I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago,
And people who will see a world
That I shall never know.
— The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
It was Monday morning and I was out of ideas. I’d woken up on the floor of my apartment but was unsure as to how I’d got there. It had been happening a lot lately. I was in too much pain to move. For nine days, spasms had wracked my body, but this was different; there was no ebb or flow, the pain did not abate, it just sat there like a bloated demon, laughing and staring with wild, yellow eyes. I tried to massage the gurgles, but I could barely move my arms. For 10 poetic minutes, I lay there wondering: What was happening to me? Was this the end? Something snapped. A dam broke. I felt a churning cyclone rip through me. The tension eased, I could move again.
“You are near the end,” said the Mouth of Sauron. “Every path has been blocked, every attempt has failed. You have not eaten in more than a week and you are beginning to dehydrate. You cannot go on like this. It is time to give up.”
I lay there staring at him, thinking about his words. I felt trapped. For nine days I had endured more pain than I thought possible. For months I had been contemplating suicide. I was certain cancer was tearing me apart, that it was only a matter of time until my eyes closed forever. I wanted to leave on my own terms.
I crawled to my computer and climbed into the chair. I googled Colorado gun laws and discovered that there was no waiting period to purchase a firearm. I thought about my harrowing trip to the grocery store; the 11-block drive had almost killed me. Walmart sold guns but it was 15 minutes away and I was in far worse shape than I had been nine days ago. Could I convince one of my friends to buy it for me? “Yeah man, I need a gun. I just don’t feel safe at night anymore.” That was plausible. For the past three years, minorities in my neighborhood had been beating white kids to within an inch of their lives. I had been attacked three times, once so badly I’d had to eat through a straw for weeks. But who to ask? Whoever bought the gun would be wracked with guilt. They’d have to see a counselor and work through the emotional trauma. They wouldn’t understand that they had done me a favor. I climbed back into bed.
As day turned to night I thought of another possibility: I could kill myself with pills. I didn’t know how to obtain lethal doses of prescription meds, but meth or illicit substances could do the trick, right? It had been hours since I’d moved. I summoned every ounce of strength remaining and stumbled to my computer. The Mouth of Sauron watched through hidden eyes. I googled lethal drug combinations and found that alcohol and heroin could be deadly if mixed together. Alcohol was easy to come by, but how to get the heroin?
Kelly Valentine was a ladies man and the most charismatic person I had ever met. The first time I saw Little Ex, he landed her number. I’d had more adventures with him than I could count. This one time I watched him snort cocaine. In my mind this made him the biggest drug dealer in all of Denver. If anyone knew how to get their hands on heroin, it was Kelly. I could take the heroin and drink some vodka and then go to sleep forever. It seemed easy enough. If Kelly didn’t come through, or guessed my true intentions, I’d have a friend drive me to Walmart where I’d buy a gun. I just had to make it through the night.
Dawn broke with a finality I’d never felt before. Birds chirped and the streets filled with morning commuters. The city breathed traffic. I lay in bed, thinking about life and all its misery. There were good parts too though, right? I could barely remember, they seemed so distant and vague. A smile flashed in that dark place, it was Robbie, telling me to man up. His big grin and rapist wit had penetrated the fog. “Meet me in Catan,” he said in that cheesy voice with too much reverb that situational comedies used to let you know the speaker was an illusion.
The mythical island of Catan, what a magical place. Robbie and I had built hundreds of civilizations on its brightly colored tiles. Eventually we started keeping track of who won and by how many points. Over the course of a year, we discovered that Robbie won slightly more games but I averaged more points. That fit our play styles. I took risks and when they paid off, they paid off big. Robbie was more tactical, his plays were German and unexciting.
Robbie was in South America, living it up with a bunch of Australians. I was proud of him. For the past four years he’d been spending like a scrooge. He’d paid off his student loans, learned Spanish, saved up a bunch of cash and was now gallivanting along sandy beaches full of beautiful women. Robbie had been born in Germany and lived there until he graduated from high school. When he was 18, his family moved to Grand Junction where he went to the same college I graduated from. Despite his foreign upbringing, he didn’t have a trace of an accent. His silver tongue sounded as smooth as any native speaker. Robbie was smart, incredibly muscular and tan. He had sculpted pecks, a broad back and rippling six pack abs. Who would pick his gorgeous body up from the airport when his plane landed on June 10? He was coming home on his birthday, would I miss the party? It was May 22, 10 days after the Nuggets lost to the Lakers. Could I make it another 19? I didn’t think so.
