A Short Story
By- Tom Kubrak
2007, Garwood New Jersey
“Dude, I’m sorry but I have to pick these up.” his friend Robert said to him in angst.
The strong wind had successfully knocked down four of the bags of potato chips and tortilla chips from the amateur spread they created. It was a mess but thankfully they had some help on the clean-up.
“No man, come on. The squirrels and birds will appreciate the snack.” Jack added trying to comfort his friend who already began to pick up the chips.
“True- true, very true.” He replied slightly relieved.
Dalin came in about 10 minutes before the party started. He was always the quiet one and this party was no different. Jack greeted him with a simple handshake. “It’s good to see you my friend.”
“Yea man.” He said without a touch of emotion. ”I got some games in my trunk though. Give me a sec. Let me run back and grab them real quick,”
Robert couldn’t help himself and cleaned up the mess that the growing wind had created for him. Jack was isolated for a few minutes.
He saw an opportunity to check his phone. He had received a message from one of his crew 20 minutes ago. ‘What’s the plan?’ The message simply read.
“Here we are!” Dalin shouted calmly, oddly excited as he walked back into the Gazebo with the games.
Jack flipped the phone shut avoiding the question his crew-member laid out to him. It was his day off. He was glad he could spend a little time before the chaos of the reunion began. Him Robert and Dalin had spent many long nights with one another. Some they couldn’t remember, some they could, and plenty of community events that they’d spilled some sweat.
They were the three Amigos. They’d been through a lot with each other. Jack thought about the time that Robert tried to make a run at a career in the arts. Jack laughed as he thought about Robert trying to sing.
“What are you laughing at now Jack? Huhh?” Robert inquired finishing up the clean job from the chips.
They had met away from their own individual jobs/careers so when they were together they tried to minimize their talk about work. Robert was a teacher, Dalin worked logistics for the city of Westfield and Jack was a private contractor.
“Missed you guys.” Jack chimed in as Dalin finished setting up his game and Robert attempted to lay out the food spread.
Dalin paused his work and then made eye contact with Robert. “You’re the man bro. Missed you too.”
“I missed you guys too!!” Steve laughed smiling slapping his hands down each of their shoulders. They went into a big group hug. Jack forgot how much he loved these guys. The ‘Pandemic’ had kept them a part for just long enough for him to realize how much he’d hate if he saw these guys go.
“So when is everyone else supposed to get here?”Dalin asked.
“Any minute now.” Robert replied.
They began to dig into the snacks. While Dalin and Robert gorged into the platters Jack checked his phone again.
‘Jack..where are you? Lets meet to discuss before tonight.’ He shook his head. Then he took a step out of the gazebo and began typing his reply: ‘I’m in…
He paused; ‘No work.’ He thought. ‘Not today. Of all days, not today.’
None of them really talked about their jobs when they were together, and they didn’t even know what Jack did. All they knew was that Jack was a contractor in the city. They never questioned him when he spoke vaguely about what he did.
“There she is right there.” Robert smiled and then picking up his cell phone to answer Alisa’s call. When Robert walked away, his phone vibrated. He knew who it was and refused to check it. His partner knew this was his day off.
The wind continued to beat down on the party. But the sun shine and heat made it bearable. The park they chose in Fan-Wood was pretty well known and had an expansive layout. At it’s busy times, almost every square Inch was used for games, picnics or just hanging out. Spring Forest Road Park, recently got their skatepark finished, so it had a new crowd coming in now which scared away some of the usuals. It had a few baseball fields, a playground, and a couple gazebos to hold a few parties.
Everything flowed pretty nice during the party. Despite a few high schoolers walking by, playing obscene music, the day ultimately went on without any problems. Everything flowed from the beverages, to the snacks, to the conversations.
The park didn’t allow any alcohol but that was no problem for the group finally reuniting during a time that had kept them apart for too long. They usually got together once a week to plan their monthly-community-volunteer event. That meeting had went virtual due to the pandemic.
The last they saw each other was in April. They were a strong faithful group of people, so it didn’t break them, but not being able to see each other really affected the momentum they had before the pandemic.
Finally though, they were able to plan and get together. The end of the summer picnic was here. Also people began to show up. Some wore masks and some didn’t. Some stayed apart and others stayed close. Conversations were started and plates of chips, bean dip, carrots, ranch dip, orange slices peanut butter filled pretzels, cupcakes and watermelon were passed around.
The group settled into some reunion conversations. Jack ran straight to his good friend Jack who he helped move, paint his house, and had many dinners over their house while his wife was pregnant with their first child.
Jacks friend stood 10 feet away from him as he talked. Refusing to have any contact with people other than his wife, child, and immediate family. He couldn’t take any risks with a new-born in this uncertain environment. It was his first time getting out of the house to an event since ‘The Pandemic’ began six months ago.
They both bowed to each other in respect.
Jack listened intently to his friend as he and his wife caught him up on the last 5 months.
He felt the vibration in his pocket half-way through the conversation. He moved his hand down to take the phone out of his pocket instinctively, but then stopped himself. ‘This is my day off. Chill Jack. Be with these people. No distractions.’ He thought, nodding his head as his friend Jackson caught him up on his life as a father of a six month old girl.
After everyone finally got comfortable, had some food, and had good conversations flowing. “Hello everyone! I’m sorry but before we all head out to the games can we please take a photo?” Alisa the head of the group asked politely while showing her immaculate smile that was able to bring anyone from sadness to sheer joy.
