The Reality of Fantasy
In the wee hours of that cool Friday morning, before the aroma of breakfast meats wafted through the courtyard below, before the neighbor children ran outside to make the most of the long summer days, before the sun finished blooming over the narrow side street where an old, not quite dilapidated apartment complex loomed, one resident was wide awake, engaged in one of a million weekly rituals he kept to keep himself on the inner edge of sanity.
Jim was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in an unlit corner of his bedroom, counting out the day's dosage of sweet, blissful little pills in his already shaking hands when his old cordless telephone jangled loudly in the soft silence. "Shit!" He jumped and pills went flying everywhere. Jim scrambled after them to the well dusted hiding space under the bed, cursing the early morning caller all the while. He got his fingers on one of the precious little blue and white pearls the when his answering machine finally connected the call. A heavy, damp breath came on the line, puffing wetly into the telephone, and Jim found himself straining to listen.
Finally, a deep baritone, wet and heavy as the accompanying breath, rumbled slowly into the phone. "Hello?" Jim shuddered at the sound of wet lips smacking together as the caller breathed heavily down the line. "Is anyone... there?" A few more wet panting breaths, and then the call was disconnected.
Jim returned his attention to gathering his scattered pills, and tried to resume his count. The phone jangled again. "Fuck!" He'd managed to hang onto most of the pills in his hands this time, and dumped them back in their bottle for safe keeping, intending to snatch the phone and give the fucker on the other end of the line a piece of his fucking mind. Once again, though, the answering machine picked up before he could get his hand on the receiver, and the same awful wet breathing came whistling down the line.
"Must be... too early. It just... stops ringing," the deep, wet voice was saying. Jim's hand paused above the receiver, and he hovered, intrigued. Another voice could be heard in the background, not clearly enough for Jim to understand the response, but just loud enough for him to know there was a response. "Oh," came the same slow, wet baritone. "Uh, I'm looking... for Jimmy Kirk." Jim's eyebrows went up at that - he hadn't been called Jimmy in all seriousness since enrolling in grad school. "This..." The soggy breath dissolved into a coughing fit, and Jim fought down a gag. "Excuse me, sorry about that. This is David Marcus."
Okay. Shit was getting beyond weird. For close to ten years, nothing, and now he's been poked and pestered three times in a damn week? Technically speaking, it was only twice that he'd actually been contacted, but the lady's presence in the library had poked Jim, even if she never opened her mouth to speak.
The heavy breathing went on for several more moments, before David Marcus seemed to recall that he was leaving a message on an answering machine. "Jimmy, I need... you to call me back." More hacking, more gagging on Jim's part. He was tempted to soak the machine in bleach once the phone call was over. "I have something important to discuss... It's to do with your future." Jim frowned at that. David Marcus couldn't have one single fucking thing to do with his future - his daughter made damn sure of that. "Something I want to pass to you, while I still can. Call me back." David rattled his phone number off a couple of times before disconnecting with another series of hacking coughs.
Jim promptly erased the message without even trying to go back for the man's phone number and then went back to his pills to resume his counting. He was sticking with Leonard's advice: he didn't want to touch anything related to Carol with a ten foot pole. Especially if the relation was a dude with a cough that fucking disgusting. Probably virulent as all shit. Besides, Jim had his own health issues to deal with. The sweat beading in the small of his back and the burning in his gut told him he was well past time for his next dosage.
In the middle of the living room sat an old wooden coffee table, only fairly recently dusted and polished. In the middle of the coffee table sat a mug. Inside the mug was a concoction of yesterday's cold black coffee and a couple of packets of Swiss Miss Cocoa the kind with the little styrofoam-esque marshmallow pebbles. Next to the mug was a pair of little blue and white tablets, a cigarette lighter, a pack of American Spirits, and the house keys. Jim sat on a barstool with his back to the kitchenette, staring at the coffee table that was just too far to reach with his toes. The distance was necessary - he was contemplating whether or not he should chug the poorman's mocha with one or both Oxys.
Taking one would stall the forthcoming shakes, dry the sweat pooling in the small of his back, and slow the churning in his stomach. It wouldn't distract him from hot and cool memories of Carol Marcus, though.
Taking two would shut down his over active imagination, soothe the emotional distress of curiosity about people he thought he'd left long behind, and make everything feel a lot smoother. It would probably make driving to work a little awkward, though.
Stop worrying about the Marcus clan, don't get arrested for DUI, stop worrying about the Marcus clan, don't get arrested for DUI. Decisions, decisions.
Taking one would mean dialing back on the tolerance, and just when the hell did it start getting so high again? Taking two would mean getting something more than 'meh' out of the experience. Taking one was cheaper. Taking two was more fun. Taking one was the responsible answer. Yes.
Jim slid off the barstool, took one step towards the coffee table and reached out to snatch both pills in one hand. He slammed them in his mouth and gulped down the disgusting drink before the other foot touched the floor.
Okay. So much for responsibility.
The jittery feeling disappeared almost immediately, though he still felt like his gut was full of dirty seawater, sloshy and briny inside, tight and high on the outside. Maybe he shouldn't have gone for the coffee. Whatever. He plopped down on the sofa, lit a cigarette, and waited for the high to peak and the nausea to settle, reaching out to swipe a fingertip through the non-existent film of dust on the old tabletop.
Once the buzz dulled down enough for him to feel capable of operating heavy machinery, Jim grabbed his things, locked up his apartment and floated down the stairs to the lower level. Children splashed in the swimming pool tucked away towards the back of the property, and the mothers unfortunate enough to be saddled with the housewifery duty of watching the neighbor's kids eyed Jim warily as he glided towards the back gate which opened onto the reserved parking lot.
Among the tired but slightly newer station wagons and minivans, she stood, gleaming in the sunlight. Well, gleaming as much as she could with birdshit and weird seedlings and road dust sticking to her windows and metal panels. But she was a beauty, his beloved, his precious, his freedom. An old, early model Toyota Tercel, a gift to himself at the tender age of seventeen, when her tires were worn smooth and her transmission was a rusted hulk that didn't know reverse from the moon in the sky. He'd pasted her together with spit and love, and would sooner burn his apartment to the ground than be parted from her. "Good morning, Enterprise." The ridiculous clown head fast-food mascot antennae topper swayed in the breeze; hello to you too, Jim, it seemed to say.
Jim crossed the gravel lot and put his hand on her hood. It was hot to the touch, uncomfortably so, but he refused to jerk his hand away from her, ever. Instead, he wiped her down with his bare palm as best he could, even the birdshit, clucking soothingly as the debris scraped over her shiny white paint job, bounced off her rubber bumpers, and rolled down to the ground at his feet. He sauntered over to the waterhose, turned it up full blast, and hosed her down before rinsing the crud off his own hands. It wasn't a proper washing, but it would have to do. He was going to be late for work as it was. "M'sorry, baby. Tomorrow, okay?" He patted her single outside mirror affectionately, opened her door, and settled down inside. He put the key in the ignition, and she came to life with a roar, settled down to a soft, warm purr, and together they set off into the sunrise.
The stretch of highway that went through the Playa Del Rey Marshlands always had cars on it, but it was never as bad as this cold, gray morning. Jim frowned at the traffic jam on Culver Boulevard and gripped the steering wheel as if he expected it to jump out of the window and head for the hills. He craned his neck, trying to see if there was something blocking the road ahead a fenderbender, a fallen lightpole, a beached oil tanker, maybe a crashed alien starship... All he could make out was a sea of brake lights, as far as the eye could see and he was stuck in the center lane, about three car lengths past the last turn off for more than half a mile. "Well fuck."
Jim estimated that they'd moved three centimeters in ten minutes. It was ridiculous there was no one on the eastbound side of the street, while the entire nation seemed to be trying to launch itself into the Pacific Ocean via Culver. If he'd been in the left lane, he'd have made a u-turn and taken off down Lincoln, where he had a chance of reaching civilization again. But that was out he was stuck in the center lane, bracketed in on all sides by a bunch of corporate zombies. And just what the fuck did that make Jim, anyway?
They crept forward at less than a snail's pace as a single unit. Jim had half a mind to ram the mom-van on his left, but there was no way his little tiny sub-sub-compact car would be able to barge her out of the way. Besides, she was creeping past him, still super slow, but just quickly enough to give him hope that maaaaybe he could flag someone down to let him get around. Maybe.
The van had moved up a whole car length before Jim got pissed off enough to put Enterprise in park and get out of the car. He squeezed between the van and the German import that seemed to think that preventing Jim from walking in front of him would make all the traffic disappear. Jim smirked and stepped over the yellow lines that divided the six lane highway in half. He was right there was no one coming from Vista Del Mar. Culver was ridiculously clear, and he could see the reason. There was a fork in the road that took eastbound drivers onto Jefferson Boulevard, and there, just west of the fork, was a police checkpoint of some kind. It looked like they were checking drivers going both ways, and like they were diverting traffic onto Jefferson Blvd, rather than letting them move straight through on Culver.
Jim had only ever encountered two kinds of police checkpoints since moving northwest to the city of Los Angeles: driver's license checks, and sobriety checks. License checks took a while, but they didn't usually grind traffic to a complete halt. Sobriety checks usually meant stopping every. Single. Vehicle. to as ask the driver if he'd been an idiot before getting in the car.
Jim had definitely been an idiot.
He trotted back to his car, noted that the pickup truck in front of him had moved maybe a foot, while the German car was already moving past the pickup. Maybe they were moving people over in the left lane? Maybe all the people getting pulled over for violations were sitting on the right and there was more merging? Maybe he didn't give a fuck? Jim plopped down in his car, put her in gear, rolled down the window, and stuck his head out, to flag down the car coming up next in the left lane. He swung hard and punched the gas, holding his hand out as if that would erect a forcefield between himself and the car he was very elaborately cutting off. The woman driver slammed on her brakes and screamed obscenities at him, but he just waggled his fingertips in thanks (because, seriously, what the fuck could she do about it?) and pulled a tight u-turn back to Lincoln.
The trouble with going down Lincoln meant fighting with people trying to get from Venice and Santa Monica to the South Bay or Long Beach, or fighting with students and professors trying to get to Loyola Marymount or Otis, or fighting irritated bus commuters and panicked travelers trying to get to the airport or the train station. Or, you know, ALL of them. But the fight meant that they were moving. They were weaving back and forth amongst each other, nearly smashing into each other every block or so, jumping red lights, nearly skidding out of control on the bend just past LMU, and just being really terrible drivers. Jim snorted and turned off on a tiny side street, winding his way through the urban ghost town that lay dormant just behind LAX.
When he'd first been sent to Los Angeles, when Winona's favorite doctor was still alive and she was still capable of paying her own rent, Jim used to take the bus as close as he could to these same deserted streets. He'd meet Carol here, at first just to sit and watch the airplanes over head. As they grew older, and her mother grew meaner, and his became less connected with the world again, they began to bring bottles beer bottles, liquor bottles, over-the-counter pill bottles the bottles became more elaborate as their home lives became less bearable, until the bottles began to follow them both out of the deserted side streets.
Jim shifted uncomfortably and sped past the gated dirt mounds and weed sprouted streets. This was not supposed to be a trip down fucking Memory Lane. He was late for work, and that was the only reason to come down this fucking way. He didn't miss or want that life. He had control.
He chose to ignore the fact that the real reason he'd come this way was to avoid getting arrested for a DUI. He'd taken these sad streets because he was late for work, goddamnit.
Jim swung wide onto Pershing Drive and sped through the last miles of the deserted housing development, one eye cocked for speed traps, both hands on the shuddering steering wheel as he pushed the little white car to her limit. He skidded around the corner onto Imperial without looking, and slammed to a stop just inches from another car that was rolling up to the t-intersection. Jim grimaced and waved his apology to the irritated driver, and waited for him to recover and pass. He maneuvered into traffic more sedately, whispering a prayer of thanks that he hadn't taken a hit his cheap ass insurance wouldn't cover him if a box of feathers floated down on his car, much less if he'd broadsided a luxury sedan. A few other cars lined up behind and beside him, and waited patiently for the red arrow to glow green. The light changed, and Jim fell in line with the motorists who were slowly making their way down the coastline into downtown Manhattan Beach.