It first caught my eye in the reflection in the window. A familiar jangling of bells in the doorway sent the Jolly Jims clerk to glance past the line of customers before him. Our town was a small one and this was the only place to grab food on the go for miles. There were approximately twenty steps from one corner of store to the other. I should I know because I counted them myself as I scanned the 4 aisles carelessly. I sighed to myself before reaching in my pocket to check my phone. 3 missed calls. 1 from the office, 2 from Michelle. Michelle and I had been married for 8 miserable months.
Go ahead. Read it again. You read correctly. Judge me. Eight. Miserable. Months. Eight months since I ran off the field when we beat Dartmouth my senior year of undergrad, hearts soaring and fists in the air. I knew something was off when I saw she wasn’t in her usual women’s soccer jersey and her soft, olive skin complexion was replaced with a sunken, pale expression. I nodded intently when she asked me through cheers, whooping and hollering from my teammates, or the crowd? I had stopped paying attention) to follow her under the bleacher stands. It was then that she told me, with a fiery gleam in her eye, that she was pregnant.
Yeah, what a way to drop that bomb, Right? Perfect timing, ‘Chelle.
I felt a rush of wind as a small freckled faced toddler jolted past me, bumping into a counter as he clumsily went. And…. That’s what I have to look forward to, I thought, bitterly. Better hide all my trophies that reside on nearly all the counters of the small cottage Michelle and I had moved into.
Now, I’m no inventor, I don’t claim to be a builder of any sort, but I have a theory about time machines. I believe the human mind makes us go back and forth between past, and present, fantasy and reality more times than we want to.
It’s like when I was a kid and was afraid to pull weeds in my mother’s tomato garden because of the bees buzzing past my ears. “If you ignore it, it won’t bother you.” For most of the shit I go through, I have found, this is a good way to deal with bees. It is a terrible way to deal with your thoughts. And I go back to that feeling, that particular moment in my life at least once a day. It occupies my being to the point where all of my senses are activated; I can smell the spilled Budweiser on the brass bleachers, feel the crowd rumbling and the vibrations of feet marching over the stadium. I can still see while we stood there in seclusion as Michelle wept in my arms and all I could do was hold her. Faintly, halfheartedly.
Then I remember a wave of guilt when she wiped her eyes after everyone had left the stadium besides the field cleanup crew. By that time, we were still under the bleachers in the dark. Me, still in my grass stained uniform and pads, helmet thrown on the ground. A quiet, calm tone, Michelle squeaked “This is no way to welcome our child into the world. We’re having a child, for Christ sakes, not a tumor.”
The words echoed in my head until all I could hear was white noise.
I recall not being able to move my legs and wanting to throw up, though.
I felt every breath, every twang in my veins like a guitar being struck for the first time in years.
I felt it all. And then,
Michelle was a tiny thing, maybe just over a hundred pounds, and I double her in size, stood two feet taller than her as Running back. But I swear, in that moment, I had never felt more small.
I was brought back to the present as I heard a pair of voices giggling and snatched the bag of cool ranch corn ships as quickly as I saw it. There were two teenage lovebirds walking by the glass windows of the the store, hands interlocked and swinging side by side. Almost immediately, I felt a pang of annoyance. Come to think of it, I felt a knot in my stomach any time I saw strangers smiling to themselves, I scowled when I heard laughter in the distance. Happiness. I shook my fist at the idea.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, I thought to myself. A concept I wrestle with daily. See, supposed to be is a very tricky phrase because it alludes to how much you have failed doing the things you expected to have accomplished by now. Supposed to be is a tease, just barely leaving to the imagination all the things that could have, should have, would have been had you not gone and fucked your entire life up. Supposed to be was a cold hearted whore.
My entire life, to this point was constructed of ultimatums like the ones my father instilled in me since I was young. He was the stereotypical, all work no play, stern, aloof Dad who always seemed frustrated and dissatisfied with anything I did. Graduated with high distinction, made first string and had a job, more than most my age has going for them, and still, he looks at me like I’m a walking, talking disappointment.
To add to the pathetic mixing bowl of gloom that was my life, an almost too ironic song by The Smiths that I knew and related to all too well was playing throughout the convenient store, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. Of course this song was playing.
