The Ghost of Carl excerpt: A Man Who Was, Isn’t, and Never Will Be

This is the prologue to the novel The Ghost of Carl. In this scene, we meet Carl McDougal, former farmer, former athlete, former dad, former husband, and former ladies man on the last day of his life. We learn that Carl would’ve done everything differently. We learn that he could’ve and should’ve been a good man if only he thought he was going to die every day of his life, to paraphase Flannery O’Connor’s piece “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

Words: 10,877

Rating: R. Lanuage and adult situations occur throughout this piece. It is not appropriate for anyone under the age of 18. There are no sexual scenes, but there are innuendos that maybe confusing to young minds. There are also scenes of violence that older minds may want to prevent younger minds from reading.

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The Ghost of Carl

It will all be different from this moment forward, Carl McDougal thought twisting to read the clock. It read 5:59 A.M. A couple seconds later, an alarm clock went off in the distance. The paper thin walls of the cheapest motel of Des Moines afforded its patrons no privacy. After a couple seconds, the alarm clock was shut off.

“Help!” Carl yelled in the space of that silence. His dry croak wasn’t heard even through the paper thin walls of the motel.

He slumped with disappointment. That hurt. He sat back up. That hurt. Every move, every inhalation and exhalation provided pain that took his breath away.

Carl was weak. His weakness and pain were unprecedented, and it embarrassed him. He couldn’t imagine what he would say if someone did come into the motel room to help him. A new age man would’ve cried out for help. A new age man would’ve provided all the sordid details of his current predicament to their savior in the hopes of gaining a little sympathy. Carl McDougal was not that man.

Carl could not understand the man who talked about all that plagued him. It made no sense to him, but they appeared to enjoy it. They appeared to relish providing the details of all their ailments. It was perverse to Carl. Were they searching for ways to prove that they were stronger than their listener, in that they had endured their laundry list of ailments, or were they trying to prove that they were weaker? You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine, but I don’t think that your meager existence can prepare you for what I’m about to tell you. They appear to seek sympathy as a form of validation. Carl couldn’t relate.

It bothered him to such a degree that he would grow restless in movies when the characters gave up a fight and accepted a fate. When the character had a monster chewing on his head, it just wasn’t plausible to Carl that a man would simply stand there and scream. Do something about it, Carl wanted to scream out, you’re in charge of what happens to you, and you can do something about it after it does.

Yet here he was giving up, because the alternative was too painful. You’re a wussy boy. Suck it up. You’re a man. He did give it a shot, and he nearly screamed as a result. Screamed? Did you almost scream Are you a girl? He reached for the night stand to rattle it or pound it. He screamed a breathless, gurgling scream. He placed a hand on the night stand, but he couldn’t even muster a proper wiggle of it. “Help,” he cried, and that cry was just a little weaker than the cry he had issued a minute ago. Even if Carl had yet to concede, his body was spelling out the inevitable.

To this point in his life, Carl McDougal didn’t have to rely on others. He may have had downtimes in his life, but who hasn’t at one point or another? The difference between Carl and most people was that he didn’t look to anyone to get him out of it. He may not have been a resounding success in life, but he did it all himself.

I was a real scrapper, he thought from a temporarily comfortable position that allowed him to think of something other than the pain he was in. I had my whole life mapped out at a young age. I was a self-starter. The elements came up to bite me in the ass, but I was adaptable. I was damned resourceful. I didn’t accept failure. I did fail, but I moved on. I didn’t tell everyone around me what a bunch of clods the office managers were. I just moved on. The thing of it was old Carl McDougal was resourceful, he thought. He made something out of nothing. He knew that with a little muscle and hustle there was no obstacle that could not be overcome. He wondered if anyone else would think these things about him when he was gone.

“Get me out of this,” he pleaded. For the first time in his adult life Carl McDougal needed someone, and there was no one there for him. He couldn’t believe he had reached a stage where he was pleading, but he was pleading. He was pleading to his creator for mercy. Carl wasn’t an atheist, he believed in a Judeo-Christian God, but he had yet to speak to this deity as an adult. As an adult, he had convinced himself that it was a sign of weakness to ask for anything from anyone including the deity. He believed that God put all of His creatures on the Earth to fend off turmoil and tragedy. If one of His creatures fell to a random act, God may have been a little sad, but Carl didn’t believe his God would intercede. He believed in the age old Benjamin Franklin saying: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’

In other words, if a man can’t get himself out of a situation, then he wasn’t meant to get out of it. Tough words, from a tough man, but those words were meant for situations that were generally of his own making. This was not of his making. Someone else had put him in this position, and now he needed someone, or something, to get him out it. “Get me out of this, and I swear I will live differently from this day forward.”

To this point in his life, Carl McDougal had not been called upon to appreciate the life he had been given. He had had illnesses and tragedies that caused him to suffer, but those temporary setbacks were never severe enough to lead him down the road where he pleaded for more time on Earth.

He tried to count the number of days he spent recovering from a previous night’s debauchery. It was impossible to count. 1,464 was a guess, but he considered that a generous assessment. That’s a whole lot of living. That’s a whole lot of living in the short term to feed my selfish desires. Maybe I’m not as adaptable and resourceful as I always thought I was.

He remained sitting up but slumped. Sitting back was something he was dying to do, but he feared that would be it. Sit back, or lay back and it’s over.

He inhaled what strength he could muster to issue one final yell. Before he could ever get it out, he felt his internal organs burn. “Good God!” he whispered. Was it possible for internal organs to spin? Maybe not, he corrected with a wince, but they definitely throbbed and pulsed with the simple yell. He couldn’t remember his internal organs burning like that before. His face even strained with that attempt to yell. His eyes bulged. The color came back to his face as he calmed himself. This would probably be hilarious to those who despised me, he thought with regret.

What was it the Germans called it? Schadenfreude, he recited, the pleasure one derives from another’s misfortune. Carl pictured some of those faces, the faces of those who couldn’t keep up with him as a youngster, laughing at him or smiling in a manner that suggested that they enjoyed his current malaise.

At one time in his life, Carl had been the most talented person he had ever met. Athletic and academic achievement came so easy to him that he couldn’t relate with the struggle of others. Girls came so easily to him that he couldn’t understand the pointers people sought from him. “You just do it,” he would respond.

Other than the pursuit of girls, Carl worked very hard at everything he did. They didn’t ask him about that though, because they weren’t interested in that aspect of his life. They only wanted to know how they could achieve the success he had without all the effort and strain. They wanted to know how he did it so easily. The answer was: he hadn’t.

It was his Father’s philosophy, thus his, that there was no such thing as a natural talent. Or if there is, went the addendum to their philosophy, natural talent will only take you so far. They worked hard at everything he did. It may have all come easy to him, but that was only because he tried so hard, so often, that he had to expel less effort when others witnessed the fruits of his labor.

Carl was a natural talent however. The first time he lifted a weight, for instance, his body exploded into form. The effect was equivalent to a drink of water on the body of a dehydrated man. It was as if his body had been pleading for this form, and it acquiesced to the slightest effort. When he sprinted, as a child, he would pull so far away from the other kids that they often accused him of cheating in some way. When he threw his first fastball, he burned his Uncle’s hand. He had a center of gravity so strong that no kid in the town of Table Rock could tackle him. All of this occurred before he spent a single minute honing his skills. When the skills started to show, however, his Father took over.

His Father couldn’t help him with the girls, but Carl didn’t need help in that area. In fact, he didn’t really want help in that area. The first time Carl smiled at a girl, she all but purred in return. He could’ve done anything he wanted to that girl, and she told him so, but his interests lay elsewhere at that time. The young Carl McDougal decided that he wouldn’t waste too much of his time on anything as foolish as girls. He had too much to do, and too much to accomplish, to provide more than a few minutes here and there to girls.

No moment in his young life had been wasted. Depending on the season, Carl McDougal spent his time playing football, then baseball, then basketball. If he wasn’t working with his Father on one of those sports, he was working with his Father on his homework. Carl didn’t have the luxury others have called free time. His entire life was booked up. He was a product of a Mother who loved him and a Father who pushed him to be all he could be.

The only thing that his parents ever gave him was a stable home life. Everything else had to be earned. They devoted themselves to him in a manner that most parents did not. Most parents do their best to provide their children with the bare essentials, and they hope for the best after that. Carl’s parents did what they could to bring out those extra special qualities in their son that separated him from his peers.

A funny thing happened on this road to achievement, as it happens with so many others who achieve on a high level, his classmates began to dislike him. Rather than strive to achieve what Carl achieved, they sought to pull him down to a level where they could feel more comfortable. No one ever asked him about his training regimen. No one asked him what drove him. They simply considered it unfair that he should achieve so much, and they should achieve so little.

“Why do you always have to be first?” they would ask him.

“Why don’t you?” he asked them. It oozed from his pores. He wasn’t humble. He wore huge smiles. He was the man. He didn’t take it in all in stride. He soaked in every moment.

His Father built him to last. His Father gave him a firm foundation for his success. The work ethic provided to him gave him a fundamental basis for all that he achieved, and his Father provided him with a philosophical basis that allowed him to enjoy this success while remaining hungry for more at the same time.

The one weakness in his Father’s philosophy was that he didn’t teach his son how to properly deal with adversity. His Father taught him how to succeed. The man was brilliant at that, but he didn’t teach Carl how to deal with failure.

“Failure just isn’t in the McDougal vocabulary,” his Father said. His Father was fond of saying that. He told Carl that his Grandfather had never failed, and his Great Grandfather had never failed. “They may have had setbacks, every does,” his father said, “but a failure dwells on the failure,” his father said mentioning some of the town folk who were failures. “The key to overcoming life’s obstacles is to have a short term memory.”

“If you should experience a setback, meet it head on,” Carl’s Father told him on more than one occasion. “Pick yourself up off the ground and go at it again. If one thing doesn’t work, try another. Who cares who’s looking at you when you fall down?! Use that momentary embarrassment to fuel your hunger at the next snap.”

In the beginning, Carl instituted that philosophy in all aspects of his life. When he would drop a pass, he would tell the quarterback to get it to him again, and he would catch the next pass and run with ferocious intensity. When he got a C on a test, he would deal with it, move on, and round it out on the next test.

Occasionally, his wise Father didn’t come up with the perfect solution for Carl. Even in these moments, however, the man proved relatively wise. “There’s only so much for which I can prepare you,” he would say in the face of his son’s frustration. “There’s only so much I can teach you, before you have to start taking over, and it is these areas where your character will be defined.”

With that in mind, Carl began to take over his own life more and more, and he didn’t do this well. Or, at least he didn’t do it well enough to prepare himself for his first year in college.

Two things happened in that freshman year of college. First, he realized that he was better than average. He wasn’t great in college. He wasn’t the big man on campus. He was better than average. That was hard to deal with, but it was nothing compared to the death of his Father.

To say that losing his Father was hard for Carl to deal with would be an understatement. He was devastated. His Mother was still around, but she praised him for everything he did. She didn’t tell him when he screwed up. Carl could give her excuses, and she would accept them. She only wanted to love him as he was, and she didn’t ride him in the inexhaustible manner that his Father did. He preferred this at first. At first, it was kind of a mixed blessing that he didn’t have his Father all over him every minute of every day, but that relief wore out quickly.

As far as Carl was concerned, he had had everything stripped from him in one year. The fact that he wasn’t the big man on campus hurt his morale, and the fact that he didn’t have his Father around anymore killed his will. It was the loss of his Father that led Carl to realize that you do what you do with someone in mind. In sinking a basket, scoring a touchdown, or making the grade, Carl would picture the smile of his Father. Even if Carl’s Father wasn’t there, he was there in spirit. When the only thing left was that spirit, Carl was left devastated.

This malaise continued from college and into adulthood.

