A Cold Day in Hal’s

 

Editorial Note:  This is my short story fiction from my Imaginative Writing class at NWACC.  Enjoy!

Flight 2664 from San Diego to Hartford was filling toward capacity.   The line of passengers moved slowly down the aisle as they tried to find their seats and room for their carry-on luggage in the overhead compartments.  The low whine of the four jet engines idling served as harmony for the two toddlers who were already beginning to voice their displeasure at being confined in this space for the next six hours, and the grumblings of the adjacent passengers who would have to listen to the young children for the same duration.

Craig Murphy sat in his first class accommodations, oblivious to the plight of his fellow travelers in coach.  Soon after pre-boarding, he ordered a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, put in his ear buds, slipped on his sleep mask, and let the combination of booze and The Beatles carry him across the universe.  By the time the other voyagers were allowed to board, he was already dreaming of tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

“Craig?  Craig Murphy?” The combination of being directly addressed and the nasally voice which spoke his name cut into his REM sleep like a chainsaw to butter.  Craig came crashing back to Earth and flipped up the visor to see who had crushed his reverie.

“I thought that was you!” John Platotski bellowed at him from his seat across the aisle.  John was a portly, balding, fifty-something accountant who worked on Craig’s team in San Diego.  He was middle-management at Marcuson and Teeler, and he’ll never amount to anything more than that, Craig often thought to himself during those unfortunate times they had to work together.

“Oh, hey, John.  How’s it going?” he asked cordially.

“Not bad.  Looking forward to going home to see the wife and kids.”

“Didn’t you just go home for the weekend last weekend?”  The question was rhetorical.  Craig new damn well the lazy bastard went home last weekend because he went home every weekend.  We could have been done with this project a week earlier if your fat ass would have been more committed to it, he thought.

“Yeah, but you know how it is when you’re home on the weekend only.  You rush around to get all the things you could have done during the week finished, and you end up not getting any quality time to spend with the wife and kids.  When was the last time you got the chance to go see your wife?”

“Four months ago, when the project started,” Craig said with an undertone of pride in his voice.

“Four months!?!” John shouted a little too loudly for airplane conversation, drawing a few glances identical to those the children in coach were receiving, “Geez, Craig, is she not pissed?  Do you not miss her?”

“Well, of course I do,” he said defensively, “but, Sarah understands.  This is what I have to do for us to have the nicer things in life, like this…”  Craig reached into his jacket pocket and pulled a light blue box from inside.  He lifted the lid, emblazoned with the darker blue logo Tiffany & Co., to reveal a 15 carat diamond tennis bracelet.  He handed it to the older man for his appraisal.  When none was forthcoming, Craig prodded, “Well…”

“Oh, it’s nice, Craig.”  John may have thought the jewelry was nice, but it was clear from the mix of disdain and pity in his voice that he didn’t think the sentiment was.  “Well, I just wanted to thank you for directing our project so expeditiously, and getting us out of there two months early.  I really do appreciate it, and my family does, too.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, taking back the little blue package from John, who pulled out a pair of his own ear buds and placed them in his ears, effectively ending their conversation.  Nice?, Craig thought, NICE?  This thing cost more than you make in a year, you putz!  It’s much more than nice, it’s extravagant! He put the box back in his coat pocket and returned to his pre-conversation activities. Some people just don’t get it!

Craig turned on to Worcester Drive, and couldn’t help but be amazed at how the landscape had changed over the last four months along his street.  When he left for San Diego, the foliage had been a lush emerald accented with purple, yellow, and red in the flower beds and hanging potted plants adorning the front yards and porches of his neighborhood.  Now, the area was covered with a plain white sheet of snow.  It looked as if all life had been sucked from the block.  The only sign to the contrary was the charcoal smoke emanating from the chimneys of the homes lining each side of the street.

He pulled his pewter-colored Lexus in to the driveway and mashed the button on his garage door opener.  He guided the car in to the bay until he tapped the lime green tennis ball with the windshield.  That was an idea that Sarah had picked up from one of the many home improvement shows she watched.  You pull the car forward until the ball taps the front glass which she placed at the perfect distance to let you know that the rear end of the car is clear of the garage door.   Craig turned the key in the ignition to the off position, pressed the button controlling the garage door again, and just sat for a moment, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular.

