FRIDAY: This Is Not a Love Story I Wanted to Tell, Part Five

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

Copyright is held by the author. This is the five and last part of a five-part story. Read Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

Part Five: The Eagle
AMY GAVE Tobin the tote tickets. “Here, you hold them. Perhaps my luck will change.”

Tobin took them and put them in his back pocket. “You realize there is no such thing as good or bad luck.”
“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. There’s no such thing as luck, at least not as you may believe. Unseen forces don’t guide our lives. It’s all about the math.”

Amy shuffled her seat to the right. More gamblers had gathered in the first row, blocking her view of the large screen. “Great you’re one of those guys,” Amy said. “Two minutes before the start of the most important race of my life and you want to discuss philosophy, and right after I give you the deal of your degenerate lifetime. I am surrounded by men bereft of charm and manners. God, will someone tell those butt farts to sit down?” She stood. “Tobin, you must know who I am. Is this your idea of a humour?”

“Everyone knows who you are, Amy. Look, even the most unlikely event, and that includes you surviving a fall from 102 stories, is neither luck nor providence. It is simply a random variable. You throw enough people off a building and eventually someone will survive the fall. He will land just the right way, or some other unknown variable will save him.

“It’s like the lottery: Every loser believes fate is against him. Every winner believes it was destiny. There’s a reason behind their good fortune, as if they were special and picked out as deserving. It’s bullshit. When an animal gets struck by lightning, it is not good or bad luck. It just is. The poor creature doesn’t believe it has been cursed because it isn’t self-aware. We are, and we don’t like to believe our lives have no meaning. Hell, when bad shit happens, we like to believe something or someone cares enough to notice us, even if its attentions are cruel. We abhor indifference.”

“You wouldn’t believe that if you knew my true story, not the bullshit the papers would have you believe.”

“You’re telling me Time magazine and all the other media outlets lied?”

“Lied? I wouldn’t go that far,” Amy said. “Let’s just say I left out the interesting parts.”

“Care to elaborate?”

Amy twisted her seat to face a smaller television set hanging to her right. “To you? Unlikely. Now, do me a favour and hush up and watch the race, and let’s hope the math works out for us tonight.”

“If it doesn’t, what will happen?”

“I’ll be dead fucking broke, that’s what will happen. I’ll have to get a job, sell my car, maybe even my house. Unlike you, I don’t have a furniture store to squander.”

“You know about that?”

“Remember what you said? News travels quickly in The Hole. Everybody knows everything and everyone here,” Amy said. “Purgatory is a tight community.” Before Tobin could respond, Amy raised her forefinger to her mouth and silenced him.

“The lure is in motion,” said the track announcer. “Here comes Bucky.”

“Come on, you rat,” Amy uttered toward the television. “Break out of the box as if your life depends on it.”

Justin Time, a post time 14-1 longshot, racing out of the seven box, complied. It broke out cleanly and quickly. The dog reached the first turn in second place behind Holly Girl, and by the time the two entered the backstretch, Justin Time had taken the lead. Amy stood, raised her arms and turned to Tobin. “In the bag, furniture boy. It is in the damned bag. I knew I made the right pick.”

“Hey, don’t jinx it,” Tobin said. “It could fall or break its leg.”

“Listen to you, Mr. Science. He won’t fall. He will win by five lengths.” She reached out to Tobin and pulled him by his belt. She didn’t like the weight he carried, hanging over his belt like some mullet head slob. He could lose 30 pounds, but in here it didn’t matter. In The Hole, he was considered quite the catch.

She drew him close and whispered, “Well? Did the beast fall or explode or get picked up by aliens?”

“Won by five,” he said, voice trembling.

“And your pick? Holly Girl?”

“Faded completely off the ticket.”

“Look at you. You’re about to wet your pants.”

“It’s going to be a hell of a ticket. Huge.”

“Yes, it is. If it’s a signer, you’re paying the taxes.”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s the least I could do.”

She pushed him away. “Now breathe.”

“Trying.”

“Get to the window,” she said. “Go to Heidi’s window, and give her a decent tip. Two percent. Got it? Two percent”

“Yeah. Two percent.”

For a few seconds she considered cashing the ticket herself. The last thing she needed was for Tobin to lose the ticket or get his pocket picked. She knew he wouldn’t try to run off with the ticket. He was, as Slander would say, “an honourable degenerate.” Fortune had graced him and he wasn’t going mess with karma.

Instead of following Tobin, she slumped back in her chair and embraced her good luck. She had finally made a good call. Too bad Slander couldn’t have shared it with her.

She looked back toward Tobin. He had reached the window. He openly shook as he waited for the official results and the announcement of the payoffs.

***

She entered the kitchen just past 2:00 a.m. She had arrived home a half an hour before, but stayed in her car, using the next 30 minutes to decompress. Under the dim overhead light, she read the local newspaper, covering world news first and then the sports section. Her father was a big Green Bay Packers fan. She preferred baseball with its history of measurable performances — home runs, batting averages, on-base percentages, and the like. She didn’t care who won. She enjoyed reading the box scores. She parked in the driveway. Her dad used the one-car garage.

Her home was a three-bedroom, one-bath, red brick 800-square-foot ranch with a half-finished basement. There were a good dozen houses on each side of the block, each with similar floor plans, yards, and level of maintenance. The comfort of conformity and anonymity: Amy hadn’t understood their value until she had returned home from New York. She despised her notoriety.

Most of the original owners in the Burlington suburb had been veterans of Korea or World War II. Amy’s grandfather bought the home in 1949 and passed it down to his son. It would have been Amy’s after her father passed, but he had lost his job soon after the terrorist attacks. After Amy received her settlement from the stock firm, she bought it from him, generously paying more than its market value.

Her father sat at the kitchen table, digging into a bowl of vanilla ice cream and watching one of his favourite war movies on DVD: The Bridge on the River Kwai. He had gained weight since he lost his job, and he had lost most of his hair.

“That’s the second time this week you’ve watched it, Dad. Something bothering you?”

“Nothing more than the usual. It’s a comfort movie. Have you seen it?”

“Yes,” Amy said. “We watched it earlier this week together.”

“Of course.” He smiled sheepishly. He ate another scoop, then kicked the chair to his left, pushing it toward Amy. “Please.”

Amy sat, throwing her sweater onto the back of the chair. She leaned over and kissed him on the check and whispered, “Watch this, Dad.”
Amy reached into the front pocket of her jeans and withdrew a tightly folded, large stack of 100-dollar bills.  She counted 11 bills and spread them on the table, fanning them as if they were a peacock’s tail. “There’s your cut, 10 percent — $1,100.”

“That’s 10 percent? Are you sure?”

“I’m capable of basic math, Dad. It would have been twice the amount if I hadn’t split the bet with Tobin.”

“Thanks.” He fingered the cash. “They’re crisp, straight from the bank.”

“Just the way you like them.”

He stacked the bills, folded them and placed them in the pocket of his bathrobe. “So, who is this Tobin character? I thought you were with Slander.”

“Slander ran into a little trouble. He was asked to leave the park.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Amy said. “He got into a fight, and the ill-tempered little bugger instigated it.”

“Jesus, that temper of his,” her father said, “I thought he had it under control.”

“He had it contained, but not controlled.”

“How bad is the other fella? Slander?”

“Slander is fine, but the other guy is not doing well. Not at all. It’s bad, real bad. I stopped by the hospital after the races. I couldn’t get all the details, but it looks like he will be spending a great deal of his free time with an oral surgeon and a dentist if not a plastic surgeon. When I left, they were taking him in for a CAT scan to assess the damage to his brain. Hopefully, it won’t be too bad or permanent.”

“Mercy,” her father said.

“Mercy, indeed.”

“It puts a damper on what could have been a great night,” her father said. “It’s been a while since you’ve come home this flush. What are you going to do with it?”

“I have an idea.”

“Care to share?”

“Perhaps,” Amy said.

Her father cradled his coffee cup. “That Slander. It’s too bad. I liked Slander.”

“He’s not dead, just detained.”

