Living through each empty night, a deadly calm inside. Fleetwood Mac
On this, the longest night of my life, I no longer feel anything. Well, thats not entirely accurate, I feel a hollowness where emotion is supposed to be. Dont call it depression, Im not depressed, depressed is an emotion, this is complete nothingness. The world could explode in front of my face and I wouldnt bat an eyelash
unless it exploded brightly, then Im sure my reflexes would close my eyes. This lack of anything emotional alone would be enough to make this night seem long, but the real reason tonight is the longest night of my life is even simpler: its my last.
They say that right before you die your life flashes before your eyes. I assume the flashing part is just like throwing the tape into fast forward to get it all done before the semi finishes getting through your engine block. In my case, Ive been aware of the semi barreling down on me for 15 years, so Ive had time to review my life in all its glory. The full, unedited, extended edition, directors cut. In fact, its been the only show in town, and I always seem to get front-row tickets. Just once, Id like to see them throw a different film up by mistake, I dont even care which one. The best I get, however, is a close examination of a different part of my life. The film seems to stick, rewind, and replay a scene over and over. Which scene theyll pick is the only variety I get.
Over the years, a few scenes they like to pick have begun to stick out, and because Ill never get another chance, literally, Ill write them down now in a generally chronological order.
Scene One: Its always been in the back of my mind, though it seemed like nothing when it happened. My dad came home, as usual he was drunk off his gourd. The minute I saw his headlights through the window, I hurried my younger sister off to bed. My mother tried to shoo me off too, but I was bigger then her, and nearly as big as him. I wanted it to be me. My dad didnt come home very often, he had other beds with other bodies to keep him warm. He kept a steady job, and the money came here, he followed it when his money ran out.
He busted through the door, following its swing and almost landing on the floor. Ellie, theres a damn bike in the driveway, he growled out. Now I knew it had to be me. He always found something to get angry about in these moods, but tonights was my fault and I was gonna take it. That grumble likes to replay on my mental movie screen: Ellie, theres a damn bike in the driveway. My mother brushed past me, trying to say something to calm him down, trying to help him up off the door knob. I should have tried to stop her, but I was too slow. When she reached out a hand to steady him, he reached out a hand of his own. Suddenly, she was the one on the floor, crying and holding a hand to her cheek. He pulled himself up, looked down at her and I spoke. He was tensing up for something, and I wasnt gonna wait there to find out what.
Its my bike. I figured it would be best to have some sort of a vehicle in the driveway. You know, so its not left unused.
It worked, his attention was now focused solely on me.
Whatdjoo say boy? He was clean shaven, his hair messy, but not overly so. His eyes though, they were the give-away. He was a good looking guy, and he knew it. He knew that when the bars closed, hed have a place to stay, and he worked to make sure it stayed that way and kept him away from where we lived as much as possible.
His bloodshot eyes focused, as well as they could, on me as he stepped over my mother.
I asked you a queshun, boy.
I said, speaking noticeably louder, I figured a bike was better than nothing. I had a longer speech in mind, but my bravado was beginning to wear thin. As he got closer, he seemed to tower over me. I could smell alcohol coming off his skin, out of his mouth. He took a last step, looked like he was going to fall, and suddenly I found myself on the ground. His damn fist, it always seemed to come when I least expected it. But almost as quickly, I was back on my feet, and my own fist flew through the air. It took him down, but Im not sure if it was the alcohol, the strength of my hit, or just the surprise. No one in the house had ever fought back, he was used to coming in, beating my mother, me, or the few times I didnt hide her away, my sister. After he got it out of his system, hed crawl into bed, and in the morning, hed be gone again, the money my mother kept in the back of her underwear drawer with him. Wed pick up the pieces, and shed just start putting a few more bucks in there a week.
From the floor, he looked a lot less intimidating, but my hand was hurting a lot more than I thought it would. I didnt let him see that, but I wasnt looking forward to having to throw another punch. He sat there for what seemed like hours, but was really only a couple minutes, just holding his jaw where Id hit him, staring at me with a mixture of surprise and fury.
