All My Living Friends
by Isaac Humphrey
He was a social butterfly bandage, weaving in and out of whatever gap he could find between bodies, plastering his quirky charm onto whomever seemed to be in need. Even if they weren’t. Even if they didn’t want it. Even if they wished he’d fuck off all the way to west Texas. And so often no one wanted it, but he didn’t have ride fare to get to Texas, they didn’t have it to loan, and so Enzo remained at any gathering within a feasible bus-ride radius of Raleigh, North Carolina. It was amazing really, like watching a shooting star zigzag across the sky in frantic search of its descent, not quite sure what corner of the world might most need a wish.
His habit wasn’t fixing people, it was more like he wanted to absorb their problems in some senseless endeavor to cancel out his own heap. Emotional ailments were Enzo’s forte, though he’d been known to set a broken nose thrice or more times, never mind if mine was now just slightly crooked—really, you can scarcely notice unless you’ve been given some forewarning of its warped realignment. If you’re interested, that’s how we met, me and Enzo. He punched me in the face because my girlfriend at the time asked him to. It wasn’t malicious, her intention, she just had this art project to do and couldn’t be the one to break my nose because she had to hold the camera. So, we asked Enzo, assured him he’d be really helping us out, and thus he couldn’t resist. She got the picture, Janna did, but failed the class for other reasons. But that’s fine, my abused face from eight years back is now in some museum in New York I’ve never been to and on the cover of a book I’ve never read.
We’ve been a bit inseparable ever since, not by any particular design. He was still stuck to me I guess; I still had a lot of problems he hadn’t covered. Every morning I’d find him in the kitchen, getting more of his blueberry batter onto my floor than into the trenches of his waffle iron, big eyes always inviting, ears always awake and willing to delve into why that frown seemed perpetually plastered to my face. I never bothered to ask him how he always got into my apartment, and he never asked me to reimburse him for the use of both his batter and iron, both always tucked neatly away into a canvas tote when he disappeared in leu of any official exit. Upon more than one occasion, I would have sworn I’d been dining with a goddamn ghost. Maybe that’s why I started writing the obituaries about him. Maybe that’s why I started writing the obituaries about all my friends. Well, I say friends. People I knew. People who lived in my building. People I’d met at whatever party Enzo dragged me to that night. Sometimes I got in trouble for it, but that was only because I’d include one here and there with the others—the real ones—I had to write for the weekly paper that insisted on continued publication. I’d have thought no one gave a shit about our little newspaper any longer, not in its physical frailty, but evidentially enough patrons existed to notice that the same people kept dying about three times a month. They called to complain, as people with no lives so typically do, and my good ole editor descended into my little corner of the open floor planned office somewhere in the center of an old cigarette factory, reprimanding me with no real anger. With no real humor. With no real anything. Maybe Enzo was a ghost and Rox was a goddamn mannequin, I don’t know. What would I be? What would Gus be? What would Janna—wherever she now is—be?
I don’t know what I find in it, writing the obituaries, I don’t know why I do it. The first one, that one about Enzo on the night he broke my nose, was just something I was doing to pass the time, something to keep me occupied on the bus ride back to my side of the city. He’d insisted on staying with me, riddled with guilt over the dried blood caked into that trench between my septum and upper lip. I suspect too that he was interested in me for his own parasitic practice. I had these really sad fucking eyes in my youth. No one ever had to ask me how I felt when I was nineteen, all you had to do was see those droopy orbs with damn near more bags than my face could carry, and you’d know I was well past shite.
He sat beside me on the bus that night, Enzo did, watching me until he fell asleep. Janna took his picture, then went down to the front to talk to some skater she and I had both had a crush on for god knows how long. That might also be the night I got my heart broken, but I can’t quite recall, I was too busy with the obituary for that slouchy boy slouching towards a pharmacy. Quite perfectly, rain was falling just behind his head, draping a foggy mist over the city. When viewed through those pill-like bus windows, Raleigh had much the same effect as a gossamer curtain being lain over a dully active television, spots of light and movement grazing my vision, the slightest hint of life, the softest spoken “fuck you” to my craft.
