Neal in his Golden Years

        He knew that he needed to sleep, like a man underwater, looking to the surface, measuring the distance between himself and the air, the distance between himself and the black.

Photographer, Patrice Karkos
He tried to swim toward the black, where he knew he needed to go, but he was stuck. He swam in tangled bed sheets.

         It was a week ago that she had told him to move out. She told him in the minivan, after their son’s baseball game. It was a strange day, Indian summer, ninety degrees and a piercing sun in the middle of October. It was the first time she’d mentioned his pig-Latin.

         “Neal, go get the umbrella, will you?” she’d asked. “It’s in the van.”

         “This is some ah-hoo yay of an itcher-pay,” he said.


         “That was not an ike-stray.”

         “Stop doing that, Neal. I don’t like when you do that.”

         “Not a strike. Not a strike.”

         “It’s so hot out here.”

         “That was at his ankles. Is this aulf-gay? Is it? This is not golf. This is not golf.” His face was turning dark and she could see his anger growing, saw it in his eyes. His face, darker each moment, dripped with sweat and he strangled each fist with the other, wringing them together nervously. The sun was at its highest point in the sky and her water bottle was warm already. He watched his son at bat and grimaced as the pitcher threw a strike that his son did not swing at, or even look like he moderately considered swinging at, and it was too much. He stood up and his wife grasped his hand, trying to pull him back down. He shook her away and threw his arms in the air.

         “Swing the damn bat!” he cried. “Swing it!” His wife rested her hands on her temples like blinders and scooted a few feet down the bleacher. She looked at the other parents, who were looking at each other, frowning. His son stepped a few feet back and glared at his father for a long while. He shook his head, no, as if to say that is enough, and stepped back in, twisting his spikes around, kicking at the dirt aggressively. Neal kept standing- he was the only one standing. He looked around for his wife and saw her in the parking lot, climbing into the van. He took a gulp from her water bottle.

         Neal was furious and aggressive in his pursuit of his son’s home run ball, which hadn’t yet cleared the center-field fence and disappeared into the thickness beyond before he was running, barreling along the fence line, after the young boys who were apparently waiting behind the dugout this opportunity. Neal gained ground quickly, holding his pants as he ran, panting like an exhausted hound chasing a few spry rabbits. A sagging V of sweat drew a line of damp darkness on the back of his shirt. One of his loafers flew off into some weeds and he kept running, faster now, darting past the young boys, around the left field fence and into the thickness. His wife watched this from the rear view mirror of the van in the parking lot. When he came out of the swamp empty-handed, algae-painted lines all over his clothes, the game had been over for twenty minutes.

         The next day, he went back to the field in rubber suspenders, scoured the swamps, sifted through the reeds and algae again. “Where are you?” he whispered to himself, padding through the marsh. “You got to be around here somewhere.” He slid his feet forward into the muck, water level at his waist, and slid forward again. He hadn’t looked through the grove of weeds ahead, yet. “Wait!” he whispered loudly. “Yes I have.” He slid forward again and the muck below wasn’t there anymore, and he slipped down, underneath. The swamp water poured in, fell in, down his chest, and it was everywhere. He shot upward, slapping the surface with his angry hands. When he landed, the muck wasn’t there again, and his chest filled up again, and he threw his arms in the air in disgust. “Bullshit!” he cried, swimming angrily toward the grove of weeds. “This is bullshit!”

         He met the weeds head on, a panting, grunting mammal, red in the face. He shoved his hands through the slime over and over and slapped the surface of the dark water. “Why!” he cried. “Why me?” When he found the baseball floating in a pile of muck, he put it in his mouth as he swam back, as if it needed to be kept dry now that it was found. He found another ball as he was climbing out of the pond, and he wondered which ball was it. He threw the older-looking one into the muck and trudged back to his car, sloshing in his galoshes.

         When she finally called, he was in bed. He thought he was sleeping, thought he’d finally swam into the black, and then she was there again, and he twisted in his sheets and looked up, and his phone was ringing. He said, hello, and she said, hey, and he said, Pam, and she said, I think we should talk, and he knew now that he wasn’t sleeping, and he said, what do you want, and she said, tomorrow, I think we should talk. He thought about it, and he didn’t want to talk, even on the phone, and he said, alright, and she said, meet me at Benny’s tomorrow at noon, and he sighed, into the phone, and she said, bye, and he hung up.

         He spotted her at their usual booth in the corner and sat across from her. He took a handful of fries off her plate and ate them without saying anything. Her hair was pulled taut behind her head into a bun in a way he’d never seen. She looked uptight, looked bitchy. He’d always thought the tighter these buns were pulled back, the more it pulled at the woman’s scalp, the more it created stress, and the bigger the bitch she became. She was looking out the window, seemed to be searching for words. Neal thought she looked like the hugest bitch in the history of the world, and he closed his eyes and she was there with long hair, and she looked like Pam again.

         Finally, she said, Neal, and he said, Pam, and she said, so and he said, so and then they were quiet again and then he asked her what he had done wrong and why she didn’t want him anymore and why she had asked him to come here, and she frowned and said please Neal and put her hand over his. He pulled his hand away and grabbed fries off her plate again, playing with geometrical shapes in his napkin folds. The come and go of a siren echoed. She bit her lip and looked out the window.

