“We need to talk.”
Damien is pensively slouched in a beanbag, something that only he can manage to seem moody. There’s been a strange vibe lately between us. His kindness seems to be so forceful, like he has to watch over me every minute as part of a community service sentence. I wish he could just let me go off on my own for a bit and trust that I’m not about to put a gun between my lips if his hands aren’t there to wretch the damn thing away. But of course saying that to him could break his heart, so I don’t want to have a confrontation.
Still, it’s his place no matter how long I’ve been living here, and I understand that this is important to him. It’s easy to sense with how he lights his cigarette with the final drag of the last, giving himself a steady stream of nicotine without having to miss a beat. I could flop down on the sofa, but since that’s been serving as my bed, I opt for another one of the beanbag chairs. “All right, then let’s talk,” I tell him, and I hope he doesn’t notice how I’m sweating.
Rather than give me an answer, he picks up a duffel bag and tosses it over to me. It lands with a soft thud, obviously full but not of something that could be broken on impact. “Open it.”
I don’t know what to expect, so I tell myself in advance not to bother with those sorts of thoughts. I’ll only be disappointed, confused, or a combination of the two. So I just pull the zipper along its track, and I’m rewarded with a glimpse of cash. A lot of cash. I see that there’s a bundle wrapped in a rubber band, so I shift it to the side only to see that there’s more beneath it. “What the hell is this?”
“I don’t think that I have to give you that answer.”
“There could be like a million dollars in here. Why?”
He rolls his eyes in the way that he would do if someone said something foolish about a car wreck. “Only in the movies could you fit that much money in a bag in small bills. It’s enough though. More than enough. Probably more than you had when you took off from home. I want you to take it now. Take it and do what you have to do.”
“I don’t understand. The house hasn’t sold yet.”
“The house probably isn’t going to sell. People gossip too much. But it’s been good for you to clean it out and try to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to live there anymore or win her back. The money’s mine. Or it was my money. Now I want it to be yours.”
“I can’t possibly take this from you.” This is my ticket out of this town and towards the life that I want, and yet I find myself zipping the bag back up as though I never saw it. He’s been the only person in my corner for so long that I know that if I take this from him, there’s no way that I’ll ever be able to crawl out of that debt again.
“You can, and you will. It’s yours, so just take it. I’ve no use for it now.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Most breath goes unheard, just a given when you go through the day, but this time he really labors with the idea of pulling oxygen into his lungs and then releasing the waste. He goes to take another drag of his cigarette, but his brow furrows like he’s disappointed in what he sees in his cigarette. I think he’s going to put it out, but instead he just holds it between his fingers, probably for something to do. “I haven’t always been forthcoming with you.”
It’s about the vaguest thing he could say in a situation when he’s offered me money, and for a moment, I wonder if he’s been dealing drugs or something. It would explain the sheer mass of money and why he wants it off his hands. Still, why would he still live by a relatively normal schedule if that were the case? I haven’t noticed him acting odd lately other than his meddling in my life, and there’s no way that he could be dealing at the bar without me noticing his absence. “Well, I guess the most obvious solution to that would be to be forthcoming now.”
Already I feel like I could use a beer just to have something in my hand to squeeze as he takes his time licking his lips and trying to summon the words. “I’ve been in touch with Karen.”
This has to be part of his psychological bullshit, something about making amends or working with her to make sure that I make it back to something resembling stability rather than trying to kill myself. I understand that she probably loves me still in some fucked up way, and she doesn’t want to have my life (or, rather, death) on her shoulders. “How long?” I croak, my mouth feeling dry without something to wash down the emotion.
I expect him to be looking at the ground or the ceiling, anything to avoid my judgment, but he’s staring straight at me. Those piercing eyes are like lightning, quick and confident and flashing. He actually looks proud. “All along.” The cigarette has nothing left to offer, and when he moves to put it in an ashtray, the column of gray that has grown on the end crumbles all around. He doesn’t move to brush it away, just accepting it as irrelevant to our conversation. “You probably believe that she’s been a stranger to me all this time and all that I know of her, I’ve learned from you. That’s not the case.”
“Did you get in touch with her because you were worried about me then? Or did she find you because she thought that I was drinking too much?” I don’t mean to make my voice harsh, but I’m not quite sure how I’m supposed to take this news. It’s not like he’s told me anything that would explain why he’s trying to buy me off.
“Neither, actually. If you have to know, Karen is a cousin of mine.” He laughs as he watches me, actually fucking laughs as I sit there and stare stupidly at him. It’s not malicious though. In fact, I think it’s a bit unhinged. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not like everyone’s kin has to be from the same place. We’re obviously distant, she and I, but she’d heard of me and knew that I had my bar here.”
Staring at his hands, he pulls out his pack of cigarettes and seems to contemplate lighting another. “She looked for me not long after you two settled down here. She told me about how she drove north trying to find this place because she remembered the name of the town and hoped that I’d be here. It’s funny how quickly you can acknowledge the most precarious common ground when you’re left alone, and she was feeling very lonely at first. This was when you were away more often than not.
“She was just looking for some company back then. She had so many stories about you. She really loved you too. You were everything to her. I was excited to meet you, this guy that I’d heard about so often. I was a bit surprised, to tell the truth. The way she painted you, you could be perfect one day or the most flawed man in the world the next. I don’t think she really understood what made you tick. You’re just kind of an oblivious man. When things are hard, you just lie there and take it and accept that difficulty. You don’t fight back. You can endure anything, but you don’t put yourself out there much either. I recognize a bit of my own attitude in that. I mean, this town isn’t the place I wanted to wind up. I didn’t want to be stuck behind the bar forever. I thought I’d just get my money, pawn it off on someone else, and get out.
“So you see, I like you. I always have. I feel a strange kinship with you, but I do think that a lot of your trouble has been brought upon yourself. That’s why I’ve been trying to help you along. I really want to see you saved from yourself, and I know that isn’t my job. Still, I’ll keep trying.”
“Is that what the money’s for? To ‘save’ me?” I draw the quotation marks in the air, feeling my hands shake. How could he just overlook this fact for years? We were kin just the same, through bond and through marriage. That’s just not something that a person ought to do.
“It’s what I’ve saved up to try to get away. I realize now that I’m not the one who needs to leave. What is there for me out there? Another novelty bar and the same life in a different location? Life’s the same pretty much anywhere. But you can find Karen. You can do something to change. There’s still so much for you. And I knew she was going to leave you. She told me everything. I could have helped, of course. I could have told you to drink less because it bothered her, I could have cut you off to show you the light, but I didn’t want to lose you. I liked having you around. Truth be told, I don’t like it anymore. I don’t like what this has done to you, but I like the man you are. I think you can get back to good again, but I think this town is killing you. So it’s an apology. It’s a friendly gesture. And it’s also an attempt to live vicariously through you.”
His eyes are actually shining now, and he’s looking at his feet. His shoulders are shaking, and it takes me a few seconds to sort out the fact that he’s actually crying. The tears are silent, but they’re there just as sure as that odd grin of his is. I don’t know what to think about him now, if his friendship was ever genuine or if he’s been spying on me the way nobody else ever could. “If I take this money, what makes you think that I’m going to be in touch with you so you know what I do with it?”
“Because I know you now, and I know you don’t think this is the case anymore, but you know me too.”
“How can I think that I know anything about you when you come to me with all this? How can I be sure you’ve ever liked me at all?”
Settling another cigarette between his lips, he fumbles with a nearby box of matches. He’s trembling so much that he can’t get the flame to spark, and it’s so frustrating to watch that I want to reach out and light the match since he can’t. I sit on my hands instead, and eventually he gives up, tossing the cigarette down on the nearby table. “You remember when we went to that church? She’d already decided that she was going to leave you. It was that pastor. He’d planted the idea in her head, and I’m sure that he wanted to have one off with her. I see a lot of the dark side of the world, that’s just what you get in my line of work, but I take God’s work very seriously. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone trying to lure away your wife. I knew how you were both hurting. I thought that maybe that would just be an easy way to patch things up. I just didn’t know that it was going to explode like that. If I had, I swear to you that I never would have made that stupid suggestion.”
“So he did want to fuck her. I wasn’t just being ridiculous about that. He was actually trying to sleep with her.”
“Now, just calm down. It was a decade ago. There’s no point in just charging backwards at bridges that have already burnt down.” He sighs and rolls his eyes, a gesture I’ve seen so many times that I can’t even really get angry with it. It’s just his way of looking at the world: halfway to bemused but mostly just tired of it all. “He came into the bar one night looking for you. I think he wanted to have a chat man to man, like he could convince you that it was the will of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to end your poor wife’s suffering.”
“Could you not talk like that?” I snap.
He winces. “Sorry. So he was looking for you, but you weren’t about. I told him that you were going to be back in a bit. Probably fed him a line about how you’d gone for a piss or something. I asked him if he wouldn’t like something to drink. You know how well I mix.”
“Not at first. I just gave him some water while he went to use the phone. But then I offered him a bit of tea to jolt him awake, and after that you could not stop the bastard talking. I think there was a part of him that knew exactly what was going on, but if that was the case, he didn’t say anything. He was too busy going on about your wife. What a nice woman she was, how beautiful she was, how she wasn’t getting any younger.”
She’s not mine anymore, and I’ve had a long time to come to understand that. Still, to know that my suspicions were based in reality rather than some sort of territorial paranoia makes me clench both my fists. I try shoving my hands beneath my thighs, but that doesn’t mask the tension any. “So what did you do?”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” There’s a sort of theatric lilt to his voice, as though he’s delivering lines upon a stage. “Exodus 20:17. I don’t think that he was a fan of my edition of the Bible, but the proof is in the pudding. He got red—well, redder—and growled out something about how he just wanted to help a neighbor, that you and what was yours had nothing to do with it. Then he just stormed off. It’s a shame that there weren’t more people around to witness it. I think things could have wound up a whole lot differently.”
“Like maybe my nose would be straight rather than permanently fucked up?”
“Well, that’s never been what’s really wrong with your face.” He can’t resist the opportunity to get in a bit of a sneaky insult, and we exchange a look before a nervous laugh. There’s too much history and too much life packed into the past ten years for me to try to focus my anger on any one target in particular. He looks relieved that I don’t try to do the same favor to his own nose. “Look, I completely understand if you want to take this money and move into your house or another apartment and never speak to me again. What I did was unforgivable.”
“It wasn’t your business,” I remind him, and I don’t know why I’m suddenly feeling diplomatic. I should be filled with rage. I should be lashing out, but maybe I’m just getting too old for it. Or maybe by now I understand that it doesn’t matter how many people got between me and Karen. If there hadn’t already been a gap between us, nobody else would have been able to sneak in there like that. We were already pulling apart before there could be a wedge jamming us apart. “She was your family. I was your friend. I was fucked up. I am fucked up. I know that I’m not somebody you’d wish upon your own worst enemy.”
“Come on, Dustin, don’t get like that. I’ve had you living with me all this time, haven’t I?”
“Out of guilt.”
“Out of concern,” he corrects firmly. The smile that had briefly tried out occupying his face has decided to retire, the gravity of the situation returning. “We’re the kind of people who live in the shadows, you and I. We aren’t ones that are built for traditional jobs, suits and polite conversation and barbecues. We just want to live our own lives, but we’re so sure it’ll never happen that we don’t particularly know which way to go or what to do. We’ve been able to spend so many nights just pissing away the hours with ridiculous conversations about nothing in particular. You know what I mean? Waking up day in and day out is a life sentence, but you’ve made it that much more tolerable.”
In all my years of knowing Damien, I’ve seen him get pensive with the best of them, but most of his moods have stemmed from the attention or lack thereof he was paid by women. At least, that always seemed to be the source. While some men have all the luck, he has as much good as bad, reeling them in and then quickly repelling them. I’ve always figured he’s had some artistic temperament that has prevented him from getting far with the opposite sex. I had no clue that he’s had to deal with these conflicting interests for so long. Has he carried guilt with him every day, or has it only really accumulated since I’ve tried to take matters into my own hands? I want to ask, but I’m afraid to know the answer.
“This has been hard for you,” I say at last, and I feel some of the tension leak out of my chest. There have been more times than I can count when I’ve felt like only Damien has been in my corner, and what’s the use of alienating him? Even if he wasn’t actually protecting me or telling me the truth half the time, that still leaves the other half when he was sincere. That’s better than being entirely alone, which is what I would be otherwise.
“It’s not too late for you to be happy.” When he says it, all I can hear is what he’s implying: that he’s never going to be happy. I wonder how miserable I’ve made him, with my ignorance and with my desperation. Have I taunted him without knowing it? Or have I given him the opportunity to see that there are some people are able to cling, however foolishly, to hope?
“What are you going to do when I’m gone?”
“First of all, buy a new fucking sofa. This one’s been dented too far.” The promise sounds a bit hollow after he’s let himself become so vulnerable, so he just shifts around and looks at me imploringly. “I’ll start saving again. Maybe I’ll get out one day. Maybe you’ll come back and visit me sometime. Tell me more stories. I think maybe that’s why I went into this line of work in the first place. I just like to know that there are people out there with stories. Saves me the effort of having to come up with my own.”
“You’re one of the most interesting people I know, come on.”
“No offense, but that isn’t saying a while lot coming from you.”
He reaches for the pack of matches again, and I think that he’s going to go for another cigarette. Instead he picks up an incense holder that he always keeps out by rarely uses. The scent of patchouli, thick and sweet and heavy, begins to fill the room like a drug. “She’s asked after you, you know. When she left, she asked that I make sure that you’re okay. She knew that she had to go, for both your sakes. I never believed that. Still, she didn’t want you to feel pain. Even if she wanted to hurt you. Do you understand that?”
“I think anyone who’s been in love gets that.”
“Good.” He lights another match just for the hell of it, and for a second, the sour scent is more overpowering than that of the incense. Then it’s gone, and he stares at the flame as it creeps toward his fingertips. “This is kind of like you, you know. You start off so brightly, but soon you’re just waiting for someone to put you out. All it takes is one spark though. I think you could unleash so much. You just have to jump off in the right direction.”
“You’re nuts, you know that?”
“It’s why I know you’ll come back to see me. But not until you’re really happy. Now go pack up your shit. We’re going car shopping.”