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When Matthew woke, he was curled on his side in the back seat of his car, his face pressing into a vinyl corner, burrowing away from the morning sun. The engine was running, and the air conditioner was on, but the air coming from the vent was warm. He sat halfway up and looked at the instrument panel. The temperature gauge was touching the edge of the red zone, and the gas had dropped to the quarter-tank mark. He scrambled quickly onto his knees, stretched forward between the two front bucket seats, and twisted the key, turning the car off. He sat frozen for a moment, listening to the hot engine tick, and then he let himself fall back, pulling the keys as he went, clutching them finally to his chest.
He had started the car, but he had not driven it – that was something, at any rate. Why had he started it in the first place? For the air conditioner, he supposed. He lifted the bottom of his shirt and looked down at the pale streaks in it, fine salt left by his sweat. That must have been it. He didn’t remember walking to his car, though. In fact, he didn’t remember paying and leaving the bar. Swiftly he felt for his wallet, lifting his hip slightly so he could reach his back pocket, and let out a long breath when his fingers met the grimy leather.
He could smell himself, a batter of cigarettes and sweat, trapped in the warming car. He felt around in the collection of plastic bottles on the floorboards and found one that was still half-full of warm Coke. He unscrewed the cap and drank the tepid, flat, sugary liquid in one held breath.
He considered getting out of the car, climbing back into the driver’s seat, and driving home so he could shower and perform the calculus of whether he would be able to make it through a day at work or would have to call in with some excuse – not sick, because he actually had been sick just two weeks before, but maybe some sort of household emergency. His pipes leaking, maybe, into the apartment below. And then he could set the ceiling fan to its highest speed, draw the curtains, gulp down two Foster’s oilcans, and try to sleep through the headache. He thought about it, his hand loosely threaded through the door handle, but then he heard children’s voices nearing the car, and he willed himself to sink into perfect stillness.
The voices drew alongside the car, growing into distinct words – no man the second one’s way better than the first but three is just crap – and then faded. Then a set of lonely footsteps tapped distantly, grew loud and near, and ebbed away again.
He let his hand fall from the door handle. The school – he had parked across from it. He couldn’t come staggering out of his car in front of it, but he couldn’t just sit here all day either, especially since this would soon be – probably already was – a No Parking zone. When did that start, eight or seven? Were there cameras outside the school?
So, he had to get moving. Right?
He sat up and slithered between the backs of the two front seats, turning and curling into the passenger seat, and then he dragged himself upright, pulling on the steering wheel and the headrest, twisting his legs into the space between the driver’s seat and the dashboard and letting the rest of his body follow painfully, until he was slouched behind the wheel. He fumbled the key into the ignition, turned it, and let the car coast slowly forward, past the school and down the street.
He glanced down at the instrument panel; the needle on the temperature gauge was drifting slowly to the left, away from the curved red band. He looked back at the road. Luckily, it was still fairly empty, which meant it could still be early. He wasn’t wearing a watch, and he still hadn’t reset the clock in the car after changing the dead battery last month, so he couldn’t be sure. He tried to do some quick math – he had connected the new battery at ten in the morning and the clock now read five-thirty, so, ten to ten at night plus to five-thirty, did that make it three-thirty in the morning? That didn’t make sense, but the kids on their way to school meant it was before eight, so he had at least an hour to make it home, shower, and get to work, if he decided to go.
Wait. What if it was three-thirty in the afternoon?
No. That was morning sunlight out there, and there was a guy selling papers right on the corner there. That happened in the morning, not the afternoon.
He stopped at a red light and turned on the radio. He spun the dial, moving from station to station until he heard a DJ’s voice: “– commute is about to get going strong down there it’s seven-oh-nine in the ay-emm and we have the best of the wake-up hits lined up for you in this block.” He stabbed at the dial, turning the radio off.
Okay. Even earlier than he thought. Time to make a quick stop.
He turned off Toledano onto Broad and coasted past the security door installation shops, the courthouse, the defunct brewery, and the essential oils, candles, and apothecary shop. He curved into the parking lot of a corner store. He jumped out of the car, trotted inside, and wove through the aisles to the cooler against the back wall.
He didn’t see Foster’s, so he grabbed two bottles of Guinness Stout and a gallon jug of water. Then he went to the coffee counter and poured a large cup. He dumped sugar and French vanilla creamer into it. He carried everything to the register and began fumbling in his back pocket for his wallet.
“Big day, huh?” the clerk commented as he pressed the beeping flat buttons.
“I just got off,” Matthew said. He yanked his wallet from his pocket, opened it, and pulled out a ten. “My big day is I’m on my way home to bed.”
“Nine-sixty-four. That’s a lot of coffee before bedtime. I can’t even have any after lunch or I’m up all night.”
“It’s for my girlfriend. She’s getting ready for work.”
He dropped the ten on the counter and grabbed the cup, the bottles, and the jug.
“Here’s your change, boss.”
Matthew pushed through the ringing door and got in his car. He dumped the beers and the water in the passenger seat, carefully stood the coffee cup in the holder by the gearshift, and pulled his door shut. Then he tore at the handle and opened the door. He bent out and coughed a small disk of orange bile onto the concrete next to his car. He sat back upright and closed the door again. The store clerk was staring at him through the wide window. He started his car and twisted in his seat to peer over his shoulder as he backed away.
He edged onto the street and drove the rest of the way home, coughing now and then against the rough, fluid residue in his throat.
In his apartment, right after he closed his front door, he grabbed the bottle opener from the coffee table. He pried the cap from one of the Guinnesses and downed it. Then he unscrewed the cap from the gallon of water and drank three long swallows. He went to the sofa and sat, trying to tally reasons for skipping or going to work, but stumbling again and again after the first two: because he might not be able to mask the smell of liquor in his sweat for the entire day and because he didn’t actually have any vacation hours left.
He uncapped the other Guinness and drank it in five large swigs.
He had just a few minutes to think. He could just lean back on the sofa here, close his eyes for a minute or two, and let the answer come.
He was aware that he was dozing off. He let it happen.
The first dreams were snatches of childhood and combinations of moments from high school and college: running around the corner of the house from a Labrador that was nipping at his arm, running around the same corner from his father, standing in a dust storm next to the cafeteria, crossing a bridge over a stream that went under one side and didn’t come out the other.
Then he dreamed he was driving at night, finding his way home from the club. For some needless reason he was on the freeway, and as he tried to coast around the long circle of the exit ramp, he felt the car slide and buck, all doughy and serpentine as it rammed and bounced over the guardrail and he plunged into unnamed streets below.
He woke, snarling, clutching at the air. Then he found his phone, lifted the receiver, and dialed the restaurant.
“Jen? Yeah, Matthew. No, look, my pipes are leaking and the landlord said I’ve got to wait for the plumber – he doesn’t even know how to turn the water off, so I’m here mopping it up so it doesn’t destroy everything. Seriously. No, I know I suck. Just call that other waiter, that Cliff or whatever his name is. He’s been asking for the work, right? Well, I hope you’re not pissed forever. Okay. Okay. Bye.”
He dropped the phone into the charger, stood, and walked through his house to the bathroom. He turned on the shower and stripped, draping his clothes over the top of the door. He got in the shower and began soaping his face, his arms, his chest. Midway through, he sank to the shower floor and started crying. When he stopped, he stayed there, kneeling, as the hot water grew slowly warm, tepid, and then cold.