Pop Bottle

The waves lapped against the autumn shore, just as they have always done and just as they always will. And like clockwork, Charlie Foster walked his Golden Retriever Bessie, who loved to chase after the small waves. Despite her unsuccessful attempts, it never got old. Each wave marked another opportunity.

Charlie chased waves in his own, quiet way, as he sat upon his favorite expanse of rocks, which reached out into the open water. He always found something comforting about the timeless consistency of the lake – a reminder that some things can be immune from change. Then again, even rocks slowly erode over time.

As Bessie remained on the shore to sniff her familiar turf, Charlie rotated a loose wedding band around his finger, as the sun gave Lake Michigan the long, gentle kiss goodnight it deserved. It was then, during the waning specks of daylight, that Charlie spotted something from the corner of his eye – a plastic, 20-ounce pop bottle, bobbing against the rocks below him, curiously wrapped in electrical tape – an indication that it wasn’t any ordinary piece of litter.

Charlie reached in to fish out the bottle, which fell just short of his reach and seemingly fixed in one spot. He wondered how far it had come, only to land mere inches from his hand. Determined, Charlie lay down on his stomach on the hard rock, stretching with all his might to snatch the bottle, nearly falling headfirst into the shallow water below just as he grabbed it.

With the bottle in hand, Charlie shook it. A piece of paper rattled around. He struggled to unravel the damp, sticky electrical tape, before finally revealing a Coke bottle containing a small, handwritten message. He struggled to pry the message out of the bottle with his fingers, before extracting a small twig nestled between two rocks. After much effort, Charlie finally pried out the note, before he slowly stood up and unfolded it.

The first thing he noticed was the date: July 11, 2002. He froze. In fact, the whole world seemed to freeze. He couldn’t believe the sheer coincidence of the date. July 11: the date he lost everything. 2002: the year he got married, gaining it all. Surely, this was some sort of cosmic joke. There could be no other explanation. Too stunned – or perhaps, scared – to read any further, he carefully folded the note and placed into his pocket, setting his sights on the warmly-lit cottage.

“C’mon, Bessie!” Charlie commanded, getting on his way. Like clockwork, Bessie followed him all the way home.

After washing down some butter pretzel braids with a glass of cheap red, he felt courageous enough to read the rest of the message. He slowly pulled it out of his pocket, unfolded it and stared at the date once again, on some level hoping that he misread it. Yet, it remained the same. He was cautiously curious about what the rest of the letter had to say. Would there be other personal connections? Realizing he was being irrationally paranoid, he proceeded to read:

 

To whoever finds this letter, you have been chosen by fate. Or – perhaps – mere coincidence. Please write a letter to the address below to let us know where it was found … and by whom. What do you have to lose?

 

You can’t lose a thing when you’ve already lost it all.

The bottle traveled further than he ever would have guessed. Petoskey was ?? miles from Escanaba. Both towns were a coincidence in their own right. They had stopped in both towns for their honeymoon. The towns were four hours apart.

Should he write a letter? Deliver it in person? Or ignore it all together?

Deep down, he knew he was most likely to do nothing. Being spontaneous died when she did. She was the spontaneous one, anyway. For the time being, he decided to sleep on it. Or, at least, attempt to. That was usually how his best decisions were made – back when he actually had decisions to make. Lately, life was one blank canvas. He preferred it that way. Or, at least part of him did.

Charlie put these thoughts to rest and headed off to bed, joined by his faithful companion. He placed the pop bottle and letter on the nightstand, alongside his wedding portrait. He kissed the picture goodnight, before lying awake in his now-too-large bed, twirling his now-too-large ring, hoping that the calm, autumn breeze that fluttered through the window, combined with the gentle waves caressing the shore, would lull him to sleep. As he lay awake, he was reminded of how everything felt so different now; every one of his senses dulled, as though life were now perpetually draped in suffocating, opaque gauze.

But then he thought of the pop bottle…and he felt a slight glimmer of what must have been…hope?

But then it was gone. As quickly as it had arrived.

Bessie also lay awake at the foot of the bed, joining her master in solidarity as the past flooded the present. After all, she was waiting for her true master to come home. Charlie was reluctant to get the dog in the first place. Bessie sensed that from the start. Little did they know just how much they would come to depend on one another.

As the minutes slowed into hours, scattered memories haunted Charlie’s soul until his mind finally settled on the period in which they bought their cottage. Owning a cottage on Lake Michigan was something they first started dreaming about on their honeymoon. At the time, they knew it was a mere pipe dream that relied on Charlie getting his big Hollywood break – a dream that at one time was alive and well, unlike the ruins it lay in today. When the economy collapsed, Charlie and Julia saw a golden opportunity: foreclosure. An abandoned dream for one couple became the start of a new dream for another.

Julia wasn’t quite sold at the beginning. She thought the cottage was too modest, too simple and had hoped to find something a bit larger – and cheaper – outside of town. Charlie saw it as cozy, its plainness representing “the simple life” that so many people dream about, but so rarely achieve. Plus, it was the former stomping grounds of his greatest inspiration – Ernest Hemingway. She eventually “settled”. And though she didn’t let on, he knew she never got over it.

Why had he been so fucking selfish?

They named their cottage The Simple Life and it became a haven for Julia to finally begin painting again, which she had been longing to do since she realized that teaching wasn’t as rewarding as she had hoped. For Charlie, the cottage became his muse. Now, he had all the time in the world to write. But didn’t … couldn’t.

There was one major upside to both being teachers: it meant entire summers at the cottage to write, as their future children ran around outside, swam in the lake, built castles in the sand, or reading inside during rainstorms.

Back when possibility was infinite.

Despite Julia’s fertility issues, there had been hopeful signs in the months leading up to her death. They had hoped that the stress-free tranquility of their summer Eden would be the remedy they needed – the missing ingredient.

Now widowed, all Charlie was left with were ghosts he saw no way of escaping. Perhaps even worse was the fact that he didn’t know if he wanted to escape it. Doing so would mean getting over it, which he saw as the ultimate betrayal of his wife.

Eventually, the ghosts receded like the tide as Charlie drifted off to sleep. But it was never a deep sleep. And it was only a matter of time before he awoke again with “new” old and forgotten memories, bubbling up to the surface; their arrival heralded by a bittersweet stab to the heart. Sometimes, the pain was so deep, he wished it would kill him. It certainly felt like it could. But eventually, it would not so much pass … but subside. Each re-discovered memory contained multiple facets and angles to explore – like a Rubik’s cube that could never quite be solved. He couldn’t let go of them until he exhausted every combination.

Sometimes, he wished he could simply erase everything. However, he also realized that even if he were given that opportunity, it would mean truly losing her once and for all. Ultimately, he would much rather live with the pain.

The next morning, Charlie woke up, surprisingly rested. He immediately remembered the bottle and message sitting on his nightstand. As he turned to look at it, it was gone! Confused, he began looking around. Standing on the other side of his bed was Bessie, wagging her tail. In her mouth, the bottle.

“Bessie, leave it!” Charlie commanded. She released the bottle and Charlie got out of bed and retrieved it. He wiped the drool off against his leg, then inspected the bottle for damage. There was none. Suddenly, he was overcome with a surge of what could only be described as hope – which he had felt only a sliver of the night before. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt since it happened.

And it brought with it a new focus: returning that pop bottle to Escanaba.

To return something that was otherwise lost…

…and then found again.

Charlie headed for the shower, and found himself beginning to doubt what had to be an irrational conviction. Yet, he never felt more confident – a rarity even before his wife died. Still taken aback by his uncharacteristic optimism and determination, he had a sneaking suspicion that it was only a matter of time before he crashed back to earth.

After he dressed, he sat down for another lonely breakfast, joined by thunderous silence, glancing at the unused place setting across from him, partially obscured by the message and bottle. Bessie waited patiently by his side for her daily ration of scraps.

Charlie quickly gobbled down his breakfast, as though trying to avoid more time to change his mind. He didn’t even bother to put his dishes in the sink, grabbing the message and bottle, before rushing out the door. He climbed into his rusted Dodge Neon and carefully punched in the address on his GPS. Bessie eagerly took her rightful spot in the backseat on her tattered Sesame Street comforter – a remnant of Charlie’s childhood. Julia used to beg him to throw it away, so he tricked her by hiding it in a box labeled “childhood memories.” When Bessie came into their lives, his old childhood comforter would rise from the ashes.

“I thought you threw that thing out?” she accused him.

“I tried. But I have a hard time letting go of things.”

“Well, that’s going to have to change,” she said, half in jest.

He he had severe doubts even that then that he would ever change, but was at least semi-open to the possibility. Now, he knew there was no chance.

When one loses someone close, it’s amazing how many “things” become placeholders in their absence, like scattered fragments of their souls, little “ghosts” of what once was, morphing the materialistic nature of the objects into something far more transcendental. When grief enters the picture, it forces one to grasp onto any reminder and never let go. The comforter was now a split fragment of Charlie’s childhood and Julia herself, intertwined through its worn fabric.

Her presence was also strongly felt in the Neon itself. It was the first car she ever owned and was naturally attached. It was her comforter. As much as Charlie urged her to get new a car, he was relieved that she hadn’t. One more tangible reminder he could cling to. When he drove her car, the past was still alive, concurrently running alongside the present. Of course, the illusion would all come to a crashing halt the moment he stepped out of the car again and back into reality.

On this particular trip, an empty pop bottle sat in her place – a quiet, mysterious passenger. He took the same route they had taken on their honeymoon. When they vowed to return to Escanaba at a future date. They had grown too comfortable at their cottage, living The Simple Life.

There was always tomorrow…

…until there wasn’t.

And now, he was completely adrift.

What am I doing?

After all, he this was the same guy who usually equated grocery shopping with climbing Mt. Everest. Two days ago, the idea of going to the U.P. would have seemed as probable as traveling into space. Despite his growing doubts, he kept pressing on. When he finally reached the mighty Mackinaw Bridge, doubts intensified. He pulled over to the side of the road, on the verge of a panic attack. He took deep breaths, trying to clear his mind for a moment, before taking back the reigns of his life.

In some ways, he knew that once he crossed the bridge, there would be no turning back. He just wasn’t sure if he was ready for that. Once upon a time, he always followed his gut. If only he could figure out what his gut was trying to tell him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then re-opened them. Suddenly, the road was wide open and there was only one choice. The time had come to cross that bridge. Without hesitation, he slammed on his gas, and traversed across the bridge, surrounded by a world of red, orange, white, and blue. It was a view he hadn’t seen since his honeymoon, but it felt just like yesterday.

