The brightness of the sun filled every crevice of the street and its homes with a false sense of warmth. The early morning, on this, the 28th of September, eased into its own as all of its predecessors had. But slowly born, this new day came with company, as a wind with fall’s first chill crept in with the morning light. It scattered the crinkled and browned leaves that lay dead of old age and slowly worked its way through the window and under the bed covers of Frank Hicks, who lay on the back end of his customary drunken repose. The morning chill seemed to do him some good, as it made some of his limbs twitch a little, giving sign of life.
Having met the cold first, his feet flexed, and then eased, and his toes curled as his knees retreated into his chest. While his body reacted to the cold, his eyes turned and wavered wildly under their lids, immersed in the dreams created just behind them. His heart paced steadily, save the occasional break, mirroring the soft breathing that released his whiskey breath into the air: a scent that the bed corner opposite the bedroom door was so accustomed to. As the goose bumps from the chill paved cobblestones on his arms, giving them and his back the appearance of a long colonial street, his fingers fluttered in their position off the bed. They moved from his limp hand, which hung a hair’s width away from a bottle standing upright on the carpeted floor, surrounded by a few crumbs. The bottle was short and made of thick glass. The label on it was red, with some non-distinct text, and was empty, save a few remaining drops.
His moving fingers met the brim of the bottle, and his eyes, still fluttering, shot open. He wormed a little forward from his position, to see what his hand was touching. From his head’s placement directly above the bottle, he could see directly through it and to the bottom. He squinted his eyes to see what was down there a little better. When he did, his eyes unstressed and closed again, and he smiled- almost laughed. His eyes stopped moving and his fingers became as limp as the rest of his hand. He closed his eyes shut. And he was dead.
It is the cool evening on the 27th of September, and Frank is a picture of revelry. He jumps in drunken exuberance at the sight of every familiar face, and speaks every word with a distinction of eminence. His face is matted and worn from cigarette smoking, fist fights with his father, and now the constant laughing; a fairly recent phenomenon, his smile didn't quite match his face: his cheeks showed much resistance to rising, and his bare teeth gave the impression of a snarl. The lightness and fluff of the expressions around him seemed much more practiced, but whatever potholes there were in his fitting in are filled and patched with alcohol: the base coat of preliminary beers, the major fill-ins of rum with coke upon rum with coke, and to be sure that there weren't any doubts, he threw back liquor shot, after shot, after shot. He found comfort in the numbness he felt in waves through his body. The familiarity of the subtle changes in perception hit him with particular potency this night. But there was definite comfort in this familiarity. He felt he had done this before, perhaps on another night in the past few weeks. He would often go out with these people, under similar conditions, to consummate their friendship.
By eleven o'clock, it would seem that Frank had grown up in a happy home, with a happy dog that barked and wagged its tail in a happy way. He seemed to have had a happy dad, who would say things like “buck up, son, you'll get 'em next time” and “anyone home?” every time he came home from work. He could very well have had a happy mother who made sure he eased into his dreams with a cup of warm milk and a gentle pat on his forehead. And yes, he may have even had a happy older brother, who'd call him 'sport' and 'little bro,' and would play-wrestle with him on a few special Saturday afternoons. They would probably have all lived in a happy house, surrounded by an unchipped white fence and very green grass.
But this disguise only really suffices for moments captured in the pictures taken, or for immediate glances at him. Frank couldn’t really play their role completely, because their scripts weren’t the same. And every time he tried to read one of their lines, it sounded forced and disingenuous. The rest of them shared what they felt, and related to one another. They all looked at each other and reveled in the privacy of the little world they created for themselves. He watched them from his own space. Listening to them, he liked to think that he was on an island in their world. So he laughed when they laughed, shook his head when they shook their heads, and shared in the moments of silence, thinking of something to talk about next. But he never really did talk; he just quietly smoked another cigarette, taking each drag with as much a semblance of dignity as he could muster, always mimicking their movements a moment late.
Yet he was not completely invisible to them.
“Those last few shots were tough to get down,” someone said, in Frank’s direction.
“Totally,” said Frank, interjecting after a slight hesitation. He extended the o to add some sort of emphasis. He even raised his eyebrows and stood on his toes slightly to add more emotion. There was a momentary silence in which Frank saw Kevin’s eyes look at him with judgment, attuned to a sense that everyone around Frank shared but he. This sense afforded them with the knowledge that Frank did not really belong there, that he was a crooked portion of an otherwise smooth circle.
And as those eyes of Kevin began to turn, Frank felt the familiar comfort hit him again, but as the strongest feeling of déjà vu.
And he saw himself as a child, lying to his friends about scrapes and bruises, so-called run-ins with doors and clumsiness. He felt the distance between the other children, wanting to be a part of them, but not knowing how, or if he could. He heard the gravelly voice of a man who looked much like Frank does now, shouting through the otherwise calm night.
You good for nothing!
And in that same instance, the familiar pain overcame Frank, and he became aware of how different he sounded from Kevin and the others, and his self consciousness began to sink in.
“Totally- what a stupid response,” he thought to himself. But just as he made to speak once more, the voice rang in his head.
And Frank retracted, and decided he had had enough for the evening, and that maybe it was time for him to go to bed. So he left, once again overcome with déjà vu.
The train stampeded along, altogether seemingly motionless, save the gentle left-to-right rhythmic bobbing. With every sway of the car, Frank felt his weight shift, and with every ding noise came a disinterested declaration. Frank’s hands and feet were a bit numb still, and he couldn’t really hear anything. He hadn’t eaten all day, so the alcohol was not agreeable with his system and the left-to-right bobbing threatened his throwing up. A few people sat around him. There was a small group of female friends, all Asian and young, who looked like they had been talking for a while now. A pink-toned man sat behind them, stewing about something, clutching his cell phone in hand, murmuring to himself.
Frank slipped in and out of consciousness. It wasn’t as easy a transition as sleep usually is, where you only know you slept once you’ve woken up. Frank could tell when sleep was being forced on him. The train seemed emptier now, a little quieter. The 3 Asian friends stopped talking. One girl, the one with the black coat and pretty hair, slept with her glasses on, and her mouth slightly ajar. She looked a bit like Ray Charles in mid song, Frank thought. Another, the prettiest one, who had a few acne scars, had her head against the window, so that you could see her large, attractive eyes come through the hurrying underground scenery outside. The third girl, the plumpest of the three, had the misfortune of being both awake and restless. Her hefty knees jumped up and down in restless anticipation. There throbbed behind them a swelling anger, emanating from the pinkish man, now in the middle of a telephone call. In an argument, apparently, he strained with much difficulty to keep his voice down, emphasizing the middle word when he said, ‘you don’t know,’ and ‘you are yelling.’ It must be difficult, Frank thought, to balance anger with having courtesy for the other people on the train. The struggle gently shook the fat around the man’s neck.
Frank saw all of them, and watched with envy. How easy it was for them, Frank thought, to just be and to share what was in their head, and not come across as unusual.
The stains on the window were shown on the seat opposite him. The moving pipes and decades-old graffiti on the outside cut the light, so the empty seat blinked at him. The bench seat was occupied by copper pennies, a shirt tag wedged between the seat, and an old, disgruntled looking man; they all looked well travelled and unwanted, but more so the man. His stone face looked matted and worn. It was etched with many lines that showed his age, like the inside of a tree. He had bags under his eyes, and seemed to not have shaven for a few days, but his eyes seemed very focused and concentrated. His hair was thinning a bit around the top of his head, but it did not at all lose its color. Frank knew he shouldn’t have, but he couldn’t help but stare at the man, who though shabby-looking as far as facial upkeep is concerned, wore a suit. The material was silky smooth, with an almost profound blackness that gave it the depth of deep space, and allowed for the red tie he was wearing to pop with added brilliance. He finally looked at Frank.
Frank read from his friends’ script:
“Nice night out.” He gave the man a very stupid looking smile, through almost red eyes, and a sideways mouth.
The man said nothing.
He merely looked at Frank for another few seconds, before pulling a short bottle out of his inner coat pocket. The label on it matched the man’s tie almost perfectly. The thickness of the glass magnified the golden contents of the bottle swirling around with the bobbing train. Frank was enamored by the color and the movement. The man saw his interest and looked pleased, so he gave him the bottle.
Frank cracked the seal open as he twisted the cap. The man looked at him with an expression of complete disinterest, but spoke with a clear voice that did not match his appearance.
“You know it’s much easier to change an ending than it is to go back and fix the beginning.” Frank looked a bit puzzled. “But then, there’s a much simpler solution than all that.” He wheezed a little, sounding almost as if he whispered a sob, and looked down by his knees before looking back up at Frank. “You take care of yourself.” And Frank nodded off to sleep.
Frank woke up at the last stop, where he gets off, and found a fortune cookie in the seat next to where the old man was sitting. The package was unopened, so he took the cookie for the walk home, and also found the bottle in his inside pocket.
The walk home was as familiar as the rest of the night had been. But what seemed like a laid out path before Frank was disrupted by the man’s words. So Frank began to aberrate from his usual route, and he walked off towards the pier to sit down. He considered all of the drinking he had done, and why he felt both required and entitled to it. And the clear voice of the old man cut through his thoughts: “…Change an ending…”
And all at once the nagging feelings of déjà vu suddenly departed. Everything seemed fresh; this cloud was alleviated and he saw avenues before him, possibilities that never existed before.
The gravelly voice interrupted once more. Its loud, overbearing tone filled Frank’s head, drowning out the clear voice that had only a second ago resonated so well, and leaving room for little else. His thoughts became foggier once more, and the voice began now to ring, bringing back more pictures of childhood. And as the avenues began to close, and the possibilities became more and more estranged, all Frank saw before him was his route home. And so, needing an out from the still ringing voice that reverberated off of the many walls in the many chambers of his mind, he grabbed at the bottle the old man had given him, and the cookie that he found, and opened the seal.
The last of the golden drops that did not remain in the bottle fell from his lips, as he turned to see what his fingers touched. His dangling arm had fallen asleep from being under his torso, and so he found it difficult to pull himself over. He was directly over the bottle, which stood on top of a small, white piece of paper. The glass is thick, and so it enlarged the small type, so that Frank only needed to strain his eyes for a bit to read it.
“The fortune you seek is in another cookie.”
What an odd message, he thought, as he closed his eyes once more.