The metal arm from the airport chair left a red welt under Joel’s knee where his cargo shorts failed to provide cover. It was the dull pain that woke him in time to hear the ending of an announcement. He tucked his feet under his seat and searched his shorts for the loading ticket, after four pockets he found it wrapped in a wrinkled Wendy’s napkin. He compared the gate number on the ticket with the painted numbers above the flat screen monitor on the wall. A4, A4.
“Excuse me.” He leaned across the aisle and addressed a young man who had his legs crossed and a sudoku puzzle resting on his lap.
“Excuse me.” He repeated.
The man looked up begrudgingly.
“I missed the first half of that, did they say the flight was canceled?”
“No. It was delayed, it’s right on the screen.” He thumbed towards the television behind him and returned to chewing on what was left of a pink eraser.
The four hour layover in Atlanta seemed like a good idea when he was buying the ticket. It was a $100 dollars cheaper and he had a book he needed incentive to start reading. He drank two virgin bloody mary’s, ate a turkey and provolone sub and a pack of Hi-Chews, played 14 games of Tetris, read an online article about a heroic dog, then had one more sub. The Master and Margarita remained ignored-- buried beneath a well worn sweatshirt in a well traveled backpack.
He snacked aggressively when he was anxious. “Fog Eating” is what his sponsor called it, eating without awareness. It aptly described how he inhaled the family size bag of Smart Food on his flight from Burbank earlier that day— the name made him feel slightly less guilty.
“Boarding row 1 for flight number 3745 from Atlanta to Boston
He scrolled through names on his cellphone stopping at Alex OA.
He typed quickly. Hey Alex, I’m about to board the plane to Logan for that thing I told you about. I’d like to try and connect… maybe after the meeting with the lawyer. It’s been a bit of struggle.
“Boarding row 3 for flight number 3745 from Atlanta to Boston.”
Joel brushed crumbs from his T-shirt onto the carpet and headed towards the hangar. On the jet bridge he took his last breath of the hot Atlanta air, dipped his head and entered the plane. He apologized way too much as he found his window seat in the second to last row before the bathrooms. A young couple in his row refused to move for him—tucking their knees in as he awkwardly climbed over them, feeling exceptionally body conscious. He purposely left any leftover airport snacks in a bin at the terminal. He chewed on his nails instead.
The woman next to him was a few years younger than him. Thin and sprite-like with tiny eyes close together. Her shoulders were tense, she drew her body away from Joel as the aircraft began its accent into the clouds. It wasn’t until the seatbelt signs turned off did her face soften and her body took a more casual form in her chair. She looked over at Joel then whispered something into her partner's ear.
They stared at him in unison. He felt it and knew what was coming next.
She leaned on her elbow closest to him.
“Were you in that movie about the college swim te—“
He cut her off. “Yeah that was me.”
“I knew it!” Her boyfriend chimed in. “ You look way different!”
Joel grimaced. He bent down and pulled a grey U shaped headrest from under his seat, my hemorrhoid pillow, he’d used to joke when he still found things funny.
“Why aren’t you in first class?” She asked.
Joel shoved the pillow behind his neck.
“All booked up.” He lied. He closed his eyes and put his forehead on the cool window.
He’d been to Boston a handful of times— most recently for a Travel Channel show he had been hosting where he’d travel to small breweries around North America and interview the brewmasters. He never acquired a taste for beer, it was bitter, made him feel bloated. Ironically, early in his career he had starred as a shirtless Pabst guzzling sidekick in a raunchy college comedy— cementing his role as the rowdy partier for years after.
The series ended up being canceled after the first season. Viewers had little interest in watching a bearded white guy geeking out over malt and hops while their husky host collected mustard stains from giant pretzels. Redundant. That’s the word his agent Clark used when he broke the news to Joel— the same word Joel used when he fired him. I’m done with this unimaginative typecasting bullshit. It’s redundant.
The plane touched down at Logan airport two hours after take off as scheduled. The landing was rough, Joel folded his arms to stop his chest from shaking. Once they had finished taxiing around the tarmac, he grabbed his bag and quickly exited the plane in the rare instance the couple wanted an autograph. A younger version of himself used to love the attention. These days he didn’t have any current headshots and usually ended up leaving his chicken scratch on random bits of paper to less than enthused fans.
The outside area by the baggage claim exit was full of exhaust. An airport shuttle pulled away from the curb creating a breeze that raised the hair on Joel’s bare calves—reminding him he was underdressed for the New England weather. He’d planned on checking into the hotel and changing into something a bit more suitable before the meeting. He liked the way people dressed here—thrift store chic sweaters, baggy sweats with sports insignia—he found it disarming. In Los Angeles, everyone tried too hard to look like they didn’t try too hard.
Down a ways he spotted his seat mates dragging a comically large red suitcase. They made eye contact and he gave a weak wave goodbye that transitioned into a hail for an approaching yellow cab. The passenger side window rolled down.
“Liberty Hotel on Charles street.” He yelled over the din of jet engines, shuttles, and trunks closing.
The taxi driver popped the trunk, Joel threw his bags in and sat down in the back seat. The car accelerated into departing traffic.
“Liberty you said?” The driver asked without taking his eyes off the road.
“Yes that’s right.” Joel answered. Fearing follow up conversation.
To his satisfaction both men remained silent, a pop song was barely audible. Joel popped a handful of mints in his mouth and crunched hard before they had anytime to begin dissolving. When they were gone he ate a few more.
The taxi pulled up to the entrance of the hotel next to several black town cars with their hazard lights on. He grabbed his bags and tipped the driver. He walked up the clean brick walkway, admiring the Victorian style windows that towered over him.
He liked the views at the hotel, the network had put him up there last time he was in town. He used to watch the rowers slide through the Charles River like waterstriders—cutting tiny dimples into the waters surface while he indulged on rich lobster risotto from Scampo.
He was glad the show didn’t make it, the constant drinking caused him heartburn and near crippling migraines. He had developed a morning routine in the hotel bathroom. He’d mix a tablespoon of baking soda with warm water, stirring it with his thick index finger and swallow it with two aspirin. It always burned going down, making his eyes water. One time on set, the makeup artist commented while aggressively applying foundation to the grey skin that hung from his face.
“Honey you look terrible
“I feel terrible.”
“I like money.”
She put down her make up brush and leaned closer to him, her heavy breasts dragging over his. She spoke with a sternness his life had been lacking.
“We all like money. But it’s not going to do you any good if you’re not around to spend it.”
“Thanks.” He said dismissively.
She picked up the brush again and started reapplying makeup underneath his eyes.
“Hey, if you die, they’ll just replace you with some other fat asshole.”
He was pulling a green cardigan over his head when his phone vibrated. Joel, just got your text, hope you landed alright. Call when you can. Hang in there.
He threw his phone down on the bed and walked over to the mirror by the entrance of the hotel room. The sweater was baggy in areas around his arms and hips where the fibers used to be strained. He rotated his hips slowly, and stretched his neck out, tightening the skin underneath his chin. The reflection in the hotel mirror was a lot different than the one that was there a few years ago. He smiled, contemplating calling Alex but the headspace he was in when he reached out earlier must’ve still been in the Atlanta airport eating another sandwich— calling his sponsor might bring that back. He sighed, letting the grin fade into a look of brevity.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He reached his hand out to the mirror.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” He clasped his hands together. Too Much.
“I wish we were closer. I wish I knew.” He said solemnly . Better. He thought.
Joel splayed his pack open on the duvet cover. A business envelope bursting with crumpled papers was shoved between the pages of the Bulgakov novel. He found an address and tucked the book under his arm. He decided to call a Lyft this time, Omar, a grey sedan was arriving in four minutes.
His meeting was eleven miles away from the hotel in Quincy with the executive of the estate, the sister of the deceased. The address had been sent to him by his ex-agent, along with a letter and an old Polaroid of a plump twenty something Joel with his arm around what could’ve been a doppelgänger. Clark had “mistakenly” ripped the envelope open and read the letter before he realized it was not meant for him and sent it to Joel’s North Hollywood address. The photo had been taken during a family reunion in Maine almost twenty years prior. The man in the picture was his cousin Jeff, they both had American flags wrapped around their collars—the red stripes matching the color of their eyes and sunburned shoulders. His memory of that outing was distorted by day drinking and the lethargy that follows the consumption of large quantities of grilled meats. He wasn’t very close to his family, immediate or otherwise. He left them in the rear view mirror of a Dodge neon when he turned eighteen, trading the cool salty air of Baltimore for the thick arid air of Los Angeles. The only reason he went to Maine that summer was to flaunt his newly founded stardom— regaling his softheaded relatives with stories of celebrities and debauchery. Jeff had attached himself to Joel that week, promising to visit him in Hollywood. Joel reacted with the false sincerity that he had seen others use on him. Nodding enthusiastically. “Anytime man. Anytime.”
They didn’t talk again for roughly seven years until Joel reached out impulsively through e-mail. Over the course of a decade they’d exchange sporadic facebook messages, checking in with one another monthly. Each man looked thinner and thinner with every correspondence. The messages were mainly non-descript fluff with the occasional smoothie recipe or motivational koan. Joel eventually reached his target weight with the help of Alex and overeaters anonymous. His cousin kept getting skinnier and the messages shorter, vague, and often nonsensical. Then they stopped.
