The Fourth Friend
Next to me was a more or less stranger swirling a glass of gin, whining in an English accent, saying there were no more good quiet places to be alone.
“Right there, baby,” another man pointed across the street toward a funeral home adorned with neon. He was older and his hair was coiffed like a rockabilly.
“Most crowded place there is,” the Brit said. “That’s where they all are.”
“Yeah but it’s real quiet,” the rockabilly said.
“The loneliest place on earth…” I chimed in. “Have you tried the toilet?”
In my recollection, I pretend there was something in the air. Officially, the Brit was the only one I knew in Seattle and our friendship took us as far back as a few beers. I was always making acquaintances and him and I were similarly thrill-based and superficial. We were trading rounds at the Lucky Tortoise and our traits, although intrinsically different, were compatible. He was blusterous, difficult, stubborn, and over-talkative in a western shirt—in my own way I was the same. Alongside were the sad regulars staring deep into their drinks, a few guys loaded on speed pin-balling booth to booth, a young couple wordless as they danced—the jukebox flashing like a diamond. I grasped the bottle, as if hanging on to something.
“I’ve lived everywhere,” the rockabilly said, blinking his handsome eyes a lot. We were right there on the verge. “I used to work for a band but they didn’t have any money so we lived in the van.” The man spoke like a slurring preacher. He was dignified and carried no sadness, speaking like someone who’d made his choice. “Man, the South! The cashiers, the cops, the bus drivers! Everyone’s just so polite—they’ll just get on talking and talking with you, don’t matter if everyone’s all pent up behind you at the checkout, the cashier man just goes and goes, and the people just wait!” The bartender came over and filled us up. I noticed the way she called him sweetie. “We get mugged in Joe-Juh and the guy is calling me sir. Sir give me your wallet. Sir give me your watch. Sir—and pulls out the sharpest knife I have ever seen—sir you better show me what’s in your sock, sir.”
At midnight we shoved out of the bar. Glistening strings of rain hung under the street lamps. Brake lights tinked, blooming out of themselves. We—that is the rockabilly, the Brit, and myself—stepped into a little beater car. The Brit rode shotgun and carried on with the driver. In the backseat the rockabilly received my words with “man alive” or “fair play, fair play.” The rain let up for a minute, two minutes, and it encouraged the driver to roll down the windows—the outer frozen air screaming by our eyes. The car carried with it the notion of an amusement park ride on a set track. The driver kept one hand on the wheel, seemingly uncaring as to where he drove, and informed us of a few underground bars that didn’t announce their location until one hour prior to opening. He said, “Depending what you’re looking for, I can tell you where to get your dick sucked.”
“What do you think?” The Brit cradled a nest of tin foil in his lap.
“I will do that,” I said, indicating the Brit’s hash, “but I’m not going to the edge of town for a backwoods gangbang.”
“Hey hey hey,” the driver said. “C’mon—you want a nice girl?”
We zoomed through the weather, hitting speed bumps like ramps. The Brit balanced the foil in his lap. “Speedracer,” he said, “if I spill one speck of this then that speck was your speck.” Traffic shot the car full of light like a flashbulb. We were laughing, sharing with each other secrets and lies. But our conversations failed too, and soon the silence belonged to a wheel grinding against a stone, a spark leaping out into the world, each one of us breathing like it was our last breath on earth. For a little while—that is, before the car commenced unraveling—we just sat silent, whispering to one another in our thoughts. Soon the windows were glistening on their edges, held by nothing at all, and it framed a slideshow I could blink through. We’d made it to a quiet neighborhood of modest apartments. The blue night hummed down onto the sidewalk, silent buildings shining in the drizzle. I saw a fully formed life beneath a neon slicker pulling up the stair railing, steady as if to not spill any of himself. Glowing windows shone as if broadcast from other worlds, vague distant shapes trapped in their gauzy light, the curtains trembling.
We stopped at a train crossing where beside us a twenty-four hour diner exploded like the sun. There was no way of imagining its windows holding dark skies and gloom. Inside, a sullen woman next to a flaring jukebox poured Old Crow into her coke. Behind her I witnessed the midnight special get erased and re-drawn. “What do you think?” she said, and it was the first thing I’d ever heard in my life. She was stuffed into a long green dress, not a sexy one, in fact she was much older. Her hair was massive and sad and framed a face purring toward another man, “What do you think of me?” The blinking arms lifted and our car blasted forward, penetrating the cold rush of the freeway. Each sign lit up and flew away. I could blink and there’d be a whole mess of a new conversation happening. Or maybe I’d been taking naps. It was a certain type of car we were in. No difference between blinking and taking naps.
