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Dean Jollay

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 laugh?" 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 own.

"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 oversimplifying."

"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 wouldn't notice."

"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 looked so...unwell."

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 salad."

"'You people'?"

"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, Morning Glory?"

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 conceivable.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. You had plenty to say before..."

"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 wheel.

"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 gone too.

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 his photograph.

"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 opinions."

"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 dreams."

"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 understand...sort of."

"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 caring family."

"See what I mean?" Ben said. "She's an expert on everything, including me."

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'. Yes, sir."

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 sight.

"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."

"My mistake."

"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 classifieds?

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 up?"

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

Dean Jollay received his MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. He lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida. His stories have have in numerous literary journals, including Notre Dame Review, The New Plains Review, and Limestone Journal. He founded AHEAD, a nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to success that confront at-risk students.

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