by Eric Bauer
At the morgue, Liam’s his head was blue and veiny and his mouth open and his eyes shut. The tattoo on his shoulder had been pulled away with the flesh of his arm and then sewn up in great bandages like something out of Egypt, a place he always wanted to visit. He seemed to be turning sideways, jeering at something just out of sight and when we walked around his body and peered in, we felt the coldness of his skin rising up to us like the open door of a freezer so that we pulled back sharp, the formaldehyde and ice tickling our noses, and seeing one another with the same looks, the same failure to view our dead friend this one last time, a shame settled over our heads that made us cagey and awkward until someone reached out, a hand on a shoulder then another and another until the five of us were interlaced like a braid and we could stand there again and see him and just let it be.
Liam lived on the west side of Kaohsiung, further out than any of us, and we were sweaty and dusty by the time we got there, the air a garbage dump of wet heat and the road long and most of us doubled up on our motorcycles because we didn’t like riding alone anymore. We got the key from the super, a portly man who cried when we told him in our broken Chinese, the biggest shock that he didn’t know. How could anyone not know? How could life just go on?
The apartment was big, airy, tiled from wall to wall with a churning A/C like every apartment on the twenty-third parallel where the sun hemorrhages in great blasts from the sky. We’d all visited many times despite the long hot road and the nothing view, this apartment more like a home than our actual homes except that now it felt like something foreign, a picture book of memories brought to life, his Irish flag on the wall and his posters and his dog, Oreo, out on the porch perhaps searching for Liam, barking, and asking him to come back. Perhaps all of us doing the same thing, more together now than apart.
“Who’s taking the dog?” one of us said.
“Oreo,” said another.
“Who’s taking Oreo?”
“None of us can,” said a third.
A fourth: “Seriously?”
“We all teach.”
“He teaches—taught.” The last of us speaking now. “Taught.”
“There’s no room in the city.”
“Did you see his head?”
“I was right beside you.”
“It wasn’t the motorcycle.”
“Who’s taking the dog?”
“Or. E. Oh.”
“Who’s taking Oreo?”
“He rides his motorcycle everyday—rode.” The last of us, again. “Rode.”
“I’m just saying.”
We started packing his things and it was very morbid at first, what with all the clothes and the outfits we’d seen him in and the CDs we’d listened to while eating pizza or watching TV. Pictures of his family that we had to pack up and send to Ireland, pictures of us that we kept for ourselves, pictures of John with bartenders, hostesses, other people from the US, the UK, Australia, South Africa, twenty-somethings, people just like us but different. Not his friends, not like we were. Not them. Us.
“Do we have to send everything back?”
“I mean, you know, I’m just saying, it’s expensive is all I’m saying. All the way back to Ireland.”
“I lent him this CD.”
“I lent you that CD.”
“You keep it.”
“Put it in the box.”
“Give it to me.”
“Fine. I’ll take it.”
“Hey, that’s my shirt.” Holding up the shirt: “There’s holes in it! My favorite shirt!”
“It was not your favorite shirt.”
“It was one of them.”
“Take it, then.”
“And I’m taking this one, too. To make up for it.”
“That was his.”
“He owes me. Anyway, I always meant to borrow it.”
“I meant to borrow this one.”
“You know, his sisters don’t even like this kind of music. He told me.”
Soon we were rummaging through all his things, and even though we could still hear his mother saying on this day, of all days, why this day, we left with a backpack each of clothes and music and movies that we said he’d want us to have, and the dog, too, Oreo, trailing after us though we didn’t have any real plan except to keep him in one of our apartments and hope it would all work out later. A plan just like Liam would make. We left the flag of Ireland there. We imagined him buried in it, or seeing it draped over his coffin like some returning soldier at the end of a long procession. We thought that highly of him, that his death had been that meaningful.
We went to the beach about a month later. The principals, the school administrators, they all said we could take off work because they knew how close we were to him and we said it was better to push through and be distracted by work but we were moody and disconsolate and we yelled at the kids and at our coworkers and soon we were yelling at each other so that it was a relief, really, when they insisted, telling us to go, take a week, more, which we did, gratefully, going to the beach one sunny day with our Taiwanese girlfriends, riding down the whole long length of that highway, four hours away, and stopping only for gas, our shoulders burning, our faces crusted in sand and silt, riding faster than we’d ever ridden before and feeling good like we were finally outriding whatever it was that’d been following us.
