My First Drink

My First Drink

It was March 2012; I was twenty-four and had just returned to the States after spending a year abroad in Osaka, Japan teaching English.  The first order of business upon returning was setting up a road trip with my brother, Josh.  After being back for a week, I flew out to Richmond, Virginia for a friend’s wedding and then to Chicago where I met Josh with my car.  The plan from there was to explore the Windy City for a few days before making our way out to Montana where we would hang with our sister who was out there for an internship.  Needless to say, I was excited to become reacquainted with my country.

The wedding was wonderful and Josh had no trouble picking me up from O’Hare.  The pick-up spot was right next to the check in counter for JAL (Japan Airlines), adding another sense of happiness to an already great trip.  I had booked a hotel close to the airport which had exceptional reviews, a reality failing to live up to the pictures or flowery comments.  It was a hole.  Set in the middle of an industrial park, we were greeted by a burned out concrete parking lot and an exterior which looked like it was built to be blown up in a Michael Bay, circa 1990s, film.  It was a scorching afternoon and our excitement began to wither.  As we entered the lobby, a group of young women emerged dressed the way Eastern-bloc prostitutes are in movies.  They loudly chattered in an unintelligible language, pulling out and lighting their cigarettes with an Olympic synchronized swimming team precision.  This gave me great pause, having spent the last year reading and researching human trafficking practices and trends.  From studying the growing human trafficking phenomenon, in my mind, these were women who were clearly being trafficked by some sort of ROC (Russian Organnized Crime) affiliate.  The assumptions, fueled the obvious motif of the hotel, caused hesitation, primarily because I didn’t want to start my road trip off getting stabbed or being coerced into making a friend who wasn’t really a friend.  It turned out that it was a wedding party for a Czech family and I had discovered a new type of racism.  Fear assuaged and a new dimension of self-loathing discovered, my brother and I made it to our room, breathing in decades of post-smoking ban tobacco stains from the dingy wallpaper.

Josh and I went into the city, had pizza for dinner, and promptly returned to the hotel.  This is where our schedules diverged.  He was adamant about holding his bedtime at a strict 9 PM and I was still on Japan time.  Years prior, we had gone to Las Vegas and he refused to leave the room once we had settled in, perfectly content to glue himself to skateboarding videos on his laptop.  Unable to keep the lights on and entertain myself, I hit the road in my car and explored the surrounding area.  There were few things I missed being in Japan more than my car.  It was my quite place.  It was where I could think and get lost on side streets as music enveloped me.  A sanctuary of catharsis, in the driver’s seat, I found peace, joy, and moments of clarity.  From it, you see the landscape and people, feeling freedom as the world become increasingly accessible.  Behind my steering wheel that night, music blaring at top volume, I discovered that our current location was even more desolate than I had first expected.  There were abandoned lots, barred up liquor stores, and even a 7-11 blocked off by police tape. A sharp contrast to the sterile concrete suburbs of Osaka, something about the region made me feel at home.

As I drove, I thought about how to kill the remainder of my evening.  Settled into my natural habitat (much like a bear in a Studebaker), I reached an unexpected moment of clarity.  I decided to return to the hotel and grab a drink at the bar.  This was a big deal for me.  For the past six years, I had been part of a very conservative ministry and had not had anything alcoholic to drink.  Alcohol was frowned upon and its consumption was treated, by many, as an inescapable pathway to hell.  Having dabbled briefly in high school, finding it to only make me sleepy, I didn’t mind prohibition; it just was what it was.  During my tenure with the ministry, I turned twenty-one.  I had yet to experience the great turning of age moment of purchasing a drink legally in a bar.  I excitedly made my way back to the bar, swelling with pride at this coming of age opportunity.  The important decision now was what to order to drink.  I had yet to acquire a taste for beer (something eventually gained through the upcoming NFL season) and bulk of my drinking in high school was cheap Barton Vodka with copious amounts chasers.  I once had a Long Island Iced Tea, and that was delicious. That would be my poison of choice.  Drink now in mind, I made my way back to the hotel and confidently walked into the hotel bar.

The bar was dimly lit and scarcely populated.  Grimy from a day of travel and wearing obnoxious camo cargo shorts and a sweat tinged orange Slice tee under a black Oxford shirt, I perused the many empty tables looking for a place to quietly sit by myself.  I was exhausted and felt so out of place; the last thing I wanted was any forced conversation, even though the lingering idea of meeting a cute girl (perhaps an attendee of the wedding) constantly flickered through my head.  Finally in a bar!  This was a new world I was both exhilarated and self-conscious about wandering into.  Feeling physically gross and sharp tremors of social anxiety, I decided to grab a seat at one of the corners of the square bar, figuring I would stand out far more at a lone table.  The bartender came over and I casually ordered my drink.  She was in her mid-forties and very friendly, an obvious pro who was both approachable, yet clearly had no tolerance for funny business.  She took only a minute to make my drink, returning bringing a 20-oz glass without ice, filled to the brim with my first legally ordered adult beverage.

Surprised by the size, two sips in, I realized that it would take me a while to get to the bottom, having not tasted alcohol in years.  And this was a strong drink.  A few sips later, I looked around to take in the patrons now that I felt settled.  There was a group a young men to my left who were talking in hushed tones as their hands cautiously explored one another.  On the opposite corner of the bar, there were two men in their early thirties making out.  To my right, six seats down, there was a man in his middle forties wearing a tight black T-shirt, accentuating the countless hours he put in at the gym, and tightly cropped black hair complimented by a rich mustache which would have made 1970s era Burt Reynolds jealous.  The only other inhabitant was the bartender who was whispering to Mr. Reynolds, now glancing over to me.  I was so anxious about feeling like an adult and ordering a drink that I had completely overlooked the patrons.  So here I was, ordering my first drink ever, in a gay bar.

Now, I’m not gay.  Nor am I homophobic.  Nor have I ever been remotely bi-curious.  It’s never been a consideration, nor have I ever found men either sexually or romantically attractive.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some men that leave me speechless and fawning incoherently, namely Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, and Lance Reddick (Oh God, please don’t read into that), but I would never classify it in a sexual way.  More like the way little girls dream about princes from Disney movies.  So… that said, even though I am also very comfortable in my own sexuality, I do have a mild bit of social anxiety which equates to a general dislike of any confrontation and a general disposition of people pleasing.  Maybe that is an understatement.  I make it a point to avoid any situation where I feel out of place, doing everything in my power to avoid any social awkwardness or confrontation.  What worried me was not being hit on, but declining in a way that would cause any disappointment or cause the slightest bit of a scene.  Honestly, the idea of an attractive woman approaching me made me anxious.  All of these thoughts rattled around in my head as I quietly sipped on my drink hoping to finish it completely unnoticed, or at least undisturbed.  Frumpy, disheveled, and for the first time in a while, I was comfortable with my Polish dockworker frame and thinning hairline.  From everything television and my handful of gay friends taught me, I would most likely be left alone.

Needless to say, I was wrong.  About halfway through my drink, old man Reynolds pulled up a stool next to me, inched it closer, and started speaking to me excitedly and quickly.  There was no introduction.  He began mid-story about some guy at a gym nearby who was ripped and apparently quite insecure.  He continued to scoot closer and go into detail about how this man once spotted for him on the weight bench and had the nerve to not return his texts.  Three minutes later, he took a sip of his own drink, and sighed, caustically remarking how the man’s penis wasn’t anything impressive.  Satisfied with the conclusion of the story, he stirred his drink and stared at me, and adjusted his shirt, his tightly kept chest hair becoming more visible.

Halfway through the story, I had made my decision.  I hated confrontation.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  I knew why he had approached me and was both flattered and uncomfortable.  Confident in my conversational abilities, I decided my only course of action was to play dumb.  I was going to be as oblivious as possible, hoping he would get the clue.  Set on my course of action, I extended my hand and said, “My name’s Jonathan.”

He shook my hand and said, “Mike.”

I asked him where he was from and apparently he was just passing through.  I told him I was visiting with my brother and was headed out west.  I asked him about some must see places in Chicago and he obliged, visibly getting restless.  He asked where we were going, and I casually said, “Montana.”

Hoping to keep the casual conversation going, I simply asked, “Where are you headed after this?”

He leaned forward and gently grabbed my wrist then said with a wink, “I’m going back to my room.”

Fully committed to my plan, I responded, “Oh, I mean after Chicago.  Where are you going after Chicago?”

He withdrew his hand and mumbled, “Dallas.”

“I’ve heard Dallas is a great city. Great people.  Amazing food.  And one hell of a nightlife.”  Instantly regretting my final point, his interest perked up again and he looked at me again, taking a quick look at my crotch, and said, “”It’ll blow your mind.  You’ll never think about cowboys the same way again.”

Scrambling for a joke, and refusing to quickly down my first legal drink, he seized the silence to lean close and ask, “So, are you up or are you down?”

Thrown by the terminology, I asked him to repeat himself, which he did.   Piecing the inference together from context clues, I continued the routine saying, “Well, we’re not staying on the top floor and we’re not on the bottom floor.  We are staying on one of the floors in between.”

Now perturbed, he asked the question again with more force.  I stammered, and finally blurted out, “I’m sorry man, I’m not gay.”

He erupted, “The fuck are you talking about?  You’re not gay?  You look gay!”

In full on damage control mode, I tried to consider how I looked gay in any sense of every experience or stereotype I had known.  I wasn’t coming up with anything.  I tried to talk him down, “I’m not gay, incredibly flattered, but I just came in here for a drink.”

He wasn’t having any of it.  His inched closer and raised his voice, “Don’t you know what kind of bar this is?  Don’t for a second think I don’t know what you are doing here.”

“It’s the bar in the hotel I’m staying at.  That’s the kind of bar I was thinking.”

“Fuck you.  Don’t play me.  You are such a goddam fucking tease.  You come in here, a perfect fucking bear, and you expect me to believe that you’re not gay.”  By now he had given up, but he was not done making his point.  He stood up, finished his drink, and slammed the glass on the bar.  He exited the bar shouting, “I’ve had enough cockteases today.  Fuck you.  You don’t think I’m big enough?  I’ve taken bears twice your size.  Go to hell!”

He took a painfully slow journey to the front desk twenty feet away before complaining to the clerk in hushed tones while glancing back at me.  By now, I still had almost half of my drink to finish.  I stared at the remainder, doing my best to block everyone out.  I had paid for it and I was going to do my best to enjoy it.  It took me a little under five minutes to finish and sheepishly ask for my bill.  The bartender came up and laughed.  “Don’t worry about it.  This one’s on me.”

I thanked her and left a ten dollar bill on the counter.  Old Burt was still griping at the desk, so I did my best to quietly sneak past him on my way to the elevator.  I took quick glances behind me to make sure I wasn’t being followed.  I wasn’t.  The elevator opened and then closed with me alone inside.  I couldn’t help but double over in laughter.  My first drink did not go the way I had expected, but was far funnier.  Of course that would happen.  Of course!

I learned several valuable lessons that night.  First, when entering a bar, always check the cliental immediately.  Secondly, it’s always better to be up front, and regardless of how fun playing dumb may be, it may not have the results one might expect.  And lastly, sometimes, being the bigger guy (especially in a bear friendly bar) is overrated.

Melon Soda

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“I want life to be beautiful.  Just as beautiful as a gutter rat!  There are parts of me, I’ve hidden from you.  And they will never show up in photographs…”

Son Bae paused, sweat glistening off her forehead, as an enormous smile plastered itself across her face while she stared into the crowd with eyes about to explode with excitement, sensing the frenetic energy poised to erupt from the palpable anticipation in the audience.  In the crowd, Ikumi tugged at her sister’s sleeve and blurted out, “Ayumi!  Ayumi!  Linda Linda Linda!  Linda Linda Linda!”

“I know!  I know!”  Ayumi shoved her sister’s hand aside.  She hated dragging her sister to everything, but tonight she didn’t care.  Paranmaum had put on such an amazing show, and as the singer teased the chorus to their biggest hit by repeating the first verse, her eyes were transfixed on the stage, excited to be lost in magic of one of her favorite songs.  She had never been to a concert like this.  Everybody around shared the same love and passion for the band that she had, and tonight she could go crazy.

The band went back to the opening chords, but Son quickly lowered her hand telling the band to pull back.  She closed her eyes and went through the verse a third time before screaming, “Are you ready?”

The crowd roared with delight.

She pulled back and screamed, “Linda Linda!  Linda Linda Linda!  Linda Linda!  Linda Linda Linda!”  With the first syllable, the band kicked in with a celebratory fury.  The subwoofers pulsated and the crowd erupted into a zealous choir of bodies jumping and dancing in unison, releasing whatever power was left in their already tired lungs.

Ayumi was in a state of pure euphoria.  Her throat was beginning to hurt and dehydration was beginning to cause her stomach to cramp, but none of those things mattered.  As the crowd began to churn, Ikumi disappeared in the chaos.  Ayumi didn’t care.  She would find her later.  Ikumi would probably tell mom about it at home, force a few fake tears, and Ayumi would get yelled at; but this was worth it.  Ikumi had to grow up sometime.

The band finished the song as the dark room filled with smiles of deep satisfaction.  Ayumi knew they had one more song left, and she could not wait.   “Owaranai Uta” was her favorite song.   “Let’s sing a song for this asshole of a world.”  It was so irreverent.  And most importantly, it made her mother mad whenever she would hum the tune.  But her mother was not here tonight, and for a few moments, she was free of Ikumi.  At sixteen, this was the purest form of freedom she had ever felt.  It felt great.

The band began politely bowing and thanking the audience which returned the gesture with loud cheers.  Son took a deep bow and took a few steps back, as the guitarist Kei Tachibana took the front stage.  She stepped to the microphone and gently shushed the crowd.  After a few seconds, the crowd became silent and Kei let loose, aggressively strumming the chords to Owaranai Uta as the crowd surged one more time.

Ayumi screamed with delight and began clapping her hands above her head along with the ecstatic crowd, the band now fully engaged.  All of a sudden, water began to sprinkle from the ceiling.  The sprinkling turned into a downpour, and the water flashed with various colors as it blended with flashing pink, blue, and yellow lights flashing from the stage.  The colors grew intensified, and with each color, came rich aromas of flowers and candies.  Pink smelled like cherry blossoms.  Blue smelled like cotton candy. Yellow smelled like tulips.  These three cycled on a loop as the watery colors began to cloud Ayumi’s vision.  She looked around and the people started to look blurry.  A new color was introduced, green.  It smelled like melon soda, causing Ayumi’s stomach to gurgle out of thirst.  The water was refreshing to her skin, but her mouth was becoming painfully dry.

Her stomach clenched and she doubled over in pain.  She desperately needed something to drink.  She looked up and tried to catch some of the water in her mouth, hoping to taste the flavors she had perceived, but the drops never seemed to land in her mouth.  Not wanting to miss the show, she begrudgingly considered cutting through the dark room towards an exit in the search for a water fountain.  The people were still dancing, but the music began to distort into a pounding drone; the elements of the song were there, but Ayumi could not make out the lyrics.  She looked back towards the stage and could only see colorful shadows slowly moving in the now dense mist.  She tried to drink the falling water again, but it did not work.  She let out a frustrated sigh and decided to quickly get something to drink.  It would be quick, and the pain was becoming a distraction.

The first several people she bumped into bounced off of her and went flying several feet.  By the time she was near the door, the concert goers would explode into fluorescent liquid bursts, covering Ayumi with brightly colored sugary syrup.  With each explosion, her thirst intensified.  She reached the exit and the music became indiscernible.  The door did not lead her to the lobby, but to a place which resembled the train station exit by her home in Ikeda.  It was like Ikeda, except the grey cement buildings were now brightly colored and covered in dark green ivy.    The street lights were not white or yellow, but the same vibrant colors from inside the concert.  Dehydration overpowered her the moment she was outside, bringing her to her knees.  She fell hard, but the ground felt like a pillow even though it looked like pavement.  Now curled up in a fetal position, she heard a loud scream come from her stomach saying, “Give me melon soda!”

Startled by the voice, she ran, looking for the nearest convenience store.  She ran down the strange, but familiar, alleys looking for a combini.  She took a left turn by a dancing post box, and saw a Lawson’s hovering a foot off of the ground in the middle of the street.  She could almost taste the melon soda inside the plainly lit, surprisingly empty store.  She ran as fast as she could, bouncing on the soft road, and jumped into the store as the automatic doors opened with a jingle, sensing her presence.  The attendant, dressed in her blue and white uniform, loudly greeter her, “Good evening!”

