The police are saying as little as possible. They say, “We’ll be the ones to ask the questions, thank you.” They say this sternly, searching the faces of Dario’s few friends for clues.
The police have his suicide note, left on the windshield of the metallic green Impala that was last driven so long ago that weeds have grown around the tires on all sides. It was his daddy’s car, not his. But it was the car closest to the front door, so he put the note there for the cops to find.
Dario had embezzled one hundred thousand dollars from the company he worked for as a girl-Friday sort of guy. That’s why the cops were there first. They eye us up and down as if we have something to do with the missing cash. There are two Post-it note suicide notes written in Sharpee. The first they hold out to us and through the plastic bag we can see that it says They can’t indict you if you’re dead.
None of the friends of Dario assembled here are actually friends with each other. There are two guys he went to high school with, and a teenage girl he was trying to save from a lifetime of trailer living. She whimpers softly. He spent some of his newly ill-gotten cash on her mama’s medical bills and a computer for her, but no one will tell the cops this. We may not be friends with one other, but no one in Los Angeles County is ever friends with the cops.
“What does this note mean to you?” the cop asks us, going around our semicircle that also includes two of the uptown crowd who used to employ him at their bookshop. And me. And I can’t really think right now and remember back as to how we became friends. My family lived next door to Dario’s back then. He disgusted me often. But he fascinated me, too.
I speak up because I’m an idiot and I’m seven months pregnant. I’ve noticed when you bother to get married to a man who knocks you up, and you’re older and not on social services, people look at you a wee bit better. You remind them of the Fifties. They get you chairs.
“I think it just literally means that he knew you all were coming for him soon.”
I can feel the semicircle of friends roll their eyes. They’re all brilliant non-conformists who harbor huge grudges against circumstance and time. If the universe had truly been on their side, they’d have all been born French in 1905. They’d be proper existentialists in their twenties. They’d have as much free love as possible and hold salons with famous up-and-coming painters. But instead they were born in the suburbs east of Los Angeles, along the 605 freeway. The bright boulevard light and heat of the day make it impossible for them to imagine the cobblestone streets and dark alleyways that they rightfully belong to. There are no cafés here, just diners.
The cops look at them one by one to see if they concur with my assessment but they smirk and look at the ground. Heads shake as if to say Damn, Dario. You pulled off what we couldn’t.
“Yeah,” says the cop. “Maybe that’s it. But what about this one?” The cop holds up a second baggie with several Post-it notes taped end to end with just one word on each of them. Put side by side they read, in all-caps Sharpee script, FUCK KENNY G. I WIN. It’s then that our semicircle looks up and our eyes meet. We start laughing. Laughing hard. The cops look uneasy and confused and that makes us laugh harder. I laugh so hard I release a tiny bit of pregnant-girl pee.
+ + +
Dario Parker, age 34, was an unpublished writer, a girl Friday, a music collector, a wannabe stage manager, and a book fiend. He lived in his parents’ house and never once moved out on his own. When his mama died, he stayed there with his dad. And when his dad died, he just stayed there. The hospital and an aunt took care of arrangements after each parent’s diabetic demise. But Dario notified no one, not the bank, not the mortgage company. So those people who rule our lives didn’t know that Dario was the sole survivor of his nuclear family.
Dario decorated the main room of his parents’ house with rejection slips. The cops aren’t letting us go in. They’re calling it a crime scene. But even from the outside it has the stench of crime. I want to ask them if I can take back the CDs and books that he pilfered. Or if I can take back the two-foot-long bamboo pipe I brought him from Korea that needs someone else to light it. There is no way that it won’t be wrong or sound awkward for me to ask that, so I say nothing. Respectable, married, pregnant women don’t go around asking for hash pipes at suicide crime scenes. Dario, though, would think that was funny and that I should ask.
I called to tell him three things a few months ago: one, that I was moving back to town, two, that I was married, and three, that I was pregnant. I told him those things in reverse order. He said “Outstanding!” each time and sounded like he was happy. Like we could hang out again. That maybe he could play uncle. He said he might translate an opera just for the occasion. He translated operas from one language to another in his spare time. He had lots of spare time. There are lots of operas. I couldn’t name a single opera when he asked which one he should work on in honor of the impending birth, but he didn’t hold that against me. He was used to the people around him being somewhat slower.
The first time Dario was aware of witnessing the slow, dull thoughts of average people came at a Bob’s Big Boy when he was eight years old. He’d just polished off onion rings and a Coke and had turned over the kids’ menu coloring sheet, whose color by number toucans gave him the creeps. He proceeded to make many tiny methodical dots with a red crayon on the back. The crayon hit the paper with continuous dull flat sounds, which drew the annoyed attention of his father, Jimmy.
“Quit your racket, boy,” his father warned as he pressed down on Dario’s head and neck, bringing the boy’s body so close to the paper that the red crayon was a centimeter from his nostril.
“But Dad, I’m practicing my pointillism,” Dario explained.
“Don’t start on him, Jimmy,” his mother said. “And Dario, don’t be giving your father reasons to pick a fight.”
“Helen Sue, this ain’t concerned you,” Jimmy snapped. Their boy could turn faggot and he knew she wouldn’t do a thing to change it. Jimmy pushed Dario’s head further down. His arm bruised against the booth table; Dario let go of the red crayon with such force that it left a red scribble line in a swoosh across his points.
Without looking up, Dario asked, “Can I use the facilities?”
“Why can’t you talk normal?”
“The john, asswipe, the john. Ask if you can use the john.” But his father had already released his head, tussled his hair, and pretended to be concerned with his French fries as the waitress came back to do a round of coffee. Dario slipped off to the men’s room.
Even at eight, he knew that they, his parental unit, should have known better than to name him Dario. It was their attempt, as Helen Sue would tell him, to “raise him out of it.” Individually, his parents had gotten themselves out of Oklahoma and into Orange County. With a name like Dario, his mother rationalized, he might become somebody in Hollywood—like a big handsome bare-chested Italian soap star. Helen Sue was like that in her thinking. Well intentioned and not thought through. Her only goal had been to leave Oklahoma, which she’d done at thirty. It had been a big surprise to her when she met Jimmy, a bigger surprise that he courted her, and an even bigger surprise that they married. She was fully aware that she was not very easy on the eyes, and had never expected a kind word from the opposite sex. They’d been married eight years before she gave birth, which surprised her further. She expected to go through the change of life early, like her momma had, but there was Dario, shooting out the barrel.
Jimmy was his own piece of work. What he prized most was his own honesty and assessment of life. Helen Sue wasn’t ever a looker, but he had the good sense to know that he wasn’t either, and that he’d never have to worry about her trying to figure out his ways, knowing they hailed from the same sort of towns in the same state. She’d always know what she got, and he’d have company. After eight years of not thinking about it much, and guessing kids were out of the question, along came his son—and she’d given him that ridiculous name. He wanted something strong and country club sounding so the boy would have a chance in life, like a Connor, a Collin, or a Chad.
Helen Sue and Jimmy raised themselves a boy who taught himself to read because they weren’t smart enough. They got a boy who would cook, clean, and care for them. Someone who could whip up their fried chicken and gravy and be reading Sartre at the same time. They got a boy who never dated. They got a boy who took much pleasure in simple tasks while writing NASA letters on how they could improve their space program. It baffled them.
+ + +
He puzzled me. A few weeks back he sent me his memoir. Who writes a memoir at 34? He sent me a package with a few other books too. Prized, rare copies of books, first editions all.
“Don’t you want to keep these?” I asked him on the phone when I called to say thank you.
“They’re a gift. Besides. I won’t be able to take them with me.”
“Oh, cool. You finally going on a trip? You going to move out?”
Dario and I used to talk about him getting out. He’d go to Penang, Malaysia or Phnom Penh, Cambodia and pretend the cities weren’t in a state of post-colonial decay. Perhaps he could teach English and live in a remote area of the island or on the outskirts of town. In Penang, he could stay in a faded aquamarine compound with live-in maids who brought in his food daily. He was a big Marguerite Duras fan. In Phnom Penh he could travel by elephant or motorcycle with a native guide in his sidecar. He’d never have to deal with Americans again.
We’d become friends when Helen Sue was in the hospital dying of diabetes. Dario and I would meet at the Marie Callender’s across the street from the hospital where we’d order big fat slices of cream pies and coffee loaded with sugar.
“They chopped her leg off,” he said one day, as he took out a sheet of Benadryl tablets, popped five out and swallowed them with the coffee. “I hope she goes before they take the other one.”
She went right before her fiftieth birthday, six months later, and after she’d lost both legs. He didn’t break down and talk about it. He talked about all the unsolicited articles he was sending to Film Comment.
“They pay $1.50 a word. I’m going to be rich,” he told me when I asked about her funeral arrangements. Two years later I got a call from Dario saying he found his father dead, clutching his chest, on the living room floor near where a half-eaten pizza was face down on the shag carpet.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?” I asked, which, of course, was a stupid thing to ask. Men named Dario with IQs over 160 who are born to Okie parents who don’t understand them, who translate operas in their spare time and have never had a date by their thirty-third birthday are, by definition, not okay.
+ + +
The Jesus Year is a hard year for just about anyone. By the age of thirty-three Jesus Christ had figured out his goal. Gone was his existential crisis. He knew he existed for a very specific, albeit very obvious, hero’s journey purpose: to die. What do you want to be when you grow up? Jesus, in his thirty-third year, was shown, not told: savior. Alexander the Great conquered the known world and drank himself to death by thirty-three. Sylvia Plath? A genius with her head in the oven. Dario had a hard time being thirty-three and not measuring up to the greatness of his three heroes.
“The point is, you start the big shift. You’re no longer the twentysomething kid getting his/her first big break. You aren’t standing in the middle of a marble lobby downtown, wondering when your boss is going to realize you have the mind of a sixteen-year-old and that your sorry butt belongs back in the suburbs. You aren’t ahead of your game. You are thirtynothing. The great American novel you were going to write is still sitting on its shelf, un-dictated in the back of your mind. Kids ask you if you’ll score beer for them. You listen to “flashback” weekends on the radio. You never went to Europe after all and wonder why it is that you really don’t care. You’re a big kid. You’ve got credit cards; you could go. But you don’t.” He said this to me when I asked him about the black rubber band necklace he’d begun to wear around his neck after his thirty-third birthday. We grabbed pie and coffee and he grabbed pills.
That last time I saw Dario he was wearing an unstained shirt that wasn’t missing a single one of its buttons. This struck me as odd. He was caring about his appearance. He still wore the large black rubber bands around his neck and told me, as I showed him photographs of a recent road trip, that he was starting a band and that he had an agent sending his screenplays all over town.
“That’s great. The dude from Jane’s Addiction was in his thirties when they started. You’ll have to move to Hollywood.” I offered this as encouragement, Jane’s being a favorite band of his.
“Hollywood is for losers,” Dario said. “Orange County is for winners. I’m staying right here on the LA/OC border where stuff really happens, man. Although, I give you that the music out here sucks. Muzak, man. Soft jazz. How can people like that shit?”
+ + +
The grass around the eyesore of Dario’s parents’ house was knee-high prairie deep. There was a smell coming from underneath the porch. The bank had called again saying the foreclosure was eminent. That they’d given Dario’s father plenty of chances to pay. “Why are you not returning our calls?” they asked on the answering machine.
The cops found him in his bedroom closet. They had a warrant to serve him; they weren’t there for a body that day. There were notes. Notes everywhere. Brochures from the Hemlock Society like a glossy pathway through his muck from the doorway of the house to the doorway of the closet. They found a plastic Target plastic bag over his head tightly tucked under the black rubber necklace. A breadcrumb trail of Benadryl packets, some Vicodin, some wine bottles. Old Blue Note jazz recordings blaring on a continual loop on the CD player in the living room. Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. Real jazz.
He was found, bloated and decaying for at least five days, in a room stuffed top to bottom with published books written by other people with copious notes of advice he had for the authors written in pencil in all the margins. His manuscripts were in boxes stacked like towers, making a maze configuration to the closet door. And the jazz. The jazz was so freaking loud, the cops said.
“Can any of you cooperate and tell us what this means? NO MORE KENNY G. I WIN. What does he win? What does Kenny G have to do with this?”
How do you explain mediocrity with a straight face to a cop? We look at each other still standing in a semicircle. Summer gnats are starting to bump our legs in the tall grass. I try to think about what we can say that won’t make us sound like a bunch of stuck-up smartasses. The semicircle of friends just shakes their heads as if to say “Don’t know, man.”
“He means—” The cops turn to stare at me like I’ve interrupted their concentration rather than attempted to answer. “He doesn’t like soft jazz. Way too pussy for him, Sir.” Did that come out of me? I can’t take it back. I am suspect now. What kind of mom says that? One cop is circling me and staring at the Post-it notes in the bag as if perhaps they will rearrange and say TOO PUSSY.
After a few minutes, the cops let us go, but still forbid us entrance. There’s nothing more we can do. We aren’t invited to the aunt’s funeral for him. Hanging out with weird folks like us, she says, is probably what done it to Dario.
I drive back to our new apartment thinking of baby names. I think I’m going to settle on a reasonably common one. With any luck, my baby will be a loser like me.