Beyond the Horizon
Foremost on his mind was the vacant stare of two yellow-tinted, dead, and sightless eyes, Roth Dowden entered the windowless, grey walled building a stranger.
Hoping to remain so he sought a seat against the far wall towards the back of the space where the deepening shadows of the failing day grew the thickest and the harsh brightness of the multicolored lights surrounding the four-sided stage, rising from the center of the tacky floor like the roped-off square of a boxers ring, seemed to magnify the darkness in which he sat by the opposing brightness of each stage angled lamp. Seeking nothing more than a few stiff drinks and a bit of solitude, Roth chose his table thoughtfully and communicated his presence to the passing form of a server.
“Hey, Cowboy—thirsty?” she asked, approaching the table, the tone of her voice bored and mechanical. “What’ll ya have?”
“Whiskey,” he replied, raising two digits of his right hand. “Two fingers—neat.”
“In a hurry,” she teased.
“Sure,” he replied gruffly without looking up.
“Got a preference? We got …”
“How refreshing, a man who knows what he likes. Got a name for the tab Cowboy?”
“K- Roth. Call me Lolli.”
As the sound of her name spilled from between the exaggerated flush of her crimson-hued lips, strumming a disordered cord like a stone tossed against the bridge of a hard-wood guitar, a childish tune, springing upwards from some hidden well of forgotten remembrances coursed through the front of his mind. Silently mouthing the few inane lyrics completing the jingle, Roth wondered, awed, and astounded by the infinite capacity of the brain to store, recall, and when needed, to suppress a lifetime of emotions, memories, and experience as the tune played on in cyclic repetition, “Lollipop, lollipop, Lifesaver lollipop…”
Dismissed by Roth’s silence and his stoic, blank-faced stare, Lolli finished, saying, “Back in a jiff,” leaving him to contemplate the exaggerated swish of her supple, half-exposed butt cheeks receding into shadow.
“Thanks,” he said, upon her return, offering a wan smile and passing her a twenty. “Keep it, and don’t forget to check-in,” he added, before releasing hold of the bill, then leaned back in his chair with the sole intention of wallowing in drunken anonymity. She, it seemed, had other plans.
After a few interminable minutes of patient submission, Roth felt the need to address the forced and constant clatter of the scantily dressed woman now seated across the table from him, as much because of his inbred sense of courtesy as by his intense desire to silence her drone and endless attempts to engage him in petty, flirtatious conversation. Making no effort to disguise the marked disinterest in his voice, he interrupted her rambling monologue by saying, “I see. So, you married for money. And to save you the trouble of asking, I married out of loneliness—and yet here we both are. Must be fate,” he sarcastically quipped.
Taken aback by his thread-less, slighting injection and after a long and thoughtful pause, she asked in return “Is one worse than another?”
“I don’t know. I don’t do answers—not anymore, not now,” he snapped, hoping his brisk and terse reply might satisfy and the hint be taken.
Persisting, she took a long lazy sip of her watered-down drink and continued, “You been here before, Cowboy? Don’t think I ever seen you.”
“My name’s Roth, and no, I’ve never been here before. Not somewhere I’d normally…” he began, then checking himself finished by saying, “No, it’s not on my normal route.”
“Then what brings you here?”
“Why?” he asked, amused by the bluntness of her tact. “Do I need a reason?”
“No, but there usually is one. It sure don’t seem the company you’re after.”
“Because this…” he began, then paused, struggling to hide his growing irritation. “Because this is where I ended up.”
“Only that. And you?” he parried.
“Same, I guess,” she muttered, her light, gold-flecked eyes fixed uncertainly upon the pale hazel of his own as she gazed indifferently through the dimly lit, smoke-filled space.
“Working my way through college, you know—after the divorce,” she explained, hesitating as if poised on the edge of a delicate thought deemed best withheld, her face animated by a stern, disingenuous smile. Assured by past experience she continued, convinced that Roth would pick up where her sentence left off and guide the paragraph to its desired end, a paragraph he had no interest in finishing, and she, no concern as to how he did so, as long as he did.
