Charlie Baker’s last waking thought was how pleased he was with the direction his life was finally taking.
So naturally the next morning, when his boss–friend Brian called Charlie into his office, he assumed it had to do with their weekly lunch plans.
“Wherever we go, it better involve burgers,” Charlie said as he entered.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Brian said, fidgeting at his desk.
“Well, I’m open to other suggestions,” Charlie said, oblivious.
Brian covered his face with his hands.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
“No,” Brian began. “Not at all. I have to fucking fire you, dude.”
“You’re bullshitting me …”
“I wish. Fucking HR! Every fucking time!”
“When did you find out?” Charlie asked.
“A week ago.”
“Fuck, indeed. I’m so sorry, man. I tried everything I could.”
“I don’t hold it against you,” Charlie said, actually feeling sorry for the person firing him. “I understand how these things work.”
“Now, about that burger … it’s the least I can do.”
“As long as there’s a bar.”
“I am so fucking sorry,” Brian said, eyes brimmed with tears.
“On second thought, I think I just need to be alone. So how much time do I have?”
“You need to have your stuff packed by close of business.”
“I’ll be out of here at two.”
“Take your time.”
The last thing he wanted to fucking do was take his time.
At 1:51 p.m., he was escorted out the door of the agency.
“Company protocol,” Brian assured him.
The same company where he busted his ass – slaved – for the last five years. Making jack shit. As he watched his best friend since kindergarten not only pass him by …but lap him.
He never once complained.
When he got into his car, he blasted some Charlie Parker and drove down the street to his favorite watering hole, hoping that he wouldn’t run into any of his co-workers.
Fuck them all.
He ordered his usual: a 7 & 7. He promised to stick to his personal limit of two and was holding up very well. He attempted to process his lay-off and realized that he shouldn’t really be surprised. Advertising was cut-throat enough during the best of times and especially not too kind to low-to-mid-level ad people. Charlie had been stuck in a no man’s land between the two levels with no real hope for further advancement – at least not in this job market. Now, he was back to ground zero. If there was a silver lining, there was none…
…as least not until halfway through his first drink when the stress and shock began to dissolve and he began to see his firing as a blessing in disguise. He could at least still hang his hat on the impending publication of his book. Though not a source of income, it was his greatest source of pride. Being out of a job meant he could now devote more time to writing his next book. Being able to write full time was something he always dreamed of. Now, he had his chance. Halfway through his second drink, he pulled out his phone and noticed a text from his publisher. “CALL ME ASAP.”
With the way his day was going, his doom and gloom radar was on full alert.
He stepped outside to make his call.
“Hey, Charlie …” his publisher begin in a tone that suggested that he wasn’t about to deliver good news.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more notes,” Charlie interjected. “I don’t know if I could handle any more notes.”
“No notes. In fact, there will never be notes again.”
Charlie was confused.
“We’ve gone belly-up.”
“But you haven’t even started!”
“Trust me, we’re just as shocked as you are. Just know that we put our all into this. But unlike us, you can still live to see another day. You deserve better.”
“You were my only hope. You know that.”
“We are devastated by this, too. You were depending on us for one book. We were depending on us for our livelihood. Now, we’re stuck in fucking academia from here to eternity.”
“Well, at least you got something,” Charlie said, unable to control his sarcasm.
“I’m certain advertising is far more interesting than academia.”
“I got fired …”
There was a long pause, before Henry summed it all up:
“My thoughts exactly!”
“Please, no hard feelings.”
“It’s very hard.”
“Trust me. I know.”
“Any chance for any sort of Hail Mary here?”
“Trust me. We’ve used every last one.”
“Okay, well thanks for everything you’ve done. Especially for believing in me.” His words felt empty; his voice detached from reality.
“You wrote a kick ass book.”
Charlie hung up the phone, and looked up into the starless sky, stunned. Had to be nightmare, right? It was the only thing that made sense.
He headed back inside the bar and promptly ordered another 7 & 7. It gave him just enough to give him the courage to return home. After all, it was close enough to the end of his usual 10-hr. workday to stave off any suspicion. But when would he tell Jenny? No sense in telling her right away, right? Her wrath was the last thing he could stomach. She nagged at him during the best of times. He focused his attention the collapse of his publishing deal. Losing his job felt like losing a bit of his soul. Losing his contract felt like having his soul ripped through his asshole.
Signing that contract was the biggest accomplishment of his life; the culmination of hundreds of rejections. His dues had been paid in full.
Now he was bankrupt.
In reality, he should have known better. Signing with a husband-wife start-up who had hoped to launch their entire business on his travel memoir was a risky proposition to say the least. Not they were his first choice. He had been rejected by everyone else. He realized now that he would rather have never signed a contract, than to get this far, only to fall flat on his face. He fid find a positive: at least he knew the book was better than ever due to the endless revisions his publisher mandated. It could return to the market, better than ever. Being fired meant he could now write “full-time” – something he always wanted. But after his ordeal, could he even write again? It was one thing when he wrote under the false auspices of a wafer-thin publishing contract that his writing finally had a purpose. However, signing with a publisher was a game changer in how he approached the craft. Prior to the contract, at least he had the illusion of hope on his side. Now, he had nothing.
Charlie paid his tab, which had a semi-sobering effect when he realized how every cent he spent was now on borrowed time. As he headed out to his car, he realized he might have been too drunk to drive, but was too drunk and exhausted to give a shit.
While driving home, he shut the music off and let the silence was over him. He attempted to clear his head and find the right frame of mind to enter into the house in order to create the illusion that all was fine and dandy. He never acquired a good poker face. Any attempt at forming one always led to accusations of lying, which was rarely the case.
When he finally pulled into his driveway, he took a deep breath, and entered. His wife was sitting on the couch, crying; a box of tissue at her side.
How does she already know?
“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, trying to feign both innocence and ignorance.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You are sitting on the couch crying.”
She attempted to regain her composure. Perhaps her vulnerable state would soften the blow against him if he just came out and told her the news.
“Jenny, I …,” he began.
“I’m leaving you,” Jenny said, before he completed his statement.
“Excuse me?” Charlie said in response.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, followed by a torrential downpour of tears.
“Is this a joke?” Charlie asked,
“Do you really think I’d joke about something like this?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t understand …” Charlie said.
“It’s so complicated. I don’t even know where to begin …”
“You can start with why.”
“Please, don’t …” Jenny pleaded, as though she were the victim.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice here.”
“I met somebody.”
“Who?” Charlie finally asked after the shock passed.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“Please don’t make this more difficult.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Over a year. Almost two.”
He was too stunned to speak.
Frustrated by his lack of response, she headed upstairs. He knew the “right” thing to do would have been to follow her up the stairs and try to make things right. Despite everything else being so wrong.
In fact, he was certain that she would be expecting it. Instead, he stared out the window into the void that had become his life.
A minute later, she came down with a suitcase.
“Were you already packed?”
“Does it matter?”
He didn’t know how to even respond to that.
“I’ll be back for the rest when you’re at work,” she added.
“That’s mighty courteous of you,” he said, surprised at his ability to muster snark at a time like this.
She headed out the door. He watched helplessly from the window as she pulled out of the driveway, the blinding headlights only adding insult to injury. He was surprised he wasn’t fighting for her – for them. He was just too damn defeated.
Though the dissolution of his job and contract came as a shock, as far as his wife was concerned, the writing was certainly on the wall– he just had his back turned toward it.
It’s no coincidence that his writing (more specifically, the failure that came along with it), played a tremendous part in the evaporation of his marriage. He certainly couldn’t blame her. How many times did he turn down sex because he was in a “writing groove”? How many times did he choose his writing over going out to a movie? Or, staying in for one?
When the writing wasn’t holding their relationship hostage, his job was. She was frustrated with his long hours and even longer hours spent writing. If there was anything she wanted more than for him to find a better job, it was to go cold turkey and quit writing. In order to keep the peace, he kept his writing hidden from her, creating the illusion that he had submitted to her selfish demands. His writing became his mistress.
Now, none of it mattered.
He headed straight to his king-sized bed – which felt empty enough when he wasn’t alone. He lied down and stared at his dust-covered saxophone propped up on a stand in a dark corner of the room, eerily bathed in moonlight. It was a golden relic of his past – a part of his life that he set aside to focus on his writing career. Now, it felt so far from reality, he wondered if he could even play it anymore. Maybe someday, he would see for himself. On that thought, he drifted off to sleep, before he awakened minutes later with a jolt, as his new reality hit him like a brick wall. As he tossed and turned throughout the night, he tried to vacate his mind of all thought, but managed to only add to the load.
The next several weeks were a blur. He finally snapped out of it when he finally unlocked the secret of his wife’s “mystery man” when he ran into her at a restaurant sitting in a corner two-top with one of her co-workers who he had recently met at a Christmas party. In fact, so well, it should have been no surprise that they were fucking right under his nose. He rather it would have been a complete stranger. She pretended not to notice him, but he knew otherwise.
He downed his drink, left enough money to cover his tab, and headed straight home. Sleep continued to elude him. Over the course of the next several weeks, he first resorted to straight shots of whiskey. And then sleeping pills. And then a cocktail out of the two, which helped him sleep, but left him with a raging headache. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the king-sized bed he had shared with his wife that sleep finally came to him (despite the fact that he guest bed being was far more uncomfortable).
For the first days of their separation, Charlie assumed she would come back, but figured even if she did, she was likely to leave him once she found out he was unemployed. After a couple of weeks of ignored texts and phone calls, mild acceptance began to settle in. She finally replied when he begged her so he could know she was okay. Her reply?
“Please stop texting/calling me.”
It was time to move on.
He hoped that he could turn to his writing for self-therapy, but the well had run dry. For the first time in his life, he had writer’s block. The one time he finally had ample time to write!
He never used to understand how people could get writer’s block. He thought it was something writers used as an excuse to avoid having to write.
Unable to break out of his slump, he put his writing on the backburner, optimistic that it could stew into something later. For the first in awhile, he would just focus on having a good time. And that he did for several months, but with no muse in sight.
On a wintry Valentine’s night, Charlie headed downtown in an Uber. He wasn’t taking any chances. Not only was heavy snow in the forecast, but he planned to get shit-faced.
The driver asked Charlie something in an indecipherable, thick, middle-eastern accent as Charlie took a sip out of his flask.
“Huh?” Charlie said.
“How are you doing tonight?”
“Just fine,” Charlie said, staring out the window into the darkness, as static-infused lounge music played on an out-of-range AM channel.
As the cab entered downtown, a light snowfall illuminated the otherwise dark Detroit streets. Somehow, the snow made the city seem even more desolate.
“You can drop me off here,” Charlie said as the cab approached the center of downtown.
“Okay, my friend,” the driver said. “Have a good night.”
Charlie paid his fare.
“God bless,” the driver said.
Charlie shut the door without a word. The cab drove away and Charlie had never felt more alone, or defenseless.
He looked around every which way to get his bearings straight and to make sure he wasn’t being snuck up upon. He had no idea where he was going. He just knew that wherever it was would involve copious amounts of whiskey.
It began to snow harder, as the temp continued to fall toward zero. He didn’t have to walk very far to hear the faint, warm sound of booze-soaked jazz emanating from some unknown destination. He headed toward it, drawn toward it like a moth to light, until he reached the doors of Cliff Bells – an old school jazz joint that first opened in the 30’s, before closing its doors in the 80’s. Hipsters re-opened its doors a couple of years back and it rose out of the ashes.
Charlie entered the half-packed joint and surveyed the round two-tops for a place to hunker for the remainder of the evening, as a jazz combo jammed on stage. He found the perfect spot in a darkened corner. A vintage, Jazz Age waitress approached. He ordered a vintage 7 & 7. As much as he longed for his whiskey straight, he knew he had to stretch himself thin lest he bring the evening to a premature end.
As Charlie waited for his drink, he sat back and grooved to the music that had been his lifeblood ever since he joined his middle school jazz band. An escape from his bullies and later a muse when he wrote and the elixir he needed when he couldn’t. As the music soaked into his soul, it mingled with the drinks he already consumed. Though he was hopeful his muse would return, writing never felt more distant and foreign.
As the band finished their set to take a short break, Charlie ordered his second 7 & 7. His buzz made him feel happy. Content. Rejuvenated.
When the band returned from their set, the trio introduced a singer – a curvy, redhead in a matching, red cocktail dress. She had a retro, throwback look that Charlie fell in love with immediately – not to mention a voice to match, which magnified her physical beauty on a deeper ethereal level. The second coming of Ella, Billie, Bessie, and Sarah all rolled up into one. Her voice filled his soul like whiskey filled his veins, hearkening him back to a much more glorious past.
His vintage chanteuse crooned one jazz standard after another. He was obsessed.
He was well aware of the fact that she probably hadn’t even noticed him. As she sang, she closed her eyes in beautiful, tender ecstasy. She seemed both vulnerable and confident. When she opened them again, she looked his way – at least he thought she did. As she did to every customer. Did she linger a moment longer on him? Probably wishful thinking on his part.
Not wanting to appear like the stalker that he was certain he was becoming, Charlie looked down, honing in on a stack of white cocktail napkins, wielding the lounge’s art deco-embossed logo. He felt the square stack taunting him, daring him to fill their void with his words. And then, his attention was diverted as the band broke into his favorite jazz standard of them all: the melancholic “My Funny Valentine” made famous by Chet Baker. Her interpretation was the most haunting rendition he had ever heard. After the first verse, he returned his gaze to the napkins. They were no longer taunting him. They were beckoning him. Calling to him. He reached for one, removed a pen from his pocket (some habits never die).
As the song reached its regret-soaked finale, Charlie looked up and made actual eye contact with his newly-minted muse. A hint of a smile appeared on her luscious lips, before closing her eyes from the world as the song came to a close. He turned his attention back to the napkins and stared into the snow-white canvas of a solitary napkin, as she broke into yet another one of his favorite chestnuts: “At Last.”
