After my senior year, my parents died in a summer car accident, and the funeral was hot. At eighteen, I was the youngest of my brothers. David was twenty-eight and lived in L.A. with his wife and kids. He was a tax attorney and the executor of the estate. Michael was twenty-five and living in Ann Arbor, finishing his M.S. in Biochemistry. He was getting ready to apply for med school. They knew I had no plans and made no effort to make any for me. The service was short, and my parents were buried side by side, thirty feet from a pine at the north end of Sojourn Memorial Cemetery.
The living room was full, the burgundy carpet thin, and the people were all dressed in black. Meat and cheese and alcohol were served between three and five. It was catered and the caterers all wore white shirts with black pants and black bow ties. Relatives and family friends and faces asked me how I was, what I was going to do, and if I needed someone to talk to. I repeated “fine,” “take some time off,” and “thank you, it’s good to know you’re there,” in sequence about twelve times. I didn’t know from what I was going to take some time off, but it seemed healthy and obtained approving, compassionate nods of agreement. ”Yeah, that sounds good” responses came from everyone except Grandpa Ruben, who said that I should join the military and further the war effort against the ”Anglo-Australian Regime.” It didn’t seem like a bad idea, though I didn’t have anything against England or Australia or their co-axial “Regime,” and then Grandpa Ruben had dementia and a known penchant for the hatred for all beings and things. Nevertheless, his advice was the most actionable and realistic.
My cousin, Ronny, who was a few years older than me, was studying sociology at State. He wore a haggard black suit and brought a camera. His hair was parted down the center and he took pictures of the guests to looks of general disagreement and morbidity. He came up to me last.
“I’m sorry for your loss?”
“Yeah,” I said, but I didn’t understand the question.
“I have this camera and I took pictures,” he said, looking at the camera in his hands.
“You might like to know how they were loved and … by these people … I don’t think they understood the pictures, though.” Ronny looked apologetic.
“It’s okay.” Now, I was consoling Ronny.
“Uncle Virgil, your dad, was good to me. He gave me this camera when I went to State … I think you should have it.”
My father did like Ronny, and no one in the family seemed to know why. He had never given me or any of my brothers very much, but we never really asked for anything
He fidgeted for a moment and then walked away.
I went to the back porch and took off my tie. The catering staff was smoking and talking about Buddy Holly. A girl with long hair and no make-up on came over and stood next to me. She put her cigarette out on the banister and blew smoke out of the side of her mouth. It blew into my face, but I didn’t mind. I was, strangely curious about what she was going to say. “It’s kinda fucked up, right?” she said.
“It is kind of fucked up, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, you stood around all day looking at black and white people who were pretty pale and there were no vampires or phantasmal creatures of any kind at the party.”
“Are you high?” I said.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m not right. Killer robots would have been acceptable.” The way she said it was very matter of fact.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to have this conversation.”
“I see,” she said.
Then she grabbed me and we started to make out. One of her co-workers said that Buddy Holly would not have done that. What did that mean? Of course he wouldn’t have—Buddy Holly was dead.
“So,” she said, “I’m going to clean up, and then we’re leaving.”
“I don’t know if that can happen.”
“Well, you can think about it.”
I thought about it.
The lawn was overgrown and the paint on the garage was coming off. The employees left one by one, all giving me stares of contempt as they passed. Alone, in the hot sun, I thought while I sat in my father’s wicker chair.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked.
I looked up at her.
She took her bowtie off as we walked to her car. The dress shirt was tight around her body, but only when she untucked it did it become mysterious and flattering. She looked twenty-something. The car was domestic, rusted, tan.
“There’s a bar where it’s Irish night,” she said.
“Are you Irish?”
“On Tuesdays, sometimes.”
“Yeah, I’m Bianca.”
I put out my hand, but she just smiled and unlocked the car. We got in and she kissed me again. The interior was immaculately, unimaginably clean.
“Christopher with the dead parents.”
“Yes, with the dead parents.” My voice was sardonic.
I looked at her, but she didn’t have a look of morbid interest, just playful curiosity. She laughed, and then she turned on the radio. We listened to some post-rock interpretation of the Beastie Boys and sat to ourselves.
Manuel’s Bar and Grill had Irish night on Tuesdays, the sign in front advertised. The neighborhood was upscale for downtown—there were only two puking hobos visible on the street.
I remember Bianca giving me things to drink, then I remember nothing.
Then there was the backseat of her car parked in front of a drugstore. I had a headache and my mouth was dry. I found Bianca with a middle aged man in a cheap, blue suit.
“Hello,” I said.
“Christopher, this is Earl. You probably don’t remember him.”
“No.” I shook my head.
“You told him you were going to sign up to fight the Australians, and then you called him Poseidon.”
“Lord of the Sea?”
I turned to Earl. He had more than a five o’clock shadow and smelled like scotch.
“Hi.” Earl’s voice was understated and soothing, not happy, but not uncomfortable.
“Earl doesn’t talk. He’s just rich.”
“We took the camera from around your neck. “
“There was a camera around my neck?”
“Yes. There were pictures of the funeral on it.”
Ronny and his camera came back to me. Earl handed me a drugstore envelope full of photos and Bianca stood over my shoulder as I flipped through them. Most of them were half shots of people and objects, like stained glass windows, gravestones, couches and tables with or without food. Some of the pictures were of people eating.
“The dead eating the dead mourning the dead,” said Bianca while she shivered. Earl shrugged, expressionless.
“Fuck you, Earl. Those people aren’t living, and they’re eating dead animals, and they’re mourning their dead friends. Don’t try and tell me I’m full of shit,” Bianca yelled.
Earl swayed like a contemplative, assenting Muppet.
“You’re god damned right I have a point.”
And I had friends.
Bianca was a model. I hadn’t noticed, but she was a model. She was gorgeous. Long brown hair, petit features and porcelain skin made her beautiful. Earl had inherited money and owned The Hotel chain, though he didn’t participate at the corporate level. At The Hotel in town, he ran the desk. Nobody knew he was a billionaire, except, strangely, Bianca, who no one ever believed, because she was unbelievable. Bianca and Earl had met when Bianca had catered an event at The Hotel and Earl had snuck into the banquet hall. Earl had passed out drunk on the wedding cake. Bianca had pulled him off and escorted him to the men’s room where she congratulated him on his “cojones,” so she claimed. Earl then went back to the front desk. When Bianca got done with what was left of the wedding reception, she saw that Earl, miraculously, hadn’t been fired and took him out in celebration of his debaucherous performance—while Earl was still on his shift—to the lounge bar for a drink. After that, she came to The Hotel whenever she felt like seeing him, and he was always there. Eventually, they just started meeting up at Manuel’s Bar and Grill every night.
David and Michael kept pushing me to get a job or go to school, or get a job and go to school, but I resisted on the basis that I didn’t care to do either. They gave me notice that they were going to sell the house, and then they did, but they sold it to Earl. Earl bought the house, because he had more money than God, and he seemed to like having me around and thought that I might want to continue being around. I liked being around. It was a simple arrangement and my house became the home and focal point of our group.
Months passed and nothing happed. It never bothered me what they did, and it never bothered them what I did. None of us ever really did anything. Bianca never kissed me after that first day, and neither did Earl, ever, but his preferences were made clear one afternoon in late summer that year.
It was hot, and I had left the house for the park, because the park was nice. Earl had followed me. He never worked—if he worked at all—before five, and he had started to stay more regularly in one of the rooms at the house. Bianca and I suspected that he had a home of his own, but we never cared enough to ask, and it never bothered us that he was there. He was dressed in his faded blue suit, and I think I had on an inside out t-shirt and jeans. I sat on the hill overlooking the park and the street below. The traffic was light. I sat back and watched the clouds pass and felt the sweat roll off my face. Earl just kept sitting. Bianca was catering or at a photo shoot that day. She was there, she was gone, she was Bianca. Earl was good company, but he never spoke. In the months I had known him, that first “Hi” had been it.
“I’m in love with Bianca,” he said.
Seven monotone syllables in five words.
The clouds looked so sublime, and life seemed to have meaning in its absence of having meaning, and then Earl had to confide in me everything wicked and wrong in this world. His sexuality and preferences were no longer a subject of debate. They were Bianca. Damn.
“Huhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” was all I had.
We stayed there, in the park, for another half hour trying to ignore what had happened before I finally said something.
“She’s less than half your age.”
He shrugged. The shrug clearly said, “C’est la vie.”
C’est la vie.
“Did you want me to say anything?” I finally asked, exhausted.
He shook his head.
There was nothing to do, and yet I felt in this simple, crushing confession a premonition of the end of us all.
Bianca and I had found out that Fellini’s 8 ½ was Earl’s favorite film, because he never fell asleep when we watched it, and Bianca always wanted to watch it. That night, after that hellish day in the park, after gyros and ice cream when Bianca had rejoined us, he picked 8 ½ to watch. He never picked anything to watch, and Bianca was shocked, but she didn’t object. I knew all was wrong. He was communicating with me.
We started watching the movie and Bianca fell asleep.
I looked at Earl, accusingly, and Earl averted his stare to the foot of a nearby chair.
The only thing that could ever be communicated with that movie was struggle and unhappiness and struggle around unhappiness with women. Earl was telling me that he shared the pain of the main character. It was a good film, but I tried to ignore the context in which we were watching it for this, the millionth and thirtieth time. Nevertheless, they persistently ruined the imaginative grace of the film’s main character and pigeon-holed the production.
“I can’t not tell her,” I said, “it’s important.”
Earl took a shallow breath and a deep sigh.
I woke Bianca up.
“Bianca—Earl, our friend and mime, is madly in love with you.”
“What?” she said, half awake. “You’re full of shit.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m going to bed.” But in that instant, her eyes broke in that half-sleep, and she knew, however ridiculous, that it was true.
More months passed. The gap between us was growing, though nothing, ostensibly, had changed. While no one made mention of what had happened, the unreciprocated feelings were becoming a burden on the group. Nothing was said, but Bianca was deferential, and she liked to be around Earl less and less.
Then Earl disappeared.
Bianca and I were left alone and more months passed. I became enamored with the gift of my dead father presented to my cousin, Ronny, who then presented it to me, and I applied to an art school in Chicago. Eventually, Earl sent us a postcard. It was of a bullfight and it was from the Czech Republic. It said “Love” on the back. Neither of us knew what this meant, but both of us now reminded each other of Earl or Earl’s absence or what Earl represented or what Earl’s representation meant for us where we were in our lives, or something. His absence was a coldness, and Bianca took to holding my arm at night when we went out or stayed in and watched movies. Bianca, I learned, had access to one of Earl’s bank accounts and she made sure we lived well, but responsibly. Then she said it.
“I miss Earl.”
“I miss Earl, too.”
“This is no good.”
“No it’s not. I’m going to go to art school with my dead father’s camera gift to my cousin, Ronny.” I said, not quite sure what I had said or how I had said it.
“Oh.” she said, sounding like me the first time we had met.
No “Fuck you, I’m going to bed.” No ”Why didn’t you tell me?” No ”What the hell does any of this mean?” Only tears and softness and sadness. I patted her head. Sleepless, I left the next day.
Months passed. Art school was nice, but the people were shallow and talkative. Ronny’s camera was poorly made, and my professors didn’t approve of my methods. I liked to shoot shots of nothing, and they liked shots with at least the tease of something. In the silence and contemplation of art school, I realized I had been the victim of love and friendship, and my life had suffered their benefits and loss. I knew now that deeper, richer, fuller sadness of things. I knew the difference between to have and have not.
I had fallen, and I had fallen to both. C’est la vie and other vanities reserved for the more contemplative sorrows were in order. I liked the order, so I stayed away from future possible engagements and acquaintances and took to photographing birds. The present was mundane, unlike the Buddhists and the Hindus advertised it to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of the campus library. But the present had birds.
Taking pictures of pigeons on a Saturday, because it was a day on which I was conscious, in the present, and able to do things, a gentleman in a tan trench coat would not move out of my view finder. He stood in front of my camera for several minutes. We stared at each other.
“Is your name Christopher Johnson?”
“Do you take pictures?”
“Do you know one Earl Mitchell Masterson of Wilmington Ohio?”
“This is for you.”
The man in the tan coat handed me a sealed white envelope. He made a “Good Day” gesture and left with a small nod and formal smile.
Inside, there was a card with my name on the cover. It read:
Mushi Mushi and Good Day to You, Valued Friend and Acquaintance,
This letter is a formal invitation to the wedding of Earl Mitchell Masterson to Claire Yoshiko Matahachi. Please join us on Saturday, May 10, at The Hotel in Milan, Italy. Enclosed are two tickets for you and a guest. All travel expenses will be compensated, and we hope you will join us for our much anticipated formalized union of beauty and respect.
Claire and Earl
Earl was getting married in Italy, and he wanted me to be there. It sounded important, but it would take away from my taking pictures of birds. After a long discussion with one of the Buddhists in front of the library on how to make decisions in the present that dealt with the expectation of a future, I decided I would go. The day of the flight approached, and I thought of the mysterious woman to which one of my only friends was to marry on Saturday, the 10th of May in Milan. Unfortunately, all I could think of were pigeons, so in my mind she looked like a pigeon on a terrace that had reminded me of Earl once. It was a plain terrace, but comforting in its simplicity.
The flight was long and boring, but I decided I would start a tour-de-force series of carpet photos when I got home. The Buddhist’s conversation had swayed me in that such a change might be possible while within the present, even though it may or may not happen in the future or may or may not be happening now as part of the present perpetually making a past amid the ”illusion” of the future. I still hadn’t figured out what the monk had been trying to say, but carpets, in general, seemed like they might have more promise for my professors, and they came in almost as many varieties as birds.
I got off the plane and a man with a sign with my name on it was waiting just outside the baggage area. I felt nothing, but I wondered if Bianca would be there. It hadn’t been long, but it had been a long time.
The Hotel was full. People were everywhere, and I took out my camera to take pictures. I learned from the front desk that the wedding party had a dinner scheduled at 5:00. I waited in my room on my bed for a few hours and then went down.
Seated next to a German gentleman with impeccable English and an empty seat with Bianca’s name on it, I saw Earl. The glance I gave him must have been puzzled, but warm. He smiled. Amazingly, he seemed happy. Earl was happy, and the thoroughly Caucasian woman sitting next to him must have been his bride to be. She was blonde with dainty features, but had an air of command and social grace. Half the wedding party was Japanese. I learned from the German to my right that Claire was born an American and adopted by a Japanese couple. The two had met in Japan where Earl was vacationing and they fell in love. He said that Earl didn’t speak much, but that his warmth for the girl seemed clear. The German was the girl’s biological uncle, whom she had contacted to reconnect with her biological parents. Her mother had died in childbirth and the identity of her father was still unknown, I learned.
Her eyes seemed to be simple, and Earl was an excellent judge of character, so I had no arguments, though it did seem sudden, though sudden was relative since I had been living in the present for so many months. I went to bed and woke up to knocking at my door.
It was dawn, and Earl was at the door with a tuxedo in his hands.
“You and Bianca are my best man and woman.”
“Bianca wasn’t at dinner.”
“Her flight was delayed.”
“I couldn’t be more honored, my friend.”
He looked helpless with sad joy and wonder. I had never mentioned or explicitly let on that either of them had ever meant anything to me.
He left quickly. I put on the suit. It fit perfectly. I went down and waited in the event hall where pews had been installed and I sat in the front row alone.
Hours passed and no one showed up, then there were hundreds. I saw Bianca come up the aisle and then sit next to me.
“No, we’re not doing that.”
She took my head in her hands and pressed her face to mine and took a deep breath. It was sweet, warmer than a handshake or a hug.
“I missed you,” she said.
“I take pictures of pigeons.”
Earl came up the isle and stood by us. The priest was ready. Everyone was patiently waiting. Bianca and I stood. Earl looked at both of us and he looked so happy.
“Thank you. You both mean a lot to me,” he said.
Then he hugged me and then he hugged Bianca. We three went up to the altar and waited for Claire the Caucasian Asian. Nothing was forced or formal or cold or like etiquette. It was warm and foreign and fine and fulfilling, and I was scared.
The bride, dressed in white, came down the aisle to one of Earl’s favorite classical pieces and she looked pure. Nothing was right, and everything was fine, and I couldn’t feel anything but awkward and askew.
She was a few steps away and had eyes only for Earl. I started thinking faster and faster.
Earl. Bianca. Me. Claire—someone I didn’t know. All of us standing, arranged to some function. All in some function arranged to some relation. All of us something. Nothing more than … everything …
And I felt Bianca’s hand slip into mine and tighten.
© 2014 N.J. Campbell
Image © Embassy Pictures
N. J. Campbell lives and writes in the Mid-West. His work has appeared in some places. He enjoys long walks, classical music and documentaries about skateboarding. He blogs at njcampbell.tumblr.com.