To Roth, she seemed empty, empty, shallow, and sadly pathetic. Even the overt familiarity of her words seemed little more than a well-rehearsed ruse, her momentary self-imposed silence but a comma deliberately inserted into a half-formed sentence as a snare for careless prey.
“And how’s that working out for you?” Roth asked with a mocking tone.
“Smoke?” she asked, ignoring his question, removing one then tossing the half-empty pack upon the table before turning her head and scanning the hazy gloom of the near-empty space for other, more promising prospects.
“No thanks,” he returned, his eyes instinctively drawn by the sleek and muscled tendons of her long neck as she strained to look about.
Finding nothing of immediate interest in the sparse, early evening crowd milling about the door and the empty stage, she lit the cigarette with a flashy brass lighter she withdrew from her bra, drawing deeply of the soothing fumes. Her face, briefly illuminated by the yellowish-white glow of the lighters flickering flame appeared pallid and drawn, her cheeks ashen and somewhat sunken. Her jade-colored eyes, though striking and large, highlighted by brightly painted lids, thick, furry brows, and a set of long ebony lashes, seemed dim and sorely fatigued.
She was an attractive woman, her motions imbued with easy and natural grace, pale-skinned, sharply thin, and with a head of fine, short-cropped hair, vampire black, cut and styled like that of a young boy or a half-starved model from a nineteen eighties fashion magazine. Though decidedly younger than he, her features lacked the polished glow and tender firmness of her former youth, the softness of their lines now tainted by the broad strokes of a harder, tougher brush. But she did possess other qualities, these, Roth reflected, emphasized by her thigh-length skirt and the open V-necked blouse that hung low about her narrow shoulders certainly worked to her advantage, or would have with most.
Relaxing her sculpted frame against the back of the chair, she crossed her bare legs and squared her shoulders, resigning herself to the task at hand like an imperialist planting a flag in the newly discovered territory, claiming dominion in full view of the native occupants.
For several long moments, Roth offered nothing more, preferring the bland refuge of forced and silent exile to the tired old game of point-counterpoint he saw unfolding before him and wished to avoid.
“You looking for something Cowboy, something special? Maybe something a bit—stiffer would suit?”
“All I’m looking for is more of what I got,” he said, raising his near-empty glass.
“Have it your way, Cowboy. Just trying to help.”
Due to his obvious reluctance in playing his appointed role, she cast her lure further afield, seeking that one elusive strike in which to reel him in. “You seem—troubled. Is there something on your mind?”
After a further hesitation, having no real interest in either the contest or its patently implied reward, Roth gave in and accepted the momentary defeat. His heart felt heavy and burdened, and despite the purposeful crudeness of her remarks and the straightforward manner she’d up to now displayed, Roth sensed a gentler, softer side hidden somewhere beyond Lolli’s tough and crass exterior. He’d spoken to no one since the stressful events of the last evening and the lure of a sympathetic ear to whom he could vent was appealing. But instead of attempting to finish the paragraph to which he’d been led, he, like a fish slyly avoiding the hook while nibbling the tail of a bait it has no particular desire to consume, started one of his own.
Turning away, addressing his comments as if to no one, he licked the tip of his metaphorical pencil and put it to paper. “To tell you the truth, Lolli, I feel like I’m standing on the deck of a ship in the middle of the ocean, staring at the distant horizon.”
“How’s that?” she questioned, her gravelly voice low, and without emotion.
“No matter how long I look, how fast or far I go—it never gets any closer.”
“Any of it,” he spat, turning back to face her, his piercing red-rimmed eyes forceful and resolute yet filled with an inner sadness she found somehow alluring. “Answers, understanding—contentment.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed, blowing the last of the whitish-blue smoke directly into his face before crushing the cigarette out on the surface of the sticky, beer-stained table and dropping the butt to the floor, the thin crimson-toned lips of her generous mouth pursed and tight. “Yes. It is like that, isn’t it? Just like that,” she said, inwardly proud of her swift though purely fabricated reply. Scooting closer, encouraged by his openly offered though somewhat tentative words, she sat up attentively, arms folded across the table in front of her.
“It’s a lot like sex,” he suggested.
“Like sex?” She asked, her curiosity now more keenly aroused. “How you figure that?”
Answering slowly, the line of his gaze passing through her like light through a grease-smeared windowpane, his mind aware of neither the glass nor what lay beyond only the besmudged and soiled surface through which it passed, he explained.
“Yes, it’s like sex. I mean, we all want it, don’t we? And we think about it—all the fucking time.”
“Okay, I can go for that.”
“And we chase after it? Hell, we even dream about it.”
“Yes, we do. I do.”
“We find the promise and the allure of it everywhere, broadcast and advertised in the faces and eyes, on the lips and the breasts of all who cross our path. And if we’re lucky enough to find it within our grasp, don’t we reach for it, grab at it, and do our best to make it our own, to revel in the distraction and pleasure of it.”
“Again, that sounds about right to me. But what has any of that to do with understanding or contentment?”
“Because when we succeed, if we succeed, and the object of our eager quest is realized; when victory rests on the tip of a penis or the moisture slickened ends of our fingers; when the object of our desire is within our clutch, laying willing and eager beneath or upon us; when we have it; when it’s doing—and done! It isn’t enough, is it? Well, it’s the same with happiness, understanding, and contentment. It’s fleeting, all of it.”
“At least it’s something. And I don’t know about you, but I kinda like it…sex I mean.”
“Liking it or not isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?”
“The point is that it never satisfies or fills the void, not really. And the moment never lasts. No matter how good the sex, how pretty, how sexy, soft, tight, or hard the partner—the emptiness remains, the hollowness and the nothingness are never more than a hair’s breadth away. And those few moments of satisfaction that we do find, whether in sex, or drugs, booze, books, relationships, or—-whatever, they aren’t enough to satisfy our appetite or to fill the insatiable soul-sucking vacuum within our souls. You see, those moments, those gleaming bright-eyed moments when everything’s good and right when life is comfortable and easy when all the hundreds of why’s that we daily carry on our shoulders seem to disappear, to vanish from our minds because the answers to the questions matter less than the moment at hand, those moments—they aren’t ours. We don’t own them. Those moments of happiness, contentment, peace, or whatever you choose to call it are nothing but a premonition of moments without. Just like loving someone, or something is but an omen of the grief and sorrow to come.”
“So, you say. But it seems to work for me.”
“But it doesn’t, and with sex most of all. And the very fact that you’re here proves that. Face it, if contentment were so easy to find and sex so ultimately fulfilling then this place would be out of business.”
“What about our memories? Aren’t those ours? Don’t we, as you put it, own those? Aren’t the good moments, those spent with family, friends, and lovers; those moments that live in our heads, and hearts, aren’t they worth something. Don’t they count?”
“Only of you believe that the memory of a favorite meal is as satisfying and sustaining to a man dying a horrible, lingering death of starvation, as is a full stomach. You tell me, Lolli, when does love end with anything but grief and sorrow? Because I don’t see it.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit negative?”
“Negative? I prefer the word, truthful. Because reality most often is just that, negative and harsh.”
“Well,” she argued. “Maybe it’s that way for you because you haven’t found it, or her—yet. But you don’t know me. You know nothing about who I am, what I need, or what I want. How do you know that I haven’t already found what I need, what I’ve been looking for?”
“Because you’re here Lolli, talking to me. And no, you’re right. I don’t know you. And I don’t need to because this has nothing to do with you, or me, or anyone else’s petty wants and desires. Don’t you see, it’s the same for everyone. That’s what makes it so sad. Life turns on itself. One second all is well, the next, you’re asking yourself why; why that, why me, why them, why…. Sex, sure it’s pleasing and pleasurable, intimate, passionate, and bonding. But when it’s over, it’s just over, and nothing’s settled, nothing’s won, and nothing’s finished.”
“I don’t buy it. Just to say that you or I haven’t found whatever the fuck we need doesn’t mean that no one has, or will, that no one finds it.”
“But it does. It won’t be found, Lolli, ever, by anyone. It can’t be. It can’t be found because it doesn’t exist, because that kind of peace can’t be discovered, manufactured, or invented—only wished for and imagined. What’s worse is that we refuse to concede or accept this fact as its realization is a cruel and crushing disappointment, yet one that every lover knows and shares.”
“And because of that, because we refuse to recognize or act upon the obvious truth, our response to the problem is always the same—all we want or think we need is another time, another face, another moment or act, another hit, another drink—another lover. We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that maybe a prettier face will do the trick, someone softer or harder, maybe a pinker breast, a deeper kiss, a more youthful body. But we never get any closer, do we? We never find what we think we’re after, not for more than an instant anyway, because we can’t ever own that little bit of peace, that slice of contentment, that small morsel of joy. It’s only a loan at best and one that must be repaid with interest. No, no matter what we do the hole remains and the emptiness wins. Don’t you get it? The darkness and the hollowness are all that survive. The vacancy in our heart and soul—that’s the only thing that persists and endures, the only thing that truly lasts.”
“Damn. You got it bad,” she said, leaning in as if to whisper. “What happened to you? I mean, who?”
“Who?” he loudly chuckled.
“What’s so funny? Yes, who?”
“What makes you think it was a who?”
“Because the people who come here—it’s always because of someone, something someone said or did—or didn’t. So, what the hell happened to you? Someone must have hurt you, and bad.”
“Really, Lolli. Who do you know who hasn’t been hurt? Isn’t pain the only true constant.”
“So you say. Hey, you sure there ain’t something I could do to help you feel—better. We could go in the back, just you and me, all alone? They don’t call me Lollipop for nothing ya-know. Say, forty bucks?”
“Look, that’s…No, Lolli, sorry.”
“That’s just not my way, that’s all.”
“Come on, then how-bout you buy me another drink and tell me all about it, Aye?”
“I’d like that, I think. But there’s not much to tell, really—he’s gone.”
“He?” she replied, her voice tainted with surprise. “Oh, I see.”
“Yes, I think so. I get it.”
“You get what?”
“It’s not uncommon you know. Believe it or not I meet a lot of men—like that here. Not a thing to me, really. What’s his name?”
“Bob, his name was Bob.”
“And you two—lived together?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Ah, two years—or so.”
“And he left you?”
“Yes, well in a manner of speaking. He’s dead.”
“Dead! Gosh, I am sorry. When?”
“Last night actually, and right in front of me.”
“Jeeze! You’re shitting me. That couldn’t have been easy.”
“No, it sure as hell wasn’t.”
“How—How’d it happen?”
“I’ve no freaking clue, really. It was all so—sudden. And the worst part,” he groaned, cupping his chin and cheeks in the palms of his hands, his elbows to the table. “He died hard, real hard! It was ugly.”
“Man, that sucks. Natural causes?”
“Can’t say, really. Could have been poisoned I suppose, a lot of cruel and savage folks out there that hate and hold a grudge, those who get a kick out of harming the weak and the harmless. I’m sure he had his share of enemies in the neighborhood, those types—they’re everywhere, especially these days. Or, maybe he had some latent, genetic defect or something, who knows. Whatever the cause, it looked to me like something broke or ruptured—something inside. And—shit, I can’t get it out of my head. I keep replaying the scene in my mind, over and over. I can’t seem to stop it. Hell, I can still smell it, the scent of death, and blood, and escaping gas, like the smell of a freshly killed rabbit being skinned, warm, and nasty, raw, blue-veined, sickly, and moist. It’s—it’s stuck in my nostrils and I can’t get it out.”
“Ooh, that sounds nasty. Unexpected, I take it?”
“Yes, very. It was—both. That’s why I’m here, not here specifically as anyplace with a dark corner and plenty of booze would have done. I just needed a drink and to get away, to get out of the house; you know, away from the memories, the images, all the little things and situations in which I see him.
“My God! So, what did you do?”
“Do? There was nothing I could do; nothing but watch. It was so quick. And—yes, before you say it, I suppose in some sick perverted way I should be grateful for that, but I’m not. I’m only pissed off angry. It was so, so shocking, and… Yes, shocking. That’s it, that’s the word. I suppose I’m still in shock because I can’t seem to accept it,” he gasped, wiping the small pools of tears collecting in the corner of each eye with the back of his lightly trembling hands.
“He was in so much pain, you see, and so scared, and I—Shit! No, there was nothing I could do, nothing. And I felt, I feel—so helpless, so useless and weak. I couldn’t even comfort him.”
“There were no signs, no symptoms? He didn’t feel bad—or nothing?”
“No, not a thing, he was fine. I didn’t notice that anything was wrong until I heard his screams, screams of pain. Then I dashed into the kitchen and saw him all hunched over, puking. Right after, he took a few steps forward and collapsed on the floor in front of me, his body jerking, legs twitching, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, moaning and gasping for breath. Then—then he died! He just fucking died, in seconds, just like that! I hardly had time to swallow.”
“Wow! Was he old? You sure he wasn’t sickly?”
“No, he was young and perfectly healthy, as far as I knew anyway.”
“What were you doing, you two—I mean before?”
“Nothing, just hanging out as usual. Hell, just moments before he died I remember looking up and seeing him turn my way, gazing at me without a care in the world, with everything as normal as ever. Seconds later—shit! I keep asking myself what I should have known that I didn’t, what I should have noticed, and done. But I have no answers. And I don’t get it, I just don’t. I can’t think past the sound of his pain, the fear, and suffering in his eyes. I can’t stop seeing those eyes, the terror and the torture, the pleading and the confusion. In one single minute, he went from all is well—to flat fucking dead! And I keep asking myself what the fuck happened? And why? Why did he have to suffer like that? And why the hell did I have to see it?”
But—but there must have been a reason.”
“Oh, there’s always a reason, isn’t there? Mysterious ways, right? Everything happens for a reason, or so they say. Bullshit! Sometimes the reason is nothing more than a big fat, because! But does that make it right? Does that explain one fucking thing? No! What purpose was served by such a horrible and painful death, what lessons learned by his suffering? What good can possibly come from that much pain and fear? For what—and for why? Is there some lesson here, for me, for you, for anyone? What kind of fucked up world is this?”
“I—I, damn hon! What can I say?”
“Exactly! What can you say? What can anyone say? Nothing! I’ll tell you what it was, it was cruel, mean, and sadistic. What did Bob ever do to deserve that? What? He was so sweet and innocent, so loving and full of life, so full of joy, and… No! It was wrong, and ruthless—and nothing but pure fucking evil!”
“What did you do—after?”
“What else could I do? I rushed him to the clinic, you know, to be sure, sure that he was dead.”
“Then I buried him.”
“What? You buried him…”
“Someone had to.”
“Hold on. He died last night—and you’ve buried him, already? When?”
“Like I told you, last night”
“No! Oh, no, no, no. You mean to tell me that you buried him, you yourself”?
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“Where? Well, I just drove out of the city and buried him beneath a tree, by a small lake.”
“But! I mean, aren’t there laws about shit like that?”
“I suppose there are, but… Shit, I don’t know, and I don’t give damn if there are.”
“Wow! That’s intense! But, back up a sec—let me see if I get this, Bob died last night, in your home, and you buried him, last night, by yourself?”
“And before he died, you two lived together and—I mean, I’m assuming that you two were lovers, right?”
At this Roth’s face went blank as if struck by a sudden realization, a broad and spacious grin spreading across the strong and ridged lines of his face like the dawn creeping across a black-watered pond. Breaking into a fit of laughter, the pitch of his fluted voice oddly high and loud like the whining of high-pressure steam rushing from a newly fractured pipe.
“What the…” she asked, her face a mask of confusion, unsure whether to be insulted, concerned, or relieved.
“Bob and I lovers?” he cried. “Jesus! That’s funny,” he sputtered. “But thanks, thanks for that. I needed a good laugh; you have no idea. And please,” he insisted, “get yourself that drink, and I mean a real one, on me! Hell, make it two,” Roth stammered between gasps of amusement before rising from his chair and tossing a few bills on top of the table.
“Hey—wait a minute, Cowboy. I don’t get it. What’s so damn funny?” she called as he moved to step away.
Turning back, speaking between intermittent spasms of laughter, he replied, “What’s so funny? Seems I forgot to mention—Bob was my cat!”