Friday, April 13, 2018

Nova



The funeral home is a cold and lonely place. I spent last night with four people, who like me, are lying stiff on cold metal slabs with only a white sheet over them, up to their chins. The fluorescent lights make a high-pitch squeal as I stare up at them, like fat bees in a tin hive. My eyes aren’t open, they will not open, but I could see those lights and I wondered if they were the lights of Heaven until I looked around and realized I was where I am, still in the basement of the Autry-Swain Funeral Home in Terre Haute, Indiana, waiting for a mortician to do his work. Or her work, I suppose.


I don’t feel any pain, anymore. Neither in my heart, nor in my body. I don’t feel anything, really, but I am able to observe my surroundings and think, just as I had been when I was living. But unlike when I was living, I think clearly and I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and self-satisfaction. The way I felt after graduating from college, but without the dread of looming college debt. I don’t have any anger, or guilt, or sorrow. Nor is there any sense of happiness inside of me. I feel the way I imagined fish in a fishbowl feel that had never known the ocean, or a larger tank. Those that had been put in an aquarium straight from a plastic bag.


I step outside of my body and stand beside myself and look down upon what is left of me. I never imagined I would die at forty-one. I always thought I would have been married and have lived a long and happy life. I saw apple trees and grandkids in my future, neither which came to pass. But I don’t feel bad about that, it is merely an observation, a difference from that which I expected to be and that which was.


The hair stubbles on my chin are only recently gray, and my brown hair on top was just starting to thin, but I could still style it. I suppose, I had aged much over the past year, but I am still a good-looking man. I deserve better than I ever got, than that which I allowed myself to have. In many ways, I was much like the stripped-down ’68 Chevy Nova SS 427 in my garage that I had never had the time or the money to restore. That is what I would say to me if I was still alive to say or to hear it. I died in need of restoration.


They have yet to embalm me, to drain my dead blood and fill me with show chemicals and to wax my face, sew my lips shut, glue my eyelids, that sort of thing. That which they gloss over in the movies and TV will be happening to me very soon, I suppose. I am only sleeping, really. That is how I think of it. Sleeping without an alarm clock. With an excuse from work. With a permanent doctor’s note and an empty calendar that doesn’t recognize any day as a day of more, or less, significance.


Sleeping next to me are the four others, I mentioned. They, too, are standing next to themselves looking down at their meat. There is an elderly lady who looks like a long lump of gray mashed potatoes on the slab, but her soul, that who is standing over her, is young and very pretty. She wears a long, charcoal-colored wool skirt and a white cashmere sweater. She looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, but less worn. I hardly notice the other three because of her. They are quiet in every way a person, or a soul, can be quiet. 


We don’t say anything to each other. Perhaps, it is the shock of being here, or the suddenness of it all. Maybe shock makes one devoid of emotion, I think. But no, I think again. Maybe it is just the tranquility of death that has finally washed over us. I think of all those bland sympathy cards in the gift shops for people who lost loved ones. Watercolors. Swans. Clouds. Lilies. I cannot explain the peace. It feels like I am a wind or the sunshine, and that I am bound not to just one thing or purpose anymore. Chained not to the skin and bone of a single body, but rather that I float upon thousands at once and my reach is that of all the waters of the ocean in one hand.


The mortician comes in wearing heels and listening to music through earbuds. I am first, so she wheels my meat to another room and I follow because I haven’t anything better to do. She looks indifferent to me, as though I am not a real person, and I think maybe that is how she manages to do her job. She chomps on spearmint gum. She locks the wheels of the table that she parks near a sink. She puts on gloves and massages my arms and legs, almost affectionately until she starts humming the song she is listening to. She then glues two flesh-tone-colored eye caps to my eyes. She carefully wires my jaw shut, but doesn't glue my lips. They stay shut.

She fixes my face with her hands like someone shaping a snowman when someone comes into the room. They laugh about some movie they had both watched, not paying much attention to me. Her earbuds dangle from her ears and I can hear the music she listens to. Tom Petty. The guy that came in the room jams a needle in my arm that doesn’t feel like anything and my useless blood flows and swirls out into a steel receptacle that swallows it. She inserts another tube and some solution from a bag replaces my blood. I just lie there like good meat lies and take it.


I spend the next few days talking to Margaret. Margaret is the lady who looks like a young but less worn Marilyn Monroe. I tell her that, but she doesn’t smile or laugh because we don’t have it in us anymore to smile or laugh, or to cry, or anything. I ask her if she watched her embalming and she says she did. She mentions that she thought they would take her organs and throw them in the trash and I said so did I. It was pretty easy, she says. I ask her what she is going to do now and she says, “I don’t know what I am supposed to do.” She tells me she died of heart failure in a nursing home like someone tells someone that they had meatloaf for dinner last Tuesday.


She asks how I died and I say I hung myself, casually. She nods her head. Where did you hang yourself, she asks. In the garage. She nods her head again. Why did you hang yourself, she follows. I was in love with someone who didn’t love me, who left me. She shakes her head and says that it happened to her, too, after she no longer looked the way she looks now. After three babies and cancer. “But the worst part,” she says, “is that he stayed.”


I had never thought of it that way. I suppose it would have been worse had she stayed. Instead of being killed all at once, I would have been killed slowly over a few decades until something gave out because something’s always got to give when someone doesn't love someone. She asks me if I ever heard the old story about boiling a frog. I said no and she says that if you put a frog in a boiling pot of water it will jump out. But if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly boil it, the frog will acclimate itself to the water and it will boil as the water boils. “You hopped out of your pot,” she says. “I boiled.”


Maybe she said so to give me solace, but I don’t need solace because I am at peace. I ask her if she feels the same way and she says she does. I ask her if she is going to go to her funeral and she says she isn’t. She doesn’t plan on leaving the room until someone from upstairs or downstairs tells her where to go next. Until some door opens and she can leave to go to the next room, she says she is staying put. Despite being able to leave our bodies, we aren’t able to walk through walls, or through closed doors. And when a custodian left the door open, we learned that we weren’t able to pass through an open door, either.


She asks how I am going to go to my funeral when we can’t leave the room through an open door and I say I will show her as though it is some great magic trick. I feel myself get a little excited about showing her, but it washes away and I just look at her and she looks back at me as though she doesn’t care if she ever finds out the rest. We sit there for two days talking about our lives. We talk about things one of us knows that the other doesn’t. Movies we had seen. Books we had read. Places we have been. I tell her about my '68 Nova and she says she always wanted one.


She tells me she looks like she did in 1957, and I say that was a long time ago and she agrees. I say I look like I did when I first met my girlfriend in 2014. She corrects me and says my ex-girlfriend and I say back, yes, my ex-girlfriend. The one that doesn’t love you anymore, she says. Yes, I say, the one that doesn’t love me anymore. She asks if I know where her love for me went. I don’t reply. She snaps her fingers and says, “Poof. That’s where it went.”


And I say, “Yeah. Poof.”


Then she smiles. It isn’t a seemingly significant thing, but it is significant for us. Neither of us had smiled in two days because we simply hadn’t the emotion to do so. Those emotions were left in our meat. And I look at her perfect white teeth and I smile back. But it fades from her and it fades from me and we sit there contented, back where we started. Like two frogs. Neither of us in cold or boiling pots.  


