I would never have been able to live in a place like that. I would have invariably spilled paint or put a cigarette burn in the floor or written on the walls and been fined for crimes against what? History? The past?”
by kurt eisenlohr
It was a Saturday in March, high noon. I was in bed. I worked nights in a bar and rarely got to sleep before the birds began to chatter and the worms got got and people started their cars and the world roared outside my window in waves of carbon-monoxide and monotonous regularity. I’d lay there in bed and let the sun crawl all over me, if there was sun. If it was raining, as it often was, I’d pull the covers over my head and hide. But today it was sun, lots of it. Sun was quite nice, if you didn’t have a hangover. Or a wife.
I heard her footsteps in the hall, her keys rattling in her hand. Her name was Tina and I loved her. She opened the door, back from whatever it was she’d been doing. She was always up and moving half a day before I was. I could hear her moving around out there in the kitchen. It was a good sound, her walking around the apartment like that, a comforting sound.
“Baby, are you hungry? It’s noon, come talk to me.”
I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen in my boxer-shorts.
“I brought you a Whopper,” she said.
“Thanks, love.” She knew I was addicted to those things.
I sat down and unwrapped my Whopper.
“How was work last night?”
“Busy. It was fucked up. They hired some girl. The stupid bastards always want to train new people on Friday nights.”
“Throw them right into the fire. Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Not for the rest of us. Jesus, you should see her tits. I’ve never seen tits that big, it’s ridiculous.” I took a bite of my Whopper.
“Listen, we have to talk.”
I set my Whopper down. “Sure, what’s up?”
“I’m leaving, sweetie.”
She began to cry. “I have to leave,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you sooner.”
“What do you mean, you’re leaving?”
“I found an apartment.”
“It doesn’t matter where.”
“But why? What do you mean, you’re leaving?”
“It’s too late. I’ve already signed a lease.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think.
“Eat your Whopper,” she said.
I collapsed in a taco bar later that evening.
I’d been out drinking all afternoon, and losing it, with a few friends. They were trying to sober me up. You need to eat, they kept telling me. But it was way too late for that. I had another beer. Then I broke, and the tears came. Then they carried me out of there.
I climbed the stairs, found my keys, and after several failed attempts, got the door to my apartment to open—our apartment. I turned on the lights and there she was on the couch, waiting for me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I made it to the couch, somehow, lay down and put my head in her lap. She stroked my hair.
“I don’t want you to leave,” I said. “I don’t want to be divorced.”
“You’re going to be alright,” she told me. She kept stroking my hair and repeating it over and over.
But I knew that I would never be alright again.
That was March fifteenth. She didn’t move out until April first.
I went home with this girl named Hollywood, a skinny little blonde sweet twenty-something manic-depressive nutbag. We were drunk. She was a bad drunk. I was a pro in freefall. She was all yes, no, stop, go—si, so I decided to leave—but she blocked the door.
“Stay,” she said. “Don’t go.”
I took off my coat.
“Leave,” she said. I started to. “Don’t go,” she said.
“I’m leaving,” I told her.
“You seem angry.”
“I’m not angry.”
“Punch me in the face.”
“Go ahead, let it out.”
She let it out—she broke my fucking nose. I was half in shock, seeing stars. I fell to the floor, put my face in my hands, and sobbed out the grief of Christ knows how many years.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” she said. “Let me get you a towel.”
“Do you have a gun?” I asked her.
“I think I do.”
“Go get it. I want you to shoot me. Fuck this shit. I can’t be alive anymore. I hate it.”
She disappeared into the bedroom. I could hear her digging around in there. Her entire apartment seemed to be littered with boxes she’d never unpacked. There were self-help books lying around in odd places.
“I can’t find it,” she said. She handed me a wet towel to sop the blood flowing from my nose. “I’ll look again later.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Three-thirty. You should stay.”
“I have to be to work at seven. I’m opening the place.”
“It’s way too late to catch a bus.”
“Let’s go to bed,” she said.
I looked at her.
“I owe you,” she said.
I was standing at the bus stop as the sun was coming up. I was in the suburbs, I think. There were business men standing next to me with their suits and briefcases and office jobs to go to downtown. I had dried blood all down the front of my lime green satin shirt. They kept staring at me.
“What the fuck are you guys looking at?”
They didn’t say anything.
The bus came and we all paid and piled aboard.
I sat in the back.
I helped her move out. Which is to say, I helped pack her stuff—the bed, the dresser, the couch, the kitchen table, the chairs, the pots and pans and silverware, the cups, the plates, the bowls, the towels and bath soaps, the lamps, the knick-knacks, the toolbox, the jumper-cables. I helped her pack all that shit. Then I helped her move it into her new place. I insisted upon doing so. Why, I’ll never know.
I didn’t care about the stuff. What I wanted was her. But what I wanted was leaving, right along with the stuff.
Her apartment wasn’t going to be ready until April fifteenth now. The previous tenet had done too much damage, it seemed. So for the next few weeks we lived among the boxes, all of them packed and ready to go, her sleeping on one side of the bed, myself sleeping on the other side, trying not to intersect too much. Occasionally, in a half-sleep, I’d find myself with my arms wrapped around her. She’d wake with a start, leap from the bed and say, “What are you doing?” In a daze, I would apologize and roll back to the far-side of the bed, wanting to die.
And April fifteenth did arrive like a death-sentence drawing to a close, no calls from her new apartment manager this time, no last minute stay of execution. I began drinking straight away that morning, while helping Tina and three of her friends, Lena, Kerry, and Nicole, load the U-Haul. They were all behaving awkwardly, trying to pretend it was just another day, but wondering what the fuck I was doing there participating in her departure. She’s my wife, I kept thinking, this is my fucking life, what are you people doing here? But I was too shell-shocked to articulate anything I was feeling. I helped load the U-Haul and discreetly choked back any sign of emotional tailspin while running back and forth to the refrigerator for beer. I tried to pretend that it was natural, me being there. It was fucked up, of course. I was fucked up. I kept stealing glances at Tina, knowing that I would never see her this way again, still married to me, still stirring the air in our apartment, the smell of her perfume cutting through the cat-piss and cigarette smoke.
As we were humping everything down the stairs and out of the building, our neighbor from across the hall was trying to get himself and six of his half-drunk friends dressed for a wedding—his wedding. They were crowded there in the hallway, shuffling their feet, pulling at their rented tuxedos, drinking beer.
“Hey, man, I’m getting married today!” he said.
I was dragging the box-spring portion of the bed I would no longer be sleeping on down the stairs.
“Congratulations,” I told him.
We pulled up to her new place at the foot of the West Hills, the area where it began getting rich—the higher you went, the richer you had to be. I need to remember this address, I thought. I need to remember this building, this number on the door, and how we got here.
It was a nice place, hardwood floors and an old dumbwaiter that went down to the laundry room. It was one of those Historic Buildings, protected by city law. The rents were high and you couldn’t so much as fix the pisser without contacting the proper authorities—nothing could be altered in any way. I would never have been able to live in a place like that. I would have invariably spilled paint or put a cigarette burn in the floor or written on the walls and been fined for crimes against what? History? The past?
We sat the boxes in the living room, tired, sweating, trying to pretend it was just another day. Tina ordered take-out and handed everyone beverages, beer, wine, or soda pop. I took the beer.
“This is a nice place,” I told her.
“Yeah,” she said.
“What’s the bedroom look like?”
We walked to the bedroom.
“It’s pretty small,” she said.
“It’s a nice bedroom,” I told her.
Then we put our arms around each other, hugging tightly, crying. I didn’t want to let go, not now, not ever. I wanted to die and for death to be this: she and I standing in that empty room, our arms locked around one another, forever.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I know…I’m sorry, too,” I told her.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked.
Back in the living room, Nicole was shoving furniture around, playing house. She flopped down on the couch finally, happy and relaxed. I hated her.
“You’ll really be able to hook this place up,” she said to Tina. “You’re single again—look out Portland!”
Tina pretended not to hear her. I didn’t pretend.
That was when Tina figured it was time to give me a lift back to the old place, home, my place, whatever the hell it was now. As we were getting into the car—her car now—a guy poked his head out of the window of the apartment next door.
“Hey,” he said, “are you two moving in? Do you need a bed?”
Tina nudged me with her elbow.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I do need a bed.”
“Well, I need to get rid of a bed.”
I got out of the car and went and had a look at it. The guy’s apartment was all but empty, save the bed and a few boxes.
“I’m moving out,” he told me. “My girlfriend and I are getting married.
He told me he had just graduated from med-school and that he’d hardly ever slept in the bed because he was always at the hospital or his girlfriend’s place.
“Med-students don’t sleep much,” he said.
This can’t be happening, I thought.
“We are characters in a bad movie,” I told him. “I’m a bartender.”
“Right…So do you want the bed or what?”
“Seventy-five bucks. That’s a steal, it’s practically brand new.”
“I’ll take it.”
He helped me haul it out and load it into Tina’s grey Oldsmobile station wagon.
As we were pulling away, Tina noticed the wheels.
“What are those all about?”
“It’s a hospital bed. The guy just finished med-school. He sold it to me cheap. He probably got a deal on it.”
“Is he moving in or out?”
“Out. He’s getting married. Why?”
“That is so weird.”
“I told him we were characters in a bad movie.”
“That’s mean,” she said.
“He’ll get over it,” I told her.
We drove the rest of the way without speaking.
I stood there in front of my apartment building with a heavy heart and my new hospital bed.
“You want me to help you get it up the stairs?” Tina asked..
“No, I can do it,” I told her.
“Are you sure?”
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” she said.
I stood there and watched her drive away.
(illustrations: kurt eisenlohr)
Kurt Eisenlohr is a painter, writer and bartender living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to illustrations contributed to all issues of Smokebox his poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Asylum, Verbal Abuse, River Styx, Another Chicago Magazine, Cokefish, Decoy, Way Station, and STOVEPiPER. His chapbook, Under Hand and Over Bone was published by Alpha Beat Press in 1994. His art has been shown in many galleries and is featured on the Future Tense Books web site. More stories and art can be viewed in the Vault of Smoke.