Hunched in a booth, Onslow looked up, but said nothing. The bartender shrugged and turned away.
“Where’s that, uh, what’s-her-name that works here?”
“I don’t know which what’s-her-name you mean,” the bartender replied, “but in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s eleven a.m. – I don’t even open this early most days.”
"So what?” Onslow griped. “What does that have t’do with-”
The bartender paused. “It’s eleven o’clock, dude. Why would there be waitresses here? You see any customers? Besides you?”
Onslow felt a bit of a fool, having missed the point previously. Without moving his arm, he waved a hand at the bartender, then looked down. A moment later he looked at the wall as though there might be a window in it – there was not. He looked through it anyway, staring sideways.
When his drink arrived, the bartender didn’t take the time to say anything. So, Onslow spat out one of those little conversational entrapments which everyone hates equally: “I got fired today.”
The bartender sighed. “Life’s not fair,” he said flatly. It occurred to him that being rude to the customers wasn’t especially conducive to business, so he added, “Wait ‘til what’s-her-name gets here. They love that stuff. As long as you tip.”
Onslow winced without moving any part of his face, went back to looking out the nonexistent window. In his mind, this would all play out just like in the movies or some particularly sappy country song. He’d wander in, his moroseness and generally dour state being evident to all at hand. Then the bartender, or an elderly war veteran, or someone like that, would come and sit with him and listen to his story and sympathize with him. Of course, this wasn’t the movies; this was Seattle.
What does that even mean, he wondered. Life’s not fair. Everyone knows life’s not fair. That doesn’t make it any easier.
Still facing the imaginary window, he spoke softly, “If you get run over by a bus, knowing that it’s not fair doesn’t make it hurt any less. Why do people say that? What’s that supposed to mean, anyway? Might as well say the sky’s not red. So what?”
“Oh, Christ,” said the bartender, from behind the bar. “You know, last night I went home early, didn’t count the drawer or anything.” He stepped out from his station and walked towards the booth. “I came in early to finish up from last night, and I thought I might as well open up since I was here. I should’ve known I’d get stuck listening to someone like you bitch and moan.” He sat heavily across from Onslow. “Okay, go. Get it over with.”
Onslow mumbled something about the bartender’s bedside manner, to which the bartender replied, “You in bed?”
Sitting with his back arched noticeably over the table, Onslow had to strain to bend his neck back to meet the bartender’s eyes. That done, he glared.
“Well, what?” the bartender asked. “Man, I got work to do. If you’re looking for someone to, y’know, confide in or whatever, go ahead and do it.”
Again without moving his arm, Onslow waved his hand. “I don’t know where to start,” he said.
“Well, think about it,” said the bartender. “I’ll keep bringing you scotch and when Chris gets here, you can tell her aaaall about it.”
“The roof was leaking,” Onslow explained. “So stupid, the roof. The roof was leaking. Everybody’s roof leaks sooner or later.”
The bartender looked around, waited.
“They came and fixed it. They redid the whole thing.” He nodded at his scotch. “A week later, it was leaking again. So, we called ‘em up, said you messed up, get back and take a look. Well, they came in and said the problem wasn’t the work they’d done, it was the structure where two joints met or some… I don’t remember. They said they could strip it all off and put new tarpaper and shingles down and it would still leak, so I asked why didn’t they, y’know, point that out the first time and they said they didn’t know-”
“That’s tough,” the bartender conceded, sincerely enough.
“So I called around and asked how much it would take to get the bracing fixed, and they came out and did a free estimate that only cost half a grand or something, up there crawling around for three days, and finally said we’d basically have to redo – like completely rebuild – half the roof, ‘cause they’d have to go down to the ceiling and everything. I don’t know why.’ I asked them to explain it about a dozen times and I had no idea what they were talking about but it didn’t help that they changed what they were saying every time, so it was impossible to follow.” The bartender thought about offering platitudes, but decided against it.
