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December 04, 2023

After Life 14

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Fourteen: Voices Heard

Thornton? The middle of nowhere?

What does that matter, the pay increase is substantial. Do you want to be a flunky all your life? This move will give you more money, and a better position in the company. No one will tell you what to do, not like now. Well, maybe the big wheel of the company, but he thinks you're good, so you don't have to worry about him. Take it! More money! Better opportunity! Security! Prosperity!

With a sinking heart, Roj watched her father, in the past, sitting at the dining room table, telling about Mr. Tallefson's offer of management of the feed plant in Thornton. It was a promotion, but ... Oh, God, that's one of the voices whispering to Dad, telling him to get more money and power. Dad, why did you listen? In remembering him, she saw his uncertainty, the inner turmoil that altered his face, but also his resolution to make his family more affluent. He didn't want his wife to hunt for bargains at the store, he wanted her to have nice clothes and his children to wear good shoes, and to build a carport that would keep the snow off, and buy a snowblower that would eliminate the need to shovel walks in North Dakota's winters ...

But he had listened to the suggestions of the almost unheard voices, that sounded like he would be doing the best thing for their family.

"What would have been the best thing for us? Would we have been any better off if we'd have stayed in the city, near our church? Maybe we'd have drifted away from God even if we'd stayed."

"Or perhaps you would have been so close that lightning could have struck you and made you truly believe," Desai said.

"But I do believe in God," Roj protested. "I do."

"You believe with less than the faith of paramecium, of atoms, of a seven-year-old child. You believe only in that which you think you can comfortably admit or dismiss without responsibility."

"Desai, you are one mean-ass partner."

"I reiterate, I am not your partner. And just because I tell you the truth does not make me 'mean-ass.'

"I do believe, and I don't know what you mean when you say I believe like a germ."

"No, you don't know," Desai said more gently.

"Dad listened to Voices that told him to seek his fortune, but he shouldn't have. It would have been better for us to be poor than for him to take the promotion. Is that the right answer?"

Desai made a shrugging gesture. "I cannot say. What was, was done."

Roj looked again into another memory of her past, saw herself standing by her father, looking out over the porch at the blowing snow, the night of her first real date. Worries hung upon him like dark, shadowy weights on his shoulders. She, in her exuberance, threw off golden sparks of anticipation and joy.

"You be good tonight," her father had said to her. "We haven't been so sharp about teaching you religion, but you know how to be good."

From her dead and gone standpoint, Roj could get what he was saying: Don't mistake a boink for a compliment. And yet she could see that as a girl of sixteen, she had no idea what he was talking about. Well, sort of. Knowing how to be good meant not doing 'it' on the first date. But she, in her sixteen-year-old body, wasn't worried that it was an issue. All she knew was that she had a date, which knowledge electrified her substance to an unbearably exciting degree.

Wow, I was sure hot to trot, Roj observed with shame. In her memory, she could hear clearly the voice that sounded like barren trees in a freezing autumn wind, saying to her father, "You've done all you could. Be easy, don't worry, she doesn't need you anymore."

A voice was whispering to Roj at the same time, back in those days. "You know everything you need to know. Have fun, don't worry, the edge of pleasure is blissful, skate it, savor it, all your friends do, all the smart people do, you don't need him anymore."

"Weren't there any good Voices? Why do I hear only the ones who wanted me to turn away from good?"

"Were you listening for anything else?" Desai countered.

Roj shuddered. Sinking back into her memory, she could tap into her own thoughts, which had nothing of "remember what is good" in them. The voice that had told her to have fun was upbeat and merry, and that was all that she had listened to. Focusing, she heard the faint whisper, "Be wary, be chaste. Your future depends upon it."

"Hey, that was you!" Roj laughed with glee at recognizing his voice, but there was no answer from him. "Wasn't it? Desai?" There was nothing but the smelly office around her, mumbly with people's words. "Great. Mr. Guardian Angel flakes. Fine. Now what."

Hennessey, she observed, was motivated by the same things that her own father had listened to. More money, more power, less interference, more money ... Ah, Dad, I would have thought you'd know better.

But he had listened to the voices that whispered about money and security and investment, and she had listened to those, too, as she went off to college. Get a degree, you'll have money. Get away from home, you'll have freedom. Freedom! Money! Love/sex! With those, you'll own the world!

What a lie she had swallowed! College was uncomfortable living quarters, frustrating hoops to jump through, and a series of relationships that in retrospect, were so shallow and stupid that she was disgusted with how gullible she had been. Friends who were not really friends, only acquaintances there for the fun ride. Lovers who were not really lovers, only there for the ... fun ride.

Roj had no tears to weep. I squandered myself, listening to lies, just as surely as Hennessey has done. She looked with growing depression at the mess she had made of his desk. Gently she picked up his absolutely forbidden ashtray and shook it over his keyboard, like a chef carefully seasoning food, keeping the butts in the dish, letting the fine ash sift down to further destroy the mechanism. Money is not the answer, Hennessey, she thought, sadly. But you don't know that, do you, any more than I did.

I didn't seem to know anything of real use until I met Matt. With that thought, she was drawn to leave the dirty offices and go find him. She flew to his apartment, the ability to do so now almost commonplace. Drifting into his dim rooms, she observed him tenderly, noting his unshaven face and whiskey breath. He was sitting at his kitchen table, head propped up by a hand, snoring heavily.

Thinking that she would move him into his bed, Roj went to pull a blanket down. Matt's weapon was on the night stand by his bed. Roj picked it up, and idly checked the chambers. The pistol was loaded.

You dumb ass, she thought, emptying the bullets into her hand. Opening the drawer of the night stand, she found the box of shells he kept there, and carried all the ammunition away to his kitchen. What location would he be least likely to search for his armament? Top shelf, his grandmother's mixing bowl. Roj had admired it on many visits, but Matt never used it, claiming it had a crack in it. The amount of dust that had accumulated indicated that he didn't think about it often, but that was all to the good -- hidden ammunition plus not thinking equaled another day of life for him.

The faint sound of the bullets rattling in the bowl was enough to waken him. He blinked blearily, looked around the apartment. He squinted at Roj, who had floated down to his side. "How'd you get in here? Where's Anderson?"

He can see me! "Matt, what are you doing to yourself?"

"Nothing. Just waiting for Anderson to come back with our bottle."

"Anderson ... he's still in the car ... he sent me on up to see if you were still awake," Roj improvised.

"Took him long enough," Matt mumbled. "Didn't tell me he was stopping to pick up a date."

"Well, maybe you don't need to do any more drinking tonight, anyway. You're about to pass out right here at the table."

"Ah, bullshit," he huffed. "And I don't need a lecture from some bimbo Anderson picked up at the liquor store."

"Some bimbo? Why don't you know who I am? Too drunk?" He sees me but what -- who is he seeing in his mind?

He laughed weakly. "Truth be told, I see two of you, and neither one of you looks like anyone I want to talk to. How about you get lost, or go see what's holding up Anderson?"

What am I going to do if Anderson walks in here -- will he see me, too? "Why don't you just go to bed, Trapester," she said, "and sleep this one off? Want me to help you take off your jacket? I'll tell Anderson to come back in the morning."

"Don't you touch me. And don't tell me what to do. You don't know anything." In spite of his grouchy tone, he did try to shrug out of the garment, tangling himself in the sleeves.

"Matt, unzip it first. Here, I'll get it for you. You need to stop this boozing around, it doesn't solve anything." She reached for his chest.

"Leave me alone!" he shouted. "Just fucking get your hands off me!" He tried to stand up, lost his balance, and fell off the side of the chair, one arm pinned to his ribs inside the jacket. "Goddammit!" Squeezing his eyes shut in embarrassment, he slumped on the floor, and was asleep in moments.

I'm going to just leave him there, Roj decided. Maybe Anderson will see just in how bad a shape he is, and knock off this drinking game.

There was a rattle of keys at the door. She ducked behind the refrigerator and into the wall as Anderson walked into the apartment.

"Trap? Crap, man, we were going to settle you in for some serious drinking." He unzipped Matt, pulled him up into a sitting position, and hauled on his wrists. "Come on, wake up. No? Okay, you can stay there." He got a throw pillow from the couch and put it under Matt's head. "There you go. See you tomorrow, Pest."

Roj watched him toss Matt's keys on the table, put a bottle of whiskey on the counter, and head back out the door. She intended to turn the deadbolt of the door behind him, but stopped when she heard a key turn in the lock. Anderson has a key to Matt's apartment? They weren't friends. Why would Matt give him a key?

Having pressed through the front wall of the apartment, Roj watched Anderson go down the stairs and walk across the parking lot. She dropped to the asphalt behind him and hissed, "Anderson." A little louder. "Anderson."

He continued to his car, opened the door, and looked around with a puzzled expression, laughed, and got in the car.

Matt saw me but Anderson didn't. Is it because I wanted Matt to see me, and I didn't want Anderson to? As he drove away, Roj wondered again about the liquor, Anderson's presence, and the key to Matt's apartment. Anderson had not shown any evidence of being drunk, and if they had been out drinking together, why would Anderson have dropped Matt off at the apartment before picking up a bottle? Was it because he didn't want Matt to puke in his car, or because Matt walked home on his own, like he always used to?

Desai would know, if she asked him, since he 'knew' what was in the past, but Roj was still cranky about his paramecium remark and didn't want to talk to him tonight. Tonight she just wanted Matt, even if he was asleep, even if he couldn't identify her. She flew back into his kitchen.

He was rising uncertainly to his feet, steadying himself on the back of the chair. Roj watched him stagger to the door of his bedroom, got near to him and supported his lurch to the bed. As soon as his head touched the pillow, he slept again. Roj studied the arch of his eyebrows, the length of his eyelashes, calling to mind how it had felt to gently kiss his eyelids.

He jerked awake, with a low scream, "Roj!" A couple of seconds passed, and he began to weep, acknowledging his loss, remembering the reality.

"Matt," Roj whispered, "it's okay. I'm okay."

"You're gone," he moaned, almost in answer to her. "You're gone and nothing matters now."

There was no doubt that she was gone, blown away, offed, squelched, dusted ... but she really didn't feel that she didn't matter now. Or that her demise meant that nothing mattered for Matt.

She loved him, and she sent that message to him as best she could as she put her spirit arms around him, feeling him drift back into sleep. "Just a dream, Matt, my love, just a dream. Rest, sleep, tomorrow you'll find a path."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-01-29
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
05:21:04 PM
As one who in the past sacrificed his soul for money and position because something told me I had to, I certainly understand Roj's dad's predicament. “I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Ran across that the other day...
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