After Aretha Died
Walter Gilliam lived in a newer apartment with a disused guest room.
His building was downtown between a condo high-rise and a sprawling
arts-and-crafts home that had somehow escaped the wrecking ball. Walter
rented here because he liked urban commotion--the incessant early-morning
beeping of garbage trucks backing into the alleyway below, the insolence
of competing car horns, the frightful wail of emergency vehicle sirens
during the night.
Walter hated silences. Overcame them by turning on the TV--any random
channel sufficed. Or he played music on his iPhone, projecting tunes to
a Bluetooth speaker in the corner of the living room. He'd summon Edith
Piaf until her trill got on his nerves, then switch to Glenn Miller or
Tommy Dorsey. If he was feeling young, he dialed up the likes of a Sara
Bareilles or an Ed Sheeran, ramping up the sound gradually until his
neighbor pounded on the door and told him to "knock it the fuck off."
Walter ran five miles, six days a week. Not for the exercise, but
because the routine--a cup of coffee after he'd suited up, fifteen
minutes of stretching, the run itself, and the shower afterward--occupied
his early mornings. Then he'd write for three or four hours. Pretty soon
it was midafternoon, when he allowed himself a short nap. Routines kept
his mind on the straight and narrow. He believed that, no matter what,
every person has a responsibility to get his or her shit together and
keep it together.
Writing was a godsend. As he was about to retire, Walter had decided to
take a shot at storytelling, intending it to be an occasional hobby, a
diversion to occupy parts of days that would otherwise be empty. But
writing had unexpectedly turned into a passion, an addiction made more
habit-forming by its difficulty, and the years required to become
moderately competent. Plus the constant rejection of his work sated
Walter's considerable appetite for self-abuse.
In spite of his need for patterns, for constancy, Walter had lately
experienced the strange sensation (he had no idea where it came from)
that something extraordinary, good or bad, was about to take place. He'd
already experienced more than his share of good fortune. Thus, like a
slot machine that's exhausted its jackpots, odds favored an entry in the
debit side of the ledger--neither a winning lottery ticket nor a bank
error in his favor--but a game-changer nonetheless.
Normally Walter ran a half-hour before sunrise, the only sensible time
to exercise during hot Florida summers. This August morning he left his
apartment building and struggled to catch his breath. The air was
saturated, heavy as a soggy beach towel, the temperature already
eighty-two and climbing fast. Weather soothsayers had predicted heavy
rain in the middle of the night, but the sidewalks and streets were dry.
The bay gave off its pungent, salty, seaweedy smell. Walter started
slowly, stretching his arms and rotating his neck. In the park across
the street from his apartment building, white miniature lights twinkled
on the limbs of live oaks. The tide was in, the moon absent. Water
lapped against the seawall. Yachts and their smaller fry swayed in the
basin behind the breakwater, where a twilight dinner-cruise ship had put
up for the night.
Walter jogged north on the wide, sabal-palm-lined concrete path abutting
the seawall. Its ribbon-like contours mimicked the bay's twists and
turns. Even at this early hour, the trail was clogged with dog walkers,
runners, bicyclists, and a few mothers and fathers pushing their
offspring in jogging carriages.
As he rounded a corner, Walter heard music. The dim yellow glow of a
nearby streetlamp illuminated a park bench ahead. Wearing light gray
sweatpants and a short-sleeved red tee, a stranger leaned forward to
face the bay. A white baseball cap was pulled down over his eyes. Hands
the size of cooking mitts gripped his knees. Perhaps he'd come to watch
the sun rise over the water, the daily show that required no ticket.
In the grass beside the stranger's bench, a singing voice like no other
gushed from a small silver CD player. The sorrowful tune seemed to wrap
the man in a shroud of despondency. Though Walter didn't recognize the
song, the voice was unmistakable, its mistress the owner of seventeen
top-ten pop singles, according to yesterday's TV obituary. Over
seventy-five million records sold. The first woman inducted into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone's number one greatest singer
of all time.
Walter slowed his pace so he could listen a little longer. He was almost
beside the stranger when he heard muffled sobs, gasps that punctuated
the pauses in Aretha's ballad. Walter stopped to ask the man if he was
okay, if there was anything Walter could do. "I've got my cell. I'll
make a call if you need help." Looking away, the fellow shook his head,
and made no other reply. Aretha sang on: "I have had my fun/if I never
get well no more/I have had my fun..."
Yesterday, after the announcement of Aretha's passing, airwaves pulsed
with her music. Tributes and remembrances poured in from around the
globe. Stevie Wonder tried to recount his last visit with her shortly
before she died, but dissolved into tears, unable to get through the
telling. In a video clip, President Obama knuckled his eyes as Aretha
belted "Natural Woman" at a White House performance.
