James calls in the pre-dawn hours, quoting Nietzsche. He doesn’t speak words of his own, doesn’t make a formal request, doesn’t imply that something might happen. He just calls, so I come, and by mid-morning he is demanding I leave.
“I need to do this,” he says, cross-legged on the shag carpet of his second-story apartment building, a pipe in one hand, a torch lighter in the other. “Get out.”
Except he doesn’t want me gone. This is his way: to pull until a witness is present, to push until something stops him. Life has never truly been on the line for James; I never knew what was. Boredom, I think. Then responsibility. Now a leftover, sullen resentment of something inside him. Regardless, it was me he called, without care for my position at the college, my own kids, my own wife, the light in her smile going out at the sight of his number on my phone.
“I don’t see you moving,” he says. He rises from the floor, treads to the stereo, flicks through album after album. He pulls out a black disc, sets it on the turntable, and drops the needle.
James twists the dial. The bass comes in — thump thump, thump — the horns. I can feel the flush in my face. It’s not like him to put on the Temptations, not after all these years. It’s not like him to turn it up until the floorboards shake, to get that sound so loud I can’t hear myself think. And he didn’t used to sing out of key, like he does now, shouting:
Papa! Papa! Papa was a roooolllin—
The philosopher I knew—James Carston, the King, tattered t-shirts with a six-inch beard, all limbs, no muscle, tufts of arm hair, striking eyes that were gold on brilliant days, green on mediocre, and mud-grey on the rest—had a voice like calculus. Correct.
—wherever, wherever, wherever he laid his hat!—
He throws the off-kilter sound at me, eyes seeking, unblinking. It’s a soul withered, husk without water, pupils gone minuscule stare that turns me into a ghost and shovels up the heart of me at once. A gaze the likes of which Augustine gave men in the dark after fucking.
—when he died! mama, mama, when he died—
There’s spittle in the air.
—he DIED alooohoone—
“Those aren’t the lyrics, King,” I say.
“Get, the fuck, out.”
“You know how they go.”
“I knew how they went. Memories, polyvinyl chloride, God’s promises carved in stone, it all changes as the years go.”
“Interpretations change, but the words coming out your loud-ass speakers haven’t moved a syllable.”
He glances at the speakers, the lids of his eyes narrowing into slits.
“In my chest it’s different,” the King says.
“‘All he left us was alone’ is what the Temps sing. You’re changing the narrative structure, taking away the people who live after him.”
“Who live after Papa,” James says the word like it’s a threat.
“Turn off the song. These aren’t those days.”
James drops to the carpet, picks up the pipe and lighter.
“Run, Liam,” he says. His hands come together but some magnetic singularity in the middle, me, probably, keeps them from closing. “Run out the door and don’t come back. You know it’ll be peace, be easy, be like watching the news.”
I move to the wall and put a finger on the fat wheel of the stereo.
“I’ll do it with you here if I have to,” he says.
I dial it down. The thump thump, thump of the bass line ceases to plow through the apartment. He brings the blue cone of fire to his right hand; misses the bowl, sears his finger.
“Fuck you! Turn it up!”
I leave the dial where it is and move in front of him. I sit down and place a hand on each of my knees. I look into him, but he’s not there.
A month ago, I got a call from his ex-wife, Elena. She said his dissertation was draining him, that he was conducting a study on what man can do with mind in spite of body degradation, that he was the only subject. He said he was no scientist, that philosophy was humanitarian order and the only true test was one conducted on a noble specimen. She said he was raving and weeping. Then she told me he’d collapsed while teaching his semantics lecture. A river of black blood down his forehead, staining his tweed jacket, covering the floor. She said the first-years called an ambulance, ran out like a man with a gun had taken the classroom.
I can see the scar, a straight slash from his receding hair line to the lip of his eye.
“You’d do well to think about those who will live after you,” I say. “I know you haven’t seen them in months. They’re getting big.”
“Playing the family card on an extremely logical narcissist is not the way to win this battle.”
“It’s not a card, James. It’s two lives. It’s three if you think about Elena. Four if you’ve got some life left of your own. Five, since you called me and put on this song and can’t claw your way out alone. She told me about your experiment.”
James draws in his long, lanky frame. He stares at his hand, sucking on his lower lip and beard like he always does.
I close my eyes.
Then James shouts “Papa!” and leaps up. He’s a skeleton leaning to adjust the knobs. The music doubles in sound, triples. The bass hits me in the chest. Thump thump, thump. We’re in the instrumental and still the King shouts Papa.
“I miss you,” I say.
“What?” he yells.
“I miss you!” I shout at him.
“This recollective bullshit makes me want to die, Liam. You know it does.”
“I thought you already wanted to die.”
“Humor is sallow coming from you.”
“You want me to watch it, right here?”
“You can threaten me with your pathetic recession but I can’t say a word about it? You wave around your little dick of a lighter over and over and it’s every time, right around now, that I figure out how to take you back. How to save you.”
“I’m not asking you to save me, not this time.”
“Then why’d you call?”
There’s silence between us, even as the music pumps. The kind of silence between men whose lives lead in places they’ve secretly and quietly and forever hated. Lives apart. But the Temps are building into the chorus: the horns crest in crescendo, the art-deco glass chandelier over our heads begins to shake. A small tear-shaped piece of it falls to the carpet between us.
“You hear that?” James says. He’s looking over me. It’s hard to hear anything but Hey Mama. He rises and stomps to the door, whips it open, pipe in hand.