The trip back from Bradley International Airport in Hartford had been an arduous one.  The Connecticut Department of Transportation was working as hard as they could but, the roads were still disastrous.  Navigation on the way home was nearly suicidal as the snow and ice mounted upon the blacktop.  The weather had apparently cost Craig his chance to surprise Sarah, too.  The bay next to his in the two car garage was empty.  He figured she had already gone to work at the new book store that just opened in one of the newly renovated areas of downtown Danbury.  She told him she was getting a part-time job there just to keep her busy because she was going crazy being alone all the time in a city where she knew no one.  Plus, she wasn’t opposed to having a little extra shopping money.

Craig finally took a moment to let his surroundings come in to focus and when he did, he wished he hadn’t.  Along the wall which would normally be home to the lawnmower, weed trimmer, and some skiing equipment, stood identical cardboard boxes, stacked neatly, and all bearing the same label written in capital script letters with a red marker, “CRAIG’S SHIT.”

The world around him began to swim, and he felt ill.  What’s going on here? Craig got out of the car and walked to the door.  He punched in his security code and went inside to a house that he almost didn’t recognize.  Sarah had been busy.  She had virtually redecorated the whole lower level of the house and what he could see of the second.  The rooms were all painted in feminine colors, and the décor was equally as womanly.  She had even purchased new furniture that he would have never let through the front door.  The place was devoid of all traces of masculinity.  She had even taken down all the photos in which he was pictured, including their wedding photo.  Why would she do this? Haven’t I given her everything she ever wanted and more? Craig didn’t understand one thing since he came home, but he knew one thing for sure.  I need a drink.

Craig parallel parked his car, walked up the sidewalk to the place he remembered, and pulled the door open.  The outside of the building looked nothing like he recalled.  The red brick façade had been painted a light crème color, and the sign that hung above and to the right of the door that simply read “BAR” in red block letters had disappeared.  There were now sheik, dark red canopies, trimmed in gold piping adorning each of the two plate glass windows and another one over the door.  The window to Craig’s right declared in two foot tall vinyl script letters that this was Hal’s Bar.

The first thing that Craig noticed about the place when he passed through the doorway was that the temperature inside was not that much warmer than the blizzard he had just left outside.  The twinkling of a bell announced his arrival to those few people indoors.  The bartender looked up from whatever menial task he was doing to pass the time and shouted to his newest patron.

“I’m sorry, sir, but the heater’s broken!”

“You still serving?” Craig said as he walked up to the bar to alleviate the need to shout.

“If you can stand the cold, pull up a stool,” the older man waved a hairy arm at the line of empty seating.

Craig found an empty stool on the opposite end of the bar from two elderly gentlemen who were bundled up in their coats and scarves.  They were Hal’s only other patrons on this day.

“Bernie and Harry are the only two of my regulars stupid enough to sit through this cold.  No offense.  So, what’ll it be?  Something to warm you up?” the bartender offered.

“I’ll take a scotch and keep ‘em coming,” Craig ordered.

“I know that look.  Wife or girlfriend?”

“Wife,” Craig said sullenly, holding up his left hand to show the barkeep his wedding band.

“She got herself another man?”

Craig pondered this question for a moment.  It had not even struck him that Sarah might have someone else.  He had been too preoccupied that she was removing him from her life to contemplate the fact that he might already be replaced.  “I really have no idea,” he said honestly.  He explained the sight he had come home to and its foreign nature to him.

“That’s a lot of change in… how long did you say you’ve been on the road?” Hal asked.

“Four months.”

“You haven’t been home in four months!” Hal exclaimed incredulously, “Are you in the military, or something?”

“No, nothing like that.  I was in charge of a project for my firm out in San Diego, but this is the way it has to be right now.  She knows that.  We talked about it when I was leaving,” Craig said defending his actions again for the second time in the past few hours.

“Why does it have to be like that?”

“Pardon?”

“You said it has to be like that.  Why does it have to be like that?”

“Well, it’s my job.  It pays really well and affords us the lifestyle that we want to have.  Of course, it’s not a perfect situation having to be away like that, but we have to make sacrifices now for our future,” Craig explained.

“Listen,” the bartender paused to get his guests name.

