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One time Thomas convinced my girlfriend that he was the actual Virginia Tech shooter. He told her the dead guy they pinned it on was the fall guy for a massive conspiracy. “He was just a Patsy, dude,” Thomas said. “They got the wrong Korean.” Never mind that this was mere hours after the shooting and all three of us were sitting around my apartment in Missouri. But Mandy totally bought it. Because of the photo. In a grainy pic taken on Thomas’s cell phone, there stood Thomas aiming his brand new AK-47 at some unknown target in his backyard. 
       Mandy gasped. And even I gotta admit, the photo was pretty jarring. Thomas was barely 5 feet tall, which made the gun look twice as scary. “Plus,” Thomas told us, “I’m a dead ringer for the guy.” When Mandy agreed, Thomas looked at her, hurt: “Oh, because you think all Asians look alike?” And with that, Mandy had no clue what to say. Then Thomas started cracking up laughing, as huge and full-bodied and joyful a laugh such a small guy could ever generate, and I followed suit. 
       Thomas said he pulled the prank on her as a social experiment—a study in identity politics cross-pollinated with ethnocentric plurality, Marxist intellectualism, and Korean sub-history... Just kidding. That joke on you is for Thomas. This was a decade ago, when everyone still had a sense of fucking humor. Well, most people. Hours later, Mandy was still pretty pissed that she’d been duped by the little guy. It was just me and her on the couch by then, Thomas having had other commitments.
       “To be fair,” I told Mandy, “You’re pretty easy to dupe.”
       She glared at me. 
       “I mean, you dupe yourself most of the time.”
       “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
       I reminded her of the time she swore that beans were considered a pasta. Beans ARE NOT a pasta, I’d told her. So what are they, she’d said. They’re a legume for Chrissakes, I’d told her. So what’s a legume? she’d said. After a long moment, I’d screamed, I don’t fucking know. But not a fucking pasta. Both nights ended with her throwing something at me. That first time, it was the Black Bean Veggie Burger I’d cooked her. Got me right in the chin.
       This night, it was the TV remote. Right after I’d pointed to Fox News, which was airing a new exclusive photo of the Virginia Tech shooter in a backwards ball cap. I said: “That’s a good look on Thomas.” The TV remote blacked my eye and cut the bridge of my nose. I stormed out of my own apartment, heading to the car and texting my friend, Scott, the meat cutter at the local Albertson’s: “Call the Asian. Gonna need some of that White Bitch. We can split her.”


Mostly, Thomas’s nickname was The Asian. He kept trying to get us to add “Persuasion” to the end of it because he thought it sounded like a Porn Name. “A porn I’d never fucking watch,” Scott told him. Occasionally Scott called Thomas “Tom Tom,” which sounded vaguely racist, though I didn’t dig deeper into that particular etymology, so as to have plausible deniability. While it never stuck, occasionally I did call Thomas, simply, The Persuasion, especially at the end of a long night of hitting the White Bitch.
       The White Bitch? That was our epithet for cocaine, an epithet we used a lot. So maybe there’s your answer. Even if an answer is no excuse. Thomas had pretty good drug hook-ups, probably God’s way of making up for his being allergic to alcohol. He’d find us all cocaine but usually Thomas just grabbed a little Xanax for himself. Maybe some Oxy. Maybe some Percocet. We didn’t have any shitty nicknames for those. Probably because none of us were ever chasing 'em. Just Thomas, falling asleep peacefully on the couch while me and Scott wasted the wee hours of the morning, burning extra holes in our noses and bitching about the state of our world.
       “Look at the Asian,” Scott said sweetly as a meat cutter can. Now it was four in the morning, the TV blaring the same DVD menu screen for Passion of the Christ it had been for the last two hours. The volume on the TV remote didn’t work ever since it hit my face earlier that evening. “He sleeps so peacefully.”
       “The motherfucking Persuasion,” I said, laughing. I licked the edge of my Adjunct Faculty ID like a fiend. 
       Meanwhile, Mandy shook her head at both of us, wiping her nose and covering up Thomas with a blanket because me and her had made up by then. And because she was motherly and could really put away the White Bitch before her miscarriage.


A few weeks after the AK-47 incident, Scott sent me a text: “Has the Asian introduced you to Eddie yet?” Scott was always sending texts. He said it was because he was a meat cutter and didn’t have time to make calls at work. Meanwhile, I asked him for which drug Eddie was a euphemism.
       Scott texted: “Eddie is a dog. The Asian bought a fucking dog! Can you believe it?”
       “That’s great,” I texted back.
       A few moments passed. Scott finally replied. “You don’t find that hysterical? The Asian bought a dog.”
       I didn’t respond.
       Scott texted: “You know what I’m talking about, asshole.”
       Oh, I did. But I wasn’t going to text it back. I’d recently taken a Sensitivity Training at my community college. I had a certificate and everything. Now Scott texted a few slurs directed at me I’d heard a lot in that Sensitivity class. Instead of throwing some back at that fat, meat-cutting motherfucker, I woke Mandy up and told her we were going to visit Thomas and his new pet.
       A big beautiful Golden Retriever greeted us. Thomas followed, a proud grin on his face. Soon Mandy was down there on the carpet getting sloppy kisses from the thing, then she tugged me down and the beast slobbered all over me as well. Mandy asked Thomas why he decided to get Eddie.
       “Because I live alone, dude,” he replied.
       Mandy said: “So, you got it for protection?” Nevermind she posited this as a friendly dog gave two complete strangers who’d entered the apartment unannounced total and complete love, all while Thomas’s AK-47 leaned up against the couch in the background. 
       “Yeah, he needs protection,” I laughed, and then Mandy got that look she got when she didn’t like one of my hilarious lines, and I figured that dog was about to see one of our classic fights. And I was hoping Mandy wouldn’t grab the automatic weapon. But maybe Thomas saw it, too, because he intervened, taking a knee between us, giving Eddie a dog treat. He said: “I named him after my uncle.”
       Mandy and I relented, saving the fight for another time.
       Thomas continued: “I ever tell you about my uncle?” He had, a little, to me but Mandy shook her head. Thomas said: “My mom’s younger brother. He lived with us when I was five, six years old. Didn’t have a job. Was kind of messed up, man. Served in the military for a while. Anyway, he was always at our house by himself during the day. I say our house, but he really just stayed in his room in the basement. Mom and Dad were running Dragon Express, me and my brother were at school. Eddie, my uncle, he just sat around. Staring. Hungry, because mom and dad kept all the good food at the restaurant, bored, alone. And sad. Real sad, dude. One time, I got sick at school, and because mom and dad couldn’t leave work, and because Uncle Eddie wouldn’t dare answer the phone, I just walked home. By the time I got there, I didn’t feel so sick anymore. I headed downstairs to say Hi to Eddie. I arrived about five seconds after he’d kicked away the stool. He was hanging there, eyes bulging out, feet kicking, strangling to death from the noose he’d made out my old bedsheets, the ones mom put down on the twin size in the basement. I’m pretty sure he never knew I was there. I’m pretty sure he thought he died all alone.”
       Jesus. I’d heard some of it, but never like that. And when I looked down at Mandy, she was cradling that dog and crying, and then she gave Thomas a big hug, too. Then she got up and hugged me. It was a good hug. Finally, she caught her breath. She looked at Thomas, so earnest.
       “Oh, my god, Thomas. You got Eddie so you won’t die alone?”
       Thomas grinned, and gave me a look, and I realized what was happening.  
       “Nah, dude...  I got Eddie so I won’t die hungry.” 
       Then he went to his knees and playfully gnawed at Eddie’s leg. Mandy didn’t know what to say, the joke not setting in yet. I cracked up laughing, because even though the Sensitivity Training didn’t say anything about it, I figured I was off the hook because Thomas had made the joke. 


Two weeks ago, I got a text from Scott. Still texting after all these years. Especially during football season. But this text was different. It read: “Did you hear about Thomas Kim?” Fuck me, I thought. The ultimate sinking feeling. Thomas, it read. Not the Asian, though I haven’t known him as that in years. Other than Fantasy Football, I’d hardly connected with him at all since I moved to Louisiana ten years back. And this text, it had the last name, too. I typed in a few worried Question Marks and waited for Scott’s fat meat-cutting fingers to reply. 
       Either Thomas won the lottery, or a text like that means bad news. I started to panic, the flashing ellipses coming from Scott’s end just taunting me. C’mon, fucker! He must’ve had brisket all over his hands, it took so long. 
       Then, the text: “He passed away Sunday morning. I can’t believe it. I knew he’d been into the Black Scag but not THAT bad...” Scott also managed to send me a link to an article from a Missouri paper. It didn’t mention Thomas by name. Or epithet. But Scott told me it was him. 
       Heroin overdose. In a parking lot outside an apartment complex. Three in the morning. Alone in his jeep. 
       I had no idea what to do. What to say. So I did what we do these days in times like that - I jumped on Facebook to see if it was true. Thomas and I were friends on there, and his account was still open, even though he’d done the decent thing and stopped going to that social media shit-hole years ago. On Thomas’s page, there were two posts from other people, mere hours old. Both were some sad version of: “We love you, Thomas.” And some goddamn sad-face emoji. Before that, the last thing Thomas posted had been from early 2013.
       After dealing with the tragic news like a real adult, sitting down and talking about it with my wife, as my kids caught bits and pieces and gave me gentle hugs, I got really really drunk when they’d all gone to sleep. Then I hopped back on Facebook, scrolling down for some hidden secret message in Thomas’s years' old posts. Some wisdom forewarning us all, some bit of touched prudence because we’re all truly in control of our fates. 
       I got none of that. Thomas was no Facebook oracle. Most of his posts were about Eddie. Or the Chicago Bears. Or his move to Arkansas. Or the new job that he hated. There were some great pictures, though none with the AK-47. I also saw he was Facebook friends with Mandy, who I didn’t even know was on Facebook. She’s calling herself Melinda these days, even though Mandy was short for Amanda in the first place. She has five kids. I know this because I clicked on her, of course. It’s been almost a decade since we exchanged even so much as a phone call. She looks about the same. Same smile. But she’s found Christ in the meantime. Because that’s just the way. Nobody ever finds Christ after winning the lottery. Then I realized I was still crying from the news of Thomas and I didn’t want to confuse any of my nostalgia. 


