Ever since I read the ridiculously good Trevor English series, I've been a huge fan of Pablo D'Stair. He writes what he calls claustrophobic noir--stories singularly focused on a character who, in one way or another, is cornered.
I'm really honored to be working with Pablo on a new project titled you don't exist. Pablo has the opening novelette, Bleed the Ghost Empty. I follow with Pessimist. Both stories (through sheer chance) involve the main character finding a bunch of cash, not to mention a healthy dose of self-hatred and wandering around in a car.
Below is the beginning of Pessimist. Next week I'll post an excerpt from Pablo's piece.
Flight 7842 from Dallas to Moline, Illinois, bounced hard on the runway.
It was about a second of air time, two at most, but plenty of time for Pullman to think all of the following:
You’re going to die.
The plane will explode.
You will burn to death.
Yet you are no one.
You have lived thirty-seven years, but have done nothing.
No one will mourn your death.
Will there be a funeral?
Maybe they have to have funerals for people who die in plane crashes.
Like the FAA requires it or something.
Then it would just be a chaplain and one FAA guy.
The chaplain saying the Nicene Creed and the FAA guy texting the whole time.
Doing their job, honoring your flaccid corpse.
They forget to bury you.
And they move on, but you remain in that plain, pine box, staring at the sky, wide fucking awake even though everyone thinks you’re dead.
Because you can’t die if you’re nobody in the first place.
Then the plane landed.
Pullman let out a long breath, rubbed the bridge of his nose, the nausea pillaging the bottom of his stomach. The descent into Moline had been turbulent—one of the luggage components even snapped open—and Pullman was relieved to be back on the ground.
The guy in the aisle seat, who hadn’t said anything the whole flight, slapped Pullman on the shoulder, said, “Man, the way you looked, I thought we were all gonna die! Ha ha! Ha ha!” He laughed like an asshole. “You going to be all right there, buddy?”
He managed to say this without expressing any concern.
Pullman wanted to rip the guy’s throat out.
Instead, he pretended to finish a crossword puzzle. He never finished more than half a crossword puzzle.
The plane taxied for thirty minutes. Pullman never understood this part. Why couldn’t they just go to the gate? Why’d they always have to dick around?
His seat was at the back of the plane by the bathroom, so he waited another fifteen minutes for everyone to leave.
Then he wondered why he was losing patience. What was he going to do with a few extra minutes? He would probably waste it watching ESPN News in his hotel room, or thinking about ordering one of those adult movies, but deciding the $12.95 price tag was too steep. He would waste these minutes like he had wasted all those that came before.
He put his head in his hands. When he looked up, everyone else was gone.
Just him and the flight attendants, who were cleaning up the absurd amount of trash—empty water bottles, used tissues, newspapers, one mango rind—that the passengers had created in less than two hours.
Pullman went inside. Moline might be the most depressing airport he’d seen. When you went to O’Hare or JFK or Miami, you arrived there. Big airports with dozens of coffee chains and bustling crowds and important people going to important places. Moline was more like a bus stop.
He settled on an unnamed food stand—not that he had any other choices. A few limp danishes, soggy sandwiches, hot dogs that resembled colon lining.
“Whaddya want?” said a fat old woman behind the counter. When she spoke, her gray cheeks jiggled obscenely.
Pullman pointed at one of the danishes—cheese? apple? regret?—and forked over three bucks. He ate it in three bites as he walked to baggage claim. A dollar a fucking bite. It felt like a sugar bomb exploded in his stomach, made him over full and hollow at the same time.
He waited at baggage claim as flights from Atlanta and Detroit picked up their luggage first. His black duffel bag rolled down to the belt fifteen minutes later. He scooped it up and went to the desk for his rental car. The bag’s weight felt different. Pullman took another look and confirmed that the bag was his.
He was in town for a convention in Davenport, just over the other side of the Mississippi River. He was the assistant city planner for the city of Harper, New York (really it was a town, but for some legal reason they called it a city). His boss didn’t go to the conference—Pullman figured this was because the conference was in Iowa, a place no one wanted to go. He couldn’t have placed Iowa on a map of the US before this trip.
