"The thing about living in Paris," Marshall whispers, "is that you forget you're actually living in Paris. Like, fuck, if you don't live right next to the fucking Eiffel Tower, you just feel so fucking suburban. Like, here I am with my ten kids and my two wives and my dog and my cat and my seven goldfish, and what? It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't matter that I live in the most romantic fucking city in the world, because I'm living in a fucking condo with my mini-van and my one pair of dress pants and my second-hand coffee table." He slaps his hands on the bar and leans toward me, all wide-eyed and serious. "E, I don't even own my own vacuum cleaner. I gotta rent it from the grocery store down over on 8th avenue. They charge 15 rental, 5 per hour, that's fucking nuts."
"The most valuable item that I possess, as of twenty-seven years, is a desk lamp," I add, taking a swig of beer.
Douglass squints his eyes and nods his head at me solemnly. He's on his sixth beer of the evening, and all his energy seems to be concentrated on not falling off his bar-stool. A bit of white foam clings to the stubble on his chin.
"My greatest achievement is graduating college - junior college," Marshall continues. "The only plaque I've got is the plaque clogging up my ticker." He jabs a thumb at his chest and, in doing so, knocks his beer off the table. We both watch the glass hit the floor. The bottom bursts out of it, and the amber liquid seeps through the pieces like some strange slow-motion sun-explosion. I wait for the sound to catch up with my ears, but the crowd sweeps it away. "Bar-keeper!" Marshall yells, "Another!" His voice is thick like molasses and sharp. Douglass jumps and nearly falls off his stool.
"Watch it, Fir!" Marshall bellows, hoisting the smaller man back onto his seat.
Douglass begins to cry. "My wife left me!" he wails. I blink my eyes quickly. His face appears to be melting, his lips drooping and hanging from the cheekbones. "She doesn't love me for my body anymore!"
"There, there," Marshall slurs. "You never thought anyone would love you for your body, you little fucker, but here you are, crying over inconstancy."
"Here, have the rest of my beer," I offer. The foam sloshes over the sides as he takes it from me with shaking hands. My fingers peel away from the glass with a sound like duct tape.
"Yeah, drink up, little buddy." Marshall’s new pint bumps over the engravings in the wood counter: an amalgamation of “I love you forever”s and “I heart beer”s, and “go rhinos” tattooed by drunkards. "You never thought anyone would take advantage of your body, and here, look, Alison used you for ten years! That's gotta count for something, right?"
"I guess," Douglass mutters into his beer. His beard glistens in the light. Droplets of lager drip onto the table top and back into his glass. "I just wish I'd known it was gonna end, you know. Then I could have waited to buy the end tables. God, they were beautiful end tables."
I reach across the pretzels and pat his hand. My elbow sucks at the table. "You'll have even more beautiful bed posts --- er, end tables again, Douglass. Right, Marshall?"
"As right as you can get when turning left on a one-way street."
Douglass and I laugh together, as Marshall pulls a mocking salute at the bartender. Soon our voices boom through the crowded Saturday night bar. Marshall's a traffic control person. He's the guy they send when the red light won't stop blinking, or someone steals the yield sign. When the green lights all say go at once, though, that's when they send the other guy. I think that other guy has a first aid kit in his car.
The streets are light again when we finally get Douglass out of the bar. All the shops look like post-apocalyptic yard-sales. The windows are boarded up or latched with shutters, and the guard rails have been pulled across the doors. The alleys leading to the fish market are littered with crushed cans, rotting fish-tails, and the outlines of children’s hop-scotch games. Only the upstairs apartment windows are aglow. In a few, early morning news broadcasters sip coffee and point at skewed maps of Hong Kong and Nebraska. In others, piles of books grow more and more sun-faded beside empty wine bottles filled with ash.
Volcanic ash or death ash?
I linger too long beneath one window, staring in through the pink drapes at a man cleaning dishes at his sink. For a second that feels like an hour, our eyes meet through the glass.
“Come on,” Marshall yells, tugging my arm.
The man rolls his eyes at an invisible person at his side, and I hear a mixture of laughs echo through the brick. I hurry along after Marshall and take up my side of Douglass.
At Peach and 15th, we head our separate ways.
They make their way across the damp street, passing in and out of lamp-light cones like bugs under a magnifying glass. Douglass vomits. A yellow fountain of guts and coughs and liquor flows out of him. It’s almost as if he’s been squished by a bright finger, and all his organs have been reassembled on the pavement.
"Make sure to get some water in him," I call after Marshall. "Otherwise when he wakes up tomorrow he's gonna be bourbon and beer instead of AB positive."
In the dim-light, I make out the outline of Marshall saluting me at the corner. Two fingers raised to a dark face, a movement of the arm, and then nothing.
I can honestly say that I have woken up face-first on every flat surface of my apartment. Most nights, if I’m lucky, I end up on the bed. But my drunken self has since made a game out of placing me in weird positions, then sitting back and waiting to see what happens to my face after seven hours. This morning, I wake up face-first on my living room floor.
The high-noon sun warms the backs of my legs, and the heat makes them feel even more like sand-bags. It takes me fifteen blinks before the spinning stops. The room bangs into focus: stark outlines of abused furniture and a bathroom with no door on its hinges and a cracked window overlooking a rusted fire escape. The painters across the street laugh and bang their ladders on the guard rails.
My brain screams at me. I gargle with leftover vodka and spit in the sink. “Another day on the dull planet,” I tell the woman in the mirror. “What are you gonna do with yourself?” The phone rings and clicks over to voicemail:
“Hey, it’s Marshall. Answer the fucking phone.”
“Hey, it’s Marshall. 38’s pretty blocked up this morning. You should probably avoid driving today….oh wait, you can’t drive. Haha. Call me back, fucker.”
“Hey, it’s Marshall. Francine called me. She and Joe are doing fine. 38’s cleared up. Call me.”
“Hey, it’s Marshall. Call your damn mother already. And call me. E, you better call me.”
The streets outside are damp; the street-cleaners come at mid-day to polish smooth the black top and spray the dust. I watch their rotating brushes through the sweating window. I wonder about the man who operates the machine, if he flosses or polishes his boots as much as he has polished Paris. Raindrops patter on the fire-escape, dinging like little bells as the cars sift through the muddy puddles left by the cleaners. A couple walking on the sidewalk below stick out their hands in a quizzical manner. I could spit on them, and they’d lift their heads up and open their mouths and say “ah, the rain feels good today.”
Around seven o’clock, Douglass appears at my window in his red baseball cap. I hear his finger squeaking along the glass before I see him. His mouth yawns open, and “Celebrate good times?” appears in his breath-fog.
“What are you doing?” I call.
“Your windows are dirty anyway,” he retorts. “I can clean them for you, if you want.”
“I don’t care about the glass,” I mutter, “I meant what are you doing out on my fire escape.”
“Oh.” He slides through the open window and drops down loudly, spattering rainwater on the wood floor. He’s still wearing his work clothes, which are damp at the shoulders from leaning out window-frames. Glass particles twinkle up from the creases in his jeans. “I just thought the view would be nice.”
“You’re afraid of heights.”
“I’m getting over it.”
I fetch fresh beers from the fridge and we drink and kick back on our chairs and talk about fire escapes as the rain thunders on outside. “I would never trust that thing with my weight,” I say. “I’ve seen too many people – painters especially, nimble to begin with, aren’t they, too? – end up hanging by one arm from the ladder. I don’t have the upper body strength for that.”
Douglass shudders and sucks at his beer. He hasn’t taken his eyes off the window since his feat of climbing through it. “Alison always told me I had a bad body,” he mutters.
The wind thrashes against the window. I imagine I can feel the building around us swaying like a giant sycamore tree. “One day this whole building is gonna come tumbling down,” I whisper. There’s a feeling in my stomach like swallowed thumb tacks and bourbon. I lean forward and the front legs of my chair crash back onto the floor. “It’s so rusty.”
“It feels fidgety.” My stomach gurgles and I press a hand to it. “Just thinking about it gives me an ulcer.”
“My doctor says I got an ulcer from worrying, too,” Douglass mutters. “Too many problems on my mind. Alison took Joy with her, you know. Our dog.”
“Says I didn’t fold her laundry all those months, so this is what I gotta pay. What the fuck does that mean?!” A spasm crosses Douglass’s face. His lip twitches up into a half-grimace. The trees thrashing against the building settle as the wind drops off. He blows his nose like a fog-horn, and I swear, for a moment the world hovers around my decrepit, unfurnished apartment. “I asked her what she meant,” Douglass continues, “and she said ‘You know what that means, you’re a metaphorical man.’ God, I just wanted to die when she said that, you know?”
I bring two more beers from the fridge, and I watch Douglass cry between sips. That same sick feeling rolls through my stomach. We talk about the traffic situation in Northern Paris, since we’re missing Marshall, and Douglass shows me a new trick he learned for measuring windows.
"It’s all in the wrist,” he grunts. He’s bent forward in a running stance with his arms up over his head, trying to lift the window. “This is very serious work I do, fixing windows, I’ll have you know.” He throws his body against the frame and his sneakers make a screaming noise on the wet linoleum. I throw my head back and laugh. He flips the window the bird, and flops back into his chair, panting. I’m bent over the table, clutching my stomach, and laughing. The knots are an improvement upon the previous sensation. “See what I did, there, E, with the birds and the windows?” he jokes. “I guess I am a metaphorical man.” There’s a sour note beneath his laughter, though, like a vocal wobbly wheel.
“I’m sorry, Douglass,” I whisper. It’s dark in the apartment now, with only the glow of the moon as an indicator of time. I have the strange sensation that we’ve been sitting here our whole lives. Voices drift up from the apartments below. An elderly woman rattles off her shopping list to her caretaker, who doesn’t understand the difference between cucumbers and zucchini. A man asks his lover for cab fare back to his wife. Douglass and I sit and drink until the growling in our bellies becomes a muffled gnaw.
My phone rings and then clicks over to voicemail:
“E, it’s your mother, Francine, the woman who went through fifteen hours of labor to bring you into this world. Call me immediately.”
“E, it’s your mother, the woman who has called you seventy times this week. Can you please return my calls, honey? Your father and I are worried.”
“E, honey, answer the phone it’s your mother. Is this even your phone number anymore? If this isn’t E’s phone, please call me back so I know. I can’t believe that you would allow some strange woman to call you this many times without letting her know it’s the wrong number. Seriously, who are you?”
“E. Collins, it’s November 1st.”
“E, call. Mom.”
Together, we watch the red lights blink on the answering machines. Douglass picks at the label on his beer, and I scratch a swirl into the top of my table. The silence after the last ring is the longest silence I have ever endured. The word “Mom” feels embroidered on my lips; I mouth a reply and I hear it whispering back to me. I want to ask Douglass if he’s ever wanted to move and change his name and buy a new dog and start over, but “Call. Mom” lingers on my tongue.
“Do you remember the day I bought this table?” I ask.
Douglass glances up from his beer and smiles. He touches his finger to a gauge in the center of the wood. “I remember like it was yesterday.”
The afternoon I bought my table – all my furniture, in fact - was the day I met Douglass and Marshall, back when I was a mortician’s assistant. It was a Monday, our busiest day after Sunday burials, and I was making the rounds through North-East Paris with my white furniture truck.
“Hello, beautiful!” a thick voice announces. The sofa I’m heaving out the apartment front door sags down toward the street. Marshall, five years younger and wearing a hoop earring in his right ear, flops onto the far seat and props his legs on the outside rail. “Now this is a fine fucking piece of furniture!” he shouts, throwing his hands behind his head and grinning at me.
“Sir, can you get off, please? I’m trying to move—”
“Yo! Fir! Get your slimy butt over here and try this couch!”
The skinny frame of Douglass comes around the corner. He’s wearing baggy clothes and his hair in a ponytail. “Dude!” he shouts, “I already got a couch!”
“Oh! Sorry! Fuck, where are my manners?!” Marshall leaps off the couch and gives the thing a pull. My hands are so sweaty that I lose my grip and I half-fall against the doorframe. Before I can say anything, the two strange men heft the sofa into their arms and carry it down the stairs. “You’re not stealing this, are you?” Marshall calls up the stairs.
“No,” I call, following behind them. The back of the truck is already half-way filled with furniture from other stops. “I’m, um. I’m moving this woman’s stuff out. She died last week.”
“Oh, that’s so sad!” Douglass cries, throwing his arms around me. My back, which is throbbing, cracks in four places. “I’m so sorry for your loss!”
“Um…actually…I didn’t know her…”
“So you are stealing this stuff,” Marshall mutters, thrusting his thumb at my cargo.
I pull out of Douglass’s hug. “Actually, I work for a mortician. I don’t cut open dead bodies or anything, I just deal with their stuff.” Douglass and Marshall exchange quizzical looks. “Some people don’t have families, or the families don’t want to deal with boxing up and moving the furniture, so I come and get rid of it for them.”
“Do you get to keep it?”
“If I want, yeah, sometimes.”
“Fir,” Marshall says, grabbing Douglass by the shoulders. “I have found the perfect job. We must help this strange little woman steal dead people’s furniture. It’s fucking sick!”
I touch my finger to the scratch in the wood. “I remember being so terrified of you guys,” I whisper. Douglass laughs and nods. “And I remember when Marshall dropped the lamp on his foot, and he was so mad that he drop-kicked it all the way down the stairs.”
“And then he tried to sell it to that lady in the apartment below.”
My arms get that familiar throb, remembering. “I spent three years doing that job, and it never felt as creepy as that day you and Marshall helped me.”
“It is pretty creepy, though, going through dead people’s stuff,” Douglass mutters, picking at the label on his beer. “Like when I saw that lady’s name written underneath this table…you know, it’s weird.”
I nod, and look at the check-mark shaped gauge in the wood. “That’s when you dropped it down the stairs.”
“No, that’s when I realized that someone else had dropped it down the stairs. You know, before. It’s weird, touching things that used to belong to someone else.” I look up, but Douglass is looking down, looking at nothing it seems. The spasm crosses his face, pulling his eyebrow and lower lid together. “That’s why I couldn’t do her laundry, you know. It’s just too weird.”
“But she’s not dead…”
“I know,” he whispers. The sound of the wind almost covers up the lower timber of his voice. “I just sometimes wish she was, you know. It’s nuts, but I sometimes wish we both were. Do you, you know, ever think that?”
I watch him for a long time: a pale outline in the thick darkness. Every once in a while his eyes blink, and I lose sight of his face. It’s almost as if he’s not really there, as if neither of us are there. But at the same time, I feel so here, so present in this moment. My stomach tightens and rumbles out a sigh. I try to bite away the feeling of my mother sitting on my lips.
“It’s November 1st,” I whisper. “Let’s drink.”
On Sundays, we drink in moderation. Which means that, after nine o’clock, I buy Marshall and Douglass “girly” drinks and we sneak into the booth at the far end of the bar to drink. The guys call them “guilty pleasures.” They taste like Barbie dolls to me, but, hey, tradition demands.
“I fucking love cherries and raspberries and, fuck, I don’t even know what this pink thing is, but I love it.” Marshall sips his drink through the stir-straw and grins. The corners of his lips are pink from the fruit juices. “It’s like drinking the souls of a thousand women. Love it!”
“I’m gonna go hit on that girl,” Douglass pipes up. We can tell how long it’s been since the break-up by the length of his beard. He’s beginning to look like a wood-cutter. He squints his eyes at the bar and raises his hands in mock binoculars. “Man she’s pretty. I wonder if she likes men with terrible bodies.”
“Go for it, Fir,” Marshall cheers. “But, you know, just tell her the ‘she’s pretty’ part, right?”
“Poor drunk,” I mutter as Douglass totters off. He clasps a fruity drink in one hand and his baseball cap in the other.
“If getting drunk off my ass on a Sunday is healing, then I demand a recount from you-know-who. I should have some good voodoo by now; I should have a job.”
“I thought you were working as a reporter.”
I have to laugh at that. “I sit at my typewriter for four hours every day, and don’t write shit, Marshall. No one’s paying me for anything.”
“You shoulda kept your job stealing furniture, E, I’m telling you. That was the life.” Marshall’s watching Douglass so he misses the agony that crosses my face. We both take a swig of vodka and orange juice. It takes like almost missing something. “Why’d you quit, anyways?”
I stare into the center of my glass and try to stand my stir-stick right in the epicenter. The liquid warps the straw, so that I cannot find it. “It was November 1st,” I mutter. I try out a slight tremor in my voice, a little bit of sadness in my jaw, to see if I like it. I glance in the mirror behind the bar, but everything is warped in there too. Everything’s backwards and I remember that, somewhere across the date-line, it’s still the final hours of November 1st.
“E, answer the phone. It’s me.”
“What?!” I ask.
“Honey,” Marshall replies. From out of an ocean of static, his voice grounds me. He’s looking at me like he saw me turn into a ghost. “You gotta get a therapist. Cuz between me and you, you are seriously fucked. We’re living in Paris fucking Paris, the romantic city, and this—” He gestures up and down my motley assortment of clothes. “This is not what should be the high-point of your life.”
“Oh, I had a therapist once. She fired me. Said I was too open to sharing the bad stuff.” I lean toward Marshall across the table and stick out my arm. “See that?” I wag my thumb at him, palm-side up. The check-mark blurs in and out of focus. “That—that is a check-mark. And you wanna know why I got it?”
“Well I can’t tell you. Cuz it’s too fucking bad. What does that even mean, Marshall? I thought we were supposed to spout all that bad bat shit. Isn’t that what therapists are for?”
“I JUST WANTED TO TELL YOU YOU WERE PRETTY!”
Douglass is on his knees in front of the girl at the bar, screaming. His cheeks are red with alcohol. He waves his hands around his head and sloshes the girl with his drink.
“Get away from me!” she yells. Douglass clings to her bare leg, sobbing and shaking. Everyone in the bar is glancing around, looking for the source of the racket. The jukebox has stopped playing its incessant jingles.
“Oh no. Oh no no no,” Marshall sighs, heaving himself out of his seat. I follow closely behind, grabbing Douglass’s jacket off the seat.
The girl has made a break for it out the front doors. Douglass collapses forward, weeping heavily. His baseball hits the ground in a puddle of booze. The glass shards shining on his jeans look less like galaxies tonight and more like broken window-panes. “MY WIFE LEFT ME!” he wails as Marshall lifts him up. “SHE LEFT ME ALL ALONE! GOD! I JUST DIDN’T WANT TO DO HER LAUNDRY!”
Back in his apartment, Douglass collapses onto the sofa and cries into my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he wails, over and over. I can’t decide which is worse: that he means it, or that he thinks saying it will make things better. “There, there,” Marshall comforts. He slaps his arm and rubs the back of Douglass’s head. “Dude, it’s gonna be alright. You’re home now,” I say. “Don’t leave me alone, don’t leave me alone,” he sputters. “Please, just stay for a drink.”
Drunk as I am, the whiskey on his breath makes my stomach turn. “You’re not alone,” I say. Marshall goes the fridge and extracts a bottle of dark liquid from the meager scraps of take-out food and milk. “Dude, you need food? You need something to eat for tomorrow? Tonight?” he asks.
Douglass lunges from his seat and snatches the bottle, sloshing the mixture on his shirt. “I don’t need it,” he says. “I just need gin and vodka and bourdon.” He sucks at the bottle and I watch the liquid seep down his chin and dribble under the neck of his shirt. The man looks as barren as his apartment. The walls are paint and picture less, the floors are scored by heavy furniture, and piles of dishes heap the sink.
“I’m gonna buy you some groceries tomorrow, okay, Fir?” Marshall asks, glancing through the cupboards. “Man…Alison left nothing, that bitch.”
“DON’T SAY HER NAME!” Douglass screams, making my ears ring. “I love her,” he whimpers.
After we tuck him away on his couch, Marshall and I trudge through the streets together, heading for home and also heading for nowhere. I jog along beside him to keep warm. Dawn is just slipping up from behind the buildings. All the windows catch the glare, winking at us as we slink through the mist; our voices carry awkwardly in the empty streets. At times I can barely hear him beside me, can only feel the muddy-spray which bounces up from his boots hitting puddles.
“You okay?” he asks. “I know Sundays aren’t your best days.”
“Yeah,” I whisper, though my head feels like an air-balloon. “Do you think Douglass will be okay?”
“Yeah,” he replies. His husky voice fills the air around us. My breath puffs out in warm waves around my face. I sigh a long streak of mist and watch it lift up toward the brittle sun. Marshall tries to shape a ship with his own.
“I just hate that calendars can make us sad, you know,” I whisper after a while. Our footsteps slow as we prepare to part ways. I’m not sure if Marshall hears me or not, but I’m okay with the thought that he does.
In the morning, I realize I haven’t slept at all. My mind was jumping over fences and diving into oceans, you know how sometimes your brain leaves your body and goes off and does its own thing and you’re over here, under the pillows and blankets in last night’s outfit thinking where am I where am I where am I what am I why? My mother calls me: “It’s still November 1st in Japan, or Nepal, or wherever across the dateline. Hopefully your alter ego in that time-zone still cares that—” beep.
I sit out on the front fire escape and enjoy the city without the noise pollution. Strangers walk underneath, speaking in hushed voices, laughing, young children skipping over puddles. The rails Marshall decorated with Christmas lights twinkle in the rising sunlight. He said it would bring Christmas cheer. “Come on, E!” he bellowed, “It’s almost fucking Christmas. We’ll be like a fucking family if we decorate this together. Let’s be a fucking family.”
Douglass and I were pretty sure we didn’t want to be a family. “If I had a choice, I would run away from this shit show,” Douglass muttered to me. I laughed and snorted beer down my nose, but we got up off our chairs and turned the house over. We discovered the ugly secrets of suburban living, as Marshall called it. We uncovered boxes of shit that even the house had forgotten: old teapots of my grandmothers, my father’s piano music, and shirts ridden with moth holes, and furniture from my job that had been shoved into corners. Douglass found the Christmas lights in a box marked “Never Ever Open.” He was the only one who could stomach going near it. It was full of stuff my brother had left me.
I swear, that was the first day any of us were sober. It was eleven o’clock, as it is now, and the air was crisp with the smell of the fish market and fresh sour kraut. Douglass and I sat with our faces in the sun, while Marshall wrapped the fire escape in fake icicles and lights and tinsel.
“This fire escape is gonna be the talk of Paris,” he bellowed. “I swear to fucking god, everyone in the city is gonna know you, E. Every fucking one of these assholes is gonna come from miles away to see these fucking Christmas lights. And you know what they’re gonna say?”
“Those idiots forgot to make sure the fuse was working?” Douglass suggests.
“They’re gonna say, wow those fuckers really know how to be happy.”
I rock back and forth on my chair and stare at the broken Christmas lights. They never lit up; no one ever noticed them. When I close my eyes, I can see Marshall silhouetted against the sun, all damn poetic and shit, raising his arms over his head and screaming “Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl!” at the top of his lungs. His yellow pit stains, drawn taught against his sides; Douglass’s quick, high laughter; the buzz in my lips as I sipped a beer.
I close my eyes and ignore the sound of the ringing phone. From outside, it could be anyone’s phone, and I imagine it is God’s phone. Maybe he’ll fucking answer this time.
In the late afternoon, Marshall comes over and shakes me awake. I’m on the floor under the kitchen table. He’s wearing a green shirt that says “Save the Planet” on it. The sun glares in through the broken window, and we find out that Douglass has killed himself. Marshall laughs when he tells me the news, the smell of alcohol thick on his clothes. My head spins with the stench I smell on myself. We breathe in and out together. He cries because his best friend is dead. I sit cross-legged on the floor and try to ignore the feeling that I’m sinking straight through five stories of concrete. The window bounces in circles around my head. At some point, the phone rings and clicks to voicemail:
“E, it’s your mother. I heard what happened.”
“E, it’s your mother. I’m so sorry about Douglass. It must hurt that he, you know…it’s the same, isn’t it.”
“E, it’s your mother. Call, or I’ll come over.”
“E, it’s your mother. I’m coming over.”
Numb, I pick up the receiver. “Mom,” my voice comes out in a whisper. “Douglass killed himself.” The words feel like glue, like great globs of paint stuck to the walls of my throat.
“I know.” It is Marshall who answers, sitting alone on the fire escape.
“Mom,” I say, “Don’t come over. Marshall is here. I need to—to get him some coffee and then we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine, Mom.”
“But what about—"
“Mom, it’s not the same. Mom, it’s not the same as that, okay? It’s not the same thing. Mom, stop calling ok.” My voice trembles and I can’t seem to control my body parts anymore. I hang up and my leg jack-hammers against the floor. My reflection on the floor is a puddle of amber liquid.
“Was that Douglass?” Marshall asks. He’s sipping a flat beer from the fridge and staring out the window. In the half-daylight, his eyes look like empty traffic lights, no red, no go, no stop. “How is that fucker?”
“He’s dead, Marshall,” I whisper. “Remember?”
Marshall gargles with his mouthful and spits it between the rails. I swear I can hear it hit the ground. “Stupid fool,” he scoffs, patting the space beside him, groping for a shoulder. “You shoulda known humans can’t fly. Ain’t nothing flies anymore.”
Funerals were invented by people who like to say goodbye. Or, rather, by people who think we are able to say goodbye. I stare into the pit that will soon rot away my friend, and know that this is not a suitable way to say goodbye. Marshall and I watch the men lower the casket into the ground and watch strangers shovel earth over our friend. Douglass’s mother and father hover near the site like grave-diggers. I understand how their fingers curl.
“This isn’t saying goodbye,” I whisper.
“This is so fucking stupid,” Marshall answers. His eyes are red from the reception. We both stood in a corner by the life-size cardboard cut-out of Jesus and drank refreshments. “This is stupid,” he repeats.
Family members take turns stepping forward and reciting speeches about Mr. Douglass Finch. They all begin with “I didn’t know him very well, but—” and end with tears. One lady, a friend of Alison’s, reads straight from a set of note cards. There’s little to no variation in her voice, like a high school student reading Shakespeare aloud.
“Douglass was a kind and generous person. He loved to laugh and always made time for his friends, even if he was busy.”
“Oh god,” I mutter, “stop me if it looks like I’m going to hit her.”
Marshall takes my hand and squeezes it until both our fingers turn white. I feel something reciprocal squeeze around my wind pipe. Across the crowd, Douglass’s parents have taken up the same stance, as if preparing for battle. They smile through their tears and whisper thank yous.
“This is so shitty,” he mumbles in my ear.
“We had dinner together almost every weekend,” another lady continues. “We would talk through our problems and Douglass would listen and take my hand and just…he was so wonderful.”
I clench my jaw so tight I think my teeth may explode from my head. Marshall takes hold of my wrist and I realize that I’m shaking, quaking in my shoes.
“E?” he whispers. “E, you okay? E, pull it together. E, people are starting to stare.”
“This isn’t right,” I stutter. “People aren’t supposed to be remembered this way. It’s too prepared. Too indecently decent.”
Douglass’s mom takes the microphone. She resembles him in a painful way; her teeth are straight where his were crooked. She smiles and I see Douglass, apologizing for scratching my table, laughing at Marshall’s Christmas lights.
I focus on that image as she calls Marshall to the mic. My slips to the casket as his lips blur. The glossy shell is misted over from the cold and covered with sticky hand-prints. Death makes people want to touch it. “Douglass helped E and I rob old ladies,” Marshall continues. His voice fades in and out of focus. Behind him, I can Douglass splattering on the ground. “He was an ugly fucker, and he knew it, and he knew how to hold his liquor…sometimes.” A flutter of laughter sifts through the crowd. I can see the scream and the wind biting at his face and the fire escape. The hand around my throat keep tightening.
I pull at the collar of my shirt. “In one of our last moments together,” Marshall finishes, “Douglass threw up on me. If that’s not fucking love, then I don’t know what is.” I see Douglass hitting the pavement over and over and I see Steven standing beside him. Steven, my brother, hitting the pavement over and over.
A chill surrounds me as Marshall calls me to the microphone.
I take the mic and try not to think about the casket sitting, closed, four feet behind me. “I’m not gonna apologize for what I’m about to say. It’s the truth, and that’s all. This is Paris – fucking Paris – and if there is any city in the world in which you can speak the truth, it’s this one. Because it’s romantic, right? Because it’s supposed to be so great, so poetic, and you’re supposed to come here and your life is supposed to mean something, right?” I glance at Marshall and he smiles at me. He is the only one smiling.
“Douglass was happy, sure,” I whisper. The words ring out awkward and loud around me. I can feel every eye on me and my hands begin to shake for something to hold. I grip the microphone and remind myself that there’s no liquor here. “But Douglass was fucked up, too,” I continue. “He talked about the important stuff, sure, and he listened. Shit, he listened to all my problems, he listened to Marshall’s silly monologues, and we made a game out of comparing how badly our lives were planned. And we did it all while drinking. Hell, I bet no one in the world can say they’ve ever been completely sober. Not after this.” I gesture behind me and have to swallow back the lump in my throat. “Not even before this. Because life is sucky.
“I’ve spent every Sunday of my life drinking away the feeling that I need a drink,” I say. My hands shake as I stare into Marshall’s face. He bites his lip and glances at the ground. “So don’t you go saying that he drank to excess and that’s what killed him. Don’t say that he wasn’t happy, and that’s why he decided to jump off a building five days ago. My brother,” I whisper, “jumped off a similar building two years ago, and it wasn’t because he drank, or he smoked and was bored, or he called and I didn’t answer.”
“Hey, E, answer the phone. It’s me.”
The wind shakes the leaves of the trees like chimes, and I swallow swallow swallow the agony down.
“Drinking and hiding,” I whisper, “and forgetting about the pain doesn’t make you a killer, it makes you an aspirin. But sometimes the pain relief fails. There are blood spatters all over Paris’ streets tonight, and all I can say for this single one is that Douglass drank with me. Douglass drank with Marshall and me and the lady who hit him with her purse and the man who fixed the fire escape, and he drank with us so we wouldn’t have to drink alone. He was an aspirin. A fine, fucking aspirin.”