Fiction by Alex Gallo-Brown

His Friend

David pushes himself to his feet and goes to the window. Below him, on the street, pedestrians scurry through light rain. He thinks about heading to Vivaldi’s for a coffee but thinks better of it. He has already had two today, and it is not yet ten.

He shakes his head and goes back to his desk. Three months since Matthew died. Three months since his friend was strolling down Broadway with a newspaper under his arm and a cappuccino in his hand (he was sanguine that morning, according to his regular barista, bantering with strangers about baseball while scattering croissant crumbs across the counter), when he clutched his chest, staggered briefly, and fell to the ground to stay.

It had not been the first time that David lost someone close, and he had not been prepared for the dysregulation it caused. His own father had passed away more than a decade ago. Kathleen’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer only the year before last. But those deaths had been prefaced in ways that Matthew’s had not. The hospital visits and hotel rooms, brief handshakes with doctors and exchanges with nurses, even the bad daytime television had helped to cushion the blow. He had been allowed time in those instances to arrange his feelings into order.

With Matthew, he had been allowed nothing.
 

In the days after his friend’s death, Matthew’s widow hosted potlucks in the backyard of their prominent Montlake home. David lived in West Seattle, more than twenty minutes away. Yet he attended every one.

He had been surprised to find that he knew only a few of Matthew’s other friends. They appeared to be an arty, quasi-bohemian bunch with earrings, goatees, and attractively disheveled hair, and he was surprised, too, that these were the people with whom Matthew had chosen to associate himself.

Dressed in a beige sweater and slacks, his own graying hair trimmed close to his head, he listened in polite silence to the guests honor their departed friend. In speeches at once stagy and intimate, they bemoaned the brevity of life, the democracy of death, and the particular tragedy of Matthew’s passing. After they finished, the yard sang with the pounding of open palms.

But David was unmoved. These were the things people said, he thought, when confronted with an inexplicable event, namely a sudden death, and while they were not untrue, exactly, they were hardly adequate, either, to express the enormity of the emotion at hand. Perhaps that was why the speakers always looked a little sheepish after they had finished.

Still, he attended the potlucks. He attended them with an almost involuntary faithfulness, standing in a corner of the yard with a glass of white wine or plate of pasta salad, a sympathetic expression on his face. It was Matthew’s family who threatened to undo him. Their faces had been so naked in those early days, as though some crucial, protective layer had been stripped away to reveal the full force of their suffering beneath.

He had not been able to console the widow or her children. For he, too, needed to be consoled.
 

Kathleen had been invaluable in that department, cooking for him, listening to him and leaving him alone. She was a devoted partner who had doted on him for nearly twenty years. Yet never could he remember being more appreciative. Never could he remember loving her more.

Love, David thinks, looking down at the street. It was not a word he would have used in relation to his friend while Matthew was still alive. And yet it was certainly a grayer world without him.

*

“More beets?” Kathleen asks him that night at dinner.

“Still working on these,” he says, gesturing to his plate. He picks up his glass of wine, poured from a good Merlot he picked up on his way home from work. He had stopped at the place he always stopped, Ernie’s, on the waterfront. It was a good place, filled with flattering lighting, congenial employees, and a really terrific selection. He had been going there for so long that the owner greeted him by name.

There had been a time when he had taken real pleasure in that recognition. He felt reassured by it, somehow. Lately, however, he found himself cutting their conversations short. That man was not his friend.

“How’s the book coming?” his wife asks, heaping more arugula onto her plate.

He grimaces and swirls his wine. She doesn’t mean book. She means manual. She means reference guide.

He lifts the glass to his nose and sniffs. He catches cinnamon, citrus, and possibly cherry. He sips, swallowing carefully.

"David?” she asks.

He sets the glass back on the table. “Oh, you know,” he says. “Standard health-nut boilerplate. Whole grains are good for you. So, too, fruit.” He snorts. “Who said to ‘make it new’? Some poet, wasn’t it? Somebody dead?”

"Don’t be morbid, David,” she says, halving a beet. Red juice squirts out the sides. “Something about it must be new. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it? Or publishing it, for that matter?”

He grins, revealing wine-flushed teeth.

"What’s the point, indeed?”

*

David has been correcting writers’ misspellings, amending their tense inconsistencies, and rectifying their syntactical errors for the better part of thirty years. At a certain point, he has come to think of himself as a kind of launderer, someone who takes in dirty copy and sends it back clean.

There was a time, however, when he put sentences together himself. First, he tried his hand at fiction; later, he dabbled in screenplays. The process had come to terrify him. He was afraid of making a mistake, he thinks now, not of grammar but of temperament, of human sensibility. He was afraid of revealing himself to be a fool.

Courage, he thinks, looking down at the rain-grizzled street. That was the quality that so attracted him to his friend, that kept him looking forward to their lunches and impromptu morning espressos. Alive, his friend had glittered against the encroaching drabness of David’s life. He had been brilliant, almost obscene.

And what, he wonders, did his friend think of him? When they first met, Matthew was working for the city while David edited freelance and wrote screenplays on the side. There was a sense, then, that each of them was going places.

Of course, Matthew had.

*

David almost never shops at Pike Place Market. It is the sort of place he brings his friends visiting from out of town to flaunt the charm of his adopted city, then abandons the rest of the year for the convenience of Safeway and QFC.

It is strange, then, about four months after Matthew died, to find himself wandering its worn linoleum floors in bleary search of a cup of coffee. Stranger still is the sight of his friend’s widow, which he encounters near the fruit stands at the front entrance of the market. Her head is bowed slightly, as though she is praying to the fruit.

For an instant, he thinking about ducking across the alley to DeLaurenti’s to hide out among the olives and artichoke hearts and cans of diced tomatoes. Then it is too late. She hurries towards him, her eyes alive with recognition.

“David!” she calls. “David!”

He ducks his head and starts towards her. “I thought that might be you,” he says.

They embraced in the middle of the street, her raincoat cold against his naked hands.

“How are you?” she asks when they are separated. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since the memorial.”

“It’s been far too long,” he agrees sadly, shifting from foot to foot.

“And how is Kathleen?”

“Oh.” He attempts to smile. “Doing fine. More importantly, how are you? How are the kids?”

“The kids,” she repeats. “They’re fine, I think. Lauren’s staying on at Whitman to work with a professor.”

On the corner, a man is selling newspapers. David has left his own copy at home that morning, he remembers. He will have to get another.

“Tommy’s still at home with me,” the widow is saying. “I can’t say I mind, though. I’m not sure what I’d do without him.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he senses a homeless man lurching near them. He takes the widow by the elbow, guiding her in the direction of the donut stand where teenager are wolfing pastries out of brown paper bags. They are licking their fingers and plunging them back in.

“We should have dinner,” the widow is saying. “You can come over to the house. I’ll cook.”

“Absolutely,” David agrees. “Let’s set something up.”

There are tourists and students and workers swarming all around them.

“I’m very sorry,” he says, “but I need to get back to work.”

“Of course,” she says.

“I’ll see you very soon.”

“Hold on,” she says. “David?”

“Yes?”

“Would you have a cup of coffee with me? The bakery across the alley makes the most wonderful espresso.”
 

The cappuccino is good. The crema flavorful, the milk expertly frothed. He remembers when it used to be hard to find decent coffee in the city. He used to meet Matthew at a specialty place in Pioneer Square.

Now he sits across from his old friend’s widow and listens to her complain. She complains about her colleagues at work, the administrators of Matthew’s life insurance, the Republicans Congress—he listens until he can listen no more. Then he focuses on her forehead, the particular length and gleam of it. If he looks at it in a certain way, it reminds him of the donuts in the market. He imagines dusting its crevices with handfuls of powdered sugar.

“And you?” she is saying. “You’ve hardly said anything about yourself.”

“It’s the same old with me,” he says, straightening in the hard chair. “I’m currently editing a kind of manuscript.”

She leans closer. “What kind of book is it, David?” she exclaims.

“Not a book,” he says, grimacing. “A nutritional guide. What to eat and what to avoid and so on. It’s not very interesting, I’m afraid. I have to make myself work on it mornings. Try to read that stuff at night and you run straight for the pillow.” He laughs. It is barely a burp at first, but it balloons, burgeoning into a high, manic, nearly uncontrollable thing.

When he is able to see again, the widow is scrutinizing him closely.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “that you’re not happy with your work.”

*

“Any news on the book?” Kathleen asks that night at dinner.

“It’s not a book,” he says, “it’s a nutritional guide. How many times do I have to tell you?”

She bristles, pulling the collard greens closer.

He reaches for a wing before he finishes the breast, wanting to keep up the continuity of sensation.

“Have you heard back from Eddie yet?” she asks.

Eddie is his contact at the publishing house.

The wing goes back onto the plate, skidding over ceramic.

“What is it, David?”

“Look,” he nearly shouts, “you want to know about the damned nutritional guide so bad, I’ll tell you! Five small meals are better than three. Brown rice is better for you than white. And do you have any idea, I mean, any real conception, how long it takes for the average adult human being to digest half a pound of red meat?”

She shook her head slowly.

“Days,” he says wearily. “Something like three.” He retrieves the wing from his plate, bites down on bone but keeps chewing, the smaller animal’s skeleton submitting easily to his. “And don’t get me started on fried foods.”

