Third installment in a series of three. This story was first published at Failbetter.com.
Rick wondered what was up with Alec lately. They hadn’t met for dinner in a while, Alec was slow to return his calls, and when he did return them he was taciturn and atypically nonchalant. On the subject of that prostitute from the pier, his breezy “Oh, yeah, that didn’t work out” did not at all match up with his behavior on the night they saw her, nor with his general modus operandi, which was to disclose so much about his crushes and romantic liaisons, regardless of duration or depth, that he all but gave Rick a stool sample. But Rick was super-busy these days at work, and when not at work he was out with Denise, or in with her, where the sex was pretty amazing, as Denise was young, beautiful, smooth, toned, energetic, resourceful, smelled good, and expressed with notable generosity her feelings of delight and gratitude. He occasionally found himself wishing that the conversation was as amazing as the sex, or even above average for a woman of her age, but she did have a pleasant, upbeat disposition, and in truth, Rick was not quite ready to settle down with anyone, so full extra-sexual compatibility with Denise would have presented its own kind of problem that Rick did not want to face just yet anyway.
It was only when Alec called to ask him for more money—a lot more, by Alec standards, and not with his usual Alecesque sheepish sort of pleading but with an edge of desperation that considerably surpassed even this man’s run-of-the-mill edge of desperation—it was only when this phonecall came through, at the end of a long day of work three weeks after the night on the pier, that Rick knew something was seriously wrong.
“What’s the money for?”
Pause. “I may have bought more books this month than usual.”
“Have you been paying that prostitute for her services?”
“I told you,” Alec said with uncharacteristic anger, “I haven’t seen her in weeks, and I never used ‘her services,’ never paid her in any way for anything. I think she stole some money from me though.”
This was a different kind of lie than Alec had ever told before and Rick told him so.
“You don’t trust me now?”
“Oh, God, Alec, I’m really busy and I’d like to skip the whole you-don’t-trust-me-now part of the conversation so just tell me what you want the money for.”
“I’m sorry you’re too busy for your best friend.”
Rick was about to feel put-upon by this best friend declaration until he realized it was true. Alec was his best friend. How incredible, and beautiful, and sad. He had to help him.
“Sorry, man, no, of course I’m not too busy for you. You sound different. Please tell me what’s going on. And basically, I’m not giving you money unless you do.”
Dedicated heroin people will generally choose lying over truth to get what they want, but if presented with a scenario in which the truth appears to be a faster and more obstacle-free path than a lie to getting what they want, which is always ultimately more heroin, they will take the former route—plus Alec had been wanting someone other than Jim to know about his new hobby, so he told Rick, but downplayed the whole needle-in-the-arm/addiction aspects of it. Rick took a cab directly to Alec’s place.
On his way over, he developed a plausible picture of his friend’s drug use. Alec was too squeamish to inject anything into his own arm, so he had to be sprinkling it in powdered form into a cigarette or joint, as Rick had seen hipsters on the periphery of his circle of friends do a half a dozen years ago, and smoking it. These people either did this a handful of times and stopped or they succumbed to it and died. That would be the line he’d take with Alec. No playful banter, just hard-nosed friendship of the cut-this-out-or-I’ll-punch-your-fucking-face-off variety.
The already thin Alec had lost twenty pounds in the last three weeks, had pimples on his face and clusters of small red scabs down his inner arm, seemed to be sweating oil, smelled like mushrooms, and, after he’d opened the door, stood leaning to one side with eyes and mouth half open.
“Hey, got any heroin?” Rick said.
“You don’t understand.”
“She’s a prostitute.”
“You don’t understand.”
They sat, Rick on the futon-couch, Alec on a kitchen chair. Rick studied him and understood that however irrational and stupid it was, Alec had been in love with this person since he’d met her that night, was suffering enormously for being so, and had chosen the most irrational and stupid means of alleviating his suffering, one that did not alleviate but compounded it. Rick also understood that his irrationality and stupidity were two of the main reasons Alec was his friend, that, annoying as Alec was, Rick loved him in part because of these qualities; loving Alec exposed Rick to the mystery of human existence by bringing a measure of it directly into his heart—no, not a measure, the point was there was no measure, there was all of it, overwhelming and frightening.
To shove away this confounding blunder he had been committing in slow motion over the course of a dozen years, Rick said, “You’re stopping this drug now. It’ll be hard, but I’ll help you. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“Oh, please, really? Nietzsche? Again? Now? I don’t want Nietzsche, I want money.”
“To buy heroin with?”
“Okay, here’s a little Freud for your Nietzsche: ‘Not only does trauma make you neither stronger nor wiser, it makes you weaker and stupider, and only through an effort of self-understanding so strenuous it is well beyond the capacities of most people, and even then only under the guidance of an extraordinary clinician, can anyone in any way benefit from suffering.”
“Where does Freud say that?”
“Nowhere, per se, but it’s the essence of all his writings. It figures you’d come here to console me with Nietzsche. Being a Nietzschean Superman has always made you tone deaf to what I, a non-Nietzschean weakling, might want or need.”
Rick wanted to scoop this guy up and chain him to a radiator and feed him orange juice and methadone or whatever until he wasn’t addicted to heroin anymore, but that would not solve the problem for which the heroin was Alec’s untenable solution. He had never had a friend this stupid before, and Rick had always half-known that eventually, as was happening now, Alec would do something of a stupidity without precedent, in the face of which even a man of Rick’s intelligence would not know what the hell to do. This was really lousy, what Alec was doing, causing such desperation and panic in Rick, and not the fleeting kind, as in a market correction, but the kind that adds a permanent layer of care to your heart.
“What?” Alec said. “Why are you making that face?”
“Because I thought we were friends.”
“Of course we’re friends.”
“Then stop injecting that drug into your arm.”
“That’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Like I said, I thought we were friends.”
“Are you crying?”
Rick needed to go out and find a drug counselor or pamphlet to bring back asap. His mistake—and you can hardly blame him for it—was not to give Alec just a little money to tide him over until Rick could formulate a realistic plan. Alec, who had already made a certain set of calculations, responded to the withholding of the money by shouting “Please!” Rick hugged his seated friend awkwardly and left the apartment.
Alec’s calculations went something like this: he had one more big dollop of heroin left; Jim, being nice, might front him another one, but no more; Alec could try showing up to his job in the basement of the Strand bookstore that he hadn’t been to in three weeks, but even if they were to miraculously take him back, he still would not see his meager paycheck for another week after that; for various reasons—a different one for each activity—there was just no way Alec could raise funds via busking, panhandling, swindling, burgling, robbing, murder, or, indeed, prostitution; had Rick not cut off his funds, he’d have gone on using the drug to numb his pain—not a permanent solution but one that would have bought, so to speak, time for a better one to emerge than the one he was about to pursue.
He cooked up his last little bit of the drug and put it in his arm—a slightly larger dose than he’d become accustomed to, but not large enough to prevent him from walking to the bathroom and removing the ironically named safety razor from the medicine cabinet. Consideration being a quality Alec aspired to, he had chosen the bathroom as the place for this to happen in order to minimize the cleanup job for whoever would be unlucky enough to be assigned it, and he felt real remorse for the sorrow this would bring into his parents’ lives and Rick’s. He pressed the thing against his neck and drew it hard across the place where he knew the carotid artery to be, thanks to the biology course he’d had to take in college to fulfill his distribution requirement. The physical pain was milder than he’d expected, but he did feel sadder than he’d ever felt before, which was really saying something, and when he saw the thick, fast spray of dark red blood arc out from beneath his chin and land on the white tile floor across the small room, he was terrified.
One night a month later, Rick sat in the living room of his spacious apartment looking through its glass wall, which had been designed by the architect Richard Meier, at the black Hudson River and the lights of Hoboken. He was trying to imagine a full day in the life of Oona, the prostitute his best friend, Alec, had presumably killed himself for the love of. Rick could fill in almost no details. His mind didn’t work like that. Alec’s mind hadn’t either, quite. Being a lyric poet who wrote in short bursts of weird imagery, Alec would have imagined fourteen collaged-together details about her and mistaken them for her. Was it true, as Rick had read on the Wikipedia page for the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm that day at work instead of doing actual work, that love was “an interpersonal creative capacity, rather than an emotion”? If so, how could Alec have died for it? And how could Rick have let him? Unless tragedy could be considered a form of creativity. His job performance was slipping thanks to his internet research of psychoanalytic thinkers, and to the frequent intrusion of the fourteen details game, which Rick not only did succeed at when it came to imagining Alec’s life, but which he played involuntarily and unhappily throughout the day, and which always culminated with that blade slicing that neck, so thanks a fucking lot, Alec.
Denise frequently offered to come over but didn’t press too hard. The times he’d let her come, she’d talked with him about his friend with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but even so he didn’t want to talk about his friend with her or anyone, he wanted her to light a few candles and sit across from him in the room, or maybe next to him on the couch, and say nothing, for hours, with no music, no TV, no internet, no texting, just two bodies breathing quietly. Come to think of it, she had done exactly that, that one time, and given the devotion and kindness she had repeatedly demonstrated, he was pretty sure she would have done it again if he’d asked her to, but asking her to would be tantamount to investing a quantity of hope in another human being, and in himself, that he simply did not now have, and would not have, until he’d had sufficient time to assess the meaning of the tale of two men who had given their hearts—one to a woman who did not love him, the other to the man who’d not been loved by her.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”