“So, while this is all going on, I’m driving to work one day, and it’s slippery as hell out – this freezing rain crap. Never get that around here. They’ve got these potholes in Factoria and I hit one ‘cause the road’s only so fuckin’ wide, and you’re going downhill so you can’t just slow down right away or, y’know,” he waved his hand, “veer around it. Anyway, went through it, and it broke the brake line, and I’m going down this hill. Well, I got to the bottom and couldn’t stop. I don’t think I slowed down. I got the back wheels locked up, went all spinning, right into the intersection, got run right over by a garbage truck.”
“So, you got a leaky roof and a totaled car,” the bartender summarized.
“Yeah. Yeah I got more than that. And this is like four months ago, too, y’know, so-”
“I was wondering about that,” the bartender interrupted.
The bartender nodded and explained, “Freezing rain. It’s- what is it? June.”
“Yeah, no this was-”
“Four months ago. I heard.” He looked at a spot over the bar where one might expect a clock to hang, noticed that there wasn’t one, and thought that he should put one there. Onslow was saying, “I was in the hospital for three weeks, and all for this.” He swung one arm halfway around, indicating something beside or behind him.
“My back,” said Onslow. “My- you saw me come in.”
“It rains. People keep hunched over. I didn’t make anything-”
“It’s not raining,” Onslow interrupted. “Shit, man, I can’t stand up straight. I’m thirty-two and walking around like an old cripple.”
“It’ll get better,” the bartender said too quickly, having apparently decided to go for the platitudes after all.
“No,” said Onslow. “It won’t. They said I’m lucky my spinal chord’s not broken. But it’s mangled, anyway, and it ain’t getting un-mangled. It’s just a mess."
“Yeah, but there are worse-”
“We took out a second mortgage to pay for the hospital bills, and the roof. We had to fix the roof. Of course, by the time we got the roof fixed, there was mildew and some kind of black mold in the ceiling, so they had to come in and redo all the ceilings over the bedroom. We were a hotel for two weeks. Not cheap, either.”
“Didn’t feel like sleeping in the living room?”
“They, and you never know if this is just a bunch of crap they feed you, but they said with the mold and spores and sawdust and stuff all in the air, it was a bad idea to stick around, health threat and whatever, from spores and… whatever.” The bartender nodded.
“So, for three months I was taking the bus to work. But they don’t run up and down every damn street. I walked like three-quarters of a mile to the stop. I mean, and y’know, some people don’t have stuff, fine, so I didn’t make much of it. Except, look at me. It’s not easy to walk when you can’t even stand up straight.”
The bartender waited. He didn’t have a watch and there were no clocks visible from the booth. He noticed that Onslow hadn’t touched his drink.
“So, while all this is going on, the transit workers union went on strike-”
“I remember,” said the bartender.
“Why do you-”
“I’m sure you noticed there’s a bus stop on the corner.”
“Yeah, I’m there every day.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a reason bars pop up near public transit. You don’t want people drinking and driving. It’s, y’know, socially responsible.”
Onslow wasn’t sure whether or not his makeshift therapist was being asinine, but he was sure that it didn’t matter.
“Well, when they went on strike, I got screwed. They stopped running those busses-”
“Like I said,” said the bartender, “I noticed. What’s-her-name noticed too, y’know. That’s how she got to work every day.”
Onslow realized that he and the bartender were actually having conversation and felt one drop of compassion in a very large sea.
The bartender nodded. “Sure, man. You ain’t the only one with problems.”
“No, I know,” said Onslow.
“I mean, I guess most people don’t get all of it at once-”
“Yeah,” said Onslow.
“So. You said you got fired. That happen today?”
“Yeah. Yeah, we were going to get a new car, but her dad’s been in and out of the hospital for his whole fuckin’ life and for some reason, we’ve been paying for it. They were going to send him home if he couldn’t pay, so we had to, so no more car. And she talked me into it-”
“You call her ‘what’s-her-name’ too?”
Onslow meant to glare in response, in defense of his wife, but found himself darkly amused. “Only sometimes,” he said.
The two sat in silence for several seconds.
“Not a big fan of scotch, huh?” asked the bartender.
