By Jason Howell
Gabe shuffled through the stack of movies, each plastic box displaying Pic-A-Rent’s logo below a smiling cartoon frog, and selected the first DVD of the evening. If anything can relax you after a rough day, it’s a good, long movie night. And talk about a rough day. Kelsey was still creeping around the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner without taking her pouting eyes off the floor. Was it such a hard thing to get a simple prescription?
“Can’t you come in?” she had mumbled that afternoon, studying the Kia’s sun-blistered dash as they sat in the Bee-Log County Health Clinic’s parking-lot. And Gabe had to explain, again, what she already knew—that not only did all the doctors at good ol’ BCHC know him and now refused to see him but that bitchy receptionist had supposedly claimed she’d call the cops if Mr. Gabe Ballard stepped onto the premises again. So he would lay low for a few months then try to be seen the next time he had a cold or something—something legitimate to get his foot back in the door. But for now it was up to K to get a hold of the goods.
And she finally went but, Jesus, it took more effort than it should have. Gabe spun the disc silver-side up on the tip of his finger, holding it in the light of the brown lamp (an ugly one given to Kelsey by her sister) that squatted on the end-table by the couch. He watched the reflection of the dragon-print fleece blanket thumb-tacked over the living-room window swirl in the spiral rainbow. Finally, he had glanced around the parking lot then turned toward her, raising the back of his hand, biting his lower lip and bracing his face. That did it.
“Just tell them it’s your back. They can’t disprove that,” Kelsey’s husband had advised as she slunk out of the car with a glazed yet (for some reason) surprised expression. “And if they start in about a piss-test or calling the cops, just get back here.”
Gabe popped the DVD into the player and turned the TV volume up before settling into the well-worn center of his couch. A genuine half-and-half optimist/pessimist, Gabe might have agreed with the philosopher Hegel (if he had ever read him) that this is an imperfect world but that man (as in mankind) strove through progressive levels of imperfection toward eventual utopia. Gabe’s father had hit; Gabe did not. He had learned he didn’t need to and he was proud of that—not because it spared his wife pain in addition to fear but because it spared them both the tell-tale bruises. Now that’s what got you in trouble—hadn’t it gotten Dad into more than enough of the very same? Hegel saw utopia as the convergence of rationality and spirituality, as well as everything at odds in the imperfect present, but Gabe held a different view. Sometimes, in his altruistic moods, he thought of the people (as in men) who might inherit that age of “absolute spirit,” the stage of societal evolution in which, as Gabe envisioned it, a man might merely tell a woman what to do and have it done without violence or any other effort. And because he was in an altruistic mood in these moments, he looked on the future’s beneficiaries with almost more graciousness than jealous contempt for that (surely far-off) time he would not live to see.
Gabby, as his Dad had sometimes called him, settled into movie-night position while the first preview came up. On movie night you always let the previews roll. That’s when theater-goers loaded themselves down with popcorn and candy and that’s when Gabe loaded up with the goodies which that magic slip of paper (eventually obtained by his hesitant wife) had entitled them to at the Cane River Pharmacy. His hereto stormy brow cleared, if only somewhat, as Gabe picked up the movie-night dinner plate from its place on the end-table (right next to the ugly, squatting lamp) and crossed his legs up on the couch. Speaking of the devil, Kelsey appeared at the doorway, creeping again.
“Go make sure Ozzy and Snowball have some food left,” her man said without looking up from the dish where he slowly crushed the pale tablets with the butt of his cell phone, two at a time, inside a folded dollar bill. “Can’t have them barking on movie night.”
K stood there for a moment, maybe thinking about starting an argument, but then went to the closet and slipped her Hello-Kitty-socked feet into Gabe’s boots before heading to the backdoor of their trailer. No fuss, no muss. Kelsey had an interest in keeping things mellow on movie night. She pretended to have no liking for the thin rows of egg-shell-white powder on that plate but after Gabe fired the first two or three through the rolled bill into his nose, she always slid onto the couch beside him, with her sissy can of sprite and straw.
Listening to the plastic feed bowls rattle and the two six-month-old huskies whine with pleasure out back, Gabe removed a matchbook-sized baggie secured with a black twist-tie from his pajama-pants pocket. The ridge of powder that poured out of the hole he bit from one corner of the plastic bag was fine as baking soda and bright yellow. Hearing the rattle and whine cease, Gabe folded and tucked the now half-empty bag back into his pocket and pressed his face toward the dinner plate’s new line, following it with two more of his usual.
Gabby, as Gabe sometimes thought of himself as his awareness of the outside, demanding world because opaque like water just beginning to grey into ice, leaned back and stared into the 27-inch Sam-sonic, waiting for explosions and sex. Or maybe it would be the nature video, in which wolves or lions would explode after deer or antelope then slink off to the tall grass and mate—Gabby maintained a variety of interests. Instead, jarringly, light guitar and soft-throated singing played over a panning shot of an immaculately clean city. A woman with big lips, tiny wrists and three strands of hair placed an equal distance apart on her forehead to indicate anxiety followed a broad-shouldered, clean-shaven, queer-looking man in a suit. The woman tried to carry a briefcase, a stack of manila envelopes and a ringing Blackberry while writing down the instructions the man dictated to her through his snow-white grin as he walked confidently ahead and winked at the attractive businesswomen he passed. The pair entered, rode and exited an elevator as the opening credits continued to scroll and that new-age-light-rock played on. Finally, they came to his office door and the man looked for the first time at the flustered girl, who returned his gaze adoringly. “Call the dry-cleaners for me when you get a chance, mm-k? Thanks sweetheart.”
Now Gabe realized his mistake. Earlier in Pic-A-Rent, Kelsey had slipped her movie choice into the stack as they made their way to the front counter. “Oh, just kill me now,” Gabe had play-groaned and rolled his eyes for the clerk, a kid with nearly-ubiquitous tattoos and a scraggly attempt at a beard who stared back dully, refusing to be any less indifferent than uncomprehending. Broken Sweet Heart: the poster above the romantic comedy aisle glared pink, looping typeface. The title floated above the heads of a man and woman in business attire who stood back-to-back, smiling coyly out of the corner of their eyes at one another. They looked like they had stepped out of a GAP Ad to pose for a soft-porn shoot without missing a beat. The characters behind them, looking on and smiling like crazy, appeared somewhat human by comparison: there was that old guy from that sitcom Gabe had liked (although he couldn’t recall the name of either at the moment) who probably played the cuddly and supportive Dad in this movie, there was the less-attractive female friend and the comically-despairing “regular guy” who would compete with the male lead over the frazzled women who, for her part, would act like she didn’t realize she was gorgeous. Here was Kelsey’s idea of utopia.
And now this crap was on. Gabe turned to K, who had just sidled up and taken her movie-night seat, intending to correct this situation. But something interesting happened instead. Gabby could not tell Kelsey to get the hell up and put one of his movies on before she toasted herself. In fact, he could not tell her anything. Gabe’s jaw sagged toward his shoulder and hung there like a lost erection. He could hear the words in his mind but his lips and tongue had apparently tripped over the first syllables and failed to get up: “Whabat?”
K shrugged, not taking her eyes off the screen as she bent over the plate herself. Her husband of four dates, no engagement and three years watched her sip a can of sprite and, holding the soda in her mouth, position one end of a red-and-white straw between her lips and the other end at the beginning of her first white line. Or rather, Gabe watched the top of K’s hair as she did this; his head and neck seemed just as disorganized as his mouth and refused to bend down. A warm feeling melted over Gabby’s otherwise numb body. It might have been enjoyable except that he could now piss in his pants and not know it.
Kelsey’s face rose back into view as she swished the soft drink and painkillers over her gums. Then she leaned over and put her head on Gabe’s shoulder, her eyes never leaving the screen. Gabe felt his head turn in that direction too, on its own. The female star was falling over some luggage in an exaggerated manner.
Gabe listened to his breathing (shallow but steady,) he noted his vision (crystal clear—no bright lights, no tunnels,) as well as trying to move his legs, which were still crossed Indian-style somewhere below him, (nothing doing.) He stayed calm—the warm feeling helped. After taking mental stock of the situation, he delivered himself an inexpert yet partially-calming diagnosis: the paralysis would pass in a moment and he would be fine, he would do one more regular line to calm himself and watch his movies—after flushing the contents of that bag in his pocket down the toilet. He had pissed himself, he just knew it. Goddamn street mix—who knew what was in it…? No, don’t think about that, just watch this goofy movie for a while then get up and change it. In the meantime, there are worse places than the safety of your own home to find yourself para— well, to find yourself on a bad trip. Just watch and kill time ‘till you’re back to normal.
So, Gabby sat. Movie night was off to a bad start but what can you do? Except sit, that is.
And sit. The woman was having a heart-to-heart with the old man (the character was indeed her father, and they were talking about true love and about how her mother had died after giving birth to her but had told the old man just before passing away that she didn’t mind dying as long as her daughter one day found as much love as she had with him) when Gabe tried moving again. Nothing. When male and female leads danced under the moon to a live jazz ensemble at a yacht party, Gabe tried again with the same result. Sweat broke out on his face. Of course, he couldn’t feel it but could see the drops of moisture tracking their way past the corners of his eyes in his peripheral vision. Stay calm, stay calm.
As the movie ended, Gabe rallied all his strength, preparing to signal to K that something was not right. She would hear, or at least realize he hadn’t snorted another line to go with the next movie, as he would on a normal movie night. Then she would shake him, maybe wave a bottle of vinegar or something under his nose and, if nothing else worked, call an ambulance. It might mean trouble for them both (including a permanent ban from the local health clinic, not to mention a date in court) but Gabe did not care, not at this point. The sweat stung his eyes—again, he could not feel it but he figured it out when his eyelids involuntarily blinked. Once, twice, three times. Seeing the shades snap shut over his only windows out of this dead body made his heart race. NUMB BODY, that is to say, just numb…
However, despite his efforts to signal for help, he still could not move or speak. K, apparently asleep, did not stir. Meanwhile, the TV screen glowed—showing a panning shot of an immaculately clean city. This last bit disturbed Gabe the least at first (this DVD played on a loop, that’s all) but when it ended a second time and started up for a third his irritation began to make a dent in his anxiety. He became further irritated at Kelsey, whose golden-blonde head remained perched on his shoulder. He focused his unmoving left eye on the plane of sight below it and could make out the fuzzy outline of the top of her head. It hurt to try to see elsewhere but straight ahead. He wanted to hit her now. The movie played and ended. Played and ended.
Gabe eventually lost count of how many times he watched Broken Sweet Heart and began to lose his own trust in reality as well. Was he on this couch, in his house, in this life…? Gabe pushed this away and instead tried to listen for any sound outside of his own thoughts and the noise from the TV, such as his dogs moving around, a car passing on the highway or K’s breathing. But there were no other sounds. The woman and her less-attractive friend ate ice cream out of the carton and cried again
Days passed, as well as days can pass in eternity—or in what Gabe now assumed was eternity. He sat. The movie rolled. What might have been a rotting corpse propped itself on his numb shoulder. What might very well have been flames burned silently behind him. That odd warm feeling continued, after all. The movie played. He now knew every line, every kiss, every tear and every affirmation of a modern woman who embraces her need for a perfect soul-mate without losing a bit of her own individuality or becoming unnecessarily inconvenienced by the day-to-day frustrations that real people face. Over and over.
Still, as much a stoic as a skeptic, Gabe found comfort in rationalizing his situation thusly: as far as everlasting punishments went, this wasn’t so bad—imagine what his father (now dead going on a decade) must be enduring—perhaps in those unseen flames somewhere behind his son. This sense of improvement also comforted Gabe. The ones that would come after him might very well find an even milder hell. Perhaps his predecessors would be allowed to watch their own movies.
Meanwhile, the pretty woman tripped in an extravagant manner. Again.