If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.
She was the morbidly obese, middle-aged lady living in the downstairs apartment of the rental house we shared. “My appendix almost burst,” she said by way of a greeting one day as I climbed the front porch stairs to find her hunkered down in a creaking lawn chair, the word SUGAR stretching in a sparkly silver distortion across the chest of her pink sweat suit. She pressed her hands lightly against the lower right side of her massive belly and exhaled jaggedly. “Got staples on my insides,” she said. “Stitches, too.”
We’d never talked much in the two years I’d lived there. In fact, I did everything I could to avoid her. It all just seemed too obvious: the garbage bags full of diet cola empties; the broken, second-hand toys her grubby, screaming grandkids left strewn across the dead lawn; the wet hackings of her obnoxious, cackling friends rising to my open windows on the smoke of their Virginia Slims.
Typically, I’d just offer some perfunctory greeting and go upstairs to my apartment and be done with her. But this day was different, by which I mean I was feeling different on this day—a sunny fall afternoon of chirping birds and turned leaves rustling in the wind-stirred trees. The smell of grilled meat hanging in the air. It was a day so perfect it seemed fake. A good day to have off from the Jiffy Lube. A day that somehow allowed even a shitty street like ours to shine with the lie that all could one day be right with the world. And that, along with her morbid greeting, had pulled me up short.
I’d only come home from the bar to grab my flask before heading over to the park to enjoy the golden evening I could feel coming on, but now, with the beer buzz and the turned leaves drifting down through the angled afternoon light, I found myself doing something I never would have done before. I asked how she felt.
She drew a deep, rattling breath, the SUGAR stretching further as she curled her lips back in a grimace. I saw myself slotting quarters between the gaps in her stained teeth while waiting for music to leak from her stitched abdomen. “I’m in some pain, but not too much,” she said.
Quick as my feelings of good will came on, they faded. I’d already lost interest. Obviously, she was going to live, was fine, blah blah, all that shit. And I wanted my flask, my sunny day walk. I said I was glad she was okay and made a move for my apartment door. Then she reached into the pocket of her sweatpants and pulled out a bottle of painkillers. Rattled them.
“They gave me these,” she said.
I eyed the bottle with envy. OxyContin. I told her those would do the trick. She nodded and set the bottle down next to her can of diet cola on the stained TV tray at her elbow.
“Hey,” she said, “You got anything to read?”
Up in my apartment was a stack of tabloids I kept next to the crapper: Bat Boy Escapes. Teenage Joy-riding Aliens. Titanic Survivor Speaks from Inside Waterbed. Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Cheating Husband. Just the kind of junk I thought she’d like. I told her sure I did and went upstairs to get them.
When I held them out, she shook her head. “Oh, no thanks, I don’t read that stuff.”
I shrugged, turned around, and dropped the tabloids into the yellow recycling bin at the porch’s edge.
“Say,” she said, “What’s that book in your back pocket?”
She meant my beat to shit paperback copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a relic from my single year at community college, a prop I stared through so I wouldn’t look stupid drinking in bars alone. Not a single woman, or man for that matter, had ever started a conversation with me by asking what I was reading, though I still continued to carry the book around. I’d read parts here and there, but the truth was I could care less about Shakespeare. I was usually looking over the top of it at the TV.
I pulled the book out. It had worn to the curve of my ass like a wallet. I handed it to her, told her it was a play; I didn’t think she’d like it. She smiled, once again showing me the ruined pickets of her teeth.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves,” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about. She read the confusion on my face.
“Sorry,” she said. “The pills got me kinda loopy.” She flipped through the book, found the page. Pointed out the line.
Through the windows of her apartment I could see a row of photos on the mantle. Among them, an old black and white of someone in an army uniform as well as a recent color shot of a young Marine, stiff and unsmiling in his dress blues. On her walls she’d taped up her grandkids’ crayon scribbles of purple trees and green suns next to what looked like a few diplomas or certificates of some kind. I took it all in, the evidence of her love, her loyalty, her attempts at self improvement, and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud as it became abundantly clear to me that she had proven, intentionally or accidentally, that I am and always will be a totally self-absorbed, judgmental asshole. I wanted to slap her in the face. Punch her repeatedly in the wounded side for reminding me of this. Instead, I shook my last two smokes out of the pack, lit them together, handed one to her, and sat down on the stoop at her feet.
She was right. So were Shakespeare and Caesar. In the end, we decide. I tried to think of something to say about the play, which she’d obviously read and understood, unlike me. There was this line I’d come across once that had stuck with me for a while, but now I couldn’t quite remember it. Something about butchers pardoning the bleeding earth for being meek and gentle. I groped for the sense of its meaning, felt some understanding there on the edge of my mind. Then what little I could realize slipped away as I decided to tell her how bad my back had been hurting me lately.
Art: La Morte di Cesare, Vincenzo Camuccini, 1804-1805