A Town Called Whisper – Chapter Two

On June 14, 1965 at 11:53 a.m. the people on the outskirts of Whisper felt the ground tremble, and heard what they said sounded like a sonic boom.

The people in the town of Whisper, most likely felt and heard nothing.

I worked for the bureau of a newspaper, not far from Whisper. Just as I got into the office, my editor called and frantically said, “look at the teletype.” I ran over to the machine, and read what was being printed on the small ribbon of paper being spit out with rapid fire. “Catastrophic event…town of Whisper…details unknown.”

I don’t remember affirming that I was, as they say, “on it.” I don’t remember getting in my car and starting it. I don’t remember how I got to the scene. I don’t remember ever having driven that fast, but I wanted to get the “scoop.” Every reporter wants to make a name for himself and I was unapologetically, no exception. I finally saw a road sign that said, “Whisper – 5 miles.”  A few feet down the road, I saw a badly dented and burned sign that I believed said, “Welcome To The Town Of Whisper.” What I saw after would be seared into my memory like an unfortunate tattoo that has been branded onto your body when you’re drunk, and becomes an event that later, you wish you could erase.

In what used to be the town, debris and body parts were strewn as far as I could see.  In the distance, thick smoke was bellowing like an angry volcano that had awakened, and was hell-bent on revenge for having been disturbed.

Something was wrong.  Something was terribly wrong.

As I walked toward the destruction, it was as if I had stepped into the middle of a war zone.  I’m not sure I can find the words to accurately depict what I was seeing.  The famous “oh, the humanity” phrase popped into my mind, but I’m not even sure that saying could describe the gravity of the carnage that lay before me.

Sheriff Monson was the high sheriff from the next county, and he allowed me into the area with the warning, “be careful where you step, don’t touch anything and don’t speak to anybody who isn’t law enforcement.”  I asked if it would be okay to interview a few people about what happened. He looked at me and said, “son, I’m not sure there’s anybody left TO interview.” I asked if he knew what happened.  He said, “as best as we can tell it was some kind of explosion, but at this point, my guess is as good as yours.”

There was rubble everywhere and I saw pieces of metal, bricks, and cars upside down in what I imagine used to be the street.  I will admit that I had no idea where to even begin.  The most dramatic thing I had ever reported on was an angry man who got drunk and threw several kittens down a dry well.  When he sobered up, he felt guilty but couldn’t get them out, so he started dropping food down to them. They grew up and had more kittens.  When animal control found them, there was a colony of more than 45 cats, living on top of each other in the bottom of that well.

Night fell and amidst the glow of the full moon, the scene took on an eerie feel.  Shadows looked like souls rising up and drifting away, and the quiet was almost deafening.

I had already decided that I was going to catch a few winks in my car so I could be there the first thing in the morning.  As I was walking away, I stopped and turned.  I heard birds singing.  It was night-time…there had been an explosion…a town had been annihilated…and birds were singing. A quote from Rose Kennedy came to mind.  She said, “birds sing after a storm.  Why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”

I was thinking, “who was going to delight in the next mornings’ sunlight?  The first responders?  Law enforcement?  Me? Certainly not me or the rescuers or what was left of the townsfolk.” The sun might be shining the next day but we were going to be in the midst of hell on earth, looking at bits and pieces of what used to be lives, and stores and homes.

I was exhausted and fell into a fitful sleep.  I was awakened the next morning by the sound of heavy equipment.  There were earth movers, cranes, firetrucks, ambulances and a plethora of law enforcement vehicles. Several news crews arrived along with reporters from various other papers.

I took a swig of stale water from a bottle that had been in my car for two or three days, and headed toward the scene.  Sheriff Monson was already there and shared some information he had gotten during the night. He said he heard from dispatch, that a Boeing 747 had crashed into the town.

I remember thinking, “if it was an airplane crash, where is the plane?”

Apparently, on impact, it had broken apart into what looked like a thousand puzzle pieces and no identifying marks could be discerned.  Only the size of the debris field could confirm that it was indeed a massive plane.

I don’t know why, but I asked Sheriff Monson where the plane was headed.  “What a ridiculous question,” I thought.  Did it really matter where they were headed?  He adjusted his belt, put his hand on my shoulder and as he walked away, said, “they were going to Las Vegas.”|

Las Vegas.  Sin City.  The place where, “what happens there, stays there.” The city where you can walk away a millionaire or lose your entire life’s savings with one throw of the dice.  None of the people on that plane were going to do either of those things. They had already gambled…and lost. There were 223 souls on board the flight, including the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and three stewardesses.  All were lost. The souls lost on the ground were not yet known.

Sheriff Monson and I noticed a caravan of official looking vehicles arriving. He looked confused as he asked, “who the hell are these guys?”

They were from the NTSB.  This was going to be the first major airline crash they investigated.  They took over and we were left with more or less, slim pickens.  I walked around, in an almost state of shock as I watched body bag after body bag being loaded into unmarked vans.

I learned that only one person on that plane was still fully intact.  One.  It was a stewardess and she was found in a tree, miles from the crash site, still strapped to her jump-seat.

The crash site spanned more than an eight-mile radius.  The National Guard was called in when it was discovered that people from other towns had descended on the area, and were pilfering suitcases, and taking jewelry off hands and arms they found in the woods.

Reverend Smythe had been out of town but rushed back to Whisper when he heard what happened.  He was there to offer as much comfort as he possibly could, but seeing death on such a large scale was something for which he was ill prepared.

A few of the workers broke down even though they were used to seeing death.  They had seen it many times but these deaths…these deaths were horrendous.  They were picking up legs, arms and even heads.  They were finding tiny limbs that belonged to children.  Some of the bodies were literally fused to parts of the plane.

This kind of massacre could bring anyone to their knees.  More than once, I turned my head and wiped tears from my face.  I never considered myself to be overly religious, but I wanted to raise my arms and look to the Heavens and scream, “why?  If you’re such a loving God, why?  What purpose could this possibly serve?”

I watched as Reverend Smythe prayed over every body part recovered.  Who, if anybody had survived in town was still unknown. The wreckage had demolished the buildings and the hope of finding anybody alive was fading. Reverend Smythe was never one to give up faith that the Heavenly Father would protect his flock, and he was going to need his faith now more than ever.