“Not blended, really,” Onslow answered.
“We got some twelve back there somewhere,” said the bartender.
“Lagavulin 12. Better than that.”
“Whatever,” said Onslow. “I’m not… here for the booze.”
Onslow thought for several seconds, slowly turning his glass. “I mean, I know she loves her father, but I don’t know why we had to pay for- and I don’t know why we had to keep paying when we couldn’t.”
“She work?” asked the bartender.
Onslow squinted. Why was this stranger asking about his wife?
“No,” he replied. “Not at the moment.”
“I mean, you making all the money and spending it on her dad?”
Onslow thought, shrugged, nodded. “Yeah, I guess. Yeah. It’s not… I mean it wasn’t about it being my money and her dad; it was just how much money there was and all this other shit going on and then all of a sudden we just had – and that’s the thing, really – we paid the hospital just because we had been for, fuck, for as long as I can remember. I mean, how do you say to your father-in-law, ‘Yeah, we’d love to keep helping you but the roof needs replacing so you’re S O L’? Y’know?”
“And with the busses being canceled, and I can’t walk like-” he paused, looking truly pained, “like a young guy, anymore. I… I just started being late, and-”
“And coming in here.”
The bartender nodded. He had no advice, nor did he imagine his patron had come in search of any.
“There’s other stuff,” said Onslow. “Like… you know… when you can’t sit up straight or stand up straight.” He nodded, hoping the bartender could draw the appropriate conclusions. He could not, and waited patiently enough for a conclusion.
“Man, we haven’t done it in… I mean, seriously, since we came back from the hotel. Since I came back from the hospital looking like the hunchback of Bellevue. I mean, and you hear jokes about marriage and shit, but jokes are jokes and… I mean I’m thirty-two, y’know, and we did. I mean, not a lot, but enough… y’know, it was nice, and now…” he shrugged.
The bartender tried to sound pert. “So? Why can’t she be on top.”
Onslow immediately replied, “Because I can’t lie flat on my back. We… man, I’m gonna need some a’that whatever you’ve got you said. We’ve tried, but it’s just embarrassing and awkward and… I mean, you don’t feel… you just… can’t. It hurts.”
The bartender did a master’s job of containing a laugh as he was genuinely ashamed to be amused by his guest’s fumbled descriptions of bedroom awkwardness. He got up, went scrounging for something more poisonous beneath the bar.
When he returned, he pushed Onslow’s glass aside, presented him with something that smelled like strength.
“Drink,” said the bartender. “I didn’t pour that so you could let it catch dust.” Onslow obeyed, nodding approvingly.
“So, I went in today, and… y’know, I’ve, with the time away in the hospital and then being late ever since… and I was going to ask them for some time off, like a leave of absence. I guess it was a shit idea. They paid to move me here, y’know. Anyway, so I asked and they just said why don’t you just go home and leave it at that.”
“Nah, man, that doesn’t mean it’s over. You can go back there and – trust me, I’ve hired back a ton of people we’ve fired. Go back in there and-”
Onslow was shaking his head. He took another drink. “The thing is, I don’t… I didn’t want to be there. Ever since we left Texas… I just…” he shrugged, looked – again – for that window. “I just, it wasn’t… and we weren’t making ends meet even to start with. Something would’ve had to give sooner or later, even without all this other crap, without, y’know, without-”
“Without the roof caving in? Literally…”
Onslow nodded, shook his head, took a drink, then another. He put the glass down, then picked it up, took another drink, put it down again. He accidentally whispered, “That’s good stuff.”
“Yeah,” said the bartender.
The door opened. The bartender got up, expecting a customer.
Onslow did not look up. He stared at the faux wood grain of the table surface through the sad, amber and auburn hue of his drink. The newcomer was Chris – or what’s-her-name – the waitress. She and the bartender talked idly for a minute or two. Somehow, this made him feel lonely. He held up his scotch, forced his neck back too far, sending pain through his spine, and swallowed the remainder of the drink. His throat stung a little; his eyes watered. He closed them. There was only so much comfort a man could find in a bar. At least at home he had a wife. She would offer the kind of compassion and sympathy which only a woman can when he broke the bad news. Onslow stood up slowly.
“Hey man,” said the bartender. “You leaving?”
“Yeah. What do you- I owe you for this?”
The bartender shook his head. “Whatever, man. Hey, why don’t you let Chris give you a ride.”
He opened his mouth to decline, but stopped. He felt old. He could use a hand.
“You sure she doesn’t mind?” he asked, wondering when he started asking things like that.
“If she minds, you’ll know.”
“Oh?” asked Onslow. “How?”
“You’ll be walking,” answered the bartender. He went into a back room, calling, “Christina!” as he did.
Onslow tried to chuckle; it didn’t work.
Though his legs were nimble, he had to hobble up the front walk to keep his balance. With his permanent forward lean, walking was a precarious undertaking. He’d been offered a cane more than once and declined more than once. He did not want to be that old, that needy. When he got to the front door and opened it, he turned and waved to Chris. She waved back and drove quickly away.
The house was quiet. He’d only come home from work this early once or twice since the car accident, and there was always either music playing or a phone call being made – usually the latter.
From the bedroom, he heard Annette’s voice.
“Maybe someday,” she said. He tried to smile, imagining how many ways that phrase could be applied to his present circumstance and all the ways in which it could be improved. He set down his attaché case and went into the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror.
You’re not so old, after all, he thought. Not yet.
He heard Annette laughing lightly.
He could hear her speaking. “No,” she said, “I wasn’t going to ask. I don’t think he even likes them.”
Annette and whoever she was talking to laughed. He heard a man’s voice then, though it was too low and muffled to be heard through the bathroom door.
He opened the door, looked around. When he’d come into the house, he’d been able to see the kitchen, and he’d gone through the living room to get to the bathroom. He wondered, trying not to worry about it, where else his wife might be with a male houseguest.
He told himself there was no reason for snooping because there was no reason for suspicion. Nevertheless, he exited the washroom more quietly than he might have otherwise, walked down the hallway, and stopped at the bedroom door. It was closed.
He stood, hunched lightly, and listened.
“On Fridays?” she asked. “Noooo… why?”
“It’s not Friday,” said the man.
“Yes it-” Annette replied, hesitating as anyone would in such an instance. “Yeah, it’s Friday.”
“It- oh you’re right,” said the man. “I’m not… I’m not-”
“Aware of what day it is?” Annette asked.
And then laughter – cozy laughter, the kind which exists only between two persons who are close enough together to be able to appreciate the humor of what might otherwise be an embarrassing moment.
Onslow opened the bedroom door.
The man sat up, sideways, in bed, exposing his chest, got halfway back down, then halfway back up, then froze. He stared at Onslow because, after all, that was about all that he could do. Annette didn’t turn to face her husband. She couldn’t. He saw her shoulder blades, her neck, her long, amber and auburn hair. He didn’t see her eyes, and he didn’t want to.
He looked down. The sky was grey, the water below was the color of coal. Three weeks had passed, and things had gone from bad to worse. Onslow spent three nights in a hotel, then went home when his credit cards stopped going through.
He’d looked into Annette’s eyes, and she’d said that she didn’t know what to say. He responded by informing her that he was out of a job and they were no longer paying for her father’s medical care because they couldn’t.
It was just too much. There were too many problems. Everything having to do with the house, the car, the job – or lack thereof – these things seemed like they could be handled by the team. But the team itself no longer existed. When it went away, so did Onslow’s desire to fix things. He’d begun to ask himself why – why they had fixed the roof, why they had taken care of her father, why he’d walked to work in the rain despite his physical limitations every day… why he’d come to Seattle in the first place. For Annette, things were slightly less dismal and considerably more awkward. She loved her husband, and she knew she’d let him down terribly. At the same time, she was angry. They’d left Springfield as partners setting off to start a new life. Suddenly, it felt as though an entire decade had been a façade, the slow erosion of pretense exposing the truth. That truth seemed to be that really, when push came to shove, he wasn’t the man she’d thought he was. She was not self-righteous; she knew that she, too, was less of a woman than she had ever reckoned. The long and the short of it was that this just wasn’t how things were supposed to be. With all the damage that had been done, all the things that had gone wrong, it seemed like starting over would be impossible. So, though she loved him, she didn’t know what to do – what to do with him.
