Hi, everyone! Back to flash fiction again. I’ve been writing bits and pieces about this character for a while. This week, he had a story to tell me.
The bed creaked as Jeff turned over and pulled the quilt over his aching head. Like some little bastard pounding an anvil in there. His beard itched, his blood sugar was probably in the red zone—no, make that definitely, his queasy stomach and lightheadedness told him—and he deserved every stinking last bit of it. In fact, he stunk. From the dank, sweaty sheets to the comforter to the body encased in them, clad in boxers and a T-shirt stained with a multitude of sins. A shower would help. But that would mean getting up. Passing the detritus of his bacchanal of the previous night…and the night before that…and, hell, he didn’t remember what day it was. He clamped his eyes shut and cursed himself and thought those words he’d thought so many times before: never again.
The phone rang. He had a vague memory of it ringing a few times yesterday, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone. Still didn’t. The people from unemployment could go fuck themselves. Who else would be calling at whatever the hell time this was—the sun was just reaching the slat in the blinds that meant he should be up and around already. Going and getting ’em, like the guy from job counseling said. Jeff took in as deep a breath as he could and let it out slowly, waiting for the voice mail to pick up.
It didn’t. Shit. That meant the damn thing was full. Then the ringing stopped. Caroline.What if something was wrong with her, what if Marta had been trying to get hold of him, what if it was Caroline herself, wanting to talk to her daddy…?
The comforter tangled around his legs and he hit the carpet with a thud, ass first.
Something was sticking into his back. It felt like a fork. He opened his eyes to an empty pizza box a few inches from his face. The sausage and pepperoni grease in the cardboard turned his stomach the rest of the way over and he couldn’t make it to the toilet in time and most of it landed on the carpet in front of the bathroom door.
“Kill me now,” he groaned. His stomach heaved as he dropped from all fours back to his side. In his head he saw Caroline’s little face. If by some miracle she came back home, what would she think of him? Half naked and big as a barn and lying next to a puddle of his own puke. Marta, of course, would have all of her suspicions confirmed. She’d just stand there with that ugly smirk, then whisk his daughter away from him again, maybe for good this time. Caroline. She’d grow up and learn the truth of her parents and the world soon enough, but a five-year-old shouldn’t hate her daddy.
For her, he struggled to his feet. For her, he cleaned up the vomit and stuffed the comforter into the washing machine. Threw out the pizza boxes, the beer bottles, the empty bags of chips and cookies and fast food meals.
Then, spent and not yet ready to face the phone, he fell back onto the bed while the washing machine swished and whirled.
The sock. It was all because of the sock.
He’d read somewhere that keeping up with the normal routines of life could help fight depression from unemployment. He’d pushed the living room sofa back so he could vacuum beneath it…and a small pink sock with little bunnies on it had reduced him to a 320-pound sack of tears. He fell and kept on falling.
No.The voice inside him fought through the self-doubt, through the choking sobs, through the recriminations that he’d been a failure…as a husband, as a father, as a man. He would do this for Caroline. Marta could take a flying fuck, but he had a daughter. A beautiful, perfect daughter, with his red hair and freckles, with Marta’s eyes. Whatever she told his daughter about him, it would not be that her daddy offed himself, committed passive suicide by pepperoni pizza. He had to keep going. For her.
He tried to remember where he’d left the sock. He found it wedged between two couch cushions. So small. The sock, and the foot it had slipped over. Giddy with the news that he and Marta were having a girl, he’d gone a little crazy at the mall. He bought a pink teddy bear and little onesies and one of those mobiles that goes over the crib, pastel-colored bunnies hopping in circles.
Marta didn’t take the mobile; she’d thought it was tacky and that he’d spent too much money on it, but he found himself now in Caroline’s bedroom, flicking the switch and watching the bunny parade.
After a while he felt strong enough to clean himself up, then face the voice mail. Two calls about overdue bills. One from unemployment. And a voice he vaguely recognized.
“Hello, Mr. McNeil. This is Diana, from the weight loss center? You came to one of our meetings a few weeks ago? Well, we missed you and wonder if there’s anything we can do to help.”
He played the message two, three times. It was a nice voice, kind. Sincere. He remembered the woman. She’d weighed him in. He didn’t much like the meeting, all those women applauding each other about losing a pound or two, as if it were a damn game show.
But maybe it was time to go back.