By Ave Goorbarry
The sky loomed gray over New Haven, rain-heavy clouds resting in the air, gazing. When Mooney stepped into his office, he stepped in swaying. The dull wool coat that dawned on his shoulders clung to him, and there was only a pack of cigarettes jutting from his caved-in side, a cruel body. He was riddled with cold and shook his body frantically to do away with it, proceeding to smooth his wrinkled button-up. His pale face was a bright red, with stubble irritating him. He wanted sleep or drink.
He took a seat, sitting down in the creaking leather chair adjacent to his worn mahogany desk. In this evening light, he couldn't help but notice it looked damaged. The scuffs, watermarks fixed in the wood, all varied spot-to-spot. Day-old coffee mugs, one old-fashioned or two. If you checked the left drawer, the water-logged one, it stashed the liquor. He didn't stash the more lavish spirits here, no. Just corner store bottles. Regardless, opening a bottle of whiskey at the end of the day and pouring out its contents satisfied him. A lingering taste of a charred oak barrel was a dreamy libation; there was beauty in the umber remaining in a well-charted glass.
He propped his feet up on the desk, swiftly kicking up his monk-strapped shoes. Another scuff he made was another that did not matter. He opened the flap on his coat and took out the smushed carton of menthols. There were only two cigarettes left. But, that would have to do for the current occasion. Yesterday he got a call—Mother died. They said she was out getting the paper, and there was a freak accident. An unstable driver jumped the curb. When he received the call, the speaker asked if he wanted to see her, and he said no. The man at the end of the line went, “Oh! O-ok.”
Why would he want to see Mother's head split, crimson dawning the curb? She was already dead. No use in painting the image clearer in his mind. He couldn’t bear witness to her lifeless body. She turned 70 last week and was looking into a bicycle. That week she came to the office and asked him to get one with her. He said no, and when she went to leave, she stood in the doorway dejected. Mother never got her bicycle, but it was not likely to happen if she were still alive. Her son carried responsibilities. Him, no longer the little boy she would nurture in her arms after an arduous day. She was the woman who took care of him like no other: caring for his meals, listening to his frustrations, even ironing his underwear.
As he sat, his heavy gaze lay drawn out on the doorway. On an evening resembling this, he would be stuck in his office till late. The dissertations from his students lay scattered and disheveled. The sun was setting with trepidation, hidden behind clouds and campus buildings. Vaulted roofs, buttresses, and spires allowed golden light to flood freely into the room. He coughed, shifting his body to the window where his desk was facing. He quickly brushed his nose with a thumb and sniffled. Mother was gone, and so was Margaret, his wife.
Margaret was a seamstress. Another factory worker at another dilapidated textile factory in town. She was taking extra shifts from underneath her friends Lori and Julie, women resembling those of derelicts, because she wanted to move. He didn't pay any mind. He told her often there was a deteriorating urban housing market and usually, that would shut her up. She didn't have a good head on her shoulders, only an uneducated one that was lucky to have him. He had been studying under superiors for years, honing his dialect and eloquence. A man of high class, Mother shamed him for marrying Margaret. A woman from a nearby town who was a hostess at a diner when they met. Now, as he grew older he regretted the years with her. The woman sleeping in his bed wasn’t the same.
She was uneventful and didn’t carry her youthful charm. She only had a stomach and curves that weren’t there from their first meeting. Cellulite and stretch marks on the ivory of thighs and sides of hips. He said she was a woman who didn’t age gracefully, however wrong in his statements. Her face was pretty in the ways men would wish to sleep beside her. Ringlets of dirt blonde and doe eyes of a faun, resembling that of Brigitte Bardot. But, to him, she was that of Jane Eyre. As Jane mentioned she was “poor, obscure, plain and little." Or, what he presumed the word be plain to convey: ugly with a tinge of pleasantry.
“Never marry a plain woman, you’ll get bored of plain women,” Mother told him. She wanted the best for her boy, he ignored her. Now he remained with Margaret, and she stayed plain. Plain in life, actions, and looks. One thing he always despised was that Margaret had an extra tooth exiting her gums just over the canine, it disgusted him how she never got it removed, he just didn’t want to be the one to pay for it.
