Warning: Strong language, and references to self-harm and issues with mental health
“I think I’m gonna kill myself.”
He’d said it without emphasis, eyes unwavering from the golf game on TV, but Frank’s bowels wriggled in shuddering waves; he watched Jeff in his periphery. What Frank said was something he’d thought before, but never aloud, let alone to another person; this largely explained his nervousness, but he mostly worried he’d regret it. Frank could only pray saying it to a friend would provide him with the… whatever it was he needed.
Right now, however, he’d have to settle with Jeff.
“Huh?” Jeff’s attention didn’t break from the toenail he was attempting to trim.
Frank told himself not to sigh, but he couldn’t help it. He looked at Jeff this time, and stated, slightly louder, “I said I’m gonna kill myself.”
“Oh. Hmm.” Jeff’s expression didn’t change; his tone was that of someone on the verge of yawning. “Why?”
Frank had anticipated Jeff’s indifference, but not the question; he’d assumed Jeff wouldn’t care enough to ask it. He also didn’t have an answer, so he candidly admitted, “I don’t know.”
“Well, that works.”
“Hey. I’m serious.” He’d intended that to be angry, but Frank thought the words sounded petulant instead.
“So am I! Who needs reasons? Kill yourself, then figure out why.”
On the TV, the golfer swung her putter, creating a satisfying ting! as it struck the ball in time with Jeff’s clippers hewing the gnarled cuticle.
“Ha!” Jeff happily tossed the clippers onto the coffee table, then leaned back in his armchair and looked at Frank, who stared back blankly. The golfer must’ve sunk her shot; everyone in the stands was now cheering.
“Thanks,” Frank said, turning back to the TV. “Appreciate that.” He watched Jeff in his periphery again; if Jeff showed anything other than amusement, Frank couldn’t see it––he doubted it.
Almost as if providing validation, Jeff scoffed. “Sure. Just get me a beer before you load the gun, if you’re gonna be up.” A commentator complimented the golfer on a well-timed shot; Frank almost yelled at the TV.
Instead, he forced himself off the couch, loathing himself for indulging Jeff’s request, but maybe a trip to the kitchen would do his legs some good; to make it more pleasant, Frank mentally listed Jeff’s defects.
Although Jeff’s offhandedness annoyed Frank, he knew he emanated depression like a pungent musk. Still, he’d hoped for more than utter apathy. Jeff was Frank’s friend (allegedly), and weren’t friends supposed to care?
When Frank reached the refrigerator, he was muttering the mental list aloud. If sentient, the fridge may’ve thought Frank was calling it a flaccid phallus indicative of an even limper, tinier ego. He opened the fridge and grabbed the beers, then shut it and walked back to the living room, shaking Jeff’s beer until he crossed into Jeff’s view.
“Here,” he said, tossing it to Jeff before reclaiming his spot on the couch.
Jeff caught the can and mumbled either “Thanks” or “Turtle" (Frank wasn’t sure), then clawed at the tab, struggling since he’d also trimmed his fingernails. “Alright, I dunno if you’re just being emu or whatever, but if you wanna actually tal–”
Foam spat from the can, dousing him. He leapt up and shouted, “What did– Did you shake it?!”
“Not on purpose.” Frank shrugged. “Hard to hold a beer steady while loading a gun.”
Jeff’s eyes narrowed, but he just reached for a napkin off the coffee table to wipe himself off. Both men remained silent; the commentators discussed an incoming storm.
“Look,” Jeff said eventually, squeezing the napkin dry, “I was only joking ‘cause I know you’re not serious.”
“I literally said–”
“You think you’re serious, but you’re not, and just don’t know it yet.”
Jeff tossed the napkin onto the coffee table. “You can’t be serious if you don’t know why you wanna do it.”
“I do know why.” Frank stuttered defensively. “I just can’t find the right… words.”
“Riiiight,” Jeff drawled, suddenly walking towards the kitchen. “Well, I’mma let you think about that, but in the meantime, I’m hungry. Do you got any food?”
Again, Frank wasn’t bothered by Jeff’s disinterest, but the prioritization of food was insulting. “What?! We weren’t done talking about that!”
