Jack’s shoulders slumped everywhere he went, head bowed as if in reverent prayer or concentrated reflection. His friends always said he lived an interesting life, but that’s because they didn’t feel what he felt. He wondered what it would be like to live a different life; he had an image of a soft breeze rippling waves among endless fields of wildflowers. Where the breeze started and where the breeze ended, no one could know. He wished his life was like that sometimes.
But whatever gods or fate ruled this world, they were cruel and creative. He used to be religious, he went to church every week and tried to live his life by a code, if not godly morals. What did he get in return? Only pain. Dark reflections, he thought. His mind often wandered to this familiar place, especially when he drank.
Jack sat on a stool with his elbows leaning on a heavy wooden bar. He was already three whiskeys deep. It was 5:15. Moods like this took him every so often. The current bar he sat in was unfamiliar, he stumbled upon it by happenstance. It was small, but cozy with only six tables, not counting the ten or so stools at the bar. There was a jukebox next to the door and a pool table at the opposite end of the room. Could have fit several more tables instead of the pool table, Jack thought.
The bar was dark and there was a haze of smoke coming from a lit cigar belonging to an old man sitting at the corner table closest to the jukebox. The only other patrons were a father and his son playing pool. The crack of the stick striking the cue made Jack start from his musing. The bar reminded him of something from a movie he had seen once, but he could not recall the name or the plot, only the feeling.
After work, he told his wife that he was stopping for a bite to eat because he missed lunch. He hated lying to her, but he hated seeing her hurt even more. She was kind to him, and understood when the darkness overtook him, but he could tell it weighed on her to see him like this. Lying was easier. He planned to stay until he could sustain a smile and pretend to mean it. Grace deserved that much.
His father came home in dark moods when he was young. Some slight or another wounding his pride and making him feel small. It was best to make yourself scarce when the storm approached. His dad was an angry drunk; well, angrier than he was when was sober at least. The man didn’t need excuses to get red in the face. Jack’s mother tried to stand between the kids and his raging father but she was a slight woman and her clinging hands were pried with ease. That left running. Jack and his brother Robert would go separate ways when they left the house, Robert would stay out all night with friends or their cousin Tim who was twenty-five and lived within walking distance. Jack would always go to Eva’s house.
Eva was the pastor’s daughter and Jack’s best friend. Pastor John and his wife were the kindest people Jack knew. When he realized Jack was going to keep coming around, pastor John invited him into the study and they would talk about life and God and why people do the things they do that hurt other people. Eva’s mother set up a bed in that study and had it made up anytime Jack appeared at their door.
Once there was a storm. The thunder rattled and the lightning flashed in lock-step with Jack’s father’s rage. Jack had been told at school by another boy that Thor was the god of thunder and when he raged so did the storm. The boy pointed to a comic as his proof. He told pastor John so, sitting by the fire in the study trying to get warm after running faster than he ever had through a downpour.
“Thor ain’t real, Jack,” Pastor John said. “That’s just stories. There’s only one God, the God of the Bible.”
Jack wasn’t convinced. Eva brought him hot cocoa and read to him from the book of Exodus. Jack wasn’t sure he saw a difference between the God of plagues and the god of thunder. Pastor John just nodded his head in obvious pride. That was the night that Jack decided to be better than gods and men. He would never bring his anger home to his family when he had one; never be awful to the people he loved. It was a noble promise, one he tried to keep all his life.
Jack’s mother died that night, by her own hand. A sacrifice, in a way, because his father’s will was finally broken. Robert left the house the following year, working a job in a coal mine across the state lines. Jack never spoke to him again. He knew why Robert left, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow. There was something in his father’s face he recognized in his own when he looked in the mirror. A bond they shared despite everything else. Jack’s father never lifted a hand again after that, and Jack could count on one hand the words that passed between them until he died many years later. And of course, there was Eva.
Jack realized he was staring at the boy playing pool with his father and turned back to his drink. He heard the boy shout and looked back around. The boy’s father congratulated him and reracked the pool balls. The old man in the corner puffed his cigar and raised a glass in salute. Jack nodded to the father who smiled back.
The bartender cleaned glasses in the corner, waiting to be needed by one of the patrons. He saw that Jack’s drink was near empty and approached.
“Another one?” he said.
The bartender knocked twice on the wood and walked away. He returned moments later and replaced the empty glass with the full.
Jack held the glass in a hand and took a small sip. He tried to savor it, the flavor, the burning. But he felt nothing. The door opened and Jack recoiled from the sudden light. He was blinded for a moment as he readjusted. Footsteps approached and stopped beside him. A familiar scent sent his mind reaching for something—a memory, maybe, perhaps just a memory of a feeling. Clarity returned and he saw Eva sitting on the stool beside him.
Jack’s throat tightened. His heart began to race and he felt goosebumps on his neck. He recognized the voice, even after ten years he instantly knew it was her. Eva. He looked at her. She had not changed. Her blonde hair cascaded down her shoulders in thick curls. Her hazel eyes, bright as they ever were, pierced straight down to his soul. She saw him; she always did. He felt a wave of emotions he could not identify, as if every feeling he ever felt hit him at once, conspiring to overwhelm him. He lifted a hand to the bartender and asked for an old-fashioned.
“You want it after that one?” The bartender pointed to the fresh glass of whiskey.
“It’s for her.”
The bartender touched his ear and stepped closer. “What’s that?”
“It’s for…” Jack began to point to Eva then shook his head. “I’ll just take it now.”
The bartender shrugged and began mixing the drink.
Jack swallowed again, a vain attempt to clear the lump in his throat. He remembered the first time he saw Eva, really saw her. They were walking home in junior high. She stepped off the dirt road into a field of sunflowers. All of the flowers stood a head taller than her but he watched as they bowed to her beauty. She held them gently and spoke words he could not hear, and he never asked.
They were married just after high school. It seemed natural, and no one questioned it. A foregone conclusion. Pastor John performed the ceremony. Jack’s father didn’t show. All was as expected. After a short honeymoon to the coast, Eva went to college and Jack went to work. They had one child together, a daughter. Some saw Jack in their daughter’s features, some saw Eva, but Jack saw God. He knew nothing in this world or any other could compare.
The bartender placed a napkin under the old fashion and slid it to Jack. He thanked him.
“You’re not really here,” Jack said in a low voice. The boy playing pool asked his father if he could break. They jabbed each other’s skill for a moment before Jack heard another crack of the cue. He chuckled.
“Of course, you’re not here.” He took a long swig of the whiskey. “You’ve been gone ten years now.” Ten years since Eva asked him to put away the drink. Ten years since he stormed out through the front door and went walking. He’d been well into the early morning, wandering aimlessly, and when he returned a sheriff’s deputy met him on the porch, hat in hand. He knew before anything was spoken. Eva had gone looking for him. The car blew a tire and she ran off the road. They found the car wrapped around a tree. His daughter was inside it too.
Nothing was the same after that. He had chanced across pastor John once or twice when he visited his mother back home. They didn’t speak. Jack was sure pastor John saw him, but he did not blame him for avoiding conversation. Not after what happened. It wasn’t long before Jack never went back.
“Is that it, then?” Jack said. “My time come? Did God send you to usher me to judgment?”
“Not quite,” Eva said.
“Why are you here, Jack?”
He looked at the ceiling and sighed. “I ask myself that all the time,” he said. “Should’ve been me who got in the car that day, not you.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Eva motioned around the room. “Why are you here.” She lay a hand on his arm and his breath caught. The words died on his lips. Every hair on his body stood up. Looking at her was like diving into the deepest, darkest parts of the sea; the swirling, churning, mesmerizing sea. Jack held her gaze, ready to be lost with her. Ready to surrender.
“I just want it to end,” Jack whispered. “It’s too much.” He’d never said it out loud and now he added a new layer of shame to his burdened shoulders.
She didn’t respond. He began to weep, softly, wishing to shrink into the shadows of the bar and fade to nothing.
