“Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Three: Jack Johnson & The Old Timer

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Jacks springs up, coughing amidst heavy breathing. His eyes are unfocused, which has less to do with the dim room than with previous vision. Both his mind and his eyes had not yet adjusted to seeing things in this world. He wipes his brow, and it’s damp. He coughs once more with deliberation to clear his lungs of anything residual and places his hand beneath him for support. His hand rests in something else damp, but differently from his forehead. He wipes his hand on his topsheet and looks back at his pillow, showing a definite wet spot. He wipes his chin with the back of his hand and turns to throw his legs off the side of the bed.

He braces his knuckles on both sides of him on the edge of the bed to prop himself up, when his newly awakened ears detect something, a tune, something familiar, still barely discernible. He stands and yawns as he shuffles toward a chair. On the back of the chair are a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He slips on the jeans, sniffs the shirt, and puts it on. He yawns again and scratches randomly as he shuffles towards the door.

Jack opens the bedroom door and the Old Timer is playing the piano, some chopanic tune.

“That’s the song,” says Jack.

The Old Timer plays on.

“That’s the song from my dream.”

Do you wish to tell me about this dream?”

Jack feels odd that his did want to tell him. The Old Timer quits playing and quarter-turns on the pianobench.

“I’m in Afghanistan with my squadron. And Captain Anfort comes up to me and starts getting on to me about something, and I mean right in front of everybody. Part of me feels real bad about whatever it is, and rest of me thinking, ‘shut up, old man.’ Of course, I would never say that to him. But I pull out my sidearm and I shoot him. I shoot him in the leg. The guys run up to him, but he says he’s fine. They back off and he’s got a bullethole in his leg, but there’s no blood. Still, he start yelling at me about how much it hurts. He confines me to the barracks until 0700 and limps away. Funny thing is Captain always had a limp. Anyway, I go back to the barracks. No one will say anything to me. I go to sleep and when I wake up, everyone is gone. The guys, the barracks, all the planes, the whole base just disappears. I’m good and scared, but I really panic when I hear the shrill warcry of them Arabs. I see them coming over a dune, coming fast on me, but there’s nothing I can do. They run right through me, and then I am in complete darkness. And I hear this tune, like the one you were just playing there. But it’s like bells, a musicbox, or something. And I hear this voice. It’s not loud, but it’s clear. It’s a man’s voice, and it says, ‘You are such a disappointment.’ I still don’t know if it’s my father or the Captain. And then I hear that song again, but this time there’s someone singing along with the musicbox. Some woman’s voice, and I have no idea who it is. And it’s the voice that scares me the most. I think because it was just a voice and not a real person, at least not anyone there I could see.”

Jack sits at the dining table and rubs his eyes.

“I need coffee. Do I smell coffee?”

I just started a pot before you awoke.”

“I don’t need coffee. I want coffee. What I need is for Gloria to come back.”

The Old Timer comes to the table and sits down.

“You know, we met over coffee.”

The Old Timer sits and smiles like a child when his parent pulls out his favorite storybook.

“We met at a Starbucks. We had ordered the same thing, a White Chocolate Mocha Valencia, vente. One of the orders came up and we both reach or it. And then we start with this I ordered it and no I ordered it, and before you know it, the second order came up. We didn’t know until then that we got the same coffee. We sat together and talked. Typical job interview kinda stuff. You know, who you are, what you do, all the names of the relatives.

“And then I asked her if she had a cell phone on her and could I borrow it for a moment. She hands it to me and I dial a number. And then this buzzing sound comes from somewhere, and she’s saying where is that noise coming from? I reach into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, which was ringing. I told her that I called myself on her phone so that now I have her number and she has mine.

“I remember that she had a book, A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Solzenicyn.”

Have you read it?” says the Old Timer.

Jack shakes his head, and says, “No, she’s the bookworm, not me. But I could tell you the name of every book she’s ever read since we’ve been together. She was telling me about that book while we were there at the Starbucks. All I remember is that the soldiers hung around this big thermometer because if it was -20 at 8:00, I think it was, there would be no work that day. But this day it was only like -17 or -18, so they still had to work. I can’t imagine anything that cold.

“So I asked her out and she says yes. She wanted to meet me there at the restaurant. When she showed up, she was wearing this small white dress. It was so tight I thought she was gonna wear it out from the inside. I told her that her dress looked like a cocoon, and then I said I wish I was a worm. She didn’t think that was as funny as I did.

“After we sat down I asked if this was the first date or if the coffee was the first date. She said it didn’t matter, but I said it did. What happens when she wants to celebrate monthaverseries? I need to know if she’s gonna start counting from that day or from the day before. And besides I tell her, I never make out on the first date, so I was needing to know if this was the second date yet or not. She made a face and said something about how guys never ‘put out’, only women do. Then she looked at me and said she wouldn’t ‘put out’ with me no matter what number date it was unless I picked up my game. And I said that she was already ‘put out’ wearing a dress like that one.

“Now she’s good and mad. She starts to get up like she’s going, and I talk her into staying just as the waitress gal comes to take our orders. She gets the surf and turf, and I knew I was in for bad night. And it wasn’t just that night. We went out next weekend and instead of wearing something like that little white dress she wears jeans and a hoodie.

“And she did that the next weekend, and the next weekend. And, … guess how long she did that? Showed up in a hoodie and jeans. Three months. And a lot of the time she had the hood pulled up over her head. Three month, I tell ya. So after three months I call her and say Alright, I get it. She seemed relieved. I told her that she was too special to not be with the right guy, so I said I knew a fellow I worked with and I wanted to set her up with him. The only thing is that she had to wear hat little white dress on the date.

“So Friday comes around and she puts on this white dress. Her doorbell rings and she goes and answers it. And there’s this distinguished older gent there, about 50. He takes her to this really nice restaurant. Not long after they sit he excuses himself and after a minute or so I show up and sit down. She tells me that I can’t be here and that this seat is taken. I let her get all that out and then I calm her down. I explain that the man was my boss, that he’s quite married, in fact he left to join his wife, and that her real date was me.

“She feels as if she’s been tricked, and I guess she was. She acts like she wants to leave, but I make her listen to me. I told her how when I spoke to her the other day on the phone that I knew the perfect guy for her, and it’s me. Even though she treated me like dirt for the past three months that I still liked her and found her to be so interesting. I told her all the things I liked about her. How she reads and understands books. How she can cook better than anyone I know. How she likes MMA. How she can take apart, clean, and reassemble her father’s shotgun. How she seems to notice every child around her. How she truly believes that this world is a great place.

“I told her that I knew that I wasn’t good enough for her. How I once said I wish I was a worm, well I am a worm. I said that no man would ever be good enough for her, and that if se ever ended up with anyone, then she’d have to settle. And since you’d have to settle anyway, why not with me? I don’t always have to be a worm. And then I took her by the hand and said You make me want to be a better man.

“She started crying and I reached over and wiped her tear away with my napkin. The waitress comes up and Gloria said I could order for her. I ordered the brook trout for her and surf and turf for me. When she brought our food out, I switched plates with her. And it was a great date. She ate her stake and hen gave me her whole lobster tail.

“After dinner we went to the park. When I pulled in she said I’m not putting anything out for you. I smiled and got out of the car and then helped her out. We walked hand in hand to the swing set. We sat down and didn’t swing. But after a few minutes I started swinging side to side. She cracks up. She thinks I’m being silly or something, but I’m not. I have a plan. When I swing close enough to her I grab her chain, and I am holding our two chains together in my two hands. And then I leaned over and I kissed her.

“It was short. It was simple, but it was plenty sufficient. We just sat there, looking at each other, looking to the ground, looking back. Smiling, sometimes chuckling. After what must have been an hour, or could be five minutes, she says, So what did you get for me? I said nothing, then she says, You mean you don’t know that today is our three monthaversary? I ask her when is she counting from, and she says coffee. I told I was counting from the dinner, and she says the coffee went so much better.

“She says You can get give me something tomorrow, and I says I got something to give you now. I reached in my pocket and pull out a ringbox, and I hand it to her. She opens it like it’s gonna break, and cries when she sees her ring. By the time she looked to me, I was on a knee. I told her that I was only going to give her the ring if she let me kiss her, otherwise I would never bother her again. We were married a month later.”

Jack sits and fidgets with an invisible piece of paper with his fingertips.

“She means more to me than the world.”

Do you really love her that much?”

“You bet.”

Does she really make you want to be a better man?”


Then why did you ignore your anniversary?”

Jack stares at the Old Timer with more anger than he has ever registered. Soon he realizes that he has no reason to be mad at him, and he looks around the living room.

“Where’s the coffee?”

The Old Timer stands, and says, “I’ll get the coffee. Everything is always better with coffee.”

The Old Timer goes into the kitchen and returns with a tray. He sets it down on the table, and on the tray is a full coffee pot and two mugs, along with a bottle of vanilla, a bearjar of honey, and a carton of heavy crème. The Old Timer blended all of these with the coffee and handed one mug to Jack, who takes a careless gulp.

“Hey, this is great.”

Everything is always better after a cup of coffee.”

“I’ll say, especially if it’s as good as this one.”

This is known as a Josephine Baker.”

“Is it? Boy, I heard she was some hellcat.”

I’ve met her.”

“Get out!”

The Old Timer nods.


It was after the Great War and I was in Paris. I was in my uniform, and  thought that was enough for some birds. For some it wasn’t enough. For others, it completely unmade the bed. I was at a party, having the time of my life. I met this girl and did my best, but nothing. Before I could let myself get depressed, I tried again with another young thing, but again, nothing. I found out weeks later that they were Alice Toklas and Djuna Barnes, but that didn’t help me that night.

I wanted to be alone and felt like I was a little bit hungry. So I headed to the Montmartre for a steak. When I got there, the music was better on the barside of things, so I went there. There was already a crowd, and I sat at the bar and ordered a steak and a pint, even though I don’t drink. When I finished another crowd came in. I turned around with a bone sticking out of my mouth when about a dozen people, all of them laughing and probably drunk, walked in and sat at the bar all around me. They were so friendly and happy, but maybe that was the alcohol.

The music roared but was still hard to hear over the people. And then one song blared out with sort of a French-African-Latin beat. And this woman steps out from the back of the group and starts dancing and singing along. It was Miss Baker, no doubt about it. Her dancing wasn’t much to speak of. A lot of shoulders and grabbing her skirt and swishing it about. Occasionally showing some leg, once in a while she would end forward to entice the men to try to look down her front. But between you and me, she is as flat-chested as a young boy. But no one cared. She was still quite sexy.

She tossed her boa over my shoulders, no one else’s. And we danced together. I didn’t get to talk to her, but I like think that it was as memorable for her as for me. I didn’t see her again until three years later. It was on the Metro late at night. She wasn’t dolled up, but she wore a dark grey trenchcoat, collar up, and a back fedora pulled down over her eyes. The car emptied one by one until we were the last two. A moved down and sat across from her. She kept her head down the entire transit. When I sat across from her, and then I noticed a black eye. I said nothing. At one stop, she get up quickly and headed for the door. Before she got off she turned to me and said, Good bye, old timer.”

Jack springs up, and says, “She said what? Wait, she didn’t say that. You just made that up. You just said that because that’s what I’ve been calling you, Old Timer.”

Miss Baker is a beautiful and memorable woman.”

“You never met her. You don’t remember anything, but you remember her? How old were you?”

Same age.”

Jack paces back and forth over the same six feet of floor, always staring at the Old Timer.

“What does that mean? Same age. Same age as who? As Josephine Baker? As me? Same age as you are now? What?”

Same age.”

“Heh, same age. You never met Josephine Baker, and she definitely never called you Old Timer.”

She said Good bye old timer.”

“Old Timer. I just call you that because I don’t know your name. You don’t even know your name.”

Jack Johnson.”

“You are not Jack Johnson. I am Jack Johnson. That’s my name.”

Jack slumps back in his chair at the table.

“You are just full of beans.”

I am full of regrets.”

Jack nods, and says, “I heard that.”

The two sit in silence a few minutes before the Old Timer takes Jack’s coffee cup. He prepares two more cups of coffee, Josephine Baker style. He gives one cup to Jack and takes a sip from his cup.

Everything is always better after a cup of coffee.”

Jack takes a modest sip and purses his lips.

“Sorry I yelled at ya. I’m just still upset about Gloria. I wish there was just some way I could just make her come back.”

No one can make anyone do anything. We all have free will.”

“I know that.”

For instance, she chose to leave you.”


Just like you chose to ignore your anniversary.”

Jack looks up at the Old Timer, and says, “You’re right.”

When you think about it, freedom of choice is a farcical notion. It implies all of us are free to chose whatever we want and it’s fine. But it’s not always fine, is it, Jack?”

“No, not always.”

We don’t have as much the freedom of choice, but the responsibility to make the right choice.”

“Then I want Gloria to chose to come back.”

The Old Timer shakes his head, and says, “I don’t think that is going to happen.”

“And why not?”

She left you.”

“But she could always change her mind.”

She left you before she let you.”

Jack shakes his head, not in negation but confusion.

“Why would she do that?”

Because you left her before she left you.”

“What do you mean I left her? I’ve been right here the whole time.”

I think you know exactly what I mean, so it would do no good to explain it. Besides, it was for the best.”

“For who?”

For her.”

“How so?”

She won’t be as sad.”

“Sad about what? Leaving me?”

This way it’s better for her.”

“What about me? What’s better for me?”

The Old Timer looks at Jack and smiles.

What’s better for you doesn’t matter any more.”

“Why not?”

What is better for you is to focus on making the right choice in the future. The responsible choice. Because Gloria was right. You need to grow up, Jack Johnson.”

“How can you say something like that?”

Do worry about that. Just sit there and think about it, and you’ll realize that I’m right.”

“You just may be right.”

The Old Timer smiles broadly, and says, “Good.”

Jack doesn’t want to admit it, but he knows that the Old Timer is not some crazy ol’ coot. He did make perfect sense when he spoke of Josephine Baker, as if he really had seen her. Maybe the Old Timer was coming out of what funk he might have suffered from yesterday. He may be able to soon tell Jack his name and where he lives. This in spite of the recognition that he now feels responsible for the Old Timer, and there is no way he will ever put him out on the street. So if the Old Timer cannot ever recover his senses and memory, Jack knows he very well may be drinking coffee with a permanent house guest, and the thought carries with it no drudgery.

The Old Timer finishes his coffee, sits back on the piano bench, and resumes playing his chopanic tune.


Filed under short story

11 responses to ““Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Three: Jack Johnson & The Old Timer

  1. Neal, this is a treat! I think I know (everyone does) whho the Old Timer is, but before I figured that out, when I thought that he was just a foil to show us something about Jack, I fel in love with the following line:
    The Old Timer sits and smiles like a child when his parent pulls out his favorite storybook.

    That line does so much for me. In fact, it made me put off opening my work folders and getting started. As I was reading,, I noticed a few CUPS errors, including one homophone. Also, be sure you want to say that Jack encountered Arabs in Afghanistan. Our soldiers are aware enough to know that the only Arabs there are a small handful who came to fight for the Taliban. Remember that Afghanistan’s western neighbor is Iran, not an Arab country.

  2. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Four: Juan & Mariposa Tierra | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  3. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Six: Ian & Lilly Doitean | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  4. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Seven: Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  5. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Eight: Johnn & Bryony Rivers | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  6. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott – Part Eight: John & Bryony Rivers | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  7. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Nine – Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  8. Pingback: “Firmament,” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Ten – Yvan & Iolanta Nyebov | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  9. Pingback: “Firmament” a short story by Neal Abbott: Part Eleven – Jack Johnson & The Old Timer | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

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