One crow means sorrow,
Two crows mean joy,
Three crows a wedding,
Four crows a boy.
Five crows mean silver,
Six crows mean gold,
Seven crows a secret
That’s never been told.

The first time I noticed the homeless man on the tailgate of the rusted pickup truck was the day I wished my dead best friend a happy birthday on Facebook. It was November, and it was cold. I sat in the Walmart parking lot and typed out the message in a public post for all to see. My friend wouldn’t read it, of course; she was, as I said, dead. It hadn’t been a year at the time of my post, but it was the first time I had faced her birthday, alone, since she left this earth.

“Lauren, my sweet friend,” I typed. “Gone too soon. I miss you every day. I love you! Happy birthday in Heaven!” I posted the little message, hoping somehow, somewhere, Lauren would see my words; if she didn’t, I found comfort knowing the rest of the world certainly would.

Lauren’s death had been sudden. There was no warning, no drawn-out illness to prepare me and everyone else for the end. She had been standing, innocently, waiting to cross the street in a not-too-busy part of the city on a hot May afternoon. An elderly man, Henry, I believe was his name, probably driving long after family should have stepped in and taken his keys, had himself died of a heart attack while steering his car in Lauren’s direction. His soul left his body as it slumped into the passenger’s seat, jerking the wheel hard to the right and straight into Lauren. She died, we were told, instantly and without pain. How someone can be run over by a car and feel no pain I do not know, but I choose to believe those words. Paramedics could not have saved her had they been waiting at the scene, which they were, of course, not.

I never had a chance to say goodbye to Lauren. The last time I had spoken with her, in March, I think, was to inquire after her sick mother. I had read online somewhere that Mrs. Greene had suffered some sort of malaise, and I wanted the world to know my most sincere sympathies were with Lauren and her family. I made a Facebook post, of course, expressing my discontent, but there she was, that day, in person; I felt obliged to speak my feelings aloud. Lauren had corrected me then, of course, and let me know the ‘malaise’ was nothing more than a burnt batch of muffins her mother had forgotten one Saturday morning. How I had misconstrued the news I cannot say; Facebook is generally a more reliable source.

This day, in the Walmart parking lot, I was satisfied my words would, at the very least, reach an audience who would appreciate the gravity of my suffering. My post complete, I locked my car and turned toward the store. And there, sitting on the let-down tailgate of a rusted red and white pickup truck, I saw a man staring at me.

He appeared to be homeless, as he was dressed in torn jeans, a ripped, over-sized military jacket through which the maroon hoodie covering is head was poking, and dingy tennis shoes, dirty and riddled with holes. He watched as I neared the store, dark eyes never leaving me. The leg that dangled from the truck bed ended in a torn shoe, loose and barely attached. His other foot was on the tailgate, knee pulled up next to his shoulder. I wondered how his fingerless gloves could provide warmth against the bitter cold of the day, how his frozen fingers could manipulate the cellphone in his hands. I wondered where he would spend Thanksgiving. I hurried like a mouse held fast in the eyes of a stalking cat, suspicious and unnerved.

At a loss for what to do, I nodded as I passed. Like a street peddler showing off his wares, the man on the tailgate raised his cellphone and held it out, in my direction, screen facing so I could see. It was Facebook. In the glow, I saw the gone-too-soon face of my dead friend, Lauren, my Happy Birthday wish like an epitaph under her profile picture.

I stopped, speechless, and took a step backward and away from the stranger. I finally managed to croak, “Who are you? Is this some sort of joke?”

The man didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to move a muscle. The black skin around his eyes had turned chalky in the cold, and he continued to stare. “No joke, ma’am. Just readin’ up on Facebook, that’s all.” He continued to hold out the phone. “She a friend of yours.”

It wasn’t really a question, but I nodded anyway. “She is. She died. Today is her birthday.”

“Was her birthday, ma’am. She with the dead now. You got to let her go.”

I hadn’t noticed my feet shuffling toward the store throughout the exchange with the man on the tailgate, but I found myself almost to the door and grateful to be so. I turned and power-walked the remaining distance to safety. The doors opened like the gates of heaven, receiving me for my eternal salvation, as the stranger raised his voice and said, “You got to let go, ma’am! Your friend gone, and you got to let her go!”

The automatic doors wooshed and I lost the man’s words in the hum of the store. My shopping list was an insignificant memory, shaken as I was by the encounter. Still, I managed to recall most of what I had come for, made my purchases, and headed back to the car. I assumed I would have to pass by tailgate man to get there; I was wrong.

