by: P. J. Gannon
You may know someone’s story, but not their struggle. You may know what they’ve done, but not what they’ve been through. A story that reminds us not to judge someone without understanding their reasons first…
I wondered if I’d made the right decision. From what I’d seen driving into town—standoffish skyscrapers, cold steel bridges, rumbling trains—Pittsburgh wasn’t exactly happy to see me. I turned into the driveway of the house that I’d be calling home for the summer and cut the engine. As I went to pull the keys from the ignition, a rap on my driver’s side window startled me. Outside my Ford Escort stood a tall man with a round pasty face. He looked as if he were daring me to come out of the car. I rolled down my window slowly. “Marc?”
“You must be Charlie,” he said. He crouched and peered into my car, placing his face way too close to mine. “The drive from Boston must’ve been a bitch.” He was about fifteen years older than me—much older than he’d sounded on the phone—and his breath smelled weirdly of apples.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I said. But my eyeballs ached and my legs felt in need of orthopedic braces.
“Why don’t I help you with your things?”
Marc’s house from the outside was more or less what I’d expected, three floors, a stucco façade, bay windows. But the inside was another story: water-damaged walls, cracked ceilings, unhinged doors, warped floors with dog shit scattered about.
In the living room, he introduced me to two guys—my other summer housemates—who were sitting on opposite ends of a lumpy sofa. They looked as if they were waiting for someone to come out of surgery. Kendall, who was badly toupeed and sweaty-faced, said, without a trace of irony, “Welcome to the jungle.”
Dale, long-haired and bearded, looked more like a crystal meth dealer than a law student. “Boy, you’ve been dealt a bad hand,” he quipped.
My room was on the third floor, and Marc led me up a creaking staircase. On the way, I could hear dogs barking outside. “Are those yours?” I asked.
“To them, you’re a trespasser,” he said, not at all joking.
He showed me my room. It wasn’t much bigger than an elevator cab. “A little small . . .” I said.
“I have to hop in the shower. I’m taking my mom to Bingo.”
He left, and I started unpacking. A little while later, as I was hanging my dress shirts in a closet the size of a gym locker, I could hear him in the bathroom, arguing with himself. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said. “No, I didn’t,” he answered back. “Oh, yes you did. You’ve blown it to bits.”
Before leaving Boston, I’d stopped into Filene’s Basement to buy some new suits. They were inexpensive, about two hundred dollars apiece, except for one, a navy-blue pinstripe Cerruti, which I’d dropped four hundred bucks on. On my first day of work in Pittsburgh, I put it on and thought it looked great. A few minutes later, I walked into the kitchen where I found Marc in front of the stove stirring a bubbling pot of oatmeal. He was wearing pajama bottoms, and his stomach, hairy and distended, was peeking out from beneath a T-shirt that read, “Ohio is for Losers.” Dale was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a Post-Gazette article entitled “Perot, the Political Outsider, Still Ahead in Latest Polls,” while Kendall—so sweaty that it appeared as if he’d just crossed the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon—unloaded the dishwasher. After some small talk about what a pain in the ass law school was, we heard barking at the back door. Dale looked up from his newspaper as if he’d heard an air raid siren. He sprung to his feet and, without saying a word, left the kitchen. Kendall soon followed. Marc’s dogs were scratching at the back door. Marc slid the pot off the burner, hurried to the door, opened it and the dogs—four Great Pyrenees—burst into the kitchen with the ferocity of a pack of Black Friday customers moving through a shopping mall. “They won’t bite, Charlie,” Marc said to me not at all convincingly. Seeing one of the dogs flare his teeth, I backed out of the kitchen. The dogs—by now having merged into one big, fluffy, white-haired stampede—pursued me through the living room. Two of them bit the pant leg of my brand new suit; another was clawing at my sleeve. “Cancer, over here!” Marc yelled. “Diabetes, back!” But the dogs were deaf to Marc’s pleas so he began hitting them with Dale’s rolled-up Post-Gazette. “Ebola! AIDS!” Marc yelled. “Stop! Please!”
A few nights later, while lying in bed, looking over case law—one of the firm’s litigation partners had asked me to research whether an illegal immigrant injured at a construction site could collect workers’ compensation benefits—I heard a knock on my door. “Come in,” I said.
