What he was offended by was never clear. At the time, I remember we were mildly aggravated by each other. I had said some stuff I regretted. So had Rob. As friendship goes. We had history. Friends since high school. We surfed. We played music. Went on double dates. But when college rolled around we went to different schools. After graduating, we met up again and shared a place outside San Francisco. We were changing. Becoming different people. One day, though, I couldn’t get in touch with him. Rob Dallas had moved away. Changed his number. Surely not entirely because of me. We had had an argument the last time we saw each other. But it wasn’t anything I thought we wouldn’t survive.
For decades, we’ve been out of touch. And then a thought came to me. What if I died tomorrow and never got to know what became of him. Surely I could muster up enough deprecation and apologize my way back into his graces. It’s not like I don’t know what a shit I had been. Besides, the thought of Rob seeking me out and discovering that I had died would be incredibly sad for him.
Strange thing is that I couldn’t find him online. If Rob had a presence, it was private. As I scrolled through the faces with his name on various platforms, the uniqueness of identity looked like a silly joke. Lost in our lives, we go on as if we are the only ones with that name among the countless doubles. Of course, it’s just a name. As random as a number. It gave me the impression of a needle in the haystack and I wondered if I should continue bothering with this fixation.
His sister’s name popped up. I looked closer at the photo because the little sister I knew from high school was barely recognizable. We spoke briefly over the phone and arranged a meet up at a coffee shop. What a relief to find out that she lived in the same city. I parked there early that day and went for a walk to kill some nervous energy.
The streets of Los Angeles are mostly the same. Flat. One story. Even the apartment buildings appear to be shortened by the big sky. Maybe it’s all the palm trees and the telephone poles towering overhead. At least the telephone lines swoop into the distance like a mellow frequency. Most of the yards are flat grass and forgotten by whoever lives here. You never see anyone hanging out in their front yard. It’s like they’re hiding in their flat bungalows to be forgotten or to forget whatever is going on out here. It’s a private place where neighbors look askance at neighbors, unsure if they recognize them.
There she was. Some misery had fattened Pam up. Apparently, somebody didn’t mind the obese sadness. She was pregnant, with her fourth. Pam explained something about the fathers of her children and I didn’t pay too close attention. I bought her a latte and a muffin but it felt like I was contributing to her downfall. Her face was sallow. I tried to see the girl I knew after I caught wind of her sensing my automatic judgements. While she droned on about her life, a frequency of ants distracted me as it fluctuated along the threshold between the wainscoting and the floor. It reminded me of the telephone wires. A few stragglers sparked off here and there but the main current ducked under the wall. When we pivoted to talk about Rob, her face became solemn. He was dead. A car accident. Trapped by a flood in the desert. It sounded outlandish.
Worse was when she told me he lived here too. What were the odds that all of us relocated to the same city? And he had a wife and a kid. She offered to contact her if I was interested. I said that would be nice but wasn’t really sure about how nice it would be. This was all more information than I had bargained for and I needed some time to think about it.
There was no way I would’ve thought to reconnect before now. It was I who didn’t reach out in time. If I had, would he still have died? Or would I have called him that morning by chance and delayed him long enough so that it didn’t happen? His sister asked that we stay in touch but I knew that wouldn’t be likely. My feelings for her brother didn’t transfer to her. If anything, this made me never want to see her again. What she had become wouldn’t remind me of the good times. The memories were now isolated. Whatever might have been left of that collective wall between friends was torn down.
I thought of what his death must’ve been like. How maybe the car got all banged up against the metal drainage bars in some desert concrete wash. Those flash floods were vicious. I imagined his last moments. The horror of getting trapped in the car. Banging on the windows. Kicking. Screaming. Then giving up as the water sealed off the last air pocket. Maybe he thought of me, however briefly.
A few days later, his sister called me and said that Christie was willing to meet up and let me see his son. I took down her number and thanked his sister. I didn’t know right away if I was up to it. What would I say? The fear of feeling guilty just by being in their presence bothered me. Despite having no clear idea about what I would gain from it, I decided to do it anyways. I wanted to see what his son was like. Was he a spitting image? Would some behavior, maybe some involuntary reaction, jolt my memory of his father?
Technically, it could be said they lived in Los Angeles but it was quite a drive out to where they lived. Glendora was not exactly Hollywood. It’s to the East by about thirty or so miles and right up against the mountains. I hadn’t been there before. No reason. I parked on the Main Street. The big bell-shaped trees were straight out of some old fashioned movie. Ridiculous in real life. When time stands still. When it goes back before you were born. It felt like the place belonged to dad or grandpa.
Christie was good looking. Pretty fit but worn which was to be expected of a widow. At first I didn’t know it was her because his son didn’t look anything like his father. But he looked familiar in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to tell the kid that I knew his dad and that we had just simply lost touch but we were good friends who had many good times together. She turned her face at that and blurted out that they were well separated before his death.
The kid wanted to wander down the street to some store while we strolled. It felt like this wasn’t working nor really uncovering anything useful for me so my mind already started to think about what else I was going to do with my day when Christie asked me if I really didn’t remember. When she put it like that it was clear what she meant. I racked my brain but she didn’t ring any bells. So she broke it to me that we had a fling one night back in San Francisco. She was with a friend and they went on an informal double date with us. I was drunk. And rude. No idea how she ended up with me that night was how she put it.
As the kid came back to us, I realized why he looked familiar. He had some facial features that resembled my father’s side. The chin and his nose were awfully close. In the quiet I didn’t know what to say or do, so we parted ways. I walked alone by the vacant industrial buildings. Brick offices with tinted windows. Mechanic shops. A few dealerships.