Walter had his own memory--the late sixties, hearing her voice for the
first time in a hometown bar and saying to his buddies, "Who is that?"
"What rock have you been living under?" came the reply. She'd already
been crowned "Queen of Soul." As the crow flew, Detroit was but a couple
hundred miles across Lake Erie from Walter's small-town, smalltime Ohio
home, but it might as well have been on another planet.
The stranger's anguish was inexplicably magnetic. Fists on his hips,
Walter waited for the gentleman to explain his distress. Walter wondered
if he was mourning Aretha's passing or sought solace in her music on
account of problems of his own.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Suit yourself." The man took a handkerchief from his pocket, lifted
the baseball cap, and wiped his forehead.
Slowly the sky was turning from black to navy. Walter nodded at the CD
player in the grass. "Your mix?"
"Not her greatest hits."
"To me they are."
"Ever meet her?"
"Yeah. I did."
At that the man poured coffee from a yellow Thermos into a plastic cup
and sipped. Walter reached over to put a hand on his shoulder, but
thought better of it. In the park behind them, cicadas were awakening,
tuning up their raspy thrum for prime time. A city bus ran through its
gears. Through the trees the lights of the municipal pool were
intermittently visible. An air horn sounded. Early-morning swim team
practice was underway. Aretha began a new song: "If you had a dollar/And
I had a dime/I wonder, could I borrow yours/As easy as you could mine?"
"Tell me how you knew Aretha...if you want." Walter had never met a
celebrity, or even a person who was semi-famous. He'd golfed in a pro-am
tournament once, but the professional assigned to his foursome was a
journeyman no one had ever heard of. Walter wasn't a jock sniffer, a
groupie, or a stalker, but he was as curious about the rich and famous
as the next person. When no one was looking, he'd browse the tell-all
rags at the grocery-store checkout.
The man didn't respond. Walter got up to move on. Put a foot on the
bench, stiffened his leg, and leaned forward to stretch his hamstrings.
"You're new," he said to the stranger. "I've never seen you here before
when I've been out for my run."
"Her daddy, C.L., was our pastor."
"You're from Detroit, then."
"Everyone in Florida's from someplace else."
"So, did you know her well?"
"Oh, yeah. Everyone did. She sang in our church."
Walter asked what Aretha was like as a person. "Did she ever smile or
Except for brief TV interviews he'd seen, Walter knew very
little about the woman, her family, and her personal struggles. Onstage
she'd always seemed sad, perhaps because of the blues and R&B
ballads she sang and played. And yet her disquiet seemed genuinely her
"Of course she did. Aretha had fun, same as anyone. But she had kids
real young. A lot of responsibility for a girl her age. Wasn't no
laughing matter." Without looking in Walter's direction, the man raised
his voice. "You're so interested in Aretha's troubles, what about you,
old man? Are you happy?"
Coming as it did, out of nowhere, the question startled Walter. The
stranger intended to shut him up, but Walter took the opportunity to sit
back down on the park bench. "Strange you should ask. I've been thinking
lately. I'm actually happier than I've ever been."
Across the rim of his Thermos cup, the man peered at Walter. "Why so
happy, Morning Glory?"
Walter was reluctant to explain, especially when this fellow, this
stranger who mocked him, was so clearly unhappy. Walter feared he'd come
across as a braggart or a lunatic--perhaps both. He'd already said too
much. "Many reasons. It's complicated."
"Complicated?" the man huffed. "You're either happy or sad or don't
give a shit one way or the other."
"You're pretty good at asking questions. Not so good at answering them.
What gives, Morning Glory?"
There was this one tidbit Walter thought he could share without
repercussions: "I might've found a new girlfriend. I can't say for sure.
I met her only once, at dinner with mutual friends, and she lives a
thousand miles away in Ohio, where I'm from originally. But we seemed to
click, and we've been texting and emailing back and forth."
With a grunt and a skeptical look, the man crossed his arms. "Emailed
and texted her. Seriously? And you think she's your girlfriend? Are you
kidding me? Where I come from, man, relationships don't work that way."
"Might become my girlfriend. Down the road." Walter entertained the
likelihood that this fellow knew a lot more about romance than he. The
last time Walter had dated was in the 1970s. And his dating life before
that in high school and college had been less than robust. He couldn't
claim he was out of practice. He'd never been in practice.
"Have you and your email lady done the deed?"
