[Missive] One for the Angels

5:41:00 AM

Recollections of Charlotte, NC circa 1999 — in the wake of Mardi Gras.


Minor edits gramatical , 7/25/16; Mortimer’s Cafe & Pub at The Epicenter; downtown, Charlotte, NC, and also just prior to posting

I


George, I don’t have to tell you in this letter that Mardi Gras was a mess.  It was unfortunate that our accommodations for Mardi Gras with you and your gang dried up.  No apologies are necessary, brother.  Instead, I’m the one who must apologize to you.  Our intricate plans to spend your one and only drunken reverie for the year together never materialized after so much anticipation.  

Beyond that, I feel a sense of impropriety to you, considering that I didn’t even have the courtesy to exchange farewells with you upon leaving New Orleans.  There is also something I need to get off of my chest, and since you’ve always lent an impartial ear to any of the shenanigans I’ve shared with you, it seems to me that my confessions here in this correspondence would, at least, be received by someone with a kind ear.

Regarding the issue of accommodations, I had an ill-conceived backup plan, knowing that a friend of mine from high school lived near St. Charles Street.  It was only a matter of finding his place.  Now, I neither had his address nor a clear idea where to find St. Charles Street, nor had I called in advance to let him know that I would be arriving in town for the festivities.  However, considering the upcoming week of reckless abandon that was ahead of me, I had neither qualms for not having a place to rest my besotted bones, nor was I worried about the triviality of finding my high school friend’s apartment.  Zach, in is naturally somber demeanor, seemed to share my attitude.

After we purchased a map, we made our way towards the French Quarter, and since I had been to New Orleans, it was only a matter of dead reckoning as we wandered through the narrow streets to one side of St. Charles before we finally found one that I had a vague recollection of.  We parked my car against the sidewalk, and to my surprise, it turned out that we landed ten yards from my friend’s apartment.  I was certain we were at the right place.  Unfortunately, when I knocked on the door, there was no answer.  I walked through a small courtyard filled with small potted plants, and stepping on a cinder block, I looked through the windows.  The apartment looked familiar, but dark and vacant.  Zach stood on the curb and didn’t bat an eye when I told him that things looked grim.  We resolved, after brief deliberation, to leave a note on the door.  We then wandered without direction into the afternoon bacchanal that spilled out from every cranny of the city.

Well, George, the rest of Mardi Gras was, understandably, a blur.  The note I had left on my friend’s door was never removed in the four days we were there.  I suppose I didn’t tell you in our singular encounter that Zach and I ambled back towards my car after every raw, bead-laden night of carousing, and slept in it until the mustiness and sun beaten sweat of the next afternoon rose us from our intoxicated sleep.  

We even found behind a set of low shrubs that lined a whitewashed house a hose spigot that we used as a makeshift shower.  In the afternoons, we did our best to cleanse ourselves of the funk from the night before, dowsing our armpits and rubbing our face in the cool water. By the second day, though, I didn’t even bother brushing my teeth.  It seemed illegal to be living in a car, but then again, New Orleans was replete with drunks and tits and doomsayers with their sandwich boards full of Bible passages.

Everywhere the mob of people pressed against each other down Bourbon Street along with the odors of stale liquor, puke, and bleach which oozed up in the afternoon sun as if from the concrete streets itself.  Within the spirit of this chaos, I’d say Zach and I weathered it rather well.

However, by the third morning of this, I noticed that my beard had grown into scruffy sandpaper, and on several occasions, I reeled when Zach moved closer to me in the crowd, smelling like a filthy bum.  The patina of hell incarnate grew thicker on my body by the hour, and a fog descended upon my spirit, so that not even the parades seemed interesting anymore.  

By the fourth afternoon, I stirred in the back seat of my car, and found Zach in the front seat, awake and still twisted like a pretzel from his slumber.  He saw me stir, and turned his head towards me.

“You want to get out of here?” he asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

I wriggled the car keys from my pocket while Zach squeezed himself over the armrest to the driver’s seat.  I had a splitting headache.  Seconds after the ignition started, I was asleep again.  When I woke up, we were in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Now, George, I was grateful to be in Charlotte.  It Zach’s city of origin, and we had agreed before our trip that we would make a stop there at his buddy’s place before returning back to Miami.  It represented to me rest and recuperation.  It represented serenity and a return back to the reality and order I was accustomed to.  Most of all, as we maneuvered through the parking lot of the apartment buildings, I set my greedy thoughts on the luscious shower that was moments away—hot, scalding, and filled with the baptismal goodness of a return to a civilized life.  And, detoxify we did.  Zach and I spend most of our stay there as couch potatoes, playing Nintendo and watching television for most of the day.

Our time in Charlotte was relaxing, but I never felt truly comfortable there; a mild anxiety remained with me from Mardi Gras.  I did, after all, have a discrete agenda while I stumbled through New Orleans.  I wanted to get laid.  Nothing would have made me happier than to lure a perky hoochy-mama back to, of all places, my luxury four-wheel-drive accommodations.  I assume that you had a similar motives during Mardi Gras, George.

But, as it turned out, the women at Mardi Gras were stingy with their wild side—at least to me.  I couldn’t trade my fancy beads for flesh to save my life.  There always seemed to be a clause on the trade like, “No, I want that one,” or, “beads and a drink, or no go!”  I even had a woman looming over a balcony throw back my beads saying that they weren’t good enough for her.

On one occasion, Zach and I shuffled through the throng on Bourbon Street, and just out of arms reach, a pa-pow honey lifted up her blouse without the aid of any beads at all.  Instantaneously, George, every sex-starved man within arms-length radius lunged, and I saw over twelve pairs of hands reaching out to those poor, molested, perfect breasts.

So, George, playing Nintendo and the couch potato wasn’t going to cut it for me.  I felt restless, and I moped around the apartment feeling jilted and even like a failure.  Mardi Gras should have been a sure thing.  I was, then, pleased when, with the coming of evening in the good old Queen City, Zach and I hopped back into the car and hit some of his old haunts.

On both nights in Charlotte, we found ourselves at a small pub and coffeehouse called Phat City.  Apparently, Zach had helped build the place and was friends with the owner.  I admitted to Zach that he had made a funky little place.  It had a dark interior that favored the eclectic clientele with its black walls, an array of church-like candles, mismatched furniture, and a small stage.  Leaving the place one night, Zach pointed out to me a derelict school bus that was parked with its flattened tires on the gravel parking lot.  He told me, laughing, that he and the owner had taken turns blasting at the wreck with a shotgun.  Our drinking binge continued, unabated at Phat City, and I felt my constitution wear thin.

After a couple of days, Zach and I bounded over to Asheville for a night to pass a few hours with another friend of his, but we returned to Charlotte no better than we had left it.  My besotted discontent grew rather than dissipated.  I have a vague recollection of a police officer jabbing me with his nightstick while I lay comatose on a lawn.  The event seemed humorous to me the next day, but there’s only so much fun, only so much tequila, you can have, George, before it starts to wear you down and turn from pleasure into pain.  An attitude of hollowness and detachment converged upon my degenerating spirits, and the outlook I now viewed the world with became disconcerting.  The trade between lustful angst and drowned numbness left a sour taste in my mouth.

Zach and I stayed one more night in Charlotte, and in the late afternoon we packed our things for the ride home.  We were lazy with the affair and were in no rush to get back to our lives.  So, nighttime came before we climbed in the car for the long ride.  However, Zach wanted to say his farewells to his friends at Phat City before he left, and we accommodated ourselves back into its familiar setting before venturing out onto the highway.

When we parked the car, and walked through the gravel lot, for the first time I noticed that the climate had dropped to a biting but tolerable chill.  Since leaving New Orleans, the weather turned, and made its way down the thermometer, but wrapped up in my thoughts and stupor, this fact had escaped me thus far.

