by Kathleen Crane
“It’s a fine line between heaven and hell, it’s a fine line,” clink, clink– the coins were piling up in Sam’s Detroit Tigers baseball hat. “Oh yeah, it’s a fine line,” clink, clink, clink. He stopped singing, put down his guitar and lifted the hat. There were a few bills! He should have enough, he thought.
He carried the hat and guitar into the Rite-Aid he’d performed in front of the past hour and walked haltingly to the liquor counter. “Anything I can help you with?” asked the clerk.
“How about a fifth of Stoli’s?”
He fished the bills out of the hat. The clerk looked at him distastefully.
“That’s five dollars,” he said. “There you go, my day’s wages,” laughed Sam.
He grabbed the paper bag and limped out of Rite Aid, pausing to unscrew the cap and take a long drink. Maybe now the pain would ease.
The pain in his right leg was excruciating. He had a metal rod in his thigh, nailed to his hipbone, and screws holding together his right foot. His leg was perpetually swollen. But it’s my own damn fault, thought Sam. If he had paid up, he might not have been pushed off that parking garage roof and ended up with a shattered femur and in a coma for a month.
He sighed and took another drink. The warmth of the alcohol spread through his body and mixed pleasantly with the morphine. He ran his hand through his short copper hair and squinted his brilliant blue eyes. It was time to go home. Time to rest. He limped down the street towards home, swigging out of the bottle. It took him a long time, but finally he was home. He carefully hid the bottle in the shrubbery.
He opened the side door and slowly mounted the stairs.
“Sam, is that you?” called his mother from the couch.
“Yes, Mom, who else would it be?”
“Sammy, where have you been? I hate when you wander off.”
“I’m not a dog, Mom. I go crazy sitting in here, day after day.”
“I know, honey. Sammy, can you get me a glass of water? I have to take my pill.’
His mother had leukemia. She was taking chemotherapy in a pill–at least that was how Sam understood it. She never left the couch.
“Sure, Mom. Hang on a second.”
He filled a glass with water and limped to the couch.
“Here you go. How are you, Mom?”
“I’m feeling weak, Sammy. I–I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
“You are going to make it, Mom! You’re strong! Be positive!”
“Sam, you smell like alcohol. Have you been drinking?”
“No! You always think that after I’ve used that new mouthwash. Not a drop. You know I’ve stopped.”
“I hope so, Sam. After what happened the last time– I just don’t think I could take it again.”
“I told you I’ve stopped! Would you stop now too?”
“Don’t, Sam. I’m not feeling well. Can you hand me the channel changer? I think Law and Order is on.”
“I’m going to lose my mind if I have to see another episode of Law and Order! All we watch are shows about murder and violence! It’s depressing!”
He handed her the channel changer anyway. He got up slowly.
“I’m going to try and take a rest,” he said over the din of the television set.
“Okay, honey,” said his Mom weakly.
He walked to his room and shut the door. He collapsed on the bed, and tried to arrange his body comfortably. But a hot, searing pain shot up his leg.
“God! Help me!” he murmured.
He closed his eyes and waited for sleep to overtake him.
But instead he saw Melody’s face. Her pale, oval face.
“Sam– why’d you let me do it? Why?”
“I didn’t want you to– I should have stopped you,” he whispered.
“But you’re still here– and I’m not– you didn’t really love me, Sam, or you would have stopped me, ” she said.
“Melody! I loved you, girl! You know I did! I’m so sorry!”
“Sam, it’s your fault– it’s your fault– it’s your fault.”
“No!” he said. “No! No! No!” Tears streamed down his face.
Exhausted, he screwed his eyes shut and attempted to sleep.
But sleep wouldn’t come. And it hadn’t come for days. He sat up, rubbing his bad leg. The pain never let up. Not for a second.
“Lord? Are you there? I don’t want to drink, Lord. But could you take some of this pain away? I can’t bear it, Lord. Please?”
“Trying to hang on but there aren’t any hand rails . . . trying to hang on . . . trying to hang on–to nothin’, at all. . .”
The unwritten song filled Sam’s head. He limped to the dresser, grabbed a sheet of paper and a pencil, and began to write in his illegible scrawl. He could hear the music in his head. It wanted to get out, to be heard.
He opened his door, and went out to the living room where he kept his guitars. He picked up his acoustic guitar and strummed a few chords then began to play, with the din of Law and Order in the background.
“I’m trying to hold on but there aren’t any hand rails/ trying to hold on/ trying to hold on/ trying to hold on/ to nothin’,at all. . .”
The tune came to him and flowed through his long fingers.
“To nothin, at all.” A sob caught in Sam’s throat. The pain shot up his leg like a hot knife. He put the guitar down, and walked to the front door.
“Mom? I’m goin’ outside to have a cigarette!” he shouted over the blaring TV.
He stumbled down the front stairs and looked around. No one. He walked casually to the bushes and reached behind for the bottle. He looked around again, and then took a long drink. Warmth stole over him. He took one more drink, and replaced the bottle in the bushes.
He sat down on the front porch steps, with his bad leg out straight in front of him. He fished in his T-shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He lit one, and thought of Melody.
She was an angel, and she had loved him, Sam. They had lived on the beach together in Miami, with him busking for money, and Melody dancing to the music on the white sand, long golden hair swinging in time. God, he had loved her! She was his girl. Always would be.
“I’m sorry, Melody,” he whispered.
Sam looked up at the setting sun. Streaks of orange and pink laced through the billowing white clouds.
“Fucking beautiful,” he said aloud.
“I have a roof over my head. I have food to eat. I shouldn’t even be here! I’m damned lucky!” he thought.
When he had finally come out of it, the doctors told him he had been in a coma for a month. No one who fell off a four story parking garage should be alive, but here he was.
“There must be a reason, right, Lord?” Sam said.
“Sam! Sammy! What are you doing?” cried his Mom from inside the house.
“Mom! I’m just having a cigarette! I’ll be there in a minute!” Sam said.
The pain wasn’t as bad now. That last drink seemed to have done it. Sam got up, replaced the bottle behind the shrubs, and unsteadily walked into the house.
“Hey Mom! How about turning off fucking Law and Order for awhile and listening to me play?”
“Sam! Watch your language!”
“I got a new song I want you to hear. I need your opinion.”
“I’m tired Sammy. Just one, okay?”
Sam picked up his guitar and began tuning it. He strummed the opening chords, and sang.
“Doing smack with my baby down in Florida/
Nothin better to do here anyways/
She looks so white and peaceful
Why’d you have to take her so far away?
Trying to hold on but there aren’t any hand rails/
Trying to hold on/
Trying to hold on/
Trying to hold on/ to nothing/ at all.”
“Sammy! I don’t like this one! It’s too sad! Can you play something happy?”
Sam sighed. “What do you want to hear, Mom?”
“Why don’t you play my favorite?”
“Sure Mom. You never want to hear anything I’ve written.”
“It’s all so depressing. Please!”
“Hey, when did we find?
Days of sunshine?
Seagulls at the beach,
lyrics in the sky.
Escaping the rain,
seeking a new day,
you by my side,
hugging me close.
Those were the times.”
“That’s nice Sam!” his Mom called.
“Couldn’t get enough/
Where did I find you?
When did we discover?
Days of sunshine.
Those were the times.”
“That was nice, Sammy. Thank you.”
Sam limped into the kitchen.
There was a knock at the front door.
Sam went to the door, and opened it.
A thin man with short grey hair and glasses reached out for Sam’s hand.
“Hello! How are you today? Beautiful day out here. Nice property you have, sir, all nice and trim, nice shrubs, lawn–“
Shrubs? Was this guy a cop? Had he found the bottle?
“My name is Allen Ross, I’m doing some Christian Outreach in your area.”
He held up a pamphlet with the words, ‘IS GOD DEAD?’ in front of Sam.
“You know, eventually all the good people will be left on earth, and all the bad will be removed.” His voice shook nervously. “It’s right here in Proverbs.”
He held up the pamphlet again.
“Do you ah, have time to discuss this?” His eyes were pleading behind the thick lens.
“Sure, brother, come on in,” said Sam.
He opened the door. “Just move aside the guitars and have a seat on the couch,” said Sam.
“Sammy, who is that?” called his mother.
“Just a Jehovah’s Witness, Mom!” said Sam
“Well, don’t let him in!”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said Sam. “I thought you were a cop!”
“No, no, just a man of faith– ” said Allen.
“So, you were saying all of the good people will be left on earth, and all the bad removed? The final judgement?”
“Well, the first judgment was in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were perfect until they sinned against God, and then God had to punish them and their offspring forever.”
“Huh. I don’t mean to argue with you, but if God made Adam and Eve perfect, how could they have sinned?”
“Well– I would have to do some reading– I’m sure the answer to that is in the literature– can we set a time to meet next week?”
“Sure, sure. I just don’t understand. What’s that saying? ‘God don’t make no junk.’ You know?” Sam scratched his head.
“Is a person bad if they question things? Do you think I’m one of the bad ones, Allen?”
Allen backed up towards the door.
“Hey, Allen, you want to hear a song? I got this new one you might like,” said Sam.
“No, no, I have to be on my way,” said Allen, opening the door.
“But we haven’t set a time for our next meeting,” said Sam.
“Have a nice day!” said Allen, backing down the steps.
“Okay, brother, you too!” called Sam.
“Sammy, please don’t let those people in the house again,” said his mother.
“Oh Mom, he didn’t mean any harm,” said Sam. “What was I about to do when he knocked? It’s gone clean out of my head. It’s this damn brain injury, Mom. What did the doctor say? This ah– subdural hematoma.”
“I think you’ve been drinking,” she said.
“GOD DAMMIT! I HAVE NOT BEEN FUCKING DRINKING!” With a swipe of his long arm, he knocked the empty bottles off the counter.
“You want to see me drink? Alright, then I’ll drink! Hang on–” He lurched through the living room, sending the guitars sprawling, and out the front door.
He came crashing back in. “Now this is drinking! See this vodka?” He guzzled it down. “And now you don’t! Ask me now, if I’ve been drinking! Go on!”
His blue eyes gleamed crazily. “ASK ME!”
Panic stricken, she fumbled for the phone, and finally, dialed 911.
Sam’s face crumbled. “Mom! Mom! What have I done? Mom, please put the phone down!”
“Sorry, wrong number,” she said breathlessly into the phone.
Sam stumbled to the side of the couch, and grabbed her hand.
“Mom–forgive me? Yes, I’ve been drinking. Mom, the pain in my leg is unbearable– it’s like a razor slicing deep every minute of the day– Mom, I’m 36 and have no job, no car, no hope, nothing, it makes me drink even though I don’t want to– Mom, Mom, can you forgive me? Mom, tell me you still love me? Mom, I couldn’t bear it if–“
“Sam! I love you sweetheart. It’s me and you against the world, Sammy. I know things are rough for you. We have to believe that God has something better planned for us, Sam. But please, don’t drink Sam. You– you change into a Sam I don’t know.”
“Mom! Mom! God, I love you,” he sobbed, kneeling down at the side of the couch. “I promise to be good.” He pressed his head against her side as she stroked his hair. “I promise.”
He sat there for awhile, watching a Law and Order he’d seen many times before. He turned to look at her. Her blonde hair spread across the pillow. She was asleep. He got up slowly, pulled the cover up to her chin, and went into the kitchen. White-hot pain shot up his leg, making him weak. He sat down at the kitchen table and took out his writing tablet. “Just Fucking Quit,” he wrote at the top. He stared at this awhile then picked up his Bible. He found his favorite passage. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
He then picked up his morphine prescription off of the table and shook out the rest of the pills. He paused a moment, then tossed them back into his mouth and swallowed them without water.
He sat in the chair and waited.
I’m coming home, Melody. I’m coming, girl, he thought.
Kathleen Crane is a co-editor at New Pop Lit. Her book of short stories, Aloha From Detroit, is available in e-book form at Amazon’s Kindle Store here. Her previous story for NPL was the shelter-pet tale, “Donnie Darko.”