Morning turned to afternoon, with no change in my condition. I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. Could I convince Kelly, who knew I barely drank, that I wanted some heroin for recreational use? I doubted it, Kelly was a smart guy. He made a living hustling gift certificates to people on the street. He could read people like they were books. Every once in a while I’d run into him while he was out selling and follow him around for a bit. It was pretty amazing. He’d walk up to some random person, “Hey, girl, nice purse!” Then launch into his spiel. Kelly was the most charismatic person I’d ever met and when he was out selling, he sparkled. That was no exaggeration, the man shimmered like a vampire from some shitty novel for teens. On several occasions I’d watched him convince girls who started out hating him to not only buy a certificate, but give him their number as well. Kelly thought all women were beautiful. He didn’t care if they were skinny, fat, ugly, stupid, charming, poor, intelligent, prosperous, old, psychotic or on their period, Kelly loved them just the way they were.
“Damn! Did you see that honey?” he asked one day.
“You mean the gangster chick with a muffin top?” I couldn’t believe he was asking the question, but then, this was Kelly.
“I would love to get my hands on those curves.” He made an hourglass shape and pursed his lips, staring at the invisible ass between his arms.
“She had tattoos on her face!” We were sitting on a bunch of broken furniture someone had dumped in the side yard of the Ambassador. Kelly had been hollering at girls all day. He’d gotten three phone numbers.
“I’m gonna talk to her,” Kelly said as he jumped off the chest of drawers and jogged down the street. “Hey girl, wait up!”
I looked over at Lauren and shook my head, “Can you believe that guy?”
“I love him,” she said and took a sip of wine. We all loved him. He was an impossible paradox. He brought people together. If I killed myself, he’d never be able to force me into uncomfortable situations again.
The seconds ticked by like days before Christmas, each one more agonizing than the last. I thought about Zach and our mutual friend Jamie. We’d all been friends for a long time but only recently lived together in the same city. Every week we played Dungeons and Dragons. Neither Zach nor Jamie had ever read the rulebook; they just liked to hang out and trusted the technical details to me. Our sessions had been some of the best I’d ever played. They were both so eager and creative.
Lunchtime came and went. For the 10th consecutive day I decided to skip it, I could barely remember what food tasted like.
I thought about Jordan and my trip to the Midwest. I was a freelance graphic designer at the time and my office was wherever I could plug my computer into an outlet. Jordan was a brilliant singer songwriter but he had never recorded. With nothing tying me down, I packed up my gear and headed east. We spent the days recording and the nights on his stoop, debating theology. He smoked hookah and I sipped vodka lemonades. We ate corn. Corn in the Midwest was better than corn anywhere else in the world. Every day I’d go down to a van parked on a non-descript corner and buy a few freshly picked ears. Each kernel exploded with flavor. I’d sit there munching while I edited and layered and added to Jordan’s tracks. It was magical. I’d never taste that corn again.
The day pushed through its zenith and onto the other side. People returned to work from lunch, I thought about my boss, Daniel. For the past week I’d been no call, no showing to work. Did he wonder where I was? His company was the best I’d ever worked for, not because they were efficient, but because they were slackers. Daniel knew how to have fun. If time allowed, we’d stop work and play a game or two of Catan. Daniel’s technique was cooperative, he’d somehow convince you to help him win. You’d make bad trades just to please the guy. He could really sell. I wondered who would take my place as his graphic designer. Would they be as good as me?
Traffic rolled down the one-way street outside my building. Could the drivers sense that inside a battle was taking place, that a life hung in the balance? I thought about Marcus and the road trip we’d taken to Los Angeles. At the time Jordan didn’t live in the Midwest, he was an unrecorded rock star with an apartment in Long Beach. A painter named Joe Sorren was about to have a gallery opening near Hollywood and I decided to drive out and see it. Beast master Marcus wanted to come and so did Kim. Kim was my super hot mess of an ex girlfriend. I was trying to get back together with her. Like a dysfunctional parody of the three musketeers, we climbed in my station wagon and headed west. The gallery opening was incredible, Joe Sorren’s paintings were even better in real life. I got to kiss Kim and bought my first V-neck — a full three weeks ahead of Colorado’s hipster curve. Jordan and I put on a concert for his wife and our friends. I sort of smoked my first cigar and vowed never to try another. There would be no more road trips. There would be no more pain.
