The familiar face gazed deeply into my somber eyes and whispered in my ear, “Sometimes there is no plan, Bradley. There are no reasons. People just disappear.”
“Are you both flying today, sir?” a gruff-visaged man in blue uniform asked. His chin was the size of a nerf football. I shook my head, kissed my wife, and took off my shoes and belt. “See you in a week then.”
The Trans-Atlantic flight to bury my college roommate beckoned.
We all showed up before the funeral and checked into respective motels and private flats in areas we couldn’t pronounce: Stare Mesto, Nove Mesto, Mala Strana; a few stayed in neighborhoods close by: Vinohrady, Hradcanska, Flora. It was very congenial and touching how we all assembled in one orderly community to pay our last respects to a man whom we hadn’t seen or spoken with in fifteen years.
Mitchell’s parents were both deceased and he was an only child. He was survived by no one, not a child, not a foster child nor an estranged in-law somewhere buried deep in the Carpathians. As I sat in the back of a spotless yellow cab headed to our first night’s dinner, I started racking my brain, going back in time to the roommate and friend I once knew, hoping to fill in the missing pieces by the time we put our friend six feet into Czech soil.....
Mitchell graduated only because of a promise to his girlfriend at the time. She was living across the border when he phoned her to break it off. “I have my diploma, Rosa. Now I need my freedom. I’ll send you a letter explaining everything when I find it. Te amo, Mami.”
A few weeks later, a man rang her casita asking for his ‘Mexican Rose’. When her father gave her the phone, saying it was some gringo speaking English, he was already a ghost. "Ay, Bosque! Que chistoso," she mused aloud to her parents, giggling at the sound of the dial tone. Rosa was absolutely sure Mitchell was at the station waiting for her with a single rose like he’d always been. But when she waited for three hours near her uncle’s tortilla press, her heart knew her Bosque had made good on his promise.
“Some birds aren’t meant to have cages, Mami.” he once told her.
“Como se dice 'cages' en espanol, Papi?"
“Does anybody know how he died? I mean, the email I got was pretty cryptic,” someone said at the bar.
“Was he healthy? Was he dying?”
“Were we sure he wasn’t into drugs or...?”
All of us assumed the worst, picturing poor Mitchell buying it in our perverse fantasies: hit by a truck, struck by lightning in a train station, murdered in cold blood by an ex-lover, washing up on a Greek island. Or maybe he had done this to himself. Maybe he was a darker figure than we could fathom. A lot had changed in my life since college. Perhaps for Forrest Mitchell, it was the same.
I read The Prague Post the morning of the wake, shrugging off jet lag and a hangover as a svelte waitress with cropped burgundy hair pushed past a drunk at the bar to serve me steaming black coffee.
Mr. Mitchell's remains and any clues, should they be found, will be brought up by train from Split. He was on holiday in Croatia and Montenegro last week according to two colleagues at the Zakupane Skole in Letna, Prague 7. However, he had not sent an email, text, made a phone call or updated any social network pages on the internet for over a week.
I sat down with a few of his colleagues and friends the night before the funeral and tried to put together the picture of his expat life up till last week. “Why did he ever leave Europe?”
“Money,” said a yoga instructor from Brno. “He didn’t make income here.”
“Natasha,” blurted out another. “She left him for her cousin in Slovakia. Absolutely crushed him.”
“The polizie was after him.”
“He wanted to work on his Japanese.”
There were more questions than answers as I walked around the displayed blog entries, picture collages, and circles of conversations in the sawdust covered pub. Nobody knew how Mitchell met his maker. Nobody saw him die. Nobody had been notified directly. How did all this start, I wondered.
“Klaudia was in Split with him. He always went there in September. Before the school year, you see. I have no idea how he died. But she would.”
“And where is she now?”
Karel shrugged and bit into a sausage the size of a child’s forearm. Mustard squirted on his faded blue tee shirt and on the parking space we were standing on.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Something like, “You dumb ass!”
“Something like, “You dumb ass!”
At the memorial, a well-dressed diplomat friend with a Slovak accent elucidated on the Mitchell we missed. “He moved around for the better part of a decade, Mr. Bingerson. A village in the Tatry mountains, a port city on the Black Sea, Astana, Tirana, Kampala, Kinshasa. Was drifting his long-term plan? He lived and worked, smoked and drank, packed and left…like he was never there. There were only whispers, hints, ticket stubs, and photographs to try and piece together the demise of one Forrest Mitchell. If he did not want us to find out something, we wouldn’t. That was Mitchell.”
Cummins read aloud to the rest of the guys standing in the horse shoe around some of Mitchell’s diary posts stapled to some construction paper. “This one’s titled “Large and Larger.”
I once had two overweight females in a class I taught in Liberia. Sharon and Susan. The only two obese girls in a class of 85 and for the life of me I couldn't remember which was which. One of them was gap-toothed. The other one wasn't. They sat next to each other and I spent the better part of twelve weeks calling each by the other's name. Their classmates loved it but I deplored them both. One of them keeps trying to add me as a Facebook Friend. I don't think I'll ever add her.
Cummins then got emotional, stared blankly up at the ceiling fan and promptly excused himself.
“He’s a really great writer,” Donalds whispered to Baxter.
I grabbed a Gambrinus at the bar. Dick Mahoney and Fred French were talking to a couple of Croats who taught with Mitchell in Dalmatia.
“He was really great guy,” the first Croat said. “Very funny.”
“Yes, absolutely funny.” The second one said. “Lovely practical jokes.”
We looked at each other curiously. Mitchell wasn't that funny in school.
“We see you tomorrow at church. It is late but thanks to you for beers and memories. I am Mladen and this is Antonio. We are from Split.”
“And now we must split,” Antonio added. “Mitchell loved that pun.”
“When was the last time you saw him?” I asked Mahoney once they were gone.
“Shit, man. Must’ve been Shubert’s wedding. Mitchell flew back for that, didn’t he?”
We all stared at the waitress polishing her nails on a stool and thought hard. “Was that in Portland?”
We all stared at the waitress polishing her nails on a stool and thought hard. “Was that in Portland?”
“No. Shubert got married in Colorado,” Maloney said. “You’re thinking of Jeandreax’s bachelor party. Mitchell didn’t make it for that one. He definitely was in Colorado, though. I remember because I borrowed a pair of socks for the wedding. I never returned them. I feel really bad about that.”
French then went into a six minute debate on whether Shubert’s wife had fake breasts. It must have been the jet lag because usually that type of conversation would have fascinated me but tonight, at the wake of one of our best buddies in college, I couldn’t engage.
I excused myself from a bar-hopping expedition in Old Town and walked back to the flat I’d rented on Navratilova Street. I had found it just two days before online for a $1,000 a week. The pictures and the agency seemed reputable so I splurged. A week was enough time to consider what a fallen comrade meant to me. I had paid sick time accrued. My miles on United covered the cost of the flight and my wife and daughter were itching to have a week away from Da-da.
I walked past the Jan Hus statue, through the ancient towers and spires, past countless pickpockets and prostitutes in Wenceslas Square where Gypsies and Ethiopians tried to coax me into their whorehouses. When I got tired, I stopped in a Vinarna called U Sadu and walked down a cavernous flight into an abyss of music, dreadlocks and sweat. I wanted to peruse what Mitchell perused. See what he saw. Meet who he met.
Thirty minutes later I was buzzed, bored, and forgotten sitting at the edge of picnic table with seven Czech teens. A waitress with soft ivory skin, thin wrists and water balloons falling off her house dress smiled at me. "K co se pity?"
She came back with a fresh Staropramen, slashed another notch on the paper tab, and was turning to walk upstairs. “Did you know Forrest Mitchell? He lived around here.”
I mouthed ‘Mitchell’ slowly, hyper-pronouncing the cha sound. She seemed confused. Then I brought out the Prague Post and showed her the photograph.
“Ano….Mitch-ell. Yes, he was friend with barman. Upstairs. Vaclav. I bring him?”
“But he not work tonight. Come back one month.”
I handed her two hundred Koruny and thanked her.
I called my wife as I heated up some water for tea before going to bed. The view across the river was startling beautiful as I scanned the facades of buildings built hundreds of years before America had even been founded. What a world, I thought. Mitchell must’ve really fallen in love with this place. So seductive, romantic, so vastly underappreciated. I was lost for words as my wife’s voice brought me back to reality.
