James Maxwell resides in Mount Vernon, NY of Westchester County. He graduated with an MA in English from Iona College. James has been writing for a long while, but has only recently started submitting his stories and poetry for publication. Previously, his work has been featured in Walking Is Still Honest, Ijagun Poetry Journal, Cease, Cows, and Indiana Voice Journal.
A Hateful Thing by James Maxwell
When I was eight years old, my father put a chainsaw through the bedroom door leaving behind a broad diagonal gash notched into the wood where the sun could shine through during the day. At night the kitchen lamp would play peekaboo with faint neon fingers, brushing away slumber dust from unsleeping eyes and fill the room with shapes shifting like the shrink and swell of drowned churches in the half shadow. It was my father's way I suppose of implementing his own sort of makeshift nightlight, though secretly my suspicion of the dark dogged my thoughts more resolutely than ever before.
I scribbled this down on the first page of an old notebook I found in my desk not too long ago but I couldn't find the words that would lead me anywhere past the darkness bit. Someone somewhere I won't bother to talk about told me once I should get more stuff down on paper. Just couldn't swing the metaphor, as they say. So that's that I suppose. But looking back, I guess it was alright with me after it happened. The chainsaw business, I mean. Funny enough, the only thing that concerned me after a time was the fact that the cut had not been fashioned more neatly, the uncertain angle more pronounced. A man who levels a chainsaw at his own bedroom door may not be much, but he is decisive and the ultimate testament to his resolve should not come off as negligent or, worse still, sloppy. Of course, with the door composed of shoddy pine and all, the wood splintered outwardly from where the chainsaw had cleaved through so that the incision resembled a jagged mouthful of deranged teeth, silent and lipless save for the constant inner glow--my own personal sliver of stolen moonlight. But damn it, if you're going to do something like that you better know what you're doing. And if somehow you know what you're doing in spite of this mad world, you better make damn sure you can do it well.
That was a long while ago and he's passed on since then. I got a wife now--Tammy, but we don't really discuss those kinds of things. I mean the past and what have you. For example, I don't tell her that I never got to ask my father about the whole saw business. Maybe she'd laugh in my face or maybe she'd cry and carry on blubbering--the hell should I know. Either way, I never asked him. And I don't mean having a sit down with him at the kitchen table like some early morning intervention demanding answers while he's sipping a steamy cup o' Joe, sugar sweet black. That would have proved too embarrassing for either one of us, cringing in the kitchen with the windows frosting up, forming slick dripping valleys of fog across the glass as snow blanketed the ground outside. I mean more of a "Gee," and maybe a sideways smirk before he left for work. Even a fragile "Listen..." cradled upon a slow rake of fingers through his long chestnut brown hair would do. Then he could lie in response to a question I never asked or crack a joke about my mother's heartbroken breaded pork chops and we'd both forget about it. Or maybe none of that matters--I don't know.
To tell the truth, I never really got to thinking about it until years after he was dead. It's just I get to feeling so crazy sometimes, like I could really do something kinda nutty like stand in the rain, kicking garbage cans and wrestling the wind like a real wild man--something that would leave Tammy standing in the doorway, mouth all glossed peach plump and wide open like she stubbed her toe on the table leg and had forgotten how to yelp. Maybe I could walk down the driveway to scoop up the morning paper in a chicken suit.
I just get real tired sometimes like my head's stuck so far up a cloud's ass that my mind's swimming in fog and gravy, just sopping up the soupy haze as thoughts fade, reverberating elsewhere like pennies thrown into a bucket. I try watching TV or reading one of many forgotten half conquered books off the dust clutched shelves in back of the house but it's like I'm viewing the same dour faces, reading the same spent words again and again and I always feel just as I had before: broken down and kinda uneasy, sort of like peeking in on a stranger sitting in your own den and farting in your favorite recliner as your wife fixes supper just out of reach in the next room.
Most days I adjunct at the community college where I shamble in to students handing me excuses as they make their way to the door. Classroom discussion often revolves around piss poor syntax and grammar drills instead of Conrad's contributions to the modern novel, though if the group is savvy, they'll allow me to careen through a twenty minute tangent before anyone raises a hand. Pay isn't too great, but the lifestyle's leisurely enough and keeps me busy most of the week besides. I'd like to imagine I'm doing some good for these kids, but who the hell knows? Truth is, if I don't expect too much of them, they won't expect too much of me and we can go on like that, an entire semester settled in our silent pact, barely existing in one another's lives outside the 75 minute sessions twice a week. You know, I even watch the girls sometimes, sweet and dumb as loquacious little lambs, but then I realize that there's just too many--you'd be a fool to even try.
It was about two years ago when I had just gone through my furious little spell and found myself out of a job that I realized I didn't know who my wife was anymore. I mean I knew who she was but I didn't know what she was about. It was like someone slipped in through her skin one night while she was lying next to me and botched up the whole works between us. A man might try to split hairs and say something like maybe it really was her--that it was the woman who wouldn't identify with him, but all the details don't add up to a whole hell of a lot in the end. And who would believe it anyway?
We used to throw these big cocktail parties back then. They weren't in competition with a Rockefeller bash or anything, but we were all such fools you couldn't help but have a ball after a while. Friends would come over with bottles of Cabernet or little packets of cheese and crackers if they were cheap and our living room transformed into a sort of carnival of crumbs and toppled champagne by the end of the evening. The weekday revelries were the finest offerings because in would walk these tight-laced doe-eyed newcomers scoffing at the thought of downing more than three beers on a Wednesday night, and by 10 or 11 they were stumbling down our front steps, most likely waking with a groan and some choice words concerning our hospitality the next morning. Back then I would find me a little corner of the room and look around at everyone drinking and chatting and joking and it felt alright to have the house full of something, you know? I mean, really bursting to the point where the heat rises up your collar to your face and the whole time the sweat is seeping and you're just grinning with a face like a baby beet.
Anyway, a funny thing happens one night. One of the couples we used to do wine tastings with were just going on and on about their daughter's first recital or something and inviting us to every affair possible as they mapped out the poor girl's childhood from start to finish. The two are just jabbering away about dresses and dance routines so I turn to shoot a sly smirk at Tammy only to spot her eyes welling up like two wads of wet cotton wedged into the sockets.
"Hey babe," I begin, sowing the seeds of something suave that I never get to finish.
"You bastard. You son of a bitch."
It's enough to put a muzzle on the couple for the time being. A hint of intrigue works wonders for conversation.
By now I'm laughing and the Seagram's, warm and syrupy on my breath, makes it seem even more hilarious until Tammy reaches out a hand and lashes a firm shot straight at my arm. Bam!
A healthy thud of bone and sinew ripples through my flesh. It actually aches for a second or two before separating from the rest of my being until it's as if the pain is hovering several inches outside my body like some throbbing phantom kept at bay.
"The hell was that for?"
"You ruin everything. Absolutely everything."
"What's that? The hell are you talking about?"
"The minute someone wants something you don't, no one can ever have it again."
"Hummmm you drunk or something, baby? I mean I--"
"FUCK YOU RAY!"
As anyone can guess, the whole room stands glaring at us with twisted grimaces and eyebrows furrowed like darkening clouds rising over the rims of their drinks. Someone yells from the kitchen that the ice machine isn't making ice.
"Tam, what the--"
"CHRIST! SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP!"
She throws the remainder of her drink in my face and scurries out of the room like some beautiful wounded creature straining against the normality of violence in an indifferent universe. Her sobs echo beyond the soft crescendo of Jungleland on the record player, snuffing out every conversation in the room and it's as if the whole house opens up wide and moans out in one long sad song. People finish their drinks and excuse themselves back into the night. It's ok with me and I figure I might as well get the couch ready before I get too tight.
I lick my lips to taste the wetness. Melted ice mixed with a hint of peach schnapps. I wonder now how long she had been gripping that glass and if she wished it more full the moment she tossed her drink at me.
I guess you could call that Ray and Tammy's last stand in the wild world of cocktail parties because that was the end of that.
Tammy tells me not long ago to find a hobby--that I spend too much time sputtering around the house getting nothing done. I just think she's sick of seeing my face but I don't say anything. Now I go to garage sales, much as a man would take to tee off at the golf course Sundays at seven.
Her eyes quick draw flashes of confusion when I inform her of this latest pursuit.
"To collect antiques," I tell her. "To gather up some real old shit."
She shrugs her shoulders."Whatever works, Ray."