“Craig.”

“Craig, I’m Hal,” he extended a hand across the bar and Craig shook it, “Now listen, Craig, I’m not going to get all up in your business here, but what I am going to is offer you some hard earned advice that took me three wives and countless girlfriends to attain,” Hal took Craig’s silence as affirmation that he was willing to listen and continued, “I used to be just like you.  I was a real go-getter, but I could make my relationships work worth a shit.  And I would give these women everything I could imagine; cars, diamonds, fur coats, you name it I bought it, but none of it seemed to make a damn bit of difference.  So, after my third divorce, I said screw it.  I cashed out and bought me a little fishing boat down in Cabo; started working as a fishing guide and was dating this young Mexican girl.  I was literally having the time of my life.”

“So, one day she and I are out on the boat.  I didn’t have any customers that day, so she and I are out cruising around.  And she said something to me that day that has changed my life to this day.  She said, ‘Diamonds have no voice; they cannot speak.  Neither do pearls, nor rubies, nor emeralds, nor gold and silver.  No matter how expensive they are, they still will not whisper a single word.  But, actions can speak, Hal; louder than 10,000 echoes from a mountain top.  I know you could buy me anything I asked of you, but that doesn’t tell me you love me.  What tells me that you love me is the time you spend with me.  You choose to spend the one commodity you can never buy more of with me.  That’s how I know.’

“So, you’re saying Sarah doesn’t care how much I spend on her, she just wanted time with me?” Craig asked.

“I’m saying that’s the way Adriana felt.  If you want to apply that to your situation, I don’t think it would hurt.  I know it changed me.”

“Are you and that girl still together?”

“Adriana? Unfortunately, no.  She passed away not too long after that.  She had cancer.  Never even told me until the end.  She didn’t want me to worry,” Hal said as he dabbed his eyes with a bar rag, “but, I got me a new gal, Marie, and I try everyday to remember what that 19-year-old girl told me on that boat that day.  I make sure give of myself and not of my wallet.”

Craig sat and pondered Hal’s words for a while as Hal attended to a new customer who was going to brave the chilly atmosphere of his establishment.  Had I lost Sarah because I was too busy working for my marriage instead of working on my marriage.  And what if she does have someone else?  Is it already too late?

Hal and Craig continued their conversation though out the afternoon, talking about life in general.  They watched the Patriots game on the TV with Bernie and Harry, and Craig continued to imbibe.  Hal made a phone call and hung up the phone after about two minutes of heated exchange with the receiver.  “Damn heater company! Said they don’t know if they are going to be able to get in here to fix the unit today or not.  I’d be worried about all the business I was losing if you weren’t here, Craig.  I think you’ve put away enough to keep me profitable for the day.”

“Well, fill it up again,” Craig said as he polished off another round.

“I just hope I don’t run out of Dewar’s, or you might run off and leave me.  So, have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

“I don’t know, Hal.  What do you think I should do?”

“I can’t help you on this one, chief.  You are going to have to make your own decisions.  That’s the only way you are going to learn who you are, is to live your life, not the life of some broken-down, old bartender.”

“But, I do.  Every day I make strategic decisions that ultimately determine if a company sinks or swims,” Craig protested.

The bartender was already shaking his head, “No, that’s not it.  You’re not getting it.  That’s not personal choices about your life,” he jabbed a boney finger in to the patrons chest to accentuate his point, “Sure, if you make enough bad business decisions for those companies, eventually they are going to fire your ass, but that’s not the kind of life decisions I’m talking about.  How about this; do you read much?”

“Yeah, I read all the time,” Craig responded a little too emphatically.

“Sure you do.  Let me guess… Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Tim Robbins’ self-help books?”  Hal counted them each off on his fingers as he listed them.  After he finished he looked to Craig for confirmation.  All the younger man could do was shrug his shoulders and nod slowly.

“None of those count.  What you need to do is run down to that new bookstore that just opened and go get you a book with some action to it. How about this? Have you read John Grisham’s A Time to Kill?”

“No, but I saw the movie; had Samuel L. Jackson in it, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.  You remember what happened in it?”?

“Vaguely, his daughter was raped by some rednecks, and he killed them in retaliation.  He gets arrested for their murders.”

“Yeah, that’s the kind of books I’m talking about; books that you read and they make you wonder what you’d do in that same situation.  Like that, what would you do in Sam Jackson’s character’s situation?”

“I don’t know.  I guess the same thing.  I couldn’t sit around and wait for the legal system to deal with someone who raped my little girl.  I’d put a bullet between in the middle of each one’s forehead,” Craig said with conviction.

“Well, that’s the kind of thinking you need to do to determine how you want to handle this.  Think about how Craig Murphy wants to handle this situation.”

“Well, right now Craig Murphy wants to go buy a gun and go kill himself for how he screwed this situation up,” he said emphatically, referring to himself in third person.

“Now, come on, chief.  That’s just the alcohol talking.  You have to think this thing through.  What if…” Hal attempted to run through scenarios that Craig might face when he went home, half in an effort to prepare the man for what he was about endure and half to sober him up beforehand.

Craig drove past his house and parked the Lexus in front of the Lewis’s place, three doors down from his own.  Sarah was home now.  Her light blue BMW sport-utility vehicle was parked in the driveway, along with a black Jeep Wrangler 4×4.  He knew all of her friends’ cars and, unless someone had made a recent purchase, this was not one of them.  It must belong to her lover, he thought.  Craig reached into the glove compartment and brought forth a Colt 45 Automatic.  The steel of the barrel was cold as he held the weapon in his hands, but not nearly as frigid as blood that coursed through his veins.  He downed the remaining contents of the fifth of Jack Daniels that occupied the passenger seat, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and tossed the empty bottle into the floorboard.  His resolve was now set; the bitch and her beau were going to pay gravely for their sins.  He stowed the gun in the interior pocket of his pea coat and exited the car without a sound.

Slowly, Craig crept up to his house.  He could smell the smoky aroma of wood being burned in their fireplace.  Glancing up at the chimney, his suspicions were confirmed as smoke billowed from inside the stone edifice.  Preferring not to arouse the suspicions of his nosy neighbors who might think him a burglar, he peered through the downstairs windows quickly, but could find no one on the bottom level.  He plucked his key from his pants pocket and silently opened the front door.

As he slipped through the doorway, Craig extracted the Colt from its hold and brandished it about like he had seen the police do in countless movies and television shows.  He slid down the hallway with his back to the wall and popped-up around corners to surprise his prey.  But, his stealth and TV cop prowess were unnecessary, the bottom floor was uninhabited.  All that Craig discovered were the garments of the adulterers strewn about the floor surrounding the hearth.  The blaze contained within still burned brightly.  They had not been gone from this place long, and wherever they were, they were nude.

Pausing for a moment to devise the best method of surveying the upstairs, he stared into the golden-red flames.  He listened to the crackle of the fire and the sound of his own labored breath.  The whisky carried his thoughts from the present to a conversation he had with Sarah just last week.  She said she was reading a book by the firelight and wishing he could be there to hold her.  Had she been with him?  Were the two of them down here snickering at every lie she told him, while they lay unclothed, embracing each other?  The fire reflected in Craig’s eyes ignited an inferno of hatred, and his heart pumped crimson ice.

The sounds of fire and breath were consumed by the screams of erotic pleasure emanating from Craig and Sarah’s bedroom.  Awakened from his reverie, a newly-enraged Craig sprung back into action.  He made directly for the bedroom.  To hell with all his planning and contriving, he would just go in there and let the bullets do all the work.  He reached the end of the hallway and paused at the door to their room.  He placed his left hand on the doorknob and tightened his grip on the Colt, placing his index finger on the trigger.  He counted silently in his head, ‘1… 2…’  Then, he heard something that stopped him dead in his tracks.

Sarah laughed.

But, Sarah didn’t laugh after sex.  She hardly laughed at all anymore.  Craig tried to think back to the last time he remembered hearing that sweetly, girlish giggle, but it escaped him.  He was sure it hadn’t happened in this house before now.  He thought back to that Christmas a few years back when they didn’t have money for real presents.  So, as his gift he took her ice skating at Oak Park.  She was like a little girl again, twirling and jumping across the frozen pond.  Then, she would hold his hand and guide him along with his meager skills on ice.  She was so happy that day.  They had nothing.  Two young kids just starting out, but she, no they were happy.  He looked at the hand she had held, that now held the cold steel of destruction.  ‘What am I doing?’ he thought to himself.  He placed the gun back in his coat as tears extinguished the fire in his eyes and Sarah’s laugh warmed his soul.  He opened the bedroom door.