Once he crossed the five-mile span to the other side, he looked in his rearview mirror and for a brief moment, felt the ghosts of his past disappear over the horizon, replaced with an exuberance of liberation.

The further west he got, the more the geographical landscape changed. Small towns and civilization morphed into dense forest, rich in fall colors. Traffic increasingly dwindled until Charlie was convinced he was the last person left on earth. This was nature’s backyard – a fact he was abruptly reminded of when an explosive blur of brown, white, and black slammed against his windshield, landing on the pavement 20 feet ahead of him with an audible thud. His first reaction was that he hit a person, but after peering through his now cracked windshield, he realized it was “only” a deer. He sat in stunned silence for several moments, before safely pulling over to the side of the road to regain his composure. Despite the cracked windshield, he realized how lucky he was that the car avoided significant damage. The windshield would surely have to be replaced, but fortunately, it didn’t affect his visibility.

When he calmed down from the initial shock, he looked at the dead deer blocking his path, before peering through his rearview mirror, suddenly overcome with the need to turn around and head back home. Surely, the accident was a sign. But of what? And from whom? On one hand, it was a clear sign that this journey wasn’t meant to be. He could at least take solace in knowing that he had at least tried.

Baby steps.

On the other hand, he did make it this far. He was less than an hour away. The fact that he escaped both serious injury and damage to the car was a sign that he should keep going, despite the occasional obstacle that might cross his path.

Charlie closed his eyes for a moment, teetering on the precipice of not only his decision – but bridging the gap between his past and future. When he finally opened his eyes, there was only one option – just as there was in the morning: keep going forward. And so he did.

But first, he had to do something about that damn deer. He could have just swerved around it, but why jeopardize the safety of others? Charlie got out of his car and reluctantly approached the dead carcass in the road, not entirely sure it was even dead at all. Despite growing up in Michigan, he had very limited experience with wildlife. He approached the carcass, then stood solemnly before her, surrounded by eerie stillness – as though all of nature had died. He felt compelled to pay final respects. After all, it was a life.

Or, more specifically, a life that was no more.

Because of him.

Realizing he was teetering on spiral mode, Charlie attempted to grab the deer by its mid-section, but awkwardly struggled to get an adequate grip. He finally decided to drag the deer by its rear hooves, surprised by how little it seemed to weigh. Once the deer was safely off the road, he draped some foliage over it before he headed back to his car.

Still shaken, Charlie drove away. The deer in his rearview mirror grew smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared out of view.

As he got closer to his destination, he became even more stalwart, as he envisioned how it would all play out. He thought through every possible scenario: What would he do if the owner(s?) weren’t home? Would he just leave the bottle on the porch with a note? Or would he come back some other time? He ultimately decided that simply leaving it would be sort of anti-climatic. After all, he wanted to meet the people who decided once upon a time to send this bottle on its little journey. Would they even remember sending it? More importantly, what would he gain by meeting them? That was the bigger question. He hoped he was just minutes away from an answer.

Charlie pulled up in front of the spacious lakefront cabin.

If this is their cottage, I can only imagine their primary residence.

A Jeep Cherokee sat parked in the driveway, quelling the concern that nobody would be home. The question now, of course, was whether the people that currently inhabited the cabin were the same people who sent the pop bottle adrift. If not, the most Charlie could hope for was that they at least knew the former inhabitants.

Charlie carefully checked his shirt pocket for the note and confirmed the address before he headed out of the car. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to open Pandora’s box.

“Stay here,” he commanded an eager Bessie. As he began his slow walk toward the house, another Golden Retriever barked in the window. Bessie barked back.

When he finally reached her door, Charlie took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. He felt as though he were returning an unexpected, long-lost family heirloom.

An attractive, but worn and melancholy, woman on either side of 40 – opened the door, holding back her dog, who was no longer barking, but bursting with enthusiasm for their visitor. Once the dog settled down, Charlie heard relaxation music, accompanied by lapping waves. It was the kind of CD that Julia would have loved, usually on display in those kiosks at Target or Bed Bath & Beyond (or as Charlie referred to it: Blood Bath & Beyond, which always annoyed Julia).

“Yes?” she finally asked with a combination of curiosity and skepticism. He noticed a weariness in her overall demeanor – especially in her eyes.

Charlie slowly handed her both the letter and bottle.

“Does this look familiar?” he asked.

The woman examined the items with a blank, slack-jawed expression that Charlie was unable to decipher. As she read the letter, she began to tremble, as though trying to stifle back tears. Suddenly, the tears began to flow, in front of this stranger at her doorstep.

“I’m sorry…” Charlie said. He regretted his decision to come. “I should probably go.”

“No. Please don’t,” she pleaded. “How did you find this?”

“It washed up on the shore behind my cottage in Petoskey …” Charlie said. “I realize it’s a bit strange that I would drive all this way …”

She didn’t seem to hear him, as she stared at the letter again. She was transfixed. Charlie noticed a wedding ring on her finger.

“I was going to write a letter like it asked me to,” Charlie continued, “but something compelled me to come here. Again, I’m so sorry to—”

“You haven’t troubled me at all. It’s the least I can do for bringing this to me,” she said.

“Charlie Foster,” Charlie said, offering his hand.

“Carolyn Smith,” she said, shaking her hand across the threshold.

She shook his hand. When she released, they stood in awkward silence, searching for what to do next. Finally, Claire stepped out of her house and onto the porch. Her dog stood guard between his master and Charlie.

“Thank you so much for bringing this to me,” Claire said. As she cradled the bottle, she wiped the tears from her face.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Most people wouldn’t have wasted their time to even mail it.”

“It was a beautiful drive,” Charlie said.

He hoped he wasn’t blushing as much as he felt like he was. Julia used to love how easy it was to make him blush.

Bessie barked from the car. Claire spotted her in the front seat.

“Oh, you have a Golden, too?”

“Yeah. Bessie. Yours?”

“George. Will she stay put without a fence?”

“Yeah. You sure it’s no trouble?”

“She doesn’t bite, does she?”

“Nope. She might kiss you, though.”

“That would be perfectly fine with me,” Claire said with a sad smile – a smile he recognized all two well from his own reflection.

As soon as Charlie opened the car door, Bessie ran straight toward the house. George greeted her halfway and the two dogs immediately began to sniff one another’s butts.

“Friends already!” Charlie said. They both laughed and them watched as their dogs proceeded to play-wrestle. A minute later, George was humping Bessie. If only humans had it so easy.

“And now lovers,” Claire said. “George! Stop that!” Claire commanded. George obeyed.

“Sorry about that,” Claire said.

“No, it’s fine. She likes the attention,” Charlie said. “She doesn’t have any dog friends back home.”

The dogs resumed their wrestling match.

“There’s a fresh pot of coffee if you’d like.”

“I really wouldn’t want to trouble you anymore than I already have.”

“You’re not,” Claire made clear. “It’s already made.”

“In that case, then sure,” Charlie said.

“Would you like have a seat?” she said, pointing at an old-fashioned wooden porch swing.

“Thank you,” Charlie said, taking a seat.

“Milk, cream, or sugar?” Claire asked.

“Just black is fine,” Charlie replied. Claire disappeared inside. Charlie watched George and Bessie continued to wrestle, before staring out at the empty road. Not a single car had passed by since he arrived. Gentle, melancholy waves could be heard coming from behind the house.

Charlie peered through the front room window to get a peek of the cottage, which seemed ripped out of the pages of Architectural Digest. The walls were painted a crisp sky blue and immaculately decorated with nautical décor. Sheer curtains blew ethereally in the wind. Through a window across the room, he caught a glimpse of Lake Michigan, glistening in the sunlight.

If heaven were a home, this would be it, In many ways, it was exactly what Charlie and Julia had envisioned for themselves, before falling just short. He noticed a wedding portrait above the fireplace. He suddenly felt as though he were intruding on another man’s territory.

Where was her husband?

And what would he think if he suddenly pulled up and saw a strange man standing in his living room? He knew it would be sorted out quickly, but the initial moments would certainly be awkward.

Charlie decided to simply close his eyes and let his soul absorb the peaceful surroundings. Just as he began to drift off to sleep, Claire entered. He jolted awake.

“Sorry to frighten you,” she said.

“You didn’t,” Charlie said, slightly embarrassed as she handed Charlie a mug featuring a photo of a golden retriever and an in memoriam message that read: “Cody: Forever in our hearts.” She then retrieved her coffee, along with a plate of assorted cookies, which she set down in front of Charlie, before taking a seat on a matching porch swing opposite Charlie.

“So do you live here year round?” Charlie asked.

“Now, yes. We used to live downstate, but moved up here five years ago. You?”

“Mostly summers. And occasional fall weekends like this one,” Charlie said. “I’m a teacher downstate. Ann Arbor.”

“Small world! I went to U of M. It’s where I met my husband.”

“So you guys work up here?” Charlie asked. “I can’t imagine you’re retired …”

“I work at a florist in town. I used to be a photographer and graphic artist, but am on an extended leave of absence. No art in me anymore. My husband was an attorney.”

Was an attorney.

Claire stared down at the note, with the sort of affection one would use to gaze lovingly at a portrait of a loved one.

“And now …?” Charlie asked, suspecting the worst.

“He died two months ago – the day after his 38th birthday.”

She paused, unable to continue.

“I’m so sorry…” Charlie said. “If you don’t mind my asking—”

“Colon cancer,“ Claire interjected. “But it was really the liver that killed him. Doctors gave him less than a year when he was first diagnosed. He fought it for five years. I think he was more afraid of leaving me alone than death itself.”

“We celebrated his birthday the weekend before with family and a couple of friends,” Claire continued. “It was the last time I truly saw him happy. Even with cancer, he was still the most optimistic person I ever met. I used to ask him how he could remain so goddamn optimistic. And do you want to know what his reply was?”

Charlie nodded for her to continue.

“He said, ‘Because I have so much to be grateful for.’ He thought this while slowly and painfully dying of cancer. He truly believed that a person’s overall sense of happiness was at a fixed point, no matter what the circumstances surrounding their life.”

“On his birthday – right before he died – he seemed to reach a different, almost otherworldly level of happiness. I assumed it was simply because he was surrounded by so many loved ones. But I knew deep down that he knew he was about to be free from the pain once and for all.”

For the first time, Charlie felt as though he were totally detached from his own experience of loss, as a result of being so overcome with empathy for somebody else – in this case, a stranger. As she continued with her story, he rotated his wedding band around his finger in rhythm with her sad tempo.