A day later it is time for my funeral. My big day. Margaret is sitting in a swivel office chair and watches me from across the room as I walk over and climb back onto the table and into my meat as two men start to wheel me out of the room. I look at her as they do, unsure if I will ever see her again and she waves, slightly, and I wave back. I wonder if she is thinking the same thing. Then I think of a line I could have used, what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this. But it’s awful, and I shake my head and almost laugh. But with that thought, with that laugh, I realize I am starting to heal. Though I am dead, my broken heart is not so broke anymore. I can’t feel it. It was my biggest fear when I killed myself. That I would carry my sorrow perpetually on the other side like the chains of Jacob Marley.


The men get me dressed in a suit my mother brought, a dreadful blue thing, a size or two too big, that she bought at Sears-Roebuck. I could just imagine her buying it and telling everyone what it was for, like the way some moms tell everyone their son is getting married. It’s still a special occasion, she would probably argue. She would have cried at either. She probably told everyone who would listen that I hung myself in the garage because I had a broken heart as though it were something to be proud of. Like I had made the junior high honor roll.


I lie in the casket as everyone I know strolls by and looks down at me and says something or another. Some are kind and sincere, but others seem rehearsed and bland, as though they are saying it just so the person behind them will hear them. My ex-girlfriend shows up in a short black dress, a black veil, and heels. She saunters by and says, “Well, you really did it this time, didn’t you? You just couldn't get over it, could you? It's been months!” 

I think she called me a selfish bastard, but I don’t know for certain because she did so under her breath. My mom gave her a big hug because my mom loved her more than me, though she hadn’t called my mom after she announced that she didn’t love me anymore. She didn’t love my mom, either, I guess. I suppose though, there is some kind of female bond that binds through thick and thin. Some estrogenic comradery. I don’t understand it. My death was simply my ex-girlfriend’s excuse to buy a new black dress and to wear a veil.


“He loved you so much!” my mom pours it on. “I loved him, too,” she replies like she is reading from a sympathy card. Tears don't dare mess up her mascara. They are still hugging when I climb out of the casket and have a look at them. I sit in a seat and as the funeral begins, my ex-girlfriend sits in an open seat beside me. Halfway through the eulogy, delivered by a pastor I had admired but was never particularly close to, she is texting on her phone. Some guy named “Jake.” Some police officer her friend fixed her up with. They went on a double date. 

She tries to be subtle, but after a while she doesn’t seem to care and the phone vibrates as soft music plays and I have all I can stand of her so I go and sit by my brother who is famously emotionless. The usual flowers are spread about. The bouquets picked and clicked online that will get carried to my mom’s apartment and that will wilt in their wicker baskets or glass vases like graves. Baskets and vases that will get stuffed in a cabinet and will never be used again. There are cards, those lifeless cards. Watercolors and swans. Ponds and clouds. 

Where were you all, I ask them all, standing at the podium between people saying rehearsed things. Where were you when I needed someone? Friends, family, people who said they loved me. One or two words may have made a difference to me. One smile. Something! Anything! No one replies.


I get back into the casket to get loaded up in the hearse to go to my burial. I resign myself to be buried with my meat and just lie there forever waiting for the worms to devour me. The feelings of tranquility are gone and I feel like I did dangling there in the garage. Or as I tied the rope to the rafter. Or as I pushed my stripped-down Nova out of the garage to make room to hang myself, realizing it will never be restored.


The last memory I had living was the feeling of a bloody nose and watching the black drips of blood fall to the gray of the garage floor. Hearing them splatter like my ex-girlfriend’s thumbs on her cellphone. I’m at this thing, Jake. Relax. I’ll meet you out tonight. K? I regret killing myself suddenly as they lower me into the hole. As I think of her. As I hear the chains turn over the big metal spool of the machine, the grinding of the gears of its motor. It was never worth it at all, not one single tear, but it is too late to have my life back now. All things, they say, happen for a reason. That is the only bit of clarity I got. And it’s like bathing in sorrow and drying off with a cocktail napkin. 


I push myself through the casket and manage to climb out after some struggle. My mother throws a handful of dirt over me and I frown at her. I somehow successfully separate myself from my meat and I don’t know how, or where I will go next. And then from darkness, Margaret bursts in my mind. I have spent the past two days getting to know her soul and it is the most beautiful soul I have ever known. And standing there looking at my friends and family, who never called, or cared to visit while I was living, who look down into my hole like people looking down into a lake at their own reflection, I jump into the hearse before it leaves and I watch them scatter as the hearse pulls away.


At the funeral home I follow the men back inside and I make my way to the basement where Margaret is watching two other men load her meat onto the same kind of portable table to go get dressed and then to be laid into a casket. She is just staring, but as she sees me come back she smiles again for a split-second, though it quickly fades.


“Are you going to your funeral?” I ask her again.


“No,” she says. “There will be no one there.”


“We will be there.” I take her hand and she resists at first but I give her a tug and she says we can’t leave the room. But we walk right out of the door and up the stairs and there are her kids and grandkids and cousins and some friends. We sit in the backrow and watch everyone paying their respects. And I hold her hand and I can feel it, as real as any hand I had ever held, even more so. I can feel her soul through her hand. There is a warmth to it and she squeezes my hand from time to time and looks at me and smiles before her eyes go back to a pastor she was close to later in life. And he says, “Margaret lead a long and meaningful life.” And he goes on to say, “And she is in a better place now. Receiving those gifts that she could not receive on this Earth, all that there is that awaits us, the faithful, in Heaven.”


We don’t go to her burial. We aren't burying anything anymore. We walk to a nearby park and look up at real clouds, a real pond, and a beautiful swan that gently glides across the emerald water. There is no reflection looking back at us as we look down, we are locked in a profundity that seems to be of infinite depth. And the first of the angels come in an old 68 Chevy Nova SS 427, perfectly restored green and black, and she takes us to the next place as we hold hands in the backseat like a couple of happy honeymooners.  







Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Easter Lily




The doorbell always makes the dog bark, so he taps on the glass. His daughter is asleep in his arms in her pink furry coat that makes her look like a fat pink cat. Anna parts the curtain of the door to see who is knocking, though she knows already who it is. She frowns, then unlatches the lock and opens it. She stands behind the door as he enters. All her past happiness of opening her door for him, the anticipation of hearing him knock, seeing him outside of that parted curtain, has gone away. At some point over the past year, her love packed its bags and left and is nowhere to be found on her face or within her heart.


He carries their daughter to the living room where he lays her on the new sectional she always said she would buy someday. The old one, which they made love on too many times to remember, has been exiled to another room. He looks at it sadly in the dark room where it sits pushed against a wall-papered wall. He stands in the middle of the room frozen for a moment, lost in time, the way a ghost might haunting the place that haunts him. It has only been a little over a month. She stands by the door and opens it again as though to usher him out quickly, the way one might a fly they would rather not make the effort to swat.


“One more thing,” he says, to her obvious and instant displeasure.


He pulls from the porch a lily in a plastic pot with yellow-paper wrap. He picked the yellow because it was her favorite color. “For the girls,” he says. “And for you.”


She frowns, holding the cheap 6.99 flower that has yet to bloom with no enthusiasm at all. Its green stem is tall and thin with five green bulbs yet to bloom, dangling sickly from it. One of the leaves is torn and it is unclear if the flower will even make it to Easter, but it is a tradition. They’ve had one for five years.


“I don’t know why you do this,” she complains.


“I think you do.”


She shakes her head. She sits it on the table and pushes aside a yellow ceramic egg from her perfect Easter arrangement on the placemat. The flower in the cheap pot clearly has messed with her arrangement and is already a nuisance to her. He stands in the doorway and waits for her to tell him to leave, which she promptly does. She doesn’t say thank you for the flower and there is no joy in her eyes because of it. He didn’t expect the thank you, but hoped to see that look. With all the flowers he had ever given her in the past five years, that was always his greatest reward. What came before or after the thank you. The look in her eyes. That was love.


Her eyes are dead looking at him. To someone else, they are as he likes to remember them. A someone he doesn’t know, but who exists in the night of his thoughts and the dawn of her hope. Someone who she sees on occasions and with the kind of anticipation that she once saw him, maybe. He envies him, without a face or a name to know, without certainty of his existence, but with the dreadful feeling one with cancer has. That this invisible death exists. He wonders if this man feels so blessed that he is, to have both the love and the time of such a beautiful woman as his Anna. He must drop the pronoun, he tells himself. She is not his anymore, after all. But he is still very much hers.


“Does he make you happy?” he asks her in the doorway.


She scowls at him. “I am happy. What does it matter who I am with. But my happiness is no concern of yours. Nor is who I am with or what I do.”


“I wanted to leave Easter baskets for the girls on the porch.”


“No,” she snaps. “Don’t drive by my house and don’t come up here again other than to drop of our daughter.”


Alex nods. He can feel the tears coming again. They come something like Japanese Zeros might have come upon Pearl Harbor. And the ships and men of his defense of his heart are decimated once more. All over again. Sunk and shot up. He has had a hundred Pearl Harbors over the past month or so and there is nothing he can do about it. He was waiting for the atomic bomb to come.


He read somewhere that if he was to have any hopes of getting her back, as the article described in just 4000 words how to get any girl back stopping just short of offering a money-back guarantee, stressing any and saying in parentheses (no, your girl is not exempt), the way is through acting like you are happy and pretending not to care if they come back or if they don’t. Casual Indifference, it is called. Works every time. There were written lines to say and ways to act and haircuts to get and certain colognes to wear. So, he bought all the right stuff and practiced in his mind what he would say and do, but he could never follow through with it because it seemed so fake to him. It always seemed that she deserved better than indifference. And he didn’t want her to ever think that he could take her or leave her. It was never that way.


Anna recalls the cheating. The wonderful man she loved like no other before him became a nightmare, betraying her, and though he was good to her and her kids from a previous marriage, and they shared the kind of love she had always wanted, the other women came in intervals for a year or so before they finally washed away. Like random shotguns blasts over a span of time that left her confused, angry and disoriented.


They left him depressed for he and her were one and nothing he did to her wasn’t anything he didn’t do to himself. Neither could answer why it happened, and everything he said to her was just an excuse. He couldn’t apologize enough and though they spent several years more together, on the wings of that perfect love they both felt, the thought of what he had done festered inside of her head and decimated what she had for him. It was a long lingering illness that killed their love. Something like being gut-shot and bleeding to death in the woods.


They happened. The women. He couldn’t lie about it. He tried before to lie about it. To defuse and to explain it. To bury them. But he reached a point that he couldn’t lie to himself or to her anymore. “But why?” he asks himself still. There are no clear answers. A lack of self-love, a childhood of no love from his father, his father’s infidelities, his mother’s suicides. His mother had committed suicide a dozen times, but never fatally. The pills in the sink fell like teeth, her neck in his hand. Him screaming at her to stop. Razorblades stained crimson on the porcelain bathtub after the water had drained from it. The bandages were in the medicine cabinet next to the Vaseline. Apply direct pressure.


The one question he asked of her that she never answered, if you love me, mom, why do you try to kill yourself? She stared listlessly in the hospital room out a dark window as though she didn’t hear the question. Mom? he asks again. She looks back at him. Do you know where your dad is? she asks back, calmly. The medicine kicked in. She was in the storm of a nervous breakdown. She didn’t hear what he said. He goes back to standing on the porch of his ex-girlfriend’s house. The door is closed and the lock clicks goodnight.


His ex-girlfriend had asked him, if you love me, why did you do this? He looked out his own dark window of sorts that wasn't really there and he couldn’t answer her. His arms weren’t bandaged and his throat wasn’t sore from vomiting sleeping pills, but there must have been that same hazy look in his eyes. I don’t know, he said. I don’t know. I only know that I love you. That was not enough.


God came into his life in 2015, October 12, exactly. A cross on the back of a semi-truck he saw out of a bus window in traffic. A message board sign at a church that asked him, Will the road you are on lead you to home? And a Bob Marley song, seconds after he asked God for a sign. Three Little Birds. And though he thought at times, God came a little too late, another sign appeared, Trust God in his timing at all times, posted on Facebook immediately after his doubt. There have been no women since. Not even the desire that was never really a desire. It was only a need for destruction. To destroy himself. A negative coping mechanism he learned long ago as a boy with a finger down his mom's throat to make her vomit up death.


He leaves a small grocery sack on her porch of things she gave him over the years that were meaningful, that he thought to give back because he couldn’t look at them anymore. Pictures of them together, she with their beautiful daughter. Pictures that once lit his soul aglow. When he got to his apartment, he regretted giving those things back. There was nothing for him to look at anymore. And his soul glowed with the lackluster shine of a dull black rock. There was nothing left in him but vacancy. The intolerable vacancy of a hollowed-out heart.


The next night, when the shadows crept and the thoughts of losing her blackened his mind again, darker than ever before, he grabbed the garage door opener and made the long walk out. There was a hitch in the door which expressed reluctance, but it let him inside and it closed behind him gently and all the light in the world was left in the parking lot.


It is Easter Sunday, two days later. The lily has bloomed. Despite the plastic yellow-papered pot, it is beautiful. Three of five blooms bud and the girls have their Easter baskets their mom made them up the night before and left on the table on behalf of the bunny. She peaks outside to see if he left baskets. She expected he would, despite her warning. For his faults, he had an overwhelming and well-meaning desire to be kind to the girls. He was always loving, which was a contradiction to his deceitful acts. She respects that much about him. The love and open displays of affection. She thought there would be a basket for their daughter, at least, but the porch is bare. Maybe he plans to give it to her later.


She gets the girls ready for church and decides to take them to their church. The Methodist church on High Street that the kids call a castle. It is much less boring than her family church. She looks around for him, but he isn’t there. Surely, he wouldn’t miss church. Not on Easter. He got drunk last night and overslept, she figures. The pastor is surrounded by Easter lilies. He says that the tradition is that lilies sprang up where Christ’s tears fell as he was crucified, and that they commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and hope of life and love everlasting. Her girls smile, so beautiful in their Easter dresses.


