My hand jittered again. I turned the radio up. Southern Nights was on, that song I used to listen to. When it was over, I would go inside. The last song was Cherry Cherry, and I went in after that one too. The one before that was Scarborough Fair, and I went in after that one, too. I had gone in after every song for the past three and a half hours since I arrived at sundown. The harsh fluorescent green light of me clock told him so. For three and a half hours I had been sweating here, circling around a fork in the road, deciding off-handedly and with great seriousness the fate of my life. My hand jittered again.
Before the gas station, I had gone to Walmart, intending to do it in there. Before Walmart, I had gone to the bank. Before the bank, I figured I'd just keep my business my own and blow my brains out at home. But I couldn't. The landlord would wake up and it would traumatize him. Maybe give him nightmares for the rest of his life. I couldn't do that to him. But you could do it to the cop?
"No." I whispered hoarsely to myself. "I'd let him do it to me."
I was a good man, most would say, I think. I had a strong work ethic, gave to charities, and I was, in all ways, well defined in mind, body, and spirit. Everything I wanted I could have if I just reached for it. That is not to say that it was given to me, only that if I wanted it, I could find a way to work up to it. But you must have a screw loose somewhere, eh? Not every toy in the attic, the lights flashing but the train's not coming, psycho, loony, crazier than a shithouse rat. How, my friend, does a good, normal man end up in the situation you find yourself? There shouldn't be anything on earth that could push you this far. Always prided yourself on a clearheaded presence of mind, didn't you? Thought you were a rock, an island, untouchable to the world, only present when chosen to be present, only hurt when it pleases you. Nothing should have been able to catch you off guard. But then there she was. What was special about her? There was nothing, nothing that would stand out in a crowd. Her face was elegant but plain, her interests weren't his, and, to be blunt, her body was a bit plankish. But there was something rewarding in those eyes, deep down, something that lit a fire in my soul, something that begged him to stay and talk. So I did. God, can't you picture the night you met? I could.
It was a dance, a real dress up, black-tie affair. I was going stag with a group of friends. No dates on any of us. Most everyone else there did have dates, but there were a few bored-looking eligible bachelorettes wandering around the bar and ballroom floor. The whole thing was a drab affair, and I was about to get out, only an hour and a half after arriving. Everyone I came in with was scattered out and either drunk or getting there. As I started rounding them all up, I crossed the dance floor and saw her.
My blue eyes met her brown, and I actually shivered. Shivered, for Christ's sake! Suddenly Dreamland by Carroll leapt into his mind. The blaze of noonday splendor/ the twilight, soft and tender. Instantly, I drew to her, even though every fiber of his being insisted that I had better not speak to such a superior woman, for fear I should be vaporized by the direct words from an angel. Still, I drew to her. We stood for a moment in silence at each other's countenance, me awestruck and she curious.
"May I have this dance?" My voice didn't fail me. It was strong and clear, without any cracks or wavers.
"You may." Those gentle, warm words with just the edge of teasing set my soul on fire. If I had even lit half the same spark, she was already madly in love with me. She offered her hand. I took it, and put one on her hip. There was no other person who radiated such a casual liveliness as her. She was warm and so inviting. What song was on? Did you even care? Even though my feet were clumsy and I stepped on myself often, she only smiled reassuringly and continued to dance.
The hand cut off the radio cleanly, pressing the dial and leaving him shrouded in the deafening quiet of a country night. Feeling like a man watching a movie, I saw myself open my door and stand up outside. Just for a moment part of me held back, desperately clawing itself to the forefront of my mind through the sheer will of self preservation. Just for a moment I believed I could go home and fix it all. Just for a moment I froze in doubt. But that moment was gone suddenly, and I already felt the knob of the door in my hand. As I entered the clerk gave out some generic greeting, but I didn't hear. Pretend like you'll get something. Go to the back and just wander a bit, think a bit about what'll happen… my thoughts wandered back to the place they'd been cut off.
After our dance, I held both of her hands in my for a moment. Jesus, what a woman.
