Story By Mathieu Cailler (USA)
Published in Issue 31, August 2013.
It was a Tuesday night like most others when Luis arrived at The Estates to work the graveyard shift. The security guard before him had forgotten to take down the flag, so Luis headed over. Old Glory was flying at half-staff. Luis wasn’t sure why, but with all the horror in the world, it might have just been easier to leave it that way. He uncleated the cord, unclasped the hook, and folded the flag into large triangles. With the flag tucked under his arm, he walked across the dew-soaked grass, back into his booth, and placed it in the wooden box.
The Los Angeles Estates Community that Luis surveyed rested on 159 gated acres. With only one entrance, residents and guests all had to pass by Luis. He wrote the names of those who visited and jotted down their plate numbers, too.
The booth—or Estate House, as residents called it—that Luis worked in was 96 square feet. In it, was a built-in desk, small refrigerator, phone, and half bath. A thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo sat on the floor and the sink in the bathroom dripped every twelve seconds.
Luis reached into his pocket and pulled out his wife’s prescription for Coumadin. The bottle had been refilled a couple weeks before her passing, so it was still mostly full. He ran his thumb over the smooth label, across her name, Elba Padilla. He twisted the cap off and poured a few of the pills onto his palm. They were circular and yellow and looked like candy. He poured the rest of the Coumadin onto his desk. There were thirty-one pills, and when his shift ended at six in the morning, he would take the early bus over to Rocky Point, sit on his favorite bench, stare at the ocean, and swallow the pills.
A limousine waited for Luis to take note of it. Cigar smoke and cool jazz wafted from the open sunroof. He clicked a button and the wrought-iron gate opened. Another person entered a few minutes later. This one drove a red sports car and never turned off his high beams. Luis shielded his eyes, but the driver ignored the hint.
Elba had passed seven months ago. Seven months ago next Wednesday, Luis thought. He couldn’t believe how slowly time had passed. Whenever someone asked him about his wife and how he was doing with it all, he said, “If you want to live forever, have your wife die.” He was closer to her now than he was when she was living, though. Life brought so many complications, but when someone passed, the memories of strife seemed to occupy the casket, too, and Luis never replayed the sad moments, the bad times; instead, he saw her rubbing lotion on her elbows before bedtime, working masa into corn husks around Christmastime, and heard her singing “Tres Dias” as she plucked dandelions in the backyard.
Luis wondered if he would go quickly. He’d gone to his local library a couple times—early in the morning a few minutes after it had opened so that no one would be at the computer terminal—and searched about Coumadin overdoses. There was a site that detailed what happened to the body, how the blood-thinner basically induced a heavy amount of internal bleeding.
He figured people wouldn’t be surprised. “Who? Oh, that guy,” they’d say. “The old man. Yeah, he always seemed lonely to me. How’d he do it?” they’d ask. Everyone always wanted to know how it was done, like there was something telling about that.
Sometime later, Luis went to the bathroom and sat on the foam toilet seat. When using the john, a sign had to be placed in the window of the booth, notifying the Community that the guard was using the toilet.
It read: SORRY I’M USING THE RESTROOM. BACK IN A JIFFY!
A while back, he’d gone ahead and covered some of the words with electrical tape, so it now read:
SORRY I’M USING THE RESTROOM. BACK IN A JIFFY!
After returning to the desk, he flipped through the guest log and filled in some dates. He then fixed his eyes on the road perpendicular to his booth. There wasn’t any traffic, as it was a Tuesday in a bedroom community, but every now and then, a car rushed by and he wondered if the driver had spent a night worth remembering.
This hour of the night led to nostalgia attacks, and Luis would call his home from the booth and listen to Elba’s voice on the message machine. He’d savor the recording, hang up, and sometimes call again. Luis had been out with a couple women since her death, women he’d met at bars, mostly. But it was hard to love after death. He thought love was limited, and that he’d used up all of his.
He pulled out his Thermos and drank. The coffee cascaded down his throat and warmed him. He opened the paper, flipped to the “Calendar” section of the Times, and read his horoscope.
SCORPIO: Today you will feel the power of seduction and the pull of the present. You’ll experience a wizbang of life. Tonight: hang out with loved ones.
Then he read Elba’s.
ARIES: An ingenious idea could fall flat. Let go, and let others find a different solution. Tonight: A must appearance.
Was it time that pulled us apart…or was it just us? he thought. Did I answer a question wrong one day or simply not ask the right one? And then, after that, did I make a habit of it? Maybe it’s just love’s evolution…maybe what starts as kisses and drive-ins ends with quiet and prayers.
Still though, Luis often regretted the little things, like not saying “please” more, not squeezing her hand while driving, and not remembering to turn on her half of the heating blanket so she could’ve always crawled into warm sheets.
The cup of coffee on the desk steamed and killed the scent of mildew in the booth. He stared out the window onto the boulevard, then gazed at the sky. Shy stars hung under a yellow moon. He savored the bitter taste of coffee and the sight of the night sky. He felt powerful knowing when and how he’d go. He didn’t have any children, and only a few friends. Everyone would be able to take one car to his funeral.
A car raced by on the main road, its engine humming, its pipes growling. Luis tracked its lights until it left his gaze.
A few seconds later, there was a crash. The noise was sudden and ripped apart the quiet like a crack of thunder. It fell still once again.
Luis jumped to his feet, thinking it must have been the car that sped by. Many nights, he studied the main road in hopes that he’d see someone pop a tire, catch a glimpse of a coyote in search of food, or help a lost driver find the freeway, but nothing had ever happened.