Another shot of youthful arrogance coursed through me, and I stepped past him, deliberately turning my back to him. I bent over, helped my mother off the ground, and walked her to her bedroom. All the while, I kept expecting a blow to the back of my head or just a kick in the ass. Nothing happened. After I got my mother into bed, I walked back toward the door, but he was gone. I ran to my sisters room, fearing the worst, but he wasnt there either. She ran into my arms though, crying, asking me if I was alright, if mommy was alright. I told her we were fine, which wasnt the total truth, but it was closer than normal.
After that night, the money stopped coming, but so did he. I realized later that at the moment I decided to swing back, Id become the man of the house. I dropped out of school, refused to let my sister ever do the same, and began working. My mother went back to work at a flower shop, and we made ends meet.
Scene Two: Wellmans grocery, and again, it happens near a door. Id bounced around, doing odd jobs. I held a paper route for a while, it took little time, and I could still work a job in the morning and another in the evening. I settled in a grocery store. It became full-time, I ditched the paper route, and started pulling in a steady paycheck that I could count on. Usually I stocked the aisles, but this particular afternoon, I was bagging at the register. An old woman, one who came in every week for her TV Guide, TV dinners, and Pall Malls asked me to carry her plastic bag for her out to the bus stop where shed catch the next bus.
As we approached the doors, a beat-up old Ford truck screeched to a halt and two guys with handkerchiefs wrapped around their mouths ran in. My first thought was of those old westerns where the bad guys always wore bandanas on their mouths, and the good guys all had clean, clear faces. I was pretty close to the truth. I pushed the old lady behind me, dropped her bag and prepared to do something completely foolish. I knew two guys didnt really think they could rob a place without weapons, but the silver flash of sunlight off a gun still startled me. My hands felt wet, my skin tightened up all over my body, and for the first time, my mental cineplex replayed the last night with my dad.
Get outta my way! The first guys voice was muffled by the cloth, but the waving of the gun cleared up any miscommunication that might have occurred. Keeping the old lady behind me, I backed up against the wall, and let them past me. I could see another guy in the truck watching the door. I could only assume he, too, had a gun, and as much as being the get-away driver, he was there to make sure no one got out until the shopping spree was done.
As soon as the two men passed me, they turned their attention to the three registers. The few people in line were huddled on the floor, the cashiers all standing there, their hands in the air and their eyes wide and terrified.
The spokesperson of the two gestured with his gun at the first cashier, Put it in a bag.
As she moved to comply, the second guy moved to the next register and motioned for the cashier to follow suit. While they were occupied, I walked up behind the chatty one, and taking the only useful thing I learned from my dad, threw a punch from out of nowhere. His head snapped to the side, he hit the ground, and he didnt move, his gun still in his hand. At the sound, his accomplice turned around, swung his gun at me and fired. It seemed hed had little practice with the gun, or had seen way too many of those aforementioned westerns. He shot without aiming and missed me by quite a lot. I lunged for the gun in the first ones limp hand, pulled it up and shot just as wide.
The guy made a dash for the door just as the one from the truck flew in. I spun around, took a little more time, aimed and shot. Before the third guy could even figure out who to aim at, he fell to the ground, a bullet lodged in his chest somewhere near where I figured his heart had to be. He wasnt quite dead, but the car he was in now had no brakes and he was coasting downhill.
The last standing would-be robber made it outside, jumped in the truck and sped off. The adrenaline high started to fade, my legs buckled, and I fell to my knees. The gun landing with a clunk by my leg. The one Id punched started to moan a bit, but someone quickly tied him up. The police and ambulance arrived, called by someone or other, I assume. They asked me questions, they asked everyone else questions, they asked the dazed and tied robber quesitons, and when they were satisfied, they hauled him off. The ambulance took the body by the door, and the next thing I knew I was throwing up all over my pants and shirt.
The manager of the store, Mr. Wellman himself, came to my home the next day, shook my hand, told me how proud he was, but I never went back there again. I sent my sister to the store when we needed things, or I had my mother go. I started working at the corner gas station, but I started skipping days, just laying in bed seeing the man Id shot fall to the ground, a pool of blood spreading around him.
Yeah, that likes to replay in slo-mo; a squirt of blood, an agonizingly slow fall, and a big puddle of red creeping out from under him.
Scene Three: This one is my favorite, which means, of course, that it gets played the least. Oh well, that just serves to keep it fresh, and gives me something to look forward to. I was still working at the gas station, but my reputation seems to have spread. I worked the midnight shift, prefering not to have to deal with too many customers, but I was never robbed.
