Famous Last Words
by Philip Kobylarz
The year we decided to kill ourselves was a beautiful year. It couldn’t have been a better time. Really. Everything was going right. Life couldn’t have been better.
Mornings began with a bright, almost bone-white sun. We lived in a quiet, historic neighborhood in anytown U.S.A. and our neighbors were nice. Sometimes they would even bring us food and talk to us about the flowers they were in the processes of planting. We would leave saucers of milk out for the stray cats so they wouldn’t be strays in our yard. The oak tree that shaded the house was perfect for climbing. Sometimes we would sit in its branches and talk. We would watch the traffic drive by.
We had friends. They would visit and enjoy the meals we took hours to prepare. There was always enough wine. We would play music that we didn’t particularly like, but knew they would. Since we were new to the city, so were our acquaintances, and with them we would talk about our past lives, recount the stories that defined our current selves, chat about how we were going to improve the house, what to do on weekends, the few restaurants we knew. Sometimes, we would go to a play or to the movies with them and sit silently together in the dark and wonder who the people were who sat around us and what the city would look like once we returned to the reality of the street lights and the monotony of background sounds. A fire truck speeding to a cloud of smoke as the sunset colored it and the sky pink.
In all directions, there were mountains. So many that it would take a lifetime to learn the names of them all. Or two lifetimes. We even climbed a few, not knowing then that we wouldn’t have a lifetime to get to the thousands of different views of the city, to see the land outlying, to see the city from afar. Differing perspectives. To think it doesn’t make sense, but in reality, our lives seemed like a dream.
The dream was to be there. And there was simply anywhere, where we were, together. A place with schools and churches and bakeries and bars and squares where people could go and meet to talk. We should have known that something was wrong when the city’s few blocks of gridded downtown was empty at nine p.m. We should have known there was something wrong when for fun, kids would scale the few skyscrapers, really only tall buildings, and parachute off them for kicks. We should have known but we were living in a woken dream. And it was the kind of illusion that just makes sense. A kind of rational nightmare.
Hindsight views can be 20/20, but they’re usually murky. Just ask the man floating face down in the pool in Sunset Boulevard. Through the antiseptic water, his life looks like something clean and preserved in amber, but it’s not. It’s a blur of tranquility. It may be true that I didn’t learn much in my brief tenure on earth, but sight was one thing I had mastered. Because jobs were scarce, I worked as sort of a low-grade private eye for a while. A commercial spy of sorts. The pay was good and it gave me a lot of time on my own. Time to look, watch, and listen. It was my job to see things other people routinely missed. You’d be surprised at how often people touch, say their nostrils or private parts, in the course of a day.
The first place the temporary agency sent me to was a bookstore. It specialized in stacks and stacks of rare and ancient books. The guy who ran the store was a true bibliophile. He was retired from the insurance business and sank all his money into acquiring first editions of books on Western Americana. He had people working for him all over the country– sending him books, magazines, broadsides, monographs that he really only wanted to display. If he liked the customer, he might sell.
Probably more out of paranoia and bad record keeping than fact, he thought people were stealing from his shelves, so he hired me to pose as a browser and keep my eyes open. It wasn’t hard work. A lot of standing and, to tell the truth, I didn’t have an interest in cowboys or the West. In the hundreds of books I paged through, feigning interest, I can’t recall one famous outlaw’s name other than the best known. Jesse James. Read too much about the dental work of Butch Cassidy to even care to recount it.
You could so easily tell when someone was about to steal something. It was consistent as time itself and as apparent as ritual. Just before a skinny adolescent put a book, or magazine, in his jacket, or her purse, they would look up twice, in two directions, to either side of them. This movement, what I called the don’t-look-at-me-I’m-stealing-something twitch, made my job easier.
Now if thieves could only learn to not think about the act of thievery, to read the coveted object calmly, and without moving a head, or blinking the eyes, just tuck it under an arm and walk cleanly through the doors, my job would have been a challenge. It’s in the unconscious act of re-enacting stealth that gives it all away.
Normally, the old coot wouldn’t prosecute the would-be criminal, but we’d take him or her into a back room and threaten them and prohibit them from ever returning. The daily rush of being a predator stalking unknown prey kept the job interesting for the two months before I quit. I couldn’t stand the smell of old books. Add the fact that Western Americana isn’t the most coveted or resale-able merchandise under the desert sun. And the horrible music playing over the ceiling speakers.
My wife worked as a travel agent. I would drive her to work, fifteen miles through the guts of the city, where she would sit at a desk with a headset phone, and make reservations for people lucky enough to fly to Athens or London in the spring or Stuttgart for an art festival. Often, in between calling airlines, she would call me on my portable telephone, and in a quiet voice, tell me exactly how she wanted to have sex that night. Her descriptions were of an elaboration that only boredom can produce, including detailed descriptions of positions that were sometimes feasibly impossible, and play-by-play narratives of what most assuredly would occur. She would then abruptly hang up. In short, she made my lunch breaks ravenous.
It was too bad the nights never resulted in much. We were too tired to enact the fantasies of the mid-afternoon, too harried by the people we had to put up with during the day, to break out of our routine egos. There was always the next day and the possibility of its fantasies.
You see, we were badly in love. Not the kind that makes people stroll around the park holding hands or coming home on Valentine’s Day with a bunch of roses and a grocery store box of candy. We were forever on our third date. We still made out at the movies. We drove around the city looking for places to sit under trees, take our shoes off, roll cigarettes, and talk about the view. We wrote each other silly, nonsensical notes and left them about the house. We were always together, spending hours in the public library showing each other books, napping in the rows near a bright window, staying unmarried because an official bond would ruin it all. When we both quit our jobs to be alone more with ourselves, our friends though we were crazy. But we weren’t insane, just lovesick.
When we couldn’t make the rent anymore, we sold what we owned and moved into the basement of a colleague of mine. He was a lonely bachelor who had many city-wrought phobias such as going to the store, driving on crowded highways, attending Christmas parties, so we lived and worked as his life-assistants as he called it. We helped him with the practical aspects of existence and he learned from us something about the rarer side of life, intimacy and happiness. Illusions of a higher degree.
But three’s a crowd. He began coming on to her and subtly insulting me by asking too many intimate questions. We couldn’t live as slaves forever, we thought. We were slaves to ourselves, to the concept of each other. So we moved out and into a cheap hotel, more of a boarding house, in the downtown of the city none too far from the proverbial railroad tracks. The building-hotel we lived in was quite beautiful. Its architecture was from the late 1800s and the rooms were immaculate and huge. We could easily hang our laundry in ours and still have enough elbow and standing room to live normal lives. It only cost eighty dollars a week. We cooked on hot plates and sometimes went to the hotel cafe for morning coffee.
I even began helping out in the kitchen. There were hardly ever any guests so business was slow. Our specialty, that is, the hotel’s, was barbecued ribs that weren’t barbecued but heated up on an open air grill and smothered in store bought sauce, and hamburgers, a salad bar, and potato soup. This varied menu brought in the desperate just traveling through type and old people who didn’t care what they ate as long as it was food during Sunday brunches.
The downtown in which we were situated was deader than a shore washed bird. It helps to remember that this city was a western metropolis, and there really isn’t such a thing in the hardline European sense. Buildings constructed on a sight absent of history will be just that, buildings, and not places. There were, to its credit, a couple of pool halls selling unreasonably priced beer and smokes, a few jazz or country-blues clubs with high hopes but not the billings, museums that only school children attended by force, and some open-air festivals that were mainly excuses to use new, well-oiled parking decks.
There was a valiant attempt at sculpture cropping up from time to time, corner to corner, on the sidewalks: bronze imitations of happy families, or children playing, in dark brown stasis. It was an unconscious salute to the fear of nuclear warfare– what it might look like at that last, terrible, unknowing moment. It was bizarre to see such a large city, complete with skyscrapers and foreign grocery stores have so little of a definition of itself.
In short, the possibilities were endless but the probabilities few.
It takes more than two to paint a town red, but we tried anyway. We sampled the restaurants, when money permitted– my beloved began teaching private lessons in Italian cooking to coteries of spinsters and a few young men freshly graduated from cuisine schools, so we had a minimal income that allowed us to exist with a modicum of happiness, if not style. We went out to bars, got drunk, and asked each other to dance We picnicked in the mountains, building fire pits to cook our free range chickens; we sang campfire songs and had wild sex holding onto trees for support, then condolence.
Happiness, exquisite happiness, is a joyous thing, yet when it’s shared only between two, and not communicated to others, shared with a greater whole, however stupid this might sound, soon turns to loneliness, and left to ferment, can become a strong vintage of sadness.
The signs came like a comet stuck stationary in the sky. She became silent for long and frequent stretches of time. I would catch her, in her plush lounge chair that looked like it should be at an antique dealer’s, just sitting and staring out the window. The window that held a view of the street that changed only with the seasons. Sometimes under her breath she would say, “Here come the garbage trucks.”
I began looking for a steady job as a forest ranger. I thought it to be something I might want to do, even though it required month stays at stations far in the mountains and inter-mountain foothills. Perhaps time away from each other would enliven our moods. Living in a hotel gave us a deep recognition of the transitory nature of our coming together and being here, which really was nowhere, with no prospects for the future, except to grow older and to lose more of what little youth and happiness we already had.
We went mushroom hunting. I got some books on species and it was all too simple to find poisonous ones, especially after a rainstorm. They would pop up right under pine trees, unearthing a clump of dirt and the woven bed of needles.
In our hotel room for two, we cooked them in a pan with butter, white wine, crême-fraiche on a hot plate that I bought at the Salvation Army across the rail yard. It still had its price tag of two dollars on it. We had a candlelit dinner. We drank two very expensive bottles of wine and then went walking the empty downtown streets. It had just rained– the streets were wet and smelled of fresh dust and the traffic lights illumined them with eerie, late night light shows. We passed small restaurants and nightclubs that were reached by stairways going down, beneath the level of the sidewalk. They too glowed in a neon of the other world and were peopled only with a few stragglers who were hiding out from the now blown by rain clouds.
In the window of a bakery, we saw a gigantic wedding cake gaudy with frosting flowers. We passed a disco that had a poster of an embryo’s head on the body of an armadillo. We walked by a Lebanese eatery filled with only the family that owned it, talking loudly and filling glasses with pitchers that were wet inside and out, with water. In the distance, winding through the square city streets, there was the rumbling of where the storm was going.
Nothing could help us now. We ate our last meal and the mushrooms were having a joyous effect. We spoke words that didn’t even sound like words, and thought perhaps the variety of mushrooms we picked and cooked were simply hallucinogenic. I do not want to reveal the name and genus of them as they are all too easy to locate, and even in death, I fear responsibility.
Soon though, I began to burp, then upchuck a liquid, then begin vomiting a thin yellow string of liquid that seemed to contain either egg whites or snakeskins. It felt as though I could suck the fluid from my entire body into my stomach then lead it up through my throat, mouth and nose, with the utmost ease.
She began falling down at the crossroads and unwilling to get back up. I held her in my arms and tried to carry or drag her back to our home, our room in the hotel. She moaned and stroked my hair with the back of her hand.
My vision blurred, no not really, it sort of went out and the roar of passing cars sounded like the screams of airplanes taking off and crashing on the runway. To say that your life passes before your eyes is a lie. It’s your death that traipses by with a slide presentation of all your friends and family, successes and failures, happy and sad events, in one long silent running commentary.
We both expired that night, in each other’s arms, on the corner of Fairview Avenue and Ninth Street, looking into each other’s eyes to the very last moment, a moment that felt as good and true and pleasing as an afternoon nap. A moment that took the place of a future we didn’t know, a moment that lasted forever in eternity, lit by the flickering green red and yellow of traffic lights, our limp bodies collecting the stray thoughts of garbage in transit, our heartbeats as still as the wings of a moth in a closet.
We hope to be remembered.
About the Author
Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. He is the author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France and a short story collection titled Now Leaving Nowheresville. His creative non-fiction collection All Roads Lead from Massilia is forthcoming from Everytime Press of Adelaide, Australia and he has a collection forthcoming from Brooklyn’s Lit Riot Press titled A Miscellany of Diverse Things.
Follow him on his website, http://kobylarzauthor.wix.com/pkoby.