored inside my body. As I walked, I turned on lights in every room I entered. I dumped a double shot of bourbon into a Dixie cup, grabbed my smokes, and stepped out to the porch. There was a quarter moon above the rooftops to the west, a solid porch beneath my feet, a well-lit house at my back, and not a ghost in sight. I was happy that he came, relieved that he was well, and content to be alive. Still, there was one nagging thought. A time was coming when I’d have to take the whole look, ready or not. As the palpable qualities of the dream dissolved in moonlight and alcohol, I wondered if reluctance had cost me an easy out.

I lit a cigarette for James, placed it in the ashtray, and returned to my bed, darkening the rooms as I passed.

Bob Meeks lives in Mesa, Arizona with his wife Jeri, two cats, and frequent visits from grown children and growing grandchildren. He has worked as a research technician and associate engineer in the aerospace industry for the last twenty-five years. He is a senior at Arizona State University (education in lieu of a hobby) and will graduate with a degree in Sociology. Professional writing credits consist of technical manuals and occasional forays into poetry. The Easy Out is his first short story.

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