Fiction: Sustained Rapture
By Paul Ballard
He entered and took the slow, wood-paneled elevator several floors down. He took a loose cigarette out of his suit jacket pocket and put it in his mouth, watching the numbers in the elevator methodically lower. He waited until he exited the lobby and lit it respectfully on the sidewalk. He was immediately assaulted by the noise, movement and harsh cold of Midtown Manhattan. He smoked in front of the skyscraper while watching the traffic pass and people move briskly along the sidewalk. The city was grey, the world was grey.
The wind began to pick up and blow ferociously. Dean grabbed hold of his flapping jacket and buttoned it all the way up to his chin. It was time for a thicker coat evidently.
Every year, and I’m tired of it. This will be my last, he thought thinking of the cold.
He checked his watch and confirmed he had just over three hours before his flight.
He smoked his cigarette down to the stub, flicked it to the ground, and hailed a cab. He gave the address and the cab arrived at the parking garage next to his workplace. He made his way down the steep ramp, got in, lighting another cigarette, and began the trek home.
He slowly pulled the car into the driveway and shut off the engine. He sat for a few long moments behind the wheel contemplating. He made his decision and exited the car. The side door was unlocked, and he walked into his home, taking off his hat and coat, hanging both on the coatrack by the door. He smelled what he believed to be a delicious red meat accompanied by gravy cooking. He moved throughout the kitchen and then into the living room, finding his wife smoking by the radio with the children.
“Hello...” Dean said while preoccupied with something out the front window.
“Hi, honey! Dinner is ready. I was just keeping it warm until you got home,” Martha said with her ever-present smile. She blew smoke out her nose and Dean leaned in to kiss her.
Martha brushed her long blonde hair out of her face which kept falling into her mouth while she smoked. She was classical beautiful and built similar to that of a Greek goddess seen in many famous artworks or depicted in films. Her face was one of striking beauty.
Dean dropped to a knee and touched his son and daughter lightly on their backs. They didn’t notice him until he did this, enamored by the radio’s loud show.
“Hi, Dad!” they exclaimed.
He kissed them on the top of their heads and rose back to his feet.
Making his way out of the living room and back into the kitchen, he picked up his briefcase he left by the door. Moving with haste down the dimly hit, narrow hallway leading to his wife and his bedroom, he turned left at the end of the hall, to his office.
It was just as he left it. His wife or the kids knew not to go in here. It was decorated with faux wooden furniture on every wall with a genuine oak desk in the center.
He took the briefcase out that was under the desk. He checked it was locked and gave it a pat of reassurance.
Moving quickly, so not to linger, he went back to the kitchen. Martha was at the stove and the children were at the table with empty plates in front of them. He joined them at his place at the head of the table.
Martha plated a slice of roast beef in front of him, doused a hefty helping of gravy from a fine China gravy boat, then served the children next and herself last.
They ate dinner and exchanged their daily stories all with smiles on their faces. It was as if they were the picturesque family found on advertisements showing the American nuclear family. But those advertisements were fake. Those people weren’t happy. They were acting. And so was this one.
Dinner was over, Martha was washing the dishes and the children were once again back in front of the radio.
“I’m leaving for the airport in a few minutes. I got another call at work and have to head out. It will be about three or maybe four days, I can’t be too sure yet.”
“Again?” inquired Martha.
“I know, I don’t like it either. It’s a cross-country flight and you know how I despise flying. If there was something I could do to change this arrangement, trust me, I would.”
He considered his words.
Dean continued, “It’s a once-a-month gig. The money I make on it is worth it. And when I come back, I’ll miss you and the kids all the more.”
She walked back to the table leaned in and kissed him.
Martha walked back to the counter, swaying her hips, and came back to his chair with a hot pot of coffee and poured him a cup.
“No, I shouldn’t. I’m hoping to sleep on the plane if I can.”
He considered the hot cup of black coffee for a moment and then decided against it, lighting a cigarette instead.
Dean parked the car and took his well-packed suitcase out of the trunk.
He briskly walked through the airport and got to his gate. He smoked a cigarette while watching other planes take off before boarding his own.
He took his seat on the plane and ordered a strong drink. After two, three and maybe four of them, he couldn’t recall, he fell into a noisy sleep.
The plane landed and he was awoken by an attractive stewardess leaning provocatively over him. He smiled at her and stole a look for a few seconds longer than he should have. He retrieved his suitcase stationed in the overhead compartment above him and exited the plane.
Dean was immediately assaulted by the warm air, smell of the ocean, industry, and hustle of Los Angeles.
He hailed a cab, and it took him to a parking garage.
His car was the only one remaining on the first floor of the garage. He approached it, put the key into the door and put his other hand on the door handle. He felt a sudden coolness wash over his body and his feet felt light. He barred himself and put his other hand on the car to keep himself from falling over.
Jetlag that’s all, he thought, reassuring himself.
He started the car and walked around the back to place his suitcase in the trunk of the car.
In the trunk of the car was his other briefcase. He closed the trunk quickly and looked around.
Dean pulled out of the parking garage and onto the sunny streets of Los Angeles. He looked up at the palm trees, smiled, and lit a new cigarette. His smile was wide, and his teeth were as white as a full moon. He rested his arm out the window and spread his fingers wide to feel the wind rush through them with a natural just cause. He inhaled deeply on his cigarette, blew it out his nostrils and made his way to his second house. The one in The Hills.
She was sprawled across the couch half-naked asleep and didn’t hear the door open. Trying not to wake her, he put down his suitcase, took off his shoes and made his way slowly to the kitchen to make a light drink.
He ate some small fruit that was in a bowl on the table, made his way out onto the porch deck and gazed into his reflection in the sliding glass door. One that was so very familiar but looked odd in the particular LA sun’s light. A reflection that existed only as a gasp of a memory in New York.
He sat on a low seated chair looking out at the young people on the beach, while smoking.
The ash tray was beginning to get full when she finally awoke and found him outside.
She stumbled onto the deck still half asleep. “Dean! When did you get in?” She was surprised to see him but happy as could be.
“Another late-night Marylyn? It’s getting close to noon. Did you have another party here? With those ‘no job’ friends of yours?” He sipped his drink with discontent and a hint of anger.
Marylyn wore thin silk clothes that clung to her skinny figure. Her brunette hair tumbled about her small shoulders. Her face was one of striking beauty. A beauty that Dean thought he had seen elsewhere.
“They might not have a job like you, but they do have jobs! They are musicians!” She scoffed. She took the cigarette out of his fingers and finished it. He took another from behind his ear.
“How have you been? It’s been a few weeks.” He offered her his drink, and she moved her hand in a gesture saying no.
“Yeah, eighteen days! I thought you said you would be around more!” Embarrassed, she looked down at her feet, avoiding eye contact with him.
“I’ve been trying, really. You know sometimes I’m required to work in New York. I hate the weather there, you know that.”
“I know, but I don’t like you leaving all the time! Hey! Maybe I could come out there one time with you? We could see the city together!”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I am just there for work. I don’t do much else. Then I come back here to you.”
Contented, she kissed him.
He took her shopping for the day, buying anything she wanted, he smiled at the happiness she possessed but he found so hard to achieve.
At night she invited her friends over again and the gathering became a party sometime around midnight. Drugs, drinking, and sex were abundant.
Dean sat at his kitchen island on a barstool with a glass of whiskey in his hand which was now watered down by the melted ice. He stared deeply into it as one stares out from the shores onto the midnight indigo ocean illuminated by the full moonlight. Around him was raging music, drunk men and women grabbing each other, and a broad sense of communal love. But Dean was alone. Not physically, he was surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, but mentally he felt an emptiness. The host, providing fun for everyone, except for himself.
Marylyn found him sulking alone at the kitchen island and grabbed him. He sung her around with a faux smile on his face. She read him better than most and handed him a pill.
“What’s this?” He asked eyeing the blue and white capsule.
“Don’t ask just enjoy,” she pulled another capsule out of her bra and put in under her tongue.
He did the same and swallowed the cocaine laced pill.
They drank more than anyone would remember in the morning and blacked out.
Dean’s unconscious mind had had enough and kicked them all out around three in the morning.
Dean grabbed Marylyn by the hips, and they fell on the couch. They lay there kissing on the couch while smiling grabbing at each other. It was as if they were a picturesque couple found on the cover of magazines. But those advertisements were fake. Those people weren’t happy. They were acting. And so was he.
“Can I smoke in here?”
“Yes, but I’d rather if you-”
Her protest was cut off by him dramatically reclining his body comfortably in the chair, assuming a near sleeping position with his hands behind his head. He was presently tuning out what she was saying and was humming a blissful melody deep in his throat while singing it loudly inside his head. He reached inside his suit jacket pocket, fumbled with some loose strands of tobacco, while his fingers eventually fumbled upon a loose cigarette. The flick of the lighter lit for half a blimp in time and that ignited a fury within her. His humming was getting progressively louder as she attempted to carried on her points of discussion.
“...that is why I think you shouldn’t smoke in here. Impulse control. You need discipline.” He caught the tail end of what she was saying and stopped humming and raised his eyebrows. He had never heard her sound so angry as she did now.
“Are you listening to me now?” she scolded throwing back her hair over her left shoulder.
He French inhaled his last drag, leaned forward, and stomped the cigarette out in the ashtray on the small table between them. To her, this symbolized his yield to her. Folding his hands on his lap, he straightened his posture and said: “yes, ma’am. Have been the whole time,” he lied.
“You think therapy is a farce, don’t you? You don’t take what we’re doing here seriously, do you? I don’t know why I’m asking. I know you don’t.”
He considered what she said for a moment.
“No, no I don’t. It’s just... I don’t think that I belong here. It’s not for me. It’s for others that appear they need it. You walk by them on the street, and you just know.”
“You think the physical appearance of an individual is solely what qualifies them for therapy?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
Dean was currently a patient of Eileen’s practice for three years and counting. Her practice was located in a small two-story building in Santa Monica off the corner of a strip mall. Dean had made sure when he finally sought a therapist after many years, it was away from his family and its happenings could never be found out in New York, where his real life resided. Eileen was a middle-aged woman who knew little of Dean, but perhaps she knew him even better than he knew himself. He said precious little in these sessions and mostly just liked to hear Eileen’s soothing voice, occasionally nodding in agreement when he thought it was appropriate.
“I have to tell you something,” Dean lost eye contact with her and instead stared down at the shag carpet. He realized for the first time it was a light shade of maroon.
Eileen, shocked, invited him eagerly to share with her hands waving towards her.
“I’ve been having these panic attacks. The first two I couldn’t figure out why they were happening. But then I realized they would always happen the day after I drank. Drank heavily. Beige drank. Drank to blackout, intentionally.”
“Why do you drink that heavily?”
“I don’t know.” He thought about this for an instant, insincerely.
“Anyways, I would get this feeling around my chest and midsection. I don’t know how to explain it, but the best way I could try is to say that it feels like you’re dying. Like the essence of your soul is uneasy and trying to leave your body. It’s like my brain is convincing me that we are dying so it’s near impossible to calm down even when I know I’m not. Truth be told I went to the hospital, the second time, out of fear. That’s how I know it was a panic or anxiety attack, they told me.”
Eileen was careful with her words. Dean usually didn’t speak up much and certainly not this much in the past.
“Is it okay if we do an exercise?”
“Sure, guess so.” He threw his hands open with indifference.
“Lean back again, get comfortable and close your eyes.”
He obeyed her. He would have obeyed anything she said to do. She gave him slow instructions to put his mind in a relative state of ease.
“You need to find serenity. Or not finding it will harm you, maybe permanently,” Eileen advised. “It’s possible that these are attacks now but can come to be a disorder down the line.”
“Serenity… that’s something I can only find in my mind,” croaked Dean, he was in a near state of hypnosis, his voice gave out and afraid of being so open to her.
She put him deeper into that state with her soothing, trained words.
“Tell me what you see.”
“I see the beauty, the crispness, of a tree by the lake overlooking a green, untouched landscape inhabited by only pure creatures of God. Tell me doc, is dying so bad?”
The door shut softly behind him. He could hear her in the kitchen frying food in oil. She must have just dropped something into it because the smell had yet to permeate the living room. He took a moment to calm down, leaning his back on the front door before he had to go into the kitchen and greet her.
He reached into his pocket and caressed his smooth stone that he bought at the local convenience store next to the beach, immediately after the last session. Eileen recommended he get one and slowly caress it whenever he felt anxious. There wasn’t anything in particular he was anxious about right now, but he wanted to get used to the stone, so it was a familiar feel when he needed it.
He shuffled into the kitchen, hoping not to make any noise as he snuck up behind her to hug her and kiss her neck. Marylyn saw him as soon as his profile could be seen from the counter out of the corner of her eye. She exclaimed when she saw him and said he had almost scared her being so quiet. She flipped two fillets of a white fish in the pan. They seared.
He sat down at the kitchen table and watched her prepare dinner.
“I need to take a break from partying,” he declared. He was expecting her to leave him on the spot. No discussion, not even an argument. He imagined her dropping the pan into the sink and marching upstairs to gather her things and leave within the hour. Why wouldn’t she? Dean’s perception of the whole reason they were together in the first place was based off sex, drugs and his money. Money was undoubtedly the most important of the trio, but drugs certainly were not far behind.
“Oh? Okay. Why you went too hard the other night?” she laughed. “We all have those nights every once and awhile where we drink far too much and then promise ourselves that we will never touch the stuff again. That happens to me... maybe once every two weeks?” She looked back at him and smiled. He returned the smile without thinking.
“No, no, not quite. I mean like I think I’m done altogether. I think I might really focus on that music producing business I’ve been discussing and try to move out here permanently.” If she were to have been looking at him in that moment, she would have seen a man ashamed. Not because he was quitting something he loved, but because he recently found out he was a man lacking a proper impulse control.
“Oh, okay. Suit yourself.”
Dean was floored by her reaction. Perhaps there was more to their relationship than he thought. That frightened him.
He stormed into the office, shivering from the cold as it chased his coattails inside. He glanced quickly to his left and found her standing there.
She was saying something, but he couldn’t make it out, moving closer to her to try and read her lips or hear her voice.
A lit cigarette fell from her lips and dropped to the gray shag carpet.
She reached both her hands out for him to take and hold them close, to warm them. To heal them. As he reached to grab them, they began to turn to ash and wither away.
No, he mouthed, groping frantically for her but careful not to touch the ash, thinking if he did, he would lose her forever. Her face began to progressively turn a light gray and blew away with the light wind omnipresent.
He woke screaming.
Her modest office was the same as always but today Dean found that it had a better look. Perhaps it was that the sun was coming through the blinds to hit the leather, reflecting it on the ceiling.
“Hi. Good to see you again. I think we made great progress yesterday, close the door and take a seat, let’s get started,” her soothing voice was most welcome in Dean’s ears.
“Last time I was here I let the damn walls break under my supervision and there is no repairing them after so much has now flooded the surrounding areas. I figured now that I’ll let it all go again, what’s left that is. But I’m afraid not much.”
This jarring statement left Eileen speechless. She raised a hand for him to begin. Dean didn’t lean back like she expected him to, but instead he leaned forward with an intensity she hadn’t seen in him before.
“I love my wife dearly, I do. I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to her, honest. I love my kids. They are everything to me. Now I understand creation. Not just the word, but the act. I love them. I know I do. But sometimes it’s hard for me to feel it. Having a wife and kids means that would have to be stable. You need to stay in one place, for them. For their benefit. I understand that. But the thing is, that’s not me. I detest staying in one place for too long. And not just that the weather gets to me, I hate the cold. But I also hate the heat if I’m in an unchanging climate for too long I hate that too, but less. I need to be stable for them.”
Dean looked down at his trembling hands, deeply uncomfortable with what he was saying out loud.
“But for me I don’t want to be stable. I thrive on the instability of life. If every day we wake up at the same time, do the same job, come back to the same place…. For too long… what is the point of all that. I struggle to understand that and find the purpose in it. I have real debts, but even then, this is not enough for me to stay stable for them. I wonder what God would say?”
After a long silence Eileen said: “That is so much to go on. These past two days have given us so much to work with I think you might now be able to get the help that you needed when you first walked in my door. Do you need a tissue, Jack?”
“No, thanks,” said Dean and glanced out to the window to witness a brother gently push his sister down the sidewalk on her bicycle.
The front door was unlocked. That was peculiar, but he didn’t think much of it and how that potentially meant danger for his family. His mind was occupied elsewhere. He had already made up his mind.
Suitcase. Where is it?
The suitcase was naturally in the trunk. Of course, it is. There was no need to come in here at all. He went to his office to double check since he was already in the house. He turned the knob and barreled in. He looked under his desk and didn’t find it there where he expected. He exited his office and made his way down the hall. He paused for a moment at each of his kids’ rooms, leaning on the doorframe and sighing.
The motel room was musty. Both beds were made and firmly tucked. The dark red bedspread was dusty indicating that this room had not been occupied for some time, or perhaps even the motel itself.
He gingerly put his suitcase down on the mattress positioned it on the left bed and sat down on the right. He signed long and deep, taking a loose cigarette out, striking it with a loose match.
He went to the bathroom sink and let the water run. He closed the value to turn down the voracity of the stream. Taking his hands, he placed them under the cold water. He opened his hands wide to let the essential key to all life on earth run smoothly through his fingers.
He turned off the water and dried his hands.
He went back to the bed and put in the combination of numbers that opened the suitcase. Inside was just a single item, a rope.
He looked up and found two ceiling beams that seemed like they could carry out the job. He took the rope which already had a noose tied and threw one end over the beam. He caught the other end, stood on the bed and tied it down to the beam. He took off his suit jacket and laid it out on the back of the chair that faced the dusty desk. Reaching inside the jacket he produced a pre-written letter. The letter consisted of three overly prepared sentences that outlined all he believed he needed to say. He licked the back of the envelope and left it on the desk.
He pulled out the chair that accompanied the desk and positioned it under the noose. He stepped up onto the chair, put the noose around his neck and closed his eyes. This was the moment, he thought, that he could still take back. But it was too late for that. This is something that he had decided upon many months ago, far before he had opened up to Eileen, Eileen didn’t even know his real name. Eileen didn’t even know him.
Nobody knows me, and I suppose that is my own goddamn fault I was always too much of a coward.
Dean kicked the chair out from under himself.
The noose and beam held him for a long enough time where he thought his decision was ultimately final and he was dying. It was something he undoubtedly wanted but his biology and evolution were requiring him to fight until his last breath. His hands and arms were shooting out as fast as they involuntarily would, reaching for everything and anything to save his life. His hands shot up and tried to grab the beam, but once he grabbed on, he let go as soon as he could. It’s not what he truly wanted. He didn’t want to undo his choice. His legs kicked furiously. The rope broke.
He came crashing to the ground, his left foot landing onto top of the chair. The noose still around his neck, he laid on the decrepit carpet, wheezing saliva. He reached up around his neck and found the rope, he followed it back until he found the frayed edges where it broke. Filled with adrenaline, he seemingly drunkenly walked to the bathroom and saw himself in the mirror. It was a sight he thought he would never see again, along with a million others. The rope still around his neck, he pulled it down to see a deep red burn mark on his neck.
Suddenly he became very nervous that a worker or tenet may have heard the commotion that happened in his room when he fell. In a mad dash he gathered up his suit jacket, took of the broken rope and through it back in his suitcase, cursing it and left the room. On the desk he mistakenly left his final words.
He threw his suitcase onto the seat next to him, looked behind him and then raced out of the parking lot to the airport.
He parked his car in the long-term parking, without a care for paying. He ran past the booth into the terminal of the airport. He sprinted as fast as he could down to the gate. He found the gate. Just in time.
“Sir?” The perplexed flight attendant, checking in the passengers, reached out an arm to stop him. Still jogging, he started outside onto the runway paying them no mind. A second flight attendant who was outside saw the first try to stop him and began approaching him, her heels clacking away on the pavement.
He flung around, his neck craning to see who was calling out for his attention. Who knew he was at the airport? Who saw him run through the terminal?
He knew the voice like the back of his hand.
It was Martha. Dressed in a small blue coat and her blonde hair shining luminously in the beam of sunlight coming from the ceiling windows.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” She held out his ticket to Los Angeles and threw her head to the side, frowning.
Unbelieving, he checked his pockets. He had no ticket. He left it in the top draw of his desk at home. Now she had it. She had been going through his desk. For how long? How much did she know?
Paul Ballard is a New-England born fiction and non-fiction author who holds degrees in the fields of History, Security and Law. He has been published in Savage Planets Magazine, The 504 and Eagle Eye Intelligence. He also has an upcoming publication in the Bradburyeque Anthology.