Enclosing the entrance of Phat City, then, the management had erected a large tent over a spacious wooden deck that housed several picnic benches.  The tent had several plastic flaps along all of its sides rolled down to the floor, whereas in our list visit there, they had been stowed in tight bundles at the top of the canopy.  As we walked towards the entrance of Phat City, and under the tent warmed by space heaters, I had the impression that we had stumbled onto, crashed, so to speak, someone’s outdoor wedding.

We walked inside, and Zach struck a conversation with the bartender in an instant.  I was left by him, drifting towards the corner of the bar, unattended and with no one to speak with.  I looked around, dejected, for a good couch to slump onto.  I was through with getting drunk by this time, George.  After a fruitless and undecided moment with the array of Phat City’s furniture, I walked back towards the parking lot, and grabbed a composition pad I had brought with me.  I retired to one of the picnic benches and opened the pad but only starred at the blank page.  By the time I snapped out of my reverie, I looked around the deck and noticed it had filled up with several other groups of people.

I hunched back over the table, and sunk into my thoughts.  However, I shook out of them when my table lurched for a moment.  Here, I beheld a truly unexpected surprise: a young woman - lithe, with a cru cut, a tank-top, and wearing camouflage pants - had stepped upon the tabletop, and loomed over me.  She walked the length of the picnic bench several times, stepping over my composition pad.  She shimmied her body around in palsied but seductive movements, and I was dumbstruck.

George, she looked down at me, licking her lips, and then she did the unthinkable.  She took off her blouse, and threw it to one side like a seasoned exhibitionist.  She danced, and she danced, and beyond that, she did this to the muted bass notes that resonated from behind the bar’s interior.  Outside, the only music came from a group of rowdy men at another picnic table who had taken to imitating the woka-woka-woka refrain of a Seventies’ porno flick.

Now topless, she seemed to hesitate, though she continued to prance around with abandon right before my eyes.  Then, George, she crouched down, and grabbed my stunned face in her hands.  She continued downward, and soon spread herself supine across the entire table.  She lay right over my barren composition pad like a sacrificial offering. 

Now, a grin spread across my entire face.  Though stunned into paralysis beholding this young woman, I lifted my hands from under the tabletop and wordlessly took up my most precious set of Mardi Gras beads that still hung around my neck.

I reached over to her, and she graciously lifted her head from the table — yielding, as I wrapped the beads around her neck and her porcelain chest.  With that, this young woman grabbed the back of my neck, and drew me in towards her face, blessing me with a long, (albeit theatrical) wet kiss.

A small hesitant crowd, probably equally amazed by this young phenomenon, flowed out from within the bar.  This young woman moved out from under me, from out of my personal spotlight, and jumped from my table, only to step upon the one housing the rowdy men.  There she continued her performance, and soon unzipped her camouflage pants.

By now, Phat City’s owner had maneuvered himself onto the deck, and I thought that this madness would come to a halt — posthaste.  Instead, he cheered along with everyone else, clapping and yelling out to the dancing girl to get on with it and take her final G-string garment off.  One of the rowdy men, even, produced a dollar bill, and slipped it under the cotton strap.  I have to admit, George, all of this was a bit overwhelming.

She didn’t bare all, but instead jumped from the table, gathered her clothing, and disappeared headlong through the plastic curtains, vanishing as suddenly as she had appeared.  A lively chatter remained present in the wake of her performance, but soon it tapered off.  The rowdy men returned to their somber talk and those who had come from within the bar, walked back in.

I returned to my composition pad with fervor.  In a way, George, what I had been seeking in Mardi Gras became manifest in the young woman’s dance.  I had my gratuitous flesh, and satisfaction was my reward.

A few minutes later, I was rustled once again from my calm meditations.  The young girl returned, fully clothed, and to my amazement, she plopped herself down next to me.  She had with her a large cloth bag that she placed upon the table.  I took a good look at her now.  Everything about her was tight. 

She had a petit nose that turned upward and high cheekbones that gave her green eyes narrow and sharp contours.  Though her skin was pale and studded with an occasional large freckle, the spots were not numerous enough to be anything more than beauty marks.  Despite her paleness, her complexion had a peculiar quality of dullness, as if the ambient light became trapped into her pores, rather than reflecting out from them.

