Brothers and sisters, I am here to bear witness and to say goodbye to someone I never knew. Here, at the alter of Jack Daniels, in this House of Perfume and Smoke, in this faceless city, I say goodbye.
You see, I don’t know why he jumped. Or if he fell over that fire escape ledge after an all night party and one too many.
I was brushing my teeth after breakfast that cold January morning when I heard the tree branch that didn’t break his fall. A snowfall and dark blood. Looking out my courtyard window I suddenly heard the clock ticking for the first time and I thought about old lovers and dead parents. Someone screamed and then nothing.
He was as silent as the winter air, shirt torn open exposing a very un-virile chest, like chests at the city pool in February. My chest. Socks curled down, eyes gazing at the withered autumn leaves just above his head. Even if I knew him, I wouldn’t recognize him, not now.
They covered him with a cotton sheet, the cop walking about slowly, boots kicking over bits of broken glass, looking for answers where there weren’t any. He looked up at the fire escape and I wondered if he saw me staring, like the guy in the next courtyard with a cup of coffee in his hand. A photographer in a three-piece suit lifts the sheet and takes an eight-by-ten. Then the Coroner in wools peering under; spaces filled in on a standard clip-boarded sheet.
Then all gone. Just quiet. Just snow. Hours of missing sounds. A single dog called in through a crack in a basement door; the one kid always at play by himself held away somewhere. No birds. Just you and me friend, left down there, your right hand exposed, fingers curled upward. Were you a carpenter? Painter? Mechanic? What did your hands hold; who did they sometimes push away? You, left there now with summer’s leaves and mice dropped by bored cats and a billion other less ostentatious bodies sinking under the night and sleet.
Then they came from the morgue, the two in heavy coats and wool caps, unrolling the bag, laying out the cotton sheets; you uncovered. My God, what sadness in your head twisted against the fence; what weight in your frame that wasn’t strong enough…One of the two with his boot-tip in your cold blood trying unsuccessfully to put his fingers in the tight elastic gloves again and again and again and again wishing such gloves were made differently, who needs this aggravation a dozen times a day, right? Your shoulders and feet lifted, your head dragging. Two strong men to lift you, to wrap you, to keep the arm on the stomach, to close the bag, to buckle it. No solemn procession just an awkward quick-step through the courtyard, the hallway to the street and the van. The opposite building under construction, people passing, anxious to get out of the cold as the bag is swung back and then forward, the van rocking under the weight. Doors closed, gloves pulled off. Blood on a fingertip somehow, washed off in a mud puddle in the gutter. Driving away.
Then the night. Then the sleet. The clock. Sleet turning to wet snow falling fast, covering what it can: fire escapes, empty lawn chairs, a broken tree branch, the swirled syrup of a man who didn’t fall as far as he hoped or needed but came up short under a hundred bored windows above an empty courtyard, in sight of everyone else I’ll never know, who all stared and wondered and swallowed hard and made a joke they didn’t like and then went off to bed hoping enough snow would fall to cover all their fears and all their emptiness and all their loneliness.
This is my epitaph to you, friend, who I never knew until it was too late. This is my epitaph to all those out there I’ll never know until it’s too late. Maybe we’ll meet someday, in another place, and I can buy you a beer. And you can tell me your troubles.
And I can tell you mine.