The Last Time – Matt Knutson

Last week I learned Russ died eight months ago. He was my friend, but we’d grown apart. Grace, his ex, called to ask if I knew what happened. I hadn’t known her very well, but she seemed like a good thing.
When my phone rang, I was sitting on the toilet in a rest stop bathroom on the Kansas-Oklahoma border. I’d been on the road for days, heading southeast, to a new apartment I’d rented, sight unseen, many states away.
Russ would have loved this, Grace calling and me answering with my pants on the tile. I answered because I didn’t think anyone was around. I’d become lonely and unhinged – something the driving hadn’t helped – and couldn’t remember her calling before. When she asked if I’d heard, I said no, but already I’d begun guessing.
“Do you want to know?” she asked, and I knew then that I’d guessed right.
Of course I wondered why no one had told me. Grace must have started a list of those who hadn’t heard. How many of us were just islands to each other?
I didn’t think he trusted himself to own a gun. He’d borrowed that.
My feet began numbing. Someone stepped into the next stall. Sharing that space with another made speaking difficult. I said what I could to Grace. The person beside me began weeping.
I wanted to tell her about the last time I’d run into Russ. It was new, seeing him in the daylight, buying rosemary and detergent, chicken breasts, chocolate, and only the six pack. His boots and black shirt the same, but a different feel in the daytime world. I’d been awake for two days at that point. I hadn’t meant for that to happen. He said I looked like shit, and he was right. I hadn’t started a new job like he had. I hadn’t been working for months on real gigs. I was still where we’d been together, crawling in the mud. I was glad he was doing well enough to mock me and have it hurt. For all our misery, self-inflicted or otherwise, we both wanted to be happy. Since then, I hadn’t worried about him. It occurred to me I’d been texting a dead man, things I thought he’d enjoy, nasty jokes and stupid shit. Not the kind of correspondence that warranted a reply.
I didn’t tell Grace any of this. The person in the next stall sobbed. About what, I couldn’t tell. The call ended. After a long time, everything stopped, and they were gone too. I splashed water from the sink onto my face and stepped into the midwestern stormlight. There was nothing around me for miles.