TALKING ABOUT THE dead is, at best, a self-serving exercise; we’re thieves, pilfering the tragic details to better stock our mental coffers. This I learned by way of a part-time job I had in mid-2007.
For me, working at a bookstore had little to do with books. I just wanted a job where I didn’t have to wear a tie. Neither did books interest my coworker, Jedi, whose experience with reading was limited to the numbers on his postal scale. His real work was in dealing drugs, and as a rule I kept my interactions with him brief and rare.
"I respect you," he told me, and I took it to mean he wanted to borrow money.
I once asked his girlfriend Sara what he was really like, and she said he was short and very thick, and it frightened her. She was talking about his penis.
"No, I mean, what is he like outside of work?"
She told me how Jedi had been the one to find his best friend, crawling on all fours and tapping along the wall of his bedroom. Half of his face was gone, pasted against the corner of the room by a shotgun blast. There were a lot of follow-up questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t, because she was very, very stoned.
There was a young woman we worked with, Ren, who was always covered with small bruises, like the ones I leave on the produce I fondle at the grocery store. She was the kind of lesbian who liked tattoos and ankhs, and read a lot of paperbacks. When she didn’t like a book, she’d discard it on the breakroom table for anyone to take. I remember seeing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods sitting there, and thinking less of her.
Ren had some disease whose name wasn’t catchy, so I never remembered it. I’m sure it explained the bruises, but at the time we just thought she was trying to get attention. She got it the afternoon she convulsed on the breakroom couch, but didn’t have much time to enjoy it. She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
A child survived her, and the father, an ugly barista who worked at the in-house Seattle’s Best Coffee, never brushed his teeth. His name was Gavin, and he was the kind who began and ended a conversation by talking at you, saying his piece and leaving without any input needed. I remember the following having occurred a few months before Ren died.
"I think," he said, wiping a clean counter, "I should push Ren down the stairs. Not hard—just enough. For the baby, I mean." If I fully accepted the idea of karma, then Ren’s death and Gavin’s subsequent role as single parent was proof that their infant daughter was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. How else to explain?
Gavin, always looking for an opportunity to make another mistake, began telling new female employees that I was a homosexual. This, as though I was the primary barrier to his sexual satisfaction—as though anyone but a lesbian truly desperate for a child would dare approach his goldfish-colored mouth. I learned of this from Bridget, a half Puerto Rican girl (or was it Cuban?) who worked for a short while at the coffee shop. She and I dated on and off for maybe a year, during which time we shared an illustration class at the local community college with a beautiful blond named Krystal.
Krystal was loud, and unhealthily addicted to Red Bull. She spoke a lot about men, and how they were complete assholes. Her stories provided compelling evidence. Though Krystal and I spoke dozens of times, the only conversation I remember clearly was concerning Serge, a classmate who’d immigrated from the motherland as a little kid. “If you’ve been here that long,” she said, “shouldn’t you speak better English?” This was followed by a prolonged sip of Red Bull.
None of us wanted to believe she’d committed suicide, but of course she had. All you had to do was meet her to see that she was hurting, and that made it worse for all of us. We’d known, but we had lives to lead. Tanks to fill up, illustration projects to slap together. We had things to do, and Krystal had an empty backyard. And a tree. And a garden hose.
"It’s fucking crazy," said another classmate, my friend and future bass-player. “I mean, she and I, we talked.” This somehow wasn’t what he meant, and so he added, “a lot.” This made him more frustrated, and so he leaned over and said “I mean, we could’ve had sex. And now she’s dead!”
It was odd, the “here today, gone tomorrow” disappearing act. It was a trick, like taking your cat’s food bowl into the air when they weren’t looking, and leaving them to scan the linoleum. "Where is it?" they sniff. "Was it ever here at all?"
Walking along Main Street at night, I told all of this to Bridget. "It's just strange, Krystal dying and all."
"Really?" Bridget said. "I didn't think you knew her that well."
It wasn't Krystal that she was jealous of, but rather my attention to her suicide.
"A really good friend of mine killed himself, too," she said, but I already knew this, and let the body lie.
NATHAN WYCKOFF is a writer and illustrator from Southern California. He is currently a staff writer at KeenGamer.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @nathanwyckoff.