JOHN W. DENNEHY - DESPAIR
John W. Dennehy is an American novelist and short story writer. He studied creative writing at UNC Wilmington. His novels include Pacific Rising and Clockwork Universe. John's stories have appeared in Dual Coast Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Calliope, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and many more.
Terrance returned to the shabby motel in the evening, exhausted from a long day at the jobsite. A grim makeshift dwelling for itinerate workers, it sagged with a rickety balcony overlooking the decrepit parking lot. The siding was asbestos, a permanent dark blue.
He pulled his antique BMW to the side of the parking area, hoping to avoid dents from drunks. Once paved, the macadam was now a mixture of asphalt, chunks of tar, and dirt. Mostly it was dirt.
Ascending the stairwell to the second floor, Terrance stood a lean six feet tall and took the steps two at a time. Melancholy clung to him like his sweaty t-shirt. He also wore dirty jeans and work boots. The building trim and handrail were painted white but were faded and flaky.
When he reached the landing, Terrance wiped hair from his eyes, brown and artsy long. A few old chairs were scattered on the balcony. Some had been pulled from rooms and smelled musty. Old Harold sat squished in a chair. His saxophone lay on the deck, and a sheaf of music rest on his portly abdomen.
“How you doing?” Harold said, waving. Nearly blind, his dark eyes only looked generally in Terrance’s direction.
“Good,” Terrance replied. “How about yourself?”
Harold smiled kindly. “Been better, but I’m doing okay.”
“Didn’t clean up down at the intersection today, huh?”
“Nope.” Harold grinned. “People just don’t appreciate fine jazz nowadays.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Terrance shook his head.
“Well, not enough to make a contribution,” Harold said. “If you know what I mean.”
Terrance shrugged. But Harold’s eyes didn’t seem to follow. “I guess not,” Terrance agreed. “But this might not be the best city for it, either.”
“It’s not New York for sure.”
“I was thinking Memphis,” Terrance said. “Memphis would be better for business.”
Harold nodded. “Sure, sure would,” Harold agreed. “But how am I going to get there. You going to drive me?”
“You have a point.”
“Well, maybe you could think about downtown,” Terrance offered. “More people are inclined to stop and pay tribute on a sidewalk than at an intersection.”
Harold laughed and slapped his leg. “Pay tribute,” he repeated. “That’s why I like you boy.” He smiled. “Pay tribute,” he said again, shaking his head slightly.
“I’m just saying …”
“No, I hear you,” Harold said. “I’m not complaining. Doing just fine right here. Greensboro is just fine. But I could’ve done a little better today.”
Terrance reached into his pocket. He pulled out a couple of dollars and tossed them into the saxophone case.
Terrance smiled and headed for his room. The lock stuck, so he rattled the knob and jimmied the door open. He entered and found the room stuffy. Management had stopped by and turned off the air conditioner while he was at work.
He stepped over to the window unit and cranked it on. The air conditioner rumbled to life, metal and plastic rattled incessantly. Terrance shook his head. “What a dive,” he muttered.
Then he flipped on the outdated television, and turned the volume up.
A news program came on. He heated up a microwave dinner, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels off the counter, and then plopped on the couch. The local coverage dealt with economics and crime. None of it mattered in his transient life. Muscles aching, he drank enough to numb himself to sleep.
Terrance woke groggily. The mattress was too soft, cheap and old. He sat up and dangled his legs over the edge of the bed, thinking just another month and he’d move on. A pack of Marlboros lay on the nightstand near a Bic lighter. He grabbed them. And then he pulled on a t-shirt, hanging halfway to his boxers.
He walked into the kitchen, bones aching. His muscles were fatigued after three months of steady construction work. His head swirled from the booze, and his stomach felt nauseous.
Slipping a cigarette into his mouth, he flicked the lighter and thought about the prospect of facing another day in the hot sun. He had relished the release from papers and grades at first. But now going to the jobsite was worse than class. At least in college he could sleep in. The buildings were air conditioned and no heavy lifting was required.
He took a long drag and reached for the coffee pot. Looking it over briefly, he didn’t feel like making any. Terrance poured a small bowl of cereal to settle his stomach. Then he slid on his jeans and work boots and stepped outside. The balcony was quiet except for a woman leaving the unit at the end. Harold’s chair was empty. His saxophone was nowhere to be seen.
