Empty vessel, sinking ship

Chapter one: Crosstown traffic

“Gina, I need your advice.”

Hank stared into his bowl of cereal with a cavernous gaze. From his hanging lips, the words leapt into the milk like drunk paratroopers.

“Give it to me straight, bubs.”

“I’m in love with my boss. What should I do?”

Gina turned off the faucet and slid the last plate in place to be washed. Her golden brown hair fell across her face. She searched for his downcast eyes.

“Well, you have two options: Give it a shot, ask her out, and risk getting fired or let it sit and eat away at you.”

The pieces of once-dried strawberries floated lazily as Hank stirred them with his spoon. He took a swift stab at one and mashed it at the bottom, twisting it into submission. The milk turned a shade pinker.

“Anyway, I thought you had a crush on me.”

“I do. I always have. But you and I both know that’d never work. You couldn’t love me if your life depended upon it, and I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Stress my ass. That was three years ago.”

He leaned back on the barstool and cracked a few vertebrae. Sitting in my recliner next door in the apartment complex, I cringed at the sound.

“I know. And it still feels like yesterday.”

“Oh, cut the cliches. Get over it: The past is past.”

“Cut the cliches? Speak for yourself.”

The brakes of a school bus creaked through the open sliding door. Light, pattering footsteps and the sound of a hydraulic whoosh spilled in.

“I just don’t want to wait for love anymore. It’s time I did something about it.”

Gina sighed and grabbed her keys off the hook.

“Follow your instincts, Hank. If it’s meant to be, then it’s meant to be. Just don’t come home crying if it doesn’t work out.”

She adjusted her collar in the reflection of the glass covering a photo of last year’s Christmas party and started for the door.

“See you after five.”

Accidently flipping off the lights on her way out, Gina left Hank in the streams of natural light just breaking through iron-willed clouds and seeping into the apartment. As the latch clicked, he went to draw the shades the rest of the way.

He then followed the warmth to the still-damp deck.

The cast-iron railing sent a chill through his hands upon clenching it. For a moment, he felt like the captain of some ancient schooner off the shore of New England. But then an early autumn leaf falling slowly caught his attention, and the ocean receded from view.

“You’ve always been a dreamer,” he thought to himself.

Across the street, a steely blue sedan pulled up to the curb. A dusty blond twentysomething in dress shirt and slacks stepped out and waited on the shoulder of the road. The lavender streak that was Gina’s car passed by with the windows rolled down and Hendrix blaring.

Through the railing’s bars, Hank caught Rosie, whom he had met a few days previous from down the hall, walking out to meet the man, who was wiping from his shoulders the dust that had settled, whipped up a few seconds previous by Gina’s breakneck drive to work.

As if from the perspective of an Edward Hopper painting, Hank felt like he was the one on the outside, and the couple was seen through a window, there for all to watch. Although the conversation was barely audible from his stakeout, he imagined each drawing out their words with delicate overtones of tenderness.

Rosie leaned in and kissed her beau on the cheek. She handed off a wad of bills with a jokingly stern look on her face and turned to come back inside, hands clasped carelessly behind her back. Hank saw for the first time a flower in her hair, which bounced merrily with every step.

“Oh, get over it. You have no chance with Shari. She’s thirteen years older than you, for God sake. Just let the happy be happy. Don’t envy them. You could be happy too, even without her.”

A fit of laughter broke out from under his feet as Rosie turned her key. This time as clear as a bell, Hank heard her words. “Oh, how I love that boy.”

Chapter two: Once I had a woman

Hank bit down on his lip as he entered the elevator. He slid into the corner all alone, pressed three and waited for the door to close. Over the smooth jazz crackling through the speakers, he could hear an argument escalating from around the corner.

“Don’t you dare leave me!”

“Howard, it’s for the best. We’ll always be friends.”

“We’ll always be friends? Didn’t the last eight months mean anything to you?”

