Chris George is the author of THE OCCULTATION (Surveyor Books). He is a writer, educator, and artist who lives and works in Dallas, TX. You can find him virtually at christopherdgeorge.com
He hadn’t seen Sofia since high school. She was red lipped and waiting, even then, always looking for something that might break her free from this place. Funny she ended up stuck in this town after all these years, still waiting. Nico was sitting under a spilled and spreading sky, his pill dissolving on his tongue like stovetop residue. He didn’t want to see new people, and Sofia was a stranger now, just a ghost of some half person he’d once known. But he needed a way to get out of his own body for a while, and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, really, after being tossed out by Marlene. For what, he couldn’t remember, and he didn’t want to know. Confronting whatever it was he had done was too much for him now, but he promised some unknown and invisible force that, once he’d gotten his shit back together, he’d make things right if he could.
Sofia’s car was dented on every side, an intentional flourish based on her brief readings and misunderstandings of a feng shui book she’d seen at a 75% Off Books store. Beneath each dent a tear of rust streaked its way across the black-blue paint like a lost star. She tried to smile through a foggy window, but Nico could only see his half reflection blurred and faded in the black curve of the glass. He stared at it like an odd premonition, stretched out before him like a map of what was to come.
“Yes, it’s coffee,” Sofia said when he opened the door.
He didn’t know what she was talking about.
They had never been close in high school, but she was a survivor who remained in this town after all of these years, and one of the few people left here that he knew at all.
“Does it hurt?” Sofia asked, not looking at Nico. She’d never been good at niceties. That’s what Nico told himself.
He checked his arms for marks or bruises, remnants of a blackout or binge, but he found nothing and shrugged.
“No, the army. I always thought getting out would hurt. You’re basically an infant in the military. Bedtime, snack time, kill time. Now you’ve been shoved out of your dark womb and it’s all teeth on the other side.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. He’d never been in the army. In fact, he’d spent the last five years jumping trains and acquiring bad habits as the great American landscape streaked around him like the spins, only returning to this place after a felony arrest for forged prescriptions knocked him so hard on his ass he’d fallen back here. He began to wonder if Sofia even remembered who he was.
“This place is going to eat you alive,” Nico thought Sofia said. But her engine was running too hot and loud to know if she’d actually said anything at all.
They parked and waited for the dust that the gravel had coughed up to fade before they got out of the car. The Desperado Bar and Grill used to be the only bar in Sachse, but the town had grown since Nico had left. The shopping centers had reproduced, been licked with a thick coat of beige and green paint, and speckled with Texas flags and lone stars.
The drinking didn’t start heavy, but Nico had lost himself in a thick buttery haze once the pills kicked in and he’d had a shot. Maybe it was two shots. It felt early in the encounter to be this lost, but he didn’t function much without a little bit of haze draped on things. Nico felt like Sofia was dancing somewhere, but he didn’t know if that was in his head or outside of himself. The green tinted lights of the bar buzzed and glittered in the mirror that hung behind the skyscrapers of liquor. Nico could feel the eyes of a steer’s skull hung on the wall burning through the slop in his head. It didn’t speak.
When he found Sofia, he couldn’t keep hold of the conversation she and a bald man covered in blonde furs were having over a deep-sea-colored pool table. They ran their words around him and he nodded in slow motion, thinking the whole time that he needed another drink. In a moment of lucidity, he remembered he’d always hated Sofia, and retreated to a bar stool.
The bartender was melting in the haze and talking to a big man in a shit-colored cowboy hat. Nico tapped his knuckle against the bar until the bartender shot a look at him like barred teeth.
“Drink,” Nico mouthed.
Returning home, or to a place you’d once thought of as home, is like dreaming your life. Nico had seen these things before, whether in dreams or in visions. He felt like he was running a line so far in front of him he’d ended up on the other side of it, looking back at himself holding a different string. He was seeing his future in the warped edges of the mirror, and its ugliness was so overwhelming that he laughed until the green lights popped like champagne.
Suddenly he had two drinks and was spinning towards a bathroom. There was a woman inside, but he didn’t mind. He pissed in a stall and decided to trace a line back to Sofia.
He found her crying on a curb, looking at a white-specked field of dirt and dried grass clawing its way across the darkness of the flattened horizon.
“That’s the road to my past,” she mumbled. “You got any pills?”
