To look at them you'd think they worked hard, the way they complain about not being able to put up with conditions here another second. I listen to them, wondering if they've ever really worked, if they've ever lived at all, to be truthful, because they're never thankful. About anything. Their complacency about their jobs is astounding, but they're not so complacent that they regard what they do as worthless. No, they fight hard when their backs are against the wall and they have to justify their salaries, their precious place in the company. When the battle is over they sink back and resume griping about things soon enough. But I don't want to give the impression that I'm ecstatic with things here. I'm glad simply to be paid in these times. So I complain too, just enough to fit in. Camouflage. It pays to go unnoticed.
Where I work doesn't matter so long as I work, even though I hate the job, not because of the people but because it's deadening. When there's work to do things are different, a different kind of boring. But at least the day ends sooner and I can get out and enjoy life. When things slow down here it's murder—killing time, injuring eternity, as Thoreau wrote. Here I cast about for something to push the day along, read what I can, listen, and try not to socialize much with the whiners. Every morning it's the same thing. The hellos . . . the worst part of socializing is just before the hellos, when you have to look at them and smile, right before saying hello. For the rest of the day we all have fetishes to occupy our minds. A few of the complainers play with the equipment, tear it down to see how it works, put it back together the next day. Others look through old accounts, see where somebody probably now in an old folks' home hasn't paid up, make phone calls. Some catch up on filing, others tend the plants. I try to keep unnoticed, read a book and stay away from the politics, the little point-making they work at to whittle away the hours. If we had a boss who came in regularly I suppose things would change, but even a new boss couldn't alter the fact that fewer people are buying what we're selling.
That's something specific they complain about, the office staff think they'll be fired any second once overhead gets too stiff or when there's a budget brought down somewhere, in Indonesia say, or Columbia, or the United States, and it affects the coffee industry or whatever the hell Indonesia sells, or automotive parts, and the whole world crumbles, taking their little worlds with it. About time, I think, for a shake up. Too much around anyway, but that's the common rant right now and I don't want to be part of that. Everyone says we have too much, and the boys I hang around with agree, they say everybody has too much, give it to them. I used to be like that too.
I say the world needs pruning all over. Not just possessions or money but everything. Don't stop at the surface. People here don't like that kind of talk so I keep shut. Not that I'm a socialist or something, I just figure the world is going through a change whether we like it or not, whether we can label it or not. I'm not a millennialist but others around here are. They're not evangelists, mind. When they look around with disgust masking incomprehension at how things have changed they pray for the world to return to how they think it once was. It won't. It's going to go bang. By the way, when they say "the world" they mean their world, but for them it's all the same. They want their jobs to be everlasting, never thinking we're not performing a vital service, and to listen to them our products are the only things holding the whole works together. I laugh at that, though never in anyone else's company. I look at this recession thing, as one brilliant statesman called it, as cyclical, simply a part of what that fellow Spengler wrote about, fellaheen cultures and all that. Here I keep this cyclical stuff to myself, no one wants to think they're only on the wheel of life or that everything's going through an evolutionary process and that their troubles aren't unique. That'd strip them of whatever dignity they think they have, make light of their assurances and comforts, the meal on the table, the dog in the kennel, the gas bill and taxes, everything that makes a home, they'd lose it if they thought there was something more to life than what they can touch. Not being an artist I can't take pride in being a pariah where I work, I'd stick out too much. I already do in other circles. Besides, a pariah among this crowd would be a waste, and I don't have much interest in stirring these people up anyway. What I think every day is at least for now I have a job, though the idea of not having one doesn't worry me, because I have one, I know, but really, it doesn't make me sleep any worse than I do when I think about losing it some time.
My friends don't like me working, although they don't come out and say that. They're stuck now, following years of being in grand jobs after graduating with degrees from places with fine names, like everyone else, and now doing things below their capabilities, as they say, resorting to driving cabs or working as salesmen to support themselves, or else not working at all. They can't find a way to look at what's happened to them, can't get outside the game, as I call it, and see what they look like or what might happen, never get distance between them and their troubles so they can be philosophical about it all. Because I do this they think I'm not upset about their problems, that I don't care. As for the people here, well, complainers, as I said, so someone who doesn't pitch in fully in that area isn't seen exactly as a slacker, but someone who thinks he's better. One day here I heard a remark I had to write down, it's representative of the way they think, someone said, "Democracy, there's no such thing, Laura." That's their world view. Comprehensive, portable. Things like that jam in my head and it's impossible to get rid of them. How do you take that kind of thing? Seriously, I mean?
At night while I try to sleep all the stupidity and bull the average person hears in twenty-four hours rushes through my head. Eventually the noise clears and my mind fills up with nothing, and soon I go to sleep. Although lately that's become problematical.
I'm being told regularly that I'm at an age and in a time where there's nothing to hold on to. I'm part of a really lost generation, the magazines say. I've never felt it, but when bored rich kids in the U.S. think they don't have anything worth much in their lives they figure everyone feels this way. Romantics, I think, let them complain. Hopefully they'll cause no harm. Maybe they'll even grow up. But like me they're hitting their mid-thirties now and aren't doing too well inside. A lot have money, but not much else. Like my friends, which is the story here, not me. They subscribe to the belief that there's nothing reliable in the world any more. I disagree, and we fight about that now and then. We hung around together when we were young, had similar hobbies, but eventually took different roads. Getting together after some years made old dislikes surface. We broke up originally over a girl, if you can believe it, five guys over one girl. Sounds like a weird group of sex addicts or like we were all in love with her. Nothing could be more wrong.
She wasn't pretty, but she probably thought she was. She couldn't even be called plain. No, her face had a slightly scrunched look and her mouth was always open a little. She had dark brown hair over those squeezed together features, but she could laugh and tell stories and she had breasts and a vagina and was the closest we had come to sex. She was going out with one of us, Colin, and Arlene wanted to be friends with his four friends. Admirable, you'd think. Except she wasn't friendly if you didn't behave on her terms, admire her in the way she preferred, do as she asked without questioning, put her opinions above yours. I know how that sounds, before I go any further, how stereotyped I make her out to be, but stereotypes are sometimes accurate. Every woman knows what guys are "really" like, am I correct? Anyway, the other guys, Charlie, Frank, Owen, they were struck by her, but I thought she couldn't be trusted, and that made me odd man out. I'm not bitter, I've grown out of that. You just have to know the background.
–Says you're cold to her, you don't like her. What is it? What's the matter with you?
–Cold to her?
–Gonna have to change, Lou. I mean, we mean, change how you treat her, and us.
–What do you mean, change?
–Treat her better, be friendly to her.
–Have I ever been unfriendly, Frank? Ever?
–And what is it you want changed? Who asked you to come here and say this to me? It was her, wasn't it?
–Just tired of it, that's all. You could be a little nicer.
As I read it then, and think of it now, she put them up to it by complaining and they got their hormones mixed up with their brains and thought, Gee, if he'd change then we could all be a happy family. I don't know if Colin thought that, but he was the one getting occasional relief from her, though I don't think they went all the way then, not yet, but if it made getting his end in easier he would have been for it. They fell for her and forgot about me. Until she came along we never had any serious problems. Oh, sure, the odd argument, always patched up, but when she saw she couldn't be comfortable around me I was frozen out.
