How I Deal with Life.....

How I Deal with Life.....

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Hollow Man (Short Story)

The door slams. Footsteps echo through the house  Hollis glances up from his place at the kitchen table where a lit cigarette has burned down into a stub in the red tin ashtray. How much time has passed?
     He feels someone staring at him.  It's his wife, Mary. 

     "You been sitting there since I left?"
     "Nope", Hollis murmurs.
     "Yes, you have. You haven't moved an inch".  Mary has the worn look of a woman who carries a day-to-day burden on her shoulders, and this burden has been much too heavy for either of them.
     "Well, maybe I haven't."
     "Oh, Hollis" Mary sighs. "I ain't faulting you none. This isn't what...".
     Hollis stands and pushes the chair back, "I don't want to talk about it."

     He shrugs his thinning frame into the jacket resting on the back of one of the worn out kitchen chairs. Chairs that he and Mary bought for their five year anniversary. So long ago. So very long ago.
      He feels Mary's eyes on him. He doesn't look at her, her eyes make him feel useless. He walks heavily across the room to the kitchen door, opens it and feels the sudden, cold gust of the December wind against his face.  He slams the door behind him and walks out into the yard.  He hears the familiar sound of the school bus rounding the corner. School is out already? Where has the day gone?
     Jonsey, the half deaf Labrador that just showed up as a pup years ago and ended up staying, comes out from his spot under the house . The dog walks up to Hollis and then sits solidly on his haunches staring at his owner.
     "Don't you go doing that too. Why's everyone staring at me all the time like I'm gonna drop dead right here and now?"
     The dog stares at Hollis a second longer.
     "I ain't got you nothing to eat, you mangy dog", Hollis said.
      Jonsey cocks his head and then distractedly starts chewing on his hind leg.
Hollis reaches down and rubs the dog behind his ears. "You a good ole dog, Jonsey". 

      Hollis crosses the expanse of what passes for a lawn. He stops at the work shed that holds his tools, rakes, hammers, nails, shovels, and lawnmower. His sanctuary. He pulls the rusted screwdriver from out of the padlock. He always intended to replace that old rusted out screwdriver with a proper lock, but never got around to it. Just like he hasn't gotten around to a lot of things.
     He guesses it doesn't matter much now.  What wasn't done won't get done. And it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. He swings the shed door wide and the smell of oil and dirt and gasoline hit his nostrils. All the smells he has taken for granted. All the smells that have filled him with satisfaction and comfort.  The smells of tinkering and leaving the world outside whenever he entered the close quarters of the little shed. A shed he built with his own two hands. Now the support beams standing sentinel in the middle of the shed are rotting away. Hollis planned to replace them next summer. Plans, plans. plans. What happened to them? 

     He sits on the shiny-seated wooden stool at his workbench. There is a broken lamp shoved to the back. A lamp he had promised Mary he would fix. But that had been what? Three, four years ago? A china dog figurine missing its head rests under a thin coating of dust next to a glass baby food jar filled with various screws. Why did he keep all those screws? What had he been thinking he could do with them? Could a man ever use up an entire jar of metal screws in a lifetime? He sweeps his hand across the table and everything flies off.  Glass shatters, the lamp breaks in two, metal nails bounce off the concrete floor, the headless dust coated dog skitters and disappears out of sight underneath the old push lawnmower, the glass jar with the hoarded screws explodes  Hollis puts his head down on the table and tries to think. What can be done? How can this be fixed? He lifts his head and runs his calloused hand though his still thick graying hair. None of it makes sense. He can't fix this. Some things in life are just unfixable, like the lamp or the china dog.  He knew when he placed the broken items on his workbench that he'd never get around to fixing them. He has lied to himself and to Mary. He can't lie anymore. He can't fix this.

      "Inoperable", the doctor said. Six months to a year. The cancer will eat him away. He will end up like the china dog. Or the broken lamp. Useless. The cancer will drain his and Mary's bank account and savings: expensive medicines, medical bills, and in the end, hospice care.  Mary will suffer. She will suffer no matter which road he chooses, but at least his way will mean that she won't end up destitute. Having to sell the house, move in with the kids, become dependent. She's too good of a woman to be reduced to that. His decision is made. They have worked damned hard al their lives. He won't; let it all be stolen from them.

      He kneels and pulls a metal box from underneath the workbench. His knees tighten when he tries to stand and he grimaces.  He places his weight on one arthritic knee and pain shoots from it like a knife, but it's a pain that makes him smile, even as he winches. It is the pain of life. 

      The metal box is heavier than he remembers. He places it gently on the  workbench, reaches to his left and pulls a small wooden matchbox from the rough hewn pinewood shelf.  The match box holds one lone object: a small metal key. He fingers the key and studies it before slipping it into the keyhole of the metal box., The box clicks at the turn of the key and the lid pops open, like the Jack-in-the-Box toy lid so many years ago.  Had that toy belonged to Jenny or Kevin? He can't for the life of him remember, and this angers him. Why can't he remember? 

     He picks up the white flannel cloth where it is nestled in the box, and unrolls it slowly. The gun is heavy. Solid. He has only ever used it to shoot the occasional rattlesnake that slithered unknowingly into the yard back, or to target practice on old soup cans down by the garbage dump. All these years the Ruger has waited. Waited for today. The reason for its existence. Its link in the chain. 

        Hollis flicks open the gun's chamber. It is unloaded, as he knew it would be. He takes the gun apart and oils each piece almost tenderly, before assembling it into the whole again. His brain is empty except for the task at hand. His hands work swiftly and surely.  When the smell of gun oil is thick and the air is saturated with a purpose, he loads the gun from a small box of ammunition that he has kept hidden in his toolbox all these years. Mary gave him that toolbox twenty Christmases ago.  He rolls the chamber shut. He places the remaining box of ammo inside the metal box. He locks the box and puts the key inside the match box. 

      He retrieves the shovel from where it has leaned against the wall for years untold, and carries everything to a dark corner of the shed and pulls on his old leather work gloves.  This small space is an area that he never got around to laying slab over. The hard packed dirt has never been disturbed.  He pushes the tip of the shovel into the dirt and leans his weight forward. A clump of rich black soil breaks apart.  He digs until a thin sheen of sweat glazes his brow. He continues to dig the hole deeper and deeper. Jonesey saunters into the shed, "Not now, old boy", Hollis tells him and the dog curls up on an old piece of burlap and silently studies his owner. 

      Finally, the hole is deep enough. Hollis places the metal box and the wooden matchbox into the deep recesses of the hole and shovels the dirt back into place. When the hole is filled in and the dirt packed hard with the flat end of the shovel, Hollis rolls an old metal barrel over the fresh grave-like area. He frowns at his handiwork and then piles musty paint flicked bed sheets in front of the barrel.  That will have to do.  He places the shovel back in its usual place.

     Hollis's thoughts are tunnel focused on the job at hand.  He sits at the bench and picks  the gun up from where it has been waiting. The metal is still cold.  Before Hollis can change his mind, he brings the gun to his lips, kisses the oil licked steel, then just as quickly he levels the gun barrel against the right side of his head. 

      But before his finger can press back on the trigger, he feels his chest seize. It's like a fist has grabbed him from the inside. The pain is unbelievable in its ferocity and suddenness. The gun falls from Holiss's hand.  He feels the world shift and he is falling. His head smacks against the dirt floor and he thinks, "This is strange". Then he is face down on the floor, staring at the gun where it has fallen, not six inches from his nose, and his chest is exploding into sharp wave after sharp wave. 

    Jonsey walks over and cocks his head in a kind of doggie perplexity.  Then Jonesey bends and runs his wet tongue over Hollis's face. Another fist grabs Hollis in the chest and he loses his breathe as the pain clenches at him again. It subsides a bit and Hollis opens his eyes and sees Jonsey staring at him. "Worthless old dog" , he whispers. 

        The beast in his chest shifts into another wave and Hollis laughs. Talk about irony. With every bit of energy left in his spasming body he shoves the gun with such force that it spins and disappears under the workbench with the cobwebs and the forgotten dropped nails. Everything is shifting into a gray fog. So, this is how it ends?  He thinks. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Who wrote that?  But this isn't the long protracted whimper he has feared. He smiles. He has beat it after all. His chest explodes one last time, His breathe stops, his eyes glaze over.   
     Jonsey lays his head on Hollis's still body and waits.

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