Cobb claims his left elbow can predict rain. Ever since he broke it, back when he played Pop Warner football, he has been able to feel the wind blowing through it when he puts it in the air, he says. And depending on the breeze he can tell you what’s going to happen, weather-wise, later that day.
He calls his elbow his personal barometer. He says it is like any other functional machine: it gets the job done, always. And he never wears gloves. He keeps them in his back pocket even while rifling through municipal trash. He allows the empty finger sockets to hang past his hip, as if he prefers his gloves vacant, as if he wants his hands to remain forever sullied.
Despite his gift of prophecy, Cobb did not anticipate the truck’s fall and consequent struggle to stay afloat. Forgetting to put his truck in park, the owner had made a quick run to Cherry’s, Yardarm’s favorite bait and tackle shop. A fishing boat, still attached to the truck’s trailer hitch, had dragged the F-150 down the ramp.
Cobb could have seen it, and would have, if his back had not been turned. Instead of noticing, Cobb played the part of collector, examining a Pepsi can, and then Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Bud Light, Diet Coke, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Coors, Dr. Pepper, Heineken. This was his role, it seemed, his job. After rolling each can over in his hand and emptying any remaining contents onto the ground next to the bin, Cobb chucked each one into his oversized trash bag. He reused each bag until it split. He was stooped over a trash bin near the ramp, but not close enough to perceive the bang of metal and density against water — a total splash, liquid splaying into air.
Cobb’s 54th birthday occurred last month, a warm Thursday in June. Now, he sports a black baseball cap with a yellow brim, Lumber Liquidators and a phone number (1-800-FLOORING) advertised on the front. He still has all his hair (gray, not white) and sideburns that stretch almost to his lower lip. On his person is a tatty blue jean jacket, black denim pants and wheat-shaded Timberlands. He lives in a nearby house, a small cape, alone. He has been alone for some time.
Cobb is retired and financially comfortable. And so he fishes cans out of trash bins, collects them, hopping from locale to locale, not because of need, but for sport, or hobby — activity. Rarely does he deposit the cans, and if he does redeem them for the standard (five cents per container), he leaves the change in the machine.
At home, Cobb’s outdoor shed is packed tight with bag upon bag of cans, and there are more in the garage. He has since parked his car outside, against the curb. Jenna, a woman Cobb once knew, used to park her car against the curb too, when she visited. On her last trip to his house she collected her wares: some Springsteen records, some clothes, and some old books. The two didn’t speak. Jenna let herself in with the spare key she had been given after nine months with Cobb. She roamed about the house, using a milk crate to gather her belongings. Cobb knew this was the reason for her visit. This was the spark. This was the spur. This was the birth of his habit.
“Just stop talking, please,” Jenna says. “I’d prefer you don’t flatter yourself and assume you have the best voice to listen to here. After all, you look like some sort of reptile gone all sorts of wrong. You’re so ugly it hurts. You’re so ugly, it’s like you’re a gorgon. No, you are a gorgon. It makes me crumble to look at you.”
Jenna’s house, the kitchen. Cobb arrived just a few moments ago with the intention of keeping his head above water. He needs to reconcile. It’s been a few weeks since Jenna left.
“Honey, I can explain,” Cobb says. “Please—”
“You know what, why don’t you just stop? I’m so sick of you. You make me sick. You make me ill. You make me more than ill. I want to vomit when I see your face.”
Cobb raises his brows. His eyes are wide. He leans his head forward, facing Jenna with a look marked by disorientation and distress.
“I want to projectile…vomit. When I see your shadow.”
“What?” Cobb says. “What do you mean?” he asks, trying to salvage anything he can, trying to stay afloat.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” Jenna growls.
“Well, come on, don’t you think that’s a little over the top? I’m not that bad. I made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, right? It wasn’t even that big of a mistake. I’m sorry. Look. Look at me here, I’m sorry. I blew up.”
“Oh no, you can’t have my sympathy now, not anymore. I can’t stand you. I can’t stand being near you. The way you walk. The way you dress. The way you smell.”
“Well, what’s wrong with the way I walk?”
