Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Shaken ever so slightly sober by the ambulance crash nearby, he sat up and groaned with ache. Why couldn't he just die? He clamped his head with his hands and then tied on his brown leather Bridgeport walking shoes.
The long, lanky drunk opened the flaps of the freezer box and unpacked himself for another day of suffering.
Seventy-nine and a half inches tall. You needed to be eighty inches tall to beat the draft, so before his medical exam he had practiced standing up straight and being eighty inches tall. It helped that the Army's doc was only five foot eight and had to perch on a chair to see where Morton measured on the stick. While the doc unsteadily climbed the rickety folding chair, Morton took the opportunity to grow. Eighty and a half inches according to the official Army record.
He had shrunk more than six inches since then. He was sixty-three years old. Gravity, alcohol and despair were bending him to the ground.
The ambulance, resting on its side, was a welcome sight. Maybe he could glean some painkillers from the storage bins before the authorities arrived. He did his dizzy dance down the embankment toward the wreck.
He pried open the rear doors and much to his surprise discovered a zombie trapped in a web of clear hoses and black straps. He startled at first but then defaulted to gut level benevolence. "You okay there, buddy? You look horrible." Morton helped Hugh free himself from the ambulance. "They just ran off and left you?"
"I think they were going to get help."
"Help? I thought
were the help. Who helps when the help needs help? Hmm?" Morton furnished a hand and tugged Hugh to his feet. "No offense, but you look bad, just plain awful. Sort of like reheated death."
"It's a ... Halloween costume."
Morton shook his head. "Is it Halloween already? Really? I could swear the Fourth of July was just a few weeks ago." He took a bottle of peppermint schnapps from the pocket of his threadbare wool sport coat and drank. He offered some to Hugh. "Looks like you could use it."
"You sure? Tastes like Christmas."
"No. I need to get to town."
Morton stumbled back a few steps and looked around. "Which town?"
"Cedargrove. Forty-nine Victoria Street."
Morton put his hands on his hips and thought. "Cedargrove? Hmmm. Victoria Street? Hmmm. Forty-nine?"
"Listen, no offense but I'm really in a hurry." Hugh looked around, ready to bolt.
"Whoa, where's the fire? You look like you should probably sit and rest a piece. Maybe take a seat next to this ambulance bumper, give a little shout-out if you see anybody coming. Excuse me a minute, won't you?" Morton crawled into the ambulance and began fishing through orange tackle boxes and zippered medical bags.
"I really gotta go."
"What's the hurry? It's Halloween. Who knows what kind of pills these guys carry around in here ... Jackpot." Morton emerged with a large bottle covered in warning stickers. He unscrewed it and swallowed a handful of pills, chasing them down with a swig of schnapps. "This Halloween I'm wearing my costume on the inside." His eyes began to glass over. "Yes, I do know the way to Cedargrove. Let's go."
Hugh followed him, anxious that he wasn't moving fast enough. "Is it far?"
"Well, we'd be better off driving, but I don't drive anymore. It's bad for the environment and besides, it gets in the way of my drinking." He finished the bottle and tucked it in a pocket. "A bum would just toss this in the weeds. I'm going to recycle it."
The truth was, Morton didn't drive because he had no place to drive to. He was a hopeless alcoholic slipping, stumbling and stammering toward organ failure. He’d been kicked out of his house because he failed to pay the mortgage, because he lost his job as an electrical engineer, because he stopped going to work, because he was drinking, because ...
Because, because, because ...
Because his wife left him. She died. The hundred and fifteen pounds of incandescence that burned so bright in his life had painfully dimmed. He stood by her bedside and watched as each day the quantization errors of cancer dithered in her organs. The impedance of chemo only slowed down the inevitable. One spring morning she asked for the hospice window to be opened, so she could smell the cherry blossoms. Morton tried, but it wouldn't open, it couldn't. It was fixed in place, to keep the germs of the living outside or to keep the germs of the dying inside. Morton ran out and yanked what flowers he could out of the cold spring ground, but by the time he returned with them her capacitance had reached zero.
Thirty-two years of loving marriage was just a tiny little flicker of light in what was now Morton's forever night.
He wasn't a religious man or the kind of guy who would seek out grief counseling. He was inclined to "walk off" life's bumps and bruises, "John Wayne" his way back to health with a kick and a grimace. When he broke both ankles in a sailing accident, he couldn't quite walk it off but he did his best to limp it off. The death of his wife was different. The horrible soul-stabbing wound, the six inches taken out of his spine, heart wrung dry, lungs squeezed to nothing ... He couldn't walk it off. He was trying to drink it off. It wasn't working.
Alone in his box before the ambulance crashed, he had been dreaming about her. Missing her, wishing he could be with her. He softly spoke to the dream, begging her to come and take him away.
Halloween Just Got Sexy
The gravel shoulder along the country road abruptly became a sidewalk. Hugh, still stiff-legging it, jerked along and looked every bit like the walking dead. Morton was a few steps back and taking his time, almost wandering. The soft fleece of medical-grade opiates was snuggling his mind and zipping his spirit up in a sleeping bag of gentle bliss.
"So what's your story?" Morton's lips were wet. He wiped away a flap of drool.
"Yeah. I'm looking at you, and you look like crap, but you have this glow around you. Like this aura, and I'm pretty sure I'm imagining it. Either that or I'm in the final stages of organ failure and you're an angel."
"I'm no angel, far from it."
"So what's the deal? I can tell you have a purpose, a mission. Most people don't. Most people don't have anything they really want to do. I can tell you have a passion, a drive." He unscrewed the cap off another pint of peppermint schnapps and took a drink. He gestured with the bottle, his peppermint ethanol scepter, and anointed Hugh, "You're a shooting star."
"It's a long story. I need to find someone, a girl."
"Girl?" Morton's brow lifted with a smile. "Now it's coming together. That glow around you, it's passion, desire. Two crazy kids on a sexy Halloween night ..."
"It's love," Hugh snapped.
Morton nodded. "Okay, okay, love. So you're going to see your girl."
"She's not really my girl, not anymore." Hugh shook his head. "It's complicated."
"Yeah, that's for sure. If love is anything, it's complicated."
The thump of hip-hop music half a block away caused Hugh to pivot his head. "This is it, the old neighborhood." He pogoed his stiff legs quickly toward the music and jerked past a street sign that read Victoria Place. Morton floated behind at a leisurely slop.
Forty-nine Victoria Place. The old duplex he and Lily shared the year before their wedding. The perfect little place, decorated with stepping-stone furniture, the kind of inexpensive stuff that transitions that brief period between the futon couches of college and the Pottery Barn sectionals of adult life. They sat on their overstuffed transitional couch many a night and played Scrabble that first year. There were never any challenges as to whether or not a played word was acceptable. Hugh and Lily were a couple with an infallible grasp of vocabulary.
The previous tenants had left a faded outdoor rug on the back porch. When Hugh kneeled down on it and took Lily's hand, the cold wet of the previous winter reached up from deep inside and soaked into his knee. But the back porch was the perfect spot during sunset. The day’s last breeze swept her hair into the tears rolling down her cheeks. He asked, she said yes.
The diamond and setting had cost him four thousand dollars, a sum multiplied in spirit by the effort it took to raise it. When he realized he needed an engagement ring, he took a job installing unfaced fiberglass insulation in attic crawl spaces. It was a horrible job in winter and unbearable in August, when the sharp glass fibers made it prickly to wipe the sweat from his brow.
A bumpin' Halloween celebration had been going since mid-afternoon inside forty-nine Victoria. Hugh stood on the sidewalk, trying to catch a glimpse of Lily in the window. It was hard to tell who was who. All the girls had sexy versions of traditional costumes on. A sexy witch wore thigh-high platform boots, a bustier and a steeple hat perched on her voluminous glittered hair. The sexy pirate swashbuckled in thigh-high platform boots, a bustier and an eye patch. Even the fake parrot on her shoulder was saucy in its little pirate hat. Sexy Raggedy Ann was stuffed into thigh-high platform boots and a petticoat that was really just a bustier with buttons instead of cord and lace.