“Yes,” he said, but then he remembered that he’d eaten the pills in the bathroom between pissing on the wall and washing his hands.
“We’ll make things work,” she said.
Sofia’s car had died, and she insisted the only person who could fix it was her ex husband. The thought was sad, something about it lost and desperate. But Nico decided not to judge. He hoped that Sofia’s ex might be exciting; a crude clown or a junky. He wasn’t partial. He wanted a third party in this arrangement. He couldn’t even bring himself to look Sofia in the eyes, so another man might help him sink into a shadow.
They walked through the field and into a thick darkness. Nico had lost all sense of direction, but Sofia seemed sure of her footing, so he followed closely behind her, trying his best to match his feet into her tracks. When the black dirt ended he looked out over a large pit filled with crumpled cars.
“It’s not scary,” Sofia whispered. “I know this place.”
On the way down the hill she explained her life to him in the simplest terms she could. Love, disillusionment, excess, drinking, infidelity, divorce, all set within the limits and confines of the little cage she’d always known and couldn’t leave. Her ex-husband, now fucking a litter of stray teens in his immobile trailer, managed to collect his dead mother’s government assistance on top of his disability.
“He completely fucked me,” she said. “Made me think I couldn’t go on without him. That was before the baby died and all the cheating and lies.”
“I didn’t know you have a kid,” Nico said, not sure of what else to say.
“I don’t,” she said.
Between the stack of yellowed cars, Nico heard a humming like that of a broken body strung about in pieces. He swayed to the sound. The humming, which was louder now, slapped in his ears until he spit and set off for it. Sofia was inching along a little building near the fence of the junkyard, hanging there like an angel, calling him to her with the bright tipped light of drunkenness and indifference. Deep in a shadow next to her leg he could see something growling, licking its lips to the tune of the humming.
Nico had stumbled upon a little shack with a cloudy light radiating from its window. He could hear the muffled song, like that of a mother, wrapped between the shack’s walls and the gentle roars of the highway over the hill. He imagined a woman, young and beautiful, trapped and longing for escape.
“I could take you away,” Nico said softly, first imagining the woman, but then talking to himself. “We could go together.”
There was a silence between a gust of wind and the humming, and Nico closed his eyes until Sofia was shaking him awake again.
“We’ve got to go,” she said. The humming had stopped, and the window in the shack was black and empty.
They wound their way through a thick wall of naked trees and into a gravel parking lot. Sofia, sober in Nico’s mind, needed to take him home. His pills were gone and he was beginning to feel the ache of a new day in his temples.
“We’re close,” Sofia said, ducking behind an old turquoise truck parked in front of a trailer.
Inside, a single light bulb flashed shadows onto a window shade. Bodies swayed back and forth, and they could hear laughing and playful screaming.
“He’s there,” Sofia said, hiding under the window. The trailer’s tires were flat, and it leaned to the left, making the rest of the parking lot look unstable. They could hear the whispers of music. Nico felt like he was too close to everything, and he wanted to leave.
“You knock,” Sofia insisted. Nico didn’t like the equation, but he was at the door before he could protest to himself or to her.
He knocked and waited. It was darker next to the red light that hung next to the door.
The man who stood before him now was old, much older than Nico had imagined he would be. He was bald and sweaty and his lips were crusted and cracked. He squinted hard at Nico, his mouth half open.
“Yeah?” he growled.
“I’m here for Sofia,” Nico said, tripping over himself immediately as he began talking.
“Sofia. Your ex.”
The man scratched himself, and the playful screams and laughter began again in the dark behind him.
“That whore ain’ my wife. She’s my slut of a daughter, and I don’t pay her money no more, so if you need that then call the police. I don’t give that whore money no more.”
A sweet voice called to him from the trailer and he shut the door. Had they come to the wrong place? Did he fuck that up?
Nico walked down the step, but Sofia was gone. He walked around the trailers whispering her name until he found her sitting against an emptied and toppled trash can. She was crying now. Her hands gripped like claws against her cheeks. Her expression was silently skewed, stretched thin from one edge of her face to the other.
“That bastard,” she sobbed into the gravel.
Nico wanted to touch her, to reach out to her and tell her something sweet and true, but he couldn’t find the words, and he knew he’d fuck it up anyway.
Instead he just waited.