With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 1
I step out of the car and recoil beneath the morning light. My eyes have difficulty adjusting through the hangover. I’m ten pounds lighter, retching from the stomach pains, and have allowed my beard to grow out for too long, giving me the appearance of a dope sick street kid. I am back to showing my discontentment on the outside for everyone to see. Forever a misery loves company kind of person. I’m not proud of it but it’s a reality. We all have weaknesses.
The bender has lasted a good ten days since she left me, and I have no intention of letting up. I’ve just started getting on a good roll here. I intend to walk into the office smelling of misery and pussy and six different kinds of liquor. This is me giving up. This is my I couldn’t care less if you fired me right now face. Look at that smile.
Walking along the parking lot towards the door, I wave at the homeless woman screaming and banging her fists against the chain-link fence next to the sidewalk. She comes out mostly at night and screams about the government, her sweatpants dirtied from soiling herself, slapping herself in the face out of a frustration I won’t be able to understand, but today is one of those rare days when she’s out amongst the working class. Like a raccoon so sick with rabies that it’s unable or uncaring enough to return to hiding until the moon comes back.
I catch the eyes of my two bosses through the glass door. Their eyes are wide and frightened. They tear through the entrance before my hand touches the knob and line up side-by-side blocking me from coming in, as if were they not to do so, I would bust through with force. One is Kyle. He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him. He’s thirty, overweight, with a bald patch at the crown of his head that’s been eating away at the black hair but no one will tell him. It looks like a clearing in the middle of the forest. He hands me an envelope and I’m aware of what’s happening before either of them say anything.
Tom speaks first. “You can’t come inside. Here, walk over this way with us.”
They don’t want me to be seen getting fired through the window. It would be bad for morale. Rebecca is in there working with her ex who has a micro penis, and I know this because she tells anyone who’s willing to listen. Norman is in there pinching Rebecca’s ass every time he gets into a room alone with her. Joseph is in there drinking pinot noir out of a can of La Croix. Alex is sitting at her desk eyeing Joseph in the hopes that she can catch him in the act and snitch her way up the corporate ladder. Harold is in there recovering from last night’s coke binge. Everybody hates everybody else but no one says it until someone leaves the room. But I’m bad for morale.
There’s a long pause. I hold the check in my hand. Two years wasted at this place. The best thing I got out of the experience was fucking two of my coworkers. They know this. They have no real reason to fire me, any more real than why they could fire Matt or Rebecca or Norman or Harold or Alex. They just don’t like me. I know this. They fire people when they don’t like them. They don’t like me because I don’t like them.
“Look,” Tom continues, “we all knew this was a long time coming. You haven’t been pulling your weight for months. You come in late and sulk around and you ruin the mood of the office.”
What else, Tom? What else? Tell me. Tell me you smell the pussy. Tell me you smell the liquor on my breath.
“And it’s time for you to move on. I don’t want you making a scene, and we need you off the property or we’ll call the police.”
Kyle hides behind Tom’s wide frame. Tom is one of those golden boys: Handsome, built, college-educated, played football on scholarship, got right out of school and started his own business. Fucks his girlfriend who looks like a Barbie doll until you get her face wet. I’ve suspected that he used to fuck Riley before me. We stopped getting along after he found out I was dating her. I’d fuck his girlfriend for the sake of equilibrium but she’s not my type.
“Is there anything you wanna tell us?” Kyle pipes up.
“No,” I say. “You made your decision already. I’m not begging for anything.”
I begin to turn around.
“Oh wait,” Kyle says, “you need to sign this.” He hands me a clipboard and a pen. On the clipboard are some words about me. Underneath the words is a line for my signature. “It’s just to state that we lawfully terminated you and you got your last check.”
“Of course,” I say. I sign and hand it back with my signature: Fuck you. “Hope that works.”
I spit on the ground—an unsatisfying dry glob of viscous white from the dehydration—and walk away back down the parking lot towards my car. I already know what I’m going to do.
Chaos. I want chaos. Give me chaos.
“Henry, wait!” Rebecca’s voice stops me as I’m getting into the front seat. She comes running up and pauses before speaking again. “What happened?”
“Fired,” I say. “Got the boot. Terminated. Voted off the island.” The heat is getting to me. I begin to feel uncomfortable standing under the sun like this. My legs feel like soon they won’t be able to hold up my weight any longer.
“They can’t do this,” she says. She seems visibly hurt. “This is bullshit.”
“Please don’t go drink.”
“Of course I’m gonna go drink. I’ve been broken up with, blocked and fired all in the same flaming shit pile of a week and change, this is the prime example of when someone should go drink.”
