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Lights Across Gomorrah
By Isaac Swift
"I never wanted any of this." Robbie thought to himself in his office.
"I never really did."
And it was true. He sat alone, the soul person in HR; he never would have ended up in the position he found himself in if things had been different. Some people were handed cards in life they didn't particularly want. Sometimes we're handed a steaming bucket full of piss and forced to create a beverage that resembles lemonade.
"I'm tired," he thought.
He looked at a clock that hung above the threshold of the door to his office. It was ten minutes to six. Soon he would have to take his lunch break. It was against company policy for associates (especially salaried) to go six hours without taking a break. This was one of many things that Robert Timothy Walker was aware of, though not particularly worried about. The director of HR along with the rest of the HR team were not present, only ghosts of their odorous coffee and fragrant yet cheap perfume remained, permeating the otherwise stale air.
Robbie thought of how Debra, the overweight head of HR, had joked—though it really wasn't a joke—with Robbie about how the place would fall apart without him there. The rest of the HR team laughed about this and added in playful yet mostly meaningless excuses to advance the reasons that they were the ones leaving and he was the one staying.
In all honesty, Robbie didn't enjoy going to the beach (where his colleagues were heading) though it were the principle of the matter that annoyed him. The fact that they were all leaving him to keep an HR associate present was what bothered him.
Robbie brought problems like that on himself. Without him, the department wouldn't run as smoothly as it did. Debra was a fairly incompetent director who had become lazy with age. She needed to retire. Robbie was known around the office as the uptight workaholic, infamous for declining worldly entertainment.
"After we all get back to the office on Wednesday, you are going to take some of your vacation time, Mister Walker," Debra had said in a jokingly assertive manner.
Although it wasn't her business by any means when he took his vacation time, she was mostly right about how he worked too much and came up for air too little.
Robbie rubbed his eyes, looking away from his computer screen to the vacant desk next to him. It belonged to Tamara, the other person in the office who handled payroll besides him. She was on maternity leave having her second child by a man who beat the hell out of her on a regular basis. Her desk sat collecting a thick bed of dust, which was laziness on part of the cleaning crew. They seemed to rarely ever clean any of the offices in HR. Incompetent staff was nothing new to Robbie. He was surrounded by it on a day to day basis.
"Time to eat," Robbie said thoughtlessly to himself.
He groaned as he stretched while his stomach simultaneously grumbled.
He placed his computer into sleep mode and exited the painfully quiet and deserted wing and came out into the sea of voices in the football sized call center floor of cacophony. It instantly gave him a tension headache. It was like a muscle pulled and aching while out in full summer heat or a stale orgasm that was neither grandiose nor particularly wanted.
He sat in his car on his lunch break smoking cigarettes and eating an overpriced sandwich from the break room. It was neither fulfilling or delightful. All it was to Robbie was automatic ingestion of organic material. He gazed at the treeline across from a vacant lot that was being cleared away for construction. Red-orange rays of dying sunlight illuminated the tops of water maples, making them appear as if they were on fire.
A rap at Robbie's half-rolled-down window startled him from his trance. It was the lone security officer on post. Robbie couldn't remember his name, though he appeared like every other pseudo-military person he had ever had the displeasure of knowing.
"Can't smoke here, Mister Walker," the guard said with a smug and curt demeanor that immediately irritated Robbie.
"Smoking areas are clearly marked around the premises."
"I'm in my car. I'll smoke in my car if I please," Robbie replied.
This made the guard grimace as if a woodpecker had taken to drilling holes into his wide ass, mistaking it for a tree trunk.
"I'll be putting that in my shift notes, sir," the guard said as he turned to walk off with a smirk plastered across his face.
Robbie took a long drag of his cigarette and discarded the cashed butt out the window.
"Write me a love note, sweetheart," he mumbled to himself. "Like I give a good goddamn."
* * *
"And you're sure you've got the overtime stats under control?" Debra asked over the phone.
Robbie could hear the rest of his colleagues laughing in the background. He also thought he could make out the sound of waves crashing.
"What was that, Debra?" Robbie, who hadn't been paying attention, asked.
"I said if the new hire data entry and overtime payroll is too much, you could always do half and leave the rest for Mary to do when we get back."
