Tag Archives: fiction

Searching for Sanity – Chapter excerpt

14 Jan

 

Happiness considered 

 

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Chapter 3

“You want to what?”

Sam Sneed lowered his head and ran a single hand over his nearly bald head. His eyes narrowed, forming a frown on his face. He looked up from his desk in his small office at Steve.

“I want to write some stories about happiness,” Steve said. “A long series.”

“Happiness?” Sneed said.

He shook his head. Sneed was a small man, close to retirement age, who’d been editor of the Meckleysburg Times Tribune for more than twenty years. He’d worked his way up to the position after many years as a reporter. He oversaw a paper that reported on the usual happenings that many papers serving small cities captured—local government, crime, happenings in the community. And, of course, there was the sports section, a department, separate from the general news-gathering operation.

“I want to interview all sorts of people. What makes them tick. Why they do what they do with their jobs, their off time. Where they see themselves in the grand scheme of things.”

Sneed was now staring at Steve, like he was deranged.

“Steve. I mean … happiness?”

“It’s an important topic. Maybe the most important issue of our times.”

Sneed continued staring at Steve. He lurched back in his chair and looked through the big window of his office that afforded him a view of the newsroom.

“The newspaper needs to do something different once in a while,” Steve said.

“Oh, here we go with that again.”

“It’s true.”

Sneed came forward in his chair and shuffled some papers on his desk. “Seems to me like you got enough to do with other stuff.”

“I can handle it.”

Sneed raised his brows and blinked. He looked down at the floor. “What about those novels you write? Don’t you get into that stuff in your books?”

A good point, Steve thought. “Sometimes … sure.”

“Then why this?”

“I want to talk to actual people. I want to really explore this topic of happiness.”

And now Sneed smiled. “You know what would make me happy? Standing on the first hole at Green Valley with a driver on my first day of retirement.”

“So. That would really make you happy. Huh?”

“Throw in a cold beer waiting for me at the eighteenth hole and I’ll be ecstatic. At least for that day.”

“Interesting. You want to retire?”

“Sure.”

“Why? Aren’t you fulfilled in your job?”

Again, Sneed leaned back in his chair. The question, Steve realized, seemed to amuse the editor. “You always were a little bit different Steve. You’ve done some good work over the years, although sometimes you seem to get bored, off track with things. Like that time you led the reporters revolt and you all walked off the job for a day.”

“We hadn’t had a raise in six years,” Steve said, still seething from the memory.

“Okay,” Sneed said, raising a hand. “Let’s not dredge up old bones. Go ahead if you want and do your series on … what is it? Happiness? Now leave me alone. I got work to do.”

 

 

“Really. He’s going to let you do a series on happiness.”

Frusty looked intently at Steve as they sat across from each other at the small table of the Chinese Wall restaurant. He took a bite of his egg roll and shook his head. “Who will you talk to?”

Steve gestured with a hand toward the window behind him. “Hell. Out there. The people are everywhere. Living their miserable lives. Sitting in their homes wasting it away in front of the boob tube holding their TV flickers. Making that death march to work every day.”

Frusty stopped from biting into his egg roll. His eyes widened. “Hey. That sounds like my life.”

“No offense,” Steve said. “But … well.”

“Nobody is going to open up to you about their inner self.”

“Oh? Let’s try it out. Are you happy Coy?”

“C’mon.”

“Well?”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Well there you go,” Frusty said, crossing his arms and throwing Steve a smug look.

Steve poked at the noodles floating in his bowl of Won Ton soup. He looked off into the kitchen rich with the aroma of Chinese food cooking where he could see people furiously busying themselves with preparing meals.

“You think these people are happy?”

“Who?”

“This Chinese family working their tails of every day. The same routine over and over.”

Frusty’s eyes squinted toward the kitchen. “I think they may be too damn busy to give it much thought.”

“Really?” Steve said. “So, you’re point is that keeping busy is the solution to happiness?”

“Well, kinda. Yeah. I mean … work keeps your mind occupied, free of all the other crap going on.”

“And that’s why you work so damn hard?”

“I think we already established that I’m not happy.”

“But you’re content with your job and your big screen TV and NFL football package and your nice house and a wife.”

“You were going good there till you mentioned the wife,” Frusty said with a grin.

“So, I guess you are kind of miserably happy. Coy Frusty, a victim of inertia, unwilling to change, settled in and counting down the days till retirement.”

“Something like that Steven. Something like that.” Frusty pushed his plate of rice away and looked at Steve. “And what about you?”

“I can’t say I’m happy either. I’ve never been crazy about having a job with a boss. Writing about stuff that doesn’t get me fired up.”

“But you have a job.”

“I have a job. You’re right. And it does pay the bills.”

“Right. I guess that’s my point. I mean …. What can you really expect out of life? Hardly anyone gets the life they really want. That’s just reality.”

Frusty stared at Steve.

“What?” Steve said.

“The divorce. It was tough on you. Wasn’t it?”

Steve sighed. “At first. Yeah. Kind of a shock really. I mean … I think we were like a lot of couples. We kind of drifted apart after so many years of marriage.”

“Wasn’t she always complaining about money? How you didn’t make enough of it at the paper?”

“Yeah. Sure. That was part of it. And she had always wanted kids.” He thought of the miscarriages. After all these years, it still hurt. “But then we got into our forties and that ship had kind of sailed.”

“Yeah. Marriages aren’t perfect. That’s for sure. But I think there is more good than bad with them.”

“For some people maybe.”

They exchanged smiles.

“Was it Freud who said if you’re happy in the bedroom and happy in your work, you’re a happy man?”

Frusty laughed. “Well. He just might have been on to something.”

They walked out of the restaurant. It had been a wet summer, one of the wettest in memory, and the fall foliage that Steve always looked forward to had arrived late this year. Off in the distance, the trees on the hills across the river that swept past the small city were aflame in bright fall colors on this brilliant warm autumn day.

“What a great day huh?”

“Makes you glad to be alive,” Steve said.

“So. Am I your pilot test case?” Frusty said as they walked the two blocks back to the newspaper.

“I didn’t think about it, but I guess you kind of are.”

“What the heck. Use anything I told you, but don’t include my name.”

“Well. You know how we both feel about anonymous sources in stories.”

“Oh hell Steve. Do what you want. In this age of social media and everyone bearing their souls to the world, what the hell does it matter?”

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Searching for Sanity – a book excerpt

8 Jan

 

Chapter 1

Mondays were the worst. He would rise from bed, and after a brief period of noting his aching joints, his general malaise of having to shake off the morning lethargy to face the day, he realized it was another work week – a long endless parade of assignments he dreaded, and the overall feeling that something might go wrong, a foul-up of a story, a sudden pink slip.

But that was his life, at sixty-one, the wall he faced, until that door to retirement would creep open in a few years, that is, if he could afford it.

Steve Sloan didn’t ask for much. Thoughts of stardom, fame, riches he’d long assigned to that dusty bin of youth, when anything was possible, before reality creeped upon him, and life’s miseries had smothered him.

What he wanted, perhaps like every human being, was the feeling, that wonderful high, of late adolescence. To be eighteen again, when the world appeared as a carnival, when everything was there to taste and sample and partake, when anything really was possible.

He saw them come and go in the newsroom, where he sat at his cluttered desk, the twenty-somethings freshly sprung from colleges, eager, wide-eyed, hopeful of careers. He wanted to tell them, to shout at them, that it was all a myth, that careers, perhaps especially in journalism, were over-rated. But who was he, a miserable, frustrated old man, to issue such opinions? Let them dream, let them live, let them be crushed by reality. Was it not the best way to learn?

And yet, he too remained hopeful. Rays of sunshine penetrated his dark and depressed thoughts, and lit his soul. He could get fired up. Every day, the internet was filled with stories of outcasts and wanderers and even fools who shook off their demons and became rich entrepreneurs, reality TV stars, Tony Robbins-like cheerleaders, and even celebrated authors. He felt it silly to fall prey to such dreams. And yet …

For months the story obsessed and haunted him. Steve had come across another one of those stories of an otherwise obscure writer, a scribbler of short tales, who had suddenly crashed through the literary barriers, and emerged as a success.

Tom Waiter. Yes. That was his name, a heavy equipment operator, living out an otherwise anonymous life in some tiny town in North Dakota, for God sakes, when his book had become this literary sensation.

He was fifty-nine, nearly as old as Steve, when he’d caught his big break after years of scribbling out stories in longhand on his kitchen table. The story Steve pieced together from various sources he’d read on the internet was that Tom Waiter had tried unsuccessfully for many years to sell his stories to publishers.

Literary agents, those cruel gatekeepers to the publishing world, had informed him time and again that his stories, while perhaps good, were just not right for the reading public. Short stories didn’t sell, they said, especially tales of blue collar people and other unremarkable folks living out their lives on The Plains.

Waiter was a bachelor, who, until his recent success had never been farther east than Des Moines. As he told one interviewer, he had no mentors, and growing up as a farm boy, no real visions of being a writer. “There were no books in my home,” he stated. He hated farming and saw how farmers like his hardworking parents struggled and were forever at the whims of Mother Nature. He perceived his only hope out, and perhaps of gaining some degree of security in life, was to join the Air Force.

He had hopes of becoming an electrician, though he had only vague notions of such a job. It seemed to him a solid, perhaps viable means of launching a kind of career. But he scored too low on the military aptitude test to be considered for such training and was instead placed in the security police career field.

For four years, he lived out his life on Air Force installations, in Texas where he stood sentry next to B-52 Airplanes loaded with nuclear weapons, and later, reporting to work at a missile site in an underground bunker in his native state of North Dakota. Working security was lonely, boring, unchallenging work.

“I had a lot of time to think,” he told yet another interviewer. “Many times, I would just stand there in front of a plane in Texas while the wind was blowing off the flight line, or when I was down in that bunker, and just make up stories in my head.”

After his four-year military hitch was up, Tom Waiter returned to his parents’ farm.

“I was only home for two weeks when the tragedy happened,” he told an interviewer on a podcast.

It was the first recorded interview of Tom Waiter that Steve had come across. Tom Waiter’s voice was that of a plain, shy, soft-spoken man, of someone truly reared in a lonely, cold, unforgiving and altogether forgotten place such as North Dakota.

He went on to explain how his parents had been in the barn milking cows early one windy morning when the roof collapsed on the two of them, crushing them to death.

“Things kind of changed for me after that,” he said simply.

Tom Waiter went on to explain how he sold off the dairy cattle. As an only child, and few relatives living in the area and no one to take over the farming, he didn’t relish the thought of milking two-hundred cows every morning. “I hated farming. That bit of family misfortune, you might say, was my way out of agriculture.”

He found jobs on construction crews, doing just about any of the work that needed done. Eventually, he got familiar with driving bulldozers and other heavy equipment, but he grew tired of working for other people and started his own business, contracting his services out to companies. He built up a small fleet of bulldozers and dump trucks and half-loaders and added a few employees, working out of the family farm.

“I got restless,” he said.

The rest of the story Steve pieced together from different interviews Tom Waiter had granted to magazines, newspapers and other sources. A podcast, and it turned out, the last interview Tom Waiter gave anyone, filled in the rest of the story.

He was tired of the daily routine—of talking to customers, and heading out to worksites to move around dirt, and dealing with the hassles of bills and employees and maintaining the equipment. Many days, he wanted to quit. But what could he do? He had no training or any formal education beyond high school.

On his thirtieth birthday, he decided he was going to get drunk. It was a story he had told time and again to interviewers. He was not much of a drinker at all. He really didn’t like the taste of beer, and he’d only ever been drunk once in his life, when he’d downed too many Budweisers at a keg party next to the softball fields back at the Air Force Base in Texas. A couple of his fellow airmen got him back to his barracks and put him to bed fully clothed, where he fell into a drunken stupor and spent much of the following day throwing up into a latrine toilet down the hall.

He had vowed after that to never get drunk again. But now, years later, he felt that he deserved this night of revelry, this little misadventure, so contrary to his reserved nature and sober, uneventful life.

There was a roadhouse out on the highway, a place that drew a variety of locals—ranchers, farmers, young blue-collar workers. Basically, a shot and beer kind of place with a single television set at the far end of the bar where Tom Waiter took a seat and ordered a beer.

He had a plan: To drink slowly, and carefully. He figured, as a non-drinker, it would take just a few beers for him to get drunk anyway. He wouldn’t again make the mistake of slamming down beer after beer as he had foolishly done a decade ago back in Texas.

But after ordering a draft, he sat before it, staring at the yellowish, brown liquid in the mug. He recalled the day following his single drunken night, the churning of his stomach, his vomiting into the toilet. Beer, he thought, looked like urine.

He looked around him. It was early in the evening–happy hour–and the bar was mostly filled with drinkers well on their way to getting drunk. He touched the outside of the mug with a single index finger, noting the chill of the glass from the beer. He noted the foam from the beer and the tiny bubbles rising in the glass. Yes, he concluded, there was something perhaps to this idea of having a beer. Something altogether romantic.

He slowly lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip. Immediately, he was repulsed. He set the mug down on the bar and stared at the beer. Maybe he needed something to go with this foul drink, to perhaps neutralize the awful taste. Spotting a small bowl of peanuts nearby on the bar, he scooped up a handful of them and stared at his beer. He put a few of the peanuts into his mouth, chewed them up and swallowed before lifting the beer once again to his lips. This time, he took a good healthy gulp of beer. Once again, it tasted bitter, foul.

Bringing the mug down on the bar a bit too hard, some of the beer spilled from the rim of the glass. He looked furtively about him, wondering if anyone had spotted this fool who obviously couldn’t drink. He heard a man’s loud voice from the other side of the bar: “And I told that son-of-a-bitch I ain’t working for him no more.” And then laughter.

He sat staring at the beer, concluding that it was perhaps time to get the hell out of this barroom, where he clearly didn’t belong, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone slowly edge onto the barstool next to where he sat.

“Going through a divorce or just plain miserable?”

Tom Waiter turned.

An old man, well into his seventies, perhaps older, was turned toward him with a faint smile. He was dressed in a suit and tie, clearly out of place among the younger people in the bar in their blue jeans and plaid shirts and work boots.

“Nothing like that,” Tom Waiter said.

The man turned to the barmaid who had appeared before him. “Bring me a scotch and water,” he said.

“So,” he said, staring ahead. “Is this where everyone comes after their days of toil?”

Tom Waiter had already made up his mind that this old man was a man of means, someone important, but clearly nobody he knew, and likely not someone from around here. It wasn’t just the suit he wore, which seemed a bit big for him. He noted the cufflinks and the big ring on one of the fingers of his right hand. His thick mane of gray hair was neatly trimmed.

When his drink came, he brought the whiskey to his lips and took a small sip before bringing it down on the bar. He turned to Tom Waiter once again and studied him with a kind of calculating look that made him feel uncomfortable.

“What’s your business young man?” he said.

At first Tom Waiter wasn’t sure if the old man meant what he was doing here in this bar or if he meant his job. He decided on the latter.

“I have a small heavy equipment business.”

“Ah. And are you happy doing that?”

The old man was looking straight into Tom Waiter’s eyes. He was, Tom Waiter, concluded, someone who got right to the point.

Tom Waiter stared at his beer for a few moments. “I guess so,” he said.

The old man smiled. It was a disarming, knowing sort of grin.

“No. You’re not.”

“I’m not?” he said.

The old man shook his head. “Your response was vague, and it took you too long to answer.”

Tom Waiter wanted to take his beer and find another seat. He was not at all used to such direct dialogue. Clearly, this was a man who relished getting into other people’s heads. Perhaps he was a psychologist or one of those sociologists making a study of human nature.

The old man took another sip of his whiskey and turned once again to Tom Waiter.

“Okay. I’m not happy.”

“Now. That wasn’t so hard. Was it?”

“Look. Who are you?” Tom Waiter swiveled around on his bar stool and threw the old man a challenging look. Take that, he thought.

But the old man clearly was up to this challenge. “Most people don’t like to talk about their lives, at least with respect to their feelings and those tied to happiness.”

Tom Waiter said nothing. Hell. He wasn’t happy. He was clearly aware of that. The business did okay, at least well enough for him to pay the bills. It kept him busy.

“I’d say you’re what? About thirty-five. Thirty-six years old?” The old man sat now with his chin resting in a hand studying Tom Waiter.

“I’m thirty,” Tom Waiter said, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of someone thinking him older.

“Excuse me. You just look a bit older. Maybe it’s your face. I guess you’re outside a lot. These hot summers and cold winters in this part of the county. They can age a fella.” He continued studying Tom Waiter.

“I guess,” Tom Waiter said. “Listen, what do you want? Are you selling something? You’re asking a lot of questions.”

“A lot of questions? I suppose so, but I enjoy talking to people, finding out about them, learning about their lives.”

“Why?”

“Why? Why not?” he said in a slightly annoyed tone.

Good, Tom Waiter thought. Perhaps now he would go away, find some other bar patron to bother with his probing questions. But Tom Waiter clearly misjudged the man.

“Do you have a family young man?”

“No. My parents are both dead.”

“Oh. Well that’s a shame. But what I meant was, do you have your own family? Are you married?”

“No. Not married.”

The old man shook his head and looked out toward the dining room. He seemed to mull this little bit of information in his brain for a few moments. “You’re not married. You’re not happy in your chosen avocation.”

And now it occurred to Waiter that perhaps this guy was one of those—someone out to spread the gospel. Sure. They turned up now and then at the farm, usually earnest and pleasant young men or women, sometimes young Mormon men in pairs, out to find converts.

“Listen … if you’re trying to …”

But the old man raised a single hand. “No. I know what you’re thinking and I’m not peddling religion.”

“Then what?” Tom Waiter nearly shouted.

“I was a businessman too,” he said. “I made good money selling insurance. But I was never happy doing it.”

Tom Waiter stared at his beer.

“I had a number of offices in the Dakotas and Iowa and in Kansas. People say I’m a born salesman, and I can’t disagree with that. But like anything, selling insurance, which, let’s face it, is not exactly the sexiest kind of business, grew stale for me after a while.

“I got caught up in the whole treadmill of trying to make increasing amounts of money. I was demanding, even cruel at times with my employees. I didn’t like myself and I certainly wasn’t happy.” The old man paused to stare across the barroom. “I finally cashed out. I sold everything. With my investments, I easily had enough money for my wife, Margie, and I to live comfortably for the rest of our lives. But there was a problem. I was only fifty years old. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?”

Tom Waiter saw the twinkle in the old man’s eyes. He took a sip of his scotch and slowly put it down on the bar, as if warming up to the story’s conclusion.

“Do you know what I did young man?”

Tom Waiter shook his head and waited for him to continue.