“But seeing him so genuinely happy like that … it was like waking up from a nightmare. But in reality, the nightmare was only beginning. And now with this bottle …” her voice trailed off, as she fought to hold back tears.

As Claire examined the bottle, Charlie realized its true significance. It meant everything.

“We sent this the day we closed on this house. Two weeks before his diagnosis. We were celebrating at the beach. It was actually his idea. In fact, I was opposed to it because I considered it littering. And very cheeseball. He was always a hopeless romantic. And I was just hopeless,” she said with a melancholy chuckle.

Charlie laughed. “When I first saw it, I assumed it was no different than any other piece of trash that I’m always pulling out of the lake. Most people probably would have just ignored it.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t.”

“I guess it pays to care about our natural resources.”

They both had a chuckle, before Claire continued:

“We actually argued over it. One of those stupid little arguments that you only regret after it’s too late. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me…” Claire’s voice drifted off, as she stared at the dogs, now lying side-by-side in the autumn sun.

“I’ve thought about this bottle from time to time,” she continued. “Especially after he died. I had a clear image in my head of it floating somewhere out t3here – out of reach of everyone – or perhaps lodged somewhere and going nowhere at all.

Charlie imagined Claire and her husband sitting on these very swings on a balmy, summer night. Or even a crisp autumn one like this one. It made him feel sad. And he couldn’t help but feel a bit like an imposter.

“What about you?” Claire asked, noticing Charlie rotating his wedding band around his finger. “Married I assume?”

Charlie paused momentarily, as though not saying it would make it all go away.

“In spirit,” he finally muttered, fighting back tears. “She passed away last summer – just over a year ago … Car accident.”

Claire put a hand up to her mouth in shocked exasperation.

“I’m so sorry …” Claire said.

“I was driving,” Charlie continued. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather have it be cancer. Less guilt.”

“Let’s just agree that nobody would envy us,” Claire said.

“Fair enough.”

“So what happened? You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable—”

“A classic tale involving a drunk driver. And a red light.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“I was behind the wheel. I should have looked twice. Especially considering that she was carrying …” Charlie stopped himself short. The tears were now winning the battle.

“Our first…” Charlie added, through a thick coat of tears. Claire put a comforting hand on Charlie’s knee.

“I’m sorry,” Charlie said. “I shouldn’t burden you with such things.

“I guess that makes two of us,” Claire said, reminding him that it was only minutes before that she unloaded her grief unto him.

“So what was her name?” Claire asked.

“Julia … And his?”

“Chris.”

They let their names echo in a moment of silence.

“More coffee?” Claire finally asked.

“Sure,” Charlie said, as he rotated his ring for comfort.

Claire poured each of them another cup, before she sat back down at the table. They stared at one another in shared emphatic understanding until George chased Bessie onto the porch, breaking the spell, and providing a much-needed diversion.

“George, stop flirting!” Claire commanded. And as though her dog somehow understood what she was saying, he gave up the chase and proceeded to sit down next to his master, wagging both tongue and tail in equal measure.

“Can I give her a treat?” Claire asked.

“Absolutely.”

Claire went inside and returned moments later with a box of Milkbones.

“What about me?” Charlie quipped as she tossed treats to both dogs.

Claire pointed at the plate of cookies. “Help yourself.”

He took up on her offer as she rejoined him.

“I prefer Snausages myself,” Charlie said to further lighten the mood. “Sweeter. Less dry.”

“I agree.”

“You haven’t really tried them, have you?”
Charlie nodded in embarrassment. “I take it you haven’t?”

“Gross! No, I have not.”

“Try one sometime,” Charlie said. “You won’t be disappointed.”

“Maybe after a couple of drinks,” Claire said with a laugh. There was something about her laugh – perhaps the way she threw her head back – that seemed all too eerily familiar.

They both laughed at the absurdity of this exchange.

“Can I fix you some human food?” Claire asked.

“I really don’t –“

“It won’t be any trouble at all,” Claire interrupted. “I have plenty of cold cuts and fresh bread. I’m a bit hungry myself.”

“Well, in that case …” Charlie said, laughing.

“Something to drink?” Claire said.

“What do you have?”

“Pop. Lemonade … would you like some wine?”

“Sure.”

“Merlot okay?”
“Perfect.”

“Good. Because it’s the only kind I have,” Claire said. They both laughed as Claire headed inside.

Dried tears stung Charlie’s cheek and he was surprised how relaxed and “at home” he felt with Claire. It was nice not to be alone with his thoughts for once. Verbalizing them soothed his soul. Or, maybe it was just social interaction in general?

Claire returned with a platter of cold cuts, cheese, and fresh bread.

“Wow, look at that,” Charlie said, as Claire headed back in to retrieve the wine, two glasses, and opener. She set it all aside so they could get to work on making their sandwiches. Claire then fumbled trying to open up the wine bottle, before surrendering it to Charlie.

“Would you mind?” Claire asked. “I’ve never been good at this. With all of my experience over the past couple of years, you’d think I’d be a pro by now.”

Charlie smiled, but more in mutual sympathy and understanding.

If anyone could relate to an increase in alcohol consumption, it was himself. Though he knew better, he couldn’t stop.

As Charlie got to work on uncorking the bottle, he struggled much to Claire’s amusement, before finally managing to open it. She praised his efforts with mock applause, as he poured two glasses, then raised his glass, having not a clue as what to say for a toast. He also realized that this was the first toast he shared a woman since Julia. This saddened him, but by the same token, he knew it was another baby step. Even it was only step one out of millions he still had to take.

After several moments, Charlie decided no words were necessary and simply clinked Claire’s glass. After they each took a sip, they sat in comfortable silence, staring at the bottle.

“You know, in some ways, it’s almost as though you returned him home,” Claire began. “I can’t help but think he’s somehow behind this, letting me know that he’s okay. And that he can still find me. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Like I said, I didn’t think of it as a choice,” Charlie said, taking a healthy bite of his sandwich. It felt good to eat substantial food for once.

“I wonder how many other people ignored it before you found it,” Claire pondered.

“Only God knows … ”

“I’ve given up on trying to figure out what God knows…”

“Or if he exists all together,” Charlie added.

“I still believe He does … I just doubt how much He cares.”
“He certainly can’t blame you,” Charlie said. “He can blame me, though. That’s for sure.”

“You shouldn’t blame yourself for something that was out of your control…”

“I’m not entirely convinced it was,” Charlie said. “No matter how much counselors, psychiatrists, friends, family, and now you try to tell me.”

“I’m sorry if –“

“No need to be sorry,” Charlie said. “Trust me, I tell myself, too. It’s not that I refuse to listen. It’s that I can’t.”

They returned to shared silence, taking bites out of their sandwiches, which they struggled to swallow. Eating didn’t exactly come easy these days.

“Maybe you were supposed to find it?” Charlie finally said. “That it was somehow looking for you? I know that sounds strange …”

“Not at all. Because that’s exactly how I feel.”

“I just keep trying to convince myself that everything happens for a reason,” Claire said. “It’s the only way I can stay sane.”

“I’ve given up even trying,” Charlie said.

“Is that what you really want?” Claire asked.

“Want and is are two different things.”

“True.”

“I see your point,” Charlie began. “But the thing of it is, I come to that same spot every day. It wasn’t like I found it in some random place.”

“More proof that it was looking for you,” Claire said. “It knew where to find you.”

Charlie reflected on this thought, before adding:

“That spot was where Julia and I walked our dog every night, before sitting to watch the sunset – our own little private corner of the world. Until God, or the universe, or fatalistic indifference decided it needed her more than I did. Now I sit and watch alone.”

Charlie could tell by the way Claire was looking at him that she wanted to say something. However, just as Charlie experienced when Claire told her tragic tale, words hard to come by.

When they finished their sandwiches, Claire asked

“Want to sit on the back patio?” Claire finally said, breaking through the sadness. “Far more scenic.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Charlie said. He interpreted her offer as a small gesture of trust. With wine in hand, Charlie followed Claire to the back of the house, accompanied by their faithful companions. Autumn’s sour aroma filled their lungs. When they finally reached the spacious backyard, the view of Lake Michigan was absolutely breathtaking, as the sun set over open water.

The two widows took a seat at the patio table as Bessie and George chased each other along the shore, oblivious to human suffering.

“How has it been for you?” Claire asked.

“You mean the recovery?”

“If you can call it that – sometimes, I don’t even know if I’ve begun the process of recovery. You?”

“I barely sleep anymore if that gives you any indication,” Charlie said.

“I sleep too much,” Claire said, laughing. “That’s part of my problem.”

“Of course, some days are easier. It’s the nights that are toughest. The nights force me to think, even when I don’t want to. Hence the sleeping problem.”

“And that’s exactly why I sleep too much,” Claire countered. “So I don’t have to think.”

Claire paused for a moment, before changing the subject. “Forgive me for asking this, but have you gone out with anyone since …”

“You mean like a date?” Charlie asked.

Claire nodded.

“I know I should,” Charlie began. “But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Not yet. In the meantime, everyone seems to know to someone they want to set me up with.”

“Isn’t that sort of …”

“Tacky?” Charlie interjected.

“Insensitive.”

“Maybe a little. But I know they mean well. They just don’t know how to act. Even your closest friends.

“I guess it’s too soon yet for my friends to do the same.”

“On, they will,” Charlie said. “Trust me, they will.”

“So have you taken anyone of them up on it yet?”

“Still too soon. Sometimes, I wonder if it always will be. And if the time comes, I certainly don’t want it to be the result of a charity case. I want it to be something I find on my own.”

They paused for a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the shore – the gulls, the waves, the breeze, and two golden retrievers frolicking in the remaining sunlight on what had blossomed into such a welcome, unexpected, and beautiful day.

“Do you have a picture of her?” Claire asked.

Charlie removed his wallet to reveal a picture of his wife.

“She’s beautiful.”

“I miss her so much.”

“One thing I’ve tried to convince myself,” Claire began, “is that we’re never really without the ones we love. As long as they’re still in our heart, they’re out there somewhere, floating in a bottle, waiting to return home. Or for us to return to them.”

“Do you really believe that?” Charlie asked.

“I’d like to think I’m starting to. But not quite there yet.”

“Then let’s make a deal. I’ll believe it if you will. If not right now, then someday.”

“Deal,” Claire said in agreement.

They shake on it.

Claire shivered from the breeze as she sipped her wine.

“You look a little chilly,” Charlie said. “And I’m thinking I should probably get going.”

“Oh,” Claire said, disappointed. “Are you sure?”

“I’ve certainly enjoyed your hospitality, but it’s been a long day and I still have a long drive. And I certainly don’t want to wear out my welcome,” Charlie said.

Claire relented, as they both got up, both calling for their retrievers, who gleefully ran toward the house and their respective owners.

Claire led Charlie back around to the front of the house. Charlie opened his back door to let Bessie in, but she refused to comply. She was having too much fun with her new friend. Eventually, Charlie managed to coax her into the car. He shut the door and turned around to face Claire, who immediately began to tear up. Beyond her tears, Charlie could see – feel – all the love, heartache, and longing filling her soul. He saw the same pain in her eyes that he saw in the mirror each morning – the type of pain that only those who have gone through what they have gone through could possibly fully understand.

“Thank you for bringing him home,” Claire said, through tears. “I honestly can’t thank you enough.”

“Thank you,” Charlie said in reply. Their eyes locked momentarily.

“Sleep well,” Claire said.

“I’m thinking tonight, for the first time in a long time, I can,” Charlie said.

“Be careful on the road,” Julia said. “It’s a no man’s land out there.”

“And if you ever need anyone to talk to …” Charlie said, writing down his name and number.

“You, the same,” she said, writing down her number.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Claire added “If you want.”

“I would love that. And same to you.”

Charlie suddenly leaned in and gave her a hug. He clearly caught Claire off guard, not to mention himself. But she didn’t seem to mind. It was the best hug of his life. He sensed that she felt the same.

They held each other, as a gentle breeze came through the window, enveloping itself around them, soaking in the sound of the waves on the shore in perfect harmony with the soothing meditation music. They held onto each other for what felt like an eternity – an eternity they didn’t want to let go of. But as both these star-crossed widows knew more than anyone, every great thing must pass. And so it did.

Charlie and Bessie got into the car, as Claire waved from the porch – an image Charlie knew he would never forget. And just like that, he was back on the road, guided by the moonlight and filled with the hope of a new life to come.

When he arrived home, he headed straight to bed. And for the first time since he lost everything, he slept soundly through the night as his wedding portrait watched over him and Bessie slept soundly at the foot of the bed.

The next morning, he felt more refreshed and awake and alive than he could last remember. Charlie walked Bessie along the autumn shore and sat on his favorite spot on the rocks overlooking a golden sunrise. For the first time in over a year, he felt the urge to write again.

As Bessie ran along the shore, Charlie stared out into the distance, removed his wedding band and gently grasped it in the palm of his hand, listening as the waves caressed the shore.

 

Destination: Dnipropetrovsk (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2As I headed toward my assigned gate at the Frankfurt International Airport – between my world and the new one that awaited me – I stopped for a bouquet of flowers along the way for my friend Katya. When I arrived at the gate marked “Dnipropetrovsk,” I immediately noticed that everyone in the crowded waiting area appeared sullen; no smiles, no laughter. Not a word of English was spoken. Not a word of German, either, for that matter. The atmosphere felt intimidating and I felt as though I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I managed to find a seat between two middle-aged men who either apparently had never heard of deodorant, or simply ran out a long time ago. They both glared at me as though I had just announced that I had slept with their mothers.

I took the ring case out of my pocket and examined it for the hundredth time. From the corner of my eye, I felt someone … something staring at me from across the aisle. I looked up. It was an old Ukrainian “babushka woman.” Carrying a cage. A cage containing a chicken. This image begged the requisite questions: Why a chicken? Did she come to Germany just to get this chicken? Was it for her? Was it a present? A pet? A future dinner? Both?? As I continued staring at her chicken, I realized she was staring at me. More specifically, glaring at me. Was I being cursed? But what had I done? Is staring at someone’s chicken a crime in Ukraine? Unable to come up with the answers I so desperately craved, I simply stared down at the ring. But I could feel the woman’s glare intensify. But why? Do old Ukrainian babushka women hate rings? Hate Americans? Hate Americans who carry rings? I figured that her glare would subside, that she would return to minding her own business. But each time I looked up, there she was, glaring, as if to say come on, just try it, I can take you down any day. I put the ring case back into my pocket. She continued to glare. Thankfully my imminent curse was curtailed by a loud announcement. It was time to board.

I headed through the tunnel, assuming that it would lead to a plane. But it simply led to a stairwell. The stairwell led to a shuttle. The shuttle finally led to another terminal, where our Dniproavia plane awaited.
Should I be worried?
I convinced myself that at the very least, if it was an airline with a habit of crashing, then I’m sure I would have heard of it.
Our plane was one of those small, propeller planes that looked like its best days of service were during the Cold War. We boarded through the rear. The sound from the propellers was deafening.
I struggled to find my seat. A flight attendant—demonstrating no ability to speak English—looked at my ticket, then led me down the crowded aisle. I couldn’t help but notice the tattered upholstery and torn, dirty curtains. Not to mention the blistering heat that magnified the smell of body odor.
Upon reaching my seat, I glanced through a complimentary Ukrainian newspaper, pleasantly surprised by full-color nude photos, along with the occasional fully-clothed, dour-faced diplomat.
A woman to my left held a crying baby—a problem which was remedied by her swiftly whipping out a supple breast upon which the baby could feed.
As the plane began to taxi, the passenger to my right did the sign of the cross repeatedly. This action intensified upon take off.
A man across the aisle covered his head with a newspaper. Another man took a swig of vodka from a bottle. I simply clutched my broken armrests for dear life and closed my eyes, joining my neighbor in intense prayer.
I knew that I could finally relax once my fellow passengers began to pull out their baskets of food and bottles of vodka, filling the cabin with the nauseating stench of pickled herring and smoked fish—the scents of which were compounded by the dirty diaper that was being changed next to me. I had no choice but to lift up my shirt to cover my nose. And of course, I was looked upon as the weirdo … as the freak.
Weak American their stares seemed to be saying.
I reclined back in my seat, only to be immediately kicked at from behind. Something, presumably nasty, was spoken by the bearded face that slithered in from behind me. I interpreted this to mean pull up your fucking seat now, asshole!
I took his friendly advice and did just that. I then took out my Russian-English phrase book in a vain attempt to translate what I had just been told. All I gathered was how much the Cyrillic alphabet resembled drawings of tables and chairs.
A stewardess with a purplish bee-hive, make-up plastered on her face in the manner of a circus clown, and a deep smoker’s cough, came by with a refreshment cart. She handed me what bore some vague resemblance to beef stew, a rock-hard bread roll, and a can of what appeared to be apple juice. I tried to pull down my tray, but it was broken. So I balanced the items on my lap and dug into the mystery stew/goo—trying to ignore the little voice telling me that I was making a big mistake.
After the stewardess had collected my stew tray and empty can, by some divine miracle, I felt myself slowly dozing off to sleep, until I was interrupted—by the sound of a drill.
Startled, I looked around the cabin. It didn’t take long for me to focus in on a wild-haired mechanic with several missing teeth who bore an uncanny resemblance to Doc Brown from Back to the Future, drilling into the ceiling of the plane. I didn’t sleep another wink.
Two hours later, the plane began its descent. I looked out of the window—half-expecting to see a Ukrainian gremlin on the wing—at the sparse countryside, finding it hard to believe that we were approaching a city of 1.5 million people.
A stewardess passed out what I gathered to be a customs form, but it was in Russian so I couldn’t be sure. I raised my hand and blurted out down the aisle: “Excuse me!” Based on the reaction of every passenger, I might as well have threatened to blow the whole plane to smithereens, so apparently startling was my foreign tongue to their ears.
The stewardess approached, all but asking me to quiet down. I showed her my customs form: “English?” I asked.
“Da, English. Minute.”
She hastily took the form from me. Moments later, she returned with an English one. I couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of shame for not learning at least a few basic Russian phrases in the months leading up to my trip.
Finally, the plane touched down in Dnipropetrovsk. Unscathed.
The passengers exploded into wild applause. I was taken aback.
Aren’t we supposed to land safely? Was this a major feat for a Ukrainian flight?
I had a feeling we weren’t in Michigan anymore.
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© 2015 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved.
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Advice to My Childhood Self

(in no particular order)

 

  • If you grow up with your parents’ bedroom right next to yours, wear earplugs at night.

 

  • Avoid bragging about your Magic Rocks – no matter how colorful.

 

  • Refrain from bragging about your Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm – no matter how many tunnels the ants dug. And if you do have an art farm, be sure to follow the instructions, which include putting the live fire ants into the freezer for a short period to briefly paralyze them before inserting them into the farm. Otherwise, the fire ants will scurry in every possible direction up your hand and arm, leaving a trail of piercing bites.

 

  • Don’t wear a plastic Sea-Monkey necklace to school (a plastic, bubble aquarium hanging from a red string that you put actual live Sea-Monkeys into) (Sea “Sea-Monkey Necklace” for more details).

 

  • Avoid leaving a pair of dirty underpants in the pant leg of your jeans. Otherwise, it might work its way out throughout the course of the day, revealing itself to everyone as you come out of a bathroom with it trailing behind you in all of its white, poop-streaked glory, as one of your tormentors proclaims: “Look! His underwear is hanging out of his pants!” Before I even realized what was going on, 25 classmates (and I’m pretty sure, one teacher) were laughing at me, as my underwear trailed behind me out of a pant leg, before eventually coming to a rest on the floor. To make matters worse, I picked it up and shoved it down the front of my pants, somehow thinking that this was the only solution, as my Sea-Monkey necklace dangled from my neck.

 

  • If you are going to install a Nerf hoop in your bedroom, don’t place it above a window if you plan on dunking on it.
  • If you don’t want a man in cut-off shorts showing up at your doorstep, introducing himself as “the neighbor from behind”, don’t shoot baskets in your backyard at 4:00 a.m. while hosting a sleepover

 

  • Don’t stick your arm between two back-to-back booths at the Dairy Queen, unless you want to get it stuck, forcing them to dismount an entire booth in order to rescue your arm. This is especially embarrassing if a girl you have a crush on is sitting near by, eating with her family.

 

  • Spending summer days cooped up in your basement watching your Lionel train go around in circles while listening to Weird Al Yankovich won’t improve your social life.

 

  • Try to feign illness before having to endure the humiliation of climbing a rope in gym class, or doing chin-ups in gym class. This will prevent you from having to endure jeers and cheers from your gym teacher as your skinny legs dangle helplessly beneath you.

 

  • To avoid being picked last in gym class, refrain from standing against the wall during games of dodgeball and flinching before the ball is even thrown from the other side of the gym floor.