“Henry, it’s ten in the morning.”
“Good, then I’m getting a head start.”
“This is just gonna make things even worse. Think about the morning.”
“You don’t get it,” I say. “I’ve got nothing. I’m fucked. I’m sure in a few days I’ll have some clarity and see that things will be fine and I’ve got something to live for but right now I’ve got nothing. And maybe things won’t be fine. Maybe this is it. If I’m ruining my life then let me enjoy it for a minute. I don’t care anymore.”
“Don’t give me that shit,” she says. She’s getting angry. Her face grows narrow. “You’ve been enjoying this the whole time. You like destroying your life. You see that, right? You’re not as big of an asshole as you think you are, but for some reason you keep trying to live up to how you see yourself. Get better. Stop doing this.”
I step back into the car and turn the ignition. “You got a cigarette?”
Rebecca ignores me. “I’m gonna call you after work, okay? Be safe. I’m serious.”
Stupid piece of shit idiot you don’t deserve her you deserved to get broken up with you deserved to be fired you deserve to hurt yourself you’re broken you’re unlovable everyone hates you everyone should hate you do it do it do it hit the car hit that car faster you pussy do it no one will ever love you you’ll destroy everything you ever touch your brain is broken drink until you’re sick then people will see you’re sorry punish yourself until people know you’re in pain I hate you.
The beauty of dive bars is that they remain dark no matter what time of day it is. I sit down in the corner beside two older women. One recognizes me. She’s the mother of a girl I slept with. She doesn’t know that though; she thinks I’m gay. I can’t remember why she thinks that but I’m not interested enough to clear it up. Telling her I fucked her daughter might do it, but again, this doesn’t seem like the time.
“Hey, it’s you…Harry!” There are lipstick stains on her teeth. She drinks the same beer I always see her drink. She comes here every day.
“Henry,” I say. “Yes.”
“We’re celebrating!” She points to the bartender, a short, balding man with discolored teeth. “Get Harry whatever he wants. I’m not dying!”
The whiskey shot lands in front of me and I drink it before speaking. “We’re all dying. Don’t fool yourself.”
“No!” she shouts. “I got the blood results back, I’m not gonna die!”
The woman next to her coughs up something onto her sleeve, wipes it underneath the bar and slams her hand down. “Well, goddamn! Margaret you dumb slut, I told you it’d be alright!”
“I know, I know! I’m gonna be okay!” She smiles wide, revealing the receding gum line that’s turning black from age and cigarettes. “Today is gonna be a great day! Another one for Harry and Tammy!”
Hurt yourself. Drink until you hurt yourself.
Another one goes down. I order a third. The inside of my head begins to swim. I drink again and I’m reminded that I no longer have a source of income. I am unemployed. My thirty-one year-old with the fifty grand a year and the 401k and the fear of intimacy is gone. There is no rope to climb out of this.
I step outside and the contrast between the darkness of the bar and the light of the outside world strikes me behind the eyes, like looking at the reflection of the sun on a piece of metal. I sit down next to the soup can people use for an ashtray and look for her number. It stares at me for a long time before I dial *67 and call. Six rings come. They are long and painful and with each pause my breastplate dislodges itself farther away from my chest until all that exists is the heavy, fluttering heartbeat. It bounces against the inside of my body like a bullet in an empty steel room. Then the familiar robotic voice again. Leave a message after the beep.
“Hi, Riley. Yeah. It’s Henry. I know you hate me and you never wanna see me again but I just got fired and I need that money you owe me. So unblock me and call me back. Or don’t. Just send the money in some other way that doesn’t require communication. PayPal. Venmo—well I don’t have that one. Send a carrier pigeon with a check if you want. I don’t care. Anyway. I’m gonna stop talking now. Bye.”
Unsatisfied with the last message, I call once more to clear up any confusion that may get in the way of me getting my money. It doesn’t ring this time. The number you are trying to reach is unavailable, says the robot. A young couple walks past me with their child. She wears a pink dress and has a hairband with Minnie Mouse ears on it. She holds a balloon in her right hand and her father’s index finger in the other. The mother smiles at me when she sees me looking at them. I get up and go back inside the bar.
The only problem is that if I’m not going fast enough or I hit the tree at the wrong angle, I may survive and wake up as a quadriplegic. Or brain dead. Then what? You’re depressed and crippled. Or if you kill someone on accident while you’re on your way over the cliff. Then you wake up depressed, crippled, and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Then you’re really fucked. Can quadriplegics get prison time? Where do they go? Are they let loose into the general population like everyone else? Do vegetables get prison time? Or is that a free pass if you go into a coma after whatever crime you commit? Someone must know this shit.