“Yeah sure, let’s do it.” Robert said nonchalantly without questioning.
“Alright cool, but where?” She responded questioningly but with her smile keeping everyone at ease.
“Hold up!’ Jack shouted. “I got this.”
“Alright Jack.” Robert smirked at him. His other profession of course was “correct-photo placement.’
Jack cut him off, “Give me some time alright. I can’t work my magic that quick.” He smiled and began to wonder the landscape around the gazebo. He began to wonder a little farther though away from everyone’s eye-sight.
“I think I got something over here.” Jack shouted behind the concession stand nearby. “But hold on! There might be something else. Just give me five minutes please!”
“Take your time!” Alisa called back.
Jack dialed his partner. His mood changing from happy-picnic-fun to killer-business-man. It rang three times before his partner picked up.
“Jack! Thank the good lord…”
“Stop right there.”
“Do not bother me today unless it’s an emergency okay?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s my day off and I’m not going to let you ruin it okay?”
He hung up the phone swiftly. Roy, on the other line, was shocked. ‘Day off?’ He thought. ‘No one gets a day off in this line of work.’ He rung Jack again in concern and fury.
Jack didn’t pick up.
“Guys.” Jack finally called out. “I need your help on this one. I mean… maybe over there but I’m not sure.”
Alissa, maybe with her pharmacy background pumping out clients everyday, finally ended the search with, “Sure! Let’s do it. We’re taking it over there.” Pointing and beginning to walk over to the spot.
The group waddled over to a tree, with little shade to take the photo. It was a spot where the green grass was halted by the large roots of the tree making it hard to stand without your ankles wanting to turn. The wind had begun to die down a bit allowing the hot, end of August air, begin to seep back in.
Wanda, who joined the group a few weeks ago ‘via’ a zoom call, because of her boyfriend, decided she would be the one who took the picture. “I have the new Iphone so it’ll have the best quality.” She said confidently trying to do a service for her new friends.
“Sounds good to me.” Dalin said quietly with his mind on the yard games they had still yet to play.
Everyone, because a few people still had the “social-distance” mindset, had to be spread out a bit during the placement of people for the photo. Everyone was at least 2-3 feet apart from one another. They had spent many thanksgivings, parties, and meetings together. They all understood and respected each others ways of handling things.
Today was different though and the aura of “the pandemic” was still in the minds of a few people so intimacy was vetoed. These precautions, which were respectfully, and without saying much, agreed upon.
The picture was taken by Wanda a lot farther back than usual to fit the twenty people in the frame.
Onto the games: The group had a natural competitive nature to it and always got into the games that people brought. Today, people brought cornhole, spike-ball, and can-jam. They went rounds and rounds. During those rounds some shouts of excitement could be heard as their competitive natures got the best of them.
Dalin came up to Jack before the round of Cornhole they were playing. “So what’ve you been up to the last couple months Jack?”
“Ahhh I mean everything alright now, just working, but the first few months of all this I was just chilling and being nervous about the future.”
“Ahhh I feel that.” Dalin responded.
“What about you man?”
“Opposite for me man, work actually picked up more.” Dalin worked as a truck driver for the food-stores. “It was a lot of driving man. They paid overtime plus a bonus for it though which was nice.”
Jack missed Dalin, they always had a wierd relationship with each other, ever since he met him picking up trash in town and he asked simply, ‘Who are you?’ Ever since then they just had a pretty strong relationship. One that jack missed greatly since all of this happened.
One round of this and one round of that. It was all fun and games until the first group members went home. It was Charlotte and her husband Jackson who just had their baby girl. Not only was the group sad they had to go so soon but they were sad that they were taking their kid with them; Bella having brought a special touch to the picnic.
Jack dropped the bags of corn-hole he was playing and came running over to them to say his goodbyes. He was a little upset at himself too, remembering he hadn’t spent as much time as he’d liked with them. He loved the young couple too. They had given him a place to stay for a week when the basement he was staying in flooded and needed to get fixed.
He caught them just as they were leaving the gazebo; “Keep keeping it real Jack!” He called panting a little from the run over.
“You got it Jack.” Returning a smile to him. Then he turned to wave to the group one more time with his child in his left arm. “Stay safe everyone!”
That was the first of the dominoes to fall for the small reunion. But the competitive group continued back with their games for a while and then took a much needed snack break. Alissa brought out more of her orange slices. Robert busted open another bag of chips and Dalin brought out a special cake his mom made.
Jack approached Dalin after they said goodbye to Wanda and her boyfriend. Needing to take the hour long ride back to Trenton:
“So what do you think?”
“Oh yeah..” Dalin paused in the middle of shoving food down his throat.”I say we make it thirty each. What do you think?”
“I think that’s fair.” Jack nodded then called to the two leaders. “Hey Alissa, Robert, can you come here please?”
They both came almost immediately putting down their sand bags for the corn-hole game. “Yeah what’s going on?”
“Dalin and I want to give you something.”
“Oh…yeah?” Alissa replied questioningly.
“We want to give each of you thirty dollars for setting this up and bringing most of the food.” Jack said.
“Oh no you don’t…” Robert began.
“No you have to take it. You’ve earned it.” Jack handed the money over to them quickly.
