by Ari Lox
You only live once. Grab all the gusto you can.
Charlie anted up to the floating red bar that encircled the white smoky area. A bewitching woman in a long flowing robe smiled a welcome. She looked familiar, like a movie star as an angel.
The floating red bar reminded him of long ago, of the altar railing, which regular people weren't allowed beyond. Charlie set his hands on the red bar, but pulled them back quickly. His palms were blistered.
"Next." The dark-haired angel waved him forward. He recognized her now. Ali MacGraw. He'd liked her in 'The Getaway' with Steve McQueen ... Steve McQueen ... Le Mans had a red line. Charlie had always intended to go to Le Mans, to feel the rushing air, to hear the squealing tires. He dreamed of dining out, sipping extravagant French wines. Although he hated fancy food--in his dream, he'd make an exception.
Miraculously, a scene played out on a cloud--the final lap of this year's National 500, his last race. It ended when his car barreled into the guardrail and a fireball consumed his car.
Perhaps the smoke and heat would explain his ruddy cheeks and sunken eyes more favorably than the other truth--too many whiskeys and too few hours of sleep.
Charlie checked his hands and arms. There were no burns, just the redness on his palms. "Where am I?" Charlie wondered aloud. He felt fine, but this place was airy and indistinct. Not at all like the casino.
He smiled at Ali, hoping she'd answer his question.
"You must wait," she said.
"Then why did you call for me?"
"You will learn eternal equanimity," she said, a huskiness deep in her throat.
"What nonsense!" He yelled as always when he was crossed.
"I have to escort some people, up. Wait here." She turned from him. Then over her shoulder, she added, "I can't forbid you the one wish granted all those who must wait in Purgatory."
Angel Ali MacGraw floated away.
"Wait," Charlie yelled. "A wish? What can I wish for?" He splayed his hands outward. They passed through the bright red of the demarcation bar. Crimson swirled and tinged the surrounding mist.
He looked around. Everyone else had disappeared. He was alone. Charlie noticed inky blackness seeping in from just beyond his vision. The white clouds darkened to storm intensity, yet imbued with red. They reminded Charlie of a porterhouse cooked to perfection, seared on the outside, bloody in the middle.
He craved that steak.
"Hey, Goodtime Charlie." A cheery voice accosted him from behind.
Charlie turned. Jumbo Boyd. As always, Jumbo wore in a skin-tight t-shirt, outlining his large, well-defined pecs and biceps. "Jumbo, you old dog. What're you doing here?"
Jumbo grabbed him in a bear hug. Funny, Charlie didn't need to gasp for air like in the old days, like when Jumbo celebrated their getaway from the pharmacy heist.
"I was wondering when you'd get here, Charlie."
Charlie blurted out the first thought that came to his mind. "You dead, too?"
"Yeah," Jumbo said, his smile lit only on the left side of his face. "Beat you here by a few days, Goodtime. Now maybe the fun can start."
Jumbo had been a good companion for a casino trip or a double date when the show girl insisted on the buddy plan, but when Jumbo came under Ducky's wing, Charlie no longer trusted him. Jumbo would do whatever he was told to do--right or wrong, good or bad, helpful or hurtful.
"I got a wish," Charlie said. "A juicy steak and enough drinks to forget every bad thing."
"Wait! Wait! Charlie, your wish is more valuable than that." With Charlie's full attention, Jumbo continued, "Things are different here. Eating stuff won't satisfy you like before. Drink won't help either. They don't matter."
"Well, crap." Charlie was mad. "All I ever wanted was women, booze, and food. And winning races. Damn, I wish I'd gone to Le Mans. Maybe that's what I should do now."
"Slow down, Goodtime." Jumbo put his hand on Charlie's shoulder.
It was a hot, stinging touch. "What are you suggesting, Muscle?"
Jumbo laughed. "That's the first time I've been called 'Muscle' up here. Makes me almost miss Ducky's backroom. Ain't there any people you miss, Goodtime? You can look in on them."
"Stop calling me Goodtime all the time? Ain't I been a good pal to you? Call me Goodpal sometimes." Charlie laughed to cover up how upset he felt.
Jumbo ignored what he didn't understand. "I seen a couple people up here who asked about you."
"Bones with the red Mustang. Remember, Ducky covering all his bets on your races." Jumbo paused, then spit it out. "And your old man."
"That old bastard. Threw me out when I started the race circuit at 17. What could he want?"
Through ruddy clouds, Big Charlie's rugged face emerged. It was as stern as when Charlie'd last seen him twenty-three years ago.
"Hey, Junior." His old man's face broke into a smile when he saw Charlie.
Big Charlie worked, came home, bitched, slept, then went to work again. That's what Charlie remembered. Smiling was not part of it.
A hot flush rushed through Charlie's ethereal body. "I ain't no Junior." It took all of his will-power not to knock his old man's smile to smithereens. "Remember I'm nothing to you and you're nothing to me."
"Don't be that way." The smile fled from Big Charlie's face. He dropped his eyes. "That was a long time ago."
In a flash, Charlie realized his father was ashamed of his behavior. "Why the Hell ain't you in Hell already?"
The long-time resident of Purgatory smiled, but it was weak compared to before. "It might surprise you, but my old man was worse than me." He shook his head. "Still, I got more to make up for."
Charlie tried hard to take in these new facts and his new situation. He had no use for planning. Only in the present could he get pleasure. Here in this cloaking black fog, Charlie felt no physical pleasure. But what the Hell else was there?
Slowly a question bubbled up into Charlie's mind. "What did you use your wish for, old man?"
Big Charlie looked away and answered slowly. "Remember the blowout at the Ontario track two years ago." He glanced back and saw Charlie nod. "You walked away unscratched."
Humph. So the old man wasn't quite the bastard he seemed to be. Well maybe not anymore, but he was when he was alive. Mum always agreed with Charlie when he ripped the old man.
Sun streamed into his Mum's apartment in the Arizona suburb. It pleased Charlie that he could enter without her knowing he was there. He could leave whenever he wanted, rather than being stuck like before.
Phyllis, his older sister, and Mum were sipping tea in the front room by the window. He listened from the hallway.
"I'm sad, of course," Mum said, "yet I got to admit it's also a relief. Your brother lived the life he wanted. Racing, living it up, and doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. A racing accident was probably the best way for him to go."
Phyllis's eyes opened wide. "Mother, you can't be serious. That's so heartless! What else could Charlie do? Once our father threw him out of the house, the only thing he knew was fast cars."
"When Big Charlie threw him out," Mum dipped a sugar cookie into her tea, "I was so mad. I froze him out for the rest of his life." She savored the sweetness of the cookie, then continued, "The silver lining to this tragedy is that your son, Sean, won't be influenced by Little Charlie anymore. I'd think you'd be glad of that, too.
His sister squeezed back tears. "I can't believe you want me to be happy my brother died!"
"Not happy," Mum said, "but looking for the silver lining." She reached into a desk drawer and pulled out an envelope. "Here, Phyllis. Take this. Ducky sent it with condolences after the unusual National crash. Use it to get Sean started in college this fall. Maybe he'll take up with that sweet girl, Colleen, now that Little Charlie won't lead him into sinful ways."
Charlie zipped out away. He couldn't stand to hear anymore of Mum' twisted logic. Yet what was that about money from Ducky and the crash? He couldn't remember anything but the descent of the starter flag on that hot day at the track.
The backroom of Ducky's deli hummed with quiet counting. Every Monday morning Ducky's captains stacked the winnings from weekly sports book on the wide table. As always, Ducky smirked in his shiny suit, his eyes focused on the piles of bills.
Charlie was no stranger to the backroom. Jumbo often brought him here for his cut after he'd done something special.
A big, red-headed guy on the far side of the room said, "We made a killing, Boss."
Ducky smirk turned to a broad smile. "A killing, yes!" Laughing, he smoothed his thin mustache. "Accidents will happen, Jason."
Charlie almost zapped Ducky with his wish right then and there.
Ducky summed up amounts on a calculator. "Not bad," he said to no one in particular, "but I've got big expenses." He turned to his second lieutenant. "Jason, the Hawaiian?"
"I've got a line on a guy at the campus who'll move all the premo product we can deliver." The red-headed giant grinned widely. "You'll like who it is, too."
Raising his eyebrows, Ducky tilted his head and scrunched his mouth. Charlie knew that look. It meant, don't make me guess, just tell me, but Jason wasn't so quick.
After waiting a few seconds with no response, Ducky said through clenched teeth, "Tell me who the hell it is." Ducky looked into Jason's eyes. "If I gotta ask again, I gonna be asking somebody else."
"Anything you say, Boss." An evil smile crossed Jason's wide face. "It's Goodtime's nephew, Sean."
If Charlie could get drunk in Purgatory, he would have, right then. Ducky was behind his accident somehow, he knew it. Charlie's normal mode for handling bad news was to get totally plastered. Not just a buzz from grass, but a memory-erasing stream of Absolut screwdrivers until he couldn't think, see, or remember.
Sean and Hawaiian grass? When his nephew came over to his apartment, upset when things weren't going his way, Charlie did the caring thing and helped his ease his worries with a few bowls of Hawaiian.
Charlie spied from the hedges edging the campus library steps. Sean, his nephew, shifted his backpack from one shoulder to the other. Sean turned to his buddy, a rough-looking guy, who Charlie guessed had not finished high school.
"These college guys will love me," Sean said aloud, although his buddy was looking at the coeds and not paying him no never mind. "I'll have the best product," Sean continued. "They'll get loaded. I'll get dough. A classic win-win. Any psych prof will agree."
An attractive coed, brunette hair bobbed short, came up the quad path towards them. Sean's buddy eyed her and whispered, "Maybe we'll get a little win of Colleen."
The air stilled. The brunette heard her name. She gave his buddy a cold stare, then turned to Sean. "I've know you since grade school. You've always been smart enough, but you're lazy. You should be inside rather than outside the library."
Charlie saw Sean cover his annoyance with sharp words. "I am a smart, hard-working guy. I got in this lousy joint. I just don't need to study like you. And your classmates will be calling Goodtime Sean all semester."
Colleen flipped her hair in disdain and entered the library. Sean continued, talking to her back. He yelled, "I'll be at all the greatest campus parties."
Ignoring her snub, he turned to look across the grassy quad. His red-headed connection arrived in the far parking lot. Sean sent his buddy to pick up the goods.
Charlie wondered why Sean didn't just study and earn a degree, rather than taking the lazy way, selling dope. He laughed to himself. His own lazy path hadn't ended too well. He never considered what might happen after. Sean seemed the same way.
Charlie wished that Sean's connection got arrested.
A siren ripped the air. A police car pulled next to Jason's car. One cop grabbed him. The other easily caught Sean's right-hand man. They shuffled them into the backseat.
Sean saw and turned quickly. "Wait up, Colleen." He entered the library
A long red runner lay between the folded chairs and the dais. Charlie looked from aside the steps on the right of the graduation platform.
Mum and Phyllis sat in aisle seats in the guest area. Charlie noticed his father hung around the descending stairs from the stage.
Colleen sat next to Sean, both of them in cap and gown.
Afterward the two graduates, degrees in hand, went to the large oak for pictures with Mum and Phyllis. "You two together now," Phyllis said to Sean and Colleen.
Mum sidled up, next to Phyllis and whispered. "I wish Charlie was here, no matter what I said." A pleasant breeze cooled the air.
Phyllis nodded and hugged her mother. "Yes, to see good student Sean graduate."
cover image credit: Richard Carlson. www.pals.iastate.edu/carlson/