She calls his phone afterwards from the parking lot. It goes straight to voicemail. She drives by his apartment to take his daughter to see him. His car isn’t there. They go home. The lily has bloomed more. All five blooms budded. Beautiful bright white lilies. She thinks of what the pastor said. Tears of Christ. The girls tear into their baskets and eat some of their candy and she makes lunch. The bag of stuff he left lays in the kitchen, tied at the top. She checks her phone. No messages. She puts it out of her mind until her daughter comes in the kitchen and asks about seeing her daddy today.


She gets a feeling in her stomach. An unsettling feeling that she cannot let go of. She calls his mom, but gets no answer. The day goes by slow and she goes to her sisters’ house for dinner. The boisterous voices of everyone drowns out her thoughts for a while. She stares at a carved ham that sits in the middle of an island, flanked by green beans, potatoes and dinner rolls. She doesn’t eat meat and it is a carcass. A metaphor for something she can't figure but that she feels.
She is smoking a cigarette on the porch when her phone rings. She is sure it is him to bother her about time with his daughter when she was already there once to give him time. He wasn't going to see her tonight, she is going to tell him. She gets annoyed and pulls it out to answer it. Shortly after, her phone drops on the porch just as their daughter presses her face to the window and laughs. Her nose squashed against the glass. She can see the lines of his face in hers. She can see him in her eyes.


His funeral was two days after. In the preceding days, she felt every emotion there was to feel, but mostly anger and sadness. The church pastor who baptized their daughter delivers the eulogy. There are pictures scattered about, mostly of them, or of Alex and his daughter. Their daughter sits on Anna’s lap and sleeps. There are dried tears in the corner of her tired eyes. How could you do this to her, she fumes without saying anything at all. Listening to the pastor talking about forgiveness and the hope of love eternal. Of all people, how could you do this to her? His mother sobs inconsolably.


Two nights before, when he sat in the car in the garage with the exhaust hose in, he tried not to think of his daughter. But when he did it was how could someone with a broken heart ever give a child the love she rightfully deserves. Death sat in the passenger seat in a black suit. Do it, Alex, he said. Your daughter will be better off. In a few years, she will not even know you. Whoever your ex is dating will become her daddy. There were no zeros swarming over his Pearl Harbor anymore. No tears. Just an ominous calm. Take a deep breath, Alex. For your daughter’s sake. Then death dropped the bomb and there was a flashpoint and a mushroom cloud.


The casket is laid to the earth. His daughter throws the first handful of dirt on it, not really knowing what it is she is doing. Understanding enough to know that her daddy is in the casket below and will be put in the ground for reasons she doesn’t yet understand. Sleep, someone said. Rest. Peace. No one says anything about suicides going to Hell. The girl doesn’t like having dirty hands so she asks for a napkin. Her mom takes her into her arms for fear she will fall into the hole and wipes her hands. She cries again and they go home.


Tears don’t last. Days, weeks, then they go away. Pain dulls. Hurt and sorrow washes from the soul over time. There is a framed stitching in their hallway that says Time Heals All Wounds. There are many more about laughter and love. Heartache passes like a storm. The dead are never lost to memory, but memories fade and all that there is left are the good ones. The bad never lasts.
That is what Alex wanted. He wanted Anna to forget the bad and to only remember the good, which she did. He knew so long as he was on this earth, she would never forget the bad. What anger and pain she had in her tormented heart over him was gone, and she only recalled how kind and sweet he was when they were alone together, or when he was with the girls. And she told their daughter about her daddy whenever she looked at the picture taped on her bedroom wall. He is smiling in the picture looking back at her.
Your daddy loved you to the moon and back, Anna says to her. The girl looks out the window to try to see the moon, but it is daylight. I can’t see the moon, momma. Tonight, you can see the moon. She doesn’t forget. After her bath, they sit on the front porch together and look at the moon and listen to the crickets.


Time passes. A month, two, three. The curious site of the Easter lily wasn’t noticed until summer. Around the Fourth of July. The flowers outside had all bloomed, all that they had planted together. The spring flowers had all died, except for that Easter lily. It sits on the middle of the table still, atop a different placemat and amid a different arrangement. There are no ceramic eggs or Easter bunnies around it anymore. All the Easter grass has been picked up from the cracks in the wood floor and the Easter candy was long gone. The lily, however, shows no sign of age and looks as healthy as the day it first bloomed. Five full blooms for five years.


A month later, she sits and looks at it. She looks it up online and the lifespan of the lily is two to four weeks after it blooms, they say. It has been six months. Twenty-five weeks, exactly. She begins to wonder. Things move in her that haven’t moved in a while.


At Christmas, it is still fully bloomed. It is perfect. “That thing is still alive?” her sister remarks at the family’s Christmas Eve party.


“Yes,” she smiles drinking a glass of wine. “It is.”


“When you moving on, sister?”


“I don’t know. When I’m ready, I guess.”


The following Easter, there it remains. Still in full bloom. She reunites it again with the ceramic egg and the usual Easter decorations. Still, it is perfect as the day it bloomed. Anna becomes obsessed with that lily. No one touches it, or dares to move it. It is a sign from God, obviously, such the anomaly as it is. She begins to write in a journal. Her thoughts. Memories. How he creeps in now and then, but invariably goes, she pines. She realizes why he gave up his life. It was selfless. And she forgave him for everything.


Their daughter grows up across the span of three years. She is in school and practicing math at the dining table. Doing homework. She is working on spelling words. Anna is beside her, quizzing her. She looks at her and the resemblance she bears to her father is remarkable. She remembers the first time they met and unfortunately the last. When she closed the door as he stood on the porch in the glow of the porch light. She gets lost in her daughter’s slate-blue eyes the way she was lost in his once. Then she looks at the lily. Still, it remains just as the day it bloomed. The centerpiece of her table.


She planted it in a different pot. A nice ceramic red pot. It belonged in the home as much as anything else, and it was emblematic for the peace she felt in her life, the faith that served her well across the years. Three Easters passed and she had dated, but they didn’t work out. Eventually, they were all a disappointment in some way or another. There were a few that seemed well enough, but what good is well enough. She always had some dissatisfaction with the lack of love she felt in herself for them. And the more she gave herself, the more hollowed she felt. There was something missing.
She finds herself sitting at the dining table, drinking wine, staring at the lily, and writing in her journal. Something she never thought she would do. Letters to God. To Alex. She is turning into a pretty good writer, she feels, and thinks she might craft something into a story or two.


On the fourth Easter, the kids wake up and there are Easter baskets from the bunny on the table, as to be expected. When one of the girls goes outside, she finds three more baskets on the porch. “Who are these from?”


Anna looks them over. Maybe an ex-boyfriend. The older girls' dad. No. They sit the baskets inside and hurry to church. The same Methodist church in town on High Street that the girls no longer think of as a castle, at least, in as much as they express. Anna feels the glow of the church as she walks in. The cross on the wall, the pastor smiling, and folks greeting one another to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the hope of life and love everlasting. She feels happy and warm as though not alone anymore in her heart and very much at peace with her soul.


