Mouse wasn’t small. When they measured his body in the morgue, he was six foot two. Even though he could be quiet, I never called him Mouse, I called him Marty because that was his name, but it’s my name too which is why his mother started calling him Mouse after the divorce. When your son dies, everything becomes a first. The first Thanksgiving without him, the first birthday, even silly shit like the first time you go to the Chuck Box for a burger and he isn’t there next to you, stealing your onion rings and changing the subject when you ask about his love life. Tomorrow will be the first, first. The first New Years Day. Why the fuck I even left the house tonight, I don’t know. Elise said she was happy to stay in, but that felt like delaying the inevitable, like refusing to pull a rotten tooth because it will hurt even though it racks you with pain every single time you chew. Besides, she has been through hell too. She loved Marty like he was her own. She needs to have fun again, to live. We both do.
“Hey Martin! What’s going on man?”
Brandon’s a good guy, but he has no idea that Marty is dead.
“Not much, man, how’ve you been? How’s the drywall business?”
“Can’t complain. I’ve been doing a lot of corporate jobs. New construction. It’s real repetitive, but it beats having to hunt out new work all the time.”
“Absolutely. I hear that.”
“You still cooking?”
“Yup. Head chef now.”
“At the Grand right, in Scottsdale?”
“That’s a nice place. They treat you alright there?”
“There’s a manager who’s a real prick, drives me fucking crazy. Other than that though, it’s good pay, benefits. Way better than my last job.”
“How about Mouse, how’s he doing? He must be in college now, huh?”
“He’s dead, actually. He OD’d back in August. Fentanyl.”
Those are just facts, and they’re facts about my own kid, but it turns out if you explain that your son is dead without sounding really sad as those facts leave your mouth, people have no idea how to respond. They stare at you like Brandon is staring at me now. They look around the room to make sure the whole thing isn’t some big joke.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. August tenth.”
“Jesus, Martin. I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s OK man, you didn’t kill him. Not unless you were his dealer. You’re not selling on the side, are you?”
Jokes don’t go over well. Brandon is half smiling, frozen in place. We definitely can’t go back to talking about drywall now, that’s for sure. He’s looking around the room now, probably trying to find his wife, but certainly looking for an exit. Don’t worry Brandon, I got you.
“Hey, listen, it’s been good seeing you, Brandon. I gotta go find Elise, though. Happy New Year, man.”
“Yeah, you too, Martin.”
Everyone thinks I’m an asshole. Either they think I actually didn’t care about my son, or they think I’m using him in some dark way to fuck with people. What no one considers is that there is no good way to deal with losing your child. There’s only mania, fits of spitting rage and hysterical bouts of laughter and tears. Bloody, ripped jeans where your knees hit the asphalt in the grocery store parking lot. Back breaking fatigue that blurs your vision after day three of forgetting to eat. A dented fender where you reversed into the pylon in your apartment complex parking lot, not once, but twice!
“Hey Marty, thanks for coming. It’s good to see you.
“Oh, hey Megan. Yeah, thanks for having us. Good to see you, too.”
Megan works with Elise. She came to the funeral. She means well.
“How are you? I mean, obviously bad, but, all things considered, are you doing OK? Finding ways to cope? Or maybe not cope, but you know, like, deal? Like, you know, move on, or whatever?”
If I let her, she'd spend the last hour of the year tripping on her words. Poor thing, I should say something.
“I’m fucking miserable, but you know, I drink a lot so that helps. Snorting crushed up Xanax to get out of bed, but honestly, who doesn’t these days, am I right?”
She’s smiling, her eyelids sucked back into her skull, waiting for me to tell her that I’m kidding before she’ll exhale.
“I’m just fucking around. About the Xanax, anyway.”
I hold up my glass and she clinks it with hers. She’s questioning inviting me now. When your kid OD’s, jokes about drugs are in very poor taste. That’s what makes them funny, though. She’s staring at the whiskey coke in my hand, wondering about my crack about drinking more. That one was true. If people ask how I’m doing, I’m not going to lie. Everyone here knows I’m basically a functional alcoholic, but since Marty died, I’ll admit, I’ve been dancing a little too close to just being a plain old drunk. Elise has done her best to keep me distracted, to find activities that don’t involve drinking. She’s trying to do for me what I tried to do for Marty, but outside of church and AA, there isn’t really anywhere to go that won’t try to sell you a beer, and fuck if I’m going to church or AA. Not now.
“Well, hopefully the new year is a lot better for you.”
“Can’t be much worse than this one, could it? Maybe if Elise died, but even still, a girlfriend doesn’t rank as high as a son, so…no, I’m kidding. Sorry. I can’t help it. It’s how I deal with shit, I make stupid jokes, just ignore me. Seriously though, thank you. Thanks for inviting us, and I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass.”
Four months of this. Four months of apologizing every time I’m honest. Four months of having to make everyone else around me feel better. People say something because they’re terrified of an elephant in the room. If my dead son doesn’t come up in conversation, they’ll think that I think they are avoiding the subject, so they do their best to say something kind, to ask me if I’m OK and get it out of the way so they can move on with their evening. It’s hilarious because they don’t want to actually talk about Marty, because they know his death was his own fault, because he was an addict who thought he was invincible, who thought it was so fucking cool to waste his talent, to crumble up his good grades and high SAT scores and to hang around with a bunch of low lifes snorting heroin. Knowing this, they blame me by extension. How can they not? I’m his father. Or I was. Is the relationship past tense now? Who fucking knows. But it’s hard for them to see Marty as an independent person. They weren’t there when he was fifteen and I found the vodka bottles under his bed. They didn’t hear me ream his ass over that, and then again with the pot and the Oxy. They didn’t see me crying over his hospital bed when he was seventeen and the paramedics had to bring him back from the edge of death with Narcan. They sure as shit didn’t read the letters or hear the speeches or in any way witness the amount of effort, the constant day after day, pleading with my son to please, think. My beautiful, intelligent, funny, God he was so fucking funny, To put that shit away and to find something else, anything else to be addicted to that could have a positive effect on his life, or at least not threaten to end it.
“They don’t know about the boxing lessons, and the gym memberships, or the early mornings where I would bang on his door right after sunrise, not just so we could go jogging together, but so I could make sure he was still alive! To make sure that the night before, and whatever careless and intoxicating adventures that it contained didn’t kill him. Does anyone know what it’s like? Do any of these people fucking know? Have they prayed to God, ‘Please let him be alive, please open the door, please don’t be fucking dead, please God, look out for my son God! He’s a good kid! He’s such a good kid, God, he’s just young and he’s dumb and he just thinks, I, I don’t know what he thinks, he thinks it’s all a big laugh! That nothing bad can happen, that he has it all under control, but please, God, let him open this fucking door! Let him stand there looking at me with his messy hair and his clothes smelling like cigarettes and that smile, my boy’s beautiful smile. He was such a good kid, God…’”
“Baby! Baby! Calm down. It’s OK, I’m here.”
Elise is grabbing my face. She’s looking at me. Everyone is looking at me. Ah, shit, I’ve been talking out loud. I should laugh. If I laugh, everyone will stop looking. Fuck, they’re still looking.
“Baby, come on, let’s step outside.”
If I open my mouth to talk I’m gonna cry, so I just nod. Elise is so good to me. I’d die if it weren’t for her.
“I’m sorry. I fucked up, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry everybody! I didn’t mean to ruin the party! My kid’s dead! If you didn’t know, my son Mouse, Marty, he’s dead, and I’m still a little fucked up about it. My bad, though. My bad.”
“Baby, no one is mad at you. Let’s just go outside for some air.”
Elise is so good to me. I love her so much.
“Yeah, you’re right, sweetie.”
“Leave your drink here.”
I hand her the red plastic cup. It’s empty anyway. In the parking lot we sit in the car and I weep into and all over Elise. My nose is leaking clear snot and I try to keep it from getting on her chest. We laugh about it as she wipes it with a Chuck Box napkin she finds in the console. Fireworks explode overhead, and the colors bounce all over the hood. Red and gold and purple supernovas high above the palm trees, born with such noise and fire, they shine so brightly and then sparkling down, down, they vanish into smoke before they ever get the chance to touch the Earth. We can hear a crowd counting backwards from ten. She starts the engine so I don’t have to listen.