When a Seacrest green Chevy trunk was uncovered, Reverend Smythe crumbled in agony.  Billy Rays’ body was found in the mangled wreckage. That young man was never going to marry. He was never going to have children and watch them grow up. That young man was never going to see his black hair grow back, and turn grey.

To be continued______________________

The Road To Mercy

There is a place where worn and tattered souls go.  It’s a place where the broken, bruised, battered, forlorn and down-trodden are welcomed with open arms.  There is no cover charge, nor is a membership required.

It’s a place for those who have been condemned simply because they were different, or have been judged because they finally broke under the weight of agonizing, soul-killing despair.

It’s a place for those who were discarded after they sought comfort and understanding for illnesses, which could not be seen or touched.  It’s a place for those whose cries for help were ignored.  It’s a place for those who fought for their very existence, only to wish that they had failed.

Mercy does not offer healing, for some souls can never be healed, but Mercy offers peace.

Those who have suffered a lifetime of abuse, neglect and numbness of the heart, find respite there.  Those who have felt so much pain that they no longer feel anything, find solace there.

Those who are touch starved, will no longer be paralyzed with fear.  Those who have lost a lifetime of everything they once held dear, have a place in Mercy.

The road to Mercy is well traveled, and even though it is known that there is a last resort outlet, it is no deterrent to those who seek to escape their torture.

Whether they choose to open a vein, buy a bottle of liquid courage, swallow a handful of pills, tie a noose, or load a gun…those souls are walking toward the road to Mercy.

When they finally arrive, they are home.

The Book Man – Chapter Three

Luther went outside to bring in the reindeer and take down the lights. He put the ladder against the house and just as he reached the top rung, the ladder slipped and Luther fell.

Old man Barnes and Rufus had already made it back home, but two of the neighborhood children, out with their new sleds, saw him fall.  They ran over to him and said, “book man.  Are you okay?”  When he didn’t answer, one of them told the other to run home and call 911.

When the ambulance arrived, the children were asked if they knew his name.  “Book man,” one of them said.  The medic said, “Mr. Bookman?”  The child said, “no.  Not Mr. Bookman.  He is the book man. “Is there anybody at home?  Wife?  Children?” asked the medic.  “No,” the children said.  “He lives by himself. We call him the book man because he’s always buying books.”

The medics loaded him up and took him to the hospital.  Shortly after he was taken to a room, Luther slipped into a coma.

Word quickly spread around the neighborhood about the beloved book mans’ accident.  Old man Barnes had been able to get in touch with Cole and begged him to come to the hospital.  What he wanted to say was, “maybe now you can actually find the time to visit this fine man you have disappointed so many times.” He wanted to say that, but he didn’t.

Cole said that he and his family would take the first flight out, and old man Barnes agreed to meet them at the airport, wondering of course, if they would actually be on the plane.

Old man Barnes went to Luthers’ house and found the familiar pillowcase full of books that he had just bought, still in the back of his beloved Chevy. He decided to pick one to take to the hospital so he could read to Luther. He had always heard that even when someone is in a coma, they can still hear and understand. He hoped that was true.  

The book he chose was, “The Old Man and The Sea,” by Ernest Hemingway. When he put it on the front seat of his car, he stared at it for a moment. Scratching his head, he thought to himself, “I could swear Luther already has this book,” but that wasn’t very important. Seeing Luther was. He sat beside the hospital bed and quietly started reading, occasionally glancing at the sleeping Luther, hoping he would open his eyes.

Later that afternoon, it was time to drive to the airport and he surprised when Cole and his wife were actually on the plane.  They had left Luthers’ little darlings at home with their maternal grandparents.  “It was just easier,” Cole said.

Old man Barnes once again held his tongue.  All Luther had dreamed about for the last several years was getting to see those little girls he called his darlings.  Those little girls he had bought gifts for.  Those little girls he had planned on helping build a snowman.  Those little girls he hoped would giggle at the reindeer with moving heads. Those little girls who he said were the spitting image of their grandmother.

Old man Barnes was silent as he drove Cole and his wife to the hospital. When they walked into Luther’s room, there was an audible gasp from Cole. The doctor was just leaving and Cole asked for an update.  He explained that there had been no change in Luther’s condition and truthfully, he didn’t really think there ever would be.  Due to his advanced age and frail body, the trauma had just been too great for him to ever recover.  At least that was his prognosis.

Cole took Luther’s hand and said, “dad, I’m here.”  He was hoping to see a reaction from Luther, but saw nothing. Then, like a trumpet, they heard the sound that makes every nurse and doctor scramble to a room.  The scream of “code blue,” signaling asystole on the cardiac monitor. Despite their valiant efforts, Luther passed away.  Cole asked for a few minutes alone with him, and what, if anything he said, no one knew.

When he walked out of the room, old man Barnes knew Luther was gone.  He was surprised and a bit angry when he saw that Cole had tears in his eyes.  He was even more surprised at what he said, not even looking at old man Barnes or his wife.  He was looking toward the room where Luther took his last breath.

He said, “you know, you take your parents for granted.  You think they’re always going to be there.  You get busy starting your lives when you’re young, and you forget the sacrifices they made for you, when they were young.  You don’t have time for them, and you forget that they always had time for you.  You think there’s always going to be a next time to see them. You think there’s always going to be a next Christmas.”

All those feelings and statements were too late as far as old man Barnes was concerned. “Your dad is gone,” he said, “and he will never hear those words.  He will never hear the regret in your voice, nor will he ever see the tears in your eyes.  Your sentiments are a little too late, son. Death is final and almost always brings sorrow and regret, but how easy it would have been for you to say those words while he was still alive. How much joy you could have given him if you had just once…just once…kept your word.”

What old man Barnes said made Cole feel ashamed and he broke down.  After he gathered his composure, old man Barnes took him and his wife to Luther’s house.  They walked in and saw the stockings still hanging on the mantle.  The ornaments, carefully wrapped, still sat in a box, and the little angels, waiting for his little darlings, still sat on the floor next to the box.

Old man Barnes said, “Luther was a fine man, and he was beloved in the neighborhood.  He smiled and said, “did you know that he was called the book man?”

“The book man?” asked a puzzled Cole. “I don’t understand.”

“No. I don’t imagine you would understand,” old man Barnes said.  “He was called the book man and he called his books his treasures. He spent weekends buying them, and then building shelves to put them on.  Besides you and your family, his books were his most precious possessions.”

