I placed twenty-dollar bills into his hand, making sure he saw each one. BB looked at me, showing a little bit of sorrow on his face. He knew who they truly belonged to. He also missed her as much as I did. I should’ve invited him to the river when I sprinkled the last of Josephine’s ashes. We frequented this area since we were in grade school. We shared our deepest secrets underneath the trees. It seemed not long ago we were ten years old.
I was asking Josephine to braid her hair. She didn’t like others messing with her auburn locks, and would tell me no. She’d leap up and run off. Her legs were faster than mine. I would still chase her until we found ourselves bumping into each other and laughing as we fell onto the grass.
It was incredibly hard to watch my best friend submerge into the water, be carried away, and all the while I heard our last conversation.
“Albertine, how much I will miss you. Saying your name. Hearing you say mine. You know how much I love my hair, but giving you a lock of it might be a good thing.”
I had been waiting for her to say that since the beginning of our friendship. I had decided if she wasn’t willing to give me a piece of her hair, I was going to take some of it after she died. Thankfully, it never came to that, but I was always ready. I pulled out a scissors from my coat pocket.
“Here, let me do it,” I said. “I’ll be sure to only take a little bit.”
“Take it near my face, but not too close. I don’t want you to accidentally nick me. And I want to see it.”
After I had separated the strands I was taking, I further separated it with string.
“Hold still now,” I said.
She gasped a little bit when she heard the scissors close shut. For the first time in her life, Josephine was asymmetrical when it came to her hair. I held it out in front of her face, but not before tugging on the tiny knot.
“Not even enough to miss.”
She nodded slightly, picked up the mirror beside her, and inspected the area where I clipped her hair.
“I could always count on you to do things right,” said Josephine. “I hope you know that.”
“I do.” I said with some sass. “Isn’t that why you kept me around all these years?”
“Stop it.” She wiped her misty eyes. “I’m going to miss you so much. Your words. Your face. You know I love you like a sister.”
These words lingered in my memory as she took her last breaths. She was unable to speak during her last days. It was excruciating for me. I had difficulty concentrating. All I could do was hold her hand during this time. Of course, I loved her in return, and told her this every morning and night. We had been best friends for most of our lives. I placed her hands on her chest when she was gone. I kissed her forehead and recited her favorite prayer. She had already closed her eyes for me.
There were a handful still alive from our high school class. We used to wonder who would die first between us. I now knew the answer.
Josephine did have some surprises even as she reached her golden years. The night she invited me for a nice car ride comes to mind. She had recently turned seventy. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going when I asked her. I followed her into a building, and found myself standing behind her in a semi-lit room. It was spacious enough to put your arms out, but as the night progressed, it became crowded.
This was my introduction to the secret world of gambling of a different kind. I watched her give money to a stranger. I later learned his name was Bruce Bowman. My friend had gone from the innocent girl of a farmer father and stay at home mother to taking part in shady activity. She blamed it on her second cousin, half-joking.
“That’s not fair to Harold.” I said, half-joking too.
Harold had gotten into trouble with the local authorities for letting nearby farm livestock run wild. He said cows should run free once in a while, but he really only wanted to laugh at their confusion once the gate was open and after he took a swipe at their backside. He was known around town as a troublemaker. While he never did anything serious, it was enough for people to never give him a chance. He worked on her father’s farm, and even survived an accident that took his left leg from the knee down.
It was no surprise that she gave him a sizable chunk to him when she sold her father’s farm and surrounding land. He gave her a handmade card. It never said thanks, but told her she had done the right thing of spreading some of the family butter onto his bread. He lived out his remaining years exceptionally close to his cousin. She confided in him as much as me about her troubled marriage. He gave her advice while strumming his four-stringed guitar. His advice never amounted to much of anything because her marriage was doomed from the start. He eagerly listened, and she appreciated this. We all agreed it had been a good thing when Edgar died from a car accident.
