Jeb’s shift at the bar used to be mainly every other night with shared time on the weekend. Sometimes he would travel to be a guest DJ, but since his health was declining rapidly, the last six months before I arrived found him mainly stationed as Oil Can’s daily happy hour DJ. This ended up being nothing more than a preset iTunes playlist that allowed him to sit at the bar and drink while collecting a paycheck. For reference, that is how much the bar as a whole loved him, especially Larry, the owner. It reminded me of us in ‘year one’ when we were broke we would go to a bar up IH-35 called ‘Bout Time that catered to a largely older crowd. As the youngest people there we would get fed free drinks all night, stumbling gleefully home when we had enough, much to the dismay (but not surprise) of the entire bar. It was certainly an upgrade, at least at Oil Can’s, he was getting paid.
Over the next few weeks Jeb and I established a ‘routine’ of sorts where we would sit around during happy hour reading the newspaper, make comments on articles, laugh, and drink until his shift ended. I would go home if there was a crowd and Jeb would eventually land at his own apartment on south Lamar. It wasn’t long before we started staying at the bar longer, drinking more, and by the mid September he started spending most of his time with me at my place (which was kind of the unspoken point).
A few weeks after first meeting Jeb, I met Anthony while he was working on the steam room at the bathhouse. He became my second brother (I accompanied him on his move to Atlanta, in fact), the third of our triad. Then, almost a decade later, Anthony finds himself back in Austin just a few months before my move. He was far more established than I was (renting a nice house… with a yard), so I borrowed an air mattress from him and Jeb would sleep in the stark and empty living/dining room of my apartment.
Slowly over time, information about the severity of his condition began to emerge. He was in a lot of pain from his throat down to his stomach from an incurable stomach bacteria, so much pain that he couldn’t eat much solid food. The Chinese that we ordered at the hotel the night of the storm was mainly eaten by me, he only picked at the rice. Because of the pain he would do a shot of alcohol to numb the esophagus (usually Jack Daniels), then drink Ensure – basically the only nutrients he was ingesting. He also had Staph infection, moist and bubbling, active with bandages that needed changing regularly. The pain from that and his drying joints caused him to limp.
As the information came out I would adjust the apartment to fit accordingly. I thought he was just an alcoholic drinking his life away, but there seemed to be a real working function to how he drank, so the freezer went from being stocked with vodka to being stocked with whiskey (and Tuaca for dessert). Cases of Ensure were purchased in various flavors and dominated the refrigerator. I would still go grocery shopping and try and cook soft meals (for myself in which I would have “extra” to share with him) to get some decent food in him. The dining/living room transformed into miniature piles of Jeb… bags of clothing would pop up, corners dedicated to over-the-counter medications and remedies. We kept the air mattress as it made everything feel “temporary,” less rigidity meant less real, but we got more bed sheets to deal with the night sweats and he brought his own pillows complete with cases. It was all unraveling reality of his disintegration behind the taped together facade he was presenting to the world.
Jeb currently had a different life from when I first left Austin. He wasn’t “Jeb” to anyone – not even Brian called him “Jeb.” To the world he was DJ Scot Free who was once the life of the party but now a private grumpy guy who said very little. Over time he became more and more reserved, more and more mysterious. Naturally this made him more and more loved. His very public persona was known intimately by many people and known musically by many more as he was written about in the various gay magazines and such throughout Texas and Louisiana. Scot Free the effigy had to maintain some continuity even though the health of Jeb Mobley was declining. This trickled down to small things as well. Jeb wasn’t too keen on having any of the regular patrons catching him in a moment of laughter or being human in public. So there I sat with a decade experience perfecting the art of catching the ‘unshockable’ Jeb off guard. At the bar we kept our conversation minimal, but privately we were notoriously us. If he ever pissed me off my retribution would be making him laugh in public. It’s a rare thing to get Jeb pissed and laughing at the same time. My arrogant half-cocked smile of “yeah, I gotcha,” didn’t help either. And yet he couldn’t be too pissed as I was partially a comic monster of his creation.
I knew his current state of existence of surviving off Ensure and whiskey wasn’t going to last long, but it wasn’t my place to sit there and discuss the pros and cons of his options – that was Brian’s job, and Brian did a damn good job of it. Plus, Jeb was an adult… he already knew his options. I was there to be an extension of Jeb without question or judgement, thus allowing him to confidently chart a course for the next year. He had a host of other people besides Brian to panic about the reality of a sinking ship, I was only there to play the violin to distract him from all the screaming people running about the deck. My point was to give him a break from the real, make him laugh, drive him home after he drank too much, and help him have moments (however small) where he forgot he even had a disease. I was going to be him when he couldn’t be him.
The moral dilemma I had on my mind was of the Kevorkian scenario I was thrust into, albeit by my own choice. I knew that he was going to do things his way and there was no physical force on the planet I could harness that would turn him from that. I could either be the protagonist, antagonist, dead weight, or an enabler. Jeb had a few people pushing him in one direction and he had more than enough people pushing him in another direction. The rest of the city of Austin would be dead weight. That leaves only one position open. Then, as per my custom, I would make things happen when he couldn’t.