Still, as I said, no sour grapes about this. There were other things that could have done it. She just happened to be the reason for it, the circumstance. Years later, when the guys and me got back together, half by chance, half by design, when we talked about this Frank couldn't remember saying such a thing, denied it. He honestly believed he never said those words. I saw that in his face. As for what Arlene said, this coldness, that was her opinion. But Charlie, the quiet one, he'd seen it too, he thought. A guy from high school died of leukemia after we graduated. I don't think many knew he had it. I never liked the bastard, a bully, a smartass, and when I heard he'd died I said good, less garbage in the world. Charlie freaked, never looked at me the same again, not that he was over-friendly with the fellow, but he got along with him. Also, he was hit by death, the fact of it among us, and we were young. Let me be clear that I never wished that fellow to get sick and die, I simply took advantage of his death to be happy. I see nothing wrong with this. It's not something I can feel bad about after so many years without lying about my feelings. Charlie and I never talked about it, so maybe it rests there in his ideas about me, colors them.
They're all back now, Charlie, Frank, Colin, Owen, doing their little things to keep going, a couple married, a couple not, and a few other guys from the old days are around too. I see them once in a while and feel like I'm in some time warp where these people are still listening to what they told each other when we were young. Stephen King country, if you know what I mean, remembering days of innocence. Most of them can't stand growing up, except for being able to drink and have sex whenever they want. I couldn't stand to be as young as I was, and waited for every year to pass so I could leave all kinds of garbage behind me. These guys were, so it turned out, part of that.
I heard a song called "Me and the Boys" by NRBQ, and when I taped it I wrote down the words. It fits these guys perfectly, all of them stuck in some groove where they don't have to think about what life is like. "Wherever we're going we'll soon get there," the song goes. Well, they've been somewhere, but all failed, and now they're at square one, waiting for luck to rescue them, thinking life is some tide that isn't high now but soon will be, when they could be drying out on a beach well above the watermark. I don't mean to be condescending, but they don't know much for educated people, and now they're whining and complaining about They and Them and The Others who have everything in the world. All they want are better jobs, or their old jobs, and they're tired of seeing foreigners coming here and working a couple of months later, speaking English, doing okay. These fellows say, What the hell? How do they get a job? The answer to that is simple, the jobs are too low for my friends to consider taking them. These fellows see an East European slopping up a floor or throwing patties on a grill and wonder, How did he get that? No way they'd bend over to do that and forget their pride, and that explains why they resent me and my not caring too much about my future or what might happen in my job. They believe I don't treasure it enough, and because I've no thoughts on working up the ladder they sneer at my lack of ambition. I guess I don't have to spell this out for you but they think I look down on them, patronize them as they say.
–Lou, where do you get off treating us like dirt? asks Frank.
–When do I treat you like that?
–Always. You never know it, but always. Can't you—
–Are you the elected representative for the guys? Do you always ask things on their behalf?
–Don't know what you mean.
–You still don't remember years ago coming to my house and asking—telling—me to change how I behaved?
–Yes, that again.
–You keep bringing that up. Don't remember it.
–So? Does that mean it didn't happen? Now I'm patronizing. Are you always the one to draw the lot to come talk to me?
–Lot? I came because of your problem, not mine.
–Problem, is it? Great. What is it this time?
–Don't talk to me like I'm a child.
–Like a child? Where do you get that from? Do you hear yourself? Do you guys sit around and look at yourself as much as you do me? I hope so.
–This isn't about us, it's about you. Stop changing the subject.
–Okay. I'm all ears.
–This is it. We're tired of you complicating things on us. Not like going to a movie and then changing plans, but things.
–I'm not understanding you.
–Talking the other night after you left, after you convinced Charlie he doesn't exist, it came up. He's not dumb, you know. Should have seen him. Then, what you said about Ray Mellon, well. But it's Charlie—
–Now hold on, I didn't say Charlie didn't exist, he was an example, I mean I tried to prove something. He said something and I tried to prove the opposite, just a discussion, fun—
–He didn't think so, after.
–After, yes. We're not dumb, you know. People get the idea—no, you got the idea we are. That because I can't find a job I'm dumb, or Owen's dumb, and that ticks us off.
–Whose problem are we talking about now?
–It's impossible to talk with you like a normal person.
–Hold it, one thing at a time. When I left Charlie he was fine. Nothing wrong with him. What happened after?
–After? He got drunk, started shouting, practically tore the house apart looking for pictures of himself. When he found them he said look, I'm in these pictures, I'm alive, what the hell does Lou think he's saying? He went berserk, throwing pictures around, knocking over vases, breaking things. He scared Mona. And it's your fault.
–My fault. Because he got drunk and smashed some things.
–Because you upset him. Your fault, because he's still mad.
–I don't understand. He's mad because I beat him in a discussion.
–Discussion. He got angry? I don't understand.
–A little learning, Lou, is a dangerous thing.
–Which of your degrees taught you that?
–Don't make fun of me, I don't like that kind of remark. It's a hard time for us with degrees, the economy hurts the colleges and government.
–Hey, I have a degree. Don't make a face because it's a bachelor's. I went to trades school too. So don't make fun of me because I'm self-educated. Don't pull class distinction on me, understand? You say I've got a little learning? Jesus, you really don't know me, do you?
–Who's talking class distinction? We come from the same neighborhood. We know you, goddamn it, and if you only thought how what you said hurt Charlie, angered him. I'm talking about an argument here and you—sorry, a discussion, I know you're sensitive on that point, you take it, blow it up out of proportion, make it a mountain. Charlie is angry, very angry. And what you said about Ray. Not very nice, was it?
–We were talking about a guy nobody could recall.
–That he might not even have existed, for what we—
–He does exist! He does! You're doing it again.
–I mean, no one could think of his name for the longest while. We, what? went around and around trying to remember him, telling about what we knew of him, and no one could think of his name.
–Which is when you said . . . ?
–He was defined by his absence.
–You told us he didn't exist! Just like Charlie.
–It's not the same thing. I meant we couldn't see Ray at all because we couldn't picture him, in our heads, and that all we had were memories of things he used to say. No one knew Ray. No one could describe his face. It was as if—
–As if he didn't exist.
–No, as if—
–Try to weasel out of this one.
–He didn't have a name, the most essential part of you, when you think about it, who you are. He didn't have that, not for a long time, till we got out that yearbook. No . . . identity. Isn't that perfectly understandable?
–You wonder why we think you talk down to us.
–Oh, so it is all of you? You were elected to tell me this, were you? Well, tell Charlie his pictures don't exist except in his head because he was taught they exist.
–He'll love that.
That kind of conversation goes around and around, maddening, like an itch that won't stop until you soak in a bath and wash it off, like I think I'll have to do with these guys. Let them go, without even waving goodbye. They sense I could do this and, not surprisingly, resent that I could say so long to them without hesitation. If they provoked me, that is, not just because. They forget they did it to me and won't be reminded of that. Instead they wait for me to screw up and lose my job, in order that I'll become humble, but even then they won't have the full satisfaction you get from seeing a chum fail because I don't worry about it. I do my job, keep myself busy, hunker down in rough times and survive nicely. I'm not one of those guys who bitches all the time. I know where my true interest lies, and my job isn't part of that.
There are people where I work who live for the job because they don't have anything else. The widows and widowers, they need the money and don't have much else to look forward to in their day, while some of the others are gunning for a management spot they think will set them up for life. I wish them luck. Particularly the widowed ones, because what else do they have? No one to talk to any more, not really, except each other, they comfort each other, but no husband or wife to talk with. They miss that, you can tell, it's in the way they adhere to every company policy that ever existed, the regimen they follow, the catechism they preach to newcomers like me every chance they get. I pity them, to be truthful. I know a little what it's like not to have some partner with you in life.
