The sun rises over Chicago every morning. Hordes of commuters head to work on the “L” and just as many cars jam pack the city streets. The city comes alive every morning as people head to work and again in the afternoon as the nine-to-fivers head back to Chicago’s numerous high-rises. The sun goes down. Sleep is had, it all begins again. Thousands of people are thrown into this cycle every day. Thousands of people repeat this same day over and over again until retirement pulls them out. Of course, sometimes someone’s cycle ends abruptly. The engineers of their fate decide one day that the cycle has gone on long enough. Sometimes there is a warning. For Roy there was not. Let me tell you what I know about Roy. He was a stereotypical Chicago man, born and bred in the Philadelphia suburbs, who had moved to Chicago just for a city to move to and a ten-year plan. He was in his mid to late forties, close to retirement but not quite there yet. He went to an average college and made an average income at a run-of-the-mill banking company in Chicago. He was a perfectly nice guy and a perfect example of the average Chicagoan adult. But he wasn’t a celebrity so there were no masses that cried his name and mourned him. And he wasn’t killed in a case of racial injustice and he didn’t get slain in a horrifying mass murder or mysterious plane crash. Because if that happened he would have been written about in papers and tabloids and, even if he was eventually forgotten, he would still get recognition. But none of that happened for him. He was just an average man with some not particularly close friends, a dad, a few cousins he hadn’t spoken to in a while. There were plenty of people who liked him but not many who loved him. Sure, he had a nice funeral, there was a line of black-clad teary-eyed family members at the front of the room, most of whose biggest regret was “not getting to know Roy better.” The attendees at the service were mainly people Roy had grown up with who hadn’t seen him in years. They sat quietly and forlornly and told stories from when he was a toddler. And then the funeral was over and everyone went back to their former lives. After a few weeks Roy was, not forgotten, but also not actively remembered. Sure, every once in a while someone would think about him and sigh and say, “He went before his time,” but then the photo albums would go back on the shelf and life would go on.
The only exception to this rule was Roy’s father. Not only was Roy his son but he was also the last living person he was close to. Roy’s father, who we will call Jim, was getting quite old and all his closest friends, as well as his wife, had passed away. After Roy died he began to muse on this. He realized that, well, he had no one close to him because they had all passed away. Roy really hadn’t had anyone except Jim close to him since he was in high school.
A few years passed and Jim became more introverted. He was ninety-three when I first met him. I was volunteering for a local meal center that brought food to people who couldn’t, or didn’t, leave their houses. Most of the people I delivered to would exclaim and cry and act sincerely happy when I brought the food, but Jim always looked concerned. Then one day a story I wrote got published in a magazine and somehow almost all of the people on my route heard about it. They all cooed and congratulated me when they saw me and even Jim looked happy. However, he didn’t compliment me or discuss the story or anything. He simply invited me inside, sat me down at a table, and placed the magazine in front of him. I looked at him, confused, and placed his meal on the table.
“My son died five years ago,” he said, and I bit my lip. Why was he telling me this? “He was fifty-two.” I opened my mouth, but he shook his head and went on. “He was raised here, in this very house, he went to Lincoln College, and then he moved to Chicago. He worked at PNA Bank and he died in a car crash. There’s no one alive that he was close to when he died except me. He has to get remembered.” I looked him in the eye then and saw that his eyes were shining with tears. “I want you to write a story about him so that he will live forever.”
I gasped. “I’m honored, but I don’t know him, you should write a story,” I protested.
“Oh, no,” he shook his head. “Trust me, it would be awful.” I began to protest again but he hung his head. I started to apologize but he shook his head. “It’s probably time you keep moving, there’s others waiting for you.” He picked up his meal and left the room. I froze as I watched him leave but as soon as he was gone I quickly stood and took a step towards the door he had disappeared through. I opened my mouth, closed it again, turned, and left.
When I got home I sat in front of my computer, about to start my next story. I could try to write about Jim’s son but what I said was true, I didn’t know him. Anything I tried to write would just be fiction, not his story. I shook my head and placed my hands on the keyboard but I couldn’t seem to think of anything else so I closed down my laptop and went off to brush my teeth.
The next week when I went to the meal center to collect my food to bring around they told me that I shouldn’t go to Jim’s house anymore.
“Why?” I asked.
The woman working there bit her lip. “He passed away,” she said quietly.
I looked down. “Oh,” I said, and walked away.
The people on my route must have some magic way of learning information because they were all quiet and sad when I delivered the food. A few of them said something about Jim but mostly they just took their food quietly. When I drove past Jim’s house, his old house, I felt a hole in my stomach and had to bite my lip to keep from crying. When I got home there was a package waiting for me. I picked it up and brought it inside and that was when I realized it was from Jim. I opened it, half excitedly and half nervously. Inside there was a VCR tape. I was paralyzed for a second. Why did you have to get rid of your VCR player, Renee! Suddenly I realize, I haven’t gotten rid of it. I jump up and rush to the hallway closet. After I lug out the huge player and connect it to my TV, which I am also about to get rid of, I begin to play the tape.
It is Roy’s funeral. As I watch all the speakers I begin to realize that Jim was right. No one else really remembered or knew him, all of him. Then Jim begins to speak and I have to choke back tears. Once I can listen again it is clear that Jim’s voice is close to breaking. He was not only Roy’s father but his closest friend, and now there was no one to really remember either of them. When the tape finishes I take it out and stare at it through clouded vision. I’m not really looking at it, but I do see a small piece of white on the black. I blink rapidly and look closer. Tucked inside the plastic label cover there is a small folded-up note. I take it out and read the last thing I will probably ever hear from Jim. “He was too young to die. He deserves to live forever. Please try.”
I stand up and go to my laptop. I open up a new document and look up at the sky. I don’t know if he can hear me, but I need to say my last words to him. I’m not going to write the story of a son who died too young. I’m going to write the story of a father and a son.