Those Things Most Dread
Those Things Most Dread
When light first breaks and I stir, not for want of a new day’s dawning but for the intimacy found in a crumbled up pack of Marlboro Reds, it is those silent thoughts that drive the coffin nails into place. Don’t lay the blame on the cancer sticks, man. They’re just doing their job, each little soldier lining up, one by one, smoothing out the rough edges and giving me something to live for. The silent thoughts… the ones I pretend aren’t there… the ones that I drown out with my waiting mistress.
It’s not much, but it’s mine, this regimen that I adhere to. I wake. I smoke. I piss. I pour a Single Malt and make love to it for an hour while staring at the morning paper. I don’t really read it, save for the obituaries. You never know when your name might crop up. It’s probably like that, you know. Death, I mean. You don’t see it coming, and when it does, you don’t realize it. No, not at first. We’re too fucking attached to living. So I check, just to make sure.
As I down the last drop of liquid bliss, I pick up the phone and dial her number. On most days there is no answer, just the click of her answering machine and her velvety voice floating like she’d been born with the wings of an angel on her back, but I knew damn good and well that I’d removed those wings long ago and taught her how to truly fly.
Today was one of those rare occasions when she’s actually picked up the phone. Damnation, but it always makes me feel naked and exposed, hearing her welcoming tone. My typical response to her greeting was the same I used when her answering machine was the recipient of my calls. I’d hang up, savoring the memory of her voice and recalling how it had once whispered sweetly into my ear, long ago, when I’d worn a younger man’s clothes.
“Hello?” she said, and I froze.
“Hello?” she repeated. “This is the Baxters. Can I help you?”
“I… woke up… “ I stammered.
“…to the sound of silence,” I said, choking on the words and feeling the welling tears threatening to burst.
“D-David?” she said. I caught her off guard and my name rolled off her tongue with an unmistakable trepidation. “David, is that you?”
I returned the phone to the cradle, poured myself another drink, and drained it. I was gasping for air, shaking with an unwanted wave of fear and loss and utter ruination. What had come over me? Why in the name of all that was holy had I dared to speak? Why now?
The bottle of Glenlivet begged for attention and I obliged.
It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when there was more to my itinerary, but slowly, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months and the months became years and the years rolled over into decades, well, I kept checking shit off until the only things left were the things that mattered: Scotch and cigarettes… silent killers to keep company with those silent thoughts…. And an innocent phone call, just to hear her voice.
So why then, after more than a quarter century, had I spoken to her?
There could only be one reason.
I walk solemnly into the bathroom and climb into the shower. The water’s hot, almost scalding. I scrub at my flesh till it stings with the tingle of raw nerves. Toweling off, I stare at the stranger in the mirror. Long unruly hair peppered with gray, an equally unsightly beard. The stranger was gaunt, with vacant eyes that bore into mine with a soulless cry for help.
I ran water in the sink and pulled a dull razor from the medicine cabinet and for the next forty-five minutes I did what I hadn’t done in more than twenty years. I shaved, exposing pale and dry skin to the light of day. I still didn’t recognize the man in the mirror, not wholly, but as I grabbed a pair of scissors and went to work on the hair, cutting into it with an almost manic frenzy, I began to see a vague resemblance to the man that once was.
Feeling a bit of my old self return, I slid into fresh clothes and donned my old leather jacket, heading into the light of day for the first time in so very long. My Cutlass roared to life and I took to the highway, window down, wind in my hair, and a song that recalled happier times on my lips, despite its melancholy lyric. The sun had its allotted course across the sky and I seemingly had mine. We raced one another until it dipped low on the horizon, spilling its palette of color across a blackening dome.
I took Hog’s Back at a pretty good pace, just as I’d done in my youth and that Cutlass hugged the road as if it too had been eager to return to form. She rumbled through Jalapa and past Indian Village, the two of us together. Blowing past Helt’s Pine Farm, old ghosts returned, but they didn’t linger long as I came upon an accident near the access to Hobbitland and the old Indian burial ground.
A shiny silver Mercedes was smashed pretty good into the old iron bridge, driver’s side fender crinkled up and cutting into its ruined tire. I pulled my ride to a stop and let her idle, climbing out for a look. I nearly leapt out of my skin when the middle-aged man came up out of the opposite ditch, calling out to me.
“Hello there,” he said, putting his cell phone into his pocket. “Boy, am I glad you happened by. I can’t get a damn signal out here and I was afraid I was going to be hoofing it back up the road. I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a lift?”
“No problem,” I said. “What happened?”
“Blew a tire just as I came around the corner. Threw me right into the guard rail.”
“Damn shame. That’s one hell of a car.”
“Was,” he muttered. “My wife’s not going to be happy about it, I can assure you.”
“I imagine not. Climb in and I’ll get you home.”
“That would be fantastic.”
Turns out the guy lives out near the Mississinewa Reservoir, on Old Cemetery Road just past Cairnwood, and that suits me just fine. Those were once my stomping grounds. My ex and I made a lot of history out that way. Being young, we defined ourselves in ways that are hard to put into words, but our moral ground was tested and quantified. I learned that for love, there was no line I wouldn’t cross, no bridge I wasn’t willing to burn. More’s the pity.
Thundering along the back roads, I pull onto Frances Slocum Trail and gun it, flashing a smile toward my passenger, which he returned. A guy thing, you know. I motioned toward the stereo and asked him if he minded. He was cool, so I popped the cassette tape in and the car and I drifted back in time as the music poured out of her speakers.
“I’m lost inside another time, a time I thought that I had fled…”
“That’s nice,” my passenger said, nodding his head in that way that spoke to one having an epiphany. “Who is it?”
“Lost Watch,” I said, happy to share. “It was our song, me and my ex I mean.”
There must have been more than a touch of melancholy in my voice. I saw the sympathy wash over the guy’s face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Divorce is never easy.”
“It wasn’t like that. Not really. I guess it was a hell of a lot worse.”
“Oh,” he sort of stammered, “I didn’t mean…”
“It’s alright. She and I were dating for a spell, but I was working a lot, trying to build a life for us, and well, I guess she kind of fell for someone else, someone who was around more. Of course the fact that the dude she clung to was my best friend, well it kind of stung a bit more, you know.”
“I imagine so.”
“Anyway, I let it go. I mean, I still loved her, but I loved him too. So we stayed tight. But one night, she and I got to talking, old feelings came up, and we…”
“Understandable,” he said. “There was a history there.”
“Yeah, history. My buddy didn’t see it that way. We fell out pretty hard, and she and I had words on top of it. A year later they were divorced and I sort of checked out. It was a hard road for all of us. Man, we were just fucking kids. We didn’t know what we were doing and the pain we caused one another… It’s too bad. We learned a lot, the hard way, you know.”
“Well, it seems like it all worked out, right?”
“You know what, man, I feel alright about it now, for the first time in a long time. There was a lesson in all of that craziness and I think I finally get it. I think, after all this time, I’ve forgiven myself.”
“Good for you. Hopefully, your friends have done the same.”
“I hope so, man. I really do.”
I pulled in the drive of the guy’s spread. It was a gorgeous two story Tudor. It looked like a home should, you know. Quiet, peaceful… the kind of place a man could raise a family. That road was closed to me now, but at long last, I see what could have been and rather than feel sorry for myself, I was happy for the guy sitting next to me. He’s hit the homerun.
“Well, here we are,” I said, flashing him a knowing smile. It had felt good to unload on this guy. To let it all spill out.
“What do I owe you for your trouble?”
“Mister, you paid me in full. Thanks for letting me vent.”
“The pleasure was mine. You know, I never caught your name.”
“David. David Farris,” I said, offering him my hand. We shook like old friends.
“It was nice meeting you, Brian.”
“You too. Have a good life, David.”
“I did, man… I just didn’t realize it.”
I backed my Cutlass out onto Old Cemetery Road and gave Brian a wave, punching it and heading off into the fractured night. It had been a long time coming, but at long last, my wings were shorn and I fly anyway, into the deepening dark, but toward the light of a new tomorrow.
Brian Baxter slid his key into the door and stepped inside. Odd, he thought, finding the house dark, but music came from deep within and he followed it into the den. The song filling the room was the same one he’d heard in the Samaritan’s Cutlass. He hadn’t caught the song title, but it was by a band called Lost Watch, he recalled. The melody was haunting and the candles flickering in the room danced in time with the music.
Laid out on the coffee table was an empty bottle of wine and a drained glass. A photo album completed the scene, open to a page filled with youthful faces and broken dreams. He picked it up and stared at the ensemble, friends captured in a moment in time. He recognized the younger version of his wife. She was happy, with eyes alight, nestled in the arms of a young man whose eyes hinted at a growing sadness. He’d seen that face before too. A lump grew in his throat as realization slowly sunk in.
“I didn’t hear you come in?”
Brian looked up to see his wife standing in the archway with a fresh bottle of wine in her hands. She’d been crying. Her cheeks were flushed and wet with the flow of mournful tears.
“I was in a minor accident,” he said. “I’m fine, but the car got crinkled up a bit. I got a lift home from a passing motorist.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said, crossing the room and taking the photo album from him. “Look, I’m sorry about this. I suppose I should explain.”
“You’re not going to believe this, dear, but the man who gave me a ride, he’s in the picture with you. He said his name was David. David Farris.”
“Oh god,” she muttered. “No, he couldn’t…”
“Honey, it’s alright. We talked for a bit… he told me…”
“Brian, David Farris is dead. He killed himself more than twenty years ago.”
“That’s not possible. He just…”
Her tears poured forth in a cascade of bitter regret and she fell into her husband’s arms and buried her face in his chest, blubbering with unchecked emotion. He held her tight, trying desperately to wrap his head around what had transpired this night, while the haunted strains of David and Jennifer’s song played on.
“…through the day I fear to tread, into darkness I am led…”
~BF / 2009