Ethan once told me that when he died he wanted his body left out in the woods to be devoured by the elements, once the vultures had gotten him. Like a lot of the things he told me, I didn’t know how seriously to take it. He was hardly an outdoorsman, and our entire relationship was a danger minuet, provocation and retreat. He lived to say outrageous things, and counted on me to ignore the ones he hadn’t truly meant.
He was the only person I’ve ever met who talked about death like a lost acquaintance, who recently moved out of town. He always had one foot in the afterlife (not that either of us ever believed in something as mundane as that).
And when he died, in a glorious misadventure, it became my job to tell his parents. I had always been a little intimidated by the prospect of meeting them. He often said that they’d be embarrassed by me. Their son getting together with a waitress (even if she does write poetry when things get slow at work).
Ethan was an asshole sometimes.
It was three o’clock in the morning when the officer came over to tell me that Ethan had died. I was already awake with the baby. I’d ceased worrying about Ethan at that hour a long time ago. It’s not that I didn’t worry, but what could I really do?
The next morning I called the number I’d found in Ethan’s address book, and introduced myself as Ethan’s “friend.” After a couple of minutes, Ethan’s mother came on the line.
“I heard what happened to Ethan,” she said.
“You must be Nina.”
“Yes. I wasn’t sure if Ethan had told you.”
“He did. He said you were a lovely girl.”
And I wondered to myself in exactly what way she was lying, but quickly filed the thought away.
Ethan’s mother said that the funeral arrangements were already underway, and they overnighted me two plane tickets to Chicago. I could sleep in one of their guest rooms. She gave the impression of a woman who knew how to do absolutely everything. Like a great traffic dispatcher for the world.
“We also bought a ticket for the baby. You can carry your car seat on the plane.”
“You didn't need to do that, did you? I could have carried her on my lap.”
“But you'll be more comfortable this way. And it will be safer for the baby.”
"But the expense.”
She laughed, but not unkindly, as if to say, look, I can afford it. Did you ever really doubt that I could?
“Is this the first time she's ever been on a plane?”
“It's the first time I've ever been on a plane.”
“See you on Friday then. I wish it were under better circumstances. We’re excited to meet Stella. Our granddaughter.”
“How will I get to your house?”
“Someone will be waiting for you at the airport. They'll be holding up a sign.”
Like a movie star, I wanted to say, but I didn't want her to find out what a big rube I was. She'd find out soon enough.
“Yes, of course.”
A couple of days later, I got together with Ethan’s best friends Jeremy and Jason. It was the first time we’d seen each other since Ethan had driven his car into a tree. We called it a wake, but it was really just the same thing we used to do at least three times a week, leave the baby with my mom and go out to a bar with Ethan’s friends.
They quickly ordered drinks, and orange juice on ice for me. It felt weird for me not to be drinking, but what else could I do? I wasn’t going to tell them not to. I was never a big drink and drug person but sometimes I'd go along for the ride. It always seemed like the friendly thing to do. But not after having the baby.
We were all lucky to be alive, I guess, but none of us talked like that. Jeremy and Jason would have been in the car with him, but they decided to take a taxi so they could go and buy some weed. I’d stayed home that night because the baby had been crying incessantly. (Nothing serious, but I panic about everything that has to do with the baby. My mom told me she was just a little colicky, and told me to sit with the baby and sing to her softly until she fell asleep.)
I told them all about what Ethan had said, and wondered how seriously I should take it. Jeremy replied immediately. He was slurring his words a little now, and spitting a little as he spoke. Apparently Ethan had expressed the same wish to all his friends at one time or another, and after a few hours of drinking, it had been elevated into a spiritual quest.
“He always told me that he wanted to be dumped in the woods from a helicopter. Like the Native Americans used to do.”
“The Native Americans used to dump people’s bodies from helicopters?”
“No, they didn’t have helicopters then. But they did used to leave bodies out in the elements, so that they could return to the soil. Nature was sacred to them.”
“Are you sure? Some of this sounds like bullshit.”
“It’s not bullshit. It’s spiritual.”
“And anyway, I don’t have any control over any of this stuff. The funeral home’s handling all the arrangements, and his parents are taking care of everything.”
“You have to tell them, Nina. It was the man’s last wish.”
“OK, I’ll tell them. No promises, though. Not from what Ethan said about them. They sound like fucking gargoyles.”
I never told them, of course. I arrived the day before the funeral, and we didn’t really get a chance to talk much that evening. People kept coming up to introduce themselves, but I immediately forgot all their names. His mother was running around like crazy, calling all the vendors to make sure that everything was ready for Ethan’s big day. Everyone seemed to be afraid of her. I was exhausted from the flight, and all my crying, so I quickly retreated to my room.
Ethan always told me he’d grown up in a mansion, but it was more like a small hotel. The servants stood around watching you, like the security guards at the art museum. I was cold and miserable, and wished that I could turn around immediately.
What have you gotten me into now?, I told Ethan, who was standing right in front of me. Still dead, but looking extremely handsome in my mind’s eye.
A knock at the door. One of the butlers. A tall Hispanic man, wearing a silly red jacket, preparing for a fox hunt.
“Will you be needing anything else this evening, ma’am?”
“I was just going to go downstairs and get some tea?”
“I’ll bring it to you, ma’am,” he replied, seemingly irritated with my absolute inability to comprehend the master/servant relationship.
By the time he returned with the tea, I had already fallen asleep, and when I awoke the next morning, I found the tea service by the bed, ice cold. I carried the entire tea service downstairs as the morning butler glared.
I don’t know how I ended up here. School bored me, so I drifted away without any real alternative in mind. I'm a good waitress I guess. I rarely drop things anymore. Mostly I love writing poetry. It's probably shit.
I can’t explain why I fell in love with Ethan. He was one of a dozen guys who hung around the restaurant, nursing a cup of coffee as they tried to get up the courage to ask me out. I’ve never had the illusion that I was amazingly attractive; I’m just easy to talk to. I mean I’m already bringing you coffee.
He seemed like a nice enough guy, but a little strange. When I asked him what he did for a living he laughed, and said that he did nothing at all.
“I wish I had that job,” I replied, as I gathered up the dirty plates.
“Maybe someday you will.”
Over the next few weeks I fell in love with him. I loved his cheeky sense of humor, and his casual disdain for the hypocrisies of the world, but the thing that we had most in common was that we both were just marking time. Not much to base a relationship on I'll admit, but I've seen people try it with less (like my parents). They're divorced now. My father sends greetings on Hallmark occasions. I feel sorry for what my mom went through.
Ethan had the soul of a poet, without the discipline to actually write any poetry. I loved his impulsiveness—his ability to drop everything all at once to spend the weekend in Mexico (roadtrip, forgotten diaphragm, drugstore ten miles away). I was the one who always nattered on about irrelevant concepts like “the future.” An absolute lack of responsibility can seem charming when you’re 25.
And then the baby came, and of course she became the only thing we ever really talked about. Ethan adored Stella Star, and became her favorite babysitter, babbling baby talk for hours as she giggled and squealed.
Even so, I don’t know if Ethan and I would have wound up together for life. Now of course we will.
The funeral took place in a beautiful church. I was wearing this awful black dress (another thrift store find). I’d never been to a funeral before.
Stella Star started crying, so I found an empty room where I could breastfeed her. And when we were finished, I saw Ethan’s mother outside, smoking a cigarette. I decided to go up and talk to her. It seemed rude not to try.
As soon as she saw the baby, she waved away the smoke with her outstretched hands like a conductor, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ground.
“Sorry about the baby,” I said. “She doesn’t really understand.”
“It’s okay, really. Of course. I couldn’t take it in there anymore either. I love Reverend Martin, but he does tend to drone on.”
“Thank you. It’s such a lovely service. Ethan would have…”
“Hated it, I know.”
“He was conflicted. About everything.”
“She’s such a beautiful baby. I wish you’d come around more.”
“I know. But Ethan…”
She paused, and lit another cigarette, as if it contained a tiny dose of courage.
“Don't blame yourself. He'd been suicidal for years. He always wanted to die in a fiery car crash. Thank god no one else was in the car.”
I wanted to tell her about our friends, and how lucky it was that they weren’t with him, but I could tell that she needed to continue talking.
“It started when he was in high school. He used to talk about what he wanted us to do with his body, leave him out in the woods to die so the wolves would get him, and then the vultures, and finally the earth. He would repeat the story over and over again in gruesome detail, like a child telling spooky stories around a fire. At first, I hoped he was just rebelling against us, like teenagers do, until we found him in the bathtub with his wrists slit.”
“I saw those scars. He would never tell me what they were.”
I could feel myself blushing now. It was as if I were telling her that I’d seen so much more…
“We went with him to see therapists to find out what was wrong. They said he was manic depressive, a chemical imbalance in the brain. It seemed like sort of a catchall, when they didn't know what was wrong. They gave him medication. Things were better for awhile, but you can't force someone to take medication, once they're on their own.”
I started to say something, some kind of conciliatory gesture, but what could I say? I felt as awful as she did. We were probably the only two people in the whole world who did.
“We came out to California to see him. He never wanted us to meet you for some reason. He said you were sacred to him. I always had to walk on eggshells with him. It sounds completely inadequate to say we did all we could. I wish that we'd done more.”
“I feel the same way.”
“How long did you know him?”
“Two years and a half years.”
“And now you have the baby.”
“She's six months old now. It’s so hard, because I want so much for her. I always worry that I’m doing the wrong thing.”
Ethan’s mother took a deep breath that sounded something like a sigh. She smiled, and patted me on the shoulder.
“Are you ready to go back in?”
“Absolutely. Let’s go.”
By the time we reentered the church, the minister had just about finished his eulogy. And then we drove out to the cemetery in a slow-speed chase of luxury automobiles. I bummed a ride with Ethan’s mom.
And they buried him in the family plot, and at the reception a bunch of people that I would never meet again came over to ooh and aah about the baby, because that’s what babies are for.
Everybody told me the food was wonderful. All those ten dollar cheeses. I barely ate anything at all. It was such a sad occasion, but it felt better to be with people.
And once everyone had gone, I got a chance to spend more time with Ethan’s family. I met his sister and her husband and their three kids. They told me some funny stories about Ethan’s father, who died of a heart attack two years ago. We sat together in the study. They showed me Ethan’s scrapbooks and promised to come visit us in California, after everything had settled down.
He would have been mortified, of course, in every way possible, but fuck him, he’s not here anymore.
They’ve even given me a little allowance each month. For the baby, they said, as if I would be offended by the very thought of money. It’s way more money than I ever expected to make, even with a great run of tips.
I’ve quit my job, and I’ve decided to go back to school because I’ve heard there’s big money in poetry. As I always tell the baby, in our ongoing 2 AM conversation, things are gonna work out fine.
About the author:
Michael Koenig lives in Oakland, California. His stories and poems have appeared in The MacGuffin, Paterson Literary Review, Harpur Palate, Literary Orphans, amongst others.