The Big Weight
Gary watched the young couple from his balcony as they prepared supper in the common area between apartment buildings—a patch of red dirt and weeds that passed for a playground, with a rusty swing-set and sandbox full of water and dead leaves.
While the man plucked hotdogs off a makeshift grill, the woman carefully arranged paper plates, napkins and plastic forks on a folding card table draped with a red-checked tablecloth. As a final touch, she placed a jumbo-sized plastic stadium cup in the middle of it all, and rammed it full with clumps of wilted goldenrod and sage. She said something to the man before gesturing extravagantly toward her creation. He nodded and beamed with approval.
They seemed lost to the world in each other's company, happy with such meager provisions and humble surroundings. It all reminded Gary of the time when he was content with not much of anything other than the presence of his wife—the time before it all started going wrong.
As night fell, he sipped Coke and watched the couple from behind a magazine, even though it made him feel lonely. So lonely he could feel it pressing on his chest. He’d been surprised when he first noticed the feeling, surprised that something like loneliness could cause physical pain. It was so real, he’d given it a name—The Big Weight. He imagined it as one of those enormous black weights labeled “One Thousand Pounds” in big white letters that he remembered from the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. Sometimes it even amused him.
The couple picked up after themselves and walked to their apartment, talking and laughing, shoulders pressed together. When they closed the sliding glass door, all went quiet, except for the white noise of traffic on the nearby highway. Gary lit a cigar, the last of his Montecristo Sublimes, the twenty-dollar stogies he’d once given to his best clients. He stared up at a dull night sky, blank except for a sliver of moon and the few bright stars not obscured by the milky glow of city lights.
When his drink was empty, he crushed the can, put out the cigar and went into the apartment. It seemed like every time he walked into the place it was smaller—and he almost tripped over a stack of old newspapers. His roommate sat on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table, watching Jeopardy and eating a Big Mac.
“Please don’t put your feet on the coffee table, Mitch. Do you know how much I paid for that?”
“You’ve told me about a thousand fucking times.”
Mitch put his feet on the floor and sighed. The stainless steel and glass table was one of the few things Gary’s ex-wife had allowed him to take from the marriage, and that was because she’d always hated it. “Too cold looking,” she’d said. He’d seen an original at the Cooper-Hewitt while they were vacationing in New York and ordered a reproduction without asking her. It was the kind of thing that drove her crazy.
“How’d the interview go?” Mitch asked, as he dabbed special sauce from his faded Polo shirt.
“They dragged my ass all the way down there to tell me I’m over qualified. What difference does it make to them if I can do the job, for chrissakes?" He went to the kitchen and took another Coke from the refrigerator.
“You’re suckin’ those things down these days,” Mitch said. “That's like pouring sugar down your throat. I read this article about high fructose corn syrup and... ”
“Jesus, Mitch. If I’d wanted to hear that kind of shit, I would have moved in with my mother. As it happens, things really suck right now. Let me enjoy my one last vice.”
“What about the cigars—that's not a vice? ”
“I'm out of cigars, man. I'm quitting by default.”
Gary picked up a framed photo of his five-year old daughter from an end table and studied it for a time before letting out a low moan. “How’d I fuck up so bad, Mitch? How’d I get it all so wrong? I’m a fucking idiot.”
Mitch punched Gary lightly on the arm. “The series is on tonight. I'll go down to Taco Mac and get us some wings. Let’s just watch the game and chill. How about it, bro? Fuck those Yankees.”
Gary collapsed onto a beanbag chair and put his hands over his face. “How’d I fuck up so bad?” he said again.
“You know exactly how you fucked up. ”
Mitch sat forward and tented his hands. “I’m worried about you, buddy. When's the last time you called your sponsor? And except for this interview, I can’t think of the last time you even left the apartment. You stay in bed half the day. You just sit out there on the balcony hour after hour and stare into space. You’re depressed, dude. Seriously. Maybe you should see someone. Get on some meds or something. I think you’re self-medicating now—with soft-drinks and sweets.”
Gary made himself laugh. “Self-medicating? You’re watching way too much Oprah. I don't need to see anybody. If I could just talk to Catherine—you know—face-to-face and tell her I really get it now. I see how much I hurt her. And that I love her. That I will always love her.”
“I want to believe that,” Mitch said. “And I really do think you're sorry.” He put his hand on Gary’s shoulder and squeezed. “Now—how about those wings? Or we could go down to Toni’s and watch the game on the big screen.”
Gary pointed at a paper cup on the coffee table and shook his head. Mitch lifted it and wiped up a ring of liquid with a paper napkin before smiling and giving Gary the finger.
“Screw the series, Mitch. I’m going out.”
“I don’t like that look on your face. You’re not going to try and talk to Catherine now are you?”
Gary again picked up the picture of his daughter. He dismantled the frame, revealing a hidden photograph. It was of Catherine—winter-pale, glistening with sweat and sunscreen on the beach at St. Simon's Island. He closed his eyes and imagined the scene. She was walking just ahead of him, along the Johnson Wall. She turned and held her hand out, beckoning, looking at him with so much love and anticipation.
“Now you're just wallowing in it, Gary. Come on man, stay for the game.” Mitch was holding the remote and going through the channels, searching frantically for the World Series. He landed on the game just as the Yankees were coming to bat. “There you go. There's that bum Soriano. ”
Gary rocketed out of the beanbag chair, scrunching his face into a mask of determination. He took out his keys and jiggled them in Mitch's face. “You said I needed to get out more.”
“Look—if you want any kind of chance with Catherine, give it time. A lot of time.”
Gary started to say something, but Mitch waved him off and resumed his lecture.
“I know— I know. You've managed to stay sober for a while. Big fucking deal. That doesn't fix everything. You've got to suit up and show up, as they say. Make your payments. And be a good father to Molly. Better than you ever were—which wouldn’t take much, to be honest. Even then, it's a real long shot. One in a million. You've got to realize that.”
“Oh, and you’re the expert.”
“You could say that.” He poked Gary in the chest with his index finger. “Maybe you can learn from my mistakes, man.”
Gary looked at the TV and considered what his best friend had to say. But it was too late. Things were in motion and he was feeling the rush that comes from making snap decisions. He put on his jacket and smoothed his hair back.
“Mitch, I appreciate the concern. Really. But I'm out of here.”
Mitch ran to the door and stood in front of it. “Don't go man. You're going to blow it. It's just going to piss her off and make you more depressed. I care about you and Catherine both.”
“I know you do, buddy. Now move.”
“Let’s watch the goddamn series.”
Gary came at Mitch sideways and shouldered him away from the door. Mitch lunged and grabbed the back of Gary’s jacket after he went by, but Gary broke free and ran down the hallway.
“I’ve got to do this!” Gary shouted.
“OK. You want to know what I really think?” Mitch said. “I think you’re fucking up. Really. You’re going to make it all worse. You don't get it, man—the damage you caused."
“There were good times too, goddamit. ”
Mitch followed Gary down the hallway, scolding and warning. Gary could hear his voice trailing off as he went down the stairs and out into the parking lot.
When he reached his car, he noticed a long scratch all along the side and pounded the door with his fist. He remembered what a source of pride the car had been when it was new—proof he’d really made it. Now, he couldn’t afford to fix it or even wash it at a proper car wash.
He started the car and gunned the engine for no reason. Then he accidentally honked the horn. Two men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in a doorway looked at him and smirked. Gary gave them a half-smile and shrugged his shoulders. They laughed and shouted something at him he couldn't understand. He wondered if they were the ones who fucked up his car. Assholes. He pictured the gun he kept in his glove box and imagined taking it out and waving it at them or shooting it in the air. When they looked away, he made a little gun with his thumb and forefinger and aimed it at the men from below the dash. “Pow,” he said.
Gary left the apartment complex and drove for several miles on a crowded four-lane lined with fast food restaurants, low-rent apartments and strip malls before reaching the highway that would take him into the vast arc of suburbs north of the city. He opened the sunroof and took in the cold October air, and it burned like a shot of whiskey on the back of his throat. It suddenly occurred to him that if he had just one drink, it would really take the edge off and make it all so much easier. He could picture himself at a bar off the highway where he sometimes stopped for a quick one on the way home from work, downing a single shot of Jack, feeling the warm calm flow through his bloodstream and up to his brain. But then he rolled the whole scene through and snickered. Even if he could stop at one, Catherine would know. She always knew—and it would be over before he finished the first line of his presentation. He was hit by a wave of relief. Maybe he really was getting it this time.
The road narrowed, from six to four then two lanes. There were fewer exits, lights and buildings, and he realized his was the only car on the road. It made him feel lonely, and he thought of the Big Weight. In an effort to distract himself, he turned on the radio and tried to find the World Series. No luck. So he put Nirvana on the stereo and drummed along on the steering wheel with his palms, just the way he'd psyched himself up for big sales calls.
He got off the main highway, and as he neared his former home, he drove mostly past pine forest and pastures, except for a few gaudy subdivision gates with names on them like Cambridge Estates and Chateau Woods in fancy script letters. Behind them were enclaves of fake stucco houses with three-car garages, walk-in closets and sunken tubs. He'd been sure Catherine would be pleased when they first looked at houses in the area. But none of it impressed her. She’d been perfectly happy in their little ranch house just outside town. It was all in some godforsaken wilderness according to her. The boondocks. Too far from her parents. From anything. Gary assured her that civilization was on its way; and noted that ground had been broken for a Walmart and a Waffle House just across the highway.