I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows I’m miserable now
I drummed my fingers on my pant leg. This song was morbid as hell, but too catchy for me to not pretend like I wasn’t enjoying it. Morrissey, the lead singer of The Smiths seemed like he and I would be friends because he was everything I was on the inside, bitter, sarcastic, dark. And drunk. Which more often than not, I was these days. I wouldn’t be opposed to meeting the boys for a few cold brews after this pit stop.
I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now
You know the feeling of staring at your ceiling fan for hours and hours and hours, then turning to stare at the woman who will soon be birthing your bouncing baby boy or girl breathe as her chest peacefully rises and falls and then suddenly your alarm goes off and you have to get in the shower get dressed in a tux that doesn’t fit makes you look like a Momma’s boy and work 9-5 at a job you hate where everyone talks but isn’t actually saying anything and you sometimes hide in the utility closet from your boss but how dare you because you should be grateful for because your Dad pulled all those strings at his company for you and according to him you need to man up and put away your dreams of going to law school?
In my life
Why do I give valuable time
To people who don’t care if I live or die
Yeah. I do that every night.
The reflection that interrupted my flashback and daily self-loathing blinded me for a few seconds. I was forced to rub an eye and direct my attention to the scruffy, I-come-from-the-bad-side-of-town older gentleman who was grinning to himself while walking through the doorway. I thought to myself how much this town has gone downhill. The nerve of the borough allowing riff raff to just go wherever they please like that. Then I immediately judged myself for judging that guy, as I glanced down at the corn chips Michelle made me buy, after all, she was pregnant with my bouncing baby boy or girl.
Let me explain that…It’s not as if I didn’t have feelings towards her. Michelle was everything I was told I could want in a woman. My buddies thought she was hot and I guess she was when she wasn’t complaining every goddamn minute of every goddamn day. And I thought women were supposed to look bad when they got pregnant? Swear the girl never looks unkempt and it sort of pissed me off. Sometimes, she gets this dumb laugh that goes five octaves higher when she was pretending something someone said was funny, then almost like a ritual, tossed back her head of thick, curly blonde hair and bit her lip. I hated that. Almost as much as I hated her asking me if I got fired from the law firm every time I come home earlier than expected, or asked “Are you okay?” every five seconds. I couldn’t tell if it’s the fact that she’s pregnant with my bouncing baby boy or girl or just completely off the wall nuts-o. Honestly, sometimes, I think I hated her.
What she asked of me at the end of the day
Caligula would have blushed
“You’ve been in the house too long” she said
And I naturally fled
Nothing made sense.
Michelle was nice enough sure, I mean I prefer more exotic looking women myself and needless to say our “mistake” wasn’t totally my fault. She never told me she wasn’t on birth control. We hooked up all the time after practice and went out together and our friends were friends, so it just sort of worked, I guess. Someone sneezed behind me- it was the old scruffy looking man. I wanted to shout, “cover your damn mouth,” but didn’t. As I shuffled my way over to the long express line, I remembered why I hated having to run errands. It’s not that I hated the doing of the errands themselves so much as all the people I had to be around, or worse, run into someone that knew me or Michelle.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about her myself beside she had one of the best goals of 1997 during an overtime match against State College and had the most amazing legs I had ever caressed, or seen. Michelle is the kind of girl you took to parties, and everyone’s eyes are on her and not you. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, seeing as I was the famous one on campus. When I was first introduced to her, she spoke in French and I was so bewildered that I almost fell over from nervously laughing when she told me she was only kidding, and that the look on my face was priceless, and would I care for another beer?
My throat suddenly became dry. I tapped on my phone again. What time was it? Almost six? It was Tuesday, but I could get away with some beers from the distributor and park over by Sunny’s Tavern. I’d drink a whole six-pack to myself to get a good buzz going, and Michelle wouldn’t suspect a thing.
And even if she did suspect something, screw her.
I glanced over at the old man and peered at him from across the aisle. I bet he had just finished a six pack himself, as there was a clear wet patch where something liquid must have recently spilled on himself. His pant leg brown with dirt and flannel shirt matted with aged dust, I held my breath as he inched closer to where I was in line. Gross. And what was up with the glass jar? I couldn’t make out if it was empty or not. Losing interest in the smelly old man who was now testing the density of egg cartons by lifting them to the light, What a freak, I silently scoffed, my mind wandered back to Michelle.
I knew her, well, almost, enough to know she’s the type of girl to wait up until I get home. A very typical thing for a pregnant woman to do while the father of her child is out of the house.
But I mean, I didn’t know the stuff that mattered. Favorite movie, mother’s maiden name. How she prefers her tea and when. I never really thought about that stuff.
Guess to tell you the truth, I didn’t really care.
But she did like corn chips. Which was why I was here, at this stupid Jolly Jim’s convenience store. Waiting in line in the suit that makes me look like a Momma’s boy that is way too tight near my crotch area. Waiting. I have spent my whole life waiting, now that I think of it. Waiting to be accepted to State college. Waiting to graduate. Waiting for the weekend so I could put that bottle of Jack to my lips and not think about anything. Waiting for my parents to get off my back about applying for Law School. But instead, here I was. Waiting. Waiting for the cashier to hurry the hell up so I could drive home and blast Alice In Chains at ear splitting volume in the company car to avoid what was bothering me. Just as my Mother once taught me about the bees.
Something was off about this guy, though. Who comes into Jolly Jim’s Stop N’ Shop at 5:42 in the evening wearing cutoff jeans, a raggedy flannel shirt in the middle of May, unshaven face and messy hair, while carrying a glass jar, very indiscreetly, I might add, under their forearm? I tried not to make it obvious that I was, indeed, peering at him out of the corner of my eye, slightly apprehensive that a man of his social stature was within five feet of me, humming to himself and smelling very much like my old football bag.
Much to my demise, he caught me.
“Hey, friend,” He said, not taking his eyes off of the ingredient list of a trail mix bag. “Those things are delicious. Nice choice there, chief.” The old scruff nodded towards Michelle’s corn chips. I laughed nervously and nodded in agreement, like everyone does when they don’t want to talk to someone. It wasn’t just him; I haven’t wanted to talk to anybody lately. I looked ahead in line. Three people ahead, and the freckled faced toddler was shrieking like a banshee in his mother’s arms as she slowly pulled out coupon after coupon, making the line wait even longer. Really lady? My foot began to tap. Did you need to come to Jolly Jim’s stop N’ shop with twenty items with your screaming twins when we’re clearly in the express line?
I caught myself judging again, when soon, I would probably be scanning a million different coupons just like her.
In my life
Why do I smile
Old scruff seemed to feel the same as I did. A chuckle came from behind me. “Thought this was a convenient store. Not an Inconvenience store, eh?”
At people who I’d much rather kick in the eye
Who was this guy? Like the song playing in the store stated, I would really like to kick this guy in the eye. Why do we, as people, do that? Laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, smile at strangers? If he was high or something I really didn’t want to know. I kept looking ahead and politely ignoring him. Seriously. Nothing annoys me more than peppy people and screaming children. Which back to the thought of Michelle now carrying our bouncing baby boy or girl and to that I started tapping my foot nervously.
But heaven knows I’m miserable now
“You’ve been in the house too long” she said
And I naturally fled
The clerk finished with the woman with screaming twins and cleared his throat. “assistance to aisle two, please.” There were only 3 aisles in this damn store. Where could the other Jolly Jim’s worker possibly be? I was considering throwing the damn chips on the floor and leaving to go to a dive instead. A few co-workers of mine were headed to Scotty’s Lounge after work. I could totally swing that and feed Michelle the “I got caught up, Sorry babe.” Line. That usually works even though I know deep down she’s actually not buying it. Especially with what I pulled a few weeks back.
I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
The line in the song playing in the store almost made me smile- almost. I knew all about being in the haze of a drunken hour.
One minute, I’m lying to Michelle, telling her traffic was taking a while when really I was cheersing a group of college kids I had befriended at the gas station during happy hour.
The next thing I know, I’m laying down in the backseat of Michelle’s jeep, coming in and out of a deep, vodka induced, dream.
I open my crusty, swollen eyes as the street lights shine in and out of view. Michelle was on the phone with someone.
“I don’t know—he told me he was stopping somewhere for gas.” She sounded so defeated, so very hurt and sad. “Marty from high school called me. He was there when they kicked him out—By Sunny’s Tavern. It’s all the way across town. Like, Chelsea… He drove that far to get away from me and..” Michelle trailed off.
I’m so sorry. I shout, but the words never left my lips. I opened my mouth to make noise, and instead, vomit.
“Hang on Chels,” Michelle pulled over and turned to face me, pulling my 230-pound body upright and wiping my mouth with her sleeve. She started driving again and I fell over, my head hitting off of the door. “Shit—Yeah, I’m still here. I don’t know what I’m going to say to him. I love the kid, so much that it hurts me.” Her voice barely steady. “…And tonight it really hurts.” I heard her start to cry, and I faded out again.
I’m so sorry.
She has to know I’m an asshole. She should have known that when she first laid eyes on me.
I never apologized to her for days after. I couldn’t even look at her. She didn’t bring that night up again, like it never happened which was good for me because she had to know how awful I was with confrontation.
The guilt didn’t last very long, as it normally doesn’t for me. In this case, I was feeling more embarrassed that my manhood was now clouded by weak, drunk me. I couldn’t have Michelle feeling sorry for me. That would only make her pull closer. So, I did what I do best, pushed her away.
The next day I came home from work to find a brochure for a one week all inclusive trip to Hawaii. She always bragged about how much she used to travel and how she was supposed to spend a semester abroad in Spain. But that was before the bouncing baby boy or girl. I tore the thing off of the refrigerator and stomped upstairs to find her in my study, using my computer. She spun around on the leather chair to face me, but I spoke first.
“Is this what you do all day?” I demanded, tossing the Honolulu ahoy! pamphlet in her direction. “We can’t even afford diapers for a month right now let alone bills, and I’m the only one who can work, apparently.” I emphasized on the word I’m while clapping both of my hands onto my chest. “I mean,” I paused to pinch the bridge of my nose and rub my forehead. I was so mad I could spit. “I’m all we got over here, ‘Chelle. What the hell are you thinking- A vacation! Jesus.”
Michelle opened her mouth to speak and raised a finger, but I was already half way down the stairs at that time, headed for the garage. I needed to clear my head. Then I heard her bellow from the computer room, “You’re welcome for last night.” in the iciest tone possible. Slamming the door so hard I swear the whole neighborhood shook, I turned on the ignition in my car and sped away.
I couldn’t wait to speed away like I had that night, tonight. My corolla was my prized possession. And there she was, visible from where I was standing in line, just patiently parked there. Waiting to burn rubber. And I, waiting to get the hell out of this store-this town, even.
“Excuse me, everyone?” A voice muttered in a muffled microphone. “Yeah-No, Yeah- Your patience is appreciated. We seem to be having issues with our registers at the moment. Yeah-Sorry-Excuse me.” The clerk then began tinkering away at the black box in front of him.
“Oh come on.” I groaned, with such distinction of annoyance in my voice that it seemed to bother old scruff.
Oh, Heaven knows I’m miserable now…
“Ooh. He ain’t happy bout dis one.” He murmured under his breath, his mouthful of trail mix already. “Was’da hurry, Bill Murray?”
I was three seconds away from decking this no name, homeless looking smart ass.
“Pardon?” I turned and looked at him so coldly that for a second his grin flickered away.
He finally swallowed his u pursed his lips condescendingly. “You yuppies and your need for ease. You need to slow down. I seen it all tha’ time. You all the same, with yer suitcases and shined shoes. Never really goin’ nowhere, though. Nothin’s err good enough, hm?”
I paused, for a moment. The Smith’s had finally stopped playing. Finally.
I didn’t care that the words I said next even left my mouth because I was so offended that this guy, this nobody, had the kahunas to say what he had just said to me.
“Who do you think you are?” The chips being half-crushed under the clenching of my fist, my class ring in plain sight. “You’re lucky I don’t knock you out, right here, right now. Wipe that smile off your damn face and piss off.” I put my finger so close to his chest but quickly pulled away because of the multiple stains on his shirt.
“Listen Chief,” He shrugged, his skinny shoulders aloof from the rest of his body. “I calls ’em how I sees em. Yer so impatient. So ignorant to what’s right in front of yeh. You ain’t happy and it makes err’body else who comes near yeh feel the same. I can tell. I know. I seent it.”
What I wouldn’t give to spit right in his grinning, stupid, toothy face.
“Yeah, well. My life fucking sucks. So…” I trailed off. I had never said that out loud and never knew how much it felt like kicking myself in the balls. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Before old scruff could respond, the microphone blared before the cashier spoke into it. “Hi folks-sorry about the mishap,” the zit-faced teenager was visibly sweating. “We-uh- we are back in action.”
The woman in front of me hurriedly purchased her bread, milk and eggs before crossing her arms and giving old scruff and I the up-down-stare-at-feet-move that Michelle used to do when I first met her. I guess I knew that about her too. I practically threw the corn chips at the cashier who checked me out in a matter of seconds.