“Thanks guys. You really didn’t have to do this though.” Alissa offered in a grateful spirit.
“We know, but that’s why we have the poker games with the bros.” Dalin added. Part of the pot in their monthly poker games went towards the next social gathering. Now they were giving the two of them part of the pot they had been building over the last few years.
“Alright well maybe it’s time to clean up.” Alissa added seeing that half the party had left and the ones who were still there were beginning to get prepared for their own departures.
As the rest of the group prepared to leave Dalin and Jack talked. Jack, while he was enjoying this reunion immensely, actually had another reunion he had to attend to in a few hours, but he was perplexed about a few things.
‘What’s she going to look like? Is anything going to happen with us tonight? Noo I can’t let anything happen tonight with her.’
“Jack!” Dalin yelled, breaking Jack’s daydreaming.
“Jeez Dalin. Yo can I ask you something?”
“Yeah, what’s up Jack?”
“I’m meeting up with a few friends in Westfield later. You gonna be back at your place tonight?”
“Yeah, why, what’s up?”
“You mind if I crash at your place if it comes down to it?”
He looked at him thinking his friend was on another one of his hook-up missions with a woman.
“Yeah no problem man.”
Jack was relieved, because he didn’t drive, and would have to take a late train if he wasn’t allowed to stay. But Dalin always had his doors open for Jack when he came to town.
They finished cleaning up and headed to their cars. Jack hopped in with Robert who was taking him back into Westfield.
“Right here?” Robert asked.
“Yeah-yeah this is perfect.” Jack said with slight reluctance.
“You sure? I mean I can drive up more.”
“No no… I think I need to walk main street a little bit.” Reminiscing about the good days now.
3 years ago Jack lived here, along this street, in Westfield. Then he moved. For two years he lived in nearby Garwood. There were a lot of people in this town that he knew and a lot of friends whom he had made.
Jack arrived in Westfield after his first reunion around 6:30. So he had another hour to kill before he was to meet up with this girl whom he scheduled with earlier in the week.
He took a breath of the air as he stepped from the car. The scent of the local Chinese restaurant engulfing senses.
“See you later man.” He said to his friend, “And thanks again.” Jack called through the open window.
“Anytime man. See ya.”
He began walking down the street. It was relatively busy. Westfield had seen a spike in growth since they revamped the mainstreet and more restaurants came to town in the early 2000’s. They created a model for other New Jersey towns to follow. The area was usually full of life but ever since the world turned upside down with Covid-19 the streets had died down. Only in the last few weeks had people come back out in packs to enjoy the outdoor dining and shopping. The street performers came back too to grace the sidewalks with their forms of art.
One of those people was a local sculptor who often posted up on the corner of Elm and East Broad street with a small coffee table, a bucket to sit on, a cup of tea and his mini sculptures. He never had a sign and he never wanted to. He just sat there waiting for some curious souls to walk up to him and question why he was sitting there with his strange sculptures. Jack came up to him, on the same corner 3 years ago and they had become pretty good friends.
He was hoping he’d see him there today as he arrived on the corner. But his sculptor friend wasn’t there. Jack looked down the block hoping he’d see him but didn’t see him anywhere. He continued walking thinking he might run into “That Clarinet Guy” who would play for hours all throughout Westfield. Instead he stopped to listen to a young guitarist plugging away on some cover songs. Jack gave him 3$ only listening to for a minute.
Jack used to love just taking a walk down the street to see old friends and meet new people. He was a businessman; a broke businessman at the time, but that didn’t stop him from going out and making connections with the people in town.
His phone buzzed again; he instinctively moved to grab it but stopped again. ‘It’s still my day off. Enjoy it Jack.’ He was a little agitated Roy kept bothering him too. He just wanted to enjoy this day and reminisce on the life he used to live. A life a little less chaotic than he lived now. A life that he didn’t have to hide from everyone. He missed being able to be honest with everyone.
He continued to walk. His eyes meandered from building to building. He recalled a business proposition he made to many of the business owners in town when he was, trying to make it in business, and trying to get investors.
It was a failed venture and talking about it made Jack’s insides turn. None of the deals Jack proposed fell through. Most of the people just scoffed at him and patted him on the back in pity for him knowing his rookiness in business. Jack hated when people pitied him. Something he’d hated ever since he was a kid after his mother died at 15. Everyone treated him differently after that and he resented the feeling immensely.
Fortunately, he was able to hide back his anger and say, ‘Have a great day.’ Walking out the door of all of the failed propositions.
Some things finally began to work out as he kept trying though. He’d partnered up with good people and he’d partnered up with bad people. He never became a fixture in the town but people started to ask who he was a little more. Then suddenly… he left to go back home to his hometown in Brooklyn. Jack thought he’d be starting up shop in Westfield but something instinctual came over him thrusting him back home.
Now, he missed Westfield. Walking on the streets was so nostalgic that he actually fought back a few tears. But he stayed composed for the most part, only offering a smile throughout his stroll along main street.
Jack wanted to talk to someone he knew about what had all happened since he left. The eerie air was just too much for his curiosity to bear. He continued walking and passed one of his old favorite coffee shops. But now, when he looked in, it was clearly shut down. Maybe it was from the pandemic maybe it wasn’t. He wouldn’t know until he was able to talk to someone about what exactly happened in town and what new things were happening.
