Dave tossed his cheeseburger down, slapping the table. His plate wobbled, and the burger slid forward, landing upside down, a dark ketchup smear trailing behind. “Don’t even say shit like that. Why would you say that? It’s not funny, all right?” Several students at other tables turned and looked at him. He turned to one of them. “What the fuck’re you looking at?”
Liza shook her head. She touched Dave’s forearm, lowering her voice. “No. Seriously. Stephen killed himself. Why would I joke about something like that?”
Dave’s scowl evaporated. “What? What the hell?”
Courtney walked over, glancing at both of them as she set her books down. “Uh, hey, guys.” She paused. “What’s up?”
“What? What about Stephen?”
Dave spoke softly, not looking up from the overturned cheeseburger. “He killed himself.”
“What? How? I mean. Why?”
Liza sniffled and wiped away a tear. “Apparently, his parents found out.”
Courtney put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, God. Jesus! They did?”
Liza nodded. “Yeah.”
“Found out what?” Dave put the cheeseburger back on his plate.
Liza rolled her eyes at Dave. “That he was gay.’
“Fuck. I thought they knew. I mean, it wasn’t something he hid’r anything. I mean…” Dave shook his head. “I figured they must know.”
Courtney stared at the red smear on the table. “It’s wasn’t something he hid from us. Here. Outside school, no one knew. Nobody in his hometown knew anything. He felt safe here.”
Dave looked down. “Not safe enough, apparently.”
Liza stared at the salt and pepper shakers on the table. “You mean he wasn’t safe enough, or he didn’t feel safe enough?”
Dave pulled a napkin from the napkin dispenser, and wiped the ketchup smear. “Well, obviously he didn’t feel safe enough. I mean, why wouldn’t he have told any of us if he was having a problem with his parents? I mean, he had all our numbers and e-mails. It didn’t have to end like that.”
Liza stared at her salad. “I know. I mean, I dunno. He didn’t leave a note.”
Dave nodded. “I figured. I mean, he was never much of a talker.” He looked down. “Why start now?”
Courtney sighed, lowering her head. “Because it mattered now.”
Liza picked up her fork. “Yeah, well . . . It mattered then, too.” She stabbed her salad, looked at it, then tossed the fork back in the bowl. “Shit…”
Dave pulled away from the table, taking his tray in one hand. “I can’t fucking deal with this right now. I have a thesis to write.” He rolled up the ramp with his tray, switching hands, pushing with the free one until he made it to the top.
Son of a bitch.
Dave put the tray on the conveyor belt going into the kitchen and rolled out of the Student Center. He rolled up the hill, pumping his arms, trying to make sense of it all.
We were friends. Weren’t we all friends? Why wouldn’t he talk to us before doing something like … that? And how could he do that to us, and his parents?
Dave rolled into his room and shut the door. He turned on his monitor, staring at the screen.
Gotta get my thesis done this month. He had been trying to pull together a thesis on J.D. Salinger and his view of childhood innocence in Catcher in the Rye all semester. It seemed pointless now.
The phone rang. Dave wheeled over and picked it up.
“Hey. How’re you? I haven’t heard from you in a week so I thought I’d touch base.”
“Hi, Mom. Yeah. Sorry. I’ve been busy with school stuff.”
“You all right?”
Shit. I don’t want her worrying about me. About this… “Not really. I’ll be all right, though.”
His mother’s voice grew more concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Dave took a deep breath. “Do you remember my friend Stephen? Blond hair? Kind of a bowl haircut? I think you met him once.”
“The guy who brought you the power strip? That one?”
Dave nodded into the phone. “Yeah. That’s him.”
“What about him?”
Dave searched for words. “HHe killed himself.”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Are you … okay?”
“Not really. I’ll be fine, though.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. It’s still too new. But thanks.”
“Okay. Call me if you wanna come home. Paul or I could come get you.”
“Okay.” She paused. “Well, I’ll let you go.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you later, Mom.”
“Okay.” She paused again. “You sure you’re okay? We could come get you. It’d be no problem.”
“No. It’s fine. I just have to think, I guess.”
“All right. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
Dave hung up.
A knock on the door. Dave rolled over and opened it. Liza was standing there with tear-stained
cheeks. “You left. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Dave backed away from the door and waved her in. “Are you?”
Liza shook her head. ”I dunno. It’s hard. I mean, we used to hang out all the time, y’know? Me, Courtney, Jeff, and Stephen. We were together so much, people used to think we were couples’r something. But then, after Stephen transferred out, we didn’t talk. I mean, it was long-distance, and that’s expensive. Neither of us was working, y’know?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I know. I’m sure he understood that.”
“I just — I wish I could’ve told him I cared, y’know? That he mattered.”
Dave shook his head, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Look, I’m sure he knew that. You were a good friend.”
Liza looked down. “You remember the Tide joke?”
“Yeah.” Dave swallowed.
Early last semester, Stephen had been starting a load of laundry. He had reached for a box of detergent on a shelf, and somehow (which Dave was fuzzy on, because he wasn’t there) he managed to spill it over his head. For the rest of the semester, all his friends (including Dave) would wipe away the unseen detergent from his shoulder before they started talking to him. “Looks like you got something on your shirt there, Stephen…”
“Maybe we… Maybe we shouldn’t’ve done that. I mean, we weren’t trying to be mean…”
Dave lowered his head, then looked back up. “It was a joke. Look, we were all friends. I mean, Stephen was a little quiet, but you guys always included him in things. I mean, I was always off in the computer lab, or hanging out with Joe’r Cari, or whatever, but I was with you guys sometimes, and I didn’t see anything mean. I would’ve said something.”
“Would you have?”
“Well, yeah. I’d like to think so.”
“I just don’t get this. Why did he do it?”
Dave sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. The few times he and I hung out alone together, he’d usually read me his poetry. The words sounded nice an’ all, but I never quite got it, y’know? He was always just this nice guy, a little off, that liked to write poetry.” He shook his head. “The only other thing
I knew about him was he had a crush on Joe’s girlfriend at one point. Looking back now, I don’t get it, but maybe that was him trying to be straight.” He paused. “One time, when Joe and Christy were sort of broken up, he’d asked me if he should say something to her. He didn’t seem to understand it was inappropriate. I had to tell him to back off.”
“Do you think he’s okay now?”
Dave bristled. “Uh, you mean other than being dead?”
“You know what I mean.”
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He stroked his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “You’re probably asking the wrong guy.”
Liza shook her head, hugging herself, looking down at the floor. “I know you don’t believe in God. You’re still spiritual, though.”
Liza brought her gaze back up. “When you had that dream about Cari – that she died – you told me you were scared shitless.” She shook her head. “People who don’t believe in anything don’t think like that.”
“Yeah, well … I dunno. I just don’t assume I know how things work.” He paused. “Maybe Stephen’s fine. I hope Stephen’s fine. For someone to feel so shitty about himself, I hope he found peace, and not just … nothing.”
Liza sniffled. “I think he’s okay.”
“I can tell you this:” Dave touched her elbow, and Liza’s arms unlocked, falling to her sides. “He’s not hurting anymore.”
She nodded and smiled faintly. “Thanks.” She paused. “Are you going to the funeral?”
“Funeral? Stephen’s … I mean… He was an atheist.”
“His parents’re giving him a funeral next week. Thursday at 11”
“So’re you going?”
“I’ve got a lot of work to do.” He hooked his thumb back over at the computer. “My thesis…”
“Oh…” For a few seconds, there was only the sound of the computer fan. “Well, I should go. I’ve got an eight-o’clock tomorrow.”
Dave nodded. “All right. I’ll talk to you later. Stop by again when you get a chance, or I’ll come up.”
“Sure.” Liza nodded and walked out the door.
Funeral? No goddamn way I’m going to a funeral for that selfish son of a bitch. Look how he left the people who care about him.
