Back East by Chandler Morrison

Punk Noir Magazine, Short Stories

Ryland didn’t generally mind air travel, but returning to Pennsylvania filled him with such sour dread that the only recourse was to take two Valium and remain inebriated for the duration of the flight. He was on his second drink by the time the plane lifted off the runway. Sinking into his first-class seat, his earphones in to discourage the passenger beside him from attempting to engage him in trite conversation, he stared with heavy-lidded eyes out the window and watched Los Angeles shrink beneath him.

Walking toward baggage claim some five hours later in a congenially drunken haze—the only way he knew how to handle the Philadelphia airport—he found he had enough lucidity to be struck by how unpleasant everyone looked. They were tired, sallow, overweight. Their faces bore menacing scowls. People jostled into one another, cursing under their breath or barking into cell phones. Ryland spotted only three girls who were remotely fuckable, and they clearly weren’t locals.

He texted Lyssi as he waited at the baggage carousel, telling her he’d landed safely. She responded almost immediately with a nude photo—feet stockinged in thigh-highs, one hand between her legs and the other cupping her breast—captioned with, miss u and a string of heart emojis. Too drunk to be aroused, he replied with several kissing face emojis and put his phone back in his pocket. He looked up and watched his Louis Vuitton suitcase move toward him on the trundling black track.

The Uber ride to the Cold Spring Falls Marriott—the only decent hotel in Ryland’s quaint-but-irritatingly-rustic hometown—lasted over an hour, made longer than normal by the heavy rain sweeping across the freeway as the driver’s Lexus slowly made its way north. Ryland took another Valium about fifteen minutes into the drive, and soon the silver-gray water streaking up the windshield became pleasurably hypnotic, and even the jagged branches of lightning spiderwebbed across the dark afternoon sky seemed soothingly apocalyptic.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle when the Lexus dropped him off in front of the Marriott. As he got out of the car, he instantly became unnerved by the oppressive quiet. Nature’s whispering breath was the only audible sound—the soft patter of scattered raindrops, the rustle of wind in the trees. Without the steady, mechanical thrum of urban civilization to which Ryland’s body had become accustomed, he felt disoriented and weightless, untethered from gravity.

Mandy, the girl at the front desk, had been there for what Ryland thought was too long a time. She’d been standing in the same place the first time he’d stayed at the hotel five years ago, a little over one year after he’d moved to LA. Twenty-five and built like a cheerleader, spray-tanned and fake-lashed and emanating bright-eyed cheer and sprightly sexuality, she had come to Ryland’s room four consecutive nights after her shift and fucked him with memorable vigor and expertise. Now, at thirty, she was unrecognizable. Pale and bloated, her bleary, blotchy face unmade-up and her once-sleek auburn hair gone frizzy and unkempt, there was nothing left of the girl whose expired pleasures Ryland had long ago known so intimately. He noticed a cheap wedding ring on her finger that seemed to explain it all. There were probably children, at least two. A beer-guzzling husband who beat her. A ramshackle house somewhere rural, away from uppity, suburban Cold Spring Falls’ high property taxes.

As he checked in, his gaze met her sunken, washed-out eyes only briefly enough to see the despair there, the hopeless tragedy of the dead-end life which had befallen her. He looked away, thinking, This is what happens to all of them. They get stuck here in these small towns and it warps them into haggard beasts. He thought of his ex, Penelope, rapidly dying in her dilapidated apartment as the heroin and meth ate away at her brain, her body. He decided she’d been doomed either way. There was some consolation in that.

After leaving his suitcase and sport coat in his room and swallowing two Xanax, he went down to the dim, empty bar and sat nursing a scotch with his earphones in, thinking of his dead brother. He thought he’d feel guiltier about the calls he’d ignored and forgotten to return, but his conscience seemed satisfied with the justification that he’d “been busy.” It had been several years since he’d seen him in person; their paths had happened to cross in Vegas one summer, and Ryland had tagged along as Bruno bopped from brothel to strip club to brothel. Ryland, who disliked both brothels and strip clubs, had gotten progressively drunker as the night carried on, and he had vague memories of doing a lot of coke in what now seemed like an unusually high number of chromium bathrooms. He remembered Bruno strutting up the neon-bathed boulevards, surprisingly dexterous in his gait for someone of such considerable height and girth. He’d kept bellowing “TITTY CITY” at the sky, his tremendous arms spread wide. Ryland had skulked behind him, chain smoking cigarettes and trying not to appear associated with him.

“Money and minge,” Bruno used to say to him, grinning leeringly from his wide, bearded face. “That’s all that fucking matters.” He’d sip his beer, he’d hit his cigarette, and he’d say, “Minge, man, I said it. I know you youngsters like the cue-ball pussies these days, but fuck all that. I don’t want no bald beaver swallowing up my cock. I don’t want to go down on some shaved snatch, some tweezed twat. No.” He’d bang his fist on the table then. “Bruno Boy needs a nice, pillowy muff bush. I want to be coughing up cunty pubeballs for days.”

Ryland wondered how many people would truly miss his brother.

He finished his drink and paid the bartender, tipping too much, and then he went back up to his room and had a bottle of Cristal sent up. The waiter who brought it was a spooky-looking fellow with too-white skin and black eyes and fingers that were too long. For half of a fear-frozen moment, Ryland was certain he’d seen him somewhere before, that his presence here was both ominous and impossible, but he was drunk enough to conveniently lose the thread of what he reasoned was a false memory. He tipped the creepy waiter before shutting the door in his face and retreating to the bed, where he proceeded to drink himself into a cloudy sleep.

* * *

 The warm rain was light but persistent the next morning at the cemetery. Black umbrellas canopied the sparse mourners like rotting mushroom caps. Ryland stood hung over and stricken with headache, away from anyone, huddled beneath his own umbrella. The tapping of raindrops atop the canvas above his head was deafening, and the Valium/Vicodin/vodka cocktail was doing little to help. He tried to focus on the priest’s solemn sermon, tried to locate something in the words that would stir some semblance of emotion within him, but the address was garbled into something foreign and unintelligible by the rain’s bedeviling torment.

His parents stood close to the grave, crowded together. Their stern faces were more suggestive of anger and disappointment than of sorrow. Neither of them had said a word to him since his arrival. He couldn’t decide if he was hurt or relieved.

When the priest had finished his spiel, Bruno’s coffin was slowly and efficiently lowered into its grave plot. For a brief moment, Ryland felt a curious sensation of frantic helplessness as he watched his brother disappear into the earth. He imagined Bruno grinning next to him, his big hands in the pockets of his pinstriped pants. “One last hole, little bro,” the ghost said with a greasy chortle.

Bruno’s widow, Christiane, appeared before Ryland as the mourners began to scatter back to their vehicles. Christiane was a small, mousy woman who had been pretty a long time ago but now bore signs of weathering in her face and frailty in her figure. She was only, Ryland thought, somewhere in her early forties, but her marriage to Bruno had aged her considerably. “Hello, Ryland,” she said. Ryland’s nephews—Michael, fifteen, and Daniel, eleven—stood dutifully on either side of her in ill-fitting suits.

“Christiane,” Ryland said, shifting awkwardly, peering out from beneath his umbrella at the treacherous gray sky. “My, um…deepest condolences.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling tightly. “You lost someone, too, you know.”

Ryland couldn’t disguise the confused expression on his face as his intoxicant-addled brain spun uselessly, trying to recall to whom she might be referring. It took him several painful moments to realize they were talking about the same person. “Um, right,” he said, coughing into his fist. “I know he and I weren’t that close but, ah, I…you know, I…loved him.”

Christiane regarded him with an amused pity before telling her sons, “Boys, go catch Grandma and Grandpa and ask if you can ride with them to the restaurant. I want to talk with your uncle.” Ryland tensed up as his nephews wordlessly turned and jogged through the rain to catch up with their grandparents, who were nearly at the parking lot. Christiane leveled her eyes at Ryland and said, “You were planning on coming to lunch, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I remember my mom mentioning something about that.” He had not planned on attending. He wanted only to go back to his hotel and crawl into bed with a bottle of gin.

“I noticed you didn’t drive here. Come on, I’ll save you the Uber fare.” Ryland would have gladly paid exorbitant sums of money to avoid whatever conversation he was about to endure, but his head hurt too badly for him to come up with a plausible excuse. He grudgingly followed Christiane to the parking lot. She’d driven Bruno’s white Maserati Quattroporte, explaining, “I thought he would have liked that—he loved this damned car more than anything. I think, though, I’m going to sell it. It’s just so gauche. Michael will be disappointed—he gets his learner’s permit soon—but no teenage boy needs a car like this.”

Ryland gave a perfunctory grunt of agreement as they got into the car. Christiane pressed the ignition button with a brittle-looking finger. The stereo stayed silent. As they pulled out of the parking lot, Ryland said, “You, um…you wanted to talk to me about something?”

With a short, terse nod, Christiane said, “Bruno talked about you quite a bit these last few months. He said he’d been trying to call you.”

Ryland gripped the sides of the leather seat and looked out the window. “Right,” he said. “Yeah, I know. I’ve just been…busy.” In a gesture of bitter capitulation, he added, “It’s not an excuse.”

“I’m not admonishing you, Ryland. That’s not what this is.”

“What is it, then?” There was more brusqueness in his voice than he’d intended. It had been, he realized, more than thirty-six hours since his last dose of cocaine, and he could feel the razor-cut agitation sawing into his jangled nerves.

Slowing to a halt before a stoplight at an empty intersection, her fingers fidgeting atop the steering wheel, Christiane said, “The last year or so with Bruno was…well, it was better. He didn’t whore around as much. He drank less, went out with his work pals more infrequently. He hardly ever hit me anymore. Even the pot—and you know how he loved pot—even that tapered somewhat. He was more present. Did more with the boys, lost some weight, stopped working on weekends. It was a good year for us. Almost like it was in the beginning.”

“That’s, ah, really great. I’m…glad to hear it.”

The light turned green. Water jetted sideways as the car cruised forward. “Ryland,” Christiane said solemnly. “Listen to me. It was like he knew he was running out of time. There was a night, maybe eight months ago, when he took me to dinner downtown. It was such a surprise. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken me out. And when we got back that night, I caught him crying. Not weeping, of course, you know he’d never do that. But he had these great big tears in his eyes, and he was trembling, and he said, ‘I wasted it all, Christy. I thought it was what I wanted, but it was all a waste.’”

Ryland felt a fetid disdain for his brother then, irked near to the point of sickness at the cliché he’d apparently become. The happy hedonist turned penitent paragon in the face of his impending twilight. It was all so typical. He’d never particularly liked his brother, but in that moment, picturing him quietly crying over his “wasted” life, he liked him less than ever. For all Bruno’s faults, his crassness and his tactless vulgarity, Ryland had at least admired the unapologetic manner in which he conducted his sordid affairs.

“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” Ryland told Christiana, a beleaguered exhaustion settling into his bones, constricting around his joints.

“I think you do.”

“No, really. I mean, what even is this? Some kind of intervention? Am I supposed to burst into tears and tell you you’re right, I need to change my ways, that whatever light you think your husband saw in his last few months has now come for me and swept me into its benevolent arms? Let me tell you something. Bruno didn’t change. He didn’t experience some grand epiphany. He was just a middle-aged man with a bad heart and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels through the goddamn roof, and he started to get skittish the more he felt his mortality. There’s nothing special about it. It happens to guys like him all the time.”

“You’re taking this all wrong,” Christiane said quietly, pulling into the parking lot of a little Italian restaurant called Luca Lorenzo’s that Bruno had particularly liked. She parked the car near the back of the lot, turned off the ignition. She didn’t look at Ryland. “I’m not attacking you. This isn’t about judgment. I’m only telling you what he wanted to say himself.”

“Which is what, exactly?”

“Take it easy. Enjoy life. Find things that give you real pleasure, not synthetic substitutes. You’re right, he was feeling his mortality. It has a way of creeping up on you. I think Bruno was starting to realize the things that are important to have around you when it does.”

“I don’t think Bruno was starting to realize anything. And I’ll tell you something else—he never worked on weekends.” This last jab was an unnecessary cruelty which still felt coldly justified.

Christiane’s mouth drew into a thin line. “All I’m saying is you’re still young, Ryland. You still have chances left. Bruno didn’t start to wake up until he’d blown every chance he ever got.”

“I am awake.”

“No,” Christiane said. Her smile bore no amusement, no warmth. “You’re stoned. There’s a rather distinct difference.” Not waiting for an answer, she got out of the car and stood in the light rain, waiting for him to follow. Bitterly, he did, and the two of them walked briskly across the slick parking lot and into the restaurant.

Inside, sitting at the table with his family, Ryland was immediately put off by the small-town simplicity of the restaurant’s interior—the drab, generic wallpaper, the awful carpeting, the poor lighting. Menus printed on cheap cardstock and shoddily laminated, their edges trimmed unevenly as if scissor-cut by children. Faint Muzak drifted from tinny speakers. The staff were slouched and slovenly, the chairs ancient and creaky and uncomfortable. It was the kind of place Bruno loved; he favored places where he could flaunt his wealth, where everyone was force-fed the bitter awareness he came from a higher cloth. This was one of the most distinct differences between the two of them—ever since Ryland had started making real money, he liked to be in places where he was surrounded by people of his ilk, where he could comfortably blend in among the upper tiers of the social strata. Intermingling among the lower classes only grossed him out.

“Ryland,” said his mother, phrasing his name like a bland observation. “We didn’t think you’d come.”

“Yeah, well,” Ryland muttered, and then said nothing else. He ordered a Belvedere on the rocks. The waiter only blinked and asked him what that was, so Ryland sighed and rubbed his temples and asked for a glass of Chianti, instead. “Actually,” he amended, “just bring the whole bottle.”

“It’s awfully early,” his father said—quite hypocritically, Ryland thought, given the man’s own relationship with alcohol.

Ryland mumbled something about still being on California time, realizing too late that this didn’t make any sense because it was still morning on the West Coast, but no one challenged him. His mother protested when he declined to order food, fussing that he was “too thin, much too thin.” He silenced her with an upheld hand and an expression of exhausted impatience.

He tried to pace his consumption of the wine as the meal progressed, but he’d drunk the entire bottle before anyone else had finished eating. The weak alcohol was all that allowed him to tolerate their idle chatter and the maddening scrape of utensils across plates, and even then, only barely. No one said much to him—Christiane had already made her case, his parents had given up on him long ago, and his nephews knew from past experiences that he was incapable of patiently indulging the antics of children the way other adults could. Ryland’s alienation at the table afforded him the opportunity to observe things he might have otherwise ignored, like how drastically his parents had aged since he’d last seen them. The deeply set lines in his father’s face, the receding gums, the burst capillaries crowded around his nose…his mother’s ballooning weight, her thinning hair, the cloudiness of her eyes.

It came as something of a shock, seeing them so old—his father, particularly. He could see, faintly, his own resemblance in his father’s features, could see himself reflected back through the lens of advancing time, but he could not reconcile the notion that the image of the man on the other side of the table was what waited in store for his own life. Old age was not something Ryland had ever been able to envision for himself. He saw nothing particularly fatalistic or tragic about this blind spot in whatever foresight he thought he had for his future; it simply was not something he considered a possibility. Something else would happen, be it a medical panacea for aging or some blighting scourge that eradicated mankind—whichever polar extreme came first.

When lunch had concluded—Ryland had attempted to at least pay for his wine, but his father had dismissed him with a summary wave of his hand without looking at him—the family stood outside under the dripping awning, hugging and saying their goodbyes. Ryland stood slightly away from the rest of them, not engaging, feeling like an outsider and oddly comforted by this; he didn’t want to be one of them, had never wanted to be one of them. 

Christiane offered to drive him back to his hotel, but he politely declined. He wanted to get away from all of them as soon as possible. He’d expected her to say something stereotypical in parting, something along the lines of “Think about what I said,” or “Try and be good to yourself,” but she didn’t. She and her sons walked across the parking lot to the Maserati and none of them looked back.

Before taking their own leave, Ryland’s parents offered stilted words of farewell to their sole remaining son—his father limply shook his hand, and his mother hugged him briefly, but there was no warmth there, no sincerity. He was as dead to them as Bruno was. Maybe more so.

On the way to the hotel, he had the Uber driver stop at a liquor store, where he bought a fifth of Tanqueray. He tore the seal and took a long swig as he walked through the rain back to the Uber, where he continued to drink in the backseat, tipping the driver egregiously to avoid any impact on his passenger rating. He blacked out somewhere between the hotel elevator and his room, regaining consciousness the next morning on the plane, already airborne, wearing the wrinkled suit from the day prior and receiving wary, side-eyed glances from the passenger beside him. All he could do was order another drink from the frumpy stewardess and wait for the plane to deposit him back into his life on the other side of the country.

Chandler Morrison is the author of Along the Path of Torment, Until the Sun, Dead Inside, Hate to Feel, Just to See Hell, and the upcoming Human-Shaped Fiends. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.