I’m thinking about how me and the kids got drunk last night. How it wasn’t a celebration even though it felt like one. We hadn’t been in the same room since their mother got sick. My boys never talk about her with me even though I make a point to ask. That was last year. I was drunk and said She’s a good woman, your mother. Then I’d tried to call her on the number of the last place we had together. But the line was disconnected. I started crying and tried to say how sorry I was for every dumb-shit asshole thing I’d ever done, then busted a knuckle when I punched the stippled plaster wall. Stupid.
Anyway, last night. Fucking what the doctor ordered. We mixed up big glasses of whiskey and cola, and my youngest played songs off his phone—old stuff and new—and I said You call that music and they said We were going to ask you the same thing, and we all laughed and pounded our drinks, then mixed another batch and pounded those too. We played cards for pennies, and I caught up on what they’d been doing with their lives. Their jobs and girlfriends. Any wins they’d been able to tally. The losses too. I listened close and made mental notes not to forget a fucking word even though I knew I would. Said If any of you ever need anything, you know where to find me, and since we’d been drinking for hours by then, they all nodded to say Sure thing, you bet, and I felt bleary from emotion and gasped and hugged myself and closed my eyes and felt the world tilt and sway.
I said it was like a party. But it wasn’t. I’d called them all over, and they came even though they didn’t want to. Not that I had to say Do it for your old man, or any shit like that. Truth was, I’d already waited too goddamn long to tell them what the hell was going on with me, and didn’t want to tell them over a fucking text message.
Look, I’d said, and then told them how I’d been feeling. How I’d gone to the county clinic after I’d passed out on the toilet and fell into the tub and cut my forehead open on the tub spout. That I was supposed to go back for what was sure to be bad news the next day. How I’d been trying to cure myself by cutting back on my drinking but that I couldn’t hack it, and had been drinking more than ever, because I needed to calm my nerves—to limit my chances of thinking that the worst was going to show up on my doorstep or that it had already crossed the threshold and was sneaking around in the shadows and causing the lights to flicker, my bed to shake.
That one night I’d gotten so desperate that I put down a whole bottle of orange mouthwash.
That my belly felt like it was full of broken glass and lava.
Then I’d asked if maybe their mother had left them anything, and if she had, could they spare a little something, because I’d gotten shitcanned from my job half a year ago. But they said she hadn’t, and I didn’t push it even though I wanted to yell at them and call them a bunch of cheapskate assholes, and asked if they had any dope instead.
When I came to in the morning, I was tired as shit, and my boys were gone. On the dinette was a wad of cash, the sandwich bag of skunk grass we’d toked from, a couple of cigarettes, and a gift card with swipe marks on it.
After I emptied my guts into the toilet, I rolled one of the cigs between my fingers and shook the tobacco out, then stuffed it with the grass. I took it outside with a beer and smoked it in the cold morning, then got in my car and smoked the other cig to mask the smell of the drugs and the beer, rolled down the window and let the freezing wind blow all over the place and maybe wake me up a little bit.
Not that I’m keeping track, but if I had to tally things up, it seems like I’ve been hungover for at least five years running. Part of the reason why I didn’t realize I was feeling bad. Because I always felt bad. One way and the other. Puking and headaches. My head filled with cobwebs and mud. Sometimes I’d even get the squirts. Especially when I forgot to eat. So it took me a while to figure out that something was off inside of me. More off than the usual shit that was wrong with me. Which was more than enough for most fucking people.
Now I’m sitting in a waiting room, waiting. It’s quiet except for the ticking of the fluorescent lights overhead. The few other people coughing and sniffling and waiting like me, bored as shit and wanting to get the fuck out of here, and wanting to get well and feel better at the same time.
Outside, the clouds are thick. You can see how the wind is blowing snow off the rooftops of the neighboring buildings and throwing it in the air like confetti.
It’s like the wind is egging the clouds on.
Come on, it’s saying.
Make some more snow, you lazy asses.
While I’m waiting, my phone buzzes and I take it out. It’s a text from my youngest. A video he took last night. And there I am on the screen. Staggering like a deer on an ice rink. So I write him to say What the hell. And he writes back and says You couldn’t walk without holding onto things you old coot 😆 hope you are feeling okay let me know.
