“The dead are having a party without us. They’ve left our worries behind . . .”
—Kathleen Aguero, from “Send Off”
Kerry was using again the last time I saw him. He was sweating anxious with icicles in his beard. Oil, dandruff, and road salt had begun to dreadlock his hair, the impossible mop of brown waves and curls he wore too long even when he was sober. I was sitting at the bar of Heavy Anchor, a wannabe dive where aging hipsters and standup comedians who live within a three-mile radius come to tie one on. It could’ve been any night, but it wasn’t. It could’ve been Christmas, Easter, Earth Day, or Race for the Cure. But it was a Thursday, like today. Like in Vallejo’s poem “Black Stone on a White Stone,” a poem about dying and the ill humor of arms. So yes. It will always have been Thursday.
Imagine, if you can, the sound of a cracked black vinyl barstool under the ginger weight of a junkie who thinks he’s keeping secrets. Mix this, crossfade it, pull everything but treble, shame, and a low-fidelity microphone. Put Kerry, me, and our chairs in a soundproof box. This will not take long.
Kerry sneaks past the roomful of people and sits next to me.
“Dia dhuit,” he says.
Phonetically: gee-uh gwitch. Translated from Irish Gaelic: God be with you.
“I never remember how to answer that,” I say.
“Course you don’t,” Kerry says. “Ye thick-bellied Scotsman.” He orders a round of beer and whiskey and asks me to pay. “I’m light. You mind?”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
“Well, in that event: barkeep, can I get a round for my brother as well?”
“How very kind of you.”
Phonetically: slahn-cha. Gaelic for “Cheers.” But everyone knows that.
Kerry and I touch glasses, shoot our Jamesons, and chase them down indelicately. I get ahead of the action and order two more Pabst.
“Conas ata tu?” I ask. I finally remember the correct response to an Irish hello. Means how are you.
“There you go,” Kerry says. “Just a little liquid study-up is all you needed.” His laugh has the oak and vanilla of finishing barrels on it and I want to kiss him, kiss him on his mouth full of rotting dope teeth. “How’s Ma?” he asks.
Since my father shot himself, my mother is a semi-regular at Anchor too. She drinks diet soda and kvetches with my friends, most of whom, like Kerry, have adopted her as their own.
“She’s fine. She’ll be sorry she missed you.”
“Give her a hug for me? Like this—”
Kerry stands up and, as he does, the cuffs of his leather coat slide up past his wrists. The friction of his sleeves against my shoulders pulls them up so I can see the pinpricks and bruises in the crook of his arm when he releases me. He kisses me on the cheek as part of me dies.
Novelist Charles Baxter hates epiphanies. In fact, he quotes fellow fictionist Raymond Carver thusly: “What good are insights? They only make things worse.”