By Thomas Kearnes
The first time Aras stumbled into the backyard, drunk and grinning, I didn’t think much of it. He’d no doubt found some hot dick and lost the ability to say no. I looked up and instantly knew the whole story. I’d seen gay men on television. No matter what you are, there’s a show made just for you. The house manager, Luther, had sprung for deluxe cable: movie channels, sports, music, whatever freaky shit TLC slaps on the screen.
“It won’t happen again,” Aras said, vowels thick in his mouth.
I wagered he would be evicted from the group home in less than two weeks, but I wasn’t getting involved. If he, however, could slip beneath Luther’s reproachful gaze, more power to him. When he pointed at the inside of my wrist, it gave me a start.
“What the fuck is that? DNR? You mean, Do Not Resuscitate?”
His waxy, bronze face drew up as he stepped around the table where I perched my laptop. I knew most homosexuals favored irony, a simple good morning requiring quotation marks. Hearing the concern in his voice stunned me.
“Why on earth would you get a tattoo of that? And so fucking big?”
I leaned back in his lawn chair and almost flipped backward. Our obese housemate had busted it.
“I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings,” I said.
He’d lived there only a week. He again promised me his outing was a one-time thing, but I knew his promise would break like uncooked spaghetti. It was a shame. He was the first housemate in several months not bewitched by profound mental illness, retardation or both. He was simply cooling his heels while attending a day program to address his pesky alcoholism. I was quietly thrilled when he plopped down in the lawn chair beside me.
Until him, I spent all damn night pretending to guard the house while actually playing Risk online or gorging on old seasons of The X-Files, that doctor show with George Clooney, The West Wing and other favorites from childhood. It’d been a while since I’d sparked a joint and ogled Gillian Anderson, but sober reruns still did the job. My only conversation was scary old Bud’s attempts at bonding.
“You’re the first person I’ve met who’s so”—Aras paused, looking for the word he wanted, “—flagrant in your giving up. You know, that’s really God’s decision. He has a plan for all of us, including you.”
Jesus, a Christian homosexual. Somebody call TLC.
“I don’t believe in any of that shit.” I expected him to jump in with the hard sell, just like assorted family members had when I was younger, when my family still knew where I lived. Instead, the man leaned forward slightly and looked at me, who couldn’t remember the last time when what I said made a difference to anyone. Even Luther treated me like a ghost, I’d lived there so long. I followed the rules. At least, I knew what would happen if I didn’t follow the most important one.
“Go on,” Aras said.
“It’s not some big boo-hoo story,” I warned. “You won’t see my ass on Dr. Phil.” One of my online friends messaged me. She lived way across the country, fucking Minnesota. She was kinda hot, too. I assumed she was damaged goods. Pretty girls don’t wind up alone by accident. Jackie Murtz sure hadn’t.
Minnesota could wait. I stretched. Saying it would force me to admit it really happened. Sometimes, in early-morning darkness, I imagined myself somewhere good and safe, a place I’d never encounter Jackie.
“She killed my baby,” I finally said. Like the few other times I’d confessed, I felt empty once the words left. I imagined a circus tent imploding, the animals and spectators already escaped.
“I would’ve been a kick-ass dad,” I said. “Guys with bad childhoods always are. We know what not to do.” I told Aras the rest, the grubby details, how sterile the abortion clinic was, like it’d never support human life.
I noticed how loud the crickets chirped. I must’ve stopped talking. The Minnesota girl had gone offline. He cleared his throat, crossed his legs at the knee. It was a casually feminine gesture, but it didn’t detract from the power he’d amassed by simply assuring me my story mattered. Scary old Bud should have taken notes.
The old man typically shuffled down the steps around midnight. I didn’t want the fucker to find me talking with Aras. Bud was jealous as any junior-high girl.
Aras opened his mouth but then tilted his head, as if a better idea lurked in the periphery. Finally, he asked me if I believed that God had given up on me.
“I don’t believe that shit,” I reminded him, my voice tense.
It was an overcast night, cool and damp. Beyond the fence, the neighborhood was alive. Firecrackers went off a couple of blocks north, some asshole celebrating New Year’s too early. Two young women strutted down the road, gossiping and laughing. A police siren wailed but its call faded to nothing quickly.
“Well, Quentin, don’t take this the wrong way, but God doesn’t give a shit what you think. His love is the only thing in this universe that truly lasts forever.”
I shook my head and grimaced, told Aras there was a hot girl online who wanted to Skype. He said he had to shove off. As he turned the corner, headed toward the gate, I called out, asking what God would think of him tricking. Wasn’t he a hypocrite? For a moment, my chest puffed out in victory—another believer shot down. He reappeared, hardly visible in the darkness. “I attend to my physical needs as devoutly as I do my spiritual ones.” He promised to be quiet when he returned.
