S&R Fiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: A Healing Place by Mark Sumioka

A Healing Place

Just prior to Gale’s death, I had gotten out of hand.  I had gone on a bender and when Gale lay in bed that last time I couldn’t recall what she looked like or what I had said.  My recollection of her final moments was not there.  I had blacked out.  And it disgusted me so much afterward that I quit drinking cold turkey.

Sir, you need to wake up,” the hospice nurse said.

“I am awake.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

“I’m up.  Now leave us alone.”

“I think you’re drunk.  If you don’t leave I’ll have to call a security guard.”

“Look at me,” I said.  Then my eyes were back on Gale.  She was heavily sedated.  They called it palliative sedation.  I called it waiting to die.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

Having to watch Gale go through the chemotherapy and then radiation afterward had been overwhelming.  And when it hadn’t done it, and the cancer had returned and spread like wildfire, I believe that was what had buried me.  She had dwindled so fast.

Still I was always at her bedside, through the surgeries, and then at the hospice.  And there she was, barely alive, lying in that bed, her bodily functions a daily fiasco.

And the shoddy insurance that wouldn’t cover all of the costs, and everyday I knew how badly it had snowballed, her condition as well as the finances, and it was far too much.  My only coping mechanism had been to run for the bottle.

During my daily visits to her room I had been hung over every time, often having to throw up in the bathroom.  And once even in the trashcan in the room.  Something about that hospice room made my nausea intensify, like fear of heights, so that the whirling in my brain would give me vertigo, and it was almost like a hand at my back pushing me over the edge of the tall platform.  But I showed Gale the good fight and smiled and told her stories and brought her flowers and boxes of candies that she couldn’t eat but I knew she loved to see.

And then she was gone, and I swore up and down (again) that I would quit, this time on her behalf.  This was a worthy cause.  It wasn’t for me (which wasn’t enough to make it keep).

Weeks passed.  Sobriety trudged along.  I knew so much as a shift in wind might change my mind.  The intense withdrawals continued to clobber me, and I lay in bed each day, awake with trembling hands and arms, often convulsive, that never-ending headache at the back of my skull.

Through the pain of sobriety, a part of me wished I were back in Gale’s hospice room where she lay in wait, where the daily recollections rolled over and over like a cycle in my mind, all coming to a head on that last day when I couldn’t remember a stitch about her face and what might have been said.  Though she couldn’t speak much.  Sometimes she had mouthed the words.  Sometimes I pretended to hear her whispers.  (And then her passing, and darkness for each of us.  Gale in that bed, and me shamefully nodding off by her side.)

But I was still here.  I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days.  When my stomach ached for food it was the same routine, go to the refrigerator and fetch a pickle from the jar.  There was little else except for the strange odor of expired food since removed, and dankness.

It was doing me no good staying in the apartment.  I needed to get out.  All I saw were Gale’s things, or items we had enjoyed together.  It was no good.  At the least I would go out and buy groceries in order to halt the stomach knots and malnutrition.

I drove around town, turning right and then another right, and then through the green light, missing the turn to the grocery store parking lot and onward, boarding the freeway with no willingness to stop the truck.

I showed up at Teddy’s place.  Fortunately, he was the only one home.  The girls had taken their kids to a matinee.

“Well good,” Teddy said as I walked in.  “Got to be stuffy as hell in that place of yours.”

“You eat?” I said.

“Of course.  But it’s never enough what they give me.”  He meant his daughters.  “Alexandra and Elizabeth have me on a diet.  Of sorts.”

“What do you mean ‘of sorts’?”

“Oh, it’s a headache to explain,” Teddy said then proceeded to explain, “They allow me raw vegetables, raw nuts, raw this and raw that.  And they’ve got me on so much fish that I’m worried about overdosing on Mercury.”

I joined him on the couch in the living room.

“You should be worried,” I warned.  “Mercury is no joke.”

“And it’s so uninspiring.  Just get me fresh albacore from the market once in a while.”  He shook his head.  “But it’s that God awful tuna casserole, and Tuna Helper.  You ever had Tuna Helper?”

“They’re giving you canned tuna?”

“Bucket loads.”

“Terrible.”

“And chicken.  They do give me the occasional leg and thigh.  They’re good girls.  I’m proud of them,” he said reasoning.  “They’re trying, Hank.  Don’t get it wrong.”  It seemed he was flipping sides, and without my help.  It was a personality trait of his, like many women I knew.  Complain about something and then turn around and defend it.  You never knew which side he was on.  “I am out of shape.  And with all that’s happened the past year I think the girls are worried about me.”

He was talking about the passing of our mother, and then my wife’s recent death.  Though he wouldn’t come out and say it.

“Well, you’re no spring chicken,” I said hoping to derail the conversation.  I had just gotten there.  It would be a rotten thing to have to turn around and leave.

Teddy’s eyes studied me, like always, like a brother, prodding until he reached judgment and got that stupid look of contentedness on his face.  I believe it was then that he realized my sobriety.  And instead of challenging it as he had done so many times, or make light of it, he did something much worse.

“I’ve got a bottle for you in the garage.”

“The hell you do.”

“But I do.”

I was surprised.  His eldest daughter Alexandra had forbidden me from drinking hard liquor in their home.  Teddy drank wine, so he was safe.  His youngest daughter Samantha was like me, but she was smart enough to live on her own.

“Stop it,” I said, my heartbeat up my throat.

“You don’t have to take it,” he said.  His brows lifted and stayed arched.  “I bought it on a whim.  Samantha was there.  You can ask her.  I just thought I’d do something nice for a change.”

His timing was awful.  But wasn’t that the way it always went?

Now it was in me.  I envisioned the bottle in his garage.  I saw the clean glass and sloshing liquid.

“My head’s killing me,” I said.

Teddy watched me steadily.

I said desperately, “So when’s the ball-buster coming home?”

“After the movie they’re taking them to Chuck E. Cheese.  That might take hours.”

There was something in Teddy’s tone and drawn out voice that could influence me.  Since we were kids he was always coaxing, persuading, inciting…it was a game that he relished.

“Go get it,” I said urgently.  It had come at once, like the first time our parents had gone away and left us alone in the house.  My tone was almost childlike, brimming hope, “You have some, too.”

“No,” he chuckled, “it’s for you.”  As he walked to the corner, I could hear his cell phone.  He reached into his pocket, glanced at the screen, and put it away before moving out of sight.

I heard the garage door thump shut.  Then it opened and thumped again.  Teddy appeared with the bottle tightly wrapped in a brown paper bag.

My heart leapt.

It came back effortlessly.  As if time had never passed.  I was wavering after the fourth drink, but I held steady, posturing like the seasoned drinker, until I was spun into such drunkenness that the only thing I could do was sit pensive and stone-faced.

And there was the problem.  I needed to drink in order to cope, but the more I drank the more my insides ripped at the seams.  I didn’t know how to be anymore.  There had to be another way, some other way to ease the pain.

The bottle was three-quarters gone when my head hit the pillow.  I was holding my head at the temples to control the spins.  Teddy was doing his rooster impression within earshot.

“If you need to rest, go on and sleep it off,” he said.

Drinking had always been the best short-term solution because there was nothing else I could do to escape the misery.  Yet it wouldn’t go away.  It wouldn’t be distracted.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, “I don’t know what to do, Teddy.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.  Don’t be such a lush.”

There was the sound of his cell phone vibrating in his pocket.  He ignored it.  Then his eyes widened and he tilted his head, listening.

He said, “What the hell is that?”

“Your phone, stupid.”

“Not that.  Listen.”

Teddy put a finger over his mouth to quiet us.  Then he went into the hall and peeked over the railing.  There were voices downstairs, and then a ruckus.  I heard the sharp pitch then low dip and knew it was Alexandra.  Then came Squeaky’s whining voice.  There were the grandkids jostling at the sound of cookie wrappers or chip bags or something of the sort.

“Me, me, me!”

“I want some!”

“Marty, don’t you want some?”

“Me, me!”

“Stop pushing me, Mickey!”

Hey!” Alexandra shouted.  “Calm down.”

Teddy rushed back.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said urgently.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“You know the rules.”

“Horseshit.  This is your house.”

“She’ll snap,” he warned, “I swear it.  I’ve seen it again and again.  You want to cause another breakdown?”

“I wouldn’t call it that.  More like unbridled rage.”

Teddy was speaking of a previous incident between Alexandra and myself.  He pointed to my left temple.  “She drew blood.  And gave you a slight concussion as I recall.”

“No proof of that.”

“I could tell by the way you acted after.”

“That was the booze.”

Alexandra and I had argued and I’d pushed her buttons so she’d hit me across the face with those big rings on her thick fingers and it had given me a nickel-sized scar.  Since that time – a year past – we had made peace, her only stipulation being I bring no more liquor into Teddy’s house.  And I had done so without protest.

“Well, this is your fault,” I added.

“We’ve got to sneak you out of here.”

“I’m not that bad.”

“Oh, save it, little brother,” he said then rushed down the stairs.

I heard the typical chatter of family, first the initial curiousness, to the steady rhythm of conversation, and finally the peaks and dips of their differences of opinion.

There was a succession of thumps and Teddy appeared at the doorway.

“Okay, let’s go,” he said.

“What time is it?”

“Six o’clock, why?”

“What about Chuck E. Cheese?”

He sighed.  “Apparently there was a flood in the building.  Chuck E. Cheese is closed.”

“Do they know I’m here?”

“No, and let’s keep it that way.”

Suddenly there was the rapid thumping of children making their way up the stairs.  Teddy sighed then dug into his pocket and fished out his wallet.  With dollar bills in hand he went to the door and closed it behind him.  I could hear the transaction take place.

“You all go in Amanda’s room and play.”

“How come?”

“You stay there until dinner’s ready.”

“Why, Grandpa?”

“Amanda, go into your room.  You two go with Amanda.  Hold on…take this.”

There was the hush of money changing hands.  Then he returned, watching them steadily until I heard Amanda’s door click shut.

Teddy turned to me.  “Let’s go.”

“You gave them money?”

“Trust me.  It speeds things along.”

“Look, why don’t I just go down and say hi to everyone.”

“You ass.  You don’t get it.  Alexandra will go nuts.  Look at you.  You welched on your deal.”

“No thanks to you.”

“The way I see it, the less conflict the better.”

“Oh yes,” I droned, “your new mantra.”

“We’ll sneak out through the front.”

“And where are we going?”

“I’ll take you home.”

I looked him dead in the eyes.  “No.  Not there.”

“Then I don’t know.  I’ve got to take you someplace.”

He went and looked over the railing again.  Then he waved me over.  We made our way downstairs.  I slid my hand down the cold metal railing for stability.  Alexandra and Squeaky were in the kitchen, out of sight.  The house already reeked of cigarette smoke.

Once out the front door we made our way across the street.  I gestured to my truck.

“Like they didn’t see it parked there?” I said.

“Shut your mouth, Hank.  Let’s go.  They’re women.  They only see what’s worth seeing.”

I was irritated.  Teddy drove my truck like a teenager.  He over-steered and stomped on the brakes when we got to intersections.  My head ached from dehydration.

“Where the hell are we going?” I said.

“I have no idea.  I suppose we’ll just drive.

I wanted to bash his head.

His cell phone vibrated again, only this time it didn’t stop.  It kept on, again and again.

I burst, “Answer your damn phone, Teddy!  It’s giving me a fucking headache!”

He was befuddled.  “But it’s on vibrate.”

“Just answer it!”

My head exploded with pain, pounding like a mallet.

Now I watched him.  He wriggled his hand into his pocket and pulled out the cellphone.  He looked at the name on the screen then shook his head.  He placed the phone face down on his lap.  It was still vibrating.

He said, “It’s just Noble.  I don’t want to talk to him.  Do you want to talk to him?”

“He’s calling you, not me.”