Ayumi raced to the back refrigerators and grabbed the biggest can of melon soda she could find.  It was only 100 yen!  Her stomach began to calm, as her right hand was now graspingthe cold can.  Fishing out a 100 yen piece from her skirt pocket, she confidently approached the counter, resolute to quench her thirst.

Ayumi put her 100 yen piece and soda down on the counter, nodding triumphantly to the woman behind the counter.  The attendant picked up the coin and lifted it in front of her nose and began whistling like a skylark.  Her head bounced back and forth while she examined it from every angle, pupils dilating and shrinking in unison with the movement as her attention switched from the coin to Ayumi and back.  Her neatly cut bob danced along, released bright pink sparkles which formed into question marks before gently fading away with the jingle of wind chimes.  Even though Ayumi thought the lady was funny, she was really thirsty and just wanted to drink her soda.  She didn’t look like she was going to stop and Ayumi was in no mood to be teased.  She reached her hand up to counter and grabbed the cold green and silver can.  Her mouth began to water as her palm touched the cool aluminum.  The attendant immediately stopped whistling and sparkling, beginning to rise above the counter, legs extending and pushing her upwards until her head was only a few centimeters beneath the fluorescent light above her.  Ayumi began quaking as the lady bent all the way down to look her in the eyes, their noses touching.  Ayumi quickly straightened her posture, accidentally bumping the lady on the forehead, instantly making the level of her uneasiness skyrocket, now worried she might not get her drink.

The attendant whispered with a haunting tone, “Are you sure you want a melon soda?”

“I’m sure!  I’m sure!” Ayumi blurted in exasperation.

The attendant pulled back and shrunk back down to her normal size, taking the coin and placing it into the register.  She closed the register and smiled brightly, yellow smiley faces now sparkling all around her.  She made eye contact with Ayumi and sang, “Good choice!  Melon soda, melon soda, melon soda is delicious!”

Ayumi nodded and dashed out of the store, drink in hand.  Her landing was gentle onto the pavement, and she bounced onto a sidewalk.  She twisted open the green and silver can and took a deep drink, soda spilling from the sides of her mouth onto her brightly stained clothes.  A few sips in, she felt a deep contentment as her stomach gurgled a joyous, “Arigato!”

Panic in Belize

“In 2011, I found myself in Belize.  Renting a bungalow three clicks from a secluded beach just south of Punta Gorda, I made a small living commuting inland to work on a coffee plantation.  Each morning greeted me with a breeze scented with an array of floral intoxication, which paired perfectly with the dull lap of crystal clear waves gently finding their way to shore in the distance.  My small bungalow was furnished and maintained from the little I had recovered from the real estate crash and a few lucky nights in Atlantic City.  I had found paradise, and it suited me well.

In May of 2012, I met Estrella.  Walking the beach at 1 AM, I found her dancing alone on the sand, white, flowing skirt twirling around her knees and her rich, onyx hair playfully floated in the air, perfectly complimenting her black bikini top.  The moon light glistened off of her skin in a way so captivating that, for a moment, I thought she was only in my head.  We made eye contact and she beckoned me over with the flicker of her finger.  I slowly made my way to her, following the rhythm of her body in order to find the elusive beat.  When I was a foot away, she pulled me in.  Now cheek to cheek, she continued to move, and I moved with her, carefully examining her body.  For a few minutes we danced in silence, then she moved in and whispered, lips brushing my ear, ‘Gringo, you will find the rhythm in the waves.’

Pausing for only a second, heat rapidly descending down my clumsy frame, I listened to the waves crash against the shore, found the rhythm, and pulled her close.  We danced for hours, lips occasionally finding each other.  Her tongue felt like fire and tasted like guava.  The night turned into dawn, as we found each other and found ourselves.  We watched the sun rise together, eventually making our way back to my bungalow.

We saw each other for months.  She would disappear for weeks at a time, never saying anything, only to reappear on that beach or in my bed.  I appreciated the mystery.  I knew not to ask too many questions, because I happy to not know the answers.  Like many, she had her vices and her skeletons, but moments on the dancefloor and beneath the pure, white light of the moon covered a multitude of sins.  We kept our conversations short, and allowed our eyes to do the majority of the talking.  I didn’t know where it was going, nor did I want to.  I was in paradise, in more ways than one.  Some things are better left unsaid.

Sure, there were moments I wanted to ask; like that day in November when a man with an AK slung around his shoulder pulled me into an alley and asked me where she was.  It’s not like I knew, but I was lucky to emerge with a large bruise covering my left eye and a small stream of blood intermingling with the sweat, which had become a fixture, on my face.  She came back three nights later.  The evening began with enchantment and ended with my bungalow on fire and a knife driven into my left shoulder.  My last memory of her was the pained caress of her lips on my earlobe as she whispered, “I’m sorry, my love.”  She vanished in the chaos of smoke, and I was fortunate to stumble out of my house seconds before the roof caved in with a ceremonious cloud of ash.

My boss was gracious enough and found me a new place.  He even directed me to a street vendor who sold guns on the side.  I got a 9mm Glock and named it after her.  The shoulder healed over time, and Estrella eventually faded from my memory, save for the occasional cameo appearance in my dreams.  Since I had moved to Belize, life seemed like a dream, and she was nothing more than a beautiful phantom who blurred into the surreal existence I found myself living in.

As all dreams tend to do, it all shifted at once.  It was late one night in September of 2014.  The air was cool, as a light breeze set a tranquil atmosphere with the continual rustle of leaves.  I made my way to one of my usual spots, Esteban’s, a small joint which was almost always occupied strictly by locals.  It was a dive, but the tequila was cheap, and there was always a band playing.  Dressed in white, linen pants and a loose fitting navy blue and yellow print button up shirt, I made my way to the bar with eight dollars in my pocket and my gun neatly tucked into my trousers, pressing against the small of my back.  I only had three bullets left and it had been months since I stopped worrying about being in any sort of danger, but you get addicted to the level of confidence that comes with carrying one.  With no intention of needing to use it, Estrella was an accessory, much like a Rolex after the advent of cellphones.

I entered the bar and gave Esteban a nod at the door.  A heavyset and friendly guy, he greeted his regulars warmly and was perpetually dripping with sweat.  It was around 9:30 and the band was getting into full swing, horns and drums cutting through the cloud of cigarette smoke and humidity, fueling the passion of the countless glistening bodies getting lost in one another on the dance floor.  I would join them shortly, but I needed a drink.  I sat down at the bar and raised a finger towards Juanita, the bartender, and she promptly returned with a shot of tequila, dropping it off with a playful wink.  She turned around to attend to another customer, and I closed my eyes, finding the rhythm of the room as I did that night on the beach.  After a brief moment, I opened my eyes and found my shot glass empty.  Before I could react, I felt the familiar brush of soft lips against my ear and I heard that long forgotten voice whisper, ‘Dance with me again, and I’ll buy you a new one.’

I didn’t have to look to know it was her.  I spun around on my stool and met the ferocious sparkle in her eyes with the caverns of desire which lay behind mine.  With bright red lips and hair perfectly draped over her right shoulder, resting effortlessly on her bare shoulder peaking above her clean white, linen dress, she looked as beautiful as she did that night on the beach, the only memory of her that mattered that night.  We made our way to the dance floor, and it all came back.  With each movement, our bodies reunited in rhythms they had never forgotten.  Nothing was spoken, as we looked into each other’s eyes through the wisps of smoke hanging in the air, everything that needed to be said was said.  I missed her eyes, the feeling of her gentle, yet powerful touch, and the scent of her sweat which shined off of her perfectly formed shoulder blades.

The moment came to a screeching halt as a fiery pain shot through my once healed shoulder.  It threw me backwards and Estrella came with me.  Shots of gunfire rang out in the club, and pandemonium ensued.  The music screeched to a halt and was promptly replaced with screams of terror and the eruption of gun blasts.  Before I knew what was happening, she pulled me up and pushed me through the crowd, pushing my head down as we ran.  We made it outside; stumbling over Esteban’s bloodied, wheezing body.  I’m gonna miss that man.  We took a left and ran, adrenaline fueling our frenetic and clumsy steps.  I asked her where we were going, and he only response was, ‘Capricorn harbor, dock 17.’

