Essays & Short Stories

The Closest Exit May Be Behind You

A story in the friendly skies.

The white capsule plays dead on the terminal carpeting. So you pick it up and swallow it instead of telling the owner it dropped out of his pants pocket. It might be prescription heart medication. It could be a narcotic. Maybe a slow-release remedy for motion sickness brought on by unexpected turbulence. You don’t pause for inspection. You just pop it into your dry mouth and faked sleep.

The boarding process is complete, and you’re losing the buzz, and an unfamiliar song escapes the massive headphones in row 24, seat C. The tune bounces around the cabin, past your face, into the right ear of row 24, seat A. She stares a hole through your skull at the sound’s source.

The soundtrack continues on the ascent into the friendly skies and turns into a concert the moment seat C removes the cans to order a Sierra Mist from the purser. He tops off the tiny thirst-quencher with a clear liquid poured from a tiny flask he managed to sneak past airport security check.

You lean over from seat B to ask what’s inside the flask and he says grain alcohol and tips it towards your face. The spiked juice washes away the pill residue from the back of your throat and you don’t care if it doesn’t mix well with OJ because you don’t imbed for the taste.

Seat C smells familiar and you finally place it as the odor of your best friend’s house from childhood. You spent every day after school in front of his television, puffing pretzel rod cigars while reciting Inspector Gadget dialogue back to the television. The scent stuck inside your nostrils for decades, the only way to describe the musk is “if dentist office were a Yankee candle.”

The air vent above seat B isn’t blowing hard enough so you commandeer the blower above seat C and point it directly at your eyelids. He doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.

“Brain, Uncle Gadget needs our help” is a whisper in an awake but dozing state and you’re back inside Sam’s house and his mom has one hand over the phone mouthpiece and she’s announcing that mom will once again not be home in time for dinner and do you want to stay? Her smile saccharine and her culinary skills abysmal but you nod yes because you’d love nothing more than to eat with a family and join in a conversation. The breading always blacker than tar while the inside as frigid as every TV dinner in the freezer, honestly how does a person repeatedly fuck up fish sticks?

“Stop drooling on my arm, Brain” and you’re suddenly awake and it’s not dog drool but ethanol coating your forearms. Seat C offered one last slug from his flask, now a little less after your fidgeting arm knocked some airborne. You open-mouth the rest and hand it back to a vacant reaction similar to the air vent hijacking.

The lights go off inside the cabin, and dim inside your head, somewhere over Indiana. There are two fish sticks left on the plate and they taste repulsive but every last morsel will make it into your mouth for fear of never being invited back again. Every meal feels like an initiation into the Hood family but membership could be revoked with one uneaten and undercooked crescent roll.

Sam is piling on his second helping and he’ll have a massive heart attack at 42 and you’ll find out about it on Facebook from his wife who’ll for some reason continue to update his page with photos every few weeks. There isn’t a snapshot that doesn’t involve a plate of food close by. You forget to go to the funeral.

Sam’s sister takes careful bites of everything, chewing the required number of times to stay thin according to Seventeen but genetics will always win. Bags of wet sand suddenly get strapped to her hourglass figure. The extra weight also found its way to her chest and I struggle to not stare at her tits between each bite.

You daydream about her chest constantly, especially during confession, right when Father asks “do you have anything else to confess my son?” and there they are, grandiose under her sweatshirt, burned into your cognizance next to Mr. Hood’s work stories about the guy who somehow managed to afford a beach house on his salary and what the hell was he doing wrong and is everyone robbing the company blind?

His question and eyes fall on you and you’re luckily staring right back and not at the soot-colored crumbs on his daughter’s chest and you don’t know the correct answer — though it usually involves the god damn Japs — so you nod yes and he laughs and “they probably are stealing” and the conversation changes to Reagan.

Transcendental meditation has gifted you the ability to focus only on the feeling of the body and you’re mentally moving from appendage to appendage in search of a new sensation. Nothing. It was probably a fucking Tic Tac.

“If the menu says cheese tray” seat A is really laying into the steward now “there should be cheese trays available. You’ve only served twenty rows of people, did everyone buy cheese?”

You’re craving a narcotic cocktail from your own stash but it’s rolled inside three pairs of denim and tucked deep into your checked bag. You parted at Newark International Airport. Fellow passengers made last minute calls to work and texted family of their estimated time of arrival. You rubbed the coarse material from edge to edge and whispered: “we’ll meet again in Portland.”

As the plane touches down you’re already unbuckled and hanging off the edge of Seat B. The sea parts and you’re through, into the terminal, and seated in stall number 4 of 7. The door isn’t shut 30 seconds before it’s shaken violently from the applied force on the other side and “there’s someone in here!” but he pushes and pull intensifies accompanied by the question of “Is there a phone in there?” “IS THERE A PHONE IN THERE?!?” and his shoes are sticking inside the stall and they’re orthopedics and high tops because old people still play pickup hoops apparently and “NO THIS ISN’T A PHONE BOOTH!” you bark at the stupid question asked a third time.

The door is still. The bathroom is quiet except for one sink some idiot left running not realize it wasn’t hooked up to a sensor. You wipe, back to front, even though it’s supposedly the wrong way but you’ve been doing it like that since grade school because no one taught you better. Sam’s sister and her tits caught walked in on you one day, mid-wipe, knock off Z Cavaricci pants covering your sneakers and middle school dick swinging in the breeze. The embarrassment so monumental you considered joining the Army and never returning home.

Octogenarian LeBron is blocking the lane out of the stall. He switches from defense to offense, pushes past, and plants his feet firmly in front of the still swirling toilet. He swipes a cell phone off the top of the toilet dispenser, holds it inches from your nose, and “a phone. My phone!” He mutters moron and tries to squeeze by and wasn’t ready to be boxed out or get two hands to the chest and pushed back into the toilet. Flagrant foul.

He topples over, “son of a bitch!”, and you’re out the door and hoofing it to hastily grab everything you own in the world merry-go-rounding baggage carousel #11. Suitcase in the trunk, driver punching buttons on multiple dashboard displays, you’re rummaging through the book bag that accompanied you through high school and two catastrophic attempts at a college degree.

At the bottom of the bag, avalanched by your old man’s navy bomber jacket and a dog-eared copy of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City rests a white envelope marked “Get Baked Sale” in bold letters just to make yourself laugh. Inside is $5300 and two measly quarters because that’s also hilarious because the change belongs to you but the bills don’t and the driver asks louder “where to” and it’s a tough question to answer since there is no answer.

“The hotel with the nicest pool” and as the skyline gets closer you think about the house you grew up in. You drive by once in a while, usually when sober, because the only time you circled the house drunk you let yourself in the back window the new owners still haven’t fixed and fell asleep on the floor of your own bedroom.

The house is unwelcoming. The rooms are devoid of feeling. The comfort of the living room is absent and the fear of the basement isn’t as strong. You spent hours, sometimes days, alone in that house and memorized every dig in the wall paneling and pull in the dining room rug. You set a personal record for sleeping in a bath tub (11 hours) and wrote “save me! I’m stuck inside the wall!” in detergent on your mom’s bedroom walls. If the new owners ever shine a black light they’ll probably shit their pants.

The sound of the back door latch meant mom was about to walk in stop your juvenile displays of vandalism before she catches you in the act. You heard the latch unlock even in a dead sleep and dove out the window and into the soupy summer air.

“The cab driver said this place has the most popular pool in town,” you say to the desk clerk and she laughs and breaks the news that the hotel doesn’t have a pool.

“In that case, I want a room with no beds and four bath tubs.”

She smiles and offers a discount rate to make up for the rude cab driver. You thank her and she gets off at 11 am and there’s a bar across the street she agrees to meet at because she can’t hang out at the hotel when not on duty. She has a big smile that covers her slightly gaped teeth and a fantastic set of tits. You hope you’re sober enough to remember to not stand her up.

An entire wall blacked out window and the view of the massive city is humbling and a reminder of just how small you are to the rest of the world. Every window, passing car and pedestrian the protagonist in a novel you’ll never read.

“I’m in town. Just checked into the Sleepy Hollow hotel. Find me.”

You’re one of the only people left on planet earth under the age of 50 that still leaves voicemails. You like voicemails. You’ve still got the original cassettes from your mother’s home recorder. People keep personal journals to recall the past. You keep pocket-sized Panasonic tapes. You play the voicemails when you can’t sleep. Doctors offices, random solicitors, relatives long dead and other voices talk about appointment times, free vinyl siding and a cousin you’ve never met who landed back in rehab.

The street in front of the hotel is backed up in both directions with an accident. The irate driver of a Honda Pilot screams and points at the spot where his back bumper was bolted on when he left the house. He whips at the torso like a Japanese pellet drum from car to driver.

Head pressed against the glass, you ponder the momentum necessary to send your body through the sealed window and calculate the chances of survival. If only the place had a pool.

The bottom dresser drawer is big enough to hold your still-packed bag so you stuff it in tight and don’t bother to unpack. The remaining drawers are empty except for the phone book in the night stand drawer.

Sam spent hours going through the phone book, circling the stores he wanted to visit and putting a giant X across the places he’d already been. This killed the time in the years before every human carried a personal computer in their pocket. You knew how to pull him away from the mundane. He was always up for the arcade. He could be convinced to go swimming. One time, just once, you talked him into going to the mall even though it meant crossing the busiest highway in town on a bike. A car clipped his back tire and never again he swore and never again did he go unless it involves a car drop-off.

You rode bikes to the college at least once a week, hung around the student center and jammed quarters into the occasionally working pinball machines. Sam entered his initials for high score at the exact same moment you convinced an incoming freshman from Ohio that you too were a new student and how you got her to blow you in the wooded area behind the dining hall is hazy in your mind. You said you’d call and kept your word and her voice remains burned on a tape somewhere in the apartment you can probably never return to again.

The phone book is thinner now and you find a place close enough to walk to from the hotel and choose the stairs because the elevator opens up to the lobby and she’s still on the clock and small talk without a buzz is exhausting.

You have enough friends in the restaurant industry to know which foods to avoid in every type of establishment. You play it safe, order food that will move in any restaurant, and sip the second pale ale of the evening after chugging the first pint before the bartender has a chance to retreat.

The block wide yard sale was your favorite annual event. Every neighbor’s life displayed on rickety tables for the world to judge. She tried yoga. He spent two years attempting to brew his own beer. The woman across the street that has never said a word to another living soul displays boxes abundant with manuals detailing how to live off one can of navy beans for 11 months.

Sam intricately displayed his expansive toy collection in an effort to raise enough to buy a new PC before senior year. His profit was $11. You spent the rest of the afternoon, into the early evening, setting ablaze all the unsold Transformers. Megatron melted silently into the tall grass. Optimus Prime, in an act of survival, shot a random flame and scorched a patch of hair off your left leg.

Cobain died the next day and you were glad. You, Sam and his sister watched 24-hour coverage on MTV. His sister wept on and off for the entire afternoon, eventually just a Pavlovian reaction to the MTV News intro and the sound of Kurt Loder’s voice.

You marveled at the thousands of people huddled outside Cobain’s house, throwing themselves into the sobbing arms of another devastated fan. You were jealous of their ability to love another human, a human they’d never met, with such enormity. It was the only time you seriously considered suicide, just for the attention.

There was this article, you read it in a magazine waiting for mom to finish another double shift, about the way psychologists test people for psychopathic tendencies. There’s a funeral for your mother and a beautiful stranger comes to pay respects. You’re captivated by her beauty but don’t know who she is and can’t find her after the service. The question asks how you’d go about finding her again. Any answer is acceptable except one — you kill your father in the hopes the captivating stranger comes to the funeral. Only a psycho would do, or think such an idea.

You gave that exact answer.

You thought about that article on the morning of mom’s funeral. “Do you want the procession of cars to drive past the house before going to the cemetery?” the funeral director asked without taking his eyes off the paperwork laid across his immense desk.

You said yes even though Mom hated that house and worked overtime to save money to buy one bigger and better. You once found her vision board in the bottom drawer of the desk that belonged to your grandfather. Images of houses and….

The bar suddenly stinks of sweat. A company softball team is ordering half the menu and pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon. You ask #23 bumping into your stool if they won and he replies “office park champions” and you toast your pint against his and wonder if you’ll ever be so happy about an achievement so insignificant.

Even stone sober you’d be unable to find the light switch because you don’t know where you left it and drunkenly sliding a palm against the wall is proving fruitless. You stumble over to where you left the windows and slide the curtains to let in the moonlight.

The face in the desk chair is identical to yours but older and clean shaven.

“Where’s the rest of my money? There was only 5,300 in the envelope.”

“And two quarters,” replies the beers.

You’ve never had a gun pushed against your skull but you knew this trip would be filled with virgin experiences.

You got the psychology question wrong but you’re not a psychopath. You’re simply just a man who wants his father dead.

You realize the feeling is mutual.

Read more of my fiction work here.


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