I first failed to meet Martin Landawer my freshman year of college.
When he died, I sat immobilized by stunned disbelief for a full day. It seemed impossible that I should outlive Martin. Forty-five is too young for anybody to die, but I’d been certain that Martin would last at least as long as I did, and the news left me feeling directionless, and lost. Tammy phoned me late at night, tearfully informing friends and family of his demise.
“David,” she said, her voice shaking. But resolute, pushing onward. That was Tammy. I had loved her too, at one time. “We’d like you to give the eulogy.”
I thought I’d run out of my supply of terrified shock, after a lifetime of association with Martin. “What?” I managed to croak.
“You knew Martin best. You were his best friend, David. He’d want you to do it.”
I stared at the phone in disbelief. Did she know who she was talking to? Did she know who I was?
“Tammy, I – ”
“Please, David. Martin wanted it.”
I laughed hollowly. “Then he gets it, eh? Nothing’s changed, even now.”
“What do you mean?”
I thought of that first day at school.
Sulking kid in the back seat of his parents car … I was every adolescent cliché in the book. Sullen. Disaffected. Grumpy. Monosyllabic. Convinced that those adjectives had been invented solely for my encyclopedia entry. Faced with Dad’s ultimatum concerning a worthwhile use for my time, college seemed a convenient way to waste a few more years practicing charm and very little else, a good way to avoid any actual work. I don’t recall any actual work, but avoiding work, you learn after four years of it, is more of a full-time occupation than most jobs. Nothing teaches multi-tasking skills and delegation of duties better than a desire to have nothing to do. In school, of course, it’s okay to have nothing to do. As a matter of fact, I came to realize that, while you are a student, it is an admirable and desirable personality trait. People come around to hang out, to bask in empty afternoons and nothing to go to bed early for. Chicks are attracted to it. All that spare time to lavish on them exclusively.
Unfortunately, no one tells you it reverses with sickening speed once you graduate. You eventually have to choose a way to have your time forcibly filled on a daily basis. My friends from school, of course, all took their studies more seriously than I did, but then most of them went directly into advertising. Aside from no longer being my friends, I regard them as vampires, of a sort. It is comments like this which prevent us from reconciling, I suspect. I cannot help it. I’ve grown bitter.
Martin Landawer was the name on my housing form, he was my assigned room-mate in Cosby 103, the dormitory I came to know as Soylent Green because of the vomit-colored walls in the stairwells. Conveyed up to my dorm room on the soft, warm resentment of my parents, I found his stuff piled up on one of the beds. My parents insisted on taking me out to dinner, and I behaved badly, because I wanted them to leave. When we returned from dinner, Martin’s possessions were neatly put away. Pink Floyd posters had been tacked to the walls, a stereo of immense proportions had been erected. The phone and answering machine had been connected, and already showed two messages, both for him.
In what was to become the defining moment of my life, there was no sign of Martin Landawer himself.
Throughout that first semester, he remained one step ahead of me. I met my new neighbors, and found that Martin had beaten me to it: the girls were chatting excitedly about him and the guys all seemed to amiably approve of his presence. I returned to my room, and Martin had taken a telephone message for me: my parents had spoken to him for fifteen minutes and couldn’t wait to meet him. This continued throughout my first semester at school: Martin seemed to be avoiding me with a success that hinted at obsession and mental imbalance. As the winter break drew near, I began to fear Martin Landawer, a man I’d never met despite sharing a room for four months. I confessed these feelings to my amazing new girlfriend, Tammy, when we’d been dating for several weeks, a love affair I still remembered as passionate and exciting.
“Is that stupid?” I asked her, staring balefully at his cluttered desk, so obviously well-used.
“Yes.” she said unflinchingly. “And there’s something I need to tell you, too.”
“What is it?”
I was idly twining her golden hair around one finger, oblivious. Sharing after all was the keystone of any truly meaningful relationship.
“I’ve really only been dating you so I could meet Martin. I’m dumping you.”
My mouth hung open. “You’ve met Martin?”
“Several times. Goodbye, David.”