He paused at the corner of East Broad and Mountain Ave because he smelt something familiar. The pungent, thick, and strong smell reminded him of the many games of chess they used to play and the many cigars that were given to him after winning and just coming to the cigar lounge.
He could tell from the smell that it wasn’t just one cigar that was lit but multiple. Now Jack’s plan altered a little bit. ‘Let’s find the fellas.’ These were people he was always honest with and he was willing to go the extra-mile to find. They posted up in different areas all over West-Field. The problem was figuring out which spot.
He headed over to the open green space off of Mountain Avenue to take a peak at the old group of men he used to share many cigars and conversations with. He wasn’t sure if they saw him or not after he turned to walk back considering if he was going to have time or not to talk with them. But he ended up choosing the latter as he locked eyes with the man who taught him chess. The quick stare he received from Charlie gave him a firm answer that he was going to have to make the time to talk for a bit.
Jack hadn’t prepared for the moment but usually had a cigar with him. Thankfully he did because a man just sitting with a group of cigar smokers without a cigar in his hand is like a man running out to the baseball field without his glove.
When he reached the group of men sitting in a circle of lawn chairs under the large oak tree, he nonchalantly stood next to one of them who was deep into his Maduro blend cigar. They didn’t seem to notice him as much as he’d hoped. Some of the guys he recognized and some he didn’t. He then realized that most of these guys have been through hell-and-back and being excited or even remember how long he’s been away was not in their repertoire.
The shade of the oak tree cooled the, still blazing heat of the August air. Finally jack broke the stand-off of Who’s-gonna-talk-first,
“You mind if I join you gentlemen?”
“Yeah sure, no problem buddy.” Gary jokingly said. “Been a little bit I think since we’ve seen ya?” He winked.
“Yea right GaryI moved out of town actually, like 5 months ago.”
“Ahh shit really?” John added.
“Yea what’s new?” Charlie chimed in swiftly.
“Ahh lot’s of stuff.” Jack said in leisure as he finally was able to sit; stealing a chair from one of the guys who left to grab something from Trader Joes.
Much like the smoke from the burning cigars, the conversation flowed nicely. Gary went into the details of what had been going on in the town. Jack lit up his cigar that he brought from Brooklyn listening intently to what John, a Marine Veteran, was talking about. “The apartments on main street project was shut down. A bakery, a deli and one of the gas stations were shut down too as far as I know.” He kept talking and Jack couldn’t help but wonder about his old chess teachers teachers engagement..
“Hey… how are you and your fiancee doing?”
“Oh… yeah, that’s over.” Charlie replied. Jack didn’t really know what to say as he exhaled the smoke from the medium blend he had.
“Damn,.. I’m really sorry Charlie.”
“It’s alright. Yeah… yea it’s alright.” Now beginning to get uncomfortable. “So what about you Jack? What have you been up to?”
It was a little awkward going forward for the group but they managed to keep it going as the people kept filtering by in the busy green space. Of course it was a little slower now but this night had a live performance starting in an hour, hosted by the town of Westfield.
“I’ve been alright. You know working the odd jobs still, painting and stuff. Working at a department store in Brooklyn actually. Good people so I think I’m gonna stay for awhile.”
“That’s nice glad to hear it.” Greg began, “So listen I gotta get out of hear but…” He looked at Jack, “It was nice seeing you.”
“Likewise my friend.”
As he stood up, waved his final goodbye he morphed into the growing crowd. Some with masks on and some without them. iIt was a fifty fifty split. But it seemed like a the party-mood was in the air as Jack also got up a few minutes later and exited the group of men. He was finally going to meet up with the women for the next reunion. he was actually more excited her now than he thought.
“Gentleman.” Jack said, putting his cigar in the plastic ziplock bag that housed his cigars. “Always a pleasure. I hope to be back around soon.”
“Jack,…take care of yourself alright.” John said with a nod.
Jack tipped his cap to John and then to the rest of the men and he headed off towards the liquor store to get a bottle of wine and some snacks for the next reunion.
Jack found a bench in the middle of Elm Street and attempted to relax for a few minutes while waiting for his friend. That didn’t last long though; as the sounds of a man hurling out a mix of his dinner and the many bottles of beer he’d drank that night with his friends. He was borderline ‘blacked-out’ as he spilled everything all over the side walk in plain view of Jack.
Blahhoowwwww- he took another few steps stumbling. Jack watching the entertainment unfold unsure what was going to happen next. Then Jack Jack stood up and began to approach the man now holding the brick wall for support; his head dangling as his mind kept spinning.
“You alright man?” Jack asked the stranger having been in his shoes. He watched in pity from a distance of about 15 feet. The sounds of the sharp spray of throw-up are distinct.
“Yeah.” wiping his mouth. “Better now.” He said with a smile. He took a deep breath and then kept walking. Then a voice came from a group trailing him.
“Fucking embarrassing right?” It was his friend. Jack saw him just put his hands on his head in sympathy as he watched his friend throw up yet again. “Fuckin guy.” He said in finality shaking his head to Jack giving him a look of ‘I’m sorry I’m with someone who’s doing this. And also sorry you’re witnessing it.’
“Happens to the best of us.” Jack replied with a smirk.
The group of strangers now disappeared into the night, grabbing their intoxicated friend to head home. Jack smiled and continued to wait for his friend. He then looked at his watch; They really didn’t have a set time when they were supposed to meet up.
