Fresh air filled the autumn day, cool and crisp, as I walked along a wide asphalt path. A whispering breeze whistled through maple leaves, while oak trees stood guard; pillars leading to an ancient Greek temple.
Zubin hobbled with a wooden cane next to me, speaking in a quiet tone.
“Samay, do you remember playing hide and seek here?” Zubin asked me. Wheezing, his chest heaved with each breath.
I watched as my good friend struggled for air. Frowning, I asked, “Are you okay?”
I gestured to a green park bench. “We can stop to rest,” I said.
Zubin shook his head. A breeze across his face disturbed his fine mop of white hair—ethereal strands of cigarette smoke. “No, I’m okay,” he said.
We had walked side-by-side, in the park after lunch, everyday for the past ten years since his wife Maya passed away.
“I remember hide and seek,” I said. “We counted there.” I looked at a particularly tall oak tree, and could almost see a boy with blue denim overalls, covering his face with his hands, counting to ten.
Zubin tried to chuckle, but something caught in his throat and he coughed hard. His entire body shook. His cane shuddered under his weight.
“Sit,” I said. I held his elbow and guided him toward the bench. At sixty-three, Zubin’s chronic pneumonia weakened him; and now that I think about it, he looked a lot older, frail, hunched over on the bench next to me, though we were of the same age.
He looked at me. His smile said, thank you. His face had turned pale.
His condition made me worry. “Maybe we should go back so you can rest,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Stop worrying about me. I’m fine. I won’t stop ’til I’m dead.” The energy in his voice surprised me.
Not sure what to make of it, I was quiet for a moment, and then changed the subject.
“We were a wild pair, huh?” I said.
Zubin placed his cane on the bench next to him. “No, I was the wild one. You had bruises from your Dad, so bad you were afraid to go outside. No, you were always in the corner, Samay. I had to give you caramels to get you to play—”
“—Excuse you?” I interrupted, embarrassed. I sure did love caramels.
“Don’t interrupt me, Samay,” he said. “You heard me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but thought better of it and let Zubin continue.
“You were the best at hiding. It made the game fun,” he said. He paused for a long moment and looked away from me at a distant tree. “Kamya always found you though. You couldn’t hide from her.”
“No, it was Maya,” I said.
“It was Kamya,” he said, looking frustrated.
“Damnit,” Zubin said as he shook his head. “Don’t argue with me.”
The sun was sharp in the sky; the bright light was painful. I squinted and envied the shade of Zubin’s baseball cap.
“Well, they’re both dead now,” he said. He beamed a smile. “And it was Kamya.”
I sat there, stunned into silence. His bluntness never ceased to amaze me. I thought of Kamya, fiery red hair and deep brown eyes—my wife—long, long ago. My vision started to blur with tears. She probably was the one who chased me out of my hiding spots.
I noticed Zubin looking at me, and wiped at my eyes with a sleeve.
“Dust in your eye?” he asked. He regarded me with faded blue eyes that seemed to say, just you and me left, old buddy. He grinned, the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes squeezed together into crow’s feet.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said. Then he fought for breath, wrestled for his cane and struggled to stand back up.
I reached for his arm and helped him.
Continuing down the path, we walked in silence for a while. Zubin turned to face me again. “Samay,” he said. His voice was hoarse, unnatural.
Something was wrong. A friend for so many years, I saw it in his face, in the way he moved his hands, the twinkle in his eyes. The confidence, the optimism dissolved.
Nearby, a pigeon landed on the dirt and pecked at an invisible worm.
“—I’m dying,” he said. “Doctors said I have lung cancer. Damn, cigarettes. I quit two years ago.”
My knees felt weak, and I stumbled. I didn’t think he noticed, but he did.
He laughed and smiled at me. “We should have stayed at the bench,” he said, and added, “I have a month.” He raised his arms to steady me, the cane dangled from his wrist.
“A month!” I cried. “Are you sure?”
Zubin looked at me and chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. I was annoyed.
He pointed with the rubber end of his cane. “Look, there.”
And there on the ground, in the grass, covered by a single leaf, was a dead pigeon; decaying with flies buzzing above. I wrinkled my nose.
“Remember that time we took that dead squirrel and put in—” Zubin slipped into a violent fit of coughing. His face flushed red, and then drained, pale.
I placed my hand on his shoulder. His shoulder, bony and fragile, felt awkward in the cup of my hand.
His entire body shook, and would not stop.
He waved my hand off his shoulder. The color in his face returned. “—Remember when we put it in the bag and left it in Maya’s purse?”
I was still disturbed and trembled to answer him. “Yeah,” I said. “She was twelve, right?”
He nodded, and poked at the pigeon’s body. Bloody feathers stuck to the grass. The head bent in an odd position, broken. A stray cat perhaps.
“Hey, Samay?” said Zubin, my best friend.
“Yeah,” I said, still staring at the twisted corpse at our feet.
Zubin was always able to cheer me up. Fifty years ago, he gave me caramels. Today, he used a pigeon corpse.
I looked at him. He was staring at the dead pigeon. He looked amused, like someone had just told him a joke and he was rehearsing it in his head. His wide smile lifted my mood.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Make sure you cremate me,” he said, and poked at the soft underbelly of the dead bird. “I don’t want to look like this.”
“Jerk,” I muttered.
Laughing, we walked off.
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/elsie/116842154/]