A shirtless man sits next to me in the grass, glistening with sweat. Tattooed wings shimmer across his back; not angel wings but bat wings, hundreds of them, a cave at night, and when the man turns to me, he’s crying. He’s not really crying–the tears are tattooed as well–but I know he is capable, the ink has become imbued with intention, and I wonder what that means for his back tattoo, what all those dark wings might say about his inner capacity. He is old, few teeth join his smile as he passes me a foily. He flicks his lighter under the foil, under the moistened powder, and I breathe in what rises. There are better ways to ingest this, but he’s offering, and anyway, a foily isn’t as direct, not as all-in. Means we’re here to do something.
I’m in a backyard, a fancy place–well-trimmed grass, old leafy trees casting long shadows, a stonework patio with new Adirondack chairs and a chiminea without any soot–and I don’t recognize the house.
Why are we here, you know, specifically? I ask.
Stop playin’, he says.
We’re too old for whatever it is that you’ve got planned, I say.
My friend–let’s call him Gerald–and I met at church of all places. A church basement. An AA meeting. But it still counts as meeting at church. He seemed different then–tighter, given to bouts lucidity-and I suspect I was too, since at the time we were both very focused on Living Sober. It didn’t last long for me, not that time at least, but Gerald and I stayed friends. Plus we smoked the same smokes–American Spirits, the blue pack-used the same YMCA to clean up when we didn’t have anywhere else. We knew the same folks, ran around in overlapping circles. One of those Venn Diagram types of things.
That morning, I was drinking peppermint schnapps at the Brown Barrel and waiting for something to get into when he said he needed my help. He didn’t say what and I didn’t ask. That’s how it is between us.
Is the family home? I ask. The answer to this would determine my involvement. I’ve done plenty of terrible things, some of which Gerald has been a part of, but I don’t like getting into spots I can’t get back out of. I don’t like situations where kids are involved. We all have lines we won’t cross I suppose, though recently mine feels more like an undulating shoreline than something more concrete. Needs must and all that.
No family. Just a guy. Lives by himself. He’s almost never here. Traveling on business.
So he’s kind of like us, except for the traveling and business part. I stand up, the back of my pants wet from the grass. It doesn’t matter though, might even be better. If someone finds us, maybe they’ll think I pissed myself. People are less likely to get angry, even if they find you somewhere you shouldn’t be, when they think you can’t control your bodily functions. Their first instinct is to move away, as if the distance will keep them safe from whatever it is that you’ve got. As if we all aren’t a couple small steps from doing obscene things in the streets. As if they don’t do obscene things where they think they’re unseen.
My friend gets up too and begins to move. That’s the thing about foilies, and about homemade ingestibles, you can’t sit still after. Probably a chemical reaction, like how copper burns green.
We go to the back door, to a low window, both locked. But on the side of the house, we find an entrance covered in opaque plastic sheeting. Some sort of renovation. Maybe Gerald took a job here? We’ve both worked all sorts of jobs over the years, mostly the kind where hands and a back are used in exchange for cash, the kind where names and background aren’t important.
Sometimes I still do day labor, though it gets harder the older I get. I used to be in construction, concrete cutting and drilling, with diamond-tipped drill bits and chainsaws, until one chainsaw caught a bit of rebar when I was cutting out a basement window and it bounced back into my arm. Chewed me up. Doctor said everything healed up, mangled but healed. The pain lingers though. Nerves like exposed live-wire. You find ways to deal. To dissolve the pain sometimes it’s easiest to dissolve yourself.
Gerald pulls aside the plastic and we find a kitchen halfway remodeled. It’s cool inside and my skin ripples with pleasure, almost too lovely to bear. The sweat on Gerald quickly turns to goosepimples and he grabs a rust-colored DU sweatshirt from the hallway closet. It’s too big for him and he looks like a kid trying to rep his older brother’s school. He offers me a light Northface Jacket, but I don’t put it on. I want to savor the feeling of the chilled air on my skin a while longer. Still it’s a nice jacket and I’ll take it when we leave.
What are we looking for? Or are we just going to mess the place up a bit? I ask.
Do you remember when we met? Gerald asks, toying with a remote. Do you remember how close we were then? Do you remember how I fixed your car? It was a cracked spark plug that got grounded in all the rain we had that May. That was in Raton? Or was it in Pueblo?
I turn away after I realize he isn’t speaking to me. He does this sometimes, speaks to someone who’s not around, but normally without quite as many details. It’s disconcerting, but not unprecedented. He throws the remote at the wall and it explodes while simultaneously turning on the sound system. Doo Wop fills the room. Earth Angel. Earth Angel won’t you be mine. My darling dear, love you for all time. I begin to see why we’re here and figure as might as well enjoy myself while Gerald rolls around in whatever pain this man caused.
I grab two bottles of Stella from the fridge, pass one to Gerald who sits on the leather couch, puncturing the cushion next to him over and over with his pocketknife.
Do you remember when we started the company? How we did all the jobs just the two of us? And then we got busy. Started working separately. That was the start of it, wasn’t it? When you realized you didn’t need me?
I head upstairs. Gerald is still speaking and occasionally breaking things but I can no longer make out the words. I’m not much for breaking what isn’t mine. The few things I have in this world were hard fought to come by, harder to hold on to, but I do bet a guy like this has some things he won’t miss.
Upstairs is one huge master bedroom. It’s all modern, this home. Sharp edges. Polished surfaces. Metal and glass. Nothing soft. Nothing cozy. Skylights and mirrors. The coolness on my skin finally overcomes me and I slip into the jacket. Downstairs glass shatters against the tempo of “In the Still of the Night.” I chug half the beer.
I find the owner of the house in the bathroom, but not in the tub, sprawled out on the rug. An empty bottle of Percuset. He looks rough and likely OD’d several days ago. Even central air isn’t enough to keep him from going the way of dirt. I bet Gerald doesn’t know yet or else we wouldn’t be here. What use is smashing up a dead man’s house?
I once dated a gal who used to like Doo Wop. Sharon Rhodes. She liked gospel music too. A guy named Carmen who sang about stones being rolled away. She had a ton of cassettes, most of which she stole. I think she was surprised the first time she popped it in and was dumped directly into an evangelical Easter service. But she kept listening, swept up in tales of torture and resurrection, and developed her own drug-addled philosophy about death. That life is filled with mini-deaths, small but total demises, until the final crescendo, but there’s always a way back. She used the phrase punctuated equilibrium. Not sure where she got that, or what it meant really, but it meant something to her. She disappeared a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder if she’s out across the country somewhere–I picture her in Florida, near a swamp on a houseboat slowly sinking–with a new batch of cassettes she’s stolen, creating a brand-new philosophy, dying new small deaths, but never the big one.
I wonder what it would do to me to find her actually dead. Ruin me, likely. Better not to know. This way she has a certain kind of everlasting life. This way her idea of little deaths can remain true.
I sit on the edge of the claw-foot tub, a little unsteady, and finish the beer. Gerald smashes things downstairs. But then it gets quiet.
I hustle down and meet Gerald on the lowest, perfectly clean, marble step.
Nothing up there, I say, blocking the way upstairs.
Bullshit. I bet he kept everything good tucked away. He always kept something back, just for himself.
What’s good anyway? What does that even mean? He doesn’t have anything you need. Plus I wrecked it up already.
Gerald looks at me for a long moment. Nah. Got to check it out myself. I know him. Know where to look. You know?
He pushes past me, but I turn and grab his hand. I’ve never touched him like this and we’re both surprised. The song “Blue Moon” comes on. I let his hand fall and move to the wreckage of the living room. I don’t know what else to do so I start to dance.
Come on. You remember when those two gals got in the fistfight over at the Barrel and tumbled out in the snow? This song was playing. Do you remember?
He doesn’t remember because I made it up just now, but I can tell by the look on his face he wants to believe me. I turn up the dancing, flailing about, arms and legs wild. I knock stuff over, my now-dry pants catch and tear on a piece of broken glass, but I don’t see any of it. I’m just staring at Gerald.
And afterward everyone came back in and we put this song on over and over again. One hell of a party. Wasn’t it?
He shakes his head, finally smiling, and joins me in the living room. He starts doing what might be the Charleston mixed with some sort of line dance. You’re pretty fucked up, you know, he says.
Blue Moon. You saw me standing alone. Without a dream in my heart. Without a love of my own. (Ba-bom-a-bom-bom.)
I laugh and dance harder. I’m sweating now and take off my jacket. Gerald lets out a whoop and tears off his sweatshirt, moving with abandon. The bats move with him.
Evan James Sheldon’s work has appeared in American Literary Review, the Cincinnati Review, and the Maine Review, among other journals. He is a senior editor for F®iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at evanjamessheldon.com.