His skin was taut and he imagined a sudden movement might cause it to rip like dry, rough paper. The air-conditioning tickled his arms. Cool, lazy and impersonal. He stared, unseeing, down the snack aisle and ignored the magazine spread before him on the counter, a jumble of contrasting yellow headlines promising sex tips and the inside scoop on celebrity love lives. He glanced at his watch. 2am. The depression was heaviest at night and his shoulders sagged under the weight. It was always hardest in the evening when he was alone with the beauty, health and hygiene around him making promises they couldn’t keep. In his pocket he fondled a baby blue pill, rolling it between his fingertips. He looked again as his watch. Soon, he thought, 3am.
She placed her hand over his and pressed the pen to the paper. The signature looked shaky but it should be enough. “Easy peezy,” she said. “Now you just need to do it on your own. Maybe a couple thousand times.” She smiled.
His hand was pink where she had touched him and he stared in disbelief at the pen in his hand. Without her support his fingers felt loose, like they were all skin and tissue. No bones.
“Yup,” he said. “Easy peezy.” The warmth of her smile buoyed his spirits. He felt like he might actually be able to do this. Weeks ago he had dreamed of signing his name, tying his shoes or flossing his teeth but now he felt it might actually happen.
“Why don’t you try picking up the pen and doing it yourself?” She offered him a crooked smile that filled his stomach with a buzzing, nagging desire to please. He wanted to make her happy; to make her proud but hesitated, unsure that he could handle the look of disappointment if he failed. On the other hand, maybe she’d offer him a little help. And maybe he’d feel something; the glow of her skin touching his.
I feed my temporary security pass into the terminal and a prompt blinks back a response, YOU MAY BEGIN TYPING.
You’re staring at me through glass that could take a shotgun blast but it doesn’t even dull the animosity in your expression. The terminal keys are cold on my fingertips and I stare into your eyes looking for something. Some warmth.
I write, YOU OKAY?
You look at your screen and pause, then I see your fingers moving. My screen flickers, WHAT DO YOU THINK? LET'S FINISH THIS SO I CAN GO HOME.
Right. I’ve known it’s over but I can’t stop trying to be friends. Must be some kind of ego-preservation reflex. I’ll need it here. I feed our divorce papers into the scanner, signed but unread, you can have it all. I won’t be needing it.
I see the papers slide out of the tray on your side of the glass and watch you stack them neatly, tapping them against the table, then place them in your bag. You look at me briefly and nudge the keyboard.
The screen refreshes, a sweep of scattered of pixels, then disconnects. The terminal is unkind.
You watch me go through security. Six years for good behavior and you won’t be there to pick me up.
Smokey Joe, Mike Stone, Zuki and Loopy. They weren’t all my friends but I spent hours with them in the thick crash of live music, smoke, and dollar pitchers of beer. They all had their moments, hell, how can you not like a guy named Smokey Joe? One time he was so happy to see us walking up the driveway that he fell out of a second story window, slid down the roof and landed on the driveway in a tumble of limbs and expletives. Like Popeye he bounced to his feet, beer in hand, and led us through the front door.
Mike Stone was a redneck with a heart of gold. Broad and friendly he was always happy to throw fists and somehow never lost his temper. It was all a game to him.
Zuki, God bless his soul, died a few years back. He fell off a boat somewhere in the Florida Keys and no one ever found his body. I’m guessing his big-ass boots carried him straight to the bottom. A big X should mark the spot.
Even Loopy’s grandmother called him Loopy. I once saw him so drunk that he spent minutes; I mean minutes, retching in the trashcan at the end of the bar. He stood unsteadily when he was done, cavefish pale, and ordered a round of shots. Jagermeister, probably. He was a champ. Beat him with a stick, throw him into a brick wall and generally do your worst. You couldn’t bring him down. But there was more: deep in there beat the heart of good person., a person you could trust, a person who would watch your back. I don’t need that so much anymore but at the time it meant the world and sometimes I have one of the those days when I wish someone was there to watch my back.
The curtains were glowing in the afternoon light and they fluttered around the old bay windows where Stephen sat. He looked around the room, taking in the memories, and felt a warm numbness to the seven years they made this apartment their home. The books, the framed photos from their trips to Europe, the painting Jen’s mother had done of her family and the flea-market furniture. It’d been two months and he was finally ready to have this conversation.
Stephen spoke quietly, “I can’t keep thinking about you, about what happened here, and expect things to be normal. We had a wonderful time together and I loved every minute with you but I realize now that it’s over. For both of us.” He paused, as if he expected a response, and coughed into the silence.
“You ever see any deer out here?”
“Sometimes,” Drew replied.
He bent and picked up the split pieces of wood and tossed them into the back of his pickup. They landed with a bang that echoed in the clearing and set the dog barking. He placed the axe-head on the ground, propping the handle against the Ford’s bumper, then wiped sweat from his face with the front of his shirt.
“Shut up, Spongebob.” Drew stared at the dirty Labrador and laughed. Ridiculous, you just can’t respect an animal with a name like that. He had pushed for Roy or Boomer but the kids had insisted. The dog looked at him expectantly, her tongue swinging loosely and her sandy tail thumping the cold ground. Spongebob huffed a quiet, defiant bark and ran behind the truck with her nose to the ground.
Father Cutler strained to look dignified but the air-conditioner rattling against the bars in the window distracted him. It blew a cold, stale air into his face and he blinked anxiously as his eyes dried in the breeze. When he spoke his voice sounded small, swallowed by the concrete room and the hum of the old GE.
He made a stiff gesture at the book on the table and said, “I read that years ago. It’s commonly recognized as an allegory about the pursuit of perfection but it could also be a justification for self-indulgence.”
Spread across the table was a series of large color photos of women with bruised faces and lifeless eyes. On top of the photos were a manila folder, a crushed pack of Marlboros and a frayed copy of Jonathon Livingston Seagull, open and facedown with creases running down its spine. The back cover was torn and the pages were a faded yellow.