atrick Brooks’ time was running out.
Patrick turned his head to the right, hair rustling dryly on the pillow. The space next to him was empty. Still empty. Six months of waiting patiently had done nothing to bring her back. In the early months, Patrick had thought that giving her the space she insisted she needed would have done the trick. She didn’t return. He focused and unfocused his eyes on the blue pillowcase next to his, the one he still didn’t have the heart to defile with his own head. Patrick allowed a thought to trickle through his mind. Perhaps he should have fought for her. Asked her, no, told her to stay. He sighed with exhaustion on reflecting that even now, he had no idea how that scene would have played out if he had tried.
Staring up at the white ceiling, Benjamin Moore frostine, Patrick extracted his left arm from under the tightly tucked blanket to grope around on his bedside table to locate The Bottle. It was always there, no need to exert the effort of turning his head to the left to get the job done right. Long ago he had adopted the habit of immediately removing and discarding the childproof caps from the pill bottles that housed the various anti-anxiety meds and anti-depressants on whose kindness he had come to depend although they were no longer strangers. He replaced them with neatly fashioned aluminum foil top hats that could be flicked away struggle-free in times of distress. This was one of those times. If he chose to face the undeniable truth, most times were one of those times. Patrick had steadily dipped into his Xanax supply throughout the night, expecting the increasingly massive dose to bring him rest, eternal or otherwise. At the moment, each option held its own peculiar charms. So far, neither one had presented itself as the much-needed life-or-death line he sought.
Setting his sights on pill number five, the period at the end of the sentence of his wretched night, Patrick finally rose to a sitting position, letting his legs flop impotently over the side of the bed. He index-fingered a Xanax out of the bottle, now denuded of its top-hat, jogged the pill around in his palm for a moment and tossed it to the back of his throat. He swallowed it dry. Patrick stayed seated, his feet planted on the floor, waiting for the soothing effects of the drug to flood his brain. Hope struggled to reign supreme despite Patrick’s conviction that this final dose would, like the four before it, fail to provide even a whisper of relief. After waiting patiently, counting out the usual twenty minutes required for his brain to connect with its worst best friend, Patrick was forced to acknowledge that number five was a bust. Defeated, eyes red and blazing with fatigue, he was capable of mustering only a single cogent thought. “Fuck you, Pfizer.”
He dragged his fingers through his hair. The graying blond thatch was all his own but, thanks to its surprising abundance as well as a series of unfortunate haircuts, it was frequently mistaken for a toupee. One of Patrick’s recurring night-worries was that the state of his hair had contributed to her departure. Who knew? He certainly didn’t and likely never would. Patrick finally rose from the disheveled, stale bed to shuffle across the bare wide-plank boards of his bedroom floor. He made a mental note to change the sheets. It was the third time that week the thought had struck him but just as quickly disappeared.
Patrick’s affection for most things and people had worn thin over the last few years, but his love affair with his house had never dimmed. The house had been in Patrick’s family since the first boards, the ones he was in the process of crossing, had been nailed together in the mid-seventeenth century. The structure had originally been a tidy, compact pre-Colonial Dutch farmhouse. As the centuries had ticked by, each generation had made their marks on the house with extensions and what Patrick begrudgingly acknowledged as improvements, electric lighting being one of them. The trim little house had bit by bit been transformed into a rabbit warren of a rambling dwelling with staircases that led to long ago sealed doors and hidden corridors for servants who were long gone and forgotten. The house comforted Patrick with a blanket of nostalgia for decades and centuries he had never experienced but felt tethered to just the same. He occasionally flirted with the idea of changing his last name to the original Broeks, but just thinking about the necessary and exhausting paperwork overwhelmed Patrick. He had fallen into the habit of considering the task no more than a whimsical fantasy.
No more so than for any other person, but Patrick felt strongly that the fate of others was not his problem, and he was not theirs. As he had for the previous six hours, Patrick lay in bed, on his back, grinding his teeth and rigid enough to convince the average observer that rigor mortis had set in. He was waiting for the dark blue sky of early morning to give him permission to abandon his nightly exercise in futility and begin the minutiae that constituted his day. Though he was prone to morbid thoughts, Patrick wasn’t any different from the billions who had preceded him on this earth, nor those who would come after; he had begun his various forms of descent from the moment he burst onto the scene. Patrick’s infant vocalizations indicated his deeply and instinctively felt understanding of the human condition by first squalling an exultant bellow announcing his arrival, quickly followed by a horrified barbaric yawp of recognition at the inevitability of his demise.
Knowing that his condition was not unique was of neither concern nor comfort to Patrick. The company of his fellow unfortunates did nothing to quiet the deafening click and tick of the perpetual motion machine that was his internal clock. Still lying on his back, Patrick bitterly cursed that he hadn’t been blessed with a silent, digital timepiece that had the decency to keep its constant push to the future more discreet.
Patrick made a second attempt at starting his day. Sliding out of bed in, trying to keep it neat enough to obviate remaking it, he shuffled into his slippers and thrust himself into the flannel robe waiting at the foot of the bed. His footsteps rang in the chill of his un-upholstered Spartan room. The floorboards of the Brooks ancestral home were worn to a smooth slickness that he had loved as a child. Heavy woolen socks and a running start were all it took for Patrick to speed-skate across the upper floors of the house with total abandon. The experience of indoor skating was further improved when considered in relation to the Brooks family’s ritual of insisting all male children jam their feet into old hockey skates and slap a puck around the freezing hell of the lake on their property.
Time’s passing had changed Patrick’s perspective on the glassy beauty of his oak floors. One misstep on the staircase that led from his bedroom to the front hall could be cause for concern. He thought about that often. As he trudged down the stairs wearing his L.L. Bean slippers with the heavy rubber treads, Patrick edited his thought, scratching out, “cause for concern” and replacing it with “an unquestionable fatality.” By the time he made it to the foot of the staircase, Patrick was worrying about his home insurance coverage and what his liability would be should an uninitiated guest forgo rubber soled shoes for something more fashionable.
Still mulling over the extent of his homeowner’s insurance, Patrick moved from the hall through the living room and into the kitchen. As he did every day, Patrick filled the tea kettle, set it on the range, lit the stove and reached for the oversized box of Tetley’s in the cupboard above his head. As he waited for the kettle’s steam to scream him into his next phase of wakefulness, Patrick dismissed his anxieties about liabilities and premiums. Who the hell was going to visit him? Forget visiting, the notion that anyone would be in his bedroom and need to go downstairs for any reason at all was laughable. As the kettle whistled, beginning its climb to full shriek, Patrick shook his head, muttering “absurd” under his breath.
Having gotten the desired result from the assembly of mug, teabag, and hot water, Patrick shuffled into what was once the Great Room and was now a laboratory for Patrick’s various failed inventions and wood-working experiments. Nothing had ever worked or been terribly useful, but they were pretty and he enjoyed keeping the product of his efforts neat and in organized in labeled boxes
He had kept a few wing chairs in the enormous room, one of which engulfed him as he settled into it, carefully holding the mug by its handle. The mug was too hot to hold any other way unless he used his robe as some sort of oven mitt, and for the second time in under an hour, Patrick contemplated his insurance. What if someone did spend the night, didn’t fall down the stairs, but accepted a cup of morning tea only to have it burn her body parts beyond recognition. Then she could sue him like that woman with the McDonald’s coffee, but he didn’t have anything to give! Patrick mused that the only thing of value in his possession was the house. That sealed the deal. No visitors, ever.
At some point in their venerable history, the Brooks had acquired a large Chippendale china cabinet. It had the usual showy glass cabinets and drawers, but Patrick’s favorite feature was its false back that, when removed, revealed a secret compartment. Over the years, the china cabinet had played host to a variety of Patrick’s belongings that he felt would be safer hidden from anyone who entered the house. As a child, he had stowed away bags of penny candy and licorice ropes. Teen years brought with them a copy of Playboy, a few underwear catalogs, a love letter from a girl at school he barely knew, and a translation of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal that he intuitively knew would not be met with his parents’ approval. Adulthood made it a hiding place for emergency cash, his marriage license, his father’s teddy bear, and a few other things that made him feel momentarily safe. The same kind of safety he had felt as a child.
