The woman whose son hung himself off their back deck was standing behind me in line at the grocery store. I fingered through the chap sticks in the aisle, trying to keep my head down. They had a new Christmas flavor, “Gingerbread Cookie” that I pretended to be interested in.
She was holding candied pickles, ibuprofen, a bag of sweet potatoes, and a bag of sour gummy bears. Meanwhile, I had a whole cart of groceries my mother sent me to retrieve in preparation for our entire family, who would be arriving the next day on Christmas Eve.
North Dakota was having one the coldest winters in years. Temperatures were below zero most days, and I wondered what his body looked like when she found him outside hanging in the backyard, decorated in the ice and snow like a macabre Christmas tree.
I didn’t mind the cold. I loved every minute of the winters when we lived in North Dakota. The short days and long nights. A kind of fog descended over us all and set in for months. It was the kind of melancholy that made you giddy.
I knew I should let her go first. I had a cart full of items, and I couldn’t pretend to be interested in the “Gingerbread Cookie” chap stick anymore.
“Do you want to go first? You only have a few things,” I said to her.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s no problem.”
As she stepped in front of me, she looked right through me. I smiled and pulled my cart backwards. Standing in our new places in line, I noticed she was now staring at the large print on my sweatshirt.
“Did you go to school with my son?” she said.
I made the mistake of wearing my “Bulldog Seniors. We Run This!” sweatshirt from my high school. It was showing through my coat. Reflecting on the phrase we chose for our senior class, I wished we decided on anything else at all. We did not run this, in fact, we did not run anything at all.
“Yes.” I said.
“Did you know him?”
“He was in my class. I sorta knew him.”
“Oh, I see,” she said.
She fumbled with the sour gummy bears and switched the bag of sweet potatoes from her left arm to her right arm. I ran into her son, James, more than a few times in school. Just a few weeks ago, he and his asshole friends pinned me against the wall in the hallway to tell me I was a, “fucking faggot” and that I should probably just, “go crawl into a hole and die.”
There was still one more person in front of her, meaning I would have to stand with her for at least a few more minutes. I wished I could tell her that James and I had been great friends, that he was an amazing person, and he changed my life for the better. But, none of it was true. I knew nothing more about James than he knew about me.
“I do remember one thing,” I said, startling her by speaking. She had gone back to standing perfectly still and staring through anything in her line of sight. But when I spoke, she gave me her full attention.
“What is it?” she asked.
“He was in my one class, and he was always making really corny jokes.”
“You want to hear one of the jokes?”
“Yes.” She was too close to me; her ibuprofen almost spilling over her bag of sour gummy bears.
“Okay um, well, what do you call a sleepwalking nun?
“I don’t know, what?”
“A Roamin’ Catholic.”
She stared at me for a moment, and then burst into a fit of laughter. It was as if I had just said the funniest thing she ever heard. She laughed so loud that the people in front of her in line turned around, and the cashier peered down to see what all the fuss was about. I thought she might continue laughing forever.
“Tell me another one,” she said, so I did.
I told her every joke I knew. I told her jokes about cats, about chickens crossing the
road, about tomatoes who needed to “ketchup.” Not a single one of them was told to me by her son.
Winter lasted extra long that year. I saw James’s mother only a few more times, when she was getting gas at the corner or walking in the neighborhood near our school. We stayed buried in snow up to our knees well into April, and the soft melancholy hugged us through to the Spring. We shivered in the freezing weather and watched the condensation of our own breath staring back at us, all the while shouting, “We Run This, We Run This.”
Danielle Epting is an English Major at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. You can find her work published in Nailed Magazine. You can also find her work in Thought Catalog. And, if you find can find her pinky knuckles she will be your very best friend, as she doesn’t seem to have any.