map The Missing Life

by Boyd Miles

Published in Issue No. 222 ~ November, 2015

Photo by John Perivolaris

The yellow light filtered through the shabby red curtains casting a dirty orange glow. The colour didn’t suit the faded green wallpaper. The upper edges of the wallpaper were peeling away, exposing the black mold on the plaster. She had told him to wipe the walls with vinegar before they put up the paper and he had said he had, a shared lie, his direct and hers of omission. Thirty years after he still felt the guilt of that lie. A lie that led to so many, for once you lie and get by with it, it is easier the next time and before you know it lies become the normal way to deal with every problem. The only one left to lie to now was himself, as practiced as he was he could still see through about half of what he told himself.

The bottle of rum was empty. He had meant to buy more but had forgotten, and he kicked it under the couch. The bottle of gin she had bought because she liked the shape was all he had in the house. He had been keeping it because it was hers, that is what he told himself but really he just hated gin. A carton of cheap orange juice and a bottle of gin were his dinner. The light turned red and in time dimmed, leaving the room dark. He snored on the couch, the orange juice carton empty and on the floor; the gin bottle half empty and on the dusty, cluttered coffee table. His nearly empty glass formed yet another ring on the very small part of the table not covered by old newspapers, bills and crusty takeout cartons.

The coo-coo clock on the wall called out twelve times. He woke too late to get an accurate count so had no idea what time it might be, it was dark so it wasn’t morning yet. He considered going to bed, but it was easier to just stay where he was and he never chose a course of action that was harder than the easy way. He couldn’t fall back to sleep as the urge to urinate kept on nagging. Nagging from a wife can be ignored at your peril but you could ignore it, bladders can’t be ignored.

The bathroom light flickered and hummed. The bulb was trying to die on him, and he said to himself that he would replace it tomorrow. He said that every night and would keep on saying it, but once that bulb failed the hall light would give off enough to illuminate the tiny bathroom and he would never get around to changing the bulb. There were spider webs in the corners and the mirror was shattered. He had hit the mirror one morning as it offended him with the truth; the lie was better looking than what the mirror insisted upon revealing. In its own way, the shattered mirror was more honest than it had been before. Before it merely took reality and reflected it back upon itself. Now it could show emotion and truth that would normally require an artist to express. Broken, jagged pieces of silvered glass and rusted, bent frame looking like the spider webs in the corners and shouting out the truth to all who could hear. He didn’t flush.

The sun rose, it often does, and shined through the window on the other side of the room. Some would find the room cozy and cheerful. Sunrise on one side and sunset on the other, a small room with a lot of natural light. He found the light harsh and the room small and oppressive. When she was in the room with him it had always felt crowded, chokingly so, but now it felt as big and as empty as a church on Monday. The filthy windows and stained curtains blocked most of the cheer from the sunlight, and the brown carpet absorbed what little made it through. A carpet he had hated, brown and stained, was rough on bare feet. It had been new once and you could see the paisley pattern of rich golds, reds and even browns; now it was an almost uniform brown with random darker brown patches and streaks.

The doorbell rang and his breathing stopped, and he reacted so every time it rang, hope, fear longing. Emotions would overwhelm him every time he heard the sound and he would gather himself up and make his way to the door before the caller started knocking. Knocking was even worse than the bell. The gas man was there. The bill had been unpaid for too long and he was being shut off, so he told him to go ahead, that he didn’t ever cook anyway, screw the gas company. His bravado got him through but he started shaking once he had shut the door. It was a small thing and something he didn’t need but the shutting off of the gas was like a slap in the face. A call from reality and salt to the wounds. She had done all the cooking, she had loved to cook and he loved to eat; it was one of the really good parts of their relationship and something he greatly missed. The thought of bacon and eggs swirled around in his brain like a tune. He could almost smell them, hear the sounds of them cooking and see them on a plate. He could hear her asking if he wanted toast or not and if so to get the butter out. He stood there, back to the door sobbing and thinking of the breakfast he would never again have. A breakfast that had become routine and boring over the years but now lost forever. There was no more orange juice, so he drank the gin neat in the dirty glass from the night before. He hated gin.

The day progressed as they were wont to do, and he sat on the couch thinking of the things he would do tomorrow while today slipped away like an ice cube in the sun. Midday and the sun overhead gave the room an even light, the one part of the day when it didn’t glare in at him as far as he was concerned, almost as good as night. The room looked its best at this time of day, no direct light to accent the filth and disrepair. She had nagged about the cracks in the ceiling, he said he was going to fix them, they hung over his head now, reminding him every time he looked up of yet another broken promise. He rolled over on the couch and went to sleep.