Terrance descended the stairwell and slid into his BMW. He drove to a nearby Crispy Cream for coffee. Bought two and then quickly headed over to an apartment complex. He picked up a married worker, Rick.
Rick sat slouched with the coffee perched against his pot belly. “This car is immaculate,” Rick said, looking it over.
“Thanks,” Terrance said flatly, trying to brush it off.
“How did you come by it?”
“Uh,” Terrance mused. “Got it a while back.”
Rick glanced at him skeptically.
“How are you doing?” Terrance said, after an awkward moment.
“Well, you know,” Rick said. “Morning comes early.”
They both grinned.
“So, why are you even working construction?”
“Same as you,” Terrance offered. “Need the money.”
“Naw, I’m saying … a smart kid like you could be doing something more,” Rick said. “You know, work in an office.”
“They don’t hire dropouts,” Terrance replied. Then he turned up the volume on the stereo, and the discussion fell off. He mashed the accelerator and the car sped up.
Terrance whipped around the last tight turn leading to the jobsite. Clenching a handgrip on the door, Rick couldn’t conceal his fright of the intense speed. The car stereo blared, and Terrance felt power from the racing car and loud music; it pumped through his veins. Pushing the car to its limits made him feel like he had some control in his life.
He pulled the car over to the side of the road, near a lot where a house was being built. Most of the other workers had pulled through ruts into the work area. But they either drove jalopies or heavy duty trucks.
Rick and Terrance piled out of the car and strolled over to the worksite. Having a pot belly and stubby legs caused Rick to drop a few paces behind. They were late. Everyone else had already tossed their coffee cups and begun working.
Terrance saw Gerald the foreman glaring their way.
“Good evening ladies!” Gerald barked at them.
They stretched it out and Rick fell even further behind.
As they picked up the pace to a slow trot, workers jeered at them through windows and open beams. Some nodded in appreciation. Terrance suspected they’d heard the screeching tires.
Splitting up, Rick headed for a trench he was digging behind the house. Terrance went around the side and climbed up a rickety ladder, a makeshift device serving as steps. He went into the room framed for a kitchen and walked over to the spot where he’d left his tool belt. It was gone.
At first he thought someone had filched it. But then he realized that Bobby Lynn was getting some payback. Terrance looked around for him. Typically, he was easy to spot because of his emaciated body from smoking too much reefer. He expected to see Bobby Lynn’s slender mug pop between two studs with a wide grin, revealing his crooked, yellowed teeth.
But Bobby Lynn wasn’t anywhere in sight.
Terrance thought for a bit. Then he went out back and began climbing a ladder to the roof.
His thighs ached, so he climbed the ladder slowly. Terrance glanced over at his car. He remembered getting it as a present for graduating prep school in New Hampshire. The brittle rungs chaffed his hands. He thought about how things had gone wrong. Beginning with the girl, and then dropping out of Duke.
When he reached the roof, Terrance barely noticed the shingles were damp. Lost in thought, thinking of how his blue blazer was exchanged for a grubby t-shirt. The striped tie traded for a tool belt, and stone chinos for jeans. Penny loafers switched to work boots. He saw his tool belt perched on top of the chimney, and started up the steep hip roof. One hand holding the soffit trim of a dormer.
His eyes focused on the tool belt, while his mind drifted to thoughts of the girl, then his feet began to slide. Terrance slipped downward fast. He churned his feet. At the edge of the roof, he essentially ran in place. Still holding the soffit, he pulled hard, while the other hand grasped at the roof, finding only air.
Suddenly there was traction, and he began to ascend the roof. He saw a few guys looking up at him, their mouths agape.
“His feet spun around like a cartoon character,” Mickey said.
“He grew claws,” someone added.
Terrance didn’t pay them any mind. He was unfazed about almost tumbling two stories below. He continued upward. He knew the other guys saw him as different. Most were high school dropouts; he had dropped out of a prestigious university, and it wasn’t because of his grades. Then he slipped again.
Sliding down the roof, he tightened his legs and heard the eerie dispatch of grit breaking loose from the shingles. He dropped to the roof deck and skidded a little further. Then he got up and slowly ascended to the ridge.