Even though it’s not really funny, I can’t help but laugh a little bit. And that feels good. Like how a sliver of sunlight would feel good on a cloudy day like today, how you’d find it and lay down in it like a housecat, how nice it would feel, sitting here in my parka and work boots, and then, all of a sudden, I’m thinking of my ex, the summer days when we were young and didn’t have kids, how we would load up a cooler with beer, a milk jug of cold water, and head out for the county spillway, and float in the shallow water and walk drunk and slow and happy on the slick rocks, and later, falling asleep in our lumpy bed before the night came down, just to wake in the middle of the night to bounce the mattress, then fall asleep again, then waking with our faces puffy and sunburnt, the day half-over and our jobs leaving messages on the answering machine and none of that mattering because there would always be more days to wake to, other jobs to get and lose, and how in the fuck has it been twenty-five years since then, how’d I fuck it up so bad, how’d I go from holding my firstborn like a trophy I had no part in winning to now? and didn’t we both fuck it up together with the drinking and partying and screwing around all the time even though we had kids, like they were an excuse to cling on to a life we thought we’d always have, how she always took more shit than me for the same bullshit reasons people always point to, and how I piled it on because I didn’t know how to do better, was too lazy to make an effort to stop the unwinding, and barreled on, yelling and screaming and being mean to her and our kids, the world, then blaming them all at once, like how I forgot them at the roller rink and bawled them out for not telling me when to get them even though I fucking well knew and had forgotten because I was doing some dumb shit like snorting rails with Billy or trying to get into the pants of my ex’s best friend or getting my ass kicked by my ex’s new boyfriend and throwing a brick at his truck as he drove away, how it only clunked against the metal bumper and left a little scratch and ding, and how she cursed me from the passenger side window, her long middle finger cutting through the air, her long brown hair blowing across her face.
And then they called my name to come on back and get undressed.
I’m sitting here, and I’m going over the clock and the sliding weights on the doctor’s scale, the glass jars of tongue depressors and Q-tips, the Kleenex box stuffed full of blue latex gloves.
I’m sitting here, and I’m worrying an itch on my shin, and then I’m thinking for a sec of how when I was a kid and had these impetigo sores on my legs that made my mom almost pass out because I’d been hiding them with bandaids, saying I cut my shin in PE, by wearing pants in summer, by showering when she was at work.
But mainly, really, I’m thinking that maybe there’s a scalpel in one of these clean-looking drawers, and how I’d like to find it and use it to cut my stomach open and drain it on the shiny linoleum tile, paw through the slick and sludge to find the bad, the thing that’s been slowly killing me these past months—the bad old shit that’s been a step ahead of me my entire life, waiting for me to put my foot it in it and smear it all around my life even though I knew it was coming, was right there for all to see, and all I had to do was step to the left or right to be free of the mess—I want grab hold of it and sling it into the burn pile in my backyard and light it up, listen to its anguished demon screams as it ignites, and after I’m sure it’s nothing but a chunk of hollow charcoal, I’ll tuck my guts back inside myself, get the doc to stitch me up, then fill it up tight with beer and Ten High, love for my boys, for whatever there is that’s left to live.
But that doesn’t happen. The doctor comes in the door and bangs it shut and before you know it, I’m standing up like I’m a guy in a fancy restaurant, standing up for my wife, but not knowing what I should do, how I’m supposed to act, and she’s saying No, no, sit down, it’s fine, sit down, we’ve got to have a talk, a hard talk, but a good one, a good one because you’re not dying, not yet, but you’re well on your way, I don’t want to split hairs, I want to give you my honest assessment, if you’ll look here, your liver panels, they’re bad, they’re not good, you’ve got pancreatitis too, that’s why the vomiting, the diarrhea, all that you described in your last visit, but that’s not a surprise, we were expecting this, you were straight with me about your habits, your use, and you’ve been drinking this morning, and I’m not here to judge, honest, but we had to make sure there wasn’t anything more going on, but you’ve got to cut back, period, your liver’s hanging on for dear life, it’s at the cliff’s edge, honestly, it’s gone over, and it’s losing its grip, and it’s fighting not to fall, and she’s telling me these things, all these things that hinge on me and my actions, and I’m trying to listen, I’m thinking I should take something away from this whole shit, something more than relief and the flushing out of fear, but I can’t focus, I can’t get the radio dial dialed in, and then I’m remembering this story I heard on the fucking radio, actually, this story about time travel and how it’s possible if all the right things line up absolutely perfectly, but it’s not like in the movies where you can go back and forth as much as you like if you’ve got a fast car or a telephone booth, whenever you like, but really how it’s a one-off type of shot, that if you can get going fast enough, and get yourself shot into space at the speed of light and sucked into one of those wormholes they say they’ve probably got up there, that if you manage to do it, and pull the thing off, that you’ll be stuck in whichever place in time you end up in, that you can never come back to now, and that’s a ride I’d be fucking willing to take if I had the fucking chance.
Edmund Sandoval is a writer living in Chicago, IL. His work has appeared online and in print in the minnesota review, The Common, American Literary Review, Superstition Review, Hobart, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.