I knew the place. I had often rented a skiff for fishing from an older gentleman who owned dock number three.  Arriving at the wharf, lungs on fire, La Diamante stuck out like a sore thumb.  Three times the size of any other vessel docked, the ship’s engine gently hummed as a lone guard pacing the deck holding an AR15.  I didn’t know what was going on, who they were, or who Estrella was.  I didn’t care.  She was my angel from the beach, and that was all I wanted to know at that moment.  She pointed to a smaller skiff at dock 3 and said, ‘Quick, jump in there.  They’ll never see us.  We can escape.”

Sure, we could have, but there were too many variables.  Most of these boats were in poor conditions and incredibly loud.  Not only did they lack speed, but if it was a tourist rental, they would have had no gas in them, a smart move by their owners.  The docks were still, save for the slow pacing of La Diamante’s guard and the faint sound of panic two kilometers behind us.  Between the adrenaline and reawakened sensuality, the moment was nothing more than a lucid dream.  As she pulled me towards the small craft, I jerked back, halting her in her tracks.  I pulled out my gun and fired at the solitary guard.  There was no time for variables, it felt right.  It felt good.  My first shot missed, but set him off, firing rounds blindly at the harbor, splinters of wood and metal beginning to rain down during the commotion.  I steadied my aim, and fired again.  A chunk of his head exploded into a dark mist.

We ducked down for a few seconds, saw nothing and made our way on board.  It was empty, except for the body slowly draining out on the deck.  We left the harbor and headed south, soon discovering the thirty keys of cocaine on board.”

“That’s an interesting story,” the man in faded military fatigues responded with a thick accent.  He smirked and then deeply inhaled his dying cigar, reignited the embers.  He held in the smoke and released it with a violent blast directly at my face.  I coughed loudly and shook my head, trying to get the smoke out of my eyes.  It hung in the small dark room, as the man felt no compulsion to speak.  He leaned back in his chair and began again, “That’s an interesting story, but there are two problems.  We found you, and we found the coca, but there was no woman, and when we frisked you, there was no gun.  I am a romantic as well, and I love a good story, but in situations like this, I have to put my generous romantic nature aside.”

Not that I could fault him, but I smiled and quietly responded, “There is another part you missed in my story, I only fired two bullets.”

“Oh yes!  How could I forget such an important detail?  A mystery woman, a mystery gun, and a mystery bullet!  With so many loose ends, I should probably just let you go!”

“Well, it was worth a try.” I chuckled.  He returned the chuckle, and the room slowly filled with roars of laughter between the two of us.  The laughter was promptly brought to a halt as the door came crashing in and I could now see the wall behind my interrogator through a small, circular hole in the middle of his forehead.  He fell backwards in his chair, crashing to the ground with a dull thud and a small cloud of dust, with the look of laughter permanently preserved on his quickly stiffening face.  I felt gentle hands undo my handcuffs, and that familiar grazed my ears, whispering with urgency, “Come on gringo, we need to go. Now!”

Jim: Chapter 4

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Jim exited the building with inexpressible elation.  Holy shit.  The bright sun glinting off the surrounding buildings caused him to squint as a flurry of emotions overtook him.  Muttering profanities, his hands shook as his tired frame succumbed to the charge of adrenaline.  Stranded without a car, he began to pace, hands clasped to the back of his head, waiting for his ride to pick him up.  God, he loved that car.  Thousands of dollars in renovations, he was going to miss the sound system, which made any music turn liquid, most.  But he could rebuild.  The last thing he wanted was a Kia, but there had to be at least one or two higher end trade-ins at the dealership.  This  barely put a dent in his demeanor.  He thought he heard a muffled scream come from several stories above him.  Poor bastard.  The screaming continued for less than a minute and abruptly stopped.  A dumb grin plastered itself across Jim’s haggard face.

A firm slap on the back brought Jim careening back into the present.  He spun around to meet a puff of smoke from Teddy’s American Spirits cigarette.  He frantically brushed it aside, sputtering out a cough.  Teddy chuckled, “Jumpy much?  I figure a guy with your inconceivable luck would be excited to see me.”

Jim’s eyes emptily searched back wondering what the hell Teddy was talking about.  He couldn’t have known what just happened.  The dopey, Royal’s jersey clad buffoon was nothing more than a low level bookie.  Oh God, this trip wasn’t broadcasted everywhere?  Shit.  Jim composed himself, and asked, “What are you talking about?”

Grinning like a schoolboy, Teddy replied, “The Toronto win. Duh!  Who the hell picks Toronto to win?  Like ever?  That was not an easy five hundred.  Well done, you lucky son of a bitch.”  Teddy slapped Jim’s arm in excited congratulation.

Thank God, Teddy didn’t know.  Jim had forgotten about the bet he placed.  A five to one shot on the Blue Jays to beat the Orioles.  He was drunk, and found a loose hundred in his pocket.  Today was just getting better.  Confident again, Jim smirked, “Teddy, let me tell ya, luck’s got nothing to do with it.”

“Don’t feed me that line.  How else you explain that shamrock tattoo on your ass?”

“First off, it’s not luck.  Secondly, and most important, if I ever hear you speaking ill of the Irish sciences again, it may just be the last thing you ever say.”

“Whoa.  Whoa.  I meant no disrespect, just having some fun.  You know semantics and all.  Just missed that class in high school.”

“Hey, knowing really is half the battle.  So you got my money?”

“Not right now.  Didn’t know I’d be running into ya.  I’ll get it for ya soon.  Just got plastic on me.”

This unnerved Jim.  After all of the bullshit he just endured, he sure as hell was not going to put up with excuses.  Teddy always had cash on him.  He was a fucking bookie.  Why would he lie?  The anger within began to rise through the sunshine and newfound appreciation of life.  Stiffening his composure, he grabbed Teddy by the shoulder, met Teddy’s gaze with suddenly dead eyes, and with a firm, hollow tone asked, “Why do feel the need to bullshit me, Teddy?  You’re a bank.  I thought we were cool.”

Teddy, completely unprepared for this turn of events, felt something he had never felt around Jim, terror.  He was a mid-level mover.  At worst, he had a short temper which the bosses made it a point to sedate, and at best, he was just a sad alcoholic.  Stammering, “I just got plastic man.  I don’t pick up the bank for a few hours.  Look, I can rush it for you, and maybe this afternoon.  I’m sorry.  Didn’t know this meant this much for you.  If you’re really hurting for money I can put a rush on it.  I get it.  I’ve been there.”

Not buying any of it, the line about money problems took Jim over the edge.  He grabbed Teddy and threw him against the wall, screaming, “What the fuck would ever make you think I have money problems.  You mother fucking cunt, this is about fucking respect goddammit.  And you have the fucking nerve to bullshit me here.  Me?  You are going look me in eye and feed me that load of shit, like I’m some fucking low level dealer?”

Taking a deep breath, Jim walked over, picked Teddy up by the collar and slammed his head against the concrete wall.  Teddy, unable to respond, swirled in a concussive confusion.  Jim became overtaken with anger.  That bitch.  That fucking bitch.  Who the fuck was she?  And those motherfuckers, destroying his car.  Now this sack of shit.  Jim continued, “Fucking hell, Teddy.  You’re worth less than a jar of clean piss to the company, and you have the nerve to hold out, and bullshit me?  Don’t you know who I am?  What I’m worth?  The brass that backs me?”

Jim drove his right fist into Teddy’s stomach.  Teddy bent over and coughed violently.  In short breaths, he begged, “I’m sorry.  I’m not bullshitting you.  Just gimme an hour.”

The last forty-eight hours flashed through Jim’s mind and his fists finally found a cathartic release.  He heard her voice in the back of his mind as he connected with Teddy’s frail body.  Now coughing up blood, Teddy was helpless underneath the blows of Jim’s newly awakened demons.  A fist felt a rib crack, relaying pleasure and contentment to Jim’s brain and he kept on going, now moving to the face.  Cough.  Crack.  Please, dear God stop.  Teddy’s face blurred and all Jim could sense outside of his anger were trace fragments of Veronica’s perfume.  Bitch.

