Comics, Dope, and Human Chemistry

By Brian Panowich

Of the three comic book shops in Pensacola, Florida, the dingy, sprawling store on the “wrong” side of town was the one that best suited my needs. It was sandwiched between a row of dumpsters and a tattoo parlor on the east side of the panhandle, and a rock’s throw from a great vintage record store. The shop was just the way I liked it—dusty and unorganized. It felt more like being at a rummage sale held in someone’s garage than being inside an actual business. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with obscure action figures still in their plastic clamshells, with handwritten price tags asking for way too much money. Long white boxes of comic books sat on huge tables in every corner of every room, just begging to be rifled through. And there were always a few seedy looking jokers huddled by the racks of new releases warring over the latest nerd-centric controversy.

The owner of the shop was like a cartoon right out of one of the books he sold. A portly leftover of the Jerry Garcia generation with a long silver ponytail, who was always ready to talk about the Black Crowes or back when music really meant something. He was jolly and inviting and always made people feel welcome in his store.

He also dealt pills and weed out the back door. Like I said, the store suited my needs, and I loved the place.

It also happened to be where I met Keith Bell.

When I first met Keith, he was in transit. I’m pretty sure he’d spent most of his life in transit. He was wearing a George Romero tee shirt and I’d never seen him around the shop before, and those were two very compelling reasons to crank up some conversation. Within the first few minutes of that initial chat, I found out Keith was from way down south Florida, he knew everything there was to know about zombie movies, and that he was a recovering alcoholic—with the AA logo tattoos on his forearms to prove it. He also conveyed that he really needed a job. At the time, I was tumbleweed of sorts and was currently working part-time as a clerk in a liquor store, so of course I offered the alcoholic stranger a job peddling booze with me down the road. I know what you’re thinking, but it turned out to be a great idea. My recovering alcoholic boss took to him and offered him a job. Keith accepted. There’s some truth in the phrase, “Keeping your demons close.”

Keith and I hung out, mostly after work. I drank and got high. Keith did not. But he told great stories, mostly about the crazy shit he’d done over the years while he was drinking. Don’t get me wrong, he never bragged about any of it. He knew full well the damage he’d done to himself and to others, and was trying to come to terms with it all. He just happened to know how to tell a story worth listening to. He also told me on more than a few occasions that he wanted to be a writer. I told him he should. He shrugged a lot.

Keith and his girlfriend—another recovering addict with a laundry list of her own issues—rented a small duplex not far from the beach. I only visited their place once. Outside of a futon, some other shabby furniture that came with the place, and a few candles to cover up the smell of said furniture, the apartment wasn’t much to speak of. Only Keith’s bookshelf in the living room held any real personality. The shelves were stocked with Lucio Fulci DVD’s, books by authors I didn’t recognize, and a ton of well-preserved Spaghetti Westerns on VHS. I remember he had the collector’s edition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly set up on a small easel on the top shelf, alongside a cap-and-ball replica of the Colt pistol that Clint Eastwood’s nameless man carried in the film. That gun was so cool. I remember telling him so as I handled it like fine china and I remember his lucid response: “I know.” It was one of the few times I’d ever seen Keith smile.

He showed me how to load pellets of black powder and small lead balls into the gun’s cylinder, and we sat out in the back yard of the duplex in lawn chairs taking turns firing that novelty revolver at a wooden fence. That day at Keith’s was a good day. I’m somewhat of a packrat and I’d collected roomfuls of stuff I didn’t need. Keith, on the other hand, didn’t have much at all, but what he did have meant everything. I admired that.

Despite the brief time I knew him, Keith’s friendship affected me, and it wasn’t until years later that I fully understood just how deeply. As I’ve become a father and grown into a man, who feels more alone in a crowded room than in my own office, I’ve thought about Keith a lot—and about how effortless it was to share his company. Lately, I’ve come to understand that human connection goes far beyond just common interests. I believe certain people are brought together for reasons deeper than we realize at the time. People are drawn together like magnets, but often tradition, different backgrounds, and the fear of what other people might think—our current social construct—encourage us to ignore that pull, and that’s a travesty.

During those liquor store days with Keith, my first daughter, Talia, was born and a few select friends and family were coming to my house to welcome her home from the hospital. I invited Keith knowing full well that some of the people there would be uncomfortable around him due to his appearance and his candor about his past. He knew it too, but he wasn’t coming for them—he was coming for me. Most of the people that came that day brought gifts. Keith did too. I can’t remember what any of those gifts were today, or more to the point, who most of those people even were, but I will always remember the small digest version of a Batman comic Keith had brought to give my infant daughter. I’d recognized it from the day we shot that antique pistol at his apartment. That book had also made top shelf status, along with the gun, because Keith’s favorite author, Joe R. Landsdale, had written it. But Keith wasn’t giving up one of his prized possessions because he was strapped for cash or because he was too lazy to go baby shopping that afternoon, he just thought it was the most appropriate gift for a baby girl I had named after the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul.

So did I.

I do remember most the folks at my house that day twisting their noses at such a bizarre gift for a baby. I also remember me twisting my nose at them.   

During the last few days I knew Keith, he was having a bit of trouble with his girlfriend and needed a couch to crash on. I was happy to let him use the one in my spare room—the room where I’d kept all my comic books. We took a few days off from the liquor store and we hung out. I drank. Keith still did not. He told me his woman wanted to head back down south to Tampa. He was spooked about going—about falling back down that rabbit hole of addiction he’d worked so hard to crawl out of, but he claimed to love that girl and didn’t want to lose her. I gave him some obligatory advice about following his heart or something equally as useless. He stayed for a week. On the Saturday morning I woke up and found him gone, there was a note on the couch in the room he’d been sleeping in that simply said:

I left you something in the cushions. Keep it away from the baby.
Your friend,

I lifted the cushions and there was that cap-and-ball Colt. I sat there for a long time still handling it with the care it deserved. I never heard from Keith again. I did however go on to read everything that Joe R. Landsdale ever wrote, moved home to Georgia, and had another daughter that I appropriately named Ivy after another one of my favorite Batman villains. Now my girls and I hit all the comic book shops here in Augusta every Wednesday when the new books come out. Although they are getting a little too old to hang with their nerd dad as much as we used to, whenever we do go, they are always curious as to why I always look around the shop as if I’m expecting to meet someone.  

I knew Keith Bell for about three months. I’ve known people for twenty years and can’t tell you their last names, or what they do for a living, or why they are in my life to begin with. My first daughter is nineteen now, and that Landsdale comic my friend Keith gave her when she was a baby has made it to her top shelf at college. I also made the protagonist in my first novel carry a Colt revolver like the one he gave me. I hope Keith reads it some day and I hope he knows why it matters.

Nothing But the Bones, Brian’s fourth novel, launches April 16th, and you can preorder here.

Brian Panowich

Brian writes books from his home in Georgia but plans to someday raise goats in Parma, Italy. He’s won a few awards. He’s lost a lot more. He also rubs his feet together like a cricket while he sleeps which is most likely the reason he is still single.