It was Dale. “You got a minute?” he asked.
“The other morning, I felt so bad for you. You had that nice suit on and those dogs . . .”
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“All that hair . . .”
“I got some strange looks at work but my boss gave me a lint brush.”
“Marc’s nuts,” Dale said, twirling his finger near his temple like he was dialing a rotary phone. “Like certifiable. You know that, right?”
“Who would name their dogs that?”
“Marc would. I have no idea how he tells them apart.”
“I hear him yelling at himself in the shower,” I said, putting down the case law. “When I called him about the roommate listing, he sounded a bit off, but I was desperate. I didn’t know anyone in Pittsburgh.”
“I caught him in my room the other day.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “What was he doing?”
“He was in my closet.”
“I don’t know. He was just in there.”
“Well what did he say?”
“Let the games begin.”
“That’s what he said. He said, ‘Let the games begin.’”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I’d look for another place but I’m interning at the United Steelworkers and I can’t afford it. I’m stuck. Marc seems to know it too. But you . . . you can leave. You’re making money.”
“But I’m on a budget. I’ve been living off my credit card for two years.”
He looked at me as if I were the village idiot. “You need to get out of here.”
When Dale left, I thought about what he’d said. Why was I living here? I was finally making real money. And even putting aside Marc’s apparent mental health issues, the place itself was a dump. Though reading case law was about as stimulating as watching a junior golf tournament on TV, I had trouble falling asleep. Then, as I was about to nod off, I heard a loud crash coming from outside. I climbed out of bed and looked out the window. It was dark outside but there was enough moonlight to see Marc. He was in the yard near a shed with a shovel in his hands. A mound of dirt lay near him. In front of the mound was a hole the size of a bathtub. What was he doing? With soiled knees, he stepped down into the hole and began digging. Was he planting a tree or shrub? At this hour?
The next morning, Dale and I took the bus downtown to our jobs. He was upbeat and relaxed and, not wanting to spoil his mood, I didn’t tell him what I’d seen the night before. At work, I spent a few more hours on the research assignment, but I wasn’t getting any closer to finding an answer. After lunch, while on my way to the copier, a bankruptcy partner stopped me and gave me another assignment: more research concerning a wage garnishment issue. When I got home, exhausted and stressed—the new assignment wasn’t going to be any easier than the first one—I found Marc and Dale and two of the disease-named Great Pyrenees in the living room.
“Don’t worry about the dogs, Charlie,” Marc said to me.
“But I feel like they’re staring me down.”
“Nah, they already have your scent. You’re one of us now.”
The television was on, the Pirates were clobbering the Cubs, and Marc and Dale were polishing off a six pack of Iron City Beer. Though the couch was covered with Great Pyrenees hair, I didn’t have my expensive suit on so I sighed and collapsed in it. At the commercial break, Dale said to me, “So how’s life in the big firm?”
“I’m not turning over the assignments fast enough. Anyway, I don’t think I’m cut out for eighty hour work weeks.”
“Michele Donner is interning at your firm,” Marc said. “She goes to Pitt with me. She was in my Evidence class.”
I wasn’t surprised Marc knew of her. Her hair was long and dark, her eyes green and mysterious, her body, a bona fide biological wonder. At any law school or, really anywhere, she’d be a standout. She was smart too. Rumor had it she was engaged to a Heinz executive.
“Yeah, she’s smokin’,” I said.
“She and I had a thing.”
I chuckled. Of course, he was joking. The sun would have to be revolving around the Earth or be on the verge of collapsing to form a black hole for this Michele—if we were talking about the same one—to hook up with the likes of him.
“Did I say something funny?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s just . . . I don’t know.”
He cupped his crotch and with borderline religious conviction said, “She digs the stick.”
“In your dreams, fat boy,” Dale shot back.
Marc glared at Dale. “No. You’re wrong.”
“The only way you’re getting laid,” Dale said, “is if you crawl up a chicken’s ass and wait.”
Marc’s eyes hardened. “You never should have said that.”
Dale smirked, proudly.
“What you’re calling me then is a liar,” Marc said, his voice pitched with anger.
Not at all concerned, Dale said, “Is that what I just did?” He guzzled his beer.
“She digs the stick!” Marc yelled, standing like a boxer answering the bell.
Dale chuckled, slipping his empty beer bottle back into the six back holder.
“She digs it!” Marc screamed, and as if summoned the other dogs came running into the room.
“Knock it off,” I said. “I can’t hear the fuckin’ television.”
“Settle down, Marc,” Dale said.
“Take it back!” Marc yelled, spit spraying from his mouth.
Dale turned to me, his eyes saying, What’s going on here? What have I started?
“Take it back!”
“Okay, okay,” Dale finally said. “I believe you. You get laid all the time. She digs the stick. Happy?”
One Saturday afternoon, I was in the kitchen making a roast beef grinder, when Kendall walked in, his face moist with sweat. “Have you seen Marc?” he asked.
“He left to bring one of the dogs to the vet.”
“He’s got stacks and stacks of comic books in my closet and I keep asking him to move them but he keeps putting me off.” Shaking his head, he sat at the table.
“So Dale tells me you knew Marc before moving in . . . ?”
“We grew up together near Chatham. He was good friends with my older brother Philip. I moved here in March after my ex-wife changed the locks on me. She got tired of supporting me, I guess, and there’s a part of me that can’t blame her. You see, before law school, I was a car salesman, making good money. Then I got it into my head that I wanted to be a lawyer. She was against it from the beginning. I not only have hypothyroidism but dyslexia, and she thought my dyslexia would be too big of a hurdle. Well, I wasn’t going to let it stop me, so I convinced some of my professors to let me have some extra time on my tests. A lot of students resented this and complained. I bombed the tests anyway. Made the others all happy, I guess. Then I couldn’t find a summer job . . .”
“The market’s tough,” I said and with a knife I spread a finger-sized glob of mayo on my grinder. “I never expected to be in Pittsburgh.”
“You’re not happy here are you?”
How did he know? “Well, it’s just . . . I—”
“I can tell. Give this place a chance now, will you?”
“It’s a nice town but I don’t feel like I fit in. At work, I get a lot of snarky comments. About my accent, my sports teams, my loud ties . . . Also not everyone from Massachusetts goes sailing with the Kennedys.”
One afternoon, I was on my way out of the house to buy a fan—the house had no air conditioning and an intense heat wave had rolled into the region—when Marc asked me where I was going.
“Into town,” I said.
“I need a few things,” he said matter-of-factly. “Mind if I tag along?”
Except for a brief argument that he got into with the manager of a supermarket over an expired coupon for a twenty pound bag of Alpo, our shopping trip was uneventful. On the way home, while we were stopped at a red light, Marc, who was seated in the passenger seat of my Escort, said, “Now what do we have here?” His eyes were fixed on the side-view mirror, a lascivious smile on his face. I checked the rearview mirror. Michele Donner was behind us, at the wheel of a yellow Cabriolet. In the passenger seat was another girl. “She’s with Erin,” Marc said. Days before, in the firm’s cafeteria, Michele had mentioned an Erin to me and had said that she was someone she wanted to introduce me to. I’d gotten the impression that Michele was trying to play matchmaker, and Erin was cute: long brown hair, tan skin, white teeth. Though she wasn’t as hot as Michele, she was damn near close. Not knowing what Michele’s reaction would be seeing me with Marc, but sensing it might not be good, I sank in my seat. I had sunglasses in my shirt pocket and quickly put them on, while Marc stuck his head out the window like one of his Great Pyrenees. He started waving to them and, though it would have been impossible for them not to have seen him, they didn’t react. The light turned green, and Marc put his head back inside the car. “Michele follows me,” he said. “She stalks me. She digs the stick.”
That Monday, I was in the firm’s library, logging onto LexisNexis, when Michele walked in. When she saw me, she waved and headed into the stacks. She would normally stop and chat for a bit so when she didn’t I grew concerned. A few minutes passed, and she reappeared, her full lips in a pout that conveyed to me she was in deep thought. She sat at a nearby table and opened up a Federal Reporter.
“What are you researching?” I asked.
“A personal jurisdiction issue.” She started turning the pages of the reporter. “Are you going to play in the firm’s softball game on Thursday?”
“No one told me about it.”
“You mean you weren’t invited?”
So this was what it felt like to be a pariah. “No, but I’m not interested.” Maybe she hadn’t seen me with Marc.
“You’re friends with Marc Cooper?” she asked.
“Umm . . . well not exactly. I live with him but . . .”
“You live with him?” She looked at me like I had festering wounds on my face.
“Yeah. I didn’t know anyone in Pittsburgh so he had this ad for a place so . . . I’m thinking about moving out.”
“He’s a kook. He’s spread disgusting rumors about me. I hate him. I hate his guts. My boyfriend wants to kill him. Marc’s just so disgusting. I shake whenever I see him. I get physically ill.”
She quickly left, never once mentioning introducing me to Erin, and all I could think was that Dale was right. I needed to move out. I hadn’t signed a lease. I was month to month so there was nothing really keeping me at Marc’s.
A few hours later, when I was in my tiny, windowless office, the phone rang. The receptionist was on the line. “A Mr. Cooper is calling . . .”
Marc had never called me at work before. I hadn’t even given him my number. “Take a message, please.”
A few seconds passed, and the receptionist came back on. “He says it’s an emergency.”
“Put him through.” A moment later, he came on. “Charlie, what are we doing this weekend?”
Had I agreed to spend time with him? “I may have plans,” I said.
“I spoke to Dale last night. He wants to go to this club called Kangaroos.”
Dale? Dale was openly hostile to him.
“Yeah he mentioned something about that but I have a lot of work to do,” I said. “I don’t know . . .”
As I suspected and later learned, Dale hadn’t invited him to Kangaroos, but Marc was going with us just the same. That Saturday night, as Dale, Marc, and I were getting ready to go to the club, out of nowhere, Marc decided that he needed to get a birthday gift for a friend. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,” he said and he split, speeding off in his Corvette.
When thirty minutes passed, Dale said, “We’ve waited long enough.”
“Maybe another five minutes,” I said.
Dale looked at his watch. “He said fifteen. Let’s motor. I promised my friend from work that I’d meet him and I don’t want to be late.”
On the way to Kangaroos, Dale said, “I saw Marc digging a hole in the yard the other night.”
“I saw that too.”
“He said he was making a bunker. Fuckin’ freak.”
The club was crowded and smoky, and a band clad in tasseled suede and bedazzled leather was playing. They were churning out the latest country hits, songs like “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Friends in Low Places.” We grabbed some bar space. “So how’s the steelworker’s union treating you?” I asked Dale.
“I’ve already been marginalized,” he said dejectedly. “I made the mistake of telling my boss I’m a communist.”
“I didn’t know you were a communist.”
“Yeah. Fairness, economic equality, and social justice are what I stand for, but my boss thinks I stand for power and corruption.”
I pulled out my wallet. “I’m getting a Sam Adams. What about you?”
“An Iron City, please.”
I ordered the beers. “You know, I haven’t seen Kendall in a while.”
“What do you suppose is up with that?” Dale said. “His sister keeps calling. She can’t seem to get in touch with him. His boss called yesterday. He hasn’t been at work.”
“I thought he didn’t have a job.”
“He’s back selling cars.”
“Well maybe he also got back with the missus.”
“No. His sister said his ex hasn’t seen him either.”
Our beer came and then Dale’s United Steelworker friend Roy appeared. Roy, who was an actual lawyer (not a mere law student) and the only African American in the club, was outgoing and charming, and gnawing intensely on a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a Gobstopper.
“Roy could be your new roommate,” Dale said to me. “The one he’s got is getting hitched and moving to San Diego.”
“I thought you were going to be my new roomie,” Roy said, pushing Dale playfully.
“Please. You know I’m making jack shit.”
Roy looked me over as if I were a piece of used furniture that he was considering buying for his apartment. “So you’re looking for a new place, Charlie?”
“Dale’s a nightmare to live with. From day one, he’s been busting my balls about the Penguins beating the Bruins in the Division Conference.”
