I was walking home from work when I saw the lights. It was around five in the morning, and still more night than day.
No big deal, really—you see cop lights all the time in the city, especially if you live in the bad part. Hell, it’s kind of nice to see the red ‘n blues—means that you’ll more than likely get at least another few blocks without someone sticking a knife in your back and demanding your sneakers, your wallet, and your book bag.
But as I walked closer, I got a bad feeling in my gut. Sort of like when the teacher asks a question, and you have no idea what the answer is, and you know for certain that she’s going to call on you. But worse.
There’s really no way to accurately describe it, but if you’ve ever had that feeling, you’ll recognize it without any description—that feeling when you know some bad shit’s about to go down, and you’re helpless to prevent it.
I knew something terrible was in store for me even before I saw the familiar bike. It was as massive as ever, but it was also mangled. The front tire was missing.
I started running towards the lights, towards the car that had jumped up onto the curb, and towards the ring of police officers gathered around the front of the car.
One of the cops noticed me as I ran, and stretched one arm out to indicate I should stop. His other hand dropped to his weapon. I slowed down as I approached, my arms raised into the air.
“Heybuddy!” I yelled. “Heybuddy, is that you?”
“What the hell kinda sense you makin’ over there, boy?” One of the cops asked me.
“Please,” I said, “Let me through. His name is Heybuddy. He’s my friend.”
I thought I would have to argue them down. I thought they would tell me to stand back, this was a crime scene, something like that. Instead, they cleared a path.
Years later, I was talking to a friend of mine that was a cop, and he told me that you get to where you recognize people. Like have you ever noticed in movies that the cops just let people through, so the friend or family member or whatever always ends up by the dying guy’s side? My friend told me that that actually happens.
“They just have this look,” he told me. “I imagine that if someone could tell the future, their face would look a lot like that. It’s mostly pain, but there’s also this other thing—like they already know the truth, but until it’s undeniable, they’ll try to lie to themselves.”
The cops moved aside, and there was Heybuddy. I wondered where he had been eating for the past few months, wondered where he was riding to or from. And while I wondered, I rushed over and dropped to my knees beside him.
“Heybuddy,” he said. He was smiling, but his grin wasn’t nearly as big as it should have been, and the blood leaking from the corner of his mouth ruined the effect. It was like a tasteless parody of Heybuddy’s smile, and I wanted to hurt whoever had decided this would be a good joke.
“Hey, Heybuddy. How you doin’?”
“Not doin’ too good right now.”
“No. I…you know…got hit. By that car over there. I was drivin’ my bike, and there he was, right outta nowhere, up on the sidewalk besides me, and then BANG!”
He was working up his old story-telling energy, but when he yelled “BANG!” blood spattered out onto the pavement, and he groaned.
“Take it easy, Heybuddy,” I told him. “They’re gonna need to check you out at the hospital before you tell any more of your stories, man.”
“Nah—I won’t be goin’ to no hospital.”
“Yeah, man, you need to get checked out. Don’t worry—it’s not that bad. I’ll go with you, if you want.”
“I’m not afraid,” he said, and grimaced. “I just…I won’t be goin’ anywhere else.”
“Don’t talk like that, Heybuddy. You’ll be goin’ lots of places. We’ll have to get your bike fixed up first, but that’s no problem.”
“I think this is my last stop,” he said, rolling his head to look around a little. “This isn’t such a bad last place, I guess. The lights are pretty.”
I noticed my tears were dripping down onto his jacket, and I thought about moving back a little. But I couldn’t. I just sat there, holding onto his arm, dripping my tears onto him and trying not to bawl. “Don’t talk like that, Heybuddy.”
“Oh, now don’t cry, good buddy—we all got to move on some time, right?”
I couldn’t answer—it felt like there was something caught in my throat. I nodded, but I didn’t mean it. That fact that everyone dies has never given me much comfort in my time of loss.
“That’s right,” he said. “And right now, it’s my time to move on.”
“Oh, Heybuddy, I’m so sorry.” I was bawling now, unable to help it.
“Sorry for what, good buddy?”
“Sorry about that night at the diner. Sorry that things happened like they did. Sorry that you couldn’t come back in. I miss you, Heybuddy…we all miss you.”
“Tell ‘em I said goodbye.”
“I…please don’t go, Heybuddy, please!” Wailing like a little kid.
He smiled and reached up to touch my cheek.
I stopped crying, surprised that he knew my name.
“Tell ‘em I said goodbye. I loved all you guys.”
“We loved you, too,” I said. I like to think he heard that before he died, but I’ll never know for sure. I never could have put in words to him how he changed our lives, but I hope he didn’t leave this world without knowing that we loved him.
And then the world came back. The piss smell of the gutters, the tar smell of the asphalt, and the grease smell of my clothes. The chill of the early morning, the sounds of the approaching ambulance. I noticed the man sitting a few feet away, throwing up on the sidewalk. One of the cops was attempting to question him.
That was the guy that killed Heybuddy. For a second, I thought about walking over killing him. Just taking the cop’s gun out of his holster and blowing away the drunk man. But that wouldn’t do any good, even if I could pull it off.
Instead, I stood up, walked past Heybuddy’s bike, and over to the cardboard box that was in the street. It looked wrong there—it should have been carefully perched in the wire basket at the front of the bike. A fresh batch of tears started streaming down my face as I picked up the box. I opened it up and looked inside.
A couple of bottle caps. A little plastic keychain flashlight, neon pink. A pair of yellow mittens. Four little cast-iron Army soldiers. Fifteen cents in pennies (I didn’t know that at the time—counted them later). A ceramic statue of two kittens wrestling a ball of yarn.
“Oh, Heybuddy,” I said to no one. “Kitties. I always knew you had kitties in that basket. I knew it.” I sat down in the street, petting the ceramic kittens and crying.
I don’t remember much that happened after that. I guess I answered some questions for the police, and I guess they eventually took me home. That’s where I wound up, and then I wound up back at work, telling everyone what had happened, and crying some more. And then I wound up back at school, and then I wound up going on with my life.
Moving on with my life, I guess you could say.
I quit drinking so much, I quit going out clubbing every night, and decided to get serious about my life. I concentrated on school. Mostly because it seemed like the productive thing to do, and after Heybuddy’s death, I felt like I should do something with my life. I kept the ceramic kittens on my desk.
I eventually made it through school, and found a job I love. I have a life that I love. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the story of Heybuddy, but it feels like it does, and that’s enough for me.
I still keep the ceramic kittens on my desk, and sometimes when I look up, I see them, and they surprise me.
It’s like seeing an old friend that you weren’t expecting.