The man sits immediately behind her and the girls in the next pew. She smiles at him and he back at her. He is handsome and he has slate-blue eyes. There is something familiar in his eyes to her. There is warmness and peace in them. One of the girls drops a crayon on the ground and he picks it up for her. She keeps looking back over her shoulder and he is there, smiling at the pastor. She wants to say something to him, and is overcome with the desire to do so, but it is during service and she cannot be so impetuous. Then she remembers when she met Alex, how she simply said Hello, I am Anna in a dimly-lit bar. The rest was history. She has always been impetuous.


After the service the man leaves before she can say anything and she feels bad that he did and that she said nothing when she had the chance. A weird, empty feeling overcomes her. The girls ask for a donut and juice from the parlor so she takes them. Everyone smiles at them as they pass and the littlest one stops on the grate of the air vent that blows her dress up. She laughs and in the crinkle of her nose and eyes, Anna sees her dad and smiles.


He is in the parlor by the donuts. The man who sat behind her during service. He helps each of the girls get a donut, a napkin, and juice. Anna smiles at him warmly and he smiles back at her. There is a moment when neither say anything and in the silence, there is something that feels like fate.

“I feel like I know you.”


“But we’ve never met before,” he grins.


“I am Anna.”


“I am George.”


“Now we have met.”


George leans down and looks at the youngest girl who is drinking her juice and who had spilled some on her dress. He helps her clean it off with a napkin and he gazes into her eyes. She smiles at him peacefully and gives him a hug.


Anna marvels at their interaction, perplexed by how her daughter took so easy to the man for a moment, but then she is suddenly not perplexed at all. God moves in her soul and the familiarity of the man is too obvious to ignore any longer, or to deny. The supernatural existence of him, the impossibility, that she dares not speak of so not to jinx it, is confounding. She puts her hands over her mouth and begins to cry and George quickly stands up and takes her into his arms. He says softly into her ear, “Love never gives up. And it always finds a way. There is always a way, Anna. I knew it.”


Several men walk in carrying Easter lilies from the pulpit. They announce that they are giving them away to anyone who wants them. Anna says she already has one at home that cannot be replaced. Her hands are clammy as she invites George for lunch and he smiles and says, yes.


But she realizes in the car that in all the excitement of the parlor and the girls with their donuts, she hadn’t given him her number, her address, or directions. She sees his car pull away, but she isn’t concerned. She is set at ease in her faith that she will someday see him again. Love doesn’t give up, as he said. It finds a way.   


About an hour later, he taps on the glass of the door and she, again perplexed, parts the curtain and happily sees his face and answers it with an old familiar sense of anticipation that had been foreign to her for years. He walks into the house with great reverence and looks around. He smiles at the pictures on the wall. The dog that usually barks or jumps on new people, lays calmly at his feet.
“I am sorry I forgot to tell you,” she says, “but I am a vegetarian. I guess I should have said so when I invited you.”


“No,” he says, “I am, too. As was Christ.”


“How did you know where I lived?” she asks softly, her eyes wide.


“I brought the Easter baskets this morning, Anna,” he says.


“But we only met this afternoon. In church,” she replies weakly.


He looks at her and only smiles.


They eat lunch at the dining table, in the shadow of the lily, and Anna sees that on the corner of one of the flower pedals, it appears that they are finally starting to wilt. A bit of sadness in her is quickly replaced by understanding. “Their purpose had been fulfilled. Their unnatural life had been withdrawn and planted elsewhere, for the sake of love eternal,” she’d later write in her journal reflecting upon the day.


After lunch, George takes the girls to the backyard to fly the kites he put in their Easter baskets. The youngest daughter giggles as she looks up, and running with the string in hand, she trips. She laughs as she falls in the thick grass, her kite still blowing wildly in the wind. Her white wooly jacket making her look like a fat spring lamb. George runs with her and falls to the ground beside her. They both laugh wildly. She looks up into the sky and shouts that she can see the moon. It is silver. “Mommy, mommy, I can see the moon!”


Anna smiles from the back porch. “You can? That’s good, honey!”


The girl looks at George and says, “That is how much my daddy loves me. To the moon and back!”


And George smiles with tears in his eyes and says, back to her “I know. And he always has and he always will, beautiful.”










Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Highball




It is a nice hotel, the way these things go. A business-upscale sort of place with towels that feel like they have never been used and carpet that smells as though it was just laid. The lights are all lit and the elevator chimes and runs smoothly. A something-express, in the middle of nowhere, it seems. Notable facts of the town included that it was the birthplace of some astronaut that never made it to the moon. Not much else.

From his sixth-floor room, Daniel can see the town in the distance. A nipple on the other side of a broad chest. There is a shopping center plaza between here and there with a sea of asphalt before it peppered with cars that look like tiny arranged speed boats. In the plaza are a few pizza shops and a Walmart. He smiles at it, though it isn’t very esthetically pleasing.
He showers and puts his things away for the night. In the morning, he will be on his way to another town, and this Podunk will be a memory. The same routine. The more things change, the more they stay the same, his grandmother used to say. He thinks it was from some French philosopher. His grandmother was an intellectual woman who killed herself in 1983. He has no idea what the expression really means, but he says it to himself, standing in that window, looking out across the valley.

He is an attractive man, but he is more handsome than he feels himself to be. He knows what lies within his soul, which blackens his outward view. He often finds the need to reassure himself that he is handsome so to have confidence in life. Women and alcohol are his boosters. His easy injections of self-esteem. He catches his own reflection in the hotel window glass and smiles. Dusk paints the sky in the valley a purpling shade of pink. Then he scrutinizes himself in the bathroom mirror and trims his nose hair with one of those vibrating doohickeys the father in Gremlins probably once sold. Gremlins, he thinks smiling. They are something from an age lost.

His hair is thinning, Rogaine never helped, and wrinkles contort his face when he smiles, but it is only because he is tired. He hasn’t had much sleep the last week or so. One night of sleep and he will be as good as new, he tells himself. All the wrinkles will go away and his hair will be thick again. He blames his new pomade.

He does some push-ups. His shoulder aches. His arms and chest look good. He puts on his swim trunks and goes down to the hotel pool. There are three women sitting in chairs. Though his vison is blurry without his contacts, two of them look doable. The other one looks to be their mother and is the size of them both combined. The concrete is new, as is the pool. The hotel was built within a year, the lumpy red-headed kid at the front desk said when he checked in. Who stays all the way out here? He asked. Mostly people on business for the plastics company that is headquartered here. Or people visiting the university. The university, the kid seemed to say, with a capital U. They made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament one year, apparently.


Daniel jumps into the pool. Forty-two years old and he still jumps into the pool like a goofy kid. Like he is at the camp he went for five years straight so his parents could do whatever they did without him. The water is cold and it is early evening so there is no sun on this side of the building to warm anything up. It’s June, but it had been a cooler June, thus far. It doesn’t matter, though. He doesn’t want to be warm. He read somewhere in a men’s magazine that cold water rejuvenates the skin and the libido and that is what he wants. Rejuvenated skin and a V12 fuel-injected libido.
The two girls giggle sitting in their yellow beach chairs. Their heavyset mother smirks, looking at the pictures in a magazine. He looks like an actor, they all agree. But they can’t think of the actor’s name. It’s going to bother me, mom says, looking as though she is going to eat the magazine.

There is no one else in the pool. Daniel sinks to the bottom and opens his eyes. He sits on the bottom for as long as he can with his eyes open in a sort of meditative state and for thirty seconds it feels as though he is in another universe. At camp as a kid. Pitching in a little league game. He thinks of Jonah and the Whale for some reason, and can’t remember the moral of the story exactly, or who Jonah was. He will read about it later, he tells himself. An old Sunday school lesson lost in his head somewhere.
Two pairs of legs jump in. He hears giggling, muffled under the water. The blurry-faced doables that were sitting on the yellow beach chairs he knows by their blurry and knobby knees. He comes up for air and they are looking at him, grinning.

He gets out of the pool and smiles at them. Water dripping off his shorts and legs. The hair painted to his legs. His nipples are hard and he gets goosebumps getting a warm towel from the outside rack. His muscles constrict and he likes the thought of what he must look like to them. He likes that they are looking still as he dries off. It makes him feel younger and virile. He doesn’t have time to test the stringency of their chaperone’s defense, as he might have on another occasion, or to consider their age, which would be of importance.
It is almost seven and his date will be coming soon. He wants to have some drinks before she gets here, which always makes it go better than when he is sober. It is just part of the warm-up routine. It has always been that way.

He leaves footprints across the new concrete. He forgot his sandals and he feels like a bit of a bum walking into the hotel with no shoes, but he hurries to an elevator and no one sees him. He goes back up to his room on six to get dressed in clothes he laid out previously that hang like the husk of a lynched man on the back of the bathroom door. The rosary hangs from his neck against his bronze chest. His mother would have scolded him for wearing a rosary as a necklace, especially in the pool, but she is dead now so she doesn’t scold anyone anymore. His father wouldn’t have cared and would have had a drink. But he is dead, too, and likely having a highball somewhere.

Highball, he thinks. How his father made that word so glorious in his mind the way he said it. The joy in his eye that came with that word. How he envied him with that drink in his hand, like he was a God, jiggling the glass, smoking a cigarette.

Daniel straightens the room and leaves the blinds open. The sky purples swollen like a bruise as he gets dressed and the little town across the plaza and the Walmart lights up like someone threw a switch. Streetlights appear like a landing strip from here to there. Like rows of the whale’s teeth, deep in the jaws of his thoughts of Jonah still. He sprays some cologne and gargles some mouthwash. Long tossing in the bullpen.

He walks confidently into the hotel bar. It’s nice, a curious anomaly for such a small town. The hotel is a microcosm of culture in an otherwise cultureless and bleak community, he assesses critically, intended to make traveling businessmen and women feel at home in an otherwise bleary poke. It is a beacon of sophistication, little different than a space-station on Mars, and it employs hundreds of locals who do their best to fit in while within it.
Eight on the dot and he orders his first highball of the evening. He had three at lunch. He admires the way the lights twinkle in the bar glasses that hang under the mahogany bar. The bartender has a handlebar mustache and tattoos and the barmaids are relatively pretty. Thick, but pretty. One is thin, but she looks worn. Like the worn saddle of a rodeo bull in a honky-tonk.

The TVs all play a Yankees-Red Sox game from Fenway that is in the bottom of the second. Daniel drinks the first highball quick and orders another. He wants three in him before she arrives, if she does. And three after that should do him just fine. It should sufficiently kill what needs killed and bear what needs to be bore. An older man has a seat next to him. One of those businessmen in town for plastics, or visiting the University, he immediately presumes.

The man looks at Daniel and grins. He is older, near retirement or past. The bar light can be deceiving the way it casts shadows. He has Grecian, slicked-back hair and a dark-blue suit that looks neither expensive, nor cheap. His button-up shirt is open and a gold chain and eagle pendant dangles there against a bush of gray chest-hair. His eyes are watery and he is not tall, but not short, neither heavy nor thin. There are purple liver-spots on his hands and he wears a gold watch that he fidgets with and a gold chain that goes along with it as he waits for the bartender.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” the old man says to the eager bartender. He looks up at the TV and follows it to Daniel’s eyes who is gazing at it, not noticing him.

“Highball,” the bartender says. Daniel perks up with the mention of the word, looks at his drink, then at the man who is seated next to him.

“I am Saul,” the man takes the opportunity.

“Here on business?” Daniel asks easily. He shakes his glass.

“I am.”

“University or plastic?” Daniel asks.

Saul smiles. “Neither. The business of sleep. I am just passing through.”

“I was told by the kid at check-in that people are here for only two reasons only. Plastics or the University.”

“So which applies to you?” Saul returns, looking up at the game.

Daniel grins just to grin, looking back at him. “Neither. I’m just passing through.”

“Well, we both defy expectations.”

“Indeed, we do,” Daniel says holding his glass high.

The bartender brings Saul his drink. Daniel holds his up for another, jingling it like a bell, then finishes what’s left quickly so the bartender can take the glass. He looks at a passing barmaid, who glances back at him. There is nothing decent in either direction. Neither civility, nor admiration. Fleeting lust, the product of a lack of self-worth and low self-esteem, which are two very distinct things. He checks his watch. An Apple watch some woman he hardly recalls from Lafayette, Indiana bought him for Christmas last year. A married mother of three. In blue-green letters, the color of Saul’s eyes, it reads, 8:30. Getting closer. Familiar butterflies in the stomach.

Someone hits a homerun much to the pleasure of the home crowd on TV, but much to the dismay of the pitcher who sulks on the mound, kicking the dirt, massaging a new baseball, and rubbing his brow. The cameras pan from his anguish to seats of ecstatic fans whose jubilation lasts only a minute or two. It’s still early in the game after all, plenty of time to lose it.

The bartender brings Daniel’s highball and smiles as he sits it on a salted napkin then darts off to one of the other patrons, a tubby man certainly of plastic sitting at the end of the bar. There is a half-dozen other plastic men and women at the bar and a large table of University folks behind them. You can tell the University folks from the plastic people because their heads are larger and their eyes are big observant golf balls, six of which are spectacled. Daniel has learned to be observant over the years. To recognize his surroundings and to learn how to pitch to a 3-2 count.

“You played, didn’t you?” Saul asks, jiggling his drink, mixing the whisky and soda.

“Yes. I did. Ten years. Only two in the majors.”

“I saw you pitch in Cleveland. Daniel Stork. You had a good curve you could throw for a strike on any count.”

“Not much else,” Daniel smiles.

“What are you doing these days?”

“Drinking.”

“Anything else?”

“Passing through.”

“Me too,” Saul says.

A short while passes. Saul buys Daniel another drink. The third he wanted before the woman arrives. Daniel thanks him and tells him he has a date that should be coming in, so not to be rude, but doesn’t say much else. He’s on the bench between innings and throwing a shut-out. Don’t jinx me old man, he says with a look. The old man ignores the sign and chatters away.

“Daniel, I used to do terrible work. I would hurt people for a living. I killed people. I was paid to hurt people. I can be honest about it, because I have done my time and I have been forgiven by the Almighty. But what I have learned is that you cannot keep running from your purpose.”

Daniel laughs. He shakes his head and exhales half a life, it seems. A beautiful blonde in a slinky red dress walks in and sits a few stools down to his right. She is the immediate contingency plan, in case his date doesn’t show. She is in plastics, surely.

