Just a Memory

 

“Yeah, I don’t have anything to say,” I said to no one in particular.  It’s the motto I’ve repeated every so often simply because it represents my current state of mind.  It’s what you say when the muse has left and inspiration has run dry.  When your brain’s been reduced to mush to the point where the most it can consume is the daily soap opera watched on the DVR from the safety of a comfy old couch, there’s a point where any hint of intellectual curiosity you may have ever had morphs into something perverted.  Such a slovenly existence might be excused if one were perhaps afflicted with a trauma resulting in a massive fugue state.  First comes the lightning blinking bright then the crack of thunder then BOOM!! You’ve been struck and just barely escape a foray into the land of the comatose, but that’s not me nor is it my story.

I was listening to The Rolling Stones one night recently thinking of an old flame prompted by the lyrics of “Memory Motel” when suddenly I came upon a revelation- actually more like a vision.  It was that of the life that could have been if things had worked out and Lisa had decided to stay with a man with no direction or ambition to do anything beyond gaze at the stars at night after reading a good book. You see I’ve always been a contemplative person, but I’be been told that contemplation is not what’s best suited for relationships. Women tend to like men of action and I’m not exactly the Charles Bronson type. In fact, I think Chuck Norris could probably beat me up by just blinking at me very hard.  Quite frankly Walker Texas Ranger puts me to sleep every time I try to watch it.  If ever there was a sedative needed for a good case of insomnia, just put on a random episode of that show and that’s all you need.   Maybe it doesn’t appeal to me because it’s one of those shows that’s supposed to be a “man’s man” kind of show.  Hence, it’s why I could never relate to it since just the thought of opening a toolbox gives me anxiety.  Who needs tools anyway? The point is that while Chuck Norris may be all kinds of awesome and all men everywhere wish they could be him, he isn’t quite in touch with his feelings.  No, I’m not saying he should be either.  There are some people who clearly wouldn’t benefit from any kind of enhancement in their emotional intelligence.

Well, I was listening to “Memory Motel” one night and to be honest these feelings could have equally been stirred by “Far Away Eyes,” which is a song on another album but I digress.  I listened to that song and while Mick Jagger isn’t exactly the poet laurate of Rock N Roll, the song spoke to me or at least it made sense for me in my life. I mean Mick Jagger is the man, a total rock star and I’m well . . . I’m just me so of course we’d have to be on the same wave length when it comes to our lives.  I’d like to think of myself as the Mick Jagger of my own universe with tons of stories to tell and wisdom to share about women.  In my case, it’s been far fewer women.  Okay, maybe it was just one woman who allowed me close enough to feel like I touched her heart as much as she touched mine, but she had so many sides to her that she could have easily been twenty women.  Haha! Take that Mick Jagger!  Needless to say she was complicated, but I like that.  The worst thing anyone could do to themselves is to fall in love with someone who is uncomplicated unless they happen to be uncomplicated themselves. Lisa might have been complicated enough for the both of us.

Every time I picture Lisa in my mind, her hair is wet and the drops drip down over her wet clothing and although she thinks she looks a mess, she looks immaculate to me.  On our first date we saw a movie. It was a science fiction film that later became a cult classic called Contact.  It’s the one with Jodie Foster and her dead father.  That’s all I remember about it other than the fact that it’s based on a Carl Sagan novel I never read, but each time I think about that movie it brings back the memory of our first date and our first kiss. I later regretted not walking her home or at least to her train station.  Perhaps I was too nervous, maybe I was scared.  No, actually I was stunned, shocked, and awed by the fact that Lisa would even sit next to me in a dark room let alone kiss me after a movie.  Back in high school I kissed Sally Fulson and Mary Templeton, but kissing Lisa Falkner when we were just eighteen that was something.   We were both so young back then, and maybe that’s why she still means so much to me now. We had the world ahead of us.  Little did I know that she would move on to bigger and greater things and I would just stay behind and settle into a comfortably solitary life.

It was about two months ago that as a curious observer of Lisa’s online profile, I began to notice that her friends and family did not know where she was.  I didn’t think it was unusual at first, but then some of the messages started to become somewhat desperate and panicked. For about a day, I convinced myself that it was nothing to worry about. Lisa was always a free spirit.  She probably just ran off somewhere without telling a soul.  Indeed, that was one of the main differences between us.  I was always attached to her while she was shall we say “unattached.”  Deep down inside, I knew she loved me while we were together at that time but her motto – the line I consistently hated to hear coming out of her mouth – was always, “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back, it was meant to be.”  When I first heard it, I knew it was something I didn’t want to hear. No, not from her.  It sounded like a trite little bit of psychobabble from a Hallmark card, but then every time we argued, she’d always whip out that saying.  It just hung on me like an albatross during our entire relationship.  Of course, no man wants to hear that they need to set their girlfriend free.  That just sounds preposterous especially for a guy like me who isn’t quite attractive enough to readily replace said girlfriend at will. At the time I thought to myself, She could say that all she wants but no way will I ever let her go, and yet the thing about holding onto people too tight is that you run the risk of suffocating them.  I think I understand it better now, and I readily admit that my need to hold onto her probably drove her even further away, but when we were together this kind of deep reflection about the nature of our relationship had somewhat escaped me.

You see every guy wants to think that their girlfriend’s universe revolves around them.  In some cases, that’s exactly what they get and I suppose if both people are happy then bully for them. In most cases though it’s just not like that. You should never get to fully possess the person you love because then there’s no mystery about that person and when the mystery is gone then so is the love.  At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case in my limited experience.  Besides, all that stuff about soul mates and finding “the one” is all fairy tale bullshit society tries to push upon us starting from the time that we’re toddlers.  It’s all bullshit, and really the only people who have “perfect” relationships are shallow phonies with nothing real to say to the world or each other for that matter.

Anyway, I exhausted all of my patience hoping for Lisa to turn up somewhere and say “GUESS WHAT!  I’m not missing after all and you people are so foolish to think that I was!  Can’t a woman just get away from the patriarchal trappings of our society and escape to her own sanctuary of peace and quiet once in a while without friends and family members constantly worrying where she is as if life was some cheap primetime melodrama where every time a woman goes missing every character she’s ever been close to panics and says ‘SOMETHING TERRIBLE MUST HAVE HAPPENED TO HER!’  FOR THE GODESS’S SAKE LET ME JUST HAVE SOME PEACE WHILE YOU WATCH YOUR EXPLOITATION FUELED LAW AND ORDER: SVU EPISODE!!!!”

Now, while I’m confident that those wouldn’t be her exact words, I was quite sure that her natural response to such panic about her well-being would most likely be in that vain.  Far be it for me, a person who won the gender lottery and was born a man and therefore didn’t have to deal with patriarchal subjugation or menstruation cycles, to put words in her mouth. Is there any wonder how I fell in love with a woman with such zest for candidness and feminism?

Well, that’s the thing I did just that. It was the summer of 1997 and we were both employed at a bookstore.  Even then, I had the gut feeling that while I would remain a second rate clerk behind a counter, she would be destined for something greater.  From the instant I first saw her, I marveled at her magnificence.  Her beauty radiated both inwardly and outwardly.  There was no denying she was a diamond in the rough.  Time and circumstances may have landed her in that spot within my vicinity, but life has a way of separating the weeds from the roses.  I’ve never had any doubt which one of us was which in that analogy.  There she was at that time in 1997 wearing a tight button down cream blouse greeting a customer with that beautiful smile.  I swear if there’s one image I’d like to take to my grave with me it would be that smile of hers.  It might even bring me back to life it’s that powerful.  As she was talking, her eyes glanced at me for a moment and I was in heaven. It might have been for a microsecond but I knew and recognized that look of mischief that she shot me so I approached cautiously and found that she was dealing with the kind of person that we in the customer service industry like to refer to as “assholes” or “quite a bit dickish” if we feel like being polite.  Trust me there are quite a number of people who’ve earned the title.  Most of them are registered Republicans although to be fair there are quite a number of asshole liberals too. This particular piece of filth was giving Lisa a hard time because he noticed that there were more pro- Clinton books on the New Nonfiction table than there were Reagan biographies or some other such nonsense.  It’s funny how the more things change the more things stay the same.  My present day store has now flatly refused to do an election table in an election year because the fervor from both sides gets so nasty, however, 1997 was a year of kinder and gentler political discourse. . . well, I suppose it depends upon who that discourse happened to be with.  I mean Democrats were just as likely to be against gay marriage as Republicans and feminism wasn’t as universally embraced by the Left as it appears to be today.  At any rate, I could tell Lisa needed some help so I remembered the spider scene in Annie Hall where Diane Keaton calls over Woody Allen to kill a spider after they’ve already broken up.  First he notices a program for a Rock concert and suggests that the guy who took her to the concert should come over and kill the spider, then Diane Keaton hands Woody a copy of the National Review and an astonished Woody replies, “Wonderful then why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider.”  Of course, William F. Buckley along with his deplorable views on AIDS and homosexuality had a new book that had come out recently calling it “An Autobiography of My Faith” or something equally pedantic (Conservatives and their faith, HA! More like hypocrisy!!Now there’s a subject I could write an epic about).  Well, after shooing the customer away from Lisa and recommending to him this atrocious William F. Buckley book, I finally had a chance to speak to her.

“Now before you judge me for knowing about Buckley’s new book, just know that the only reason I remembered is because of the spider scene in Annie Hall.  I’m about as Left as they come although perhaps not too Left.  More like Gore Vidal if Gore Vidal wasn’t a genius or educated or creative or talented at all.  That would be me.  I’m a stupid man’s Gore Vidal”

She chuckled, “I’ll take a stupid Gore Vidal over a William F. Buckley worshiping asshole any day of the week.  I’m Lisa by the way.”

I noticed that she looked at my name tag with a bit of bemusement, and finally I remembered. . . Beowulf. Curses!

“I’m Jake although don’t let the name tag fool you.  I actually despise Beowulf.  My friend Bill wrote down ‘Loves Beowulf’ as a joke underneath my name on my name tag and I just went with it.”

“I hate Beowulf too,” she said, and like all great romances in the world we bonded over despising both Beowulf and right wingers.  Unlike Woody in Annie Hall, however, I don’t think I would have ever let her off so easy for having a copy of The National Review readily available in her household even for the express purpose of killing a spider although of course we both still lived with our parents at the time going to college and working at the bookstore part time.  Trust me, her parents would never let the National Review anywhere near their house if they could help it either so at least we were all in good company.

So now with Lisa was missing in 2016, I was more determined than ever to find her.  I took two weeks off from work, and proceeded on my journey. I just needed to know that she was alright because she meant so much to me and when I think about it the happiest times of my life were with her so rather than sit and refresh a social media page for days on end I decided to take action. I booked a flight to New Orleans where she was known to go on her writer’s retreats.

“It’s the atmosphere, Jake,” she would say back when we were together.  “I don’t understand how you don’t feel it Jake.  Doesn’t being in this city make you feel more ALIVE than what you feel in New York?  The music, the food, the people, the drinks…. It’s all so transcendent!”

I thought New Orleans was just “okay” but I’ve always been attached to New York.  I’ve never been able to quite feel comfortable in any other city.  The best thing about New Orleans for me was the food especially the sandwiches at Mama’s but as for the trip and the city, I just didn’t feel what she felt.  There’s a special rooming house where she likes to stay while she’s there.  When were each 25 years old, we went to New Orleans together for the first time and that’s where we stayed for our first major trip together.  It was a bed and breakfast type place.  She would write for about 4 hours in the morning while I read my Ian Fleming James Bond books to pass the time. Occasionally she’d give me shit about the Bond franchise exploiting women, but I would counter with the story of the woman I believe to be the unsung hero of the earliest Bond films, Johanna Harwood.  She was assistant to Harry Saltzman, one of the original producers of the Bond films, and he tasked her with adapting the Fleming novels.  She even wrote her own Bond short story, which unfortunately is somewhat difficult to find.  Anyway, Hardwood co-wrote the screenplay that became the first film, Dr. No (1962) and contributed to the second film, From Russia with Love (1963).  Unfortunately, her role has been overshadowed by Richard Maibaum and the unfair treatment she received from the director of the films, but she was right there at the very beginning crafting an iconic piece of cinema history. Lisa would argue, “But isn’t the fact that so few Bond fans know about her prove my point that the franchise and Hollywood in general is just a patriarchal system of oppression that women must navigate?”  I couldn’t really win these types of arguments with her maybe because I knew she was right. In any case, it was a happy time in our relationship, but as each day passed, I would grow more eager to get back home.

I checked into the place we used to stay and promptly asked the manager as well as the staff if they had seen her but they all said no they hadn’t. Part of me figured that she wouldn’t have come to New Orleans to get away from everyone if that’s what she wanted, but I had to try. I stayed in New Orleans for the weekend though booking a flight to Puerto Rico for the following Monday.

During my stay I started to wonder what life would be like if Lisa and I had stuck together.  What would we be doing right now?  What would this trip to New Orleans be like if she were there with me?  Would we have kids?  Would she have been able to settle down in any one spot?  Would I have ever solved the mystery that kept me so attuned to her? I didn’t have answers to any of these questions.  I just grew irritated.  I would walk down the French Quarter and see couples drinking, singing, partying, just having a good time, but all the while I felt disconnected.  I felt like a voyeur watching lives I could never come close to living.  It’s like when you watch Star Trek: The Next generation and you see Data observing human behavior and wondering what it’s like to be human.  Well, I know what it’s like to be human and there are times I wish I wasn’t.  I wish I didn’t care so much. I wish I wasn’t so attached to certain people who don’t feel the same way about me. I wish I could just go about my day without a care in the world without socializing or talking to a single soul in the world, and I wish I could just live and breathe and just be, but then I think of Lisa and I wish I could have a life with her.  Oh, the contradictions inherent to desire! Everywhere I turned, it seemed like there was some kind of joy and happiness to be experienced that I just couldn’t grasp.  It always feels like everyone is in on some secret and they all just laugh at me behind my back when they think I’m not looking only I am and it hurts.  I couldn’t wait to leave New Orleans.

