Arthur spent the entire time he was in the city looking over his shoulder. It was inevitable. Around every corner he was bound to slam into a person he used to know who would then slam his head into the concrete. Proverbially speaking, of course. He had been a bad guy, a really bad guy, and here he was in the angry city that was nothing but a giant reminder of it. He swore he’d never be back. But the chaos of multi connecting flight schedules had forced him back into it. He had a choice. To either sit in the airport all day, sit in the crummy hotel, or take the train into the city for a little while.
The airlines were getting cheaper and cheaper, the seat spaces more and more like cattle cars. The steward at the counter had not even apologized. She raised an eyebrow when he dared to ask if he’d be receiving any compensation for the airline’s error.
“It’s not an error, it is a delay.”
As soon as the train stopped he shot off in a direction without even thinking. Like a moth to a flame, he could not keep himself away from those places that used to be so familiar. He walked to the bookstore on the hill. It was closed. It was Monday.
So, he walked through his favorite park. Long stretch of field peppered with clumps of relaxing bodies. All huddled around the few trees. He had once fallen asleep face up in the middle of it on a summer afternoon and acquired the worst sunburn of his life. He kept his eyes averted from all the people, only noticing their shoes. He was terrified of looking closer. Any familiar face, he was not even interested in meeting with his so-called old friends. In fact, he would rather, much rather, meet an enemy. They were far less likely to ask him for an update on his life.
As he exited through the back of the park, near the shoddy badminton courts, he caught a glimpse of a very tall woman with cherry red long hair. It was her, he froze like a groundhog when you whistle at it. He couldn’t turn around for fear she would also turn when he was turning and then she would see him. And then she’d shove his face through the busted part of the fencing. Or she would call him a coward. Or a liar. Which he already knew he was. But hearing her say it, watching her thin lips form the words would be too much.
The woman with the cherry red hair turned to the side to look at a flock of birds passing overhead. It wasn’t Sally. This woman had a very small nose and was about twenty years older than Sally. His heart was still pounding, but he did his best to register the image so his nerves could catch up.
He needed to escape the neighborhood, why had he walked up the hill? He should have gone to a mall. He wondered, and made little circles around the city blocks. A round about way of making his way back down. About halfway, he ended up at the entrance to The Auberge.
He needed coffee. It had been long enough, maybe no one would recognize him. Or, they would recognize him but leave him in peace. His need to pee took over. He went inside and grabbed the bathroom key. It was still fastened to the same moss green clothes hanger.
When he came back to the shop counter, the place seemed very quiet. He didn’t recognize either of the baristas, and they didn’t recognize him, they barked and asked what he wanted. His drawings were still on the menu board overhead. They had never been painted over. The weaving green painted vines circling around each item. His tiny decorative squirrels and deer.
The coffee was wretched. Burnt and flavorless. He saw the bags of beans sitting on the shelves near the register. He didn’t recognize the logo. So that had changed at least. He wondered if the owner had too. Whether Doug was still the same jerk. The one who had fired him and badmouthed him to every other business in the neighborhood.
He walked in a circle around his favorite church, St Marks. An old Catholic cathedral. He walked past his favorite art museum. It was closed. It was Monday. The streets were full of people walking, but he didn’t recognize anyone. It used to be that when he lived on first street, he could never leave his door without running into a familiar face.
His first street apartment was in a building erected in 1912. He used to imagine that it had not been altered since. It certainly felt like it when the sounds of the old radiator began clanking at three in the morning. It was loud enough to wake the dead.
Feeling emboldened by his lack of uncomfortable run ins, he circled to his old street. He got confused. He checked the sign. I was first street. He didn’t see anything that looked familiar the whole way down. Many very tall new buildings with too many windows. But then he saw it. The old bodega he frequented. It was there. But it was empty. For sale. Across from it was the spot his building used to be. It was now a glassy terror with ads outside which promised new residents free hot yoga memberships.
On his way down the hill and back to the train, a man on the other side of the street yelled out to him. The man waved his hands in the air before looking both ways and then crossing the street. He could be an old co worker, an old school friend, even an old roommate. Arthur searched his memories in the few seconds it took for the man to cross. The man smiled in recognition, Arthur thought. But then the man lifted a clip board and started asking Arthur about his political leanings. Arthur panicked and ran the rest of the way to the train.
He picked up his bag from the hotel. It felt a lot heavier than it had the night before. The front desk worker had to help him load his bag into the shuttle. He was too fried to be embarrassed. There was a line for everything at the airport that day. A line for the automatic kiosks, a line for the bathroom, a line for the line to check in a bag. He waited in that for awhile. Scooting his bag along the floor since the left side wheel had blown out. When it was finally his turn, the attendant waved him over to her scale. She scanned his ticket and held her hand up in the air.
“We have to wait forty two seconds.”
