Already Gone

Fiction
A.M. Riley


Each day as I get ready for work, I look in the mirror, questioning the stranger, that guy shaving his three-day-old five o’clock shadow, who dares stare back at me with such a steady gaze. I hate him. Sickened by the shake in his hand, it’s hard not to notice the liver spots and stray dark hairs that have begun to creep along his hands and arms, a quiet warning that time is against him. The razor left on the counter, a touch of water and blood still there, marks the beginning of the day.

The sound of pebbles crunching under the tires of the heavy Chevy Nova is the cue to grab my faded blue work jacket and get going. I can barely make out Jerry’s face from the fog that surrounds him. The sweet smell of weed slaps me as I slide across the cold leather seat catching for a moment, as I do every morning, on the sharp edges where it is ripped and torn. I accept the joint, cradling it comfortably between my fingers. Jerry and I say five or six sentences during the twenty-minute ride. I thank him for dropping me off on his way to work. He nods and cranks up Zeppelin as he screeches bald tires across the newly paved parking lot.

The glass doors of the IBS, Inc. Building, a joke of a name that is not lost to employees and board members alike, open as my work boot draws near. I make my way through the crowds of cheap Men’s Warehouse suits and trashy secretaries drenched in knock-off perfumes. Early in the morning the grey basement is quiet. I pick up the scribbled time card and clock in, right on time. Ten years now, I’ve been working at this job; I’m good at what I do. It wasn’t my dream job to be a Maintenance Engineer, a glorified handyman, but you have to do what’s easy, what pays the bills. I thought I’d still be traveling the world, maybe settling back down in Europe, but after I left the Army gig my desire seemed to fade.

“Good morning.” Don smiles. His breath is warm with the smell of black coffee.

“Hey, buddy. What’s going on?” I pick up the stride and walk alongside the one man who stands between my promotion and me, my best friend.

Only a short time ago, two years maybe, I trained Don, taught him the ropes, let him in on a few of my workplace secrets, my specialties to get the job done and maybe the occasional slight pat on the back. Surprising as it was, Don took those ideas and hidden jewels, making them his own. He had excuses, always. It didn’t matter. Don kisses ass just the way they like it, tries offering Brown-Nosing 101 to me every chance he gets. He soon realized I didn’t play life that way and simply gave up on me. Before long he was ditching the striped uniform shirt with the name patch, embellished in a fancy cursive font, for polo shirts with the IBS, Inc. logo, available for purchase in the company gift shop downstairs.

“I wanted to get in early and check the computer room again.” Don’s face wrinkles as he speaks, forcing his thick glasses up and down.

My steps become heavy. I know what Don is doing. I don’t blame him. I was trying to do the same. “I’ll help you,” I offer.

Don thinks of telling me no, hesitation dripping from his pointed chin. He smiles again, showing off those financed veneers. “Okay, yeah.” He faces me as we await the elevators. The tension is gone. “You and Rebecca want to go to dinner on Friday?”

My family of keys sings a song on my hip as I shift from side to side. “Sure. I’ll call her at lunch but it sounds good to me.” I am pretty good at throwing out bullshit, been doing it all my life, learned it from my dad, a family tradition if you will.

“Have things been a little better between you two?” Don asks.

“No,” I answer.

“Damn, sucks to hear that.” Don avoids my gaze. “Is she still talking about leaving?”

I study the new blonde highlights scattered about his head. I hate it when men do shit like that. You wouldn’t catch my ass sitting in a salon getting highlights or anything else. Don notices the attention, he grins smugly while running small tanned fingers through the golden specks. I have to look away.

“She’s gonna do it. She has something lined up with one of those girls she works with at her office,” I admit.

Don shakes his head. “You just going to sit there and let her walk?”

I think about that question for a minute. “Yeah, I am.”

Don’s bulging brown eyes grow even larger. “I wouldn’t let my wife just walk out the door. You need to fight her.”

I grunt. “Fight her,” I repeat, “I can’t fight her anymore, man.” The elevator begins to moan as we near the fourteenth floor. “I’d leave me too if I was her.” I don’t have the energy to lie. My buzz is beginning to disappear.

*

Walgreens is packed with screaming kids and fat housewives. I hate it when Dad picks me up from work, then takes me along for his errands. Dad loves the drugstore, picking up pain pills for his ulcer, Tums by the case, fruit flavor only, or special ointments for his chronic foot fungus. It’s questionable if the pain pills are a true necessity but the ointment a given.

Occasionally, I pick up Rebecca’s birth control pills or pads when she is working late. I get a kick out of watching Dad cringe as I hold the pink plastic bag on the side nearest him, moving in closer as I notice him inch away. One of the few games we have ever played together.

