Keith Lee Morris’ short story “Ayudame” is a tale of friendship, failed dreams, and possibly a sliver of salvation. Morris has written two novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, as well as two collections of short stories. ”Ayudame” comes from his collection Call It What You Want, available from Tin House Books. The story originally appeared in Third Coast magazine. Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. (Read an interview with Keith Lee Morris on Numéro Cinq. )
By Keith Lee Morris
Douglas “Deeder” Mumphrey was wakened from a dream of the record shop in Haight-Ashbury by his ten-year-old daughter, Grace, who was, surprisingly enough, standing by the side of the bed dressed and ready for school. It was Deeder’s turn, not his wife’s, to get Grace ready for her car pool ride, that much seemed sure, based on the fact that Grace stood by his side of the bed, not Theresa’s, and based on her serious and rather tired expression, which said several things to Deeder, such as “Dad’s lazy,” and “Dad’s forgetful,” and “Dad had too many beers last night,” and “I had to make my own breakfast,” all of which were true, more or less, not to say that the various truths contained in the expression didn’t annoy the hell out of Deeder, because they did, because why the hell should a ten-year-old girl be right about so many things when he himself, Deeder, a forty-one-year-old man, was rarely right about anything.
Deeder glanced over at his wife, her hair in the band she wore to keep it out of her face while she slept, soft snores coming from her puffed-out lips, and he was reminded of the argument they’d had the night before and he wondered how she could sometimes look like such a peaceful, easygoing person, and then he whispered “Sorry” to Grace and dragged himself out of bed, still smelling somewhere in the back of his head the incense he burned in his record store, the one he never had, back there in the Summer of Love when he was just born.
In the kitchen he brewed a pot of coffee and ran through a couple of spelling words with Grace to see if she was ready for her test, which she semi-was, not for lack of effort, but Grace wasn’t much of a speller. Rapture, censure, preacher, adventure–three out of four. Her forte was personal grooming–he marveled now at the way she’d managed to pick out the blouse, the pants, the matching socks all by herself, the way she looked so neat, her straight blond hair brushed just so.
There was Mrs. Adkins, pulling into the drive. He waved out the window, hoping she couldn’t see he was in his boxers. He made Grace give him a kiss on the cheek. “You stink, Dad,” she said. He watched her set her pack carefully in the back of the Adkins’ Aerostar, watched her climb in, smoothing her pant legs under her to keep them from wrinkling. Monterey Pop, the family’s black Lab, was lying with his head on his paws over by the sofa, wagging his tail slightly. Deeder poured some more food in his bowl and watched him come over and eat.
The next order of business was to remember why he was still here at such a late hour, why he hadn’t set the alarm, why he wasn’t at work already, roofing the . . . what . . . the fourteenth house in the new development north of town. The month was October. Yesterday it had been unusually hot for eastern Washington, daytime high in the 70s. He’d worked shirtless all afternoon. His toe had hurt like shit in his boot, so he could barely walk by the end of the day–the ingrown toenail, that was it. He had a doctor’s appointment at 8:30, in forty-five minutes. Time for two cups of coffee, time to luxuriate a little. He could feel the toe throbbing, but it was worth it, no matter that his brother Marlin, the foreman, thought he was being a pussy. The motherfucker hurt. He deserved a couple extra hours of R&R today.
In the waiting room he got lost in the dream again, the vividness, the texture, it had felt very real this time. There was his record store, right there on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, in the same place he had dreamed it since he was a teenager. He was taking records out of a shipping box. Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company. He could feel the slick plastic wrap in his fingers. He didn’t know, actually, whether records had plastic wrap in 1967, but they did in 1976, when he’d started buying records. What was he left with by then? Boston. Styx. A rip-off. A shame. He’d missed it all. The incense, the patchouli–he could practically smell it. Owsley was dropping by the store to deliver a hit of acid, the Dead’s “Golden Road” was spinning on the turntable, he had hash pipes and rolling papers for sale, and there through the beaded doorway into the back room stood a girl with long brown hair swaying her hips suggestively while she studied the front cover of Surrealistic Pillow, and outside on the street thousands of flower children were tuning in and dropping out, and the Diggers were feeding the masses, and the sun shone down on the proceedings benevolently, a cloud or two passing in the marmalade sky. What a drag to wake up in 2008.
They called his name and he unglued himself from his seat and crossed the waiting room slightly hobbled, past the balding old lady thumbing through a copy of Self, past the chicken-poxed kid battling his Game Boy, the mother busy sending a text message, past the TV tuned to Fox News and the crashing stock market, and a dark mood descended on him so hard that it came out in a protracted groan, and he saw a receptionist glance up at him, probably wondering if he was a terminal patient.
Then he sat on an examining table in the doctor’s office reading the posters about high cholesterol and heart disease, prostate infections and STDs, healthy foods high in fiber, warning signs of Alzheimer’s, the facts about menopause, the link between diabetes and obesity, and he read five times the framed cross-stitch about how God might grant him the serenity to accept the things he could not change. Finally he settled for watching a beta darting up and down anxiously in what looked like an oversized pickling jar. The doctor was a fifty-ish man with a squat body and chubby pink hands, not the same doctor he remembered from the last time he’d been in after he slipped on wet shingles and fell off a roof and broke his arm.
This doctor got right to work, making Deeder take his boot off and lie down on the examining table before he’d even said hello. Yep, he told Deeder, that toe was infected all to hell, and he got out some instruments and asked Deeder if he wanted an injection for the pain, and added that most people didn’t need one. So of course Deeder didn’t either. But then he wished he would have, other people be damned. The pain was pretty considerable, if not downright excruciating, and although Deeder didn’t actually look he could feel blood and pus erupting from the toe while the doctor gouged down into the meat to reach the offending toenail, and to keep from shouting Deeder began doing a kind of doo doo doodle doo doo thing with the opening strains of “White Rabbit,” rather softly, rather under his breath, or so he thought until the doctor, pressing hard into the infected toe so that Deeder began to knead the padding on the sides of the table, said, “That’s a good one. One of the best.”
Did he mean the toe? Did he mean the song? “What?” Deeder asked.
“I saw the Jefferson Airplane play January 14th, 1967, at Golden Gate Park. They were terrific, I think. I don’t remember much.”
This announcement had a curious effect on Deeder. He was experiencing quite a bit of pain, and his arms were involuntarily reaching out now toward his foot, but the pain was getting confused with something else in his head, which was a date he had long since memorized, January 14, 1967, the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, Ginsberg and Leary and Grace Slick, everything right on the brim of the Summer of Love, simmering there in wait for the warmer days, when the world would burst open into the flowers and the sandals and the peasant skirts, and there was also the new work of recalibration going on, the redefining of this doctor, whom Deeder had taken to be a bit younger and a lot more stuffy, but who was now being transformed rapidly into a personal hero, and in the turmoil of this synaptic overload Deeder found himself saying, “Wait a second, wait a second, stop, for Christ’s sake!”
The doctor stopped. He sniffed. He squeezed Deeder’s toe with a piece of gauze. “Yes?” he asked.
The pain was gone instantly and Deeder took a deep breath. “Can we just . . . hold on for a second?” he said.
“Certainly. I realize that it’s painful. If you clip your toenails correctly, it won’t happen again.”
Deeder waved one hand back and forth, as if to dismiss the gruesome sight of his toenail and the subject of its proper care. “You were at the Human Be-In?” he asked. “You were, like, at the original Human Be-In?” He was looking at the same doctor, pudgy-faced, white-coated, bespectacled. Clearly this was an elaborate disguise.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “You’ve heard of it?”
Deeder shook his head in bewilderment. Had he heard of it? “I should have been there,” he said. “But I was just born.”
“Ah, yes,” the doctor said. “You’re one of those. I find that people of your generation either highly romanticize or unfairly vilify that particular time in our history. I’m not sure which is worse.”
Deeder stared at him, narrowing his eyes.
“Can we get back to your toe now?” the doctor asked. He turned an instrument around and around in his hand.
“Yeah, sure,” Deeder said, and the doctor went for the toe again, as if the toe were the most important thing going on here. “But wait, wait, wait . . .” Deeder said, waving his hand again.
The doctor sighed–almost, but not quite, inaudibly. “You want to hear about it,” he said.
“Yes,” Deeder said. “Yes.”
The doctor pushed up his sleeve and looked at his watch. “I’ve got time for the short version,” he said. “Not the long one.”
