The blood settled on the old English letters of Alan’s knuckle tattoo that spelled out the word Nana. Forty-three years of failing at everything knocked him on his ass. Tears filled up his eyes and dropped down on his cheeks. He wanted to wipe them away because when he was a young boy he was taught Men don’t cry.
The sickness in his gut was getting to be too much. It felt like a swarm of hornets. He needed a fix but his friend, Joe, who had been letting him stay at his house the last few years, was kicking him out. Alan had become too unpredictable. His emotions were up one moment, the next calm, the next depressed.
Alan had been snorting a crushed-up Vicodin to help with the dope sickness when Joe knocked on his door. Joe had given him two weeks to find a place to go, but Alan was too concerned with trying to work his day job at a gas station and finding his fix in between to even bother looking for a place to go. Alan knew he had exhausted all possible couches, rooms, flea bag motels, and homes of family members over the years to even bother. The idea of living on the streets in the middle of winter scared him enough to pretend it wasn’t happening. If he ignored the situation long enough, it would fix itself. Joe would forgive him and let him stay. The harder Joe knocked, the louder Alan turned up his music.
Joe and his wife, Darla, had been easy on Alan over the years. They grew up together. They traveled to Dead concerts together, and later on, Phish concerts. It was during this time that Alan picked up an interest in China White from a woman named Alex from Pittsburgh. Alex and Alan developed a relationship. He truly loved her, and he thought she loved him, too, until the summer concerts were over, and she returned to Pittsburgh, leaving Alan with a broken heart and a full-blown addiction.
Twenty years went by and Joe and Darla had gotten married and had a few kids. They settled down in an old house they rebuilt themselves in Reading, Massachusetts. They ran into Alan at a concert in Boston one night. Alan was coming down from his high but having the time of his life. Moving to the music. Feeling the energy of the crowd. He didn’t care that he was forty years old. Joe and Darla decided to take him in. Joe, a recovering alcoholic, knew a few things about addiction and wanted to help. Darla, a mother to everyone in her long, flowing, handmade hippie skirts, hugged Alan until they got home that night. Alan never said a word. He never cried.
The police had to be called several times a year once Alan moved in. He was erratic at best. Even though he lived up to his promise of finding a job and keeping it, he scared Joe’s kids. They’d find him smacked out in the living room in front of Discovery Channel shows about lions in Africa. He didn’t talk right. Moved in slow motion while the world around him was in normal speed. It was Darla, who after a couple of years of trying to help, made Joe kick him out. She couldn’t face doing it herself. She truly loved Alan and stayed up many of nights with him just talking about life, the universe, music. The love she showed him over the years is why Alan spared her the beating he had just given Joe moments before.
“What did you do, Alan?” she said. Alan didn’t respond. She watched him clench and unclench his blood-soaked fists. Years of being nobody to no one pumped through his veins like ghosts unable to find their tombs.
Darla turned the corner of the staircase and looked through Alan’s open bedroom door. She could see the band posters on the wall. Alan lived like he’d been stuck in his early twenties. She treated him like he was her helpless son, an orphan she had found at a concert, a child whose own mother abandoned him a long time ago; he was more than happy to live that way.
“Joe?” she kept saying, until she made it almost to the top of the stairs and found Joe lying on the ground. Joe’s face was a bloody and messy pulp. His eyes were swollen shut. She noticed two holes in the wall and a laundry basket of spilled clothes around Joe’s feet. Blood dripping from Joe’s face had formed a tiny pool in the fibers of the off-white carpet.
She moved backwards down the stairs. Alan looked up at her then looked back down. “I’m taking the kids and leaving now,” she said with a tremble. “You’re going to let us go, right?” Alan’s head shot up. He wanted to ask her if she’d take him with her, too.
He wanted her to take him by the hand and run him across the snow in search of help. The both of them could find a home with a light on, where an elderly couple would let them inside so Darla could call the police and tell them her and her son, Alan, were attacked in their home by depraved bandits demanding money. Alan wanted the elderly couple to sit down on either side of him and console him, to look up from their embrace and see Darla on the phone worried about him from a distance.
Darla went into her bedroom and grabbed her two kids watching television on her bed and went out the backdoor in search for help. Alan reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out three Vicodin pills, popped them into his mouth, and chewed. He locked the deadbolt to the front door and went to the sink to wash his hands.
