“Judy. Need u 2 come 2 store. I’ll give u xtra day off. Sick. Levi.”
He followed that text message with, “Sorry.”
He had been unable to reach her on her phone—she might have been at the movies with her son; Levi had bought her some gift cards to AMC for the holidays—and he hoped she’d either hear the voicemail or see his text message once she turned her iPhone back on after the movie. Anyone who knew Levi well knew that if he suddenly stopped using full words in text messages, something was urgently wrong. He had barely been able to type out those brief messages with their obnoxious abbreviations. He had forced his eyes open, tapping each letter slowly. One at time. He needed to go home and sleep for a year. Or to the emergency room to ask what was wrong with him. Or to just simply drop dead.
He had been feeling dizzy, almost drunk as far as he could recall what being drunk felt like. A very disoriented, out-of-control feeling he did not like. Weak and tired, but not as with flu. But a burning inside him, as if his very blood was on fire and his mind and organs melting. And then, suddenly, he had doubled over and made an awful sound. Then he had retched all over the salesfloor.
That family with their three children would never forget the sight of Levi puking all over that display of teddy bears dressed as ballerinas, skateboarders, hockey players, and soldiers.
He was now slumped over his desk, his sweaty head across his arms, wishing he could die from how ill he felt. Out on the salesfloor, the high school students who worked with him were busy begging the mall’s custodial team to please clean up all that puke their boss had just vomited all over the floor. They didn’t know how to clean that up and, good God, he had managed to entirely cover up the tiles reading, “Welcome to The Happiest Store in Hollywood.”
It was a lot of vomit.
“And so many colors,” one of the high school students remarked, making the other squeal in disgust.
He wished Damien were here. Damien would help him. Would bring him home, tuck him in bed, and tell him on warm, tickling breath, “Sleep.” Lure him into the comforting darkness with his deep voice whispering an enchantment: “Sleep.” Lips in his hair, arms surrounding him. He could just drift off now, he thought.
Drift off and die.
Just as X had predicted.
“Levi. Levi! Wake up. Levi. Wake the fuck up.”
He felt the chair rattle and Judy’s voice drifting in like an ocean wave.
“I’ll be fucking pissed if you’re dead. This was supposed to be my day off, Levi! Are you dead yet? Because if you’re dead, I get to fire Greg, right? Fire his ass just as soon as we bury yours. Levi? Say something.”
“Be. . .nice.”
“Fuck that ‘be nice’ shit. This is my day off, Levi. You have the flu? Make that Greg come in.”
“I can’t reach him.” He was alarmed at how distant his own voice sounded. . .
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Levi. You owe me.”
“Just. . .just sit here. You look like shit. I’ll close and. . .when you’re feeling better. . .we’ll call you an Uber.”
Even in his half-dead state, his whole body strangely feeling as if something was burning inside him, he noticed a hopeful note on her voice.
“Or. . .should I call your friend? That police officer man?”
He tried to say “No.” He really did. But in his need for someone to help get him home to his bed, he said, “Yes.” And he weakly slipped her the phone his arms were resting atop after slowly unlocking it
“Check the contacts. . .” he said. Though slurred like everything else he said, it sounded more like, “Chaka Kahn’s ass.”
“Barry? His name is Barry, right? Like Barack Obama? Yeah, there he is. Hold on, Levi. . ..” Her voice brightly changed a moment later to Professional Judy, she of the phone receptionist voice and audible smile. “Hello! Hi. Is this Barry? Barry, this is Judy. I work with Levi. At the Fab Friends Factory? I know you sometimes work on Hollywood Boulevard. Um—are you nearby? Maybe able to help Levi out? You are? Would you mind coming up to the store? He’s really sick. He’s thrown up all over the place—totally took out an entire display of ‘Things You Can Be’ Bears and scared a whole family of tourists. He’s sort of passed out. Well—not entirely passed out. He just gave me the look of death. Now he’s giving me the finger. You may have to arrest him for murdering me. Anyway. . .he’s too sick to drive home and I have to stay here and close the store for him. On my day off, no less. Can you come by and bring him home? You can? Thank you, Barry. His breath is atrocious right now and I can’t take being around him another minute.”
“How many prescriptions are you on?”, Barry asked him as he lay stretched out on the couch. Levi had refused Barry’s assistance to the bedroom. “Uh-uh,” he had said. “We’re just friends now. No more cuddles.”
How many prescriptions? Levi just wanted to sleep. “I don’t know,” he mumbled, too overtaken by something to speak at his normal volume. “I’m somewhere between. . .Garland and Monroe.”
“I bet you overdosed. You’re showing all the signs.”
“Well, I puked up. . . whatever I overed. So. . .that’s over. . .”
“Do you think that’s what happened?”
“I think. . .”, he giggled wearily, “The Kennedy’s did it. Or maybe. . . the mob. Who knows? Someday. . .people. . .will write books. . .about my mysterious demise. . .”
Barry didn’t get the Monroe reference and asked him, “Why so many pills?”
He was so tired and weary and exhausted he replied with a frustrated cry, “Because I’m fucking nuts, Barry!”
“I don’t think you’re nuts.”, Barry said quietly, looking at him from his seat on the coffee table.
“I had an aunt once who was nuts,” Barry said.
Levi stopped smiling.
“Aunt Oleta,” Barry resumed, “She lived down in Garden Grove. That’s just outside Anaheim. Where Disneyland is. It’s suburban and landlocked. Sort of sprawling. Lots of homes, rows and rows of homes. Very big Asian population. Aunt Oleta doesn’t live there any more. Well, she doesn’t live anywhere. She committed suicide. So she’s dead now. Just sat in her car in the garage and let the fumes kill her. Well, it might have been an accident. Sometimes that happens. Have you ever gotten in your car, started it, and then sat there, thinking? Maybe she did that. Just got in her car and started thinking. She might have been thinking about what she needed to buy at the grocery store. Because they never found a suicide note but they did find a grocery list on the kitchen counter. Maybe she was looking for it in the car and accidentally committed suicide. She should have opened the garage door if she was going to run the car while she sat there–”
“Barry—” Levi pleaded. “Hush. I’m. . . sick.”
“Do you need me to bring you to the emergency room?”
“No,” Levi wanted to cry; he was so exhausted. “It’s not an emergency.”
“Did your doctor up your prescriptions?”
“Did my doctor what?”
“Tell you to start taking more?”
“Well, yeah. She’s always. . . increasing the doses. You start out small. . . and then go big.”
“But when does it all get too big?”
“Barry. . .I don’t know. I manage a teddy bear store. I’m not a physicist. . . Physichiatrist. Physician. . .Whatever the fuck I’m trying to say. . . I just want to sleep. . .”
“My mother had a doctor once, over in Inglewood, who put her on all sorts of medications for her gout. Something like five different pills. Or was it six? It was six; I remember she’d line up the bottles, two rows of three. And–”
Levi listened as Barry droned on, listened until Levi drifted off, uncomfortably, into the weird darkness he was being carried off into, feeling as if something inside of him was on fire, burning him from the inside out, and no amount of water would extinguish it.
A mélange of thoughts swirled before him. Burning. . .Wounded. . . Atlanta. . .Blood.
Fire cracker sounds.
“Momma had a baby and it’s head popped off.”
He fought to wake out of this swirl of flashing thoughts, recollections. . .momentary nightmares. There was something horrifyingly familiar about that floating, fading sensation. This sleepiness that felt more like dying, draining life seeping into something more dark than sleep.
But he couldn’t think now. Not about Atlanta. Never, never about Atlanta. Imagine Damien. Lovely, soft, sweet Damien. Yes. Think of him as you die. He’d be calling soon, just as he did every night. Levi wondered if he’d be alive when Damien called. . .
Oh, how he wished Damien was here right now, not so far away in Colorado. Yes, Barry was sweet. But if whatever was wrong with Levi didn’t knock him into a coma, Barry’s story was sure to.
“—And the pharamacist told my mother, ‘You’re not supposed to take that orally. It’s a suppository’. And my mother—well, she didn’t know what a suppository was—”
Levi awoke to that last bit, his eyes fluttering awake.
“She just read the part of the prescription that said to take four times daily. So, four times a day, she swallowed a suppository. She had been cutting them into smaller pieces thinking they were just really big pills. And so, of course it gave her an upset stomach. It wasn’t meant to be in her stomach. But she thought it was a huge pill so she would take one out of the package and cut it up into four sections—maybe this big—and then she’d put one section in her mouth and drink some water. And then she’d put the other section in her—”
He realized his phone was ringing “I Want to Be Sedated”—Oh, how viciously ironic!—and, lifting it weakly to his face, he saw Damien’s picture. He motioned Barry to be silent.
“Hi there. . .” he said, his voice struggling, trying to sound gay and all-is-fine but still sounding like it was coming from a larynx far, far away.
“You sound awful,” Damien said, grimly surprised, and the tone of worry Levi heard made him smile weakly.
“I’m just really sick,” Levi said. “Like the flu. . .or something. I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“I’m just. . .I don’t know.”
“Are you taking any medicine?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong. . .so don’t know what to take.”
“Are you going to a doctor to get it checked out?”
“I just want to. . .sleep it off.” He added, “I’m sorry. I’m just. . .I feel like I’m dead.”
He hesitated, thinking in his fog of a mind about stupid characters in movies and books and how he, stupid as he sometimes was—Hello, Braunstein Center classes!—was not as stupid as they. And he remembered that he had once told Damien about a text message from Barry so he wouldn’t misunderstand. And he wondered what Damien might think if he knew Barry was here now. And if maybe he should let Barry explain to Damnien what he was too tired and weak and sleepy to explain. He knew Danmien didn’t deserve anything bad to happen to him—he had always been so good to Levi—but. . .
“I have a friend,” Levi said weakly.
“I think more than one,” Damien said sweetly.
“Here,” Levi tried to emphasize.
“You have a friend there?” Damien seemed both understanding and. . .was that fearful. . .at the same time.
“Uh-huh,” Levi whispered. “Barry. I don’t want you to think. . .things. I have to let you know. Because. . .you know—”
“Barry? Who you used to date?”
“Past tense.” In what felt like minutes later, Levi’s voice eventually managed, “Just friends now.”
Damien was quiet for a moment.
“He can explain,” Levi told him before handing the phone to a shaking Barry and saying, in as firm and loud a warning as he could, “Concisely!”
Barry cleared his throat and Levi heard him struggle to be concise. “Uh—Yes. Hello! I’m speaking with Damien Lanchester? Yes? Hello, I’m Officer—I mean, Barry. I’m Barry here. I just want you to know that no, I am not sleeping with your boyfriend. Just wanted to make sure he got home safely. . .I wasn’t there to witness it, but it seems Levi here projectile vomited all over the front of his store. Ruined some displays and then passed out. One of his coworkers, Judy—I don’t know if you’ve met her—she phoned and asked if I was working the Boulevard detail. Meaning Hollywood Boulevard. I pick up some overtime shifts now and then and—”
“Fucking Barry. . .” Levi moaned.
“Well—he needed to get home. He was in no shape to drive. Yes, he’s pretty bad. Very tired. I made him eat a little something and he took his medicine. Yes, those medications. He’s still perspiring pretty badly but he doesn’t seem to have a temperature. So I’m just going to stay here for a bit and make sure he’s okay. He’s on the couch, sleeping.”
“Give me the phone—” Levi whispered with shut eyes.
“Oh—he’s not sleeping. He wants to talk to you. Oh. Okay. Very nice talking to you, Mister Lanchester.”
“I’m sorry,” Levi said slowly, in his half-voice. “I just didn’t want you to think I was hiding. . .something. And then. . .one day. . .you find out he was here. . .and you think. . .’What was a guy. . .who Levi used to sleep with. . .why was he there?’ So—”
“Sssh,” Damien said into the phone, softly, adoringly. “You and your neuroses. Listen. Listen, baby. Do you want me to come home? My mom has reached her fill with Track and me, anyway so—knowing you—you’d probably feel selfish for saying, ‘yes’ but, really. If you want me to come back, I’ll pack my stuff up right this minute and get on the road.”
Yes. Yes, Levi wanted him to come home. To come to Levi’s apartment and hug away this horrible feeling that seemed to be dragging him into some abyss where his heart kept racing in odd beats and his blood was like fuel and yet his mind seemed so, so sluggish. But even in that mental muddiness, he knew. . .one day, Damien would wish he had that extra few days with his mother. One day, his mother would die and he’d wish: “Just a few more days.”
“No. No. Don’t do that. . .”, Levi told Damien. “Really. . . I probably just have the flu. I just. . .think I need to sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Uh-huh. I’ll be fine. In the morning.”
“Will you call me in the morning? Let me know you’re okay?”
“If you feel worse, Levi Hastings, I want you to get to the hospital.”
He wanted to say, “I can’t feel worse. Barry’s telling me a story about his mother eating an ass bullet.” But not wanting to hurt Barry’s feelings –he seemed so happy when recounting his fascinating story, “My Family is Composed of Idiots”–he meekly mumbled, “I will. I’ll be okay.”
“Okay. Sleep well, baby.”
“Can you. . . say that again?”
“Sleep well. Baby.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
“I’ll call in the morning.”
Damien kissed him over the line. “Morning can’t get here soon enough.”
“You make me swoon. . .”
A few moments later, after the phone call ended, Levi’s eyes shut as Barry watched over him.
Not knowing if Levi was asleep or just resting his eyes, Barry continued recounting the tale of his mother, her gout, her pills, and how she inhaled suppositories.