It Feels So Good When I Stop - By Joe Pernice

Part 1

October 1996

“I HAVE CANCER from working with boat glue. Lung cancer,” James said, as if telling me he liked toast. Wheat toast. Just like that, thoughts of my troubles with Jocelyn receded.

“Jesus Christ, James, are you shitting me?” I asked, flicking my smoke to the sandy pavement, inches from the outer reaches of his yellow lawn. I thought, That’s it. I’m quitting.

“I wish I was, my friend. I wish I was.” He soothed his temples with the tips of his fingers.

“That’s horrible. Does my sister know?”

“I haven’t figured out how I’m going to tell her.”

“Fuck me.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty bad. I should have taken better care of myself when I was young.”

“But you’re only thirty-eight, for chrissake.”

I was thirteen years younger than James, but he could have easily pounded the living shit out of me. He was six feet two and looked like an off-brand version of the guy on the Brawny paper towel package. When he was on the upside of a sneeze, his lungs swelled like those of a whale preparing to dive. He fixed boats for a living. His arms were strung with an overkill of lean muscle. It was embarrassing.

“Yeah, well, anyway, I should have taken better care of myself. Take my advice”—he motioned with his chin toward the smoldering butt. A Century 21 For Sale sign squeaked in the breeze—“I always thought I’d have more time, you know? Now they tell me I’ll be lucky to make forty.” He leaned, defeated, against the equally terminal baby-blue Chevy Suburban with boat in tow. Both vehicles were still registered in my sister’s name.

“What are you telling me here? I mean, are you like ...?” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. He touched my shoulder, and it moved me that he, in his condition, was trying to comfort me.

“Am I what, dying?”

I nodded.

He inhaled deeply for strength. “Nah, I’m just fucking with you.” He picked up my smoke and resuscitated it. “Come on. Give me a hand covering this prick.”

I didn’t need the mind-fuck, but I did need a place to stay; somewhere I wouldn’t have to answer a lot of questions while I got my shit in a pile. If I had to be around someone, James was better than most. He’d rather fake cancer for a laugh than pick your brain.

“Get on the starboard side,” he barked.

“Which side is that?”

“The one opposite me.” A good chunk of his bust stuck out above the trailer-mounted boat. He unfolded a plastic tarp. “Hey, you hear the one about the faggot ensign that got busted down to seaman?”


“He got caught swabbing a rear admiral’s poop deck. Get it?”

I nodded. With my smoke still burning in the crotch of his fingers, my sister’s soon-to-be ex-husband pointed at me and said, “Seriously, the best advice I can give you is this: Die at the curb.”

“Isn’t that a Wesley Snipes movie?”

“If it isn’t, it should be.” He draped the tarp over the Switchcraft, showing as much respect for it as a living soldier would for a dead comrade. A sharp gust blew in from Opal Cove and passed through my hair, making me feel bald. James held down the billowing blue plastic. “Trust me,” he said. “If you’re walking alone along Tre mont Street at two in the morning, and a car pulls up, and some dirtbag tells you to get in or he’s going to shoot, well, fuck that noise. Tell him to shoot. If he had a gun, he would have been wagging it in your face already.”

“Hmm,” I said, trying to prompt the least passionate response from him. I wanted for us to finish covering the boat and for him to be on his way. I held a wily corner while he laced a nylon cord through aluminum eyelets that had been dulled by oxidation.

James and my sister Pamela were splitting custody of their only kid, an eighteen-month-old named Roy. I had already seen Roy make the same determined face James was making just then as we winterized the boat he had deluded himself into thinking he could afford.

“And if by some friggin’ miracle he does have a gun, you’re better off dying at the curb.” James stopped lacing and pointed an X-Acto knife at me. “Because you know that fucker has something worse in mind for you.” He looked into the middle distance and thought on it. “Some sick Viet Cong shit like breaking a glass rod in your cock or stuffing a yard of barbed wire up