At last indeed, he thought, as his pen dropped to the napkin right on cue like a needle to a record, freely moving on its own accord. He was simply the conduit. A vessel from which his words would flow, painting an all-too-familiar story about love and regret, loss and redemption, of love and regret. Never was he more in sync with both plot and theme, intertwined in such a way that they became one. He wrote in perfect rhythm to the music, tune after tune, accompanied by jazz as hot as his pen. In less than five minutes, every square inch of the napkin was filled, inside and out. He reached for another. Five minutes later, his pile quadrupled. He couldn’t remember the last time he wrote with such efficiency and precision.
He had no idea what he was really writing about, or even whether it was any good. But it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if his scrawls were legible (they rarely were). He didn’t give a shit if it were the worse writing of his life. All that mattered was that he was writing again, which in turn made him feel alive again. An hour or so later, he realized he had lost track of time, as happens when soaring through the wild, un-patrolled universe of creativity. He was also out of napkins and asked the waiter for more. He paused a moment to shake the numbing cramps from his hand. Though the waiter seemed annoyed by his request, he didn’t give a shit. His train was back on the tracks and nothing could stop him from finishing his journey.
As he continued to write, he came up for air on occasion to catch a glimpse of his new muse. A couple of times, they shared a smattering of fleeting, but no doubt meaningful glances before turning their attention back to their art.
Following the next, gem-filled set, the band took another break and Charlie realized he needed a break of his own, following four 7 & 7’s spread out over a two-hour period. The band’s break was a good excuse to take a breather himself. After guzzling down a glass of water, he headed down a hallway toward the restroom. He felt as though he were floating on air, which was more the combined result of the whiskey and the natural high of an artist working at the peak of his ability.
On his way out, Charlie spotted his new muse sitting at the bar, sipping on bourbon. His instinct was to immediately bee-line back to his table like a dog with its tail between its legs, but realized he had just enough confidence to attempt conversation. Just as he took his first step toward the bar, she got up and headed toward the stage. Charlie headed back to his seat like a limp, deflated balloon. He would get another shot after the show and Charlie decided it was just as well. Writing sessions such as this were rare, even during the best of times. As the band started their final set, he wanted to milk it for as long as possible. In fact, his next set – like the music that accompanied it – was even hotter than before.
The waiter interrupted him to ask if he wanted another drink. Though tempting, Charlie put on the brakes and asked for more water instead. His writing high was far more intoxicating than any booze could ever wish to be. Too much booze would put his inner muse to sleep.
Toward the end of the band’s final set, he felt his writing well begin to run dry. Every great session must end. And this was one of his greatest. Besides, his blistered fingers needed a break, but like any good workout, it was a good kind of hurt. He gathered up his napkins and stuffed them into his pocket, before sitting back to let the music take over for the remaining half hour.
The band finished their last set with an effervescent rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” – another all-time fave. When the song was over, the houselights came on and the band began to pack up.
Charlie was overcome by another unexpected wave of confidence. Just as he made his way toward her, his waiter intercepted him.
“Time to head out, Bud.”
Thwarted for the second time that night! Disappointed, he was proud of the strides he made tonight – on many fronts.
He threw on his coat and headed back into the empty night. A heavy snowfall greeted him. Not a cab was in sight. He should have asked the bartender to call him for one, but cast his fate to the wind to wait it out. After he waited five minutes in the white, lonely night, a sudden gust of wind ripped through his soul and sucked the napkins out of his pocket like over-sized snowflakes, which dispersed in every possible direction. He desperately chased them down, realizing it was a futile effort, despite managing to salvage a few of them. Hopefully, he would have enough to cobble everything back together when his mind was clear and he returned to what was sure to be a new reality.
As he continued to gather his lost art, he saw a peripheral vision of red and white joining the night. He stopped mid-pursuit of a napkin, as she stood there, with a warm, inviting smile threatened to melt the snowflakes into rain. She then helped him gather a couple of stray napkins and brought them over to him as her bandmates loaded up a van.
“You shouldn’t litter, you know,” she said with a seductive smile.
“Trying to quit,” Charlie said. “You guys sounded great, by the way.”
“Thank you,” she said, a tad embarrassed.
They gazed at one another through the falling snow.
Words weren’t necessary.
“Let’s roll!” the bassist said, as he climbed into his rusted-out utility van and cranked up some be-bop. Charlie’s muse continued to hold her gaze wit him as she took a few steps backwards, before she finally turned around to join the rest of her crew.
The van disappeared into the dark vacuum of night, leaving Charlie waiting for a cab, as the snow fell around him.
He never felt so wonderfully, utterly, and equally alone.
Published in the Scarlet Leaf Review: