A Short Story

“Max Patch Mountain”

“Why is it that when someone asks ‘Where were you when such and such happened?’ it’s always a sad ‘such and such’ like JFK or 9/11 or Katrina?” Charlotte wondered aloud. For all of the random and silly queries that regularly came out of Charlotte’s mouth, this one kind of had some substance to it. Once when asked where Danish people lived, her answer was “Dane.” Fair enough.

“Well, what about walking on the moon? Our first black president? There are some happy points that can unite us” offered Sylvie.

“Yeah, but no one hardly ever talks about those.”

She was right. Often, the tragedies that we go through together are the opportunities of unity we tend to remember most. Of those times, Sylvie could remember the exact day and place when she heard about Andrew. She and Jed were on their first camping trip together. He’d finally made time to get away with her, for an entire weekend at that. Halfway through a breakfast of overcooked eggs and instant coffee, a message lit up her phone. It was Tommy. “Did you hear about Andrew?”

She had not. But she immediately knew what had happened without having to ask. Sylvie tried to remember the last time she talked to Andrew.  A direct virtual interaction, not just a “like” on a song he shared on social media.  It had been too long, embarrassingly too long.

Andrew was never the kind of guy to share his emotional weight with you. Looking back, maybe that’s what made him such a great minister. In college, he would buy a case of Natty Boh and share it with the house.  Sylvie knew it meant Andrew wanted that nasty beer to fuel genuine discussion on his philosophy courses with her.  She was the only one willing to “go there” while the rest of house went deep into a purple haze. Andrew was the son of a minister, who was the son of a minister. Naturally, this was the last thing on his mind. And then it wasn’t.

“His sister said he killed himself” Tommy wrote. Shocked yet unsurprised, Sylvie replied with the usual unanswerable question, “Why?” No one knew. There was no note. No anything. Just that mixture of sadness and rage that runs through you when someone dies, when they shouldn’t have.

“Damnit,” whispered Sylvie.

“What now?” Jed asked as he tore a strip of bacon from his teeth.

“My old friend, Andy.”

“Let’s pack up and go for a beer.”

At the tavern that often held office for such instances, Sylvie toasted to the memory of Andrew and pensively stared at the mirror behind the bar, the kind that lines the whole wall so you can see all the drunks’ thoughts. Sylvie loved this mirror and often made goofy smiles, pretending to nose pick at people she knew, sometimes people she didn’t. She remembered how Andrew would do things like that, too. If it was fun and it didn’t hurt anybody, why not? A few years ago, when she heard he was attending seminary, no one was surprised. When Sylvie finally had the opportunity to talk to Andrew’s mother, her first words were “He didn’t just preach it, he lived it.”

There he was in her hands, a little twisty-tied plastic baggie filled with a handful of tiny of rocks. Over a cup of bitter coffee and a drive-thru breakfast sandwich, Karen explained all she knew and all she wish she knew. It was a gun, his grandfather’s rifle; he did it outside the parsonage as to not make a mess inside. Between cautious bites of hash browns, the weight tumbled out of Andrew’s mother.  Sylvie wondered if Karen had openly talked to anyone about it before then. She couldn’t shoulder it alone any longer.

“I promise I will do my best to honor him and scatter this where he would love to rest,” Sylvie said as she held the little bag of rocks. “I know,” said Karen. They stared at each other with their arms hanging over open car doors. Sylvie planned to check in with Karen but knew they’d likely never be in the same room again. Driving south on I-81, Sylvie weaved in and out of Thanksgiving holiday traffic. The next day she would hike up to Max Patch Mountain near Hot Springs, North Carolina, and let the ashes of Andrew join the wind, scattering on the snow dusted bald. Whatever pain he had, it must have been enough for a man of faith to let go of his one life in the world. There would be no answer to the question “Why?” And there would be no more snarky comments between the old college crew. And there would be no visiting his church again. And there was no more Andrew.

A couple of years later, Sylvie stared at his obituary taped to her office wall. It was starting to crinkle in the changing humidity and the single piece of clear tape had been reinforced with another single piece of clear tape. Charlotte was right. Their college years together were one joyous blur of life changing fun and madness. Years later it was Andrew that brought them back to together.  He didn’t need to die to do that. Sylvie went home. Every so often she would go to Andrew’s page online. His mother had never taken it down. Sylvie would scroll through his pictures and posts he made in the years before his death, some of them from ten years ago in college. She finally looked to see the last message between them. It had been almost two years before he let us go. His last message was “Let me know when you want to make the trip for another service. We can get some Natty Boh!” Sylvie had never replied. She had left him hanging. Suddenly, she decided to finally reply “I’m so sorry I didn’t make this happen. But next time, I’ll buy the beer. I love you, brother.”  She then sent a message to Tommy. “I still look at Andrew’s old pictures and posts. Do you still think about him?” She watched the animated bubble of dots that meant he was typing a reply.

“Always.”

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