Once Again

                       Once Again

 

 

“Mungo, its over,” said Brad Weston into the speaker phone.

The recently disposed executive for Dynatech peered up through the snowflakes at the ominous bruise in the darkening skyline over Times Square. He couldn’t shake the feeling he’d once seen the exact same sky, like some sort of celestial déjà vu.

Ridiculous.

But then again, maybe not. So far, New York had been embroiled in one strange winter. Just last week he’d seen thunder and lighting . . . in a snowstorm. Probably had something to do with Al Gore’s ingrown toenails.

Still, today made him think of . . . her.

And he didn’t care too much for the embedded tick in his memory. C’mon already. How long did it take to forget one transgression of apathy?

Weston rubbed his forehead.

One would think mashing one’s head into an iron bar might erase such misdemeanors, but not quite. He could still feel the bump growing from where he had smashed it ten minutes ago. The blasted thing had been jutting out of a garbage bin in a blind alley off forty ninth and seventh. Weston mentally himself made a note.

Forty ninth and seventh was not a good shortcut.

The schoolyard move had almost knocked him senseless and still produced some very intriguing patterns if he blinked hard. Served him right for not being able to think and walk at the same time. Nevertheless, he had to admit it was hard not vexing over the 401K he’d just flushed away in Las Vegas over the weekend. Coupled with this latest newsflash—his life was pretty much over, as he knew it.

Brad turned his face up again into the flurry of white sparkles.

As a kid, he loved falling snow tickling his eyeballs, but these fresh flakes only represented a looming blizzard destined to screw New York City into adult-like chaos.

“It ain’t that bad,” replied his best friend over the traffic noise.

Weston clicked off the speakerphone.  

Put the IPhone to his ear.

“Yeah, it is Mungo.”

Only direct family ever called John Mungo…John or Johnny.

The traffic eye at the corner switched to green.

Cars began rushing past as if the eye had been their official starter at Daytona, each driver more eager than the last to get somewhere, anywhere before the streets iced over and the entire Big Apple became Rockefeller’s Rink.  

A horn blared behind Weston. He jumped back up onto the curb and switched the phone to his other ear. His hands were freezing. Probably because he’d forgotten his gloves, but it was too late to go back to the office now.

Wait—he didn’t have an office anymore.

A flashing marque inside Macy’s store window caught Weston’s eye.

The alternating train of letters reminded everyone today the retail giant locked their doors at six pm on any last minute 2013 Christmas gift ideas.   

“Mungo—they’re kicking me out of my apartment.”

“What!” Mungo’s blatt rivaled the bleat of an angry cabbie.

“It came with the deal.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Mungo. “Man, even I can’t believe Dynatech could be so callous,” his friend mused in a suddenly . . . and surprisingly timid voice.  

“On Christmas Eve too. That really blows.”

Actually, Weston had received his walking papers two days ago. Those cowards at Dynatech had tweeted his termination notice Friday night, but he hadn’t seen the message until he woke up Saturday morning hung over to the max at the Wynn.  

Not using his IPhone had been lucky.

Well, it had been ever since that infamous night when he’d forgotten it last year up in his room and without any outside distractions, had walked away from the tables with just over one hundred large. Since that mercurial windfall, Weston’s sole commandment in gambling had held fast and true.

Once seated at any poker table—worldwide incommunicado ruled.   

However, Friday night hadn’t worked out the way he’d anticipated and the farewell tweet coupled with torching his billfold for fifty one thousand dollars, he hadn’t managed to stay sober long enough to inform anyone of the brazen ouster. And if his last reflection was any indication, he still needed some serious downtime. As if to validate this thought, a tattooed duo of gangbangers strutting down the sidewalk as if they owned it, parted to give his unshaven six foot three frame a wide berth.

“I’ll tell ya what Brad ole buddy, ole pal,” said Mungo.

Huge neon red numerals from one of the twenty or so outdoor digital clocks cut through the maelstrom like some reindeer’s nose, brightly communicating to anyone who cared there was only twenty one minutes until Macy’s put the kibosh to Christmas Eve purchases. Like some very warm gloves.

