This story is by Justin Neff and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The line of approaching headlights scraped across Jared’s face, deepening the creases that stretched across his forehead and rippled from his pursed lips. He squinted against the light and lowered his eyes. Each car seemed to have its high beams on these days. He’d meant to tell his doctor about his new found sensitivity to light. Sensitivity to everything. Instead, he’d not made an appointment. Not remembering when he’d changed the station to jazz, he tapped the bottom of the steering wheel with his thumb in delayed rhythm to the trumpet that bleated through the radio. When the line of cars broke, Jared turned into the apartment complex. Despite slowing to nearly a stop, the bag of bottles on the passenger seat clattered as the car bounced over three mountainous speed bumps.
The holiday weekend gave him his choice of parking spots. Though it was a longer walk to his unit, he parked next to the dumpsters and under the ugly, yet effective mesquite tree. Save for a sliver of time just after sunrise, the spot was shaded all day. He’d yet to get a sun visor for his car, and though it was December, his steering wheel still softened beneath the relentless desert sky. It wasn’t quite the lottery, but neighbors who rarely nodded to each other otherwise, argued if seniority should play a role in who got to park there.
He grabbed the plastic bag from the front seat and the paper bag from the floor. A burrito and chips from Chipotle. It had been the same dinner last night, and lunch the day before. It wasn’t fast food, he justified, but it was certainly not a salad. The seat belt had certainly pressed against his belly with a bit more force in the last few weeks. New Years Resolution, thought Jared. Fit and trim. Present and accountable. Onward and upward. No sense doing anything about it now. That’s what January is for. To cleanse. December is the sin before the confession. To start self-betterment in December is borderline unAmerican.
Each step on the outdoor switchback stairs to his third floor apartment seemed steeper than the last. His breathing labored, and though he didn’t stop, he swung wide on the landings to give his legs time to recover. A thin layer of perspiration built along his hairline. He imagined a heart attack there on the steps. Falling and breaking his neck. Dying. The Chipotle bag ripping and burrito ingredients spilling over his body. What a sight. What an unfortunate sight…for everyone. What would they, the anonymous they he never met, never made meaningful eye contact with, what would they say when they found the body? That guy, man, that guy loved Chipotle and knew how to find a parking spot. Would he be cremated here, all alone, or would his body fly home so he could become ash with family at his side? He preferred that. For as much as dying alone didn’t bother him, he didn’t want to be cremated alone.
The sharp smell of citrus cleaning solution hit his nose before the door was three inches open. It was so strong his appetite almost disappeared. Last week he’d asked Juanita, the nice woman he hired off Craigslist to clean his apartment to lighten up on the toxins; he wasn’t fighting the plague. She’d smiled and nodded and nodded some more and likely didn’t understand a single word he said. The conversation ended with both of them giving over anxious thumbs up. He’d left an extra twenty dollars in her envelope for the holiday, and a small part of him was offended there wasn’t a note on the counter thanking him profusely for the large and generous gesture.
It took some searching to find a non holiday show to watch, especially being limited to basic cable and hating sports. He’d purposefully not gotten the internet, so Netflix and Hulu and all the rest were not an option. He’d also removed himself from Facebook and Instagram, and only checked his work email between the strict hours of 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. The smartest thing his flip-phone could do was make a phone call. He was one of the few dependent on the mail. So far he’d gotten six Christmas cards. Well, two Christmas cards, three Happy Holiday cards, and one difficult to define card from his cousin about the hypocrisy of the holiday. Despite his zealousness, his cousin was a fabulous artist and created a haunting rendition of Santa hanging on the cross and Jesus jumping in his sled. Using two nails and some twine, Jared displayed them on the wall behind the television, even the quasi-anarchist one.
Without tasting the salsa and chicken, he ate and smiled along to Cheers. Not because it was funny. In fact, the eighties’ datedness depressed him. And the song. The song made him want to cry. But he smiled anyway. It used to annoy Beth that he’d smile at the television, even when there was nothing funny on. It cheapens the real thing, she’d say. Less smiles. Got it, he’d respond. Then they’d fight. And then and then and then.
His belly full, Jared turned off the television and stood, stretching his back from side to side. He pulled the Beluga vodka, a hundred dollar gift to himself, from the plastic bag and admired the bottle’s weight in his hand. Four ice cubes in a glass and he filled it to an inch from the top. The cubes clanged soullessly against the sides of the glass and he walked to the window. Through the blinds, he admired the Christmas lights that drooped off every second or third balcony. The palm trees around the pool were tightly wrapped with white lights and he chuckled inside at the odd truth that Bing Crosby had written White Christmas right here in Phoenix, sitting at a resort not five miles from his apartment. He hummed the tune and took a long, greedy sip. It singed his throat, but he felt an immediate surge of relaxation his body no longer provided naturally. He took a smaller sip and pulled his phone from his pocket.
His mother picked up on the second ring. She told him she was tired, but sounded ready to pounce. She scolded him for not calling earlier. The time difference. It’s two hours. She always brought up the time difference. As though he’d forgotten.
“We’ll miss you on Tuesday. Both of you,” she said after a pause in the one-sided conversation. “It won’t be the same.”
“That’s the point,” he responded, the evaporating vodka sweet on his top lip.
He heard her head shaking through the phone.
“Oh, stop with that. This whole martyrdom act is quite tiresome, Jared,” she said. “Some see it as running away.”
“Is that how you see it?” he asked quickly, keeping his voice emotionless. He lowered his forehead into the cradle of his thumb and middle finger and massaged his temples. To ask such an open-ended question, he cursed himself.
“We all grieve differently,” she said with forced patience. “I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way. But, take this how you will, there’s a time to move on. I miss her as much as anyone. You didn’t need to move across the country to prove you miss her the most.”
“I don’t want to have this conversation again, Mom. I’m tired.”
“And drunk,” she said.
Jared lifted his glass and watched the shrinking ice cubes float and bob aimlessly atop the surface. “Not quite,” he said. He fell back into the couch and put his left heel on the coffee table. He moved the phone away from his ear and gnawed against his bottom lip.
“Not tonight, but one way or another, you need to figure out how to stop with this guilt,” she said. “Beth was a beautiful soul. I loved her like a daughter. But she had demons, Jared. She had problems. You know that better than anyone. Holing yourself away is no way to honor her life.”
The memory of their last night together flooded his mind. Her tears. Her pleas for help. The desperation in her already intoxicated voice. His heavy, booted feet on the steps as he went upstairs. The glow of the computer as he logged into her life insurance policy account to ensure he was still the beneficiary. His offering her the bottle of pills and telling her it was the only way. Make it look like an accident. He left, not sure if she’d go through with it. Her warm, lifeless body in their bed when he got back. A dried trail of drool down her pale cheek. The purposeful stoicism for the police and her family and his family. Only a few tears; no need to oversell it.
“I’m tired,” he said, the smile on his face real. “I’ll call on Christmas.”