“He only calls when there’s trouble lately.”

“Pull over to the side and answer it.”

“He’s just going to complain.”

“Answer the damn phone,” I said deflating.  All at once the anger had turned to exhaustion.  My headache was debilitating me.

Noble,” Teddy said refreshed, “How are you?”

When the light turned green, he drove through rather than pulling over.  He glanced at me.  I shook my head.

“Look, I’m driving right now.  Can we talk later?  I don’t want to get a ticket.”  Then his eyes widened.  “She what?  When?”

“What?” I said.

“And what did you do?” Teddy said.  “And where are you now?”

“He all right?”

Teddy waved me off.

“Okay.  I see.  Well, sure we can.  That might actually work out.  Just stay there and we’ll be right over.”

He braked hard at a red light.

“You’re ruining my damn brakes!”

“Mindy’s kicked Noble out of the house.  Can you believe it?”

“Of course I can,” I grumbled.

“You mean you knew?”

“No.  I didn’t.”

“We’ll head over to his hotel.”  Suddenly he was careful, “Is that a problem?”

“I don’t care.”

“Because you’re the one who said you didn’t want to go home.”

“Anywhere but there,” I said.

There was actual loss, and then there was what Noble had dealt himself.  He had cheated on his wife and gotten caught.  Now Mindy was leaving him.  I gathered she would get the house and the daughter.  It was Noble who would suffer most.  Though he had it coming.

Teddy kept looking over as he drove to the hotel.

“Now don’t badger the man.  Let him go his own pace.  I’m sure he’ll tell us every detail when he’s ready.”

“I don’t need to hear any details,” I said.

“Well, I sure as hell do.”

“Of course you do.  You’re nosy like that.”

He scowled, “He needs counseling, and to get the proper feedback he’ll need to fess up with everything!”

We drove on.  Teddy talked more than usual.  He was anxious.

We parked in the hotel’s ominous garage.  Teddy walked far ahead of me.  His shoes pitter-pattered as he went.

When we got to Noble’s hotel room there was a tennis shoe keeping the door ajar.  Noble was sitting at the circular table playing Solitaire.  He had a finger in his ear.

“I’ve got a fantastic Solitaire game on my phone.  I’ll show you the app,” Teddy said taking the only other chair.

I tried to gauge Noble.  His face sagged and he had a five o’clock shadow.  He glanced at each of us.  Then his eyes were back on the cards.  He held one poised in his right hand.

“We’re here,” Teddy said waving his hands over the cards.

Noble didn’t flinch.  “Good.  I’m glad.”

“You look exhausted.  Are you hungry?” I said.

Noble’s dejected eyes found me, “I’m starving.”

“How long before you can get out of this hotel?” Teddy asked looking over the room with scrutiny.

Noble gave him a look when he said that.  “I’m not sure.”

I cupped my hand to my mouth and blew into it.  “You got any toothpaste?”

Noble motioned toward the bathroom.  So I went and finger-brushed my teeth.  While I was in there I let Teddy do what he felt he needed to do.

“So you’ll move forward, right?” Teddy said.

I looked at myself in the mirror when he said that.  It was as though he was talking to both of us.  That was what I envisioned.  That was what my gut told me I needed to do.  Eventually I would have to move on without Gale.  I searched Noble’s toiletry bag for aspirin.  There was none so I drew a glass of water and drank it quickly.

“Mindy’s just pissed right now,” Noble said.  “She’ll get over it.”

“You naïve ass!  No, she won’t!  She’s gone.  Done.  You’ll have to deal accordingly.  Give her some space, and then, after you’ve gotten your lawyer up to speed, you can go back and tell her what’s doing.”

Teddy had been bursting to discuss it.  I stayed in the bathroom with the door ajar.

“I don’t want to deal with lawyers,” Noble said, his voice muffled.  I could tell his face was in his hands.

“You do the crime, you do the time.”

There was a long silence when Teddy said that.  I poked my head out and they were staring at one another.

“It wasn’t like she meant nothing to me,” Noble said with his fingers interlocked in his hair.