“I was looking for answers, and what better way, I figured, than to go out on the road and seek them. I bought one of those big recreational vehicles and Margie and I set out in search of America. Well sir, it was wonderful, for a while. We saw all the great parts of the country we’d never had a chance to see in those years I was far too busy with my businesses.

“I remember we were heading north through Oregon on that road that runs along that beautiful coastline. It was a gorgeous summer day. The ocean was shimmering from the sun’s rays. I pulled the RV over at a roadside café where we had lunch. At one point, I looked out from the window overlooking the sea. Sea lions were perched on the rocks sticking out of the ocean. ‘Margie, I said. ‘Why is it people are so unhappy? In this wonderful, beautiful and bountiful country, where there is so much to see and do, why can’t most of us find that elusive thing called happiness?’ Margie didn’t have an answer.

“And so, I decided right then, that would be my mission. I went back to school and picked up a degree in sociology. I flew through those courses. I loved the assignments of going out and talking to people and find out things about their lives. For a few years, I taught courses at a community college. I took groups of students to inner cities and Native American reservations, to poor Appalachian communities. I found out that people really are the same everywhere, that we all have in us this burning desire to be happy. But often, our direction, our goal, is misplaced. We become like rats in a maze running around in desperate search for that elusive brass ring.”

The old man had become animated now, flailing his arms to make different points.

“I only taught for a few years. The academic life can be a drag, and I grew tired of the routine of classroom teaching. But that’s fine. I decided I could do what I really wanted to do without the structure of teaching. And that’s what I do many days. I come to places like this, where I find regular people, and I talk to them, just like I’ve been talking to you. I find out a little bit about them. Mostly, I want to know why they aren’t happy.”

Despite his initial resistance, Tom Waiter had warmed up to the old man. He liked his philosophy, his honesty. “But you must find some people who are happy? Don’t you?”

At this, the old man shook his head. “Not many, I’m afraid. Far too few.” He looked hard at Tom Waiter. “And what is it that would make you happy young man?”

He sat studying Tom Waiter, waiting for an answer. “I know,” he finally said, in a soft tone, leaning toward him and patting him lightly on his arm. “It’s not easy.” He took one last drink of his whiskey before slowly climbing out of his seat. He reached into his suit pocket and put a business card on the bar.

“You have time on your side son. Don’t waste it.”

With a wink, he turned and left Tom Waiter sitting at the bar with a lot to ponder.

Me Too Fellas

17 Dec
aerial photography of tree surrounded with fogs

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

The radio playing at the camp site segued from a jazzy blues number to NPR public service messages and then the voice of Jon Ritter: “Do catch the next program of Brit Talk with our very special guest .. Robbie Pop.”
“Who?” Moran asked.
“Robbie Pop,” Ritter said, poking at the camp fire.
“Who in the hell is that?” Moran said as he used his foot and his walking stick, Misty Blue, to clear a spot on the forest ground in preparation for his evening exercises.
“Robbie Pop,” Reuther said in an annoying tone.
“Never heard of him,” Moran snorted as he launched into his Royal Canadian jumping jacks.
“Well … he’s our guest on the next show.”
“But what does he do?” Moran asked, stopping from his exercises.
“He’s British,” Ritter said.
“Okay. Fine. But what does he do?”
“He’s British,” Reuther said. “Egads.”
“And I hold a Ph. D. in classical literature,” Moran said. “Again, what does he do?”
Reuther and Ritter looked at each other. They both well knew that his Ph. D. had been earned through an online correspondence course.
“He’s going to come on our show and talk about …” Ritter looked to Reuther for help.
“Brit stuff,” Reuther said.
“Brit stuff. Ha. You guys are pathetic. Can’t you find someone with something interesting to talk about? Who in the hell books your guests? Who is your program director?”
“Er …Annie,” Ritter said.
“Annie. Ha. Cozy arrangement for you Jon.”
“Now look,” Ritter said, pointing a finger at Moran.
“It’s going to be a good show,” Reuther said. “We’ve never had an English fella on our program.”
“Yeah,” Ritter said. “I mean … the show is Brit Talk after all.”
Moran shook his head. “You two have hit a new low. I mean … for the love of God, what was that nonsense you aired last week?”
“You mean … our comedy act?” Ritter said.
“If that’s what you call it,” Moran said.
Reuther and Ritter exchanged looks and then launched into it: A pair of mimes locked in a square glass box, trying to feel their way out.
“Mimes on the radio. How utterly ludicrous.”
“Hey. What’s good for the ratings is good for our show,” Reuther said with a grin.
“You got that right Mike,” Ritter said, grabbing a can of Vienna sausages from out of his backpack.
“For the love of Pete, why don’t you put me on your show?” Moran said, closing his eyes and rocking back on his heels.
“You?” Reuther said.
“Yes me.”
“But what will you have to offer?” Ritter asked.
“Indeed,” Reuther added. “Shall we talk about your history of plagiarism or the student sexual harassment scandals that have followed your academic career?”
Moran leveled a hard gaze at our heroes. He raised Misty Blue and charged.

It’s not too late …

27 Sep
architecture buildings business car

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

“You know Ritter,” Reuther said. “Downtown Lancaster looks more busy, I daresay even vibrant, with lots of youngsters in their 20s and 30s.”

“Hipsters,” Ritter said with a snort.

“Even in Chumley’s?”

“Especially Chumley’s,” Ritter said with disgust.

“You mean?”

“Exactly.” Ritter threw up his hands. “Used to be a gathering spot for writers and dreamers and misfits. Now, it’s junior executives. Young fellers and gals with laptops, their gaze on the bottom line.”

“Damn. What happened?”

Ritter used his index finger and thumb to pick up a stray crumb from the muffin he’d just eaten. He looked out the window from his balcony affording him a birds-eye of the Lancaster Barnstomers ballpark. He’d carefully selected this place back in the early 2000s before things had changed, when Lancaster was still holding on as a gritty, tough little city with a chip on its shoulder, very much aware that it couldn’t be little New York, let alone a tiny Philly. But shit … now …

“But Jon. Things change. I mean … look at us … Time was when we were the young rock ‘n rollers. Regularly knocking off fifty miles on the trails in a day, clacking away on our Remington typewriters, banging out thirty pages at a clip.”

“It’s not our town anymore.”

“Well … not your town anymore. I mean … I left years ago.”

“Right. You did the Kerouac thing. Found your true calling as a trout bum.”

“I begged you to come along. Remember?”

“I remember,” Ritter groaned.

Reuther studied his old hiking and drinking buddy. Geez. He was starting to look old, tired.

“It’s not too late you know.”

Ritter emitted a sigh. Shit, he thought. But it was too late. And yet … and yet …

“You know, when it comes down to reality. We’re all here on this earth just a short time. We need to grab the gusto while …”

“No,” Ritter snapped. “You’re starting to sound like a beer commercial.”

“Well … I mean …

Ritter slowly shook his head. The late afternoon shadows from the downtown buildings were throwing long shadows across the streets.

“I got laid off yesterday.”

“What?” Reuther couldn’t believe his ears. “This is it. Your chance … ”

“Er … I don’t think so.”

“But why?” Reuther said, jumping out of his seat. “This is it. C’mon. You can be out of this burg by tonight, on your way to a new life.”

“Yeah. And we could both sit around that stream you’re so fond of … what is it?”

“The South Platte River.”

“Right, the South Platte, build a campfire and belt out ballads like Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean. It’s elusive, a myth.”

Rutter pushed himself away from the table and began walking around the room.

“C’mon Jon. You can do this.”

“No. It’s a myth Reuther. All of it … the West and the outdoors and how it can save your soul.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“C’mon Reuther. Face it. Happiness … you can’t buy it, and you sure as hell can’t find it through geography.”

A tentative knock came on the front door – three soft, tentative raps upon the wood.

Reuther saw a sly smile appear on Rutter’s face.

“Did you order Chinese?”

“Er … you’ll have to leave now Reuther.”

“A girl?”

“Please. Take the fire escape down Reuther.”

The Bargain

6 Sep

Ritter poked at the campfire as he mulled over the question.

“What if I had choice between giving up hiking and rock climbing or spending the rest of my life with Annie Klondike?” He furrowed his brow and looked quizzically at Reuther.

“Right. What would you choose?”

“But that’s absurd,” Ritter said, tossing down his stick.

“Just work with me here Jon,” Reuther said.

“I would never give up hiking and rock climbing. I mean … those are my passions.”:

“Okay,” Reuther said. “I get it. But what if giving them up would mean being with Annie … the gal you’ve long pined for … for the rest of your life.”

“But it’s not going to happen,” Ritter said, throwing up his hands.

“No. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. Unless you believe in magic and such possibilities, no one is going to suddenly appear and offer you such a bargain.”

“Right,” Ritter said.

“Still … what would you choose?”

“Jeepers. You’re not going to let this go. Are you?”

Ritter studied Reuther’s smiling face as his longtime hiking buddy moved closer to the fire, his face lit up crimson from the flames.  He appeared almost otherworldly. Ritter had a fleeting thought that perhaps Reuther was a kind of supernatural being who could indeed make such a thing happen. A chill ran through him that even considering an answer would involve him in a sort of Faustian bargain.

“Well … Reuther said.

“Who do you think will win the World Series this year?” Rutter asked, a nervous lopsided grin crossing his face.

“Jon. C’mon.”

“You c’mon,” Ritter said. “This is just stupid.”