         She said she was sorry, said she didn’t mean for it to be this way, didn’t mean to hurt him. He told her that was a euphemism for I got tired of you and she told him that it was just really, complicated, really complicated, and he told her that was the most ambi fucking guous thing he ever heard in his life. She told him to keep his voice down and he rolled his eyes, started looking behind his shoulders. He stammered what, why the, why, when did, where do you, what, and his lips quivered with the w’s. He couldn’t speak.

         “Why me!” he cried.

         He closed his eyes and imagined her face, opened his eyes and saw it a little differently. He saw the words in his head and they came through him, not even out of him but out of somewhere else, somewhere he hadn’t been before.

         “You bring me to a goddamn stupid restaurant to tell me this, and you’re not even telling me anything and I haven’t slept for three days and I haven’t seen my son in god knows how long and you’re telling me to keep it down in this place? You won’t answer your cell except to tell me to come here and then I get this from you? In this fucking family restaurant?” He looked behind each shoulder again. “With all this, all this stupid shit all over the walls.” He stood up in the booth, pivoted toward the wall, and ripped a mounted largemouth bass from its wood framing on the wall. “This fucking stupid goofy shit on these walls.” He pointed the bass’s mouth at the walls, then at Pamela. “Do you even have a soul? Do you even -”

         “I’m leaving,” she said, putting her sunglasses on. “You’re embarrassing yourself.” He pointed the fish at her and glared.

         “There are a lot of fish in the sea and I’ll be just fine. Don’t worry about me,” he said. She grabbed her purse, and marched out of the restaurant, leaving a twenty on the table. Neal pocketed the bill, threw the fish under the booth, and marched out the side door, cramming the last of her fries into his mouth. Families watched from the adjacent booths and frowned. Neal sped out of the restaurant parking lot, drove through town, and finally got on the highway, toward the casino.

         It was eleven now, and he swore at the horses running on the enormous screen in front of him, screaming at the one he’d bet on, Kluggie, screaming “Run, Kluggie! Run! No! No! No!” Kluggie was losing steam on the screen and Neal’s bookie was smiling at him because Kluggie losing meant he was up three thousand now, and Neal looked back at him frightfully. The bookie’s name was the letter C and he stood a step higher than almost everyone, with big sunglasses and a velvet violet hat. He handed C the money Kluggie had cost him and bet fifteen hundred on the next race, on a horse named Estitution Day. He looked around and was worried that he hadn’t seen a security guard yet. It was the seediest casino he’d ever seen. It was a free-for-all.

         It was midnight now, at the poker table, and he looked at the dealer- a huge man with huge hands that seemed to swallow the cards as he took them. Some women walked past him at eye level while he was seated- that’s how tall he was. His moustache had outgrown his mouth completely. He dealt Neal and the others five apiece. As he picked these cards up, he thought about the next hand he would be dealt. The anticipation of the five face-down cards was unbearable. They could be any cards. And he could always bluff. It isn’t that bad, he told himself. A few good bets, a few big ones, and I’ll be up again, he whispered to himself. Bad hands was all, I’m getting shit hands.

         “Cut it out, that whispering,” the man beside him warned. “Creeping me out.”

         Neal studied his cards. Four, four, ace, jack, eight. All clubs and spades. Wait, the fours were both clubs. He scoffed at this and laid the fours face-up on the table.

         “What is this?” Neal asked. “You trying to play games with me?”

         “Pick up your hand,” the dealer replied. “If you’re going to play you can’t be acting like a damn fool. Poor etiquette sir. Consider this your formal warning. Neal looked at the man assumingly, like he was being fucked with and had finally caught on.

         “Look, pal –”

         “Pick up your cards, for Christ’s sake,” the man beside him growled. Neal held an open palm next to the cards, to show everyone how ridiculous the fours were. He looked up and then down again with his mouth gaping open. Wait, he thought. Shit. No shit. Four of clubs, four of spades. Side by side. There they are. He looked up at the bewildered poker players with their poker faces. He picked up his cards and kept his head down.

         It was two-thirty now and Neal held his index finger over the Checking button at the cash machine. Wait, he told himself. I can take out more than that. It doesn’t matter, I’m going to win it all back anyway. Do it, he whispered to himself. He hit the Savings button. I wonder if this thing has a limit, he thought to himself. I wonder. The rickety old machine didn’t have a limit, and he took out everything, everything he and Pam had, so many twenties he had to roll them up and stuff his back pockets, his jacket pockets, every pocket flourishing with it.

         It was four now and he took two crumpled-up twenties out of the linty depth of his pocket and straightened them in his hands. He saw the potential to double, imagined two turning into four and eight and so on. He squeezed the paper into his palm and looked around nervously. Fidgeting the bills, pinching them between fingers, grinding teeth, he clenched his stomach, fought the sick feeling, and marched like he was a security guard and the bar was a delinquent. He decided, for the first time in years, to drink. He drank shots of bottom-shelf scotch without looking up from the tabletop before him. Salivation pooled on his tongue and he pressed it to the roof of his mouth to dissuade his throat, to keep it down.