“Maybe not,” Jeff called from the kitchen, his tone implying they were, “but I’m still hungry. What’s in– Wow. Nothing."
Jeff appeared in the doorway a moment later. “We’re eating out.”
Frank’s eyebrows raised. “We?”
“Don’t even act like that, I hear your gut growling from here. Come on, let’s go.” He moved towards the front door and opened it, then walked outside without waiting for an answer.
Frank scoffed. “Glad to know my voice matters.” Every part of him hated the idea of leaving, especially to endure more of Jeff’s traitorous company, but as Frank considered not going, his stomach groaned in disagreement.
“Alright,” he muttered reluctantly, as he stood and shuffled to the front door. As he grabbed the handle, he happened to glance up; nestled in the corner of the ceiling, a spider rested upon its web, hairy legs scrunching together while Frank stared, as if aware of being observed.
Frank stooped down to remove a shoe and destroy the vile creature, but paused, eyeing the arachnid. Maybe it was imagination, but Frank felt the spider was watching him too, waiting for his next move.
If he’d been asked why, it would’ve been another question he couldn't answer, but for some inexplicable reason, Frank decided killing the spider wasn’t worth it. Tell you what, buddy, he thought as he stood up, we can both live today. The longer the idea sat with him, the more it seemed… right. Feeling insightful, he exited the apartment and closed the door behind him.
He locked the door, then descended the rickety stairs. Jeff, leaning against Frank’s car, a red ‘83 Accord long past its prime, chuckled and said, “Nice day, huh?”
Frank studied the pallid sky: the sun weakly shining behind a thick cover of clouds, a vicious breeze accenting the constant threat of precipitation plainly hiding amidst one’s vaporous exhalations; all in all, quite normal in their home of Klamath Falls, Oregon.
“Yup.” Frank scrolled through his keys for the car key. “Gotta love June.”
“So where you wanna eat?” Jeff asked as Frank unlocked the driver door.
“This was your idea,” Frank said, entering the car and reaching over to unlock Jeff’s door.
“Yeah,” Jeff began as he climbed inside, “but I figured I’d give you the option now, before you start whining after I choose.”
“Like I’ve ever done that,” Frank grumbled, inserting the key and twisting the ignition. After substantial sputtering, the vehicle started, but when Frank shifted into reverse, the engine stalled. He swore under his breath. “Try that again.”
The car successfully restarted after more sputtering, then stalled when Frank shifted into reverse again.
“Let’s take my–”
“I can– It’ll work,” Frank insisted, palm displayed defensively. “Just… give me a sec.”
Frank grabbed the key, inhaled and exhaled, then cranked the ignition; the car shuddered, and an anemic stream of smoke trailed from the grill, then vanished into the ether.
“Ok, we’ll take your car.”
They exited the defunct coupe and walked over to Jeff’s car, a ‘91 GT in near-mint condition. Jeff disabled the alarm and unlocked the doors as they neared; after they’d entered, the engine flawlessly roared into life on the first try.
“I– You pick,” Frank stammered.
“Alright, be emu. Whatever.”
Frank wanted to say something nasty, but just pouted out his window, trying to ignore how fast Jeff was driving. Frank paid virtually no attention to anything he saw; he’d seen Klamath before.
After several minutes, Frank noticed Jeff had driven in a loop, and he asked, “Do you even know where we’re going?”
“Oh! Uh… Kinda forgot about that part,” Jeff sheepishly admitted.
“What do you–”
“Don’t worry, there’s a great place about three blocks– Look!” Jeff suddenly cried, pointing into the distance; a column of smoke twisted into the sky, emanating from the suburbs nearby.
“Fire! Let’s check it out!”
Before Frank could object, or at least question his enthusiasm, Jeff turned around and drove towards the suburbs. For the next few minutes, Jeff searched for the smoke's source, ignoring Frank’s half-hearted protests.
Jeff slowed down as they discovered it: in a cul-de-sac, in the middle house's yard, a maple tree had caught fire. Its blazing branches had ignited a nearby telephone pole, spewing smoke like a beacon.
But what shocked Frank most about the scene was an old man attempting to extinguish the flames, using a garden hose and wearing only a pair of ragged underwear, decrepit gardening boots caked with mud, and nothing else.
Jeff quickly pulled into the cul-de-sac and parked, and both men hurriedly exited the car and rushed to the semi-nude man.
“Excuse me, sir?” Jeff called as they neared.
The old man’s back faced them, and without turning, he gruffly replied, “Yeah, whaddya what?”
“Well,” Jeff hesitantly started, “do you… need help?”
After a moment, the old man grunted, “Nope.” A resounding crack! came from somewhere near the telephone pole’s top, as if championing the response.
Jeff looked at Frank for help, but Frank could only offer a shrug of encouragement.
“No offense, sir,” Jeff said, “but I hope you called 911, ‘cause what you’re doing… It's not working.”
“Really?” The old man glanced over his shoulder to glare at Jeff, but still didn’t turn around. “An’ who are you? Sum kinda fuckin' fire expert?”
“Nope, sir, not at all,” Jeff calmly informed him. “Just making an observation, not an expert, in anything, believe me. I'm Jeff Obor, and this–” He gestured towards Frank. “–is my good casual acquaintance, Frank D’Dot. We both work at St. Ignacidus High School. We’re not experts. Just teachers.”
“D’Dot?” The old man grunted, as if the name tasted bad.
“It’s foreign,” Frank coolly responded, growing bored with the old man’s haughtiness. In truth, something about him struck Frank as odd, more than the amateur firefighting, but he couldn’t place it; maybe insolence could goad the old man into turning around.
But the old man just grunted again, and remained silent.
“Why you only wearing underwear?” Frank asked, hoping that would entice him; plus, he genuinely wanted to know.
“What, ah’m gonna waste time puttin’ on pants when a fire's outside mah home?” he said, like Frank was stupid.
“I’m sure those extra couple seconds came in real handy,” Jeff muttered.
In a flash, the old man threw the hose down and spun around. “You makin’ fun of me?” he snarled, rapidly closing the distance between him and Jeff.
As the old man bristled at Jeff, their faces centimeters apart, Frank was finally able to see him entirely, and almost gasped as he realized what had perplexed him earlier.
The man looked precisely like Frank, if thirty years older.
Everything matched: eyes, nose, hairline, posture, even the old man's reluctant acceptance of Jeff’s nervous apology. The resemblance was uncanny, as if, through some accursed spell, Frank was looking into–
“Amir,” the old man begrudgingly said, shaking Jeff’s trembling hand and accepting his apology. “Amir Notlimah.” He released Jeff’s hand, spit into his palm and rubbed it clean on the thigh of his underpants, then crossed his arms and studied the two bewildered men.
“Sorry ‘bout snappin’,” he said. “Guess yer jist tryin’ to help. Maybe ah’m a little worked up from all this.” He vaguely waved at the flaming pole behind him.
“Hey, it’s alright,” Jeff politely said, waving the apology away as if he wasn’t still trembling. “You said you called 911, right?”
“‘Bout ten minutes ago. Should be here in the next forty-five or so.”
Jeff opened and closed his mouth a couple times before saying, “Alrighty then… Cool beans. So we’ll just get out of your…” His eyes scanned Amir’s balding scalp. “Area, so… Good luck with… all that, Mr…”
“Notlimah,” Amir repeated disinterestedly, reaching for the hose.
“What kinda name is that?” Frank asked as Amir turned away, hoping the old man caught his sarcasm.
Amir didn’t answer, and just refocused the stream onto the pole. Frank looked at Jeff, who shrugged, then jabbed a thumb at his car; Frank nodded back, and they started to leave.
“It’s foreign,” the old man blurted without turning, stopping both men in their tracks.
Frank considered replying, but he just looked at Jeff and nodded again, and they both walked back to Jeff’s car.
The tree and the pole continued to burn as they drove away, unheeding of the old man.
After buying food from the great place Jeff knew of––Taco Chime––and grabbing beer from a convenience store, they drove back to Frank’s apartment, then ate their meals and drank beers while watching the remainder of the golf game. Since leaving Amir, neither had spoken much, each contemplating in their own ways what they’d just witnessed, but eventually Jeff grabbed the remote from the coffee table, turned the TV off, then tossed the remote back onto the table and turned to Frank.
“K,” he said, mouth still full of chalupa-rito. “That was… weird, but I know there’s something else bothering you. You been mopey all day, saying stupid stuff you don’t mean, and you’re quiet, even more than usual. So I wanna know what’s wrong. And you’re gonna tell me. And don’t bring up that suicide crap again, ‘cause that’s bull, so I don’t wanna hear it. Come on. Out with it.”
Frank was quiet as he gathered his thoughts, staring at his taco-dilla for inspiration. “That guy back there…” he started, then trailed off.
“At Taco Chime?”
“No! Amir, he…”
Frank stared at his food, then shrugged and said, “Nothing,” and took a bite of his taco-dilla.
“Okay,” Jeff laughed. “Don’t talk about it. That’s healthy.”
“What do you want me to say, huh?” Frank suddenly hissed between his teeth, throwing his taco-dilla onto the floor. “That I feel worthless? Trapped in this deadbeat town, teaching deadbeat teenagers who’ll probably grow up to be deadbeats too, no matter what I contribute to their future? That what you want me to say? Fine! It’s true! I’m only thirty-five, but already, you look at all that, all the parts of my life, and– and… I dunno, I’ve– What, failed? At life, or… whatever? That guy today… I don’t know if you noticed, but he looked exactly like me, and I mean exactly. Or… I dunno, maybe I looked like him. Either way, I don’t wanna end up like that. Putting out fires with a garden hose, in my tighty-whiteys and boots. It was… eye-opening. I think– No, I know I’m gonna end up like that. I’m… I’m a failure. I’ve failed. Haven’t I?”
Jeff finished chewing before swallowing the massive bite he’d taken during Frank’s speech, then said, smacking his lips as he cleared his throat, “You’re not gonna end up like that.” He reached for his beer and took a sip through the straw he’d placed into the can.
“How do you know that?”
“‘Cause you don’t want to!” Jeff said logically, taking another bite. “It’s like looking for a job: you don’t want to work at McFlonald’s, so you don’t apply there. And then you don’t end up there! Easy as that.”
“You’re seriously comparing my depression to a fast-food analogy? I find that highly offensive to–”
“To what? People with actual suicidal ideation? Or suicidal tendencies, who hurt themselves, hmm?”
Frank was silenced by the sudden sternness in Jeff’s tone.
“I find the idea offensive you think what you’re going through qualifies as such. You know what real depression, what that feels like? To have something inside you telling you to be sad, or to lie there, to shut up, or to just stop! To stop living, and being and doing, and wanting or feeling. And it says that no matter what, and you sit there and accept it, because you can’t not.
“That’s what that is, but it’s not what you’re going through, no matter how much you think it might be. I get it; you think you failed. Everybody feels that at some point. I stubbed my toe, you killed your car; my wife washed my jeans with a twenty in the pocket, yours divorced you and took everything. Potato, po-tah-to. But real failure–"
“Those don’t compare at all!” Frank tried to interject.
“Real failure,” Jeff forcibly pressed on, “is when someone just gives up. Completely.” Frank had started to interrupt again, but decided to hear what his friend had to say.
“That,” Jeff gently continued, “is what failure is. You got that drive in you, the one to not fail. Somewhere. It might take a bit to come out, but it’s there. I know it is. And you know it is. You haven’t failed, man. This is just… a little bump in the road. And that’s all.”
They both sat in heavy silence, staring at their food. After he’d contemplated everything Jeff had said, Frank cleared his throat, and opened his mouth to say to Jeff what he hoped would be the wisest, maturest, and most caring response he could ever dream of delivering to his dear friend.
But for no reason whatsoever, he happened to glance at the ceiling corner again, where he noticed the spider still sitting in its web.
“Hmm,” Frank grunted inquisitively.
“That spider,” Frank answered, nodding towards the arachnid. “It was there before we left. Same spot, too. I don’t think it’s moved at all.”
“God, imagine that,” Jeff said, whistling in admiration. “Spending your whole life in place like that. Never moving.”
“Yeah,” Frank softly replied. “Yeah.”
They sat in silence once again, watching the spider as they occasionally raised a glass to profoundly sip their beers.