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A Shoulder To Lean On

A Shoulder To Lean On

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Published by jason_mills23
Short Story
Short Story

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Published by: jason_mills23 on Jul 07, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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A SHOULDER TO LEAN ON Jeremy shivered as he stood outside the doors of the Holy Cross Funeral Home, the only

warmth around him coming from the cigarette between his lips. From the moment he had stepped off the airplane last night, he remembered exactly why he had left this town in the first place. “Fucking Lansing,” he muttered as the air formed a cloud of fog around his mouth. The miserable snow fell with reckless abandon from the grey clouds above him. Jeremy had worn his ski jacket with the hopes of keeping warm, and yet somehow the flakes still managed to wiggle their way to his back where they melted. He didn’t know how his family could stand to stay in such a God-forsaken place. The cab ride to the hotel had been depressing and short. In fact, Lansing looked even worse than he remembered. More and more buildings had been abandoned as citizens fled to find a better life in a bigger city. For those that remained, much more than buildings had been abandoned; when Jeremy looked into their eyes, he could see that hope had left as well. Jeremy took a drag from his cigarette and watched as a blue Ford Escort pulled into the driveway and parked in the adjacent lot. A lanky young man stepped out of the passenger door and walked around the car to help the driver squeeze out of her seat. She was overweight, much heavier than when Jeremy had last seen her. As the man and woman walked towards the funeral home, the woman looked as if she was in danger of constantly tipping over. Jeremy stomped out his cigarette as the woman approached.

“Smoking will kill you, Jeremy,” the woman scowled. Jeremy smirked. “I guess I’m at the right place then.” Exasperated, she threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know why you do this. You’re going to the funeral, and you smell terrible. And you’re destroying your lungs. You know better.” Jeremy’s jaw tightened. “Mom, from the looks of things here, I don’t think you’re in any position to go offering health tips.” “You’re unbelievable, Jeremy.” The woman snorted as she waddled toward the doors. “I’ll be inside, Nathan.” Jeremy looked at his younger brother. Only three years separated the two of them, yet in the eyes of the family, the two couldn’t be more different. Clean cut and painfully polite, Nathan was in his senior year at Michigan State and would be graduating with honors in May. He planned on staying close to the area -- either Detroit or Chicago – depending, of course, on the job market. It was more than just that though. The family, many of whom were about to enter retirement, viewed Nathan as a “good man”, someone who would bring honor to the family name and carry on the values that had been taught to him. “How was the viewing?” Nathan asked.

Fucking terrible, Jeremy thought. I don’t blame you for not going; I wish I hadn’t gone either. He had wanted to say good-bye to his grandfather, but when he looked
inside the open casket, the man he saw was a stranger. A solemn, serious face had replaced the joyous smile. Those closed eyes no longer twinkled with mischief. His hair was perfectly combed rather than strewn and scuffed. In that moment, Jeremy wanted


nothing more than to reach down and wake his grandfather from his slumber, and yet he knew that no matter how hard he shook him, this time he would not rise. None of these things Jeremy wanted to share. He swallowed hard and stared at the hearse parked twenty feet in front of him. “It was fine.”

Jeremy scrunched his nose, forcing all his freckles to dart towards the center of his face. “You alright?” his grandpa asked. “Just thinkin’,” Jeremy replied, scratching his head. A checkerboard sat between the two of them. It was a confusing game for the boy to learn, much harder than “Hungry, Hungry Hippos” had been. To make things even harder, Nathan, who had just had his fourth birthday, was throwing a temper tantrum in the living room, and his constant screaming was distracting. But nothing, not even an annoying little brother, was going to shake Jeremy’s determination. Ever since he had seen his older cousins play against his grandpa, Jeremy had been begging to learn this challenging game. And now his time had come. His grandma was convinced that checkers was “much too hard for a seven-yearold-boy,” but his grandpa had persisted. A man of his word, he had made a promise to Jeremy that if he got a perfect grade on his next spelling test, he would teach the boy to play. Jeremy had studied hard, spending night after night that week analyzing and memorizing the spelling of “more”, “than”, and “this”. Jeremy slid a red checker forward, creating a triangle with two black checkers.


“Are you sure you want to move that there?” his grandpa asked. Jeremy pulled back the checker. “Um, I didn’t mean to make that move. Can I try again?” His grandpa smiled and nodded, his eyes dancing below his bushy eyebrows that were showing the first signs of gray. “There!” Jeremy exclaimed as he found a new place for the red marker. “That’s a better move.” His grandpa moved a black checker in front of one of Jeremy’s red checkers and watched as the boy’s eyes widened. “I got you!” Jeremy had won his first game of checkers “Nice game, kid.” Jeremy shook his grandpa’s outstretched hand. “Let’s go get some ice cream to celebrate.”

“Should we go in for the service?” Nathan asked. Jeremy blinked, startled by his brother’s voice. “Um, yeah, I guess so.” He followed his younger brother inside the glass doors where they were immediately greeted with a blast of warmth as they stomped the snow off their black dress shoes. The coat rack was on the far side of the foyer, and much to Jeremy’s dismay, most of the family was already inside. “I’m going to go find Mom,” Nathan said as he left Jeremy to make his way through the human maze. The ice in Jeremy’s veins started to thaw, and as the blood began to flow, he made his way across the room trying to avoid eye contact. Still, he couldn’t help but notice


how diverse the group was that had come to pay their respect. He walked by an elderly man with a slightly hunched back, who used a cane to support his balance. He passed by a middle-aged woman who was trying to convince her teenage daughter that she looked fine and didn’t need to apply any more make-up. As he continued, a young boy and girl – they must have been no more than five -- almost ran into him, and he had to come to an abrupt stop to keep from knocking them over. It was a mixed group indeed; and yet, it was not a surprise. His grandfather’s influence had transcended many generation gaps. He had driven the same local school bus route for years, and undoubtedly some of his former students were here. He led a men’s breakfast at his church. And even up to the year before he died, he volunteered at a nearby elementary school. Seeing the coat rack, Jeremy began to fumble with the zipper on his jacket, his fingers still feeling twice their normal size. “Jeremy Caruthers.” Jeremy winced at the sound of the deep, gravel voice. It was a voice that he both knew and hated, a voice that had seemed to criticize every decision he had made in his lifetime. It was the voice of his Uncle Ron. Years had passed since Jeremy had last seen his uncle, and it appeared that those years had not been kind. His uncle’s face was wrinkled and pale, and although he had continually preached the importance of a clean shave to Jeremy, the scruffy beard lining his face indicated that he must have had a change of heart. Still, despite all the changes in appearance, Uncle Ron’s most memorable trait – his piercing eyes – were as terrifying as ever. They had the ability to cut the skin and heart of any person that didn’t find favor, and in that moment, those eyes stared at Jeremy.


“Nice of you to show up,” Uncle Ron sneered. Jeremy nodded and hung his jacket upon the coat rack. His uncle leaned in closely. “Too bad that you weren’t here for your grandfather last week.” Jeremy clenched his jaw and walked toward the chapel. “As always, Uncle Ron, it’s been a pleasure.” His uncle shook his head. “Always walking away, Jeremy. Always alone. Such a waste.”

The lingering aroma of pot and alcohol clung to Jeremy as he stumbled toward the front door of his grandpa’s house. Each sloppy step he made caused his balance to shift uncontrollably until finally, he collapsed on the porch. This wasn’t the first time Jeremy had found himself on the ground at this place, and it wasn’t without a sense of guilt. His grandfather was always disappointed to see his grandson in such an inebriated state. But there were times when it was the only place he could take shelter. His mother had forbid him to ever come home in such a state as he was, and on that particular night, he had nowhere else to go. Jeremy grasped the front door handle, and tried to pull himself up to his feet. His legs felt like foam, and every time he tried to rise, they proved to be powerless against alcohol and gravity. Defeated, he leaned his head against the door and closed his eyes. The last few years had been difficult. His father had died two years earlier, during Jeremy’s eighth


grade year, and he had never fully recovered from the aftermath. His grades had slipped, much to the dismay of his family who had seemed to effortlessly move on with life. Gradually, he began to spend less and less time with them. The porch was illuminated as the door opened, causing Jeremy to fall inside. “Grandpa,” Jeremy moaned. The elderly man stood in the doorway, dressed in white pajamas and slippers, and grunted. “Let’s get you inside. You’re a mess.” Jeremy rolled to his knees and wrapped his arms around his grandpa who had knelt beside him. Slowly, the two of them rose together and walked inside the house. Jeremy leaned heavily on the shoulders of his grandpa, and as they walked down the hall toward the guest room in silence, several times the weight almost caused his grandpa to collapse. The walk had been hard for Jeremy as well. His initial collapse on the porch had sent shockwaves to his stomach, and as he moved down the hallway, a queasy feeling spread throughout his entire body. “I think I’m going to puke,” he mumbled as he stopped to lean against a wall in the guest bedroom. His grandpa looked around frantically, trying to find some place - or some thing to solve the situation. “I’ll be right back,” he panted as he quickly left the room. By the time he got back, carrying two old salad bowls, it was too late. Jeremy was hunched over on the floor, heaving. His grandpa held the bowl out for him, catching the last excess that slid out of his mouth.


