He's Come Undone by Bonnie Carlson
How much longer could he continue to brush his teeth at the kitchen sink to avoid the bathroom mirror? The prospect of facing himself after all these months filled him with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Mostly dread.
So, shirtless, in wrinkled pajama bottoms—his daily uniform—he spit out the toothpaste, rinsed, and brewed himself a third cup of coffee. Time to get the day started. As he lit the day’s first cigarette, he glanced at the kitchen wall clock. Two p.m. He carried the mug and cig back downstairs to his man cave, the basement space his mother had finished off for him when he moved back in—never mind that it violated the homeowner’s association rules—back before she got sick. As he padded downstairs, the ghost of his mother haunted him as he thought about how much she’d hate the cigarette stench of his room.
Being homeless sucked when you had a dog and none of the shelters would allow pets. He wouldn’t go anywhere without Max though. Eventually, as she had in the past, his mother relented and let him move in. It took a lot of coaxing to convince her to let Max stay, that he wouldn’t bother her cat. Little did she know how soon she would come to depend on him.
He couldn’t get rid of that nagging voice in his head. Brian, you need to get your shit together. Get a job. He sort of wanted to work, but not really. What he really wanted was money. As soon as he got his inheritance he wouldn’t have to work. At least for a while.
A year and a half had passed since he’d gotten laid off from that lab job. He didn’t see that one coming, and he didn’t deserve it. That job paid well and had good benefits. Not having health insurance at fifty-four was a pain in the ass.
He studied the angry red rash covering his forearm and shook his head. He’d had that sucker since before his mother passed and couldn’t get rid of it. Based on his EMT training, he suspected it came from changing her colostomy bag, despite how careful he’d been with the latex gloves. He needed to see a dermatologist, or at least go to one of those urgent care places but didn’t have the cash.
He sat at the desk in his bedroom and opened the computer, curious to see what had happened since he’d logged off at five a.m. and passed out. A bunch of new emails had arrived, so he scanned through those first. Mostly junk he deleted immediately. Except for the one from Daphne. He considered deleting that one too, but he’d been dodging her phone calls for days. Or was it weeks? Hard to tell, the way the days just ran together. So, at the last second he decided to open it.
“Brian, You can’t keep avoiding my phone calls. We need to talk. ~Daphne”
Short and sweet.
His mother had put his older cousin Daphne in charge of the estate as the executor because Mom hadn’t trusted Brian or his sister Linda to deal with money or anything else. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt betrayed. After all the caregiving he’d provided for the last couple of years of her life. He’d even turned down a promotion for a job out of state to stay in Connecticut and care for her. On the other hand, what a pleasant surprise to discover Mom had left the condo to him, even though he had to split the cash assets with 26 Linda. Like that messed up bitch even deserved a penny.
So now he had three choices. Two sucked: calling Daphne, which was bound to be unpleasant, or going out to look for a job, which would require a shower. When had he last showered?
He’d probably opt for the third choice, logging back into Fortnite to play his favorite online game. Man, was it addictive. That way he could make contact with Cheryl, assuming she was playing. No contest, right? Of course, he considered Cheryl his girlfriend. His mother had thought it was outrageous he called her that, just because she lived in Washington state and Brian had never met her in person. So what? They talked all the time, and he’d eventually meet her. Once he inherited that cash and could fly out there.
Then his cellphone rang. He wondered how much longer his carrier would continue to provide service with him being so far behind on the bill. He glanced at the screen. Shit, it was her.
She wasted no time starting to hassle him. If she was going to be like that he needed a beer, so he trotted upstairs, grabbed one from the fridge, and lit another cigarette.
“I wasn’t deliberately avoiding you. I haven’t been feeling well.” That was sort of true. He listened to her blab on about how he needed to stop neglecting his health. Yak, yak, yak.
“You know I don’t have any money for a doctor.”
Then things turned nasty. Her being in California had given him some breathing room, but she’d finally figured out he still had his mother’s ATM card. He’d been using it at the Mobil station, not for gas—shit, his mother’s car wasn’t even registered and his driver’s license had expired—but for beer and cigarettes and sundries, like cortisone cream for his rash.