"No, no, it wasn't like that. Isn't like that. We had a nice
conversation. Period. We've stayed in touch since. How about you? Have a
wife or girlfriend? Significant other?"
"Man, you are one devious mofo, trying to change the subject, as if I
"I'm attempting to cheer you up."
"Don't need no cheering up."
"Seems like you might."
"You talk too damn much."
"You look like you're a little down in the dumps this morning."
"Ain't none of your business."
The CD ended. The man picked up the boom box from the grass, scooped
another disc from his backpack, slipped it in, and pressed play: He
said it's been too hard livin'/But I'm afraid to die/I might not be if I
knew/What was up there/Beyond the sky/ It's been a long time comin'/But
I know my change has got to come... A song of hope? That most dangerous
of drugs, currently Walter's drug of choice. Perhaps. Maybe Aretha
wasn't all gloom and doom after all. And yet, as if the song was meant
for him and him alone, the man's eyes glistened. His chest heaved.
"Aretha had a long life," Walter said. "Especially for a person who
The man swiped at his face and leaned back. The street lamp's flaxen
light revealed a neck roped with scars, as if he'd once been burned
severely. "Fat, you mean."
"I didn't say that."
"You people with your vegetarian, gluten-free, organic this and that.
You look down on us because we enjoy our fried chicken and potato
"Yeah." He turned his head and spit on the sidewalk. "White folks.
Vegetables, hummus, texting, and no sex. What kind of a life is that,
He had a point. Food didn't mean as much to Walter as it had when he was
younger. Regrettably, tastes and smells weren't nearly as vivid as
they'd once been.
In a pleasant tenor voice, the man began to sing along with Aretha.
Instead of tapping his foot, he patted his thigh to mark the beat. A
bird in a nearby palm joined in. Then, suddenly, the man stopped and,
using both hands, lifted his right leg at the knee, struggling to get it
off the ground, as if he were hoisting dead weight. He replaced the foot
carefully, easing it back into the grass with a wince.
"Foot go to sleep?" Walter said. "Happens to me all the time. At night
when I'm reading."
A cane lay against the bench. Walter hadn't noticed it before. The man
picked it up and pointed downward. "Doctor wants to cut my foot off. On
account of my diabetes. Says it's the only way to save my leg, what'll
be left of it. Don't think I can let him do it. First it will be the
foot, then it will be the rest of the leg, piece by piece. And the pain
there--I'm not sure I can stand the pain much longer. Think I'd rather
die right now instead."
Walter's eyes darted to slip-ons and white ankle-length socks. Whatever
diabetes had done to his foot was hidden. Walter didn't know what to
say. "Terrible luck. I'm sorry. Tough decision. Impossible. When do you
have to decide?"
"Yesterday, doc says. Claims there isn't any decision to make. That's a
doctor for you. Always playing God, acting like he knows everything
there is to know and you should obey without asking questions...What
would you do, if you was me?"
Walter dropped his chin and shook his head. Neither option is
"Yeah, that's what I thought. You had plenty to say
"In your situation, I'd probably opt for the surgery to extend my life.
At some point though..."
"Chicken shit, are you, Morning Glory?"
"Guilty as charged."
Walter gestured toward the water. Like the Kool-Aid his mother mixed for
him when he was a child, the bay had, courtesy of the rising sun and
clouds, turned deep strawberry. As the man stared at the concoction,
Walter embraced the lull in their conversation. Grimacing, he suppressed
the thought that he might soon have his own life-or-death decision to
make. Or, if he were incapable, his children would step in and make the
call for him.
The man let out a big sigh and studied his right foot. "Well, Mr.
Might-or-Might-Not-Have-a-New-Girlfriend, long as you're here, you
should make yourself useful and help me to my car. It's over there in
the parking lot." He reached down and turned off the CD player, stuck it
into his backpack, and hoisted the bag over his left shoulder. "Seen
what I came here for, so I'd best be getting home before my daughter
misses me." He cast a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction
of the lot. "Right foot's the bad one, so let me put my arm over your
shoulder." He grabbed the cane. "Name's Ben, by the way."
"Nah. Morning Glory suits you better."
Walter shrugged and helped Ben up off the bench. They made their way
slowly across the grass.
Ben caught Walter eying a Camaro parked in the lot. Not a car guy,
Walter could still appreciate a work of art. Low and sleek. Subtle
contours. Black hood accent paint and a rear spoiler. High-profile tires
on fancy rims.
"That's my ride." Ben pointed his cane at the Camaro. "Over there,
Morning Glory. Lookin' fine." As if reciting scripture, Ben enumerated
the automobile's particulars--"A special edition ZL1, 650 horsepower,
supercharged, six-speed manual transmission, zero to sixty in 3.4
seconds. Set me back over sixty grand."
