From the Edge

Nicolas D. Sampson

(UK)


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‘Die with your boots on, if you’re gonna die.’ 

Eddie, an old friend of mine, taught me that. 

He was an ex-Marine with three tours under his belt and an explosive personality who practiced what he preached without fear, balls-to-the-wall, until it killed him.

His death was tragic, but it gave me perspective. It led to a new lease on life, for which I’m grateful. 

Here’s what happened… 

364 days ago I got a phone call from someone named Jim – ‘Yeah, just Jim,’ the voice across the line grumbled and I said ‘Whatever works for you, buddy!’ – and was informed that Bruce Edward Harris had died two days prior in a shooting incident in Phoenix, Arizona. Was I interested in attending the funeral? Yes, of course, I replied, and Just Jim gave me the details and then added in a grave voice that I should wear shoes with laces and that I should tie them strong and secure. My next words should have been, ‘First, how did you get my number?’ but what came out of my mouth was, ‘I don’t know what you’re inhaling but I want some of that dust, pal!’ And Just Jim said ‘Good ties!’ and hung up.

So it goes, as someone said. The fearless, indomitable, larger-than-life Eddie – gone! A shock, but not a surprise. Eddie was the kind of guy who put himself in volatile situations and pissed on the odds, all in the name of a code he lived by in a manner that endangered his life. He didn’t hesitate, and the odds caught up with him that evening in Phoenix. He was crossing a plaza in south Tempe on his way to the grocery store when he spotted a gang of punks outside a tattoo parlor who were terrorizing the passers-by. He went over and told them to up and leave. They told him to fuck off. He told them to drop dead so they attacked him, five on one. He knocked two of them to the ground before the other three got their guns out and shot him seventeen times.

Was it worth it? Getting gunned down like a dog by some crank-wired kids over street rep, principle, and nine square feet of sidewalk? A life has to be worth more than that.

 

The funeral was in Lincoln, Illinois, Eddie’s hometown. Not easy to get to on short notice, but I needed to go.

The timing was terrible. My girlfriend and I were celebrating our seven-year anniversary that weekend, and we’d arranged a short getaway to a place called Ouroboros Bay near Santa Barbara. We’d been looking forward to the long walks on the beach, the sunset cocktails, the dinner under the stars, the whole treatment, but my new plans had ruined everything.

She demanded to know who Eddie was and how long I’d known him, why I’d never mentioned him before and why I was so stricken by his death, and so on, and I explained as best I could, reminding myself that her bad spirits were justified. 

Eddie and I had met in a psychology class in Arizona State University back when I was an undergrad, I said. We were in the same study group. The man was friendly, driven, proficient, and always generous with his time and energy. And a natural leader. And a top-grade student whose organizational skills helped us ace our field assignments – in other words, an asset to the group.

My eyes got watery, and it bothered me. I’d wanted to keep it in.

‘I get it,’ she said, and her face relaxed, although I could have sworn there was something else there. She smiled, and her teeth shone too bright and sparkly for the sentiment they accompanied. ‘You need to pay your respects.’

It sounded genuine, but also sarcastic. I couldn’t be sure. It took me by surprise. I’d expected her to react badly and push for more details, maybe even question my connection to this stranger. I almost wanted her to give me a reason to get offended. It would make me feel good about my decision to go.

Instead, I felt guilty for having misjudged her response, and now owed her, too.

‘Take it easy when you get there,’ she added. ‘It sounds like it’s going to be rough.’

I nodded and kept my thoughts to myself.

*****

It was a day for shorts and sandals. Lincoln shimmered in the blue plain sky and the park next to the church was jammed with revelers. People rode scooters and bicycles, enjoyed big scoops of ice cream in the sun, and played volleyball. The cars, mostly pickups, roared down the street with their windows shut, keeping in the A/C.

I was hungover, so I’d walked all the way from the hotel to get the blood flowing. 

Bad decision. I’d had a few too many whiskeys on the flight in, and I was sweating in my suit and tie, swearing never again. 

The parlor, a one-story building next to the church, was packed with mourners. 

I joined the line, wondering if I’d missed the eulogies. Not that it mattered. I just wanted to pay my respects to the deceased.

The hall was too quiet. Many in the crowd were dressed in everyday attire, like we were at the state fair. At the same time, they were almost too grave, exaggerated in their solemnity, and yet somewhat eager and curious. The atmosphere was bizarre, like a rock opera auditorium just before the show starts. A sub-murmur floated around. The shuffling of feet and the odd cough and head scratch grazed my nerve endings.

To counter the vibe and pass the time, I started playing a game: guess where everyone was from. 

Some whereabouts were spelled out. The Kentucky State trooper, for example, who stood somber and militaristic in his gray-black uniform, his badge giving him away. And the guy in front of him who wore a Russian Hill T-shirt, his hair tied in a man-bun, a man-purse with a 49ers logo in his hands. 

In front of Man-bun stood a couple of women in Jamaican-flag-themed pants and dreadlocks, clicking their tongues. And in front of them, a couple of men in Scottish kilts.

Other folks were harder to place. The young woman in the charcoal-gray cotton dress, for example. Most probably from Washington. She lived two hours outside Tacoma, and would, no doubt, take off immediately after the funeral on her way to a big city on the East Coast, where she was planning to move within the year.

Behind me, a vigorous grandpa. Starched black shirt, pressed blue jeans. Arizona, by the looks of it. Flagstaff or Page. He had relatives in Wyoming but hadn’t seen them in ages. This was his first trip north in twenty years. If you wanted to see him you had to visit him at his ranch.

There was also the elderly couple in matching print designs who held hands. Florida, for sure. 

And then the man with the tattoos on his face and knuckles: a proud native of Prison. 

I scanned the crowd, giving everyone a story and background, not forgetting where we were. I was mindful of the grief and consternation. We were here to pay our final respects, driven by an air of intimacy and decorum that, upon closer look, cast everyone in a noble light, and which rendered them kindred spirits; a tribe assembled to mourn the passing of one of their own. 

The spookiness had finally given way to intimacy.

I was still drunk. My head swam, kicking up froth to stay afloat.

One thing was certain: no one was accepting condolences. 

Either none of Eddie’s blood relations had shown up. Or they hadn’t identified themselves. 

My phone buzzed. 

What did she want now? Probably to check up on me again, although part of me couldn’t help recoiling. Something bad must have happened for her to call me at that moment.

I fumbled with the phone and somehow, my hands shaking, ended up rejecting the call. 

I called back.

She didn’t pick up.

Then a text came in…

Sry.. called u by accident. Hpe evrthing’s ok.

Thank goodness, but… what the hell!

Probably something had popped into her head and she just had to share it with me, and then got mad at me for rejecting the call. And pretended she’d called by accident.

We were so different in this regard. She just had to pick up the phone to share whatever was on her mind, and damn the setting or the situation.

It drove me mad.

Not only that, sometimes she even hit back, claiming that I was hard to talk to, and that I needed to work on it. One of her favourite bones to pick was my so-called impulse control and overall attitude. I went out with the guys too much, she said, and I was too emotional about my rationality – ha! – and I should cool it on the issue of how cool a person should be. Be less aloof, she said, so that I may become more approachable and easier to deal with. 

Which was code for me to grant her total access at all times i.e. be reachable at all times i.e. erase all boundaries and say goodbye to my peace of mind. 

Not happening.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m with her, but the truth is—

The truth is—

I thought about replying to her text. Then decided against it. 

It could wait until after the service. 

I glanced around the room. A thick murmur had filled the hall. Everyone was chatting, which I found inappropriate. It made me uncomfortable, but at the same time I felt awkward for not engaging. My stomach tightened with anxiety, but the bind snapped when the grandpa from Arizona tapped me on the shoulder and asked how I knew Eddie. The couple from Florida leaned in with interest, and I thought, Fuck it. When the silence comes crashing down, it’s no use tiptoeing over the shards.

I explained that Eddie and I had met at Arizona State University, and that he was a lively fellow whose spirit animated those around him. He had a way, not just with schoolwork but with life in general. A code of living and a way to make things better. When I broke up with my girlfriend at the time, for example, it was Eddie who’d helped me through it. I’d been a wreck, stuck in bed, eating nothing and beating myself up, but there he was, pep-talk ready, offering me perspective, and a week later I was back in the game, as good as new.

The grandpa from Arizona grinned and then described how he met Eddie in turn. I don’t remember what he said. Something about running an outfit together, or whatever. The point was, he loved the man like a brother, I remember that.

The candles flickered. The hall felt smaller and the line moved slowly.

I stretched my limbs to keep the blood flowing. My eyelids got heavy and my back hurt. The room smelled of cologne, perfume and wax, scented oil and bad breath. Drafts of halitosis with a splash of mouthwash and digested breakfast. The walls, pasty and cream-white, trembled in the candlelight, inching their way in with every breath. I felt sick but managed to keep it all down by oscillating from side to side, thinking about the pebble beach on Ouroboros Bay, its pine forests and citrus groves and fig tree thickets. I closed my eyes and found myself at the beach, walking by the water. The waves broke roaring on the sand, the froth receding with a crackle. A breeze full of salt, pine resin and flowers lifted my spirits. A whiff of orange blossoms and mint. Above, a flight of swallows zipped left and right in the low sun. They disappeared round a cove. I went after them and found myself on a stretch of beach covered in blood-red roses and white roses and creamy tiny blooms. They were laid out in wicker baskets along the water. Hundreds of them. I walked among them, breathing in their scent. At the other end of the cove, by a clump of rocks, someone swam. I made my way over, calling out to that person, but he or she rose up from the froth and disappeared in the citrus trees. I called out again but all I heard was the chirping of the swallows. They settled on the wicker baskets to clean their wings and rattle their heads, staring out at sea. I sat among them, watching the sun slide down the blue dome. I didn’t want the day to be over. If only the sun reversed its course; one more cycle before nightfall. I stretched my arms and yelled. The birds exploded in flight, making for the sun. Their song faded in the distance, replaced by the crash of the waves. The orb grew yellow and hot, hot and bright, on its way up the sky once more, and the shadows receded. The day grew again. The flowers in the baskets shrunk and closed their petals, but their scent lingered, fresh and vibrant, and I thought to myself: this is insane… everything has moved backwards. The froth on the beach is coalescing to thick chunks of water that are getting sucked back out to sea, wave after wave rolling away from the sand, toward the horizon…

Someone nudged me, and I opened my eyes.

The funeral parlor buzzed with energy. The venue echoed with chatter, the air rich with the scent of blooms in wicker baskets, the walls no longer swaying.

I told myself to stay with the scene and not go wandering off inside my head. 

The state trooper caught my attention. He coughed, probably out of courtesy to those in front, and took a half step forward, then another. He stood straight as a pillar, coughed again, took a few more measured steps forward, along with everyone else. We inched our way to the jet-black casket where the Jamaicas now stood, gazing at the deceased in silence.

I checked my phone. Still no callback from my girlfriend. Good, but also annoying. Why had she called to begin with?

Then I remembered her text and realized it didn’t matter.  

I checked the casket again. The Jamaicas were gone and Man-bun stepped up. Good. Getting closer. The fragrance of the blossoms got even more intense. Arizona said something and the Floridas laughed. Someone sneezed. Man-bun was still by the casket, taking his sweet time.

When he walked off a minute later, he looked shaken, unable to walk in a straight line. I couldn’t help grinning. Go home, bud, sleep it off, and don’t be self-conscious, unless you’re looking for attention. Jeez!

It was the state trooper’s turn. He patted down his jacket and cracked two knuckles, the sharp sound cutting through the clamor. He marched forward, hat under his arm, and placed his free hand on the casket rim.

‘Nice boots!’ he drawled as he leaned in to take a better look. His emotional gravity emanated from his body like a warm, dark, invisible force. He recited something I couldn’t make out, cracked a couple more joints, nodded at the deceased, and stood straight, at attention, fists clenched, knuckles white, before walking away.

My turn. 

I took a step forward, but, like an ambush, I felt someone pull my foot and my heart went rat-tat-tat-tat in my chest as I stumbled and windmilled my way forward. Somehow I managed to stay on my feet, with no one knocked over, no one hurt, and my horror gave way to relief. 

I looked down at my shoes. 

Someone had stepped on my undone laces. 

The grandpa from Arizona grabbed my hand and apologized. His grip was firm, his hands cold. He squeezed a little too tight, and I knew he was embarrassed and pissed off.

‘Water under the bridge,’ I said, and turned before the old-timer had a chance to respond. 

I approached the casket. 

The sight was morbid, but also tranquil. My old friend, Eddie, lay on his back, at peace. I was relieved to see his face and limbs intact. He wore a navy-blue suit with a red flurry on the side pocket. A thin black tie lined a sparkling-white shirt. His face was shaved, his jaw firm and authoritative, carved with a thin smile, his short black hair lined with silver streaks that matched the casket’s fabric lining. His hands were clasped on his chest. On his middle finger sat his Corps ring, solid as a kettle bell. It had served him loyally as a stun gun in close combat and as a chick magnet everywhere else. His belt buckle was an exact replica of the ring. (Stylish dissonance, he called it. His go-to look.) The pants were pressed stiff around the creases, at the bottom of which shone Eddie’s boots, ceremonial but seasoned.

I ran my fingers across the boots. Cold and slick and full of trench life force. Underneath the gloss rumbled Eddie’s tenacity, the lockjaw of gritted teeth that gave no quarters.

Indeed, ever true to his word, my friend had fought his way through the years – a small yet important consolation that gave purpose to his untimely end.

One thing: it struck me that he wasn’t in his uniform.

A bizarre sartorial choice. 

Maybe Just Jim knew what was behind it, though I hadn’t met the guy in person and wasn’t planning to. I didn’t need another complication in my day.

It was time to go.

I waved a last goodbye at my late friend and turned to leave when – there’s no easy way to put it – everything I assumed about the world was thrown sideways. Down the rabbit hole and through the grinder. Like I said, there’s no easy way to put it. I waved goodbye and just as I was turning round, Eddie opened his eyes, lifted his head, looked at me with a puzzled expression and said: ‘Why the long face? Someone die?’

My limbs froze. My mind went blank, and the few words that bubbled up from my subconscious got stuck in my throat. 

Eddie grinned his trademark grin, grabbed my arm, pulled me in close and purred in his gravelly voice, ‘Remember to tie your laces tight, son. It’s more important than painting your boots slick. Or wearing the right color shoes. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.’ 

I tried to pull back and free myself, but his grip was strong.

‘Good ties,’ he said, his breath cold and dry in my ear, his vice getting tighter. ‘Everything starts there.’

He winked, clicked his tongue, let go of my arm, and froze stiff.

I remember it like it was just a moment ago – the timbre of his voice, the glint in his eye. The way he exhaled the energy from his body as he laid himself to rest.

The funeral hall was calm. The patter of shoes and the odd mumble. My thoughts came crashing down in a heap and I was certain everyone had seen and heard everything. But no one flinched. If they had indeed noticed something, they weren’t showing it. I searched for clues, something in people’s eyes to assure me they’d seen what I’d seen. Nothing! Just a crowd of somber faces. The space tingled with the frustration of the aggrieved, every sound reinforced and imbued with meaning. I thought I heard someone whisper, ‘It’s okay’, and something felt right. It went beyond words. We were in the grip of a spiritual symphony for which I had no name.

The best way to put it was that Eddie’s presence was blowing through us, making the congregation flutter like leaves. We were experiencing grief in line with our needs, to each our own, but together.

I walked away, watching Arizona step up to the casket. Washington, a few feet behind, stood gazing at her shoes with a calm expression on her face. Everyone was lost in thought, including the state trooper and Man-bun. They were standing by the door, staring a thousand yards ahead.

And the guy from prison had a grin on his face.

I turned to Arizona. His fingers had locked around the casket rim. He was peering in, his dry, thin lips moving. I couldn’t hear what he said.

I marched out of the building, through the park, and down the busy street. I slowed down only after I reached my hotel.

*****

Everything came together over the following twelve months. Eddie’s passing was the catalyst that threw my life into sharp relief. 

First, I realized that the man hadn’t died for pride and a piece of sidewalk. On the contrary, he’d lived and breathed and fought for them. A stroke of bad luck had taken him out too soon, but who the hell knows when’s too soon or too late? We go when we go. Eddie went out doing what he thought was right, standing up for values like safe streets and the ability to go about one’s business without getting harassed. A simple yet profound code. His commitment to any given cause made it matter, and it threw the switch in my head, putting everything in perspective. 

What was I doing with my life? How did I contribute to the world? I drank, got mad with trigger-ease, and was way too cynical and easy to disappoint. I was late for meetings and critical of those who were late for no reason, whereas I always had a valid excuse – I, God’s gift to humanity.

I had a choice: go about my business as usual, making no difference as usual, pretending I had it all figured out. Or stand up for something other than myself and become a positive force in the world for a change.

I was grateful to Eddie for shaking me out of my slumber. His words from the grave’s edge reminded me of the value in getting things done and making life matter. How to worry about substance, not appearances, and take plenty of chances. Not fret, just do, and the let the sparkle follow. 

And if things didn’t work out, there was a lesson to be learned. Take a moment to process, assess and regroup. Do better, fail better, again and again, until the result comes.

‘It’s all about embracing death, Victor,’ he’d once told me. We were in Timberwolf, a bar next to Arizona State University, having bourbon and beer backs after a demanding class assignment. ‘The key to life,’ he grinned, ‘is the prospect of losing it. And the secret,’ he winked, ‘is to enjoy whatever we do. To make a difference we’ve got to be present, and to be present we’ve got to embrace the void.’

It sounded cool, but I wasn’t in the mood.

He saw right through me and shook his head. ‘You’re afraid to check out, man,’ he said, pointing a finger at me. ‘What are you waiting for?’ His voice had the pitch of a man who’d had enough.

After the funeral, I finally got it. Eddie had been talking about taking risks and seizing the moment. About dropping what didn’t work, no reservations or second thoughts. Move on, make things happen. Fall, get busted, pick yourself up and keep going, again and again.

The revelation came on so strong, I kicked myself mentally. How had I missed it all this time?

I wanted to share the insight with my girlfriend. It would change everything. No doubt she’d be moved by it, same as I, and we could go on this exciting journey of self-discovery together, putting our newfound wisdom to use.

Only we didn’t. She wasn’t buying it. (Karma is an evil thing.) Unimpressed, she pointed out that I was contradicting myself. According to my accounts, she said, Eddie had told me to tie my shoelaces before setting out to do something. Yet here I was, talking about doing things without a plan. 

‘Without worrying about every damn detail,’ I corrected her. ‘I don’t want to fuss anymore. I want to get things done.’

‘Getting stuff done is one thing,’ she retorted. ‘Getting unhinged is another.’

The comment was rough and out of line. I should have confronted her about it – asked her why she chose to remain in a relationship with a so-called unhinged person, and why she was dealing with it so off-handedly. 

If she truly thinks I’m out of my mind, I thought to myself, she should be pushing me to get help instead of lording it over me.

But I didn’t want to get sidetracked.

‘It’s about a new start,’ I said.

‘I won’t even comment on your hallucinating at the church,’ she went on, ignoring my last words. ‘Let’s call it an overactive imagination. Or a side-effect of grief. Or alcohol. Wild thought, I know. But this… this is borderline ridiculous.’

I told her that I regretted having shared my experience at the funeral with her. If she was going to shit all over it, why did I even bother?

‘When facts are inconvenient, we call them “shitting all over” things.’

‘This isn’t helpful,’ I said. ‘I’m trying to tell you something. I want to build something new. And to build something new,’ I repeated, getting my thoughts in order, ‘we must tear down what’s old. We can’t start fresh if we don’t leave behind what keeps us captive. I don’t want to end up living a life that amounts to nothing more than habits, you know, all those little things we do to avoid making the real changes.’

‘Can you hear yourself? You sound like a zealot.’

Unhinged, and a zealot.

‘Is that all you have to say to me? That I’m out of my mind?’

‘Pretty much, yeah. From where I’m standing.’

‘Maybe you should shift positions and clear your perspective.’

‘Right. March to the beat of your drum. Bottom’s up the Kool-Aid, Reverend Jim!’

‘Take a break, Nurse Ratched!’

So much for a healthy and mature relationship.

Which raised the question: Why was I still in it? Why didn’t I just walk away? 

And the answer was, I loved her and wanted to be with her. She was the first person I’d felt a true connection to. I can’t explain it. There was something tangible that bound us, like an invisible thread, a force field with its own history. Her amber eyes were full of intensity, an almost animal energy. We’d come together in the glow of that pull, determined to make a life together. Yes, we drove one another mad too often for comfort, but mature relationships come with friction and trials. One has to endure the tension, the challenges, everything life throws at us. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Then again—

Excerpt from the short story TIMBERWOLF

Nicolas D. Sampson

is the

Books Editor for Panorama.

Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer, and the author of the poetry collection Όμορφη η Υφήλιος (Beautiful, Our World In the Sun) by Armos Books. He wrote and co-produced Behind the Mirror (winner Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival); and was an executive producer on Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (winner Best Arts or Music Documentary) and Hope Gap. His short stories and novellas have been published in literary journals such as The Scofield, American Writers Review, LIT Magazine, and The Hong Kong Review, among others.

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