“Fuck you too,” I muttered back, pausing before finally turning the friendliest smile I could muster at will—no teeth—to the middle schoolers not far from where we sat, friendly enough to let them know I wasn’t necessarily talking to them. Though, judging from the way they’d previously sniffled their noses in the general direction of my sad and scuffed blazer and rolled their eyes irritably at the old orange typewriter on my lap, they’d probably deserved it anyway.
“Fuck who too?” Enzo asked, stirring, blinking, lost in the fantasy of getting lost in someone else’s thoughts.
“Everybody,” I mumbled, “what was your last name again?” (He’d never told it to me at all, but I hoped he wouldn’t notice.)
“Enzo Fielding,” I spoke as I clacked away on the keys, much to the derision of the other bus-goers. “Enzo Fielding, 19, of Raleigh, North Car—”
“Wait, what are you up to?” he asked, sleepy voice edging on amusement as he crawled closer across our row of seats to peer around my arm, pushing the yellow, torn-from-a-Steno-pad paper back to read my words. “Holy fuck,” he smiled, obviously still affected by whatever substance always affected him so, “Are you writing my obituary? Am I dead?”
“Well, I mean, death is relative.”
“What does that—”
“Hey, Spence,” Janna called over all the heads and bodies, unintentionally interrupting us, arm intentionally entangled in the denim-clad appendage of her potential lover, “I’m getting off here, okay? See ya around somewhere.”
“Uh…yeah,” I said as her polyvinyl backpack passed through the open doors, out of sight forever. “See ya.”
Enzo was looking up at me through thick lashes, freckles on his eyelids. “Is that your girlfriend?”
“Uh, not anymore, I don’t think.”
I made some sound, some vague notion of acknowledgement, and went back to typing, ignoring the obvious questions on Enzo’s face, ignoring whatever-the-fuck my psychosomatic heart was doing; I just went back to typing, making sure the beats were familiar, in the rhythm I knew to know.
By the time I was twenty-three I was unemployed. I don’t think it was my fault that the newspaper went under—I don’t think people hated my concise, two-to-three-liner, occasionally redundant obituaries that much, certainly not enough to trash the whole fucking business; I guess it was just a sign of the Times. To jack off my bland, wannabe-dark sense of humor, I wrote up a little obit for the paper, for good ol’ Raleigh Star Times and read it out to my former editor-in-chief at the bar we all went to as a sort of last—and, really, first—hurrah. And, thusly, there I sat once again, blood on my lips and fingers in a death grip around a gentle stranger’s proffered arm, the ever-trusty Enzo setting my broken nose back into close-enough place.
“I learned it at camp,” he said with a sheepish smile, adverting his eyes from all the curious—and irritated—patrons around us.
“Jesus,” Gus said, turned halfway towards us, tracing shapes on his sweating glass, eyeing me and Enzo and the blood on my jeans.
“By camp he means summer school,” I offered, holding a bare ice cube to my bridge, “and by summer school I mean the shed out behind the local liquor store of his childhood.”
Gus nodded, gave us a few more curious looks then, if only to be polite or pass the time, introduced himself.
“Maybe we can shake,” he suggested, holding out his left hand, indicating my own, “so Livie there can get a bit of relief, yeah?”
“Sorry,” I said reflexively, releasing the bartender’s arm, apologizing again when I saw the outline of my hand still staining her skin.
“Uh, Spence,” I said of myself, “Spencer or whatever.”
“Okay, Spencer or Whatever. Who’s your medic?”
“Enzo,” I told him, looking up to find that the very man in question had slipped away, slid into a booth and playing cards with its original, bawling occupant. I’m sure he got bits of their story through lulls in the sobs, through the gaps of hitched breathing; it was all like oxygen for him. I remembered then, as Gus whispered something in my ear—only in an effort to be heard over that annoying cacophony of life—that I’d never finished his obituary. Four years after that initial night, and that yellow paper was stored away somewhere, with nothing but a name and age.
