He said he thought it would be easy. He’d been dying for such a long time. Twelve years to be exact. He remembered the day the doctor told him: a Wednesday. The color of the light: white. The outside temperature: chilly for southern California. The look on Sukie’s face: bemused. He didn’t hold that against her; he deserved it.
What the hell did you expect? she’d said, then under her breath, as if she actually believed he wouldn’t overhear, Thank God I upped the life insurance. She’d been paying the premiums religiously ever since.
Twelve years was a long time. Long enough to have made preparations, to have put all his affairs in order, to have cleaned house so to speak. But he’d become accustomed to the rhythm of his slow lazy days in bed in the room at the top of the stairs, to keeping his calendar of doctor’s appointments, and visits by the home healthcare nurse. The pair of reading glasses he’d rigged to hang from the bathroom ceiling, dangled in front of him as he punched Kelvin’s number into the cellphone. The time had come to give his suits away.
Sukie was the practical one. Donate them to the Salvation Army, I can take a tax deduction, she said.
She’d stayed in the master bedroom after he moved into the room at the top of the stairs. She left the house early and came home late, until recently, when the dot.com crash cut into her clients’ budgets for expensive flowers. She seemed to be around all of the time now, hovering. He was aware of her the way he was aware of the hummingbirds flitting around the bougainvillea in the yard. Flashes of movement and color here and there, never still long enough to capture a fixed image. Or maybe it was the drugs. When they kicked in, the pain subsided and his world turned into a pleasant blur.
He called Kelvin and asked him to drive out from Scottsdale so he could give him his suits. He knew it was silly to have kept them, but they were custom made. They were about the same height. Once he’d been beefier than Kelvin, but their physiques had done a switch. Gordon had become the leaner of the two; Kelvin the one fighting the bulge. At least he still had his hair.
Kelvin didn’t have much to say, only that he would come. He would take the day off, the day after tomorrow, and he would come.
He said he thought it would be easy. A quick trip to visit an old friend. A day or two out of the office. The long drive would be a pain, but there was no getting around that. Gordon wanted him to have his suits. Good old Gordon, how long had it been? The last time he’d driven out he’d brought Yvette with him. Gordon got a real kick out her, called her Charo and poked at her boob job when they were in the hot tub, asking if the things could float. She’d been a good sport about it, but this time Gordon sounded serious, so he made the trip alone.
Sukie met him at the door. She had her pocketbook slung over her shoulder. Her car keys were already in her hand. She looked damned good with her hair up. Her honey colored pony tail pulled the skin on her face taut, the fan of fine lines that radiated from the corners of her eyes didn’t detract from her oddball beauty. Everything about her was a little off. That’s what loved about her looks. Here eyes were wide, grayish blue, her nose prominent, her teeth a bit too big for her mouth, but it all worked together. The first sight of her face always mad Kelvin breathe a little differently. He found himself standing up straighter and sucking in his gut when she pushed past him. No eye contact. No hello. No thanks for coming. No kiss. Then she was gone.
He took a breath before he climbed the carpeted stairs, and hesitated before he got to the door, wishing the floor was wood so that he would make some noise, some warning, so Gordon would be prepared. But the thick carpet ate the sound so Kelvin had to call out instead, Hey buddy. It’s me. I’m here, before he stepped into the room.
And there was Gordon, looking like a queen, lying on top of the covers, his head shaved bald, wearing a loose blue singlet, red boxer shorts printed with little yellow hearts, and white ankle socks. He had a pair a tortoise shell reading glasses pushed up onto his head. He was thin, but he didn’t look half bad, considering.
Hey man, Gordon said. What took you so long? Sit. Did you bring the stuff? Kelvin plunged his hand into his pocket, pulled out the plastic baggie, and waved it. Nothing but the best, he said, Kali Mist. Gordon pointed to a chair. The room was painted midnight blue and was strung with white Christmas lights. They were on even though it was the middle of the day. On a little wrought iron table was a glass ashtray, a butane lighter, and a roach clip tethered to a string of glass beads.
I did the best I could, Kelvin said. Actually he’d raided his son’s stash. He didn’t tell Gordon that, but Gordon laughed when Kelvin added, If your liver doesn’t kill you, this shit will. All the windows were closed. Air conditioning, Kelvin assumed. They smoked until he melted into the chair and Gordon was nodding on the bed. The glowing butt burned itself out hanging from the roach clip in Gordon’s hand.