I wandered through a mall with a map that said “You were here.” A misprint typical of this dystopia. Warped by the sun and water, the map had become an abstract design with soft fuzzy lines that no longer held in the wash of bleeding colors. Blotches of brownish buildings and splotches of yellowed landscaping reminded me of his sister’s complexion. You are somewhere, it seemed to say, on a trajectory across a plane of pale orange fading into an atmospheric green of wavering intensity.
I walked back to where I thought I had parked my car but it wasn’t there. Instead of my car, though, there was a jeep parked with one tire on the curb. One of those archaic war manuals on how to choke someone was left on the front seat.
A choir of the abyss undulated faintly on the radio as a drowsy backseat passenger stuck his head out the window. Half of the passenger’s hair was shaved off and in a plastic baggie on the floor at the foot of a toupee’d man holding court with a small crowd.
The toupee’d man said he accidentally choked the passenger whom he called Hank while reenacting yesterday’s fiasco for an impromptu trial on the street. He explained to the jury of bystanders that he had a brother who fought in the archaic war but he accidentally shot himself in the head at point blank because he failed to recognize himself due to the incredibly effective camouflage. Everybody knew not to laugh at the folly of self-adornment.
The tire on the curb. Fingers on the neck. Coils of hair pressed against the plastic. A makeshift sidewalk courtroom. A street corner became a theater of fate.
Hank said he was told to carry a gun visibly for protection. He had no intention of using it. He was told and he did what he was told. But it felt awkward. It wasn’t his fault that Merle, the toupee’d shopkeeper, handed him a bag of auto-asphyxiation goodies from his store and told him to “just take it and leave.” That was all he did. He took the bag and left as he was told.
The jury listened to a volunteer, posing as the defense, ask the toupee’d shopkeeper about the reenactment, “Where did you learn to choke like that?”
Merle grabbed the choking manual from the front seat of the jeep. These pamphlets were distributed during the war. Everybody knew that. Now the jury thought it wasn’t really his fault he could choke so well. It wasn’t like he wrote the manual. Everybody suffered the archaic war in different ways.
The temporary prosecution pivoted to the hair in the bag on the street. Merle’s cheeks flushed raspberry. Hank looked like a mangy rooster. It was clear that the hair came from Hank’s head. But the pop-up prosecution wanted to hear Merle admit it.
“I need refills.”
“So you choked him not because you thought he had robbed you at gunpoint but because you wanted his hair?”
“Sustained. Next question,” barked a disembodied voice from the second-story window above.
The choir of the abyss swelled in the background like a melodramatic soundtrack parodying a courtroom drama.
The defense called Hank back to the stand. He swiped away a few tufts of his hair from the hood of the jeep and took a seat. “How did you come about having a gun?”
“The night before, I was house sitting. That’s my job. I’m a professional house sitter for very private, very wealthy clients. I can’t say whose house it was but let’s just say it’s somebody everybody here knows. This place is a mansion. The property is so big that it’s got rolling hills. There’s also a security system. All kinds of auto-detection. And there’s even guard dogs. A pack of Dobermans. I don’t know why but I forgot to feed them last night. That’s my usual routine. I feed them before going to bed. But I fell asleep early. The security system woke me up in the middle of the night. At first I thought nothing of it. This has happened many times before. So I turned it off. But the lights were on outside. I looked out the window and saw three men walking up the driveway. I kept watching them get closer and closer. And I couldn’t move. They kept getting closer and I guess I just panicked. I mean I couldn’t think of what to do. It sounds bad but I was wishing that they would change their mind and go away. So I just watched them get closer until they broke a window and climbed in. They were wearing ski masks so I couldn’t tell any of them apart. One asked me where it was. I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. He asked again. I pleaded with him to understand that I didn’t own the place. But he didn’t believe me. He just said I better hand them what they came for because I knew damn well what he was talking about. I realized that I better just do as he says so I told them I had to get it. Whatever it was, I went upstairs to find it. I looked for anything of value. But I couldn’t settle on anything. Then I heard the front door open. If I could get to the button downstairs that releases the dogs, they could come right in and attack the intruders. The one yelled at me to not make them come up and get me. So I came down and pretended I had what they wanted in my pocket. And I walked around the counter and hit the button. The pack of Dobermans came running through the front door but instead of attacking the intruders they sniffed their pants and acted like they were their owners. Told to attack, the dogs chased me back upstairs. I managed to barricade myself in a bedroom and crawl out the window, drop down from two stories, and run my ass off across the rolling hills. By the time I got to the fence, I reached the security guard at the gate. I told the guard what happened and it was he who handed me a gun and said that I should always walk around with it visible to avoid such altercations in the future. And that is what I did. I wore the gun in my belt for everyone to see.”
The substitute judge peered out the second story window and yelled that court was adjourned until ten tomorrow morning. Hank picked up the baggie and ran off as if he had recovered his stash. Guess I’d run too after telling such a birdbrained story.
Merle took off his toupee and chucked it on the ground like an old disgruntled cowboy. He doddered toward me and said he noticed me earlier with Christie. I said I used to be friends with her late husband.
“Oh Rob. Yeah I knew him too. He was a good customer.”
“Did you hear about his passing?”
“Hear about it. Shit. There was an investigation and everything.”
“Over him drowning in the desert?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“His sister told me he drowned in a flash flood.”
Merle eye-balled my hair. The choir of the abyss faded.
“Well, I don’t know if you want to hear this but you know how family is. Like criminals, the truth ain’t their strong suit. Rob bought the custom maple scaffolding set from me. He talked about his failed marriage the whole time I helped put it up in his living room. And that’s where they found him, to be blunt about it, choking the chicken.”