Standing in the kitchen, barefoot, in his underwear, in the dark, he knew they'd reached the end. The last silent supper had been consumed, the last kiss-less goodnight had been spoken. The blundering attempts at lovemaking were a thing of the past. The lights were turned off and he listened to her sleep. Even her breathing sounded angry. Every breath was an indictment.
He had not lived up to expectations. He had failed. And he had failed not in a magnificent way. His failure was unnoticed. A sort of languid, rudderless sinking to the bottom.
He was certain her demand for him to quit the premises was imminent. He'd started to avoid eye contact with her, lest it give her the opportunity to sigh and tell him she'd had enough and it was time for him to go. Past time, actually. She could take care of herself. She did take care of herself and, for too long, took care of him.
The linoleum by the window was cold. He felt sensation withdrawing from his bare toes. Outside the window, the world was silent. Heavy wet snow alternated with icy rain. The unenthusiastic snow mottled the grass in front of the apartment building. The road was a slurry of gray mush, glistening in arcs under the street lamps.
The windows and red brick of the apartment building across the street faced the windows and red brick of the building he was in, like a tremendous mirror. He looked for himself in the windows across the street. He tried to find the murky shape of someone too old to be starting again. Too old to start again. Too old to start for the first time.
He could leave before she asked him to go. In that there might be something he could point to as evidence of some dignity, some sense of responsibility. But it would be a shabby dignity. Something created by the inevitability of the situation. The dignity of the gallows.
The window glass was cold to the touch. The only sound was the wobbly compressor belt in the refrigerator next to him.
She did not love him and he did not blame her for this. It's simply the way things turned out. He believed the things he said to her, the promises he made. She believed them too. But he thought the promises would somehow be enough. He thought saying the dream out loud would make the dream appear. That he was somehow entitled to something simply because he could name it.
He looked at the clock on the stove. Green digits reading "3:32." He knew he would always remember that combination of light.
He hated the idea of going back to bed, getting under the covers. He was afraid her disappointment was filling her dreams, being converted into heat he could feel radiating from her sleeping body.
The only thing he'd ever been able to create was the towering contempt for him he had forged in the heart of this one woman. That was the only monument he would leave behind.
The end. He was certain of that. It was the end. But still his feet grew colder, and the rain and snow continued to fall in the empty street.
There was the sound of tires in the slush. A sound like white noise. The sound a radio makes when there's nothing left to broadcast. Then the sound of tires stopped and there was a dull metal impact. Then a drunken car slid into view, one side caved in.
The car staggered through the ice and snow and slush and mounted the curb in front of his apartment building. It hit a street lamp and stopped.
Looking down from the third floor, he could not see any movement in the car. Then there was another sound. A sort of "whomph," and the windows of the apartment building across the street danced with orange light.
Two snail tracks of fire ran from the edge of his vision to the rear of the wrecked car. The car vanished in an undulating orange ball. Windows shook in the apartment. Flame and black smoke rose into the air, disrupting the rain and snow.
He could see the shape of the car in the fire. No one had escaped.
He'd leaned forward, putting his hands on the cold glass of the window. He knew he had just seen someone die. Perhaps more than one person.
The car continued to burn and there was nothing he could do about it.
He heard her come into the kitchen and come up behind him and look past his shoulder at the flames and the smoke. Then he heard her voice:
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.
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