Ansel glared at Angel through his blond mop of hair.
“Quiet, you’ll wake him up!” He growled in a whisper.
“No I won’t, he’s sound asleep!” Chirped Angel, who was not so cautiously, in fact rather loudly rummaging through the change bowl in the top drawn of the dresser.
The room was cast in the light of a full moon spilling through the massive old wooden framed windows on the south side wall.
Ansel fidgeted and flitted about as Angel slipped both hands into the bowl. The coins jostled and clattered against one another as she continued her search.
Gentle breathing emanated from the head on the pillow on the bed in the room that was lit by the radiance of the full moon.
The breather seemed at peace. The consistent rhythm of the soft inhales and exhales would have been perceived as soothing by most.
Unfortunately for Ansel, he was not ‘most’ and so was not soothed. It wasn’t that he couldn’t appreciate a tranquil breathing cadence. No, for Ansel the issue was more situational, and the ‘situation’ was Angel’s characteristic devil may care attitude. She glanced at him mischievously, her eyes sparkling, then turned back to the task at hand.
“Eureka” squealed Angel hoisting a shining silver dollar. Her smile was as dazzling as the slivery coin flickering and gleaming in the moonlight.
“Didn’t know they made these anymore. Total treasure Ansel, massive treasure. We’re rich!” She gushed.
“Shhhhh! We’re not rich, we’re couriers!” Ansel huffed, still fidgeting. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Quit being such a fun sucker” Angel snapped. Then in a softer reassuring tone, she cooed, “Relax, we have the best job in the world. Can’t you enjoy a chance victory? It’s the little things in life Ansel, or in this case a big shiny one.”
The head on the pillow stirred, and as it did the rhythmic breathing skipped a beat. The sleeper mumbled a few indistinct words and turned on the pillow.
Ansel and Angel froze. Two awkwardly posed statues holding their breath. After what seemed like an eternity the peaceful rhythm of soft inhales and exhales resumed. The silver dollar glinted in Angel’s trembling hand.
“Let’s go!” Ansel snarled under his breath.
“Fine” Angel hissed. She readjusted the silver dollar in her hand. It felt heavy and was becoming hard to grip due to the beads of perspiration on her palm.
The two coin collectors looked toward the doorway making sure it had not become occupied by a family dog or cat. They were fond of dogs, and cats too for that matter, but the feeling was not always mutual.
Ansel made for the door. Angel followed, as she did the perspiration on her palm made a play for the coin wresting it from her grip. She watched with a look of horror as the silver dollar tumbled end over end toward the worn oak floorboards. Hearing her gasp Ansel turned his head. His eyes widened to the size of tea saucers as his lips formed a silent scream, “Nooooooo!”
The coin slammed into the floor with a clank, bounced onto its edge, and commenced to roll in a weaving path toward the doorway.
The formerly peaceful head on the pillow launched skyward, eyes wide open and issued and rather urgent “What the…?”
At a full sprint Angel grabbed Ansel’s hand. She flung him toward the door with her right hand while scooping the coin up with her left.
The head on the pillow was now well off the pillow and rising; becoming a body out of bed. “Who’s there?” The voice bellowed. To be clear the bellow was a mixture of anger and consternation, mostly consternation.
Ansel rounded the door jamb and got his hand over Angel’s mouth just in time to prevent her from saying “No one!”
The head on the pillow, now a body out of bed scanned the room, rubbed its sleepy eyes, then took a second look. Nothing moved, no sound could it hear. The former head on the pillow sat down on the bed, took a sip of water from the glass on the bedside table, and cast a bemused gaze in the direction of the moonlit windows.
Three minutes later the silver dollar was safely hidden. Tucked between the fitted sheet and pillowcase of a much smaller bed with a much smaller head on its pillow. Earlier that day, as you may have guessed, the much smaller head had lost its first small tooth.
Then without a sound, the couriers exited as they often do through the chimney flue, and fluttered off into the night.
For more on that which lead to this, see Lester McClain and the Bear I, II, & III.
On Saturday, October 5th Lester awoke to the golden shimmer of autumn sunlight sparkling on the turning Aspen leaves. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he focused on a scene that secured in his still foggy mind the notion that he was indeed still asleep. Dillon, the barkeep, stood just outside the picture window smoking a morning cigarette. Shash stood towering over the kitchen counter pouring himself a cup of steaming hot coffee, and the enormous Grizzly bear sat in the corner of the kitchen. The bear appeared to be deep in thought.
