Monday, December 3, 2012

Opening chapter - The Death of O'Ryan Ross!

For your reading pleasure, the opening chapter of "The Death of O'Ryan Ross!" available now on Amazon in paperback ($6.99) or Kindle ($1.99) formats. Enjoy! As you read, consider this question - why do we as readers like dark work? What is it about the writing of Sylvia Plath, JD Salinger, and me that touches a chord within you. Send me your comments and I'll post a few of those responses as my next blog entry - the role of literary darkness.

Chapter One: 

During a break in classes at Daybreak College in the theater wing of the Schall Performing Arts Center a group of Theater majors lounged casually in the green room, where their discussions revolved around the recent production of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play “The Confessional.”
Antony Fedora coldly bemoaned that he found it to be too symbolic and contrived for his taste, Isaac Gore argued precisely the contrary, while Peter Ivanovich, having acted the role of bartender in the play felt obliged to remain aloof from the discussion even though he agreed with Antony’s position and instead was thumbing through the campus newspaper, the Daybreak Sunrise, which he had just retrieved from his mailbox in the student center.

"Holy shit," he called out, "O’Ryan Ross is dead!"

"Are you serious? My God!"

"Look! It’s right here," Peter replied, handing Antony Fedora the newspaper opened to a center spread just before the sports’ pages. Melodramatically bordered by a huge black frame it read: "Jadwin Ross (sophomore, Poli Sci) with great sadness confirmed to this Sunrise reporter the death of his brother O’Ryan Ivan Ross (Senior, Theater) which happened last Saturday, November 21st at River Bend County Park. A memorial service will take place this Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon. An official investigation is underway as to the cause of death. Jadwin Ross, brother of the deceased, states that the family does not suspect foul play." It further listed a visitation at the downtown funeral home for that very evening.

O’Ryan Ross had been a classmate of the other Theater majors and was liked – if not exactly, beloved – by them all, at least at first. He had been away from school for several weeks to deal with what was rumored to have been some unknown personal problem – which usually was code for drinking or drug problems of some unresolved form. He had recently been cast as the title character in N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker” and the role was ostensibly held open for him, but there had been rampant speculation among the Theater majors that if he was unable to return Alex Verant would most certainly take his part as a drought-era conman, and that either Vinnie Kovac or Brian Sabel would take Verant’s previous role as the patriarch of the Curry family, HC. With the news of O’Ryan Ross’s untimely passing, the first thought of the thespians gathered in the greenroom was of what Ross’s death might mean for each of them and their classmates in a purely personal way.

"If Sabel gets HC, I’ll take his part as Noah Curry. And if Vinnie gets it, I’ll be Jimmy Curry. Either way I’m getting a speaking part," said Antony Fedora. "I mean, I understudy them both already, and that would just make sense, you know. Somebody’s got to do it."

“I better tell my sister that O’Ryan is gone so she could look into getting his work-study in the stageshop,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “She’ll be really excited. Ross has had the work-study sewn up for a couple of years and now maybe somebody else can build sets and do lights for a change.”

“You know, I just had a feeling he wouldn’t be back again,” said Ivanovich aloud. “Man, it’s so freaking sad.”

"But what happened to him?" Isaac Gore asked to no one in particular.

“Who knows? I mean, well someone probably knows, but I think we all saw a different aspect of him. When we saw him last week I knew he was in a bad way, but I didn’t know it was to this. I thought he looked more or less rotten, but in an O’Ryan sort of way.”

“I hadn’t seen him since early in the year.” Fedora added. “I thought he looked like hell, but we didn’t have any classes together so I had nothing to compare him to.”

“Did he have any family? I mean other than Yaddy,” Gore asked. O’Ryan’s friends knew his younger brother, Jadwin, by the family nickname but truly did not know him well. They all looked to Peter who seemed to know Ross the best.

“I think he had a sister somewhere in Wisconsin – and maybe a little brother too.”

“Do you think they’ll come down here? They live so far away.”

“Wisconsin’s not that far from Iowa, brother,” Antony Fedora teased. “You forget that some of us come from the coasts.”

