Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Friday, April 2, 2010

Last Request

Fiction Fridays

A long one, today, kids. My second attempt to take Matt 'back to the beach'. I don't think I'm hitting the notes he needs on this venture (so to speak) so there may not be another wonderful song to finish up this series, but I think the story is worth sharing anyway. Without further ado, The Big Chill inspired Last Request.

Last Request

“Who’s John Carter?”

My heart missed a beat and it took me a moment to remember to breathe. “John Carter? Wh-why?”

“There’s a message on the voice mail from a John Carter.” Ted smiled wickedly before adding, “He wanted to talk to Kat.”

I reflexively raised my hand to my heart in a symbolic attempt to keep it from leaping right out of my chest. I mostly go by Katherine now; sometimes – rarely – Kate. Kat was buried somewhere with my rainbow collection of hair scrunchies and my acid washed jeans.

Ted was laughing out loud at this point – the mixed emotions registering themselves must have been quite a sight. I prided myself on remaining in control at all times, but John Carter. Damn.

“Did he leave a number?”

“I left it on voicemail – you can listen for yourself.”

I listened to the message, the sound of John’s voice taking my breath away once more as I sunk into a kitchen chair.

“What’s up with Mom?”

“I believe your mom is experiencing what we call a blast from the past.”

“She looks funny.”

“He says it’s urgent.” I told Ted, “Do you mind if I call?”

“Is this an old boyfriend?”

“Oooooooh! Mommy has a boyfriend…”

“No. Sort of. I don’t know – it’s – it was a long time ago.”

“Do I need to worry?” Ted asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“No, of course not. But – you know – urgent can be – um – urgent.”

“Come on, kids. Let’s give your mother some privacy. Who wants me to kick their butt on the Wii?” The kids giggled as he corralled them out the door. I mouthed “thank you” and he waved back at me, brushing it off.

I dialed the number I’d jotted down, hesitating for a moment before hitting the last digit. One ring. Another.

“Hello?” Oh my God. John. I hadn’t thought of him in years. Our friendship had tapered off, ending with a whimper rather than a bang. How can someone who was such an integral part of your life become nothing more than a fond memory?



“Kitty Kat.” There was a pause. I shut my eyes and allowed the sound of his voice – the sound of my old nickname, almost forgotten – wash over me, removing time and distance and history. “I got this number from your mom – I hope it’s okay that I called.”

“Oh! Yes, yes, of course. Very okay. But John?”

“Yes? God it’s good to hear your voice, Kat.”

“Oh, you too. I can’t tell you. But John why DID you call? You said it was urgent.”

I heard John suck in his breath then let it out slowly before responding, “It’s about Mitch.”

“You’re still in touch with Mitch?” This name brought back as many memories as John’s had.

“Mitch passed away, sweetie.”

It felt like I’d been punched. I hadn’t thought about Mitch in years, and in the last five seconds he’d come back into my life, only to be taken away again. I was having a hard time processing it all. “What? How?”

“AIDS. He fought it for a long time, but it beat him. I’m so sorry to be telling you this, Kat. Are you okay?”

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you for telling me. It would’ve been worse not to know. I think.”

“Anyway, he had a last request, and that’s the real reason for my call.”

“Oh, God.”

“He wanted us all to get together back at the old beach house and scatter his ashes there.”

“Is that even legal?” It was a horrible thing to say. I regretted it the moment it was out of my mouth. But I didn’t want to chance being arrested. There was my career – and Ted – and Ted’s career to consider. And the kids – oh, God, the kids. How do you raise kids to follow the rules when their mom is on probation? Or worse yet, in jail…

“I don’t know.” John answered, obviously perplexed, “Probably not. But I loved Mitch, man, and I want to do this for him. You certainly don’t have to join us.” His voice softened as he added, “But I hope you will.”

“No, yeah – no – I’ll come. I’ll be there. Who else is coming?”

“Dig this: Chuck still lives there. And. Are you sitting?”

“Oh yes. I am most assuredly sitting.”

“He bought the house.”

“THE house? OUR house?”

‘Yep. He – it’s a long story – but he won a major law suit and bought the house with the money.”

“Holy shit.”

“I know. So he’ll be there, obviously. He says we’re all welcome to stay there if we want.”

“Wow, John. This is – a lot.”

“I’ve left messages for Marnie and Gretchen. Haven’t heard back from them yet. Gretchen’s been married three times, can you believe it?”

“Yes!” I said, somehow I found myself laughing. So inappropriate Katherine! Stop it! Luckily, John was laughing, too.

“So good to hear your voice.”

“Yours.” I answered, regaining my composure somewhat.

“So Chuck and I were thinking maybe not this weekend but next? Is that enough notice for you?”

“Yeah – I’ll work something out. I’ll be there.”

“Will you need a ride from the airport?”

“Oh! Yeah, I guess I will…”

“Chuck said he’d pull something together.”

John gave me Chuck’s contact information and his own. We talked for a few more moments, then said our good-byes. I headed to the game room to tell Ted about my travel plans and the reason for them. He was wonderful. Ted was always wonderful.

Over the next few days I made travel arrangements and I packed. I found myself listening to music from those summers as I did my chores around the house. I pored over my photo albums, boring Ted and the kids to tears with stories of my life before them. Yesterday, a million years ago. I packed the photo albums in my bag to take along. I packed a mix tape Mitch had made for me that last summer. It had been in a box with my photo albums. I doubted anyone still had the technology to listen to it, but it should be good for a laugh.

My emotions were all across the board. I mourned Mitch, certainly. Forty-six is too young to die. But I hadn’t known Mitch as a forty-six year old man. The last time I’d seen him he was barely twenty-two. I was mourning the death of a twenty-two year old forty-six year old man. I felt almost guilty about the growing excitement I felt over the prospect of seeing John and Chuck and Marnie and Gretchen again. The six of us had been so close – how could we have fallen out of touch so completely? Why had it taken a tragedy to bring us back into each other’s lives?

Every now and then I’d remind myself of how much I’d changed and I’d wonder about how they might have changed. We hadn’t seen each other in twenty-four years. I remembered them – us – as kids, just starting out – just feeling our way around. I knew what had become of me. I wondered what had become of them.

These were the thoughts that continued to occupy my mind as I kissed Ted and the kids good-bye at the airport. Ted had been so understanding about this whole thing. I wasn’t sure I would’ve been equally understanding if the situation had been reversed. “Do what you need to do,” he’d said, “but hurry home.” I boarded the plane and listened to my new playlist – a song for song replica of the mix tape I’d found in that old box of photo albums.

It felt less like an airplane and more like a time machine.

As we landed, I ran my hand through my hair. I wear it in a short sleek bob, a far cry from the signature look these folks would remember – crinkly, sun-bleached, and pulled loosely into a high ponytail. With a scrunchie that matched my outfit. I must’ve had a hundred of them. I shook off that thought, grabbed my carry on and headed for the baggage claim. I didn’t get half way there before I heard, “KAT!!!”

I turned to see Chuck rushing towards me. He was a couple decades older and a couple pounds heavier, but I would’ve known him anywhere. “Chuckles!” I exclaimed, barely having enough time to drop my bags before he embraced me so enthusiastically my feet left the floor.

“Ah, Kitty Kat, let me look at you”, he said, holding me at arms length. “You are lovely. As always.” He picked up my bags in one hand and threw his other arm around me companionably. I wrapped my arm around his waist as he led me first to the baggage claim then into a waiting area. “Got a surprise for you…” he said, leading me around a corner to where – oh my God – it couldn’t be. I mean, it WAS, and I knew it was, but –

“Marnie? Gretchen?” Chuck smiled as he nudged me in their direction. I ran into their waiting arms, the three of us hugging, squealing, and jumping up and down like a bunch of pre-pubescent girls. I hadn’t even gotten a good look at them yet – it didn’t matter – it was THEM – it was US – all these years, all this time, and here we were. When we broke the embrace long enough to pull Chuck in to it, I could see that I wasn’t the only one crying. Crying, laughing – these were my GIRLS – these were my PEOPLE. Now that I had them back I never wanted to let them go.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this”, Chuck said, gently extricating himself from the group hug, “but we need to break this up. John’s going to wonder what’s keeping us.”