"If You want them all fucked up, sure thing," Robbie thought.
Mary couldn't do payroll for shit. That's why they gave Robbie the task of doing payroll and moved her over to something less demanding. Payroll was mind numbing, sure. But it wasn't something a calculator couldn't help you do.
"Robbie? You still there?" Debra asked.
At this point Robbie was certain it was waves he was hearing in the background. Waves and the cry of seagulls.
"Yeah, sorry. I'm here. I can cover it all, no big deal. I'm gonna be here forever anyways, right?" Robbie said, half jokingly.
He drummed his fingers thoughtlessly on his desk and peered out the window behind him through metal blinds. The last few rays of sun were setting. The water maples off in the distance were only silhouettes.
Debra was babbling away while Robbie half listened. Not all that she said was important. Most of it was, in fact, not. Anything important she had to say was delayed by senseless dialogue on other topics which were wholly unrelated. It was as if she were powered by gears and the mechanism that made her spout garbage from her lips was on a continuous loop.
"—and I know you're busy, but just keep an eye on the VTO stats. If we get more than 20 percent accepted, you need to send an email to Frank." Debra said, as Robbie caught the tail end of what she was saying.
"I'm looking at the database now, Debra," Robbie said, rather uninterested.
His thoughts were on how Debra's tits probably looked like wet bananas bouncing around in what only could have been an unflattering swimsuit at the beach.
He finished up the conversation as briskly as he could and gave his false cordial words to pass on to the rest of the team. The numbers on the screen began to climb as employees in the call center began to light up the screen like Christmas trees with their requests for voluntary time off. It was a ridiculous and moronic notion to Robbie. The idea of leaving early had never seriously crossed his mind while working the phones out on the floor. For one thing, he could have never afforded it. The other thing was the constant reminder that the bare minimum never got anyone anywhere. It was a cop out. Robbie knew very well he would have never moved up the food chain if he had chosen the easy options.
Still, it surprised Robbie that in his five years in HR that the numbers of annual volunteered time off grew at such an alarming rate. The cost of living an existence was always increasing, and people’s drive to keep their lights on was diminishing. It made Robbie shake his head in disappointment. He thought of how lazy everyone had become as the numbers on the screen before him grew. It made him ill.
“Why is the minimum everyone’s maximum?” he thought to himself. “Men are afraid to bleed for anything. Afraid that a scratch will nick an artery.”
Robbie sat thinking of how he was the only one to provide for his family after the death of his mother. His father, too drunk to do much of anything, would either lay drinking himself piss stupid in his recliner or beating the hell out of Robbie and his sister, Julie. He had to become an adult when most his age would have been worried about girls and cars. He was suddenly having to reach goals that were way too advanced for him. The harsh realities of life had embittered his thought processes and made him a overly nihilistic and biased person.
Just as Robbie was about to start typing out an email to Frank, the operations director,the phone on the desk parallel to his began to ring. Curiously eying it, Robbie realized from the caller ID that it was an unknown number being transferred from security.
“Why would someone being calling Tamara?” Robbie wondered.
The phone rang until curiosity got the better of him. He answered with a twang of hesitation.
“Julie, slow down, I can’t understand you,” Robbie said, rubbing his face in exhaustion.
He figured the guard had transferred his sister’s phone call to Tamara’s extension by accident, not particularly seeming to be the brightest person in the world. These calls from Julie (which were fairly steady) were often tiresome, not that living with their father had helped her dependency any.
“I said that a nurse from a hospital in Memphis called. Baptist Hospital. Dad’s down there and they say he’s dying. I don’t know, Robbie. We need to do something.”
WE. That caught Robbie in strange way. It had always been WE with her. Julie depended on Robbie, being the big brother. He was the closest thing to a functional father figure she had. He thought of that man laying in the hospital bed in Memphis and thought of all the hell he had caused him and Julie, how he deserved to lay in that bed and die there all alone.
Julie, at twenty, was ten years younger than Robbie, loyal and bright eyed. Her optimism was a quality that Robbie admired, and made him wonder how their father hadn’t stomped it out of her like everything good in her life.
“Robbie? Did you hear me? Are you still there? Please answer me.”
“Yes, I’m here, sorry.”
“So can we go see him?”
Robbie exhaled heavily.
“Julie, where are you calling me from? I don’t recognize the number.”
She was quiet for a second. It was a question he already knew the answer to.
“I’m at a friend’s place. Me and John didn’t work out. So...I’m just bouncing around until I can get on my feet.”
She was embarrassed. He could tell from her voice. Robbie was well aware that his sister’s life was riddled with men that were no better than their father. Why such a smart girl would subject herself to the ills of the world were beyond him.
“Look, I’ll leave work early. Catch a bus over to my apartment. I’ll get out of here as soon as I can.”
After the phone call ended, Robbie felt like a being that was somehow separate from himself. He had just found out that his father was deathly ill. His only concern was how long it would take for the bastard to die, for Julie’s sake. Other than that, he felt nothing.
Julie’s optimism and constant bright eyed demeanor were an anomaly to Robbie. It was like some divine intervention shielded her from the disastrous childhood that she had suffered. Robbie was numbed by the harsh path he was forced to walk down, while his sister somehow held on and kept to her faith. She was the closest thing to innocence that Robbie knew of in the world, as flawed as she was. Even as modern ills found weak spots into her life, he still saw light in her eyes.
Her desire for poisonous relationships bit her time and time again, and Robbie was forced to watch her continuously suck out the poison. It was almost as if he were a spectator. At the center of the side show was the oddity that he was indifferent yet sympathetic towards her as onlookers gasped and cheered. She could have been anything, she could have accomplished great things. Robbie was cursed with the awareness that their father had stolen away part of Julie’s spirit, indebting his son to forever watch out for her.
Robbie would call Debra, he decided. He would call her and inform her that something serious had come up in his family. He would be putting in his vacation time, but in his mind it was for the wrong reason. In his eyes, he was only doing this for the sister who so looked up to him, to leave work to visit the father he kept trying to convince himself he didn’t have.
Robbie had watched her get off the bus as he sat on his patio. Her hair seemed to shine golden in the street light, even though it was a mere light brown. For a second, Julie reminded him of an angel getting off the bus. A figure of higher power dressed in plain clothing.
Setting down her duffel bag on the couch, Robbie couldn’t help but notice her warm smile and bright eyes. She had a bedside manner that made her close in comparison to a Nurse Nightengale.
“Those will kill you, you know,” she remarked, twirling her finger around a strand of her hair.
She was referring to the cigarettes her brother was chain smoking.
“Why do you think I do it?” he asked, quite morbidly.
“You’re so demented, Robbie,” she said, plopping herself down on the ugly, overstuffed couch in front of her. She sat the duffel bag in her lap, which had belonged to their father during his time in Vietnam. It bothered Robbie that she kept such an artifact of his, even though it was for practical use. It was a kind of symbol of her unfortunate existence to him, the bag. She would never be able to settle down long enough to be comfortable. She would never have any sort of stability in her life.
“I’ve always been able to count on you,” Julie said.
Robbie dragged slowly from his cigarette and nodded.
“We’ve gotta have someone to rely on in this world, I guess.”
She seemed quite at relaxed to him. How she could be so content with a life lacking any and all stability was beyond him. Then of course, their father hadn’t exactly left her fragile mind with many options. Julie was sweet and her demeanor was warm and kind, but the inside of her mind and spirit were altered, scarred, weathered away like old statues exposed to all manner of elements. She was the equivalent to a shell shocked soldier with anxiety issues that made it next to impossible for Julie to keep a stable job or living situation for long. This is why she had to move around.
It made Robbie think of the last time she had hurt herself. How he had to end up paying for her treatment. Even as she sat smiling warmly on the shitty couch across from him, he knew there was debt in her heart for him that she would never repay, and her spot in his heart was one of many that drained him on a daily basis.
“How long you sticking around?” Robbie asked blankly.
She shifted as her face grew red, drawing out a fairly uncomfortable laugh.
She felt ashamed. Ashamed to have to live her life in a constant debt to her big brother. In constant debt to those who had the strength to live by their own means.
“I suppose just until we sort things out with Dad. We can see Dad, right?”
It would always be this way, he thought. Julie had no car and currently no job. It made Robbie wonder what kind of messiah everyone thought he must have been as so many people in his life depended on him.
“You can stay as long as you like,” he assured her. “I’m taking some vacation time. It seemed...necessary.”
Julie seemed relieved. She hadn’t seen Robbie in six months and felt happy to be in his company. Still, the illness of their father and his unknown status hung about her content state of mind like a thick fog.
“What else did the nurse say about him?” Robbie asked, as if reading Julie’s mind.
In truth he didn’t give a shit about whether the man was already choking out his last breath, but Julie cared. He could see it was something that needed to be discussed.
“I had to calm down a bit, but she finally told me its something with his lungs. She said he can barely breathe on his own and that he’s withering away to mere nothing.”
“Hmm,” Robbie added, not really caring one way or the other.
Julie’s bright eyes seemed to grow dim. Her demeanor grew less bright.
“You wish he would die, don’t you?” she asked, not wanting to look him in the eyes.
She stole a few glances at him.
Robbie smashed his cigarette into an ashtray.
“Yep,” he said, taking in a deep breath. “And frankly I don’t know why you care so much whether he lives or dies.”
“He’s our father.”
“Who was he a father to?”
Julie’s face grew red. A single tear streamed down her soft cheek.
“I’m gonna go wash up. It’s been a long day,” she said, abruptly getting up and walking off.
“You know where the bathroom is,” Robbie said to himself. “Make yourself at home, little sister.”
Here I am again, he thought. Always someone’s hero. Never living for myself, always living for someone else. Maybe this is how things was supposed to be. I’ve always had a torch in my hand guiding lost souls out of the dark.
He wondered when it would be time for someone to save him. He grew tired of being everyone’s personal Jesus as he crucified himself for others seemingly on a daily basis.
He went over to Julie’s duffel bag and ran his hand across the rough canvas material. It was Julie’s life in this bag, he thought to himself. It was rough just like the world she was forced to exist in.
As Robbie picked up the bag from the couch, the weight of the contents inside shifted awkwardly as somewhere inside the unmistakable sound of bottles of alcohol knocking together emitted.
Robbie winced and cursed lowly under his breath.
He thought she had given up drinking for good. He knew she was taking her medicine and now he knew she was mixing it with the poison their father nursed himself to sleep with. It was what landed her in the bathtub the last time she sliced her wrists.
“Maybe some people in this world are beyond being saved,” Robbie thought.
He set the duffel bag down on the couch as he ran his fingers through his coarse hair.
He winced as he heard the unmistakable sound of his sister starting the water in the same bathtub she had unzipped the veins of her arms in.
The trip should have only taken four hours at the most. Robbie had driven with Debra and the rest of the HR team down to their Tunica office more than once for field office seminars and training, so he knew the way well. Julie, who was prone to frequent bathroom breaks and the just as likely bulimia purging, could drag a trip out by at least an hour and a half. Robbie would have driven all the way to Bartlett without having to stop.
Julie (about a half hour into the trip) had taken to filling Robbie in on the nice people she had come to know and idealize as close companions over the past six months of her life. Robbie, who listened without much dialogue to offer in return, contemplated the things his sister said to him. He wondered how she could live hand to mouth and be comfortable doing so. It just didn’t seem like an appropriate way to live in his eyes.
“So, how’s life?” Julie asked.
Robbie took his eyes off the road momentarily to steal a glance at her, then lit a cigarette. The aroma immediately made Julie feel sick.
“It’s life, I guess. I stay at work most of the time.”
Julie twirled her hair as she tried to find something else to say.
“Do you ever think of, I don’t know...dating or getting married or anything?” she offered.
Robbie laughed and shook his head. He coughed slightly.
“I’m already married to my job.”
“You can’t just focus on work, Robbie. You have to take time to enjoy your life.”
Robbie had to stifle back a remark about his sister’s hand to mouth lifestyle and frequent unemployment. It would have been a low blow, he decided. An asshole thing to say. He didn’t want her to think he was a complete prick.
“Life’s not about enjoying things, little sister,” he said taking a long drag off his cigarette. “It’s about keeping the lights on.”
“Then what’s the point of living?” Julie asked.
She looked out the window for a long time, reflecting on her brother’s nihilistic approach to his existence. The endless road was spread out in front of them like an asphalt driveway leading to a home they were unfamiliar with.
“Do you remember when mom first got sick?” Julie asked.
Robbie looked over at her.
“Yeah, of course,” he replied.
“I was too young,” She said. “I can barely remember her even towards the end.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Robbie thought to himself.
“She told me towards the end, when the doctors were pretty much just making her comfortable, that I was the bright light in her eyes. That I needed to be strong,” Robbie said.
He took a final drag on his cigarette, casting the expired butt out into the world.
“She told me that I needed to be a lighthouse keeper. I needed to stand guard on the coast and keep you safe, to lead you back in when the storms took up waves in your life.”
Julie sighed and squeezed Robbie’s hand.
“You don’t have to stand watch for me, Robbie. You have to live your own life.”
He gave her a look that would make her heart beat in time with his own. He was a match that struck and burned down the home he once loved. He buried himself under the ashes on a daily basis and breathed in deeply as memories of a better time suffocated his lungs and cut like a knife into his reality.
She could see the pain in his eyes.
“I wish I could, Julie,” he said squeezing her hand. “I wish I could.”
She retracted her hand, ever so slowly. His sense of being a broken person made her soul ache. Their family that had once been happy were only negatives of a photograph exposed to the death of light, fading the images to black like they were vampiric in nature.
They reached a traffic jam around sundown just outside the city limits of Jackson. It was either due to rush hour or a wreck. Robbie could immediately identify the anxiety rising in his sister as the telltale signs of her nervous nail biting arose. It was a shadowed reminder of the self medication she had hidden away in her duffel bag.
“Must be a pretty bad wreck,” Robbie decided. He strained to look over the horizon to the stretch of endless road. “Can’t tell where the line of cars stop.”
“What are we going to do?” Julie asked, her voice full of tension.
“Don’t worry. We’ll take a detour and stay at a motel for the night.”
Robbie stared out at the endless line of cars like someone embarrassed about farting in church.
“What about dad?” Julie asked.
Robbie let out a short groan. “What about him? He isn’t going anywhere.”
“You really do hate him, don’t you.”
Robbie sighed heavily, then waited a while to respond. As if by habit, he lit another cigarette to accompany his speech.
“In the Bible, it says to honor thy mother and they father. It’s a good notion, I guess. But what about when there isn’t a mother anymore, and what’s left of the father is an empty shell?”
“Do you believe in god?” Julie asked.
She wasn’t quite sure what Robbie was trying to say. Her question was the best she could offer in her lack of comprehension to his parable.
“I don’t know what I believe.”
They both sat in silence in the traffic. It would be at least a half hour before Robbie could take the exit a fourth of a mile from their position. The sky was glowing red as the boiling ball of fire in the sky sank down into the earth. The hypnotic glow glinted off of the concrete.
“He wasn’t always bad, you know. Sometimes people just need a second chance,” Julie said.
“The way I see it, people have one shot to prove themselves in this world, little sister. Just one. They have to live with how they are.” Robbie replied.
The conversation didn’t reignite until after they finally arrived at their detouring exit forty five minutes later. It almost completely dark.
Robbie found himself in a shitty roach motel room just outside the city limits of Jackson on a bed with dried cum stuck to the unclean bedspread like long since dried airplane glue. The room stank of long since departed cigar smoke and the lingering yet very faint aroma of purchased sexual intercourse.
He thought, hoped, wished, laying on that bed in the run down motel right off the interstate. He dreamed of being disembodied and transmigrated to western soil, somewhere in California with a different feel to the air and a sunnier disposition. Still, his place as lighthouse keeper kept him rooted. The guard that watched from the lighthouse that fought the tide, trying time and time again to keep the drowning wreckage that was his sister from drifting too far out to sea.
He was a deer trapped, paralyzed by the shock of oncoming headlights to the thought of any existence outside the gray fog and binding chains of his own. He considered the other voices that haunted other rooms he had once been in like some sort of modern ghost, all existing in separate parallel lives along side of him as he drifted farther and farther into the void. His legacy was in his eyes, like carving desperately into the wood structures of long since abandoned building the words “I was here”. He wanted to prove he was alive in his particular plane of existence. He was a martyr unfazed by a messiah complex. An organism born to exist in stasis.
He laid on the lumpy mattress staring up blankly at the discolored ceiling above him, wondering about what was going on in his sister’s mind in the next room. He wondered how she was dealing with the decline of their father. If she was even coping with it all. If she had broken into the bottles she had hidden away so discretely in their father’s old army duffel bag.
He thought of the idea of life and how being born was a choice that others made for humans without their consent, and how the resulting offspring were forced to exist out in the world. He didn’t wish he had never been born, he just wished his father had never been born, or that he would have had the decency to swallow a bullet after the death of his wife. He could have spared his children more agony.
Hope. That’s what their father was forcing the ever faithful Julie to embrace. Hope that their dying father would pull through and they would all suddenly be a family again. It was grasping at barbs. He retched the idea from his mind like bile forced from an upset stomach to the dirt.
“How can you call yourself my fucking father?” Robbie thought to himself.
“How could you do this to your children? All we wanted was for you to love us. To want us. You fucked up. You fucked everything up.”
He abruptly rolled over on his side and looked at an aged and yellowed take out menu, seeing the words but processing nothing on the dust covered piece of paper. He was still deep in his mind. His body was separated from his brain.
His contemplative and deeply cognitive state of thought was comparable to a new corpse drug from the sour smelling bowels of the rotting earth. The smoke of the acrid body set ablaze jerked tears from the prying eyes of his consciousness and memory. Reality was the bastard, the cold bastard that simply was; it was a state of existence that could not be denied. He would bake in the blood red clay of the Tennessee soil forever, absorbing the endless existences of generations of failed fathers before him.
Robbie ended his train of thought by rolling over and turning on the outdated television. It was all he could do to drown out the tireless voices echoing in the unsurfaced districts of his mind.
He had been dead at least two, possibly three hours by the time Robbie was able to get Julie calmed down enough to look at their father on the steel gurney. A rather large black orderly had to get backup just to restrain the mere 120 pound girl. It took three men to get the sedative into her veins.
“So this is what’s left of you,” Robbie thought. “I wonder if we ever crossed your mind before the end.”
Hershel Gabriel Walker had died choking on fluid in his lungs. Lungs which were riddled and eaten up by tumors. The doctors said by the end he had less than twenty percent function left in his right lung. The other had been surgically removed after it collapsed and shriveled up like a prune.
He was barely recognizable, like a desiccated mummy rather than the father he and his sister once knew. To Robbie, he appeared more like a starved, prepubescent prison camp refugee. The sight of the still figure with tubes and IV’s running up and down the emaciated corpse left Robbie with a cold indifference. The data bottle-necked in his traffic jammed mind.
The next month or so seemed like a blur. Like everything around him was moving too fast, or as if everyone were operating at normal speed and he was slowed down like November molasses. The funeral. The endless pats on the back from distant family members and coworkers. How could their condolences ever count? They were only social formalities at best. Behind their masks of obligation was a barrage of indifference and meaningless cognitive output.
After Julie Margaret Walker hung herself on the early morning of November 14th, Robbie decided that the life he had been living up until then was best left behind. The crashing waves had sank every ship he was charged with watching over and he was tired. It was an exhaustion that rest would not fix, only getting away would fix the ache of complacency that had plagued him for so many years of his life.
Adjusting to his new life on foreign soil felt unusual. The release of a fresh start in a place where no one knew his name felt alien. He wanted to feel bad for leaving everything behind, he really did. Whenever he would feel some sense of guilt boiling up into the recesses of his mind he would remind himself that living life was done on individual terms, and sooner or later everything you love you leave behind.
On evenings when Robbie would return to his new home in Santa Rosa, California, he would take his time to think of these things while the sun sank into the horizon with that same radioactive red-orange glow that hid behind the line of trees, illuminating them in a fluorescent haze of abnormality.
He would sit for a long time on those cool, sea sprayed evenings until there were barely any fiery backlight to the outline of the ghostly figures. His eyes would stay stuck to them as if he had been turned to stone. You have to burn down everything you have to really live sometimes, whether it was you that started the fire or not.
Everything you love will be taken away.
It’s a right of passage that comes with a price.
#Unreal #AltLit #Tragedy #Alcoholism #Family #KeepTheLightSon #NewLife #Fiction
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