“Yah, he never can quite forgive me for being a townie,” Peter said nodding playfully in Fedora’s direction but speaking to Gore. They chuckled, then resumed talking of the various distances they all traveled to attend school in southern Iowa and ultimately returned to the subject of whose acting career was going to benefit most from their friend’s demise.

Aside from these surface discussions as to each actor’s comparative strengths and weaknesses toward playing various present and future roles, the death of someone so very close to them stirred within them a specific set of uncomfortably self-driven thoughts.

Without acknowledging it aloud, each had felt a certain odd relief, “There but for the grace of God go I!” They thought – though each was sore ashamed as soon as the thought had crossed the transom of their troubled minds. Another thought equally self-serving and shameful began to eat at each of them from within as well. Now they would have to go through the agonizingly cruel ritual of making an awkward appearance at the memorial service to offer their condolences to Jadwin and any other family in attendance. Painful task that.

Antony Fedora and Peter Ivanovich had been his closest friends such as they were. Peter had actually roomed with him when O’Ryan transferred to Daybreak as a junior and had considered that to be an almost familial, lifelong bond between them. He had never imagined that the lifelong aspect would be so fleeting and temporary.

Having called his sister over supper of Ross’s death, and sharing his thought that it might now be possible for her to win the much-coveted, now-vacated work-study, Peter skipped his usual happy hour routine at the downtown bar frequented by Daybreak students and instead went back to his dorm room to put on a nice oxford shirt and a properly mournful tie before walking to the only funeral home in town to pay his respects.

Flanking the entrance to the funeral home were two gilt-covered statues of Chinese lions. Guarding the doorway as they did, they seemed to be anachronistically out of place as if purchased from an estate sale or perhaps bartered in lieu of payment for some unfunded invoice – which is, in fact, what had happened. Inside, a young man and a young woman both attired in somber shades of black ponderously took off their heavy overcoats and handed them to an attendant to hang on the long empty bars of an anteroom. Peter recognized the young man as being Jadwin “Yaddy” Ross, O’Ryan’s brother, but the young woman was a stranger to him – he was most certain he had seen her somewhere before on campus, but he couldn’t quite place her. She looked too old to be O’Ryan’s sister, but he wasn’t sure. It was obvious that whoever she was, her manner betrayed a young woman stricken with the devastation of a sort of all-encompassing sadness and grief.   

His classmate Schwartz was just coming down the hallway, but upon seeing Peter enter he stopped and somewhat morosely winked at him, as if to say, “Ross fucked up good this time – thank goodness you and I are not so stupid.”

Schwartz’s countenance with his natty goatee beard, slicked back hair and with his slim figure bedecked in a freshly-ironed polo shirt, had an unusual air of gravity that was in stark contrast to his usual playfulness and joie de vivre and which added a decided layer of poignancy in this instance. It startled Peter to see his friend so severe.

Ivanovich paused for a moment pretending to search for something in his overcoat. He let Jadwin and the young woman go before him to the viewing room. He then took his time removing and hanging up his own coat before tentatively ambling after them down the long sober hallway. Schwartz did not follow him but instead sat on a low cloth-covered bench near the anteroom. Peter surmised immediately that he perhaps was waiting to discuss where they were to play poker later that evening. Priorities, you know. Jadwin Ross took the young woman gently by the elbow and disappeared from view, guiding her into the far room, and Schwartz with pursed lips and a raise of his eyebrows merely nodded in assent that the room they entered was indeed the destination which Peter sought.

Peter Ivanovich – like so many people when faced with loss – entered the viewing room with no little trepidation – not so much from his own grief, which felt moderated to him, but rather from the fear of the unrealistic expectations placed upon all those who mourn. He figured that the safest thing to do would be to look grievously saddened and to cross himself at every turn – even though he was not Catholic. He wasn’t quite sure how to do it, so he observed other mourners approaching the casket and mimicked the ritual of their gestures. As he observed the actions of the others, he found himself looking surreptitiously around the room. He crossed himself yet again.

