Without a GPS, Andrew’s plan to drive through the night is abandoned after a traffic delay forces a blind detour onto the back roads of Virginia. The way is curvy and dim, and the occasional sign is as misleading and non-communicative as Katarina’s infrequent one liner emails. Just as with her, he’d missed some important clues along the way and now finds himself further lost in his lostness, geographically as well as personally, a box within a box, disappearing into two darkness’s.
Grazing deer have been worrying him for miles, glowing eyes peeking out of forests and dens, the occasional leap from shoulder to shoulder, with a spring-loaded suddenness. Now the rain had come, large, heavy drops, cold and blinding, splashing the windshield and making the pavement slick as snot.
The headlights of passing cars reminds him of his recent visit to the ER. He’d been in a fight and had lost, but it was a pretty loss, and his love for the arts hadn’t failed him even when pounded by a gorilla. The whole scene was movie set perfect, but it was real blood on his face, not makeup. Even behind a mask, the MD’s breath was foul and the penlight was bright as it zoomed in upon each pupil. “You’ll live to see another day, partner.” As Andrew’s vision recovered, the exam room burst with floating clouds of color, zipping up and down the walls of the boring beige exam room, slightly different but no less interesting than the starlight fizz he’d experienced when knocked unconscious.
Andrew nods off again at forty-five miles per hour, eyes closed, head rolling from side-to-side like a prize fighter loosening up for the fight. A dream version of Katarina wakes him. “Hey,” she says, coming close. He opens his eyes with a sudden start and his silver Dodge Dakota performs a series of panicked S patterns on the double yellow. The blue-eyed apparition rouses him just in time to avoid death and enable a turn into the only motel for miles. The Green Shanty.
The “L” –shaped layout matches the definition of its name. A toothless woman hands him a metal door key with a cardboard circle indicating number nine. He moves his truck closer. Bryan Adams surprises through the radio with a rarely played song, Cloud Number Nine. He’s reminded afresh that someone unseen is writing his story, someone cruel.
Katarina had become a self-righteous, condemning preacher in their final days together. She told him (with a long sexy index finger) that he, HE, “YOU, Andrew, are the fucking writer of your fucked up story and I’m love’s casualty.” It was his sins of omission and commission that had brought him to this place, she said, to his unrepentant, unfeeling, narcissistic knees. On this circling subject he had no further comment. She was right. Life without her would be his sentence, no parole.
But, but, but —the whole number nine thing. Nine is her favorite number. It had been nine days since they’d last spoken, counting on up to forever. This is his ninth and final life. It was exactly nine at night when she confessed that she’d found another fellow on some dating website, a better man, a normal man.
Normal men have no imagination. But they might have big peckers and even bigger paychecks and that seems to be all that matters.
The Green Shanty is not a family establishment. No. The sordid history of number nine still lingers in the air and spots the mattress. Andrew is too exhausted to care. His tall frame towers over a tiny toilet that seems to sit at his ankles and he pisses into an almost empty bowl that barely flushes. [Note to self: take morning shit in woods.]
The television remote reveals that the last customer had been watching porn. An impressive donkey dong is entering the glistening slit of a blonde woman and she moans with shock. Turning away, Andrew reaches into a canvas bag and pulls out a large bottle of gin. He cracks the seal and takes a hard swallow, and then another, followed by another, wipes his mouth, and sets the bottle on the lamp stand next to the bed. He stares at the screen for a moment. The skin flick does nothing for his body, flaccid and dead as his hopes and dreams. But the sound of the grunting man, “Yeah, ooh, yeah” and the woman yelping in ecstasy wrecks his mental stability as he imagines some asshole from Tinder hooking up with the one he’s cherished for so long on a marital level, her moaning response the same one she’d given him, offered freely to someone less known and who has never worked for intimacy beyond a dozen roses and a dinner. The modern dating endgame is often accomplished in a day and whatever is done can’t be undone. Romance is ordered over the phone and delivered to the doorstep (Ding-Dong. Your package is here).
Maybe it’s all in his mind. Maybe only not yet. But it’s the doubt, the threat, the mute meantime, all the unthinkable possibilities that paralyzes him with pain, like a shock collar for ex-lovers. Insecurity is a robber of sleep, a masked thief of peace.
Andrew doesn’t know what is real anymore. He’s at a fragile place, the edge, that strange fuzziness before the breakdown, the deafening tinnitus before the collapse. He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing there, still as a mannequin, contaminated controller in hand, but when he finally resurfaces, the blond is getting a nasty load of jism on her face, her pink tongue flicking at it like a lizard. Disgusted, Andrew hates whoever Katarina is dating with the murderous hatred of Cain. He’s almost to the point of hating her now.
In the ensuing silence, Andrew’s loneliness is palpable and deepens with the night. He retrieves a copy of T.S. Eliot and selects a poem perfectly suited to the moment: The Hollow Men. He reads aloud, strangely comforted by the chambered echo of own voice in the empty room.
Physically and emotionally wasted, Andrew collapses fully clothed onto a green bed spread as sticky as a booger and scented with a million bad memories. He adds his own nightmare to the mix as he studies the water-stained ceiling and falls asleep on his back. Once again, the gin has successfully anesthetized him to the pain of living with the drunken stillness of a mental and emotional death. He’s a pickle sweat corpse waiting for the rising of the sun, a resurrection unto no life.
Almost noon, there’s a knock at the door. A homely maid, with legally blind eyes misshapen behind thick lenses, “Checking out?”
Mid-yawn, alertness returning with increased oxygenation to the brain, Andrew stretches his skeletal torso and scratches an unruly nest of hair and answers, “Um, yeah, I think so. Yes. What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” she says, Her heavy glasses have slidden dangerously close to off her face. She adjusts them with an index finger, scrunching the oily bridge of her nose like an accordion, and walks away, leaving her cart. Andrew steals three packs of coffee, closes the door, opens a window.
Crunchy dead bugs. Dust motes. Sunlight. Birds.
A new day with no direction. Running from everything. To nothing. Something —what?
There’s a Gideon Bible on the lamp stand, next to the big bottle of Barton’s. A piece of paper for a marker. REPENT! is the message on the little leaflet. Andrew closes his eyes, lifts an index finger into the air as if to determine the direction of the wind, zooms downward and lands blindly on the page, opens his eyes. Proverbs 23:29
“Who hath woe?” ME, Andrew answers in his mind.
“Who hath sorrow?” ME
“Who hath contentions?” ME and Katarina.
“Who hath babbling?” ME, by the fourth drink on an empty stomach.
“Who hath wounds without cause?” ME, Andrew gingerly fingers his sore cheek bone.
“Who hath redness of the eyes?” ME
The Bible has hooked Andrew like a good novel. He reads to the end of the chapter, an accurate description of his drunken self (something he’d put on his own dating profile, if he had one, to mock the whole pathetic process) and finds himself walking back to the bedside lamp stand which is posing as a sinner’s bench. REPENT! The bottle of gin is staring at him, only three swigs old. With a bruised left hand, he grabs good old Bart by the neck and walks him to the bathroom. This is a fight he can win.
The thin wooden door is splintered and punched full of holes. The shower curtain is mildewed and sour. A clump of pubic hair has gathered at the hole of the drain, forming a nasty colander.
Andrew kneels and pours the gin—glub, glub, glub — into the germy mouth of the motel tub, cracked and yellow as an ancient tooth, receding from a paneled booth, caulking plagued with cavities. Clear as water, a Marah spring, bitter and poisoning, enters the sewer’s raw throat.
“Never again,” swears Andrew, “Never again,” Andrew swears. Love and drink will kill him if he doesn’t give up one or both. This he knows.
He hopes the 80 proof disinfectant will kill whatever awaits his toenails when he finally generates enough courage to shower in tub number nine, a lot lizard’s paradise.
He stands, sets the empty bottle on the dank tank of the toilet, rinses his face with yellow water. The towel surprises him by smelling clean. He studies his reflection in a mirror with multiple fractures, the destructive work of another drunken fist, maybe the same one that battered the door to smithereens. Andrew’s face is a monster, broken into tiny pieces, a puzzle left unfinished, the shattered image of God. Katarina describes him as a psychopath to her family and friends, a poor man’s Mickey Rourke.
Andrew unwraps a cardboard cup from a plastic sleeve, fills it with the questionable water from the bathroom sink, pours the discolored liquid into the one serving coffee maker, clicks a gray button, stares at an orange light. Waits.
Two minutes later, he’s sipping at the open window. Spring is nubile and the honeysuckle breeze is sweet as tea. An ugly business calendar, barely hanging from a smoke saturated and weary wall by a blue thumb tack, is flapping for attention. 2019. One year damn too late.
What the hell is this . . . some sort of Twilight Zone purgatory?
Andrew checks his phone. Still no satellite signal but the date is there. April 26, 2020. Okay, good.
Three feet away, a Carolina wren is a chubby brown ornament on a budding branch. The males are the singers with a repertoire of twenty to thirty-something phrase patterns.
“Well, hello there, my friend! Did you follow me from home?”
The little fellow only cocks his head, slow to tweet.
Andrew slurps his coffee, daydreaming. He’d forgotten how good Folgers tastes without the addition of alcohol.
Of all the songs…
“Another selection, please, you gossipy bastard.”
Tears sting Andrews eyes unexpectedly. “Katarina…”
His hands tremble as he digs into the canvas bag, his fingers sifting through loose paper and two books of poetry. Ah, there they are.
Out comes three mini-bottles of bourbon. Two immediately down the hatch.
He tries to ignore the shrill bird. He brews another SINGLE cup of coffee. Adds the final bourbon.
“Dammit! Shut the hell up, you little fucker!” Andrew throws the first mini-bottle. It ricochets off the wall and hits the Bible. A second one, through the open window, a near miss but close enough to scare the tattletale away.
Choosing not to add a toenail fungus to his troubles, Andrew grabs his gear and opens the door to an uncertain day in a surreal world. The maid (if that’s what you call them these days) is standing immediately in his face and startles him, a Bates motel moment, sending a chill up his spine.
Adjusting her glasses again, “I seen what you did.”