“He’s a nightmare to work with too. We get daily lectures on how we’re not doing enough for the proletariat. I live in Shadyside. It’s not too far from where you guys are in Squirrel Hill. Shadyside’s more hip though. Squirrel Hill’s nice, but it’s family-oriented and . . .”
“The home of Marc Cooper,” Dale said.
The next morning, Marc was seated at the kitchen table, reading a Crimson Dynamo comic, silent and seemingly unbothered about us ditching him the night before. “Sorry about last night,” Dale said, sitting down next to him, “but my friend, who’s a union lawyer, was waiting.”
“Dale couldn’t just leave the guy hanging,” I added.
“No worries, guys. Really.” Marc put down the comic. “Hey, my parents would like to know if you guys want to come to their house for dinner tonight.”
Not knowing how to respond, I looked at Dale, who was already looking at me.
“They really want to meet you guys.”
Dale, who had the Post-Gazette in his hands, hid his face behind it.
“So what do you say?” Marc asked.
We decided to go but weren’t sure why. Was our guilt about blowing Marc off the night before the deciding factor or our curiosity surrounding his parents (what would they be like anyway?) or both? Later in the day, when it was time to leave for his parents’ house, Dale, Marc, and I climbed into Dale’s VW Jetta. The three of us being together in the car suddenly made Kendall’s absence all the more palpable. “Hey, Marc, any word from Kendall?” I asked.
“Nothing but crickets,” he said.
“I wonder where the fuck he is,” Dale said, turning onto the main road.
“I don’t miss him at all,” Marc said. “He’s the kind of guy who can really get on your nerves and he sweats like a pig in the sun.”
“His sister keeps calling,” I said.
Dale switched lanes. “I hope he’s all right.”
Marc turned the radio dial. “If I had to guess . . .”
“What?” I asked.
Marc paused as if he were uncertain about sharing his thoughts. “Nothing would surprise me with that guy.”
“His boss called again today,” Dale said. “Sounds like he won’t be selling any more Toyotas.”
A little while later, Dale parked in front of Marc’s parents’ house. “Strange of someone to just go MIA like that,” he said.
“Maybe the police should start dragging the Ohio River,” Marc said, smiling.
Marc’s father Jon let us into the house. He was white-haired and wearing big circle lens glasses. Marc’s mother Janet, who was the size of a seal, was lying on a love seat, looking immobilized. “My son finally comes to visit me,” she said. “Who are these handsome boys? Do you boys go months without visiting your mothers too?” Marc smiled as if he’d grown accustomed to such a greeting. “Are you going to introduce me?” she said to Marc, struggling to sit up. “It’s like I never taught you manners.”
Marc made the introductions, and Dale and I told his parents a bit about ourselves.
“Is he paying you to live with him?” Jon cracked. “Don’t tell me it’s the other way around.” He shook his head as if we’d made the worst deal of our lives. “It never ceases to amaze me he can find people who will put up with him.”
Jon made the dinner, a roast beef with rosemary-sprinkled potatoes and asparagus, and we settled in at the dining room table, the faint smell of orange blossoms in the air. The Penguins had recently won the Stanley Cup and we talked about their triumph. Then Janet said, “How are the dogs doing, Marc?”
“Diabetes isn’t doing so well,” Marc said.
“I won’t call them what he calls them,” Janet said to us. “I have my own names for them, Trixie, Teardrop, Sweetie, and Fluffy.” She turned to Marc. “Is Fluffy Diabetes?”
“No, Teardrop’s Diabetes.”
“No, Cancer. Trixie’s Ebola.”
“I like Fluffy the best.”
“You should listen to that vet and put Teardrop down,” Jon said.
“How can you be so cruel?” Janet said. “He loves those dogs.”
After dinner, Marc left to go to the bathroom while Dale and I helped Janet clear the table. She put out the dessert, a lemon meringue pie, and Jon stood as if he were about to make a toast. “Gentlemen, my wife and I would like to thank you for being so kind to Marc. It means a lot to us.”
A few days later after work, I went to check out Roy’s place. It was on Elmer Street, a few blocks from Shadyside’s trendy shops, restaurants, and bars. With a warm smile, he welcomed me in. The apartment had a lot of windows, and the sun was streaming through them in an inviting way. The kitchen had all new appliances. The bathroom was immaculately clean, like someone’s mother had been in it all morning scrubbing. The vacant bedroom was twice the size of the one I was in. I had my Cerruti suit on, and I sat on the living room sofa, not a dog hair to be found. “Roy,” I said, “I think you found yourself a new roommate.”
On my way home, I figured I’d tell Marc right away that I was moving out. To spare his feelings, I’d say that, being young and single, Shadyside was just a better neighborhood for me and that living there would also make my commute easier, both of which were true. I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be but I figured he was probably counting on my rent, but I didn’t know to what extent. At any rate, I knew he wouldn’t be too pleased and that, at this point in the summer, it would be hard for him to find a replacement.
I started feeling guilty. Sure, he was a flake. But maybe Dale and I had been too hard on him. A bunker? At least, he had a sense of humor. Cancer? AIDS? So it was a sick one, even offensive, and, at times, creepy—dragging the Ohio River?—but he was usually nice and seemed well-intentioned. The hole in the yard? He was probably planting a shrub. And so what if Dale found him in his bedroom. It’s Marc’s house and maybe he had a reason to be in there. Let the games begin? It sounded like Marc was playing a prank on him. Though if so, a weirdly immature one. And if the worst thing he had ever done was tell people he’d boinked Michele Donner—something no one could ever believe—he wasn’t all that bad, just delusional in a mostly harmless way, even if he got really pissed when Dale told him he was full of shit.
When I arrived home, Marc was in the living room, sitting in his recliner, surrounded by three of his Great Pyrenees. His eyes were wet and red. “You okay?” I asked.
He didn’t respond.
Until I found out what was wrong, I didn’t feel right telling him I was bailing. “You look a little down,” I said.
“Sharon doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
“She lives around the block. She’s recently divorced. She returned my birthday present.”
He stood and grabbed a gift box off the credenza. He opened it and pulled out a three-pack of pink cotton panties.
“You got her that?”
“It’s why I was late that night.”
I figured after Sharon’s rejection Marc didn’t need to hear any more bad news so I didn’t tell him I was moving out. It could wait. I wouldn’t be going anywhere for another week or so anyway, not until Roy’s roommate left. So I allowed a few days to pass, all the while I quietly packed up my belongings, and then one evening, I went looking for Marc but he wasn’t around. In fact, no one was around, not even the dogs. Dale was at a labor rally. Kendall was still MIA. Having the whole place to myself, I became acutely aware of my aloneness. I had no one in this city.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen to find Dale eating a jelly donut. When he saw me, he stood. His lips and beard were powdered with confectioner’s sugar. “Okay, I want to see what you think,” he said, and he waved for me to follow him.
He led me out the back door. When we were in front of the shed, he stopped. The mound of dirt was gone; Marc’s hole had been filled, and his shovel was leaning against a tree.
“I saw blood on the bathroom floor,” Dale said. “Not just droplets. A puddle.”
“A day or two after visiting Marc’s parents.”
“I didn’t see any blood.”
“You weren’t around and, by the time you got home, Marc had already mopped it up. He was mad at Kendall. Kendall had moved his comic books. Some were missing and Marc accused him of taking them. Right before Kendall vanished. I heard them arguing; it got heated.”
“You’re telling me you think Kendall’s buried here!” I cried.
“I know, I know, man,” Dale said. “It’s crazy but I think we’re in agreement Marc’s got a screw loose.”
I started laughing. “Why would Kendall want his comics?”
“To sell. He needs the money. Marc had a first issue Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four. Do you know how much those are worth? Marc was angry too. Very angry. Scary angry.”
“He did get pissed at you like that once.”
“Over nothing. A girl . . .” Dale grabbed the shovel. “Maybe we should dig up the hole? Find out what the hell he buried here.”
I started heading back to the house. “You’re losing it.”
“Are you afraid of what we might uncover?” Dale dropped the shovel. “Or maybe we just report Kendall missing. It’s been two weeks. We could tell the police we have some concerns.”
