We’ve been talking about addiction all wrong since day one.
I’m tired of pretending that we aren’t all addicted to something- or, in my case, someone.
Don’t get me wrong- I’ve been hooked on pretty much everything there is. Booze, heroin, coke, whatever. But I’ve also been hooked on deep dish pizza, a TV show, a big bag of candy… Mostly, though, I have been- and still am- hooked to a person. I’m not going to be shy about it, either. It’s a girl. A woman.
I’m addicted to this incredible five-foot six librarian named May Howard.
She has skin the color of white clouds with the setting sun behind them. One day I was driving and the sun was starting to go down, and all of these fleeing storm clouds were in front of the sun. They had this amazing silver fringe around their edge- and no, not a silver lining. It was a silver fringe more amazing than any golden glow, and it looked like the entire universe was hiding in that glow. That’s May Howard.
She’s got wavy hair that goes down to her back but it’s usually up in some sort of, I don’t know, something. I don’t know anything about women’s hair styles. It’s just usually not down. It’s mostly brown but it has these like, really vibrant streaks of blonde on the bottom and when she’s in the right light it all looks red.
May has this laugh like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know how I can describe it. I already used my simile about the cloud or whatever and I had to think about that for a long time. I guess though her laugh is like when you’re sitting outside on the porch during fall, and everything is still and quiet because the sun’s going down and nothing wants the night to find it, but then the wind comes along with no fear of anything and just sort of dances through what’s left of the leaves, touching the tops of the trees and vanishing like it’s playing a joke, and the wind just keeps on bouncing from treetop to treetop getting the leaves all worked up like some offended old women hearing a dirty joke at church, the wind stirring the leaves the same way a girl might run her fingers through her boyfriend’s hair.
Ok, I’ll admit what you’re probably thinking. I wrote that while I was sitting on my porch, in fall, listening to the wind. But that doesn’t mean it’s not what May Howard’s laugh is like- it is. It really is. I know I don’t do a very good job at describing things or making them sound nice or pretty, but I wish I was… Because that’s May Howard’s laugh. It’s so pretty it makes me feel awful about every bad thing I’ve ever done.
And another thing.
What else about May Howard? Did I mention she’s a librarian? She is one. She’s smarter than hell, too, and she’ll make sure you know that as soon as you start acting like you think she isn’t. I don’t know why she became a librarian when I think she could’ve been probably anything else. Part of the reason I’m so addicted to this woman is because of how smart she is. I really admire that in a person, probably because I never have been very smart and there was never much for me to be except what I am.
I’m not supposed to be writing about May Howard. I’m supposed to be writing about me and my addiction. Well, like I said, May Howard is my addiction. Right now I’m supposed to be drying out from alcohol, the old fallback after you get off something harder, like meth, which I was only hooked on for about a year in my early twenties but holy hell do I miss my teeth.
I’m not going to see May Howard for a long time. I realize that. It’s hard to think about but I know I have to do it. I don’t have any other choice, either, since she’s three hours away, in Chicago. I’m on my Grandpa’s- that’s Pops- farm, and there’s no one around here for about ten miles. It’s just me, Pops, and the great fucking Illinois outdoors, which pretty much means corn and corn and corn and somewhere between one stalk of corn and another stalk of corn two cousins fucking each other before you get back to more corn and more corn and then eventually another set of cousins, probably related to the first set, and then more corn and more corn.
I spent a lot of time here as a kid, but it’s different being back as an adult. I’m here now because pretty much no rehab center would take me, either because I’m dirt poor or already got kicked out. I was pretty much out on my ass and was just about ready to dive into Lake Michigan for a rather extended stay when I found a shiny, brand new, 2023 quarter on the ground and picked it up. I thought to myself, if I can find a payphone to use this in, I won’t drown myself tonight. You might be thinking, “wow, that’s fucked up!” And I would say, yeah, no shit.
I knew the odds were pretty stacked against me. I wasn’t on anything real bad, but I was starting to go through withdrawal from alcohol which, yes, can happen, especially if you’ve been using it to self-medicate and ward off heroin cravings. I wasn’t thinking right, it was the end of September in the Windy City and I all I had was a ketchup stained cut off, and I hadn’t been able to use a q-tip in like two weeks which might seem like a minor point but was putting me really on edge because if I don’t use a q-tip like, at least once a day, my head feels like it’s all full of dirt or something and itches like hell and I can’t concentrate on anything. If I try to remember my most fucked up, black hole, nightmare oblivion type highs the one thing I can always recall is how itchy my ear- always the right one- felt because whatever place I was at didn’t have any q-tips, or at least not any q-tips I could trust or use, because, honestly, not just any q-tips will do.
