Night Owl

Along the streets in the night the time melded within the cityscape and it appeared lighter than it was. Sometimes I would dream, strange dreams about sharks or snakes—venomous ones white and black, sea kraits slithering under my bed; hisses from pit pipers, and a coral snake escaping from a neighbor who kept exotic reptiles. I let out a frightened bark of terror and Marina hovered over me in our bed as if I had died, gone into oblivion.

“You and your nightmares, Elliot. Get some help, please.”

She got up and walked to the bathroom. I believed this was my new normal. And when Marina came back for a hug, she smelled like Listerine. I clasped my arms around her; I said that today marked going three months without a cigarette. “That’s great,” she said. “It’s all in your head, Elliot.”

I started smoking when I was in the military. Everybody smoked and it made the underpinnings of our jolted lives pass by freely and unsuspended by the rigors of combat. I served in the first Gulf War, and briefly called to Iraq in 2005, but retired now, worked as a freelance photographer and writer. I got a pension and insurance from the military, and it helped, but Marina was not afraid to remind me about bills and shit. She had a way of placating that made feel small and worthless, as though me fighting for our country had escaped her mind and that old Elliot was nothing more than a bug or another returned vet at home full of problems.

I visited my doctor and he told me insomnia was a reflection our compressed lives these days. He scribbled out a prescription on a white notepad.

Ambien, he wrote down.

I doubt it would work.

Before I left on my night drive again, I tapped Marina on her foot.

“What, Elliot?” she said, turning over in the covers.

“I’m going. Wanted to let you know.”

“Okay, be careful.”

She slept with the sheet over her head. She reminded me of an ocean creature with her darkly-curved head and hidden eyes and nose sticking out. I thought of the great possibility that she would no longer be a part of my life because of my insomnia. I wanted to tell her that a red light caused it; it had a cosmic alien glow and it did something to my eyes but she’d think that I was even crazier. She would leave me, and at forty-one, who wanted to start over?

 

I stopped at a 24-hour convenience store off Rosewood. Inside, I saw the night clerk girl sitting in a chair behind the register, tapping on her tablet computer. When I walked by, she grinned at me as if finally seeing a human helped her cope with the unnerving boredom. I placed my coffee cup under one of those foaming machines that sprayed out flavored cappuccinos.

“Good morning, stranger,” I said, smiling.

“Hi. Good morning, sir,” she said. “Won’t be long and the sun will be coming up. Means that I only have an hour left here.”

“Where’s the music?” I asked. “You need music.”

“The Replay, they call it. It’s broken. It’s getting fixed. I got my earbuds, though. That’s all?”

“All to what? Life?” I remarked, laughing.

“Wait,” she said. “I still have these lotto tickets printed from earlier. For some reason, the lady changed her mind and didn’t want them. Big drawing. Two hundred Million dollars up for grabs!

“No thanks. I don’t play the lottery. Worst gambling odds ever.”

“Just take them. You win anything, just remember me, okay?”

“You’re giving them to me?”

“Yeah. Go ahead. I’ll put the three dollars out of my own pocket in the register.”

I noticed a small nose diamond, the new kind of hip thing young women were wearing. She didn’t look anything like Marina with her russet hair. I could tell by her patience that she had come to terms with her boring job and fate in life, how this might be the best it gets.

Marina, whom for fifteen or so years that I had known her, had to be in the mix of other people’s messes—in eyeshot of desire. The night clerk did not seem to have a care in the world of what others had going on; I did feel an inkling of attraction to her, for whatever reason to a degree that Marina and I were less physical and intimate.

“Alright, I’ll take them. Thanks. “If I win, I will definitely come back and give you half.”

I shrugged my shoulders and felt the coolness of the nightly air.

“Awesome,” she said. “You be careful, sir.”

I had been getting that a lot lately: sir. It was, of course, the polite thing to say to a fellow when they appeared mature and well into adulthood, which that I was now. The young woman had that look on her face that I really don’t want to be here but she had no alternative to be working, which pulled one into a cascade of regrets of past decisions.

When I got home I turned on the television, low volume so that it didn’t wake Marina. I flipped through a rehash of sports highlights, coaxing infomercials that made you think you needed something, and unsettling news that seemed to incinerate any hope of a decent world that lie ahead. The awful bloody mess of people’s lives were recorded by tireless news anchors and reporters at the scene of car accidents, shootings…

Marina and I didn’t live in the best part of Cleveland, but it was not the in the slums. There had been a few shootings not far from our condo. Lately, house fires had been happening. A seventy-nine-year-old woman died in a house fire two days ago, just a half mile on our street. The air still had that charred smell around the area. According to Marina, the lady died from smoke inhalation and probably went quickly and didn’t suffer much. “Hopefully,” I remarked. “What a horrible way for one’s life to end, after living so long.”

I wondered how my end would come. I wondered if Marina might decide to move out and go live with her mother in Akron. She had brought it up. Her mother had been diagnosed with pre-Parkinson’s, and her father died in 2009 from a heart condition.

“No securities on this planet,” Marina always said, reminding me of her fatalist views. “No guarantees for any of us, Elliot. We trudge ahead until it’s time. Everyone has an expiration date.”

Unbearable to hear! Such a downy, Marina Knox. I was still young, really. I had at least thirty-five to forty years of life.

She had continued her barrage about things, seemingly hammering away at life’s dismay:

“Isn’t it unkind and somewhat bizarre that fires and bullets and car crashes find us, Elliot? I mean, what kind of God designs this world?”

Her icy stare at me, waiting for my potential rebuttal, and I could not think of anything to say.