“You mean the other one?” Teddy said.

I exited the bathroom.  Noble turned to me with his eyes pleading for help.

“Leave him alone,” I said.  “Let’s go get something to eat.”

Noble smiled.  His shoulders seemed to relax.  His hands mashed the cards of his Solitaire game into a jumble at the center of the table.  Then he stood up.

“You’re quitting?” Teddy huffed.  “Such a shame.”

The rage came up my throat, “It’s a damn game, Teddy!  Get your head out of your ass!”

Teddy shook his head at me.  We went to the door and Noble put the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob.  When we got halfway up the corridor Teddy clapped his hands and rubbed them furiously.

“I could eat a mountain!” he said grinning.

I looked at Noble and he shrugged.  When Teddy said he could eat a mountain it generally meant he wanted a steak.  And then I remembered the diet the girls had him on.

“Manhattan,” I said to Noble.  “Call and see if they can squeeze us in.”

Noble got out his cell phone and called the restaurant.

His car was new.  It was roomy and luxurious.  The leather seats were slippery and smelled nice.  Teddy was in the backseat, playing Solitaire on his smart phone.  He breathed loudly through his nose.

“What happened to the other car?” I said.

“The Jaguar?  Got rid of it,” Noble said then became alert, “Why?  You don’t like the Mercedes?”

“I like it just fine,” I said.  “It’s very pretty.”

“It is, isn’t it?” he gushed.  Then he glanced over and slapped my knee.

“How are you, Hank?  I haven’t seen you since, well, you know…”

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Hank’s fine,” Teddy bellowed from the backseat.  He pulled himself forward with a hand on each of our seats.  Noble and I sank back from the motion.  “It’s you we’re worried about.”

“I want to say something to Hank,” Noble said.

“What is it?” I said.

“Well, go on,” Teddy said.

I wanted Teddy to shut up.  I wanted them both to shut up and leave me by the side of the road.  I could feel it buzzing all over me, the pent-up frustration of many long months.

Noble braked suddenly.  Everyone pushed forward.  He looked at us and held up an apologetic hand.  I readjusted my seatbelt.

Teddy said to Noble, “You were saying?

Noble looked at me regretfully then said, “Never mind.”

So?” Teddy said.  “What on earth are you going to do with yourself, man?”

There was a red light ahead.  Noble eased the car to a stop.

“My daughter was accepted at Cornell.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“What’s that going to cost?” Teddy said.

Noble shrugged.  “It’s where she wants to go.”

We arrived at the restaurant and were ushered to an arc-shaped booth.  It was bulbous.  I swept the tiny breadcrumbs off the seat’s surface with my hand.  I watched the big fish tanks with their blue lighting, and the relaxed patterns as the fish swam here and there.  I was dehydrated and fatigued.  The drinking had toppled me.  So I gulped the water and they watched me with amusement.

“You’ve got sleep in your eye,” Noble chuckled.  There was anxiety in his laughter.  “What’s the matter?  You just wake up?”

I rubbed the crust away, then blinked rapidly.  The fish became clear again.

“Long story,” I said and glanced at Teddy.  He had his chin up, posturing like usual, as though he had nothing to do with it.

“You drunk, Hank?” Noble said somewhat irritably.

“No.  I’m not drunk,” I said.  All that time after Gale’s passing I had stayed on the wagon just to throw it away at a moment’s notice.  Teddy had shown me the bottle of shitty whiskey and I had taken to it like a dog to peanut butter.

We ordered a few Cannelloni appetizers.  This place had the best ones in town.  Noble pulled one toward him and dug in with his fork.  Then he tore off a piece of bread and dipped it into the marinara and stuffed his chewing mouth.  He ate like a man possessed.

All of us ordered steaks after that.  We ate them with minimal discussion.  I watched Noble as he carved his charred rare steak and chewed noisily.  I didn’t think about his situation, or mine.  Instead I smelled the air-conditioned air, filling my lungs and exhaling meditatively.  My headache was weakening.