The elevator always smelled like piss. Old piss. Who the hell takes a leak in an elevator? Dave pushed the button for the second floor. He was pressed down into his seat for a second, and then felt a slight bounce as the elevator stopped.
“Come on. Open.” He felt the usual momentary panic when the doors wouldn’t open, and then heard the beep as the elevator stopped and the doors released him. He exited and turned left, through the air stained with the faint smell of pot.
Dave knocked on Jeff’s door.After a second, Jeff opened it, and stood aside, waving Dave inside. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Dave rolled in. “I heard what happened. How’re you holding up?”
Jeff sighed. “Still in shock, I guess. I mean, what the fuck?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah.”
“I heard you were pissed.”
“Who told you that?”
Jeff gestured towards the door. “I was talking to Courtney before. She stopped by.”
“She told me you got up and walked away from her and Liza.”
Dave smiled. “Okay, two things: First of all, I didn’t get up. And I sure as hell didn’t walk away.”
“All right. Good point, I guess. You okay?”
Dave shrugged. “I’m just pissed.”
“Yeah. Me, too. I mean, we were roommates for two years. How could he not tell me something was wrong? How could I not see it?”
Dave stared at the R.E.M. poster above Jeff’s bed.
GREEN WORLD TOUR 1989
A predictably green background was dominated by tall, thin trees in black silhouette. Maybe redwoods. A dirt path went through them, disappearing in the distance, overcome by the trees.
Dave shook his head. “No matter how well you know someone, you can only know them so well, I guess.” He motioned at the poster. “Good album?”
Jeff sighed. “Not their best, but yeah, pretty good.”
“The funeral’s on Thursday.”
“Yeah. Liza told me.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh, okay.” Jeff paused. “I’m going. Stephen’d hate it, though.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You know how his parents found out?”
Dave shook his head. “No. I just know they found out he was gay.”
“They convinced him to go to some Christian camp over the summer. Apparently, he and another camper got caught…” Jeff shook his head.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m sure he only agreed to go to make them happy, and it ends up…” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, I don’t mean to kick you out, but I’ve got Psychology reading to do. What time’re you going to dinner?”
“I’ll see you then.”
“All right. Cool.”
Dave finally made it down to dinner at 6:30. He would’ve been earlier, but he’d forgotten about a paper he had to write for a literary criticism class. Jeff had apparently already left the dining hall. Dave rolled up to their usual table and ate his cheeseburger and fries. There was some kind of rappish-hip-hoppish noise coming from the jukebox, and Dave’s chest started to vibrate, so he ate as quickly as possible, and made his way back up the ramp with his tray.
If Courtney thinks I was pissed, I should go up and see her. Don’t want any bad feelings…
Back to the pissavator. He pushed 3 and waited. When the doors finally opened, he turned right and rolled down the hall to 316, and knocked on the door.
Courtney opened the door. “Hey.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Hey. How’re you doing?”
“All right. Considering.” She motioned him in.
“Look, I just wanted you to know … I wasn’t mad back at lunch. Not at anything you’r Liza said.”
Courtney shook her head. “Yeah, I know. It was a big shock for all of us.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“No. Not really. It doesn’t seem real. I mean, Stephen was the most gentle guy, y’know? He was so, I dunno… meek. This just doesn’t make sense. I can’t think of him as violent or destructive, even towards himself. And then… to hang himself.”
“Jesus Christ. He hanged himself?”
“Yeah. Jeff didn’t tell you?”
“No. I only heard about the camp.”
“Yeah. They stopped at a rest stop on the way home. Burger King, I think. He went into the bathroom, and…” She shrugged, sniffled, and wiped her nose.
Courtney nodded. “Yeah.” She waved her hand at a book on her desk. The lamp was on, with an overturned paperback under it. “He loved Thoreau. The one thing you could always get him to talk about was Walden. He used to go out into the woods, just find a quiet spot with his notebook, and write. I was in class with him last semester. We were studying transcendental literature. He was in,” she smiled, nodded, “heaven”.
