I was en route to a memorial service for this club promoter, Dante, who used to buy molly and other drugs off me, and in my black suit and sunglasses, with a spiked coffee, I was ready to indulge in liquor and nostalgia without self-reproach, taking the death of an acquaintance as a license to pause inhibitions for a day. With luck I’d have some company. I was hoping to run into people I hadn’t seen since college and maybe link up with a few regulars from the club scene and together we’d make a night of it. I was thinking of this one time after a classmate’s funeral when the atmosphere was like a high school reunion only better because no one had misgivings about being in attendance. I knew Gemma from baseball, he used to lead us in stretches and set the pace when we had to run back and forth from foul pole to foul pole at the end of practice. He always helped clean up after house parties and never operated in a sneaky manner behind his girlfriend’s back. Everybody adored the kid, adults especially, then halfway through college he falls off the roof of his friend’s apartment, four story drop, no brain activity, family has to pull the plug. Everyone from the team showed up to pay respects and after the reception the parents invited us back to the house. Mr. Gemma picked up a couple cases of beer and Mrs. Gemma made favorites, chicken parm, homemade stuffed crust pizza. I felt that we were helping them somehow. They seemed so grateful to watch us eat and drink and bust balls. We took care of the dishes and offered to take out the trash, empty the litter pail, seal the deck, clear the gutters. Once in a while someone would share a memory of Gemma’s compassion and we’d raise our cans. Later we trooped through a path in the woods to a nearby Little League field and Gemma’s parents watched us play wiffle ball barefoot in dress pants at dusk. A cop showed up after dark and asked us to keep the noise down but he didn’t hassle anybody or make us pour out the beers even though many of us were underaged at the time. My best friend Nick had stayed at the house with Gemma’s older sister, locked in a heart-to-heart in the breakfast nook, and he gave me a look of bewildered disgust when the next day I asked if they’d done more than just talk.
It would be in poor taste to say I enjoyed the afternoon and night of Gemma’s funeral, but I will admit that I cherish the opportunity to interact with people from bygone eras of my life in an environment that encourages vulnerability, where everyone’s allowed to speak about loss, death, fear and God and accept comfort, and then you never talk about it again.
I was remembering Matt Cornacchia’s wake as well. Cornacchia was a minor buddy of mine in middle school, a study hall friend. He wore skate shoes, wrote raps and lied a lot. We went to different high schools and talked here and there on AIM and Xbox Live during the underclassman years, eventually lost touch and never saw each other again. Senior year this girl Jamie texted me out of the blue and asked if I remembered him, remembered Cornacchia. I hadn’t seen Jamie since middle school either. I said, of course, why, and she informed me that he’d passed away the previous night. First death of a peer. I stared at the screen of my flip phone for a long moment and then asked how it happened, afraid that I was committing a gross infringement of protocol but above all dying to know, and she responded, overdose.
I’d just gotten home from school. The house was quiet, clean and bright and I was playing Call of Duty. Jamie told me the place and time for the viewing and I said I’d be there. After that I stared at the Xbox controller in my hands and waited for a consequential thought to arrive, an insight, the meaning of this event. I looked up Cornacchia’s gamertag in my friends list. I could see that he’d last been online at 8:43 p.m. the night before, his last on earth, playing CoD like me. Again I paused in anticipation of an epiphany. I thought I felt one twisting around between my sternum and spine but couldn’t coax it out and soon resumed my regular after-school routine, but with a couple moments of stunned reflection added in.
A few more classmates, friends, friends of friends and elderly relatives have since died, but I think of Cornacchia more often than most of the others because he was first. Sometimes I have to remind myself that Cornacchia has not experienced anything that occurred after his death. Like, he hasn’t witnessed any historical events or consumed any culture released after the year 2008. I know this sounds dumb. He doesn’t feel dead, is what I mean. In my head he’s in the same boat as all the other people I’ve lost touch with over the years. It feels perfectly natural to picture Cornacchia walking into a movie theater to see The Dark Knight Rises one day after that shooting in Colorado and four years after he accidentally killed himself with the Vicodin prescribed following the removal of his wisdom teeth. I can’t imagine him any older but I imagine him alive, contemporaneous with me but eighteen forever. It takes focus to confine him to the past.
Anyway I went to Cornacchia’s wake with Jamie and a bunch of other kids I hadn’t talked to since middle school and a couple kids I continued to see every day in the halls of my high school. First wake for me, for most of us. We assembled in the parking lot and walked in as a unit. Cornacchia’s mom looked strung-out from shock and grief. She expressed pained amazement at how much we’d grown since eighth grade, thanked us for coming and added us all on Facebook later. (To this day she continues to post tributes to her son with heartbreaking regularity.)
We joined the line and sustained solemn facial expressions. I waited my turn, went up and kneeled. He didn’t look like a person. I don’t know how else to put it. They had his iPod peeking out of his blazer like a pocket square because he loved music. I shot off a half-hearted prayer with my eyes open and joined the others in a row of padded chairs. We sat there for like five minutes and watched other people go up and kneel, and then we all went home.
A day or two later that girl Jamie texted me again. She was with Faith, who’d also been in attendance at the wake. They asked if I wanted to come over to the house where they were babysitting. They had rum and they were bored. I’d learned what “bored” implied by then, and I was flattered and nervous. I borrowed my mom’s car and tried not to think about the crucial role Cornacchia’s death had played in facilitating this sexually-promising meetup on the drive down.
