In the years since our time working together in retail hell, Phillip* and I had kept in sporadic contact. Just when I’d start to wonder how he was doing, the phone would ring or an email would arrive. This time, it had been somewhere in the neighborhood of a year without contact when I received a call from him. As usual, Phillip’s voice was its upbeat self (monotone, except for the upward intonation always on the last syllable). He talked of his new job, new house, new car, all of the good turns his life had taken. Phillip was a good guy, but a good guy hounded by demons of which his dominance over waxed and waned like an AA member who is forever re-achieving that 30-day sobriety coin. This is why hearing about the good things in his life was reason to rejoice. So, before hanging up, I invited Phillip to the house for dinner. We’d make gnocchi, it’d be a good time.
Phillip arrived, had found my directions clear enough, had hit no traffic, etc. Waiting for our guest was a 4-pack of his drink of choice, Guinness. I told him to take home whatever he didn’t finish because neither myself nor my wife are big beer drinkers. “I’ll probably finish ‘em,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t like to leave a Guinness unopened. It’s a crime, Mike. I can’t do it.” And with a click-fwwish, he opened his first can.
While waiting for my wife to get home from work, I probably told some story that was, in reality, far less charming or entertaining than I thought it was. As I yammered on, Phillip held the Guinness to his lips as though it were his only source of oxygen on an alien planet. He nodded and uh-huh’d as the Irish-brewed life blood flowed into his belly. Never breaking eye contact, he set the empty can aside, picked up another and, click-fwwish, remained my captive audience.
As the second empty hit the counter, I asked if he was going to be okay to drive home after dinner. “Yeah, I’ll be fine, Mike. It takes five or six Guinness’ before I even feel anything. It doesn’t even affect me like it used to. I’ve built up a good tolerance. I actually had two before I came over and there was no problem.”
“Five or six?” I asked. “Building a tolerance to poison ivy is a good thing, but five or six Guinness’…”
“Yeah, I need to cut back, Mike. It’s true. Once I get into shape, I think I’ll probably only be able to handle three or four.”
In an attempt to hinder what I imagined was an immediate danger in the depletion of the world’s Guinness supply, I offered Phillip a cocktail. We had gin, rum, something brown-ish that I wasn’t totally sure about and tequila. Rum sounded good. I gave Phillip a tumbler and let him break the seal on a bottle of Jamaican rum. He filled his glass the same way a person might if the only way they can swallow an aspirin is with a torrent of tap water. And, just as though he were trying to push back a pill, his glass of rum was emptied in a short series of gulps. A few minutes later, click-fwwish.
Later, my wife and I sat across from Phillip and Guinness #4 at our table set for three. We encouraged Phillip to eat some of the gnocchi we’d made, even just a few bites, in hopes that it would absorb some of the alcohol in his system. We watched trying not to laugh as Phillip, whose head was only upright thanks to a well-positioned hand, had to move his head to the food because the fork in hand was either incapable or simply unwilling to budge. When a single gnocchi had successfully made its way into Phillip’s mouth, we encouraged him to chew with the same enthusiasm we might show a toddler attempting its first Graham Cracker. Then, with an ‘ahhh’ of disappointment, we watched the food fall from his open mouth and onto the table.
“Phillip?” we kept repeating with humored grins. “You okay?”
It was at about this moment that Phillip’s face lost its battle with gravity and landed in the plate of gnocchi. This was a scene from so many black and white films, a gag almost Stooge-esque, playing itself out in our dining room. My wife and I couldn’t help but laugh.
After making sure his face was marinara free, I lead the not-quite-dead weight of Phillip to the nearest chair. Obviously, he wasn’t going to be driving home, so we decided to make up the guest bed. After this, my wife and I sat down to watch a movie, while Phillip lay mouth agape in the chair, making occasional sounds: gurgle, choke, glump-umph. These noises amused us and became a source of tilted head curiosity for our pets.