 

  •  When going down a waterslide, it’s always a good idea to make sure your bathing suit is fastened properly, lest it fall off and land 20 feet away from where you are left standing fully nude.

 

  • If you are removing a pan of pork chops from an oven, don’t tilt the pan in such manner that the grease oozes out on your chest, unless you want a severe burn that slowly morphs into a permanent scar.

 

  • Be sure to always be on the lookout for basketballs heaved at your head from an upper balcony. The bounce off of the skull is breathtaking. So are the stars.

 

  • Don’t wear a fanny pack. If you do, don’t refer to your fanny pack as your jet propulsion device. And even if you aren’t teased and bullied by your classmates, don’t wear a fanny pack.

 

  • Don’t boast about going to a New Kids on the Block concert. Bragging that you saw it in a suite will do you know favors, either.

 

  • Make sure you are not the only one coming to school dressed up in a Halloween costume – especially if a memo was sent home instructing parents not to dress up their kid for Halloween until after lunch.

 

  • The game “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?” is no fun when your last name is Fox. It continues to plague me even till day. And despite carrying your namesake, you will still get picked last.

 

  • Being an altar boy doesn’t exactly help you gain popularity, especially when several classmates attend your church – including a couple of crushes. Passing out while kneeling on the altar certainly doesn’t help matters.

 

  • Make sure your mother doesn’t glue fake eyebrows made out of cotton balls to your real eyebrows when you are supposed to dress up as an old man for a school assembly. Otherwise, upon removal of fake eyebrows, one of your real eyebrows might literally come off (somehow, sparing the second one). For, the majority of my first grade year, I had only one eyebrow, leading to the temporary nickname Bobby Eyebrow. It was my first nickname, but certainly not my last.

 

  • If you are going to wear sunglasses for a school concert, make sure the lenses don’t pop out in the middle of the performance for the entire audience to see. (On a semi-related note, if you are going to see Sesame Street Live when you are four- years-old, pray you don’t have to witness Cookie Monster’s eyes literally pop off of his head and go rolling across the stage).

 

  • Don’t tell your classmates that your mom works for Lifeline (from the infamous “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials). They won’t let go. In reality, my mom didn’t actually work for Lifeline. She worked at a hospital and one of her duties was to respond to Lifeline calls. Minor detail. But as far as my classmates were concerned, she worked for the company itself. And they teased me mercilessly.

 

  • It also doesn’t help if your mom is a lunch lady (which my mom was for a short while when I was in elementary school … just short enough to give me endless grief). This could lead to even more teasing than having a mom who allegedly worked for Lifeline. Sure, it’s convenient to have your mommy to run to every time you are teased … but it only leads to the nickname “Mama’s Boy.”

 

  • Don’t assume that becoming a Bugle Boy model is going to help gain popularity. It will only lead to being called Bugle Dork. It didn’t help that during this same period, all I wore were Bugle Boy clothes, which later morphed into Eddie Bauer, leading to the nickname “Eddie Bauer Man.”

 

  • It’s probably a good idea to get weaned off your training wheels before the 4th grade.

 

  • It’s probably a good idea to end your belief in Santa Claus before you reach the 6th grade.

 

  • If you have a crush on one of the most popular girls in the school, avoid writing her a note with the question: “Will you go out of with me?”, followed by two       check boxes marked “yes” and “no”. She will share said note with all of her friends, before replying back with a verbally resounding “No” as she hands your note to you. And the “no” box will not only be checked off, but highlighted. Trust me, being a “model” doesn’t help. At least not a Bugle Boy one.

 

  • Don’t tell a crush that the reason you are sticking your rotating, Ghostbusters-themed pen cap (featuring Slimer!) up your nose is because it is a breathing device.

 

  • If you are going to use a Slip ‘n Slide, be sure there are no rocks or sticks beneath it before you slide head first. It’s bad enough I did this as a kid from time to time. The same thing happened to me as an adult a few years back, slipping and sliding my balls right over a rock.

 

  • If your third grade teacher has a bathtub and bed in her classroom for silent reading purposes, opt out of the bed to avoid a lice outbreak. Or, just wait until said teacher is dismissed from employment, as she was halfway through the school year.

 

  • Don’t let your classmates see a picture of you dressed up as a cheerleader.

 

  • While playing catch with your dad, don’t catch a pop up with your nose.

 

  • Don’t put a pan that you just made popcorn in on your parents’ brand new Formica countertop.

 

  • If you are horse playing with your younger siblings, be sure you don’t slam a bedroom door on your one year-old sister’s index finger. It will flatten like a pancake, causing sheer panic for your parents, and leading to the fortunate discovery that the bones of children that young are so malleable, the bone will inflate right back to its normal shape.

 

  • Try not to let these words spoken by a 4th grade classmate discourage you: “You’re going to be the last in the class to get married”. As it turned out, I was one of the first to get married.

 

  • If you need to be pulled from your 2nd grade class for speech therapy on a weekly basis, try to arrange it so that it isn’t trumpeted to every other student in the classroom as to why you are being removed from the class. This will require therapy of a whole different order.

 

  • If you are perpetually teased and bullied by your classmates, avoid being friends with someone a.) who tells people he lays eggs and another who b.) allegedly applies Cheese Whiz to his penis, before letting his poodle go to town.

 

  • Digging holes in the dirt beneath the swing set while the rest of your peers are playing sports won’t help you gain any popularity. If other classmates joined in, referring to yourself as “First Boss” in an effort to establish your turf will also do nothing to help your cause.

 

  • For the sake of your brain and reputation, avoid having a female student slam your head against a brick wall. My head hasn’t been the same since.
  • Avoid, at all costs, the temptation to pee your pants while playing in the snow at recess. Especially early recess, when you have to spend the remainder of the day with your pants full of piss. I still remember the feeling of cold air of winter against the warm urine in my pants as though it were only yesterday. Not to mention the smell. At least I had some self-respect in regards to this incident. Rather than admitting that I pissed my pants, I spared myself the embarrassment by remaining stoic. When a classmate asked why I smelled like pee, I told them it was my mom’s new laundry detergent. It was my only defense. I realize now that it probably fooled nobody. Only myself.

 

  • If you are horseplaying with your younger siblings, be sure you don’t slam a bedroom door on your one year-old sister’s index finger. It will flatten like a pancake, causing sheer panic for your parents. As we discovered, that the bones of children that young are so malleable, the bone will inflate right back to its normal shape.

 

  • Don’t eat a bunch of lasagna and blueberries and then proceed to ride the swinging Pirate Ship ride, Graviton, and Tilt-a-Whirl. You might end up vomiting in your friend’s brand new car. If you have to vomit, be sure to do so in the toilet, not in the sink right behind the toilet. It will clog the sink. By the same token, don’t walk into your parents bedroom in the middle of the night to tell them you have to vomit, only to vomit right on their floor.

 

  • If you are reaching up to remove a pan of pork chops out of an oven, be sure not to lower the pan in such a way that hot grease will pour out and on your chest, leaving a nasty, flesh-melting wound.

 

 

 

  • Tattling on your bullies often begets more bullying, putting victims in a perpetual catch 22. I’m not suggesting that bullying shouldn’t be reported, but it can backfire, especially when not handled properly by teachers or administration. Case in point: my ears used to stick out from my head and I was frequently teased about it. In the 5th grade, one of my bullies pulled my ear very hard. It stretched like Silly-Putty. I told my teacher. The teacher talked to the student. The next day, both of my ears were pulled simultaneously. This time, I didn’t report it. And my ears were never pulled again.

 

  • If you attempt to fight back against one of your bullies, make sure you make it a direct it. Not a half-assed slap that just barely grazes the cheek of your bully, leading to more teasing from not only your bully, but everyone who witnesses it.

 

  • Truly believing that you will one day find out that all the bullying you were enduring was a joke being played on you by your classmates is a great coping mechanism to weather out the storm. I was certain that one day, my classmates would yell out “Surprise!” and all become my friend. Although this moment never came, I did eventually realize I didn’t want to have these people as friends. And despite no grand reveal, I was eventually able to look back at all of this stuff and laugh … and then write about it.

 

 

 

“Steve’s Place” A Short Story by R.J. Fox

18134_380167700553_5107390_n-1On the loneliest street, in the loneliest city, Steve’s Place was a lighthouse in an urban-gone-wild wasteland. The fresh blanket of snow that had fallen on the surrounding neighborhood had an almost heavenly, ethereal quality.

Adrift in the winter wasteland were Jimmy and Julia Schicksal, who somehow managed to veer off track while driving home from a friend’s birthday party at a downtown Detroit club, where they spent most of the evening pretending (wishing) that the other didn’t exist. In recent months, fighting had become their only shared activity. Lately, most of their arguments were done in silence, which was often far worse than the ones filled with words.

They were so lost in their own individual – yet mutual – suffering, they had somehow roamed off course. The fact that the snow was now falling even harder certainly didn’t help, making it nearly impossible to see a foot in front of them. Jimmy was prone to getting lost in normal driving conditions; one of the many faults Julia found with her husband. The list was growing exponentially by the day.

Sadly, it wasn’t that long ago when Jimmy and Julia were frequently described by others as “the perfect couple.” They were that good at keeping up the illusion when out in public. Lately, it was getting harder. Behind closed doors, their relationship was reduced to smoldering ruins. They tried counseling, but came to the conclusion that the only thing that succeeded in doing was draining their now separate bank accounts. It was no longer a matter of if. It was a matter of when … a foregone conclusion.

Jimmy looked over at Julia, who stared through the snow-covered windshield with glare a so sharp, it could cut glass. She finally ripped through the decaying silence like a dagger.

“How did this happen?” she asked.

“I must have taken a wrong turn,” Jimmy said.

“Why am I not surprised?” Julia said with disdain. Jimmy’s only response was to clench the steering wheel, knowing that remaining mute was in his best interest. Besides, Julia was right. He had the ability to get lost in his own neighborhood.

“Of all the places to get lost in, you had to pick here,” Julia continued.

“It’s not like I did it on purpose,” Jimmy said, still gripping onto the wheel for both weather and spousal conditions.

“This is why I should have driven,” Julia retorted.

“Well, if you didn’t drink so much, then you could have,” Jimmy said, struggling to keep his temper at a low simmer. “You obviously didn’t notice that I was going the wrong way, either.”

“You’re the driver,” Julia said.

“I’ll figure it out,” Jimmy said, without a speck of confidence. “I always do.”

