When I heard Davie had died, the first thing I did was call him. I hadn’t talked to him in years, hadn’t thought to delete his number out of my ever-rotating list of co-workers, acquaintances, hookups, local businesses and restaurants that had shuttered forever. By then, many of them had stopped offering even shopping appointments or curbside pickup. Closed for good.
I had kept his number, carried it in my pocket like a talisman. He had called me once after snorting coke in the bathroom of one of our favorite bars back home, and I kept thinking one of these days—or nights, more likely—I’d return the favor. I’d call him up all wired and happy. It would be like old times. Like other people’s old times.
The ring was the same as it had always been—a long monotone beeping—and I held the phone away from my face, a little bit, as if the buzz of his specter could come blotting through the screen and taint me. I felt a lump in my throat, suddenly terrified at the idea that someone might answer. Maybe not Davie himself—he was dead, after all—but a relative going through his things: his beloved records, his overly loud button-downs worn through at the armpits, the shoes with mismatched laces, although there probably wouldn’t be many of those to sort through. He usually only had one or two pairs at a time, preferring to wear his shoe til mud seeped through the holey soles. He’d found a coat at Goodwill that he’d worn for so long that threads were popping out of the cuffs, making him look like a hairy-wristed monster. He’d cut his face with innumerable razor blades he used til they were rusty. He hated waste, expenses of any kind. People who have money can be like that sometimes.
I pictured these hypothetical relatives bagging up his stuff for Goodwill, maybe even the same one where he’d found the coat. His mom—I’d only met her a couple of times—or his sister Elena, or maybe one of his twin aunts, with the matching bottle glasses, the ones with the rent-controlled apartment in New York, whose couch he surfed on for a summer, sending me postcards of things he’d seen—a Rothko at MoMA, the angel fountain in the park—that became less and less frequent as the weather cooled. Took the ferry out to Staten Island today. The air was perfect. Maybe it wouldn’t be a relative, but a close friend, maybe the friend who’d found him dead. Maybe someone we both knew, who’d taken Postmodern Lit with us, or Poetry 102, the class in which I wrote really bad poems and Davie wrote some really good ones.
I wasn’t really sure how long it had been, or how he’d done it. If it was an accident, or intentional. If one of those people answered, people who had stayed in his life longer than I had, they would tell me. I was sure of it. One of the first things people want to do is share the facts, don’t they? As though the facts will help make sense of everything—maybe not everything, but some things—fitting the puzzle together. The fact of a life with a very big piece—many pieces—missing from it. They want to fill in and shape the loss, be the superglue that binds everything together. The story’s savior, swooping in and telling you—the long-absent lover, partner, friend—what you don’t know already, because you weren’t there. They were. It’s a superiority thing. They want to share it, but also hold it over your head, a little bit. I was there, and you weren’t. I found him. You didn’t. Like the petty competitions we used to have in college. The same old games we used to play, but with the major player missing.
A mutual friend had texted me. I guess you could call her a friend. A girl he worked with at the record store. I didn’t even realize I had her number; I’d forgotten she’d probably given it to me one night not long after I moved to Minneapolis. Davie, wanting to be kind, wanting to be a good person, had agreed to meet me at the Standish Wings, which is famous not only for its wings but for its juicy lucys—cheese-stuffed burgers dripping with grease—forgetting, I guess, that I’m a vegetarian. I scanned the couples sitting at their booths. I found Davie at the back with Sharon, this record store clerk, who I guess he thought I’d get along with. Or had brought along as a buffer.
“Who’s even named Sharon nowadays?” I asked, when Sharon had gone to the bathroom. “That’s such an eighties name.”
Instead of chastising me, telling me to “be nice,” or going all cold and quiet like he might have done back when we were together, Davie only laughed.
“It suits her,” he told me. “You’ll see.” Flashing me those big teeth of his.
Hi, Sharon’s text said. I know you 2 haven’t talked in a while, but I thought I should check in with you about D. And then, two days later, You ok?
I felt bad, later on, for being hung up on the first part of the first text, how Sharon had known we hadn’t talked in a while. How had Sharon known we hadn’t talked in a while? It was no business of hers—but then, of course, Davie and I weren’t together anymore. We didn’t have any shared business, to share or not share with others. He could have told her whatever he wanted. I was flattered, in a way, to think that she must have asked about me. What had happened to me, after that one time we’d gotten beers together. I thought about all of this before it occurred to me to text her back.
He’s dead, isn’t he.
I wanted to give Sharon that much, let her off the hook. She didn’t have to break the news. I barely knew Sharon, but Sharon was nice. Sharon didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t really a surprise, after all. Not to me, anyway. Davie had been a lifelong sufferer, made a personality of it. And the pandemic had only made things worse.
I didn’t think to ask myself why—it was more a question of why not sooner, with Davie.
But maybe it was a surprise to her, I thought to myself. Kindly, I thought. Wanting to be kind.
The phone rang and rang, but no one picked up. It went to voicemail, finally. But it wasn’t even his voice, just the robot lady. Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice message system. Intoning the numbers. . . . is not available.
I kept thinking maybe there’d be a couple more beeps and he would answer, interrupting the voicemail, like he used to do when we’d be fighting and I’d be in the process of leaving him a tearful message right after, or during, a fight. Telling him to go fuck himself, sayonara, it was over, I never wanted to talk to him again. Or I was sorry, forgive me, let’s pretend this never happened. I won’t mention it if you won’t. I’ll take it to my grave.
But he didn’t interrupt, and I didn’t leave a message. I wanted to, but I couldn’t think of what to say.
I hung up and sat on my bed and looked out the window, my papers spread out all around me. Thirty-three, in the midst of homework, although is it considered homework when you’re doing a master’s in library science? Whatever it was, I was drowning in it, like I used to, back when we were fighting. I let my work consume me. I knew I’d see him in class the next day and everything would be all right. We’d apologize, hug, talk, go out that night, get drunk, kiss and haul each other home, quiet quiet, so as not to wake the parents—into our childhood beds when we were home on break—or our dorm room, trying not to wake up the roommate in the bed six feet away.
He’d write me a poem. That did the trick. It was what had won me over in the first place, what always won me back.
Our junior year, we were both studying abroad, but not in the same country. I wanted to be in Paris—city of Baldwin, Rimbaud, Mavis Gallant (what a name)! I had this picture of us there together, me and Davie, swinging down the alleys in the Latin Quarter to go to double features late in the afternoon, those two-euro student deals, always the classic films—never movies—or at least something you could talk about afterwards, something to dissect together and pick apart like chicken over a carafe of wine, or at the little American-style breakfast joint on Rue des Ecoles. I imagined we would be homesick together.
I had these ideas of us looking at statues of angels at the Louvre, or bumming around the gardens of the Musée Rodin, taking endless walks along the river, cheap train tickets to the Riviera or Italy on weekends or one of my frequent two-week breaks (bless the French!). I listened to the Doors more than ever, eager to see Jim Morrison’s grave, even though Davie hated the Doors.
“He sings every song like he’s lying on the floor,” he sneered. “Drunk.” Like his father, was what he didn’t need to say.
I knew—I’d convinced myself—that we’d make it to Oscar Wilde’s tomb in the same cemetery where Jim was buried, way up on the hill. We’d both smear on red lipstick and add our kisses to the leopard-print smooches all over the sleazy, slightly fascist-looking angel carved out of a hunk of stone. We’d drink cheap wine and piss in the river, and next day feel like we were dying. Davie’s the one who told me about Oscar’s last words—either this wallpaper goes or I do. Although now I think it may have been curtains or drapes, instead. I wish I could ask him. I loved hearing him talk. About Virginia Woolf’s androgynous mind, about what was up with Orlando, and all kinds of literary devices and terms that were new to me, even though I’d been a reader all my life.
His voice explaining things—I wanted more of that. I was thirsty for it like I was for
But Davie had other ideas. He wanted to go to Berlin. He’d seen Wings of Desire about a dozen times and pictured a stark, gritty metropolis in black and white, tinged with cigarette smoke and enlivened by jazz, circus freaks, the cabaret crowd. I liked the movie, I guess, but I had no interest in Berlin. I had studied French my whole life and German sounded clunky and full of F’s and hard G’s, ugly letters, ugly sounds, at least to my ears. That’s why it worked, Davie told me—people had taken the ugliness they found there and made it beautiful. Look at some of our favorite music, he said. Bowie, Iggy, Lou. Cabaret. Life is a cabaret, old chum, and Berlin was the place for him.
I was furious. For months, actually. On a substantial scholarship—those nights of studying when we were fighting had paid off, after all—I went to Paris. I gritted my teeth all through it. I lived in a chambre de bonne with a frosty famille d’acceuil, and bitterly read for hours on end, and rarely went to parties, but when I did—when fellow students took an interest in me, on the rare occasions when I made an effort—I told them I was in une rélation à distance, whose boundaries most French people respected and most Americans took as an invitation. It became a badge of honor for me, my loyalty to him. As if anyone gave a shit. Davie, for example—I’m sure he told people at parties no such thing. We were back together fall of our senior year, back in the States, as if nothing had happened, but I could tell plenty had, from the sexual stuff he wanted to do.
By our last semester we were keeping our distance.
During that semester abroad, though, that long semester of isolation and resentment on my side, and fun and games on Davie’s, we were separated, not so much by geography as by difference in depth of feeling (one of Davie’s favorite terms—he said it in poetry class about a million times). Davie wanted to try out new things and new people. I wanted to try new places, and so one night, in a private chat, I asked what he was doing for spring break, if he wanted to meet me in Madrid.
Madrid’s overrated, Davie replied. I could picture him balancing a cigarette between his fingers as he typed it, ash falling between the keys. What about Cordoba?
And so we met up in Cordoba. He’d already done Madrid, Barcelona, all the major cities. He told me I’d get to go there, when I met my rich husband. For now, he would take me all the places that were small, and also cheap. He paid for dinner, all our dinners, but we never made up, not the way I wanted to. He kept me at a distance. I figured he had someone back in Berlin, but I didn’t ask.
He bought me a book at a little English-language bookshop in Sevilla. He wrote in it for me and we had a long debate back and forth about whether he’d written an epigraph or an epitaph. We were in a cemetery drinking a bottle of wine, and I was pretending Oscar’s grave was behind us, puckering up involuntarily. It wasn’t Père Lachaise, but it was something.
He told me an epitaph was the thing on a tombstone, an epigraph was the thing in a book. He said it slowly, and for once I couldn’t stand the sound of his voice, his know-it-allness, his affected poet syntax.
“You sound like a bad translation,” I told him, and he got very quiet.
A little while later, I asked him when he was coming to see me in Paris, and he said maybe in the summer, if I stuck around for a little while. I told him about the Bibliothèque Nationale, the four towers designed to look like books set on their sides, flapping open at right angles, the long escalators descending to the entrance. I told him it was the place where I felt most at home. You ought to see it, I said. He told me libraries were more my thing, always had been. He preferred bookstores, with soft jazz playing in the background.
A few days after Sharon texted me, I was looking at the record store’s Instagram. Sharon had been promoted to manager. There were pictures of her looking happy—as happy as people could look in masks—alongside the owner, Mike. Mike’s arm was slung around her shoulder, and both of them were wearing the record store t-shirts with the logo of a rat spinning a record, his eyes X’s, his tongue lolling out, thirsty, tripping balls. Sharon had screen-printed them herself, she’d tried to tell me, at Standish Wings. I’d been bored, distracted by Davie. Dead Rat Records. I’d rolled my eyes. What a name.
I gave the photo a like. Thumbs up!
That was on a good day.
A couple days after that, they posted a picture of these giant wooden crates filling the record store floor. Can you guess what we’re up to?? the caption asked. Those double question marks annoyed me.
I vaguely remembered Sharon saying something at Standish Wings about wanting to increase the store’s space one day, maybe buy a bigger building across town. I was pissed. My group project had fallen through. We’d looked like idiots. I hated Zoom presentations more than anything. Remote school—what was the point? I’d gone to the grocery store and people weren’t wearing their masks properly, or at all, or keeping a safe distance. It had been going on for months and still, still, I wasn’t used to it. Maybe neither were they.
I wanted to strangle everyone I saw.
I had felt generous a few days ago, when Sharon got her promotion, but this warranted a response. They were being too cute. They’d forgotten about Davie. I commented under the photo: Idk, carting DN’s body off to the morgue?
I decided that job had killed Davie, to some extent. He’d loved it, sure, but had he really moved to Minneapolis, striven his whole life, to become a record store clerk? I wanted to believe that was the reason, anyway, the thing that had tipped him over the edge. I fixated on it. What made me mad was that music hadn’t saved him. Neither had books or movies, the things he’d always pledged allegiance to.
That particular night, I was put out with school, and my lack of a job, and the pandemic. So I chose to blame his job.
I forgot about it. I’d drunk half a bottle of Evan Williams (Davie’s fave). I made a grilled cheese sandwich and ate it in front of the TV, some mindless garbage about ’80s nostalgia.
There was still so much I wanted to say. That Davie had been kind of an asshole. That he had once called someone I liked a cretin, and I had wanted to believe he was jealous. That he cheated on people and used them and discarded them. That he also called D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow “startling,” and loved his cats—especially the one who looked like he was wearing a tuxedo. He’d tease the cat about getting all gussied up to go to prom. “Who’s your date?” he’d ask the cat. What had happened to the cat? I think his name was Charles.
I wanted to remind him about the book he’d made in kindergarten, about Sonic the Hedgehog battling an Ewok. I wanted to gripe to him about how his parents had slathered the memorial page to him with a bunch of religious crap about how he had gone to Jesus, he’d finally lost his battle with addiction, and good riddance. Something along those lines. Redemption stuff he would have hated. Things that would have made him puke, if he’d seen them for himself. I wanted to remind him how lucky we were, to have gotten away from all that.
When I checked my phone again, I saw several people had loved the comment I’d made. Several people I didn’t know, probably fans of the record store, maybe even Davie’s favorite customers. People stoned or drunk out of their minds, social distancing, isolated, looking for an outlet. Relieved somebody had finally said something, released that toxic fart onto social media.
I saw that I’d gotten a direct message. I went to the inbox. Sharon had messaged me again: You ok? Same words as before.
Sharon was nice. Sharon was good. Sharon didn’t deserve someone like me coming along and fucking up her promotion, her beloved record store’s brand-new image, their big exciting move, their—ahem—Social Media Presence. She loved the store almost as much as Davie had.
I ignored her message, went to her profile, unfollowed, then blocked her. I went to the contacts in my phone and did the same to her phone number, and several other phone numbers. I needed to get rid of it: the urge to torment someone else.
I forgot I’d signed up for the record store’s mailing list when I’d first moved to Minneapolis. I’d been wanting to make connections, I guess, shop small, find cool businesses to support. But mostly, of course, I knew Davie worked there and wanted to keep up with what he was doing, but with a little bit of distance between us. Just enough.
Sharon must have done some sleuthing, a little Columbo-style detective work. A few nights after I blocked her, she bcc’ed me on a mass email about a Zoom memorial they were putting together for Davie. I could only assume “we” meant her and Mike, and maybe Davie’s sister Elena. The email mentioned the date, time, how to register. We could participate if we wanted, it said. Read a poem or play a song or something. I imagined all the faces on there, lined up like Hollywood Squares tiles, awkwardly lit, people getting drunk in their PJs. Maybe somebody would light a candle, propose a toast.
I hated seeing my own face on the camera, for school. Can’t be ugly if you never look in a mirror, Davie had joked. What was Zoom but a mirror of sorts? If I tuned in for any of the funeral, I thought, I’d turn off the video, be the one little black square. I would shroud myself in black. For Davie.
I went for a walk on the Mississippi River Parkway. The leaves were changing, joggers out with their strollers and dogs. It wasn’t the Seine, sure, but a river’s a river. I’d lost track of what day it was, by that point. Like most people, I guess.
I should really get a dog—dogs were all the rage this pandemic. I was pretty sure my landlord had said it’d be okay. If not, maybe I could find a way to keep it on the down-low, the dog out of sight. Quiet quiet. There’s a reason landlords are supposed to give twenty-four hours’ notice before they come over, right?
I didn’t have any friends here. I’d only known Sharon and Davie. The people in my program were just faces on a computer screen, so far. Davie had always accused me of being picky, too clingy, too attached to one person at a time. Like a barnacle, he’d said.
Once I’d calmed down, I started thinking about the dog again. Maybe Sharon could help me hide it. That was my first thought, oddly enough.
“So you’ve explained an epitaph and an epigraph,” I said to him in Spain. We were eating tapas on a patio, under a white umbrella and a very bright sun. Bells were tolling somewhere. “But what’s the difference between an elegy and a eulogy?”
I had some idea, but I wanted to hear him explain it.
Davie took a sip of sangria. “Oh,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, when the time comes.”
I have no idea if this exchange actually happened, or if I dreamed it.
I watched that movie again recently, the one about the angels. They’re at the library, the place Davie didn’t like, even though he loved this scene in the movie. The angels are watching people read, learn, study. The sound is hushed, the music floaty and somber, disembodied voices wailing. You hear voices whispering within the minds of the people, the words their minds make as they think and breathe, sitting still, silently turning pages. The people don’t look up, but the angels look right at the camera, right at you. They are perched on the railing, hovering in the stacks, wearing long black coats, looking serious, thoughtful, but also cheeky, smiling at some private joke. They know something that you can’t even begin to fathom.
When we first watched it together, it felt like we were in on the joke, too. I remember Davie holding my hand, and he wasn’t normally a big hand-holder.
I watch that scene now and I don’t know what the joke is. I’m on the outside. I rewind that scene over and over, trying to figure it out.
Originally from Atlanta, Isabel Harding now lives in Minneapolis, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. She also served as the 2015-2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Randolph College. Her stories have appeared in various literary publications, including the anthology Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light. She recently completed a second novel and is hard at work on revisions. You can find out more at her website: Isabel-harding.com.