Recently I entered ‘The Writer Digests 88th Annual Writing Competition’. Here then, is my entry. I do hope you enjoy the read, and of course feel free to critique my tale. Thank you for stopping by.
“It’s your shot, Henry!” Daryl yelled from the bar, chasing a shot of Granddad with a swig of Coors, competing with some ZZ Top tune on the jukebox, something about a silk suit and a fat suede wallet. “You still playin’ or what? Henry?”
“Give me a second, will ya? Christ…” Henry finished pecking at the keys to his flip phone, sending yet another text to his son stating that yes, he’d be there for his grandson’s birthday party, David’s ninth. Tomorrow, Friday, 3:30 sharp. He had already picked out a gift, a book. Something he was sure was in short supply.
Jenkins Pub was a good place to unwind after making yet another trip to the nursing home, Comfort Place. What a great name for an outfit for the dying. Sherrie didn’t seem to mind being interred there. Hell, who wouldn’t enjoy being entombed in a pallid green room, replete with a tiny crucifix above a yellow-stained light switch, a wan flickering fluorescent light illuminating the sterile despair within. Really, was this any way to live before you died?
Definitely not the way he was going out of this world. No siree. He had plans. Good ones. A plan unequaled by his old codger contemporaries. No feeding tubes for him; no godawful smell of stale urine and disinfectant; no gagging stench of death up close and personal. No, old Henry Devins had his own plans, thank you very much.
Henry pocketed his old phone (no way in hell he was going to invest his hard-earned money in one o’ those new-fangled Apple gadgets) and limped to the pool table. Besides, he was rather partial to Braeburn.
“Am I stripes?” he asked, scanning the scattered balls, wondering if he was high or low.
“Jesus, Henry. You okay? You’re low ball. As always.”
He ignored Daryl’s tiresome jibes. Yes, his plans were concrete. And foolproof. It would be the perfect way to exit this spinning blue orb. Just a few more weeks, he reckoned, and then he’d be done with it. This…this life, this existence, eating and breathing and feeling and fornicating all for…, well, all for what? Christ if he knew.
But his plans. Now there was something he could look forward to. No one would find him for years. It was perfect. Unless of course the town decided to rezone and build yet another unsustainable goddamn development, right there in the wilds where he decided to make an end and meet his maker. Whoever or whatever the hell that was.
“First time you picked up a cue?” Daryl said, after Henry caromed the white ball off the far corner pocket, knocking Daryl’s number 12 ball in. “Jesus, I’d say your mind’s somewhere else. Next round of beers ride on this game, remember?”
Yeah, he remembered. Screw you Daryl. But in the grand scheme of things, he couldn’t give a rodent’s buttocks about billiards. Sitting there on his perch, the worn corner stool near the rough-hewn oak beam, he chalked his stick and thought about going up there this weekend, check on his place, make sure everything was up to snuff. Maybe along the way buy another bottle of Glenfiddich. Hell, couldn’t have too much booze before leaving this beautiful blue marble. Yes, that was the plan. As long as one o’ those damn Nor’easters didn’t blow in. Heck, mid-March and blizzards still coming in from the west coast. If it didn’t snow then he’d go there. Just to make sure all was in order. Had to be careful and plan accordingly.
Henry grabbed his half-finished, lukewarm bottle of Schlitz and surveyed the red felt. He loved toying with his old pal. And after Daryl missed sinking the 9-ball in the side pocket for the win, he’d run the table. That would shut Daryl Goodwin up for the night. Maybe even quit him asking ‘bout where he’d been heading outta town on occasion. As if it was any of his damn business. No, he wouldn’t understand. Better to keep it close to the sleeve. Let no one in. Hell, even Sherrie wouldn’t understand. She had no clue who he was anyway. Yeah, head north after the bar and make sure all was up to snuff.
He felt better. Now to run the table and close Daryl’s pie-hole for the night. And get that free ice cold beer.
Like any good detective, Henry peered in the rear-view mirror as he bore left north on 302 off 85, Jordan Bay now a quiet stretch of gray. Had to make sure he wasn’t followed. If Daryl and his cronies were privy to his plan, he’d chortle and tell them they were acting like Colombo or one o’ them NCIS guys. Henry couldn’t care less what ol’ Daryl thought. Or his fellow pool players. Just to make sure, he glanced in the rear view again.