Alright so anyway I was stacking the cards against myself on purpose, because I really wanted everything to be over with. For one, the chances of finding a payphone- even in a big place like Chicago- are actually pretty slim. Secondly, finding one that only costs 25 cents to make a call from- especially a long distance call- had even slimmer odds. Thirdly, there was almost no chance I’d be able to remember Pops’ phone number- which, sorry, was the next part of my deal with myself, to call Pops and ask him to put me up for a while- and fourth, even if I did remember the number it wasn’t likely to still be his number, or that he’d even still have a phone, or honestly that the old man would even still be alive- let alone home or within range of answering the phone. Also, lastly but most importantly, I knew there was almost no way he’d say yes.
But he did.
So here I am. He agreed to take me in if I’d help out around the place and stay clean while I was here. So that’s roughly what I was up to before I got where I am now, give or take a few things.
This morning I got up at 5 a.m. sharp and ate breakfast with Pops. I came downstairs and he had an empty bowl sitting across the table from him just like when I was a kid. I sat down, yawned, and poured some corn flakes into my bowl, then splashed milk on top of it. I ate the first spoonful slowly and carefully, like it was hot, wondering if it would taste the same as when I was kid. It did but it didn’t. It was still bland and boring, but that didn’t bother me like it had when I was younger. Now, as a grownup, I found I actually kind of liked the simpleness of it, the texture. I guess part of knowing you’re not a kid anymore is when bland cereal starts to be an alright way to start the day.
“Thanks for the cereal,” I said.
“You’re welcome. Easy cooking.”
We ate silently for a few minutes. I looked past Pops’ bald head and out the window. Grey fog hugged the ground in a mean way that made me think of a boyfriend who suspects his girl of cheating looking over her shoulder to see who she’s texting. I could see the dim shadow shapes of trees through the fog and in that light they looked like monsters waiting to kill me. Not much sunlight had made it over the rim of the world yet and what little had was as bland as my cereal.
“Room warm enough last night?”
“All right. It’ll get colder as the days go by. Fall now. Almost October.”
“I like it cold when I sleep.”
“Well if it gets too cold up there just let me know and I’ll find you another quilt.”
“Need your help clearing out that old shed today. Tom Higgins down the road wants to come look at the tools in there, buy ‘em for scrap. We should sort through it all first.”
“You feeling up to that?”
I shrugged. He was looking at me very carefully over our bowls of cereal. I blinked. Pops’ eyes are a sharp brown like oak, and they have the same, round knowledge as an oak tree. Like they’ve been there since the beginning of you and they’ll be there for the end, too. I think he knew better even than I did how much he was saving my life with that bland cereal and that round stare.
“I’m healthy enough to do pretty much anything, I guess.” Pops nodded but his eyes didn’t leave me.
“Still too thin. You need to eat more, maybe.”
“I’ve always been thin.”
“Well, you were when you were 14, anyway.” Pops looked back down into his bowl and stirred the milk with his spoon. My heart felt like a wet dishrag somebody was wringing out to lay over the sink divider.
“I never gained much weight between then and now,” was all I could think to say.
“Neither did your dad, ever. Your sister has gotten fat, though.”
“Well, she’s had a couple kids. I haven’t.” I thought for a minute. “That I know of.” It was a gamble on if he’d laugh or not and he didn’t. He did smile, though, and the top whites of his eyes vanished as he rolled them up to look at me.
“Sasha sends me pictures of the girls every month or so. Hard to believe Annie’s already in fifth grade.”
“Fifth?” I asked. Someone must have missed a dirty dish on the stove or something because the rag in my chest got wrang out again. “I thought-”
“It’s all right,” said Pops kindly. “You’ll have time to catch up. And you will. You don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“I haven’t been much of an uncle.”
“You’ll have time to catch up,” Pops said again. He stood and reached for my bowl. I pulled it back and stood by myself. Then I grabbed his.
“You’ve been pulling triple double duty. Great grandpa, great grandma, grandpa, grandma, and uncle. I’m sorry. Now let me wash the dishes.”