After a moment, Teddy’s body slumped and Jim pulled back, allowing Teddy to crumble against the wall, his blue jersey now spattered in quickly drying crimson.  Remorseless, Jim brushed the blood off his hands on his pants and turned around to see if his ride had arrived; Teddy, still alive, wheezed gurgled coughs behind him.  Jim tuned it out as a black sedan pulled up to the curb.  The driver gave him a nod and he climbed into the back seat.  He might have known the driver, but he was too dazed to dwell on his identity.  Exhausted, he drowned out all of the driver’s chitchat and tiredly mumbled, “Hey man, just take me to the fucking Kia.  It has been one hell of a day.”

The driver nodded and took off towards the highway.  Settling into the leather interior, Jim closed his eyes and fell soundly asleep.

Music is Better than Words

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She was on a mission.  Something amazing must have caught her eye as she excitedly flipped through the selection of import EPs in the picturesquely musty record store.  I loved the way her eyes sparkled as she held her breath with the thrill of discovery.  She let out a deep sigh of satisfaction, and a grin slowly covered her beaming triumphant face.  She picked up a CD and flipped it over, searching for my eyes to show off her new treasure.  They found mine, which flashed my own excitement back, and I squinted, trying to see what it was.  I took a step towards her, and she came bouncing over, placing the disk in my hands.  It was Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” EP, a fairly impressive find.

“I can’t believe they had this!  I used to have it in high school, but lost it.  And only five bucks!”

“That looks awesome.  I love the song, but never knew there was an EP for it.”

“It’s really good.  It has some classics like ‘Permanent Daylight’ and a really awesome acoustic version of ‘Creep.’  I also love the song ‘Lewis,’ which was only released on this one.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll have to pirate it ASAP.”

“That’d be a pity.  The only way you should listen to this is on CD.  Nothing this amazing should be compromised through MP3s.  You’re going to have to find your own.”

“Fair enough.”

“So what’d you get?”

“Nothing as amazing as that, but a couple good ones.  At least I remember them being good.”  I handed her a stack of three CDs for her to peruse:  “How to Start a Fire” by Further Seems Forever, “Neon Ballroom” by Silverchair, and “De Stijl” by the White Stripes.

Well, I approve.”  She handed them back with a professional nod.  Surveying the rest of the store, she proceeded to pull my sleeve and direct me towards a small bin towards the front of the store.  “Before we leave, we gotta get some tapes.”

“How could we not?”

We casually made our way over to the bin, stay close, as our arms would brush against each other’s in spontaneous intervals.  It had been a good couple of days.  We had not seen each other in years.  Just in town for a briefly for a wedding, she made it a point to let me know she was coming.  Every now and then, she would emerge in the forefront of my mind and cause my heart to wonder, usually for only a second or two, only to get buried in the present, and business, the ever looming distance.

Our history was rich.  Nothing had ever developed romantically, be it where we were in life, or just our heads and hearts being in other places.  I had always thought she was beautiful.  Her eyes had a fire and a playfulness which I had only seen once or twice.  She was sharp, funny, and was quick to speak passionately from a place of conviction, regardless of how right she may have really been.  She was a fighter, and I liked that.  At some of the lowest points of my life, for some reason, she had shown up, and been an unfathomable source of strength, laughter, and tranquility.  But that was another time.

We began rummaging through the bin of cassettes, fingers finding each other and lingering for a second or two, and we found some ridiculous tapes as we recklessly searched for gold.  Hidden under albums by bands like Tacos for Lunch, Death Rattles of a Fawn, and the Giggling Cougars, there must be at least one or two gems.  Though time was short, neither of us missed an opportunity to comment on ridiculous outfits or funny album names.  Eventually, we hit pay dirt.  Hidden in the pile of rubbish she found a beat up copy of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and “Odelay” by Beck.  I was just psyched to uncover a copy of “Daisies of the Galaxy” by Eels.

The time finally came when we needed to get going.  Both of our purchases were well under twenty bucks, time had done us a favor.  Not saying much, we made our way to my green ’96 Corolla.  I would glance at her, she would smile, and return one as soon as I looked away.    Heartbeat raised, and at a loss for words, memories and variables spun around in my head, and I was content to just enjoy the moment.  Both lost in thought, trying to see inside each other’s minds, we climbed into the car unceremoniously and buckled up; the airport was our next stop.

Nodding to the portable CD player plugged into a cassette adapter and breaking the silence, I asked, “Do you want to put on your new Radiohead?”

Scrunching her face together, she responded, “Hmm…  I think that’s too heavy to listen to now.  It’s been a really good trip; I want to end on a happy note.”  She turned around and grabbed the plastic bag of goodies I had just tossed in the backseat.  Flipping through the CDs and cassettes, she picked up the Daisies of the Galaxy tape and quizzically looked at the album art, her lips forming an intrigued smirk.  “I’ve never heard these guys, but this cover looks super happy.  Let’s listen to them.”

“I’m a fan.  Haven’t heard this since high school.”

Snickering at the name, “Eels it is.”

She popped out the adapter, put in the tape, and we were momentarily greeted by the crackly sound of static, which was soon broken by the cadence of drums and horns, transitioning into 90’s alt-acoustic guitar, as bright and pleasant as the sky outside.  Mark Everett’s voice, saturated with hopeful melancholy and heartbroken optimism, filled the car as we turned onto the highway.  We settled in, quietly enjoying the music, happy for the time we had together.

Small talk flickered in and out as mile markers passed.  Replaying memories and overwhelmed by the inevitability of our destination, I wish I could know what she thought, I wish I knew what to say, or if I should say anything at all.  Eventually, this moment would fade into a memory, eventually disappearing in the ravages of distance and time.  I couldn’t predict the future.  And it’s not like the past could be changed.  For the next few minutes, I was content to just glance over, see her smile, and let the sound envelop us.

Still twenty minutes out from the airport and the window was rapidly closing, but there was still time.  We moved onward, just another car in a sea of early rush hour traffic, choosing, for the moment, to ignore the countless questions and what ifs, and enjoy the beautiful day for what it was.  As pragmatism and latent emotion wrestled inside, at least for this moment, music would have to be better than words.

A Triumph of Nature

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John stared at the horizon, taking in the bleak monotonous landscape, hoping to find something of interest to look at as he passed the time.  It was empty.  There were rises and crests in the distance; their haunting pale texture offered little sign of hope.  He considered shouting for help, but he knew that would do no good.  This was the moon, after all.  He was all alone.

It had been six hours since his rover had broken down.  Months and years of preparation were all shot to hell due to an oversight with the vehicle’s internal wiring.  He spent the first few hours circling the immediate area from the crash site.  Nearly one hundred miles from base camp and he was stranded.  No communication.  No power.  Just a maddeningly alien landscape filled with looming craters and ravines containing a darkness he never could have fathomed on earth.  Exhausted, John finally sat down; convincing himself that someone would come looking for him.

How could they not?  By nightfall Higgins would probably worry about the lack of communication and send a search party.  It would be Higgins’ ass if he died.  He took a deep hard breath, savoring the alien atmosphere, confident in the tax dollars that were invested in his lungs.  He was an asset of the United States government, one they had incentive to protect.  Surely this couldn’t be the end.

Months of injections and exposure to various forms of chemical compounds made all of this possible.  It was classified, and he would never really know what had been done to him.  He only spent a few nights worrying about whatever implications were hidden in the eighty-four pages of legal jargon he was asked to sign.  Over a decade removed from service in Vietnam, it took him two days to make his way through the first page only to flip to the end and scribble out a stylistically illegible signature.  Life had long since lost meaning; perhaps this was an invitation worth accepting.

He had seen so much carnage.  Alcohol could never erase the smell of burnt flesh from his memory, and even his brushes with cocaine would end with him waking up to a bleaker reality, feeling the loss of identity and countless friends as he drifted around Washington.  Still connected with many influential movers in Washington, this opportunity from NASA seemingly fell into his lap.  At least no one was protesting astronauts.

He felt a tremendous burden lift from his soul on the day he signed.  There was a high level of incomprehensible risk, but this sense of grave danger awakened passion he had not felt since before the war.  Now a part of his country’s historical space race, he found himself lost in a patriotic euphoria as he underwent physically excruciating medical procedures.  This would be a far greater and ambitious feat than overcoming the Soviet terror; it was an invaluable leap forward for the human race.  Now basking in the bright, green reflection of the Asian continent, he was overcome with a placid tranquility of hope and accomplishment.  For now he was stranded, but he would be rescued.  The future was no longer an imposing nightmare waiting to swallow him up.  The glistening lunar surface shimmered with a clean light, causing a peace to fill his entire being.

Mid-thought, John’s transcendence into nirvana was abruptly brought to an end.  Finding himself airborne and with a sharp pain in his back, panic and flashbacks of Nam came racing back.  He bounced to a halt on the hard surface, feeling his ribs fracture with each landing.  He stood up; coughing violently with his bruised and dust filled lungs, and desperately tried to get his bearings.  A faint low growl directed his gaze back towards the crest where he was sitting and he became paralyzed by terror.

There were three of them, each around nine feet tall, and filled with rage.  John had been prepared as an explorer, had a history of combat, but was in no way prepared for this.  He took a second to see how they would react, but this was a gross mistake.  They instantaneously charged at full speed, eyes locked on their victim, and teeth glistening in the terrestrial light.  He was helpless as they descended upon him, speed and strength enhanced in the moon’s light gravity.  He closed his eyes as a heavy brown paw swept at his chest, tearing his suit open and breaking skin.  They bellowed and roared as John breathed his last, never expecting it to be like this.  Satisfied with their kill, the three sat down and looked at each other grunting with approval, before commencing to feed.  John’s blood blended in with their fur, purposely tinged red prior to their arrival.

A few moments later and boredom sat in, so they turned over and trotted away on all fours.  He was the first thing they had seen in nearly a week, and they were still hungry.  The meal was invigorating, but they needed to find more.  This strange place did not have enough food.  So the Kamchatka bears continued to wander, with bright golden hammer and sickle emblazoned on their backs, onward to the top of the crater, to see what they could see.

Even on the moon, man is no match for bears.

Only a Little

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It had been a long day.  The kids had been loud, no one had listened, and I had to brace myself for forty-five minutes of tutoring some of the sweetest, most obnoxious little girls I had ever met; a perfect storm of cuteness and volume.  The few moments I had to allow my introverted self to breathe, were promptly interrupted from some of the harshest screams I had ever heard.  Fury bellowed up from the bottom of the stairwell in a language I could not understand, but in an emotion which left me rattled.  A few moments later, a small, frightened, figure came up the stairs trembling with tears sporadically streaking down her young, seven year-old, face.  Eyes glued to the floor, she choked out, in a near inaudible voice, “Jonathan-sensei, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me.  I’m so sorry.”

She was my perfect student.  She was smart, sweet, kindhearted, and one of the gentlest kids I had ever known.  Baffled that she had anything to apologize for, my heart sank with the realization that she was the receiver of the lecture from below.  I got down on one knee and lightly brushed her shoulder, and gently asked, “Why are you sorry?”

She started to shake, and blurted out, “I brought some gum into class today by accident!  I know it’s not allowed in the rules.  I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!  Please don’t be mad!  I’ll do anything!  I’m sorry!”

Pain surged through my heart and my throat became thick with confusion, outrage, and pity.  I stayed with her continuing to reassure her with all the quiet confidence I could muster, “It’s okay.  It’s okay.  I’m not mad.  Everybody makes mistakes.  It’s okay.  I’m not mad.  You are not in trouble.”

After a few minutes, the tears stopped, and I lifted her chin to look her in her frightened eyes.  All I could do was smile, and let her know how happy I was to have her in my class, what a wonderful little girl she was, and that nothing she could do would make me mad.  She smiled, now at peace, and gave me a hug.

She then stepped back and looked back down the stairs where her mother was waiting.  Her smile promptly faded as she turned back to me, not wanting to head back down, hoping she could stay upstairs with me for a little while.  But she had to go home, and I had another class I had to teach.

I stood up, grabbed her hand and slowly walked her down the stairs to her mom.  With each step I assured her, “You’re going to make it.  You’re strong.  I love you.  God loves you.  It will be okay.  I am so proud of you.”

We reached the bottom and I tussled her hair and told her mom proudly, and with all of the sympathy I could muster, “It’s okay.  She’s not in trouble.  You have a good girl.”

Her face softened and she reached out for her daughter’s hand, which was promptly grasped.  They walked out the door together, and my student turned back, smiling with a face filled with hope and comfort.

I knew her mom didn’t hate her, and in her own way, she was trying to show her love by preparing her daughter for a life of unforgiving rules and structures.  She probably had a bad day, and this was most likely not the norm.  But these things never dull any of the pain.

Six months later, I say good-bye to my student and leave, never to see her again.  A few moments of kindness was all that I could give.  I know the world she will enter into will be harsh.  I know that her intellect will be devalued and her worth will be assaulted just because of her gender.  But she is smart.  She is strong.  She will face obstacles and overcome them.

I miss her, and all of the kids I taught.  I know that they will enter a world where kindness and compassion is rare.  But in them was and still is a resiliency and a hope which will keep them anchored, and will help them to not just stand, but overcome whatever may come their ways.  At least this is what I pray, and it is what I hope.

Day in and day out, for a small window, I saw little eyes filled with wonder and filled with fear.  They had known loss and rarely experienced kindness.  I treasure the moments I had, but feel sorrow knowing that all too often, the bits of hope and kindness we give and have been given can easily be swallowed up by despair and darkness.  We seek to do good, but there is only a limit to what we can do.  Sometimes things change, but a lot of times they are only short gasps of air while fighting to stay afloat in unfathomably choppy sea.  Over time, light can fade, yet, even with the little that can be given, needs to be shown, regardless of how long it may last.

Anticipation and Adventure

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She had known him for years.  They had laughed together.  They had grown up together.  He was observant and kind, and always seemed to know the right thing to say to cheer her up.  This week had been rough.  A good friend had turned on her and everywhere else she had turned she felt misunderstood.  For the last three weeks, she had sat next to him in class without any thought, but today it felt different.  Something about him was different; maybe it was his hair, maybe it was the way his eyes were wandering, lost in thought.  The teacher droned on, and nothing he was saying seemed important.  Blah, blah, blah, homework, blah, blah, bad joke, blah, blah, blah.  All she could do was look at the boy next to her.

Every night she stayed up late, reading about adventures, and all she wanted to know this morning were the ones the boy next to her dreamed of.  She continued to replay the smile he greeted her with, and the way he organized the others for a game before class started.  She was lost in thought, and trying to find him, hoping he was far away in his mind with her.

The teacher moved from the white board to his desk to pick up the spelling book, probably to go over some dumb vocabulary words.  The class was silent, tired, and ready to go play outside.  The boy next to her began to grow excited, and a twinkle started to fill his eyes, which sparked excitement in her.  His hand shot up, hoping to get the teacher’s attention, but he was still flipping through a book.

Tension reached a boiling point, and the boy blurted out loudly, “Jonathan-sensei!  Jonathan-sensei!”

The teacher looked up with concern, thinking something was wrong, and asked, “Kanta, what is it?”

The boy cracked a smile, which quickly grew to cover his face.  He then jumped up from his seat, pounded his chest furiously, and shouted, “I am a gorilla!  Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!!”

The teacher stifled a laugh, and responded, “I wish we could all be gorillas, but I’m gonna need you to sit back down so we can go over the spelling words.  Thanks for letting us know.  I was wondering what you were today, you look fuzzier than normal.”

The boy sat down quietly, with a proud look of satisfaction on his face.  He was soon quickly, and happily lost back in thought.

She let out a deep sigh and turned away from the boy.  She’ll just have to give him a few more years.

Jim: Chapter 3

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Jim stared out the window, pissed that his last memories would be of the painfully dull north Kansas City highway.  It blurred together, and Jim’s anger dissipated into an ambivalent numbness.  The two in front talked in varied combinations of white noise, which was slowly creeping into Jim’s mind.  This reminded Jim what someone had once told him about hypothermia.  You slowly lose feeling all over your body before quietly slipping into the great darkness.  That would be a great way to go.  Donnelly never let anyone slip away quietly.

