2022 Barrett Winner
1st Place Joaquin Bear
He is mental illness.
I hear a shuffling and a loud fake cough behind me. I know who it is. He hasn’t spoken yet, but I know him. God help me, I can smell him. Funny how that scent used to make me swoon. Now, it just makes me sick.
I turn and see him. I had not expected to see him here, of all places, but I’m not delighted. I had told him to fuck off, the last time we spoke. Never mind the last three times.
“Oh hi.” I manage, keeping my voice flat and dry. “I sincerely hope I’m only in your way.” I grab my book and begin to leave. “Actually, yeah, but—” he begins but I’m already on my way to the check-out counter. I can feel myself starting to tremble. I just want to get out of here. I decide at the last moment to leave my book with the clerk and return later.
“Hey Chester? Can you hold this for me, please? I get paid tomorrow and this is the last one.” I rattle off my request. I can already hear the quaver in my voice. I’m desperate to get the fuck out of here.
“Sure thing, bud. See ya tomorrow.” Chester has a kind, unassuming face. He’s my age and we always have a nice exchange whenever I’m here. He’s asked for my number before, but I politely declined any further advances.
I make it to the door, and I can’t tell if he’s behind me. My heart is thumping loudly in my ears. Once outside I pause to catch my breath. I sit down on the pavement, drawing my knees up to my chest.
As my breathing levels out, I hear the flicking sound of a lighter behind me. I don’t dare look or move because I know he’s there. I take a few more breaths and finally say something.
“What do you want, Anthony?” My voice trembles.
“I saw you. I wanted to say hi.” He says, the smoke audibly expelled from his lungs.
“Why.” It’s less a question and more of a grunt. Why does he make me feel like this?
“Does there need to be a reason, dude?”
“Yes,” I begin to stand. I’m tired suddenly and I’m angry but I keep my voice low. “Because the last time we spoke, I made it very clear I did not want to hear from or see you again.”
I speak as I turn to face him. He’s leaning casually against the wall.
“It’s been so long, James. I was hoping it would be different this time.”
I puff out a long breath and close my eyes for what I’ll say next. “Tony, you’re a—” but I catch myself. I do not want to say anything hurtful or that could cause a scene. “You and I both know this won’t go well.” My eyes open to find him much closer and watching me intently. He’s not meeting my gaze. He’s focused on a point slightly lower. I had forgotten this was how he looked at me. I double down.
“Every time we drift apart and come back together it’s bound to end the same.” I pause. He says nothing. I draw my coat closer to my chest, feeling exposed. “I’m sorry, I wish I could afford you more goodwill, but I’m done, man.” I turn and begin to leave.
“Jimmy, please wait—” he’s at my side now. I refuse to face him. “I’ll admit it now. I’m sick. I let that ruin us. But listen; I got help. I’m seeing a therapist again. I’m committed this time.” My eyes are stinging, but I turn to face him.
I don’t say anything because that’s all I wanted, needed, to hear. I just pull him in for a hug. A tear rolls down my cheek as he pulls me with a similar force to him. He’s warm and I forget in this moment that I hate the smell of cigarettes. I whisper in his ear, “I wasn’t kidding when I said I hoped I was only in your way.”
He chuckles. It’s a warm sound.
I decided that I need to grill him. It’s the following evening and I’m sitting in my car, outside the bar we agreed to meet. I’m so keyed up. I slept like shit and I haven’t eaten much all day. The last twenty-four hours feel like a dream. After we parted ways, I went home and tried to relax. Food wasn’t appetizing. I tried to sleep, but my mind kept racing with questions that doubted everything Anthony said. None of last night made any sense! I was just standing in the bookstore, and he just happens to show up? He said he was just saying “hi” but how is that just a coincidence if he’s going to follow me out of the store and talk to me? He needs to have an endgame.
I step out of my car, close the door, and start heading in. I lock the door behind me as I take in the darkening sky. White-grey clouds are rolling in; that means snow might be falling tonight.
I chose this bar for two reasons. It’s familiar to me and I know the bar staff here; and they make amazing hamburgers. If I’m going to talk to this man tonight, I need a good meal and a drink. When I enter, I can already see he’s sat down already, nursing a vape pen with two beers in front of him. I steel myself and go and sit down.
“Hey!” The forced cheer in my voice makes him jump a bit. He looks up from his phone and smiles. I can’t tell if it’s fake or real because he still doesn’t meet my eyes. “You ordered for me already?”
“I hope you don’t mind.” He pauses to take a puff from his vape pen. “You still like cider, right?”
“Yeah…” I’m suspicious. He never cared like this before. Ordering ahead for me? I take the glass in my hand, and I inspect it. It’s still frosty but looks harmless. I sip it, savoring its bittersweet flavor.
“Thanks.” I exhale, “Look, Tony I—” He begins to interrupt, but I put my hand up to stop him. I take a large gulp from my cider and continue. “Please, let me finish. I’m going to eat something, maybe order another cider—great choice, by the way. In the meantime, we are not going to discuss a damn thing. I don’t even want to discuss the weather right now. I’m hungry, I slept like crap. I would like to eat first, please.”
He doesn’t speak for a second, and he doesn’t meet my gaze. After a pause, he simply nods.
“Great. After that, we can discuss whatever you want, but we are going to talk about us.” With that final word, I summon the barmaid who comes and takes our food order. Her name is Jennie and we’re friendly. I give her a glance and a wink when Anthony isn’t looking to give her the signal that I’m okay, and she leaves. We pretend to watch the sports game on TV. I don’t follow it. Our food comes and I am salivating. I take that first bite of food in nearly twenty-four hours and my taste buds ignite my other senses. The smell of grilled beef, the feel of cooling grease staining my hands, the taste of cheese and mushrooms. It all gets my blood circulating again in ways you only know from being hungry. I clear my plate and I’m wiping my hands clean. I’m silent while the ciders are replaced. I finally speak.
“I have lost count of how many times we fought that result in me leaving because of how low you take things.” He looks up, having not expected that.
“I know.” He nods, swallowing his last French fry. “I’ve done that. That’s what I want to make up for.”
“You say you’re doing better?” My voice is steady.
“Yeah, man—I told you that.” He says that with a quickness. He sounds impatient.
“Why were you at the bookstore?” I asked, nonchalantly.
“I was looking for a book.” There’s an upward inflection at the end of “book.”
“Then what did you get?” I know I sound paranoid but I try to force my voice to sound casual.
“Oh, y’know, it was—” he tells me the title. It’s a book I know he already has.
“Oh!” I exclaim, feigning interest. I know he’s full of shit. “Was that the new edition that just got printed?”
“Yeah, man,” he’s smiling again but something seems off. He’s still not looking directly at me.
Maybe it’s the cider but I’m feeling gutsy, and the next words out of my mouth are out before I can stop myself. “There wasn’t a new edition, Tony. And I gave you that book ten years ago. Cut the shit. Why were you in the bookstore?”
He freezes, his cheeks turning an actual shade of red. That’s new. I never caught him off guard like this.
“I was hoping you’d be there, James,” he admits, looking down into his glass. “Listen to me. I’m sorry for how I’ve treated you. I realize now I made a mistake.”
He trails off and I wave my hands to get him to continue. I’ve heard this from him before and I’m hoping there’s more to it this time.
“Those times we were together…while didn’t have an official title for it…those were the nicest times of my life. I felt calm laying in your arms. You were so warm, and caring and gentle. It was a mistake for me to push you away like I did. I shouldn’t have chosen Alma to be with. I’m so unhappy, dude. I already told you this, I know, but—”
He pauses to grab a sip of his beer. I can feel the anger rising in me. I’ve heard this before. I breathe and let him continue.
“I need you in my life, gozis.” He reaches for my hand. My blood goes cold.
“Don’t call me that.” I say, staying perfectly still. I don’t dare move a muscle, but I can feel my stomach doing a somersault at this sudden physical contact. I must tense up slightly because he recoils his hand as if he was burned.
A heat rises in my chest. A coincidence.
“So that’s why you came looking for me?” I ask, not waiting for his response. “We’ve been through this before, Anthony. You can’t just come looking for me when you’re bored with your girlfriend. You and I both know Alma’s at home, ignorant of this—whatever this is.” At Alma’s mention, he starts sputtering, trying to put on a face of indignation. He spits his next words at me.
