“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight path was lost.” Dante
Driving, Anton glanced at his wife, Renee.
“Sure. Thinking. Why?”
“We’re not there yet. But you were slowing. You know, checking in.”
“It’s nothing… Well, it’s, you know.” She nodded. “Damn road is so dark. And, to be honest, I’m dreading this ‘reunion,’ tonight.”
“Why? These are your friends. High school, right?” He nodded. “You’ve known them longer than you’ve known me.”
“Don’t have much in common anymore. Different priorities. Life choices. Talk about diverging paths… I’d rather know you. Why don’t we get dinner and blow off this soiree?”
Renee went for it. “You know, Ant, I made some choices too.”
“Of course, Ree, I do know that. Everyone does. It’s a balance. And it isn’t just work. It’s… it’s…” His voice failed.
That morning, Anton awakened from fitful sleep in a cold sweat. His nightmare path into a dark forest ended abruptly. Pursued by what, he didn’t know, but he had no options. He woke up trying to breathe. He lay panicked and lost for an hour. The unshakable dread followed him all day.
Renee touched his arm. “You know, don’t you, those dreams are only in your head.”
His pent up emotions exploded in laughter. She joined with him.
“Yeah! I heard that once or twice.” He patted her knee. “Thanks…”
“This started on your birthday.” He nodded. “Why put so much weight on a random date? I don’t get it. What do you think would change if we told the twins they were born on different days, months apart?”
Eyes on the road, he nodded at the familiar refrain. Easier said than done.
Shifting gears, Anton said, “I hope it isn’t one of Chloe’s strolls down memory lane. High school memories… stupid baseball nostalgia. After twenty years? Spare me.”
He hadn’t played since college but still held an athlete’s look.
“I like hearing your adventures.”
“Or worse, she’ll have us all dancing naked around a bonfire, chanting to the goddess…” Anton braked for a coyote in the road. “Why does she live out in the boonies?”
She punched his arm playfully. “I’ll dance with you anywhere, Ant.”
He smiled. “I like that song…” He beat a rhythm on the steering wheel. “Wait for her to tell you she’s ‘spiritual,’ but not ‘religious.’”
Scanning the road, Anton went silent. The dashboard glowed off their faces. A mass of flying insects swirled through his high beams.
“Don’t want to miss the infamous ‘hidden driveway.’ Reception out here sucks.” He balked. “No!”
A sign read, ‘Detour Ahead.’
Renee pointed. “That’s our turn, right.”
He sighed and coasted into the turn. The turn signal ticked like a metronome. Renee refreshed her makeup in her visor mirror.
Anton drove up the rutted drive and pulled into the yard of the white, clapboard farmhouse. Cars were randomly parked under the trees. A dog barked.
Ever the earth mother, Chloe stood in silhouette, wearing a flowing, long dress. She waved and ran to greet them. She admired Renee’s dress. They all embraced.
“Hi! Come in! Thanks for coming. Been too long.”
They entered to see Anton’s school friends at the dining table. Iona and Chloe gushed over Renee’s hair.
Dewey stood to greet them. “Hey man… Long time…”
“Yeah, years. Riding herd on my staff doesn’t leave much free time.”
Anton glanced around the room. Every window featured a macramé dream catcher.
“You really made this place your own, Chlo.” She smiled as she spun around. He pointed at a dream catcher. “You grow these out here? When’s the harvest?”
She smiled at his jest. “I needed to balance the energy after my folks passed.”
Renee said, “They’re beautiful. Where do you buy them?”
Chloe took one down from a window. She held it out to Renee. “Here. For you.”
Renee shook her head. “No. I couldn’t.”
“Take it… please. Anton’s right. They grow on trees.”
Renee accepted and they all smiled.
Anton asked, “Where’s Brian?”
“On his way. Running late, as usual.”
She pointed to open chairs and addressed the group.
“Not to be formal… but welcome to the first annual, I hope…” She stifled a laugh. “The first Mid-Life Creases gathering…”
Anton looked at Renee and shrugged. Dewey made a face and laughed.
Iona said, “We should wait for Brian…”
“He’ll catch up.” Chloe caught herself. “Wait. You don’t have drinks.”
She rushed to the side table, poured two glasses of Chardonnay, and passed them to Anton and Renee. She flipped her salt and pepper braid to her other shoulder and raised her glass to the table.
“Here’s to… what I said.”
A few touched glasses. Everyone drank.
Dewey said, “Whew! Glad that’s over…”
Anton said, “Chloe… Mid… what?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” He shook his head. “I thought… well, it’s simple. We each turn forty this year. We’re mid-way on our journeys.”
Anton slumped back.
Renee touched his arm. “Your dream…” He shut his eyes and nodded.
Chloe said, “Mid-life creases. Get it?”
He nodded. “Right, got it.”
Dewey whispered, “You’re not alone. She forgot to tell any of us.”
Iona murmured into her wine, “The universe didn’t get the memo.”
Chloe continued, “You’re halfway through life. In the mirror you see the creases in your face. What do you have to show for them? What now?”
Anton said, “You mean, like a New Year’s resolution?”
Chloe said, “More like a plan. For the rest of your life. What will you do? Stay the course? What changes will you make?”
Anton looked at Renee. “Do? I don’t know. Tend to my business. No plan, really.”
“Anton. Everyone has a plan…”
“…Til they get punched in the mouth!” Dewey added.
Chloe continued. “…You are the most ‘by the book’ guy I’ve ever met.”
“More ice cream! More stores! More!” Dewey laughed.
Everyone agreed. Anton led the most predictable life of any at the table.
Anton’s life was story-book traditional. Graduating college in four years, he married Renee and took over his dad’s ice cream shop. He and Renee had two kids. His business expanded and Anton added frozen yogurt to the menu.
“I never gambled, but…”
Dewey said, “Maybe not now. But before graduation, you were the Wildman. Always mixing it up. The baseball jock who never played by the rules. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff you got us into.”
Anton rolled his eyes. “Here we go. Must we?”
“Who got drunk at the prom?”
“Barfing on the principal’s desk… while he sat there. Made it to the yearbook.”
“Anton always had his safety net. Knew he’d get bailed out, regardless.”
“Not true. You don’t know...”
“So, baseball, man. Why didn’t you go for it? You were the star.”
“A fledgling doesn’t use a net. Nor does one in a cage.”
“If anyone could’ve gone pro…”
Anton put his hands on the table. “Help me out, Chlo. Is this the ‘Anton Show’? Or the ‘Dewey Show’?”
Dewey said, “Golden boy didn’t even get detention…”
Chloe placed another wine bottle on the table.
She said, “Detention was the social center of the whole school. Anton missed out.” Everyone laughed. “As for me, I spent my youth like a worker ant. Now it’s time to fly.”
Dewey laughed. “Gonna learn to fiddle, Grasshopper?”
“Something artistic would be nice. Not ready to retire. Maybe work in clay. Buy a kiln.”
Renee said, “I’d like some of that action. I used to love doing ceramics.”
Chloe smiled and nodded.
Iona said, “You have a comment for everyone, Dewey. What’s your story?”
Dewey poured more wine and gestured.
“You know me. I’m everyone’s favorite dilettante. Your go-to professional nomad. More jobs than the rest of you combined. You name it, I’ve done it…”
From the doorway, Brian asked, “Brain surgeon?”
“You’re here!” Chloe ran to him with a glass of wine. They hugged and kissed like old friends. With his unbuttoned, plaid shirt and his hair pulled into a stylish ponytail, Brian looked comfortable anywhere.
Dewey yelled, “Hey, Bro! You named the one thing I haven’t done. You seen me on YouTube? That gig affords me a cottage on the beach. Hope to milk that gig forever.”
Chloe pointed to the open chair. Brian high-fived Anton as he walked by. He took Renee’s hand and squeezed it. Everyone smiled.
Chloe said, “Chill Brian. We’re sharing how we’ll spend our lives on the down slope. You know, now we turned forty.”
He said, “I always heard life begins at forty.”
Iona raised her glass and said, “My turn. But not sure what to say. I have no creases. No wrinkles. No worries.”
Dewey whispered, “What a fox…”
She laughed. “And no plan. Life happens. Married a rocker. Split after he dipped his quill in too many ink pots. But by then, he was rich. So I’m set. Time passes, or not. Either way, it’s okay.”
Chloe whispered, “How do you do it? You used to be Miss Anxiety.”
“You’re thinking of someone else.”
“Right, like when you thought you got pregnant slow-dancing with some dude at a party. And drank a bottle of vinegar to fix it?”
Dewey said, “Wait… what? I remember. His name was Jake.”
Renee looked at Anton who nodded.
Chloe said, “I was there, girl. He was a good dancer, but not that good.”
Dewey said, “Everyone caught an episode of that soap.”
Iona shrugged and sipped.
Chloe looked at Brian.
He smiled. “Cue the spotlight…” He took a sip. “Driving here tonight, I thought, it’s never too late to grasp what could have been.”
Anton leaned in, “Nice words, Brian. But, my ‘going pro’ has left the building. Feel like I struck out before I ever got to bat.”
Brian nodded, “I don’t mean you could still go pro, or whatever. Drop the cap and cleats. What’s that ball player’s essence? Best camera in the world doesn’t make the photographer.”
Chloe said, “Looks like you’ve done it all. What slipped your grasp?”
Brian paused. “Family, I guess. Never lit in one place long enough…”
Iona said, “I don’t get it. I never did anything I didn’t want. I’m me. Who else would I be?”
Chloe said, “You need to eat more. No future in starving yourself.”
Iona said, “I eat…”
“Where do you put it? You don’t cast a shadow.”
Dewey said, “I’m from the Charles Bukowski school. ‘Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.’”
Brian nodded. “I never went crazy. Some said my entering a war zone armed only with a camera, was off the rails. I followed my muse. Never wanted to be a fireman or astronaut.”
Dewey interjected, “Movies? Directing?”
Brian weighed that. “I want to capture the story in one perfect image. That you can look at over and again. Hours of images, seen once, seems redundant.”
Dewey said, “I could head up a bank. Or, insurance… pure profit. Or work an assembly line. No limits.”
Both bored and defiant, Iona looked around. “Really, I’ve never not done what I wanted.”
Eyes turned to Anton. “How did you hold the course, Brian? Not get deflected? I wanted to play ball. Kind of hit a dead end on that front.”
Renee shifted in her chair.
“It wasn’t easy. Guess I never considered alternatives. Stayed focused… Don’t get me wrong. From outside, my life looks like a pinball game. I covered a war, but I shot weddings and fashion too. Long stretches of down time. Don’t get me started on catalogue shoots…”
Anton sighed. “Can’t map out the rest of my life tonight. Need to sort out all the moving parts.” Renee took his hand. “Good question though, Chloe. Sight the stars and adjust course… Can’t drift. Something this side of crazy.”
Dewey said, “Go for it, man!”
The wine infused conversation unraveled from there. Warm farewells were shared and Anton and Renee made their exit. Others would talk until dawn.
“How you feeling? Okay to drive?”
“Sure babe. One glass of wine.” He pulled her close as they approached the car. “As for your first question, glad we came. Got some perspective.”
Anton opened Renee’s door. He walked around to the driver’s side.
She looked at him. “What’s Iota’s deal?”
He smiled at Renee’s question. “I’ve known Iona a long time. One thing she never changes… The world is her mirror. Wherever Iona looks, she sees only herself.”
Renee said, “That rings true…”
“You and the twins ground me. And I love that. I’m not going to sail solo around the world. Or explore the Amazon.”
“I’ll stick with ordering online, thank you. You know they deliver?”
“Before we met, I had a path. I knew my goals… Then my father offered me his path and I grabbed it without considering my wants. Security overrode everything.”
She held his gaze. “You regret that?”
“Actually no. Security is worth a lot. We built something I never could have done alone. But we’ve arrived to where we can play too.”
“Wait. Play with our future? And the kids?”
“I mean it doesn’t have to be all work. You don’t like ‘play’? How about stretch. Reach. Build.”
“Don’t want to lose sight of what we’re working for. Working toward. Brian helped, tonight.”
“Start small. Something local. Maybe sponsor a Little League team. On the q.t. of course. No publicity. But help kids to get off their duffs, into sunshine and fresh air.”
Renee brightened. “I’ve been saying you work too hard. This could be great. And you know the game.”
“That I do. Maybe coach. The twins are about old enough. They could play, or even coach. See what happens.”
She embraced him.
He pulled back and held her shoulders. “We could name the team ‘The Twins’!”
“Uhm, you sure you want to tie…?”
“Well… but… I don’t know. Just brain storming… Sell ice cream in the stands. Donate cones to both teams. A good will gesture. Build community…”
“Tell you what, let’s talk on the way.”
Anton idled down the drive to the highway and cruised on home.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
I loved this story because it felt like the conversations 40-ish people have. Nice job in capturing "The Big Chill" atmosphere and dialogue. Cheers!
Thanks again, Delbert. Keeping all the characters alive and distinct was a challenge. I hadn't thought of the 'Big Chill.' Glad it worked for you.
Good story; the ending fit just right. "They could play, or even coach". That sentence sounds like the kids could coach. Is that what you meant? If not, just switch the sentence around. I noticed a lot of the names are two-syllable. I heard it recommended to vary the length of names to help keep the characters straight in the readers mind. Good job. Keep writing.