Published in Panhandler Issue 2
Eric Trethewey has published six books of poems, most recently Songs and Lamentations and Heart’s Hornbook. His poems, stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines in Canada, Britain, and the U.S., among them The Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, Canadian Literature, Commonweal, Encounter, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New Letters, The New Republic, North American Review, Parnassus, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review, Stand, and The Yale Review. He lives in Catawba, Virginia and teaches at Hollins University.
I hadn’t been in Charleston long when I started hanging out at one of the watering holes downtown. It was a good establishment. A lot of people who were friendly, not too judgmental, hung out there. They were easy to talk to—for the most part. The place had a long L shaped bar with a brass bumper or rail, whatever, all the way along. And the bartenders were real friendly too. That’s how I met Todd.
He looked to be somewhere in his 50s, maybe twenty years older than me. He was a burly guy who looked like he might have been a football player once upon a time. I thought he looked a bit like my dad, good looking, but as I got to know him I saw that he always had pronounced dark pouches under his eyes. When he spoke he usually began by saying, “Well, I don’t know now,” and then he’d launch into whatever it was he intended to say. He’d say it slowly and deliberately, as though it was something he had been considering a long time. And after he’d said it, as profound or superficial as it might be, he would frequently tell a joke. He had quite a repertoire.
The first time I had a conversation with him was one Tuesday evening when things were pretty slow. There were a couple of biker-looking dudes with black leather jackets and long hair shooting pool, and a middle-aged man and woman were sitting glumly at the bar. The room was so quiet you could hear the balls clicking.
Noticing that my glass was about empty, he came down the bar to where I was sitting.
“You want another?” he asked.
I held out my arm toward him. “Twist my arm.”
He grabbed it and gave it a gentle twist.
“Okay, Okay, I give in,” I said. He poured me another drink, a generous one.
“You’re pretty new around here,” he said. His tone was part assertion and part question.
“Yeah,” I replied, “some friends told me this was a cool town, and I decided to check it out.”
“Oh, I don’t know now,” he said. “It depends on what you’re looking for.” He looked at me as if he had asked a question and was waiting for my answer.
Just then one of the pool shooters came over and sat down beside me at the bar. He was not bad looking, though a little rough around the edges. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked.
“Not a thing,” I said. “You got it all.”
“I wish,” he said, and ordered a Corona. “You want another drink?” he asked, flashing a big smile at me.
“No thanks, this one here’s brand new.”
He sat there for ten minutes or so, swigging his beer, making a few abortive attempts at conversation, but not managing to say much of anything. I wondered what he was up to.
When he got up, said, “See you around,” and left with his buddy.
“Watch out for that pair,” Todd said, “nothing but trouble.”
Todd usually worked the evening shift, 4 pm until midnight. I was drinking quite a bit at the time, way too much if truth be told, and I used to drop in four or five nights a week for a few. Sometimes, when I’d been feeling extra down for a day or so, I’d end by staying until closing time. When the crowd started thinning out, Todd and I would shoot the breeze between the times he was waiting on customers. That’s how we became friends. It got so that whenever I decided to drop by Harry’s, I’d be looking forward to a talk with him. We even started telling each other our troubles. Or some of them.
He had a nasty divorce somewhere behind him, and he was still hurting from it. I had never been married, but I had just broken up with someone after a longtime thing, and I was mostly lonely and drifting. So I was seriously engaged in drinking away all the hurt and loss that drinking had caused me in the first place. You know how that goes. From time to time I’d ask myself, Why not just put a gun to your dumb head and get the shit over with?
One time I went so far as to load the pistol I kept around for protection and put the barrel in my mouth. Then I thought better of it. The next day I threw the pistol off the old Cooper River Bridge. Just so it wouldn’t be available if I decided on a repeat performance. I worked at convincing myself that what I was going through was just a temporary setback, nothing much to worry about. So I decided to let go of things, take a break from the usual, drift for a bit. And then I would screw up my will to the sticking point and get back into the real thing.
I had known Todd for a couple of weeks when I dropped into Harry’s one evening. I was feeling pretty bleak. I think it was around 10 pm on a Tuesday night, and the bar was almost empty except for two guys shooting pool. They were the same pair—leather jackets, long hair—I had seen in here before. They checked me out pretty carefully when I came in. You might even say it was over the line toward rude. It occurred to me to ask them if they had a problem.
