Elvis Has Left the Building

The second I escaped high school, I went to work at my father’s full-line music store in the little corner hovel called the M.I. department, which stood for Musical Instruments. There wasn’t much to do but restock the clarinet reeds and trombone grease, make sure the ¼-size violins had bows in their cases, and dust and tune the guitars. Sometimes wannabe rockers stopped in, salivating over the vintage equipment before maybe buying a dollar’s worth of Fender picks. I invented names for these regulars—Boat Shoes, Holy Roller, Prescription Drugs, Tire Kicker, Bell Peppers, Boss Hog, Shell Shocked, Porky, High Butt, No Butt, Long Chin, Big Ears. It went on and on. I kept notes on index cards which I filed like a salesman’s box of leads—it was the kind of thing that made me look busy. Jon, a used car salesman, was hard to nickname anything but who he pretended to be most nights of the week—Buddy Holly.

I first met Jon on a slow summer weekday. I was sitting behind the display case that held distortion boxes and microphones, and I noticed at first glance his skinny legs and severe paunch, the twinkle in his eye when he saw me looking. He had a small head and face, as though he was still sixteen, and his manufactured-white smile beamed from a leathered face that suggested decades of hard living. He looked like Charlton Heston’s younger, slightly corrupt brother. “Heston’s Brother” was the best I could do on the spot. I figured I’d dig a little deeper so I asked him how he was doing.

“Just off the lot for lunch,” he said. “So delighted to find such an oasis.” He wasn’t looking at me. He regarded instead the inventory hanging on the walls and perched on floor stands, each guitar or bass apparently a little miracle.

Jon stopped before a used Stratocaster on the wall and looked it up and down. He then turned to me to ask what I thought of the current state of Fender guitars. My inexperience was apparent to anyone with half a brain. Usually such departments are manned by balding ex-rockers, bitter from their dreams dying a slow death over the decades, day-by-retail-day. Or else Guitar Center dudes on commission whose high pressure makes the teens with rock star fixations bow down and break.

Even so, Jon built me up just by asking such a question. He furrowed his brows and cocked his head, waiting for my reply. And when I gave it, his eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly, a nod of gradual understanding—he saw my point, he was being educated. All this would make it harder to say no to him, I realized half-in, whenever he started that ancient dance of horse trading that happens under the roof of every used gear shop on the planet. But I liked the attention, and he assured me he wasn’t looking for high-end equipment. In fact, he had a certain disdain for such stuff. He needed only that which “looked the part.”

“What part is that?” I asked.

He shrugged, said, “The ’50s.”

For a moment I thought I lost him, like I should’ve known this. Summer’s a slow time for music stores and I found that being alone didn’t provide very good company. To keep customers there longer I asked questions and listened. Sure enough, I asked Jon how his music was going and he smiled.

“Monty’s Classic Cars,” he said, leaning against the glass counter as though bellying up to the bar. “He’s got a lazy Susan stage, see, a slow twirler. In the middle’s a wall, and behind it’s us, every Friday night. And on the other side? A ’56, ’57 Caddy, you know, pristine as the day it rolled off the Clark Street plant. In the audience, cocktails and skirts and deep pockets. Real nostalgia types. I says, ‘What you want us to play, Monty?’ He says, ‘Jon, go to hell’—he knows me, see, we go way back, he wants me to play it all. No holds barred. Everything.”

“What’s everything?” I asked.

He tapped his temple; it sounded hollow. On his fingers were gold rings, his wrist a matching watch, digital. I imagined brass fixtures all over his bathroom. I thought I might call him Brass Fixtures.

“I got all Buddy’s music right here,” he said. “No sheet music required.”

“Buddy who?” I asked.

He looked incredulous. Then, features softening and eyes narrowing, he turned his back to me, crouched a little and rolled his shoulders. When he reappeared, he was wearing black-framed glasses with clear lenses. And there he was, Buddy Holly, kind of. For some reason we then shook hands. I told him my name and he said, with a little hiccough, that it was nice to meet me. Then he surveyed the merchandise anew for a good ten minutes in silence. And in silence he left, having bought nothing and still wearing the glasses.

*     *     *

A week later I was busy at my desk calling people at random from the white pages, conducting a survey. It was a slow day. The question—Do you, or anyone in your household, believe music can change the world in any profound way?—had so far failed to generate a single “no.” I don’t remember how long I’d been at it before I noticed Jon standing at the counter, looking at me with his eyebrow cocked, a knowing look that made me blush. I got up to go greet him.

He wanted a drum machine, the kind that put out basic beats—4/4 rock, say, or rumba—at the touch of a button. I showed him the only one we had, a trade-in, which made him frown. Then we began the ancient horse trading dance. He looked skeptical and frowned some more. I told him it worked great. He pointed out a nick in the corner. I said internally it was perfect. He asked if we had anything else, knowing we didn’t. I offered him a musician’s discount—slight raise of his eyebrows—then a “friend” discount. Nodding okay, he peeled off the cash from a brass clip, and then took out his Winston 100s.

He lit up and inhaled, talked with smoke curling from his mouth and nose. To some, finishing a deal was like finishing sex. “Sherry’s got these steaks,” he said, apparently meaning his wife. His gold wedding band sported a gigantic diamond nested in a slab of turquoise. “Get home at seven, eight, she’s got one in front of me with mashed potatoes and gravy galore.”

Suddenly, at ten in the morning, I wanted a steak. And the way he smoked, it looked nutritional. I gave him his receipt and he set it and the drum machine aside, business done.

“Why the drum machine?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, placed the palm of his hand on the left side of his barrel chest like he was going to pledge allegiance. “Man, it’s raining in my heart,” he said.

“What’s wrong? Monty’s not work out?”

Taking a last puff, he stamped out his smoke in the sandbag ashtray. “These tears I can’t hold inside,” he said. “I lost my drummer.”

“Did he explode?” I asked. Everyone who came in that place knew Spinal Tap references like believers know Hallmark bible verses, but Jon wasn’t fazed. Though being blown up didn’t seem too far off the mark.

“Lost him to an Elvis cover,” he said, almost spitting. “This town’s off its nut.”

It was true—for a few months in the late ’80s, Portland went through an Elvis craze. Impersonators were popping up everywhere. And to Jon, the only thing worse was a bad Buddy Holly act. He took it personal.

“Only have to use this hopefully once,” he said, motioning toward the drum machine like it was a dead animal. “Got a guy coming in the studio tomorrow. We’ll see. Finding a dependable drummer’s like finding a faithful woman—damn near impossible.”

He looked so down. Musicians were either high or low. Never, it seemed, anywhere in between. There are two ways to cheer them up. Deride the success of popular musicians or else ask them about the equipment they own. I tried the latter route. “Jon,” I said. “What’s your studio like?”

His face softened as he proceeded to tell me about the practice space he’d constructed in his garage. “It’s Cricket Studio, redux,” he said, pronouncing the x. “Cement floors for reverb, see, that sweet, real echo, and walled in with acoustic egg-foam. It’s so natural. Looks and sounds like a dream.”

“Wow,” I said. “Nice.”

We spent a moment in a kind of quiet reverence, a call came through and I ignored it, and when Jon finally left, a warm smile was spread across his weathered face.

*     *     *

Jon came in one more time, a couple weeks after he’d bought the drum machine, but I didn’t recognize him at first. His hair was dyed black and he wore large gold-framed sunglasses. As I finished up with Debt Collector—swooping in always on a cash tailwind, this day’s haul a brand-new autoharp and a set of bongos, which he planned to strum and beat on as his wife delivered a natural birth—I began formulating a nickname for this new shady character in the corner. Wishing Debt Collector “happy hunting,” I went to assist who I thought was a stranger, the nickname “Coiffed Bozo” coming to mind.

“Can I help you in any way?” I asked.

Jon peered over the tops of those huge gold frames at me, ran his hand through his hair, and gave a left-sided sneer and struck a smoldering pose—knees bent, hips going circular with rhythmic thrusts that were nearly violent; keys and coins jangled in his pockets. He ended with a, “thank-you-very-much,” and shot me a wink.

I wanted him to stay forever.

“Elvis the pelvis?” I said. “What happened to the Wholly Buddy Hollies?”

“Call it professional differences,” he said. “I lost the whole band.” He reached for his cigarettes, paused and let the pack slide back into his chest pocket. “So I’m finally going to give the public what it wants,” he said. “Got a gig this very night, in fact. It’s The King henceforth.”

Before I could reply, a call came through for my department and I went to go answer. It was an old lady looking for a marimba. As I tried to talk her down to a child’s xylophone, each vibe a different pastel color, I kept an eye on Jon, who’d wandered over to the guitar straps. A white jump suit with sequins and flared lapels materialized over him and he stood there as though in a cloud of gold dust. But he hated Elvis, I thought, and then gone went the jump suit; only Coiffed Bozo remained. The old lady asked if she’d dialed correctly and I said, “Yes, and we no longer have any marimbas,” and hung up.

