Post Road Magazine #26

Bright Shiny Things

Martin Cloutier

Most people avoid past loves like roadkill, but I walk by mine every day: my bead shop and Kevin—both lost on the same fateful night. Only a gaping hole remains, between an insurance adjuster and a dollar store, no more than a vacant lot filled with crushed Coke cans and crab grass. In winter, snow accumulates between the buildings tall as a man; it actually seems as if something might still be there. Just brush away the snow and find the wooden door with its hanging strings of cerulean glass beads. I'd had the largest selection of Czech glass in upstate New York. The sign above in simple script lettering: Baubles Bangles and Beads.
    Nearly everyone says that I took advantage of Kevin: licentious pervert preys on disturbed young man. And those who don't, say he took advantage of me: avaricious gigolo exploits doddering old fool. But isn't that what lovers do? Isn't that what love does to all of us? Makes us into these glowing objects of need?
    The majority of my customers were kids who followed around bands like Phish, or attended Renaissance Fairs. At folding tables, they sold their wares for pot money and enough gas to get to the next event. They were runaways and drug addicts, nerdy outcasts or troubled misfits. I tried to oblige them by carrying a selection of the most perverse and unusual things one could put on a string: bird bones and baby teeth, eyeballs of every species. Arts and crafts, while not medicinal, have prevented many people from suicide, and many more from going to the crazy house. Sometimes, I'd take a few of my favorite kids to the back room to smoke up. They kept me well supplied. Bless their burnt-out little hearts.
    We'd recline on my broken-down davenport with our Humboldt Gold and strawberry wine coolers. They'd let their heads fall back, blowing out garlands of smoke, and talk about concerts where the lead singer collapsed on stage from an overdose or some girl got gang raped in a port-a-potty. It brought an authentic tarnish to my world of rhinestones and plastic pearls.
    Kevin was a decade older than most of my regulars, and, at thirtythree, three decades younger than me. He lived in a group home just down the street. He had a moderate case of schizophrenia, amended by a cocktail of psychotropic drugs. The group home employed him as a kind of custodian: cutting the grass in summer, shoveling the snow in winter and doing basic maintenance throughout the year. The home provided a place for former mental patients to transition into society. It housed all kinds of crazy: schizoid, post-traumatic stress, manic-depressive, majordepressive, and plain old suicidal. The neighbors called it the house of mixed nuts.
    Every day, Kevin would spend hours in my shop counting seed beads and placing them in a Ziploc bag. I sold pre-packaged bags of the pinhead-size beads for two dollars and fifty cents, but Kevin insisted on counting his own. Frequently he would lose count and have to start again. He bought exactly one hundred beads a day. I often wondered what he did with them; he never wore jewelry.
    Kevin had thick black hair, wide, astonished, blue eyes, and a thin muscular body. When he held a bead to inspect it for flaws, something he did with all one hundred of them, his bicep would pop and his arm would go all sinewy, like little animals were crawling under his flesh. Sometimes his T-shirt would rise, exposing a sliver of taut white stomach laced with black hairs. As far as I was concerned, he could stand in my shop all day.
    Eventually I coaxed him into conversation, though silence was more his medium. He molded silences into monuments of imposing weight like a sculptor molds clay. Usually he stood at the bead table for over an hour, his blue eyes, like the clearest Swarovski crystals, focused and refocused on each of his beads. Schizophrenics usually have dead eyes from all the meds they take. But Kevin's eyes were not so much dead as still: you could project onto them almost any emotion, even love for you.
    After several weeks of shy goodbyes and averted glances, we developed a routine of small talk.
    "How're the mixed nuts today?" I'd say. "Still mixed," he'd respond, and go straight to the bead table. When he had bagged his hundred beads, he'd set three dollars on the counter, pulling at the end of each bill three times. I'd hand him change of two quarters. It always had to be two quarters. One time I gave him five dimes and it was as if I'd plopped a dead rat in front of him. He backed away and ran out of the shop.
