The ghost of a friend

I wasn’t afraid when I woke and saw the ghost standing in the doorway of my bedroom.

I daresay I was expecting it.  Perhaps even hoping for it.

No Dickensian chains or banshee wailing…but a good-looking guy with a smile and a mustache, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt.

Exactly as he was dressed the last time I saw him alive.

Rick.

We weren’t close friends.  I doubt Rick had let anyone beyond arm’s reach into his life.  I don’t know if he’d been hurt, or what his deal was.  He kept me at the same distance as everyone else.  He had nobody in this world other than an elderly mom and a teenage son that he hadn’t seen or heard from with any regularity.

He was becoming a funeral director, like me.  I was learning as he was learning.  I saw the toll that the pressure was taking on him:  the bickering client families-already carving up the estate before the body is even in a casket and the corporate management that demanded allegiance and sales performance from their employee numbers.  I know.  I was employee 466510013.

The pressure was more than he could bear.  I could tell that purely from the number of cigarettes that he smoked.

I saw him slide away to a nervous breakdown in 1997.

And in May of 1998, I found myself sitting in his mother’s kitchen, holding her hand across the coffee-stained and cigarette-scarred table.  We had each gotten a call that Rick had jumped off a bridge when the burdens of life finally outweighed the fear of death.

She wanted very little to do with it, other than to make small payments as her senior citizen’s fixed lower income allowed.  To her credit, she paid every red cent she owed.

I caught some hell from management by giving her a steep employee discount.  “He didn’t work here anymore.”

But I knew she couldn’t afford even the discounted price.  Let them ink a black mark against me for that.  I didn’t really give a shit at that point.

I identified his body and made the arrangements to have him cremated.  Fortunately, he had spent a little time in the military which got him a burial space at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  The day I delivered the cheap plastic urn to the cemetery, the VA rep looked at me and said “where’s the family?”

“You’re looking at it” I replied.

The rep and I talked what to put on the headstone.  I decided on “Our son and father” in the off-chance that either his mother or his son made their way to the cemetery.  We went to the gravesite to place the urn in its little earth pocket.  I played the role of mourner/minister/funeral director.  The one and only time in 20 years that all three have fallen on my shoulders.  I left the cemetery feeling worse than when I drove in.

A year or so later, I woke to find Rick standing in the doorway of my bedroom.  Amazingly, I wasn’t at all frightened (I always imagined that I would most likely piss myself if I ever happened across a real ghost).

He smiled.  The soft, familiar smile.

“Thanks for being so good to my mom” he said.

All I could reply with was the question that had been stewing for over a year.

“Rick, why’d you do it?”

Another smile.

“I just had to get out from under some things.”  He turned and started to walk away.

I rolled over to wake my wife so she could see him.  “You’re dreaming” she said, dismissing me with a wave of her hand.  I don’t think that she even opened her eyes. By the time I turned back, he was gone.

I still visit his grave when I have burials at Jefferson Barracks.  Sometimes I leave an unsmoked cigarette on top of the headstone for him.

Sometimes I just think about his last visit.

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