As I returned, Jon looked over his shoulder as if to check if we were alone. “You shouldn’t miss this, Eric,” he said. “Going to give them some real royalty tonight, an Elvis they’ll never forget.” His eyes flared at me over those golden frames. “I’ve planned a big finale, in fact.”

He filled me in on the whereabouts of his gig. Being underage, I didn’t know if I could get in, though I heard the place was pretty lax in that department. I told him I’d try. He bought the gaudiest guitar strap in the house—white leather with clusters of colored beads—and left wearing it over the shoulder, his step a little heavier than usual.

*     *     *

I sat at the end of the half-full bar nursing a bottle of Heineken I’d managed to procure without an I.D. check. Fastened to the wall above the bar loomed the grille of some old American-made behemoth, and as I sat under it I had the strange feeling I was slowly being run over. Early middle-agers were showing up full of thirst and irony, free on a Friday to relive their youths or what they wished was their youths. Playing as background, largely unnoticed, Jon’s band on stage looked casual, jeans and collared shirts, nothing period. I wrote the tunes they covered down on my napkin: Earth Angel, Louie Louie, Sixteen Candles, Little GTO. Jon’s hair was still dyed black and styled. His plaid shirt and jeans said something different, though. His voice was far from perfect, but he belted out a variety of extended highs and tremulous falsettos, and shifted rapidly from treble to bass and vice versa. His face was shiny with sweat by the second chorus of “Earth Angel.”

At the end of “Lonely Teardrops,” I saw Jon disappear at the rear of the stage through a narrow black door. The bass player and drummer played on for a full two minutes. I think I was the only one who noticed his absence until suddenly the stage lights were lowered to only two spots—one illuminating the black door, the other glowing at the front. The band stopped, and slowly the crowd turned their attention to the two spots.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice came over the P.A. when it was finally quiet. “But especially for you ladies tonight.” It was Jon’s voice, husky and full of secrets. I saw the door crack open an inch. A cardboard cutout of a bloodhound came down from the ceiling over the front of the stage, followed by excited gasps that may have just been laughs. Swaying, I spotted its fish line and followed it over the ceiling pipes and down to the black door. Finally, the hound came to rest on the right stage monitor, facing the audience in the pool of light. I imagined Jon behind that door frantically fixing the line to a cleat, and I laughed. Here it comes, I thought, Jon’s finale. I looked around and many faces appeared to anticipate comedy.

“All the way from Graceland”—a pocket of contrived screams as though on cue—“let’s give it up for the one and only, Mr. Talent himself, the three-chord wonder who never got a song written for him he couldn’t ruin, The King—Elvis Presley!”

Five seconds passed, ten. Then a blast of music tore through the speakers before the volume was adjusted for normal ears. It was “Hound Dog,” but the band, bewildered, wasn’t playing. The black door flew open and Jon entered the light. This time the gasps were real. He was wearing the same kind of flared jump suit I’d seen materialize on him earlier that day, only of a deep red, plus the gold shades. Strapped across his chest lay an old, stringless f-hole guitar rimmed in red and green rhinestones. He swaggered over to the pool of light in front beside the cardboard image of the bloodhound, the rest of the band watching from the shadows.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” the real Elvis sang.

Sequins sparkling, Jon stiffened his body and froze in the pool of light.

“Cryin’ all the time,” the King continued.

Moving within the illuminated space, Jon bent at the waist and chopped the air, shifted and jerked in the light. He opened and closed his jaws machine-like, appearing to mouth the lyrics and serenade the bloodhound. He continued his robotic routine with mounting energy, the bends and chops more absurd and exaggerated. When a wide swing of his unbent left leg knocked the dog over, people applauded.

As the music went on, Jon gradually gave it up. He stood there, glaring over his shades at the audience and shaking his head. He took a flask out of his vest pocket and openly drank. Then his mouth moved, not to the last bars of “Hound Dog,” but to some other discourse. Veins stuck out on his sweaty neck. The song ended and in dead air Jon was left, alone near the spot in flared polyester, and I heard the end of a bitter fragment. A hush fell over the place.

He scanned the audience, peering over those shades. His breath came hard and deep, stretching his vest to the bursting point. “Sheep, listen,” he said, his voice cracking without a mike. Sweat poured down his face. “What you’ve just seen is a mockery of a man of fashion, of style, not of music or substance. Elvis was a shit-for-brains idiot, a fraud! What the hell are you thinking?”

“Do ‘Jailhouse Rock’!” someone yelled, garnering agreement and applause.

The drummer came out from his kit and approached Jon, as did the bass player, all to inebriated clusters chanting “Jailhouse Rock.” Jon unstrapped his guitar and took it by the neck, raising it high above his head, the gaudy strap he bought from me falling to the floor like someone’s old skin. The men backed away, out of the spot, so for a second it appeared that Jon was fending off invisible demons, and the crowd grew quiet again.

Jon was about to bring the guitar down—to what purpose I do not know—when a large man from the side bear-hugged him from behind, squeezed him so tightly the guitar fell from his clutches, where it clanged to the floor, its headstock snapping off. The band then started to play as the man guided Jon through the black door.

Almost as soon as the door closed, it flew open again and Jon ran the length of the stage and leapt. His flared lapels flapped like wings, and he hit the dance floor running, the crowds parting all the way to the doors. I tried to meet him there, but he went right past without seeing me. I watched him sprint away on the gravel with a desperation that suggested he may have cut the large man to pieces.

Back in the bar, it was just seconds after Jon exited before someone said—to the great amusement of everyone, including me—“Elvis has left the building!”

And I just about did the same before deciding to belly up again. Behind the bar as I was reflecting on what I’d seen, wondering where Jon had went and if I’d ever see him again, I heard excited talk of something called “karaoke.” A machine was being wheeled out with the promise of turning people into whomever they fancied, provided they were literate. A line of potential dolts formed, and I ordered up another drink, intending to settle in for a long stay.

Eric DayEric Day teaches and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. This piece comes from his collection Raised by Trees, which he hopes to see one day soon in book form.

Down in the River to Pray

This is what I knew:

My nephew Benji graduated from drama school. When he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he wore a sultry Lauren Bacall wig and a cream-colored satin evening gown with padded shoulders. His make-up was perfect, his lips the color of blood and desire. My mother told me he looked stunning. And that after the ceremony he argued with his father and my sister, his stepmother but the mother who raised him.

Then he left for New York.

It was 1988.

Fourteen years later, my mother told me Benji had disappeared. He came home one day from his job at a restaurant and trashed the apartment he shared with a roommate. Then he left. No one knew how to find him or if he was even alive.

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she added, “He has HIV.”

I put a story together, which, at the time, didn’t need to be correct: it just needed to be a story that made sense. I thought estranged. I thought “We don’t know where Benji is” meant Benji moved and changed his phone number because he didn’t want to talk to his family any more. Many of us have been on one side or the other of that wall, but we know it’s a wall that exists because we agree to it. We know we can find or be found if necessary. And six years after Benji disappeared, it was necessary that I find Benji.

I needed to find Benji because my mother died and left Benji and her other grandchildren a little money. Because she didn’t know what happened to Benji, she stipulated that the money would go to “living grandchildren.” If Benji wasn’t alive, his share went to the eight other grandchildren, not to his father, his next-of-kin.

As my mother’s executor, I had to find Benji, if he was still alive.

I thought about the last time I’d seen Benji. It was the mid-1990s. I was in New York for business. We met at a restaurant near the Met. He didn’t mind coming uptown, he told me when he picked the restaurant. His face was freshly washed, and he wore a shirt with an open collar. It must have been fall because I remember us eating at a table on the sidewalk and Benji wearing a brown tweed sport coat.

Benji held his fork in his left hand while he cut the pork cutlet, then switched his fork to his right hand to take a bite, the way he’d learning growing up in the Midwest; he hadn’t adopted any big city cutlery affectations.

“I’m still waiting tables,” he said, when I asked what he was doing.

“But I’m rehearsing a play,” he added, slurring his words like a Chicagoan does.

I smiled. “That’s great. How often do you perform?”

He shrugged and stabbed another piece of cutlet, holding it on his fork, suspended in front of his mouth, while he answered. “It’s just some people I know—in this warehouse space, but I think it could lead to some auditions.” He put the cutlet in his mouth.

I noticed his sport coat didn’t fit well, and I thought he probably bought it at a thrift store just for our lunch. I didn’t know how Benji usually dressed, whether the satin gown at his graduation was to shock his parents, upstage his drama school classmates, or to come out. Maybe he didn’t own a sport coat because he didn’t lunch uptown that often. Maybe he didn’t wear men’s clothes. At the time, I assumed he thought I would feel more comfortable if he didn’t look showy, and I had been oddly touched. My cheeks reddened at the memory of Benji considering my comfort when he got dressed that day. The idea that Benji might have covered his flamboyance for me was touching in the mid-1990s, embarrassing in 2008.

I hadn’t been a very involved aunt. I was 18 and Benji was 5 when my sister married Benji’s father, a widower with five children. It’s true that I was focused on college, on love, on my own marriage, but I also avoided my sister, who could be dramatic, telling stories that were inconsistent with previous stories—and sometimes with reality. I could understand if Benji went dark just to avoid her.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child.

But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

“We don’t know where Benji is” was not just parent code for “Benji doesn’t want us to know where he is.” It wasn’t just Benji code for “My father, a crewcut cop, is uncomfortable around me because I wear makeup, and my mother lives in her own reality. So I am not going to make the trek home for Thanksgiving when I can make some good tips if I stay in New York and wait tables.

All of that may have been true, except that Benji really had disappeared.

*     *     *

By the time Benji arrived in New York, in 1988, more than 22,000 people in the city had been diagnosed with AIDS. The records from that time don’t distinguish between HIV positive and AIDS. They don’t distinguish male or female, black or white. They don’t break the numbers down by neighborhood, age, or method of transmission. They document diagnosis and death. At the end of that year, just over a third of those ever diagnosed were still alive.

*     *     *

I’d been an investigative journalist and an academic researcher. I had skills—information-finding skills, people-finding skills. I knew how to dig, uncover what was buried. This is what I found:

Social Security did not list Benji as deceased. The last address they had for him was the apartment he’d left a mess.

He was not listed among New York City inmates.

No criminal or civil charges had been filed against him, not for panhandling or prostitution or assault or anything.

He was not listed as a sex offender in the state of New York.

He’d last been treated at Bellevue Hospital as an outpatient in early 2002; as an inpatient the previous year.

His Medicaid card was expired.

There had been no death report for someone with his name in a public place nor of someone with his name having been taken from a public place to a hospital in any of the boroughs that make up New York City.

They could check by description.

In 2002, Benji was thirty-six years old. He was five foot eight, slim, but not an athletic build. His skin was white. His hair was brown, his eyes were hazel. His eyelashes were long. He had long fingers. His features were delicate. He looked like he wouldn’t be able to grow a beard, but he could get a surprising five o’clock shadow. He had a big smile with large teeth that had never known orthodontics.

They said there were no reports of anyone with that description.

*     *     *

I didn’t want to talk to my sister or her husband about Benji. I didn’t want to go into their pain. I didn’t know what the story was that they had decided they could live with, or how much of it was true. I wanted to find Benji without talking to either of them, but my sister called me. She knew what the will said.

“We didn’t know Benji was missing until two months after he left his apartment,” my sister said, adding that they found out when his boss called to say he had Benji’s last paycheck and wanted to know where he should he send it. My sister immediately called Benji’s roommate who told her about the damage and gave her the number of a friend who’d helped Benji move his things to a self-storage locker. My sister’s voice took on a tone I recognized from the time when she was a teenager about to tell a secret to me, seven years younger. It’s the tone of voice a soap opera character uses just before they cut to commercial. “She said he might be living at the storage locker, but no one had seen him for weeks. They were all very worried.”

I started to imagine what I would have felt if I were the parent remembering the argument the last time I’d spoken to my son, the angry parting, emptiness, loss, longing, an ache that I would have woken up to each morning—sometimes not right away, sometimes after a few minutes of feeling like the world was normal, the conversations over whether to call him or wait for him to call.

I thought about Benji living in a five-by-five-foot windowless storage unit. I tried to imagine a scenario in which he could have lived for six years with untreated HIV, without the kind of job that reported earnings, without ever being picked up on the streets because he didn’t have the kind of income that came with Social Security contributions.

My sister told me she and her husband looked for him as soon as they heard he was missing. They drove from Chicago to New York. His father staked out the self-storage locker. I imagined him sitting in a rented car, maybe a Ford Taurus, by himself, sipping coffee and eating take-out burgers, replaying old conversations, rehearsing the one he might have.

After a week, Benji’s father talked to the police, one cop to another. No, he didn’t want to file a missing person report.

Then they went home to Chicago.

“I called the storage place six months later,” she said. “They told me Benji’s things had been auctioned. No one had paid the fees. They never even let us know to come and get them.”

Before we hung up, my sister told me the story she believed, the story that I knew didn’t have to be true as long as it made sense: “I think he threw himself off a bridge,” she said.

*     *     *

I called Benji’s younger sister, the sibling he was closest to, the way the oldest sometimes is with the youngest. The one he would trust to lie to their parents when they asked her if she’d heard from him.

“I really don’t know where he is,” she told me. “The last time I saw him was a little more than a year before he disappeared. I went to New York to visit him. He’d changed. I mean, he was a real jerk. As I got into a cab to go to the airport, I told him so. I said, I’m not going to come back if you’re going to be an asshole.”

Fuck you.

“I talked to him after that, though,” she said. “Once, right after 9/11.” He was OK. She told him she loved him. That was the last time she talked to him. She was quiet, and I thought maybe I could hear her weeping, so I talked.

“Do you remember the time I visited?” I said. “It was during the Olympics. Oh gosh, you must have been eight, and we all went to the pool, and you and Benji pretended to be synchronized swimmers.” I described the two of them diving into the water then bursting out with exaggerated smiles and arms extended, then submerging again to do handstands on the bottom of the pool, their legs extending above the surface and scissor-kicking, nowhere near synchronized.

We laughed.

“I’ll find him,” I told her.

*     *     *

I flew to New York.

His apartment—his last known address—was on the East Side, near the East Village, in a dirty yellow brick building above a space that’s been a sandwich shop, a Thai restaurant, and a vegan cafe. He could walk from there to Bellevue.

Benji’s roommate didn’t live in the apartment they’d shared any more, but I found her. It wasn’t that hard. She asked me to meet her at a park near the East River. We sat on a bench where we could see the Brooklyn Bridge. It was October, but warm enough to sit outside without a coat, even with the breeze off the water. The sun was sharp, and we both wore sunglasses. I noticed we also both wore black. I hadn’t paid attention to that when I dressed, but it was obvious, the two of us sitting side-by-side on the bench, as though in a pew.

She lit a cigarette and took a drag. “We met at the restaurant where we worked. We usually worked different shifts so it made it easy to share a flat. We weren’t what you’d call friends. Benji had his own friends—artists and other actors.” She flicked her ash. “Most of them were waiting tables, too.”

He’d been hospitalized for AIDS-related pneumonia the year before he disappeared, she said, but he’d gotten better and been re-classified as HIV positive. She dropped the butt of her cigarette and ground it cold. “He was getting treatment, but he was starting to get paranoid.”

I turned toward her. “What do you mean?” I asked.

She took a deep breath. “Benji was a good roommate. He didn’t cook much, but like, he always cleaned up the kitchen—even if I was the one who left it a mess. We often slept at different times, and he was quiet. Considerate of that, you know?” She reached in her purse for another cigarette, but didn’t light it.

I nodded. “He was always good with his younger brothers and sister,” I said, “willing to play with them and be silly.”

She fumbled with the cigarette. “Then he started complaining that he didn’t get parts he’d auditioned for because other actors had trash talked him and accusing his friends of shit like that. I came home one day and found everything in the kitchen broken. He’d slashed his mattress with this huge carving knife. He’d pulled everything off the walls.” She lit the cigarette.

I imagined Benji tearing down a poster of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the kind you can find rolled up for quick sale from any of a dozen street vendors, tearing it into strips. I thought about him throwing a jar of mustard at the wall. It shatters. He is surprised at how the thick liquid dulls the sound of glass on wall. He expected something like the clear tinkling of a breaking window when a baseball hits it. He was no good at baseball.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child. But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

I think about him grabbing a bottle of PBR from the shelf of the refrigerator, knocking the neck on the counter. The bottle breaking jagged, below the cap, him lifting it to his lips and drinking, the points of brown glass piercing his lips, blood staining his mouth, the taste of beer and blood, the rustiness running down his chin. He throws the empty bottle at a row of spice jars above the stove. The cheaply made rack, held only by a single nail, falls to the stove, spices mixing with alcohol in the shallow pans under the coils of the electric stove, the smells of cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg mingled with hops reminding him of Thanksgiving at his parents’—pumpkin pie and bad beer.

She let the ash gather on the cigarette, not smoking. “And he wrote something on the wall above his bed, in this really red lipstick.” She wrote it in the air, as though using the ash of the cigarette to make words: “If you want to know why, call my parents. And he wrote their phone number.”

I didn’t ask her why she didn’t call. “Do you know how I can reach any of his friends?” I asked. She gave me the number for James. She said he was a painter.

I stood up. “Thank you for coming,” I said. We hugged. She started to walk off, then stopped and turned. “You’ll let me know if you hear anything,” she said.

“Of course.”

*     *     *

In 2002, people were living with HIV. It had been more than ten years since Freddy Mercury died of AIDS, more than ten years since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. In New York City alone, more than 62,000 men were living with a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Fewer than 2,000 of them died that year.

Recording-keeping became more sophisticated, statistics more detailed. In 2002, Benji was one of thirty-three men in his neighborhood who were HIV positive, without AIDS. Probably one of a dozen white men.

*     *     *

Before calling James, I looked him up on the Internet. He’d had one or two shows in small but good galleries. I scrolled through the images. They were grotesque. Distorted. Open wounds. Blood on chin.

I met him on a bench in the plaza by St. Mark’s Church. Pigeons collected at our feet, looking for handouts. Leaves swirled with the light breeze. James wore expensive jeans. Cashmere scarf. His nails were recently manicured. Lots of product in his bleached blonde hair.

I wanted to ask so many things—things I didn’t need to know to find Benji, but wanted to know, to feel that I knew him, and somehow that seemed wrong, like I’d had my chance to know Benji and I would just look curious, like someone gawking at the scene of an accident.

I pulled a red pashmina from my bag and wrapped it around me. “I didn’t see Benji very often, but I remember that he asked me to dance at my wedding,” I said. “He was nine and very awkward, but he took it very seriously.” James smiled. “He was a terrible dancer,” he said. We laughed.

I asked him about his art, and then if he ever painted Benji. If he said yes, I knew I would offer to buy the painting. He knew it, too. He shook his head. “No,” he said, too quickly. “I wanted to. He had this vulnerability, this softness.” He closed his eyes as though imagining Benji before he turned violent. “He never let me.”

He crossed his legs. “The irony,” James said, “was that Benji had just qualified for Medicaid. He was excited to be able to get treatment.”  He paused, and I waited out the silence. “But he was becoming very erratic—he’d be fine one day and the next day just plain mean.” He picked fights with all his friends. Burned a lot of bridges. “We weren’t surprised when he lost it that day at the apartment,” James said. “We all knew it was the disease, or maybe the drugs—I mean, it wasn’t the real Benji,” he said, “but most people couldn’t take it after a while.”

“Benji called me from the apartment that day and said he had to get out of his place,” James said. He showed up with AJ, who worked with Benji at the restaurant and could get the catering van. They loaded Benji’s things, whatever they could carry that he hadn’t broken, and drove to a warehouse with storage units. On the way, Benji gave James his watch. He gave the AJ something, too. James didn’t remember what. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them again. “I offered him a place to crash. AJ did, too. But Benji said to leave him at the warehouse.”

James looked at the birds gathered at his feet. I heard him swallow and take a breath. “I called the police and asked what we should do if we saw Benji on the street and he was acting crazy.” He looked up, towards the sky above the church. “They said not to approach him.”

We sat quietly for a while, then James stood up to leave. “You should talk to AJ,” he said as he gave me a drive-by hug. “He was the last person to see Benji.”

*     *     *

New cases of AIDS peaked in New York City in 1993 and 1994. Benji was twenty-eight years old then.

*     *     *

I called my husband and told him I would be staying in New York a little longer.

“Are you getting somewhere?” he asked.

“Not really. The trail’s pretty cold.”

I told him what the police at the precinct told me: Hundreds of men in their mid-thirties died every year in New York City and remained unidentified. If a missing person report had been filed, they might have connected one of them, but probably not.

“Benji isn’t even a cold case,” I said.

“Why didn’t his dad file a missing person report?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t help me find Benji now,” I answered.

“You know, Lo . . .” My husband’s voice was tender. “If Benji had AIDS-related dementia, and he wasn’t being treated, odds are he’s dead.” My husband is a physician, and he took care of the first case of AIDS in the small town we lived in during the 1980s. No one else would.

“I know,” I said. “I’m starting to think my sister’s right—that Benji was depressed or psychotic and jumped off a bridge. There’s just no trace of him.”

Benji alive but missing made closing my mother’s estate more difficult, but my job as executor, my feelings as Benji’s aunt, and my attraction to tracking down answers to difficult questions had become jumbled. I didn’t want Benji to be dead. I also didn’t want to learn that some of my sister’s stories were true; it was easier to believe she consistently made things up.

“Maybe you should come home,” he suggested, still tender.

“I kind of feel like maybe I’m doing some good just by meeting with his friends. They seem to get something out of talking about him. He just disappeared. No one had any closure.”

“Why didn’t his parents have him declared dead?” my husband asked.

“Probably they just wanted to hang onto a little hope,” I said.

“Well, if you’re hanging onto hope, wouldn’t you file a missing person report?” he asked. I didn’t answer.

Hope, someone told me once, is believing in the best possible outcome without any evidence to support it. Some people don’t find comfort in hope; they find peace by ending the ambiguity and uncertainty. They create a story with an ending. They would hold a memorial service where family and friends could talk about the person the way they wanted to remember him—his smile, his generosity, his innocence. They would console one another. Embrace. They would have a meal together. They would laugh at the funny stories about him and wonder if it was okay to laugh. The way I was doing with Benji’s friends.

*     *     *

The restaurant Benji worked at had closed. AJ had a job at a different restaurant, an Italian place in the Village. He said I could meet him there before the place opened for dinner. He unlocked the door for me and led me to a square table with a red checked tablecloth. He brought me a plate of lasagna and a green salad with vinegar and oil dressing. “You want some wine?” he asked. I did. He brought me something red and put a small arrangement of chrysanthemums on the center of the table. They smelled like Homecoming.

I picked up my fork and took a bite of the pasta. The cheese stretched from my fork to the plate. I spun my fork to break it off. I didn’t feel hungry, but I appreciated AJ’s thoughtfulness and tried to eat. The cheese was hot. The sauce rich with garlic and basil. A little sweet—a sauce with a little sugar. I stabbed some lettuce.

“No one saw Benji for a week after he moved to the warehouse,” AJ said. “One day he walked into the restaurant, through the door that led from the alley to the kitchen. He was still wearing the green cotton T shirt he had on when we dropped him at the storage locker.” I imagined it pitted and stained, the sourness of his unwashed skin mingled with the cloying smell of weed clinging to his clothes. His eyes bloodshot. A week’s worth of stubble. His hair unwashed and stringy. I could picture him standing in the kitchen, all stainless steel and clean white tile.

AJ picked up a fork and turned it around in his hands. “I thought the boss would tell Benji to get out, to go home and take a shower, get some sleep. But he put down the knife he was sharpening and reached under his white apron into his pocket and pulled out a silver clip with some bills. He took the bills out, licked his fingers, then culled a series of twenties from the pack.” I imagined the bills as freshly starched and ironed as the chef’s apron. AJ continued: “He held the money out to Benji and told him to take them, and take as much time off as he needed.”

Benji took the bills. He threw them in the air as though they were ticker tape. He looked up at them and laughed as they drifted to the freshly washed floor. For a moment, he looked like a child. Then he looked at the boss and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want your fucking money,” he said, and walked out. “I went after him,” AJ said, “but he told me not to come near him.” No one saw him after that.

I asked AJ if Benji had anyone special.

He dropped his head. “Not really. Everyone loved Benji,” he said. The way he said it, I knew AJ loved him more.

I apologized for not being able to eat. I told AJ I didn’t have much of an appetite. He nodded. I took a sip of wine, but I was still looking at AJ when I put the glass down and set it partially on the salad plate. The glass wobbled before I caught it, but some of the wine splashed onto the newly laundered tablecloth.

I stood up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He stood up. I touched his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me. I waited for him to pull away. His eyes were wet. Like mine.

*     *     *

Between 1990 and 2004, there were 2,272 suicides by residents of Manhattan. Seventy percent were males. Almost sixty percent were white. Twenty-two percent were in Benji’s age range.

Ninety percent chose falling, hanging, overdosing, shooting, or getting run over by a train.

Only eight percent were found in an outdoor location other than their residence (see “falling.”)

Non-residents—those who travel to New York to commit suicide—are far more likely than residents to jump off a bridge into water.

The police don’t keep records of people who jump off bridges. They would tell an unreliable story. Not all the bodies surface.

Impact, not drowning, is thought to kill most. The body hits the water at eighty miles per hour, shattering bones and brain and internal organs. Like getting hit by a train.

*     *     *

I called the attorney handling my mother’s estate and told him to send a registered letter to Benji’s father: We all hope and pray that one day we will find Benji, but we are distributing the estate with the assumption that Benji is deceased.

After, I walked by myself to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It wasn’t the closest bridge to Benji’s apartment or to the warehouse or the restaurant, but it was the most popular bridge for suicides, even though it wasn’t the highest. Perhaps people choose it because with its granite and limestone arches like windows in a medieval church, it is the most graceful.

The wind was blowing, and the air off the East River was cooler than it had been. It smelled of fish and diesel. I pulled a long black chiffon scarf from around my neck and draped it over my head, crossing it under my chin and tying it behind my neck. With my dark glasses, I might have looked like a 1960s movie star.

I thought I could feel the bridge sway a bit as I walked in the pedestrian aisle, a level above the cars, and I wondered if it was the wind or the traffic or my imagination. Or maybe it was me that was unsteady.

Near one of the stone arches, I stopped and opened my purse to pull out a tube of the most scarlet lipstick I found earlier in the day at Macy’s. I leaned against the rock as I applied the lipstick, tracing lips from memory. Then I looked out over the river, at the ferries and tugboats. Below, I knew, the water eddied around the column that reached deep below the surface. I gripped the railing. The metal felt smooth and hard and cold.

I walked to the middle of the expanse, to the lowest point in the parabolic curve formed by the cables that connect the bridge to its supports.

I wondered if the wind blew that day, and if it was cold.

I wondered if it was dark.

I wondered if Benji looked at the skyline of a city he thought would fulfill his dreams.

If he closed his eyes.

I wondered how long he stood there before climbing over the railing onto the steel beams that extend out over the water and walking to the edge.

I wondered if a crowd gathered.

If anyone said a prayer.

Lois Ruskai MelinaAfter careers in journalism and higher education, Lois Ruskai Melina is focusing this chapter of her life on creative writing, particularly literary nonfiction. Her essays have been published in the anthologies Borne on Air (Eastern Washington Press) and Forged in Fire (University of Oklahoma Press). An excerpt from her unpublished memoir appeared in Oregon Humanities magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

“Down in the River to Pray” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction winner, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Lois Ruskai Melina!

The Half-Buttoned Effect

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

She’s standing right in front of me, wearing a light green dress with buttons on the back. A row of buttons, like a dotted line drawn from her nape to a random point halfway down her spine. I count the buttons: one, two, three, four, and five. Number three is not fully buttoned. Half of it is peeping out through the buttonhole, the other half taking refuge under the green fabric. I wonder whether the fabric would feel warm to the touch. It has to, having spent the last hour or so sitting patiently on the warm, pink skin of a woman whose lover’s hand has been running up and down her buttoned back all throughout the poetry reading. How is it that my eyes see the half-buttoned button, but the lover’s hand doesn’t feel the incongruity? Am I imagining it? What if it’s the room’s dim lights creating the half-buttoned effect? Lights are tricky things, I’ve been told, and when they’re scarce, they can be trickier. There are rows of colorful, or perhaps colored, light bulbs, dimly lit, dimly lighting the room. Rows of bulbs glowing in harmony, with not even a single blind spot.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I am not listening to the reader. I am wondering whether it’s perverse to think about sliding the button in the buttonhole. There is no sexual imagery here, but I suspect that if I turn to any of my new American friends in the room, point out the half-buttoned button, and express my desire to slide it in the buttonhole, they will most likely reconstruct me in their minds, perhaps questioning the sexual orientation of the new-in-America girl, or maybe her mental health. I’ve noticed the curiosity of my new American acquaintances about my sexuality. To figure me out, I suppose, they need to know whether I would kiss a girl more passionately than I would look down at a man’s tight pants cravingly. I imagine that in order to figure out the mystery of me, the other, the oriental-looking person with a female-looking body, they need to place me in a number of familiar frames before they can let me in, before they can let me slide in and out of their social spaces, their communities.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I spot one of the people who’s been particularly curious about my sexual preferences. He’s leaning against a wall, eyes focused on the reader, perhaps listening diligently. He’s again wearing the red wool hat that I saw him wear earlier this week. Why does he take it off and put it back on every few minutes? I inquire my skin to find out if it’s cold. It’s not. Why’s he wearing the red wool hat then? I make up my mind: the hat has to go. Something should be done. Earlier, before the reading began, I saw strawberries, red like a wool hat. They were all over the room, in hands, in mouths, in eyes, in minds. Strawberries are red, and so are women’s lips, and wool hats. Strawberries are inviting, and so are the buttons. Strawberries were red, and yet they disappeared quickly. But the red wool hat doesn’t want to go. I wonder if the world always works that way, and whether misplacements are to be found everywhere. My mind begins nibbling at the word ‘misplacements.’ Something’s misplaced.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

No one sees the lizard. Only I do. I see her sauntering all the way from behind a purse left on the mosaic floor to a pair of white sneakers worn by an innocent-looking, hatless kid. The lizard’s running fast, as though running for her life, which nowadays seems to be equal to running from zombies and aliens. Nobody’s following the lizard, though. Not even anyone’s eyes. Only mine are. And they do so in the least threatening way. I’m not going to hurt her. She should be able to see that in my eyes. Maybe she’s afraid of my oriental looks. Maybe she thinks I look like someone who would bring terror to her peaceful life and disturb the familiar. I wish I knew lizard language so I could tell her I’m hurt and disappointed that you should prejudge me so. She doesn’t see the disappointment in my eyes, maybe because she’s not looking at me carefully enough. No one these days seems to. She’s sitting with her back to me. I can see her shoulders covered in green. I see her perimeter. Had I a paper and a pencil, I’d sketch her back when she had her back to me. I’d sketch how everyone’s backs looked like when they had their backs to me. I wonder if I should draw a lizard, too. She’s running toward the door, and my irises are running with her. Is she feeling lonely? Scared? Homesick? Is she leaving because she feels like a misfit? A misfit.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I wonder who the man leaning on the door is. The big, wooden, brown, heavy, confining door. It was open earlier, but someone closed it. Noises? Yes, noises. They did. They closed the door. They came, they assaulted us in the room, they arrived with no warning, and blessed are we who have a big, heavy, thick door to close and to keep the noisy ones out. I see them everywhere: doors and doors and doors and doors. Inside and outside. Include and exclude. Within and without. Fitting in and fitting out. Belonging in and belonging out. Eyeing the half-buttoned button, I wonder whether she didn’t fully button it in the first place, or if the button was loosely buttoned and eventually slid out. That happens. If there’s not enough space to fit in, you will be forced to slide out.

I want to reach out and slide the button out of the buttonhole.

Born and raised in a small southern town in Iran, Saeide Mirzaei moved to Tehran in 2004 to join the MA program in English at University of Tehran. Although the move proved a bit of a culture shock for the provincial girl, she soon came to realize that her gender defined and restricted her existence, regardless of where she lived. A second culture shock, pronounced by her racial and ethnic otherness, occurred when, in hopes of becoming the voice of Iranian women, she moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to join the MFA program in Creative Writing at UA only to learn that “once a woman, always a woman.” She’s now in a PhD program in English at University of Minnesota, where she’s also working on her book project, a cultural travelogue about her life in Alabama.

 

“The Half-Buttoned Effect” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction finalist, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Saeide Mirzaei!

Nothing Beats a Beergut Breakfast

After I pass through security, I’ll have left them. Beergut, Special Son, and I hang out in a loose triangle several feet away from the glass doors. Nothing left to say or do, the time of my flight to Seoul heavy and ticking. I avoid Beergut’s icy gaze, look to metal crossbeams. The airport houses enticing shops, carvings, totem poles, renovations showcasing the upcoming Olympics. My eyes fall to the red spot on Special Son’s cheek, strawberries from this morning’s waffles. Had he been walking around like that all these hours? A sob ripples through my ribcage and I pinch it in. On the early ferry in the cafeteria we had our last breakfast as a family.

One of Beergut’s friends once said, a man leaves a woman for another woman. A woman leaves a man for herself. I’ve spent the past months thinking about my future self in the second person. I’m doing this for you.

In less than a couple of days, I’ll be as far away from my old life as I can get. Standing there, I am certain of only one fact: that up until now, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.

What am I doing?

*     *     *

The morning of the day I decided had started like any other. The far wall shook; the horses were kicking their stalls again. I opened my eyes to the same tin roof and wooden beams. Last night hadn’t been cold enough to bring a two-litre bottle of hot water to bed, but now, breath nearly visible, I yanked the duvet above my shoulders to block the draft. The Quonset had a breath of its own, corrugated sheeting rose and fell. Now the dome creaked, whispered: Aren’t you tired of living in a shed, camping for a living?

Beside me, Beergut stirred and grunted. His square torso rose from the sheets, feet slapped on the loft floor. He yawned like a cartoon bear. “Getting up, Babe?” He squeezed my knee-bulge. “Want some pancakes?”

“Don’t bother.” I rolled onto my side. As Beergut gathered his clothes, I followed his every move. Even after everything, I liked to watch him dress, hypnotized by the pace of deliberation.

He stood in boxer briefs and a frayed t-shirt. A good three inches shorter, he didn’t have to duck like I’d learned to. As he slipped chicken legs into dirt-encrusted jeans, the metal loops of his belt (’70s-era) jingled. On went the maroon turtleneck, the oil-stained sweatshirt from his industrial college friend. Beergut ran fingers through what was left of his salt-n-pepper hair. I caught a whiff, wanted to tell him he needed a shower, but was sick of being a nag. No doubt he knew that he wasn’t like Special Son.

“How about bacon and eggs?” he asked.

Had that whole conversation about needing to eat healthier been forgotten in the past twelve hours? I’d gone up two sizes this past summer. True, every day I wore the same elastic waistband sweatpants, but it niggled now and then. When I’d met Beergut, I’d been running 10Ks. I didn’t answer.

“Soft-boiled egg?”

Now he was talking. I pushed out a yes, throat tight.

Island life. Morning on the Property, another day’s purpose buried in the back lot with the tangle of fir, arbutus, and moss-covered car parts. Jen-with-a-J had the morning milking; the WWOOFer had the evening, which meant this was my day off. Just another bowl of time-gruel slopped out.

“What’s wrong, Babe?” Beergut laid a dry back of hand to my forehead, searched my eyes with baby blues.

“I don’t know.” I didn’t. As Queen of the Quonset, my loving partner was responsible for cooking breakfast. Is every woman so lucky to be doted on?

I rolled towards the window so he couldn’t see the meaningless tears. Drawing into the fetal position, I clutched Teddybear to my belly. Usually I’m a morning person: a smug, jump-out-of-bed-chirping-with-the-warbler type that drives night-people mad. Recently, I hadn’t felt like any kind of person.

“I’m going to stay in bed for awhile. Call me when it’s ready.”

“Ok,” Beergut slipped into his clogs. I squeezed my eyes as I heard them thud down the workshop steps. From the landing the dog squeaked his yawn, four paws padded down; the front door opened and slammed as Beergut let him out. The clogs tapped to the main door, the sticky click of the knob and then, “Hey, you got that fire going, lazy bugger?” Before the door slapped closed, a peal of giggles rose like the tinkle of wind chimes. His dad was up so Special Son would be tickled.

I closed my eyes against the dim light. The roar of nothing tolled against my brain, as the far-off din of Special Son’s one-sided conversation told me to keep going. Another day like the eight hundred that had come before.

*     *     *

“How do you like your coffee?” Beergut asked in the kitchen. Our first morning together called for such a question.

“I like my coffee strong and my men weak.” I’d stolen this line from a co-worker (another lifetime). Beergut chuckled. Good, still got a laugh. I inched towards him and he grabbed me around the waist, a caveman in the mancave (as my friend had labeled the Quonset, before he’d introduced us).

“That’s not true,” Beergut said.

“No. I like my coffee bitter and my men sweet.” I retreated to the armchair at the far end of the room. Men. I liked them all ways. Had I been an egg, I’d have been over easy.

And how did I like my Beergut? Stale, hot, bitter—no, sweet. Definitely not rich. More complex than instant, but no fancy espresso. A simple roast, home brewed like his yeasty beer. Once tasted, I’d known—this is for me.

Beergut had a schoolboy face for a senior, smitten in wrinkles. He lumbered over for a kiss. “I’m kind of fond of you, you know.” His breath smelled like diesel (not in a bad way) and I was pulled in.

Be careful of coffee. The older it gets, the more likely it is to give you indigestion.

*     *     *

At my place I sat and waited for breakfast. Across the room, toast popped up; to my left Special Son chewed his egg (yolk broken). Beergut placed a soft-boiled egg on toast before me. My favorite. The best was cracking into the eggshell with a butter knife, farm-fresh yolk soaked into toast, plate scraped with the last bit of bread. The warm yellows and whites slid down my gullet like morning light itself. But not today. The egg, consumed without enjoyment, slopped sticky on my palate. A gulp of lukewarm coffee followed, bitter.

The fire crackled in the corner heater. I looked out the picture window, past the couch where the dog sprawled, to the dullness outside. In front of Beergut’s sawmill, the puddles were scanned for pings of rain. No movement.

I knew exactly what every living creature on the Property would be doing that day. The spiders, those most prolific residents, would spin webs throughout the junk of everything. Sister Sally would wander up from her books and computers to feed the horses and, if it wasn’t raining, let them into the back field. The dog would stare at the driveway hoping for bug shadows. The cat was already stalking mice or birds; later she’d disappear into the woodshed to nap. Lately, Beergut had tired of the gun club and making wood. This meant a new/old hobby was around the bend—model airplanes again? In the lag time he’d read nautical fiction and transformed into the most boring old man in the world.

Special Son would pretend to watch a DVD upstairs, stomp down every half an hour to see if we’d decided on something entertaining. One question hung in the crux of his differently wired brain: What happen now?

I glared at him. “For Godssake, don’t you have anything to do?”

“Linda, Linda, check firewood…” He rambled out the door and out of sight, knowing that when I was in this mood he’d better stay the hell away. Even if our neighbour wasn’t home, he’d hang out on the road for a while, mutter about all his work.

Bugdog looked up with hangdog eyes. “What do you want?” I asked.

The dog ran away from me, thrust his schnoz in his master’s lap. Bugdog was sensitive to emotions, especially negative ones. Whenever Beergut and I fought he would run between us, asking for reassurance, a Nervous Nellie negotiator.

Beergut patted the dog twice then returned to stirring his coffee. Despite Dr. Riley’s telling him to cut down sugar, Beergut was back to his usual four teaspoons. The spoon clanged against the pottery mug for what seemed like five minutes.

“Dear Lord,” I said. “Isn’t that coffee mixed yet?”

Beergut’s chair creaked as he swung around. He peered over his spectacles. “What’s with you, Babe?”

A thirty-two-year-old child, I pouted. It was my least favorite month, gloomy to gloomier, the only holiday commemorating dead soldiers. The shit at the farm deepened, the routine dragged, the tarp system irritated. To make matters worse, as was often the case, that morning Beergut had neglected to service me.

“You’re unhappy,” he said.

“I am NOT.” I was practically spitting venom now.

“Sugarplum,” he said. His voice buttered my prickly cockles. “Listen to yourself. You are.”

It was true. I was becoming more miserable each day so I knew myself better unhappy than happy. And it was getting worse. I blinked back tears.

“You’ve got to ask yourself why you feel this way,” he said, “and what you can do about it.” He set the mug down. “You need to go hiking.”

*     *     *

Atop the ravine, I made double sure the emergency brake was on. Heaving the door open, I tumbled from the red truck. Bugdog whined from the back. I folded down the club seat, he plopped onto the gravel, and I looped the chain over his shaggy neck. Raindrops spit from the sky, which blended the grays and browns of a tightly woven Cowichan sweater.

I put the hood up on my raincoat as we crossed the road with care. It could be surprising, big trucks roaring around this bend. Finally, we stood at the sign that marked the trailhead. The air smelled of wet asphalt, dirt, and pine needles.

I was glad Special Son’s face hadn’t been at the upstairs window when we pulled out. Pale, drooling, square-jawed. Black empty eyes. For me, that face marked what Beergut didn’t see: longing, dependency, raging boredom—Special Son’s prison. When he was nervous or thinking he’d crook his finger and suck on it, and he did that at the window, whenever the dog and I went without him. I swallowed. Guilt is better than resentment, I’d decided, but it doesn’t sting less.

I let Bugdog off the leash. Up the rocky path we spiraled up steep switchbacks, the twinge of hamstrings pushing hard. Bugdog trotted ahead, sticking within eye distance as trained. His furtive sniffing told me he was on a dog mission I had no business knowing about.

Just me and the dog. Mostly everything I did off the Property didn’t include Beergut, which suited me fine, I liked my space. Besides, I’d never known different.

A retirement-aged couple was headed down. “Good morning,” I said.

“Hi.” Unison. They looked the same—wiry hair tucked under Tilley hats, horn-rimmed glasses, matching strides. No doubt they’d been together since the beginning of time.

As they passed, I felt a familiar twinge: loneliness. One pair of human eyes seeing this path, this dog-rump, this couple, this Garry-oak path explored with nimble feet. Despite my independence, all we didn’t share bothered me. Beergut didn’t exercise. Considering his bad habits, the deck was stacked.

*     *     *

Lonely was a far cry from how I felt that first summer. Waking up beside Beergut, I was home.

Daylight stretched onto the queen-sized. I reached up, cracked knuckles.

Beergut scooched closer, wrapped arms around me in a tight, antique spoon.

Nestled in, I felt giddy about today, miserable about tomorrow, how a criminal might feel on a spree. She knows the gig’ll be up, all possible endings spelling trouble. Perhaps she’ll get away with it, but doubtful, for she’s the reckless sort, not a sneak. So things catch up. Best-case scenario: capture without injury, jail. Another possibility: shot in the crossfire. If she’s crazy or depressed or just plain sensible, she might choose to go out by her own hand, avoiding all consequences but one. The criminal mind knows and sees the cage of the limited future pass in a blink of imagination. And yet, the abandonment of doing is beyond compare, crossing impossible barriers most humans shy away from. That’s what it’s like for a woman falling in love with a man twice her age.

Beergut rubbed one bony knee against the small of my back. “What’re you thinking about, Beautiful?”

“How happy I am.” I shrugged off his grip.

He played with my hair. “Then why are you crying?”

I couldn’t answer right away. Emotions often bled onto my pillow in waterworks; overcome with criminal intuition, I sometimes fell asleep bawling. “I just … worry. About … the future,” I said.

Beergut wiped my cheek-apples with his palms. “Worry about the present.” I rolled towards him and he kissed me with gummy-worm lips. “Better yet, enjoy it.”

I wrote love letters. Beergut kept them in the safe near his side of the bed, tucked away with important papers and bullet casings. One line I wrote stuck with us both forever: I can see this ending before it’s begun.

*     *     *

Hiking always made me think of God. I used to pray, but living with an atheist had changed things. God—vague, interior—no longer existed as the picture from the Lutheran church wall, a backlit Jesus cradling sheep. I put more faith in Beergut than God. How faulty was that?

We reached the muddiest part, waist-deep in ferns. Bugdog slowed to check the puddles. His tail accelerated. Roughly at the two-thirds point, I rounded a fallen tree and arrived at the first fairy door. These were planted all over the mountain, sometimes in hard-to-find places. This one, a wooden door no bigger than my hand, was placed on a large boulder. It looked as though a sprite lived there; in front it had laid shards of broken pottery, pretty stones, coins.

Gramma M, who’d died two years earlier, came to mind. The ultimate morning person, she rose before dawn, puttered to the radio, readied devotions, prepared breakfast for whatever family was visiting. Breakfast had been homemade yogurt with fruit, nice breads, havarti sliced thin with a special cutter. Gramma had more faith than Mother Teresa, wore out Bibles like a marathon runner wears out shoes. I needed a spiritual guide like her, but churchy stuff didn’t fit into my life now. It called for something flakier, like a fairy. Did fairies exist?

Maybe only on this island. I fished in my pockets for a token. I’d never left one before, but today felt different. All I had was a gum wrapper, a piece of baling string, and a dull penny. I placed the coin queen side up near the whimsical door.

Have faith. My faith rested in nature, the trail. I experienced flash-like certainties that a higher power pushed and pulled things. Beergut would demand proof, but I could offer none. Faith stood like a fairy door on rock. You had to believe it would open into a magical cavern, that logical matter didn’t support it.

Snippets remained from my religious past, such as Psalm 121: I lift my eyes up to the hills. From where will my help come? This mountain comforted me, but I simmered with questions. My biggest one: how do I fix things/ get happy?

Ahead, Bugdog rounded a corner and threw a squirrel into panic. The creature flashed brown as it hightailed it up the nearest Douglas fir.

The reasons were always with me, a wound gathering pus. If you don’t leave soon it’ll get harder. Gramma? No, it was me.

*     *     *

Hiking wasn’t the only thing that Bugdog and I did for fun. My molars rattled as gravel spun out from my tires. Wind whipped my face, blackberry brambles from the ditch whizzed by; all but the moment was obliterated.

“ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!”

Going on a “roar” meant taking off down the road by bicycle while Bugdog tore beside me, black lightning. He overtook me then waited at the mailbox, panting.

We turned around and strolled back up the hill.

A few minutes later, Beergut met me in the kitchen with a peck and squeeze. “How was your roar?”

“Amazing.”

“Want your breakfast now, Babe?”

“Think I’ll take it outside.”

He handed me a plate with a perfectly toasted sandwich: English muffin, egg, cheese, bacon. Beergut set his mug amid desk-clutter and he scrolled through today’s Old White Man Blog about the Evil Federal Reserve. Special Son was already upstairs.

I didn’t care what the others were up to when it was sunny. The picnic table ten feet away from the front door called to my parched skin. On a day like this, I’d savour my coffee, think only what happens now, and not give a shit about the future.

*     *     *

I pulled myself up the final rock face, keeping a healthy distance from the edge. Here, the clearing stretched forward, bluff sprawled then plunged to the ocean. The summit was marked by a bench—in front of which a concrete slab with a groove stood; this permanent bowl commemorated “Rosie.” I pulled the water bottle from my backpack and topped up the cusp for Bugdog. He sniffed cautiously, then lapped it up.

I plunked my slightly chilled ass onto the bench. The view never failed to impress, even sullied by clouds. To the East, I could see across the channel to the next small island; to the West and North stood the big one. In clear weather I might see all the way up the coast, but that day only the white wisp from the pulp mill was visible. By the position of the outbound ferry I calculated the time as somewhere around 11:30.

Reasons to stay. Home. The Property, just as much mine as his, pulled me up the road. Dorothy was right, there’s no place like it. Romance. Beergut and I never celebrated Valentine’s, anniversaries, or the like. Instead, we drank kit shiraz, danced in the kitchen to our favorites—Cowboy Junkies, Ian Tyson, Bob Dylan. Beergut, saturated with charm, made a rural James Bond, and I was putty. Joy moments. Jumping into the lake on a hot day. Looking down at the gulf from the mountaintop. Getting a furry headbutt from my favorite calf. Falling asleep in the tent on the back acres. Roaring. Every now and then, I remembered I was alive.

Two crows sat on a boulder, cah-cawed. Bugdog, never interested in birds, studied puddles again.

Reasons to leave: I’m done. Being ignored, taken for granted. Telling Beergut I needed respite. Him laughing. The life I could have. Without him, details unknown. I can see this ending before it’s begun.

I knew with a bolt: get out, and soon. I knew where to escape, the idea embedded in the soil of my brain for years: go East, teach English. I didn’t need a fairy after all, just my own head.

God started spitting on my face. Rain. I shivered as Bugdog questioned me; it was time to go. I made my way down the steepest bit, grabbed onto trunks for stability. The rough bark bit my palms, drew me from numbness. I started crying. Passersby wouldn’t notice because water flowed everywhere now, heading downhill.

*     *    *

Some men say, I love you. Beergut said, I want to make you pancakes. Six little words–forever in time nothing rings as pure. Whenever he felt especially affectionate, out came the old Joy cookbook. The main room smelled dense of grinds from the big green can. The sizzle of the grill under his skillful machinist hands sang eternal devotion. True hearts, Cinderella’s Prince twittering lovebirds draping ribbons over everything and all that bullshit.

I ate it up, his love, in pancakes, smothered in no-name syrup. Because that was my way of saying, I love you back.

*     *     *

“Plane doesn’t wait, doesn’t wait!” says Special Son. He’s right. If I don’t say goodbye soon, I’ll be cutting it close to boarding time.

I can’t look at Special Son in the eyes, even though I’d carefully lied that The Leaving had nothing to do with him.

Always cheerful, he doesn’t change tone. “Bye, Old Girl!” We hug. Special Son and I never embrace, not since the talk about inappropriate touching, so it feels like a necessary gravity between strangers.

“Well.” I turn to Beergut, lean into his musty embrace. Already, I choke tears through nostrils. When I cry, my nose runs, but I never have a tissue so I just snuffle.

“Marry me,” he says, for the umpteenth time. His breath slaps moist against my earlobe. His tension of every limb presses against me.

His desperate tone makes me think, at long last he knows I’m leaving. For weeks, he’s been laughing it off. And here it comes down to putting me on the plane, the switch in his brain saying, maybe she’s serious. No shit, Sherlock.

I shake my head as our lips touch briefly. Stepping away feels like letting go of an old dream. I shrug off the familiar electricity of his skin, his being.

*     *     *

I squeeze my eyes shut, angry at the rupture I’m tearing into my life. But the fairy doorstep pops into my head. A crack in the rock, new greenery springing up through the crevice. A voice (likely my own) tells me to get on the plane. And I listen.

I spin on my heels and dash past the smoked partition, no glance behind. Look back and turn to a pillar of salt, like that wife in the Bible. I can’t see squat through snotty tears, but, from the food court, I can smell breakfast.

G MorckGenevieve Morck, an alumna of the MFA Writing Program at the University of Victoria, now lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She wears many hats, including those of an ESL professional, hiker, biker, yoga dabbler, and bingo caller. She recently completed a Masters of Education degree from Simon Fraser University (just for kicks).

Home is Home

The car goes around a bend. The windows are up, the air cool, and we are hemmed in from every angle by the afternoon sun. In the back seat, my mother clasps my palm, as though to assure herself that I am really here.

We ease onto IBB Way. On either side, the town lies low and still, unburdened by the inflow of the season. The streetlights are sequined by Christmas décor. At the closest roundabout, tiny stars and bells garland an iron sculpture. I marvel at the clear sparkling roads, the sequence of space, the swept-smooth sidewalks bordered by chiseled lawns. But when I mention this, my mother says Calabar is no longer clean.

At first her words stop me. I am fresh from Lagos, after all, that great city of ambitious minds and endless bridges, dirt and sweat as much a part of its architecture as concrete and steel. That ugly place I have come to love; perhaps because of its unapologetic frenzy, its startling contradictions. Then I turn back to the window, looking out at a carnival billboard, unsurprised that my mother and I see Calabar differently now.

*     *     *

Before, the Calabar of my childhood: a slumberous Nigerian town content with its pace. Marian Road, the coolest road, was a long single strip of tar that cracked through elegant buildings. Aunty Margaret, the star primary school my sisters and I attended, fared opposite the wide sprawl of Desam House. Up ahead sat High Quality Bakery, where the sweet-tasting air made me fall in love with bread. Further down, behind a small grove of trees, came Sacramento Estate with its mosaic swimming pool. I would often stare at the turquoise ripples, terrified of slipping in.

My sisters and I excelled in school, showed up at birthday parties, played hopscotch and ten-ten and noti. We went to mass on Sundays. Afterward, if we behaved, my cousin would take us to see the Sunday-Sunday Show at Cultural Centre. In the dim theatre, I would shore up my laughter to match everyone’s, especially at the parts of the play I did not understand. On weekdays at four p.m., when NTA 9 began to broadcast, we would settle on the sofa and disappear into the tube, thrown into an animated world where Voltron was Lord. On Thursday nights, the series Checkmate moulded us into its taut grip. Then there were the commercial breaks, when we sang along with Joy soap and clapped in beat with Milo. Later, if I thought no one was watching, I would gloss my lips, sit in a bathtub filled with foamy water, and imagine I was the sloe-eyed girl in the Joy soap commercial.

Reading was our truest calling. American and British classics stood like boulders on our upper bookshelf. The African Writers Series bled across the middle, an orange and white turf. I ignored them all in my early life, bewitched by Enid Blyton. Friday nights were for movies, and Saturday mornings for trips with my father to Cyril Supermarket, those glorious aisles of sleek paperbacks. Nobody thought it strange, me being a writer. My mother used to keep my stories and manuscripts in her bedside drawer.

One weekend, my sisters and I formed a club called Summer, a mash-up of Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven—or so we believed. It had a mournful anthem and a tallying system that favoured the oldest. We held meetings in the garden. If we’d awakened to rain, peach-coloured hibiscuses would flood the walkway in the shape of sodden tissue paper. We rarely cleaned up the mess. Instead we leapt and landed on our invented kingdom. At times an adult walked past and warned us not to climb any tree. We never listened. Standing on a firm branch of the almond tree, basking in its green shade, a weak flame of sun straining through, made us feel as though we were the few on earth exactly where they ought to be.

On the other side of the compound, the whistling pine tree loomed over the landscape. It was a grand monument to Christmas. Every December, when a loop of blinking lights was strung around it, the season became more real, more noble than a time to give and get, to see family and friends, all billowy dresses and cross-body bags.

During the Akwa-Cross Trade Fair, we pretended not to know my cousin was the man in the Father Christmas costume. After mass on Christmas Day, we would drive to Calabar Road to see the Ekpe masquerades. They swept past in their swaggering might, staff in right hand, followed by a large band of drummers and singers. I liked to think of the Ekpe as black stick figures stuck in giant red doughnuts. Still, I crouched in the back seat when they moved close.

By the end of each outing, a dark plot for another would be gleaning in me. The world beyond our house, it seemed, was where excitement truly lived.

*     *     *

But home is where my blood is. Home is home. Why else, on my arrival, does my eight-month-old niece fit into my arms with no protest, as if she knows who I am? My younger brother is taller, his voice deeper, and as I sense the way he masters his thoughts before speaking, my soul bellies-out with pride. I watch my father too often—giving orders to workmen, walking to the garage—and the new fragility in his gait worries me.

I, too, am getting older. Christmas Day is like any other day. The smell of Christmas—a crisp, heady presence that stoked my childhood—is gone. What is left of the whistling pine tree is a stump of wood. When my mother tells me again about the Biafran War in the late 1960s, I listen more than I speak.

I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home.

Now, my sensibilities are wholly present, so I come to terms with this version of a person: my mother but not yet my mother, hiding in a half-collapsed hut in Ogoja during an air raid, wading through the Cross River with the Ikom Bridge blown off, missing school for three years because there were no schools. At this point, her lower lip curls. My mother is the rare Nigerian parent who really did come first in class.

On the 28th we gather before the TV to watch the carnival. Girls dance by, long-limbed and smooth-skinned, appliquéd wings flaring at their backs. A boy leaps off a tower of shoulders, his nimble body the nearest thing to grace. The camera switches to a wide overhead view. In the bright curve of revellers, skin and satin meld, and the scale of it gives me the sensation of inhaling wonder.

At night, a friend visits. We sit and talk. It pleases me, that I still know when she is about to laugh. We head out to find a cab. Outside the gate, I slow my hurried footsteps, smothered by the moment: the warm, humid air settling where it will; the stadium lights hurling a delicate, pearlescent glow around; the fireworks blowing and fizzing up high. On Marian Road, crowds thrive in place of cars, moving in every direction, as though in search of a new spectacle. One can almost believe the carnival has always been here.

*     *     *

It began with the roads. Some were tarred, others widened, the land gaining a sudden vastness that shocked the sloth from it. Although Calabar had always been reasonably clean, a social awareness campaign elevated the culture, so that cleanliness shifted into something divine. Driven by opportunity, foreign investors rushed into Tinapa, a free-trade zone and resort modelled as a first on the continent.

The government set up an annual Christmas festival with a string of balls, a series of concerts, a boat regatta, a beauty pageant. Even before they built the Christmas village, a cluster of shops with everything from snacks to souvenirs, there were stories of hotels being overbooked, of families renting out rooms. The carnival, our best card, made an arrival with five unique bands. By then, the rest of the country couldn’t help but notice. Cross River State found its voice as a major tourism destination.

The air moved at a speed that forced us to breathe anew. My younger brother didn’t care for NTA. Cartoon Network was what he loved. My big sisters and I grew up and moved to other cities, other countries. A few years after I left, my parents hired a team to cut down the almond tree. It had tangled with the electricity cables and disrupted power. The whistling pine tree turned into a haven for boisterous owls. Nothing more. When I received the news of its felling, I made a fine drama of it on the phone. “We’ll plant another one,” my mother said in a steady voice.

My short visits were days of discovery—a water park, a movie theatre, a fast food restaurant. Every unknown sight drew a flush of joy. Every slight change took on an exaggerated breath. Once, driving past a new store with my younger sister, I gestured at it, light at heart, but she shrugged like the whole thing was normal. I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home. There is a saying in certain Nigerian languages. A loose English translation reads, “The legs with which you go to Lagos are not the same legs with which you will return.” In my case, to come from Lagos was to be pleased with progress in the only place that is fully formed in my dreams, but to assume the fear that one day all I saw in those dreams would vanish.

I wanted to know who designed the new state logo, why Paragon Video closed, what was Jasper? From my younger siblings, a classic “Ushie” response would emerge, coiffed in the same dry wit I threw at anyone stunned by the ordinary. It brought to mind the night, many years before, when my mother told us how on NTA News, she had spotted the owner of Cyril Supermarket in a line-up of armed robbery suspects. We’d asked what would happen to the supermarket, and my mother opened her palms, a motion along the lines of “what other thing could possibly happen?”

I remember, even then, being suffused by a kind of despair. What bothered me most wasn’t the entire business, in truth, but the idea of the books that lured my imagination into life rotting away elsewhere.

*     *     *

I ride along to Marina with two old friends. Awaiting us is a well-tended resort overlooking the pier. The chain of carnivals is over—the mood in town that of recovery. At Eleven-Eleven, through the wound-up window, I see glitter caught on a slab, maybe some fallout from a costume. In front of makeshift booths, photographers display street portraits taken amid the festivity. Some of them will never be claimed.

The parking lot in Marina is almost full. We find a spot and walk down the promenade. We place our orders in a thatch hut. Across from us the Cross River leafs out, mile upon mile of grey, an unending panorama of water. From this distance, the canopied foliage opens out, launching itself into the horizon. Where once there were slave ships, a speedboat service appears to be at its peak. It is nothing at all like my childhood. In the crevices of my memory, this place will forever stay a seafood market.

A waiter approaches, his abashed bearing already saying what we’d rather not hear—the cold drinks and roasted fish are finished. We move to a lounge opposite the carousel. Here, still, the Chapman I crave is absent, so I make do with a soft drink. It loses its fizz as we catch up with our different lives. At issue is a decision: which city has the most absurd rents—Lagos or Abuja? We agree, in the end, it is a matter of relativity. Soon the bill comes, small enough for only one of us to handle. I think how when I eat out with friends in Lagos, I am quick to make sure we all contribute, even if someone offers to pay the whole sum.

On our way back to the car, I watch a teenage boy on the carousel, forehead low on the pole as though in prayer. Perhaps his insistence on claiming a space meant for a child is some form of rebellion, some twisted refusal to accept he is no longer one. Perhaps he is merely looking out for a younger sibling. Only when my friends speak do I realise they have noticed him too. One says she wonders why he is on a children’s amusement ride. The other admits she’d once done something similar. I imagine myself in a far-off park, all set to be the lone adult in a balloon race, but shame gets the better of me and my vision flounders.

The day after, I leave for the airport two hours before my flight. My mother draws close to me in the back seat. Yet I feel the pull of Lagos, a life I love and loathe alike, the days ordered by briefs and plans ruined by traffic. I will the world to do as I please, to bend time and circumstance into a straight line. The purpose, of course, is to trade in the hectic city for the laid-back town of old. But such a thing is impossible, delusive, even. And I wonder, as the car ascends the sloping airport road, if accepting my divided self will always be impossible too.

Suzanne Ushie - Photo_ResizedSuzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in Fiction Fix, Conte Online, The Writing Disorder, Gambit: Newer African Writing and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by Saraba and Brittle Paper. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She is a 2016 OMI Fellow at Ledig House.