    I don't know how I did it, but finally I worked up enough courage to lure him into my back room.
    "So what goes on over at that group home?" I handed him his two quarters, my fingers lingering on his palm. "Wild parties and mass orgies?"
    "No. Nothing like that." He rubbed the quarters on his pants, as always, and put them in the small front pocket of his jeans.
    "What a shame. How does one pass the evenings?"
    "Some watch TV. Some sleep. Some knock their heads against the walls and cry." He crinkled his brow, like he was on the verge of saying something deeply profound. I'd learned to wait through these pauses. He had a bit of a Cro-Magnon forehead, which I found completely sexy. "Never seen any orgies though."
    "I hope they give you some good drugs at least."
    "Clozapine and Risperdal. That's what they tell me."
    "Well, if you ever want to smoke some of the good stuff, I've got a steady supply."
    "Real as your Aunt Ethel's garter belt."
    Kevin thought about this for a long time. I didn't know if he was thinking about pot or garter belts or poor old Ethel, but we ended up on my couch baked out of our minds. He said alcohol interfered with his meds and marijuana calmed him. He had the opposite reaction of most people—it decreased his paranoia. Medical practitioners didn't recommend the use of pot for schizophrenia, and Kevin elaborated a whole theory about doctors destroying our health to keep us dependent on them.
    I should have been listening more carefully. But I was so happy to be with this man, watching him cross and uncross his legs, flex his arms and blow smoke from his chapped lips that he could've told me he was the grandson of the Lindbergh baby and I wouldn't have questioned it.
    Kevin was continually changing his appearance because people were supposedly following him. He'd grow a full beard, shave it off and leave the sideburns, then grow a goatee. Sometimes he'd wear a bandana or baseball cap. Sometimes he'd slick back his hair with gel. From day to day, I never knew what to expect, and often I didn't recognize him when he walked into the shop. But if a man appeared at five, it would most always be Kevin.
    It got so he'd schedule his arrivals exactly an hour before closing, just enough time to bag a hundred beads, then take a trip to Humboldt County with me. When he got around to pocketing his two quarters, I'd flip the sign and he'd follow me to the back. This was often accomplished without either of us exchanging a word. I didn't mind, because once we burned through the first joint, passing it across that middle cushion on the couch—arms brushing, fingers twining—by the time the second joint was rolled, Kevin would be talking like a corporate lawyer with a hundred thousand dollar retainer.
    "Did you see that van that passed by today?" He shook his head as if trying to erase the memory.
    "A van?"
    "Navy blue. Blacked-out windows. Not a mark on it. No signs. No stickers. Not even a scratch."
    "What was it doing?"
    He handed me the joint and got up to check the front window. "Drove down my street at least five times. It must have passed by here." He extended his arms, stretching his t-shirt across the oval contours of his chest. "Not a mark on it."
    "Well, that seems odd."
    "The guy driving was in a suit. I saw him through the front windshield. A suit and a tie."
    "Oh my."
    "Yeah. And you know where the plates were from?"
    "Quebec?" It was the most suspect thing I could think of.
    "Kentucky." He took the joint, and sat on the cushion next to me, crossing his leg, his knee resting on mine. "And you know what's in Kentucky?" He exhaled and looked deep into my eyes: "Fort Knox."
    Then he'd go on about how the dollar was no longer pegged to the gold standard. How hoarding gold would soon be a national security issue. And something called the Basel Accord. And something else called Bretton Woods. I couldn't understand it, but I observed, as if watching a beautiful play in a foreign language.
    Those were the red bead days. Each day, Kevin counted out a bead of a different color. On days when he was particularly agitated, he brought red or orange beads to the register. Whenever he seemed unusually happy, he'd bag yellow or pink beads. Green or blue seemed to be neutral, and on those days, he'd talk about the weather or going back to school to finish his degree in economics.
    Inevitably, I fell in love. How could I not? A beautiful young man faithfully came to my shop every day—just like the mail. He conversed with me, smoked with me, he exposed his white belly and touched his knee to mine. Could you resist this sort of thing? Did I say he came every day?
    Except Sundays, when the shop was closed. And, oh, those Sundays were the dark side of the moon. I performed the necessary functions, as long as those functions didn't involve getting out of bed or thinking about something other than Kevin. The mind unwinds and builds fantasies, exaggerating reality, substituting what it needs for what it sees.
    Maybe you, too, think I was taking advantage of his compulsive behavior. That was what one of his counselors at the group home had said. Maybe you, too, think he was incapable of love. Maybe you think I got what I deserved. Well, maybe I did. But I'll tell you, I wouldn't trade a moment. Not one second of the time spent with Kevin—even just watching him fill a plastic baggy with beads.
    I started cooking dinners: we were both free, both hungry after smoking all that pot. Kevin hated eating out; he thought the waitresses were spitting in his food. Eating at the group home caused him anxiety because he suspected certain residents of poisoning him. He took to writing false names on everything he left in the fridge, so people would think his food belonged to someone else. But he never questioned my cooking. The first step in taming a wild animal is getting it to eat out of your hand.
    Above the store, I had a rather spacious apartment. We ate simple but filling meals at my oak rector's table, set with the good china. I always used the good china for Kevin, my Delta Airlines Dinnerware Collection: a clean white plate circled with two gold rings and a small jet flying off the rim. I wanted him to feel special. I wanted to show him the difference between a loving table and institutional CorningWare.
    Kevin had several pre-dinner rituals. He'd always check under the table and felt his hands around the edges. He arranged his silverware: knife, fork, spoon. He had to rub his fingers around the plate three times before putting food on it. And he never finished the water in his glass below the quarter mark.
    He always left by nine-forty-five, because of his ten o'clock curfew. I was certain our relationship would have become physical if I ever could get him to spend the night. But that wasn't part of our ritual. We had constraints upon us. If he didn't return to the home on time, he'd get a check mark; three checks and he'd be sent back to the state institution in Rome. I might have made a pass while we were smoking or after dinner, but Kevin liked regimen. Anything outside of our daily routine would have shaken him up.
    One night, when I didn't feel like cooking, I made the mistake of coaxing him into the local diner.
    "The light's too bright," he said when we walked in. He pulled his baseball cap farther down on his face. I guided him to a secluded booth in the corner. The menus were on the table and we opened them in silence.
    After a few minutes he said, "It's too close to the window."
    We moved to the middle of the room but the chair felt unsafe, so we travelled to the adjacent table. "Do your rituals," I said. Kevin looked under the table and felt around the edges with his fingers. He arranged his silverware, then did mine: knife fork spoon, knife fork spoon.
    The waitress approached us cautiously; I tried to look as normal as possible while she poured water. "You guys want anything to drink?"
    Kevin dropped his face to the menu and began reading, fingering each line as he read.
    "No thank you. Water's fine." I smiled, and she walked off rolling her eyes.
    Kevin slid his water glass to my side of the table as if it were filled with piss. "They don't have anything I can eat."
    "Well, what do you want?" He looked to either side then whispered, "grilled cheese."
    "I'm sure they can make that."
    "They can make that? They can make grilled cheese?"
    "All diners make grilled cheese sandwiches."
    "Then why isn't it on the menu, Rory?" He tapped his finger on the menu. "Why isn't it here?"
    "They probably don't get much call for it is all."
    He adjusted his cap backwards on his head. "Okay. But make like it's for you."
    "For me?"
    "Yeah. Order it for yourself. And I'll order what you want for me. And then we'll switch."
    The waitress came back and I asked about the grilled cheese. She said they could do it.
    Kevin held his menu to the side of his face and whispered, "with tomato."
    "Oh, and could you put tomato on that?"
    "Sure. No problem."
    "Cheddar cheese," he whispered. With his cap and the menu stuck to the side of his face, the waitress couldn't see him, but I'm sure she heard everything.
    "Can you make that with cheddar cheese?" I asked. "We only have American." I looked over at Kevin, thinking that surely we were doomed now. He would spring from his seat like a frightened antelope and go running off into the night. But he nodded his assent and put the menu back on the table.
    The waitress turned toward Kevin. "And what can I get for you, sir?"
    "Um." He stared at the menu. "Um." He flipped his cap around and put it down on his face. "Um." He peered into the metal coffee creamer. "He'll have a hamburger, medium rare, with a side of fries, no pickles. And a small green salad with Ranch dressing."
    "We only have French, Dijon, Italian or Caesar."
    "Oh my God," Kevin slapped his hands on the table. "That's all right. Italian's fine," I said. The girl practically sprinted from our presence. "What's the matter with you?"
    "French, Dijon, Italian and Caesar? It's FDIC. The Federal Deposit Insurance Company." I squeezed the lemon into my tea and hoped that no one was looking at us.
    "Come on, Rory. The first letters of the salad dressings spell FDIC. Isn't that weird?"
    When the food came, Kevin claimed he saw spit on his plate and wouldn't eat. I took my burger to go and we left. And from then on we stuck to the rituals.
    Which was why I knew something was desperately wrong when, one day, he came into the store and handed me a bag full of multi-colored beads. Kevin had only ever bagged a single color. Be it blue, green or red, one color was his prescribed routine. For him to deviate on so large a scale signaled something disastrously wrong. He was also wearing a surgical cap as part of his daily disguise. Kevin had a well-earned fear of doctors, and under normal circumstances would never wear anything associated with the medical industry.
    "What's the matter?" I asked. "My dad called me." His saucer shaped eyes didn't blink. "I thought your parents were dead?"
    "They are. But they call sometimes."
    "What did he say?"
    Kevin folded his arms across his chest and scratched the sleeves of his t-shirt. "The doctors are killing him. I have to stop them."
    I closed shop immediately and took Kevin upstairs. He was jittery as a lightning bug, so I rolled a fat joint and let him smoke the majority while I rubbed his temples and shoulders. I told him to take off all his clothes and lie down on the bed.
    He did as told and lay naked face down on the bed. My hands were shaking when I first touched him. I didn't use oil because I wanted to feel the smooth edges of his flesh. I massaged his back for a long time. He had beautiful hills of muscle on either side of his spine; hard knots and furrows I had to plow and plane with my fingers. His skin was as clear and unblemished as water. I washed my hands in the sea of him until he was pink and bubbling. When I asked him to roll over, his beautiful hard cock stared me straight in the face.
    Kevin came with two small grunts, like someone had punched him in the stomach. That was how I knew I'd affected him, each grunt, a love sonnet writ especially for me. Afterwards, he seemed much better: life returned to his eyes.
    "What are they saying now?" I asked. "Nothing." He crinkled his brow. "They're saying nothing."
    The next day, he came to the register with a blue bag of beads and everything was back to normal. After our usual joint, I tried rubbing his shoulders, but he stood and walked away. He left before dinner that night.
    The days passed as before: green bag, blue bag, red bag, yellow bag. Smoke, eat, leave. Smoke, eat, leave. I was thinking I'd never touch Kevin again, never feel his pale unblemished skin or hear those plaintive grunts.
    The following week, he came to the register and presented a multicolored bag of beads. It lay on the counter between us like a hot rock. I was afraid to touch it, afraid of what it meant or didn't mean. "I need the treatment again," he said.
    So "the treatment" was what we started calling it. And usually Kevin needed to be treated once a week. The specific day was always signaled by a multi-colored bag of beads at the register. I knew in advance what to expect. If Kevin stood in one place at the bead table, it was a one color night. But if he moved from section to section, I would get excited and hurry any customers out of the store.
    We went on like that for months: talking and smoking, me anticipating every day was multi-colored bead day. It was the happiest time of my life. I can say that now, happiness being relative. Sometimes when you're happy, you don't realize it until you're unhappy again. You forget the bad times, the lonely times, the eating-mac-and-cheese-from-a-pan times. So, unaware of my happiness, I deigned to want more. What did I know? When you're in love, you only want more.
    I wanted Kevin to spend the night. I wanted to go to restaurants. I wanted to take him on trips, to parties, to concerts with my young beadselling buddies. All these things were beyond his capabilities. And, as time went on, I became dissatisfied. I expected a boyfriend, lover, husband. Not someone whose only mode of communication was beads in a bag and two grunts before orgasm. I forgot who I was. Kevin had made me so happy, I forgot I was a fat old sissy in a bead shop. The world does not give fat old sissies beautiful attentive lovers.
    Kevin did make an effort to appease me; he attended a small party with three of my friends, whose reaction to our relationship alternated between acute jealousy and grave sympathy. Before we left, I helped him into one of his disguises. He was nervous about meeting new people and didn't want them to recognize him, even though they had never seen him. I slicked back his hair with almond oil and gave him a black leather jacket I'd purchased at a thrift store. I told him he looked like a thug.
    "What kind of thug," he asked. "A low level Italian hit man."
    "I don't want to scare your friends, Rory. Am I too scary?" He put his hands in the coat pockets and made a mean face.
    "You're perfect," I said, and leaned in to kiss his lips, but he brushed past me and out the door.
    Georgia, proprietress of my favorite bar, hosted the party with Fred and Emory, a gay couple who ran a painting company.
    "I saw that house you guys painted on Harding Place," Georgia said. We had taken our drinks and settled in her dusty rose living room. "Very decorative."
    "The candy cane house?" Emory asked. "That's what we're calling it," Fred said. "White walls, pink trim."
    "I haven't been down on Harding," I said. "I'll have to have a look. Maybe place some kind of Christmas statuary on her lawn."
    "Make it Rudolph. Her husband's a big deer hunter."
    "Kevin?" Georgia asked. "Have you seen the Harding house?" Kevin kept his hands stuffed into his coat pockets and looked at each of us as if we were apparitions appearing from the ether. He became fascinated by a photo of a giant standard poodle on the wall, and we thought he might not speak. Then he said, "No."
    "No what? I forgot the question."
    "Be nice," said Fred. "Is pink a period color?" I said, trying to get the conversation back on track. "I know the Victorians used lots of mauves and lilacs."
    "Pink used to be the color of my period," Georgia added, and we all laughed.
    "That house is definitely not period," Fred said.
    "No. It's question mark. Big question mark." Emory stirred his drink with his fingers and flicked away the liquid with two quick gestures.
    Kevin flinched reactively. "A white house with pink trim is an abomination. An abomination."
    "She first wanted the whole thing pink. Emory had to talk her out of it."
    "I practically had to duct tape her to a chair and beat her with a paint brush."
    "You can't beat a person with a paint brush," Kevin said. "You need a baseball bat or a hammer."
    "Well, he certainly knows his blunt instruments," said Fred. "I'm a thug." Kevin looked wide-eyed around the room and everyone started to laugh. "So am I," said Georgia. "I'm a thug in a cocktail dress."
    "You don't even own a cocktail dress," said Emory. "You're a thug in a Dacron pantsuit." Kevin was starting to panic. He was trying to follow the conversation but it didn't make sense to him. He bolted from his seat and rushed to the bathroom.
    I was mortified. I just wanted an evening of casual banter and catty gossip. It had been weeks since I'd seen my friends. Months since we had one of our cocktail soirees. I knew they thought it was an act of foolish desperation to tie my sails to a mental case, so I tried to brush off Kevin's behavior. "I think he has a bladder infection," I said.