“So I have this thing I do,” I told Gus later that night, later that morning, stretching out on his velvet couch, overpriced blanket shielding my torso from the winter air creeping through the old window panes. My typewriter wouldn’t fit in my pocket, unfortunately, so I was writing on my phone.
“You have this little thing you do?”
“Yeah, I have this little thing I do.”
Gus perched on the swirling arm, moving a stray strand of hair from my forehead. “And what little thing do you do, Spencer or Whatever?”
“I write obituaries.”
“Like for a job?”
“Not anymore. I just write them. I guess I collect them—” I paused, looking at no particular spot on the ceiling—“can you collect things you make yourself? Will that get me turned into a flower?”
Gus leaned down, smile audible, fingers ghosting the bare flesh of my upper arms. “If you were a flower, I’d so plant you.”
I laughed, one hiccupped, overamplified gaggle that I was nothing short of unaccustomed to making. I mean I laughed regularly, I knew some people who were funny, I just never laughed like that; I’m sure Gus thought I was a goddamn idiot.
“You don’t think it’s weird, though?” I ventured, uncharacteristically nervous, “that I just write random fucking obituaries?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I mean I guess I’d prefer a guy who writes obituaries than one who eats babies or some shit.”
I laughed again, this time in a style more akin to usual. “How do those two things correlate at all?”
Gus laughed too, “Do they need to?”
“I mean besides,” he said, unfurling his arm in the air before us, “do you think it’s weird that I have all these fucking plants in my apartment?”
“That’s just a symptom of our generation,” I assured him, noting that he did in fact have a good number of plants. Ivy spilling over the rim of ornate coffee tins, a tiny asparagus fern nested into a chipped goat-head pot he’d made in a wine and ceramics class, cacti and aloe lining the kitchen windowsill, spider plants in the bathroom, and, not the last but certainly the most millennial, a philodendron on a retro side table, in a pot painted like a sunset.
“I think your obituaries are just a symptom of our generation, too.”
“I think they’re just a symptom of this fucking world.”
“That’s a symptom of our generation too.”
I filed Gus’s away under T—Thummel was his last name—and looked over in the general direction of that ratty yellow paper on my desk—you know, the way dramatic people do in dramatic scenes. The problem with me finishing Enzo’s obituary, I realized at some point, was that it was damn near impossible to trap him in words. He was movements, he was adverted eyes, curious smiles, shaky hands; he was like a gossamer dress in motion. Despite how much I love them, how indebted I am to them, words didn’t seem capable of handling any of that. No matter how many of them I used, no matter if I broke my form and did something beyond two or three lines. He was just so goddamn different, Enzo was.
For instance, he dodged fallen leaves when he walked. And they were everywhere, all the green ash and callery pear trees having bleed their rouged leaves all about the sidewalks, Enzo weaving in and out of their paths in much the way he navigated parties. He was so good at it, like the wind was guiding him, spreading him about like Shelley’s dreams while he passed through that post-industrial cigarette city en route to the bus stop.
“You can pretend to be Gus if you want,” I said later, when the conjoined, bulky cubes of the prison loomed before us, at the bottom of a particularly pathetic hill.
“Why would I want to pretend to be Gus?”
“Because I told her I was bringing Gus.”
“She knows me, Spin. I visit her more than you do.”
“Fair point. Maybe I can pretend to be Gus.”
Enzo looked at me, concerned. “Then who will be Spencer?”
“No one. The world is improved already.”
“I don’t think you’re that important to the cosmos for your existence to have such an impact one way or the other, Spin.”
“Am I that important to you?” I asked, looking straight ahead at the heavy blue doors that always scared me as a child.
“Well then the cosmos can go fuck themselves.”