Onslow met Annette before he met puberty. They were friends on the playground. They grew up together in the same part of Springfield, Missouri. They were two years apart in school. She had joined the Peace Corps after high school, and after not speaking for more than a year, they’d both concluded incidentally that their friendship had worn away with the coming of age. But the first day of college, there they were, in the same room, taking many of the same classes. The proverbial ‘one thing’ led to the infamous ‘another’ and the time they’d spent apart seemed only to make being together again more precious.
Twenty-some years after meeting her, fourteen years or so after falling in love with her, and ten years after marrying her, Annette had been the only thing he looked forward to, the only place he knew that he could go, the only one in whom he knew he could trust, confide. Now, that, along with everything else, was gone.
They were going to have to sell the house. They were going to have to move. He could almost feel it in the air, like moisture and wind, that Annette was thinking about leaving altogether. She loved him, of course, but there was just too much in the way. Whoever the other man was, he had a place to live, a car, a job, and certain talents which Onslow now lacked. To one degree or another, he couldn’t even blame her. It seemed more and more each day that the problem was less that she was unfaithful and more than he just wasn’t worth believing in.
Annette thought many of the things he guessed she thought, and she hated herself for thinking them. It seemed horrendous that the thought would even cross her mind – the thought of leaving the man she loved because he could not love her, because there were too many broken pieces to make repairs seem worthwhile, if even possible. But horrendous or not, she had the thought.
So, Onslow looked down. It was so easy, he thought. All he had to do was tip a bit too far over and all the problems, the pain in his back, the debt, the headaches, the fractured love, would be gone. It seemed strangely rational, too. He thought that if life is not fair, then some people just end up getting the short end of the stick, and there’s nothing to be done about it. You can’t really expect everyone to come out on top. Life just doesn’t work that way.
Onslow looked at the water. The sky broke. In a flash, the wave crests glinted and the inlet was blue and alive.
Something mournful bombarded the air, a mighty growl. He forced his neck back just enough to see the huge and solid waterway broken by a cargo ship as large as a city. He could not look away. It was a tremendous thing, so slow, yet so certain. And… so alone. Though it broke the surface with spray that went up, over the bow, it hardly seemed to be moving at all. It, like he, seemed frozen in time.
Onslow closed his eyes, and tears fell from them. He thought, Whoever he is, I hope he’s good to her. Had it not been for that thought, the thought that there was someone better for her out there, he probably would not have gone through with it. But there was someone better. He knew that, now. She was in good hands – better hands than his.
He had not come to the bridge with a plan, he had not left a note behind nor did he have one on his person. He knew why he was going to the bridge, but he did not know whether he would come back home or not. He could feel the warmth of the sun, now, on the back of his neck, and it seemed to lift him up, to carry him away.
In his mind, he repeated Annette’s name, remembered her as a child, remembered seeing her again after her time in the Peace Corps, remembered the first time they made love. Below, the ship sounded its horn again. Onslow fell.
And, as he did, he imagined that all who fall must feel what he felt then. It is a degree of regret that mortified the soul. It is not a regret for the decision that has been made; it is a regret for all that never was, for all that might have been, that could not be, for a world built up in such a way that when some fall apart, the best advice which can be given is the obvious – that life is not fair. He wished he had not fallen. He regretted it, regretted it, and wanted it to be untrue. He wanted to go back, to make things right. He did not know how, and now it was too late. A few miles away, alone in a forsaken master bedroom, Annette was feeling exactly the same thing.
There was a light, and for the first time since he’d been a very young child, there was a sense of wonder. What was this? How it could it be?