    "Well, something's infected."
    "Meeting new people is hard for him. He'll come back when he's ready."
    We drank our gin and continued the party. Georgia showed us photos from her recent trip to Maine. Fred played some obscure Nina Simone recording he'd found on the Internet. And I passed around a joint of Purple Haze, hydroponically grown by one of my Renaissance Fair boys.
    When Kevin's absence started to become noticeable, I went to check on him. The door was locked. I tried to coax him out but got no answer. We all banged on the door. Still no answer. Fred finally pried open the lock with a crow bar.
    We found Kevin in the tub. He had taken all the towels, soaked them in water, and wrapped himself like a mummy. Other than that, he was perfectly fine. I gave Georgia cash for a replacement lock, and agreed to wash all of her towels.
    As we made our shameful retreat across her porch, Kevin, still wet and dazed from his mummification, and me, carrying a garbage bag of wet towels, I heard Emory say to Fred, "At least I hope he's got a big dick." I couldn't stand the embarrassment. On the ride home I thought about what to do while Kevin slouched against the car window. I felt I deserved things: kisses, snuggles, conversations over the breakfast table the kind of relationship other people had. My friends had told me I shouldn't settle. When I dropped him off at the group home, I insisted things had to change. Our relationship had to grow. We had to take things to the next level.
    Kevin didn't say anything. After completing his car rituals: locking and unlocking the door three times, unrolling the window, checking the glove box, he got out without saying a word. On the sidewalk, he turned around and waved bye, like a child. He looked cute and vulnerable with his wet hair falling over his face. And I felt I was just another soccer mom releasing her charge from the car-pool.
    The next day, he came into the shop, counted out a hundred blue beads and we went upstairs to smoke.
    "So what do you think of my friends," I said, after we'd finished half a stick.
    "Those people yesterday?" He started pacing the kitchen floor. "That little guy's a human organ seller. He traffics on the black market."
    "An organ seller?"
    "Yeah. I saw him looking at my kidneys." And then he went on to describe the whole organ trafficking operation. How Hugo Chavez had his heart replaced four times. How different countries specialized: pancreases in the Philippines, esophagi in Singapore, adrenal glands in India. I knew better than to disagree or else he would become suspicious of me too. He was so masterful pacing around my kitchen floor: the tight round balls of his shoulders contracting as he opened all the cupboards, his fingers slicing the air as he enumerated the five telltale signs that a spleen is no longer viable. I was enthralled by the violent cast to his eyes as he banged my spoons on the counter at the height of his speech. It made me want to save him. Which was probably the height of arrogance: that my geriatric love could offer salvation, that my acid-reflux breath and loose sphincter could heal. When he was done expounding on human organs and finally took at seat, I changed the subject.
    "I'm worried about your treatments, Kevin. They're losing effectiveness. I recommend we try some longer procedures."
    "Longer procedures."
    "You'd have to spend the night."
    "Rory, you know I can't get away from the group home."
    "Can't you ask them for permission in advance? Isn't this place supposed to prepare you to live on your own? Tell them you want to practice for a night."
    "I don't know." Kevin cupped his hands over his mouth and thought. "I'd have to speak to my counselor."
    "Have you told your counselor about me?"
    "I said I have a friend. I didn't tell him about the treatments. It's a conflict of interest."
    After much discussion and many days of arrangements, he finally got leave to spend the night. And oh, what an ecstatic quandary I was in about how to proceed: Sprinkle the bed with rose petals? Get out the belts and bondage gear? I finally settled on the traditional approach, not much different from how it had always been between us.
    On the night in question, I prepared a sumptuous meal: shrimp cocktail, veal tenderloin with glazed carrots and chocolate cake for dessert. Kevin said he really didn't feel like a treatment but I told him to let me instigate things once in awhile. He undressed as usual and lay on the bed. This time though I lay next to him.