On the Sunday night before my flight I crawled into a nearby dive and drank bourbon for the first time in years. I’d become a caricature of a man driven to drink by a woman, the oldest and most unoriginal story in the world and yet it’s the stuff of legend.

I dragged myself to the airport Monday for the flight to Puerto Rico.  It’s where Lisa and I would have had our honeymoon if we had gone through with our marriage.  When she called off the wedding, the engagement and the whole shebang, I just crawled into a hole for months.  She, however, went on our honeymoon.  You could imagine that I wasn’t pleased, but once we had patched up our friendship she explained that it was a necessary part of her growth.  “It’s where I needed to let go of you as a lover in order to welcome you back into my life as a friend,” whatever that meant.  I’ve come around to the realization that I wasn’t cut out for marriage anyway.  Lisa felt the same way about herself for a couple of years until she married her partner in a nice ceremony in Jamaica.  The wedding was lovely and her wife, Becky was a lovely person but the marriage didn’t last long.  When she called to let me know she was divorcing after 5 months, she declared, “Now I could fuck whoever I want but don’t get any ideas!”  Apparently, lesbian relationships can also be prone to having one partner try to hold on too tight to another. Maybe it’s just that Lisa doesn’t want to be held onto by anyone for too long.  Maybe it’s just her.  Maybe it’s just a part of who she is.

So, I landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico and proceeded to the resort where Lisa and I would have stayed on our honeymoon only to find that there were no guests listed under the name Lisa Faulkner.   That probably didn’t mean anything as perhaps she would have stayed somewhere else on the island but I could just feel that she wasn’t there.  It makes no sense whatsoever, but there’s a feeling I get when she’s close.  I don’t know why or if there’s any kind of scientific explanation for it, but it’s just a weird feeling in my gut.  I just knew I had yet again come to the wrong place even though there were many other resorts I could have checked on if I was being thorough.

Just as I was about to gather my thoughts and return to my hotel room, a strange woman pressed a room key into my hand.  She was wearing a red dress with a zip down the back.  Her prominent cleavage pressed up against me.  Up close I could tell she wore a wig, but she had such a strikingly stunning face.  For a moment I thought maybe she was famous.  She looked like Kerry Washington. “I hope you speak English,” she said.

“Of course, I . . .”

“Shut up,” she said covering my mouth with her hand.  I could tell she had used hand lotion recently.

“What the. . .”

“Just go to room 235 in 3 minutes.  Ask for Manuela,” She said. I could tell she was American.  “I will reward you quite kindly.”  She hovered her lips over my ear in an insinuating fashion.

Men who look like me don’t get these kinds of invitations all that often so I did as she said fully expecting to be let down.  I went to the room, asked for Manuela, and a manila envelope was placed in my hand by what looked like one of the resort’s housekeeping staff. The same woman said, “She’s in room 358.”

As I went up the stairs to room 358, I saw two men with guns.  They didn’t look like Puerto Ricans.  They had that classic FBI attire you see in movies. I’d be surprise if they spoke a word of Spanish. The next thing I hear is yelling from the direction of the room I had just left. Then the distinct pop of shots fired.  I halted right in my tracks and heard footsteps in quick succession running towards me.  I bolted up the flight of stairs. As luck would have it, Rm 358 was the first door on the left. With no time to deliberate, I knocked and then the door opened suddenly.  It was her.  She ripped the envelope from my hands, pulled me inside, and said, “Moan for me.”

“What?”

“Act like I’m pleasuring you.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, pretend I’m giving you the best blow job of your life.”

I did as she suggested.  The footsteps came closer.  They paused outside the door.  She squeezed my inner thigh with her long sharp nails and I yelped so loud I thought I was going to cry.   Then, I heard a snicker as the footsteps passed away.

As I heard the footsteps outside moving further away, I closed my eyes and opened them quickly hoping I’d wake up from a dream, but we were both still there, me in my sweaty khakis and she in a new loose fitting white blouse and jean shorts she had just changed into.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Jake,” I said.

“You got a last name?” she said. “You may not know it but I kind of just saved your life.”

“When you said you’d repay me for that favor, this isn’t quite what I had in mind.”

At that she laughed, “Ha! I bet it wasn’t, but don’t be disappointed, sex rarely ever lives up to the lustful expectations you men build it up to be in your head.  It’s not to say that it wouldn’t be good, but trust me you wouldn’t know how to handle me. I’m afraid you’d be the one having all the fun just as it played out in our little routine.”

“It’s Gleeson. Jake Gleeson.”

“Any relation to Jackie Gleeson?”

“None whatsoever and I’m sick and tired of people asking me that when I give them my name.”

“I’m Bernice Callaghan.”

“Funny you don’t look Irish,” I said.

“My father was Irish American.  Mom was from Jamaica.”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what we’re doing here.”

Bernice said, “If I did, I’d have to kill you and so far, you don’t seem so bad.”  She adjusted her blouse and as she got up I could see a holster strapped around the belt buckle of her jean shorts. Her smile revealed a warmth and glint of danger. Then she turned her back to me, “It’s about that point in the story where I make sure it’s safe for you to leave and you go, don’t you think?”

“What if I want to stay,” I found myself saying.

“You could get killed and besides I don’t need a balding overweight clingy overzealous sidekick to worry about.”

Just then we heard a loud crash from outside the door.  The bad guys seemed to have thought that she was hiding in the room right next to us.  Within seconds we could see the knob moving on the door for the adjacent room leading into ours.

“Quick!” she said.

I followed her onto the balcony.  Before I knew it we were shimmying down a drainpipe albeit she did so more gracefully than I.  She waited for me at the base and then we ran down a dirt road alleyway back around to the hotel parking lot when she froze.

“No! He’s given us away.”  I saw who she was looking at and it was a bearded man in white suit leaning against what was presumably her car.

“Bernice, Bernice, Bernice how lovely of you to join me,” he said. He then instructed one of his goons to remove Bernice’s gun.

“It was you all along wasn’t it?”

“The envelope, I know you have it.”  Then, the man turned towards me and said, “It’s a pity you’ve downgraded to such a pathetic specimen of a man.”  His Latin American accent sent chills all over me.  I thought I was about to die and if that was the last voice I ever heard I don’t think my final brain murmurs would have generated any sense of happiness or inner peace, which is all you could hope for if you die seeing as I’m a devout atheist.  All I ask is that my final moments before my consciousness fades into oblivion be somewhat pleasant, a happy memory if you please instead of sheer terror and utter despair.  Is that too much to ask for these days?  It probably is.

While my panic attack commenced, I saw Bernice hand the man the envelope.  She had folded it and placed it between her waist and her belt before we shimmied down the drain pipe. Then, the man in the white suit took out a gun, pointed it at me, but in the last instant turned the gun at Bernice while walking closer to her. Then he lowered the weapon quite deliberately aiming at her left thigh and fired.  Bernice fell straight to the ground her skin and flesh leaving an awful stain on the ground.  Her body struggled to absorb the pain.  Then, like a fighting pit bull she rose up on her good knee and snarled. “You think that’ll keep me from finding you and ending you, Consuelo?”

Consuelo smiled. “Now you look just as pathetic as your friend.  You should both thank me for my mercy but I know better than to expect that from you.”

Consuelo turned and joined his entourage.  When, he was gone, I bent down on my knee to help Bernice but she pushed me away. “You better leave.  If they see us together after this, they will most definitely kill you.”

I tore my shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound ignoring her advice.  Then, she smiled that mischievous smile and winked at me.  “You just don’t listen do you,” she said.

“I’ve been known to get quite attached to certain women especially after they’ve saved my life.”

Bernice refused to go to a hospital and instead insisted that we drive to a doctor that she knew in a small province called Humacao on the east side of the island. The problem was that despite my best efforts she kept bleeding and it would be a 3-hour drive.  We crawled into her red Toyota Camry and drove.  There were additional garments in the vehicle that we used to tighten my original tourniquet.  The drive felt longer than any drive I had ever known.  We stayed on the main thruway, but the terrain felt ominous as we drove.  The further and further we got from San Juan, the more dread I felt as if I was treading where I didn’t belong.  The road signs warned against stopping alongside the road and picking up hitchhikers.  When we finally reached the exit, the sun was going down leaving a crimson streak across the sky that reminded me of the blood Bernice had been losing from her thigh. I saw mango and banana trees.  A poor lady had been selling cocoanut water at the side of the rode.  She watched as I slowed down the car wondering what we were doing in her neck of the woods.  I could see what I later learned to be Candelero Hill along the green landscape.  It felt like that hill watched me for the remainder of my stay.

We found her doctor friend just before Bernice started to pass out.  I later learned that we made it just in time.  Dr. Colon seemed to work out of an abandoned church.  The place looked so immense on the inside with its stain glass windows and marble floors.  I wondered why the worshipers allowed it to go unused.  I sat in a pew while the doctors and his makeshift nurses took care of Bernice. It’s the kind of setting that makes you want to think aloud. I said to myself, “What am I doing here?”

“Seeking guidance from our Lord it would seem,” came a voice from behind.  It was a nun, one of Dr. Colon’s nurses.  I wanted to tell her that it was all just a momentary lapse that none of this faith stuff is real for me, but it seemed inappropriate for me to disagree.  I simply nodded and turned back to where the altar had been.  It now looked more like an empty stage, and part of me knew that at one time it had been glorious whether or not it was a house of God. Minutes turned into hours and night turned into dawn. I must have slept unknowingly.

I awoke to a kiss on the forehead.  It was Bernice in all her glory.  She smiled, looked at me, and said “Not bad for an overweight ugly sidekick.”

She told me that both she and Consuelo had worked undercover for a rum manufacturer who happened to be selling weapons to terrorists.  The manila envelope contained all the contents they needed to bring down his operation also including the names of collaborators within our own government along with how much cash each of these nefarious types had received. The events in the hotel parking lot meant that Consuelo had double crossed her and revealed her identity to Fernando, the big boss behind it all.  A man so powerful he was even able to recruit his own shadow force from corrupted American agents.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“We go to the south of France.”

The drive back to San Juan was quiet.  I drove as fast as I could watching the Spanish exit signs fly past one by one. I started to think of Lisa again wondering where she could possibly be.  What would she think of this formidable adventure’s I’ve now found myself in? The American radio station played Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and I boldly sung along.  Bernice just stared out the window for half the song and then shot a toothless grin back at me.  Her black hair glistened in the sunlight.  Then, the oddest question came out of her, “Do you think you’ve earn the right to sing that song as a man?”

“What kind of question is that?” I shot back.

“Bruce earned the right to sing this song.  He’s Bruce.  Who do you think you are?”

“Well, that’s mighty brazen.  I’ll have you know that while I may not be anywhere near as in touch with humanity as Bruce Springsteen, I’ve lived a working class life and have had on occasion longed for a woman the way he does in this song.”

Bernice smirked, “I’ll bet you’ve done plenty of longing.”

I lost my patience and said, “You know not everyone finds their niche in the world as easily as others.  I suppose you must have such a high opinion of yourself because you’re a spy and I’m just some fat loser who works in a bookstore for a living.  It must be good to have that self-confidence about you with every move you make but for people like me . . . we go through our entire lives feeling awkward and insecure.  The least you could do is refrain from openly insulting me especially after I’ve done all I can do to help you, Lisa.”

There it was- the slip of the tongue that I wished I could have taken back as soon as I said it.  I accidentally called Bernice Lisa, and why not?  The two of them were like peas in a pod. They were each so uniquely individual and yet so similar it felt like they were interchangeable. The last thing any woman wants to hear, however, is that they remind you of someone from the past.

Bernice turned to me, “Please, don’t tell me you called me Lisa because I remind you of some ex-girlfriend who dumped you years ago.”

This time I was the one who was brazen, “It was a slip of the tongue but maybe you do.  What of it?  As a matter of fact the only reason I came out here to Puerto Rico was to look for Lisa because it would appear that she’s gone missing.”

“I don’t have time for this immature nonsense.  Did it ever occur to you that perhaps this Lisa woman of your dreams is missing because she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Yes, that has occurred to me of course. I just want to be sure she’s okay though.”

“Yeah, and then what? Do you think she’ll jump into your arms and thank you for your concern or do you think she’ll just want to be left alone to live her life in peace and maybe enjoy herself with someone other than you?” she said.

I thought for a minute then said, “Probably the latter.”

I gave Bernice the rundown of my relationship with Lisa and I got the sense during that ride that maybe part of her grew a little sympathy for me or at least I’d like to think so.  She still thought I was crazy to go out of my way to actively look for Lisa, but I think she thought it was cute that I cared so deeply about someone who might not care as much about me.

When we arrived at the airport, Bernice inquired about tickets and we were told that there were seats available on the next flight to Miami leaving in just under an hour where we could then spend the night and take a flight out to southern France early the next morning. As we sat next to each other on the plane, we both nodded off and went to sleep, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to saying I slept with an attractive female spy.

Upon arrival in Miami, we headed straight to the Fontainebleau Hotel where we both had separate rooms. I was mildly amused by the fact that some scenes from the James Bond film Goldfinger had been shot there.  Before drifting off to sleep again, I thought about James Bond and how cool Connery had been in the 1960s, how that natural swagger of his just emanated a natural charm that attracted women to him. As they said, “All women wanted to be with him and all men wanted to BE him.”  I wonder what would be made of this set of circumstances: an alluring female spy with her unattractive sidekick gallivanting around the globe – she with all the wit and magnetism of a female version of Connery and me and my clumsy awkwardness draining the scenario of any sense of class or style.

Unsurprisingly, my dreams were fueled by an overwhelming sense of fear, danger, and lust.  Faceless gunmen, drops from perilous heights, and finally Bernice’s naked flesh percolated in my mind’s eye throughout the night in no particular order.  At one point, Lisa’s naked body melted away to reveal Bernice’s naked body underneath her nipples (as I imagined them) sharp as knives poking out at me.  I’d like to think of myself as a decent man, and yet my own sense of decency is betrayed by my baseless shameful desires.  I’m pretty sure I loved Lisa and lusted after Bernice but there are times when the line between those two emotions (or even those two separate women) becomes indistinguishable.  I still question where one ends and the other begins yet I’ve fully convinced myself that I loved and lusted after both women although I only ever experienced the love of one.

Whether she remembers it or not, I’m pretty confident Lisa loved me at least for that time we were together.  For a while, we were quite the pair of young lovers if I remember correctly.  Those were the days when she fussed after me and called me and seemed to always look forward to the next time we’d see each other.  Then after a few years, something just changed.  It seemed like we just started to go through the motions to be in each other’s company, and I could tell she grew more and more disinterested in me as her lover with each passing day.  Neither one of us admitted what was clearly going on as the distance between us grew and grew until she decided one day to pull the plug.  Actually, it was me who pulled the trigger out of anger and she who finished it off.  When she called to cancel on me one day after a series of previous other cancellations, I just blew up at her over the phone and said, “Why don’t we just call it quits!”

I was such a coward.  I became that guy who breaks up with a woman over the phone.  This was in the era before text messages on smart phones so it was literally the lowest way to end a relationship.  Lisa became hysterical, which led me to panic and try to take it all back only to have her call my bluff and actually end things with me for real.  I could tell it hurt her but it irreparably hurt me even though the whole thing had been instigated by my outburst.  Just weeks before, we had become engaged and had even begun the process of booking a venue. We got as far as booking the honeymoon.  It was a honeymoon she would go on alone.  When she returned, she made the effort to mend our friendship, but our intimate relationship was over.  It’s something that broke my heart and broke me as a man for years to come.  I coped by eating junk food.  I find that the current trend of our weak millennial culture is this notion about being in touch with your feelings and over-reliance on therapy, however, I think you can add the word “therapy” to any vice or addiction in order to rationalize just about anything.  Perhaps it all started with aroma and hydrotherapy although I’ve neglected to do much research on the topic.  For instance, every time I have McDonald’s I call it “McDonald’s Therapy.”  Doing this makes my nasty junk food habit okay and a lot easier to have it align with current societal moods and notions.  I’d advise anyone reading this try this with any of their vices: Oversleeping Therapy, Prostitute Therapy, Procrastination Therapy, Heroin Overdose Therapy, Suicide Therapy – don’t each of those ugly things have much rosier connotations now?

I woke up early the next day hoping to have a head start on Bernice, but when I arrived at her room there was no answer.  The hotel administrator told me she had checked out and that she left me a note.  I read it trying to stay calm, trying not to care, trying to adapt a casual state of indifference but failing miserably:

Dear Jake,

You’re probably not surprised to see that I’ve left.  Despite our little tiff yesterday I really think you’re a nice guy. Thank you for helping me when I needed you.  You can sing Bruce anytime you want from now on and I won’t be there to bust your chops about it, I promise. Take care and stay safe.  Above all, don’t try to follow me.  It’s too dangerous and I don’t want you to get killed. If it’s any consolation I think Lisa might have lost the one man who maybe cares for her the most.

Your friend always

Bernice

I can’t say was surprised, but then something stirred in me after reading that note which I hadn’t felt in a long while.  I was more determined than ever to first find Lisa and also help Bernice some way somehow within my own limited means.  I got on the next flight and quickly determined the fastest way to get to Côte d’Azur.  Every fiber of my body vibrated with anticipation fueled by adrenaline. I hardly remember renting a vehicle or the beautiful countryside of the French Riviera, but I remember feeling like was being pulled to Monaco.  Having been a big 007 fan, I remembered that Roger Moore owned a house there once but there was something else.  It felt as if I was following some kind of Northern Star leading me to a fateful destination and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.  I was starting to get a little tired and hungry but there hadn’t been anywhere to stop for a while so I soldiered on until I reached a rather large and quite lovely chalet.  I half expected the owner to shoo me away seeing as how I was one of those “ugly Americans” who the French have had a tendency to despise, but I was pleasantly surprised to see an elderly Irish woman.  She appeared elderly but not very frail. I could tell she still had her wits about her despite being in her mid to late 80s.  I got out of my car as she carefully approached.  I explained that I had been on the road for some time and that I wasn’t quite sure where I was going.

She told me her name was Johanna. “Welcome, come in and have some tea,” she said. “I was just in the middle of having a lovely conversation with a most remarkable young woman.”

Then, that familiar feeling reappeared in the pit of my stomach as I followed her inside and that’s when I saw her.  It was Lisa as I live and breathe.  She wore this James Bond tank top that I had given her for her birthday last year, which she happily accepted despite the fact that it’s a bit awkward for a guy to buy clothes for his ex. On the front was a depiction of the classic woman in gold paint motif with the word “Bond Girl” written over the top.  She looked marvelous. To me, Lisa was the ultimate Bond Girl, and I say that knowing that the notion may go against the grain of a noted feminist like her.  At the time I wasn’t sure she’d accept it since she had gently given me a ribbing for suggesting that the critique of sexism in Bond movies is invalid.

“Jake what are you doing here?” Lisa asked.

“I should say the same about you.  People are worried sick about you.”

“Oh you mean on social media?  I’ve decided to give it up social media altogether.  It’s just not worth it.  Besides I’m up to something more important.”

“Lisa, your parents, your sister, none of your family knows where you are.  I decided to look for you.”

“And how on earth did you find me here?  Did you know about my plans to interview Johanna Harwood for my book?

“No.  Wait. Johanna Harwood?”

Incredulous, Lisa laughed that lovely laugh of hers.  Then, she walked over to me embraced me, gave me a peck on the cheek. “You’re the only reason I know about her because you told me about her when we were together.  You mean you didn’t know that was her?”

I did a double take, “That’s Johanna Harwood?”

“Yes, and I’m interviewing her for my book on feminism in Hollywood.  One of the earliest chapters will be devoted to her story which I know because you told me all about her.  She was the assistant of Harry Saltzman who co-produced the James Bond movies along with Cubby Broccoli and … You know all this already.”

“Yeah, she co-wrote the screenplays for the first two Bond movies.” I said with enthusiasm. “Is it really her?”

“Yes,” Johanna piped in from behind with a tea kettle in her hand and an empty coffee mug.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Harwood.”

“Why thank you.  I’m surprised this many people know who I am.”

I replied, “Well, I know who you are and when Lisa and I were dating I told her what I knew of your story. Little did I know that she would actually track you down for an interview for one of her books someday.”

Lisa jumped in, “It’s a fascinating story how  Johanna was essentially the first writer assigned to adapt the Ian Fleming novels but then had most of the credit taken away from her once the producers hired Richard Maibaum.  Moreover, the director of the first two movies was reportedly a terrible sexist and kept referring to her as a ‘script girl’.”

“All of that is true, but you know I don’t think I would trade in my experience working for Harry and Cubby back in those days for anything in the world.  I was on the ground floor of something brand new and exciting back then. “

Lisa then asked, “But wasn’t it unfair that these men took all the credit for the work that you did and minimized your contributions?”

Johanna smiled, “You would be right to think that it was unfair.  Perhaps it was, but for some reason I don’t feel bitter about it. I went on to write on other projects, but I never got to direct a film, which was a real dream of mine.”

Lisa jumped in, “Even now it’s very hard for female directors in the entertainment industry.  There are clearly not enough opportunities out there and that’s really what’s going to be at the core of my book.”

“I hope I was of some help to you,” said Johanna. “Now if you’d excuse me it looks like something strange is going on outside.”

I turned around and looked out the window to see a white car approaching with its windshield blasted out and plume of grey smoke rising from behind.  It glided slowly as if it was a wounded animal and then I saw his face.  It was a face I hoped to never see again. It was Consuelo.  The car halted to a stop in the middle of the road and I could see the blood dripping from his forehead all over his suit.  He eyed the chalet and approached.

“We gotta get out of here,” I said.

“Maybe he needs help.  I’ll call an ambulance,” said Johanna.

“No.  I know him.  He’s dangerous,” I said.

“What’s going on?” said Lisa.

“No time.” I said.

I soon determined that exiting the chalet from the back would leave us trapped in Johanna’s open field garden with nowhere to hide so I quickly asked Johanna for the best hiding spot in the house and she suggested the wine cellar.  There was some cover separately for each of us in the corners of the room if we angled ourselves just right behind and in between the racks.  We just had to pray that Consuelo wouldn’t venture down there because we’d each be quite visible with just a little bit of light.

I sucked in my stomach as much as possible to try to fit behind the rack, but it just wasn’t happening.  Before we knew it there was a crash and footsteps stomping hastily on the floorboards above us.  I then heard another car approaching.  More henchmen perhaps? I just listened trying to determine what was going on.

Then, I heard her just outside the entrance to the chalet.  It was Bernice.  She called out, “I know you’re in there Consuelo.  The operation is over.  You lost!”

Then, a gunshot fired and what seemed like sawdust fell into my eyes.  I moved to swipe it away and then I clumsily swiped at a bottle causing it to fall off the rack instead.  Before I knew it, Consuelo bolted down the staircase.  He saw me immediately. “You!” he said. Grabbing me by the collar with a gun to my head, Consuelo led me outside.  My heart sank when I saw the look of dejection on Bernice’s face.

“It’s not over as long as I got your big ugly boyfriend,” he said in his terrible accent.

Bernice lowered her weapon and dropped it to the floor.  I dreaded having to explain to her that this was all just happenstance.   Yes, I was trying to find her, but no, I wasn’t trying to find her quite this way. Everything happened the way it did because I was just . . . me.   That’s what it comes down to really.  I began to reflect that my entire life has been a series of disappointments.  Every essential thing about me from my aspirations of becoming a writer to my relationships with women has all been tainted with failure. I was trapped in a cycle of underachievement and it all appeared to come crashing down on me in what I thought were my final moments.

Surely, Consuelo would shoot me once I stopped being of use to him.  He would use me to secure his escape and administer a prompt injection of led to my skull at the first opportunity.  I began to fathom just how much I’ve let everyone down.  To Lisa, I was this inadequate needy lover who she had to free herself from.  To Bernice, I was this clumsy fat sidekick she never asked for. Finally to myself, I just never amounted to anything.  All those dreams I had of becoming a successful writer one day would now turn to ashes.  Whether I died right now or 70 years from now, in that moment I thought I would never amount to anything.  As the Springsteen song goes, “You sit around getting older / There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me.”  That’s me. The joke isn’t on me.  It is me. Time for some death therapy to set it all to rights.

Just while I was about to fade into the depths of despair, a loud crash caused Consuelo to loosen his grip on me. I turned around to see Lisa with a shattered wine bottle in her hand.  She had clocked Consuelo from behind.

“Jake, duck!” yelled Bernice.

The gunshots fired with a nasty precision as I crouched to the ground.  The bullets pierced Consuelo’s chest and he collapsed onto the ground like a sack of dead weight.

A look of relief crossed Bernice’s face.  Then she approach to see if I was alright but soon after her attention drifted to Lisa.

I caught my bearings and began to introduce them, “Bernice this is…”

“Lisa.” Bernice guessed correctly.  “Jake has told me all about you.”

Lisa smiled and approached Bernice.

The authorities arrived soon after.  We all gave statements.  Johanna’s niece came to take her away to stay with her family while the scene at the chalet would be investigated and cleaned up.  Before she parted, Johanna marveled at the fact that she never guessed she’d be at the center of a real spy story.

Lisa and Bernice drifted off together and soon after I could tell where it was leading so I sauntered back to my car and drove.   In the end it doesn’t matter that I finally found Lisa.  She was never truly lost.  It doesn’t matter that I helped Bernice back in Puerto Rico, my clumsiness in the chalet nearly allowed Consuelo to get away. My life only adds up to a series of missteps and mishaps that will soon be forgotten.  What becomes of those of us who just never fit in?  We’re all too socially awkward to form a support group and to be quite honest I wouldn’t care to join such a group anyway.  It doesn’t matter because once we’re dead none of us will mean anything to anyone anyway.  It won’t matter to Lisa that I dreamed of a life with her while listening to Bruce Springsteen songs. It won’t matter to Bernice that I tried to be her spy sidekick at a time when I thought she needed one.  Once I’m dead and buried none of this will matter, and I feel foolish for believing that it ever would.

I doubt Bernice and Lisa will last very long together if they decide to pursue a relationship but maybe I’m wrong about that since I’m wrong about so many things.  In fact, I think in this case it would be Lisa who will learn the torment of desiring someone who cannot be held onto very long given Bernice’s life as a spy.  I suspect Bernice will ultimately treat Lisa as her own disposable Bond girl if she hasn’t done so already, but I find myself regretting such cruel thoughts.  I must ask myself instead what have I become.

I now regret having any of those terribly despairing unbecoming thoughts.  After all, I should be above this kind of pettiness.  I think back on the good and the bad of my life and think to myself what’s the point of any of it at all?  The answer never comes.  The only one that does is the cold truth that we all die alone this day or the next.  The only comfort in that is the memory of Lisa’s love and how it warms my heart even now to think of a time when I meant everything to her and she to me. Like the Rolling Stone’s song “Memory Motel,” which motivated me to write this all down goes she’s “just a memory of a love that used to be.”

 

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Thoughts of Lilly

She may live in Queens now but Lilly was a Brooklyn girl through and through.  I first came to know her in the finer parts of Red Hook.  Heaven knows everything there smells like it came from the sewer.  I would tease her with my Ed Norton impression whenever I’d bump into her at the grocery store with my old lady shopping cart and my military boots. “It’s really for the best that you wear those,” she would say and I -as Ed Norton- would reply, “They only work in the shallow end, my dear.  Sometimes a man can’t help but find himself with water up to the tips of his ears and a lot of good these boots do me on those occasions.”  She would laugh at my casual repartee, and I’d sometimes spend hours rehearsing it in hopes that I’d come across her again.  One day I got up the nerve to ask her to have some coffee with me, but she replied that she had somewhere else to go.  I wasn’t sure if it was something she said to get out of spending time with me or if she genuinely had someplace to go. Some women are transparent, but she isn’t.  She’s opaque to the degree that I could never quite be sure what she thought of me.  I started to wonder if she merely put up with my Ed Norton routines out of politeness.  Maybe she thought I was a creep or a jerk.  It came to a point where I could no longer stand all the agonizing speculation so I became determined to put my cards on the table and admit my feelings for her for the final time, but then I never saw Lilly again.  Word came around from Nancy (the nice lady who slices my cold cuts) that she had moved.  When I inquired where to, all Nancy would say is that Lilly’s a Queens girl now- living all the way in Astoria. Astoria isn’t that far away.  I thought maybe I’d hop on a subway, head on out there and try to find out where she does her groceries and see how she’d react if I did my Ed Norton impression for her out of the blue.  Either she’d be surprised and delighted to see me or she’d repel from me as if I was some kind of stalker and tell me to get away from her because I was some kind of creep.  Either way, at least I’d have an answer.

Then for whatever reason I lost the nerve.  Maybe it’s because I’m a coward, maybe it’s because deep down inside I know I’m just a loser who told her some jokes while she waited in line to get her cold cuts, but overall I just know it’ll never work.  It’s one of those things where the fantasy in my head of what it might be like to be with her likely exceeds any kind of basis in reality.  Maybe she’d find me to be a real drag.  After all, I’m not always full of wit and humor.  Sometimes, I can be quite introverted and withdrawn.  She’d probably hate that side of me – that is if she’d ever consider going out with me in the first place. I can picture it now in my little hypothetical scenario I’ve got going in my brain. I’d run into her, she’d be perplexed at first as to why she’s seeing me all the way out in Astoria.  Guys from Brooklyn don’t just venture out there for no reason. I’d make up some bullshit story about visiting an aunt or an uncle or something and we’d get to talking.  Eventually, I’d see a look in her eyes that would tell me she’s happy to see me and then maybe … just maybe… she’d actually say it. Then, I’d have an opening. I’d admit to her that I didn’t come out to Astoria to see anyone but in fact I came out here just to find her – to see if there was something (anything) there, and in my hypothetical brain scenario, there would be something there and it would work like magic- like the movies. Then, we’d start dating and after about two months she’d say something like, “You aren’t as much fun as I thought you’d be.  I’m sorry but this isn’t working for me.”  End scene.

Of course if that happened, it would just crush me.  It would crush me even worse than if she just rejected me and called me a creep. I’m reading a book by Phillip K. Dick now that deals with a man who goes mad after getting rejected late in the story.  I don’t want to get into too many details but the plot of the novel has to do with a woman named Pris who designs an android version of Abraham Lincoln.  Things don’t happen the way the protagonist of the story would like and he ends up going through a bit of a psychosis resulting directly from romantic rejection.  The thing about these kinds of scenarios is that everyone experiences some kind of heartbreak and everyone has a different way of dealing with it.  I don’t think I’d go mad like the protagonist of the novel, but what I did find interesting is in researching Lincoln the protagonist comes across the alleged relationship between Lincoln and Anne Rutledge, who some purport to be Lincoln’s first love. Rutledge was engaged to be married to another man, but while separated from her betrothed, she and Lincoln came to know each other.  Historians disagree whether or not a romantic relationship commenced, but Rutledge died during a wave of Typhoid in 1835 at the age of 22.  This was said to have had a profound effect on Lincoln resulting in what would be described as a “severe depression.”  When asked about Anne years later, Lincoln is said to have replied, “I loved the woman dearly and soundly: She was a handsome girl—would have made a good, loving wife… I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often, often of her now.” In Phillip K. Dick’s novel, the protagonist then goes on to draw comparisons between his love for Pris and Lincoln’s love for Anne.

I’m not saying that my feelings for Lilly are the same – whether it’s the protagonist of the Dick novel or whether it’s Lincoln’s alleged feelings for Anne Rutledge. That’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  All I’m saying is that Lilly and I might have had something if circumstances had been a little different and now I must live with the agony of not knowing whether it was as the age-old cliché goes “meant to be.”  I suppose it’s only fair that since I’m not a proponent of fatalism or superstition or religion of any kind that any such unexplainable connections I feel towards a woman must meet pragmatic ends in the strictest possible sense. I suppose it’s for the best since I fear that any kind of gesture I might have made would’ve come across as unintentionally prosaic, but that’s just who I am. I’m just a guy – a regular guy after all. I take my coffee with milk and sugar, I get up, go to work – slaving by the way at some go-nowhere job where no one appreciates me- then, I go home read a book, watch some boob tube, and go to bed.  I don’t have it in me to regale her with stories about interesting people and fascinating places.  I only have it in me to be me, to tell my story. I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be enough.  Women want to be swept away on an adventure.  They crave the exotic, they crave romance, they crave tall dark, and handsome, and I’m none of those things.  I’m Ed Norton joking about the sewer.

So what’s the next best thing?  It’s either going into a “severe depression” like Lincoln because I can’t have the girl of my dreams (only she hasn’t died of typhoid, she just moved to another borough), or I make it up and live in my hypothetical brain scenario where I see her, she’d happy to see me, we go out, and then she eventually leaves me because I’m not as fun as she thought I’d be.  I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking why doesn’t this sorry sap just force his brain to give himself a happy ending, one where he marries Lilly and they live happily ever after without her getting tired him?  It’s my  imagination after all. I’m sorry, but that’s just not how my brain works.  It’s not how I’m programmed.  Besides, if I let myself go in that direction, I might never return to reality and then I’d really go insane.

No, it’s better to just retreat for a short while and then come back to my miserable life as if I had been immersed in a dream and awoken just when things were about to fall apart anyway, but at least the dream was nice for a brief while.

So, Lilly was a Brooklyn girl through and through.  The only problem is that she was forced to move to Queens when her aunt got sick and needed her assistance.  I had been unaware of her move until Nancy (the kind old lady who slices up my cold cuts) informed me.  When I heard the news, I immediately set up plans to go and find her, and find her I did. I figured she’d do her groceries at the same time every Sunday only it would be at some grocery store in Astoria instead of Red Hook Brooklyn. As chance would have it, I picked the right grocery store. Lilly had mentioned that she loved Greek cuisine and low and behold a Google search revealed that Titan Foods on 31st Street would be the best place to go.  I saw her at the Deli counter, strolled up behind her and launched into my best Ed Norton impression, “Hiya Trixie!”

She turned around and when she saw me she was perplexed at first but then she threw her arms around me and offered a broad smile.  We got to talking and we ended up spending the rest of the entire day together.  By the end of the night, she gave me the look that informed me that she wanted me to walk her home. We talked about everything from books to TV, music, and movies.  I told her that one day I hoped to write a novel and that she had been my muse for most of my writing for quite some time.  We drank wine, ate a meal that we both prepared together, and spent our first night just talking until the break of dawn.  Then when it was time to part, I leaned in to kiss her and she kissed me back and told me she had one of the most incredibly romantic nights of her life. From then on we started seeing each other.  We’d go out.  She’d meet my friends and I’d meet hers and we would just gel as a couple and have fun just about every night we’d spend together.  She’d teach me how to make some Greek food, I’d show her how to make arroz con habichuelas, and we’d stay up late watching movies on Netflix and discussing life, culture, and our future together.  We’d make love before retiring to sleep, and we’d each drift away into our dreams with budding smiles on our faces.

The loneliness rooted inside of me would only be assuaged temporarily.  I’d start to get moody. I’d drift away when we were around our friends. People would start to notice that I “wasn’t my usual self.” Maybe it’s the frustration of not following through on that novel I had planned, maybe my day job just gets to me, and suddenly I’m no longer the fun me to be around.  Reality comes crashing in eventually.  One night just as we are about to have dinner, she pulls me aside, gives me a look of complete utter pity.  Her black hair falls frazzled on her shoulders, her round beautiful face no longer holds any warmth for me.  She opens her mouth and she says the words, “You aren’t as much fun as I thought you’d be. I’m sorry but this isn’t working for me.” That’s my cue to get up and leave.  She gives me a pity hug, which I accept because I know it’ll be the last time I’ll ever touch her – the last time I’ll ever feel the warmth of her body.

Now back to reality where I’ll live out the rest of my days thinking of this imagined relationship. I come back from my hypothetical brain scenario to the cold bitter truth and I try to hold on to the imagined memories- the conversations that went late until dawn, the food we’d cook together, the laughter, and the sex.  None of it was real, but perhaps (and sometimes I believe it and sometimes I don’t)…… perhaps it was better than the real thing after all.

The Good Officer

Since we’re only a couple years shy of post-apocalyptic anarchy, I figure why not put on The Golden Girls marathon and zone out.  Besides, it’s the episode where they all go to a local mystery dinner and actors play out a murder mystery while the paying guests interact with them and help “solve the crime.”  I get a chuckle every time the detective introduces himself as Spade Marlowe. The other funny moment is when Blanche rationalizes her flirty behavior by saying “I’m Southern.”  When someone asks “what does that mean?” without a skipping a beat, Dorothy replies “It means her mother was also a slut.” It’s a whimsical moment that makes me laugh no matter how many times I’ve seen the episode.  Life is a bit like that.  There are predictable little moments we look forward to for no logical reason other than the comfort they offer.  I figure if I can string together enough little moments like that Golden Girls exchange maybe the last few years before the world goes to shit won’t be all that bad. The only problem is that TV sitcom episodes are souless things, and I’m not quite sure if I’m capable of truly connecting with someone who has a soul.  I’m not even sure I’ve ever even tried before.

Sometimes now I walk the beat and pass the junkies and pass the prostitutes and think to myself that maybe . . . just maybe they are the way they are because they’re all clued in.  Maybe they somehow got the message intuitively, subconsciously, or through brain radio frequencies.  They must know somewhere deep down inside that the end is near. They probably look at me in my uniform walking by and think I’m a fool who doesn’t know only I do.  Maybe they question the need for any law and order at all. Why not bring on the anarchy a couple of years or so early since that’s what’s coming after all.  Why have law and order now when it won’t be here in the future?  In the future it’ll be every man, woman, and child for themselves and those who lose their grip or can’t manage will wind up in a ditch or a gutter somewhere. Only the strong-willed will survive.  I’m sure they look at me and see me as some stuck up Sisyphus when I try really hard to be an Atlas carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.  I plan to stick through to the bitter end. Why not?  When my time comes it comes.  If people think anarchy suits them let’s see what happens when there are none of us cops around to protect them from the mob.

For tonight, however, I’ve got my couch and I’ve got The Golden Girls and at least in this moment I can put it all out of my head.  Some guys can’t do that.  They take the job home with them.  They know the same thing I know or at least they can sense it.  How could they not?  Leonard Cohen has the perfect song to describe it.  Fittingly, it’s called “The Future.” Like the singer in the song says, “I’ve seen the future / It is murder.”  Well, Cohen may or may not be pleased to find out he was right.  In just a few years, civilization as we know it now won’t exist. I’ve seen it.  I know it. I feel it.  Now, how was your day?

Months ago I was just like everyone else, but then I saw it.  I woke up smack in the middle of it.  I went to grab my badge and gun only they weren’t there.  In their place was a discharge form from the new government.  “We regret to inform you your services are no longer required.” For a second I thought I must be dreaming but then I turn on the news and it’s all but confirmed.  The anarchists have taken over our democracy and so the epic national destruction of our country began. I step outside and see looting everywhere. I see men who used to be beggars hurting children and running off with cheap electronics. “Give me Honda, give me Sony … So cheap and real phony.” You gotta love The Clash. I know I’m in law enforcement and I’m supposed to look down on punk music for its anti-authority anti-law enforcement propaganda, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the last real rock band that said it like it is.  Kids these days have Kanye … what a waste.  The Clash were real artists, they were men who wanted to make a difference with their music. Kanye is just a jerk who struck gold.  Well, all the wealth in the world won’t protect him when the anarchy comes. He’ll be one of the first to suffer the blade of the guillotine and I say good riddance.  If the world has to go to shit just so Kanye could shit his pants as his own fans cheer on his beheading so be it.  Like I said, I’ve got The Golden Girls right now so I’m not worried.

I know most of you won’t believe this.  You’ll think I’m just a cop who went postal. That’s fine with me if you don’t believe my story.  As I told you, I woke one day and I was there.  I was 2 years in the future and let me tell you a lot can happen in 2 years.  That first day in the future was a shock. I was scared to leave my apartment.  Every time I looked out the window there seemed to be shots fired in my general direction and there were riots that seemed to go on all through the night.  People were angry. No surprise there. People are always angry. I see it every day. I’m a cop. That’s practically all I see.  The next day, I grabbed my neighbor, Lenny who lived in the apartment next door.  His eyes were hollow, his skin pale, and his hair looked as if it had been indiscriminately ripped from his skull.  This guy used to look like Jerry Garcia but now he looked like a thin pale hobo who had been repeatedly brutalized.

I said, “Hey man what’s going on?”

He said, “You shouldn’t be here. If they find out you’re here, they’ll kill both of us.”

“Who’s they”

“What are you nuts? The anarchists have taken over this city, this state, this country.  It’s every man for themselves and the first group of people they hunt down are cops.  They know where you live. I’m surprised they haven’t come for you yet.”

“When did this happen?”

“It’s been happening for years but they completed their takeover just 3 weeks ago.  We were on the safe part of town.  Don’t you remember?”