I stepped through the closing doors, postponing the trip to the sky a little longer, covering up the first words of the girl’s answer. Almost on cue after the commotion, my stomach tried to start small talk with Hank to little effect. He shot me a nasty look, which I understood to mean, Quiet down, kid.

“…so please get my things, and I’ll be on my way.”

There was a brief pause in which the temperature seemed to drop slightly as if a cloud had just shrouded the sun.

“Fine. Fine, I’ll get your things. You’re right. You’re always right. Lousy, lousy me.”

The doors began to close again, but a hand shot through the void and sent Hank a few inches off the floor. The car shook violently when his feet hit the tarmac and the burly interruptor strode in.

“Six, please.”

A ruddy, wrinkle-worn face entreated him to push the button.

“And could you lend a little pick-me-up?” A nervous laugh erupted from the man’s bulky frame. Hank shrunk, almost melted, closer to where the two sides of the lift met at a 90 degree angle.

Sweat beaded on his brow, partly from the twenty-minute bike ride in warming weather, and partly from where this conversation might go.

“Bad day?”

“The worst. My girl… well, my ex-girlfriend now, is moving out.”


“Oh, don’t be. I guess it had run its course. What I can’t stand, though, is that she’s making me move her shit out. She can’t face this music, she says, won’t ride the elevator.”

Silence. Howard, who had been directing his attention toward the floor glanced up at Hank, then did a double-take.

“May I ask what…”

“Luging accident.”


“Logging accident.”

Well, scratch that one, Hank thought to himself. “Luging? Really?”

Each time he was asked about the scar, the reasons became more and more inventive. He once convinced a friend of his father’s that a stray wildebeest accosted him in a dark Chicago alleyway, “And you can imagine what happened after that.”

Truth is, no matter how many fictional accounts he could muster, the embarrassment could not be stamped out. A cheese grater gone awry, that’s what happened. No one would believe the truth: Muenster cheese turned him into a monster.

Granted, the monstrosity across his cheek was nothing compared to the disfigurement an urban wildebeest could inflict, if such a thing existed. But, like albinism or a port wine stain, the strange set of evenly spaced grooves under his right eye were unavoidable for all of Lansing’s citizens that ran across him.

“Good luck. Good luck with everything.” Hank tossed the empty phrase backward as he rolled his bike toward his apartment.

The man didn’t stop to think but shot back, “You too.”

Chapter three: Manic depression

Shari sunk in her chair, picked the phone up off the receiver, and twirled the cord around her finger. She let the dial tone talk to her for a few seconds until a man she knew all too well politely patched himself in and told her to hang up.

“We’re sorry. Your call did not go through. Will you please try your call again.”

She wondered what he was doing right now, the man behind the recording. Was he doing the dishes? Reading the newspaper?

Was he thinking about her?

“You really need to go see a doctor,” her mind told her. “He’s thirteen years younger than you for God sake.”

She sat, hopelessly romantic, and let his voice repeat itself over and over. Shari knew every intake of breath, each slight peaking of sibilance, slight popping of plosives. It was her job, after all, to oversee the production of voiceover talent.

Her heart interjected, “And what a talent he is.”

Mind: “Oh, give me a break. If you didn’t fall into a swoon every time you went to work, maybe you could pull yourself together. Maybe you could say hi.”

The doorbell rang.

She let the phone fall back to the receiver and picked herself up. She brushed the animal cracker crumbs off her blouse then went to the mirror to check her hair. An evening rainstorm sent waves of reverberant thunder through the panes of glass, the bricked facade, layers of insulation and sheetrock of her living room wall.

A light but insistent rapping broke my concentration, and I looked up from the story, which lay on the dining table nearly finished under my pen.

“I’m coming!”

She reached the door and opened it. Hank stood soggy under the awning. The rain had washed away all traces of tears, but his dogged appearance otherwise put forth no pretenses.

“I need to be with you. No matter how far I might bring you down with me, I need to be with you. Please give me just this one chance.”

She smiled like a fourth-grader who had just played a piano recital.

“Hi Hank.”

Published in: on July 12, 2009 at 6:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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