“Just point the Vet down ninety five in the direction of my crib. Bring TD. Relax and hang for the next couple of days. You two can eat anything you want—except for my Maine lobster I just got yesterday.”

Weston knew for a fact Mungo and his latest babe du jour, some exotic dancer turned weather girl for Channel Seven had left earlier in the day for the sunny beaches of Barbados to spend the holidays.  

What a difference a year made.

Last year Mungo had still been hot and heavy with an old high school flame and Weston had been enjoying his first Christmas with Kate who managed to endear herself even more into his heart by scolding him for leaving TD behind.   

“Nah,” said Weston. “I’m going hang at the Bellagio for . . .”

You’re not hanging at that roach trap,” snapped Mungo.

It was a far stretch to label a three hundred dollar a night suite a roach motel, but Weston was sure Mungo’s unsavory review still carried the sting of getting tossed from their lounge last year for being “overly friendly” with Bellagio’s female staff.

“Take the condo,” offered Mungo again.

“Get over to my place tonight. Use your key and get bunked in. I’ll douse the alarms from here. I got my Ipad with me. You can use the guest code I gave you last year to reset them. Look, this will all work out in the end. Besides, you being at the condo now save’s me a ton of headaches.”

“You forgot again, didn’t you,” laughed Brad, his first in three days.

“Yeah,” said Mungo. “Can’t seem to remember to cancel stuff when my big brain gets to focusing on . . . other things. Hell, last time I tried to cancel the mail by phone, I didn’t get my Field & Stream for a week, and that kid ate me out of house and home. Not only that, the little twerp fed the angelfish like fricking three times a day. The tank resembled Chernobyl when I got home.”

“Wasn’t he the kid of whatshername you went with?”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t remind me. Julie turned out to be the tree his apples didn’t fall very far from. Look, I mean it. You’re staying at the hacienda.” Weston didn’t answer because his vision had drifted to a filthy shabbily dressed street person pushing a cart.

“Well?”

“Yeah, OK. Understood,” he said, reluctantly.

The street bum brazenly approached a well dressed couple.

“Good, that’s settled,” said Mungo.

“Look, no problem. You’d do the same for me. And about the lobster, if you find them in the bottom freezer under two ribeyes from some mail order place, you have my permission to melt a pad of butter and enjoy them my friend. All I ask in reparations is to keep the aquarium a nuke free zone.”

Weston nodded into the cell.

“I’ll try.”

Out on the sidewalk, the man in a Hilfiger overcoat shoved a few bills into the derelict’s torn glove. It wasn’t so much a Good Samaritan deed as a diversion to escape as quickly as possible.

“By the way, how’s lovely Kate taking your—unemployment?”

The question sent a chill down Weston—and the shiver wasn’t the consequence of any tempest shelling the Square.

Well—she’s not taking anything right now.  

Upon getting back into town Sunday night, Brad dispensed with his usual protocol of informing Kate of his return, and instead headed straight for his usual haunt to continue his self deprecation. Two hours later, the sexy cocktail waitress he’d flirted with on several occasions had sized him up. Six foot three, baby blue eyes, a stern gym ethic, and vodka-smashed vulnerable. Now in retrospect, if only he’d accorded the wisdom of giving his spare house key to the ever unpredictable Kate a second thought.

Maybe even a third.

Any value would have saved his behind.

However, he hadn’t and sure enough, Kate had surprised him in bed this morning and by that, he meant them. He didn’t have the guts to go after her. Hell, it took him an hour just to work up the nerve just to open her,

I never want to see you again”

note crumpled around her, now his once again, spare key.

After hanging up, Brad walked the two blocks to his car. Well, at least it was still there.

Maybe a positive sign.

Weston plowed the snow from the Vet’s windshield with his right sleeve only to discover a ticket wedged under the wiper blade.

Then again, maybe not.

“Great.”

He clicked his key fob. The locks popped audibly. Unlocking the door and slipping into the cab, he threw what was left of the sodden parking ticket into the passenger well on top of the other three.

These all nice and legibly dry.

“Miss me girl?”