No one spoke of Cornacchia or the wake when I arrived at the stranger’s house. I waved to the stranger’s daughter, the first grader Faith and Jamie were babysitting. She had ghostly white hair and eyebrows and fruit punch residue surrounding her lips and squirmed around in a hyperactive manner on the floor of a TV room messy with the random paraphernalia of childhood. Faith and Jamie invited this little girl to screen an inappropriate DVD of her choosing in exchange for an oath of good behavior, and then they checked on the baby in the nursery, and then the three of us locked ourselves in the master bedroom and loosened up swigging Captain Morgan and Capri Sun from a Poland Spring bottle stripped of its label. Still, I found it pretty unnerving to recognize none of the people in the framed photos on the dresser and the nightstand. I felt like the trespasser I was.
Faith popped a CD she’d burned into the stereo and every song was by Lil Wayne. Jamie grabbed the dice and money from a Monopoly set and together we improvised a game that resulted in enough nakedness to fondle each other. We ignored the baby when it started crying but turned off the music when the CD started skipping on “I Feel Like Dying.”
I was home in time for dinner. I never saw those girls again and I never told anyone about our rendezvous. I’m not proud of myself. But I also know I’ll never forget it. And I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel compelled to actively accumulate a store of memorable events, good, bad or bizarre. That’s what I was chasing at Dante’s funeral—a day that would stand out. And maybe an opportunity would present itself and I could be of use to someone. Fetch a glass of water, help move a piece of furniture, give someone a ride. Maybe I’d manage to produce a true statement and provide lasting solace, or a joke that’d ease grief for a second, who knows. Please don’t mistake this for a justification.
I thought a small number of kids from my graduating class would attend the service, the ones Dante used to hook up with alcohol, along with various characters from the Providence nightlife scene, sleazy DJs and rival promoters, club owners with hair plugs and shaved forearms, bartenders in pursuit of art degrees, a couple bouncers and bottle girls maybe, in addition to Dante’s extended family. I thought it’d be a weird mix, a fun crowd, the kind of crowd I hoped to attract to my own funeral. I mentioned before that I sell drugs, and, yes, I expected someone to express an appetite for cocaine if the night ran long, and, yes, I thought I might end up locking down a regular customer or two, but that wasn’t why I was going to the funeral, it really wasn’t.
The birds were back, bright sunny day, lawns soggy with thaw. I was listening to trap music and glancing down at my phone, directions to the church, and thinking of this one time when I sold Dante knockoff Xanax and badly cut molly in bulk in the drafty back office at Colosseum before another foam party cut short by a stabbing, and how he’d bragged to me that he had thirty-five hundred people on his mailing list. He was doing military pushups bare-chested in motorcycle jeans and glossy Jordans, trying to hype himself up for the night, I suspected, by ranting at me about how he’d injected straight adrenaline into the downcity scene by booking top talent DJs and packing dance floors and VIP tables with model-hot college girls and big spenders, and someday he’d open his own lounge, a classy spot with a fountain spewing Red Bull-vodka instead of water, a second location in Miami, then Vegas, then he’d franchise it out, go public, purchase a yacht, etc. He hadn’t come up with a name for the lounge yet and the foreign car he planned to park out front changed the next time I heard him talk about it in the antiseptic daytime gloom at Colosseum. Later he told me he was applying for loans. I assume those applications were rejected or never submitted because I never heard about the idea again.
But despite the long mailing list and perceived influence, it wasn’t exactly a capacity crowd at Dante’s funeral. I kind of hoped I had the time wrong when I pulled up at the church. There were maybe eight cars in the entire parking lot and I idled for a minute contemplating other uses of the day, but I knew I’d feel like a demon if I drove all the way there only to turn around and skip the service because the afterparty prospects looked grim. Better to go through the motions, I figured.
The church wasn’t an old one—tan brick and a steeple that reminded me of a unicorn horn. I heard the organ going as I climbed the front steps. In the entryway I took a program from the stack and realized how naïve I’d been to think anyone would come out for Dante’s funeral because he sold them a marked-up handle of vodka ten years ago and spammed inboxes, especially on a Saturday in April with temperatures in the high seventies. Forgive me, but at that moment I thought of my own funeral, and in my head the crowd thinned out big time. I felt certain I’d overestimated my significance in the lives of others.
It was mostly family members clustered at the front of the church, mostly old people, withered aunts and hunched uncles, a few cousins. Every cough and pew creak echoed. I slid into a spot that would’ve been considered prime real estate on Easter Sunday and I had the row to myself. I put my elbows on my knees and shielded my face with my hands like I did at church as a kid, black tie hanging down, and dozed until everyone clacked down the kneelers to pray.
I ran into Dante’s mother after the service and kissed her on the cheek. I’d met Mrs. Orlandella a couple times making house calls for Dante—he lived with her all thirty-four years of his life. She had a short-to-long bob with blonde highlights and her perfume had me squinting. I told her my name in case she’d forgotten it and told her I was sorry for her loss.
“I know who you are, ” she said, reaching out to stroke my arm, “you were his best friend,” and I flinched, panicked, thinking she must’ve mistaken me for someone else. I had to choke back this violent urge to deny that her son had been a friend of mine at all. He was just a guy I knew, an acquaintance at best, a customer. I really didn’t like the idea of being closely associated with Dante—he took steroids, stole tips, mistreated women, made racist statements; I could go on and on—but obviously I wasn’t about to brutalize his sweetheart mother with a contradiction, given the circumstances, and I think she detected my distress.
“He talked about you. You were the only one who showed up when he had that show at that gallery.”
“Oh, right, yeah, no, of course. That was nothing.”
“It really meant so much to him, you know, showing your support and everything,” she said, and her chin began to wobble when she added, “I couldn’t take off work. I couldn’t get anyone to cover my shift.”
I hugged her and rubbed her heaving back. It was true, I had gone to her son’s photography show, to sell him an eight ball of yak. A gallery in Wickford Village was hosting an “Emerging Artists” showcase. Looked like a pay-to-play situation to me, like the gallery had charged an entry fee, accepted all applicants and given them permission to hang whatever work they pleased regardless of quality. I’m no expert, it’s just that some of the stuff was very clearly without merit. I noticed a number of low-resolution pet portraits and Instagram sunsets on display, for example.
Pretty good turnout, everyone keeping voices low. You could identify the photographers, the Emerging Artists, by their award show attire and arrogant swagger—in Rhode Island it’s very common for someone to put on a cut-rate imitation of a swank event and for all attendees to act like it’s the real thing and a very big deal.
There was a hyped snowstorm due that night and I overheard a number of people whispering about accumulation projections and school closings and smiled to myself when someone mentioned a local TV meteorologist by name because I knew a couple things about the guy, certain habits of his. At the back of the room there was a URI kid in black catering clothes behind a foldout table pouring cheap wine that wasn’t free and gesturing at a Stop & Shop cheese and cracker spread. I didn’t spot Dante right away so I bought a three-dollar cup of cabernet that immediately induced heartburn, stuffed a five in the tip jar and asked the kid a few questions about school, which dorm, what major, hoping to steer the conversation toward the topic of recreational drug use and bag a new customer while I was there, only he wasn’t biting, one word answers and a look on his face indicating late-stage boredom, so I perused the walls a while and felt the wine coat my teeth.
Dante had seven or eight photos on display. A pickup truck on blocks in front of a barn, a busted TV on a city sidewalk, a hawk perched on a streetlamp, a shoreline, a lighthouse, that kind of thing, all in black and white. They had titles like “Decay” and “Natural Selection.” I couldn’t tell if the work was technically good or bad. It seemed at least competent, although none of the photos was worth the five-hundred dollar listing price if you ask me. You know what they reminded me of, those billboards for Apple, “Shot on iPhone.”
Soon Dante appeared at my side, and he’d dressed the part, non-prescription tortoiseshell glasses, hold-but-no-shine product in his fresh cut, a couple days of beard scruff, rustic boots, an unbuttoned wool cardigan with the sleeves pushed back to show off his watch and tease forearm tattoos. He was the renegade of the show.
“So,” he said, “what do you think?”
“Expensive!” I replied.
Dante told me to fuck myself, and then I felt bad because he looked super uneasy in a room so bright and subdued, sipping white wine. This was not his natural habitat or standard costume. He was putting himself out there. He had his phone in his hand and rattled off a bunch of names I’d never heard before and assured me that all these people were on their way, would arrive soon, any minute. It was clear to me that no one was coming, and I looked at Dante’s pictures again, drew on my limited vocabulary of appreciation and doled out some praise, and I like to think I did a fair job concealing my pity. I attempted to identify locations and asked about his camera and how he’d gotten his start, and Dante seemed grateful and quite prepared for the opportunity to volunteer his origin story as an art photographer.
You ever write someone off so completely that you forget they have a complex inner life? Even sleazy club rats are acquainted with sadness, with loneliness—both were naked on Dante’s face that night. I knew him as a predatory cokehead who’d never moved out of his mom’s house, but he still hoped to be taken seriously. Who doesn’t? I felt for the guy. I knew I had no right to judge.
He held out a business card in two fingers—same design as the one he passed out at the clubs, except there was a different Instagram handle at the bottom and it said “Photographer” under his name instead of “Nightlife Entrepreneur”—in case I knew anyone in need of engagement photos.
I walleted the card and then we stood shoulder to shoulder and faked like we were studying his work while we took care of business.
“Buy one for your apartment,” Dante said, keeping one hand in his pocket now, probably caressing the knotted sack of blow I’d sold him. “I know you got the money for it.”
I pretended to consider the suggestion, and then we clapped hands and bumped shoulders. Dante took off for the bathroom to sample his drugs and I finished my wine and wrapped some Ritz crackers and cheese cubes in a cocktail napkin for the road. By that point everyone was lined up at the windows facing the street. The lampposts were wrapped in Christmas lights and the first tiny snowflakes were drifting down.
Standing in the entryway of the church after the service, breaking from our embrace, I looked Dante’s mother in the eye and said that I’d known her son a long time and that he was a great guy and a talented photographer and I’d miss him. I felt generous and rotten, saying these mostly untrue things and watched her dab at the tears dewing up in her eyes once more. I noticed that both her hands were full of balled tissues when she swung her head around for a place to discard them. She didn’t have her purse with her, someone had offered to carry her purse for her and then they disappeared, she explained, looking half desperate to locate a trash can, and I had the feeling that every small task would be an exhausting undertaking for her that day, that week, that month, that year.
