This is the first of a two-part story. Come back to tomorrow to read the second and concluding part. Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS a rainy December night when Ron Spicer stood against a cold brick wall and shivered. Leaning his head back and closing his eyes he tried to clear his muddled mind. The sound of approaching footsteps roused him, and in a well-rehearsed voice he asked, “Hey pal, can you spare some change?” The passer-by kept walking without as much as a glance.
It was easy now to beg. Gone was the embarrassment, the shame and self-loathing. Those feelings were buried long ago beneath an insatiable thirst, an Everest of countless and forgotten binges.
Six years ago, in what to Ron seemed like another man’s life, his wife Pamela had stood before him in their marital home. Holding their one-year-old baby she’d shouted in anger, “I’ve had it Ron! I can’t live like this anymore. If you don’t stop your drinking, I’m taking Tommy and we’re leaving.”
What followed were slurred apologies and empty promises; promises that had echoed within that home so many times before. Further episodes quickly spiralled downward into a nasty mess of divorce papers, a surprise change to the door locks, and a restraining order. Finally, in a sober act of defeat, Ron had left Pam and their son, Tommy. A chaotic time of imposing upon the hospitality of his long-suffering friends soon came to an end, and Ron found himself on the street, homeless. It seemed fitting when, not unexpectedly, he was fired from his job.
So here he was, cold and wet, standing in front of the East Street Mission. He was preparing to go in but had to sober up first. The volunteer attendants at the mission strongly discouraged the “guests” from coming in drunk, and would ask them to come back when sober. Ron was hungry and tired, enough so that he was willing to listen to what he called the bullshit of those self-righteous assholes. A few false words of praise and a contrived look of remorse would earn him a warm mattress on a crowded floor, and a stomach full of something solid for a change.
Ron hadn’t had much to drink tonight, and after exhaling a big breath into his cupped hands he believed he just might pull this off. He glanced at his dimly lit reflection in the glass door. It was hard for Ron to look at himself, to see how he had aged so quickly and unkindly. At 30 he looked almost twice his age. He had once been considered a handsome man, before the drink had consumed him. His face was now etched with deep wrinkles, his nose bulbous and red. He was gaunt and scrawny, contradicted only by his distended stomach. Ron ran his hand along his head to smooth down his thinning long hair. Good enough, he thought, and with his head down he pushed through the door and entered the shelter.
The stark lighting inside hurt his eyes, but he quickly found his bearings in this too familiar refuge. Ahead to the left was the registration desk. I hope Marnie is in tonight, Ron thought. She was one of the nice ones, not apt to judge or sermonize. As he approached the desk it occurred to him how quiet the shelter was tonight; absent too was the ragtag collection of stragglers usually lining the hall. But what really surprised Ron was the imposing figure sitting behind the registration desk.
A giant of a man with an impossibly wide grin stood up to greet Ron. From that grin sparkled a large gold tooth. Like a beacon in the night it drew Ron closer. An enormous hand was extended forward and Ron watched dumbfounded as his hand was swallowed up in a massive bundle of fingers and flesh.
“Welcome, Mr. Spicer. I’ve been expecting you.” The man’s voice was deep, and he spoke with a Russian accent. “My name is Sasha, but everyone calls me Mr. Jingle.” Ron’s wide-eyed stare broke free from the handshake and was drawn to the big man’s belt. Hanging from this belt was a large ring holding a multitude of keys. Each key, of different shape and size, shimmered with gold, like a charm bracelet of golden teeth.
Mr. Jingle moved out from behind the desk, his key ring jingling and jangling with every step. It became plainly obvious to Ron how this man got his name.
“Who . . . who are you?” stammered Ron. “Are you new here?”
“New?” he chuckled. “No, Mr. Spicer. I’ve always been here, but out of sight. I’ve come to help you Mr. Spicer, and I’ve made some extraordinary arrangements. No one will interfere, so please come with me. This is your special night.”
Somehow, knowing that resistance would be futile, Ron allowed himself to be led away. They walked through a nearby door marked NO ADMITTANCE, keys clanging and chiming in rhythm to their steps.
Ron found himself walking along a gloomy corridor, both sides of which were lined with strange doors. To Ron it brought to mind the hallways inside those sleazy hotels, the ones that didn’t ask questions, or waste money replacing light bulbs. He broke through his uneasiness and asked, “Where are you taking me? All I wanted was something to eat and a place to sleep.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Spicer, we have arrived,” replied Jingle. They were standing outside a series of framed glass doors, like the entrance doors to a mall or theatre. “Now, let’s see. I believe this is the correct key.” From the ring on his belt Jingle produced a gold key, slid it into the lock, and opened the door. “Please enter, Mr. Spicer, and enjoy the show.”
Ron passed through the door and surprisingly found himself to be dressed in a tailored suit, walking down the aisle of a theatre auditorium. He stopped and just stood there, dumbfounded until an usher approached him.
“Can I help you find your seat, Sir?” the usher asked. “The awards ceremony is about to begin.” Without thinking Ron reached into his suit pocket and found a ticket stub. He handed it to the usher, who examined the ticket and said, “This way, please.” He led Ron down to the front row. “Here you are, Sir, front row, aisle seat.”
Ron took his seat and looked around. The centre aisle was on his right; a fidgety woman was in the seat to his left.
“Isn’t this exciting?” she asked. “My son Bill is up for an award. Do you know someone receiving an award tonight?”
Ron said nothing. He pulled his ticket out of his pocket again and read its bold print: 13th Annual Young Entrepreneurs Awards Gala. Suddenly, the stage lights came on and a hush fell over the crowded theatre. A spotlight beamed on the emcee standing at centre stage.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Young Entrepreneurs Awards ceremony,” he announced. “Tonight we honour those bright young people who have shown incredible ingenuity and . . .”
“Excuse me pal, I believe you’re in my seat.” A visibly irritated man had appeared next to Ron. He was glaring down at him, his cheek twitching rapidly as it began to redden. Ron felt an immediate dislike for the man. Reluctantly, he began to get up from his seat as the usher appeared.
“Is there a problem here?” asked the usher.
“Yeah, this guy’s in my seat,” said Twitchy.
“That can’t be,” replied the usher. “I sat this gentleman myself. May I see your ticket, Sir?” Twitchy handed him his ticket. “My apologies, this is indeed your seat.” The usher turned to Ron. “May I see your ticket again? I must have misread it earlier.”
Ron reached into his suit pocket again. Instead of his ticket, he withdrew a weathered old tarot card. Puzzled, Ron slowly flipped over the card. They all stared at it for a moment. It was the Death card.
“Your ticket please,” said the usher.
“This is all I have,” replied a baffled Ron, patting down his pockets.
“Sir, if you don’t have a ticket you’ll have to leave.”
“All right, sure. I don’t know what I’m doing here anyway.” Ron turned and proceeded up the aisle towards the exit. He spotted a program lying on the floor and scooped it up. Once through the doors Ron expected to be back in the gloomy corridor of the shelter, but instead he found himself inside the well-lit lobby of the theatre. He stood there, lost and confused, and looked down at the program.
He began to read it and was surprised at the date: December 21, 2036. Must be a misprint, he thought. He then glanced down at the honourees and a name jumped out at him. Tom Spicer – Recipient of Top Entrepreneur Award was atop a list of other winners. That’s my son’s name. He glanced at the date on the program again: 2036. Twenty years had gone by. Could this be? My little Tommy? I must be dreaming. Ron went back to the theatre door and cracked it open. He looked down at the stage. A handsome young man was shaking hands with the emcee and accepting an award.
“Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the recipient of this year’s Top Entrepreneur award, Tom Spicer,” the emcee pronounced.
For a brief moment Ron thought he was looking at himself on his wedding day — the resemblance was unmistakeable. There was a round of applause as Tom stepped to a lectern to speak.
