CARGO CAPACITY by Josh Hicks
by Josh Hicks
Martin Murray could not turn off the television by himself. He could inflict vicious damage upon a city official of questionable ethics, spend hours trolling the streets and internet for newsworthy information and unearth the eloquence of a panhandler abandoned by his community with the skill of a seasoned professional. But, right now, he could not move his hand to silence big Steve Wilko from expounding on punishment in the afterlife for child molesters. Even the doorbell, and Martin’s old friend David Lithgow’s finger behind it, didn’t provide the needed push. His mother’s hen-like entreaty to please get the door Maaarrrtiiin finally propelled him in a stagger from the couch, through the Christmas tree smelling living room and to the front door. He opened it and noticed David’s eyes dart quickly to his hairline, make a comparative assessment, then dart back with satisfaction.
“Hey Marty,” David smiled. Martin returned the greeting and the two embraced with violent thumps to each other’s backs.
David wove through the comforting grid of the old neighborhood. Martin sat in the passenger seat, squinting against the white, backlit clouds and the beginning of the heachache. They had not seen each other for two years. For a decade brief lunches, emails and irregular Christmas cards had been the only additions to the repository of memory that formed the basis of their friendship. Facebook provided at least the impression both wanted to leave with the world and could spur starters like “So how’s Denver?” A year ago David’s wife had used the social network to out his affair to the world. His online persona, the accomplished pastor with a beautiful family, had never quite recovered. But Martin knew David lived in Portland and David knew Martin lived in Denver and that was enough for a few minutes of comfortable conversation.
“So how long are you home?”
“Leave the second.”
“How’s the job?”
“Pretty much full of malaise right now. Don’t care about anything.”
“That bad huh?”
“Print is dead. How’s your flock?”
“They’re flocking. Most of them are very old. I think I’ve managed to make a few of them fear for my soul.”
“We’ll see. Maggie wants me to.”
“And that’s that, pretty much.”
“I’m still not in much of a position to negotiate.”
“So you got hold of Christian?”
“Hence the sword.”
“Holy shit David, you have a sword in your backseat.”
“I remember you guys both collected swords and were sort of competitive about it.”
“Yes we did and yes we were.”
“A sword competition.”
“Freud would have absolutely nothing to say about that.”
“Nothing at all.”
“Wait, is that the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword?”
“That is the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword.”
“And you’re giving it back after twenty years. Awesome. Are you worried about driving around with a weapon in your backseat?”
“Uh. Huh. Maybe. I suppose if I were paranoid I’d have it in the trunk.”
“Whatever. Surprised you actually got in touch with Christian.”
“Yeah, he’s around. Even working.”
“Wow. Been a while. Where?”
“You know, I asked and I’m still not sure. He said something about insurance, then he got really caught up in telling me about Shoghi Effendi and becoming a being of light.”
“Caught up in who and a what?”
“I really don’t know, but he was excited about it.”
Martin looked out the window at the houses of his old neighborhood. He thought how little houses seem to age. People sag and gray and recede, but neighborhoods are torn down and replaced before age has opportunity to show itself. A coat of paint, a new addition or two, then demolition. Everything changes, but nothing is allowed to change. He wasn’t sure how many years since he had seen Christian.
Appropriate to his name, Christian had been a miracle in high school. He was a brilliant student, spurring a competitive edge in David that propelled him all the way to Yale. Christian the boy inspired reactions like that. He was accomplished, buoyantly optimistic, decent of heart and exceedingly popular with adults and peers. Some of the former worried when he decided to pursue music at Berkeley: there were expectations of political office, medical or scientific discovery, a judgeship, all the things adults of middling accomplishment expect of an impressive young person they do not know at all.
Instead, there was a single semester of guitar picking, composition inspired by early Pink Floyd and subsequent drift among the bleeding hearts and artists of San Francisco. There were periods of stability, jobs in offices and music stores, some vague academic pursuits accompanied by proud announcements of “going back to school.” These would last a couple months and dissipate. There were religious fascinations and participations that came in uncomfortable waves. There were women, of course, many of them. There was a slowly emerging awareness that the libations of youth were becoming the addictions of adulthood.
Then there was silence. Years of it. A sighting on a street corner with yellow beard and vodka bottle, angrily stating to anyone who passed, “I don’t have a million dollars so I’m not going to give you a million dollars!” But recently a Facebook persona had emerged from the virtual ether and some version of Christian cautiously re-entered his old circle of friends, speaking coherently again with a gentle optimism familiar and frustratingly innocent. They took him back. Christian the man inspired reactions like that.
Martin and David drove in silence for a while, the conversational well already running low. The plan was to pick up Lucas at the bank and meet Christian at Poncho & Lefty’s. Then lunch. Then goodbye and Christmas and the plane back to Denver and that would be that, until next year, maybe. David drove through a long stretch of small storefronts, Mexican restaurants, Walgreens, pawn shops and fading community murals. Martin watched poor souls dressed as mattresses waving signs on street corners. Aluminum sided houses and chain-link fences peeked out from behind the depressed commercial zoning. Bored, Martin decided to dive in.
“So how are you and Maggie…”
“Good. I mean fine. I mean we’re working on it. We talk about everything.”
“Sounds OK I guess.”
“No. Yes. It’s good. It’s good. It’s just…we talk about everything. Something bothers her, we talk about it. Something bothers me…it’s like a constant wrestling match.”
“Well, it’s better than not.”
“Prevents shit from coming out later.”
“That’s the idea. I mean before we were storing up…I was storing up so much there wasn’t room for anything else and I was just unhappy all the time.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Yes Martin, I’m evolving.”
“Becoming one with yourself?”
“Well, yes, when I’m not getting laid.”
“Heh. Lots of growing then.”
“Yes, too, too much. Are you becoming one with yourself too Marty?”
“No, I get laid too much for that.”
They pulled into a parking lot on the momentum of regression. Lucas Price emerged from the bunker-like structure of the bank, a gut, new since David and Marty last saw him, highlighted by a Christmas tie. The remains of his hairline gave comfort to both of them.
“Hey guys,” Lucas smiled as the three friends converged in the middle of the parking lot. The wind was picking up, and the empty lot offered no shield from the chill. Someone was yelling in Spanish. Hugs, violent thumps and pleasantries were exchanged as the group piled into David’s car and drove off. A mile away, Christian was washing his hands. As reddened water rushed into the drain, he remembered the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword and smiled.
Lucas was complaining.
“So this dummy doesn’t understand why he has six overdraft fees. And I keep trying to explain he was out of money when he made the withdrawals. He was out of money. That’s it. But he didn’t want to hear that.”
“He didn’t want to hear it. This is my Christmas eve.”
“Did he leave eventually?”
“He didn’t have the money and he wants to blame everyone else for his problems. Sorry buddy.”
“Enjoying your job Lucas?”
“Sorry pal, that’s life. Holy shit, you know this song is twenty years old? Nirvana is classic rock. Fucking crazy.”
“My job’s fine.”
“How long have you been there now?”
“There? Six years. US Bank four years before that.”
“You always complained about US Bank.”
“Sterling’s not much better. I like the people I work with though. Except Mitzy. Or Ditzy as we call her. Me and my buddy Ben. He calls her a stupid bitch, which is sort of wrong. But you tell her how to do something and it just…I feel bad for her, but you tell her to do something and it’s like she doesn’t hear. I’m answering questions four times a day. I don’t know if she’s stupid or learning disability or…”
A five minute tirade against poor Ditzy and related topics followed and might have continued had David not pulled too quickly into the lot behind Pancho & Lefty’s.
“I mean not too many people actually come into the bank for services so the people who do are, well some of them are nice, but we get the loony tunes. Martin, how is it working in print?”
“Print is dead.”
“Yeah, all that stuff. But some people want the face-to-face, tangible thing because they can’t learn the online. Not that they’re stupid, but…holy shit, is that Christian?”
The others had already noticed.
Christian in a three-piece suit had not been seen in decades. But there he was. Leaning against a scuffed Chrysler suited like a secret agent, shaven, cigarette dangling, tiny glasses tinted against the white winter sun.
