Last Night

I’m safe here. Mist seeps through a missing pane, one of his ex-girlfriend’s took it out with a right straight. Hard to imagine, I’m a lefty. I don’t want to face the night. I don’t want to walk to my car. From here, I can see it all. The letters, the addresses, the cracks in the street, the empty sidewalk of an unsuspecting town. I don’t need to be out there, they don’t need me, either. My mouth slumps.

I tell people I grew a beard out of laziness. “Didn’t feel like paying $6 for a razor.” Not quite right. I let it scrawl my face to hide the sadness of my lips. Full, pink, they receive remarks. They’re rarely perked. Twangy hairs dangle over their cracks, slip into my mouth, and with my teeth I pull. A condemned house. Overgrown. Useless.

“You have sad eyes all of a sudden, don’t be sad!” She said. There’s no hiding. What I had thought in that moment was beautiful and painful. It bares no recall – a truth whose power lives and dies in me. I stroke the hair on my chin, my eyes begin to droop.

His door locks like some found antique machine forced to life–of course it still works. I wait with the draft, with the mist.

We exit his building; his car is in front, mine a block away. We shake hands, bump shoulders, and I take flight against little wet pincers. He says something. I turn back, laugh and smile. He disappears inside his car and it’s far too late for pedestrians. I can remove my thumb from my mouth now. It’s mostly healed.

Two weeks ago I stopped a grocery store panic attack by chomping on my thumb until it bled. I wrapped it like sliced deli meat, and watched with pursed lips as my stain stuck the napkin to my finger. Too many people, too many. Shopping, doing. Being. No, not me. I can’t. I won’t. Bread, coffee, oatmeal, bananas, yogurt. I ran my fingers, one bandaged, over the paper. Focused on its crinkles. It soothed me enough to weave up and down aisles. To become.

On the corner, I wait for a sports car to droll past before crossing. There’s flecks of black in the blue line, only took 6 months. A block and a half away, a block away, half a block away, a bus charges towards its garage. The mist kneads the headlights like dough, blurs and bends them to form an electric halo. Just as I find the curb, I imagine without effort tossing myself head-first into its grates. There’s a mess, my body parts scatter. It erupts the boulevard with lights and sound. In the next moment, I’m surrounded by sterility and stiff lips. Would my hands land palms-up? Is there anybody on the bus? In the next moment, I’m gone.

Beyond the lights and self-righteous silence of the boulevard, I slink down a side-street.

Be happy, dammit.

I move with the wind, a little game I’ve played by myself since childhood. How quiet can I be? I’ve snuck up on friends without trying. Overheard terrible conversations meant for none. I’d like to quietly slip into the fluffy shadows of these hedges, but don’t have permission. I live vicariously through my own shadow. It disappears and pokes out. Grows long and short; knows the rules. I live like a shadow. But I am not literal.

Be happy, dammit.

Between two rows of crane-dropped homes, whose owners pay no mind to the magic and privilege of flipped switches, a stream of light intrudes the road and wanders with mist. Is that my car? I forget my little game and jog towards the source: a dark, almost vanished metal brick in the filtered night. It is my car. I unlock it, turn the light knob while cursing myself out, and plug the key into the ignition with bated breath. It turns on; the fan-belt squeals for a moment. It stays on. I smile for a moment, and roll towards the sign to STOP.

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Driftwood

Joe Hershank dragged from one end of the bar to the other. When he poured a glass, he’d stop to heave a sigh and stand still for a moment, collect his thoughts and start towards the other end of the bar where he’d do it again. Joe’s Place was never a town hot spot; even before most decided to leave Driftwood it catered to people trying to get away from lights, and people, and noise. Low music swirls through ceiling fans and cigarette smoke down to the bar but goes unnoticed by everybody in the bar. About 10 years ago Joe wrestled with the idea of buying a jukebox to gain some business. He was afraid his usual silent crowd would get violent if he changed the place at all, thinking they might tear the bar apart and smash the thing in, but he bought it anyway. Nobody came in. Not just new nobodies, even the old nobodies Joe counted on to make rent disappeared; the jukebox was repellent.

“I’ll give it’uh week.” On the 7th day, Joe counted his losses and got rid of the jukebox. His nephews left scratch marks on the floorboards from first trying to drag the thing out before finding a hand truck. A light that hung over the jukebox went out shortly after but Joe never bothered to fix it. He thought it was better to pretend the jukebox never existed. The usuals soon made their way back to Joe’s Place, taking their old seats and ordering their old drinks like the week never happened. Along with the men came a new person Joe didn’t recognize. Nobody in the bar did. Joe thought optimistically about it; after all he was one more drinker Joe didn’t have a week ago.

The novelty of the new patron wore off within an hour when he started talking out loud to himself. He must’ve had a few before coming in, he swayed in his seat, slurred out everything, and let his hair fall into his drink when he looked down at it. Most people in the bar looked like they drank all day but contained it out of respect for Joe’s.

“Iffit all ended tomorruh, I can’t thinkuva thing goin’ wrong” he’d say to the other perched, shoulder slumped drinkers. “Keep it all under wraps, keep it all tuh yourself. HAH!”

He threw back his drink and slammed the glass on the bar. He’d stick around for a few hours and leave, but every day he’d come back with the quiet men.

“Is’all fucked. Lookit this town. I’ma fuckin’ mess. Lookit me in this goddamn bar. Mightas well juss end the whole damn thing if this is all there is.”

Other drinkers despised him. When he spoke out to the bar they’d put their drinks to their lips, mutter curses into glasses and wash their words back with alcohol. “Fuckin’ go on’an die then”. Marshall especially didn’t give a shit about what he had to say; he was too busy figuring out how to bring some food and money home. He once owned a small general store passed down by his father, but people started turning for the city and left his cans dusty once the town felt the country’s decline. He took food from the store home when he could, ate away his profits, and eventually had to give the store to the bank. When he handed over the keys, he came closer to crying than when his father died 9 years ago. Marshall’s quiet when he drinks, a shadow on a stool; quiet at home, too.

“Jus’ shut the hell up …” Jake thought; a mechanic who lost his left hand to a rusted carjack that gave up. “The Good Lord’s gotta plan ya know. Ain’t nothin’, right hand’s fer drinkin’ anyhow. Left was for jackin’ somethin’ else!” He joked, fresh from the hospital, minutes out of a gown. Sometimes when he looked into his glass, his whiskey reminded him of the pool of blood pouring out from under the car. When he dropped it back on the bar, sometimes he thought of the hub pinning him to the ground. With his left arm hanging at his side, sometimes Jake felt his left hand firmly back in place. If he had it, he’d strangle the new stranger. He liked to look straight ahead while he drank; can’t see the drink, can’t see his accident.

“Gimme annuther.” The stranger’s demand was loud and gruff like his thoughts. Nobody listened, nobody cared. “He ain’t the only one with problems”. The stranger knew Jake’s story but without light in the bar to shine on it, forgot all about him. Jake hated his outbursts but stayed in the darkness so nobody would notice his stump, including himself.

“Yessir, the Good Lord’ll take me soon. Sure as shit. Rise me up outta this hellhole and into his Kingdom. 4 turks in and I ain’t been to piss but once. Waitin’ to get up there so I can rain down on all y’all! Hah!” Nobody flinched. Nobody said a word.

“Hey Joe, think I can tab out?” Rick was mild-mannered, thought it the best way to get the good things out of life. It was how he managed to court Desiree Beaumont, first runner up in the Ms. Driftwood pageant. She liked his bashfulness, he her smile. Their relationship was without most of the unpleasantries of an emotional couple; no arguments, no “I love yous”. Their relationship was like the town name itself; two pieces of drift wood who happened to bump into each other and float in the same direction, waterlogged. There wasn’t any passion or many words at all during sex. Their kids, created from Rick’s mechanical thrusts and Desiree’s uninspired moans were growing up to be equally emotionless in the near abandoned town.

Joe reached for a pad and slowly scribbled some numbers down. He started toward Rick and placed it in front of him. “Here ya go, Rick. Have a good one now.”

“Same to ya, Joe.”

