Marlin kicked at the broken glass around his feet and once again shut his eyes tight and prayed the landlord would go away. Prayed the pipe would stop calling to him. Prayed for that white light again. And then he saw it…..”
Marlin sat on the corner of Harrison and Seventh and stared up at the highway overpass that generally provided him protection from the elements. Since it was neither raining nor particularly sunny that day, he opted for the great outdoors of the gray patch of cement nestled between the burnt out warehouse and the street. Though, for all intents and purposes, pretty much anywhere he found himself was outdoors and never really all that great. Actually, he couldn’t remember a time where he had a real roof over his head or he felt anything but tired, hungry, and beaten down.
Then again, it had been a long time since he tried. To remember that is. He pretty much tended to live in the moment, as the moment was all he had. He had lost everything else years ago. Too many years to count. Too many to even allow himself to consider. Life under an overpass was miserable enough without thinking of what might have been. Or worse yet, what actually had been.
What the hell, he thought to himself. It couldn’t hurt to at least try. Maybe there was a good memory nestled in there somewhere that would bring a smile to his face. Though he’d practically forgotten how to smile anymore either. The nickels and dimes tossed his way caused him more despair than relief, certainly too little to bring enough happiness to crack even the semblance of a smile. They just reminded him how much more he needed in order to afford a decent meal, or any meal for that matter. Anyway, he shut his eyes good and tight and prayed for a memory that would bring him even a brief respite from his life.
But all he saw was the endless black void behind his lids. Not a glimmer of anything else. No memories hiding anywhere to bring him even an ounce of joy. But just as he got ready to open his eyes to the even bleaker world in front of him, he spotted a tiny speck of light in the distance of his inner vision. It was so minuscule that he almost discounted it as one of those floaters he frequently saw if he moved his eyes back and forth really quick. Though they were generally much darker. And this was definitely light. A light that he noticed was starting to grow.
“Fuck,” he said to himself. “That can’t be good.”
Still, he kept his eyes shut tightly and watched in amazement as the light grew and grew, until all that he could see was the brightest of white light. And then in the light he could discern certain shades of gray. And these changed to fuzzy outlines of objects. And these in turn started to take on concrete shapes. Shapes he could recognize. A table. A chair. And then a wall and a ceiling. Then the grayness shifted into colors. Muted reds and greens and browns. Then nothing but color and the only white came from the low-watt light overhead.
“Wait, I know this place.”
At hearing his own voice, he opened his eyes and he was no longer on the sidewalk by the overpass out in broad daylight. He was back in his apartment. The one he’d lived in last. Before the overpass. He looked around at the old, beaten up furniture: the black and white television; the couch that folded out into his bed; the nicked and dinged end table with the alarm clock he’d had as a child; all his belongings that fit snugly within the one-room apartment that was far, far away from the overpass. And though it all looked old, threadbare, and as beaten up as he felt inside, it was a hell of a lot better than the cardboard box he had grown sadly accustomed to.
“A ceiling,” he said, as he looked up. “How long has it been? Five, six years?”
He walked around the small apartment and admired his few, meager belongings. Remembered how he had to leave them all there. He couldn’t pay the rent anymore, and couldn’t take any of it with him. All he could carry were a few sets of clothes in a duffle bag. When he looked again at the end table, he knew what would be in the drawer if he opened it. He walked over and proved himself right. It was just where he had left it.
It was a cheap, glass pipe. Funny how something so small could do so much damage, he thought. He lifted it up and could smell the residue. Felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He hadn’t been so close to it in a long time. Thought he’d gotten over the craving. Guessed he’d never really get over that. The matches were right where he had left them as well.
“Maybe for old times sake?” he said.
But before he could put flame to glass, a pounding on the door startled him and he dropped the pipe, shattering it into innumerable pieces.
“Open up, Marlin,” came a voice from the other side of the door. “Pay up or get out.”
He knew his landlord’s voice. Had heard those words so many times that it was practically etched in his brain. The pounding continued. The landlord’s voice got louder. Marlin kicked at the broken glass around his feet and once again shut his eyes tight and prayed the landlord would go away. Prayed the pipe would stop calling to him. Prayed for that white light again. And then he saw it. Just a speck in the black, but growing larger.
“Hurry up,” Marvin whispered aloud. “Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.”
And the light grew with each plea until it once again filled the space behind his eyelids. Until it fairly blinded Marlin. And then, as fast as it had appeared, it receded to reveal yet another room. A room far removed from the previous one. This one was not Marlin’s, but it did look fairly familiar.
“I’ve been here before too, but when?” he said to himself. And just as he said it, he knew. Spotted the pictures on the solid marble mantelpiece. “My boss’s apartment.” Marlin’s last real boss, to be exact. Before everything fell into ruin. Before the pipe became his boss.
“He never should have shown me where he left his house keys. Should have kept them locked in his drawer,” Marlin said aloud, as he cased the apartment. “Who needs this much…this much stuff? He’ll never miss it.” Marlin pocketed some of the smaller items. The gold and silver objects that he was sure wouldn’t be missed. At least not right away. After all, Marlin needed his own stuff. Needed it as sure as he needed the air he breathed. He felt the pangs of guilt almost immediately, but the need to fill the pipe outweighed all other concerns.
Just as he filled his pockets with the last of the trinkets, he heard a pair of feet coming up the steps. He dove behind the couch just as the door flung open. The smell of his ex-boss’s stale cigars wafted over him and filled him with an awful sense of dread and nausea. Almost at once he recalled why he had been fired. Why this man was his ex-boss. Why he couldn’t get a job after that one.
He shut his eyes tight and prayed that his boss wouldn’t find him there, hiding behind the couch, his pockets filled to the brim with the objects that surely wouldn’t be missed. But of course they would be. How could they not? The only [Another] thing that would be missed was the life Marlin left behind the day he got caught crouching behind the couch, tears streaming down his face, valuables spilling out of his pockets.
Marlin shut his eyes and prayed not to get caught. Not to be found behind that couch with his boss’s valuables that were sure to be missed. Wished that he’d never seen those keys in the first place. But he had seen them, taken them, used them. Still, with his eyes closed he couldn’t see any of that. Could only see the blackness of it all. The endless void. And there it was again. The speck of light in the distance. Barreling at him like a train. Growing and spreading. Filling the void. And then just as quickly as it had come, it faded to reveal yet a third room.
This room filled Marlin with a feeling of warmth he hadn’t felt in countless years. The furniture was worn, but sturdy. Passed down from his own parents. He remembered their joy in giving it to him and his new wife, Leslie.
Leslie. He hadn’t thought of her for almost as long as he hadn’t thought of that apartment they shared. She’d stuck by him the longest. Far longer than Marlin deserved. But even she couldn’t compete with the pipe. He sure wished she’d tried, though. Wished he’d tried, as well. But both had given up and went their separate ways. His way led him under the overpass. Hers to Lord knows where. He lost track years ago. Lost track of her life as well as his own. But there he was, miraculously back in that apartment they loved so much.
He walked over and sat on the couch that once belonged to his mother and her mother before that. It was still firm and he bounced up and down on it, remembering the way he had done so as a child. His mother always scolded him for doing that, but he’d always ignored her. Ignored so many of her warnings. Maybe if he’d only listened to more of what she’d said he wouldn’t be in the mess he was in.
And it sure felt nice sitting there like that. A hell of a lot more comfortable than the sidewalk. And it smelled like heaven. Like his wife, actually. He reached for a pillow and inhaled deeply. Lilacs and gardenias. His wife’s perfume. He always said she smelled like a country garden. “When’s the last time I smelled a garden? Or saw one?” he said to himself, as he eased himself into the couch.
“Is that you, Marlin?” he heard from the next room.
It sounded like his wife. “Yes, Dear. Just me.” He hadn’t heard that voice in so long. He’d forgotten how she sounded. Like an angel.
“Dinner’s almost ready. Go wash up.”
“Dinner? Wash up? When’s the last time I washed up to eat? When’s the last time I had a home cooked dinner, for that matter?”
“What’s that, Marlin? You say something?” Leslie asked, as she opened the door from the kitchen and stood there before him.
He’d completely forgotten how lovely she was. And so young. And there was that smell again. Like a garden. He breathed in and looked at his wife in amazement. “You’re so beautiful,” he said to her. She smiled and looked at him quizzically.
”You okay, Marlin?”
“Never better,” he said, and stood up to hug his wife. “Never better.”
He smiled, the first smile in so many years. And he stood, frozen in place and time, as he shut his eyes tightly and prayed that he could stay that way forever.
And that’s how they found him. Sitting on the sidewalk, just to the side of the overpass. His face locked in a smile, like he’d just seen the most beautiful thing in the whole world. Which, truly, he had.
Rob Rosen was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1966. He spent his childhood in the suburbs of New Jersey, his teen years in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and much of his early adulthood in Atlanta, Georgia, where he graduated from Emory University with a B.S. in Biology and then worked for eight years as a Clinical Biochemist. When he turned thirty, he packed it all in, sold his car, broke his lease, gave up his career and followed his dreams to San Francisco, where he is now an Office Guru. So much for that expensive education. His first book is “Sparkle.”