Tara was in the kitchen slicing vegetables for a soup. I snuck up behind her and put my hands around her stomach. I pulled her into me. She pushed back. I tried to kiss her neck. She turned away.
“What is it? What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying. I’ve been trying.”
“You have to try?”
“I don’t like how it feels when you touch me. Please don’t make me explain.”
“Is it the baby?”
I went out on the back porch. That morning’s snow glittered in the moonlight. I could hear Cal Baker’s dogs barking to be let out. They went chasing after a squirrel, then stood around the tree like patient hunters until Cal whistled for them to come back inside. I waved to Cal and he waved back.
Everything was as it should be, except that Tara no longer loved me. Her not loving me made me feel boyishly afraid. Each room of our house seemed new and frightening. The same for the street we lived on, the town, and the office where I worked. I didn’t know how to perform simple tasks. I panicked in the break room, grabbed at my chest, stumbled, and fell over the table of donuts. I was rushed to the hospital. The doctor said my heart was fine. He asked if I was under any acute stresses. He wrote me a prescription for alprazolam and referred me to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist wrote me two more prescriptions. The pills made me feel heavy, and I sank into bed. I slept for three days as though sick from the flu.
Finally, Tara asked me to leave. She said we’d find a way to work things out with Colin.
“You named him?”
“Do you like it?”
“I want to be a part of his life.”
“First take care of yourself.”
Her face was motionless.
* * * *
We were two men alone, standing outside our doors at the Affordable Corporate Suites near the battleship in Fall River, smoking, shivering in the cold, abandoned dogs too old to pity.
We wore knit caps and loose-fitting jackets and sweatpants and running shoes. Occasionally we glanced at each other, shoulders hunched, faces blurred by the yellow light flickering inside the plastic globes fixed above our doors.
We should have never known each other—not like this. We were lucky. We were men. White, privileged men. We could afford to take things for granted. Our dreams were attainable. Other successful white men mussed our hair and gripped the muscle between our shoulders and neck and called us good boys. We were good. Even when we were bad.
* * * *
During the second week I was there, the other man’s car wouldn’t start. I was going for my morning walk as if I had someplace to go. He asked me if I had jumper cables. He was driving a maroon Pontiac Sunbird, something out of the late seventies, worn and wheezing when it ran. I had heard him leave early some mornings. The passenger-side door was scratched and dented. He had New Hampshire license plates (Live Free or Die), and the upholstery hung from the car’s ceiling. In the backseat was a dog leash, a couple of water-fattened Robert Ludlum paperbacks, crumpled fast- food bags, and empty Styrofoam cups.
He had to pry the hood open with a crowbar. I watched him. He was a big, heavyset guy, with a hint of handsomeness he’d carried with him from boyhood. He lowered the hood onto the standing crowbar and attached the cables to the battery.
“That should do it,” he said.
“I’ll give it some gas.”
The battery sparked when he turned the key. After a couple of tries, the motor turned over.
He thanked me and said, “You’re in the corner room, right?
Do you have a good view?”
“Right,” he said, and took a cigarette from his pack.
I understood he might want to talk and so I joined him. But we didn’t talk. We listened to the motor rumble like a handful of change spinning in a laundry dryer.
I was hungry and the snow had started coming down. I went back to my room and made eggs and toast and sat on the bed in front of the TV.
The car ran for a half hour, until I heard the door slam and the tires spin out when he turned out of the parking lot onto the main road into town.
* * * *
The weather had gotten warmer, though at night it was still cold. You could hear the residents of the Affordable Corporate Suites banging the electric heaters in their rooms. But the sky was clear and I could see the tall glimmering stars out the lone window of my corner suite. I watched them with the same blind awe with which I watched the television.
I had trouble sleeping. I took a blue pill, a yellow pill, a green pill, each developed to numb me into a state of irrevocable emptiness, where my thoughts and dreams and pain are flushed out into the space beyond space.
Sometimes I closed my eyes at four and woke up at seven. This happened both in the morning and evening. I tried masturbating. It was boring, or hopeless. My attention drifted toward the window, the frosted rooftops, the pink light that bloomed out of the sky at sundown and sunset.
* * * *
Two in the morning, yesterday, or the day before yesterday, Pontiac Sunbird man was outside his door, reading the newspaper under his yellow light, his hands shaking, not from cold but from something else, nervous ness maybe, or too much coffee. The skin around his eyes was red and puffed. He looked like a large child who, after threatening his parents for so many weeks that he was going to run away, had finally done so but now had gone too far and was looking for a way back home.
Maybe he doesn’t remember me, I thought. People come and go from this place every day. We are interchangeable. To recognize each other is to recognize our own helplessness.
But enough, we are breathing, so let me tell you what happened the next day, today, when finally that Pontiac’s engine wouldn’t turn over and I got a knock on my door, my neighbor standing there in his coat, wearing a pair of jeans, washed and shaved, chewing a piece of gum.
He says, “This is such a morbid place. Let’s get out of here for a while.”
He holds out his hand, says his name, Doug. Doug Asplund from Moultonborough, New Hampshire.
He’s been doing survey work for the past two months. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds just as boring as my job was, so I don’t ask. This is the first day he’s taken off work since he left New Hampshire. He’s divorced and has two little girls who won’t speak to him.
“Work keeps my mind from going dark,” he says.
“That’s natural,” I say.
He looks at his broken-down Pontiac and says, “Let’s grab a bite. I could use the company, and you probably could, too. I can hear you in the next room, through the bathroom wall. I don’t know what person thought to build a place like this. I know your story, or parts of it, anyway.”
Then he must have heard me sobbing the other night after I spoke with Colin on the phone. Though not really speaking with him but to him, saying, Hey, buddy, hey, little guy, what are you doing, you being good for Mama, are you having fun, do you miss your dada . . . and hearing his coo like a dove, his playful scream, his impatient sigh at not being able to reach through the phone and touch my eyes and nose and mouth. I couldn’t take it. I had to hang up.
Doug heard how I had ended up here at the Affordable Corporate Suites. The guise that he was an indifferent guy smoking outside next door had been lifted. We could be friends. Or we could be enemies.
“Did you get your Applebee’s coupon at the front desk?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you check in, they give you a twenty-five-dollar coupon for Applebee’s. I thought we could head over there and have dinner.”
I walk into the office but no one’s at the desk. I wait. There were times before, when I needed more toilet paper, and eventually someone—a girl or the manager’s sister—came out to meet me, having heard the buzzer when I entered. I don’t know who the girl belongs to, the sister or the manager. She doesn’t look like either. But all three of them seem generally content.
Doug is standing by the door, rubbing his hands.
“I could eat a horse,” he says.
“No one’s in there.”
“That’s fine. I’ll cover the extra cost if necessary.”
“I have money.”
“No problem. I was just making a gesture.”
“I am hungry, though.”
“Good. Let’s head out.”
* * * *
Once when Tara and I passed by an Outback Steak house, she said that if you can’t afford an extra ten bucks to support your local cuisine, then you shouldn’t be eating out at all.
So we never went out. We didn’t have any money.
But sometimes I’d sneak a quick bite at the Chili’s down the street when they had specials or at the Cracker Barrel for their weekly fish fry. Something about the uniformity of those places is comforting. My waiter is always friendly and sincere; the food is hot and mediocre; drinks are strong and cheap.
At Chili’s one night, I drank too many margaritas and fell asleep with the side of my face pressed against a plate of cold nachos. When I woke up, they didn’t treat me like some skidrow drunk. We laughed. The bartender tossed me a washcloth. They had a picture of me on the wall the next time I went in, asleep on the nachos. I said it was fine if they wanted to leave it up, but if they wouldn’t mind could they black out my face with a marker.
“My wife,” I said. “Just in case.”
But it wasn’t my sneaking out for dinner or my coming home plastered or the moods of dreaminess I dropped into, a fishing bobber floating on the surface of what was real. I wanted to be a musician, an actor, a boat captain, a pi lot, a seeker of precious metals. Time had run out. I was too old to start over. We had benefits, health and dental, and a 401(k). Tara instructed me to get on top when we made love. She said it was the best way to get her pregnant. I barely knew her. How could I know her? She was born with different parts. At my desk one morning, I flipped out and smashed my keyboard and flung my papers out into the hall. I drove the car up onto the lawn and spun the wheels until the sod and mud peppered the house. Tara screamed from the front step. I was blasting “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Her face was freckled with dirt. I’d gotten to the bottom of the earth. There was nowhere else to go but away.
After two weeks inside Reflections, a rehab up in Duxbury, my insurance stopped paying, and I was back at my desk. There was nothing on it except the PC. I waited all day for a new password, but whoever gave out new passwords found a Band-Aid in his micro wave chili cup and went to the hospital. The next day I got the password. The day after that it was like I never left. Months like days, then Tara standing in the kitchen; how beautiful she looked with Colin growing inside her, and how I wanted her more than ever. But by then it was over.
You can never go back to how it was. The time we went clamming on the shore and steamed them in the kitchen and then made love; or when we went up to Maine and stayed at the
Fly by Night motel, where I sipped tequila from her belly button; or down in Florida, when she convinced the car-rental guy to upgrade us to a Corvette convertible; dressed like movie stars, we passed by the lines at the clubs into the VIP sections, living like there was no such thing as a past or a future, just living.
What could ever be better than that?
* * * *
At Applebee’s, Doug and I take a table in the bar area. We look at menus. Turns out we can get two meals for twenty bucks and a free appetizer if we combine options from box 1 with options from box 2, but not box 3, unless we want to pay five bucks extra.
Doug wants a burger—“They butter the buns here,” he says, “just like my mother used to when I was a kid”—and a Bud. I’m considering one of the healthy options from box 4, maybe the honey- glazed chicken breast sandwich. It couldn’t hurt.
We order. We stare at the basketball players on the televisions over our opposite shoulders. The boys fly across the court like electric charges.
Neither of us has a stake in either team, and during halftime Doug sifts around in his coat pocket and pulls out a tiny cylindrical piece of red birchwood, one of those old birdcalls my grandpa used to have.
“This little thing is a lifesaver,” he says, winding up the instrument.
We listen to it call out of context. Heads turn. The sound is as unpleasant as it is unwelcome in a place like Applebee’s.
“My father gave me one of these when I was a kid,” Doug says. “I could never attract a bird with it. I thought there was something wrong with me. Dad said to keep trying. Then one day, you know, when I was least expecting it, a rose- breasted grosbeak perched on my shoulder. I hadn’t even twisted the caller. And that magnificent bird rested on my shoulder for no more than a few seconds, but I swear to you, I can still feel it there, the light grip of its feet, just the slightest pressure.”
Can I tell you I’m on the verge of breaking down right here and now?
Because I am.
Even as he complains to the waitress that our Southwestern egg rolls are cold after he’s eaten half the plate, or when he lets out an openmouthed belch after sucking down his first beer, or how he indiscriminately challenges the couple’s conversation at the table beside us. Even now I want to just let it all go.
And you might think I’m crazy, because your Doug Asplund is so different from my Doug Asplund. But neither is really Doug Asplund, can never be Doug Asplund. You’d have to shrink down to the size of a gnat, crawl up inside his brain, and buzz around awhile to understand Doug Asplund.
What I’m saying, I’m saying, you would have to not be you.
By the end of the night, we are good and wet, stumbling back to the Affordable Corporate Suites like rovers in a new land. We shake hands, friends.
“Until tomorrow, good sir,” Doug says.
“Until tomorrow,” I say.
* * * *
Next day I get a call from my cousin in Tucson. He heard I’d fallen on hard times. He says he’s been running a fairly successful contracting business and is more than willing to hire me as an adviser. Basically, I’d make sure his books were in line. “I’m no good with numbers,” he says. He also says, “This is no charity gig.”
But I know it is, and I couldn’t care less.
For the first time in weeks, I welcome sleep.
Then there’s a knock on my door. I open my eyes and stare up at the water stain on the ceiling. I hear the knock again, get up, and look through the peephole to see Doug standing there with his big arms across his chest.
“My heater broke,” he says. “Is yours working?”
“I was asleep.”
“Feels like yours isn’t working, either.”
“I didn’t notice.”
He walks past me through the kitchen and sits on the couch, rubbing his thighs.
“I used to be able to handle the cold. I used to be able to handle a lot of things.”
“I can make some coffee.”
“Sure. Coffee would help.”
I dump out the old grounds and start a new pot. I can feel the cold now rising through the bottoms of my feet. While the coffee brews, I wrap myself up in the fleece blanket they give us when we check in. I can tell Doug wants to talk, but I’m too tired to hear new stories. When the coffee is ready, I pour him a cup and lie back in bed.
“This is good,” he says. “Strong.”
“I can’t drink it any other way.”
“I miss good coffee. Moultonborough has a little place that imports beans from around the world. I can still remember the smell of that place. I’d buy a pound and order a small espresso and sit outside when the weather was nice and watch the pigeons in the park across the way.”
Maybe he’s still talking, but I’m halfway to Arizona, visualizing heat as I shiver beneath the covers.
Then I feel the bed tilt and sink away from me. I can hear Doug’s heavy breathing as he fixes himself onto his side. I don’t move. Not even when he slings his arm across my body and slides up against me.
I begin to warm up. I close my eyes and slide into sleep.
Arizona is here.
So is Tara, and our past and future, the beasts of mind’s creation, audacious acrobats flying from star to star. And Doug Asplund. Big, fat, handsome Doug Asplund, sitting alone on a bench at the edge of the universe, twisting his red birchwood birdcall, letting it unwind and twitter, until that rose-breasted grosbeak finally returns.
From WE’VE ALREADY GONE THIS FAR. Used with permission of Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Dacey.