By the time Sukie got back it was dark outside. If there were stars Kelvin couldn’t see them. The proportions of the room had skewed. Gordon and the bed were far away. The upholstered armchair felt enormous. The white in the windows had turned to black, and the sound of the downstairs door, opening and closing, was a muffled ball of sound. Time crawled. The room turned into a tunnel and Gordon was the light at the end of it, far, very far away.
She said she thought it would be easy. But deep down she knew better. Twelve years it had taken, twelve long years. Kookie Sukie. That’s what Gordon called her. And there was that asshole Kelvin, sitting stoned in what had once been her father’s chair, and Gordon asleep, smiling. Christ his color was better than hers. Kelvin had the nerve to wave to her and say, Hey Babe.
Then she saw the roach clip hanging from Gordon’s hand and something inside snapped. What are you? Crazy? she said. It came out as a strangled hiss. Kelvin shook his head. He asked for it, he said. What’s the difference at this point?
She walked over, and lifted the clip out of Gordon’s hand. There was still a charred nub in it. She walked over to the table next to Kelvin, picked up the lighter, flicked it, held the roach to her lips, and touched the flame to it. She inhaled a nice deep toke. Then another. And another. Christ the shit was strong.
Kelvin, the idiot, was smiling, and suddenly what she felt for him was a rush of love. All the hard edges in the room had softened. The colors melded together. The odor of the dope was sweet, and she imagined she could stop time, that she could wrestle with it, and win. Fickle stuff. As quickly as she was emboldened by it, the feeling changed. Suddenly she felt unbearably constrained, a prisoner of her clothes. Slowly, one piece at a time, she began to take them off. Her sneakers first. The cloth shoelaces felt like thick blades of dune grass in her fingers. Her jeans. Her T-shirt. Her bra. Her lace panties. She peeled them off until she was as naked as that night, half a lifetime ago, she and Gordon and Kelvin skinny dipped in the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay.
The tide had been dead low. They had to walk out so far on the flats that they lost sight of land and had to wait for the tide to turn so they could follow it back in. That was before Yvette, before Kathleen, before the English girl, Jane. Kelvin was with Lora then. She was a worker, bartending that night at the Barley Neck Inn up in Orleans. When she left him to move to Texas she’d asked Sukie if she wanted to come, but Sukie had never been that brave.
Now she stood as naked as she had been that night when her body was still something to see. Now it was an empty, useless thing. They’d never had kids. What a waste of a perfectly good body. Her stomach was still as flat as it was when she was nineteen and Gordon fell in love with her. She was never sure about that. What or who he’d really fallen in love with. Her body or her. Even now when he looked at her his eyes focused only on what she was from the neck down, as if what was above was faceless, someone he didn’t want to know. She stumbled a little, dizzied by the dope. She had to struggle to recapture her balance. As she did, she was suddenly cold. Gooseflesh rose on her arms.
Gordon was stretched out on the bed like he was already a corpse awaiting burial. His arms were crossed over his chest; his feet pointing straight up at the ceiling; the soles were pale yellow. For the first time Sukie allowed herself to see the yellowish tinge overtaking him. Slowly, carefully, she lay down next to him and molded her body to his. She pressed herself into his side, her free arm encircling his emaciated frame. Through the thin cotton knit of his shirt she could feel the washboard ripple of his ribs and the rise and fall of his breathing. Slowly he lifted his arm out from under hers and closed his hand over her shoulder. She could feel each of his fingers: one, two, three, four, five. The little white lights twinkled. The room was a blue box, imitating a sky sprinkled with stars. And Kelvin sat, watching. And Gordon’s palm burned like a hot coal pressed to her bare skin.
He said he thought it would be easy. Until he felt Sukie pressed to his side. They hadn’t touched in so long. Her skin was cold, colder than his. It made him tingle all over, or was it the dope? Leave it to Kelvin. He always did have the best dope.
He didn’t want to forget about his suits. Kelvin would look damn good in them. Designer labels. Nothing but the best way back when. Now there was nowhere left to go. This was it. This house. This room. This bed. Sukie would see to it he stayed out the hospital. She’d promised. When Kelvin levered himself out of the chair, Gordon heard but he kept his eyes closed. There was pressure on the bed as Kelvin positioned himself on the other side, draped his arm around both of them, and pulled them close, so close his grip was uncomfortable. But Gordon didn’t protest and he didn’t move. He lay there between the two of them holding onto each breath, savoring it, feeling the cool hard roundness of Sukie’s shoulder in his hand. He opened his eyes and for an instant he was startled by the intensity of the white twinkle lights. He turned his head away from them. Through the night blackened window he thought he could see a star, until he recognized it for what it actually was: only a reflection. Outside, on the other side of the glass, there was nothing.