Jake Greenfield brought in the mail. Careful not to let his cats out.
Among the bills and flyers was a green square envelope.
He shut the door firmly and ran his finger under the envelope flap. He removed a note card.
“Dear Jake, My dearest brother Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.” No further details, except that a memorial was planned at Sam’s home in Essex on the coming Sunday afternoon.
It was signed “Rebecca, Sam’s Sister, PS, I would love to hear from you.”
Jake sat on a chair beside the kitchen table. He took a long slow breath. Holding the card in his lap.
“Sam,” he said.
In high school they called Sam “the Russian.” He was not Russian. His last name was Rudski. So, they called him the Russian. His family was Polish. Maybe. Maybe Slovak. Maybe Latvian. Nobody knew or cared. Neither did he.
He was quick to smile. Quick to say, “Do what you guys want, I’m going home,” and the only one who saw no reason not to eat the last slice of pizza.
There were three of them back then. Jake, Bob, and Sam, who hung out together. Played ball together. Driver’s licenses. First legal beers. College.
When Kennedy was shot, they watched the TV together. Then Oswald. Jack Ruby raising his right arm straight out from his shoulder, with the Dallas police and the reporters in black felt fedoras standing around, and he shot Oswald square in the belly with a pistol he’d pulled out of his overcoat pocket. Oswald winced.
They drove down to DC in Sam’s VW and waited in the dark cold wind outside of the Capitol to walk past the quiet coffin and then over to Lafayette Park, to sit on a blanket under the trees on the curb across from the White House. They watched Bobby, Jackie, Caroline, and John John walk behind the casket.
What they were seeing was unfathomable. They were nineteen. It was something never to be forgotten.
Sam was the first among them to fall in love. The girl lived up in White Plains. He sent her flowers and after he paid for them, he called Jake to say, “alea iacta est,” like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The die was cast, he said.
Everything they did or said back then was concrete, momentous, consequential, black and white, final, irrevocable. Neither good nor bad. It just was. They never gave a thought to any time beyond the present. Who they were was who they’d always be. There were no thoughts of the future beyond which shirt you would put on in the morning or which classes you had the next day.
Then there were weddings. First jobs. Children. They each moved away. None of them went to Vietnam. They grew beards and long hair. Bob worked for a big Pharma company. Jake got teaching job. Sam got a job working for Anaconda Copper right out of Fordham.
One day he showed up at Jake’s house. “I quit,” he said. “They are just fucking up Chile, paying people shit wages, mining the crap out of the ground. Capitalist shitheads,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about anything other than screwing people for profits. I can’t do that anymore.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I got a teaching job in Roxbury.”
“Boston,” he said.
“A good job?”
“Boston’s all fucked up. Desegregation. Bussing. Crazy racists attacking school buses. Throwing rocks and bottles at kids. Retrenchment. Poverty. I’ll teach in one of the schools.”
“Oh.” Jake knew nothing about Boston or Roxbury. He was teaching in the Bronx. The South Bronx. High school biology. Things were not good there either.
They all moved around again. Grad schools. New jobs. Not necessarily better jobs but jobs they liked to think were better.
After another move, Jake got a call from Sam. “I moved to Essex. I found your number in the phone book.” They went out for burgers and beer at a place called the Farm or the Barn and talked about work and their new hearing aids.
When Jake got laid off in 2008, he started doing freelance work. Writing. Sam became a psychologist and stopped selling sandwiches and DVDs. They kept in touch.
One afternoon, Sam rode his new Yamaha 500 over to Jake’s. They sat in folding chairs on his back porch. They wore warm jackets and drank hot coffee.
“You look sad,” Sam said.
“Sad? I don’t know. You know I had a heart attack a year ago.”
“You told me.”
“Yeah, and you said you were doing fine.”
“I was. I still am. A lot of stuff going on. I’m okay.”
“Listen, Jake,” said Sam. “I see patients all day long, and they say, ‘yeah, I’m okay,’ and I look at them and I know they’re not. We both know they’re not. I look at them. They look at me. Their eyes. The way they sit all folded up, looking out the window. They start talking and in three minutes tops, I get the whole picture. I’d love to say to them, ‘Look, we can drag this on for a few months or years and neither of us wants to do that. So, give me the word and I can tell you right now exactly what your problem ia and what you can do to change it. Period. Goodbye.’”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying. I know you. You lost your job, and you had a heart thing, and you have a hearing problem. It’s life. You had a lousy marriage and that’s over, and now you have great one. Something’s bothering you but it’s not the job or money or your heart, or your hearing. You think I don’t have shit going on? You think the guy next door doesn’t? Look around. See the trees. You have food in the refrigerator. You have a woman who loves you. I’ll tell you right now, what your problem is. You haven’t told her how you’re feeling. You’re holding it all in. Like your father. Go in there and tell her what’s going on, how you’re feeling, what you’re worried about. And twenty minutes from now, guaranteed, she’s going to grab you and hug you and the sun will come out and light up your sorry-ass face like high noon on the goddamn equator.”
That day on the porch was the last time Jake saw Sam.
The letter surprised him. He never expected, never thought, that one day he’d be sitting in a chair by his kitchen table holding a letter saying, “Dear Jake, My dearest brother, Sam, passed away suddenly last Tuesday.”
Just like that.
“Jake,” he could hear Sam saying, “it’s life. There is no secret. Nothing to figure out. It’s life. Period. Goodbye.”