by Erick Sáenz
Echo through empty space.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m okay.”
That familiar smile.
And then a flash. Sense of awareness. Sunlight peeking through blinds.
Jim and I met while working at a fast food chain together, irresponsible 20-somethings let loose. They complimented our work ethic, made us managers. We’d have wrestling matches in the kitchen, throw various things off the roof, provide endless free food to our friends.
One time we stole a sauce bag from our work, cumbersome and about the size of an infant. At first the plan was to chuck it off the roof, agreed it would be even better off an overpass. We ended up driving aimlessly with it tucked safely in the glovebox, trying to work up the courage to toss it. Eventually Jim did the deed himself, snickering as it hung momentarily out the car window before disappearing. We never saw it land, could imagine the red wound traveling 65mph. The story became legendary, and even now I can’t help but grin when I see ketchup dispensers.
Outside of work we went to the local community college, failing our way through various courses. He was my ride to school and that meant we only actually went to class half the time. The other half was filled with activities that were only exciting because we were supposed to be somewhere else: mall, beach, other fast food places. Eventually I transferred to university, he moved out of state for an auto mechanic school. We kept in touch: hung out when we were both in town, occasional visits to each other’s new settings.
Our friendship survived moves and graduations, parties and 9-5’s.
We hadn’t spoken in a while, both busy with school, life, etc. Online I found an old conversation:
“How are you?”
“Good Jim, what’s new?”
“Hurt my back, not working right now.”
“Shit, you okay?”
and then, ghostly ellipses.
I heard about the accident from a vague post online, his co-worker pleading for a way to contactfIamily. I didn’t want to believe it, even became upset that it was some elaborate joke.
I frantically searched his friend’s pages. I messaged his brother and sister. I called his parent’s house. I searched online:
“Crash at intersection; no survivors.”
I learned he was on his lunch break. The semi failed to stop.
Jim contacted me again a few weeks later. I was in a store with my partner, distracting myself with beer varieties while she looked at jewelery. A cover of “over the rainbow” came on over the speakers. I froze, eyes darting back and forth, as if Jim would somehow appear out of nowhere. A shopper stopped to gawk at me. I stood in the same spot for all 3 minutes and 52 seconds, heart racing. After it ended, I rushed to find my partner, tell her what just happened. She acted unamused, continued browsing through scented candles and hand soaps.
His celebration of life was difficult; a confusing mix of playing catch-up and facing the reality of the occasion. Jim’s whole life was there: family, little league, college, co-workers, friends. A few spoke. Mostly people drank warm beer and cried. In a separate room of the house, a video of pictures played on loop. At the end a ukelele version of “Over the Rainbow” blasted while images of Jim’s last months, weeks, flashed on screen. When conversations grew too somber I hid there: teary eyed, eyeing the moving pictures.
“I heard ‘Over the Rainbow” by IZ in a store and thought of you. That played at the end of your memorial video. But you already know that. Miss you man.”
“Checking in on how things are. I’m doing pretty well. I guess you know that too. There’s not much you don’t know. Remember the ketchup thing? I still wonder if anyone was hurt by us. Anyways, talk soon?
“Hey so I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, must be busy or something. I dunno…hope you’re well. I was in Orange County last weekend and drove by your parent’s house. There’s a ‘for sale’ sign up. I left some irises, your mom’s favorite. Alright…”
“So…I dunno what’s up. I’ve been trying. Maybe things are hectic…wherever you are. This is hard. Your brother posted a pic of the two of you in Hawaii. I miss you a lot, wish you’d write something.
A full year passed. I moved from a sleepy town to a city. Started a teaching job. Things were good. I hardly kept in contact with anyone back home, visits became less frequent. Posts about Jim decreased, save for birthday wishes. He began to lapse from my memory. Maybe I was finally ready to let go.
My last trip down I swung by his parent’s house. The sign was gone, a strange car sat in the driveway. I thought about knocking on the door, asking the new occupants if I could look around. I wanted to see the last earthly place where Jim had existed. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
That night I dreamt again of that open space. I was doubled over, panting loudly. Out of breath. Flowers lay strewn on the ground, purple clumps on concrete. When I glanced up, there was Jim.
He looked me in the eyes. “I’m good.”
Smile creasing lips.
And then a flash. Sense of awareness. Sun peeking through blinds.
Erick Sáenz is a 1st generation Latinx from Los Angeles, currently living in San Jose. He is a contributing editor for the online magazine Cheers from the Wasteland. In 2017 he started a poetry series called Saplings. In addition to several self-published chapbooks and zines, his work can be found at Entropy, Alien Mouth, Elderly Magazine, Pinball, and Hobart Pulp. His first book “Sussuros a mi padre” will be released by The Operating System in 2018.