The truck was there, red and white and splotched with patches of rust. The tailgate was still down. The man who had admonished me, however, was nowhere to be seen. In his place, there were crows. Seven of them. They were standing on the truck in random fashion: one on the hood, three on the cab, and three on the tailgate where the stranger had so recently vacated his perch.

I specifically remember seven crows for two reasons. First, a group of crows is called a murder, and I had time to wonder if seven crows constituted a murder, and if so, what application that might have to my current situation. Second, an old book by Wylly Folk St. John came to mind, a book that included a children’s rhyme. It chilled me as I recited the last line, out loud, “Seven crows a secret that’s never been told.” I looked around, didn’t see tailgate man, and locked the doors as soon as I was in the car. I couldn’t get home fast enough.

That evening, I looked again at Lauren’s Facebook page. My post was there, and I was happy to see others had posted similar messages to our dear departed friend. It seemed others dealt with their grief in much the same way I had. I hit the ‘Like’ button for each one of their posts and went to bed.

In my dreams that night, I saw Lauren. I saw crows. I saw a black man on the tailgate of a rusted pickup truck. In the morning, I was still a little on edge about the previous day’s incident, but by noon, I had all but forgotten it happened.

The next couple of weeks were uneventful, and by that, I mean I didn’t see the man or his crows. There was nothing much going on in the land of social media, either, until the end of March when a memory popped up on my newsfeed.

I was driving to pick up a take-out order. Stopped at a traffic light, I glanced at what looked like a photo album, somehow flipping pages, marking the two-year anniversary of my friendship with Lauren on Facebook. Instinctively, I hit the ‘share’ button and reminded the world of my connection to my friend. The light turned green, and I let the phone fall into my lap, looking like a guilty thief as I scanned traffic for police who may have witnessed my activity. None had.

I turned into the lot of The Evergreen Chinese Restaurant. Lunch was early for me that day, and I had my choice of spaces, but I went ahead and parked in a spot reserved for takeout customers. As I sat in the foyer waiting for my food, I counted the ‘Likes’ my shared memory had gotten: thirty-seven in under ten minutes. Not bad for little to no effort. I paid for the food and headed for the car.

The wind picked up as I crossed the empty parking lot. A scrap of paper floated by; a tiny dust devil of dirt and pine-straw swirled at my feet. A crow’s call, somewhere close by, was answered by another, the second closer than the first. And I heard, before I saw, the man on the tailgate of the rusted pickup truck.

“You still ain’t let her go, Miss Jessica.”

He was parked next to my car, on the passenger side. Both feet dangled from the tailgate this time, but he looked, otherwise, exactly the same. I only remembered later that there had been crows on his truck again, but my memory could only account for six. He held out his phone, screen facing out, and I could see my post with now forty-two likes under my shared memory of friendship with Lauren.

“What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything, Miss Jessica. It’s your friend. She needs you to let her go.”

I scrambled to the driver’s-side door and fumbled to press the unlock button on the keypad.

“Miss Lauren got to move on, and you got to let her. You keep hangin’ on to her for your own self, and that ain’t no way to be. Please, Miss Jessica. Hear what I say.”

“You need to leave me alone. Stop bothering me.” I opened the door and swung my legs into the car, “I don’t want to see you again. If you keep following me around, I’ll call the police. I swear I will.” I slammed my door, more angry than afraid, and left the parking lot.

At the first traffic light that stopped me, I hastily posted, “The nerve of some people!” I added an angry faced emoji – the kind that had irate, down-turned eyebrows and a frown. That was exactly how I felt. By the time I got home, my latest post had received eighteen likes and six comments, all from regulars who knew exactly what I meant (or at least agreed with the spirit of my sentiment). It felt good to have the internet to talk to about my life. The steady stream of likes and comments eased my nerves. Later that night, I was back in my dreams where the wind blew cold and hard, and crows circled above my head.

Tailgate man appeared again the next day, this time at the gas station, his rusted truck two pumps over. He was covered in crows. I counted six, and they were arranged on his body, two on each leg and one on his shoulder. The sixth was perched on the cellphone the man had turned, as was his custom, in my direction. The crow on the phone squawked as I passed, its clawed toe seeming to point at yesterday’s post. The man on the rusted tailgate didn’t speak, but his eyes, if not his presence, told me his message was the same. I hurried inside where the cashier said my gas bill had already been paid. When I returned to my car, the man and his crows were gone.

I saw tailgate man around town a few more times as the weeks went by: at the cleaners, the cellphone store, fast food places. Occasionally, I would see him as we were driving in traffic.

One Thursday we were stopped, side by side, at a light, crows circling and calling above his truck. From inside the cab, I could see a radiant cellphone screen predictably turned toward me, my most recent post was glowing under Lauren’s picture; he delivered his message without saying a word. I had to turn up the radio to drown out the deafening cries of his crows.

As the indecisive nature of Spring weather gave way to certain summer heat, the anniversary of Lauren’s death became a looming specter I couldn’t avoid. I knew the fateful day was just around the corner, and my thoughts drifted more and more in Lauren’s direction.

Her death left an empty space inside me, and I struggled to fill in the gaps. Lauren had known me better than most. She had been by my side when I graduated from both high school and college. She celebrated with me when I landed my first real job – not just a summer stint at the Burger Chick in town (although she was there for that, too), but my career job at the VA. I had been her maid of honor. In spite of what tailgate man might think, I was dealing with Lauren’s death as best I could.

When the fateful day arrived, I rose early, got a coffee downtown, and drove to my old high school. It was a Saturday, and the grounds were deserted. I parked by the football field and found a seat in the bleachers between the railings that designated the band section. Lauren and I had spent countless Friday nights in those seats. Lauren haunted me, and I cried for my friend.

“She meant a lot to you.”

Not a question, and I knew who had made the statement without looking.

“Yes,” I said to tailgate man. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, this ghost by proxy; he had never given me reason to fear him, and his presence, that day, was oddly comforting.

“Walk with me.”

I stood and followed the man down the bleacher steps. He spoke, quietly, as we walked, his eyes never leaving my face.

“You got some hurt, Miss Jessica. Ain’t that right?”

“I do,” I answered. “Lauren was too young, too full of life.”

“I understand. But you got to understand this: Lauren knows you hurt, and she can’t leave this place until you make peace with what happened. You don’t got to prove to her, or to anybody else, that you loved her. She knows, and that’s all that matters.” He stopped, gently took my arm, and said, “You got to let her go.”

We started walking again, through the gate that led onto the football field. Lauren and I had passed this way thousands of times together, but today, I felt alone. The crows flying overhead landed together on the field, somewhere near the middle. There were six, and I was certain they were the ones that seemed to follow tailgate man around like a witch’s familiar.

“Are they with you?” I asked, nodding my head in the direction of the crows.

“They are.”

The nursery rhyme came to my mind, and I recited it, aloud, to the man from the rusted truck. I looked him in the eyes when I got to the last line and said, “‘The secret that’s never been told.’ What is it? What does it have to do with me?”

“For you, Miss Jessica, the secret is this: for the dead to move on, you got to move on. As long as you tellin’ the world how lost you feel, you draggin’ your friend’s memory around and she can’t go on. You got to learn to let go so your friend can let go.”

I looked at the group of crows on the field. Even if they were a murder, I was no longer afraid.

“So, who are you and who are they?” I looked at the birds. “It’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?” The man’s eyes followed my gaze. “There’s no way that rhyme is for me. It’s been around forever. What does it have to do with me?”

“The secret is whatever people need it to be, Miss Jessica. You got to learn to let go, so that’s the secret you need to know. For somebody else, it may be something different. Each person gets their own version of ‘the secret that’s never been told.’ But now you been told.” He smiled. “It’s time to tell what you know, what you’ve learned.”

Tailgate man patted my arm. “My work here is through. We’ll meet again someday, I suspect. Until then, you take care of yourself, Miss Jessica.” He turned to go but paused.

“If you want to tell people of the love you have for your friend, tell them. If you want to tell the ones who are still here, well, you go and do the same. Use your words, though, Miss Jessica; stop counting your Facebook ‘Likes’. None of that matters. You’ll see. Talk to people; show them love. That’s what counts.”

I reached out and drew tailgate man to me.

“Thank you.”

I let him go and worked my way up the bleachers to the band section. At the seats where Lauren and I had whispered our secrets to one another on so many frigid Fall evenings, I turned in time to count as seven crows took flight from the field below. Tailgate man was gone.

I got in my car and pressed the start button. I sat, lost in thought. I took out my phone, cancelled my Facebook account and deleted the app. My sister, Katrina, said yes, she could make it to lunch in a few hours and wanted to know what was up.

“Nothing,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in a while. I thought maybe we should catch up. I’ll pick mom up on the way. Let’s spend the day together. Let’s just talk.”