“No, you know what. It’s not a walk. It’s a stagger. It’s gross. It’s repulsive. It horrifies me. It’s so ugly,” Jenna says. “It makes you look so beyond creepy,” she adds, almost whimpering.
“Honey, come on, I said it before. I’m sorry.” He starts toward Jenna, his arms outstretched, a plea for an embrace.
“There it is! There’s that walk! Stop. Just stop. Please. I’m asking you, I’m pleading, I’m begging. I want you to stop. I can’t stand it anymore. You have to stop. Just sit down, please.” She points to a barstool on the other side of the counter. “Sit right there.”
“Please, honey, you’re taking this too far. Here, just let me hug you, let me hold you. Please—”
“No, how about I ask you please, please why won’t you stop? Just stop. Just sit. Right there on the stool. Really—”
“All right, all right. I’m going.” Cobb puts his arms up and shakes an invisible white flag with his right hand as he walks backward to the barstool. “Happy?”
“No. Oh God, look at that. Look at how you sit. The horror. The menace. The pain — it hurts, it stings. You’re burning my eyes. You’re burning my skin. You’re singeing my hair off. I’m charred. I’m melting. It’s because of you and your—”
“All right, we’re done here. Let’s not fight. We can’t keep doing this.”
“Wait, no, I’m not doing anything. I didn’t mean we’re done like that. I just meant we’re done arguing. I, I’m done arguing. You’re the one—”
“Look, I said I was sorry,” Cobb says.
The boom of Jenna’s fist on the counter echoes throughout the kitchen.
“Oh, come on, don’t make me leave. Come on.” Cobb points his eyes upward, trying to see through the heavy water, trying to piece together the ruins of the sky. He now understands. When someone is totally submerged, it’s impossible to stay buoyant. “We can work this out,” Cobb says. The only way is down. “Let’s try to work this out.”
“Please, for me, allow the door to hit you on the way out.”
The F-150 is still in the harbor. It’s sinking. Its owner shows no signs of performing a rescue. Cobb hops back into his car after some collecting and travels to another group of trash bins, leaving the vehicle idling with the exhaust pipe fuming and the driver’s-side door ajar. He proceeds to the next bin and the truck in the water sinks further, still sinking. It awaits a response, a 9-1-1 call, while the fishing boat — still attached to the hitch — floats. It’s a shame that when things must sink, they do so, in part, because of their own weight and girth. This truck is no different. Sinking is a slow process. It’s not immediate, but impending. Things do not want to go under.
Cobb approaches another trash bin, the sixth within the hour. Before stooping down to rummage, he turns around and notices the Ford, a small piece of its cab and the bed poking the air. He puts his hand to his forehead and shields his eyes from the daylight. He realizes that this is not a trick of the sun. He inhales air and his throat tightens, an honest and small gasp. The sight then reminds him of the trips he used to go on with Jenna, of the truck he used to own, of when they drove his Chevy into the state forest camping site for a day or two, of when they would sit around a slap-dash fire in canvas-backed chairs, quoting lines from their favorite movies.
Like someone who goes to sleep with the intention of maybe praying, Cobb looks at the water and thinks about helping the F-150. But then he turns back to the trash bin, arrested by some cramped feeling low in his stomach, a force unknown.
Dr. Schmalz doesn’t have a chin. And he’s tall. He clocks in at about six-feet-five. And his nose is a playground slide. He terms himself a cripple, as his left leg has always been two and a half inches shorter than his right. He has a noticeable gimp. Whenever someone walks beside him, they adopt his gimp and they hunch over as if they, too, are afflicted. When he talks to people one-on-one he sometimes reaches out and places his hands on their faces, each hand pressed against each cheek. And his breath smells so bad. When he talks to patients in close proximity, they want to wither.
“Hello Mr. Hannigan,” Dr. Schmalz pungently exhales. “May I ask if you’re allergic to any medicines, anything that you know of?”
“John Denver music,” Cobb says, trying not to grimace.
“Then we’re going to start you on some medication.”
“Will it help?”
The doctor’s office is warm and quiet, well-cleaned and vacuumed every day. Cobb remains perched upon the examination table, looking around the room as Dr. Schmalz scribbles on his pad.
“Now, Mr. Hannigan, why you’re always tired, we want to discover the cause. I know I’ve asked you before, but is there anything that troubles you?” He pauses. “If the answer is yes we could proceed in a way that doesn’t involve medication. See, while it often works, medicine for this sort of thing isn’t usually my favorite means of attack. So, is there anything,” Dr. Schmalz asks slowly, “that troubles you? What do you want to escape?”
“James Taylor music.”
Cobb cannot tell Dr. Schmalz the real problem. He cannot relay the pulse of what’s really wrong. It’s like something he’s looking for but can’t find. He’s looking for his car keys. He swears he left them there, right there in his coat pocket. But they have, for some reason, disappeared. Where are they, then? In the house? On the bureau? In a kitchen drawer?
They say there is nothing — no critter, no organism — that can live in total isolation. But Cobb feels like he does in his sleep, something he can’t tell Dr. Schmalz. He cannot tell him that it feels like a migraine headache. It hurts to see. The light, like, burns my irises, Cobb wants to say. And I shut my eyes, and even the darkness of my inner eyelids, even that’s too bright to look at. He cannot find it within himself to tell the doctor. It feels like this throughout my entire body, saturating every bone. He really wants to tell the doctor, someone, anyone, Jenna, anyone, but he can’t. He wants to tell how he’s 54 years old and trying to hold off chaos, how he wakes in his bed in the middle of the night, damp and chilly with sweat, how his chest heaves in and out and in and out. How he fights and pleads with his eyelids, begging them to open, and how they finally do. How he wakes from terrors so haunting and evil that his vocal cords cannot and will not work, how his bed engulfs him in utterly wicked dreams. How the walls close in. How he’s alone, inconsolable. How out of breath he pulls the bedside light’s chain and is stunned by the bulb’s fluorescence. How his eyes adjust to scan the floor. Slowly. So slowly. How he inspects the clothes strewn across the hardwood. The silence. How he turns off the light. How he breathes. How he yanks the light’s chain once more. How his eyes dart around the room. Light off. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. How he tries to slow down everything, tries with all his strength.
“So, Cobb, seriously here. I’m trying to help you. What keeps you awake in the night?” Dr. Schmalz presses.
“Rod Stewart music.”
Jenna calls Cobb on the phone. It’s been over four years since they’ve talked. She calls because the sky is alive and there’s a halo circling the moon, a moon dog. This occurred the last time Jenna and Cobb were together, on a beach in Chatham. They sat on a towel with goofy caricatures of fish on it and listened to the waves. It was hard to imagine the tranquil and rhythmic Atlantic as nearly bottomless, as almost infinite in span and depth, as a place in which someone, anyone, can drown. Jenna picked a half-buried Red Bull container out of the sand.
“This is awful,” she said.
“Hmm?” Cobb said.
“This,” Jenna said, holding the can so Cobb could see it. “A pity. Things this pretty shouldn’t be treated like this, buried in the sand.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at it.” She brushed sand off the can, and blew atop its rim, a tiny whistle. “So lovely.”
“Jenna, it’s a can.”
“But it’s so venerable. It could spend over 100 years here, in the ground, and it still wouldn’t rot. All that time, all that pressure, and it would stay intact. I love these things. They’re nice reminders.”
Tonight, Jenna’s on the phone, her voice like cinnamon. It’s time for some excavation. Her voice has always been like that, Cobb thinks. He remembers when they made cinnamon rolls every Sunday morning and how they would project the future at the breakfast table, pretending they were already married. He remembers how she sometimes sat next to him and traced the veins on his arm. He remembers seeing her for the first time, in a bar on Standish Avenue. Darlin’, let’s go, she said. These old watering holes aren’t for us. Then what are you doing here, he asked, mingling with the lepers? Waiting, she said.
The sky is alive and there’s a halo circling the moon.
“So, what do you think?” Jenna says.
“The weather. Think it’ll rain tomorrow?”
“Sunshine, I know it will.”