“Thank you, thank you,” said Tom. “I’d especially like to thank my mom for her support and encouragement over the years. Unfortunately she can’t be here due to illness, however my step-dad is sitting in for her tonight.” Tom waved to a man in the front row and the spotlight swivelled over to him. To Ron’s disbelief it was the jerk who’d bumped him out of his seat, Twitchy, who now stood up and waved back to Tom.
“Excuse me Sir, you’ll have to keep this door closed,” said an usher. Ron stepped back, letting the door close softly. He’d seen enough. He left the lobby and stepped outside in the street, more confused than ever. Maybe some fresh air will snap me out of this twilight zone. Ron couldn’t believe any of this. What the hell is going on? That couldn’t be my son, could it? He had to be sure. He decided to wait for the ceremony to end and catch Tom on his way out.
The awards ceremony went on for hours, but Ron had spent enough time on the streets to know how to let his mind go. It was like sleeping standing up, but without dreams, just vacant. This was different though. Ron was struggling to make sense of tonight’s strange events or accept the notion that he had gone completely insane. Finally he saw the theatre doors swing open. A large crowd poured into the street. He scoured the crowd, searching for someone who, through some bizarre occurrence, could be his grown-up son. And then, there he was. Can it really be him? There was a twinge in his heart that said yes. Tom had come out of the far doors, accompanied by his stepfather.
Ron pushed through the throng of people, hoping to have at least a word with his boy. The people in the crowd, initially blocking his path to Tom, began to step away. Women cringed and averted their eyes while men stared at him with disdain. Puzzled, Ron looked down at himself and discovered he was again wearing the tattered clothes of a homeless beggar. His foul body odour was rife. Without time to mentally process this transformation, he looked back up and was face to face with his long-lost son.
“Tommy. Tom, can I have a word with you. I think I know you.”
“Get lost, you bum,” said Twitchy. He gave Ron a hard shove which sent him sprawling onto the sidewalk. “Let’s go, Son. These guys are always looking for a handout.”
Tom and his stepfather began to walk away. Tom stopped for a moment and looked down at Ron. Their eyes met and a flicker of recognition passed between them. “Have we met before?” Tom asked.
“Don’t waste your time, Tom, let’s go,” interrupted Twitchy. “This guy’s just a waste of skin.” He threw a pocketful of change at Ron. “There, go buy yourself a drink.”
“Just a minute,” snapped Tom, glaring at his stepfather. “I asked this guy a question. Mom was right about you, no compassion whatsoever.” Tom looked back to Ron. “Well, Mister, what have you got to say?”
Before Ron could reply, a pair of security guards arrived. They quickly picked him up and dragged him around the corner and into an alleyway. They threw him down roughly, causing Ron to bounce his head off a concrete wall. He grabbed the back of his head and slouched down.
Ron sat there in a daze. He could hear music playing through the open window of an upper apartment. He vaguely recognized it; it was the song, “Aqualung,” by Jethro Tull, broadcasting from a classic rock radio station. As the song played Ron felt light-headed, ready to pass out. Snot ran down his nose as if to mimic the lyrics of the popular song, and he drifted off to sleep.
Ron awoke. He was lying on a mattress on the floor. He sat up and discovered that he was in the sleep hall of the East Street Mission. There was no one else in the room, and he had no idea how he’d gotten here or how long he’d been asleep.
“Hello, Mr. Spicer. Did you enjoy the ceremony?” It was Mr. Jingle, who had suddenly appeared.
“You again. What are you anyway, and where the hell did you take me?”
“I’m just a friend, here to help you,” replied Jingle. “Come along now, I’ve something else to show you.”
Struggling a bit, Ron stood up from the mattress. “Just leave me alone, I don’t want your help. You must have drugged me or something. I’m getting the fuck out of here and reporting you to the cops.”
Jingle’s massive hand instantly grabbed Ron’s neck and squeezed. “Now, Mr. Spicer, you must let me help you. Please, don’t make me do things the hard way.”
Ron was choking, he tried to speak but couldn’t. He could feel himself blacking out.