“What are you writing?” she said without hesitation and with force.

“I’m trying to write poem,” I said.  “To collect my thoughts.”

“I write poems too.  Do you want to hear one?”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a thick spiral notebook, and began flipping through the pages, deliberating for a moment on each one.  She settled on a page, and she bent herself towards me, reading her verse.  Honestly, George, I had a hard time concentrating on what she read.  Instead, mental scenarios of how I might keep this creature tethered to me with insightful remarks kept my mind lurching.  She looked up from the page when her presentation finished, and waited for my response.

“Do you mind if I read it to myself?  I had a hard time getting it all the first time around.”

She handed me her notebook, and I still had a hard time concentrating on what I read.  I studied her poem, assuming a thoughtful disposition.  She leaned against my torso, and rested her chin onto my shoulder, presumably reading it along with me.  To me, the poem expressed anger and confusion. I stared at the words, but I was still too turned around to understand anything but the emotion that underscored them. Without looking up from the page, I began nodding.  “Wow,” I said after a solemn sigh, “I can really relate to this.”  The reaction seemed to please her. Of course, I could relate to it — the rage, but I had no idea what she was trying to say through it.

“Here, read another one.”  Still pressed against me, she drew out her arm, and turned the pages.  I noticed something curious about her arm.  Along the inside of her forearm, an array of thin scars were etched into the skin and arranged into neat rows.  I drew back from her, and looked into her, this time with true sincerity.  I took her wrist into my hand, and looked down at her forearm.  I ran my fingers along the slight lumps as if reading braille.

“What is this?” I said.

“It’s nothing,” she said, her mood deflating in an instant into melancholy.  I knew what those scars meant, and the sudden image of this young woman, taking up a knife to her skin, flashed through my head.

“I’m sorry for what you’ve had to go through,” leapt out of my mouth.

She looked away. “It’s really nothing.”

We didn’t say anything for a moment.  “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Pain.”

I laughed, and that broke through her somberness.  “How do you spell it, if you don’t mind me asking, P-A-I-N?”

“Well, really it’s spelled, P-A-Y-N-E, and that’s my middle name.”

“I suppose that it fits, though: P-A-I-N?  Can I call you that?”  I was giggling while I repeated her name several times.

“Sure.”

Our conversation turned back to the poetry, and we took turns reading from our respective notebooks.  But, as we continued, the poetry fell by the wayside, and we spent more time in conversation.

“This one here is for my father,” she said.  “My father’s in jail.  He went in last week.”

“That sucks.”

“What sucks even more, is my mother’s dead.  I don’t have anybody left.”

“Jesus.  So, you live on your own?”

“I’ve been living on the streets.”

“Don’t you have an uncle or aunt you could stay with?”

“No.  My family doesn’t live here.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I guess I’ll get a job, you know?”

“Man, that’s a rough situation, having nobody and no place to stay.”  By this time, Zach had come out from the bar and sat across from us.  “Zach and I have been homeless, in a way, for the last week.  We were at Mardi Gras, and we were sleeping in our car.  So, I can relate to how rough that can be.   For one, going to the bathroom becomes a pain in the ass, literally.”  She laughed.

There was a pause in our conversation, and Zach tapped me on the shoulder, asking me if I wanted to get back on the road.

I looked at Pain.  “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you.  I had a good time with our poetry slam.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“So, what are you going to do now?  I mean, where are you planning to sleep tonight, some bush by the gutter?”

“I don’t know. In the morning I’ll call a friend of mine, and see if I can stay with him.”

I began to lift myself from the picnic table, but a thought occurred to me.  “Hey Pain, considering that you have nowhere to go and no place to be, do you want to come with me and Zach back to Miami?  You could stay with me.”

“Sure,” she said casually.  “When are you leaving?”

“Now.”

“Do you mind if we stop somewhere so I can pick up something?”

“Don’t mind at all.”

