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. 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.
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 my sense are activated; I can smell the spilled Budweiser on the brass bleachers, the crowd rumbling 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 clean up 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 easily just over 100 lbs and I stood two feet taller than her as Running back. But I swear in that moment, I had never felt more small.
To add to the pathetic mixing bowl of gloom that was my life, a BB King song that I knew and related to all too well was playing throughout the convenient store, Three O’clock Blues. Of course this song was playing.
Well now it’s three o’clock in the morning
And I can’t even close my eyes
Three o’clock in the morning baby
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?
Can’t find my baby
And I can’t be satisfied
Yeah. I do that every night. I’m glad you know what I’m talking about.
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 unkept 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 hate her asking me if I got fired from the law firm every time I come home earlier than expected. 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.
So she was okay .Everything was just okay.
I’ve looked all around me, people
And my baby she can’t be found
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. I didn’t know much about her besides 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 seen. 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. 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.
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 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 a, after all, she was pregnant with my bouncing baby boy or girl.
Something was off about this guy, though. Who comes into Jolly Jim’s Stop N’ Shop at 5:42 in the evening wearing cut off jeans, a raggity 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 5 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. 3 people ahead. Really lady? Did you need to come to Jolly Jim’s stop N’ shop with 20+ items with your screaming twins when we’re clearly in the express line?
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?”
Who was this guy? 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.
Well now it’s three o’clock in the morning
And I can’t even close my eyes
Three o’clock in the morning baby
And I can’t even close my eyes
Can’t find my baby
And I can’t be satisfied
The clerk finished with the woman with screaming twins and cleared his throat. “assistance to aisle 2, 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. Deep down she has to know I’m an asshole.
You know if I don’t find my baby
I’m going down to the Golden Ground
That’s where the men hang out
“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.
“Ooh. Was’da hurry, Bill Murray?”
I was two 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 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 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.
I paused, for a moment. Three O’Clock Blues had finally stopped playing.
“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.”
“Sure thing, man. Whatever. Get. Lost.” I spat out the word lost as if to spit right in his grinning, stupid, toothy face.
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 notion towards me, looked me right in the eye and said. “You ain’t happy.”
I gave up at this point. I was already late for dinner, stuck in this godforsaken lower class Jolly Jim’s Stop N’ Shop, and now bickering with some bumbling wise ass hobo. This was my life. I cracked my neck to the side before shortly replying under my breath. “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. Metaphorically, 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.
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. I gave him another cold, sarcastic look while I raised an eyebrow at the jar, gleaming under his armpit.
“Explain how that happened.”
He looked at me. This time it wasn’t condescending or mocking me. His demeanor genuine as he straightened himself up. “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, 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?”
Old scruff let out an exasperated sigh before opening up his freshly purchased snack and beginning to eat. He shook 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 before the good lord takes us away.”
I interrupted old scruff, now completely ashamed at being so ignorant and awful to him in the first place. We weren’t so different, he and I. He was smarter than I was, and the guy was undoubtedly homeless.
I pointed at the jar. “I’ve… I’ve been looking for that. Everywhere. Where do you find it?” I was talking of course, about happiness.
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 replied as I stride towards my Corolla and he towards the train tracks.
“You can spend yer days 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. ”
“Who are you?” I inquired, as serious as stone. I reached for my keys, placing the half crushed corn chips in my passenger seat.
Old scruff turned at me and smiled his last toothy smile in my direction while doing 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 Three O’clock Blues as he disappeared into the brush and orange hue.
I pulled in the drive to our cottage in silence and slowly walked up the stairs and into the living room, still bewildered from 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?
She tucked s few strands of curly blonde hair behind her ear. “Hey!” her voice melodic. “I didn’t even see you there. I’m sorry about earlier–Hormones. You know… I made pasta! I-um… know you said you liked meatsauce as opposed to marinara.. So, uh, I got your mom’s recipe. She want 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. “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 eyes looked surprised. “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 sky light 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. I removed 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.
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.]