by FRANK REARDON
I lit another cigarette and looked at the caked, mud, ash hiding the word ‘Boston,’ in the middle of the ashtray. I thought about home and how it was over a thousand miles away. I could hear the waves of the cold Atlantic Ocean slamming against the rocks a couple blocks from my bedroom window. I could hear my grandmother’s slippers shuffle on the linoleum as she readied the morning coffee. I could hear my Grandfather’s heavy elephant like feet thunder across the house as he got himself ready for his job as head maintenance man at Boston Eye and Ear hospital.
It was like that every day for me. I didn’t need an alarm clock. I only needed them to do what they did every morning. My grandmother raised six children and never worked. My grandpa, he suffered a heart attack, maybe two, but still went to work every day after he recovered. They were both born in 1920 and lived through the Great Depression, and many wars. Regular day to day life was their hope. They didn’t want or need kinks in their routines. It was what kept them alive. What gave them purpose.
They raised me because my dad was in and out of prison on account of being a grifter and a small time safe-cracker. I didn’t know my mom, other than her name was Sharon McGuire. Dad didn’t have it in him to tell me anything about her. I’d sit up at night when I was little crying because I didn’t have a Mom. I felt a pit of loneliness so deep in my chest at such a young age that I’d cry out. Grandma would hear me, run in, sit next to me, and sing a song until I felt better. I remember I used to say, “Sing to me Grandma. Sing to me.” And she would. And after she was done singing she’d remove a saint card from her apron and put it on my nightstand. I had a fine collection of saint cards. Some kids had baseball cards with Jim Rice and Rich Gedman on them. I had St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, St Christopher and many others. She told me the saints and Jesus would watch over me and after a kiss on the forehead she was gone. I always felt better, even if only for the night.
It wasn’t until years later when I was twenty that my Uncle Ronnie who was drunk like always told some things about my Mom. When she was younger, she was a red-headed cheerleader. One of the most beautiful and popular girls in high school. Ronnie told me she was destined for greatness because so many people loved her. Ronnie also said, “I could’ve had her if I wanted.” But Ronnie was missing an ear and hadn’t bought new clothes since his hippie days in the late 60s. No woman wanted Ronnie. I never saw him with one either. He went on to tell me that after high school she ended up hanging with a crowd of bikers and soon after ended up hooked on heroin. She eventually met my dad, and they married a year later and had me. Ronnie said, “Your dad thought marriage and a kid would’ve straightened her out, but it didn’t. One night your dad came home and your mom was standing over your crib with a butcher knife. She ended up in McLean, in the crazy hospital.”
I believed the story because I had no other story to go on. I believed anything my dad and uncles told me for the longest time. She did end up at McLean, but what no one told me, and I had to find out for myself from the records office in McLean when I wanted to find her, was that she had bitten off her own tongue, and in a mess of blood, sweat, and hair, she smashed a window and cut her own throat with broken glass. For years I believed she was still a patient. No one told me the truth. She did this when I was five years old. When I found out the truth I started to realize everyone in my family had lied to me about almost everything. Maybe they were protecting me from the madness of knowing the truth, but they did more harm than good. I walked through life not knowing myself because I had lived a life based on an entire series of lies. I told people those lies like they were gospel.
Like my dad. I was told he was always away traveling for work, except he wasn’t. He was in and out of prison for scamming people and robbing. And that was my family, really. Either you worked a shitty job and hid your insanity under a thin veil of skin and booze, or you ended up in prison, or in a mental hospital. It wasn’t long after that I wanted to run away from it all. I quit my job at the meat packing plant, packed up everything I owned in my Pontiac Grand Prix, and drove it all over the country. I’d stay in small towns for a few months and work random short term construction jobs, then I’d pack up and move on to the next small town in some other state. Each mile I drove I’d lock up another lie for good, or I thought. I ran and drove like that for the next ten years, until I started losing hair and hope and finally decided to stop in Minot, North Dakota. A shit hole of a city where I have been for the last eleven years. It took me twenty-one years to let go of it all, even though I never truly let any of it go. It had been an easy thing to do to myself, trick myself into the lies people told me and make them my beliefs.
I lit another cigarette and took a long pull from the bottle of Evan Williams that I had on the floor next to me. I looked at the clock and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have to be at my shitty job as a sales clerk at Bargain Town for another two days. I hated going to that place, but it was the only place that would give a man in his early forties with no skills a job. It was a terrible place to work. I almost hated it as much as the maroon vest, the name tag, and the black sneakers I had to wear.