Jim felt a sudden jerk, and promptly snapped back into reality.  They had finally arrived.  Rick parked out front and the men disembarked without any words or ceremony.  Jim took one last look around the city.  The sun was bright and the lots surrounding the building were empty.  The dull brick had a certain charm one came to love in the Midwest, but it had never been anything special to Jim.  Donnelly’s office was on the top of a four story office building in the heart of the Crossroads district.  A plain brick building surrounded by lofts and restaurants and cafes frequented by the city’s burgeoning hipster community.  Today he was going to die in a bland brick building a couple of hundred yards away from some tattooed kids pretentiously quotes from philosophy books they have never read.  This would be the end.  And for pussy.  Son of a bitch!

Rick led the way into the building, with Tim heading up the rear.  Passing through the doors, making their way to the elevator, Jim shot a quick, two fingered salute to Gus, the ever vigilant security guard who returned the gesture with an emotionless nod.  Fitting.

Arriving on the fourth floor, they took a left and headed down to Donnelly’s office.  Jim had been down this hallway countless times, usually ending in a brief exchanging of pleasantries and instructions on the next assignment.  He had seen men walk down this hallway with blank stares and trembling.  The last time he saw Jenkins, he was being dragged down the hallway, eyes red with tears, arms flailing in futility, and his khaki pants drenched in urine.  Jim forced his senses alert and donned a nonchalant look.  He sure as hell was going to keep his dignity.

They came to their destination quickly; room 412.  They entered the boss’s waiting room and were greeted by Jackie, Donnelly’s latest secretary.  Sitting with perfect posture, letting her red hair delicately rest over her shoulders, drawing every visitor’s eyes to her young, firm, and very exposed cleavage, Jackie’s dark eyes, very aware of the power of her sexuality, motioned the three to the closed door in front of them.  There was no one waiting in any of the chairs, which struck a heavy blow to Jim’s courage.  It looked like Donnelly was going to take his time with him.

Rick knocked two times with knuckles, and the door was promptly open.  Inside sat Donnelly behind a robust mahogany desk.  Even sitting down, the man was imposing.  Dressed in a light blue oxford shirt accented with a dark maroon tie and black suspenders, he beckoned them into the room with a simple lift of his finger.  After they entered, Rick directed Jim to the chair in front of Donnelly’s desk.  Making his way to the leather bound chair in the middle of the room, Jim tried his best to act as he did the other times he had met with this man.  As he sat down, he heard the door slam behind him and was briefly overcome with the scent of lilacs and cinnamon.  Emotionless, deadly, Russian; Natalia Dmitriev must be in the room guarding the door, most likely with her finger on the trigger of her vintage Makarov pistol.  This did not bode well.  He could feel any remainder of confidence draining away, made only worse knowing that it must be apparent to everyone else as well.

Not wanting to force conversation, Jim sat still, meeting Donnelly’s gray stare with all of the confidence he could muster. Rick and Tim made their way behind the desk, standing on either side, Rick on his right, Tim on his left.  Tim put his hands in his pockets and grinned like an idiot, while Rick stood stiff and emotionless, hands behind his back, like a soldier at ease.  Donnelly was happy to sit in silence, and Jim obliged him.  After everyone was settled in their positions, Donnelly leaned back, drew a small smile and asked, “So Jimmy, how was your flight?”

“I’ve had worse.  It was shame I had to leave so soon.  Dayton’s such a gem.”

“Sure is Jimmy.  One of America’s treasures.  Right up there with Tallahassee and Buffalo.”  Motioning to a  cabinet behind the desk, he continued, “Want a drink?  Scotch?  Whiskey?  Well, it is early.  How bout a mimosa?”

“Thanks, but I’m good for now.  I like to wait at least three hours after flying to drink.  Acid reflux.”

“Damn, you poor bastard.  It’s always the children who suffer.”  Donnelly’s grin grew slightly as he settled further into his chair with a deep sigh.  Rick and Tim remained posed, and Jim assumed the two guarding the door had their eyes focused on him.  The atmosphere seemed to lighten, but Jim knew better than to chase after any sense of relief.  He had never felt so small.  Life and death hung in the air along with the scent of the stale air conditioning unit.  Sweat beginning to drip down his back and pool under his ass, Jim decided to wait for Donnelly to make his move.

“So Jimmy, what am I gonna do with you?”  The words hung in the room like a ghost, waiting for Jim to join the ranks of the countless others who stepped out of this office into the grave.

Feeling like enough time had passed for his question to sink in, Donnelly continued, as Jim scrambled for excuses.  “Not only do I have to pay for another prototype, but I have to keep many a good associate waiting.  I have always been known for punctuality.  That’s why I have business. That’s why we have peace.  Punctuality, Jimmy.  Punctuality. Now my source is going to boost his prices for the sake of expediency, which means I am going to have to bump the prices for my clients. Then my clients will do so for their clients, and so on and so forth. You’ve made quite the mess Jimmy.”

Struggling to speak, Jim blurted out, “I’m sorry.  Sir, please, give me a chance to make this up to you.”

Donnelly abruptly cut him off.  “You fucked up Jimmy.  You got careless.  You fucked up.”

“Sir, I can explain.  It was this bitch, she…”

Raising a hand, Donnelly cut him off.  “There is no need to explain Veronica.  I understand.  She’s as sexy as they come.  And I’m not just talking about her ass.  Something about her makes men act like boys who just discovered puberty.  She’s funny, exotic, and unbelievably captivating.  If I didn’t have a wife and three mistresses, I’d consider taming her like the wild stallion she is.”

“A mare.”  Rick sheepishly mumbled.

“What?”  Donnelly turned to Rick.

“Tame her like a wild mare.  Stallions are the male horses.”

Donnelly grunted a weak approval and resumed to give Jim his attention.  “Regardless, I’ve been their Jimmy.  For me it was Cassandra O’Malley.  I was twenty.  She robbed me blind the third night she stayed over.  Should’ve seen it coming.”

Rick, stifling laughter, asked, “O’Malley?  Really boss?  O’Malley the Manatee?  Have you no shame?”

Whipping around to Rick, Donnelly shrugged, “I was twenty, Rick.  Don’t make me bring up Amber.  Or should I say, Steve?  Now she was a stallion.”

“Nope.  We’re good.”

Donnelly, smirked, rolled up his sleeves and stood up.  Pushing his chair aside towards Tim’s direction, he leaned against the wall behind him, cracked his knuckles, and with a deep sigh continued, “Anyway, as I was saying, Jimmy, you cost me. But I understand. I’ve been there. Minus the recent unpleasantness, your work has been outstanding. Plus, you’re funny. I like that. Isn’t he funny Rick?”

Rick reluctantly mumbled,  “Sure is.  Those Polish jokes are hilarious.”

“They sure are, Rick. Jimmy, you found me in a good mood. You’re funny. I like you. This one time, I’ll let it go. You don’t get to where I am without learning the value of mercy. Plus, I really don’t wanna deal with another body. Had to hack up Sanchez last week, and frankly, between the crying, the blood, and the disposal, it gets tiring. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get blood out of clothing. Rick, I’m gonna miss that suit. You wore it with class.”

“I like to think it brought out my eyes.”

Donnelly turned to Rick with a look of nostalgia, “It really did.  That Steve was a lucky girl.”  Getting the look of frustration from Rick he was fishing for, he slowly made his way from behind the desk and stood in front of a visibly confused Jim.  Towering over his underling, Donnelly gripped Jim’s left shoulder, and staring at him, softly continued, “This time, and this time only Jimmy, you are forgiven.  Fuck up again, you won’t be meeting with me; you’ll be meeting with Sanchez.”

Elated with a rush of adrenaline, Jim began nodding incessantly and pathetically repeated, “Thank you sir.  Thank you sir.”

Donnelly returned to his desk and sat down.  Laughing, he beckoned Jim to the door behind him.  “I like ya Jim.  Now, I hate to be brief, but I have another pressing meeting.  Let me tell ya, when you get to where I am in this line of work, it’s nothing but beaurocracy and meetings.  The thrill is gone.  I miss the rush of my younger days.  You got plenty ahead of you, enjoy them.”

Jim slowly got up and nodded at Donnelly and glanced at the other faces in the room.  They were expressionless except for Rick’s.  He stared at Jim with a menacing glare, one eyebrow raised.  He did what he could to look casual, but a dumb grin began racing its way up his face.  Pamela opened the door, now in front of him, and he heard a rustling from behind.  The chair he was sitting in was now gone and Tim was unfolding a tarp which he proceeded to lay on the floor in front of Donnelly’s desk.  Rick then put a metal chair on the tarp, it’s dark stains far less inviting than the wooden one Jim had sat in.