His rental car was a Chevy Aveo, a pipsqueak of a vehicle that inspired about as much awe as the Moline airport. His bag barely fit in the backseat.
It was much colder here than back in New York—a fierce wind blew around a few inches of snow, creating these tight whirlwinds of white. Pullman didn’t have a wool hat or gloves, and he shuddered at the thought of three days in this shit.
Pullman started the car, waited for it to warm up. He exhaled, his breath sticking to the windshield.
Maybe he’d run the car into a tree or, better yet, off a bridge into the Mississippi River. He’d be peaceful as the car descended in the brown, murky depths.
He’d always admired people who committed suicide. Especially those who did it with discipline or sent a specific message. Anyone could knock back a handful of sleeping pills with a bottle of liquor to speed up the inevitable. But to impale yourself with a crucifix or starve yourself—that took balls.
The place they put him up in looked like a good home for a crank addict. The sign out front was a goddamn paragon of creativity: MOTEL. He assumed this was the right place because the address seemed close.
The front office didn’t have a door. The man inside it wore a t-shirt and jeans despite the cold. He had a chicken’s head and the blank, unblinking eyes of the idiotic.
Pullman swore as he trudged across the unplowed parking lot, lugging the bag. His feet were soaked with cold. He had brought boots, but they were in his bag.
The man in the office stared at him the entire time until Pullman reached the doorway. Then the man directed all of his attention on a TV mounted to the wall, an old black-and-white movie.
Pullman looked at the desk clerk, but the guy refused to look back.
“Is this 4668 Howe Avenue?”
The guy’s left eye twitched.
“I think I have a reservation? Under Pullman?”
The guy still didn’t respond. What the fuck? Pullman thought people in the Midwest were supposed to be nicer or some shit. He should have known that people are equally terrible everywhere.
Pullman struck the bell on the desk hard.
The man grabbed a key from under the counter, slid it across the desk, still managing not to look back at him. Pullman took the key, which had a sticker indicating it was for room six. He almost said “Thanks” out of routine, but stopped himself. He turned to leave.
“HEY!” the man shouted, now with all his focus on Pullman. He stabbed the counter twice with a finger. “Ya pay first, asshole.”
Pullman threw his bag down, kicked off his slushy sneakers, and sank onto the flimsy bed. Bland landscape painting on the wall, a bible in the nightstand drawer. These normal things comforted him.
But he could see his breath in the room. The heat either wasn’t on or was broken. The motel probably didn’t receive too many complaints about it—if you’re really high, it doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold, nor could you be too picky about what kind of place would accept your presence.
The bag. It was different and, somehow, Pullman had an inkling about its contents.
Vague, but unmistakable.
The trip had been a disaster so far. He flew from LaGuardia to Dallas, where he had a five-hour layover, followed by a completely unexplained three-hour delay, during which the plane sat on the tarmac and passengers were repeatedly told they couldn’t use the bathroom. This, of course, made Pullman have to pee. Each minute dragged by before they finally reached a high enough altitude to permit urination.
Then the pilot fucked up the landing in Moline and almost killed them all. Now this shithole of a motel and this weird bag identical to his but probably filled with stolen human livers on ice—or something other item of equally awful value.
But didn’t airport security check bags? When he went through security in New York, they had taken away his bottle of travel shampoo in his carry-on. He’d almost made a joke about how they’d foiled his big terrorist plot to wash his few strands of remaining hair, but managed to restrain himself.
Pullman hefted the bag onto the bed.
He unzipped it a few inches.
Zipped it back up again.
The painting on the wall was still of a covered wagon crossing the plains, back when America had shit like bison and muzzle-loading rifles.
The book in the nightstand was still the bible.
His sneakers were still soggy with snow and ice.
The floorboards were still stained the color of rust from some mysterious leak.
So he wasn’t hallucinating.
He unzipped the bag—this time in one fluid motion, all the way open.
And again he found it packed with bundles of cash.
Bundles and bundles and bundles and bundles of cash.