Her hands were warm, soft and swollen. I lifted them one at a time and repossessed the damp tissues and dropped them in the front pocket of my blazer, and she thanked me a thousand times for this kindness. We were the last ones remaining in the church and silent for a long moment while she waited for her ride to the cemetery to pull the car around. I really wanted to get out of there but felt like I couldn’t leave her just yet, like I should tell her a story about her son first, something charming she’d never heard before, and then I could head to a bar by the water, text my bookie and watch the Sox game while I prowled Tinder in peace for the rest of the afternoon.
At first I thought of Dante’s prolific career as a statutory rapist, all the times he’d appeared uninvited at a high school party, older than everyone, pressuring shots down throats and fully prepared to emasculate any weight room novices who objected to his presence, and later he’d zoom off to a parking lot fuck spot in his waxed Acura with an underclassman in the front seat. But Dante’s mom didn’t need to hear about that, about how I’d hated her son for his competitive advantage with girls my age before I fully comprehended the immoral and illegal aspects of that advantage.
I tried to recall the first time I met Dante, I think it was at my neighbor Harrison’s house when I was about twelve. Nick was there too, my best friend, it was summer vacation and we were grouped around the computer in Harrison’s basement, putting our heads together on AIM, trying to schedule a hand job appointment with a girl with a reputation, central air hissing through the unsupervised rooms stacked above our heads. Dante must’ve been seventeen at the time, a lanky kid with stubborn acne and suspect expertise in sexual matters. His clothes were soaked in spray can cologne and he had no friends his own age and if you commented on this last fact, he would assault you.
When we’d exhausted our hope and patience regarding the hand job, Harrison signed off AIM and shared a few recent pornographic discoveries, and soon we were boned up and directionless until Dante took the helm. He asked if we’d ever seen certain images he referred to by harmless nicknames and mocked us for our ignorance when we failed his quiz, and then he escorted us to darker corners of the internet and showed us things I’ve never managed to forget. I swallowed mouthful after mouthful of saliva and felt the blood drain from my face, worried that Dante would notice I’d gone pale—I was the youngest in the group and eager to suppress any suggestion of sensitivity. He was delighted to appall us and I was eager to go home, frightened and nauseous, but I stayed, and I kept my eyes locked on the screen too, lest Dante catch me looking away, and waited for that portion of the afternoon to end.
Finally it did and we ventured into the woods, where Nick hogged a loose droopy joint that wouldn’t stay lit. I got a couple puffs and a sore throat off it, that was all, and then we torched an anthill by making a flamethrower out of the lighter and Dante’s can of Axe body spray. We went back to Harrison’s house after that and lowered the rim on the driveway hoop so we could dunk.
At dinner I was silent and my mom asked, “What’s wrong,” and I said, “Nothing.” I couldn’t stop thinking about the gore, humans and deer, car accidents, the failed suicide. Dante had shown us bestiality, he’d shown us lemonparty and goatse, and put a period on my childhood in the process. My parents seemed like the innocents after that.
“I’ll never forget the day your son ended my childhood, Mrs. Orlandella”—this would not do.
I thought of when I was in college and I went with Nick to his friend’s house one morning after my nine a.m. class, but it turned out to be someone’s grandpa’s place, a brick ranch with flaking shutters and an unkempt front lawn. The grandpa was in a room down the hall dying of cancer, I can’t remember what kind, and selling his pain medication at discount prices out of the goodness of his heart. That was the unlikely story going around. I didn’t know any better back then. The real reason was almost certainly financial desperation. I didn’t know it was a fairly common situation, selling opiates as you descend into debt and die of cancer.
There were like ten people hanging around that house, a mixed bag but mostly dudes, college kids like me, townies in their later twenties with fight stories and children, and this one charismatic rehab escapee wearing basketball shorts with a security tag from Marshall’s on them still. We watched The Land Before Time on VHS, flipped through the Clinton-era issues of The National Enquirer stacked on the coffee table and crushed down oxys in a cereal bowl with the handle of a flathead screwdriver. It didn’t take too long to become accustomed to the sick stink, but you had to pee in the backyard or walk to the gas station down the street because the hallway toilet was broken and you had to be granted a high level of clearance to use the grandpa’s bathroom.
Dante happened to be there, lounging in a recliner in a black wife beater, track pants and Polo socks, knees spread wide, bothered by nothing, impenetrable to concern. He’d beefed up by then, his face pocked with acne scars, a black fitted hat cocked high and crooked on his head. He had a big bottle of blue Gatorade and sipped from it moving slo-mo. He didn’t know where the grandson was at, said he’d never met the grandson before.
I remember that day was the first time I ever heard anyone discuss crack cocaine in sincere terms, as a substance worth trying, one of the lit major kids hanging around in the kitchen where a renovation had been abandoned. Ben was in a tie-dye long sleeve brewing a pot of poppy tea with lemon in a French press, Arjun was handrolling a cigarette at the table, the voice from the grandpa’s audiobook carrying down the hall, a biography of a general or a president, it sounded like. Lacking personality, some suburban kids strive to be known for their adventurous drug use in the same way others strive to be defined by their taste in music and movies, and Ben and Arjun were practically the poster boys of this demographic. I spent a lot of time with them in college but I never liked them. These days Arjun is a success in the marijuana industry, apparently, and I don’t know or care what happened to Ben.