Under the running water his knuckles were raw, ripped and swollen. He stared at the Nana tattoo on one hand, and the Pops tattoo on the other. They were two people that loved him unconditionally when others wouldn’t. His own mother stopped talking to him the day she found him dope sick in her house. His father, who divorced his mother when Alan was a baby, was never seen again. His mom remarried a few more times, but the marriages always ended. Alan never really understood why he had numerous step fathers in and out of his life. They were not bad men. They didn’t beat him. They tried to care for him. They tried to fill a space that was vacant, but his Mom, a happy light that reeled in men and created marriages and a life of promise, always turned into a silent darkness that wouldn’t leave the bed until divorce papers were signed.
The three Vicodins eased his mind enough for him to figure out a plan. He went up the stairs to check on Joe. He couldn’t believe what he had done. All his friend wanted was a happy family without a junkie under his roof. It hit Alan that Joe had tried longer than anyone else, years longer, but Alan snapped anyhow. He opened the door mid-knock and went to work on Joe’s face with everything he had, and once Joe was on the ground, Alan straddled his chest and landed a dozen punches more. A punch for Alex who got him hooked. A punch for a father who abandoned him. A punch for a mother who had failed him. A punch for a brother who stopped talking to him. A punch for a sister who went down the same path his mother did. The rest of the punches were out of disgust for who he was, for what he’d become.
Alan leaned his ear near Joe’s mouth to check for breathing. The nerves pumping through his body prevented him from hearing anything. He placed the palm of his hand on Joe’s chest to see if it was moving, but his hands were too numb from the pills to get an idea. He fell back on his ass and put his back up against the wall and lit a USA Gold menthol cigarette. He ripped the Grateful Dead ball cap from his balding head and threw it on the ground. To the right at the end of the hall was a long mirror mounted to a closet door that people used to get ready in the morning. He’d seen Joe standing in it a million times before fixing his hair. He’d make fun of Joe until Joe laughed and left for his job as a school bus mechanic for the city.
He’d watched Darla putting on makeup in the mirror every morning. She’d turn her head full of blonde hair around and ask him, “Do I look good, honey?” He’d always tell her yes so he could get that motherly hug before she left for her secretary job at the local gas and heating company.
Now all he saw in the mirror was a skeleton of a man. Straws of black and thinning hair. His face was narrow. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a decade. A person could run a pencil across his ribs and create music to dance to. His waist was a size thirty, not good for a man who was nearly six feet tall.
Darla had tried to get him to eat but he was always too high, looking to get high, or trying to kick. The times he did try to kick, Darla stayed up with him all night, rubbed his back as he got sick over the toilet, hugged him when he imagined things that were not there. She sat with him in N.A. meetings. She encouraged him to talk about his past when all he wanted to do was run to the far corners of his mind from it.
One time he was successful. He put on nearly twenty pounds after two months of being sober. He thought about going to trade school to become an HVAC technician. Joe even drove him to the local community college to get the application. They all went out for beers and dinner together. It started to seem like old times. Darla even introduced him to one of her work friends, Jen. Alan dated Jen for a few months, but when it wasn’t working out because Alan was broke and didn’t have his shit straight enough for her, she left him. Not long after, the feeling of being alone set into his bones, and he started using again.
Alan jumped up from the floor when he heard Joe force out some air. He leaned in and shook Joe’s body. Joe spit out some blood from his lips but still didn’t move. Fear pumped through Alan’s body when he heard loud knocking on the door. Relieved that Joe was alive, Alan stood up and walked slowly down the staircase. The knocking got louder.
“Reading Police Department!” a voice from behind the door yelled.
Alan said nothing. He walked towards the door but changed his mind and started to walk backwards. He looked out the back window and saw the long backyard filled with old cars, lawn mowers, and bikes that Joe had worked on. Snow covered the wheels, and bike handle bars popped out from their white graves in search of an owner to save them. Beyond the yard Alan could see into the woods. The dark February sky held onto the moon like a jewel in the center of a ring. It gave off enough light to expose a path.
“Reading Police Department!” the voice yelled again.
Alan opened the backdoor and went outside without a jacket. A sweatshirt frayed around the neck from years of use and the old Dead ball cap were all he had to protect himself from the cold fifteen-degree winter night. He made it to the path and walked far enough in and stood behind a moss-covered boulder. The police had entered the house by popping open the door with a crowbar. A few minutes later, he could see enough into the windows to watch Joe being carried on a stretcher by the EMTs. Alan thought about walking in with his hands up and surrendering, but the flashlights being carried by the officers in the backyard changed his mind. He ran deeper into the woods.