I turned away and he didn’t say another word. I could tell he was still standing, watching me. Then I heard him sit down just about as I reached the sink and got the water running. My eyes stung but I tried to keep myself together. I looked up out the window. I could see the shape of his reflection, like the shape of those trees.
The water got too hot and burned my hands. I pulled them back with a hiss and turned the water down. The last of the milk sloshed around the basin in a thin white dream and was sucked away forever, whirling down the drain. The pain from the water had cleared my head and made me think of how many different ways the body has of protecting itself from harm. My hand had done what it could to tell me it was in danger and it had cleared my head. Every part of the body does what it can to send messages to the brain to help the brain protect itself, but the brain can just say “fuck off” to all that and decide to kill itself after a bad day. How’s that for fair?
The body wants to survive. But sometimes I think there’s a part in all of us that really wants to destroy everything. Our brain sends out these little signals of destruction like our stomachs send out signals for hunger. Sometimes you spend so much time being sad and wanting to kill yourself you start to just get used to it, and when you are happy it’s like you don’t really deserve it, because somehow it invalidates how sad you felt before.
But then, sometimes, you’ll find a shiny little quarter on the ground that reminds you you might deserve one last chance if you ask nice enough. And that’s how you end up burning your hand while you wash dishes and look at that, the dishes are done and you’ve been staring out the window at fog for who knows how long.
I looked down at my hands. They were red and fresh looking. I bent my fingers. Right then and there I thought that maybe living was just surviving one day at a time, going as far as you could on a 25-cent deposit and doing your best to do your best until you ran out of credit.
I looked back up at Pops’ reflection. I picked up the rag and wrung it out into the sink so it would dry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of self-destruction. What it means, how it’s done, how it can be avoided. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but sometimes I get my ideas about self-destruction and self-preservation mixed up.
Addiction, obviously, is a form of self-destruction. But like I already said- there’s a lot of different types of addiction, and we’ve been talking about them all wrong. Self-destruction is addiction, though. It’s addiction to a hatred of yourself. You can’t self-destruct unless you hate yourself.
It’s easy to hate yourself. It’s also extremely hard, and extremely exhausting. You go through life and you see other people being happy and you hate yourself for not being able to be happy, but you also hate them because maybe sometimes you do try your honest best and you fail at being happy while these other fucking morons are happy for no reason at all. I think there’s a lot of jealousy involved in hating yourself, too. You hate yourself because you don’t measure up to someone else. Maybe it’s a guy who got picked by the girl who didn’t pick you, or something like that. Part of you thinks, “fuck that guy. I’m better than him. Why’d she pick him over me? What does he have that I don’t?” But then another part of you- the real part- doesn’t think but knows that she picked him because he’s honestly just better than you.
That’s self-destruction. And like hate, it’s an addiction.
Everything was damp in the shed. The fog was hanging on, even though by this time of day the sun should have convinced it to take a leave of absence. Every time I grabbed a piece of equipment, it slid through my gloves and left behind a wet, smeary trail of orange rust. Piece by piece, I rubbed away the history of Pops’ farm by dropping rusted metal into the weeds and letting the fog tear into it, sinking wet fingers into soft metal and scraping away flecks of rust like seconds out of time.
“Lot of water comes through that roof.”
Pops pulled a glove off and ran a hand through his hair. His eyes were fixed on the jagged hole in the roof of the shed. Fog crept through like an invader and spread across the ceiling, hovering above us, watchful present and disgusting. Damp pieces of wood, too old and too roughly hewn to be 2x4s, hung at odd angles, dangling out the bottom of the hole. The skeletal beams of the rotted roof looked like the last few rotting teeth in a person’s mouth.
I leaned against the workbench beside Pops and looked up into the hole.
“Do you ever feel bad about what’s happening to the place?”
Pops shook his head and pulled his glove back on.
“No. It’s just an old building and I don’t need it anymore.”
He turned back to the shelves of tools and chains and whatnot, walking his slow shuffle across the cracked and uneven concrete. I watched him go, wondering a little at how someone could spend so much time- in his case, over sixty years- living and loving in one place, only to not care when it fell apart. But I guess he saw it as a farm, and since he wasn’t a farmer anymore, it didn’t matter so much. All he needed was a house.
“That’s enough for now. Let’s go back in.”
He brushed past me, holding his left arm in his right. The wrinkled skin of his forearm was visible between his glove and the rolled cuff of his flannel. The skin was dark with liver spots. Never in my life had Pops quit after just an hour of work.
