In westerns, the women stand on the porch watching the men ride off to fight Indians or rustlers. That was how the women watched us on Pete’s last night, except with no Indians or rustlers. Mary Ann, Diane, and Jackie looked on from the green front porch of our house in Seattle as Pete and I, for the last time, loaded up his red, dented, faded, twelve-year-old BMW with the necessaries—his guitar; my chess set. As usual, Pete took the wheel and I rode shotgun. The big Dutchman waved grandly at the ladies from our pool of light under the streetlamp. “See you at sunup,” he said.
“You guys are idiots,” said Diane.
Pete’s craggy face smiled winningly under his sun-bleached blond curls, as if this were a compliment. He turned the ignition. Nothing happened. The BMW was in terrible condition. “C’mon, Scotty, save my ass,” he said, trying again. He had named his car after the chief engineer on Star Trek. The warp engines pounded to life and we sputtered off into the night.
We had no idea where we were going; we never did. The essence of an adventure was unpredictability. The only rule was not to fall asleep until daylight. Pete and I had had several such adventures since we and the women, all idealists in our twenties, started sharing the green house in Seattle as volunteers in a Catholic social service organization, the Calvary Volunteer Corps. We housemates had never met when we moved in together in August 1982. Now, almost a year later, we were all good friends, especially Pete and me. But tonight was our last adventure. Tomorrow Pete was driving Scotty cross country to Nebraska to start medical school.
“I’m thinking we should steal a boat,” I said as the dark streets of Capitol Hill whipped past us in the mild July night.
“That’s good,” said Pete. “And somewhere in there I want to capture a wild animal.”
“Something wild. Like a yak.”
“I believe most yaks are domesticated. But I see your drift.”
Pete reached in the back and rummaged. He pawed his way around the giant stuffed frog and the pack of balloons, and came on a round container of surf wax. “Good,” he said. “I thought I’d lost this.”
“You expect to do much surfing in Nebraska?”
“You never know.” Pete had surfed a lot back in his hometown of Redondo Beach, California. “I’d like to die on a surfboard.”
“That can be arranged.” I liked the way I said it, kind of like in a hard-boiled detective story.
He cocked his head philosophically, as he sometimes did. “Joe, what do you think happens when we die?”
As a Catholic, I had an idea that upon death your soul went to heaven if you were good and hell if you were bad. But I wasn’t sure. “I’m hoping I never find out,” I said.
“Don’t you sort of have to die some time?”
“People tell me that. But I’m skeptical. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
A black-haired Ecuadorian kid from Queens with a scraggly beard, I was shorter and slighter than Pete, but whenever I said things like this he looked at me with amazement, as if I towered over him. “I’m gonna miss you, little buddy,” he said.
I felt the same way, but it was not in character for me to say so. “Now, don’t get all sentimental on me,” I said. “We have to capture a yak.”
We drove along the coast of Elliot Bay, figuring that was the best place to find a boat to steal, but didn’t see one small and light enough. This was not unusual. Our adventures were meandering, non-linear, with plans usually crumbling in favor of the unexpected. Pete shifted gears mysteriously. I’d never driven a stick shift like that of Scotty, so the driving on our adventures was all up to Pete. Downtown I spotted an open bar, the kind with a peeling door and a half-lit Bud sign no one bothered to fix. “Dive alert,” I said.
Reeking of whiskey and nicotine, the joint had only two customers, a little guy in horn-rimmed glasses and a big guy with a mustache, both extremely drunk. They both wore suits, like they were traveling salesmen, but even so they looked more rumpled than Pete and me in our T-shirts and jeans. We sat on the other end of the bar from them and drank Rainier Beer. In the dim light, it was hard to know when the mayhem started. We only noticed it when the little guy crashed all the way down the length of the barstools, knocking the last one against me. His horn-rimmed glasses tumbled to the floor. Leaving them, he charged the big mustached guy with a powerful right cross that would have been even more effective had it not connected with the dartboard behind the guy instead of the guy. Darts flew around aimlessly. The big guy knocked him back with a left hook, and the little guy countered, and they grappled drunkenly.
“Oh, great,” said Pete. “Another fight I have to break up.”
“It’s actually not your problem,” I said. As a pacifist, I was opposed to fighting, and as a coward, I was opposed to getting hurt. But Pete had a more interventionist view of violence.
The bartender walked out from behind the bar and tried to stop the fight, which got him a tap on the chin from the little guy. Aroused, the bartender joined with the mustached guy in beating up the little one.
Tall and muscular, Pete spread out his big arms and separated the team of assailants from the little drunk, whose eyes were swollen shut but who still swung blindly at the air. The mustached guy and the bartender struggled and swore at Pete to let them go.
“Now, you crazy kids,” said Pete. “This isn’t gonna solve anything. All that’s gonna happen is the police are gonna come and you’ll all end up in jail. Do you want that?”
The fighters debated this question. “To my mind, it’s self-defense!” yelled the bartender. Eventually they agreed that the little drunk should get his sorry ass out of the bar if he wanted to stay alive. The little drunk complied. To establish some claim that I, too, had been in the fight, I handed the little drunk his horn-rimmed glasses as he left.
Pete was generally more heroic than I, which made me a little jealous, but since he didn’t make a big deal of it I didn’t either. Mainly, I thought wistfully, this was the last fight I’d see him break up. The idea saddened me, reminding me that everything that happened tonight would be the last time it happened. We drove around randomly, through the dark streets of Queen Anne and Eastlake and Fremont, until Pete spotted railroad tracks he’d never noticed before. “I wonder what time the train comes through,” he said. He got out and padded along the tracks, as if following a scent, then lay down with his ear to the ground, listening.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Shh,” said Pete. “I’m listening for a train. They say if you put your ear to the tracks, you can hear a train coming from miles away.”
The burning bright headlight of a train appeared, coming around the curve. “Pete,” I said.
“Cool it, I’m listening for a train,” said Pete.
“You idiot, it’s here!”
A horn blasted. I yanked Pete away. The train rumbled past us, almost invisible in the blackness. The surge of adrenaline made us laugh. “You saved my life,” said Pete.
“Terrific, now I’m responsible for you.”
Pete’s eyes lit up. “Look! A park!”
He bounded to a park down the street. The park had swings, seesaws, a jungle gym, and little concrete tables imprinted with chessboard patterns. “You know what this means?” asked Pete.
“I know. Best two out of three.”
I got my chess set from Scotty. We set up the pieces on the chessboard table under the streetlamp and started playing giveaway chess. The object was simple: sacrifice all your pieces to your opponent, who was required to take any piece he could. It was much faster than real chess and had an appealing Zen quality, in that whoever lost the most, won.
“Mother!” screamed a man by the seesaws. “I’m sorry! Mother!”
A plus and minus of adventures was the crazy people. Most sane people were in bed by this hour—about one in the morning—but the crazies stayed out all night. They were sometimes entertaining, but they could also be a pain. In this case, I would just as soon have continued our game and ignored the man, but Pete cared more about others than I did, so he got up to see if he could help. Before Pete could reach him the man pitched forward and smashed into the concrete, taking the full impact of the fall on his forehead.
“Jesus!” yelled Pete. He dashed forward and helped the man up, who now had a red gash on his forehead, streaming blood. I tried to help but just got blood on my hands, the taste of iron in my mouth.
“Mother,” the man kept screaming. “Forgive me!”
“I’m sure she forgives you, buddy,” said Pete. “But we have to get you to a doctor.”
Nearby we saw the ugly orange monolith of Cascade Health, a healthcare cooperative with an emergency entrance. Johnny, as the crazy man was called, looked terrified at the prospect of doctors getting inside his brain. “They take your brain and put in ferrets.”
“They’re not gonna put ferrets in your brain,” said Pete. “Just some stitches on the outside.”
From behind the locked emergency entrance, a tired nurse explained that since Johnny was not a member of Cascade Health, he could not take advantage of their health services.
“That’s social injustice!” said Pete.
“Maybe,” said the nurse. “But it’s our policy.”
Argument proved futile. Through a crack in the door, the nurse extended some gauze pads for Johnny’s cut, and that was all. Practicing for his forthcoming medical career, Pete attempted to apply the gauze to Johnny’s face, but the insane man screamed, “Keep the fuck away! Mother!” and ran off into the night.
I used some of the gauze to dab sweat from my own forehead. “I guess we can get back to our game now.”
We finished our giveaway chess games—Pete won two, by losing both. I closed up the chessboard, marking in my mind another last for us. The pang of loss stabbed me more sharply now, but I kept quiet as before. We resumed our cruise up and down Seattle’s hills, from Greenlake to the U District to Madison Park, periodically catching sight of the Space Needle or the floating bridge glowing against the darkness.
“Wild animal at two o’clock, Pete,” I said.
Pete swerved to a stop. On a lawn, in dim light, stood a raccoon. “It’s no yak,” he said. “But it’ll do.”
Like me, Pete was a pacifist, so he didn’t intend to grab the animal violently. He was just hoping it would voluntarily join us. We crept close to the raccoon, studying its little hands, the black mask around its eyes, its ringed tail. Pete made eye contact with the creature, and for a moment an understanding seemed to pass between them. Then it turned and darted into the bushes.
“Well, we tried,” said Pete.
We drove on along the coast of Lake Washington, with scattered lights from Bellevue glittering on the distant opposite shore. About four I spied a rowboat loosely tied to a pier. “Boat!” I yelled. “That’s our boat!”
“Beautiful,” said Pete. He parked and walked onto the pier, with me a step behind him. “This is the best adventure yet. It must be some kind of harmonic convergence.”
“Yeah, plus I said a rosary before we started.”
He cocked his head philosophically. “Did you really?”
I laughed to indicate that I hadn’t. Pete was a New Age guy, I was a traditional Catholic, and I liked to mess with his Weltanschauung.
We stepped into the boat, rocking, and untied it. Pete took one oar, I took the other, and we started rowing. Because he was brawnier, he got us out pretty fast, and I had to exert myself to keep up. “Starboard!” I shouted.
“I don’t know what starboard means,” said Pete.
“Neither do I. Avast ye, matey!”
We rowed into the middle of the lake, which was as black as if it contained no matter. Stars shone behind racing clouds. The smells of fresh water and damp wood filled my nostrils. It was the most peaceful moment of the adventure. Until I looked around and saw the barge.
“Look out, Pete,” I said.
“Is this another ‘Avast ye?'”
“No—behind us—we’re rowing into a fucking ship!”
Pete finally saw the huge black mass approaching us. We turned hard about, but momentum was still carrying us toward the behemoth. We rowed for our lives and barely avoided the barge, which swept on to points north, leaving turbulence and spray in its wake.
The boat swayed under us wildly. Pete laughed. “Oh, that was great!” he shouted. “Adventure lives!”
I laughed too. A lot of the fun of our adventures was flirting with and dodging death. “I told you we’ll never die.”
The predawn sky was getting light in the east. By the time we tied the boat back up it was about five, with sunrise only a half-hour away. The imminent end of the night worsened the pangs of loss I’d been feeling all night, but also sweetened them, the way nostalgia is always sweet. “What do you want to do now?” I asked.
“I could do with some breakfast.”
Denny’s was one of the few restaurants that were reliably open at this hour. Pete drove in that direction, which led us past a building I knew, Nelson House, a red-brick structure with subsidized apartments for old people. I knew it because I ran a food bank in Fremont, and one of my food bank volunteers, Sol, lived in Nelson House. So I spotted him immediately now, out on the street like a ghost, trying to wave us down.
“What the hell?” I said. “Sol? Slow down, Pete, that’s Sol.”
We pulled up in front of the old man. The streetlight was out and we could barely see him, but it was definitely him—the thick belly, the short-sleeved striped shirt, the unsteady gait. He had a big hooked nose, bigger even than mine, with glasses welded to the top of it. His face was wrinkled with seventy-eight years of wear, his head bald except for wisps of white hair above his ears.
“Sol, what are you doing out at this hour?” I shouted, raising my voice because I knew he was almost deaf.
“Oh, hi, Joe, I didn’t know it was you,” he said. “Don’t mean to trouble you. You doing okay?”
I waved between Pete and Sol. The two had met a couple of times at Calvary Volunteer Corps functions. “Pete, you remember Sol. Sol, Pete.”
“Hi, Sol,” said Pete.
“Huh, what’d you say?”
I told Pete to speak up. Pete shouted, “Hi, Sol!”
“All right, you don’t have to yell!” barked Sol. “What kind of a maniac are you?”
Sol liked to insult Pete, something he never did with me, I suppose because he regarded me as his boss. I asked again why Sol was in the middle of the street at five in the morning. Sol shook his head. “It’s my neighbor Mick. He’s very sick. I called an ambulance an hour ago, but they haven’t shown up. I was trying to get help.”
“Well, we can help,” I said. “Can we see him?”
Sol led us to Mick’s apartment, a tiny studio on the fifth floor with a bed, a kitchenette, and an unoccupied wheelchair. The place was sweltering and stank of shit and piss. In the bed was the sickest man I’d ever seen. Wearing nothing but a plastic diaper, he was long and scrawny, breathing hard, his joints and ribs poking through his yellow skin. In the weak light from a bedside table lamp, the only source of illumination in the room, his face was ancient, his white hair wispier than Sol’s. His glassy eyes stared at the dark ceiling, seeing nothing.
The toilet smell made it hard to stay in the room. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Sol. “He’s been like this for hours.”
Pete looked alarmed. “We have to do something. We have to get him to a doctor.”
I remembered that Pete had had the same solution for the guy screaming “Mother,” and that had not worked so well. This man’s condition was much more dire, making all our usual adventures seem like child’s play. “Sol, you said you called an ambulance?” I asked.
“An hour ago.”
“We’ll, let’s call them back,” said Pete.
“Are you some kind of lunatic?” Sol screamed at him. “If they didn’t come the first time, why should they come the second time?”
“Okay, let’s take him to the hospital ourselves.”
“Oh, that’s beautiful. You gonna move a man this sick? His arms will snap like twigs if you touch him. What are you, the Marquis de Sade?”
Pete looked flustered. When we met denizens of the night who needed help, he was usually the leader, but he was out of ideas. “What do you suggest, Sol?” I asked.
Sol scratched his head. “If only the radio were playing. Mick loves music, but his radio is broken. We could at least play some music for him while we wait for the ambulance.”
Pete perked up. “I’ve got a guitar.”
I sent him downstairs to get his guitar, and was strangely glad to be rid of him for a moment. What we had wandered into was much more serious than I thought Pete could appreciate. My nostalgic pangs of loss, with their note of sweetness, had stopped, replaced by something much grimmer, with nothing sweet about it.
I sat in a metal folding chair by Mick’s side and touched his mottled hand, which was curled into a fist. He uncurled it just enough to take my hand, our fingers roughly intertwining. He turned his head to look at me, and the faintest flicker of recognition passed through his glassy blue eyes. I felt inexplicably warm toward him, as if looking into the eyes of my father. “I’m Joe, Mick,” I told him. “I’m here.”
He said nothing. Even though the room was painfully hot, his hand was ice cold. His other hand was cold too, as were his feet, so cold they were blue. But his arms and legs were warm. His face was searingly hot as it turned to stare back up at the ceiling, his cracked lips gulping air. His chest was hot, breathing in and out insistently.
Pete came back with the guitar and sat in the shadows in the back strumming it, playing soft melodies from the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Something about Mick made Pete keep his distance—maybe the stink, maybe the horrible oldness. Mick’s face was lined and cadaverous, with a deep scar where it looked like part of his cheek had been removed, maybe to treat skin cancer. He looked a hundred years old, or older. I kept holding Mick’s hand. “It’s okay, Mick,” I said. “Your friends are here. Help is coming.”
Sol smacked Pete in the arm, causing a bad chord. “What is that shit? Don’t you know any country western songs? He likes country western.”
Pete rummaged in his brain. “I know ‘Red River Valley.'”
“All right then, you’re good for something, play that.”
Pete played “Red River Valley,” singing softly about the cowboy that’s loved you so true. “Does he have a family?” I asked Sol.
“They’re all dead. Wife dead, daughter dead. He had eleven brothers and sisters, they’re all dead. He’s been alone for years. A cripple, never leaves this room. Shits in his diapers, has to change them himself. But I’ve never seen him like this. Oh God, where is that ambulance?”
“You’ll be okay,” I told Mick. “Help is on the way.” I patted his arm, which, shockingly, was now as cold and blue as his hand. It had been warm before; now it was like ice. I tried his other arm and his legs—cold. Only his chest and head were still warm. His body was shutting down, I realized. His extremities first; his vital organs next.
“He’s dying,” I told Sol. “He’s dying.”
“It’s because of that ambulance. The services in this city are for the birds.”
“What number did you call?”
“You know, the ambulance number. 9-1-0.”
Pete stopped playing. “It’s not 9-1-0,” I shouted. “It’s 9-1-1.” I grabbed the phone and dialed 911. “There’s a man dying at Nelson House,” I said. I gave the address and went back to Mick’s side. “They’re on their way,” I told Mick.
“What, did I get the number wrong?” asked Sol. ‘They make it so confusing.”
I ignored him. What mattered now was the race between the cold spreading in Mick’s body and the ambulance rushing through the streets. I was twenty-two years old, a boy who knew practically nothing he hadn’t read in a book, but I knew with the solemnity of old age that the cold would win the race.