Without inquiring what I wanted, Todd served me a beer and a shot of bourbon, my usual to start with.
“What’s new?” he asked.
“Nothing new but new ways of saying what is old.” It was something one of my professors used to say.
Since there were so few patrons in the bar we began to talk about this and that. I told him about the weird thing that had happened to me early that morning.
I had convinced myself that it might be a good idea to try to begin each day with a clear head—no matter what might come down during the day. Whenever I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep—which was most days—I would drive down to the beach and go for a long walk. I couldn’t run because a few years before I had injured my right leg badly in a car wreck. You couldn’t tell, if I was standing still, but I walked with a limp. To be politically incorrect, which I mostly tend to be, I’m a cripple.
On this particular morning, the sun was just coming up over the horizon when my eye caught sight of something about thirty yards out in the water, rising and falling with the waves. It looked sort of like one of those black plastic garbage bags—but I wasn’t sure. I stood there for several minutes trying to get a clearer look, but whatever it was it just kept bobbing without rising any farther above the surface.
I walked another mile or so along the beach before turning around. When I got back to the place where I had seen the garbage bag, the tide had gone out. An all but naked guy in a black T-shirt lay face down on the sand. I knew immediately that the guy was dead, though I walked over to get a closer look just in case. He was no longer young—middle fifties I’d guess—but he was slim and probably in decent shape. One of those guys who take care of themselves. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to him.
t was an eerie moment. Early morning, the sun just above the horizon, the only sound the steady whisper of withdrawing water, and no one else on the beach but me and this dead man. I didn’t feel at all normal. Everything seemed to come into clearer focus than it had been in a very long time. Maybe I had never felt quite like this before. For a few moments I was in some timeless, placeless zone.
My car was only a couple of hundred yards away so I hurried over and called 911 on my cell phone. By the time I got back to the body, a few cops were already there. A moment later an ambulance wailed up. The cops asked me a couple of questions, but that was all. Apparently I didn’t look like a suspect.
The way Todd was listening to all this, I knew I had him hooked on my story. To tell the truth, I was still hooked myself.
By closing time, I was feeling a lot better than when I came in. Almost mellow, in fact.
“What are you doing after we close for the night?” Todd asked.
looked around, and it occurred to me that the near-empty room looked like I imagined that clean, well-lighted one in Hemingway’s story. I read that back before I dropped out of college the first or second time, and it had stayed with me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Guess I’ll go back to the apartment, have a nightcap and turn in.”
“I got an idea,” he said. “I know a little hole-in-the-wall place, a kind of sneaky Pete that stays open until everyone there goes home. Why don’t we stop by and have a few? I think I could ‘utilize’ a good stiff drink about now.”
“You’re on,” I said. It sounded like a plan.
Todd told me he’d been walking to work, not more than ten blocks, since his car was in the shop with a burnt-out clutch. They had installed a new one and the car was ready, but he didn’t have the cash right now to pay for it.
“That’s okay,” I said, “we can go in my car.” A good thing, it turned out, because the place he had in mind seemed to be two, maybe three miles from Harry’s.
Zeke’s place turned out to be a scuzzy joint—thick with cigarette smoke, filthy paint peeling from the walls—but there was no loud music and the liquor came in the same bottles as it did anywhere else.
“Here’s to a sweeping improvement in the state of our miserable lives,” he said as he raised his glass in a toast. I could see a slight trembling in his hand. I was drinking the usual, bourbon, and he was slurping scotch. Anyway, that’s how we embarked that morning on our first serious bout with the booze together. Serious enough that I was still not right two days later.
While we were drinking Todd told me parts of the story of how he had ended up in Charleston. He had lived in Mississippi for a bunch of years, married a drop-dead gorgeous ex-cheerleader and had a couple of kids, a girl and a boy, who were now in college.
He took out his wallet and showed me their photographs. I had to strain to see in the semi-gloom, but finally I made out the smiling faces of two teen-agers, both of them blonde.
e looked at them in what I took to be a melancholy way.
We’d had a good job at the time. Told me he had a talent for selling, consequence of which he eventually became a high-powered sales rep making 200 grand a year.
