PRECIPICE - CHRIS BENTON
“I feel like slitting my throat,” Molly says in the dark. It’s pretty late, somewhere around two or three in the morning and I’m still awake as well. Molly sits up and lights a cigarette. I don’t reply, nor do I move. Our bed feels like the edge of a vast underground precipice. I think about assisting her, there is a bread knife that my late sister gave me for Christmas six years ago that could probably saw through her vertebra within a minute. I smother the thought and decide to wait for her words to dim.
My unemployment benefits ran out last week. I have no degree or meaningful skills. I’ve been dreaming behind the wheel of a forklift for seven years too many at Gene’s Hardwood until my sudden lay-off. I’m thirty-nine now and my dreams have finally ended. Molly, my wife of four years has a degree in painting from a prestigious school out west, and is trying to start her own business painting portraits. It’s not going very well. Molly is also two months pregnant. I guess everything is my fault; I have grand ambitions and zero motivation. It’s only a matter of time until I become one of those zombies the sun shits out onto the borders of grocery store parking lots, a creature cooked to death by the elements, cradling a cardboard sign.
We have no money for rent and we have no money for food and we have no money for our car. Molly breaks down and calls her estranged mother, who is a retired risk analyst, and a thousand dollars is wired overnight. “This is the first and probably the last time this happens,” she tells me.
Two weeks after the money Molly’s mother sent us, we have a fight. We haven’t made love in over a month, and we haven’t made money in two months. After she spits the last of her pasta salad into the toilet, she brushes her teeth and proceeds to tell me she doesn’t love me anymore, and she wants me to move out at the end of the week. She tells me she’s moving back out west, that I can’t come with her because I have no vision of the future. I begin thinking about that bread knife again and realize that this beautiful talented woman is speaking the truth. I flee in terror, taking the car.
I end up parking across the street from my former supervisor’s house. Lights are still on inside, and I see silhouettes moving behind the sheer curtains. The house is nice; two stories in an equally nice neighbor with equally nice neighbors who make cruel decisions to keep their niceness irrigated. I know why I’m here; sitting in a car we haven’t paid for in over a month, under the shadowy claw of an old oak. I need a nice, breathing reason to inflict my pain upon. I feel my face changing into a thousand strangers every minute, feel the steering wheel begging me not to tear it out of the console.
The front door of my supervisor’s house suddenly swings open and I see him stagger out. His wife, Alison, is screaming behind him and she throws something that nails him on the back of the head. He twitches from the impact but does not look back as he unlocks his Dodge Ram and slides inside. Alison stands in the open doorway, howling curses, and I see his son standing behind her, hugging himself. My supervisor starts his truck, backs out of the driveway, wildly knocking over his mailbox and roars off. I wait a few seconds for his wife to slam the front door and I follow him.
He drives downtown and finds a very rare parking spot on River Street. I’m not worried about finding him. I know he will be on the next to the last stool at the Barbary.
Inside, there are the usual new generation of folk, metal necks with desperate tattoos and their women who give my glances a well-deserved grimace. I find my supervisor in his appointed place with a bottle of Bud. The bartender, Grace, catches my eye and smiles warmly as she struts over.
“Whatcha need, sweety?”
“Two Buds, beautiful.”
Grace returns with the beers and I give her an extra dollar for her eternal love. I walk over to where my supervisor is sitting and slam a bottle down beside him. He turns to me and smiles.
“Do you still want to kill me?” he asks, like a friend confirming my attendance at a barbeque.
“What are you talking about, man? I don’t blame you, shit happens, everything is fucked up for everybody these days.”
Terry nods and turns his attention back to his beer.
“How are things doing over at Gene’s?” I ask, pushing the bud I bought him beside the empty one he still prays to.
“Fine, fine, I just got laid off today.”
I should feel some kinda of triumphant or vindication but I don’t. What I feel is worry, Terry is still smiling and I’m not sure he will ever stop.
“What the fuck happened?”
“Gene’s son is coming down from Connecticut; he’s going to run the operation.”
“Brian? He don’t know shit about the business. I mean, shit, I thought he was in law school.”
“He was in law school but he dropped out because he was caught fucking his teacher’s daughter or some such shit. It don’t matter anyway anymore anyhow.” Terry takes the Bud I bought him and kills it with four swallows before setting it gently on the scarred counter. He turns to me, still smiling like a boy in love. “Let’s drink until the future is dead,” he says, planting a non-filter Camel between his lips.
