The End or “It’s Going to be All Right.”

DSC_0972This is the last installment of the JJ story.  Thanks to all the readers who’ve stuck with it and offered encouragement and criticism over the years.  I’ve pulled all the entries together and, with some fleshing and spackling, I think I’ll have a pretty good book for you in the not so distant not too near future.  Take care and honor your inner JJ.  -Dave

Later, after work and a shower and falling asleep at 4:00 AM next to Lila in bed, JJ had a dream.

He was in his family’s house, as it was when he was a child. He was downstairs, alone, but aware of an adult presence upstairs. He felt like he had done something wrong, something that would be found out, and he had an urge to confess. He needed to preempt the discovery and control the story and consequences to follow. He went upstairs.

The door to his parent’s room was ajar and AM radio was playing. WCBS New York. Phony hectic newsroom sounds and top of the hour news chimes. Something about a beheading in the Middle East and an early snowstorm in the Northeast. He nudged the door open and saw Donald Trump looking out the window to the backyard. Trump turned and beckoned. “Look at all this,” he said. “It’s going to be all right.” JJ joined him at the window that usually looked out over the back driveway and basketball hoop, out over the houses on the street behind. Instead there was a vast American prairie, a rolling golden prairie as far as the eye could see with a dazzling blue sky marred only by a great plume of smoke rising on the horizon. “It’s going to be all right,” Donald Trump said and put his hand on JJ’s shoulder.

JJ woke. It was light and he was alone in his own bed, in his own house, on his farm that wasn’t a farm. Out the window, the trees were bare and there was light snow falling. The distant hilltop looked indistinct and gauzy because of the falling snow. He heard footsteps downstairs then the sound of a spoon in a cup or bowl.

Lila. Living with Lila.  Present day.

It was 10:12 on a Saturday morning in mid November. He would get dressed and have breakfast with Lila. Then off to the noontime meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, where other people, more or less just like him, would talk about the Bermuda Triangle of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. He and Lila would go to lunch or a movie and make holiday plans and maybe bigger plans, too. Then, he would go to work with Carl to bake all those bagels for Sunday morning.

Later on, at the coffee shop, JJ and Lila sat across from each other. They had visited the used bookstore and they read and sipped as people talked and moved past them. JJ tried to read Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, on Carl’s recommendation. Too much discourse, not enough getting to the point.  Lila read a novel by Anne Tyler.

JJ looked up. “Before we go home, maybe I’ll buy a lottery ticket.”

Lila kept looking at her book. “How’d that work out the last time?”

JJ smiled. “I’d do things differently this time.”

“If it were only that simple,” Lila said.

“Things are never that simple.”

“Things are never simple,” Lila agreed. “You can set things in motion…”

”And then you’re just a bozo on the bus, along for the ride.”

“Or you’re just a bozo.”

JJ could only smile and nod and sip his coffee.  It was going to be all right.

 

 

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“It’s All Political Now”

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JJ and Carl, reconciled, waiting to bake the bagels.

They stood behind the bagel shop, Carl smoking and talking, JJ looking across at the empty skate park bathed in yellowish street light. The trees were mostly bare of leaves now and the scene looked bereft and jaundiced, some long suspected inner disease finally showing itself on the surface.

“It’s all political now,” Carl said. “Everything. You can’t even stand in line at CVS without thinking, ‘Did he vote for him?’ ‘Did she?’ It’s like trying to spot vampires in daylight. And you know they’re ashamed.”

“They’re not monsters.”

“But the results will be monstrous.”

“They’re just people. People are angry.”

“Yeah. They want simple answers for a complex world. They want what they think was promised them without realizing they grew up in a relatively peaceful time in our nation’s history of blood and mayhem. Post WWII. Then post Cold War. But the rest of the world doesn’t care. The rich don’t care about the American Dream for everybody else. They’ll allow the average Joe just enough to have an Xbox or flat screen or some shitty pickup truck. But they’ll keep the rest and convince those ignorant suckers that they care about making America great. News flash: America’s never been great for a lot of people.”

