WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO DO by John King

WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO DO by John King

I’ve just vomited into my mother’s coffin. The pallbearers rush me out of the parlor. The funeral home director eyes me fiercely. He isn’t wrong.  

I am trying to put my hands to my mouth, but the fellows are using my elbows as handles, dragging me out into brightness, and then they collapse me on the lawn, where I throw up some more. The grass is poking into my nose. So green is the smell. Dry heaving. There’s more, but it won’t come out. I roll over and look up at the sky. The smears of clouds dance.  

“Are you okay?”

A half-kneeling woman. Black dress. Black stockings. Black Mary Janes. Bangs of silky, black hair.

“Hyuhh,” I manage. She extends a tissue from her long fingers. I wipe my mouth, try to be a gentleman. “Very kind,” I say, sitting up on the lawn. “What’s your name?”

“What?” she huffs. “It’s me: Sam.  I—I’m your, you know, girlfriend.”  

I squint. I am sure I have never seen her before. Her brown eyes burn intensely, though.

“Sam, forgive me, sweet—the sun was in my eyes. I am not myself today. I mean—”

“Oh, honey,” she says, clutching me. Her perfume is citrusy.

My telephone rattles against my heart. I yank it from my jacket. The screen is too cracked to I.D. whoever’s calling. I hope to God it’s my brother. I hope to God it’s not my brother.

I raise an imploring finger to the woman (Sam) and then tap the vicinity of where an answer button might be.

“Hello?”

“Is this Mr. Cronin?”

“Possibly.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m at my mother’s funeral. What do you want?”

“My condolences. My name is Cindy, and I am calling from Hunt National Bank. I am wondering when you are going to make a payment. You promised last week that you would do so, but our records show that this has not happened. If we can’t arrange an immediate solution, then Hunt National Bank will have to refer your case to a collection agency—”

I hang up the phone, drop its weight back into my pocket.

Two cars pull up in the driveway of the funeral home. The wake is just getting started.

“Sam,” I ask, “can you get me out of here?”

A minute later I’m squashed inside Sam’s Toyota Yaris, which I have also never seen before.  I lean my head against the tinted window. More black cars are arriving. She looks concerned at me, but I can also tell she’s nervous I’ll retch in this pristine toy vehicle. “Can we go to a pub, dear?” I say. “I could really use a drink.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, but then, when she sees my face, relents. “None of the bars are open yet, honey.”

“Oh,” I say. “I need someplace dark. Someplace cool.”

“I know just the place,” she says, and she kisses me quick on the temple.

We go to a condo on Federal Highway. She leads me up to a third-floor apartment. It’s dark in there, the slats of Venetian blinds slicing gloom. There’s a shadowy Maxfield Parish print on the wall. Sam excuses herself to sneak into the bathroom. I go to the fridge, open the freezer, and stick my head inside. The cold breathes through my hair, down the pores of my face, and leaves my neck tingling.

By now my brother might be at the funeral. If he is in town. If he isn’t waiting for me at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

I am a shadow particle. I think about applied mathematics. I think about my office in Columbia.

“Hey,” Sam says, with a hand on the small of my back. My skull clunks against the ceiling of the refrigerator. Woozy. My shoes are sequoia trunks, though.

“Oh, baby,” Sam coos. She puts some ice into two tumblers and then gets something out of the fridge. I look at a dark glass.

“Rum and Coke,” she says. “It’s all I have.”

I hug her. Sam is wonderful. I put the glass to my temple, feel the coolness against the throb. I take a sip, feel the syrup go down. It stays down. I sip again. Kiss Sam on the forehead. I sit down on the couch, which is low and way too cushiony. Like sinking into a marshmallow beach. I take another sip. No need to rush. It’s nice.

“I’m so sorry,” said Sam, sitting next to me, close.

Her knees look angelic in her black stockings, miracles. Music of the spheres. I want to be a stocking. I put a hand on her knee before I forget that I don’t really know her.

“There is something I can do,” Sam says. “I read in Cosmo—it will help you relax.”

“What do you—oh!”