Only, we didn’t. It was there, waiting for us, at the same bar we always went to, sitting at the table when we arrived, daring us to do something other than miss him and miss what he was to us, all of us in silent thought, our girlfriends sullen in the short dresses and party clothes they brought, other guys, westerns like us, hitting on them and buying them drinks and them finally leaving us all alone. There you are, said the hostess, her hair always too fancy for a place like that and her heels too high, saying where have you been, it’s been so long, where’s your redheaded friend, and then we had to tell her just like we told the porter and when she heard, her voice catching, her eyes instantly wet, she just nodded and went to the back and we didn’t see her again. Not that night, not the whole rest of that week. And we realized we hadn’t cried once. Not one of us.
Four more months, and the stain was still there. We hadn’t gone there since the accident even though it was a major road—the major road—and it took us twice as long to get anywhere, but we couldn’t bear it. Until, finally, one night, we did. The OK Convenience Store was open but the traffic cones weren’t there, other friends of his, friends who hadn’t been as close, saying they’d driven by and seen the yellow tape and traffic markers and plastic cones. Then just yellow tape and plastic cones. Then just the plastic cones. Then nothing. But the stain was still there if you looked hard enough, which we did, and it stretched from the OK a full hundred meters to the front steps of the bank and when we got there we thought we’d all be sick, but we weren’t. We just stared. A man walked out of the OK and looked at us as he lit his cigarette, the bright flame dancing in a wind we couldn’t feel, and he only smoked but two short puffs before throwing it on the ground and walking away, his eyes never apart from us once. What did we look like to him, the five of us there in the not-quite-yet rain, unsmiling, unsettled, searching for something that maybe he couldn’t see.
Finally it was his birthday again, a full year later, seven months since we saw the stain and never going back, not ever. Liam was a legend by then. Everyone thought they knew him. Everyone had a story. We sat in the bar, his favorite bar, which we hadn’t been to since that night, watching the owner dart between tables that’d she’d dressed up in plastic table runners, shamrock green, tables with flutes of Guinness, two for one, and music in the background that was laden with bagpipes and no harps or flutes or any of the things we knew to be Irish.
“I can’t believe she did this.”
“It was your idea.”
“It was not my idea. Not this. I just said we wanted to celebrate his birthday. Us.”
“Well, you know her.”
People came by and talked about Liam like they knew him. Some of them, most of them, not even realizing who we were, showing us pictures on digital cameras. Liam with his arms around them. Liam dancing in some background menagerie. Liam singing karaoke. Some of the pictures were from his birthday and when we saw them we must have gotten a look that said put those away because they did. Even though they were showing that picture to other people ten minutes later. When some guy who’d only just arrived from Arkansas or Georgia or some other damn place came over to us and started bragging about how this one time he and Liam went clubbing up in Taipei and met these girls and took them back to their hotel room yada yada yada, we just couldn’t take it so we stood up and pushed him and he fell backward into a group of girls, spilling beer on himself and on them, saying hey what the hell until we were all of us just standing there, in the very middle of the room with everyone staring at us. Like we were out of line. Like we were the intruders. Like we were the outsiders when all we’d wanted to do was come here and drink beers on his birthday and talk about him, and it’d been unfortunate that we’d run into the owner the week before and given her the idea to do this because then she was rushing over and apologizing, all geisha and mamasan, hands steepled, back bowed, before turning to us and saying maybe we should go. Us. Not them. Us. We told her we never liked this damn place anyway.
Then we stood outside of the bar. Where we hadn’t stood since that night. We were all of us wearing clothes that we’d borrowed from him. We all of us had a tune in our heads that he used to play over and over in his apartment and we started singing it, just suddenly, like we’d planned it, something that probably none of us remembered until that very moment, the words sort of springing themselves out of our throats like Oreo barking on the porch that day. Something meant to call Liam back.
We looked down the street. Just a mile away was the OK Convenience Store. The stain had washed away and we stood there in the night, slightly cold, and looking at the rain, which had just begun to fall.
“Are you okay?”
“Here. Take this.”
“I’m not crying.”
“Take it anyway.”
“You want it back?”
“You keep it.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“It wasn’t any of ours.”
“I’m just saying.”
Eric Bauer is a member of the Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse, NY, and is a resident artist at the Albany Barn in Albany. He is the former fiction editor of Sphere, the Ohio University undergraduate literary magazine.