Time passed strangely in that house. You could misplace an entire weekend if you weren’t careful. I ate one pill and felt pretty good and then I ate another and suddenly it was dark out and this gorgeous loudmouth showed up with groceries and began berating people. Carly Atlas, I still follow her on Instagram. She humiliated me for watching cartoons. I had the remote in my hand and I guess I was the only one paying attention. If the same thing happened today I would defend the quality of The Land Before Time, the first one, and continue watching, but Carly’s beauty and self-assurance rendered her unimpeachable at the time and I turned the movie off before the best part, the sad part, when Littlefoot’s mother dies, and put on ESPN to assert my masculinity.
Carly was wearing a denim skirt and Ugg boots rolled down to show off the fleece lining and I remember her legs shined like they were wet. She disappeared down the hall and spent a long time with the grandpa, who adored her. We heard him laugh and then cough-laugh and dislodge phlegm from his throat with some effortful hacking.
There were rumors that Carly had agreed to prepare a lethal dose of painkillers for the grandpa when he decided it was time to sign off, there were rumors that she’d schemed a starring role for herself in the will, that she would inherit the house, rumors of sponge baths and more explicit acts of comfort. I don’t think there was much truth to any of it. Carly was stunning, mean and known to steal boyfriends. Many people hated her, but she seemed immune to all forms of social weaponry, though looking back I doubt that was the case.
Maybe an hour passed before she joined the rest of us in the TV room. She sat on the carpet with her legs folded lotus-style, tied her hair up in a bun and prepared her equipment. She had her back to SportsCenter, her fingernails were clover green. She kept her rigs in a glossy pink and blue paisley makeup bag with a zipper. I observed the procedure with interest, intimidated and fascinated, trying to appear cool with it all, like I’d seen someone bang a cooked pill into their arm in real life before, plenty of times, no big deal, and I didn’t need to swing a look Nick’s way to know he was infatuated—the condescending attitude, the fearlessness with chemicals, the way she looked. I knew my boy. I knew he’d behave rudely when they were introduced and attempt to seduce her with performed indifference. I also knew he was supposed to take Sarah, his girlfriend of three years at that time, later his fiancé, to Boston for her birthday the following night.
They left together at some point, Nick and Carly, I don’t know exactly when because I’d drifted into an opiated nap on the couch. Nick was my ride. He stranded me there, far from campus at the Cancer House, which was how it became known later, when the party was over, a place of legend among the drug kids. (Nick was one of the many people accused of breaking in and stealing the grandpa’s prescription of Oxycontin on refill day—that’s what ended the party. I defended him, of course, and I never asked if he did it. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised.)
My phone woke me up, Sarah calling. I’d missed three calls from her already and denied the fourth. She kept after me but I denied every call. I was too pissed at Nick to cover for him—not the first or last time he abandoned me somewhere sketchy, and never an apology afterward—but I wasn’t about to throw him under the bus either. You’ll never catch me saying a bad word about Nick. Never. He stole from me on numerous occasions and burglarized my parents’ house shortly after they bailed him out one last time. He betrayed everyone he ever claimed to love, and I offer no justification, and I forgive it all anyway, I don’t care if I don’t have the right. I haven’t had contact with Nick in four years, apparently he lives in Florida now, but I still flaunt my loyalty to him like conflict diamonds, I don’t care if it makes me complicit. I don’t know what I am without it, that loyalty, and I have no intention of finding out. Every identity has sand for a foundation if you ask me.
Anyway when I was standing with Dante’s mother at the church, I realized that I didn’t know her son in any context I should speak of minutes before his burial, that I’d failed my cue to provide consolation, and wished that I’d stayed home. I stammered and managed to say something brainless like, “Me and Dante got along pretty good,” but failed to supply a moment, an image, Dante dunking on a six-foot rim in denim shorts with a hot breeze carrying the smell of mulch up Harrison’s driveway that afternoon he introduced us to rot, something like that.
I kissed Mrs. Orlandella’s cheek again and excused myself with a fake phone call and stepped outside into the nice weather. “Unseasonably warm” is probably more accurate. I put on my sunglasses, folded the program in half and tucked it into the inner pocket of my jacket where it joined a table assignment card from my cousin’s wedding and the prayer card from a family friend’s wake. I loosened my tie and fucked around on my phone for a minute. I thought of other, easier things, enjoyed the cheap relief of mute inner laughs and judged my peers for the content they shared, for their validation thirst and see-through personae, and felt superior. I checked my email and the forecast, skimmed predictions about the NFL draft and opened an article that I’ll never read in full, relating to industrial methane emissions—one hundred times higher than previously reported, according to the headline—but even without advancing past the first paragraph, I felt almost unburdened. What I mean is, that encroaching shadow of doom, it entices me to lie down, accept what is and strive for nothing. Too late for corrections, no hope, which means I can give myself permission to behave like a degenerate. That’s my thought process. I know it’s flawed, privileged. I don’t plan to win any debates. I recycle and pretend to believe in the future whenever I’m around new parents and their babies. And I know Nick never gave a fuck about climate change, but maybe he was acting on a similar impulse and an absence of hope when he rejected all mirages of fulfillment in order to pursue the pleasure available in chemicals on a fulltime basis. He’d call me a pretentious f-word if he heard me talking like this, assuming he hasn’t changed for the better in the past four years.
On the way to my car, I bummed a cigarette off one of Dante’s cousins and accidentally interrupted a strained discussion in the process. Then it was like a wedding, where you explain how you’re connected to the important people.
“I knew Dante a long time,” I said vaguely, returning the lighter.
