The Last Drag


Jennifer Beishline

          Steve Hornberger stands motionless at his living room’s big bay window. The acrid smell of burnt coffee and bourbon drifts up into his nostrils. Sleep-deprived, he stares at what looks like a large papier mache turd dangling from the giant oak tree that looms over the lawn and threatens to break up the driveway with its ancient roots. He had only seen hornet nests at flea markets, their dry empty husks stacked amid stalls of junk. He would never have bet there’d be a living one, in all its fury, in his own front yard. And yet here he is staring at it, intermittently suppressing small belches while his wife begins moving into the guest room until she can figure out what to do next.
          To distract himself from all the noise Sarah is making—dragging a wheelie suitcase down the stairs one bump at a time, trailing the end of a lamp cord across the living room’s hardwood floors—he has decided to get slowly and deliberately drunk. Something “so typical” he feels entitled to relish it. Especially since she has been badgering him for what seems like an eternity to get rid of the nest, back when the hornets were a few vague, shapeless dots that caught the fading daylight in their wings.
          Now they are a nuisance he avoids by backing down the driveway with his head turned ever so slightly to the left. Something that proves hard to do without rudely slamming the passenger-side tires off the edge of the cement drive and into the hard-dirt edge of the yard. It makes him feel like a weirdo to the neighbors and a bit of a stranger to himself, especially now that the riotous growth of uncut grass exposes the consequences of his dawdling.
          When he asked Sarah earlier in the week how did it come to this, she told him flatly that she is just so bored. It snuck up on her and, he has to admit, it snuck up on him too. His days at work are filled with the worst kind of tedium, and the night finds him suffering the loneliness of wistful daydreams. What if they converted the garage to a gym? Bought a Winnebago? Started a cricket farm? Took a road trip, a vacation, a trip to the moon! She flicks these visions away with the pages of her magazine until he sags into the crook of the sofa arm.  
          Lately, he prefers to divert himself from all this latent possibility by becoming suffused in the blue-green glow of late night television in the dark. Buried deep in the sub-channels picked up by their digital antenna is an hour of amateur mixed martial arts. He chuckles in a self-congratulating way at the show’s low production qualities and the commercials targeted at the insecure or the elderly—people will buy diet pills, term-life insurance from Alex Trebek, and a type of super durable pantyhose to be stretched over the lower torso. But he marvels over the existence of rank amateurs who leave their day jobs to meet in what looks like a warehouse or strip mall gym and pummel each other until one of them begs for mercy, passes out, or bleeds all over the mat. When someone lands a solid blow, it gives him a mean satisfaction he likes to revel in before he turns the lights back on. Sarah becomes agitated when he comes to bed late and wakes her by putting his cold feet underneath the covers.
          Once she is safely upstairs again, Steve wanders into the kitchen for another drink. His head is already swimming and he nods a little as he tips a healthy splash into his mug. On an impulse, he pinches the skin at his side and tries to see how far he can fold it over the waist of his jeans. Yes, it’s true, he has let himself go a little and for a brief moment feels desperate to get back on top of things. To put a little muscle back on his tall, sagging frame. Even so, he bets he could still bench-press a hundred pounds or more. He’s not that far gone. Sarah exaggerates, and now he can think about sleeping alone. There will be no one to disturb the sweet part of his sleep by turning on the hairdryer in the bathroom.
          He strides purposefully to the garage to dig up his set of free weights. With one hand on his hip and the other dangling his drink, he turns in shuffling half-circles to take inventory. He has no idea where in hell they could be. Everywhere he looks there are old things they’ve decided they don’t want right now or maybe ever. The broken and neglected flotsam he’s vowed unconvincingly to fix or get rid of later: worn furniture pulled from a neighbor’s curb, yard tools with broken handles, blue glass for the bottle tree that never got made. Sometimes he gets the feeling this shit will pile up and bury him alive.
          He slugs his bourbon and sets the mug down on a stack of yellow newspapers before giving a beaten up old cardboard box a tentative nudge with his foot. Time to start cutting his losses. Thin the wheat from the chaff. He lip-farts at the mild absurdity of his own thoughts as he peels back the box’s wrinkled flaps to reveal a stack of comic books he gave up collecting when it got too difficult. The wants never quite consumed by the haves. When he squats down to lift it, dust fills his nostrils and scratches at his throat. He half-drops it in one corner of the garage the instant before his body begins to convulse with sneezes.  
          He wipes his nose with the back of his hand and paws at another box containing something called Capri pants and tight-fitting items whose use escapes him. The phrase “yoga britches” bubbles to the surface of his thoughts. He dismisses it immediately with a hiccup and slides the stretch pants to the opposite side of the garage with his foot. 
          In the middle of it all hides an old tent. Maybe Sarah could stay in there. He snorts with laughter. Hell, maybe he could live in it. Embark on an endless road trip with an indefinite destination, one that doesn’t require the tedium of planning and expense. Unlikely. He’s scared of thunderstorms and he makes strangers uneasy with his compulsive, jangling laughter. Still, they had some good times on their camping trips. Just the two of them wandering all day long through a world of rhododendron and fern and fallen logs alive with mushrooms that shocked you with their earth-bound intricacies. At night, the thin tent walls sheltered them like a poorly kept secret. A shy admission of renewed conciliation.
          He gently lays the tent across a box full of camping supplies—a propane lantern in need of new mantles, a faded sleeping bag. From back in the days when he had the energy to sleep on a thin envelope of nylon. Physically tired, but strong in spirit.
          He gulps what’s left in his mug. Tilts it back a little too quickly so that two thin streams of bourbon trickle around the sides of his mouth. He wipes them away with the crook of his elbow and shakes his head now at the stupidity of all this restless longing. He’ll take care of that hornet nest if she really wants him to. And then he’ll cut the goddamn grass. He repeats the curse under his breath. Goddamn it. It’s like lighting a little fuse inside him.
          He marches outside and pretends to squash the nest from afar by positioning it in the space between his outstretched hand’s index finger and thumb. The idea of shooting the hornets from long range with a jet spray can of insecticide sounds gross. But blasting them with a high-pressure brass nozzle affixed to the garden hose could be fun. He drifts over to the coiled roll sitting at the corner of the driveway and sets his coffee mug down on the ground in a tentative show of self-confidence.
          The hose is grimy in his hands as he untangles it, and his pants are ruined before he even realizes he’s used the front of his slim-fit denim as a shop towel. No matter. He has the length he needs now to hit them hard from a safe distance. Four or five cranks of the spigot handle are enough to give the hose some kick and send a steady stream of water out into the yard. He guides it slowly in a drunken arch, higher and higher, until it strikes the nest with a force that peels away its brittle layers before blasting them apart. Hornets pour out of the gaping hole he’s created as broken pieces flutter to the ground like ashes from a house fire. His aim is unsteady and the water begins to push the nest from side to side until its own momentum finally tosses it to the ground.
          With a whoop, he turns off the water and holds the hose firmly in his fist until the receding force of the pressure makes it go limp. He tosses it gamely aside and makes a show of wiping his hands off against one another, rubbing the grittiness into his skin. Smearing it all over the door knob as he makes his way into the house for another drink. Swimming through the kitchen. Rooting through the cabinets. Sarah passes by the doorway just in time to see him retreating back to the garage with the bottle neck secured firmly in his grimy hand. When he smiles at her, his lips stretch across his teeth in a way that makes his face feel grotesque.
          With the door closed behind him, he takes a long pull from the bottle and squints out at the yard. The bright sun makes his eyes water. It’s so far out in front of him he feels ready to rush headlong into it. He slams the stopper back into place with the palm of his hand and ambles toward the lawnmower. Once upon a time he thought it would be funny to attach a bicycle horn to the handle. He palpates the red bulb with his fingertips before giving it a hard squeeze—one sharp, self-congratulatory honk—as he wheels it out of the garage and back into the Hornberger world.
          He overfills the mower’s gas tank a little, but it starts on the fourth pull before disappointment can set in, and sends a wave of satisfaction to flood his breaking heart. He’s forgotten what it feels like to have his thoughts buffered by the roar of the motor as he guides it over the unbroken chaos of his yard, leaving only short, ordered rows behind. Under the cover of noise, he wonders how he will come off in the stories Sarah will tell to her friends. Career slacker. Undeveloped adult seeks same. He hiccups with rueful laughter, but inwardly cringes at the idea of them gripping their coffee mugs in that attentive two-handed way of women in small group conversation.
          To chase the image away, he pivots the mower in a slightly reckless one-handed way at the end of the next row. In this moment he can see his yard is one-half golf course fairway and one-half uncut highway median. He will finish this. He pushes the lawnmower confidently in the direction of his dreams. 
          As he meets the embrace of the oak tree’s shade he realizes the crumpled-up paper sack of a nest is the only thing left standing in his way. One pass will finish them. A small squeal of delight escapes through clinched teeth when he runs it over and sends small pieces shooting out from all sides. But it’s a short-lived victory. A cold sweat flushes his neck and face with the realization of what he’s just done while tiny stabs begin to send shocks of pain all through his body. He slaps at himself and scampers through the yard, leaving the lawnmower at an idle thrum as he high-steps it through the garage, tripping over scattered boxes in a poorly controlled panic, fleeing for the safety of the kitchen.
          He can still hear the mower humming out there, slightly menacing in its unsupervised state. He tears apart the pantry for his secret stash of cigarettes and rips them apart to make sloppy, wet tobacco pastes with their insides. He spits on little pinches of loose leaves and presses them onto his arms, his neck, behind his ear, the little divot at his collar bone.
          All the drawer-slamming and deep groans bring Sarah into the kitchen to observe the disemboweled cigarette filters littering the floor and the kitchen table. He sits back in his chair and lets his fingers uncurl from around the crumpled cellophane. She picks it from his palm like a bird and delicately begins to unravel what’s left of the cigarettes, reproaching him with her voice, but administering to the welts on his face with the lightest of touches.  
          When she steps back to take in the long view of him, he retrieves the pack from her crossed arms and fishes out the last one. One long, delicious drag sends little rivulets of relief through the cracks of pain and regret. Deliberately, almost unbelievably, she grabs it and takes a puff of her own. It goes on this way, the back and forth, until the kitchen silently fills with a haze of smoke.
          He hurts as bad as he feels, and in the white noise of the renegade mower he tries to imagine how long he will have to lay on the sofa, riding out the waves of shock in the absolute stillness required of what’s sure to be a massive hangover. But he’s in the thick of things now. Already he longs for the time when the narrow focus of his vision will widen and puts all this behind him. When sweet relief will make him a new man. 
          They burn the cigarette down until he offers her the last drag. When she shakes her head consolingly, he twists it out on the lacquered surface of the kitchen table to avoid more smoke and ash.
 

Jennifer Beishline earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown College in Kentucky and returned home to Georgia, where she also attended Georgia State University. She currently lives and works in Decatur.

This is Jennifer’s first published story.

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