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The Thousand Nights and a Night

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The snow itself isn't too bad. Actually the snow is kind of reassuring, all white and soft and quiet and piling up on the treebranches, the hydrants and the cars where it's been falling for over a week now. The cold cuts to the bone, but the snow's still beautiful. Michael pulls up against the curb in front of the apartment building where, until a week ago, Gary Shepard had lived with his wife and daughter. The ice squeaks under the Volvo's slippy tires, and the car slides out of control for a minute and halts with a screech when it hits the bumper of the parked car in front of it.

"Hey, I saw that!"

Michael rolls down the window and the bitter chill whips in. From the front stoop, Melissa grins.

"I was gonna leave a note," Michael says, taking off his seatbelt and rolling the window back up so he can get out and lock the car. There's two feet of snow on the grass, and the sidewalk, freshly shoveled, is already mossy with snow too. Michael shushes up the walk, slips his arm around Melissa's waist and unlocks the door to the building, and they clamber inside and up the stairs to escape the bitter cold.

Inside Gary's apartment, Michael strips off his gloves and heads for the kitchen.

"Beer?"

Melissa blows into her clenched fists and nods. "So you come here too, huh?"

There's a six-pack of Pabst, the only thing in the empty fridge aside from the box of baking soda, and Michael takes a couple and pops the tops off.

"Yeah," he says. "Every day, um, actually. I drive right past here on the way home from work and I, I don't know. I just feel like I have to."

"Takes me two buses and a gypsy cab," Melissa says, taking a sip of beer. She looks at Michael and her big brown eyes are sad as he's ever seen them, and scared too. "Actually, um, I kind of stayed here last night."

"Melissa, there's no heat! No furniture, no blankets? You're gonna get sick."

"I dressed in layers," she says. Then she just drinks her beer and stares past him, at the blank wall near the door where Gary used to hang that ratty Toulouse-Lautrec print. Michael drinks his beer too.

"I was thinking, you know. About what you said." She sips.

Michael's fingers are finally beginning to thaw. He hoists himself up onto the counter and sits there, swinging his legs. "What I said about what?"

"About Gary and Susannah," Melissa says. "How I had to remember who the widow really is?"

"Melissa --"

"No, it's okay." She steels herself, that set jaw Michael's seen in her face a thousand times, since back when Aunt Esther tried to make Melissa wear a dress to her second husband's funeral. "I mean, sometimes, lots of times, it's like, I can't imagine how he's really gone, you know? Like when, okay so I was downtown yesterday paying my power bill and and there's this like four year old kid with a puppy. And I bend down to pet him and I say to the kid, what's your dog's name?"

Michael nods.

"And the kid says, Tiger. And I say, that's a nice name. And he says, you know, like Tyger, Tyger, burning bright in the forest?"

Michael laughs, because Gary would have loved that story.

"And I couldn't run home and tell him about it," Melissa finishes. "Gary, I mean. I can't run home and tell him anything. Ever again." She chokes on a heavy sob, and leans forward against the counter letting her hair hang across her forehead and obscure her tears.

Michael puts a hand on her back and rubs, gently. "I know, Melissa," he says. "I know because I feel it too. He was my best friend, and every single minute I --"

She sits up abruptly, making Michael jump.

"See, that's it," Melissa says. "You and me, us and Gary, we go way back. And then Susannah, and then Emma, and it's like -- all that stuff we had, all that history it gets cancelled out because what goes on is in them. Gary's genes, up there in New York." She sniffles and wipes her nose on her sleeve. "And he hates New York."<

Michael sighs. He's been coming here every night since the funeral, at first because Susannah needed the house stuff taken care of and then later because he went the long way home from work and Gary's light was on, and Michael swore, swore that Gary would be up there when he raced up the stairs and knocked on the door. That it had all been some terrible nightmare and Gary got to live.

The apartment was empty, but there was beer in the fridge. The next night he drove straight over after work, and the night after that.

"He goes on in us too," Michael says. "Everything we ever had with him, everything he was to us, you know that. And even though it's going to be hard for us, for a while, we're going to survive and move on and the world will keep on turning for the rest of until our number's up too."

Melissa gives him a wet smile. "Fabulous," she says.<

Michael takes a deep breath, and controls his exhale, eyes closed. Then he looks up and takes a drink of beer. "Did I ever tell you about Miami? Gary and me, when we were in college?"

"Oh, for the McGovern thing?" Melissa nods. "I was so jealous. You guys got to take the bus down there and everything and I was stuck at home."

"You were in high school," Michael says. She shrugs.

"Anyway. Yes, Gary and I went to Miami in the summer of our junior year to rally for McGovern at the convention, right? And we've been canvassing and precinct-walking in Philly for, like, weeks, and we're really gung-ho about this nomination. So we blow all our money on bus tickets and a motel room and a really inappropriate amount of psychotropic hallucinogens, and we go down to Miami."

Melissa leans against the doorway, listening. She's stopped crying, but her face is two shades paler than usual, white like rice paper. She nods.

"We get to the motel, and, you know, we've been on the bus for like a day and a half so we totally stink, and Gary, of course, has picked up some chick he met on the bus who let him read her copy of Diane DiPrima or some shit like that, so she's there too, and because there's only one bed in the motel room I get to sleep on the floor."

"Of course," says Melissa.

"Right. But anyway, we get into town, get to the room, shower and get high and, in Gary's case, get a blowjob --"

"Of course," Melissa says again, rolling her eyes.

"And then we leave to go to the convention center because Gary said he heard there was some big migrant worker's union who were going to be protesting the war and he wanted to, god, I don't even know what we were supposed to be doing there, Gary just nagged me so hard for a month and a half that I bought the tickets to shut him up."

"I know the feeling," Melissa says. "One time he threatened to teach me to play hockey because I wouldn't watch a hockey game on TV with him. He has a -- he had a. Real way with overzealous participation."

"Yeah," says Michael. They drink their beers in silence for a little while.

"So, Miami?" says Melissa. "You were telling me some scandalous story?"

Michael closes his eyes, swallows, and starts to talk. "Yeah," he says. "Migrant workers."

"Right, migrant workers."

"So we're outside the motel which is in this really sketchy area near the airport, and there's this group of like total hippies hanging out by their car. And the girl we're with, whose name was Dolly, goes to see if any of the hippies need a smoke, because, you know, it's 1972 and we were all about sharing."

"Right," Melissa agrees.

"And we get to talking and next thing I know we're in a crosstown bus heading to the convention center, and now Gary's got three girls with him, and he's got them all in this debate about whether transsexualism subverts the feminist agenda or something, and here I am, little Mikey Steadman with my Khalil Gibran in my backpack right next to that notebook Emily Burch and I used to write poetry in, sitting on the bus with Gary Shepard, king of the rebels with a cause."

"Been there," says Melissa. "I remember this time Gary took me to this 'adult party,' where you were supposed to fool around with other peoples' wives and stuff? And Gary's so into it and he wants me to be into it too, and while I totally respect all that free love stuff, all I could think about was my mom telling me to wear control-top tights under my Bat Mitzvah dress."

Michael laughs out loud. "Gary took you to an orgy? My baby cousin? I don't believe it. If he was around --"

A beat. "Man, this is hard," Melissa says around a lump in her throat.

"Yeah," Michael agrees. "This is really, really awful and really, really hard."

"I love him so much, Michael," Melissa says.

Michael fights his own tears. "I know you did. So did I."

She pushes off from the counter with a loud exhale. "Another beer?"

"Without question."

They pop their tops off and hold the bottles out for a toast. "To Gary," says Michael.

"And everything that he was," Melissa says. Then she turns to Michael. "So, was that the story? You and Gary smoked up some hippies in Miami? What, you get busted by the cops?"

Michael rubs his face. "No, we didn't get busted," he says. "The convention center was a total madhouse, and the cops were everywhere, and we were all pretty fucked up by that point so by the time we got there and saw the crowds and the riot gear, we decided just to turn around and go back to the hotel. They were lobbying tonight pretty late but there was a good chance it would go on again the next morning, so we went back. But Gary had these girls, see, so I let them use the motel room and I took a blanket and a pillow and went to sleep in the bathtub."

"No wonder you get bursitis," says Melissa.

"Anyway, so the protests are sort of a clusterfuck and, like, none of the debates even get started until like way after sunset, so nobody's really following them that closely --"

"And plus it wasn't like Muskie really had a chance."

"And plus Muskie didn't have a chance, and so it's not like there's any suspense, but for some reason I'm like really frustrated that I'm stuck in the bathroom and couldn't watch the news, and so of course I start blaming Gary. You know, like, he made me come down here and now he's the one who's gonna get laid and I don't even get to watch McGovern make his acceptance speech. And I'm, like, muttering to myself in the bathroom, getting a good head of steam going because I swear this time I'm going to tell that smug bastard that I'm sick of being at the mercy of his whims all the time --"

"Good luck with that --"

"And all of a sudden the door opens and Gary's sticking his head in and asking me if I want to come join the party."

Melissa's eyes go big like tea trays. "No!"