“Maybe I was hit in the head.  I don’t know what happened so please just tell me.”

“You and a group of cops led the resistance and put up a barricade all across what used to be the 5 Points. You and your men were brave.  You fought but just about all of you perished.”

“I don’t remember any of it.”

“You bought us some time and I’m grateful for that, but now that the anarchists have penetrated the barricade, it’s a done deal.  It’s everyone for themselves.”

I sat and hid in my apartment for the next day or so.  I figured they must have looked here for me already and when they didn’t find me, they would have moved on figuring that I’d be crazy to come back. I dug out my old laptop from back in the closet and tapped into my neighbor’s wi-fi and all but confirmed the rest.  It was like the French Revolution or The English Civil War.  After the dismissal of law enforcement came martial law and the execution of anyone who had any kind of position of wealth and or fame.  They took particular pleasure in tormenting every Reality TV star they could find.  I don’t even want to describe what they did to the Kardashians. Executions became theater pieces streamed over the internet over Youtube and Netflix.  The soundtrack to just about every image seemed to be the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”  Just about every meme and video played it as a celebratory anthem.

I watched what was going on and it didn’t faze me one bit.  Everyone talks about how humanity is such a fragile thing.  We’re all little snowflakes on our own private little journeys and all that crap, when really the true nature of humanity is chaos and cruelty and the human psyche can get accustomed to just about anything.  If I wanted to, I could surrender to the same urges as the people out there.  It would be so easy too. I can even understand why they do it.  In the absence of order, people will rationalize just about any kind of behavior. That’s why religion was so important to the history of human kind. Religion kept people from this.  If people believe there is a God watching their every move, they decide it’s best to err on the side of caution.  Somehow, the big secret was revealed therefore unraveling those checks and balances human nature placed upon itself.  The only “good” people who are left are those who choose not to submit to the chaos, those of us who never believed in the bullshit of religion in the first place, those of us who were always moral non-violent people because we chose to be and not because we fear retribution from an invisible man in the sky.

When I wake up back in my own time, my first instinct is to warn everyone, but they will all think I’m crazy so I just resume my life.  I man my post like a good officer, like a good soldier. I show up for roll call, I walk my beat, I get my collars, and that’s it. That’s all I can do until the day comes when none of that matters anymore. When the world goes to shit, no one will be left to care what parking tickets I wrote or if some girl was really driving while texting when I pulled her over. I laugh inside a little bit when they say they’ll fight the ticket in court.  Ha! Soon there will be no court but there will be no tickets either. I let them have their little victories.  They will all have their ultimate victory in the end and it’ll be a force to reckon with.  Maybe they’ll deserve it and maybe they won’t.  That’s how fate is.  It’s indiscriminate. It doesn’t care, but if I can string together just enough little moments to prove to myself that this life was worth something maybe it’ll counterbalance the indiscriminate nature of fate.

Maybe, I’ll ask Debbie out on a date for Saturday night. I met her at the deli and I must have said something to make her laugh and she smiled at me and we talked. She gave me her number and I held onto it, but then I had that little detour in post-apocalyptic hell and now it feels like ages ago.  Maybe she’ll say yes or maybe she’s forgotten who I was. Maybe she just liked the uniform, but at this point who cares.  All I can think of now are her eyes.  She has the kind of eyes that could make a man want to be all he could be just so he can prove himself worthy of her trust.  It’s hard to describe but in that brief meeting she was both inquisitive about me while giving off a studious vibe. I suppose that gets me every time. Anyway, if I can string together enough good moments where I can at least forget about the fate of humanity for a little while even if those moments are brief, perhaps this will all be worth it. Just like I put the job away in the back of my mind, I think I can compartmentalize enough to put the future I saw behind me too. After all, there must be enough things to laugh at, enough people to smile with, and enough clean air to breathe in to serve as fallback memories before everything falls asunder. If I could only feel her warm body close to mine, if I could only taste the sensuousness of her lips, maybe it’ll be enough to distract me from the ultimate fate of all humanity.  Temporary distractions are the name of the game and  some are more worthwhile than others.  For now I have my couch and The Golden Girls and all is right with the world.  Perhaps that will be enough after all. 10-4… Over and out.

Simpatico

They say LA is the city of angels, but if you ask me angels must be born somewhere in Iowa.  I’ve never been there myself, yet I think it’s something of a truism, a statement that I could carry with me to the grave without ever having to prove it to anyone not even myself.  That’s the thing about belief.  It’s something that runs deep into the core of one’s being and even if that someone is a rational person who typically harbors skepticism for most things, when it comes to belief that same person could never and would never waver despite any evidence to the contrary.  Why do I believe angels are born out there you may ask?  Well, part of me romanticizes that part of our country because of Field of Dreams.  When the love of baseball runs in your blood, it’s only natural that one of the best baseball stories should capture a significant portion of your heart.  That tale has everything you could ever want from a baseball story so much so that it manages to make me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never been to.  Music can do that too.  Ever listen to a song made decades before you were born, but somehow you can just feel it in your veins as if that song spoke directly to you? I’m not quite sure what to call that. It’s not déjà vu, but something similar.  Maybe there’s just something about me that makes me more receptive to this kind of sensation.  I’m sure there’s a more sophisticated term for it but I just call it being “simpatico.” It’s that feeling you get when even though you have no reason to feel a connection to something or someone, you just do.  Whether or not the person you’re simpatico with ever even senses it, it’s a sensation that exists “out there” nonetheless.

What do I know about Iowa cornfields or a guy reconnecting with his father summoning the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson by building a left field? Nothing, but that feeling you get when you play catch with your dad. . .  missing that one person in your life that you have that intangible connection with – well, just about anyone with a beating heart could relate to that.  I suppose that’s why most people love that story whether it’s the book or the film or both.  There’s a true sense of the miraculous I get particularly when reading Shoeless Joe, the book that Field of Dreams was based on.  Unlike the movie, it’s only a left field that gets built at first which summons Joe Jackson to come and play.  Then, there’s more hard work to be done building the rest of the field for the other position players, but the miracle doesn’t quite happen all that easily despite all the hard work and sweat and tears.  It’s as if nature gave Ray Kinsella just enough of a taste of a transcendent experience to want more but then it held back demanding even more from the man before yielding the reward and even then only people who “believe” can see it.  There’s a kind of poetry to the events in that story even after you put aside all the romanticizing of Iowa.  It’s that feeling you get when something makes perfect sense even though you can’t explain it.  Maybe Iowa is heaven after all.

In the summer of 2010, I fell in love with the most amazing woman I have ever known, an angel from Iowa named Lizzie Davidson.  I fell in love with her before I even knew her. I fell in love with her even though I never got to know her. Not really, anyway, but this story isn’t about that at least not directly although I can’t rightly tell anymore. Everything gets a bit hazy especially when the old fashioned kind of inspiration runs dry.  My mind used to be flooded with a bevy of ideas, but my brain cells have been skewered over time if not by old age then by the rigmarole of everyday living, the mundane echoing of Phil Collins slushing through my brain – innocuous pop music to fill my mind and help me forget how much I hate the life I’m forced to live, and also there’s the inconvenient factor of being trapped in a marriage.

There used to be a time when I thought I could take it all in the stride. “Pretend to be happy and the world is your oyster,” a man I knew well had been very fond of saying.  Then, he got hit by a train or maybe he jumped into the train or maybe he got pushed. It doesn’t matter now does it? If that was his mantra, he may as well be dead so we could all assume he died a happy man.  The kicker is that the man’s wife won the lottery the day after his funeral with the numbers he used to play every week. Now she lives out in Mallorca with some Eurotrash half her age named Jorge. My wife and I visit her once every so often and each time we toast to her late husband who we all know must be smiling down upon us wherever he is.  I just hide my shit eating grin every time we do this and look over to my wife mouthing the word “bitch” when she isn’t looking.

So, back in the summer of 2010 I worked in an office.  Well, it wasn’t quite an office.  It was more of a lounge, but we called it an office or at least I called it an office.  Hell, if I can remember what we all did there (one evening of listening to “Sussudio” on loop will do that to you- don’t ask why), but I distinctly remember Lizzie Davidson and her smile or maybe it was a fake smile, but even her fake smile was a thing of beauty.  You see, we dealt with a fair share of shall we say unpleasant people who we all needed to be pleasant to so I can’t remember if Lizzie was genuinely smiling at the person in front of her or if it was a fake smile meant to appease said person, but I can remember the feeling of wanting to be that person in front of her – the person she was smiling to.  I watched from afar and realized that I had never witnessed a woman as graceful, bright, and as impressive as her or if I had, I had taken no particular notice.  I developed a crush of maddening proportions so I did what would have come naturally even if I hadn’t been married. I resigned to disguise my attraction to her with a casual display of indifference. I pretended to take no particular notice of Lizzie only every now and then I couldn’t help but look up at her from my work station when I knew she’d be around, and each time I did the attraction grew deeper.  I semi-hoped she wouldn’t notice me at all, but one day she came up to me with that smile of hers and asked how my day was going.  Since I was somewhere where I didn’t care to be, my day had already gone to shit but I couldn’t quite say that.  I couldn’t quite say anything.  I got that feeling you get when you know you’re blushing and tried to recover with some innocuous small talk but needless to say my attempt at remaining cool and calm failed spectacularly. I don’t even remember what came out of me, but it must have been utterly embarrassing.  She just laughed and walked away, but it was a sympathetic laugh.  She wasn’t mocking me the way someone else might in the same situation.  No, not Lizzie.  No, she was laughing because in that instant we were simpatico even if it was for just a brief instance before forgetting it entirely.  There we were a man and a woman on the same wavelength experiencing some kind of fragile connection.

Despite sounding like a raving loon, let me assure you that I’ve never been described as a passionate man.  Most people who encounter me feel as if they’re left with no impression of me at all. I’ve learned to subdue all the things that make me stand out.  It’s what one must do to survive marriage.  Somewhere in the vast garbage dump of my subconscious exists all the things about myself I used to enjoy: my foolish ambition to become a writer, the way I used to roar and cheer at a ballgame, the tears that would come streaming out of me at a sad movie, the plans for my “future me” that I held dear to my heart -all the things I set aside the moment I said “I do.” There’s an old pop song from Rod Stewart’s old band Faces called “Ooh La La.”  The song starts out with the singer telling the audience about his grandfather who warned him of “women’s ways.” “They trap you and use you,” the song goes but the singer simply thought that the grandfather was a bitter old man and surely none of this would happen to him until he reaches the chorus where he sings “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.” Married life is a bit like that. By the time you figure out the kind of person you’d really want to share your life with, it’s already too late.

There was that time I recall now when all the work piled up on us quite suddenly.  It was another Saturday night (“and I ain’t got nobody / I got some money ‘cause I just got paid” – sorry I can’t seem to resist song lyrics these days), but on that Saturday night it was really busy for some reason. I was lucky enough to work side by side with Lizzie and out of the corner of my eye I’d see her and think isn’t she something.  Then, when there would be a breather, we turned to each other and smiled.  It was just the camaraderie of two people working on a task, but it was also something more than that. There was that smile of relief on her face when we finished the rush. The sweat that trickled from each of our brows signaled the adrenaline that pierced through both of our veins.   I could imagine our lips getting closer to each other as we surrendered to kiss each other, yet there’s always work to be done.  Before I knew it, the magic of the moment had passed and I realized that whatever connection we had faded along with that magic.

Whenever I saw Lizzie, it was as if we’d go from strangers to acquaintances to friends to passionate lovers and then back again in a never ending cycle that only I’m capable of registering.   Those moments when the connection was strongest felt utterly intense and then when the connection is lost I felt desperately lost and foolish for ever even considering the possibility that she could be even remotely attracted to me just because I felt this attraction to her. I’ve lost faith in my simpatico theory more times than I could count.   First, I think that I’m such a damn loser who Lizzie wouldn’t want anything to do with even if I were single.  Then, I begin to think that Lizzie must already think I’m just another creep who wants to cheat on his wife the same way all men who have piggishly used women have done since the dawn of time.  She must think I’m a Neanderthal, a pig, a no good louse whose only thoughts lay in the gutter.  Sometimes I even think that way about myself until I remind myself why I started to feel the way I do about Lizzie in the first place.  Of course, I find her physically attractive, but I also think she’d be the kind of woman who could understand me and accept me for who I am and that I could do the same for her, but the more I ponder all this the less it all makes sense especially now.

All these feelings began in the Summer of 2010 and much time has passed, and some might say that I’ve grown complacent.  After all, isn’t time enough that a person commit to one life or another and all that is true I suppose except for the fact that I’ve lost something in the intervening years or rather I became lost.  One day I was walking down a city street when my vision became notably blurred.  It carried on in that way for several minutes but when I fully recovered, I was somewhere else. The first thing I noticed was the cigarette smell piercing through my lungs, but then I began to notice the telephone booths.  Almost every few blocks I walked seemed to have one and not just the kind that were open air.  No, these were actual closable glass partitioned phone booths, the kind that used to be common place many many years ago and now have all but gone extinct.  Then, I noticed the men all around me in suits and trench coats, the women – many of them with their hair made up in neat little buns – carried themselves in a way that seemed uniformly conservative while at the same time utterly striking.  Where were the jeans and sneakers of my time?  Where were the faded T-shirts that proclaimed the favorite sports team or fictional character of the average passerby?  Where were my jeans and my polo shirt? Where were my sneakers?  I seemed to be dressed in an old fashioned grey suit.  My face felt more closely shaven than normal and my hand almost recoiled at the oil in my slick back hair.  I had no idea where I was until a local urchin approached me and asked me for a nickel.

“Shine your shoes for a nickel,” pronounced the bold boy

“I’m wearing sneakers, kid,” I said almost instinctively.

“Why no, sir. Those are shoes if I may say so.”