“Why are you here?” He said.
“For you,” she said. “And for all you’re willing to give up.”
Jack swirled the whiskey in his glass and watched the whirlpool.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said as the whiskey settled.
He ran a hand through his hair and downed the remaining contents of his glass. He put both hands on the bar, staring straight ahead. He caught his reflection in a mirror, a sad sight. A reflection that looked back at him, weariness plain.
“You don’t believe in ghosts,” Eva said, tapping her finger on her lip. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
Jack pushed away from the bar and clapped both hands to his face. He rubbed his head furiously.
“Please, just go.”
“You don’t believe in ghosts, but you’ve been haunted all your life.”
“Those are demons,” he said. “I believe in demons.”
“Oh Jack,” her voice was melodious, the last feeling of warmth before a crisp cool wind changed the feel of the day. He felt the darkness retreating to the recess of his mind, slowly; and so he clung to her warmth.
“I can’t do it anymore, Eva. This has to end.”
“She deserves better,” he said. He shivered. “Better than worrying about a damned soul like me.”
“And your son?”
He exhaled a long breath. His heart clenched at the sharp pain of her words cutting deep. His son.
“I can’t even look at him some days,” he said, almost inaudibly. “It’s not him, it’s me.”
“You would abandon him? Like your father did to you?”
“Enough!” Jacked said. He slammed his hands on the bar. He heard a gasp and saw the boy leaning close to his father, both having backed away from Jack and put the pull table between them. The old man in the corner furrowed his brow. The bartender approached.
“I uh…” the bartender hesitated. “I think you’ve had enough.”
Jack’s heart raced. He looked from one wide-eyed face to another. His chest heaved. He reached in his pocket and the bartender tensed. He threw a wadded twenty dollar bill on the bar and walked toward the door. The ghost of his ex-wife followed.
“You can’t run from this, Jack,” Eva said as they walked into the golden light of sunset. “That’s not the kind of man you are.”
“I’m a coward, Eva,” Jack said. “It’s exactly the kind of man I am.” He fished the keys out of his pocket and fumbled them as he tried to unlock the driver’s side door of his car.
“Living is never cowardly, Jack,” Eva said. “Neither is pain.”
Eva approached him and lay a hand on his shoulder again. These goddamn keys, Jack thought. The keys fell from his hand. He lay his head on the roof of the car.
“What am I supposed to do?” Jack said.
“Live,” Eva said.
“Did it have to end?” Jack said. He turned to confront Eva one more time.
“Yes,” she sad. Her tone shifted. Something akin to sorrow, but not sad.
“What did we do wrong?”
“That’s not how it works, Jack. Sometimes things just happen and there isn’t a deeper purpose or a hidden meaning. Things just…are.”
Jack leaned against the car. He kicked a small rock with his boot and watched it tumble across the asphalt. The oblong shape caused it to bounce this way and that, each time it struck it took a new direction.
“I don’t know how to carry on, then.”
“One day at a time,” Eva said. She turned and looked at the fading sun. “I have to go.” She turned to leave. Jack reached out for her but held back. She sensed him and looked over her shoulder. She was beautiful, Jack realized, arrayed in light. Shadows were cast across her face but instead of obscuring her features the shadows highlighted her radiant smile and ocean-deep eyes.
“Is she happy?” Jack said.
Eva laughed. “She’s everything we ever dreamed. And more. I wish you could see her.”
“I will,” Jack said, “some day.”
“But not today?”
“Not today,” Jack said.
“Well alright then,” Eva said and walked toward the sun. “I hope I don’t see you tomorrow, either,” she said without turning.
Jack followed her figure for as long as he could see her. The setting sun settled just in front of his vision and though he shielded his eyes, Eva was gone by the time he could see. He lingered for a few moments more and watched the last rays cast pink and purple hues across the heavens. When dusk settled comfortably, he picked up his keys and got into his car to head home. Grace would be waiting.
I’m an MFA student at Queens University. Twitter: @corykessler