An earthquake was taking place. “We got a flat or something?” I said, waking up.
“Sounds like a B sharp to me,” someone said.
“This thing riding on an axle man?” another person said.
The driver said, “Axl Rose. That’s what I’m riding on.”
“Turn it up,” I said.
“Okay,” the driver said, pantomiming upon a black void of spewed wires where a radio, it appeared, had been torn out.
The car banged up and down and I believed that—despite the continuation of the rockabilly’s slumber—we’d driven over a pipe bomb. The engine shuddered and subsided and a house materialized, two stories high but sunk in by decades of rain.
“Kill the lights,” the Brit said. The whole scene got thrown away and softly reemerged in moonlight. I rolled down the window. The house was hemmed in by small trees and the earth was cobbled with smooth football-sized rocks mute and white in the space-glow. In the middle of everything was a tremendous fallen column of timber we’d somehow come to the other side of. The house stood lonely, still, purple.
“He better have it,” the driver was saying to nobody in particular, as if in a chant to himself. “We’ve got the numbers so now let’s get the money.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
“Two minutes,” the Brit assured me, and then to the driver: “Did you really bring a gun?”
“What the hell?” I said.
“Just an errand,” said the Brit. He lit, drew, and tossed away a cigarette in one motion. “What are we waiting for?” he said to the driver, to himself, to no one.
I said, “I can hear water but I can’t see it. ”
“We took the river route,” the driver said. He was looking down at his feet, and raised his eyes to mine, his stare a knife.
“This all used to be just one big river.”
The two of them vanished and reappeared far off, the driver following the Brit up the stairs into the dark house.
I sat there remembering times I was completely stoned on nothing but a grand old feeling. Drifting down the wide neon street of love, a girl and I too sweet for our own good; awaking upon cool sheets inside the bright, shimmering morning—as shadows expand and contract effortlessly beneath the shape of things, honey now we are the same, just older?—one afternoon awaking from a blink feeling jailed by the air; arriving before the spray painted speaker barking orders too loudly toward the windows of greasy wealth, the feeling of everything a spear riding on the wind, but for how long, you inquire of the blood forming a growing island around you, have you pierced my heart?
“Okay just try and tell me something,” the rockabilly said right out of nowhere. “Just to see if I’m capable of responding.” His eyes were closed.
“What’s your favorite color?” I said, having completely forgotten he was in the car.
“You’re gonna act like that, forget it.”
“Clear’s a color.”
“On what planet? You ever seen a clear color crayon?”
“I seen clear skies, clear water, clear eyes. That oughta make it a color.”
“You think we’re taking the fuck-all express?” I said.
“They’re in there now but they’ll be coming out.”
“And then what?”
“And then they come out.”
“Anything funny about what they’re doing inside?” I said.
“What do you think they’re doing?” The rockabilly’s eyes were wide open, over-blinking again. Pushed up on one side, the side he was sleeping on, his hair was spiked like a pineapple. “You think they’re making friends?”
“I hardly know them at all,” I said, realizing this included, too, the man I was speaking to.
“Tonight’s pay-day and all I’m gonna get myself is a little woman and a little bag of the good, dreamy stuff. You ever just wanna take up in a motel till your sins catch up to you? You know I pretty much been addicted to everything?”
“Like everything pills and powder, or everything cars, tires, and rubber ducks too?”
“Are you joking?”
“Enough for me and my twin.”
“Ever been in love?”
“In love with speed.”
“Look at me man. Really.”
“Ever get addicted to people?”
“First no, and then yes.”
“People ever get addicted to you?”
“People addicted to getting their money back,” the rockabilly said, “they get addicted to me real fast.”
“Are you still with that same band?” I said.
“They’re all the same band, I just happen to play guitar in a brand new one.” He opened his door. “Guess what? I gotta take a piss.” He walked off into the forest.
I was too laced up to determine if he threatened me. There wasn’t anything interesting about him. I judged people based on how I felt about myself anyway, and in this fantasy he either pissed into a grizzly’s eye or gored himself on a downslope. I got out of the car. The air was cold and simple. You only needed a jacket. I wanted to be like that—direct. Given the chance occurrence of stardust making any of this evening possible, my life became suddenly like a cheap puzzle before me, equally solvable and forgettable. Couldn’t I just sit quiet with a coke, listening to music, smiling toward strangers? Couldn’t I go home, turning it over to the sunny tomorrow? I gripped past the screen door of the house, easing it shut. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I knew I should be quiet. What a concept to have upon entering a dark house. This is your whole life leaving you, occurring to you as easy as a pop song. Your brain releases just a little taste of all that great universal knowledge out there. You are in the very moments of your death, figuring something out. Why are you in this house? every ghost asks. May I ask why you even thought of coming in here?
The front room fell out of the doorway and was darkened save for a single lamp. The walls seemed to be quivering but it was only the flicker of the lamp’s bulb. I clicked it off. The air was mute, tasting of dust. A red circle rug was thrown down before my feet, criss-crossed by shadows. Voices murmured from around back. I immediately recognized the Brit’s accent peppering the air. Above the lamp was the yellowing picture of a young man in military fatigues, crew cut, smiling like a child. Beside the stairs a hallway, a rectangle of light laid out of a doorway at the very end of it, and I walked toward it, entering what seemed to be a stripped-down kitchen. Linoleum, metal chairs, and a formica table where a man rested his heavy forearms like slabs of meat. No appliances save for a single coffee pot plugged into the wall. The Brit and the driver, standing, looked up and smiled.
“Marv,” the driver said. “Meet our fourth friend.”
I waited, feeling like a bug about to go squash on the window. At the last possible moment I said, “Huh?”
The Brit said, “We just decided to drop in on our good mate, Marv.”
The man sat pleasantly in a wife beater and robe, twiddling his thumbs. I’d never seen someone literally do that. He had a calmness about him that made me infinitely weak. Whatever was happening, I knew he’d beaten us all. There was an upper hand. He had it.
“I’m just looking for the bathroom,” I said, not entirely untrue as I felt the sudden urge to vomit.
“Well the bathroom isn’t looking for you.” He stood behind me. It was the rockabilly, blinking. “You couldn’t just wait in the car, huh?”
“For the record, one, I’m not into any of this. And two”—realizing it as I said it—“your fly is down.” I indicated his pants, flecked with piss stains.
They all laughed. I felt my liver squirm.
“No this is good. We needed an outside opinion,” the rockabilly said, staring savagely and zipping up. “Now that you’re implicated, what do you think is happening?”
“A Hebrew National,” I said, “securely wrapped in bacon.”
The man—Marv—in the bathrobe said, “That depends, really, on your orthodoxy—all of it does.”
He was older, grandfather age maybe, and sturdily built with a large square head like a Lego piece. What hair he had left was slicked back and iron gray. “But tonight we are not disagreeing, nor are we agreeing—my sweet employees we are here to negotiate.”
“Colleagues,” the Brit corrected. “So…anyway.” Pausing, he managed “Um” and nothing else because the driver had removed from his pants a black snub-nose, placing it square on the table for the whole congregation to see.
“Tell your employees what to do,” the driver said. “Tell it to all of us.”
Marv appeared thoughtful. “A good boss gets his money and trickles down a just, fair wage to his workers. Gentlemen…” —he kissed a cigarette to his lips, flicking the match and igniting a fire beneath his eyes—“I’m not here to split the money, I’m here to distribute it.”
“It’s our damn money, too,” the driver blurted, picking up the gun and holding it at his side like a petulant child.
“I and several direct deposits—us, we—fail to agree,” Marv said.
“You motherfucker!” The Brit said. “You signed up for direct deposit?”
Marv stretched both arms out behind his head as if relaxing on an island somewhere. “It’s all up there in la-la cloud land,” his eyes indicating the smoke that let off the cigarette and made big moving shapes in the air. A large distorted salamander tattoo crawled along his forearm, labeled 4th INFANTRY BBQ DIVISION and next to it was a grotesque skull, the caption in gorgeous cursive: SINCERELY YOURS. “So you boys ready to rob the cloud? Got your virtual ski masks ready? Or”—indicating me with the wide point of his index—“should your friend just take all you back to school?”
“Hey,” I said, and stopped because he was looking right at me.
“Because if these idiots wanna involve the courts,” Marv addressed me, “if they really wanna get the law in on this—” Marv kicked his legs back and the chair flew out from under him and clanged off the kitchen counter. Quickly he’d been shot full of hate, barking like a dog, and he towered above the three men, his shoulders broad as bullhorns. I was the only one sitting, my shoes positively gripping the floor.
“Exhibit A: a check with my name on it. Exhibit B: my name above an address that corresponds with this residence.” Marv threw out his arms like a hawk. “Questions?” He pulled from his robe pocket a billfold and slapped his palm flat on the table. “This is what you’re pressing up against.” Beneath his hand was the miniaturization of his face cooked into the plastic surface of an ID card, stating too his name and the address of the house:
Marvin Alvin Roberts Jr.
17 Washbury Ln
Seattle, WA 98127
“I killed the man. I inherited the home. Out of our separate universes is a common name—a common illness—that in the performance of a blood ritual allows one dead man to subsume the other. The DMV don’t have no issue with it, the VA says it’s all right—guy doesn’t have no family, no kin. So why should you be the one going around kicking up dirt?”
“But you used my car!” the driver said. “We are all part of the, uh, thing…” And then more quietly, as if it could mean something: “Were you even really in the war, man?”
“Name a war,” he said, putting his cigarette out on the table. “We the unwilling led by the unqualified to kill the unfortunate die for the ungrateful. The only thing that matters is I drove your car, I kicked in his door, I dragged that turkey around back and cleaned his ass out in the river. Cops come, I’m the one who’s beyond standard-issue fucked. Let me tell you something about war, kiddies. Look me right here in the eye. There is no such thing as equal sized slices in any pie.”
All of a sudden everyone was just standing around.
Marv, as if he’d restarted in the middle of thought, said, “I used to catch myself in places unable to tell if I’d just arrived or was fixing to leave.”
“You know how out there you are?” the Brit said. “We all know where he’s buried.”
“The Marvin Alvin Roberts Jr account is all our goddamn income,” the driver said. “It’s a joint account.”
“Huh,” Marv said, and matter-of-factly as Oh who won the game tonight?—Marv concluded, “I do believe I’ve done all the things to get me straight to hell.”
The Brit said to the driver, “Does this guy get how far off he is?” He turned to Marv. “I will do everything in my power to ruin you.”
“The animal’s already dead,” Marv shrugged. “But if you wanna step into the jungle.” He got very close to the Brit’s face and there was a huge distance between him and the world. “Hey what do you know?—there’s a gun.”
“Wait, so what do we get?” the rockabilly said, like there was a great roaring fireball approaching town. “What the hell do we get?”
“Welp,” Marv said, as if about to undertake an irritating chore. His robe flared like a cape as he snatched the matte snub nose from driver, shoving it into the Brit’s head. Marv—I hadn’t known till now—sported boots beneath his robe and he kicked the driver with the point of one, with his free hand placing the entirety of his palm and fingers upon the face of the rockabilly as if in baptismal ritual, and threw him out of the kitchen like a toy. All down the hallway the driver was silent, making tiny groaning sounds. I supposed Marv had him in some sort of one-armed headlock, dragging him along. “Hey hey hey hey,” the Brit was saying, stumbling along to the push of the gun’s mouth, “okay, christ, all right fine.” I’d forgotten I was still sitting there in the kitchen, and it appeared Marv and I shared the same thought. He turned looking at me, into all my weaknesses. “Let’s go,” he said.
The screen door banged open. The rockabilly was already leaning against the car touching his head. Marv stood upon the porch of the murdered veteran and flicked his arm. The gun went sailing through the trees, making no sound. “Company meeting,” he announced. “I would like to take this moment to inform my wayward employees of their reward.” No longer anything but a flaring trail of white heat, lizard tongue madness, rain sizzling on his eyes and machine gun spit kicking the words off his lips, he said, “What do you get?”—inquiring, too, of the air, trees, the spinning starry void—“What do you get? You get the absolute fuck off my property.”
In the car we sailed quietly along the bends of the freeway like scolded children do. He’d given the Brit an envelope containing four hundred dollars last week. But that was last week. And payday was every two weeks according to the book of Marv.
“Well,” the driver said. “Effin’ Marv.”
“I wouldn’t mind shooting him,” the Brit said. “I think I could shoot a guy.”
The rockabilly yawned, drifting. “Was that Sally’s gun?”
“Implicated,” I said, enjoying the word.
Our cigarettes crowded the air, burning our voices. I knew if I was somehow caught—although I couldn’t imagine how—in one hour I’d cut a deal and turn every last one of them in. Then I remembered any of us would, and probably each of them would kill me before I could.
Soon the rockabilly was slumped over, snoring into the window. He winced his shut eyes, clenching at dreams. I suppose everything I could tell you about Seattle I could recycle into describing this man, or any of them. The interior of the car was an ecosystem of new and old fumes. The two dark shapes of the Brit and the driver and the huddled leather and jean mass of the rockabilly were the epitome of the place, the embodiment of one big arm sharing blood—long blind fingers of rain reading your skin, blue wind easing under your jacket, and suddenly the hooded face opens its many eyes, peering down, and someone says from a small distance: Hey—don’t I know yew?