“My pills will be ready in about ten minutes.” Rebecca comes up behind us. She notices the case of Pabst Blue Ribbon hitchhiking on the bottom of the cart and rolls her eyes. I’m sure she is regretting accepting Dad’s offer to ride along today.

“It’s his,” I whisper, leaning in to snatch a quick glimpse of her sweet perfume—Eternity. God, I miss her.

“Of course it is, Jack,” she turns away from me, “But I’m sure you’ll help him out with it.” Her voice is flat, empty.

Rage burns inside of me. I want to slap her. She knows I won’t touch her in the store, never in front of others, and it feeds her courage. “No, I won’t.”

Rebecca’s ponytail swings away from me. She laughs to herself but it is all for me. “I’m getting some Diet Coke,” she says into the air.

Relishing the sound of her high heels clicking on the linoleum, I watch her walk away. She is still the best-looking woman I’ve ever been with—big boobs, long neck, and legs that never stop. We haven’t made love in weeks, and it angers me that she is concerned about getting those damn pills. I assume she is hoping things will get better, but I know I am only kidding myself.

Dad drives to his house where we eat pot roast and potatoes with mom, my big brother Jerry, and my sister’s kid. I want to go home but I stay. Mom has asked me to look at the dishwasher while I’m there.

Rebecca is very quiet. She has become distant with my family, more than usual, not ready to forgive my parents. Although it has been a few weeks, it still feels fresh, ripe. It is pointless to make a real issue out of it, but I haven’t really forgiven them either.

No big deal asking me to test drive a car they were thinking of buying for my sister, Jenny. And that wasn’t a big deal. Because I am a good mechanic, friends and family ask me all the time to work on cars and shit like that. Sometimes I get a twenty shoved in my pocket but more times than not my reward is an ice-cold case of beer.

The fact that I had been drinking for three hours with my dad that day as we watched Earnhardt kick ass in Daytona was the part that really pissed Rebecca off. Was I drunk? Totally wasted. When the race was over, Dad was ready to go. We’d spent quality father-son time together—I couldn’t say no. He threw the keys towards my head, shouting a quick heads-up, prompting me to make the catch in mid-air.

Rebecca begged me not to leave. We argued in the garage, our tense voices bouncing off the walls in an echo, for about twenty minutes before Dad interrupted. Dad and Rebecca yelled for several minutes until she began to cry. Dad hates all that “sappy shit” as he calls it and instantly stopped yelling at her.

“You coming, son?” Dad asked calmly. “Or are you whipped?” The back door slammed behind him.

My eyes followed the sound of his footsteps as he headed down the drive. For a moment, I was reminded of the nights he would slam the door after fighting with my mom, his large shoes thumping into the darkness where he disappeared for days. Instinctively running after him every time, I found him long gone before making it outside.

“Jack?” Rebecca’s voice broke the silence.

“I will be right back.” As I hurried to catch up with him, my stomach rumbling and growling, the urge to throw up overwhelmed me. I bent over the hedge on the side of the drive way and heaved loudly, liquid spurting onto the ground, traces dribbling down the corners of my mouth.

“Good God,” Dad growled in disappointment. “You need to learn how to hold your liquor, boy.” He waved me on to get going.

Using the back of my hand, I wiped the spit from my mouth, glancing back at the house, making sure Rebecca hadn’t seen me. The flashing headlights blind me for a moment as Dad yells again, and I run down the driveway, stumbling over stones and my own feet as I make it to the driver’s seat, and we head out.

When I turned the sharp corner on Hampton Avenue, I didn’t even see the light pole; it literally jumped out in front of me, forcing me face first into the steering wheel of the car, crushing my two front teeth.

My first thought wasn’t of the warm blood seeping out of my mouth or even the excruciating pain but of my marriage. Rebecca, I was confident, would be finished with me, my parents, everything, a sobering thought.

Pissed that I hit the light pole, making a large dent in the hood of the car, Dad repeatedly yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?” Inspecting the damage with a flashlight and the high beams, he grumbled ‘shit’ a few times before shining the flashlight in my face, blinding me again.

“You’re coming out here tomorrow and fixing this.”

Dad grabbed something from the glove box that shimmered as he stuffed it into my jacket pocket. I felt around, realizing it was the small handgun he kept under the counter at the store. After gathering his camo jacket and the three beer cans he downed during our joy ride, he locked the door. The car belonged to the retired Yankee who worked third shift for Dad at the 7-Eleven, lending the car for the weekend, hoping for a quick sale. The people who lived next door to the light pole, allowed us to use their phone. Moments later, Jerry picked us up, the three of us riding in silence all the way to my apartment.

“Get that looked at,” Dad bellowed from the window as they backed up into the street.

Waving a bloody hand in acknowledgement, I carefully climbed the two flights of stairs. Rebecca had to be home. I was sure that she asked Jerry to drive her over the minute I left with Dad. There was a time that she would have waited on me, even just to fight a little more, but I knew that time had passed. Rebecca pretended to be asleep when I came into the bedroom. I turned on the lamp. Minutes passed, uncomfortable, hour-long minutes.

“Babe,” I whispered as I nudged her arm. “Rebecca,” I said a little louder when she didn’t answer.

“What?” Rebecca said angrily as she sat up and stared at my beaten face.

I looked away. “I need you to take me to the hospital.”

Rebecca’s face turned white as she continued to stare at my disheveled appearance. “I can’t,” she finally murmured as if in some kind of trance. “I just can’t, Jack.”

I watched in disbelief as Rebecca curled back under the white comforter, acting as if I wasn’t even there. It was the first real sign that things had changed for good. Rebecca could get mad, upset, whatever, but the minute she knew I needed her she was by my side. Even that first time I hit her, I felt so guilty I slammed my fist into the refrigerator and broke my hand in four places. Rebecca rushed to my side and drove me to the urgent care. The fight forgotten, never mentioned again. This time was different.

She didn’t move again. For a long time before I got up, I stared down at her, feeling as if she had already left. In the living room, I called Jerry and watched a little Letterman. More than once I swore I heard her crying while I was waiting but when I looked back in the room, the ghostlike form still hadn’t moved.

*

Rebecca agrees to go to dinner with Don and Kim as long as I don’t try to act like it is a date. Of course, I agree to her terms and conditions, willing to do anything to spend a night close to her, watching her smile and laugh.

The first thing I loved about Rebecca was that laugh. She didn’t put out like the other girls I dated, but it didn’t matter, because she made me laugh. And I’ve never been one to laugh much. My only complaint in the old days with Rebecca was the fact that my mouth ached all of the time from smiling so damn much. I’d think it was all some crazy ass dream if it wasn’t for Don reminding me when I get down how good it really was.

The four of us have been friends the entire four years Rebecca and I have been married. When they were introduced, Kim and Rebecca hit it off immediately. Their friendship worked out just right for Don and me. We are able to take the wives to football games and races confident they wouldn’t feel ignored or deprived—it was perfect.

We choose our favorite spot, Dugan’s on the river. It feels like old times when we are able to get our regular table out on the wooden deck overlooking the Bush River. Rebecca and Kim sip on red wine from Spain as Don and I guzzle down Budweiser long necks from St. Louis.

The three of them spend the next hour raving about Don’s contacts. He has talked of getting rid of the “coke bottle glasses” for years, and he now sports two ocean-blue eyes. Everyone loves them, except me.

“This is so nice you guys,” Kim says with a smile. “Cheers to old friends,” she says loudly, slurring her words just a little, while raising her glass in the air, smiling as we each touch our drink to hers.

Kim can’t hold her alcohol. It’s obvious to me that she is getting drunk quickly. I enjoy watching women lose control when they drink too much booze. All formalities fly out the window and the real fun begins.

When Rebecca has too much to drink, I love it and feel like we are able to meet on some unspoken equal ground, connecting in an entirely different way. She doesn’t seem so perfect and I don’t seem defective.

I tap the red-and-white box on the table, pulling out a Marlboro, and lean back in my seat, finally feeling relaxed. “Thanks for inviting us out,” I say appreciatively to Don. I really mean it.

It is the first time in weeks Rebecca and I have spent more than a few minutes together without fighting. I am happy just to be able to look at her up close. She has on the emerald green sundress she bought as a reward for losing so much weight over the past few months. This is my first opportunity to see it on her rather than a wire hanger. The dress fits a little snug and shows a lot of cleavage; I am being tortured ever so slowly.

“We are really glad you guys came,” Kim says. “We actually had ulterior motives for dinner.” She laughs while leaning lovingly into Don. “We have been busy planning this amazing trip to the Bahamas.”

“That’s so great,” Rebecca says. She has always wanted to go to the Bahamas but we have never had the money. The only time we ever came close to saving enough money for a vacation, we had to spend it on bailing me out of county jail and paying for court costs when I wrecked our only ride. I haven’t been allowed to drive since but it doesn’t really matter because I don’t have the money to buy another ride or SR 22 insurance.

Rebecca is a little jealous. I am not. I don’t know what to say. The envy seeps through her left cheek as it quivers under the pressure of a forced, reluctant smile. This is the way things are. I know that Don has the money for that trip, because he’s counting on getting the promotion. I don’t count on things.

Don reaches into his shirt pocket, one of those Hawaiian fruity shirts with parrots and flowers all over it, pulls out a pair of tickets, and lays them in front of the two of us. “We want you to go with us.”

I am speechless, watching Rebecca closely, searching for a reaction. There isn’t one. Her beautiful round face is void of emotions. She never once looks my way. That hurts.

“Wow.” Rebecca laughs taking a huge sip of wine. “What a sweet gesture. I don’t really even know what to say.” Rebecca gets up, leans over and hugs Kim tightly. “Thank you so much but I can’t.” She walks back inside to the bathroom. Kim apologizes to me and runs after her.

“You okay?” Don asks quietly.

I flash a fake smile, showing off the mouthpiece, something I never do. “I’m good.” I am not.

After Don and Kim drop us off at our apartment, I sit in the living room, relishing the dark. The only noise is coming from Rebecca taking a shower down the hall. I roll a joint, take two or three hits, and put it out. There is no peace, just quiet. I fall asleep.

At 3 a.m., Rebecca wakes me. At once I know that we are going to fight, and then it will all be over. It is obvious that she has been crying for hours—her eyes red and swollen. I feel like a jerk for dozing off. I sit up, trying to look like I am ready for anything, a real man.

“We need to talk, Jack.”

“I know.”

Rebecca pulls a tattered tissue from the pocket of her white furry robe. She calls it her “comfort” robe and wears it only in times of complete distress—bad day at work, fight with her mom, that time of the month and now the end of her marriage. “I’m tired of crying and fighting, all of it.” Her voice is trembling.

“What do you want me to say?” I ask. “I’m sorry for being a terrible husband? I’m sorry for being a worthless loser?” I can feel the heat spread across my face. “Would that do any good, Rebecca? Would it?” I yell. I hated to get so angry. I know that the red is showing through the thinning spots of my white-blonde hair. I can feel and taste the foam building around the damn mouthpiece because of the yelling. I feel so ugly in front of her.

“Not now. No, it doesn’t matter,” Rebecca says. “I just want to leave without a fight. Can you let me do that?” She puts her hands on my face. “That’s all I’m asking.”

I glare at her. Hate and love are fighting to the death inside of me. “I’m not chasing after you,” I say with a detached arrogant tone.

“You can’t chase after me, Jack, because I’m already gone.” Rebecca kisses my cheek, stares at me. “I’ll have my things out of here tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” I stand in front of her.

Rebecca moves around me, walking towards the spare bedroom. “One of my friends from work is bringing over her minivan. I don’t have much. So we should be out of here no later than three.”

“I won’t be here.”

Rebecca nods. “I think that’s a good idea.”

“That’s it?” I ask, trying hard to beat down the anger, knowing damn good and well it’s no use. It’s hard to catch my breath.

“That’s it.” Her voice is a whisper.

I try to stop myself, to control my anger. In an instant, I give up. I do what I know, grab the back of her hair and pull as hard as I can, catching her as we both fall to the ground. Moving over top of her, my hand goes over her mouth to make her stop screaming. “Don’t,” I mutter in her ear. I hate it when she does that. Then I begin to choke her until she stops kicking and twisting. Desperation gleams in her discolored face as her pulse beats into my hand. I stop and fall against the wall.

Coughing, greedily breathing in air, Rebecca manages to pull as far away from me as possible. There is fear in her eyes. She sits there, gathering strength, afraid but looking at me anyway. She pulls the robe back around her, looking as if she’s wearing a straight jacket, and uses the wall for assistance as she makes it to the spare bedroom.

Our neighbor grumbles at his barking dog, an old stray lab that stays tied up to the magnolia that separates our backyards and yells “Keep it down,” to either the dog or me. Sitting in the calm of the darkness catching my breath, fighting the desire to kick down the bedroom door, I notice the jacket draped across the back of the chair in the living room and I grab it, slipping my arms into the sleeves one at a time, precise and careful as if donning a tux. My head hurts. I pull the whiskey bottle out from under the bathroom sink where it’s been hiding, behind the toilet paper and 409, guzzling the remains within minutes.

Kicking down the door is easy. I am unnerved by the way Rebecca stares at me as if she knows what I am about to do or maybe even knew all along. Boxes are piled up, surrounding the room like a fortress. A picture of Rebecca and me peeks out from a box marked fragile. It’s one of those professional portraits, a first anniversary gift from Rebecca. She’s standing behind me, hands on my shoulders as if she is holding onto me while I sit noble in a leather chair, staring right at the camera, smiling larger than life. I slam my foot into the picture, hard as I can. It shatters. The door locks and the light goes out. The only sound is the neighbor’s dog, barking low and hurried.

pencil

“I live in Orlando, Florida with my husband, Bill, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Jordan. After recently recovering from a major pre-mid-life crisis, one in which I quit my marketing career to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing at Rollins College, I am working on building a freelance writing career.” E-mail: lifeofriley1[at]cfl.rr.com