“You would throw curve after curve,” Saul continues. “One of the best curves in the majors, no doubt about it. And you could rare back and throw a fastball when you needed to. But you never trusted that pitch. You were so afraid of letting hitters hit you and letting the fielders behind you field and catch. The Tommy John surgery put you out for two years and the curve didn’t break like it did before. It was sad. It’s time to stop throwing curves and to let the batters hit.”

“I don’t pitch, anymore, Saul.”

“We all still pitch in this game,” Saul says. And with that, he stands up and puts a twenty on the bar top and winks at Daniel. “The inevitable purpose of anyone can be found by forgiving yourself and having faith in God to show you your purpose in His time. But you must first stop running from Him for he will inevitably catch up to you if not.”

He says no more and walks out. Daniel follows him with perplexed eyes. As he exits, Saul holds the door for a beautiful woman, which proves to be Daniel’s date. She smiles at the old man and walks in nervously. Her eyes full of whisky and her hair flowing, brown and twisty. She looks thirsty and starved. She is thin and short. Everything she was in the pictures augmented and enhanced by the enchantment of bar lights and animation. Daniel shakes his glass and walks to greet her and they take a table where the barmaid he leered out before, smiles for their new beginning and offers them both menus.

“Long drive?” she asks.

“Five hours.”

“I am so happy you came! I have been looking forward to this since we started chatting. You have no idea!”

“Me too,” he smiles. He can still smell the chlorine on his skin, under the aftershave lotion. Under the body cream and the cologne. He thinks of the four blurry knees of those girls in the pool. He hears the sound in his ears of their giggling as he sits under the water. He is gripping the whisky glass like the two-seam fastball he never could throw by anyone.

“How long have you been here?” she asks.

“I checked in at three,” he says looking at the glass. Looking over his grip. It becomes a ball in his mind and he holds it curiously, then as if by instinct, he reverts to the more comfortable grip of the curve. He thinks about the old man’s advice. He reminds him of a pitching coach he had in double A. Hell, maybe he was him. He spent that year drunk, mostly. There was no lying to himself suddenly. He was an alcoholic and the drink he held in his hand had taken away everything he ever really loved. The crowd cheers on the TV as someone knocks a triple into the left-center gap. Two score, but it’s still early enough to lose it.

“How long have you been married, Katarina?”

Katarina? My name is Kristin.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Kristin.” He bites his lip and rubs the subtle gray stubble of his chin. Katarina was in Toledo two nights ago. They were both brunettes. All the women become an amalgamated blur with little to no distinctions after it is done. Like past crowds at games who were mostly blurs of bleeding color. 

She smiles as though to forgive him. It isn’t much of an indiscretion, she thinks, after everything he said to her over the past few weeks. All the things she ever wanted someone to say to her that they hadn’t. He is handsome in the bar light. She adores the way he smiles at her and his eyes pierce the frail will she has to resist him. He never told her he was a major league pitcher. That he keeps to himself. He sells insurance now and that is what he is to everyone he meets so not to answer the same question they all would ask. What is it like to pitch in the big leagues? He is an insurance salesman from Ohio with a preference for married brunettes. Kids or no kids. No matter.  

“How long have you been married, Kristin?”

“Ten years. We got married when I was eighteen. It seemed like the right thing to do then. I was young.”

“Married too soon?”

“Yes. Much too soon,” she eagerly agrees. “What else was there, though? I never knew anyone like you and for a while he was nice.”

“Have you been with anyone other than your husband.”

“No, never once.”

He salivates. Normally, he would be paying the check by now. But he goes on. “Kids?”

“Yes,” she admits reluctantly, hoping not to dissuade him, but not willing to ever deny her kids. “Four.”

Four kids?” He was in his routine now. Every answer she gave beget an instinctive follow-up question. It was like surgery. He did it all a thousand times before. He monitored her vitals as he cut.

“Yes,” she smiles. “Boys.” She looks up at the TV. “And they all love baseball.”

He nods and has another drink. Thunder cracks and a sheet of rain assails the large window next to their table. She jumps a little, then laughs at herself. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes. “Storms scare me. Ever since I was a little girl.”

“Do you remember being a little girl?”

She smiles. “Sometimes. Do you remember being a little boy?”

He pauses, then smiles back. “Sometimes.”

“My husband doesn’t love me. He doesn’t pay any attention to me. There is no affection. Maybe it is wrong of me to be here, but I am here. I want to be here. We are getting a divorce.”

“Yes, you are certainly here.”

“And you are here!” She grins and reaches across the table to touch his arm. The barmaid brings her drink which she stirs up like a kid would a milkshake. It is a red margarita.

“Yes, I am.” He listens to the crowd on the TV. They are booing. New York came back. The starter gave up a three-run homer. Plenty of time to lose it. The announcer said he threw a curve that hung up in the strike-zone. You hang it, they’ll bang it, the other announcer says. Flatline.

“So,” she says.

“Go home, Kristin,” he says abruptly.

What?”

Daniel shakes his head. He takes a drink for more confidence. The ice crashes upon on his upper lip which reminds him of his realization that he is an alcoholic. But he doesn’t need drinks for confidence. It destroys will and moral character. He quickly puts it down and pushes it to a neutral spot on the table. He then says softly, “Go home, please. Don’t get divorced, yet. Work things out with your husband, if you can. If he doesn’t beat you, or abuse you, maybe he wants to work it out, too. Maybe he feels the exact same way that you feel, but doesn’t know how to explain it to you. This may be the only decent damn thing I’ve ever done in my whole damn life. Go home. I shouldn’t have come here. And I shouldn’t have invited you to join me. There is nothing about this that is right at all.”

Are you really serious?”

“Yes. I’m finally serious about something in my life. Step one. I am giving up the alcohol. Step two. I am giving up the women.”

“The women?”

“Yes. The women. The confidence boosters that come and go. The cortisone shots in my shoulder so I can pitch. The adulation of the home crowd.”

“Wait. I don’t understand. Is there something wrong with me?” Her drink sits untouched in front of her.

“Yes. You’re married. That’s what is wrong. And I am in love with my ex. Other than that, nothing is wrong at all. You are beautiful. You’re absolutely gorgeous. But I haven’t the heart for this anymore. In less than a year I have slept with fifty or sixty married women across the country. That is what I do, when I am not selling insurance. It’s gotten to the point that I can’t be with a single woman anymore. They are either married, or I am not interested. I have sat here for the last hour or so and thought of how I could have become so depraved. Over the course of twenty years, I must have slept with thousands of married women. I might have fathered hundreds of kids that other men are raising as their own now. I came here to do the same to you, that is all I intended to do. In the morning, I would leave and you would never hear from me again. I had no intention to stay here. To get a job like I said, or to help raise your kids.”

Tears stream down her face. She holds her hands over her eyes, but it is of little use. There is a tan line where her wedding ring had been for ten years. It is in her car in the center console for the drive home. A half-carat of misery, she calls it.

“But you drove all this way?” she says, “Five hours?”

“Five hours to nowhere.”

Nowhere? Everywhere is somewhere and everyone is someone. I don’t know who you think you are. You got some nerve to treat me this way, like I am nothing.”