Easing parallel to Sebago Lake, a smattering of snow snakes snuck across the asphalt. He was making pretty good time. Next to him sat a six-pack of Miller High Life—minus one—and two 750’s of Glenfiddich. Hell, had to have a heavy supply for making your demise, don’t you think? Just another few miles to Shawnee Peak and all would be well.
In back he had a few extra 20” inch pine boards, in case the place needed shoring up. He hoped the damn rungs would last until he committed to his endeavor. Wouldn’t want something like that to screw up his grand plans. And for good measure, he brought a 10-foot length of Kevlar rope, something that would provide ease of mind should wood fail. The loop at the end would do the trick in a snap. Pun, of course, intended.
A few miles more and then he’d be there, to inspect his perch, his aerie, his hermitage in the heavens, where he and his Maker would finally meet, high above the valley. He really didn’t believe in any of that after life crap, of angels and heaven and a glistening white gate with pillows of comfortable clouds on the other side, with all the amenities of death’s rebirth in the sky. No, not that but maybe, maybe there was reincarnation. He’d like to come back as a well loved cat. Hell, who wouldn’t? Lie around naked all day, sleeping, eating, being stroked. How could that be half bad?
Who the hell knew, though. But lately, after watching a string of Ancient Alien shows, he wasn’t quite sure. Hell, how did they build those damn pyramids anyway, or move some of those 100 ton stones? Maybe there was an afterlife for him. Just hope it would be better than this one.
And Sherrie. She could never comprehend what was knocking around his old noggin. He remembered that last evening, when she had been more lucid. They had sat on the sofa and ate some leftover lasagna, with stale butts of bread. And other times, when she made some cockamamie hot dog casserole (who made such godawful things?), he’d have to catch himself from his revelry, and concentrate on whatever she was babbling about, shouting over the incessant stream of ads on the boob tube.
Most of the time he’d just simply nod, emit a ‘uh-huh’ once in a while, and that would placate her. But not tonight. His mind was far away, to his roost in the skies, and he had failed to listen to her travails of the day.
He stopped his revelry long enough to take a sharp left on 302 past Bridgton. Only ten miles more.
“Henry! My goodness, you haven’t heard a word I said. What’s going on in that thick skull of yours?” Sherrie had placed her fork on the edge of her plate, next to a strip of unfinished mashed potato and one lone French green bean, both plastered with congealing Heinz Homemade Gravy, straight from the jar. It was a far cry from growing up, where his Mom would save the grease and bits of beef and make her own gravy, with real flour, stir until it was smooth and creamy and tan, the perfect accompaniment to a mound of buttered spuds.
“Yeah I, uh, I heard ya. Somethin’ ‘bout Margie at work, how she doesn’t pull her weight. Which I gather is quite substantial.” He dared not look at Sherrie, peering instead at his plate—what exactly was she feeding him anyway?
Sherrie had that ridiculous eye-wash of a glass in front of her, filled with her beloved Carlo Rossi Chablis. She stared at him, measuring whether he had truly been listening. Satisfied, she put her two ounce glass down and picked up her fork, stabbing the lone green bean on one soiled tine.
“I mean, can you believe her, Henry? She certainly had the nerve. I tell you, I don’t know why I bother.” The fork disappeared into her overly lipsticked mouth, chewing over both bean and her cohort. “Enough of Margie. What’s been going on, Henry? You just don’t seem present.” She had a habit after every bite to pick up whatever she was drinking and take a slurp off the glass. Henry found it utterly repulsive.
This is exactly what he didn’t want to deal with. He had places to go, things to check up on. How had his life led to this exact moment, with this particular woman and meal, being questioned about his whereabouts and such, wondering exactly what coursed through his old bald head.
“Nothing. Nothing much, Sherrie. You know me. Same ol’ Henry. Mr. Predictable and all that.” He looked down at his plate. He could not fathom taking another bite of the gruel in front of him. He picked up his lukewarm Natural Ice (she thought all beer tasted the same and had grabbed whatever was near) and took a reluctant swallow. The news bellowed from the living room, all death, doom, and despair. He had to go. The beer made him gag, as though he just swallowed something foul from the bowels of a redemption center.
“Sherrie, my dear, that was, uh, lovely. Thank you so much. But I have to get a move on. I have to check in on something. Thank you.”
“Just like that? Typical man. Eat and run. Go. Don’t bother,”she said, remonstrating him with a wave of her flaccid arms. “I’ll clean up. Nice to see you, Henry. Maybe next time you can actually let me in and tell me what the hell is going on with you.”
He moved to pick up the plates but she shooed him away again. “Henry, if I know you, there’s no getting yourself out of your own head. Just go. Oh, and thanks for the Grey Goose.” The vodka sat unopened on the counter. He wished she opted for that instead of the godawful Natties. Maybe he would crack open the Glendfiddich as soon as he left.
He nodded, grabbed his parka and hat, and opened the front door. “Thank you, Sherrie. Appreciate your hospital–”
“Oh, bugger off, Henry. Enjoy your night. Whatever the hell it is you do.”
He closed the door behind him and slipped into the frigid evening air. Alone at last. It was later than he wanted but still a hint of twilight hugged the night sky. A sliver of brilliant moon hung low on the horizon, as though god himself had accidentally punctured the night sky with a fingernail.
Piling into his car he wondered how much longer Sherrie would hold out. Her mind was slipping, that was evident. That far away gaze, more often than not. The way she would stop mid-sentence, as though trying to recall just what was on her mind; or the fork in mid poise, unable to decide whether to stab a vegetable or a piece of fatty meat. Soon, he reckoned, soon he’d have to find a place for her. He made up his mind to do some research tomorrow. It would be better for her.
Gazing again at the darkening sky, he wondered why he agreed to meet Daryl for a beer. He stayed longer than he wanted. Now he’d have to hurry if he wanted to inspect his place. Damn it. He should have been up there already. Cranking the heat, he sped off past Del’s Deli, past The Beauty Shack (who in god’s name chose that title?), and beyond the fringe of lights, down past Crazy Eddie’s Farm, to the dirt road, nothing more than a rutted path really, where he would park alongside the cattails and swamp, and lug his supplies up the rocky trail to his signature tree.
God, he was tired. Exhausted. Maybe, maybe he would curtail his grand plans; maybe he would make it sooner than later. And why not? Especially after witnessing Sherrie’s sudden collapse, how quickly she disappeared before his very eyes. Christ, if anything was ever a turning point, she was it.
Yes, maybe it was time. He would find out soon enough. Once he got to the ol’ sycamore he would know. How many more times could he afford the opportunity to heave himself skyward, to his aerie, and peer out at his last vista? He would find out. Tonight.
He eased the old Impala along the path, careful not to bottom out, especially after the torrential rains of late. He couldn’t remember such downfalls. He eased the old beast against the rusted barbed wire fence, thinking that ornery Jack Jaspers wouldn’t mind if he left his Chevrolet parked near his sagging barn. Jaspers rarely made it out this far anyway.
Henry turned off the engine. He depressed the window button (he preferred hand cranks, but nowadays, they were hard to come by) and allowed the cool evening air to surge in and keep him silent company.
Sitting there, breathing in the night air, he thought that yes, this was going to be the night. And why not? Why wait a few more years? Or one year? Why not embrace spontaneity, for once in his life? And heck, it was truly only once in his life. After tonight, there would be no other tomorrows. No kicking around the pub, no futile gatherings at the Comfort Place,no worrying about Sherrie. No, just him. Alone. With his last supplies, edging ever closer to the other side.
He opened the door and heaved his bulk out, into the frigid evening air. It was getting cooler, just the way he planned. Maybe he’d forgo his third layer of clothing and simply embrace the night. Up there, sitting and watching the slow arc of the full moon as it wended its way along the heavens, occasionally taking a swig and then, as he drank in the sight and vapors, wonder how it’d feel once the effect of booze and exhaustion held sway, sitting back against his perch, slowly drifting into sweet oblivion.
But he was far from that peaceful vision; he had barely made it out of his goddamn car. And he still had a half mile to walk; shuffle along the stony path to his tree, the towering spire that would help usher in his comfortable demise.
It should have been sooner. Every step was a struggle. How in god’s name was he to hoist himself skyward? He had to, though. Everything hinged on his ascent. To his spot, his final resting place, his perch upon the pine slats. He could taste it; nestled against the hard rough surface of the tree, taking that long hard swallow of scotch, gazing out at the town below him, watching the moon as it grazed first the horizon and then presented itself to him, in full glory, a lone beautiful watchful eye witnessing his exit.
The trek to the path was dreadful. What had happened? Christ, was he that much out of shape? He just did this, didn’t he, a few weeks ago? Or was it months? On recollection, it was four months ago. Could, could he really have aged that much since?
Just push forward, you old sod! Keep going. After all, who is this for? Yes, the love of your foolish old heart, you crazy bastard. It was, as it always was, for Sherrie. Poor, lovely Sherrie. Locked up and lost within herself, unable to remember past exquisite evenings, nestled close to the hearth, wine glasses in hand, laughing, peering at flickering flames, holding hands on the sofa, warm and content.
The sycamore was in sight. Henry chanced a glimpse skyward. Dusk had all but faded. Only thirty more yards. He hated his ragged breathing, as though he was getting old. But then, he was 78. Christ, where did the years go? Where indeed? Seventy-eight. It didn’t seem possible. And yet, here he was. Alone, rasping for breath, lugging clinking bottles of scotch and supplies to his perch high above.
The sycamore stood solid, beckoning his final approach. Henry stopped and slid down the rough flank of the tree. Just a simple rest before his climb into the heavens.
The sun had long fled. Dusk had fast disappeared, as if shy to remain present. Only dim remnants of light filtered along the horizon from a silver moon.
Henry struggled off his haunches, stood and looked up. The old wooden rungs seemed sturdy. He would know soon enough.
Henry began to climb. Everything appeared to be in order. Twenty feet up, he reached for a rung and slipped. His grip was firm, but something gave, a slight twist of rotted wood, a sudden shift of something not quite right.
The rung snapped. As if in a dream, he reached out with one hand, grasping nothing but air. He tumbled backward. Was this really happening? As if in slow motion, he reached out but his hands failed to find purchase. He was in free-fall. Twenty feet straight down.
Landing hard in the snow, he lay disoriented. Looking up, through the snow-laden boughs, he saw glimpses of his perch high above. Where he should have been right now. Gazing out at that town, taking his first long sweet slug of scotch.
But no. He lay sprawled, at the base of the sycamore. Now what? Full dark was nigh. Only patches of moonlight passed through the trees.
Dropping his gaze, he peered at the trail where he had left his car. Other shadows replaced the bushes before him. Was, was something moving out there, beyond the fringe? Something unseen before?
He shook his head and reached for his knapsack. A sharp pang gripped his left leg. He chanced a glimpse and saw a puddle of dark crimson spreading slowly in the snow. And what was that bright snatch of white? Was….was that bone? Christ, what the hell happened? Rustling through his bag, he grabbed one of the bottles, removed it and snapped the seal. The scotch would help. Amazing they were intact.
The shadows neared. How was it possible for bushes to move on their own? But he knew. They weren’t mere shrubs. No, the occasional glint from twin orbs gave them away. He was not alone. Multiple yellow eyes glinted in the shifting light of the moon.
The shadows approached, cautiously at first. Henry looked at them and, averting his eyes skyward, saw the dark slats of wood high above—his perch—his final resting place, with booze at hand, the vista of town and moon before him. Damn it, he should have been up there by now! But it was not to be. He grabbed the handle of scotch and took another long hard pull of the burning liquid.
“Here’s to you, David. Happy birthday.” He took another slug and plopped the bottle into the snow. The shadows edged closer, initial fears subsiding.
“And here’s to you,” he said, into the void. One more swig and one more gaze into the branches above, a glimpse of the moon passing his perch. He reached for the bottle, the wavering shadows coming into focus. And closer.
“I love you, Sherrie.”
Copyright, Paul Grignon, 2019.