Patrick put his lawsuit-in-a-mug on an end table and knelt in front of the Chippendale furniture. He pulled out the drawers, found the nick in the wood he used to identify and remove the false back, and retrieved one of his “comfort items” as he chose to call them, and replaced the wood and drawers. The lovely weight and smoothness of his ersatz security blanket felt reassuring as it nested in the pocket of his robe. Almost like Grandfather’s pocket watch, a behemoth of a thing, so decorative and flashy the it was more sphere than disc. It gently fell to the side as Patrick returned to his chair and let his robe fall open ever so slightly. Having achieved total comfort, or his approximation of it, Patrick started humming a tune and tapping his toe in time to his own rhythm. After a few moments, he realized he was singing “Ticket To Ride”. He smiled at the memory of car trips right after he got married when they would blast the radio and listen to songs like this. Probably even this one.
Still beaten by fatigue, Patrick leaned further back into the chair and closed his eyes. He became restful, which meant he became contemplative. He replayed the events of the morning in his head, judging them by his usual yardsticks of industry, purpose, and pride of home ownership. Industry was coming up short. He’d been awake for two hours already and all he’d done was make a cup of tea and muck about with the furniture. Purpose didn’t fare so well either. Drinking tea and worrying about non-existent wife and guests didn’t constitute anything resembling purpose. Was his purpose to ingest caffeine and do an inventory of the house’s safety features? No. That wasn’t an intended purpose, it was just what happened. Pride of home ownership was a little better off than the other virtues Patrick clung to, but he hadn’t done anything to help the house. He admired and enjoyed it for the last several hours, but he had done nothing of service to it.
With his eyes still closed, Patrick sighed. The deep intake of breath and exhalation felt good. He sighed again. The abrupt intake of extra oxygen brought him to life a little, motivating him to remove himself from the wing chair and walk to one of the house’s glass-paned side doors. He looked out at the snow-covered fields, his snow-covered fields. Nothing had ventured across them yet and they remained unmarked and perfect. Patrick smiled a little to himself. The neatness of his land echoed the tidiness of the inside of the house. For a brief moment, Patrick felt the unusual sensation of being in harmony with himself, his environment and his own presence in his environment. He was experiencing euphoria, a temporary but powerful feeling that everything was all right. Everything was just so. It was as he made it and intended it to be. Patrick’s chest swelled with another intake of breath which added to his sense of bonhomie. It wasn’t ever going to be better than this. This was a moment that should be trapped in time as the benchmark of order, joy, and oneness with his world. Patrick knew that to let the moment go would be tantamount to committing a crime against both nature and himself.
Still standing at the side door, Patrick smiled beatifically and lifted the 1950’s-era metal door-latch that stood between him and the ecstatic beauty that lay in front of him. Patrick corrected himself. The beauty didn’t just lie there, it rolled, dipped, fell, and undulated past his line of vision. Better than any drug, the scene before him brought with it serenity. Patrick knew how lucky he was to have this experience. He was more than lucky; he was blessed. He stepped out of the house in his slippers, the cold wetness seeping into his feet outmatched by this strange, ongoing bliss. He was the first one to leave marks on the fields and regretted the inevitability of disturbing the perfection of the scene. It couldn’t be helped. If he wanted to immerse himself in his new-found radiance, he would have to step into its source.
He walked about 500 feet forward into the delicate icy crunch of snow that yielded to a soft, powdery landing. Patrick turned around to look at his house, thinking, “It’s perfect. It’s exactly as it should be. I made that happen.” He turned around again to survey his fields, thinking, ”This is perfect. It’s exactly as it should be. God made that happen.” His fingers rapidly losing color and tingling fiercely, Patrick allowed himself the comfort of his robe’s pockets. They clasped around his grown-up version of his security blanket. In doing so, Patrick’s euphoria grew so rapidly and shone so brightly, he could see it coming out of his chest. This was the sublime moment Patrick had always sought but neither wife nor medication had ever brought him. He knew it was the house and the fields and him, arranged in a way that could never be recreated, that had brought him here. Patrick’s joy ran through his body when he realized it wouldn’t have to be recreated. Once something of unchecked spiritual beauty had been born, it existed forever. It would never go away, leave the land, or leave the house. He’d achieved it. He had given birth to something un-nameable that was far bigger and more important than he could ever be. He had succeeded. Patrick was a success.
The nearest house was three miles down the road and its residents rarely heard or saw anything of Patrick when he was on his property. But the crisp winter air and leafless trees amplified the report that came from the Brooks’ property. Patrick’s neighbors, people with whom he’d shared a decades-long friendship, got into their truck, eager to satisfy their curiosity.