The night passed and tomorrow became today but nothing changed, change was for tomorrow not for today. He went through his desk looking for any lost or hidden cash; he was sure he had some two dollar bills stashed away someplace. The clerk would look at them funny and if too young might even question their validity, but money is money and money buys more comfort. His comfort came in 750ml bottles, sometimes in full liters. When times were tough it came in 375ml doses but usually quantity of comfort overruled the quality and he bought it on price more often than not. His credit cards were maxed and the demands for payment were stacked on his coffee table. He would send them a check tomorrow, if he could find his checkbook. Look for it tomorrow.

The yard was unmown and leaves unraked, the house looked abandoned but that matched the rest of the neighborhood. Few houses were occupied, but as a quiet area with an older population, there wasn’t the normal graffiti and vandalism associated with a decaying area. No crack houses on the block, no gang bangers hanging out on the corner selling drugs or being shot down in drive-bys. Birds sang, dogs barked and music played softly from kitchen radios while old couples ignored each other over meager meals served ever earlier in the day. Nights brought empty streets as the residents didn’t venture out after dark. Not from fear of crime but from fear of stumbling in the dark and breaking a hip. The blue glow of televisions in living room windows shown on the sidewalks like street lights and by eleven o’clock they would all be dark. Not an outgoing society, no forward, gregarious neighbors dropping by unannounced but too there were no churlish busybodies poking into your business and complaining about the litter under your bushes. There was a mind your own business and I will mind mine cold courtesy prevalent among them. If you needed help and approached any of them they would have done all they could for you even if it was just to make a phone call for you while you waited outside the door. He liked this about the community. No false concern just to get a peek at your housekeeping, no condolences at your loss, barely a nod of acknowledgment as you passed on the street.

The search for cash had paid off and he now had a fresh bottle of cheap but high proof domestic rum and two cartons of orange juice. That and a bag of Chinese take out and he was set for a couple of days. He had walked to the store, his car was out of gas and he hadn’t felt the need to go any further than the strip mall a few blocks away so hadn’t bothered to find a can to carry gas in for the empty tank. The tires were dry rotting and the battery was flat but he didn’t know that and it would have been little concern if he had. The license plates were due to expire at the end of the month, the renewal notice was on the coffee table unopened. The car was destined to rust away where it sat just like the rest of the neighborhood. Time would pass and it would all rot away and be forgotten like the worker’s villages by the pyramids but this village would leave no great monument, no wonder of the world, no, just broken streets and brush filled foundations.

The day once more became night, TVs in other houses gave off their cold glow, his remained off. The cable company had cut him off months ago and he hadn’t made the effort to attach an antenna to pick up the over the air broadcast local channels. The television had been her pleasure not his; he would rather read a newspaper or magazine but the subscriptions had run out. The paperboy had keyed his car after he refused to pay for a week’s worth of papers the boy had delivered on credit. He hadn’t noticed that yet and by now the rust had toned down the contrast, he might never notice. Even if he did he wouldn’t know how it got there or how long it might have been. The paperboy still called him an asshole when he peddled by on his ever smaller route. One by one the older people were cutting back on expenses; the newspaper kept raising the price to cover costs in a shrinking market. It wouldn’t be long until the local paper would be in enough financial trouble that an investor could buy it for a song and sell off the assets. Making a profit at the expense of older pressmen and burned out reporters.

The night dragged on, the bottle of rum lost contents and he lost brain cells. The take out had been as bad as normal, the old local place had been replaced by a corporate sameness selling reheated packaged uniformity. Each location selling the same inoffensive market tested least common denominator menu. It didn’t matter much once you had washed your taste buds in cheap rum that may as well have been grain alcohol for all the character it possessed. The old place had been very good, he and his wife had driven there at least once a week and eaten the same thing every time. The orange chicken had bitter orange peel that he would put to the side of the plate and she would take and add to her broccoli shrimp. They would share a pot of hot tea, he would pour. They would read their fortune cookie fortunes and he would play to lottery numbers on the back. One time he won five dollars, he wished he had that five dollars now, that and another two dollar bill and he could have another bottle of the swill he was now using to numb his memories and emotions. It was long ago spent, on more lottery tickets.

The street was dark and he couldn’t sleep. No lights were glowing anywhere on the block so he decided to take a walk about. He had found a can of beer in the refrigerator and took it with him for company. The beer was well past the use by date and smelled like a dead skunk but it probably tastes as good now as it did when fresh. He never liked beer but she had. He hadn’t known many women that truly liked beer so he didn’t know if it was just her or if all women liked this chocolate flavored crap. It had alcohol so he was going to drink it to the last drop even if it did taste like hell. When he finished it the can got tossed into a yard, he picked a neatly mowed lawn out of spite, taking the neatness as some sort of condemnation of his own unkempt property. He pissed on a garden gnome further up the lane. No one was awake to see, it was almost one o’clock in the morning. As dogs often passed this way the gnome was no novice to the experience, being made of concrete made him quite stoic about it and he didn’t utter a word in complaint. The man shuffled on wishing there had been two beers rather than one.

The bed in his house was unmade, the sheets missing and the pillows on the floor. It had been that way since she had gone. They had gone with her and he hadn’t gotten clean ones out of the linen press to replace them. The bare mattress was good enough for him, she would have thrown a fit if she had seen it. The pillows were on the floor where they had fallen, if they had been on the other side of the bed he would have kicked them under but as they were they were not in his path so could be left undisturbed. He had never liked pillows and slept better without one. He also slept better if he was drunk, so most nights he slept just fine. The couch was his bed most nights but on those nights when he had had enough liquid thought suppressant and memory blocker he would fall into the bed. The mattress had large stains. She would have said that sheets would have prevented that but that wasn’t true they would just covered them, it would have taken a rubber mattress cover to have prevented the stains. He didn’t care and so rarely even entered the room when there was light that he didn’t even see the stains. He thought about flipping the mattress but it could wait until tomorrow.

The kitchen sink was emitting a foul odor, it had been building up for days and had reached a point that he had to do something. The trap had dried out and sewer gas was escaping into the house. It was easy to fix, just turn on the water and let it refill the tap. He remembered his father showing him this with a basement floor drain when he was a kid. His father had shown him much, how to tie a tie, how to polish a pair of shoes, how to butcher the neighbor’s dog to make dog stew. Some skills were of more use than others. He had liked the stew but not the butchering, he had hated the dog while it was alive and didn’t mind his father killed it but cleaning it was a lot like work. The dog had bitten him, he had cried and his father had spanked him for crying and then killed the dog. The neighbors had put posters up all over the place for their lost dog, he and his father never said a thing. His father had told his mother that it was venison, a co-worker had given it too him. She didn’t know the difference or she knew not to say anything. His mother didn’t eat any of the stew and avoided the neighbors afterwards, he was sure she knew. The neighbors moved the next year and an Asian family moved in, his father never spoke to them. He had liked the Tangs, he and Jimmy Tang used to play basketball in the alley, then they would drink Tang and laugh every time. Jimmy joined the Army and got killed in a training exercise. He went to Jimmy’s funeral, he went to Jimmy’s but not his father’s. Jimmy had been closer to him than anybody else in his whole life, closer even than his wife. If there is an afterlife he and Jimmy might get to play ball again. The thought of Jimmy after all these years brought tears to his eyes. He stood there at the sink running water down the drain crying over a friend dead for decades. He wiped his eyes, sniffed loudly, turned off the water and poured a glassful of clear rum. The bottle was getting distressingly low, so he would have to go back to the store to get more. It was a Friday afternoon, so the lack of cash might not be a problem.

The teenagers were waiting, sitting on the wall at the edge of the parking lot. They hopped off the wall when he walked up, moving in the false ease of people trying to look like they weren’t up to anything. They handed him three twenty dollar bills, whispered a word, then went back to the wall, trying hard to not watch him go into the package store and even harder to not watch him come back out. With nervous casualness they followed him up the street, trying all the while to take no notice of the man they followed. Around the corner the man sat down a brown bag and walked on with another bag under his arm. The teenagers sprinted to the abandoned bag to see what their sixty dollars had bought. A liter of Montezuma Blue would give them a good drunk and worse hangover. They may have paid three times what it was worth but excitement of the criminal act made it worth it. For him he had two bottles of the cheapest rum in the store and enough change left over to buy three more bottles of rotgut later. He could save a lot of money if he didn’t buy any orange juice, he could always get some tomorrow but in the routine of the illegal transaction he had gotten too far toward home and didn’t want to backtrack just for orange juice. The day was warm, not hot, just warm, comfortable, pleasant even. He had two unopened bottles of brain quieting fluid and not a cloud in sight. It was as close to happiness as he had been in years. He then thought of Jimmy, he and Jimmy had once been the kids sitting on the wall, not that exact wall but one like it. They paid double for a bottle of cheap Scotch. He had never thrown up as much in his life, not even when he had the flu. Good times, he almost smiled at the memory. Once he arrived home he finished the nearly empty bottle sitting by the kitchen sink and opened one of the new bottles. He dreamed of Jimmy that night.

The dream had started well enough, he and Jimmy were young, just kids, they were playing basketball inside a large room. The room went from empty to being filled with church pews and they dribbled the ball up and down the rows. Tossing the ball back and forth they ran to the front of the room to the basket. He shot and the ball hit the backboard and bounced off landing in a coffin. His father sat up in the casket holding the ball, his eyes were all white, and screamed, “I told you not to play with that little Jap!” He screamed back at his father, “Jimmy isn’t a Jap he’s Korean and he likes Tang.” His father twisted the ball and it turned into a dog, in one bite he ate the basketball coloured dog and laid back down and closed his lid. Jimmy stood there, now older and in his Army uniform looking like the photo his parents kept on their mantel, his colour faded until he became a black and white photo. “Don’t listen to him Jimmy, you can come back. He’s dead now. You can come back.” He woke at that point and it took more than one drink to get back to sleep.

The rain started sometime that night and ran on for days. Cleansing rain, refreshing garden gnomes and washing litter into the gutters. A soaking, driving rain that made the four blocks to the strip mall a wet misery. If he hadn’t been out of rum he would have just stayed in bed but the bottles were empty and he also needed some actual food. He ate at burger place, one of the chains, they are interchangeable, a burger made of a near meat they claimed was all beef and limp cold fries. The other diners sat as far from him as they could, one family sat at the next table and quickly moved away. His personal hygiene had slipped and the rain soaked filthy wool coat he had worn smelled like it had come from a dog house rather than a closet. After a second family had moved the manager came out and asked him to leave. When he asked what the fuck their problem was the manager offered a double cheeseburger meal to go, on the house, for just going away. He was about to protest and said, “Ten bucks and I’ll go, otherwise I’m going to set here and eat every fry as slow as I can, read the newspaper and refill my drink a couple of times. I might make a day of it then use your restroom. What do you think of that?” The manger pulled a ten out of his own wallet and a counter girl had a bag of food at a safe distance behind. The manger handed over the bag and the money not letting go of either until he had stood and stepped toward the door. Getting the bum’s rush at a burger joint was a new low but he had dinner and money for a bottle, it was worth the humiliation. Back out in the rain and he reconsidered his decision and turned back toward the door. The manger stood firmly on the other side, his body language shouted, clearly, that he was not going to be let back through the door. He pulled up his collar against the driving rain, put the bag of food under his coat and trotted across the lot to the liquor store. He shook off some rain, looking much like and smelling much worse than a wet dog and selected an eight dollar liter of vodka. The clerk stood back as far as he could from the counter and held the ten by the smallest possible bit of a corner. Sat down the change and stepped back, didn’t give the normal thank you come again spiel. A bath might be in order he thought once out of the store and walking home. Rain showers don’t work as well as hot showers and soap and he couldn’t remember for sure when his last had been.

The day was tomorrow, technically it was today, tomorrow never actually comes which is why it is the perfect day but in a way it really was tomorrow. It could have been the hot shower, two meals in one day or the switch from cheap rum to cheaper vodka, whatever the cause something had changed. He rose early and took another shower, brushed his teeth and combed his hair. He found clean clothes in his closet and got dressed. He sneaked across the street and stole Mrs. Peabody’s newspaper, she often forgot to pick it up and figured she wouldn’t miss it. Found some coffee in the pantry and made a pot, sat down with a cup and read the paper. The news was all pretty much the same as the last time he read a paper, wars, riots, elections, scandals, and epidemics. He was beginning to think he was better off not having a paper to read. The local news was just as bad, rain, flood, mudslide and house fires. A body had been washed out of a storm sewer and the authorities had no idea who it was but declared the death to be suspicious. A store had been robbed just up the highway from the strip mall that he frequented and houses had burglarized within a few miles. The public had been told to be on the lookout for the store robbers but they didn’t give any description. He thought that was more pointless than necessary. The classifieds only had a few actual job postings and he wasn’t qualified for any of them. The stock market report said stock in his old firm was up and that they had enough profits to pay a dividend. His only nest egg was this stock and if it hadn’t been so much trouble to do so he would have sold it years ago now his laziness was going to pay off. According to the report and his best recollection of how many shares he held he was looking at a check for two grand. He smiled at the thought.