Jimmy looked around at his snow-diffused surroundings, consisting of abandoned skyscrapers and storefronts, punctuated with busted-out windows and graffiti. It was like being trapped a snow-globe from hell. Not a single streetlight worked. Not a soul was in sight. They might as well have been at the end of the world. Even prostitutes and the homeless were nowhere to be found on this cold, snowy night.

As Julia continued to fume, Jimmy continued to struggle with his attempt at creating the illusion that he had things under control, despite having no clue where he was. There was a reason why Julia normally drove. But after taking a drink tally, they determined Jimmy was the wiser choice that night. This was no surprise. Lately, Julia was turning more to booze to remedy her reality – at least more so than her husband.

“What are we going to do?” Julia continued to nag in that grating voice of hers, which once upon a time, Jimmy thought was the sweetest sound in the world.

“What would you like me to do?” Jimmy asked.
“Stop being such a fuck-up. That’s what I want you to do.”

Jimmy pretended to ignore this. He had heard it all before. However, deep inside him was another story. No matter how many times she called him a “fuck-up,” “loser” and any other term of endearment du jour, her words stung on the outside, poisoning him slowly on the inside.

Meanwhile, the snow had begun to fall harder, making it harder to see in front of him. Panic began setting in, but he refused to show it. He truly had no idea how to get back on course and he imagined that getting lost in a Michigan snowstorm in the middle of downtown Detroit was about as close to hell on earth as one could get. But suddenly, straight ahead in the distance, an amber light appeared, burning through the falling snow.

“What is that?” Jimmy asked.

“Obviously, a light,” Julia said.

“Maybe it’ll be somewhere we can stop and ask for directions.”

“Or get us killed,” Julia countered.

“Do you have a better idea?”

She ignored him. Jimmy continued driving toward the snow-diffused light, which slowly revealed itself to be emanating from a green brick building, with a matching green and white striped awning, which stood on an otherwise abandoned block with several long ago shuttered buildings.

Jimmy parked along the curb in front of the decrepit, building. It was difficult to fathom how any business could flourish in this location – both in terms of the building itself and its environs. One end of the structure’s awning fluttered ghost-like in the wind. Peeling paint on the side of the building proclaimed “Steve’s Place,” below which said “Fine Homemade Food. Cocktails. Open 7 Days.” Despite the run-down outward appearance, there was something down home, warm, and inviting about this place. Then again, compared with the rest of the block, that wasn’t saying much.

“This looks like a dump,” said Julia.

“We needs directions,” Jimmy countered. “Plus, I need a drink.”

“We have beer at home,” Julia reminded him.

“It’s gone,” Jimmy said, realizing he probably shouldn’t have admitted that.

“Well, you’re not getting a drink here. You’re going to go in, get directions, and then leave so we can get the hell out of here so I can get to bed,” Julia demanded in a tone that made it clear to him that she would have the bed to herself tonight.

“Okay, I won’t get a drink. But I’m not leaving you out here,” Jimmy said.

“As if you care.”

“If I didn’t care, then I wouldn’t want you to come in with me.”

“If you cared, you wouldn’t have gotten lost in the first place,” Julia said, forming her own sense of rationality.

Jimmy opted not to dignify her statement with a response.

“Are you sure they’re even open?” Julia asked.

Jimmy peered through the falling snow and pointed to an “Open” sign in the window of the otherwise darkened bar.

“Then stop wasting time. Go in there and get it done.”

“Okay, okay,” Jimmy said, beginning to get out of the car. “You’re not coming?”

“No. I already told you,” Julia said.

Jimmy was too tired to argue anymore. He cautiously got out of the car to brave both the elements and the environment. His feet disappeared several inches into fluffy, freshly fallen snow. As he took one step toward the entrance, he felt a chill run through his entire body, unlike anything he ever felt before. He considered hightailing it back to the car, but before he could collect his thoughts and take another step, Julia got out of the car and joined him. Whatever he felt, he assumed she felt it, too. Her presence made the chill subside, though he could still feel its lingering effect.

“Scared?” Jimmy asked.

“Shut up,” which Jimmy knew translated into “yes.”

Jimmy smiled at her. It was the best he could do when she got like this, which infuriated her even more.

Jimmy reached for the rusty door handle, but it didn’t budge.

“It’s locked,” Jimmy said.

“Are you sure?”
Jimmy tried again. “Yes. Pretty sure.”

“Let me try,” Julia said, nudging Jimmy out of the way. Sure enough it was locked.

“Well, this sucks,” Julia said. “Now what?”
Jimmy peered through the window, partially obscured by blinds. Julia joined him. The well-stocked bar stood empty. Unlit Christmas lights were unevenly strung across the bar and around the entire perimeter of the building. Not a soul was in sight.

“Okay, let’s go,” Julia said. “It’s obviously closed.”

“But it says it’s open,” Jimmy insisted.

“This place is freaking me out. We’ll figure out how to get home on our own.”

Suddenly, a harsh wind blew, knocking off a drift of snow from the roof, narrowly missing Jimmy and Julia down below.

“Look!” Jimmy said, pointing toward the door. Somehow, it creaked open.

“Must have been the wind?” Julia said.

“But it was firmly locked. Guess we’re going in, after all.” Jimmy entered, leaving Julia little choice but to relent and follow him with skeptical footing.

As though on cue, a scratchy recording of Billie Holiday’s melancholy “Solitude” poured out of an ancient jukebox located in front of the window, intermingling with a musty odor that hinted of death and nostalgia. The cobwebbed Christmas lights also flickered on – first in struggling dimness, before surging to full life, blinking erratically. One thing was clear to Jimmy: these lights weren’t put up for this Christmas, but rather some forgotten Christmas from long ago.

The entire bar felt time-abandoned, oozing a nauseating, musty smell, which hinted of death. Various faded posters advertising beer and booze products punctuated the room. Not a soul was in sight.

Jimmy and Julia situated themselves on swiveling, squeaky barstools with torn, faded green vinyl padding. The coupled soaked in their unsettling surroundings, not uttering a word, as though breaking the silence would shatter the illusion of the surreal universe they just entered. Julia’s expression suggested that this was the last place in the world she wanted to be. Jimmy, on the other hand, was enthralled by their discovery. He felt as though they had entered into another dimension of time and space.

Despite the lonely, suffocating sound of a hissing, rattling radiator, the bar was cold as death itself. Jimmy removed his coat, but Julia kept hers on. She was always cold to begin with – this place certainly wasn’t going to change that.

“Can you believe this place?” Jimmy asked, finally breaking the silence. The illusion remained.

“Were you expecting anything different?” Julia asked.

“I’m not complaining. I think this place is awesome.”

“Well, clearly nobody is here, so why don’t we get going?”

“Maybe I can help myself to a beer and leave money on the bar,” Jimmy said.

“You can’t do that,” Julia said.

“Why not? It’s not like I’m stealing it.”

Just as “Solitude” reached its lonely conclusion, shuffling footsteps were heard from above. Jimmy and Julia waited in suspense. Moments later, the footsteps began a slow descent down an unseen staircase. After what felt like an eternity, a door at the back of the bar buried in shadow opened up and out of the darkness came a gaunt, elderly man in a plaid shirt. Jimmy found the sight both equally haunting and comical. One look at Julia’s horrified face was all Jimmy needed to hold back his stifled laughter as the haunted man continued to advance toward the bar. He moved at a snail’s pace, hunched over from a lifetime of weariness. His feet never once left the ground, but instead, shuffled along the faded black and red tiled floor, worn and beaten by time itself.

As the bartender crept nearer, Jimmy once again felt the chill he experienced outside the bar. Jimmy noticed Julia tighten up with fear as the bartender proceeded to walk right past them … as though they weren’t there at all. He headed straight to the jukebox, made a selection, and turned on a neon light bordering the window, through which the snow had begun falling even harder.

As the bartender slowly made his way back to the bar, The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” came on. Steve smiled and nodded his along to the music. Steve’s Place was now officially open for business.

When he finally came to his resting place behind the bar in front of Jimmy and Julia, he buckled over with a violent, bronchial cough, before finally struggling to regain his breath.

“Something to drink?” the bartender finally asked, in a thick, unrecognizable accent. He proceeded to adjust the collar of his plaid shirt, which was buttoned to the very top. It was faded and torn, neatly tucked all the way into his pants, which were pulled up high above his twisted, thin waist. His peppered hair was neatly combed, and still wet with grease.

“What do you have on tap?” Jimmy asked.

Julia gave her husband a characteristic glare for even entertaining the bartender’s offer. Although he would never admit it, Jimmy knew his wife was right. He didn’t need another drink, anymore than she did. Like arguing, drinking was one of the few things they had in common anymore – though it was usually done in separate rooms. Or locations all together.

“No tap. Bottles. Just Stroh’s,” the bartender said.

The bartender ended every sentence with the smacking of his dry, chapped lips. His musty breath poured out of his partially-shaven faced. It smelled much like the bar itself, as though the two were somehow one and the same.

“That’s it?” Jimmy asked, disappointed in his beer options.

“That’s it,” the bartender replied matter-of-factly.

“Then I guess I’ll have a Stroh’s.”

The bartender turned toward Julia.

“You?”

“Nothing, thanks,” Julia replied, looking right at Jimmy with her patented death glare.

“No drink, then you must leave,” the bartender said.

“Seriously?” Julia asked. Jimmy chuckled, pissing Julia off even more.

“Yes,” Steve said, with a stern glare. “You want drink, you stay. No drink, you go. So drink then, yes?”

Julia realized she didn’t have much of a choice. She was too tired to try picking a fight with this man. Jimmy was surprised she surrendered so quickly. In the past, Julia always stood her ground in situations such as this. It saddened Jimmy to see her so resigned to her fate.

“Bud or Stroh’s?” the bartender asked.

“Bud.”

“Would you like my wife to fix you something?” the bartender said.

“I’m sorry, what?” Jimmy asked

“Would you like my wife to fix you something?” the bartender repeated with more enunciation, which did little to clarify what he was trying to express. He made an eating motion with his hand to his mouth.

“Eat?”

“Oh. As in food!” Jimmy said, looking at Julia, who was staring past the bar, where a row of dust-covered lime-green booths lined each side of the room, leading to an abandoned kitchen, littered with dirty pots and pans from a meal served long ago.

“Want something?” Jimmy asked.

Julia flashed Jimmy a look that suggested “Are you crazy?”

Clues leading to what may have last been prepared in that kitchen hung behind the bar on a plastic signboard, featuring weekly menu options posted in plastic letter pins – many of which were missing:

Mon: Ro st B ef/Chi k n Noo le

u s: Ro st Chi ken/Na y B an

We : Me balls & Spa.

Thur: Sh rt Rib / t Pea

ri: Fi h & Chi s/Cl am Ch wde

“Food, yes?” the bartender asked.

“Just beer’s fine,” Jimmy said, characteristically caving in, wondering if refusal would be grounds for removal.

With a sad, puppy-dogged face, the bartender got to work, retrieving two beer bottles out of an old, grimy fridge. As Chet Baker continued to croon his troubles away, the bartender moved in the deliberate manner of a sloth. No one said a word – only Chet, as though demanding to be heard. His lyrics said it all.

Jimmy noticed a faded calendar from 1983 hanging on the wall. Seemingly random, off-kilter knick-knacks from decades past were scattered on both the bar and shelves above the bar. Even the bottles of liquor appeared dated, beyond their faded labels. Behind the bar rested an antique cash register that was probably older than the bar itself.

As the bartender finally popped the tops off with a rusty bottle opener, Julia removed her coat. The place was slowly, but surely, beginning to warm up.

With trembling hands, the bartender slowly set the beer bottles down on the severely scratched blue, faux-wood bar, which was peeling off in every possible direction with edges accentuated with green, tattered, and torn vinyl padding. Two shot glasses suddenly joined the beer bottles.

“Oh, just beer’s fine,” Jimmy said.

“Comes with beer,” the bartender said.

“It’s free?” Julia asked.

“Not free,” the bartender replied. “On me … on me.”

“Okay, I’ll have, um, a shot of whiskey,” Jimmy said.

“Peach Schnapps. That’s it,” the bartender scolded.

“Okay. Then Peach Schnapps it is,” Jimmy said with a confused chuckle.

“Good choice,” the bartender said with a sly smile, before pouring them some. Despite his shaky hand, he managed to fill Jimmy’s glass up till the very brim, without spilling a single drop. When he attempted to fill Julia’s glass, she put her hand over it in an effort to stop him.

“No thanks,” Julia said, but the bartender insisted.

“Peach Schnapps. Very good, very good,” he said, tilting the bottle toward her glass. Julia moved her hand out of the way just in the nick of time. Another surrender.

When the bartender was done pouring, he put the bottle back, then reached for a bottle of whiskey, which he proceeded to pour for himself, drawing a shared smile between Jimmy and Julia – something Jimmy assumed was a thing of the past. Judging from Julia’s expression, she felt the same way. For once, they were on the same page. As much as it felt good, it felt even stranger.

The bartender then held up his glass and proclaimed: “To old times,” a refrain that both Jimmy and Julia repeated. They then all downed their shots, as though they were old friends. Jimmy proceeded to take a sip of his beer. He cringed, nearly spitting it out.

“It’s warm!” Jimmy said.

“Fridge broke. Can’t fix,” the bartender said in defense.

“Maybe you should get a repairman in here?”

The bartender merely shrugged. It wasn’t clear whether the shrug implied indifference … or confusion. It was quite possible that no repairman would venture this far into the urban wilderness even if called upon. That was probably the more likely explanation.

“So, are you the owner?” Jimmy asked.

“Yes,” the bartender said in reply. “And wife.”

“Then does that make you Steve?” Jimmy asked.

“Yes. Stefano. My wife, she Sofia. She sleep upstairs.”

“You live here?” Jimmy asked, genuinely curious about this strange man and his strange bar.

“Yes.”

“Where are you from?”

“We come from Greece.”

“How long have you owned this place?

“Thirty-two years,” Steve said with pride.

“Wow,” Julia said. “That’s a long time.”

“This place,” began Steve. “My life. My joy. My jail.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”

“I was born 47 years ago.”

“You’re 47?!” Jimmy asked. Seventy-five would have been too young of a guess.

“If you want to know the truth, I really don’t know,” Steve added.

“You don’t know how old you are?” Julia said.

Steve shrugged, then added: “You sure you don’t want something fixed?”

“Other than the fridge?” Jimmy joked. “We’re fine. We already ate.”

Not satisfied with Jimmy’s answer, Steve looked toward Julia. “You?”

Just then, a cockroach raced across the bar past Jimmy and Julia. Julia shrieked. The bartender either didn’t hear, notice, or ignored the situation all-together.

“Nope. We’re good.”

Disappointed, Steve took the shot glasses away and turned his back away from them. He proceeded to carefully remove a small sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, followed by dried herbs of some sort that he kept in an envelope.

“Is that weed?” Julia whispered to Jimmy.

“I’m assuming maybe tobacco?” Jimmy said, as Steve started to gently roll his own cigarette, before removing a book of matches from his pants pocket, which he used to light his handmade cigarette.

“Smoke?” Steve asked, taking a long drag.

“No thanks,” Jimmy said. “But can you please tell me where the restroom is?”

“In back. You’ll find easy,” Steve said, taking another puff, which led to another coughing fit.

“Thanks,” Jimmy said, getting up from his stool just as Johnny Cash’s “I’d Just be Fool Enough (to Fall)” cried out of the jukebox.

“Don’t leave me alone with him,” Julia whispered in a plea to her husband.

“I’ll be quick,” Jimmy assured her.

“Another reason you need to stop drinking. You piss too much.”

“You bitch too much,” Jimmy retorted. “That’s another reason to drink.” Though she was pissed, Jimmy noticed an layer of hurt beneath her tough exterior. Unable to bear the sight of it, Jimmy headed toward the restroom, slipping into the darkness and instantly regretting what he said – as was usually the case … as was being too stubborn to ever apologize. Perhaps tonight would be different.

Jimmy cautiously walked past the kitchen – noticing a sink filled with dirty dishes that appeared to have been there for several days – if not weeks. Their decision not to order food was certainly a wise one.

Jimmy passed the door Steve entered through upon his arrival and felt the same, odd chill he felt earlier, mixed with his increasing guilt for what he said to Julia. It formed quite the eerie cocktail. Jimmy quickened his pace and continued walking down a dark red hallway with a single, flickering light, just barely illuminating the various, broken bottles, and abandoned junk littering the edges of the hallway.

He finally entered the men’s room, consisting of one trough urinal and one stall with a missing door. It was even darker inside the restroom, than it was in the hallway. Jimmy scrambled to find a light switch, but it didn’t work. The only light source came from a busted, barred window located next to the trough. In the center of the trough was a round Hanoi Jane sticker, featuring Jane Fonda’s face, illuminated by same the amber light that drew them to the bar to begin with.

As Jimmy took aim at his target, he continued to ruminate not only over what he said to Julia, but over everything he ever did to hurt her – big or small. He wished he could go take it all back and go back to the start. It saddened him that he couldn’t.

A cold wind suddenly rushed through the window, carrying with it several snowflakes that landed on his exposed flesh. Despite the frosty air, Jimmy found it refreshing, compared to the musty air suffocating the rest of the bar. It rejuvenated his senses and partially cleared his clouded, muddled mind.

When he finished the showering of Hanoi Jane, he approached the rusty sink, containing the nasty, caked remnants of a bar of soap, glued to the ledge. Jimmy opted to skip the soap, rinsing his hands instead – although the thought of turning the rusty, scum-covered handle wasn’t exactly a consolation prize. His concerns were amplified by the fact that the handle wouldn’t budge. After a brief struggle, he finally managed to loosen it, unleashing a rush of rusty water. He waited several seconds for the water to clear up, rinsed his hands, then turned toward the towel dispenser, which he realized was a dirty, yellowed cloth towel.

As Jimmy dried his hands on his pants, the toilet flushed behind him. He turned around to face the door-less stall just in time to see the remainder of the rusty water spiraling down the filthy bowl. Freaked out, he scampered the hell out of there, running down the dark hallway, tripping over a discarded milk crate, and falling hard to the filthy, grimy ground. He took a moment to make sure he wasn’t seriously injured. Aside from a couple of bruises, he was fine. He got back onto his feet, looked behind him to make sure he wasn’t being followed, and then tried his best to regain his composure before Julia came back into view. But it was no use.

“What happened to you?” Julia asked.

“Just got a little spooked, that’s all,” Jimmy said. “Julia, about what I said earlier, I’m sor—“

“You look like you a saw a ghost,” Steve interrupted with a sly smile.

“I may have,” Jimmy said.

“Another shot?” Steve asked, reaching for the bottle of Peach Schnapps.

“No, thanks. I really shouldn’t.”

“Schnapps, good,” Steve said.

“Yes, very good,” Jimmy agreed. “Which is why you should save it for others … or yourself.”

“Never runs out,” Steve said with a wink.

“So do you get a lot of customers in here?” Jimmy asked, in an attempt to divert the conversation.

“Sometime yes. Sometime no,” Steve said. “When there event, many come. No event, few. Trouble. So … much … trouble.”

“And you’ve stayed in business all these years?” Jimmy asked

“Don’t need money,” Steve continued. “People come, they come. They don’t, they don’t. No difference. Work is home and home is work. We need nothing.”

Jimmy attempted to soak in everything Steve was telling them, but the more he thought about it, the less sense he could make of it all. Julia appeared equally perplexed.

Without warning, Steve suddenly shouted “Go away!!” while shaking his fist toward the window. Jimmy and Julia saw a couple of African American women peering through the window. Steve continued to fume, shaking his head in frustration. The warm, genteel somehow morphed into a raving lunatic.

Meanwhile, the women acted like they didn’t even notice Steve, as they continued peering through the window, much in the way Jimmy and Julia were earlier.

“Not open!” Steve shouted. The women finally walked away. Steve shook his fist up in the air again, as though cursing God Himself. He muttered something indecipherable – in either English or Greek. Jimmy and Julia flashed one another a perplexed glance, as Steve kept looking out the window in a paranoid fashion, his anger now reduced to a low simmer.

However, his anger completely dissipated the moment the haunting opening strings of Nat King Cole’s “Stardust” flowed out of the jukebox, accompanied by shuffling footsteps up above, beginning a slow journey down the steps.

While Jimmy and Julia waited in suspense, Steve beamed with excitement and anticipation in the direction of the door he earlier arrived in. After what felt like an eternity, the door finally opened and a ghostly, catatonic-like woman appeared in a red and white polka-dotted nightgown, a beacon of light in the pitch black of the entranceway.

“That’s my Sofia,” Steve said with pride and a love so deep, it inspired a strange sense of envy in Jimmy. He looked over at Julia and could instantly tell she felt the same.

