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

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

Read Part Four

Read Part Five

Read Part Six

Read Part Seven

Read Part Eight

Read Part Nine

Read Part Ten

Jack walks out of his room after a couple of hours. The Old Timer still sits on the piano bench before the standup piano. He is not playing, but staring down at the keys. Jack thinks he may be asleep, but the Old Timer shifts on the bench and keeps his eyes straight and downward.

Jack walks up to the mirror beside the front door and hangs a black suit jacket on one of the wall pegs that are a part of the frame. He hangs it on the peg immediately beneath the peg on which hangs his hat. Jack removes a solid black necktie from another peg and ties it about his neck and under the collar of his white dress shirt. When the knot appears satisfactory to Jack he turns to the Old Timer, who likewise spins on the bench to face Jack. Jack stands with his arms akimbo and stolid face, and the Old Timer grins and bobs his knees juvenilely.

“Sorry I was kinda rough on you earlier.”

Nothing to it, my boy.”

“Are you still going home today?”

The Old Timer nods, still smiling.

“Soon?”

Possibly before you leave for work.”

“Well, that’s not too long, so …”

Jack sits at the dining table and the Old Timer joins him.

“I’m glad to know you. I’d like for you to come by for a visit sometime, that is, if you care to. You see, you never really got to know Gloria. I don’t feel that you saw her brighter side. Come back in a week and you can spend time with the both of us. We’ll have dinner and watch Lost. Now I know you’d like that.”

And she will be here?”

“Well, of course.”

The uniform.”

“Um, yeah, sure. Among other things. I know I need to grow up like she said. When she sees I have, then she’ll come running back.”

So you have grown up?”

“Sure.”

Because you say you have?”

“Oh, stop it or I’ll take back the invitation.”

Fine.”

“No, I’ve got it all figured out. I’ll put on the uniform and show Gloria the old me, the one she fell for. And before you know it we will come together like buttcheeks.”

So you plan on showing your maturity by not changing at all. Not doing anything different.”

“No, but, it’ll work.”

And why do you say that?”

“She fell for me once. All I have to do is the same old things that made her fall for me once and she’ll do it all over again. It’s foolproof.”

You have always thought yourself to be rather clever. How has that worked out for you? You think you are so clever, as if you can somehow see the wheels and cogs turning that no on else can see. But all of those wheels and cogs ended up being nothing but shells on the beach. And you have spent your whole life wandering the beach, searching for shells, looking for one smoother than the others, or rougher than the others, or maybe more colorful than the others, and you never looked up and noticed the ocean before you, the very ocean that spat up all of those shells, all of those amazing shells.”

“What are you saying?”

Gloria is not coming back to you.”

“Gloria just has to come back to me. She just has to.”

She has to?”

“Yes, she must.”

Why must she?”

“Because I love her so much.”

That is a sacrifitive point.”

Jack shakes his head.

“So what are you saying?”

You image yourself with her, and getting back together with her. But all you have working for you is that imagination. You cannot by merely the shear force of your own fancy make things right. You want her back because you think it is best for you. But you never try to be the kind of person who is best for her. And without that she will not come back to you.”

“But if she don’t come back soon, do you know what’s gonna happen? Her stupid sister is gonna work on her, and she hates my guts. First she’ll get her to use her maiden name, Gloria Graye. And then she’ll invite men over and Gloria will get all kittenish around then, and before you know it I am completely out of the picture forever.”

She will not come back just because you need her here. And until you figure that out you are far from growing up, and you need to right soon.”

“Well, then help me, please. You, you can stay here as long as you want. Please? Friend?”

No, I must be going home.”

“Help me.”

Oh, my dear boy, that is what I have been trying to do since I came to you. In fact, there is something I have been meaning to say to you, but I was not sure if you were ready for it. But I may have waited too long.”

“Just spit it out.”

The Old Timer buries his face in his open hands and weeps harsh sobs.

“Hey, you okay in there?”

The Old Timer stops the aggressive tears, but residual crying overflows out in trickles and slight blubbers. He wipes his face mostly dry on his sleeve.

You have to grow up, and do it today.”

“Is that all? Fine, done.”

No!”

The Old timer grabs Jack’s forearms in a manner that frightens him.

Today you must do the hardest thing you could ever do.”

“And what is that?”

You will be in an accident today, and you must save the other people.”

“I can do that.”

The Old Timer shakes his head slightly.

But you will not survive.”

Jack pulls his arms back and sets his hands on his lap.

“Well, I’ll just be extra careful today, so I won’t have any accident.”

You will not cause the accident. If you go to work today just keep in mind that you will be in an accident and that you must help the others in the accident survive even though you will not.”

“Well wait a minute. Maybe I don’t want to help them. I mean, if it means I have to die, and all.”

If you do not help them, then you will have never existed.”

“What?”

I am telling you the truth. When you leave to go to work, you will not be coming back. But you must go. You must go and save the others.”

“Or I will somehow cease to exist?”

You would have never come into existence in the first place.”

Jack sits back and smiles.

“Oh come on now. You really had me worked up. I keep forgetting that you’re just a crazy old man who don’t even know his own name.”

Jack Johnson.”

“Now you stop that!”

Jack points an unfriendly finger at the Old Timer.

“My name is Jack Johnson. You lay off this before you make me do something I’ll regret.”

The Old Timer slumps and flops his head back with fresh tears resuming.

All I have is regrets.”

Jack looks down.

“Me too.”

No, that is not all you have. You have a chance. A chance to make all things right.”

“So that Gloria will come back to me?”

Will you forget about Gloria? She will never come back to you because you will be dead. That is why it is better for her that she left you. She still loves you and will have good memories of you. And if she were here, you would not do today what you must.”

“Die in an accident saving other people.”

Yes, and that way you will not have to die with regrets like me.”

“What have you done that is so terrible?”

The wars. I have killed people.”

“People, like who?”

The wars. Many people.”

“Well, that’s what you do in war. People fight and some one dies. Better you than them, right?”

Twice I have killed men who left behind a wife who was expecting their first child.”

“Just your duty, Old Timer. You can’t feel bad about killing men in war.”

Both of these men left a wife at home. A wife that was pregnant with their child. I made people grow up without their fathers, wives without their husbands.”

Jack signs and reaches across the table to pat the Old Timer on his shoulder.

“Now that is something I would regret, too. At least, I hope I would.”

And a young woman expecting. Not in war. And newlyweds. Regrets.”

“Look, clearly you feel bad, and all, but you need to find some way to get over it.”

This is my only remedy. Telling you what I must tell you.”

The Old Timer folds his arms on the tabletop and drops his head down, again crying unstoppably.

“Listen, there’s still some time before I leave. I’ll make some coffee. Everything is better with coffee.”

Jack goes to the kitchen and makes a pot of coffee. He returns with a tray on which sits a pot of coffee and two mugs along with crème and honey. The Old Timer still has his head down but he is no longer crying, only sitting motionless. Jack sets the tray down and nudges the Old Timer.

“Here we go. Just like you like it, Old Timer.”

He still does not move. Jack sets the honey and crème on the table waiting for his guest to do something, anything, but still the Old Timer does not move. Jack nudges him again a little harder.

“Hey, Old Timer, coffee. Josephine Baker style.”

Jack shakes the Old timer by his shoulders, but nothing. Jack reaches down to the Old Timer’s neck feeling about for a pulse, but there is nothing. Jack jumps back and clasps his hands to his mouth. He wants to cry. He feels as if he should cry, but is unable to.

Jack grabs the tray with the coffee pot and mugs still on and throws it like a shotput into the kitchen with a horrific crash. He roars and punches the wall beside him. The partition is mere drywall with a little stuccoed plaster, so it is with little resistance that Jack punches a hole in the wall with not much more than some bloody scrapes and scruffs on his knuckles. A framed photo falls to the ground. Jack picks it up and throws it like a Frisbee across the room. It crashes against the far wall just above the piano. With the wooden frame broken and the glass cracked, the photograph lands on the pianobench. When it lands Jack notices that it is a wedding photo of Jack and Gloria. Finally, Jack cries and sits on the sofa.

After ten minutes he looks up and wipes his eyes. He reaches for the phone book, looks up the police non-emergency number, and calls them to report the Old Timer’s death. As Jack waits, he cleans his abrasions and wraps his scuffed knuckles with a bandage. As he finishes a policeman show up and he gives him a full report of nothing much to say. As they finish the coroner arrives to remove the body. Jack and police step out of the way for the coroner and his assistant. The coroner raises the Old Timer by the shoulders so that they are flat against the back of the chair and feels for an absent pulse, all the while holding his shoulders back against the chair. His assistant is opening up a bodybag. The coroner reaches for a pen and the Old Timer slumps forward slightly, only being held back by one hand. When he slumps something from around his neck falls out from the top of his shirt. Jack can tell that they are a set of dogtags.

“Hey, wait a minute!”

Jack rushes up to the two men dealing with the Old Timer and they try to restrain Jack, who by his force and insistence grabs the dogtags and examines them.

“These are mine. See? They got my name on them.”

The coroner removes the dogtags and gives them to Jack, who then steps back again with the observing policeman. Soon the Old Timer is in a bodybag and the two men wheel him out to their conveyance. The policeman also leaves offering his sympathy. Jack takes the dogtags to the hallway where his military photos are and there are a set of dogtags already hanging there around the framed picture of Jack, Magpie, and Captain Anfort. Jack looks at the tag itself and compares it to the ones he removed from the Old Timer. Both have the same name Jack Johnson Gamuret with identical serial numbers.

Jack puts these dogtags about his neck. He strolls to the piano and picks up the broken photograph of him and his wife. He sets it delicately on top of the piano and sits down on the pianobench. Jack stares pensively at the keyboard. He closes his eyes and sets his hands on the keys. He takes in one deep breathe and holds it. After a few seconds he releases the air and plays a chopanic tune. When he finishes, he stands and grabs his car keys from a marble ashtray used only for keys. Jack ambles to the door where he takes his black suit jacket and black driving cap from their pegs. He leaves his apartment to go and work as a limousine driver.

Jonathan and Florida fought physicians and nature and everything but their own hope in order to have a child, and they won. As far as deliveries go, this seemed to be a somewhat trouble-free birthing. The parents decided to name their son after both of his grandfathers, neither of whom still were alive. And as mother rocked in a chair and father took as may pictures as his many rolls were able to permit, the namesake of Jack Jenkins and John Gamuret, Sr. slept the first of many slumbers. His parents wished him a lifetime of the peace he experienced now. But whatever peace or turmoil he may endure, it would be based upon the choices he would make raised into a grand confluence with the fixture of all things, the time and chance that happens to everybody, somewhere high above the Firmament.

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