I climbed back into bed. Marina snored a little. I had taken the Ambien and thought about the night clerk girl, the lotto tickets that she gave me. I tossed them on to the countertop in the kitchen. I had a photography shoot at Cleveland State in the morning (staff magazine for the School of Journalism). I thought about spitting cobras, that loose coral snake that found its way into our dirty clothes basket…

Marina and I rode together the next morning. Working freelance brought in a little money, but it was not consistent. Being an adjunct professor, Marina made more and paid for most of our bills, and I could tell it was wearing on her for her to do all of that.

Before the photoshoot, I went and got coffee and sat down to check my phone messages. I overheard two girls talking at a table about sociology assignments and how one of their boyfriends, named Steve Shaw, pressed against her when they were making out the other night. I don’t eavesdrop, but couldn’t help from listening. They were rather loud and unassuming, or even cared if others heard them.

“Seven, at least,” she said, making a length symbol by stretching her thumb and finger out. “Inches.”

The other girl had a frozen, glassy look in her eyes and smiled big. I grinned to myself, wondering how cool it would be to be in my late teens and early twenties again.

“Wow, really?” the other girl remarked. “You’d better work to keep him.”

I could not stop thinking about the store clerk. I envisioned kissing her, being with her…

When Marina and I got home that evening, I fell asleep and then awoke around four in the morning. I got up and put on sweat pants and left the condo. I did not tell Marina that I was leaving this time.

I went to the convenience store and saw the clerk pacing back and forth. Should I go in? It looked as if she might have seen me from the window, but a few cars had pulled up and there were people going through the door. At five-thirty, I got out of my car and went inside. No one else around. I told her that I craved these cappuccinos and wanted to know if she’d like to hang out sometime. I hoped she didn’t think that I was hitting on her; I was just trying to chat and fight these wild night energies.

“I’m Elliot, by the way.”

“Maddie,” she said. “So, are you married? With someone?”

“Not really,” I said. “I live with a friend. Good friends over the years. I don’t think it’s going to work out between us anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Kids?”

“Nope. No kids.”

“Wow, how did you pull that one off? I got three.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I do,” said Maddie. “I was married for a few years, but he was doing some weird shit and I knew I couldn’t stay with him anymore.”

“I’m sorry. Drugs?”

“Not really. Lots of booze. Gambling. Then I found out that he was involved in some under-age porn stuff, and I told him that I’m out. He was selling it. He did 90 days, being his first felony and all, but he also got a year probation and had to register as a sex offender.”

“Damn. That’s awful.”

“As you’d expect, the divorce went through pretty quick because of the charges. I get full custody. He can only see the kids after his probation and only on my terms. I’ve moved on. Not dating right now. Not sure that I want to. Just me and my two boys and little girl.”

“That’s good, Maddie. No rush.”

“Hey, not trying to bug you off or anything, but customers are pulling in and I got to fill out my time card online.”

“Yeah, no problem. Nice meeting you again. Good to see you.”

“Likewise, Elliot.”

People get caught in bad situations like Maddie. I felt sorry for her, but I knew that she would not want me to feel any kind of remorse or sorrow, or feel obligated to make her feel that her life would get better because I’m such a nice and unassuming middle-age guy without any real problems like she had.

Marina was up and making herself a bowl of oatmeal. She slammed the microwave door and started to stir her spoon in forcefully.

“It’s six-thirty in the fucking morning, Elliot. This has to stop.”

She slammed a few drawers. I could see her angered eyes, her mouth contorting in a way that she had had enough of my night drive excursions because of my insomnia.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I see my doctor tomorrow. New medication.”

“I hope,” she said. “Jesus, I hope you can find a full-time job, too.”

 

A week later it started to turn colder, and you would often hear about winter weather advisories. Work had dried up. I continued driving in the night, reflecting from old days, seeing old buddies from high school or from the military, some of whom had already died from various illnesses or accidents. I went to the park and while walking around the path, the streets of the night had a blue tint, as if a certain kind of confidence and hope sprung within me. I thought about Maddie. The convenience store was not far from the park and I would sit and listen to music or sports talk on XM radio after my walk. I thought about ways to drum up new photography business, but it was hard because I didn’t feel like networking. The best places to network were local bars or coffeehouses; you talk to people, hand out your card, and hoped for the best. I used social media, but it was a lot of self-promoting and to me, that come off being desperate.

I had a few business cards left and not sure why I didn’t give Maddie one. She and her kids might want a family portrait, or maybe just herself, or she may know of someone who might want some photoshoots. I didn’t want to bother her at the store; I’d make it quick, nothing intrusive, as if I was stalking her. As I turned into the parking lot, I saw the flash of police lights, an ambulance… other cars parked on the side of the street, where people gathered. The news station had a crew there.

I got out of my car and huddled near the crowd of people.

“What’s going on?” I said to a woman.

“Awful,” said the woman. “Just awful. They killed the clerk.”

“What?”

“I said they shot the clerk. It got held up.”

I didn’t think it could have been Maddie, maybe another night clerk. But did someone else work that shift? I just hoped maybe she called in sick or wasn’t involved. I walked around toward the news crew and stood a few feet away. They were interviewing someone, maybe a customer who saw it. I heard him say, “Yeah, they just flew in real fast and told the girl to hand over the cash. She froze. I think she got nervous and knocked over her iPad and it slammed to the floor. It made a loud noise and that’s when one of them shot her. Point blank. Bam!”

No.

When the man finished talking, he brushed beside me. I cleared my throat and said, “Hey, sorry, but did the clerk have brownish-red hair to her shoulders, kind of cute? Maybe late twenties?”

“Yeah. That was her.”

“O God.”

“You knew her?”

“No, not personally. Friendly interactions, on a customer basis. Her name was Maddie.”

“It happened fast, she had no chance. She was nervous and they shot her. They looked at me and fled. I got lucky, I guess. Thought for sure that I was next. Fucking gangsters!”