He kept running through the cold without a plan. The pills started to leave his body. When the hornets returned to sting his insides he wanted to vomit. He kept running. Maybe prison will get me straight, he thought in between puffs of cold air exiting his lungs. Maybe this is what I need? He collapsed in the snow to catch his breath. He rubbed his arms to try and rid his bones of the frigid temps. Far off he heard police sirens up and down Main Street. He knew they were looking for him. He looked at Nana and Pops tattooed on his knuckles, then cupped his hand and blew air into them to try and warm them up.
He realized where he was when he could see the dark roof of the gas station he worked at in the valley. Main Street Gas was more than seventy years old and the building looked like it, too, tilted to the side with a wooden fence that wrapped around the back of the building. Inside the fence, dozens of old rusted-out cars sat silent in their mud-holes since the 1970s or earlier. The cars were without seats and wheels. Some without hoods, engines, and doors; they comforted him. He got the job from the original owner’s grandson, Craig Swanson. Craig didn’t put money into the place, in fact if it wasn’t for Craig’s promise to his grandfather, he would’ve sold the land a long time ago to developers.
Alan used his Pops’ name to get the job. When he was a kid it was the only place Pops would get gas. The ride to the station in Pops’ Cadillac was a high point in his youth. Old Reggie Swanson would be sitting his fat body in a chair in front of the station, sipping on RC Colas until someone came for gas. Pops would talk to Reggie for twenty minutes about nothing. They’d look at cars his son was working on in the garage. Pops would drop a quarter into Alan’s hand for a glass bottle cola from the ice chest. It might’ve been the early eighties, but Old Reggie made sure the place stayed 1950s. Reggie would be damned if his life’s work became a Golden Arches.
Craig gave Alan the same job as Old Reggie. Regardless of his age, Alan loved having Reggie’s job of sitting in front of the gas station on warm summer days, waiting to fill up cars heading for destinations unknown. Alan did his work with a smile. He’d talk to anyone willing to talk. He had friends come by and talk to him about what had been going on in their lives. But what Alan really wanted was for Pops’ Cadillac to pull up. He wanted to see the tall man many said he resembled get out of the car and drop a quarter into his hand. Alan wanted Pops to confess everything to him. Tell him about Germany and World War II. Tell him about his struggles with alcohol and morphine after being sent home with bullet wounds to his leg and ribs. He wanted Pops to tell him how he overcame alcohol and morphine for his family of six, how he remained positive in the physical fight of his life. Pops had died several years before, and Alan knew it, but somewhere inside he never gave up hope of seeing Pops pull into the station to greet him.
The station closed early, a rule from Old Reggie’s days. He’d always say, “If you need gas in this town after six, then you ought to go to one of them fancy new Chevron Stations that sell frozen pizza. I’m in the gas and auto repair business, not the breakfast sandwich business.” Alan worked there from seven in the morning until six at night for minimum wage. The last auto mechanic they had quit seven years earlier. An old Taurus was still in the garage, abandoned years before by its owner who didn’t want to pay for it. Alan tried to fix it but couldn’t. He had never been good with tools.
Alan had one of two keys to the place. Craig Swanson owned the other key, and Craig only came by once a day to collect the cash in the safe and to pay Alan out of pocket.
Alan made his way through the snow and woods, stopping behind a tree anytime a cop cruiser flew by, or slowed down to shine a light into the woods. He climbed the back fence and landed on the hood of an old Plymouth. He looked at it as the sickness took over his body. Once it had been sky-blue and carried a family to Little League games where fathers and mothers ate hot dogs and cheered on their son’s game winning hit. Now it was dead in its spot for thirty years or more, no longer carrying anyone anywhere, forever trapped on its piece of land. Never to be moved again, until God’s Wrath, or even worse, a land developer, plowed through it. He made his way through the graveyard of rusty cars until he reached the backdoor of the station and unlocked it. The heat wasn’t on, but it was a huge improvement to being outside.
He collapsed in an old leather chair that squeaked when it swiveled. The chair had once been Old Reggie’s chair. Nothing in the place had changed in years. The office was surrounded by big filthy windows, and there was an old desk with order forms from ten to fifteen years ago. Alan never got rid of any of them. It gave the place some class, he thought, something all the other stations were missing. An old rack behind him had some cans of oil, a few cans of fix-a-flat, and other things someone could buy for under five bucks to fix their cars.
The lights remained off and he sat in the center of all the darkness. From the street a person wouldn’t notice him. He slowed his breathing and crossed his hands over his stomach and waited on no one. He had no plan, no idea of what to do, and even though he was scared of what would become of him, he felt an easy feeling of the past slip into his drug-sick body.