“You climb on into bed. I’ll clean this up.” He sighed. “And I’ll leave this bowl here in case you need it during the night.” “Thanks,” Jeremy muttered with a shaky voice. “We’ll talk about this in the morning,” his grandpa said as he left the room. And Jeremy knew that they would. It would not be a fun conversation. But for now he was could rest – he knew he was safe in his grandfather’s house.

Sitting alone in the back pew of the chapel, Jeremy hoped to avoid the sympathetic stares and sentiments so often blanketed upon the first few rows of the deceased’s family. A slideshow of his grandpa’s life played as those who had come filed into the chapel. There were pictures of him as a child, grinning beside his five sisters and two brothers. There were pictures of him playing high school football, graduating college, and getting married to Jeremy’s grandmother. There were pictures of him holding his first-born child -- Jeremy’s aunt -- and pictures from many family vacations. There were pictures of him with his grandchildren, pictures of his retirement party, and pictures of him volunteering. Picture upon picture played, each serving as vivid proof of a welllived life. As the service continued, his three aunts recalled the love and protection that their father had always offered them. His cousin, Caitlyn, shared that her grandpa had patiently taught her to drive when she got her learner’s license, as he had all of his grandchildren. And the reverend spoke about his grandpa’s strong faith and giving heart.


These were all things that Jeremy knew, that Jeremy had experienced. His heart ached realizing these were things that he would never experience again. The gravesite was at the far end of the property, and with the chill of winter, many of the mourners opted to drive. The hearse was the first to arrive, followed closely by two limousines that carried the family and the pallbearers. Nathan was the first to step out of the pallbearer’s car, followed by five cousins, and together they made their way to the back of the hearse, where they waited for the mourners to gather. With heads bowed, the six men carried the casket to the grave and after laying it upon the belt, took their place with the rest of the family. “Dearly beloved,” the reverend smiled kindly as he stepped forward, “we gather here to lay to rest Henry Caruthers, our beloved brother, father, grandfather and friend. I’d like to begin by reading the twenty-third Psalm.” Jeremy glanced at the dozens of people surrounding the grave. Many were wiping tears from their eyes and squeezing the shoulders of a loved one beside them. Others stood emotionless, shell-shocked by the reality of what was before them. But it was the sad smiles worn by still others, such as his Mom, that infuriated him the most. Do you not understand that he is dead? Jeremy quickly glanced away, unable to watch her any longer. The pastor continued reading: “…even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.” It was the same passage of Scripture that had been read at his grandma’s funeral. Jeremy recalled standing beside his grandpa back then, holding and comforting him.


“…and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.” The pastor looked up from his Bible. “Let us pray.” Jeremy bowed his head and stared at the casket on the ground in front of him. As the prayer ended, one by one the crowd began to disperse, laying flowers on the casket as they left. It was a bizarre sentiment, Jeremy thought, since his grandpa had suffered from allergies and would often sneeze whenever around strong aromas. And yet, it was strangely fitting. Those flowers would soon freeze and wilt away. It was yet another reminder that in the end even the most beautiful of creation had to die.

It had been a running joke between Jeremy and his grandpa. Every week Jeremy would end their phone call by telling his grandpa that he should “fly out and see San Francisco.” “I’ll see what I can do,” the old man would chuckle. They both knew that money was tight. An increase in medical costs and a local economic crisis had caused Jeremy’s grandpa many financial headaches and much stress. This, of course, only added to the surprise when one week their phone conversation ended with his grandpa proclaiming, “I think I will.” A month before he died, Jeremy’s grandpa visited San Francisco for the first time. When Jeremy greeted his grandpa at the airport, he couldn’t help but notice that since he last saw him there were a few more wrinkles on his face, and a little more gray in his hair. But that smile and those eyes – they were as welcoming as they ever had been.