So Saturday mornings I trek across the TZ to Westchester where I can bet nobody knows my face. Westchester where the rich and ritzy slinked away hundreds of years ago, seeking refuge from the travails of the Hudson Valley and sludge slouched Jersey in order to cling to the last fleeting decencies left in living and perish in the kingdom across the river. It's a land blasted clean out of a mountain of old money where nobody struggles to find a diamond in the rough--they're everywhere. All diamonds, no rough. Spires spiraling into the sky, mansions on the hill, and all that jazz. You get to wondering just who can trust a place like that. Truth is you can't. They can't even trust themselves over there. The proprietors of the old money change hands every so many years down the generation line--from grandfather to father, from father to son or daughter and so on and so forth. People get to forgetting just exactly what they own, the inventory of heirlooms eclipsed by glittering pretty things and eventually lumped into the archives that only the dead know, now locked away and buried forever. Stay in the ground long enough and you're sure to suffer the same undoing.
My pocketful of quarters rings out happy and clean like a dozen little church bells cutting through the chill in wintertime. Quarters are always a man's best asset when working the sale circuit. Introduce paper bills into the equation and everybody gets all crazy--prices for worthless crap skyrocket. Keep it simple, stupid. Better to play the part of pauper than anything else. These people are not your buddies. Eventually everything must go--any and all prices can be haggled down if you play your cards right.
Each weekend during the warmer months, lawns on every three to four blocks become havens for discarded items, the unwanted, the refuse. Sure, most in the sprawl of items have price tags on them somewhere, but none are set in stone and you can usually talk them down to about half that--maybe more.
See, there’s a constant sliding scale between monetary and sentimental value in place here, an exquisitely delicate balance that can easily be tipped in the favor of the strategic shopper. People are willing to part with most anything far below their original asking price. A simple chime of spare coins immediately diminished the significance of anything eligible for sale. That baseball bat your grandfather handed you 30 years ago? Priceless, but you'll slap a 25 dollar price tag on it anyway and then begrudgingly accept 10 as Sunday looms closer. You'll joke that you were never going into the major leagues anyway, but something inside of you will curl up tighter, releasing finally like a fist seized by a sudden twinge and a sadness will awaken as if you got stuck with spring flowers that never blossomed.
What about that coffee mug you and the missus received for your 20th anniversary, the chip in the smooth ceramic that you maneuvered your mouth around as you sucked at the sides, nursing the morning fog from your weary eyes. How long has she been gone now anyway? And that #1 Dad mug, how much to part with that? 50 cents each? I'll give you a quarter for the dad one and 10 cents for the chipped one. That's a deal, my friend. Sold. Out with the old, the cherished moments lost to the annals of time. In with the new to fill those pesky crevices left behind. It's a constant, this mass exodus of memories. Dust them off. Recite a prayer. Forget them forever. Gone.
Mostly I just go to these places and watch. They come and go--some in sunglasses, some with kids. Most come alone, shuffling up and down the aisles fingering the plastic stuffs and crates of books, occasionally glancing down at the treasures beneath the stands and between the table legs with mild disdain. These are the wanderers, blown from sale to sale with no exact destination or prized item in mind. They just tend to appear, and they arrive in mindless droves. Occasionally one will discover a guitar with a broken string destined for a coworker's son, or else an old snow globe depicting three mice siblings in blue overalls tumbling over tiny spools of thread inside a bubble of yellowing liquid and glitter sprinkles stuck to the sides of the glass. Twist the silver knob at the bottom between thumb and forefinger. Listen to Greensleeves tinker out after dinner each night, the tiny inner hammer tapping every diamond etched into the tone speckled tin. Now wouldn’t that make for a quaint mantelpiece?
Aside from the usual wanderers, every now and then one of the world's true seekers arrives on the scene, trickling in through the sidelines in sweaters or sandals as if returning from a casual hump at the neighbor's house. Each searches for a particular item of personal importance as they scour the classifieds each weekend, considering every address as if regarding the archaeological dig of a holy grail. These items include, but are not limited to: German newspapers circa 1920, chrome plated bicycle bugles, silver pocket watches resplendent with locomotive inscriptions which, functioning or not, contain salvageable inner mechanisms (the "guts" ticking away lost eternities), fisherman busts, empty milk bottles (the crystal teats from which the nation once suckled like drunkards from a flask), genuine Hawaiian ukuleles which are all flown in from China anyway, Dylan's Desire--vinyl copy, books, a slew of books: dust jackets optional, any pamphlets pre-1850, World War II rip cords.
The truth is most people don't realize the value of things they own. The truth is these people want to pay as little as possible for the items they value from those who actually value nothing. The truth is these people want to rip you off for what you're willing to give away for pennies on the dollar.
If you watch long enough, you'll see. And if you saw me I guess you would say I'm one of the wanderers. You wouldn't be wrong--what, with that vacant Saturday morning stare, the muck clods peeking out from the crowns of a few fingertips, the two day beard, the frumpy musk of marriage and unwashed sheets gone sour. All symptoms are ever present. Add in a faint coffee splotch on the left pant leg trickling over to the crotch and you have the picture of a man you've probably caught glimpse of a dozen times over, like a dent in your passenger door or the hole in an old pair of socks where your big toe pokes through.
Anyway, this particular Saturday was shaping up to be damned uneventful. I had hit up a few sales in New Rochelle and Scarsdale and now the day was winding down. I figured I could pick up a sixer of Busch or something easy on the stomach after all was said and done to possibly redeem what was left of the afternoon. I'd call Tammy and ask her if she wanted anything from the gas station. She didn't drink with me anymore, but she liked Milky Way bars. I found the wrappers crumpled up just about everywhere around the house as if we had some sad sonuvabitch conductor hobbling around our home in the after hours, punching the little brown tickets and spreading them like autumn leaves across the floor.
I guess maybe I would just surprise her.
So I pull into the final sale of the day, a little squat bungalow perched at the corner of Greenacre and Colvin. A Ford Focus and an old Dodge Caravan complete with wooden side paneling sat parked in front of the property but the driveway lay bare save for a couple oil spots saturating the cobblestone.
"Caravan in Westchester," I think to myself. "Classic."
My eyes trailed up the driveway to the open garage where a man and woman sat in lawn chairs with a cooler with a faded green top positioned between them. The two looked to be in their 40's, I assumed a couple though I guess they could pass for brother and sister just the same. Both held in their hand cans of Coke but I suspected more than soda lay crunched up cozy between the ice chips within the chilly depths of that icebox. Both looked lost at the super market and absolutely mad about that everything that surrounded them like sitting in a dark theater as a child.
The man's tucked flannel button up could barely contain the swell of his pouch behind the fabric, and it folded over in rumpled waves, concealing his belt buckle beneath a ripple of fat. His hair, though thinning, suggested he once possessed a patch of fertile turf between his ears that only recently fell into steady decline, ensuring he was still years away from a comb-over. Grey-black fuzz clung to his temples where age had steadily advanced up his sideburns to conquer the rest of his scalp in time. The woman (wife or sister) resembled a sausage stuffed into a floral casing with all her meaty, somewhat unsavory bits bulging out the sides of her sundress. It seemed as if her entire body was cascading either outwards or downwards or both. Her chin drooped toward her bust, which drooped over her stomach, which drooped off and ended in a dangling mass concealed somewhere between her legs. Man's sure got to have heart with a wife like that.
But my god. Sitting there, they seemed like the two happiest people in the world--their eyes bright and wet like dew kissed on a morning flower. It was like both were in on a joke that the world at large knew nothing about and it was the sweetest thing either had ever shared with the other, or anyone else for that matter: the gut bursting summation of all the years they had known each other contained in a single punch line. And now, alone at their own garage sale, save for one another, they could laugh, and laugh loudly at that, while the rest of mankind went straight to hell.
I decided to approach them anyway.
"Helluva day! Get much business passing through? I was just gonna have a look around."
I could see that the five tables on the lawn were completely covered in unsold items as it now neared 3:30 in the afternoon. These people either didn't want to part with anything or just didn't care about making money.
"Business has been pretty good, mister."
The man spoke with a barely noticeable slur. I was close enough to them now to smell the liquor and confirm my suspicions of a splash of rum inside that innocent can of coke. His eyes looked like slits slashed out of a side of boiled beef and all the meat clinging to his face scrunched upwards as if to escape from the broadening swell of his grin, exposing a mouthful of neat white teeth like little ivory Chiclets settled in a bog of pink mush.
"Lemme know if anything catches your eye, though my wife tends to be a bit more knowledgeable about the kitchen trinkets and whatever vanity stuff we got lying around out there."
The wife snickered at this mentioning of her expertise on stuff, her head swinging around her shoulders in nodding convulsions, her silent affirmations so sincere that I believed her neck would give out after much longer. I cracked a smile but she looked the other way.
"Sure will," I said. "Thanks."
Sure will. I wondered what it was like to watch others wade through the leftovers to the wasteland of your own life, to see and hold the things that didn't make it, the things you couldn't take with you. So you sell them so then maybe someone else can nibble on the crumbs fallen from your life which even now grow ever meager with the advent of the twilight of old age. Is there room left to consider the photo albums with no snapshots pinned within them--the bare, desolate frames enclosing cobwebs and dust, the faded and frayed patchwork quilts, the pink feather boas from that Halloween party five years ago (the martini glasses stenciled with the night's date to prove it), the lemonade scented candles, the unused steel hedge clippers, the suitcase filled with unfiled and forgotten documents, the unread books unfurled in the wind as if ghosts dragging languid fingertips across endless pages in search of a definition for life to defend in the next world? No. There is only room for little nothings which add up to bigger, more vacuous nothings and you will lie awake in bed transfixed by the terror on the walls and then all further considerations shall cease. You'll have done all you can in order to survive.
There certainly was a lot of stuff here, but nothing much good--not to me anyway. I just wanted a beer and for some reason I hoped it would rain. There were a couple of brass candlesticks Tammy might like, but I decided against it after discovering a mass of wickless wax caked up inside one, my fingerprints smudging the old brass--shadows upon sheen. I caressed the brass with a shirt sleeve but it didn't do much good and I put them back down. I've learned that if you linger too long, you're sure to suffer a barrage of aimless stories saddled upon strangers, sorrows, and other things you probably don't care about. And let me tell you, after all that you'll really be forced to buy those damned candlesticks.
I was beginning to feel a real sour mood coming on as I lost hope of ever finding anything to bring home besides a six-pack and a candy bar when I spied a bicycle leaning against the back of one of the tables closest to the house, nearly concealed by mounds of cables, about five different types of printers, and other disjointed hunks of ancient techie crap. Only a mere portion of the front tire peeked outwardly from behind the heaping plastic bone yard.
Parting the walls of junk on either side, I beheld there a quivering kernel of truth. Oh what a blue bastard!--the kind of blue that reminds you of a new car with seventeen years behind you in the rear-view mirror when you're nervous, reckless, and still unsure what the world expects of you--baby, you're magic spitfire flaring off at midnight in great goddamn golden galoshes.
I grasped the handlebars with a rejuvenated fondness for the world and pushed her a bit through the grass just to watch the wheels spin and grip to the soil. Rubber on the handles had worn through and cracked in a few places and I noticed a single bent spoke, but as it stood the bike was completely rideable and if I were a different sort of man, I would hop on, pump the pedals like mad, and never look back. The seat perched on the frame seemed to be the only eyesore on an absolute stunner of a cycle. It had cracked and split open like a dried prune and the yellow foam stuffing bloomed outwardly through the torn leather like a sallow begonia. It looked to be none too pleasant on the ass, but at least the part was easily replaced. The steel alloy chain linked throughout the cog-set strong, solid, and pushing down with my heel on the pedal, I watched the chain tug through the teeth all fluid and natural. Jesus God. Not a speck of rust. Brakes were sound even. Squeakless and clean, she stood as the woman by whom all my past loves would be presently judged.
Kneeling down to more closely inspect the condition of the down tube, I noticed what I had thought to be the worn remnants of an old decal. A dollar sign and a price I couldn't make out had been scraped back as if an afterthought. I ran a hand along the blemish like a bruise on the beautiful blue body, the pulpy white scruff still sticky to the touch.
No. This would not do.
I wheeled the bike up to the garage, an orange extension cord snaked around the stern like a Christmas bow and a box of ladies' running shoes tucked securely under one arm for the sake of appearances.
"How much I owe ya for these?"
The man and the woman looked at the bike, then at me, then at each other, then back at me.
"Oh, hey listen. Bike's not really for sale. Heh, don't know how it got there. Oh hey how about a drink?" He jabbed toward the cooler with the Coke can. "How 'bout it? You look thirsty enough heh."
"Well sure. If you don't mind. That'd be swell."
He reached an arm into the cooler and fished out a frosted mustard glass and a bottle of Gosling's Rum.
"Here. Help yourself."
I gripped the neck and popped the cork, twisting it delicately from the mouth like tugging a daisy from the soil and tipped it to my cup. The rum sloshed out a beautiful chocolate murk, coating the sides of the glass in inky velvet as the scent of cloves and licorice wafted into the air. I knocked back a stiff shot of the stuff, holding it in my mouth as I looked up at the sunshine peering through the trees and it seemed the first time I noticed such things in a long while. Soon enough that blistering orb would begin its descent through the sky, eventually settling like a coxcomb upon the horizon engulfed in a glow of firecracker burgundy as if the raw, swirling eye of Jupiter had plummeted somewhere in the west from half a billion miles off. The big things and the small things had their places after all, like having a front row seat to the end of the world as some titan planet collides with Earth, watching it with the woman you love one sweltering summer afternoon, hand in hand, as if it were just another sunset bowing over the flowers that bloom in the valley after dusk.
I wondered then if that were not the most hateful thing--to not care, to be inside someone else and have them be inside you and not give a hoot for seeing the sun rise on another day. Something Joni Mitchell said about touching souls.
What a hateful thing. Not to remember.
I handed the man back his rum. He dug through the cooler, finding a second mustard glass, this one sporting the imprint of a cheetah faded to the color of phlegm. He lobbed a fistful of ice into the glass and filled it half way to the top. I didn't see the need to put on airs with all this added ice--the chilled rum held well enough on its own. But you know. Some people.
"Hum...so bike's not for sale you say?" I spoke, smacking my lips with confident satisfaction.
"Oh no. I'm sorry. I just don't know how it got out there."
"Huh. Only asking 'cause it looks like there's an old price sticker on the tubing here," I said, gesturing to the sticker. "Couldn't just work something out?" I patted my pocket. "Sure I got enough cash."
The man placed his coke down beside the cooler and, interlocking his hammy fingers, gazed down into his empty palms as if he held there something both sad and profound hidden far from the rest of the world. "I'm sorry mister. It can't be sold."
His fingers fluttered free from the clenched mausoleum knuckled tight in his lap and he drank from his drink, slurping loosely around the aluminum edges so that a thin brown vein dribbled down his chin and trickled off a drop that dripped into the dividing V formed by his open collar. His wife sat silent and still for the first time since I arrived.
"Ah not a problem, friend. How much I owe ya for the cord and shoes?"
"Oh, ahhhhh make it 3.75."
"Can't argue with that. Here's four. Don't worry about the change. Can't stand carrying it around."
He took the bills with one hand and sipped from his can with the other. "Oh uh sure," he gargled out, his mouth half full of liquid. "Well, thanks. Thank you."
I turned and uncoiled the orange cable from the handlebars of the bike and heaped it over my shoulder like a tangle of neon noodles. I took a few steps and stopped, feeling around for the lump in my pocket. I flipped open my cell and glided my thumb across the tops of the keypad in a pantomime of a phone call and raised it up to talk.
"Honey?" I began walking again and paused as I neared the end of the driveway. "Hey. No, not too bad. Got some stuff. Yeah. I got a cord we can use for the television and I found a pair of shoes if you wanted to try them on. No...no. Brand new. How do I know? Because I know."
I turned and faced the garage, not noticing the two still sitting there and pretended to study some far off thing past the house as I scrunched up my face and stared out into the sky. "Yeah, yeah. So I saw a bike for Jordan. Yeah, I know he needs a bigger one. This one is a bigger one. They told me it's not for sale. Yeah, he said no. Yeah, well I don't know."
The cold dead sound of nobody and nothing clung to the end of my ear like a crab in the darkness and suctioned the words out from behind my lips all caked up and gummy like bubbles being blown out of putty.
"Hold on, Hun. Yeah, I'll call you back." I dropped the phone back in my pocket. "Hey again."
"I don't mean to sound nosy," his voice snorted out raspy, like something withered and old. "But you have a boy?.....A son?"
"Oh yeah, I was just telling my wife..."
"You wanted that bike for your boy?"
"I did but if it's not for sale, no worry."
"What's his name?"
"Jordan. Turning 10 next month. Good kid."
The man lifted his drink to his mouth, but finding only ice lashing numb against his tongue, set the glass atop the cooler and shuddered a cough into the crook of his elbow. His whole body seemed to creak and crack as he eased himself back farther into the chair and it almost seemed as if he didn't possess the strength or sobriety to pour himself another drink.
And now there would not even be that comfort.
"That bike belonged to our boy. A long time ago. In his younger years of course."
"It was his bike before he passed."
"Oh gosh, I'm so sorry."
"He went so strangely....so strangely. Not even anything. Not even a note."
He broke off, making a sound like someone inhaling a cough and then hacked into his elbow again--three, four, five times. I could see when he was finished that his eyes were wet. He turned to his wife but she stood up and toddled into the house through the back of the garage, wiping her face on her sleeve and closing the door behind her.
