News came—Bruce had died. It was not shocking news. He had battled Big Death in his bones for the last three years, come out victorious in that fragile way a war survivor emerges with radiant clarity and eyes that glow. No fooling around anymore, not that he was a fool around type. He was a shaggy-headed Bostonian with a big Irish laugh and jazz love and basketball handler’s hands and an ivy league memory. Stories of scholarship rides and semi-pro days. But he knew and we all knew he’d entered the land of borrowed time. But happy. Outwardly. Hit by occasional, weird side-effects and glancing blows: thyroid went out, he lost much weight, a snap of the femur. He rolled around in a wheelchair for a while. But happy at least to be in the world. His favorite riddle: “What do you get when you throw a piano down a mineshaft?” He was even still ambitious to go up the administrative stream. A good soul, if anyone can judge.
A heart attack. That was it. Magnificent. Just allow that for a moment. If you think about it—the prospects? We never spoke of the possibilities, but I imagine and imagine I’m pretty close that he’d had a few dread dark nights looking down the barrel of his own imagination at tubes and hospital bed and withering limbs and fading air and languishing nightmare—but instead, heart attack. I thought he’d hit the lottery. I envied him. What a death!
Still, there were those of us who were stunned to get the news. Death, even most inevitable, still comes as a surprise to some people.
Testimonials at the funeral captured bits and pieces of the man. But how dead the room was even full of people. The green carpet of the foyer as some kind of cold pastoral. The perfect blond wood of the chairs. The purple upholstery of the benches—a space so generically non-denominational, hinting in its tilted way towards church synagogue and maybe mosque—floor to ceiling windows along one wall and a Zen garden on the other side with koi pond and stone pedestals and paperbark maples dripping with rain. Up front the casket with body, and I caught the glimpse of his profile there.
Here are my colleagues, Bruce’s friends and family. I took a spot in the back near esoteric Steve with his phlegmatic heavy brow and eyes of authorial intent. I placed my hands on my knees. The speaking began.
Those labels hit the air, coming like cartoon anime arrows through a buzzing fly-cloud of miasmatic black stuff. Somewhere, it slipped into a talk-show routine, microphone going around to sincere leaden student remembrances saying how much they learned from him, tears whipped away with the edge of a finger. Family members, gratitude, moments caught in flight. I was pretty sure I’d never draw a crowd this big.
I was slipping into a different space—rain drops out the window were bouncing on the pond—one two three—boom!—diminishing with each landing and leaving their reverberations on the surface—wonder. How had I missed that before?
…I remember working at the radio station with him and he was always smiling and I thought he was interested but he never asked me out until I took another job…
Then I was looking down at my feet as more memory unspooled itself. What is an eggshell doing here on the ground near my toe? Who put that there? How does it arrive?
…Jokes, more jokes, he could list them off alphabetically, and operas and TV shows…
The eggshell—I picked it up. It was just big enough to fit on the tip of my finger like a little helmet. And look, you, see how its smooth white surface is really quite rough, how going deeper reveals it’s really a lace of spongy ropes like a ball of rubber bands—rich and strange.