“Now, will you behave and come with me, please?” asked Jingle. “Nod if you will.” Ron nodded as best as he could. “That’s better. Now let’s get going.” Mr. Jingle relaxed his grip as Ron sucked in big gulps of air. They left the sleep hall and moved towards the same door they had entered earlier in the night, marked NO ADMITTANCE. Walking together they looked like old friends, with the larger of the two amiably resting his hand on the other’s shoulders, just below the neck. They stepped through the door.
Once inside the corridor, Jingle stopped them at the first door on the right. There was a small window in the top half of the door. Ron tried to peek inside while Jingle searched for the appropriate key. Straining his eyes Ron could make out a green-tiled wall, similar to those in a hospital or institution. There were some words scrawled on the wall in bright red letters, like graffiti. Ron strained his eyes further but found the words impossible to read from this side of the door.
“Ah, here it is,” said Mr. Jingle. He unclasped the gold key from his key ring and pushed it into the door lock. “Now remember, Mr. Spicer, you agreed to behave. Please enter and have a nice visit.” Jingle turned the key, opened the door, and gave Ron a gentle push inside.
The smell of disinfectant filled the air. Ron found himself standing in the hallway of a hospital, just outside the emergency operating room. He was dressed in scrubs, surgical gloves and mask. He felt a strange compulsion to enter the operating room and he quietly stepped inside. Standing at the back of the room Ron was unnoticed by the operating room’s team of doctors and nurses. They were frantically working on a patient in obvious distress.
“Blood pressure 50 over 20, heart rate at 35 and dropping,” reported the attending nurse. “Blood pressure now 30 over 15, pulse at 20. We’re losing her, doctor.” Then the steady flat-line hum of the monitor. “Cardiac arrest!”
“Two milligrams of adrenalin, stat,” the doctor ordered. The nurse complied and returned her eyes to the monitor.
“Beginning CPR,” the doctor stated. He stood over the patient with his arms firmly braced over her chest and began to thrust downward.
“Prepare the defibrillator.”
There was a flurry of activity as the surgical team prepared the patient for heart defibrillation. The doctor pulled away momentarily as the shock paddles were put in place. He grasped the paddles.
A deep thump was heard followed by a sudden upward jerk of the patient. The team watched the monitor for a positive response — nothing.
“Clear!” the doctor repeated, the ensuing electrical thump again jerked the patient upwards. No response. A third attempt was made, followed by the same result.
“Manual heart massage?” another doctor suggested. He picked up a scalpel.
The first doctor paused, studied the patient for a second longer, and then shook his head. “Too late, we’ve lost her. There’s nothing else we can do. Nurse, please record the time of death and notify the orderly.”
“Yes, doctor.” She made the entry on the patient clipboard and took one last look at the dead woman.
“What a shame,” she said to no one in particular. “EMS who brought her in said she’d been in a bad car accident. Her drunken ex-husband was driving, and not a scratch on him, the lucky bastard.”
Ron watched with apprehension as these events unfolded before him. Why am I seeing this? Then the unthinkable happened. The surgical team moved away from the operating table allowing Ron a full view of the deceased patient. He looked at her face and became petrified. It was Pamela, his ex-wife, laying there dead. Her head slowly turned towards him. Her eyelids flew open to reveal cloudy white eyes, no pupils. Her bluish lips trembled as they parted.
“Why, Ron?” she asked. “Why?” Her eyes slammed shut, her mouth and lips falling limp. He watched in horror as a ghostly aura rose from her chest.
Stunned and shaken, Ron bolted out of the operating room. In the hallway outside, he frantically searched for the door back into the shelter.
What he found instead made his heart jump into his throat. It was the graffiti he had seen earlier through the window of the door. Scrawled in blood on the tiled wall were the words: I’VE HAD IT RON! I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS ANYMORE. Ron turned away to flee but ran straight into a gurney. The crash sent him head-over-heels and he slammed his head hard on the floor. Then, darkness.
Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion.