Sometimes as artists we can feel selfish or insensitive for making art with the world burns (literally or figuratively). In our hyper-connected modern landscape we are perma-aware of all that transpires of any significance. There are some that would say we need the art to process the trauma, escape the woes we find ourselves beset by, and counter the malevolence. And I don’t disagree, but I also don’t put the beautification of our mental landscapes above the immediate needs of those around us. In the past I’ve sponsored the building of schools in Afghanistan and its neighboring nations. I sent relief to Haiti after the quake in 2011. I don’t say these things to boast, but rather to convey my heartbreak over the last week. We can build, mend, heal, and grow and then it can all be crushed in a moment. All the progress, slow as it was, taken in just a few seconds. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it fell pretty fast. The proper response however, is not despair. It is a thoughtful, open asking of the question, “Ok, now what? Where do we go from here? Where do we put our building and creating efforts now?”
Making it to Friday doesn’t feel like an intro to the weekend. There will be no maxin’ and relaxin’ around here (not that having a small herd of children ever really allows for that). There will be watching and waiting and explaining to young minds how fragile civilization is.
But I also feel that to ignore our luxuries when we have them is a kind of ingratitude. I have the luxury of sitting down at my computer, technical marvel and pain in the *$% that it is, and writing out a little something. Maybe something thoughtful or whimsical or funny. I can express myself and bring a small point of light that otherwise would not be into being. So I shall do as I do every Friday, even in the face of tragedy and loss that while I don’t know personally, I feel keenly, as most artists do.
I will take the following prompts and compose a little something with no editing, just a rough, impromptu effort. You may do the same. I hope you will. And comment below with all your brilliant thoughts and compositions. Today’s prompts are: last night before leaving town, your character is at least 80 years old.
There is something particularly awful and comforting about bad diner coffee. Maybe it was just that diner with it’s green vinyl booths and perpetual fried chicken smell. Maybe it was the way Katie always poured me a cup right as i sat down and brought one of the mini pitchers they usually serve maple syrup in with cream.
“You know you’ll ask for it anyway,” she said, the first few times I’d told her she didn’t need to do that. She’d just throw me a wink and then bring me my usual without me having to order it.
I once asked her if she ever worried about bringing me a double bacon cheese burger double pickle no onion when I didn’t actually want one. She just looked at me like I was being an imbecile and asked, “Would you ever come in here at 6:30 on a Thursday night for anything else?”
I smiled and said, “No.”
“Well, I won’t worry about it then.”
Katie must have been about fifteen when I rolled into town and set up shop. It’s usually the young who pick up on the fact that your face hasn’t changed. In the years since she’d tried to catch my eye any number of times. It was’t that she hadn’t, I just couldn’t do that to her, to anyone. Not again.
I’d been fishing with my buddy Josh in the middle of a river on a boat not fit to paddle and we ignored the clouds until too late. We both went into the water. Lightning stuck the boat as we clung to it. I’ve never felt anything like it, but I expect a steak being seared feels about the same. If it were alive. And the searing was happening on the inside. I made it out of the water. Josh didn’t.
I thought I was lucky. Lucky.
And my wife thought she was lucky too, because I came home to her and Josh’s wife had to bury an empty box. But about twenty years down the road it became pretty clear that I wasn’t just blessed with good genes (not that we knew much about genes back then), I wasn’t just taking good care of myself. I didn’t look day over 35 even though I was pushing 55. And my wife, she was still gorgeous, aging gracefully as they say, but she was still aging. She tried to convince me that there must have been something about the water or the lightning. But people get stuck by lightning all the time. Near drownings happened in that same river every year. No one else stopped growing older.
I stayed in that town, the one I’d been born in, the one I thought I’d die in, until my wife passed away. I could see even at the funeral that all the eyes that turned my way were suspicious. We’d never had kids. So I picked up and left. It’s hard, and getting harder. Trying to get fresh documents, trying to start over every thirty years or so. Trying not to love people.
When i plunked down in my usual booth that night, Katie brought me that terrible coffee and the smile that had brought me a little bit of happiness over the last fifteen years or so vanished. Her eyes went to the backpack, and then to the truck in the parking lot, packed up with the worldly things I moved on from place to place.
I just nodded.
“I want to come with you.”
She wasn’t the first to say it. I’d even given in and let them come a time or two, but it always ended up the same. Either they couldn’t stand being with a man who couldn’t give them children and couldn’t grow old with them, or I watched them change with each passing day and I stayed the same.
“You can’t wait on me anymore,” I told her. “You can’t put life on hold for a stone. The stone will outlast you, and you’ll have nothing to show for your patience.”
“Yes. Very lonely. But being selfish is worse. I’ve had long tastes of both.”
She bit her lip and blinked furiously. For half a second I considered giving in. I almost took her hand, but she moved a millisecond before I did. She took the name tag off that tan, stained apron, and handed it to me. When I looked up at her, a question on my face, she leaned down and kissed me. It was sweet and bitter all at the same time. The softness I’d been craving for years, the tenderness that makes life worth the living, and the perfect reminder of everything I couldn’t have anymore.
“Don’t forget me,” she whispered as she pulled away.
Later than night as my truck ate up the miles between here and wherever I was headed next I kept looking at that name tag sitting in cup holder on a pile of change. I knew I’d never forget her. I buried one Katie already. This time I’d let one live.