My friends in fact wonder about me and women, because they never see me bring one round to their houses to meet their wives or the girlfriends. They wouldn't understand my choices, although they might have when we were younger, but we'd split up by the time I joylessly lost my cherry to some older woman who'd been sterilized. I don't say she had the best afternoon of her life either. She was dumpy, too much weight around her face and belly, and I wanted someone to teach me things. No luck there. Her two kids, girls, played outside her mom's room while she entertained her male friend. I never knew when I came, worrying around in her smoothed crack, but at some point I felt as though my balls had increased ten times in size. She let me up, telling me it was over, and then I slipped away home, aching, dragged out and dying for some sleep. A pretty cold way to initiate myself, right? I never saw her again, avoided her, and when I tried the same stunt with another older woman I couldn't even get it up. For two years I was, as we used to say, fuckless. Then I met a girl I would have given my heart to, but she had other plans, and after her, well, that's not important to the story of these guys. I was just giving some background.
For the last while I've been happier thinking about my life, what it's worth, what my purpose is, all that. Sex is pretty much well down the list, but I do dream of sex. Sometimes when I'm on the way home from work on the bus I play a game to occupy the time. If there are seven people on the bus, forgetting the driver, I wonder what it would be like if we were stranded on a desert island all of a sudden, just as we were. There might be a good-looking girl on board and I'll try to figure out which guy she'll go with, or who that guy would like, or, on a different tack, if that old man or woman over there will survive the first week. As I say, this has to be something you'd do alone because there wouldn't be any fun sharing it. The first time I did this was when a truly exceptional beauty, a tourist she must have been, getting on the bus with some friends, most of them female, students I think, said, looking around the blue interior, –I feel like I'm in a liqueur bottle. A sense of humor wins me every time. Playing the game became a kind of habit with me, and I'd sometimes picture someone else playing it, looking at me and the other passengers, doing the same Noah's Ark thing. Well, it's not Noah's Ark, but you know what I mean. Sometimes you wonder how close to homo sapiens man is when you look at some of the people who use buses regularly.
When I play this game I'm tickled to see a hunchback or someone afflicted get on board. That livens things up immensely. Doesn't do anything for the gene pool but it makes for bizarre combinations. Will that girl there stroke his stump of a leg, or that man nuzzle up to the woman with the strawberried face? Often there's this fellow, a hunchback, who whenever he meets this particular woman with two, I guess, permanently broken legs, shows incredible relief, because they can share disabilities. It takes the attention away from only one of them, too. Maybe they play their version of my game where they wonder what their chances would be if left alone with these strangers on some island. I wonder if I could survive on an island by myself, but I'm too sociable.
Sometimes I get on board and see a friendly guy I met with a keen sense of humor for someone like him. You should hear Paul play Noah's Ark. He's the one person I play this with, because his choices and predictions are hilarious. He drools over some high-schooler who's gotten rid of the fat around his stomach. I think he's just looking for someone to break into who's not a disease risk, myself. He told me he's gay but never done it, that he's sure he's that way but is too scared to try, because he doesn't think he can trust anyone not to infect him or hurt him. Never mentions love, but did I when I wanted to lose my cherry? He once tried to convince me that inside every heterosexual was a homosexual yearning to be free, and that I, for example, was a homosexual, because statistically speaking one out of every ten people is like that. Alarmed, I thought quick and said that inside every homosexual was a heterosexual dying to get out. He shut up, and that day's conversation ended there. My friends, Colin particularly, they'd hate this guy, if they could they'd lock him away for life. I don't talk about him to Frank or Owen because they'd get wrong ideas. Not seeing any girlfriends and all that. A suspicious bunch, about homosexuals male and female, about everything, in fact. A sign of the times.
Like a lot of people these days my friends don't place much trust in this new world order that's been ushered in. They hate foreigners taking over jobs a North American could do, they hate Jews and blacks on principle, and women who assert themselves in any way, most especially in offices and the like. They sense there's nothing guaranteed them any more, and they're absolutely right. Owen, unemployed, never did a job in his life that didn't call for a suit and tie. Not even when putting himself through college. Never sullied his hands. That was for the lower types. Now he's caught without anything, won't do things below his training. He tries to present a case for himself.
–Umm, you think you're better 'n Frank or me because you go out and sell to people who are just—
–I work in the office, Owen. I used to have to go outside, yes, when I was in sales.
–So? So? Does that, ah, mean what you did for a living, do for a living, you don't any more, is it any better than what I do?
–Did. You don't understand. I said that you never schlepped things around, getting dirty, not even so much as a stockboy or bellboy or garbage man—
–Answer my question.
–You always had jobs handed to you, easy jobs, things that never made you break out in a sweat.
–I can't believe you, that—you're saying I didn't work? I, ah, worked, smart boy, you know that.
–You never worked where you were stepped on every day. You never were afraid when you went to work that you'd be tossed out, that no one would even think twice about getting rid of you. Did you ever have to swallow all the anger you'd feel when someone insulted you? Never. Never in your working life, Owen, which as I say is in the past now.
–Smug bastard, let—
–Put it to you this way. You always had the desk to lean on, the chair cushioned under your backside, the faithful garbage can empty at your side. There are jokes about what you did. Why does a civil servant only put his right foot up on the desk in the morning? He's saving the left one for the afternoon.
–You rub it in, um, you rub it in, just wait till you're out of work, smartass.
–You don't talk down to me, pal. Don't come into my apartment and try to tell me I should feel this way or that. Let me tell you something, this is the truth. You never worked at anything that didn't make you more than enough money to buy what you needed, and plenty left over. Right? Was I hallucinating, or did you have a few cars in your time and wild times, vacations, the works? Yes, you did, don't glare at me, pal, and you know—you know—I never had that. Never. Whose fault is it you've got so little now? Not mine, no, and I'm willing to bet you'll say it wasn't yours. Well, that's beside the point. What matters is how—
–This is nuts, this.
–Didn't you always laugh at me for being worried? I got that out of my system, thank God, I saw how things were—
–And how is that, wise man? What did God say to you, umm, he didn't want to tell us?
–And now it's your turn to feel squat on. By the world. But you want to wiggle out of it, avoid being pissed and shat on. You sure as hell had a soft life, easy jobs, office jobs, didn't even have to sell things, never had to use any muscle in what you did.
–Think! I thought! They paid me to think! You know that! Something you never did cleaning toilets or pumping gas. What future do you have, huh? What, um, horizons, what's in your future? Anything?
–I'll survive. I don't have much in the way of furniture, as you can see, but I don't have debts, and I did save money. Economy. But you? You don't know what to do without the dough you used to have coming in. And about me thinking, or not thinking, you're like a whole lot of other guys, small-minded, thinking education for everyone is fine but you don't like those who find out things for themselves away from professors and classrooms. You think a janitor or a plumber or a mailman or me, that we can't think about anything but . . . what? Beer and cigarettes? Fried food? Home repairs? Wrong. You condescending—
–Look who's talking, the guy who, ah, doesn't like anyone in his office. Dope.
–Do you and Frank get together to see who'll put me down next? I'll tell you something. This is a story, true, but a story.
–Another damn story. Who are you going to quote this time?
–You always quote from somebody or other, to show us what you're reading, how, um, tiny our brains are.
–You're speaking for yourself on that one, ace. None of the others thinks his mind is small. I worked a rotten job when you guys were pulling in the big money, and I had nothing except that job. No insurance, no girlfriend or wife—
–There's still no girl.
–Give it a break. I didn't have a home, I had a small cell in some brown building in a filthy street. Okay? And I went to that job, and the boss, he had an ego the size of this city, and he was great at one particular thing, laying out blame. When he screamed at me for nothing, when he changed his mind so many times I wondered who was crazy, or if my ears were going—but I outlasted him. I held on for almost two years, past the time he left. I stayed on because it was a job, and I was thankful to have that. That job taught me a lot of things, patience, how to take shit, how to work along the edges of what I could get away with and what I couldn't. All so I'd have enough to live on for the month and if I was lucky some left over to save. Not enough to impress you with your bank roll, Owen, but I got by. You, with your almighty civil servants' union behind you, wouldn't have to even think of taking what I did, would you? You'd have him disciplined.
–Damn straight. That's what unions are for. Protection.
–I didn't have that. It was only me. So you talk to me about all my faults and I can take it, more than you'll ever be able to give, because of that. Adversity.
–Yeah, yeah, and you walked fifteen miles to school in rain and snow when you were a kid. Ah, it's the same old crock. You had your experiences, I had mine, but, um, we're supposed to compliment you, right? Admire you. Particularly now, when, ah, um, I'm on welfare, I ought to look up to you, right?
–You missed the point. It's because you had it soft early on, from, sixteen? Now life's not as sweet as you thought. You laughed at me sweating out a living, didn't you? When we were younger.
–You were funny. Sure. But we were younger.
–Now I'm older. And you can't stand to see me as more successful.
–Successful!? Look around you. Do you ever see yourself? Do you ever look in the mirror and really see yourself? Because if, to think, that you're a success—
–I'm making money. I've never had to do without because I've never had much, but now you do, you've got your tail between your legs, mooching off friends and family, you're a . . . a gaberlunzie, for God's sake, come back here after failing elsewhere.
–A what? A what? Gabber-
–Gaberlunzie, it's Scottish, means a wandering beggar.
–You fuck, um, you dumb fuck, one of these days your head's going to be taken right off, d'you know that?
–It won't be you, Owen, not in a million years. I've had to take a lot of shit in my time, and I won't let anyone, old friend or not, talk down to me. You brag about your education, but never once think the average guy, as you'd say, has anything on his mind, does anything but read crap books and watch senseless movies. How many people out there were in your classes? How many people are intelligent? They're a dime-a-dozen! You're only one of them. You're not part of some elite. If you were a genius then that might be different. But you're not. You think everyone who's intelligent has to come out of some place of higher learning stamped with Doctor of this or Master of that. Let me tell you something—
–Hold it, shut it. You, ah, don't you call me a beggar. You half-assed, pompous . . . You make that kind of remark, to me? I had some bad luck, don't you understand that, bad luck, and now I can't find work. Don't you, isn't that—compassion! Do you understand compassion? What about that, ah? You talk about spirit, see what you did to Charlie, rattling him by telling him he isn't living, what crap. Do you care about anybody?
–Well it must be the man in the moon. It isn't me, not after calling me a beggar—and don't use a fancy word, gabber whatever, that doesn't make it better. Compassion! Damn it, don't you listen when people tell you things that bother them? So smart after all your life, ah, after your, what was it, adversity, can't you spare a bit of compassion for us, don't you care about me, your friends?
–You're such a paragon, Owen. You embodied virtue when you were young, didn't you?
–Don't talk to me like that, I go to church, and I'm not Charlie, impressed by the sounds you make. What do you mean, anyway?
–When you used to laugh at me, you were a kind, understanding fellow then, weren't you?
–That was years ago. Things change. We grow up.
–Did you? You're still miles—
–I couldn't have done any different, you couldn't have, no one could have, we laughed at everybody. That's part of being young. Or did you forget that you laughed at a guy dying?
–What do you mean, no one could have? I—
–No one wants to be taken for fags, no one. All that, um, stuff was for growing up. All that sensitivity and stuff women's libbers and positive thinkers fob off on people, that was for later, that crap. But you go on and on about how we treated you then, or about cutting you out of the group because you were such a pain in the ass—
–Forget her, why don't you? She isn't—no one knows if she's dead or alive by now! Are you compassionate or not? Do you understand what we're going through? It's a simple question. Answer me. A simple question.
–Yes, I feel compassionate.
–Oh, I'm convinced.
–What more do you want?
–You're not in a witness box, you could, ah, say a little more. Or is that too hard?
–You think I've got to sweat and feel and cry over the exact things you feel. That isn't so, and here's why. I don't think your case is so special. There are lots of people out of work—
–So you're compassionate to all of them? Serve in bread lines, do you? Do you have any idea what it means to lose your self-respect?
–Every day I worked in those jobs you laughed about I knew that feeling, and don't ever ask such a stupid question again.
–You in your Ivory Tower. You don't care about me, or Frank, having to start over—
–You talked about it being bad luck.
–Five minutes ago, but we've moved on. Can't I get you to pay attention to what we're talking about now? Stick to the, ah, what we were—
–You look at your bad luck and think, Gee, I'm out of work now, and that's bad luck. Particularly as you had such a cosy job. And you did have a cosy job, didn't you?
–I told you, I had to think for a living!
–Maybe the bad luck you had was in not doing rotten jobs for a few years so you'd be thankful for what you had, grateful for not having—
–What? Worked in the salt mines, like you? You make it sound like Siberia was the only place you knew.
–It made me hard, tougher, not like some little baby now that the world's taken away your rattle.
–You're a piece of work. Don't talk to me like that ever, um, ever. Calling me a beggar, now a baby. Who the hell do you think you are?
It always came down to that. Conversation with Owen always perked me up, made me ready to do battle, and there was something comical about the way he strained to look overly masculine when we discussed things. I never knew why he kept coming around. But I suppose it was inevitable, I seem to be one of those people who attract others, like a storm center or what have you, a psychic storm center. I'm the eye in it all.
Work's picked up a bit, the boss deciding to show his face, bark a few orders about inconsequential details. Housekeeping. For morale, I suppose, his, not ours, because times are terrible despite this little surge. Like with other bosses, tiny things drive him crazy when everything is going wrong, because he can't hope to fix the real problems. That's in the hands of Them or The Others, or politicians, someone or some group elsewhere, and that suits him at heart, despite his complaints. The managerial system is like that. I've been offered promotions when I stupidly allowed myself to stick out but refused them. They're too much hassle. You take a job as though it has possibilities and decide that a few changes wouldn't hurt, put your signature on things, establish yourself so to speak, and when nothing changes, when struggling doesn't work, you get depressed, lose whatever you had that made you seem special to the company, and then they find someone else with the missionary zeal. No, I keep low, draw lines around what I'll take, but never, never stick out. I'll keep my place long after these others have been fired. When you do enough jobs at different levels you get to know ropes some people don't know are there, ropes they tangle themselves up in after a while. I never knew, they'll say, that such-and-such was restricted or not possible. Because they never think about what lies beyond their grasp, never think how people view them except, Do I impress them? Is it smart backing X and not Y, and will X remember?