“Listen to me,” I told Mick, gripping his frosty hand. “I’m not going to leave you. I’m your friend. I’m staying with you, Mick. Do what you have to do, go where you have to go, it’s okay. I’ll be here with you.”
He turned his head to me again, and again a flicker shot through his eyes as if he understood me. It might have been a trick of the light, like the phantom understanding that had passed between Pete and the raccoon. But I took the chance that it was real and told him again, “I’ll be here.” Pete resumed playing “Red River Valley.” Outside a siren arrived, whining into life as if from a great distance. I reached across him for a cover to warm him up when his shoulder snapped upward like a punch at my face. He groaned once, then was still. The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest had stopped. I had never before seen a man die, but I understood with a knowledge from deep in prehistory that this man was dead. Whatever Mick had been was no longer in the room. If Mick was anywhere, he was somewhere else.
The paramedics burst in and tried to resuscitate Mick, but I could have told them it was no use. They sped him to the hospital through the empty streets just after sunrise, with Pete, Sol, and me following in Pete’s car. What’s the rush? I thought. Crazy kids are always rushing. We sat in the waiting room, Sol grieving, Pete unsettled, and I surprisingly calm. I felt no loss, not even the nostalgic loss I had felt all night. Instead I felt a kind of peace, even wonder, as at having seen something much bigger than I had set out to see. After more efforts at revival, the doctor came and told us what I already knew: Mick was dead. He had died of sepsis, it turned out, an immune response to infection that is deadlier than the infection.
We took Sol to breakfast at Denny’s, where we enjoyed three Grand Slams, complete with eggs, pancakes, sausages, bacon, and coffee. Pete stared at me with that amazed look that suggested I had somehow outsized him. We consoled Sol over the loss of his friend, dropped him home, then drove back to our green house in Capitol Hill. By then it was nearly eight in the morning and I was exhausted, eyelids heavy, my mind a fog, so I didn’t have time before falling asleep in my clothes to think about what had happened.
The women woke me up late in the day to tell me that Pete was getting ready to leave for Nebraska. I washed my face, combed my black hair, and walked out squinting onto the green porch, the sun low and brilliant through the trees. All three women stood around Pete’s dented BMW, which was now packed full of the suitcases he’d brought with him from California. Mary Ann cried, Diane’s eyes were moist, and even Jackie, the least emotional of the three, looked glum. “My heart is breaking, Pete,” said Mary Ann. “Can’t you stay a little longer?”
Pete hugged her. “I’ll write.”
“You better,” said Diane.
He hugged her and then Jackie. I walked down the porch steps toward him. He and I had the closest friendship; we were losing the most. But after seeing Mick last night, it didn’t seem to me we were losing as much as I had thought. Anyway, we were men, so we didn’t cry. It was enough of a concession to the 1980s that we hugged. Men never hugged in westerns.
“We had a good adventure last night,” said Pete.
“One for the books,” I said. “Our first death.”
The women looked at each other nervously. They hadn’t heard the story. I assured them I would tell them later.
“What do you think now, Joe?” asked Pete. “Will we die someday?”
“Yeah,” I growled in my best hard-boiled dick voice. “But I still haven’t heard when.”
Pete got into the car and pushed aside the giant stuffed frog he had moved to the front to ride shotgun. He put Scotty in gear and started on his sixteen-hundred-mile drive. I watched the red BMW sputter and dwindle on the street while the women wept, and I understood why they wept, even if they didn’t yet. For a year we had lived together and become fast friends, but friendship was nothing compared to death. Friendship was like that little drunk swinging at the big drunk and getting his eyes swollen shut for his efforts. Death might come tonight or many years from now, but one day it would separate us all for good. What they were crying for was the future.
Pete turned the corner and the women went inside, but I sat on the porch a long time, until the sky got dark again and the air on my skin turned cool. Pete was driving far away tonight, but not as far as Mick had gone.
George Ochoa’s short stories have been published in Eunoia Review, North American Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, The Bangalore Review, and Spider. One of these, “Alicia Brings Home Her Shrink,” was a Top 25 Finalist in Glimmer Train’s March/April 2016 Fiction Open. His poetry has appeared in Chicago Literary Review and his essays in Mad in America and the Catholic Worker. He is the author or coauthor of 35 nonfiction books, including several books related to his Hispanic heritage. He received his BA from Columbia University and his MA in English from the University of Chicago. He is the director of communications at a Manhattan nonprofit.