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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Hard Time Going

By Maui Holcomb

Buzzing filled his ears, dragging him from a groggy sleep. Slowly came awareness of a warm glow beyond his closed eyes, then muffled voices, hard-soled shoes. Crap -- Mom must've returned early, and the kitchen was a mess. An unfamiliar beep nudged his reluctant eyelids, and, turning to it, his head screamed, a burn ricocheting back and forth like a frying pan banging around inside his head. What the hell? Squeezing his eyes tight, he gasped for breath. When the throb lessened he cracked one open, then the other, and looked around. Uh, o-kay ... Blank white walls, a TV high in a corner -- definitely not his mother's house at all. Wait, hadn't he dreamt about this place? But now it looked ... fuzzier?

It started to come back. Wheeled into the hospital he'd been hit by the smell of Lysol, funky sweat, the cologne of doctors and nurses. His head teetered on his neck and felt both swollen and shrunken, like a forgotten Jack-o-lantern in mid-November. Nausea hovered in his chest. The clamoring lights and activity had forced his eyes closed, and he'd drifted off, only to slip back with the cool swipe of wet antiseptic. He looked up at a nurse's green eyes for a moment, faces and voices bobbing in the periphery, then he was pushed and prodded, her eyes doubled up, and he went back under.

How much time had passed? Squinting at the ceiling, he found the buzzing lights, then a clock on the wall. Almost midnight, it looked like through the blur. He relaxed his eyes, tried to let it go. Next to the bed an IV dripped into his arm, and he stared dumbly at the thick liquid. At least the throb kept his mind off the evening and delayed, or had until now, the dawning realization that he found himself, in the final moments of the year, alone in a hospital room with no pants.

The machine beeped again, just as the clock clicked to straight-up midnight, and he heard a few scattered air horns and whoops in the hall. Outside a car honked all the way down the street and, somewhere, firecrackers. Then the room fell silent for a few minutes, and he contemplated the fuzzy ceiling tiles.

The door opened and clunky footsteps approached.

"I brought you some dry pants, Eric," came a voice, and Eric grinned as much as his aching head would allow. "From lost and found."

A tall young woman with curly brown hair entered his field of vision, placed a pair of folded jeans on the table, and perched on the arm of a chair. This was Nell. "You're lucky. You've got a hard head."

Eric nodded, and an axe sliced through his skull. He blinked, and a hammer crashed down from above.

"Not so hard anymore," he squeaked. "Happy New Year, by the way."

"You, too!" she said, and he heard rather than saw her grin. "Totally forgot. I just thought they were, oh, I don't know." She emitted a strange little laugh.

Eric decided stillness was the best strategy.

"It hurts, doesn't it," Nell said. "I'll get help."

She left and returned with a tall blonde nurse whose nametag said Phil. He unhooked the IV and injected something into Eric's vein. A cool tingle spread up his arm. Phil wasn't concerned with the blurry vision, said give it time.

"Your mother spoke with the doctor on the phone," Nell said when Phil had left. "And me."

When Eric said nothing, she went on. "I said I'd keep an eye on you. She'll be back in town tomorrow."

"Thanks." He should have known Nell would take care of everything.

After a minute he decided he had to ask, "Where's Marty?"

"Last I saw, the back of a police car. He seemed to be okay."


Nell sat back and switched on the tube. Partying on tape delay from Times Square, but she flipped around till Eric grunted, settling on an '80s Brat Pack flick. He turned his head carefully to see if the painkillers were working yet (they were) and glanced at Nell. She raised one eyebrow and looked back at the TV. He rolled his head to it, too. The picture was a blur, but he knew the story.

Out front of his mother's house several hours earlier, Eric picked out Nell trudging up the sidewalk. Still had the bounce in her step. This afternoon was the final regular season pro football game. Marty Phillips, like Eric, a sophomore at Bradbury College, had somehow acquired three free tickets, and did Eric know anyone else who'd be interested. So Nell Costello, his oldest friend, now arrived wearing several layers, from t-shirt to wool sweater on top, baggy hiking shorts over blue polypropylene tights down below. Her gangly neck was bare but tousled hair crept out from beneath a ridiculously colorful knit hat with tasseled earflaps. Her shoes were suitable for walking, naturally. Nell walked or ran everywhere, and had done so at least since they'd met at age nine. Today, though, Marty would drive.