In the years I’ve been here I hadn’t made a single friend. My life was other people’s lives in the books I read and the movies I watched. My people skills were something to be desired. I’d try to strike up a conversation with a woman at a bar, but they’d ignore me. I’d try to discuss social issues with a group of old timers, but they’d brush me off like I was talking crazy. Hell, even the priests at St. Leo’s snaked their way out of having conversations with me. I went to church every damn Sunday because that was what my grandmother wished for me. I even went to their stupid Theology on Tap nights. A random night during the week where you could bring beer and discuss Catholic topics and listen to their big mouths for hours. No wonder it was “on tap,” you couldn’t tolerate their bullshit without a good buzz.
But I still went, and they didn’t have time to talk to me after or ever? The only person who talked to me was Bettie. She was a prostitute I’d visit once in awhile, and she only talked to me because I was paying for it.
I felt my chest drop when I looked at the ashtray again, and the fear of home set deep in my mind. It had been over twenty years since I stepped foot in Massachusetts, yet I still feared the place. I picked up the phone and called Bettie to escape from my thoughts.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hey, it’s me.” I replied.
Her not knowing my voice ran through me, “It’s Marty.”
There was a silence for a minute that felt like an hour.
“Hey, baby,” she said. “You wanna meet up?”
“I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner and drinks with me?”
“You don’t wanna fuck?”
“Yes. No,” I stumbled over my words. “I was wanting to take you out tonight. Like a date.”
“It’s your dollar, baby.”
“Pick you up at eight?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the restaurant.’
“The Valhalla at eight?”
“Oh, big spender,” she teased, “I’ll see you then.”
The Valhalla was the most expensive restaurant in town. And it was named that on account that everyone in North Dakota thought they were a Viking or a barbarian of some kind, but I guess we all need our identities. It was no different in Boston where everyone thought they were in the Irish mob, or the Italian mob, or the Jewish mob. Or people in the south thinking they were trailer park Faulkners.
I put on some coffee and mixed a hot cup with a bit of Evan Williams. I didn’t want to be drunk, but I wanted to keep my buzz in the right place and wake up a bit. I took a long shower and scrubbed down with Irish Spring. I shaved my balding head clean, trimmed my beard, and put on my cleanest old pair of Levi jeans I owned, then tucked in a button-down plaid shirt into my jeans. It was the best I allowed myself to look in a dozen or more years.
When I arrived at Valhalla I didn’t see Bettie at first, so I took a seat in the waiting area. A waiter walked up and offered me a drink. “Jack and Coke,” I told him. He nodded and left. I hadn’t had a date in years, and in part it was my own fault. I wasn’t an ugly man, nor was I handsome. Somewhere in-between a Cadillac and a Pinto. I was an economy car, dependable but forever average. I suppose I’d done it to myself being awful with people, always saying the wrong thing. Not comfortable with others, fits of anger or fits of tears. I was a ghost most days to people, but every-so-often, a person would see me like I was let out of the spirit realm for a few seconds. They’d smile at me or say hello. And as quick as I was released, I was put back with the unseen.
The waiter handed me my drink. I thanked him and took a sip. I was going all out tonight. No cheap whiskey, only the finest tonight for Marty Sullivan. I looked at my watch and noticed it was almost eight-twenty. I got up and looked around the restaurant. I couldn’t see Bettie. Only noticed people on their own dates. Each booth holding forever sweethearts sitting over fine steaks, liquors, and wine. Half the people probably already posted photos of their food and spirits on Facebook. I felt let down, Bettie had blown me off, then I looked at the end of the bar. A woman was sitting alone with her back to me. She was wearing a green house dress with small pink floral prints on it. Her dark brown hair was done up. Her right hand twirled a straw in a drink, then she lifted it up to her mouth drank it. After she put the glass on the bar she pointed at the glass with her middle finger like she had no idea what it was like to be in a classy restaurant. For all she knew she was at Arny’s shithole in the wall drinking ginger ales and well whiskey with thirty-year-old people that looked sixty.
I walked up to her. “You look amazing,”
She turned around and looked at me like I was a child. I imagined it was how my mother would’ve looked at me if she loved me, if she wasn’t crazy and dead.
“About time you got your ass here. I was about to fucking leave.”
The way her rough words left her mouth threw me off, it was as if she tossed a live chicken on the bar and cut its head off with a meat cleaver and yelled, “Go ahead, look at me you, you fucking assholes.”
“No,” I said, “I was sitting in the waiting area with a drink. I didn’t notice…”
“You said The Valhalla,” She interrupted, “Did you expect me to show up in fuck me boots and a leather skirt?”
“I’m sorry,” I said to her.
She briefly looked me up and down. “Sit down you idiot.”
I stared into the giant mirror above the bar and saw us both sitting there in the mirror in the best clothes we could afford. Both broken by a world that never cared to ask if we wanted to be broken or whole. It never gave us the choice, but we made the best of it with whatever human glue we could find: books, movies, alcohol, sex, drugs, church, pills, therapists.
“You going to say something or are you going to look at me in the mirror all night like some creepy asshole. I deal with assholes every day of my life. Don’t be one of them, Marty.”
“How’s work?” I asked, and I knew as soon as it rolled off my lips it was the wrong thing to ask her.
“Like I said, Marty, creeps.”
I struggled to find something else to say. I ran through my brain index of movies I had seen and books that I had read for something snappy to ask her, but I couldn’t find anything. All I saw was my dad and my mother in my head. Dad in a jail jumper and Mom dead on the floor in a pool of her own blood. Bettie noticed that I was struggling. Her eyes went from hardened to soft like she understood. She swiveled around on the stool to face me, “Look, Marty. We don’t need to have a deep conversation like all of these cunts sitting in here taking cellphone photos instead of living. We can drink our drinks until it feels right to say something.”
I nodded to her and felt a huge sigh of relief, “But don’t go getting cheap on me,” she said pushing down on my knee, “We’re in a beautiful restaurant. I want top shelf drinks all night.” I nodded again.
Fancy drinks to the both of us were Jack Daniels and Cokes. It wasn’t the best, but it was to us, sure beat the rotgut I drank. We didn’t talk much, but on occasion Bettie would excuse herself to go to the bathroom, and before leaving she’d squeeze my knee to let me know I was with her and no one else could have me. It made me feel good, wanted. I liked the feeling of being owned by something beautiful and angry. It was like being locked in a furnace with no way out. When she walked back to the bar she walked with class, like a woman from an old noir film who didn’t take shit from anyone. She owned the place with Wal-Mart pumps on her feet and a Target purse under her arm. She drank like the men in my family: quiet and full of all kinds of bullshit the second she opened her mouth. I think my need to be quiet made her comfortable. Like she needed me the way I was – silent and ready, like an ax behind glass just in case she needed a way out.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here, Marty,” she said.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“Let’s drive out to the plains and sit.”
“Sit in my car?”
“Sure. Ever look at Minot at night from far away?”
“No, but it’s snowing out,” I told her.
“Even better, Marty.”
I didn’t see the need to argue with her. I paid the tab and we walked outside and got in my car. We drove over to The Landing Bottle Shop and picked up a bottle of Evan Williams and two packs of cigarettes. She lit two cigarettes and handed me one. I noticed the lipstick stains on the end of the butt she handed me and I felt like a king to be able to put the stained cigarette in my mouth.
I drove ten miles outside of Minot with snowbanks piled high on each side of the road from the plows. She directed me to a country road. I drove down it and parked. I kept the car running to keep us both warm.
“Turn off your headlights.”
I did and she was right. We were surrounded by a thick and merciless dark on three sides, but in the distance in front of us I could see the bright lights of Minot. The small city where no one gave a fuck about me. Where I had the worst job known to man. Where I had no friends, yet somehow it looked beautiful.
“Looks like hope, doesn’t it?” she said. “Looks like the both of us could start our lives over tonight doesn’t it?”
I agreed with her. I had been running from myself for so damn long and for so many years that I forgot what hope and a fresh start felt like. I had been running through the motions for so long that I forgot what a beating heart needed. It needed hope like a car needed gas. I hadn’t filled it with anything in a decade. I walked, read, watched, showered, brushed my teeth. It was the same thing done every day the same way. I went to work and agreed with people when they shit on me. I never spoke up for myself. I imagine it’s why my mother cut her own throat. No one cared about her, she was no longer a big shot in high school. She was another face in a crowd full of people in a hurry to get to nowhere fast. Or why my dad conned people because to live in the world he made up for himself was better than the world he lived in. A world that didn’t care if he was alive or dead. To feel like a somebody for a man in his position was worth the time he’d spend in prison. I wanted the same feeling, to be alive. I wanted to feel something more than the nothing I felt every minute of every day.
