Tag Archives: fiction

A Thanksgiving Short Story

thanksgiving - closed(Last year The Curmudgeon used this space to express his dismay over the proliferation of stores that are open on Thanksgiving and their insistence that their employees spend this day standing behind cash registers serving customers instead of sitting at dining room tables serving turkey and stuffing. He is pleased that this situation appears to be receiving more attention, and while it is at least a little encouraging that some stores are making a big fuss over not being open, their numbers continue to dwindle and he suspects they are fighting a losing battle.

The Curmudgeon thinks about this often; as you know by now, he has much too much free time on his hands. He used some of that free time to explore another way to approach this issue: through fiction and a new short story, hot off the presses, about a couple for whom the work-Thanksgiving-or-else ultimatum becomes all too real. Enjoy – and have a good Thanksgiving.)

 

“Squeezed”

 

Danny and Colleen McBride were sitting at their dining room table, eating dinner with their three children, when the telephone rang. Colleen rose to answer it, going quickly into the kitchen.

Danny noticed the look on his wife’s face when she returned.

“What?” he asked.

“It was Marion,” she replied. Marion was the owner of Sissy’s, the girls clothing store where Colleen had worked part-time for the past four years.

“What did she want?” Danny asked.

“She said she needs me to work on Thursday from twelve to eight.”

“What?” Danny asked.

“You heard me.”

“Since when is she open on Thanksgiving?”

“That’s what I asked. She said she had just decided, that Walmart and Target and Macy’s and Kohl’s and a lot of the others were going to be open and she felt that she needed to be open, too, that if people are going to go Christmas shopping and spend money on Thanksgiving that she couldn’t afford not to compete for their business.”

“Of all the stupid ideas,” Danny said. “So you said no, right?”

“Well, I started to, but…”

“Col…”

“And she said it wasn’t a request, that I had to work it.”

“Or?”

“Or I wouldn’t have a job anymore. She apologized, but she said she couldn’t do it to her full-time girls, that in the end, it was more important for her to keep them happy than it is to keep me happy.”

“Why that piece of…” Danny started saying.

“Danny!” Colleen interrupted, moving her head and eyes almost imperceptibly from side to side to indicate that he needed to watch his words in front of the children.

“So what did you tell her?”

“I said I’d be there. Oh, Danny, what choice do we have?”

Working at Sissy’s was Colleen’s second job; she worked one or two three-hour shifts on weeknights and a six-hour shift on alternating Saturdays and Sundays. This was in addition to her full-time job, as a billing clerk for a small group of orthopedists.

“We need to talk about this,” Danny said. “It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake. We’re expecting how many?”

“Sixteen,” Colleen replied.

“I can handle that with our sisters’ help, but that’s not the point. It’s Thanksgiving. Who works on Thanksgiving?”

“I know.”

Danny, too, worked two jobs. He was a butcher for a local supermarket, and after work every Friday night he headed across town to the food distribution center, where he worked an overnight shift breaking down carcasses for early morning delivery to many of the butcher shops in the city’s bustling Italian Market, where Saturday was by far their busiest day of the week.

Even with the four jobs the McBrides were barely making ends meet. Between tuition for Danny Junior and Kathleen and day care for two-year-old Amy and the mortgage and the health insurance, they seldom found themselves with two spare nickels to rub together. When the transmission in Colleen’s car went over Labor Day weekend and the shop said it would cost $800 to repair, they scrapped the car and Danny started taking two buses to work. Every Friday afternoon Colleen would pick him up at work, drive home, and then Danny would take the car across town to his second job and then hurry home the following morning so Colleen could get to work on time when her Saturday shift at Sissy’s started at ten o’clock. Ever since Danny started taking the bus and it took him longer to get home from work, Danny’s widowed father, who lived three blocks from them, would come to the house on the nights Colleen worked in case Danny didn’t make it home before Colleen needed to leave for the store. At times they talked about asking Jimmy to move in with them, it would be so much easier with him around to help with the kids and the bills and they knew how lonely he was since Danny’s mother had passed away three years ago, but the house was so small, just three bedrooms, one of which was more like a large closet, and only one bathroom, and it seemed impossible to squeeze in another person and they were already concerned about what would happen when Amy was finally potty-trained and needed to use the bathroom, too. They had been talking about adding a powder room in the unfinished basement and even started saving just a little money for that, but it was only a little and they thought it was so important that they had agreed not to raid the bathroom kitty to help pay for the transmission – not that what they had saved so far would have put much of a dent in the $800 cost of making the car run again, especially after they had raided the powder room fund the month before when the eye doctor told them Danny Junior needed glasses.

Two hours later the children were in bed and Danny and Colleen were in their living room, Danny with a bottle of beer in his hand as he sat on the recliner and Colleen on the sofa, occasionally sipping from a cup of decaf. The only light in the room came from the television. When the program they were watching went to a commercial, Danny spoke.

“What if you said no?” he asked.

“What?”

thanksgiving - work“What if you called Marion tomorrow and told her no, you won’t work on Thanksgiving, that it’s a terrible idea to begin with and to do it with two days’ notice is especially unfair.”

“She said she’d fire me.”

“And if she did?”

“You know the numbers, Danny.”

Danny and Colleen were far from poor. The both made about $30,000 a year from their main jobs, and together they brought home another $7500 a year from their part-time work. If someone had told them on their wedding day that together they’d be making nearly $70,000 in ten years they would have smiled and thought they’d be living it up on easy street, it seemed like such a huge amount of money, but time had shown them that a house and three children made easy street part of a far more costly neighborhood than they ever would have imagined.

“Tell me.”

Danny didn’t know the numbers as well as Colleen; she was the partner with the bookkeeping skills. She paid the bills, kept an eye on the checking account balance, and maintained a constantly updated index card with a list of every major expense for which she thought she’d need to write a check in the next three months. Too often, she found herself adding unexpected expenses to that card.

“It’s Thanksgiving, Danny, and that means Christmas is a month away. We could scale back, sure, but we can’t eliminate it entirely, so that means the credit card bill will be higher than most other months. A St. Matthew’s bill, too: two tuition payments due January 10. I put some money aside for that every month so we have most of it, but not all of it, not yet. Plus it’s getting colder, so the gas bill will go up. That reminds me, I need to call the gas company and ask them to put us on a budget. And if I leave Sissy’s, I lose my discount on the girls’ clothes. With some work I can make up for that, probably by going to my sister’s house and using her computer to shop on the internet. It’s not terrible, but it’s not pretty, either.”

