The porch light is on, but what it doesn’t reach looks like the inside of a coffee pot. No lightning bugs or stars for hope of relief.
I read a poem to him under the light and he laughs at my serious face, my stumbling voice. “I liked that line about porn,” he says between soft chuckles and smoky coughs. “Read it again.”
And so I do, slower, and this time he just grins and nods. Nods because he’s drunk, sure. But maybe he nods because he gets it too. I explain to him who Ginsberg was the best I can and why it is called “With Apologies”, but to him it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t give a damn who he is tonight and I realize that sometimes I shouldn’t either. I should have read this to him a long time ago, before it was August. “August is the Sunday of the summer,” he says to no one in particular after the poem. I take it as a revelation, writing it down next to my own words.
This will not be the only thing that I write. I have pages of the best things he says.
The cicadas are at a fever pitch out in the coffee night, probably because it’s 2 in the morning and the small town night has no other sound to offer us distraction. We are not supposed to be awake. “They get louder and louder until they finally croak,” he says later. I can’t help but believe him. He hasn’t ever lied to me about anything serious, telling me once that everybody has a relationship with God, even if they don’t want it. His mom was out here earlier, before he had said that. She had asked him where the television remote was, lit a cigarette, and then laughed too long at something that wasn’t all that funny. Then she left, stumbling up the steps as she went. He apologized because he was too used to it to be embarrassed but felt like something had to be said for us to proceed.
John himself pulls another non-mentholated Newport out of the crimson box. It’s the only kind of cigarette I’ve seen him smoke by choice. He buys a carton every two weeks, driving 13 miles across state lines to get them $3 cheaper. He’s smoked since we graduated eighth grade, and not casually. He coughs and it sounds like sheetrock breaking underneath his t-shirt. He doesn’t offer me one because we are sharing enough as it is. There’s a mutual hatred for germs between us despite the fact we both drank from the first bottle. We sit on lawn chairs as he fills the ash tray and we talk about paranoia, how it always gets the best of us. We talk about the times we thought we were dying. John laid on his bed once and felt the ice cold breeze coming from the ceiling fan while the blades stood absolutely still. Another time, John smoked too much grass and ended up vomiting the contents of his bowels on his friend’s carpet. He woke up the next morning on the kitchen floor, his outstretched hand inches from an old forgotten mousetrap with the arm still up. He has more stories than I do.
He has a Roger Daltrey look about him tonight, always actually. Same Kermit green eyes behind laughably thick glasses, shoulder-length straw strands, broad chin and thin cheeks. He’s about 6’1 but he seems to soar over me. His arms are gaunt as they peek out from his T-shirt and the skin is pasty and freckled. He’s quick to smile and he laughs at nearly everything that is said, even when it isn’t a joke. Especially when it isn’t a joke. Maybe that’s why women have always come to him. He makes them feel like comedians. I write this down, “Laugh for sex.”
His house is less than twenty feet from the only cemetery in our little town and this doesn’t help with the paranoia, at least for me. John on the other hand sleeps in the basement of his house, has since I’ve known him, roughly around the same depth as the skeletons and caskets 20 yards away through the dirt. Maybe even a little deeper. He sleeps late into the day after staying up most of the night. He’s a close friend of Marion’s, the grim looking grave digger who has had the job since we were kids. John would stop and talk to Marion and his little terrier mutt that just sat in the front seat of his pickup truck when I went over to his house. I was too scared to talk. Now John works the graveyard shift 25 hours a week at a grocery store a couple of towns over.
We walk through the cemetery several times before the poem and once after. The path around gets longer and longer as the night progresses forward.
“John, how many of these bodies you think your dad embalmed?” I ask too casually at some point through the cemetery.
“Plenty,” is all he can respond with. We pass by the two gravestones where horse bones are buried. “He didn’t do those for sure. They been there a long time.” I nod, only he doesn’t see it in the darkness. Dogs begin barking as we get closer to his neighbors. He’s isn’t fazed and I try not to be, despite the paranoia. He knows I’m terrified of dogs.
He told me he wanted to be a mortician all the way through high school. Grim aspirations for such a happy soul, I know. It’s the family business, though. His dad Jack has been a mortician since we have both been alive. Jack cut John’s hair once when I was there, and he said most of his clients don’t move so much. That was the only time I heard Jack ever talk about his work. John did wear his dad’s work suit to prom our senior year though. His suit was the only one that looked like it fit him, the rest of us floundering in rentals with ill-fitting ties.
“John, what was losing your virginity like?” I ask after we’re back on the porch. The cicadas have quieted as if waiting for a response.
“You know, I just remember it feeling like I was committing the worst act ever when I took her clothes off. But after she looked me in the eye when we were done, I knew that I was someone different, that there wasn’t any going back” he says in one serious breath. He almost asks me about mine, and for the first time I can tell him without lying, but he gets distracted. An idea strikes him and he stamps out his cigarette and pours the rest of the wine into both of our glasses.
“You know,” he says to me in the way I know I’m going to have to write it down, “I think that about the best job on Earth would have to be reading audiobooks. I mean, you get paid to read all day. How do you think they pay you? By the chapter, the word, the book?”
I scribble, “Reading audiobooks” next to the poem that is beginning to look like garbage compared to what continuously streams from his lips. “I don’t know, man. I bet it’s by the book.” He nods agreement, pulling a fresh Newport from the pack. “I suppose so,” he says offering me a cigarette of my own. I take it between two fingers as he lights it. I don’t cough as I bring the smoke we both swore not to inhale in 5th grade deep into my lungs. It looks blue as it expels from my nose in a continuous stream towards the porch light.
Our classmates called him an old soul all through school, and I guess that’s partly true. But now, here, taking his life span in his own hands, cigarette in one and shitty wine in the other, he looks like eternal youth. The face of rebellion, a spirit that will never die. I try to put something down on paper to capture the scene, anything that I will actually be able to remember when tomorrow gets around to coming. I write these words at the top of the page: HE IS DEAN.
For a second, I’m Allen with his muse under the starry dynamo. But then his cell phone rings and the illusion breaks. He ignores the call, as he’s known to do, and I write in childish cursive as he watches with curious eyes.
“It always goes back to the existence thing.”
He looks at me and nods like he did after the poem. I know of nothing heavy to say, so I just stay quiet and look profound.
The cicadas fill the silence and the porch light burns white for several hours more, all forgotten now.
Avery Gregurich is a Sophomore at Drake University. He works on the staff of a literary journal, Periphery. This is his first publication.