Terrance Manning, Jr.
Terrance Manning, Jr., is a graduate from Purdue’s MFA program in Creative Writing (2014). Recently, he received 1st place in the Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, the David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction, and Crab Orchard Reviews’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. His work appears or is forthcoming in Boulevard, Southwest Review, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines, and has been selected as a finalist in such contests as the Cincinnati Review Schiff Awards for Prose, Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize, and the American Short Fiction Short Story Award. He lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA.
I found my best friend dead in his bathroom a week ago. He spun an Immortal Cry tee-shirt into a tight rope and hung himself from the towel hook on the door. Maybe a joke, I thought. Evan did shit like that. I laughed at first. “C’mon, asshole,” I’d said, “I have the worst story.”
He was twenty four.
I met Evan in a bathroom, of all places, in the 7th grade. Walked out of Math and only wanted to piss. I remember standing and counting purple tiles on the floor when this scrawny bastard, tight black jeans and one of those shirts with real-looking pictures of wolves on the chest, comes sliding in beside me. A dozen urinals in the whole place and he jams up next to me.
“Couldn’t wait any longer,” he said.
“What the hell,” I twisted my body away, trying to keep piss in the urinal. He leaned in closer as I leaned away.
“What grade are you?”
“Are you gay?” I asked. I was the closed-up type—not that anyone would open up to a stranger with their dick hanging out.
“I just moved here from Kentucky,” he said, still staring.
“You have piss buddies in Kentucky?”
He was quiet for a moment—then he laughed. Dropped his head back, hands at his crotch and laughed. I don’t know what it was. Something beautiful really, this kid’s laugh. And for a long time after that we told people the story—his side of the story—jamming up next to me pissing and starting an awkward conversation, how I damn near knocked him in his teeth and ran for help. I never mentioned that he’d struck something in me. Like suddenly I wanted him to laugh and keep laughing.
Last week, when I found Evan on the hook, I was sure he’d prop himself down, let the color back into his purple face. I sat on the tub and stared. “Evan,” I said, like he could hear, “Evan, why’d you do that?” Couldn’t bring myself to call 911. I talked to him. I know what you’re thinking, but I had questions. Like the answers, for instance, to his stupid riddles—like the guy standing in the rain, no umbrella, but his head never gets wet—and I’d boil over them for weeks. He’d smile when I tried to threaten the answers out of him and say, Forget it, man…just forget it and a few years from now it’ll hit you like, Bang! Just like that, man. It’ll hit you and you’ll thank me. I promise you, you’ll thank me. But I might never know and that shit scared me. Scared me more than his hanging on a bathroom door. And instead of asking things I’d wished I’d known, like why he’d come to Pittsburgh, or never talked about Kentucky, I kept asking in the bathroom, again and again, Why’d you do that?
In high school, Evan used to sit in his room all day and listen to Ride. Had “Time Machine” on repeat and I’d get to his place just as he had his knees looped around the pull-up bar in his room playing air-board to the middle of the song. He’d fall to the floor and pop up red-faced, laughing. He was tall and skinny, but strong-looking—like a basketball player, though he sucked at sports. Couldn’t catch a beach ball if you tossed it to him. Still, people liked him—type of guy you told your secrets to.
I was different. Not that I couldn’t keep secrets, because I could. People never opened up to me. I’m the guy you pat on the shoulder when you walk in the room, that you call your buddy, not your friend, that can hang in conversations about stupid things, like early nineties movies, or how John Cusak’s not the coolest guy of our generation, our own Steve fucking McQueen, but beyond that, I’ve got retarded emotion. That’s what my grandfather told me when I was young.
“You’ve got retarded emotion, kid.” We were standing out back of his house on the wooden deck surrounding his swimming pool. My mother was arrested and my father shot and killed in a motel room north of Pittsburgh when I was a baby. They were buying drugs.
When my grandfather called my father a low-life and a prick, told me the man corrupted my mother, his precious daughter, I told him, “Okay, Grampa, can I have a fudge sickle?” And it pissed him off, I guess, that I didn’t hate my father. Wasn’t in me. So my grandfather said I had retarded emotion, took to saying that for a while until it got too burdensome to say in conversation, or when, to friends, or relatives, he’d have to refer to me, and he just started calling me retard.