When Gary reached a subdivision called Lake View, he drove through a large brick entryway and pulled over to the side. Catherine thought the name of the place was hilarious; considering there wasn’t a lake or any body of water around for miles, except the old trout pond down the road where Gary fished when she got on his nerves. He’d once taken his daughter there before Catherine gave him the boot. He had a photo in his wallet of the little girl holding her first catch ever, a four or five-inch trout she’d named Alfred. She’d cried when they threw it back. He wanted to take out the picture and look at it, but knew what would happen. The Big Weight. It might come anyway, if he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He slapped his forehead in an effort to dislodge the memory.
As Cobain's voice faded, he heard Mitch’s warnings. Faintly at first, like the third wave of an echo. And then louder. “I think you’re fucking up, man.”
He was losing his nerve, but again shook off the warning. What the hell did Mitch know? Then he wondered if he should prepare his case. Maybe jot down a few words and memorize them. No, he decided. Under pressure, he might forget his lines and come up empty. And he’d always been good at extemporaneous speaking. It was one of the things that made him such a good salesman. He was sure something would hit him, something that would open Catherine’s heart. There had been good times too. Lots of them. She just needed reminding.
After all, the approach had worked the first time he was shown the door, although he couldn’t recall what he’d said. He did remember that afterward they’d gone to their lake house and made love in a warm afternoon sun tempered by a cool breeze off the lake on the deck overlooking the water. He recalled her familiar, radiant beauty, and the feeling of her body beneath his, a body softened by time and childbirth. “Fill me, Gary—please,” she’d said, as she always did when they made love. How he longed to hear those words again. And he was sure he would—once she heard him out.
Then something interrupted his reverie. A rap on the window. It was an emaciated bleach-blond in jogging shorts and a sports bra; Catherine’s best friend, Marcy. He rolled the window down.
“Gary—what the hell?”
“Look, Marcy, I just wanted to see the house. I’m just feeling a little down. I don’t know why I came.”
“I should call Catherine, you know.” She fingered the cell phone in the pocket of her too-tight jogging shorts, then leaned toward him and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”
“No, I haven't been drinking. Please, don’t call Catherine. I’m leaving, okay?”
“All right. I’ll take your word for it. Although I don’t know why I should. And in case you were wondering—she's doing just fine.”
She clicked her tongue and went on her way. He guessed she was probably still sore at him for the time he'd had a little too much to drink and threw all her new patio furniture into the swimming pool. But that was only because she wouldn't mind her own damned business. The bitch. He started the car and crept forward until she was out of view.
Gary opened his glove box, took out a metal tin of breath mints and put several in his mouth. As he was putting the mints back, he noticed the gun. He stared at it for a moment, then withdrew it like it was something delicate, cradling it in his palm. He'd only fired it once, when he accidentally shot up his next door neighbor's birdhouse one New Year's Eve. Other than that, he'd never given it too much thought. His father had kept the gun in his truck and his father before him. It just seemed like a good thing to do—especially now that he lived in a low-rent apartment on the edge of no-man's land. It was a compact, nickel-plate, thirty-eight caliber revolver. Heavy and shiny. Old fashioned, like private detectives used in black and white movies. He liked the way it looked, and the weight of it in his hand.
He closed his eyes and imagined that if his petition failed, he could hold the gun to his head and threaten to end it all. It would make great theater, but it would get him nowhere with Catherine. He’d likely land in jail or in the nuthouse, humiliated and even more the pariah. And he’d probably never see his daughter again without supervision. Still, he played out the scene in his mind. He was intrigued by the notion, that if only for moment, he would have the upper hand. Something he hadn’t had in long time.
Gary moved to put the gun back, but hesitated. He could feel some sort of energy flowing from it, up through his arm and into his body. Of course, he would never use it, but it made him feel confident, in control. “Pow,” he said, before shoving the gun into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. Then he started his car and drove along a street lined with large houses that were mostly the same.
When he reached what had once been his dream house, he parked at the curb. The place was dark, except for the warm yellow light from the kitchen that he could see through a front room. He saw his wife’s silhouette move across the kitchen doorway, he held his breath for a moment and exhaled with force. “This is it,” he said.
Instead of taking the flagstone path that meandered through flower beds and pine straw covered islands, he marched straight across the lawn, up the front steps, two at a time and hit the doorbell button. He could hear movement, and through a door-side window, he saw his wife approach. He swallowed as she opened the door.
They stared at each other for a moment. Catherine had her hair piled on her head, loosely tied in a red bandana. There was streak of something, cake batter or paint, across her cheek. She was wearing one his old button-down shirts and pink, flannel pajama bottoms. He wondered if he had ever seen her look more lovely. She put her hands on her hips—those full, soft, beautiful hips.
“What are you doing here, Gary?”
He looked down, then raised his head slowly for dramatic effect.
“I came because...”
Shuffling through his thoughts and feelings, he struggled to put them into some kind of order before speaking. He licked his lips and fiddled with the zipper on his jacket.
“You came because...” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot while she waited for him to continue.
“Because I want to come home.”
To his horror, all eloquence had escaped him. He’d said it in a long, high whine, like a child protesting his bedtime.
“Oh, my God, Gary. I don’t believe it.”
Catherine squinted and shook her head. It was more of a vibration, really. And she made a low humming noise while she did it. He wasn’t off to a good start. She reared back and sucked in air like she was going under water. He flinched.
“Gary—get this straight. I will never take you back. Never. I do not love you anymore. The lies kill the love. Do you understand? ” She put her hand over her heart and made a fist. “The lies kill the love.”
She’d said it slowly, and the words came at him one at a time; a measured volley that hit him right in the heart like five fastballs from a pitching machine. It sent him backward and he had to grab the railing to steady himself. Again, he tried to launch his appeal, but choked.
“I will never take you back,” she said again in a low rasp. “Is that clear?”
He stepped back to the edge of the porch, put his hand over his chest and felt the gun through his jacket. He felt its energy. He stood straight and put his feet at shoulder width.
“Is that clear?” Catherine said. “I gave you your second chance, and you blew it.”
“Listen, to me!” He grunted, unzipped his jacket and put his hand inside it. He wrapped his fingers around the gun grip.
“What are you doing, Gary?”
“Hear me out,” he croaked, as he put his finger through the trigger guard. He was panting and shaking.
“Gary, what the hell is the matter with you?”
Before he could withdraw the gun, he heard a high, clear voice coming from behind his wife.
“Is that Daddy?”
Catherine turned, and Gary strained to see around her. He saw his little girl. Her blond curls, still wet from bath time, sparkled in the light of the gigantic crystal chandelier he'd installed in the entranceway. She clutched a blanket that was no more than a tangle of threads and satin edging.
“Daddy!” she said.
“Your father can’t visit now, Molly. Go back to bed.”
Catherine tried to restrain her daughter, but the little girl broke free and ran out onto the porch. She threw her arms around her father’s legs. He knelt on one knee, put his arms around her and kissed her cheek with an exaggerated sucking sound. The little girl did the same, and he held her, reveling in the warmth of her unconditional love. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said.
“What are you doing here, Daddy? Am I going with you?”
“Your daddy has to go now,” Catherine said. “Go on back to bed. Now.”
“Can he tuck me in?”
Gary knew not to look at his wife; that she wouldn’t allow it.
“You’d better go on, Molly,” Gary said. “I’ll see you soon. All right?”
The little girl nodded and went into the house. He could hear her tiny bare feet on the marble floor in the foyer as she ran, singing The Bear Went Over the Mountain.
“She misses you, Gary. You should be glad of that.”
“I am,” he said. And he began to cry.
“Oh, Gary,” she said, as she reached to put her hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t mean to be so harsh. But I’m still holding a lot of anger. Do you understand?"
He wanted to say he was sorry. But he’d said it so many times when he didn’t mean it.
“And you need to realize there’s no chance,” she said. “You need to move on. We both need to move on.”
“Okay—I get it.” he said, as he sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I hope so. Now you’d better go.”
He turned and walked down the stairs, and back across his footprints on the frost-covered lawn. He looked over his shoulder at Catherine and waved. She smiled—but just barely. He looked up and could see stars. Millions of them.
Gary got into his car and threw his head back against the seat. As he tried to make sense of what had happened, he thought of the young newlyweds and wished with all his heart that he could go back to that time before he started making mistakes. Again, he remembered the time at the lake, and how when he was still inside Catherine, he’d buried his face in the nape of her neck and made promises. Promises he wouldn’t keep. And then there were the lies. And more lies. Then he closed his eyes and tried to conjure up one good thing, something that he could grasp and hold on to that might provide evidence that he deserved another chance—even if Catherine would never give him one. Something she couldn't see or just didn't want to remember. But nothing surfaced. And even the images of his most precious memories flickered and burned out like the last frames of an old home movie.
For the third time that evening the same old question came into his mind, and he tried to scream it out loud—“How did I fuck up so bad?”
But it was no use. He felt something on his chest. Bearing down. Pushing. He wasn’t surprised.
It was The Big Weight. Bigger and heavier than ever. The white letters were so large and close, he couldn’t read them. It was all he could see and feel. He couldn’t breathe, and he thought his ribs might crack or his heart might explode.
It was so heavy. Everything. The loneliness.
He asked for forgiveness.