The Midnight Song

I wasn’t on the schedule that day, but there was an emotionally pivotal scene being shot, and I wanted to be there to watch Bryan and Claire work. It was one of those soul-crushing moments we actors salivate over. Claire had her work cut out, but I knew she was up for it; we’d worked together on another film a couple years earlier, and her presence and vulnerability had impressed me.

Action was called, and I sat back in video village watching the monitor. In rehearsal, the camera had begun in a two-shot, then moved in for an extreme close-up on Claire as she finished her monologue.

On both the first and second takes, she crushed it. But it wasn’t Claire that was grabbing my attention. It was Bryan. He was sitting there listening to her: no dialogue, just sitting there and listening. Listening like no one I’d ever seen before. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I saw the director motion over the DP and the camera op and whisper something to them.

The third take began the same way, but as the camera pushed in, it panned to Bryan. Hanging on him. The deep, hidden emotions leaking out on the monitor in front of me. A chill walked down my spine.

After he wrapped for the day, I caught up with him on his way back to his trailer.

Hey man, that was incredible.”

Thanks,” he said, “Claire is super easy to work off.”

Dude…” I paused, not sure how to ask, or even if I should, “where the hell were you during that scene? I mean, it was a heavy moment, yeah, but you just… I don’t know… you elevated somehow.”

I realized I might have overstepped, “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool—“

He laughed me off, “Nah man, it’s okay. Most of the time, I’m not all ‘super secretive’ about my process.”

So can you tell me what you were thinking about? Or whom? Or whatever? I just wanna try to wrap my head around it. I’ve never seen someone listen like that before.”

He opened the door to his trailer, “You wanna come in for a minute? I’ve got some whiskey. I’m gonna need it if I’m gonna talk about this.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you’re offered a whiskey, you say yes. Always.

Bryan pulled a bottle from the cabinet, and poured a couple fingers into a pair of Solo cups.

Cheers. I like to drink classy.”

Cheers to classy drinking then,” I saluted him, and we clicked cups.

I’ve never told this story before,“ he took a sip and rolled the whiskey around in his mouth, “not for any reason in particular… just never have.” He shrugged, looking out the window.

Let me guess, it starts with a girl?” I asked.

How’d you know?”

Doesn’t it always?”

He smiled, “Yeah… yeah, I guess it does. This girl and I had known each other for like, I don’t know… two or three years. Same circle of friends, you know how it goes. Never dated or anything, but we got along really well whenever we happened to hang out. Well, one night I got this text from her… her sister had killed herself.”

Shit…”

Yeah. I didn’t know the whole dynamic, but apparently there had been some relational distance there… but I mean, family is family, you know? So I drove over to her house, and when I got there a few other friends were there too. I didn’t really know what to do other than just hang out and be there. I’ve been around death enough to know saying stuff never really helps.”

I know,” I said. “Way better to just sit there and be with them.”

Right,” he said, “so that’s what I did. The group of us just hung out, drank a few bottles of wine, played music. A few people ended up leaving, but a couple of us stayed. I don’t really remember how and when I fell asleep, but I woke up the next morning on the floor under this pile of blankets, and she was lying beside me, just kinda huddled up against me. I had a meeting I had to be at that afternoon, so I got her up and got her to bed, made sure she was okay, then I left.”

He looked in his cup, “You want some more?”

Sure.”

He got up and poured refills, then sank back into his seat.

So later that night, I get this text from her saying thanks for coming over, and I was just like of course, if you ever need anything, call me and then she texts that she’s out with a few girlfriends and asks me to come hang out with them. Well, it was late, so I asked you sure? and she says please, I’d like you to come. So I went. She was already a few tequilas deep by the time I got there, and when she was saw me, she ran over and hugged me. Hard.”

He took a sip, “It’s crazy how when you share a moment like that—the night before—it can change the way you relate to each other. It’s like it can jump a relationship way further down the line. Anyways, a few of us went back to her place again that night, but this time I was the only one who stayed. It was late, and we both passed dead out. But the next morning we wake up together and…” he trailed off.

You ever have one of those moments: you’re with someone you know, and you’re in a situation you never would have dreamed up in a million years, but it’s like everything came together in that moment for a reason, like you were supposed to end up there?”

I shrugged, “Can’t think of one personally, but I feel where you’re coming from, sure.”

And I promise this is all coming around to answer your question from earlier,” he said.

Hey man, no rush. Take your time.”

Okay, well we’re both lying there, and we look at each other, and we’re both like are we doing this? ’cause when you cross that bridge for the first time with someone you’ve been close to, it can go a million different ways after. And it was like we both took that split-second, and… you know, honestly, I think there had always been an attraction between us, but it was so subtle… it was almost subconscious.”

He paused, started to say something, stopped. “Anyways, that started off several months of us spending nights together, and it was always really natural, like if we didn’t hear from each other for several days, we didn’t think much of it, but if we had time then we’d meet up.

So, one night—and I’m finally getting to your question—we were up late. We were on the couch. I was holding her; we were sitting there in the dark drinking whiskey.” His voice got quieter. “And she tells me she wrote this song about her sister. And then she asked if I wanted to hear it.”

He looked out through the window, and I knew he was back there: back in that dark living room, sitting on a different couch, drinking a different glass of whiskey. I realized I was holding my breath.

I said yes. And so she picks up her guitar, and she’s sitting there in her underwear wearing my t-shirt, and she’s just so open, so… vulnerable. And she plays this song, and her voice… singing those words… it was so raw, there was just so much hurt. And, I felt like something inside me came undone. Like I had just gotten to see inside another human in a way I had never, ever experienced. I sat there, and I cried, because it was real—one of those moments that two people share at the deepest level.

So every once in a while, I get a moment as a character where I’ve got to listen to someone tell me something hard. And sometimes—not always—I’ll find myself back there. And that feeling just washes over me again.”

I sat there looking at him, waiting for something more. But he was quiet. I didn’t know what to say.

What happened to her?” I finally asked.

Uh, I’m not real sure,” he sighed, then took a long drink. “The nights we spent together just gradually got farther and farther apart. But last I checked, she was doing good.”

He shrugged, and I saw a touch of sadness—but it was a peaceful sadness—move across his face. “I haven’t seen her in years… you know, I think that once in a while, when you’re in a broken time, you cross paths with certain people. And in that moment, you fit together perfectly. But as you heal, you just don’t fit together in the same way anymore. Sometimes you might get months with someone. Sometimes maybe only days. But for that time that we had…” he smiled, “it was right.”

***

Flame”

Maybe we weren’t meant for each other
But o
nly for those nights.
You scarred my heart
With your guitar
And covered me in light.
-ijs

Advertisements

The Letter

The apple caught Bobby behind the left ear, dropping him in the dirt.

Cal spun around, only one person threw like that.

“Whatcha little dipshits up to, huh?” Brad sauntered out from behind a tree tossing another apple. His twin, Carver, trundled out after him. What Carver lacked in smarts he more than made up for in size.

Cal wished Little Pete were there, but he was off at his grandparents’ place for his annual week-long visit. Little Pete was the only buffer between them and the Terribles as they liked to refer to the twins.

Bobby wobbled to this feet rubbing his head. Cal steadied him.

“Aw, is the little guy hurt?” Brad said. Carver picked at a zit then wiped his sausage fingers on his stained dungarees.

“Go away,” Cal said.

“Or what?”

Cal stared at him.

“Just go away,” Bobby said, “we aren’t causing you guys any trouble.”

“Yeah, but that’s the rub, ain’t it, Bobby? We like trouble.”

Carver giggled, a fat pig getting his stomach rubbed.

Bobby stepped up, “You just wait ’til Little Pete gets back—“

“Yeah?” Brad shoved him, sending Bobby to the ground again. “That fat piece o’crap ain’t here now, is he? So whatcha gonna do about it?”

As Bobby struggled to his feet again a piece of paper fell from his pocket. Brad snatched it up.

Bobby made a grab for it, “Gimme that!”

“What’s the little boy been writin? Maybe it’s a looooove note,” Brad rolled his eyes unfolding the paper. Carver giggled again.

Bobby balled up his fists. Cal grabbed his shoulder, shook his head.

“Ho-ly hell, Carver, it is a love note. And it’s to Francine.”

Bobby sagged into Cal.

Carver pawed at his brother, “Read it! Read it!”

“Shut up,” he squinted at the paper, “you wouldn’t even understand half these words.”

He wheeled on Bobby, “Where’d you learn to use such big words?”

“Reading,” Bobby whispered, “maybe you should try it.”

“What’d you say, shrimp?”

“Nothing.”

“ ‘swhat I thought. Why don’t you just keep your little dreams of romance packed away in that little excuse for a brain you got stuck between those elephant ears of yours. Ain’t no girl gonna look twice at you, not even that fat cow Francine.”

“Fat cow!” yelped Carver.

“Shut your face, Carver, you ain’t got no room to talk, you sweaty meatball.”

Carver shut up.

They stood, the four of them squared off in the dusky summer heat. Sweat rolled in Cal’s eyes, but he never stopped staring at Brad. The quiet glare unnerved Brad for some reason. There was something off about the thin boy in front of him, the way he didn’t cower like the other kids, the way he just stood there staring.

“Ain’t got nothin to say, Cal?”

Silence.

Carver tugged on Brad’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“I’ll go when I’m damn-well ready to go,” Brad shrugged him off. He stepped towards Cal.
“You stay outta my way, freak. You and your pet runt.” He shoved his dirty finger into Cal’s chest.

Cal just stared.

It was wrong, Brad thought, to stand there like that. Wrong in some way his muddy mind couldn’t quite grab.

He slowly shoved the letter into his mouth, chewed it, then spit the globby mess into the dirt. “Hope she can still read it.”

The twins turned and lurched off into the trees.

Bobby sank to the ground and gingerly poked at the pulpy mess.

Cal laid a hand on his shoulder.

Bobby looked at him and sniffed, “I’m fine.”

Cal read the lie in his eyes.

“I jus’,” Bobby’s voice quivered, “I really worked hard on that letter. Been holding it for a week waiting for the right time to give it to her.”

He stood, swore, and kicked the wadded mess into the grass on the edge of the trail where it lay, broken roadkill left for the birds.

“I even wrote her a poem.”

Cal raised an eyebrow.

Bobby caught the look, shook his head. “I could maybe re-write it, but it’s not gonna be as good. It just had a . . . a magical feel, like I really got it right.”

He shrugged then started down the trail. Cal didn’t follow.

“You coming?”

Cal shook his head.

Bobby nodded, used to the mysterious ways of his silent friend.

“Swimming hole tomorrow?”

Cal nodded.

Bobby turned and shuffled away. Cal watched his little slumped shoulders until he rounded the bend in the trail and disappeared.

The trail was empty. Just the low summer afternoon and the grasshoppers singing in the shade of the forest.

Cal looked after him for a moment longer then turned and plunged into the woods.

***

“How do you eat that crap?” Bobby stared as Little Pete took another bite of black licorice.

“ ‘sgood.”

“False.”

“Whatever.”

Little Pete leaned back against the railing while Cal creaked back and forth in the old porch swing. Bobby gnawed his pencil and stared at the pad of paper in his lap.

“Heard you two had a run in with the Terribles last weekend.”

Bobby snorted.

“And I heard somethin else too, they done had some kinda run-in with some outta town punks. Leastwise that’s the story they’re tellin.”

Bobby perked up, “Say what?”

“Yep. Beat the everlovin piss outta ’em from what I heard,” he hocked a fat black wad into the yard, “done got their asses handed to ’em. Brad, he got one of the best lookin shiners I ever seen. Can’t believe you ain’t heard about it.”

Little Pete looked at Cal. “You sure you don’t know nothin about it?”

Cal opened one eye, stared at Little Pete, yawned, and went back to rocking.

“I sure would like to meet those fine gentlemen that delivered the beating and shake their hands,” Bobby sounded almost reverential.

Little Pete gnawed off another bite.

“Would you quit it with that? You’re making me sick. Smells like death on a stick.”

Little Pete sniffed the licorice, shrugged.

“It suits me.”

*Author’s note: This story falls into the world of “Move” and “The Swimming Hole.” I’ve gone back and forth on first and third person POV, and I think I’ll be sticking with third going forward.

The Postcard – a short story

tunnel

Eighteen inches of reinforced concrete. Capable of reducing a vehicle to a crumpled shell; human inhabitants obliterated, sternums fractured, massive blunt-force head trauma, catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

We crested the hill, drifting across the lanes on the final curve to catch another touch of speed. Carter negotiated the turn then allowed the car to straddle the center line. A quarter mile ahead the bridge squatted. Two narrow lanes burrowed under the railroad tracks. Two lanes split by a barrier wall—eighteen inches of reinforced concrete.

“Call it,” Carter said.

I sat.

Those eighteen inches raced towards us.

I sat.

Carter stared through the windshield. The two gaping holes in the hill stared back.

I sat.

Carter’s fingers tightened on the wheel. I was cutting it close. I knew it. But that feeling of being in control—knowing when I’d make the call while he sat waiting, waiting, insides screaming at me to call it before we—

“Left.”

The car jerked in his hands and leapt to zero in on the left side of the tunnel. I could almost hear the concrete’s disappointed sigh as it buzzed by, flirting with the passenger side mirror before the tunnel coughed us back out into the night.

He let loose a low whistle. “Geez. Waited long enough, didn’tcha?”

“That’s gotta be a new record.” It was closer than I’d planned, I was surprised he’d actually held out for the call.

“If we’re gonna break that then you’re driving and I’m calling next time.”

Suicide Bridge. It was a morbid yet fitting nickname. Sometimes when I’d be driving that road alone late at night, I’d find myself drifting into center almost out of habit, waiting for Carter’s voice to call the lane decision, knowing he wasn’t there, knowing I had to make the call, had to make it before leaning into those eighteen inches, embracing oblivion. There was a reason I didn’t drive that stretch of road for a long time. Sometimes the temptation started sounding a little too logical . . .

***

The glasses clink as he sets them on the battered end table. The bourbon splashes, rye harmony on crystal.

“Cheers, bro.” He nudges a glass my way, and I raise it to meet his. The years have been good to Carter. The cancer has not.

“Cheers.”

We sit on the front porch. The summer night settles around us. The squeak of his rocking chair marks a quiet tempo against the echoing calls of the tree frogs down the hill below us. I nurse my drink, the heat radiating up my chest to meet the warm buzz on my tongue. The blanket of night settles deeper, a comforter tenderly tucked in by a mother humming lullabies of long-forgotten dreams.

“Thanks for bringing the card.”

I tip my glass, “Glad to.”

He stares out into the night and I wait. He refills his glass, sips, coughs. It’s a tearing sound I’ll remember as long as I live, rusty razor blades shaking in rotten burlap.

“Doctor said I’ve got six weeks. Ten tops.”

I reach for the bottle, absorbing this. “Last time we talked you said twelve months.”

“I know. Damn cancer got all motivated I guess.” He tries to laugh. I wish he wouldn’t.

“And that’s why you wanted me to come.”

“Yeah.”

“So there’s really nothing more they can do—“

He shakes his head. “I told them they can go stick some other poor fool, but I’m done. They got all uppity, but I walked myself right out of there and told ’em ‘no deal.’ They send somebody around every other day to check in on me. It’s better this way.”

I don’t argue. There’s nothing to argue about. We’ve always been straight with each other, and if there’s nothing for it, then that’s how it is, no charades, just the plain ol’ truth, slam bam thank you ma’am.

“How bad is it?”

He looks at me and part of my soul crawls away into a corner and dies. If you could open me up and look inside, you’d find the corners of my heart littered with little bits of dead soul; it’s part of what makes growing old so hard. But this is the biggest piece yet. I don’t think there’s much left now.

It’s late when I leave. Orion is slipping into the horizon, the tree frogs all long since gone to sleep, the only sound the quiet hum of the wind walking in the willows along the creek.

I hug Carter, “I’ll see ya.”

“Yep, I’ll see ya.”

We both know it’s a lie.

***

The dial tone broke the silence.

“Hello? This is Brian Shaw. I need to report an OD.”

“ — “

“Yes, that’s correct. You have the address?”

“ — “

“I’d guess last night. He’s in his chair, looks like he’s sleeping.”

“ — “

“No. The pill bottle is right beside him.”

“ — “

“A note? Well, he’s holding a postcard but there’s nothing written on it.”

“ — “

“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s just a blank postcard with a bridge on it.”

-ijs

*Author’s note: the point of this story is neither to argue for nor against the decision of suicide, but rather to process why someone might make such a decision in the final stages of their life. This article hit me hard while I was in the process of writing.

Just Coffee – a short story

coffee

It was that time of the afternoon when it’s still okay to wear sunglasses inside. No one looks at you like who’s that dude think he is.

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about and why the hell did I pick this table—

She walks in. Walks in like she owns the place. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not pretentious. It’s just who she is. You know those people who walk in a room and everything stops for like this millisecond? There’s an infinitesimal shudder in the air, and you convince yourself it’s nothing because how do you explain that? It doesn’t make sense. And you’re right—it doesn’t make sense. It’s just the way things are.

I watch her for that moment before she sees me—that fraction of a moment before her guard goes up, before she becomes the person she is now.

The moment—that fraction—is gone almost before I recognize it.

She waves.

My legs move beneath me. I’m walking toward her.

Unplanned. Unplanned. Sit back down.

We watch each other from behind mirrored lenses.

I lean in. Kiss her on the cheek. It’s normal. She’s wearing the same perfume. It’s five years ago . . . .

Get it together.

“Just let me grab a coffee?”

“Sure.”

I sit. Why the hell did I pick this table? Pull out my phone. Put it back in my pocket. Adjust my glasses. I unconsciously rub my eyebrow STOP IT.

She sits. Smiles.

I want to say you look amazing. Tell me everything that’s happened. Tell me about the last three years. Tell me where you’ve been and do you remember? Do you remember everything? And a razor sharp memory: lying on the hood of the Jeep watching the fireworks, wrapped in a blanket because it was a cold July, and how she’d had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled way up over her head so only the tip of her nose was sticking out, and how I leaned over and kissed her under the sonic explosions, and it was like kissing ice, and how she started laughing and couldn’t stop, and how we both almost fell off but I caught her at the last second, and how her bag left a lightning bolt-shaped scratch on the Jeep—

Be smooth.

“So how are you?”

Smooth.

She smiles—that easy, relaxed smile. The room shudders again.

She’s good. We talk. She tells me about the last three years, and I sit and watch her, and it’s easy—easier than I’d hoped. The sun reflects off her glasses and it’s hard to imagine that her eyes haven’t gone gold. And then I’m tipping back my cup, standing for a refill, reaching to take hers habit and catch myself at the last second, she laughs, pushes it toward me, smiles.

The walk to the counter is somehow easier. I can’t tell exactly what’s changed. Hand the cups over, wait, wait, realize I still have my glasses on, take them off, grab the coffees, turn, and see her sliding her glasses into her purse.

I set the cups down.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

I push her coffee across. She looks out at the sunset. The light hits her just the way I remembered, her eyes glimmering sunset on the beach, the salt taste —

“I don’t know . . . for inviting me. I wasn’t sure—“ She takes a drink, looks directly at me. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

Careful.

“This.”

“This?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all?”

I nod.

She squints. I squint back the same way we used to do when one of us would be keeping a secret—the famous staring contest. Surprises rarely worked with us.

“I wanted to see if you were good.”

She tucks her hair behind her left ear the way she always does when she’s buying herself a second.

“I am.” She nods, “I really am.”

“Then my work here is done.”

She reaches across and touches my hand. Another shudder.

“You know I have infinite tenderness for you.”

The sun is gone. Nothing but clarity in those eyes.

“And I always will.”

I want my glasses. But I sit. I sit and look at her and see what truth looks like, and in the moment she releases my hand she releases something else in me—something no number of sleepless nights, benders, tortured miles, and crumpled diary pages could ever give—myself.

Free.

I am free.

***

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about.

-ijs