Two young men, boys really – who could’ve passed for cousins or nephews had O’Ryan had any – were leaving the room, crossing themselves almost as awkwardly as Peter Ivanovich had done. An older woman he recognized from the coffee shop in town was standing emotionless as a bald man with an ill-fitting suit and tie whispered in her ear nervously. A tall, thin funeral director, or so Peter guessed, was speaking in a quiet voice to a clump of excited co-eds with an almost beatific calm culled from decades of experience in dealing with hysterical college girls in these situations. Yaddy Ross and the young woman sat stone-faced on opposite ends of an overstuffed sofa. Jadwin stared blankly off into nothingness but the woman scrolled with churning emotion through a hastily assembled scrapbook of photos.

A freshman Theater major, Gerry Simms, looking most cheerfully out of place, skittered around the room talking excitedly to anyone who would listen. Jadwin summarily ignored his nervous banter, the young woman merely nodded and Simms moved on. As the young man passed in front of him, Peter Ivanovich likewise nodded politely and instantly became aware that a strange smell that he had noticed permeating the room – Brut Aftershave intermingled with Ivory Soap, he figured – was wafting gaily from Gerry Simms herky-jerky movements. It seemed to follow the young man like an aromatic puppy dog – which was somehow fitting. That was how most of the upperclassmen viewed Simms, as a distasteful, adoring puppy dog.

The last time Peter Ivanovich had seen Ross – in O’Ryan’s dorm, he remembered that it was Gerry Simms who was then accompanying him. O’Ryan seemed strangely fond of the aromatic freshman who seemed to all the other upperclassmen to be one more in a long line of relentlessly fresh-faced sycophants – another freshman suck-up. They had all ignored him with vigor, but O’Ryan seemed to be oddly buoyed by the young man’s enthusiasm. Peter himself didn’t see it.

Nonetheless he continued to awkwardly cross himself, and to tilt his head this way and that way observing the visitation room. When it seemed as if he had done his due diligence in crossing, watching, crossing, and watching again, he made his way to the end of the room where he was dreading seeing the now-deceased face of his friend, O’Ryan, tucked into the faux comfort of a coffin bed.

The coffin was positioned, as coffins sometimes were, perpendicular to the room, feet toward the door, its length and a small array of flowers obscuring the view from the entryway of its formally attired contents. The robust reddish hue of the cedar coffin imbued with deep dark streaks of grain seemed to lead the eye down the top of the casket to where Peter Ivanovich was expecting to see O’Ryan’s waxen face at any moment. He assumed the casket would be of course open for proper mourning rituals and for saying goodbye. He steeled himself for the view. It was much to his amazement and curiosity then that he discovered the casket was in fact closed and would remain so.

A woman’s voice drifting in from some far off corner cut through his befuddlement. “Gun shot? Where’d O’Ryan ever get a gun?” She seemed incredulous.

As was he.

Peter spun his head but could not discern who had thus spoken. Was it the young woman? One of the co-eds? He couldn’t tell. That explained a lot didn’t it? Yet, it explained nothing. It somehow did not quite register with Peter Ivanovich at first. It made no sense. It was then he realized that he harbored no expectation nor wasted any time in consideration as to the cause of death. He had already assumed it was suicide. Or an accident. But probably suicide. But how? He had not allowed that question to even linger within his mind. Pills maybe. But a gun?

Alone he stood in front of the casket. He crossed himself again – now reflexively. It was almost worse with it being closed – with no visual closure. His imagination filled in the void of his reality with ghastly images of what degradation a gun could do to a face. Brutal thoughts painted pictures of the ugliness that lay beneath that beautifully appointed lid.

It almost seemed to be even more cruel and unseemly in a way – as if it was some dire warning to others that death was not only grotesquely inevitable but oh-so-final and that you weren’t even guaranteed to be accorded a proper curtain call. It seemed to be a crass warning that was not entirely lost on Peter Ivanovich, he recoiled against the futile symbolism of the warning, but crossed himself yet again anyway as he turned and bolted toward the door – he knew he was moving far too quickly and regardless of the sensitivity of the other mourners to his revulsion, but he was helpless to stop it. 

