by John Riebow 

The night air was crisp as he emerged from the heat of the crowded club.  It was just after midnight and, thanks to a three quarter moon and a cloudless September sky, it was brighter outside than it had been inside the shadowy venue.  He was soaked, scalp damp, underarms and back of his neck dripping with perspiration, a half round stain on the front of his favorite CLASH shirt.  A breeze snaked between the tall buildings, down the flag-lined street, tossing leaves into a whirling vortex.  He felt a sudden chill and the immediate need for a cigarette.  Pulling the crumpled pack from his shirt pocket, he rummaged his pants for the lighter. 

The smoke crawled down his throat, soothing and burning at the same time, adding to the powerful solution that was flowing through his veins.  Despite the warning on the pack, he never thought about the dangers of smoking.  Just like the beer he drank, everything these days came with a dire message from the do-gooders that did nothing to halt production or consumption of the offending products.  The ciggies gave him a shot of something only a smoker could appreciate, like a cup of strong coffee that helped get him through the day, the benefits far outweighing the inevitable and injurious side effects.

People were still emerging from the club doors, mere outlines as the house lights blazed inside, while bartenders collected glasses and threw away cups, and roadies packed up the gear to be carried out to the waiting van.  He was in orbit around the venue, a satellite caught by the powerful gravity of the gig, smoking as he lingered, not wanting to break free just yet.

What a show!  The music had been so fucking good: a Paul Weller cover band, a quartet of guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums.  They even did Jam, Who and Kinks songs to boot.  They really killed it.  And the audience was so down with everything, singing and clapping, bouncing, and chanting, “We are the Mods.  We are the Mods.  We are, we are, we are the Mods” between songs, while guitars were tuned or beers guzzled from the stage.  For a time, it all seemed a bit like Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse concept, where everyone in the entire world, the entire universe, was connected via a musical umbilical cord, one great, massive consciousness, melting into one another, a collective heartbeat.  The connectivity now severed, his mind was still racing.

People passed him on the way to their cars or homes, laughing, screaming, singing.  They pushed one another, hugged one another, pulled one another, playful and aggressive.  Women giggled and men roared.  One rather husky woman with thick thighs had a petite friend with wild hair on her shoulders, staggered across the road as the upper torso flapped its arms like a disorientated bird.  He watched some of the hot legs and nice round asses in mini skirts recede into the night, wishing they might be going where he was going.  But it was not to be.  He looked for the cute blonde who was next to him for most of the night.  She had been so drunk and so free, dismissing her disinterested boyfriend, or whatever he was, as she danced close and sang into his face, her hand fleetingly brushing against his cock.  It was all he could do to resist the urge to kiss her.  He thought about her regretfully, knowing the mystical and departed creature probably wouldn’t even remember him, not doubting that the lovely spirit had to be a blast in the sack.  “Bastard!” he spat, cursing his luck, cursing the universe, cursing himself.

The crowd was thinning as he finished and flicked away the diminished smoke.  There wasn’t much to see any longer; the gravity was ebbing, reality intruding.  He supposed he had better get walking to his car, four or so blocks away.  As his sneakered feet slapped the concrete pavement, the back of his ears were still ringing and his eyes were dry, but he hadn’t felt this good in weeks and was so glad he decided to head out, even after Paul canceled at the last minute.  Paul was always having some crisis or another.  This time it was the psychotic woman with the ex in jail that caused him to have to unload his ticket on Stubhub.  The poor guy couldn’t seem to get his shit together but was a good friend nonetheless.  It was a shame he couldn’t be there to share this moment.  It was weird to have been so connected to everything, strangers nonetheless, and now to find himself alone.  

It had been a wicked night.  And he so needed it.  The summer had been a bit of a bust; all he did was work his ass off, and didn’t get to do any of the things he had expected the season to hold: weekends at the beach, the three-day music festival in the mountains, or the week he was going to spend hiking the Appalachian trail.  The show had been a startling high in a summer of relative lows.

He hadn’t expect to break up with Carole either.  Like his prospects for the summer, things were pretty much shot to hell that night, when, as she fell asleep in his arms during the French movie she promised was going to be so good but turned out to be excruciatingly dull (he was so bored he didn’t even care when the chicks got naked), he picked up her vibrating phone from the floor and accidentally read the text.  Seeing the first sentence had been purely unintentional, but once the evidence presented itself, he doggedly dug for more.  To his immediate disgust, her phone was full of playfulness and sexual innuendo, something they no longer shared, so it should not have been a surprise that Carole was seeing someone else named Ted.  But how could he not have known?

He shook the phone at her in absolute fury.  Her face turned sad but he could not see any trace of remorse.  If anything, she seemed almost defiant, perhaps pleased to have been caught out.  “I’m sorry Jared,” she sighed.  “I really am.”

“Sorry for who, you or me?” he almost spat.  His pulse was racing and he couldn’t decide whether to cry or vomit.
“For us.”
“Us!” he said with a mocking laugh.  “You’re sorry you’ve been caught.”
Carole shook her head.  “I didn’t want it to be like this.  I wanted to tell you myself.”
“Were you going to tell me before you left on the honeymoon, or were you just waiting to see if this other guy didn’t work out?”
“It’s not easy to tell someone you care about that you have met someone else.”
He continued to be dismayed by her lack of tears, what he took as a total disregard for what they had.  “But it’s easier to let the person you care about find the texts that say you have the best tasting pussy in the world?”
The defiance on her face turned to sudden anger.  “That was private!  You shouldn’t have been reading my texts.”
Now it was his turn to be defiant.  “Well, Ted whoever the fuck’s text invaded MY privacy.”
“I really didn’t mean for you to find out this way, but things happened so quickly.  This wasn’t expected.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better, Carole?”
“No.  Of course not.” 
“So that’s it?”
“I am truly sad it came out like this.  It just evolved.”
“Like a fungus.”  He could not believe the expression on her face.  She didn’t look sad at all and seemed almost relieved that the truth was now out in the open.
“As things do.  As we did.  This was just faster.  I wasn’t looking for it.” 
“That makes everything so much easier,” he scoffed.  “Your conscience is clear because you were not looking for someone else to get into your pants.  So, where does that leave us?”
“Is there still an us?”  She asked the question as if she knew the answer.
“I don’t think so.  I don’t know.  Right now, no.”  He was angry, hurt, confused, wanting to lash out at something.  He wanted to smash her phone on the floor and punch Texting Ted right in his face.
Carole seemed resigned, almost content as she nodded her head.  “That’s fair enough.  I would feel the same.”
“Would you?  Well, la de dah.”  As much as he wanted to, he knew he couldn’t physically hurt her, and even his words were failing him.
“I expect I would be pretty pissed if I found out you were with someone else.”
“But it’s ok for you?”
“No.  Yes.  Well, it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere.”

Her last statement was like she had picked him up and pile-driven him right into the ground. 

“It was?  I tell ya, it wasn’t fucking obvious to me, Carole.  I thought we were serious.  Two years is pretty damned serious, right?  But not serious enough, I guess.”

That had been the end of May, just two weeks before his 28th birthday, a drunken night with his brother Nick, best forgotten, bar hopping for half the evening and puking his guts out until dawn.  He was sick of her and missing her and wishing they had never met, but had somehow resisted the urge to call or text her.  She left his apartment that night, not long after the fight, with her purse and her favorite pair of boots from the closet but never came back for the rest of her stuff.  The books, music and trinkets they shared apparently held less value to her than their relationship.  Aside from spotting a car that looked like hers at the Chick Fil-A drive thru window a few weeks later, he never saw her again.  In a complete and tear-filled rage, he tore clothes from the drawers, scooped makeup off the bureau, emptied her prescriptions from the medicine cabinet, and stuffed everything with the faintest link to her into black trash bags that still lay in the bottom of his bedroom closet. 

“One day, I’ll toss that shit,” he mouthed.  “One day.”
“Hey brother, got a light?”  A voice came from the shadows, startling.  Suddenly, the last night with Carole was a million years ago and he was back on the dark city streets, alone, as he had been since she walked out the door.
The question was from a tall black kid, not much older than maybe sixteen, in a dark hoodie and black jeans that hung low, wearing a backpack, leaning casually against a building, offering a pleading smile.

“Uh, sure.”

He stopped, pulled the lighter from his pants, tossed it to the kid.  The youth slowly lit his cigarette, warily watching as he brought the flame to his face, hesitating before he handed the lighter back.

“Cool.  Cool.  Cool.”  The youth mouthed, blowing smoke into the air.
“No problem.”

He watched the smoke dissipate and moved to go but found a hand on his arm, not tight but menacing, certainly surprising.  He realized the conversation was heading into confrontation, and like the girl in the club who danced in his face, he struggled to keep his urges in check, like his grandfather had taught him.  If he had been anything like his worthless old man, he would have decked the kid and kicked him in the balls to boot.  No matter how this boy tried to play the hard villain, he was just a kid, and after the amazing night he had just had, Jared tried not to think that the shadowy figure could have a knife or even a gun; he was just a kid. 

“Now how about some cash?”

The voice was trying sound weighty but came out rather mousey.  Jared pulled away from the grip and started to walk, not too fast; he was not about to give the kid the satisfaction of seeing him run.  “I’m all tapped out, friend.”  He just wanted to get away.  Wherever it was heading, the night had been too good for it to end like this.

The youth pursued, a few paces behind.  “Just a little.  You know, help a guy out.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”  He tried to be firm, solid, perhaps he could scare the kid off.  Maybe he should use his Christian Bale Batman voice.
“No?” the youth cried in disbelief, stopping his feet on a metal basement door.  The sound echoed into the night, menacing.
“Yes, no.”  He stopped as the echo died, then moved away again. 
The youth was alongside him, shuffling in a weird sideways gait.  “That’s not cool.”
“I don’t have anything,” he insisted.
“Come on.  Not even some change?”  The voice was almost breathless.  Was the kid panting?
“No.  Nothing.”
“You don’t look like you got nothing,” the kid accused.  “Your clothes is alright.  I bet you got a nice phone.”
He stopped and turned to face the kid, who seemed momentarily relieved that the chase had halted.  “Seriously?  Shorts and a sweaty tee shirt make me look like I have money?  Well, I don’t.  And you would laugh your ass off if I showed you my flip phone.”
The kid was briefly startled but quickly regained his composure.  He loomed close, almost eye-to-eye.  “I bet you got plastic,” he squinted.  Jared wondered, did he need glasses?  “You can just go to the machine in that store over there and get out a few greenbacks for your buddy.”
His plea was almost like a joke, or a child nagging a parent, holding little menace.
“I can’t do that,” Jared said with a mocking laugh that turned the kid’s face sour.
“Why not?”  
“Look man, I work in a warehouse, putting spools of wire up on racks and taking them down again, over and fucking over.  I had a long day and just want to go home.”
“And get something to eat?  Crawl into your warm bed?  Have a smoke before you drift off to sleep and dream your sweet dreams.  Don’t I deserve the same?”
“I’m not stopping you.”
He stormed off, a little faster.  His pursuer did not follow.
“I’m hungry, man!” the kid called into the night.  “Help a brother out.”

The kid played a good game, he had to give him that.  But Jared wasn’t buying.  The pleas were no better than a round of three-card Monte, designed to pull at his heartstrings and elicit some sympathy that would undoubtedly be played to his disadvantage.  Maybe he was being softened up for the kill.  Maybe there was a silent helper lurking in the shadows, ready to beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat.  Not matter how good he felt, he had to remember that this was still the city with the second highest murder rate in the entire country.  He was smart enough to know that the house always won and the player was a sucker, so he was not about to place a bet.

He stopped and turned.  “You’re doing a good job of trying to make me feel sorry for you.  But I don’t have anything, least of all a heart.  That was ripped out a few months ago.  Not that you would understand, or care.”

“I’m not asking for much, bro.  You think I am unworthy of bare necessities?”
“Not at all, Baloo.”
The kid stared for a long moment then smiled as he fathomed the reference.
“Then just share a little green.  It’s Friday, man.  You’ve been out having a good time.  I know you had a good time, I can see it on your face.  You probably been drinking, staring at titties, and getting lap dances all night, so how about you share some of that love in your heart.”
The kid was grinning now, all trace of menace evaporated after the Jungle Book reference.
“Little man, I already told you that I don’t have any money.  I’m not kidding.  Look, how about I give you my cigarettes?  And my lighter?  You can have that too.”

He handed the pack and lighter across to the kid, who scooped the offerings with outstretched hands, as if trying to collect drops of rain in a storm.  No more words were spoken as Jared moved away.

Maybe because he expected the worst as he turned his back, Jared suddenly thought of his older brother.  If he could see him now, he knew Nick would have called him a fool for tolerating such harassment, or taking his eyes off a potentially armed assailant.  “Never engage with those crack heads, J.  Think of yourself, your safety first.  Knock em down and get the hell out of there.” 

He could have knocked the kid down, or pushed him aside and ran, but for all his inflated bravado, it was just a young man trying to make his way in the world, and that was something he could hardly fault the kid.

His car was just a block ahead.  He could see it under the street lamp and knew that if he were in a Hollywood horror flick, he would reach his door but then the knife or gun would suddenly hit him in the back as suspenseful music blared and the audience was startled, spilling their popcorn.  He fumbled in his pocket for the keys, trying to get the door key into his fingers, wondering how quickly he could open the door and dash inside. 

As he opened the door, Carole’s voice suddenly came into his head, the words she said before walking out the door that he didn’t understand until that very minute.

“You never seem to be in the present, to appreciate the moment; a little piece of you always has to be questioning every decision you make, like you are unsure if you are even happy or not.  One day Jared, I hope you find peace with yourself.”

She didn’t even offer a friendly kiss, let alone a passionate farewell, before she stepped out into the darkness, presumably into the waiting arms of Texting Ted.  She may as well have slapped his face.

He was relieved to fall into the seat unharmed and surprised himself when he locked the doors.  He started the car.  Paul Weller blared from the speakers.  For a brief moment, he was back in that hot, dark room, feeling connected to the entire universe, like he had finally found his proper place in the world.  That instance seemed a lifetime ago and no time at all, a place where Jared Richards was a mere idea and Carole Poole a figment of someone’s fevered imagination.  But the song ended and the sensation was fleeting.  He began to experience something new creep over him (fear? anger?).  It gripped his chest like a fist clenched around his heart.  He was breathless as he put the car into gear and drove off into the night, thinking maybe it was time he heeded the warnings on the packet and gave up smoking.

About the Author:

John Riebow was born and raised in Philadelphia, where he attended the W. B. School High School of Agriculture Sciences, majoring in Horticulture. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Architecture from Temple University, is a LEED-Accredited Professional, and serves as Director of Design for a design-build-development general contractor.