Old scary Bud had been kicked out of the day program for calling one of the techs the n-word. Since then, he slept days and puttered around the backyard at night, sucking up his housemates’ coffee. He was small and walked with a stoop, unable to hold his head erect. Aras called him Buzzard.
“You got some real good coffee, Quentin.” After Bud said it, he grinned as if he’d asked me for a dance. I didn’t get it. Compliments repulsed me. It was like having a third hand. “I feel sorry for him,” Aras had joked when I told him. “He’s fucking lonely, so he talks to himself. That’s the only sucker willing to listen.”
Aras returned a few hours later. I heard the gate’s latch and panicked that Bud would rat out “the queer” without a thought, so I shoved Bud through the sliding glass door, into the kitchen. I promised the old man all the coffee he could drink.
“Take it from my own stash,” I said.
“You’re a good guy,” Bud sighed. “I’m so glad the VA sent me here.”
I’d already slammed the door.
Aras tottered toward me like a child’s top, spinning but losing power, listing to one side and then the other. His clothes were still neatly pressed, unwrinkled. I had trouble visualizing what sort of fumbling would leave him so tidy.
“We got naked the moment I opened the door,” he said. I rolled my eyes, forbidding him from revealing more. I returned to Risk. He wouldn’t stop grinning. “I have a surprise,” he cooed.
I asked if it was a woman. After two years since my last fuck, I’d take ugly chicks, fat chicks, old chicks, any chick. “If she knows how to spread, I’ll take her to bed,” I said. He wasn’t paying attention, instead rummaging through his backpack.
As if from the sky, a quarter bag of marijuana plunked upon my keyboard.
“For keeping my little secret,” he said. “Let’s roll one before Buzzard gets back.”
My stomach knotted and I forgot to breathe. Luther had warned me that if he caught me smoking weed again, he’d pack my shit for me. Six months ago, desperate for a high, I’d unearthed a local dealer through a message board. I knocked the plastic bag off the table.
“Okay,” he said, “no need to freak out.” He asked me if he had a secure place to hide it…in case I changed my mind. I pretended Risk engrossed me, the multicolored map reflecting off my thick glasses. He confessed he didn’t know anyplace safe from Luther. “Please,” he said, “you know I’m your friend.”
I crumbled. I despised compliments, but friendship was different. I wanted friends not stuck behind a laptop hundreds or thousands of miles away. I took the bag.
“Just let me know next time you wanna toke up,” I said. “I’ll join you.”
I didn’t get to sleep that morning. The house fell into pandemonium. Without warning, Luther evicted the obese housemate who had busted most of the lawn chairs. The obese man didn’t go quietly. He demanded to know what he’d done wrong.
“You bust all the damn furniture!” Luther hollered. “You eat too much damn food!”
Aras didn’t hear about the eviction until returning from the day program that afternoon. When I assumed my backyard post, he asked if Luther was always so fickle with his tenants. I didn’t answer at first. After all, Luther had taken me in when my only other option was The Salvation Army. I had hardly any family, no real-world friends. The backyard was my world, and I hesitated to criticize the man who provided it. Finally, I looked at him.
“Cool it with the dick-hunt, okay?”
He leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette but forgot to smoke it.
The next few weeks, we managed to find frequent stretches of time to spark up. I had to roll them; he never bothered to learn, he said, because someone always did it for him. Casting a furtive glance toward the sliding glass door, I asked where Bud was hiding himself.
“I taught Buzzard how to order free porn,” he said.
I hacked up a bank of smoke, kept shuddering with laughter. “If I walk in there and he’s spanking his spud, it’s all on you.”
He smiled and took a hit. “Tell me about the tattoo,” he said. “What was going through your head the day you stopped called it quits?” I looked at him, almost hurt. “Metaphorically, of course,” he added.
Both of us wore winter coats. Mine was an ill-fitting polyester potato sack that Luther had given me. Aras, on the other hand, wore a black wool pea coat. I couldn’t believe how slick he dressed on only a government check.
“Yes,” he said, “I like this coat, too. Tell me about getting the tattoo.”
“I was drunk,” I said.
“I think every tattoo story begins that way.” He laughed. I gave him a sour look. “Sorry, sorry, go on. How long ago was it?”
I’d been twenty-nine. It was five years ago. I had been alone, drinking and wondering whether I should call my sister, the only one in my family still talking to me. I’d called Jackie. At least, I’d called the last number I had for her. It was disconnected. I’d dialed again, believing the recorded response was a special message from Jackie to me. A Law and Order rerun played on TV. The case dealt with a husband wanting to pull the plug on the wife he’d put into a coma so she couldn’t testify against him. The DA discovered the wife had a DNR directive in her living will. I couldn’t remember how it ended.