He feels the urge to laugh again—to surrender to the same manic force that seized him with the widow.

“Make sure you avoid them at all costs.”

*

The next month he will turn fifty-eight. Kathleen wants to throw a party, a celebration to gather all of their friends. He would prefer a quiet night at home (dinner, wine, a little scotch, sex), but she will not be deterred.

“It’s been a tough year,” she says, leaning over to kiss his mouth.

For a moment, all was warm, scented, and soft.
 

She makes the guest list. She mails out the invitations and calls in the restaurant reservation. All that is left for him to do is show up, which he does about a half hour ahead of time.

It’s a Greek place near Alki beach that they’ve been meaning to try for nearly a year. Classic Mediterranean fare, the Times review said, with a dynamic, modern twist. He hadn’t trusted the review, doesn’t trust the Times anymore at all, but he likes Mediterranean, and it is only a short drive from their house.

He followed the host to a back room. There, hors d’oeuvres have been set out on silver trays. Mushrooms stuffed with pesto, different kinds of olive, little cups of grilled squid.

Wine bottles stand on one of the tables like military officers at attention. He goes over to release one.

He has almost finished it before the first guest arrives.
 

All these people here for me, he thinks sometime later. All of them come to celebrate me.

In truth, he hardly recognizes them. Their hair has gone gray or bi-colored, their bodies are plump and frail. They look like caricatures of his old friends, the people with whom he has spent his Seattle years.

He is sitting with two old friends, men he met just after moving to the city. They used to go out drinking, play shuffleboard. They almost never see each other anymore.

The men seem to be discussing some new city ordinance, a law affecting nightclubs, homeless people, levels of sound. He is having trouble following. He’s not sure why he should care.

Matthew would have cared, he thinks, swirling his wine. Matthew would have had something interesting to say, something to support or else strenuously oppose. The effect would have been exchange, David learning something about himself in addition to his friend.

He sees her across the room. She is standing near the trays of hors d’oeuvres, chatting with some woman or another.

Why had the widow come? he wonders. He had not invited her. Then again, he had not invited anyone. Kathleen must have included her. He would have to speak with her.
 

“David!” she exclaims as he approaches. “Happy birthday!”

“Thanks,” he says, clutching her briefly and releasing. “I didn’t expect to see you here. I didn’t know you’d been invited.”

She recoils from him as though he raised his fist. “Of course I was invited,” she hisses. “Kathleen sent a card!”

“No, no,” he says, sidestepping her to the refreshments. “I just meant that it’s been a long time since we’ve seen you, that’s all.”

“I sent e-mails,” she says. “You never wrote me back.”

He uncorks a bottle and tips it towards his glass.

“I left phone messages,” she says. “You never called me back.”

He dribbles a little red on the tablecloth finishing his pour. He scoots a bottle over the stain.

“What happened, David?” she said. “Why did you go away?”

He turns around to face her. He looks her dead in the eye.

“Because,” he says angrily, “we were never friends.”

The party ends early. It is raining when he followed a few stragglers out. Half a block down, he stops, sagging against a parked car. They are supposed to take Kathleen’s car home and leave his where it is parked. She’s probably still inside.

The widow’s face returns to him—her look of injury and surprise. Why had he said that to her, about them not being friends? He should have apologized for not calling her back. Tried to patch things up. The woman had been through enough.

But not only her, he thinks. Not her alone. All of Matthew’s friends had suffered over the months. The grief was not only hers.

“David!” he hears someone yell.

He spins, almost falls. But it is only Kathleen.

“There you are,” she says, starting towards him.

They embrace in the middle of the street, her sweater warm against his naked hands.

“Did you have a good time?” she asks.

“Wonderful, Kathleen,” he says.

“It was a nice party, wasn’t it?”

“A great party. You were right to want to have it.”

“Will you come down to the water with me?”

He nodded and allowed himself to be led.

They walk together down a bank of gray sand. Ahead of then, the Puget Sound shimmers and bounces in the lights of the city. It is so dark and endless, he thinks, a vast, shivering maw.

“So many people love you,” she says. “You know that, don’t you? You have so many friends.”

He takes her hand. “What if I only care about you?”

Tears bud at the corners of her eyes. She squeezes his hand. He leans down to kiss her mouth.

His friend, his friend! He loved him all along.
 

Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of The Language of Grief, a self-published collection of poems hailed by the author Sherman Alexie as "the sad and beautiful tales of a lost son, lost father and, yes, lost generation." His essays and poems have appeared in publications that include Los Angeles Review of Books, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Salon.com, Tahoma Literary Review, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Seattle.