The familiar Cheshire grin beamed across the parking lot as the they exited the car and approached. Christian greeted each of his old friends separately, lingering with each embrace, not thumping.
They entered the restaurant and sat down at a small table. Periodically Latin Pop from a jukebox apparently operating on its own accord would invade the restaurant and their conversation would lapse for lack of effort. Only Christian competed with the music to fill the spaces. When his lunch was called and he left the table to claim it, everyone noticed but no one mentioned he had never ordered.
Lucas wanted to know about Christian’s car.
“It’s my mom’s car actually. I believe it’s a Chrysler Sebring.”
“I thought so. Those suck.”
“I would not say otherwise.”
“Those suck. My aunt had one. We had to put all her booze in the trunk because my dumbass cousin was court ordered into her custody and couldn’t be near alcohol.”
“Shitty trunk space.”
“Ah, Lucas, I believe we would say shitty “cargo capacity” on that particular model but, yes, that’s a problem.”
“Yes. Bad cargo capacity. That’s it. Shit car. So how are the kids David?””
“The kids are okay. Lindy has this vocal tic we’re a little worried about.”
“Tic, like what?”
“Like this chirping sound and a little hand movement. When I’m speaking in church I can hear this little ‘Eep. Eep.’ He’s getting some flack about it in school, which is sad.”
“That is sad. What the hell? Kid can’t help it.”
“Well, true, but the other kids can’t help being kids either. You just deal with it.”
“I guess so.”
“Oh my God man.” Christian asked about diagnostics.
“I mean tourette’s is one possibility but we don’t know.”
“Dude. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
David thanked Christian, mostly to break his intensive eye contact. Lucas and Martin followed Christian’s sentiment by nodding wordlessly. Only one of them, Lucas, had ever met Lindy. The conversation went quiet like the last drops of water emptying out of a sink. In the silence there was difference. One man reweaving the torn out strands of a damaged marriage. One distracting himself from boredom and the unlikelihood of its alleviation by drinking amounts better suited to the years when the four of them knew each other. One taking pleasure in boredom as an alternative to risk. And one with better stories than the rest, but an awareness that these were somehow inappropriate to share with people who had learned to measure and label what they had once, drunkenly, thought of as grist-for-the-mill experience. But Martin, as befitted his profession, wanted to know things.
“So do you celebrate Christmas Christian?”
For David, the question triggered anger and a list of grievances previously forgotten. He looked at Martin, who kept eye contact with Christian but sensed David’s gaze and its implicit question: why dive into that hole? You know what’s down there. Why bring it to the surface? But Martin liked questions.
Christian’s voice was calm, but the calm was defensive.
“Religious reasons? Non-religious reasons?”
“I guess for all intents and purposes religious reasons.”
“Jewish? Buddhist? Hindu? Whatever so long as it’s different from the last time we saw you?”
Lucas gave a quiet release of air that was probably the stifling of a laugh. Here was a familiar meanness. It had helped define the boundaries of their dynamic when they were young, and the reasons they all rushed in separate directions when that dynamic crumbled.
Martin had had a good deal to drink before David picked him up. Now he wanted more but couldn’t in this company without answering instead of asking questions. He wanted to tell everyone that they were older now and had grown up and apart and that this reunion need not have happened. So he asked questions. And Christian answered honestly according to his own reality. He had no capacity to do otherwise.
“No, not Jewish, not Buddhist, not Hindu. Not whatever.”
“So what are you into? Tell us who are you following? You have to have some stories.”
“You want stories?”
“You always have some crazy shit to tell us.”
“Well, I’ve taken an interest in the Bahai Faith lately.”
“What the fuck is that?”
“It’s basically the idea that God reveals His Will periodically in history through divine messengers. Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. Most recently the Bab and Baha u llah.”
“Well, I kind of identify with Elvis as a, uh, revered but misunderstood soul, so sure.”
“That’s the scripture.”
“I know where this is going. You’re a divine messenger now, aren’t you?”
“Well, uh, maybe. Maybe I am. I mean, I’m not really part of prophecy, but I think, yeah, I feel the spark of divinity in myself.”
“That’s good.” David wanted to change the subject.
“The spark of divinity as in everybody has a spark of divinity and so do you? Or as in you’re special?” Martin didn’t.
“Well, I feel I’m special in some ways.”
“Well, the Bahai Faith teaches us that God reveals His Word progressively, through the generations, for the purpose of a collective evolution that culminates in a reunion with the Divine. In this sense we can see other religions as precursor faiths. No offence David.”
“Whatever, whatever. What ways?”
“Well, I feel like I’m spoken to.”
“No. Yes. Yes actually.”
“You get messages directly from God?”
“I feel I do, yes.”
“Why are you so lucky dude? I can’t get a call back from the Denver DOT and some homeless guy gets to talk to God?”
Another half-censored laugh from Lucas, this one less discreet. Christian didn’t answer. He looked at his hands and saw a sliver of darkening red under his thumbnail. A thin scar peeked out from under his sleeve. It was attached to a hidden explosion of identical scars teeming across his forearm like a school of fish.
“Just…” Christian’s eyes glassed with water. “…keep an open mind.”
Martin didn’t say anything. David’s eyes were hot on his temple. There was a feeling like a foot slipping from a ledge. Martin smiled.
“Hey, do you guys have Spotify? I think it’s great. It’s better than Pandora. But it slows my computer down. Do you guys get that? My computer’s a piece of shit anyway. This asshole at Best Buy was saying…” Lucas had no difficulty changing the subject.
Lunch was over. They had returned to the bank to drop off Lucas, Christian following David in the Chrysler. Now they stood in a circle in the parking lot surrounded by black crows, white clouds, wind and cement. Christian held the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword like a precious heirloom.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Some meditating. Then some work to do.”
“You’re working on Christmas? Tell me again what you’re doing exactly.”
“Insurance, like I said, whatever’s available. What about you David?”
“We’ll do the morning with the kids at our place then go over to Maggie’s dad’s.”
“Me and Terry are spending tonight at my parents. My sister and Ken are in town, so there’s all the kids. He’s a douche.”
“Probably start drinking in the morning to get ready for my sister getting depressed and the fight at dinner where she starts throwing food and knocks over the tree. Maybe not this year, but it’s a solid tradition.”
No one said anything until Christian gave a deep laugh that echoed across the parking lot and ricocheted off houses and storefronts. “Seems like another boring Christmas.”
“Seems.” Martin smirked.
Suddenly aware that he was holding a potentially lethal weapon in public, Christian moved to put the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword in his backseat. Then he paused, thought better of it. He dug a set of keys from his pocket and opened the trunk.
Larry Milfred stared up at the group. His gaze caught them at an awkward angle. His head and neck were forced into a position that would have been uncomfortable had he been alive. This positioning was necessary for his body to fit into the inconveniently small trunk of the Christian’s mother’s Chrysler Sebring. Larry’s shirt front was dark with dried blood and small brown droplets blemished his distorted face.
The forced smiles that had served as the default expression of the group’s outing that afternoon did not fade or falter. They only became more forced. Christian laid the Aptly Named Sir Not Appearing In This Film sword over Larry as if he were the corpse of an ancient knight and slammed the trunk shut.
“Well it was awesome to see you guys.” He smiled, with genuine warmth.
Again, Martin could not move by himself. He could smile and nod and lock his knees to stand. When the group decided to move, he would probably move with them. But, right now, he could only stand lamely like a weed poking through the cement, growth stunted by bad soil. David’s head shook just slightly from side to side. His eyes said he had left already, running back to Maggie and the kids. Lucas stared at the glass doors of the bank, wanting to be inside.
Christian suddenly seemed disappointed and a little angry. Martin realized he had been expecting farewell hugs. Someone had to say something.
“Yeah Christian. Good to see you too. Maybe again next year.”
The others murmured their goodbyes and Merry Christmases. They went their separate ways. No one knew about Martin’s father’s cancer or Lucas’s planned marriage proposal or the passionate love David felt for Maggie or why Larry or anyone else had to die. In the future, in isolated moments, all of them would care to know. As the years went on, those moments would stretch in scope and depth and race against the slow demolition of their bodies and lose.