“So, how’s it going over there? Did many of the guys show?”
“Yeah.” I listed them off and stalled for something else to say. Something poignant or appropriate. The lump in my throat was paralyzing my vocal chords.
“You okay, hon?”
“Yeah…fine,” I stammered. “He was just so young…none of us kept in touch…guys were romanticizing about pub crawls in 1994 like those were the best years of his life. He left the minute he graduated and never came back. For all we know college was the worst time of his life. None of us really knew Mitchell, the expat.” I was sobbing now, wishing my wife was rubbing my shoulders in bed rather than six thousand miles away on a lawn chair in Yorba Linda painting her toe nails amber. Maybe I was just tired.
“There, there, love. You sound so broken up about this. Mitchell loved you and you loved Mitchell. And you’re paying your respects. Getting closure. Saying good-bye. And that’s how it should be. You’ll feel better after the funeral, babes.”
“What closure? I haven’t learnt anything more about him since I arrived.”
“Tomorrow’s the funeral. Talk to everybody. You’ll start to fill in the pieces. I’ve got to take Kira to Karate practice. Call me this time tomorrow, K? I love you, Bradley Bingerson.”
It was an open casket. The body of my dead friend was waiting coolly in a small chapel adorned with icons, yellow tulips and gold upholstery behind the sacristy of St. Ignatius Church. He was born thirty six years before in a Detroit hospital, raised in Estes Park, Colorado, and now would be buried in a Czech cemetery not far from where Soviet tanks rolled through the city to quell a rebellion. The plot behind the church overlooked the Vltava. The grass was wet and needed to be slashed. Three men I had never seen before were chain smoking near the entrance. A cock was cawing as the service started. Totally annoying.
Garcia and Phillips were setting up a video from an intramural softball party our sophomore year when I walked through the mostly empty pews. I took a seat next to Karabell and Courter near the aisle. “Hey, guys.”
They nodded to me solemnly, shaking my hand and smiling grimly. “Tough day, Bings.”
“Can’t believe what we’re about to do,” added Courter. He had a dip in his mouth a spit can under the pew. “I mean, do we even know how he passed?”
I shook my head and scanned behind me. Several women in their late teens and early twenties were making their way up the aisle, elegantly dressed. Each one was seemingly more beautiful than the next. Tall, voluptuous, natural, elegant. They all had their own style. They all had their own grace. And they all evidently had had an impact on Mitchell’s life.
Shubert played “Amazing Grace” on the harmonica between the first and second readings. I read the Prayers of the Faithful. French and Mahoney brought up the collection basket before the Eucharist was offered. Jeandreax’s eulogy was effusive and complementary, reminiscent of a concession speech by a politician.
At the reception, I spotted Natasha playing foosball by herself near the men’s room and went over. “Thanks for bringing his diary. How are you holding up?”
“Please to ask, who are you?”
I explained my affiliation, the fact that I had known Forrest Mitchell in a different time, a different place, and was here to discern what had happened to him. Natasha was extremely passionate and intense. Her eyes were the color of jade; the most piercing duo I’d met since clearing customs.
Just as I began explaining myself, French broke through the circle and into the cauldron. He simply raised his left fist.
“I found a letter. It must have fallen out of the diary last night!”
We all crowded round him, poised to finally here the truth. French handed the letter to Jeandreax, who cleared his throat. Sensing the enormity of the moment and the words he was about to read, his hands trembled as he spoke. A hush distilled the crowd. Outside a bottle cracked and a hobo went into hysterics. A single oscillating fan blew back and forth.
Dear Friends, Colleagues, Students, Czechs, ex-lovers and random Human Beings,
This is a letter I drafted years ago, haunted by the notion that the life I led was somehow in peril; call it what you will: a sixth sense, a morbid fascination or a foreshadowing of ominous times. I have changed only tenses and punctuation so the draft you read now is still in its original form.
By drifting from place to place, wondrous heritage site to indescribable historic monument, I have seen the world. I have seen humanity. I have been just about everywhere humanly possibly in the short amount of time I have devoted to this pursuit .However, in recent years my outlook on life has devolved from wondrous adventurer to cynical recluse, a man befriended by many but known by very few. I think my first wife will attest to my privacy and aloofness. Is aloofness even word? Who gives a shit? I'm dead. I'm dead and you're left searching for answers, left searching for this puzzle's corner pieces to fill in a generation of inquisitions. That anyone actually takes the time to read this is warmth in and of itself and I thank you. But you did not know me. You observed me. You knew of me. You judged me. You kept in touch via texts and emails at Christmas. I got heartfelt birth announcements in group emails. You wondered privately when I was coming home and why I hadn't moved back. You hypothesized about my state of mind when I continued traipsing and stumbling, from girlfriend to ex-wife, from continent to subcontinent, from distant acquaintance to inconsolable hermit. At some point, you stopped wondering and realized I wasn't going to be your fantasy football buddy anymore. I was never going to show up at baptisms and Super Bowl weekends. I was interminably gone.
Yet you come to pay your respects and find closure in the life you valued enough to follow through the grapevine. So know this:
My decision to leave was prompted by my dissatisfaction with your society. I was unwilling to sacrifice my soul for the betterment of your piece of mind. Making sure everyone felt hunky dory about me settling down never entered my mind. I followed my own path. Did you? Did you ever really ponder what it would be like to die tonight? To wake up in a coffin next to a World War I veteran? Did you ever consider perishing under the waters of the Aegean, burning in the crimson lava of an Indonesian volcano, bleeding from the sword of a Japanese samurai, aware that your next gasp may be your last? I not only pondered those fates but attacked them. I looked for danger so often, pretty soon I found it. I found it in the name of Sergei Ivanov, who threw me off a second floor balcony during a heated argument about the plumbing in a flat I rented in Krakow one winter you don't remember. I found it in the image of Yu Kurasawa on a whale expedition in Hokkaido. I fell in love with Yu. You don't remember Yu do ewe? I do. And Yu remembers you. But you don't remember Yu. She was 19 at the time and we got engaged five weeks after that fateful afternoon on the China Sea. She died on a Sunday from SARS. No need to google it. I've saved you the trouble. I spread her ashes over a fishing net on my way to Qingdao to buy a fake passport.
My death was inevitable. So yours will be too one day. Let it be many moons from now, under the sun you wish to set, under the veil of a life you leave unfinished. Or let it be anyway you wish it to be. But let it be yours. I have lived the way I wanted to, not because it suited you but because it suited me. So go back to your condos and townhouses, go back to your wives and children, go back to your boathouses and season ticket packages, and look yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself the very question I did many years ago: Are you happy? Anything less and you are doing my death and your life a tremendous disservice. Consider this letter the only truth I have ever told you.
Yours frigidly and nevermore,
Jeandreax folded up the letter and handed it to Natasha. She kissed it twice and then put it neatly in her bra. A couple of us turned back to the juke box, unsure what to say.
“So how did he die then?” Courter asked.
“C’mon, man,” someone said. “Have a little respect.”
“What!? I can’t even ask? You guys are all wondering the same thing. I came a long way to say good-bye to my friend and I expect to at least return home with the cause of death.”
Even as shallow as Courter was, he had a point.
It was right then that I started losing it. Their voices all drifted into background noise. Music began playing softly from a corner studio above us. It was Bach I think. Someone put their warm around me and sobbed on my shoulder. I took a swig from my glass of beer and noticed a horse fly swimming in it. I scanned the room for a familiar face. I didn’t see any. Everything was a blurry prism of confusion swimming through my moist eyelids. The whole room looked brown.
A moment later, a young woman in tight blue jeans and a cream-colored blouse walked into the bar, looked in my general direction and winked. Her gaze, her wink, her gait...the whole moment transformed what had been a passing thought into a concrete conclusion. I suddenly realized how great it must have been traipsing around the world the past fifteen years. And for just a brief moment I wanted to go back in time.
Forrest Mitchell’s body was recovered by a fisherman off the coast of Dubrovnik three days after I returned to Yorba Linda. I got an email attachment with the news from French, who seemed more than a little P.O.’d with the timing of it all.
Read this shit. What the F?
Months have passed and the guys and I really don’t talk much anymore. There's talk of going back for Homecoming in the fall but I doubt it'll happen. No one can get that Friday off from work. My wife and I have another child due in six weeks and I just bought a car seat at Home Depot. It's gray.