When I came into Neil's room he was asleep on his bed. Music was blasting, and a cigarette slowly burned in a make-shift ashtray on the floor. A dismal plume of smoke twisted above it like a strand of DNA. Neil arose quickly after I turned off the music.
"Dude, smoke, shut the fucking door."
"It is shut."
He looked at me as if I had just played a trick on him. He picked up the cigarette, took a final drag, and extinguished it. He turned on the TV and flipped through the stations until he found something that fit his normal watching habits: car chases, videotaped suicide attempts, Cops, security footage of robbers in gas stations, festivals in foreign countries spiraling out of hand, etc.
"Fucking niggers." He whispered. Neil isn't really racist. The word has become devoid of any meaning it may have ever had, at least in this area: the reason most likely being the scarcity of actual African-Americans in relation to the abundance of rap music.
"What are you doing tonight?" I asked, while clearing off a spot on a folding chair. He stared blankly at the TV screen, not responding.
The curtains stopped the sunlight from leaking through the windows. A single bar of subdued sunshine slid through the interstices of the drawn shades. It captivated a slowly winding cloud of smoke.
"I don't know." He finally said. He stood up, throwing the curtains apart and opening the window. "I thought you said it wasn't snowing." He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and put a fresh one between his lips in a deliberately stylish fashion. The way detectives in black-and-white movies would.
I murmured something, and a prolonged silence followed. Neil shivered, sitting as close to the window as possible, and making an exaggeratedly deliberate effort to blow the smoke into the falling snow.
"What did you want me to come over for?" I broke the silence.
Apparently he wanted the silence to remain in tact, because he didn't say anything. He only looked out the window, texting and muting and un-muting the television. He closed his phone, and looked over at me.
"Oh. Well, let's go." He put out the cigarette, and put his coat on. "Good thing you told me it was snowing."
I followed him downstairs, into the kitchen, where his mother sat at the table, looking into the open refrigerator, assembling a jig-saw puzzle, and drinking a cup of coffee. She was talking to the cat when Neil came up to close the refrigerator door.
"Mom, we're leaving."
She said nothing, only sighing, and putting the wrong puzzle piece into the wrong spot. "Will you be coming home tonight?"
"I don't know, I'll call or something."
"Why are you wearing your jacket? It isn't snowing."
"This asshole just said it was."
I only looked at both of them, saying nothing.
The inside of Neil's car perpetually stank of burnt marijuana and tobacco. There were puke, blood, and other unmentionable stains in the back seat. The tape player was broken, and the radio only echoed simultaneous stations like static-trashed broadcasts from hell. As the engine turned over, his phone rang. He answered.
"What's up? Really? When's that happening? Yeah, I'll be over in like an hour. Who's there? No shit. Yeah, we'll be over. Who do you think? Yeah, we'll definitely be over. I'll see you. Haha. Fuck off."
He snapped the phone shut, and began backing out of the driveway. "Care to elaborate?" I asked.
The radio was playing an agonizing mixture of Rebel Yell and Dust in the Wind. In the rearview mirror, I saw a bum with a pile of cigarette butts on his lap. Neil rolled down the window.
"Get the fuck out of here!" He pressed on the horn as hard as possible, and the bum ran off, dropping the filters onto the sidewalk. He laughed at the fleeing vagrant. "We need to get a bottle for this party, and I know a guy in town. How much money do you have?" I looked at him, and made a raised circle with my thumb and index finger. "Fucking great." He backed out of the driveway, humming Billy Idol. We drove toward downtown, while Neil made calls to various friends. Apparently one of them was a few minutes in the other direction, because he made an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the snowy street.
In a desolate parking lot near a closed coffee shop, we picked up a grotesquely overweight Hispanic man said his name was Boris and that he could buy us a fifth. We gave him money, and waited in the parking lot of the local supermarket for him to come out.
The pavement was a chalky white, stained by the salt. The sky still loomed overhead, grey as Damascus steel. A woman pushed a shopping cart, teeming with groceries, trailed by a misty cloud of her breath. Boris hobbled toward the yawning automatic doors, with a sweaty wad of fives in his hand.
Neil stared intensively at the cherry burning on his cigarette, finally asking: "Dude, what do you think happens when you die?"
"I don't know." I quickly answered. "Pretty sure nothing: you get buried, you get your face laser-etched onto a tombstone, and every other month someone cleans off your grave."
"Reality is bleak." I was vaguely proud of this remark.
He said nothing for a while. Finally, he blew out a cloud of smoke and cleared his throat. "My aunt had breast cancer, and when she was in the hospital she died. For like four minutes, I guess. They plugged in one of those shock machines and breathing machines and all that shit – they revived her." He paused briefly, seeming uncomfortable sharing this old story. "But, I heard her telling my mom that when she died, she saw herself. Like, she was a light on the ceiling, looking down at the doctors rip open her gown to electrocute her back to life. Do you believe that?"
"She was probably on some mad drugs."
"I believe it, though. There are a lot of stories like that out there."
"You think she made it up?" There was a hint of aggression in this question.
"No, I'm just saying…"
Silence. I noticed a dead bug on the inside of the windshield. It was stuck there, folded into itself and frozen in a macabre sculpture. Its delicate wings arced near one another like a paper Valentine. Its tortuously disfigured legs stuck out like hairs. I looked over at Neil, and I thought he was looking at it as well, but I couldn't be sure.
It had been about forty-five minutes since Boris had left, and we had become agitated. We decided to leave the car and search for him in the store. When we stepped out into the unforgiving, suffocating cold, our breath formed clouds of mist that traced the lazy path of the stagnant air. I shoved my hands into my pockets and played with the invisible objects within, waiting for Neil to lock the car.
"I'm going in" I told him. I ran to the door, arms folded at my side, hands in my pockets, like a penguin. Within: the wordless, languid bustle of the supermarket seemed dully overwhelming. Perhaps it was the lighting – clean, hospital-like. As opposed to waiting for Neil myself, I went straight to the liquor aisle. Boris was not there. I walked down the parallel aisles, stretching like lanes in a bowling alley, each empty. I walked through the produce department, the deli, I even checked the bathrooms. He had evaporated into a fat, Latino mist, a mist that included our twenty-five dollars. I met Neil back at the automatic doors.
"Motherfucker isn't here."
The fluorescent lights shined in a heavenly way, holding the parallel aisles of cereal and canned tomatoes in a holy ecstasy. The automatic doors shuddered and gave birth to families and elderly women, who wandered through the store like lost children. Neil threw his phone against the floor, cracking the already broken screen, and piquing the interest of a wrinkled, shaky cashier. She directed us toward the doors with her eyes. Neil muttered an admirably creative stream of obscenity as we exited into the dry cold.