“Come with me,” old man Barnes said as he led Cole down to the basement.  Cole walked from room to room, stunned at what he was seeing.  All of the rooms were full of shelves, and all the shelves were full of books. Luther had meticulously put all of the soft covers together, and all of the hard covers together. He had even organized them by color. Some shelves held books of unusual dimensions, which he arranged in such a way that from a distance, they almost looked like a work of art.

Cole sighed, shook his head and said, “he didn’t want anybody to know.” Old man Barnes, himself a bit puzzled, said, “he didn’t want anybody to know what?”

Cole smiled and said, “he didn’t want anybody to know that he couldn’t read.”

I Ka Hopena.

The Book Man – Chapter Two

The next week, braving the chilly air, old man Barnes and Rufus stopped by as Luther was hauling the tree to the curb.  “Did you have a good Christmas, book man?” asked old man Barnes.  “How were Cole and the family?”

Luther, again trying to hide his disappointment, said, “well, they couldn’t make it.  The weather turned bad up there, and they were afraid they would get stranded somewhere on the way, but Cole said they would try to make it down after the first of the year. Luther said, “they sent me a nice card with a picture of the family on it. You should see my little darlings. They’re the spitting image of their grandma.”

Old man Barnes, trying to hide his own sadness, said, “well, I’m sure they’ll make it down soon.  Where are you off to now? Atre you after getting some more books?” Luther smiled and said, “I thought I might run into some good sales seeing as how it’s after the holidays.  You never know what I might find.”

Cole and his family didn’t make it down after the new year as hoped, so Luther continued to busy himself making shelves for his treasured books. Old man Barnes had once asked Luther who his favorite author was.  Luther smiled and said, “why that would be like asking somebody who their favorite child was.  To me, they’re all my favorites.”

Christmas rolled around again, and again Luther was anticipating a visit from Cole and his little darlings, who were now a year older.  This year, Cole had promised that “come Hell or high water,” they would make it down.

Just as last year, Luther visited the tree farm, wallet full of dollar bills, and once again, picked out the most beautiful tree he could find.  He brought the lights and ornaments down from the attic, and sang to himself as he decorated the tree.  Luther was getting some age on him, and it was getting harder and harder to lift heavy things like Christmas trees, but oh, the joy of finally getting to see his family made his efforts worth it.

While hanging lights on the outside of the house, the children in the neighborhood, bundled up like ticks about to burst, walked or rode by on their bicycles and yelled, “Merry Christmas, book man.”  Luther loved to see them having fun and would sometimes watch as they struggled to build a snowman out of powdery snow.  Unable to get it to stick together, it lent itself to making perfect snow angels. Luther remembered Cole making snow angels and when there was a heavy wet snow, he would ask Luther to help make what he called “the bestest snowman ever.” Luther always obliged, and it was a memory that he would never forget.

Christmas came and went, and again, Cole and his family weren’t able to make it down.  One of his little darlings had gotten sick, and Cole said they didn’t want to travel with a sick child, but promised Luther that they would make it down as soon as she got better.

As Luther was hauling the tree out to the curb, old man Barnes and Rufus were walking by.  Rufus walked up to Luther and when he bent down to rub his head, he started licking his hand.  It was as if he could sense the sadness in Luther.  Old man Barnes didn’t ask how his Christmas was, or how the visit with Cole and the family went.  He could tell that once again, Luther had been disappointed.

Luther hadn’t received a visit, but he had received yet another card from Cole with pictures of his little darlings.  How they had grown!  He was so looking forward to seeing them, as Cole had promised they would be down soon.

He put on a brave face and started the new year.  He tried to soothe his sorrow by thinking of the abundant treasures yet to be discovered. In true form, the next week he came home with a pillowcase full of books.  Old man Barnes and Rufus came walking down the street. He stopped and asked, “how many have you got today?”

Luther smiled and said, “I haven’t counted yet but, I need to get working on some shelves.  Cole and my little darlings are coming down soon you know, and I don’t want to be down in my basement building shelves when I can be playing with them.”

“When are you expecting them this time?” old man Barnes asked.

“Well, Cole promised that they would try to make it down in a couple of weeks.” Luther said.  “I have to tell you, I’m so excited, and I think this time they’ll make it.”

Alas, Luther would be left wanting again.  Cole said that things were just too hectic at work, but he was taking some time off around Christmas, and without a doubt, they would be down.

Soon Christmas was on the way and once again, Luther bought a tree and decorated it with lights and ornaments.  Once again, he hung his little darlings’ stockings on the fireplace mantle and filled them with goodies. He had bought two little porcelain angels, carefully wrapped them, and put them under the tree. He ordered a turkey dinner from the local grocer, and had taken the good china from the hutch.  This was going to be such a wonderful Christmas.

After last Christmas, Luther was scouring the local garage sales, and to his delight, he found a set of reindeer whose heads moved back and forth, and he got them for what he called “a song.”. He carefully packed them away, hoping they would make their debut the next year. The next year came, and he made his way to the attic, got them down and put them in the front yard. He thought they might make his little darlings giggle as they watched.  As he was hanging the lights on the house, the neighborhood children, growing up, and now riding bigger bicycles, rode by and said, “Merry Christmas, book man. I like your reindeer.”

Luther smiled and waved and hoped that maybe they could come play with his little darlings.  He was also hoping that it would snow so they could make their very first snowman in Papa’s yard.  He had an old scarf, an old hat and some of Arlenes’ buttons. He had picked out two perfect limbs for arms and he made sure he had a carrot for the nose.

But Christmas again came and went.  Cole and his little darlings couldn’t make it, but there was yet another promise of trying to visit after the first of the year.

Christmas night, nobody knew that Luther sat in his house next to the tree, and cried.

The next day, as he dragged the tree to the curb, Luther’s melancholy was clear to old man Barnes, who was finding it more and more difficult to hide his anger toward Cole…a man he didn’t even know.  He asked Luther if he was angry. “No, I’m not,” he said.  “I understand.  You know these young folks have a lot going on in their lives. They have work and children and friends.”  

He sounded as if he was trying to apologize for Cole. Old man Barnes looked at Luther and said, “you’re a good man.”  Luther smiled and said, “well, I try to be.”

Luthers’ family didn’t make it down to see him, but one of his hopes had come true. It had snowed and everything was covered in a white blanket that lent a sense of serenity to the entire neighborhood.  It was beautiful, but how much more beautiful it would have been had there been a snowman in the front yard, sitting next to the nodding reindeer.

To be continued_________________________

The Book Man – Chapter One

His name was Luther Malone, but everybody called him the book man.  He was an odd little fellow whose salt and pepper hair was balding in the familiar horseshoe pattern, and his favorite attire was an almost worn-out pair of paint splattered overalls. He could have most likely afforded to buy a new pair of jeans, but chose to spend his extra cash on books.

Well known by all the tellers, once a month he would visit The Bank of Paper Money, and ask for his “usual.” His son had set it up so that his bills would be paid as soon as his social security check had been deposited, which gave Luther the freedom to, as he said, “not have to write nothing.”

He was a friendly man who never failed to offer a smile, and throw up a hand when a neighbor was walking or driving by. Children, riding their bicycles, waved and said, “hey book man.” That was a highlight of his day, but not as much as finding books.

Every weekend at the crack of dawn, he would get into his old fire engine red Chevy pick-up, and begin the hunt for the books he called his treasures. After he went to all the local garage sales, he headed to the thrift stores. He was even known to dumpster dive behind the Salvation Army Family Store when it was closed.  His efforts were always rewarded and he would bring back sacks full of books after every outing. His favorite companions were a tattered, almost threadbare fabric wallet, overstuffed with one dollar bills, and a ratty, badly stained pillowcase.

He wasn’t prejudiced when choosing his books.  He didn’t care if they were soft cover or hardback.  He didn’t care if they were penned by a famous writer or a forgotten one-book author.  He didn’t care if they were thick or thin.  He didn’t care about any of those things because to him, all of them were things of beauty.

Old man Barnes lived up the street and had a little Jack Russell terrier, named Rufus.  The neighborhood had dubbed him, “the little Jack Russell terror” because he was fiercely protective of his master.  For reasons nobody really understood, the book man was the only person Rufus would let come anywhere near old man Barnes.

One day, old man Barnes on his daily stroll with Rufus, stopped and looked at the books in the back of Luther’s truck.  He shook his head and said, “well, book man.  How many did you bring home today?”  Luther smiled and said, why don’t you come over here and help me count? Old man Barnes started unloading them, carefully putting them into the paper bags and said, “it looks like you have 38.” Luther smiled, winked and said, “you don’t say?”

“That’s a record, isn’t it?” asked old man Barnes.  Luther said, “I think it might be.”  Old man Barnes said, “I reckon you’ll be busy making more shelves.”

When not out looking for books, that’s what Luther spent most of his time doing.  He wanted to have the entire basement of his house full of shelves from floor to ceiling, but those shelves would have to wait this week.

Luther had been a widower for five years.  He had a son named Cole, who was married and had two little girls, who Luther called “his little darlings.”  It had been almost three years since he had seen them, and he had never even met the youngest. There was notable excitement in his voice when he told old man Barnes that Cole and his family were coming for a visit the next weekend.  “I keep the house right neat” he said, “but I’ve got to get the yard prettied up for them.”

He spent the next week pulling weeds and trimming hedges. He had already chosen the flowers he would pick to adorn the kitchen table, and he had wrapped gifts for his granddaughters that he found down the street at a sale two days earlier. The neighbors had come to know Luther well, and were always obliging when he said, “I left my glasses at home, and I can’t see the price. How much would you let this go for?”

The next week, old man Barnes stopped and asked how the visit went. Luther tried to hide his disappointment when he said, “well, something came up and they couldn’t make it.” His voice had an almost hopeful lilt when he said, “but Cole said they’d try to get here in a few weeks.”

He kept up his spirits by being ever vigilant in his quest to add to his vast collection of books, and he had become quite the expert at building shelves. He was not one to settle for plain planks held up by brackets.  His shelves boasted beveled edges and a dark mahogany stain, finished with two coats of wax.

Christmas was coming and the weather was turning cold, but it was no deterrent for Luther.  There were fewer garage sales, but the thrift stores were always filled to the brim with second-hand items, including an ever-present array of books. Thrift stores generally commanded a higher price than garage sales, but to him, his treasures were worth the few extra dollars. The workers at the thrift stores were also familiar with “the book man,” and would often help him count out his dollars, after he told them that he had forgotten his glasses.

Once again, a visit from Cole and his family was promised.  Luther hadn’t put up a Christmas tree since his wife Arlene died, but this year, in anticipation of his upcoming visitors, he went to a tree farm, tattered wallet full of dollar bills, and picked out the most beautiful tree he could find. He got out the old lights and ornaments that had long ago been relegated to a resting place in the dark, seldom frequented attic.

Opening the boxes, one by one, he smiled as he looked at each ornament, which had been so carefully wrapped by Arlene in happier days, when Christmas and family meant so very much. As he he unwrapped each one, those happy memories of days gone by came flooding back, and he found himself almost giddy with excitement.  

He re-wrapped the presents he had gotten for his little darlings before, and put a tag with Santa Clause making his way down a chimney, on each one. He bought stockings for them, and hung them on the fireplace mantle. They were filled with chocolate marshmallow trees, peppermint candy canes, and a little bracelet made of candy was tucked deep into the toe of each one.

It was going to be such a special Christmas, he thought as he plugged in the lights on the tree, sat down and basked in the soft glow of the tiny blinking bulbs. As he drifted off into sleep, he dreamed that he opened his eyes and saw Arlene. “Hello, darling,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re here. Our boy and our little darlings are coming to visit.” As her image faded, he begged her not to go, and awoke.

To be continued______________________

It’s Me – Chapter Seven

Luke returned to the bar the next night. Every time the door opened, he glanced toward it, like he was expecting Fleming, which Gil found odd. He had never seen him give any impression that he cared who was in the bar. His world had always revolved around having his scotch and being left alone.

Fleming finally came in and sat down next to Luke. Gil, unable to read his either of their faces, waited for the next dialogue, be it acrimonious or benign.

Luke finally looked at Fleming and said, “did I ever tell you that you remind me of Jenny?” Fleming smiled and said, “yes, you have said that a few times.” Luke said, “every time I look into your eyes I see her, and it disturbs me. You even sound like her. And you’re pushy.” Again, Fleming smiled and said, “yes, you have said that as well.”

