Edgar’s Birthday

My neighbor Rodell is sitting in his Grand Marquis. The black car has just been washed, and marijuana smoke tumbles toward the windshield and leaks through a gap in the window. Scratching the back of my head, I walk up and ask for Xanax. He grins, pulls a plastic bag from his underwear, and sorts through it with a finger.

I buy three for six dollars.

“Them are heavy hitters, cuz.” Rodell laughs, rolls down the window, and drops the tablets into my hand. He’s recently shaved his head, and a scar above his left ear looks like a centipede. “No motorcycle races. No climbing trees.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, leaning against the fender, trying to act casual when my stomach’s a fist. “Me and Xanax are old friends.”

“Whatever, cuz. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Rodell’s face hardens when he tells me to move away from the car. I reach out to shake his hand, and he rolls up the window.

I start home and the chill of this November morning creeps up my pant legs. A shiver rattles my teeth and shakes my skeleton, and I shove both hands into my pockets. The tip of a finger touches the Xanax, and a nervous smile sweeps over my face and makes me feel lighter. My anxiety disorder has gotten worse in the past year, and I now need medication to feel normal. Some days I hold myself and watch TV. Other days I drink beer and pace in circles. The doctor at the clinic suggested I use breathing exercises to calm myself, and he gave me instructions printed on a piece of pink paper. I practiced one night and got dizzy, so I gave up and folded the paper into an airplane that crashed.

At the end of my block, I turn right and head toward Rocket Market. Near the entrance I step through diamonds of green glass and have vague thoughts that a holiday is near. Then I laugh — it’s Edgar’s birthday. My best friend will be turning 57 in two days, and we’re planning to have a party in his backyard. He likes jelly doughnuts, and I’ll surprise him with a dozen from Mario’s Bakery on East Grand Boulevard. I’m also giving him the deck of X-rated playing cards I bought at a yard sale last summer. The man in a wheelchair who sold them to me promised that solitaire would never be the same. He tugged his crotch when he said this, and I pretended not to notice.

At the market I gather nachos, a Detroit Free Press, and a large coffee with six packets of Sweet ‘N Low. Mike, the bearded cashier, is looking at pornography behind the bulletproof glass, and I get a glimpse of a dick. When I lean closer, I see three naked men lounging next to a swimming pool. I count my money and slide it into the tray. Mike grabs the bills like a trained monkey and opens the register with two raps of a finger.

“Be good, Charles,” he says, glancing at the photograph while counting my change.

“Of course. I live the life of a saint.”

I gesture toward the magazine, and Mike tells me he’s studying for a night class. I say, “You should get all As,” and he tells me to go to hell. We laugh like brothers, and I take my groceries and leave.

I return to the efficiency I’ve been renting, and there’s an envelope in my mailbox. It contains a check from my father, and I kiss it before slipping it under the plastic statue of Jesus on top of my TV. I haven’t worked in five years, since I fell off a second-story roof and broke my pelvis. My employer, a Mexican who couldn’t manage a hot dog stand, didn’t have insurance, and I still owe $11,000 to a collection agency in Pennsylvania. My father’s money and food stamps are all that keep me alive, but things will improve when I can collect Social Security in 17 years.

On the kitchen table I arrange the nachos, paper, and coffee, and place two Xanax on a saucer. I haven’t had the one-milligram tablets since last summer, when I took a pill, got on the bus, and then woke up three hours later to war-like music coming from a boom box. Staring at the saucer, I grind my teeth. The anxiety building since breakfast hums beneath my lungs like a hive of trapped hornets, and I fight the impulse to bite my knuckle or guzzle the quart of beer in the refrigerator. After saying a short prayer, I chew one tablet, hesitate, and swallow the other with a sip of coffee. I then spend the next half hour eating nachos and reading the paper, until I yawn so wide that my jaw pops. Pushing back my chair, I stumble to bed and begin sleeping like a dead man.