This was the first time in months I felt someone digging at me. A homeless nobody who was probably out of drug money trying to get a rise out of me. Ignore it, count to three like those Therapists in movies tell people to do before you leave a bloodied mess in the middle of aisle 2 in Jolly Jim’s Stop ‘N Shop.
“I’m warning you.” I whispered darkly. if I was casually talking to myself, speaking to the open air around me. Ignore it, I told myself, electrifying resentment building from the loneliest corners of my body. The cashier was still fumbling awkwardly around with the wires and pushing buttons while the customer in front of me shuffled, clearly within earshot of me and old scruff’s conversation.
“Know what yer problem is? You livin’ in the past boy. Too damn proud to see what is right in front of yer snubby lil’ nose.” He made a motion towards me, looked me right in the eye and said. “You ain’t happy.”
Still grinning that stupid grin, and now chewing on the side of his no good, aged cheek, Old scruff wiped his glass jar with his spare unstained, wrinkly sleeve. There was no way that I was letting this guy have the last word. “You got a lady at home, chief?”
I swallowed, hard. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text as I felt the blood rush to my face. I hadn’t felt this angry and bothered since someone stole my helmet from the locker room when I was 18.
“I bet ya do. Bet she loves you, boy. Bet you don’t give a rat’s ass.”
…..3. Therapists are full of shit. I didn’t feel any different.
It’s almost funny, how a few seconds can feel like forever in slow motion and all you can do is watch. With one turn of my heel, I hit him so hard he fell to the ground, grasping around the jar for dear life. Evidently, upon physically assaulting old scruff, a tower of chicken noodle soup just behind him fell over, breaking his fall. The imprint of my class ring had left a nasty mark just above his temple, this, and a jagged and nasty mark was the only evidence of what I had just done. Well, besides the cans of soup which were now rolling on the ground and buried under Scruff’s body.
I took a few more breaths and cracked my neck to the side after I hit him, my brand new Fossil watch now askew on my wrist. It happened as fast as he blinked, his tumble to the ground took longer than it did for the cashier to scramble for the phone on the wall, to call the police, I assumed. The gentleman behind us who was eavesdropping had now dropped his items and made a run for it out the door, looking back at the scene while he went. Not very noble of the guy. But, I mean, I just hit an elderly man, so what does that say about me?
I hadn’t knocked him out. He slowly lifted himself up and began organizing the cans back to their original formation, as I stood there, unable to process what I had just done. I just hit a homeless guy.
Holy shit. I just physically assaulted a homeless guy. In the middle of Jolly Jim’s Stop N’ Shop.
Any low I had thought I had reached before in my twenty-two years of living was incomparable to what I was feeling now. This was it. This was rock bottom.
Rock Bottom: (verb/adjective) a phrase used to describe the overwhelming remorse you feel for knocking a homeless guy off his feet, square in the temple. Oh, and you have a kid on the way, too.
Then, a voice erupted from within somewhere- I don’t even know where, probably the same place that punch came from- and asked me,
Now look at the mess you made.
The police had asked Scruff the same question about a million times. “Can you tell us what happened?” The bird looking-monotone speaking woman officer said it more pressingly this time, her veiny hands firm on her belt buckle. The zit-faced cashier even peeked at him from behind her stance.
Scruff waited a minute before answering, put his finger to his chin, as if deep in thought. Then, smiling that toothy smile at me and removing the patch of ice from his bruise that I had given him, he explained, as if the entire thing was an accident and completely excusable. He told her that I did hit him, but that he was asking for it, he didn’t want any trouble, that he was and would be fine, and would she like some trail mix?
I let out an almost obvious sigh of relief and shook my head at him, the corners of my mouth turning up into a half-smile. It went away in seconds, though, because I did this. I left a gashed mark on a homeless man because he was pissing me off in the middle of Jolly Jim’s Stop ‘N Shop. Me.He could have sued me for everything I had, and he chose not to. If I were him, I would have wanted to see me in a jail cell. How was this possible?
The bird-like officer gave me one last judgmental and untrusting look before bidding the two of us goodbye by tipping her hat down low and exiting the scene. The three of us, me, scruff, and the cashier stood together in silence, watching her drive away, still glaring at me.
Had I seen her somewhere before? A sour sinking feeling overwhelmed me as I realized she had probably been there, the night I was wasted with those kids from the gas station and Michelle had to come get me before I started a fight with the blonde bartender’s boyfriend, as apparently, I was trying to get her number in between slurs and mixed drinks. I think I remember Michelle telling her friend on the phone that night that the cops came.
