Sunday, August 15, 2010
Chicago has been really hot and humid this summer. At times, I would say unbearably so. During a long commute without A/C, I saw a billboard on the side of a building and I couldn't get the idyllic thing out of my mind. So that's where I got the idea for this summer tale.
The traffic wasn’t moving. Not even an inch. Gus closed his eyes to block out the incessant blaring of horns. He wondered what those people, pressing their palms down over and over on the center of their steering wheels thought they were doing. It sure as hell wasn’t helping the traffic move any faster. It was only making all the trapped souls in their motorized tin cans feel even more irritated. He felt his heart speed up with anxiety. His 1996 Chevy Malibu was boxed in tight surrounded by trucks so his view was beyond obstructed. Patience, he told himself, just breathe in and then breathe out. With his air conditioner on the fritz that was all he could do without losing his mind.
It was when he felt edgy that he knew he had to really focus on something concrete. Like breathing. Moments like these only increased his urge to smoke, but he quit that. He could really go for a deep pull off of a Camel unfiltered. Just one long inhale to feel that friendly burn. He closed his eyes again and tried to calm his mind. He knew what would come next if he was craving a smoke. He would start to crave a drink. One ice cube and then the beautiful brown liquid that would make it all go away. And it did make it all go away. His job. His home. His wife. This kind of thinking wasn’t helping at all.
Gus wanted to scream. He wanted to tell the other cars to get the fuck out of the way. But his windows were down so he couldn’t. At least not without attracting a lot of attention. He pressed the buttons on his radio until he found some sort of music. He wasn’t in the mood for the over-produced morning radio shows. They all sounded like the assholes he hated in college. The guys who would streak across campus and press their genitals on the female dorm windows. Those guys.
One of the morning shows was offering up tickets to see Hall and Oates for the 105th caller. Gus almost called. His ex loved Hall and Oates. On one of their first dates, she had their Bigger Than The Both of Us album playing all night long. Though they were never his favorite, Hall and Oates always reminded Gus of her. Of Peggy. The radio was now playing “Method of Modern Love” to kick off the flurry of calls they were going to get. Gus turned off the radio.
The truck in front of his popsicle blue car inched forward a few feet. For the first time in almost ten minutes he could see the sky. A slice of it anyway. Gus gently pressed down on the gas and matched the distance and found himself staring at a huge billboard on the side of a building. It was a picture of a couple laughing while sitting in their individual kayaks on the most perfectly blue water beside a steep cliff that had the greenest pine trees along the top. It was such an unexpected site. It made Gus’ heart flutter, but not from anxiety. He hadn’t recognized that feeling at first. It had been so long, but there it was. He was moved. He felt a deep desire stir inside his chest. They looked so happy, those pretty people who were pretending to know and like the other.
He couldn’t tell what it was advertising. Gus strained to keep the billboard in site but the trucks moved in and took with it his view. It was gone. Just like that his brief moment of hope had turned into something black and resentful. Who the hell lived like that anyway? False hopes they tried to sell you. This could be you, but it really never can. It was all a sick joke. Gus caught his reflection in the rearview mirror and was shocked to see the bitter and haggard man in front of him. His life was right here and nothing was going to change that.
He turned the radio back on and REM’s “Everybody Hurts” was playing. Gus laughed and turned it off immediately. A light flashed on his dashboard. Shit, Gus said to himself. The tank was below the big E. He knew he should have gotten gas before he began his commute but he didn’t think that he would hit this kind of traffic. He loathed playing this game with his gas tank. Could he make it to work without sputtering out of gas? He lost that game more times than he could count. His wife. Stop. Back it up. His ex-wife would always harp on him for letting it get too low. Looking back he could see that it wasn’t harping but actually just good solid advice from someone who actually gave a shit. At the time, though, he resented her for trying to make him grow-up. He’d show her. And he did.
He showed her every time he chose to go to the Lighthouse bar and sat silently downing bourbon next to Larry the pox-faced out of work janitor rather than go home. And with that he lost his job as a day trader and then their home and then her. Ah, Peggy. He now lived in a one-room studio above a Chinese take-out. It was a far cry from the four bedroom, two-story, 3400 square foot home that he and Peggy shared. She had hoped they would grow into that home. Fill it with children and memories. Gus instead filled it with isolation and emotional cruelty. He took responsibility for his actions. It was part of his rehab. But it was too late. The damage was too great. God he missed her.
He turned the radio back on, in time to hear that Buck Rhodes won the tickets. Buck, Gus said to himself. Figures. Gus looked around for any sign of a gas station. He hated this area of the city. Everything was closed and abandoned. A modern day ghost town. He saw an old sign for an Aamco but it was a relic from another time, its windows soaped over to hide the emptiness. Gus was sweating now. He knew this car well enough to know he had little time to find fuel. His mother gave him this car after he got out of his 90-day treatment center. New Beginnings it was called. His mother was the only person who visited him. It didn’t surprise him really, but it resonated how alone he was.
New beginnings indeed. He was well beyond the beginning at this point. He had been sober for 5 years and counting. Always counting. He felt the outline of his coin in his left pocket of his pants. It was his talisman. His car jerked forward. Come on, Gus yelled to no one. He put on his blinker to try to get it to the side of the road but no one was letting him merge. He honked and felt his car sputter to a resounding halt. He put his jellybean colored car in neutral and eased it over to more blaring horns until it rested on the side of the highway. Great.
Gus got out of his car and was nearly hit by a shiny new Audi that swerved towards him to miss a pothole. The driver chose to miss the pothole over me, he thought to himself as his middle finger instinctively went up in the air. He stood by his car and looked both ways trying to remember where the closest gas station was in this area. No one stops anymore, Gus muttered not even bothering to flag someone down. He wished he had renewed his AAA membership but that was one of the things he had to let go. That and cable. Oh and cigarettes and alcohol.
His hand went to his pocket to pull out his cell phone but it wasn’t there. He left it on his bedside table again. He ran out the apartment so fast that he forgot to do the double check on things like having his phone and turning off the coffee pot. He took a deep breath and started walking from whence he came. The sun was already pressing down hard on the day even though it was not even ten o’clock. His bald spot seemed to be taking the brunt of the angry rays.
He walked past a homeless man who asked for some money. Gus was never good at lying so he dug into his pockets but only had some loose change. He handed it to the man wearing too many layers for the hot day and gave the guy a smile apologizing it wasn’t more. The toothless man looked at the coins and dug through them.
“I don’t want no pennies,” he said.
Gus stopped and nodded. He went to the guy’s hand and took all the change back and stuck it in his pocket and walked away.
“Hey, I’ll take those quarters and shit,” the man yelled at Gus who didn’t look back. He had to bite his tongue from telling him, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
He walked down the road until he spotted a gas station on the left-hand side. A ding announced Gus’ arrival into the gas station’s convenient store. He was distracted by the varieties of junk food that surrounded him. He skipped breakfast so his stomach growled at the Plexiglas display of donuts. Then he saw the hotdogs rolling along the metal rods turning and turning. He wondered what would be better for him.
“Can I help you, man,” said a young voice from behind the protective glass.
“Oh, yeah,” Gus said snapping him back into why he was there. “I ran out of gas a few miles east and I need to buy some to fill her back up.”
“The container is $5.99 plus tax and then whatever you fill it up with,” the young man said sucking up the last chokes of his slurpee.
Gus found an empty pump and filled the container to a comfortable carrying level, pulled a chocolate iced donut from the case, paid the attendant and headed back toward his car. The heat was rising off of the asphalt in relentless waves. He hadn’t even made it to the corner and sweat was dripping down the tip of his nose into his mouth. Salty, he thought, licking it off his lip. He kept his head down and focused on the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other. His mind felt like it was beginning to warp, like an LP exposed to too much heat. The flutter in his chest caused a bit of an alarm. He knew he wasn’t in the best shape but to be panting this soon on his way was embarrassing. People die when it gets too hot like this, Gus thought. During a heat wave one summer, Gus remembered walking down the street surrounded by the smell of death from folks dying in their apartments and rotting away with only their rotting smell left behind.
After forty-five minutes of straight walking, Gus could finally see the hint of his car. It was still far enough away but Gus thought he could see some movement around the four-door sedan. After a few minutes it seemed like his car was slowly getting further away. “A mirage,“ Gus said to no one as he blinked his eyes to refocus what he was seeing. Then it all fell into place. He was watching his car get towed away.
‘NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Gus yelled out to the truck that was much too far away to hear, also forgetting that the truck probably had A/C and it’s window’s were rolled up. He tried to run but gas slopped over the lip onto his pants. Now he had no car and he reeked of gasoline. He reached for his phone again and was once again reminding of leaving it at home. He kicked the air, which caused him to lose his balance and almost fall into the oncoming traffic. Gus stopped his tantrum and sat down on the curb. He had to take a second. Gus took a bit of the donut. It was beyond stale and the dough turned to dust in his mouth. His mouth couldn’t produce enough saliva to even encourage normal swallowing so he spit it out. He felt like he was going to either pass out or vomit. Whichever came first, he thought.
Going back to the gas station seemed to be the best idea Gus had. He could get some water, some more food, clean up and cool off. He picked up the gas and started the long walk back. He took his shirt off and wrapped it around his head and rolled up his pant legs. He could only imagine what he looked like and that made him laugh out loud. He had reached yet another low in his life. Gus tried not to think too much about that. It would only lead to some seriously dangerous thinking. He needed to just make it to the gas station. He could see it in the distance. His panic subsided a little as his body recognized a near end to this exhaustion. He was in the home stretch.
As Gus crossed the intersection, a car making an illegal turn came inches from hitting him. Gus, without thought threw the gas container at the oblivious car and hit the trunk. He didn’t think he would actually hit the car. He didn’t actually think. It was a response. A knee-jerk response. The car that took the impact of Gus’ gas can stopped suddenly. Three large men came out of it and walked towards Gus.
“You throw somethin’ at my car asshole?” asked the driver who was holding some kind of rod that he beat threateningly in the palm of his hand.
They were coming after him, Gus realized and out of shear panic he ran. He ran and screamed like a little boy waving his hands in the air. He looked like a crazy person with his shirt still tied to his head and his pant legs rolled all askew, but he kept running. He felt like he did in 8th grade when Logan Kaylor, who he ratted on for smoking in the bathroom, chased Gus. Logan beat the shit out of him. He could feel the three goons behind him. They yelled and one of the ogres threw a rock at his head. What the fuck, Gus thought. He knew he didn’t have the stamina to keep going.
Gus ducked into a side street and turned around to assess what his options were. A dead end. Perfect, he cried out. Then over his shoulder he saw a steel ladder. He yanked it down and began to climb. Just one rung at a time, he told himself, and don’t look down. As soon as he thought that, though, his eyes immediately looked down at the three men who stood below him laughing and taunting him. He didn’t care. Gus kept climbing. His hand finally reached a landing and he pulled himself up. He was at the top. He spun around and his face was up against a woman’s hand. He looked up and realized he was in front of that billboard. When he turned around he saw just how high he was.
Gus estimated that he was at least 30 feet high. His feet edged out to the front of the platform. He couldn’t go down. They were waiting for him. How did he end up here? He shook his head and tried to think. There was only one way out and that was down. He felt a peace come over him. He knew if he tried to continue that this was going to be his life. Endless days of living with the repercussions of his actions. Endless days of trying to fix what he broke. Endless, endless days. Gus was tired. He really tried to make it right but there were too many days like this. Well, not exactly like this one but his life had become like a distant friend. He didn’t know it anymore and felt awkward being around it.
“Get your faggot ass down here, “ yelled the smallest of the three.
Gus smiled at the three men. He was done. No more fighting. He stood there and for the first time all day a slight breeze whispered across his face. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the cool air that seemed to kiss his forehead. He outstretched his arms out as if he were on a platform diving board and raised himself onto his tiptoes. He was ready. His body, slightly off balance, wavered and he fell.
Gus fell, not forward like he planned, but backwards and the next thing he felt was the cool rush of water all around him. His arms flailed to help pull him above the surface. His legs instinctively began to tread the cool delicious water as his head spun around to see where he was. An empty kayak was beside him and the sweetest sound was coming from behind him. It was a woman’s laughter. But it wasn’t just any woman. It was Peggy.
Gus looked up at her and started laughing too. He laughed because he saw the cliffs to his right with the greenest pine trees. Peggy reached out her oar to him to help him into his kayak. He pulled himself in and with his hands paddled back to her. He didn’t know if this was a dream or not but Gus wasn’t about to question it. He smiled back at the radiant laughing Peggy. Gus grabbed his oar out of the water and felt his left pocket. His coin was still there.