Terrance treaded across the peak and thought about his peers. He’d worked hard to gain their respect. At first he’d drawn a lot of flack. He had been weak and limber. But the work toned up his muscles. He learned to stifle their sarcastic remarks with his wit. Eventually, he understood they had an appreciation for hard drinking, hard work, and reckless driving.
Leaning against the chimney gave him a bird’s-eye view of the site. He put on his tool belt. Early morning had begun sunny and bright, but in typical southern fashion, dark clouds moved in fast and unexpectedly. A clap of thunder.
Sprinkles began to fall, dampening the work area. Looking down from the highest peak, Terrance felt despair hanging overhead with the dark clouds. Below, the workers hurried around grabbing sheets of plastic. They covered the lumber and prepared for the storm. Most had a skip in their step. Enough long days had already earned them a full week’s pay, so knocking off early on a Friday was a welcomed relief. Moving about like worker ants, they scurried around in joy. But Terrance was not enthused; he’d rather put in the time. A lonely room awaited him.
He looked down at the soaking dirt. Scanning the piles of construction debris scattered about the site, he took it all in: plastic soda bottles and foam fast-food containers were mixed with strips of tar paper and bits of sheet rock; the bulk of the piles were comprised of discarded pieces of lumber and siding. A few domestic beer cans made it into the heaps. Cigarette butts were strewn everywhere, dotting the jobsite.
The lumber being stacked and covered was the only benevolent thing below. With neatly cut edges and the concern that it was always afforded, the lumber brought him a pleasant feeling. Reminded by the scent of freshly sawed wood, he breathed in heavily. Terrance felt humid air enter his lungs.
The pinnacle of the scene below was the kiosk in the corner of the lot. Terrance avoided using the chemical toilet at all costs. He marveled at how some workers could use the dank little chamber like they were at home. And others went in there to get some help through the day.
The rain got stronger and saturated his t-shirt. Workers below wrapped things up more quickly, paying less attention to detail. Terrance carefully descended the roof to the worksite below.
The lumber covered and tools put away, Gerald handed out paychecks in the framed-in garage. Then everybody scurried through the drizzling rain to their vehicles. Rick plodded off with another married worker. By the time Terrance reached his car, everyone had left. Some peeled out in disregard for the slippery roads.
Inside the car, Terrance turned the ignition and the old BMW sputtered. He pumped the gas pedal and tried again. The engine roared to life. He let the car idle for a moment and turned on the stereo and windshield wipers.
He slowly pulled onto the road and executed a perfect three-point turn. Then he headed back down the road he’d taken earlier. Only now he poked along instead of speeding recklessly.
He took his time going home. Mainly because the dingy motel room was desolate. Other guys had reason to race home. Some had families. The rest were kicking up weekend partying early.
As Terrance drove, the rain broke into a heavy downpour. A cloud of gloom slipped over him. He felt regret. While the rain pelted the windshield, and the wipers squeaked back and forth, everything seemed hazy. He felt as though he was in a dream; it seemed like he was just coasting down the road. Nothing appeared real. A chimerical trip.
The car drove itself. Entering the city, it felt like the little BMW started and stopped at red lights on its own. Terrance functioned on reflex; no conscious thoughts. He felt trapped in a void, distinct from the rest of the world. Alone.
Even though everything seemed unreal, Terrance knew if he swung the wheel hard, the car would swerve into a brick building. The sheet metal would crunch and bricks would pop loose. His front end would cave in. There would be broken bones, jaggedly piercing his skin, tearing through his jeans. Blood would spatter about the compartment. And the pain would most definitely be excruciating, and real. The dream would end; his bubble burst.
The macabre image caused him to ponder a dark reality. If he died, nobody would care.
Stopped at a light, his despair slipped away momentarily. He gazed over at some girls in a Honda. One of them slipped out her tongue, glided it around her lips, and then she blew him a kiss. For an instant his concerns seemed far away. He flashed an approving grin. The uplift made his surroundings seem tangible again.
Terrance tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of music. The dark cloud of his misery ebbed. The rain let up and the car rolled along.
As he turned into the motel parking lot, Terrance realized that he hadn’t lost the dark cloud. Despair loomed above the motel. It lingered there, almost waiting for him. The dingy hovel seemed to mock him.
He turned off the ignition. The image of the filthy construction site came to mind. For a moment, he pondered about his working conditions compared to people who finish college. Depression entangled him.