“I know he’s not dead. What I am trying to say is that I liked him, much more than that Iggy fellow.”

“You never met Slander.”

“I know,” her father said, “but I liked how you were when you talked about him. He’s smart. I particularly liked his stories, especially the one set during the Depression. He managed to write a believable love story during hard times. His stories had happy endings.”

“He’s good,” Amy said. “Perhaps, he’ll write more.”

“Send them along to me.”

“Of course.”

Her father finished his ice cream and carried the dish to the sink. He never left a mess. He would rinse out any dirty dishes, even after midnight. He preferred order. He found comfort in routine.

After he rinsed out his dishes, he placed them in the dishwasher. He closed it and set the dials. “I’ll set it to run in the morning,” he said. “This way it won’t keep us awake.”

“Good plan.”

Her father slumped against the counter. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but he couldn’t. Instead he smiled sadly at her. His mouth quivered, and then he started to softly cry. He didn’t try to hide the tears. He had long stopped pretending to manage his despair, his loss of job and self-worth; he also stopped pretending to not feel her sorrow. More than once he told her how he longed for them to quit pretending with each other. He longed for her to open up and share with him all the guilt she carried. He couldn’t relieve her of the burden, but he could share it.

He also wanted to become her father again, the strong man he had been before she left home. He wanted her to become the daughter she had been, too: He wanted the daughter whose ambition carried her 1,000 miles from the security of her home. He wanted the daughter who dreamed of a family, and to make $1 million by the time she was 30.

She wanted the carefree girl who spent her free time at the beach with her friends or exploring the hiking trails of the West with her current boyfriend.

He wanted the daughter who wasn’t afraid to leave her home when she wasn’t at the damned track.

He wanted the daughter who believed in the myths of children.

She never said it, at least to her father, but she wanted these things, too. She wanted to feel safe standing beneath an open sky, without feeling as if she would fall.

She did not want to be alone.

She waited for him to stop crying. She did not mind. She felt only sympathy for the man. “What can I do for you, Dad?”

He wiped at his tears with his sleeve. “Just tell me you’re not seeing that skinny fellow again.”

“No, no,” Amy said.  “No worries there.”

“Good, good,” her father said. “Now, this Tobin character, what does he do?”

“Runs a furniture store, or what’s left of it. Don’t worry about him. He’s not a friend or anything, just a fellow track rat, a convenient associate. He doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s best not to get too close to people there. Most of them are screwed up, lost.”

“I can only imagine.” He opened the cupboard. “Do you want a cup?”

“Coffee, now, at 2:30? No thanks. I have enough trouble sleeping.”

Her father shrugged and closed the cabinet. He turned to his left and switched off the DVD player. “You know what you should do?” her father said. “You should do something fun with the money. Go on a vacation. Get away from this house. Go back out West. You like hiking.”

“I could use the exercise.”

“Or, you could consider going back to school.”

“School? School’s not fun,” Amy said.  “I have enough schooling.”

“You don’t seem interested in re-entering the financial world. You could try another profession.”

“Such as what, a social worker? X-ray technician? No. School is not the answer, nor is a vacation. I’ve been on vacation.”

“So try something different,” her father said. “Take a break from your routine. Your physical injuries have healed. I also think your spirits have improved.”

“You do, huh.”

“Yes, I do,” her father said. “Even if you don’t.” Her father walked over to Amy and touched her shoulder. “You’ve been hiding too long.”

Amy held his hand. It was cool and moist. “Are you done with your lecture?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I know what I should do with the money.”

“Go on…”

Amy started to speak, but the words did not immediately form. She had considered her plan on the way home. When Tobin handed over the cash, she did not experience the same rush she normally felt when she collected her winnings. She felt numb, indifferent. Her thoughts drifted elsewhere, beyond the present, outside the timeless walls of the track. Outside her past. Her thoughts had seeped into the terrible unknow — the future. She had gone to the hospital not out of concern for Iggy but for Slander. She had prayed that Iggy’s injuries weren’t grave, and that he would recover. She was looking for a sliver of light for Slander.