The cousins, George, Jen and Kayla, hadn’t seen much of him recently, it turned out, and they were debating whether or not they should make an appearance at the reception supper. Jen thought they should at least stop by. George said he didn’t want to risk a confrontation with their lowlife fraudster Uncle Michael. George knew he’d lose his temper and cause a scene if Uncle Michael was there, and he didn’t want to upset Auntie Ricki, not today of all days. Uncle Michael was Dante’s absentee dad, I gathered. He hadn’t attended the service but George expected him to sniff out the free meal, make a spectacle of his self-pity and pull the old chew-and-screw routine where he takes off the second he finishes eating.
“It’s been years though,” Jen said. She was the one with the cigarettes, Newports. Her hair was in a ponytail. Rectangular glasses, plain black knee-length dress, black flats, cynical demeanor. She had the local accent and if I had to guess on first impression I’d say she was a teacher or a nurse. “People change, you know.”
“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars he asks to borrow money. He’ll have some story about how he’s on a case but he needs money for groceries until the insurance company comes through with the settlement offer. He’ll promise to pay back with interest and take everyone on vacation.”
“I just think we should show our faces is all. One drink.”
“Put your money where your mouth is, you think people change so much. Twenty-five dollars he shows up wearing a neck brace. He’ll tell me about how he was one card away from winning half a million dollars at Foxwoods one time thirty years ago like I haven’t heard the story a thousand times.”
“But you know how mom used to get about funerals and everything.”
“‘All I needed was for that broad to turn over the ten of hearts. That ten of hearts is a life-changing card, Georgie.’”
“Mom used to tell me she’d haunt me forever if I didn’t act right after she passed, you know.”
Kayla was the youngest, in her early twenties, and she didn’t take part in the discussion. She was leaning against my car, fake blonde, short, in a lowcut black dress and black Nikes with a glitter swoop. I watched her push her sunglasses up, lick her pinky and wipe at a makeup smudge in the crease of her eyelid, using her phone as a mirror.
“‘People change,’” George mimicked, making his voice high and naïve. He and Jen had begun to aim their remarks at me, the outsider, impartial. I nodded along and deployed a modest fake laugh when appropriate, gunning for neutrality.
“My mother told me to put flowers on her grave every year on her birthday or she’d make it so my kids are born retarded.”
“Our Uncle Michael stole out of my mother’s purse for years. That’s how he thanked her for fixing him nice dinners three nights a week. He’d tell me he was looking for a piece of gum.”
Jen asked Kayla what she wanted to do. Kayla said, “I don’t care, whatever you guys think,” feed scrolling by in the mirrored gold lenses. “But let’s get out of the sun.”
I was the one who suggested a couple of drinks at a picnic table near the water. They’d already made the call to skip the burial so they had time to kill.
First the cousins said goodbye to their grandmother’s oldest friend, Mrs. Pearle, and helped her back out of her parking spot, and then I tagged along with them to a liquor store around the corner where we purchased lemonade and lemon vodka, a bag of ice, plastic cups, a variety pack of spiked seltzer and fried-chicken-and-waffle flavored chips. After that I led the way to the reservoir and we set up shop at a splintery table and watched the light sparkle on the water, which was rimmed all around by gigantic pines—I knew the spot from high school. It felt good to be back, to be drinking outdoors after the long winter. But George did most of the talking, and he did not share my enthusiasm. Just a gloomy, frustrated guy—every person on earth was a loser, a clown, a fraud or a piece of trash in his eyes. He power-washed patios. Jen was a nurse at the children’s hospital and seemed amused by her brother’s relentless shit talking. Kayla was their half-sister by a different mother, she was in beauty school and largely indifferent to present company. Bursts of audio from her phone peppered the conversation.
I topped off my drink and stared at the water fully aware that Dante was getting lowered into the ground at that very moment, but I couldn’t help but picture him in his room at his mom’s house, vaping in bed while he watches a Mark Wahlberg movie, going about his standard Saturday. I still didn’t know how he’d died and waited for his cousins to discuss the details hidden behind “unexpectedly at home,” which was all the obituary had to offer. I didn’t want to ask, out of decorum, and also because I was afraid that I might’ve supplied Dante with a substance that killed him. If that were the case, I knew there was a good chance the police would’ve been in touch by now, but when does logic ever put fear to rest? In any case I figured the topic would come up once me and the cousins made some progress on the bottle.
It didn’t quite work out that way though. I checked out of the conversation for a while and then this heated argument flared up when George tried to tell an unflattering story.
Apparently Dante had been involved in a scuffle at the Foxy Lady during football season the previous year. George claimed he watched games with Dante at Foxy “once in a while,” but he knew the details of the wing and pitcher special off the top of his head. Dante had this weird possessive thing for this one stripper from Eastern Europe, he said, this girl Una, head to toe tattoos, and one Sunday he’s silently fuming over a cold plate of nachos and staring on as some turkey-necked old slob of a regular puts his hands all over the girl and talks her ear off, and then when she tries to walk away the guy has the nerve to yank on her arm, and Dante rushes over there and causes a scene, spits in the guy’s face, mayhem.
The way George was telling the story, it sounded like the brawl at Foxy was the opening episode of an extended saga, but Jen interrupted, said it wasn’t right to mention the regrettable behavior of the deceased on the day of the funeral, implying that there could be eternal consequences, like God might be listening in and still making up His mind about Dante’s room assignment. An argument about the mechanics of the afterlife ensued, with George and Jen citing CCD classes from way back when, though it wasn’t long before they pivoted to personal attacks.
