Pretty Good by Ed Bok Lee

A pretty good friend came back from warring as men have done since fire and families, and shot himself with a Sig Sauer in the heart. The note he left instructed his sister to donate his brain to Parkinson’s research, his kidneys to any Muslim or two in need, his pancreas to cancer, and his eyes to diabetes.

The contents of his bank account he gave to his sister and her children’s college fund. He was all-American, wheat-haired, played football and hockey. He did possess a dark side, but pretty openly on social media. He’d also cheated on his wife when married, gambled and drank too much, frequented strip clubs. But he got himself back into shape, over a decade after fighting in the first Gulf War, and re-enlisted to go to Iraq. Here is where the summation of his life becomes heroic or tragic. Here is where America will comprise the Storm Troopers or Jedis. I offer the following account as an object for future historians to assess in our long and rightful chapter within the Book of Nations.

The Caretaker of the shabby studio apartment where the suicide happened was not a very good friend of both mine and the departed’s. This not very good friend had been letting my pretty good friend basically squat there for a few months, while the latter got back on his feet. I had no idea they’d reconnected as grown men. We all used to ride our bikes to the river in grade school, hunting turtles with sticks and shooting sparrows with slingshots. Borrowed gutters directed our bottle rockets in a warped game of combat tag. My pretty good friend was always in charge. The not very good friend, I think, felt fortunate just to be allowed to follow our dirt bikes around on his sister’s rickety ten-speed. His father was a divorced Vietnam vet and alcoholic. The kid lived on snack cakes, soft bread, and bologna. And then like autumn trees we three fluttered orange, yellow, red, off in our own directions into middle and high school and towns beyond.

I saw that one not very good friend again a second time since the funeral—four years after my pretty good friend’s suicide. This stooped, lanky man somehow recognized me in a grocery parking lot while carrying his two-year old daughter, who sucked a blue popsicle. He spoke openly with odd amazement of the mess left on the white wall and carpet in the apartment he’d let our mutual friend squat in. There was splattered blood and a curious, watermelon seed-sized bit of hardened flesh that he’d found lodged in the hollow of a window frame which the painters had missed. He spoke openly of how he’d debated for hours whether or not to call the cops over the dry, plum-colored speck of what he thought was probably heart matter.

Right there, as his little girl wriggled to be let down on the ground, he lowered her and also his voice in speaking of how stressful it was now for him as the building’s Caretaker whenever the infamous unit went vacant, and he had to start showing it again.

In the end, this not very good friend wrapped the bit of probably heart matter in a plastic baggie and stored it his freezer. As we strolled to, then stopped by my car, he confessed that, though he’d never really liked the departed, who’d always picked on his poverty and difference, he’d kept it. “Just in case science ever comes up with a way to bring back the dead.” He said this smiling, nervous and strange as ever. And then I got into my car with my milk and eggs and remembered how, whenever he was around, my pretty good friend and I never fought.
Ed Bok Lee’s latest collection of poems and prose, Whorled (Coffee House Press), was a winner of the 2012 American Book Award. Past honors include a PEN/Open Book Award, a Minnesota Book Award, and an Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice). Recently, his poems and prose have appeared in Diode, Gulf Coast, Fence, The Normal School, Idaho Review, Copper Nickel, and Volt. Lee’s work as a translator has ranged from the Russian prose of Soviet-Kazakh science fiction writer, Anatoli Kim, to, most recently, the poetry of Kim Ki Taek (in Korean Literature Now, Winter 2017).