Stay away from him, hell kill you. I could see that spread by word of mouth all through the criminal underground. Where would-be crooks can buy their black masks and the bags with dollar signs on them. I think that fact alone was enough for my boss to keep me around, even during those first few months when I could barely force myself out there more than a time or two a week. If my sister wouldnt have gotten sick, I probably would have stopped altogether. But medicine wasnt free, it wasnt even cheap. My mother quit her flower job to stay home with her, and I had to pick up the slack.
Anyway, Id been at the gas station for almost a year in total, and about 3 hours that night. 2 A.M., the magical time when even the crickets decide its time for bed. Usually, Id grab a magazine off the rack and page through it until a customer came in or the sun came up, whichever one happened first. But on this particular night, I was standing out by the pumps, trying to stare through the smog and the light pollution to see Orion. There were only a few constellations I knew: the Dippers, Orion and Cassiopeia, but Orion was my favorite. All I could ever see, usually, were the four stars making up the shoulders and knees, and it always seemed to make sense, a square for a man and a squiggle for a woman.
As I was standing there, barely able to make out the moon, let alone a star, a car pulled up behind me. I spun around, once again flashing back, seeing the truck pull up in front of Wellmans, then, like clockwork, the shot, the fall and the blood.
Instead of a truck, however, I see a sporty little car. Bright red, convertible top down, and a cream interior. In the drivers seat was a girl I had never seen, and if not for that night, probably never would have. Her name was Debbie, and she was from a different part of town. Actually, she was from outside of town, in those fabled lands called Suburbia, where girls get unicorns for their 8th birthday and boys learn how to fight in a class with pads on the floor.
I could tell by looking at her that she was lost, so I walked over, asked if she needed a fill-up or if there was anything else I could do for her. She smiled, and thats the memory I would love to see in slo-mo, but I never do. I saw her eyes draw down the scar on my cheek (a present from dear-old Dad) and the smile faltered a bit. She said she could use some Unleaded, and directions, if I could. I plugged her into the pump and asked her where she needed to go.
Im trying to find the freeway, I90. I thought it was around here somewhere, but I think Im turned around. I was out later than normal, and my daddys gonna kill me, staying out this late. I noticed the irony, a girl in a car like that, probably a gift from her daddy, would get nothing worse than a lecture and probably be denied a trip to the movies before it blew over.
Sure, turn back around the way you came, go about 4 miles, until you see the sign for Larrys Liquor. Take a right, and that should lead you right to the highway. Again, that smile.
So, whats your name? She asked me a bit shyly.
I told her mine, she told me hers, and before either of us knew it, wed been talking for an hour. When she noticed the time, she gave a little gasp, cutest thing Id ever heard, and she leaned up to kiss me, and she drove off. I never even charged her for the gas, but it had only come to $3.17, so I paid it myself.
I probably would have forgotten that night. Oh, who the Hell am I kidding, I would have remembered that no matter what. But the very next night, she pulled in again, said she was lost again with a gleam in her eyes. I laughed, gave her the exact same directions back to I90, and off we were again, talking the night away.
Scene Four: Heres the part I hate the most about that last scene: its always followed by this one. This takes place just 3 months later. Thats actually the smallest gap between any of the scenes my mind likes to cull from my memory and incorporate into my own personal Greatest Hits compilation.
Debbie and I never left the gas station. We both seemed to realize that our worlds were not meant to meet, and this one spot hung equidistant between both. Most times we just talked. She told me quite a bit about her life, I told almost nothing about mine. Shed ask, often, and Id side step the question and ask one of my own. After that second night, Id usually climb in the car with her, and wed talk in the front seats. Three times, she pulled me into the back seat, where wed do very little talking. At least not anything resembling sentences, or eventually, words.
After the third time, we were pulling ourselves back together, when a car pulled up behind us at the next pump down. I glanced up, saw another pair of headlights, and started to get out to do my job, when the other cars driver-side door flew open.
Daddy?! Debbie slammed her arms to her chest, her blouse only halfway on.
Deberah, you get out of that car this instant!
I walked over the her father, hands raised, and tried to calm down the situation. I finally saw stars, only these were from another one of those invisible punches. I went down on a knee, but that was mostly from the surprise. Suburban dads arent exactly the types of guys who get thrown out of bars in the middle of a drunken brawl.