         Rocking back in his chair, he looked up from the bar. The bartender was rehearsed, eyebrows raised, a bald goateed man with a lower-lip ring. Neal had twice ordered two shots without looking at the man. He hadn’t looked at anything, didn’t realize that he was sitting next to a woman who kept glancing at him sideways. Neal wiped his brow, held two fingers to the bartender and tapped the tabletop. The bartender brought two more, and Neal curiously eyed the place, an energy to him that he hadn’t had in years, a numbing in his temples and fingers. The casino looked exciting, fun, like a resort, like it was on television. He gazed at the flashing signs and feathers and focused eyes of the machine-laborers, smoke twirling from the corners of mouths, hyperactive index fingers piloting touch screens.

         And he gazed at the women. They were everywhere, these women. He’d always known casinos to be these huge sanctums for the old and the desperate, the glutted refuse of society. But today it was like a big illuminated brothel. These women were everywhere, swirling around him in cigarette smoke, with salon skin and money to spend, with low cut dresses and lipstick, holding martini glasses, laughing, drinking. Women who met men at places like this. Women that probably have been divorced, he thought to himself. He took another shot and tried to count the number of drinks he’d had on his fingers, and quit when he couldn’t decide if it was seven or eight. He took another and gazed up at the casino like a child. These women are everywhere, he whispered to himself. When the woman next to him asked for his name, he told her it was Eel-Nay.

         It was six now and he was sputtering through the halls, careening from wall to wall, holding the woman’s hand, whose name he couldn’t remember. He stopped at the room and pushed the key card into the slot. He tried it over and over, and red lights kept flashing, instead of green ones, and the woman took the card and looked at it and walked three doors down and opened the door. Neal was oscillating; he was jittery and sloppy and fainthearted because he was holding a woman’s hand. He hadn’t slept with a woman in over a year. He knew that it might not work, that he had four Viagras that he always kept in his wallet, behind his library card, he had for months, completely crushed in their plastic capsule envelopes.

         “Got to use the bathroom,” he stammered as she turned the television on. He locked the door and emptied the powder onto the sink top and tried to focus. He was spinning. The mirror kept moving left to right and back. He ran water, splashed his face, held his mouth under the faucet and gulped forcefully, feral. Tearing through his wallet, void of bills now, he found an old receipt, scraped the powder into a large thin line, plugged a nostril, and took it down. He flushed the toilet and ran the faucet. He unbuttoned the top two on his dress shirt, loosened the tie, messed up his hair, and looked in the mirror, spinning. Whatever, he muttered, and barreling into the room again, he leaped on to the woman and buried his face in her neck.

         Neal sprawled on the motel bed, looking through the window again at the bar downstairs, where the woman was, again, sitting at the bar alone. He closed his eyes, saw his wife again, and for the first time in his life, he began to cry. He wept for himself mostly. He wept for his son, for the tuition money that was circulating in the hands of the casino downstairs, for his failing penis and the woman who had just laughed at it, for the people he didn’t love and for the people who didn’t love him, because he knew that he didn’t love anyone anymore, if he ever had, because he had been married for twelve years and he didn’t know what it was to be alone anymore, because he knew that Pam was the better parent. He wept because he hadn’t wept in years, couldn’t even remember the last time that he had, if he ever had. He wept like a woman with a kidnapped baby, like a woman that had just been raped. He buried his tears and snot into a motel pillow and wept in the fetal position, and in the midst of this weeping, this desperate weeping and moaning, a certain hormonal shift swept through, blood marching diligently to his groin. He wept at the unwelcome tent pitching in his pants, at the thought of sleeping in his car. He wept because he believed in a Hell, and believed that he was going there. He wept at the thought of anything, at the image of his wife behind his eyes.

         Neal was arguing on the phone when the two sharp knocks struck his door, arguing with a customer service woman about his three-hour erection, slurring his words, calling the woman names he’d never called anyone before. He threw the telephone across the room and leapt to the door. He was still in his briefs, still bearing it, out there, reaching out, but he didn’t care. She’s back, he told himself. I’m getting another chance. He looked through the peep hole and there was no one there. The door hadn’t opened an inch before he was on the floor, squirming on the carpet, and the huge figure was on top of him, swinging at his face, blurring red in Neal’s vision. He stumbled backward and his head slammed into the bedpost, and he was on the bed now, and the big purple hat was in his hands. Scrambling to his feet, he leapt for the doorway, and sprinted through the hall, bounding down the steps and out the door, tossing the hat aside.

         He closed his eyes for a moment- it was light out again now- and he blew into his hands. He ran until he couldn’t hear footsteps anymore, and he kept running then, all the way to the woods, all the way into them, until he was so lost and cold that he stopped and sat. He closed his eyes and saw her face again. He tried to sleep, to escape, but he was stuck, and he looked up at the trees and the leaves that still hung. He was glad that they hadn’t all fallen yet. He closed his eyes, wringing his hands together, trying to strangle the face in his head out. He felt his hands and tried to feel the power still in them as he stood up and crept away into the morning.

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