    "Rory. Why are you naked?" he said.
    "I told you, it's something new. Now get under the covers." I lifted up the blankets and he dutifully got under. "Come here now." I put my arm around him and drew him to my breast.
    "Rory. This feels weird."
    "Shh, shh." I stroked his back. "Just relax and think pleasant thoughts." I brought my head down to kiss him.
    He raised up. "Geez, Rory. What are you doing?"
    "Shh. It's healing."
    He jumped out of bed. "This is not the situation here."
    "Well, what is the situation here?"
    "I don't know I don't know." He started pacing the floor. The mounds of his buttocks hollowing, then filling again. "You're my doctor."
    "I'm your doctor?" All the months we spent together and that was how he thought of me? It was rather insulting.
    "This—this—this is not the situation."
    "I run a bead shop. Do you see any degrees on the walls?"
    His pacing grew faster. "You're a medical professional. You took an oath."
    "I've been sucking your cock for the last three months. What kind of professional does that?"
    "Geez." He looked out the window. "Geez." His arm shook involuntarily by his head. He turned and pointed at me. "Have you been stealing my sperm?"
    His accusations were hurtful and outrageous. I got out of bed in all my floppy nakedness. "Yes. I've been stealing your sperm. I spit it out in little jars and mailed it to Singapore so they can clone your genetic material and conduct scientific experiments on your babies."
    He squatted on the floor and put his hands over his head, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He kept chanting: "The induction of the union is equal to the division of the state."
    I tried to reason with him but he was too far gone. I grabbed him under the arms—his skin slick with sweat—I tried to hoist him up but he held to the floor. Then he stood and punched me in the face. I wielded back into the table. Then he punched me again and I fell over a chair. Then I blacked out.
    When I regained consciousness on the floor, Kevin was gone. I crawled from the kitchen to my bed and slept the sleep of the damned. In the morning, light crept through the curtains and my face felt soft and squishy like an overripe melon. My bones ached and I threw the covers over my head and didn't bother opening the store. By evening the phone was ringing and I hobbled over to answer it. Emory said that he saw the glass in my door had been broken and he wondered if I was okay.
    The next day, he came by and helped me clean up. At his insistence, I made a police report. Though I knew very well who had done it and why: Kevin was mad the store was closed and couldn't count his beads. At first, when Emory saw the purples and yellows of my face, he wanted me to press charges. I refused. But oh how gleefully he managed my despair: my handsome young boyfriend was not only a mental case, he was an abusive lout. Every sweep of his broom declared my guilt, every gentle hug underscored my great foolishness.
    He did convince me to call Kevin's counselor and explain that he was having difficulty and maybe needed a change of meds. When I spoke to the counselor I didn't mention anything about the fight or the broken window. He had also noticed a discernible difference in Kevin's behavior, and told me they were altering his meds, but feared he might be sent back to the state institution if results weren't forthcoming.
    The mind is a fragile piece of machinery. Sometimes the gears get bent and they never fit together again. It pained me to think that my overzealous behavior had broken Kevin in some irreparable way. Though was I not broken too, in another kind of irreparable way? Oh those broken bits that love puts asunder.
    Strangely enough, Kevin was still coming to my shop every day as usual. He would count out his hundred beads, and instead of approaching me at the counter to pay, he would run out the door. The next morning I would find the bag of beads in my mailbox. I tried to speak to him, but every time I came near he would yell: "the induction of the union is equal to the division of labor."
    Of course I knew something was dreadfully wrong: he was picking out multi-colored beads every day. I didn't know what to do. I watched him come to my shop, growing slightly more crazed: mumbling to himself, gesturing at the ceiling, shaking his head like he was trying to drive off a bad thought. Still, I looked forward to his visits. I craved them, like the cancer craves another cigarette. It seemed like we were in communication just by breathing the same air. And there was always the possibility his medication would kick in and he would return to normal.