The cocker spaniel blinked her old eyes awake before recoiling from the fur blanket she’d been dozing on, using as much gusto as any eighty year old might muster. TD’s mottled tongue first washed Weston’s face and then his hand when he tried to stop her love fest.  

“Good girl.”

Brad scratched his best friend of eighteen years behind her ears, the simple act of tenderness making him feel somewhat warmer himself, but then the old dog surprised Brad by leaping over the console and slapping his nose with several slurps of a cold, wet tongue.

“Thanks kid—we both needed that.”

Brad soon lost himself in the art of negotiating the traffic snarl, actually managing the maddening rush in twelve minutes.

Not bad at all.

Once on the highway, it didn’t take long before the street signs, gaudy department store windows, angry cabbies, and neon displays gave way to rolling pasture lands now fast asleep under a blanket of fresh snow.

Brad let his mind drift.  

Ironically, one of the memories was of the last time he’d been out at Mungo’s. They’d been entertaining two ladies they had stumbled into while watching the ladies trying to shoot eight ball at Pete’s Pub, a high scale yupptoid establishment in the Square. After explaining the nuances of the cue ball, and its relationship to sinking the other fifteen balls, they all ended up back at the condo. While Mungo discarded his novelty the morning after the festivities, his on the other hand, had turned out to be a rare find.

So much so five months later, Weston found himself using Kate’s name and the “M” word in the same sentence.

“Man—you’ve changed. Are you crazy?” Mungo had asked one night while the two were sucking back brews and watching Duke pound North Carolina at Brad’s posh penthouse overlooking Times Square.

“What’s your point?” Brad remembered asking.  

Mungo’s attempts at setting him straight on single men and the fairer sex were always humorous because it was a bit like getting unrestricted monogamy advice from a confirmed polygamist.

“Man, you’re only 39,” Mungo had shot back opening another bottle of Michelob. “You’re kicking down a gazillion a year with a defense company the government loves and you’ve got a tuned in crib that makes mine look like an outdated version of Pee Wees playhouse.”

Mungo petted TD who seemed to be infatuated by the guy.

“And you have a cool dog. What’s your damn rush to chuck it all?”  

“Something’s different,” Weston had remembered himself saying before bracing fro the next wave of logic. To Mungo, a single good looking rich guy tied to just one woman was tantamount to treason.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know—I can’t nail it down.”

Mungo petted TD.

“Well then start using a nail gun. Scatter your little spikes around for at least ten more years. All I know—it’s too early to settle down with just one woman. I’ve tried it.”

Brad remembered his exact rebuttal.

“Yeah . . . for two whole weeks.”

Mungo responded by taking a drink of his beer.

“See—I told you it was hard.”

Once away from any city lights, cars and trucks were moving slower than snails on hot pavement in the swirling snow. Brad knew at this speed, he might make Mungo’s until well after midnight. Not a promising thought, but at least it pushed away his other problems. Like what was he going to do?

No job—no tuned in penthouse and now, no Kate.

Weston glanced in the rear view mirror.

Behind the Vet, headlights jockeyed for position. Brad knew it would only a matter of time before one of them decided to make a break for it. Well, it might as well be his play, but before he could jack the gas pedal, Brad’s eyes caught the miniature silver cross velcro’d to the dash.

The thing glared at him accusingly. Kate had put it there.

“To keep you safe darling when I’m not here.”

Brad peeled her memory off the dash, the sound akin to tearing flesh and tossed the offending reminder into the passenger well with all the other garbage. Hashbrown colored eyes trailed the crucifix to the floor mat, but then retrained on her master.

“Don’t even look at me like that,” Weston said, finally giving in to the weather and flipping the wipers on high. If he didn’t make a move now, they were not going to make Mungo’s at all. The snow seemed to be coming down now in sheets and the Vet wasn’t exactly a snowmobile. However, there was a bright spot. They were headed south and more times than not, Mungo’s place always seemed to miss the snow and get rain instead.

“I ain’t sleeping out here tonight,” Brad snapped, but the instant his foot pressed harder on the gas his heart sank at the sickening sound of spinning wheels.  

“Not good. Not good at all.”

The Vet began to careen sideways on the black ice.

Using the restraint, he showed at Dynatech’s ruthless business meetings, Brad slowly spun the wheel in the direction of the slide, remembering some ancient driver’s ed film. It would feel like the wrong thing to do, but it really was the correct solution.

If there was going to be one.

Sure enough, the Vet began to ease itself back into the right lane but before he could breathe any sigh of relief, two huge headlights bore down on the tiny Vet like a black shadow of Titanic’s iceberg.

Brad’s mind didn’t even have time to race.

Within seconds, the beast had loomed close enough Brad could not only count each grill grinning at him, but he could make out the driver’s Cincinnati Reds ball cap through the huge windshield snapping back and forth in sheer panic.  

“BEEEEEEEEEEEEPPPPPPPPP!”

It was a useless move, but Brad yanked the wheel hard left and stared straight into the monstrous grill, strangely welcoming his fate.

Nothing happened.

No tearing metal. No nothing.

When he finally managed to blink, Weston realized his hands were shaking uncontrollable and yet, he almost felt like laughing.

He looked over at TD.

“You all right girl?”

The dog whined as Weston watched the truck melt away in the rear view mirror in a blanket of snow that seemingly swallowed the black berg.

“I’ll bet that idiot is wide awake now,” he shot as TD bounded up and tried to lick his face. He shook his head as if to wake himself.

“I know I am.”

TD barked. Something she never did.

“Whoa! Hold on girl. There’s a ton more traffic out here. We just barely made it out of that last one alive.”

TD sat back down, her tail strumming furiously. 

“Scared you, huh girl?”

Brad rubbed her ears. “Don’t worry girl. I’ll make sure you’re taken care of when I do check off this rock. That’s a promise.”

The wipers began squeaking.

“Hey…whaddaya know? Maybe our luck has finally changed…”

From the opposite lane, an oncoming semi hauling logs buried the Vet in a cascade of mush.   

“Then again, maybe not,” said Brad. “Well, we’ll take a monsoon over a blizzard any day, won’t we girl?”

Brad scoped out the rear view again.

Every headlight behind him seemed different. Totally messed up as if a bowling ball had scattered them.

“That sleepy goofball shook you boys up a little didn’t he?”

An hour later, Brad pulled onto Mungo’s driveway. However, a prick of doubt nagged at his brain. It was as if he had made the wrong choice.

Again.

What—to live?  

“Let it go,” he said quietly.

“Huh?”

Weston peered through the windshield.

“What the . . .?”

Every light seemed to be burning at Mungo’s condo. Not at all, like his stingy curmudgeon buddy.

Brad looked down at TD.

“Mungo’s using timers now? What’s this world coming to girl?”

Brad trailed TD to the front door trying not to sink too deeply into the quagmire the yard had become, but when he reached the porch, TD was jumping up and down nervously.

“Calm down girl—you’re gonna track mud all over.”

Brad inserted Mungo’s spare key into the lock.

“WHOOOOWEEEEEWHOOOOWEEEEEWHOOOOWEEEEE!”

“Ahhh…dangit Mungo, you forgot to douse the friggin alarms!”

The alarm suddenly died and the night went silent until the door suddenly opened, Mungo a drink in his hand.

“Hey buddy! What’cha doing? Breaking in?”

Despite no legal rights to his friend’s domicile, Weston found he was slightly irritated not to be alone here.

“Funny—real funny Mungo. I thought you were already gone.” Mungo’s bushy eyebrows winched upwards, giving him the impression of a human hawk.

“Gone? Gone where?”

Weston laughed.

“Barbados—remember? You and your newest babe du jour?” Mungo pushed Brad down a step, closing the door.

“Are you crazy? What are you doing? Jen’s in the kitchen here. If she hears you babbling about some other babe she will kill me  . . .”

Weston looked down at TD as if to get her take, but the dog wasn’t jumping on Mungo, which was strange in its own right, but at least TD wouldn’t be tracking mud all over those nice clean cream colored slacks.

“Jen? What’s she doing here?”

Mungo took a sip of his drink. “Ahhh—Einstein. We’re going out, remember?”

Weston dug into his ear. Maybe he gotten water in them.  

“Mungo, I thought you broke up with her.”

Mungo pretended to sniff in Brad’s direction. “Knocking back a few holiday toddies already, are we?”

Brad knew he hadn’t been the one drinking.

“Jimmy—you told me on the phone just an hour ago that I could use the condo while you were away. Remember?”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Mungo held his drink out.

“Did you hit your head or something? I called you an hour ago to tell you to get your butt over here because everyone was waiting for you. As far as Barbados, I was thinking about going there next year—remember?”

Mungo motioned Brad inside.

“C’mon—it’s starting to rain again. Now—you want in or what? Kate’s waiting for you.”

“What?” Kate’s here?” Weston grabbed Mungo by the arm.

“What’s she doing here?”

‘Waiting for you doofus,” said Mungo now looking over his buddy with the same unease a psychiatrist would eyeball a white dinner jacket.  

“Waiting—for me?”

The door suddenly opened.

“Hi honey!” His former girlfriend suddenly appeared in the doorway, enveloped in the warm corona of a fireplace crackling in the background.

Kate stepped out onto the cold wet porch.

Wrapped her arms around him.

“I’ve missed you today.”

Despite his apprehension, Brad returned her kiss. Even with the rain drooling down his face, the kiss against his wet lips felt . . . dry?

“What about never wanting to see me again?”

Kate stepped back, her emerald eyes twinkling. TD stood on her haunches at Brad’s feet, but Kate made no effort to pet his dog. Which was odd because she loved TD, so maybe she was still mad at him?

“I love you. Why would I say that to you?”

Weston blinked at the statement.

“I—I don’t know why you…”

Kate reached back into the house. “Merry Christmas darling!” she said holding out a small box decorated with an elegant white bow.

“This is early, but you know me. I just can’t keep a surprise!”

Brad actually stumbled backwards, his heart hammering away in his ears. He knew the gift buried under that shiny green foil. It was an invitation from Kate’s uncle to play Augusta National Golf Club.

“What’s the matter honey? You look sick,” asked Kate trying now to touch his face. Weston began to back up at the sight of that gift. At Kate’s loving expression. At Mungo’s smirking face.

Those were from—last Christmas.

“Is…that what I think it is?” Brad swallowed.

This wasn’t happening!

“Open it silly. It’s from my Uncle John. You remember the golfer.”

Brad Weston rubbed his face.

“I gotta go.”

“Where?” asked Kate, but Brad had already taken off.

Now he did remember. Last year there had been no snow for Christmas Eve. Last year it had—rained all day.

“This—isn’t happening,” he stammered running back to the only thing he knew was real.

The Vet.

His legs kept trying to buckle on him until they finally gave out and sent him sprawling face first onto the muddy lawn. Without even wiping his face clean, Weston straightened back up.

Ripped open the Vet’s door.

TD jumped inside and immediately began wringing the rain from her coat. Brad slid inside the cockpit, slamming the door, his eyes glued on the front porch. He couldn’t help but wonder why neither Kate nor Mungo seemed at all upset at his sudden departure.

From what? Reality?

“I must have eaten something bad,” he said to TD, but the dog only seemed unimpressed at his apparent anxiety.

“That’s it. I gotta be having one really messed up reaction from that chicken bacon sandwich I ate at that street deli. That’s got to be it.”

Weston backed out of the driveway and slammed the Vet into drive not a clue where he was headed or what was really happening to him.

Maybe this is what a breakdown felt like.

Rain clawed against the windshield and five miles later, Brad finally found what he was searching for, pulling into the gravel parking lot of a small ramshackle convenience store.  

“Herald Times,” he blurted to the kid behind the counter, his breath now actually weedy from sheer panic. The kid reached behind the counter and slapped the newspaper down on the counter, the loud thwap signaling he wasn’t thrilled himself to still be out Christmas Eve.

Brad grabbed the paper.

This would prove he wasn’t crazy. This would prove . . .

“Ya’ll right man? You ain’t looking so hot.”

Brad grabbed the kid by the shirt.

“What—year is this?”

The kid tried to smack his hand away, but Brad’s fist held a vise grip.

“What . . . year . . . is it?”

The kid finally broke free.

“Look man, if you’re on some bad acid trip I want nothing to do with yer druggie problems. Jes take the paper. It’s on the house. Now, get lost or I’ll…call the cops.…”

Weston’s eyes stayed frozen on the newspaper’s date.

December 24, 2013

This was insane. Or insanity.

Or both.

Weston got back into the Vet like a man sleepwalking.

This couldn’t be real . . . could it? However, if this were real, he had just been handed a golden opportunity to make everything right.

Vegas!  

Of course. Screw the poker tables. He had information! He would know the outcome of every major sporting event for the next three hundred seventy one days! All he had to do was lay a few bets. Make a ton of money. Have his life back! A better life—with Kate.

He still had time!

He would go back to Mungo’s. Act as if everything was hunky dory. He would test his theory. Or his insanity. He knew the Knicks were playing the Jazz tonight. He knew the final score. If it turned out the way he expected it, what a Christmas present this would turned out to be! However, the further he drove down ninety five the more the Vet seemed to have taken on a mind of its own—and then it dawned on him.

This entire year. The pain. The misery.

He knew why it had all happened now. And he also knew why he had now been given this gift.

Brad turned off the highway.

Without even questioning why he was at the exit he smiled. He disregarded every red light. Time was now of the essence.

He looked at the Vet’s dash clock.

11:57pm

Weston turned down Wilfred Street.

He knew where he was now and where he had to go—and he had less than thirty five seconds! Brad spun down Jervey Street. Now he was smack dab in the middle of this decaying neighborhood where nobody who lived here stood much of a chance in life. Much less of a choice in life.

Not like him.

Brad turned onto Mulberry Street, his pulse racing as he turned to his left knowing what awaited over the twinkling Christmas lights haphazardly strewn on the chain link fence. Sure enough, there she was, once again dashing towards the street. Once again, a ragged, filthy doll cradled in her bare arms as if she had just rescued the disgusting thing from someone’s trash so that she could have her very own Christmas present.

A present dug from someone else’s garbage.

“Not this year,” said Weston.  

Once again, he saw the truck barreling past the parked cars, its driver’s ball cap pulled down over sleepy eyes. Instead of just watching in apathy this time, Brad leapt from the warmth of the Vet, the threat of not making Mungo’s dinner party on time not even a blip on his radar.  

Brad Weston began sprinting, TD at his heels.

“Stay TD! Stay!”

His best friend obeyed.

In the pouring rain, the police cruiser’s lights jitterbugged red and blue, its driver positioning himself so the little girl could not see his partner pulling over the yellow tarp. Other than a few scrapes, the cop couldn’t help but think how this child had been given another chance. Another chance to make her own choices thanks to at least one noble man left in this world.  

The little girl hiccupped back a sob and clutched her mother’s leg, who finally managed to meet the cop’s eyes. The officer offered his best smile, but the mother only shook her head and continued to stare between the parked cars at the blood seeping from beneath a grimy yellow tarp. The cop changed the subject as he had been taught to do in such circumstances back at the academy.  

“That sure is a pretty dog. Is she yours?”

Moist eyes, sparkling like deep set blue diamonds in her beautiful ebony features begged up at the mother. The woman nodded gently as if giving the tiny waif permission to speak, and to hug her newest best friend even tighter around its furry neck. The little girl nodded her head to the cop.

“Yes . . . she’s mine. And her name is TD.”

The trooper knelt down. Pushed the brim of his hat up. “Really? That’s a fine name for a dog. Did you give it to her?”

“No.”

A tiny finger pointed to the slicked tarp, those wet diamonds going from the cold plastic yellow tarp to the truck driver, now very much awake and crying softly, a Cincinnati Reds ball cap held reverently in his hands.

“That man,” the little girl said still pointing.

“He said her name was TD and that she was now mine forever—before he pushed me out of the way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

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