I answered the doorbell on the second ring. “Joan?”
“You know me?” Joan’s penciled eyebrows arched.
“Yes. But I expected your husband.” I peered over her shoulder.
“Richard?” Joan straightened her dirt-encrusted skirt and inspected the run in her nylon.
“Dick and I go way back. I’m afraid his room is ready. Not yours.”
A chunk of plaster fell from Joan’s hair.
For the past three hundred years, as general manager of Almost There, I welcome weary and bewildered guests that arrive around the clock. I’ve seen musket wounds, severed limbs from swords, and victims of plane crashes. Each guest is granted twenty-four hours to unwind at the heavenly halfway house and hospitality center. If the end is unplanned or unexpected, and if they request, I fill in details of their earthly departures.
Joan’s pink painted toenails poked through the torn stocking of one shoeless foot.
I swung open the heavy oak door. “Where are my manners? Enter.”
A flurry of dried leaves followed in Joan’s wake. She scanned the foyer. “Where am I?”
I met Dick in Shanghai, China. My boss, G.R., summoned me to the hotel sauna as Dick wondered out loud, “Do humans roast at the same temperature as pork or poultry?”
That day we discussed Dick cooking his own goose. It wasn’t my place to encourage or discourage. After six months of dialogue, Dick settled on a plan he would carry out after his wife’s visit to Shanghai.
In the executive lounge I checked on Dick. After a short chat he shooed me away, his wife was due to arrive any minute from Connecticut. His office closed for the Chinese New Year, and Joan insisted she visit Dick in China during the break.
I hovered near the cheese tray. No need to hide. Only Dick could see me.
Dick gazed at the massive ships and ferryboats twenty-seven floors below on the Huangpu River. The lights sparkled on that famous stretch of waterfront.
“Richard!” Joan blasted his name like a foghorn.
“Joan. Dear. Welcome to Shanghai.” Dick pulled out a plush velvet chair.
“I can’t sit another minute. Thirteen wretched hours in a crowded plane.” She swiped her red lips across Dick’s forehead.
“Crowded in first class?” Dick patted her shoulder. “Did your chauffeured drive prove pleasant?”
“The driver hit every pothole in this filthy city. Why not hire a rickshaw?” Joan headed toward the buffet. “I’m starved.”
“Glad nothing’s changed,” Dick mumbled.
Joan adjusted her beaded purse and wandered toward the curried shrimp and rice. She opened every chafing dish before scooping several steaming mounds onto her plate. “Richard!”
She shouted across the room, “Curry or sweet and sour?”
“Neither.” He offered an apologetic smile to customers in the quiet room.
Joan returned with two full plates and placed one in front of her husband. “Oopsy. I forgot utensils.” She waddled back to the sideboard.
That's when I spied the screwdriver in Dick’s hand.
Joan’s three chins danced as she wiggled into the armchair. “No forks. We have to use chopsticks.”
“This is China after all.” Dick eyed the window.
“Eat, Richard.” Joan pulled the paper sleeve from her chopsticks.
“A diet of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts has turned you into a skeleton.” She struggled to position the sticks between her fingers. They somersaulted to the floor.
“It’s called the chopsticks diet.” Dick attempted a rare chuckle.
She snatched her husband’s unused chopsticks.
During our chats, Dick confessed to a wallet of maxed-out credit cards. He led his wife of thirty years to believe he was the CFO, not the assistant to the assistant manager, of Jones Financial. Shanghai was not a reward. Dick drew the short straw. With every conversation, he mentioned ending his life. I did not encourage or discourage.
“Don’t laugh. I’m dying of hunger.” Joan stabbed at her pile of sticky rice.
“You said you wanted to lose weight.” A thin Chinese woman with a waist-length curtain of black hair passed their table. Joan’s jealous streak forced Dick to look the other way.
For the past year, faithful Dick found himself in the land of exotic beauties. For a price, many performed favors for American businessmen. Tempted, but unable to break wedding vows, Dick shared with me a story by Winston Graham. A married man fell into an affair with a Japanese woman, contrary from his anemic wife. He described lovemaking as impulsively warm and welcoming. Had Joan ever truly welcomed him? His daily routine felt like heavy sedation, not always an unpleasant sensation. But certain days were like waking up during open-heart surgery.
“Retirement will be wonderful.” Joan speared the pointed end of her chopstick into a shrimp. “We’ll be together. Every day.”
Under the table Dick fingered the screwdriver like a worry rock.
“Take a world cruise and buy that beach bungalow.” She dabbed sauce from her cleavage. “And my diamond is due for an upgrade.”
Dick stowed the tool and took out his phone. He snapped a photo of Joan. Then he pointed the camera toward the window.
“Okay, silly. Take your little pictures while I peruse the dessert counter.”
When Joan extricated her plus-size bottom from the chair, Dick stood to get a better view of the city. Then he turned the screwdriver and pocketed the first of three screws.
Most large windows in towering hotels of China were screwed shut after distraught people tried to fly.
G.R. had confidence in my counseling skills. This meant taking on complicated cases that required patience and understanding. Dick’s decision to shed this mortal coil, as I mentioned before, was not for me to encourage or discourage. But he promised, not until after Joan’s visit.
The second screw in the middle of the window popped out.
“Fruit? Truffles? Cake?” Joan held a pyramid of petit fours.
The crowd had thinned so Dick apologized to no one and shook his head. The third screw on the window frame was unreachable from the ground.
He lifted his leg to stand on the window seat when Joan waved a wedge of pungent durian fruit under his nose. “Take a whiff! Simply yummy!”
Dick grimaced. “All for you, my dear.”
Joan poked a chopstick into three squares and inserted the cake-kebab into her mouth. I admired Dick’s wife for managing an entire meal with two uncooperative twigs.
“The place is empty. It’s a shame to leave such luscious food.” Joan returned to platters of pastries and tarts.
Tourists often stepped up onto the window seat to get the postcard perfect shot of the Shanghai skyline. Dick planted both feet on the ledge.
“Richard! Get down from there!”
Dick unscrewed the last screw with his left hand while he snapped photos with his right.
“Richard! You’ll twist your ankle.” Joan offered her chubby hand and wiggled her ringed fingers.
Dick shook his head. “One last photo of the ferry. Eat your cake.” The screwdriver and three screws clinked in his coat pocket. He gave the window a gentle nudge.
Convenient for Dick’s purposes, the window opened out. After a sucking sound, humid air billowed into the room.
Joan hoisted her short legs and joined Dick on the ledge. “I can do this too.”
Dick’s eyes darted over to me and then to Joan. “Do what?” His voice squeaked.
Joan pushed Dick to the side. “Take pretty pictures.” She took the camera from her husband.
Dick gripped the window’s handle. He looked toward the busy street that ran along the river.
In a matter of seconds Dick would achieve his goal. Intervention was not permitted. I left the lounge to prepare his room.
I slipped a pair of cushioned cloth slippers under Joan’s feet. “Care for a drink?”
Joan paced the marble floor as she examined a crushed and bruised cheek in her compact mirror. “Jasmine tea?” An embroidered handkerchief absorbed blood from a broken nose. The force of the fall embedded her beaded purse to her shoulder.
“Wouldn’t you prefer something stronger?” I pulled the crystal plug from a whiskey decanter. “After your ordeal.”
The compact snapped shut. “My ordeal? What about poor Richard?”
“Well, he’s still there.”
She twisted a tube of red lipstick and painted swollen lips. “Richard must be devastated without me.” Her reflection showed several missing teeth.
“I’ll check on him for you.” This went against protocol but I had a few choice words for Dick. “In the meantime, why don’t we watch the video?” A screen floated down from the ceiling. High-resolution images of the evening’s events crackled to life. Dick and Joan stood on the window seat, side by side.
“Dick’s firm warm hand pressed to my back aroused parts of my body I thought were dead.” Joan sighed. “I hoped we’d make love this evening.” Wind swirled through the room. Joan tugged on the hem of her skirt. “I should have worn slacks. And who knew I could scream so loud?” She sniffed.
I patted Joan’s dislocated shoulder.
“And that man on the fifteenth floor should keep his drapes shut.” Joan opened Almost There’s extensive dine-in menu. “Is it too late to order the Around the World sampler and the angel food cake?” Joan picked glass shards from her elbow. “No whipped cream. I’m on a diet.”
portrait of the author by Paddy Lennon, RHA (Royal Hibernian Academy)
In the sandcastles festival
they became world record holders,
our village, our beach,
more sandcastles in one place, at one time,
that being a race against the tide.
Our village our beach
but even that’s not the best.