I scanned my eyes over the shelves, shrugged, and followed him out of the shed. I pulled the crooked door shut behind me and tied the frayed twine to hold it. Pops was halfway to the house already, sliding his boots over the wet grass. He was a shadow in the fog, and I decided I didn’t really want to follow him into the house just yet.
I watched to make sure he made it up the porch steps, then turned around and walked back past the shed into the thickening grass.
I walked until I reached the cattle fence. I remembered from childhood that it had once been painted pink, but even as a kid it had been rusting. Now it was entirely dull brown, flaky, broken, and crooked, just like everything else in this place that had once been my life. I put my hands on it and stared out at the expanse of weed choked pasture. Everything was filled with small hollow pits of black, spaces between the weeds and piles of hay and grass where no light touched, where not even the fog wanted to poke and prod.
On the north end of the pasture stood a line of tall deciduous trees, solid like statues, hazy in the gray. I leaned on the fence and it creaked. Nothing anywhere moved except for that sound, and I’ll be honest with you, I felt myself get a little choked up.
When I was a kid, the place hadn’t been like this. It had always seemed green and bright, and there were cows, and the fence was still a little bit pink, and Pops hadn’t seemed so old, and I’d had cousins, my sister, my parents, my grandmother. The farm had been a family then, and now all the family was gone. Staring at my childhood paradise as an adult, I felt a little sick, and I thought I understood how Pops could feel the way he did about the shed falling in. Good, a part of me thought. Good. Let it fall in. This place is a tomb. Let it bury what I thought were memories and hide them from me before I realize they were only dreams.
I know it was foggy when I was a kid. I know there were rainy days and bad days and days where I felt lonely. The thing is, I just don’t remember those days as much. I remember the good ones, and that’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I have something to hold on to. A curse because it’s hard to let go.
I remember being a kid and thinking about how much better it must have been before I was born, when it was my dad and his brothers who lived and ran and played here as children with their friends and cousins. I thought everything here was old then, but when you’re a kid, that’s how you view the whole world. As an adult, you see everything as ancient. That’s proof to me that everything, time as well as happiness or whatever, is relative. Fake. Made up. Defined by how much shittier today is than yesterday.
I felt my hands begin to shake. I hadn’t thought about my addictions or using or doing anything all morning, but just then I remembered why I- why everyone- has addictions. It takes the fog out of life and makes you think that there’s still pink paint on the fence, that the metal isn’t cold even through your gloves and that the pasture isn’t dead forever.
My stomach turned and I had to get out of there. My mouth was filled with an awful taste and I felt like my head was gonna explode. I let go of the fence and turned away and everything stayed still, frozen in time, or in fog, or in memory, or just in my own stupid head. My feet crashed through damp grass and my hands spread through fog. I started to breathe faster, and my right ear really started to itch, with that feeling of dirt. I quickened my pace, and then, suddenly, I stopped.
I didn’t even really mean to. I kind of slid a little.
I stared straight ahead, into the whirling miasma of fog, at the distant shape of the house that stared back at me with blank windows like dead eyes. Eyes that weren’t surprised at what I was hearing.
Behind me, somewhere in the pasture, I could swear I heard cows.
Cows make a strange sound. They don’t moo. They aren’t cute or funny. They’re either sad or terrifying. Low is a much better word for the sound they make. It’s low and mournful, like a long hum, like a piece of ancient machinery buried deep in the earth. They make a sound that seems like it comes from everywhere, from every direction at once, from inside you, almost, and it’s even more fucked up when you know there’s no cows anywhere- within miles- within lifetimes.
I realized I was holding my breath and let it go. Steam whirled in front of me and the only movement, the only proof of anything left living in the whole gray world, vanished. The land yawned before me, and again, I heard the lowing of the cattle. Ghostly, tired, and wondering. But of course, there were no cattle to be seen.
Hello again. It’s me.
The entry about the cows was yesterday, and now it’s tonight- or, I guess, about 32 hours after I wrote that last entry, which was about twenty minutes after it happened. What happened in between doesn’t matter.
What I came here to write about is what you asked me to write about. Addiction. I keep losing sight of that. But maybe isn’t that a good thing?
Tonight I realized that I’d hardly thought about May Howard since my first day back with Pops. He’s been keeping me busy, and I’ve been reminded that there’s a life outside the one I’ve been living the past decade or so. A good life, too.
