HAMPTON COVE DELUXE

 

            Wiggling, then forcing the key into the sticky lock, Tom pulled back just a hair and twisted; the deadbolt scraped open. It had been a normal day at work and a normal ride home, so it’s 5:20 and he’s back at the monk’s cell. That’s what he called this place. He slowly closed the door behind him and waited. Enjoying the cool of the forced air, he closed his eyes; the burning feeling across his lids as he squeezed them was familiar and delicious. In his head, just to the inside of his ears, he heard the voices of his children and his wife welcoming him home. He opened his eyes, completing the daily ritual, and paused a moment more, allowing his eyes to adjust.

 

            The large, open room, with kitchenette at the far wall, was cool, quiet, dim, and empty except for a TV in the corner. It sat on a small, scuffed, black bookcase he’d picked up on moving day. The bookcase was sitting beside the large, dark-green trash bin at one corner of the parking lot. He felt sure someone was throwing it away, but it made him feel nervous to take something that wasn’t his. A worn, gray reclining chair sat on the other side of the room, facing the flat-screen TV he’d bought for a hundred bucks from a college kid on Craigslist. He walked into his monk’s cell one time after work and caught a glimpse of that chair, sitting in the half light, like a gaping mouth ready to swallow him. Since then he could only see it as a toothless monster; the buttons sewn deep in the back were sad eyes calling him to sit.

 

            Two folding tray tables were at either side of the monster head. On the right were the remains of last night’s Hungry-Man Salisbury steak dinner with mashed potatoes and a brownie. Half the corn was still in its compartment of the plastic, microwave-safe dish. It had turned brown, was crusted over. The table to the left had an iPod charger, phone charger, and laptop.

 

            Long, vertical, plastic strips covering the sliding glass door gently swayed and clacked together with Tom’s movement into the room. The skinny spaces between each cream-colored length of plastic revealed yellow pinstripes of the sun on the low-grade, light-brown carpet. He liked how they looked. There were many days when he sat in his gray chair so long that he watched the bright stripes move across the room’s entire floor and work their way up the far wall. Those perfect lines of light were the only decoration in his monk’s cell.

 

            He’d never touched any of the window coverings. He’d never opened the vertical blinds. He’d never raised the cheap louvers in the bedroom, not for the seven months he’d existed at the Nineveh Garden Apartment complex. And existing was all he could call it.

 

            The whirring of the microwave stopped with a click, and three screeching beeps jolted the skin on his head and chest, but he did not move. It was just after six now, and the other residents of the building were coming home. Tom could hear Travis and Beth, a very young and blissfully happy couple, laughing and talking and rustling grocery sacks as they walked past his place. He took comfort as he heard them struggle to get the key into their door lock. At least he had something in common with someone. Travis and Beth were not friendly, but civil. He wondered if they’d looked him up online. There was plenty of bad information out there about him, especially a few articles in the Toledo newspapers. But how could they know his last name? The reeling began, Tom felt it begin; the obsessive, flip-flop thoughts took control no matter what he did to fight it. Did they know his name? How could they know his name? But he didn’t do it. Over and over and over; do they know? How could they know? Nah, they don’t know. The pills rattled in the orange plastic bottle as he fought with the cap. Twenty minutes for the Xanax to kick in.

 

            As usual, the young couple no sooner got home than they had their music on. Tom didn’t mind. He felt like that’s what one of his kids would have done. Get home from school and head straight to their rooms to crank the music and mess around doing kid stuff. He enjoyed hearing the drum and bass lines. The words were often unfamiliar to him but they would be. He’d listened to Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, even Rush, but that was twenty years ago. The music wasn’t up too loud today, which allowed him to hear most of what they were saying; he knew exactly which CD they had put in: The National—a band out of Ohio. After Googling the lyrics a few months ago, he read up on them. He listened to them on YouTube. The song was “Buzzblood Ohio.” He was from Ohio. He felt it was meant to be that he’d found this band. The lyrics were strange, stuff about bees and owing money, lots of money, and someone on a car. He didn’t understand any of it, but he felt like it was written for him. He loved it and hated it.

 

            Tom crept to the wall. He was sure that one day they might hear him listening to them. It was thrilling and scary. Quietly pushing his chest to the cool, flat surface, he positioned himself, pressing his ear to the white paint. They were laughing and talking. Dishes and pots and pans were being readied for dinner. Soon he knew he would smell whatever they had bought at the store and cooked. Beth was sharing some antic from her workday at Hastings. He wasn’t stalking her, really; he’d just seen her in there one day with her nametag on. She hadn’t recognized him. Travis was actively listening to her story, laughing, responding in tones of interest and understanding, being a good boyfriend or husband. Tom didn’t know which.

 

            Tom knew he was addicted to listening to them but only their conversations, the laughter. He used to laugh every day, and it felt nice to hear it. He was careful now about what he allowed himself to hear. They argued one time. It was petty stuff. Stuff that just doesn’t matter in the long run. He wanted to go over and give them some advice, tell them clothes on the floor was annoying but never worth fighting over. Never. He couldn’t, though, because that would give him away. He grabbed his keys and went for a drive in the jagged Organ Mountains.