    Then one day, Emory came into the shop while Kevin was counting out his beads. I couldn't say who was more surprised, but Kevin reacted first. Emory was standing by the door, blocking his exit, so Kevin scooped up handfuls of beads and threw them in Emory's face. Then he sprinted to the back of the shop.
    "You better call the police, Rory."
    "It's okay. I'll talk to him." I found Kevin crouched in the supply closet behind a bunch of boxes.
    "Come out of there now," I said. "Stop acting ridiculous." He peered up at me and I saw something in those dead eyes. A glimmer of recognition. What we had shared was somewhere still alive in him. I knelt down. "Listen, Kevin, you have to stop coming here. It's no good for you. It's no good for either of us."
    "But the beads. I need to keep counting the beads." Not me—the beads. Our entire relationship was based on compulsion and a fabrication of my mind. And then he put his hand on my face. It was still a bit bruised. He held my face, and I believe it was the first time he had ever deliberately touched me. I can still feel the heat of his palm, slightly moist with sweat.
    There was a clamor of walky-talky static and two policeman walked in—Emory had called them. They hauled Kevin away. He stood between them with his legs bent at the knee, his head twitching wildly. I knew this would be the end of him. With a police arrest, he would go back to the institute for sure. I tried to convince his counselor otherwise, but he was adamant. He wouldn't even let me visit Kevin before they carted him away.
    I blame Oprah and the self-esteem gurus for preaching all that positive thinking crap, making me believe I was worthy of love solely by virtue of wanting it. And my dear friends for constantly reminding me how smart and funny and truly caring I was; how any man would be glad to have me. It's so easy to be supportive when you don't have to back it up with actions. Friends don't have to kiss my wattled neck, or feel my man boobs squishing against them in the night. I'd spent my entire life living off scraps of affection and furtive sex. How could I think that at sixty-four with hair growing out of my ears I'd find a satisfying relationship?
    And now, how I long to settle for less. How I would settle for next to nothing. Just a glimpse in a shop, a joint on my couch, two grunts and a bag of beads. I would take love in whatever sad form it found me and not ask for more. And that's why I still have a piece of Kevin with me. It's been two years, and I can still smell him clear as if he were lying on my bed right now. In my cozy basement apartment, I bring him to my nose every hour of the day. My love is just a bright shiny bit of plastic; but it is enough.
    The night before Kevin was supposed to be sent away, I went over to Georgia's bar and got ripping drunk. I slept it off at her place. When I returned home the next morning, my shop and apartment had been burned to the ground.
    The fire chief told me it was arson. They retrieved a gasoline can. Kevin's body was found in the bathtub, submerged in a block of melted plastic. Only one knee and a section of nose stuck out from the hardened plastic. Streams of colored resin ran down the sides of the tub and onto the floor like some beautiful rainbow had crash-landed in the black char of my bathroom.
    Kevin had doused himself with gasoline, filled the tub with beads, and set himself on fire. He lay down on this pyre while the liquefying beads entombed him. The fire spread. At that late hour, on a commercial street, no one had noticed. By the time the department arrived, it was too late to save the building.
    After extinguishing the fire, rolling up the hoses, and writing out the reports, a significant amount of time had passed before they discovered a body in the tub. It was well below freezing, and the plastic had quickly cooled and hardened. It took three men with hatchets to chop Kevin out.
    I still don't know if he meant to destroy everything of mine. I like to think Kevin wanted a grand gesture. I like to think he meant to preserve himself in the one thing we both valued: beads. It was his gift to me.
    And, as the dampness grows, and the branching fungi creep through these walls in their glorious spongiforms and mycotoxins, I like to think about my bead shop. How it supported me all these years: fed me, housed me in relative comfort even though I thought I deserved better—how I desperately wanted better. And I think about Kevin, counting out his beads. Bringing each one to the light, and smiling at its perfection.

 Copyright © 2018 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved