It was probably the right thing to do.
Looked like it might rain. The breeze, almost wind at times and just a hint away from cold. The impending autumn. Relief, really. It was a hot summer.
But it’s not that I didn’t find her attractive. I did. She was quite beautiful. Realistically beautiful. My favorite kind.
Even after her hair fell out. It was her eyes. Still radiated the same.
This last bout was her third diagnosis, or second relapse, since her eleventh birthday. It never really went away. But she had fought it to remission twice. I guess the third time was just too much for her. For anyone.
Her experience made her graceful though. Elegant, really. As though she weren’t sick. Poor girl just wanted to get laid one last time.
Nonsense, I told her. She wasn’t going to die. She just laughed. More cheerfully than someone so aware of their impending mortality should be allowed.
It’s almost over.
Everyone is walking up, flowers in hand. One by one, dropping the single stem and bud on the casket. A long, somber line, all dolled up in ebony attire. Grief of all sorts. The heavy crier. The single tear type. The drunk. The guy making inappropriate jokes. The stoic stander. The one standing off in the distance. By the tree line. Maybe two dozen rows of tombstones away. Two dozen rows of corpses. Flesh that someone used to love. Now rotting.
I know that last guy. The guy at the tree line. That’s me. Trying to stay out of sight.
Didn’t have heart enough to go down there. To pick up a flower and put it on the box. The heart, or the balls. More likely the latter. One flower remained untouched. Not finding its place on the eternal home of this young woman. Who died as horny as young women can sometimes be.
She called me a few weeks before, out of the tangled blue. Her doctors were being more honest with her by that point. They couldn’t let her go on in ignorance forever. Not that she believed what they had been saying before coming clean.
She called me and we agreed to meet. It had been awhile. Easily over a year. I had heard from someone that she was sick again. An old friend of mine. He ended up marrying her cousin. Small world.
So, she asked me.
I didn’t think that she was serious.
So she asked, again.
I declined. Politely.
Then she died. Though not right then and there. A bit after.
It wasn’t the wrong choice, exactly. It was just the selfish one.
The priest threw some dirt on the box. Then said some words rehearsed by millions for thousands of years. Said some other lines that came from the heart. And down it went. Forever in the dirt. Down it went. The lot of it. Flowers, dead horny girl and all.
I muttered a goodbye, hardly out loud.
A slow patter began above. Each leaf bouncing with arrhythmic grace. Not much, but the rain began. I walked away as people below hugged with rippling woe.
I always found it strange that the cemeteries seem nicer than the parks. Better maintained. Though, perhaps it’s the inactivity of the space’s primary inhabitants.
Beyond the tall iron gates, I reemerged to the land of gum stains and bird shit. No stench of flowers. Only belching manholes and bus fumes.
I walked for blocks without much regard for anything beyond my pacing feet. Guilty that I didn’t feel sad. Unable to cry. Haven’t in years. Some folks would regard that as a good thing. My father, to name one. Part of being a man.
After a time, unmeasured, I walked into a dimly lit saloon. It was somewhere in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I shook off my jacket before entering. The amount of rain that had fallen had slipped past my attention.
So before seating myself, the bathroom paper towels worked to dry my face and hair. It would be rude of me to drip all over.
So I sat. And ordered a glass. Brown and ice. A sip and a stare. Captivated by the waves that melting ice can make in liquor, if you catch it in the right light.
I sat and sipped.
And there, just yonder, sat a glass, I noticed. Not mine. Just a seat over. To the right. Nearly full and sweating. Clear. A few bubbles, here and there, desperately vying to push through what was left of the ice. So they could be free from suffocation. Free to die.
And then, uselessly, I wondered if the ‘pop’ is really the fatal move of every bubble. Or maybe it is the start of its life. Finally joining the rest of the air. Free to fill space, as they so often desired.
Another sip to break the thought spiral. A gulp because I liked the taste.
The television was on. Pandering again. Not to me. Just generally. Politics. Election season. The reality show has been narrowed down to two seemingly different loaded guns. You pick one, and the other pulls the trigger. Can you believe people think this stuff still isn’t scripted?
“I’d rather pull the trigger myself,” she said.
Having just come from a funeral, I turned to see the voice. Assuming to see the owner of that drink, either dying or being born next to me.
And there she was. Dark hair that ended at the shoulders. Brilliantly blue eyes. No makeup. She didn’t seem to need it. Though no woman should.
“Is it safe to assume this is yours?” referring to the drink.
“It is,” she said. Her voice reminded me of honey in smooth bourbon. “I can move, if you wanted to be alone.”
“That’s alright,” I confessed. “I’ve been alone enough so far today.
So, she sat and had at her drink. Half down in one shot. I looked at my own, to not be upstaged. It was more melted ice than anything else. I caught the barkeeper’s attention with a wave and a nod.
“Another for myself,” I told him. “And her as well, if she so desires.”
She nodded and off he went to fetch fresh glasses.
“Russel,” I revealed offering my hand.
“Louanne,” she accepted, taking my hand.
It felt not far from silk. Warm. Gentle.
“So,” I continued, politely retreating my hand. “You’re from around here?”
“Horrible, I know.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said through subsiding laughter. “I despise starting conversations, so thank you for taking that one for me. But no, I’m not from around here. I’m originally from out west. Nowhere Ville.”
“Never heard of it,” I replied.
We both laughed. Tired laughs. Like a duo fresh from sneaking out of the loony bin. Dope needle still hanging from our arms.
Our drinks arrived. I slid a bill forward. The barkeep accepted. The free market hard at work.
“So,” she said, with a sedated smile. She held out the word, waiting for me to take it up.
“No,” I assumed. “Not from exactly here, but not too far. North, a bit. Still a Nowhere Ville.”
“There are so many of them.”
“The great American dream. To live in nowhere. To own a little piece of nothing.”
I looked over towards her. Met those blue eyes for a while. She smiled. Then she frowned. Then her eyes drifted down, as though she were going to sleep, right then and there.
The television was still pandering. Dozens of people killed somewhere in some country. Hundreds killed somewhere else. An oil leak. A financial catastrophe. Mass murder. A drug epidemic or two. And two whores on podiums, telling you the other will make it worse and only they could make it better.
I only looked because she did. She became fixated. A mild rage seemed to grow on her face. A fury, organic but she lacked the gusto of execution. She wanted to be mad, but she just didn’t have the energy.
“That stuff isn’t good for you,” I told her. I watched as my hand reached out to touch her arm. “It will drive you mad.”
She turned and looked at me. She smiled again. Her opium smile. Passively gorgeous.
“I know it’s bad for you,” she said. “I’m a journalist.”
“Wow,” I said after sipping. “I suppose you would know better than most. Certainly, better than me.”
She reached for her glass. Gulp. Down it went, all in one shot. She chewed at the bit of lime for a few seconds.
“You know,” said she, somberly sweet. “The point isn’t to just make you feel bad. Like the world is a horrible place. Not originally. It’s supposed to show you what’s going wrong, so you can do your part to fix it. Showing these bad things was not intended to make more bad things happen. But that’s all it ever seems to do. Since the first kid was shown on the 6 o’clock news shooting up his gym class, every desperate loner thinks the fame will be the same. They don’t even know that they’ve made us all numb to it. Not even a pile of dead kindergarteners can get a rise out of people anymore.”
Not to make her feel lonely, I ordered another round. Or at least not lonelier than she was already feeling. Than we both seemed to be feeling. I finished my drink, trying to not look a drunk.
“I want to say something to make you feel better,” I nearly mumbled. “But I don’t know if I can. I’ve just come from a funeral.”
“An old friend. Old girlfriend, sort of.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Why? It’s not your fault.”
“I know. That’s just what you’re supposed to say to that.”
“I said,” I said. “Fuck that. Why apologize? You just met me and you have no guilt in the situation. The guilt is mine and it doesn’t even seem to be enough to make me feel much of anything. And really, reasonably, I shouldn’t even have guilt. I didn’t kill her. Cancer did.”
“But you still feel guilty. Why?”
The drinks came. Another bill for his services.
I sip. To stall. To think of what to say.
“She had asked something of me, before she died. And I refused her.”
“What did she ask?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Come on, Rus,” she nudged my arm. “Go ahead. I’m a stranger and you’ll never see me again anyway.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh,” she laughed. “Yes, I do.”
“What if I ask for your number right now?”
She laughed again. It seemed more alive, but still lethargic. She reached to her right side and shuffled through her purse. She pulled from it a note pad and pen. She sat, working on it for a moment. As though she had just been struck with the inspiration that spawned the Sistine Chapel and could not let it to slip away. After a minute, out tore the page and she placed it forcefully in front of me.
“There you go,” she said, retreating to her drink. “My name. My phone number. My address. My credit card number. My shoe size. The works.”
“Why all of that?”
“To prove a point.”
“I’ll tell you as soon as you tell me why you feel so damn guilty about this woman dying.”
I held the paper up. The light from the television danced in blurry elegance behind it. Colors moving and shifting behind the words and numbers.
“Fine,” I folded the paper and placed it in my pocket. “You win.”
I took a gulp. Halfway through the drink. I sighed, as though a whole Broadway audience were listening.
“She had asked me to sleep with her again.”
“As in, fuck?”
“Yes, as in fuck.”
“And you said?”
“I told her I couldn’t.”
“And that’s why you feel guilty?”
“Good for her.”
“Good for her.”
“That’s a woman right there. You probably should have fucked her.”
I choked on my drink, as most people might have done.
“It would have been great! Sex with a cancer patient. If she still had enough juices flowing for that, I can’t imagine much would be off limits. She might be my hero.”
“Please, don’t talk like that. She just got buried today.”
“You don’t talk like that,” she almost yelled. “That was a woman who drew from life until there was nothing left. She should be admired. Fuck Susan B. Anthony. Girls should learn about this chick in school. Not afraid of how to feel. What to feel! It’s incredible. I wish I had met her.”
I stared down at the brown in the glass.
“Don’t beat yourself up. You were honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s probably why she went to you. You seem horrendously honest. I can tell, even without knowing you. She figured you would be her best shot.”
I took a sip. I laughed. I sipped again.
I turned to see her blue eyes. I did not. Those blue eyes were fixed upon the bar. Her hand folded before her mouth. She kept swallowing. Hard. Each one looked to be anguish.
“Are you alright?”
She gagged. First soft. Then loud. Guttural. Gruesome.
She spat, into her empty glass.
“Did you drink too much?”
She nodded no.
I looked in the glass. It was green. A silly putty kind of green. Not something that should be in the human body kind of green.
“What’s going on?”
The panic in my voice echoed thoroughly through my skull.
“I’m sorry Rus,” she said with no color left in her face. “I wish I had met you before I had gone to the bathroom.”
Her hands were shaking now. Then her knees. Small at first, seeming weak.
“I don’t understand,” I put my hand on her shoulder. Soaked. Right through her sweater. Cold sweat that was absent not even a minute ago.
“It’s alright,” she said as the shakes grew violent.
“Should I call an ambulance?”
“If you’d like.”
“Do you need one?”
She gagged again. Horrible. Painful. Stench unlike anything I’d smelt before.
“Maybe a half hour ago, they could have done something,” Louanne said, reaching into her purse.
Out came a plastic orange bottle. Bigger than the average and totally empty.
She nodded yes.
I yelled over to the barkeep. I told him to call an ambulance, goddamn it.
She began to slip from her chair. I caught her. Dead weight. Her chest labored each breath. The corners of her mouth were dried with green paste. She was shaking still. Losing momentum with each desperate moment. Her eyes were rolling back. Those beautiful blue eyes. I grabbed her face. I yelled at her. Stay. Stay with me. It will be fine. Help is coming. It will be fine. Help is coming.
Slowly. Somehow still gracefully, she reached up and grabbed the side of my face. Her hand was cold. Beyond clammy. Just plain wet.
“You’re a sweet man,” Louanne said. “Don’t beat yourself up so much.”
“Stay with me,” I pleaded.
She didn’t listen. Her eyes rolled back. The shaking slowed. And slowed. And slowed. Until there was no movement left. Her chest stopped rising. It stopped falling. Cold. Totally cold.
She didn’t stay.
I didn’t hear the medics come in.
They promptly and politely moved me aside and began working on her. Checking pulses. CPR. Shoving tubes down her throat. Needles in her arm. Most people don’t know this, but they damn near strip you naked when they try to bring you back to life. Just as you came in the world. They loaded her on the stretcher. The one guy with the white shirt, took another pulse and shook his head. I believe he was the boss. His name tag said C. Connelly. The other guy had one that said D. Smith. They carted her out and loaded her up. I was going to ask them where they were taking her, but it didn’t matter.
They drove off and I sat back down. All the ice in my drink had melted. I gulped it anyway. The barkeep brought me another one. I reached into my pocket to pull another bill for him. He shook his hand in refusal. He knocked his hand against the bar twice.
“On the house.”
I can’t remember if I thanked him or not. I took out another bill to leave on the bar anyway. With it, came the piece of paper. A dead woman’s words. The second set of the day.
I stared at it a good long while. She had lovely handwriting.
After finishing the drink, I crushed the paper in my hand and left it on the bar.
It was still raining outside.
I thought about Andrea. That was her name. The sick, horny girl.
I began to walk. Somewhere. Maybe nowhere.
I wondered if she tried anyone else after me. After I had turned her down.
Maybe I wasn’t that special. Maybe I was just a number on a list.