At no time was there any trickery or “it’s going to get better” manipulation at play. We kept things open and honest, truthful and raw. Let me be clear with this: When a situation was at a point where I was concerned, I would say something in the style or manner that Jeb would present to himself or to me. It came with one (and only one) question: “Do you think you need to ______,” said in a passive, dismissive form. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time I didn’t even need to say that. One look and Jeb would get the “I know, I know…” mumbles and do whatever it is he should be doing but that look had to be without condescension or judgement – it had to be free of whatever I personally thought at the time. I wasn’t turning a blind eye, I was being his back up. In the end, his choice was his choice. He had a team of people around him with opinions and offers and his own personal stamina and fight was dwindling in strength and momentum. Whether he was right or wrong, I was there filling in the parts of himself that he had lost so he could continue to be himself, his way.
One of those directions came with Brian and his suggestion for Jeb to enter Hospice care. This was something I agreed with, but getting Jeb to go along with it was a completely different issue. Hospice is a very, very difficult decision for someone in their mid-30s to ponder, so with that came two months of passive discussions and drunken pondering of life and death. There came a random discussion about a Hospice house and we took a drive to see one personally. It was not for him. Then the subject would disappear.
He was still trying to work nights every now and then to make extra money. It seemed okay on occasion, but one evening in mid-late October I get a call from Brian who was away for the weekend with his partner (Ed) informing me that there was a dramatically tense trip to the hospital after a night Jeb was working as he passed out and could not be revived. He stayed at the hospital all night. In the morning we retrieved his car from downtown, gathered some clothes from the apartment, and I drove him out to Brian and Ed’s house on Lake Travis without saying anything besides “Tell me what you need me to do.” I stayed with him in the empty house the first night before going back home. He slept through the entire weekend.
It still took about another week or so of waspy avoidance and murmured grumbles before Jeb finally agreed it was time to enter a Hospice program, picking one that works well in the LGBT community through Project Transitions called Odyssey. He liked the mythical adventure implied by the name. On October 31, 2007, the appropriate evening of Halloween, Jeb turned in his paperwork and received an onslaught of odd and uncomfortably worded brochures preparing him and his loved ones for his new odyssey… to the grave.
“So, you just found out you’re going to die in six months… STEP 1…”
“You read. I will interpret the pictures. You’re obviously playing the Hospice patient which… I’m guessing is Grandma.”
“All that plastic surgery seems so pointless now.”
“Thank god for those extended payments, right? And I’m playing… the little kid?”
“No. You’re the loving daughter bringing me chocolates.”
“I think those are Ex-Lax.”
“I need those too.”
Between us we laughed like we had never laughed before releasing all anger, frustration, worry, and (especially) fear from our souls, from the inner most darkened corners where little tiny seeds sit to spontaneously burst into redwood trees – it was all cleared out in one obnoxious and side-splittingly offensive afternoon. It was laughter on a level most humans will never achieve as their warpness does not plunge to such depths. The more complex the webbing, the more hearty the laughter needed to exhume the shadows, and we were two very complex webs of art. This milestone felt like the flatness at the summit of a mountain when there is physically no more mountain to scale.
Immediately there seemed to be a weight that had been removed from Jeb’s shoulders. I was now allowed to show my hearty agreement with his decision as oppose our exchange of “Do you think you need to think about Hospice?” “You already asked me that today.” ““Do you think you need to be asked about Hospice again tomorrow?” The banter was getting old, however he was very entertained by the layer of passive aggressiveness I could achieve with the “Do you think you need to ______?” format.
As he and I always had similar views about life and living, he knew I was going to have his back no matter what, even if I didn’t agree with it. Free will is a right, not privilege, and it shouldn’t be taken away just because one is getting sick and weak. I needed a moment to get my grip because I knew he (or, any human) deserved support without hesitation or question, unflinching where the first immediate reaction would be what he needs in his format as a default and not as the end result of a ‘thinking process.’ Reaction time sometimes speaks louder than the reaction itself. At that moment, I was finding it hard to present myself, my willingness to help in a calm, and collected manor while holding back all real emotions I was personally feeling… and still try to pop out good quality jokes based off glossy literature about death.
There is nothing that says that two 34 year olds should be laughing that much about one of them entering Hospice, but what other option was there? There have been a million of our brothers who have walked this path before us that have already proven once one is past the point of no return, there is only one outcome. The laughter helped us both digest the reality of the situation while being swept along the overwhelming white water rapids of the unknown… his unknown. With this jocosely cleansing exercise, every image that I saw the night Jeb first told me he was HIV positive was trying to resurface, flipping through like a person flips through an annoying neighbor’s family vacation photos – every single frame exactly in order as I did that first night so many years ago, but they were just flying by too fast for the imagery to stick. And because we were laughing so hard, I didn’t fucking care. I saw the future. It happened. So fucking what? Are we going to move forward or stand around and cry like bitches?
