That’s What Friends Do by Matthew Melao

My friend, Sam, the only person I have left in the world, is not doing well these days. He lives in 808, the apartment next to mine.

He hasn’t exactly come out, knocked on my door, and announced, “Paul, I’m not doing well these days,” but he doesn’t have to; I can tell.

Two days ago, I walked into the community room on the tenth floor, or the TV room as most tenants call it, and Sam was standing at the big window, staring out at the downtown high rises, his gray hands clasped behind his back. His clothes, a pair of jeans and his faded black Pink Floyd T-shirt with the prism on the front, appeared dirty and rumpled. He did not turn towards me as I stepped beside him as if he did not notice me, as if I were not there. Silver windows across the skyline had turned gold in the setting sun, and a spotty cloud layer had slunk in from the north like a dog who’s been bad and knows it.

After a few moments, I said, “They’ve predicted rain later tonight. Seventy per cent chance.” The weather was a favorite topic. Sam watched The Weather Channel for hours every day; he liked the colors, the arrows, the forecaster’s movement of hands, the sense of something much bigger than us. But Sam did not reply.

“You alright?” I said. His eyes, tinted pink and intense, bulged more than usual, and I heard him swallow hard as his Adam’s apple rose and fell. “What’s goin’ on, hmm?” Like him, I held my hands behind my back. I rocked forward on the balls of my feet; my heels ached. Sam’s not much of a talker now—he’s a doer, as he says—but with prompting he’ll open a little like a creaky cabinet door.

“Life,” he replied, his voice barely audible over the whirring ceiling fan, and I noted the faintest whiff of alcohol on his breath. Sam then turned abruptly and strutted out.

Life had broken Sam. We’d met forty years ago this coming April which, and I know this is now cliché, seems like yesterday. We were young and brash and dumb and life seemed like a pearl in our greedy palms, there for the taking, and we took. We worked at The Sentinel on Broadway in San Diego, Sam an ambitious journalist trying to work his way up the ranks, and me a fledgling photographer, a short-lived career stunted by my own inadequacies. We drank Bourbon on weekends and beer on the weekdays, chased skirts seven days a week, married one or two of them, left them all. Sam had been a tall handsome man with an infectious fervor that had men and women lapping at his heels, the real life of the party, as they say, the guy you wanted to be. Yes, life had been good.

Then came his assignment in Haiti, a time he still doesn’t like to discuss. What I gathered from what little he has shared, Sam began an affair with the guide the newspaper hired to help him. She was a mulatto woman named Jayne, and one day Jayne went missing. A week later the clerk at the front desk of his hotel handed him a manila envelope. Inside was the stuff of horror, photographs of men in uniform, monsters doing unspeakable things to her. Shortly after, her body was found crumpled in the hotel’s stairwell.

When Sam returned to San Diego, he was a different man, as if his light had been snuffed out. Or as another colleague put it, like he had died there in Haiti. The new man was a shadow of its former self, a phantom that could do little more than stare out of windows and curl up at night with a bottle of the cheapest liquor on the shelves. He spiralled into alcoholism, lost everything. After a particularly bitter argument about his alcohol use, he went his way and I went mine. Sam disappeared.

For over ten years we did not speak, had no contact, and I tried, god knows I tried, to put him out of my mind. Then one morning, funny enough, I hit him in the head with a bag of trash as he was digging through a dumpster. He’d probably slept there. He had spent all those years sleeping in alleyways, outside libraries, along riverbeds, underneath hedges, and other places not meant for human habitation.

This morning I awoke, startled, by a body looming overhead. Sam stood beside my bed, a gray face in the gray light staring down at me, his blue eyes bulging as ever. “Sam?” I fumbled for my glasses on the nightstand, knock off a book, and checked the time on the alarm clock. 6:23. “You trying to give me a fucking heart attack?”

“Jayne wasn’t her real name,” he said, the words came out in a strained whisper. A wave of pain crossed his face like a riptide pulling him to deeper waters.

“I know. How long you been standing there?”

“That was her American name.”

“Yeah, that’s what I understand Sam.”

“I could…have stopped it…”

“Don’t do this to yourself, you…”

“She was drunk that night. We both were. Partying with some officers at a general’s hacienda on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. They had the faces of…hungry jackals. Ravenous wolves that could do, would do, whatever the fuck they wanted. They were the kind of guys that would cut off your hand if they wanted your watch. I’ll never forget the hungry look in their eyes. I’d been warned against associating with the military, warned against getting too close to any woman.” His voice trailed off, his eyes closed, and I didn’t know what to say.

“You were young,” I said to fill the void. “You probably thought they’d give you info.”

“Young and naïve and too cocky to listen.”

“Yeah, but…”

“There were twelve polaroids, Paul, twelve horrific polaroids. Each one worse than the next. I see them in my dreams. So, I don’t sleep.”

“Awful, Sam, I’m sorry. But it isn’t your fault.”

“You don’t understand. They…they caught me that night with the general’s daughter, a sixteen-year-old. I don’t know what I was thinking, my head swimming with Jamaican rum. A poor excuse, I know. Anyway, I thought they were going to kill me, but instead they ordered me out by gunpoint. I left Jayne behind. I left…” His voice cracked. Sam turned abruptly, his head hanging, and then marched out of my apartment, his confession over.

When I still had not seen him by the early afternoon, concerned, I knocked on the neighbor’s door across the hall. I heard footsteps, felt the floor vibrate, saw a flicker in the peephole. The deadbolt clicked.

“Linda, you seen Sam?” I said the moment I saw the whites of her eyes. Linda was a heavy-set, sixty-year-old black woman rumored to be a practitioner of Santeria, divination, spellcasting, spirit possession, and other such nonsense. Even in the dim light I could see she was dressed in a very colorful robe with her wavy gray hair pulled up in a purple headscarf. She’d always been a teasing flirt with Sam, and you never knew what sexual innuendos might come out of her mouth.

“You…what?” she said. An expression of surprise fluttered on her dark, smooth face, passed with a flicker, and turned into serious concern.

“Sam,” I repeated, “I’m concerned about him. He’s not doing well, not at all. He came to see me this morning and I haven’t been able to find him since. Thought he might be here.” I noticed then the smells coming from her apartment, coffee, white sage, some unknown perfume, and heard what I thought might be the trumpet of Lois Armstrong turned low.

“Oh you poor thing,” she said, as if something just dawned on her. “Taking this real hard. You should seek help.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“You know, talk to somebody. A professional. After all, you’re the one that found him. That’s got to affect a man.”

“No, I said I’m looking, for him, now.” I felt like I was talking to a brick wall, or that we were having two different conversations.

“Hang on one sec,” she said, and, leaving her door open, she stepped back into the shadows of her apartment and after a moment her large silhouette reappeared. Her hand clutched a white piece of paper folded twice, held it out to me. Her nails matched her headscarf. “Here,” she said. Her face softened. She held her other hand on her hip. “I’m sorry.”

I unfolded the paper. “What is this?” I said, “Some kind of sick joke?”  A grainy, black and white picture of Sam, an old photo badly copied, stared back at me.

“We’re having his memorial on Monday. Two pm in the community room. You know, it’s been a week since he…”

“Passed?”

“Yes.” She nodded as she spoke.

“No,” and I tore up the flyer, my hands shaking as I did, and scattered the pieces in the hall. I’d always suspected Linda to be a liar, the old witch, but didn’t think she’d go to this length. And now the proof lay scattered on the tiled floor at my bare feet. I hurried down the hallway past apartment doors, closed, locked, and I nearly slipped upon a sticky pink puddle of Kool-Aid some idiot had spilled in the middle of the floor. I felt the presence of people behind those doors, felt their mocking eyes upon me like daggers to my brain. I knew what they were doing. Sitting around tables formulating awful ways to gaslight me, to plan my demise, to torture me, an old man with no one left in the world but his friend Sam. So I began ringing doorbells as I went, a declaration of rebellion if not victory, a statement that I knew and they could not hide.

Sam, I figured, had simply gone on a long walk past the convention center and along the waterfront, usually his routine on early mornings and late evenings to beat the heat. But he’s a little off these days.

I’ll wait for him in the cool and quiet of my apartment. If he does not return soon, though, I’ll go out there searching in alleyways, libraries, and dumpsters. That’s what friends do.


Matthew works as a Case Manager in Permanent Supportive Housing. When not at work helping people with addictions and mental illness, you’ll find him out hiking, reading, and writing. After serving two years in prison for operating an Internet Pharmacy, he simply wants to help others and lead a quiet but rich life.

 

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