Schwartz was still sitting on the low bench in the hallway with his back slumped against the wall and both hands unceremoniously playing with a belt buckle that seemed a tad too large for his slacks. The mere sight of that sprightly, elegant and well-dressed figure seemed to rejuvenate Peter’s energy and spirit. Somehow it seemed as if Schwartz was above all these gloomy events and refused to let himself be brought down by any external sadness. His appearance seemed to imply that despite the horror of what had happened to O’Ryan Ross, and Peter’s reaction it, it was certainly no rationale for not carrying through with his appointed purpose – that is, it would not stop him from passing out chips, opening a deck of cards and dealing them face down to his buddies over a few beers: and in fact, it should not preclude them from getting rip-roaringly drunk and spending the evening quite agreeably at all! He whispered as much as Peter passed by his seat, suggesting they meet at Antony Fedora’s off-campus apartment within the hour. Somehow, Peter Ivanovich feared he was not going to be playing any poker that evening.

Jadwin ‘Yaddy’ Ross (a shortish, not-unattractive young man who despite all his efforts to the contrary in dress and style seemed to look more and more like his older brother every year and who seemed to most of O’Ryan’s friends to fulfill that comparison based primarily upon the stunning similarity of their identically piercing blue eyes), dressed from head to toe in ill-fitting black attire, his face marked with exhaustion, came out of the room alone and seeing Schwartz suggested: “There’s a preacher or somebody going to say a few words in a minute. Why don’t you go on in.”

Schwartz, nodding courteously, did not move toward the visitation room, seeming to ignore with a modicum of diffident grace the invitation.

Jadwin seeing Peter Ivanovich, exhaled deeply, walked to him, took him by the elbow in the same way he had taken the young woman, and said: “Peter, I know you were friends with O’Ryan…” and gazed for a long instant into his eyes as if waiting some appropriate response. And Peter sensed that, just as he had sensed it was appropriate to cross himself repeatedly inside the visitation room, so he impulsively and somewhat clumsily hugged his friend’s brother and said in a halting voice, “Yes. I am. Was. Am…” His voice trailed off, and he felt despite the fumbled reply that he had done his duty. He then crossed himself for good measure.

“Do you have a moment? I want to talk with you before you leave,” said Jadwin. “Outside?”
Peter Ivanovich allowed himself to be lead outside, not stopping to retrieve an overcoat, passing Schwartz who shrugged with mock resignation.

“There goes poker!” His expression seemed to say. “Don’t you worry about us. We’ll find another player with deeper pockets than yours. Maybe you can catch up later, but I doubt it,”

Peter Ivanovich sighed a bit despondently as Jadwin Ross guided him outside and around the corner of the building. When they had reached a small plaza, appointed as it was with white wrought iron furniture, large empty pots (which during the summer months contained over-flowing flowering plants), and with winter-streaked trellises lining the perimeter twisted as they were with the skeletal remains of dead or dormant vines – Jadwin sat on a low iron chair and Peter on a double-glider, the springs of which squealed noisily against the unseasonable movement. Jadwin recoiled against the noise visibly and almost suggested that Peter find another seat, but then thought about it and instead said nothing. As he sat down on the glider, Peter recalled how O’Ryan and some of the other Theater majors used to go to the River Bend Park and swing on the childrens’ playset there – and how those too had their own unique and noisome creaks.

The plaza was owned by the funeral parlor for just such get-away-for-moments such as this, and it was normally kept in beautiful repair during the more temperate times of year. Now however it seemed to mirror the dismal gray moods of the two souls who shared its space. As Jadwin was sitting down on the chair, a sheaf of papers – contracts and funeral home ephemera – caught on one of the scrolled arms of the chair and were blown free from his hand. Peter rose instantly to help retrieve the blowing papers and the springs of the glider swung free and full of voice. Jadwin gratefully accepted the rogue paperwork, shuffling it into seeming order, and Peter sat down again, carefully maneuvering onto the glider to minimize the squeal. Jadwin made a comment as to how he was missing one document from his stack and Peter stood again to help look for it. The glider squeaked plaintively yet again rebelling against the constant up and down. When the last fugitive piece of paper was pulled from a brown, dead shrub, they returned to their seats.

