Stephen D. Gutierrez|
OUR DEARLY DEPARTED
We were casting lots for a friend’s clothing in Bob’s garage, squatting on our haunches and letting the pale sunlight coming in through the open door bathe us. Francisco, our friend, our good and dead friend, sat propped up in a chair in the corner observing us with a faint smirk made less creepy by the beer in his hand. He was naked but for his underwear containing his privates. These we stuck in his mouth and ears earlier, alternating the orifices with the particulars, saggy scrotum and barely manageable penis. (Bob wrapped it in twine like a thinly encased sausage, and that helped.)
We referred to him as our dearly departed. “Fucker deserved it, all of it, our dearly departed,” Bob said. He chain-smoked and played the game on the grimy garage floor with particular attention.
“We’re all assholes,” I said.
Earlier at the health club with the thin gray carpet, surrounded by sweaty, earnest people, my place in the Kingdom of Assholia announced itself. It happened quickly, briefly, but devastatingly, this investiture of mine.
An old student who had become a friend ignored my cry of fellowship, walking up the ramp to the treadmill room with chin held high as I sat on a bench-press bench doing a weak curl. Last week he gave me a feeble hello.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked myself, shaken up.
“What did I do wrong? Did I offend him?”
Before seeing him last week, it had been years since we had talked. But that meeting marked our relationship as good.
“Hey, man, hanging?”
“Barely.” He stood behind the counter at a Starbucks taking my order and smiling genuinely, glad to see me, and I stood on the other side holding up the line caught up in the moment with Darren, pleased to run into him.
“What’s going on, what you been up to?”
“What do you mean?”
He summarized. It wasn’t good.
“Fucked up, man. Lost everything,” he said quietly enough.
I moved to the side to let him take the next order. I heard the rest of the story a minute later when he left the register and sought me in the cafe.
Our star English major had bottomed out. He who had filled the department literary magazine with heady poems and wild stories issue after issue barely had a pot to piss in. His parents let him live at home for nominal rent but resented his return, he said candidly, and everything he had worked for had slipped through his fingers.
Girls, too, no longer returned his calls. They sensed a loser.
“I don’t know what to do except come to work and smile,” he said.
“That’s a good start.”
He laughed, twirling a towel in his hand. “You’ve always been good for me.” He let me get back to my own student work at the table in the corner. I got up and left a little later. But that was a while ago.
That good feeling between us.
I followed him into the cardio room next. That’s my routine.
Stepping onto the treadmill next to the Stairmaster where he trudged away, this treadmill the only one available by a quirk of fate, the room busy with cardio effort and a wall of TV’s, I noticed in the mirror before us the grim, set mouth, the eyes focused before him, ignoring me, casting me to the winds of oblivion, maybe for upholding lines of his like that, and cheating him, setting him up for a big fall the workshop never covered.
It’s rough out there, cruel, in the world of literary aspiration. But maybe he just hated me.
Maybe explosive underlying feelings of resentment and antipathy boiled up and overwhelmed him. They showed on the sweat beads covering his face, but I reached over and touched his arm anyway. I had to be sure it wasn’t my imagination condemning me harshly for my unknown wrong.
It was a stiff, hairy board of an arm that met my touch. It was unresponsive. I resumed my workout with a good hard run on the treadmill, staring straight ahead, focused.
I drove home steadily, concentratively.
“What’s wrong with you, Steve, you look shaken up?”
“Yeah, I am. I saw Darren at the club again. He stared right through me. I did something wrong, I must have offended him, not last time, but a while ago. He doesn’t want to say hello to me. It’s creepy, wondering what I did.”
“Are you sure? Maybe he just didn’t see you?” my wife asked the obvious question, pointing the remote at the TV to lower the volume.
“I apologized in the locker room. I felt horrible. I went up to him, naked—buck naked!—after he walked in and marched right past me and threw some water on his face at the sink. I figured it was the only thing I could do. I had to do it. I walked over to him with a towel around my waist and told him the truth, how I was feeling. ‘If I’ve done anything to offend you, I apologize.’ He just stared at me, coldly, with a little flicker in his eyes like he heard what I was saying.”
“Are you sure he isn’t on drugs? He used to smoke a lot of pot, didn’t he?”
I sunk into the couch across from her, wringing my hands in the small gym towel ready to be deposited in the hamper. “He looks like he might have cracked up and maybe isn’t all there. But I think he is. It’s creepy. I take full responsibility for anything I did. I just want to know what it is. We’re all so damn sensitive! Did I say something about him behind his back? Did he remember some slight from class?”
“No, don’t be silly.”
“I can’t think of anything myself. But I’m human. I talk, you hurt. That’s the equation, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is,” she said, slinking down into her chair, getting back to her movie. She had been hurt by a friend’s unintended insult recently. Hadn’t we all been?
“Shit, what did I do wrong? What did I say to him? I take the blame, I take the blame! I am not innocent.” I went out into the laundry room and then outside onto the porch, where I sat, ruminating.
Darren, fucking Darren! We were close! Got along just swell, like simpático brothers, longhaired hippy redneck with a rare grin and a rarer gift and old school Chicano from Los with a touch of madness in him, too. We clicked.
Talking some serious rock and roll that time at Starbucks, I recommended The Allman Brothers for low spirits. Those immortal cats from the south wouldn’t let him down. He’d never heard them!
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Sabbath, man. Fuck, you love what you loved as a kid, huh?”
“Yup. ‘War Pigs’ is good. Later, Darren.”
“Hey, later! Good seeing you!”
Bright sunlight hit me exiting Starbucks. The world was good.
But now it was bad.
“I take the blame. I did my best. I apologized. I meant it.” I spoke to the bushes in the backyard, and when a cat slunk past along the fence separating us from the neighbor’s gargantuan tract home, I wanted to creep along with it, on the ground, follow it to the lowdown dirty place where animals bared their fangs and unsheathed their claws, and slinking snakes like me would be torn to pieces and be eaten by more worthy creatures.
“I’ll make it right for you if you want. Nah, fuck, it’s over.” I went inside to make dinner.
I stood glumly over the stove.
Francisco took it well, our verdict that he, solely, bore the responsibility for the recent change in mood on our street. Sagging spirits could be traced to his influence. He simply didn’t know how to get along with others. Hence, our property values dropped, our wives moped, our children sulked and everything bad that could happen on our block did. When he introduced the idea of community counseling to set us aright, we instead turned the conversation to a direct examination of his character, and found him wanting. We hung him at midnight under a full moon with our wives and partners in attendance. Certain dignitaries from the city checked in to see that it was done right.
“A tight noose is a good noose,” one particularly efficient official offered, shaking his hand as he spoke the words and Frank from down the street worked the knot behind Francisco’s neck.
Francisco hung his head. A muffled “sorry” came out of him, then Frank yanked on the rope, the pulley nailed into the branch creaked, Francisco jerked upwards with his feet kicking out.
A universal gasp went up. “Ah!”
He twitched for a long minute, and spun in the moonlight, radiant as a blessed cocoon in the sheeted outfit we set him up in, dangling from the tree named The Judge, so stern and forbidding an aspect it presented, but kind of beautiful now.
He settled into a motionless state.
“Well that is that,” Bob said, and cut him down.
Polite applause rippled from the audience, and then, the formalities over, we all decided it would be a good thing to take our clothes off and really get to know each other right there in the meadow in Flores Valley. I swore I saw Francisco’s spirit soar above us, humping his old lady off to the side with a decorum he would have appreciated, so delicate a man he was, so given to observing the proprieties, even down to the notion of accepting his own place in the world while the rest of us cavorted and denied our guilt, so singular that way, Francisco, staring at me now from the corner in the garage, with his big brown eyes narrowed and glossy, almost doll-like, but not quite, still human in his appraisal. There he sat in his final chair looking me up and down, whether with rebuke or admiration I couldn’t tell, my own eyes a little misty from the proceedings and my own ambivalent involvement in everything.
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