It was late when we started drinking.
And hours since our host had abandoned us in his kitchen with a blithe “Help yourselves” before trundling out to the still waters of the River Lumaville and the boathouse astride its banks. The carelessness of the nouveau riche, I thought. His guests comprised the press club after all ? he might as well have asked us to drain the wine cellar.
Marlowe, who had been inconsolable, had gone bitter as vinegar.
“You should be nicer to your old friends, Marlowe,” I soothed. She had gotten a little minxish since the hair dye, a fix that brought her back from the brink of albinoism, but revved up her bite. “We’re the only ones who will remember how beautiful you were, once you’re old.”
“I’m never going to get old,” she said, then rose to fetch another bottle. Marlowe was the only ad salesperson we permitted to jump the editorial wall into the press club and it was her presence, I presumed, that enticed Han to invite us back to his place after the service.
Marlowe plunked the bottle down on the fine wood of tabletop we surrounded, coaster be damned. Earlier, a candle puddled wax across the swanky grain, which raised nary an eyebrow from Han as its flame reflected of the various stainless steel implements of the kitchen.
Marlowe chortled: “Insert fountain of youth joke here” as she read the bottle’s label.
Sawyer Red. An in joke with vintners and embalmers alike. I said to Marlowe: “This will kill us.”
“By drowning,” she smiled back and tried to cork the bottle. Failing, she let out a bit of anguished scream, forgivable under the circumstances. Blake’s ham fists finished the job for her. She topped off our glasses dangerously close to their rims, then toasted: “To absent friends.” She meant Rigby.
Poor dead Rigs.
A gang of wordsmiths at his funeral and no one could muster a word to say. I had thought a round of applause would befit a departed theater critic, but decided the gesture was too glib. Even great Blake had been stricken with a sudden dumbness, his broad shoulders helplessly heaving in the rain. That’s what did me in: great Blake stooped and shuddering as his raincoat met the mud and old editor Hedgebrow, there, petting his neck like a dog’s. Hard as oak Blake, broken. The cuffs of his sleeves clenched in his hands as he brought them to his eyes. And Marlowe, as still as porcelain. An editorial assistant I had never spoken to held my hand. But I felt nothing, like a man swaddled in gauze, until I saw Blake. It was a dull pull at the stomach, like something trying to get out and in at the same time. A familiar shadow returned to Lumaville and I had refused to recognize it until then. How the mind wanders, to the last time, the first time, the next time.
Blake’s red-rimmed eyes were again upon his wingtips and when he drank it seemed as if he were trying to peer through his wine to focal point far beyond. Rigby in a hole, in the ground. I was only beginning to realize how miniscule his little plot was compared to the widening aperture engulfing the press club. We were gutted fish.
“I suppose I’ll be next,” Marlowe finally offered. She was only half-laughing as she wiped the mascara from her cheeks with the bottom of her fists.
“You’re too old to die young,” said Blake. He burrowed a hand in his slick hair and attempted a brotherly smile.
“Well, there’s still time,” Marlowe said, perking, “I hope.”
“Am I invited? What should I bring?”
“Rope,” I said.
“For this pretty neck? All the cocks in Lumaville didn’t choke her, what makes you think rope would?” Blake laughed, tremulous titters at first until Marlowe swiped at him, missed and knocked over a glass, which led him and everyone else to near convulsions.
I may have been the only to realize that the glass was a spare set for no one.
Dickley our intern, who was sent to study the Lumaville Daily Echo’s newsroom as part of his spy school’s disinformation studies, tugged Blake’s coat: “You never answered me. Is it Blake Drake or Drake Blake?”
“Say it backwards to a mirror, three times,” Blake said dismissively. “With the lights off.”
“Like him, it goes both ways,” I said.
“Fuck off, gaydalus,” Blake spat.
The old machine had sputtered back to life. Even if it was on empty.
Dickley persisted: “I’ve just seen your byline printed both ways and I’m curious. What does it mean?”
“Okay, kid, you can stop trying to distract me with your small talk, ” Blake retorted. “Kind of you, but save it for your copy.”
“Blake!” Marlowe admonished. “He was just asking.”
“Fine. The name signifies nothing. Like on a tombstone, merely a description of contents. If that.”
“But your byline ?” Dickley began again.
“It’s the same thing, kid,” Blake continued. “Tombstones.”
Marlowe folded her lower lip under her perfect orthodontics. Like Salome to John the Baptist, her mouth was “a pomegranate cut by an ivory knife.” Fair game, I thought, seeing as my date had wandered off somewhere in the sprawl of our host’s manse. Blake caught me eyeing her over and again turned toward the window, shaking his head. After a moment, he turned back around and poured Dickley another glass, a peace offering.
“Forgive me, Dickle ?”
“Dickley,” Blake corrected. “The byline, see, it’s not how I want to be remembered, but how I want to be forgotten. I want to be a mystery, a footnote. One or two appearances in the index of some obscure text. I want death to enfold me in its erasure. Then we could all just move on.”
“Why bother with a byline at all?” asked Dickley.
“That’s a fine question, Dickle. Howell?”
“It tells you who to blame,” I answered. Blake shrugged, a tacit endorsement. He was getting at
something wholly deeper and darker, surely, but was fine to let it fade. The room went quiet for a nervous moment. Blake again looked out the window. A flickering light was coming from the boathouse.
Dickley eyed the daunting globe of wine before him. Then said, mostly to himself, “Some legacy.”
“I’m not concerned with legacy. I’m not the type that dies,” I said, trying to leaven the room.
“We’re all the type that dies,” said Dickley. Blake nodded and clinked his glass against the kid’s.
“While you were embedded, you never thought about getting shot?”
“I was in a Bedouin tent somewhere on the outskirts of a filing error. Shot?” I said. Then conceded, “Okay, maybe in the arm.”
“Nobly winged,” Blake added.
“I’m not heroic,” I said.
“You’d’ve taken a bullet, Howell. Right in the Bible.”
Marlowe reached over Dickley to thump my chest, which resulted in a good clang of a note, knuckle to tin ? my flask.
“The dead aren’t heroic either, Howell. If any of them believed that, then they’re patsies,” trumpeted Blake, who turned to Dickley with his arms outstretched and said, “Patsy is Aramaic for martyr.”
Dickley took a healthy swig, playing catch up. Marlowe immediately refilled his glass.
A dark gleam came to Blake’s eye. With a child’s resolve, he asked “Do you want to see the dead?”
“No,” Marlowe said, jagged and quick. She squeezed herself between Dickley’s lap and the table, a strangely pliant woman.
“How?” Dickley challenged.
“To see the dead, you must drink at dawn. I read it in a book.” Blake explained.
“I can drink ’til dawn,” said Dickley.
“That won?t do. You have to wake up at dawn and start drinking. The dead want nothing to do with the weary,? Blake explained.
“And it’s absolutely necessary to drink?”
“Spirits are particularly interested in wine. Fine wine. That’s why they’re always paired together.”
“I’m game,” I said.
Dickley nearly raised his hand, but Marlowe put his finger in her mouth. After a beat, Blake announced, “It’s you and me Howell. Drinks at dawn.”
His words ricocheted off the exposed beams of the kitchen ceiling, rang off the copper pots and brushed steel skillets strung along the walls, and finally diffused their tiny echo like the whisper of smoke from a match extinguished.
Blake and I reached for the bottle at the same time. His hand trembled.