Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Issue #63 -- May 2020

By Sharon Diane King

An icy breeze whipped Malcolm McLeod’s lined face as he neared the exterior staircase of the old motel. He shivered, glancing around him, turned up the collar of his threadbare suit jacket around his neck, and tucked his cane under his arm. He pulled his way up two flights of stairs, breathing hard, steadying himself on the rusting bannister. He stood a moment, peering up and down the corridor. Nearly every door was missing a number or a letter. He took a guess, hobbled down two doors, rapped sharply.

The tall man who opened looked as weathered as the lodge: receding gray hairline, thin downturned lips, deepening jowls, sunken eyes. There were deep angry cuts on his chin and nose, and his shirt and trousers were stained and rumpled. He stared at McLeod for a long moment.

At last McLeod broke the silence. “May I come in?”

The man shrugged, stepped aside.

McLeod closed the door behind him. He caught a whiff of the room’s sad histories: bad coffee, cheap cigarettes, the sour smell of urine. He swallowed.

“What happened to you?” The man with the battered face motioned to the cane as he shuffled past the TV cart toward the sink.

“I’m not here to talk about me, Sandy.”

“Suit yourself.” Sandy picked up a plastic cup on the bathroom counter, waved it. “Get you something?”

“Not right now.” Shifting his cane, McLeod sat down heavily in one of the torn Naugahyde chairs near the sliding glass door opening onto the balcony. It shifted under his weight with the click of a swivel chair giving up its ghost. McLeod caught his breath as he stared outside. The rugged cliffs seemed as close as the room next door, and the cascading waves all but showered the windows with salt spray. His instincts had been correct.

A last grasp at paradise....

Sandy picked up a paper bag near the washbasin. He opened the bottle and poured heavily from it. He took a gulp, set the cup down.

“They send you here to get me?”

“They sent me here to talk to you.”

“Did they really?” Sandy took another long pull from the cup and turned glittering eyes to McLeod. “So. What have you got to say to me, Doctor?”

McLeod’s stomach quivered a little. He set his jaw. “You don’t have many choices, Sandy. I realize this. But you have more support than you think.”

“Really?” Sandy’s voice sank like a millstone heaved into the sea. “The guy at the bar’s pressing charges, my wife’s left me, I can’t see the kids unless I have a chaperone.” He spat the word out. “I’ve lost my practice, I’ve lost my house, I’m going to jail, and nobody’s gonna bail me out. Not this time. Guess I just don’t see a lot of support.”

“Your family supports you. Your sister and brothers.”

“Those leeches?”

“Your friends.”

“Not all of them.”

“Some of them. They begged me to come here.”

“Waste of time. Money, too. They pay you?”

“That’s not your business, Sandy.”

“But it’s yours, right? You get paid for this shit. I know, I USED TO DO IT TOO. Remember? I moved up here, and I cleaned up. Took most of your clients. Told them I was ten times better than you. You wrote me about that, remember? Great letter, I put it up on my wall. Framed.”

McLeod took a breath, let it out slowly. “That’s past history now.”

“Not really. They couldn’t have hired some other motherfucking therapist to come see me? Talk me out of, I don’t know, offing myself?” Sandy downed the last in the cup and poured more from the bottle inside the paper bag. “No. Had to be you. The final kick in the ass. They hate my fucking guts.”

“They don’t.”

“You hate me too. You did, and you do.”

“I did, but I don’t now.”

“Fucking liar.” Sandy turned away.

McLeod paused, trying to even out his breath. He stared out the window at the thrashing ocean. The wooden balcony jutted out over the jagged rocks on the beach below. He’d been right to come. The perfect setting....

“What is it you’d want me to say to you, Sandy?”

“Truth’d be nice. For once.”

McLeod grasped his cane and stood up slowly, gazing at the man with his back to him. “Okay, all right. You want the truth? Here’s a start. You were all about getting what you wanted, no matter what it took or who it hurt. From the day you rolled into town.”

Sandy turned and stared at McLeod.

“You came here with all this hype, big city doctor settling down to a heartland practice. Your beauty pageant wife, your gifted kids. Your guitar, your garage band. Big fancy trips, RVs and motorcycles and new cars. Flashy stuff. Flash in the pan, more like. You used us all, so you could get everything you ever wanted.”

Sandy smiled thinly. “Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? You done?”

“No.” McLeod shook his head, tightening his grip on the cane. “It’s true, we didn’t expect you to go down so fast. But you were overdue. You flamed out and took a whole bunch of folks down with you. That bogus real estate deal, that burned a lot of good will in this town. No wonder people stopped coming to see you.”

“They didn’t stop because of that. It was the bad economy.”

“Still making excuses. They didn’t trust you anymore.”

“Why didn’t they come back to you, then?”

“Because of the lies you told them about me!” McLeod took a breath, fighting to regain control. “You poisoned the well. Nobody wanted to get help, they thought it was all a fraud.”

“Isn’t it?”

“You know it’s not.”

“I don’t know anything of the kind. But here’s what I do know. You figure out what people want, you have a formula, you tell them. Bang, they get better. Or they don’t. Some do, some never will. There’s no guarantees.”

“We do our best.”

“Yeah. Right. And they all know it’s not good enough.”

McLeod was silent. Shoulders sagging, he pivoted with his cane, turning back toward the window.

Sandy crossed the worn carpet and stood behind him, gazing out at the grey mist stealing toward them. He held out the half-empty bottle of whisky to McLeod. “Have a drink. Looks like you could use one.”

“No, thanks.”

Sandy tipped the bottle up to his mouth, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Okay. Well. Great chatting with you, Doctor. Real help you’ve been. You go tell my family they got their money’s worth, okay? And you’ll be seeing my face on the local news soon enough. That’ll make things even between us.”

“No,” McLeod answered quietly. “It won’t.”

The two men stood staring out the window for a long moment.

Sandy shrugged. “You can show yourself out, right?”

He turned away from McLeod, made his way back to the dingy sink.

Sandy had just set the bottle down on the counter when he heard a soft thud behind him, then the click-whoosh from the sliding glass door. He turned in time to see the cane abandoned on the floor, and a man in a frayed brown suit climb nimbly up and over the balcony railing, disappearing into the mist below.


Sharon Diane King has had speculative fiction published in anthologies by Third Flatiron Press, in Galaxy's Edge Magazine, and in the collection The Internet Is Where The Robots Live Now. Scholarly work includes essays in the anthologies Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games and The Last Midnight: Critical Essays on Apocalyptic Narratives in Millennial Media. She has translated and produced short theatrical pieces from the 13th through the 17th centuries with her troupe Les Enfans Sans Abri for thirty years. Currently she serves as secretary for the nonprofit Reptile and Amphibian Rescue Network, based in Southern California.


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