The next day there was a lengthy letter in blue ink on yellow legal paper tacked to my desk. In it, someone claiming to be Martin Landawer apologized profusely for falling in love with Tammy. He ended by saying he hoped we could go to lunch soon and talk it out, since he valued our friendship and wished it to continue.
His signature was tight and unremarkable. He used a good vocabulary, decent grammar, and his style was neither cliched or overtly imaginative. I learned absolutely nothing from the letter, except that Martin Landawer had come to somehow regard me as one of his best friends at school.
I remembered anticipating the winter break breathlessly.
At the funeral, I wore my best black suit and a good thick undershirt, since I woke up sweating rivers and knew it would get worse. The service was large, with hundreds in attendance, most arriving by limousine. I recognized politicians, royalty. Movie stars. All of them, crowding into a small, rustic church in the country with white plaster walls and exposed rafters. I wondered if this was where Martin had lived as a child, or if it had some other significance to him.
People shook my hand, sought me out. Embraced me. Called me “Stims,” which I hated. Everyone knew who I was, Martin’s best friend, David Stims, the David Stims. I was moved through the crowd without will, pulled and pushed gently from one mourner to another, everyone wanting to touch my arm, dab at their eyes, squeeze my shoulder manfully or peck my cheek demurely. I wasn’t used to popularity, I’d been virtually alone for too long. I stared at them all glassy-eyed, allowed my limp hand to be pumped, managed not to scream. If the service had been open-casket, I think I would have made it through. I could have made a speech about the fleeting nature of life in general, gone home and begun the busy work of drinking the remainder of my life away.
The casket, however, was closed. All through the proceedings, I stared at it. I could feel a quiet humming all around. I felt that I couldn’t blink. I rotated my head and bugged my eyes out helplessly at everyone around me, the priest droning on and on about Martin, about his sense of humor, his giving nature. My head seemed to have become disconnected from my neck. It wobbled around of its own obscure will. It wobbled to my right and there was Tammy, still beautiful, still similar to the serious, chatty girl I had met at school so long ago. She reached over and squeezed my hand, the first time in decades we had touched. My head wobbled down and I stared at our hands.
Dimly, somewhere nearby, I heard my name and my head wobbled up. People were turning to look at me, and I realized it was my time to speak, it was time for the eulogy.
I pulled my hand from Tammy’s, and stood up. Paused to ascertain that I would not simply fall over. My whole body felt numb. I looked at the coffin, shut, mysterious, mocking me, and I began to move sideways. My eyes on the coffin. I stepped into the aisle, and then up to the podium, where the priest shook my hand warmly and gestured politely to where I could stand. All the time, my eyes on the coffin, loathing it, fascinated by it.
If it had been open casket, I would have had a chance. As it was, I gripped each side of the podium, struggling to remain upright, struggling to keep myself from shaking too obviously. I tore my eyes from the coffin and swept them over the assembled mourners, all sober men and women, all displaying obvious grief. I’d only met a handful of them. I wondered if they really knew who I was.
I cleared my throat, stared at them all in silent appeal. No one said anything. No one moved. The casket remained shut.
“I first,” I began, swallowing heavily and holding tightly onto the podium, “I first failed to meet Martin Landawer in my freshman year of college.”
Over the winter break, Martin Landawer called me twice, both times while I was out. His voice on the answering machine was terrifyingly normal, cocky and deep, slightly amused. I didn’t return the calls; I did save the messages. To this day I have them at the beginning of several cassettes which hold all of his voice mails. He wrote me another letter, concerned that we might drift as friends, the paper creamy, expensive, watermarked. I became obsessed with the fact that I did not know what he looked like, that he might be anyone around me. He might sit next to me at theaters, pull up next to me at stop lights. He might introduce himself to me as someone else entirely.
When I returned to my dorm room after the new year, I was determined to have a breakthrough. I kept myself awake for fifty-six hours via coffee, caffeine pills, and a sharp steak knife with which I cut deep grooves into one arm, waiting in our room for a glimpse of Martin Landawer. I made it into the fifth day and passed out.
Nineteen hours later, I woke up to find Tammy sitting quietly next to my bed.
“David,” she said, putting down her book. “We’ve been so worried! Are you okay? We couldn’t wake you?”
I smiled. She was beautiful to me, still, and seeing her concern made me feel good. “Really? And you watched me?”
“Martin’s been up the whole night watching you. He had to go home this afternoon, so I took over for him. He wants me to call him and let him know when you wake up.”
I froze, wistful smile in place, luxurious stretch brittle and forgotten. I felt hysteria bubbling within me. “The whole night … gone home.”
“Well, you’re up. I gotta go.” she said crisply. “Hope you feel better, David.”
With the last weeks of my freshman year running through the hourglass, I began to find comfort in a new theory I’d developed wherein Martin was a hallucination. I woke up on the last day of school with another standard Martin Landawer letter (blue ink, yellow paper) waiting on his empty desk. It exhorted me to get together with him over the summer and informed me that he’d taken care of our housing for the next year and looked forward to another wild year.
It was the only sign that he’d existed; his side of the room was empty, immaculate, lacking even the normal erosion of someone’s existence on its smooth walls, its bright white mattress, its cement floor. I might have been rooming with myself.
I decided to embrace this possibility, and called the Housing Department the next day.
“Good afternoon, Housing.”
“Yes, I’d like to change my dorm assignment.”
“Name and student ID number?”
“David Stims, 491663.”
“Just a sec … .Mr. Stims?”
“Don’t worry, your housing assignment has been taken care of.”
“Yes, I know. I’d like to change it.”
“Let me explain, Mr. Stims. Marty Landawer has already arranged for you to room with him again. He’s quite fond of you.”
“Uh … yes, I know. I’d like to change my assignment. If you – ”
“I’d like to change my assignment. If there are no more empty dorms, then I’d like to cancel it – ”
“Um … Mr. Stims, I’m not sure I can do that.”
“Well, it’s not easy to just – ”
“Well, Martin Landawer did it, didn’t he?”
“You’re not Martin Landawer, are you?”
My brief sojourn in the realm of manageable mental disorders ended with me writing a pitiable letter to Martin explaining politely that I needed to not room with him in our sophomore year. He wrote back expressing sorrow at my change of heart. He thought we’d become close. He hoped we could still be friends. I felt like I was breaking up with him, and I began laughing. I kept laughing for days, early in the summer, chuckles and snorts hidden behind grins. I was breaking up with someone I’d never met. I couldn’t stop laughing. My family grew worried, but Martin assured them over the phone that I was going to be fine.
“Is this David Stims?”
“This is the Department of Housing. We’re calling to let you know that your housing assignment has been changed. You’ve got a single room on campus.”
“Wow. A single.”
“Yes. We had to bump a few people off the list, but we managed it.”
“Bump a few people?”
The voice grew conspiratorial. “Martin Landawer arranged it. He likes you, Stims.”
The rest of my college days passed in a cloud of oddity and phantasm. Martin Landawer called me regularly when I wasn’t home, leaving cheerful messages showing an uncanny knowledge of my life. On my birthdays I received cards signed by Tammy and him. He invited me to parties I never went to – except once, when I was drunk and unhappy and feeling foolish. I stumbled halfway across campus, gliding on alcohol fumes like an air-hockey puck, desperate for a glimpse, and arrived at a nice off-campus apartment, small but well kept and packed with people, none of whom were Martin Landawer. They were all full of stories, though. I got myself a beer and leaned glumly against a window sill. A redhead with happy feet turned to leer at me, her jeans tight and her blouse loose.
“How do you know Martin?”
“I roomed with him freshman year.”
“Wow! You must be Dave Stims!”
I was startled. “How’d you know?”
She smiled, absolutely the greatest smile I’d ever seen. I was enthralled, and settled back to watch.
“Martin gabs about you all the time.” She explained. Then she blushed, delicately. The blush was even more entertaining. “He seems to think we’d make a good couple.”
“What’s your name?”
At our wedding, Martin Landawer sent Lauren and I a gorgeous ivory sculpture of a bouquet of flowers, entitled “Love”, and his regrets. The sculpture was beautiful, delicate and detailed. Lauren cried, saying it was just like Martin, and that she wished he was there to dance with her. Martin was in England, a few years out of school and, as far as my vague understanding of his life’s work went, making the beginnings of a huge personal fortune.
Dancing with Lauren warm and giggling against me, being moved across the floor on grace borrowed from her, I grinned until I could feel blood leaking down my face from strain. All I could think about was Martin Landawer and his goddamned wedding gift. He and Tammy were getting married the following June, I knew, and I seethed, wondering what I would get them, swearing I’d get them nothing. The RSVP was a hot coal on my dresser, waiting. I eventually decided to attend, cherishing various fantasies: me, punching Martin in the nose; me, acting very cool and never letting on all night; me, dancing with Tammy and being casual, being mean, being tender.
Two days before the blessed event, I broke both legs in a car accident. Martin asked a doctor friend of his to look in on me.
“Mr. Stims? I’m Nick Avery. Martin Landawer asked me to look in on you. Make sure you’re getting the best attention.” he said in a careless rush, striding around my flowered room at tiring speed. “And I graduated Harvard first in my class, thanks to Martin, so I guess I’m qualified. He speaks very highly of you.”
“Oh yes. Always says he would have gone very far astray in school if it hadn’t been for your influence.” He smiled at me. “When Martin Landawer says that about any man, it’s a man I want to meet, chum.” He rushed over to my bedside and held out his hand. I shook it, feeling numb.
“Well, how’re you feeling?”
He appeared shocked. “Well? Well, we’ll have to take care of that. If I let you lose a leg, Martin will ruin me!”
He grinned, but I don’t think he was joking.
When I was thirty-one, I was making good money in a job I’d gotten largely due to a letter of recommendation Martin Landawer had written for me. My interview had been a Martin Landawer lovefest, two hours of his exploits and best jokes, and was I really that David Stims, the one Martin told so many stories about? I was, I said. I expressed honest amazement at how much Martin Landawer talked about me.
I spent my time at work hiding in my office, screening calls and refusing lunch dates. I had no duties I could detect. Once, I wrote a memo asking people to stop inviting me out to lunch, because I wasn’t coming. It went over well.
I was making good money. Great money, really, and I rarely went to work. No one noticed. To pass my time, I tried to hire private detectives to get me pictures of Martin Landawer: all but one refused, and most seemed insulted that I would ask. The one who agreed was a sullen man named Penn, fat and sweaty, who dressed in salvation army clothes. He seemed to emerge from the past, the forties or fifties, in his baggy grey suit and cardboard-lined shoes.
“Alright.” He sighed when I’d made the proposal. “Bastard’s mad at me anyway.”
I never heard from him again. I was the definition of unsurprised. The next day I went in to work, as always, and locked myself inside my office, as always.
About eight years later, everyone simultaneously realized that I was riding on Martin Landawer’s good opinion, and I got fired. Guards pushed me into an elevator, a box of stolen staplers and tape dispensers under one arm, and then pushed me gently into the street. They seemed cheerful about it, no hard feelings. I even think Martin had something to do with my termination, the way he hired me on literally the next day.
“This is Marcia Wilkes with Landawer Incorporated. Do you have a moment?”
“Uh, sure. Did you say ‘Landawer Incorporated’?”
“Yes. We understand you’ve recently become available.”
“Yeah … about fifteen hours ago. How’d you – ”
“We’d like to offer you a position.”
“Mr. Landawer is very enthusiastic about hiring you.”
I grew bored. “Really. What a surprise.”
“Will you come in for an interview?”
“Will he see me?”
“Um, excuse me?”
“I want to see him.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Stims, but aren’t you – ”
“I want to see him.”
“Mr. Stims? I must – ”
“If he wants me to work for him, I want to meet with him. Face to face. In the flesh.”
Two days later, while I ate Oreos and milk in front of the cartoons, there was a knock at my door. I was wearing pajamas and a flannel robe, feeling fat and dejected. Lauren was off on one of her trips, she’d left some vague time in the past and was due back some vague time in the future. I opened up and found a fat, balding black man in a plaid sports jacket and dark glasses. He beamed at me, yellow teeth and angry red gums. Very red gums.
“Martin?” I blurted.
I nodded. “Martin?”
“No. My card.” He handed me a bright white card with the words NOT MARTIN LANDAWER written in black letters on it. I looked up at him carefully. His grin widened. “I need that, you see, because I only meet people when they demand to meet Mr. Landawer.” He looked past me. “May I come in, Mr. Stims?”
“Of course.” I was backed into my foyer by his gross, immense presence, a buoy on the ocean. I was still staring dumbly at the card in my hand. Deftly, he plucked it from me as he squeezed past. He smelled of nicotine and cough medicine. Without a word he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, extracted one with his lips in a practiced procedure, and lit it with a silver lighter which magically appeared in his other hand.
He glanced around my messy home, and then his stare settled on me for a few moments, smoke hanging around him like his own personal atmosphere.
“Mr. Stims, do you know that Mr. Landawer is an extremely busy man, Mr. Stims?”
His voice was a ruined baritone, and sounded like cheap whiskey. I cleared my throat, tried to sound old. “I suppose he is.”
“I wonder,” he said conversationally while he examined the bric-a-brac along my mantle, “if you know how many people would like to see Martin Landawer every day?”
“I -I don’t know.”
“Ah,” he clucked his tongue. “You don’t.” He turned to me. “Hundreds, Mr. Stims.”
“If he gave just a few minutes to everyone, he would still not get through them all.”
“Do you know how we deal with that?”
I swallowed hard. “No.”
He turned to look at me. “We discourage them.”
I licked my lips. “I see.”
He smiled brightly. “Good! That’s good. It comes down, then, to a simple choice. Accept Mr. Landawer’s offer, or forget it. That’s it.”
I buried my face in my hands. “If I worked for him, would I get to see him?”
“He does own the company, Mr. Stims.”
I imagined he was smiling, and I looked up, and laughed without humor. “That’s not an answer.”
He shrugged. “Your office is ready anytime you’d like to start. We did it in mahogany and maroon fabric. You like Mahogany, right?”
I couldn’t blink, my eyes fixed on the casket. A beautiful piece of varnished wood, with brass fixtures. I imagined the interior was plush, lavish. I imagined the world’s most renowned undertaker had made it especially for Martin, shaking in his shoes as he worked. We were all terrified of Martin, I realized. Even in death. I was terrified of him, and had been for years. I licked my lips carefully. They were all watching me politely, I could feel their eyes, the women almost to a one weeping into tissues and hankies. A lot of the men were red-eyed too. The respectful silence wasn’t for me, though, and I knew it.
I tore my eyes away, and faced them all with new calm. I had stopped sweating. They watched me, and without another word I stepped away from the pulpit and began to angle around the floral arrangements, panting with fresh excitement. I could feel them like hot air against me, pushing me back. They watched me with careful looks and didn’t move until I put my hands on the coffin lid.
Voice rose up behind me and the air began to swirl and heat.
“Stims, are you mad?”
“Hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing him either!”
I didn’t wait any longer; I could hear them moving, gently and politely, towards me. I planted my fingers under the lid and shoved with both hands.
Shouting, then, hands on me, and I was lifted up, floating magically up into the air as I shouted back, my arms out and fingers splayed. After a moment black suits and dresses filled my sight as I was pulled back. I was laughing then. I was shoved roughly to my feet as the cacophony around the coffin increased into a confused babble, alarm and terror and puzzlement.
“What the -” one of the men holding me exclaimed.
“Martin,” I wheezed, “oh, Martin.”
They started to pull me away, to push me outside, but it was too late.
Laughing, I allowed them to pull me, watched the room shrink from sight and all those people, gathered around the coffin, staring in disbelief.
This story originally appeared in The Whirligig #3.