Diapers are expensive after you’ve become a father too early, and you'd rather buy a bottle of whiskey than a week of shit-pads. Baby would never remember a rash. But that sweet taste of cheap alcohol after a long day of work - now that was worth its dollar. Or so Jeremiah thought. When he returned home after working doubles his hands would sometimes quiver. He never bothered for a diagnosis, but knew the cure. And tonight his hands quivered. They shook so badly that he could hardly twist off the lid to the handle-of-whiskey he reached for as soon as he entered his apartment. The shakes continued after the lid was removed. He knew he’d miss a cup if he tried. So he stuck the bottle’s neck straight to his lips. He took a long, bubbling, draw. Until he felt his eyes loosen and hands steady.
Jeremiah’s girlfriend, Trish, waited outside the kitchen until she heard him finish his first chug. After the bottle clunked back onto the counter, she entered, and asked “How’d it go tonight?”
“Well,” Jeremiah said, now able to pour the bottle into a proper glass, “made an extra $100.”
“Off…just four hours? On a Thursday? Babe!” Trish’s excitement overflowed, “I’m so proud of you!”
A brief cry burst out from a nearby room. Trish hushed herself. But the baby fell right back to sleep.
Jeremiah smiled, leaned against the counter, and motioned Trish in for a kiss. When their lips touched both of their eyes closed. Jeremiah pulled her hips against his. For a moment their kissing intensified until Trish pulled away and said, “I’m sorry babe. I’m tired. Tomorrow?”
“Come on. I’ll be quick.” He flashed a boyish smile.
“It’s always quick. When can we actually have sex, like we used to?”
“It’s hard for me too, Trish. I’m tired every night. Can hardly stay awake during the day. Right now, quick is the best I can be.”
“I’m sorry,” Trish confessed, “for making this about me. I know you’re tired too.” She gazed up at Jeremiah, both of their smiles now gone. “Come here,” she said, pulling Jeremiah by his arm into the living room. She sat him on the couch and before another word she closed the door to their nearby room, concealing baby and its crib.
She sat on her knees in front of the couch and removed his pants. As Trish kissed between his legs, Jeremiah moaned between sips of alcohol. His tip reached the back of her throat. After a few times he finished. Quick, as promised. Trish scurried to the restroom to clean her mouth. When she returned Jeremiah was asleep on the couch, cock still out, a half-full cup of whiskey in hand, like the orgasm had killed him. Trish poured out his drink, laid him sideways, and snuggled up beside Jeremiah face-to-face. But after he breathed on her once, she grimaced. And tucked her back against his chest under his limp arms.
Trish lied alert. Her eyes wide open, body stiff. Whatever comfort she sought on this couch had eluded the moment. She caressed Jeremiah’s dirty, calloused hands. The rhythmic brushing eased her a bit. Then, for a moment their breaths matched. And the synchronization triggered in her a revulsion. Trish stood. A tear dripped down her left cheek. She reached gently for his. “I really am proud of you,” Trish said to a sleeping Jeremiah.
She walked to the bedroom to sleep beside baby in its crib, but first quietly closed herself into the nearby bathroom. Once the door was shut Trish undressed and began touching herself. She dripped from the tips of her fingers. The soft sound of puddling droplets weakened her knees. She tried to imagine Jeremiah splayed across her body. But anytime she imagined sex with him she imagined it a chore. The thought suffocated her arousal. So, she reached for her phone, and loaded a pornographic site.
“Sensual” was all she searched. She came quickly. And after, checked on the baby and then tucked herself to sleep - alone on her bed. In five hours, Jeremiah would awaken again to clock in for another grueling shift. Tomorrow night they’d rest together. The bed would be theirs.
But on Friday night, Jeremiah stormed into he apartment and - without a word - slammed the door. Trish had been coddling the baby on the couch, until his arrival had imploded the apartment’s air. The peace she shared with her sleeping newborn was suddenly eclipsed by anxiousness. And all that was wrong with her surroundings rose to the top of her mind. As she rushed the baby to its crib, debris entangled in the carpet’s fibers clung to her feet. Like parasites leaping from one host to the next. But even if she wore socks, she wouldn’t escape the faint smell of unattended dog piss left from the previous tenants. A smell she usually forgot after a half hour at home.
As she lay the baby’s head against its mattress she heard glasses clink from inside the kitchen. Trish’s stomach churned. She brushed the child’s head and forced a smile at its squirming face. She took a long, steady exhale. Then, as she left the room, closed the door behind her.
Trish stood at the end of the galley kitchen, “what’s wrong J?”
“Did I say anything was wrong?”
“It’s not what you said,” Trish replied.
“It’s okay if you’re not.”
He nodded. Then began removing ice from the freezer.
“Did you get the diapers?”
Jeremiah pointed at the bottle of whiskey on the counter.