Toward the end of the conversation he asked Daphne, “When do you think I’ll get my half of the cash?”
That’s when she exploded and told him he already had his half and more.
“Wait, how can that be?” She’d given him nothing.
She explained, not at all patiently, sounding annoyed, that she’d been paying a bunch of his household expenses out of his half of the assets.
“Like what?” He assumed the condo was paid for, although his mother was so secretive and anxious about her assets it was hard to tell what she had. Like the real estate taxes, the monthly homeowner’s fee, the land lease, and utilities, she told him.
“What’s a land lease?”
She said he didn’t need to know, like he was an idiot, just that his mother paid it every month. She went on to say she’d also been paying off the home-equity loan.
“But Mom took that out to pay for the Linda’s car. Linda was supposed to be paying her back.” He doubted she ever did. Something else his mother had refused to talk to him about. “She should be responsible for that.”
Daphne reminded him that his mother had used that loan to pay for remodeling in the condo as well, specifically the finished basement where he lived.
Shit, he’d forgotten about that.
In the end, she went on, it didn’t matter what his mother used it for. It was connected to the house, and therefore his responsibility. She had checked with the lawyer who had confirmed it.
This whole estate business frustrated him so much he wanted to punch something. The lawyer told Daphne that the condo was his as soon as his mother died since she’d left it to him in the will. But he couldn’t sell it for some legal reasons she wouldn’t explain to him. Probate or something. He was about to ask her when the condo would be available to do with as he wished when she told him he should forget any ideas he might’ve had that he could continue to live there. He couldn’t afford the monthly expenses, which totaled almost three grand. Even if he had a job.
What? But wasn’t the condo paid for? Just as he was about to ask her to clarify that she abruptly hung up on him. God, she’d turned into such a bitch. Her parting words to him echoed in his ears: “You need to get off your ass and find a job.” He assumed there would be enough cash from his mother’s assets that he wouldn’t have to work, at least for a while. Now…now he wasn’t sure of anything.
He grabbed a second beer. Too bad there wasn’t any whiskey around, or weed. His guts were convulsing, and he desperately needed to get high, to get the racing thoughts to stop. But he’d given up the weed a couple of months ago when it was clear he couldn’t afford it anymore. The hard stuff too.
The phone call had rattled him so bad he decided to take a shower, bite the bullet, and go look for a job. Time to take a look at himself in the mirror before he left the house, but he’d put that off as long as possible. After he showered, he wrapped the towel around his expanding waist—he had trouble getting it to stay there—and caught the first glimpse of himself in the fogged-over mirror.
He wiped off the condensation and studied his image. He expected it would be bad, but he actually flinched when he saw his face in the clear mirror. Had he had a haircut since he buried Mom? Maybe not. His formerly brown hair now hung in gray, shaggy clumps, almost long enough to pull back into a ponytail. Red blotches from broken capillaries covered his ashen face. He leaned in for a closer look at his eyes. A network of minuscule red veins formed a map on his eyeballs, the part that’s supposed to be white instead a pale yellow. His ugly, oversized nose was covered in blackheads. He shuddered. How had he let himself get this bad?
He should have been prepared for Mom’s death. After all, he’d taken care of her for months while she suffered from the end stages of colon cancer. But six months ago, Daphne had lectured him to let her go.
“Jesus, Brian. Do you want your last conversation with her to be an argument because she won’t drink her Ensure? She’s ready. That’s what she’s telling you.”
Easy for her to say from three thousand miles away. He was the one who stood by her side as she wasted away in the hospital bed in their living room. But somehow it still caught him unawares. His life lacked purpose now that he no longer needed to take her for doctor visits and cajole her to drink liquids and change her colostomy bag. He didn’t know what to do with himself and could hardly remember what his life was like before she got sick.
Every day he wandered into her bedroom and plopped down in her favorite chair. He knew he should convert it to his bedroom, to come up from the basement, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d managed to get rid of her clothes though. Linda had begged him for those clothes, but he donated them to a charity instead. Fuck her. But he hung onto Mom’s favorite bathrobe. Sometimes he needed to inhale the lingering scent of the old-lady perfume she always wore, Chanel No. 5. Linda wanted that, too. Right.
He plodded back downstairs to get dressed. He had to root around in a pile of clothes on the floor to find a semi-clean pair of jeans. They were so tight he could barely zip them under his growing gut. He donned a turquoise polo shirt he found hanging in the closet. It stunk of cigarettes. While he got dressed, he pondered a job-hunting strategy. Why not try the Starbucks in town? They always seemed to be looking for people. Plus, he’d heard it was a good place to work, with generous benefits.
So that was the plan. He left and locked the front door. The noisy ch-ch-ch, ch-ch-ch of dozens of cicadas high in the Norway maple trees around the condo almost drowned out the shrill voice of his neighbor.
“Brian. Haven’t seen you in ages. How’s it going?”
“Fine, Mrs. Ferretti, how are you?” Probably a mistake to ask. She could be gabby.
“I’m good, Brian. Sure miss your mother though. What’ve you been up to?”
God, was she nosey. None of your freakin’ business. He couldn’t afford to get sidetracked into talking to the old biddy since it was almost five. “Can’t talk, Mrs. Feretti. Got an appointment.”
He hustled to the garage. By the time he arrived at the car microdots of sweat had bloomed on his upper lip and the back of his neck under his still damp hair. It had been so long since he’d been outside during the day he’d forgotten how hot and muggy southern Connecticut was in August.
As he left the complex his eyes darted left and right, looking for cops. Satisfied he was in the clear, he picked up his speed to thirty. These little shoreline towns had low speed limits. Catching people for speeding padded their meager budgets. His mind shifted to how he would handle the interview at Starbucks. Sure, he hadn’t worked in a couple of years, but explaining that he’d been caring his sick mother should count for something, shouldn’t it?
He made a left onto Main Street, soon reaching the tiny downtown, if you could call it that (people did). Boutiques, a coffee shop, a couple of restaurants, a barber shop and hair salon, and a bookstore. Not a single big box or chain store. Well, except Starbucks, and the local residents had fought like ferrets to keep that out, worried about the effect on the independently owned coffee shop just steps away. Then came the CVS, next door to the Starbucks, but not without another fight. Now the sole independently owned pharmacy struggled to survive, practically empty most days. Starbucks and CVS were so busy you could hardly find a parking space. His mother had moved all her prescriptions to CVS because they were cheaper.
“I can’t afford to waste money,” she announced, always the frugal senior. Cheapskate was more like it.
He made a right turn into the CVS-Starbucks parking lot and caught a quick glimpse of the red flashing light in his rear-view mirror. Shit. Shit. Shit. He had to drive around to the back to find a place to park.
The cop blocked him into the spot, and in the seconds it took to turn off his car and roll down the window, the officer was all over Brian. As panic rose in his chest, he took a few deep breaths to calm his pounding heart. Sweat drenched his jittery, over-caffeinated body and dripped down his face. Fat lot of good that shower did. Wiping his brow, as calmly as he could, he said, “Officer, what’s the problem?”
In these wealthy shoreline towns on Long Island Sound the cops had no real crime to deal with, other than the occasional break-in and teenage vandalism, so they were relentless about driving infractions. Probably something minor, Brian thought, looking up at the cop.
“Well, for starters you failed to signal when you turned in here, and then there’s the broken taillight.”
Whew, so nothing serious. He prayed he’d get off with a warning.
Italian-looking and fit, with slicked back black hair and a tan, handsome face, Officer Falcone (according to the name tag on his navy-blue shirt) said, “License and registration please.”
Fuck. Now he was screwed. And probably had beer breath. At least it was almost five o’clock.
“How about if you step out of the car,” continued the young officer.
He fished out the expired registration from the glove box, but what about his expired driver’s license—was it still in his wallet? Now, sweating like someone who had something to hide, he pulled out his wallet and found the license. He got out of the car and breathed a sigh of relief.
The cop took his license and registration back to his car to check things on the computer.
“Can I get back into the car and sit?” Brian yelled to the cop.
“Sure, be my guest,” Officer Falcone said, like they were old buddies.
Brian’s mind scrolled through the possible consequences. He sure wasn’t going to get off with a warning on this one. The ch-ch-ch of those damned mating cicadas was driving him nuts. His heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings, a zillion times a minute. His blood pressure must be soaring. When he tried to inhale a deep breath, he started coughing and couldn’t stop. He needed to stop smoking. Well, now he’d have to, with Daphne cutting him off. While he waited, agitated, he squirmed in his seat and his mind raced, worrying about what might happen. Could they arrest him on the spot? Seize the car? The minutes plodded by. What was taking so long?
By the time the cop returned to his car, Brian was ready to jump out of his skin.
“Well, Mr. O’Connor, I’m afraid you’re in some trouble here. You’ve got an expired license and registration.”
As if Brian didn’t know. His head dropped, and he started to hyperventilate. He was most definitely screwed.
Officer Falcone continued. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to—”
Brian’s head jerked up, a pleading look in his eyes. “Please, Officer, don’t arrest me,” he begged. “Here’s what happened.” Then he started to sob.
The cop stood there, a shocked expression on his face. No doubt he’d probably faced weepy female drivers before, but a crying middle-aged man?
Brian got hold of himself enough to talk. “See, I’ve been taking care of my mother after she got cancer. Living with her. I had to give up my job to take care of her.” Not true, but close, and the cop wouldn’t know he was lying anyhow. “Then six months ago she—” he started to sob all over again.
The cop waited by Brian’s open window, not saying anything. Several people walked by, staring, on their way into the CVS as the red lights still flashed on top of the cruiser.
“After she died, I…everything kind of…fell apart, I guess you’d say.” Brian choked back another sob. “That’s why I didn’t get around to...maybe I’m depressed...I’m not sure.
“All I know is, I can’t seem to get my shit together.” He took a deep breath and paused.
Officer Falcone waited.
“Actually, the reason I was driving here today is to apply for a job at Starbucks”—he looked up and noticed the CVS sign—“and CVS.”
The cop stood there. Finally, he said, “Okay, Mr. O’Connor, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to let you off with a warning today, even though you’ve got three problems—ignoring your failure to signal your right turn. But you’ve got to promise me you’re going to get that license and registration renewed and get your taillight fixed.”
Brian nodded like one of those bobble-head dolls. “Thank you, thank you so much, Officer Falcone. I promise I will.”
“You’d better, because the next time you’re stopped you’ll be in serious trouble.”
Brian nodded solemnly. Right, except that the car title wasn’t his, and he didn’t know what needed to happen to get it in his name. And to get his license renewed he had to pay off hundreds of dollars in traffic fines. Money he didn’t have. And who knows what it would cost to get the damned taillight fixed.
As the cop backed away Brian used his now damp polo shirt to wipe more sweat from his face. On the one hand, he’d dodged a bullet, but on the other...What a fucking mess. He’d torched everything and couldn’t seem to get off his ass to take care of business. He’d vowed he wasn’t talking to Daphne again—especially after that last phone call. That he wouldn’t ask—beg—for money, but now he’d be forced to call her and grovel, humiliate himself. Maybe it would be better to text her, or email. That way he could explain without her interrupting. Might be time to sell that used telescope he loved so much. That would end stargazing at two a.m., but it should net a few hundred bucks on eBay. Put off the inevitable by a couple of months.
He thought about how he’d ended up here, in this parking lot. Even if he got a job, he wouldn’t get paid right away. So what was the point of going into Starbucks or CVS? Plus, that wouldn’t solve the problem of the car not being in his name. He sighed. He needed a beer.
So, he backed out of the space, left the parking lot, and drove the speed limit home where Max would be waiting for his dinner. Maybe he’d go to bed early tonight, try again tomorrow to look for work. Or maybe not.
Bonnie Carlson writes amidst the saguaros and chollas in the magnificent Sonoran Desert. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as The Normal School, Across the Margin, Foliate Oak, and Broadkill Review. Her novel, Radical Acceptance, is forthcoming.