Both Fleming and Gil were concerned as they watched Luke down his scotch at a record pace. Once again, like putting the needle back on the record, Luke began to talk. “Have you ever made the mistake of making a promise that you knew you couldn’t keep?” Fleming asked, “it that a rhetorical question?”

Luke put his head in his hands and said, “you never make a promise. Never. But I did. I made a promise and I didn’t keep it. I was so consumed with guilt, I could hardly function. I looked for her. I looked for her for years. I looked on every corner. In every crowd. In every car. In every store. I made deals with drug dealers. I literally begged, borrowed and stole for information.” He almost chuckled when he said, “one of the dealers said he heard that some witness had been given plastic surgery and sent away for their own protection.” That gave me hope, but you can’t survive on hope. At least, I couldn’t. She’s gone and it’s my fault because I couldn’t protect her.”

He turned to Fleming and said, “now you know my fucking story. Are you satisfied? Please just leave me alone.” Having said that, he stood up, pulled three Benjamins from his leather wallet, threw them next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

After that night, Luke never returned.  Neither did Fleming, but life at the bar went on.  Larry and Mel continued to have their “tiffs” and Gil continued to smooth things over with free beers.

Gil had never told his story and most likely, never would.

“People’s lives are like road maps,” he once told Fleming.  “Sometimes their travels are etched on their faces and other times, they’re etched on their souls. Then there are times when we have to ask ourselves; in the grand scheme of things, does hearing or not hearing, knowing or not knowing, really matter?”

He wondered about Luke, and Fleming.  From the beginning, they were two doomed people.  Luke was a cursed soul, looking for deliverance and burning his candle at both ends.  Fleming was an ill-starred savior, who thought Luke could be rescued. He remembered telling her, “pain can render unbelievable torture, and the desire to help can, and so often does, result in failure.”

They both burned brightly, but ever so briefly.  He missed them.  They had touched him and left an everlasting mark.

Two months after Luke told the final chapter of his life to Fleming, word got back to Gil that he had died.  He had finally succeeded in drinking himself to death, but it had been hastened by an accidental, or as some witnesses testified, intentional fall in front of a car.

He languished in a semi-conscious state, only occasionally softly mumbling the name, “Jenny.”

Medically, there wasn’t much that could be done for him, except give palliative care and hope for the agonal last breaths of death to come soon. He was given no special treatment, just the same care that is most often given to drug addicts and alcoholics.  After all, he had done this to himself so there wasn’t much, if any, sympathy.

He never had a single visitor…until one day, a woman came in and asked to see him.

“Are you family?” the nurse asked. The woman hesitated and said, “I knew him.”  The nurse smiled and said, “well, I guess it doesn’t matter. Come with me.” She led the woman into a bleak, dark, sterile room.

She seemed to have a bit of empathy as she said, “he won’t know you’re here and it’s just a matter of time before…well, you know.  It’s a pity, isn’t it?  We don’t know if he has any next of kin, and the saddest part is that there will most likely be no one to mourn for him.”  Then she smiled and said, “take your time, honey.”

Luke lay there, pale and gaunt, with tubes inserted into his nose, intravenous lines into each arm, and machines beeping the familiar cadence of a heart rhythm.  The woman looked at him as if trying to will him to open his eyes, but he didn’t.

Just a few minutes later, his journey finally ended and his days on Earth were over.  As he took his last breath, a smile came to his face when the woman leaned down and whispered, “it’s me.”

As she was leaving, the nurse said, “might I ask your name?”

Esto es el fin de la historia.

It’s Me – Chapter Six

The next night, Fleming came in and Luke was already sitting in his usual place, holding his glass like it could by some means, hold the key to his salvation. Glancing toward her, he said, “do you not have anything better to do than stalk me? You’re pushy, and it’s getting a bit annoying.”

Fleming had decided that she was not going to be chastised or basically told to shut up again. She could be sharp-tongued too, and warned him that if he chose to do verbal battle with her, there was a good possibility that he would lose.

“Goddamn,” he said. “You remind me of Jenny. I think I would like for you to leave me alone.” Fleming was quick to retort. “Do you think you are the only person in the world who has problems? Do you think you and you alone are the only person who has experienced loss?”

Luke, getting more and more agitated said, “my life is none of your business, and what makes you think that I have suffered a loss? Fleming said, “because I recognize loss, and I know what it does to a person.” Raising his glass in the gesture of a toast, Luke loudly said, “congratulations. You’re a prophet. I guess that makes you the knower of all things past, and the healer of all things wounded, right?”

The past had not been kind to Luke, and the present was unimaginably cruel. He was like Icarus, who had flown too close to the sun, and was now waiting for his fiery death.

Fleming didn’t say a word. She just looked at him and smiled. That seemed to calm him down. It was almost as if he lay down his sword and yielded, as he quietly spoke. “Fear, rage, loss, grief. Those are all great catalysts for revenge, retaliation, retribution, or the total destruction of ones’ self.”

In his usual disjointed style, shifting from anger to silence to explanations, he ran his fingers around the rim of his empty glass and said, “they had Jenny in a back room and I went in to talk to her. She was shaking, and was absolutely scared to death.  I told her that she was going to be fine.  She looked at me and said, ‘do you promise’?”  Luke looked at his empty glass, shook his head and said, “I promised her.”

Then he got up, pulled three twenties from his leather wallet, tossed them next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

 After he left, Gil came over to Fleming and said, “this is getting heavy.” Fleming looked toward the door and almost trancelike said, “do you think?” Gil said, “oh yeah.  He feels guilty about something, and his guilt is his albatross.  His cross to bear.  His unpardonable sin…at least in his eyes.”

Luke didn’t come to the bar the next night or the one after.  Three days later, there he was, sitting on the last stool at the end of the bar. Fleming came in and sat beside him.  She said nothing, nor did he for the first few minutes.  She noticed a band-aid on his left hand and some discoloration around it.  It was the kind of discoloration that one might get from having an IV invade a vein by an unskilled nurse. Fleming finally broke the deafening silence and asked, “are you okay?” Luke turned and said, “I’m just great.  Can’t you tell?”

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, ignoring his abruptness that had become second nature. He looked at her with that ever familiar sneer and said, “I got it stuck in someone’s mouth after they kept asking me stupid questions.”

Then, like someone had just put the needle back on a record, Luke’s story continued to play, although it was fractured and disjointed.

“I…I had this…I was concerned about Jenny, of course, but I still had that disappointment about it essentially being an open and shut case.  You know, get a description, a positive identification, slap the cuffs on, make an arrest, go to court, and get a conviction. Cut and dried.  No Deerstalker cap required.”

Luke motioned for another drink and said, “I’ll never forget how scared she was.  I mean, we were talking about the mob. She must have trembled for days, and I kept assuring her that she had nothing to worry about.”  He downed his drink and said, “I promised that I would protect her.”

Before Gil had put the bottle back on the shelf, Luke tapped his empty glass on the counter and motioned for yet another.

“We put Jenny in a safe house.  Safe.  Boy.  That was a joke.  Almost every hour, she called and every time she did, she said, ‘it’s me’.  Even when her voice was trembling with fear, she would always say, ‘it’s me’. I started teasing her, asking who else she thought would be calling me from the safe house.  Still, every time she called, she said, ‘it’s me’.” Luke gave Gil a nod and held up two fingers.  Gil brought another glass and filled it along with the one Luke was already holding.  Gil and Fleming both watched as Luke downed both glasses and motioned for two more.

When Gil brought the drinks, Fleming could tell that he was going to say something to Luke, and interrupted him.  “Gil,” she said.  “Would you bring me one of those?”  Gil looked at her, nodded and said, “of course.”

Luke had a sorrowful look in his eyes as he stared into his glass.  He was looking back in time.  A time he was trying so desperately to escape.  A time when his penance had been self-imposed and was going to be everlasting.

After several minutes, Luke asked Fleming, “are you going to drink that or just let it mellow?”  Before she could answer, he picked it up and downed it. Fleming put her hand on Luke’s.  He let it rest there for a mere few seconds before he pulled it away. Even though he was looking down, she could see the pain in his eyes and hear the agony in his voice when he quietly said, “Jenny.”

He sat there and picked at his glass as if trying to peel an imaginary label off the side.  “The day before the trial, Jenny disappeared.  There were no signs of forced entry into the safe house.  There was no sign of a struggle.  There was no blood or tissue evidence.  There was nothing.  She just disappeared.”

He looked off into the distance and said, “I sometimes imagine, and also fear that she’s resting next to James Riddle Hoffa.  Isn’t that ironic?  His middle name was Riddle, and one of the greatest unsolved riddles ever, is “where is Jimmy Hoffa?”

Luke stood up, pulled four Benjamins out of his leather wallet, tossed them next to his empty glasses, turned and walked out.

To be continued______________________

It’s Me – Chapter Five

The next few weeks, Luke had begun to open up a little more, but he was looking haggard and full of angst.  As soon as he downed one drink, he was motioning for Gil to pour him another.

Several times in the past few weeks, Gil mentioned to Fleming that Lukes’ slow, deliberate descent into the death grip of alcoholism was becoming more and more disconcerting.  “I’ve seriously considered limiting how much I’m willing to serve him, but as long as he keeps calling a taxi, and doesn’t cause a fuss like Larry and Mel down there, I really have no reason to govern how much he drinks.  He’s a grown man and he knows what he’s doing…and so do I…and so do you. It’s just hard to see someone slowly committing suicide.”

He looked at Fleming and said, “if you want to know the truth, I was hoping that when you started talking to him, and actually got him to respond, things might change for him, and no offense, but as charming as you are, I don’t think anything will change for him.”

The look on Flemings’ face echoed what he said. The next night she walked in and Gil shrugged as he said, “he’s not here.”  He watched her slide onto the last stool at the end of the bar, and she surprised him when she ordered a Single Malt Scotch.  He leaned over and said, “okay.  This is getting a little bit creepy.  You’re sitting in his place and you’ve ordered his drink.  What’s going on with you?” Fleming smiled and jokingly said, “maybe if I sit on his stool, his tortured soul will radiate into my subconscious and offer a bit of enlightenment, or I can just internalize his grief and sorrow and make them my own.”

Gil said, “I know you feel sorry for him, but like I said, you have to be careful.  I keep trying to tell you that you can’t save everyone, and I dare say that you certainly can’t save him. He’s a ship that is slowly sinking. You can only watch as it disappears into the depths of oblivion. There will be no sound. There will be no howl…no gurgle…no whisper. It will just be gone.”

He wiped the counter and said, “let me ask you, for the third time. Why, why…why are you so fixated on this man?” After some thought, Fleming said, “maybe I’m just a fool for sinking ships.”

Gil wasn’t amused. He was serious, and again asked, “but why him?  There are so many other people who could use a friend or someone to help them.  You singled out the one most unlikely person in the entire bar to…what?  Rescue? I think it’s more than that. I believe that there is something going on here that you’re not telling me.”

Fleming surprised Gil when she rather harshly said, “don’t pull your psycho balderdash crap on me.  Not everyone’s actions or inaction’s can be explained or diagnosed by you, or by the inimitable Sigmund Freud.” She was showing a side of herself that he had never seen, and he was worried.

“True,” he said.  “But I know unusual and inexplicable behavior when I see it.  And I know when there’s an underlying cause or story behind that behavior.” Fleming looked at him and said, “I tell you what.  Let’s get out our scalpels and start dissecting each other.  We’ll start with you.”

Gil raised his hands in surrender and said, “touché.”

He watched as she, without a word, stood up, pulled a Benjamin out of her leather wallet, tossed it next to her untouched glass, turned and walked out.

Gil wondered if his relationship with Fleming had changed, but she returned the next night and with a smile, ordered her usual Club Soda. Luke was sitting on the last stool and the end of the bar. As she sat down next to him, she said, “I worry a little about you.”

Luke looked into the mirrored shelves of endless bottles of liquor, then looked at her and said, “do me a favor.  Don’t.”

Fleming said, “I’m afraid it’s too late.  I’m already vested in you.  I want…..” Before she could finish what she was going to say, Luke slammed his hand down on the counter loud enough to turn heads and said, “fine.  You want to know my story?  I’ll tell you. Then maybe you’ll get off my back!”

Gil was slowly and as discreetly as possible, edging his way closer to them.  He could see Fleming’s lips tighten in anger as she said, “okay.”