“Yeah, I’m hearing that,” Danny said. “This is just so…wrong. Even at the supermarket we close at two on Thanksgiving so everyone can go home, and the people who work that day all knew months ago and only after they finished asking for volunteers. This is such shit.”

“I know. But I can’t quit. We need the money.”

“You can’t find ways to cut corners, save a little money?”

“I can always find little ways to save a little money here and there but the thing about cutting back little things is that no matter how much you do, little things never add up to much. I think we’re stuck.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m just pissed, that’s all. We all belong together on Thursday.

“After the new year, though, I want you to start looking for a new part-time job, and when you find one, I want you to go into that Marion and tell her to go fuck herself.”

Colleen sighed.

“What?” Danny asked.

“First of all, you know I’m not going to say that. Second of all, get what other job? Stores opening on Thanksgiving’s been going on for a few years now, so getting a job at Walmart or Target or Macy’s or Kohl’s won’t be any better. Marion’s open because they’re open, it’s self-defense, you know it’s not her and not something she wants to do.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“Come on, Danny. I’m going to be in the store on Thanksgiving and she’s going to be there, too, the whole day, and you know she’s got four kids of her own and eighteen grandkids and the store’s the last place she wants to be on Thanksgiving.”

“Yeah, I guess. But still…”

“But what?”

“It’s those people who run the Walmarts and Targets, Col. They’re not working on Thursday, that’s for sure, and they put their feet on the throats of people like us because they can, because they know we need them, and because they think if we won’t do it they can pull someone in off the street who will.”

“I know. A few of my friends are in the same position.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Karen Reilly. Suzie Leonard. A few others.”

“These people don’t quit. They just keep squeezing us and squeezing us. Sooner or later there’s not gonna be anything left to squeeze.”

“Tell me about it. Remember, I’m the one who does the checkbook.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know, maybe I can look for something that’s not in a store.”

“Like?”

“I don’t know, but I can look. Maybe some kind of call center job or another doctor’s office at night, or maybe night housekeeping in an office building or waiting tables somewhere.”

“No to those last two. I don’t want you doing that.” Danny got up from his chair and sat close to Colleen on the couch; he put his hand on her thigh. “You do enough cleaning up and waiting on people around here without doing it for other people, too.

“This just isn’t the way I thought things would be. We’re doing better than a lot of our friends, but it never ends. Whether it’s the supermarket making us kick in more for the medical or your boss deciding he wants to extend his office hours an extra half-hour without paying you any more or tuition going up or our kids getting bigger and eating more food and needing new clothes, the pressure never ends. I don’t remember it being like this for my folks.”

“I don’t think it was for mine, either. My mom didn’t work and my dad didn’t make that much, but it was always enough.

“And it never ends. The kids want cable, the school wants them to have a computer at home, and Kathleen’s second teeth are coming in so crooked…”

“Stop. Let’s just get through this one and we’ll worry about the next one when the next one happens,” Danny suggested.

“Yeah, I guess. But when we do it that way, we never have a chance to get ahead.”

“I know, Col, I know.”

 

A Short Story

This past weekend, The Curmudgeon’s high school class held an unofficial reunion.  He says “unofficial” because thanks to Facebook and one tenacious organizer, his classmates circumvented the school’s formal alumni association and put together, more or less on the fly, an informal reunion at, miracle of miracles, a place people might actually want to go to socialize and get reacquainted.

The Curmudgeon, of course, did not attend.  There were 900 people in his graduating class, and when he looked at the list of those attending, he found that he had never heard of one-third of them at all and knew another one-third by name only and had never shared so much as a “hello” with them.  Also, to be fair, The Curmudgeon has never attended one of his reunions because he is, after all, a curmudgeon, and curmudgeons simply do not do social things like attend class reunions.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about them.  A few years ago he wrote a short story that needed to be set at a class reunion, and when he did the math to figure out how old his characters needed to be, it turned out they needed to be his own age (and we shall not get into the Freudian implications of this “coincidence,” thank you).  For this reason, he decided to set his short story at his own thirty-fifth reunion, which he also did not attend.  While the setting is real, everything else about the story is fictitious – unless, of course, the people in the story are among the 500 or so people in his graduating class whom The Curmudgeon either never met or didn’t know at all.

So in honor of Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School class of ’75, this one’s for you.

Enjoy.

 

“Hello and Goodbye”

The letter arrived as it always did, right after Labor Day, bearing the insignia of the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association and addressed to someone who had not lived in the house in more than a generation.  For the first time since such letters started arriving, Phyllis Levy did not insert it into another, larger envelope and forward it, along with other correspondence and items, to wherever her daughter happened to be living at the time.  Instead, she opened the envelope, read that Allison had been invited to her thirty-fifth high school class reunion, circled “yes” on the reply card, enclosed a check covering the cost of attending the event, and put the envelope in the mail.  A few days later, when she confessed what she had done, Allison – much to her mother’s surprise – did not express even a mild objection.

It’s not like I have anything better to do.

Only those who knew Allison best understood that when she had pleaded to previous commitments that prevented her from attending past reunions, she had been telling the absolute truth.  Those who didn’t really know her doubted it:  how she could conceivably have commitments months ahead of time that could not possibly be moved to accommodate this single event that was always held the day after Thanksgiving – the biggest holiday weekend of the year?  Allison knew she had long exhausted her credibility with these skeptics and resigned herself to some people believing that her absence signaled her disdain for the people, the past, or both.  Those who knew her knew better, and that was all that mattered to her.

When the invitation arrived Allison was still in Florida, serving out the three months’ notice she had given of her intention to resign from her position as executive director of the Orlando International Airport.  Allison returned to Philadelphia, unannounced except to her family, the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving and had been so busy settling into her new apartment and seeing her sisters that she did not contact even a single friend or classmate.  In truth, she’d had enough time to do so, but she still had not figured out how to have these conversations and hoped that if she put them off a little longer, she might be struck by divine inspiration about how to address the seemingly unaddressable.

How can you possibly talk about such things without tears?

In the meantime, she told herself that she would simply explain her presence as a long-planned surprise.  This visit – at least the reunion part of it – was so unplanned, in fact, that even as Allison walked through the door of the Cottage Green banquet hall, she still had little idea of how she would handle the evening, or herself.  She did, though, hold out what she thought was a reasonable hope that amid the natural tumult of an event like this, her surprise might barely be noticed at all.

“Welcome, Class of ’75,” declared the large black and gold banner strung across the restaurant’s entrance.

Hello, class of ’75.  I’ve come to say goodbye.

Allison approached the reception table, where she recognized the two women checking in their arriving classmates.  Both were casual acquaintances, not friends, but they all greeted one another warmly.

“You look great,” one of the women said to Allison.

You should have seen the ‘before’ pictures.

Allison put on her name tag and looked around in search of friendly faces as she stepped up to the bar and requested an iced tea.  She knew she would find good company quickly:  over the years she had kept in touch with nearly two dozen of her classmates, some quite regularly, at first by mail and phone and then, in recent years, by email as well.  She knew who was doing what with their lives, what her friends and their families looked like, and more.  She may have been a stranger to reunions, but she was not a stranger to many of her old friends.

“Ten-hut!” a familiar voice called out from behind her.  Allison turned to find Jen Lindley giving her a salute that would have made a veteran proud.

“Permission to hug, colonel?” Jen asked.

“Permission granted,” Allison replied, and the women embraced.  “It’s so good to see you, Jen.”

The salute was a sign of respect for Allison.  Growing up, Allison knew she wanted three things in life:  she wanted to go to college, to fly, and to see the world.  She eventually figured out that the best way to do all three was to go into the service, so she attended college on an ROTC scholarship and then spent twenty years in the Air Force.  Almost everyone had been appalled by the path she had chosen:  such a life was virtually unheard of for a woman in 1975 because of both her gender and the general antipathy toward the military in the years immediately following the Vietnam debacle.  But Allison knew what she wanted, and an uncle who had spent his entire career in the Navy ran interference for her with their family and with her high school guidance counselors, who had objected to helping a girl pursue what they believed to be such an ill-conceived plan.  Allison spent two years at the University of South Florida and then two at Northwestern, transferring only because she thought it was time to see another part of the country.  By the time she left the Air Force twenty years later she had done exactly as she had always hoped:  she had flown and seen the world and done much, much more with her life.

“We weren’t expecting you,” Jen said.  “You always call and plan for months before you come home.”

“Well, I thought I’d live dangerously for once and surprise everyone, and I guess I succeeded.”

“You certainly did.  A bunch of us were sitting over there and Matt Blaisdell said ‘Could that be Allison Levy’ and a few of us laughed at him, but they sent me over to investigate, just in case.  No wonder we weren’t sure.  Look at you – so slender.  Must be all that clean military living.”

“Exactly,” Allison replied, forcing a smile.

Yes, clean living and poisonous drugs that they pour directly into your veins that make you puke until you’re sure you’ve got nothing left to puke and then you puke some more.

Jen grabbed Allison’s hand.

“Come with me, everyone wants to see you.”

Jen led Allison to a table where they found many of Allison’s old friends.  There was jumping and screaming and hugging, there were pictures of children – and in a few cases, grandchildren – passed around the table, there were good-natured remarks about hair lost and pounds gained, but most of all there was a great deal of warmth and love.  Allison had arrived only moments after the others, and even before she finished hugging and saying hello to everyone, more people arrived and the greeting and hugging started anew.

“I think Allison just ran out of excuses,” declared Jack Miller.  “Let’s review, shall we?  1980, if I recall, was officers training in Virginia, just a four-hour drive away but no day passes permitted.  1985 was…”  Jack hesitated.

“The Philippines,” Allison interjected.  “1990 was Turkey, 1995 Colombia, 2000 Dallas, and 2005 San Francisco.  And believe me, it’s easier to get leave from an assignment in Turkey than it is to get away from an American airport Thanksgiving weekend.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this all before,” someone said.

“Well, we’re glad you’re here,” another person called out, and just as quickly as Allison had become the center of attention, that attention shifted to an even newer arrival.  After a few minutes, members of the group began wandering off in search of fresh faces.  Allison did the same, circulating around the room and mixing comfortably as she encountered people she had remained in touch with over the years as well as others whom she was seeing for the first time in decades.  Nobody cared that she had missed her class’s six previous reunions; all that mattered this evening was that she was there for the seventh.

“Allison Levy, it’s been years,” said a deep voice.  It was Mark Goldman, Allison’s first love.  She turned, saw him, smiled, and threw her arms around him.  Only when they parted did she notice the tall woman standing beside him.

“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” Allison said.

The woman smiled kindly.

“No, I’ve had twenty-six years to get used to it.  My husband seems to have been quite a popular boy.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Elaine.”

“Allison Levy.”

“I’ve heard that name before – all good things.  I love your hair.  Really short hair is so hard to pull off, but it really works for you.  I tried but it just wasn’t me.”

“Thank you.”

You should have seen me six weeks ago.  Not a single hair on my head.  Stick a lollipop in my mouth and you’d have sworn I was Kojak’s sister.

“Have you been by the school?” Mark asked.

“No, but I read about it on the alumni association web site.”

“Yeah.  It’s gone.  They invited us to walk through the building one more time last spring, so a bunch of us went together and hung out by the ramp in the 140 hall, just like old times.”

“I’m sorry I missed it.  Paula Kessler called and told me about it and I tried to get here, but I just couldn’t make it happen.”

“That’s too bad,” Mark said.  “When you drive by, all that’s left is a fenced-in field of dirt.  It’s like a piece of us is gone.”

Yeah, and another piece of you won’t be around much longer, either.

Allison and the Goldmans chatted for a few more minutes, parting when Allison returned to the bar for another iced tea.  There, she ran into Judy Danzler, whose mother still lived on the same street as Allison’s.

“I hear you’re back in town for a while,” Judy said.  “Your mother told mine.”

“Yes,” Allison replied.  “I’ve been down in Orlando for the past three years, and I thought it might be nice to take off a few months before taking my next job.”

“It’s nice that you can do that.”

“That’s one of the great things about running airports:  there are more airports than there are people who are qualified to run them, so there’s always someone knocking at your door.”

By now they were part of a group, and Judy took Allison by the elbow and pulled her aside.

“I heard you’re back to take care of your mother,” she said softly.

No, I’m back so my mother can take care of me.

Allison nodded but said nothing.  She saw her mother’s protective fingerprints all over this surprising suggestion.

“So while you’re in town,” Judy continued, “Why don’t you take over our airport?  Lord knows they can use all the help they can get.”

Allison laughed appreciatively.

Allison’s dream of being a pilot in the Air Force had been short-circuited by a combination of the then-prevailing rule that women could not fly in combat and by her own education.  During flight training, a commanding officer noticed that she had a degree in civil engineering and directed her into a military career in air field development, construction, and operations.  During her twenty-year career in the Air Force Allison had managed air fields in seven countries on four continents.  During Operation Desert Storm she had overseen the construction of an air field in Turkey in less than thirty days.  The day after the September 11, 2001 attacks, she voluntarily returned to active duty for two years and led the construction of two landing fields in Afghanistan and two then-secret fields in Pakistan.  As a civilian she had run airports in Dallas, San Francisco, and Orlando, focusing each time on managing major construction and other capital improvements.

“Worst job in the profession,” Allison explained.  “If it was the only job available, I’d go back into the Air Force or even go to work for an airline or a package delivery company before I’d take it.”

“Why?

“Philadelphia politics.  Totally unmanageable.”

“Well, who knows, maybe things’ll change for the better in the future.”

Not for me.  I’m running out of future, and what little I have left isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.

Allison continued mingling, and a few minutes later she found herself back with the original group she had encountered upon her arrival.  Some new faces had joined them and the area again was alive with hugs and laughter.  Among the newcomers was Allison’s oldest and dearest friend, Amy Strasser, who was struck momentarily speechless by the sight of her friend and amazed by how successfully she had kept her visit a secret.  Allison and Amy chatted for a few minutes and agreed to catch up later and Allison took a seat at the table around which they were all gathered and joined the conversation.  A few minutes later Amy sat across from her, and Allison got the uncomfortable feeling that her old friend was scrutinizing her closely.  After a few minutes Amy gestured for Allison to join her off to the side.  Allison did, and Amy took her by the arm and led her off a few more feet, away from everyone else.  As she did, she opened her purse.

“Here,” Amy said, handing Allison her business card.  “Come see me at my office on Monday morning at eight o’clock.  I’m at Holy Redeemer.  You remember where that is, don’t you?”

Allison looked at her, not comprehending.

“I think I do, yeah, but what’s up?”

“Come on, Allie, it’s me.  We’re practically sisters.  You can’t fool me.  I’m also a doctor, and I know what I’m seeing.”

“And what do you see – or, should I ask, what do you think you see?”

“Your arm that I just grabbed, for starters.  All I got was bone.  You weigh nothing, your hair, your skin tone.  I can even smell it through your perfume – which, by the way, is an abomination.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Amy snatched the glass out of Allison’s hand.

“And what’s this you’re drinking?”  She sipped it.  “Iced tea?  I’ve never known you to drink anything but water, milk, and Coke.”

“It’s been a long time.  A girl’s tastes can change.”

“Of course they can.  But I’m guessing your system can’t handle the carbonation these days.”

“You’re coming on pretty strong there, girl.  What’ve you been drinking?”

“I’m not finished.  This business about you being home to take care of your mother.”

“I never said that.”

“But she’s saying it – including to my mother.  I see your mom a few times a year, at least twice at synagogue during the high holidays and just around the neighborhood once in a while.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a healthier-looking seventy-five-year-old woman in my life.”

“She mentioned that she told you I was coming home.”

“She tried to suggest that it was to take care of her.  I wasn’t buying it then and I’m not buying it now.  I’m practically her fourth daughter, she can’t pull that kind of thing with me.

“So what I’m seeing, what I’m smelling – please, don’t make me ask to see your gums.  Is it Abraxane?  Lomustine?  Or maybe Taxol?”

“Gemzar.”

“Oh, Allie.”

“Yeah, ‘Oh, Allie.’ I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”

“How many courses?”

“Two.  I vetoed a third; enough is enough.”

“How long?”

“C’mon, Amy, it’s pancreatic cancer.  It’s not impossible, but I’ll be lucky to see spring.”

I said it out loud.  I was so sure I could get through the evening without uttering that word.

“Well, come to the hospital at eight on Monday morning.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going to need a doctor and it’s going to be me, that’s why.”

“What’s the point?  You’re not an oncologist.  My doctor in Orlando gave me the names of a few people at Fox Chase.”

“I’ll need to look at your records, but it sounds to me like at this point, there’s nothing an oncologist can do for you that I can’t.  I can bring in an oncologist to consult if we need one.  Besides, I want to see you through this.  That’s the point.”

“You don’t need to do this, Amy.  I almost didn’t come home because I didn’t want to drag everyone through this with me.  I’m still thinking that when it really starts going downhill, I might just slip away to a VA hospital a thousand miles away.”

“But you did come home, and you can’t do it alone.  Who better than me, when you think about it?”

“Thank you.  I’d like that very much.  My mother kept telling me I should talk to you.”

“Your mother’s a smart woman.

“So when you get home, email me the names and numbers of your doctors and I’ll get your records and have a chance to review them before I see you at the office on Monday morning.”

“Okay.”

Amy paused for a moment before speaking again.

“Are you afraid, Allie?”

“No, not really.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I’ve been in war zones, Amy.  Iraq and Afghanistan.  The DMZ in Korea.  Guantanamo.  That’s scary.  Rocket-propelled grenades are scary.  Anti-personnel mines are scary.  This isn’t scary.  I’m not afraid of dying.  I am afraid of dying a slow, painful death, but you should know right now, before you take me on as a patient, that as long as I’m in control of my faculties, I’m also in control of how I die.  It doesn’t have to be slow and painful if I choose not to let it be.”

She paused for a moment.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me you understand what I’m saying.”

Amy looked at her briefly.

“I understand what you’re saying, Allie.”

“Good.  That’s important.”

“So are you moving in with your mother?”

“Not entirely, no.  I rented an apartment within walking distance of the house, so when I’m feeling okay, I don’t have to be under foot and can have my privacy and live independently.  And when I need help, well, my old room is still there, waiting for me.  All I have to do is pull the David Bowie poster out of the closet.”

“Your sisters know?”

“Yes.  And their husbands.”

“And your nieces and nephews?”

“We’re all doing lox and bagels together at Marcy’s Sunday morning before a few of them head back to college.  I’m going to tell them then.  That’s going to be so hard.”

“So what’re your plans?”

I’m planning to die, my friend.

“I’ve been warned that making plans is pretty fruitless because how I feel will vary a lot from day to day.  Notwithstanding my constant expressions of hopelessness about the airport here, a friend of a friend has put me in touch with the executive director and he seems pretty eager for any help I can give him.  I’m going to do what I can whenever I’m up to it.

“But I do have special plans for tomorrow.”

“What?”

“I’ve arranged to go to the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and they’re going to let me take up a an old E-2C Hawkeye for a spin.”

“You think you’re up to it?”

“Two weeks ago I would’ve said no, but right now I feel pretty good.  I suspect that between closing on my condo in Orlando, packing up my stuff and driving up here, moving into the apartment, and getting ready for tonight, I’m pretty much running on adrenaline.  I figure it’ll still be pumping for a few more days, so if I wake up tomorrow feeling like I do now, I wouldn’t hesitate.  But I’m not going to be stupid about it, either.  It’s still too soon for stupid.”

“And you now have plans for tomorrow night, too.”

“I do?”

“Yes.  You’re not the only classmate who’s back in town for the reunion, so I’m having people over.  I started out with about twenty and think it’s closer to fifty now.  My house, eight o’clock.”

“I’ll be there.

“Can I ask you for a favor, Amy?”

“Sure, what?”

“Let’s keep this between us for tonight – and for the entire weekend, for that matter.  I haven’t figured out how to handle this, how to tell people or even who I should tell, but I want to try.  I just haven’t figured it out yet.”

“We can talk about that on Monday morning.  I’ve been through this with a lot of my patients, so I have some ideas.  And tomorrow night, we’ll sneak off for a few minutes and talk about how to deal with your nieces and nephews.”

Allison hugged her friend.

“I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders.  You know, this thing eats away at your mind almost as much as it eats away at your body.  It never goes away; it’s always just…there.  I’m sure it’ll be back tomorrow, too, but right now, I think I’m going to sleep a little easier tonight.”

Allison gestured wordlessly with her head, took Amy by the arm, and the two women rejoined their friends at the table.  Allison smiled; she was used to this by now.  Amy fought to hold back the tears.

 

Fiction: A Short Story

More than a decade ago, one of the only real fights The Curmudgeon had with his then-girlfriend came when he observed that he would gladly give ten years off the end of his life to play major league baseball for just one year.  The woman was furious; even though she was a sports fan, we were close enough at the time for her to think those ten years would come at her expense, and she took the observation very personally.  After absorbing a few minutes of her abuse, The Curmudgeon made a simple request:  present the proposition – one year as a major league baseball player in exchange for the last ten years of your life – to a few men you know who love baseball and see what they say.  She said she would – and The Curmudgeon never heard from her about the matter again.

Flash forward ten years.  The Curmudgeon was working on a satirical novel about urban politics, and after laboring for about a year, he knew he needed a break.  Somehow, the conversation with his ex came to mind, and before he knew it, he wrote the first draft of the following story in three sessions of about ninety minutes each over the course of three days.  The story required a great deal of reworking, editing, refining, and polishing, of course – first drafts of The Curmudgeon’s short stories are always a bit of a mess – but when he was finished, he was pleased with the final product.

He hopes you are, too.

“The Devil and Johnny Kimball”

 The old, refurbished Greyhound pulled alongside the ballpark shortly before 2:00 a.m., belching diesel fumes even after the driver turned off the engine.  Almost immediately about thirty men, most of them young and fuzzy-cheeked, climbed down the steps and stopped only long enough to retrieve their duffel bags from the storage area in the bus’s belly.  They then walked off in several directions to their cars – almost all of them older automobiles that they fervently hoped would start after sitting idle for nine days.  Among them were Johnny Kimball, a twenty-five-year-old infielder for the Reading Phillies, and his roommate, twenty-year-old outfielder Byron Williams.  They walked about thirty yards to Kimball’s 1961 Comet station wagon, a hand-me-down from Kimball’s father, who had recently purchased a brand-new 1970 Buick Electra.  Business was good, and dad had shared his good fortune with his son.

The two young men were hungry, so they headed off to the twenty-four-hour diner a few blocks from the furnished studio apartment they had shared since April.  Kimball’s name was on the apartment lease, and at times that worried him:  Williams was the real deal, a genuine major league prospect, and a lot of people thought the Phillies might promote him from their AA team in Reading to their AAA team in Eugene, Oregon in the next few weeks.  If they did, Kimball would lose his roommate and half of the rent payment.

At twenty-five, Kimball was in his third year as a player in the minor league system of the Philadelphia Phillies, joining them from the University of Delaware.  Players who actually graduated from college, as Kimball did – with a 3.8 average and a degree in accounting – were still fairly rare in baseball, and this set him apart from his teammates.  He was the oldest player on the team by three years, and only recently had he come to the conclusion that unlike his talented roommate, he was no longer viewed as a potential major league player by the Phillies.

For his first two years, Kimball had every reason to believe that he, too, was a real prospect.  A sure-handed fielder with a strong throwing arm but just average running speed, he could play solidly, if unspectacularly, at second base, shortstop, and third base.  During his first minor league season, at A-level Spartanburg, he played every day, performed well, and earned a promotion to AA-level Reading the following year.  While his performance at Reading had been almost identical to his year in Spartanburg, it did not earn him another promotion:  he was now in Reading for a second year, the first sign that his progress had stalled and that the Phillies now questioned his potential.  The second sign, however, was far more ominous:  he did not have a regular position in his second year in Reading, which meant that other players had leap-frogged ahead of him in the organization’s view.  Now, he played only when someone was injured; otherwise, he just watched the games from the bench.  As spring turned into summer and sweltering August began, he was finally beginning to comprehend, and even accept, that he had no future in baseball.  Meanwhile, back home in Florida, his family tried to be supportive:  they, too, understood his situation, but their willingness to indulge his baseball dream was growing thin.  His wife made no secret of her desire for him to come home; a few of the players on the team were married and their wives lived with them during the season, but she had a career of her own and could not pick and move from small town to small town while her husband learned to master the unlikely skill of striking a fast-moving orb with a two-pound stick.  Kimball’s father, who owned five tire, muffler, and transmission shops in the greater Tampa area, was skeptical of the very notion of a grown man playing baseball for a living and wanted his son to return home and take over financial management of his fast-growing business interests.

Kimball and Williams pulled into the parking lot of the all-night diner and entered the almost-deserted eatery; the only other patron was an old man who sat slumped, and possibly asleep, at a table.  The two men took a booth and the only waitress on duty approached them with menus but the players waved them off:  they both knew what they wanted and ordered as soon as they took their seats.  They exchanged small talk with her; they were regulars and treated well.  When she returned a minute later with their large glasses of orange juice, she also brought two large, opaque mugs of something they had not ordered:  ice cold Rolling Rock, which was not on the menu because the establishment did not have a liquor license.  This was one of the privileges of being a member of the Reading Phillies and one of the benefits of eating at a time of day when there was no one around to see what they were being served.

As soon as the waitress left, Kimball excused himself and went off to call his wife from the pay phone outside the rest rooms.  This was their ritual:  when the bus returned to Reading, he called her as soon as he could to report on the game’s outcome and on his own performance and to say goodnight and that he loved her.  They spoke for about five minutes, after which Kimball returned to his table.

“You had a great night tonight, By,” he told his roommate.  “That ball you hit in the gap was a rope, and when you turned on the jets and stretched it into a triple, well, it was just gorgeous.”

“I don’t hear people telling me I’m gorgeous very often,” Williams said, laughing.

“I guess not.  But I’m guessing you’re hearing more people talk about Eugene now, too.”

“Don’t you start, too.”

“Why not?  The Phillies were awful this year, so it stands to reason that on September 1, they’re gonna call up some guys.  When they do, they’re going to need bodies at Eugene to take their place.  If you’re not at the top of the list, you have to be pretty close.”

Williams smiled.

“I don’t want to get my hopes up, but if I do go, maybe we’ll both go.”

Kimball shook his head.

“Now we both know that’s not going to happen.”

The waitress came and set food in front of them – along with another mug of beer.

“Why not?  You’re having a good year.”

“C’mon, I’m a sub.  Utility guys at double A don’t go to triple A.  You’re ticketed for bigger things, you’re gonna get a taste, a chance to show what you can do.  I don’t even have a regular job here anymore.”

“Hey, you’re getting a shot, what with Freddy out.  You’re doing well.”

“I am, I know, but when Freddy’s knee’s better, he goes back to third and I go back to the bench.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do.

“Look, remember when you were at Spartanburg last year and you looked around at your teammates and wondered what some of them were even doing there?”

“What do you mean?” Williams asked.  He knew exactly what Kimball meant.

“You know:  the guys who were no better than half the players on your high school team and you knew they didn’t have a chance in the world of playing major league baseball.”

“Yeah, sure.  I still don’t get it.”

“Well, listen, here’s what that’s all about.  On every minor league team there are only five or six players who really matter.  They’re the prospects:  the guys who the big league club thinks have a chance to play in the majors.  The rest of the guys on the team, including the ones you know can’t really play, they’re only around so that each team has enough players to play games every day.  Like if two of those five or six real prospects are starting pitchers, they can’t pitch every day, so you need some warm bodies to throw some innings between the turns of the guys who really do matter.  The same thing is true up and down the lineup.  Maybe a team doesn’t have a real shortstop prospect at double A, so they use another warm body to play short because you can’t play a game without a shortstop.”

“I think you had a point to make somewhere.”

“Yeah, here’s my point:  you’re one of the five or six.  I’m one of the warm bodies.  The Phillies think you have a chance to be a major league player someday.  Last year when I came to Reading, I was one of the five or six, too, but they saw enough of me to decide that it’s not going to happen for me, so now I’m one of the warm bodies.”

“No.”

“C’mon.  Of course I am.  Two years ago I played every day at Spartanburg and did well enough to earn a promotion to Reading.  Last year I played every day here in Reading, but not only didn’t I get promoted to Eugene, but I also lost my job as an everyday player.”

“You’ve played plenty this year.”

“Only when someone’s hurt, or like when they called up Jerry to Eugene and it took them nearly two weeks to decide who to promote to take his place.  And they did promote someone else instead of giving me the job.”

“You’re sure about this?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t realize it at first, but I figured it out when they sent Hector to replace Jerry.  Last year I was ahead of both of those guys.  Now they’re both ahead of me, and the only time I get to play is when somebody else can’t.

“You know, Carol keeps telling me that she wants me to come home, and my dad still wants me in his business, and for the first time, they’re starting to make sense to me.  I’ve got a college degree and a great wife and a good job waiting for me, but it seemed worth investing some time in this to see if I might be able to make it to the bigs, but I think my opportunity has passed.  It’s too bad, too:  I want it so much I can taste it.  I’d sell my soul for it.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“No, not literally, but I’ll tell you this:  I’d give ten years – no, fifteen years – off the end of my life for one year in the majors.  Just one year, that’s all.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

Byron looked at his roommate for a few seconds before speaking.

“Those beers went right through me.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

Williams rose and set off for the men’s room.  Kimball was putting the last bite of pie into his mouth when someone slid into Williams’s seat across from him in the booth.  It was the old man who had appeared to be sleeping when the two ballplayers entered the diner.

“Ken Overton,” the old man said, extending his hand.

“John Kimball,” Kimball replied, extending his own.  He looked at the old man:  he appeared to be seventy years old, maybe seventy-five, with gray hair, and in need of both a shave and a haircut – and perhaps some fresh, clean clothes and a bath as well.

“Yes, of the Phillies.  I’ve seen you play.  You’re a nice little player.”

“Thank you,” Kimball replied.  Reading was a small town and the players were accustomed to being recognized and approached by fans.  Most of them enjoyed it, Kimball among them.

“I couldn’t help overhearing you,” the man explained, “when you said you’d give fifteen years off the end of your life for one year in the majors.  Were you serious when you said that or were you just kidding?”

“For the chance to play big league baseball?  Only every boy’s dream growing up?  You bet I was serious.”

“I thought so.  I could tell by your tone of voice, the passion I heard.

“So what if I told you I could make it happen?”

“Make what happen?” Kimball asked.

“One year in the majors in exchange for fifteen years off the end of your life.”

Kimball laughed.

“Who’re you, the devil?”

Now Overton laughed.

“Of course I’m not the devil.  The devil only engages in wholesale mayhem on earth:  bringing insane dictators into power, spreading disease, wiping out crops and causing famine, that kind of thing.  I’m one of the devil’s emissaries:  I work the retail end of the business, you might say.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You don’t believe in the devil?”

“Should I?” Kimball asked.

“How else would you explain the resurrection of Richard Nixon?”

Kimball laughed.

“That’s almost a plausible explanation.  But then, he is president, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, well, there’s a price yet to be paid for his resurrection,” Overton said, “and we haven’t seen the last of his dark side.”

“I see.”

“So, are you serious about one year in the major leagues in exchange for fifteen years at the end of your life?”

“How can you possibly make that happen?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Overton said. “Leave the details to me.  If you do what I tell you, you’ll get your one year in the major leagues:  not next year but the year after.  It’ll be one year and one year only, with no chance for a second.”

“What do I have to do – mug a little old lady or something?”

“You’re not taking me seriously, young man.  Are you interested or not?”

“I’m still talking to you, aren’t I?”

“So then no more smart mouth.

“Your catcher got hurt tonight, right?”

Kimball was stunned.

“How did you know that?”  Kimball knew the game had not been broadcast on the radio and that the newspapers would not be out for a few hours yet.

“I…know things.”

“Yeah, he tweaked his hamstring.  He’ll be out for a few days, but they think he’ll be fine.”

“He will.”

“You know that for a fact, do you?”

“Yes.”

“So, what about it?”

“Tomorrow, when you go to the clubhouse, you go up to coach Seminick and tell him that if he needs an emergency catcher, you’re game.  Ask if he can give you some pointers, just in case.  He’s an old catcher himself, you know, so he’ll really like that.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

“Your catcher will recover, but in a few weeks, your team will be getting clobbered in a game and they’ll put you in to catch the last inning.  You’ll catch a few more times before the season is over, and when the season ends, the Phillies will tell you that they’re going to give you some serious instruction in how to be a catcher in the spring.  You can use that to justify to your family giving your baseball dream another year.”

“Justify to my family?”

“Well, they’re not coming right out and saying it, but you know they want you to give up baseball and come home, right?”

“Yeah, but…hey, how’d you know that?”

“Like I said, I know things.  Maybe now you’ll take me a little more seriously.

“Anyhow, you’re not going to get promoted next year, so you’ll be here again in Reading.  You won’t have a regular position again, but between all of the positions you play, now including catcher, you’ll see plenty of action.  You’ll take to catching pretty well, and because big league teams always need a lot of catchers in spring training to work with all of their pitchers, you’ll be invited to spring training with the big team the following year.  That’ll buy you another year with your family.  If you work hard you’ll make the team, play just a little, do only fair, stay with the team the entire season, and that’ll be your year in the big leagues.  There won’t be a second year.”

“So all I have to do to get it started is go to the manager tomorrow and volunteer to be the emergency catcher?”

“That’s all – that and never tell a soul about any of this.  You do and all deals are off, plus there’ll be serious consequences.”

Kimball paused for a moment before speaking.

“So now that I know what to do, what’s to stop me from going ahead and doing it without agreeing to your terms?”

Overton laughed.

“It won’t work, that’s all.”

“No?”

“You really think you can mess with the devil and get away with it?”

“Gotcha.”

“So, do we have a deal?”

Kimball shook his head in the affirmative.

“I don’t see why not.  I don’t believe any of this, but then I don’t have anything to lose, do I?”

Overton arched his right eyebrow.

“Yes you do.”

“What?” Kimball asked.

“The last fifteen years of your life.  One day, at some point in the future, I’m going to show up unexpected and unannounced and tell you that you’re down to your last three days.  And I’m not going to tell you how you’re going to go, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“So, do we have a deal?” Overton asked.

“Yeah, we have a deal.”

Overton extended his hand and smiled.  Kimball shook it.

Just as their hands parted, Byron Williams returned.  Kimball was flustered for a moment but quickly regained his composure.

“Hey, By, this is…”

“Ken Overton,” Overton said.  “I’m a big fan of you, Johnny, and the team and just wanted to come over and say hello.”

He extended his hand and Williams took it.

“You gentlemen have a good evening,” Overton said as he turned and departed.

*        *        *

Kimball did as he was told and was rewarded as promised.  He spent all of 1972 in the major leagues as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.  The Phillies that year were the worst team in baseball and one of the worst teams in the history of baseball and Kimball was just another bad player on a very bad team.  Despite the misery of knowing they would probably lose nearly two games out of every three, Kimball managed to squeeze an enormous amount of joy out of the experience.  He reveled in the large crowds that came out to cheer for the team in its still-new stadium; in the fans who – despite the booing for which Philadelphia was so well known – really did love their team; in the travel from major league city to major league city – traveling on airplanes instead of buses, staying at first-class hotels, seeing places he might never otherwise have seen, and eating at first-class restaurants with the help of generous meal money handed to the players in bulging envelopes every time they traveled; and the luxury of having his equipment and luggage taken care of for him and his pre-game and post-game food provided by members of the team’s staff for whom such work was their full-time job.

He also took great pleasure in playing major league baseball in major league stadiums.  Every time he climbed the dugout stairs and stepped onto the playing field or looked into the stands or up at the lights he felt a genuine thrill that never dimmed or grew old as the season progressed.  He did not, however, get to experience these thrills very often:  over the course of the six-month, 162-game season, Kimball played in just fifty-eight games, and the baseball encyclopedia summarized his career succinctly:  he hit .238 with six RBIs in forty-eight at bats, hit two doubles, and scored six runs.  What it failed to capture was what would remain with Kimball for the rest of his life:  in his last game, on the last day of the season, he started for the first and only time in his major league career, playing second base, and in his last at-bat, he hit a home run over the left-field wall and trotted casually around the bases, reveling in every moment because he knew he would never do it again.

By then, Kimball knew that his major league career was over – knew not because of Ken Overton’s warning but because the team’s general manager, who also managed the team for the last part of the season, had told him the previous week that he no longer fit into the team’s plans and would be released after the season’s end.  The general manager also said that he liked Kimball very much and offered him a job coaching in the team’s minor league system.  Kimball told the man that he had a much better offer back home, helping to run the family business, declined the offer, and asked, as a final wish, if he could play in the team’s last game of the season.  The general manager was pleased to grant this reasonable request; by this time, most of the team’s players only wanted to go home and put the disastrous season behind them, and he therefore was happy to be able to give an opportunity to a fine young man who clearly wanted to treat this meaningless game as the most important of his life.  When the season ended, Kimball – not unhappily and without regret – packed up his 1972 Chevrolet Impala that still had a hint of new car smell and drove the 1000 miles back home, to Plant City, Florida, where his wife, his family, and his new job as controller of Kimball Enterprises awaited him.

For the next thirty years Kimball worked in various capacities in the family business:  controller, vice president of human resources, vice president of marketing, chief financial officer, and – after his father’s retirement – president and chief executive officer.  Over the years the company grew and grew, expanding to forty tire, muffler, and repair shops; Toyota and Honda dealerships; three storage rental facilities; and a company that operated shuttle bus services between the airport and the region’s many hotels and motels along the Gulf of Mexico and near Busch Gardens.  Kimball also became a prominent member of the community and a tireless cheerleader for his fast-growing hometown.  He had been the driving force behind the town’s successful effort to attract a major league baseball team to train in the city each spring, served four terms as president of the chamber of commerce and two terms as a city commissioner, ten years as commissioner of its Babe Ruth little league, and on the board of directors of the major bank in town, the United Way, the American Red Cross, and the community college.

Although Kimball’s father retired in 1992, he stayed active in the business in one way or another until his death in 2002 at the age of eighty-two.  One month after the funeral, Kimball, now fifty-seven himself, told his wife that he thought the time had come to sell the business and retire.  She was pleased:  her husband had worked very hard for many years, none of their four children worked for the company, and he deserved the opportunity to sit back and enjoy life and everything he had accomplished while he was still young and vigorous and able to enjoy retirement.

Retirement, however, did not agree with Kimball.  For the first year after he sold the last of his businesses he and his wife traveled the world, including visits to all four of their children, who were scattered around the country, each taking up permanent residence near where they had attended college.  Once they returned home, though, Kimball found himself restless:  other than playing a great deal of golf and reducing his handicap to just six strokes, he felt he had nothing constructive to do.  To fill this hole in his life he decided to launch a new business:  a sports bar.

For a year he plunged into his new venture:  finding the right location, working with a designer, developing a menu and the sports themes, furnishing and equipping it, hiring a staff, promoting it, and getting the business off the ground.  The sports bar was successful from day one, and because he had done such a good job hiring staff, Kimball again found himself with relatively little to do.  He would come to the bar most mornings around 11:30 and stay through the lunch hour and come again for dinner, or right after dinner, but he did little more than greet customers and watch his employees go about their business.

One of his favorite activities at the bar was watching Tampa Bay Bucs football games with his customers.  Come Sunday afternoon in the fall, every one of the twenty-four large-screen televisions in the restaurant was tuned to the Bucs game while patrons watched, ate, drank, and cheered together.  Kimball always set himself up at a table in the middle of the bar area, surrounded by friends and a never-ending parade of people who came by to say hello.

One Sunday afternoon in mid-November the Bucs were engaged in a particularly tight game with division rival Atlanta.  Kimball was anxious, but not because of the game:  he was expecting a call from his son in-law, who he expected would tell him that his daughter had just delivered his first grandchild.  Many of the patrons knew about the imminent call and stopped by his table to wish him well.

During the third quarter, the bartender called across the noisy room.

“John, it’s Ron.”

Heads turned as Kimball rose, walked to the bar, and took the phone from his bartender.

“Hey, Ron.”

He listened for a moment before speaking again.

“Yes.  Six pounds, nine ounces, healthy.  Kathleen.  Wonderful.  And Jeannie?”

A pause.

“Great.  Congratulations, son.”

Another pause.

“Okay, so like we planned, Carol and I will fly up in a week.  I’m so happy for you, son.  Tell Jeannie I’ll talk to her tonight and see her in a week.  Bye.”

Kimball looked up, a tear in his eye, toward the many people who had momentarily turned away from the game to watch the proprietor.

“It’s a girl,” he announced.  “Kathleen.  Ten fingers, ten toes, healthy.  I’m a grandfather!”

A roar went up, people applauded, and Kimball called for a round of beer on the house and spent the next ten minutes circulating throughout the bar, handing out cigars and unable to wipe the smile from his face.

About forty-five minutes later the game ended and most of the patrons departed, with many of them stopping by Kimball’s table to offer their congratulations again.  Once most of the people were gone, the manager joined Kimball and they discussed a few matters related to that night’s dinner service.

As the manager departed, a voice called out from behind Kimball.

“Congratulations on your granddaughter.  You must be very happy and proud.  Your first, I understand.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Kimball replied as the man circled the table to face him.  Kimball thought the elderly, gray-haired man looked vaguely familiar but could not place him.

The man extended his hand.

“Ken Overton,” he said.

Kimball turned white.  He did not take the outstretched hand.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“That’s not possible.  You were ancient back in 1970, you couldn’t possibly…”

“Yes, it’s me, and this is my perpetual age.  Back in my real life I was unkind to the elderly, so my punishment is to live forever as one of them.

“I’ve come to tell you that it’s time.”

“Time?” Kimball asked.

“Yes.  As we agreed in that diner in Reading, Pennsylvania thirty-four years ago.”

“But…”

“I delivered on my promise.  You did as I told you and enjoyed a season as a major league baseball player.  I have to tell you, people sell their souls for much less, even for silly things, but you appeared to enjoy your wish as much as anyone I’ve ever dealt with.

“And you did enjoy it, didn’t you?”

Kimball said nothing.

“Didn’t you?” Overton repeated.

“Yes,” Kimball finally whispered.

“And now I’ve come to collect, as I told you I would.  I also promised you three days’ notice.  The clock starts now.”

“But…my daughter…my granddaughter…my wife and I are flying to see my granddaughter, our first, next week.”

“I can’t speak for your wife, but I know you will definitely not be accompanying her.  Of that I’m certain.”

“But…”

“You knew there would be a price to be paid, Mr. Kimball, and you agreed to pay it.”

“Yes, but…”

“But you never entirely believed it.  I know.  That’s how it usually goes.  People want what they want, they make sacrifices to achieve their goals, they compromise to get what they want, but they think there’ll be no consequences, no day of reckoning.  But you knew exactly what the consequences would be thirty-four years ago.

“By the way, By Williams turned out to be a brilliant ballplayer, didn’t he?  I was truly touched to see you sitting with his family at the hall of fame induction ceremony.  I can also tell you, if it’s any consolation, that he’ll drop what he’s doing to come to your funeral.”

“Yes, but…”

“But you have more important things to think about right now.  Like your last three days.”

Kimball paused for a moment, thinking.

“Three days?  I couldn’t have another week, just long enough to see my granddaughter?”

“I’m afraid not.  The devil has an ironic streak a mile long.  You have three days and there’s no way around it.  We made a deal, I lived up to my end, and now it’s your turn to live up to yours.”

“Yes, but…”

Kimball did not have a chance to finish the thought.  The bar’s fire alarm sounded and the manager came running out of the kitchen.

“Fire,” he shouted.  “Everyone out.  Fire department’s on the way.”

The few remaining customers made their way quickly to the door.

“What happened?” Kimball asked.

“Grease fire, we have them once in a while, but this one spread too fast for us to put it out.  The whole kitchen’s ablaze.  Let’s go.”

They all headed for the door and stood in the mostly empty parking lot.  Overton remained by Kimball’s side, with the manager standing with them.

“Is everyone out?” Kimball asked.

“I’m thinking,” the manager replied.  He was running through a mental list of all of the employees on duty at the time.  Meanwhile, the kitchen’s exterior wall began to burn.

A woman came running out the door.

“Pablo’s still in there,” she said breathlessly.  “He fell.  I think he broke his ankle.  I tried to drag him but he’s too big for me.  He’s trying to crawl.”

Overton touched Kimball’s arm.

“Mr. Kimball?” he asked.

“Yes?” Kimball replied.

Kimball paused for a moment.

“Did you do this?” Kimball finally asked.

“No.  I said you had three days and I meant it.  Still, if one has to go…”  He did not finish the thought.

Kimball said nothing.  He just looked skyward for a moment, sighed deeply, and then dashed back into the restaurant and into the fire in search of Pablo.