Friday, November 14, 2008
Fiction Friday: Mike's Day
"An old man is dining alone in a crowded restaurant when a fire breaks out."
Mike couldn't remember the last time he had seen his grandchildren in person, but his son sent him updated pictures from North Carolina every so often. Today he let them spill out of his tattered leather wallet when the waitress approached him to refill his coffee. "This is Joey, he's six now, and Patrick who is about 10." He spoke like it was the first time he was showing the pictures, as if the waitress had asked to see them. She had not. "They sure are getting big, Mike," was her polite response, as she poured the coffee and excused herself to serve another table. Mike liked to sit at this particular booth because he had a view of the whole restaurant.
Cricket's was a homey sort of place, decorated like an English smoking parlour, with dark green plaid wall paper, hunting trophies and a working fireplace beside the bar. A crisp fall day like this one always packed the restaurant with people lured by the smell and warmth of the famous homemade chowder in a bread bowl.
Mike was born and raised in New York back when kids played stick ball in the streets with real sticks, and people in cars actually stopped and waited so they could finish a play. His eyes were that certain shade of blue that makes women notice, and sometimes he would glance up at his reflection in the mirrored Budweiser sign on the wall across from his seat. He was checking to see if he still "had it." As he watched men and women at the bar, he thought of his wife when she was young and vibrant. Sometimes he imagined she was sitting on a bar stool, holding a cigarette in her delicate fingers, daring him to approach with her eyes.
Mike had the mixed luck of living beyond his inner circle of family and friends. For this reason, he prized his photographs. He tapped a young mother feeding a toddler in the booth next to him on the shoulder to show off an older picture. "This is me, and my two brothers...I was Navy and they were Marines. We all came home from WWII on the same day, alive. Boy, did the family celebrate." The image was black and white, but the color of joy was evident on the faces. "See how the women all look relieved!" He laughed. "We all were, because my brothers and I lived through Hell." The woman feeding the toddler nodded politely, because the man was obviously lonely, and she felt sympathetic. Then she excused herself from the conversation and ordered another coke. Mike watched as the toddler wiggled his way out of the seat and onto the floor beneath the table to play with some plastic spoons, while his mother made a cell phone call.
A loud boom shook the place so hard it shattered bottles and glasses behind the bar. People gasped and screamed. Black smoke and heat rushed into the room. Mike could see flames pushing through what was left of the oval glass windows in the double doors that led to the restaurant kitchen. People were scrambling towards the exists, some bloodied from being hit by glass at the bar. Mike hit the floor, a reflex from his experience of fire drills on his old Navy ship, and started to crawl. He caught the foot of the woman from the booth beside him and she tripped, landing on the carpet, the contents of her pocketbook tumbling across the floor. "My baby," she whimpered. Where is the baby? TYLER!!" The air was hot; the fire audible, drowning out the screams and chaos. Mike grabbed her by the arms, dragging her as she coughed and wheezed to the door, then someone pulled her out. Nobody saw Mike inch across the floor back towards where he had been sitting. He did without thinking, because he felt compelled. Outside the fire engines screamed.
The room was black, not filled with darkness, but smoke that smothered. Mike held his breath, still crawling. He put his hand out and felt under a table. He felt little sneakers, and he yanked and dragged a small body with the strength of his younger self, holding his breath like a drowning man. He could hear the child crying, a good sign. Firemen in full gear were filing into the building. He was still far from the exit, but he needed to breathe, so he did.
Overcome by the rush of fresh air into his lungs, Mike gasped, and the colors around him were suddenly sharper. Had he been dreaming? At the bar sat a young woman whose eyes seemed to be daring him to approach, but he was still on the floor. "What are you doing?" The woman laughed. She was dressed in a black cotton dress with tiny white dots, and wore a netted hat. Her cigarette was stained with red lipstick. Mike stammered an automatic response, suddenly recalled from some past role he once played. "No, I was thrown off my chair by the shock of your stunning beauty." The woman grinned and Mike got to his feet with less effort than it usually took. As they embraced, tears ran off his face, because this was the love of his life. "I must be dreaming," he thought, wiping his face. That's when he noticed how young the skin on his hands looked.
Then Mike remembered why he was crawling. "There was an explosion of fire from the kitchen, and a toddler..." The woman shook her head, understanding, but said nothing. She led him to a window. Outside the mother from the booth was hugging a child and crying. Mike recognized the tiny sneakers. The building was being pounded with water from two fire hoses, but inside, it was business as usual. The restaurant was packed with people eating and laughing. It was as if he were standing on the line between two separate pictures. Inside Cricket's, the faces looked familiar, and many people called out to him, in joyful recognition. A banner was draped across the top of the bar. On it was written "Happy Birthday Mike." A seat of honor was set up just for him, and he could see joy on the faces of his old friends and family. Then Mike realized the point of all those lonely moments in his recent past, and that finally, he was home.
Here's the next prompt:
"And then, of course, it jams."
Next week I'll put a whole story together at once for this prompt. So, if you have any suggestions for the direction I should take, drop me a comment. Look for this story next Friday.
Dear Internet Traveler,
Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.