Freebird

By Epiphany Ferrell

She was walking her dog, he was walking his. She lived in the apartment complex, his friend lived in the apartment complex.

He said his name was Nathan. She nearly gave him a false one, finally said, “Emily,”
which was true.

“I want them to play “Freebird” at my funeral,” he said.

He didn’t look sick, she thought. She felt sorry for him. He seemed so earnest.

“Would the choir sing it?” she asked.

“No, a CD, they’d play a CD,” he said.

She nodded, chewing her lip.

“I have a kettle of tea on the stove,” she said.

“I like tea, hot tea, like herb tea,” he said. “Mint tea. Chai tea. Chamomile tea. Plum tea.”

She thought he was going to recite them all, all the teas there were in the world until he found one she drank also and he could point to that as a thing they had in common.

She turned and started walking back toward her apartment. She walked slowly, thinking he’d go back inside his friend’s apartment and she wouldn’t have to conceal where she lived.

He took it as an invitation to walk with her. She stepped around a puddle, and they rubbed shoulders. He smiled. It was a smile that said, “I know you feel it too.”

The next puddle was shallow and she walked through it.

“I’m in this band, it’s called Second Nature, and it’s like a country band, like an outlaw country band. Well, I’m not really in it. My friend is, the one who lives here. Well, he’s not really in it. They might let him sit in on guitar. And then if he does that, he’s going to say I should sit in to sing a couple songs.”

“’Freebird?’”

“Yeah, I can sing “Freebird.” My friend, he has this really cool electric guitar, it’s old, it’s like mahogany, I think, and we were thinking wouldn’t it be cool if Steve Gaines played this guitar once and so it’d be like keeping his spirit alive.”

“Hmn,” she said.

He misinterpreted the comment.

“You should come see us play, we play at Green’s Tavern sometimes.”

“You mean, they play, and maybe you will sit in. Your friend with the possessed guitar, he’ll sit in. Maybe.”

“Possessed. I like that – yeah, maybe it’s possessed. Well, yeah, they play there. But it’s Thursday, it’s karaoke. You can hear me sing ’Freebird.’”

“I don’t really like that song,” she said.

If it is possible for an entire countenance, body and soul to droop, his did. She felt sorry for him again.

“So, “Freebird.” At your funeral. Why are you thinking about your funeral? Are you

sick?”

“No, I’m not sick, I don’t think I’m sick. I just think about my funeral sometimes. Don’t you? Everybody there because of you, and everybody sad, and making each other laugh with the stories and the memories, and laughing and crying. You don’t ever think about that?”

“No,” she said.

She walked up the stairs to her apartment. She watched him from her balcony as he walked toward the friend’s apartment, the friend with the possessed guitar, his head down, talking to himself.

“Blackbird,” she said.

He stopped and turned around. “What?”

“Blackbird. The song they’ll play at my funeral.”


She clung to him on the back of the Honda, their helmets separating them even as her thighs embraced his.

She’d been meaning to break up with him again. It was just so much easier not to do it. It was so much trouble to start over again and she’d got it wrong so many times. So much trouble to look for someone more suitable, someone she could respect and not pity.

Someone with life experience, someone with ambition. She’d been looking at new places to live, on the other side of town.

She wasn’t even sure how she’d become his girlfriend, the kind of girlfriend who has met his parents.

She didn’t like his father. Or his brother-in-law. They were condescending. It made her feel protective of him. It made her want to shield him.

Some days.

Other days. Well, other days.

She tried to focus on the good things. How he’d taken her to see “Othello” even though Shakespeare, frankly, was beyond him.

She remembered the first time she’d let him stay the night. He’d driven his motorcycle. He’d stayed far later into the evening than she’d wanted him to stay. She’d been eager to see him out the door, to open a bottle of wine and sink into a Greta Garbo marathon. But it had snowed, somewhat unexpectedly, and she couldn’t put him out on a night like that, not with a 20-mile drive ahead of him. So she’d shared the bottle that night, grudgingly, and watched “Terminator.” At some point during the evening, she’d decided she might as well sleep with him. The way she saw it, he’d been hanging around ever since. The way he saw it, they were a couple.

This night, though, what was in store this night? He’d been mysterious when she’d asked. So far, a motorcycle ride along the lakeshore. Dinner at a little place with character and fresh fish. A bottle of wine to drink lakeside so they could watch the sun come down.