I tried to appear brain dead as they targeted each other’s insecurities with ruthless precision, their voices becoming massive over the water. I didn’t know these people, I didn’t want to hear them shout about personal failures and mental breakdowns. The rejected marriage proposal, the ex who cheated with the best friend, the miscarriage—too much. And I resented that my presence as a stranger was being exploited to intensify the sting of humiliation. I stared at the reservoir and would have happily traded in my life for a tadpole’s brief existence in the mud at that moment and topped off my drink slowly during a particularly heated exchange in order to eliminate the bottle as an available method of blunt force trauma. But the silence that followed was worse, completely unbearable, so I asked Kayla if she’d like to go for a walk with me, and I was ecstatic when she offered an unenthusiastic “Sure” in response.
I tore open the box of spiked seltzers and popped a tall skinny can into each of my back pockets and asked if I could steal a couple cigarettes from the pack on the table. I accepted Jen’s no response as no objection.
We linked arms stepping over rocks, pinecones and snaking roots, the browned pine needles and papery fragments of old leaves, the trees arched in a cathedral manner over the path, and once we had some distance from the water, Kayla confirmed that, yes, George and Jen often fought like that. She couldn’t stand to be around them for long, but her license had been suspended and they were dependable rides.
We turned uphill onto a path that was thin like a bike tire with underbrush dense on both sides and bright green with new growth at the branch tips. At the top of the hill we stopped and leaned against a boulder. I handed her drink back to her and we touched cups. There was a squat wall of loose mossy stones winding across the slope and at the bottom of it I could see a couple houses and their backyards in slivers through the saplings. I heard footsteps in the bedded leaves but didn’t spot anything when I scanned.
In the shade the spring breeze had a harder edge to it and I lent Kayla my jacket. She took an inventory of the pockets, the tissues damp with Mrs. Orlandella tears, the prayer card and table assignment, and she found a tin of Altoid minis—no mints, just some coke crumbs and a baby length of straw inside, how about that. I let Kayla go first and asked about beauty school. She said it was fine. She used to model until she lost her license and couldn’t get to gigs anymore, and then she got pregnant. I asked no follow up questions and assumed she was going to show me a picture of her kid when she handed me her phone, not a set of photos from a local hair salon’s Instagram.
I thought Kayla was only gassing herself up with talk of a modeling career, but after another bump she told me about the last time she’d heard from Dante, when he asked her to pose for him.
“He said it’d be good for me, for my career, like I never heard that line before.”
“When was this?”
“Photographers can be wicked creepy most of the time.”
“But maybe, I don’t know, the benefit of the doubt?”
She gave me a smirky look like, Don’t be stupid.
“But you’re cousins,” I said. “You really think he was coming on to you?”
“But you’re related, you’re cousins.”
“Yeah but not by blood.”
I still wasn’t convinced, but the topic dropped when Jen called to say she was heading to the reception before the rain started. Dark clouds had moved in and there was more wind, the tree crowns were metronoming. Kayla lowered her phone. She didn’t want to go and asked if I could drive her home, and I said, “No problem.”
We finished our drinks, dumped the ice out of our cups and headed for the car, pulling up short behind a tree when Kayla spotted George on the path below. He was stomping along with the bag of chips rolled up in one hand and the bottle in the other, vodka sloshing. But I paid him no mind, I was taken with the smell of Kayla’s hair and pressed into her from behind and felt the day’s tension find a purpose. She was still wearing my jacket over her dress and spun around quick. Up close I could see fine hairs standing through her makeup, and she was wearing cotton candy perfume that summoned a flash memory of high school dances. I apologized, read the look in her narrowed eyes and then kissed her, tasting everything recent in her mouth, flavored vodka and fruity gum, and felt a pinch of guilt for ditching the plastic cups in the woods. I pinned her against a tree and our teeth banged together. A minute later I detached my face from hers and listened—scattered raindrops in the young leaves.
It was coming down cold by the time we made it to the church, Kayla tenting my jacket over her head. We got in my car and I pulled into an overflow lot that was less visible from the street. I moved my seat back to make room and Kayla craned her neck and climbed over the shifter to straddle me, and soon we pulled our clothes apart enough to have sex without a condom. She didn’t give me any special instructions so I just assumed she was on birth control, which proved costly.
Always an awkward uncoupling in the car. Kayla opened my door and stepped into the rain to escape my lap, fix her underwear and hike her dress down. I reached into the backseat for a bundle of napkins from Dunkin’ and Kayla snatched them out of my hand without saying anything. She didn’t like me anymore. She walked around to the passenger side, checked her nostrils in the vanity mirror, touched up her hair and ordered an Uber.
“Should we stop somewhere for a drink before I take you home?” I said, playing dumb, cracking one of the cans of spiked seltzer.
“You literally just stared at my phone and watched me order an Uber.”
“Want me to pull up to the church so you can run inside and pee?”
She didn’t answer. I drove up to the front steps and idled there just in case, a little worried that the doors would be locked, but Kayla didn’t bother getting out so I didn’t worry about her contracting a UTI. I plugged in my phone and queued up a playlist I’d prepared for the day of Nick’s funeral, back when that seemed like an imminent event. The rain was coming down so hard now you knew it couldn’t last.
“Were you and Dante even friends?” Kayla asked, keeping her eyes on her phone. “Or are you like those miserable old ladies that go to every funeral because they don’t have anything better to do?”
