By TJ Kennedy
There was a knock at the door, but it was too late for someone to be on the other side. Even during the day, the only knocks came from the occasional package delivery. My girlfriend had a key, my relatives lived in different cities, and my house was never the hangout place for my friends. And yet, at this time of night, there was a knock at the door. Five loud knocks, in quick succession with a steady beat. The sunset was four hours ago, and the only light came from a muted television that played the 1971 Fiddler on the Roof movie. I swirled a glass of whiskey in my hand, and took another sip. The screen made me less lonely, while the whiskey caused me to forget what loneliness was.
Grandpa used to have a fiddle. I don't remember any moments when he played, and even if I did, there was no way I would have known if it was good or not. He died when I was five. At that age, Charlie Daniels sounded the same as a drunk man outside a bar, playing his fiddle to make money for the next drink. When a drunk man plays for drunk people, everyone thinks it sounds good. But even with my lack of a memory, the sound of a fiddle carries the past. It brings the smell of a dwindling fire place, the taste of grandma's green bean casserole, which had way too many mushrooms and not enough green beans, and the feel of a sofa twenty years older than me that tried to eat whomever sat in it. I changed the television channel to a football game I didn't care about, and kept it on mute.
There was a knock at the door. Grandpa used to have a fiddle.
A phone buzzed on the kitchen counter. So that was where I left it. It kept buzzing. The walk from the couch to the kitchen was too difficult a task, especially as the whiskey transitioned from a slight warmness to a gentle sway. There was no reason to answer it. Just like the knock was a lie, no one important called me at this hour of the night. But it kept buzzing. There were three people in my life that called me. The first was my mother, who called every Sunday night after she ate dinner, which happened at six o'clock on the dot. We talked for ten minutes, hung up, then didn't talk again till the next Sunday. Next was my girlfriend. She called occasionally on her drive homes from work, probably once or twice a week. Finally, my friend Bill called when he was drunk, and only when he was drunk. Come to think of it, the buzzing was probably Bill. Most people had better things to do on a Friday night than sit alone on a couch and drink their lives away. Instead, they went outside, and wasted it away with other people. For some reason, that made it more acceptable. I changed the channel again, switching away from sports and to some game show.
There was a knock at the door. Grandpa used to have a fiddle. A phone buzzed on the kitchen counter.
Traffic was worse today. It went from being its normal bad, to the I want to scream in my car while I sit on the freeway not moving for more than ten minutes at a time bad. Sometimes an accident caused the delay, other times traffic was worse for reasons beyond the mind's ability to comprehend. I didn't see an accident today, which means I was left not understanding. It was always worse not to know. Also, my car radio stopped working two Mondays ago. Since then, I have blasted Spotify on my phone, but the small speakers were starting to die. One of them already gave out. Or at least I thought it did. It was hard to tell. And when I got to work my phone's battery was teasing with death. I didn't get the chance to charge it, which meant my equally as long drive home was filled with no radio, honking cars, and an overly loud air conditioner. I swirled the whiskey in my hand, but didn't take a drink.
There was a knock at the door. Granpda used to have a fiddle. A phone buzzed on the kitchen counter. Traffic was worse today.
I didn't hear back about the job. The interviewer said they would call by the end of the week. It's Friday night, and no call came. That phone buzzing isn't them. No company calls someone thirty minutes before midnight. I didn't want the job, or maybe I was just telling myself I didn't want it because I really wanted it and was bracing for the inevitable disappointment. It was a senior administrative position for the finance department at a legal firm. Anything is better than working in sales. When I graduated college, I promised myself never to work sales again. In the last three years, I've had five sales position. This interview was supposed to be my big break. My mother will ask about it two nights from now, and I'll have to say I haven't heard back. Then the following week a part of me will be constantly hoping she forgets about it by the time the next Sunday arrives.
There was a knock at the door. Grandpa used to have a fiddle. A phone buzzed on the kitchen counter. Traffic was worse today. And I didn't hear back about the job.
I finished the remains of the whiskey in a single gulp. For the first time that night I tried to stand up from the couch, but the alcohol brought me back down to the cushions. The knocking at the door wouldn't stop. There was no one there; I knew there was no one there. But why wouldn't it stop? On the second attempt, I stumbled forward and freed myself from the grasp of the furniture. The number of empty whiskey glasses disappeared somewhere into the night. Was it five? Seven? I knew it was an odd number, nine felt too high and five too low. It must have been seven. I slowly made my way into the kitchen, using the wall as both a guide and a support. The phone buzzed, but I didn't give it any attention.
There were the skeletons of a whiskey bottle on the kitchen table. I checked the cabinet above the fridge, but was greeted only by vodka. I hated vodka. A fiddle played in the distance, and a car honked on the street. The knocking on the door became too loud, and I made my way to the front of the house in order to assure myself that there was nothing on the other side. But when I opened the door, my girlfriend stood on the front step.
"Why the hell weren't you answering? I've been knocking for the last ten minutes. And you wouldn't pick up your phone," she said. She was more annoyed than mad.
"Uh, sorry. I was asleep," I itched my eyes to go along with the lie, "What are you doing here? And why don't you have your key?"
"We talked about this last week. I lost my lanyard, remember? Car keys and everything," she said. I didn't remember. She walked through the doorway, kissed me, and continued toward the kitchen. "Wow, you taste like whiskey."
"I had a drink to celebrate the end of the week." The light turned on in the kitchen, and my eyes began the process of adjusting. I followed her, but was pulled back by the whiskey, as the gentle sway of alcohol turned into a spin. When I finally entered the kitchen, she held the vodka bottle that I shunned a minute earlier. It was her favorite, and I kept it in there for her.
"You want another drink?" she asked. I shook my head. She filled a cup with ice, and poured two shots into it. Then she grabbed ginger beer and lime juice from the door of the fridge, and filled the class the rest of the way. "How much have you drank tonight?"
"Just three glasses," I said. She didn't question the lie, and headed into the living room with her drink. Once again, I followed behind, turning off the kitchen light and entering the darkness of the night. The faint glow of the television guided us. "So why are you here?"
"Trying to kick me out already?" she playfully asked, while laying out on the couch. "They let me off work early. You're always up late, so I thought I'd come over and surprise you."
She worked in film production, which meant her hours were never the same. There were weekends she disappeared, weeknights that were filled with filming, and weekdays where she had nothing to do. The impossibility to predict her schedule frustrated me in the beginning stages of the relationship, but the longer we dated, the more it became normal to our lives. Three years together has that effect. I sat down next to her on the couch, and she moved in closer to me.
"Why do you have the sound off?" she asked. The vibrations of my phone buzzing were carried from the kitchen. It must be her voicemail notifications.
"I needed something on in the background while I slept." I was surprised at the ease of my drunk lies.
"Want to watch a movie? We can keep the sound low so that you can sleep through it," she said.
"That sounds nice," I said. Because it really did sound nice. We stopped on a Mission Impossible film that had just started. I didn't know which one it was, but didn't care enough to ask. She finished the rest of her drink, set the empty glass on the coffee table, and wrapped her body over mine. I grabbed a lonely blanket from the other side of the couch, and pulled it over the two of us.
I wondered if she wanted to ask about the job. Maybe that was the real reason she was here. Her work never ended early. More often than not they went hours over the scheduled time. For her to get released earlier the same day I was supposed to hear about the job felt too convenient for it to be a coincidence. The movie played, but I wasn't watching the screen. She was quiet, which meant she thought I was asleep. When we watched movies, she always talked through them. It was like she needed the screen to be on just to have a conversation. At home I thought it was cute, but the habit was a lot less adorable when we were at the theater.
Time was muddled by the alcohol and the night. At some point, she got up from the couch and went into the kitchen. The light turned on and flooded into the living room. I closed my eyes, instead of forcing them to adjust, and kept them closed until the light turned off. She returned to the couch with a new moscow mule in hand. The effects of the whiskey were slowly fading. Once she settled back into my body, there was a knock at the door.
"Did you hear that?" I asked.
"Hear what?" she responded.
"Nevermind. It must have been the movie." I looked toward the sliver of the front door visible from the couch, while she continued to watch the screen.
"We can go to bed if you want. Give you somewhere more comfortable to sleep."
Sometimes it hurt how much she cared. There was no easy way to explain it, but the more she cared, the greater the guilt weighed upon me. I wanted to be happy for her. I should be happy because of her. Then why was I not? With her in my arms, wrapped across my body, asking me what I wanted to do, and surprising me at night because she must have known that I didn't get the job. And I repaid her by being unhappy.
I got up from the couch and headed into the kitchen, leaving her alone under the blanket. A fiddle played in the distance, something or someone knocked on the door. I stayed in the darkness, and paced back and forth, my path resembling the chaotic lines drawn by a child, with no form or reason or meaning. There was a loud action scene in the living room, but the noise was drowned out by a barrage of thoughts. The phone buzzed, a car honked. I circled the island in the center of the kitchen, while rhythmically tapping my fist against its surface. The thoughts wouldn't stop, the sounds wouldn't stop. I wanted to be happy. And I didn't get the job.
Then the unexpected kitchen light halted my frantic movement. As my eyes tried to adjust, I was able to make out the silhouette of my girlfriend in the doorway.
"You didn't hear about the job, did you?" she asked. So it was the reason she was here.
"Your job didn't end early," I responded, not wanting to answer her question.
"How many drinks did you have tonight?" she asked for the second time since arriving. There was an empathy in her voice that kept my fist tapping against the kitchen island. It was a game we had played too many times.
"It's too much of a coincidence that the first time you leave work early is the same day I don't hear about the job." Her eye twitched, which signalled she was doing everything possible to keep her patience. And that twitch should have been a sign for me to stop. Instead, for reasons I never understood, it fuelled me to keep going. "You came here to be the perfect girlfriend. To make me happy because my life has been shitty. To satisfy that urge you have to fix me because I'm broken."
"Say it was my choice to leave work early, which it wasn't, why is it so bad that I want to help you?" she asked.
"I don't know!" I yelled. For a moment, my voice drowned out the knocking at the door and the buzzing of the phone. But as soon as the silence returned, the sounds resumed. I shouted more in hopes that they would stop again. "I just want to be happy. To be happy for you! I don't want to be the broken thing that you have to fix. I'm tired of being the biggest problem in your life."
"But you're not a problem," she said. "I care about your happiness, which means I'm going to try and find ways to help you."
"Like coming to my place when you should be at work?"
"Why are you obsessed with whether or not I should be at work?" she asked.
"Just admit that you left early!" Finally, the patience that she held onto for so long slipped from her grasps.
"I'm done with this. I'll be in bed. Feel free to join when you return to your senses," she said as she left the kitchen. Her footsteps trailed off up the stairs, and I was left alone with the silence of the kitchen and the roar of my thoughts. There was a knock at the door, and I tried not to listen. My fist continued its slow beat against the surface of the island. I hated what I said to her, and yet for some reason I said it anyways. Like the strings of a puppet, being pulled by the master I hoped with all my heart wasn't actually me. That it was something else. That I wasn't that person.
There was a knock at the door. Grandpa used to have a fiddle. A phone buzzed on the kitchen counter. Traffic was worse today. And I didn't get the job. A feeling grew in my chest, and its tingle spread to the tip of my fingers. It was a familiar foe, but no matter how often it arrived, I was never prepared for the challenge. I paced back and forth, my footsteps following the beat of the knocks at the door. I didn't want to believe that I yelled at her. I tried to deny that I drank a bottle of whiskey. But this kept happening, and I wanted it to end. For the feeling to stop. To disappear. To cut the strings that the puppet master kept pulling.
The knocking became unbearable, and I paused my pacing to go to the front door. But when I opened it, there was nothing on the other side, and for a moment, everything became calm. The feeling in my chest left without saying goodbye.
I closed the door and returned to the couch. Whatever number Mission Impossible was almost over, and the action was as loud as ever. I only slightly turned down the volume, as to not wake my girlfriend up, but it felt good to hear the television and nothing else.
After ten minutes, the credits began to roll, in that quick way they do when on regular cable. I turned off the television, put the folded blanket under the coffee table, and brought the nearly empty moscow mule into the kitchen. I dumped out the ice and rinsed the glass quickly with water, then I set it on the drying rack next to the sink. I grabbed the empty whiskey bottle and the nearly full recycling container, and made my way to the front door. It was the least I could do after being an asshole.
The feeling from earlier went further away, as I was reminded that there was no knocking. A convenient streetlamp on the sidewalk just outside my house lit the way from the front door to the recycling bin on the other side of the driveway. I opened the lid, threw the whiskey bottle inside, and dumped the contents of the container into it. In the darkness at the side of my house, two eyes watched me, and their presence calmed me even more.
"Hey Frank," I said. All the racoons in the neighborhood are named Frank. There were four in total, or at least that was my best guess. The most I had seen at once was two. And there was one that had a recognizable scratch under its right eye. I assumed there was at least one more, which made four. Frank's eyes disappeared into the darkness, and I returned to the front door. Once inside, I returned the recycling container to its place, turned off the kitchen light, and went upstairs.
I didn't turn on the bedroom light, on the off chance that my girlfriend was actually asleep, but knowing her, she was awake in bed waiting for me to come up. I stripped off all my clothes, except for the boxers, and climbed into bed next to her. There was a comfort in the warmness of the blankets, and I wrapped my arm around her.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
"It's getting worse again," she said. "You should go back to your therapist."
"I'll call her on Monday," I said. The statement turned out to be a lie, even though I truly believed it at the time.
"Should we go to The Grounds tomorrow morning?" she asked. The Grounds was the coffee place where we had our first date.
"That sounds great," I said, paused briefly, then added, "Thanks for being you."
"I love you," she responded.
"I love you too."
For a split-second, in the darkness of the room, with the love of my life wrapped in my arms, I remembered what it felt like to be truly happy.
Then there was a knock at the door.
About the Author
TJ Kennedy completed his undergraduate in English from UC Irvine in 2017, and is currently completing Master's work at Loyola Marymount University. Previously he was a Top 25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train May/June 2018 Short Story Award.