Pops and I run things into town. We sell scrap, we get groceries, we listen to obscure country songs on his truck radio. We get lunch at the diner and we say hi to people I recognize from childhood, people who don’t seem real because they shouldn’t be able to exist outside of my memories of them. When you leave a place for a long time, it kind of just goes on pause in your mind, like the only reason anything’s happening there is because you’re there. It’s hard to imagine a place you’ve left behind continuing on after you, hard to imagine the people going on about their daily lives, crawling here and there like ants or slugs and living the same as they always did. The whole time I was in Chicago I imagined Pops and everyone else in Rock City as moments gone by, things I could think about or picture but never really see again. Now that I’m here, back in Rock City and back in Pops’ home and life, it’s Chicago that seems imaginary, gone, and lost in time.
And I find myself thinking of May Howard.
Today I wondered how she was doing at the library. I pictured her checking out books to little kids, helping old men and old women find books about young people doing young things. I thought about how pure and wholesome she would look under the library lights, book in hand, smile on her face. I can imagine her as the only thing alive in what is now becoming my old life, and maybe that’s only because I think of bringing her into my new life. May is the only part of that old world I can imagine going back to.
Obviously, I had other friends, people I recognized at the gas station, places I liked to go, whatever. But when I think of seeing those people or places now, they’re like dreams. They’re black and white. May is color. May is green and lively. And I think about rescuing her from that awful world, that labyrinth of sin and addiction and loneliness. I didn’t belong there, and neither does she. May would love Rock City, the farm, and Pops. She would transform it, bring life back to it. I could walk her through the pasture, and the fog would be gone. I could wrap my arms around her on the porch and watch the sun set, watch the leaves turn red and flaming while I buried my face in her hair and murmured jokes to her about our future, silly names for our future children, maybe. If I brought her here and showed her all my favorite childhood places, it’d be like they were alive again. She’d bring them back to life. Right?
She’d love it here.
And she’d love Pops.
Then eventually she’d love Annie, and Sasha, and the whole farm would be filled with laughs again. I could fix the hole in the shed roof, no problem. I’d be up there at sunset, tired as hell, and May would come out on the porch and call me in for dinner. Annie would follow her out and call me Uncle. Pops would clap me on the shoulder and tell me well done, and then we’d all go inside, and I’d be tripping over kids, maybe mine, or maybe Sasha’s, or maybe second cousins or something like that, and there wouldn’t be enough room for all of us at the table, and that life I thought I had- the one I thought my dad must have had before me- would be real, real for me and the kids, because I was giving it to them.
I thought about this today, riding home in the truck with Pops and watching the fields go by. And I’m thinking about it now, sitting alone at the dining room table, while Pops reads the paper in the living room.
Once I’m okay again, I’m gonna bring May here. And she’s gonna love it.
Today was damp again, and gray clouds hovered oppressively close to the ground in a way that reminded me of my math teachers in school making sure I wasn’t cheating. Everything, always, is wet. Dew and wet hang on things, clinging to them like memories. Pops didn’t have much for me to work on today, so I went out searching for more of those memories, thinking that maybe after a long walk I could shake them off me like a dog shakes off water.
I cut through the pasture after hopping the fence and felt the house and barn and sheds watching me as I went. I felt like if I turned around, they’d be right behind me, breathing down my neck, but of course when I actually worked up the courage to turn, they were right where they should have been- sinking, frozen in time, falling apart.
I don’t know what it is about Rock City or Illinois in general. It all feels so old, especially compared to other states. It’s like the roads don’t go anywhere except to other roads. Nothing has been built since 1980. Everyone and everywhere feels like someone important just left, and we’re all going blue in the face waiting for them to come back. Every town is small and every road is lined with cracks like veins. People move from place to place, dreary, and the only ones moving quickly through these dying towns are the people trying to escape. They haven’t found out yet that these towns reach out with damp hands, grab you, and pull you back.
Eventually I made it to the woods on the north side of the pasture without anything stopping me. I wandered slowly, listening to water drop off leaves and dead branches creak in the wind.
I walked until I found an old junk pit we used to dig through as kids. It had been started before Pops and Grandma bought the farm, but Pops had added to it plenty. Most of the good stuff was gone by now, but I crouched down in the mud anyway and started digging with my work gloves, thinking maybe we had missed something as children.
