One Last Chance



I used to really enjoy my little perks to myself when I was working on a story and drawing near deadline. Like most seasoned writers, I flaunted my boundaries just to feel the thrill of possible failure, defeat, catastrophe; allowing myself to get behind just for the rush of adrenaline while I burned through my taped and scribbled notes to come up with a perfect story.

I usually did this, the penultimate act, over a few pints in one of many bars within the city's sooty heart. I'd write longhand, while listening through my earphone, sipping and scratching across the pages of a new notebook with my 80-year-old Parker fountain pen. Ritual has to be observed or the results will be devastating. Later, with the proper buzz and attitude, I'd take myself and my product to the laptop at home and rewrite it to perfection. Never missing a deadline. Never missing a beat.

That afternoon, though, I'd dropped my bag and pen and new pads and paperback novel and my worries into a big chair against the wall inside Cassidy's. Lifted my chin at the barman, mouthed my preference in lagers and fished my tiny tape recorder out of an inside pocket of my workbag. Sat in the chair beside my junk and pulled the cap off my pen. The first pint arrived and I said yes, I'll run a tab, and I got to work.

I must have been at it for hours; the story was nearly written. I didn't see the pub fill up. I didn't hear the growing din. But I did sense the massive body sit down on the other side of my small round table. Jesus, can't they stand at the bar?

I huffed into the flattening head of my draft and looked up over my glasses at the person who took up a spot in my sacrosanct sanctum. All thought of further work flew from my head at the sight of the pain in his quickly lowered eyes. The set of his big body spoke of nothing I'd seen outside of a funeral. He was an enormous empty space filling a great, swallowed drone of despair.

He lifted a huge arm without looking behind him at the bar and immediately a waiter was at his shoulder with a pitcher of brown liquid and a glass. Without a word or further glance in my direction he poured a pint and drained it completely in a series of throat constrictions and in perfect, screaming silence. I capped my fountain pen and closed my notebook.

"Hello," I said, "my name's Bob."

He poured another glass for himself and downed it. Then, again. And Again. And up went his massive arm once more and the waiter appeared out of the crowd with another pitcher and was gone just as quickly.

"I've been coming here for a little while, Bob," He said as he repeated the draining of the new pitcher. "I have a sort of a thing I do lately. You don't mind if I sit here, Bob?"

"Please. I'm pretty much finished anyway. Can I buy you a beer?" I had no idea what made me say that, considering the fresh jug set down between us by the silent waiter, but I felt compelled to.

"No," he said, "I'll buy, if you have a while to listen, I have something on my mind and I see you like to know things. Maybe we can satisfy a common - well, whatever - a common - "

Then his face darkened and he tucked his chin down into the crook of his elbow and I thought he had a coughing fit. He snorted loudly as his reddened face smiled up at me and he said, "My name's Jack, Bob. Got a few minutes?"

And I was lost in the pools of his tearing eyes and the soft rhythm of his catching voice as he began to tell me about Hell.

I used to know a guy, a dreamer, a wonderful person but always looking over the horizon at tomorrow and telling me that that's when things'll start to happen the way they were supposed to happen. This was a real smart guy, educated on the street and then in school. Artistic and maybe really talented, I never bothered to find out. A dreamer's a dreamer, right? Real people get real jobs and slug it out with life, they don't try to piss in its face and expect to come out on top. You can have all the talent and ideas you want but without the means to back it up, you're just a bum with a brain and a vocabulary. Nobody respects you and nobody cares what you can do.

This guy was always after a prize I think only he could see. Going in for contests, grants, subsidies; anything he thought he could score. Not that he didn't work. I'll tell you, when he got a job he did the best that job could be done. But he had a big mouth, you know? He'd always stick his nose into somebody else's fight and defend the little guy from a boss or a manager or whoever. He had this one job where he was actually the manager himself, making a sack full of cash and he still stepped into a fight that wasn't his and they kicked his ass out. Fired him with a piddly package and the asshole he stood up for kept his job and didn't even thank him.

But he wasn't sorry he'd lost the job. He told me it would have happened eventually because that's the nature of the beast. He called all big companies the beast. You can hide only so long before your spirit exerts itself, he used to tell me. You can go only so far on the world's dime and then you have to assert your own tenets. Whatever the hell renters have to do with losing your job, I don't know.

I won't pretend that I understood everything he said to me, and Christ we had some loud arguments! But sometimes I could almost see where he was trying to point me and I could almost get there. Once in a while I really felt special when he spoke along side me as we walked or did a crossword puzzle or just wondered about things. I could nearly see why he thought and behaved the way he did.

But at the end of the day he always needed another loan or another extension on a loan I'd already given him and his story was always the same - tomorrow things are bound to get better. "Trust me," he'd say, "this can't be all there is."

But I'd watched him die in whatever dream he had that month or that year for so many years that I just didn't care. I gave him money when I had it. I listened to his dreams when I had the time. I heard what he'd done in whatever field he'd experimented in that season - and although some of our mutual friends tried to tell me how good he really was and how far he could go with a little leeway, I just saw what I'd seen all the years we'd known each other. A dreamer without discipline in the real world and a guy who was going to continue to fail, because he just didn't get it.

Nobody cares how good you are, or how good you think you are, unless somebody pays you for what you can do, you're just another bum looking for a handout! What's so hard to understand about that?

Then he called me a little while ago to let me know he'd used my address for his mail. His wife just left him and took the kids. They tried to make it work but the money ran out after his last job and things were just too much to handle. He made arrangements for her to take the kids to her family until he could get back on his feet. Meanwhile, he lived in a shelter and I had to take care of his damn cat. I couldn't take him in, my place is too small.

Then he called last Monday to tell me that he was expecting a stake - like he was back in the Yukon days, he said a stake - and would I call him when it came in? Sure it's coming. In the mail. See how gullible he was? What an absolute trusting fool.

He called me again the next day and asked me to meet him but I had to work. When I tried the shelter number later in the week he was out, so I missed him. He called again that Friday afternoon, but I was probably in the shower, I can't remember. And when I was dressed and on my way out the door for work I noticed the flashing light on my answering machine and I thought, 'Stake my ass. Get a job.'

When I pulled into my apartment parking spot early Saturday morning, after my shift, I was blinded by flashing lights of a different kind. Ambulance and police lights scarred the dawn skies and the crack and crackle of over-loud radios bruised the air. I was waved away from where I usually parked and guided into the lot in the next building to mine. I figured another false fire alarm, they're always happening and always the ding-ding-ding screws up my sleep and I have a crappy shift. But there was no noise that morning except the crack and crackle of hushed radio voices.

A vague muffle pushed into the noise and said, "That's him!" Then a couple of young cops came up to me and asked my name.

When they'd finished I was on my knees in a pool of vomit and tears. He'd used a key I forgot I'd given him, to wait for me to come home. And because I didn't answer his phone call earlier that day - scoffed at his attempt to reach me - I had no idea he was so panicked. I worked the double shift when I should have been home when he came to see me. He'd sat for hours, apparently, drinking my beer and thinking whatever he thought.

There was a note.

(Here he passed a neatly folded piece of typing paper across the table to me. There was one small, rust brown stain splashed in the top right corner. I opened it and read.)

"I couldn't wait for you to get home, sorry. Sitting here thinking, I came to a realization. Anticipation isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe you were right all along. I believe too much. I try too hard in the wrong direction.

"You once asked me if I ever got tired of losing? Every goddamn time! I can't do this any more. I'm too scared. I give up.

"Sometimes it's just better to let them win. Sorry about the gun closet. And the mess. I took a bottle of pills, but I chickened out at the last and called 911. So I had to break in and finish it before I fucked this up, too. I've left a tape in my coat pocket. Try to explain to the kids. Thanks for always listening. I guess I was wrong all along, wasn't I? Nobody cares.

"We only get one last chance and this was mine. It should have worked, I was so sure about this one. Sorry, bro."

(I folded the paper back up and handed it back to him. I didn't want to think about how the stain got on the white page.)

Then they took me into my apartment and asked me to identify what was left of him. Splashed in splatters and chunks all over my ceiling and living room wall. He'd used a crowbar I keep under my sink to smash the lock on the gun cabinet. Then he'd used my shotgun. I still have the impression of a splintered fence post sticking up out of dark soil. They told me that was his vertebrae

Well, Bob, soon after that's when I poured out of my apartment and onto the road to find a bar where I could wash my eyes of that picture.

I buried him this Monday, Bob - just a week after he tried to reach me. His wife and kids were there and I had to be strong for them. And damned if on Tuesday if I didn't get a phone call.

"Hello, may I speak with Richard, please?"

I said, "There's no Richard here this is my number, you've got the wrong house."

"But Richard gave this number to contact him. Is your name Jack?"

I felt suddenly cold as I answered, " Yeah, this is Jack. Who are you?"

"A friend of his from the wild days. I'm Alex. Richard and I were kind of a team in university. He used to brag about you all the time, Jack. He was always proud of you. I wonder - if he's not there right now, could you give him a message for me?"

I couldn't speak a word -- my heart banged in my chest.

"Just tell him I love his idea and want to back it one hundred percent. I sent the full amount to the address he gave me but there was a screw up in the transfer from my business account. Just tell him it's in the mail and he should get it any day.

"He always was the strong one. He kept me in university when I was depressed enough to throw it all in and spend my last dime sucking Tequila in Puerto Escondido. Give him my - well it's all in the package. Goodbye, Jack and thanks again."

When I hung up I took the elevator down to check my mail for the first time since Richard's suicide; The mailbox was rifled and smashed, but there was a note from the building superintendent. I knocked on his door and he handed me a thick package. He said it arrived the day after the ambulance left.

Then he was quiet, too drunk to string syllables together and I began to gather my work bag into itself - angrily; pad, pen, recorder, stray novel.

"Can I ask you a question, Jack?"

He hoisted his massive arm one last time but no waiter appeared.

"Why did you tell me about Richard?" I sat back against Cassidy's wall at closing time with the last of the lager flattening in my glass.

"You share a load, it becomes easier to lift. He taught me that. He was magic the way he made things work for everybody. He was my little brother and who the wants to see his little brother do the things he never can - and still fail? Who wants to see his little brother gone? I wasted my last chance and I could have done so much better."

Then he cried, his huge shoulders jerking in time with his massive sobs.

Jack was still crying as I hauled myself out of Cassidy's.

I looked back through the window and the waiter had dropped another jug.

If I could write fiction, this'd be the story.

I made a quick phone call.

Before I went home.

The End


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