“J,” Trisha said. “Don’t tell me —”
“Don’t tell me nothing!” Jeremiah shouted back. “I made $30 tonight. $30! And the gas tank was empty when I started driving tonight. There went $50. We didn’t make any money today!”
“That doesn’t mean you go off buying liquor when our child needs diapers.”
Jeremiah seethed. His fist curled, the other one danced frantically on the glass against the counter. He gave a short, brief, exhale, and tossed the glass to lips, emptying the whiskey into his mouth. And then the whiskey, touching his saliva, heated his insides. The longer it lingered the hotter it grew. Till he felt his pores open slightly, and a bead of sweat formed at the base of his scalp. “I get paid again on Tuesday,” he said calmly.
“She can’t wait that long.”
“I don’t see you helping much.”
“I help in other ways.”
Trish charged to the room and once inside slammed the door.
“Finally,” Jeremiah said, plopping himself onto the couch. He masked the rancid odor of old dog urine by lifting the glass of whiskey to his nose. He let the whiskey override all his senses, and paired his sorrows with continual sips of grain liquor. That bottle anchored beside him like a new lover. His hand never releasing from its curvatures. Not after the second drink, nor after the fourth. Its touch was the only steady thing about his night.
He was to blame for this bad evening. Why hadn’t he any discipline and just bought the diapers? This whole night, in all its ruin, was his fault. Money was the only way he thought he could make it better. It was after midnight. A time when he never drove. He always wished he could - the money was good at this hour - but Friday nights were for family. Tonight would be different. Jeremiah finished his drink then grabbed his keys. As he left he looked back at the room’s door handle, but it did not move.
His first ride went quickly. Ten dollars for a two-mile ride: surge pricing. He’s lucky to earn that in half an hour during a normal shift. Before his first ride exited the vehicle a second request appeared on his screen. In disbelief, he laughed aloud and mumbled to himself. Any keen observer would have suspected him drunk. But the rider only looked up as if Jeremiah had sneezed, then quickly returned to his phone. Each swipe of his screen commencing another parade of pixels. The passenger ended up departing without a word. He never averted his eyes from his phone. Once the backdoor shut, Jeremiah, smiling, shook his body while gripping the wheel. He knew he’d make all the money tonight, and more. He peered at nearby passerbys, observing groups and couples minding only themselves. Quickly, he removed the bottle of whiskey from under his seat and took another drag. An early celebration of the money ahead.
Back home, Trish walked into the living room. “J…” she said, to a TV playing in an empty room. Where could he be? Trish worried, We can’t afford drinks in town, for him to get a ticket. She re-entered the bedroom to grab her phone. When she unlocked it Trish saw an ad at the top of her email app:“Married Men Looking For One Night Flings.” She went to text J, but before she started the message returned to the ad. She bit her lip and hovered her thumb over the banner. She tapped the screen. It was just a click. Nothing but a tap.
Jeremiah’s third ride was for three lively girls. All beautiful in their own way. None had the same hair color or body type. They were a random bunch, really. A cluster of serendipity that could excite any onlooker. Jeremiah was no exception. Their presence calmed him. And he couldn’t help but stare at one of the girls through the rearview mirror. The woman looked a lot like his wife - what he imagined his child would be in twenty years. So he stared. Not as a bad man. But she caught him staring while smiling, and scowled.
After which her eyes diverted to her phone. The giggly trio fell silent shortly after all their phones began to buzz. The two girls flanking the one Jeremiah stared at read their phones with their mouths agape, each quickly glanced toward Jeremiah, then scurried their fingers back to their phones.
Jeremiah shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “you ladies off to a good time tonight?” They gave him nothing. Jeremiah’s hands fidgeted against the wheel. “Ari - Ar - Alright then, jus tryna.” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
That one behind the passenger seat gave him that look again, and this time asked, “are you drunk?”
His breath hastened. His hands gripped white against the wheel. Jeremiah stopped the vehicle against the curb. And said, “I think you all should —” but before he could finish his sentence all three exited the car.
In the car’s silence Jeremiah’s vision blurred and head bobbed. He tried to recount the number of drinks he had, but couldn’t. One look at the bottle showed that it was a third empty. But Jeremiah dared not reveal the truth, and left his bottle tucked under the seat. It was only a few, Jeremiah dismissively whispered to himself.
Jeremiah remained parked where the women exited, near a lively block where he watched lines of riders at every corner awaiting their drivers. But none ever hailed for J. And Jeremiah, only a few feet from them, could not override the the barrier that the algorithm had placed between him and those riders. So he sat in silence and watched other drivers continue working the night. And now by Tuesday, baby would certainly have a rash.
By the time Jeremiah returned home his world spun. Maybe I had a few too many, he whispered as he placed the car into park. Then he cracked the windows, leaned back his seat, and reached under it to take another long swig of whiskey. Soon after, drunkenness blurred into sleep.
He awoke to Trish knocking on the car door. “Get up,” she commanded, “I have to go to the store.”
“Huh, what time is it?” Jeremiah mumbled as he sat upwards.
She pulled the car door open, revealing the near-empty bottle of whisky on his lap. “Jeremiah,” she said, “what did you do last night?”
Jeremiah stared at the dash, eyes puffy.
“What the fuck are you thinking, drinking and driving!?”
Her anger awakened him. He went to plea innocence, “No, no I didn’t—” Then, he remembered that he wasn’t. He took a defeated breath, “I wanted to make it right. I wanted to make enough so we could have all been taken care of.”
“So you drove with that thing in your lap? You fucking idiot. We can’t afford diapers, I surely can’t afford to get your ass out of jail. Then what, we lose the house? Can’t your heart and brain ever be the same size at once?”
As Jeremiah drove over the next few weeks he was only allowed to pickup people with prior marks on their record too. People like Jade, who was tagged as having thrown up in her ride the weekend before. Or Tim, who recently was given a two-star rating for conspiratorial conversations. People no one else wanted. It was Jeremiah’s penance to the app he wronged.
People forgive. So do animals. Even the earth, which rebuilds forests around artillery and meter strikes, forgives. But an algorithm’s vengeance knows no end. They are not part of life. They don’t understand finiteness. They’ve no concept of time, and cannot comprehend the end of anything - not even themselves. So, was Jeremiah’s punishment worth the crime? It depends on if what you’re asking is mortal.
Over these few weeks, Jeremiah’s rides came less frequently. And when they were assigned were worth a lot less. So, he was on the road more often. Leaving Trish to fend for herself against digital temptation. She’d graduated from one click to many. And on this particular Tuesday evening scrolled through the app's endless selection of potential mates. It all felt fake, like she was a child again playing MASH. Until she caught herself audibly exhale, “ahhh.” Something about that utterance finally made her fantasizing feel attainable. She could try for any of these men. And she’d start with Sam. 35. Athletic build. Manager of a local tour company. 1.8 miles away.
Sam came over the next day, on a Wednesday afternoon. J wouldn’t return from work in a dozen more hours. Trish greeted Sam and busied into the house. Fidgeting with perfectly placed items on the kitchen counter. “Would you like something to drink? I could use a whiskey.” She laughed.
“First time?” Sam asked.
“It gets easier. But, what the hell, I’ll have a shot.”
Trish poured two shots. “Sorry for the mess,” she added, as Sam wandered into the living room. Trish trailed him as he looked at pictures hung on the wall. “Cheers,” Thrish said, handing him his glass.
“Cheers to what?” He asked, smirking.
“To new experiences.”
“Yeah,” Trish said, clinking their glasses. And the last thing she saw before she threw back her head was Jeremiah smiling in the family picture on the wall.
Before Trish’s eyes opened, Sam stuck his lips to hers. They kissed and caressed, and the danger of the moment made her drip. And then he was inside her. And it seemed to never end. When it did Sam immediately stood and dressed. “That was - you were - great.”
“Really?” She said, fighting a smile.
“Can we… maybe do this again?”
“Maybe,” Sam said, “try me on the app.” Then he was gone and Trish was alone again.
She cleaned up the dropped shot glasses from the floor. She rose and faced the family picture. Trish neither smiled nor frowned. Its presence seemingly meaningless. When she dropped the shot glasses into the sink the baby began to cry. Trish responded, “Momma is coming, dear. Momma is here.”
That night when Jeremiah came home Trish was asleep, but he felt that something was off. It was as if the app had cast a spell, rendering him inaccessible anywhere he stepped - not just while hailing rides. He touched the door handle to the bedroom, but all he felt was rejection. As if his arrival wouldn’t change a thing. Because that app had told all its fellow algorithms, and all the brains that were influenced by them, to avoid him. He let his hand off the door, grabbed instead another handle of whiskey, and walked to the couch. There, he fell asleep where, just hours before, his girlfriend had slept with another man.
His alarm went off before Trish awoke. The bitter morning air had seeped in from under the front door and numbed his feet. He grumbled. Then dressed in the same clothes he wore yesterday. Jeremiah looked toward the bedroom door that had unofficially become hers. Its presence monolithic - unwelcoming and immovable. Still, he stared at its handle. But it did not move. From afar, he tilted his ear toward the door. Nothing bid him closer. He turned to leave and face the cold. Those harsh conditions that hardened him since youth, back when his dad hit him without cause. Now apps punished him relentlessly. Rendering him a man unable to provide. His head hung low. But as he turned to shut the door behind him he peeked at the family picture hanging on the wall, and despite the bitter air everywhere he walked, Jeremiah smiled.