When I arrived at Harvest Time that day at one thirty I was surprised to find Boss Jorge standing in front of the entrance holding his arms open. “Your ma was a wonderful lady,” he boomed as he grabbed my shoulders and held me at arms length. I could tell by his expression that he was squeezing me as hard as he could, and he was very weak.
He was trying to pull me in closer, so I opened my arms and hugged him back.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he spoke with compassion.
I hugged him tight, which I assume he took to mean I was trying to stifle a sob, but actually meant that I was suppressing a giggle. I’d heard Boss Jorge say these exact words in the exact same tone of voice at many times in the past, but now they were slower, and it was funny. It was the type of funny you can’t admit to anyone, but he sounded like Mr. Rodgers now.
I worked hard to successfully stifle my laughter, because I didn’t want to laugh at the way Boss Jorge spoke. Boss Jorge had a minor stroke only eighteen months previous, after which he’d been back to work in just four weeks. I told him it was too soon to come back, but he said he would “die on his feet.” In the time since I heard him say this, I had often thought that his vertical death was immediately imminent.
Though he’d been a whirling dervish of a man in his younger days, he was 68 years old now, and he seemed to be melting. The skin over his eyebrows appeared loose and his jowls were so long they looked like mud flaps. His signature black curls had been growing lighter since 1995, and now they were white, which made him appear far gentler. Guadeloupe had even remarked that he was “handsomer” now.
Guadeloupe and I agreed that he no longer looked like a computer or a communist overlord, now he looked like a very old tree; specifically a Weeping Willow. We’d chuckled to each other when things were slow that the pockmarks and crags that decorated his checks looked like bird’s nests. There was a boil on the tip of his nose that had grown so large and jagged we called it Widow’s Peak.
For all the nicknames and private jokes we shared amongst each other, all those well acquainted with Boss Jorge held him in the highest esteem. Many of his employees loved him, I’m sure, I know I did.
So Boss Jorge, placing his hand on my shoulder, ushered me into the store as smoothly as he could manage. Harvest Time was mostly empty, which was normal for a Tuesday afternoon, and Guadeloupe was the only cashier working. I stood at her side as she checked out her last few customers, and she gave me a doleful look, grimacing and shaking her head slowly. This indicated that she’d heard of my mothers death, but didn’t really feel like offering any condolences out loud, which I appreciated.
Boss Jorge’s meaty yet soft hands directed me to my office in the back of the store. “We need to talk,” he said, “this might not be the correct time, but we have business.”
This was a phrase I’d heard Jorge say many times before, and based on the inflection he used, I could usually tell what we would talk about. If he said the word “Talk” short and sharp, it meant I was about to be reprimanded; if he emphasized “We,” it meant I would have to fire someone; and if he pronounced “Business” more loudly than any of the other words, it meant I was getting an “Atta Boy,” and maybe even a raise. This time, however, I couldn’t tell.
“I am going back to Mexico,” Boss Jorge said, glancing at the floor underneath drooping eyelids. “I don’t want to, but the doctors—“
As his speech cut out, he landed heavily in the armchair before my computer, emitting an audible “Oof” as he did so. Automatically, or rather instinctively, I bent over, clutching at his shoulder as he landed with a type of thud that shook the chair. I said “Whoa,” as if he would somehow fall through his seat to the ground.
He took his right hand and placed it over mine, so that my knuckles could feel the thin rough skin of his palms. He cackled bitterly. “The doctors tell me I need to stay home and drink tea on a porch swing all day, and you know,” he looked up into my eyes, before sputtering into hacking coughs and covering his mouth with a handkerchief. He looked at the ground, and his voice softened as he clearly felt defeated. “I am retiring this year and going back home to spend time with my family, and I want to put you in charge.”
He was staring at me as he told me this news, so I smiled, acting as excited as I could. “In charge of the store?”
“In charge of everything,” he said, glancing at the floor. “My son don’t care.”
Jorge brought his wrist down on to the table slowly, letting his hands lay on their palms, limp. Boss Jorge’s son, Eduardo, had been someone I’d liked the few times I’d met him. There was once at what I think was probably a new year’s eve party we were introduced. Eduardo had gone to a good college and was by all accounts a well-liked and productive member of society, but he did not have the passion for retail that his father did. We talked about “The grind,” as we called it; that is, dealing with the daily ins and outs of dealing with even a small retail conglomerate, and he said it made him feel like he was dead. This was heartbreaking for Boss Jorge.