Yet, he didn’t pay mind to the dinners she’d serve. The ones she would make after her grueling 12 hours days, surrounded by sweat-ridden and squeezed-in workers. She’d come home still smelling of body odor, slave over a meal, take care of the children, and hope her actions were redeemable enough to save his and her connection. He’d hunch over the dinner table as their kids would run and play, taking the offerings given, as they were plentiful. He only saw them as expected gifts and saw the bad in her attributes.
She acted as though he was a scrap of a husband. Though his habits changed him, drinking ruined them she said, not her age. He felt himself falling out of love each day, his curiosity from early days gone, she lacked the excitement he desired.
He realized when he got in bed one evening; her touch made him recoil. In their small, tan, and carpeted bedroom the room felt dull. They only had one lamp that sat on the corner of his nightstand to light his books. He remembered he was reading Lolita in bed. He felt relation in Humbert Humbert recounting the disenchantment he felt describing his fat, “brainless” first wife. As he was turning the page Margaret entered in a white silk negligee.
“My love, I’ve missed you recently, all you’ve been doing is coming and going.”
“Ah yes, I know, but my students need me right now.”
“But I need you,” Margaret said. She stood by the bedside with her fingers intertwined in front of her pear-shaped body, he didn’t respond. She lifted the covers and slid between the sheets till next to him. Her body molded to the side of his, he put the book on the nightstand. Just as his arms returned to the bed, her fingers traced down the hairs on his forearm. He tried not to react as he watched her blistered fingertips try and redeem the unsalvageable.
“Marge, I’m quite tired,” he gave a dry chuckle.
“Oh,” her hands stopped and she shifted away from his side. She lifted the sheets and left the bed, entering the bathroom to change into an aged nightgown. She got back into bed and for the rest of the night, the silence between them remained. Eventually, she placed a pillow between the two of them and slept without hesitation. He listened to her small snorts through the hours.
As he recounted that of Mother and Margaret his feelings remained unscathed, no pain singing from his body. Just the song of a man that clung to disregard like a hymn. Margaret was halfway gone and Mother halfway lowered six feet under.
Mother’s death made it less quiet than he would’ve liked yesterday morning, now he missed it. Every five minutes a grad student walked into his office with condolences. The wire-frame glasses that didn’t fit his face slid up and down his nose as he looked to the door. Every time he took a glance at a student he had to push them up, sighing. Soon enough they realized it was a sign to leave him alone. The cadence of footsteps in the hall rested easy for only an hour. He found student to be annoyances, with pretension. Them and their unfit blazer that hung too far off the shoulder. Checkered brown patterns intersected improperly over the shoulder seams. He did enjoy the women in black kitten heels, which looked wonderful over nude stocking legs. They’d wear big wool flare coats, in shades of tan to black. Pretty on the silhouettes of the super skinny and properly feminine.
Only when Lillian spoke did he find that of refuge. A student whom he found a connection with months prior. Her course words teased his mind. One evening after class she had come to ask him for a book recommendation. She was roaming the bookshelves on the other side of the room in his office and stayed until the sun went down and no light remained.
“Is this any good?”
“Crime and Punishment?” He raised his glasses and squinted to make out the cover from afar. “At least it’s 19th century, part of the literature golden years...”
“You are great at making the good sound mundane,” she paused and flipped over the book to read.
“Can I take it?”
He nodded but was preoccupied. Staring at Lillian as she stood from the ladder leaning against the shelf. Her tanned thighs pressed against the wood as she read from the yellowed pages. She was thin and tall, and her body invited flesh on bone in small quantities. Straight blond hair that fell past her hips, 5'9, skinny, and 20 years his subordinate. Lillian Vita was a grad student in the way it mattered. A coed that was easy on the eyes, and inquisitive.
“I will be going, but I appreciate your help. I look forward to seeing you next lecture,” she had collected her things and clutched the book to her chest.
“It’s no problem.”