"Sorry," the man said. "We've tried selling Connor's bike three or four times now. We just don't have any place to keep it and she can't bear to look at it sitting there. But every time we go to put it out, we just end up keeping the damn thing and...."
"And...I just don't know."
The words dribbled out slow and syrupy. Little curds of white spittle clotted up in the corner of the man's mouth. I was close enough to count the buttons on his shirt but now it seemed a great gaping chasm opened up between us, the suction from its depths tugging at our very ankles even now. Surely we would both be swallowed up.
I stepped back.
"Listen man, I..."
"What? Hey listen..."
"25 and you can take it. I just don't want it anymore."
I dug out my wallet and split the leather bill cradle with thumb and forefinger.
"Ahhhh, shoot. Only got a 20."
By the time I lurch out of Pope's Tavern with the last few goodbye pints sloshing at the sides of my belly, the day has gone all shadows. I grasp my keys and instantly regret the hassle that last drink could buy me. Then again, I didn't have far to go and had at least already crossed back over the bridge. But ah shucks. I'd really get pinched if they nabbed me after last time. Then I remember.
The bike! The goddamn bike in the backseat! It would be like staging an adventure--no, an expedition even, down to the gas station for a couple 22's saddled on my crystal cool aquaplane before embarking on the long, treacherous pilgrimage home with only feeble streetlamps and the mad envious swerving of oncoming headlights to mark the way. I could always scoop up the car with Tammy tomorrow.
The night's course lay mapped out before me. A few stretches of backstreets paired with a single stop and I'd be home free.
I drag the bike from the car, extension cord still wrapped around the handlebars, but I'm too wound up to bother removing it. I spring onto the bike, flopping around a bit at first, but then the rhythmic pumping trickles back to my leg muscles, propelling me forward into the dusk that draws me into its breast on every side.
And there’s nothing in between.
After a while I can sense the exhaustion tightening up in my flank, but I've got to carry on. Come on you big beautiful blue bastard, you. Hold me steady. Keep me ever always with nothing in between. At least the seat wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. Felt kinda like sitting on a bubble that didn't give. I traverse the sidewalks, avoiding the sewer grates by the rise of the curbs when I cross the street and the night reels and rocks before me and I am on two wheels with nothing separating me from the swell of raw darkness and ah damn I left the shoe box in the car, but I guess Tammy couldn't miss what she didn't know she had. I figured I should at least call her.
I'm three rings deep and about to hang up but then:
"Hello?" Her voice sounded drowsy and far away.
"Hell-hello?....HELLO? Who is this?....HELLO?" I could picture her back arching in a mounting rage, like a cat after a swift tug on the tail.
"Tammy! I got this bike! It's hell on wheels! It's..."
"Ray?....Are you drunk?" As usual, she slashed my enthusiasm right off at the knees.
"Ahhh no! Just listen. This bike, Tam, it's so goddamned gorgeous and..."
"Jesus. We talked about this."
I feel as if I can barely hear her, all the words muffled as if being funneled from somewhere underwater.
"No, hello? You aren't listeningm Hun. Listen, listen listen."
"I'm so sick of listening. Just one night, Ray. Just. One. Goddamned. Night."
I hear something like the sound of the phone being dropped on the other end, but when I look at my phone I see that the timer on the screen has stopped counting the seconds.
The sky is so black and I can't tell if it looks like it's going to rain or not and I hope that it isn't going to pour all over me and my baby as we make our way back home. Luckily the weather holds out and soon enough I catapult into the parking lot. There’s a neon open sign shining in the window next to an advertisement for Virginia Slims as well as the numbers for the New York Jackpot surrounded by a glowing deluge of gold coins. 54 million and counting. Not too shabby.
I pull up to the door and try to hop off but my pant leg gets caught on a pedal and I plummet onto the cement, ripping the leg of my khakis as the bike tumbles on top of me. My palm shreds against little pieces of broken glass and pebbles freckling the ground. I curse the pedal, I curse the cement, I curse my khakis.
People standing next to pumps that line the station like gravestones eye me without worrying about being too obvious about it and then turn back to watch the dispenser digits whirl rapid-fire as they funnel their paychecks away into an empty gas tank. I walk the bike over to a rack by the side of the store entrance and tie the bike to a rack with the extension cord using an obscene tangle of knots and just hope nobody would be shitty enough to steal it.
God, that would be shitty.
The tiny bell chirps to life as I enter under the store lights. There aren't any decent six-packs so I grab three 22's of malt and just want to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. The bottles feel smooth and cold in my hands and one sticks a bit in my oozing palm. I almost forget the Milky Way, so I grab one and then I collide with an end cap of jerky and nuts on the way to the counter. A bottle smashes on the floor and now bags of cashews and pecans lay swimming in the boozy foam.
My mind flat lines numb. I nestle my other 22's atop the end cap between the Slim Jims and bend down, pecking at the floor with the tips of my fingers to somehow clean up the mess. My blood mixes with the foam, swirling into a light pink froth so that it looks someone spilled a strawberry shake across the tile.
"No, no sir!" the clerk cries out, nearly tripping over himself as he bolts from the plastic box that house the cigarettes and the cash machine. "No, please sir! Please step back!"
I'm standing over the murky salmon colored slurry while my digits leak all over the place. You'd half expect me to drop to my knees and start lapping the muck up, I'm so damned sorry looking.
"My fault," I mumble, half humored at all this mess over booze and a candy bar.
When I come home, the house is all dark and my head is throbbing something terrible. My hand is wrapped up in a paper towel the cashier hands me before ringing up my items and then asking me to leave. The towel is all clotted up the color of rust now and when I pull away from the handlebar, a little remains behind like tiny brown bits of matted fur—like what happens when you wipe your ass with cheap toilet paper.
In my other hand, I clutch the night's catch, afraid now to drop anything else lest I can't at least salvage what's left of this miserable evening. Tammy would be mad no doubt. Couldn't hold it against her. But, hoo boy, wait until she saw this little piece of heaven I brought home! Maybe she wouldn't be so sore after all.
I pull up to the driveway and let it collapse on the grass. I rap on the glass and then glance back at the bicycle sprawled across the front yard like a dead dog. The cable's still attached and all I can picture is a bright orange umbilical cord uncoiling and snaking through the soil. A sprinkle of wetness lands on the back of my neck and shoots a shiver down my spine.
"Honey?" I bang again, harder this time. "Tam? I got something nice for ya here! Chocolate too!"
No answer. Wished I'd gotten around to fixing the goddamn ringer. I press it anyway just in case, but no dice.
More droplets splash upon my exposed skin.
"Come on Tammy. Let me in. I'll explain everything. You sleeping or something? Come on, man. Getting damn cold out here."
A rumble of thunder resounded from somewhere not so very far off and here I was lingering like an idiotic ape outside my own home. I knock again, quickly, with more force.
Suddenly, I imagined the garage sale man's dead son, spying on me somewhere, eyeing closely the crimson streaks I dragged across the chrome of his childhood's souvenir that now lay abandoned on a stranger's lawn in the falling rain.
Something inside fractures. A twinge tremors in the pit of my stomach.
"Tammy! Goddamn it! Tammy! Open this damn door! I got us something! Something for our baby boy! You know he's getting just as big as his father! TAMMY!"
I can't be sure which comes first, the peal of thunder arising from the lightening shank that splinters all across the sky or the sound of shattered glass from when my fist punches through, but the sounds somehow blend together in a chaotic rattle and it doesn't even make a difference anymore. I pull my mangled hand back through the jagged little hole and it dangles numb at my side and I know I can't bear to look at it now so I don't. A porch light flickers on at the house across the street and a car alarm echoes down the road, but I don't see anyone peeking out any windows. Thank god. All's I need now is someone calling in an attempted burglary to the boys in blue to throw a grand conclusion on the evening.
The sky's belly ruptures all of a sudden and the rain comes pouring down and I reach out with my good hand to try and force my way in. The knob twists easily in my palm and I enter into the kitchen.
Goddamn it. Unlocked the whole time.
I'm home but it's as if someone let the night in and now it had no place else to go. The cool air and the static smell of rain drift in through the broken glass. I remember the bike and have an urge to run out and get it but the storm's picked up so badly now I'd be soaked before I made it two steps.
And now there would not even be that comfort.
The note on the table reads, "Sleeping at my mom's. Don't wait up. - Tam"
There's a finality to it all that prevents me from welling up and instead I pull up a chair and sit down. The droplets trailing across the kitchen tile suggest something sinister like the drippings from some drifting marsh. I perch my arm upon the warm sticky pool trickling across the table and twist the first beer in the crook of my elbow as it hisses, snake-like, back at me.
Later on before bed, I eat the Milky Way and get sick in the sink.