‘I’ll head over after I’m done eating with my family.’ It was Jack’s off day so he didn’t mind wandering around for a while until the time finally arrived. He finally got a text about 20 minutes ago, that she was heading over.
Jack usually wasn’t the restless type but his mind had been on this reunion all week. More so than the annual picnic with his old friends. so he kept walking and checking out the town he had come to dearly love.
Even in that small perimeter on Elm, outside of Trader Joes, where he was waiting for her, he had a vast amount of memories. He couldn’t help but smile and get excited at everything he saw that made one of those memories arise. He then walked away from Trader Joes and began to feel the bricks on one of the buildings that used to be a cafe he used to go to a lot. It had closed because of the pandemic but he just felt those bricks trying to understand the story. After a few moments on the building he walked into the slow street, walked to the middle of the road and paused, closing his eyes for a moment.
“Jack?” a voice called abruptly from across the street.
Jack whirled his head around; completely caught off guard and thrown out of his moment. “Chiara?” he began to laugh now. He was caught red handed in ‘his creative process.’ Along with his contracting work, Jack was a landscape painter on the side. It was his true passion but he couldn’t figure out how he would make any money doing it. But he never stopped.
He often did this to get a good feel of the backdrop and the things he was trying to paint. Recently it had been downtowns in New Jersey. He knew that if he actually felt the things he was painting, whoever looked at it would feel the intimacy and accuracy of it too. Which would make for a better piece.
Jack turned, saw her, then put both his hands in his head in embarrassment. Quickly realizing he was still in the middle of the road, he ran to the other side of the street where Chiara and her sister were walking on.
“You weren’t supposed to see that.” he said to her as she ran into his arms. He whirled her around squeezing her. The embrace surprised him. Powerfully loving.
“I knew you did some weird stuff but that was kinda cool seeing what you actually do.” She paused, “When you think nobodies looking.” Smiling bright at him.
Jack shushed her “You can’t tell anyone, or they’ll know the secret behind my paintings.”
“Sure Jack.” Chiara laughed.
Jack then turned to her sister, who he was also good friends with. He hugged her tight. And then he put one arm on each of them. “I missed you two.”
“Missed you too Jack.” Chiara and Alice said.
“Hold on, I left my stuff across the street on the bench. Come, come-” They ran across the street failing to really check for cars… but they made it. For the most part the Sunday night traffic had dwindled to a few pass throughs from people off of the night shift.
Jack showed them the bottle of wine he got, knowing they were italian he hoped they’d appreciate his selection.
They just talked for a while there on the bench, catching up on old times. Chiara got into it about the bar she bartended at and some of the details of why it closed.
“No—it was bad management — the boss was a prick — and his friend you know— Hank — yeah he left the business before the owner dug it into the grave.”
“Really? I didn’t think it would get to that point.”
“Yeah I saw Hank working at the gas station the other day. He looked good but I kept driving when I noticed it was him in the booth.
“Wow, that’s crazy. I’m sorry to hear things went like that.”
“Yeah, it is what it is I guess.”
It was around 8:45 when they finally left downtown. It was pitch black; with only the street lights lighting their way. Chiara and Alice lived in a split level home on the outside of town on St Paul Street. It was only about a ten minute walk to get there. The Sunday flow of people made it a quiet walk over to her place so her and her sister could grab the smokes that they forgot.
After they picked up their smokes they walked over to Mindowaskin Park. A pretty little park with a nice pond going right through the middle of it. Alice suggested it so they could have a peaceful spot to drink, smoke and just catch up.
Jack didn’t realize it too much but whenever he was with Chiara he just had a smile on his face. As they walked and talked his smile got bigger. The conversation flowed like the robust Raritan river nearby them. Although it had been around a year since he last saw her they just picked up right where they left off.
One of the times they met up it was by accident. He went to a concert with a girl who was friends with her and she just happened to be there. Another time they ran into each other at one of Westfield’s annual parades. Each time, although she was with her boyfriend each time they shared these moments with each other. None of it though, made him have a sense that anything could potentially happen one day. It was all just good vibes and good times with her. Nothing escalating past that.
The final time they met up was actually at a party that her dad hosted. She invited him to it because…
He met her parents that night. Her aunts, uncles and a few of her cousins. Also he met a lot of her family friends. The basement of her home and that held all of her dads band parties, was packed. Mostly people her dad’s age. Jack, being 27, didn’t feel out of place though. He always felt a little more comfortable around older people.
Before the show began, he remembered, there were drinks flowing like Niagara Falls. He watched her dad take a few shots with him and his old friends as he went over to the platter of Italian hors d’oeuvres. The hors d’oeuvres could have been dinner in itself but her family always laid out a four course meal for their parties. Something Jack wasn’t accustomed to.
Nothing seemed to go wrong that night as every conversation seemed to go smooth without any bumps or hiccups. He even got some health advice from someone who turned vegan. Veganism always interested Jack, but he never seemed to be able to fully get out of his bad eating habits. Ever since he was a kid he struggled with food; ups and downs constantly.
It was this party that one of Chiara’s family members went up to him wondering who he was.
“So who the hell are you?” She smiled. She was sitting on their built in bar in the basement. She was comfortable and someone who loved to watch a party from a distance. Her career as an office assistant allowed her to master this trait; having to watch in silence all the chaos that erupted at her office on 39th street in Manhattan.