“Your son,” I said the only thing that I could think of to say, because it was exactly the same as what he’d just said, “Don’t care?”
I could hear the air whistle out of his nose as he exhaled, and I could hear it trail off into silence. The whistle sounded like a strong breeze zipping through abandoned railroad ties in a wasteland. “No, my son, my son don’t care.”
“Well that can’t be all bad,” I began, automatically, because it was the kind of thing I’d thought a father would want to hear. It was an insensitive thing to say, I realized then because Boss Jorge reacted with rage. I’d seen his rages countless times in the past, and when he was younger it seemed like anything could make it bubble in him, but this was different.
He stood up, looking me straight in the eyes, and punched the top of his desk as hard as he could. “He is supposed to have pride in us, what our family has created.” He raised his fist and slammed it knuckles first, onto the surface of his desk. The pain must have been tremendous, because when he next looked up at me his eyes were full of mist.
I didn’t know what to do. Thank god, at that exact moment, my cell phone rang. At times, I’d considered downloading various joke ringtones, like the opening lines of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played in belches, and at that moment I was very glad I’d never done that.
I pulled the phone out of my pocket and stepped outside the office, holding one finger up to indicate I’d only be a moment. As I did, I could hear Boss Jorge land heavily on his chair as both his palms slapped the top of his desk at the same time.
“What happened, are you okay?” The moment I heard Sonia’s voice crack through the phone an inappropriate smile broke over my face.
I suddenly was wracked by guilt, realizing how quickly and without warning I’d left Sonia’s house, I thought about what I could say to gloss over my actions. I searched my mind, trying to think of some explanation, before realizing the perfect response had already been dropped into my lap. “My mom is dead.”
Sonia responded at first with what felt to me like a long lingering silence. The longer the silence became the more comfortable I was with it. The quiet stretched for what seemed like minutes, and I languished in it, happy for the respite. “I’m, uh, sorry,” she said first, before realizing what may have been a faux pas and restating her assertion. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, but I’m fine.” I responded, automatically. I didn’t know if I really was fine, but it seemed like the right thing to say so I said it. “What’d you want?”
She seemed taken aback at first, “Uh, I’m—uh, and, um, I’m—” she sputtered and coughed while she tried to arrive at her first word. When it finally came, her words flew easily. “I just wanted to tell you that I really liked our time together, and if you still wanted to you could come over tonight and we could work on my material before my show at Gallery Cabaret tonight, that’s all. But I understand, you probably have other things to do, tonight.”
“No I don’t actually, and I’d love to come.” This sentiment spilled out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about it. When I did think about, I realized why it had. “After I wrap up here and call some people I need to call, I’ll be at your place, and we can write some comedy.”
As soon as I finished speaking, Sonia’s thunderous laugh burst through the phone. I’d heard it many times since I’d been getting to know her, and I wasn’t getting tired of it. “Write some comedy, sounds like a good euphemism for sex.”
I guffawed, doubling over with laughter that shook me from the spine. Embarrassed, I peered up at Guadeloupe and the customer she was serving, peering at me with one eyebrow raised higher than its partner. “Yeah,” I spoke softly, embarrassed now, “I’ll see you soon.”
In a voice more tender than I’d heard from her before, Sonia said, “Looking forward to it,” and hung up. Walking back to my office, ready to tell Boss Jorge, as quickly as I could manage, that I had to go home and deal with funeral arrangements. I felt like I was floating.
As soon as I opened the door Boss Jorge asked me what the call was about. “Nothing really, or nothing—“ I suddenly realized that my most pressing concern was to get out of the door, so I changed tactics. “It’s just family stuff, so you think I could go home?”
Boss Jorge looked disappointed, though resigned to the fact I was dealing with the death of my mother. “Oh okay, yes,” he said, watching the ground.
I felt for Boss Jorge, as it seemed like the aspirations he had for the the future were likely crumbling to dust, but I had my own hopes. If I’d had the presence of mind to consider it, I’d have realized that he was trying to hand me the reigns of his business empire, but my mind was elsewhere. “We will discuss it soon, but—“ it seemed cold, then, even to me, but I could not deny the strength of my own desire. “I have to go and figure out funeral arrangements.”
