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 ice cubes in my iced coffee. They’d melted by the time I sat under a green canopy. I chain-smoked. I read The Brothers Karamazov. I wrote 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. He was a young scrawny dude who wore a black Ramones t-shirt. He represented a small ilk of that red town. I liked his style. He smoked cloves and drank black coffee. We would talk about Bukowski, Dostoyevsky, and Led Zeppelin until he would skate away. He liked Nietzsche, too (my kind of guy). He’d come from Northern California and said “hella” instead of “very.”
A stoner girl invited herself to my table one day. 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.”
“It 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 to do.”
What was her angle? How could I trust any woman that open? “I’m free this afternoon.”
“That’s tight. But 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?”
“Ask that last question again.”
She rolled her eyes. “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. 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 the internet 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. It landed on my table. She walked away, whatever her name was. I prayed for her to come back.
A barista came out with a mop and a stack of 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 on the top of the mop handle. He scratched his forehead and stared onward where Ashlee had gone. “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 going inside. What a way to leave me hanging. But I’ll remember that girl forever. I would wait at that Starbucks each day for her to come back.
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 her. I needed a change of scenery from Bakersfield and its heat. So I moved to the woods of Cambria. I kept working on my novel. Cambria had a small population compared to Bakersfield. That meant 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. She looked cuter than Ashlee, too, 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. 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 has to make me look for a shitter. It’s like a goddamn Easter egg hunt.”
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 literature with. I could say life had changed for the worse. Year by year, my rights get taken slowly away.
I lit up at the corner far from the shop and drank my cappuccino. The weather was in the fifties on a sunny day in Cambria. It was still the summer. I could only imagine how the winter would feel.
“I’m going to take a shit in the sewer,” Manfred said. “Watch me.”
He was in front of an antique store. Its owner rushed out.
“That’s inexcusable, Mr. Ellerbe. I’m calling the police,” she said.
“Have them bring some toilet paper,” he said.
I sat near him a little while later. His table was in the corner of the patio. I thought maybe we could strike a conversation. He spread his newspaper apart. Famous authors come around like endangered eagles. There must’ve been a way to get to know him. But as you could tell, he was intimidating.
Two police officers showed up. The shorter one was the sheriff. He warned him.
“Why is the 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 six-year-old boy played with a cell phone with his mother in another corner. The sheriff handed Manfred some type of ticket, I guessed for indecency.
“Thanks a lot,” Manfred said. “Now I have something to wipe with.”
Whenever I went to the coffee shop, there was Manfred. He would read on the patio or at the window upstairs. He refused to talk to me or anyone, let alone greet me.
Otherwise, Cambria was a friendly town. People would wave at me when I passed them on the sidewalk. A national magazine had voted it the friendliest town in America. My neighbors would leave pies at my doorstep. Deer or some other animal would eat away at them. The neighbors should’ve known better. I stuck a note on my front door:
PLEASE KNOCK BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE PIES.
I returned the favor with care baskets: cookies, muffins, and coffee beans. It took time out of my day. Their generosity was nice but needless.
I hiked a trail each morning in the woods. Pine trees waved in the breeze once. They warned me about something. Maybe moving to that town was an accident. Besides the heat and the conservatives, Bakersfield wasn’t so bad. Turn around, the trees said. Stay away.
One night, I went 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. When I moved, 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 it could’ve been a family of mountain lions planning an ambush.
I began running to the neighborhood road about three miles from home. I looked 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 the beach waves crawling to the shore. 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. I needed a bathroom desperately like Manfred. A doormat at the doorstep read MR. BEASLEY. An old white man answered in a safari hat with a neck-string. His smile was warm.
“What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Beasley. But I’m lost, and I 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, from 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, scaring the piss out of me. He still wore his hat. But that time, his eyes looked angry. He wore a yellow raincoat. Out of its pocket peeked a squirrel. I wanted to run the fuck out of there.
“You said you lived nearby?” he asked.
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 began to rub the squirrel’s head with his thumb.
“I know Barton very well. Would 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. I felt obligated as a visitor. He brought me a cup of tea. I didn’t need it. I didn’t even like tea, but I drank it anyway. I sunk into his leather armchair across from him. The squirrel sat in his lap. I never thought one of them would’ve ever 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. 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. He let go of Beverly. Beverly hopped off his lap for somewhere in the kitchen.
“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 they 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?”
Beasley leaned forward in his Barcalounger. “You tell him if I ever see him again.”
I took another sip of the tea. I waited for the rest of the sentence. 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.”
He refused to answer that, but I stood. Then he shook his head as if he’d changed his mind. “Sit down.”
So I sat back down.
The tea had a slice of lemon and a hint of cannabis. It hit me at the bottom of the cup. Or I’d imagined it.
He pointed at another chair, a matching armchair, closer to him in the living room.
“Sit over there,” he said.
He’d crossed my boundary, 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. His eyes latched onto my back.
The next time I went hiking at night, I took a shit in the woods. I skipped Mr. Beasley’s or anyone’s house. 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. The sunlight exposed the shadows on his face.
“I’m a writer, too, Mr. Ellerbe.”
But he shunned me. His 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 looked away from the paper that time. His eyes pointed right at me. So why? Why did I get involved? Why? His eyes tried to murder me. They returned to the newspaper.
By mid-morning, a family crowded the patio. They threw a birthday party for their four-year-old (out of all places). I miss the Bohemians. One of the balloons popped. It scared the shit out of me. I anticipated each next pop. The next one went off in my stomach. It distracted me too much to finish writing in there.
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. He let it out of its 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 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 nearest coffee shop. My GPS showed me a Starbucks in Santa Maria. 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 migrated elsewhere to their 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 my peace with barking dogs and loud children. Smoking may pollute the air, but idiots pollute the air with noise.
Manfred happened to show up at the same Starbucks. He stood ahead of me in line as usual. The company promoted a new drink: the Unicorn Frappuccino. It was a pink and blue smoothie with fruity syrup. He yelled at another barista. She had 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. He was a weary man, about forty.
“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 could’ve 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. Why don’t you make him buy it?”
“Words of wisdom, kid: if it’s sweet and colorful, it’s for idiots. Now, get off of me.”
Ellerbe stepped forward and pushed 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 yellow dress shirt and beige pants were wrinkled. His loafers were unpolished. His class had turned to dirt.
Newspapers had long since surrendered to digital print. The stand on the sidewalk was empty, next to one full of real estate 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. Her hair was purple. “What’s this about?” she asked.
“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. It freaked me out. I never saw it coming. It was shocking, pitiful, emasculating. Ellerbe had dumbed himself down to the rest of us. What happened to his grunting? What happened to his raised eyebrow over his glasses? What happened to 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. He hunched over. It was sad to see his finger swipe the screen.
I had the nerve 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. He didn’t roar.
“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 so 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. My depression had lifted.
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. He muttered.
I bought him a coffee, but he was still staring off.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
But he mumbled words I tried to comprehend. He looked 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. They seemed to have shown up for the first time. They shared comfort in their misery. They read a newspaper, a real newspaper. A paperboy must’ve existed in Cambria. He pedaled through the neighborhood and threw copies at doorsteps before dawn. 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 tea from porcelain teacups. They set them on saucers and stirred them with silver spoons.
“Can you give me some of your pages?” I asked. “My friend needs them.”
The husband raised an eye at me. His wife kept reading. They were rustic yet intellectual. The husband wore overalls. His wife wore a long dress.
“No,” she said.
Her nose belonged on a Christmas tree. What happened to the friendliest town in America? Where did it go? What was that mean couple doing in that nice town? Why did Manfred lose his mind?
I abandoned that shop in the winter until the next spring and stayed home. I wanted to hang myself. I was most suicidal on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, the thoughts began to lessen.
The intense isolation one morning made me walk to a diner. They cooked egg sandwiches in a microwave. The customers to my left smacked on their hash browns. 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. It had been voted as having the best breakfast burrito in the world. They fluffed scrambled eggs, burnt the bacon, and buttered the 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 to send a message about my manuscript. He may have 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 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.
The first page I noticed was the obituary section. Manfred Ellerbe stood out like a long word in a word search. How the fuck could it be? People like Manfred stayed alive. They appeared overnight like new billboards. He looked forever fifty-seven. Somebody must’ve known the reason.
So I brought the section downstairs to Pigtails. I ordered a cappuccino.
“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 to mop.
“That’s so sad,” Pigtails said.
“I just found out 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 certain. I sat at the curb with my cappuccino and cigarette. A curtain of fog hung over the street. His family was a mystery, too. Manfred wouldn’t have a family, not because of estrangement—but it could’ve been likely—but he never had a family, period, no mother, as if he’d appeared one day out of thin air.
The sheriff began strolling to his SUV with a cup of coffee from the coffee shop. I asked him about it.
“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. Mr. Beasley stood 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,” Mr. Beasley said. “Saw him through the window.”
He may have done more than peek through the window.
“What were you doing there?” I asked. I expected a lie.
But Mr. Beasley looked away as if 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.
The sheriff drove off. Mr. Beasley watched me and blinked, watched me, and blinked. He wore that safari hat and muddy boots as if he’d trudged through a swamp.
“I wish I could’ve seen what he was reading,” he said.
“Could you tell me about 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 at Mr. Beasley first.
“How do you feel about it?” I asked him.
“I feel something,” he said. “I 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. It 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 other men. “We sure need your help,” he said.
“Help with what?”
The priest and the pallbearers needed me to carry the casket to his grave. Had I known Manfred close enough, I would’ve been glad to. But I did it anyway. We stopped halfway there to rest. We would take the dead author to a forklift thing over his grave.
“Wait,” his cousin said. He’d flown in from Oklahoma. “We’re putting him on that?”
“Yes, we are,” the priest said.
“You mind if we 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, “I think it’s rude to lower my cousin with that machine. Manfred would’ve been mighty damn pee’d off.”
I would agree.
“But that’s how we do it. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll read my scriptures,” the priest said.
He pulled a little book from his pocket to read the verses. The thing began to buzz. It drowned out the priest.
“Can you speak louder?” the cousin asked.
The priest rolled his eyes. He yelled at a couple of 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. 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. He 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 me up after saying that. “Really?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. The agent peeked over the grave to look 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?”
We finished our cigarettes. The priest and the cousin finished fighting. The other pallbearers began to argue with the cousin. He might’ve fought me, too, if I stood there.
Percy and the priest 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.
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. He was overweight and 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 you lost it?”
I meant the pack may have fallen from my shirt pocket and into the grave. But I kept that 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. 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. He watched television with his mouth open. It showed mixed martial arts. But where was Percy? His Beamer was missing from the parking lot.
I bought Cousin Frank French fries and a Budweiser in a 24-ounce glass.
“You’re the best,” he said.
“Thanks. 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?”
“He’s the best man.”
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. And it’s only in Fresno.”
My calendar was empty that next week. Who am I fooling? It’s empty every week. My father’s friend wrote for the Los Angeles Times. He told me agents read proposals only. So I wrote one for Agent Cohen.
The bride’s parents held the wedding in their backyard in Fresno. Percy had flaked 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. He served it on a paper plate with potato salad, baked beans, and rolls. The baked beans were watery. The potato salad was runny. I sat in a lawn chair with the flies. If I ever get married, which I probably won’t, it’ll be in a hall to keep the flies away. The elderlies and I watched the other weddinggoers begin line dancing. A portable stereo played pop music. They also began to sing karaoke. A party clown was the DJ.
Cousin Frank sat with me at a patio table. He 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 proposal,” I said.
“Oh, Percy don’t take no unsolicited materials.”
“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 his finger at Larry. Larry 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. 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 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 would’ve done the same thing. Actually, Manfred would’ve told him to his face. Then again, how was I supposed to know his relationship with Cousin Frank? Only speculation.
“Me and my girl are going to the Poconos for our honeymoon,” he 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. Old hippies took up the seats. They would sit all day and mumble 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. She’d thrown a knife at his head and chased him with a hammer. Why did they bring those things to the Poconos? Manfred was right about the marriage failing.
Frank divorced her. He pressed charges. He 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 substitute Manfred, for as much of an asshole as he was? When would another Percy Cohen come along? The same with Ashlee with the two E’s. But the Cousin Franks show up every day. I still sit in the coffee shop and wait for those glory days to return.