In the sandcastles festival
sculptors create enormous works
of art from tiny grains of sand,
we have enjoyed dinosaurs,
Neptune, lifeboats, mermaids.
Our village, our beach,
but even that’s not the best.
In the sandcastles festival
children, families, take a patch of
sand then add seaweed, driftwood,
old rope, lost feathers, bright shells’
they harvest many smiles.
Our village, our beach,
but even that’s not the best.
In the sandcastles festival
Monday morning adults help remove
the great shelter over the showpiece sculpture.
Perched on the seawall the children with eyes
as sharp as hungry seagulls know they will
say when ready, “what are you waiting for? jump in!”
Then down they swarm to kick and slide
down, whoop down, throw down the sculpture,
sand becoming sand again.
Our village our beach
“It’s true, it’s true!”
“Right. Sure it is.”
“No, it really is. Tell ‘em, Marty.”
Marty nodded emphatically at the non-believer. “Saw it with my own two eyes.”
“There’s no way.” The skeptic lifted his glass of beer. “It’s only happened like three times in the pros.”
“Well this ain’t the pros,” said Marty. “This here’s good old Jack Bennett, and the powers that be were on his side today.” He patted Jack’s shoulder, but Jack stayed focused on his beer, more than happy to let Marty and Al sing his praises on their own.
“Well,” said the man. “If you’re telling the truth…” He shrugged. “I guess freak accidents are bound to happen at some point or other.”
Al snorted. “This wasn’t a freak accident. Jack is the best. Coulda done the pros if he wanted. You shoulda seen this shot, sailed like a beauty, barely even rolled before it went in.”
The man indulged them with a small smile and nod before returning to his drink. Marty smiled, beaming into space. “I still can barely believe it,” he said. “A condor. Never even thought I’d have occasion to utter it. Say it, Al. Go on, it’s like a holy word.”
“Condor,” Al said before cracking into a huge grin. Even stoic Jack began smiling a little over the rim of his glass. Al and Marty noticed.
“Go on, Jack!” Marty exclaimed. “Say it! If anyone has a right to, it’s you, obviously.”
“Oh, alright,” he said, turning to them. “Condor.” Al and Marty cheered heartily. Then Marty downed the last of his drink and stood as he tapped the glass with his fingernail.
“Excuse me, everyone, I have an important announcement,” he proclaimed to the bar. Some of the patrons quieted down. “Today my friend Jack Robert Bennett,” clasping the man’s shoulder, “has joined the ranks of the greats. Nay. Of the gods. For on this club’s very own course, out on hole 16, a par five, this man did the near impossible. He sank a condor! And I, Martin Drew Reilly, and this man, Alan Fieldson Greer, bore witness. So I would like to propose a toast to Jack Bennett, who now walks among the immortals!” A couple people laughed, one or two clapped. Most just returned to their drinks while Marty attempted to take a swig of his beer only to be reminded his glass was empty. “Barkeep, another!”
“You’re such an ass, Marty,” said Al, chuckling.
“What! It’s a special day! Mark the date, gentlemen, for I declare today a new high holy day! Never again shall a decent man toil on, uh…what’s the date?”
“October twentieth,” Al supplied.
“On October twentieth ever again! Instead, we shall spend it together, we who are party to this miracle. And this triumphant triumvirate shall make merry every year in order to commemorate this historic occasion.”
“I think you’ve had too many,” said Al. “You always start talking like that when you’ve had too many.”
“On the contrary. Barkeep!”
“Please stop yelling,” said Jack.
Marty let out a long exhale through the nose and allowed his smile to fade a little. “You’re right, Jack. I need to be more solemn about this. Not make light of something so beautiful. You set a good example, my friend. Quiet reverence is the way to go.” He retook his seat. “We should all be humbled by what happened here today.”
“What, because I got lucky?” said Jack.
“Because you…wh-…how can-” Marty spluttered. “How can you say that?”
“I got lucky, big deal.” He took another swig of lager.
“Jack,” said Marty leaning in, his countenance becoming almost grave. “Don’t say that. You did not just get lucky. We all know you’re a great player. And whether the gods of golf had a hand in your fate today or not, that shot was a miracle. And you made it happen.”
“Got lucky,” Jack retorted. “I’m okay, but I’m no pro, not even close. And we all know that.”
Marty stared at Jack, incredulous. “Al, help me out here,” he said, almost pleadingly.
“You shouldn’t sell yourself short,” Al offered. “It was a great shot, no matter what. It’s not like you’ve never even gotten a hole-in-one before.”
“Yeah, like twice,” said Jack. “And those were on par threes, and they were lucky.”
Al patted Jack’s back and looked at Marty. “Let him be humble if he wants to be. It is not for a hero to sing his own praises.” Jack rolled his eyes at this, but it appeared to cheer Marty up again.
“You’re right, Al. We shall tell the story to all who will listen. And we shall pass it down to our children, who will pass it down to theirs, and son on. And thus shall the legend of Jack’s condor be preserved in human memory until the end of time!”
“Huzzah!” Al raised his glass.
Jack shook his head slightly and finished off his beer.
“Barkeep, another for my friend here!” Marty called, slapping the surface of the bar in front of Jack.
“No, Marty,” Jack protested dully. “I have work in the morning.” He looked at his watch. “I should really be going about now anyway.”
“Same,” said Al. “I’ve got a presentation tomorrow. Won’t do to be tired and hung over in front of the powerpoint.”
Marty, confounded, looked back and forth between his friends. “Are you guys kidding me? The revels need to continue! We need to hit every bar in town and spread news of the miracle! I guarantee we won’t need to pay for a single drink ourselves!”
But Al just smiled and clapped Marty’s shoulder. “Sorry, bud. I’ll see you next weekend for tee-off. Or we could get lunch this week. My schedule’s pretty clear on Wednesday.”
Jack motioned to Al, and the two of them walked out towards their cars in the parking lot, waving to Marty as they departed. Marty waved back, more sedate now, and plopped back down at the bar. He looked almost crestfallen.
“Can you believe that?” he asked the bartender, but the man was too busy filling an order to take notice. Well, screw it, thought Marty, pushing up from the bar, decisive now. If those two can’t appreciate a miracle, at least I can. He put some bills under his empty glass and left.
He drove down to that bar whose name he could never remember because it didn’t have a sign. It was supposed to be the slick new joint where all the college kids and young professionals would hang out, but it mostly seemed to attract middle-aged folks like himself. He knew that there, he could find some mature, world-worn people who would appreciate a miracle when they heard one. He parked in the lot, hopped out of the car, and rushed to the door. He swung it open with aplomb and proclaimed, “A great miracle has occurred today!” When the sound of his own voice died away, a heavy silence rushed to replace it, faintly underscored by an indistinct folk tune coming from some old, unseen speakers. The bar only held about a half-dozen people, employees included. He glanced behind him and saw now that only a couple other cars accompanied his in the parking lot.
Recovering from this, he strode in confidently, slapped the bar, and announced, “A round on me!” An easy expense given the sparse population of the place. The employees and patrons spent a glaze-eyed moment taking this in, and then the bartenders shrugged and started taking the orders. At the bar sat a man and woman, apparently a couple, seemingly a little older than himself, as well as a slightly younger guy in an old print t-shirt and jeans. The two bartenders, one male and one female, bore deep-lined faces and expressions of hard-won malaise, and a waitress with nothing to do sat off in the corner away from the rest. Marty looked around. “A little slow tonight, huh?”
“Yeeup,” said the male bartender, pulling a dark pint for the t-shirt guy.
“Well that’s too bad,” said Marty. “Because tonight is an occasion worth celebrating.”
No one said anything to this. The bartender handed the pint to the t-shirt guy and didn’t so much as spare a glance.
“You all know Renfield Greens? The golf place at the top of the hill?” No acknowledgement aside from a few turned faces. “Well anyway, I was playing up there with my buddies today, and something…incredible happened.” Pause for effect. “My buddy Jack Bennett? He scored a condor on the sixteenth hole!” Another pause. No discernible reaction from the crowd. “A, uh…A condor is when you get a hole-in-one on a par five hole. It’s only happened like three times in any professional tournament ever.”
“Were you guys playing in a tournament?” the female patron asked.
“No, just the back nine among friends. But still, it’s amazing! It’s once-in-a-lifetime, seeing this type of thing.”
“Wow,” said the woman, clearly trying hard to sound interested. Her husband or boyfriend or whoever just looked away from Marty. The female bartender handed her a vodka-cranberry. The patron took it and said to Marty. “Thanks for the drinks.”
Marty smiled wide and raised the beer he’d just been given. “To the condor!” he said. The female patron raised her glass a little and gave a weak smile, but no one said anything else. The t-shirt guy blew his nose noisily into a napkin.
“I’m Martin Reilly,” he said to the woman. “Marty.”
“Donna Nair,” she said back, smiling a little. “This is my husband Ray.”
The man finally looked at Marty and gave a little nod.
“How do you do?” said Marty.
“Fine,” said Ray. Then silence settled over the bar again. The tinny folk singer voice sang something about crying at sunset. Or maybe dying in the net. Or wheel of roulette? The female bartender was occupied with a book now, sitting on a box behind the counter, while the other bartender checked something on his phone. Ray said something to Donna, and the tow of them moved away from the bar to one of the tables. The bar had about as much energy as a graveyard. Marty tried to think of something else to say, some way to ignite the atmosphere a little, but he drew a blank.
“Well, it was nice meeting you all,” he finally said to the room. He took a couple large gulps of beer. “I should get going on to the next bar to spread the good word. But I want all of you to know that a great miracle occurred in this town today. And remember that miracles are precious and rare and fill life with meaning!” He realized that he was standing now and speaking rather loudly. He felt like he had regained some steam now, so he chugged the rest of his drink, threw down some more money, and headed out.
The next place he visited was crammed with bodies mostly in the 21 to 28 range. Music of some unrecognizable genre pumped with a heavy bass throughout, and the loud din of voices only added to the bedlam. Marty could barely make it to the bar, let alone get people’s attention. Before ordering anything, he turned to a group of young guys next to him and tried to tell them the good news, but they ignored him. “You know what a condor is?” he shouted over the deafening music. “My buddy Jack sunk one today! It was a miracle!” But they just maintained their tight, broad-backed circle and didn’t pay him any mind. He couldn’t even get the bartender’s attention, so after a while he just left. Out in the air of the lot, as he fiddled with his keys, that pain in his knee started acting up, and he suddenly felt very tired. He drove onto the road, cruising for at least one last stop, but he soon found himself in a liquor store, standing before the cash register with forty-ounce bottle of lager. The cashier, a short, young girl with acne, a lip piercing, and dyed-black hair that swept in front of her eyes, didn’t look at him or say anything other than the amount he owed. As he shoveled out the remaining bills in his wallet, he opened his mouth to say something about Jack and his condor, but it shut again before any words could get out into the open.
He swigged beer as he drove, capping it and putting it under the seat at intersections. Traffic lights bleared by, and eventually he made the last lazy turn into his driveway. He kept drinking as he mounted the front steps and wrestled the key into the door. Murky light greeted him on the other side, as well as a small herd of fruit flies buzzing around the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. He clomped to the couch and finished off the forty in the dark. The cat brushed his leg and then took a perch at the other end of the couch. When he found the bottle empty, he fetched a glass and whiskey from the cabinet, returned to the couch, and set up his libations on the thin coffee table. He poured a couple fingers, raised it towards the cat, said “to the condor,” and drank it down.
In the morning, Jack and Al would get up bright and early, dress, have breakfast with their families, and be out of the house by eight. But Marty would still be on the couch, still asleep, a nasty hangover waiting to wake him. But for now, he sat in the dark, unemployed and estranged, making desperate merriment, his cat watching him as he toasted what had happened that day, taking upon himself all responsibility for commemorating the miracle he had witnessed.
Dark Clouds Tumble
Wilted tomato plant leaves droop over parched, cracked dirt. Scorching sun beats down on brown grass. I gulp sun tea as the sweat rolls down my back; dress soaking wet. Prediction of hot, dry summer manifesting. Storm chance ten percent they say-- just to give hope. Infrequently, a white cloud floats overhead. Too light to hold water. Not the answer for flora and fauna. Drought worsens daily. Tempers rise with the heat. Breeze absent, not a leaf moves.
in place each day this week
welcome to the sauna
A gentle wind bends grass blades. A wind-chime sings … celebration. Thunder joins in from a distance—percussion. Sky darkens, illuminated by flashes of lightning. Rain drops heard falling—harmony. Nature’s orchestra in concert.
plants and animals
drink ‘til thirst quenched
Storm front passes. Sunset spreads color over western horizon, while above, a rainbow-- the final blessing of an afternoon shower.
brights and pastels
replace dusty brown palette
Kimberlee Esselstrom’s eclectic works have been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Highlights, Knowonder!, Mom Writers Literary Magazine, KU Center for Testing & Evaluation, FWA Collection, and many others.