I chewed my steak slowly in order to appreciate its flavors.  I looked about the dining room at the other patrons.  I watched them smile and converse merrily.  Their energies were lively, upbeat.  I was glad to be out of the house.  It was a good distraction.

Then it shifted in an instant.  I forked a piece of steak into my mouth and felt another rush of fatigue.  When I glanced at the people again they were uninteresting.

Teddy rubbed a piece of bread along his empty plate, sopping up the residual juices.  Then he said, “So what now?”

“What now, what?” I said.

“For dessert, I mean.”

“It’s like you haven’t been out of the house in years.”

“You have no idea what it’s like.  It’s borderline prison life.”

“Then tell them to mind their own damn business and eat an ice cream cone or something.”

“I’ve tried.  It’s me against them.  Me against all that estrogen.”

“Don’t be such a pussy.”

Noble laughed out loud, “He’s right, Teddy.  Don’t be such a pussy.”

The others in the dining room turned to look.

“I’ve had enough,” I said and pushed my plate toward Teddy.  I had done that since we were kids.

“No thanks,” Teddy said, “I’ll wait for the Crème Brulee.”

“I just noticed something!” Noble shouted and the patrons looked again.

“Keep your goddamn voice down,” I said.

Noble leaned in now.
“None of us are drinking.  Do you see this?  We made it through dinner without one drop of alcohol.”  Noble exhaled joyfully.  And then a wave of pensiveness followed.  He bubbled his lip.  “I could definitely use an Espresso.”  He looked at each of us.  “It’s not important.  I can get one later.”

“Settle down, man.  You can have whatever you want,” Teddy said.

Noble seemed to take exception to that comment.

We were quiet after that until the waiter came and showed us the dessert tray.

Noble drank his Espresso and Teddy sucked down his Crème Brulee.

All I wanted was to disappear for a while.

When the check arrived Noble snatched it and told us to get lost.

I swigged my water then went outside.  I could hear Teddy following.

“He’s a mess,” Teddy said.

“He’ll get past it.”

“He should get past it.  Just like everyone else needs to at one point or another.”

I turned snarling, “You have something to say?”

Teddy was mum.  He crossed his arms.

Through the glass doors we saw Noble appear in the lobby.  Teddy went and held the door open.  Noble’s shoes smacked the shiny tile as he approached.

The three of us started up the street.

“Excuse me!  Excuse me, sir?” the hostess shouted, coming after us.

Behind her was the waiter and another man, presumably the manager.  They rushed across the asphalt toward us.

We stopped at the middle of the street.

Noble turned sharply, “What is it now?”

The waiter was at the head now.  He held his lips tightly, his demeanor almost apologetic.

“Your bill, sir.  I think you may have forgotten about it…sir.”

What?” Noble said even sharper.

We were all watching him now.  Each one of us would know in the next few moments whether he was on the level.

The manager stepped forward with the same apologetic face.

He said, “Perhaps the credit card fell on the floor?”

“But I checked the floor,” the hostess said, and her cold eyes pierced Noble.

It seemed something in the woman’s eyes got to him.

Noble burst, “You didn’t check anything!  You go back!  You go back and look again!”

He pulled out his wallet but didn’t open it.  He waved it in the air like a cop’s badge.

We all stood gawking at it.

“You left your credit card?” I said then swiped the wallet from his hand.  All of his credit cards were in their slots.

I looked at Noble.  He looked away.

I looked at Teddy.  He shook his head and dug his hands into his pockets.

It was too much for me.  It was a trigger and I slapped Noble hard across the face.

The restaurant staff gasped, backing away.

“Please!” the manager urged, “Let’s all stay calm.”

“Too late for that,” Teddy said, and I couldn’t tell if it was a dig or just an honest observation.

Noble’s wobbled to the red curb.  He sat and held his face gingerly with his hand.

I gestured to the waiter.  He came forward.  My hands were trembling.  I took the checkbook, opened it and glanced at the bill, though my brain didn’t comprehended what was printed on the page.  I was too busy gulping the madness in order to stay calm.

I gave the waiter my credit card.  He sprinted into the restaurant.