The olive-green phone on the desk worked. He thought about calling someone, but who would he call? He had used up all of his phone calls over the last twenty years. There was no one left to call. He wasn’t even sure if anyone would want to take his call. For a second, he fooled himself into thinking his Mom would want to hear from him, but he hadn’t spoken to her in a few years. She lived less than fifteen miles away and knew where he lived and what he did with his life, but she didn’t want to hear from him. Same with his brother. He’d given up on Alan over a decade ago. Dom was the pride of the family because he hustled, made money, and gave money to conservative politicians. Dom married a beautiful woman. He had a son Alan couldn’t visit. Even though Dom was the result of a short-lived marriage to a much older Italian man, Alan’s mom preferred Dom over him.
He thought about calling his sister, Candice, who was once like him but got over her demons. She had four daughters from four different fathers, one daughter she wasn’t even sure who the father was, but it didn’t matter to Alan’s mother, because Candice overcame her troubled past. She had a job as a Wal-Mart manger. She had a silver badge that said, “Ten Years of Service.” Her blue smock was decorated with tiny silver and gold pins for achievements in selling store discounts and for persuading customers to go to the local blood drive. Candice’s kids worked in beauty salons or went to community college. They went from bastards to beauties of the ball in the eyes of Alan’s mother.
He felt truly alone, away from everything and everyone. He wondered why love had forgotten him? Sure, he was a junkie. He had troubles, but up until beating Joe senseless, he’d never hurt anyone. He only loved people, even if the love came from a place of decaying flowers and darkening flesh. He wasn’t put on the earth to wallow in the sadness of it. He lit up a room no matter where he went back-in-the-day. Then somewhere along the line he became everyone’s problem they wanted to forget, like cars in the back lot, whispering words that were heard but couldn’t be understood.
There was no one to call. He wanted to tell someone a secret. He wanted to say words of peace to anyone who’d listen. He wanted to rip the beating beauty of his heart out of his chest, slam it on the table, and scream out to anyone who would listen: “Please look at me!” “I am here!” “I’m alive!” “I matter!”
The internal want and scream swallowed itself and vanished somewhere deep inside of his body, a place he kept silent for so long that no one could ever find it, including himself. He’d spent years mastering the art of turning sadness into joy, even if it was fake. Though his words to anyone who’d listen were true, he conned himself into believing in the same feelings. He never saw a problem with it. If it could make someone else feel better than he felt, then it was okay to lie to himself.
A dozen police cruisers pulled into the station and Alan watched the lights mix with the dark woods that surrounded the back and sides of the station. He didn’t want to run anymore. Twenty years was long enough. He watched several cops get out of their cars then run around and take position behind the cars with their hands bracing themselves around the grips of their Glocks. A tall, fat cop stood in front of the cars. He looked inside and saw Alan sitting in the chair. Alan made no movements. He only returned the same stare the Fat Cop was giving him.
“Alan McDonald,” the Fat Cop said. “Come on, boy, time to get up on out here.”
He didn’t want to move. How did the world come to this? he asked himself. Why does everything have to be this way? Why didn’t they love me?
“I’m giving you to the count of ten,” the Fat Cop said. “If you ain’t out here, we’re coming in. You won’t like it if I have to come in there.”
Alan saw more cop cars pulling into the station. Some more cops took shooting positions. Others got on their radios. At the end of the lot a TV news vans arrived. He looked on the ground and saw a crowbar underneath the desk. He leaned under and picked it up. He could hear the loud counting coming from the cop’s mouth: “One… Two… Three…”
Alan stood up with the crowbar in his hand. If I can’t be loved in this life, maybe I’ll be loved in another one, he thought. He was tired of the darkness living in his body and mind. He was tired of the pain he caused everyone else. He couldn’t take people hanging up on him when he called. He was tired of women leaving him days after meeting him. He was tired of the want to use heroin. He no longer wanted to be one of the relics rotting and forgotten behind the station.
He’d seen all the love he needed to see. He’d heard all the music he was going to hear. He couldn’t come back from what he’d done, he knew that with each step fear turned into innocence.
He opened the front door. The police didn’t move from their stance. Onlookers from the street swarmed to the scene like the hornets that had been stinging Alan’s stomach. He didn’t recognize any of them. The Fat Cop stopped his counting and reached behind his belt and removed the cuffs. Before he could say another word, Alan raised the crowbar and ran towards the Fat Cop’s skull. The cops behind the cars unloaded several bullets into Alan’s skinny frame. His lifeless body collapsed onto the asphalt. The crowbar hit the ground and rattled somewhere hidden inside the gun smoke. The horror from the screaming crowd silenced his last gasp of air.