Dave swallowed. He raised his hand to touch her shoulder, but thought better of it, and let his hand fall back in his lap.
Courtney’s eyes fixed on the crucifix hanging over her bed. “I know he’s okay. He’s at peace.” Her eyes sought out Walden again. “I mean, suicide’s a sin, technically, but he has to be okay. He was a good guy. Even if he didn’t believe.” She sniffled and wiped her nose.
Dave let his hand touch her shoulder. “I know he was.”
“And I know he wouldn’t’ve wanted a funeral, but he should be remembered somehow.” She looked at Dave. “Are you going?”
He withdrew his hand. Fuck. “No. I have … stuff to do.”
“Oh.” Courtney lowered her head, giving a slight nod. “I know you’re angry.”
He glanced at the floor, then back to her. “I’m not.”
“Yeah. You are.”
Dave sighed. “Okay. Yeah. Maybe I am. I just… I can’t deal with how selfish he was, and how he left everyone hurt and feeling guilty and abandoned. I mean… I dunno.”
“Yeah, I know. But it wasn’t him. If it was up to him, he’d be here.”
Dave felt the anger rise up in his throat. He waved his hand across the room. “So where the hell
is he? How can you kill yourself when you’re a goddamn atheist? Who the fuck would just jump into oblivion? What sense does that make? And to hurt all your friends?”
Courtney shook her head. “You’re not thinking about it the right way.”
“Rational people don’t kill themselves. Well, they do, sometimes, but not out of despair. Dying for nothing doesn’t make any sense. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah… I guess.” Dave shifted in his chair and looked down.
“Think about it, okay?”
“Yeah.” Jesus Christ! “Well, I’ll let you get back to your reading. Have a good night.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Thursday came. Dave spent it working on his thesis. Or, at least, looking at his thesis. The white space on the page stayed unchanged for hours. He glanced at the clock on his night-stand, and noted when the funeral would start. He tried to focus, but could only think of a black coffin with brown dirt. Son of a bitch.
Around noon, he decided he couldn’t do anything. So he slept. He turned his desk lamp off, laid down on his bed, and slept a dreamless, inert sleep.
A knock. He opened his eyes and glanced at the red LEDs of his alarm clock. 3:30. He pulled himself into his chair and rolled to the door.
Jeff was standing there. “Hey.”
“Hey. Sorry I didn’t go. How was — I mean, how’d it go?”
“It was a funeral. Lots of crying people. A priest. Open casket. Stephen looked okay. Realistic, I mean, not like someone else.”
Dave rubbed his eyes and nodded. “That’s good.”
“What’ve you been doing?”
“Trying to work on my thesis. Sleeping. Mostly sleeping, I guess.”
“Look, while we were there, I talked to Courtney and Liza about it. We’re going to hold a little ceremony, outside in the woods. A poe for Stephen.”
“I think he’d like that.”
“You’re welcome to join us, if you want to.”
Dave tried to smile and nodded. “Thanks.”
“It’ll be at 8, out in the woods. Stop by my room a few minutes before and we’ll go.”
“ Thanks. I’ll have to see. I have a lot of stuff going on.”
Jeff nodded. “I know. Just wanted to let you know the plan.”
“All right. Take care, and get some sleep. You look like shit.”
Jeff waved and left, closing the door behind him.
Dave looked at the clock. 7:30. He thought about Stephen, and how he’d given him the power strip – actually went out, bought, and given him the power strip. About the meals they’d all shared. About the times that he’d reached out, even if Dave didn’t understand him. And then, Dave thought about the terrible pain and isolation in Stephen’s last moments.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why he did it, or why he couldn’t reach out to us. He couldn’t, he didn’t, and he died. He did something stupid and selfish, but he was still a good friend. And he deserved better from this life, even if his final act was an anguished “Fuck you” to everyone who loved him.
At 7:50, Dave knocked on Jeff’s door.
They met up behind the dorm, far enough away in a clump of trees that no one would see them. It was late September, and the cold twilight air chilled Dave’s wheel-rims.
The rules of the poe were simple. You ripped a page out – at random – from your favorite book. (It could be a photocopy, if you didn’t want to destroy the book itself. It just had to be a random page.) You cut the page up, line by line, then word by word. In the end, you had a random pile of words. Everybody brought their pile to the poe, and you dumped out all the words into the coffee can. Everyone picks a word out of the can, and the poem is made from the words.
They all reached into the can. Dave took the first piece of paper. Liza reached in, holding herself back, as if the pile could reach out and grab her. Jeff went next, then Courtney. They all stood in a circle.
Dave opened his paper. Liza tapped his shoulder. “Don’t look at it yet! We all throw them down at once.” She closed her eyes.
“Oh yeah. Right.” Dave sat with the paper in his hand.
Jeff whispered. “Ready?”
They all nodded.
Dave exhaled. “All right. Let’s go.”
They all dropped the words, and watched them flutter to the ground. Jeff squatted down to look at them, flipping the pieces of paper that had landed face-down, reading them as he went.
“Purple. Goddam. Cup. Heaven.” Jeff looked at the words. “So that’s the poem, then. ‘Purple goddam cup heaven’.”
Dave stared at the scraps of paper.
Courtney shook her head. “What’s it mean?”
A faint smile worked its way between Liza’s lips. “It says ‘heaven’. Maybe that’s Stephen.” She looked around at the others, nodding. “Maybe he’s okay.”
Jeff slowly rose to his feet, shaking his head. “Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Liza closed her eyes and shook her head, taking a step back from Jeff. “Don’t say that! Don’t … Don’t say that.”
Courtney wiped away a tear. “Yeah. What kinda thing is that to say?” She looked at the words. “‘Cup’. With ‘heaven’, could that have something to do with…communion?”
Dave turned toward Courtney. “No. Jeff’s right. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a randomly-assembled poem. What were we expecting?” He paused. “Look…” He held a hand up. “I don’t know if there’s anything after we die. I don’t. I’d like to think so, but…” He shrugged. “What I do know is that if there’s an afterlife, you don’t talk to people there through pieces of paper.” He exhaled. “It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. Whatever talking to us he’s gonna do, he did while he was here. We don’t have to like like what he did. I don’t. I’m still fucking pissed off. But we have to accept it. Whatever talking he’s gonna do, he’s already done.”
Courtney wiped the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I don’t believe that.”
Dave pulled his hand back through his hair. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just… I don’t know.” He sat silent for a moment, looking at the scraps of paper. “I’m sorry.”
Courtney shook her head, turning away from him. “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.”
Liza picked up the can. “I don’t know if Stephen can see us, or hear us.” She scanned the dark silhouettes of the trees. “I don’t know if those words on the ground mean anything. I hope they do. All I know is, all of the other things that’ve gone on since he died – the viewing, the funeral – they were all for the people left behind. They weren’t for him. They were held in his honor, but they weren’t for him.”
Dave whispered, “Funerals’re for the living.”
Liza nodded. “Right. None of it was for Stephen. This is something for him. He loved poetry, and he loved doing these poes.” She turned to Jeff, holding out the can. “You wanna do the honors?”
Jeff nodded and pulled out his lighter. “Yeah.” He flicked the lighter on, its flame casting an orange, flickering glow against his face.
They picked up their pieces of paper. Dave, Liza, and Courtney put them back into the can. Jeff lit his word on fire, and threw it in. As the paper ignited, Jeff set the can down, and they all watched the paper burn. When the words were burnt up, Courtney knelt down, picked up the still-warm can, and scattered the ashes in the air.
Dave stared out into the darkness. The only sound was the wind filtering through the trees.
Brian Hartman lives in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He has been writing short stories for as long as he can remember. He is currently working on a mosaic novel, Long-Distance Dedications, which he hopes to have finished this year.