CINEMA DRIVE - CHRIS BENTON
The night my daughter Karen disappeared, we had another fight about her mother, who fled from us five years ago with a crackhead lawyer.
I did love my wife once, I truly did. Her laughter calmed lunatics. When I came inside her on that New Years Eve, I knew she would conceive. And she did. And I knew it would be a girl. And I knew what her name would be as well. But after she was born, my wife became distant and restless. Post-partum depression was what everyone kept telling me. But her distance continued to gain miles. Even on Karen’s birthdays she was drunk or stoned beyond repair. She was a highly gifted speed typist, but kept losing job after job until she finally didn’t care.
It was during those years that she finally connected to Karen, and my exhaustion from working double shifts felt earned, and for a handful of years I was happy, tired, but happy. But then, shortly after Karen’s tenth birthday, my wife’s brain darkened again, and she was gone. And soon after, she was truly gone.
Karen missed her mother, missed her bad, and always loved a vision of her which lived in a warm, well-lit space, far away in the darkness of memory.
We were in our kitchen, about to leave to pick up her friend Pattie. They were going to a movie, and I honestly can’t remember why our small talk took a turn for the worse.
“I remember her telling me over and over that she loved me more than Jesus!” Karen screamed. She was a powerful screamer, a clear, steady condemner, just like her mother.
“She did, honey, she loved most everything more than Jesus,” I said as sincere as I could.
Perhaps the birth pangs of our fight had something to do with the guy she was dating at the time, Brian Wilson, a slouching moron who wore eyeliner. It didn’t matter what the reason was, though, it always came back to her mother who plunged into the heart of nowhere when Karen turned eleven.
“I remember mom telling me that you loved your beer and your dumbass black and white movies more than you loved me. You know why I believed her, because I don’t remember one fucking time you tucking me in to bed, or reading me a story. Essential shit, dad.”
Essential was a word she picked up from her mother. I remember Alison throwing that word at me like a hand grenade every time “a talk” became screams. How this was essential and that was essential. I guess Karen thought she was making profound points by wielding this word. Maybe she was.
“Why do you hate me so much, I’m here, ain’t I, honey? I’m not the one who boogied away to Never-Never Land.” My voice sounded feeble, defensive. She had done it again, had triumphed. I felt like I was arguing with her mother again, I felt like a scolded, pathetic child. And for a few seconds, I hated my daughter. I hated her because she saw how I felt and when she shook her head at me with a cruel smile I slapped her, slapped her mother’s smile right off her hard sharp chin. She cradled her face with her left hand and her eyes were filled with final disgust.
“I wish both of you had left, I probably would have been happier in a foster home, being fucked every night by a fake father.”
She marched away to her bedroom and slammed the door. I went to the fridge, grabbed a beer and killed it with four swallows. The stale pizza I had brought home after work looked like my last will and testament.
Ocean Theater was on Cinema Drive just two blocks away from the sea at the north end of Carolina beach. It was a small venue, with only two screens. When Karen opened the car door, I grabbed her arm gently and said, “Enjoy the movie, sweetheart.” She looked at my smile like it was a sick joke, yanked her arm free and slammed the passenger door with vindictive triumph.
I drove over to the Fat Pelican a mile away for a few beers while I waited for them. Inside there were men I recognized, but did not say a word to because I knew their family had forsaken them years ago, for reasons both familiar and deserved. I just drank my beer and listened to their desperate laughter and watched sports updates. On my fifth High Life my phone rang. It was Pattie, asking me if Karen was with me. A long cold moan began racing through my blood.
“Ain’t she with you at the movies?”
“She was, Mr. Melton, but she got up to go to the bathroom, but now the movie’s halfway over and I’m standing out front here and I don’t see her.”
The next forty-eight hours was a terrified blur of cops and questions and suspicious expressions I didn’t deserve. Yes, I had a fight with my daughter; I guess Pattie told them about that one, why did I lie about it? “Because it’s none of your goddamn business.” What did you fight about? “None of your goddamn business.” Their eyes were perched on my shoulder for a few days and after that they just ruled it a runaway, which I knew it wasn’t. I knew Karen hated me in some ways, I guess she had good right to, but I also knew I tried my utmost to give her anything she needed and wanted, and I knew deep down she did love me.
My boss gave me two-week’s vacation, which resulted in restraining orders from her ex-boyfriend as well as from Pattie. I needed them to remember a single detail that could help me, but all they gave me were shrugging shoulders and fearful inspections of their toes. The only person I called a friend stopped by a couple of times with beer and he basically acted the same, just buried his eyes in his crotch, or nodded thoughtfully at the floor.
I went back to Ocean Theater several times and sat in the same screening room my Karen and Pattie did. The movie they watched was still showing, some horseshit about of bunch of vampires wearing lipstick and hopping around in trees. I sat in the back row and studied the back of everyone’s head. Most of the viewers were kids, except for a few. I followed them out and took their license plates. One night a man followed me to my car and flashed a badge. Asked me what I was doing. I told him and he told me he knew. I asked him why the fuck did you ask me in the first place, cocksucker? He told me to go home, to leave it in “their” hands, told me I would be arrested if he saw me again.
I got laid off from my job a month later. I simply didn’t sort shit on the line anymore. I was just taking notes. My boss said good luck and he was sorry. I told him to go to hell. A former co-worker of mine had been selling me these diet pills, told me they would keep me awake if I dozed during my investigations. He was what you called a sympathetic asshole. They worked, though, nothing escaped me. The police had forgotten to bag the crushed corpse of a seagull in the parking lot. I mean, hell, the fucker might have seen something before it died. I put it in a ziplock freezer bag and took it home and tossed it in the fridge for future reference.
It was getting close to Christmas. I put a tree up in the den and wrapped Karen’s pillows with her dirty tee shirts. I laid the bundle on the couch and spoke to it and hugged it occasionally. We watched It’s A Wonderful Life over and over until she finally laughed with me in unison, especially at the part where George is about to leap off the bridge. Later that night I would carry her to bed and tuck her in and read her a story. When she was finally asleep I drove down to the mouth of Cinema Drive and parked in the dark behind Bonnie’s Fish Fry and walked to the shore. The sea never failed to swallow my prayers and screams. When my brain was dry I would walk back to Ocean Theater after it was closed, and gaze for hours at its flat cement skull, full of ridiculous, dead dreams.
I was sitting there on Christmas night, inside my car being slowly crushed by a clear cruel night under a scythe moon. I was sitting there, drinking the last of my pint of Kentucky Gentleman when I saw her. I thought I was hallucinating so I slapped myself several times, closed my eyes and took a deep breath and chewed a couple more diet pills to clear my mind.
And she was still there. And someone was with her. I quietly popped opened the trunk of my car and pulled out the tire iron. They didn’t notice me until I was maybe ten feet away from them. They were huddled together on the curb in front of the ticket booth giggling together and smoking a joint. My daughter was the first to notice me, and her giggles dropped dead in her throat.
“I’ve been worried sick about you; I’ve been dying from the fear of it all. Why didn’t you at least call me?”
Karen looked at me like I was a maniac. The man she was with, whom I didn’t recognize, had long ropey turds for hair.
“Uh, dude, I think you got the wrong person,” he told me, as he slowly rose. I swung the tire iron like a bat and his skull obeyed with a swift, red burst. His face ate the pavement and he laid there, arms outstretched, embracing the earth with a newfound gratitude.
Karen was running; she was a fast runner because she inherited her speed from me. I used to race those yuppie Yankee kids whose parents had bought out most of Whiskey Creek after my grandmother died. I left them behind me, every time. I was quick when I was a boy, and I was quick now. I was running as fast as that faggoty vampire Karen loved so much on the big screen. I tackled her and we went tumbling down the cold, blunt heart of Cinema Drive. She was already clawing my face before I could speak; I felt my left cheek come apart between her fingers as I grabbed both her wrists and shook her. Her head whiplashed from the asphalt and her eyes eloped from the world. She became as calm as a doll, and I whispered my thanks to her, over and over.
I brought her home and wrapped her head with her favorite pillow case and when I pushed play on It’s A Wonderful Life I heard the screeching from the fridge. I got up and opened it and the crushed gull fluttered into my face, nearly slicing off the tip of my nose with its beak before launching itself into the walls of the living room. After a few frantic minutes it finally found its true throne, upon the head of my sleeping daughter.
I fetched my 30-30 from the bedroom closet, and took aim at that dead French fry eating chicken, and when my trigger finger began to curl, it spoke; it was a warm flood of a voice, the voice of an angel. And it told me the truth, and showed me the path, straight out its eyeless, dangling head.
I gathered my false daughter into my arms and took us to my bedroom.
I shattered the picture of my wife her mother took the day before our wedding. I scotched taped it around the face of my fate before peeling off my clothes.
I’m looking forward to my execution. I’m looking forward to it like a boy before Christmas, because I know once my breath has left the earth, my crushed angel will pluck the rag of my soul from my sorry sack and fly it cross-country, where we’ll be waiting for you Karen, from Wilmington, to Wichita, to Seattle Washington, we’ll be waiting for you honey, long after the final credits have rolled.