 

            He’d taken to making sure he was elsewhere Saturday afternoons as well. He felt it just wasn’t right to listen as Saturday was sex day—well, sex-in-the-living-room day, anyway. They were young and full of energy. The first time he heard them, months ago, he let himself listen. It didn’t take long for the churning in his stomach to bring bile to his throat. After only a few minutes, he felt sick, but he fought it and sat there anyway, on the floor, his warm ear to the cool wall. Heart sinking into his gut, he didn’t care; he felt close to them. He was only inches from them. He imagined his hand pushing through a liquid wall, just reaching out, touching them, feeling their warmth. Tom’s vision went blurry; a dizzying guilt took over, and he ran to the toilet. The water splashed back at him as the vomit hit. He felt he deserved that. He never did it again.

 

            A cheesy version of a Mozart overture broke his trance. Tom pulled himself away from the wall and saw the area code: 419—Toledo.

 

            “Hello?”

 

            “Hi, Tom?”

 

            “Yeah, who’s this?”

 

            “Mr. Fullerton, your outstanding bill with the Summertime Pool Company will force us to report you to all three credit agencies. Do you understand the ramifications of your failure to pay us?”

 

            Tom froze.

 

            “Hello, sir, are you there? Don’t hang up, that will just make matters worse. You are in default of the final three payments on the Hampton Cove Deluxe above-ground pool with natural swirling filtration system that you purchased on March nineteenth, two thousand and thirteen.”

 

            “What?” Tom hesitated. He knew most people would hang up in this situation, but he liked her voice. It was rich with a streak of Southern sweetness. She was the only person who’d called him in three weeks. He didn’t even know why he had a cell anymore. He didn’t want to hang up.

 

            “I’m glad you called. I was going to call you guys. Listen, I just need a little more time is all. There’s really no need to report me. I’ll pay you in full next month, okay?”

 

            “Mr. Fullerton, next month is too late. Our records show you’ve defaulted on three prior payments. If we don’t receive the amount you owe us today, we’ll be calling to report you.”

 

            “Now hold on a minute, I didn’t default on any payments, something happened. They told me they’d call you.”

 

            “Sir, I don’t know who they are, but no one has spoken to anyone here about your bill. Why don’t we get this cleared up, get it off your mind. What credit card would you like to use today?”

 

            “It’s not on my mind. What’s your name?”

 

            “My name is Miss Jensen. I’m with the Wilson-Wright Collection Agency in Toledo, Ohio.”

 

            “I lived in Rossford before I moved out here to New Mexico. Do you know Rossford?”

 

            “Yes, I do. Mr. Fullerton, our firm represents the Summertime Pool Company. They need payment. What credit card would you like to use today, sir?”

 

            “Look, uh…my kids and, and my wife, they’re gone, three weeks after I bought that damn pool.”

 

            “I’m sorry to hear that, but as of right now you are in arrears one thousand, five hundred ninety dollars and four cents. How would you like to pay this balance today?”

 

            “Look, you don’t understand, ma’am.”

 

            “Mr. Fullerton, did you and your family use the swimming pool?”

 

            “Yeah, yeah, of course, of course we did. Toby learned to swim. My son, eight years old, was afraid of water…learned to swim last summer. He even dove in. He was so brave.”

 

            “Mr. Fullerton, I’m happy to hear that Toby learned to swim. The Summertime Pool Company made that happen for Toby. But you have to think about setting the right example for your son. Pay this bill or your credit score will drop severely due to this one financing default.”

 

            “I don’t give a damn about my credit score…Miss Jensen, they’re gone. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

 

            “I have kids too, Mr. Fullerton. We can’t afford a pool. I sure wish we could, but I’m working this job for money that I could have spent on a pool to buy my sons’ school lunch cards and sports shoes. Do you know how expensive cross-training shoes are for three teenage boys?”

 

            “I was only supposed to be in Cincinnati for two days. I left that damn thing on. I did it.”

 

            “I…I’m sorry your…sir, I’m so sorry. I’m really sorry you’re having a hard time.” Her tone softened. “But you do still owe for the pool, Mr. Fullerton.”

 

            “You know…that pool was the only thing that made it. Everything else—black and demolished. But that damn pool, bright as could be, full of water, just sat in the middle of the grass.”

 

            “Sir?”

 

            “They actually suspected me of doing it. I would never, I could never have done that.”

 

            “Mr. Fullerton, please, let’s get this cleared up. If this goes to the credit agencies, it will be on your credit score for no less than seven years. You don’t need that.”

 

            “Seven years?” Tom felt it. He knew it was coming. His chest sunk further into the big gray chair. He could hear The National playing next door, the next song on the CD, the bass line, the drums.

 

            The scent had finally made its way to him. Travis and Beth were cooking chicken.

 

            “Mr. Fullerton?”

 

            He couldn’t speak. His focus slipped into the scenes he’d made up, images he’d become familiar with but were not real. They flashed through his head. He tried so hard to push them out. Trying to convince himself that his mind had made them up so his mind could erase them. But the infection ran too deep. The flames flashing fast into the wooden floor from the basement below. The curtains swirling from the energy of the heat. The dog and cat clawing at the back door to escape. Found huddled together in a corner of the kitchen. They’d never liked each other.

 

            He asked himself why people do what they normally don’t do, why things happen when they normally don’t. Tom normally never left the space heater on. Hell, he normally didn’t use it. There was a deep cold snap that was not normal, only supposed to last two days. Nothing was normal anymore. Fire chief said they normally don’t do it, when Tom asked for a copy of the report.

 

            Section 1a:      10JUN13

            Section 1b:      23:49

            Section 2:        11506 S. Ironwood Dr., Rossford, OH 43460

            Section 5:        Combustibles too close to portable space heater in basement.

            Section 6a:      Deceased – 3 – asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation.

 

            The coroner pulled him aside and said, "They felt no pain."

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