And, with that, the three of us got into my car, and drove with Pain’s guidance to a nearby house that she claimed belonged to a friend.  She ran out and into the house’s alley, and came back a few minutes later with a garbage bag.  Zach was silent while we waited for her in the car, but I couldn’t help expressing to him my nervous anxiety.  There weren’t any doubts, but this strange twist of events made the world seem turned inside out.

I took the first shift behind the wheel, and Zach remained taciturn, as was his nature, beside me.  Pain fell asleep in the back seat, and I figured it must have been her first comfortable rest in some time.  I sank into my thoughts, turning this matter around in them.  I didn’t know whether to be terrified or joyous.  However, by the third hour of our drive, though, I had not come to any resounding conclusions. However, I felt comfortable with my notions of what was to come that things would play out all right. 

After we refueled, Zach took the wheel.  Instead of sitting next to him in the passenger seat, I moved into the back with Pain.  I lay there with her, with my arms wrapped around her, and with my fingers interlaced into hers.  While she dozed, I looked up at the car’s roof and felt her squeeze my hand periodically.

“Hey, Zach,” I said.  “Where are we?”

“We just crossed into Florida a few minutes ago.  I can feel its shittiness already oozing back into my bones.”

Pain squirmed, trying to readjust her body, stretched it, and went prone against me again.  When she settled herself, I took her chin into my fingers, and took a disbelieving look at her face.  In the darkness of the highway, her features appeared youthful to me.

“How old are you anyway, Pain?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yeah, really.”

“I’m sixteen.”

George, I’ll tell you that I felt all the blood drain out of me, and a sharp pain stung my neck in my usual sensation of panic.  “You’re sixteen,” I said deadpanned.

Then, I had neither a chance to settle into my terror nor to begin my deliberations on what to do next.  A tremendous thudding sound replaced the droning hum of the car’s motor inside in the cabin.  The thuds became more frequent, and it drew my attention to the crackling coming from the windshield.

“Are we in hail yet?” screamed Zach over the thundering that overcame even the stereo’s music.  “Are we in hail yet?” he kept repeating.  But, George, he slurred the word, “hail,” in such a way that to me it sounded like he was saying, “hell.”

“Are we in hell yet?” I heard him repeat again and again, and I snapped into a maniacal laughter.  The guffaws overtook me until there were tears streaming down my eyes, and my gasping took on the quality of weeping.


II


When we reached Miami in the afternoon, I found myself assuming an unbearable calm … resignation, I suppose.  At that point, I still had not been told that transporting a minor across state lines was a felony.  During the last leg of the drive, I resolved to remain chaste with her.  I only considered how I now had a little girl in my hands, and that her fate was my responsibility.

As such, I took her to the Salvation Army after settling her into my beachside apartment and after making it clear to her through insinuation that her place in my home was on the sofa bed.  I let her pick out an array of new clothes, and then took her to the grocery store, letting her fill up my vacant fridge with any goodies she desired.  She was a child, though, so when she selected Rice-a-Roni, Hamburger Helper, and instant potatoes, it didn’t occur to her that these things needed, in addition, some eggs, milk or beef to be prepared.  Furthermore, considering that she was destitute, I gave her an allowance.   Can you believe that, George!  I was now a twenty-six year old father figure, and not a mature one at that.  I know you’re laughing at this despicable situation as you read this.

I insisted that she would feel better, more independent, if she found a job.  But, after several days of shuffling her about to different stores, after picking up a pile of applications, it became clear to me that she wasn’t interested.  I, of course, had to continue putting in my shifts at that coffeehouse you’ve been to.  I gave her the option, then, to either accompany me to work, or manage for herself during the days by taking the bus.  Instead, she spent most of her time baking her skin on the beach, which was, of course, behind my apartment complex.

Soon, though, I fell back into my routine, and by the second week, her absence was a deafening reality every time I walked into my home.  I conjectured that she was still around by finding hair shavings in my sink, or seeing that her bed sheets had been shuffled around from the previous night.  However, when I found her lingering in the apartment, I grimaced since Pain, as per our first meeting, was naked most of the time.

