Better Days Ahead
The light from out the one big window woke me up on my bed, fully clothed in my suit. In my dreams I had been with Selma. I had been at her house.
There was the familiar construction work going on in my head. A dry mouth. The type of morning where you want to rip everything off your body and conform to the shape of any sunlight that remains hitting your mattress, then open your mouth and breath through your open mouth.
Instead I sat up in my expensive suit and took a deep breath. I recovered with thoughts of my bank account and the vial of cocaine in my breast pocket. I scratched myself up and down. Everything was muted, which was normal, except I had my hearing aid still in. I pulled it out of my left ear. My right ear was completely blown, and could not be aided in such a way. The hearing aid was switched on. The battery was dead.
I was living in the attic of a house. It was sort of like a boarding house. I was the landlord. All of the tenants, save me, were addicted to opioids. I slept on a brass-framed bed in the middle of the attic, on top of a loose sheet and a pillow without a case. I didn’t care about things like that. All of my stuff was in boxes. I thought of maybe getting a bookshelf, a dresser, but the boxes seemed to match the room’s aesthetic qualities. I felt like a malevolent spirit inhabiting the house—it was more of a haunt than a home. I didn’t spend too much time there.
The third floor of the house, the one below the attic, held a bathroom and kitchen I shared with a man named Jeremy. I won’t contribute to the stereotype that drug addicts are unhygienic. Some there were cleanly. Not Jeremy, though. Fruit flies had taken over his space.
Jeremy was sleeping on the couch, flies buzzing around him like Pigpen in Peanuts. Or maybe he was dead.
Not using the kitchen, or the connected living area, where flies would coalesce on the cloth white drapes, was easy enough. The bathroom was more difficult. They coated the shower curtain. Dozens were on the mirror. When you lifted the lid to the toilet bowl they would fly out, as they had taken to gathering on one side of it. I had become too repulsed to open the medicine cabinet and so had discontinued shaving and flossing. Instead, I pushed an electric razor against my face in the attic, without looking at a mirror, and then I’d slather myself with Lubriderm afterwards.
I could have lived somewhere better. I was set for the rest of my life because of the sum of money my parents had willed to me. They had died when their car made its way off road and into the Delaware River. I had been in the backseat. It’s how my ears got blown out. We were approaching two years since.
“Jeremy,” I said, looking at his prone body. I could not hear how loudly or quietly I was speaking, making out little beside the vibration of my speech. I was standing away enough from Jeremy, at the spot where the floor changed from wood to tile, which demarcated kitchen and living room. It was also the farthest possible spot from the flies. It would have made me anxious—them buzzing in pockets on all sides, especially as I could not hear them, but I was energized with a sinus drip in my throat and an acrid taste pooling in the back of my mouth.
The living room appeared to me like some distant scene, wavering in heat—such was the life the flies had given it. There were flies on him, too and I threw something at him to make sure he wasn’t dead.
He didn’t pop up or anything, just opened his eyes. The flies jittered but were mostly still and he closed his eyes again. I rummaged around the kitchen for any booze but the only perishables were boxes of macaroni and cheese and some condiments in the refrigerator.
I walked across town in my nice suit. I smiled and reveled in the absurdity of my form in relation to the sidewalk pavement suburb. I smacked a popsicle out of a child’s hand and straight down onto the sidewalk and beamed at him—the little fucker. His silent face drooped up at me. In my ears there was only a little ringing noise.
I was sleeping with this woman, Selma, who was much older than me, my best friend from high school’s mother. Irish looking. I liked the way the lines moved on her face when she smiled and laughed. She was chipper because of this idea of hers that everything around her was not, in fact, tilted or intrinsically fucked.
I stood in her house, where the staircase leading up from the basement made a triangular wall. On the wall were a few framed stock photos of nature that were calming to look at. A waterfall, which also had a bible verse on it. A canyon. A mountain. The open plains. Their purpose was mostly aesthetic as they made a poor substitute for television.
I hadn’t noticed Selma walk up but I wasn’t riled. She smiled at me and I back. She placed a little metal disk in my hand, which I made haste to replace with the one in my hearing aid. The sound came back just like a TV unmuted.
“Old watch battery,” she said, motioning to a watchless arm for some reason.
“Thank God you still wear a watch,” I said. I turned back to the pictures on the wall as if my regained hearing would somehow affect my intake of them.
“I got those at Marshalls,” Selma said to me.
“I fucking love Marshalls,” I said, and I meant it. I leaned in. We kissed. It was a nice moment. Then she walked back to the washer dryer at the far end of the basement and I noticed her ass in her pants.
There was a desire to communicate the horror I had experienced trying to get around that day, even though it was actually fine. It just seemed like the sort of thing a normal, more adjusted person might say. It might have earned me some sympathy points—humanized me. Anyway, I wasn’t feeling articulate enough to express it.
Her son Craig and I were still friends. Craig still lived at home at age 23. He was under the spiritual tutelage of his new girlfriend, Rhonda. She didn’t seem to be anything specific, just a pot of New Age gobbledygook. Rhonda was the rebelling hippyish byproduct of an overly religious household. Her ideas were increasingly esoteric—increasingly off-putting and weird. Craig thought himself a lost soul, and some new thought on his own spirituality, was sorely needed. It needed to be something farther removed from himself than Catholicism or the like. It’s humiliating for a lapsed Catholic to come back to Christ, tail between their legs. He was growing out his beard because it seemed like the thing to do.
Selma’s daughter and Craig’s half-sister, Megan, ran down the stairs and beelined for her mother. She bumped into me along the way, looked up at me with blank eyes. I tried to smile at her but it didn’t come out right. Then she ran. I always thought the child hated me and could never shake the notion from my head.
Craig was to my left, sitting on a couch at the other end of the basement, watching the television show where they prank people. There was also a loveseat around the TV and sitting there was a teenager named Billy. I can’t remember how we met him the first time. For some reason he never wore a shirt. We kept him around because there was something off about him, like he was really seriously mentally ill or however people refer to those things. The sound of his skin peeling off the leather every time he got up is lodged in my mind.
Some time later that day, we had been smoking marijuana around the television. Me and Craig were on the couch, with Billy on the loveseat as usual. Craig’s girlfriend Rhonda was positioned above us, perched on the arm of Billy’s loveseat, sharing with us her most recent writings on spiritual matters. I listened with my left ear.
“It could be construed that the infamous legend surrounding Robert Johnson, an icon of the early 20th Century Delta blues movement, can be read on a less supernatural level. By selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads for mastery of the guitar, he turned his back on God and, by extension, everything God represents: family, ascetic cleanliness, even happiness itself.”
“Could it not be said that any producing artist turns his back on God? Anyone giving themselves to their craft is not giving themselves to God, but in fact feeding at the crossroads of Death and Doubt.”
She had blue hair and smoked those cigarettes with the mentholated beads you can crush in the filter. It was easy to see how she had led Craig to question his spiritual path, to seek out a new dharma. For me, it was easy to tell that she was insane, in a consistent state of instability.
It would be a lie to say that communication between me and Craig hadn’t become labored. There was always the fact that I was having sex with his mother hanging there. Craig would trade only monosyllables for earnest attempts at conversation, and bury his head further into whatever New Age pamphlet Rhonda had put in front of him.
It could have been finding God, but really it was just his nature not to tell me off, to just let things linger. He was too nice, too depressed, and too stupid to have any lick of non-passive aggression at his disposal.
“So, what, Rhonda,” I asked her, a bit heated. “Are we supposed to just sit around in mindful gratitude of our own existence? Are we allowed to make anything?”
“We’re allowed to do anything,” Rhonda said, “don’t you believe you have free will?”
“Yes, but don’t you think your writings fall under the purview of what you were just talking about?”
She looked at me blankly, shifting around in the shawl that hung over her shoulders and enveloped the section of the couch that she occupied.
“That’s interesting,” she said. “They’re just some thoughts I’m writing down. I’m not penning some dogma.”
“He’s just being a cunt,” Craig said without looking up from his Thich Nhat Hanh. “He’s not actually trying to engage with you.”
“Oh,” she said. She focused her vision on the TV set in the corner that Billy was looking at. I did, too.
I couldn’t be with my Selma, because her husband Karl was home, and they were now both in their marital bed.
To say I hated him was moot. He was unilaterally despised by everyone around him, not that it affected him any, not that he cared to notice. He had a build and gait that made him appear racist at passive repose. The clothes he wore didn’t help either, nor his square red face. He’d look you in the eyes like you were game he had been tracking. The guy probably had a Bowie knife hidden on his body at all times. I hadn’t been inside of a gym since high school.
What I possessed was of more value. Or rather, what I had was of value. The only thing of objective value. I tried to put it into my eyes when we made eye contact—that he was less than me.
“Money,” I said. “You know I have money.” I was pleading before Selma. I wanted to really be with her, to support her, if she were to have me. To help take care of her little daughter, even, I said to her. To have a real, solidified place in her home.
“You don’t have anything here for me,” she said, pushing an index finger into my chest. Her long fake nail hurt my skin.
“You hate children, Jonathan,” she said.
“How do you know that,” I asked.
“Your vibe, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s obvious.”
“Yours is alright,” I said.
“Angela.” She gave me an exhausted look.
“I know her name,” I said.
When Karl returned early from work at his landscaping company, I made my way into the closet—nude. And Selma was naked in bed too. I looked into the bedroom from the slats of the closet door, sandwiched between the door and some sweaters.
The door to the bathroom was open. He was invisible around the bend, but the sound of his piss stream was very audible from the bedroom closet. Selma sat straight up, looking at me absentmindedly. She seemed calm. Not anxious. Maybe she wasn’t looking at me at all.
“I’ve got to run to CVS,” he said in monotone, coming out of the bathroom and tightening his belt, “I forgot to on the drive home.”
“Okay,” she said. He leaned down and they kissed. He didn’t say anything about the fact that she was naked. Probably didn’t even notice.
I had shown up at the house a few days or maybe weeks earlier but no one was home besides Karl. I always showed up without notice. He said Craig and Rhonda volunteered somewhere this day of the week—that they’d be back soon. I didn’t know what day of the week it was.
Karl was whittling. He didn’t know I was sleeping with Selma.
He asked me, in so many words, what I thought of Craig’s recent spiritual developments. His face, curved in disgust, said a lot too.
“Whatever makes him happy, I guess,” I said.
Karl grunted, not even looking up.
I had my own wariness, my own reservations, about Craig’s inner journey, though they were different from Karl’s. It seemed to me they were built on the fetishism of something he was wholly unfamiliar with and had no personal attachment to. It seemed less like a stab at enlightenment and more like some pathetic attempt at escape from a static and drug-addled suburban life.
Maybe, also, he thought it would bring him closer to Rhonda, or help him understand her more. It wouldn’t do either of those things.
I had exited the closet and begun to dress.
“You’re so young, you know. You’re mixed up. Like Craig only much worse.”
Selma was smiling at me. Smiling and talking and looking at me in the eye, moving her head to try and catch my darting glances. I couldn’t look at her head on.
“Craig said, about your parents. Awful, awful. But you know that, don’t you? You’re so smart you think you can come back here and play dumb and fool us, huh?”
There was nothing to look at but the ceiling and the door. I felt cold as I was naked, save my briefs.
“Someone in your position is liable to destroy his spirit. You’re a child, Jonathan.”
I put on my suit pants one leg at a time.
Most days spent at the boarding house I simply sat or lied down or paced inside. Sometimes I would have Jeremy drive me ten or twenty blocks to meet my dealer. Sometimes I would do coke with Jeremy. Sometimes I would do it by myself.
I rocked in my bed in the attic and thought of all the money lying unspent, nearly salivating. I subsisted up there on a hot plate. Rice and beans. Ramen. Macaroni and cheese. I drank boxed wine from a plastic thermos with a plastic straw.
All of my expenses were covered by what I managed to collect from the tenants.
The moment would come to me to spend my money. I imagined what it might be in titillating detail—every image and idea heightened by the cocaine. Prostitutes. Stockpiles of drugs and alcohol. A brand new car. High-up hotel rooms or a house that I’d bought in the middle of nowhere. And I imagined these things in tandem with each other as well.
Karl dangled his knife in front of me, holding the edge of the handle with his thumb and pointer finger a few inches from my face. I was pinned against the white siding of the boarding house by the threat of Karl’s knife.
“I’ve got an inkling of something,” he said. He didn’t necessarily seem angry, as his voice always had the same tone.
“I don’t want to know more. I don’t want to see anything. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir” I said.
“Don’t be smart,” he said. “I don’t want to see your face anymore, okay college boy?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I get it.”
He holstered his knife and I turned so I could make my way into the building. I was sweating everywhere. Karl didn’t move.
“You little Young Republican-looking motherfucker.” His voice had a different tone now.
I turned only my eyes to meet his angry, red face. Karl punched me in the left side of my head, knocking me, almost pressing me, into the outer wall of the house. Immediately there was a loud ringing. Then there was nothing. I was crouched on the ground, away from Karl. The throbbing pain in my ear was immense, probably elevated by my fear. I didn’t dare touch it, though my hand hovered, shaking, near my head.
Something knocked against the building and I turned back. Jeremy was clinging to Karl like a spider monkey. Karl was shaking, trying to get him off. I could see they were both yelling, making a lot of noise. Then I could hear them again, but I couldn’t say how loud they were being, as the ringing had come back even louder than they were.
It’s hard to say at what point of the night or two before, doing coke with Jeremy and drinking vodka from the bottle—trying to not think about things or the ringing— that the idea had come to me.
I went to the bank with a laundry bag.
I walked back to the boarding house with a big bag of money, a sack—if you will. It was slung over the shoulder of my nice suit. There was that kid again.
“Get out of the way!” And I kicked him. He got out of the way all right. He squirmed towards the bushes bordering a house’s lawn as I neared. I tipped the bag and shook out some money onto him.
“Wow, thanks man,” he said, though his mouth didn’t move and his eyes were that of a kicked dog.
When I got back to the boarding house Jeremy was gone but he had left his keys on his coffee table. I left a more than fair amount of money for him.
I shoved the sack into the back of Jeremy’s car.
I pulled up to Selma’s house in Jeremy’s car, one wheel on the curb. I hadn’t driven a car in years. I rammed on the horn a couple times—barely audible to me over the inundating ringing—and got out. I positioned myself in front of the car like a floor show model. Then I put the backseat window down, imagining the cash from the bag leaning against it would flutter out. When it didn’t, I pulled a bunch out and threw it up in the air myself, all the while screaming for Selma to come down. This was her last chance to come away with me—things to that effect, which I yelled over a swell only I could hear.
I don’t know how much time passed. They were all standing out there on the lawn, even Karl. Craig with his in-progress beard. Rhonda in a shawl. Billy shirtless, as usual. Selma stood there with her child, whose name I admittedly couldn’t think of. They all stood, warily, some heads cocked. All with a tired look in their eyes.
I would have to go someplace else.
RJC Smith is a fiction writer and poet from New Jersey. He has work published or forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, (mac)ro(mic), Misery Tourism and Post Road. He lives in New York.