The rain slowed and the sun broke through the clouds. He opened the curtains to let in more light. He hadn’t had a drink all day and it was near two o’clock in the afternoon. He was hungry and wanted to eat, the rain had stopped and the weather had warmed so he walked to the plastic chicken place, he had enough for a combo box which he ate in, nobody moved away from him and the manager didn’t come out and speak to him. He even noticed the difference from how people had acted last time he had tried to eat in a restaurant. He reflected on the power of soap and water and wondered how he had forgotten necessity of bathing. He went to the store for orange juice but not the liquor store. First time in a very long time that he didn’t carry a bottle of alcohol home.

The day turned to night and he was asleep on the couch, not passed out but asleep. He had taken a shower and brushed his teeth but just couldn’t sleep in the big empty bed. The couch had been fine all those night when he had drunk himself to sleep it was just about as comfortable sober. His dream came in vivid colour and detail. Music was playing, it started as Annie Lennox but it turned into a man singing falsetto, Karma Chameleon at the wrong tempo, it was slow and dirge like, the falsetto voice was grating. He was at home, there were no spider webs and the music was coming from the TV. His wife was singing along with the song in a deep contralto voice not like hers at all, she had never been a good singer and usually sounded like a man singing falsetto, poorly, not this deep almost a basso profondo. She was basting a dog in a roasting pan, it was wagging its tail and licking the juices she was pouring over it. When she was done with the basting she put the lid back on and put the roaster back into the oven. She stopped singing and said, “Your father is coming for dinner so you have to get Jimmy off the table.” He turned and looked at the dining room table, it was his parent’s table, the one he had grown up with and hadn’t seen since the auction. On the table was a coffin, Jimmy in the coffin, in his army uniform, covered in blood, eyes open and looking right at him. He walked over to the table and started to close the lid and Jimmy said, “Don’t shut it, I want to hear your wife sing some more.” “She’s done, that is the only song she knows,” he heard himself say in his boy’s voice. He looked down and saw he was a child again. His wife was laughing behind him,”you better grow back up before bed time cause I’m not a child molester.” He closed the lid and picked up the now tiny coffin and put it in his pocket. The dog was barking in the oven, his wife said,”Oh, the timer’s gone off, you better wash up for dinner and put on your adult suit.” He looked at the mirror on the wall and saw he was in a pin stripe suit with a wide brim hat and long watch chain. “Not the zoot suit, your regular suit, the one you were buried in,” she said. The dog barked. His wife and father were now at the table and he stood at the head, carving knife in hand looking down at Jimmy on a platter, a blue dog collar was around his neck and his army dog tags hung from it. “I don’t like Chinese,” his father said as he turned his plate over and stood up. “I want a piece of ass and the special bit from the front,” his wife said sliding her plate toward him. “No, that bit is mine I get to eat that, he was my dog,” he heard himself say in his boy voice. His mother’s voice came from the kitchen, now the kitchen of his childhood not the little kitchen in his house, “It’s wrong to eat the neighbor’s dog, I’m not eating it.” A slap and a scream came from the kitchen and his father came out with a Bud Light in his hand, “Anybody want a beer? I’m not talking to you boy, you’re too young to drink beer, I’m talking to this cutie pie here. You want a beer before we screw?” “Damn right, one before during and after,” she answered taking off her dress.

The dream ended before his wife got completely undressed. He was woken by a loud knocking on the door and a louder voice, “KPD, Open the door we have a search warrant.” The door flew open before he could get to it. A policeman held him against the wall while others came through the door. A paper was being held in the hand of one in a suit he assumed that was the warrant mentioned. A voice came from the bedroom, “We got bloodstains on a mattress in here Lieutenant.” From the kitchen, “An axe with what looks like blood, I think we got the murder weapon.” “Mr. James, I’m placing you under address for the murder of your wife. You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you? Well, do you?” “Sure,” he said, “they say them all the time on TV. I understand. So that was her body that got washed out of the storm drain? Thought it might have been. I should have buried her, but that would have taken a lot of effort.”

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Boyd Miles is an artist and craftsman. He is known for his carefully recreated historical artifacts used by museums, film companies and in living history programs. A film costumer, he has worked on both period films and science fiction. While born in a hospital he was raised in a log cabin, his wife says by wolves.