After motioning for Gil to pour him another drink, Luke began. “You were right.  I was in law enforcement.  So was my father. He was a beat cop for 38 years and never once fired his weapon. I was proud of him, but I wanted more.  I wanted to carry that gold shield.  I wanted to catch the bad guys and lock them up.”  He smirked as if making fun of himself when he said, “I wanted to serve and protect.”

He downed his drink in one gulp.  Gil poured him another and listened as Luke said, “I served…but I couldn’t protect.” Fleming asked what he meant when he said he couldn’t protect.  He angrily said, “do you want to hear this or do you want to interrupt by asking stupid questions? Again, Fleming’s lips tightened, but she said nothing.

“I finally got that gold shield,” he said.  “My first big case was investigating the murder of a prominent banker.  When I got to the scene, I strutted in, like I was the big man in charge.”

“We suspected that it was a hit,” he said.  “It was one of those ‘make your peace with God’ shots in the back of the head.  For years, there had been a rumor that he had been laundering money for the mob, but no one could ever prove it.  Maybe he decided to quit, or maybe he got caught pocketing some of the money.  We didn’t know and to tell the truth, we really didn’t care.” 

“After interviewing several people who knew him, and a few who, unlikely as it may seem, actually admitted working for him, I was told that there was an eye-witness, who was actually in the bank when he was killed.  I remember being a little more than disappointed.  Having an eye-witness didn’t involve any investigative expertise, or sleepless nights drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, or the usual self-serving aplomb you see on television shows about detectives who ‘care so deeply’.”

Luke motioned for another drink.  Gil poured and looked at Fleming.  He had one of those “wow” looks on his face.  She wasn’t sure if it was because of the story Luke was telling, or the amount of scotch he was downing.

Fleming dared to suffer Lukes’ wrath when she again interrupted him and asked, “isn’t it usually a good thing when there is an eye witness?” The torment in his voice was almost tactile when he hesitated and said, “usually, yes, but that eye-witness was Jenny.”

Gil couldn’t muffle his sudden surprise intake of air.  Luke angrily said, “why don’t you come over and pull up a stool?  That way, you won’t miss anything. Maybe you could grab a stack of napkins and start taking notes. Or maybe you could bring a tape recorder, leave it on the counter and listen to it later in case you missed part of the conversation.”

“My apologies,” Gil said as he once again offered a display of surrender, and retreated.

After visually scourging Gil, Luke stood up, pulled two Benjamins from his leather wallet, threw them next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

To be continued__________________

It’s Me – Chapter Four

Gil, rarely out of earshot, looked at Fleming and gave her the, ‘I told you so look’.

Fleming ignored what Luke said and asked, “shall we meet here or do you want to meet somewhere else?” Luke was clearly irritated. He looked at her and said, “we’re not meeting anywhere because we’re not going anywhere.” Having said that, he got up, pulled a Benjamin out of his leather wallet, tossed it next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

Gil walked over and said, “I told you.  You’re wasting your time.” Fleming said, “at least I got him to tell me his name.”  Gil said, “yep.  You did do that, if he was telling you his real name.  You know, something must have happened to him.  Something so traumatic, he became reclusive and I’d be willing to bet that he’s touch-starved.”

“Touched-starved?  What does that mean?” Fleming asked.

Gil said, “it means that people who don’t have physical contact of any kind, become touch-starved.  People actually die from it.  We’re a societal species and we need contact.  When we don’t have that contact, we starve from the lack of touch.  Some people are so touch-starved for so long, if they don’t die, they actually think they might die if they are touched.”

He looked at Fleming and said, “I don’t believe that you are touch-starved but something’s missing in your life.  You come in here and chat and watch, but you don’t really have anyone.  If you did, you wouldn’t be in here every night.  I won’t pry, but I wonder what your story is.  And I wonder, with all the other men in this bar, why you’re so focused on him.”

 Fleming didn’t deny or confirm what Gil said.  She just smiled and said, “see you tomorrow night.”

Weeks went by and Fleming and Luke were still playing mental chess.  A little ground had been broken, but Gil noticed that Luke was coming in earlier and drinking more.

He witnessed their tete a tetes morph into real conversation.  He was an expert when it came to listening on the sly and hearing Luke’s story, made him feel almost guilty for eavesdropping.  He knew that Luke was a private man, as was he, but he continued to listen anyway.

Through the course of several days, Luke drank more and talked more.  Gil listened to the sad lamentations Luke spelled out to Fleming, after she once again asked, “who broke your heart?”

“It was a girl named Jenny,” Luke said, “and she didn’t break my heart.  She left a hole in it.”

Fleming said, “wait a minute.  You said your name was Forrest Gump, and now you’re saying that your girls’ name was Jenny.  Are you feeding me a line of bull?”

Luke ignored her question and continued.  “I met her at a little coffee shop right down from my station.  I thought she was the prettiest thing I had ever seen, and we fell crazy in love.”

Then he looked at Fleming and said, “you remind me of her.  I don’t know if it’s your eyes or your voice, but you sure do remind me of her…and you’re pushy, like she was.”

Fleming thought she caught just the slightest hint of a smile when he said, “every time she called, she said, “it’s me.”  She knew I had caller ID and she knew that I would recognize her number and her voice, but she always said, “it’s me.  I’d answer the phone and ask what was up, and she would still say, ‘it’s me’.”

Fleming tempted the possibility of ending the polite conversation and made a 90° turn when she asked, “where did you work?”  The old Luke returned as he downed his scotch and abruptly asked, “does it matter?”

Fleming said, “you opened the line of questioning when you said the coffee shop was right down from your station.”  Luke snarled, “what are you?  A fucking lawyer?”

Fleming said, “no, and you’re right.  It doesn’t matter, but I’m guessing that you were some type of law enforcement.”

Luke was silent as he downed another glass.  Gil looked at Fleming and held up five fingers.  Fleming remembered Gil saying that he knew when a man was trying to drink himself to death, and she believed that he was right.  That was exactly what Luke was trying to do, but she didn’t know why, and he seemed bound and determined to tap out.

Gil poured Luke another glass, and watched as he held it up and looked at it, almost as if hoping to find absolution in its warm amber color, and sweet but bitter taste.  Without saying another word, he drank it, stood up, pulled two Benjamins from his leather wallet, tossed them next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

He had opened up a bit to Fleming, and Gil was glad, but warned her to be careful.  “He’s not going to fulfill your hopes and dreams,” he said.  “He’s what we call an emotional cripple.”