The guys I know reached for what they knew they'd get and now that it's been taken away they've lost their balance, they've tipped over and can't stop from hitting the ground, some faster than others. Charlie, who I hear is in a lousy mood, refuses to go to work. Something broke in him, at last. His wife doesn't know what to do.
–Can you help, Llewelyn? She called to ask me to visit him, though I could hear him sobbing in the background not to call me. –You're the only one who hasn't come yet, maybe he'll talk to you, he always talked to you. What can I—
–Are you sure? He didn't seem to want to see me, I thought.
–Oh, please. Please. Anything, if it'll help. He just lies there or walks around, all hunched up, like a . . . a . . . I don't know what to do, he won't eat anything, he eats but not, he just goes around and the children are afraid, he goes up to them and doesn't even touch them, tells them terrible things. Please.
–What sort of things?
–What? What things? Does that mat—that he isn't their, isn't their . . . oh God, their daddy, not really, they're not his kids, our kids, because Mommy and Daddy don't—no, Charlie, no! My God, he's got a knife! The phone slammed down so I decided to find out what happened.
–Hello, Frank? Llewelyn. Can you get over to Charlie's? Mona called and said he had a knife. You're closest to his place. She had to hang up quick. I don't want to call the police if it's just, you know, an incident. Frank called me later from Charlie's, breathing heavily. –Had me worried. He just wanted to make a sandwich, for Chrissakes.
–A sandwich? That was it?
–Yeah. No, no! It was a bologna sandwich, okay? That made twice the phone was slammed down on me. But I thought that a returning appetite was a good sign.
When I got on the bus the next day I ran into Paul, who was real excited. No Noah's Ark that day. He'd made a date for Thursday night with some guy who seemed sweet, so he said, and he was flying. His enthusiasm was infectious and I smiled with him.
–I'd seen him around before, oh, a year ago, with this girl, so I thought maybe he wasn't, but you know, she split up with him, I heard, because she found it too hard, get this, going out with a guy cuter than her. Doesn't that make your heart beat faster?
–No, Paul, it doesn't.
–Apparently it was like Sebastian and that teddy bear in the t.v. show Brideshead Revisited. Their friends were wondering which one was the teddy bear. That's the kind of couple they were. He's so cute, and slender, not thin, not a stick, slender. White skin, pale as alabaster.
–Have you ever seen alabaster?
–I read about it, isn't that enough? Don't mind me, I'm excited. After all, when you lost your virginity, weren't you excited?
–Let's pass over that.
–Sure, sure, whatever you say. Oh look, there's Len. I gotta tell him my news.
–Can you keep a secret? A new boy.
–Why didn't you and he connect?
–Not my type.
–You were being choosy?
–Ha ha. See you later. Len! Len! Guess what?
I feel sad for these guys. I know that isn't the way I should feel, according to being politically correct and sensitive to gay issues and the rest, but there it is. What a waste of a life. Surrounded by disease and shit. However, as the saying goes, Inter urinam et faecam nascimur, so we have that in common.
Paul didn't look concerned about this guy he was going to see. He seemed happy for once in what must be a generally miserable existence. He chatted to Len all the way home, and didn't wave out the window as he usually does when I leave. I waited for that, then the bus left with Paul bent over towards Len, his lips touching Len's ear. Unsettling. What with Charlie's funk and Frank and Owen angry at me, it wasn't surprising I didn't sleep too well that week, all kinds of noise in my head and my body twitching at night, which made me surly at work. I hoped the weekend would be better.
Colin pounds when he knocks, he doesn't tap or rap like the others. Saturday morning I woke to the door being nailed by his fists, and I didn't need that.
–It's... eight o'clock, for God's sake.
–Fuck God. Get dressed. What's this book about? Hmm, Paris Talks. Is it dirty? Obscene graffiti on the walls of toilets, or something? Oh, an Arab wrote it. To hell with that.
–Give me that. What is it?
–No time for porn now anyway. Charlie's in a bad way. We need to see him.
–What's he doing, making sandwiches again?
–Get dressed, will you? Mona called me, said you hadn't been by yet -
–I've been busy.
–So now you're not. C'mon.
–What's the rush? I tried to go see him but things got in the way.
–I forgot, your days are just packed. It's been how many days since she called you? Frank told me about it.
–It! Jesus, are you still asleep? That you called him the night Mona thought he was going to do something with that knife. Hurry up.
–Wait out here.
–C'mon, c'mon. Haven't got all day.
–Charlie's problem's not going anywhere.
–Why didn't you visit him?
–What? Wait till I get dressed.
–Why didn't you go see him?
–What? Wait, wait. Okay, I can hear you now. I couldn't get to see him, if that's what you were asking. I need to hit the -
–I knew that. Why not? What's more important than your friends?
–Look, I just couldn't.
–What was that?
–Don't give me a hard time.
–Hey, the phone's ringing, want me to get it?
–Yeah, I'll be there in a minute, whoever it is.
–Hello? No, I'm not—wait, wait, wait! Slow down, there, son. I'm not Llewelyn, I'm a friend of his, he'll be here in a min—a what?. . . No, you haven't. What? . . . What? . . . Hold on, just a—Lou, hey Lou. Get out here.
–I'll be there—damn it, it's Saturday, what's everyone—
–Hang on, will you? He . . . no, I said he'll be here, he's in the crapper . . . How the hell should I know, I'm here talking to you, aren't I? Lou!
–What's the matter? Hello? Wait a minute, who is this? . . . Len? Oh, yeah, Paul's friend.
–Who the hell's Paul, Lou?
–What's the—hold on. Colin, make yourself useful, will you? Go walk around the apartment, and—
–And what? C'mon, hurry it up, it's only a phone call.
–Dust, then, do something! I don't care—no, I didn't mean you, Len, I -
–Dust? Jesus. Who's Len? Who's Paul? We don't know any Paul. Or Len.
–Yes, Len, I'm here, no, just a... friend.
–Why's he so interested?
–Will you just go away for a minute?
–Sure, sure. But c'mon, man, we've got to get going.
–What were you saying? Paul, yes, he's . . . He's what? . . . He's . . . No, no, that can't be, he was fine when I saw him the other night, the both of . . . When? . . . They found him this morning? What happened? . . . Sweet. . . No. No . . . I don't, no, that can't be, like that.
–Jesus, flush when you're done, Lou. What a stink.
–How did he die like that? How did he . . . ? I don't understand, Len, what was it that killed him? . . . Shock? But I don't understand . . . Equipment? Hold yourself together, Len, tell me what went on. Something about medical equipment—will you close the door, I can't hear over the flush! No, what were you saying, I'm listening.
We didn't head over to Charlie's that morning. Colin left me alone after he learned a friend had died. It wasn't murder, the police had ruled that out. When the landlord went up to fix something in his apartment the previous night he discovered Paul. Flat out on the bed, naked. Len didn't have much information, but he knew the police had found some sort of equipment on the floor. They never found the guy he was with, no one even knew his name, though they described him as well as they could. After I hung up from Len the police called, having gotten my name from Paul's address book.
–About your friend, Paul. Where were you last night? Thankfully I'd been at the movies where a cousin of mine worked the ticket booth, so they ruled me out of having anything to do with his death.
–Paul's address book, you know it?
–Black one, yeah. Why?
–He kept two. One was hidden, had a deep red cover. Only a few pages in it. Small. Ever seen it?
–Know why he would keep it? A second one?
–In case he lost the black one? But, no.
–Can you be a bit more helpful?
–No, officer, I don't know why.
–Thanks. There are only six names in it, whereas in the other one there are about a hundred.
–Suppose you tell us.
–If I knew I would, but I don't. Look, why don't you just tell me—
–Are you gay?
–Are you gay? Hello? Answer the question, please.
–Are you sure?
–All right. I'll look into that.
–What do you mean, look into—what the hell is going on here?
–Just doing our job, sir. I'm sure you'd appreciate us doing all we can to solve this unpleasant case.
–Yeah, yeah. That's what I pay taxes for, pal.
–What did you say?
–What are you insinuating? That Paul kept that second book full of his gay friends? Is that what you're saying?
–That's an interesting theory, sir, what made you think of it?
–You imbecile, you did! You and your questions! Don't you think that was pretty obvious? Where did you get your badge, Wal-Mart?
–Sir, you really should restrain yourself. We know this is upsetting.
–You're the ones who are almost saying that I—and then you—what would you call Paul, in your station, you boys in blue, a fag? So you think every person he knows is one too?
–Did I say that word, sir? I don't believe I did. Say, why would you even use that word when you know that isn't what Paul called himself?
–In his letters, he had letters to him and one unfinished to somebody named Ralph, said he hated being the victim of fag bashing, if I recall his words accurately.
–Do you have anything better—
–Did you hate Paul, Llewelyn? Did you hate his type?
–I was friends with him, for God's sake, get off of that.
–Just checking. We have to be thorough. Do you know how he died?
–No. I mean, yes.
–Shock, I just got off the phone from a friend of his, he told me Paul had died.
–This friend, his name.
–What makes you think it was a man?
–Len. I don't remember his last name.
–No? Okay. He died because of shock, but you don't know what brought it on. Hello?
–Are you asking me? No, I don't know, just that there was some equipment there.
–Would you like to tell me about that, sir, about the equipment?
–I don't know anything about it!
–But you just said—
–Len! Len! He told me, I told you that, can you hear me? He called me up and told me he'd heard about some equipment, he didn't say anything more.
–Len again. Okay. Basically here is what happened. Two nights ago the victim went into his apartment with another man, which we know because there's evidence of another individual being there and there was one eyewitness who saw what looked like a man. In the course of the evening the victim kneeled on the bed. The victim had removed his clothes. Then the unknown man—whom we are not calling an assailant—positioned the victim, and with certain medical equipment separated the anus of the victim several inches more—
–than is natural or, in this case, healthy. We do not know what happened after that but we have an idea. The victim could not stand the procedure and died then or shortly thereafter. There is no evidence the victim had ever been penetrated before, and no semen was found, so the unknown man must have been alerted at some early point to the victim's condition, which, once ascertained, caused him to disengage the equipment and leave the apartment. We have fingerprints but nothing to match them with in our files. That doesn't mean we won't do everything to apprehend the man.
–That's all we have, for now, but we'll be in touch. Sir.
I spent a pretty rotten Saturday and couldn't stop feeling a crawling sensation up and down my body. The death appeared in the papers, on the radio and television, but not all the details. Colin kept the name Paul in mind, ringing me when he heard, asking if this was my friend. I said yes, without thinking, then he lectured me about who I hung around with, and Monday night Colin, Frank, and Owen showed up to hear me tell what I knew. Not about the death, they weren't interested in some fag dying, they wanted to know how I knew him. I explained, sweating for some reason, trying to give them the truth but they didn't believe the bus story at all.
–Don't think you were talking about him and his cherry in a bus, for God's sake, said Frank, speaking for all of them.
–It was in a bus.
–In a bar, a gay bar, that's where he told you this. Right?
–No. No. The room was very silent as they looked over to Colin.
–I started thinking. When I heard about this guy Paul, and you being friends with him, well. Would you care to explain that relationship to us, your friends?
–Maybe you're not, ah, yourself. Or something. That would explain things.
–You fucks. I happen to have a friend who dies horribly—
–Never knew him. It's different.
–A lot different.
–I don't believe this. I have a friend and he's gay—
–And he dies, from... well, he dies. And you think because of that I'm—
–Frank's stated it comprehensively.
–You're a bastard, Colin. You hate queers, I know that, why do you think I never introduced him to you? You'd chase him out—
–C'mon, c'mon, answer the question. Don't get defensive.
–Why do I have to defend myself to you, the cops—
–Cops? Have you done something to get yourself in trouble?
–We going to read about you in the papers?
–No no no. They just asked questions, because of Paul's death, asked if I was gay. I told them the same thing that I told you. You shits, you bastards, is that what this is all about? You just never had the courage to ask me if I was gay, after all those dumb jokes.
–C'mon, admit it, it's makes a good case. You being alone, read a lot, this life you're not telling us about—
–Colin, you're not a policeman, don't try to talk like one.
–Colin, let Lou relax.
–But you're not a faggot, are you, Lou?
–How many times do I have to say that I'm not?
–Colin, Owen, I believe him, he isn't one.
–He's odd, though, distinct, he might say. That's one of his words.
–Stop talking about me as if I'm not here. Get out, right now, out of here.
–Not yet. Something's got to be done about Charlie.
–Charlie? Charlie can go fuck himself, if he thinks anything like you guys.
–Relax, we were only looking out for you. Charlie doesn't know anything about what went on with your faggot friend.
–Would you stop using that word, Colin?
–You haven't been to see Charlie, have you, and I thought you'd go with us.
–Since we're all together.
–Because you've all been so nice to me tonight? Fuck that.
–Hey, hey, Charlie's your friend, remember? He always went to bat for you, Lou, always, even when you didn't know it, always supported you. You owe it to him.
–Colin's right. Charlie did okay until you talked to him, you know. Hasn't been the same since. Was on a knife edge and you pushed him.
–How did I push him, Frank? Are you still talking about that ridiculous talk we had?
–Discussion, you call them.
–Argument, Charlie called it. He raves about it. You have to see him. He's in a bad way, doesn't recognize us, barely knows Mona or the kids.
–Not tonight, not after this conversation. To think I'd be seen anywhere with you after this, calling me a homosexual and then—no, accusing me, accusing me of being one, and then thinking it's all right to do that, Lou's feeling don't count, let's pass on to someone with a real problem. As far as I can see Charlie's lucky not to know you any more.
–We were thinking about someone else, Lou. Mona. His wife? You know her, right? Remember her? The kids? She's been good to Charlie, stood by him. How do you think she feels? I think Owen had a little talk with you about being compassionate. Well, are you?
–Am I what, Frank?
–Quit stalling. Compassionate. Can you stop thinking about yourself for once and think of someone else?
–Yeah, Lou. Be a little more, ah, human.
It was then I freaked, started shouting and throwing things around. They left. I couldn't think. Talking to them was like being lobotomized in stages. All I felt was anger, so strong it made me shake, left me trembling long after they had gone, long after I went to bed, long after I dozed. Monday I tried to act normal at work but found myself in conversations I didn't want to be in, talking to people I'd kept at a distance. Even the boss looked at me, a bad sign. The day got worse. That afternoon they called me to the front desk and a policeman was there to see me, the whole office heard about it. We were given a private place to talk.
–I'm Officer Rich, I spoke to you on the phone.
–What is it this time?
–That second address book, the blue one, remember?
–You said it was red. Deep red.
–Just checking. We found out what it was for. We called everybody on that list. Did you have any ideas since we talked—
–Get to the point. This is on office time.
–Okay. They were all men he wanted to sleep with. The others told us they'd been approached by him one way or another.
–You mean pardon. He wanted to lose his virginity, if it's called that in these cases, with one of them. Candidates, you could call them. You were one. Did he ever ask you—
–No. No. Never.
–This must be embarrassing, I imagine, finding this out. You know, what if friends hear of it, all that.
–Is there anything—
–Sort of makes you think, doesn't it? I mean, how you—
–What are you saying?
–How you were perceived by the victim. How he thought of you.
–If there's nothing more.
–Funny, isn't it? He could have lived if he'd found someone trustworthy. But I guess he picked the wrong one. This list of six, very selective. His friend from that night isn't in it. The other phone book had men and women in it. I wonder, did you know any of his friends, aside from this Len character?
–No, not any of them.
–My ears aren't great, I've got a bit of tinnitus. It sounded like you meant something else. Are you okay? I know this comes as a surprise, being considered like that, but you'll get over it. You look rattled. You looked rattled when they asked you to see me. Anything you want to tell me, anything about that night?
–I don't know a thing about that night beyond what I said.
–Okay. At the memorial service you'll meet the other five, maybe. If they go. They took this news just like you did.
He left a few minutes later. I was too winded to think that afternoon, too confused to do anything. The boss took me aside and said to brace up, whatever was bothering me could bother me on private time.
The next night when I got home the phone was ringing while I unlocked my apartment door, and for a moment I imagined it would be Paul telling me about his date. I almost said Paul to the other voice on the line, Colin's, which would have started their gossip again.
–Now I am. Is this an apology? Because I'm not interested—
–Charlie's killed himself. Hello? Hello? Damn it, Lou, are you there?
–He killed himself, I said. This afternoon. Are you listening?
–Say something, damn it.
–This afternoon. With a knife, he stabbed himself in the heart in the bathroom. By the time they found him he'd bled to death. Hello?
–Mona, she and the kids—
–Funeral? That's being taken care of. It's Mona, Lou, Mona, she needs us now, to be around, to help see her through when she gets out of hospital. What with him losing his old job, then the one he had here, and the move back before that, they don't have much money. She can't work and take care of the kids.
–Hospital? Why is she in the hospital?
–Are you okay there, Lou?
–I'm not sure.
–I know it's a . . . well, shock, it's a damn good word. But you sounded funny when you picked up the phone.
–One of those weeks, I guess.
–What can I do?
–I could say it's a little late to ask.
–Don't start, Colin.
–Well, it's true. If you'd only visited him, only done what he'd have done for you, maybe he'd be alive today. Why didn't you? What kept you so damned . . . aloof?
–You don't want to start this conversation. You're upset, let's just—
–Upset? I'm furious! I miss him, I'm not upset. Upset is when your parakeet dies! He was a friend! My friend is dead! Don't you care about your friends?
–Not this again.
–The last time, trust me. Because we're seeing who gets into the funeral home and who doesn't. Mona can't, can she? Tell me, why didn't you visit him?
–I was busy.
–You didn't give a damn. You didn't care how he felt, did you, or how all of us feel! You're so wrapped up in yourself that you wouldn't even try to stand in our shoes, just to see how things were from this side. No compassion, no feeling. Told Owen he was a beggar, a cry-baby, treated Frank like dirt, and I can just think what you said about me. Something like, Colin's on the wheel of life, or in a rut of some sort, his predicament is indicative of the way society is going, nothing special about him. You've got a fucking way with words, haven't you? Saying that about me. I hope you know what killed Charlie, you saying he didn't exist. He was in a bad way and you shoved him off the cliff. Satisfied? Does his death reflect some trend you've read about? Does it fit into some scheme? What do you think about when you're alone, Lou? No one knows. You were always strange. Never had time for the things we were interested in, not really, never time for cars, drinking, girls, what was it, something in your childhood?
–Stop it, stop it. Let me tell you, and Frank and Owen, and anybody else, that I always cared for Charlie until the split.
–You're not going to go on about that girl again. That boring old shit.
–You listen! You four were friends then. But after this many years, you all fail and end up here—
–Fail? Who's failed?
–You came back here with your big ways, too dumb to see things had changed, with me, with life, all convinced everything would go back to the good old days. You never see a bigger picture, do you? To you this evening's meal's as far as you'll look, never tomorrow's. You come back thinking I must be the same. I've changed! Not the way you want, though. I've gone through different things, not what you have, but you wanted to treat me like we were seventeen again. I've grown up, can't you see?
–I can't believe you're saying this after I've told you Charlie's dead. What's more important, how you feel or him stretched out in a casket?
–You come over and lecture me about a bunch of things. While you guys do nothing but complain, whine about what you lost.
–We've lost Charlie, isn't that something to feel bad about?
–I'm not talking about Charlie, I'm talking about you. You. The three of you. So I see things differently. Is that any reason to think I don't feel things? What's wrong with being able to look at myself from the outside, detach myself, but you, you, all you think about are your own problems—
–You're detached, oh yeah. Fucking cold, heartless. All this talk about the cycles and systems and you right at the center of it, dead, deader than Charlie. What do you know about our lives? Nothing, except what we tell you, and we don't tell you much because you wouldn't understand and don't really want to know. That would complicate things, make us more human, wouldn't it, harder to deal with? We may bitch—
–You bawl, you cry all the time and blame God for everything, never yourself! You three are perfect.
–Some things aren't our fault! Don't you understand? It wasn't Owen's fault the company made slashes.
–But it's my fault Charlie died?
–It wasn't—we're not talking about Charlie, you just said . . . Look, we blame God, everybody blames God, but you don't, do you? You're so fucking special. You don't blame anyone, not even yourself.
–Charlie's dead—because of you. Mona's in the hospital—because you wouldn't talk to him. Their kids—
–That's low. You can't say things would have gotten better if I'd talked to Charlie.
–We'll never know, will we, and their kids will never know. I hope this haunts you forever. I hope you fucking can't sleep nights with this on your conscience, if you have one. Where do their kids fit in to whatever system you believe in? Well, genius?
–I don't have any system like that—
–C'mon, this is Colin, I know you. You'd have something, something to fall back on. We blame God because we need a God to blame. Why else was he created? I blame him because I need to know someone's responsible for me hanging out here in the universe with my ass getting beat by anything that happens to come along. I need that. The very thought of a God I can swear at helps, can you understand? It gives me something. Something like peace of mind, yeah, peace of mind, and I need that! Don't you? Probably not. What did you do when you were at those shit jobs? Are you going to tell me you never cursed God or fate or whatever, never?
–When I was younger. But I'm not a teenager any more. Can't you get that—I thought about all this while you were pulling in the money and not thinking at all. You say you know me, well I know you, Colin. You never did think about too much, did you? That's what made me strange to you and the others. And because I did you treat me like—like I'm a nut or something. Because I've got my act together. Envious—
–Let me ask you. What do you do to make things easier? What do you have that helps deal with Charlie's death, or even that faggot friend's? What gets you through it? What . . . rest, ease, do you get, peace of mind, where is it for you? Because we don't see it, just your uncaring—nothing touches you, is that it? What superior invisible support do you have that we don't, what is it, exactly?
–It's too hard to explain—
–Don't talk down to me, and don't walk away from this. What keeps you going? Your rotten life, no woman, no friends after this, no hope—what makes you so . . . sure of yourself?
–Hope. The last sin in Pandora's Box, Colin.
–Who's talking sin? Answer me, what keeps you going?
–Sometimes even I don't know, all right? It's hard for me to grasp, and to try and tell you, when it's clear you'd never understand. It's hard for me to even put it into words. But it's tougher than me, it keeps me living.
–You call what you do living? Living? You and that closeted life of yours, books are all you know, no friends—
–All right, surviving. But I'll last a lot longer than you, pal. And as for friends, you and Frank and Owen, you were never real friends. Coming into my apartment, abusing me, all because I knew a gay guy.
–Don't get started on that, Lou. This is about more than that, more than who you hang out with. I called about Charlie but like always you turn it into something about you. You're fucking consistent on that score.
–Every time we talk it starts out as one thing and ends up with you. Egotistical bastard. Charlie's dead! Your friend's dead! What are you going to do about it? You killed him, you put that knife into his hands, practically.
–Shut up! Don't ever say that, don't—look, this isn't going anywhere, so goodbye, Colin. And thanks for showing me how much you care.
–Don't hang up on me, you son of a bitch. You hang up and you'll never see any of us again! It was a relief to put the telephone down.
Why go to Charlie's funeral and feel unwelcome? There wasn't any reason to, so I let it pass by, deciding I'd go to the grave later, the day after or something, when no one would be around. Funerals are rough anyway, and they're supposed to unite all kinds of people in grief, and to see if there's any good that can come out of death. Knowing the way the guys felt, if I was there I'm sure there'd have been trouble, certainly some tension in the air, something everybody would sense, and that's not very helpful. Everyone should feel together in their loss, funerals should be . . . unitary. But though it's a nice concept it's so hard when everything around is fragmenting, countries, cities, neighborhoods. And people, like Charlie, end up dividing themselves too, thinking themselves away, rending what holds them together, almost willingly it seems. So many people are so unaware of what they do to themselves, and as for others? Well, Colin and Frank and Owen never saw how they hurt me, did they?
Because I would have felt out of place among his friends, particularly those five guys he had ideas about, I never went to Paul's service either. Conspicuous, that was how I would have felt, and then to meet those five other guys—well, the idea of comparing notes with them when I didn't have any to show, because the idea of Paul coming on to me is ridiculous, when you think of it, it's pretty obvious what I am, and then being among all his red book friends, well, it wasn't for me, it's sort of sickening, in a way. I think. I don't want to consider anything about that topic in fact because things like this can drive you insane wondering what's what. As I've said, I was working on trying to figure out my life when these deaths and revelations distracted me. I had started on that project, which kept me thinking every day and living like a hermit, when all this happened. I remember reading in a book called The Hidden Words a line that went: –True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.
That set me off on the chase. All I needed was a prompt. So about Paul thinking of me as he did, well, it's not an issue with me now, you see. My first response, gut response, is sometimes wisest, and thinking too much about this whole area wouldn't do me any good. I sleep terribly as it is. That policeman jarred me after Paul's death, got me doubting myself when I was disturbed, made me panicky the rest of the weekend. The news from the policeman and then the guys coming over pushed me too far, it ruined my pursuit for a while. Then you add Charlie's death. But I'm back at it now, harder than ever, examining myself, yes. No, it was smart to stay away from Paul's service. I planned to reserve some time later to be at his grave.
In a few days some parts of my world, not a big world, I know, were removed. This affected my work, and once again the boss noticed me. He didn't say much, took his time getting around to fixing things, but at the end of the month he'd shuffled me off to another department in the same company. He couldn't fire me without good reason. Not that I care. I end up generally in the same place I started, in a way. If I'd charted my jobs I'd see this slight arc going up from the worst job I had, killing rats one summer, to here, where I sit at a desk and imagine some other life, not one so remote that the gap between it and where I am frightens or depresses me, but enough of a distance to help me retain a perspective on my situation. Charlie lost that perspective when he had to switch jobs and start over in his hometown. He'd made the mistake of thinking his place in this world was forever stationary. Poor, misguided Charlie.
I have an acquaintance, a doctor in training, and I thought he might know about Paul's death, what might have happened in those last moments. Between laughs he speculated on it, then said I must be making it up. –No one really dies that way. It sounds like an urban folk tale. He made me wonder if it was possible to die that way, but I decided it was. Did his body seize up with the shock of the new, as the phrase goes, and refuse to admit what was happening? Did his mind? Shock put Mona in hospital for a while. Everywhere shock, like how the guys felt over Charlie's death, which was caused by shock, too. The shock he had when things went sour for him and he couldn't adjust.
They blame me, me, for his suicide, and I can't figure it out. I know they're upset but to think it was because of me that he killed himself . . . No. Charlie knew what he was doing. He didn't lock the door with that knife in his hand without some part of him thinking about it while he was better. Some part of him, some part below consciousness, contemplated it while he was well. Or at least not as sick. How many times, as an example, do you think while you walk down a sidewalk, Hey, I could throw myself in front of that car and it'd never be able to stop in time and everything would be over, the noise, the sleeplessness, the worries, everything? Lots of people think like that but most don't act on it. Charlie did. He took that seriously, while for others it's a game, like Noah's Ark. A weakness in him from birth drove him to it, a character flaw, like in Greek tragedies, except that his was tragedy with a small t. Nothing extraordinary about it. Despite what the guys say. I miss him, you know, and when I get out to his grave I'll tell him that.
In my new place I do the things any new worker does, though it's obvious I'm older than is usual for this position. People give me looks that tell what they think of someone in his early thirties doing this kind of work but they don't ask annoying questions. They complain about their jobs, of course, not much different or better than the crowd I just left. But I don't know them that well, so we'll see. I plan to keep myself tucked away in my cubicle, away from gossip and bitching, and think, as the day rolls on, about Paul and Charlie, and wonder what's happening with Frank and Owen and Colin. Of all of them Colin was the most sensible. Frank tried to be. Owen, well, he wasn't too much, really. When I was sixteen, seventeen, they seemed like special people, people I'd always be close to. Now I realize that all that time I'd been too close to them to get to know them, if that doesn't sound contradictory. I saw them in action without questioning enough why they behaved as they did. What they did, their antics then and now, I viewed without getting involved. Not clinically, mind, Colin was wrong about that. Just wondering where they were headed.
So that's their story, really, how they changed from what I thought them to be, which was interesting, promising, to what they were really, which was no different from a lot of people, that is to say, failures. Harsh, I know, I know. Yet that was it, they let me down not once but twice, and I didn't really expect more but I hoped for more. Hope. I thought I'd rid myself of that. Better to live and accept the great distance between what you want and what you'll get, and to be happy with that, not complain like those guys or the office people around me. Not stoical, mind, because that shuts you up, makes you a shell of a man. To find someone to talk with, that's what's needed. But until you do you strain to exist on your own, keeping on for reasons you don't fully understand, not throwing yourself in front of a car, but lasting. Outlasting anyone who moans about a worthless life and a bleak future. That's where I am, in that game yet out of it, a spectator, wondering and watching. And waiting for something. Relief? I don't know. But while I wait something I can't put a name on keeps me going, at times despite myself. It's not something I can identify or call up when I need it, and I'm unsure if I like it, yet it's always there, eluding my touch. All in all, though, I'm pleased to be alive, I'm probing my nature and finding out everything about me. Things are secure in my life. Yes. Really.