Debbie ran past me, her blouse now half buttoned from the top down, the bottoms flapping out like little pixie wings. She screamed at him, turned around to help me up, and her father wrapped his arms around her.
Stay away from that boy. I can hear his contempt even now. It drips off his words like poison from the tip of a syringe a syringe jabbed right into my temple. Im not sure if it was what he said, how he said it, or how he was holding her, but I lost it. The next thing I remember, Debbies beating on my chest, yelling at me to stop, and her father is hanging over his car door by one arm, blood leaking from both of his nostrils and a cut on his lip. I pushed Debbie away, and ran in horror back into the gas station, and made it to the bathroom just before I threw up again. I knelt down in there, the cool tile of the walls felt good on my forehead. When I dragged myself out of the bathroom again, both cars were gone. That morning, my boss came in, I silently handed him a little note Id written, and never went back.
Scene Five: I received a letter in the mail from my sister. Shed graduated form high school, received a full scholarship to some college out west, and had moved out. My feeling of pride, for her and for myself, was tinged just a little green around the edges with a bit of envy. When she had moved out, she had initially written me every week, telling me about her dorm, the friends she was making, the classes she was taking, all the stuff people in college write about. I was torn between the conflicting desires of writing her back to let her know just how proud I was, and remaining quiet to let her break away for good, to start over fresh.
Over the first couple of years, the letters came less and less frequently, until I received the last one. My sister had written that she had been accepted into Grad School, and would begin working on her Masters degree the next semester. I was riding high, my sister was blossoming and making something of herself, and then I got to the last paragraph. She had met a guy in one of her classes. He sounded perfect for her: funny, smart, and very kind.
He reminds me a lot of you, actually. That was the last line. It scared me, thinking about the things I had done, the people I had hurt, and that feeling of needing to throw up came back. This is when my theater went into full-time projection for the first time. It replayed that first scene, punching my father, it replayed the scene at Wellmans, skipped over the good one, and jumped right into the gas station brawl.
My sister didnt know any of these things. She knew something had happened each time, but Id never give her any details. All she saw was a brother who protected her, and let her grow. Thats what she was telling me she saw in him, and I slowly allowed myself to see that. Once I had myself under control, I went to show the letter to my mom.
The first thing I saw was that my mom was still in bed, even though it was after noon. She never slept that late, she was usually in bed by 10, and up by 6. I went over to shake her, maybe ask if she was feeling alright. When my hand touched her arm, it was like touching a statue, cold and hard. I hadnt even known she was sick, she never asked me for money to buy medicine. Maybe Id just been too caught up in my own lifes problems to notice hers. Her burial never gets a scene in my head. It wasnt much, the only people who showed up were myself, the Father, and our neighbor, who Mom liked to talk flowers with.
The one and only time I wrote my sister back was to tell her the news, and since I knew it was finals time, I told her to stay. I couldnt afford plane fare back and forth, and her scholarship didnt provide anywhere near that much in her stipend.
The Father said a few words, I threw a handful of dirt, and that was it. The director of my little film seems to think that little scene isnt worth keeping, it always ends up on the cutting room floor.
Scene Six: This scene can be summed up by one of those rotating disks that hypnotists use, the black spiral turning so that it looks like a vortex. With the last axis of my world gone, it should have stopped spinning. Instead, it began to spin faster, and wobble like a top that just wont fall down.
Im standing at the foot of a bed. Im buttoning my pants, my shirt still laying on the floor at my feet. The woman sleeping next to where I can still see the imprint of my head in the pillow is someone Id never seen before. With the morning light filtering through the shade over the window, I can tell shes at least 15 years older than me. My head is pounding like the bass from the jukebox at the bar the previous night, but its nothing I havent felt before. Waking up in unfamiliar beds next to unfamiliar people has become a bit of a routine. I started playing a game, trying to guess the name of the woman in the bed, based on what I can see of her and the items in her room. I never bother to find out if Im right, usually just walking out and finding my way to the construction site Im working on that month. Its mindless work that tires me out, which is exactly what I want.
