Louis Winsky, fifty-three, died of a heart attack on his way to work Tuesday. Unfortunately, I’m probably the only one from the office at Stearns, Talbert, & Lawes going to his wake today.
Why? Because no one at work really knew him; no one cared to… except me. I can tell you one thing: those who think that kids are cruel to each other never endured the venom of workplace gossips. I’d overhear them laughing about how odd Louis was, how badly he dressed, how he talked to himself… a lot. They even mocked him for living with his mother. At his age, I’d hear them say.
My admonitions went unheeded — they wouldn’t stop their vitriol, no matter what. They ignored me, completely. Their loss; they didn’t know that, inside, Louis was clever, funny, and above all, inventive. The stories he could tell. But, he didn’t have any social skills, zero, nada. Somehow, I looked beyond that.
And so, on behalf of all his misdirected co-workers, I decided to pay my respects to his mother today.
Her house was located in an old part of town, defined by dark, narrow streets and turn-of-the-century, frosted-globe streetlamps. The residence was a classic two-story, well over a hundred. Kind of what I’d expected. What I didn’t expect was what I found inside the house.
People… lots of them.
And many were weirdly dressed.
There was a guy fully decked out in a tuxedo (top hat and all), a cute girl in a waitress outfit, a large man wearing jeans and a leather vest, a blonde who could have stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine, and more…. most all inappropriately attired.
The waitress approached. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” I said, trying to ignore the bizarre scene in front of me. “Can you tell me where Louis’s mother is?”
She answered by pointing toward a svelte, statuesque, gray-haired woman who stood across the room looking up at a small banner hanging over the casket. It read: Louis Says “Goodbye” to All His Friends. Talk about odd. I hurried over, wanting to say my piece and leave as soon as possible.
“Excuse me,” I said, walking up to her. “I understand you’re Louis’s mother.” She nodded, eyeing me carefully. “I’m Tom, Tom Nesbitt,” I quickly explained. She still looked puzzled. “I work… worked with Louis at ST&L and wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for your loss. Louis was… uh… a nice man.”
“So, you’re that Tom. Sorry,” she said leaning toward me, “and here I was, just a moment ago, wondering if you’d show up, and then I forgot — getting a bit scatterbrained in my old age. How kind of you to come.” She nodded toward the adjoining drawing room. “Please help yourself to the refreshments and join with the others. It’s such solace to have you all here.”
I saw a table loaded with all kinds of comfort food… including beer. I could use a cold one. After paying my respects to Louis, I excused myself and elbowed my way through the strange crowd.
“Who are you again?” the waitress said from behind as I popped a top.
I turned, noticing that she had wonderful blue eyes. “I’m Tom, a friend of Louis’s from work. You?”
“Susan. Louis ate at my diner,” she replied and then added, “Work, huh. No wonder I didn’t recognize you, you’re new.”
“Yeah, most of us know each other. You and Louis must have been together for a short time… since he just started working again after getting out.”
“Yeah, of the hospital.”
Louis never said anything about that to me.
“How was it for him? There, I mean,” she went on.
“Yes. How did people treat him?” She looked deep into my eyes, trying to read the response I felt reluctant to give. “Not very well,” she surmised. “Figures, that’s why you’re here, right?”
“Louis was hard to get to know,” I said, trying to be gracious.
“That’s why he changed jobs a lot.” She turned her attention to the food on the table.
I didn’t know that either. “So, how long did you know him?”
“Long time. Probably… twenty years.”
That didn’t make sense; she didn’t look over twenty-five herself. Since we’d broken the ice, I decided to ask. “So, can you tell me why so many people here are decked out in costumes?”
She looked at me again, intently. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Who you are.”
I shook my head. “Me? I’m Tom, Tom Nesbitt — I told you.”
She sighed. “It happens, happened to me for a while too… at first, but not that long.”
“What happens? I don’t get you.” I was becoming a bit irritated.
She smiled sweetly and waved a hand toward the rest of the room. “We’re all a Louis creation.”
“He dreamed us up when he got lonely. You’re not real. None of us are… or were. We’re only hanging on because he shared us with his mother. But she’s getting old now, her memory is fading. People live only as long as they’re remembered, even make-believe people. You’ll be the first to go.”
“That’s nuts!” I said, taking a swallow of beer.
“Really? Think. Who but Louis has ever responded to you? Where do you live? When’s your birthday? Do you know?”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. She was right; I couldn’t answer any of those questions.
Her image began to falter, growing fainter; the other people in the room started shimmering too, becoming shadows. “I’m nothing but some kind of mental construct?” I said, still not believing.
“Actually, you were Louis’s friend,” she said, voice drifting away. And then a final echo, “That should have been enough.”
You know, just maybe it was.
Sitting by Louis Winsky’s casket in the empty chapel of Hydes and Park Funeral Home, his rather dowdy, aged mother bowed her head… a small smile graced her lips.
James C.G. Shirk… just a guy living between the Cascades and the Olympics who likes to put words on paper.