This story is being written for National Novel Writing Month. Seriously, there is such a thing! For more info take a look here My Journey. There is also a link to the main NaNoWriMo site there. This will ultimately be a 50,000 more or word story. The idea in a nutshell is to begin a new novel from scratch on or after November 1 and complete it, or at least write 50,000 words of it, by the end of November.
Here is what I have so far. I may write more today or I may not. It's enough words to be nearly two days worth and still hit 50K words by the end of the month. I like the way it's forming up although I have some worries about being able to maintain tension and excitement throughout.
Even as I made the call I knew it was wrong. It was a weak play in a series of weak plays. It was my last one though because sure enough there was the hand that I knew he was holding, pocket aces. I’d been drawing dead the whole time. My mind was not on the game and I knew I shouldn’t have played but I hoped that maybe, just maybe it would distract me.
I got up from the table without even looking at the other players. I was numb and knew this was going to be a day in Hell spent reliving another a year ago.
I went downstairs through the casino in search of an open bar. A bit too brusquely I ordered a double scotch and tossed it down, shuddering as it burned it’s way down but hoping it would give me some relief. I ordered another, mumbled an apology to the bartender for my attitude and topped that off with a good tip for both drinks.
Sipping the second one I stared at a screen with some sports talk show but I wasn’t really seeing it. I wasn’t really thinking or seeing anything. I guess I was trying not to.
That was when I became aware that somebody had sat down next to me. At only a bit past noon this bar was far from crowded. I came here a lot but really didn’t know anybody other than to say hi to. Curiosity and a little bit of aggravation at having my space invaded made me look over to see who had felt it necessary to sit next to me when any of several dozen empty stools should have done as well.
“Hey man. I’m sorry if you wanted to be alone.”
I guess my aggravation was showing. It was replaced with curiosity anyway when I recognized a local poker player who I knew only as Stew as the one who’d sat next to me.
“Oh Stew. I’m sorry. I’m just not having a good day.” I said even though it sounded self-pitying and lame.
“Yeah I could tell that,” Stew said. “I was watching you play and you were way off today. Is something wrong?”
That simple phrase, so well meaning, so seemingly innocent brought to the forefront all I’d been trying to push out of my mind. I felt tears start to well up and wiped at my eyes. I was unable to speak. I wanted to run away. I tried to take a breath and it came out as more of a sob further compounded my mingled sorrow and embarrassment.
“Hey man, take it easy.” Stew said, visibly uncomfortable. “It was just a tournament. You can make that buy in back in an hour in a cash game.”
If I could have I would have laughed at that. Oddly I was upset at the way I’d played and my memories had just reminded me of how trivial and unimportant that really was. I tossed down the rest of my drink and held the glass up when I saw the bartender looking our way.
I took another deep breath and was relieved when it sounded a little more composed. “It’s not really about the game. You’re right that was not important even if was really a pathetic performance.”
Stew made a slight gesture of acceptance, nobody was going to be able to seriously argue that it had not been pathetic and I was glad to see him not try. “If something is wrong and you’d like to talk about it I’ve got time. For what it’s worth Jaime was worried too. She actually asked me if I knew what was wrong with you.”
That threw me for a loop. Jaime worked in the poker room and functioned as the tournament director for most of their tournaments. “She did? Why would she ask you?”
“I guess she thinks we know each other better than we do,” Stew said. “I’m sorry to say I don’t even know your name. Seems like a strange time to introduce myself but I’m Stew Strathmore.”
He was holding his hand out so I shook it. “Cliff,” I mumbled. “Cliff Rock”
That set him back a bit but I guess I didn’t look like I was in a joking mood. Most people think I’m joking when I introduce myself. I can’t blame ‘em but I’d learned to live with it through the past 45 years.
“So what’s wrong Cliff? Or is it something you don’t want to talk about?” Stew asked quietly.
I looked at him actually feeling a little better. Talking about it would not be easy. I’d really not told anybody about it in the year since it happened. I’d spent the last year telling myself I was moving on. And I suppose that was true but it was something I could not just ignore. My children had told me over and over that I needed to talk about it when I’d see them and we’d talk about how we were all doing. Talking about it was something I’d avoided though. Maybe it was time to end that.
“It’s a long sad story Stew and has nothing to do, really, with poker. You sure you want to be bothered?”
Stew didn’t look pleased. “Cliff I’ve watched you here for a couple of years. We’ve played together a fair amount. You are a good player but you always seemed to not have a very high opinion of yourself and I never understood that. You’ve been here a lot in the past few months and up to this trip I’d seen you steadily improving. Something is bothering you. Obviously it’s not about poker I guess. That is fine and if you don’t want to share it that’s fine too but do you think I’d have followed you down here when I didn’t even know your name if I didn’t want to be bothered?”
I sighed, thinking I’d made him angry and when he put it that way I guess I couldn’t blame him. “I’m sorry. I’d like to say I’m not thinking straight but that’s not it. There’s still a lot about me that I have to work through.”
“Well if whatever is bothering you will be helped by talking about it then I’ll listen. If not I understand that too.” Stew said resting his hand on my shoulder.
I was uncomfortable at the touch but at the same time I guess touched at the gesture. Stew was a bit of a good old boy. Not quite a redneck but close. He was older, probably in his 50’s. The side I was seeing now was not the side he showed in the poker room.
I thought for a moment, deciding how to begin. Letting it all flood back. Opening the doors I’d spent the last year trying to close on that hellacious time in my life. I just began to talk telling him everything I could remember, and some things that I hadn’t realized I did remember.
The date is engraved in my memory. March 2, 2004. It started as an ordinary Tuesday. My son Justin was in his usual panic because he was late to school. He was a senior, 17 years old, and our youngest. I got him off finally warning him to drive carefully because it was raining.
Our daughter Casey was in her second year at the University of Central Florida and still lived at home. She was 20 and had just sat at the kitchen table talking to my wife Amanda as they watched me trying to get Justin out the door.
That role had been given to me when Casey was born. Our oldest son Logan was two when Casey was born and increasingly Amanda had been unhappy having him in daycare. That led to the nearly inevitable decision that I should become a stay at home parent.
Amanda was very good at her job and was already earning a couple of times as much as I was. She was destined for bigger things. I was destined for cost of living increases. I was not at all opposed to the idea of being a stay at home dad.
It worked out well through the years. Sure there were rough spots. But we both felt the kids were better off for it and I had no regrets.
That morning Casey left shortly before Amanda promising while rolling her eyes that she would be careful driving to school even though it was only a couple of miles away.
Amanda had laughed at that and told me that no matter what it seemed like the kids would wonder if aliens had replaced me with a pod if I ever didn’t say it. She’d breezily kissed me and gone out the door laughingly promising that she, too, would drive carefully.
A little over an hour later the phone rang. I remember glancing at the clock, seeing it was 8:37 and thinking that it was Amanda calling to tell me something she’d forgotten. I didn’t even look at caller id I just picked the phone up.
When the person began to speak my blood ran cold and my pulse began to hammer. They said there had been an accident on the 417 Expressway and my wife was involved and I should come. They would not give details just that they thought I should be there.
I wanted to hurry but my hands were shaking so badly that I dropped my keys three times on the way to the car. It is a miracle that I didn’t have an accident myself.
I totally lost it when I hit the traffic jam that was obviously due to the accident. I was honking and yelling and generally making an ass of myself. I finally pulled over and began to drive on the emergency lane and even in the grass. I was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy eventually and was calm enough to explain that I’d had a phone call that my wife was involved in an accident and I should come. He waved me on then without another word.
The massed emergency vehicles finally stopped me, a state trooper came to the car as I got out and I remember blurting out, “I’m Cliff Rock and I got a call that my wife Amanda was in an accident. Can I see her? Is she ok?”
I could read the bad news in his face before he said anything. I could tell in that instant that it was too late. “I’m sorry sir. She didn’t make it. The paramedics did all they could but she was very likely killed instantly.”
I could not quite grasp that. It felt unreal. I was there in the rain on the side of the road looking at flashing lights all over the place and a part of me is trying say it’s a mistake. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there.
A female trooper came over and together they got me to sit in the back of one of their cars. I remember only them asking questions and trying to say what little they could to help me feel better while knowing it couldn’t.
The female trooper finally asked, “Is there somebody you can call to take you home? I don’t think you should drive.”
I was shaking like a leaf. There was no way I could drive. I should not have driven there. What was really sad was I could not think of anybody to call. My parents were both dead and Amanda’s mom lived too far away to come right then. I remember looking at them feeling blank and finally saying, “I don’t know who to call.”
They asked about friends and relatives but I couldn’t think of anybody. I didn’t want to call any of my children and have to tell them over the phone. They finally brought Amanda’s PDA over. I tried to use the contact list but I was shaking too bad. I felt scared and useless as the trooper took it from me and started going through it asking how about this person how about that person. I could not even recognize most of the names.
“How about Billie Mayfield,” The trooper asked getting to the “M” entries.
“Yes,” I said. “She would come. God how am I going to tell her? She works with Amanda.”
“I’ll take care of it sir,” The trooper said and stepped away leaving me alone.
I got out of the car after a couple of minutes, unable to keep sitting. I was pacing around in the rain. The carnage had been largely cleared away. Traffic was moving. If anybody had told me what happened I don’t remember at that point.
I didn’t see Billie get there. I guess I was just standing in the rain staring off into the woods. She had brought Gil Boyd, Amanda’s boss, with her. I guess they’d explained it all to them before leading them to me. The first I knew they were there was feeling Billie hug me and tearfully ask if I was ok.
