Petty looked like he needed a hand.
“Let me help you.” I said to him.
He was dragging the body of a man across the hallway, toward the stairwell.
“Much obliged.” Petty returned to me, in his normal courteous manner. He pushed his gold-tinted sunglasses up his nose.
I attempted to pick up the man’s feet and legs, but his bloated girth provided to be too much to lift, so I took up the other arm and we pulled. Lord, we pulled.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Him?” Petty responded in a casual tone. He paused as we grunted with another pull. “He’s dead.”
“Oh.” I said. I looked down at the man, his little pecker hung out of his stained boxer shorts.
“Yep.” He said after a couple more grunts and pulls. “He’s plumb dead. We need to get him to that stairwell there. Take him to the roof.” He said with purpose, like a foreman on a jobsite.
“Why the roof?” I asked.
Petty let out a grunt and a huff. His answer seemed to him to be obvious.
“Because no one looks for dead men on rooftops.”
And with that answer, it seemed obvious to me too.
Petty and I were the only tenants in the apartment building, a three-story former hotel built in 1893 and idealized then as a commiserating hub for travelers and investors taking the train through Indiana. The town of Apollonia was built then too. Two story buildings went up around the rail-line. A pulsing vein that now rests like an old coagulated scar.
Apollonia’s optimism, in its infancy, that the town would grow up to matter for the state and thusly the country; a potential agricultural pinpoint and well-groomed small town; the optimism that the Main Street of Apollonia was the best Main Street in the area and the men of the town could hold their suspenders with a righteous ease had vanished long ago into a shoulder-shrug of middle-town complacency.
The growth of Apollonia stopped sometime in that epoch of post-World War burgeoning. When men came home and made mad, desperate love to their women. Families where made in an effort to stockpile future cavalries and platoons. Homes, cars, factories chugged vibrantly along to the beat of the future. The excitement of the new age; what lay ahead for individuals with enough will and hope and strength made the town of Apollonia feel alive. But, as the future progressed, Apollonia dawdled and disintegrated into just another place to live. Its purpose no more meaningful than when the first settler buried his post.
At the stairwell, Petty and I grunted and pulled steadily. If we stopped, the dead man would surely slip from our sweaty grips. We pulled his arms from the shoulder sockets. They popped one after the other. Petty gave words of encouragement.
“C’mon, now.” And “Pull the bastard.” And “C’mon you big dead fucker.”
The man was awfully big. I couldn’t imagine being that big, then croaking and becoming a burden for the coroner, the mortician, the pallbearers. With each pull, the man’s head lurched and flopped awkwardly. His meaty mouth hung open like a dead fish. I wanted to stuff a bologna sandwich in there. It seemed proper, normal. As if the man wanted to die while eating. Instead I kicked his head to the side to get up the last step. Petty grabbed the man’s stale, striped shirt and pulled him to the landing. I collapsed on my back, Petty put his hands on his knees. We took deep, exhausted breaths.
On the roof, we left him on his back. In death, the man looked like he needed help. I wondered what he had accomplished on his own. I suddenly felt sorry for him. It wasn’t his fault. Poor guy. His loose arms laid haphazard like broken trunks on an elephant. I crossed them over his chest. Petty laid a polyethylene tarp over him. A terrible burial shroud. He nailed the tarp to the roof, not wanting it to blow away and reveal the dead man to the birds, the small planes, the hot-air balloons.
The sun was heavy that day. A warm September Sunday, where the air filled with the smell of new lain asphalt of a side street and charcoal briquettes steaming off drops of beef fat. My gaze hung onto the bulge of the tarp. So far, only two men on Earth knew what lay underneath. I thought a little prayer for the man, and as another waft of grilling hamburgers lingered, for the people of Apollonia. “Lord, let this dead man have it a little easier the next time around. Give him a hand. Let these people never disbelieve in their town when he’s undoubtedly discovered.”
Petty stood with his hands on his hips, the way a youth baseball coach might in disappointment of a pitcher. “You good?” he said to me from across the roof. “What happened to him?” I asked. Petty waved one hand flippantly while the other remained locked to his hip. “You don’t need to know.”
I have to admit, I adored Petty. His long blonde hair hung straight down his tanned face. To me, he looked like an Anglo-Miami-Kickapoo – if such a person could exist – forever wise in a pair of gold sunglasses. I didn’t know much about him. In the hallway or at a bar-stool, he remained to me in a similar way as an early night dream. To this day, the memory of him – a lazily-trimmed torso covered in a grey-pocket shirt and drawled truisms spoken in quiet breaks of bar chatter – swirls together with memories of other men and women I’ve met both in dreams and waking hours. I am sometimes mistaken as to who was real.
His uncle owned the building along with the bar on the street floor; The Tassel. On Saturday nights it was a biker bar for all nowhere town roughnecks; thinking they belonged to something grander, tougher than the actuality of themselves. Every other night of the week it was a haven for locals, pool players and karaoke.
Upstairs, Petty converted one of the empty rooms into a recording studio. He had half-drunk karaoke singers and high-schoolers in screaming metal bands come in there and attempt the beginnings of a dream. I often found myself in there, watching them. It was better than enduring the noise from my apartment. I never believed any of them would make it.
About twice a week, the mother of a former classmate of Petty’s came by to sing some sad duet with him. He said he remembered her from the grandstands of baseball games. He used to think she was Kim Basinger. In her own high school days, she struck ‘em out I’m sure. I often imagined myself her classmate then. We never talk, I just watch her walk down a hallway. Blonde hair curled, tight blue jeans accentuated hips with points. Cheeks bulbous and strained from smiles. She’s got ‘em all looking; queen of the hallway. Thirty years later, a mask of sadness hangs in front of her. I don’t know what a mask of sadness is, but when I’d see her, it was there. It entered the room first.
He’d ask me to leave, he said, because she was too shy to sing in front of others. The song was a catharsis for her, I assumed. It was the same one nearly every time. A song that encapsulated her frustrations with her husband and love’s luck. Following the duet, they’d have sex. She was painfully loud.
Petty stood at the edge of the rooftop and looked down across Main Street, a casual breeze blew a few restless blonde strands of his hair in a way that made him look like a paused chieftain. He often mentioned the battle of Apollonia; fought between man and the suction of the town. He said the town pulled men down from the inside; draining their hope and sense of purpose in the world and relegating them – worthy, capable men – into aimless, intoxicated, unprincipled boys. He said sometimes that if you listened right you could hear it. It was a drone or a hum that emanated from somewhere deep below and far above. I laughed at him, when he told me. “You’ve been drinking too much,” I said. But I wondered, as we stood on the rooftop and he stared out and over the town, if he heard it. If he were tightening his muscles against it, or like the man beneath the tarp, had already loosened up.
We left the roof and sat down at the Tassel. We lit a cigarette and clanked together shot glasses of well whiskey in honor of the dead man. “To fatso,” Petty said. “May he no longer be a burden.”