Marshall was in trouble. Quinn could hear the desperate inflections of his voice through the blank verse of the text message.
“Could you please come over?”
…it read. It was a startling and unwelcome message to get while lounging naked in bed with your girlfriend, body sleek and satisfied from Saturday-morning delight. Maria raised herself up on her elbow with a question in her eyes and a pout on her lips as he quickly rose and dragged on his stiff jeans.
“What is it?”
“It’s Marshall. I think he’s in trouble.”
Maria didn’t like Marshall, with his erratic moods and wild eyes. It came down to jealousy, Quinn figured. He remembered, not a month ago, getting a similar text while the two of them were out to dinner. He had rose, wiping his mouth and grabbing in his back pocket for his wallet. Maria had looked angry; it was their anniversary.
“I just hope you would do the same for me,” she had said, with downcast, narrowed eyes.
Quinn would, he was sure of that. Only Marshall needed more help than Maria.
Quinn pulled on his t-shirt, damp from the ninety degree heat. That must have been part of it: Marshall got depressed when the mid-summer heat pressed down from the sky like the heat off an iron. Maria slipped her hand down her smooth, brown belly and into the valley between her legs.
“Don’t go…I want to have you again.”
Quinn stopped momentarily, but then shook his head, quickly gathered his things and hurried out the door.
Marshall was getting worse, his cries for help coming closer together. Most people started to calm down when they reached their mid-twenties as their mercurial bouts of emotions flattened out. Marshall’s problem was never his emotions. Some crazy people are dominated by feelings, their thoughts dragged behind them like slaves being dragged around Roman arenas by lashed horses. Marshall was the opposite. His great, sparking brain, with its flights of delusional grandeur and pits of existential despair, whipped his feelings around until they were scrambled.
Quinn’s cell-phone beeped. He quickly wrenched it out of his pocket, thinking it was Marshall again, thinking the worst. But it was only Maria, reminding him pointedly that her friend’s art show was soon, and to not get involved in the “Marshall thing” for very long, because they had plans.
Quinn had known Marshall longer than he had known Maria. They had met at a party sophomore year of college, when Quinn’s mind had been more focused on random hookups than long-term commitments. Quinn remembered Marshall, straddling the keg, pouring drinks from the malfunctioning tap, flirting with every female who came for a cup, charming every male. Quinn had raised his cup to Marshall with a shy smile; he had less confidence back then. Marshall had raised the red solo cup up to one squinting eye.
“Looks legit, looks legit…official party cup, not a clone from the outside, trying to pass for an officially paid-for one. Wait….Wait!” He spun the cup in his hands, dipping his head to see under the base. “Oo…looks like someone’s been cheating.”
“What?” Quinn drew back in confusion.
“Doesn’t have the official seal. No muted horn. You tryin to jack us for three bucks?”
Even while saying this, Marshall had a goofy, half-cocked smile on his face, inviting Quinn to share the humor. Quinn didn’t get the Pychon reference (he had Googled it later) but was disarmed by the charm mechanism that Marshall applied, one of hundreds that Marshall had backlogged in his repertoire. He always had something in the chamber.
They had quickly become friends after that, skipping class to smoke Js in the mountains, holding raging keggers, using their combined intelligences to get out of fixes with the police. It was a high being with Marshall, always being part of wild plans that, amazingly, usually worked out. But as Quinn got to know him better, he started seeing cracks in his ebullient personality, small, dramatic bouts of depression and rushing spasms of self-doubt. This made Quinn love him even more, because he was a real person, just like him.
After a while, the cracks became deeper and the plans worked less often. Marshall’s giant social circle began dissolving as people graduated, moved on. One day, when Marshall was fretting neurotically about yet another one of his friends moving out of town, Quinn saw the truth. All the people that Marshall seemed to be buoying, lifting up, actually were serving the opposite purpose. His giant circle of acquaintances worked as a support system for him, giving life to his plans, boosting his fragile ego, making him whole. As more and more people moved away, Marshall drank as much as he used to, but had less people to do it with. One by one, sections of his extroverted personality collapsed inwards, and only had each other to dance with, spinning in tighter and tighter circles. That’ was when the desperate texts started.
Quinn started seeing Maria a year ago, shortly after he turned 24. He had gotten a marketing job with his degree, working advertising at a medium-sized mail order business a commute away to the north. He was salaried with benefits, allowing him to move out of college housing and into a well-constructed apartment with a view of the river. He started hanging out less frequently with Marshall, now only seeing him on the weekends, then less often. Pretty soon, half the time they hung out it was for some desperate reason, and Quinn would find Marshall out of his mind on liquor, spewing hate and loneliness.
This is what he expected when he pulled into Marshall’s parking lot. Marshall had been kicked out of his old house a couple months ago for his craziness, and now lived in a shabby, water-logged studio in a barren strip of apartments that looked like a two-story motel from the outside. The dirty complex reeked of the smells of Quinn’s college days—a combination of mud, cheap beer and loose tobacco. Only the inhabitants were far past their days of young adulthood, and the smell would stay with them the rest of their lives.
Quinn glanced up towards Marshall’s hovel on the second floor and saw that he was seated Indian-style on the concrete walkway. Quinn wasn’t sure if Marshall saw his car pull in or not, but Marshall’s head didn’t move.
Quinn felt like he was trudging to the source of a river as he climbed the trash-littered steps. The oppressive heat baked his body like he was entering a jungle. There were storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and the humidity ratcheted up as it approached, making the air as thick and heavy as an old promise.
Marshall had never cried in front of Quinn and he wasn’t now. His eyes were filmed with alcohol and the emotions which it had jettisoned. Quinn seated himself beside Marshall, not saying anything, crossing his legs the same way, thinking about how much Marshall had fallen, fallen in his own mind. There was no pedestal anymore.
Marshall still hadn’t moved, giving the thousand-yard stare to some memory in his own mind. It was almost darkly comical, two old friends sitting at the end of the line in silence, one of them stone-sober, the other fucked out of his mind. Detached commentary was increasingly how Quinn got through these things. Humor is the realm of the Steppenwolf.
“Thanks for coming.” Marshall finally spoke, his voice dropping like melted lead pellets. “I know I can always rely on you.”
Quinn ducked his head in a nod, hoping Marshall didn’t see the hesitation.
“What’s goin on?”
“I dunno…” Quinn knew Marshall knew, or at least knew what he was going to say. It was just how he always started these conversations. Marshall turned and looked at Quinn for the first time. His eyes were still unfocused and myopic, but there was a dull intensity behind them. “I think…no, I know…I think that I know what the problem is. Everything, every thought and object in the world, is self-defeating. Everything’s a Catch-22. Whenever you try to do something, doing it makes the end result null. And then it repeats, because you’re back at the beginning again. You know what I mean?” A plea. “If I stand up, I have to tie my shoes first. But I have to tie my shoes to stand up. If I want a sandwich, I need to walk to the deli. But walking to the deli burns off the calories that I would be getting from the sandwich. So I’m back at square one. Talking to you gets things off my chest, but getting things off my chest puts it on you, which makes me feel bad, putting more stuff on my chest. Everything’s like this. I’ve been sitting here since last night. That’s how long it took me to text you.”
Marshall wasn’t lying. It looked like he had been there for an eternity, a rusty machine that could only shift and creak its internal mechanisms anymore.
“You’re drunk?” Quinn tried to keep the judgment out of his voice, but it was noon.
“Yeah, drunk again, drunk again…drinking makes you feel better, but then it makes you feel worse and you’re at square one again and have to drink. Remember that one time we drank a bottle of Evans and wandered into the nursing home looking for directions back to town? We set off like four alarms. That was hilarious. I’m also on some Percocets.”
Marshall’s eyes had dulled again, and he stared off over the desolate parking lot.
“Where’d you get Perocets?”
“My neighbor…one of my neighbors…I forget his name…he has good prices. It makes me not care about the spinning, how everything is self-defeating and everything is nothing. It makes me alright with it.”
That’s all Marshall did anymore: spin like an unmoored raft in the maelstrom of his own mind.
An alarm went off in Quinn’s pocket. It was Maria, reminding him that the art show was in less than an hour. Quinn mentally prepared himself to leave, prepared himself for the disappointment on Marshall’s face.
“Marshall, you’ve got to stop taking pills, and calm down on the drinking. You said so yourself: it only makes things worse.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. Making things better makes things worse and making things worse makes things better. So why shouldn’t I?”
“Because it makes you depressed.”
“Things that make you happy make you depressed and square one comes up at you and then you’re depressed to be happy and you want to be happy so you get depressed and square one comes up and you and square one comes up at you…” Marshall’s mouth kept moving, but words stopped coming out, a desperate, foolish look on his face like a polar bear that just had its jaw ripped off, and now was helpless and confused in the tundra.
`”Marshall…you need to get help, man.”
Marshall stared out in bug-eyed confusion, his jaw still working.
“You need to get help, but I gotta go now. Maria’s friend is having an art show in less than an hour and I promised I would go.”
Marshall finally shut his mouth with a clack. His eyes unfocused even more, until it looked like nothing was coming in or out.
“I figured.” The words vibrated softly through the air, and Quinn saw what a beautiful day it was, how the sun streaked the sky with light. He wondered if these were the last words he would ever hear from Marshall. They might be.
He stood and said his goodbye, but Marshall his words washed over Marshall like the sea over a sunken statue.
Quinn’s door-ajar signal beeped as he slid into his car seat, switching on the AC. He looked forward to seeing the artwork, to filling his belly with crackers and cheese, to seeing Maria.
The sun beat down on the outside of the car as he drove away.