Lovers

By N.T. McQueen

Nick Jerusalem placed a quote under his picture that read, I’ll lead you to your Promised Land. He prided himself in its wittiness and held the belief he could perform the promise he advertised. His escrows lessened and the desks around his held no photos or names, but he remained. Despite the recession’s effects, he retained his optimism and sought avenues to advance himself, to make himself visible. He volunteered to work the phones, occasionally answering for a buyer or prank call. His mellifluous tone injected his clients with his reservoir of hope and the success bolstered the basin of his spirit. But, before he left the office each night, he read the lettering on his past awards and waited for the positive words from his broker and caressed the shape of his accomplishments.

His drives home he listened to Under the Table and Dreaming, the crisp layers rolled off the leather seats and the bass lines rattled the cans of Diet Pepsi in the holders. Often, he puzzled over whether the rattle came from the stereo or the axels or the worn tires or from some stripped screw hidden within the engine. The winding drive into the hills caused his fingers to tap on the wheel in sporadic rhythm and, the sharper the turn, the more he feared he might lose some vital part of his Lexus. The engine light nagged at his vision as the red sky outlined the range. The dark came usually as he turned onto his long, dusty driveway. Despite his dedication to washing, the car always seemed tainted, particles of dirt lodged and nestled where brush and soap could not penetrate. When he reached his garage and the brief concrete, the anxiety shifted once the engine ceased. He sat in his car and listened to the intermittent clicks of the cooling engine and stared at the door to the house, tapping his fingertips daintily across the leather wheel.

Inside, the aroma of scallops or Kobe beef or cooked brie assaulted his senses. Alejandra waved her streaked knife in greeting and he returned the gesture. Her round frame swiveled effortless from granite to sink to stove. He stepped down the hall to his office and found the stack of envelopes and flyers tucked into his organizer, concealed by Alejandra. He sifted through the envelopes stamped with second notices and red lettering and was overcome with déjà vu, as if the past years of his life had recurred over in some cyclical purgatory. The reality of cold-calling haunted his thoughts when he stepped into his office but failed the courage to lift the phone. He checked the landline in his office and listened to the messages that blinked at him, all audible companions to what he held in his hands. He knew she would never hear those calls, nor see the envelopes, but a fear still lingered. He searched the routine locations but found her by the pool, lax and drifting in a lounge chair. The leg of a wine-glass dangled between her fingers and, tucked in the top of her bikini, a prescription. The remnants of an empty bottle tucked under the chair. He knew they would fight before he reached her and, before each argument, his mother’s caveat about Gentile girls nagged at his memory. He attributed his life to inexperience and married young after she showed him the test was positive. They had dated for three months and she promised she would never touch another drink as long as she lived. Her two months of sobriety and his belief that God desired their relationship affirmed his decision. She miscarried the next month but Yafa believed, even as the cancer devoured her bones, that that girl never was going to have a baby, this was God’s punishment for having such a stupid boy, and he should have found a nice Jewish girl to ruin his life.

His family owned a chain of jewelers throughout Lake and Mendocino counties that consumed his father. Jaspar slept often among the fine tools and polishing kits near the back of the stores, alternating between counties and arriving at home according to no apparent pattern. Nick and his sister, Adina, flocked to him and he poured forth his affections into them and, as if in a dream, he disappeared to his jewels. His mother’s lips sagged toward her chin with each year and she purchased sundries and shoes every other day. Due to Jaspar’s business instincts, the name of Jerusalem bore more significance than the Holy City within a few years and he invested a large part of the profits into real estate in San Francisco. Though Nick and Adina benefited from the spoils of this wealth, a bitterness imbued their home and they bickered over trivialities beyond the range of normal sibling subjects. Yafa never raised her voice, but spoke in lugubrious and wounded tones to her children and, after the guilt soaked into them, they obeyed. She had learned from her mother the power of a mother’s voice and used the practice with such skill and mastery, her children never suspected her coercion. A week after Nick’s bar-mitzvah, Jaspar suffered a heart attack while helping Carrol and Paula Pribble choose their wedding rings. Though the paramedics arrived quick, Jaspar slipped into unconsciousness for a year, fixed to the walls of the sterile hospital room to survive. Adina wept alongside her mother, whispered curses floated upward from their hearts. But Nick only watched the machines pump, click, and beep with an indifference he despised. He dwelled on fondness from his youth but, in every scene, he could not recall Jaspar present. In an effort to reconnect, he visited his father’s bedside after school every day and spoke of things he kept hidden away from others and suffered shame for having thought such vile ideas. Each day, he vomited his darkness upon his sleeping father and, often prayed he wake up to stay the confessions. But he continued his penance until they buried Jaspar Jerusalem three days after his valedictorian speech at graduation from Port Lake High School. During that final year, he had often confided in Larry Holiday Jr. in the AP English class at first period. Though he only listened, Larry Jr. subdued Nick’s spirit with his ear and patience and often laid a consulting hand upon Nick’s bony shoulder and said generic encouraging phrases like things will get better and just keep on thinking positive.

When they buried their father, Adina left for college in Massachusetts and returned home only for Passover. Nick and Yafa rarely knew of her academics, relationships, or troubles and, seemingly, Yafa cared little for the affairs of her daughter. Instead, she pried into the life of Nick, indecisive and lazy, and urged him to find a nice girl as a means to motivate him to do something with his life. This insistence often followed with a lamentable oy vey iz mir and hands raised in surrender. His apathy sparked Yafa’s independence and she intruded upon the financial matters of her late husband, busying herself with the profitable investments and, against the advice of Jaspar’s brother who worked for Kellerman’s Mutual Funds and Investments, made bold decisions and purchases. Four months later, when Brenda sent Nick the text message, all that remained of his father’s hands was the house they lived in.

Brenda Decker lived in a non-descript tract of houses in central Port Lake, just behind the high school. She did not know her father and, though she saw her everyday, she could not tell you her mother’s shoe size or what television shows she enjoyed. The vibrancy of Brenda’s blue eyes were stolen by the forlorn drag of her eye lids as if stained by her melancholy. Even as a young girl, she favored blacks and greys and found solace listening to rain spatter against the glass. Her grandmother called her everyday from Nebraska and her words brightened the dark of Brenda’s eyes, if only momentary. In seventh grade, she communed with others of similar eyes when the phone calls became more infrequent and ceased abruptly. Her grades reflected her spirit and, during breaks, she smoked in between the portable classrooms with the other students who dyed their hair black.

When she arrived home from school, a man saddled with a heavy gut and curvy nose, sat slumped on their porch. The hood of his jacket stuck to his stubble. She kept her eyes down and wrapped her massive sweatshirt around her, a false protection woven within its fibers. Her backpack fastened close to her body. Though she had never seen him, she knew the man and stood paralyzed before him. He lifted his haggard face, red, broken eyes, and corroded smile and rose to hug her, but she stepped back. He staggered as she faded then fell and mumbled his love for her and her mother and how if it weren’t for the shitty economy, he would have been there for her. She sealed her stony figure and yielded nothing from those melancholy eyes. Instead, she dropped a cigarette as she passed him. He scrambled for the stray, yellow nails scratching at the concrete, so intent he could not hear the door shut behind him. Inside, she slapped at her eyes, checking her fingertips for smudges, until stolidity reaffirmed itself within her. She pried between the Venetian blinds, but saw only the drying marks where he spat darken the driveway.

She never told her mother nor Nick after they had married. That evening, while her mother slept, Brenda snuck to the softball field behind the high school and followed the illuminated embers behind the back stop. When they offered it to her, she refused at first, but the pervasive image of the spat marks blotched her vision and she gently lifted the burning embers to her lips and inhaled fantasies locked behind the blotches of her vision, cataclysmic and soothing as if innocence sought victory over carnality by embracing its doppelganger. The fantasy followed her home and nestled into her warmth and held her like two large arms, unseen yet present.

Her mother’s shifts lengthened as did Brenda’s trips to the softball field. But the arms grew cold over time and those blotches grew stronger, darker. One of the others brought prescriptions he had lifted from his mother’s dresser. They passed and partook as if in some sacramental exchange, a communion of sin. Such ease overtook Brenda, she awoke in the low, grey fog in the morning, dew beaded on the strands of her hair. Soon, Brenda rarely awoke in her own bed and, one weekend, she awoke with no pants and aching in a room she had never known. Nick slept with his mouth open and she tried to leave noiseless but he awoke. They talked briefly and Brenda tried to escape but she could not break from his questions and, the more she answered, the desire to leave lessened. The blotches lightened.

Though never explicit, they spent all their time together. Her visits to the softball field became infrequent and, almost ceased. Brenda called Nick often and, when sleep avoided her, she walked to his home and stared toward his window, scribbled romantic poems in her journal, and kept watch for his mother. As their senior year neared an end, an irresistible anxiety overtook her when Nick told her he was to give a speech at the graduation ceremony. Blotches loomed and swirled across her dreams, her vision. Her messages to Nick’s home remained unanswered and she labored for breath. One evening, after her third unanswered call, she left the house in the rain, trotted down the muddy embankment and walked, slow in her mind, toward the back stop. Her sweater’s hood soaking in the rain. The burning semaphores illuminated the path and, the closer she came to those cloaked shapes, the anxiety lifted and, when those tablets rested under her tongue, she hated the love that festered in her soul.

On graduation night, she convinced Nick to come with her and skip the Sober Grad. He rubbed his tongue on his teeth, muttering concerns about his mother, but, with the use of her tongue, led him back to her house. Once inside, Brenda climbed onto the counter and retrieved a robust bottle by the neck from the top cupboard. Nick could not help but stare at the windows as if in compulsive interest. They exchanged swigs from the bottle until their vision simmered, stumbled against the walls into her mother’s bedroom, and escaped into each other in a reckless haze. Afterward, while Nick slept, she swallowed a handful of pills that spun a kaleidoscope of comforting terror before her eyes.

She told Nick about her pregnancy through a text message and, without evidence of a test, married her in the recorder’s office on Gerard Way. The news caused the corner of Yafa’s lips to sink further toward her chin and she asked God why they had ever left Hebron. Nick called his sister but she would not return his calls. The reality of his impending fatherhood terrified Nick and his ambition resolved around supporting his wife. He sought vocations that upheld the lifestyle he wished to have and, unable to acquire a job he considered worthy, tested for his real estate license in Sacramento. On the second attempt, he passed and found a broker who owed a favor to Jaspar and allowed him to become an agent in her office. By December, he had sold six homes and netted seventy eight thousand dollars in commissions. Brenda did not show after seven months and, when Nick inquired of her, she shrugged her shoulders and claimed she must have miscarried. A profound despair pervaded Nick while Yafa rejoiced silently before she slept two weeks after she heard.

But his dedication persevered. The market prices rose as investors from Marin County flooded Port Lake, quaint, derelict homes now doubled in value as local contractors absorbed the money flowing into the town. His inbox crowded with buyers, sellers, and investors and his weekends became consumed with clients. When he saw the balance of his bank accounts, an overwhelming sense of pride flowed through him. Brenda celebrated with him by driving to Napa for a week stay. They drank bottle upon bottle and stayed in their hotel suite, then fought until he stormed out and she pulled the prescription from between her folded blouses. They rode home silent and resumed their lives with isolated passions. Nick found a Bauchmann home on the MLS in the hills. He liked the name Woodlake Estates and purchased the home with one hundred percent financing from Ola at North Lake Mortgage. The day they pulled the moving truck up to the twelve foot front door, he imagined the life that had alluded him and saw faint shadows of children to come. Brenda, dissatisfied with their lack of furnishings appropriate to their status, scoffed at the home and told Nick they would need to take a trip to San Francisco the next day. His protests were met with guilt and sullen isolation by Brenda until he acquiesced. On their return trip along 101 in their green, plateless Jaguar, Brenda cranked the volume on the radio and sang along to Shania Twain while Nick smiled and uncomfortable smile.

Nick and Brenda lived in the fantasy of their promised land until the recession. Nick reigned over the finances and concealed the reality of their decline from her. His wishful veracity always conjured images of those tendons in her neck and only the sound of the TV for the remainder of his life. The thought of sleeping in an empty bed haunted him and he shook the image from his mind. The plenty of his life lost zero after zero and gained in battles between her and the bottles of heaven she stashed in cabinets, dresser drawers, the pool filter, and under beds. He suggested to Brenda she admit she had a problem, but these attempts resulted in battles where past faults volleyed from bitter lips until one relented and wept. Then they reconciled with a violent, impassioned force that demanded all of each other and, for the brief moment they slept next to one another, they drifted among each other’s dreams until reality nudged them. They reflected upon their relationship with their own eyes, both tainted with an abhorrent malice for what they had become or always been. Both looked at the other unable to see their own reflection.

They waltzed their tragic dance amongst the stacks of envelopes and the beeping of answering machines, keeping rhythm while forced against a new song. The silent tones light enough to slip past ears but severe enough to rattle bones. On the morning they repossessed Brenda’s CTS, they both slept, burdened with the residue of the previous night. The beep from the backing tow truck pounded in his dreams before waking him and, aware that the threats had come to fruition, he ran downstairs and out the front door. The red dawn caught the sky afire and the birth of smoky clouds. The coolness of the morning rode the breeze and, as he bartered with the towman, he felt the wind over all his body. The towman chuckled, sleeves rolled to his elbows that exposed skulls, dates, and playing cards. The wrinkle at the towman’s eyes spread like spiderwebs from the corners. Nick glanced back to the bedroom window and saw her face behind the glare of the rising sun and his nakedness ballooned in his eyes so expansive he could not ignore. The towman apologized with his shrugs and started the truck. He pulled forward, dragging the car behind and Nick watched the Cadillac logo until it turned the corner down the hill. He looked back to an empty window.

Inside, he heard strange voices. The television overpowered the living room and the chatter from the anchors about the fires dominated his thoughts. He grabbed a blanket slung over the back of the couch and returned to the bedroom. He imagined her sitting on the bed, facing the window, but, when he entered, he saw the disheveled sheets, cold and alone. Bon Iver sung his melancholy from their docked Ipod. A line of light illuminated under the bathroom door and he lifted his feet to avoid scratching his bare feet against the carpet. His ears pricked but he heard nothing. He spoke her name softly but she would not speak. An ominous dread overtook him, some demonic premonition that blackened his thoughts and terrified him with their reality. He grabbed the knob but it would not turn. He spoke her name harsh, slapped the door, and shook the knob. He heard plastic hit linoleum. The toilet flushed. He poured his violence into the door as if forcing his anger through his shoulder. By the time he had forced a crude fracture in the door, Alejandra stood in the doorway, asking if she should call the police. He did not answer and broke the door enough to peer through the jagged crack. Brenda’s cockneyed legs flung over the bath. He reached through the door, splinters caught inside the skin and rivaled the sharpness of his shoulder. The froth accumulated around her mouth like a lager and the wine bottle hidden under the sink now lay visible, bleeding into the fibers of the bathmat. Those eyes retained their sadness and he shook her body, apologetics poured from him. The red light penetrated through the broken door, intruded upon the scene, past Alejandra’s prying head. He cradled Brenda against him and rocked. Tears dripped from an empty reservoir inside him, unable to find what emotional basin they came from. As if his eyes knew no other response. Alejandra mentioned something but he could not hear, nor see for the red light. The bitter smoke snuck into the rooms and he apologized to Brenda in whispers. Soft whispers burdened by envelopes and notices and phone calls. When the paramedics appeared in the doorway, he only recognized their shadows and continued to whisper in hopes she would hear him.

FavoriteLoadingSave This Story
N.T. McQueen

N.T. McQueen / About Author

N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel Between Lions and Lambs and The Disciple. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of Fiction Southeast, The Kentucky Review, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, Transition Magazine, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children and teaches college writing at American River College. http://www.ntmcqueen.com

> More posts by N.T. McQueen