Enzo smiled, moving closer to me as we mounted the concrete steps, the gap between us so narrow not even the chilling autumn wind could creep though, falling in line behind us like the third friend.
“Where is Gus?” he asked as we emptied our pockets for the guards, their paddle-like metal detectors zipping slowly through the air about five hairsbreadths from our bodies, spread eagle like we were in some dungeon draped in latex.
“With his other boyfriend.”
One of the guards quirked his eyebrow at another, whispering something about me just out of earshot. I wondered, in that way I always do, if they could tell. I wondered, in that way I always did around guys like them, if I was safe. They can smell tits from a mile away, I thought to myself, feeling my newly forming Adam’s apple bob a bit when I swallowed what sliver of spit I could muster.
“I didn’t know he had another.”
We were in now, past the thick wire cage of a door that protected the thick iron bars of another, down an austere concrete hallway that smelled like ammonia and new rubber.
“From my understanding he has several.”
“That’s okay with you?”
I looked at him, shrugging from my eyes. “Might as well be.”
Enzo was right, I didn’t visit my mother often. I don’t know why; I didn’t have any real reason other than the fact that I’m a shitty son.
“I didn’t recognize you as a baby neither,” she told me after I reminded her who I was, sitting across from her at the little metal table in the cinderblock visitation area, vending machine glows casting murky blue highlights in her simple blonde hair; there was none of that phone and Plexiglas stuff there. She was smoking, Helene Branch was, her slender wrists and bony fingers limply resting in the air, almost as flimsy was the menthol smoke. For some reason, I always imaged her doing it in the hospital too, even though I knew that wouldn’t have been allowed. “They handed you to me and I didn’t know who the fuck you was, all slimy and covered in blood.”
“I’m sure I didn’t quite know you either,” I said flatly, watching a little girl meet her aunt for the first time across the room; barring us, they were the only people there.
“You look like your father,” mom told me after a beat. “I wouldn’t recognize him neither.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t quite know him either.”
“Have you ever met him?” Enzo asked me later that night, as we made dinner in the tiny kitchen that was more or less ours. To this day I couldn’t tell you where Enzo’s permanent residence in those years was; he was always on some couch or another, curled up and reliving whatever horrible memories he used his waking moments to try to forget; when he could, he didn’t sleep at all.
“Not that I know of.”
Enzo hummed, shoveling scoops of his homemade boysenberry and basil jam into an old little jar he’d gotten from the flea market. “Wait,” he said finally, after the lid was screwed on and his attention adverted back to me, “what does that mean?”
“I could’ve met him fifty times,” I explained, “he could be my next-door neighbor for all I know; I’ve never even seen a picture. Hell, he could be Jesus Fucking Christ!”
“Well I don’t think it’s Jesus, Spence.”
I shrugged, taking down my beloved enamel plates—ones he couldn’t break. “I don’t think it really matters. Parental titles are about as pointless now as noble ones. Besides,” I added after coming back into the alcove, “I think he thinks he has a daughter, what would he want with me?”
Zo’s eyebrows scrunched together in that way they did so often when I spoke. “You say that like daughters and sons are two different species. Like daughters are hamsters and sons are bathtubs.”
“Are bathtubs a species?”
“See!” He exclaimed, pointing the jam-smeared spoon my way, “That’s my point!”
I stared at him for a long moment after that, maybe longer than I ever had before. Inside I was smiling—smirking—but my external existence was, as usual, lagging behind; I’m sure he thought I was angry at him.
“Do me a favor,” I said, stepping forward and taking the spoon, “don’t ever be what people want you to be, Zo. Don’t ever change an ounce of your soul.”
Sometimes I read through the obituaries, mostly in the middle of the day, sitting at my desk with a glass of whisky I had around mostly to feel like a real, genuine fuckup. These were people I was close to, or so I liked to tell myself as I sat alone day in and night out.