“Maybe,” Reuther said, rocking back on his heels and looking skyward. “Then again …”

Ritter poked some more at the flames. “Well what about you Reuther?”

“What about me?”

“Let’s say you had a chance to have your book be a bestseller and make you a boatload of money, perhaps a movie deal. You even win a Pulitzer. You gain worldwide fame.”

“I … don’t follow Jon,” Reuther said.

“Sure. Let’s say that happens, but only if you agree to spend the rest of your life unplugged, off the grid, in some lonely, one-room cabin in say … Greenland? Cut off from everyone you know and love … forever.”

Ritter watched Reuther consider the question as he chewed on his jerky.

“Interesting proposal Jon.”

“Yeah, it is,” Ritter said with a laugh, jumping to his feet.

He watched his buddy consider it for a few more moments. “I wouldn’t take the deal.”

“Why not?” Ritter said.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Reuther said.

“But you’d have everything you always wanted … a bestselling book, fame, immortality.”

“And no one to enjoy it with.”

“Er … right,” Ritter said.

“So.”

“So what?”

“I guess you’d give up your outdoors pursuits if it meant you’d gain Annie.”

“Never,” Jon said.

“But she’s your dream girl.”

“Dream girl?” Ritter considered the very words. Dream girl? A buxom outdoors gal who piloted prop planes around the Northwest and Canada. A sharpshooter and trapper, who drank her whiskey straight and could more than hold her own with any man. Surely not a gentle lass, and yet …

“She’s promiscuous,” Ritter said.

“And your point is?”

“No … no I wouldn’t even consider such a foolhardy notion of giving up hiking and climbing. Besides, this whole dialogue has been ludicrous.” Rutter got to his feet. “I’m going to bed.” He headed toward his tent.

“Funny isn’t it?”

“What?” Ritter said. With his back to Reuther, he stopped halfway between the now-dying campfire and his tent.

“These gals. They sure do funny things to our heads.”

“They sure do,” Ritter said. “They sure do.”

Colorado blues

29 Aug
depth of field photo of two pilsner glasses

Photo by Matan Segev on Pexels.com

 

Ritter and Reuther trudged up the hill, dog-tired, but elated to be finished. It had been a long hike, following three days of camping along the river, just south of Dock Gulch. The sunshine, the scenery, the negative ions from the rush of the stream made for a perfect few days. And Reuther had caught some fat trout too.
“Smokey’s is just down the road,” Reuther said, wiping his brow as they both stopped next to the Ponderosa Pine at the trailhead and looked down Route 18.
“God yes,” Ritter said. Already, he could envision the neon sign of SMOKEY’S blinking in tiny downtown Dock Gulch, beckoning him. Hell, he could taste the burger he planned to have after they hopped into Reuther’s rickety old jeep and arrived there, pulling up stools at the long bar as if they owned the freakin’ place, the rustic joint existing for their own pleasure. He was going to treat himself to a big fat burger with fries and wash it all down with a beer. A cold one. Shit, maybe two or three cold ones. He wondered if Candy was working, the feisty fetching blonde with the alluring Southern accent who always flirted with Reuther and him. Hell, maybe he’d even work up the courage to ask her out this time. She was one of those outdoorsy types, like everyone else around these parts. Hell, maybe he’d ask her to go shooting with him. Heck yeah. He had two Glocks stashed away in his car he never used, but he had them ready per chance some gal wanted to go shooting. Or he could take her fishing. He had one rod in the car too, even though he didn’t fish. A guy had to be ready for anything when it came to women. What the hell, he could always fake it if she wanted to cast flies to trout.
All at once, there was the sound of bicycle tires skidding to a stop. What the…? Ritter noticed the legs first, long shapely and tanned legs of a young woman. A fine lass alright, astride a sporty looking mountain bike, a blonde ponytail falling out of a helmet. She was smiling. “Jon?” she said in a puzzled tone, a cock of her lovely head.
“Millicent?” Ritter couldn’t freakin’ believe it. How long had it been? Ten years? His mind reeled with memories of a shy girl, a freshman in Professor Moran’s Journalism 101 class. God, he’d been smitten with her. Of course, he had. Problem was, everyone else was too. He’d been an overage grad student then, finding excuses to steal away from his crappy job as an errand boy at the dean’s office to talk to her as class ended. Heck. There had even been a connection between them, he thought. She was so pure, so innocent, so … gorgeous. Freakin’ Moran, that bounder, had made a play for her. And to his joy, had struck out. Rumor had it that there had come a bit of sexual harassment afterwards. That unethical play chased her away from the university … for good. And now, here she was.
“What are you doing out here in the wilds of Colorado?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” She pulled off her helmet and shook her head, the ponytail swishing, like the tail of a horse. God. She looked good, Ritter thought.
“Er … ah. Where are my manners? Reuther, this is Millicent. Millicent … Reuther.”
“Pleasure,” Reuther said, with a grand bow.
Millicent giggled. God. That sweet infectious laugh Ritter remembered so well.
“I say … I say … Millicent.”
Reuther and Ritter turned left to see a puffy man in biking attire, hunched over the handlebars of a mountain bike, pedaling toward them with significant effort some thirty yards down the road. Ritter shielded his eyes from the sun. Egads. Ritter thought he resembled a turnip, his flesh bulging against the tight biking outfit that he had no business wearing. The bicycle drew nearer. Shit. Was that Ryerson? Ryerson Marks? No, it couldn’t be. One-time dean of the school of journalism and seducer of young co-eds.
“You two … are together?” Ritter said.
Millicent shyly bowed her head. God. She was still an innocent.
Huffing and puffing, Ryerson dismounted uneasily from the bicycle, clearly a novice to pedaling such contraptions, stumbling before righting himself. Still out of breath and clearly out of his element, he managed to walk the bike up to where they stood. “Jesus,” he said. “Mountain biking Millicent? Are you bloody kidding me?” He was sweating profusely, his face beat red.
“I tried to go slowly so you could keep up honey,” Millicent said sweetly.
No. No. It was wrong, all wrong Ritter thought.

 

“I know what you’re going to say,” Ritter said as they sat on barstools at SMOKEY’s a bit later.

Reuther shook his head. “Jon …”

“No,” Ritter said, raising his hand from his beer after slamming it onto the bar. “Don’t say it.”

They sat staring at the row of liquor bottles lining the shelves behind the bar. Reuther wished to hell they hadn’t run into that dazzling young girl … and Ryerson … the fuck. Another middle-aged, out-of-shape successful guy but admittedly, a charmer, who always got the girl. Of course, this one particularly stung Ritter who clearly still had a thing for this Millicent gal – a real looker.

“What the hell,” Reuther said. “We got beers in front of us and burgers and fries coming. “

“Yeah. Right,” Ritter said bitterly. “Living like kings we are.”

“Jon. Geez.”

It occurred to Reuther that the bar was strangely empty on this late afternoon in August.  And it was a Friday too. Normally, fishermen from up Denver and Colorado Springs way and God knows where else had long ago spilled out of offices to flee to the river for the weekend. Why wasn’t Smokey’s rockin’ and rollin’? Even the jukebox, normally filtering some mournful country and western tune or bluesy song was still. It appeared Luke, the bearded thirty-something bartender who also did gigs as a fishing guide out of the fly shop next door, was running the place solo today.

“You guys need another beer or anything else?” Luke said.

“A freakin’ gun,” Ritter said. “Put me out of my misery.”

Luke brought his head down close to Reuther. “A girl again?” he whispered.

Reuther shook his head and waved Luke away.

“Yeah. A girl again Luke,” Ritter snapped. “Now mind your own damn business and bring us those burgers.”

Luke straightened. “Easy guy. I know how painful these things can be.”

“Er … sorry,” Ritter said. He stared at his beer. Shit. Maybe he should just get drunk. Yeah. That was the ticket. But no, last time he did that he made a complete ass of himself right here in SMOKEY’S. Belting out several renditions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game as he danced jigs around the barroom.

“Where is everybody?” Reuther said.

“You didn’t hear?” Luke said. “Place is closing.”

“What?” Ritter said.

“Damn you say?” Reuther said.

“That’s right. This is the last day. The finale. Didn’t you see the sign out front?”

Reuther and Ritter looked at each other. “No,” they said in unison.

“Someone buying the place?” Reuther said.

Luke turned up his palms. “Some retired college professor from back East, I heard.

“Shit no,” Ritter said.

“Yeah. In fact, the guy was just in here yesterday with his hot girlfriend poking around.”

“Freakin’ Ryerson,” Ritter shouted confirming his initial suspicions. “Can you believe it?”

“I do believe that’s the guy’s name,” Luke said.

“What are they going to do with the place?” Reuther said.

“Don’t know. Rumor has it they want to turn it into a brew pub. Take advantage of the weekend crowds that come here to fish and hunt and ski at that new place those rich dudes from Jackson Hole are building down the road.”

Luke stood on the other side of the bar staring past the two of them. “I’m moving back with my mother in Durango. Nothing here for me.”

“What about guiding?” Reuther said.

“They bought out the fly shop too,” Luke said, shaking his head. “I lose big time.”

“Jesus,” Reuther said.

“Your burgers should be about ready fellas.” Luke walked toward the kitchen.

“Candy around?” Ritter called out.

“She quit last week. Went back to her hometown in North Carolina.” Luke slowly turned and looked at Ritter. “Sorry fella. I know you always had a thing for her.”

“We both did,” Reuther said.

“Right,” Luke said. “Well … nothing stays the same.”

They both watched Luke disappear into the kitchen.

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