Siegfried (barely, his voice a wisp) breaks the silence:
"Greatest faggot that ever lived?"
Ha. That's how we used to do it, way back. Thirty, thirty-five years ago. Working for minimum wage at the recycling center, standing under the awful summer sun in a 40 yard roll-off, sweating out the previous night's gin and vodka while sorting bottles and cutting off their little metal cap rings. Filling the empty hours of paycheck-collecting by asking goofball questions to conjure time-killing words.
"Well," I say, "I assume you mean real faggots, and not these remodeled faggots like Michelangelo, real great straights of the past that present day queers project their homosexuality back onto, to make their 'race' seem noble."
"Yeah, it's gotta be a real faggot," he wheezes.
"Hmmmn. All right. Well, there probably wasn't a real fag until the 19th century, so. . ."
It's been fifteen or twenty years, maybe twenty-five years, since I've seen Siegfried. He made the same mistake millions make: desultory marriage leading to schizophrenic parenting leading to chopped down family trees.
"You know, it might be that Oscar Wilde or Rimbaud was the first real faggot. What do you think?"
"Rimbaud wasn't a faggot," Sig croaks. "He was a teen hustler. After he got clean and sober, he went to Africa and fucked nigger women. Lots of them." He stops to catch his breath. "Got some nigger disease that ate away his leg, then his life." He rasps a laugh. "In that age, he woulda lived longer as a faggot."
"The times have changed, huh?"
He nods. Joe Siegfried. Sig. Almost dead, himself. I hated coming down here, back to this shitty town. Lots of bad memories. I started sweating a couple miles before the exit ramp.
"Greatest faggot ever?" I say. "Well, until Magic Johnson comes out of the closet, I guess it has to be Freddie Mercury. He was the first fruit to become a cultural pet. Now even the Vatican can pat David Bowie on the head, and nobody grumbles about it."
When Sig's brother Larry called and said Sig was basically dead, I got an externally-induced hit of vertigo. I hadn't heard from Larry in a long time either, since he stopped trying to get me to join his Christian Identity church in Idaho, so that itself was a jolt, and then when he told me about Sig, the room started to spin on me. Siegfried is about as near to a friend as I've ever had. We were born on the same day in the same town in the same hospital. This shitty town and this shitty hospital, though the part we are in now, the part where Sig lays dying, the *Cancer Care Unit,* is relatively new.
"Freddie Mercury? Yeah. That might be right," he says.
Sig's propped up in a mechanical bed, under a pale green blanket. He's got a tube in his nose, and another in his wrist. The one in his nose is hooked up to a little machine that looks like a portable air conditioner. The other one is hooked up to a bag dripping some clear fluid.
I've been here about fifteen minutes. It took about five for us to fill in the last thirty years. Could have summed it up in four words: Lousy jobs, lousy lives.
I stare at the second hand ticking around on the clock on the wall. Sig is shorter of breath and one day closer to death. We were born on the same day in the same hospital. And so when his brother told me he was a dead man, it was sort of like I was a dead man, too. It knocked me off balance, for a moment. In reality, I am as healthy as a horse. But then again, if a horse gets a little leg injury or something, they pretty much have to shoot it, so how healthy can a horse really be?
I'm starting to sweat. I just wondered how I am going to take my leave. Of Sig. How am I going to get out of here? How much more time do I have to spend? I look at him. His eyes are closed. Is he asleep? Dead?
"Sig?" I whisper.
"What?" he croaks.
"Nothing. I thought maybe you were asleep."
"It's my eyes. They get dry and scratchy, so I got to keep them closed, sometimes."
A nurse comes in, fiddles around with the equipment, puts a little thing that looks like a staple remover on Sig's index finger, and which apparently measures something or other, as she monitors it for a few seconds, then writes on her fancy clipboard. The nurse is not pretty. She has a plain pale face and a chunky body. Siegfried married an ugly woman fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago, whatever it was, and moved back to this shitty town and that was the last I saw of him, until today. His brother kept in touch with me for a lot of years, always nagging me to join his kOOky Seed Line church. When I first met Larry, Sig's brother, he appeared to be a regular American fake Christian, then he went completely off the rails. Satan fucked Eve, he informed me, and as a result, Cain and the Jews were born. Well, a miss is as good as a mile, as they say. Anyway, a few days ago, he got my current phone number from a mutual acquaintance, called me, told me about Sig, and wondered if I would look in on him and see if he was "mentally prepared to die, if he had worked out his salvation with phobias and traumas." Larry said: "I know it's a lot to ask, and normally I'd do it myself, but, for legal reasons, I can't leave Idaho just right now."
So here I am. . .
The second hand ticks around the clock. . .
"I got one for you," I say.
"What?" he wheezes.
"Greatest nigger that ever lived?"
"For God damn sure it wasn't King," he pants. There's a baby cup-looking thing on his overbed table, he takes a little sip. "All that black motherfucker ever did was complain. 'White people don't like me.' That's all his fancy. . ." He has to stop to catch his breath. "That's all his fancy fucking speeches were about." He stops again, closes his eyes, shakes his head. "If it was me. . .I woulda told the whites. . .'make my day. . .hate me even more.' But. . .he didn't have no dignity." He pauses again to catch his breath. "Begging white people to be Christian to him. Can you imagine. . .Christ asking Pilate to be fair?"
"Man, you're still holding a grudge over that lost birthday party?"
We were born on April 4th, and on what was our 8th or 9th birthday, and this still being years before I ever met Sig, and years and years before Sig ever told me the story, Sig was at home getting ready for his birthday party when the TV blasts the news that Martin Luther King has been shot. . .next thing Sig knows, their phone is ringing off the hook with the parents of all his buddies punking out of the party, all too afraid to go out lest the blacks in this shitty town start
rioting. . .and so Sig has hated King, Jr. for almost fifty years, now.
"I mentioned it once. One time." He coughs. "A childhood memory. And you made it into some. . .psychological condition."
"You were always so offended by the MLK Day holiday."
"Not because of the birthday!" he puffs. "Are we gonna give a holiday. . .to every motherfucker who complains? Every day becomes a fucking holiday!" he heaves. He sips from the baby cup. "The fucking mail will never get delivered!"
The conversation dies. I start sweating again over how I'm going to get out of here. Siegfried's eyes are closed. I take a good long look at him. He looks horrible. Rotted. The body rotted. His mind seems fine, though. Well, look at Stephen Hawking, thinking all those giant thoughts in that puny body. Just an audio book, basically. Sig's almost at that point. Soon he'll be just an audio book. Just words coming out of his piehole, the rest of him useless. I suppose I should get down to business, then maybe I can slip out of here.
"You know, uh, Larry wanted me to ask about your, uh, spiritual condition."
"'Spiritual condition?' What's that?"
"Uh. . .he wants to know if you are ready to die."
"You can tell him. . .since I never lived. . .I am ready to die."
"You never lived?"
"You think. . .you think this marking of time. . .is living?" he labors. "No. I never lived. I was pushed around. . .from birth to death." He struggles to sit forward on his bed. "Forces. . .seen and unseen. . .pushed me around. . .from the fucking cradle. . .to the fucking grave." He sags back. "No choice. . .no free will." He settles his head back onto his pillow. "I was herded through this miserable life. . .by the power. . .of the world. . .the flesh. . .and the devil." Sig looks down at the tube in his wrist, shakes his head. "I never even had. . .the self-control. . .required. . .to kill myself. So you can tell my brother. . .I am ready to fucking die."
I can't ague with that.
We're brought into this world for a purpose of the Higher Power. We have no say in the matter. We have the same freedom as the aborted and the stillborn: to die due to the design or the incompetence of a higher power.
But that's not all of it. . .
"What about the other part? Judgment. Are you ready for that?"
"Uncertain." He sighs. "It's hard to talk. Fuck. I don't talk much, anymore." He sucks in some air. "Uncertain. . .which is what everybody should be. But most ain't. Whatever stupid belief. . .they put their faith in. . .they have a certainty. . . that they will be all right." He spits out the air. "But they ain't in no position to know that." A smile crosses Sig's face. "Greatest thing Christ ever said. ..'not every motherfucker that says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom.'" He nods. "All these people so sure they're 'saved'. . .and it ain't just Christians. . .whatever people believe is next. . .spiritual or material. . .even if they believe it's nothing, just 'sleep'. . .a 'blackout'. . . whatever. . .they have. . .no authority. . .for their self-assurance."
"Yeah, but doesn't the Christian at least have an assurance through Jesus?"
"Give me a minute."
He's breathing heavily. . .
Man, I wish a good-looking nurse would come in here and bend over or something. . .
I'll stop at Little Caesars on the way home and pick up a Hot'N'Ready. Five bucks. That's about the only square deal left. . .
And I'll read L'Assommoir again. The laundry fight between Gervaise and Virginie will lift my spirits. . .
"Listen, if I read the gospels, and I understand His plan, and I see His plan verified by the resurrection, then I got one hundred percent assurance His judgment is true," Sig says, his voice now remarkably calm. "So if I know His judgment is true, then I can face Hell. Listen, not the pretend sex/drugs/rock'n'roll white trash Hell, the real Hell, endless misery, depression, all that good shit, I can face it with serenity, because His truth sets me free."
"Even in Hell?"
"I'll be more alive in Hell than I am here. I won't be distracted from myself. I'll live out eternity comparing my failed fucked-up life to His triumphant life. I'll live out eternity marveling at His victory, and I'll be God damned thankful for my tiny, nearly insignificant part in His judgment of this world."
Behold the man, Joe Siegfried, on his death bed, his face glowing like the face of an angel in one of those old greaseball paintings. . .
"I'll tell Larry no man has ever been more ready to die."
My work here is done, but I will not rush out. I will let a few moments pass, out of respect for the occasion.
I watch the second hand tick around the clock. . .
I watch the second hand tick around the clock. . .
I watch the second hand tick around the clock. . .
The time has come. . .
I stand up.
"I have to head back," I say. I put my hand on his shoulder. "You are one of the few I was glad to know. Be of good cheer, my friend."
As I'm about to step into the hallway, I hear him, his voice now frail, again:
"Simon of Cyrene."
I turn around.
"Simon of Cyrene," he rasps. "The greatest nigger that ever lived."