My gaze shifted from my shined shoes to Old scruff, and then to his Jar, which i’m pretty he was shining with his sleeve and own spit. Trying my best to be polite, I gave him a look while I raising an eyebrow at the jar, gleaming with dried saliva under his armpit.
Zit-face awkwardly left the two of us be, but did a poor job at trying not to watch us from the corner of his eye behind the counter. I turned to face Scruff, and examined the bruise my fists had left on his old, aged face. I had to know why this guy had shown me mercy, at the expense of his own when I had knocked him to the ground, the lowest of lows.
“Tell me why.”
“Why didn’t you charge me? I mean, you could have just told her, but you didn’t. Why?” I repeated, a little more forcefully than intended. “How much do you want? I-I can stop home and-”
“I don’t want yer money, boy.” Scruff said, softly, He looked at me. This time it wasn’t condescending or mocking. His demeanor was genuine as he straightened himself up.
I stared at him, my mouth agape. “I can’t just let you let me off the hook like that. It isn’t right.”
Scruff gestured toward the door, and I followed obediently.
Now that Scruff had pretty much saved my ass from a law suit and jail time, I felt comfortable enough to ask him about that damned thing he kept clutching onto for dear life. I pointed at the Jar, in all of its dusty, dried saliva glory. “Explain how that happened.”
Scruff seemed happier than ever before, as if awaiting for someone to ask him this for a long time.“This? Aw, Chief, lemme show ya.” he removed his glove that ended on his knuckles, revealing a scabby, even dirtier hand and reached for the small piece of paper laying on the bottom of the glass jar. He unfolded it and placed it in my hand.
The words were scribbled on the back of-What else- a Jolly Jim’s store receipt in what looked like yellow crayon, the words barely legible.
I stood there, frozen and speechless as he paid for his trail mix in quarters, the cashier examining them carefully. When he was checked out, I handed the piece of paper back to him and looked him square in the eye.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Why would I joke about ‘dis, boy? Happiness ain’t nothin’ to poke fun at.”
Old scruff let out a hoarse chuckle before shaking his head at me. “Listen close now, you may be an ig’nant yuppy. But I know you ain’t that dumb. You still young. But this…” he stopped, placing the note gently back into his jar and tucking it under his flannel. “This life. You get one. It ain’t go the way we plan. Not now, not never. We jus’ need ta love our lives an’ love ‘da ones we with before tha good lord takes us away. He took ma Caroline when she was a little babe, and ‘das why I carry this- you see. No matter where I go, it be with me so I remember…” His eyes dropped as he tapped a finger on the jar, “I have happiness right here- now ‘an always. Most people don’ know that. ‘Is ‘dat simple.”
I interrupted old scruff, now completely ashamed at being so ignorant and awful to him in the first place. He was smarter than I was, lost more than I had, and the guy was undoubtedly homeless.
I pointed at the jar. “I… I don’t think i’ve ever really had that. Where did you find it?” I was talking of course, about happiness.
“I didn’t find it, boy. I made it myself.”
My ears almost didn’t believe what they were hearing. It couldn’t be that simple…could it?
With the cashier’s beadly eyes still on us, I placed my hand on scruffs weak, old, dirty shoulder. “Listen, about earlier. What you were saying to me in line- You were right. I just didn’t realize and really, I wanted to say how sorry-” Old scruff interrupted me mid-sentence to pull me into a smelly embrace, which was rather suffocating. When he let go, he smirked at me and said. “Bet you ain’t ever hugged a hobo before, now have ya chief?” And I actually smiled when he said this, teeth and all.
We walked out into the parking lot together, a train could be heard in the distance and the sky was painted a faded orange hue, like God himself came down and made it so.
I suddenly felt warm. Finally, Old scruff gave me one last piece of advice as I began to stride towards my Corolla and he, in the opposite course of direction, towards the train tracks.
“You can spend yer days apologizin’ to folk, complaining and mopin’ about them days ya can’t get back or choose to be a happy man, chief. I know ‘dis to be true. But this… this is my happiness. You don jus’ find it, see. You make it. I made it myself. It be with me where’er I go, even when I can’t see it. I ne’er stopped ‘tuh tell my baby girl how much she meant, ne’er really tried, anyway. I pray she forgive me.”
“Who are you?” I inquired, as serious as stone. I reached for my keys, placing the half crushed corn chips in my passenger seat. “Can you at least tell me your name?”
Old scruff turned at me and smiled his last toothy smile in my direction while folding himself to a curtsy. “Me? Why, I be Jolly Jim himself.” He waved at me. I knew he wasn’t being serious, but admired his humor. And as quickly as he came, he was gone, whistling the tune to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now as he disappeared into the brush and orange hue.
My drive home wasn’t what I had been needing an hour or so before. I turned the radio off and paid attention to the rules of the road, my mind a blur as I waited for the only stoplight in our town to turn green.
Old scruff and his jar of happiness.
This man, and his toothy grin had nothing, by the looks of it. He could have had me in jail tonight, sued me for all I have, there were enough witnesses. He could have hit me back. And yet, he forgave me, just like that. And even more mind blowing to me, he could grasp happiness so easily, like it were only an apple on the tree of his life, just waiting to be plucked by a passerby, like it was so attainable. And I, a man who walked around like there was a literal gray raincloud over my head, could not find it within myself to feel something other than nothing.
Love and Happiness.
If you were to ask me at this point in my life what love is, I’d tell you to piss right off. Love, as it happens, is nothing more than a concept engineered by starry-eyed teenage girls asphyxiated on this idea that human connection can last for longer than 5 minutes, or, more familiarly to me, a phrase muttered over and over the course of an hour, if you count all the times Michelle and I had climbed into the backseat of my car. Growing up in a small town of Langeloth, Pennsylvania, I knew that it wasn’t real when my Dad never did any of those things that Husbands are supposed to do with their wives. He didn’t help us tend to her garden on Saturdays, he never asked her how her day went and I couldn’t tell you the last time they touched each other in front of me. The emotional depth to their relationship was as dried up as the watering hole down our street, barren and empty. The only time I saw my Mother cry in my life, besides when she found out I was going to be a father, was when I was in high school, and had come home from practice a little later than normal because I was doing my laundry at the school since we couldn’t afford a washer. Stumbling in the doorway with my cleats still on my feet, I called out.
“Mum? Mum, Guess what Coach said to me tonight- “
And that’s when I saw her. Her strawberry blonde hair was wrapped up in some sort of plastic and now a dark, striking brownish chestnut shade. She looked at me, surprised at first, and then laughed at herself. I hadn’t heard her laugh in forever. It was my favorite sound, growing up. She cleared her throat.
“I uh, was hoping to catch your Father’s attention today.” She informed me in dismay, turning from me and pretending to wash the dishes in our sink. “…It’s our anniversary.”
I set my Chemistry book down on our wooden table and looked at her. She looked exhausted.
“He didn’t notice, but I-I think I’ll keep it.” She said, her voice all nasally and squeaky from sadness, turning off the tea kettle on the stove.
I said nothing. I did nothing. I wasn’t able to comfort her. And I’m not a sociopath or robot incapable of empathy or anything like that– I just, I don’t know how to comfort people. I couldn’t speak. I don’t think I ever really learned how to comfort anybody, actually.
I felt sorry for her in ways that I was never able to express to her. That’s the thing about me-I’m so observant, but god awful at getting the thoughts in my head out of my stupid mouth. As I lay my head down that night and put the pillow over my head as I could hear my parents arguing in the next room. The phrase “I just want my own happiness, goddamnit! Is that so much to ask from you? I need you to love me back, John!” was cried by my mother in a shrill voice before the slam of their bedroom door thereafter.
Man, I was a fuckin’ idiot when I was 16 and I was a fuckin’ idiot now.
By the time I hit puberty and moved to State College, I knew the essentials of what made women happy. I’ll tell you what- I was a damn pro. I never met a chick that didn’t fall for my move. See, you tell them that they’re beautiful. And then they’ll do this little blush, giggle and head shake in disapproval thing. After that, you brush a strand of hair out of their face and voila! You are now in their pants and have more power than you know what to do with. Because by the time you grab their face and kiss them and stroke the small of their backs, forget about it. They’re hooked.
When I said I never met a chick that didn’t fall for my move, I meant until I met Michelle.
However, that’s just what I’m getting at- She was nothing like any other woman I had ever come in contact with before in my life. She knew me at my core. When she looked at me- it was like she was seeing me. It freaked me out when she met me, when she first kissed me, when we made love and when she asked me if I was okay before we went to bed at night. She saw me through my silence. Maybe her incessant chatting was her way of dealing with my absence of words, my lack of expression, all the time. Maybe I didn’t know how to make anyone happy, not even myself.
That was it. This life wasn’t about me- my stupid wants and supposed to be’s. It wasn’t about waiting my days away for something to change. I was supposed to be there for her, in the same way she was there for me. Old scruff was right whether he knew who I was or not. I was an unhappy, ungrateful son of a bitch.
The stop light finally turned green. As I slowly pressed on the gas, his raspy voice echoed over and over in my head. “This life. You get one. It ain’t go the way we plan. Not now, not never. We jus’ need ta love our lives an’ love ‘da ones we with before tha good lord takes us away. Jus’ like my Caroline.” The sky had turned from a golden shade of orange to magenta and then a deep, blue in a matter of thirty minutes.
I hadn’t ever been truly happy, I just thought I was. Old scruff was right all along. Fuck supposed to be’s. Fuck any plans I thought were significant until this day.
I pulled in the drive to our cottage in silence and slowly walked straight back into the living room, still coming down from the whirlwind that was old scruff. We had an old piano that was a house warming gift from her parents, as they said they wanted our baby to grow up in a house filled with music. Michelle was playing an unmistakable Billy Joel song that I mentioned once I loved. I had no idea she even played the Piano and suddenly felt as small as I did the day she told me she was pregnant.
Michelle turned and smiled at me. Somehow, she looked different. It was almost like I was seeing her for the first time.
She wasn’t just okay. She was beautiful. Was it possible that I could be this big of a fool, to just realize this simple, clear fact now, 8 months down the road? God, what a tool.
She tucked a few strands of curly blonde hair behind her ear. “Hey!” her voice melodic, but her eyes, bright and blue had a slightly uncomfortable look to them. Probably because we still hadn’t discussed my drunken escapade a few weeks back. “I didn’t even see you there. I’m sorry about earlier–” she half smiled and waved her hand away, as if to pardon herself. “–Hormones. You know… I made pasta! I-um… know you said you liked meat sauce as opposed to marinara. So, uh, I got your mom’s recipe. She wants to know why you haven’t called, by the way…” she trailed off and went back to playing.
I said nothing and stood in the doorway, shifting my weight into one foot and thus leaning on the panel. Maybe this would be the panel our kid would measure his height on. Every kid has one of those, right?
She stopped playing Vienna and gazed up at me with intent, almost luminous with eager curiosity. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinkin’ lately and-” I scratched my head and laughed to myself a little. “What’s your favorite tea? And how do you like it?”
Her crystallized eyes looked surprised and lit up even more when I asked this. “Jasmine!” an ounce of excitement in her tone. “I like it with honey, usually after dinner. And I just ate. Why?”
“Because.” I said, smiling ear to ear and still leaning on the panel. “It’s important.”
Hours passed and the moon shone through the skylight in our bedroom. I closed my laptop for the night and turned towards Michelle. She was sound asleep like clockwork, as she usually did around this hour. A copy of “Pride and Prejudice” atop her pregnant belly. Then, without warning, Michelle shifted and sighed in her sleep, and somehow tucked her arm under mind, as if to hold onto me like her life depended on it. You would think I would be used to surprises by now, seeing as how my day had gone. But she managed to surprise me one last time. How could she have known my arm was there in that exact position? Frankly, it was kind of adorable. She was so peaceful. I wondered if our kid would have that same sense of innocence on their face while they slept. I moved her up a bit, gently. Our doctor warned us that she should avoid sleeping on her stomach, for the baby. Our bouncing baby girl or girl. Why haven’t we talked about names, yet? I smirked silently before removing the book, and tore off a tiny edge of paper.
Getting up quietly so I wouldn’t wake her, I rummaged through my nightstand for a pen. With one swift motion, I wrote the word just plainly as it was presented to me with old scruff hours ago. I placed the piece of Michelle’s torn book page next under my lamp where my framed photo of our championship football game used to reside and turned off the light. I shut down my mental time machine too. I didn’t feel a need for it anymore. I glanced at it one more time before resting my head on a pillow for the first time in 8 months.
Maybe it has been inside of me all this time.
And for once, I didn’t feel small.
For once, everything made sense.
[I got the idea for this short story off of an image I saw on Pinterest. I do not know who the original creator/artist is, but I give them all the credit for this concept and rights to their work. I do, however, take credit for the plot line of the short story and my own version on this cartoon.]