“Jeremy!” Jeremy shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.” His grandpa felt frail as Jeremy hugged him. The week went by quickly. Jeremy had embraced the role of tour guide, showing his grandpa all the best the city had to offer – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the cable cars, Lombard Street. They had taken in a ‘49ers game and had even made the trip out to see the majestic Redwoods. But Jeremy had saved the best for the last; his grandpa had to leave later that evening and he wanted the joy of Fisherman’s Wharf to linger in his mind. “How about some real seafood?” Jeremy had teased. “I promise you, there’s nothing like it in Michigan.” As Jeremy and his grandpa walked along the pier, the orchestra of crashing waves, barking sea lions, and squawking sea gulls crescendoed in the air. Jeremy’s grandpa shook his head. “This really is great city you live in, Jeremy.” He chuckled. “I think I’m going to freeze my toes off back in Michigan.” The two men reached the restaurant and found a table on the patio overlooking the ocean. Jeremy watched his grandpa stare in wonder at the magnificent view and smiled. “I think I’m going to start college next fall,” Jeremy confided after several minutes of silence. The old man raised his eyebrows. “That’s good.” He paused. “And its you that wants to go to school?” “Yeah,” the young man nodded. “I actually do.” “Good for you, Jeremy,” his grandpa grinned. “I’m proud of you.”


The two of them spent the rest of the afternoon talking over the best shrimp his grandpa had ever tasted. Jeremy got the update on how the family was doing, and the two argued over which team had the best shot at the Super Bowl. The afternoon went by quickly – much too quickly – and it seemed to Jeremy that his grandpa was departing from the airport almost as soon as he had arrived. At the terminal entrance Jeremy hugged his grandpa and watched as he left. He hadn’t known it would be forever.

As he stood in front of his grandfather’s grave, all Jeremy had now were the memories. Memories not just of his grandfather, but also his family. His grandpa had served as a bridge between them; now there was a gap six feet deep. The sun had begun to set and the wind had picked up, biting Jeremy’s skin with its cold piercing teeth. The crowd of people had left the gravesite long ago, choosing instead to mingle over refreshments in the warmth of the funeral home. But despite the bitter chill, Jeremy’s feet were like ice, clinging to the frozen ground in front of the grave. Jeremy’s eyes welled until a single tear escaped and trickled down his face into the grave. His Uncle Ron was right. He was alone, now more than ever. But could no one see that he didn’t want to be alone? Could no one see that he was a different man than the one who had left years ago? Beneath his hard exterior, his heart cried out to feel a connection.


“Jeremy, are you alright?” The howling wind had masked the sound of Nathan approaching from behind. Jeremy turned to face his brother, tears streaming down his face. “He’s gone, Nathan. He’s gone. And it’s my fault.” Jeremy collapsed into his brother’s chest, catching Nathan by surprise. “I should have never invited him to San Francisco…,” Jeremy sobbed. “…The pneumonia was my fault… I should’ve known better… I should’ve known better….” Nathan wrapped his arms around his older brother, Jeremy’s body shaking in his embrace. “Jeremy, it’s not your fault,” Nathan reassured him. “He loved the week he spent with you.” “…And last week he told me not to come, but I should have come… I didn’t know, I thought he was getting better… I didn’t know…” Jeremy continued to weep uncontrollably. “It’s okay,” Nathan soothed. “He was supposed to get better.” Nathan hadn’t seen Jeremy cry since they were boys, and the sorrow his brother was expressing caught him off-guard. Completely exhausted, Jeremy gasped for air, his face flushed and wet. As he searched his younger brother’s face, he noticed something there that he had never seen before – the same tender look that his grandfather had so often bestowed on him. A look of concern. A look of love. A look of acceptance. Jeremy rubbed his eyes, and reached into his jacket pocket to wipe off the tears. As he ran his hand along the inside liner, it brushed against a two small, wooden objects.


Lost in the day’s emotion, Jeremy had completely forgotten about the offering he had brought, an offering that had traveled with him from San Francisco to Lansing. He grasped the wooden pieces in his hand, and ran his finger across their smooth surface. “Here,” Jeremy said as he held his hand towards Nathan. In his palm were two checkers from the last game Jeremy and his grandfather had played at Fisherman’s Wharf. “It’s more appropriate than the flowers,” Jeremy said in a choked whisper. Nathan took one of them and walked toward the grave. Respectfully, the two brothers lay the checkers on the casket. And then together, they walked away.


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