I look: a woman, blonde-haired, pink shirt, couple of stains with sweatpants, neighbor, I think, has the Kings’ pipe and is verbally laying into him. I can’t hear the words, I can’t hear anything but what sent papa to an early grave. I see James standing there, a good foot taller than her, body hanging on the door, still as a lion.
I watch as he paws for the pipe, as she lets it drop, as it shatters on the ground.
He lays the full meat and bone of his fist into the woman. Janine, I’m remembering, with the twin toddlers and the mid-day walks around the building, them all sucking Otter Pops. It’s just the one single smack but she’s on the ground and James, the King, is roaring above her.
“The incandescence of your light, Janine, your shining, opulent, fuck-face of a soul is not worth five cents. Not a penny. You shatter my things and I will shatter you.”
James turns to come inside; he’s going to leave her, lying there like that.
“James!” I push the door open just as he’s closing it, “you can’t, you can’t,” but he’s moved on, headed to the back room for what comes after the pipe is gone.
I use both hands to check Janine. She’s dazed on the concrete, a red welt turning half her face blue. I call the police.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
The tethered calm of the officer’s voice brings me back. Back to college when James insisted that air in the veins took one closer to transcendental revelation. Back to the Disillusionment Experiment—us in a room, naked, trying to understand what it is to be men in love. To not know and be safe in the void of that unknown.
“Sir, are you there?”
James mixing substances in the woods, a chemist of the highest order. James sticking a tattoo needle into his leg, tracing a circle over and over. James breaking bones on the sidewalk and in bars and whenever he could not come down, when he could not get out. James face down on the concrete Los Angeles riverbed, his daughter’s name coming in ragged gasps.
“Sir, are you alright?”
This moment—on the phone with the police—was always the part where I looked at James, shook my head, and told them “Sorry, misdial.” He’s a warrior, mind and body. The Philosopher King. We always walked that edge hand in hand, him balancing, one foot into the abyss; when he climbed down it was my duty keep to him from disappearing.
“Sir, please respond.”
Except he’s gone inside now, out of sight. There is some animal loss in his form today, black pinpoints of fear and resolve in the dead center of his eyes. When he died blares like a chant through the open door and a bleeding, bruised woman has his handprint stuck to the side of her face.
“I’d like you to come by and have a chat with my friend,” I say. I proceed with the details, my face hot. Then the call’s over and I’m brushing hair out of Janine’s face and getting her upright, ushering her down the steps, through her door, sitting her at a table, putting ice cubes in a Ziploc, telling her, “Stay safe, stay here.”
Still the horns thunder down, looping, like ceilings and floors have no name.
I walk up the steps and slam his front door. He’s hunched over himself on the floor cooking tiny pressed pills into water with his butane. I tell him I called the cops but it doesn’t phase the King.
“James!” I stomp the ground next to him. The almost-liquid spills onto the carpet. He screeches and leaps up, grabs the lapels of my shirt and pulls me to him, popping buttons, hands shaking.
“I called the cops,” I say. I watch his face flare and burn out and flare again as the music pumps. His breath is rancid, his pores open. I shrug out of his grip and switch the stereo off.
The silence has its own sound.
“They’ll be by, two of them, in ten minutes. A knock on the door, policemen in uniform with guns and tasers. They know you hit Janine. They know you’re high. They know I’m here. You’re taking this too far, James.”
“Life’s on the outer rim, Papa.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You can call me King, but I can’t call you Papa? Where’s the order in that?”
“A nice, detailed explanation feels obtuse at this point.”
“I don’t give a shit. What has changed, what makes this day different from all the others?”
“Logic doesn’t dictate this thing inside,” James says, head down, face gone soft. He taps his chest. “I’ve tried to hold it but it slips through. I’ve tried to dice it into pieces, but it rebuilds. It’s in me, Liam, it’s in my marrow.”
James takes his shirt off. He never had a gut or muscle, but his skin’s recessed now, bones like sandworms resting under the desert floor.
“No amount of counterpoints can be made,” he says, and slaps his bare skin. “The kids are growing with or without me. Elena has them dialed in, she’s got my blood. The institutions are crumbling. I am not a member any longer, I can’t be. There are bills and drugs and boredom, always. Then there’s us.”
“This doesn’t have to be about us.”
“That was a list of the shit. The shit does not matter. The shit is predicated, is meaningless next to what’s in me. Thought without purpose breeding in a room, alone. What grows up in the abyss, Liam, do you remember?”
It was toward the end of college, the end of the Experiment, the end of that phase of life when we did not have to suffer the consequences of the world. We had plumbed the darkness. We had tasted it. We settled in for sleep at the center of that abyss, and we wondered, if we stayed, what would grow. What could grow.
“Nothing grows in the abyss, James. We swore it off.”
“You swore it off. You left me there.”
“I thought this wasn’t about us.”
“It’s about the fact that I’ve always been there. Before I knew what it was, before you painted its walls, before you decided to leave, I was there. Waiting. Hoping a fire could grow. But there is nothing. You were always on the rim, Papa, never in the center. But I’ve been in the abyss this whole time. And I need to leave now.”
I hear footsteps outside, three dull thuds at the door.
James inhales deeply and sits back down. He dabs what is left of the liquid with a cotton ball, soaking it. He strips open a medical package, pulls out a needle, and sticks it into the cotton. He sucks the liquid into the syringe, tapping it sharply with his middle finger.
Three dull thuds at the door, and a warning shout. The King looks up at me.
He asks, “You going to get that?”
* * *
D.B. Zweier is an outdoor editor and writer based in Ventura, California. His stories are featured in Gone Lawn, Bloody Key Periodical, Stories from the Street, Leviathan and others. Mysticism, wilderness and the conscious pursuit of purpose are the central themes of his writing.