The Daily Weirdness


Death of a Nature Author

November 8, 2017 ·

I sat at a Starbucks on a June afternoon. Bakersfield was over a hundred degrees. I would turn twenty-seven in a week. The barista had put only three cubes in my iced coffee. They’d melted by the time I sat under a green canopy on the patio. I chain-smoked, read a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, and wrote in a notebook for proposals to literary agents about my novel. Don’t ask what it’s about because even I don’t know.

A beatnik joined me out there with a skateboard, a young scrawny dude who wore a black Ramones t-shirt, representing a small ilk of that red town. I liked his style. He smoked cloves and drank black coffee. We talked about Bukowski, Dostoyevsky, and Led Zeppelin until he would skate away. He liked Nietzsche, too (my kind of guy), and he’d come from Northern California, using the word “hella” instead of “very.”

A stoner girl invited herself to my table. I liked her pink pigtails.

“It’s hella hot out here,” she said.

Another Northern Californian. Was there a convention?


“What book are you reading?”

“He’s Russian,” I said.

“I’ve read that book. It gets me off.”

“Gets you what?”

“I love the writer.”

“I’ve read them all,” I said.

“You’ve read them all? That makes my puss throb.”


“Nothing. That’s hella cool. I feel horny when I smoke weed.”

“I smoke, too.”

“I watched the fight last night. Did you?”

“I was reading.”

“You’re such a sexy boy. Would you read to me? I’ll sit with you topless.”


“My brother’s house. He isn’t home.”


“Unless you have something better.”

What was her angle? How could I trust any woman that open? “I’m free this afternoon.”

“Before we do this, I have four questions to ask you, and you have to get them right. Are you game?”

So there was the catch. “You seem aggressive,” I said.

“Are you playing the game or not?” she asked.

“OK OK, I’m game.”

“Have you been to jail? Do you love your mom? Have you hosted a party before? And what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

How could I get all those answers right?

“OK,” I said, “I’ve never been to prison, and I love my mother, and I hosted a party once. It was a disaster. Someone had brought a knife, and I had to break up a fight before the police would show up.”

Her tiny body curled in her seat. She lifted her cigarette with her elbow on her knee. One of her shoulder straps fell down her arm.“And the last question?” she asked.

I needed a fucking laptop and an internet connection for that.

The girl watched me with a condescending smirk.

“Fifteen miles per hour,” I said. It was a wild guess.

She shook her head disappointingly. “I thought you would pass.”

“Oh, this is bullshit.”

“Sorry, move along.”

“Where was I wrong?”

“You needed three out of four. Four out of four, and I would’ve flashed you my boobs. You, my friend, got two out of four.”

“Which ones did I get wrong?”

“Three and four.”

“What are you?” I asked.

She took another stogie for the road. “Sorry. Move along.”

“Hit the road,” I said.

She flipped a quarter, which landed on my table, and she walked away, flipping me off, whatever her name was. I prayed for her to come back.

A barista came out with a mop and a stack of fresh ashtrays.

“Have you ever seen that girl before?” I asked.

“That’s Ashlee,” he said, “with two E’s.

“What questions did she ask you?” I asked.

He rested his arm at the top of the mop handle and scratched his forehead, staring onward where Ashlee had vanished. “Something about the anatomy of a snowflake, I think.”

“Did you get it right?”

“I actually did.”

“So what happened?”

He pressed his cap back down before returning inside. What a way to leave me hanging. But I’ll remember that girl forever.

Those were the good old days, as good as they were. Those eccentric bohemians don’t come around anymore. I don’t know where they went. Fourteen years had flown by since Ashlee with pigtails. I needed a change of scenery from Bakersfield and its heat, so I moved to the woods of Cambria, where I kept working on my novel. Cambria had less than half as many people as Bakersfield, meaning fewer scholars but also fewer idiots.

I went to the coffee house on the main street the first week. A barista behind the counter waited with pigtails coincidentally, looking cuter than Ashlee, with blue eyes. I’d found my new favorite place.

Famous nature author Manfred Ellerbe stepped in one morning. His newspaper was tucked under his arm as he stood at the front of the line. “Why the hell won’t you let me use the bathroom?” he asked.

“It’s up the street,” the barista said.

“Up the street? What do you mean it’s up the street? I need it now.”

She was either thinking or panicking. “I said the nearest one is down the street.”

“Are you afraid I’ll stink the place up? That I’m going to die in this shit hole?”

“Sir, it’s down the street at the Shell station.”

“This shit town makes me look for a shitter. It’s like a goddamn Easter egg hunt,” he said.

Wow. I was stunned the famous Manfred would act like that.

The town let me legally smoke on the sidewalk. Most coffee shops have banned smoking on the patio. And I’d been looking for someone to talk about literature with. Life, I can say, had changed for the worse. Year by year, my rights get slowly taken away.

I lit up at the corner far from the shop with my cappuccino. The weather was in the fifties on a sunny day in Cambria, still in the summer. I could only imagine how the winter would feel. Manfred threatened to crouch over a sewer in front of an antique store and take a shit. Its owner rushed outside.

“That’s inexcusable, Mr. Ellerbe. I’m calling the police,” she said.

“Yeah? Have them bring some toilet paper,” he said.

A little while later, I sat near him, who sat in the corner of the patio. He spread his newspaper apart. Famous authors come around like eagles. There must’ve been a way to get to know him, but let it be known he was intimidating.

A pair of police officers showed up. The shorter one, the sheriff, warned him.

“Why is a public bathroom closed?” he asked the officers.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean what do I mean? They’re called public bathrooms for a reason,” he said.

“Not here, Mr. Ellerbe.”

“OK. But the shop is open to the public, right? So anyone should have a right to go where they want.”

“Get it together,” the other one said. “And watch what you say to a police officer.”

“What is it these days? A man has to go home to take a shit.”

“There’re children present.”

A kid, about six years old, toyed with a cell phone with his mother in another corner. The sheriff handed Manfred some type of ticket, I guessed for public indecency.

“Thanks a lot,” Manfred said. “Now I have something to wipe with when I get home.”

Whenever I went to that coffee shop, I ran into Manfred reading on that patio or at the window upstairs. He refused to talk to me or anyone, let alone greet me.

Otherwise, Cambria was a friendly town, even with its strict bathroom laws. People would wave at me when I passed them on the sidewalk. A national magazine had voted it the friendliest town in the United States. My neighbors would leave pies at my doorstep. Deer or some other animal would nibble away at them. The neighbors should’ve known better. I stuck a note on my front door:


I returned the favor with care baskets: cookies, muffins, and coffee beans, which took time out of my day. Their generosity was nice but needless.

I hiked a trail each morning in the woods before going to the coffee shop. Pine trees waved in the breeze once, warning me about something. Maybe I’d moved to that town after my brain had split apart, like Pangea. Why did I move to Cambria? Bakersfield wasn’t so bad besides the heat and the conservatives. Turn around, the trees said. Stay away.

One night, when I was hiking in the dark, hooves or something pattered near me. The woods closed in. I’d wandered too far and couldn’t see shit. Was it a deer or a bear? Maybe I’d crossed one of those sasquatch monsters that blurred in photographs. When I made a sudden movement, it scampered before it stopped. It huffed in my periphery. Sasquatch was too slow for that shit. It could’ve been a mountain lion or, worse, a family of mountain lions planning an ambush.

I began to run to the neighborhood road about three miles from home, looking for the nearest house with the lights on. Why the hell did I decide to hike at night? The citizens of Cambria turned their lights out to prevent brightness on their streets. The roads were missing streetlights, too. All I could hear were ocean waves crawling to the shore beneath the moon. The streets were narrow enough for one car to pass and steep enough for two cars to collide.

I knocked on the door of the only house with the porch light on, needing a bathroom desperately like Manfred. A furry welcome mat at the doorstep read MR. BEASLEY. An old white man in a safari hat with a neck-string answered. His smile was warm.

“What can I do for you?”

“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Beasley, but I’m lost and can’t find my home, and I need a bathroom.”

“But of course.”

“I can’t do it in the woods. It’s too dark.”

“Come on in,” he said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Did you bring anything to read?”

“I wish I did.”

He rubbed my back. “That’s quite alright. I have plenty of literature.”

Mr. Beasley carried classics on his bathroom shelf: Huxley, Saroyan, Vonnegut… Ellerbe’s books, too, like his bestseller: The Diabetic’s Guide to Birdwatching. I pulled one of his books from the shelf: How to Love Nature and Get Laid Because of It. His paragraphs contained shitloads of profanity.

Mr. Beasley had conveniently left matches in a mason jar for the stench. His bar of soap was shaped like a duck. In fact, his towels had ducks on them, too, along with the bathroom tiles.

He waited at the other side of the door, still wearing his hat, scaring all the piss out of me. But that time, his eyes looked angry. He wore a yellow raincoat, and out of its pocket peeked a squirrel. I wanted to run the fuck out right away.

“You said you lived nearby?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Which road?”

I wanted to make one up. “Swan Drive.”

“What’s that road? Sounds like you’re making it up.”

So that was a bad idea. “I meant to say Barton.”

“Barton, I know that road. It’s where I used to trick or treat.”

What? He rubbed the squirrel’s head with his thumb.

“I know Barton very well. Would sure be nice to get acquainted with a new neighbor. Unless you’re in a rush. Was that all you needed was to use my bathroom?”

Actually, yes. There was no burning desire to get to know him. But I politely sat in his living room, even if I felt obligated as a visitor. He brought me a cup of tea. I didn’t need it, nor did I like tea, but I drank it anyway. His leather armchair sunk me in across from him. The squirrel sat in his lap. I never thought one of them would’ve crept me out before.

“What’s the squirrel’s name?” I asked.


“She looks like a Beverly.”

“You mean ‘he.’”

A shark’s head stuck out over a fireplace with a brick wall. I pictured a wine cellar behind there with a drunk fool trapped in it. Beasley studied me as if my head would complement the shark. His eyes were glued to me as I drank the tea. He must’ve run out of questions.

“I noticed you have some books by Manfred Ellerbe,” I said.

He began to curse in Latin under his breath and let go of Beverly. Beverly hopped off his lap for somewhere in the kitchen.

“Manfred, that rotten bastard,” he said.

I was surprised to hear him say that, but I wasn’t. “You must love his writing.”

“His books are brilliant. But you know what people say: a fine artist is usually a mean son-of-a-gun.”

“He seems that way at the coffee shop.”

“You see him at the coffee shop, do you?”

“Every time,” I said.

“When you see him again, can tell you him something for me?”

“What’s that?”

Beasley leaned forward in his Barcalounger. “You tell him if I ever see him again.”

I took another sip of the tea, waiting for the rest of the answer. My hand began to shake, holding the cup. Mr. Beasley watched me silently as his eyes turned yellow.

“If I ever see him,” I said. “And—”

“Stand up,” Mr. Beasley said.


He removed his safari hat. His hair was white and soft, like a baby’s hair. “Go ahead, stand up.”

“What for?”

He refused to answer that, but I stood. Then his head shook as if he’d changed his mind. “Sit down.”

So I sat back down.

The tea tasted normal, with a slice of lemon and a hint of cannabis. It hit me at the bottom of the cup. Or I’d imagined it.

His hand pointed at another chair, a matching armchair, closer to him in the living room.

“Sit over there,” he said.

My boundary had been crossed, so it was time to leave. “I should get going,” I said.

“Are you tired? You may rest in the bedroom. I have a wonderful foam mattress.”

“That’s quite all right.”

I reached for the doorknob. He stopped behind me. His door stayed open when I left, and his eyes latched onto my back.

The next time I went hiking at night, I took a shit in the woods, skipping Mr. Beasley’s or anyone’s help. Beverly might’ve scurried up one of those trees for all I knew.

And the next time at the coffee shop, I sat at a table near Manfred. He sat at the window table upstairs, a window where the day exposed the bitter shadows on his face.

“I’m a writer, too, Mr. Ellerbe.”

But he shunned me. His thick, square glasses rested low on his nose as he read The LA Times.

I had to get his attention somehow. “Mr. Beasley said if he ever sees you again—”

He glanced from his paper that time and pointed his eyes at me. So why? Why did I get involved? Why? His eyes tried to murder me before they returned to the newspaper.

By mid-morning, a family crowded the patio, throwing a birthday party for their four-year-old (out of all places). I miss the Bohemians. One of the balloons popped, which scared the shit out of me. I anticipated each next pop. The next pop went off in my stomach, distracting me too much for me to finish writing.

The kids ran upstairs. One kid climbed onto a chair at Manfred’s table. Manfred rolled up his newspaper and batted him away.

Another kid had brought his turtle and let it out of the cage. One of the kids hopped onto my table and popped a balloon with a pencil. The turtle bit my pant leg. I nudged it away with my foot. The shop had been overtaken by idiots and assholes. Fourteen years ago felt further away. Would there ever be another Ashlee with he the pigtails?

By the time they played duck-duck-goose, the idiots had run the assholes out—me and Manfred.

I had to search for the next nearest coffee shop. My GPS showed me a Santa Maria Starbucks. Starbucks had taken away the ashtrays in those fourteen years, at least in California. And they stuck non-smoking signs on the patio tables.

The Bohemians had moved elsewhere collectively to their own secret coffee shops. Idiots treated me like a pariah for smoking in public. Whatever happened to culture? Acquaintances had disappeared. So the idiots had robbed me of peace with barking dogs and loud children. Smoking may pollute the air, but idiots pollute the air with noise.

Manfred so happened to show up at the same Starbucks in Santa Maria, standing ahead of me in line as usual. The company promoted a new drink: the Unicorn Frappuccino, a pink and blue smoothie with fruity syrup. He yelled at yet another barista, this one with hoops in her earlobes. Her earlobes spread as wide as quarters. She also wore a ring between her nostrils. He pointed at the picture on the menu above:

“What the fuck is that?”

“That’s the Unicorn Frappuccino.”

“What does it do?”

“You want to try it?”

“Like hell I do. I drove from Cambria because my shop got raided by morons with balloons. Now you show me this thing that looks like you threw a bunch of Care Bears in a blender. Can’t I find some decency? Give me a dark roast quick. My morning’s ruined.”

“Please be kind to our employees,” the manager said, a weary man, about forty, with unkempt hair.

“Who?” Manfred asked. “Her? The one with the ring in her nose like a bull? Or am I supposed to knock on a door with that thing?”

She sort of cried, giving him his coffee.

“Just pay for your coffee and leave,” the manager said.

Manfred tipped her with a raggedy dollar bill. “This should fix your earlobes.”

“Get out of here,” the manager said.

Manfred almost tripped over a young boy.

“Jesus, kid, I almost burned your scalp.”

“I want a Unicorn Frappuccino,” the kid said.

“Why’re you telling me? I’m not buying you that garbage.”

The kid even tugged at his pant leg. “Give me a Unicorn Frappuccino.”

“Are you high? Where’s your dad?”

“You’re my new dad. My old dad sucks.”

“I’m sure he does, but make him buy you the damn thing.”


“Words of wisdom, kid: if it’s sweet and colorful, it’s for idiots. Now, get off of me.”

Ellerbe pushed a step forward and shed the kid off his leg. The kid got upset and screamed for his dad, wherever his dad was.

“I told you to leave,” the manager said.

“Go fuck a unicorn.”

Manfred was the last intelligent being in there. What would it take to show him my manuscript?

After several months at the coffee shop, his skin began to rot. He looked dustier than his newspapers. His beard hung to his chest. His same lemonade yellow dress shirt and beige pants were wrinkled, his loafers unpolished. His class had turned to dirt.

Newspapers had long since surrendered to digital print. The stand on the sidewalk was empty, next to the one for real estate ads, which sparkled with stacks of pamphlets.

“What happened to the newspapers?” I asked Pigtails.

“Like, who knows? Do you want a refill?”

“A man is shrinking out there. He needs a newspaper.”

Out came May, the manager. “What’s this about?” she asked. Her hair was purple.

“We need newspapers. Why don’t you sell them?”

And you know what she said? She said, “We can’t control that here. Besides, nobody reads anymore.”

One morning, Manfred showed up with an iPad. It happened overnight, and it freaked me out. I should’ve seen it coming. It was shocking, pitiful, emasculating. Ellerbe had dumbed himself down to the rest of us with that digital abacus. What happened to his grunting, his raised eyebrow over his glasses, his irritability flipping the pages? Look at me. I’m reading the paper. The Dow Jones has dropped today, but you wouldn’t know that because you can’t read. You’re too busy drinking that Unicorn Frappucino, you dumb shit. Manfred looked weak, hunched over. It was sad to see his finger swipe the screen.

I had the balls to sit at his table. “May I call you Manfred, Mr. Ellerbe?”

He kept his eyes on the screen. “No.”

“I write novels, and I value your works. My favorite is Woodpeckers and Blue Balls.”

(It was on Mr. Beasley’s bookshelf. I never read it.)

“Get to the point,” he said. He croaked, no longer roaring.

“This means I also value your opinion, so if you have time, I’d like to—”

“Send it to my email,” he said.

The answer had come unexpectedly. It was that easy.

“Are you sure?”

He grunted. That had to be a yes.

So I took his email before I walked home. Something had changed in me in those minutes. My depression had lifted.

But my mania triggered insomnia. My fantasies melded with nightmares. I signed copies at a bookstore for young groupies, and they gave me their addresses. But even as a famous author, I lived on the street. It depended on Mr. Ellerbe to pull me out.

A week later, his iPad was missing, and so was his coffee. It was a weekday morning. His hair looked oily, with flies floating around him. His beard twisted to the right. His eyes crooked to the left side as he stared into space, muttering.

I bought him a coffee, but he was still staring off.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

But he mumbled words I tried to comprehend, looking lost at something. “Feathers,” he said.


“Purple plug wing feathers on bagels slip and slide.”

I let him be by himself upstairs. Upstairs, there was a fireplace and a coffee table between two couches. A married couple sat at a long wooden table, reading a newspaper, a real newspaper. A paperboy must’ve pedaled through Cambria, throwing copies at doorsteps before dawn. The couple seemed to have shown up for the first time, sharing their comfort in misery. Mr. Ellerbe needed actual pages to read. They were his water.

“Excuse me,” I said to them.

Only the newspaper mattered. They flipped their pages and drank their tea from porcelain teacups with saucers and silver spoons. The coffee shop gave them to you if you were drinking there.

“Can you give me some of your paper?” I asked. “My friend needs it.”

The husband raised an eye at me. His wife kept reading, bucolic yet intellectual. The husband wore overalls, the wife a long cloth dress.

“No,” she said.

Her nose belonged on a Christmas tree. What happened to the friendliest town in America, huh? The front page of the Wall Street Journal waved into focus. The date was April 27, 2008. I must’ve smoked too much weed in the car and tripped over one of the chair legs. The chair leg giggled at me. What was that mean couple doing in that nice town? Why did Manfred lose his mind? Was that paper really from 2008, or was I just tripping balls?

A dumb couple sat on the couch watching me leave the room, sipping coffee smoothies and gripping their cups with napkins. What jobs did they have, if any?

The weather mid-winter was foggy and bitter cold. I abandoned that shop until the next spring and stayed home, wanting to hang myself.

It depended on the days of the week when I was most suicidal. Mondays and Tuesdays were the most severe. Wednesdays lessened the thoughts.

The intense isolation one morning made me walk to a diner. They cooked egg sandwiches in a microwave and slapped them between dinner rolls. The customers to my left smacked on their hash browns. When the waitress poured water into my glass, it overflowed and leaked toward my laptop. I saved it just in time. There had to be somewhere else to go.

So I tried another place. The magazine had voted it as having the best breakfast burrito in the world. They fluffed scrambled eggs, burnt bacon, and buttered hash browns perfectly. But most mornings, I would have to wait for more than a fucking hour for a table.

Winter passed. I still waited for Manfred Ellerbe to send a message about my manuscript. Either he’d refused to read it, or he’d read it and thought it was too terrible to comment on. It would’ve been a waste of time for him to reach out to me. Or he’d read it and thought it was a classic, so he resented me.

Either way, I returned to the shop in the spring. That couple appeared upstairs again as if they’d never left, but Manfred was missing. Old men had taken his place, playing cards and discussing fishing.

The smart couple left their table one morning, leaving the newspaper there. I waited for their exit and gathered all the loose pages. The date on it was correct. Some people hoard newspapers like my grandmother used to do.

The first page I noticed was the obituary section. The name Manfred Ellerbe stood out like a long word in a word search. How the fuck could it be? People like Manfred stayed alive, appearing overnight like new billboards, looking forever fifty-one. Someone must’ve known the reason for his death.

So I brought the section downstairs to Pigtails and ordered a cappuccino. She held the marker to the cup.

“What was your name again?”

For Christ’s sake, I’d gone there for a year, almost every morning when she worked, except for the time I took off in the winter. She would ask for my name every time and write it down slowly enough for remembrance. Some people are forgetful like that.

“You know Manfred?” I asked.

“I think so.”

I showed her the obit section.

“What about it?”

I pointed at his name.

“Manfred,” she said. “Wait. That’s him?”

“Manfred Ellerbe, the nature author.”

She covered her mouth in shock.

May dumped soapy water across the floor and began mopping.

“That’s so sad,” Pigtails said.

“I found out just now,” I said.

“I heard something like that,” Pigtails said, “like about a death or something.”

“You talking about Manfred Ellerbe?” May said.


May began mopping around Pigtail’s feet. “That poor man.”

“How did he die?” I dare asked.

“One of his neighbors found him face-down at the kitchen table on a stack of papers.”

“What type of death is that?” I asked.

“I watched, like, one of those influential videos,” Pigtails said, “and it said people can die just like suddenly.”

Doubt was for certain. I sat at the curb with my cappuccino and cigarette. A curtain of fog hung over the street. It was a mystery about his family, too. Manfred seemed like someone who wouldn’t have a family, not because he would be estranged from them—but it could be likely—but that he never had a family, period, not even a mother, like he’d appeared one day out of thin air.

I asked the sheriff, who began strolling from the coffee shop to his SUV with a cup of coffee.

“Yeah, it’s too bad what happened to the man,” he said. “He was too young to die. But dying that way?” The sheriff whistled in disbelief. “Some people just go like that.”

“So you found him dead in his house?”

“Yep. Face down in a book.”

“Unbelievable,” I said.

“Facebook,” he said. “Get it?”

Yeah, I got it.

“He was reading something when he died,” I said.

“I think that was the case. But that was Manfred, always reading.”

“What was he reading?” I asked.

“Whoa, slow down, bub,” the sheriff said. “Too many questions.”

He had to climb into the SUV, being that short.

“I was close to Manfred. Do you remember any keywords or sentences he was reading?”

He started his car. “I think you should worry about something else,” he said.

“I think he should, too.” I turned around and saw Mr. Beasley standing behind me. Beverly must’ve stayed home.

“Morning, Mr. Beasley,” the sheriff said.

“Morning to you, sheriff. I was the one who discovered his body,” Beasley said. “Saw him through the window.”

He may have done more than just peek through the window.

“What were you doing there?” I asked, expecting a lie.

But Mr. Beasley looked away from me like it was none of my business.

“Again, with the questions,” the sheriff said.

“Did you see what he was reading?” I asked Mr. Beasley. “You can at least tell me that.”

“It was hard to tell.”

“Good day, Mr. Beasley,” the sheriff said.

When the sheriff drove off, Mr. Beasley watched me and blinked, watched me and blinked, wearing that safari hat and muddy boots as if he’d trudged through a swamp.

“Mr. Beasley?”

“I wish I could’ve seen what he was reading,” he said.

“Could you tell me how far along he was?”

“About nine pages.”

What a tragedy if he’d died reading my manuscript. What if he’d read himself to death? All sorts of interpretations came to mind. But I would’ve pointed the finger first at Mr. Beasley.

“How do you feel about it?” I asked him.

“I feel something,” he said. “I just don’t know what.”

I considered Manfred less than an acquaintance, but I went to his funeral in a suit and tie. The cemetery overlooked Morro Bay. Another curtain of fog hung over the Morro Rock. The rock was as tall as a hotel and seemed to drift with the fog.

A priest showed up with four other men. Three of them said they were Manfred’s fans. The other person was his cousin, Frank.

“Are you one of the pallbearers?” the priest asked me.

“Pallbearers? I’m just here to pay my respect.”

The priest looked over at those four men. “We sure need your help,” he said.

“Help with what?”

The priest and the pallbearers needed my help to carry the casket to his grave. Had I known Manfred close enough, I would’ve been glad to do it, but I did it anyway. We stopped halfway there to rest, taking the dead author to a forklift-looking-thing over his grave.

“Wait,” his cousin said, who’d flown in from Oklahoma. “We’re putting him on that?”

“Yes, we are,” the priest said.