“It sounded like a great idea,” I said, taking a toke. “I mean, if something happened to me, my family wouldn’t give a shit, so the doctors needed to know I can take a hint.” At the house next door, a bedroom light came on. I hoped no one eavesdropped.
“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”
The question took me by surprise. I suspected he’d believed it since first noticing the tattoo, but I admired the audacity it took to ask.
“I don’t believe in suicide,” I said. He grinned. “I’ll die when I’m done living.”
“When God says you’re done living,” he added.
Neither of us noticed Bud on the back porch watching us.
“I knew I smelled that wacky tabacky,” he cried. “This is a sober house! Luther said so! I ain’t sharing a house with two druggies. Fuck you both!”
I froze. I couldn’t think of how to tame Bud. To my astonishment, Aras dashed across the backyard and grabbed Bud by the arm. He threatened to tell Luther about the porn Bud watched at night.
“It’s really not free,” Aras said, smirking.
“Bullshit,” Bud grumbled. “That’s not what you said.”
I watched Aras’s features darken. I couldn’t help wanting to rescue Bud.
“Well,” Aras said, “it looks like I wasn’t completely honest.” He yanked open the sliding glass door and shoved Bud into the kitchen. “There’s no such thing as free pussy.” He slammed the door. After making sure Bud wouldn’t return, he confided that the porn was indeed free, but Bud was too idiotic to figure it out.
“That’s damn sneaky,” I said, slowly sinking back into his seat. “You should play Risk with me some time.”
Their reprieve lasted only one night.
The next evening, not long after the late news, Luther swung by the house, hoping to catch whomever was watching all the porn. Aras was wrong: the porn was not free. No pussy worth having ever is. He walked in on Bud gaping up at the widescreen TV in the living room. Neither Aras nor I noticed the commotion. When Luther barreled onto the back porch, I was passing the joint to him. Worse than that, there was the burnt-rope odor. All three of us stood motionless, each one knowing something terrible must happen.
Aras spoke first. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Quentin told me you two had an understanding about the weed. He said as long as we didn’t do the hard stuff, you didn’t mind weed if everyone was asleep. I swear, Luther, that’s what Quentin said!”
I felt emptied out, like when I confessed the abortion. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Jackie used to call me Dumb. She called herself Dumber for dating me. I always forced a laugh. I knew I should fight my false friend’s lies but had no idea how. I wasn’t clever; I couldn’t live by my wits. I’d never won a single game of Risk. I broke from my trance when my laptop beeped.
The girl from Minnesota was worried—we hadn’t chatted for a couple of weeks.
“Quentin, you knew what would happen if I caught you again,” Luther said. “Did you bring weed into this house?”
I slowly shook my head.
“Don’t lie!” Luther’s bellow woke the neighbors, one pale yellow light after another escaping the windows. “You’re lying about it and you’re getting other people involved…” Luther crossed his arms behind his head, stretched his back. Perhaps he wanted me to believe the decision wasn’t already made.
I wondered if my government check would cover a weekly motel near the coast. I finally mustered the courage to glance at Aras.
His pea coat wrapped around him, he sadly shook his head. “I will pray for you.” As Luther watched, he placed a hand on my shoulder. “God never gives up on anyone.”
Four days later, in the motel parking lot, Luther let the minivan idle. Did I feel safe?
“Safe enough,” I said.
“Those two jokers over there are dealing dope,” Luther observed.
“I couldn’t afford the Ramada.”
Chastened, Luther swallowed and gazed out the windshield. “Text me if any shit goes down,” he said. “You know I still look out for you.” I waved limply as Luther backed out of the lot.
Jackie would’ve liked Aras, he thought. They’d get on like black and blue.
I’d taken the room after learning the motel had WiFi. I was curious to see who played Risk during the daytime. After paying the week’s rent, I had $1,100 remaining for the month. My laptop moaned with life, and grim arithmetic filled my head. Luther had been right. Those two guys were obviously dealers. Surely, there were whores nearby.
No names, no faces, no regrets.
I opened a drawer, looking for the phone book. The Bible greeted me. It was a poor printing, a cover of fraying tan fabric, the stitched letters spelling HOLY BIBLE almost impossible to make out. Reaching inside, I glimpsed DNR on my wrist and my gaze jerked back to the laptop. I hoped the WiFi worked. Might as well flip through this, I decided. I had no books of my own, of course, and while sometimes WiFi connected at once, you couldn’t count on making that connection. Whatever the delay, I could wait. I wasn’t expecting anyone.
Copyright Kearnes 2019