I wonder what Adam would think. I wonder what sage observation he might make, what unsettling, wise-beyond-his-years statement he might share with me. Then again, he might just simply stab me. Or run off into the evening, not to be heard from for several weeks. But Adam is dead.
The street lamps are flickering up Helen St. again. No amount of complaint seems to motivate the city to fix them. The placidly rude woman at the city offices seems to think "someone" might get around to fixing them at some point, but there apparently are hundreds of work orders that take priority over such an inconvenience. Hell, there are thousands of things in my own head that would seem to merit my attention more urgently. But I can't stand the damn flickering.
I'm not really sure what is going to happen this evening. I feel unprepared, about to be tested on an undisclosed subject. Cassie has been so busy, so obviously overwhelmed, I have been hesitant to call her. I only realized yesterday that tonight is the night, so caught up in my own life I have been. I feel guilty for that. This is important, necessary. So much will be discussed tonight. And I don't know shit.
I pull into the parking lot a bit fast, bottoming out on the asphalt. The headlights flash crazily around, illuminating a few figures standing near a truck. Marla, Tony, and Gwen, the latter with her arms wrapped tightly against her body despite the heat, are standing near Tony's four by four looking unsure and maybe a bit scared. I shut off the headlights so as not to blind them and ease into the spot next to the truck. The trio is watching me, mouths shut, Marla nervously flicking her cigarette repeatedly with her thumb.
"Hi. Everyone here?", I mumble, closing the car door.
"Yeah. Inside.", replies Tony, his face and voice pinched and nervous.
I nod and start off toward the brown brick building, cramming my keys into my jeans. A far-off siren wails, the only sound other than the crunch of my boots on the asphalt. A tightness in my neck reminds me of the stress I am trying so very hard to hide. No use letting anyone see me struggle with the weight of the situation. Everyone is apprehensive and scared, not knowing what exactly they will encounter here.
I pull the green steel door open with effort. It seems the pneumatic assist is old and worn out. Not much money in the budget to fix such things for a non-profit. I sense rather than hear Marla, Tony, and Gwen behind me, so I wait and hold the door for them. They shuffle past without making eye contact or a sound.
Inside, the unnatural florescence of industrial lighting makes everyone seem unreal, washed out. Several people are sitting on the floor along the wall to the left. I recognize all of them, though some names escape me. I nod acknowledgement to a few, trying to look neutral and composed. But the tightness in my neck is intensifying. It is hard to swallow.
I spot a bulletin board and wander over to look at the posted fliers and notes. I am not really reading them, just giving my eyes something to be distracted with. No one is speaking. It is as quiet as a confined space filled with people can be. I do notice one flyer in particular that catches my eye. Someone has misspelled "anonymous".
After a few minutes, a door swings open along the right wall. A woman steps out, short and squat, a friendly smile pasted on her round face. She is holding a clipboard with hands tipped with an expensive looking manicure.
"Hello! Everyone please come in. Let's get started.", she says, too loudly for the previous silence.
We file in obediently. The room is carpeted in cheap glue-down industrial carpet. A couple of dozen chairs are set up in a circle in the rough center of the room. Other folded chairs line the wall at one end, along with folding tables and a small cart with a coffee urn and Styrofoam cups. There is something oddly ominous about the only other feature in the room: a large easel covered in a cloth. Several of the attendees give it a glance.
"Everyone please sit down. My name is Mary Wollery. I am going to ask a roll call in a moment, so please try to remain seated until afterward. Coffee is over there in the corner, but I ask that you refrain from getting any until after the roll call." She ends with an officious gesture indicating that we should comply quickly.
After a short staking out of territory, everyone is seated. I find myself between Karen Dormond and Alisha Mallory and directly across from Kevin Arrington. Karen leans forward and whispers in my ear.
"I can't take this. I'm really freaked out right now, just so you know. I might grab your hand or something. Don't freak out if I do.", she breathes, tickling my ear with her hair. She smells like toothpaste and hairspray.
Mary takes the roll efficiently and quickly. Barrett Scott and Ellen Kirk are the only absentees. I had run into Barrett a couple of weeks ago. He was coming out of the grocery store with two cases of National Bohemian beer. He had nodded down at one and stated, "Therapy.", his eyes pained despite the smile he forced on his lips.
"So. I hope everyone is well this evening. I am purposefully not setting a time limit for this meeting, as the first ones often go longer than planned. Help yourselves to coffee. It was provided to us free by Bear Cup Coffee, downtown. we'll wait a few minutes while everyone settles down.", Mary intones, loudly.
I and several others get up for coffee. I get two cups at first and give them to Karen and Alisha. Alisha takes hers without a sound, scarcely moving her body but for her arm. Karen smiles and says thank you in a forced, ultra-southern way. I return with my coffee and sit. I feel Karen's hand slide under my arm and grasp my bicep. She is squeezing with fair force, a smile plastered on her face.
Mary sits down near Kevin Arrington and folds her hands on the clipboard in her lap.
"Can someone tell us why we are here?", she asks, eyebrows raised in an inquisitive way, her overly made-up face shining under the florescent tubes.
Silence. Everyone is studiously avoiding eye contact. My own breath seems incredibly loud. Karen squeezes my arm even tighter. Mary is glancing around the circle, her eyes resting on each person in turn, her demeanor expectant.
"Because Mark was a selfish asshole who blew his brains out." blurts a voice from behind my left shoulder, one I cannot immediately identify. Everyone around me turns to look behind me. Karen's grip is almost painful.
Mary looks suitably calm, however. She, for one, has likely seen this kind of thing before. There are a few tuts and sharp intakes of breath around the room. Rose Coughlin dabs at wet eyes with a tissue. Kevin's face has gone bright pink.
"OK. Let's try to understand what Leon is really saying. Leon, how do you feel about Mark's absence? Do you sometimes find yourself thinking of him while at the store?", Mary asks, quietly and in a very controlled tone.
"Naw, I don't think about him. He shouldn't have done that shit. Now the rest of us have to come to this damn meeting and talk about him. He don't deserve it. We should all go back to our houses and chill. We shouldn't have to do nothing on his account.", Leon spits out each sentence like a fighter punching a heavy bag.
Mary nods as Leon speaks. She looks sympathetic and reassuring. I decide I don't like her. Not even a little. Something in her eyes, a light that seemed to say 'At least I am getting paid for this', lurks somewhere behind the sympathetic surface. A woman doing a job, earning a living, nothing more. I feel depressed, suddenly.
People start talking all at once, their voices, though muffled by the low ceiling and shabby carpet, are loud, a chaotic swirl of emotions. I glance down at my coffee, frowning. Karen is cutting off the circulation in my arm. Kevin looks like he might explode in a mess of ginger hair and freckled skin. He is practically purple.
Mary is trying to settle everyone down, her arms making downward sweeps from her shoulders to her waist. I glance over my shoulder and see that Leon is sitting with the chair leaned way back, arms folded across his chest. Some are making conciliatory sounds, others are outraged.
"Excuse me! Please! People! Settle down, please!", Mary is standing now, arms raised like some biblical figure attempting a miracle. No one is listening to her.
I lean over to Karen and say in her ear, "Let's go outside and have a smoke. This shit is going to take a while to subside." She nods and reaches down for her purse.
Outside is blessedly free of people, save for Karen and me. I light Karen's cigarette and my own. The first drag pulls me back down a few feet. Karen's hand is shaking as she pulls on the cigarette, pulling out from her lips with a kind of pop sound. She inhales the smoke deeply and then blows it out in a tight stream.
"That was fucking ridiculous. I don't want to deal with this shit tonight.", Karen stammers.
"Yeah, it's not good. People have no idea how to deal with this.", I say, glancing up at the sky. The moon is hiding behind unseen clouds. A few hundred moths are circling the mercury-vapor lights over the parking lot. At least they aren't flickering.
"Shit, Church, I don't want to go back in there. I'd rather go anywhere else. Can we just leave?"
"We can do whatever we want. Maybe they'll get calmed down in a few minutes, though.", I say, quietly. My tone is not very assured, despite my best effort.
"C'mon, Church. Take me outta here. Let's just drive. I don't care where." She throws her half-smoked cigarette down and grinds it out with the toe of her high heeled boot.
I shrug and turn toward the parking lot. Karen slips her hand between my arm and side, walking purposefully and upright. I glance at her out of the corner of my vision. She looks substantially less stressed as we near the car. Her red hair bounces around her face, the lights glinting off the glitter in her lashes.
We get in the car in silence. I back out of the parking space and turn the nose to the exit. There is no one on this end of town at this hour. The lights are flashing yellow at the intersection as I guide the car down Holland Ave. I am just driving, no place in mind to go, letting the car drive itself. Karen stares ahead through the windscreen, her eyes distant. We drive for several blocks like this.
"What do you do when you're not at work, Church?", Karen asks, her voice bringing me out of my head.
"I read. Listen to music. I write a lot.", I shrug, "Don't know really. I just...do what everybody does, I guess."
"You write? Like in a journal or...what?"
"I write fiction. And blog about the things on my mind. It helps me cope with the world. It's my sanity filter."
"Sanity filter?", she laughs. "I have never heard anyone use that term before."
"It helps me get perspective. A bit like any hobby, I suppose. Sometimes I just need to download my thoughts, get them out. Otherwise I go a little nuts from thinking."
"Huh. You are more interesting than you would seem, Church."
Karen laughs and touches my arm. "I mean, usually you just sort of do your job and leave. I guess I never really give my co-workers much thought once they leave or I head home for the night."
"I'm just giving you guff, Karen. I know what you meant.", I reply, turning onto Sycamore Dr. "What do you do when you leave work?"
"Oh, I drink a couple glasses of wine, watch shitty TV, go out from time to time. Not much, really. Since I broke up with my boyfriend a year or so ago, I just kind of hang around the house, mostly.", she looks out her window, turning away.
After a few moments, Karen blurts, "I just don't get this whole damn thing. I mean, why the hell did Mark kill himself? And why the fuck did he have to do it at work!?"
I don't answer right off. I have to find the thought, the one I really want for this moment. I scan the possibilities, searching for the one that seems most appropriate. I have been doing this a lot more, this analysis of my speech, carefully reasoning before I reply. Mostly so as not to make others uncomfortable with my responses.
"People do very strange things, Karen. It is futile to try to figure some things out. It takes being there, in some other's mind, living their lives, to really understand why they might do something like that. It takes a level of empathy most of us are not capable of reaching.", I say, speaking in very measured, careful tones.
"Well, I definitely don't want to be where he was.", she shivers visibly. "That's a level of crazy I don't want to know about."
We drive a while longer in silence. The air conditioning is barely cooling things down in the tight space. Karen lights a cigarette and cracks the window. I decide to turn off the air and roll the windows down.
As we cruise past First St., the air starts to seem heavy, pregnant with moisture. Another summer thunderstorm is creeping up on Eastern North Carolina. As I think about the rain, I see a barely discernible flash indicating lightning in the distance, across the river.
"Hey, Church. Wanna get a drink somewhere? I could use one.", Karen asks, flicking her cigarette into the night.
"Sure. Where? Any place in mind?"
"No. Nowhere I usually go, is all. I just can't deal with seeing anyone I know right now. How about The Wheelhouse?"
"Sure.", I turn right onto Franklin Ave., speeding up to catch the light before it turns.
We pull up in front of the bar and find a lucky spot, dead out front. We get out just as the first splatters of fat raindrops smack into the sidewalk. Karen holds her purse over her head to protect her hair from the rain. I jog to the sidewalk and under the awning above the entrance to The Wheelhouse.
As we enter the bar, the jukebox is between songs. There are maybe twenty customers in the place, mostly huddled in tight groups around one of the high, round tables in the center of the room, or leaning against the bar. I recognize a few faces, but only as folks I have "seen around", not friends.
Karen leans in and says something about white wine and heads off to the small table in the corner, farthest from the door. I head to the bar to order, just as the first chords of Little Pink Houses by John Cougar Mellemcamp, or whatever the hell he is calling himself now, drift out from the jukebox speakers.
Drinks secured, I shuffle off for Karen at the table. She is applying lipstick using the mirror over the table which reads "Bass Ale". Her lipstick almost matches the color of the letters.
"Thanks, sug.", Karen smiles, reaching for the glass of Chardonnay I offer her. Her freckled fingers grasp the glass in a casual, practiced way.
"I used to come here a lot. Back when I used to party a fair bit. The place has changed, though. They cleaned it up.", I say, sipping my bourbon and ginger. I glance around, noticing the changes to the decor. Oddly, there seem to be a number of pictures of foreign leaders on the walls.
"Oh yeah? You used to party, huh?", Karen asks, eyes shining over the rim of her wine glass. "I figured with all your tattoos and your crazy taste in music, you must have some sordid past."
Smiling, I reply, "Oh, I have my past alright. And much of it is definitely sordid. I am a reformed hellion. Well, mostly."
Karen laughs, an easy sound, a little husky, her head back. I sip my drink and light a cigarette. I realize I have no idea what to say. About anything. Anything I think of seems trivial in light of the evening we have had. What does one talk about when death is on the tip of one's tongue? Silence may not be golden, but it is certainly easy.
"Church, can I ask you how you got that name? Is it because you are born again or something?", Karen asks, with perhaps some apprehension.
"No, I am not even religious. I got it because of...because some buddies gave me the nickname. Had something to do with something stupid I did."
"Oh? Do tell.", Karen says, a mildly sardonic look in her eyes.
"I crashed into the National Cathedral in my car."
Karen paused, her drink hovering in front of her slightly parted lips. I smile and finish my drink, get up and head to the bar.
I return to the table, drink freshened. Karen is smiling and smoking. I sit down and lean back in the chair. I am feeling the effects of the bourbon, a relaxation of the tenseness in my neck. The low lighting plays on the rim of my glass, absorbing my attention.
"I have to say that that was the last thing I thought I would hear you say.", Karen muses, sipping her wine.
"Yeah. I get that reaction a lot.", I say, still staring at the rim of my glass.
"What in the world were you doing that you crashed into a building?", she asks.
This is where things get sticky. This is where I must be very careful, especially in light of recent events. I begin searching my mind for a response. Briefly, I am dragged to a memory, too intense and dangerous to face fully, a screaming, black, terrifying corner of my mind. I feel my hand tighten around my glass, a tremendous effort of will pushing the memory away, rising, escaping its grasp. This is not good. This must be caged. Come back. Back to Karen. Back to life.
"You know, we all do some crazy things when we are young. Mine are just a little crazier than most. I am sure even you have some things you have done that were...ill-advised.", I say, fighting the tightness in my neck, trying to swallow.
"Sure. I mean, I was young and stupid once. Spent a lot of time with the wrong men and spreading a little drama. But I am mellowed now, older, you know? I don't have time for all the drama."
"Yeah, drama is for the young and uninformed. It seems we all develop a warning system as we get a little older, a little wiser, that warns of impending drama and craziness."
"So, what do you really think about Mark? I mean, let's be honest. It has affected everyone of us. I guess I am sad and confused, and a little frightened."
For a long moment I stare into the candle on the table between us. Mark. Such a wounded human. Quiet, always friendly but reserved, removed from the goings-on around him. But obviously he was very sick. Very broken. I shudder.
"I am sad that he didn't have someone around him to help him. Obviously, he was in need of psychological help. Again, I don't think anyone can truly know what he felt, where he was coming from. People are not conditioned to deal with that level of pain and despair." Well, at least most people never experience it or contend with it.
Karen looks pensive, far away. Her hand strokes the glass in front of her, burgundy nails contrasting with the yellow wine. She leans forward, her eyes sad.
"I guess I feel guilty for not noticing his pain. I wish I could have been more friendly toward him.", Karen says, her lips squeezing tight.
"You, nor anyone else, could not have done anything for his pain. It is not something anyone can 'fix'. He needed professional help. You and I are not sufficiently trained to help someone that sick. Don't try to project his illness on yourself.", I say, eyes fixed on her face, imploring.
Karen smiles without humor, leaning back and finishing her wine. I get up and take her glass to the bartender and refill it. I return to Karen, a look of resolve on her face, seeming to have made a conscious decision to change the subject. She takes the glass I offer, sitting upright, legs crossed.
"So, are you seeing anyone? Is there a Mrs. Church?", she asks, over the rim of her glass.
"No. I am divorced. I was seeing this woman, but she was very different from me. She wanted different things.", I shrug. "I couldn't always be there for her in the ways she needed."
"Oh, I see. She was looking for more than just a casual relationship, huh?", she inquires.
"Yeah. You know, I was fresh out of a marriage, still hurting a little. I didn't want nor need a relationship beyond having a little fun at that point. I was honest with her, but she didn't listen, I guess. Heard what she wanted to hear.", I smile and sip my drink.
We talk for a couple of hours, sipping drinks, smoking, just relaxing. The bar starts to fill up, the younger crowd in for their mating rituals. I catch Karen's eye as a loud group of file in, obviously drunk already. I make a motion with my head indicating that we should leave. She follows me to the door.
Outside it is wet. The rain has subsided leaving glittering diamonds on the cars and streams in the gutters. I open the passenger door for Karen and help her in before going to the driver's side. I have only had two drinks over a few hours, so I surmise I am fine to drive. Karen has had a fair amount of wine. Her face is flushed and her eyes bloodshot.
I ask Karen how to get to her place. She instructs me to take the bridge and head down Fletcher's Creek Road. We ride without speaking. I turn on the CD player, sinuous tones of post-punk dirges leaking out of the speakers, low but louder than the sound of the tires tearing through rainwater.
As we turn on Fletcher's Creek, Karen shifts in her seatbelt to look at me. I feel her eyes on my cheek. She reaches out and turns the music down.
"Church...why...how are you so calm about Mark? You seem detached from his...from the situation.", Karen asks, somewhat unsteadily.
Because I don't care. Because he was just an object in my field of perception, just as all people are. My neck is instantly tight, a steel cable squeezing my throat. I cannot answer, not yet, not until I can push that thought away. I consciously relax my hands on the steering wheel, letting one hand slide to my lap, a feigned nonchalance.
"It isn't easy. I don't want to explore it too much." Because there is nothing to explore. "He was a very sick man. Nobody wants to contemplate that.", my voice sounds reasonably controlled to my ear. But I never know.
My rest was interrupted by vivid dreams, like thunderclaps in my subconscious. I stare at the table in front of me through blurred eyes, still shaking off sleep. The coffee in my cup is cheap but strong. Grey skies seep in from the sliding glass door, mist settling on grass blades, becoming dew.
Last night was strange. Not only because we had all gathered to come to terms with a horrific event, but also because my mind had been treading in places I had not been in quite a long time. Unpleasant places. It seems that there are things within our minds beyond our understanding, beyond our control. Memories, unbidden, crash to the surface, dragging us backwards in time, rarely to bright places, reminding us that "self" is a collection of all the places we have been and our emotions we associate with them. You can't get very far from regret and fear.
I sigh and stand, moving to the coffee pot for a refill. Karen had been very clear last night when we arrived at her house: come in and we will find our way to the bed. But I had sensed that that was how she dealt with her fear. The fear of loneliness, that human frailty that drives men and women together to share the mild, fleeting warmth of the messy, comfortless bed.
I glance at the stack of mail on the counter. I am in no mood to deal with numbers right now. The mail will wait. I refill my cup and move to the sofa. My phone, a slab of plastic, glass, and socialization, message light blinking, is resting on a well-thumbed copy of a favorite science fiction novel. I thumb the power button and glance at the screen. Three missed text messages and a voice-mail. I replace it to its previous resting place and lean back, swinging my heels onto the coffee table. The world will wait.
A strange sound drags me from sleep. An electronic chirp, loud and near, its source is obscured by reflection. I glance at the wall clock: ten-thirty. No pressure. My left foot is asleep, having been crossed under my right. The mild panic of a return to consciousness fades as I stretch and stand.
I will need to be at work today. Last night will alter the dynamic somewhat. May even have a few call-outs. Likely, emotions will be taut and close to the surface. Not good for me. The surge...
That chirp again. This time, though, I immediately identify it. The battery in the smoke detector is low. I go to the kitchen and open the junk drawer, seeking a nine-volt battery. Finding none, I slowly close it. A stray sunbeam strikes a metal surface in the drawer. I pull the drawer open again, staring down into it. There, at the front, half obscured by a measuring tape, a rounded rectangular object shifts with the momentum.
"How the fuck did that get in there?", I ask the drawer. This should not be here. Not in the drawer, not in the house, not anywhere. This was lost. A long time ago.
My hand reaches for the object almost without my consent. I pause, fingers hovering a few inches above the impossible item. It is a Zippo lighter; brass, battered and scratched, engraved with a symbol too worn to discern. The last time I saw that thing it was lying on the concrete outside a department store, a sticky, bloody thumbprint on its top. I was lying face down, a few inches from it, my arms being roughly pulled, cold steel shocking my wrist...
I slam the drawer shut, holding the pull, still, breathing through my nose. My jaw muscles are tight, rushes of blue-white adrenalin in my chest, my mind burning...Slow, goddammit!
As I try to calm myself, I turn, leaving the drawer open, I turn and move to the refrigerator. I take a long pull from a water bottle, leaning against the small kitchen table. This is not good; not good and impossible. It cannot be. Please. Please, it needs to be GONE. It needs to not be here. I LEFT IT.
The smoke detector chirps again. Without looking into it, I close the drawer, gently and purposefully. It is time to shower and prepare for the day. I will need to shave and find a clean shirt. You will need to take some Goddamn meds.
"Fuck me.", I whisper, moving down the hall.
The store is quiet. A few cars dot the parking lot like lost cattle, representing a few early-arrivers. One of the cars belongs to Karen. A good thing; Karen is a natural peacemaker, someone who can diffuse and placate. I will need to let her do a lot of talking today. I also recognize Leon's truck, a beaten Dodge, parked as far as it can get from the building. Also a good thing. Leon is here to do his job, nothing else. The others...
As I climb out of my car, the other vehicles disgorge their occupants, almost in unison. I keep my eyes on the store, fishing my keys from my pocket, juggling my coffee. The air is thick today, pregnant with moisture, a great blanket of North Carolina humidity, stifling. The sounds of footfalls and jingles of keys are muted behind me by the Southern fall's weight.
"Hey, Church. How you doing?", Karen's voice, still husky from the morning's silence, asks.
"I am fine, I suppose. Need about a trashcan full of coffee today, I think.", I reply, unlocking the door and sliding it open.
"Ha! I already had two cups. 'Bout my limit.", Karen says, brightly.
"Hey, Boss. Want me to wait out by the roll-up? You can let me in from there. I gotta move those crates.", Leon asks, his voice almost belligerent in it's abruptness.
"Yeah, that would be great, Leon. We can knock that shit out quick, you and I. We have a lot to do today.", I respond, meeting his eyes. His expression seems to dare anyone to challenge him today. It is almost a relief to see. I know how to deal with that: let's shut up and finish this, speak only to give direction, do the job. We won't be making small talk.
Safely inside, I turn on the computers and wait for the system to boot. I shuffle through some utterly unnecessary paperwork, the consequence of corporate stooges' demands, completely useless information in a retail store where the job is to deal with people, not numbers. Companies never seem to learn that lesson. Reams of paper needed to say the simplest things: "We suck" or "We rock", in eighty pages.