“Hey, that’s pretty funny.”
The graffiti is Don’t Open. Dead Inside.
“Yeah, that’s pretty funny, Carl,” you say.
You’ve been killing people, you and Carl, long enough to know that the graffiti might as well be tattooed on your chest. When your time comes and they open you up under the fluorescent lights of the basement morgue, out of you will come a stink that smells like sulfur and gut rot. You’ve been thinking that each kill is you playing god, and that each loss of life measures out in some place unseen on the cosmic scale, and that in this invisible place beyond the horizon there are racks on racks on racks of unpaid tickets, crimes against humanity, and that eventually you will be responsible for those tickets.
Lately, you’ve been getting nervous about this whole death thing.
Next week, you turn thirty.
“Carl, do you remember when you were a young man?”
“I remember everything, honey. Remember it all like it was yesterday.”
You’ve been telling Carl to stop calling you “honey” for years but the old fool does not listen and now it’s honey, honey, honey, and goddamn, you cannot mess with things you cannot control.
“You ever worry about fate, Carl?”
Carl flips his half smoked cigarette out of the open car window and says:
“Honey, I don’t think too much on fate. That’s a mad man’s game, worrying about fate.”
It’s so hot outside that the open window doubles as an open oven door when you’re not moving, so you pull the truck slowly away from the graffitied garage door with the dead inside and the warnings to keep shit closed.
East Austin: ain’t like it used to be. There used to be dusty parking lots and shabby bars, Mexicans and blacks, a faint whiff of danger in the stagnant summer nights. Now, you ask, what’s left? Condos. Fancy restaurants always crowded. Hordes of tourists that move up and down the street like newborns blind to traffic or death. The Mexicans moved east, and the blacks, well, you don’t know where the blacks moved.
Carl is black, so you ask him.
“Gone fishin’, brother.”
He doesn’t say anything more, so either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t feel like sharing the information with a shithead young buck white boy, and you know both answers mean the question will drift down the street, out of town like an unwanted stranger.
It is funny, you think, seizing the hypothetical before it goes, that you can kill a man with Carl, an act of instinct, and one that is very intimate, and yet he still won’t talk about his race and color.
“Weird…” you mutter to no one; not to Carl, nor the faded blue paint on brick walls, sixth street, steel bones of prepubescent buildings covered in sun and burning to the touch; none of it is weird, none of it is much of anything, and goddamn if it doesn’t make you pretty sad.
You pull up to the coffee shop and Google Maps goes:
You’ve arrived at your destination! Happy killing!
The coffee shop is an old house with mismatched antique furniture in the front yard. There’s a wraparound wooden porch, home to a half-dozen white-painted steel patio chairs and their table partners, each one in varying stages of disrepair. Everything is manicured, the environment subjugated, the scene one of inflated good taste, the revelation of the cool.
Carl walks with a limp from the time he took a machete to the thigh. It clipped his femoral artery and there was blood, blood, blood. You remember you were close quarters with some whacked out Colombians full of crack and unpaid dues, tenants of your boss, in this little white house with white walls and a white staircase, and when a bleeding Carl tumbled down that staircase, dude left a trail of macabre painterly genius, like Jack the Ripper and Jackson Pollack came together and opened an art exhibit. You even took a picture with your iPhone after you shot the Colombians dead-meat dead.
Those days were a little wild, but Carl survived, and eventually everything went back to normal.
“What if he ain’t here?” Carl asks.
Even though he’s two decades older than you, Carl knows that you’re smarter than he is, and so he capitulates to your plans most of the time. But the old-timer still gets nervous around cell phones, doesn’t trust technology or GPS, has dreams about floating satellites beaming nightmares into his sleeping skull, and so he’s always afraid “the guy” won’t be where he’s supposed to be. That’s Carl’s mantra, motto, and creed: What if he ain’t here?
“He’ll be here,” you say. “If he ain’t here now, he will be shortly, and we’ll just wait and have a coffee and strike up conversation.”
Inside the coffee shop there’s a wooden bar with stools painted different colors of springtime pastel. There’s a glass case of muffins, a big fat tip jar full of pennies and nickels and one poor bastard fiver, and a chalkboard with: Today’s Specials! Vegan White Bean Chili! Split Pea Soup w/ Rosemary!
You’re in what was the kitchen of the house, and they’ve knocked down the wall to what was the living room, with windows that open out to Sixth Street, and dark couches with light floral patterns and millennials on them. Some asshole plays an acoustic in the corner and behind him the Texas sun is turning purple through the window and even from this distance, you can see flecks of dust rise and fall, disappear and reappear like electrons, with the in and out breath of the dozen or so young adults chatting and drinking coffee and carrying the fuck on.
You and Carl take a seat at the bar.
“Place looks faggy,” Carl mutters.
“Get you something?” asks the barista.
“Black coffee,” you say and Carl nods, one for me as well.
The barista looks at you like: French press or...? And then says:
“Not right now,” you say. “We’re waiting on a friend.”
Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal