So this is how it ends, Charlie was thinking glumly as he took the final steps down the courthouse corridor.  The ornate wooden door was wide open, and he crossed the threshold with the other sardines swimming his way. Charlie came out on the other side and he stood off to the side of the flagstone path leading to the sidewalk.  He was watching and waiting, trying to pull himself together, hoping for a sign that would lead him away from this place and toward a future that was at this moment incredibly unclear.

He rehashed the collection of his latest memories.  They were the final act of the final play, ending a seven-year run in the theater of his life.  It had been a wild one, but he was done. He’d be bowing out and hoping to regain his taste hereafter for the art of actually living.  The sun was out, and he could feel it almost warm in the cool autumn air. The rays fell on him with gentle brilliance, filling his eyes with dazzle.  He was grateful for the light and the air after the dim pomposity of the courtroom.

Charlie was proud of himself for remembering to shake his lawyer’s hand at the conclusion of the divorce hearing.  The lawyer had done the best he could by Charlie. The man was not to be faulted when the entire system of family law could be subverted by a single person’s ill will.  If that person’s lawyer felt the same, well, that sure made for a craziness of charades, involving elaborate rules and proceedings that had nothing to do with justice or fairness and everything to do with who got the money and the goods, with the lawyers grabbing what they could in the fallout.

What’s more dangerous than criminal law?  Family law, divorce lawyers will tell you.  Those crazy. divorcing people. They’re emotionally out of control, can’t be trusted to act with restraint!  Of course, their anger has nothing to do with being forced to strip themselves emotionally naked so that they could be pushed through a process that was a travesty of human interactions and reeked of indecency.  Yep, Lady Justice might be blind, but she turned more tricks than a two-dollar whore.

Enough of that.  Charlie’s lawyer had done his best.  It wasn’t his fault that the system was rigged.  It wasn’t his fault that his client didn’t go all out for blood.  As a result of such curious bloodlessness, there had been no spectacular courtroom showdown, no fiery verbal attacks.

Charlie lacked the emotional reserve to put up a fight.  Any fight. Instead, he surrendered most of what was left of his lottery money - now community property - to the vagaries of whim, and the judge had been all too satisfied to disburse them elsewhere.  

Charlie’s ex-wife (now!), Jennifer, had left the courtroom by another door with her own lawyer and new man in tow.  She would probably spend her night out on the town, celebrating. Charlie didn’t know how he felt. Jubilation was not the way any marriage ought to end.  Still, he supposed he wished her well in her future endeavors.

Hindsight was twenty/twenty.  The woman had been so hungry, he thought.  Such a perplexity that she had so much and could never have enough.  Her plastic surgery bills were astronomical, sufficient to fund the college education of a couple of generations of her doctor’s family.  What fascinated Charlie was how she contrived to make her internal neediness to be the perfect one in the room, become her outwardly presentation.  With enough natural aptitude and Charlie’s money, she had achieved her goal. She was divinely beautiful, although built on another man’s standards to make her so.  He had to wonder. Had she ever held her own standards or known her own worth?

And the man she was with now.  He was the same. Another hollow person, trying to pretend that he wasn’t empty inside.  William; Bill to his friends. Charlie ought to know. He had once considered himself one of Bill’s friends.  They had been golf buddies for the past four years. That would be a year longer than Charlie had been married to Jennifer.  Halcyon days of wine and roses were tarnished by the whiff of spoilage.

A part of him contemplated sardonically how long he had been cuckolded - how long he had believed the lie of a good life.  He had his wife. He had his friends. He could live the dream, forget the hustle and bustle of what most people made themselves do to get from one day to the next.  Charlie was one of the lucky ones, a man who had won millions in the California state lottery.

Charlie unclenched his hands.  He hadn’t realized he was holding them so tightly closed.  He could feel the crescents stinging where his fingernails had dug into the heels of his palms.

All that money, and everybody there to take a piece of it off him.  The bottom feeders had disguised themselves with great skill. Charlie had been too stupid to see through their acts until it was too late.  A wave of contempt washed over him, cold as ice. It took his breath away, made him shudder.

Charlie let that go, too.    He realized that he wasn’t going to come to any answers standing beside the courthouse, staring around like a lost waif.  He might as well start walking.

He’d gone seven or eight blocks when he found himself outside a municipal park.  Children were playing. Their parents were sitting on the bench or standing near their charges, arms crossed, patiently watching.  A peaceful, late afternoon pastime was unfolding. 

A boy of about seven or eight years jumped off the closest of the three swings and ran to his mother.  Charlie’s eyes, like a camera, caught the swing on its A frame. The swing kept swaying back and forth on its chains like a pendulum even after the boy had gone.  The sky was bright, clear, and true blue. The leaves from the nearby tree were turning color - red and orange and yellow taking over for the previous green. A few early deserters had already separated, drifted down to the ground, converted to a dried-out brown as they lay there like the dead.  The tree trunk under the crown of foliage was striped darker against a light ash.

The swing’s shadow was indigo on the rubber flooring under the play equipment.  The movement of the shadow mimicked the swing swaying in ever decreasing arcs until, at last, it gave one final undulation and stopped.  Charlie understood then that he, too, had halted. He resumed walking. His mind remained blank while he considered where his destination might be.

Another ten blocks.  Time was passing. The sun was coming down from the sky.  The air was deepening. The blue had become a darker shade of itself, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees further.

Renaldo’s Family Bakery.  The sign was white. The letters were in cursive script and red.  Rose red. The display windows were full of sweet treats, cookies, savory rolls, lusty loaves.  Charlie stopped. He inhaled automatically. The scents of flour and coffee, chocolate and aromatic spices were as familiar to him as drawing a breath had been.

He knew this place.  Charlie began to smile.  He opened the door and stepped inside.  The bells jingled as the door closed behind him.  The place was clean, and the space was full of light.  The vinyl floors were slightly faded, but its pattern was recognizable.  A scattering of tables - two of them occupied - filled much of the room. The display cases lined the wall next to the doorway into the kitchen.

A man stepped out.  He was big, taller than six feet, with a protruding belly under the white apron.  His hair was iron gray, and his moustache was a darker gray. The man’s eyes were a snappy brown.  “Yes? Can I help you?” the man said in his accented voice. Mild curiosity was behind the question.  Then his face changed - surprise taking over - and his voice changed, too. “Carlos! It’s been a long time!  How’ve you been?”

“I’m fine, Stefano.  Just fine,” Charlie said.  His smile kept forming, filling out his face, the gesture so deep it almost hurt.  The time had been a long, long stretch across a desert since he had felt like smiling a real smile.

Stefano came around the island of display cases.  He enveloped Charlie in a bear hug, holding him tight for a count of three.  Stefano ended the hug with several hard claps, like thumps to dislodge a morsel of food stuck in the windpipe, against Charlie’s back.

Stefano pulled back.  He looked at Charlie out of his shrewd brown eyes.  “I heard you were living the good life, kiddo. I heard you were moving with the big-time players.”

“I was,” Charlie admitted.

“And?  So why are you here if life is so good?”

“It wasn’t really so good.  I hated my life after the first couple of years.  And the money and everything that went with it is gone now.  All that’s left is the small house that I bought last. When I moved out from the big house I shared with my wife.  Ex-wife. And I’m glad I have that house, so I’ve got somewhere to live.”

“You want your old job back?”

Charlie started smiling.  (What was so funny? he asked himself.  Two real smiles in less than a couple of minutes - that had to be some kind of a record!)  “Yes,” he said baldly. “Do you need help?”

“Maybe not full time.  Part time to start?”

“Let’s talk.”

“Your cousin, Rosa, is coming.  She’s bringing her baby for grandpa to see.”

Almost as if in response to the words spoken, the bakery’s door opened.  The bells jingled again. “Carlos!” the woman cried when she recognized the man standing with her father.  “I didn’t expect to see you here!”

“You look great, Rosa.  Marriage and a family must agree with you.”

“I’m happy.  Richard is good to me, and we have our baby boy.  This is Anthony. Anthony, say hi to your mama’s cousin, Carlos,” the woman said.  Her pretty, oval face,with the dark hair pulled back from it in wings, was serene with contentment.  Her brown eyes - so like her father’s and like Carlos’, too, for that matter - beamed. She carried a little extra weight, and her clothes were faded jeans and a cotton, long-sleeved tee shirt that had seen better days, but none of that mattered in the reality of what she was, what she had.  She held out her son so that Charlie could see him better. As she did so, she added proudly, “He’s six months old.”

“He’s beautiful,” Charlie heard himself saying.  He realized that he meant what he said. His eyelashes were wet with tears.  

He had to marvel.  Seven years of building resentments, like a drunk justifying the bottles he picked up, all washed away in one short moment by the perfection of an infant with his mother.  Family and what it meant to Charlie. An ordinary job. An ordinary life - given up because ordinary wasn’t supposed to be good enough. Who had told him that? The people around him had.  He had listened to them and thought the same. He deserved - and with his lottery winnings - he’d be able to get so much more than ordinary. He had been so wrong.

Those seven years had ticked past, with his anger growing apace, his sense of being victimized by the futile emptiness of his dreams.  That time was lost. His fault - nobody else’s. He had wasted it by chasing after the illusions that money granted happiness like nothing else could, but maybe he would have enough left to his allotment to begin again, to be himself this round.  He’d come here to try. He was deeply, reverently grateful that he had the chance to play for another jackpot.

- The End -

December 20, 2019 05:52

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