by Steven Bergmark
There are moments in life that rip so close to a body such as almost missing the last chopper out of Saigon, or almost being hit by a bus, or almost kissing that person you know you shouldn’t, that when the danger’s passed, what almost happened still seems inevitable, and yet...
“I get this feeling in the back of my head.”
“Really? I feel it more on the face, like a mask I pop on and off.”
They sat at a mesh iron table, hot to the touch. It was early afternoon at a bar beside the highway. Less coarse, more elegant kinds of bars they once frequented in a better part of town were seemingly behind them now.
“Admit it though, where we were raised, where we went to school, we should have achieved much more.” He squint-scowled at the sun and noted it would be at least another half an hour before reprieve would reach them. There was something in his heart like those predecessors who named the god of Pompeii, the god of the Plague, the god of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Some kind of coal that glowed with menace and burned cold.
At the time, the two were twenty-five.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, his cold beer resting, sweating, and wetting his belly. “I suppose in one, narrow way.” He squint-smiled at the sun and set his beer down. His heart also had that cold-burning coal--everybody’s got one--but it was not nearly so large. There was something in his heart of his predecessors who named the gods of holidays, the gods of fucking and drinking, the gods of the sky and the as-yet unborn god of global comity.
“I think you need to ask somebody,” said Squint-scowl.
Squint-smile ignored him and jerked the umbrella closer to their table roughly, and
Squint-scowl peered tensely at the bar’s black windows.
“You should have asked first,” Squint-scowl said.
Squint-smile shrugged, and with a relieving grunt, fell back into his mesh iron chair.
“So you feel it in the back of the head?”
“Yeah, when I worked that job at the mall especially. It was this pressure back there as
the rest of me did the work. All jobs, really.”
“Yeah, I feel it in my face. Something I put on, but I’ve been told it doesn’t always work
“You reek of contempt.”
“It’s nothing personal,” Squint-smile said. “So, how do you relieve the pressure back
there, with a spoon?”
“Liquid lobotomy.” Squint-scowl raised his pint and took a couple drinks.
“I see,” Squint-smile said and laughed.
Years elapsed and the history of their friendship accumulated like sand compressed to stone. Sedimentation is rarely so simple as some imagine, and all the time chunks crack and break apart, and yet the sand continues to compound over the craggy scars. Their personalities were brought together by accident of birth and circumstance, but they were held together by that engrossing mystery of the dance between clear water and golden oil swirled, resting, or slopping in a bowl. Comedy and justice. Ebullient and irascible. God of the sky, god of underworld.
Life went on and it turned out they were both right, but their fortunes bent away as quickly as light upon the bottom of a spoon. Squint-smile had many misfortunes to come, in time, but also with a few important, auspicious turns. Squint-scowl had misfortunes, and some auspicious turns, albeit not quite so auspicious, and in time, those rare victories soured in one way or another.
Squint-scowl lost his father, but he didn’t tell Squint-smile until one blind-drunk night of wine, when Squint-scowl smashed a box fan in his filthy apartment and stomped on it until he fell over and Squint-smile grabbed him and held him as Squint-scowl sobbed and pushed and Squint-smile kept holding him until Squint-scowl gave up on saying, “No, no, I don’t want it”, and he slept until the next morning, when he had no recollection whatsoever of his hot tears. He puzzled over the destroyed fan, but wouldn’t admit his forgetting to Squint-smile, and so did not ask about it.
Then Squint-scowl felt the cold-burning coal grow, as it was wont to do. He blamed Squint-smile; somehow the red veins of the coal seemed to pulse in Squint-scowl’s presence, so he turned away from Squint-smile. It was something about his smile, thought Squint-scowl, something obscene and abusive. Still, the coal burned and grew without Squint-smile. One day, the coal had burned and grown until it took up Squint-scowl’s whole heart, smashing the other chambers up against the muscular walls. It had happened, but he didn’t quite know yet, or rather, understand it.
Meanwhile, Squint-smile felt a little raw as the months went on, and his calls continued to be ignored. He resolved to visit Squint-Scowl and invite the one who held it in his head to take a walk.
“Haven’t answered any of my calls.”
“Haven’t answered anyone’s calls.”
It was the middle of a long, dry winter. The weakness of the sun rinsed the city in a
kind of pallid myopia.
“I’m leaving. Going to live somewhere out in the country.”
They went on walking and Squint-smile wanted to keep going, but Squint-scowl
pointed back the other way, down a quiet road.
“So, just like that?”
Just like that, Squint-smile felt a bright lance of cold pain in his back and he would have stumbled forward were it not for a hand on his shoulder pressing him deeper into the lancing pain, until suddenly the hand let go and he fell on the salt-scuffed sidewalk and he saw the large, glaring eyes behind the coke-bottle lenses and beneath them, a black, dry scowl that turned away and was gone from him forever.
If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. For Squint-scowl, somebody had to die. Someone had to stand accountable for the obscene, abusive world. Such is the way many cold-burning hearts become killing hearts, and what they find crumpled before their feet is not this or that person, but in some sense, all life. This is how others die, even as they continue to live. They cannot kill themselves, because first, they need to witness the obscene, abusive world die first.
Squint-smile tried and failed to cry out as he lay, and the coarse salt clung to his coat and he could taste it on his lips, and he got the feeling it was his kidney, and it was no good. Somebody came and something was being done, but he was already stepping offstage as his heart, like the heart of his predecessors, the hearts who named the gods of holiday and sex and comity, ebbed onto the concrete.
His first thought was that he had so very little time left to think and so much to think about, and so he tried to think of all the things he thought most important to think about, namely, all the love of his lover, and the love of his dog, and the love of his family, and the love of his friends. He tried not to think about the pain, the pain of the newly wrought mittens so soon returned to his partner, and what to do with his books, and his clothes, and the empty spaces he’d leave to everybody else to handle.
His last thought was unfinished, but it had to do with this strange feeling he had about how all of it was inevitable, and yet the gods of holiday and fucking and sky would persist and yet, some would only almost die and yet, still more gods were yet to be born and yet...
Steve Bergmark (@BergmarkSteven) lives and writes in Chicago. He teaches
high school English and Humanities on the south side.