As he crossed the doorway, Donnelly shouted at him, “Oh, and before I forget, it’s really tragic what happened to your car.  I got a guy waiting outside to give you a ride to the Kia dealership.  It’s on us.  Oh, and Jimmy, if you could, tell Jackson we’ll be ready for him in a few minutes.”

Jim flashed a thumbs up and left the room.  Outside in the waiting room, he saw Jackson Peterson sitting, one leg bouncing as his eyes were trained on the floor.  A small puddle had formed on the floor between his legs, and the smell of piss lightly hovered in the air.  Turning to Jackson, Jim smiled and casually passed the message along.

He made his way down and nodded to Gus.  As he stepped outside the building, he took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the morning air, as the bright, reflective sunlight, filling his overwhelmed being with a surge of relief and adrenaline.  For the first time in his life, he knew what it was like to brush shoulders with immortality.

Jim: Chapter 2

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6 AM came quick.  Countless still-born excuses raced around Jim’s head. Dammit.  Fuck.  Who the hell was that?  The second an excuse sounded plausible, it would unravel into doomed blackness.  Higgins, Sanchez, Rourke; all dead.  He knew there were countless others.  Goddammit.  And for pussy.  Fucking pussy!  Muttering those words, their tragic irony hit him like a punch in the gut.  He smashed one of the bedside lamps.  It didn’t help.

Stevens just inherited a debt.  Sure he’s paying it off in collections, and Jerry only lost two fingers.  No one got off.  Never.  Son of a bitch.  The alarm went off as Jim stared at his plane ticket to MCI.  He turned it off with a flash of anger and the crunch of plastic.  They would hunt him down.  He had no car, limited funds, and the Dayton branch knew him and the room.  Hopefully news hadn’t broken.  How could it?

Okay.  Okay.  Donnelly wasn’t expecting him until noon.  Oh God.  He drove.  He fucking drove to the airport.  By evening he could be in Denver.  This could work.  Right?  He brushed himself off and gathered his things.  It would be okay.  As he opened the door, a hint of what was remaining of Veronica’s perfume found its way into his nose.  In a fit of profanities, Jim slammed the door and punched several holes into the wall. Hands now slightly bloodied, he made his way to the bathroom sink, washed them off, and left.  It’s not like he would be paying for any of the damages.

He exited the elevator in the lobby, quietly nodded to the sleepy concierge, and briskly walked to his blue Hyundai rental.  He rode in silence to the airport.  The roads were mostly empty, and he made good time.  He dropped off his car with an overly chatty attendant who was unable to pick up the hints that he was in no mood for conversation.  Eventually, “Thank you for your visit.  I hope you had a wonderful time in Ohio.”

Jim mumbled back, “Yeah, fucking wonderful.”

She disdainfully replied, “What was that?”

“Nothing.  Just. Nothing.”

“Alrighty then.  Have a safe flight.”

With a deep sigh, Jim exited the rental office.  The shuttle and check-in were a blur.  He came crashing back into reality as he approached security.  He felt naked and exposed without the attaché case.  The new product had a synthetic texture and was packaged in bottles which would be expected of a pharmaceutical rep.  They would have passed with flying colors next to his carry on, shoes, and belt.  At least the TSA workers were moving people through slowly.  Why do anything if you aren’t going to be thorough?  Outside his gate, he bought a water bottle and threw it away after three sips.  He needed alcohol.  No time to hit up a bar.  Shit.  This would be a long morning.

The plane began boarding at 7:35.  He was in his seat at 7:40 and they took off promptly at 8.  Grateful the seat next to him was open, Jim closed his eyes, trying to get at least an hour or so of sleep.  Whenever he came close to slipping into slumber, Veronica would emerge in his mind, jarring him out of rest with a rush of rage and desire.  The desire only fueled the anger.  Her eyes.  The taste of her mouth.  The betrayal.  The shock.  The ass.  Goodnight, the ass.  How could he be so careless?  How did she know where to ambush him?  Hotter than she expected?  That was a plus, he guessed.  One hell of a silver lining.  Giving up on sleep, he rode out the rest of flight staring at the scenic aerial view of the majestically dull Midwest.  They could at least serve alcohol.  Bastards.  The dull brown terrain brought his eyelids down somewhere west of Indianapolis.  Abruptly waking up with the jerk of landing gear, Jim rubbed his face and prepared for disembarkation.  It seemingly took an eternity to reach their gate, Jim wasn’t the only one not happy about the delay.  The lights came on and the heard of disgruntled passengers trudged out without a word.  Anxious to get to his car, Jim briskly walked out of the skywalk and the gate.  Relieved to be on the ground and ready to get to his car, Jim’s adrenaline fueled pace was promptly brought to a screeching halt.

“Welcome home, Jim.”

The low, gravelly voice pulled him backwards.  He knew it anywhere.  Rick Langford was a terrifying man.  He had worked for Donnelly since the late eighties.  A towering six foot three, he had risen through the ranks and was now Donnelly’s right hand man.  He had the kind of hands that fit a man’s neck.  Jim’s personal history with him was limited, the majority of his interactions were spent nodding in silence; petrified he would make a wrong move and suffer the consequences.  Ugly as hell, Rick had one thing most men did not, power.  It’s hard for any man who woke up every day with six bullets still in him not to carry himself with an imposing confidence.  Often wearing a partially buttoned oxford shirt, he proudly flaunted two of his bullet wounds, instilling in every audience a horrifying sense of immortality.

Jim, again suppressing the cowardly child within, turned to the voice, placidly responding, “Thanks, Rick.”

Rick was not alone.  Accompanying him was Tim Pritchard, wearing his trademark smirk.  In his early twenties, he was a rising enforcer in the organization.  Brash, cocky, obnoxious; Tim had the kind of face you just wanted to punch.  A stark juxtaposition to Rick’s simple yet menacing get up, Tim wore a clean grey suit, accented by a pastel lavender tie. As his eyes met Jim’s, he perkily asked, “How was Dayton?  Was it as magical as I imagine?”

“More magical than anything you could conceive; truly a bastion of culture, unrivaled in the contiguous forty-eight states.”

“You lucky bastard.  Living the dream.”

Turning to Rick, Jim, discovering an untapped reservoir of nerves, inquired, “So what you two doing here?  You guys flying out to Massachusetts and finally tying that knot?  True love solidified in the bonds of marriage, surrounded by the history of our founding fathers.  It’ll be beautiful.”

Unfazed, Rick rigidly responded, “If I were the settling type, maybe.  Nah, Donnelly told us about what happened to your car.  He was quite concerned.  The last thing he wanted was for you to be stranded at the airport, let alone the indignity of having to hire a cab.  I figured I’d seize the opportunity to help instill the organization’s family values in the kid.  God, I swear, each generation just get worse.”

Tim chirped in, “Between the skateboarding, Nintendoes, and AM/FM radio, we’ve just lost perspective.”

“So what happened to my car?” Jim coldly asked, ignoring Tim completely.

Rick smiled, “Something about your tires being slashed and engine catching on fire.  You’re lucky we got someone who works with airport security.”

“Well, shit.  I figured this would happen sooner or later.  That’s the last time I buy American.”

In his most helpful voice, Tim asked, “So.  You got anymore bags?”

“Nope, got all I need here.”

Rick patted Jim on the back, motioning him towards the door.  “Come on.  Donnelly wants to see ya.  Maybe after that, we can take you by a Kia dealership.”

Jim tensed, only slightly and made his way outside to a black Mercedes whose engine was still running.  Tim opened the back door on the passenger side, smirked, and graciously directed Jim to take a seat.  He climbed in and slid his bag behind the driver’s seat.  The other two men climbed in, Rick gently closing his door, and Tim loudly slamming his.  Rick shot Tim a dirty look, and shrugging, gently raised his hands, and sarcastically whimpered, “Apologies.”

Tension already present, it became suffocating as the car headed south in silence.  Jim had pondered his death countless times on the road.  He never thought it would come like this.  He closed his eyes, trying to block out what could possibly await him.  God, he hated that woman.  He hated himself.  His mind was numb.  They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die; he figured he would have time to reminisce then.  Until then, he closed his eyes, focusing solely on the drone of the car, bracing himself for the darkness to come.