Struggles, Arkansas

Forgive the Point of View lapses and all the other failings, please. I wrote this without concerns about whether it was “good writing.” It’s just my little whimsical story based on Facebook friends’ willingness to have their names (but not their characters, necessarily) included in a story.

Jim Hawarden pushed against the heavy metal front door of his rented bungalow, using brute force to unbind the upper left corner from the twisted casing.   When the door opened, cool air flooded through the wood-framed exterior screen door. He stood for a full five minutes, gazing up and down the empty street as the sun crept above the roof of the abandoned house across from him.

“Maybe I should shave before breakfast,” he said aloud to himself as he rubbed the thick stubble on his face with his right hand. “Nah. No point. I’d just have to shave again after I get back home.”

He stepped out the door, yanked hard on the knob to close it, locked the double dead bolt, and walked at a brisk pace down the flagstone path toward the sidewalk. His destination was his favorite breakfast joint; the only one in town.

He reached the place five minutes later. Scissors-style security grilles covered the windows, almost hiding the dive’s name, painted on a plate-glass window.

“Dammit, not open.”

He reached through the grille and tapped on the window. “Hey, Calypso, first customer’s here. Open up!”

As if the tap on the window flipped a switch, the darkness behind the windows evaporated in a flood of fluorescent light. Calypso Kneeblood, his salt and sand hair wet with sweat from the heat of the kitchen, unlocked and opened the door.

“Sign says I open at six. That’s five minutes from now. Cool your heels while I finish my breakfast, will ya?”

“Sure, no problem,” Jim said, as he slipped past Calypso and into the building. Calypso stepped outside, unlocked the security grilles, and slid them to the side, revealing the painted letters on the window: Fourth Estate Tavern. Beneath, the words “Breakfast, Barbecue, Bookmaking, and Booze” were painted in smaller letters.

When Calypso went back in, Jim was sitting at the bar sipping a Coke.

Calypso sneered at him. “Don’t wait for me. Help yourself to a drink from the cooler while I make breakfast.”

“Sounds like a plan. Lemme see a menu.”

“You’ll get what I cook for you. That’s the menu.”

“I see this place hasn’t improved since yesterday.”

“Well, I haven’t, but breakfast has changed.”

“So, what’s on for today?”

“Pork congee. Mild, for the tender-stomached riff-raff who dine here. You can jazz it up with sambal oeleke if you want.”

“I want.”

“I smoked brisket for lunch, if you plan on coming back after breakfast. Assuming you ever leave. And I’m serving Struggles Brewing’s Desolation Stout with that. I am afraid it’s their last barrel. They’re shutting their doors.” Calypso looked at Jim, as if awaiting a response.

“Bad news, indeed, about Struggles Brewing. But you, sir, are a genius. May I assume you used mesquite wood imported from Texas to smoke the meat?”

“You may assume so but you would be incorrect. I did not import the wood; I liberated it from a BBQ joint outside of Lockhart, Texas. And, yes, I am a genius, but I would never say that.”

Tommy Mills, responsible for the third part of the quintets of Bs on the tavern’s windows, stumbled in two minutes later, looking like he needed some of the sleep he failed to get the night before. “Hey, Jim, I haven’t placed bets for you lately. You win the lottery or something?”

Jim, sitting at the bar with his back to the door, didn’t turn around. “Hey, Tommy. No, if I had, I would have invested some of my winnings in your racket. But I got nothing to invest. Sorry, pal.”

Tommy walked up to the stool next to Jim and looked down at Jim’s face and, “Hey, you and I ought to have a beard-growing contest, you know?”

Jim gave Tommy a sideways glance, then turned back to his Coke. “I’d win. I always do.”

Tommy ignored the response. “You got nothing to invest? But here you are spending money on Calypso’s crazy breakfasts! I don’t buy it.”

“Calypso is running a tab for me. He says my money’s no good in here. Isn’t that right, Calypso?”

Calypso responded from the kitchen. “Bullshit!”

“See, I told you.” Jim turned to Tommy, who had taken a seat at the bar on the stool next to Jim.

Joyce Laurie silently stepped through the door of the tavern. She stopped and scanned the room to see who was there, then slinked toward a far corner where she could view the door in darkness.

Jim heard her mumble to herself, “I know how this day is going to play out. A bunch of people are going to walk through that door, using this tavern as their stage, their opportunity to make their views of life known to their little parts of the world. I just know it. I don’t know how I know it, but I just do.”

Before Jim could process what he’d just heard, a rattling noise caused Jim and Tommy to turn toward the door of the tavern. It sounded to Jim like someone was trying to open the door without turning the knob.

Jim said, “Ah, it’s Julie. She hasn’t learned how to use a doorknob yet.”

Finally, the rattling stopped as Julie Nelson swung the door open, stepped inside, and slammed it behind her. “Who the fuck put the lock in that door? Damn thing doesn’t work worth a shit.”

Calypso called from the kitchen, “Julie, you break the door or the glass in it, you’re gonna buy a new one. What are you doing here at this hour, anyway? You normally don’t get up ‘til after eleven.”

Julie flipped her  head, flinging her blond hair like it was having a tantrum. She scowled at Calypso through a pair of dark sunglasses. Calypso, who was standing behind the service counter in the kitchen, glared back.

“Oh, joy, the barmaid is keeping track of my sleep cycles now. Shut up and serve me some coffee with a wine chaser or I’ll serve you a snifter of my most potent poison, Calypso. And you know I can do it, don’t you?” Julie sneered at Calypso and pulled a vial from the right cup of her bra and a pistol from the left, waving them in his direction.

“You are a beast, indeed,” Calypso said, his voice flat and his poker face in full form. “I think you’re experiencing a mid-life crisis. Didn’t you tell me yesterday you are a Russian spy?”

“For your information, Calypso, I most certainly AM a Russian spy. I was recruited because of my sharpshooter skills and my unmatched knowledge of untraceable poisons. And my incredible good looks.”

Tommy and Jim gave one another knowing glances.

“What’s that look supposed to mean, boys?” Julie glowered at Jim and Tommy.

“Oh, nothing, Julie. We were just acknowledging that you look incredible.” Jim laughed. He didn’t want to acknowledge it out loud, but she did look pretty damn good, he thought.

Joyce Laurie, still hidden in a dark corner, jotted a note on the pad in front of her. It read, “I see that Jim does find Julie attractive, though I can tell, too, that it’s the kind of attraction one has for a friend, not a lover. I think he’s married. I wonder where his wife is? I should know that. I know damn near everything. I’m recording this for posterity.”

Paula Miller slipped into the tavern during the interchange. “And what do you have to say about me, boys? Don’t think for a minute that I don’t know what you say when you think no one is around to hear you! In fact, as I tell my hair salon clients, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, nobody listens to the poor likes of you.’ Yep, that’s what I say.”

Tommy turned his head so he could see Paula, who had just taken a seat at a table near the door. “Paula, if you know what we say about you, why are you asking us what we say about you? Well, I’ll tell you. We talk about your past life. You know, that time in your life when you were having a torrid affair with Calypso.”

In unison, Paula and Calypso said in loud voices, “Bullshit!” just as Myra Rustin, a Brooklyner who moved to the Natural State a few years earlier opened the door to the tavern.

“What a pleasant way to greet a customer,” Myra said in a lilting voice. “It sounds to me like there’s some conflict going on here. I’d be happy to help you resolve it.”

Paula waved her hand, motioning Myra to take a seat at her table. “Don’t you know that ‘men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,’ my dear? Stand up, take those sunglasses off, and join me for breakfast.”

“Thanks,” Myra said, “but I just stopped in to see if anyone would like to accompany me this morning to the Unitarian Universalist Church for a dose of liberal theology. By the way, I am standing. I hate it when people make bad jokes about my diminutive stature.”

Julie held out her hand toward Myra as if she were sighting a pistol in the woman’s direction. “Don’t come in here talking about church at this hour, lady, or I’ll reveal your Russian connections before I put a bullet in your head.”

Myra, looking puzzled, asked no one in particular, “Who is this psycho bitch and why is she threatening to kill me? And, by the way, psycho bitch, I could have you arrested for making threats. All of your senselessly brutal attitudes would find themselves confined to a cell, unable to accomplish the bullying you so desperately want to inflict on the world around you.”

Before Julie could answer, a soft but commanding French-accented voice from just inside the open door silenced everyone in the room. “All of you here should be careful of what you say. I am a ruthless attorney. Well, maybe not ruthless. But I can say with some certainty that all of you have said things I could successfully use against you in court. And I just might unless I witness a change in your attitudes about this fragile experience we call life.”

Calypso, peering out at the slim, dark-haired woman who had just uttered those words, took a deep breath before saying, loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear, “Oh my god she’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful in my life. And her voice. And her hair. And I can actually see her intelligence! I am in love with her.”

Jim, Tommy, Paula, Julie, Joyce, and Myra all turned to look at Calypso. Anyone with even a cursory grasp of the language of facial expression could read the shock on their faces.

The French woman’s seductive smile bathed Calypso in an almost otherworldly light as she said, “I am flattered, monsieur, at your words. Perhaps, if we are to be in love, you should know my name. I am Elle Jauffret, visiting from a progressive state. May I know yours?”

“I am Calypso Kneeblood. You have unleashed in me a love I never knew resided in my heart. I am stunned at the purity of your beauty. It resides not just in your body, it permeates your soul. I cannot live without the joy your presence has created in me.”

Tommy emerged from his trance to say, “Calypso, I think you’ve lost your mind. And I’ll make book that you don’t have a chance with this lady. She is too young and good looking for a geezer like you. And she’s smart. Smarter than you are.”

“To the contrary, sir,” Elle said, her piercing eyes fixed on Tommy.  “Age is a temporal reality but an emotional construct that does not constrain or bind me. I am free to love and be loved regardless of age. My affections are driven more by intellect and inquisitiveness than by superficialities. I can tell that Calypso’s—Mr. Kneeblood’s—intellect, too, meshes quite well with mine. Frankly, I think all of us might find that, in spite of our differences, we’re all part of the same—how should I put this?—tribe.”

Jim nodded, as if approving of Elle’s speech. He turned to Tommy and whispered, “You are in the presence of greatness, Tommy. And, as luck would have it, you’re lucky to be in the presence of a woman, too, who has class the likes of which we rarely encounter in this town.”

Bob Seiler, who had popped in a side door during Myra’s rant toward Julie and taken a seat, stood up. He held a glass in his left hand and, with his right, tapped a spoon against it, resulting in a loud “ding!” that captured the attention of everyone in the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen, though I am by nature a cynic and I rarely find reason for optimism, I must say Elle’s words ring true to me. And, in fact, I must say the hope and sense of decency in her words gives me great joy. I believe the attitude she espouses here will, in short order, embrace the entire town of Struggles. If anyone here today cares to make note for the record, I predict a rebirth of hope and dignity for our little town.”

Myra, obviously moved by Bob’s words, spoke softly. “I do not know your name, sir, but I agree with you. And so let me offer my apologies to the woman I called a psycho bitch. What is your name, by the way?”

Bob and Julie spoke at once. “Bob.” “Julie.”

Silence fell over the room. All eyes remained on Elle.

Elle, her smile still lighting the room, slowly scanned the room, stopping at each face for a moment, as if etching in her memory each face in front of her.

“I know the names only of Calypso, Bob, and Julie. May I know the rest of you?”

One by one, Jim and Tommy and Joyce and Myra and Paula spoke their names.

“Well, Calypso, Bob, Julie, Jim, Tommy, Joyce, Myra, and Paula, I am delighted to have stopped in to meet you. The name of this place, Fourth Estate Tavern, intrigued me. After listening to you just a little, I think this is also what Ray Oldenburg called a ‘third place.’ This place is like another home for you, with all its foibles and its deep emotional comfort. And each of you are part of the Fourth Estate. You, together, have the capacity to rebuild your dreams, right here in Struggles, Arkansas.”

Elle, again, scanned the room, her radiant smile lighting the space. Calypso’s faint sobs pierced the silence. All eyes turned to him.

Elle responded to Calypso’s evident distress. “Calypso, you are not in love with me, you are in love with the affection you feel in this room. You are in love with the connections you make here, with these people, with the banter you hear and the words you exchange with them. When I opened the door, you saw something in me that is already within each of you, the ability to make connections with people who share a sense of purpose, a common sense of decency. Though I must now go, I will remain with you, each of you, at every meal. I will be in your hearts with each laugh and through every tear.”

Julie tried to hide the tears streaming down her cheeks. Myra, after dabbing her own eyes, pulled a tissue from her purse and handed it to Julie. Joyce took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes with the back of her palm. Paula looked up at the ceiling in a futile attempt to keep her tears from falling. Tommy looked alarmed, as if he were afraid the moisture in his eyes would get out of  hand and splash down his cheeks. Jim sat stone-faced, trying to think of the last oatmeal stout he drank, but succumbing, finally, to Elle’s words. Bob swallowed hard and, tilting his head slightly, mouthed the words “curmudgeons aren’t supposed to cry,” as a river of tears ran down his cheeks.

Calypso cleared his throat. “I think something happened here today that none of us could have predicted.”

Bob corrected him. “I predicted it.”

“I mean before Elle came in. It’s odd how someone from out of town could appear here and see us more clearly than we could see ourselves. Or maybe it’s not odd at all. Maybe we just need to have a different perspective from time to time in order to know what we can be to one another. Thank you, Elle—“

Calypso stopped in mid-sentence as he looked toward the door. Everyone else’s heads turned toward the door. She was gone. Elle had left without another word.

Jim stood up from the bar stool where he had been sitting. “Was she actually here? Or was she simply a fantasy we’ve all needed for a very long time?”

Heads nodded, signaling agreement with Jim’s suggestion. Only Calypso responded.

“If she was a fantasy, she was my fantasy. After hearing her speak, I feel a connection to her. And to each of you.”

When Calypso closed up for the evening fifteen hours later, he sighed as he and Jim walked through the door.

“What do you make of today, Jim? Was she real?”

“I can’t say, Calypso. I can’t say. Whether she was real or not, her message most certainly was. She was truth, wrapped in a beautiful blanket.”

The next morning, when Calypso arrived at the Fourth Estate Tavern, he found an envelope tucked inside the door frame. He unfolded it to reveal a bouquet of lavender, tied together with a string. Inside was a hand-written note that read, “Never give up the struggle, my friend. Never give up the struggle.” Beneath, it was signed with the letter “E,” under which was drawn a hand-made heart symbol.

“Not a fantasy. But surely a wonderful dream,” Calypso said aloud.