But there was a worm in the apple. He’d been drinking too much for years, ever since he’d been an undergraduate at Tulane. By the time he turned forty the drinking had gotten pretty bad. Real bad in fact. Definitely out of hand. His wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t slow down. They talked about it and both decided he would check himself into a clinic, try to dry out. It was tough going, he said, but he got himself straight and went back to work.
Things were okay for several months, until one night on the road, feeling tired and a trifle blue, he went out to dinner with three dudes from the same company. The guys were all bon vivants. Hard drinkers. He held out for a couple of rounds but then told himself, a couple drinks won’t hurt. I’ll have a few tonight and that will be it.
Yeah, right. We’ve all heard that one before. Sure enough, the slippery slope turned into a free fall. His wife was really pissed off then. She told him to get out, she didn’t want him around their kids. He was embarrassing her, she said, a public disgrace the way he talked whenever they went to a party.
So he moved out, settled back into the booze again, so much so that he had trouble keeping up at work. His sales fell off. He got desperate. His boss took him aside and asked him if there was a problem. Not really, Todd told him. It was just a dry spell, things would pick up soon.
“Money talks and bullshit walks,” Todd said to me, summing up the situation.
A few days later, after giving it a lot of thought, he went back to his boss and told him he was having some health problems, could he take some time off. The boss said okay.
So Todd went back to the clinic and dried out again. When he got out he threw himself into his old job, and before long he was hot again. Three months later he called his wife, told her where he had been.
“I feel good, Susan,” he said. “I’ve been sober now for over four months. I want to come back. I love you more than anything. I’m miserable without you and the kids. This time I’ve learned my lesson.”
I think she must have believed him. He had made all of his child support payments and even gave her extra money—a lot of it. He kept only enough scratch to pay his rent and buy food for himself.
Well, Susan let him come back. Why not? They had two beautiful kids and had been married for twenty years.
Things were great, almost like a second honeymoon. For a while everything was as good as it gets. It lasted for almost two years this time. Their lives were happy. He was back earning big bucks again, and she had been elected mayor of the small Mississippi town they lived in. Then, when he was completely convinced he had the booze licked, that he had become a new man, he had a drink one night at a party. It was okay. He enjoyed it and didn’t feel he needed another. After that he started having a drink here and there, always in control. Well, you know the rest. He lost Susan for good this time. And then he lost his job. In short, that’s how he’d ended up in Charleston, tending bar—of all things—and living in a tiny apartment.
At the end of his story he said, “End of story. End of the road.”
“There’s always hope,” I said.
“No, I don’t think so.” He sounded pretty definite. “There’s only one way to deal with things now. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“Come on, Todd, this is just a bad patch. It’s bound to get better. You need to hang in there.” Deep down I doubted that things were likely to get better for Todd. I knew they would for me.
“So what’s your unadorned hard luck story?” he asked.
“Ah, not much to speak of,” I told him. “I got tired of Lynchburg and decided to come down here to the coast for a while. Some friends told me that Charleston was a great town.” What I didn’t bore him with was the way my own drinking had caused me some problems—like losing my driver’s license. I had a decent car, an old Corvette that I had treated myself to when I finally got a Master’s degree in English after having graduated college at the tender age of 30. But here I was driving around with no license and no insurance.
“You got an ex?” he asked.
I shook my head. I also shook my head when he asked if I had a boyfriend.
“That surprises me, Rosie,” he said, “You’re a babe. What’s the world coming to?”
“I know plenty guys,” I told him, “but they’re all losers.”
“I don’t know, now,” he said. “Better laid than never.”
After I dropped him off I weaved home and fell into bed without undressing.
I woke up around noon with a killer headache. Took a couple of Tylenol and tried to go back to sleep without any success. So I forced myself to take a walk on the beach and actually felt better afterwards. On the return to my apartment I bought a copy of The Post and Courier and stopped at a deli for coffee and a Danish.
On the third page of the paper I found the story. I wanted to know how a dead, almost naked man had ended up on a beach where people walk and run every day. No one seemed to know for sure. There was no evidence of foul play. It seemed certain that he had drowned. But how did he end up in the water in the first place? A small unidentified rowboat had washed up on another part of the beach, so there was some speculation that the guy had committed suicide. It was too soon to tell, particularly since the body had not yet been identified.
By the time I got home, showered and dressed, and poured myself a hair of the dog, it was time to get over to the joint where I had been waiting tables. It wasn’t much of an establishment, and somewhat pretentious, but the tips were half decent.
When I entered the restaurant, Jake’s Bar and Grill, I noticed right away the guy with the leather jacket and long hair who had sat beside me at Harry’s the night I had first met Todd. He was sitting at the bar here as well. He caught my eye, smiled, and waved.
Just out of politeness I waved back.
At some point, he must have asked the hostess to seat him at one of my tables because not forty-five minutes into my shift, that’s where he was.
“How you doing?” he asked when I put water and a menu on his table.
“About as good as a buzzard in fresh guts.”
He chuckled at that. Then he ordered without looking at the menu.
Each time I passed by his table, he tried to chat me up. His name was Stu, Stu McBride, he told me. He had lived and worked in Charleston most of his life. He was an electrician. To tell the truth, I began to think he might be a pretty interesting guy—good looking, good natured, polite, and witty. And he actually seemed to be interested in what I had to say. Todd must have been mistaken in his negative judgment, I thought.
When I gave him the check, he said, “You’re a really attractive woman. Could I call you some time?”
Against my better judgment, I gave him my telephone number.
Apart from feeling tired, I had a good shift that day. I made above a hundred bucks in tips. It was all but inevitable when I finished that I would drop by Harry’s.
“Hey, partner,” Todd said, “what it is?” He had picked up this greeting from his days in New Orleans.
“Comme ci, comme ca” I said. “A hair of the dog might make things even better.” He probably suspected this wasn’t the first dog’s hair I had had today.
“Well, I don’t know now,” he drawled, “if this keeps up much longer maybe both of us will need some hair-ball medicine.”
I hung around until midnight when Todd closed up. We went back to Zeke’s where we had gone the night before and had a reprise. This time he seemed a bit different, solicitous even.
“Now I sure don’t want to preach to you, Rosie. God knows, I’ve had enough assholes preach to me about my drinking.” He looked at me carefully, as if to discern how I was taking this. “You’re a great drinking buddy, one of the best, and I sure wouldn’t want to give up the pleasure entirely,” he added. “But Rosie, you’re going at this at one hell of a pace. And I sort of feel I might be helping you along.”
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” I said, “I’m fine.”
“Okay, Okay,” he shrugged and immediately launched into one of his yarns. “This guy goes into a bar, and when the bartender asks him what he’ll have, the guy says a tonic water on the rocks. What? The bartender says. You’ve been coming in here for at least ten years, now, and you never leave until you’ve sucked down half a dozen double scotches. What’s up? The guy says that the last time he was in he felt real woozy when he left, and when he got home, he blew chunks. The bartender commiserates with him and says it’s no big thing—happens to all of us now and again. But you don’t understand, the guy tells him. Chunks is my dog.” Todd laughed louder than I did, but I have to admit it was funny, particularly given the occasion and our predilection for booze.
Stu McBride called the next afternoon. Pleasantries passed, he asked “How would you like to go out to dinner?”
“What the hell, I thought, why not? “Maybe,” I said. “When are you thinking of?”
“When’s your next night off?”
“How about then?”
“Okay,” I said, still feeling some misgivings. The last thing I needed was to get involved with another asshole.
“Whereabouts do you live? I’ll pick you up around 6:30.”
‘‘Better yet, I’ll meet you at Harry’s.” I didn’t feel comfortable having him know where I live. Not for the time being at least.
I got to Harry’s a bit early. Deliberately, so I could have a drink and maybe chat with Todd for a bit.
“Do you remember that dude—long hair, leather jacket—who sat down beside me and offered to buy me a drink the first time you and I spoke? I thought at the time he was trying to hit on me.”
“I do,” he said. “Bad news boy. Go out with him, you might as well be a cherry tree making friends with a tent caterpillar.”
“Well, I’m not real sure of that yet. Anyway, he came by the restaurant and then called a day or so later to ask me out to dinner. He’s supposed to pick me up here around 6:30.”
Todd grimaced. “I wish you good luck,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Take care of yourself.”
Eventually, Stu arrived and sat down beside me at the bar.
“Stu, this is my good friend Todd. Todd, Stu.” I gestured toward each of them.
“Hi,” Todd said good naturedly, though I knew his thoughts were less than friendly.
Stu grunted something. I couldn’t make out exactly what it was.
When we were leaving the bar, Todd said, “Have a good time.”
Once outside, Stu said, “Who the hell is that old geezer? He’s always coming on to you.” It was almost a snarl.
Whoa! I thought. This guy is ready to own me already. Not good. “He’s not coming on to me,” I said, “We’re just good friends and that’s important to me.” The words came out in a voice as cold and decisive as I could muster.
In spite of that rocky beginning, we had a great dinner at a place called Magnolia’s. Stuffed flounder to die for. And the conversation was good. Though he was a college drop-out, Stu was well-informed and witty and generally good with words.
After eating, we stopped by Zeke’s—which turned out to be a mistake. I was surprised he hadn’t known about the place. Anyway, three hours later—three hours of boisterous laughter and drink later—we were both shit-faced. To make a long story short, we ended up at his place fucking our brains out.
We lived in a trailer park just outside the city. It was sort of upscale for a trailer park—but it was still a trailer park. At least he was a good lover. As drunk as I was, I could tell that. He kissed like he meant it and was adventurous when we got it on. And to top it all off he didn’t neglect to tell me I was gorgeous. Beautiful. Big and beautiful. Given the fact that even with my bum leg I’m 6’1”—taller than he is—I knew for sure half of it was true.
The next morning, we toked up on some kind bud Stu just happened to have lying around, and though both of us had hangovers from hell, we had sex again. It was even better than the night before.
Eventually, it got to be that Todd and I would have attitude adjustment sessions at Zeke’s or some other joint one or two times a week. I began to see how haggard he looked. Soon enough we became really close friends. Dependent on each other in a way. There wasn’t any sex, not a hint of it. Well, perhaps a hint, though our relationship was really just a close friendship. We were bosom buddies. One night, we spent drinking in his apartment and crashed there. The next day, I realized I had left my bra in his bathroom. When I asked him if he had seen it, he swore he hadn’t. Later, I suppose feeling guilty about the lie, he told me he had it but said he wanted to keep it.
“Why on earth?” I asked.
“It smells good,” he said. “Just like you. It makes me feel I’m not alone.”
I let him keep it. Some time later he confided in me that he had never had sex with anyone but his wife. And that was all he had to say on the subject. It was one of the few times in my life I was good friends with a man who didn’t try to get me into bed.
One night, at Zeke’s, he asked about Stu, if I had been seeing him. He hadn’t mentioned him since the night I introduced them at Harry’s. The truth is, I had been seeing Stu, but I had been careful to stay away from Harry’s when we were out together. I was being the good woman trying to mediate between the men in her life.
Now, however, Stu and I were history. As painful and embarrassing as it was to do it, I told Todd the whole story. After all, he had warned me.
I had been seeing the guy for several weeks, I told him. One evening we had plans to go out to dinner. After work, I was supposed to come by and pick him up around six. But I got off from work an hour early and went directly over to his place.
The door was open when I got there, so I just walked into the trailer and gave him a yoohoo. As it happens, the bedroom door was open, and I could see them on the bed. The bastard had been fucking his “friend” and neighbor’s wife—a damn crack whore—when I arrived to interrupt his little session.
She saw me first. When he followed her gaze, he started and stood up. “Aw, Rosie,” he said coming toward me. “It ain’t what you think.”
“Fuck you Dickhead,” I said, and then I was out of there.
From this and some other stories I had told him, Todd could understand why I was gun shy about romantic entanglements. I probably didn’t have to tell him, though I did, that most guys were okay with my uneven step, but when we ended up naked together and they saw my withered leg, they had a tendency to lose interest pretty soon. And here it was again, same old, same old.
Drinking wasn’t the only thing Todd and I did together, but it pretty much served as the refrain. Some times were worse than others. We got really shit-faced one night and, as wasted as he was, he had to drive me home in my ‘vette. The only thing I remember was him driving way too fast down back streets and going through red lights.
I think he spent the night at my place, but when I came to life the next morning he was gone. Since I felt like hell, I had a few drinks until I started feeling a bit better.
Along about dusk, I don’t know exactly how I did it, I knocked over a lamp, and the light bulb broke. Feeling my way to the overheard light switch in the dark, in my bare feet, I stepped on broken glass and slashed my feet. When I finally turned the light on, I could see I was bleeding. Profusely.
Fortunately for me, it was Todd’s night off. I telephoned him. He said, “Sit down. Don’t move. I’ll be right over.”
He was there, it seemed, in less than five minutes…and he was relatively sober. He washed my cuts, put antibiotic cream on them, and bandaged my feet. Then he cleaned up the mess.
Since I couldn’t walk, we sat around, talked, and sent out for some gourmet Italian food. It would have been a restful, quiet evening if we had quit early. But we didn’t.
He embarked on a three-day blow and slept in the same bed for the next two nights without taking our clothes off. When we got up in the morning we’d have a beer or three just to get going before we started in on the hard stuff. The evening of the third day I got so wasted I don’t think I was capable of making any sense. While Todd was taking a nap I telephoned some of my close friends back in Virginia and elsewhere.
You know that routine. Reaching out. Except for Jack, my mentor and former English professor who now lives in New Orleans, they all hung up on me. As drunk as I was, I could hear the concern in his voice.
After that particular performance Todd tried to talk me into chilling for a while. Which I did. We started having some good quiet times together. Would sit home and read, and listen to his fabulous Motown collection. Sometimes, when we could afford it, we would go out to interesting restaurants to eat, and we got in the habit of renting movies. Several times we watched his favorite film, Duel in the Sun with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones. We even drove to the beach one weekend. I started reading books again, and believe it or not, I tried to write some new poems.
One slow night I was at Harry’s, sitting at the bar talking to Todd between drink orders, when Stu walked in. I hadn’t seen him since the day I found him screwing the neighbor’s wife. He had on his leather jacket and was obviously half drunk. He glared at me and he glared at Todd. Then he and the buddy he was with racked the balls and selected some cues.
Todd and I exchanged raised-eyebrow glances and resumed our conversation.
Fifteen or so minutes after Stu had come in, he sidled up beside me where I was standing at the bar, still holding his cue as if between shots. “How you been?” he asked, forcing a smile.
“What business is it of yours?”
“You don’t need to get all wrapped around the axle, Babe. We don’t need to be enemies.”
“We don’t need to be anything. Don’t bother me. Just go back to your game.”
“Aw, come on Rosie,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. It nauseated me just hearing my name coming from his lying mouth.
I shrugged him off. “Keep your paws to yourself, asshole.”
That did it. There were only a few people in the bar, but they were all talking loud and laughing and having a good time. When I all but shouted, “asshole,” however, the place went silent. All eyes were on us.
“Bitch! You don’t get away with calling me asshole,” he snarled and slapped my face. Hard.
I stumbled and then regained my balance. My skin was burning. I was mad enough to tear into him, was about to, when Todd came hurrying around the end of the bar toward us. I knew he would do what he had to do to protect me, but he was too old and too out of shape to deal with Stu.
“I’m going to kick your faggot ass, old man,” Stu yelled.
I knew something really bad was going to happen.
Stu had reversed the ends of the cue he was holding so the handle became the business end of a club.
Todd didn’t back off. He tried to shield himself with his forearms while grabbing at the cue. Stu clubbed him repeatedly until I tackled him from behind. A couple of women were screaming, and the only other young guy in the bar was circling around Stu, waiting for a chance to grab the pool stick. Stu’s buddy had booked.
I have no idea what would have happened if the cops hadn’t come busting in. Obviously, someone in the bar had called 911.
Stu, with me trying to restrain him, was still trying to whale on Todd when the cops cuffed him, asked a few questions of the bar patrons, and hauled his sorry ass out to the squad car.
Surprisingly, apart from a small gash on his forehead, and his forearms that hurt like hell, Todd was okay. I used a tube of Neosporin and small box of bandages they kept behind the bar to dress his cut.
I hung around until his shift was over. Then we went to Zeke’s.
s soon as we had drinks in our hands, Todd said, “This guy with a frog on his head goes into a bar. ‘Where in God’s name did you get that?’ the bartender asks. To which the frog replies, ‘It started as a pimple on my ass’.”
We both needed a laugh.
Four or five months after Todd and I met, we decided to rent a house together. Our apartments were small and tacky. Together we could afford a comfortable old house, maybe something with a patio and a back yard where we could barbecue if the spirit moved us. Maybe it would even make us feel better about things. I had eased back some on my drinking and the world seemed to be a clearer place.
But Todd was definitely deteriorating, and I thought living together might have a positive influence on him. By that time, he was drinking two liters of scotch or vodka a day. His hands had swelled and he’d begun to go through periods of near catatonic depression and reclusiveness. It took me a month of looking, but I found a great old two-story house on a quiet, leafy street. Three bedrooms, living room with fireplace, dining room, two baths, and a large kitchen. The whole nine yards. A thousand bucks a month. I rented it on the spot and put a half-month’s deposit down until I made the rest in the next few days. Todd would pay me back.
That evening, all excited, I dropped by Harry’s to tell Todd about it. But he wasn’t there. The fill-in bartender told me he had called in sick. Said he had a bad cold. I remembered that he’d complained about coming down with something the night before when we were having an abbreviated session at Zeke’s.
“I’ve got a bad cold,” he said when I called him. His voice was hoarse and he sounded all clogged up. When I told him about the house he seemed pleased, excited even. We agreed we’d move in just as soon as he got to feeling a little better.
he next day I came down with the same crud and was laid up for a couple of days before I could go back to work. The first day back, soon as I knocked off, I dropped by Harry’s. Todd was still out sick. So I had a drink or two.
This guy I had seen hanging around from time to time comes over and sits beside me on a bar stool. He offers to buy me a drink, but I point out that I already have a full one. The usual routine. Not taking the hint, the guy starts trying to hit on me. Right, I think. The last thing I need to do at this moment is get involved with another loser. So I finish my drink, excuse myself and go home.
Later that evening, when I had a buzz on, I called Todd at home. There was no answer, so I thought he was feeling better and had maybe gone over to Zeke’s. Feeling worn out, I decided to turn in.
Before going to work the next afternoon, I called him again. Still no answer. I started to get seriously worried by then. While I was at work I called a couple more times with the same results. I wondered if he might have caught a Greyhound up to Virginia where his kids were in school. He had mentioned he needed to do that soon so as not to lose touch.
After work I went by Harry’s expecting to see him for sure since it was his usual shift. But the substitute was still there. Todd, I wondered, what is going on? I called one more time, and when there was no answer, I decided to drive over to his place to check on him. Perhaps someone in the same apartment building had seen him around.
Something was definitely not right when I pulled up in the parking lot. Several police cars, lights flashing, were parked near the entrance. An ambulance was there as well. Whoa! I looked for the least conspicuous place in the lot and parked.
Going up the stairs to the second floor where Todd lived, I heard the murmur of voices above me. In the second floor corridor several of people were standing around outside Todd’s door. It was open.
And then it hit me, the smell, rank, almost overpowering. “What’s going on?” I asked one of the bystanders.
“Guy who lives here is dead,” she said. “We could smell something bad for the last couple of days. Someone finally figured out it was coming from here. So we called 911.”
She seemed somewhat self-important in telling me this, as if it gave her a privileged insight into things. It was all I could do to keep from crying. I wanted to slap the shit out of her.
“That guy over there knows one of the cops. He says they think he killed himself. There was an open pill container near the body and a note apologizing to some woman named ‘Rosie’.”
“Stand back,” a cop said, and then a couple of rescue squad guys came out of the apartment carrying a stretcher. A plastic sheet completely covered the body lying on it.
I felt sick then, and in order not to vomit in the hallway, I hurried down the stairs in front of the guys carrying the stretcher and managed to make it behind the hedge that skirted the complex before I lost it. The two guys must have seen what I was doing. They probably felt sorry for me.
They put the stretcher in the ambulance; by then I was crying full throttle. When the ambulance pulled out, I walked back to my car, barely able to see for the tears running from my eyes. There was no point in holding anything back. So I just opened the floodgates and cried like a baby. Then I sat there in the car until the tears dried on my face.
When I pulled out of the lot I had no idea where I was going at first. So I drove around aimlessly for a while until deciding it might be a good time for a walk on the beach. I parked in my usual place, put my Nikes on, and set out.
Oh, Todd! I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wasn’t sobbing out loud, but tears were flooding out of my eyes. Why couldn’t you hold on? You would have been happy living in our house.
I thought about the guy’s body that I had found just about where I was walking right now. I thought about myself, about where I was going.
Fuck it I said out loud, and I walked back to my car. I pointed it toward Harry’s. I needed a drink.