Of all the comic book shops in Pensacola, the dingy, sprawling Future Visions was the one that best suited me. 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 in someone’s garage than 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 just begging to be rifled through and there were always a few seedy looking characters huddled by the racks of new releases and 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. I loved that 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 spent most of his life in transit. He was wearing a George Romero t-shirt and I’d never seen him around the shop before. Within the first few minutes of that initial chat, I found out Keith was from South Florida. He knew everything there was to know about zombie movies, and he was a recovering alcoholic—with the AA logo tattoos on his forearms to prove it. He also really needed a job. At the time, I was tumbleweed myself and currently working as a clerk in a liquor store, so of course I offered the alcoholic stranger a job peddling booze with me. I know what you’re thinking, but it turned out to be a great idea because my recovering alcoholic boss liked him and offered him a job. Keith took it. There’s some truth to the term, “Keeping your demons close.”
Keith and I hung out, mostly after work. I drank. He didn’t. He told great stories, mostly about the crazy stuff 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 others and was trying to come to terms with it. He just knew how to tell a story worth listening to. He told me on 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—rented a small duplex not far from the beach. I only visited their place once. The apartment wasn’t much to speak of, just a futon, some shabby furniture, and a few candles. Only the bookshelf in the living room held any real personality. Keith had the shelves stocked with Lucio Fulci DVDs, 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 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.
During the brief time I knew him, Keith’s friendship affected me in a way that I would never fully understand until years later. Lately I’ve been thinking about Keith a lot—and about how effortless it was to share his company. I’ve come to understand all this time later that human connection goes far beyond just common interests. I believe people are brought together for reasons deeper than we realize at the time.
Toward the end of those liquor store days with Keith, my first daughter, Talia, was born and a few 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 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, because Keith’s favorite author, Joe R. Landsdale, wrote 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 I had named after the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul.
So did I.
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. I took a few days off from the liquor store and we hung out. I drank. He didn’t. He told me his woman wanted to head back down south. 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 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.
I lifted the cushions and there was that cap-and-ball Colt. I sat there for a long time staring at it. 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 the Book Exchange here in Augusta as often as we can and although they are still a little too young to appreciate the dust-covered long-boxes, they are always curious as to why I tend to look around the shop as if I’m expecting someone.
I knew Keith Bell for about three months. I’ve known people for 20 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 13 now, and that Landsdale comic my friend Keith gave her when she was a baby has made it to her top shelf. 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 smiles.
Article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.