He darted from the booth, clumsily, and pushed towards the main road. Mist hung heavy and the droplets found his face as he ran. In this sleepy seaside town, the residents insisted that no streetlights be put up, so the dark was blacker than usual. Luis struggled. His legs burned and sweat pushed out his pores. It’d been so long since he’d felt his heart beat strongly. He pressed on, his thighs prickling, his breath heavy. He thought that maybe lights would be flashing up ahead, that maybe someone had already pulled over, but he couldn’t spot a thing. After continuing a bit more, he heard the sound of an idling engine and picked up on the pungent odor of burnt rubber and noticed the glow of brake lights down in a thicket of tall brush.
Luis rushed down into the weeds, where foxtails and burrs dug into his pants. Glass cracked under his boots. “Hello? Are you all right?” he said, trying to open the driver’s side door. He wanted to call 9-1-1, but he had forgotten his cell phone in his bag. Quickly, he darted around to the other side of the car and attempted to yank open the passenger-side door. It took a while, but Luis eventually got it open. The cabin light cut on and he saw the driver: a young woman with coffee-colored skin. Her head was cocked to the side and obscured by a deflated airbag. Luis pushed the bag down, and inspected her scraped cheeks and bleeding forehead. He didn’t know whether or not to touch her, but decided he might hurt her more by trying to move her, and he didn’t think he had the strength to do so, anyway. “Hello?” he said again. Her chest wasn’t rising and sinking. “Please, sweetie. Talk to me. Can you hear me?”
In the backseat, Luis spotted the woman’s purse. Inside, he found her cell phone and called 9-1-1. The call went through quickly. “9-1-1,” the man said. “What’s your emergency?”
“An accident,” Luis said. His breath was heavy. “A car accident on Crest Road. A young woman. She doesn’t look as though she’s breathing, and she’s got a big gash on her forehead.”
“Okay, sir,” the man said. “Help is on the way. Can you tell me, if you can, where on Crest?”
“Uh, not far from Highridge, down a ways, off the road,” Luis said. He ran his hand over the woman’s shoulder.
“Is there danger of the car blowing up? Any smoke or signs of fire?”
“No,” Luis said.
“Do you know CPR, sir?”
“Are you able to assist in other capacities?”
“I’m old and don’t know what to do,” Luis said.
“I’ll help you. She needs you, sir.”
The 9-1-1 operator gave Luis various instructions. He didn’t want Luis to move the woman, but he did want him to try and find a pulse. Luis placed the phone on the dash while tending to the woman. He lifted the sleeve of her shirt and placed his thumb on her wrist, over a small tattoo of a strawberry. Then he lowered his lips to the woman’s heavily-pierced ears. “I’m here,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
“Anything?” the operator said.
Luis picked up the phone. “No.”
“Place your hand over her heart; it can be easier to pick up sometimes.”
“Her forehead is still bleeding,” Luis said.
“Get her heartbeat first,” the man said.
Luis did as he was told and slid his hand underneath the woman’s blouse and against her smooth skin. Even though it was cold outside, her skin was warm. The woman’s pulse was slow, with seconds between beats.
“Anything?” the operator asked.
“It’s tired, but there.”
“Good,” he said. “The ambulance should be there soon. You’ll hear the sirens. Keep listening to me…now try and get that gash on her head to stop bleeding.”
A sweater was coiled on the backseat floor, and Luis scooped it up and pressed it against the woman’s forehead. Blood saturated the fabric and, in time, the bleeding stopped. He then tucked a few strands of black hair behind her ear. Her perfume smelled strongly of cinnamon. “Are you there?” he said directly into her ear, feeling his warm breath ricochet against his mouth.
“Sir,” the operator said. “Do you hear the ambulance?”
He ran his fingers over the woman’s neck. “You’re gonna be okay,” he said.
“Sir. Are you there, sir?”
“Is her heart still beating?”
Again, Luis placed his hand atop the woman’s chest. Her skin wasn’t as warm as before. “Yes, barely,” he said.
“Do you see a purse around?” the man asked. “Any place where she might keep her ID.”
Luis plucked out her wallet and opened it. He squinted to read the information. “It’s a Nevada ID,” he said. “Her name’s Anaya Cooper.” He removed the license from its plastic slot and called out the ID number. Underneath her ID was a photo of her and a young man. The two of them sat at opposite ends of a small table and leaned towards the center like eaves.
In the distance, the whine of sirens cut through the night. Luis took Anaya’s hand and worked his thumb though the peaks and valleys of her knuckles.
He figured people would be surprised. “Who? Oh, that guy,” they’d say. “The old man. The weird-looking guy. What’d he do?” they’d ask. He closed his eyes and slowed his breath.
The ambulance pulled up. The air brakes hissed.
Bright lights flooded the scene and flashed across the insides of Luis’s eyelids. He moved aside and watched strong men in dark uniforms pull Anaya from the car, secure her to a gurney, and lift her steadily though the tall grass. The doors on the back of the ambulance swung open and the legs of the stretcher collapsed as Anaya was slid into place. She was strapped down in the back and the paramedics began working on her immediately, cutting off her clothes and fitting her face with an oxygen mask. The truck’s engine rumbled and grunted, and the heat from the muffler mixed with the cold air and formed plumes of smoke.
Luis didn’t know why, but as the truck’s doors slammed shut and the ambulance lurched forward, he raised his arm as if waving good-bye. I wish I’d been better, he thought. He pulled in a few deep breaths of night air and tracked the ambulance for as long as he could, until the sirens’ screams were quiet and the truck’s taillights became little red dots in the distance. Then he brought his arm back down.
Mathieu Cailler is a poet and award-winning short-story writer. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has been published in numerous literary journals, including Sleet, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Epiphany. Recently, he was awarded the 2012 Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction. He lives (and will probably die) in Los Angeles.
Image: "Sleeping Security" by Bridget D. Ginley