I look down and much to my surprise I’m wearing black leather shoes which did look like they needed a polish indeed.  I turn to tell the boy “perhaps another time” when I notice the most phenomenal thing.  The cars! The cars weren’t the cars I’d been used to seeing.  No, these were all large gas guzzling vehicles I would consider relics only they aren’t relics right now at this moment in time.  In the blink of an eye I saw a long black Packard 180 followed by a green Hudson Commodore convertible.   Then a Ford Customline Country Sedan pulled up to park right in front of me.  There it stood in all its yellow and white factory delivered glory and all I could do was stare with my mouth open.  A frisky blonde inside seemed to recognize me and called to me.

“Well, are you going inside or are you going to stare at my car all day?”

I stare further in disbelief as the woman grows more and more incredulous.

“Clark? Clark? What’s wrong with you?” she asks, and for the moment I can’t and don’t answer partially because my name isn’t Clark and partially because I have no daggone idea what’s going on or where the heck I am except that something inside me is telling me to go along with all of it.

Something inside of me instinctively tells me that this woman’s name must be Barbara but somehow I know that “Clark” has taken to calling her “Babs.”  I’m not sure how I know this.  I just do.

“Just a minute, Babs. I thought I spotted a dent on your hood but turns out it was just a reflection.”

“Mr. Porter called 4 times while you were out yesterday.  If we don’t have the rent for him by noon tomorrow, he’s likely to padlock the door to the office.  Whatcha doin’ here so early?”

Babs leads the way inside crossing the hallway and walking up the stairs fervently and determined like a woman on a mission as I linger behind.  She hangs up her scarf and her jacket and I put my hat on a hat rack staring about the place.  The dust hangs in the air the same way it might in the distant corner of a library where all the older titles are kept.  The forms on Babs’s desk appear yellowed and typed in a rather old fashioned manner that suggests neat approximation rather than the precise computer formatting similar forms might have in my time.  Everything about this office anteroom reminds of the old films.  There’s a waiting area with a coffee table and ashtrays.  There’s the standard black rotary phone on the upper right hand corner of the desk and file cabinets off to the left of Babs’s chair, and I could just about hear how loud they get when they open and close.  The newspaper she tosses me tells me it’s December 1949. The frosted glass door to the right of Babs’s desk proudly proclaims this to be the office of Clark White, Private Detective.

“Lemme guess, Clara went off with the kids again?”

“What’s that”

“Clara . . . your wife. Did you get popped on the head on the way over here?”

“Ah yes.  Clara is off visiting her sister again.  Why’d you ask?”

“Because normally you come in with an ironed shirt like most respectable men,” replied Babs.

“I must have forgotten.  Sorry about that,” I say.

“I get you your paper, your coffee.  I answer your phones and file your paperwork and now I suppose I need to iron your shirts too.  This job’s more than any woman could bargain for.  The least you could do is take me out to the diner later tonight.”

“You got it, Babs.”

“I don’t suppose that wife of yours will have sense enough to stay away long enough to let me take her place?”

“I doubt Clara would ever quite run off for good.”

“It’s a shame. You and I make quite the match.”

“Those are just the cards we’re dealt, Babs,” I say as I walk into my office and close the door.  I stare out the window for a long while expecting to awaken in the 21st century after every blink of my eyes only it doesn’t happen and I think to myself that of all the places to disappear to and end up in this ain’t so bad.

At the end of the day, I take Clara out for a hot meal and further settle into the life of Clark White.  Most of what I need to know has been implanted in my brain somehow.  For instance I know Clark has $75 tucked away in his gun safe for a rainy day and while Clark was hoping not to use it towards rent he figured about half of that might keep Mr. Porter from padlocking the office if he piled on the charm and implied that he was working a “hot case.” I know that Babs has been Clark’s loyal secretary for 4 years and that she flirts with him at every opportunity knowing that he could never call her out on her bluff.  It’s turned into a game they play and they each get some zingers in to pass the time and relieve stress when needed.  At dinner she talks about her old boyfriend Rocco who used to take her to the pictures until she found him sticking his hand up Betty Brogart’s blouse when she decided to treat herself to the movies one night after he told her his ma was sick and he needed to leave town for the weekend.  The food at the diner tastes absolutely delicious even though I just ordered a hamburger and fries.  The burger is perfectly seasoned and the vanilla milkshake I treat myself to hits the spot like no other milkshake I’ve ever had.  Babs notices that I appear more pensive than usual, but as my confidence about the circumstances rises I feel more alert and aware enough to stave off her concerns. I walk her home and I go off to my place knowing exactly where to go and feeling more and more at home with every step I take. I become Clark White and I have no regrets in leaving my old life behind.  Somehow it just feels right for me to embrace this existence.

I get so used to walking in Clark White’s shoes that 2 years go by and I hardly even notice and hardly ever even stop to think about my 21st century life, which I can safely say was not much of a life at all. Having somehow gleamed Clark’s personal knowledge and skills I found myself to be quite an able gumshoe when I had to be.  Most of the time I tracked down cheating or missing spouses.  Missing and cheating tend to be the same thing in this business. I created quite the stir, however, once I found Trixie Montgomery after she ran off with Nazi gold nefariously obtained by her husband. It made all the papers “Private Dick Recovers Nazi Loot” and “Detective White Settles the Score for Uncle Sam.”

Then, one Saturday afternoon in June 1951, I get the urge to visit the Polo Grounds and watch the Giants play ball 6 years before they would move to San Francisco.  I had been to couple of games before, but this one Saturday afternoon I felt something beckoning me to go to the game so I did.  I passed through the turnstile knowing full well that back in the future a writer by the name of W.P. Kinsella would romanticize this very act which now felt common place to me no different than swiping a metro card at a subway today.  Part of me just wasn’t sure how to pay reverence to such an occasion other than to blend in and act like I belonged which was a behavior I had grown accustomed to.

The smell of fried onions and hot dogs lingered just about everywhere as I approach my seat.  I thought about inviting Babs to the game with me but something told me I needed to be there alone. It was really something to see the stands come alive that day.  I saw Wes Westrum behind the plate for the first time that game. I recognized him as one of the Mets future managers, the one who would replace Casey Stengel as manager in 1965 and whose career as a Mets manager was unremarkable but I nevertheless took pride in watching him play the game as the starting catcher for the Giants in the 1951.  I suppose the foreknowledge that this team would eventually lose to the Yankees in the World Series that might spoil the experience for most people but anyone who loves the game of baseball just loves to watch the game being played.  So what if I knew how the season would end?  My baseball knowledge was limited to World Series winners alone so I had no idea about the outcome of the individual games in the season. Back when I was 12 years old, I decide to memorize the winners of every World Series ever played.  It’s just something I carry with me and I know no matter where I happen to be.

I watched Larry Jansen strike out the side in the 4th inning then I sat back in my chair and inhaled the smell of the outfield grass when I looked across the field and saw her.  It was Lizzie Davidson sitting just beyond the Giants on deck circle. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me at first but then there was no doubt in my mind it was her.  I got up from my seat and started to make my way towards her section hearing several “What’s da matter, pals” as I made my way.  As I got closer, I called out to her but she didn’t seem to hear me.  Next to her was a big man and I knew he just had to be somebody’s muscle. I wondered if she was in danger and was desperate to find out more.

Both the strong man and Lizzie get up and make their way to the back seats under the shadows of the upper level. I could tell Lizzie doesn’t want to be there.  Then I see it, the dark metal barrel pointed at her ribs and my mind gets ready to freak out but I somehow compose myself and push people aside until I’m right next to them. I remember that I’m carrying my own piece, and I decide to pull up right behind Mr. Muscle and stick the barrel of my gun right in his lower back.

“I think the lady doesn’t care for the pleasure of your company. I’d scram if I were you unless you desire a new orifice in a place where you haven’t got one already.”

Mr. Muscle looks surprised and stunned. “A new what’s it?” he says.

Since I arrived here I seemed to have attained a natural gift for the one-liners so I say, “Look it up in the dictionary and beat it.”

Mr. Muscle leaves and I find myself lost in Lizzie’s chestnut brown hair. I think about how her hair would look splayed out on an empty outfield grass as the two of us lay side by side in an empty left field with no one else around (It has to be left field because in Kinsella’s book it all starts with a left field). Her round cheeks and her beautiful figure enchant me and I find myself feeling as if I’m floating only to be awakened by her soft voice saying, “That was sweet of you, but you shouldn’t have done that.”

I reply, “No worries. I’m a Private Dick. I can take care of myself.”

Lizzie took great pains not to laugh at my line and then she introduced herself as Elizabeth O’Connell and I just decide to play along.  I tell her I’m Clark White and offer to look after her if she thinks she’s in trouble.  It turns out she is, she’s in a lot of trouble.

We don’t get to talk much as I escort Elizabeth to my car.  My 1950 Pontiac Chieftain deluxe convertible is hardly the kind of inconspicuous vehicle you’d expect a low brow detective to have, but with all the success after the Nazi gold case, I decided to splurge a little.  Only now I wish I hadn’t.  The largeness of the thing sticks out like a sore thumb and no sooner do I get passed 109th street do I spot a cabbie tailing me.  Mr. Muscle looks to be behind the wheel and I could tell by the determined look in his eye that he plans to stop us and stop us for good.  I step on the gas and try to ease Elizabeth’s concerns by telling her that this isn’t my first high speed chase on the streets of the city, but she looks too worried to care about this feeble attempt to console her.

I try to get downtown fast but traffic seems to be working against me.  At East 74th Street I make a sharp turn into the alley as Elizabeth’s jaw gapes open in suspense.  I honk the horn 3 times and unload a single shot into the air.  The cabbie is right behind and I pray they don’t shoot out my tires, but so far the shots they’ve fired have all missed the mark completely.  Still, I make sure to tell Elizabeth to keep her head down.   After speeding away for 3 minutes I make a sharp u-turn doubling back to pull in front of the Church of the Resurrection at 119 East 74th Street where Father McMichael stands outside ready with his shotgun.  He waits for us to pass him by and then stands in the middle of the street pummeling his Winchester right into the windshield of the cabbie. Mr. Muscle brakes hard and his body breaks through the grass along with his companion, a mustachioed man in a bowler hat.

As Father McMichael comes towards us to see what’s going on, I tell Elizabeth that it pays to have friends in high places. It also helps that I caught the sorry mook who conned the church out of 7 Gs a year ago using the same signal system only I was the man with the shotgun at the time.

I finally got the chance to talk to Elizabeth as we sipped down some Earl Grey tea at the rectory. Father McMichael left us alone to talk after seeing to the authorities.  Turns out the good old padre stopped some fellas who stole a cabbie uptown.  How he knew the cabbie was stolen, they ask.  Well, the Good Lord has His ways, he says without blinking an eye.  The doughnut squad buys it and that’s why I love religion.

“So, let me guess.  You must owe the wrong people some money,” I tell Elizabeth.

“Close, actually they owe me money,” she says. “I bet on the Yankees to sweep the Phillies in the World Series back in October.”

“Good bet,” I say.  “How much was it for?”

“100 grand at 9-1 odds,” says Elizabeth without batting an eye, “They took me for a sucker. ‘Yanks might win the Series but no way will they sweep,’ they told me.  Turns out I was right. I tend to be right about these kinds of things. I like the Yankees chances of winning this year too, but I think my betting days are far behind me.”

“I agree about the Yankees but I’m not a betting man myself.  It’s a shame though. I never could take to those pinstripes,” I say.

“Well, don’t count me among their fans,” she says, “I just know a good bet when I see one.”

Later that evening we retreated to my office and I ignored the glare Babs gave me when I told her to hold all my calls as we rushed passed her after a cursory introduction. Elizabeth filled me in on all the details telling me that the bookie she made the bet with was connected to the Luchesse Syndicate.   The bookie himself was just the middle man who was forced to welch on the bet by his boss Stafano LaSalle, underboss to Thomas Luchesse.  I wondered if Elizabeth was thinking what I was thinking.  Just about anyone else in their right mind would have advised her to forget about the money and leave town, but instead a crazy notion clicked in my head and I wondered if the same notion was on her mind.

“What if,” I started….

“We hold up a Luchesse casino,” she finished.

“A woman after my own heart,” I said. “How’d you know what I was thinking.”

“Woman’s intuition,” she said.

That night was the perfect night to strike.  They would be licking their wounds from the pinching of Mr. Muscle, and I doubt they knew the kind of ally Elizabeth made the Polo Grounds. I made some phone calls, and in a matter of a couple of hours I secured a team of clean trustworthy cops willing to give organized crime a black eye. This would be an unofficial operation of course.  In my business, it pays to know which cops are on the take and which ones aren’t.  It pays to know how many cops are in fact disgusted with the rampant corruption in this town where gangsters operate with impunity.  These are the guys with tough hearts and cold eyes.  These are my kind of men.  I explain all this to Elizabeth but she’s just nervous about whether or not this crazy idea will actually work.  I decide to take my chances, lean in, and kiss her. She kisses me back. Then, something happened to take us out of the moment.  She began telling me some of the things these men have put her through since she tried collecting on her bet.  How she’s been forced to live life constantly looking over her shoulder, how one day the men even killed her dog.  Then she said, “Until today, it seemed to me that just about every man in this world had a rotten heart. Somebody ought to write a song about it.”

I thought for a second and said, “Well, the closest thing I could think of is a song I once heard by a guitar playing fella called ‘Hungry Heart.’ Fella who played it was named Bruce.”

Elizabeth took a step back and her face seemed to contort in utter shock.  She gasped. “Springsteen,” she said.  That two syllable name stood between us like an albatross and seemed to produce a tremor that only the two of could feel.

I finally speak. “How could you know that?  Unless you’re really her. Lizzie Davidson?”

“Yes and you must be…”

But before she could finish, Lt. Stanley Caldwell just about knocked down my door. He’s the man I’ve just chosen to lead our assault on the Luchesse casino along with me.  Nine of his men were right outside. Lt. Caldwell knew the perfect time and place to strike.  There was a former speakeasy over on West 46th street that was now just a plain bar using its secret hidden back room to double as a gangster casino.  Caldwell had just raided the place just over a month ago but the charges were suddenly dropped and nothing ever came of it.  I can’t help but glance over at the woman I now know to be Lizzie from the 21st century and suddenly fear sweeps over me.  My fear has nothing to do with the operation.

All of us put on ski masks as we ride in an unmarked police van out to the west side.  I try to convince Lizzie that she should stay behind, but she insists on coming along. Once we arrive, everyone says their own quick little prayer – the cops to some Jesus guy, and me to whoever controls this time travel thing that’s kept me here in the past for so long to keep me here even longer.  My gut only tells me that my prayers will be in vain.  Somewhere, some universal time travel computer will no doubt detect a glitch and say “Wait a minute… These two people don’t belong together… Not in this time . . . Not in any time.”

It’s Lt. Caldwell’s booming voice that everyone hears as we storm into the bar and head towards the back. There’s a momentary sense of chaos where all the unsuspecting men in the room freeze and then protest but I make the first move. I let my gun speak once letting the bullet fly just over the head of the strongest looking man in the room.

Caldwell breaks through to the back room where we see black jack tables and poker tables lined up from front to back. Elizabeth in her ski mask holds the Smith and Wesson I gave her shaking hand but her eyes impart the necessary sense of fury to give the impression that she’s willing to use it.  Then, Stafano LaSalle weaves his way towards us with his hands up.  Elizabeth removes her mask.

“Lizzie no,” I say as I watch her steady her stance and tighten her grip on her weapon.

LaSalle all smarmy and coy smiles, “It’s alright, it’s alright.”

“I want the money you owe me with interest,” Lizzie says sweat dripping down her brow like pouring rain.

LaSalle motions to a man at the corner. “Eddie go into the safe.  Give these men everything in there.”

Eddie attempts to vocalize some kind of protest but it only comes out as a mumble.  I make my way over to him and point my gun right between his eyes.

“Do it,” LaSalle said. “Let me tell you something, girl.  You’ve got yourself some moxie but if you ever place any kind of bet anywhere in this town again I will personally see to it that you and every one of your friends – don’t think I don’t know who they are – you and every one of youse will be hanging from a meat hook.  Are we clear?”

Lizzie stepped up to him. She put her gun down staring him right in the eyes. “Crystal clear,” she said.

Lizzie and I thank Lt. Caldwell and his men. They depart and then it’s just the two of us outside my office on West 35th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. “I don’t quite feel like going back to my apartment,” she says.

“Well, with my wife at home the only thing I can offer you is a cot in my office but with the funds you’ve got I suppose you have better options for yourself.”

“Don’t you think we should talk,” she says, “About where we’re from?”

“Absolutely not. What if the two of us just being together like this pulls us back? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”

“We’re still here aren’t we?”

Only just as I was about to reply, my biggest fear came to fruition and in the worst possible way.  As I tried to pull closer to Lizzie and reach out for her suddenly my vision blurred again. Then, came the noise.  That insidious horrible sound. It was coming from large amplified speakers.  I was in some kind of concert theater.  Then, the worst part of it came.  A keyboard riff and then that bland loud voice broke out in song, “There’s a girl that’s been on my miiiind /  All the time/ Su Sussudio!!!!”

Phil Fucking Collins.  I was at a Phil Collins concert with my wife. “Isn’t this awesome?” she asks.

“What the fuck is this?”

“It’s your favorite song,” she says. “You listen to it practically all the time. I got these tickets for you.”

“Lovely,” I say.  There’s nothing more I could say. Later on I find out 3 years have passed. No one seems to think I had gone anywhere. It takes me several months to readjust to my 21st century life.  One day not too long ago, I actually had the urge to listen to that Phil Collins song again and that’s when I knew I had fully returned. I was me again grounded in this time.  Phil Collins becomes a pill I take to numb my brain and deal with the loss of my preferred life as Clark White.  The music is literally a drug to me.  Other songs become my drugs – a means of escaping without really escaping, a way to feel passion without risking any real part of me. I just escape into the world of a song and I’m there in that moment feeling the song’s feelings, living the song’s life. No courage necessary.

I find out Lizzie no longer works in my office but instead she now works in a different office smiling her same smile at a different set of people.  One day very recently, I resisted the urge to listen to Phil Collins and decided to see her. I think Why not. I’ll just go up to her and ask her if she happened to be a bodysnatching time traveler who pulled off a casino heist with me in 1951.What could possibly go wrong?

I get very close. I see her through the glass door but then just as I’m about to go inside I see my own reflection. I see me, the person who I am in this 21st century life – a man adrift with no prospects other than the fruitless office work I do.  When I was Clark White I was somebody, and now as I stare at myself I’m back to being nothing but a shapeless shell of a man. I’m not Clark White anymore.  I’m nobody and I have nothing to offer- no bravery, no courage, not even a nifty anachronistic one liner.  Lizzie – whether she was with me back in 1951 or not – deserves better. I turn around and go back home where I belong and listen to Phil Collins “Against All Odds” with my headphones on. I must forget all that stuff about being simpatico, but it’s a notion that I just can’t seem to shake out of my head. I think just this one thought to myself before falling asleep on my pillow and forgetting the entire matter, if only I could spend one night with her. If only I could spend a lifetime.

The Lips of a Killer

Intro:  This was a story I wrote for submission to The First Line, a literary magazine where they provide the first sentence and then you – the writer – must complete the story using their first line.  I found out about it a couple of days before the due date so I really didn’t have much time to come up with something more original. I just thought I’d just give it a shot and write something quick in time to submit using their line: “Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  So, off I went and wrote this story and sent it.  It’s not the greatest thing I ever wrote, but the whole point is to try to do something creative and original.  It’s a bit derivitive of the Mickey Spillane stories I’ve read except it’s told in the 3rd person and I get my detective in a jam that he asbolutely won’t get out of.  It’s a one-off in the truest sense of that phrase since the character isn’t one that I plan to revisit.  As a nod and a wink I named his secretary Vicki using another “V” name.  Mike Hammer’s secretary was named “Velda” in the Spillane stories, but Vicki isn’t quite the same as Velda and you’ll see why.  Needless to say the story was rejected, which is no surprise to me since it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel centering on a typical detective’s encounter with a femme fatale.  Since it was rejected, I can now share it here.  It’s rare for editors to give any kind of feedback.  I suppose they may have written this to everyone who had a story rejected, but here’s what they wrote: “Really well done, Jack. Several similar submissions, but I enjoyed yours. Just missed. Try us again.” So without further ado, here’s the rejected story.

_______

“Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  The smirk on Mary’s face spelled it out all too well.  Harry took solace in the only source of comfort available to him in that moment – the way she held her cigarette in those delicate fingers, the way her lips curled just before letting out the smoke which seemed to envelop her in all her radiance.  That red gown she wore just for this occasion told him the one thing he should have known all along: that she was dressed to kill.  He had a habit for falling for the wrong type of dame and why should Mary be any different.  Everything about this case felt off right from the start ever since she sashayed into his office like a tigress waiting to pounce upon its willing prey, and yet he was drawn to her.  Even in this moment of ultimate betrayal, even now when there could be no uncertainty, no doubting her unbridled cruelty, he couldn’t resist that face and those curves on her body.  If in some sadistic fashion, she decided to kiss him in this very instant, he would kiss her back and that kiss would be both passionate and sincere.  Despite the very fact that she seemed to be just seconds away from extinguishing his life, he still desired her perhaps even loved her.

As she drew closer to him, he saw the Beretta 9mm pistol in her nonsmoking hand.  Her eyes peered into his as she said, “You were never supposed to see that file on me, Harry.”

Struggling up a smile, Harry replied, “Well then why don’t we pretend that I haven’t, sweetheart.”

Her bare shoulders shrugged conveying her sarcasm, “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” said Harry hoping in vain for some kind of reprieve knowing she’d never fall for it.

Putting down her cigarette, Mary shimmied over to him with all the grace of a ballet dancer holding the gun almost like a toy in her tiny hand, her finger around the trigger.  Mary pressed the business end of the pistol point blank against his chest and proceeded to caress the upper buttons of his shirt. “No dice, Harry,” she said in a mousy voice that would have been unattractive coming out of the mouth of any other woman.

Harry held his breath anticipating the moment of his demise wondering if he’d even hear the sound of the bullet firing.   He had frequently told himself that he didn’t care if he lived or died and that in fact he was prepared to die if the circumstance ever came down to it, but now that death became almost a certainty he wasn’t so sure.  It’s one thing to occasionally flirt with death and to even resign yourself towards an occupation where your life is on the line, but to actually die, to actually take that final breath knowing it to be your last, knowing that every sensation and memory you’ve ever had could just cease to exist at that very instant? Being privy that kind of knowledge could just about terrify any man even one who had already spent decades risking his life.  Harry had been in gun fights before.  Gunfire was nothing new to him, but he had always been armed.  He always had his piece on him.  This was the first time he was disarmed with a pistol pointed at him just inches away from his flesh.  The sweat on his brow intensified while his eyes searched the room for some kind of salvation, some kind of miracle object that might get him out of this trap, and yet there was nothing.

The ornate furniture of Mary’s bedroom had always left Harry bemused. Now the thought of dying in this very room sickened him.  He always found the room dank, but his objections were usually silenced by the dropping of garments in front of him followed by the squeezing of her wanton flesh.   Right now, Harry wished he could summon just about any pleasurable memory of the numerous other women he’d been with but in these final moments she was the one in front of him and therefore his mind would be occupied solely by her.  His rational mind searched for any other alternative only to come up empty.  In this very moment Mary was the only woman who existed. His last and only thoughts would be of her and he found himself both aroused and repulsed by this woman who now stood ready to kill him in cold blood.

Strangely enough she seemed to be reading his mind as she said, “I bet you’re gathering your final thoughts in that internal monologue you’ve got going in your head.”  She paused, “It’s okay to admit it.”

“What is it that you want me to admit?”

“That you’re thinking of us, more specifically me,” she said with a sadistic smile. “I can’t begin tell you how many men have fantasized about me just as they were about to die.”

“That file could tell me,” said Harry.

Mary laughed to herself, “Yeah, I suppose it could.”

“So Sacramento, Seattle, San Antonio, and now New York.  That was all you. Same modus operandi. One bullet in the head and one for each testicle.”

Mary stood quiet and smirked that little grin of hers.  Harry’s brain worked hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together knowing he stood nothing to gain but determined to solve one last mystery nevertheless.  He focused his thoughts on all the things that transpired to get him to this point.  The moment Vicki, his secretary, announced that he had a prospective new client, giving him that special look she reserved for those times she knew there’d be trouble. He knew he was in for a doozy.  Vicki had recognized Mary’s face from the newspapers.  When she walked through the threshold of his office door, he recognized her too as the recent widow who the coppers had deemed fit to book for her husband’s murder.  Turns out the doughnut squad got it right the first time, but a whole lot of good that did him now.  Mary must have known that he couldn’t resist. Poor Vicki.  Harry imagined she’d take his death the hardest.  There’d always be that night cap she invited him for after a night at the pictures a couple years back.  Vicki may just be the most loyal woman alive because somehow she never let him feel even a hint of remorse for getting back to business as usual the next day when she had clearly wanted more, when every inch of her body felt like it had achieved the ultimate ecstasy with his every touch as he took her that one night. If only he could have brought himself to commit to her instead of brushing her off after one evening of bliss. Harry struggled to remember the sensation of his lips kissing her, but the memory of that sensation escaped him now returning him to the cruel woman standing before him.

“Men are so easy to manipulate,” said Mary. “When I came to you with my sob story about how the cops had railroaded me, you were only too eager to take on my case.”

“For my usual fee,” said Harry.

“But soon after we got to know each other better,” said Mary with a wink, “You began to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case.  You never figured that I was capable of murder, did you?”

“How could I?” said Harry.

The newspapers called her the Black Widow after her fourth marriage ended with the untimely demise of yet another husband. Everyone in the country believed she was guilty as sin but Harry became determined to prove them all wrong.  Although she openly confessed to disliking her husband and marrying him for his wealth, she managed to convince Harry that she had been innocent. Perhaps it was her warm body beneath his that did most of the convincing, but she claimed to have had an alibi for the time period when her husband had been shot.  She claimed to have been at the pictures even producing a ticket stub for the 3pm showing of Pal Joey. After some coaxing the ticket seller and a few ushers remembered her, but Harry now supposed she could have bought the ticket and ducked out of the theater to murder her husband.  What Harry couldn’t figure out was the identity of the individual who must have been helping her.  Mary had no known blood relatives nor did she seem to have many close friends yet there were too many incidents during his time with her that just didn’t add up.   There was the shooting outside his office when they were together, and of course the incident that occurred when they were trying to draw out the real killer of her husband which led to the two of them becoming intimate.

“Tell me who’s helping you, Mary.”

“I suppose you haven’t gotten to that part of the file,” she said.

“You mean it’s there?”

Her mousy voice returned, “Here I am thinking that you discovered it just as I closed the file in your hands.”

“What I saw was that all the killings in the other cities were identical to your husband’s including the details that were not in the newspapers.”

“I don’t suppose you would tell me how you got the file in the first place,” she asked.

“Not a chance,” said Harry.

It wouldn’t be so hard for anyone to figure out that Harry pulled a few favors with the NYPD to get the case file on one Mary Calhoun compiled from each city where the previous husbands had all been killed. George Calhoun, the latest victim, was the wealthiest one yet.  If Harry could only prove her innocence so that she could get away scot free, it would become her biggest score yet.  It was his closest friend, Detective Frank Fisher who had been convinced of Mary’s guilt all along, but gathering all the information on those previous case files took time as well as the pulling of strings. The other investigators from the previous cities had been less than forthcoming.  Frank had come by the office when Harry was out and left the file with Vicki or so Frank told him when he bumped into him at the coffee shop.  Something had come up and Frank had to run off, but Harry was assured that it was there. When Harry returned to the office, Vicki told him the file was gone. It had been right at her desk and it had disappeared.   It didn’t take long for Harry to figure out where it had gone to once Vicki admitted that Mary had stopped by for a visit.  He paid the doorman a fiver to let him know whether or not Mary was in the building.  With confirmation that she was still out, he snuck into her apartment and proceeded to search when he found the file tucked away in a dresser draw among her unmentionables. He flipped through it randomly observing some key evidence about the previous murders when a delicate hand closed the file from behind him.  Somehow she had been expecting him.

With Mary now firmly in control, she took hold of the file and folder and flipped it at him while securing her grip on the gun still pointed at him. She said, “Since you’re going to die anyway you might as well see for yourself.  Go to the page entitled ‘Known Associates’ and I bet you’ll be in for a shock.”

Harry flipped through the pages and there it was plain as day. There was a photo of a woman clearly in a wig but the face was a face he had known, a face he trusted.  It was Vicki and written underneath was the word “sister.”  Harry drew in a breath and stared in disbelief.

“What’s the matter, Harry?  Can’t believe that your trusted secretary would betray you?”

“It can’t be,” said Harry.

“Typical of a man, isn’t it?  You rely on your secretaries to be these loyal confidantes, to do your dirty work, to protect you, to get you your coffee when your hungover, soup when your down with the flu, to be your eyes and ears when your away and what do they get in return?  They get a pittance of a salary when business is booming and an IOU when it’s slow. Then, the kicker is when they fall for you and give themselves over to you body and soul, you treat them like yesterday’s paper in the morning and expect them to just go back to business as usual.”

Harry stood silent until finally asking, “Where is she?”

“You don’t deserve to see her again,” said Mary as she drew in closer.  Just then another figure emerged from the shadows.  It was Vicki or at least the woman Harry knew as Vicki.  Her hair was strewn about like a mess and tears covered her face.

“I never wanted this for you, Harry.” Said Vicki.

Harry’s knees weakened as he knelt on the floor.  He began to plead, “There was always a place in my heart for you, but you know how it is in this business.  It just didn’t seem right for me to be close to anyone.”

Mary laughed, “I bet he’s sorry now, Sis.  How does that song go?”  She began to sing, “Who’s sorry now?/ Who’s sorry now? Who’s heart is aching for breaking each vow?”

“Stop it!” yelled Vicki.

Harry closed his eyes and reached out for Vicki.  She grabbed his hand.  He knew that the pivotal moment was near.

“Don’t go all soft on me now, Sis.  We need to get rid of him just like the others.”

“Just like the others,” repeated Vicki.

Vicki let go of Harry.  Harry began to sob as Mary walked behind him.  In one last desperate gasp, he shouted, “I love you Vicki!”  Then the shot fired though he didn’t hear it.  His body collapsed and as his life escaped him it wasn’t Mary his final thoughts were focused on.  It was Vicki and that one special night they had together.  While the newspapers would ultimately categorize him as just another victim, a sap who fell for the wrong dame, he had one advantage over all the others. He had the blissful sensation of the lips of the woman he loved pressed upon his even if he only felt them for a half a second before his consciousness dispersed into oblivion.

 

 

 

Old Age

Fred was eager to see Jill again.   It was all he could think of after so many years.  He wondered if he could even hold his own in a conversation with her anymore.  Ever the consummate romantic, Fred had enshrined Jill in his memory as a symbol of his youth or at least his earlier years before life became a dull futile exercise burdened with age and unrelenting routine.  Such great expectations were bound to result in utter disappointment, but Fred refused to allow the reality of his predicament to enter his mind.  After so many years, he was just happy that Jill agreed to see him again, not that there was ever any real reason for their estrangement other than the typical “life getting in the way” and “we all must move on” platitudes we tell ourselves in these kinds of situations. There had been no big argument or confrontation to split them apart before.  It was like two rivers drifting apart for a time only now to merge once again further downstream. Fred tended to think of things in a slightly poetic way although some might call it melodrama. In retirement, he found himself writing short stores to pass the time. He had always loved books and reading and it was a passion he knew Jill shared as well.  Although he humbly refused to entertain any sort of delusion pertaining to his creativity and talent, he was still proud of his writing and hoped to one day have a kind small circle of readers inclined to forgive him his inadequacies as a writer.

It was a quiet morning except for the occasional chirping of birds.  Fred woke up from his bed, dressed, and made sure to put on matching socks.  He took hold of his cane, and went for a walk in the park heading straight for the pond although he must have checked his appearance in the mirror several times prior to that. On the last occasion he stared at the old man before him and told him, “Don’t mess this up now, you old fool.” He’d brought some bread for the pigeons and thought about what Jill might look like when she’d approach to meet him. His wrinkly hands felt like an aberration and he suddenly began feeling self-conscious.

Attempting to shrug off the oncoming negativity, he imagined how Jill would make him feel young again. Would she be the same woman she was all those years ago?  He recalled the warmth of her embrace and the touch of her chest as it met his.  He thought about how strange a thing like memory could be. That brief hug the last time he saw her felt as if it had lasted a good deal longer than it actually was, and the moment when their arms wrapped around each other felt as if two hearts had become one.  For the life of him, he couldn’t recall why he’d ever allow the distance between them to grow after that moment, but that’s just how life was.  There were always obstacles.  One might argue that life itself was merely one elaborate obstacle course where only those with the wisdom of many years know exactly which finish line is worth the struggle, which victory is worth claiming, and what -or more importantly who- would be waiting on the other side. In the time when their paths had once met, Fred had been a young man confused and torn between certain obligations and responsibilities.  The path he took may not have been the path of his ultimate destiny, but it was a path he had to take nonetheless. Now, things were different, and finally after years of toil and struggle he found the peace he had desired all his life only now there was no one to share it with.

Jill had agreed to meet him in the park. He promised himself that this time would be different.  This time, he’d tell her everything that was in his heart.  He’d tell her of all the nights he’d spent thinking about her and how he wished she had shared his life with him during all these years they had been apart.  He would admit to her that just about every story and poem he’d written since retiring had been about her.  In his mind, she would listen to everything he’d bottled up in his heart after so many years.   It would come flooding out of him like a dam that had been destined to burst under the right conditions.

Fred sat and watched the birds thinking to himself. That cliché about youth being wasted on the young shouldn’t be considered a cliché at all. It should just be considered an undisputable fact. I’d actually change the expression to LIFE IS WASTED ON THE YOUTH. His thoughts lingered for a while as he reflected on them in the same way he reflected on most of the deeper thoughts of his life.  It all came down to the fact that for Fred the vitality he longed for had been so intimately bonded to the concept of youth to such a degree that ‘youth’ and ‘life’ were no longer mutually exclusive. In order to be alive, one had to be young, and those who are young are the only ones who are truly alive. Of course, Fred allowed for such platitudes as “you are only as young as you feel” to enter into his basic philosophy, but how does one go about ‘feeling’ young exactly?  In his mind’s eye, Fred hadn’t aged a day over 35, yet when he looked in the mirror he saw a feeble old fool in front of him riddled wrinkles, bald patches, and moldy skin. Was there a portrait of Dorian Gray beyond that looking glass that mocked him somewhere in an alternate unobtainable reality?

Across the other side of the pond, Fred saw an old man playing with some children, probably their grandfather. They threw pebbles into the pond and Fred would watch the ripples in the water along with them each and every time.  He laughed to himself thinking that if there had only been more time he might be on this side of the pond doing exactly the same thing. Both he and the elderly man across along with the boys would perhaps become mirror images of each other in such a scenario and there would be symmetry.  It’s what the universe likes while at the same time despising those of us who counteract and undercut that symmetry.  Fred imagined the vengeful universe exacting its revenge by allowing him to feel envy and loss for those things which he never had.

It was getting closer to the time when Jill had agreed to meet him. Fred looked up at the sky and pleaded the universe for one final act of undeserved kindness.   He had try to dream of what she’d look like only to find himself unable to satisfy his own curiosity despite his blessed gift of imagination.  In his mind, she stayed the same.  He couldn’t bring himself to sully her memory by aging her face or adding a few more inches to her waste.  The way Fred remembered her was the way she remained after all these years.  She was highly intelligent with a brilliant personality and a healthy sense of humor.  She was voluptuous with curves that would inspire him indefinitely if he had only been a painter.  Her hair was dark and beautiful and he’d lose himself in it when he imagined it down.  She’d been a good listener and full of fascinating stories of her own.  She had the most beautiful laugh he’d ever heard on a woman, and her smile could brighten any room.  Fred closed his eyes and imagined her the way she had been for the last time before preparing to meet the woman who would meet him now.

He then felt a hand on his shoulder so he opened his eyes and looked up.  It was Jill.  As she stood before him, time seemed to shift and they were both young and the days that had past shed between them like unseemly skin. It was then that Fred realized what he should have known all along. He stood up from his bench with renewed fleet of foot resolute in the certainty that he’d never see an old man in the mirror again. Jill hadn’t aged a day and now that he found her, neither did he.

A Face of Stone

He’d never been good at leaving messages.  On the odd occasion when he’d ring her up only to be greeted by a recorded message, he’d awkwardly begin talking only to soon start rambling and lose his entire train of thought.  Voice mails – those things were torture. Worse still was social media.  He’d never know what to type, and just about anything he did type made him feel foolish.  He was a man out of his depth and out of time and circumstances, the preeminent outsider out of place in the world and out of luck with the ladies.

The Elvis Costello song, “Man Out of Time,” echoed across his brain from day to day.  It was as if the song was written just for him, but even the thought of it made him feel disingenuous.  He was sure he wasn’t the only one who felt this way but many times that’s exactly how he felt. That seemed to be the ongoing theme of his life. In fact, he was sure just about everyone else had their lives all figured out, and like some cruel video game, he was stuck on a level just about everyone but him had long ago surpassed.

It was 11:48 at night and all he could think of was the look on her face earlier that evening. It was a look that told him she was only there to see him because there was nothing better to do that day, a look of desperation for anything – anyone- more interesting than him to come along and sweep her away from the dull boredom of staring across at his ugly face.  It was all there plain as day for him to see, but there was nothing he could do.  It was like he was frozen in time. All he could do was stutter through small talk and awkwardly depart from her company as if she was a queen and he was her servant.  Everything was just an awkward mess and just as she walked away from his sight, the verse from the Elvis Costello song crept into his mind reverberated there for him to ponder through the night, “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge / He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege.”  If ever there were words that could better characterize him, he’d never know.

All he knew was that it was now late and that private investigations of the heart become a fruitless enterprise at this point in time. What good would it do to tell her how much he adored just about everything about her?  What good would it do to think about the way she walked, the way she smiled, and the quirky way her cheeks broadened when she laughed.  What good would it do to think about her lovely brown hair falling just short of touching her shoulders?  If there were anything else more elegant to behold in the world, he’d fail to notice, yet she’d always be unattainable despite his persistent fascination with her.

There would be work to do in the morning. Death stopped for no one and murderers never truly sleep. In the morning, once his shoes were on he’d be off and running to his post unsure of what he might encounter along his beat. He’d turn his face to stone and look forward to his vertical patrols and take on an affectation of cool insouciance.  He was a man of contradictions- confident and self-assured on the outside- yet always on the brink of stumbling and falling on the inside, especially when it came to her.  For all the winks and smiles he threw her way, he was sure that though she reciprocated every now and again that she probably didn’t actually care for him all that much. When it came to her he’d become an insecure bundle of nerves.

He looked forward to sleep where paranoia eventually gives way and the freedom of dreams welcomed him to a world of his own.  In his dream world all the murderers, thieves, and deviants would cease to exist.  It was a world just for him and her.  He’d wake up next to her, make her breakfast, and spend the day gardening outside.  He’d harvest fresh beans and avocados and make his favorite Mexican dishes and they’d dine by a candlelit table, and he’d look at her and she’d look at him and there wouldn’t be that boredom that creeps in from real life. There would be a mutual fascination and admiration and there wouldn’t need to be words because he knew all too well that words were useless. He’d casually look down her dress and she wouldn’t mind and he wouldn’t feel self-conscious about it, but then that’s how he’d know he was dreaming.  Hell, even in his dreams he couldn’t give himself license to get as close to her as he wanted to. If he could only reach out and touch her, he felt that even if he died in his sleep it would be worth it and he’d die a happy man.

There was just something intangible about her that kept his thoughts fixated on her.  Maybe it was because he navigated through this cruel world every day for a living where almost everyone was on the take and everyone else had some angle to play. We live in a world where your every weakness gets easily exposed and word spreads about like wildfire as soon as the other side knows just where to kick you. He dealt with the scum of the city from day to day to day and although the faces on the people may change, the crimes never do.  The weak are driven by their desperation and the strong are driven by their need to control the weak.  All he could do was hope to protect the right people because in this modern world there is no right and wrong. There’s just shades of grey, but perhaps it was always this way.  Long before the digital age the city had been just as corrupt and just as eager to swallow any weak and innocent being.  Anyone with any sense knew that in order to protect yourself you needed a holster and a gun at your side, but it was only those with a good level of decency and a concern for their fellow human beings that decided that along with that holster and gun they’d also need a badge and a uniform and a beat to walk.

Daylight. The uniform stared back at him with the sharpness of a blade.  The sunlight shimmered upon his badge and he knew it was time to get on out and get to roll call. He’d have to put her out of mind.  Daydreaming on this job could get you killed.

Later on after his shift, he’d make a point of going out of his way to see her.  Maybe he’d ask her out.  Maybe she’d accept and maybe she won’t. He thought about all the compelling reasons she had for turning him down, then he adjusted his collar, fixed his blue cap, and turned his face to stone.