A few days after I heard the news, that he’d tried to carve a hole for himself inside the earth, I wondered if it were possible for a man to rip out his own vocal chords. One night, I actually Googled it, came up with a bunch of misleads. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway—I’d just get a little black board and hang it around my neck and write it all down for him with chalk. The things I saw, the thoughts I had. Voices still exist, even if you can’t hear them. Maybe it all came down to selfishness. For a minute I thought I’d just swallow down some fish hooks and rip them back out of me and hope for the best—what I’d call “trying to be a good friend.”
Often he’d stand at the corner outside Al’s, sipping at his Mocha while holding court with himself, just talking and blabbing away to nobody. If anybody tried to join him, which, as friendly and welcoming as his smile was, was often, he’d clam up and do more drinking than talking, staring right though their caring faces out beyond and over the dirt road to a place where the sun patched the hills with gold.
He hadn’t always been like that, sure, that all started up after Marti took the Mazda and hitched a U-Haul to the back, stuffed all of her belongings into it, and headed off into the great belly of America, telling him she had to go out and find herself, where exactly she fit in in this too-short disaster called life. That’s when he stopped talking, around then, even though he kind of still talked to me. You couldn’t call it conversation, or exposition, or anything, really, other than short observational bursts, guarded clues into the state of his thinking. I even made him go to the doctor one time, and not without a fight, either, because I figured maybe he’d had a miniature stroke or something, but Dr. Bruner said he was healthy. His face didn’t droop any more than usual and he still seemed to walk just fine.
After the attempt, though, he had to spend a few weeks locked away with some head doctors out in Mulridge County. The day he got out, I went over and found him in his rocking chair on the front porch whittling away at some totem he held tightly in his palm. From where I stood, it looked like he’d fashioned himself a tiny baby.
“Hey, Scott,” I said. “Long time no see.”
He looked up and nodded, kept whittling away at the infant, sweat beaded along his brow in thin rows. I detected in the dying light a few streaks of gray in his sideburns. He was only twenty-five and starting to age at a rapid clip, though his face remained boyish, in fact, strangely so, and you couldn’t help but think that there were a million other faces that were just the same, you’d just never seen one.
He finally folded and pocketed the knife, set the baby on a little table to his left, and said, “Finn. Been a minute.”
“What’d you carve there?” I said.
“Marti,” he said.
“Looks like a baby.”
“It’s Marti,” he said.
“All right, then,” I said. “Marti it is. How’re you feeling?”
He didn’t say anything, just nodded.
“Looking good,” I said.
He lit a cigarette, took a long pull and sighed, staring off through the lighted windows of the house across the street.
“Well,” I said. “I’ll go ahead and get out of your hair. Just wanted to stop by and say hi, that’s all. Don’t want to be a bother.”
As I was walking away, I heard him.
“Sure is hot,” he said.
I turned around. “Hit ninety-seven today,” I said.
“Hot,” he said.
I nodded right into an immense moment of silence and just kept nodding.
“Want to come in?”
Still nodding, I followed him in and sat at the dining room table, a darkly varnished thing littered about with unopened mail, while he rummaged through the fridge.
“Want a Coke or something?”
“That’d be great,” I said.
He sat down across from me, offered me a cigarette.
“Thanks,” I said, but he just sat there staring at me, not saying a word.
We smoked in silence for a while, sipping our Cokes.
“I have to clear the air,” he said.
“You don’t have to do that, trust me. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s not Marti. It’s my job. My job’s got me all fucked-up,” he said.
“You’re an IT guy, right?”
He nodded. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“The half of what?” I said.
“I work in the city.” he said.
“I sit at a table with rows of other people. These people, they do the exact same thing as me.”
“I worry about them.” he said. “They don’t even know what kind of damage they’re doing to themselves.”
“Okay? What do you mean?”
“What I do. You want to know what I do?” he said.
“All the evil shit you hear about being on the internet. My job is to view all that stuff and decide whether or not it should be scrubbed from the internet.”
“Seems like the lord’s work to me,” I said. “Why you feel so bad about it? Somebody has to do it. It’s honorable, right?”
“You just don’t get it. Nobody gets it. Marti didn’t get it. You don’t get it. The doctors don’t get.”
“Hey, hey, slow down,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset. Just get on, you should go. But finish your fucking Coke first. Don’t want it going to waste.”
I chugged the Coke down and said, “You need to chill a bit, okay. Calm down. I love you.”
“There is no such thing,” he said.
“Whatever, man,” I said. “I’m leaving.”
When I got out onto the porch I took his stupid little wooden baby he’d carved and threw it across the street into the neighbor’s yard. My anger got the best of me. I started thinking about how if he tried killing himself again, he’d do well to pick out a surer method. Rather have him dead than crazy.
We didn’t talk much after that. His hair grew long. He stopped going to Al’s, recused himself from the world around him. And in a way, so did I.
Maybe if I could’ve kept my mouth shut long enough, his silences would’ve been voice enough for me to “get it.” Perhaps that’s the real matter, after all—“getting it.”
It’s never so much the swallowing that hurts, it’s the ripping out. If fish hooks could talk, I swear to god they’d tell you to run.