“I think I can help him,” Fleming said.  Gil looked at her with stern but compassionate eyes and said, “I think your intentions are nothing less than honorable, but I think that you can not. He’s just waiting for someone to lay him all the way down.”

Gil once again asked Fleming, “why are you so fixated on this man?” Again, she didn’t answer, and he knew she wouldn’t.  He also now knew that her first visit to the bar hadn’t been happenstance, and her regular visits weren’t because he made a mean Club Soda.

He began to think that Fleming was as much an enigma as Luke.  Those two had found each other in a most improbable way, which appeared to have almost been predestined, albeit unsettling and somewhat troubling. Fleming appeared to be full of life, while Luke had an urgency for the angel of death to finally give him peace.  

Fleming was drawn to him like a moth to a flame and in Gil’s experience, that scenario was always a dangerous and potentially fatal attraction.

To be continued___________________________

It’s Me – Chapter Three

What Gil said surprised Fleming. “He just looks so…lost,” she said.

Gil said, “yes, he does. Most of my regulars, and there are many, look the same way. You and I have discussed the ways and the woes of the drink, and how it doesn’t really make problems go away, but you’d at least think the screaming headache would eventually make an impression, wouldn’t you?”

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.” Fleming said.  Gil looked at her and said, “yes, and I still do my little dance with the devil from time to time, but not as much as I used to.”  He looked at her and winked.  “We all have to have our pity parties now and then.”

The next night, Fleming came in and boldly sat down right beside the man on the last stool at the end of the bar.  She waited to see if he would react in any way, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

Gil was watching as the scene unfolded. After a few minutes, Fleming looked at the man and came right out and asked…”what’s your story?”

With eyes that couldn’t be bothered to look into hers, he said, “what makes you think I have a story? And what makes you think that my story is any of your business?”

Fleming said, “because everyone has a story.” He smugly said, “I’m sure they do, and maybe some of them want to tell their stories, and maybe some of them don’t. And maybe some of them don’t like nosey, pushy people.”

She said, “oh…so you’re one of those people.” He turned, looked at her and sneered as he said, “what do you mean…one of those people?”  She said, “one of those people who think they’re special.”

Gil was watching and listening with intensity as their conversation began its infancy.

Fleming’s straightforwardness must have piqued the interest of the man on the last stool at the end of the bar. He said “well, Fleming.  You’re a bit of a smart ass aren’t you?  And you’re pushy.”

She was surprised that he knew her name.  Had he asked Gil about her?  Or had he just heard her tell him, while they thought he was immersed in his scotch?

She ignored the implied insults and asked, “who broke your heart?”

The man on the last stool at the end of the bar stood up, pulled a Benjamin out of his leather wallet, tossed it next to his empty glass, turned and walked out.

Gil walked over to Fleming, and she said, “well, I must have struck a nerve.” Gil smiled and said, “no. That was foreplay.” Fleming laughed out loud. Not only did he have a delicious sense of humor, he had a naughty side that she appreciated.

She wondered aloud to him her thoughts of whether or not the man would come back.  She wondered if she had been too intrusive.  Gil said, “only time will tell.”  She said, “I have pretty good instincts about most things and I have a gut feeling that he will be back.”

Gil was torn between wanting the man to come back, and wanting him to be left alone.  On the one hand, it would be interesting to see the interaction between a man who was fighting demons…and losing, and a woman who was like a reporter for The National Enquirer.  She had an “inquiring mind who wanted to know.”

On the other hand, sometimes inquiring minds are not allowed to know.  Sometimes, a person is already dead inside.  They’re just waiting for physical death, and Gil had never seen a man who was more ready for that than the man on the last stool at the end of the bar.

The next night, Fleming walked in and there he was.  She sat next to him and ordered her usual Club Soda. After he served her, Gil was covertly eavesdropping as he pretended to be wiping glasses.

Once again, without looking at her, the man said, “do you have any more questions…about my story…or my heart?”

She looked at him and said, “do you have any more insults?”  He motioned to Gil for another drink and said “stick around.  I’m sure I can cut you where it hurts.” Fleming didn’t miss a lick when she said, “take a break.  You don’t have to be a prick every day.”

As Gil poured another glass of scotch, he knew he was witnessing a game of “one-up-man-ship.”  It was just a matter of who won, and he was giving them even odds.

Staring at his drink, the man turned to Fleming and said, “you remind me of someone.” She asked who, and he almost inaudibly said, “someone I used to know.” His answer was fraught with obvious pain and anguish and it was clear that he was not one to bare his soul.

Still, Fleming knew that he had a story but for now, she would be patient. Her sense of humor again caught Gil by surprise when she asked the man, “should I call you Mr. Prick or do you have an actual name?” Gil hoped his little snicker couldn’t be heard.

The man on the last stool at the end of the bar, stood up, pulled a Benjamin out of his leather wallet, tossed it beside his empty glass, turned to Fleming and said, “My name’s Forrest Gump.  People call me Forrest Gump.”

 Fleming wondered if the man was being, as he had called her, a smart-ass, or somewhere buried deep in the crevices of his psyche, he had a playful sense of humor.  But a sense of humor didn’t match the way he spoke. He had the slow, deliberate, emotionless voice of a serial killer.

The next night, Fleming came in and sat next to him.  After a few minutes, she turned and asked, “do you eat?” Curling his lip, the man repeated, “do I eat? What the hell kind of question is that?”

Fleming said, “since you said your name was Forrest Gump, I imaging that you have at least eaten shrimp. Maybe you have even tasted all twenty-one different ways it can be fixed.”

“Are you asking me to have dinner with you?” he said.

Fleming didn’t bat an eye. “Thank you,” she said. “I’d love to, but if we’re going on a date, I think I should at least know your first name, and don’t say Forrest Gump.  I want to know your real first name.  I mean, I can’t keep thinking of you as the man sitting on the last stool at the end of the bar.”

He looked at her and said, “not that it matters but, my name is Luke, and you don’t want to go on a date with me.  Did anyone ever tell you that you’re pushy?” She smiled and said, “yes, you did more than once, and I take that as a compliment.”

Luke turned away from her and said, “then I must have said it wrong.”

To be continued______________________________