“I appreciate that sir,” she turned to leave.
“Lillian, wait,” he shifted his body toward the door and sat for a minute. He wanted the words needed in explaining the joy he’d have from being with her. A place of secrecy for them to be alone. He got up and said that in simpler terms: locking her in embrace till her hair draped on his hands and their lips met. From that night on she spent many days in his company. She’d stop by as the sun was setting, he’d recommend some text, and they’d enjoy the other's company. She was the fresh-faced thrill he’d been longing for, he could feel his body fill with ecstasy as her body lingered in the room. Hips moving with certainty down the hall when she’d pass him. Ease, simplicity, she was the craving he needed to suffice; and that she did for four months.
Around ten Lillian entered his office. Her knuckles rapping at the door till he shouted come in. When she opened the door her blonde hair covered her face. The overgrown bangs she had covered her eyes like curtains, she stood in the doorway, in a lilac cotton dress.
“Oh, Lillian! What do you need?” he pushed his glasses up past his sunken eyes and into his hair. He had been waiting to see her, but he could feel the oils from his scalp staining the glass. The greyed strands of hair were filthy. His cream dress shirt was wrinkled and the sleeves were rolled up half-hazard. He’d recently been sleeping in the office to avoid Margaret because he was drinking every night, Margaret could smell drink like a dog.
In dodging conflict Mother’s death wasn’t ideal—he missed Lillian. She had been finalizing her thesis and hadn’t been coming around much besides lecture. He could avoid Margaret, but he had a zeal for days with Lillian. Seeing her face there was a halo gracing her.
“I just heard the news about your mother, I’m sorry love. That’s an unfortunate death.” Lillian walked forward to the chair in front of his desk. “I heard she died by hit and run, right?” She didn’t sit down, but her hands rested on the black cushion backing.
“Uh, yes, she did,” he groaned as he relaxed into the seat. “It’s fine actually, I’ll figure it out when I need to. At least she lived a life, a decently long one at that,” he said earnestly. He leaned forward to grab his pen. “It’s life’s cycle isn’t it? Our ‘danse macabre’ if you will,” he fidgeted with the barrel and cap. Lillian’s gaze was steady on his head.
“But my love,” she paused before speaking. “It was pretty violent, wasn’t it? Word travels fast, it seemed gory. They said some pedestrians helped her, but she was fairly close to death. She died soon after, I’m sure of it, half-past eight.”
He winced, he couldn’t think of her like that, his heart stung. She may have been concerned for his well-being, but this was not the time to mention this. He couldn’t pay mind to this, if he did he would lash out. He brushed off Lillian because her words held no weight.
“There are more pressing matters at hand,” he glanced at her frame and wet his lips.
“Huh... well, I just wanted to extend my apologies,” she said. “Will you be in lecture today?” He could tell she was a bit jarred, she looked at him with vaporish eyes. When he made his remarks, her hands retracted from the chair. She lifted her slender fingers, resting them by her sides. Taking a breath, she smoothed her dress and clasped her hands together. Lillian's upright posture ceased, her stance was slightly inverted.
“Yes, yes I will be there,” he was upset she didn’t acknowledge him, she was foolish to acknowledge Mother.
Lillian sighed and stared at him. She didn’t say anything, but with a faint smile nodded and walked to the door. She stood in the doorway, remaining, then turned on her heels to exit. His head was spinning after she left the room. The papers in his hands seemed far less
important. He retrieved a bottle from his desk drawer. There was one swig of something that tasted of gin, then he found sleep.
“My little love, are you coming?” Mother yelled for him, stirring a vat of soup in their kitchen. Leek soup, his favorite soup. He was waking up from a nap in the upstairs of the house and rubbing his crusted eyes. The blankets surrounding him secured him to the mattress, he released himself from his cocoon. Walking to the stairs he trudged down.
“Love, I made your favorite! Come, sit,” Mother came from around the corner with a small bowl and metal spoon.
“What time is it?”