“My name’s Jack. How are you?” Extending his hand. She took it holding her bright smile. “And what’s your name?”
“Martina. You look young.” She added quickly.
“Do I now? I thought I was starting to get an older -look at this point.”
“You do, but I see through the lines, you must be here because of my niece.”
Jack red faced just enough for her to notice. “Yeah she invited me. Said her dad was playing with his band. She knows I’m all about the music scene.”
She mumbled-’That’s not all you’re about.’ Jack didn’t hear it. “My brother and his band are fantastic. Been playing since he was a kid! You like it so far?”
“Of course- he’s amazing. The flow they have is nice. I can tell they’ve been together for awhile.”
“Seems you know a little bit about music?”
“I mean ,not a ton, but my dad was in a band and played the guitar too.” Jack said.
“Was he now?” She responded with glee sipping her white wine in curiosity. “And do you play too?”
“No, …unfortunately. I’m just a painter.”
“A painter huh?”
“Yeah.” he responded not knowing if she had meant it as with a sort of ‘I don’t approve’ or something he heard less often.
Jack didn’t have any intentions of hitting it off with her family but he felt really comfortable around everyone. He seemed to connect with everyone and everyone seemed to connect well with him. He brought back some of his old bartending tricks when someone asked ‘who knows how to make some cocktails?’ That impressed Chiara’s family even more. Chiara eyed him from the couch, his boyfriend with his arm wrapped around her.
Jack refused to think that one day he might have a chance with this girl. And how would he though, she was dating someone and that wasn’t something Jack ever messed with. Besides, they looked pretty happy. They connected on a lot of levels and every time she saw him they always ended up laughing about something odd. In those moments, he did have fleeting thoughts about a potential between the two of them but nothing solid whatsoever.
Martina continued, realizing her niece was a singer and Jack was a painter. ‘This could be something’ she thought.
“So I think you and my niece would be good together.” She said quickly downing the glass of wine. “You want another?”
“Ummm…I’m almost there, but not-.”
“-I’ll be back.” she said sharply, interrupting him, clenching his right hand and winking at him.
Jack was a little stunned. He hadn’t thought of that. When her aunt said that to him though he questioned what he thought about them that. ‘Was she happy with him?’ He wasn’t exactly sure. He never saw her without a smile on. She was a master at portraying happiness and never bringing anyone down. Chiara was always the life of the party and never let anyone down but the questioned remained:. ‘Was she happy with him?.’
“I’m sorry.” Martina said, bursting back in and breaking Jack’s train of thought. “Where were we now?” she paused, and laughing a little said. “Keep that between you and me. No need to tell my niece alright?”
Her legs were across his lap on the picnic bench. They had made it to the park not too far from Chiara’s house.
At this point the 1.5 liter bottle was already over halfway gone, and the conversation had swayed from just catching up to deep inner-life stories. Alice was across from the two of them on the other side of the bench on the edge of the picnic table. The grass in the small winding park was well cut and the park was well lit at night. During the day it was a park full of happy playful children and worrisome parents praying their kid won’t get hurt. The noises of playful children were replaced by the summer crickets and the late night hangouts
Chiara had been talking for a while now. The topic of the discussion was intense and emotional for her. Something that had built up with each glass of the Merlot that was taken down quicker than usual. Jack and Alice listened to her intently and with a sympathetic ear .
She was spilling the last year of her life out as quick as she downed the glasses. That made it a little hard to follow at times. Nothing was able to stop the rush of her thoughts and emotions. They knew she had been waiting to let this out for a while so they didn’t dare say a word.
At one point Jack thought she was going to cry. He put his arm around her sensing the emotion about to boil over.
She held the tears back though.
“I don’t know anymore what to do? I don’t even know why I’m going to school?” All Jack and Alice could do now was to try and listen the best they could. “I keep trying but nothing seems to be working. I just want to get what I’m worth. You know?”
Chiara then went into more of the details about what happened with the job. She loved it and missed it but knew it was falling apart for a while. She couldn’t get herself to leave because of her devotion and passion for the work she was doing as a bartender. Everything finally culminated in a missed shift that ultimately got her fired.
“I was pretty upset but knew it was the right thing and the thing that I needed.”
It didn’t help either having a boyfriend whom she wasn’t sure she loved anymore. She desperately wanted it to work out. After all they’d shared and said to one another over the last few years. Prayed it would pan out but she lost that feeling too.
Another job came up, that was perfect on paper, but just went all wrong. “Now school,” Chiara began. “But “Why school? I’m just I don’t know.” She swung the rest of the wine back that was in her glass. Her legs still sprawled across Jack’s lap. Jack, forgetting they were there, rested one hand on her knee. He tenderly tightened his grip around it at every heart itching statement she made.
“I don’t know what to do.” she continued slowly coming back up taking her legs off of Jack’s lap. “I really don’t guys.” She laughed and poured more wine. It began to hit her pretty hard. Chiara had lost a lot of weight. She stopped eating her usual amount one day. Alice didn’t notice in the beginning but after a month she noticed the change in her sister. It alarmed her.
She had lost the weight over the stress and anxiety from losing two jobs, college and wrestling with the thought of breaking up with her boyfriend. On top of that she was coming into her own as a woman.
Seeing the photos of all of these glammed-up woman made her hide though. They were so beautiful-she always thought. I never can be like them. Chiara was a pretty woman though. To see her beauty though was impossible right now when she couldn’t even see or understand her chaotic life.
They stood in silence for a while. Alice and Jack looked at one another and gave each other a sort of ‘what do we say’ kind of look. A couple briskly walked by holding hands. Chiara and her sister didn’t see them. They were in a sisterly moment- Alice, knowing the only thing she could do was be there through her pain.
Jack saw the young couple though. He envied them. So sweet, so innocent, so full of love for each other. He watched them swing their hands once or twice from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but want a similar thing
He wanted that badly but quelled it every time those thoughts arose. He always chose his work over a relationship. When he began talking to a woman they usually never lasted over a month. He was trying to change his mindset about a relationship though. Jack believed that he had to get out of his current situation before getting into a relationship. He was still in the underground, a struggling place, in the little world he was trying to carve his name into.
How could a woman be with a man like him in such conditions. He thought it wouldn’t be fair to that woman- no matter how strong he was mentally- he just didn’t know what might happen to him. Everyday was uncertain for him and he resented the fact that he might have to disappear and leave her for a while if something happened.
Jack never really connected the two, because of their relationship with each other and him; his parents. His father lived an ‘Exotic’ life and often disappeared for weeks when he was younger. He always returned with a gift from him and his brother. As far as his mother, those disappearance were greeted with a swift powerful slap from his mother.
He didn’t want any women to have to wait in uncertainty whether he was dead or alive. He wanted to treat a woman like the queen they were, but he knew that he couldn’t give them what he wanted to give them. He was a broke man living a dangerous life. A life that could either bring him out of his situation or kill him before anyone knew he even existed.
He didn’t know if what he could give them would be good enough. The rejection of a try was less harder than even trying. So he rarely did shoot his shot. But he wanted to shoot his shot with Chiara. ‘I don’t think tonight is that night though.’ He thought as he prepared to leave.
His phone vibrated: A message. From one of his associates. He knew who it was but refused to take his attention off of this moment.
Jack could always see through the smoke and mirrors and he knew Chiara’s sister did too, in that moment. He had spent a little time with Alice at a few parties and got to get to know her. She had a boyfriend too and seemed a lot happier. She was of the adventurous type and always seemed keen on her surroundings.
“The hiking trip was my favorite this year.” Alice said, her turn to talk having finally arrived.
“What made you want to go on a hiking trip upstate?” Jack inquired.
“Well it was my boyfriend’s idea but I had been hinting at some adventure for awhile.
Jack loved hearing the story and got a little excited, hoping that he could go on a hiking trip like that one day. Alice explained how they slept under the stars for three nights. She told them how the two of them ate beans, hotdogs and trail-mix.
“I don’t know if I’m recovered yet from that diet.” She laughed. “We’re planning another trip here soon though.”
The conversation then shifted back to Chiara after that. She now went into detail about her uneventful summer. She wasn’t happy as she mentioned, “2020 is just a wash for me. With everything going on in the world and my life, I can’t see it getting much better.” Jack and Alice put their heads down in pity. Chiara went for another glass on wine.
Chiara was hurt. The words she spoke clearly told a story but you got another story when you saw her. She didn’t look that different but she had changed. She wasn’t the same woman she was the last time Jack had seen her. Something had changed, but Jack didn’t pay attention to the rest of her as his attention was on her eyes. Her encapsulating, green eyes.
“So when do classes start?” Jack asked, trying to diminish the tense uncertain aroma in the air.
“This week.” the two sisters answered in unison. They smiled at each other.
“Ohh man- the first week’s always tough.”
“Yeah it’s going to be a weird semester.” Alice added referring to all of the rules implemented by colleges trying to keep everyone safe and happy during this unprecedented school year.
Jack moved his left arm down to her hanging right arm as they still both sat close beside each other on the bench. Alice continued to talk about the semester, and as she did, he moved his left arm down to her hanging right arm. He followed it to grasp her hand. They didn’t look at each other but she clenched it like the last hand she was ever going to touch. Jack did too.
The embrace from a woman was something Jack hadn’t felt in a long time. It was something that he sometimes he refused to even consider. Now that it was happening though he knew that it was something he needed more of. Even though the two of them being together was not in the near future he realized he needed to find a woman in that moment. A woman that understood the life he was living and accepted the man that he was.
When she acknowledged the move, Jack clenched his eyes shut for a brief enough moment that Alice broke from her conversation, delivering a silent smile to herself, realizing something was going on between the two of them.
Jack kept his head down not allowing him to see the moment her and her sister shared with one another.
“More wine? We’re almost done.” Chiara finally said, ending the short moment. She released her hand from Jack’s and grabbed his empty glass.
“Oh..”Jack began moving his hands up in surrender. “ItThat could be dangerous for me if I have anymore tonight.”
“Oh come on.” Alice added. “We’re almost there.”
“I have to catch a train tonight.”
“And?” Chiara asked him,, looking dead into his eyes asked him.
“I can’t, I’m sorry, Enjoy it.” Jack was nervous. “Finish the rest, ..It’s good wine.” He added trying to liven up the conversation.
“Oh fine, but it’s late, you can always stay at my place Jack.”
He smiled at her, “Not tonight. Another night.”
Jack’s train was taking him back to Jersey City, where he conducted his business. The trains usually were a little ‘erratic’ past 10. He had an hour and a half ride too. Any late trains could mean he might have to catch a cab. He knew he might get stranded but he knew he couldn’t stay with her either.
“Alright.” she said solemnly
“Will you walk me to the station?”
“Yeah, sure.” She smiled. Alice added a watchful eye to the two, not fully understanding what was going on with them.
The Jersey air began to get cold. And the wind picked up again like the afternoon while they walked. The end of August meant the beginning of a new season. Jack’s favorite; Fall. He was excited not only about the change of season, but as he walked, holding her hand, he couldn’t help but think about a change in their friendship. It was the first time his thoughts drifted toward something else with her. He was happy but confused.
He went into the night expecting a casual hangout, which he got, but the feeling of something that could be here with her wouldn’t escape him. Every step towards the station made him more anxious about what awaited him in Jersey City. He had another reunion that wasn’t going to be as free flowing. Jack was glad he drank a lot of wine so he could take his mind off of what awaited him.
She pounced on him like a tiger. Her chin resting on his shoulder.
“Well then.” He held her and didn’t let go.
“You still can stay at my place.” She added. Still gripping him tightly.
“Not tonight.” hearing the whistle of the train almost to the station.
“Alright.” Putting her head down.
He put her down. Her grip reluctantly released.
“I like you.” He finally said after a long pause in silence.
“I like you too Jack.” She responded right away.
They hugged again. He wanted to back away and kiss her firmly but something held him back. He wanted to pull her away and look at her but he didn’t because he knew he wouldn’t be able to control himself if he saw her in that moment. The wine, mixing with his feelings toward her now would make him want to stay. And he couldn’t do that right now.
He knew this feeling and he knew he had to control it in this moment. ‘This isn’t the time.’ He said again to himself again, still holding her in his arms.
He wanted to hold her longer but he had to go. The train finally stopping making sure of that.
“Let’s do this again, okay?”
“Yeah, for sure.” Chiara said, still embracing him
“All aboard!” the conductor said eyeing the two of them.
Jack released her and headed to the door not looking back.
Her sister in the background allowing them both to have this some more time deciding to head off of the platform.
He kissed her atop of her head, holding the kiss for a little longer than was necessary, then he backed away, not looking back at her.
The train door was even with the platform at the Westfield station so he easily walked in and found a spot close to the door. Train number 5678: Newark Bound.
His phone vibrated on cue; another message: ‘2pm ETA.’ He took his seat, he finally looked at the other 10 messages he’d received throughout the day.
The grimy city air was back in his nostrils as the train came back to the city. The lights of the building appeared as he was about to pull into Journal square. It had only been twelve hours since he’d left but it felt like days. It was back to business.
He had an apartment in Jersey City just so he could crash if business got out of hand and to hold meetings and parties.. His hours of business usually started at midnight but Mondays he usually started later or didn’t even come in at all.
Jack transferred trains at 1:05 in Newark and then at 1:23 am he pulled up to Journal square after. His meeting started at two. So he dwelled in that half hour as he slowly got off the train and waltzed up the escalator onto the piazza.
He usually was running from meeting to meeting so having another half hour to kill was weird for him. Jack really didn’t know what to do but he relished the time, hoping to find something.
Jack walked out of the station attempting to rid chiara from his mind. It was tough though; the smell of her perfume, the look of her eyes and the feeling of her embrace was too much for him to just be able to switch his mind off of her. She had made an impact on him. It would be some time before he could get this night off of his mind.
He walked by the closed Starbucks towards the empty parking garage where he was to meet the two men that he hadn’t seen in 6 years. His mind raced as he thought of what they wanted. He had no idea.
Seeing the dead city streets was something he had come to love. But as he continued to walk he suddenly stopped at a corner. He pulled out his phone and typed.
‘I had fun tonight with you. I hope we can do this again soon.’ He sent the message, flipped his phone shut, and headed under the gate of the parking garage.
He walked for a while into the empty-bland concrete parking lot. He headed up the vast ramp to the second floor. He continued up the sparsely lit structure. He walked for about ten minutes. The garage was bigger than he thought,
There it was. He saw a car in the middle of the third floor. It was the only one. A dark all black sedan with slightly chromed wheels. It was under the radar though. He continued to walk towards it.
The 2 flashes came almost immediately, signalling him. He stopped eyeing the unmarked car. He lit a cigarette and then proceeded towards it. He wondered if Roy was still on stand-by outside of the parking garage if things went awry.
As he continued the chilling walk towards the car his mind drifted from this undesirable reunion. He wanted to see Chiara, but he couldn’t come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t going to see her for a really long time. His work was about to get a lot more busy if everything went as planned tonight.
Jack stopped, nervously pulling out a cigarette. He lit it quickly and inhaled the Marlboro Red deeply, proceeding to walk towards the car in the seemingly endless garage. His adrenaline began pumping faster each step he took towards the interaction he was about to have with one of the bosses of Jersey.
He hoped he’d get to see Chiara again but Jack didn’t even know if he’d get to see tomorrow. He finished the cigarette just as he came up to the side of the vehicle.
The window from the back seat of sedan came down a foot. A voice came out saying, “Get in Jack.”
Jack entered the car reluctantly.
by- Tom Kubrak
What did you think about the story? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or in an email! Please let me know what you didn’t and didn’t like. I am looking to make more edits before I publish my short stories in a book hopefully sometime in 2021.
Thanks for reading! It means the world.