I didn’t expect to enjoy the digging, but somehow I did. Water trickled around me slowly and it felt enchanted, like this forest wasn’t haunted but lived in. Soon my fingers found something hard in the dirt, and to the music of that enchantment I dug away at thick clumps until I was able to pry free a square metal object. I picked away at enough dirt to realize it was a skeleton key lock that had once been part of a door. I held it up and stared at the dirt filling the keyhole and grooves of the metal. What secrets had it once kept hidden? What eyes had peered through this keyhole? What sounds of love and midnight anguish had once been held back by this lock?
I began to wonder and suddenly found that I didn’t want to know. I felt a chill up my spine as I thought of a door, somewhere, with a large open square in it where the lock should have been. I thought of the door swinging open in a breeze blowing through cracked windows, opening and opening to reveal two skeletons locked in a passionate embrace.
And then, I heard a low, mournful lowing.
I dropped the lock and shot to my feet. Wet leaves and sticks fell off my body. I wasn’t sure how long I had been kneeling in the dirt, and I felt like it had been trying to claim me. I heard the sound of the cows again, and hurried out of the woods.
When I stepped into the pasture I realized how dark it was getting. There were no shadows, but the clouds above were violet with the loathing yearn of early nightfall, the sickening squall of an autumn cold anxious to fall.
I heard the sound again, closer this time, and that chill returned to my back. There was a sudden flash from the sky above, and I saw the outlines of cattle standing in the pasture, staring at me.
Their eyes were hollow black holes and their bodies were bone. They had no skin, no meat, no muscle or fat. They were white skeletons, still and watching. Then the lightning vanished and they did, too. I made a run towards the sinking silhouettes of tired buildings falling under the weight of a night sky beyond the pasture.
The lightning only flashed once more before I made it out, but the cows had turned their heads to follow me, and their eyes were even emptier than before.
It’s early morning but still dark. Rain is pounding the house, and my room is being lit by lightning. I can’t stop thinking about the buildings, the equipment, the things around the farm that are stuck in the gale. I know what it’s like to be a piece of junk left out in the storm and in the cold. I know what it’s like.
I’ve been the lock, I’ve been the remnants in the junk pile. I need someone to dig me out.
I’m going to go to back to bed. I’m gonna go back to bed, and think of May.
Think of May, and anything but the cows.
It was early morning when I told Pops I was leaving. The storm was over, but the drizzle stayed. The light was weak and watery and I could hear water dripping off the eaves of the house. The windows were blurry with mist, but Pops’ eyes were sharp and clear.
“You’re going back to Chicago.”
“But I’ll be back. A few days, at most. She just has to get her things together.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“No, but I know.”
He didn’t answer. He gave me a long, flat look that took me back to when I was a kid and had done something wrong. Then he shrugged, and the tops of his blue suspender straps wrinkled.
“There will still be room for you if you decide to come back.”
“Pops, look- I am coming back. I’m- I’m not even leaving. It’s like- like I’m running an errand. Going to the store.”
Then he said something that thudded to the floor and left a mark in the wood.
“People aren’t errands to run.”
He stood up and took my bowl. Only the milk was left, and a few soggy corn flakes. A little ring remained where the bowl had been, another scar on a table that had seen children grow up and adults grow old.
“Pops,” I called over my shoulder. I heard the shuffle of his slippers stop. “I love you. And I’m grateful.”
There was a long silence. I heard the water dripping resolutely off the eaves. It was a constant, annoying sound, not calming like people say it is. It made the inside of my ear itch, and I tried to scratch at it with a finger. Far, far away, I thought I heard something that wasn’t the rain, and tried to push it out of my head by filling that space with thoughts of something else.
We’ve been talking about addiction all wrong since day one- myself included. We think about it like a self-destructive magnet, pulling us slowly but surely to a bad end. But let me tell you this- I thought about May that whole long, miserable drive to Chicago, and that made it a lot less miserable. Addiction doesn’t have to be like that- a bad magnet. It can be, maybe, a life preserver. Something that keeps you going, keeps you moving. Yeah, that’s dependency, but no one blames someone who’s drowning for needing a life preserver. Again, yes, that’s dependency. But is that so much worse than the alternative?
I listened to the radio and drummed my fingers on the wheel. I looked over at the empty passenger seat and thought about May in it on the way home, the funny jokes I’d tell and questions she’d ask. I thought about what I’d say if she was nervous, how I’d make her feel better. I imagined how I’d look to her, what the first thing I said would be.