As a young one, he tackled all challenges before him. He welcomed controversy, confrontation and obstacles. He had a short term memory to defeat them and a fuel for success worked into him. Everything he experienced as an adult became meaningless and useless by comparison. He abhorred the mundane activities that occurred in the daily work force. He abhorred having a boss. He hated training. He hated when they added technical changes to his job that he didn’t know. He hated the fact that he was an average employee no matter how hard he tried, no matter how many jobs he had. They all cared about their jobs so much. They all stayed tuned into any and all changes. The boss discussed with them all the changes that would occur, and they would all absorb it. Carl couldn’t do it. It was all so mundane, so meaningless in the overall scheme of things. He had been the big man on campus. He had been the most talented man he ever knew. He was meant for so much more than the challenges they put before him, and he knew it. He couldn’t lower himself to tackling the minutiae of the every man. That was for another guy. That was for a guy who hadn’t already achieved in life. Not Carl McDougal.

He escaped this inner turmoil by moving from the city back to the country life in Table Rock, Nebraska. He grabbed himself a wife, some land in the area, and eventually a son. He was a big fish in a little pond again, but no one would ever revere him again like they did in high school.

There were points in his life where he had to deal with that, and dealing with it could be quite difficult at times. While he was in the city, he grew angry with bosses and work associates who called upon him to perform in an adequate manner. He was Carl McDougal for the love of God. He shouldn’t need to appease these people. Had any of these people scored four touchdowns in one game? Had any of them made all-state in baseball two different times? Which one of these peons was a member of the National Honor Society or vice president of the Future Business Leaders of America? After moving back to Table Rock, he found that all the same people loathed him in all the same ways. He found himself ostracized from the community. The predicaments were different in Table Rock, but they were no better. Moving back proved to be a mistake.

“Anytime you move in life,” his Father once told him, “you always have to take you with you.”

After years of searching in vain for answers his Father could no longer provide him, Carl finally found one that solved all of his problems: alcohol.

Alcohol only went into the gullet on weekends for most of his life, but for the last two years of his life he was drinking some form of adult beverage every day. He could sit at home and laugh at how seriously the idiots took their jobs with the aid of alcohol. He could laugh at the boss, who was half Carl’s age, with the aid of alcohol. He could snicker and shrug at those idiots who passed him up for promotions with alcohol, and he could know that he was a great man among all those who loathed him in Table Rock with a few belts in him. Alcohol made him feel good, and what was the harm of that for the love of God.

Carl had been living his life for the day, Carpe Diem, for the last two years. He was on the run to nowhere from no one. He was living the life of a rock star. He had traveled the world loaded up on Carpe Diem and a shot of something or other. He gambled, he laughed, he screamed. He drove fast cars for people thirty years his junior, he slept with fast women legally and illegally.

“You can’t live forever!” he would scream out in various bars that were otherwise silent. There was little in the way of judgment in bars among those who drank. They revered him once again. They lived on his every word. There were a few jealous aholes in the bunch. There always are, and they would call him out. They would tell their friends that Carl was full of it, and Carl would eventually push them to the point of confronting him on it. One of these aholes had the audacity to say that he was going to Google Carl.

“Go ahead,” Carl said, and when he said it he matched the man’s confrontational glare confidently. Carl had no idea, to that point in his life, what it meant to Google someone, but judging the man’s steely eyed glare, Carl assumed that it had nothing to do with tickling.

When Carl found out, he went to his friend’s computer to Google himself. He was pleasantly surprised to see how well documented his achievements were on the worldwide web.

“What did your fancy computer tell you?” he asked the ahole the next time he saw him.

The man watched the television silently.

“That’s what I thought.”

“What the fuck happened to you?” this ahole asked. “If you’re Mr. All State, Mr. four touchdowns in one game, why are you in the cheapest bar in Table Rock, Nebraska?” Carl sent something back. He wasn’t silent, but what he sent back was so meaningless he couldn’t remember what it was.

As previously stated, though, Carl was adaptable. The best athletes in the world fell, failed and forgot their way to success. It was fundamental to Carl’s philosophy to forget. How embarrassing is it to let a ball squirt between your legs in front of hundreds of people? How easy is it to forget and move on? As his Father taught him, short term memory was the key.

As he grew older, and less and less productive, he found it harder and harder to forget. It was embarrassing, humiliating, and humbling to be called out in the various ways he was being called out in life. There were moments in his life when he thought they were all laughing at him. In truth, most of them probably didn’t give a damn about him one way or another, but he figured that they were laughing in their own way on any given day. There was nothing he could do about it though, except to move on.

Carpe Diem was that move. All those years spent on a farm, collecting assets, investing every penny he owned for a solid future had granted him two glorious years. “You can’t live forever!” he would scream from his convertible Beemer while driving drunk down dark stretches of highway on the road to nowhere U.S.A.

He cashed in all the CD’s he owned, his life insurance, his stocks, his bond, and his mutual funds. He placed all of the funds in a non-interest bearing checking account and set about the world. He traveled to St. Moritz; Cancun; he stood on the Eiffel Tower; and at the base of Egypt’s Pyramids. He stood on a marker with a group of people and watched the Queen of England drive by. He took a cruise over the Bermuda Triangle, and he smoked pot in Amsterdam. He was living the life a farmer from Nebraska could never dream of living. He had been so afraid of traveling alone in the years previous to these last two, but he was done with all that. He was now living the life for which he had only dreamed.

Carpe Diem was prompted by failure, but it was also prompted by a letter. The letter was a response to Carl’s final attempt at a fruitful life lived by normal people. The letter he sent out was an attempt to tie a bow on the one failure of his life that he deeply regretted. Carl was adaptable, he could forget most things with the right beer, but there was one aspect of his life that haunted him on even the greatest nights of drunken debauchery.

Dear Dad,

I want nothing to do with you. I needed assistance from you when I was trying to learn what it was to be a man, and you were not there.

I was a young mind that needed definitions of philosophy, love, art, and morality.  You were not there to provide these to me.

I spent my adolescence afraid of you, and I was afraid to live the free life that every young person should enjoy.

Your abuse caused me to be afraid before I could reasonably determine what I should fear and what I should not. I appreciate the fact that you’re looking for a new start on your life. I’m guessing that you’re probably lost in life. Things haven’t gone the way you planned. Do they ever? You’re now seeking some sort of definition of life. I understand that. I understand that you were quite the successful high school student/athlete, and that you had a father that taught you everything you knew. I was a youngster eager to learn some of those same things in life. You failed to teach me any of that when you were here and when you left. There are no second chances in life.

I learned from those around me, but I learned from the role of being the other kid. I learned by watching others and listening to other’s parents. Michalas and his parents taught me a great deal, but the knowledge I gained was of an ancillary nature. No specific points of knowledge were directed at me or the incidents of my life. I learned to become a solitary individual who ingests his problems and deals with them in a solitary manner.

I will not be a part of this new start on life that you detail in your letter. Sorry. The wounds are too fresh. You were too self-involved to assist me in my start in life, so I must selfishly now turn my back on you, as you attempt to restart yours.

I do wish you the best Father. I hope that all of the rest of your days on Earth are rewarding and full of laughter. After writing this letter, I will remove the stain on your soul by forgetting, but I can never forgive. I am not a bitter man, but I cannot fill the hole you now find in your soul, for you never filled mine. Also know that from this point forward, I will throw all of your replies away. Write them for the therapy it gives you, but know that I will not read them. I need to move on with my life.

Signed,

Dominic.

After sending the initial letter to his son, Carl ran out to greet the mailman the entire week preceding that arrival of that response. The mailman even began speaking to him.

“My son,” Carl had informed the man on day three. “I’m waiting for a letter from him. We’ve been estranged for some time now.”

“I got a son,” the mailman returned. “I know what it is my man. I can’t imagine…especially with that kind of distance.” They smiled and exchanged pleasantries for the remaining days of that week.

On day eight, the return letter finally arrived.

“If it weren’t for my flaming heterosexuality, I’d kiss you my man,” Carl informed the mailman. He was holding the letter and peering at it like a child trying to see the toy in the Christmas wrapping.

“I’ll leave you to it then my man,” the mailman said. He then laughed a genuine and hearty laugh. The man was as into it as Carl. “I hope everything works out between the two of you,” he added. He extended a hand.

Carl shook the man’s hand. It was the closest thing Carl had ever had to a friendship with a man of African descent.

The nature of the letter did surprise him. He couldn’t deny that. He would never see the mailman again. He would go so far as to avoid the man, rather than deliver the awful news or lie about it. The man actually knocked on Carl’s door to get an update one day. Carl was home. He didn’t answer the door.

The nature of the letter did surprise him, but it wasn’t the crushing blow he expected. He didn’t cry. He didn’t look out at a horizon for an hour despondent over the matter. He simply allowed the letter to leave his hand and flutter into a trash can. Carl was adaptable. The minute that letter touched the base of his apartment’s trash can, Carl’s life changed. His heart was broken, but he wouldn’t allow it to break him in total. Within a month, he sold all of his furniture, left his apartment, quit his job, cashed in his investments and began living a life for which he had always dreamed: Carpe Diem.

Unfortunately, most of that money was spent on alcohol. It was unfortunate because he was spending a lot of money to forget when the method behind saving the money in the first place was to create memories.

The memorable moments that he eventually created, occurred in cheap bars. There appeared to be some uniformity in cheap bars the world around. They all had oil paintings of either battleships or horizons, they had cheap leather seats, and the color red usually dominated. On a couple of the nights of Carpe Diem, Carl splurged, but more often than not he preferred the cheaper alcohol to the lavish amenities. He preferred quantity over quality. This is why it was so surprising when she entered the bar.

She entered the sphere of his existence through a portal called a bar entrance. She entered with a flourish, but that flourish appeared to be one borne more of anger more than anything else. It should’ve been enough that she had face, for most of the women who entered the bars of his choosing had the perpetual expression of one posing for a mug shot. That’s not to say that the young woman wore a smile, but there was something about the way she carried herself. She appeared to be a type who had a full set of her teeth. It would be a change of pace for him.

She was probably too good looking to be a prostitute, he theorized while watching her from his swiveled stool. Thus, she was probably too good looking for him. She was probably too young, too nice, and too educated. He swiveled back to the bar with a fear of being disappointed.

“Are you going to be difficult tonight?” the young woman asked stepping aggressively to the bar. Her steely challenge to the bartender was issued mere feet from Carl’s naughty zone. “Or do I get a hassle free drink for the first fucking time ever?”

Carl braced. She was such a little thing. She couldn’t have weighed more than one hundred fifteen pounds. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-three. She was a fresh, little female, but she was ferocious. You can tell when another is putting on a show, Carl thought measuring her up and down, and when it’s natural.

She had one of those tiny, plump bottoms. She had no breasts that he could see, and her hair was decidedly out of fashion. She appeared to still be looking back to the eighties for her fashion tips. Even with that, one could tell by her confident stride that she was used to the fellas paying a lot of attention to her. Confidence is everything in the sport of attraction.

“How are you doing ma’am?” Carl McDougal said when the bartender stepped away from the bar to the bottles. Carl was so nervous a little spittle crept out on the corner of his mouth. He sipped it back and stared into her eyes as she measured his.

“You just call me ma’am?” she asked. She had a condescending grin on her face.

“Yes,” Carl said. His confidence was not shattered, but it was shrinking.

She held his gaze for a moment, until the bartender returned with her drink. She looked at the bartender, then back at Carl. He was ready to flinch when she said: “I’m all right.”

Was she deciding how to play him in those moments of silence? Or, was she tender? Had she been hurt before? Was that rough exterior merely armor? Did it conceal the soft, chewy inside that couldn’t take the licks anymore? He had been so alone for so long that he was almost out of practice in this game. If one doesn’t count hookers that is. Hookers provide comfort. Hookers provide illusions and delusions. The good ones do anyway, but even the best hookers could do nothing to help him play this game right. They kept his sporting skills fresh, so to speak, but they did nothing to keep his cat and mouse skills honed.