The night Mandy had her miscarriage, Thomas took me to my favorite sports bar—the sports bar where Mandy and I had met—and he sat there beside me as I drank myself into a stupor. He ordered a beer but it was just because he didn’t want to look stupid there at the bar, allergic to booze. I sure wasn’t. Or, maybe I really really was. I was sloppy and stupid and tired a mere hour in. I looked at Thomas, all blurry. 
       Then I pulled out my phone, thinking I was clever. I found Thomas’s number in my contacts. It was listed under: THE ASIAN. Yeah, so clever. I quietly typed in: “Let’s get some of that White Bitch” and clicked send. Thomas was watching highlights of the Cubs game when his phone buzzed. He picked it up, saw it was from me, and read it. He shook his head. Laughing, a bit, but he was sad, too.
       Just a few weeks before that, he had asked me what kind of cigars he needed to buy.
       “Cigars?” I’d asked.
       “For when Mandy has the baby.”
       I’d chuckled.
       He’d kept saying that me and Mandy needed to name the baby Joon-Wu Ye-Jun. 
       “I’m not giving my kid a Korean name, Thomas... I mean, YOU don’t even have a Korean name.”
       “What do you mean, dude? Thomas is a serious Korean name.”
       I’d glared at him. “But my kid ain't Korean.”
       Then he’d waited, a slow grin forming. “Oh, we’ll see about THAT, dude.”
       It was a funny line. But I wasn’t in the mood for funny lines that night in the sports bar. Mandy had ruptured something, twenty-five weeks into the pregnancy. The hospital did what they could but it was pretty bad. There sure as shit weren't any cigars. Or the little blue— “It’s a Boy” —ribbons Thomas had talked about getting for me and him and Scott for the day when the kid was born. There was just that sad recognition between me and Mandy in the hospital after her surgery, knowing that while we’ll always have something dead between us, we’d never have anything alive.
       Thomas tapped my shoulder at the sports bar. But I realized I wasn’t sitting at the bar anymore. There was commotion at the bar. And I was pissing all over the lobby. As if I were proving something. Thomas was half-laughing, half-worried. He was on the phone, but trying to get me outside. He was talking to Scott, who, for once in his damn life, had answered a phone call:
       “Yeah, dude. Your boy is struggling. You need to get over here. He’s pissing all over the place... Yeah, dude. Pissing. With his dick.”
       Later, before the cops got there, I folded myself into Thomas’s Jeep and demanded he take me to the hospital to see Mandy. He didn’t, wisely. I’m sure a hospital takes even worse to an angry drunk man pissing all over the place.
       Before I passed out on his shoulder, him messing with his Satellite Radio, I said: “I love you, Asian.” Then, coughing, before I passed out: “I love you, Thomas.”


After he died, I realized Thomas’s number was still in my phone. Last week, early in the morning, I tried to call it. I wanted to hear his voice again. Even if it was just a stupid outgoing message. But no. It was an electronic voice. Some white bitch. 
       In my phone, the number is listed under THOMAS. Of course, for a long time, it was listed under THE ASIAN. But several years back, I got an iPhone and had to switch all my contacts. For whatever reason, when I transferred the number, I used his real name instead of the nickname. Why had I done that? Maybe I figured Thomas and I weren’t close enough to use nicknames anymore. There was a proximity necessary for something like that. I’d moved out of state, gotten married, had kids. I’d been back to visit a few times but they were few and far between.
       Then I started to wonder if it was because my life had settled down. It seems like - even back then, even though he was The Asian in my phone - I really only used that nickname when some sort of high drama was happening in my own life. And those days? Jesus. Between Mandy and the cocaine and her writing bad checks and god knows what else, there was a lot of it. Now? I’m married. Arguments are over boring, married-people shit: “You’re chewing your food too loudly” or “You didn’t get the right kind of moisturizer!” Good times.
       “Tell the Asian... get the Asian... find the Asian...”
       I called Thomas the Asian when I was embarrassed, when I didn’t want to admit this was really what my life had amounted to up at that point. Hell, maybe he called me “Dumb White Motherfucker” when he was battling his own demons, when Xanax turned to Oxy, when Oxy turned to heroin. 
       So maybe there’s my answer. Even if an answer is no excuse.
       Sure, I tell myself, dialing Thomas’s number one more time, early this very morning, hoping that white bitch isn’t on the other end. 


Last Sunday, some old friends had a memorial for Thomas. They held it at a bar, which was fitting, seeing as Thomas couldn’t even drink but he’d always be there for you. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He literally offered me the shirt of his back after I pissed all over the sports bar. I’d thrown up on myself and the next morning, I was shirtless, on Thomas’s couch, and I had an 8 a.m. class to teach. 
       “You can have my shirt, dude.”
       I looked at him like he was nuts.
       “Not the one I’m wearing,” he explained. “A clean one, from my closet.”
       I shook my head. “You’re a little skinny motherfucker,” I said. “How’s that supposed to fit me?”
       “Fuck you, dude. You’re a skinny motherfucker, too.”
       “You’re five feet tall, man! Your shirt would be a midriff on me.”
       Thomas eyed me.
       “It’d be hot, dude.”
       Unfortunately, I couldn’t get back to Missouri, but Scott went to the memorial, and he managed to FaceTime me with his big briskety fingers. I saw some old friendly faces. I saw Thomas’s parents, in the background, sad as fuck. I saw a display of photos and flowers, just beautiful, of Thomas and his smile. And then, out of nowhere, I saw Mandy. Or Melinda now. 
       After some discussion, I had Scott hand the phone over to her. God bless technology. Ten years erased. Why of course you can relive the past, Old Sport, at least for a minute. Both of us older, wiser. Well, a little wiser, hopefully, I figured, in Mandy’s case. Through Facebook, she’d heard about Thomas dying, found out about the memorial.
       “I was worried about Eddie, too,” Mandy told me, so sincere.
       Turns out Eddie was with Thomas’s brother, who has a kid on the way. I know what THAT kid is getting named.
       “It’s good seeing you,” I told Mandy. “You look good.” And it was true. She smiled, not an angry smile, even. 
       “You, too,” she said.
       I didn’t see any of her five kids from the Facebook photos running around in the background. But I wanted to keep talking, about light stuff, avoiding the gloom of Thomas being gone.
       “You ever go back to school?” I asked her.
       “Photography classes,” she smiled. “All that I managed. My portfolio is online.”
       I told her I’d take a look sometime.
       Then, I suddenly blurted: “I’m sorry, you know...”
       “I know. I feel the same way. You lose track of people.”
       I nodded. Then there was a long pause.
       “My wife and I couldn’t make it up there,” I said, innocently enough. “Kids only get a few days off from school a year... Well, you know...”
       Then Mandy’s eyes narrowed, that old way they used to when something very very bad was gonna go down. Something that would have me texting The Asian later. She made sure the Facetime wasn’t shaky. 
       “Your wife, huh?”
       “You think you need to let me know that? To slip that in?”
       “Slip what in?”
       “That you’re married.”
       In the background, I saw Thomas’s parents helping serve food for the memorial. Scott had brought prime rib.
       “What,” I said. “I was just...”
       “What?” she mimicked, raising her voice just enough for me but low enough where she wasn’t causing a scene. She continued: “You thought that—at our old friend’s memorial service—I would see you on the PHONE and despite the ten years between us, all the miles, I would immediately want to fuck you, and that you needed to cut that shit off right away by telling me you’re married.”
       I didn’t know what to say. I mean, she was wrong. But you can be wrong without being completely wrong. Those weren’t my thoughts, but goddammit if she wasn’t bitching about what could’ve been my thoughts. The look on my face must’ve displayed my confusion. And then Mandy broke into a huge laugh. Joyful. Full-bodied. Then, almost in tears. I laughed, too, unsure.
       “I’m fucking with you, Josh,” she said. “You just got duped!”
       After yanking my heart out of my throat, I smiled. Then I really smiled. “You got me.”
       “Thomas would be proud?” she asked.
       “Yeah, sweetie,” I replied. “The Asian would fucking love it.”

© Josh Capps 2018

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