I figured she’d be sitting at her desk in the library, looking down, light bouncing off her glasses. There’d be a cluster of people between us, coming and going, and I’d have to move slowly to get through them. Then she’d look up from her papers, a pencil in her hand, and she’d see me, standing there, a little homely but mostly humble. I’d wave, and she’d smile, and that would be it.
That would be it.
The city is approaching. The sun’s going down and Chicago splits the horizon, a colossal cluster of jagged shapes scratching at a gray sky. The buildings are crooked teeth, misaligned and confused. Lights come on as I get closer, winking on in great blocks.
I know what you’re thinking right now.
I know you’re thinking you wish you could be in May’s position- that someone would come along and whisk you away from everyday life, rescue you from losing another part of yourself to every passing second. I want to point out, though, that I’m not a knight in shining armor or a hero or anything like that. I’m just a guy, and not much to look at. All I have on everyone else, on all those other guys I hate so much, is that I care more. They say they care, but they don’t. Would any of them drive all this way, leave the home they just got back for a girl? Hell, no!
That’s all I got, because it’s all I can get. I already messed up so much and lost so much I have to make something new out of myself to keep up. Pops was right. People aren’t just errands to run. May isn’t an errand- she’s a commitment, a choice, and so is Pops. Other guys wouldn’t see it like that, wouldn’t get it, but I do. I get it.
There’s mist, water droplets, beading on my windshield. They split the passing lights into kaleidoscopes, colors that run and bleed and shatter. The whole world is flickering, blinking on and off, as it passes away into the before, and I keep moving forward, into next, and what, I hope, will quickly become my after. My now. My forever.
Later, I reach the library. I park across the street and I look at it for a moment. It’s a huge building, square, brick, with massive windows and a peaked green roof with these elaborate sculptures at each peak and corner. Its windows glow with a warm golden light, spilling onto the street. The sky beyond is dark and gray, with some lines of purple that I think of as veins, veins carrying not blood or water but time, because that’s all the sunset or the horizon is- time in colors, time passing, and time passed.
My car is still running. Heat pours out of the vents and I can feel it baking my skull. My heart is thudding so hard I can hardly believe it’s mine. The wipers are going, swish-swish, back and forth, a metronome. The street outside is cold and damp, but the library, ancient, is warm, stable, constant.
I turn off the car. The key clicks back, the wipers stop, the heat comes to a whispering rest, but my heartbeat marches on, endlessly, into the horizon, maybe, or wherever it is that heartbeats go….
I walk across the street. I swear I can see each individual raindrop. Everything is heightened, everything is fast and slow and brighter than usual, I can smell rain on the pavement, on me, on the cars, on…
I picture her. I pull open the heavy wood doors and step into the warmth, shivering. I smell the library- the books, the carpets, the patrons.
I step into a large, warmly lit room. Warm and dim. It’s just like I pictured- she’s at the desk, people moving here and there between us. She’s looking down, writing, in a puddle of light. I work my way through the shifting groups, the moving crowd. I near the desk, and May looks up.
She sees me. I have to grin awkwardly to keep my mouth closed. I feel my eyes water. Slowly, nervously, I raise one hand in a wave. She waves back, and I take a step forward. My eyes fall to the slightly crooked nametag pinned to her wool sweater.
I stop in front of the desk. She lifts her eyes, shining and blue, up to me. Her smile widens.
“Hey,” I say. My head is filled with that pounding. I can hear every secret being whispered, every page being turned, every drop of water falling outside the building. I hear my own voice when I finally open my mouth again. “How are you, May?”
I hear her voice, soft and beautiful, when she answers.
“I’m doing well. How are you?”
I hear my own voice, my own heart.
I hear her answer.
“How can I help you today?”
I hear my heart sink. The inside of my ears are itching furiously.
“I- I’m not here for help. I’m here for you. To see if you would come back with me.”
I see her frown. I swear the light dims, the raindrops freeze. I hear her answer, again.
“I’m sorry. Have we met before?”
Far off, like something from a dream, I hear the lowing of the cattle.
Mr. Gentry writes: “My name is Greg Gentry, and I am a high school English teacher as well as a general lover of books and horror. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, and though I typically work on novels, I have been enjoying trying my hand at some short stories the past few months. “
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.