“Almost 6! You’ve been sleeping all afternoon,” she said, he frowned. “It’s ok, just sit down and eat.” He sat down at the dining table and she kissed the top of his head. As he began to put the spoon to his lips the contents of the bowl turned brown.
“Ugh, Mom!” he sniffed the spoon.
“What happened? Mother went to his side and looked at the bowl. She looked puzzled and took the spoon from his grasp, swallowing the spoonful.
He looked up and it wasn’t Mother’s face, but Margaret’s. Her blonde, her eyes, her expression, Margaret’s. And he wasn’t a child, but a man, he looked at his hands, arms covered in thick hair. He shook his head to tell her no.
“How could you do this, again? Have you no decency—do you not love me anymore?” She was shrill. He didn’t say anything but looked in the bowl. She was close to tears and her eyes were red. Before he knew it the bowl was on his lips and the liquid was stinging his throat. He woke up panting to see Margaret sitting in front of him.
“So, I came here to say sorry about Mother. I heard about the death, and I’m sorry. Such a sorrowful passing. That’s why this is so inconvenient,” she shifted, giving a faint smile. “I wanted to share a drink with you, something I’ve never been able to do. Can you get me some glasses?” She had a brown bag on the floor with one bottle of corner store whiskey.
He looked at her in confusion, this wasn’t real. He obliged, pulling out two lowball glasses from the desk draw and setting both out. She grabbed the bottle from the floor and undid the cap. The bottle stayed in her lap as she paused, then she poured a shot for the both of them. He looked at her, but her gaze never met his. What was she doing.
“I have to leave you, the kids and I will be moving to Greenwich, our things are already packed.” She took the glass in front of her and let the whiskey slide down her throat, she winced. Her head urged forward, towards his glass. He picked it up and swirled it around.
“Like hell you are,” he drank without wincing.
“This is not a question up for debate. I’m leaving, and I know you don’t love me anymore. You can excuse yourself all you want, but you look at me like you’re disgusted and I can’t bear to be judged by your roaming eyes.” He couldn’t detest. But her statements were untrue. She changed when she was no longer receptive, caring, a beautiful woman. Margaret was tainted by the acceptance of knowledge and the grace of years.
“I’ve done everything I can to make you happy,” he said. But didn’t cry out.
“I believe you have,” she put the whiskey in the bag. “And that’s why I’m leaving.” She got up and collected her belongings.
He was stunned. The words were unable to form because there was none to describe the hypocrisy. She was sorry but chose today to leave, she should’ve left with no waves.
She stood in the doorway before leaving. He saw her face in its beauty, cast in sun-lit shadows. Sharp and angular nose to puffed cheeks. She walked out confident—what Mother never got to do.
He needed a cigarette, he grabbed one from his pocket, along with a zippo. It lit and wafted out grey smoke, he took a drag on it. Plumes of acrid air burned his nose. He couldn’t see her statement with clear eyes. Mother lay resting in a morgue unclaimed, and he was an unclaimed husband. He allowed himself to feel empty for the first time as he carried no obligations or ties to those surrounding him.
He slept as such. Laying his coat near the window to sleep on, so he could face the morning light. He thought of the day. Mother’s unforeseen passing, alone. Lillian’s remarks and his lack of care. How far Margaret was by now, how close to Greenwich. Mother was right of plain women.
He clutched the coat, lying in a fetal position. He loosened the collar of his dress shirt so he could rest on the floor comfortably. His body sank, and sleep came easy.
When he got up this morning, a paper was slid under his door. Groggy, he walked over and picked it up. He scratched at his face and yawned. The sun was just reaching the horizon. He flipped over the paper and saw a note inscribed on the front:
Mors Vincit Omnia,
‘Death conquers all.’
And so does love. I won’t be in the lecture today, I’m sorry for your loss.
- Lillian Vita”
Ave Goorbarry is a teenage writer born in New Jersey and currently lives in South Florida. Ave's work explores the intricacies of familial connection and introspection. Ave's writing has won awards regionally from Scholastic Art and Writing and has been previously published in Seeds Literary and Arts Magazine and The Firefly Review. (Follow him on Twitter and Instagram)