“OK,” Deeder said hopefully. “The short version, then.”
The doctor pushed back the folds of his coat and put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the sink. “I finished college at the University of Washington in the summer of 1966. I had been involved in the Civil Rights movement, but it had progressed far enough by then that we weren’t much help anymore. Down South they were going after blacks with fire hoses and attack dogs, much more provocative stuff than some white kids sitting around singing ‘Kumbaya.’ So things turned to Vietnam. Everybody was going down to California. I went. It was exhilarating at first. There was a camaraderie, a feeling that everyone was involved in some sort of profound change. You knew famous people. You hung out at their apartments. You did drugs. You met interesting women. Right around the time of the Be-In it was probably best–it felt revolutionary. The country was watching us. People were appalled or inspired, depending, but they paid attention either way. Then it got to be too much. People poured in. Some of them were serious, some of them weren’t. It turned into a zoo. Runaways, prostitutes, media types, tourists with cameras. The war was escalating, and I was afraid I’d get drafted, so I went back to Seattle to attend medical school. By the time I left, I was glad to get out. People were strung out and hungry and dirty and depressed. The predominant smell was urine.” The doctor leaned away from the sink and took his hands from his pockets, twirling the dastardly instrument again. “That’s it. End of story.”
Driving to the job site, Deeder was still in a bit of a whirl. He’d never actually met anyone who was in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. His wife’s aunt had been a hippie down in California then, but she was a loon. All of her stories were about the men she dated at the time, nothing interesting. The doctor had been there for the good stuff. His cynicism was a bit deflating, sure, but Deeder attributed it to the doctor’s current lifestyle–having sold out long ago, there was nothing left for him now but bitterness. Deeder had been tempted to invite him outside for a spliff, the makings of which he had in his glove box, but the mood hadn’t been right. He’d have to save the story and the spliff for Rudy, the Mexican he shared most of his time on the roof with.
And soon that was where he was, on the roof with Rudy in the warm sunshine, his toe free of pain. His brother Marlin was hanging around today to keep an eye on things, which meant he and Rudy couldn’t go on the back side of the roof away from the road and torch one up, plus there were the two Mexicans laying out frames for the sidewalk, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway. They’d have to wait until lunch, which, fortunately, due to his visit to the doctor’s office, was only a couple hours away. It was shaping up to be a good day–Marlin hadn’t even given him shit about his toe yet.
“So the doctor he was a hippie?” Rudy said. He was nailing down shingles methodically but quickly, like always, not looking up but listening with interest to what Deeder said. Rudy was the only one of the Mexicans Deeder could talk to. His English was good and he was friendly and he knew, surprisingly, a hell of a lot about the ‘60s and rock and roll.
“No,” Deeder said. “He was a guy who used to be a hippie but sold out to the man. That’s my point. That’s why he was so negative about everything.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Rudy said. “Maybe he just like things better nowadays.”
Deeder humphed at the suggestion. “Who could like things better nowadays? You’re the one who’s always talking about how fucked up everything is.” In addition to music, Rudy had a passion for politics. His principal concern, of course, was with immigration laws, but he could range on any given day–whether on the roof or at the local bar after work–from immigration to the economy to the Middle East conflicts to human-rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa. Deeder had picked up a lot of talking points, actually, from Rudy.
“Some things better, some things worse,” Rudy said. “Depends on your perspective.”
Deeder glanced around to see if Marlin was in the vicinity, and when it turned out that he wasn’t, Deeder shifted to his rear end, put his feet out in front of him, and lit up a smoke. An unscheduled break seemed to be in order. “What’s better?” he said. “Tell me.” Deeder looked out over the development, the trees cleared for acres and acres, the thirteen already constructed homes standing naked along the empty cul-de-sac. Deeder couldn’t believe they were actually still building the damn things. Was the developer crazy? Could anybody afford to buy one of these houses anymore? And why would anyone in his right mind buy one, anyway? What a way to live. The only thing within walking distance was the Super Walmart over there along the frontage road, and it was the only thing to look at, too, if you didn’t count the mountains in the distance, which after all never changed. Deeder thought dreamily of his record store.
“In the Summer of Love,” Rudy said, “would I be up here working on the roof with you, making the same amount of money?”