It had started pouring during the short trip from downtown to the south shore. Angry atlantic waves tackled an empty coastline, crashing on large rocks laying stagnant in the water. Joel had arrived a few minutes earlier than expected, deciding to burn time by exploring the neighboring beach. There was a slight incline he maneuvered down by sliding on his rear. He stood at the edge of the ocean, his sweater growing heavier.
“Joel?” A woman called out.
He turned around, the rain matted down his thick hair and rivulets ran over his cheeks and into his mouth. He could make out a small figure in a dark green plastic raincoat holding a black umbrella.
He clambered back up to solid ground, pausing briefly to admire the storm clouds. He saw his book floating in a tide pool, the polaroid and the letter sinking to the sand next to the burrowing mussels. His face grew taut. He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. Then again. The second time he swore he was back by the Chesapeake.
The wooden chairs in the kitchen were hellishly uncomfortable. He kept shifting his weight from his left leg to the right and back to the left. The woman, Maureen, she introduced herself as —was Jeff's sister and executive of his estate, which was a century old cottage. She had removed her jacket and hung it on a wooden hook by the back entrance into the kitchen. She wore a grey t-shirt and white washed jeans, her frame was thin and wiry. She pulled two mugs from a warped wooden cupboard and filled them in the sink.
"Quincy's finest." She smirked and set them down on the pineapple printed vinyl table cloth. She noticed him staring at the table.
" It was my grandmothers. She had horrible taste."
Joel laughed and sipped the warm water.
"This house was hers, she spent most her life in it, then she gave it to Jeffrey. He took care of her up until her passing years ago" She paused then spoke quietly.
"I wish we were closer. I wish I knew." He meant it.
Her voice reclaimed it's steady tone and she stared intensely at him.
"I'm sure this is weird and I appreciate you clearing your schedule to come all the way out here." She crossed her legs and ran her hand through tight perm. She talked towards the ceiling.
"You probably had no idea he was sick. He idolized you. Lordy, wanted to be you. If it wasn't for Granny, he probably would've headed out there."
She stood up and refilled her cup again. He opened up his tin of mints and stuck two between his molars. He rattled the tin towards her.
"No thank you. Sorry I don't have more to offer. I'm sure there's a rusty can of progresso somewhere if you're brave." She laughed.
"You didn't save his life. But you changed it. He saw you losing weight. Followed your diet. Doctors says it added a few extra years, helped him get through the treatment better. "
"I don't know what to say." She was right this was weird.
"He left you the house. You can't sell it though. All the bric a brac and chotskies can go in a wood chipper for all I care."
He crunched down hard.
"The house. You can't sell it. Has to stay in the family."
She leaned forward and grabbed his hand. His skin was softer than hers.
"I know it's a far cry from what you're used to, but he wanted you to have it. Figured maybe you could use some of your Hollywood money to fix some of the rotting flooring. Put a real ceiling up, get rid of that scotch tape shit."
"Don't you want it?" He stammered.
She laughed. "Not a chance. I married rich."
She got up again and walked over to the jacket on the wall. She took a set of keys and shimmied two keys off the ring and slid them over to Joel.
"These will get you in any door. Not sure which one is for the dead bolt though. You'll have to figure it out. I'll show you around. It's like a flea market in here."
The basement was pretty sparse, it was damp and empty save for some wooden shelves and aging hot water heater.
"Breaker boxes are over here." She opened a metal box, revealing a panel with a dozen switches.
She buzzed around and he followed quietly.
"Watch your head." She climbed up the stairs, crouching down to avoid a large black pipe with a piece of yellow foam falling off it.
There were three bedrooms on the second floor. Each one with a different pastel color of shag carpet. The larger of the three was Granny's, the other two were Maureen's and Jeff's, Jeffrey. They used to stay in them every other Friday night when they were children—little had changed decoration wise since then. Maureen's room had faded purple walls that matched the rug with hard indentations where heavy furniture use to live. A carousel border stencil went around the room. Little hung on the walls save for a puppy calendar from 1988 and a blue ribbon.
"I was a minimalist." She lifted the ribbon off the wall, read the print, then let fall back.
Jeff’s rug used to be yellow, now it looked like dead grass. There were no windows, just jigsaw puzzles of trains, glued, framed and hung over a double bed. On the book shelf closer to the door was a shelf full of figurines. Porcelain Clowns. Red nosed ones in large trench coats, morose harlequin boys, clowns that juggled.
"Creepy." Joel said, drawing out the y.
There was one all the way down at the end, with billowing striped pants. His suspenders looked strained from a distended stomach, his fragile thumbs tucked permanently underneath them. He rolled it over in his hand, he was fixated on it's grin. It wasn't widemouth and exaggerated like the one juggling, or crooked like the one in the trench coat. It was content. Genuinely.
"Are there any good restaurants nearby? Walking distance even." He asked.
He set the figure next to the others.
"I'm getting hungry."