Charlie Daniels’ band breaks out of the trailer next door and into mine. When it comes time for the devil’s turn at the fiddle, every saw note rattles the fixtures in the bathroom. The noise beats a path to me, shaking a pot on the one-eyed stove and a spoon in the sink as it comes. Before this day is over, Johnny Cash, Jason Aldean, and all fifty of George Strait’s number one hits will share my airspace. I’m sick of the playlist, but my neighbor’s got a ZZ Top beard, a Hagrid body, and a dog on a chain. He can pump out whatever he wants, loud as he wants. Nobody in this junkyard, least of all me, is going to call him on it.
Despite the racket, I hear rain. The white noise of a steady downpour knocks me halfway out. When I come to, a splotch marks the corner of the ceiling. The stain swells into a soggy bulge. The bulge takes root and trails down the wall. None of this induces me to move a muscle. I’m a renter.
Besides, I can’t even marshal enough energy to walk over and lift the plastic tablecloth that covers my window. Easier to invent a September sky, thick and dull as peas porridge in the pot, nine days old. I’m not going anywhere.
I drink another beer. Eat a bag of Turkey Jerky. I contemplate the remote. Last night, I went back and forth cherry-picking between the original Star Trek and its infinite spinoffs. Everything I did afterwards lies on the other side of the wormhole. I’m about ready to start a search for the control when splat! Something lands on my head. It’s no raindrop.
A set of prickly legs whirs for traction exactly where my hair might be wearing thin. Not so long ago, I would have made Anna take a look for bald spots, but I’m still sour on my sister’s opinions.
“Come on, Mason,” she said when I told her something felt off with my fiancé. She rolled her eyes like there was fifty years between us instead of five.
But I was right. Kim had already slipped out of our life and into another. And I’m not imagining strands of my hair flecking my pillow each morning like dried-out pine needles, or the fat, greasy roach I grab in my fist and throw to the floor.
On its back, floundering, one wing spread to expose a papery shadow below, the bug flails and flaps, trying to turn over. I grab a section of some Sunday’s Charlotte Observer and roll a weapon. Using two lines of waving legs to scramble up, the bug rights itself the split second my paper comes in for the swat. Off the thing races. I hunker down and strike. Miss again. On hands and knees, I pursue it in a straight line, then in a circle. Over and over, my bludgeon of outdated want ads slams down in vain. One wallop from being clobbered, la cucaracha fakes me out and scurries under the bed.
Flat on my belly, I get a panoramic view of the flotsam and jetsam beneath my mattress: wrappers, receipts, cans. Ike’s catnip mouse, a toy I found buried in the closet of my former self, tops a sock heap. Kim didn’t leave much else behind. I came home to a set of keys on the bedside table, her diamond in a soap dish beneath them. For weeks, I carried the mouse in my shirt pocket and the top of an old bottle of perfume in my jeans. How sweet she smelled, like vanilla wafers. The memory of that small detail threatens to plow me under, but I spy a flutter. And then another. In this moment, I realize the bug is legion, one of many. I retreat and reflect: What would the Buddha do?
Three muscle relaxers and a double shot of vodka propels me into a state of nothingness. The thought of whatever’s breeding in this place recedes, and I begin to dream about the girl of my dreams. I sleep until I can hear her. “Get up, baby.” She kisses my ear. “Wake up and smell the bacon.”
A rush of nausea drags me out of my stupor. I wish I were a better drunk, able to hold my alcohol, or at least hold it down. I wish weed made me mellow instead of paranoid, that every drug I try didn’t make me sick or crazy.
I sit up. The churning slows, but my bed begins to boil. I am surrounded by a swarm of colossal bugs. When I kick at the covers, their heads lift in one brittle click. Their eyes bulge. Their shells shine. They open their viscous mouths and twitch their antennae. I call on every God and shut my eyes. I guess I’ll be eaten alive or come to my senses. For whatever happens, I wait in perfect stillness.
Slow, deep breaths quieten my runaway heart and mute the world outside. I begin to think. Or rather, thoughts float toward me: disturbed ones mostly, fragments of grief and guilt, and then a story drifts by. There was this man who turned into a bug.
I reach for my cell, the single luxury I hold onto, just in case Kim should call. My mobile also serves as a repository for the daily messages from Anna and my mother. “I love you,” they always say at the end of each one. I listen to that part sometimes.
The brain in this phone knows everything there is to know, and in an instant, it tells me it was Gregor Samsa who woke from troubled dreams and found himself transformed into an insect. That isn’t even the sad part.
Hey, I read. Or I used to, anyway.
I was a philosophy minor, for Christ’s sake. A year ago, I philosophized freely and with good cheer to my long-suffering colleagues in sales and marketing. The high tide of reaching twenty-eight virtually unscathed made me bigheaded and buoyant. I got Thought-A-Day on my laptop and quarterly bonuses. I owned a townhouse with a garden tub and granite countertops and hardly complained about the way two cats who despised me sheered the back of my sectional sofa and fouled the second bath with their litter box. I was in love. I was so in love. But that was then.
Now, I live here. Now I have bugs and hallucinations.
No way around it, I’ll have to make a Walmart run. Not the super duper one that serves the rich sprawl of Ballantyne, but the stinky old standby that straddles the border between North and South Carolina. I could drive there blindfolded. Off with my sweats and into my jeans. Once I’m out, I see there’s a break in the weather and throw the Dollar Store bag off my head.
I slog to the car to the last strains of “Ring of Fire” and start down the muddy sinkhole that goes in and out of here. One bump at a time, I drive toward 521 thinking beer, Slim Jims, Nyquil, and Raid. Although I resent the expense of the final item, a slight lift accompanies my newfound sense of purpose. Short lived, as it happens.
I make my latest bad choice in the parking lot.
Quick as I turn the wheel toward a space, the nose of my car clips the back left wing of a silver Volvo. I hear the dig. I hear it again as I back out. I leave a streak of Camry red on the fender, fracture a taillight. What’s a brand-new Volvo doing at Walmart, anyway? I guess the damage amounts to a few months of wine-and-dine evenings for the owner, but my deductible could wipe me out. The condo would have to go on the market. I’d have to try and find work.
It’s Saturday, and I see that I am seen.
I get out of my car and make a show of shaking my head. I pull my billfold from my pocket and take out my insurance card. A legal pad molders on my back floorboard. Sorry, I write. I hit your beautiful car. Forgive me. I fold the long, bright-yellow sheet into a cousin of the paper airplane and hook it under the windshield wiper. Onlookers, satisfied, go on their way, and so do I. There’s a derelict Kmart further down the highway.
The light changes just as my phone begins to shake. I ignore it. Ignore three calls before I decide I better look. Not Kim, not my mother, my sister. No voice mail but a text chime.
Answer. I mean it.
On the third vibration, I slide my finger across the screen to accept. I bring the receiving end to my ear.
“Mason?” says Anna. “I know you’re there.”
If she knows, I don’t need to talk.
“You’ll never guess where I am.” She pauses as if I might give it a try. “Walmart. I’m in the Walmart parking lot. You know the one I mean. And if you don’t talk to me, I’m calling the police.”
I should have moved far away instead of descending into a primordial bog three exits and a traffic snarl from Anna. I should have, but I didn’t.
“Hey there.” I hope I sound like we talked yesterday.
“Where are you?” Her own voice is sandpaper.
“Walking into Harris Teeter.”
“Well, how about Walgreen’s? How about I say I’m heading into Walgreen’s?”
“I read the note, Mason.” I hate to hear that piece of news. “Where are you?”
“Coming up on the Wendy’s at Indian Land.”
“Pull in and wait for me. I’m on my way.”
“Don’t come, Anna. Please don’t come.”
Minutes later, she parks beside me and jumps out into the latest squall of rain. I know how I look and how I probably smell. I know what I’ve done. I expect the worst, which is what I deserve, but she opens the door, shoves all the crap to the floorboard and reaches over.
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