This wasn't like the dream Hugh had. He was going to come back to life, walk through some fog, she'd be quietly sitting on a garden bench, a portrait of him in her lap. He would approach, she'd have the sun in her hazel-green eyes, unable to recognize him. Suddenly with a rush, an epiphany: it was him. A desperate embrace. It wouldn't matter, the heartbreak, the abandonment, the him being dead stuff. None of it would matter. An embrace and a long kiss would pave over everything.
This wasn't a peaceful garden. The song "Low" by the rapper Flo Rida started up and the ladies in the house squealed with delight.
Let me talk to 'em ... Let me talk to 'em ...
By the time Morton caught up to Hugh the entire house was throbbing. "So this is it? Your girl's inside?"
Hugh nodded, feeling a sudden pinch of anxiety. He hadn't thought this through. Would he just walk in, say hi to her? Hey, what's up? Remember me?
No, that would be crazy, she'd freak out. Everyone would freak out. Maybe he should call her first, let her know he's in town ... and back to life. This was insane. For the first time he was starting to question his quest.
"This might have been a bad idea."
Morton looked at the house party and then at Hugh. "I take it she's not expecting you. Oh wait, I can see it in your eyes. She doesn't know ... She doesn't know you love her. What? You too afraid to tell her? Is she with another guy? What is it? Because if it's another guy you’re worried about, I've got your back." Morton stumbled into a fighting stance. "It might not look it but I'm a force to be reckoned with. My secret power is," he took a slug of schnapps, "I'm fearless, because I just don't give a crap."
Morton began to walk up to the front door.
"You didn't come all this way not to see her. Come on, let's go inside, see what happens."
Hugh shook his head and took a step back. "Maybe this was a bad idea." His brain swelled against his skull and he thought, this could be bad, really bad. I don't want to scare her. This could really freak her out, maybe I'm being ...
The front door burst open and a guy dressed as a robot spilled out of the party. With red beer cups in both hands, he bellowed into the evening, "Happy Halloween!" He put one cup down and used his free hand to unhook his aluminum foil tech-tronic resistor belt and pee in the bushes.
He looked over his shoulder at Hugh and Morton. "Hey, buddies, what's up? This party is crazy. Check me out, I'm Ro-butt."
He turned to reveal a plastic ass painted silver. "Let me tell you something, guy can get a lot of action on Halloween." He stiffly chopped with his beer hand and ratcheted his voice into a robotic monotone. "Especially when you're Ro-butt. Ladies desire serial interface with Ro-butt. I have been programmed to pleasure you."
Ro-butt zipped up and looked at Hugh, head cocked. "Wait a minute ..." Ro-butt raised a beer cup and pointed his index finger at Hugh. "Dude?" He tried to shake his head sober and remember. "Dude?" His pointed finger oscillated at Hugh as the wheels in his head turned.
Hugh retreated half a step, afraid Ro-butt would identify him. He wasn't completely sure who was under the Coors Light cardboard box fashioned into a top-mounted central processing unit. But he thought he remembered the guy from high school ski trips.
"Dude, do you know me?"
Hugh quickly shook his head no.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, totally sure, I'm not from around here. I'm from ... south of here, down south, Alabama."
Ro-butt wasn't convinced and took a step toward Hugh and studied him closely. "Dude, you totally know me. Come on, I'm Greg Carlton."
Hugh hunched his shoulders and shook his head.
"Well, whatever, man." Ro-butt hung his arms on the shoulders of Hugh and Morton and ushered them into the party. "Yo! Everybody! Check it out, it's a zombie basketball player and a bum or a hobo or something." He sniffed Morton. "He even smells like a bum!"
Inside, Morton made a beeline for the folding table crowded with oversized plastic bottles of cheap booze. He quickly filled a large red cup with Champion's Blended American Whiskey, “A whiskey for whiskey drinkers.” He topped it off with a splash of America's Choice cola, hoping the sugar and caffeine would keep him standing long enough to fully exploit the open bar.