Rudy didn’t make the same amount of money as Deeder–after all, Deeder was, for better or worse, the foreman’s brother, and he was a citizen of the United States–but Marlin had warned him many times that Rudy didn’t need to know that.
“OK,” Deeder said. “Muy bien, amigo.” In addition to making Deeder more politically savvy, Rudy was trying to make him bilingual. Deeder knew most of his colors and his numbers up to twenty and the names for various work-related objects–casa meant house and tejado meant roof and martillo meant hammer and clavo meant nail. Music was musica. Rock and roll was just rock and roll. “You’ve got a point there, Rudy. But you cover it well with your hair.”
Rudy rubbed his head and smiled to show he understood the joke. This was Deeder’s contribution to Rudy’s education–an assortment of colloquial phrases. What am I–wood? Were you born in a barn? Deeder’s favorite moment in recent memory came when Marlin had tried to convince Rudy that it was OK to go without a curbing system on a custom skylight for a low-pitch roof–an obvious attempt to cut corners because they didn’t have the right materials on hand. Rudy scowled and rubbed his chin. “Marlin, you do not know shit from Shinola,” he said. He would have gotten fired if Deeder hadn’t convinced Marlin that Rudy didn’t understand it was an insult. That plus the fact that Rudy was the most reliable worker on the crew.
Rudy had finished a row of shingles butting up against a plumbing vent and Deeder passed him over a flange. “But you’re right,” Rudy said. “In the ‘60s, the government of America it sucked. But the people did important things. They made the government do things different in Vietnam and here in U.S. They should be proud. And there was excellent music–Dylan, Doors, Hendrix, Carlos Santana.” Rudy’s overestimation of Carlos Santana was a subject of constant debate. Rudy wanted to place him in the first order of the pantheon, while Deeder insisted he belonged in a second tier with, say, Canned Heat or Little Feat. At the moment Deeder decided to let it slide. “The thing to understand is that the grass is not always so green as you think.”
“I guess,” Deeder said. He snubbed his cigarette out and tossed it off the roof. “But I listen to that music and I think about the stuff that was going on and I imagine having my little record shop and I think, Jesus Christ, man, I missed the fucking boat.”
Rudy stood up and turned his face toward the sun for a moment. It felt good on the roof in the warm weather and Deeder just sat there, not ready yet to pick up the shingles and the roofing nails. “What about Theresa and Grace?” Rudy asked.
“Oh, I’m not saying that,” Deeder said. “Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t change a thing in the long run. I’m just saying I missed out. Man, I’d have been there dropping acid and wearing my tie-dyed shirt and getting teargassed by the cops, the whole fucking nine yards. I’d have been there for all of it, believe you me.” He felt a surge of anger. “That doctor was a dumbass. That doctor was full of shit. What a fucking ingrate.”
Rudy laughed. “You’re good fun to work with, Deeder,” he said. “Bit lazy, más o menos,” he said, wiggling his hand back and forth, “but good fun. Good man.”
“You too, asshole,” Deeder said.
Rudy laughed again and Deeder laughed too, and then Deeder saw what Rudy was looking at, a corner of the flange that was slightly turned up, something Deeder wouldn’t have bothered with but he knew Rudy would, and sure enough Rudy leaned down and took a step, but the toe of his boot caught somehow and as Rudy pitched forward Deeder extended his hand, as if the gesture could somehow perform a rescue. But there was the slap of Rudy’s elbow hitting the shingles and he somersaulted over on his right shoulder and skidded briefly at the edge of the roof, grabbing at it, and then he was gone.
“Holy shit,” Deeder said. He was surprised, most of all, at the moment, to find himself alone on the roof. Then he shouted, “Hey . . . hey!” But there was no need. The guys framing the walk had already started running, and Marlin had appeared from his truck parked out on the road, dropping a Styrofoam coffee cup in his haste and grabbing at the cell phone in his pocket to call 9-1-1, and Deeder hightailed it to the ladder and got down quick. When he reached the ground, his initial thought was that, based on what he had learned in conversation, this was the first time Rudy had fallen from a roof. Deeder had fallen twice. Rudy now trailed Deeder in roof falling by only one.