We celebrated the night at Austin’s Enchanted Forest for their Halloween haunted trail party and show. We arrived in time to see a routine on the main stage that was nothing more than an old school overhead projector with various cut outs and colored background transparencies moved around to chamber music. Jeb and I looked at each other with the ‘what the fuck is this’ look and behind us there came a booming voice, “Man, that is some trippy shit right there.” We both closed our eyes and laughed. Someone was on something good. We decided to sit next to him.
At the break of the program we went through the “haunted” trail, but due to the lateness of the evening the witch was snorting coke in the gingerbread house, the mad doctor’s acid had kicked in, and the ghost in the tree was engaged in a political conversation with the leaves. What was originally a frightening set up through a path in the forest had descended into a D.A.R.E. trail of horrors. We seemed to be the only ones sober. It didn’t matter, we were high on Hospice and we had a blast observing the kiddies of new Austin who picked up our torch and ran into whatever brightly decorated fantasy of their own drug-induced odyssey. They almost seemed like our children, and we the proud parents.
Jeb was going through a ‘dry-out’ period (excluding alcohol, of course) not knowing what effect the new morphine prescription would have on him. I was Jeb’s driver for the night, so I refrained from drinking and various offers of (real) absinthe, ecstasy, and LSD. We left after a few hours as Jeb was in too much pain to continue siting on the rocky ground (with his weight loss his ass became more boney) and he was uncomfortable standing. We had a good time, we were all smiles, and it was great to see some phenomenal costumes and get some Austin-specific, THC-laced fresh air.
Upon walking out of the carnival of frights, we ran into a straight bartender from OCH named Hunter who was in his early 20’s at the time. He was a legitimate friend to Jeb and our happy hour server who knew Jeb’s condition and kept it private, so he was certainly someone we liked, appreciated, and respected. This also means his innocence to who we were as a team made him fair game. Jeb and I looked at each other and our eyes lit up as instantly as we closed in on our first victim without our having to say a single word to each other.
After some small chit-chat about Hunter’s nipples (it was a cold night and he was shirtless), Jeb blurts out, “So I’m going to die in six months.”
Damn, it had been a long time since we’ve done this, but I took my cue like I was slipping on a pair of my favorite old shoes. “It’s true. And we have some literature back at the apartment for you to read if you need help working through this.”
“We also have Jack Daniels.”
“And maybe some chocolate laxatives, we’re not sure on that yet.”
“Which, I know it sounds strange… but you probably need the Jack just to read the literature.”
“It’s amazing what passes for decent brochures about dying these days.”
Hunter’s face was frozen. We kept going. His eyes darted back and forth between us trying to get a read from either one of our faces in order to comprehend what is being hurled at him while trying to not forget his fire dancing steps he was about to perform on stage in a few moments. He couldn’t figure out where to go as the information he heard was contrary to the presentation he saw, neither of which had context in the current conversation. He didn’t know what to believe… his eyes or his ears. He finally stopped us.
Jeb and I cracked up laughing and he promptly explained that yes, he has entered Hospice care and I was going to help, but nothing more is planned. The brochure did say 6 months, but people have lasted years on Hospice. So there was no need to worry just as yet. Hunter released air pressure like a freshly punctured tire. He could smile. He could be pissed, and he would be pissed later, but he let out a hearty laugh first which was good… allowing to severity of the situation to take an alternate, but more truthful and unforced path. We told him that he was the first person we were telling and one of a select handful of people that would know this was going on. He had the biggest smile on his face (still slightly pissed). Jeb and I both knew Hunter was a gentle, sensitive soul and he would cry about it later once it sank in, but for now… we laughed. Hunter had to understand, a hazing was necessary to be in the club.
Before walking away he looked at us both and asked, “You two are going to be doing a lot of this kind of shit, aren’t you?”
“Oh yeah,” we both replied in unison with gigantic South Park-type grins on our face in an ‘duh, of course’ sort of way.
“This is going to be fun.” And he bounced off shaking his head. And over the next few months, we had great fun.
Hunter was an intuitive little fuck, and his annoyance came as he was the only person who ever repeatedly confronted me with the “Who are you and why are you here?” question. Jeb didn’t really talk to anyone, he didn’t really do things anymore. He spent most of his time at a fellow DJ’s living room watching movies, stationary. I appeared out of nowhere and now he won’t leave my side, the only person who never called him “Scot.” Hunter wanted to know what was up. My answer was always the same, “We are old friends and I love this city.” He was never convinced. He would smile his cute “I’m going to figure you out” smile and I would return with the smug “I’m not saying shit” grin. The Sunday after Halloween he saw me in the bar and walked up to me and put his arms around my neck.
“This is why you’re here, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t answer him. Just teared up and closed my eyes, moving my head slightly to rub against his and stopping so he can feel the weight. He felt it. “And, I love this city.”
Hunter grabs my head and plants a kiss on my cheek. “I’m very happy you’re here,” he said through a sniffle.
“Thank you,” I said with my eyes too filled with tears to open them.
“How long, really?”
I opened my eyes and smiled. “Vodka seven with a twist of lime, please.”
Hunter respectfully smiled back and gave a nod, released my head and went back to the other side of the bar. He never brought up the subject again.
James P. Perez © 2014