Even before Robbie came home, he was weirded out. I’d been answering his messages with cryptic notes chock full of Lord of the Rings references. I kept calling him Sam, telling him he’d saved me from the Dark Lord. Then I showed up to the airport wearing a wig.
I found the wig earlier that day. It was an enormous afro composed of curly, black hair. Someone had abandoned it in the stairwell. Later that night, when Dean picked me up, I put it on and headed outside.
“You don’t remember the wig,” the robot interrupted. “I remember the wig.” We were sitting beneath a tree eating giant berries. The robot did not have a mouth, but still held one of the plump fruits in its hand, mimicking human activity.
“You did, and I’m grateful, but I’m not listening to any more of your recordings.” I took a bite of my enormous berry, blue juice squishing out the sides, staining my face.
“Then everything’ll be mixed up,” said Scott. As we raced across the plain, the tree I’d seen in the distance turned out to be Scott. In this world he was huge and planted in the ground, a real tree. He was flourishing in his new environment and had even sprouted fruit.
“Everything is already mixed up. Memory is a fallible lens and perfect recall guarantees nothing. We watch the same wars on television and come to different conclusions. I’ll forget some things and embellish others. It’s OK. I want my story to have a patina. I’d rather draw than connect the dots of someone else’s picture.”
“You think this new philosophy will save you?” Nega Nate picked a berry off of Scott, then quartered it with his magic sword. “You will never be famous.”
“I’d settle for happy,” I leaned against Scott and looked up at the falling mass of reality. We had made it across the plain with hours to spare. Ravenous, we devoured berries and watched the dramatic fall of all that had risen. “I think most people are unhappy because they’re scared of what they’ll become.”
“The future is a prison we build each day,” said the robot.
“At least we have this moment,” Nega Nate said through a mouthful of scotts-berry.
And it was beautiful, sitting there by that tree, watching the sky collapse, filling our bellies with ripe fruit. Wasn’t it just a while ago that we were terrified, wondering if we’d make it? Life often shifts, from pleasure to pain, then back again. I remember being excited to see Robbie. I’d bought him tickets to the the Broncos game. They cost a fortune because it was Peyton Manning’s first outing with a new team. That was OK, it was Robbie’s birthday and in my deluded state I believed he’d saved my life, that I hadn’t committed suicide because of a promise I’d made to pick him up from the airport. It was nonsense, of course. We continue living despite the circumstances, justifying our choices after we have made them.
Dean drove down from the mountains to pick me up and take me to airport. I was too weak and psychotic to drive. I put on my big, black wig, grabbed the Broncos tickets along with a few other gifts, and strapped my MP3 player around my neck.
“How’s it going?” Dean was a nice guy, handsome and conversational, the kind of man you’d want your daughter to marry.
“I’ve been better and I’ve been worse.” I climbed into his car and buckled up.
“Thanks, I wore it because this is such a special occasion.” I was excited to see Robbie, my comrade, my Sam.
“So what’s going on, man? You started throwing up and losing weight or something?”
“Have you read the blog?”
“No, my sister’s been keeping up, she says you’re a genius.”
“I have a present for you.” In addition to Robbie’s presents, I’d brought a C.D. with an audio recording of the first chapter of my story. “I’m going to podcast each chapter for my friends who would rather listen.”
Dean took the C.D. “You made this today?”
“It took me two days.”
“I actually love to read,” said Dean. “So I’ll probably just read it, but I suppose I can listen to this on my way back up the mountain.”
“You’re being recorded,” I said, my voice quivering.
“Yeah, I’m recording everything so I can write about it later.”
“OK,” Dean put the car into drive and we headed towards the airport.
On the way, we talked about lots of things. Dean caught me up on his life and I told him about shitting myself for 10 years. “Is that why you always took those showers?”
“Yeah. If you have chronic diarrhea, you eventually get hemorrhoids, but they go away if you stop using toilet paper.” It was funny watching his face change as he processed the time I’d spent at his house, placing me inside this new paradigm. I was acutely aware of the MP3 recorder around my neck. I knew that what I said and did would become the story. I wanted to make it interesting. I wanted to shape the outcome. “I fucked your sister.” I said it without segway, as bluntly as I could manage. I wanted to see how Dean would react. He didn’t even flinch.
“I wondered where you two went that night.”
It had been a drunken sort of thing. I watched Dean’s sister reheat her leftovers and take a couple of bites. Then she came at me. Her breath tasted like broccoli and Chinese food. Now she was reading my story. She said it was genius.
Robbie’s flight was delayed so Dean parked in the covered lot near the terminal. “This costs money,” I said.
“Yeah, but we won’t have to drive in circles for an hour.” They didn’t let you park near the airport without paying. I would have driven in circles for an hour, wasting money in an attempt to save it.
As we walked inside, my guts began to shift. A pain was growing deep inside. “I’m weaning off the prednisone. It looks like I didn’t take enough today.” My pace slowed. I could feel Sauron moving inside. I grabbed my stomach and limped along. “The pocket knife is coming back.”
Despite impending doom, I couldn’t stop talking. I was so excited to see Robbie, to be hanging out with Dean, that I kept babbling, even as the pain increased. The exertion of driving to the airport had been too much. “I need to eat something.” It was late at night and all the stores in the terminal were closed.
“You sit here, I’ll go look for something. You have any diet restrictions?”
“Probably. Try to find some fruit.”
While Dean was gone, I covered my eyes with the giant afro and tried to stay calm. He came back empty-handed. “Everything is closed. Do we need to drive into town?”
“No. I’ll be fine. I just need to sit here quietly. Talk to me. Tell me a story.”
Dean told me a good one about this snowboarder kid who used to work for him. It turned out the guy was a big time drug dealer who smuggled illicit substances into Colorado from California. He had a source that packed the stuff inside music speakers. He worked at Best Buy and when the shipments came in, he’d open the boxes and take out his cargo. The kid made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Did he get caught?” I peeked out from beneath my afro. The terminal was full of people, even though it was close to midnight on a Wednesday.
“No. I told him he needed to quit while he was ahead and he took my advice.”
“I’m addicted to drugs,” I said. “Never done them in my life. Now I have to dose marijuana just to sleep.”
On a cataclysmic world where death was being defined, a robot had a problem. “You have told the story out of sequence,” it still held an uneaten berry between both hands. Nega Nate and I lay in the grass, our mouths stained, our bellies full. The sky was moving towards the ground at an incredible rate. A vast wind was blowing Scott’s leaves all over the place. “Dean told you the story about the drug dealer on the way into the terminal, as your guts began to hurt, not after you sat down. After you sat down, he told a different story.”
“I know, but I’ve forgotten the actual story and I don’t want to listen to the recording. The thought of hearing my voice, of reliving the events and transcribing them, is too much. I’m running out of steam. I didn’t know if I can make it.”
“Regret is worse than failure,” said Scott. “You have to keep trying.” He was a bonsai and knew a thing or two about perseverance, about growing despite your circumstances.
“What will happen when the sky hits the ground?” I asked.
“Cataclysm,” replied Nega Nate. “Partial cataclysm. It will draw more of the world into itself, then rebound back into the heavens, bigger than before. The process will repeat until everything has been subsumed.”
That didn’t seem so bad. I was tired of life. It would be nice to become something else, something that wasn’t riddled with Chron’s.
Robbie walked into the terminal with his bags and a smile. He looked tan and healthy. I gave him a hug, “Happy birthday!” His hair was perfectly sun kissed. It looked like he had visited a salon and the stylist had gone too far. “You look gay-er than normal,” I joked.
Robbie looked at the bouncing thing on top of my head. “Nice wig.”
“Are you ready for your presents?”
I struck a pompous pose on the other side of a row of chairs and began speaking in a dramatic voice. “You will be tested thrice. Should you pass these trials, you will be proven worthy and receive the Ultimate Gift.” I gave him the first present, “These are the paper glasses worn by my paper doll which is both lucky and shaped like Von Miller. It is a testament to the vision and fortitude he displays each time he takes the field with his fellow Broncos. Will you keep them safe and un-torn?”
Robbie was German and very proper. He glanced around the terminal, hoping no one was looking, “OK.”
I handed him the glasses and took out the second present. He felt distant. His guard was up. He was wary. Relentlessly, I forged on. “This is the ticket stub which bore me through the gates of Mile High Stadium wherein I did witness the triumph of Timothy Tebow over the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. Do you promise to keep it safe and also un-torn and to bring it, along with Von Miller’s lucky paper doll glasses, whenever we meet to drink and watch football?” Halfway through my second speech, Robbie stopped looking at me. My voice was loud. I was causing quite the scene. Even Dean was uncomfortable. “Do you?”