I have to admit, it was a strange form of torture.  Though my resolutions remained intact, there were times when the gulf between us seemed to lessen.  I overcompensated, fearing my inner passions by remaining away from my home as long as possible.  I only went there to sleep, and as a consequence, I found that the only thing I knew that would help pass the time was to linger in bars until dawn.  

On one occasion, I lay in bed, sleeping away one of my now common hangovers, when I rustled from my sleep only to find Pain standing over me in a bikini.  She urged me to wake up, complaining that she was bored.  I turned over onto my stomach, wincing at the thought of leaving my pillows.  She nudged me with her foot several times, and then seeing that it was of no use, stepped onto my back like a geisha.  I told her to just let me sleep.  She sighed in disgust, and walked out of the apartment, slamming the door.  I slept an awful lot in those days. 

Soon, I found strangers knocking at my door asking for Pain, disturbing my comfortable dominion.  Then, a friend of mine, a photographer from the coffeehouse, approached me with a spread she had compiled.  They were all of Pain on the beach, and though the photos were tasteful, the expressions Pain assumed in them — here a seductive look; the joy of beachside abandon; her gait suspended in mid air on the film … it made a vulgar impression on me.

Then an event occurred that I don’t think I will ever forget by the sheer horridness of its nature.  I walked into my apartment at dawn after a serious bender.  Upon rounding the corner of the hallway that led to the beds, I saw, George, I saw Pain sleeping there flanked on both sides by two naked men.  I looked down on the floor, and fixated for what seemed like an eternity on the used condom lying upon the white tile.  George, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a welling up of sadness in my life.  I was sad for Pain, sad for how she had come into my life in good faith, only to turn into everyone’s pawn.

Disgusted, I walked back out of the apartment, and went to the coffeehouse, hoping that upon my return that sight would be gone.  In the late afternoon, I ventured back, and was thankful to have my home to myself.  But, when I awoke from a deep slumber that night, Pain sat across from me on the sofa bed looking troubled.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Sort of.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Um,” she hesitated, “While you were asleep just now, um, well, I was on the beach with some friends, and we came back, uh, and I took your car keys out of your pants.”

“What are you saying, Pain?”

“Well, we got pulled over, and I said to the cop that you let us borrow the car.  We couldn’t find the registration.  They towed your car away, but my friend is going to pay you back, I swear.”

I clenched my teeth, speechless, but for some strange reason, I wasn’t angry  “It’s okay, Pain.  Don’t get stressed out about it.  I’ll take care of it in the morning, no problem.”  I said it more out of exhaustion than anything else.

In the following week, a change came over Pain.  Her demeanor grew dark and reticent.  Her usual zest turned sour, and concern washed over me every time I found her sulking either in the apartment or in the coffeehouse.  Also, I noticed that she was sniffling often.  At first, I assumed that it was a condition of her depressive mood, but in fact, she was getting ill.  Furthermore, the bronze complexion from her beach-going no longer looked healthy.  Instead, it was a mixture of red and peeling skin, where on her spotted back, the contrast of burnt flesh and her natural pigment, showed the brutal effects of too much sunshine.

Again, George, my heart broke when I walked into my apartment, and found her lying prone on the sofa bed, whimpering, feverish, and charred.  I hustled back out the door, went to the grocery store, and paced the isles for any kind of remedy I could find for Pain.  I approached two firefighters who happened to be in a checkout line, and asked them what I could use for an ugly sunburn.  They suggested Noxema, and so I found myself back in my apartment, applying the balm to Pain’s back, gave her some fever pills, and asked her to drink as much orange juice as she could stomach.

From then on, I stayed with her, and she returned back to health.  The downtrodden funk, however, remained with her.  I tried to cheer her up by asking her if she had written a poem recently, to which she gave a flat no.  Christ, George, all I wanted now was to find her content, and I racked my brain thinking of a way to dispel her malaise.

Days later we were driving home together from the coffeehouse, and I became bold with our conversation.  “You’re not happy, are you?” I said.

“I’m not a happy person, you know.”

“Well, look.  You’ve seen me, how I love to be in that freaking coffeehouse all the time.  I don’t claim to be a fundamentally happy person either, but being there makes me happy.”

“And?”

I was unsure where my argument led to, but I pressed on.  “Well, is there a place on this Earth where you’ve felt happy to be at?”

“I guess so.”

“Well, where would that place be?”

“This antique store back home.  The woman that runs it is really nice to me.”

“If you could, would you be there now?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Do you want to go home, Pain?”

Her face lit up. “Yeah.  Could you take me back?”

“Certainly.  I would have taken you back any time you asked.  Do you want to go tonight?”

“Could we?”

“Okay, then.  It’s settled.”

So, George, we grabbed her things in my apartment, and drove onward to Charlotte without delay.  Pain slept the whole way, and throughout the entire dark, silent night, I starred at the pale light my headlights cast upon the pavement.  For the first time in a month and a half, I felt relieved.  The tension slipped away from my being with every hour, and with its disappearance, the contrast of calm that replaced it reached an unbearable pitch.  That sensation, though, was foreign, and again I reverted into an anxious state only to find that there, my tenuous footing with this emotion crumbled back into euphoria.

When dawn arrived, we were only an hour away from our destination, and I maneuvered out of the expressway into a desolate gasoline station.  I stepped out from the mustiness of the car into the cold air of the morning.  I walked underneath the hum of the station’s fluorescent lights, and my breath came out in vapors.  Exhausted, I reclined against the side of the car while holding the pump tight.

I looked out past the station and towards a vast pasture that extended into the horizon with only a speckle of trees within the vista.  The sun had yet to break through the Earth’s plane, and I beheld a cloudless sky, pure and painted with a rich palette of pastel blues, greens, and gold.  A brisk wind resonated with hollow tones in my ears, and I thought, in my brief moment of repose, that this sunrise, this morning, this sight, with its absolute serenity, was one for the angels.  I wanted to tell them about this, tell the angels when they asked me in my dying moments how my life had been.  I wanted to tell their hungry souls, bereft of feeling—of human feeling—about this sunrise, and about how, in the last reckoning, the way I felt was inexplicable.  Pain continued her dead sleep in the front seat, and I couldn’t help thinking of her, of the last few weeks, and of my place within those events.  Then I looked once again into the pasture, at its indifference to me, or to Pain, or to anything at all, and, George, I felt humble in the presence of this panorama.

By mid-morning we arrived in Charlotte, and I prodded Pain back to consciousness.  She indicated several rights and lefts, and soon we parked behind the place she spoke of the night before.  She jumped out of the car, and I crawled into the back seat.  She came back to the car, saying that the store was still closed, and I told her that I needed to sleep for a while.  When I awoke later that afternoon, I expected to be alone once again.  Instead, Pain was still in the front seat.  Her place would remain closed throughout the day, so we drove for a few minutes, landing back where we started: Phat City.  We had lunch together in silence.

There was no fanfare in our farewells, George.  I stood up from the barstool, and looked at Pain.  I thought I might hug her, or give her some advice.  I suppose that I wanted be close to her, but when the moment came, I extended my hand with a word, and we shook.  I walked back to my car, and turned the ignition, taking a right onto the expressway on-ramp,and I never saw her again.

The thing is, I’m neither proud, nor ashamed by what happened.  I surveyed again the landscape of the last weeks as I drove off, and recognized how barren it was to me.  The future, too, seemed equally empty, even absurd that it could and would arrive.  George, there is a terrible aspect behind all these events I’ve managed to convey to you.  I perceived wretchedness in all of this thrashing around, above and beyond the events with Pain.  I set out to confess to you, and I must confess now.  My horror was not in what I did or didn’t do, whether or not I might be good or evil for it, but in the fact that I felt nothing at all in the face of those things – no pleasure nor pain.  I felt nothing, as I rode home, and I wondered whether or not I had the strength of character to accept it—to be redeemed in my indifferent destitution.


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