"And I mean, I can't see anything, but the front door's been opening and closing all night and at this point as far as I know there's fifteen girls and a goat out there --"

"Gary's scared of goats," Melissa says. "Something about the beard -- he's threatened they can grow a better one than he can, or something."

"And Gary's like, we're gonna stay up all night if we have to, like somehow if we're awake in the motel we can stop the Vietnam war or something, and he's got these pills, right? These Rohrer 747s and so we each take a couple, probably some tabs of acid too and so Gary's tripping and the girls are, like, playing cards, or something, and I start like totally freaking out."

"Because of the quaaludes? You were always such a good boy."

"Well, I always had to make sure you thought so because otherwise you'd tell your mom and then she'd tell my mom and then I'd get grounded like that time in middle school when you caught me with Mindy Schultz on the soccer field."

"That was only because everyone was saying she let you stick your hand up her skirt and I didn't believe it."

Michael laughs. "She did let me stick my hand up her skirt."

Melissa laughs too. "That tramp!"

"I think she's like the president of Citibank now or something," says Michael.

"Anyway, so you're tripping --"

"Yeah, Gary used to get me high all the time in college, but whenever you or Brad or anyone came to visit I had to pretend to be Ma Steadman's well-behaved boy."

"Fooled me," Melissa says.

Outside, the snow is falling, settling thickly on the windowsill and glowing under streetlights in the dark. Gary's apartment's off the metro line and they can hear the howling and squealing of train cars in the distance.

"I should be getting home to Hope and the baby," Michael says, after a long moment.

"Yeah, how is Leo?" Melissa asks.

"He likes my ties," Michael says. He finishes his beer and picks up all three empty bottles. "It's getting late."

Melissa knocks back the last of her beer and hands him that bottle too. "So finish your story and then go. You can even give me a ride home."

Michael stares out the window in silence. It's barely been twenty years but it's a lifetime ago, 1972, Michael and Gary in college and their whole lives unplotted before them, all potential and anticipation and hope. "Okay," he says. "I'll tell you what happened."

Melissa sinks down to the floor and wraps her arms around her skinny knees, and Michael settles down beside her and wraps both arms around her and holds tight. She snuffles a little and he kisses her on the head.

"So. We're in the motel."

"Right."

"And they're broadcasting the conferences on TV but we're so fucked up we're not really paying attention, and I'm starting to seriously bug out, you know? Like all of a sudden I start hallucinating that they've airlifted us to Hanoi and I start rubbing at my eyes and telling everyone that I've been shot with napalm, and I go dive into the shower with all my clothes on to get it off. And I'm convinced I'm dying, and Gary and the girls all think it's hilarious, right? And so they're laughing and it's freaking me out even more, and I'm standing in the shower in my jeans and this wool poncho Emily bought me on South Street and I'm, like, screaming about the Viet Cong and washing my clothes with bar soap."

"Some hippie you were," Melissa says.

"Yeah," Michael agrees. "I mean, I cared about the issues, but it was always Gary who was all about the organization. I'd read the paper like everybody else and I'd write letters and protest the war and everything, but Gary was the one who sent bear feces to the ROTC office and Gary was the one who set up that Canadian marriage service, and Gary was the one who insisted that we go to Florida to support McGovern because McGovern was going to change the world, you know, for us, for the good guys."

"Gary wanted to change the world for the good guys," Melissa says.

Michael kisses her on the head again. "Yeah," he says. "And he did, too. I mean, he changed my world, and your world, and Susannah's, and the work he did with Race Street, and all his students --"

"They really loved him, his students," Melissa says. "It was nice they all came to the funeral like that."

"Yeah," says Michael. "I bet Gary was a great professor."

Melissa grins. "This one time Gary and I were at a jazz show in New York and there's this group of high school kids at one of the tables, and one of them says something like 'this is a cool band' or whatever, and two hours later Gary's up on the stage, jamming on a borrowed sax and interrupting his solos with bits of improvised beat poetry. By the end of the night the kids knew more about jazz than I did, because Gary schmoozed the saxophone guy and turned the show into an open mic jam session. When we left the manager came up to us and was like, you want a regular gig Fridays?"

"Gary doesn't play the saxophone!" Michael says.

"Not really, no," Melissa says. "But he's got this crazy great ear, you know, like he does on piano? He could always just pick those things up. I was so jealous."

"Cursed with the Steadman lead ear," Michael nods. "Hope won't even let me sing in the car."

"I'd just be afraid of summoning all the neighborhood cats if I tried anything musical," Melissa says. "Gary was never afraid to try anything."

"Except marriage," Michael says, and they both laugh, but Melissa's is a little too harsh, and it cuts off with a bark and she's crying again.

"Did I miss my chance with him, Mikey?" she asks. "I mean, did I totally blow it?"

"If you and Gary were meant to be together forever, it would have happened, Melissa," Michael says. "On any of a dozen occasions. But it turns out you two were meant to be friends, I think. Good friends. The best friends."

"But Susannah got to be his wife."

Michael nods. "Susannah got to be his wife."

Melissa swipes her hand across her face. "So finish your crazy napalm story," she says.

He nods. "I came out of the bathroom what I think is an hour later," Michael says. "I actually have no way of knowing how long I was in there, but eventually the water got cold and I took off my clothes and got a towel and came back into the bedroom and there was Gary, sitting on the bed watching TV."

"The girls were gone?"

"Yeah, the girls were gone. And a lot of time has apparently passed because it's three in the morning and McGovern's making his acceptance speech and Gary's got this bottle of champagne he stole from somebody on the bus."

Michael looks up, like the rest of the story's written on the ceiling, in the cracks and stains floating over Gary's life here, and then he looks back at Melissa.

"Keep going," she says.

"And he's got this smile on his face, this, like, crazed, manic, teary-eyed smile --"

"I know the one," she says.

Michael nods. "Like, pure, unadulterated happiness."

"Innocent," she says.

"Yeah, kinda," Michael muses. "It's like, when Gary wants something, something he has to work for, then when he finally gets it it's like the whole universe had opened up and given him this great present."

"Yeah," Melissa nods. "And he broadcasts it with that huge smile like a giant satellite dish, like he's trying to share it with everybody."

Michael remembers. He remembers shivering in his towel, heavy-headed and tired, and he remembers that great big smile of Gary's like a shot of adrenaline, and he remembers the tired applause of the crowd still awake at 3 am, cheering on McGovern to be president of the United States. "I went and sat on the bed," he says. "Gary couldn't get the cork out of the champagne bottle, so he handed it to me. McGovern's promising to get us out of Cambodia. And I said, where'd the girls go?

Gary's eyes were still fixed on the TV. He said, they left for some party, but I wanted to stay here with you.

Me? I asked. Or Gorgeous George? We toasted the TV with champagne in these glass motel tumblers, and Gary looked at me and he said, we're going to remember this moment our entire lives.

And I remember, even stoned, thinking that he was absolutely right. We'd been through Nixon together, and the war, campaigning -- sure, in this, like, totally privileged Ivy League armchair protestor sort of way -- to get a Democrat back into office to save us, to save the world, it felt like. And it was kind of a big deal because, that July, anyway, we were totally conviced we could fix everything that was wrong with America. That McGovern would win and people like us would make the rules for a change. His speech was short; we finished our little cups of champagne and it was over and the network ended its broadcast day.

And then Gary looked at me and he said, we did it, Mikey.

And I just sat there, feeling cold and naked in my towel but with this thrill, you know? That Gary Shepard thrill.

And he kissed me.

I pushed him away, like, what the fuck, man? But when I looked at him it was that whole world-saving satellite dish smile and I was like, this guy, this man is the best friend I have ever had, and this time -- I mean, it was the sixties, the seventies, and we were in college and everything was just so big, you know? So important?"

Michael stops talking. Melissa is watching him, rapt, unreadable.

"Melissa?"

"I know," she says. And she, Michael knows, among everyone else in the world, does. "It's Gary. The rules don't apply."

He nods. "It's Gary," he says.

She touches his knee. "So the two of you..."

"Yeah," he says. "Just that one time, and it's so weird, you know? Because it doesn't feel wrong. It didn't feel wrong even then, even though it wasn't anything we ever wanted to do again, or anything we ever talked about --"

"How come you never told me?" she asks, then retreats. "Never mind."

"I never told anyone," Michael says. "Hope doesn't know, Elliot doesn't know, my brother doesn't know. I would have gone to my grave --" His voice breaks around the word, and all that emotion, a week and a lifetime's worth of emotion, rises in his flush cheeks and trembling jaw.

This time Melissa holds him, and they sit there together for a long time, on the kitchen floor in Gary's old apartment, while outside it just keeps snowing.

Later, when he drives her home, they talk about Leo, about Nancy, about Melissa's apartment renovations. And though they don't talk about it, neither one of them goes back to Gary's apartment after that, but still on occasional nights Melissa comes to Hope and Michael's house, and after Hope goes to sleep Michael sits in his own kitchen with his cousin and they talk about their old friend Gary, their best good friend and the man they both loved and couldn't have.