Third Time’s a Charm – Ch. 1-10

In my life, only two women have ever made me smile. A genuine smile, mind you, not a fake one, nor one caused by a confluence of happenstance in the universe.

No.

I mean that by the simple virtue of their existence, I smiled.

Repeatedly. T’was a miracle, given the dour visage I usually inflict upon the world. RBF has nothing on me.

I’m not necessarily that grim on purpose, it’s just the simple fact that “I give no fucks.” is perpetually emblazoned across my face in giant, dour letters.

I try to smile to be polite, to comfort those around me, to disarm them to my presence. . .

Usually comes out a grimace.

I laugh freely and largely, when merited… even when not. It’s a big belly laugh too.  But that’s not a smile.

No.

Thus far in my existence, I have only come across two such remarkable people. Two with the strange power to make me feel that the world is an okay place that I want to be in and that it’s okay to smile.

Two.

I’m thirty-three years old. This number should be much higher, but it’s not.

The first I loved dearly. For a while. Before her I had had many crushes and thought I knew love, unrequited though it always was, but no. First love. I was going to marry her and move to Scotland to be with her. (Yes, it was a long distance thing…but dammit, when you know you know.)

Well, we knew. It hurt deeply when it ended. We still loved each other, but found ourselves just not liking one another. We didn’t want to be partners anymore. I suspect I’ll always love her, and she I. I still smile when I think about our time together. She had a beautiful smile. A smile that broke through on the dreariest of days. A smile I slowly took away from her. I’m an asshole.

The second I loved dearly as well and wanted to be partners with her. Her wry wit and sense of humor, making things awkward since the day she was born. I was quite taken with her. I wanted to travel the world and explore it with her at my side.

She rather wanted to kill me though.

Seriously.

She plotted my demise with great glee, like one of those prime time specials where the husband always does it. Well, this time it was going to be the wife. Or girlfriend. Or fiance…whatever we were when she finally decided to do it. She had several scenarios.

Strangely enough, I still find myself smiling when I think of that darling psychopath. Occasionally I head up state when she has a conjugal weekend and I’m not seeing anybody.

She still wants to kill me, but damn the sex is good.

But that’s a different sort of smile, more a wicked grin.

No, I want to find someone to make me really smile again before I die. Who makes the world bright. And okay.

You know what they say, third time’s the charm.

I’ve got three months.

*******************************Chapter 2**********************************

Maybe.

Could be more, probably less. I’ve never been very good at taking care of myself. I suppose this is what happens.

Up until they put a clock on it though, I didn’t really care.

“Six months,” the doc said (this was 90 days ago…we’re now past the warranty on most used cars and some electronics) and shut the file containing the data pertinent to the rest of my life, now a limited engagement.

He put a comforting hand on my shoulder, unnecessarily, and I shrugged and he talked some more.

Oh well. I don’t like doctors. Telling me perfectly useless information.

Blah blah fucking blah.

Ruined the surprise.

I wouldn’t have even gone except for my annoying friend who kept goading me into it. “You’ll feel better,” said the friend, “should take better care of yourself.”

Mostly I was annoyed I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do because of the damn shaking. Muscle tremors and the like. Hoped it was a vitamin deficiency or maybe a pinched nerve.

Nope.

Lot of good going to the doc did. No fix and they fitted me with an expiration date and a bill that…given current billing cycles and red tape…wasn’t due for nine months.

Dumbasses.

I moved.

Started all over again for three months.

Quite refreshing actually.

***********************************Chapter 3*******************************

The bell on the door chimed.

“Morning Julien,” she said brightly. A couple of unfamiliar faces screwed up and pinched their eyes at her, then me. It was afternoon but she knew I slept until well past normals. She was good people, the others can sod off.

I grunted some sort of vaguely positive sounding reply and waved amicably.

It was still too early for bright and cheery, no matter how good a people Cheri was.

You might be wondering, by this point, what the hell I thought I was doing.

Being selfish. That’s what. Taking charge of what little was left of my life.

There were few ties to cut. Parents were already ashes. The old homestead I couldn’t bear to part with myself, so I sold my collectables and set up a trust to pay the last good friend I had to take care of it. I’ve willed it to  him.

He and his wife don’t know I’m dying. At least someone will get the surprise I didn’t.

They think I’ve finally gone walk-a-bout like I always said I would. Wander the world. Take some photos. Write a book. I guess I have. Sorta.

The rest just think I got a new job in some new city. They saw me off with a big cookie and well wishes and went about their lives. Don’t blame them, no hard feelings. They couldn’t comprehend what I decided to do even if I told them. Runs far too counter to “the way things ought to be.” I just lied and left and made it easier on them and myself.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Cheri slid a glass of delightfully fizzy caffeine under my nose as I propped my head up lazily checking the feeds. Some people like their caffeine all fancy frappe latte chino with a double twist of mocha. Others like it hot and black and bitter. I like mine cold, bubbly, and sweet. High test, as Cheri calls it. What’d diabetes matter to a dying guy?

“Thanks,” I croak and begin sucking on the straw. It’s a laborious process getting me human again when I wake. Or to some close proximity. Cheri knows what she’s doing though. That’s why I’ve made it a habit to come to the Nottaway Diner every day. Thank whatever god that had the ill conceived audacity to let me exist that this place was right below my new apartment.

I drain the first glass and start on the second, scrolling through the garbage of the world. Cheri brings me some bacon to munch on.

Mmmmmmm. Bacon.

People think it’s hard to fuck up bacon but they’re wrong. Dead. Wrong.

Bacon must be thoroughly cooked, but still tender. It must not be so crisp as to shatter like shards of broken glass ripping apart the tender insides of ones cheeks as they chew. But also must not be raw, as the Australians seem to prefer. I tried having bacon and pancakes in Sydney once and almost was ill. Never get the bacon in Oz.

No, good bacon is golden brown and melts in ones mouth as one chews.

This was good bacon.

“Excuse me miss, these eggs are runny.” One of the other patrons. Don’t get the eggs at the diner, they’re shite. They either run or bounce, neither of which is appetizing. I hate eggs though so that doesn’t really matter.

Selfish. That’s me. Cater to my whims, universe, and all will be well.

I’ve rather arranged the end of my life these last few months to achieve that.

Dying is a terribly selfish thing. At least, that’s how I want it.

I’m the one facing that ticking clock. Not you. Not my friends. Me. I don’t need sympathy or condolences. And funerals are for the living, not the dead.

I don’t need people dropping by reminding me I’m dying just so they can feel better about themselves.

“Hey kids, lets go look at the old guy about to kick the bucket. Be glad it’s not you and eat your vegetables.”

FTS.

After the bacon is gone and my stomach has settled, Cheri waves some sort of sweet confectionary under my nose. Some days she doesn’t, if my appetite is down. She’s got a good read on me. Know’s something is wrong but hasn’t once asked what.

Like I said. Good people.

The proffered sweets vary day to day. It’s a small portion. I can’t keep it down if it’s too much.

I don’t need people I know seeing that. I just want peace. Not nit picking.

I don’t want shit for “not fighting it.”

I’m fighting it by living.

Isn’t that what they say? Living well is the best revenge? That’s my plan.

Selfish, selfish, selfish. That’s me.

I want to smile again.

Sigh.

********************************Chapter 4 ******************

I was never a drinker before. No particular reason other than I just didn’t like the idea of drinking something that you had to get used to the taste of.

Fight past the burn, as they say.

Now I’m still not much of a drinker. But I do drink.

Because, why not? Everyone else seems to like it. I still don’t like it like it but it’s not terrible now that I found something I sorta like that doesn’t taste like mouthwash.

Besides, having a drink is somewhat normal. Not drinking makes you stand out.

All part of my selfish new life. I was now a guy who you could go have a drink with.

Not like it actually matters in the grand scheme of things. I don’t get drunk, it’s just not taboo any more.

A lot of things just don’t matter when you’re dying.

Though, it wasn’t that huge a shift in perspective for me. You’d think it would be.

I’m kinda wishy washy on the subject, as you can tell.

I’m given to rambly thoughts after a few bourbons.

I think the girls are snickering at me behind the desk. Why do people do that? There are only three people in the room and two of them share a secret laugh.

Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with me, I’m still in the room…and yet they whisper.

Yes. I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel with my drink as I write this.

Why? Because why not?

How am I going to find the charm if I don’t look? What better way to look than hang out in high traffic areas?

Okay, yeah. It’s kinda pathetic. Bite me.

The city is nice though, this Holy City they call it. By the sea, sticking out into it like a sore thumb. Like me. Sticking out where I don’t belong.

Better than sitting alone in the room or in the bar with noisy drunk idiots.

I’ve already had my fill of drunks for the night. Walking down King Street to the prattle of packs of young women out on a girl’s night. Wow. Do yourself a favor and try not to listen to those words as they fall from the wet, sticky air. They cling to you.

They definitely don’t make me smile.

I’m not going to find her here.

Obviously.

I guess dying doesn’t make you more accepting of people. Probably the opposite actually.

Alcohol doesn’t help it either.

At least me.

*********************************Chapter 5********************

The play’s the thing, according to some.

I did theatre in college.

Well was around it. Tangentially.

Okay, I ran spotlight for one show as a favor to a friend because the guy they had doing it fell out of the grid.

He lived. Bumped head, broken arms, bashed pride.

I believe the phrase “Hey y’all, watch this” was involved. So was alcohol.

Hard to blind a singing starlet with broken arms. So I was pressed into service.

Theatre was fun. A time and place where I was accepted. I hung around after the show closed and never did another.

I forgot that. That feeling…

Until I happened upon a performance of Bill Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in the park.

This version twisted the original around a bit. Imagine Shakespeare as Grease. Or Happy Days.

Oh happy day.

The girl playing Tranio caught my eye. Or shoved her finger in it. Still deciding which.

Yes. Original text Tranio is a guy, much to my surprise. Not a Shakespeare buff, am I.

I laughed. I like unconventional.

It was the first good laugh in a while. The kind of laugh that whisks the troubles away and makes you forget. That firmly roots you in the now and denies unpleasantness.

Hijinks and tomfoolery. Physical comedy delivered with Shakespearean bent.

A unique thing, forgetting that one is dying. A gift from these players.

A gift from Tranio, in the guise of Lucentio, I did receive. When she strode through the audience passing out business cards proclaiming her to be Lucentio and ‘the stud of Pisa’ and ‘totally a man’ whilst searching for a double for her mother.

Much cleverness. The play proceeded thusly with the bounds of stage merely a suggestion as their realm expanded to encompass the park. Time forgotten, unwound and unraveled marked only by laughter and ceased with thunderous applause.

The night was done.

I went back.

**************************Chapter 6***************************

I did not go back that next night. I actually didn’t intend to go back at all. I’d seen it, I laughed, I knew what happened.

Down at the diner, the card fell to the counter. I didn’t notice.

“Lucentio of Pisa,” Cheri announced. “1-800-IAM-A-MAN.” She gives me a look over her glasses. “Stud of pisa” she makes a sound “dot com” she draws it out.

It’s still early for me. Eyes itching with sleep. I barely register during my morning scroll.

“Sweetie, you should have told me you were into men, I’ve got a darling nephew I can set you up with. You don’t need trash sites like this,” she says, flashing the card in my face.

“That’s from the play in the park,” distracted by bacon. “Luci was kinda cute though. Not really my type.”

“My Jake could be your type,” she said, pulling out her phone to show pictures.

“Thanks Cheri, but Luci is a girl,” and I told her about my night at the theatre.

Her eyes twinkle, she sees something as I talk.

“That’s a no on Jake’s number then?”

“Yes, Cheri, I’m sure he’s a sweet boy, but not for me.”

I took the card back as she went off. Topping coffee. Juicing fresh gossip.

I even heard one young man asking after Jake very sweetly. Cheri laughed.

Thoughts drifted and obscured the conversation with memories of the night before as I flicked the slick, laminated card.

Thinking.

**************************Chapter 7****************************

Let me begin this by saying I am not a stalker.

Just so we’re clear.

I legitimately have no idea why she stands out. Why I notice her amongst the rest. There is no reason.

I simply want to enjoy the play like I did the first night.

I kept thinking about that feeling of not dying.

Forgetting the nausea and the tremors and the pitying looks I felt everyone was giving me.

They weren’t, really, but I get self-conscious. It’s not a habit easily broken.

I looked at the card, smirked at the fake website and email and handles for various socials.

Rough morning. Stomach cramps and diarrhea woke me at an ungodly early hour – 9am – and refused to let me sleep in bliss.

I tucked it into the mirror frame and returned the stare of death warmed over judging me from the other side. Asshole. Let me be happy.

My stomach gurgled like it aught not and I sat back on the toilet. Fuck.

No sweets for me later. Going to need the High Test though. Extra glass.

She sat next to me.

At the play, I mean. This bit is a little jumbled.

She sat next to me. As Tranio-now-Lucentio. Gave me another card and was on her merry way. I return to the play.

“I’m seeking a person such as this,” she said, unfolding a photo. “My mother, someone close in resemblance.”

Taken unawares, I turn back from the play and see she remained seated next to me. Leaning in to show me a photo.

She feels warm.

Being the clever sort, I nod. Then throw in a vague affirmation for good measure.

“If you see one such as she, please direct them to me,”

I nod again. And she’s gone.

Clever, aye?

The play resumes in my focus, but I am not. I keep watching her on stage.

Fuck me. What am I looking for?

My imagination runs away, but dammit, I’m okay with that. Another chance.

I always think of the perfect thing, but late. I say.

Were I a clever man, I’d have played along with your ruse and said:

“Well met good sir! Why yes, I have seen such a person in my travels. Newly come to town I dare say. Over that way!”

Alas I am not clever of tongue, rather of word and so the line comes when the moment has passed.

Thus the script ends and awkward begins.

“You’re weird,” she’d say.

“I’m aware”

“I like that,” she’d say and lean her shoulder into mine.

Mmm…daydream delight.

Why would I give up my fantasy worlds? They are far better than my reality. Not cold and harsh and empty as mine is. In them my heart is not a knot, bound and constricted until it aches.

In them time isn’t the enemy.

She felt warm.

**********************Chapter 8********************************

I always think of the perfect thing, but late.

Were I a clever man, I’d have played along with her ruse.

And I repeat myself. Scenario playing out in my head over and over again.

Analysis abounds and overthought becomes overwrought and a spiral crash down to the world again from my head in the clouds.

These fries are not good. Fat fries with bacon, they call it.

Well, I asked them for it. They had something like it on the menu already, but not exactly. Too much extra stuff on it.

Steak fries. With chopped bacon on top.

I got excited for a minute. I used to get something like it at a diner back home.

It was a front for money laundering and closed after a few months, but damn it was good while it lasted.

The fries were heavenly. Crisp outside, fluffy inside. Medium cut. Perfect for dipping in milkshakes.

Have you noticed I like diners?

At this particular diner, I made friends with the late night guy. Huge basket of fries topped with bacon, on the house. Most nights.

I tipped him well.

I miss that diner.

My main rules for fries: peel them, cook them until they’re done, don’t fru-fru them up.

Is that so hard?

Apparently.

Fuck me these fries are bad. Unpeeled and extra greasy, but the grease wasn’t used to cook them, obviously, cause they’re damn near raw. What, do they marinate them in it instead of frying?

At least the bacon was good.

I’m sitting at a burger bar. At the bar. They have milkshakes and bourbon. Vodka and fries. This is a dangerous place. A good place. Except for the fries.

But they’re nice. The people, not the fries. Those, I think, are making me sick.

I should be getting back to see how Holly is getting on.

She’s the charming bubbly social oh my god you’re so sweet type I hire to run my photobooth.

At first I ran it myself, but found I was driving the customers away with my dourness. My natural defense became a liability and remember that disarming grimace I tried to affect? Yeah, needs a little work.

So I hire pretty or handsome young college kids with winning charms.

Let them front my business. It’s a valuable skill I don’t have so I’m glad to pay for it. Makes me a helluva lot more money with the huge bonus of not having to go to weddings or yuppie parties.

I just book it, deliver my lightweight setup, a box of props, and fix it if it breaks.

Super simple, super popular, super mobile, wish I’d done it before dying.

Could have retired a king in Patagonia like Cumberbund.

“Julian!” She waves me over.

“Hi, Holly,” I say, trying not to be blinded by her beaming personality.

Former beauty queen. Brighter than the sun. Sweet as can be.

I can’t stand her.

“It’s so good to see you!” She’s a hugger. “Everything is going great! You missed such a great party. Just now Karen said the funniest thing about how…”

And I stopped listening. I don’t know who Karen is. Hell, Holly didn’t know who Karen was until five minutes ago and now they’re besties.

I can only take so much. But she’s my best earner, so I indulge her.

At least she’s genuine. I feel a little bad about not being able to stomach her personality, but she’s not bad. Just contrary to my comfort.

She’s made my rent tonight.

“You’re slipping, Holly.” I mock chide her. “There’re still a few prints left!”

Normally when Holly hosts for me, she empties the roll. Everyone wants pictures with her. Which really isn’t what photobooths are for, precisely, but like I said. Best earner.

The booth can crank out one thousand thirty seven photos from one roll. Normal events barely use half a roll.

When I ran the booth myself, I did well to break a hundred.

Math. You do it.

“Come on,” I tell her, “let’s finish it off.” Holly beamed.

No point in leaving a near-spent roll in the printer.

Old me would have just left it. Tossed it later.

Old me wouldn’t do a mobile photobooth at parties.

Old me didn’t like having his picture taken. He stayed behind the camera.

Old me was dead and didn’t know it.

Might as well leave something to prove I existed, so I hopped into the booth with the pretty girl and took some pictures.

It was kinda fun. Put on fake nose glasses. Silly spring eyes. Karen, Holly’s new BFF, even hopped in on a few of the shots.

She put on a pink bob wig and Holly put streamers in her blindingly blonde hair. I made stupid faces. They kissed me on the cheek. I blushed a bit.

Warm. Life sometimes wasn’t bad.

Then the printer ground and spat out the last photo strip.

Or not.

It got halfway through and jammed.

Holly puckering up for a kiss and the picture ended halfway through my face.

It does that on the last one sometimes. I pulled it out.

Karen leaned over to examine the grotesque smear that was my face and proclaimed it a crying shame.

Then proceeded to cry dramatically.

I think she’d had a few drinks by this point.

And vanished into the milling crowd.

With my wig.

Dammit, Karen. Leave the props.

I broke the booth down into it’s suitcase, split the tips with Holly, and pocketed my new keepsakes.

Maybe an ounce of normal every now and then wasn’t so bad.

********************Chapter 9********************************

There isn’t much in my apartment.

I have one knife, one spoon, one fork.

One glass. Mug. Bowl and plate.

I read this book called “Goodbye, Things” by Fumio Sasaki on minimalism. And while I don’t take it to his extreme, I did find it quite freeing.

He stresses the idea that if you don’t need it now, you don’t need it. Forget someday. Everyone hangs on to stuff they may need someday.

Well.

I didn’t exactly have a someday, so why hang on to stuff?

All of my core, personal belongings fit in one box. All my clothes in one suitcase. My photobooth as well, fits in a rolling suitcase.

I don’t own a TV anymore. I use a pocket sized projector or my iPad.

My books and movies and shows are all digital.

The only oversized thing I own is my photo enlarger.

Without all the extraneous stuff, I can turn my living room into a giant darkroom.

Dark enough for prints anyway. I use a dark bag to load the film. That’s the only step that requires total darkness.

People think minimalism is about getting rid of everything, but it’s not. It’s about removing the unnecessary. The things that bring no value to life. The things that drain energy. The things holding you back.

I love film photography but I had to give it up. I’m allergic to elements in the chemistry.

It was more an irritant than serious problem. Long term, though, it wasn’t good for my health.

Long term. Heh.

No need to worry about that now.

A knock at  the door.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I ponder, weak and weary”

I slide the paper under cover. My work briefly interrupted.

“Tis some visitor tapping at my chamber door.”

Well. Banging. The hurricane is pretty loud. I may have taken up a dying art while dying, but I still found the burning throat irksome.

Ventilation is king.

“Sir or Madame, your forgiveness I implore, for I was deep enrapt in art’s adore, I hardly heard you rapping at my door.” I called through.

“Madame,” he mocked. “You expecting a booty call, Shutter?”

“Not with a flat ass like that Mont.” I opened the door.

“He’s alive!” Lamont shouted to the two guys hauling boxes up the stairs.

“Where. The. Hell. You. Been. J?” Harold grabbed my shaking hand and pulled me in for a hug.

“Bro! Let a brother know you alive,” Superieur. “Was about to check up on you.” Big hug, bigger heart. He’d give you the shirt off his back and he genuinely cares.

“I’ve been posting,” I said mildly defensive. I had dropped off the radar a bit, admittedly.

“Yeah, but I ain’t seen you.”

People want to see me. It’s something I have yet to get used to.

They weren’t fake about it either.

“Man, for real. Good thing I heard the hurricane going,” Mont said. “You printing?”

“Shit, you better be.” Supe walked over to the print washer, peeking at the floating pages. Carefully.

I joined him and pulled one out of the tank and onto a board to show off.

“Yoooooooo, that’s dope.”

It was a simple shot of another friend, just a snap. Lighting was decent and the exposure and focus were perfect. But I used it for a photogram. I also splattered some fixer on the unexposed paper, creating white blotches in the image.

I like messy. I like unorthodox.

I hate stuck up rules for clean images. Boring.

“Man,” Harold said, “That’s hard.” Stepping close to examine the gram. “How’d you get the sprockets,” he asked, pointing to the film strip over the eyes.

“Just stick the film where you want on the paper for a couple of flashes.”

“Word.”

“Dude, you’re a genius,” Mont said. “This is great.”

It’s nice to be appreciated. Normally I’d dissemble, but they were being genuine, so I accepted their praise.

“It’s all about the process,” Harold said. “It’s messy, but that makes it real.” He walked over to another print hanging to dry. “You can see where you touched it,” pointing out the fixer hand print, “literally.”

“So much shit is just so perfect,” Mont joined him, “it’s fake. It’s disrespectful and disingenuous.”

“You are present in your work,” Supe said, pointing out the glass with my reflection.

“You know, you’re about the only person who’s caught that.”

“We see you, J.”

“Thanks guys,” I say, “what you up to?”

“Innovating,” Supe says.

“Designing,” Mont says.

“Creating,” Harold says.

Each a creative. Each an artist. Each supporting the other. They accepted an outsider like me in the beat of a heart. To them I am no outsider. I am grateful.

“Join me for a drink?”

“It’s 10 A.M. Julian”

“So?” I say. Internally: Shit, is it?

“When you put it like that!”

It’s easy to lose the day in the dark. Time passing in incremented flashings of image to paper.

I look at my print wash, overflowing with art.

90 seconds. 30. 5 minutes. 10.

Repeated time. The foundation of photography.

I’d been at it since 8 the night before.

“For a relaxing time,” I say, pulling out the Toki.

“Make it Suntory time,” Mont finishes, grabbing glasses.

He and Harold grab the couch. Superieur grabs chairs off the wall.

Yes. There’s a couch. I thrift one wherever I move. The chairs fold and hang out of the way. They all get left when I go.

I consider the glass.

One of my favorites. The movie and the whiskey.

I like them independently. But it’s cool that one features the other.

“Kampai”

I forget when I ate last. The whiskey is good. Just a little burn and my empty stomach tingles.

“Mind if I light one, Shutter?”

“Nah bro, go ahead.” Not my thing, but I don’t mind if others partake. The hurricane will take care of the smoke same as the fumes. The smell is lost in the chemicals.

Ventilation is king.

New air. Inspiration. Keep it fresh. The keys to art and life.

I hope others like the new work as much as these guys do. Whether they get it or not.

“Keep an eye out for a show space guys.”

“Yeah? For these?” Mont takes a hit and gestures to the wash.

“Word. Bro, this’ll be a killer showcase.”

“So hard.” You can see gears churning behind Superieur’s eyes.

“Whatcha thinking, Supe?”

“Picture it.” He leans forward and spreads his hands. “A tangible. Interactive. Intimate. Art experience.”

“Go on.”

“Harold hit on it. You don’t disguise the process. You show it off. You are in your art.”

“Yeah, and you know I hate prim galleries.”

“Right,” Supe jumps up and grabs one of the dry prints and the glass contact plate. “So do this.” He sandwiches the print behind the plate and passes it to Mont.

“Pass it around, OOH!” Harold jubilates. That’s a good word for it. He makes joyous and loud sounds when an idea hits home. “From you to me. And me to you.” He takes the plate from Mont and passes it to me.

I stare at the the print behind thick glass. Seeing something. The print is mostly dark. I take my phone out, hold the print out and take a pic.

“And now they’re in the art, too.” I hold out my phone for them.

They look close. And closer. I zoom it in until they see it.

Harold screams.

“That’s HARD!” Mont’s mind is blown.

Supe just sits back and stares at me. “Genius.”

“Interactive, intimate, and shareable.” I say. “Each person has a unique experience with the art.”

Art is contagious. I love these guys.

“Who’s this?” Mont takes a turn, holding up the mangled photo strip.

“Grim,” Harold grabs it. “It’s like your face is melting.” He looks closer. “Dude! You’re half skull.”

“She’s fine,” Superieur adds.

“There were two,” I said. I kept meaning to reprint that one.

“Bullshit,” Harold grabs it back. “Two hot girls kissing you? That where you been?”

“Ain’t gonna lie, I can forgive that,” Mont pours another whiskey.

“Bull. Shiiii…” Harold tosses the mangled strip back at me. “…iit”

“Alright, alright.”

“I believe you, Shutter,” Mont said.

“No, I want one that’s not a memento mori anyway,” I say, pulling the printer out. It’s easy enough to load a new roll and hit reprint. I have to load for an event later anyway. Which I should probably sleep for. Shit it’s almost midday.

“See,” I hold up the new strip.

“Dayum, Shutter,” Mont says, passing it to Harold.

“Shut up!” Harold says, “No wonder we ain’t seen you, hanging out with fine ladies like that.” He looks to either side, “Shit, I’d dump us too.”

“My man, I approve.” Supe hands it back.

I look at the photo for the first time since that night. Holly is radiant as always. I don’t even need a light in the booth when she’s working.

Karen, I didn’t even pay much attention to her that night. Aside from her stealing my wig.

I look at her again.

“Holy shit.”

“He can’t even believe it!” Harold laughs loud.

I grab a pen and furiously scribble on her face.

“Yo, J,” Superieur grabs my wrist. “Thought you wanted it clean.”

“Why’d you draw mustache on her? You in grade school?”

It was a mustache like you draw on history figures in textbooks.

Like those fake, glue on mustaches they use when the main character goes undercover in movies.

Or in plays.

Tranio.

****************************Chapter 10**************************

The fiddles tune up. Some plucking, some bowing, they slowly synchronize into the orchestral screech you always hear before a performance.

They’ve cleared out a spot in the old Stomping Grounds for music. Sometimes I come in here and there’s some Celtic music being played. Open mics. Ukuleles even. Tonight it’s strings.

Let’s see how this one goes.

I like this place. It’s a good place to write and the atmosphere is eclectic but never annoying or grating or pretentious. That’s hard for a coffee house to accomplish.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like coffee. So why am I in a coffee house? Because it’s so much more. It’s like a cafe general store. The kind of place you can get most anything you want for a cheap price. Coffee, beer, wine, tea, sodas, ice cream, breakfast sandwiches, paninis, gyros, cookies, snacks, and on and on.

They’ve got something for everyone and are genuinely nice.

No judgement. No pretentious, elitist, highminded attitude like I’ve come to expect from any coffee place I walk into.

Now, I realize not every coffee place is like that, but they kinda are if you don’t like coffee. You have to assimilate to their culture if you want to be accepted.

I bring my booth here and set it up in the corner from time to time. Help them advertise and bring a little something extra. Free photostrips with their name on it. IG stories from the Grounds. Get the word out. Whatever I can do to keep the place afloat a few more months.

Would be quite annoying for one of my favorite spots to go under before I did.

Heed my whims, universe!

I look Tranio up on the old Facebook. Karen. Karen Whittaker according to the playbill.

She’s friends with a girl I knew in college. A theater girl.

Surprised, I am not. Former crush, of course, who has since moved to Japan.

Went to high school together, looks like.

I shut it down, trying not to be too much a creeper.

No obvious connections – not even Holly who’s friends with everyone – so I just have to fortify and try to talk to her.

“Take it from the top, just you Lucy.” They break for a little individual instruction. Good group here. Just getting together and playing.

Why wasn’t life like this before?

This really is nice. I want to cry.

I really didn’t think it was so bad as I was living it. Did my job. Did what I was supposed to do. Arted a bit. Went out every now and then. Had a few close friends.

So I thought. It was never like this.

I never realized just how isolated I felt, even as I tried to belong.

Alone in the crowd, as the saying goes.

Never knew, until I cut it all off and started fresh.

Never knew what a rut it was.

Never knew I even needed to get out to see what was possible.

Never knew I was dying while living.

Now I’m living while dying.

To those reading this after. Go and live dammit. Drop your bags and quit bringing all your drama and turmoil wherever you go. Stop “living the dream” and just fucking do it.

Present yourself to the moment and let it wash over you like the music washing over me now. So brilliant and beautiful even in it’s raw, unpracticed form.

Why? Because it’s made by people who do it for the joy.

Important lesson of life. Do it for the joy.

Thank you fiddlers.

I wave Holly over.

“Thanks for picking it up, Holly.” I take the replacement roll she grabbed from my place.

“Oh, no problem at all Julien,” she said as she hopped up on the stool next to me, bumping the upright bass player. “OH I’m so sorry!” She beamed at him.

His thunder-face smoothes to a calm Summer’s day with that smile.

She’d get away with murder. Maybe.

“Thaddius was super helpful,” she meant Superieur. Thaddius was his real name.

“Supe was super, huh?” I joked. Blank stare. “That’s his nickname.”

“OOOOH”

“He got from a bottle of wine.” And his own ego, a little bit. “But he let you in?”

“Yes! He was so sweet. Taking time from his work to make sure I found your place and then he got it for me from the top top shelf of your closet. I didn’t have to grab the step stool like you were worried about, silly. He was such a gentleman, he even carried the box for me down the stairs and around the block to my car. It’s not that heavy, I could have carried it but he insisted saying ‘I would be a terrible friend to J if I allowed a dear friend of his to lug this to her car and a terrible gentlman if I left you unescorted on the street.’ And he even made a little mock bow. I thought he was making fun of me at first, for being short and for parking on the wrong street and walking three blocks, but he was really sweet.”

She finished. Finally.

“Anyway, are you okay? It’s not like you to ask me for a favor and really not like you to forget a spare printer roll like this for an event.”

I didn’t.

There was a spare roll in the case. The printer wasn’t even close to out.

I kinda set them up to meet.

“I’m fine, Holly.” I tell her, her piercing blue eyes very hard to meet. She’s sincerely worried. “Thank you for asking though. Didn’t sleep well.”

“It shows. You look terrible,” brutally honest appraisal, “Sleep is very important for your health. I want you to get better sleep and take care of yourself.” Little did she know. “Promise me you’ll get at least eight hours the next two nights so those bags go away.” She looked at me frankly.

“Sure thing.”

“Good,” that decided, her face resumed the high beams. “Now,” she hopped off the stool, “Thaddius is waiting for me, he was sweet and drove me over here and we’re going out.”

“I thought he walked you to your car,” I said, confused.

“He did, but when we got there, I couldn’t find the keys in my bag and I was looking for like five minutes, taking everything out, and then he spotted them on the seat, so he gave me a ride.”

Ho boy.

“That was very nice of him, Holly, and very sweet of you to bring me this,” I say, “Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome, Julian.”

She gave me a peck on the cheek and was on her way.

I texted Supe. ‘Smooth, man. You did lock the door, right?’

‘Shit. I’ll get Mont to. That ass is hypnotizing.’

 

-j.e. pittman