Where else would my feet take me? Down through the twenty-two city blocks and across the North Bridge. Over the rolling river that ran through our town like an aortic artery. I was still in my ill-fitted suit and cheap Goodwill Oxfords. I bought them for the memorial service that morning and maybe a job interview and then a job, maybe in another town, in another time. Would I think of Ed every time I put on these shoes? Sitting in an office cubicle, at birthday parties and Tinder dates, a glance and the floor and Ed would be there, ashes to ashes in the black stiff leather shoes bought for six dollars at a second-hand donation shop. No, it wouldn’t be. I kicked them off and threw them in that river. I didn’t need those shoes to remind me of Ed’s death.
Ed’s death. Does anyone possess their death? Sure feels like I was the only one in possession of it. I’d rather hold onto other things. Like when I held onto his hips as he flicked the silver ball of the pinball machine at the corner bar from our apartment by the highway. The closest place we’d go after long hours at the department store, catching each other’s eyes over the shelves of product that Ed would stock and I would swipe across a red beam of the cashier station. I’d rather hold onto the lunch breaks, sitting in his truck’s cab, my head in his lap, watching the ravens circle just outside the window and the underside of his chin. I’d rather keep this river, the one where we’d catch the city lights from his truck, like I saw that night, ass on some cold pebbles and my wet, bare feet stuck in the rocky ground.
I stole Ed that day. I finished my waffles and drank the rest of my coffee then excused myself from the table, citing the need to use the bathroom. Ed’s parents and his one aunt who had flown out upon first news that Ed’s cancer had landed him in the ICU all nodded without a word.
I didn’t go to the bathroom but walked right out the door and across the street to the Pine Lodge Motel where Ed’s parents had been staying and right up to a housekeeper pouring out a trashcan. I gave her some story about how I had left my keys in room 2L.
“Happens all the time,” she said unlocking the door to the room.
The urn was on the night side stand next to a pack of cigarettes. I suppose there was something a little funny in that. Cigarettes cause cancer of the lungs, the same kind that did Ed in, even though he didn’t smoke. I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time. In fact, a cigarette sounded pretty good right then even if I didn’t smoke either. Sneaking into the hotel room of Ed’s parents, about to swipe the remains of their son, made me feel kinda like I was in a movie:
“I thought you don’t smoke.”
“I do now.” (Lights cigarette).
The urn was purple like a healing bruise. It had Ed’s full name and the other obligatory dates of birth and death. I rolled it over in my hands to discover a poem etched into the other side.
““If tears could build a stairway
And memories a lane,
I would walk right up to Heaven
And bring you home again.”
I laughed. Ed would’ve, too. How ugly the thing was. An oversized saltshaker in a color he hated. It was that much more motivation to finish what I had started.
“What’s that?” The housekeeper asked at the bottom of the stairs of the motel.
“This?” I said while putting an index finger somewhere in the middle of that terrible poem etched into the side of Ed’s oversized purplish saltshaker. “This is Ed.”
Ed had informed me of the cancer by text message.
“Welp…” he wrote before sending a second one. “Looks like it’s the big C.”
I was headed to the eastside, huddled between two oversized people in oversized jackets in an overcrowded bus on my way to work. I didn’t know what to write back. So I texted what everyone else would tell him over the next few weeks, including myself.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK,” he responded with a smile-face emoji.
Ed had no idea. Six-weeks later and I was holding his remains in an ugly, egg-shaped urn with a stupid poem on the side, walking through the park blocks of the university. How many boring hours had I spent with Ed sitting on the these cold brick benches, overshadowed by the trees above, blocking what little light came to this overcast city? They just swayed. It certainly made all that stuff we learned in those nearby class buildings seem pointless now. What use is an education when you die before you’re 30? All that knowledge, history, French verbs, Russian literature. Gone. And for what? Good riddance to you higher education, I thought. Ed, a stock boy saddled with six-figures in debt and a bachelor’s degree. At least when you die, you are no longer poor.
I didn’t know where I was going at first. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. So I just kept walking downtown, going the long way around the back to the motel so not to run into Ed’s parents. They would have been arriving back to their room about that time, tired of waiting for me to return from the bathroom. How long did it take for Ed’s mother to notice the urn was gone? Maybe she notice the missing cigarettes first. I can see her now, touching her mouth while uncovering the sheets. I see her looking under the bed, and around night-side stand with the Gideon Bible in it. They’d probably look in the closet before going to the front desk. Would she say, “Seen my urn?” Or maybe just, “Where’s Ed?”
Ed is gone.
I bet the cleaning lady tipped them off. I was walking by the hospital when my cell phone buzzed in my back pocket. Text message. Then another one and another one. Then it rang. I checked my phone. Ed was calling me now. I tapped on the bruised-color urn.
“Ed. They have cell phones in the afterlife?”
I turned my phone off and headed east toward the river, worried that Ed’s parents were going to drive around town looking for me. I figured they would head to our apartment, the one Ed and I shared. They might already be there, making themselves comfortable on the sofa, where Ed and I would lay and watch our shows. Or maybe they would sit on the patio and take in the view of the highway, waiting me out in our humble place with its second hand furniture, the mattress on the floor and expired eggs in the fridge. Neither of us ever really ate eggs. I don’t know why I always bought them. Ideas of a Sunday morning omelets even though it was usually just coffee and cold cereal. Ed would grind the beans; I’d pour the milk.
Ed’s parents were going to take him away from all that. Now that he was dead they finally could. That’s why I stole the urn. Because Ed never wanted to go back to the home he fled, the one a whole state away. He wanted to leave from there so much he didn’t even really talk about. Not when we would text message or chat online. Even when I would sometimes ask about it years later, laying in bed together, passing a joint back and forth, after making love or just exhausted from a long day of standing at our shitty jobs. All he ever said then was, “I don’t like that place.” That’s it. I guess it’s all the reason I needed. You can’t know it all.
I knew where Ed’s parents wanted to put him, too. I’d seen it once on a trip to pick up some of his stuff. They’d put him on that bookshelf in their living room without any books. I put money on it that’s the place they had all set out for setting the urn I had stolen. They’d make a space between all the little porcelain caricatures of traditional Swedes in blue and white, a collection of elephant figurines, their Cabo seashells, Japanese fans, other useless shit with the unifying feature of dust that looked as if it had just kept settling on them year after year. I know they’d put the urn there, the urn that held the ashes of Ed, their first son and my friend. My love. They’d put him there because there on that shelf of dusty items, they could see it from the Lazy-E-Boy or the couch. On the way to the kitchen or the garage.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. Not if I could help it. Instead of heading home, I turned north and followed the river, through the park. Then onto the bridge that takes you out of town. It was dusk by the time I reached it. I had been walking for hours. I turned off the bridge and onto the shoulder of a highway when a car slowed.
“Hey Mister, you need a ride? You need a lift?”
A lift? Emotional or physical? I said no and continued on. I felt like I could walk forever. Instead I walked to the river’s edge. And then it made sense where my feet had been taking me.
I didn’t believe in love until I met Ed. What is love anyway? Stupid, yes. Not an object. Not physical. So what? A feeling? Maybe chemical. There we were, in his cab by that same river. Windows fogged. The sandpaper of his evening face rubbing against mine. I knew it then. Okay, maybe it wasn’t love. But I felt it. But where? I can’t even say. Everywhere. You can’t see it or hold it but it’s there, in my heart or head or in my lungs.
That day when I stole the urn was different. The sun was almost set and the dark silhouette of the city across the calm water revealed itself. I walked to the edge of the river and opened up the urn. Don’t worry; there wasn’t any wind. I’ve seen enough of that on the television. Instead I knelt down and dumped the ashes slowly, sprinkling the remains of Ed on the glistening water. Even then, the current moved and circled around me and his ashes got on my pants and hands. Ok. Maybe life is more like a movie that I like to admit. (Oh Ed, even in death you’ll never leave me.) Then I walked back to the rocky shore and laid my head on those tiny stones and closed my eyes.
I saw Ed that night. Not the ashes, but him. He was standing there, where the river trickled out over the soft edge of the shore. He was walking on water or, at least, ankle deep, just laughing. His back was to me, head looking over his shoulder occasionally before looking back across the river and out upon the city, his body that I loved silhouetted by those lights. A dream? A ghost? I’ve never believed in either. But he was there. Then I stood up and he wasn’t. I had just wanted to reach out to him across those cold pebbles at my feet and hold him in that way new lovers do. All possessive and dumb and unfair. But no. I don’t believe in ghosts. Ed is gone.
Some boys picked me up shortly after. “Hey mister, need a lift?” they yelled somewhere near the highway. This time I said yes.
They all were young and beautiful and I don’t know but it didn’t look like they’d felt the thorn of love or loss yet. Something about the way the wind swept through their hair and the silent look on their faces. We can’t really tell, I only assume.
No one talked. We just looked out the window at that dark river that would always be there. Even after I was gone and the boys in that car that drove me home where I confessed what I had done to Ed’s parents before kicking them out in a screaming rage. When we were all gone, and the city is a ghost town from a fallout or some other disaster, the river will still be there. And so will Ed.
Saxon Baird is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared on Guernica, Slate, Vice Sports, Gothamist, Blunderbuss, Fanzine, Large Up and other places.