The next morning I wake, having slept for 13 hours. A string of drool runs from my chin to my pillow, and the leg folded beneath me is numb. Stretching my limbs, I cry out like an injured dog, then limp to the stove to cook breakfast. In 15 minutes my food is ready, and I eat the entire pot of orangey macaroni and cheese with a tablespoon. I finish my meal with three green olives, then jerk off looking in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door.

Now filled with spunk and enthusiasm, I leave for Edgar’s wearing my favorite wool jacket and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. I’m feeling good today. I pretend I’m Jack Kerouac going to meet someone for coffee and pancakes. The cold walk takes 45 minutes and, when I approach Edgar’s tiny white house, I find him sitting on a sofa under the awning of his porch. He’s wearing a brown leather jacket and cowboy boots, and is drinking a forty of Miller Lite.

“Well, hot damn,” he says with a voice like sandpaper. “It’s Prince Charles.”

Embarrassed, I look at my shoes. I haven’t had a nickname since middle school, when I was called Bug Brain because I had memorized the Latin names of 14 insects. (Libellula lydia was my favorite — no one knew it was a simple dragonfly.)

Edgar hands me the beer. “Don’t forget, tomorrow’s my birthday.”

“I know.” I stop to let the beer wash over my tongue and send a cold knife into my stomach. “And I’m glad you were born.”

“Yeah, me too. Just think of all the parties I’d miss. And Jeopardy ... Imagine missing Alex Trebeck and all those jokers on Jeopardy.”

Edgar’s better looking than me, with his graying ponytail, square jaw, and flickering blue eyes. He has long legs and sinewy arms and a C-shaped scar on his chin from getting beat up by a store security guard in his twenties. A section of his lung was removed five years ago when he was treated for cancer. (He believes the cancer wasn’t caused by smoking three packs a day for decades, and insists he was poisoned by the parts cleaner he used at GM.) Now on disability, he rarely talks about his illness, and I don’t ask. We met a year ago tomorrow, at a church giving away cans of corn and fruit cocktail. I was floating through my days at the time, taking bus rides, talking with Mike at Rocket Market, and rereading the literature books from my two years at Wayne State University. Edgar and I left the church and walked to a bar, where we drank our first beer and watched the Detroit Lions on a smoke-stained TV.

In his garage we skin insulation from electrical wire that will be sold for scrap. Edgar stole the wire from a duplex being renovated on Michigan Avenue, an old brick building near a topless bar called The Snake Pit. (I go there when Dad’s checks arrive and know the dancers by name.) Some insulation sticks to the wire, and we burn it off with gas in a 55-gallon drum outside the garage. The air thickens with the smell of hot plastic, and I can’t stop worrying there are cancer cells still hiding in the folds of Edgar’s good lung, feeding off the toxins in the air he’s breathing. I shield my eyes to protect them from the sooty smoke, and Edgar hacks onto the sleeve of his jacket.

“Charles…” He stops to wheeze and suddenly seems close to death. “Did I ever tell you about the car I stole?”

I shake my head and wave smoke from my face.

He tells me GM fired him in the summer of 1993, and I stare at his lips. Two weeks ago, we walked to the liquor store, drunk on vodka and orange juice, and singing songs by Johnny Cash. Edgar stopped, grabbed the sides of my head, and kissed me on the mouth. I froze, but did nothing to stop him. No one mentioned it for the rest of the evening, and I eventually passed out on his sofa.

He once told me about a miserable marriage, but never mentioned an attraction to men. And I’ve only been with women, the last a cabdriver named Lois who smoked little cigars and had yellow teeth and a visible mustache. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever been in love, and often fantasize about marrying women I see on the street. Most won’t even look at me, though, and it makes me feel transparent, like a man made of glass.

Edgar finishes his story with a chase by the police as he winds the stripped wire into sloppy hoops. He then gives me seven dollars for helping and asks me to watch a rerun of M.A.S.H. The two of us hurry inside, out of the cold, and I sit on a radiator in his living room. He disappears into the kitchen to make us something to eat, and comes back 15 minutes later with a plate of fried egg sandwiches. I take two and tell him he’d make a good wife.

“Okay,” he says, laughing, gesturing with a sandwich, “but I refuse to give blow jobs!”

I spit out the egg in my mouth, and Edgar grins like a new mayor.

I wake the next morning and stare at the water stain on the ceiling that resembles the face of the devil. The devil used to be smiling. Now he has no expression at all. Minutes pass, and I begin to fall into the familiar quagmire of worry. There was the family on TV yesterday, who lost their three cats in a fire. The smashed car windows on my street, and the loud teenagers always blocking the sidewalk. I search my pants, can’t find the last Xanax, and rub my temples.

I get dressed and walk to Rodell’s, but he doesn’t answer. On a scrap of paper I scribble, “Need more — Charles,” and then add my phone number.

Back home I start a bath to get ready for the party. Water gushes from the faucet, and I swish it with my hand, wondering if I’ll ever visit Niagara Falls. The phone rings, and I jump — it’s Rodell. I ask about the Xanax, and he says, “No problem, little man. I got the shit if you got the cash.”

“Thanks, Rodell. Thanks.” I feel a sudden liking for him and wish he were here. “You really help me out.”

“Whatever, cuz. Pill freaks are good customers. The shit’s almost free and there’s lots of profit. Why you buyin’ so much, anyway?”

“I have a problem with anxiety and can’t relax. Sometimes I want to leave my body.”

“Guess it sucks to be you.”

I shut off the water and return from Rodell’s a short time later. I then drop my clothes and step into the bath, where I wash my hair, my armpits, and my genitals. When I climb out of the tub, there’s a wet, naked body in the mirror on the back of the door. He has mad scientist hair and the sunken chest of an old man, an old man who’s either been to the hospital or should go. An uncomfortable sympathy fills my chest, but I can’t look this person in the eye.

In my closet I search for the green pants I keep for special occasions. There are two dimes and a nickel in a front pocket, and a phone number with no name. I then pull on the red sweater my mother gave me six years ago: its sleeves are still too short, but the snowflake on the front reminds me of Charlie Brown and Christmas.

It’s three o’clock. I give Edgar a call.

“Prince Charles. Why don’t you come over at six. We’ll set up the chairs in the yard and start a fire in the barrel. I’ll get you to cut some branches off that apple tree next to the garage, and we can burn some old phone books.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” I stretch a sleeve of the sweater until it reaches my wrist. “And I’ll be bringing presents.”

“Cool. Presents are cool.”

“You know, Edgar, we’ve been friends a year today. It’s kind of like an anniversary.”

“Christ, a whole year? Outstanding.”

Hanging up, I clutch the Xanax and sit on the floor. I feel out of place, like a bird in the wrong nest, and want to be sharing the afternoon with Edgar. I take half a tablet and lie in bed, and the devil looks down on me. This could be more than a stain, I tell myself. This could be a message from God. He might want me to improve my health and drink less beer, and visit my grandmother at the nursing home in Inkster. And then there’s Edgar — what does He want me to do about Edgar?

I think back to our kiss and Edgar’s lips, their coarse weight and the sweet taste of orange juice. Rolling to my side and drawing up my knees, I picture Edgar’s long fingers dealing a hand of cards and can almost hear his low, grainy voice, Edgar ranting about politics, Edgar’s raspy cadence filling our hours of drinking. An image of him naked shoves this aside. Three months ago he walked from the bathroom to the kitchen while drying his hair with a towel. His chest was a map of scars from his surgery, but his ass was fleshy and pink, as nice as any woman’s. He turned to say something, and my heart flipped when I saw his nest of pubic hair.

I get the urge to write a poem — I haven’t done this since college — and the words The bridge leads nowhere appear in my mind, as if they’ve been handed to me on a slip of paper. Nothing follows, and I pull a blanket over my head, searching the shadows for something more to say.

An erotic dream with a faceless woman abruptly ends, and I open my eyes and sit up in bed. The clock reads 6:45, and I throw back the blanket, then nearly crash into the wall as I scramble to the kitchen. After grabbing the playing cards and slipping on my jacket and hat, I slam the door and race along the sidewalk.

I stop at Rocket Market for two bottles of Edgar’s favorite beer, and Mike begins a dirty joke about an animal trainer. The joke is long and focuses on sex with a donkey; he gives me too many details, and I don’t know why. I inch towards the exit, holding my bag. When he finally finishes, I make myself laugh, and then push through the door to the welcoming slap of cold.

On the Number 9 bus I travel to the bakery, and they’re out of jelly doughnuts. I buy a bag of sugar cookies instead, not sure if Edgar will like them. Back on the bus, I lean my head against the window, and Michigan Avenue passes like scenery from an old B movie: rib joints, liquor stores, resale shops, and miles of littered sidewalks. The Snake Pit rushes by, and workers are fastening plywood over its windows and door. I grab the seat in front of me, and the face of a dancer passes like a ghost through my head.

I step off the bus several blocks from Edgar’s house, and the sun is burning through the trees. The purples and oranges are beautiful and could be from a painting, but they make me feel empty and sad. I’m now two hours late and take a shortcut through a vacant lot, where two feral dogs linger near a chain link fence. Their monstrous barking penetrates my soul, and my heart throws off a string of wild beats. I search for a Xanax in my pocket. It dissolves on my tongue, and I swallow hard, passing it on to my body.

I reach Edgar’s driveway, and he’s sitting on the sofa, wrapped in a blue blanket.

“Charles! Where the hell you been? I’ve been waiting.”

My chest is heaving when I climb the steps. “Sorry. I fell asleep. It was supposed to be a nap. Where’s everybody at?”

“My brother’s working midnights and had to get going. The neighbors stopped by, but they went home because they said it was too fucking cold. We gave up on the fire — no one wanted to climb the apple tree.”

“You’re still on the porch?”

“I know, I know. I didn’t want the night to end.”

I sit next to Edgar and place the cookies at his feet. He throws a corner of the blanket over my shoulder, and I nuzzle it with my chin. Twisting the cap off one of the beers, I hand it to him and say happy birthday. He says thanks and drinks from the bottle, and then passes me the warm, half empty pint of whiskey wedged between his legs. I take a sip and then remove the playing cards from my coat pocket. “Here,” I say, “and there’re cookies in the bag.”

Edgar smiles, peals off the cellophane, and shuffles the deck of cards. Naked women dance before us, women clinging to muscular men, women sitting in chairs with open legs, women lifting their breasts with cupped hands.

“Damn, Charles!” Edgar slaps my leg. “You can’t beat good photography!”

We sit drinking our beer and gaze into the street, as though the empty pavement will answer life’s questions. The Xanax and beer begin washing through me, and something in my chest melts away. I’m now so relaxed I want to run through the yard and swing my arms, pretending I’m a figure skater or a ballerina. I imagine a summer evening and that I’ve taken off my clothes. I’m spinning around and around, as warm air brushes my back and whips against my arms and legs. Tipping my head to the coal-colored sky, I listen to the city: a car alarm yelps from blocks away; the expressway rushes like water in the distance. I close my eyes and strain to hear more, but then Edgar’s voice scratches next to me:

“… and when I was in grade school, I liked boys more than girls. I had a crush on a kid named Bobby Hickford, and wrote his name on my bedroom wall with my mom’s lipstick. My dad slapped me in the head and made me wash it off — he was such a fucker sometimes. Bobby let me kiss him once, but then he pretended he didn’t know me.”

Edgar’s words slowly slip through my fog, and I blink to let them in. They comfort me in a way I don’t understand, but then vanish when a chill bolts through my arms and shakes my shoulders. I grab the flap of the blanket and pull it over my chest, and Edgar slurs something unintelligible and moves his leg alongside mine. Heat soon radiates from this place, traveling up my thigh and into the well of my stomach. We then sit in silence, on Edgar’s birthday, and the night closes in around us.

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