Walter wondered how Ben could possibly work the clutch and brake pedal
with his bum foot. Perhaps he was willing to endure the pain for as long
as he could. One way or another, though, whether he agreed to have his
foot removed or not, he'd soon have to give up the Camaro.
"How will you drive?" Walter asked after helping Ben slip behind the
"I can manage for now--don't change gears much. Put it in second or third
and stay there as long as possible. Time the lights so I don't have to
hit the brakes. I'm careful. But if I lose my foot..."
Aretha made the cover of The New Yorker--a characterization of her in her
youth, Aretha dressed in a choir robe, eyes closed, mouth poised to hit
the highest of notes, an image worthy of her vocal grandeur. Her
funeral, "a home going," was a daylong spectacle fit for a queen. Walter
watched it on TV when he could. A 1940 Cadillac LaSalle that had carried
Rosa Parks and father C.L. bore her casket. A hundred or more pink
Cadillacs made up her final entourage. In the church, Ariana Grande sang
"Natural Woman." Jennifer Hudson performed "Amazing Grace." Motown
royalty eulogized her--Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Isaiah Thomas. The
Clark Sisters sang, "Am I living in vain? Am I wasting my time?"
President Clinton spoke about her character. Black leaders heaped scorn
on President Trump for his remark that Aretha had worked for him. "She
never worked for you," Reverend Al said. "She used to perform for you.
She worked for us. She was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement."
Many of those who couldn't get into the church watched on a big-screen
TV that had been set up at a nearby gas station. Walter wondered what
Ben thought of the tribute. He never really explained his connection
with Aretha. He knew her from church, but how well? He might've lived in
her Detroit neighborhood, been a playmate, except that Smokey Robinson,
before he sang his goodbyes, said that all their neighborhood friends
had passed. He and Aretha had been the sole survivors, and now she was
Chances were good that Walter would never see Ben again. Trips bayside
to watch the sun rise would be impossible for him. With the two things
Ben seemed to love the most, Aretha and his automobile, taken away, how
long and how well would he fight his diabetes? Walter kept an eye on the
obituaries. He didn't know the man's last name, but he would recognize
"Morning Glory! As I live and breathe! It's Ben! Over here!"
The shouted greeting startled Walter, out for his morning run,
traversing the bayside trail forty-five minutes later than usual. It was
a Saturday and Walter had given himself permission to sleep in, a reward
for a week's worth of diligence. Lost in thought, Walter hesitated, then
put on the brakes, searched for the source, and spotted Ben immediately.
He was sitting in a wheelchair beside the park bench where they'd first
met. An outstretched hand beckoned Walter.
A woman in her late thirties to mid-forties sat on the bench where
Walter and Ben had their first conversation. Her face was long and
narrow, her cheeks pursed as she concentrated on the cell phone in her
hands. She was thin with wide shoulders and sinewy arms. Her hair had
been spun into intricate dreadlocks, secured with multicolored beads.
From the familiar CD player came the sound of Aretha singing, all horns
and vocal pyrotechnics: Don't play that song for me/'Cause it brings
back memories/The days I once knew/The days that I spent with you...
Walter approached. He couldn't keep himself from staring at Ben's right
foot. Beneath the leg of his blue jeans, a shoe was missing.
Ben's eyes followed Walter's. "Easy come, easy go," he said without
conviction, his voice a mixed message of sadness and resignation. "Want
to see my stump?"
Walter told him that he'd pass, but it was good to see him again. "I'm
surprised you had the surgery."
"You and me both. Goes to show, I guess."
"Goes to show you what a knucklehead you are," the woman chimed in,
shaking her head. "Pretending you wanted to die...scaring everyone. Trying
to get attention like a little spoiled kid."
"I wasn't pretending."
"Morning Glory, please excuse my daughter, Shevette. She's got strong
"Walter is my real name."
"You can imagine," Shevette said, "what he named me after. Him all
disappointed that Mother didn't give birth to the Corvette of his
"Daughter--Shevette is a fine, fine name."
"If you'd been wishing for a boy and had given me a boy's name, I'd
"So change it if you want." Ben dismissed his daughter's complaint with
a wave and turned to Walter. "Been taking in my first sunrise here since
the operation. Glad to have the chance--mostly."
"This is a better view," Shevette said, "than staring up at the cover of
your coffin. Maybe you finally get that."
"Suppose you're right."
"Oh, I am right and you know it." During their repartee, as if her
father's dissembling wasn't worthy of her full attention, Shevette's
thumbs had continued to race across her cell phone screen.
"Did you watch Aretha's funeral?" Walter said.
"Are you kidding?" Shevette said. "He was glued to the TV set all day."
Letting the cell fall onto her lap, she reached across and squeezed her
father's hand. "Aretha's memorial was the day before Pops went into the
hospital for his surgery. Watching kept his mind off the procedure."
"Amputation. Call it what it is."
"Operation, then." Shevette withdrew her hand.
"You're in some kind of
evil mood today. Again."
"Aretha and I came from the same place, but I'll be lucky to have twenty
people at my funeral."
"That's BS and you know it," Shevette said. "Besides, there's no sense
comparing your life to hers."
"None of us," Walter said, "presidents included, will have a funeral
even close to hers. A hundred pink Cadillacs? A daylong service?
Celebrities galore? That doesn't mean our lives are less worthy."
"You're wasting your breath." Shevette pointed the phone at her father.
"He's a civil engineer. Has his own firm. Very successful one too. Makes
a nice chunk of change. Has a wonderful family--me, for instance. But
listening to him talk, you'd think he was homeless. You'd think no one
loves him or cares. It makes me angry. He's always comparing himself to
someone he thinks has done more, has better friends, or has a more
"See what I mean?" Ben said. "She's an expert on everything, including
Walter realized this dance Shevette and her father were performing was
one they knew by heart--the steps, the technique, the subtle meaning of
each kick and twirl, the exit and bow to the audience.
"How about you, Morning Glory?" Ben chuckled to himself and shook his
head. "Still in love with that woman you met once?"
"Still emailing. Plan to see her next month when I go north. Lately I've
been thinking that our relationship will turn out to be a nice
friendship instead of a romance. But that's okay. We can all use more
friends, right? And who needs romance at my age?"
"Beg to disagree," Ben said. "Gimme some lovin'. That good, good lovin'.
Shevette rolled her eyes.
Wondering if Ben had kept the Camaro, Walter stretched his neck and
looked in the direction of the parking lot. Trees blocked his line of
"No need," Ben said. "I've still got it. Planning to have it adapted so
I can drive it without my foot. Didn't know such a thing was possible.
Costs a small fortune, though."
"The Internet," Shevette said."You should get acquainted. It's 2018,
Pops. You could've looked it up."
"There you go again," she said with a cackle, sneering just a little.
"Pretendin' to feel sorry for yourself. Trying to make us feel sorry for
you. We aren't taking the bait, are we, Walter?"
"No," Walter said. "I suppose we aren't."
Shevette offered a raised hand to Walter in mock celebration.
"Shameful, Morning Glory. Shoulda' figured you'd take her side." Ben
feigned a hurt expression. "I was counting on your support. Thought we
might get to know one another. Figured I'd coach you up a little before
you go to Ohio to see Miss Email."
"I could use some coaching."
"You got that right."
For a reason or reasons unknown, Ben has vanished. Walter runs by the
park bench almost every morning. To no avail, he listens for Aretha's
voice, looks for Shevette and for his would-be coach. Others have been
occupying the bench--a homeless man sprawled beneath a blanket as the tip
of his cigarette glowed in the dark, an older couple with two white
Labradoodles waiting patiently on their leashes, a woman wearing DayGlo
orange athletic gear minding a baby in a stroller. But mostly--mostly the
bench has been empty.
Walter wonders why Ben is nowhere to be found. He fears the worst, that
diabetes has reared its head once again. Or Ben has experienced
complications from the surgery. Walter has attempted to find him,
searching the Internet for civil engineering firms. But there are too
many listings and, without a last name, no way to make a connection.
He's thought about running an ad in the personals section of the
newspaper, but, these days, who besides Walter scans the obits and the
One morning, hoping that Ben might've found a better spot to watch the
sun come up, Walter drove all along the shoreline of the bay. An
unexpected thunderstorm swept in from the coast. His windshield wipers
couldn't keep up. He had to abandon the search. He plans to try again
soon on a calmer day, though in his dream scenario, Ben reappears like
he did before with a shouted greeting: "Hey there, Morning Glory. What's
Occasionally, as he's running the bayside pathway, Walter stops and asks
a stranger if he or she has seen a man in a wheelchair with a missing
foot. The answer, if he gets an answer, is always no. Always no, yet
Walter remains optimistic. People who groove on fast cars, Aretha, and
sunrises don't readily surrender to their troubles. Surely something
extraordinary will happen. In the meantime, Walter intends to keep on
looking for as long as it takes.
©2019 by Dean Jollay