“What’re you thinking about over there?” says Margaret.
“Nothing.” I drink down the next shot. I’ve lost count at this point. The world is blurry though. It’s easier to find the humor in dark things now. That’s always a sign. You get that warm fuzzy feeling when you think about punishing yourself. That’s another sign.
“What happened to you, man? You look too sad for someone your age. You’re not supposed to look like that for at least another…twenty years. You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”
I look at myself in the mirror. I hate you.
My phone starts vibrating inside my pocket, filling the space where a proper answer would have had to go. There you are. Right above the bottles, under the clock you can’t read any longer, all lit up in neon. Nothing’s changed. What’re you going to do about it?
“Hey! Are you gonna get that, Harry?”
Kill yourself or run away and do something with your life or go to rehab. Get another job. Do anything. As long as it’s not nothing. You can’t sit here and do nothing. You did nothing for three years and you got a book out of it and now you need to change. Nobody wants to read another book—
“It’s buzzing, man! Don’t you hear that?”
Nobody wants to read another book about a guy who never did anything with his life. You’re writing the same goddamn story over again—you see that, right? This isn’t an option any longer. You’ve lost all the ties that were keeping you here. Either kill yourself or—
“YEAH FUCK, ALRIGHT.”
I answer the phone without looking at who’s calling. I don’t recognize her voice at first. Through the drunk and poor cell service her words come out garbled and masked in static. “Henry. Helloooo. Henry?”
“How are you?”
“I’m good. Margaret isn’t dying. We’re all good.”
“Where are you?”
“Say hi to Tom and Kyle for me.”
“Are you at a bar?”
“Tell them fuck you for me. Tell Tom I fucked Riley better. Make sure to tell him that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you know that? Tom fucked Riley and so he doesn’t like me because of her. He thinks he can fire people for being Eskimo brothers but you can’t do that, Rebecca. We live in a society. We have laws. We have laws to maintain order, Rebecca.”
“Jesus, Henry. You’re drunk.”
“I’m coming to get you in an hour.”
“Yes I am. You’ve been getting drunk at the Sparrow for four hours. You’re gonna come with me and help me run errands.”
“Shit. Has it been that long?” I look up at the clock with one eye closed. The hands’ doppelgangers fall back into themselves and come back into focus. “Well, how ‘bout that? You’re right. I guess time flies when you’re having fun!” I hold up my hand over the bar until the bartender high-fives me. “Hear that? I’m making friends, Rebecca. Companionship. Don’t worry about me. I’m fuckin’ aces, baby.”
“I’m gonna be outside in one hour. Answer the phone when I call.”
“Yes ma’am.” I lean in towards Margaret, pointing at my phone with one hand over the speaker, and whisper: “She’s mad at me.”
“See ya later, home-wrecker.”
I hang up and order another drink.
Could you even find a gun? You could ask James, I’m sure he’d love to help you out with that. His was nice too. But what about those stories you hear about the guys who aim a centimeter off and blow out a chunk of the brain but survive to be disfigured freaks. Or you miss entirely and your jaw explodes. Shelve that one for now. You have Ativan. How many Ativan does it take? There’s no way they gave you enough, they’re not stupid. But what if you drank enough with what you have? Like a lot. Like a fifth. That would have to do it. I’ve heard pills is the most painful way to go though. But that’s what you’re looking for, aren’t you? If you wanna be hurt so bad. Are you a pussy now too?
“During couples therapy?” says the bartender. “That’s heartless, man.”
I clap and throw my hands out by my sides. “I FUCKING KNOW, RIGHT? It’s not just me—she’s a bitch, am I not alone in this?”
Nods from the group.
“Tell me at least you didn’t have to pay for the session,” Tammy cuts in.
I look down at my drink and smile with my teeth, embarrassed. The room erupts. “AW MAN, C’MON.”
“I think I’m the only person in history that had to pay fifty bucks to get dumped.”
“Jeeeesus, Harry,” says Margaret. “Well, we know why she left you then…you got no spine!”
The room erupts again.
Tammy reaches over Margaret to place her hand on my shoulder, knocking over an empty glass on the way. “Look at it this way, kid: You got plenty more years to mess up. Best to get ‘em all outta the way while you’re young.”
“Okay, okay, I’m not done though.” I shoot down the whiskey, click my tongue to diminish the burn. “And…and! Wait for it…I got fired today!”
The group emits a long collective groan.
I’m laughing now, struggling to get out the words. “And—hahaha—and! The girl who destroyed it all is coming to get me right now! I’m friends with the home-wrecker! Hahaha. The girl who tore apart my relationship still has her dirty home-wrecking claws in me! I can’t even come while I’m fucking her unless I think about Riley! Ha!…ha.”
The laughs slow down. The bartender’s eyes raise and he bares his teeth in an awkward grimace. Tammy pats my back. Margaret drinks from her beer until it empties.
Reality washes over me and I slump forward. “Shit,” I say. “There’s a real fine line between funny and depressing.”
There’s a quiet pause, then the bartender comes over with another full shot. Some of it spills over the glass when it touches the counter. “Hey man, you’re lucky. You know why? You’re free! You can do whatever the fuck you want! My girlfriend won’t let me do anything as long as she’s around. It’s a prison. I can’t smoke, I can’t drink, we can’t fuck unless the lights are off—and even that’s once a week at the most. She’s got my balls. But you know what? Right now we’re here! We’re off the hook. I come to work and I play country music—”
Margaret interrupts: “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Bill.”
“…I play COUNTRY MUSIC”—the bartender turns up the volume. Hank Williams fills out the corners of the room until his voice echoes—“I smoke as many cigarettes as I want, and I get to talk to people like you. While we’re here, there’s no worries in the world. What’s her name?”
“Riley,” I say.
“Fuck Riley!” he shouts. “Drink that and forget about it. It’s that easy.”
I take the shot. I sit in the burn and follow the pain as it slithers down the center of my body. I try to stay with the pain for as long as it exists. The bartender is wrong. We aren’t free. We’re more trapped than most people. It’s just easier for us than most to forget that fact.
My phone is vibrating again. It’s too soon to be Rebecca already. I take it out of my pocket and on the screen reads in big, capital letters: UNKNOWN CALLER. I stare at the screen. This should be sending a stabbing panic up through my stomach. My pupils should be dilating. My palms should be sweating. My face should be going pale. Unknown caller means someone found me. It means someone wants to kill me. It means there’s a death threat on the other side of this conversation. It means my life is about to be torn apart. My paranoia and delusions should be sending my body into shock. But it doesn’t. I don’t care anymore. Come kill me. Great timing. Bring it the fuck on.
I answer the phone. “What the fuck do you want?”
A long, uncomfortable pause drowns the space where my paranoia should go.
“Um. I—uh. This is Henry Gallagher…correct?” The voice lilts to a warm chirp to disarm my aggression, then back to a weathered growl like sand paper against rock, the way a man talks to another man in a professional setting.
“How do you know that?” I say. “Look, you know where I am: The motherfucking Guilty Sparrow like always, so come down and put one right between the eyes, big guy. I fuckin’ dare you. Give it to me, baby. One-way ticket to Dead Town, population: HENRY. Let’s do this.”
“What are you talking about?”
I look around and realize everyone is staring at me, so I get up and walk outside. When the sun hits I suppress the vomit at the back of my throat. “Alright…who is this?”
“Ahem…this is David West, editor for Lighthouse Publishing. You sent us a manuscript a few months back; we apologize for the delay in getting back to you. …You’re the author of The Skipping Record Waltz, correct?”
I stare out at the row of buildings in front of me. People go in and out with bags in their hands, children on their arms. Dogs are tied up and left at streetlights while their owners buy things they don’t need. I don’t understand what’s happening. Was Lost Weekend real? Can you drink yourself into insanity? Could I reach out and touch them if I wanted, or would this all fall away into the padded white wall of an institution?
“Yes, I wrote that,” I say. “Who did you say you were?”
“David West, editor for Lighthouse Publishing. Look, Henry—can I call you Henry?”
“Great. Henry, I’m gonna cut to the chase: We’ve read your manuscript, and have decided to offer you a publishing contract.”
“You’re fucking with me.”
“No, I’m not…joking with you. We’d like to publish your book. We’ll have The Skipping Record Waltz in major bookstores across the country, in libraries, military bases; audiobook is another option, along with the opportunity for book signings if that’s something you’re open to. We’ll print, market and sell your book. You’ll get a twenty-five percent royalty rate for all books sold, which will go up to thirty percent once…”
I begin to realize that this is an important phone call. I’m wasted for one of the most important phone calls of my life. The voice on the other line drifts away behind a shrill ringing in my ears, but the ringing doesn’t hurt. It’s not alarming. It’s like violins. Thousands of violins playing inside my head. I feel a smile rising up across my face. I feel like screaming, crying, laughing, dancing, singing—anything other than melancholy numbness. I feel present again. It’s like the blood in my body has remembered that at some point it stopped flowing, and with one burst of electric life, all at once every vein has erupted with vibrancy and returned to its forgotten purpose, like watching the power come back on in a major city after a blackout.
“Hello? Henry? Does that all sound good to you?”
“Yes, yeah,” I say. “That sounds fine.”
“Great,” David says. “I’ll send you over the contract by Wednesday and once you sign we’ll get started. What kind of work do you do?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Oh. For how long?”
“A couple hours.”
“Well. I hope this turns that around for you. Congratulations, Henry. I’ll be in touch.”
“See ya, Dave. Sorry for the murder stuff.”
The call ends. I’m shaking. I sit in the sun for a while, my mouth hanging open. This is one of the best and worst days of my life. This calls for celebration.
I burst through the door and sit back down in the corner. The reflection in the mirror is grinning a big fat stupid grin. Everyone is looking at the reflection in the mirror grinning his big fat stupid grin.
“Well,” says Margaret, “who’s coming to kill you?”
“No one, Marge,” I tell her. “No one is. I’m getting published.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she says.
“I’m getting published,” I say again. The words inflate and barely fit out my mouth as I say them. They’re the best three words I’ve ever spoken. “I’m getting my book published.”
“Book?” says the bartender. “I didn’t know you wrote.”
“I’M GETTING…MY FUCKING BOOK PUBLISHED.” I can’t contain the weight and size of the words any longer. They crawl out of me like a great beast. “FUCK THAT JOB! FUCK RILEY! I’M A PUBLISHED FUCKING AUTHOR.”
“Wow, that’s something,” says Tammy. “Y’know, I just love that Stephen King fella. Now that’s a writer, I’ll tell ya.”
I ignore her. My body is on fire. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m twenty-four and this is the happiest moment of my life.
“ROUND OF DRINKS ON ME,” I shout. “YOU’RE MY BEST GODDAMN FRIENDS, WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER NOW. BILL, YOU DRINK TOO. C’MON, MAN!”
We spend the next half hour drinking and laughing and slapping each other on the back because we’re drunk and I’m getting published and we’re friends now. Even Bill sneaks a Jell-O shot once he’s out of view of the camera.
Then it happens. Like a black wave of sewage water it strikes the back of my muddled head and pierces through the flash of contentment. The elated lightness floating up through my chest is pushed down, and cobwebs are rebuilt in the darkness that replaces it. The universe gave me thirty minutes. And now I am back. While the people around me laugh and spill their drinks, my attention is brought back to the face in the mirror.
Look at you. This won’t work out. This won’t change a thing. You will still find something to hate yourself for. You are still you. No matter what you accomplish, no matter whom you trick into loving you, you know who are you. None of it changes who you are. You are still broken.
I am sinking further now—no—spinning, as if I’m attached to the end of a great big drill, and I’m relentlessly being ground into the hard earth until the sunlight is barely peaking behind the dirt and soil and worms, and there holding the drill, looming above me, is God, and at that moment I become completely submerged, until I can no longer draw breath, until it’s all I see. And I am left there, a corroded nail serving no purpose but to infect the roots of the plants above me with my rust.
The one thing that I have wanted my entire life, the single accomplishment that I had always told myself would save me from the pit I’ve nothing else but to dig deeper, what I told myself would finally make me happy, has happened. And I am still miserable. The greatest thing I have ever done in my entire life made me happy for thirty goddamn minutes.
My head sinks back into the drink in front of me. The smile fades. The world once more turns eight shades darker. I no longer have something to celebrate. I have yet another tragedy to drown in liquor.
My phone rings. Rebecca is here.
I close my tab, stumble out across the sun-glinted street and collapse into the passenger seat. Rebecca is there staring at me, trying to gauge at what level of inebriation I currently reside.
“You have fun?”
“Yes,” I say. “I made friends.”
“You told me.”
“Good, I’m glad. Let’s get a bottle.”
Rebecca turns off the corner, heading for the freeway. “No. Not until we go to the mall so I can return some clothes. Today you get to practice self-restraint.”
“Clothes?” I shout. “CLOTHES? This is no time to return CLOTHES!”
“It is for me,” she says. “And obviously I can’t leave you alone.”
“I’m not a child,” I mutter, picking at some lint stuck to the collar of my shirt. It’s not until this moment that I realize I’m still wearing my uniform.
“I didn’t say you were.” She slaps my shoulder. “Now put on your seatbelt.”