Seventeen beers and six shots later, we are stumbling down River Street, and Terry recommends we check out the newly-renovated Drum Trunk Park under the Cape Fear bridge. We buy another twelve-pack from the River Market, and when we get there, Drum Trunk Park consists of a lone backhoe asleep beside a hill of fresh sand.
Terry begins to climb up the hill and I follow him. When we reach the top, we take a seat in the sand and I open two beers and hand him one. The river is drunk with moonlight. The bridge over us groans mournfully with endless escapes and arrivals. Terry lights a cigarette and takes a swig of his beer and gives a long sigh.
“Peaceful out tonight,” he says softly.
I grunt in approval.
“Are you sure you don’t want to kill me? I wouldn’t mind.”
“Yeah, Terry, I’m sure.”
“How’s Molly doing?”
“She’s fine, just a little stressed out about money.”
“It’s a scientific impossibility to be a little stressed out about money,” Terry replies before he pounds the rest of his bottle.
“I guess you’re right,” I whisper.
“Do you love her?”
“I do,” and this is true.
“Does she love you?”
“I believe she does,” I reply and this is not so true.
Terry nods at the river and takes a long draw of his cigarette. “Pass me another of them beers, will you?”
We drink beers and smoke cigarettes from our sand tower in a frail, serene silence for maybe an hour, maybe more, until Terry shatters it.
“I hate my family,” he declares without a trace of emotion. “I don’t know why I do, but I do. Even long before the lay-off, I’ve been hating them and it scares the shit out of me because I can’t think of a single reason why. I mean, Alison is still beautiful, she didn’t get fat and ugly after she had Kevin, and Kevin is my son, my son. He’s the best goddamn batter on his entire team. But whenever I look into his eyes, I don’t feel pride, or love, I don’t feel nothing. If anything, I feel liking puking.”
Which Terry proceeds to do for a couple of minutes and when he’s finished, he covers his confession with some sand, takes off his glasses and wipes them with his shirt tail before putting them back on. I don’t know what to say so I say nothing.
“I don’t know what happened to me,” he says, shaking his head at his chest. “I don’t even know who the fuck I am anymore.”
I put my arm around his shoulders and feel his muscles recoil. After a couple of minutes, they relax and we sit for a while that way, wondering how our dreams managed to die in slow motion.
I wake up because my tongue is trying to choke me. The sun is crawling out of its deathbed. No beers are left. The bottles lie at the base of the sand hill, like victims of a doomed siege. Terry is gone, but this is not entirely true; his clothes are folded into a neat pile where he was sitting, his boots sit on top of them, his glasses and wallet stuffed in the left one.
I stagger down the hill, to the rocky edge of the Cape Fear River. I stare up and down its dark trembling skin for a few minutes and decide to hunt down my car before my hangover spreads deeper.
I find my car and, as I unlock it, the remains of a man appear beside me. He is dressed in grey rags and his arms are covered in scabs that sparkle like diseased gems. “I mean you no harm,” he says with quiet reverence, “but do you have a single dollar bill you can spare? I’m trying to make it home.” I dig into my pockets and find several quarters. I carefully drop them into his palm and he blesses me.
On the way home, my mind and heart and balls are making magical vows. I will be a better man, I don’t want to lose what I have, my dreams may be dead but this doesn’t mean new dreams can’t be born. I will be a better man; I will learn to love what I dread, I will be a loving husband, a loving father. I feel a certainty filled with light and love, a certainty that can only come from God.
I pull up behind a tow-truck that bears the name of Neary. Molly is on the front porch in her chlorine-colored bath robe bitching out a man who towers over her. I get out of our car, which is obviously now in the process of being repossessed and walk towards them.
Molly sees me and puts her verbal autopsy on pause. I’m smiling, filled with a brave new breed of love.
“Hey, babycakes, everything ok?” I ask and Molly frowns in confusion at the wings my words are wearing. The repo man turns to me and his face is red with rage. He walks down the porch steps towards me. He’s dressed like one of those white boys pretending to be a rap star. His head is shaven. I realize he is not a man, but a child. “It’s a good thing you showed up, cause I was about to slap some sense into that crazy bitch,” he says to me.
Repo boy is suddenly on the ground and I’m stomping the shit out of him. I don’t know what’s wrong with my right leg; it refuses to obey my brain, the heel of my boot keeps slamming into his face, which is beginning to vanish. I can hear Molly’s screams for a few seconds, screams filled with priceless wisdom, but they swiftly fade because I have fallen beyond their reach.
BIO: Chris Benton was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina where he still resides. He can be found on Facebook.