Steven Metzger and I decided to go in together on a senior year independent study project. This concept was something new to our high school; we had proposed it to solve the heavy boredom that sat on our shoulders like unwelcome little brothers. The way we pitched it to Mr. Gorman, the principal, was that we’d go to three classes a day, and spend the rest of the time working on our project. Half of our grade for the whole year would be locked up in the thing.
We had planned to research the life and career of a playwright, Edward Albee. Neither of us knew much about him, at first, but I had heard that his plays were from the theatre of the absurd, which sounded good to me. Our production of his two-man play The Zoo Story would take place during the last week of school.
Not the most popular guy in the school, by a long shot, Steven was arguably one of the most intelligent. He possessed a kind of brooding smarts, a facility with language that surpassed by volumes the vocabulary of the average student. He was a whiz on the debate team, and had taken second place in the state in the extemporaneous speech category at the forensics tourney. First place went to a girl who was on a par with Steven skills-wise, but who had the additional asset of good looks, something that Steven couldn’t lay claim to even on a good day.
He wasn’t my best friend, but he was a friend.
By the time we got around to doing any serious work on the project, it was already the middle of May. We rehearsed the play in the little theatre on the third floor. In the afternoon, the sun cracked through the tall windows and shone bright on the flecks of chalk dust floating weightless in the room.
“We should really jazz up the ending,” I said. I was feeling the heady rush of the theater. “We get some fake blood and put it in a Baggie, Then we tape it to your chest, and when you get stabbed you can squeeze the bag and the blood will spurt out,” I said. “Cool, right?”
“I practiced the knife moves at home, in front of my bedroom mirror. I opened and closed it probably a thousand times, pleased with the positive steel click.”
Steven said, “Do you think that’s really what Albee had in mind? I don’t think that’s the authorial intention. It seems to be as much a symbolic death as a literal one. To draw too much attention to the literal death of Peter would be to unhinge the allegorical balance of the whole work.” These were the kinds of things Steven often said.
“Forget the allegorical balance,” I said. “This is our show now. Let’s put our own stamp on it, OK?” I walked over to the short blond piano and thumped a cluster of notes.
“What about the knife?” Steven asked.
“Mark Powell has a switchblade–the kind that the blade comes straight out of the handle.” I popped my thumb across my index finger in the way such a knife is opened. “It’ll be great … When you rush toward me, I’ll turn the blade at the last second. You run into the back of my hand.”
Steven was looking off somewhere, to a place I couldn’t see. He sat on the edge of the stage, cross-legged, and I noticed the dime-sized hole in the bottom of his left shoe. “If you think it’ll work, let’s do it.” We rehearsed until the janitor came into the room four hours later and told us we had to leave.
Thursday I borrowed the knife from Mark. It was an illegal weapon; the blade spanned about six inches, and he wasn’t really convinced he should let me use it. I promised to take real good care of it, and to not to show it to anybody. I gave him four dollars in rent.
I practiced the knife moves at home, in front of my bedroom mirror. I opened and closed it probably a thousand times, pleased with the positive steel click. I can still hear the sound of the thing. Steven and I rehearsed the stabbing scene more than any other part of the play. We had it down.
On the night of our performance, I filled the plastic bag with the stage blood, and Steven held up his white, short-sleeved shirt while I ran strips of masking tape around the bag and then around his chest. He didn’t have any hair there yet, and I never knew if he grew any later.
We had about thirty people there to watch. My parents, Steven’s mom, Principal Gorman, our drama teacher (Miss Trevor), and Steven’s little brother. A lot of other students showed up, too.
By the fourteenth page of the play we had lost our places. We improvised. Sometimes I remembered a line for my character, and Steven would pick it up and we’d get back on track for a while. He had the biggest part; the most lines by far. It’s a good thing Gorman didn’t know the play.
Pretty soon, the bag of blood got twisted open somehow, and a crimson stain silently grew on Steven’s shirt. There was nothing we could do except hurry it up to the stabbing scene. I didn’t think we were going to remember too many of our lines, anyway. Steven’s eyes widened, shining like the eyes of a stuffed deer.
When we jumped to the last page or two, he tossed the knife to the floor, and I picked it up. I thumbed the release, and the blade appeared, like a thousand times before.
I said, “You’ve got one more chance to leave me alone.”
“So be it,” Steven said. We were practically home free. His shirt was mostly red now, and he ran toward the knife in my hand. At the last moment, I flicked my wrist to the left and felt the wet smack of Steven’s chest against my knuckles. Perfect.
“You won’t be coming here anymore,” Steven said. He was on the floor now. “You’ve lost your bench.”
“Oh my God,” I said. This was my exit line, and I stumbled stage right while he lay there bloodying up the boards.
“Oh my God,” Steven said, and I turned the knob that made the stage dark.
I heard the sound of clapping hands and a few whistles. Steven rose from the floor, wiping the crimson liquid from his hands onto the legs of his trousers. I brought up the lights and joined him on the stage, where we acknowledged the audience’s ovation with deep, thespian bows. Steven had a smile on his face that was as large as any smile I had ever seen. I was smiling, too; enormously happy that the play, and my high-school career, were over.
Two years later I was in Colorado. I had a girlfriend with me, and a steady gig playing the clubs with my band ‘Good Question.’ Not bad for twenty-one, I thought, Rosa and I were happy in our apartment. It was home.
I got a call from my dad one night, a Tuesday, and he told me a story about Steven. Being out-of-state, and pretty heavily in love with Rosa, I really hadn’t put much thought toward the people who had stayed behind.
“Where did you see Steven Metzger?” I asked.
“Well, just listen. I was about ready for bed, and was locking up the house, checking the windows, you know. I went to the back door, locked it, and then I looked out at the garage.”
“Yeah.” He paused for emphasis. “There was a strange shape on the lawn in the back, just underneath the peach tree. It looked like a body.
“You still getting peaches off that?” I said.
“Yes, Drew. I’ll send you some. Now listen. I opened the door and called out, ‘Is somebody there?’ After a long while, the shape says, ‘Steven Metzger, sir.’ Can you believe it? So I say, ‘Well, what are you doing laying in the grass at one in the morning, in my backyard?’”
The glow from the lamp next to our bed was drifting down onto Rosa’s body, warming her skin. I slid my palm between her sleeping shoulder blades. Just a simple touch, and I was wanting her again.
“Well, then what?” I said.
“Drew, he was just lying out there spread-eagle and staring at the sky. I asked him again what he was doing out there, and he said, ‘Just watching Rigel, and waiting for Drew.’”
I heard the sound of running water through the telephone line, all the way from Michigan. “That sounds pretty weird,” I. Said. “Did he leave?”
“Well, I told him you didn’t live here anymore, that you had been living in Boulder for–”
“Dad, you didn’t tell him where I live, did you?”
“I don’t think he heard me.” The water stopped running. “Listen, I’m really sorry if I let something slip. You didn’t tell your mother or me that we weren’t supposed to–”
“It’s OK, Dad. Really.” “–keep your whereabouts a secret. Anyway, after that he just stood up and walked out the back gate and into the field.” I heard static on the line. “What’s the matter with that kid? Does he use drugs, Drew?”
Rosa said something in her sleep. She was waking up. “Not anymore,” I said. “Far as I know. I said goodbye and laid the phone on its cradle. Rosa had rolled over in the bed, and I felt the soft crush of her breasts against my back. It was still early.
We weathered the Colorado winter in comfort. The band traveled a little, playing at the ski resorts. We did a few opening spots for national acts that came through town. We were making money.
Rosa and I began to breathe in rhythm as we fell asleep. In the morning we’d write our dreams into journals, make love, and then I’d go to the piano. I practiced scales, invented arpeggios, and sang to Rosa. Sometimes we’d drive into the mountains, to places we’d found and claimed as our own. The sky was clear in that part of the state for more than three-hundred days a year, and after a big snow the amplitude of the light could be deafening.
The phone rang one day as we were lying on the couch watching television.
“Drew Clements, please.”
“I’m calling from the Iowa State Psychiatric Hospital in Ames.”
“Yeah?” I had the fleeting sensation of the smell of Band-Aids.
“I’m calling in regards to a patient we’re admitting for treatment. Steven Metzger. Do you know this gentleman?”
“I knew him in high school.”
“On his admission form he named you as the party responsible for his care. Is Mr. Metzger covered on your health insurance? Or are you paying for his hospitalization out-of-pocket?” She asked the question as if I was expected to make a choice between the two.
“I’m not responsible for Steven Metzger. He’s just an acquaintance.” The fingers of my right hand ran staccato scales on Rosa’s thigh. I recited some of the details of Steven’s history, keeping myself out of it as much as possible. I tried to avoid looking at Rosa, but I knew she was listening.
“Well,” the woman said. “You’ve been very helpful.” I really hadn’t tried to be. “I’ll pass your information along to the medical staff.” She hung up sounding disappointed.
Rosa’s eyes locked onto mine as I looked up. “Drew?” she said. “What was that all about? Who’s Steven Metzger?”
“He’s just this guy I knew in high school. It’s not important.” I heard the branches of a Ponderosa pine as they scoured the front window. “Sounds important to me.” Rosa pulled herself up. “Why haven’t you told me about him?”
I realized that I hadn’t really thought of Steven since I had left Michigan. “Nothing to tell,” I said. “He’s there, we’re here. He’s historical.” Heading toward the kitchen, I said, “You want some more tea? Anything?” There was a short silence, and then, “Yeah, ‘T’ like in truth, Drew.” She had me there.
She had me there.
I conjured up some Earl Grey and carried the two cups into the living room. Rosa asked me questions about Steven, and I answered them: No, I didn’t think he was dangerous. Yes, he was probably psychotic., in a mild sort of way. No, I don’t think his mother knew where he was.
Yes, I think he’s probably fixated on me, since I had been with him on his way out, so to speak. I didn’t recall, until Rosa started shaking my memory, that I had told him that I would take care of him.
But really, I had meant only until he wasn’t high anymore.
“Pass the chutney, honey, please?” I said one twilight at the Oasis Diner.
Rosa sat next to me in the corner booth. The mountains to the west were darkening, drained of pigment by the sun dropping behind them, She was having a plate of eggplant Parmesan, a salad, and some iced tea. Probably she’d have a dart of chocolate cheesecake afterwards.
On the street side of the diner, past the parking lot, the usual assortment of vehicles rolled across Arapahoe Avenue. I bruised a couple of mushrooms with my fork, then speared a chunk of steak.
Steak was good in Colorado.
“You want to come to Vail with the band next week? The hotel’s giving us three condos instead of two.” I twitched my eyebrows at her. “We’ll have our own bedroom.” I ate the bite of meat.
“I’m not sure if I can get that much time off work.” Rosa sold clothes at a store owned by a couple of young women, Elaine and Terry. Several years later, it would be discovered that they had a moderate side-line in moving coke and heroin in and out of Boulder. One night they would sell something to an undercover DEA woman. They would both spend a few years in prison.
“Well, try to get it off, OK? It’s time we had an emotional growth spurt. I want to be in the mountains with you. We need it.” I dragged my nose across her neck, enjoying the sweet, waxy smell of her skin.
Someone was jaywalking on Arapahoe. Cars were arcing around him, slimly missing.
She cupped her hand around my wrist, and rubbed her head against
“Let’s go home,” she said. I paid the bill.
We settled into the Cougar, and I drove out toward the street. From my left someone ran in front of the car, and I kicked down hard on the brake.
“Damn,” Rosa said.
The man had his thighs pressed against the chrome of the grill. His arms were raised above his head in a touchdown gesture. I knew the face, but not the eyes.
“What?” Rosa said.
“That guy. It’s Steven Metzger,” I said.
Steven lowered his arms and sauntered over to my side of the car. I stayed in the seat and left the car in gear, with my foot on the brake. He put his hands on the edge of the door,
“Drew,” he said. “Drew Drew Drew Drew Drew.”
“Steven,” I said.
“Hey, did you get my letters? “ He knelt, keeping his hands on the door of the Cougar. His chin rested against the metal. “I sent a lot of letters. To your dad’s house. You don’t have an address in the phone book here. Or a phone number,” he said. “I checked. But I was over there,” and he pointed to the Putt’n’Go miniature golf place across the street, “Putting, actually. And I. Saw your Cougar in the lot. The same Cougar. Green, still. Your Cougar,” he said, “Imagine.”
