Rich people came and went from the front door of the house in Mexico as if they were never going to die. The owner was from New York and he had made his millions by firing people who needed their jobs. A party was wheeling inside and the light from the windows lay like thin, illuminating slices of butter upon the lawn. There were two people sitting on wicker chairs in the garden.
“Would you like another drink?”
“You don’t seem very happy right now.”
“Parties…I’ve never liked them.”
The music died and there was only the sound of insects and low voices beneath the apathetic stars.
“When I was a teenager a girl invited me to her birthday party. Her name was Francine. She wasn’t very popular. No friends to speak of. You know the type I’m sure. She was tall and boyish, gangling with thin arms and big feet. And I had befriended her because she liked to run. She wasn’t fast or anything, she just liked to run in the countryside, across the fields and up the dirt trails above our little town. We would take our dogs and run in the evening as the sun slowly disappeared in the trees. We always said we were running to the edge of the world and after an hour or so we would stop and look into the forest, because there was nothing to do except catch our breath and then return to what we knew. Anyway, she had invited me and several other students, who I figured wouldn’t go, because like I say, no one particularly liked her and high school is a torture chamber if you’re unpopular. She taped these little notes on lockers and you could see the girls and boys smirking when they read them. On the day of the party I was a little late. I brought a box of licorice, since she had mentioned once that she liked it. I think it was her 16th birthday. Well, there was no one there except Francine and her mother and her old bloodhound named Red. There was no father. He had left the family a few years earlier. It was a small town and we all knew how he got drunk and beat the mother. I guess that was why Francine liked to run. The party was in the kitchen and there was a cake and little cups of lemonade and I remember there was ribbon stretched across the ceiling with balloons hanging down. It was a proper party and we stood around waiting, but no one came and so the mother lit the candles and we sang happy birthday and I gave Francine the box of licorice and the whole time I was dying inside and only wanted to leave. The mother was smiling at both of us and her teeth were brown with cigarette stains. Finally, I told them I had to go and I hugged Francine and there were tears in her eyes.”
The music started again and people were laughing too loudly inside the house. Everyone was drunk except the man telling the story. True, he was not quite sober, yet there was the warm feeling of an old book about him and the fading away of something dear.
“What happened to Francine?”
“Francine…yes, oh, you know…life goes on…many years later, after I left home and went overseas, I got a letter from my mother about her. I hadn’t kept up with anything about my old town. It was a dreary, small-minded place and I was happy to be gone. Well, Francine had married a man who I did not know and they had struggled in the marriage, according to my mother, and then one day the man left for another woman. Francine moved back in with her own mother, who by then was very old. She returned to the same house where we had celebrated her birthday. Towards the end of the letter there were the words that Francine had committed suicide. It was like a plane crash in my memory. She had blown her heart out with a shotgun. Francine left a note that mentioned my name. My mother knew about it because the Sheriff had come over. He wanted to know where I was and had I been in town recently. I hadn’t. I might as well have been on another planet or at the bottom of the sea. Francine had mentioned me because of that birthday party all those years ago. She had written about how I had come and given her a box of licorice and then something about how we had run across the fields with our dogs. She said running was something she always loved and she wanted to thank me for being such a good friend. Of course, I never knew any of it. I had avoided being a real friend to her. I had not made the necessary gestures that one might expect from a real friend. I was embarrassed around her, but I guess I hid it well. No, I didn’t want people to think I was friends with the plain, unpopular girl and when they asked about why we ran together, I told them it was because of her dog and how he could track rabbits better than mine.”
“So, you don’t like parties because of that?”
“Yes, they remind me of running to the edge of the world and how easy it is to fall off.”
He left shortly afterward and the people inside the house said he was not a very sociable man and maybe next time they would not invite him to their party.