A grief tourist! What an accusation! Then I realized she wasn’t entirely off-base and felt my shoulders tense up, and I faked a laugh to try to hide the self-image crisis storming through me, holding tight to the belief that I’d arrived with good intentions and that good intentions were a solid ballast and worth something.
I asked if she’d like to share a cigarette and she didn’t answer. My lighter was dead anyway. I told her I had a pair of rose gold Yeezys she might be interested in, size six—nothing. When her Uber pulled into the lot a long six minutes later I tried to give her my number, but she got out of the car without a word and slammed the door behind her.
After that there was nothing to do but recline my seat, sip my spiked seltzer and sit awhile cocooned in the sound of furious rain.
A few weeks after Dante’s funeral, I think it was the Friday before Father’s Day, I had a meeting with Nnamdi, a buddy of mine who sells AR-15s without serial numbers, among other hustles. “Nnamdi” is a made-up name. Don’t worry about the real name or what he looks like. The important thing is that he’d started offering a safety deposit box service and I took advantage. I didn’t like to have too much cash sitting in my closet at any given time, and anything I put in the bank was subject to seizure if I got arrested. The bank will snitch if you make large cash deposits on a regular basis too.
We’d met at Foxy Lady for the Friday brunch special and I asked Nnamdi if he’d mind if I passed along his contact info to someone I knew, someone I could vouch for, who was interested in purchasing a ghost gun, and rising from the table Nnamdi said, “Not at all, go ahead.” We shook hands, he took off, but I had nowhere to be until 2:30 so I moved to the bar and hung around for a bit. Ten dollars for bottomless coffee and the food not half-bad, although it does feel strange to nibble on fruit salad and mini croissants in a dim environment with perfumed day shift strippers heeling around on leopard print carpet. I was one of maybe six patrons in the place, an older crowd, most of them with backs to the stage, state workers with no-show jobs sharing newspapers and grumbling terrible opinions, SportsCenter muted on the TVs.
That was the day I responded to Kayla’s DM. It’d been something like six, seven weeks since Dante’s funeral and a few days since Kayla tracked me down on Instagram. I’d left her message on read to make her sweat and then hemmed and hawed and told her I couldn’t help her out until next week’s payday, acting like I had a real job and a tight budget. I know it was cruel to keep her waiting, but I didn’t want to cough up five hundred dollars too easily and give her any ideas about my ability to provide reliable financial support—God forbid she decide to bring a child into this world because of me. Then I remembered her license was suspended and like a gentleman asked if she needed a ride to Planned Parenthood. “Not from you,” she quickly replied. She asked for my phone number and two seconds later I received a Venmo request. I put a note in my calendar to remind myself to complete the payment next week and began to second guess my logic, feeling like I’d inadvertently created the perfect conditions for cold feet, so I paid her right then and knew I’d be anxious until she confirmed that she was breathing for one again.
I tilted back the last of my third mimosa as the DJ introduced the next dancer, settled up my tab and spun my stool to face the stage as “Cherchez La Ghost” started to play, elbows on the bar. Didn’t catch the girl’s name, but I remembered that story Dante’s cousin started to tell me when we were all hanging out by the reservoir that day after the service. It seemed improbable that the girl on stage had been the object of Dante’s obsession, what’s her name, Una, and I didn’t try to find out one way or the other. But she was doing her thing, inked-up all over and an impressive acrobat, though I knew the pole was motorized to assist with those spin moves. Still, I walked right up, past all the empty leather chairs, colored lights playing over my face, and laid almost everything I had at her feet, all at once, even the coins and a gift card to Dunkin’, and then I hustled out of there before she tried to pay me back in fake affection. I thought of this gesture as a donation in honor of Dante C. Orlandella. He wasn’t a great guy and I’m not either but I hope to be remembered for a little while too. I’ve had the thought that maybe heaven is temporary and you can only stay for as long as you’re remembered on earth, and once you’re forgotten they show you to the basement and you can feel the heat and hear the hollering from the top of the stairs. To my mind I was chipping in on Dante’s rent up in paradise, and so what if he didn’t deserve to be there.
Misty June day, but I had to squint coming out of a place with no windows, and I pulled out of the parking lot with no music or podcast playing for once.
I should’ve told Dante’s mom about the time me, him and Nick rented jet skis down in Misquamicut to celebrate a profitable scheme of ours. That was a great day.
I turned onto Smith Street and when I passed the state house something funny happened—I experienced one of those passing moments of clarity or the illusion of it. I mean I felt like I was noticing everything that’s normally obscured behind the smear of the familiar, like I was actually bearing witness to the world and able to sense my place within it. I felt like an inevitable component in a graceful design. There was an expressway bridge ahead of me and the traffic streaming across it no longer seemed like an automated feature of the background, like scenery. I could appreciate that there was a human operator in each vehicle, skulls loaded with hopes, regrets and accidental poetry. I had my windows cracked, and for a second as I pulled onto the highway, I thought I might even manage to name it, the thing, that most important thing, that revelation I’d been anticipating since my buddy Cornacchia died. I could feel it flirting toward expression, but then I lost it right off the tip of my tongue, and I jabbed the radio dial for sports talk, and right then what happens? My interior strobes with the colored lights out of my nightmares, and I look in the rearview to see what’s behind me and my heart falls into my shoe, and don’t you dare try to tell me the timing was chance.