09/26/2021

Evan James Sheldon ~ Between Old Friends

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.