Rick left now feeling better; he’d freed himself from the shit the new guy was spewing. Later, when Jake left, and Marshall, they thought the same thing. Joe’s was a place for silence, a place to get away from all their problems. “We’re all thinking this shit, why’s he gotta say it? What’s the pointovit?”

Joe saw the anger mounting in their faces. He knew them to be angry already, just on the verge of exploding, but this was a new look. Their faces snarled and their lips curled as they took a drink in the darkness. With the little light over their hunched bodies, they looked evil. Joe wanted the new guy out, but really he thought he was just saying what everybody thought.

“Maybe it’suh blessin’ to have somebody tellin’ it like it ought tuh be told. Hearin’ it out loud might make ’em all do somethin’ bout it.”

At the same time, Joe really regretted ever buying the goddamn jukebox.

The new voice of Joe’s Place grew, and every day he became louder and more focused on his attack against the town and himself.

“Ya’ll gon’ drink ever’day just like that, eh? Jus’ like me? Guess we ain’t too dif’rent, eh? Guess I’m jus’ yer voice you don’t wanna hear? Cheers tuh me, then, for shittin’ out the truth! HAH!

“This town’ll kill ya. Seems ever’body done figured that out and ya’ll didn’t. Just stuck here waitin’ tuh die. Hell, I’m jus’ sittin’ here doin’ the same. Better repent before the good Lord takes me tuh the clouds!”

He dipped two fingers into his whiskey and made the sign of the cross over himself. “In the name ov Driftwood, and Joe, and these holy spirits. Forgive me father, for I don’t give a shit. HAH!

Jake sighed and took a drink. Marshall stared at the stranger for a while, hearing him say “father” reminded him of his own, filling him with anger.

The stranger was loud and Joe was getting nervous. “You should leave fella.”

“How’s ’bout we all leave? This place is Death.” He slammed his glass down on the bar, reached into his pocket and slapped a 10 dollar bill on the counter. “Fuck ya’ll then. Have fun bein’ dead, alive.” With that, the stranger left. Nobody said anything but the mood reclined back to the nothingness it usually held, the nothingness of Rick’s marriage, of Jake’s darkness, and Marshall’s ill-conceived anger. Joe was pushed by the stranger’s last words, was his bar Death? He looked around at the shadows slumped over the bar with hands cupping drinks. They didn’t even resemble people anymore. If the light were on where the jukebox was, he’d probably be able to see them a little better, look at them as human.

“Night Joe.”

“See ya tomorruh, Marshall.”

“Goodnight, Joe.”

“Night, Jake.”

Joe locked up and went home. He thought for a while before deciding to take tomorrow off. Instead of opening the bar, he called his daughter who had moved long ago, before his bar turned into Death. They talked for a bit but he couldn’t find it in himself to ask her if he could live with her for a bit, just to get out of Driftwood. He eventually went back, turned the key, and watched the dust caught in the sunlight of the opened door. He looked at the scratches in the floor, the tears in the stool cushions; glanced at the yellowed piece of paper taped to the bathroom door that read “Out of Order”. Joe started for the bar, stopped, and heaved a sigh. “Ah, shit.” He thought, turned around and started out the door. He locked it up and walked back home.

“They’ll tear the damn place down.” He thought. “Let ’em.”

Joe Hershank went home and decided it wasn’t too late to start a new life, even if he had no idea what it was. He had to get away from death, from the bar, and out of Driftwood.

Crash

There weren’t many thoughts or flashing memories during it, just a spiraling car heaving into lanes as most cars avoided an alternate present.

I don’t know what happened, everything was fine. There was a puddle. I hit it, hydroplaned and jumped a curb. Jerked the wheel back to the highway. Then the spiraling. I can’t control the car anymore, it’s a lump of metal streaking around other cars. When we hit the first car, both of our heads jerked to the left, John’s cushioned by the conditioned air from the passenger’s seat, my temple colliding with the seat belt adjuster.

You’re fine, get up. You’re faking this. You’re fine.

I’m so tired.

You’re not. Get up. Get up!

“Ant? ANT!” My hands are slipping into my lap, I can feel everything draining from my body. My head slumps forward onto the wheel. No memories. No slow motion.

Nothing but darkness and my voice.

Get up! You’re fine! Stop faking!

I want to but I can’t. I’m helpless. We smash into the rear of another car, hurdling us across another lane. I just want it to stop. I just want to sleep.

My vision is closing in on me, I can only see my own lap. The road has become a mystery; I’m just not there anymore. I swear I’m trying to level my head, trying to get myself upright and get us back into a lane but no matter how much I try, the strength isn’t there. Have I given up? Inky black begins at the corner of my vision, filling up my eyes and finally taking over everything.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry, John.

“Ant? Ant are you ok? Oh shit. ANT?!”

“Imuhkay.” My eyes aren’t opening but we’re stopped. I still don’t feel anything, I can’t see anything, and John’s voice is muffled behind the intense ringing;

but we’re stopped.

“Whuhappen’d”

My thoughts are slow to the situation, every word is practiced by moving lips before uttered to John now on my left side. I can feel the breeze come through the opened driver’s door. We’re stopped.

“We hit two cars. We almost went into the swamp. Are you ok?”

I know he’s talking but I can’t hear it, I can’t understand it.

“Imuhkay.”

My eyes still aren’t open; my hands are still in my lap. I’m a prop. Without my words, I’d be dead.

“Ijus’needtuhsleep”

“No! Ant, No. Gotta stay awake man. An ambulance is coming, you’ll be fine. Just stay with me, man.”

I can’t be in too much danger. I can’t be so bad. I’ve read the stories. There’re white lights and memories. There’re pictures of everyone you love. There’s forgiveness and apologies, maybe even God. All I saw was darkness; smothering and eternal.

This voice isn’t John’s. It’s somebody else’s.

“What’s your name? Tell me your name?”

I can’t. My lips move but nothing comes out at first.

“34 Garden Court South.”

“Where are you from? What’s your address?”

“I, uhm, Ijus’needtuhsleep.”

“NO. You can’t sleep! What’s his name?”

“Anthony.” There’s John’s voice. Why won’t my eyes open. Why can’t I just go to sleep for a little.

“Anthony, listen. You can’t go to sleep. You have to stay with me. You hit my car, an ambulance is on the way. Stay with me, ok?”

“Ok.”

I can feel myself slip. I can feel the dark waves crashing over me and his pulling me back to shore. I don’t know who he is. I can’t see him. I can’t see anything. I know I’m in my car but I don’t know where we are. What did John say? A swamp? I forgot. Doesn’t matter. Darkness. The force is hard to deny, it’s relaxing. Like going to sleep. Sleep. Just a nap. We’re stopped. Sleep.

The first time my eyes open, I’m surrounded by people in white wearing masks. I can’t think. I don’t know what to. Don’t have time to. A mask is placed over my mouth and nose and I’m put back into the dark. The Nothing. Where are the memories? My family? Friends? Where’s God? I can’t be that bad.

When I come to the second time, my family and John are at the foot of the bed watching me. I’m hooked up to machines. I’m tired.

“This sucks.” They laugh. I must be ok. I fall back to the pillow again and sleep. We’re stopped.

“You suffered trauma to your head. We’re going to keep you over night and perform a CAT scan in the morning. How are you feeling?”

Everything aches. My back feels stiff, my legs are rubber. I can sit up, but barely. My eyes are open but still shifting between blurs and separated colors.

“I’m ok.”

They wake me up every 3 hours. They give me a shot and let me fall back asleep. I’m wheeled down a few floors and given a CAT scan. I have to stay still, that’s easy. It’s loud. I can still barely see.

I’m released the next day, told to take it easy for a few days and I should be fine.

I try not to think about the incident.

Whose voice was that? Was it me? Who kept me awake?

I don’t know who to thank. I don’t have a face; just voices. The one in my head.  John’s. The man we hit. I don’t have memories; just the car, my lap, my darkness. I saw my family and John, but only when my eyes were finally open. Are they open now? I think they are. It doesn’t matter. They were there. I was there. We kept me awake. I’m awake now. I don’t need sleep now. We’re stopped.

You’re okay.

I’m okay.