Gil’d kill for some coffee right now. Grains of sleep linger in his lashes. That trail of gross leaves is still there. He stares. Fuck fresh air, he has just decided. Not fresh air as a thing. Not fuck photosynthesis. Not fuck that. Fuck no. But as a judgment. A kind of putdown. That greener is keener. That every life problem can be solved with a worm-soil garden. Just give him sweet and black. Stat.
He’s still staring at these turdy leaves. His feet are naked. His bones tremble. He’s clearly no nature boy. He just can’t be bothered. His shoes piss him off. He can smell them when he walks. They squish. They’re from a different period in his life, before he ditched his dish-monkey job, before he gave up weed, before the night before. In the meantime, the threads that ring the bottom of his old jeans have stiffened with moisture, brushing against his skin like the teeth of a butter knife. Because his feet haven’t suffered enough. But he doesn’t care anymore. Gil’s moved on. He’s gotta move it along. Yvette doesn’t like to go barefoot, he recalls, doesn’t dig on twigs tangled underfoot or grass poking between her toes. She’s the furthest thing from a girly girl. But stringy sandals, no question, flatter her.
Sucking down a yawn, he stops at the edge of the lake, lidding his eyes to the sun that is just crashing the tree line. His walk has warmed him up. Coolness wraps his face and works into his hair. His scalp prickles. The sensation is more obvious now that his eyes are closed. Okay, he sighs. He’s beginning to understand this fresh air thing. The knot in his shoulder finally pops. His forehead, calves, stomach, all surrender. He’s suddenly aware of being hungry. His mind detaches. Then there’s a beach. Sand breadcrumbs his arm. His pores dilate in the heat. His cheekbones are like two embers. The ocean heaves. Then nothingness. He wakes moments later and feels self-conscious, browsing the shore where mist clings to the crepuscular bank as if the residue of some other presence. This he still can’t shake.
Undeterred, he wades into the lake as insects circle tirelessly on the surface. He tries to quell the commotion of his own breathing, a bronchial hiss condensing in the morning air. He looks up at the great dome of the world and, for an instant, Gil remembers the promise once held by that bright curve of cerulean, an urge that had lingered through the relentless kitchen humidity during nights at the bar as if the memory of something already lived before.
He turns back toward the cottage. A small animal stirs beneath the truck.
Minutes later, Yvette sees his smirk as he crowds the doorframe. She’ll take that. She’s game. She hasn’t gotten laid in three weeks. A tabloid sits in her lap. She hears his feet slap against the floor planks. He’s a pocket of cold air, and she coils herself into the corner of the sofa chair, draws a fleece over nude legs. Her chipped purple fingernails roam through crushed curls. Dude’s too quiet, she says to herself. Motherfucker, speak. But that unsettled feeling comes over her again, perhaps from sleeplessness. She contemplates Gil, his stare fixed out the crooked window and his knotty back swallowed by sun – a sloppy snapshot, Yvette thinks. Behind her, from a duffel, clothes lay spilled in the closet.
“What’s out there?” She gives in, speaks first. “The dark last night gave me the fucking heebees.”
“Hmmph.” Another smirk.
“What’s out there?” Again. “You were gone for a while. Fresh air help? Lots of nature and shit?”
“Phenomenal,” Gil says as he sinks onto the chesterfield, still tossed with the bedding into which she had climbed the night before to the cry of what seemed like a gazillion crickets. He had curled up on the floor. Yvette frowns. She fingers a cyst on the edge of her chin. Was he being sarcastic? She searches his profile for clues before laying back to face the drooped-assed ceiling as she liked to call it. Several weeks ago, the stale mate with her folks about the nuances of education had led to a blunt conversation with her old man one evening. She had been forced to articulate a stand.
“Takin’ a shower,” Gil announces, half way to the bathroom.
Yvette hears him toggle the lock. She opens her tab again and tries to read. But she can’t.
~ ~ ~
That shade of green, the doctor thought. Avocado? Snow pea? Like her suit, pencil skirt tracing the curve of her thighs, jacket sliding off her shoulders to reveal those dark caramel arms, her sweet honey-ass leaning against the clocktower, biding for him in their favorite part of town. Then from halfway down the street came that plaintive peal of a second story saxophone –
Dr. Kelley blinked. He blinked a second time. A highway came into focus. The sun hung low in the sky. He blinked again. Saw a green sports car screaming down the merge lane. His hard-on sagged. Another horn blast. Shiiit. Dr. Kelley slammed on the gas and squealed onto the expressway, just beating out the lime Jaguar that had sparked his reverie. Still shaken by the driver behind, he squinted into the rearview. The surly grey pick-up had not been as lucky off the ramp. Prick, the doctor sniffed.
He dug his elbow back into the armrest. The sedan hummed. He signaled with his blinker and changed lanes. He thought about the dipstick in the parking lot glaring right at him from that same grey truck. He was positive. What was up with that? Envy, resentment? At the polished bluchers, the naughty hottie? He shrugged. Showy equaled sales in this business.
From somewhere inside the car, the rattle of sunglasses suddenly surfaced. He would have to pull over and find them before he got home, the doctor reminded himself. He knew she had left her sunnies in the car. He blew a long breath. The windshield misted lightly. The dipstick kid didn’t know jack about the doctor’s struggles.
Blending into the evening volume, Dr. Kelley shifted himself. He was tired. He was uncomfortable. His pants were bunching up his balls. There were too many people in his life, too many people in and out of his car, that he couldn’t remember the last time he was able to grapple his scrotum like this. Glorious, he moaned.
As the sedan shot past the cluster homes bordering the opposite side of the corridor, he pulled down the shade. The glare fell away. His eyes acclimatized, and he saw a candycane of headlights and taillights ant-trailing into the shallow valley ahead. The driver’s side of the highway remained a dark gash of earth crowded with low lunar mounds and the shapes of machinery on the horizon. For the longest time, sloe-eyed nags grazing the land had been a purifying portal home from his hours on the road, building his brand. But the advent of exurban creep over the last year had blurred that division for him, not to mention the bills now coming due taxing his every waking thought.
A couple of nights ago, the doctor had awoken on his side, his sleep lightened by an evening latte. In that twinkly calm, he had faced a fold of curtain liner peaking from behind the drapes, a ghostly column materializing from his dreamless sleep. While he couldn’t say for certain, he had also sensed his wife propped up behind him in the dark, the soft bat of her eyes like pet patter across the carpet, her breath glancing off his exhausted skin. The memory of a Nice hotel room on a rainy night – his spent wife spooning his thigh, her delicate mist on his neck – had floated through his mind as the doctor lay immobile for the next forty minutes until he was sure his insomniac spouse had retired.
“Cris’sakes!” howled the doctor, pumping the brake as the antsy grey pick-up suddenly swerved ahead of him from the left-hand passing lane. Anticipating the delayed impact from the car behind though, Dr. Kelley abruptly accelerated the sedan forward as it gasped for speed. Finally stabilizing at a safe distance behind the now steadied truck, he eased off the gas and coasted, the mild disruption subsided. He punched the car horn twice to announce his displeasure and sunk into his seat.
But within seconds, what sounded like a tire bursting was followed by a fleet crunch of glass. He focused thrillingly on a pair of marble-sized holes sitting inches apart in his windshield, detected a warmth in his right triceps spreading unusually fast, spotted crimson blooming through his white shirt. With backward glances, the doctor negotiated into the right-hand lane and then onto the milled shoulder, all the time scrambling for his mobile. “Holy fuck,” he shrieked repeatedly.
~ ~ ~
Water smacks off Gil’s chest as the old clawfoot tub resonates like a jungle drum. Hunger gnaws at his gut. His head rests against the tiles. Rabbit was cool. Rabbit had saved Gil, had enlightened him. “Open your fucking eyes, bro” Rabbit had constantly told him. “World’s for takers, not waiters.” Up ‘til then, Gil had spent most of his weekends stoned in someone’s basement, knocking down rhymes, mastering the back catalog of Run DMC. (“This speech is my recital. I think it’s very vital.”) Rabbit didn’t corrupt his body. Dude didn’t waste a lot of time. Didn’t do peelers. Didn’t do clubs. He was already chilling in Belize which he had said was south of Mexico, a fifty-five hour straight run from Brownsville, Texas. A swanky cabana with tender hammocks and a three-sixty deck from which one could spy, through the breadfruit trees, the Caribbean and profoundly eastward, Rabbit had boasted from Belize City the night before. With eyes stitched shut, Gil thinks Yvette is calling for him from the other room and trying the door. He showers for a few minutes longer anyway.
~ ~ ~
“You drink this dribbly shit, doc?” Gil grimaced.
“You’re a coffee connoisseur now?” Snorting to himself, Dr. Bender sipped from his cup, his eyes trained on the window.
“I’ve been known to appreciate a good cup of joe, doc.”
“Seen your friend around?”
“Wears the Raiders’ hat?”