She reached into her purse. He beat her to it, flipping out a five: “Keep the change!” he told the bartender.

She smiled: “Thank you.”

“Carl McDougal.”

“Sandy Miller,” she said. She smiled. He swiveled his chair around to her.

In the first few minutes of casual banter Carl did surprisingly well. He was proud. A little liquor reels them in quicker, he thought. He decided he liked that one, and he would write it down for a T-shirt or something. He repeated it to himself and smiled. The two of them decided that they would like to sit with one another after a few more minutes of casual banter. She decided it. He agreed quickly.

As they gathered their drinks and headed to the back of the bar, she said something he didn’t hear. He didn’t hear, because he wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t paying attention, because he was diverted. He was diverted, because something had changed. Something had changed due to the lighting or the fact that he hadn’t been paying attention closely enough at first. He wasn’t paying attention, because it dawned on him that she wasn’t the beauty she was at the bar. She wasn’t the beauty three steps away from the bar that she had been at the bar. Was it an optical illusion? He looked back to the bar.

Slow down there partner, Carl said to himself. Calm yourself.

The face was a little ruddy, more than it was over there anyway. He looked back at the bar again to see if he had, somehow, followed the wrong girl. Her hair lacked some of the vibrancy and luster he had believed or perceived. He had only had two beers to that point. Her sweater wasn’t as tight, her miniskirt looked plain odd on her tree trunk legs. What the hell happened, Carl thought shaking his head in confusion as he followed her.

What do you have to be picky about? He smiled when this passed through his cranium. He repeated the line in his head, and he almost laughed out loud. Had he not been in impression mode, he may have laughed. It had been over a year since he had put it to a woman who wasn’t a toothless, cranked out whore. Toothless, cranked out whores didn’t care for the degree of inspection that Carl had just given this Sandy chick. Sandy simply turned around, after saying whatever it was she said, and led him to the booth confidently. Toothless, cranked whores blew up on you if your gaze upon them suggested that you were turned off by one of their features.

“Look at you,” the toothless, cranked out whores would say. “What do you have to be picky about?”

The funny thing was their sales pitch worked. After getting slapped back by it, Carl would decide it was probably in his best interests not to inspect their features any further. They intimidated him out of hesitation. They knew their craft. In the final exchange he had with one of these ladies of the night, it dawned on him that he wouldn’t have fallen for that line six months earlier. Six months earlier, he would’ve have pulled away from the curb the minute he saw the cheese sliding out of the spandex. Was it really funny that their acerbic sales pitch worked on him, he had wondered while putting it to the last of his toothless, cranked out whores in a dark alley of 44th and Howard, or was it sad?

It was a poor sales pitch to be sure, but it worked. It lessened the confidence of the recipient, but the rationale behind the pitch must’ve been: ‘why are they here in the first place? These men had to have already reached the bottom of the barrel to be here in the first place, and it’s our responsibility to close the deal before they think about it too much.’

Thinking about it too much usually ruined things for Carl. He could never enjoy moments for what they were without trying to analyze them to death. It’s where drinking comes in my friend. Drinking allows you to act in a manner that doesn’t require thought. It allows the impulses to drive the memories home. He took a long swallow of his beer and adjusted his beer goggles for a better view of Sandy.

It was to a circular booth at the back of the bar that Sandy led him. It was one of those tables that circled a table and probably could’ve supported three slim humans. Carl swiveled around this table and sat in its center. Sandy sat in one of the chairs that faced him. The wall behind them fashioned some of those old swirly, felt red designs that fascinated Carl for half a beat. He fingered the felt material and turned back to Sandy. “I’m going to get plowed here tonight.”

“I got no problem with that mister man.” She laughed after saying this. She pumped her eyebrows in a fascinated fashion that caused it to move for him in a fashion it hadn’t moved in in years. Within an hour the two of them laughed themselves to tears four times. Carl went horse a couple times. He was smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish. They were barking orders out to the bartender and talking about the bar’s other patrons with far too much volume and far too little discretion. Carl was having an absolute blast when the bartender stepped to the table.

“Were you two going to have another round?” he asked.

“Fill ‘em up buddy,” Carl said. He barely looked at the bartender. He was trying to keep his eye on the bathroom to catch every glimpse of Sandy when she exited. She was as fun to look at up close as she was from a distance. That’s a damned rare quality, Carl surmised with a smile. Maybe it was the booze, he theorized, but he believed this Sandy Miller was better looking than any woman he had ever been with dating back to his glory years. Carl’s smile dropped when he realized the bartender hadn’t moved from his position. “Sorry, mine was a Heineken and she-”

“I remember your drinks,” the bartender interrupted, “I was just trying to figure out if you know what you’re doing.”

“Come again?”

“Be careful, my man,” the bartender said. The guy was so serious that Carl laughed at him. “Seriously,” said the somber, young face, “she’s a little…dangerous.”

“That’s the way I like ‘em young pup,” Carl said. He couldn’t stop laughing at the kid. “And you’re only adding to my intrigue.” He slapped the table with two fives: “Now keep ‘em coming!”

The bartender walked away shaking his head.

“Sorry sweetie,” Sandy said, heading back to the table. She pulled the chair out and set her purse down next to it. She looked down at him for a second and said: “Fuck it, let’s get nuts Billy Bob.” With that she pushed the chair back into the table and slid into the circular booth with Carl. She placed herself under his arm: “We need drinks here Arnie!” she shouted.

Arnie, presumably the bartender, had them already in hand. He was working his way back to the table, eyes narrowed into Carl’s the entire trip. He placed the drinks on the table slowly, eyes locked into Carl’s.

“Hey yesterday, put the damned drinks on the table,” Sandy shouted, “and get your Gawdamned, worker bee ass back behind the bar.”

Arnie was not fazed by this in the least. He appeared used to it. He looked over at her intermittently, but his focus was on Carl.

“You smell something Carl?” Sandy asked. Her eyes never left Arnie’s. “Smells like sperm.” She added this with a sniff to the air. Her expression turned sympathetic and sad: “Are you masturbating again Arnie?”

“Holy crap!” Carl said with booming laughter to follow. “You masturbating again!” he repeated. Tears poured from his eyes on that one. “I take it Arnie’s an old boyfriend?”

She issued a harrumph of contempt, “and that’s all!” That answer was sent to the exiting Arnie in a loud, projectile manner. Carl couldn’t help but smile. It was high school all over again. A fella dates a beautiful broad. The beautiful broad gets one look at old Carl McDougal and says: ‘shoo!’ to her former.

He regaled her with stories of days gone by. “You’re sitting with an all-stater sista,” Carl said to sum it all up. “People say I was the best wide receiver they ever saw.”

“Really?” Sandy said. She went wide-eyed. Carl hadn’t seen that in years.

“I’m not going to go so far as to say I was tough, but I had a center of gravity and an acquired and learned coordination that made me a really tough tackle if your fundamentals weren’t up to snuff.”

“That’s great,” Sandy said. She appeared genuine.

“Did you see that Beemer out there?” he said as she giggled her way under his arm, “that’s daddy’s.”

She exhaled in the manner of a child opening a birthday gift. He shook the keys at her.

“Just rolled her off the lot a month ago,” he said laughing at her childish exuberance, “it’s like riding on air my good woman.”

They drank. They had Arnie doing laps. They laughed. A couple of the patrons gave them dirty looks for being so loud. They screamed at one another with wild tales of debauchery. Last call snuck up on them. They left the bar laughing as hard as they had throughout the night. Was anything they said funny? Who cares! Were his stories as exciting as she was making them seem? Who cares! It was high school all over again. Carl was the man.

“You can’t live forever!” Carl shouted on his way out the door.

They barely made it to the cheapest motel in Des Moines. It was the nearest place to stay for the night, and Carl was plowed.

The front desk attendant, apparently still unused to drunken idiots stumbling into his motel, couldn’t hide his disgust for these two fun, loving people.

“What did you say to him?” Sandy said as they exited the foyer, room keys in hand.

Carl paused. Searched. Blinked. “I have no fucking idea!” The laughter to that lasted them all the way to the room.

As with all drunken nights between two people: there was a lot of movement; a lot of alcohol fueled emotion; and very little to remember.

She spoke softly in the moments that followed. She spoke of an abusive father, something for which they could both identify in a relative manner. She talked about how all she wanted was for someone to take care of her throughout her life. Her voice was so soft and soothing that Carl accidentally fell asleep on her. It was an accident, of course, as passing out usually is. The lethal combinations of the amount of alcohol he had to drink, the after sex chemical reactions that occur in a man, and her soft tones proved too much for him.

***

It may not have made a difference one way or another, as Arnie had suggested, but the moment of initial pain made him think that if he had stayed awake throughout her time of need, that morning’s course of events may not have taken place.

It woke him. He was disoriented. He had no idea where he was, or what had led him to this point in time.

His first image of orientation on that morning was that of the Sun lining the curtains, peering in at him and bisecting his face so that sunlight lined the end of his nose.

In that minimal light, he could barely see Sandy’s silhouette in the corner of the motel room. She appeared frightened of him. He lifted his head. They stared at each other in silence for a spell. It was as if they were both trying to determine if it was a trick in the lighting of the early morning, or if they were looking at each other.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

That set her off. She began screaming ten thousand words at once. He was taken aback by the ferocity in her screams. His hands went out. He searched for the source of her horror. He moved to turn the light on, but it didn’t work.

“Wait a second. What?” he said loud enough to be heard over her. “What’s going on? What happened?”

He could barely make out the fact that she was gesticulating wildly while she screamed.

“What are you screaming about?” he asked. His voice was barely audible. It was the croak of the morning, the morning after, the hangover, except he was still drunk. He had probably smoked two packs of cigarettes. He had trouble remembering how he got where he was for a moment. It was one of the worst hangovers he had ever had, and that was saying something.

She proceeded to yell, but he couldn’t make out a single word. He was gasping for breath. He couldn’t remember drinking this much last night. This much pain for the night before was unprecedented. He tried to remember all the liquor, and all the smokes. How much did I drink for God’s sakes?

All these thoughts were flashing through his head, as he panicked to find out what was going on. “Give me one second to gather myself here.”

She didn’t yield for a second. His throat was ripped dry by all the cigarettes. His head was pounding. “What are you screaming about?!”

His entire body was aching. His chest was killing him. He was not used to this. The head pounding was as much a ritual for him as eggs were to the morning of most citizens. The chest pain was new. He tried to remember if there had been a switch to hard liquor or narcotics? He wondered, momentarily, if she had poisoned him. He wondered if he had poisoned himself to some degree with alcohol.

Her screaming was so ferocious that it appeared as if she was trying to avoid him and the idea of him. That didn’t make sense. They went to sleep fine. Now she was screaming. She appeared guilty, but that didn’t make sense either. Unless she felt guilty about the way she treated Arnie.

“What?” he asked in his dry croak. His whats and waits were attempts to catalogue the events taking place in what were to him blinding speeds. He needed her to slow down, but he couldn’t get a word in. She was screaming so much, so hysterically, that he couldn’t get a grasp on anything before him.

He held out a hand to gesture his confusion again. The hand made it into the sunlight this time, the sunlight that was cutting between the curtains. “The hell?” he whispered pulling the hand back. It was too dark. He put the hand in the light again.

“What? Wait! I’m…” He was going to say I think I’m hurt, but he didn’t. “The hell?” he asked again tumbling his hands before the light to see that it was blood that was all over his hands. He searched his torso. The lower portion of his shirt was wet. He pulled back the covers, his underpants were soaked. “The hell did you do to me?!” he asked with a yell. The yell was only issued to be heard over her.

His breath left him. He felt a full blush of fear overcome his face, as he thumbed the source. It was a small incision that was just to the right of his belly button. It was bleeding pretty heavily, but it didn’t hurt as much as one would think. The covers were soaked though. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he saw blood everywhere. It wasn’t a hangover.

Peering hard at the silhouette before him, that was Sandy, he could now determine that she was posed elbow out, hand back into her chest curled around the handle of a blade. The position was one of a person well-schooled in the art of handling a knife. “Why are you doing this?”

Her screaming began again. What comments he could make out were nonsense, followed by curse words and comments about the manner in which he treated her. She appeared scared and angry at the same time.

“What happened?” he asked genuinely, “what did I do?”

She quieted. She finally stopped screaming. Carl immediately mistook this for guilt, and he was ready to capitalize, but she beat him to the punch:

“Let me ask you something.” She was whispering now, nearing the bed. Her tone suggested that she was speaking to him through clenched teeth: “how do you picture yourself when you talk to me?”

He didn’t answer. He sensed she was enjoying this, and he didn’t want to provide her more pleasure.

“Are you still lean and muscular in your mind Mr. All Stater? Do you still have that square jaw and a beaming smile with bright white teeth?” She smiled. “I hate to break it to you sweetie, but you’re old and fat now, and your teeth were probably white three thousand packs of cigarettes ago.

She laughed hard at him now. “I’d tell you to remember that the next time you try and pick up someone who is not even half your age, but I don’t think you’re going to make it out of here,” she said the latter pointing the blade toward his gaping wound.

He looked to the wound. He couldn’t see anything but darkness over darkness. He didn’t think he had this much blood in him. It was everywhere. How long did it take for this much blood to get out, was his first thought. He was pretty sure that there were no arteries in the stomach, yet the volume of blood made him think there was something arterial in there. The blood wasn’t spurting, and he knew arterial damage caused spurting, but the flow was so constant.

She moved onto the bed while he was involved in surveying the damage. Cat quick motions brought her to him. She was on him before he could fully gauge her movements. She swept the knife at him. He managed to avoid the movement with a quick flinch. She caught his forearm. That hurt like hell. It was steel on bone. She had clipped him with a clean slice. It was humiliating.

He threw everything off him and stood. He was afraid. Oh my God, you’re afraid. It’s a little girl for God’s sakes. Nut up. It was dark though. He didn’t think she could see his fear.

It’s crunch time my man. You used to be so prepared for such things. You’re a fat, old man now. Your senses are dull, and this little girl is going to take you down.

He balled his fists, but he couldn’t wash the fear off his face.

They stared at each other. This lasted a little longer than usual. They were gauging one another. He lowered himself into the position of a Greco-Roman wrestler. He began to step towards her.

It didn’t intimidate her. She came at him in diagonal steps. He threw a couple shots. She ducked his old man blows deftly. She was moving in, bobbing her head in a manner that reminded Carl of a trained boxer. She was popping the blade at him after each shot he took. He had a reach advantage on her. She was missing badly.

Then he caught her. He landed a quick shot to the head. He was a little off balance when he delivered it, but it was a solid shot. His balance was thrown by a feint back from the knife, but even an awkward, off balance shot from a man who outweighed a small woman by about 100 pounds made a momentary, yet substantial difference.

She was clearly hurt by the shot, but it didn’t stop her for long. She dabbed the back of her hand to that point on her head, and she came back at him with more intensity. He put the palm of his hand on her head to hold her back in the manner a bully holds back a smaller kid while that kid swung wildly at air. She sliced his forearm and stuck him in the waist with a second jab.

The knife was little, but it went in deep. It felt like a knife that could be purchased at a fair, but she appeared to be well-trained with it.

“SHIT!” he yelled with pain filled intensity. “Stop!” He was reeling from her now. He was ready to concede now. “Take what you want, fuck!” He was now examining the hole in his waist with quick glances that didn’t allow her to move in on him again without notice. “Take the money. Take the car!”

She wasn’t leaving. She was moving in again.

For a half a second he was dizzy, and then he was angry. He went to the Greco-Roman stance again. All the fear was gone. Survival instincts took over. She moved in with the diagonal steps, and the well trained head bobs. She was tough to gauge. She made it impossible for him to grab her and throw her hundred pound frame against the wall.

She missed an easy shot and finally entered into his sphere. He went to grab her, but she jumped at the last second. She jumped straight up in the air. What an odd movement, he thought for half a second. The clumsiness gave her the advantage…even in his grasp.

He grabbed onto what he could. He had her low on the waist. It was a big mistake. He tried to throw her quickly, but she was quicker. She brought the blade down into his shoulder.

“Oh My GOD!” He swore he could hear tendons and muscle tearing. “Mother of!” He repositioned his grip and gained a decent hold. He threw her into the TV stand that was at the end of the motel’s king-sized bed.

He felt quickly for the blade. She still had it.

He buckled to a knee in a brief moment of overwhelming pain, but he quickly shot up as she neared him again. She had bounced off the TV stand so quickly that he felt the fear again.

Few people knew that Carl McDougal, the greatest athlete in small town, Nebraska, rarely fought. Now that his life was on the line, against a woman who was ripping his body apart, he wished he had been in more fights in his life.

“Sheet. I’ll bet that one will hurt like all kinds of hell, huh?” Her statement was one of mockery, but it also appeared to be a curious one. She gauged his face. She moved in again. He fell back on the bed and kicked her square in the torso this time. Air gushed out of her. She went back a full four steps, but she bounced back. He didn’t hesitate a moment to make sure she was all right. He quickly stood and struck her flush on the jaw. It was an undercut that lifted her off her feet. Again, it was a quick shot that had no weight behind it. It frustrated him that he couldn’t square up on this girl.

When she landed, she yelled out in pain.

He caught a quick shot of her face before she turned away. She was in pain. She was crying. He should’ve capitalized on that, but he didn’t. Something, kept him from delivering the blow that might’ve ended it all.

“FUCKER!” she screamed through her tears. She stood. She stroked the knife on the air in a wild fashion. He danced away from those shots. She inhaled deeply and adrenaline drove her forward. He popped her twice more, one blow flush on the jaw. Again, he was going backwards, and he couldn’t get any weight into it. He caught her directly on the forehead. The latter was a mistake, for it left his guard high. She took the blow, ducked under and slid the knife through his right breast. He felt it scrape a rib and go in deeper. It took the breath from him. He inhaled so deeply that a weak cry escaped him.

“If you weren’t so old, you might’ve had a chance against me,” she said. He saw her teeth gleam in the limited sunlight of the room.

He tried four different times to collect his breath. He couldn’t. He collapsed to the ground and stared at her in awe. He hated that. He began making guttural sounds while trying to get his normal breathing pattern back. He sounded like a lamb. She enjoyed that. She laughed and pumped her eyebrows at him as she began stepping back.

She swept her arm in arcing strokes, as if she were practicing. “That last one was probably my best move yet,” she said looking at her arm as she practiced. “Did you see where I left that one?” She attempted to reenact it. “Umph!” she said. She mimicked that last blow thrusting the knife forward. She held that stance for a second to glamorize it. “I took your best shot, and I was unfazed in delivery. You gotta appreciate knife work like that.”

She spoke to him as one will after defeating another in a board game. She was so calm, like she had done this many times before. He thought of Arnie the bartender. The man had warned him.

“You done?” she asked. Her tone was humiliating. She was disappointed. The young, skinny girl was disappointed that the best athlete in small town, Nebraska couldn’t continue the fight.

It angered him. It fueled a rage inside him. He felt his upper lip twitch with intensity, but he couldn’t stand. He tried again. He was done. He crawled backward on to the bed to keep an eye on her.

Her body went limp and out of its fighting stance as she watched him climb onto the bed.

She turned back to the mirror, aside the TV, and began examining her jaw. She gingerly touched a point on her temple, and she cringed. It would be the only vestige of victory he would be permitted. She shook that off, straightened her hair a little and grabbed his wallet.

If nothing else, he thought, watching her leave with all of his worldly possessions, I can say that she had a weapon, and she knew how to use it. Toe to toe, I would’ve smashed her.

“500 dollars? All that talk, and all you have is 500 dollars?” She then grabbed the keys to his new beemer, coughed up a disappointed laugh and closed the door behind her.

He had disappointed everyone in his life: his parents; the people who revered him in high school; the people of Table Rock: his wife; his child; and even his thief, the one who stole his freedom.

This was his immediate thought process. He didn’t consider her his murderer. He didn’t consider death. Not yet. Even in the current straits he was in, death was still the furthest thing from his mind.

It should all be different from this moment forward, Carl McDougal thought twisting to read the clock. It read 5:59 A.M. A couple seconds later, an alarm clock went off in the distance. The paper thin walls of the cheapest motel of Des Moines afforded its patrons no privacy. After a couple seconds, the alarm clock was shut off.

“Help!” Carl called out in the ensuing silence. His dry croak wouldn’t be heard even through the paper thin walls.

He slumped with disappointment. That hurt. He sat back up. That hurt. Every move, every inhalation and exhalation provided pain that took his breath away.

He tried to count the number of days he spent recovering from the previous night’s debauchery. It was impossible to count. 1,464 was a guess, but he considered that a generous assessment. That’s a whole lot of living. That’s a whole lot of living in the short term to feed my selfish desires. Maybe I’m not as adaptable and resourceful as I always thought I was.

I’m going to force myself into Dominic’s life and give him everything I took from him no matter what it costs me. I’m going to be a better man. I’m going to be a better husband. If Elise will have me back, and if not, I’m going to make my life better by making other’s better.

When the clock clicked to 6:13 it dawned on him that this situation was much worse than he had previously imagined. His throat was ripped dry by alcohol, cigarettes and the blood. Blood was coming out of his mouth now. “HELP!” he screamed. Or, he tried to scream. It came out of him as an almost laughable, tiny gurgle. He reached for the phone, but he knocked it in three different directions.

The handle went right, and the base went left. Even the wall chord managed to straighten itself out and fall into the middle. He couldn’t fathom how he had managed to pull the base from the chord. Then, he considered that she probably pulled the chord before sticking him.

“HELP!” he screamed again. Even with the thin walls of the cheapest hotel of Des Moines, Iowa, it appeared that no one could hear him. How they could avoid hearing her scream earlier confounded him. Surely, help must be on its way. At the very least, one person in this motel should have come to this room to figure out what all commotion was.

He finally sat back and lay staring at the opposite wall. He was holding his lower chest wound, since that one hurt the worst. It hurt when he breathed, but even worse than that the pain was slowly subsiding. Either the nerve endings were losing strength, or his body was realizing that it couldn’t heal all the wounds.

He remembered the small, but genuine, smiles various women had given him in life. He remembered the birth of his son. He remembered beating his son, and how it all seemed necessary at the time. He remembered having a grand purpose behind it all, but he couldn’t remember what that purpose was. Ego got in the way of proper parenting, he realized. Ego stole his relationship with his son. Maybe if I had been a more successful man, he thought, I wouldn’t have been such a bad Father. He remembered how his wife screamed at him to stop, and then she stopped saying anything at all, until she began to accept it as their course in life.

It was then that he realized that as tough as his internal organs had been all his life, they weren’t infallible. He popped his eyes open wide, after they had slipped closed momentarily. He wondered if he had treated his organs better if they wouldn’t be strong enough to fight off this invasion. He thought about all the alcohol he drank, all the smoking, all the laying around and watching too much TV, and all of the allowing his organs to go soft. He wondered if he had lived his entire life differently how many more days he would’ve been granted now that it was too late to do so.

Even though he was looking right at her, Carl didn’t see the diminutive, Pakistani woman enter the room. He didn’t hear her piercing scream. He didn’t see her run for the motel manager. He didn’t see the men in white coats come into his room and cart him off. He didn’t hear all the men talk about what to do with him. He didn’t see the news reports about him, or the sketch artist rendering of his face. He wouldn’t know that no one would claim him, after having tied up all the loose ends so neatly that no one would miss him. He wouldn’t know the difference when the identity of Carl McDougal slowly slipped from the planet as a john doe.

###

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