The sound of my heart pumped through my head, and it felt as if I was being lifted over the crowd, over the side streets and roads by a magical force of adrenalin. It felt like the moment being at the red light a few weeks ago and no other cars were around, and how time seemed frozen and that I could be and do anything that I wanted.

One of the police officers waved me over. I told them that I knew Maddie, and I was a regular customer who came in and got coffee. I heard one of them say to their comrade, holding what appeared to be Maddie’s driver’s license:

“Her name,” he said. “Maddie Garrison.”

That was the first time that I’d heard her last name.

A news anchor hurried by and she wanted to talk. A camera beamed into my eyes.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “It’s sad with all the crime and people not giving much thought about what they’re doing or any regard to life. It’s awful, something has to be done.”

I left the scene and drove toward home. I did not want to tell Marina. I wanted to clear my head, had had enough energy from all the commotion that I could go for a jog or take another walk around the park. I could still smell the fuel vapors from earlier around the convenience store and imagined Maddie taking her last breaths. She did not suffer long. I remember in combat and one of our platoon leaders took shrapnel and bled out in front of us. Death was always a reminder that we took life for granted. The real war was on our own streets, as they say, “in our own backyards.” One minute, a person’s doing nothing wrong, trying to make ends like Maddie, and the next thing some shit-for-nothing puts a bullet through you.

I walked around the ball diamond, enough to ease away any adrenalin. I stared at the swimming pool a hundred yards away and it lacked that cool summer glow that seemed like it was hot and muggy yesterday. I envied people in California or Florida, where it was always warm. People have told me in life we pick our poison, as Mom and Dad told me over the years, and if we’re reluctant to do so, life randomly picks it for us.

I returned home and the orange sunrise came through the pine trees in the front yard. I unlaced my shoes and put on my blue shorts and slipped back into bed beside Marina. It was as if I’d never left her. Marina took in deep breaths, but turned in the sheets. Shadows of tree branches formed on the bedroom wall. I thought about finances, money being tight…

A few minutes later Marina stretched out her legs, lifted part of the covers off her arms.

“I might as well get up,” she said. “Get a shower. You want to join?”

“I have to tell you something,” I said. “There was a—”

“Shower,” she said. “Let’s talk later.”

She cupped her hand over my mouth. She took off her gown. I saw a shadow of her right breast. She leaned back into bed and pressed her lips to my shoulder, and I could feel her tongue along my collar bone.

“The other night, Elliot,” she said, “when we were on the deck, you hesitated when I asked if we should have gotten married. Did you think we should have?”

“What? No. It’s not what we wanted.”

“What is it then? What do you have to tell me?”

I paused, couldn’t think. I didn’t know if I should tell her.

“I’m getting into the shower,” she said. “Join, if you want.”

I looked at the folded lotto tickets on the night stand, the ones that Maddie Garrison gave me. I’d brought them in from the kitchen and checked the numbers on my laptop computer and only matched one number, thinking maybe there was a mistake and that I should hold on to them for a while.

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, I told Marina that I went by the convenience store where that homicide took place on Rosewood. She made her mouth into a contorted frown, and I could see her classic dimples branch across her face. I informed her of the details and she was upset that I wouldn’t have told her. She told me she was sorry that she’d cut me off last night, thought I was going to ramble on about my nightly escapades.

“I worry about you, Elliot,” she said.

“Yeah? I worry about me too,” I said.

 

As the weeks passed and a certain amount of awkwardness arose between us, it dawned on me that our middle-aged lives were caricatures of twentysomethings. Marina was looking over class paperwork and her checkbook.

“Elliot,” she snapped. “Your half of the income is a bit problematic this month. Your freelance stuff isn’t cutting it. You really need to look for more permanent work.”

Was this one of her soft ultimatums? Get permanent work, or else? 

My pension covered the condo payment, utilities, but we had credit cards and two car loans to pay. The autumn daylight vanished into the displeasures of shorter days of the coming winter. It was early December and not unusual to have snow storms form intensely from the lake effect. We had visited Marina’s mother over Thanksgiving, and on our way home that Friday evening, the day after our big meal, a watery tear the color of silver emerged down Marina’s face.

Another night drive and I needed gas. An alert resounded from my phone speaker: “Wintery Weather Advisory” issued. I thought about Maddie Garrison, her crimson smile, how she’d been gone now for two months. Wondered what she was doing in heaven these days? If only I had been there to save her, to have taken that bullet instead?

My doctor adjusted the prescription yesterday. My insomnia grew from within like an inescapable bruise. I got out of my car and listened to the wind howling over the eves on the metal roof at the same convenience store where Maddie had worked and where she had taken her last breaths of life. I wondered if I would come home to an empty place and Marina would be gone. Other ex-military guys’ girlfriends or even wives suddenly left, gone into the night and wanted nothing to do with them anymore.

At the other pump, a man a little older than me looked distressed. I lifted the gas nozzle, swiped my debit card and the man was speaking into his phone while getting gas. He said in a rushed voice (I think to his wife): “I know about the conditions, Kim. I got the milk and I’m on my way. Jesus Christ!”

“Sounds bad,” I said to him. “The weather tonight.”

“What?” he said in a frustrated tone. “Yes. Go figure! You married, dude?”

“No. I live with a girlfriend.”

“Smart man,” he said. “But yeah, heard a blizzard. Fuck, who knows anymore what the hell’s going on in our crazy world.”

His face was purple in the cold air. “Just freaking great,” he continued. “I don’t get paid unless I go to work. Company doesn’t offer PTO. How am I supposed to live like that? My wife on medical leave. Our income situation is a mess. Sorry, I know you don’t care.”

“No, don’t be,” I said. “It’s not our fault. We do the best we can.”

He stared at me and then down at the gas nozzle and snapped it back into the pump.

The adjusted sleep medication was a hybrid of Ambien and a new drug, and I figured that I would make it home before it kicked in. I imagined the snow piling up and we all had to re-examine our lives into simpler things. This would be my last night drive if the new medicine worked. I would miss hearing Marina snore, her lithe shadowed body bunched under the sheets. I should go look for a one-bedroom apartment, just in case if she tells me to get out. I would have to get a regular job. Maybe something at night, like warehouse work, but something not too painstaking or demanding.

Looking over at the direction of the doors at the convenience store, I saw a glimpse of the two men running away. They had been apprehended a few days after the shooting. They were still awaiting sentencing, as they both pleaded guilty.

The pump displayed “See Attendant for Receipt.”

But I see her, Maddie and all her energies and vigor, her sexual yearning yet to be appreciated in a loving relationship with the right man. It was gone from her. Her three kids left to live with relatives. “Life is often short,” I remembered my mother telling me after coming back from my father’s funeral decades ago.

When I went inside, I imagined Maddie behind the counter.

Hey you! Where are you?

“Can I help you, sir?” said a man walking out from the back. He was Indian, skinny-tall, wore a brown button shirt and had on a heavy-gray jacket.

“I had twenty in gas,” I said. “I need my receipt. It didn’t print from the pump.”

I paused, checking out the store.

“Hey,” I continued, looking at the man. “Did you know the girl who worked here? Who was killed? Her name was Maddie Garrison?”

The man shook his head no.

“I’m her replacement,” he said. “Didn’t know her.”

“Her replacement?”

“Yes.”

It sounded odd, a strange word to utter, but accurate, from a business view. Replacement. It dawned on me that other people were just replacing us: at our jobs, new lovers, and eventually, in our own dwindling lives as it slowly or quickly fades.

“I replaced her,” the man said again, as if I didn’t quite hear him. “Were you a friend?”

He handed me the gas receipt.

“One of her customers. I was passing through and needed gas, before the snowstorm hits, and I remembered when it happened. I feel so bad for her and her kids.”

“Gotcha,” said the man. “It’s an awful thing. You need anything else besides gas, sir?”

I noticed the Lotto sign in the window.

“Three tickets,” I said. “Quick draws.”

I was not that wide-alert owl now; the adjusted medication started to hit me, and I should not have taken it before I got home.

I glanced out the door and noticed the snow. The parking lot was almost covered.

“It’s going to get bad,” said the man. “Six to eight inches. Forty-mile an hour wind and I am stuck here all night.”

“That’s no fun,” I said.

People drove up to the pumps. The snow whipped around pink taillights; customers shivered in a hurry to get back inside their vehicles. I handed the man my three dollars for the lottery tickets.

“Good luck,” he said.

Driving home I heard on the radio how the winter storm had intensified, the wind off the lake and the temperature would plunge to single digits. The state police urged drivers to stay off the roads. Get home, I thought. I felt the allure of the park where I had walked and jogged. I pulled into the entrance and left the car on for heat. An old rock song blared through the dash speakers and it brought back childhood memories of my parents with their giant stereos in the family room… Mom loved Neil Diamond, Dad playing ELO on vinyl…

I held a cigarette but didn’t light it. I found it stuck in between the seat and seatbelt latch, and I knew that I could not not go back to that habit now. I didn’t feel the urge. I tilted my head out the window into the blurry chill of wind. The air on my fingertips and wrists, my hands becoming numb.

I turned up the heat. I was stupid to have taken the medication. I texted Marina I’d be home, fighting through the storm—don’t want to slide off the road. I would rest in my car and she would be livid when I got back, but I could not drive, not now. Eyes like heavy fishing sinkers over the lids. A certain equilibrium emerged within me. The summer pool appeared at the park a hundred or so yards away and I wished it was summer; I wished I could go back to all the great moments with Marina and how we had loved each other. I repressed being in the army and hearing the loud blasts of mortar shells exploding and the stinging sound of bullets. Was this the end? I didn’t know, and I would fall asleep and there would be no more venomous snakes or night driving through the city of Cleveland.

In this numbness, I would never know again to accept reality as it was. I fell into a deepening ease, a new sleep that I hadn’t had in a very, very long time.

Flight

My co-worker Laureen and I are on a flight to Hawaii. We have been seeing each other. She tells me that we cannot pretend we are ghosts. Laureen sips her Bloody Mary and says that I smell good, remnants of my cologne. We remain an entanglement of lust; we realize that we need to stop seeing each other. Between us, a certain kind of energy fuels our attraction.

She hopes that I will leave Carolyn, but that’s not going to happen. Laureen knows it, and this is our last excursion together—an end to our affair.

The age gap between us is quite alarming: 17 years. There is a crack of her syllables, hesitation in her voice, that maybe Carolyn will find out and divorce me.

“At least I have you for the weekend, and of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Our last hurrah. Sucks to be us, huh?”

I soak in her sarcasm.

We had gotten the alert to catch the next flight to Hawaii. We were having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac. Stivarra, our boss, sent us the alert and the electronic itinerary. Laureen says, “I picture that dude in his bright blue Polo and holding his coffee mug at his desk, staring at stock market tickers. His eyes, as usual, remain full of dotted electronic glows of numbers, bemusing the ups and downs of monies and exchanges.”

“He hardly sleeps,” I say.

Stivarra had sent us a video chat, where to go when we landed in Hawaii. Banking convention at the hotel. Japanese investors would be there.

DDC is a good company. Laureen and I have downtime in between our travels. We are “on-call” I.T. travelers. We make fantastic money, but hated the rigorous nature of it.

Carolyn senses something might be going on, but does not allude to the trifles at our therapy sessions. I told her that I am going to resign after this last trip. She will forgive me, I hope.

“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “I’m finished.”

She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples. The airplane banks right. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of it.

“Have you talk to your mother?” I ask. “Is she doing better, after getting home?”

“I have not spoken to her in a few days. My brother checks on her while I’m traveling. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. Hey, do you think I curse too much?”

“You don’t.”

I think about my son Patrick, who’s fifteen, plays on the freshman basketball team in Mesa, Arizona, where we live. He amazes me how he’s almost as tall as I am, six feet, and has a much better jump shot than I did at his age.

Laureen and I get along. But it’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences. We are not so agreeable, but more like two frisky cats attracted to each other, always a paw length away from protecting our egos.

“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand forcefully around my forearm. “Only as friends, may it be. Just co-workers. Man, that Bloody Mary was strong. It’s kicked in.”

“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “Another Diet Coke? We still have cold beer?”

“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”

Laureen runs her fingers through my hair.

“Do you understand all this code, Thomas? Stivarra always has these last-minute assignments for us.”

“I know what you know,” I say. “Big banking convention in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults on mortgages, a new code to protect against Default Swaps. To prevent or at least soften another catastrophe like 2008?”

“You want my flash drive?” says Laureen. “I’m done.”

“Wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really freaking good!”

Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, grinding. It is loud and near the wing by the window where we sit.

“What the hell was that?” Laureen snaps, squeezing my thigh.

“I’m not ready to die, Thomas!”

“It’s out of our hands,” I say.

“What?”

I knew risk assumptions. Probabilities. I think about how we both accepted the astronomical odds that we go down in the ocean or get torn to pieces. We accepted it, Laureen. Laws of physics now determine our fate.

Of course, I don’t tell her that.

She pulls her hand off my leg. She presses her face to the plastic window. I lean forward, hoping to see if something has hit the wing. In front of us, a teenage boy turns and says, “It blew. The whole damn engine.”

The captain comes on and announces that the plane is stabilized. Laureen closes her eyes and folds her lips strangely until the puckering of them turns clear and her face reddens as if in a flustered thought at any minute we will be sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.

And oddly, I feel calm. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate with it into the ocean—there is nothing that I can do about it. Yes, I can pray to God but stopped that long ago. After Carolyn went through two miscarriages, after my father’s suicide, numerous close friends who have died, and after my sister’s torment with lung cancer… What God?

I can do what the flight attendant lady says: “Stay calm. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu shortly.”

People will say that Thomas Callen and his mistress deserved their punishment for weaving in and out of their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with his Wrath.”

The plane continues to fly straight. We do not hear another crack near the wing. Laureen puts her hand on mine and we do not look at each other or say anything more. Perhaps this will end fine? We’ll walk across the tarmac at the airport, go to our hotel on DDC’s credit card and order in steaks and beer. Take a warm shower together or go for a swim.

The plane banks left and then right, and finally it starts to sway into a nose dive and we hear screams and the captain’s static voice over the speaker. I cannot help but see the flight attendant curled against the wall after she fell, her skirt up to her face and her black underwear exposed, with her left foot shoeless. She sees me and we lock eyes briefly, as if the two of us will die within the confines of the plane’s descent.

“Hey!” I yell at Laureen. I try to squeeze her hand but it has left my grip, and she is jolted in her seat. I do not see the teenage kid in front of us. When the plane corrects out of the dive and we slow down, super slow as if we might be landing or all the fuel ran out and we brace for impact. I recall the “Miracle on the Hudson.” I close my eyes and see Patrick as a baby, holding him in my thoughts. My whole life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it, like the spurts of a jumpy candle flame: the good times, it was all there, in a hand reach of warmth and love.

A hard jolt, then a wave of rumbles, the sound intense enough to ring my ears.

The plane does not break apart. My left arm feels numb, a surge of pain up my spine. I imagine the dark Pacific water engulfing me. Sharks.

“Thomas!”

I don’t know if that is Laureen’s voice or a vocal tick in my head from another voice. I think she is near me in the water. I pull out my caught leg in part of the seatbelt and land in the aisle. The minutes that pass could have been twenty, thirty, an hour—I don’t know, but I must’ve conked out at some point. It is my seat that I have been in before the plane hit the water. I think everything is intact.

The waves are cold and I hear people, passengers saying “It will be fine, everything will be all right. We are safe.”

“Laureen!” I yell. “Hey?”

We often hear about plane survivors walking away with a broken hand, lacerations, a bump the size of a melon on their heads…

“I’m here, Thomas,” says Laureen. Her face is the color of frost. “Thomas, don’t look at your legs,” she says. “Keep your eyes on me, O.K.?”

“Why?”

I cannot feel part of my left leg, and I do what Laureen told me not to do and look down and see my mangled ankle. The adrenalin, our body’s way of blocking out the pain, churns through my chest and neck, and I’m almost in a mood of sedation.

The sun has not set and the clouds in the distance absorb a purple color of fading light over the water. I am rushed into an ambulance. I see a small cut on Laureen’s chin. She grabs my hand. The intense aroma of jet fuel, my heavy eyes, a weightless feeling throughout my body. I think about dolphins, clown fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick in Arizona and how everything will be fine in our family. I will let Laureen go. I am sorry for all of this.

I will resign from DDC and find a new job with fewer travel responsibilities.

I fall asleep.

The next morning the sun heats my face and arms through a big bright window in the hospital. The smell of fuel still lingers. And it all becomes exact and finite when I am wheeled in for extended surgery on my leg, where nurses and doctors huddle around me.

“Thomas,” I hear from Laureen, walking slowly behind me before the surgery. She must be on her cellphone, informing who we are. “No, I’m not his wife,” Laureen continues. “We work together. He’s a good friend. That’s all.”

I pucker my lips and go into surgery. There, everything is devoid except my memory and hopeful future.

The Café

She watched the steam ebb around her coffee cup. At seventeen, she was yet to be saturated in the foray of grown-up habits, except for her morning coffee wake-me-ups. At least her mother Josie allowed her to have coffee. On the news, there was another local shooting. A woman, only twenty-two, shot in the leg by her boyfriend.

A bus crash in Tennessee leaves five dead. Protestors take pepper spray to the face by police…

The disjointed world made the anxiety in Deb more intense, like seeing a speeding car behind you in the rearview and it may not stop.

It’s not menstrual.   

It’s not stress. 

           “You’re such a hypochondriac, Deb,” said Josie. “You’re fine. You’re young.”

 

It was her senior year, the start of volleyball. She liked playing, her tall and slender body leaping high above the net, spiking the ball. She enjoyed letting the sweat roll off her arms. It made her feel as though she outplayed the other girls. She would let the shower water engulf her face and the warm steam made her forget about her mother and Ronnie’s financial troubles.

Over the past summer, she worked part-time at the Bistro Café, not far from where she and Josie rented their condo, the one Ronnie had bought five years ago, before the divorce. She wondered about her father, how he left them the house after the divorce; how he would be responsible for the rent and utilities, but was always late on sending any money.

Josie went through her Camel’s like a fiend these days. She worked at the local UPS.

“Political shows? What?” Deb asked, nodding at the TV with her mother beside her. “Into political shows now?”

“I’ve always been,” said Josie. “Why do you care? I like to keep up on this stuff. It affects all of us in one way or another.”

Deb snarled her lip. She didn’t want to tell her about the headaches again, the pain in her arms and neck, a flicker of pain like a bright bulb near her eye. All the pain in her body…

To Josie, it was fabrication. It was a way for Deb to get out of working, going to school.

The idea of dying in an already deathly world around her caused her stomach to churn, as though she’d eaten something foul. When she took pain pills, it temporarily relieved her angst. She knew that she only had a few months to live.

Was it Lyme disease from a rogue tick after hiking with Ronnie over July Fourth weekend?

Why her father was into hiking, camping, living in tents for a weekend, she had no idea. Maybe it was a divorced man thing? she thought. Maybe her father was homeless and wasn’t working? She remembered the quick match to her scalp:

“Hold still!” Ronnie yelled, bending the end of the match onto the tick’s body as it flung off a strand of her blond hair.

It was awful that she may end up dying from a tick bite because her father wanted to go on a new trail. As he’d put it, “Like Yellow Stone National…” And Ronnie would laugh at his own silly exaggerations, as grown men often did, believing his kind of humor entertained other people. His facial hair turned salt and pepper; his eyes reminded Deb that he might be high.

Foolish Dad, dumb-ass Dad and his camping enthusiasm.

Or maybe she had gotten sepsis after slicing her finger on the broken door handle when getting her class schedule the other day? The word sepsis, what a weird-sounding word, how it stuck with her for a while. It can be a serious blood infection. She had never said the F word so loud, and the P.E. teacher, Mr. Preston, heard her loud and clear and stared her down from the other end of the hall.

She hoped that she would not end up like her former classmate Margo Tannley, who passed away in 2015 from Stage 4 something. She envied Margo’s long beautiful brunette hair, before chemo ravaged it.

I will not go through chemo! I will not be a test subject by Big Pharma! I will spit and kick!   

The unnerving feeling of annihilation at seventeen clouded her head. Then she realized that it was believable because seventeen-year old girls died all the time around the country, around the world. Some of them with medical and financial burdens pressed onto their families, others without any inclination of warning by some drunk driver going the wrong direction. Or, there was that chance of dying from an aneurysm, ruptured spleen after falling in volleyball practice…

Life went on, thought Deb. People mourned and spoke about you in the future tense: “That girl would have done great things.”

At the café that Sunday afternoon, Deb watched the customers in between tables and wondered what they had going on in their lives. Couples: men and women glared at each other with intense eyes, wrinkled foreheads. She wondered if the love between them had been canceled out by their fast-paced routines every day.

Manager Nicole warned Deb to wear long sleeves so that her tattoos were not visible. What bullshit policy crap! Many of the customers who came in and spent money had tattoos all over their bodies. They were not offending anyone!

The rumor going around was that Nicole had crashed into a tree a few miles from her house in 2012. Her body never quite healed. She was drunk, coming back from a party. Nicole walked with a slight limp, still had a trachea scar, and her jaw slightly uneven, which made her speech hard to understand. But for what she’d been through, Nicole was still attractive and had a steady boyfriend who made a lot of money designing and building homes.

Anxious as hell for some reason. Autumn coming. Colder temperatures. She liked the fall—her favorite time of year, when Deb could be isolated and away from the daily static: walking down a park path, appreciating the beauty of the orange-filled sky and the trees and the wind whipping up dead leaves across the grass; she liked pumpkins on porches, little kid monsters asking for candy (only five years ago that was her on Halloween, being that innocent and anxious child sugared on Sweet Tarts and Snicker’s bars). Her days were now numbered, she thought. Something would get her body soon.

A new girl started at the Café. Kelsee job-shadowed Nicole. Kelsee had tattoos on her left and right arm. She looked about twenty years old and was pale, tired, bloated. Did some boy knock you up, little vamp? wondered Deb.

She watched Nicole from a distance point at Kelsee’s tattoos, pointing to her arms to wear long sleeves, reminding her about company policy, just as she had warned the other servers.

On her break, Deb took another pain pill, or it might’ve been something stronger from Josie’s cabinet, like Vicodin. And she thought about the future, one day herself being a mother and happily married—to be impregnated with all those dividing cells that would soon fuse tissue and bone, a beating heart. Maybe her future baby would cure diseases? No, her future baby would likely be another bad attitude kid growing up to be a waitress, a blogger with big-author ambitions, or a stripper with unfinished tattoos and quick hands to snatch any dollar bill from perv customers who eyed with lust. If a boy, she imagined him on a skateboard with long hair and pimples, a boy with crooked teeth who talked with a mild stutter. He would share her nose and mouth, have his father’s eyes and sexy dimples, and be a whiz at algebra. But other than that, he was no one special, just another kid like all other kids who nurtured from infanthood into kids and then propelled into that unbalanced teenage consciousness. Eventually, so clumsy the transition, this child becomes an adult; and one day he’d deal with ex-spouse shit and money traps like Josie and Ronnie, and it would be the epoch of their routines for years to come and it would drive them crazy.

It would never happen to her because she was at the end of her lifeline, but she would really love to see her own child grow up, to hold and to protect—mold into some creature that she could be proud. Most women wanted that, at some point. All women wanted that kind of life after getting past the heated noises that burned like an invisible laser beam through their lives.

The pregnant woman leaned away at a table at the Café. The projection of Deb as the woman could be her many years from now and beyond any metastasized tumor in her body, and a life beyond the moment of dealing with her senior year of high school and Josie’s and Ronnie’s shitty issues. So many things that could happen before then, so many variables to jut out and alter it. But it was fun to fantasize and know that it might happen one day. Deb had to get back to work. She had to deal with what was pertinent, “in-the-now,” and as she looked up and saw Nicole coming toward her, kind of fast, with a stressed look in her eyes, favoring her weak leg, and before she could say anything, Deb looked down and realized that she didn’t have to worry, she had on a long-sleeve shirt this time

Offsite

Our boss Frank Pearson sent out a random email to our department that Monday, a short work week with Thanksgiving in a few days. We worked in the ad department for a leading appliance retailer, and in those sloppy matter-of-fact phrases without any punctuation, Pearson wrote: “Short notice guys have an idea meeting offsite tomorrow 9 a.m. Starbucks. Bring laptops.”

Weird. We all had experience about the big rush for Friday, or D-Day, “The day after Thanksgiving,” and of course–we all had been through it last year. But Pearson was a newbie and came from the car industry, had lots of ideas and seemed cool enough. He was young, too, like twenty-eight or nine, but you could tell being a manager had aged him a little.

Linda Felton replied back to ALL:

“Nice! Can we dress down? Also, you still want me to help control the stampede of the wild buffalo early Friday morning?”

“Just want to make sure everyone knows their role and last push for all the advertisement,” continued Frank. “All hands on deck! Linda, you rest up. The sales department should have that covered. Jeans the rest of the week.”

My coworker, Leslie Blare, scooted her chair up to my cube. She sat to my right, in the newer cube, eco-friendly, as I still worked in one from the late 1980s.  Leslie insinuated confidence and influence, perhaps an attraction toward me. I was dragging that morning after I tossed and turned in the night, unable to get a sound sleep. Molly, my beagle-mix, had a rough night snorting and breathing. She was almost fourteen years old. My mind jumped from her fading health back to Leslie, then to Pearson’s email again.

“So cool,” said Leslie. “Pearson must’ve read what I sent him yesterday.”

“Sent him?”

“I made suggestions,” she said.

“You suggested to Pearson that we meet at Starbucks? Why?”

“No,” said Leslie. “It was a forward on office productivity. An article about how creativity and performance increase when taking your teams to offsite locations every now and then.”

“Hey, anything to break up the monotony around here.”

“You want to ride together?” Leslie asked.

I did not look at her but caught a glimpse of her face from the corner of my eye. I imagined that she was pressing lips together waiting on my reply. Those lips, I thought. I would rather be with Leslie on a date than be talking business crap, or be compressed together with other employees at a noisy Starbucks. I can do that on my own time, right?

“Which one?” I asked.

“Which, what?” Leslie said.

“Which Starbucks are we going?”

“I don’t know. Good question.”

I clicked on Frank’s email thread and stared at the word offsite. A paragraph below read: “Meet at the Starbucks off Tillison Ave. Just 5 minutes from our office. I’m sure everyone knows where at.”

I shook my head.

“It’s amazing how our boss, probably making five times my salary, does not know proper punctuation and grammar. How the hell does that happen, Les?”

“I want to tell him, but would feel weird about it.”

I swiveled my chair to her.

“So you want me to pick you up?” I said. “I’ll drive.”

“You read my mind, Trevor. In the morning, just come by my house. I’ll text you the directions. Cool?”

For some reason, Leslie did not drive. She told me she has her license, but does not drive and does not care to own a car. And I could tell in the seriousness on her face that she didn’t want to go into the reasons. Leslie was married to a guy named Winton Blare. He was ten years her senior. I think Leslie told me that her husband was forty- six, but from pictures, the poor man looked much older. She referred to him as her “Soon-to-be ex.”

It felt odd that I was attracted to a married woman. It had been going on for the last three months. I’d flirted with her, here and there, but didn’t want to pursue Leslie any further knowing that she was married to Winton. In a way, I don’t think she was my type. She seemed spoiled, perhaps too goofy and too jokey for me, not to mention way too positive and happy-go-lucky, unfazed by any kind of wrongdoing throughout her early thirtysomething life. She and Winton didn’t have any kids together. He had a daughter, Amy, I think around the age of twenty, from a previous marriage. Amy lived in Chicago, according to Leslie.

But it was true that Leslie had a certain radiance about her, as if her attractiveness usurped feelings and lust into a gigantic bag that fitted tightly around my head and could not remove for some reason. I wondered if she really meant that she and Winton were getting a divorce, or if that’s what she really wanted but was just kidding?

The next morning a layer of fog blanketed a mist over my windshield. The morning news said there were school delays. But the fog had lifted, and I was on my way to pick up Leslie. I sent her a text message that I was leaving and on my way over. A few seconds later, I saw that Leslie had replied. She sent me her address and street, and I had a vague idea where it was, but I entered it into my phone map and it came up.

Stoneybrooke Ridge was where doctors, lawyers, and dentists lived. I had no clue on what Winton did for a living, but I’m sure that he was well-off, or doing great for himself financially. I knew that Leslie couldn’t afford to live in these houses on her salary. As soon as I turned into the addition, a cop car flew by me. All lights. No siren. For a second, I thought he was after me for going through the yellow light that magically turned red as I plowed through the intersection a mile back.

Then another cop car followed. What was going on and what could be this urgent? When I got to Leslie’s house, a total of three cop cars were in front, and my heart began to pound, not just in my chest but the sound of it in my ears, the tinge of the pulse through my jugular, the tightening of my eyes as I squinted over my glasses. I could have been in “flight or fight,” ready to floor the gas pedal or get out and run just in case some lunatic came my way.

I heard a tap on my side of the car window. Leslie stood there holding her coffee mug and pointed her thumb toward the house behind her.

“Hey, my house is across the street. I saw your car.”

“What’s going on?” I said, getting out.

“We heard three gun shots at the house. Winton 911’d and here we are. Go figure. The Kleengers have always had issues. Domestic. Problems with their teen son. I don’t know. This is not the first time.”

“Damn.”

A man hurried up to the car. My eyes roved straight at Winton’s giant forehead and blondish tufts of receding hair; he pulled his tan robe over his chest, had on jeans, and stood stoutly in grass-stained Converse tennis shoes, sockless, half smiling and eating a piece of toast.

“You must be Trevor Patterson? I’m Winton. Thanks for driving Leslie. I am deep in meetings this morning, conference calls and shit, or I would have taken her.”

“No problem,” I said, peering into their garage and seeing a silver Jaguar. “Are we OK to be here? You need to give a statement to the police?”

“I already did,” said Winton, taking another chomp out of his toast. “As far as I know, I think Mrs. Kleenger shot him, her husband, Stanley.”

“Hey, the dickhead had it coming,” said Leslie. “The way he treated Jill—”

Leslie was dressed in a gray parka, blue blouse. It was not cold or really warm, and we had had an unusually warm November. Today was a little chillier. You could see puffs of our breath. Leslie leaned into her husband and gave him a peck on his clean-shaven cheek.

“Bye, honey. Don’t be mad if Trevor and I jet to Costa Rica on your dime.”

“You kids have fun,” said Winton. “Hey Trevor, Leslie mentioned you guys are spending the day offsite. I think it’s a good idea, get a fresh look at your work.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll be more creative.”

So bizarre. I felt crestfallen. It was as if at that moment I was hanging from a small plane and would be sucked back into the wing after my chute malfunctioned.

Leslie’s aqua flash of fingernails hit against her coffee mug, and then her wrist bracelets clanged. I got the feeling that she and Winton were fine, that no divorce was imminent. I was cool with it, even though I would not mind running off to, as she said jokingly—Costa Rica. I would enjoy it with Leslie.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Winton can be strangely intrusive, overly optimistic.”

“Oh no, I didn’t take him that way. He seems like an easy-going kind of guy. Very laid back.”

“We both are. I don’t know if our marriage will work. I don’t know about things anymore, but I’m happy where I am in my life. He makes good money, runs a division for Marshlon Pharma. You know, the big drug company? He’s been there for twenty some years. I can’t imagine being on my own, living in a smaller house or in an apartment. But we’ll see. We do keep things simple. We really do have a good relationship, but sometimes I feel out of love, out of how it was when we first met and how he made me feel. All of that seems replaced by material things, the threat that it all could be taken away.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.

“I like you, Trevor. If I was not married to Winton, I would definitely be interested in seeing you in a more than a-friend-kind-of-way. You know?”

She put her hand on my hand, but her fingers slid into the ridge of my fingers and down to my wrist.

“Turn right,” she said. “Starbucks is down there. You See it?”

“I see it. I know.”

“I think this will be fun. I’ll buy our drinks.”

“Pearson should buy. You think?”

She looked at me for a second or two, but it felt longer, as if she’d found some flaw in my face and was wondering about how that had happened or if it had been there before and she just didn’t notice, or if I was older than I said I was, or perhaps not as “attractive” as she once thought.

“Yes, he should. Maybe he will. I don’t see his jeep. We’re a little early.”

“Yes, we are, but that’s OK.”

“Let’s just sit here.”

We leaned in together with our chins touching, our lips close, and I could taste her gloss and it happened fast—we started to make out.

She eased away.

I felt my pulse again, in my neck and around the temples, my eyes blurry for some odd reason, the strobe of red and blue police lights flashing through my mind from earlier.

“Let’s stop,” she said. “I can’t.”

“I’m good. You good?”

“I’m fine.”

We got out and walked inside Starbucks and we were the only ones there from the office, and we waited for ten minutes, but Leslie got antsy and said she could not wait any longer and went to the front and ordered our drinks.

“Hazelnut Latte,” I said. “Make it a Grande.”

A few seconds later Frank pulled up in his red Jeep Wrangler. Mel Farmington, another coworker, parked his Chevy Malibu beside my car. Jenny Dixon showed up. Linda Felton. We had most of the marketing department. Frank was smiling and walking with more pep in his step and had his Mac laptop curled under his arm.

“This is great,” he said. “This is awesome. It’s almost here. D-Day. Let’s all just relax, just work on whatever it is you were working on, and try to finish all ads today. Happy Thanksgiving. I will reimburse your drinks. Order as many as you want.”

Leslie pulled her chair around and handed me my latte. She tapped her finger on her phone and then to my arm. I read her phone screen, a message from Winton:

“It was not Jill. It was their son Eric. They arrested Eric. Stanley is dead.”

And there it was again, that long stare from her as if my flaw popped out and Leslie found it interesting.

“He deserved it,” she said. “He was an awful, awful man.”