“Sure,” the doctor shrugged.
“Rabbit’s around. Made Jacksonville to Newark in nine and a half hours once.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Newark, New Jersey? Nine and a half hours is only notable if it’s New Jersey.”
“Yeah. Of course. Know of another shitstain burnout town called Newark in this corner of the world? Rabbit works for a parts business there. Can’t be too fussy in this economy. Gotta earn a dollar, right?”
“On his Jacksonville run, my man’s playing follow-the-leader with a black Benz, each taking turns in the lead. He’s driving some beater, you know, Rabbit don’t care. Rabbit knows the score. Rough day between the legs of them bougie bitches, doc?”
“I’m heading up to my old property in Calloway for the weekend,” said the doctor as he raked his face with two hands.
“Sweet. Nice scenery up there, I bet. Lots of nature and such.”
Dr. Bender paused. “Is there anything you don’t hold an opinion about?”
“What do you mean?”
The doctor rolled his eyes. “It’s a shitpile, son, but I’ve been spending too many hours at the office these days, and Mrs. Bender’s getting a little nonplussed.”
“Paying the landlord. I know that tune.”
The doctor took Gil in for a generous spell of seconds. “So do I. Some don’t.”
“Get the fuck out of town, doc,” Gil clucked, forming his hand into the shape of a pistol and discharging two playful rounds into the doctor’s chest. “Pah, pah.”
“Lower your voice, please.”
The waitress returned with Gil’s breakfast order.
“Thank you, hon. Can I get a refill,” said Gil, winking at her as he peppered his plate.
“I thought you found it offensive,” questioned the doctor.
“Jesus Murphy. The coffee.”
“I’m cool, bro.” Gil waited for the waitress to leave. “With all your wheels, the home in the hills, the tricked-out clinic, how come you’re so uptight, doc?”
The doctor furrowed.
“Cash flow, right? Profitability is no guarantee against insolvency when liquidity is constrained. I took bookkeeping, doc.”
Dr. Bender reared back into the booth and gazed at the highway traffic streaming past. “You’re a really smart guy. Want a full-time job as my accountant?”
Gil gauged the intonation for a moment. “I guess Mrs. Bender’s not doing enough bends these days, huh?”
The doctor turned and stared at Gil.
“I’m terrible,” Gil grinned, chomping on country sausage.
“Getting your jollies?” asked the doctor.
Struck by the doctor’s expression, Gil reached for his hand. “Apologies, doc. No hard feelings. That was douchy.”
The doctor looked away and shook his head.
~ ~ ~
The cottage smells stale now as Gil emerges from the bathroom and pulls himself into a polo shirt. A coffee sits on the table from last night, and he sniffs at it before pushing it away. Knuckling his sockets awake, he peeks out the back screen door. The frame warbles slightly. The springs squeak. He is searching for Yvette. But beneath the canvas of treetops, the ravine is quiet, a lattice of undisturbed shadows. He ducks back in, his dripping ears stung by the morning air. Patches of damp cotton cling to his back. Where is she? Gil wonders. Her smell lingers. From the tub, water continues to swirl in belches down the drain.
Moments after the distant gunshot, he drops to the floor as the recoil is abruptly reclaimed by the woods. Half a breath later, a second shot punctures the wary silence. Scurrying for the closet, he begins digging into his duffel, sifting through balled-up clothing on smarting knees. But the hardware is gone. Collapsing onto his back, he musters a groan, his complaint stifled by the fading furniture that hovers over him. What the hell now?
Outside, leaves shiver in the wind. An insect buzzes off the screen. After each grueling night of grease traps and kitchen politics, his share of the gratuities was like a kick in the dick. The bar had siphoned away something that he couldn’t explain, Gil realizes. Rabbit knew the score. Rabbit was wise beyond his years. Only the paranoid survive. The cottage feels vacant now. Belize seems a million miles away. His stomach cramps with hunger. He wants Yvette. He neglected or forgot or was waiting to tell her everything. To be careful. Where is she?
Gil swats at a wet hair picking at his forehead as the gravel stirs from somewhere down the road. He scrabbles over the table towards the window, scanning the bushes, lean fingers feeling for the sill. Retracing the floor, he slides on a pair of adidas and palms a knife from the dish rack, the screen door slinging shut behind him. He tears into the ravine. “If you want to stay one step ahead in this world, always keep moving,” Rabbit had once told him. “And never, ever, look over your shoulder to see who’s coming.”
Edward Plantos lives in Toronto, Canada, and is at work on a play.
Feature image by Couleur from Pixabay
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