It is 1 PM and I am lying in bed. The windows are open and the curtains are breathing. I can hear a lawn mower, the sound of one last trim before October. I stand up and I head into the bathroom, where I pass a mirror, and I notice a green smear of ink across my face. Last night I slept with an Irish girl who had orange hair and a shamrock decaled on her cheek. That girl is gone now. She left around daylight. I drink some water from the spigot. The spigot’s water tastes so cold.
I walk into the kitchen where I consider phoning Talia. I decide against it. I look out the window. Too brisk for the beach. The beach is empty and the surf is low; the flies are biting and the sun looks bleak. I put on a T-shirt, and I order a cheesesteak and cheese fries from Mr. D’s. The food arrives and I eat it in the living room. I begin re-watching Summer of Sam on VHS. Once I finish eating, I toss the refuse into a foil plate. I lie back and I fall asleep. When I come to, the daylight is fading. I feel weak. I drink a beer.
I am off today, the final Monday in September. I am scheduled to leave for Orlando around 10 PM tomorrow night. As a matter of course, I have been informed that the Dougherty’s Orlando condominium will no longer be available, which means that I will need to find an apartment of my own. Finding an apartment will require me submitting to a credit check, which I have never done. For nine years I have been renting by way of a gentleman’s agreement. I will fail a credit check, and I know it.
I drive to Woody’s on 18th Street and I buy a 12-pack. Upon returning home I take a shower. I debate whether to go out for Monday Night Football (The Jaguars vs. The Colts), but no one comes to mind that I should call. The Irish Fall Festival took place this past weekend, but all of that is over now. I put on 18 Tracks by Bruce Springsteen and I begin to pack my clothes. A few beers deep, I sit at the kitchen table, where I am listening to “The Promise”: Got a job down in Darlington/Some nights I don’t go/Some nights I go to the drive-in/Some nights I stay home. I continue drinking and just before daybreak I pocket two beers and I wander east on 24th Street toward the beach. The sky is gray, and the sun is peeking through in glimpses. Amidst the cloud cover I am reflecting on a string of family vacations that I spent here as a child. I am reflecting on the lead-up, along with the enthusiasm that surrounded an upcoming week at the shore. I am reflecting on that first day, on my parents picking up the keys from a rental office, on rushing in and choosing a room. I am reflecting on fresh clothes and folded bathing suits. I am reflecting on the idea that I was happy here, whenever visiting Cape May County. I am reflecting on the finite nature of vacations: There are still a few days left to go. Only then it was Friday, and then it was sundown, and then I was washing the sand off my fingers an hour after the lifeguards had abandoned their posts.
I meander back to the apartment where I proceed to drink until I fall asleep. I wake up at 6 PM, after which I begin to shuttle all of my belongings into my car. I am still driving a Plymouth Sundance with 110,000 miles on it, and it is for this reason that I plan on taking the Amtrak auto train from Virginia all the way to Orlando tomorrow. I will drive to Alexandria this evening, concluding the final stretch to Lorton Station after dawn.
I leave the apartment on 24th Street filthy. I do not clean, nor do I take out the garbage. I run into Sean Dougherty, who is my co-landlord and my boss, as I am completing one last trek from the apartment to my car.
“Need help?” Sean asks. Sean stands 5’6 with black hair and blue eyes. Sean appears to be walking toward his parents’ house, which is located a dozen feet from where we are.
“Nope. This is the last of it,” I say. I am carrying a plastic tub, and I am clasping an envelope between my teeth. I slide the tub into my trunk. “I am glad I ran into you, though. I wanted to give somebody the keys.”
I remove the envelope from my mouth. I ferret out a set of keys, and I softball them to Sean.
“I suppose that I’ll be seeing you in Florida,” Sean says.
“I suppose you will,” I respond.
Sean thanks me for my hard work. He shakes my hand and then he gives me a half-hug. I feel anxious and awkward and I am somewhere between still drunk and withdrawing. Sean and I part ways along the sidewalk. I slam the trunk and then I’m gone.
I have a bag of cassettes in the passenger seat, and I sift through it, eventually deciding on Tom Waits’ Closing Time to sustain me until I merge onto 95. The night and the road strip away all the hassle, and they leave me free and easy, stuffed with junk food and caffeine. I want to drive, and just keep driving until the sun comes up and the FM band goes blank. I want to drive west and I want to be anonymous. I want to find a cause and plant my stake into the ground. Only I am limited by my resources, and so I pull into a Denny’s a few miles north of Virginia. My fingers are shaking, and yet I feel calm.
I eat an omelet while reading subtitles on CNN (USA Basketball to play Slovakia in a quarterfinal round at the Sydney Olympics). Around 4 AM I read The Washington Post (Gore and Bush are preparing for a debate), and then USA Today (Research reveals that half of Americans are still afraid to get online). I wait until the darkness lifts, and then I continue south to Lorton Station, where the parking lot is empty and the office doors are closed.
Three hours pass and I am on the train and my Sundance has been loaded, and I am reclining in a shiftback seat with miles and miles of legroom. The train starts and I fall asleep and I am having a dream about watching a matinee at the Beach Theatre in Cape May. I can hear the PA. I am aware of sliding doors. I am aware of shuffling hips and nearby conversations. A train speeds by along the opposite rails. RRRRRRVVVVVVVVVVV, I hear that train go.
My mind returns to a familiar theme: I am a nomad. I own $40,000 worth of debt. I remain at a remove from my family; I remain at a remove from my friends. I believe in nothing. I am not healthy. I am on a trajectory to repeat bad jokes across an open bar at weddings. I want a drink. I feel exhausted. I imagine being stuck between these rails as an opposing train speeds by. RRRRRRVVVVVVVVVVV, I hear that train go.
I make it two days in Orlando. I have little money and 75% of the one-bedrooms that are listed in the Sentinel require first month and last month and security and a fee. I remain sober, and I report to work, where almost nobody acknowledges that I have departed. At the end of my first shift, I contact EJ Dougherty, who informs me that – upon inspecting my recently-vacated apartment – his mother has discovered set-in stains along the carpet, specks of mildew throughout the bathroom, a viscous film on top of the oven, a cloud of fruit flies above the trash, a pair of underwear, a pungent odor, some syrupy bananas, and a loaf of bread gone green with mold. “We needed to gut the place,” is the last thing EJ tells me. I cannot sleep. I go to a diner. I quit my job. I hit the road.
It is midnight when I reach I-95. I am scared, but I feel exhilarated. I am no longer concerned about putting miles on my car. I will drive north until I reach Swarthmore, where I will stay with my parents until I can afford a place of my own. I think about Talia. I think about us reconciling. I think about fixed meals and old friends and watching TV in a reclining chair. I pass a billboard that reads, “South of The Border,” and it makes me think of Meghan, of the two of us crammed into her metallic-black Fiero throughout the long ride back from Disney. Meghan has graduated. She might be living in Pennsylvania. I lower a window. I am still riffing on the idea of Meghan, of mothers, of needing somebody else to make me whole.
One afternoon this past summer I was working on a microphone when a cluster of people halted to watch me. These people stood at a remove, dressed in collared shirts and white-creased pants. I drew a crowd, and I worked that crowd, and as the crowd dispersed, a woman from that cluster approached me. This woman had bronze skin and polished teeth, and her hair fell thin and gold like straw. This woman, whose name was Jackie Lyons-Robinson, explained that she had never seen anyone massage a crowd like I did. “I host a home show in Atlanta,” Mrs. Robinson explained, “and I think that you would be outstanding in front of a camera.” I balked. I avoided eye contact. I made a joke about how I didn’t tickle a lens. I had a chipped tooth. I had a coarse complexion. And Mrs. Robinson could see all of this, up-close. “We’ll take care of that,” is what she’d told me. Mrs. Robinson gave me her business card and I gave her my address. Only I never contacted Mrs. Robinson, not even after she had sent me a letter, reiterating that I should. And all of this confronts me amidst the morning lights of eastern Georgia. The interstate appears damp, as if someone has sprayed it with a hose.
I listen to the radio, and by noon I have reached Virginia, a state of southern endless sprawl. My car is a mess, and there is a Pepsi bottle full of Listerine cartwheeling bottom-heavy across the floor. I hit traffic – the tolls in Delaware. I enter Pennsylvania, where I exit 95. MacDade Boulevard, and then a quick left onto Fairview. The drapes are open as I pull up to my parents’ house, but the curtains in the living room are drawn.
I park on the street. I knock on my parents’ front door (I am already opening it). “Look what the wind blew in,” my father feigns. My mother hugs me, after which I launch into a speech regarding why I could not stay in Florida. “I haven’t showered in four days,” I glower. “So what are you gonna do now?” my father asks. “Oh, c’mon, he just got in,” my mother offers. I take a shower. My mother cooks me dinner. I fall asleep in the basement. When I come to, I can hear my father’s voice upstairs.
It is Sunday. Sunday morning. And the kitchen smells of scrapple. I wind my way into the living room. “Take a seat,” my father says.
My mother smiles. The three of us appear sparse with me on a love seat, my mother in an armchair, and my father on a couch.
“Your mother and I have been talking,” my father says, “and we’d like to know whether you intend on moving back into this house.”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I mean, I know there’s nothing left for me in Wildwood. And, obviously, I need to get a job. I have a little bit of money, but it’s not enough to pay for an apa–”
“So you do intend on living here,” my father says.
“If it’s OK.” I look toward my mother.
“It’s not a problem,” my father assures me. “And we’re not going to charge you any rent. But you are going to respect some basic ground rules.”
“OK,” I say.
My father’s brow is growing tense.
“First, there will not be any drinking in this house,” he says. “Second, we want to see proof that you are out there looking for a job.”
“Yeah, I had kind of planned on that–”
“You are welcomed to use my computer,” my father continues, “assuming I’m not on it. And you can borrow a suit – if you need to – for interviews. But as long as you are in this house, you are going to work, full-time.”
“OK,” I say.
“You are also going to be doing some chores. You are going to be carrying laundry for your mother, and you are going to be taking out the trash.”
“As far as your friends are concerned, they are not to call here after 10 o’clock at night. If one of your friends needs to pick you up, he can honk out on the driveway, but he is not to knock on this door, and under no circumstances are your friends to be inside this house.”
“Wait a minute,” my mother interrupts, “I think you should clarify that what we’re talking about here is a very specific element.”
“No, Pat,” my father insists, “I’m talking about all of his friends. Y’know, some of these kids have made us the butt of their jokes for years now. And, meanwhile, we’ve reached a point where all of our other children have grown up and moved out of the house. We’ve built a decent home here, and I am not going to see any of that set back.” My father returns his attention to me. “Do I make myself clear?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“That’s it,” my father says. He dismisses me with a wave of his hand.
I stand up and I walk back to the basement. I feel dizzy and I lie on a couch. I stare at the ceiling, at which point I can hear my father’s footsteps lumbering through the dining room above me. I can always tell my father’s footsteps. They fall like cloudbursts on the floorboards of this house.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)
©Copyright Bob Hill
Member, American Authors Guild