Terrance opened the car door. The rain had stopped, but the ground was saturated. Humid and getting warmer as the sun poked through clouds. Flipping the driver’s seat forward, he reached into the back for a large, black duffle bag. Terrance hauled it off the seat and drew it over his shoulder. He locked the car and headed for the stairs.
His valuables were packed in the bag. Terrance typically brought it to his room at night, except when he was too tired or drunk to bother. Most days he lugged it to the car, leaving it in the trunk or on the backseat while he worked. When he reached the balcony, Terrance felt lightheaded.
He shuffled along the porch. The edges were wet, but most of it remained dry, protected by the building. As he expected, the rain had driven Harold from his post at the intersection. He lay in a chair fast asleep. The saxophone was in its case on the plank flooring nearby.
Terrance quietly stepped past, reaching for his keys. He opened the door and felt cool air permeate from the passageway. It smelled moldy.
Stepping inside, he cut on the light and walked across the room. He heaved the bag onto the bed, and then he went to the small kitchen area and fished around for a glass in the cupboard. A fresh bottle of whiskey sat on the counter. Not quite noon, he poured half a glass, and took a seat by the window.
On days like this, he usually sat on the balcony and listened to Harold’s yarns. But today he preferred the solitude. Terrance peered out the window and saw Harold slouched in the chair. His belly rose and fell peacefully in a tranquil stupor.
Terrance gulped down the whiskey and then lit a cigarette. He set the empty glass on a windowsill. He took a few drags and looked outside. Nobody else was around. Terrance got up and poured another glass of whiskey. He drank it greedily, then sat down and took a few more drags from his cigarette.
While he nursed the rest of the whiskey, his mind came back to the girl. She was an attractive sister of a prep school friend. At the time, he had been seventeen and she was much younger, but seemed mature.
Turning to the window, he saw Harold growing restless. The woman a few units down walked by his room. She peered inside, but Terrance ignored her. His thoughts stuck on the girl. Blonde with blue eyes. He’d realized her lack of experience immediately. She didn’t handle it well.
Harold sat up and looked towards Terrance. He seemed to want company.
Terrance closed the drapes and focused on the bottle. Hours ticked by slowly. He eventually passed out slumped in the chair. Later, he startled awake with the vision of her blue eyes imprinted upon his mind. A bead of sweat ran down his face, despite the air conditioning. He reached with the back of a hand; his hairline was saturated.
Sitting up, Terrance felt dizzy. His equilibrium was off, disoriented.
He leaned back and looked around. The whiskey bottle was strewn on its side, empty. He had a smoke. Then he started to do what he’d begun many times.
Terrance walked to the bed feeling muddled. He grabbed the duffle bag, slid it over, and unzipped the main compartment. Reaching in deep, he fished around and grabbed hold of his 9mm Beretta.
Terrance calmly walked to the bathroom. He felt numb. His body was limber and everything appeared surreal. The walls and fixtures seemed blurry and indistinct. The pistol in his hand was the only thing with weight.
He stepped into the tub. Then he glanced at the mildewed tile and the scum around the drain. Sitting down he clicked off the safety and brooded over his misgivings: the girl, dropping out of college, always disappointing his parents. He was desperately alone.
He raised the pistol, opened his mouth and slid the barrel in. The metal was cold and the weapon felt awkward, clanking his teeth.
Terrance closed his eyes. A bead of sweat ran down his forehead. He took a deep breath. The despair that consumed him seemed to entangle his lungs, so he inhaled again. The air was thick and heavy. His numbness was a buffer to fear.
Then he slowly squeezed the trigger.
His body slammed back in the tub. Skull striking tile, the pain was extreme. Terrance screamed out in agony. Heart racing, his pulse quickened. Breathing heavily, he glanced at the pistol. Despair slipped away, replaced by relief.
He sat in the tub, trembling. Shaking.
A while later, he climbed out of the tub and slinked toward the kitchen. A bottle and a half of whiskey sat on the counter. He could use a drink. Ambling over, he rummaged in the cabinet for a glass. Twisting off the cap, he glanced at the amber booze.
He started to pour, and then dumped the glass in the sink. Emptying both bottles down the drain, he sighed. Glass rattled when he tossed them in the trash. Terrance looked up. Daylight broke through a gap in the curtains, partly illuminating the dank room.
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