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

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Splinters

splinter tree

He collapsed onto the bench beside me.

“You’re early.”

I nodded.

He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.

“How are you today?”

He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.

“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

“It’s tough to know what to say.”

I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.

“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”

He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.

“Is that wrong?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”

scree scree scree

“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.

Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”

scree scree

“Still does.”

A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.

“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”

I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.

I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”

His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”

He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”

Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”

He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”

“I know it does. Splinters always do.”

He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.

“Can I get one more hit of that?”

He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.

scree scree scree

“Daisies.”

He nodded.

scree scree

“She loved those,” I said.

He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.

“Yeah. She did.”

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.