By the time he died, grandma was slipping from the Alzheimer’s and Uncle Barry put her in a care facility. I went to live with him after that. He treated me like a toy, a boxing buddy to throw gloves on and spar with his friends. So I spent as much time as I could at Evan’s, at his mom’s. We’d hardly even see her. She worked but I couldn’t say where. Funny I’ve known the guy all these years and couldn’t tell you where his mother worked. She had that shaky-blonde look, hair pressed flat, nearly disappearing or falling out. Had a cigarette in her mouth every time I saw her. Smiled like a growl. Had that deep-bread Pittsburgh, called us “yunz” instead of “yinz.”
Once, I’d gone to Evan’s after he hadn’t shown up to school and the door was open. I could hear the drone of a television inside, mumbled words, dishes chattering.
In the kitchen, Evan sat on the table in his underwear eating a bowl of cereal. His mother sat beside him, smoking, one hand holding the paper, the other rubbing Evan’s naked back. They looked up at me when I walked inside.
“No school,” I said, bowing, as if some ceremonious gesture might make me more welcome in the kitchen.
“I’m not feeling well,” Evan said. His mother’s cigarette smoke curled around his body, looping down his pale chest.
She stood and grabbed her purse. “I’ll see about that address,” she said and kissed Evan on the lips.
I felt suddenly like I should leave, too, wondering what his mother was thinking as I watched, wondering what address. I felt like we were all naked in the kitchen as the wind tumbled in from outside, pulling leaves inside.
“Shut that damn screen!” his mother shouted.
They were unpredictable. Some days, he’d hug her around the shoulders, kiss her neck. Other times they’d stand in opposite rooms throwing picture frames at each other—her calling him a cunt, him calling her a dickhead.
Evan’s dad left when he was a kid—some asshole, I guess—and most of the time, when Evan’s mother wasn’t around, we imagined we owned the place. We pumped iron in his bedroom, though our bodies never changed; we grew stronger, never bigger. And I joked that soon I’d track down his father and beat his ass in the street. Evan liked that, said things like, That’s my boy, and Fuck my dad, and I think we felt closer because of it—though sometimes, when we talked about his dad, he’d get all weird and put Ride on again, turning it up loud, and I’d be yelling, What’s your problem; turn that down.
I don’t think I noticed a change in Evan. Like to think I did, but I didn’t. If anyone had changed, it was me. Evan knew that. Before last week, we’d lived together nearly three years—since we’d turned twenty one.
Evan worked at Computer Goodies in Olympia shopping center. He sold obsolete computer parts and floppy discs. It was tucked away in the corner. Never sun spilling in through the showcase, cooking up the place. Never customers. When the manager wasn’t there, he could read in the back—smart-assed books like Twain and Faulkner, shit I’d try reading and put down after every sentence, grab a bite to eat.
I worked at Subway near two weeks before they canned me. Told a customer the seafood & crab smelled like wolf pussy. Evan laughed as I outlined the details: the way the manager stood there, the way I tried not to smile. That customer must have thought I was going to pull out a sawed-off, shoot up the place. She backed out the door cringing, like turning away from a snake. I said, I won’t bite, bitch.
Evan might have told you I had no patience. He’d tell you how we’d be eating somewhere, and if someone looked at me, I’d ask if they were alright—stare at them until their face grew red and they’d go back to eating their Smokehouse burgers and chicken fingers. I might stand up and say, How about I shove that straw down your throat. When Evan brought friends over, they’d do the pat on the back thing and I’d ask why they fucking touched me. Most of the time, I was kidding. Evan had gotten good at recognizing when. Like the night his buddy Ryan, from work, said, Fuck you, like we were old friends. Evan took him outside and left.
In high school, we had a number of friends. Might even say some weren’t bad, that some of them were good guys, even fuckhead Joe Bard, who called Evan a faggot in tenth grade and I punched him in his mouth, dragged him into an empty classroom and told him I was going to make him suck my dick. He cried, told Evan he was sorry. Two years after high school, Joe Bard drowned at college, a seizure under water. I would think about him crying that day and feel sorry for him.
Mostly though, Evan and I steered away from groups. We’d hang out on his roof nights talking stupid, like whether we could steal the grass from the neighborhood and store it in his basement. We’d have to plan well, use up the darkness between twilight and dawn, making sure to peel back the grass like scalping the entire place. We’d keep it stored away. Everything green and growing gone and we’d be the takers. And other times we lay quietly, looking into a neighborhood overflowing with night.
I could’ve watched him, paid closer attention: a trail-off in his story, insinuations. Conversations he might have tried saying something. Like the argument, years ago, over Pipedream vs. Jezzball.
“It’s an exponential thing,” he said.
“You capture balls.” I laughed.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Pipedream’s one dimensional. Great game, but one dimensional: get to the other pipeline, drain your water.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And the water chases you. Starts draining before you’ve made a path. That’s complicated. That’s conflict.”
“Who wants to be chased by toxic water?”
“Who wants to catch fifty fucking balls on a tiny screen?”
“That’s the point,” he said. “It’s an exponential thing. They’re everywhere. Like red eyes rolling around in a box and the better you do, the more advanced you get, the more complex the challenge. Don’t you get that? It’s brilliant. It’s infinitely more and more complicated. No end game.”
We had a thousand of those conversations: which was a cooler jacket, Simon’s in Seven Types, or Charlie’s in Perks; which made more sense, buoyancy or inertia. They were games. But I’ve been seeking clues, trying somehow to solve them like Evan’s goddamned puzzles, like whether or not his idea of infinitely complicated had anything to do with his life, or what he meant when he said end game.
But all that was years ago. Long before, I’m sure, he decided to stand up on the tub and wait for me to get there.
At home, the neighbors beneath us were always playing country music. I liked the shit: old Hank, ‘80s George, Merl Haggard. Evan hated it. He asked them once to keep it down and they played Randy Travis’s “On the Other Hand” on repeat. Maybe that’s why he spent more time at the computer store—to find quiet. For the last year, it seemed, each of us had been seeking a kind of quiet. Evan read. I had to get outside and move. I’d take a day and fish on the Youghiogheny with my uncle. The place had its own silence: river flies buzzing, cars honking through Christy Park, the sound of a train thumping through the trees across the river. We’d cast our lines and drink beers and listen to the radio until the sun went down.
I’d gone fishing a few days before I found Evan in the bathroom. I told him, See you later and he flipped me off as I walked out the door. Not unusual. He smiled when he did it and I smiled back.
I met my uncle in the morning, sat on a crate in his garage while he took his time packing the tackle box. I brought my seven-dollar rod, the one I’d gotten from the flea-market in Olympia, where Evan and I went sometimes on Tuesday or Thursday, looking for used DVD’s, where we stopped to talk, nearly every time, to Flipper, the guy selling hotdogs.
It had started as a joke. Evan asked him for advice about coming out of the closet to his parents—load of smoke, but Flipper went for it. I don’t know if it was Evan’s sincerity or my grave but encouraging nods, but he went for it. I remember Evan had the guy telling him it was okay and it wasn’t his fault. Flipper listened, replied with all the concerned does-that-piss-you-off’s. We’d grab a bite and bullshit and the Flipper took a liking to us. Called me Bluto. I don’t know where he got the name. I assumed one of Evan’s jokes. But I liked it—my own confidentiality. I went back to the flea market and bought a tackle box, bobs, sinkers. Anything I needed for fishing. Each time I stopped and talked to Flipper.
Now thinking of Flipper, the river, the fishing, I feel like a prick. Like maybe, in the quiet, I’d stopped listening. Maybe I’d missed a sign, a fucking symbol. If anyone knew Evan, or might’ve recognized a change, it would’ve been me. And I didn’t.
At Evan’s funeral, I stood in a corner and watched his mother shake hands with people. They shook mine too, nodded, darkly, like I was the one that died. No one knew I’d found him. Evan’s friends and family were there, aunts, cousins. Kids ran around. People came all the way from Kentucky. My uncle wore a flannel buttoned up to his neck, stood near me, and neither of us talked. When I left, Evan’s mother was smoking a cigarette near the dumpster. I thought of walking up to her, but what would I say? I know you two haven’t talked? I know you kicked him out. I didn’t have time for talking, and more people arrived, people we’d known in high school. They were standing out front catching up and laughing and all I wanted was to leave before anyone else showed up bumping elbows and smiling and telling me that they were sorry, so fucking sorry. Maybe his mother was looking for her own kind of quiet by the dumpster.
I could be cold sober and talk to Evan, spill out like a pig’s gut. I’d even told him once I thought I remembered my mother. Normally, I told people, She died in jail, never knew her. But I told Evan of an image, a curly-haired woman, crooked smile. In my memory, she leaned toward me. Behind her: a plaid couch and a window, pale winter light falling through. I told Evan it must have been her, that I must have been a year old. I didn’t tell him what it meant to me, the image of her, that woman against the light. Evan was the “feelings” guy. He didn’t have retarded emotion. He’d say he wished he’d known his father, too, wished he could have met him. And uncomfortable with the “too,” as if I’d said something similar, I’d laugh and say, He didn’t wish he’d met you. I feel bad about that now, but we gave each other shit. Friends did that. We’d be in a bar somewhere, piss drunk and drinking ourselves drunker, and he’d lean over telling me he loved me: you’re my best friend, he’d say. I won’t lie; that embarrassed me. We didn’t even shake hands—too formal, too strict.
But you have to listen. The night before I found him, he was on the porch sitting in the dark. I’ve known Evan for years. Sometimes, he likes to sit in the damn dark. I almost went outside, but I’d been dropping apps at Radio Shack, Candy Warehouse. Put one in at Giant Eagle. I wasn’t in the mood for Evan telling me I needed to find work, for another one of his conversations about purpose and meaning and what it meant to drag. I didn’t need a lesson. Neighbors played music—steel guitar shit. Hank Two. George Jones. Conway Twitty. I knew Evan must’ve been pissed, but through the glass, he had his feet up on the railing. I’m telling you, I almost grabbed the handle and went out. I keep thinking how he looked through the sliding door, his face foggy, eyes blurred. I couldn’t tell if he’d seen me. His mouth moved, like he was talking, telling me to come outside; tomorrow I’ll be gone. He could’ve been singing. Evan did that—in the shower, cutting grass; he’d sing. But he hated the neighbor’s music and I keep thinking of him through the glass, that moonless night as dim as the light inside, trying to tell me something: answers to his riddles, to open my eyes, my ears, to become aware.
Evan hadn’t changed; I knew that. He was the same asshole from the bathroom all those years ago—only older, a beard now, taller. He loved obscure things, playing Jet-Star Bomber in the back of the computer store on an old monitor—the one that played five-inch floppies. He still collected rocks at night, or lay in a field somewhere to watch the hillside, still shoulder danced to music when he heard it—in an elevator, the market—or played his stupid jokes, pushed me to find work, offered me a job at Computer Goodies, though they were going under, still told his riddles, like infinite supply, still laughed a lot, still cried too much, still spilled on the bar when he was drunk, cheeks brightened red, talking about how the music always sounded so good, so beautiful. Isn’t everything so damn beautiful?
People called me after the funeral. Mutual friends, guys we drank with, people from high school, a cousin from Kentucky that I’d met at the funeral. She left a message telling me that Evan was a good guy, that he had a contagious laugh, as if I hadn’t already known that. She left a number, said, Lets get a drink while I’m in town. I couldn’t answer. Why should I? I could be a jaded son-of-a-bitch and I’ll own up to it. Evan never talked about these people, these aunts, uncles, cousins. He never talked about Kentucky. Who was this woman to tell me what I already knew? I’d known him twelve years—as old as he was when I met him. I needed time to figure out what to do with myself after finding him. How to stop thinking of the steps, how I’d carried him down to the street eventually, how his head bobbed a little, bumped into the wall, and somehow I thought I’d hurt him. You’d think you’d want to pull down the shutters, kick the lights, and disappear for awhile. Not me. I had to get out, keep moving. I walked through streets, slowly. I’m not the kind of guy to rush around. I don’t mind a little sun on my back. I thought about what I had left of Evan, what I’d collected.
Old tee-shirt, a few used pairs of Vans shoes, Hemmingway book, a USB drive with nothing on it, pack of Marlboros still wrapped, piece of limestone shaped like an arrowhead. Evan had found it in the woods behind his house, right there in the hillside, man, just poking out of the ground, you believe that? Found a coin collection in his bedroom, buried under tee-shirts in his top drawer, pennies left missing. I folded his unfolded shirts stupidly, set them in a pile on his bed. I sat back on a coffee table and flipped through his wallet, pulling credit cards out, feeling his name printed in thick capital letters with my thumb. He had a receipt: a candy bar and an iced tea from CoGo’s. I held his ID. He was twenty-one in the photo, smiling. I stared into his young face, his teeth suddenly unusual, his eyes nearly mystic with what he may have been thinking—if he’d known he’d be gone in three years. I left the cash and took the receipt, the ID. I slipped them into my pocket.
I searched the rest of his room, making sure to touch anything. I looked through a stack of papers, a pile of computer games, a photo album, sketches, any scrap of paper he’d kept in a junk drawer. I held his pencils in my fingers looking for clues, feeling angry. He must’ve left something. Evan would’ve left something—an answer, a note. Evan would’ve wanted me to figure it out—a game, a challenge, a fucking riddle. I knew it was ridiculous. He couldn’t prop himself down. He couldn’t take back the puke, the shit in his pants. There was no damn game, I understood that.
Yet, for some reason, it was a postcard that got me—untouched by ink, wordless. There was a picture of rocks on the front, piled on top of each other, half in the sun, half darkened by splashing water. I stared at it for a time and lay it on the dresser, picked it back up, feeling suddenly guilty standing in his bedroom, naked, like I’d felt the day his mother kissed him on the lips in the kitchen. I could take it to her, the post card. Fucking silly, I know, but right then, in the bedroom, it seemed right that she should have it. Might mean something to her. Maybe she’d cry. Maybe she’d remain strong, tell me something profound, speak to me of Evan. Maybe we’d finally have the conversation we’d never had over the years, and in the end, I’d give her the postcard, hand it over like handing her Evan’s life. If she wasn’t home, I planned to hold onto it, come back every day until I encountered her in person. I wanted the action of it: my hand and hers holding onto it for just a second. And I’d leave—never have to see her again.
When I got there, she was home. I could see her from the street, could see her on the back porch, looking into the yard. Hell, I almost turned around, but I could have sworn she saw me. And what would that look like: me running away, up the street, with a postcard in my hand? I walked around the side of the house and stood at the bottom step.
Sunlight poured over everything—the porch, the yard, glowing white from the shingles of the house. She was sitting in a chair, tucked away in a slip of shade. I had to put my hand on my forehead as I looked up into the light, squinting.
“Day’s hot, isn’t it,” I said.
She had a cigarette in her mouth, unlit.
I turned and looked behind me into the yard, where she’d been looking since I got there. The grass was patched, overgrown, balding in spots. A plank-wood fence wrapped around, pointed at the tops like dry-rotted arrows toward the sun. I looked back to her, my hand glued to my forehead by my index finger and thumb.
I wanted to say I was sorry for her loss or some shit, that I missed him, too. But I didn’t know how to talk to the lady. All those years, I’d smile in her presence, dry out and harden like a fucking wart in her kitchen. She’d ask Evan to help her pull cans from the cabinets, organize and restock them again. I’d help, awkwardly, getting in the way, and I never talked to her, always past her, toward Evan. She was miserable all the time, or miserable-looking with those cigarettes sticking out of her face like whiskers. I waited once for Evan in the same place, the bottom of the steps, while she picked weeds along the sidewalk. I asked if she liked Pittsburgh better than Kentucky, and she shook her head, smiled up at me and walked inside. Evan told me that I was lucky she didn’t stab me with a gardening shovel and we laughed. Maybe she remembered that.
“I brought this,” I said, pulling the postcard out. “I brought this for you.” I had it all planned: my hand reaching out, her face filling with tears. But what had I brought, really? He hadn’t even written on the thing.
I wanted to talk to her. If only for that day, in the sunlight, in the yard. I wanted to tell her everything I knew about Evan, all that I’d learned over the years, as if somehow that might make it better. And maybe I wanted her to tell me what I didn’t know, like what his father was like, or what she and Evan had fought about, or why she’d kicked him out. I wanted to tell her what I found.
Hear me out, I’d say. The front door was open when I got there, swinging. There was music playing from the neighbors. Maybe wind, traffic flying by outside. I’d taken my time, already telling my story to the living room. Evan, I’d said. A plate sat on the table, bread crumbs dried, stale. A fold of crust with brown mustard. Evan, where are you, I have the worst story. Though it wasn’t. I’d stepped in dog shit on the walk home. I laughed. No, not at him; I hadn’t found him yet. I’d seen him just the night before on the deck. He’d tried to speak. I stood on the other side of the glass, my hand on the knob. No, I walked away instead. I went to bed and slept.
But the frame fell away, dissolving. In the yard, I wanted Evan’s mother to stand up—just stand the hell up and say something. But she sat there in her chair looking past me, or through me, like I imagine she might have looked at Evan all those years after fighting, or rubbing his back, or calling him a dickhead, like she was looking for Evan.
I climbed the steps and walked to her. “I brought you this,” I said again.
She looked at me like I’d disturbed her, lips curling away from that cigarette, a snarl. “The hell is that?” she asked.
“Of course it’s a damn postcard,” she said.
“There are rocks on it,” I said. “Evan collected rocks.”
She snatched it from me. One second, I had it pressed between my fingers and the next it was in her hand. Made me angry. Frustrated. I thought of asking for it back, thought of asking for a fucking do-over. We were supposed to transfer the thing and there she was, holding it in her hand and staring down at it like I’d handed her a goddamned turd.
Then she lifted her ass just up off of the seat and threw the post card in a trashcan on the porch. I nearly reached out and slapped her. I would have pulled it back out, but how could I? You tell me what that would’ve looked like, brushing past her, grabbing the thing and holding it like some child with candy. No, to hell with that woman. I thought, You want to put your baby in a can, that’s fine. So I stared back at her, stared right into her face, flooding everything I had into that silence, that quiet. I stood near a minute like that, leaning, peering down. And I left.
Now stay with me: people called. They called me. Call his mother, I wanted to say. He has a mother you know. She should deal with it, with the messages: I’m here for you; I’m here. And maybe they were. Maybe they called and she didn’t answer. Maybe she ripped the phone off the wall and tossed it in the trash. My uncle called and said he wanted to take a drive, that we’d go anywhere. We could fish, drink a beer, listen to the radio. We could drive along and listen to the wind if I wanted.
“Not today,” I said. Not any day, really. Maybe we’d pretend it didn’t happen. Maybe we’d try to get back a year, a month. We only needed a day. Maybe people had figured out that I’d found him, and they wanted details. People always wanted details. And what would I tell them? Yes, I found him. No, not a gun. Or maybe the smell. Like salami. I’m sure from a sandwich he’d eaten; everything smelled like salami. How, in the bathroom, it was worse—like he’d thrown up. Like he’d shit his pants, which he had, in fact, shit his pants. Maybe they wanted the important stuff.
This is important: I talked to him for a while, I told you this. I sat down on the tub and talked. I’m sure he was dead. His face was dark and pale at once and something dry was on his lips, something imperfect, arced so little it’s nearly impossible to recognize as a smirk or a frown. As if he’d still held his breath, still attempted to speak, and I wonder if he had spoken—what he’d said to himself, to the empty bathroom. Knowing Evan, he probably sang a moment, took his feet from the sink.
I wish I could tell you how much time had passed between my finding him and calling an ambulance. But after awhile, I was quiet; I leaned my head forward and closed my eyes. The salami magnified. Why’d you do that? I kept asking. I pulled him down from the hook and laid him in the tub. That was hard because he weighed so much. I laid him there and leaned my back against the back of the tub, dropped one leg over the side, and we faced each other, crossing—the way we’d lay in bed when we were young and we’d stay at each other’s houses. I might have fallen asleep. I know what it looks like, but Evan would understand. I don’t feel bad about laying him down. He might have liked that, to be laid in the tub, in the pale afternoon light, the sound of summer outside in the streets, a lawnmower, a plane flying over the house, Willie Nelson singing softly through the floorboards, kids laughing somewhere in the neighborhood, far away from us.
Yesterday, I went to the flea-market to see Flipper selling hotdogs. It had rained in the morning. People held down tablecloths. Some vans had boxes half-packed, while others were setting back up. I saw Flipper standing at his kiosk, tarp above his head, smoke rising from the back of his grill and blowing out into the wind, a little thicker in the after-rain cool, no one talking to him—as usual—and I thought, How could anyone miss this treasure?
“Flipper, make your day’s rent?”
“What summons yee?” Flipper changed his voice and I smiled. I felt like he’d waited all day, or weeks, just to change his voice for that greeting sentence.
“Actually, pal,” I began and as I stepped up close to him, his eyes bulged, not too much like a cartoon, but enough to literally see them protruding from his face. He reached for my hand and I paused. I wanted to shake it and couldn’t. Did I really come to tell him Evan was dead? I had the receipt, the ID. An extended Evan folded in my wallet. Maybe I could pull it out and instead of my hand, I could shove it all into Flipper’s chubby fingers, his pink and shaking palm.
Instead, I wanted to leave. I couldn’t bear to touch him, couldn’t bear to see him. But before I turned, a gust of wind ripped through the market, pulling people’s tablecloths off, knocking vases and rustic lamps to the asphalt, and Flipper’s tarp turned inside-out above his head. I watched the wind tuck under the tarp and fling a splash of stored water into the air above him. Just as the tarp reached its highest point, it froze for only a second. And I could hear cars in the background, buzzing and beeping, humming and roaring. The sound of kiosk runners, early morning discount shoppers and children merged into a static noise, blowing through the market, laughing on the wind. I could smell Flipper’s hotdogs just starting to burn in the center by the flame. I could smell the mustard on his stained apron as it dried. I could feel the heat in my face, taste the warning in my mouth, as just then water came down down over Flipper like rain, like one tiny cloud had burst open over his head and soaked him. He stared up, arms out, water dripping from his face and clothes and smiled as he reached up, grabbed the toupee from his head and rung it out.
A toupee! I thought. He’s wearing a toupee! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream or run but I stood and finally smiled and though I missed the bastard so much it hurt, I thought of Evan—how he might have looked, knowing more than me, knowing all that time that it was always a goddamned toupee, and how he might have laughed with me, again, for a little while, smiling a smile that said, Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t you trust me? and waiting for the right rock to poke up in the dirt, for some peculiar moment, like purple lightening in the sky, or a mudslide, and he could say, Isn’t that beautiful, man? The way it seems to fall away like that?
“ This story started as a flash piece. In its early stages, I wanted to investigate the way humor, or the idea of humor and laughter, could be used as a means for dealing with grief. I wanted a voicey narrator, a jaded, frank, and—in-fact—humorless narrator to be, in some way, moved by the extension of a riddle or a joke from beyond the grave. With that, through small dealing with big grief, the piece might find itself in a kind of character portrait. But as the story grew, and kept growing, it became, instead, a double portrait: one of my narrator, and one of Evan—the missing, but ever present main character. The more the narrator tries to understand Evan’s decision, the more open he becomes, the more stripped and raw. And it’s in that rawness, in his most vulnerable state, that Evan’s riddle comes back and, even for a moment, helps the narrator find the beginnings of a road to healing. ”