“Nowhere is where I was heading. It is not here. It’s where you’ll be heading, too, if you go down this road. If you’re miserable, get divorced and do it that way. Find someone to respect and love you. Not to be used one night in a hotel a mile from your house while your husband and kids are home watching movies and eating popcorn. If I had invited you up to my room, that would be treating you like nothing. This is love. Respecting you. Not all love stories are pretty.”

She huffs, still discouraged, but a little less dismayed. Her beautiful face that had been so carefree and happy only a minute ago, is now distraught with the deluge of tears and mascara.  

Daniel sighs, leans back in his seat. Regretting at first what he had just done, but knowing it is right. It feels uncomfortable being out of his routine. He is throwing fastballs now. He looks up at the lights. Lightning flashes outside the window, but this time no thunder. No rain. He thinks of his son at home who is seven now. He thinks of his ex-girlfriend who has certainly moved on and well she should have after what he has done to her. The alcoholism and womanizing. She did her best to get him help and to help him into the light, but he wouldn’t go. Not without a highball. Maybe after one more woman. He was fine, he said to her. They never meant anything to me anyway.

Surely, she wouldn’t take him back after all the damage he’s done. She was his one real love, he knows in the hole in his heart where everything falls through. The only unmistakable truth he has ever known is that. There is never a substitute feeling for that which he has for her. That which keeps him wearing the rosary, despite his transgressions, in hopes that he can be who he wants to be and now who he finally is. There was no hope if he doesn’t stop drinking to be who he wants to be. To let go of the highballs and to give up the false sense of control. There is no hope if he doesn’t stop driving himself to nowhere. This is step one. The freedom of letting this twisted hunting of women pass. That which always made him feel worse at checkout. So many wasted years, he rued. Wasted nights he could have been reading to his kid, or teaching him how to throw a good two-seamer. He reaches down and grabs the rosary.


The man comes into the bar in a rush. He is wearing old ripped jeans and a tight t-shirt. He is wearing a ballcap and he looks drunk and tired in his eyes. It is the look of heartbreak. He is carrying a shotgun. The bartender sees it and screams, “Gun!” and ducks behind the bar. People freeze, including Kristin and Daniel. The Red Sox tie it in the bottom half of seven as the gun blasts, shattering the window besides Daniel’s head. He tries to tackle the girl who is standing looking blankly back at her husband, but before he can, a second blast blows her back off her feet into the shattered window, leaving Daniel collapsed over the table. A third shot tears into his side and feels like hell had burned a hole into his gut.

A different bang rings out soon after and the man falls in the middle of the bar. The shotgun beside him. He lies face down in a heart-shaped pool of blood that expands around him. The second gunman puts his gun away. He announces that he is an off-duty deputy sheriff and tells everyone to remain calm and to slowly exit the bar. Everyone runs.

Daniel clutches his side, slumped down behind the table. The flow of warm blood quickly fills his cupped hand and pours through his fingers. The barmaid comes to his aid and says she is a nursing student at the University and tells him to breathe so he doesn’t go into shock. She puts her hand behind his head and cradles it and rips off her shirt which she uses to apply pressure to his side. The blood rushes through her fingers, but she doesn’t panic. The shirt is soaked in a minute or so, but it is black so only her warm, wet hand knows the difference. The people standing around just gawk.

Through the broken window the sirens of an ambulance and several cop cars blare. Kristin lies in a mulched bed of boxwoods. A hole the size of a fist through her chest. What remains of her heart is somewhere strewn across the lawn and her mouth pours a fountain of blood. Her husband is dead, shot once in the back of the head. The kids are at home being minded by the eldest. A ten-year-old boy who is watching the Yankees bat in the top of the eighth, hoping for a home run.


Three days later, Saul comes to the University hospital. He passes a beautiful woman who is crying and a young boy on his way down the busy hall. The woman’s hand covers her face as though she is trying to hide her tears. Her son looks like he is in shock and he holds on to her hand for dear life.

“I think I passed your ex,” Saul says entering the room.

“Yes. She just left.” Daniel sighs. “I expected you to come. Are you Death?”

“No. I’m Saul. You may know me better as the Apostle Paul. Death is a much taller fellow and you’ll know him when you see him.”

Daniel shakes his head. “What do you want, Saul?”

“Were you ever blinded by stadium lights when you looked up suddenly, Daniel?”

Daniel shot him a contemplative look. “A few times.”

“But you didn’t heed God’s calling.”

Daniel doesn’t reply.

“Did you see the flash of that shotgun?”

Daniel shook his head no.

“What did you tell your ex?”

“I told her the truth.”

“You told her why you were at the hotel.”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell her what you said to that woman?”

“Yes.”

“And what did she say?”

“Nothing. She just cried.”

“You must forgive yourself before anyone else can forgive you.”

“I know, Saul.”

“Will you stop running from God now, Daniel?”

“I have stopped. He caught up to me.”

“Where are your going to go after here?”

“Somewhere.”

“Where?"

“Five hours in the other direction. Home.”

“Will you ever stop throwing curveballs?”

“I don’t have any left in me.”

Saul smiles and puts his hand on Daniel’s face and prays over him.


The next day, Daniel wakes up. Drunk in the hotel. He is confused and runs down to the lobby and to the bar. The bartender is wiping down the bar top. It is around two.

“Hair of the dog?” the bartender smiles.

“No,” Daniel says in a panic. “What happened last night?”

“Well, you got pretty lit up. You had a few too many highballs. We had to carry you to the room after you passed out at the bar. Hope you slept okay.”

Daniel reaches down to his side and there is no wound. No bandage. The glass by the table where he sat is intact and the sun shines through it, playing off the mahogany of the bar tables and the underside panels of the bar.

“Did a woman come in last night to see me?”

The bartender thought for a moment. “Yes. Yes, there was a woman. A very fine woman. Short and skinny. But you told her to go home to her husband and she cried and ran out. I bought you a drink for that one. Never imagined in twenty years I’d ever hear anyone say something like that to someone who looked like that. You broke her heart. She was gorgeous. I’d like to think I’d do the same, but I don’t think so.”

Daniel shakes his head. An afternoon game is on TV, which is blurred by the flood of sunlight. Red Sox-Yankees doing it again.

“Want a drink, on me?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you. I am giving it up.”

“Good for you. I hope you stick to it. I haven’t drank a drop in eight years. I am a recovering alcoholic bartender,” he smiles. “Imagine that.”


Daniel walks out and goes back to his room and packs his bags. He changes into his swim trunks and goes out to the pool where it is hot and sunny. It is five hours to home and he thinks the cold water might sober him up some. The two girls and their mom are in the water. He is wearing his contacts and can see them clearly. He doesn’t have a licentious thought in his head. They look like they are about sixteen.

“Tom Cruise!” the mom says. “He looks just like Tom Cruise.”

Daniel sinks to the bottom and meditates with his eyes closed. The more things change, the more they stay the same, he thinks to himself. But everything had changed and nothing will ever be the same. He is where God wants him to be. In three days, he will be throwing a baseball in the backyard with his son. That night they will watch a game and Gremlins. But it starts here. It starts now. In the belly of this whale.