Late

Fiction
E. Branden Hart


185(365) knees
Photo Credit: Jason Tamez

For Chris Garson
Who was only early the one time we wanted him to be late

“Where the hell are they?” said Danny, his breath a cloud of vapor in the freezing Michigan afternoon. “Should someone call?”

Teresa pulled her coat tighter and leaned into me. “Tried that already,” she said. I put my arm around her shoulders.

“Relax, Danny,” said Trent. He kicked at something laying on the cold blacktop. I didn’t see what it was, but it careened into the parking lot and ricocheted off someone’s car with a loud ding.

“Tim’s never been on time before,” I said. I leaned my head over and put it on top of Teresa’s. Her hair smelled like cigarettes and Pert Plus. “Why should this time be any different?”

“Because we’re standing in the freezing cold in the middle of winter in the fucking U.P., that’s why.” Danny shook his head, then reached into his jacket and pulled out a yellow pack of American Spirits. His hands trembled as he passed them around—we all took one—and he lit them for us with an old Zippo that had the words “Only the Good Die Young” etched on the front in flowing Gothic letters.

We stood there, smoking, and waiting for Tim. It wasn’t quiet—in the building behind us, a hundred of our closest friends and family were milling about, talking, drinking shitty coffee and pretending to like each other. But we couldn’t go in there yet. Not until Tim was with us.

“Too cold to smoke,” mumbled Teresa, but she kept on smoking.

We were silent for awhile, watching the sky turn the pale yellow of old paper as the sun went down. Then Danny started laughing.

“Remember that time Tim made his own shorts?”

Teresa started chuckling—she had been there. Danny turned to Trent, who hadn’t known Tim as long as the rest of us, and said, “Tim was at summer camp with us when we were, what, eight?”

“Eight or nine,” I said, watching the gray cloud of smoke and breath forming around us.

“It was out in the woods—basically in the middle of nowhere. And his mom was scared shitless that he was going to catch malaria, or get bitten by a snake, or scrape his leg on some piece of metal and end up with tetanus, so she didn’t pack any shorts for him—just five pairs of blue jeans.”

“For summer camp?” asked Trent.

“Yeah—blue jeans and sweatshirts. So we got there, and in the middle of the first night, I heard a noise from the bunk above me, where Tim was sleeping. It was a quick click-click-click. I got out of bed and stood up on my tiptoes, and there he was, using a pair of fingernail clippers to make his own shorts by cutting off all the legs of his jeans.”

Trent chuckled and said, “That’s pretty funny.”

“No,” I said, and took a drag from my cigarette, “the funniest part was that he wore those shorts for years. His mom was so pissed at him for ruining those jeans that she didn’t buy him another pair of pants until he was in high school. For the next four years, he was wearing these ridiculous jean cutoff shorts wherever he went. But he didn’t give a fuck. ‘I like ’em this way,’ he’d tell us when we made fun of them. ‘They breathe better than regular shorts.'”

Teresa sighed. “You know, that was the summer he tried to kiss me.”

“I think we all tried to kiss you that summer,” said Danny.

“Yeah, but I almost let him do it. The rest of you were too gross.”

We all laughed and tried to think of other stories to tell, but there were too many and most of them weren’t appropriate, so we lapsed into silence. At one point, we heard a car engine approaching and all looked toward the street, thinking it was him, but it drove by without stopping.

“He called someone a douchebag at work the other day,” said Trent, smiling.

“Seriously?” I said. Tim had never called people names, even when they were picking on him.

“Yeah, but this guy deserved it. He and Tim were working on a project for the client, and Tim had fallen behind, because he was also working on this other project in any spare time he had. So Tim was pulling fifteen- or sixteen-hour days at the office, and this other guy was getting in every day at nine, leaving around four-thirty, and the whole time, keeps telling Tim he needs to pick up the pace, work harder.

“Tim finishes the project, and even nominates the other guy for an award for doing such an awesome job. In his official nomination, which went on the company website, Tim said this other guy deserved the award because he was dedicated, on top of things, underappreciated, caring, honorable, emphatic, bombastic, amazing, and grounded. He put it all in bullet points so, when you looked at it, the first letters were D-O-U-C-H-E-B-A-G. Douchebag.”

Danny doubled over and laughed so hard he started coughing. I could feel Teresa shaking with her own laughter. I smiled.

“Holy shit,” said Danny. “Yeah, I think Tim grew some balls in his old age. He would have never pulled something like that when we knew him in high school.”

I took a last puff of my cigarette and threw it to the moist blacktop. The glowing orange ember at the tip fizzled out immediately.

We all turned our heads at the sound of an approaching car. “Finally,” said Danny, as the hearse pulled into the parking lot.

The driver apologized for being late. Danny argued with him for a while before agreeing to pay. As we took Tim’s casket out of the hearse, the driver mumbled something about a tip, and Teresa yelled at him and told him he was lucky to get paid at all.

We started walking toward the church, two of us on each side of the casket, and I glanced over my shoulder at the setting sun. There was a cloud of smoke and the vapor of our breath where we had been standing seconds before, but when I blinked, it was gone.

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E. Branden Hart was born and raised in Texas, and lives and works in San Antonio. “Late” is his first published short story, and was written in the hours after the funeral of his close friend, Chris Garson, who had an affinity for using Billy Joel lyrics in everyday conversation and wearing short pants as a fashion statement. Chris was also a creative powerhouse without whom Branden might have never found the courage to submit his writing. This story and all the other good ones are for him. Email: Branden.Hart[at]gmail.com

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