At this particular time, though, my little theater opens for business, and I see myself reading the last letter from my sister, then walking in and finding my mom. The way this woman is laying in bed is almost the position my mom was in, and the color of her hair and shape of her face is very similar to my mom when she was younger. In fact, if you erased most of the lines, and dyed the few strands of grey she had missed, it would look just like my mother.
Theres a damn bike in the driveway. I dont realize Im saying it out loud. Ellie, theres a damn bike in the driveway. Over and over, I keep saying it, like a mantra. Only, instead of keeping the bad things away, this one seems to pull them in. I drop to my knees. Slam my fists against the side of my head and just keep repeating it. Theres a damn bike in the driveway.
When I can finally stand, it seems like hours have passed, the muscles in my legs, which have been clenched as tightly as my fists, no longer want to work. But it could only have been a few minutes. The woman in the bed never even stirred. I grabbed my shirt from the floor, stiffly got to my feet, and hobbled out the door.
Scene Seven: This is the only scene I think I saw in my multiplex before it happened. Id still been drinking every night, but Id been able to wake up in my own bed and alone. I considered that a marked improvement, and decided to take it slowly. Very slowly. I was in a bar. Im not sure which one. They all look the same from the inside. Theres a greasy, cracked bar with puddles of what you hope is beer. Baskets of peanuts sit every few feet, untouched by anyone for years, mute testament to the nights each of the regulars have spent here instead of at their homes.
I was drinking alone with my good friend Jimmy Beam. Other than him and the bartender, no one bothered to talk to me. I was sitting at the end, letting the sights and sounds of the bar wash over me, but not really registering anything. The jukebox pumping out something that made my stool vibrate, thats really the only sensation I remember clearly. The stool was vibrating, and I couldnt get the glass to my lips without spilling. The alcohol probably had more to do with that, but in my less than logical state, I blamed the vibrating stool.
Not wanting anyone to steal my seat, I took it with me. One arm wrapped around the stool, the other still holding my glass, I walked over to the jukebox in the corner. There was another guy standing there, flipping between Garth Brooks and AC/DC.
Wheres the Billy Joel? He mumbled just flipping back and forth between the two pages. Wheres the God damn Billy Joel?
I had a moment to wish he would listen to Billy and start movin out, before I moved him out myself. I swung the stool, caught him in the shoulder, and he went sprawling. The next swing of the stool took it crashing through the jukebox. A splash of sparks, and the music stopped. I turned around to make my way back to my spot, my glass still in my hand, but completely empty. By the time I got myself oriented, and pointed in the right direction, the bar tender was grabbing my stool, trying to take it away.
Get the Hell out of my bar! he yelled into my face.
I keep telling myself I was just trying to get my stool back, but my fist came up, with the handle of the glass still clenched tightly in it. When I punched him in the head, the glass had to find somewhere else to go; it shattered, and my fist drove half of the shards into his cheek and eye. He dropped to the ground screaming, with his hands trying to keep his lacerated face in one piece. Now that both of my hands were free, I grabbed my stool again, each hand holding a leg, and swung it again, this time down onto the bar tender.
About the time I realized what I was doing, hands were grabbing my arms and pulling me away. One set of hands belonged to the guy who had been looking for Billy Joel, the other set belonged to some other patron. I let them drag me away from the lump at my feet. I kept waiting for the nausea to come, but even with all the alcohol in my stomach suddenly feeling like it had solidified into iron, I didnt feel a thing.
Those are the scenes I get to see over and over. There are a few more that get thrown in from time to time, but those seven are the ones that keep coming back. I saw my sister one last time. She came to visit me here, she had her husband with her, and told me she was expecting a child in 6 months or so. I finally told her I was proud of her, but by then it was a lie, I didnt feel anything. She kept saying she wished she could help me the way I had helped her, but I told her that I was glad she had gotten out, even if this was the price. Another lie, but I just wanted her to leave. I didnt want to infect her, or her baby, with my failure. Her husband seemed to get the idea, he tried to pull her away, but she refused to budge, tears hung in her eyes, waiting for the courage to jump.
I looked down between my feet, staring at a crack that ran through the floor, wondering if I could get close enough to it to fall inside. I saw her shadow move as she walked away and I laid back on the bed, the deadly calm in my head waiting for the opening credits to start anew.
And now I lie on the bed again, knowing I wont have to live through another encore presentation. The movie theater in my mind has finally turned off the projector and locked the door.
Fade to black.