Just as we’d settled on what to watch, there came a rapid series of glump-umph‘s from Phillip that were cause for concern. Before we could say the words ‘lay down a towel’, one final glump-umph introduced the fabric of our new furniture to gnocchi, Guinness, and Jamaican rum. With quick-under-pressure reflexes, I was already back from the bathroom with a towel to lay down on Phillip’s lap. Unfortunately, one towel was about three towels too few as the foul mixture of death maliciously spewing from Phillip’s mouth seemed to be being pumped from some well-stocked reserve. It just wouldn’t stop!
My guest was puking violently, my wife was now fighting back her own vomiting, my pets were scared and I was just pissed. Pissed because it was up to me, the guy whose one and only phobia is throwing up, to clean up both the vomit and the vomituer. What choice did I have but to look past my own fears, ignore the overwhelming stench of marinara and rum and focus on remaining calm?
Within about 15 minutes, I had accomplished what needed to be done. Phillip was in the bathroom with his newest bestie Toilet-y, the cushions were washed and hanging on the back porch, the carpet treated and scrubbed.
When my wife returned from her exodus of self-preservation, she apologized for leaving me to deal with the chaos alone, then added that she really had to use the bathroom. “You can check with Phillip,” I told her, “but I think he’s leasing it for the night.”
We both knocked on the door and called his name, but there was no answer. We tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. The mass of flesh and bone that once was Phillip had laid to rest on the other side of the door. We were able to open the door just enough to peek inside, confirming that he was, if nothing else, still alive. Flicking his head a few times in order to get his attention, I told… no, I ordered Phillip to get up and open the door.
Not long afterwards, I stood in the front yard with a slightly less catatonic Phillip who was now wearing one of my old shirts. Fortunately for Phillip, his waking blackout didn’t include any sense of self-consciousness because the shirt that comfortably fit my 150lb. frame looked more like a tube top with sleeves on Phillip’s 200-plus, girthy body. On the plus side, had any of my neighbors been curious if Phillip’s bellybutton was an inny, an outty or simply a navigational marker on a bloated globe, this shirt allowed them the perfect moment to settle that debate.
The cold, night air seemed to bring Phillip that much closer to a semblance of lucidity. He was fumbling around in his pockets just as my wife joined us outside. He took his keys out and held them in his mouth as he searched for his cigarettes. “I hope you don’t think you’re driving home,” my wife told him. He explained/mumbled that he was looking for his lighter and… Ah, success! The lighter was found at about the same moment we heard a nearby monk-monk.
Just as Phillip tried to light his cigarette, the monk-monk sound came again. What the hell was that? As Phillip grew frustrated with his lighter, the monk-monk sound continued and I saw a flash of lights in our driveway. “Your keys are in your mouth,” my wife pointed out. “You’re trying to light your keys.”
“My lighter doesn’t work,” Phillip said, more concerned with having a working lighter than having an actual cigarette in his mouth.
Taking his lighter, I held it up for him to look at very closely. “It’s not working because it’s a flash drive.” Granted, the word ‘flash’ suggests light or blast of heat, but a usb port cannot generate any actual fire. Who knew?! This is a good lesson for any cavemen (sorry, cavepeople) who happen to be reading this.
Phillip dug around in his pockets until he found a cigarette. Then, with crumpled cigarette set backwards in his mouth, he looked toward me, opened his arms to receive a phantom hug, then fell over sideways, into the bougainvillea with its thorns like Nosferatu’s fingernails.
Sleep tight, sweet prince. May the branches be your pillow and the thorns kisses to your cheek.
In the morning, Phillip was surprised to find himself still in our house. My explanation attempted to pair this with why I had to take my chair cushions to get dry cleaned, but it didn’t seem to reach Phillip. He apologized if he was an inconvenience (oh, memory loss, how I envy you), then left with a friendly smile and a plastic bag of his soiled clothing.
To this day, I still cannot eat what food we had that night. Gnocchi? Gno thank you!
*The name Phillip was given to protect the identity of the actual person, per their request. So, don’t you worry, Jeffrey. Your identity is safe with me and stored securely in my vault of secrets!