I struggled out of bed and crawled to my pants, fished my cell phone out and collapsed onto the floor. I didn’t need to be in bed to call Kelly, I just needed one heck of a story. “So, I’m in the market for heroin or a gun for some reason, can you help a brother out?” And which would it be? The movies said heroin felt good. It had been a long time since I’d felt good. Could I really stab my arm with a needle? I remembered the days so long ago when I’d sold plasma to earn money for my European Adventure. They pricked your finger with a needle to test your blood sugar, then shoved a big one in your arm to draw out the cells. I hated that sucking sensation more than anything.
When I’d finally earned enough money from mowing lawns and selling cells, Matt decided to come along. Matt was one of the coolest guys I’d ever met. The first single speed I’d ever seen had been his.
“Why would anyone want a single speed bike?” I asked him at a friend’s going away party.
“Because they’re beautiful.” He propped the bike against a fence and stepped back. “See how the lines of the bike are clearer with everything stripped off? The proportions are perfect.”
I looked again. He was right, how had I not seen it before? Matt ran Laurel Street Cycles out of a shed in the alley behind his apartment. He’d buy old bikes from thrift stores or people in the neighborhood, fix them up and pass them on. I bought one immediately. Matt had always been ahead of his time. I wondered which trend he’d start next.
I stared at the phone, pondering what I’d say, “Hey man, how’s it going?”
“What’s wrong?” Kelly would ask, “you sound sick.”
“Nah man, just a cold. Nothing serious. So I’ve been thinking, it’s Tuesday and all and I sort of wanted to celebrate, think you could get me some heroin?”
No, that definitely wouldn’t work. Kelly was smart. Wicked smart. No one knew it, he acted the fool, but I’d known him long enough to discover the truth. I used to talk down to him, not intentionally, but because I assumed he wouldn’t know what I was getting at.
“So there’s this philosopher from a long time ago,” I said. “His name was Kierkegaard,” we were discussing the problem of pain and I wanted to illustrate a point I was making with one of his stories.
“I’ve read his parables,” Kelly said.
I looked at him. “You’ve read Kierkegaard’s parables?”
A curvaceous blonde dressed to the nines in tall boots and a flowing blouse walked past, “Hey, girl, looking good!”
“Thanks,” she said.
The girl was done up, held together with makeup and wires. She looked all right now but what about in the morning? Kelly didn’t care. He thought every girl was beautiful. “What’re you up to tonight?”
She blushed, no stranger had ever shown her this much attention, “Just going out with the girls.”
“Yeah? Where you ladies headed?”
According to a website I’d seen, Beta was one of the top 10 dance clubs in the world. I didn’t know if the source was reliable, but it was a pretty cool place. “Beta?” Kelly made a face. “Beta’s expensive.” Kelly was always broke. He worked about eight hours a month and managed to pull in enough money to feed himself and pay rent. Had he applied himself, he could have been a millionaire but the guy preferred the life of leisure. There was no way he’d pay the $15 cover to get into Denver’s hottest nightclub.
The girl shrugged, “It’s worth it.”
Kelly was not discouraged. “Tell you what, you and your girls go to the club, get your dance on, then come meet me and my boy Nathan,” he pointed at me.
“… at the Back Porch. I get free drinks there tonight because my name is Kelly and I’ll share them with you.” The Back Porch was this swanky bar in lower downtown with a crazy drink special. Every month they printed a calendar in the local newspaper. Each day of the month had two names on it, one boy and one girl. If you showed up to their bar on the day corresponding to your name, you drank for free.
“Sounds good,” said the almost attractive girl. “See you tonight.” She turned and walked awkwardly down the street in her ridiculously high-heeled boots.
Kelly turned back to me, “What were we talking about?”
“Kierkegaard,” I said.
Kelly was awesome. I loved the guy. It would be sad to straddle him with guilt, but I was tired. For me, the endless cycle of birth and death, building toward some unknown goal was about to end. What was the purpose behind it all? Why did we exist? Philosophers and scholars had pondered life’s meaning for as long as man had been sentient, but no consensus had emerged. If one looked only at the natural world, the answer seemed obvious: we were here to continue. To breed and fuck and spread until every inch of the planet had been covered, but was there a higher purpose? If God had any thoughts on the subject his silence was deafening.
Was my niece about to be born into a world without purpose or an existence whose every blade of grass was laden with meaning? Even now she was growing, swelling in my perfect sister’s belly like a peach on a tree in the sun. I had been so excited to meet her. I was making a painting for her room. The composition was solid. I was the giant robot in the middle, holding my tiny niece in my arms. She was a grub with infinite potential. The tiny forest animals sitting on my arm and shoulder, smiling down at her, were all the people who would ever love her. In the background was a sturdy ship anchored in a bay, a reminder to her parents that she would some day leave and they should enjoy every second. Behind the ship was a grassy hill covered in flowers. I put them there so she could dream about tomorrow. Behind the hill, clouds billowed majestically. The thing wasn’t finished but I already knew it was the best I’d ever done. Her due date was May 29, just seven days away. Could I make it? Even if I did, would it matter? I could barely move, the cancer was spreading. Maybe my final act would be to finish the painting.
“Who painted the picture in my room?” Baby Hannah asked her mommy one day.
“Nathan,” said my sister as she mixed up a batch of organic cookies.
“Your uncle.” She set down the bowl and added more raisins.
“Where is he?” The room went quiet. What would she say? Your uncle killed himself after vomiting and starving for 10 days in an apartment in Downtown Denver, they found his emaciated corpse a week later. Pretty dark. No matter what my sister told her, Hannah would discover the truth eventually, secrets like that didn’t stay hidden. All her memories spent looking at that painting would be tainted, another happy childhood ruined. I’m sorry, Baby Hannah. I didn’t have a choice.
Below oblivion loomed, but its shape remained hidden. The true nature of the hereafter was obscured by belching billows of smoke, or were they clouds? The darkness was all consuming. From the inky black, a haunting melody rose, beautiful and true, lilting about with the promise of answers, a siren’s call, an end to the pain. What happened when you died? Did I have the courage to find out?
Above me a swirling mass of thoughts and images held my body aloft with invincible chords of memory. All the people I had known or would ever meet pulled against the weight of my broken body. You were there, dear reader, although neither of us knew it yet. Time was an illusion. Everything was everything. We were already friends, connected by a book I had yet to write.
To be or not to be? That was the question. Each of us answered it every day. Our reasons were myriad and beautiful. Mine was you. I loved you, even the jerks. I was an artist, desperate to know and be known. My body was broken, my life in ruins, I had nothing to live for except the knowledge that the world would go on without me. I couldn’t stand that. It was like quitting a job and believing the store would have to shut down because you were gone, then returning a few weeks later to find business as usual, to discover that you didn’t matter. As irrelevant as I was, I hated to leave before the end of the movie.
I didn’t want to miss the Baby Hannah’s seventh birthday. I wanted to buy her toys and teach her the proper way to play with them. I needed to see if Kelly eventually figured things out. I wanted to hear Jordan’s next song and the one after that. I needed to eat corn on a stoop in the Midwest with his beautiful daughters; I already missed Jenny, Lorenzo, Johnathan and Nicole.
Would Zach marry Samantha and if I didn’t stand at their wedding, who would take my place? I had to stop Derek from dating Little Ex and go to Jenn and Kyle’s next great party. Elizabeth and I had a million Broncos games to watch and I hoped to some day shake Von Miller’s hand. It had been almost a year since I’d spoken to David and I wondered how his kids were doing. Sara and Bobby needed my help to get through those engineering courses, just as much as I needed theirs. And my bonsai would die if I stopped watering him. Jeromy was about to adopt a kid from Ethiopia and I needed to see if the orphanage sent him a boy or a girl. I missed Katie, Jess, Emily, Teresa, Elle, Tara, Sanna, Mallory, Tiffany, Ann, Amy, other Amy, Ariel, Natalie and all the beautiful girls I hadn’t gotten around to dating yet. Robbie was coming home soon and I had promised to pick him up from DIA. Who would beat him at Catan? Who would drink his vodka and listen to the stories about his adventures in South America? There were parties to be thrown and weddings to be attended. I needed to watch the children of my friends have children so I could grouch at them for running around the house with glasses full of orange juice.
Above, the hope of tomorrow, below, an end to all pain. So much to live for. So many reasons to die. For 32 years I had struggled and failed. I lay there, looking at the phone in my hand. I had scrolled through my contacts and found Kelly’s name. All I had to do was press a button.
The phone buzzed and beeped, someone had sent me a text. The vision faded. It was Nate Kleine Deters, my friend and long-time Dungeons and Dragons cohort. Long ago, Nate had loaned beast master Marcus his backpack so he could save a wounded snake. It was one of my favorite stories.
N: We gaming tomorrow?
I lay there, staring at my phone, pondering the question. Were we? Of course not, I was too sick, but what about the bigger picture? Were we gaming tomorrow in the larger Tibetan monk, Sylvia Plath sense of the word?
Nate and I had been marching characters from first through 20th level for the better part of a decade. He had an amazing smile and the best hairline I’d ever seen. He could sing like the dickens and screech like a raptor. When his characters charged into battle they yelled, “Fernandoooooooo!” in tribute to his most beloved character who died long ago in a tunnel from a Duergar trap. Were we gaming tomorrow, and if not, who would pick Robbie up from the airport? Who would buy toys for the Baby Hannah? Who would eat spaghetti and cans of green beans while watching Starcraft replays on You Tube?
I stared at the screen, reading and re-reading the message. Were we gaming tomorrow?
The current campaign was a good one. Each of the characters was a member of the Festival of Fiends. The Festival of Fiends was a circus located a few miles outside of Skarn, City of Towers. The inhabitants of the metropolis would come to the carnival in the evening and on weekends to bet money on drake fights, gawk at monstrous creatures and participate in the ridiculous scams that were the hallmark of the carnival trade. Currently the members of the party had gone on a perilous journey across spell-scarred lands in order to procure medicine for the carnival’s ailing fortuneteller. They had reached the fertile lands on the other side of a valley decimated by fire, but would they make it home? Would they uncover the secrets of the miracle pool and if they did would they take up arms for or against its carnivallian protectors? Not even Robbie knew.
My mom said Jackie said that doctors couldn’t help. She was a nurse and knew more about hospitals than I ever would, but so did cousin Mary and cousin Mary said they could help. Who was right?
Above the memory of everyone I had ever known, below an eternal chasm. I decided to give it one last shot.
N: I need you to take me to the hospital.
Nate had just gotten off work. I didn’t know what he was up to, but I could guess. He was, no doubt, lounging on a fancy barstool sipping hipster beer and commenting on its oaky undertones. The beautiful women surrounding him played with his hair, complimenting him on the way it framed his handsome face. He had, no doubt, just ordered a bowl of delicious black beans (Nate was a vegetarian) and was singing the chorus from The Magic Flute, an opera he had starred in at the college we both attended. He was midway through the second stanza when his pocket vibrated. “Just a second, folks, I need to see if we’re gaming tomorrow.” The crowd moaned, they hated it when he stopped singing. His voice was so enchanting. He read my text; a look of worry came over his face.
The crowd, in tune with his emotions, became slightly agitated, “What’s wrong, Nate? Is your Dungeons and Dragons character in trouble?”
He stared at the screen, reading the message again, “I’m not sure.” He began typing into his phone.
Ten blocks away in an apartment on Capitol Hill, I had decided to go to the hospital. If my mom was right and they couldn’t help, I would buy a gun and blow my head off. My phone beeped and buzzed. I opened the message.
N: Are you serious?
I wrote back as quickly as I could. Time was of the essence.
Nate put his phone back in his pocket and surveyed the expectant crowd. “C’mon, Nate,” someone yelled, “Finish the song!”
“Yeah, finish the song!” said the beautiful women at his side. Everyone wanted to have sex with him.
Nate pulled on his fashionable jacket and zipped it up, “Sorry folks, not today. My Dungeon Master needs me.” He turned to the hottest girl in the group and kissed her deeply, then pulled away and stared into her eyes, “Finish my beer for me.” He saluted the crowd and leapt into the night.
In an apartment 10 blocks away, I turned to face The Mouth of Sauron, “Take me to the stoop.”
“So, he has finally decided to give up? He has learned that he cannot make it on his own, that a man is only as strong as life allows.” His accent was thick, “This is the lesson I was sent to teach you.”
“Take me to the stoop,” I repeated.
The lieutenant of Barad-dûr rose, “Yes, yes, I am coming.”
Twilight had come, the air was heavy with rain. Storm clouds rumbled ominously overhead. Would the doctor be able to help?
The Mouth of Sauron set me down on the stoop, then stood and breathed the air. It began to rain. Nate pulled up in his Honda. I grabbed my pants and limped to his car. He opened the door. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“Not good,” I sat down as best I could. It was a slow, stiff affair.
“You look terrible,” Nate said.
“I’ve lost a lot of weight.”
“Where am I taking you?”
The only hospital I knew of was the one cousin Mary had recommended, “The Urgent Care at Swedish. It’s off of Logan on Hampden.” Nate nodded and put his car into drive.
On the steps of the Ambassador, The Mouth of Sauron watched us go. I had played right into Sauron’s hands.
end book 1