The light dimmed, or his eyes adjusted, or… something. There were voices, then shouts, then a flurry of excitement, running, thumping on the floor, more shouting, voices, and someone calling his name as though it was the last name ever called.
He opened his eyes. Everything about him was laughter. Not from comedy or incident, but from a simple, simple joy. They were all there, brother, sister, parents, friends, classmates, colleagues, doctors, a handful of strangers – there must have been two dozen or more, in such a small room, laughing with and hugging one another, crying, laughing, crying, and laughing more. His mind could not make sense of how this was possible, but it was clear: he was alive.
A nurse raised his bed ever so slightly, so that he was sitting partway up. Behind the crowd of friends and family, behind a window, watching through transparent safety, was the woman. Her hands covered her face, and she cried. He watched her, suddenly unaware of all the others around or whatever they were saying, how they patted him on the shoulder, held his hands. He stared through the glass, watched her cry.
The others saw this, and stood to the sides. They wondered aloud why she didn’t come in, why she was sobbing so much more than the others. Though they none of them knew what they did not have any business knowing, they could see that her tears were both of joy and concern. Then, she looked up. His eyes met hers, and the window through which they looked nearly broke for the seismic lock established in their gaze. The others were completely silent, clearly confused, and totally respectful.
Without thinking about it, Onslow got out of the bed, stood up as straight as any man may, and walked to the door. He opened it, stepped into the hall, and faced his wife, and faced his life.
They stared at one another like strangers in no man’s land, unsure whether they were friend or foe, unsure whether the next moment would bring cries of outrage or those of glee.
Annette only wanted forgiveness, a second chance, a chance to rewind and start again, to be willing and able overlook prior offenses, however grievous.
Which, more or less, is exactly what Onslow wanted.
In the room, everyone murmured and cried anew. Only feet away, on the other side of the window, Onslow and Annette hugged as though they’d been separated for years by war or worse. Their chins were on each other’s shoulders, their tears were on one another’s backs. Their arms were wrapped around themselves. They cried and took little gasps of breath and held each other so tightly one might have thought they were clinging for dear life. And rightly so
As the mammoth bulk freighter had passed beneath the bridge from which Onslow fell, the captain, who’d seen and suffered others who’d jumped before, had ordered open the massive, hydraulically operated hatches which covered the cargo holds. The odds were still slim, but miracles do not require anything more. Onslow had fallen two-hundred feet into a vault as large as a cathedral full of wheat. He’d landed on his back, the brunt of the fall absorbed by the deep grain. When they lifted him out, when they laid him on a stretcher, when they took him to the emergency room – no one was aware of his back problems.
The doctors would only say, “somehow” and somehow, that just had to be sufficient. Somehow, the height of the fall and marginally cushioned impact of the landing, or luck, perhaps, had pulled his back straight, or decompressed the discs, or done something. Somehow. In any event, Onslow could stand up as straight as he wanted, as he ever had.
In a small room in what’s-her-name’s apartment, Annette and Onslow lay together and listened to the excitement from the adjacent bedroom.
“Lord,” said Onslow, “that makes it hard to sleep.”
Annette chuckled and replied, “Yeah, well, life’s not fair. Besides, we are kinda staying here for free-”
Onslow sat up. Annette rolled her head and looked up at him from the pillow. “What?”
“I think…” he replied, “it a little fairer than… than we might think.”
“You think so?” she asked.
Onslow put his hands on his wife and tried to nod with soft sincerity. He was interrupted by a chuckle, itself a function of sound effects coming through the wall. Annette had to laugh quietly in response, and Onslow laughed a little less quietly in reply.
-- Mark Jacobs is a freshman Air Traffic Control Management major. He has a reputation for telling very bad jokes, talking too much, and absent-mindedly coming to school even on days when the campus is closed. He lives on the northern edges of Chicago and works at O’Hare airport, where he sprays toxic chemicals all over himself and occasionally the planes. He does not have spare time, but if he did, he would spend it complaining, playing the piano and singing badly, and eating (he thinks very highly of food).