The lovers jumped and screamed as the door swung wide.  There was a flash of flesh as the two tried to take cover and cover themselves at the same time.  Both stopped when recognition of who the intruder was had been cognitively processed; for they both knew him.

“Craig!” they shouted in unison and instantly looked at each other in bewilderment, wondering how each new the interloper.

“Hal? But…” Craig dazedly stammered and then was overcome by understanding, “Hal, is this your Marie?”

“Yes, you drunk bastard!  Why did you follow me over here? I should kick your drunk ass!” Hal demanded, not catching on to the state of affairs quite as quickly as Craig.

“I didn’t follow anyone!” Craig lashed out back at the old bartender, “This is my home, and that’s my wife… Sarah Marie Murphy.”

Hal turned pale as recognition of the situation struck him.  “I… I had no idea, Craig.  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know she was…” he stopped and wide-eyed panic gripped him.  “Oh my God, Marie, he’s got a gun!”

Sarah, who had been ashamed to silence, found her voice,” What do you mean he’s got a gun?”

“When we were at the bar tonight, he said he was going to go get his gun and shoot you and the prick you were sleeping with!”  He turned back to the younger man and began to grovel, “Craig, I’m so sorry.  It’s all her fault.  If she would have told me, I never would have done it.  Please, don’t kill me.”

“Calm down, Hal.  We’re all adults here.  Let’s talk this thing through,” Craig reasoned, “We’ve all made mistakes here.  I neglected my wife and didn’t give here the love she deserved; not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know how.  She, after putting up with years of emotional abuse, turned to the arms of another man for comfort.  That other man made her happy, made her laugh.  But, when faced with a perilous situation to protect her from, he begs for his own skin.  Yes, we each have sinned, but may God have mercy on our souls.”

Craig reached into the pocket once again and retrieved the Colt.  He aimed the weapon at his intended target and pulled the trigger.  The cold steel in Craig’s hands flashed hot and a blast of fire and sound ripped through winter’s calm night.

=   =   =   =   =   =   =

“So, who would have you killed?” Hal probed Craig for answer.

“In that scenario, probably just you for making up such an infernal story,” the bar patron joked.

“No seriously, Craig. What would you have done?” the barkeep prodded, “You walk in and find me banging your wife, but I’ve made her happy, something she hasn’t been in a while.  You feel remorse for running your wife into the arms of another man.  She is still cheating on you no matter the circumstances.  I am a whiny baby, who won’t stand up for the woman I love.”

“Seriously?” Craig pondered the question for a while as he took a few sips of his whiskey, which didn’t seem to be wetting his whistle like it was before.  If anything he felt more parched after finishing it.  “Well, if I’m being totally honest, I think I’d just have plugged myself.”

“Really?” Hal sounded doubtful.

“Yeah, I started the whole thing by being a bad husband.  You two just kind of got caught up in the aftermath.  I think my sins are the most prominent.”

“Hmm,” Hal pondered the answer, “if you say so. Hey, by the way, is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Craig confirmed, as he unbuttoned a couple of buttons and wiped sweat from his forehead, “and this whiskey is not doing a damn thing to soothe it. Just makes me thirstier.”

Just then the bell on the door clanged as a new customer walked in to the establishment.  She walked closer and the two gentleman and they each recognized her.

“Sarah?” Craig said quizzically at the same time as Hal said, “Marie?”

The three of them froze, with only their eyes moving about.  They each looked to one another and back and forth.  They took in their surroundings.  Everything was the same.  After scanning the room for a silent few minutes, Craig finally noticed a slight change with Hal’s new neon signage hanging in the plate glass window. It had been altered.  When Craig took a closer look at the glowing red script, he knew he was wrong about how he would have handled Hal’s scenario.  Hal’s favorite new sign now read “Hell’s Bar.”

© 2010 Richard Howk

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About Richard Howk

Fiction author with my first novel, Pariah, available December 2nd.
This entry was posted in Academic Papers, Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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