As the sky turned red and the sounds of day receded behind the sound of waves, he asked her to sit on a rock near the water’s edge. She knew she was pretty there, a silhouette with the dying sun in her hair.

He fumbled with the pack on his motorcycle. He had a boom box. An old cassette model.

“I wrote something for you,” he said.

She said nothing.

He fumbled with the tape. Stopped it. Rewound. Started it. Rewound more. Hit play.
Silence, scratchy silence. Then a guitar.

He sang with the guitar.

She wasn’t listening closely enough to hear the lyrics.

He hit rewind, tried again. Sang more loudly. Repeated a verse.

“And then I asked my girl if she would marry me!” he sang, half-shouting the line.

She pretended not to get it.

He sang it again. Stopped the tape. Looked at her.

She looked out at the lake.

“Will you marry me?” he asked, exasperated.

She didn’t want to answer. It seemed so cruel after he’d put in so much effort. But this had to stop. It must.

“I don’t want to get married,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“I thought you would say yes,” he said. “This was perfect. The sunset, the song. It was beautiful.”

“I know.”

The air coming off the lake was cold, as it often is in October in Michigan. Without the sun, there was no warmth left at all.

“Did you hear about Nathan?”

No preamble to the conversation. Just that question.

No, no she had not heard about Nathan. What about Nathan?

“He killed himself.  Christmas Eve. He shot himself in the head.”

He’d shot himself in the same room of the house in which his wife Hailey had shot
herself on the same day the year previous. She’d said she was going to brush her teeth, and instead she’d killed herself.

They had a daughter together and Hailey had a daughter from a previous marriage. Her parents took the older daughter away from Nathan after the suicide. They’d initiated court proceedings to take away the younger daughter, too.

“He wanted your phone number,” Emily’s friend said. “He was asking how to reach you.
I didn’t tell him. Should I have?”

“No,” Emily said. “You should not have. I didn’t want to talk to him.”

She remembered the break-ups. She’d broken up with him more than once. He wasn’t someone who accepted a break up well. He made grand gestures – flowers, a basket with a bottle of wine and chocolates on her doorstep, poems and stuffed animals left on the hood of her car.

What won her back, eventually, the several times, was that he wore her down. It got so tiring, avoiding him, avoiding the places they had gone together, sending his calls directly to voice mail. The first time she thought, “Anyone that sincere deserves a second chance.” He was sincere. There was no doubting that.

She broke up with him once using tarot cards. She interpreted his reading to mean he’d be moving away, or someone would be moving away, and he would be the solitary Fool, accompanied by a white dog, which, coincidentally he had, on the beginning of a new adventure.

“What about love?” he’d asked.

“There is no love in this reading,” she’d said.

She thought about the last break-up, the one where he had to have a reason. She’d given him 10. In a list. “I don’t like the way your family treats you; I think your dad is an asshole.” “I hate karaoke. If I have to go hear you sing ‘Turn the Page’ one more time, I will lose my damn mind.” “You brag all the time and you know everything and yet you have this shitty job and you sleep on couches.”

He’d called her two weeks after that. He’d gotten a better job.

“Huh,” she’d said. “Just like that. Do you want to go celebrate with karaoke?”

He’d missed the sarcasm, said, “Yes, let’s, everyone has been asking about you!” She’d hung up on him.

Finally, she moved away to another city in another state. She’d informed him about it by phone, after sending his calls to voice mail five times in a row.

“Second Nature is having a reunion show tonight. We should go. For old times’ sake.”

“I’m 273 miles away. I don’t think I’ll make it.”

“Oh. When will you be back?

“I won’t be. I live here now.”

“I bet we have an outlet there, I should see if I could transfer.”

“They don’t have a Brass and Glass outlet here. I checked.”

He misunderstood. “Because you wanted me to come,” he said, sounding smug.

“Because I didn’t,” she said.

When he’d started dating his new girl, her friends hastened to inform her that the new girl looked just like her. Well, more slender, a little bit. But just like her other than that. And the two of them seemed so happy when they married. And then they had a baby.

And then Hailey killed herself one Christmas Eve.

And Nathan killed himself the next.

Emily didn’t attend his funeral. Only one of her friends did. She never asked if they played “Freebird.”

She thinks they ought to have.