short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
Upon my return home from the Navy, I felt much like George Bailey, his wish of never being born granted. I didn’t hurry home, staying in Virginia for almost a year, looking for something I’d lost, maybe finding my soul, only to leave it behind. One day, I stuffed everything I could into a duffle bag, slung the bag over my shoulder and headed out, my thumb to the sky on a ramp to 95, a small sign proclaiming my destination.
I left Virginia and the Navy as I left my home in New Jersey when I enlisted: a bag with all I could carry over my shoulder, leaving much behind, leaving nothing behind.
I was bone tired, both times.
A man, two decades my senior, collected me from the highway, happy for company on his sojourn from Florida to New York City, his fortune stowed in the trunk. He asked for oral sex: “To pass the time.” He was a hard forty-four, punch-drunk from a life crowded with the wrong events, much of his own doing. He reeked of disease, both mental and physical.
I politely declined the liaison.
The hours leaked by as the miles raced under the rubber. He dreamed big, investing all he owned in one big score. “I’m goin’ make so much money. So much money. I’m goin’ to buy a small farm, you know. Not to work to make money, just to live off by myself where no one’ll bother me. I love cats, you know. Never been allowed to have one. Mom was allergic. When I got on my own, landlords wouldn’t let me. With the farm, I can grow just enough for what I need, and I can have cats, as many as I want!”
“And rabbits.” He missed my cynical allusion.
“If I want!”
Sometimes, I wonder about the road not taken, my choice to jump ship at exit 4, not continuing to New York City seeking my fortune at the stranger’s invitation.
Let’s call the stranger Bob.
I suggested Bob let me off on the side of the road. Bob insisted exiting the turnpike, offering to buy me breakfast. I lied. “I’m not hungry, have people waiting.” Being kindred vagabonds, we didn’t exchange phone numbers or addresses. “Good luck.” I meant the wish, knowing his quest folly, Bob more likely to end up in jail or dead in an alley, his bounty stolen by streetwise people than retired to a farm.
I huddled in my pea coat, the only physical thing I kept from the Navy, late autumn’s chill scurrying around me, the sun threatening from below the horizon. I’d reached the end of my plan. My feet stood on New Jersey soil.
Depression is like that, a diseased companion, both mental and physical.
Regression is like depression. Depression has better press. The sun bathed me. I wanted to run to Joyce, my best friend reaching back to my teen years. I wanted to fill my body with drugs and bourbon and make love with Joyce until my soul bled dark bile, cleansing me.
Joyce and I weren’t lovers. Our sex had nothing to do with love.
Joyce was dead, murdered because our culture refused to understand her pain.
Starting over is impossible, crowded by so many ghosts. December, cold biting wind, bright lights everywhere, dim to me. I refused to be happy. I couldn’t get drunk enough. Drawn like a dehydrated horse to water in the desert, I returned to the places Joyce and I partied, the faces we knew gone, grown up, replaced by children.
I felt old.
I sought my dead Joyce. I’d settle for someone, anyone looking even remotely like her. Anyone. Anyone to drain the pain, even for an hour.
She didn’t look anything like Joyce. Like me, she was out of place.
Parties, out of control events, weren’t difficult to find, simply a slow drive down the right street in Camden, New Jersey, look for the crowds waxing and waning.
At first blush, she looked young, too young to be among the chaos. The antithesis of Joyce, her white angel-atop-the-Christmas-tree hair in folds and flows to Joyce’s straight burnt-orange, her summer-noon sky eyes to Joyce’s coffee-black irises. She held a Boone’s Farm, Joyce drank bourbon, straight from the bottle. In the five minutes I stalked her, she didn’t take a sip. Like the currents of a river around a snagged log, people flowed past her, her bright eyes sharp from behind the waterfall of golden hair cascading over her shoulders, dropping to her chest.
Her eyes were too large for her face, pushed into the yellow ocher flesh like uncooked sugar cookie dough, her lips pink, full, soft, pouty, smiling tentatively, unsure.
Perched on three-inch pumps raised her to my height, form-fitting jeans informed puberty ancient history and her white cotton turtleneck under her open denim jacket was designed for display, the pattern of her sheer lace bra teasing with white and shadow, useless to conceal her nipples. I thought her underdressed for the season, obviously not planning to walk far.
I chose a place near, my back to the wall, joining her like watching a slow parade on the Forth of July, nursing my Rolling Rock. I didn’t have to wait long.
“Nice coat,” she bit with a touch of sarcasm.
“Not my fashion choice. A gift from my uncle.”
“Yeah. My father had one. Murdered in ‘Nam.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Why? Did you know him?”
I was being polite. Drink the Boone’s Farm, I’ll be back.
I shrugged an answer.
“Sorry. Just pisses me off. Are you a baby killer?”
I turned my head, holding her eyes. “You don’t have a whole lotta friends, do you?”
She stared, our eyes tethered, a tear on her right cheek. “Sorry. Been a terrible two years. My husband died.”
I withheld the sorry to hear that, substituting an empathetic nod.
“We grew up together. Classic life-long lovers.”
The pat, rehearsed story spilled against Jim Morrison’s Waiting for the Sun album, melded voices, an ill-kempt oil furnace and the stench of cigarette smoke, crowded humanity in no less than thirty minutes. I listened, nodding. By the time she finished, we were holding hands, standing close.
Nausea and a blinding headache were my wages. Alicia yelled a one-sided conversation from the other room. The bedding reeked of human filth, in need of a visit to the Laundromat. I needed a shower. I didn’t want to wash Alicia away. Not yet. Our communion made me feel almost human.
Alicia sat on the bed, offering coffee, which I accepted.
“My sister.” She rolled her eyes. “Do you have to go to work? Be anywhere?”
“What about your sister?” I pulled hard on the coffee, gut-wrenching poison, just what I needed.
“That was her on the phone. I have to go get Eric. Like it’d kill her to watch him for the night.”
Eric? “Oh, okay. Yeah, I have to run out. That’s run out, not away.”
“I don’t follow.”
“If I could stay, and was welcome, I would. I’m not running away from you.”
“You’re sweet. I could fall in love with you. You’re just what this Christmas needs. Come by after work?”
“You can meet Eric.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure I told you I have a kid.”
I wasn’t that drunk.
A toe-headed Germanic ragamuffin, urchin. But then, I think that about most boys in and around four years old. I’m good with children – when they’re sleeping. Eric was a product of his environment, proof for the behavioralists.
Alicia let the reins well loose. “Given what he’s suffered.” She didn’t have the heart to reprimand him for anything.
Alicia touched me in a place I didn’t know existed. I stood aloof, never telling her, not allowing myself to be exposed, open, vulnerable.
She knew. I could tell by her eyes, the way she drank me in.
Christmas week, early evening, over pizza, Eric rolled his eyes. “I didn’t get to see Santa!”
Like a vaudeville act, Alicia responded. “Why, no, you didn’t.”
“If I don’t see Santa, he won’t bring me anything!”
Before I hit my teens, I’d spend evenings the two weeks before Christmas throwing Christmas trees at a local garden store. The garden store sold everything imaginable for Christmas, had a dark room with dozens of decorated Christmas trees and Santa Claus on his throne, jolly, glad to see the children, a ball of white light in a sea of dark gloom.
As a child throwing trees for tips, I’d take a short break to get warm, watching Santa with the children. I thought about taking a turn. Santa couldn’t provide what I needed. Besides, Santa always asked: Have you been a good boy? I didn’t want to lie.
The throne stood empty. I left Alicia and Eric among the lighted trees, seeking Santa.
The young man, jeans, plaid shirt, a red vest, stood from his stocking, eyes darting, shaking. He stammered. “We don’t have him this week.”
The young man was scared out of his skin. I knew the fear, irrational. I knew his socially disabling malaise as I knew my own, back then, nameless, sometimes the insult of he’s just shy offered as an explanation.
“Here’s what you have to do. Get one of those Santa hats and sit on the throne. You have to be Santa’s helper.”
The color drained from his face. I thought he might pass out. “I couldn’t. Can’t.”
Eric came up below and behind, pulling on my sleeve. “If I can’t talk to Santa, he won’t know what to bring me.”
The stock boy looked down, back to me and down again. “Let me get some candy canes.
He did not fare well, unable to get three ho’s out in a row, stammering, sweat beading on his forehead. Eric didn’t notice, coming alive in the dream shared down the generations.
Christmas Eve was a short workday. Though my life was immersed in darkness, like standing just off the turnpike on my return to New Jersey, the sun threatened to push the night away. I felt a rare moment of optimism. I felt like being sober, decorating the tree with Alicia, wrapping last minute presents for Eric and maybe making quiet love into the morning.
Surprise had me demand: “Who are you?”
A man in a dark suit towered, allowing the door to open. “You must be looking for my daughter.”
“Actually, I’m looking for Alicia.”
His eyes calculated. “That would be my daughter.” He symbolically inventoried the apartment. “She runs off now and then. Don’t know why she’d want to live like this. She’s back with her husband in Cherry Hill, where she belongs.”
The man looked markedly well for someone who was murdered in Vietnam.
I’d like to say Alicia broke my heart. She didn’t. Alicia took from me what she needed. I took from her what I needed. The pages fell from the calendar. I cruised the street in Camden the first week in December, not admitting I looked for Alicia, that we could touch again.
In despair, maybe in resolution, I thought to buy a Christmas tree, a small one, leftover, a tree no one wanted. I imagined a three-foot tree leaning in the corner in the back of the fenced enclosure the week before Christmas.
I didn’t have a stand, or decorations. I didn’t want to buy an artificial tree. I wanted a tree that would die and dry out, like my dreams, left forgotten on the curb in January. I went inside the garden center in search of a cheap stand, a strand of lights and a box of balls.
Kids were everywhere. My heart hurt when I thought Alicia might be among the mothers. No Alicia. No Eric.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” reverberated, I thought a recording. The children cheered as a kid jumped from Santa’s lap, replaced by another. “Have you been a good boy?” The question came with assuredness, the voice vibrating with the enthusiasm of a man doing what he enjoyed.
I narrowed my eyes. “It’s you!”
“Sorry, sir, do I know you?”
“You’re, you are the stock boy, right?”
He nodded, putting a finger to his lips. “Do I know you?”
I blinked twice. “No, I guess not.
For the first time in over a year, I thought of the pathetic dreamer I met on the road, and for the first time, I could see Bob sitting at his window in his farmhouse watching the snow, a cat on his lap.