I never told Enzo. Maybe that’s what he was waiting to hear, sticking around to get the full extent of my angsty little issues. Maybe that’s why I never told him. Maybe that’s why I’d tell him I was too busy to go to some movie party and the house of someone he knew, I didn’t want him to suspect. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I was lying to myself too, in telling myself I was reorganizing the obituaries instead of reminiscing. I’d tell myself I was reorganizing, yet each time they’d go back in the same order, in the same files, in the same cabinets, nothing changed. I was a creature of habit, it seemed, by no design other than an utter lack of creativity.
When it came time to feed the cat I would stop for the day, finished “reorganizing” and pushing back the velvet and silk curtains that shielded my office corner from the rest of the living room, make-shift walls, dumping the whisky in the fake plant potted in real dirt. There were other things I had to do, emails I needed to check, job applications I needed to finish. For the past year or so I’d been working free lance as some form of journalist and obituarist here and there, something I’d found when my unemployment checks were running their final lap though, in many ways, I was still more or less jobless. No one made the big bucks—or ever average bucks—writing obituaries. Well, in America no one made much of any bucks really, not unless you wore a flag on your lapel, had a television camera aimed at your Bible, or wore a number on your back; no one is much of anything these days.
“I’m not trying to impress you or whatever,” I told my mother after the new year, “but I wrote a pretty famous obituary. Well, famous in the unknown circuits.”
“Uh, Wyatt Lauren. I don’t know if you remember me talking about him, but he’s this angsty fucking poet I was really into? Anyway, he died about two weeks back and they asked me to write the obituary.”
“Oh, uh, The Sarasota Sun. They posted an ad on Craigslist. I mailed it in, the obit, and they published it the next day. Anyway, it meant a lot to me. He was a big inspiration for me, Wyatt was, really inspired my writing.”
Mom looked at me, ankle cuffs jangling as she shifted in her seat. Blue paint sparkled on her nails, I wondered where she’d gotten the polish. “Your writing? Son, you write obituaries, you think they gonna give you some Nobel Prize for that?”
I shrugged, “No, I mean I know I’m not some great novelist, mom, but I am hoping to do something with them one day.” I laughed a little, uncrossing one leg only to bring the other up in the chair with me, forming half a crisscrossed position. I had this vision, this dream of a gallery wall so clearly I could hardly believe mom or the guards couldn’t see it; it was so goddamn lifelike I was almost surprised they’d let mom out of jail to go to it. “I was thinking of having like an exhibit,” I confessed, “or like a book comprised of just them, maybe with pictures of the pseudo-deceased, you know? I just think that’d be pretty cool. I’d like to do that. I’d call it something like ‘All My Living Friends’ maybe, it would be a metaphor or some shit. Millennials love a good metaphor.” I nodded, dreaming still—fuck me, I was almost smiling. “I’d really like to do that.”
Helene smiled, leaning vaguely across the table, the wiry little smile on her lips making her look a bit like William Burroughs with long hair. “Dreams are ‘bout like black holes, baby, you go into them too far and you’ll get lost forever.” Sniffling, she leaned back, “You might not want to zip up that space suit too far.”
I looked up at her through my lashes, slouched in my chair with some neutral expression on my face. I think I probably nodded. And she did too, agreeing with herself, agreeing with her experimental stint in parenting, before her chair scraped against the concrete floor. Without so much as any parting words, she sauntered over to the guard, ready to be escorted back to her cell.
“Um, hang on, baby,” she said quickly and calmly as she [the guard] attempted to put the cuffs back on my mother’s wrist, “le’me just finish this.”
Mom took two more drags of her cigarette, pure bliss on her face before grinding the thing out in a coffee can turned ashtray and holding out both wrists. I realized then that the main difference between her and my father had always been that I’d always gotten to watch her walk away. For some reason, that meant a lot.
Gus came over on my birthday because the gift he got me was mostly a gift for himself. I tried not to complain and, for the first time in my life, was actually successful at something. I wondered if he’d proud of me for that, for something.
“You should probably tell him,” Enzo made his plea sound like a suggestion, eyebrows scrunched together sadly as he sat curled up in the kitchen sink—it was the trough-like kind with no divider—my legs on either side of him from my perch on the counter, our smoky breaths not strong enough to even tempt the windchime as we exhaled into the night. “It’s probably best if you tell him, Spin.”
I looked down the short little hallway as best I could, in the sightless direction of where Gus still slumbered in my bed, sprawled out like those ivies he loved so much. I could tell him, I’d told people before, but that was precisely why I didn’t want to tell him.
“It’s fine,” I said finally, “I don’t really mind much.”
Leaning my head against the wall, I stared out onto our darkened street. All up and down the sidewalk street lights cowered, their cords weeping like malnourished willows of the modern era, stray cats ducking into storm drains, the swearers more preferable than all the television lives going on beyond panes of thin glass. I wished I could have followed them, even though it wouldn’t be hard to tell him. It wouldn’t be hard to look Gus in the eyes and tell him that I was asexual; it was the aftermath I feared. The explanation. His leaving. Or, perhaps what really I feared most was him saying he understands, holding me close after I explained where exactly I rested on the spectrum, assuring me we’d be okay, that he understands, only to have him prove a night later that he’d done everything but understood. I wished things were easier.
“Are we past the part yet where you realize you’re in love with me, Zo?”
He laughed, leaning his head against my inner knee, ashing his cigarette in a coffee mug. “I don’t think either of us is in love with the other, Spin. Not in any romantic sense.”
I stretched out for a minute, unfurling from myself as if I could somehow shed me like a jacket. “I think you’re right.”
“We should be though,” Enzo continued sadly. “Were the world a nice place to live in we’d be so fucking in love with eachother.”
Sighing, I settled back into my former position, swinging out my arm like some Elizabethan twink on stage, “But alas…”
“Yeah,” Enzo echoed sleepily, “but alas…”
I wouldn’t receive Enzo’s present until a week later. Or, rather, I wouldn’t realize I was seeing Enzo’s present until a week later. I’d never paid much attention to light poles when I walked, often mistaking them for people in my peripheral vision and ducking my head with earbuds in, hoping they’d think I couldn’t hear.
But there they had been all along, obituaries scanned and copied on Office Depot’s best economy paper, complete with all my typewritten mistakes and corrections—the rough drafts, Enzo had always liked those better.
I stared in amazement at them, going all over the damn city with a face lit up with childlike wonder, like the end of my mother’s cigarettes. He’d turned the city into a gallery for me.
“I won’t be offended if you still want some New York gallery one day,” Enzo told me with his goofy grin later that night, when I picked him up from work and hugged him so tightly his jacket’s zipper nicked my heart. “Like Janna, you know?”
“Why do you love me so much?” I mumbled into the cavern behind his clavicle, ignoring his deprecation.
“Someone has to.”
“Ha!” I let out, “No one has to, Enz, that’s what makes you so goddamn special.”
“If I’m so special where’s my obituary?”
“You’re immortal, Enzo,” I was holding his face then, almost crying, “you better fucking be immortal.”
But he isn’t. Neither am I. Neither is anyone, anything. He isn’t dying by the end of this, don’t worry, that’s not where this is going. Instead, Enzo is merely sleeping, yellow ducks on his socks and Twin Peaks still winding in the old VHS player on the floor, casting light and shadows on his face, the kindest hint of life, the sweetest uttered “fuck you” to my frown.
I type slowly nearby, hoping the diluted sound wouldn’t wake him, adjusting that old yellow paper in the typewriter’s reel.
He is survived by his ne’er ending need to survive.
About the Author
Isaac Humphrey (they/them) is currently an undergraduate English major. Their work has been featured in *Fearsome Critters* magazine, as well as having won a fiction competition hosted by the South Carolina Academy of Authors. They can be found on Instagram here: www.instagram.com/tragicisaac