“That’s it.”

“Really, umm, Sam?”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed. If it will help at all, honey, I am happy to do it.”

And then she is doing it, and I am helpless. She is kneeling, and rubbing my black suit pants, and then unzipping me. Freeing me. It is wonderful and terrible. I feel I might sob. My head leans back into Maxfield Parrish.

The telephone twitches in my pocket. Fifteen volts. Twenty-five. I drink the rest of my rum and Coke, all its sweetness and spice and bubbling bite. The ice clatters as I slide the tumbler onto the Turkish end table. Sam is breathing heavily through her tiny nostrils. Her silky hair is undulating.

Somehow, I let go, this part of myself launching out, but with no euphoric release. A few seizures and then still.

Sam lifts her head. She twists her body to reach back to the coffee table, outreaches her long fingers for a tissue. She turns her head, lifts the wispy paper to her mouth, does something, and then wads the tissue up. 

“I’m sorry, Jack,” she says. “It’s not that I’m squeamish—it’s just that there’s so much, you know—.”

“No worries, Samantha,” I say, stroking her hair. Her skull is so diminutive. She is such a sweet kid. She sits on the couch, tucks her legs under her, and snuggles into me.

A grandfather clock, some hoary heirloom inherited from whomever, tocks, then ticks, cogs of time, filling the darkened quiet.

“Jack?”

“Mmmm?”

“I have something I want to ask you.”

“Mm-hmmm.”

“I so don’t want to be that girl, you know?”

“Of course not, Sam-antha. What is it?”

“My mother has been asking. In two weeks, it’ll be Easter, and she wants to know if I’ll be coming alone or if—”

“Ah,” I say.

“Yeah,” Sam says.

“Of course, Samantha, I’ll be happy to. I mean, I may not be happy, under the circumstances, but I want to.”

She squeezes me tightly.

“If it’s okay, I’ll give her a call,” Sam says. She’s zooming towards the bedroom. I see her flop onto her four-poster bed and reach out for a princess phone.

I stalk over to the kitchen and look into the cabinets until I find that rum. I glug from the bottle. My stomach’s revolted, but I keep at it until the tremors stop. I screw the cap back on, close the cupboard door. I put my head back in the freezer and breathe deeply. I sense her standing in the hallway.

“My apologies, Sam,” I say, “but I got to step out for a bit.”

“What?”

“I need to see to—things.”

“Let me go with you.”

“My sweet love,” I say, “I need to see my family. I don’t want you introduced in this way, you know? There may be complications.”

“I could help.”

“You’ve already helped me more than I can say,” I say, and I mean it. “Your kindness, your thoughtfulness, is more than I deserve. It’ll just be a few hours.”

“I don’t mind,” she says, “We can face anything.”

“I need to be strong for you,” I say. I kiss her lips. I kiss her perfect forehead. Then I am out into the sunlight.

US-1 is too bright. The air is fiery. I am sweating onto the sidewalk. My phone is spasming.  I can’t pull it out by the fourth ring. I am clutching it as the thing starts quaking again. Voicemail.

You have two messages.

“Hello, this call is for Mr. Cronin on behalf of MetroGroup in regard to the balance on your—”

Delete.

Next message:

“It’s your brother. I am in the lobby of the funeral home looking at a fucking closed casket.  Where the hell are you? Your family needs you, Jack. Please don’t act too much like yourself, for a change. Get to the house. I’m going to—”

I close the phone, tuck it back into my pocket. I look at all the fiberglass and chrome splotching so hotly in an angry current.

I am standing in front of a pub called The Blue Lion.

Then I am standing inside a pub called The Blue Lion. Dark, yeasty decrepitude.

“Gin and tonic, Bombay Saffire, a double.”

“Shall I put this, too, on your tab?”

“You’re an angel, love, an angel.”

The gin and tonic fizzes translucent blue, and I know there are all these little cataclysms of quantum life down inside there, all these dice jigging and big bangs fusing gin with tonic and lime.

With that first sip, I am finally ascendant enough, recalibrated, reconstituted enough for this rotting planet for a millisecond.

The entire pub howls in unison.

“Fucking hell!” I say.

“Oi!” says a guy next to me, slapping my shoulder, “Oo’re yoo roo’in’ for?”

I squint up at a plasma screen.

“I don’t have a mutt in this fight,” I say. The guy glares with alcoholic malevolence. He’s counting down to something.

“West Ham, then,” I say, not having any idea which European wankers I should be cheering in this manically turgid contest. I look at him, and if he isn’t for West Ham, I hope the rest of the bar fucking is.

But after a moment, after his face dispenses with a few muscular tics around the cheeks and eyes, he smiles real big, a fat grill missing about five teeth. “Yer awroight, mate, yer awroight.” He raises his pint of piss, and I clank my G&T to it.

After we drink them down, he points to his chest and says, “Alfie.” 

“Jack,” I say. I hope we don’t get into last names. I ask the girl for another round.

“Wott’s wif them cloze?” he says.

“My mother’s just died,” I say.

“Wott?” Alfie says. “Nah.  Jezuss, Jack.  Jezuss.”

I shrug. Alfie pats my shoulder. “Ya lawst yer Mum?”

I stare at him as he starts blubbering.

The pub howls.

“Oi!” shouts Alfie. “Shut yer ‘oles, yoo lot, ‘is bloke lawst ‘is Mum t’doi.” 

“Tuesday, actually,” I say.

“Piss off,” the crowd says to Alfie. Like a cheer. He makes two fists, but I pat him on the shoulder. “Let’s just watch the game,” I say. Alfie looks me in the face. He is blubbering again. 

The door opens, this shock of sunlight. I can hear the click of high heels, and this woman stands beside the stool next to mine. She has red hair wrapped in a chignon behind her pale face.  She is wearing a black dress, long and tastefully gothic. She leans towards me, about to say something. She kisses my cheek, and kisses it again, and then my lips. Then she stares at me.

“I thought I would find you here,” she says.  

I blink.

“I flew in as soon as I heard,” she says. “Why didn’t you call me?”

I take out my phone, show her the cracked screen, insert it into my jacket pocket.

Alfie is staring at her. “Hi,” she says, extending her hand. “I’m Margaret. Jack’s fiancée.”

“Moi plezha, Miss,” Alfie says, shaking her hand. The little diamond in the ring manages a galactic twinkle. “Alfie, at yer servisss.”

“So nice to meet you,” she chirps, and caresses my hand. “Jack,” she says, “we need to go.  We need to get you to the house.”

“You’ve got a car?”

This rental SUV whizzes west on Atlantic Boulevard, away from the ocean.  I close my eyes.  Lean my head against the window.

When I awake, M is extending a Starbucks napkin, undulating the paper in the air. I wipe the drool from my mouth, the lapels of my jacket, the passenger door. I try not to be sick. A moss of electromagnetism connects my stomach, throat, and eyes. I look up and see the massive mango tree in the backyard, thick green fruit lurching in the air. A sea grape hedge snarls like dendrites around the front of the house. M gets out and so do I. The sun reflects angrily upon my black shoes, two angry circles of light momentarily rendering my feet into loaves of bread.  

M has clicked over to me atop the paved brick of the driveway. In her heels, she is exactly my height. She kisses me, long, compassionately. M seems almost familiar.

She slides her hand in mine, like a quilt over the world. “Let’s go,” she says, “Everything will be okay.”

I put my hand on the knob, and pull the glass door open. No one is in the front room, so M and I walk to the back of the house. In the family room, there are the mourners, including the men who had relocated me out of the funeral home. My brother is talking to my aunt. Alexia, my brother’s wife, notices me, and swiftly crosses the room and enfolds me in her arms.

“Oh, Jack,” she says, holding me like she’s drowning. Her breasts and curly, black hair smell of lavender.  

“Yeah,” I say. 

When I let go, my brother, Patrick, is there. His long brown hair is straggling over his shoulders. Eyes bloodshot. I close my eyes. I can’t breathe, the muscles of my chest constricting as he hugs me hard. I am now the oldest in this family.

“What is she doing here?” he hisses into my ear.

“Who?” I say.

“Margaret,” my brother says.

“It’s okay,” I say, “It’s Margaret.”

“Your wife’ll be here in a few minutes,” my brother says. “Why haven’t you been answering your phone?”  

“I broke it.”

“How?”

“Don’t know.”

“Jesus, Jack,” he says. 

“Okay,” I say.

My brother pours out a tumbler of Jack, which I am not fond of, but it will do right now. At least I didn’t start with this soot. We hold up glasses.

Faol saol agat, gob fliuch,” Patrick says, 

Agus bás in Éirinn,” I say, and sluice the smoky fire down.  

“What does it mean?” Margaret asks.

I open my mouth, but no words emanate.

Margaret is hugging him. I palm her shoulder.

Then neighbors are hugging me, yammering words. Muumuus and flip flops and tanned flesh. The phone jolts in my pocket. I walk, concentrating on not staggering. I open the slider, step outside, into the shade of a mango tree. I saunter over to the fence.

“My condolences, Jack,” says my mother’s neighbor, as he spritzes the ferns mobbing his back patio. “Your mother was a good person,” he said. “I always liked her.”

“Thank you large,” I say.

“How goes your supercollider?” he asks. “When do you go back to Switzerland?”

“Umm,” I say. “Not sure.”

“I heard about your bicycle. How is that doing?”

“What?” I say.

“Someone ran into your bicycle with a Jeep, didn’t they?”

“No,” I say, and my brain churns electric. “I don’t think so.”

“Sure,” he says. “What is my name, Jack?”

“Eddie, quit fucking around.”

“Okay, Jack. What do I do for a living?”

A football arcs over my shoulder, smacks the grass, rebounds from the chain-link fence into my arms. I turn around.

Lily, with that cockeyed grin. “Come on, Uncle Jack, throw this around!”

Unbuttoning my jacket, I walk away from Eddie. I lean into a throw, the laces spinning off my fingertips as it makes its transit over the backyard, into the arms of a nine-year-old girl. She is fearless, the ball absorbed into her small hands, brought to her body. Strong fundamentals. Somehow she throws the ball back, with velocity. Her feet set. Her fingers whipping with her skinny arms. Her saddle shoes jamming into the ground. I catch the ball. I throw it back. The ball curves up, scraping the shade cast by the mango tree. In the slight breeze, the sky looks like it has caught a school of green fish whose two-toned scales switch in the undulating sunlight.

Down the street, a muscle car growls and spews incomprehensible music.

The ball spins like a happy, brown bullet into my arms. I send it back. Sweat oozes down my back, coats the armpits of my shirt. I loosen my tie and unbutton my shirt at the collar. I hurl my jacket, wounded with the weight of the phone, onto the fence. Lily is focused on the ball. When she squints at me, she looks so much like mother. The kid could wreck her rotator cuff this way. I wish Alfie could see this. He wouldn’t like rubbishy English football if he could see this.

Through the slider, I can see the silhouette of a woman. She raises a hand, waves delicately. I start to wave back when the ball hits my hand, and I look up into the sky for it, catch it as it tumbles back down. Lily is laughing. Lily is laughing.

The slider’s open. The woman steps towards me. A smile that isn’t quite a smile. “It’s time,” she says and reaches out a hand.


John King is the host of the world’s greatest creative writing podcast, The Drunken Odyssey, as featured on “best of ” lists by Book Riot and The Millions. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from New York University, and a doctorate in English from Purdue University. His novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame, was published by Beating Windward Press in 2019. John’s work also appears in the anthologies 15 Views of Orlando, Other Orlandos, and Condoms and Hot Tubs Don’t Mix, as well as in journals, such as Gargoyle, Burrow Press Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He lives in a secret location in the lesser Orlando area with his wife, cat, and a cadre of robot duplicates.

Art by Jaime Goh

Read Next: THE WHALES WILL THANK HER by Julie Chen