“Well,” her father said, “are you going to tell me or do I have to wait for Time to write the follow-up article?”

Amy laughed, and so did her father.

Amy tightened her grip on her father’s hand. “Tomorrow, Dad, you and I are going to the county jail or lock-up or wherever The Hobbit is being kept on ice. We’re going to use this money and get the little pugilist the best lawyer $10,000 can buy.”

“Ten thousand? Given the severity of the beating, you’re going to need more than $10,000 to help Slander. He will probably be charged with aggravated assault or something similar, and it is his second offense. He’s going to need a good defence attorney, not some appointed slug. You may have to dip into your settlement.”

“Yeah, well,” Amy said, “there’s a problem.”

“You mean? Amy, tell me you didn’t.”

“I did.”

“It’s gone? All of it?”

“Oh, yeah,” Amy said. “It’s gone, gone, Daddy, gone.”

“Amy, after the house you had almost $300,000. How could you lose that much money?”

“It wasn’t easy. It took effort, skill, and a modicum of creativity,” Amy said.

“Three hundred thousand dollars! You blew a fortune. Why didn’t you say something?”

“What could I say? People who piss away this kind of money usually don’t confide with their loved ones.”

“I suppose, but $300,000? I can’t imagine…” He stopped and knelt. “You can’t go back, you know. You must quit.”

“I know, Dad. It’s okay. I’m good with it.”

“Good with it? You lost…”

“I know … $300,000. Got it,” Amy said. “On that point we agree, but think about it, what have I lost? Blood money — money tainted by murder and grief. It never felt right holding onto to all that cash. I didn’t deserve the money. I didn’t die. I survived.”

“You suffered your injuries. You lost your best friend. Three thousand people died, and their families…”

“Don’t run the numbers past me, please,” Amy said. “I don’t want to spend any more time on the numbers — on how many died and how much money I lost. That part of my life is over.”

“Okay, but what about the rest? What are you going to do?”

“Not sure,” Amy said. She leaned close and closed her eyes until the blackness melted into blue, blue sky. “All I know is that I want my story to have an ending I can live with, and perhaps one Slander will find worth telling.”

The Tower: Part Five
The eagle approached the tower from the east. It came in low and fast, skimming the rooftops, in plain sight of all those who had gathered to watch the tower burn. It did not care who witnessed its rage. The eagle considered the death of the tower a personal affront.

The eagle circled the tower twice, and just as it began its ascent toward The Nest, the tower shook. Flames blew out of the observation deck. Bodies spilled forward. The eagle screeched a cry of despair. It raised its claws and entered the storm of smoke and ash, oblivious to the rain of glass, steel and fire.

The tower emitted a murderous roar and collapsed, falling in on itself as the steel within had reached more than 7,000 degrees and could no longer support its structure. Seconds later, the eagle emerged out of the blackness smothering the earth, its eyes a blood red.

The world watched, refusing to believe what it had witnessed. On the ground, those caught in the wake of death ran, praying for deliverance. Those safely secured away from the fury raised their fists, demanding vengeance.

They all ignored the miracle before them.

The eagle ascended high into the eastern sky, rising above the skyscrapers to where blue merged into black. It continued east, over the mountains of Pennsylvania and then above the Great Lakes. It flew through the end of the day and into the next morning, resting only when it had reached its destination and completed its task — when it had carried Amy safely home.

5 comments

  1. Nancy Boyce

    Frank, no comments can do your story justice, but I want to say that I enjoyed it immensely. I saw so much of you in the story teller part of Slander. This is definitely your best yet. Thanks for a great week of reading.

  2. Frank Sikora

    Thank you Ms. Boyce. Thankfully, I’m a little taller than Slander, and luckier in love. Of all the characters I have written, Slander is my wife’s favorite character.

  3. Michael Joll

    Frank,
    Read it three times. Still trying to connect the dots between a fire in a skyscraper, a giant eagle, several weird people and a greyhound track. But then, I couldn’t buy into “The Life of Pi” either. It’s probably just me and my linear thinking brain. One day the penny will drop. Hopefully.

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