One thing Deeder knew from past experience was that all men who fall from roofs look more or less the same right after landing. It was difficult to predict the severity. He had once seen a man fall from a two-story roof, land on the roof of the garage, do a backflip over the edge, land on the packed dirt of what would soon be the driveway, and get up to his feet in less than a minute, acknowledging the crew’s applause, suffering nothing worse than a strained Achilles tendon. He had also seen a man who fell no more than eight feet while descending a ladder wind up with a broken back and a collapsed lung.
At first glance as he came around the corner of the house, Deeder’s impression was that Rudy was either dead or completely fine. There was no blood but no movement, either. He had missed the sidewalk framing and landed on the hard topsoil a few feet from a drainage pipe. The two other Mexicans on the crew stood to one side and Marlin stood to the other, already talking to the 9-1-1 dispatcher. Rudy did not appear to be speaking and it also appeared that, strangely enough, no one was speaking to Rudy. Marlin spoke into his cell phone and the Mexicans stood there quietly. Deeder waded into their midst, squatting next to Rudy, hovering over him, watching his chest rise and fall jerkily.
“Don’t move him!” Marlin ordered. He went back to talking to the dispatcher.
“I know not to move him, dumbshit,” Deeder said. Rudy’s eyes were open, staring straight up into the morning sunlight. “Rudy,” Deeder said. “Rudy, how you feeling?” Rudy’s eyes flickered over toward Deeder, the eyelids blinking fast. “It’s Deeder,” Deeder said. At that Rudy raised his hand from the ground and Deeder took it, holding it in an arm-wrestling grip. The hand was surprisingly strong, squeezing tight. Deeder took that as a good sign, and it occurred to him for the first time that he really didn’t want Rudy to die here, that he urgently wanted Rudy to make it through this, as if it were, say, Grace or Theresa who had fallen from the roof, and Deeder wondered why this might be, and he concluded to his own surprise that it was because Rudy was the only person he could even talk to nowadays, that Rudy was, in the current context of his life, his best and almost his only friend.
Rudy tried to say something, but Deeder couldn’t hear it because the Mexicans had chosen that exact moment to whisper among themselves. “Ssst! Ssst!” Deeder said, waving his free hand anxiously at the Mexicans. “He’s trying to say something.” Marlin was through talking to the dispatcher for the moment but he held the phone in his hand and the three of them, Marlin and the Mexicans, placed their hands on their knees and leaned in toward Deeder and Rudy.
“Rudy, you hang in there,” Marlin said. “An ambulance is on its way. How do you feel? Where are you hurt? Can you move?”
Rudy’s eyes rolled wildly and then settled on Deeder’s face, and the hand squeezed Deeder’s again. “I ooda may,” he said, and started to cough, and he winced in pain and his chest jerked upward.
Deeder squeezed his hand back in response. “I’m here, buddy,” he said. “What’s that you’re saying?” He seemed to be talking in English, which was another good sign, probably, because if you were losing consciousness or you were incoherent you wouldn’t have the wherewithal to speak in your adopted language, would you? And two of the words–I and may–were clearly English, though the middle word was troubling. Ooda? That must have been Spanish, but what could it possibly mean? What kind of word would you stick between I, which was a noun, and may, which Deeder suspected was a verb? And even if you took the ooda out, what was he saying? I may what? May die?
“OK, Rudy, Jesus,” Deeder said, and he lowered himself to his knees, holding Rudy’s hand against his chest. There was a troubling sort of rattling in there, like Grace when she had the croup last winter. “We’re not gonna die here, OK? We’re not gonna fucking die here at this stupid fucking empty house falling from this stupid fucking roof, OK? You with me on this, Rudy? You with me?”
Rudy nodded his head vehemently and he squeezed Deeder’s hand again.
“OK,” Deeder said. “OK now. Not dying. We’re agreed on that, right?” Rudy made no response. “Rudy?” Deeder said, and he held Rudy’s hand up and shook it a little. Rudy nodded. “OK,” Deeder said, taking his free hand to pat the back of Rudy’s hand. “Not dying here. Not even fucking dying here. Now what are you trying to tell me?”
“I ooda may,” Rudy said, and his eyes closed tight.
“Hey, hey,” Deeder said, and he patted Rudy’s hand hard and shook it and Rudy opened his eyes and they swam for a second and then locked back onto Deeder’s face. “Eyes right here,” he said, “eyes right here, buddy,” and he made a motion with his index finger connecting Rudy’s eyes to his own.
