“Joe’s coming to town.”
“Junky Joe or Joey Pony?”
“Ooh… here we go.”
Chris and I smile big, like it’s some inside joke, like we’re suddenly sitting in a cellar waiting for the tornado to hit but kind of happy that it’s going to hit regardless. Chris never clears the day without getting loaded when Joe comes around. Once, during the 3 or 4 year stint when we were all consistently stoned out of our minds at the shop Joe dropped in to visit high as a star in the sky, in town from Venezuela. Joe walks in and hugs Chris big. Joe loves his friend. Next he finds the new age section and spends hours browsing art criticism and art monographs. He flips through magazines, gets lost in the glossy pages swaying gently to and fro. Chris and Joe go to the bathroom together. After Joe leaves, I find Chris propped up at the info desk with his tiny rat eyes narrowed to slits speaking slowly and methodically, unabashed, making some sense but saying weird things and leaning slightly to his right, or my left.
“Awww… Man!” I whisper to him like a pissed off work sibling. “Remember the rules of being loaded in public! Don’t talk to anyone. Keep your head down, and DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO YOURSELF! When do you finish work?” I ask.
“Ok, listen, you only have to make it through an hour before you go home. Try not to like, drool or vomit on anything. And let me know if you feel sick. Then go straight home, right?”
“I might meet up with Joe later.”
I roll my eyes.
Later, he feels sick. Retreats to the bathroom alone.
“Don’t ever tell Liz that story!” Chris says emphatically referring to his wife and baby’s mama.
“Joe’s got a one way ticket to New York.”
Chris speaks slowly and deliberately with a Queens accent, a rare old school New York lilt that he shares with Joe. They were Queens kids together who took the magic subway ride into Manhattan, to the East Village and the New York Hardcore scene; music and shows and the carnival of bygone days when Tompkins Square Park and Washington Square Park were essentially pharmacies. They lose track of one another for years then reunite around Union Square by accident, buying dope from the same dealer.
“He’ll be here soon. Not sure when exactly. We’ve been emailing. He sent me pictures of his latest paintings. Do you want to see them?”
Chris logs on to his Gmail at the info desk and scrolls through a long, long letter before reaching the attachments at the end. He opens one panel then another. It’s a triptych of Joe holding up the Hindu gods. Joe is nude with a cape around his neck and a black burglar mask around his eyes. He points a pistol at grey Ganesha. Raises a sword to blue Shiva. Menaces pink multi-armed Vishnu with a knife. Joe had travelled to Mexico years earlier and covered his arms and chest in Mayan themed tattoos. Joe grew his hair long and flew to India, swam in the Ganges. These themes are reflected in the composition and intentionally two dimensional quality of his art. He’s physically represented on the same scale as the gods. He’s challenging them—taking them on. The colors are bright and trippy in a contemporary or perhaps 1980s retro-florescent way.
“Chris, these are brilliant. Is he showing anywhere?”
“No, maybe… I don’t think so.”
“He should be showing. Tell him to get in contact with a gallery here in New York or something. Goddess knows there’s no shortage of those popping up and closing down on the Lower East Side these days. Hey, I don’t mean to be crass but—he really likes his dick, doesn’t he.” In the paintings, Joe’s member is thick and long, extending down to his knees.
“Awww… man! Joe’s been showing me that fucking thing since we were kids. He’d pull it out and say ‘Look at this! Naw, man! Just look at this thing!’ I’m like—yeah, Joe, that great. Put that fuckin’ thing away, will you?! That’s what I’d say.”
“Is Joe in town or what?” I ask a week later. Chris smiles, then gets enervated and begins relaying.
“Joe McVie came to town and got thrown out of three places that he was staying at in four days.”
“That’s impressive,” I reply. “What the fuck is he planning to do?
“I don’t know. I think he’s going to stay with his mother. She lives on Long Island. Joe got picked up by the cops walking to her house in the middle of the night. They don’t get along though. She’s trying to get him into rehab but they won’t have a bed for him until Saturday.”
“That might be good, no? Make amends and all that? Clean up.”
Chris stops smiling. He pauses a lot and speaks slowly. He replies methodically.
“Maybe… Ador’s losing her mind down there. She’s trying to fly up to New York but she’s having trouble. She has to leave Grace with her grandparents.”
“And pay for the ticket on short notice…”
“Yeah, I don’t know…”
“Chris, is Joe in trouble?”
The phone rings at the info desk and Benjamin answers. He stands beside me, looking at me expressively while listening to the voice on the other end of the line.
“Ummm… we don’t usually give out employee’s phone numbers.”
“Who is it?” I ask curious. Benjamin puts down the receiver and says—“It’s someone named Joe, looking for Chris.”
“Give it to him. Joe’s Chris’s oldest friend.”
“That’s what he just said. He said, ‘I’m Chris’s oldest friend.’” He picks up the receiver. “Ok, hold on. Here it is…” We’re laughing because Joe is loaded and sounds it. His voice blares through the receiver.
Days pass and I come to work. Everyone is scrambling for shift coverage for Chris. Chris has a funeral to attend.
The last time that I ever saw Joe McVie alive was his trip to New York the time before last. He wandered in all decked out in Adidas blues and a white wife beater muscle shirt with his Mayan tattoos showing—as usual. Adidas was his uniform. Chris wasn’t working that day and I was a little nervous about Joe hanging out without Chris.
“Heyyy… Is Chris around?”
“No. He’s not working today Joe.”
“Ohhh… Ok… Do you think…?”
“Yeah man. I’ll discount whatever you want to buy.”
“Margarita? Right? Hey, do you have a bag? I was just at the Adidas store and they gave me all this great shit!” I hand him one.
“I’m going back there later. You want anything?”
“Nah, I’m cool. Thanks though.” I smile relaxing a little and charmed.
He smiles and thanks me, makes his way to the new age section then to the art books and magazines. He skims occult and critical studies. He returns after carefully browsing for two hours, makes calibrated decisions. Has a small stack.
“Hey… Margarita?” He asks as I ring him up at the register.
“Who’s your daddy?”
“Uhhh…” I pause. “Mr. Shalina?”
“Naw, man, that’s not what I mean!” He replies emphatically. “Who’s your old man?”
“Oh…” I pause again. “Arthur…?” My voice comes back at an incline.
“Yeah! Well, tell Arthur that he’s got a good woman.” Joe says. He leans up across the register and kisses me on the cheek.
“Thanks Joe. I will.” I smile back feeling awkward but endeared. I wave good-bye as he exits and he does the same.
Chris and I don’t work together so much now and see one another rarely. He’s a solitary creature that doesn’t socialize much. When we work together and the store is empty and quiet on a late Wednesday night we might split the cost of a bottle of wine and talk about Joe. He tells me stories of their childhood. Shows me pictures posted to Joe’s memorial page on Facebook dating back to when he and Joe were kids in New York. He shows me photos of Joe’s graffiti tags in Venezuela. We repeat the stories to one another that we’ve already told each other to bring him back to life for a few minutes. Mainly, I do this for my friend but also, I do this because life was tremendously more interesting with Joe in it. He was a kindred spirit. “Remember when?” —We ask one another and relay Joe anecdotes back and forth.
“Do you know what Ador said happened recently? Did I tell you this already? Ador was walking down the street with her daughter in Venezuela and Grace stopped her and said—”
“Mama, I want my marker!”
“Grace has her own marker?”
“Hell yeah! So, Ador gives her, her little red marker. Grace takes it.”
“How old is she, Chris?”
“Four, I think. My daughter just made a year. Anyway, Grace asks her mom for her marker. Ador gives it to her and Grace turns to a wall and writes her name on it.”
“She tagged up?”
“Yeah, she must have seen Joe do that hundreds of times. That’s Joe’s daughter, you know?”
MARGARITA SHALINA is a writer and translator who lives in New York.