I liked drinking with Eddie because he never asked questions. Our conversations went like this:
“How’s it going?”
“Jesus, I don’t know. Okay?”
But tonight was different. I asked him how he was doing and he said he had cancer.
“Shit,” I said. “Where?”
“My stomach. They’re going to cut it out.”
It didn’t slow down his drinking though. He was ordering doubles, paying for everything. He asked the bartender what she was drinking.
“Water,” she said.
“I can’t buy you water,” he said.
“Don’t buy me anything. Keep your money.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Congratulations!” But what he really meant was “Fuck you!” because he was pregnant too, only his baby was a tumor.
He ordered us two Jim Beams and made us clink our glasses together and told me that he loved me, and then I knew that whatever the doctors told him wasn’t good and that I was drinking with a dead man. I said, I love you too, but I didn’t mean it. Eddie was great, but mostly I liked drinking with him because he was the only one who never asked about Meghan.
When I got home, Shannon was sitting at the living room table, sewing squares of fabric together.
“Since when do you sew?” I asked.
“I joined a quilting club,” she said.
“And a spin class.”
“And a book club. Two actually.”
“Your hair,” I said, removing my tie.
“Do you like it?”
I sat on the living room floor and tried to take off my shoes, but they wouldn’t cooperate.
“Are you drunk?” she asked.
“A little,” I said.
“You have to untie the laces first.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said, untying the laces.
The sewing machine whirred, and she fed a square through, attaching it to another square. It was kind of incredible. I wanted to ask her questions like: do you know what year this is? And: does this mean I have to drive a covered wagon to work?
“It’s not styled yet,” she said. “Once it’s styled, you’ll like it.”
“What’s not styled?”
“My hair,” she said. “I just cut it over the sink. I needed to get rid of some dead weight.”
I wondered if she said that on purpose. I wondered if she was sitting there, wishing she’d picked a different word.
By some strange miracle my shoes finally came off. First one and then the other. While I was on a roll I decided to take off my pants. I walked into the kitchen in my boxer shorts and opened the refrigerator.
“What happened to my beer?” I asked.
“I poured it down the sink,” said Shannon.
I walked over to the sink and looked down the drain.
“Things are going to be different from now on,” she said. “I’m reading this book.“
I got down on my knees and opened the cupboards under the sink. There was an orange and black garbage disposal under there. I forgot what I was looking for and tapped it with my finger. It made a sound like it was full of gears and wires. There was a red button, so I pressed it. It made a violent gurgle.
“Jesus Christ!” I said.
Shannon laid a sheet of fabric on the table and measured it with a ruler.
I stood up. “I’m going to the store.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Do you really want to know?”
Eddie wasn’t having surgery until Friday, so we met the next night at same bar. I told him that I was buying this time. I ordered a round, but he’d lost his enthusiasm for drinking. He looked down into his whiskey and said, “I’m scared, Martin.”
“It’s just whiskey,” I said.
“They’re going to give me this bag to carry around that’s going to be my new stomach. I’ll have a tube that goes in here and comes back out over here.”
He had his shirt pulled up and was pointing at things I didn’t want to see.
I decided to change the subject. What was the point of drinking with Eddie if he was going to talk about feelings?
“I knew a guy in college,” I said. “Walt. He never got laid. Then one day he got in a bar fight. Somebody stabbed him in the eye with a broken beer bottle, and after that he had to wear a patch. Guess what happened? He started getting more pussy than anybody. Girls couldn’t get enough of his fucked up eye. It drove them wild.”
“What are you saying?” asked Eddie.
“You never know, man,” I said.
“It’s a stomach in a bag. It’s not a patch.”
“Paint a pirate flag on it. I don’t know.”
Eddie took a sip of whiskey but had to spit it out.
“I can’t drink anymore,” he said.
“I can’t either,” I said, but only because Eddie was there. He was depressing the hell out of me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that if he killed himself, I wouldn’t judge him.
He didn’t say he loved me.
Finally we were behaving like men.
When I got home, Shannon was doing sit-ups. I sat on the floor and untied my shoelaces. It was easy this time. I was good at it.
“Since when do you exercise?” I asked.
“Eighty-seven,” she said. “Eighty-eight.”
She wasn’t doing normal sit-ups. Every time she reached an upright position, she touched her left elbow to her right knee and her right elbow to her left knee and said a number. Her face was purple, and she was wearing a headband with the infinity symbol on it.
She reached a hundred and looked at me. “Are you drunk?”
“Not really,” I said. “A little bit.”
“Good,” she said. “There’s something I want to talk about. I think you need a hobby. Something to keep yourself busy.”
“I’m too old to learn anything,” I said.
I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. All my beer was gone. Again.
“I told you,” said Shannon. “Things are going to be different from now on.”
I couldn’t believe it. My garbage disposal was drunker than I was.
“I’m going to the store,” I said.
“Please stop drinking,” she said.
“I’m thirsty,” I said.
Eddie sent me a text message: Surgery tomorrow, wish me luck!
I texted back: Good luck, buddy!
Then I realized that the next time I saw him, he’d be carrying his stomach around in a fanny pack and I’d be too disgusted to continue our friendship. So I composed a more thoughtful message full of words like “love” and “praying” and “speedy recovery,” but it sounded like a greeting card written by an alcoholic robot. I stuck with “Good luck, buddy.” He needed it.
I didn’t have anybody to drink with, so I went home after work, which was a mistake. Shannon was sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of self-help books in front of her. She said she didn’t feel like we were in a relationship anymore. It was time for a “sit-down.”
“Sit-down” was her code word for listing all the reasons I was a terrible husband.
“Okay,” I said, pulling up a chair.
“First of all,” she said. “You’re stuck in Stage 2.”
“You’re depressed,” she said. “I want you to try something.” She opened one of her self-help books and started reading:
EXERCISE 1: Make a list of ten hobbies that interest you. Clubs and organizations are encouraged. When you’re finished, circle an item on the list. Give it a shot! What do you have to lose?
“Let me see that,” I said.
I grabbed the book from her. It was called The Long Road Home: Six Stages of Grief in Dealing with the Death of a Child. There was a picture of a highway leading to a house surrounded by airbrushed clouds and shimmery light. On the back flap, there was a photograph of the author. He looked like the guy I bought weed from back in college.
“I think I know this guy,” I said.
“Will you do it?” she asked.
“I don’t want to get better.”
“You don’t have to get better,” she said. “You just need to talk to me. Would you please just talk to me? What are you thinking about? I don’t even know you anymore.”
I handed the book back and told her that the only thing in my head was an overwhelming desire to be left alone.
“Is that what you want?” she asked. “To be alone?”
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t know.”
I put my head in my hands.
What did I want?
What did I want?
What did I want?
I wanted to drink a pint of whiskey, walk outside with a shotgun, and shoot every bird that flew across the sky. I wanted to gather up those dead birds and make a cape out of their wings. I wanted to walk into the desert wearing nothing but that cape and eat peyote buttons and wait for God to come so I could tell him what a deranged murderer he was.
“How much does a shotgun cost?” I asked.
“Why?” she asked.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m going to the store. Need anything?”
Shannon was waiting for me when I came home. I hid the six-pack behind my back, but she didn’t care about the six-pack. She was crying. She said she couldn’t go on living with a husband who was stuck in “Stage 2: the Abyss” while she was two exercises away from “Stage 6: the Frontier.” She said she couldn’t stand the distance between us. We’d already lost Meghan; why did we have to lose each other?
She handed me the yellow legal pad. She’d made a list for me. A few items were crossed out: Taekwondo | koi pond”| guns?
Her final list was:
- ham radio operator
- learn to play the guitar
- classic car restoration
- stamp collecting
- fly fishing
- write a novel
“What’s geocaching?” I asked.
“That’s when you use a GPS tracking device to locate a box that somebody left in the woods,” she said.
“Does it have money in it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s the point?”
“Never mind. What about the rest of the list?”
I looked at it again and told her that I hated all those things.
“Pick one,” she said.
“Why did you cross out guns?” I asked.
I went to see Eddie. He was lying in a hospital bed with tubes up his nose, watching a PBS documentary about the settlement of the American West.
When he noticed me, he said, “Oh, Martin. I thought you were Jerri.”
Jerri was his wife. He didn’t seem very happy to see me.
“How you feelin’, bud?” I asked.
“Like somebody cut out my stomach.”
“Yeah, but I’m on powerful drugs. I keep hallucinating. Is the TV on?”
“Yeah. It’s on.”
“Okay,” he said. “Good.”
He had an IV in his arm and a machine attached to his stomach that was pumping something into him or sucking something out of him. A heart monitor on the wall flashed the words RED ALERT, but none of the nurses laughing in the hallway seemed worried.
“So this is real?” he said. “I’m not imagining this?”
“You’re in a hospital, Eddie. You had your stomach taken out.”
“I know I’m in a hospital,” he said. “I mean this TV show. Is it real?”
I looked at the TV. There was a fur trapper on the screen. He had long hair and a bushy beard and wore a rawhide jacket covered in fringe.
“It’s a documentary,” I said. “About the American West.”
He seemed confused.
“America,” I said. “A long time ago.”
“I know what the American West is,” he said. “Jesus. So I’m not dreaming?”
“No,” I said. “Unless we’re having the same dream.”
A nurse appeared and took Eddie’s blood pressure.
“It’s just such a coincidence,” he said.
“What is?” I asked.
“Do you see it?” he asked the nurse. “What’s on the TV?”
The nurse looked at the screen. “Davy Crockett?”
“My God,” he said. “Everybody sees it. What are the odds?”
The nurse gave me a sympathetic look and swirled a finger next to her temple to indicate that Eddie was loopy from all the morphine she’d given him.
“This is crazy,” said Eddie. “Am I dead? I must be dead.”
“You’re not dead,” said the nurse. “You’re going home tomorrow.”
“I doubt it,” said Eddie.
“I’m going to give you another shot,” she said. “You’re going to get sleepy.”
“But I’m already dead,” he said.
“Just relax,” she said.
“Are you even listening to me?” he asked.
The morphine kicked in and his eyeballs looked like volleyballs drowning in pink soup. A minute later he was asleep.
But Eddie was right. Or at least, a few hours later he was. Something inside him ruptured and his intestines filled up with blood and the doctors couldn’t sew him up fast enough.
When Shannon heard about it from Jerri, she wanted a sit-down. She couldn’t understand why I would keep something like this from her.
I said I didn’t want to talk about it.
She said, “But that’s what a relationship is. Talking about things.”
I said, “Just this once couldn’t I let my friend get cancer and die and not talk about it?”
Shannon went to the funeral. I stayed home and got drunk and watched the season finale of Two and a Half Men.
For a while Shannon refused to talk to me. I’d come home from work and say, “How was your day?” but she wouldn’t even look up from her sewing machine. She’d step on the petal and the needle would whir, and from the look on her face, it was like she was sewing her past to her future and wasn’t sure she wanted me to be a part of either.
To make things worse, she was actually making quilts. Every time she finished one, she hung it on the wall. First in the living room, then the dining room, then the kitchen, then the foyer, then the ceiling of our bedroom so that it was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I saw when I fell asleep at night.
I asked if maybe she could cool it with the quilts.
She looked at me like: my God, you broken man, you’d deny me even this?
One day I got a notarized letter in the mail. It was from Eddie’s lawyer. It said I’d been listed in Eddie’s estate, and would I come to such and such address at such and such time and be sure to bring an ID?
I drove to the address. It was a law office. A lawyer handed me a pile of paperwork and told me to sign here and here and here and here. When I was done, he handed me an envelope and a cardboard box and said, “Take your time.”
There was a letter inside the envelope. It was dated two weeks before Eddie’s death. It said:
I had one secret in life. Only Jerri knew. The secret is inside this box, along with instructions. I hope you do everything I ask, even if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s my one wish.
Your (if you’re reading this dead) friend,
I opened the box. Inside, carefully wrapped in tissue, was a rawhide coat covered in fringe. I held it up in the air. It looked like Dennis Hopper’s jacket from Easy Rider. The other items in the box were: a matching pair of pants, a coonskin cap, a leather purse, a necklace of teeth, a horn, a wooden pipe, a pair of rawhide boots, and the combination to Eddie’s gun safe.
I put the box in the garage and forgot about it. Then one morning I went into the kitchen to make coffee and found Shannon on the floor, totally naked, lying on a quilt she’d made. She was touching herself in a way that made me extremely nervous.
“I want you to make love to me,” she said.
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
“I want you so bad.”
“Put your clothes on.”
“I’m a woman,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “You’re naked.”
I went to the bathroom to get her robe. When I came back, she was sobbing.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” she said.
“I have to go on a trip.” I said. “It has to do with Eddie. It’s a secret.”
She put on the robe. I hadn’t made love to her, but I’d told her something, and that was a huge development in our relationship. She followed me into the bedroom, rosy cheeked and smiling
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
I rolled up a pair of underwear, put them in a Ziploc bag with my toothbrush, and said, “Now.”
During my two-hour drive to the coast, I had plenty of time to think about what a lousy friend Eddie was. Not only had he ruined our fun by getting cancer and dying, but he’d saddled me with a moral responsibility, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do to a person. If he hadn’t died, I would have refused to speak to him for six months, after which we would have gotten drunk together and never mentioned it again.
I consulted Eddie’s letter and checked Google Maps and a few minutes later saw the hand-painted sign: 2015 MOUNTAIN MAN RENDEZVOUS. Next to the sign, a Grizzly Adams look-alike was waving a glowing orange wand, directing people where to park.
I found a secluded parking space, crawled into the back seat, and started getting dressed. It was one of the most difficult tasks of my life. Unlike normal clothes that have snaps and zippers, these were just animal carcasses held together with rope. I spent ten minutes trying to put the jock strap on, only to realize it was a coin purse intended to be worn around my neck.
I must’ve looked like I was fighting a cougar in the back seat, because an old man started rapping on the window and asked if I needed help.
I said, “No, I’m good.”
Then a second later, “Wait come back. I’m stuck.”
His name was Old Bill. He helped me get dressed and showed me how to tie my shoelaces, which made me feel like I was this man’s son and he was my dad in a world without razors or hunting licenses.
I told him that I’d never been to a Mountain Man Rendezvous and that I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t really want to be here.
He said, “Let me tell you something about mountain men—we eat buffalo droppings for breakfast and make our living snapping the necks of cute little animals. Just be yourself.”
I had no idea what that meant, but he helped me to my feet and suddenly we were walking down a thoroughfare like at a carnival, only instead of selling cotton candy and stuffed animals, these merchants were hawking bowie knives and jewelry made from grizzly bear claws.
They were the friendliest group of murderous recluses I’d ever met. Everywhere we went, people waved and said things like, “Hey brother!” and “Beautiful day to be a mountain man!”
Old Bill and I stopped at a booth where a guy with a dead wolf on his head asked if either of us needed any gunpowder.
I said sure and asked if he took VISA.
He just looked at me.
I reached into my satchel and pulled out some colorful beads, which the wolfman was extremely interested in. We bartered and I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the deal, because I acquired the most important technology in the history of civilization and he walked away with a fistful of Girl Scout trinkets.
At some point it started raining, but no one cared because we’d crossed the Rockies on foot in apocalyptic blizzards and survived attacks by grizzly bears and justifiably upset Indians. Also, no one had cholera or smallpox, which according to the medic—a jittery old man with a lazy eye and an amazing collection of saws—was a sacrifice none of these so-called “mountain men” was willing to make in the name of authenticity.
Night came and bonfires were lit and we traded tobacco and passed around flasks.
At one point Old Bill said, “Hey, where’s Eddie?”
Everybody looked around and said, “Oh shit. Where the hell is Ed?”
It was time. Eddie’s instructions said: Dress up in these clothes and tell my friends what happened to me. PS, don’t puss out, Martin. It’ll be amazing. I promise.
So I told the mountain men what happened, but nobody believed me. They said things like, “You shit-eating liar, who are you?”
I said, “My name’s Martin. Eddie was my best friend. Or at least as close as you can be to a person without talking about feelings.”
To prove it I showed them the letter. They took turns reading it. Word spread from camp to camp, and suddenly I was a celebrity. Everybody wanted to know what happened to Eddie””how he died, what his final words were, did he mention anything about Kit Carson or Jean Baptiste Charbonneau?
They cried openly and hugged each other. Eventually they formed a line and started shooting muskets into the air, calling Eddie’s name. I looked up into the sky, expecting to see dead birds falling everywhere, but it was just puffs of smoke and stars and the breath of grown men playing dress up.
Old Bill said, “Your turn, Bub.”
He showed me how to load Eddie’s musket with the powder I’d just purchased for a handful of yellow beads. I pushed the ramrod into the muzzle and pulled it out, pushed it in and pulled it out, and pointed the gun at the sky.
“It’ll kick,” said Old Bill. “Brace yourself.”
I pulled the trigger. There was an explosion and a puff of smoke drifted slowly to the left and my arms wouldn’t stop shaking. I sat down on the ground and then my whole body started shaking and then I was crying, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Men patted me on the back and said, “You must have really loved him.”
But I didn’t love Eddie. I barely knew him.
When I got home, Shannon wasn’t there. I sat on the couch and waited, texting her every five minutes: Where are you? Are you okay? Please just text me so I know you’re okay. But she didn’t answer. At one point, I thought I heard her pulling into the driveway and ran to the window, but it was somebody else’s wife. It occurred to me that this must’ve been what Shannon had been experiencing every day for the past year, even though I was sitting directly across from her.
I went to the fridge and checked for beer, but there was just a sticky note: “Things are going to be different from now on.”
As I closed the refrigerator door, I noticed something on the wall. It was a new quilt. The pattern was a series of squares arranged like a tic-tac-toe board. In the top left, Shannon had cut out fabric to resemble a little girl wearing a soccer jersey. In the next there was a doctor in a white coat. After that: a hospital bed, a 6-year-old girl without any hair, IV bags, waiting rooms, nurses. The last two squares showed a coffin being lowered into a grave, followed by Meghan’s 2nd grade school photograph. It was just squares and rectangles sewn together, but it looked exactly like her.
I walked around the house from quilt to quilt. Each told a different version of the same story. In one there was a giant mural. It was a hospital bed with Meghan’s dead body on it hooked up to a hundred different machines. Above her, the Virgin Mary was pointing to her own chest, only where a sacred heart should have been, there was a tiny skull.
Just then I heard a jangling of keys in the front door followed by footsteps, and then Shannon was standing in the living room with her mouth hanging open. She dropped the bag of groceries she was holding.
“It’s okay,” I said, setting down the musket. “This is a costume. I’m a mountain man. I’ve chosen my hobby.”
Grief had done something to her face. The fat was gone from her cheeks, replaced by pronounced bone with blue shadows beneath. Her eyes looked they’d been yanked out of their sockets, dipped in fire, and put back in. There was none of the softness I’d long mistaken for her essence.
I walked up to her and ran my fingers through her short hair.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m just so sad,” I said.
“Me too,” she whispered, burying her face into my rawhide jacket.
What can I tell you about that night? Shannon and I made love for the first time in almost a year. I peeled off one pelt after another like an animal shedding fur, but when I went to remove the coonskin cap, Shannon said, “Leave the hat. I like the hat.”
Would my college drug dealer identify this as Stage #3: Rising from the Abyss? Or am I already in Stage #4: the Journey?
Whatever it is, I’m heading west with a pouch full of gunpowder into the impossible depths of the woman I love.
Kevin Maloney is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Cult of Loretta will be published by Lazy Fascist Press in May 2015. His stories have appeared in Hobart, PANK, and Monkeybicycle. Find more at kevinmaloney.net.