Two days passed, and there was still no sign of Kendall. Dale and I went about our business trying not to let Dale’s theory about what had happened to Kendall pull us too far away, but the question of where Kendall was seemed to haunt everything we did. It was as if the walls, floors, couches, and chairs had begun whispering, Marc killed Kendall. Who will be next? Will it be you?
Later that afternoon, Kendall’s sister called. “No, we still haven’t seen him,” I told her. Then I heard a car pull up outside. “Hold on.” I put down the phone and hurried to the front door. Marc’s Corvette was at the curb, and an out-of-breath Marc was lumbering up the driveway. “Hey, Marc, have you spoken to Kendall?” I shouted.
“Maybe a suicide!” he hollered, and he disappeared behind the house.
I went back to the phone. “No, we don’t know,” I said. “No one’s heard.”
“I’m starting to worry.”
Beneath the floor, I could hear Marc moving about the basement. “Kendall will turn up. Don’t worry.” But I wasn’t so sure anymore.
“This is so unlike him.”
“Really?” The basement door slammed.
“Yeah. So unlike him.”
I hung up and headed back to the front door. Marc was walking toward his Corvette, a stuffed laundry bag slung over his shoulder. Dale, who was trudging up the stoop, his briefcase in hand, said, “Marc says he’s on his way to his parents’ house but I don’t believe him.” Dale and I watched as Marc sped away. “You think the murder weapon’s in the bag?”
“Will you stop it?” I said.
“Well is our washer machine broken?”
“Not that I know of.”
“See. I bet he takes off. Goes on the lam. Down to Mexico or Central America.”
A few hours later, Dale and I were in the living room, seated on the couch, having a beer. “Maybe we should go the police,” Dale said. “Or we could just dig up the hole.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Dale sprung to his feet. “It’s a tough call but I can’t live like this anymore.”
Before we could decide what to do Kendall walked into the house. “Can’t say it’s good to be back,” he said, sighing. He was holding a duffle bag and he put it down on the floor. “But here I am.”
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Chicago. Visiting a friend.” He looked around the living room. “Where’s Marc?”
“He took off somewhere,” I said. “His parents . . . hey, you had a lot of people looking for you.”
He waved me off and sat in a chair.
“We were getting worried,” Dale said.
“Yeah,” Dale said, handing Kendall a beer. “I knew Marc was pissed about those comics . . .”
Kendall cracked open the beer and chuckled. “Oh, he sure was.”
“He was joking about dragging the Ohio River for you,” I said.
“So we started thinking . . .” Dale smiled.
“That he killed me.” Kendall started laughing. “Yeah, that’s what I would have thought too. No doubt.”
We all started laughing.
When things quieted, Dale said, “Hey, Kendall, all kidding aside . . . was Marc always this way?”
Kendall paused. “No.”
“So what happened?”
“Hard to say.”
“He’s out there,” I said. “The dogs, some of the things that come out of his mouth . . .”
“He hasn’t had it easy. This probably won’t come as a big surprise but when he was a kid he used to get picked on all the time. His ears—they’re not so bad now—but they used to stick out like this.” Kendall bent his ears forward. “And his mother—”
“We met his parents,” I said.
“I heard she finally stopped drinking but she thought it would be a good idea to tape his ears down. He’d go to school every morning with Scotch tape on them. Well that, of course, made things worse. Then one day he talked back to her and she tied him to a tree in their front yard. Word got out and kids from the neighborhood rode by on their bikes to see the spectacle. A bunch of them started throwing rocks and acorns at him.
“But he was smart and quick-witted. Good-natured too. An old widow lived around the block from him, and he’d cut her lawn, rake her leaves, shovel her snow. He’d never take money. She’d give him 3 Musketeers bars. Talk to him. Be nice to him. Believe it or not, my family’s forever indebted to Marc. He saved my brother’s life.”
“No shit,” Dale said.
“Every summer, my family and I would camp near Harper’s Ferry and sometimes Marc would come along. One day, my parents were off hiking somewhere and my brother Philip and I were in the lake and for some stupid reason we decided to swim past the buoys. Poor Philip started tiring and swallowing water, but by then we were too far from shore. There was no lifeguard. Philip wasn’t going to make it back. I tried holding him but I wasn’t a good swimmer and he started panicking, swallowing more water. I held him as close as I could but it soon became clear that I had a choice: I could either drown with my brother or watch him drown. I started screaming. Marc appeared on shore. He wasn’t much of a swimmer either but he was strong. Well, Marc flung himself in the water; his arms and legs were all over the place, not graceful at all, but he recognized what was at stake, and the adrenaline was making him move. When he got to us, he swam underneath Phil and hoisted him on his back. I steadied Phil on top of Marc and we swam him back to shore.
“Years later in high school, Marc fell in love with this girl. She wouldn’t give him the time of day, but he kept calling her. Writing her letters. Showing up at her door unannounced. In fairness, he overstepped the line with her. He had a breakdown after that . . . was out of commission for a while. Philip said his parents even had him committed. I’ve never gotten a full explanation of Marc’s problems but he’s been struggling for most of his adult life.”
The next morning, still thinking about what Kendall had said, I climbed out of bed and began making my way to the bathroom. Marc was coming down the hallway, his head in a Captain America comic. Before I could say anything, he stopped and lifted his eyes. “Diabetes is dead,” he said. “Cancer.” I must have looked confused. “No, not my dog, Cancer,” he said. “The disease. The damn disease. Stomach cancer. My Diabetes was coughing up blood. I finally put her down.” A window was by the staircase and Marc waved me over to it. Where the hole in the yard had been was a small tombstone, teddy bear, and bouquet of lilies.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Marc’s head was back in the comic. A few moments passed, and I tapped him on the shoulder. “I have something to tell you.”
He looked up at me as if he were expecting bad news.
“I’m moving out,” I said and I explained the reasons. “I’m pretty much packed. I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
“I’ll lower the rent.”
“No. It’s not that.”
“Forget it. Just stay. I don’t need the money.”
“Shadyside just makes better sense.”
“You don’t have to go.”
“Yes. I do.”
“Will you stay in touch?”
It had never occurred to me. “Yeah, sure . . .”
Two weeks later, when I was finally settled into my new place, I gave Marc, Kendall, and Dale a tour of it. It was in perfect order and spotless, and I could see the envy in Kendall’s and Dale’s eyes. After showing them around, we went outside, where Marc had chained his dogs to a tree. Dale, his dark T-shirt covered with dog hair, spread himself out on a chaise lounge, while I fired up the grill, Dr. Dre blaring from Roy’s boombox. After a while, Marc picked up a Nerf football and he and Kendall started throwing it back and forth on the lawn. The charcoals began turning white so I threw on some burgers. Putting on an apron, Roy said to me, “Step aside, Charlie. Let me show you how to work a grill.” I began unpacking the rolls and potato salad. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the football whiz over Marc’s head. I turned to look. Two police officers were stomping across the lawn. We froze. One of the officers snarled and walked over to the boombox and lowered the volume. “You’re going to have to turn down the noise. Your neighbors are complaining.”
I spent the remainder of the summer hanging out with Roy and Dale—going to Kangaroos, catching a Guns N’ Roses concert, sitting in the bleachers of Three Rivers Stadium—and doing very little to impress the partners at my firm, so, when the summer finally ended, I was in no way surprised when the hiring partner told me rather bluntly that she wouldn’t be offering me a permanent position: “We don’t feel you’re a good fit for our particular practice.” I shrugged off the news, a little relieved too; trying to belong where I didn’t would have been counterproductive anyway. A week later, I said goodbye to Roy and Dale (we’d stay in touch) and Marc (we’d get together the next time he was in Boston for a comic book convention), and, dreading the long drive back to Beantown—my eyeballs would ache and my legs would feel in need of orthopedic braces—I loaded up my Escort. On my way out of town, there was no traffic. The stoplights were all green. The pedestrians who were milling about the street corners all seemed to be smiling. Was it because I was leaving? Was the entire city happy to see me go? No, I had never been let inside their gates.
P.J. Gannon is a writer living in Manhattan with a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia University. His work has appeared or is set to appear in The Alembic, Slow Trains, 2 Bridges Review, Agave Magazine, Gadfly Online, The Talon Magazine, Amarillo Bay Literary Journal, The Blotter Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic and other journals.