You know, I don’t think much about her no more
and seldom, if ever, does she cross my mind.
Yesterday’s gone, Lord, it’s better forgotten,
Like the poison red berries, that die on the vine.
Song by Mickey Newbury
Juliana died today. The old man who lived downstairs from her, called to tell me of her passing because he remembered that I loved her once.
Old Mose’s worn out voice seeped through the telephone like some long forgotten scent drifting under a door. It took me back instantly to a moment, a feeling, an utterly timeless ache.
“Hey, Man,” he said.
“She gone, brother.”
I closed my eyes to find her there with me: green eyes lazy in love, her hands feeling like they were everywhere at once: feather soft, sharp nailed. And the sound of her heart beating…pounding…too fast…much too fast sometimes, for such a small, fragile chest.
I remembered watching the skin between her breasts, how it jumped and jerked there like a panicked bird throwing itself against the bars of a cage. I remembered how a sudden, strange panic of my own would grip me, leading me to place my lips against that frangible cage and whisper, “Shhhhh…”
“I was her friend, Jesse,” Mose was saying. “But I’m an old man. My mournin ain’t what it was. I lost too many folks already. Know what I mean, boy?”
“I liked her, he said. “But Jesse, man—you loved her. Nobody ever really loved that girl. But you did. So I’m axin, will you come?”
I whispered, “Yeah. I’ll come, Mose.”
It’s strange how a moment can seem like a year. How a telephone receiver can become so heavy that your hand longs to drop it and cradle your head instead. Juliana’s image surfaced in the darkroom of my memory, a specter in negative shades of gray. There is never any color when she drifts to my mind.
I remember bringing her vitamins once, suggesting that she take them. Then, like a worried father, demanding that she take them. For her own good.
Juliana had laughed before pressing them back into my hand, saying, “The worst things ever been done to me in my life have been for my own good. Just hold me, baby. Just hold me.”
Now I sat listening to old Mose strike a match, hearing him gasp as the smoke moved through his lungs like wind through a graveyard. When he spoke again, his voice was deep, and pale…like Juliana used to be.
“You there, boy?”
I suddenly wanted to be deaf, to be able to close my ears the way I had closed my eyes. Death still seems reversible until it is explained. If I didn’t listen, Juliana might live a little longer. I would have time to prepare for the void. And the guilt.
“It was me, what found her,” Mose said. “I took up some food, like most days. She weren’t much for eating these last few weeks, but sometimes I could talk a little down her. You ‘member how it was.”
Of course I did.
“Most times though, her belly was full up with pills, “he said.
I waited while he drew another smoky breath. Waited for the inevitable cough to follow, wishing suddenly that I smoked too, so that I would have a reason for the terrible pain in my chest.
“Them guys what came for her…they said the pills killed her.They don’t see nothin what ain’t right there in they faces, man.” Another cough. “Drugs was just her ticket on the dream train. It was the dreams what killed her. She rode that damn train ever day you been gone.”
Dreams? Inside myself, I said, Old man, she was running those tracks long before I left. I tried to keep her home, and safe…with me. It made me crippled and old, trying to keep up. Those were the words I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Probably didn’t need to.
“Most of us know when we’re dreaming,” I told him instead. “Juliana didn’t.” It wasn’t an accusation, and the old man didn’t take it as one. He knew her too.
“She never gave up that you was comin back, you know.”
“So, maybe you be comin back now. Won’t be nobody else there. Just you ‘n me. No flowers, less’n you bring ‘em. Flowers don’t grow in concrete. That’s all I got.”
Something in my throat made a fist. I wanted to put the phone down and massage away the ache. “Yes. Flowers,” I promised. For Juliana, but more for old Mose. They would maybe bring him some comfort. For me, concrete would work as well.
Now…the void. It is a street where I walk alone, listening over my shoulder for the sound of guilt’s footsteps. The echo of them is always there.
If I had stayed….
* * *
A hand now, touching my hand where it lays in my lap curled into an empty fist. Ellen has come into the room, into the darkness, kneeling at my feet. She recognizes the film I am watching, even though the screen is behind my eyes. I move my hand away but I’m not sure why. I want her there. I want her to go away.
I want Juliana to not be dead.
Ellen says, “If you had stayed…the old man would be mourning two now.”
And I know she’s right, but I don’t open my eyes when she leaves the room. Or call out to her as I hear the back door close. I am lost in watching the negative images.
I know the ending.
I know the ending but the film isn’t over yet.