On the nights like this, I take out the fake teeth and put them in a jar. I feel the old broken bones, and the rods and screws, and miscellaneous replacement parts. I consider that piece of metal that was left in my body and we never talked about it again. I felt it there for years, by my left shoulder, and then one day I didn’t. These are the nights I think of Hector Luis. Coming up on thirty years clean from booze and chemicals, I think of Luis on these nights.
On the nights when I sit alone, in the dark, and run my fingers over the scars from the cuts, and the fingertips touch the violence that was 1977, and 1978, and 1979…I feel an odd nostalgic pain.
Hector Luis, he didn’t make it.
On nights like this, I think about him. When he died, his wife found an old, crumpled piece of paper with a phone number written on it in pencil, tucked into a corner of his wallet. The number was my mom’s old house phone. Luis and I had not seen each other in 20 years, but he always told his wife to call me if he got arrested or was in trouble. My mom loved Luis, she called him her other son. Luis would tell me, “Your moms love me better, cause you is too ooogly to love…”
Ma called me and told me Luis was dead. I could tell she was crying. I called his wife, wanting no details. Dead is all the information I need. Dead says it all. She told me where he was buried.
On nights like this I remember when Luis and I would sit in his father’s car, pop a handful of Seconal and split a quart of Clan MacGregor scotch, to take the edge off, then go to AA meetings. Then we’d split another quart after the meeting ended and commend ourselves for getting sober. It was a long time after our time of committing crimes against man and God together ended before I imagined the possibility of sobriety, before I considered it at all. That was always hill too big to climb, and for others less damaged by the wars of the streets and bars.
I’d been clean for five years when I got that call. Even with his long list of crimes, Luis was a fundamentally better person than me. To this day, I’ll never understand why some of us never cross that line again, and some do. Sobriety is razor thin, and veiled in a transparent sheet. Impossibly easy to cross back over into madness.
When I heard he had died, I didn’t have the time or the connections for pills. My plan was simply to become profoundly drunk. It wasn’t a decision; it wasn’t a need or a hunger. I was being summoned.
The liquor store was strange, yet familiar, a scene from another life. I’d forgotten how to walk in, find the cheap stuff in the half gallon plastic bottle, pay for it and leave without making eye contact. I wanted to steal the booze. It felt right to steal it. I paid for it instead. Walking out and crumpling the bag around the throat of the bottle, feeling that pathway in my hand. In my hand, I held a weapon. A tool of my distraction and my destruction.
I drove to the cemetery in silence.
Even the voices in my head and the million memories of this semi-psychotic Puerto Rican gang-banger refugee from the Bronx had gone silent. I could still see him. Sometimes I called him Pancho. Short, stocky, strong as a mule, jet black hair and a handlebar mustache. He was almost as handsome as he claimed to be. He’d often tell the ladies about his mad skills in bed, and remind them he was gorgeous, but he scared them, he scared me; he scared himself.
I could always sense the tension, the pending explosion. He’d light a Marlboro and his black eyes would glow with rage, and I’d know we were off again. Another battle, another score to settle, another deal.
His life was plagued by idle threats. He hated white people and often, daily, told me I was the whitest motherfucker he’d ever met. One day, he asked me if I ever saw Pat Boone singing Blue Berry Hill. I said unfortunately I had. He said, “You dat white!”
On nights like this, late ,when we were both totaled, He’d speak of his grandmother, from Guayama Puerto Rico, the town of witches and how he had witches’ blood and he was cursed. Some days I believed him. That night as I drove to the grave, I believed him.
I walked to the plot, his was solitary and off to the side of a cemetery of rolling hills, and stones dating back to the 1700’s. The dirt was fresh, and an inscription read “Loving husband and father”. He was, though his son, Little Luis, frequently said he hated him, and called him a criminal. He was, he was all of that and more. He was some things only known to him and I, and now just to me.
I kneeled and felt the dampness of the fresh soil absorb into the cotton of my jeans. I recalled the cowboys from the Mexican westerns we’d watch together and he’d translate. Real cowboys always die with their boots on. I suppose Luis faced it coming at him. I hope he did. I know he did.
And now this was his Boot Hill.
Cracking the booze open, breaking the paper seal, I took a long, deep breathless draw on the bottle. I tasted the rage in my throat. I was at war again. I didn’t drink vodka. I became one with vodka, and I passed instantly into insanity. That evil and crazy bastard, me, the one I had successfully suppressed, thought dead, silent for years, was alive and again open for business. I took another long draw from the bottle, from the sexy neck. I could feel my body fighting to reject it, but I needed it in me. I needed it now. Suddenly, I was there, just as I’d left it, the entire rancid and putrid mess. I was with my troops. The devil himself in attendance.
I could smell Luis’ death, I could feel his death. Something punched my chest, pushing me back against the headstone. I puked out the poison. I was pushed back across the razor thin line, through the veil. Fleeting glimpses of sanity rose in me, holding the long and no longer sexy neck. I slammed the vodka bottle into the headstone, watching as the clear liquid and ten thousand shards of glass flew in a hundred directions. I pummeled the cemetery dirt with my hands until my knuckles bled, cut from the dirt and the glass. I sat back and cried and wailed hard at the passing of my friend. My partner in crime. My brother.
I fully understand the tenet of gratitude and its role in sobriety. I could never fully apply it to my life after Luis. I still, to this day, think something, a cut in the fabric of time, a cosmic mistake, allowed the demons to take the wrong guy. I know who I am. I’ve no more reason to be taking this next breath than my friend. A roll of the dice, a quick and poor decision and a life gone, buried six feet down in the cemetery dirt.
On a night like this, my fingers again touch the old and deep scars on my skin.
The cuts are still there, faded now, but I feel them. I question if any of it was real. In some ways, it is like it never happened. Then I feel the old bones, and I touch my shoulder where that mysterious metal used to be and I know… it was real.