He watched the girl watch the clock. She never looked at him. He turned halfway around and saw the line of people behind him. Most of them were furious, thinking the delay was his fault. He blamed the system for the remaining twenty eight seconds. And then the attendant took the bag, lifting it like it was a feather and said,
“We aren’t supposed to check bags any earlier than four hours prior to your boarding time. You’re early.”
He had no bag left to haul as he went through the security, but he felt heavier than ever. His shoulders were killing him as if he’d been wearing a backpack filled with cement. When he got through, he took his shoes, still off his feet, and sat down at a bench in an empty gate area beyond security. He looked out the window and watched the sitting planes do nothing. One had a tropical flower on the side, one a barren tree, one a man’s face who looked cold.
He was going home. He felt the same about that destination as he did this one. His mother promised she could get him a job at Eclipse Coffee. She was so excited their little speck of a town finally had a coffee shop that wasn’t a Starbucks inside of a grocery store. He feigned excitement to match her excitement but inside was a different story. He would make coffee for all the people he used to know. The boys who had bullied him out of football, the Methodist pastor’s daughter he had a crush on, his sensitive English teachers. His teachers who loved him, but were bound to be disappointed when they heard his story and saw the bags under his eyes. All the people he knew from before, during his original bout of failure. They were going to see the results of the next failures.
That was it, he had to move. He passed a sports bar, not too busy, not too empty. He smelled stale beer and dark liquor, one of his favorite smells from the past. He went and filled up his water bottle. Then he circled back to the bar. He paused, pretended to look at their overhead menu. Then he crossed the threshold. He got seated at the bar. He ordered a beer and a shot. They gave him the “house whiskey” which was akin to Wild Turkey by the smell of it. He could tell.
The beer sat in front of him. Soccer was on, a sport he knew very little about. He pretended to be invested. He asked the bartender a few questions about the teams.
He didn’t drink. Spun the glass around with his fingertips which caused some of it to spill. A family was sitting at a table behind him. The bartender was occupied. He spied no napkins.
“Here you go.”
Sally started to wipe the table in front of him with a paper towel. Didn’t she recognize him? Or was she pretending to be civil and was winding herself up to throw the rest of the glass of beer in his face?
“I was sitting on the other end, didn’t you see me?”
Her thin lips disappeared into her mouth against her perfect teeth. Her hair was short, cropped. When he knew her, she swore she would never cut it shorter than chest length. Her face looked the same as ever, but her nose ring was missing. He wanted to ask about it, he remembered the details of that ring better than he did her eyes. He imagined her eyes this whole time as being hazel and now that she was so close he realized they were dark brown.
“Sorry, I was distracted. Where have you been? I mean, where are you going?”
She revealed her lips for the first time and smiled halfway. She was going to Hawaii. A work conference. She worked for a leasing company now. They had properties all over the country. Her knuckles were still as jagged as ever, but on her finger was a giant light blasting ring. Like a ring one might see on a billboard advertisement for a cheap chain jewelry store. Middle stone real, surrounding jewels fake. Cubic zirconia. So, she had gotten engaged to a real cheapskate. Or at least a man with bad taste. She had sold out.
But she looked happy. And her skin was shining. The garish thing on her finger sparkled at him as she wadded up the paper towel. She applied hand sanitizer from a little pink bottle clipped to her pants. At least some things never change.
When she asked him where he was going, she was still smiling. But her face fell when he breathed out a sigh with the word, “Buckfield” attached . She asked if something had happened to his mother. It wasn’t any kind of holiday, she wondered why he’d choose now for a visit home. And why he would fly out on a Monday. He told her the truth. It wasn’t a visit. She looked at the bottles behind the bar with a far distance shining in her dark eyes. She grabbed her nearly empty martini glass from the other end of the bar and finished it. She looked at his drink and finally acknowledged what it was.
That utterance hurt him worse than anything else she could have said or done. There was no anger in it. A type of pity, of victory maybe. The story of him was written for her. The parts of his life she had missed were filled in. An alcoholic, forever in denial, now going home to mother. Who now had a bit of a gut, he knew she could see it sticking out from his sweater.
He wouldn’t argue with her. An announcement was muttered over the loudspeakers outside. Sally perked up and snapped her fingers at the bartender with her hand bearing the heavy ugly ring. The man obliged and came over. Her credit card looked heavy too, it was silver just like her ring.
She paid for his drink. He didn’t protest. She needed to board. She hesitated before she left him. He thought maybe she would touch his hand, or even give him a hug. She didn’t. She just hid her lips again and nodded and left. To Hawaii to sip on fruity drinks bought by her corporation.
Arthur sat for a few more minutes. He left the beer and shot untouched. He bought a bag of chips which were four dollars over the price of any normal convenience store. He sat at an empty gate. He crushed the bag of chips between his two hands over and over until he felt that the inside was all powder. Boarding for his flight was still two and a half hours away.