PARANOID “I think Lou’s trying to kill me,’ Gary said in a hushed voice. His eyes were shinning orbs and his gaze darted around the restaurant as if he expected ninja assassins to jump out at any second. “What? Trying to kill you?” I suppressed the urge to smile. I might have even laughed had his face not been so serious, actual fear present in his eyes. “I barricaded myself in my room the entire weekend, just trying to stay alive.” “That’s crazy, Gary. Why the hell would Lou try to kill you? He’s your nephew for God’s sake. ” Gary pushed splayed fingers through his thinning hair and adjusted his frameless glasses. His voice had gone soft and high-pitched as he said, “He wants my house. Then he won’t have to live in the basement anymore. It will be his to do whatever he wants.” “That couldn’t happen, not unless you will the house to him,” I said. “And besides, there’s a mortgage on your house. It’s not like Lou could afford the payments working at a gas station.” “He had all these kids over yesterday. They were high on meth, I swear, Carl. Down there all day long plotting my demise, sharpening their knives and salivating like I’m some fat Christmas goose.” Now I did laugh. The idea was ludicrous, yet I found the look in Gary’s eyes disturbing. Gary wasn’t the type to joke. “I need to ask if I can borrow your gun to protect myself.” “More coffee?” Our pony-tailed waitress said, already filling our cups before we’d answered. Gary sat stiffly, watching his coffee cup being filled as if he was staring at a giant spider that crept up his clothes. I noticed his upper lip was sweating, even though it wasn’t hot inside the restaurant. In fact the air conditioning was cranked up a little too high I thought. It was still early June and not really hot enough outside for the air to be on yet. I studied Gary, and felt a tightness in the pit of my stomach. I’d never seen him so wound up, so paranoid. Usually he was pretty laid back and reserved. Gary was the guy you’d find hanging out on the perimeter of a party, blending with the wallpaper. He wasn’t the animated type. Neither was he nervous, just quiet. So to see him before me on a Sunday morning in Bubby’s, where he had asked me to meet him, sitting there like he’s on death row and his last stay of execution has been denied, I was more than a little concerned. “The last thing you need is a gun,” I said, as I stirred sugar into my cup and gazed out through the window at the view of the Brooklyn Bridge. “Why don’t you send Lou packing any way? You could get a lot more than the four hundred bucks a month he’s paying you for that basement apartment. Probably get twice as much and you wouldn’t have to buy the guy groceries either.” “I stopped eating at home. Lou’s poisoned everything.” “Poisoned? Don’t you think maybe you’re over reacting here?” “The last time I ate some pasta sauce I had in the fridge I was violently ill. Violently, Carl. I puked my guts out all night.” “Maybe it had gone bad. How long was it in the fridge for?” “I made it the day before,” Gary’s eyes were wet as he continued. “He’s been spying on me too. He’s got cameras and listening devices all over my house. Nowhere is safe. I don’t feel safe in my own home, even here. I bet he’s got spies in here too.” I checked the time on my cell phone. It was my weekend with the kids. I’d promised them a movie this afternoon before driving them back to their mother’s in time for dinner. I’d left them to fix their own breakfast this morning. The oldest one was eleven, and while I didn’t like leaving them on their own, I figured they’d be fine for an hour while I met with Gary after his frantic early morning phone call. In the past whenever he’d needed my help it was to move furniture, hook up something electrical, or for woman advise. But this was different. This was something beyond my comprehension and I was at a complete loss as to how to help him. “Gary, I don’t really know Lou all that well,” I said as I tried my best to offer him something. “But he doesn’t seem like the most sophisticated guy in the world. All that dope smoking and those video games he plays? I doubt he’d be able to hook up any spy cams in your house, let alone poison your food. In fact he seems like a bit of a dummy to me.” “He started that fire, Carl, I know he started it. He’s been trying to kill me ever since. Please, just let me borrow your gun, just for a little while. I need to protect myself from him.” I gave Gary a level stare across the table and took a moment to sip my coffee, considering what he had just said. I remembered how depressed Gary had been in the weeks after the fire broke out in his house and both him and Lou had been hospitalized with smoke inhalation, trying to put it out; an anti-climatic end to a New Year’s Eve party Lou had thrown. Fortunately, Gary’s house insurance paid for the repairs and he hadn’t lost anything of value. But for some reason it seemed to affect Gary deeply. A darkness had settled over him. Johnny Cash’s voice emanated from the speakers above as the waitress made her rounds with the coffee pot and a bounce in her step and I wondered if she was working her way through college. Or would she be here in another twenty years if I came back; thicker at the waistline, the sincerity worn off her smile like the painted rim of the coffee cups, shuffling in orthopedic shoes, dreams of an off-season Florida vacation filling her tired head. I knew all about tired, having worked the graveyard shift as a machinist for the past fifteen years. I had a mortgage on a house I no longer lived in, a ten year old mini-van that I couldn’t afford new tires for, two kids to support and an ex-wife who hated my guts and tried, whenever possible, to make my miserable existence even more miserable. Punishment for not being the husband she grew up dreaming of. But over the years I’d learned you could focus on what was lost, or be grateful for what you still had. I chose the later and it was enough. Enough at least, to keep me getting up in the mornings. Sometimes, in spite of this, I felt dispensable and I couldn’t help seeing Gary in the same light. Two insignificant cogs, our hollow transitions here on earth a waste of time. Maybe that’s what bonded us—our shared misery. I wondered in that moment, if Gary was suicidal. Is that really why he wanted my gun? “I thought the fire was an accident,” I said, “Isn’t that what the investigation concluded? A cigarette had rolled between the cushions--” “Look at my eyes, Carl, do they look different to you?” I studied his eyes. They didn’t really look any different, just intense. I gave a shrug. “The color, look at the color,” he said and removed his glasses. “Blue. Your eyes are blue. They’ve always been that color, Gary.” “Yes, but now they’re darker. Ever since the fire. I had them checked by the doctor and I went to see an optometrist and they both say there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re darker now, Carl.” “Really. They don’t look any darker to me.” “They are, I know they are.” “Well that’s strange. How could that happen?” “I don’t know. It had something to do with the fire. But you’re right it is strange and I’ll tell you what else is strange.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear anymore. I checked the clock again, gauging how long it would take me to drive home. Would we be able to make the one o’clock show in time? We might just miss the previews. I regarded Gary across the table, and although I still considered him my friend, one of my longest friendships, I couldn’t help feeling better about my life in comparison. It had to be hard being single, never having a relationship that lasted more than a few weeks, working at that call center, dealing with all those ragging customers on the phone day in and day out. Then there was that asshole nephew he had living in his basement taking advantage of him. And at least I still had all my hair, I placated myself. Maybe Gary was losing his grip. Why else would he be acting so paranoid? “Are you even listening to me, Carl?” “Of course.” Gary gave me a sidelong stare and then in a whisper he said, “You’re in on it, aren’t you?” “In on what?” “I thought I could trust you. Man, what a fool I am.” I shook my head, and tried to comprehend what he was talking about. “I’ve got to get out of here,” Gary said and scrambled to his feet. He upset the table and his coffee cup turned over, and spilled the last bit across table. “Stay away from me Carl. I’m warning you, stay the hell away from me.” He ran to the door and I called after him. Heads turned to watch me and then watch Gary as he hurled himself through the glass door and out onto the street. “Jesus Christ.” He was crazy. He’d absolutely lost his marbles. What the hell was I suppose to do now? Who could I call? He had a mother somewhere upstate and I knew he had a sister in Boston. Should I call Lou? The police? What was one suppose to do in this situation? It’s not like I had any experience with mental illness, although I knew enough to clearly see that Gary was having some kind break with reality. My phone rang as I slapped down enough bills on the table to more than cover our breakfast and give our waitress a good tip. “Hey Dad, when you coming home?” “On my way now son. Be home in a few minutes, ok?” “Hurry up so we don’t miss the movie.” I smiled and hung up the phone, my heart feeling light. I tried calling Gary several times on my way home but to no avail. Maybe the stress of that fire had triggered some kind of mental break down. I didn’t know. I certainly wasn’t a doctor. But I was convinced a doctor was exactly what Gary needed. I decided I would stop by his house later tonight after I had dropped the kids home and see if I could persuade him to see some kind of therapist, even check himself into the emergency. Was it possible he was that far-gone? Gary’s house was located on East 55th Street in Brooklyn. It was a fixer-upper when he got it five years ago and it was still a fixer-upper. Last year I had helped him redo the tiles in the kitchen and he’d even conned me with a case of beer into painting the walls one weekend. It was a good substitute for a woman, I supposed, kept him busy. His rusted Honda Civic was in the driveway when I pulled up to his house, just as the sun was setting behind me. I stepped up the cracked walkway and noticed what looked like blood drops all over the front steps. There was no mistaking it was blood. What else could it possibly be? A cold feeling launched within me and I hesitated, looking around, examining the house. Was Gary in trouble? I considered calling the police on my cell and then decided there wasn’t time for that. Gary might need more immediate help. I stepped past the blood, opened the screen door and checked the doorknob. It was unlocked. “Gary? You home?” Immediately I noticed more blood as I stepped through the door. It was everywhere; splattered across the floor, shoe prints smeared in it as if someone had walked back and forth. There were streaks of it on the walls, and what looked like fingerprints. My heart flipped. I called out for Gary, unsure what I had walked into or if I should go in any further. But I needed to know if Gary was hurt. I tried to step around the blood as I walked deeper into the house. I peered into the shadows of the living room, and followed the blood trail into the kitchen. There was a huge amount of it splattered across the tiles. Then I saw Gary. He lay facedown on the floor, a circle of blood pooling out from his midsection. I knew he was dead. My stomach heaved as I ran out the door. I gulped in mouthfuls of air, afraid that I would pass out on the front lawn. When the police and an ambulance arrived I was sitting in my van with the door open, smoking a cigarette. I was questioned, put in the back of a cruiser, and my vehicle was searched. A short while later, Lou was brought out of the house in handcuffs, his long hair wet as if he’d just been in the shower. His face was pale, his expression stoic as he was led to a police car. I looked at the clear plastic bags the police were carrying. Evidence bags. There was a bloody knife in one of them. “What’s going on? Is Lou under arrest?” I asked the officer who released me from the back of the cruiser. “At this point he’s our number one suspect,” the officer said. “By the way, did your friend realize his house was bugged?” “What do you mean?” “We found cameras all through out the house, even in his bathroom. Listening devices too. Looks like the nephew was spying on him from what we discovered in the basement. Had a shit-load of rat poison down there too. Guess they had a rodent problem.” I gazed speechless at the blood spattered front steps of my friend’s home and felt a tear in the depths of my being as time and space were sucked away. I collapsed inwardly as I realized Gary had tried to reach out to me for help and I failed him so profoundly. How could I have been so deaf to all he had told me? It was dark when I drove home. I turned on the radio and Bruce Springstein’s voice filled my car, singing about Bobby who had a gun that he kept underneath his pillow.