“You mind if we just put him in ourselves?”

“That’s ludicrous,” the priest said. “This is a sacred coffin with a real person in it.”

“Just saying,” Cousin Frank said, “It’s rude to lower my cousin with that machine. Manfred would’ve been mighty damn pee’d off.”

“But that’s how we do it. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll read my scriptures,” the priest said.

As he pulled a little book from his pocket to read the verses, the thing began to buzz, drowning out the priest.

“Can you speak louder?” the cousin said.

The priest rolled his eyes and yelled at the gravediggers to turn it off. “Now, if you’ll refrain from disrupting me, I’ll read on.”

“I still want to lower him down,” the cousin said.

“The priest is right. That’s ridiculous,” someone else said.

“Just listen to the priest,” another one said.

The cousin kept quiet for the rest of the reading. The priest slapped the book shut, and he looked over us all. “Any other comments?”

We stayed silent.

“Good,” he said.

After he read the scriptures, we lifted the casket to the forklift, but one of us slipped in the mud, the cousin. The casket fell to the grave and ended up sideways.

“Ah, shit,” the cousin said.

The priest uttered something foreign. It sounded Italian. Manfred’s cousin had mud on his slacks.

“This is atrocious,” the priest said. “The gravediggers will have to straighten it out.”

“Like it was my idea to raise him to that damn thing,” the cousin said.

The priest loosened his collar.“You’re raising your voice at me.”

The other pallbearers cut in. I stood back and reached for my Marlboros.

A man showed up in a sports jacket and lit a cigarette next to me.“Sorry, I’m late. What happened?”

“Manfred’s casket fell in the grave,” I said. “Now the cousin and the priest are arguing.”

“My mother was cremated,” the man said. “I bet she could feel herself burning to ashes.”

“Are you related?” I asked.

“I was his agent.”

Hmm. He lightened my mood after saying that. “Really?” I said.

The agent peeked over the grave and looked at the casket.

“Chris Pasquetelli. Nice to meet you,” I said. “There’s a lot of things I want to ask you.”

“Percy Cohen. There’s an Applebee’s up the road,” he said. “Why don’t we talk there?”

By the time we finished our cigarettes, the priest and the cousin had finished fighting. The other pallbearers began to argue with the cousin. He might’ve fought me also if I stood there.

“Let’s go,” I told Percy.

Percy and the priest both looked older than Manfred, and the priest looked older than everyone. Cousin Frank wouldn’t shut the fuck up about placing the casket on the forklift thing. But what was done was done. The gravediggers had begun straightening it out.

When I turned around, Percy had vanished. I left for the parking lot.

When I got there, a silver BMW peeled off. Its license plate read: AGNTCHN.

“Pardon, sir?” The cousin caught up to me, overweight, out of breath. “Coming to my cousin’s funeral was mighty respectful.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Were you two close?”

“We were sort of acquainted, but he left an impact.”

“Can I get a cigarette from you?”

He even offered me a dollar.

“Put it away,” I said.

“That’s nice of you. You are a good man.”

“I guess so.”

I reached for the pack, but it was gone.

“Ah shit,” I said, “I lost it.”

“What you mean?”

The pack may have fallen from my shirt pocket and into the grave as we’d dropped it, but I kept that information a secret from Cousin Frank. “They fell out somewhere.”

“It’s OK,” he said, “I’ll get by.”

“There’s an Applebee’s down the street,” I said. “Let’s get a drink.”

“There’s an idea.”

“I’m going to see his agent.”

“Oh, Percy?” the cousin said. “He’ll be at my wedding.”

I tried to find the connection between Frank and Percy besides Manfred. It was hard to believe Manfred would’ve introduced them, but some things happen accidentally.

We showed up at Applebee’s in separate cars. Cousin Frank had rented a Ford Focus. I parked my Hyundai Accent, that piece of shit.

The host asked me if I wanted a seat.

“I’m just having a drink,” I told her.

She walked away.

The cousin sat at the bar alone, gazing stupidly at a television, watching mixed martial arts. But where was Percy? His Beamer was missing from the parking lot.

I bought Manfred’s cousin French fries and a Budweiser in a 24-ounce glass.

“You’re the best,” he said.

“Where’s Percy?”

“Guess he changed his mind,” he said.



