The cityscape appeared lighter than normal in my dreams, and I would dream about sharks or snakes—venomous white and black sea kraits slithering under my bed, hear hisses from pit pipers or from a coral snake escaping from a neighbor who kept exotic reptiles. I would let out a frightened bark of terror, then Marina would hover in darkness 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 of Listerine. I clasped my arms around her; I said that today marked going three months without a cigarette. “That’s awesome,” she said. “See, I told you it was mental toughness.”
Everybody smoked in the military. It made the underpinnings of our jolted lives pass freely and unsuspended. I served in the first Gulf War, and then briefly called to Iraq. 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. She had a way of placating me that insinuated a sense of being worthless, as though fighting for our country had escaped her mind and that old Elliot was nothing more than vermin, a returned vet at home full of his problems.
I visited the doctor and he told me that the insomnia was a reflection of our compressed lives. He scribbled out a prescription on a white notepad.
Ambien, he wrote down.
I had doubts that it would work.
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 reminded me of a darkly-curved ocean creature with her head hidden under the sheets and her nose sticking out. I thought of the great possibility that she would no longer be attracted to me 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 be alone, 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 calmness 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.”
“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.”
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 contorted 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.”
A week later it turned colder; you would often hear about winter weather advisories and how sharp the wind would change direction and the lake effect forced more snow than expected. 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 comes across 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.”
“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!”
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.”
“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.”
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.