After I signed the credit card voucher, the manager, waiter, and hostess turned and walked back to the restaurant.  They walked slowly, looking at one another.  I could tell they were conversing quietly over it.

“Go see if he’s okay,” I said to Teddy regarding Noble.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.  I had said it like any other thing.  Teddy watched me with strange eyes.  It was disturbing the way he looked at me.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” I said.

Teddy blew air out his mouth.  Then he stared up the street, blinking in long pauses…once…twice…

Finally he said, “I’ll give you a minute to get right,” and walked away.

My brother knew me well.

This wasn’t about walking out on a check.  It wasn’t about Noble or his cheating.  It was about coping, or my lack thereof.  This was my own internal undoing.  I had bottled up my emotions since Gale had first been diagnosed.  And when she died, the thick layers of anger had built so much pressure it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

I took a seat on the little bench outside the restaurant.

I heard Teddy say, “Noble!  Let’s go!  You look like a fool lying on the sidewalk.”

Noble rolled to his side and sat up dazed.  Then he stood, brushed the debris from his pants and wandered up the street.  Eventually we lost sight of him.

Teddy came back.  “You had to go and hit him.”

“Teddy, don’t start.”

“Well, what now?  Should we go after him?”

“We’re no help.”

“I know we’re no help, but the man’s in pain.”

I gave Teddy a look when he said that.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered.  “Fine.  Let’s get out of here.”

When I got home it was a relief to be alone.  Then I caught myself.  It was only a relief to be away from Teddy and Noble.  It wasn’t a relief to be alone.

It was like starting over, every hour, sometimes as soon as every few minutes.   Each moment might easily turn and repeat the process again – realization to sadness, sadness to agony, with the wretched memories of Gale’s death in the backdrop of my mind.  In order to cope my brain flushed the mental debris each time.  Though this caused numbness, mindlessness, and I often did things without realizing I was doing them.

It was disheartening how little sleep meant to me anymore.  I had been a big sleeper over the years.  I had relished in long hours of rest.  But now, it was an hour here, two there, four at most.  Sure I was always tired.  Yet I somehow saw it as an advantage; it added another layer of numbness to the pile.  Exhaustion was my aspirin for sorrow.

In the morning I found myself pacing the kitchen tile.  Without thinking I poured then downed a two-finger portion of whiskey.

It was despicable, my vice creeping back so easily.

“That was dumb,” I rasped once the burn coated my throat.

My morale was weak.  Go for another dip it told me.

No, I wouldn’t do it.  It would start the downward spiral all over again.  My binge at Teddy’s had me vexed.  I had to get my act together.  Now the predicament began – the jitters were gone for now, but they would come back once the alcohol wore off.

Distraction was my only hope.  Where would I go?

This apartment was no good.  And neither was Teddy’s house.  I needed to go somewhere else, somewhere different.  That’s how I wanted it, for everything to be different than the usual routine, different from normal life.  Suddenly I wanted to hear loud booming music I’d never heard before, and smashes and crashes and convoluted creations.  It was what I needed to stimulate the numbness.

And then it came to me – the memory of the heat wave two years ago.  That was when I knew exactly where to go.

The loud noises and flashing movie screen were a welcome diversion.  It was a different world.  An action adventure was showing in this theater.  There were explosions and gunfire and shouts of panic.  I took my seat in the back row, where I had sat on that wonderful day two years ago when I first met Gale.  There was an enormous man wedged into Gale’s chair.  It made me think of airplane cabins.  He stuffed his face with popcorn and slurped his fountain drink.  He heaved laughter over the witty movie banter and when the action rose he was raucous with throaty coughs from shortness of breath.  It made me smile to see him watching with such rapture.

I barely paid attention to the movie.  Though the graphics were impressive.  Occasionally when the music became tense I looked up and watched the scenes unfold.  Then it was late in the movie when the cadence of the music grew to a maddening effect as the protagonist rushed toward danger.  I watched then too.

I stepped out to drink some water.  Then I went to the bathroom.  It was always a strange feeling coming back into the dark theater, sneaking as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the roomful of strangers.  They were all facing the screen, the strong light reflecting off their faces.  I sat down and watched their profiles, trying to experience the movie through their expressions.  Sometimes I studied their physiognomy, drawing creative conclusions as to their ancestry.

When the movie ended I waited for all the credits to roll up the screen.  There were no hidden scenes.  The moviegoers filed up the aisles, either impressed or ambivalent.

I stayed seated, as did the enormous man three seats over.  It seemed we were the only ones left.

“Now that’s how you watch a movie,” I said abruptly.  I hadn’t thought about it.  It had come out like a hiccup.

“What?” he said.

I felt the silly pressure to speak.

“You’ve got it down right.”  I pointed to the empty tub of popcorn on the ground and the sweating soda in the cup holder.  There was a light coat of grease on his face, and a messy pile of napkins at his shoes.  “I see you really enjoyed yourself.”

He was puzzled, wheezing slowly with his small marble eyes watching me.  Then I realized he might have taken my comments as an insult to his size.

“No.  Sorry,” I shook my head.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“What’s not what you meant?”  He had no idea.

“Never mind,” I said.

He struggled out of the chair to a stance.

I blurted, “Okay, have a good one,” as he shuffled sideways out of the row and made a slow turn before moving out of sight.  My eyes stayed on the place where he had exited.  I had wanted to keep talking.  I wished he hadn’t left.

The theater was empty now.

An usher came in with a small broom and thick plastic dustpan.  He was a teenager and frail.  He began sweeping with his face down.  Then he looked up and saw me.

“Oh,” he said.

“I guess I should leave,” I said.

He glanced behind as if some imaginary figure were supervising him.

“It’s fine.  Lots of people like to stay till the very end.”

A series of sweeps thrashed the dustpan.  He was violent with the broom, though I doubt he realized as much.  I watched him move, at first uncomfortably forward, before turning sideways, crab-like, over the next two rows.  When he got a quarter of the way down the theater he sighed loudly.

It gave me a chuckle.

“Can I stay until you finish?” I called out.

He shrugged, “You can stay.  You can stay and watch the movie again, I don’t care.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said.  Maybe it was what I needed.  After all, I hadn’t really paid attention the first time.  “But, how come you don’t care?”

“I don’t know,” he moaned.

“It’s a job,” I reasoned.  “You’re making a wage.  Isn’t that right?”

He grimaced, “I only get paid minimum wage.  Minimum wage is a joke.  It’ll take forever for me to be able to buy the new Call of Duty.”  He looked around for the imaginary figure again like it was soaring bird.  “I don’t know.  It sucks I have to ask my mom for extra money so I can get it.  If I went pro, I could make, like, six figures gaming.”

“You don’t say?”

“I’m really good at it,” he assured.

“Well, at least it’s something,” I said.

He looked down, making tiny effortless sweeps with the broom now.  Then he glanced up toward the ceiling.

“He’s probably watching me,” he said lowly.

“Who’s watching?”

“My manager.  He likes to hang out in the room up there.”

“I see.”

“I better get back to work.”

I watched him sweep along the rows, back and forth like the most constipated tennis match.  After he got down to the first row, he shoved the broom into his dustpan then strode up the long aisle toward the entrance and was gone.

I sat and waited.  The air-conditioning all to myself I was riddled with goose bumps.  I thought, in a few minutes this empty theater will be full again, it will be crowded and warm again.

Then I closed my eyes, listening to the quiet, with only the reverberations of bass from neighboring theaters for company.

Ten minutes later, people began entering the theater.  Their conversation was light and jovial.  It brought a feeling of ease being among those strangers.  Suddenly I felt elation come over me, followed by concern, and then, finally, courage for the future.  There were chuckles and giggles and candy wrappers crinkling and open mouths crunching popcorn.  The room was filling up quickly.  Many around me were riveted and frenzied, while others were calm and stoic.  When the lights went down and the previews began I moved over to the seat where Gale had sat that very first time we met.

It was still warm, thankfully.