“You’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this,” JJ said with a smile. “I suspect the last baker didn’t do a lot of listening.”

“Yeah well, he was limited. He could talk about online gaming and that’s about it. I don’t even know what that is. I may be a baker but I read Marx, I read Thoreau, I read Rousseau. This shit going on today? It thrives on ignorance.”

JJ looked at the empty skate park and thought back to summer nights when there were kids skating out there until after dark with their languid movements and sudden bursts of energy required for their tricks. They wore wool hats, even in the heat. It all seemd pretty simple. Enjoy yourself, do your work, think about places to go and how to get there.

“How’s Anne?”

“It’s good at home,” Carl said. “But, y’know what? I think she voted for him. She says she didn’t, but I think…I think she shows the signs. She wants people to pay.”

“Hmm.”

“You’re not surprised?”

JJ thought of Tess and Cody and the keystone cops desperation of their scheme to get their ranch back. “Nothing surprises me.”

“Nothing?”

“It’s a blessing and a curse.”

They heard the oven buzzer go off through the closed back door. Preheating was done, baking temperature had been reached, 550 degrees.

“It’s time,” Carl said.

“194 dozen?”

“No dude, we’re booming. 222 dozen these days.”

“This is going to hurt,” JJ said.

“It’ll come back to you. Muscle memory. Your body remembers the old patterns.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

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The Money’s Gone

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The house on the farm that wasn’t a farm had the cold feel and smell that uninhabited houses have, like faded memories of people, their presence gone stale and uncertain. JJ thought of that town in Japan where the earthquake caused the reactor to melt down, breakfast bowls still on tables and backpacks still in neat circles on classroom carpets.  He turned on the heat to move some molecules and get rid of the chill. They had gone to the bank on the way over. In all his accounts, not counting the value of the farm and the ranch, he had just over $1100 to his name. He was…what’s the term? Illiquid? Yes. He was illiquid and reliant on the ranch rent of an equally poor and unreliable brother and sister in Colorado.

“Hey,” Lila said. “We’re going to be all right.”

“Yup.”

“Really,” she said. “We’ll go back to work.”

“Yup.”

They walked together through the rooms of the house. The last people who lived here were Lila and Carl, who were caretaking. And taking care of each other. A tiny ember inside that he was not even aware of glowed suddenly and started to smolder. The resentment, kept at bay by motion and drama, now flamed up.

“Don’t,” Lila said.

“He hasn’t even called.”

“He’s afraid.”

JJ knew this was true, but the resentment was flaring and consuming the oxygen of his reason. He tried to stifle it for fear of letting the blaze get out of control. Too late…

They drove him away. They drove him out to Colorado where he got drunk and blew the rest of his money. She came to rescue him and tricked him into declaring love. He was dimly aware that he was being consumed by a lie of his disease and he know that he had to do something. He turned away and looked out the kitchen window.

The old view. The barn and the hill sloping down behind. The steeples and water tower in town, visible because the leaves were mostly down. The moodiness of the fall. It reminded him of the previous falls, disappointments, false starts and…rebirths?

“I have to make a call,” he said.

“Oh. Okay.”

He walked out the door to the porch and dialed the number. Two rings. Three rings. A mixture of relief and despair. He had tried.

“Hello.”

“Marty, it’s Jason. From the meeting.”

“Hey, what’s going on?”

And JJ shared the resentment. How Lila, who he loved, and Carl, his best friend from forever had shacked up when JJ got erratic, drunk and angry. How he couldn’t forget it and how it was consuming him. How he loved Lila. Yes, he had told her. But how could they be together with this this…thing, between them. It all came pouring out of him, spilling over like water in an overfilled vessel when it actually raises above the brim before spilling and flooding a table and floor.

“Listen,” Marty said. “Get down on your knees, right where you are. Right now.”

“…”

“Are you on your knees?”

“You mean while we’re on the phone?”

“Yes. Right now.”

JJ looked in the window to see if Lila was watching. He couldn’t see her so he got down on his knees.

“I’m down,” JJ said.

“Good. Now repeat after me. God, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“What?”

“Repeat it!”

“God,” JJ said. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

“I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

JJ repeated, “I don’t even know if you’re real or not.”

“But please help me not to drink today. I beg you to help me not to drink today.”

JJ repeated it.

“Good,” Marty said. “Now go inside, hug your girl and tell her you’ll see her after the 6:00 meeting.”

“You’ll be there?”

“You bet. I’ll see you there.”

“Ok, thanks.” JJ got off his knees and went inside to hug his girl.

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JJ in AA, Again

 

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A church basement. Upstairs is for those who fear going to hell. Downstairs is for those who’ve already been there. At least that’s what some people say.

After the meeting, Professor Tom stood with some members, laughing at the absurdity of the drinking life and the miracle of getting to live a sober life. JJ waited near the exit door, nervous, feeling he was lying in ambush. The meeting was good, his third since returning from Colorado. Lila was at the Al-anon meeting down the hall, her third since the return, too. It was early, but so far, so good. He hadn’t seen his old sponsor yet and was resolved to clean things up and get back to recovery work.

“I’m glad you waited,” Tom said as he approached JJ at the door. JJ put an awkward hand out but Tom brushed past it and embraced JJ. “Some never come back,” he said next to JJ’s head.

“I’m back for good,” JJ said.

“Or just for today.”

JJ smiled. “Yeah, just for today. A daily reprieve, right?”

“Based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

“Yeah, about that. I need to get back to work on the steps.”

“Listen,” Tom said. “I’m really glad you’re here, but I can’t sponsor you anymore. I’ve got three other guys and I can’t take time from them.”

“Oh,” JJ said and tried to disguise his disappointment. It was one of those moments, so common for him, when the path forward looked straight and clear, but then the world was revealed as more complex and contrary than assumed. He felt like a child discovering that all that stuff- the house, the car, the water(!)- actually cost money. There was always a price to be paid.

“What I can do is introduce you to a few guys.”

“That would be good.”

“Marty,” Tom called across the room. “C’mere for a minute.”

A guy, younger than Tom, closer to JJ’s age, broke off from another group of people and came over.

“This is Jason,” Tom said. “He just got back from…”

“Out there,” JJ finished, gesturing with his thumb out the window. “And Colorado.”

“Oh yeah? Welcome back,” Marty said, and they shook hands. “I lived there for seven years. The greatest and worst times of my life.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, man,” Marty said. “Listen, a few of us are going to get coffee. You’re welcome to come.”

Once again, a fork in the road. Take the easy way and scurry home to comfort with a residue of shame and self-loathing? Or go out and brave the company of actual people who are trying to do better?

“Last suggestion,” Professor Tom said. “Discard that first instinct. That’s usually your disease.”

He was right, of course. That’s the thing about these sober people, at least the ones who actually work it. They’re always fucking right.

“All right,” JJ said. “I’ll go. I just have to tell my girlfriend.”

“Great,” said Marty. “We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

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“I Love You.”

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The next day, after they left the lawyer, JJ and Lila sat in the Camaro. An agreement had been reached, the lawyer paid, hands shaken, and Tess had embraced Lila long and hard, whispering something into her ear. When they broke the embrace, Tess was crying a little and Lila took her head in both hands and kissed her forehead. JJ and Cody, standing to the side both noticed but were too male, egos still on high alert from the question of ranch ownership, to make eye contact and acknowledge the crazy mysteries of women and their ways.

“We need to address what happened with Tess.”

“Listen, I’m sorry.”

“You’re always sorry, that’s the problem. But you’re never wrong.”

“I’m not even sure we had sex…”

“There you go again. Wiggling out.”

“I’m going back to AA.”

“…”

“Lila?”

“She told me something you said to her. When you were drunk.”

JJ reached back with his memory. There was too much gray between renting the ridiculous Camaro and meeting the mountain dude in the park (was that even real?). He really couldn’t remember if they had sex or not, and honestly wasn’t even attracted to Tess. Except, maybe… Those tight jeans. She filled them real nicely. And when she walked? Like two pistons…

“Do you want to know what she said?”

“I’m not sure.”

“She said that you told her, no matter what happened with you two, that you’d always love someone else.”

JJ sat quietly, staring straight out the window. They were parallel parked along a main street and cars whooshed by. The minivan in front of them had stickers denoting the members of the family, five Star Wars figures all in a row, two big and three little, holding light sabers. JJ waited for the caustic righteousness that usually came along with seeing self-congratulatory car stickers (Fuck you and your precious family! I hope they turn to the dark side!). But nothing came.

“I wonder,” JJ said. “I wonder who I was talking about.”

“Can you say it?”

“Say what?”

“Can you say that you love me?”

“…”

“Say it.”

“I guess I love you.”

“You guess?”

There was this blockage, a boulder stuck in a round tunnel. Water shot through around the irregular edges, but there was a great liquid force gathering behind the rock, urgent and pent up, that needed to flow. Should he sledge off a piece of the boulder and see what happens? Maybe that restrained force would tumble the boulder right down the tunnel and out the other end.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know.”

“That’s it?”

“If we’re going to try this for real. If we’re going into this together, then we need to know what’s at stake. No more playing.”

JJ took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Now drive us to the airport so we can get back to our lives.”

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Rent to Own

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Tess and Cody in the parking lot of the Marriott.

“You need to watch the other side,” Cody said. “There’s like six doors.”

“We just need to watch that car there,” Tess said. “He’s going nowhere without that.”

“He can walk. We’ve seen him do that.”

“Yes, he can walk.” But, she didn’t move.

“So,” Cody said. “I guess I’ll watch the other side. Keep an eye on your phone.”

“Wait. I’ve been thinking. We can just talk to him…”

“Now’s not the time to go all soft. We have to get him before he goes home or wherever.”

They stood outside the pickup truck, at the edge of the parking lot, facing the JJ’s rental Camaro and the hotel beyond. There was the whoosh of cars on the highway and the approaching dusk. Cody and Tess just looked at each other.

“What if we just let him go?”

“You mean, he just goes home and owns our ranch? How’s that okay with you?”

“We can’t storm the hotel!”

“No one’s storming the hotel. He has to come out eventually. He has to return that car to wherever he got it,” Cody said.

“We just can’t stay here watching. You look like a mad dirty redneck. Someone will call the cops.”

“Well fuck you, then. Why don’t you go inside and see if you can roust him from the lobby or something.”

Tess was staring at the entrance. “No need,” she said. “Here he comes.”

A woman, followed by a sheepish JJ, was making right for them.

“Here THEY come,” Cody said.

“I don’t know the whole story,” Lila said before she even reached them. “But we’re going to figure this out right here, right now.”

“Your boy there bought our land with a promise to sell it back,” Cody said. “And then he changed his mind.”

“I was tricked by her,” JJ said, pointing at Tess.

“She didn’t do any magic on you,” Cody said. “You were into it.”

“I was drunk! She was all over me.”

“Enough,” Cody said. “This fuckin guy got himself into this.” He looked at Lila. “How are you gonna get him out?”

Lila looked at the rail thin, angular and angry Cody. She looked at this Tess with her country girl jeans and big boobs. She could feel the pull to judge and dismiss them as some conniving rednecks from the hills. But the main thing that came to her was they were just so young. Young and just going from thing to thing, impulse to impulse, trying to get to a place that was always receding even as they approached it. Family ranches and banks and foreclosures. What the hell? And then dumb ass JJ stumbles (literally) into some harebrained scheme they hatched. She could feel their desperation and admired the effort, even while seeing they were doomed. Cody and Tess weren’t soft, but they weren’t criminals, either. They were naïve, not yet beaten into resignation.

“Jason here is going to sell the ranch back to you,” she said.

“What!” JJ said. “No fucking way!”

“Shut up,” Lila said.

“How the fuck are we s’posed to pay for it,” Cody asked. “That was the whole point of all this!”

“You shut up, too,” Lila said. “Whatever your bullshit plan was, it’s done.”

“Then how?”

Quiet. Then Tess said, “I heard of something called rent-to-own. You pay a little bit at a time and it’s like installments.”

“Jesus,” Cody said. “That won’t work. I won’t rent what’s really mine.”

“What’s really mine, you mean,” JJ said. “I wouldn’t trust them to pay.”

But Lila looked at Tess, whose eyes were turned down after making her suggestion. “Rent-to-own,” Lila said and Tess’s eyes rose to meet her’s. “That sounds about right.”

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The Surprises Never Cease

 

 

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JJ sat across from the hotel manager, explaining how he needed his stuff, especially certain bank documents. Quickly. Like now. No, he didn’t have identification because Tess and Cody took it. No, he hadn’t meant to leave his stuff behind but he was overtaken by events. No, he wasn’t aware of the hotel’s policy…

“Please. Please. I have to get my stuff and get out of here. Like now. I’m trying to remain calm. I’m trying not to yell. But, I have to get out now!”

“There’s the $200 cleaning and storage fee. That’s what I’m trying to…”

“But my wallet’s been stolen. That’s what I’m trying to tell you…I just need the papers, the bank papers.”

“Sir, the fee?”

JJ threw himself back in the chair, his head back, eyes bulging. He was rising to storm out when he heard Lila from the doorway.”

“How much?”

And there she was, leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, and JJ realized that he had been expecting her all along. Two surging streams, one of joy and one of sadness, flooded the hollow of his chest. She was here! He needed her. Why did he need her so badly?

“What kept you?”

Lila sighed. “How much to get this ungrateful drunk’s stuff?”

“$200.”

“Lila…” But what was JJ going to say? Allow me? Behind all this was the knowledge that Tess and Cody would be here at any moment. In fact, they could be pulling into the parking lot right now.

“JJ, don’t speak,” she said and counted out ten 20’s from her purse.

“It’ll just be a moment,” the manager said and left the room.

Quiet in the office, the drone of cable news coming from the lobby. The fucking election.

“Listen, Lila….”

“Not right now,” she said. “We can big picture it later. It’s not a good time for processing. Let’s just decide what to do right now.”

“I’m glad you said that because we need to get out of here like, immediately.”

Lila sighed.

“Someone’s after me,” JJ said. “Two people, actually.”

“No more running,” she said. She slammed her palm down on the manager’s desk. “No more!”

There it was, the boiling point reached. Lila was slow to get there, but then the green light flashed from her eyes and everyone better look the fuck out.

“Lila…”

“No more,” she said. “We’re going to fix it right here at this hotel. Then we’re going to make it right with those people. We’ll go down the line until it’s all fixed then go home. That’s it.”

“It’s not that simple.”

The manager returned with a box. JJ looked in, cringed at the ¾ empty bottle of 100 proof Smirnoff, but located the folder from the bank. He showed her the folder.

“What’s that?”

“I own these people’s ranch. I bought it at an auction.”

“How?”

“And they’re coming to get it back from me.”

Of all the dumbass things JJ could have potentially done to cause two people to pursue him, Lila was not expecting something like this.

“The surprises never cease,” she said. She looked at JJ and the hotel manager, at the cardboard box with JJ’s clothes, leftover Smirnoff, and bank documents, at the little sterile office and the lobby beyond. She laughed and knew that she was forever eternally fucked.

She still loved him, even after all this.

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