“A Thrill of Hope”

The gas light is on. Shit.

Remember that band Gaslight Anthem? What did they sing? Never mind; just keep your eye out for someplace to fill up. It would be all you need to break down out here.

Or maybe it would be for the best. Just go until the car stops and wait.

How long would it take? All night? Less if I took my clothes off? What if I took my clothes off and got out of the car and lay down in the snow? Certainly it wouldn’t be long then.

What a way to go, though. It would hurt. How much am I holding? An eighth? A little less? If I drove until I ran out of gas and then smoked the whole thing and took off my clothes and rolled down the windows, would I just doze off and wake up in that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns?

No. with my luck a cop would wake me up and my family would spend Christmas Eve in jail again.

If anyone even bothered to come bail me out.

On the radio someone who isn’t even The Carpenters assures me that everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe/help to make the season bright. I change the channel and Mariah Carey wails that all she wants for Christmas is me. I doubt that, but thanks anyway, Mariah. Another switch of the station and a desperate used car salesman wishes me “Happy Honda-Days.” That’s it. Enough with the radio. I shove the fake cassette tape into the player. You remember those. The kind with a wire coming out of one side; a wire that plugged into your iPod. That’s how old my piece of shit Corrolla is.

I press play on the iPod and nothing happens. The damned thing’s batteries are dead. So much for the suicide attempt. No way I’m slowly freezing to death without a little exit music. Unless…maybe there’s something in the CD player. I pull the jack out of the iPod and shove it into the Disc-Man on the passenger seat. That’s how old my piece of shit Corrolla is.

I press that button and am confronted with the voice of chuck Palahnuik of all people. What the hell is this doing in here? Has it really been so long since I’ve listened to a CD in my car?

Michelle gave me this for my birthday back in March. And then she stuck it out for another three months. If you’re dating the kind of guy for whom you’d get a collection of live readings by Chuck Palahniuk as a birthday present, it’s a sign you’re dating some who’s not exactly stable.

You know Chuck Palahniuk, right? The guy who wrote Fight Club? If you’re unfamiliar with his other work, rest assured that Fight Club is the most well-known because that cult classic ode to violence and insanity is one of his tamer pieces. One of the ones that could legally be made into a movie. Compared to some of the stories on this particular CD, Fight Club seems downright G-rated. Compared to the story about the woman who watches all night as her co-worker’s skin slowly melts off and his organs cook after he falls into a hot spring. Compared to the story about the boy who loses most of his large intestine in an accident so unthinkable it can’t not be based on truth. Compared to the story about the journalism major who’s stuck working a job he hates for minimum wage.

I think Michelle was beginning to realize, even then, that this darkness, this obsession with the horrible things that go on every day and don’t get talked about, it wasn’t just a phase for me, or a form of escapism. I read Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis and Anthony Burgess and Hubert Selby, Jr.- I watched Mad Men and Breaking Bad- because I know that that’s how things are. Things aren’t just bad in third world countries where bombs go off and orphans are forced into prostitution. Things are bad everywhere. The secrets that the American middle class keeps would frighten one of those third world orphans just as much as any of the shit they’ve seen.

Michelle started calling me Alvy after the Woody Allen character who always wanted to watch The Sorrow and the Pity over and over again. It was her way of trying to make my obsession with the darkness a joke. Not just to play it off as a joke, but to actually force it to be a joke.

Last year, at Christmas with her family, I took one look at the Nativity scene on their living room floor and went on a rant about how hypocritical it is that in the winter when we need cheering up because it’s dark and cold all the time, we tell ourselves a story about a baby bringing peace, and in the spring when we’ve forgotten what it was like to be in the cold and the dark, we take this innocent little baby and we make him grow up. We have the people closest to him betray him. We have him publicly humiliated, tortured and killed by a totalitarian regime with his own people cheering them on just because they don’t have television.

As you can imagine, that didn’t go over well with Michelle’s family. But she stuck it out for another six months anyway. I don’t know why. I wanted to ask her that, when she finally ended it, but what came out of my mouth was a baser, more pointless question about whether she had someone else lined up already. When I asked her that she- I could see it in her face- she almost slapped me.

But she left instead.

And now, this year, I have nowhere to go for Christmas but to my family. My parents, fighting. My father drinking. My mother drinking. My sister Jamie’s baby crying. Her husband yelling at the baby for crying. Her yelling at him for yelling at the baby. My grandmother yelling. Not knowing who or where she is. Just yelling, because it’s all that’s left.

Shit. There was a gas station. I’ve got to pay better attention.

Michelle and I read the dark stories together at first. She liked the structure of them. She liked to say phrases like “unreliable narrator” and “tragedy of the common man.” English major phrases. They made her feel safe. As if giving something a name could really curb its power, like Rumpelstiltskin.

She’s been gone from my life for six months, but she isn’t really gone. She’s here in this car right now, in the CD she gave me, in the little tray of coins in front of the arm rest that she dug out from under the seats and put where they belonged. In the cigarette hole in the passenger seat from the night she fell asleep on the way back from the Mettalica show with the Parliament in her hand.

I should have woken her up. She could have hurt herself. Maybe the next guy will be the kind of guy who wakes her up when she falls asleep with a cigarette in her hand. He’ll be the kind of guy without holes in the seat of his car.

It’s after nine already and I’m only halfway there. Maybe Grandma’s gone to bed. Maybe Jamie isn’t coming until tomorrow. Maybe I can just sneak upstairs and not talk to anyone.

Manny asked me if I wanted to leave work early tonight. I should have said no. I could have put another hour between me and the most wonderful time of the year. I could have stayed until Sav-Mor Liquors closed. Maybe had a drink with Manny. Finished off what was left of the peppermint vodka that was out for sampling.

No. he would’ve been in a hurry to get home to his family. Some people are, I guess.

The story about a teenager’s unpleasant experience with LSD ends, and the story called “Crisis Management” comes on. It’s about a guy who puts up stickers with his phone number on them all over town. He pretends it’s a suicide hotline. Desperate, sad, young, misguided people call him, and if he doesn’t feel like talking to them he casually tells them to kill themselves. He does this for entertainment. For a sense of purpose.

Michelle was less impressed with the Narrative Structure of this one. She said she thought he wrote it just for shock value. Just to be edgy.

When it’s over, I hit the “stop” button. That’s enough for now, even for me. Especially for me. Maybe suicide is the answer. Not because of any grandiose whiny shit about how no one understands me or I just can’t take it anymore because things are too hard, but just…because I don’t really give a crap, you know? I’m not stupid. I know my family will be sad. They might even blame themselves. But someday they’ll be dead too and it just won’t matter.

The shit that I do every day. That I waste time on. How many hours, days, weeks have I spent tying my shoes? Fumbling with the keys to my apartment? Wiping my ass?

I know now that I’ll never go back for my Master’s degree. Never put serious work into trying to find a better job. Even now I’m polluting the air with the exhaust from my car to get somewhere I don’t even want to go that won’t in any way make the world a better place. I should leave what few resources are left on this planet for someone who gives a shit. Who sees a point. Who’s trying to do something good, something new. However misguided that effort may be.

Or better yet some dumb animal who just wants to eat a nut or something and then bed down for the winter and isn’t capable of failing to fulfill his potential. Some animal who never knew his father and forgot who his mother was when he didn’t need her to feed him anymore and no hard feelings, that’s just how shit works, ok?

The CD player makes that little whirr as the disc stops spinning that sounds like someone drawing a sharp breath, and then there’s a second when all I hear is the windshield wipers, and then “O Holy Night” comes on. That stupid Christmas hymn that Jamie sang in choir the year they tried sending her to Catholic school to see if that would help.

It’s a space of a couple of seconds between a man advising a desperate, drunk young woman to take her own life because he’s annoyed that she interrupted him making dinner, it’s a couple of seconds between that and not just any part of the song but the lyrics “A thrill of hope/the weary world rejoices/for yonder breaks/a new and glorious morn.”

And for just a second with the snow falling and the wind whipping and my old dirty headlights barely making the road in front of me visible, running on fumes, alone with the dark, I get it. I get what all the fuss is about. It’s not about Santa and presents and all that shit but it’s not about travelling to see your messed up extended family either. Or drinking hot cocoa in a sleigh or whatever crap people associate with this stupid holiday.

It’s about looking for a reason to still give a shit for one more day.

It must have really sucked being a Jew under the Romans. There’s no TV or penicillin or Tylenol, and you’re being oppressed by people you think are morally inferior to you but somehow they got the political power. Prophecies about the Messiah…they must have been a relief…or at least…a change. Something to think about. An idea of a future that’s not so…stagnant.

And then of course those same prophecies bite you in the ass when half the world thinks the Messiah has come already and starts mass murdering you for not believing it. Jews just can’t catch a break.

Mobil station up ahead. While I’m there maybe I’ll get a cheese stick.


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