“Needed to ask him a question. Can you pass something along to him at the wedding?”

“You should come, too,” he said.

“And you’re sure he’ll be there?”

“Yeah, he’s the best man, but I need another man, too.”

How the fuck was Percy the best man at that guy’s wedding? “I see.”

“Don’t worry about a gift. Just show up in that suit.”

My calendar was empty that next week. Who am I bullshitting? It’s always empty. My father’s friend wrote for the Los Angeles Times and told me agents read proposals only. So I wrote one for Agent Cohen.

The bride’s parents held the wedding in her backyard in Fresno. The neighbor’s pit bull began to bark through a wooden fence. I stood the farthest from it, near a cactus garden.

Percy had flaked out again. What was it with him? I’d wasted my time and money. Fresno was over a hundred degrees in late Spring, like Bakersfield. I agreed to stand as the best man in Percy’s place. Maybe Cousin Frank knew Percy’s phone number.

Instead of prime rib, his uncle grilled tri-tip and served it on a paper plate with potato salad, baked beans, and rolls. The baked beans were watery, the potato salad runny. I sat in a lawn chair with the flies. If I ever get married, it’ll be in a hall to keep the flies away. The elderlies and I watched the rest of the weddinggoers begin line-dancing to pop music on a portable stereo. They also began to sing karaoke. A party clown was the DJ.

Cousin Frank sat with me at a patio table and thanked me for coming.

“Where’s Percy?” I asked him.

“What can I say? Other plans came up.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“What’s the matter?”

“You have his phone number?” I asked.

“Matter of fact, I do, somewhere.”

“Can you find it?”

Cousin Frank tried to find it in his Android, but it was deader than Manfred. Only a moron would lose his battery at his wedding.

“Maybe someone else knows the number,” I said.

“Oh, I’m the only one who knows Percy. What did you want to tell him?”

I showed that shit for brains my proposal. “I just wanted to give him this.”

“A book?”

“A proposal,” I said.

“Oh, Percy don’t take no unsolicited materials.”

“He what?”

“I tried it with him once.”

“You wrote a book?”

“Nah, but I had a damn good idea. It was a children’s book about my Uncle Larry.” He pointed at Larry, who threw another slab of meat on the grill. “He fought in Afghanistan,” Frank said.

Larry flipped the meat. Cousin Frank had to be thirty-something, while Uncle Larry looked fifty.

“Your uncle fought in Afghanistan?”

“Damn straight. I pitched a kangaroo with an AK-47 to them folks in Beverly Hills. They’ll get back to me soon, boy, I’ll tell you.”

“Sounds like a hell of a children’s book.”

“I wish my cousin Manfred was here.” Cousin Frank looked at the ground and did a Holy Mary. “He said our marriage would fail.”

That sounded like something Manfred would say. If his agent had flaked out, I was positive Manfred wouldn’t have shown up either. Actually, Manfred would’ve told him to his face he wasn’t coming. Then again, how was I supposed to know his relationship with Cousin Frank? Only speculation.

“Me and my girl are going to the Poconos,” the cousin said.


Why does everybody want to write a book? I left the table. His voice faded into the country music. I’d wasted mileage on a day with flies, line dancing, and a happy-go-lucky yokel. Fresno had taken four hours from Cambria. All I got out of it was Cousin Frank’s Facebook request.

More families would show up each day to the coffee house, as well as old hippies who took up the seats, sitting all day mumbling to themselves. Their brains had been sandblasted by acid. May let them sit there, too, for free. It confirmed the glory days were gone forever.

I accepted Frank’s request on Facebook for a pipeline to Percy Cohen. But Frank had zero clout. I looked for Percy’s profile but came up empty.

Frank sent me a message after the honeymoon.  His wife had lost her mind, thrown a knife at his head, and chased him with a hammer. Manfred was right about the marriage failing. It was anyone’s guess why they’d brought a knife and a hammer to the Poconos.

Frank divorced her, pressed charges, and needed over a thousand dollars for a lawyer, so he begged his friends on Facebook, including me. I unfriended him and blocked him.

But anyway, who could replace Manfred? When would another Percy Cohen come along? Those types show up as often as a comet, and the same with Ashlee with two E’s. But the Cousin Franks shows up every day. Until then, I just sit in the coffee shop and wait.

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