Steven bore the signs of his emotional battles of the past two years. Deeply tanned from days planted at the sides of interstate freeways, his body, at least those parts which weren’t hidden by his soiled flannel shirt and cuffed, hugely plaid second-hand trousers, seemed to have shrunken and become dessicated.
He looked beyond me into the car, and his face darkened. “Who’s that?”
“That,” I said, “is not a ‘that.’ She is Rosa. My girlfriend. Rosa, this is Steven Metzger.”
“Hi, Steven. Nice to meet you.” Rosa extended her hand and Steven met her grip. His fingernail were short, but not bitten. The looked as though they had been polished.
I said, “How long are you going to be in town? Where are you staying?” I needed the answers to these questions.
“Give me a lift, and I’ll tell you everything,” he said.
The back seat of the Cougar was small, and Steven sat sideways. His black duffel bag slouched across his lap like a sleeping pet. There couldn’t have been much inside it. I drove west, towards Denver.
Steven was making coughing sounds in his throat, as if he had a fish bone lodged there. In between these outbursts, he said, “I came to this place to find you. It’s taken me a long time to get here.”
“Listen, Steven, I know. I used to get phone calls every couple of months, remember? From hospitals? They’d try to get me to pay for you.” I glanced into the rear-view mirror. “Not too cool, Steven. I mean, really.” Rosa had her hand on mine as I held the shifter, and I squeezed her fingers.
Steven coughed again. The sound was viscous, oceanic. “It wasn’t cool for me either, man. They did all sorts of tests on me, looking for the bad spot and the good thoughts. They poked and poked. They tied me up.” Outside, the lights of the city dwindled as we knifed into the prairie separating Boulder from Denver. “They were trying to keep me from getting to you,” he said, as if he were revealing an important political conspiracy. He banged his head softly against the side window.
“Look, Steven, there’s really nothing I can do for you. I’m just a guy you knew in high school. We were friends in high school. That’s all.” His face bobbed in my mirror.
“That’s not all. You guys said stuff.” I felt Rosa’s hand tighten. “You said stuff. You said, ‘We’ll keep an eye on you, Steven’. ‘We’ll take care of you, Steven’.” He was right; we had said all of that.
Steven banged his head again. “You guys said to drink lots of orange juice, and I did. I’m still drinking it. I have some with me right now. He lifted his duffel. “You. Want some?”
“No thanks, Steven,” I said.
“We had something together, Drew,” he said. “We did the play together, we were friends, and I didn’t have many others. You were the only guy in the school who took me seriously. Everybody else thought I was some sort of intellectual dweeb. At the concert, you were all getting high, and I wanted to be–” His voice trailed off into another fit of coughing. “You said not to answer any questions, and I haven’t. None. Not from anyone.”
Steven’s voice evened out; he almost sounded as he might have back in school.
“I did what you told me; I kept up my side of the deal,” he said. “For the past two years I’ve been keeping up my side of the deal. I’m gobbling the vitamins, aren’t I?”
I was driving fast, and trying to keep an eye on Steven; trying to gauge his agitation. I checked him in the rear-view mirror, and when I looked back to the road I was bearing down on the rear of a cattle truck. Several pinkish bovine noses were pressed the slots of the truck’s walls.
“Just a minute, Steven. Let me pass this guy.” I downshifted the Cougar and veered around the truck of doomed animals.
Steven said, “And you–are you keeping up your part of the deal? Have you been taking care of me, like you said? It would appear to me you’ve been taking care of someone else around here. Old number one, for instance.” He put his hand on Rosa’s shoulder, and she jumped. “And number two, here.” He removed his hand from her body. I didn’t like him touching her.
“Steven, you have to get some things straight. What we told you was just for that night, the night of the concert, when you–”
“You’re avoiding the issue, Drew. You know that. The issue, the issue, here, is this: you knew what you were getting into. You promised me some things, and it’s time to follow through. With your responsibilities. To your fellow man. Me.”
Steven was rubbing the back of his head. His elbow swung n and out of my field of vision. It had started to rain, and the speed of the car forced water to run up the windshield in determine lines.
“Drew,” Rosa said.
“Just a minute.”
I turned my head so Steven could hear my voice clearly. “What you need to do is to talk to your mother. Or your brother. You should move back home. That’s what you need.” I tried to sound therapeutic. “You don’t need me. Not me. Not this cross-country tour of hospitals, not this hitchhiking shit.” I pulled the knob that operates the wipers, and they came on.
“You told me not to talk to them, not to answer any questions, to sleep with the lights on, to gobble vitamin–”
“–And now I’m telling you to stop with the vitamins, and stop drinking the juice, and to talk to your family. Turn out the lights at bedtime, OK? I’m telling you, and this is a change in the answers now, so pay attention, I’m telling you you should go home
“Yes, you do,” he said.
I turned off the road into a Holiday Inn parking lot and stopped the car. In the bubbled reflection across the hood were the words ‘Your host From Coast to Coast’. Steven started to bang his head again, softly, against the window, and the slogan blurred with each impact.
He straightened his body in the seat, and gripped my headrest. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “To change the answers. Not now. It’s more complicated than to just say ‘we’re changing the answers’. I haven’t gotten any answers out of you, not in two years, not a single answer, and now you say the game is changing, that you’re changing the answers?” The headrest trembled. “Don’t you care at all about me? About what’s right and what’s wrong?”
I opened the door and eased out. Rosa took the keys from the ignition and held them like brass knuckles in her fist.
“Get out, Steven,” I said.
“No.” The banging had stopped; the coughing started.
“I just want to talk. I have to tell you something. In private. Come on.”
Steven levered himself out of the backseat, hugging the duffel bag to his chest.
“Come on,” I said, and I held his arm. “I’ll be right back, Rosa. It’ll be all right.”
I bent into the car and looked at her eyes. They were searching my face for clues about what to do, about how much danger we were in. I smiled at her.
Steven and I walked away from the Cougar. The rain had stopped, and the cars on the highway hissed on the water. Behind Steven, I saw the cattle truck glide toward Denver.
“Look. We were friends. We are friends. You know that. I remember school, and the play, and the ridiculous stage blood idea I had. And the knife. Remember? You trusted me then, right? I didn’t let you down then, right? Did I?”
“No. That’s one of the good thoughts I have. That you didn’t let me down then, in the play. I try to think about stuff like that. Because you told me, at the concert, to think good thoughts. Those were your words, and I’ve been trying to do like you guys said. To take the vitamins, to — “
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll take Rosa back to our house. She’s tired. She’s not interested in hearing about our old times. She wasn’t’t there.” A green courtesy van docked under the awning. Several passengers got out; they looked happy to be there.
“You go in the hotel lobby and wait for me. I’ll be back in twenty minutes, tops. We can go in the coffee shop and get something to eat.” I squeezed his shoulder. “We can talk about the answers, figure something out.”
“That’s going to take a long time, Drew. A very long time. You know?” His face looked hopeful. “There’s a lot to talk about. The play. Literal and figurative death, authorial intentions. We never finished talking about that, for instance. Then there’s the sleep
“We’ll talk about all of it, man. Twenty minutes, I’ll be back, and we can–”
“We need to cover all of it. The juice, the good thoughts, the taking care of me, the not answering questions. The play. Authorial intention. Questions, questions. Answers.” His knees were starting to bend in time with his breathing. “I can’t answer the questions. Just can’t. You have to do that for me.”
His face was close to mine, and his breath smelled faintly medicinal, like camphor. I said, “Sure. We’ll talk about it all.”
“And especially the part about me being OK. I want to hear about that especially,” he said.
I lifted my arm and showed him the face of my watch. “Twenty minutes,” I said. “In the lobby.”
“Twenty minutes in the lobby,” he said. “Thanks, Drew.”
Steven walked across the parking lot, swerving around the puddles that had formed there. I was surprised at the way Steven avoided the collected water at his feet; it would have seemed more appropriate, more in character, for a man in t he position of Steven Metzger to navigate a straight line from one place to the. Other, without. Talking care to keep his feet dry.
He entered the lobby and sat on a white vinyl bench across from the registration desk. His shoes were together, his back straight, and his hands were folded on his lap. He looked as though he were waiting for an appointment with a prospective employer. I watched as the woman behind the marble counter ssy something to him. I. Couldn’t make out what it was. He mouthed an answer, and looked through the window, pointing at me. I waved at the woman, and she seemed to understand something.
Steven put his bag on his lap. As I opened the car door, I saw him gently swaying, as if he were hearing music.
“Let’s go home,” I said to Rosa as I started the car.
“What about him?” she said. “Shouldn’t we do something? Call his mother? Something?”
I told her, “We’ve got our own life to live.”
“That’s a shitty attitude, Drew. He needs you, and you’re going to just abandon him, leaving him sitting there on that stupid bench?”
“That’s right.” I spun the tires of the Cougar and pointed us back to Boulder.
The ride home was short. I clicked a tape into the player in the dash, but as soon as the music began Rosa snapped it off. She popped the cassette out of the player and, hooking her nail under the tape, pulled a few inches of the acetate from the case. She ripped the tape between her fingers, cranked her window down, and let the cassette fly while holding onto the end of the tape. I imagined the ribbon of music unfurling behind us.
“I found out something pretty ugly about you tonight,” she said.
“Look,” I began.
“No, you look. That poor man needed help, needed you. And you leave him, lie to him, and you expect me to say nothing about it? What’s wrong with you?”
“He’s dangerous. He’s a complication that we don’t need right now. Everything is going great between us–”
“You mean everything was going great.”
“What do you want–you want me to go back there and get him? A certifiably crazy man, that’s who you want me to go spend the next few hours with?”
“Are you afraid of him?” she said.
I thought about it as we pulled into the driveway of our apartment. “Yes, maybe. A little. Not afraid, but cautious. I don’t know what he wants from me.” I cut off the ignition and turned to Rosa. “I just want to protect us,” I said.
“Do what’s right,” she said.
I was on my way to work last week, late, and twenty years later than the night I left Steven Metzger sitting on his bench at a Holiday Inn outside of Boulder Colorado. He never found my apartment, and I was glad for that. I suppose he waited for a while and then, being used to disappointment, shook it from his shoulders and found his way to the highway and stuck out his thumb.
Rosa refused to go to Vail with me the next week, and things had slipped a gear, it seemed, in the way we treated each other. I was angry that she had made me admit to being afraid, and she was angry with. Me for not dating up to it. We were young, too young to handle the responsibilities inherent in a full-time love affair, I guess, and I found out a few months later that she had begun sleeping with the guitarist in our band not long after that evening. That was that.
So, on the way to work, late, twenty years later, I drifted into a Shell station to get gas. I pumped it and walked into the building to pay.
The guy behind the register had a familiar look to him, and was, of course, Steven. It said so on his uniform, over his heart.
“I know you,” he said. “Drew.”
“Hi, Steven. How’ve you been?” The conversational tone in my voice sounded ridiculous even to me.
“Well, all right, all right. I’m all right, feeling better. Saving some money. I’m living in my car to save some money.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Congratulations? That’s too bad? What kind of car?
I put the money on the counter, and said, “I had twelve on pump three.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, right. Here you go.” After giving me the change, he said, “You live here in town?”
I felt a hot sensation centering around my neck and ears. Why would he want to know that? What’s he up to?
“No,” I lied. “Living in Chicago. Here on business.” Chicago seemed far enough away to daunt any attempt on his part to arrange a visit. It was a trip out of state. “The windy city,” I said.
“Chicago,” he repeated. “That’s nice. I. Was there. In one of the Cook County places. On my way out to see you. You remember, don’t you?”
“Sure, that’s right. Long time ago, like you said.” I gathered a got-to-go tone into my voice. “Well, if you ever get out there again–”
“I’ll look you up. I will. Promise,” he said.
“Take care, now” I said.
As I drove to work, I realized that, unlike in Boulder, I was listed in the book here. The address. The phone number. Steven was smart enough to check, if he wanted to. He could find the house, maybe when I wasn’t home, when only Jean and the kids were there. I’d have to tell her about this, tell her to keep a close eye on the kids when they were playing outside.
You can’t be too careful about these things.