“I do.” Anything to move the ceremony along.
I sensed Robbie’s tension, but I knew it would be a good story some day, something we’d laugh about eventually. “And this is the towel which was given unto the masses on that same day, the day Timothy Tebow sent Ben Roethlisberger and his accursed Steelers home for the season. Will you keep it with the other gifts and bring them together as a token of luck, wherever you may be, whenever the Broncos find reason to play?” In my mind I pictured us hanging out on Sundays. Robbie would bring the glasses, the towel and the ticket stub and we’d watch the game together. They would be our lucky charm. It would be our thing.
Robbie took the gifts, not understanding what they meant or why they were given. Then I handed him the actual present. “Tickets to the home opener. Peyton Manning’s first game!” For the past three seasons Robbie and I had watched every game together, even attending a few in person. We drank and cheered then returned home to play Catan until it was time for bed. Those were magical weekends. In the terminal, my mood swung, I started to cry, prednisone welling up in my eyes, “I got sick while you were gone, man, real sick. I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me, but he was too uncomfortable, too close to running away.
“Thanks,” Robbie took the tickets as politely as he could manage. “Thank you.”
“Well, let’s go home,” Dean broke the awkward silence. We headed towards the car. My stomach churned, just like it had in the dark days. It had been a while since I’d felt such pain. Resolutely, I trudged behind my two friends.
“What’s wrong?” Robbie asked.
“I need to eat and take my pills.”
I laid down in the back seat of Dean’s car, using my wig for a pillow. I placed the MP3 recorder on the armrest between Robbie and Dean. We drove to a gas station and bought a banana. I was in agony. I was terrified, scared the pain would overwhelm me before I got home. At the same time I was elated. My friend had returned.
“You aren’t staying at my place?” We reached my apartment on a hill near the capitol building. Robbie was homeless. He’d been gone for months and was only touching base before he left again to teach English in China.
Robbie seemed embarrassed. “I figured I’d stay at Lorenzo’s.”
“Oh.” Disappointment washed over me. In my fantasy, Robbie stayed at my place, sleeping on the air mattress while I wrote, playing Catan and eating together as time allowed. Lorenzo had a bigger apartment in a cooler neighborhood. It made sense, but I was sad.
“I can stay tonight.” There was hesitation in his voice, or maybe it was the prednisone creating emotions that weren’t there.
“You don’t have to.” But I wanted him to.
“It’s no problem.”
“I did already inflate the air mattress…” We lugged his things inside and set them on the floor. “Sorry for the mess, I’ve been preoccupied with other things.” There was fear in my friend’s eyes, a kind of terror lurking just beneath the surface. “Is everything OK?” I took my marijuana cake out of the fridge and ate an eighth of it. I’d been experimenting with various products and doses and it seemed like cake worked best. The stuff was nasty, a grass-flavored raspberry pastry, but it did the job.
“I’m just tired. Jet lag.”
He was lying. I could tell that he was lying. He wanted to leave, or maybe prednisone was distorting things. I pulled out the orange doctor’s bottle and swallowed a pink pill, hoping it would be enough to quell the pain. “Are you sure you want to stay? I’m pretty paranoid right now, the medicine has me thinking all sorts of things. You seem scared.”
“I’m not. It’s fine.”
But he wasn’t. I could see it in his eyes.
The sky smashed into the ground, burrowing deep inside. Reality warped, becoming elastic like the surface of a trampoline. A massive divot formed, a dimple in the earth, everything stretching towards it. Nega Nate, the robot and I walked up the hill, against the flow of the backwards-pouring world. “What about Scott?”
We’d cut as many scotts-berries from our friend as we could carry and were struggling to keep them in our arms while trudging up an incline that was moving the opposite direction. Scott was a tree and couldn’t run. He was slowly being sucked towards the void. “Don’t worry about me, lads. Just plant the seeds you find in them berries and I’ll be fine.”
We woke up the next morning and spoke politely. Robbie spent the summer at Lorenzo’s and I spent it writing in my apartment. Things continued to crumble. I realized that Robbie was a drinking buddy, not a friend. It was sad, but OK, I needed drinking buddies as well as friends. He was in California on opening day when the Broncos played the Steelers. I ended up going to the game with David.
to be continued