As winter thawed into spring, Harold ended up dying in the summer. She invited me to the funeral, just the two of us, and we buried him in the local cemetery. There was no one left alive from her immediate family and her extended family were far removed. She had no one to leave her inheritance with so she left it to me, her best friend, and it served me well.
It took several attempts for me to withdraw any amount of money from her account. The closest I got was the bank door the first time. I couldn’t even put my fingers around the handle. The feeling of irresponsibility stopped me. When I got the courage to finally enter the bank, I asked for one hundred one dollar bills. The teller gave me what I asked for, but not without giving me a funny look. I sat in my car making sure the top of George Washington’s head was to the right before I left the parking lot.
I know the exact time when I was reminded time was limited. It was 7:03 on a Saturday night when I asked Josephine why she was giving away her money to a stranger in a strange room.
“I’m not going to live forever,” she said in a matter of fact tone, “and my only wish is to live the remaining years having fun. You might think it’s silly, but it keeps me going.”
She started gambling ones, went to fives, later tens, and only used twenties by the end. She won more than she lost. I encouraged her to find another way to live the good life, which made her sour. She finally admitted she found parts of it ghastly. The body odor that lingered in the air. She used to stuff cotton into her nose, but the smells often went right through it. We both learned to deal with it. The longer you stayed, the less it was an annoyance. Stick around long enough, you win more, which was the whole reason for being there.
I watched people with their body odor give their money to BB. I was amazed at how Josephine hardly looked at him during their exchanges. Most of their talk was through gestures. Before they departed, he gave her a tiny smile. She then grabbed my hand, and moved me through the crowd. I learned the first names of certain people, warned about the unsavory ones, discovered who won the big jackpot the last time, and the unfortunate person named Cliff who wasn’t liked by anyone. He had a habit of eating Rice Crispy Bars and touching people with his sticky fingers.
I learned what “dinner time” meant. It started when the lights dimmed. The predator appeared with its owner. They varied as much as the prey. The first time I saw dinner time I was shocked. The hawk was normal size, but one of the mice was small and the other large. Josephine had bet the larger mouse would be eaten first in the enclosure. She was right. Raptors were just as popular as the snakes.
There had been one anomaly where a falcon had killed both mice at the same time. They had huddled together, almost paralyzed, and neither made a sound until they were both snatched up. Things changed, the main one being a divider preventing the prey from meeting in the middle. People claimed it was confusing to the predator. Josephine pitied the person who kept track of which side it was released each time.
She had a good eye for winners. I had even a better one. I made it a habit of being near the entrance when the predator was ushered into the room. It allowed me to see how it was acting and responding especially when released from its cage or given a little more freedom. I didn’t go to school for this, but observation goes a long way. I owe all my winnings to taking mental notes, and maybe, a tiny fraction of luck. I seldom gave bad advice to Josephine, and now that I frequent this room alone, it turned out I was the better gambler. Not too shabby for a person who thought this whole thing was farcical on her first visit.
Josephine’s final appearance and goodbye left a bitter taste in her mouth. She was leaving familiar faces behind, but not one of them she could call a true friend. They were only acquaintances. Yet, she would still miss the multiple conversations buzzing all around. It softened the blow upon learning her biggest regret was partly her fault. This I know because she told me that same night as I forced her to be a passenger in her own car.
Since her death, BB and I became friends. He took my money inside the room, but outside of it we only talked. We ate lunch at the local diner each month. I gave him stories. He gave me laughter. I respected him more when I learned he was struggling to make ends meet after his wife left him. His two daughters often had to take care of themselves. It didn’t take long for me to sign the remaining money Josephine had left me and all my gambling profits to BB.
I could live off the remaining money I had, and still I felt sadness when he hugged me. I wanted it to be Josephine’s hands. She would never know what I withheld from her year after year. I should have said more, but misgivings are wasted time when you’re old like me. The only thing that mattered now were my ashes. I instructed BB to put them in the same spot Josephine had entered. Our friendship was evolving into something else. There was nothing more for me to do except wait and be patient because that is the final definition of life and death.