“Yeah, y’know what? You’re right. I thought this would be easy. Put on the water works and Jimmy will put out. Usually I just needed to call you by your super-secret Indian name and you’d melt like butter.” He gets up and gets ready to leave. “But whatever. Shoulda known you’d go frigid on me.”
I stand up and follow him. I catch up before he reaches the door. I tug on his shoulder to spin him towards me and I throw a punch, aiming right at his head.
But I miss.
His fist connects with my nose, head-on. My head jerks back, but rather than falling back or the world going black, the world around me freezes. I don’t mean the crowd of people stop to look, though there are some folks whose eyes we caught in this embarrassing tussle, I mean time is standing still. Suddenly, I’m standing next to myself and I’m viewing the scene as I’m another bystander.
What the hell is this, I mutter.
“Ningozis” I hear a voice behind me. I can’t place how I know it but I know they called me “my son”.
I turn to face them and it’s a man. About my age, dressed in familiar clothes that look comfortable. They belong to a different time. Something in his face is familiar.
I ask, “What is this? Who are you?”
“I have much to tell you, son, but for now I’m here to help you.” His voice echoes in my head. He’s not speaking English but I understand him.
“Okay, nimishomis” I pause and he nods in approval. “I’m listening, grandfather.” It’s the only respectful word I know to use when addressing an older person who is about to teach you something. He appears young, but he carries himself with an ageless grace I have only seen in my elders.
“This one,” he points at Anthony, still frozen in time with an ugly expression of malice I’ve never witnessed in such detail, “he likes you, he never loved you. For what you could give him. I know you knew this but you were wrong to blame yourself for that. You never looked him in the eye because he never allowed it. He knows your power and it frightens him. He knows that without your unconditional love, he has no power over you. He wears you down until you accept him.”
I listen, trying to understand grandfather’s meaning.
“You have always had power. Even now, in this moment. Generations of compassion and intuition live on in you. You’ve always been able to see into a person’s eyes and know their truth. But your most valuable power has been the ability to walk away. To let go. Think of those settlers and their ancestors. Their most powerful civilizations have all crumbled to dust. People walk away, my son.”
I’m incorporeal but I can feel a surge of emotion at that last point.
“Remember this: you may walk away, you may let go, but we’ll always walk with you.”
“Who?” I say.
“All of us” he nods behind him and I see face that weren’t there before. Familiar faces. I understand now. “Just listen for the wind if you ever have doubt.”
“Migwech, nimishomis,” I say, “Thank you”.
In a heartbeat, the world begins spinning again and I’m stumbling backwards as if I never left my body, still reeling from the punch. It doesn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would. I check for blood and look back up to see Anthony turning away to avoid my eyes again. He makes for the door. He does not make it. I’m on him before his hand even touches the push-bar. I spin him again and pull him in a hard grip, so we’re face to face.
I know we’re attracting attention. I know it looks like we’re about to kiss but I don’t care. I force him to look me in the eyes, and I finally see him for what he is. Our eyes only lock for a split second but it’s all I need: I see him sitting alone as a boy, in his bedroom. A man is standing over him. I feel his terror. His longing for his mom. I see him making his girlfriend, Alma, cry, while a baby screams in the background. I feel his swelling sense of pride at this accomplishment. I see him looking at me. When we first met. When we first kissed. When we took each other’s virginity. The night we broke up. The night we made up. This cycle that repeated itself ad nauseum. I feel his confusion, his revulsion with himself, his fleeting pleasure at being with me and the cathartic release of seeing me walk away from him. I see him seeing me talking to Chester, the clerk at the bookstore, and I feel the jealous rage of an angry toddler. I see all of this in a flash, and it’s gone. I let him free from my grip. He knows what I saw. He’s looking at me with a look I have never seen on his face before. It is a mask of wide-eyed horror.
I just stare him down. He stumbles away, out the door, into the night.
I look around at everyone. I don’t need to say the cliché phrase. Everyone simply goes back about their business. The music resumes. I pay my tab and leave a good tip. The barmaid, Jennie, gives me a hug and bids me good night. I always liked it here because of her. I step out and I notice how cold it is for the first time in two days. Snow is barely beginning to fall, and the winds are picking up. I could almost swear they’re howling. Despite this, I feel warm and comforted. I get into my car and start the engine. I feel free for once.
I smile to myself as I drive home.