Rudy nodded again and kept his eyes on Deeder. “I ooda may,” he said again, and this time he choked and a little drop of blood burbled up from his lips and went down his chin.
“Oh, shit,” Marlin said. “Fucking shit!” He held the phone back up to his mouth. “Where the fuck is the ambulance?” he yelled. Deeder heard a voice on the other end trying to calm Marlin down. “Get the fucking ambulance here!” Marlin said. “This guy’s in bad shape.” A voice on the phone again. “Bleeding internally,” Marlin said. “Get the fucking ambulance here.”
“I ooda may,” Rudy said, looking right at Deeder, squeezing his hand, only more softly this time.
Deeder held one hand out to the Mexicans. “What is that?” he asked. “What’s he saying? What’s ooda?”
The Mexicans spoke to each other and shook their heads.
“En Ingles?” Deeder said.
The Mexicans shook their heads and one of them held his hands out and said, “No sé en Ingles. No sé.”
“Shit,” Marlin said.
The Mexicans had only been on the crew about a week and Deeder didn’t even know their names. They got all their instructions from Rudy. They didn’t speak English at all, and so now they weren’t any help, what with Rudy speaking some kind of hybrid of English and Spanish and saying the same thing over and over again while looking into Deeder’s eyes, as if Deeder was supposed to help him in some way, and the Mexicans not understanding or not being able to tell anyone other than Rudy what they did understand, and Rudy not talking to them but only to Deeder, and Marlin yelling into his cell phone as if he could make the ambulance come faster by abusing the 9-1-1 dispatcher, and Deeder not understanding anything, and it started to seem like that Bible story Deeder remembered from when he was a kid, the one where the people built the big city using all the available technology and science but God didn’t like the city, and he made everybody talk different, and the people got confused, and the city fell apart, and that seemed to be what was happening here. The only thing that seemed to work, the only line that was operational, was the line from Deeder to Rudy.
“OK, I want you to listen to me, Rudy, and I want you to keep your eyes right here.” Rudy nodded again, making an effort to keep his eyes lined up with Deeder’s, and Deeder leaned in still closer to help Rudy do that, and he saw blood on Rudy’s teeth and noticed how dry Rudy’s dark skin looked, the black stubble in little patches on his cheeks. “I want you to think positive here, Rudy. I want you to think about something nice.” Deeder looked up at the cloudless sky, felt the warm air snuggling up under his shirt sleeves, but that didn’t seem right–look on the bright side, it’s a beautiful day! “The ambulance is going to be here in a minute,” he said, and he realized that he was listening all the time for the siren coming from town, but still it wasn’t there. “Just think about the ambulance. It’s gonna be here in a minute and you’re gonna take a ride to the hospital and they’ll have you fixed up in no time and you’ll be back to work . . . hell, probably tomorrow, you tough son of a bitch.” Rudy was breathing hard through his nose and his chest was jumping and he was holding on to Deeder’s hand and trying his best to look in Deeder’s eyes. The ambulance needed to get there quick. Deeder pictured loading Rudy into it and riding with him and arriving at the hospital to meet the hippie doctor, the one he’d visited that morning, he had been summoned to the hospital and would be the one there on the scene, and Deeder would say, Doctor, you’ve got to do something for him, this is what you gave it all up for, to help people, right, to help them? And he thought of his dream the night before. “Rudy,” Deeder said. “Rudy, I want you to think of something else.” He squeezed Rudy’s hand and shook it to get Rudy to pay attention, because there was a listlessness in his eyes and in his grip that Deeder didn’t like at all all of a sudden. “I want you to think of my record store, man–our record store, I’ll go in halves with you.” Rudy’s eyes were back now, and Deeder almost thought he saw him smile. “There we are in San Francisco, buddy, and it’s the Summer of Love, and we’re listening to the best music in the world and smoking the world’s best dope, and holy shit there’s Carlos Santana, man, Carlos Santana just walked in our record store and he’s carrying his fucking guitar!”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Deeder?” Marlin said.
Deeder took a deep breath. He could see the scene clearly in his head–the store and all the records and the customers in jeans and T-shirts and the beaded curtain casting its colors all around, he and Rudy behind the counter and Monterey Pop, even, lying in a patch of sunlight on the floor. But Rudy wasn’t seeing it, he could tell. Rudy’s eyes were going away again. It wasn’t the same thing to Rudy as it was to him. “Shut the fuck up, Marlin,” he said. “Leave me the fuck alone and I mean it.” Marlin left him the fuck alone. Nobody said anything. “OK, Rudy,” he said. “Hey!” He slapped Rudy’s wrist and Rudy looked back at him, not seeming to understand why Deeder would hit him, and it pained Deeder right in his heart. “Sorry, buddy, but you’ve gotta stay with me.” He took a deep breath again. “OK, I want you to picture your dream place, Rudy, whatever it is–someplace in Mexico, maybe with your family. You’re back home in Mexico, and all your family is there to see you, it’s the place where you grew up, where you were a kid. What do they have there–cactus?” He looked up at the Mexicans but they just stared at him oddly. “Do you see it, Rudy? Do you see it?” In answer, Deeder felt a light pressure on his hand. Rudy’s eyes were still open, but now they had moved away from Deeder entirely and the sky was in them, something very far away. Mexico. Deeder had no real idea of Rudy’s family or where he grew up, only that he had two children back in a town called Oaxaca where they had a pretty cathedral. “You and your sons, Rudy. You and your sons in Oaxaca,” Deeder said, and he was surprised to find that he was crying. It was the light in Rudy’s brown eyes, something beautiful there. Deeder heard the ambulance now, and it sounded like music, but he didn’t say anything to Rudy, just let Rudy dream, sitting there holding his hand and thinking, suddenly, of the only time he had ever actually been to San Francisco, when he was seventeen with his friend Todd, they had lied and said they were going to stay with Todd’s brother in Spokane for a few days but they had driven to San Francisco, arriving in the afternoon, New Year’s Eve, 1984, and on their way to Haight-Ashbury they had come across Panhandle park, and Deeder thought he’d hit a time warp, it was all still happening, it was still going on right now and why had nobody told him. There were the flower children, hundreds of them in headbands and tie-dyed shirts, smoking weed and playing guitar, they were spread out all over the place, and he and Todd had joined right in, and when they were good and stoned they’d noticed people going around trying to sell tickets, tickets to what, they’d asked, to the Dead concert that night, they played every New Year’s Eve and the kids dressed up like flower children and came to the park beforehand. So it was just a show, Deeder discovered, like Disneyland, and they didn’t have enough money for tickets, and when they’d wandered on down to Haight-Ashbury it had been a disappointment, a chain drugstore on the corner where his record store should have been, and everything ugly and dilapidated, there was no Haight-Ashbury anymore, but still he’d had that golden hour when he thought it was all true, that was his real memory of San Francisco. And now there were Rudy’s eyes, off somewhere in his own dream to some place real or imagined, he wasn’t there with Deeder anymore, and the ambulance on the way with the siren getting louder but it wouldn’t be soon enough for Rudy, blood all down his cheek now, Deeder leaning in to wipe it off with his shirt and patting Rudy’s hand to comfort him, poor goddamn Rudy who wouldn’t be there on the roof anymore, not there anymore with Deeder, Deeder all alone, and no one would care, not Theresa or Grace, not really, because Rudy was just a man they knew through Deeder’s stories of working on the roof, which was something he did for them but which they had no interest in, and because they were generally indifferent, to Deeder and the world, the world where Deeder had long ago come back from San Francisco, a microscopic dot moving on the surface of the big dark Earth, a planet turning through the vast universe in the tiny light of a medium-sized star. He and Marlin and the Mexicans and Rudy were little pinpoints on that planet in the faint light of that star, and in other places there were also people dreaming, people struggling, people dying, their eyes like Rudy’s, their breathing shallower and shallower, in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa and even right here in the USA, and Deeder couldn’t or wouldn’t be there to help them, only this one pinpoint, just this one hand he was connected to, that voice saying I ooda may I ooda may over and over, those eyes gone off to Mexico or some other place Deeder didn’t know, and as the ambulance pulled into the driveway and the paramedics approached, Deeder and Rudy held on, their clasped hands like a bridge, the touching skin and the light exchange of pulses, how terribly present life was, how awfully now, and as a hand on his shoulder urged him to move away, Deeder leaned over Rudy and looked one last time into his eyes, to make sure they still knew each other, that they were both still here.
—Keith Lee Morris