John. One more reunion ahead of me.

Chuck led us to his SUV and piled all of our luggage in. Ever the macho man, he wouldn’t let us help. We’d packed light, but there WERE three of us. He didn’t care. He could take care of his girls. Marnie and I climbed into the back seat as Gretchen had called shotgun. There was so much to say, no one knew quite where to begin, but we all decided we’d try to hold on to most of our stories until we were back at the house with John. That, of course, was easier said than done. Amidst stories of husbands and divorces and kids and affairs, I managed to find a moment to text Ted to let him know I’d arrived ok. ‘have fun love u’ was his response. Listening to Gretchen’s stories, I know I could’ve done a LOT worse than my Ted.

Chuck remained relatively quiet until we were pretty close to the shore. He then took the opportunity to point out all the things that had changed. We weren’t as interested in that as we were in how things had remained the same. We squealed in unison every time we passed a familiar landmark – “Look! The Donut place is still there!”

“Is that – oh my God it is! – that’s the same miniature golf course!”

“Remember when you dated the lifeguard who worked at the pool at that hotel?”

“Don’t remind me!”

“Did those sores ever heal up?”

“Did YOURS?”

“He was cute, though…”

“Oh, you guys! Look! The same old salt water taffy place! I want salt water taffy!”

“Me too! Oh! And Caramel Corn!”

“And Pizza!”

“Ooooooh! Pizza!”

“Remember the time you hooked up with the pizza delivery boy?”

“Shut up!”

“Did those sores ever heal up?”

“You’re hilarious.”

Chuck continued to drive – past the T-shirt shops and the tacky beach souvenir stores, eventually turning onto our old street. We stopped squealing at this point and adopted an almost reverent silence. This was it. He pulled into a gravel parking spot and we piled out of the car.

“It looks just the same…”

“Oh, Chuck…”

Chuck beamed with pride as he unloaded the car. As we headed up the wooden steps the screen door opened. John. He stepped out onto the porch, looking exactly like he had twenty-four years ago. That probably wasn’t true, but that’s what I saw. Barefoot, windblown hair, bedroom eyes… none of the girls could resist John. God knows I never could. I tried to pull up a picture in my mind of Ted as John made his way across the porch in slow motion. Ted. Ted and the kids. I’m a mom now. A wife and a mom. A mom and a … “John…”

Marnie and Gretchen had already thrown themselves into his waiting arms. I crossed the porch slowly. I ran across the porch. I don’t know how I got there, but there I was. Marnie and Gretchen had followed Chuck into the house and I was on the porch in John’s arms. “Ah, Kitty Kat…” he said, stroking my hair.

“It’s all short now.”

“I like it. You look great.”

“So do you.” I lingered another moment, my head comfortably nestled in his shoulder before adding, “We should go in…”

Chuck had put our luggage into the rooms he’d prepared for us. The house had four small bedrooms. He put himself and John in one and each of us girls in one of our own. He figured his house was close by – if he and John started to feel crowded, he could always go home. We sat for a moment on the front porch, reminiscing. No one had brought up the reason for our reunion yet. The sun was fading away – it was nearly evening. “Hey Chuckles,” Gretchen asked, “Is The Sand Bar still around?”

“Not only is it still around, it’s actually one of the few beach bars that’s open.” It was early Spring, and many of the seasonal businesses hadn’t opened their doors yet. “You wanna head over there?”

We all agreed that that would be the thing to do. Go to The Sand Bar, have a few drinks, some pizza, maybe play a little pool – it was always the first place we went our first night at the beach. We grabbed sweaters and sweatshirts against the night breeze and set out. Walking to and on the boardwalk was a slow motion replay of the ride from the airport. Memories were hiding on every bench; in every storefront.

“Remember when Mitch got that huge slice of pizza from Franco’s and that seagull swiped the whole slice before he could take a bite?”

“Remember how Chuck ate, like, three large buckets of fries trying to get that chick who worked there – right there – to notice him?”

“Hey, it worked.”

“Sure did. Did those sores ever heal up?”


“Remember the guy who used to always stand on that corner selling cheap weed?”

(in unison) “SKINNY LANCE!”

“Remember when Gretchen made out with him ‘cause she couldn’t afford a joint?”

“Ewwww! Did those sores ever heal up??”

“Remember when that old dude tried to pick Kat up – right over there by the pier…”

“Ewwww! That was so gross!”

“I bet he was younger than we are now.”

“Well that added a little unnecessary perspective.”

When we finally made it to The Sand Bar we were completely comfortable with each other. It was like no time had passed at all. “Let us have a pitcher of Snake Bites!” John said to the bartender. She cocked her head to one side and glanced skyward, as if solving a complicated problem.

“I don’t think we have that.”

“Come on! It’s Yukon Jack and…” her expression became more clouded rather than clearer.

“I really don’t…”

“Just give us a round of Jaeger Bombs.” Chuck interrupted.

“Oh hey, Chuck!” she said, her face lighting up in a smile of recognition.

“Jaeger Bombs?” John said.

“Different transportation; same destination.” Chuck said, shrugging. “Besides. Heather knows how to make them.” Heather set the glasses in front of us and we raised them in a toast, “To Mitch!”

“To Mitch!” we answered in unison.

Several pitchers of beer and rounds of Jaeger Bombs later, we found ourselves back at the house. It was a little too chilly to sit on the porch, so we gathered in the tiny living room. Marnie, Gretchen and Chuck sat on one couch and John and I sat on another. There used to be more symmetry to our little group, and I think we were all, in our maudlin drunken states, acutely aware of it. That symmetry gave my parents pause when I first proposed the idea to them, but they eventually gave in. I think we would’ve found a way to do it with or without their blessing.

“So how’d it happen? With Mitch?”

“He was actually diagnosed in ninety-five.”

“You guys never lost touch?”

“Not really.”


“We talked about you all a lot – always wanted to get something together like this – but things always came up. Anyway. After the diagnosis – he was so ashamed, you know. ‘These sores are never gonna heal up’ he’d say to me. He didn’t want to see anybody. He tried to shut me out, too, I had to really fight him. He responded well to the treatment and his doctors were pretty pleased. He lived a pretty normal life till – till about six months ago. When he started to deteriorate, he went fast. About a month ago he told me about wanting this. He wanted us to be together. He wanted us to remember him. He didn’t want us to be sad.”

Tears were spilling over my eyes at this point and I heard sniffles from the other couch as well. “I have something.” I said, and I ran up the stairs to my room and returned with my photo albums and the mix tape. Our tears mingled with laughter as we looked through the old photographs together. Eventually – exhausted and content – we all headed to our respective beds. It was late, so I didn’t want to call home. I texted Ted : all is well – good dreams – love u. His response was immediate: love u more.

The next morning I got up for a morning run. I had always been an early riser, I liked to watch the sun rise. I tried to sneak out quietly, but John was sitting on the porch. “I had a feeling you’d be heading out early.”

“Gettin’ in a morning run. Want to join me?”

“Make it a walk and you’re on.”


We walked to the beach and slipped our shoes and socks off once we hit the sand. We didn’t speak much as we let the little waves tease our bare feet. The sky was putting on a beautiful show in preparation for the arrival of the sun. John and I walked further up on the sand and sat down to watch the main event. He put his arm around me and I snuggled in comfortably. What could be more natural than this? John had been my first love and my first lover. I was his, too. We figured it all out together. That had been our first summer at the beach. After that, the romance fell apart, but the love remained. Those four summers living and working at the beach, John had been my best friend. Sitting here with him again after all these years, it was easy to see why. We were connected. The sun rose quickly in the sky and I rose as well. “We best get back. People will talk.”

“Let ‘em.” He stood and pulled me in for a kiss. It was sweet and gentle and full of lost time and promises. Breaking that kiss – STOPPING at that kiss – was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

“I can’t do this, John. I love my husband.”

“I know. But I had to try.”

“I’m glad you did.” We walked the rest of the way back to the house in companionable silence. That was the thing with John. No matter what happened, it never got weird.

When we got back to the house, the other three were having coffee on the porch. We grabbed cups for ourselves and joined them. Everything was quiet Peaceful. Comfortable. John broke the silence. “So, about Mitch…”

We all threw out ideas as to how to handle this ritual. We eventually settled on sunset on the pier behind The Sand Bar. The Sand Bar’s pier was on the bay side, so the sun set over the water. The six of us had watched a lot of sunsets from that pier. It made sense.

We spent the rest of the day reminiscing about old times and catching each other up on what we were doing now. Marnie’s life had taken a course very similar to mine, just in a different part of the country. Gretchen had moved around a lot; never able to stick with the same man, job, or location for long. She had never had kids. Her story was certainly more exciting than Marnie’s or mine, but I couldn’t help feeling like ours was nicer. Chuck, of course, had stayed here. He had a house on the mainland. He married a local who was a little younger than us and they maintained this rental property as well as a few others. He had a day job as an accountant. John, like Gretchen, had moved around a lot. Unlike Gretchen he’d never married. He had been a perpetual student for a while and now he was teaching and writing. – freelance so far, but a publishing house had taken a preliminary interest in one of his stories.

Marnie still played guitar, and as the stories began to wind down she brought it out. We sang along to songs from our youth – amazed when she’d play the opening chords to a song we hadn’t heard in years and we found that we all remembered every word. Being together, singing together was like retrieving muscle memory.

As the sun rounded the sky heading west, we began to prepare for the real purpose of our trip. John pulled out the vessel containing Mitch’s ashes and showed it to us for the first time. It was surreal. Mitch had been with us when we were laughing and when we were singing – Mitch wasn’t in that jar. I couldn’t reconcile that. I don’t think any of us could. The walk to The Sand Bar was quieter this time, various configurations of us holding hands then reconfiguring. We let Heather know we’d be on the pier, and she brought us a pitcher of beer and a round of Jaeger Bombs without being asked. As she left, John pulled the vessel from his jacket where he’d been concealing it. He carefully poured some of the contents of the jar into his left hand, then picked up his shot with his right. He raised his glass and said, “I love you, man.” As he opened his hand and allowed the contents of it to be blown away by the cool ocean breeze. He downed his shot and returned the jar to the table. We all followed suit and when we’d each said good-bye John overturned the jar and let what was left float out into the sunset.

We nursed our beers and did another round or two of shots, but our mood was much more subdued. The passing of a friend - a peer – is such a tangible reminder of our own mortality. We mourned as we had celebrated – with a sense of comfort and community that denied the years we’d spent apart.

The next morning Chuck ran us to the airport early. We were all leaving at different times, but we wanted to stay together as long as possible. We vowed to repeat this trip annually at LEAST. We vowed to never lose touch again. Marnie and I vowed that we’d bring our families back to stay in one of Chuck’s rentals next year. Chuck told us to get our reservations in early. We hugged, we wept, we refused to say good-bye. It was very different from the end of that last summer together – when we just assumed we’d always be in touch. Now we knew how the world could get in the way. Now we knew it required work and dedication. Now we were ready to make the commitment.

As I boarded the plane, I texted Ted: on my way home

He responded before I had to turn my phone off: missed u

I realized I’d missed him, too.


  1. Ah, a 3 day weekend when I can relax and read beautiful stories like this. I loved this. Brought me back to my youth...

  2. Another great trip back to my youth and to the beach. I sure do hope that Matt can find something here to use. I REALLY want to hear a song from these two beach stories.