Bettie took a swill from the Evan Williams bottle then passed it over to me. She was wearing a puffy black winter coat over her dress. One elbow on her coat had a small piece of silver duct tape on the elbow to keep it from busting open.
“This will warm you up quick,” she said, looking out at Minot in deep thought.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked.
She looked at me like she had won a prize on a game show.
“He speaks,” she said with a laugh.
“Wondering is all.”
“Okay,” she said sucking in some wind. “I was thinking about my son.”
“You have a child?”
“I did have a child, Marty.”
“Where is he?”
“In Rosehill Cemetery.”
I leaned back into the car seat and took another long swill from the bottle. I pulled back on it because it burned me deep in the throat.
“What happened?” I asked. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not tonight, okay, Marty?” She said, wiping a bit of water from her cheeks. I dropped the subject and looked back out at the lights of Minot a little more.
We sat there in my warm car parked on a dirt road. The plains covered in a beautiful crystal snow. Small blades of switch-grass poked up through the snow and froze at the ends because of the below zero temps. They looked like magical wands wanting to be used for magical spells. She leaned her head on my shoulder and held my hand like she’d know me for years, much more than a client she screwed on occasion. I took another pull from the bottle and she nestled into my puffy winter coat. “He was hit by a car,” she said.
I looked down at her head resting on my chest, “I’m very sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“His name was David,” she said, pulling back snot, “Davy.”
“What about his dad?” I asked with hesitation.
“He left the second he found out I was pregnant. It was me and Davy until the fucking car,” she said sitting up. “I got up off the porch to answer the phone, then that was it. He wandered out in the street.”
I didn’t know what to say to her so I remained quiet, letting her know it was okay to keep talking.
“I used to be a nurse you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I wasn’t always the glorious hooker you see before you,” She said laughing into the snotty tissue crumpled in her hand.
“What happened? I mean why are you not a nurse anymore?”
“I started stealing pills from the emergency room. Anything to help me sleep on account of Davy, you know? I took a lot. Klonopin, Xanax, Vicodin. Eventually they caught me and I lost my license. I couldn’t get through any job after. Lost a lot of them: waitress at Denny’s, Office Max, Home Depot. I was a zombie, Marty, angry and shuffling through life with no purpose. I started fucking random guys and women I’d meet in bars at a record pace. Figured, yeah…so here we are. Proud to be sitting with me yet?” She asked.
When Bettie finished telling me her story she instantly became the most beautiful soul I had ever met. And not because of what she had done, but the honesty that was pouring out from her heart. I had never met any person who had ever been that honest with me. Not even my own grandmother who sang to me and prayed for me. Bettie, she told me everything I had ever wanted to hear from another person in a few simple sentences. It cut straight through me like a straight-edged razor. Slivers of my existence piled up around us in the front seat. I thought to myself, she must be Saint Bettie of Minot. And together we were the Saints of All Hopelessness.
I didn’t answer her. I grabbed her with my right arm and pulled her in. She fell into my body and remained there with an easy peace in her heart. We both continued to look out into the lights of Minot like it was holy place out of our reach. A holy place we were not invited to because our souls were not pure enough. I told her my story about my grandparents, and my father and mother. How I traveled around the country in a shitty car without a destination in my mind. Driving and running. How I couldn’t stop because I didn’t know what was real and what was fake. How the lines on the road when I was driving told me more truths than any person had ever bothered to tell me. I told her what she said to me was the first time anyone had ever been truly honest with me. How I felt an instant connection to another human being that I had never felt before.
She shut up my story with a long kiss. Her arms wrapped around me. Our battle-scared faces molded together, unable to break apart. I wrapped my arms around her too. I didn’t want it to end, but like all beautiful things it did. The kiss ended and we sat back in our seats. I grabbed her hand, and she smiled at me when I did. The bottle of booze was on the floor. Neither of us needed it or wanted it anymore. The lights coming from Minot seemed to glow a bit brighter. They pulled us in. They accepted the granite of what made us heavy on the inside. Then, at last, they welcomed us both.
FRANK REARDON was born in 1974 in Boston, Massachusetts, and currently lives in Minot, North Dakota. Frank has published poetry and short stories in many reviews, journals and online zines. His first poetry collection, Interstate Chokehold, was published by NeoPoiesis Press in 2009 as well as his second poetry collection Nirvana Haymaker in 2012. His third poetry collection Blood Music was published by Punk Hostage Press in 2013. In 2014 Reardon published a chapbook with Dog On A Chain Press titled The Broken Halo Blues. Frank is currently working on more short fiction.