"When will I see you again?" I heard myself ask, and was suddenly taken by my boldness. If she threw him away now, I'd be ruined. You idiot, you've spoiled your chance.
But she didn't reject me. She smiled genuinely and looked at me with those perfect eyes and told me, "I'm free this saturday." My heart melted again, and I reaffirmed my instant love for this woman. We spent the rest of the party together, talking and laughing. She was a pianist, an athlete, and a person who liked to take their life in their hands and make something of it. Not only was she beautiful, she was someone with passion, who knew where she was going and guided herself skillfully. By the time we were forced apart, their separate friends were begging them to leave. It was now an hour after the time the dance was meant to be done, and the hosts were cleaning all around them. Since they were both the designated drivers of their group, they couldn't do anything but exchange numbers and reassure each other that they would see each other again. As we hugged to end the night, I stood on the threshold of a kiss. She smiled at me, inviting, but it terrified me like nothing else. I had kissed and done more than that, but with her it was different. I felt unworthy of such a thing, and broke away from her before I could change my mind. Yes, she'll respect me for it, I think, I assured myself. But she only looked disappointed.
The door of the fridge at the back of the store was freezing cold. My finger had hung on the handle for nearly five minutes now, and I was beginning to lose feeling in them. No drink there could satisfy the thirst that was in me now, but I felt the presence of the clerk's eyes on me, so I opened the door and picked out an off brand cola that I could remember drinking with my brothers long ago in a house where we had all slept in the same room. Its look was comforting to me, and I kept his eyes on it as I very slowly approached the counter, one foot in front of the other, one baby step at a time. I dared not look up at the face of the clerk, who would almost certainly think I was a drunk or a junkie or just a garden variety lunatic. When did I see her again? That's right…
After talking for weeks over the phone and continuing to see each other at mutual acquaintances gatherings, we had made plans. We were on our first date. Both of us had expressed interest in the movie that we were watching (although in truth each of us remembered the other bringing up the film and decided that the other could be up for it). It started off well. I paid for the dinner and we talked until our food turned cold. But she must have seen something or heard something that threw her off at the dinner, or maybe it was the movie. When I put my arm around her and she shied away a bit, I turned cold inside. When it was over, she didn't talk much to me about it. Already the conversation was becoming one sided, even though we had both seen the same movie a few minutes earlier. By the time I dropped her off at her apartment, we had been in an awkward pause that had lasted nearly three minutes. Every second of it was agony, and it dragged on till eternity. Finally, we reached her place.
"Would you like me to walk you in?" I asked hesitantly.
"No, I'm good now, thanks." Again, she sounded disappointed, and again, my peace of mind broke off cleanly.
"Listen, I had a good time tonight. When will I see you again?" Please give it another shot. Please.
"We'll have to make plans, won't we?" She smiled, but it was tight and forced.
"Even though I've only known you for a short time, it has been the most wonderful in my life. I feel like I've known you my whole life. I don't feel much about anybody, but I feel good when I'm near you. Even if I can't express myself very well, I want us to try, I want to tell you everything that I've never gotten to say before because I thought it sounded corny or stupid. A chance is all I ever ask for, if it be your will." I wanted to say all this to her, wanted to make her feel it the way I felt it, but instead I said, "That was some movie, huh? I thought they wrapped it up nicely in the end." She nodded very robotically and reached back for the purse in the backseat. I picked it up for her and as I was giving it to her I leaned in for a kiss. This time it was her who pulled away. She took the bag and left. As she walked the short distance to her front door, I couldn't help but feel like he'd missed out on something big and beautiful, like I was a sailor who had missed the embarking of the Santa Maria because he was frightened of the unknown. The sad thing was, my ship had come in, for me. I hadn't stepped on it. When she was out of view I hit his steering wheel so hard that the airbag light flashed dangerously. Worthless, fuck-up, idiot, clutz, awkward fucking son of a bitch, I thought. You disgust me.
You disgust me.
I put my cola on the counter. The clerk was very visibly frightened, and he kept glancing under his desk. Assuring himself that he knows where the panic button is, I mused.
"Wil-will that be uh-all, sir?" The man stammered out. I didn't hear him. My mind was working through a billion calculations a second, and I had no clue what it would come down to. At the end of this, it'll all come down to the brightness of these lights or some shallow trick of the airconditioning. It'll be like those old battles in the Napoleonic times where so much strategy lay in the weather or-
"Suh-sir? I asked if that would be all?" The man sounded more nervous now, if that were even possible.
We both knew we wouldn't make plans, just like how I knew she wouldn't talk to me much after that for fear of leading me on. Whatever. That's her prerogative, isn't it? It was, and I knew it. But maybe it wasn't just her. She was just the straw that broke the camel's back. For the past two years, I had been floundering romantically. I had been rejected five times by three different women, and I had gotten out of his longest relationship ever three months ago before I had met her. Another failure. Why don't you cry about it, pussy? I didn't. No man ever cried, that's what my mother told me. Eventually, my girl moved on with someone new. It was a coworker, a bland guy without a hint of personality. Initially I laughed at the thought of them staying together. Then I began to stop laughing. They were together, and they had now been together for months. Please, God, stop humiliating me. If either of them ever invited me out somewhere (because we had many mutual friends), I made an excuse not to go. There was no PDA between them, but the loving looks they traded and the sexually charged jokes were more than enough. It made me want to grab that fucker and scream, "Leave my girl alone, you worthless bastard!" And then I'd knock his teeth out with one punch and storm out. But I was not a violent man. I was a pacifist, in fact. And there was always the idea of what would come after I stormed out. Everyone I looked at would hate me, and even his closest friends would think twice about teasing me or ribbing me playfully, afraid I might
Fly off the handle, that's what you're about to do you gutless coward. Too chicken to do it yourself you miserable fuck up? I'm not surprised, worthless, cowardly, useless…
"No, I don't need anything else." I tried for a smile, but even to me it felt horribly forced, like stretching canvas over a too small frame. The clerk looked relieved, and began to ring me up as quickly as his body would allow him to.
YOU DON'T NEED ANYTHING!? YOU DON'T NEED ANYTHING!? PATHETIC, WORTHLESS FUCK, YOU DON'T-
"There is one other thing, actually." I was surprised to find my voice was as clear as a bell, and almost powerful." The clerk looked up, glanced down at his hand under the desk once again, then gulped audibly. Sweat beaded on his LED glossed forehead and his left hand beat out a rhythm on the counter.
"Wuh-What ih-is it, sir?" I reached around his pants for my pistol, but found I couldn't move it. I had cinched my belt too tightly. After the second tug, I froze up. A universe of time passed in my head. Every memory that could come to me came to me. Tripping my best friend as he ran up to play kickball. Breaking one of the playset's swings and bloodying my nose, then crying because I thought I would get in trouble. Eating a full pepperoni pizza because my brothers dared me to and winning 15 dollars. Seeing the grand canyon. Having my first kiss. Watching my friend die from colon cancer over 9 months. Being fired from my job. Pleading with the landlord not to evict me. Accidentally backing over my neighbor's dog. Being the pallbearer at both of my grandparents' funerals. Trying to kill myself but having the knot slip loose.
"Suh-suh-sir?" The pimpled, sweaty clerk now had his finger under the counter. I looked at the man behind the counter up and down, slowly.
"No, I guess that was the only thing." I pulled his wallet out of my back pocket instead. The soda only came to close to 2 dollars with tax, but I put a twenty on the counter.
"Keep the change." I walked off.
"Sir, you forgot the soda!" I heard the clerk call behind him.
"Keep the soda." I replied.
When I got back into his car, I hit my head on the steering wheel so hard my vision faded briefly. Then I opened the door, put my hand between it and the frame and slammed it as hard as I could. Instantly I screamed despite my resolve, and when I withdrew my hand I could already see at least two fingers were broken and two were dislocated. Before the clerk could investigate or call the police, I started up my car and drove off one-handed.
So I never fought him, or even said a cross word to him, but I did hit on her. In all of this, I knew I was in the wrong; she hadn't personally slighted me and neither had the other man. Intellectually, I knew what I was doing and thinking was not only childish, it was also intentionally designed to aggregate both of them to some sort of dramatic response. But I figured I was a guy that had great control over himself, so I resigned himself to this harmless flirting. I'll never go too far, I respect her too much for that. I went too far.
It was a rainy day, and we had gone grocery shopping together. I walked with some of her bags to her door, and brought them in after she unlocked it.
"Thanks for everything, it was nice hanging out with you today." I put down the bags I was holding.
"Oh, no problem." She motioned for the hug and we pulled into each other. When I pulled away I held her by the shoulders for a moment, then leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. For one or two glorious seconds, I had her, and I was with her. Life is good.
Then, predictably, everything went to hell from there. She jerked violently out of my grip, as though they were in the middle of a wrestling match. She backed up, furious and guilty looking and scared.
"I think you should leave right now." My stomach dropped horribly, and I knew it was all my fault.
"I didn't mean to, I-" I tried to say something else, but I couldn't force his mouth to form another word. "I'm so sorry." She shook her head, and pointed at the door. I gestured for a moment like there was something I could say to take it all back and make everything better, but I decided against it and walked through the door. As I walked down to my car, my instinct got the better of me and I glanced back at the house, and saw her in the window. She was shaking her head.
The car was difficult to steer with one hand. I tried to ward off the awful pain that came in waves from my arm by reciting a poem in my head, but it didn't work and tears came from my eyes despite myself. Hospital, I thought vaguely. I'm about five minutes away from the nearest one, I'll pay for this out of pocket. Those five minutes lasted the span of an hour in my head. Every nerve fiber from my cracked, dislocated fingers cried out for relief, to no avail. Sweat poured down my forehead and mixed with my tears, and I ran a red light by mistake. Finally, thank God, I arrived.
Despite my pain, I remembered the gun still in my pants five steps off from my vehicle. Almost howling, I turned around and put it back on his seat. It was late, and hardly anyone would pass by, so I figured it was safe. And anyway I didn't care, I just needed an EMT. There were about ten people waiting in the emergency room, but all of them gave up their spots to me when they saw the bone poking through my skin at the knuckles. Within five minutes, I was alone in an examining room with a doctor.
"Hmm. How did you say this happened to you?" He had bags under his eyes, and his body was that of an athlete's that had obviously gone slightly to seed. His sterile scrubs did not hide his growing bulk terribly well.
"I slammed my hand in my car door." I said. At least that part was true. To punctuate this, I handed over my insurance information, which the doctor took.
"Ouch. I'm sorry to hear that. I'll give you some medication to stave off the infection, pain, and the swelling, but you're definitely going to need stitches and a splint. And even then, it's going to leave a permanent scar." He side-eyed me as he wrote something down on a clipboard. "You must have slammed it pretty hard."
"Yes, I did. Could I please get something? The pain is terrible." I said still gripping my wrist as hard as I could.
"Sure, I can give you some painkillers in a quick second. Give me a minute." The doctor hustled out of the room. In his absence, I sagged against the wall for support and let the waves of agony wash over me. It occurred to me that even feeling this awful pain was better than feeling nothing at all, and I tried to hang onto the feeling for a moment. Tears sprang to my eyes again, this time from considering my lot in life. With each passing second, I wished that I hadn't lost my nerve. That I had staged that robbery with the empty gun and waited for the police to show up, then kill me in self-defence. Suicide by cop, that's all I wanted. And now I was in so much pain, like a horse with a broken leg. Suddenly my strength failed even more and I fell to my knees. Lord, if you have any mercy, please strike me down. For the love of God!
The doctor reentered the room and nearly yelped when he saw such a poor, injured wretch. He helped me to sit on the bed, then wheeled in an IV, which he put into my skin. No nurse's touch? Some clear corner of my psyche considered sardonically. Then he folded my arm over his chest so it wouldn't flop down and exacerbate the wound. My hero, I thought ironically
"Countdown from ten." He told me.
"Ok." The ceiling blinked in and out of existence and every breath was slower. "Ten…nine…eight…five…"
When I awoke I had a splint on my hand and a nurse was leaving the room. The doctor stayed in to give me the rundown on my condition.
"Hey, are you awake?" I nodded my assent. "Good, I'm glad to hear it. The whole procedure was a big success. Your knuckles have been stitched closed, and while you were out I also splinted your index, middle, and ring finger and put your pinkie finger back into place. We'll need to put a cast on to immobilize those fingers, and that'll have to be kept on for about six weeks. Otherwise, you're good for right now, unless you have any other problems?"
"No, that'll be all."
"Then you'll get a bill in the mail, and you should go to MedExpress tomorrow for a cast." The doctor led me out, then left me in the waiting room.
From there I wandered aimlessly out of the building, crossed the street to the parking lot, then decided to forego my car in favor of taking a walk. I went south down mainstreet, and contemplated all that had happened in the last ten or so hours. However, I didn't get far, either in my thought process or my walk. It was around 2:00 in the morning now, and I had just gotten off the effect of some heavy sedatives. I only just made it under a park bench before I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I was damp. Dew had formed overnight and settled on me like I was just an extension of the grass. Not having anything better to do, I closed his eyes again. A nudge from someone's foot quickly put me off a new nap, though.
"Hey, sir? How long have you been down there?" I looked up, squinting by the light of the sun. It was an old man wearing a patched three piece suit and a derby hat. "It doesn't look very comfortable there on the ground, son." I got off the ground and sat up on the bench above him. My clothes were soaked through, and a smell of the ground hung all around me.
"No, it wasn't very comfortable at all." I stretched, and the old man sat down beside me.
"What happened to your hand?"
"Smashed it in a car door. Just bad luck." The old man took me gently by the wrist and examined his splint and new stitches. He shook his head.
"I haven't seen anything that bad since Korea. You really did a number on yourself. Why did you do it?"
"Weren't you listening?" I snapped. "I didn't mean to do it at all!" We sat quietly for a second, then I spoke up again, mournfully. "I'm sorry. It's just been a really long day." The old man nodded, not seeming to be a bit offended by my outburst.
"I reckon when a man splits open his own hand, then doesn't have a bed to sleep it off in, it'll always be a long day. Why did you sleep under this bench last night?" I shrugged.
"When I came out of the hospital it was late, and I was sleepy. I didn't figure I could make it home."
"Why didn't you call someone to pick you up."
"Uh…I live alone, and I have no friends." It was embarrassing to say that to a stranger, but I couldn't think of a plausible lie. The man didn't laugh, though, only nodded again.
"Well, son, I just stopped here to rest," Of course he wants to leave now that he knows you're such a pathetic sad sap, I thought. "But I live round this area, and I stay up pretty late working on my model trains in my basement, so I reckon you might do with this." He took a pen and a scrap of yellow legal paper from his jacket-pocket and wrote something down. "It's my phone number. Take it, and call me next to you end up in the hospital, I'll come and pick you up." He handed over the piece of paper, then got up and offered his hand to me. Hardly comprehending, I took the paper and shook the old man's hand. As he began to leave, though, I started to understand.
"Thank you, sir! What did you say your name was?" I called out to him. The old man turned his head and smiled as he walked.
"Boone. Quentin Boone."
"Thank you, Mr. Boone!" The old man waved it off, as if to say that was nothing, and continued on walking.
I sat on the bench and contemplated this development for a few moments, then began the long walk back to the hospital. When I got back to the parking lot, I remembered the gun I still had in his front seat. The first place I went, the instant I began driving, was the overlook that I had often gone to as a kid that looked over a prominent bend in my city's river. There I took the unloaded gun and threw it as if it were a snake into the water.
I thought about everything I could do, all the jobs I could get, all the skills I could learn, all the women I could fall in love with, and the world didn't seem so bad for a second. And now I knew that- worst comes to worst- I would have someone to call on. My life was in my hands, I figured, and that was the starkest form of freedom.