“Yes, yes, we will talk,” I could hear his bones creak and his tendons stretch as he collapsed back onto the seat. “Sorry for your loss.”
His shoulders and arms were held in a posture indicating he intended to hug me again, but I turned from him and left the office, saying “Thanks for your concern.” I didn’t know and hadn’t considered whether I was being rude or not, as I figured that any slight I gave would be quickly forgiven.
I arrived at Sonia’s house roughly twenty-five minutes after I left Harvest time, having stopped at Walgreens for a small bottle of brandy. It had already been kind of a heavy period of drinking for me, so I figured it was as good a time as any to give myself over to the Beast. The Beast, a term I’d used at times for my mother’s alcoholism, was now an umbrella term for many different things.
The Beast was compulsion itself, and it had me.
I knew I should’ve been calling my aunts and uncles, and cousins and their kids, but the Beast told me it could wait. I didn’t feel like I needed their tones of voice right now, angry at me for “enabling” my mother, as they’d been before and I assumed they would be again. I could just imagine what they’d say when they find out my mother died of alcohol poisoning, which is what I assumed to be the case. Their half-heartedly hidden smiles would make me gag every second, like they know they could’ve saved her if it wasn’t for me.
I trotted chirpily up the front steps to Sonia’s door. I knocked on the wood with a smile, but my offer of brandy ran into a block of concrete. “What, you think I’m a drunk?”
Her voice was flat and her finger outstretched toward the bottle I’d brought. Her eyes told me she was not kidding, so I thought fast. “No this is for me, you think there’s enough for you, too?” I smiled, trying to create a funny moment.
Her expression, which had been a grim scowl, softened into spongecake. I felt an instant wave of relief as she stepped forward and hugged me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she spoke softly, pressing herself into me.
I could tell from the way her eyes had been downcast that she wasn’t so open to joking as she had been the night before, so I tried to speak seriously. I held her shoulders at arms length. “She’d been on her way out for a long time, good a time as any, I guess,” I said, attempting to quickly indicate that I wasn’t really all that sad.
This statement may seem cold to some, I know, to say that your mother’s death didn’t really bum you out much, but I think it’s a good goal to strive for. Ideally, after you die, those whom you loved when alive will remember you fondly for just a moment, everyday when they wake up, and then forget you.
I think it’s a good goal to strive for, not being a burden on the hearts of those you leave behind. After I’m dead, I don’t want the work of being someone else’s baggage.
“Yeah I guess,” she said, picking up an empty glass off of her front room table. “I didn’t really know my mom, so, I guess it was really—“
“Yeah I know, I guess I didn’t really know mine either, towards the end.” I said, realizing how drunk I was, I thought that I might be getting away from myself. I poured another glass of cheap brandy. “She was so drunk all the time,” my head dropped as I whimpered faintly, “I didn’t even know her those last years.”
I dropped my head, bringing my chin to meet my chest. I walked out of her kitchen and took my shoes off before laying down on the couch resting head face first on the couch cushion.
I realized something the moment my face hit the couch. I was mourning my mother, who died decades ago, not the drunk who died in my house that morning. I wept, but not for my mother, the alcoholic co-dependent, why did it have to be my responsibility to see her well?
I cried, sobbing tears like I hadn’t in years. This sobbing lasted only seconds, as I collected myself “—but you said you didn’t really know your mom? Why was she real distant?”
“She died when I was eight.”
I laughed. It was an automatic reaction at first, but when I saw her lips start to curve into a grin, we both laughed without shame. “My father died when I was two!”
That was when, for the first time, Sonia asked me a question about my life. “How’d he die?”
I grinned as I chirped back right away, “I don’t know!”
We screamed with joy into each others faces, just laughing. We have reflected on this time, each remarking to the other about how odd it was. Eventually the laughter died down and the room was filled with a pause. “My mom killed herself.”
After Sonia revealed this piece of information, the room was silent. “So, we both have dead parents.”
Sonia looked back at me curiously, “Yup.”
“Maybe we can write some jokes about dead parents.”
I listened as she made ticking noises with her tongue against her teeth. Eventually she answered calmly and confidently. “Yeah okay.”