As she shuffled, zombie-like across the floor from the back of the bar, she emerged out of the shadow and into the light, her lifeless eyes zeroing in on her husband as though nothing else in the world existed. Steve stood waiting for her at the end of the bar. When she finally reached him, he helped her into a tattered chair that was padded with an enormous pillow, proceeding to retrieve her a can of Vernor’s Ginger Ale from the warm fridge. He popped the top and handed it to her, once again in the fashion of a sloth. In comparison, her movements made Steve look like an Olympic sprinter. She reached for the can in the same manner, then took a long, slow sip. Her expression never changed. And her eyes never left her husband.

As Steve jaunted over to the jukebox, there seemed to be an extra spring in his step. He finally reached the jukebox just as “Stardust” ended. As he deliberately punched in his next selection, the bar hummed with the sound of the dying radiator and the buzz of shoddy electrical work. Although the radiator still sounded broken, it was now generating perhaps too much heat after a slow start.

As Steve made his way back toward his beloved Sofia, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” kicked in on the jukebox, which now sounded louder than before, echoing through the empty bar.

Steve reached his arm toward Sofia, even though she was still far from his reach. She reached out in return. Jimmy glanced at Julia, who smiled at him warmly. He couldn’t remember the last time she looked at him like that.

As Steve honed in on his Sofia, their eyes locked in a loving embrace. Her dead eyes were now overflowing with life. To Jimmy, the couple now appeared younger, but he dismissed it as an illusion. When Steve finally reached her, he took her by the hand and helped her up before they began to dance to Patsy Cline’s haunting, melancholy melody.

As Steve and Sofia danced, it was as though the rest of the world no longer mattered – or perhaps never existed at all. A lifetime of shared love, happiness, tears and loss radiated from their beings, directly into Jimmy and Julia. As the dance progressed, Jimmy felt the negative feelings that had controlled his entire being for so long slowly begin to erode until they were replaced by the old, happy feelings that had been packed away for so long. They were now renewed and refreshed.

Meanwhile, the ancient couple danced and gazed at one another with a love so deep, it transcended human understanding. Jimmy could now clearly see just how far he and Julia had drifted apart from one another. He wondered whether once this moment was over, if they could somehow find a way to permanently return to where they once were and retrieve the towel they had thrown away so long ago. As they sat there and watched the embodiment of true love slowly being revealed right before their eyes, Jimmy began to fear that once the song was over, they would slip back to the dark void they were in when they first walked into the bar. There was nothing Jimmy wanted more than for this moment to last. Forever. Just like he thought it would seven years before when they both uttered: “I do.”

Suddenly, Jimmy found himself on the brink of tears – the edges of which he saw forming in Julia’s another’s eyes. They turned to face one another at the same moment and without speaking a single word, Jimmy knew she was feeling exactly the same way. He reached for her hand. For once, she allowed him to take it into his. He felt his body fill with that old familiar feeling from a time when holding hands meant so much. Before it became meaningless, then an annoyance, then non-existent.

Jimmy and Julia smiled at another and continued to do so through a cascade of falling tears. They were Jimmy & Julia again, rather than Jimmy and Julia – or more specifically. Jimmy. And Julia.

When they turned back to look at Steve and Sofia, the old couple had magically transformed into the exact age of Jimmy and Julia. It wasn’t an illusion, Jimmy thought to himself. Or was it? Age was no longer relevant to this timeworn couple. Jimmy looked at Julia and she appeared to him exactly as she did on their wedding night, both in terms of her appearance and his feelings for her. It saddened him to think how once upon a time, he assumed he would always feel this way about her. He never imagined that the day would come when such a familiar feeling felt so … foreign.

Julia squeezed Jimmy’s hand even tighter. He never wanted her to let go. Of this moment. Of him. Of them.

Steve suddenly waved Jimmy and Julia over to join them.

“Want to dance?” Jimmy asked Julia.

“Can we just stay like this?” Julia asked.

Jimmy nodded, gently caressing her held hand with his fingers. Steve persisted that they join them. Jimmy politely shook his head no.

At the song’s key change, Steve dipped Sofia back. They not only remained young, but were suddenly bathed in a heavenly, ethereal light – a light that Jimmy felt permeating through both himself and through Julia, whose hand he still held.

As the song finally came to an end, they transformed back into their old selves, as Sofia buried her face into Steve’s shoulder. Steve held her closely against him, as though fighting off the reality that the song was coming to an end – like everything else in life. Knowing this, they did not let go of one another until the echo of the very last note faded, absorbing into the very walls that held onto everything else that slipped from the present and into the past.

Steve kissed Sofia’s hand and then watched as she slowly shuffled back to the door from which she came, out of the light, into shadow, and then back into darkness, until all that remained were the sound of her footsteps slowly ascending the stairs until coming to a rest.

Julia slowly let go of Jimmy’s hand. All he could see on her face was sadness – the same sadness he felt inside.

As “Stardust” picked up where it left off, Steve turned back to Jimmy and Julia. “That’s my Sofia,” he beamed, before breaking into another violent coughing episode. Still coughing, he managed to pour himself some whiskey He downed it, settling his cough.

“Another shot?” Steve asked.

“No, thanks,” Julia said in a melancholy tone.

“I’m fine,” Jimmy said, offering Julia a reassuring smile. Her face lightened.

“Have another,” Steve insisted. “On me.”

“No, seriously. We’re good,” Jimmy said. “We still have to drive.”

Disappointed, Steve took the shot glasses away as Jimmy and Julia took a long sip of their beer. Steve regained his composure and smiled at them.

“Beautiful people,” he said. “Beautiful people.

“Thank you,” Julia said, flattered.

Jimmy finished his beer and Steve leaned against the bar, before proclaiming:

“Stay in love,” Steve began. Jimmy put his arm around Julia’s shoulder just like he always used to do before her body language forced him give it up all together. Now, she leaned in closer to him than ever before.

“Love lasts forever. Life does not. It is why there’s no greater thing. And just like that, everything will be fine. Everything will be fine. Because love will always melt away all the snow.”

Jimmy glanced at Julia, who smiled warmly at him as Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” began a mournful lament out of the jukebox.

“Ready?” Jimmy finally said, looking toward the window. It was no longer snowing.

Julia nodded, taking one last sip of her beer.

“How much?” Jimmy asked Steve.

“On the house,” Steve said, catching both by surprise. After all, Steve had already given them so much that night.

“Are you sure?” Jimmy asked.

“Don’t need the monies anymore,” Steve explained. “You keep it.”

Jimmy set down a $10 bill.

With a shaking hand, Steve handed the money back to Jimmy.

“No tip. Keep it.”

Jimmy refused to take the money back, but Steve insisted.

“Buy her something nice,” said Steve, winking at Julia. Jimmy was left with no choice but to take it back. He could tell Steve was relieved.

“Thanks, Steve,” Julia said.

“Yes. Welcome,” Steve said in reply. “Beautiful people always welcome.”

Jimmy and Julia stood up. Jimmy offered to help Julia put her coat on. Jimmy was pretty sure he caught her blushing.

“Thank you,” Julia said.

“My pleasure,” Jimmy replied back, before kissing her gently on the forehead as Steve watched this with great satisfaction.

“Goodbye, Steve,” Jimmy said.

“Yia sou,” Steve said in Greek, before translating. “Goodbye, my friends.”

Jimmy and Julia started to make their way toward the door, when Julia stopped in her tracks.

“We forgot to ask for directions!”

They turned back to Steve, but he was gone.

Suddenly, a booming voice commanded: “Okay, guys. Party’s over.” Just then, the jukebox, radiator and every light in the place all shut off at once, as though somebody pulled a giant, invisible plug.

Jimmy and Julia turned toward the door, where a portly cop stood, revealing his badge.

“I’m sorry?” Jimmy said in confusion.

“You’re trespassing,” the cop said.

“Trespassing?” Jimmy said. “We’re customers.”

“That’s what they all say,” the officer said, annoyed.

“Just ask Steve,” Jimmy said, turning toward where Steve was just standing. All that remained were two empty beer bottles.

“Come on, you two,” the cop said, with his back already turned toward the door.

Jimmy and Julia followed the officer out, in a state of confusion. Not only had it stopped snowing, it also felt much warmer.

“If I catch you in there again, you’ll be arrested, do you understand me?” the cop warned, pointing an accusatory finger at them.

“Yes,” Jimmy said, trying everything in his power to not question authority, despite the million questions running through his head.

The officer proceeded to put a thick padlock on the door. Jimmy could no longer bite his tongue.

“When you said ‘that’s what they all say,’ What did you mean by that?”

The officer looked up into the night sky, as though searching for an answer, then sighed deeply.

“With all these empty buildings downtown, we periodically catch trespassers trying to salvage what’s left. I don’t know what it is about this place in particular, but there isn’t a night that goes by where we don’t find someone in here. Must be some kind of cheap thrill.”

“But we were invited in by the owner, Steve … unless he was a trespasser, too?”

“It’s always the same with you people,” the cop said in a somber tone.

“We don’t understand,” Jimmy said.

“You know damn well what happened in here,” the cop insisted.

“I’m sorry, Officer, but we really don’t,” Julia said.

The cop finally realized that they were telling the truth and took another deep sigh.

“About 30 years ago, the owners – who lived in the apartment upstairs for over 30 years – were robbed and murdered inside there. They’ve been closed ever since.”

Jimmy felt that old familiar chill shoot through his body, stronger than ever.

“Which is why I implore you to STAY THE FUCK OUT!” the cop’s voice echoed into the empty night. He turned around and walked away, leaving Jimmy and Julia to ponder their new reality. He disappeared around a corner, as though he were never there at all – much like Steve himself.

Jimmy and Julia were left with nothing but confused silence, haunted by loss. Still too stunned to speak, they both looked back toward the bar and noticed that in place of the “Open” sign was a “Closed” sign. The same chill Jimmy felt throughout the night returned – but intensified.

They peered through the window one last time, still unable to fathom what had just transpired.

The bar was still empty. And dark. Only the cobwebs remained, which led the eye to a framed photograph of Steve and Sofia dancing together on their wedding day – the only beacon of light remaining in the entire bar, looking just as they appeared while they were dancing just moments ago.

“Let’s get home,” Julia said, without a hint of the demanding tone she used earlier.

“We never did get directions, did we?” Jimmy realized.

“I’m sure we can figure it out,” Julia said. “You eventually always do.”

As they walked toward the car, Julia took Jimmy by the hand for the first time in months, as the remaining snow melted all around them.

View my short film here: “Steve’s Place” movie