By Nick Gardner
Ryan was drifting off in the shade when his neighbor bashed open the screen door, slung a writhing pillowcase into the front yard, and squeezed off three shots at the hissing and scrambling ghost. The cat dodged out in a zigzag, flicked like a skipped stone under a parked car where it proceeded to lick. The neighbor dropped the gun to his side. He grinned. He said, “There we go. Cat’s out of the bag.” He laughed at his own joke. “Name’s Drew.” Ryan’s ears rang, his mouth hung open.
“Ryan,” said Ryan.
There was a silence as they looked at each other, then Ryan said, “You better put that thing away. Cops are probably coming.”
Neighbors congregated on their porches. Shadows materializing to gawk. Drew shouted, “Nothing to see here. Everyone can go back inside.
He turned back to Ryan, winked. The screen door banged behind him.
Three months earlier, Ryan had been elated when Devin asked him to move to the city with her after she enrolled in Columbus College of Art and Design. She said she didn’t like the idea of dorms, shacked up with someone else’s mess, but Ryan’s was a mess she knew from high school hangouts in his basement where they’d create playlists, burn CDs. And Ryan could easily find another job. The Midwest was peppered with factories. He had worked at Richland Sensor for the last year and saved a decent chunk of money, a nice cushion to prop himself on while he waited for the right job. The house in Columbus was beautiful, though a bit rundown. It was also cheap. Victorian Village was absent of parents, of anyone they knew. They could be whoever they wanted there.
Ryan imagined riding bikes with Devin in Columbus, through the neighborhoods, passing their aloof shuttle and weft against the fabric of traffic. It was only a couple miles from their new house to the Short North where they could stop by a gallery or coffee shop. And when they got home, they would sit on the porch like so many other Columbus kids and drink beer from the convenience store down the road that Devin said didn’t card. They would smoke cigarettes or joints if they pleased.
So it was the beginning of Summer when Ryan and Devin took the U-haul from the Western Ohio farmland of their parents to the rental in Victorian Village. The house had slumped gutters and wood floors with worn out pathways down the center of the hall and cracks you could see through. In the kitchen, the linoleum peeled up to reveal layers glued onto each other as previous owners covered over one ugly style with another. The drawer handles pulled out and twisted loose in their sockets. The bathroom door didn’t latch properly and had the habit of being pulled open by a draft catching the user in embarrassing positions. They were happy with the house though. It was the first home of their adult lives, and it was close to Devin’s school.
“What is that?” Devin had said as Ryan rolled the 1976 baby blue Schwinn down the ramp of the moving truck.
“Your new bike. I bought it cheap and fixed it up. It’s how people get around.”
Devin had a smile that was only a tweak in the side of her mouth, then she hugged Ryan who turned bright red and grinned at the wall.
That summer they rode every street of the neighborhood. These were tall houses with steep roofs, balconies on the second floor, turrets and stained glass. They were trimmed exquisitely, carved wood that was now cracked and peeling paint from the sunshine. They were faded, elegant houses made cheap by their disrepair and Ryan and Devin loved them.
When school started and Devin was too busy to ride with him, Ryan biked alone. He could do 30 miles, pass an afternoon cutting down alleys instead of filling out applications. He’d blow through stop signs and ignore interviews.
When Ryan made it back to the house, he took the chain off the bike, walked to the kitchen, filled a bowl with degreaser, and dropped the chain in. Devin smoked a joint and hovered around her sculpture. She liked to alter her perception while she worked. Her long hair hung in her eyes as she bent over the piece, backed up, closed in on another view. Her medium was barbed wire and rebar scalped in rusted clumps from abandoned buildings and construction zones. She worked in the living room on a tarp, clipping, bending, twisting, sprinkling a light flurry of rust flakes. Music was always turned way up, Dead Milkmen, Buzzcocks, The Cramps. She liked punk while she worked. The sculpture was much too big by now to move through the door.
After his rides Ryan would lean into the fridge, feel the cold air and the empty space of it, then emerge with a beer in his fist and announce his mileage as he read it off his tracker. He would say, “Thirty four miles today.” And Devin would say, “Damn! Well done,” without looking up. Then Ryan would move through the house on his wobbling legs and floating body to sit on the porch and drink without anyone to tell him to do otherwise.
A week after the incident with the cat, Ryan got home from a late afternoon ride and saw a large package on his porch. He hauled his bike up the steps, set it against the wall of the house and opened the box. When he broke through the carbon lining, the smell of dank weed hit him full in the face and he jerked away. Inside the box was at least a pound of high quality marijuana.
When Ryan looked up, he saw his neighbor watching. Drew stood attention-stiff with that same grin. Ryan waved and bobbed his head hello, but didn’t meet Drew’s eyes. Then Ryan had a thought, looked back at the box’s label and turned red. It was addressed to Drew Goddard, number 346 and Ryan’s address was 344. He shouldn’t have opened it. Ryan gestured to the box, said, “Sorry dude. They delivered your stuff to the wrong place. I didn’t realize…”
Drew grinned but didn’t move, “I see that.”
“Here,” Ryan picked up the box and carried it over the lawn and up to Drew’s porch. His hands shook, heart punched.
Drew asked, “You see what’s inside?”
“I mean, I don’t really give a shit. What’s your business is your business.”
“Hold up.” Drew picked up the box. “You wanna smoke?”
“Come on. It’s good shit and I have a new vaporizer.”
Drew’s house was spotless and the first thing Ryan noticed was a De Kooning on the entryway wall that didn’t appear to be a print but must be. He followed Drew straight into the kitchen where he set the box down on an expensive-looking table scrubbed into an oaky mirror.
Drew said, “Pick out a bottle to sip while we smoke. He gestured to a wine rack filled with dusty labels. “And call your girlfriend if she wants to join.”
Ryan said, “She’s not my girlfriend.” Which sounded defensive. He said, “We’ve just been friends forever so it’s like, you know.”
Drew said that was a shame and winked and walked into the other room. “Still, call her if you want. Plenty to go around.”
Ryan picked through the bottles, finally settling on a 1991 because that was the year of his birth.
Drew emerged from the bedroom. He hadn’t stopped grinning since the porch and Ryan began to feel like this was all going to turn into a giant practical joke. But Ryan also didn’t feel like he could decline Drew’s offers, like saying ‘no’ would change Drew into the angry man who shot cats in the front yard. It was just weed and some wine, and Ryan didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
“I see you picked the Bordeaux,” Drew said, “A hundred fifty dollars. Brought it back from my tour in France. Bourgogne.” And he continued to announce other expensive items saying things like, this glass is a Steuben. Ryan asked about the De Kooning, and, yes it was original, bought on a whim from a collector when Drew was stationed in Baghdad.
The wine was tannic, a perfect melding of tastes that moved over each other so as to become indistinguishable. The weed was dank, rainforest deep, and Ryan’s head floated with these pricey objects. When Ryan asked which branch of the military Drew was in, Drew said, “Private. Security contractor, but I’m thinking about retirement.” He smiled and winked.
Ryan went to a party that night at the house of one of Devin’s art school friends. There was a DJ sliding beats around on his MacBook and as the night went on the number of dancers increased and their inhibitions decreased.
Ryan and Devin hung out in the basement where a kid named Antoine screened Brakhage films while spinning Coltrane on the record player. The room was filled with smoke and Ryan was on his third beer when he realized Devin was no longer with him. He was on the couch telling either Jack or Jake – he hadn’t quite caught his name – about starting a bike repair business out of the local makerspace, and then he looked around and Devin was gone. He checked his phone and there was no message. It was only a mile home, but he had hoped they’d walk that together.
He knew it was no big deal though. He shouldn’t make it a big deal. He had only hoped. He said to Jake or Jack, “Anyways, I have most of the tools and I know how to do it. I should just do it. Yeah. I’m going to do it.”
Jack or Jake nodded, passed the blunt, and said he’d be right back.
Ryan coughed on his next inhale and it hit him all at once. The film and music blended perfectly but no one else was watching. His legs were light but sturdy as he made his way upstairs. The bass vibrated the floor and lights roved the room in primary colors.
Ryan saw her then, sitting at the coffee table sniffing powder off a hand mirror and leaning back to make out with the tall thin boy beside her. He had never seen Devin do anything but weed and he felt an urge to yell at her, to tell her to stop, but it wasn’t his job to control her. The music was not Ryan’s thing. The party was too wild, and he would be walking home alone.
The cat was filled with incredible forgiveness and was back within ten days. Drew stopped sweeping the orange and yellow leaves from his porch, to crouch and pet the animal while its body lunged and convulsed with each swallow of canned tuna. Ryan watched from his porch, trying to understand this bond that could snap and fire bullets at you in an instant.
Drew seemed to sense Ryan’s wonder and said, “I think she’s learned her lesson. Don’t you?”
Later that night, Ryan and Devin walked to the corner store, Lou’s, to buy some beer and smokes. Ryan kicked a shard of sidewalk along in front of him for a time and didn’t say much. It was the first time they had hung out since the party. Just too busy with school and things.
When they got to the counter, Drew was in front of them ordering the cashier to retrieve pricey bottles from the glass case behind the register. Drew was sweaty despite the cool night and there was a deep channel of wet that went down his spine to the bottom of his untucked shirt. His hair stuck up at all angles. He was still attractive, a well-carved jawline, television smile, twinkling eyes that were life itself and wild.
Drew took them in with his grin, said, “Back in Iraq they had me in this cushy office job for a while. Paid me one hundred grand to sit behind a desk and drink and smoke cigars. Got a taste for the good stuff and now I’m hooked.” He gestured to the counter, “But it’s hard as fuck to get quality whiskey in this shithole.”
Ryan said, “Hey, this is Devin, my roommate.”
Drew offered his largest smile yet and a hand to shake. “So this is the beautiful, mysterious roommate that you’re not dating?” Then he turned back to the counter to settle up.
Devin shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her cutoff jeans and blushed, blinked. She couldn’t meet Ryan’s eyes. But when Ryan nudged her, she did look at him and blushed more deeply.
They walked back together. While Ryan floated off in his head, Devin jabbered away with Drew, asked him questions about what he had seen overseas, what his family was like, and when he asked his own questions back, when he flirted, she stumbled over her reponses. Ryan had never seen this nervous side. She let Drew lead and she followed every step.
Back at Drew’s place, Ryan sat on the couch and sipped scotch worth half his monthly rent and Devin reclined on a La-Z-Boy, tipped her drink back a little too fast. Drew paced in front of them and told stories of Iraq, how he holed up on a rooftop for days before he took his shot. Hours of waiting to release his breath, squeeze the trigger, watch the body drop. Then he went on, as if continuing the same train of thought and described the expensive drinks with important people, exotic places. Devin hung on every word as Ryan slipped into a boozy darkness.
Drew didn’t mention why he was now in Columbus, only that his dad used to rent out the house out but had given it to Drew to use while he tried to settle down. Drew didn’t mind where he ended up. He had money. He could make friends. “With enough booze and weed,” said Drew, “You can sleep easy anywhere.”
But Drew did not sleep easy. At some point Ryan must have blacked out. He woke up on the couch to Drew telling him to get the fuck out. Drew screamed, “You think this is some kind of fucking hostel?” A boot flew through the air and bounced off the cushion next to Ryan’s head.
Ryan jumped up and fled. Another shoe struck the door as he pulled it open. There was no sign of Devin, Ryan realized as soon as the door slammed behind him and another shoe hit it.
A week later Ryan was back on the porch with a beer. It felt like a very Columbus thing to do, he thought. Devin had been hanging out at Drew’s most nights, brought over pizza, maybe a six pack, while Ryan sat on the porch with his forty and watched the Fall breeze by. He didn’t know if he could believe anything that Drew told them. The only evidence was a rage that spiked and then disappeared with no warning whatsoever. Devin insisted that she could help Drew, but Ryan wanted no part in it.
That spring, Ryan got the phone call he’d feared. Just that month, two houses in the village had been bought and were being refurbished. For what seemed like the first time in a century, a street sweeper made its rounds and just last week the city tore up the sidewalk to begin repairs. He didn’t know exactly what would happen next, but he felt it was something else beyond his control, something else changing, pushing him away.
Ryan stopped his bike beside the road and opened his flip phone. The landlord began right away, “You know the year’s almost up and it was just a year lease,” he said, “Property values are increasing, property taxes are rising. I could easily get double what I charge you.” He said he would hate to lose Ryan and Devin as renters, but he had ends to meet. He was really giving them quite a good deal.
Ryan choked on a fistsized ball of disgust. He figured it would come but he had also hoped. He said. “You stingy fucking bastard! Do you have any idea what you’re doing to people? You don’t give a shit about anyone, just your goddamn money!”
The phone had already clicked off. The click said that the landlord knew exactly what he was doing. It acknowledged and accepted that the landlord didn’t care. Ryan would have to tell Devin, but first, he wanted to get drunk.
So, later, after he downed a forty and a half alone, and after he’d texted her with no response, he went next door. This is how he found Devin: sitting on Drew’s couch reading the labels of fourteen prescription bottles that sat on the coffee table and putting the drug names into her computer to research. Ryan sat down beside her. He noticed the bruises on her arm, but didn’t mention it. He asked her what’s up?
She said, “Drew’s gone.”
“Nebraska. Or some shit. He took me with him to buy a van. He buys a POS minivan with cash and hauls off to BFE to pick up a bunch of weed. He’ll probably come down from whatever he’s on, hate himself and flush most of it.” She took a swig of wine from a Steuben glass and set it down in its ring on the table. “But today, he just assumes I’m going with him. He demanded it. Fuck that. He refused to take his scripts.”
She spilled several pills into her hand. They bounced on her callused skin and rolled but she contained them. She plucked one between index finger and thumb and held it up to Ryan: “Klonopin. Want one?”
“I’m not taking his pills.”
“It’s fine. I’ve been taking them all afternoon. It’s not like he’s using them.”
“He’d flip his shit if he found out.”
“He doesn’t care. When he gets like this he starts giving everything away anyway.”
“I think.” Ryan paused, wondering if this was the right time. “Dev, don’t get mad at me, OK. But I think we need to get him help. Is he hurting you?”
Devin said, “Hurting?” Like she was mulling it over. She placed a pill in her mouth, chewed, scrunched up her face and chased it with a shot of wine. Then, she pushed the Rx bottles away from herself. She said, “I see why he doesn’t take this stuff. It doesn’t do shit for me. Just makes me feel weird.”
“For you? What all have you taken?”
“All of it. Lexapro, Lithium, Lamictal, Xanax…” She continued picking up orange bottles, reciting names. She said, “They only make me feel fuzzy, make everything meaningless. I’m a little bit sick.”
“You took all of those?”
“Only as prescribed,” she held up a self righteous finger then bowed over and puked on the floor. When she was done, she looked back up with watery, innocent eyes.
Ryan jumped up. “You took all of those? Shit!”
Devin nodded, knelt next to the puddle on the floor. Ryan could see pills dissolving in the waste in front of her. Devin said, “Look at this!” She spread her arms gesturing at an overwhelming everything. “There’s nothing I can do.”
That night Ryan could hear Devin tossing and turning in her room down the hall. She had absolutely refused to go to the hospital. Most of the pills had been puked up anyhow. The next day she stayed in her room and when Ryan knocked she said she wanted to be alone. He was glad she was talking, but he couldn’t tell her that the landlord wanted $250 more per month.
Ryan took off on his bike and headed toward campus. He cut through the university and took the roads on the other side at speed. Heavy air, thick with mown grass. If he had been his father he would work sixty to eighty hours per week, save money, and plan for marriage and then retirement. But Ryan wasn’t Ryan’s father. He was too sad, too anxious. He also wasn’t lazy, but he’d seen his father after 30 years running General Motors presses and that life didn’t seem like life at all. Maybe all Ryan wanted was the freedom to choose, to take control and not be killed by it.
After a time Ryan found himself on a road with fields on either side. The country. The breeze blew warmth into him, a chipmunk scurried across the road, then stopped, terrified, and sprinted inches in front of him either showing off or attempting suicide, Ryan couldn’t tell.
he turned around and headed back to the house. It wasn’t his home with Devin like he imagined. More a derelict interstitial space he’d been stuck in too long. He lived there. He survived till he didn’t. When he arrived he sat on the porch and drank beer, just like it was Columbus and just like he belonged there and everything wasn’t over. He drank like he had an idea of what he was even doing. Devin came out and joined him. They sat in silence. Then Devin said, “We got a notice in the mail that rent’s about to skyrocket. Stingy fuckers.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “Drew said I could move in with him if I wanted.”
Ryan didn’t say anything. Just swigged his beer.
Devin said, “Anyways, Drew called from Nebraska to apologize. I don’t want to leave you out on your own, but I have school and stuff.”
Ryan said, “I may just move back home. Get my old job back.”
“I’m so sorry, though. I keep trying to make everything work and it just falls apart. I’m sorry I dragged you along.”
“No. I get it. It’s fine.”
“But I also don’t want you to be mad.”
Ryan had to live with his parents and save up for three months before he could afford his new place, a two bedroom farmhouse with attached garage where he set up his bike stand and began repairs. His old road bike didn’t cut it on the gravel and dirt of his hometown so he bought a hybrid with wider tires. There were no bike lanes anywhere, no sidewalks and people liked to speed around in their trucks creating a level of danger that excited him, kept him alert. Ryan coolly pedaled on.
The move was worth it for the world around him. He liked the cows who wanted nothing more than to chew grass, backs turned to the road, farting at traffic. He liked the fields, the trees. He had even developed a nostalgic passion for the smell of skunk as long as it was faint and passed by quickly.
He hadn’t seen Devin in a year, a few months since they had even talked on the phone, but her parents had let him know that she moved back home to recover. A bullet had grazed her cheek. She said the gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded, but then she stopped answering questions altogether about Drew, about whose hand held the trigger, any of it. Ryan read that Drew had been arrested, charged with quite a few misdemeanors, and released on bond.
On the phone, Devin admitted there was nothing she could do to help him.
When Ryan looked up his old house on Craigslist it had been completely remodeled and the rent had more than doubled.
Ryan went out to the garage. He had three bicycles on stands in varying stages of repair and two more in the queue. From the ceiling hung more than a hundred wheels both old and new. It wasn’t perfect. He still struggled, but he woke up and went to his workshop every morning, clicked on The Clash and sanded and painted as long as he wanted to, which could be quite long if he was in the mood. He pulled down an old Schwinn outfitted with fat tires and he took off down the road, picturing Devin’s face back when it used to smile, memories of cigarettes and a laugh they shared over inane conversations in embarrassingly goofy voices.
He turned onto Washington South Road and heard the Super Duty truck with its loud muffler pummeling behind him. It revved by him then, a shout from the window gone indistinct in its cloud of smoke and sound. And Ryan hit the ditch, sprawled out on his hands and knees at the edge of the cornfield. He lay there in the sun, inventoried damages. He rolled over and sat up, stretched his legs, his arms, knees a bit tender, hands stung. He held up both middle fingers at the lingering cloud of exhaust from the truck’s stacks, but the truck was long gone. He stood up, shook himself out. Lucky. Some people get to walk away without a scratch.
About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is an MFA fiction candidate at Bowling Green State University where he is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.