“Coffee bear?” Shash asked, lifting his cup to pantomime the offer. The bear blinked then nodded his head to the affirmative. Lester watched still uncertain of the whole situation as Shash carefully held out the cup. The sweet scent of Dillon’s cigarette made it’s way through the slightly open kitchen door, sharpening Lester’s foggy morning senses. The bear, not having opposable thumbs reached for the steaming cup with both paws. As the mug hit his pads, he growled disapprovingly. Shash held up a finger, “try this,” he pulled a short stool close and set the mug on it. “Give it a minute to cool down; it’s hot!” The bear leaned in and assessed the steam rising from the mug. Shash raised his hand, “hold on.” He crossed the kitchen, floorboard creaking desperately under his weight. He opened the ancient Frigidaire and removed two glistening ice cubes. He returned to bear who sat transfixed, mesmerized by the swirling mist emanating from the coffee. “Let this sit for a second,” he said gently releasing the cubes into the cup. The bear watched as the cubes slowly disintegrated in the black liquid. Once Shash gave him the nod he lapped at the coffee. Lester was sure that he saw the bear’s eyes widen followed by what appeared to be a rarely seen Ursa grin.
Dillon entered from the deck in a hallow of smoke just in time to hear Lester’s first words of the day which were, “What the fuck is going on? How’d you get in here?” And finally with to tone of near hysterical exasperation, “Is that a real bear?”
“Hey Les,” said Dillon, “top o’ the morning!”
“Yes,” said Shash, apparently taking the questions in reverse order. “He is a real bear. As to how we got in, I used the key you keep under the fake rock by the garage. As to what’s going on…let’s say that we are friends here to lend a hand.”
“Is there any more coffee?” Dillon asked.
“Plenty,” Shash offered. “Grab a mug.”
As Dillon made his way across the worn pine board floor to the cupboard, Lester sat upright on his couch-bed-thing and once again rubbed his eyes to ensure that they were not playing tricks on him.
“Lend a hand?” Lester grunted, his tone both indignant and curious.
The bear eyed him for a moment the lapped at his coffee.
“Yes Lester, we are here to lend a hand. Coffee?” Shash motioned to the pot.
“Please,” said Les slowly swinging his legs to the floor and making to stand. The bear watched him closely and again appeared to be smiling, which was an odd, almost disconcerting look for a bear.
“We’ve been paying attention to your situation,” said Shash. “Dillon brought you up to me back in the Spring after seeing you at the bar every night. He mentioned that…”
“Dillon seemed terrified of you that night!” Lester interrupted. “Now you’re in cahoots?”
Shash and the bear growled in unison. “Dillon seamed ‘terrified’ because he had taken something of mine without asking and was concerned that I would grape-squash his head over it. Needless to say, we settled that matter with his melon intact. He is my nephew after all, and blood is thicker than…stuff.”
“Oh,” Les wrapped his index and middle finger around the handle of a chipped white porcelain mug in the cupboard and turned to the coffee pot. “And the bear? Is he your kin too?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Shash said raising his cup and taking a long pull. He looked over at the bear who was wrestling his mug with both paws licking the last drops of coffee with his long bear tongue.
“And what manner of speaking would that be?” Lester barked.
“He’s my brother.” Shash offered matter of factly.
“From another mother?” Les chuckled, clearly proud of himself for knowing something the kids might-maybe say when presented with a similar situation.
“Same mother,” Dillon offered, “Do you have any breakfast food? Bread, eggs, bacon perhaps?
Les was not feeling okay about this situation. Unlike in the movies where weird shit happens, and the protagonist somehow assimilates it and takes it in stride, he was clear on the fact that this, the bear, in particular, was not normal.
“Ah, yes.” He groaned. Rubbed his throbbing forehead, he stammered, “Bread is in the cupboard to the right of the sink. Bacon and eggs in the left bottom drawer in the Fridge.”
“Lester,” Shash began, “It’s time we had a chat.”
The bear looked up from his coffee, locked eyes with Les and nodded in agreement.
“No fucking way!” Les blurted, staring through the passenger window at the sitting Grizzly.During his time in the mountains, he had only had two encounters with bears, in as many days, yesterday and today.A wave of uneasiness swept over him with the intensity of a mountain storm, swift and ominous.Deciding that McGee Creek would not be his fishing destination de jour Les turned the key to fire up the Cruiser.The always reliable starter whined, but the engine did not catch.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, “Not Good!”Les released his twisting pressure on the key momentarily then tried again glaring imploringly at the ignition.The starter whinnied on for seconds like an anguished electric horse, but the familiar roar of the engine did not come.
“Slam” something hit the driver side window with such force that Les closed his eyes, certain that he would be covered with broken glass.His right hand shot to the passenger seat wrapping his hand around the grip of his pistol.As he took up the .45, he saw through the passenger window that the bear was no longer on the river bank.He whipped around to face the driver side window weapon raised.A surprised Shash took a step back, showing a mix of amusement and concern in his dark eyes.
“Jesus!” Came Lester’s muffled voice through the closed window, “You scared the shit out of me!”
“My apologies,” offered Shash, taking another step away from the Cruiser to allow room for his enormous frame to execute the slightest of bows.“Sounds like you’re having engine troubles.I knocked to offer my assistance.”
“Knocked?” Lester thought, “The blow Shash had landed could have crushed a lesser car!” Les’ mind was swimming.“Bears, giants, dead engines, what the fuck?Did someone drug my Bourbon last night?And what the hell happened to my truck?”
He laid the Browning back on the passenger seat and unbuckled his seatbelt.He reached for the door handle then hesitated.What the hell was this Shash doing here and where the shit-hell had he come from?Les hadn’t seen anyone, other than the Grizzly when he’d pulled to a stop here in the middle of nowhere, and there were no other cars at the turnout.
“Pop the hood,” Shash commanded in his deep rumble of a voice, “I’ll have a look.”
After a pregnant moment of consideration, Les smiled weakly and complied.As the giant made his way to the front of the Cruiser Les noticed that he appeared to be wearing the same oversized mad-max, bounty hunter regalia that he’d worn last night at the Sierra Springs.Les glanced at the Browning resting on the seat beside him, considering the bizarre, disconcerting nature of his current situation, then decided to leave where it lay.He took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his brow, opened his door and stepped out onto the dusty gravel ground of the turnout.
Shash had opened the hood and reached into the engine compartment with a mechanic’s confidence.“Try it now” he bellowed not realizing that Lester had left the cab and was now standing two feet from him.Les jumped, “Jesus!” He exclaimed.
“How much coffee have you had this morning friend?You seem a bit edgy.”Shash grinned.
Lester looked up at him with a mixture of indignation, awe and thinly veiled alarm.Without saying a word he turned and marched back to the cab.
“I’m definitely taking a nap today” he muttered to himself.
Les swung into the driver’s seat and turned the key.Sweet internal combustion music sprang from the now purring engine.Shash closed the hood. “Loose spark plug connections.All good for now, but you may wanna look at replacing them before winter.”Les, sitting in the driver seat with a bit of a glazed look on his face nodded slowly. “Safe travels Lester” Shash said.Then he turned and strode across the road.
“Thank you,” Les yelled at the closed window, his words bouncing loudly throughout the cab.He fumbled for the window switch, but by the time the window was opening Shash had crossed the road and was heading for the woods.Les watched mutely as the giant made his way into the beginnings of a cedar grove and vanished.
Lester McClain sat motionless gripping the steering wheel; feeling the gentle vibration born of the purring engine on his damp palms.Eventually coming out of his stupor he turned his gaze to McGee Creek.No sign of the bear.Releasing the wheel, he ran his hands through his hair leaning back with a long exhale.“Jesus!” He exclaimed for the third time that morning.He put the cruiser in gear. Fishing was no longer on the agenda.No, if fact Les was suddenly and overwhelmingly motivated to pursue indoor activities for the rest of the day. With a spray of gravel, he wheeled out onto the road, made a hurried U-turn and headed back down the mountain.
Days can lose their given names when one has no particular thing that must be done or no particular place to be.Every day can be a Saturday or any day for that matter.Lester McClain had managed to put himself in a position where the names of days had little relevance.He had been unlucky in love, a story for a later time, but lucky in the realm of finance and so he had opted for an early escape from the American grind.
Overlooking his remaining days from a fiscally secure vantage point, Les had decided to liquidate most of his holdings and deposited the substantial proceeds into a low-risk mutual fund.He then sold most of his possessions, keeping only what he could fit in his silver 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser and moved from San Francisco to Lee Vining California to take up a quiet life in the mountains.The ghosts and demons that followed him were unwelcome, so as most of us do he relegated them to the dungeon of his mind and went about his life as though they had never existed.
For several years now his routine had been simple, probably deathly dull to most, but mostly satisfying to him.Hike, fish, read, avoid dealing with any personal issues, hike some more, have a drink or three in the evening, sleep, repeat.That much time alone will make a man his own best friend, trusted confidant, or his own worst enemy.And so it was the case that Lester McClain had the habit of talking to himself out loud on a regular basis.
Les sat up blurry eyed on the old brown leather sofa opposite the kitchenette in his tiny cabin.The summer sun had demanded his attention at 5:30am.At that unreasonably early hour, his reluctant body rose to the ritual calling of his morning routine.
“I need some fucking curtains!” he muttered to himself.
Cold, fucking cold, water splashed on his face, mostly to force the eyes into focus. That focus revealed bloodshot blue eyes with a faint ring or yellow around the iris, greying, unkempt blond hair falling in tangles to his collar and a three-day beard. Having finished the unpleasantry of cold water coupled with a mirror prior to 6am Lester commenced a staggerer’s walk toward the kitchen to start the coffee.As he sat on the sofa waiting for the percolation to complete, he found himself regretting that last glass of bourbon, five drinks were not his custom.
“Nice to see you?” he remembered. “Who was that…guy?”Les had, by his own choice embraced a life a relative solitude.He had not, to his recollection, ever met this Shash who joined him last night at the bar, yet the giant had seemed to know him.“Ugh,” he thought, “I need coffee.”He made his way back across the spartan cabin floor, smooth worn pine boards seamed loosely to allow for the breathing of the seasons, to the kitchen counter and poured a tall cup of deep black waking.His hand rested on the chipped white tile countertop as he took a deep, tongue scalding gulp.“Ahh!”
The Land Cruiser engine roared, 6:15am time to be somewhere that was not here.“What day is it?” He thought.“Ah, does it matter? Nope.”He said to the steering wheel.He guided the shift lever into reverse and backed down the driveway.The sound of off-road tires on the gravel had become music to Les; the soundtrack to his comings and goings.
As he drove toward the Narrow Canyon, he remembered the bear.It had appeared way up river as he hooked the last of his three trout the day before.As he worked the line, he had seen out of the corner of his eye the massive shape of an upright full-grown Grizzly bear.He reeled the large rainbow hard but not so hard as to break the line then let it run a bit under the deep bend of the graphite rod, keeping an eye on the fish, using his peripheral vision to monitor on the bear.Les had seen bears before on the river and did not take such encounters lightly.As the fish fought for its freedom, the bear seemed only to watch.Les’ mind wandered to the holstered Browning .45 on his right hip.So fixated did his thoughts become on the gun and bear that he almost lost the fish.
When the fish finally surrendered, he looked directly at the bear.The bear too seemed finished and stepped away from the river, vanishing behind a stand of pines.Les netted the fish and turned downstream.He creek hopped thirty yards or so in the direction of the Land Cruiser then turned to scan for his possible pursuer.Nothing but water, stone, forest, and sky.He took the fish from the net and quickly ran his knife through to end it’s suffering.
“I’m sorry I made you wait” he whispered to the now at peace fish.“Thank you for the gift of your sustenance.”
Les checked again for the bear, no trace.He placed the third rainbow in his creel, secured his fly to the rod anchor and made for the safety of his truck.
Les, not being a superstitious man had not attributed anything to the incident with the bear other than a man and a bear happening by chance to be at the same place at the same time.Following that logic he decided while driving to change course, abandoning Narrow Canyon for a morning at McGee Creek.“No need to go where the bear is fishing,” he said to the dashboard, averting his eyes from the blazing morning sun that careened down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.The Cruiser slowed to a stop at a small parking turnout adjacent to McGee.Les turned the key and was about to pull it from the ignition when he saw it,the bear.A huge Grizzly bear was sitting by the river, pensively watching the water play across the rocks. As he watched, stunned, the bear looked up. Les thought he saw the faintest hint of a smile on its face.
Lester McClain sat at the bar, gazing over his glass of single barrel Four Roses bourbon at the glittering array of bottles along the mirrored wall.His hands rested on the worn oak bar top, its lacquer nearly nonresistant in places where for decades patrons had leaned their elbows, set their belongings or held on for dear life as the countless drinks had taken hold.The bartender passed back and forth, no more than an blur; a ghost drifting this way then that serving the spirit needs of the living.
Les had been fly fishing the Narrow Canyon Creek that day.It had been a good day for such adventure.Not too hot, the water was crystal clear as it hadn’t rained in a week, and the trout had been in the mood to be deceived.He had cleaned and packed the catch of three rainbows on ice before walking the pine-lined lane from his cabin to the Sierra Springs Tavern for his nightly cocktail.It was a relatively normal day, except for the bear.
The faintest scent of tobacco wafted in with the opening of the door. Les loved the aroma of tobacco, cigarettes, cigars or pipes; which was odd because he couldn’t stand the taste of any of them and so did not partake.
“Mind if I sit,” rasped a deep voice from behind and to his left.
Lester turned to see a man of substantial presence, heavy brown beard, bushy eyebrows, long wild hair and usually large deep brown eyes.So dark was the brown of the man’s eye color that it was hard to tell where his irises ended and the pupils began.
“Be my guest,” Les offered, sliding to his right to make room for the unusually large man.
The old stool groaned as the stranger sat and the bar flinched to a near buckle under the weight of his massive forearms. He seemed familiar, in an odd, not particularly comfortable way, as though Les had met him in a dream but never in waking life.He thought it curious that this fellow had chosen the neighboring seat at the long spacious bar.Perhaps he was in need of companionship.From the wild look of him, Les surmised that he might have gone quite some time without conversation or at least a conversation with someone who wasn’t concerned for their personal safety.
The phantom barkeep materialized in front of the two men but took a half step back when he focused on the newcomer.
“Shash,” he blurted, “long time no see.” His tone teetered between conversational and disconcerted.“What can I get you?”
“Old Rip Van Winkle 25, double.”
“No.”As an afterthought, Shash added, “thank you, no thank you on the ice.”
The barkeep vanished.Les turned to his new companion, who seemed suddenly lost in thought, “Name’s Lester, Lester McClain.”
“Yes,” agreed the stranger.Silence.Perhaps he wasn’t interested in conversation after all.The keep set the glass of Rip down on the bar; it seemed to emit the faintest glow.
“I’ve never heard of Old Rip Van Winkle” Les offered. “I’m a Four Roses man myself.”
“It’s not sold here, Old Rip Van Winkle,” said Shash.“Junior keeps it in a hidden cabinet at the end of the bar.”
“Junior?” Les thought, the guy’s name is Dillon.Though he surmised, compared to this substantial gentleman, everyone was a ‘Junior’ of sorts.
“How was the fishing today?” The giant asked.
“Ah, good.How did you know I was fishing.”
“I can smell it.”Shash offered.
Lester raised his glass as if to take a sip, which he did.More of a gulp really, but it was the sniffing of his hand, which he had thoroughly washed that was his true intention.He smelled only soap and bourbon.
The brown-eyed man raised his glass, swallowed the double in one gulp, set the glass down gently on the bar.
“Nice to see you, Lester.Be well.”With that he rose, his stool exhaling a sigh of relief.He adjusted his enormous brown leather coat, turned and walked out of the bar.
“Nice to see you, Lester?”Les thought, did I get too much sun today?
Dillon returned.“Everything okay?” He asked, a bead of sweat escaping his hairline.
“Yeah, ah, yeah, fine.Can I have another Four Roses please?”
“On the house.”Dillon offered, pouring quickly then darting off.
“On the house? That’s a first!” Les thought, swirling his bourbon in the glass. He watched the amber liquid cling to the walls of the cylindrical vessel then slowly fall in viscous waves under gravity’s pull.Dillon scurried outside for a smoke break.Les sipped his bourbon, considering the odd moments that had just passed, trying to conjure any waking memory of his curious new acquaintance.The sweet smell of Dillon’s cigarette wafted through the open front door of the Sierra Springs Tavern.Les inhaled deeply, raised his glass and took a long pull.
A salesman came to the door yesterday.I was drinking black coffee in the living room when I heard the knock. We don’t get many uninvited callers on our long dead-end street, which works out well for me.I slowly set down my old white porcelain mug and rose from my writing perch on the dark brown leather sofa.Click went the lock. We have no peephole so the next bit would have to be a surprise.There he stood, in a smart black suit, attaché case in his left hand, right hand cupped to his mouth.Think he was checking the state of his breath.
“Hello,” I said.
“Good afternoon,” he replied, quickly lowering his hand.
“My name is Xavier Mulligan, may I please have a moment of your time to present a most irresistible opportunity?”
“How irresistible?” I asked, wreaking of doubt.
“Exceedingly irresistible sir, I assure you.Give me but two minutes to introduce the offer and if by that time you are not interested I will vacate directly,”he said with unwavering confidence.
“Ah, okay.” I reluctantly mumbled.
“May I come in?”
“I suppose,” I said.My hesitation painting my face into a near grimace.Though truth be told, I was a tad intrigued.
“Thank you kindly,” he said accepting the opening door with a quick step forward and then there we were in my living room.My cooling coffee cup reminding me of traditional hosting duties.
“And how would you like to be called?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Your name?” He nodded.
“Oh, Landon, Landon Cooper,” I said.Then with the slightest of disarmed stutters, “Would you like a cup of coffee Mr…?”
“Please, call me Xavier,” he offered politely.
I almost laughed thinking that calling him “Xavier” seemed a thousand times more formal than using any surname I’d ever heard.
“Alright, coffee then Xavier?”
“No thank you, but I would love a spot of tea if you happen to have the leaf in-house.”
“I do,” I said fighting the involuntary raise of my eyebrow.“Will Earl Grey do?”
“Oh yes, that would be splendid,” he said, running his free hand through his silvering dark hair.
I realized that by asking for tea, he had cleverly extended the original terms of his ‘two-minute pitch cap.’What had I gotten myself into?
As I microwaved the water for his “spot of Tea” I found myself thinking, “spot of tea?”“Did this guy come to the neighborhood in a Tardis?”My next thought was, “This fucker may be completely psycho and looking to eat my liver with those beans and a fine Chianti.”
I mentally checked in with the baseball bat in the hall closet, then the shotgun in the laundry room; took a breath, set the Earl Grey tea bag in the steaming mug and returned to the living room in the full bloom of questioning my sanity for letting this tea drinking stranger into my home.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, taking the mug and bouncing the bag to encourage the darkening of its brew.
“Again I don’t want to waste your time, so I’ll get right to it.” He said, adopting a serious tone and looking me straight in the eye.
“I’m in the business of unique opportunity.”He began, “extremely rare opportunity actually.”He paused, sipping his tea, eyeing me with a calm, confident smile.
“I see,” I said.“And what sort of opportunity are we talking about?” I asked with a hint of polite aggression.
“I’m in the business of second chances,” he offered, taking another sip of tea.
I stared at him.No words formed.
“Yes, it is an unusual product, to be certain.”He offered,“In short supply and little known on the open market.”
My blank stare slowly transformed into an open-mouthed “huh?”
“Mr. Cooper, if you had it to do all over again would you?”He asked.
“Do what all over again?”I’m sure my tone of voice unveiled the blend of curiosity, incredulity, and consternation coursing through my mind.A mind that had minutes before been at relative peace.Which for me is saying something.
“It, all of it, your life!” He stated matter of factly.
“Okay, what the hell,” Was all I could come up with.
He stared into my eyes, took a long sip from his mug then spoke.“I’m am authorized to offer you a do-over; a second go at this very life you are living right now.
“How…what the…how the hell would that work?” I sputtered.
“Very simply actually.You sign a few documents acknowledging your desire to indeed “Do it all over again” then poof, off you go to take a second run at this one life.”
I gaped at him in total disbelief, absent-mindedly spilling a bit of black coffee into my lap.
“Poof!” I stammered.“What exactly do you mean by poof?”
“I mean you would be born again into this world to have another go.Don’t you think it would be amazing to have a second chance at a lifetime here on earth?Think of all the things you could do, create, accomplish with a second chance!”He settled back on the sofa opposite me and waited, unblinking.
“What about this life?” I thought to myself.“I love this life.”I took a gulp of lukewarm coffee which suddenly seem not nearly strong enough.
“Forgive the language Xavier, but what the fuck are you talking about?How the hell would that work and why should it?More importantly, why have I of all people been selected for this, and I quote ‘unique opportunity’?” My voice rising to a crescendo of insolence by the end of the sentence.
“You’ve earned it,” he offered politely.“I understand that this is, well, odd at the very least but I assure you this opportunity is most legitimate.Please take a moment to sit with it.May I refill my tea?The kitchen is just through there yes?”
I nodded.Xavier rose and headed toward the kitchen; the clip-clop of his dress shoes on the hardwoods gradually fading.I fidgeted on the couch, uneasy, certain that I was either dreaming, crazy, or had accidentally made myself an unbelievably strong midday Irish coffee.Not my habit.
“As a rule, there are knives in a kitchen,” I thought.But if he came here for that purpose, he’d most likely have everything he needed for the job in that attaché case of his.I accepted the likelihood that he was not going to the kitchen for a knife and turned my thoughts the far more ridiculous reason for his visit, offering me a do-over!
Was he offering me a second chance at life because I’d fumbled this one?Was the offer a reward, an act of charity, or on a more sinister note, was it a punishment?Was it a test?I took quick synaptic inventory of my many years and saw ample flashes of regret.Yes, I found things I would have done differently if I had them to do over again.I also found moments, hours, years that I would not trade for all the Earl Grey in China or anywhere else.I sipped the now cold coffee.
There are a million ways to do life; to lose and to win, to surrender and just let it happen. There are moments of triumph and moments of regret.There are memories to wish away, others to celebrate. Perhaps, most importantly all those instances are available to make peace with.Though I’m sure these thoughts have lived in my subconscious every day, I realized in that instant that I’m not proud of everything I’ve done, neither am I ashamed of the life I’ve chosen.Are we here to be perfect, or to learn, and grow?And there was the answer.Crashing out of my flashback trance, I released a deep sigh.Mr. Xavier Mulligan returned with his tea, smiling.
“So,” he said, “What’s the verdict?”
“Hmm, Mr. Mulligan?”
“Please, call me Xavier.” He corrected
“Oh right, Xavier, I’m, ah, I’m going to have to say no to your kind offer,”I said with a new found smile.
“Really,” he said taking a sip of what seemed from the copious amount of steam to be scalding hot tea, without wincing.
“Yes,” I said.“I’m grateful for the gesture, and I do believe this is a most rare opportunity indeed.That said, I also realize that the very trip I’m engaged in at this moment is also a rare opportunity. An opportunity to experience my ‘one’ life, complete with all its gifts, and its share of misfortune; experiences which I’m not likely to recapture should I abandon it now.”I said raising my mug to swill the last bit of room temperature clarity.
“I see,” he said.“Understood, understood.Well then, I suppose it is time for me to take my leave as we have no further business here.Before I go, are you absolutely sure of your choice?”He asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said.Then in what appeared to be a choreographed moment we rose simultaneously, his steaming cup still holding court on its coaster.He lifted his attaché, gave a slight bow, and strode toward the front door.I followed and reached to open it as he buttoned his coat.
“Thank you for your time Mr. Cooper, I’m sorry to have wasted it,” He said.
“Not at all Mr. Mulligan, if fact it seems you’ve given me a gift.”I offered.
“Have I?” He smiled.“Excellent!”He said crossing the threshold and making his way down the front steps into the brilliant sunlight of the late spring day.
Juliet zipped her dress and gave herself a once over in the hotel room mirror. “Here we go again,” she half spoke, half laughed then took a swig of Stoli straight from the bottle.
I peered around her well-preserved, thirty-something body into the mirror straightening my tie. “If I have to go to one more of dad’s weddings I swear I’ll set myself on fire!” I said.
“Really? Oh, that would be so sad for me. I’d have to go to all his future weddings without my favorite brother. Besides I thought you always wanted to die in a killer whale attack.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “killer whale attack has long been my preferred legendary death scenario…and I’m your ‘only’ brother.”
“Which makes you a shoe-in for ‘favorite’ you awesome man.” She laughed.
Both of my sisters are wonderful, but Jules and I have always been especially close. Our senior, and noticeably absent sister Samantha was supposed to be with us for pre-ceremony cocktails, but it seemed her chronic tardiness had struck again.
Juliet handed me the Stoli, “At least we’ll never have to live with this one.” She smiled.
“True.” I mused. “I suppose being somewhat grown up and thoroughly self-sufficient has its perks.”
The door flew open. “Sorry, I’m late!” Samantha rolled into the room like a runaway circus train, garment bag, cosmetics kit, and other undefined bits of tiny luggage hanging from her person. “What are we drinking?”
“The usual pre-dad’s-wedding fair…vodka.” I handed her the bottle, and as her lips touched it, we had once again closed the circle, completing a ritual celebration that had been part of the Montfort family culture since we were in high school. Other family’s had Thanksgiving or Christmas; we had Dad’s weddings.
Sam lowered the bottle, “Well, here we go again! How long do you think this one’ll last?”
Juliet sat on the edge of the bed pulling on her high heels. She motioned for a bottle pass. “Her name is Candy for Christ’s sake…it can’t last too long!”
“I don’t know,” I interjected. “Bambi lasted almost 13 months…come on…Bambi? I give ‘Candy’ better odds.
By now the average observer may be wondering why three siblings in their late thirties to early forties were in a hotel room preparing for a wedding with no significant others in tow. As it happens, the old expression about the falling apple and the inevitable proximity of its final resting place relative to the tree from which it came is beautifully illustrated by our family. That’s right, my sisters and I are all divorced.
The advent of dad’s pending nuptials had Samantha in a reminiscent mood. “Do you remember the screaming red Christmas tree that Cinnamon put up my senior year? The place looked like a holiday whore house.”
“Who could forget,” I laughed. “How about Buffy’s pink Corvette with the heart decals?” To this day her dropping me off at school in that thing ranks among my most awkward moments. Idiot high school boys alternately calling me a fag for coming to school in a pink car, then saying they wanna ‘tag’ my mom. “Ew,” I’d protest, “she’s not my mom”…and as an afterthought, “and I’m not gay you assholes!”
My darling sisters laughed. We’re a fucked up bunch to be sure, but at least we have each other. The shared experience of growing up in the company of a fast-moving parade of “dancers” has had the effect of “Gorilla Glue for the Soul” on us. Jules looked at her watch and grimaced. Then as her right hand applied deep red lipstick, her left reached into her carry-on luggage sized purse. Without turning her attention from the mirror, she found, apparently by Braille, and produced three silver flasks. She tossed them at me with a playful wink. “Fill ‘em up bro; it’s go time!” As I poured and spilled the Stoli into the unreasonably small flask openings, I laughed to myself. Thank god for my two wonderful sisters. We may not be well equipped for matrimonial endeavors of our own, but we make a hell of a team at a stripper’s wedding.
We raised the dripping flasks high. “To Pops and…uh, Candy is it?” Sam hissed.
Jules snorted, which turned my snigger into a guffaw. I quickly composed myself. Cleared my throat and in my best, if hastily conceived oratorical tone confirmed the name of the stepmom de jour. “Yes, yes, to Pops and Candy, and the two most wonderfully inappropriate, dazzlingly witty and truly lovely siblings-in-arms a brother could ask for!”
“Goddamnit,” Jules scolded. “If you make me tear up I’ll wipe my runny-makeup face all over that white shirt!” I laughed. We finished the toast with the clink of silver and a quick slug. Next stop, stepmom-o-rama!
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He reached into his lab coat and produced a flask and two plastic shot glasses, “Cheers!”
“Ha, we’re celebrating my terminal diagnosis?” I said with a hastily shaken tone cocktail of irony, indignation and false bravery.
“We all have a terminal diagnosis, my friend. I love you, and this shot is to celebrate your life. The life behind you, that left before you, and most importantly this moment, when we here together face the inevitable; the heartache, the confusion, the freedom, and the truth, that we all try so desperately to ignore.”
I found myself smiling in spite of the dour news, “I love you, man.”
Doctor James had been my college roommate freshman year, and my best friend for the last thirty years of my now seemingly bookended life. Together we had surfed the waves off the Santa Barbara coast, chased the same woman at parties and fought over the outcome, ridden a motorcycle through the courtyard of a dormitory with frantic RAs chasing us. This was the man who knew me better than anyone on the planet. He had supported me every step of the way. He knew when to say “I’m sorry,” and he knew how to forgive. He was the perfect person the usher me onto the crowded tarmac for those awaiting passage to the hereafter.
“So by ‘no’ you mean there’s no cure?” I asked.
He looked me in the eye, raised his plastic shot glass to offer a toast, I obliged with a shaky reciprocal gesture.
“There is only one cure for life, and as mortals, we will all one day be cured. May you rock the fuck out of the days, months, or years left to you. May you know that I love you like a brother with all my heart and will ride this last wave with you wherever it may take us.” He held his glass and my gaze.
Damn him; the fucking bitch made me tear up. I killed the shot and immediately put my cup out for a second.
“How long?” I asked.
“I don’t fucking know…six months, six years, it’s so fucking random. Let’s see, no sugar diets, kale, and on the uh-oh side, hidden guilt, self-hatred, or an emerging heretofore unseen badass extreme will to live. I could tell you some number, but then that number enters your reality and who the fuck am I to shape your perspective on something like this? I’m just a doctor.” James laughed as he filled our little plastic shot cups.
“Let’s go to the mountains and hike.” He said. “I’ll clear my schedule; we’ll go to my place in the Sierras, spend a couple of days and let this percolate.”
“Are you coming on to me?” My super thin, false bravado wavering.
“Ha, fuck you, I’ll bring coffee, be ready by 8 am.” Doctor J. hissed with a shit-eating grin.
“Thanks?” I had to laugh. Hiking would be good!
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The wooden window frame creaks gently at the caress of the breeze. Dew drops tremble on the laden blades of grass running from the mailbox to the front steps. Sunglow shines at the edge of the world, kissing the brickwork of the sleepy cottage, built long ago for someone’s profit, filled this day mostly with love. In the kitchen, the faintest click signals the release of water, soon to be steam, then to become the rich black elixir that she loves with just a dash of cream.
As always the alarm is set but unneeded. Her long lashes flutter open to the glow of this new day. Most mornings her first thoughts are steeped in gratitude…for all of it. For her life, her child, her present moment, and still with some difficulty she embraces and acknowledges her gratitude for the past. Every day has lead to this moment, the aroma of coffee, the faint light filling the skylights, the peace that once seemed a phantom now seems a life.
“Yes, my darling one.”
“Can I have some coffee?” Her son Jonah asks.
“Certainly, but no sugar please.”
“Joey, have you noticed what an amazing gift this morning is?”
“Yes mom, I said my gratitudes,” his words wander naturally down this well-worn path.
“Excellent! I love you!”
“Love you too.”
Three paintings hang on the wall, across the room from her king size bed. The painting on the left is of an intricately patterned caterpillar making its way across a birch branch in what looks to be late Summer. The next is of a delicate chrysalis suspended from a similar branch in the Fall. The painting on the right is of a magnificent butterfly taking wing in the Spring. So it goes that not every day has been this day, full of comfort, and love. But today, a few before, and many after will be very much like this one.
Discomfort, I’ve heard tell, is the price of admission to a meaningful life. Knowing the Butterfly Girl’s story, I believe that to be true.
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