As she approached, Eric pushed back his hair, which was longer than ever. They exchanged a quick hug.

"Greetings," said Nell, looking him up and down and breathing heavily. "You look older."

She'd evidently been power-walking the fifteen uphill blocks from her house. She placed her palms together in a prayerful gesture. "Could I trouble you for some water from your hose, my friend?"

Oh, Christ, Eric thought, but waved towards the yard. Nell loped over to the coiled garden hose and bent her lanky frame. Eric felt a bit anxious about how his two friends would mesh. They were quite different, really. Marty had been his most loyal friend at Bradbury the past two years, but he could be a handful, and Eric had long recognized a curious mechanism in which Nell, if she felt threatened or crowded by an outsized personality, would close in on herself while her mind worked full throttle to find a way to extricate herself. So if Marty got too rambunctious ... At the end of term he'd celebrated the collapse of a relationship by streaking across the quad on Parent's Day to spite his ex's father, since the word was he hadn't lived up to the old man's expectations.

Eric had invited Nell tonight mostly for old times' sake. They hadn't bothered to see each other much the past two years when they were home on break. And though on a jock scholarship (for track), Nell had never been into football, and Eric half expected her to decline.

"I'd love to," she replied. It had been too long, she said. Eric hoped she wouldn't do anything to embarrass him, like hassle Marty about his drug use or try to walk home from the stadium. Sometimes she could be too direct. She had written in Eric's yearbook on their last day, 'You don't have to try to be cool all the time. People like you the way you are.'

That had been so annoying he'd shut the book and not opened it since. Yeah, so what if he wanted to party a bit? What made her such a grown up?

"Your friend has not arrived?" said Nell in her stilted manner, stretching her hamstrings.

Eric gestured to the empty driveway and mentioned the New Year's Eve party they could attend later, if she wanted, and was surprised again when she nodded.

"Sounds like it could be amusing," she said. "If that's what you want to do."

Which is when Marty's Jeep charged up the hill amid blistering guitar chords. Eric waved, and it screeched into the driveway. A tiny hula dancer rocked on the dash, strumming a ukulele and splashing some color around. Marty wore a new football jersey and sleek shades, his blonde dreadlocks pulled back with a rubber band. Like Eric, he'd adapted to college mostly by drinking late and not cutting his hair. He'd attended boarding school out-of-state, so coming home for the holidays was nothing new to him or his parents, who kept up their schedule of cocktail parties, fundraisers and ski trips, to all of which Marty was welcome but to none of which would he go. Now he openly eyed Nell as she climbed into the back seat, throwing a wink at Eric.

As the car sped towards the freeway, Eric introduced them, speaking over the frantic efforts of the Jeep's canvas soft-top to disengage from the frame. Nell hoped for an exciting game to end the year on a high note.

"I just want to get WAAASTED," Marty said, plucking a smoldering cigarette from the ashtray.

Nell laughed. "But what about the game, man?"

"Aw, just a warm-up. If we win, we celebrate. But if we lose, well, we'll have to drink then, too."

"Nell doesn't drink," murmured Eric.

Marty took a drag and goggled his eyes at Eric.

"And she's friends with a butthead like you?" he said. He laughed and tossed his hand over his shoulder, filling the car with smoke that curled and floated lazily before sweeping outside. "Naw, that's cool," he said to Nell, flashing a grin. "But me, I've got to PARTAY tonight, y'know?"

Nell giggled. "No problem. It is the night for it."

Eric rubbed his temple and pointed to the entrance. Crossing the bay, he relaxed as his friends got along fine, talking about their respective schools, and he was reminded of Marty's ability to talk to anyone. He had been the one to penetrate Eric's armor their first week as freshmen.

Before long they left the freeway and followed a line of vehicles into the stadium's parking lot. After finding a space and scanning the surrounding cars, Marty sparked a joint. Eric thought Nell concealed her shock rather well as they started across the sea of shining autos, merely waving the joint away when Marty held it out. Threading through the vehicles, the guys passing the weed between them, Nell whipped her head from side to side, and whispered to Eric.

"Nope. No cops here tonight, I'm sure. No security at sporting events these days at all, no sir."

Eric waved her down. It seemed long ago when as high school frosh they'd shared a six-pack of Lowenbrau in the ravine behind her house, forcing down one bitter bottle after another. They'd been queasy afterwards, but while he was ready for more the next week, she just sighed and shook her head.

They found their section, 22G, and headed down the stairs. The crisp winter sun, the twinkling kaleidoscopic colors bouncing off the fans' cold weather wear, the scrumptious food smells wafting above their heads, overwhelmed Eric's heightened senses. Descending the stairs he swayed sharply, and had to catch himself on a stranger's arm. As they squeezed into their seats, Marty struck up a conversation with the neighbors to learn what they'd missed so far.

For three hours Section 22G shared the ups and downs of a tight game as their team fell behind and fought back. The three of them ate wieners and nachos, popcorn, peanuts and licorice. Marty, recently of age, beckoned the beer man over repeatedly, and the guys accumulated a mess of empty cups at their feet. Nell nursed a soda and waved off Marty's increasingly sloppy offers to try just a teensy sip. When the ball split the posts at the horn, giving them a one-point victory, the stands trembled and spotlights streaked across the sky. Eric high-fived new friends all around. Victory music and New Year's Eve fireworks filled the stadium for several long minutes afterwards, bitter gunpowder hanging over the field. Eric thought the finale had even touched Nell, who was down to her t-shirt layer after jumping in place for the entire 4th quarter. Gazing at the brightly lit field in a dopey, satisfied daze, he sensed the need to wizz and disclosed this fact to his friends. Nell nodded as she danced in place to the reverberant strains of Queen. Marty belched.

Across a wide concourse streaming with revelers, Eric joined the ominous line edging out the restroom's doorway. He hated using public restrooms and began to twitch in rising panic (noticing the cool breeze for the first time) as the line marched under an arch into the heavy air inside.

It was a long, low room with a greenish hue, pipes and ducting twisting along the ceiling. An aluminum trough ran the length of one wall, across from a line of porcelain sinks. Men and boys of all shapes and sizes, a good cross-section of urban America, at least the portion willing and able to afford admission, had separated neatly into several columns, perpendicular to the metal piss highway. A sweaty, beer-soaked, cigarette-filtered mass of spent fans, buzzed, wired and oozing greasy food. Several game commentaries ran simultaneously, punctuated by laughter and the expected bodily functions. With pressure increasing in his abdomen, Eric took shallow gulps of the damp air. In front hung the sweaty T-shirt of a very large man, stains spreading from under each arm. His body rolled with abrupt quaking laughter. Poking Eric from behind each time the line moved was the cup of an oblivious guy whose breath smelled of nacho cheese. He was reliving the game's end with the dude to his left. Beer and spit sprinkled the back of Eric's neck, and he planted his feet and resisted the nudging, afraid he'd fall into the rolls of sweaty lard in front.

Taking a step forward (he was now in the on-deck circle) and turning his head, Eric saw a boy about ten wearing an oversized jersey and an expression of terror. The boy's jaw trembled as he fumbled with his fly. The men to either side towered over the kid and when one hocked a loogie he jumped. He glanced desperately around, but Eric averted his gaze when their eyes met, sneering.

The flesh hanging over the belt in front of him jiggled, and Eric realized the man was shaking out the last drops. Then the putrid trough was all his, running bubbly and deep yellow, dotted with urinal cakes and cigarette butts. Every twenty seconds or so the system flushed feebly, sending out a trickle of water, but it clearly accomplished nothing. Eric took a deep breath, pulled it out and tried to relax.

But nothing happened. Nothing came out. The pressure remained, but Eric, at the goal line, under the lights, could not close the fucking deal. On either side of him came glorious flowing streams of piss and satisfied sighs. His forehead felt hot, then cold. Were the guys on either side, crowded drunkenly up to the trough so that their elbows brushed his, noticing this? Was everyone in the room aware of the fact that he was just standing there? The din in the room rushed headlong away from him. He willed himself to relax. Drunk or not, Nacho Cheese behind him would start to wonder. He shook it, stretched it, made sure nothing hampered the flow. Nothing doing. The men on either side had moved on, scornfully no doubt, and Nacho Cheese had run out of people to talk to. Eric could feel the man's glazed eyes counting the bricks. It was no use. He buttoned up over his rock of a bladder and turned away, pretending to be relieved.

Outside, Marty and Nell leaned against a wall, he staring at a TV with a smoke stuck to his lower lip. Nell caught Eric's eye as soon as he was disgorged from the Latrine of Hell.


Eric, eyes darting everywhere but at her, tried to look chipper.

They joined the thinning crowd through the turnstiles. The stadium sat on a mounded clearing at the base of the hills, overlooking the bay and the distant lights of downtown. Aisle upon aisle of vehicles spread out before them, backing up, idling, honking at one another. They walked towards the far end of the most distant section. A few stars twinkled bravely over the parking lot, and a breeze whipped up the fishy smell of the sea.

Darting in front of a souped-up Maxima with tinted windows and neon rims that didn't even think about slowing, they finally reached the Jeep. Marty bleeped the doors unlocked and then stood behind the car, unzipped, and let fly right on the ground. Just like that. Eric glanced around. True, very few had to walk this far and no one was in sight. But, still. Nell clicked her tongue.

"Well, alright then."

Marty laughed. Eric listened to the steady splashing on the asphalt, Marty's satisfied sigh. He turned his back on Nell and started to unbutton his fly, when headlights flashed across them, illuminating Marty's gleeful face and piss coating the tire of the neighboring truck.

"You nuts?" Eric said, glancing around and fumbling his pants closed. "They could show up anytime, Beavis."

Well, shit, they'd be at the party soon. He could hold it.

Marty shrugged and stepped to the driver's seat, only to find Nell sitting behind the wheel, looking at him. Eric eyed them nervously, but after a moment Marty cracked a smile and, tossing her the keys ("You know what -- you drive tonight, honey"), stumbled into the back.

As they pulled into the queue of cars, Eric watched the retreating bushes with trepidation. He should have just done it. What was the matter with him? He pushed the seatbelt away from him and tried to take shallow breaths.

Orange-clad, firefly-like attendants waved glowing wands to direct them to the exits, and they quickly flowed down the hill and along dying city streets, devoid of life except for a few straggly trees planted in dirt squares cut from the sidewalk. Soon they were shuttled towards a bridge, joined by several freeways converging from north and south. The car jumped and vibrated over joints in the road, Eric painfully aware of each. The Jeep felt like a rickety carnival ride. Nell slammed on the brakes as a red blur flashed in front and traffic bunched up at a tollbooth, and Eric gulped.

"What's wrong?" Nell asked.

"I ... think ... I should have pissed in the lot back there. I have to go again."

She peered at him as they idled. "You don't look so good. Kind of ... pale?"

"Too late now, man," Marty stuck his head between them and slapped Eric's shoulder, coughing a cloud of dope smoke. He pointed with a wavering finger. "You'll have to wait till the other side of the bridge now, dude."

"Yeah. Thanks."

Eric clamped his knees together as they picked up speed the other side of the booth. Marty slumped once more into a marijuana haze, and Nell slurped loudly on her straw. The bridge, lit by twin spans of lights, climbed in a high arch, then settled down for a long flat mile like a black pinstriped ribbon floating on the surface of the water. Sitting in the outside lane, the half-door only a flimsy scrap between him and the guardrail, Eric was glad Nell had come along. He managed to sit stiffly straight, willing himself to forget about the absurd pain in his crotch. She glanced at him.

"So ... you didn't say -- you having a good year?"

"Well, yeah. It's been fun," he said, a little surprised. "You?"

"Aaa ... not so much."

Marty snorted from the back, and Eric turned to see him asleep, mouth agape.

"You know, your buddy made a pass at me while you were in the can," Nell said, raising an eyebrow and cocking her head towards Eric.

"What? No, he didn't."

"Why?" she said, raising the other eyebrow to join its partner. "What makes you think he didn't?"

"Oh -- I mean -- yeah, sure, I guess he did," Eric said. "I just mean ... I didn't think he would ..."

"Forget it," she said, glancing in the mirror. "Besides, he only did it out of habit."

Well, maybe, Eric thought to himself, but he felt irritated and disappointed, which surprised him, come to think of it. What did he care if Marty and ... Small raindrops began dotting the windshield, and the lights of the city swelled and ebbed as the wind forced the drops across the glass. After a moment of confusion in which she turned the headlights off by accident, Nell found the wipers, and they squeaked into action. Marty burped in his sleep and rolled over.

"I guess the party's out then," she said, jerking her thumb backwards.

Eric looked at Marty. "Maybe. But sometimes he rallies, gets kind of annoying and belligerent."

She let out a long breath.

"Well. I think I'm done anyway."

"Yeah, I thought you might be." He stared ahead at the water, choppy with flickering moonlight on one side of the bridge, still and black on the other. He brooded on how old friends could go in different directions. Maybe they no longer had enough to share.

The bridge rose again off the surface, banked gracefully and made landfall. Nell took the first exit, and they started looking for a gas station, an alley, a tree, anything. No more thoughts of a private bathroom with fresh linen. Eric's eyes watered, and he wondered if he could even walk. They had entered an area of warehouses and machine shops, dive bars and dockyards, and the rain came down harder. Four blocks along they came to a gas station/convenience store at a rain-slicked intersection, the road and sidewalk shimmering a festive red and green.

"Well, there you go, pardner," she said at the light, gesturing to the store. "I hope they can help you out."

When the red and green shimmers swapped places, she crossed the intersection and bounced up to the store, Eric grimacing once more. Marty jerked and mumbled.

"I'm getting a pop," Nell said.

Eric climbed out as she struggled to remove the key, and he walked stiffly through the automatic doors. The shop danced with holiday decorations, and a radio played Rock Around the Clock. The clerk, a pale, wiry man with greasy hair combed back and wires snaking up to ear-buds, rang up a stack of lottery tickets for a middle-aged man in a maroon jogging suit. Both their heads swung around to eyeball the newcomer. In the far corner Eric spied a door with a blue restroom insignia, beside which a huge uniformed clerk, his sleeves rolled up to reveal hulking biceps, bent to stack beer cartons. Turning, Eric's abdomen cramped up and he stumbled, colliding with a wire postcard display. Righted it and glanced at the first clerk, gave him an okay sign and half a smile.

"Hey!" the clerk said. Eric started to open his mouth, but the guy jerked his thumb to the door. "Restroom out of order. There's a port-a-can out back."

Great. He turned and walked out past Nell, gesturing vaguely. In the Jeep Marty was shaking his head, one leg hanging out the door, hand groping for the seat release. Around the corner and beyond the gas pumps an orange doublewide porta-potty glowed under a hanging utility lamp, raindrops illuminated in the beam. It looked fucking heavenly. He pulled open the door, releasing the fetid aroma, and stepped over the threshold.

"Whoa!" said a pile of dirty old clothes. Sharp grey eyes peered out from a mass of matted hair. The man lay on a sheet of plywood spread from the narrow plastic throne to the tiny sink on the opposite side. The eyes tilted away and an arm swung out at Eric. "Trying to sleep here."

Eric tripped over himself and fell onto the wet asphalt.

"Sorry, man. I've got to go."

"Go somewhere else, little dude," replied the man.

"No, I mean, I've got to take a leak."

"Well, what's stopping you?" the man said and pulled the door shut with a clang.

"What the fuck?!" Eric stared up at the hanging lamp, rain pelting his face, and he felt like crying. But, well, he thought after a minute, the guy had a point; it was dark enough out of the lamp's beam -- he could go behind the porta-potty and be invisible from the street. He struggled to his feet.

A crash from the front of the store jerked his head around. He heard familiar maniacal laughter, and he groaned, turning back.

Marty, blood already on his forehead, was engaged in a shoving match with the wiry clerk. He laughed and lunged at the guy, trying to get a hit in, but the clerk was fast. The remaining shards of the plate glass window sprinkled to the ground as Eric approached, and a crackling spider web spread from a gaping round hole in the windshield of the Jeep. Nell danced around the periphery of the grappling men, shouting at them to "Stop! Please!" The second clerk held a wooden baseball bat clenched in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He was trembling and trying to dial the phone. Eric staggered up, darting out his arms to Marty.

"Hey, no!"

The wiry clerk jerked his head towards Eric. "That's one of 'em, too." The beefy clerk turned to Eric in surprise, dropped the phone, and swung the bat in one quick motion.

THUNK! The sound of the impact was startling, not what he thought his head would make colliding with a giant's club. The force echoed off the back of his head and down his spine. Everything receded, replaced by a ringing buzz. Then the mud-splattered "WELCOME" mat slowly came rushing up to greet his face.

"OOF," someone said. Darkness closed in and a warm sensation spread out from his crotch as everything finally, finally relaxed.

Originally published in Cynic Online Magazine.

Article © Maui Holcomb. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-06-10
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