For a moment, the two sat staring at each other with slight dumbfounded looks flickering across both faces that seemed to ask if they even recalled why they had taken this outdoors respite in the first place. Just as Jadwin seemed to be ready to finally kick off the conversation, the tall, thin man from the visitation room whom Peter had assumed to be the funeral director abruptly interrupted the lull in a conversation that had yet to begin. His name was Mr. Sokol, and he was indeed the funeral director come to talk about the memorial service details and more importantly how they were going to transport the body of O’Ryan Ross back to his hometown of Newtonville, Wisconsin for burial. The initial pricing options seemed to be somewhat outrageous and Jadwin looked over at Peter with an upraised eyebrow expression of total helplessness. He then shrugged resignedly and arose from his seat, gesturing to Sokol they should step aside to avoid the embarrassment of talking financials in front of poor Peter who could probably care less. Peter acknowledged this gesture with an appreciative nod and leaned slowly back on the glider.

Jadwin chuckled for a moment at the tender machinations of his brother’s friend and stepped towards the glider. “Smoke?” He asked, extending an opened box of Camel filter-less cigarettes and a plastic lighter, and then stepping away deferentially to talk details with the undertaker about what options were available for transporting a body across state lines.

Peter Ivanovich took the cigarette with a nod of thanks, tapped it and lit it, cupping his hand against the chill breeze’s disruption. All of the Theater majors smoked, partly because a cigarette was a great dramatic prop, partly because they told themselves it kept their weight down, and partly because they felt it calmed their seemingly always high-strung nerves.

While drawing deeply the calming smoke into his lungs, Peter heard Jadwin and Sokol discussing the various options available to them for transporting O’Ryan to a cemetery in Wisconsin and deciding ultimately on hiring a low-cost third-party trucking firm that sometimes specialized in just such a means of cut-rate transport. When that was all decided upon agreeably and a price tentatively noted – pending a confirming phone call from his parents – Jadwin summarily shook Sokol’s hand and patted him on the back as the undertaker turned away against the cold and went back inside.

“Mom and dad can’t handle this right now,” Jadwin explained, taking a cigarette for himself and lighting it off of Peter’s smoldering ash. “It’s not like I can’t handle it. Au contraire, this paperwork crap is just not that big a deal and frankly it’s a nice distraction from… well, from everything.” Ross plucked a neatly folded handkerchief from his pocket, and for a moment Peter thought that the brother of his friend was on the verge of breaking down, but Jadwin simply dabbed idly at his nose now dripping against the winter wind. His emotions remained in tact. “But there is something about that I want to talk about. I think you should know – what with you being his friend and all.”

Peter Ivanovich nodded slightly, shifting slightly on the rocker but trying to keep from setting off yet another round of intrusive squeaking.

“These last three days at the hospital were awful.”

“Three days? I thought he died at the park.”
“Oh, it was horrible, Peter! No. He shot himself in the park, right in the face, but he didn’t die! Not then. Three days they had him on a vent! They brought him in, wrapped him like a mummy and crammed a great big tube into a hole where his face used to be. His jaw, mouth and nose were totally blown away. Don’t know what they were thinking. His goddam eyes were open, Peter. Can you freaking imagine? And with that tube shoved in there it looked for all the world like he was screaming incessantly. ‘Oooooooo’ a big open gaping ‘Ooooo’ Three days of ‘Oooooo”! Christ, I couldn’t even look at him. I’m not even sure how I made it through. It was like watching a horror movie – a really bad horror movie. Friday the 13th only real. And the sound, holy fuck. The sound was, was… it was that god-awful noise of air rushing in and gurgling through whatever the fuck shot-up junk was left inside there. Oh, it was awful, Peter! He put me through so much. So much.”

“But he was out of it though, right? O’Ryan, I mean. He wasn’t really ever awake after that was he? He didn’t suffer much?”

“I don’t know. I think so. No, that’s a lie. Yes, he did. I told you, his eyes were open,” Jadwin whispered softly. “To the very end they were open. He even seemed like he was trying to talk once but all that came out was that choking, damn gurgle of air and fluids percolating in there – scared the hell out of my little brother. Al was here from Wisconsin. That was maybe fifteen minutes before he died. Thank God. He was trying to say something. Maybe it was nothing. It sound like…” His voice trailed off and his eyes looked away. “Well, it didn’t sound – good.”

The mere thought of his friend and former roommate suffering so troubled Peter immensely. He wasn’t sure why Jadwin had felt so compelled to tell him this. Maybe he just had to tell someone. But why him? They weren’t that close really. No, not really at all. The horror of the thought shook through his body sending a shiver careening up his spine. He again had visions of O’Ryan dead and disfigured in that closed casket and felt his own self-consciousness take hold yet again.

“Three days! Three days he suffered – a living rotting stinking death! What if that was me?” His thoughts raced in upon him and suddenly he felt the air dreadful cold and wicked damp hit his body hard and unyielding and all at once. “I’m not that kind of guy, but if I was? No. I’m not. O’Ryan was. Not me. I’m not like him. Not like that at all. No. He could not even let himself hazard a stray thought like that at all for fear that even thinking such madness could indeed make it so. No he was above all that. Better than that. Better than O’Ryan.”

The selfishness and egoism of that last thought resonated within him and he felt ashamed to have had it cross his mind, but it was truth. He began to ask all manner of questions regarding the particular details of O’Ryan’s death, and with each answer that Jadwin painstakingly shared, Peter felt reassured even more that death was a singular event unique to O’Ryan Ross but certainly not to himself. No. Not to himself.

As the details came out of the horrific suffering that O’Ryan Ross had endured (and whether it was a scant glimmer of insight into how deeply those sufferings had affected Yaddy’s nerves or the bitter temperature that seemed to be dropping further with every passing moment or the relentless banality of the inquiries) the younger brother suddenly found it necessary to excuse himself and return inside.

“Peter, you have no idea…” Jadwin’s voice broke as he rose and struggled to stifle the choke that was then forming in his throat and the tears that were ready to burst forth from his already-dampened eyes.
Peter laboriously exhaled a long blue stream of smoke into the chill air and watched it dissipate into the early evening breeze. His pause punctuated the silence and allowed Jadwin to regain his control. When he had sufficiently done so, Peter said simply, “I know. I know.” But in truth, he knew not. Jadwin was correct, he truly had no idea. No idea what Jadwin had gone through, no idea really what had caused O’Ryan to do what he had done. He only knew that it was not him – that he yet lived.

Peter took a few more long draws of his cigarette allowing Jadwin respectful time to get inside without appearing to stalk behind. Shivering now against the elements, he at the last pressed out his cigarette, rose from the squeaking glider and walked around the corner into the funeral parlor again.

Down the hallway where Schwartz had previously been seated, the low bench was now empty. Standing next to it was a small group of mourners, townspeople, students, and amongst them Peter recognized the young woman who had accompanied Jadwin earlier. She was attired in a short black dress that would have been borderline distasteful had she not worn it so elegantly. The black somehow seemed to make her slim, shapely figure that much more slim and that much more shapely. She was far more attractive than she had appeared previously when Peter had first noticed her. Through the small group of mourners her stunning green eyes, cradled by crisply chiseled cheekbones and silhouetted by delicate stray strands of jet black hair, caught Peter’s attention and he recognized far too late that he was staring at her and that she was staring right back at him.

She had a sad, curious, yet almost defiant expression playing upon her full, moist lips and with a mere glance she unleashed some of her immense inner pain in Peter’s direction as if he were somehow involved in instigating that hurt simply by being friends, acquaintances really, with O’Ryan Ross. He held her gaze for a brutally long moment uncomfortably and simultaneously attracted and repulsed by her beauty only to let his gaze fall abruptly away when Jadwin suddenly reappeared at her elbow. She looked first at Jadwin and then smiled quixotically, enigmatically back at Peter. As if she knew what he was thinking – and how could she when he himself was not sure – she reached up and with long graceful fingers stroked Jadwin’s cheek with the back of her hand, which she then followed by pulling him to her and sharing a quick kiss full on the lips. Her actions seemed choreographed solely to elicit some reaction from Peter.

Damned if he knew what all that was about. Sarah. That was her name. Jadwin’s girlfriend. He remembered her from the dance. Yes. Sarah. That must be she.

More mourners entered from behind him, opening the doorway to the cold wind, which seemed to clear the hallway as everyone moved again to the far visitation room.  Just that quickly, Sarah and Jadwin were gone.
Peter, shaken but not exactly sure why, nodded deferentially to the arriving mourners, some of whom he knew, and was trying to bolster his nerve to follow them into the visitation room again. He had walked halfway down the hall, (past the cloak room, past the bench) when he caught a glimpse in his peripheral vision of a fragile looking boy sitting all alone on a couch in a side room. The boy seemed to resemble a younger, more frail version of the O’Ryan Ross that Peter remembered fondly from the previous year. This incarnation however was distinguished by a pair of sensitive blue eyes now rimmed in vales of red, marked as they were from too many tears shed at far too young an age. Alwyn Ross it must have been, the youngest Ross brother. Peter recalled vaguely that Alwyn had some sort of strange ailment – an autism or Asperger’s or something – but it was difficult to discern anything unusual about the lad beyond his complete and utter sadness. When Alwyn saw Peter Ivanovich he cringed visibly at being thrust into the center of attention and nervously pretended to become immersed in a Beagle Boy comic book he held in his small hands. Peter thought this was a bit juvenile for a boy his age, but nonetheless raised a hand and offered a small wave of condolence before crossing himself out of sheer force of habit.

Down the hallway, inside the visitation room, the service had begun: the low reassuring voice of a preacher intoned gently over waves of muffled sobs. Peter stood at the entry and looked down at his feet. He thought for a moment of rejoining the mourners inside the godforsaken death chamber but could not bring himself to actually do it. He did not want to yield yet again to the all-encompassing grief of that depressing entourage. He knew that all the tears and speeches and wails and oppressive hand-wringing would be repeated again and again the next day at the formal service. And truth be told, he did not really want to be in the same room as Sarah and hazard those eyes again. He didn’t know precisely why, but no. Not tonight. He turned to hasten a retreat.

The cloak room had been left unattended, so Peter stood seemingly lost in the doorway wondering if he should maybe just leave his coat and retrieve it at a later date – it wasn’t that cold outside, but suddenly the scent of Brut Aftershave mixed with Ivory Soap wafted in upon him as Gerry Simms dashed ahead of him into the room, dug through the various overcoats and miraculously returned with Peter’s well-worn London Fog, helping him into it.

“Thank you, Gerry,” said Peter at last, making small talk. “It’s sad isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. But it’s what he wanted. Obviously. We’ll all get there soon enough I guess,” said Simms, smiling feebly – the crooked toothed grin of a young man not wealthy enough to afford much-needed orthodonture – and, like the faithful manservant that he seemed to be, held the door to the funeral parlor open graciously.

Peter Ivanovich felt the cool late-autumn air strike him briskly in the face. It was colder now than earlier and he was glad he had his overcoat but he found the freshness to be absolutely revitalizing after the stale funeral parlor air with its own unique smells mixed with Gerry Simms’ even more unique aromatic offerings.

"So, where you going, Petie?" asked Gerry suddenly energized, unmindful of using a non-existent nickname.

"Well, it's not too late... I think I’ll head over to Antony’s place for some poker."

Cursing himself for not telling a white lie and without waiting for Gerry Simms to invite himself along, Peter Ivanovich quickly turned and walked at a fast clip’s pace straight to Antony Fedora’s efficiency apartment two short blocks away where he found the poker game was just beginning to ramp up both in excitement and in larger-sized pots. With neither comment nor condolence he walked in, tossed his jacket on a couch, pulled up a chair and joined the game already in progress.

“I’m in,” Peter Ivanovich said, and he lost himself in the game.

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