Cortege of Broken Men
by Mark Justice
by Mark Justice
Charlie was running behind even before he encountered the procession.
It had been a three-snooze-button morning. Waking up was getting harder. No surprise there; he had to drink more and more just to get to sleep each night. When he showered he slipped, bruising his shin on the side of the tub. And he wasn’t even dry when the phone rang.
“Your cell is off. What are you doing?” It was Donelly, the firm’s managing partner.
“Getting dressed. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Here? You’re not coming here, goddamn it. You’re in court today.”
“Shit. I forgot.”
“You forgot? Victor Glimcher is our biggest client, you remember that, don’t you?”
“ Look. Duane, I screwed up. I’m sorry. I’m leaving now. Okay?”
“I owed you, Charlie,” Donelly said, his tone indicating that the old debt had been paid in full. “You were there for me back in the day, and I hated what happened to Kevin. I was glad to return the favor, you know? But please understand: we can’t afford a loss here. Got it?”
“Got it.” Charlie hung up. It was 9:15. Court was in fifteen minutes. Ashland was twenty minutes away. His tongue felt thick and he wanted a drink.
He knotted his tie and grabbed his jacket. He would come up with an excuse for the judge. Making excuses was something he’d gotten very good at.
He hurried down the steps to the parking lot of the complex. The windshield of his Corsica was covered with frost. He threw his briefcase into the front seat and started the car. Charlie didn’t have a credit card anymore, so he used his library card to scrape a small circle of visibility on the driver’s side of the glass. He really missed the Escalade at that moment, with its remote start. He climbed in the car and started to back up before he realized the rear window was also frost-covered. He got out again, wondering if Debra still had the SUV. He hadn’t talked to her in over a year. She could have traded it in. She always did think it was a bit pretentious.
Finally able to see, he backed out of the lot and cranked the heat up full blast. The street was clear, and he gunned the engine, hearing the four cylinders whine in protest. A half mile later he slowed for traffic at the intersection to US 23.
He glanced to the right and saw the impossibly long line of vehicles headed toward him, going east, the direction he needed to turn.
It was a funeral.
He looked at his watch. Was this a joke? Who got buried at nine in the morning?
Christ, that was a long line of mourners. Whoever this guy was, he was popular.
The hearse passed in front of his car and the need for a drink instantly doubled.
I can’t watch this, he thought.
He put the car in reverse and lifted his foot off the brake.
The horn blared from behind him and he stomped the pedal again.
He saw the truck in the rearview. An eighteen wheeler. He hadn’t heard it’s approach. In fact, he had never seen a big rig on this small road.
Charlie slammed his hands on the steering wheel.
He couldn’t back up. He was stuck.
A black Town Car drove slowly down 23. The windows were tinted, but he could imagine the faces of the family and the grief that settled in the car like an unwelcome passenger.
Charlie sighed and rubbed his face. He didn’t want to think about this. He didn’t want to think about Kevin.
“Please, Dad. I’ll do what ever you want. I’ll mow the grass and clean my room and volunteer at the old folk’s home.”
“You’d really volunteer?” Charlie said.
“Well,” Kevin said with a smile, that charming “gee-whiz” smile that Charlie could never resist, “I’ll clean my room and mow the grass.”
He was almost thirteen. Girls were slightly more interesting to him than they were a year ago, but he still craved adventure more than female companionship. He had decided that for his birthday he wanted an ATV, so he could ride in the woods behind his friend Alex’s house.
“I don’t know, big guy. That’s a lot of responsibility. And ATV’s aren’t cheap.”
“Aw, come on, Dad. You can afford it. Everybody knows you’re the best lawyer in Cincinnati. Probably in the whole country.”
“Hmm,” Charlie said. “Flattery will get you somewhere.”
“Charlie...” Debra had entered the kitchen. Her opposition to the ATV idea had been made very clear. Charlie thought she was being a tad overcautious.
“I propose a test,” he said.
Kevin and Debra gave him anxious looks, one hopeful, the other apprehensive.
“Saturday we’ll go over to Kentucky and rent an ATV for an hour.”
Debra started to speak. He held up his hand.
“Let me finish. There’s a safe course over there. We’ll have helmets. We’ll all give it a try.” He nodded at Kevin. “After that, if your Mom still says no, it’s no. Deal?” He directed the last at both of them.
Kevin nodded vigorously. Debra looked concerned, but she would cave. He could tell.
“You think it’s safe?” she said.
“Hey, if it’s not we’ll sue ‘em.”
Kevin thought that was very funny. Debra didn’t laugh.
Charlie squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will away the memory. He needed a drink, enough to put the guilt back in its box for a while.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a pickup truck and another luxury car glide past him, each with the magnetic funeral sign attached to the hood.. He tried to lean forward enough to see the last car on the funeral column. It looked like a hundred or more vehicles back there, the end of the line lost beyond the curve of the highway.
The truck behind him hadn’t budged. No surprise. Something that big couldn’t find a place to turn around on this small road.
Charlie wondered if he could back around the truck and head back into Harmony. He could take the back road for a few miles, maybe get ahead of the funeral before he merged with 23.
He pulled forward as far as he dared, causing the driver of a Volkswagen to open his mouth in alarm. He then cut his wheel, put the Corsica in reverse and discovered he had nowhere to go.
The bastard in the tractor-trailer had straddled the narrow road. There was no room to pass. The yards on both sides had prominent mailboxes blocking the way, so he couldn’t drive on the grass.
“Son of a bitch.” Charlie pulled forward, straightening the wheel and resuming his original spot. He leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes.
The funeral procession kept coming. He could feel it behind his eyelids, a black train of bad memories calling for him to jump aboard. Making him remember.
It was a fine June day: few clouds in the sky, a nice breeze and 75 degrees. The three of them drove out to Alexandria in the Escalade. Debra had to have her say, as he knew she would.
“He doesn’t ride alone,” she told Charlie.
“Listen to your mother, kiddo. We’ll still have fun,” Charlie said.
Kevin settled back against the seat with a heavy sigh.
The place was called Big Ron’s Off Road Rampage.
Ron, it turned out, had sold the business to Steve, a skinny guy with greasy long hair, who smoked a cigarette with the longest ash Charlie had ever seen. It seemed glued to Steve’s lower lip, and it moved up and down when the man spoke, every syllable threatening to shake loose the ash. Charlie was fascinated. It was like a magic trick.
Steve and his cigarette showed them three different ATVs and Charlie picked the largest one. It was a real monster. “It’ll be safer,” he told Debra.
“Sure will,” Steve said, patting the green body of the machine. “Fuel injected four-by-four. Independent rear suspension.”
“Is that good?” Debra said.
“Mom!” Kevin said.
“It’s good.” Charlie told her.
They got a quick safety lesson from Steve, and each picked out a helmet.
Charlie helped Steve–whose cigarette ash still hadn’t fallen–push their ride out of the garage.
Charlie paid Steve, then climbed on the ATV. He strapped on his helmet.
“Okay,” he said. “Who’s first?”
Kevin looked to his mother. Debra sighed, then finally laughed. “Go on.”
Kevin literally jumped onto the back of the ATV. Clasping his hands around his father’s waist, he said, “This is gonna be fun.”
Sunlight struck the windshield of each car in the funeral procession, sending little bursts of agony into Charlie’s eyes, like semaphore from hell. He had forgotten his sunglasses–they were probably on the kitchen table back at the apartment–which was typical for this day. He turned his head away, and saw a small house with a bird feeder in the front yard. The after-images from the sunlight left whirling spots of yellow in his vision. He blinked for a few seconds and the spots began to fade. He looked out of his windshield again, lowering the sun visor until some of the glare was reduced. Most of the vehicles–especially the SUVs–had tinted windows. But a few didn’t, and within those Charlie saw the passengers staring straight ahead, lost, perhaps, in thoughts of mortality, of why we suffer and die, of whether anything lies beyond.
He could relate.
He was in that procession too recently, and most days he thought he was still there: moving through life in a sort of numb shock watching events unfold from a great distance and hoping–no; praying–that it would end soon.
A Cadillac passed in front of him, driven by a large man with a shock of white hair that stood straight up like the bristles of a brush. Next to him was a small woman, also white-haired, wearing a black pillbox hat, because she had always admired Jackie Kennedy Onasis.
Charlie was looking at his parents, dead for many years.
His mother passed in ‘82. His father almost made it to midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999.
His mother raised a gloved hand in a fleeting wave. His father nodded toward him. For his father, that was nearly an emotional outburst.
Charlie was cold. He put a hand over the heater vent and felt warm air blowing out. But it wasn’t reaching him, as if he were surrounded by a shield of ice.
That was Mom and Dad.
The car passed, and Charlie suddenly was unsure what he had seen.
What do you mean, unsure? That couldn’t have been them.
Of course it wasn’t. He saw two old people who bore a resemblance to his parents, that was all.
But that had been his mother’s hat. No one wore a hat like that.
He took in a deep breath that seared his lungs. He exhaled a plume of smoke.
Oh, God, Kevin. I’m so sorry.
The wheels were spinning.
Charlie would always remember that. He was sitting on the ground, cradling his broken right arm with his left.
Kevin was probably dead, bent all funny under the ATV like that. And the wheels kept spinning on the upside down vehicle.
He wondered if he would get the deposit back on it, then thought that was a silly thing to be thinking about, what with Kevin laying there dead. Charlie realized he might have a concussion. He struggled to his feet and took a step toward the ATV, hesitated, then stepped back.
Maybe he should get help.
Maybe he should have said no when Kevin asked if he could drive. Maybe, Charlie thought, if he had been driving, then he wouldn’t have jerked the wheel at the sight of that squirrel on the path.
He had to get help. Man, was Debra going to be pissed.
Stop thinking like that, goddamnit.
It wasn’t his fault. It must be a concussion. He touched the tender back of his skull and found he wasn’t wearing his helmet. He briefly wondered what happened to it, then looked again at the wrecked ATV with Kevin’s twisted body beneath it.
“I’ll get help, son. You just rest,” he said, and part of him knew–even as he was saying it–how stupid it was. Kevin was dead. He let Kevin drive, and now his son was dead.
Charlie started down the trail, stumbling on rocks and tree roots and downed branches. His vision was doubling, and he lost his footing.
As he fell, time slowed, and the rich brown earth and the rocks and twigs floated gently toward him.
Through the pain in his skull, he forced out one coherent thought: Good. Let it hurt. This is what I deserve.
Charlie saw a pickup truck in the funeral parade that was driven by Brian Soderfeld, his best friend in high school. Brian died from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma the year after they graduated. He gave Charlie the finger, then smiled to show that the gesture was only a joke.
The next car contained his grandparents–all four of them–and they didn’t wave because they appeared to be bickering, just they way he remembered them.
Charlie climbed out of the Corsica, barely noticing the cold that had sunken deep into his bones. He walked toward the line of cars.
His Uncle Harold drove a van that passed in front of Charlie. Harold had been a lawyer and had encouraged his nephew’s interest in the profession. Harold had died at his desk, eating lunch, in 1996.
What the hell was happening?
He awoke in a white room that smelled of disinfectant. He had a throbbing headache and the certainty of knowing that his picture perfect life was over.
Debra didn’t come to see him in the hospital.
They rode to Kevin’s funeral in separate cars.
He watched them drive by and he recognized them all now, all the ones who had died. All the lives that had touched and shaped his own. And who else did he have now? Certainly not Debra, who hung up every time he called. There was his sister Beth in Michigan, but they were never close, even before Kevin’s death.
Charlie felt very small and incomplete. It took him a moment to realize why.
Each vehicle that passed by carried in it a sliver of his soul.
The caravan rolled on past him, and he saw aunts and cousins and old friends and a client or two and, as he started to cry, he was surprised to find at least a part of his body that wasn’t frozen.
The last car in line was a long white limousine, one of the sixteen-passenger models. It came to a stop directly in front of Charlie.
The driver got out, dressed impeccably in a white suit and cap. Charlie had never seen him before, but he smiled, which put Charlie at ease. The driver opened one of the rear doors and beckoned Charlie to enter.
Charlie glanced back at his rusted car. The big truck was no longer behind it, but it didn’t matter.
He climbed in the back of the limo and settled back against the heated seats. He could feel his heart begin to thaw.
The driver closed the door, then climbed in the front.
As the car began to move again, Charlie’s son took him by the hand.
There was love in that touch. And forgiveness. It was all he wanted now, all he needed.
© 2004, 2009 Mark Justice