I remember flinching when she hugged me and then replying, “I don’t know.”
Both she and Gil looked stunned. I remember wondering how bad I must look if the Troopers thought they could drive and I couldn’t. In the end Billie drove me home in my car and Gil followed us to the house in his.
Once inside Billie hugged me again crying and saying, “Oh Cliff, I’m so sorry.”
I began to pull myself together a little then realizing that I was going to have to tell the children and Amanda’s mom and I was going to have to try to be composed for it.
Amanda had always joked that I was at my best in a crisis when everybody else was in a panic. Usually that was true I suppose but this one was very nearly beyond my ability. It was the living embodiment of my worst nightmare.
I knew from experience with two co-workers of Amanda’s that he meant it and it did help a bit knowing it. I’d already begun to think far enough ahead at that point to have had that thought myself.
“How am I going to tell the kids and Amanda’s mom?” I asked, thinking out loud.
“I called Barb Cliff. She’s on her way with Chris.” Billie said. “I hope you don’t mind but I thought it might help if she and Amanda’s brother were here.”
I just nodded, ashamed at how relieved to be off the hook for that one I was. There were still the children to tell though.
“Do you want me to tell the kids?” Billie asked.
“I can do it,” Gil offered nearly simultaneously.
I shook my head, trying to think. “No. I will. I’ll call Logan and Casey on their cell phones but I think I’ll tell Justin when he gets home from school.”
Nobody argued with me. I had finally quit shaking enough to where I could use the phone. I can’t remember the conversations with either Logan or Casey. I remember their shock and pain. They were home quickly and we hugged and cried.
By that time Gil was looking uncomfortable and I know he felt out of place. Billie picked up on it and told him that he should go back and break it to the office and that she would stay here at least until Amanda’s mom got there.
At some point pizza was ordered in but not eaten. Barb and Chris got there and the crying began again. When Chris asked what had happened I had to admit that I wasn’t sure beyond the fact that Amanda had been killed in an accident.
I remember the pain his somewhat disgusted look and his comment of “figures” caused me. He’d always regarded me as something of a freeloader because I was home with the kids and his little sister was supporting us. It had been a major source of friction over the years.
I saw Billie glare at him, Amanda had told her all about it through the years. “Chris, you stupid son of a bitch, if you’re going to start with that attitude then just get your ass back where you came from.”
Chris is a big guy at a bit over six feet and Billie is at least ten inches shorter than he is. I’ve always suspected that he isn’t opposed to slapping his wife around to keep her in line, which is another reason, that Amanda and I seldom saw him. For a second I thought he was going to take a swing at Billie but she was right in his face all righteous indignation and he backed down.
“For Christ’s sake, Chris” Barb said. “Just sit down and shut up. I knew I should have left you back home.”
That earned me another glare from Chris but at that point I didn’t care. The crap he’d put me through over the years and the pain he’d caused Amanda when she defended me made me wish he’d start something. Dumb idea because he’d no doubt have beat me senseless but I wasn’t thinking straight. I glared right back, meeting his eyes.
He turned and banged through the kitchen with a curse. “Ok you all want me gone I’m gone. You can take mom home.”
He slammed the front door and Barb sighed moving over and hugging me. “I know you loved her Cliff and she loved you too.”
Logan and Casey came in nearly together and that started another round of crying and trying to explain what happened without really knowing. Justin gone home from school and Casey insisted on helping me tell him. He took it worst of all of the kids, maybe because he was the youngest, maybe because he and Amanda were a little closer because he was ‘her baby’. On the face of it he hated her to refer to her that way but I knew he really liked it.
The rest of the day is pretty much a blur. Somebody put a drink into my hand and I didn’t argue. I remember co-workers of Amanda’s and neighbors coming by. I remember Gil coming back and telling us what he’d found out had happened. How an SUV ironically nearly identical to Amanda’s had blown a tire and gone into the median flipping and crossing into her lane. It had been carrying a mother and her two young children in car seats. They’d all been killed as well.
Barb stayed with us and went back home with Chris after the funeral three days later. I remember that whole time as if it was a dream. I mean I remember it but it seems foggy and somehow surreal. Chris even managed to be decent at the funeral. I didn’t find out until much later that he’d made a comment about me in front of Logan and Logan had as he put it “had a talk with him”. He didn’t get that from me since that was something I should have done years before and never had the guts to do.
“Jesus!” Stew said softly. “I’m sorry Cliff. That’s why we didn’t see you here for so long.”
I wiped my eyes with one of the napkins the bartender had wordlessly set on the counter with a bottle of water as I’d been telling Stew the story.
“Partly yeah,” I said. “I did some soul searching.”
“So can I ask what you’re doing here? What are you doing now? Are you on vacation?”
I shook my head. “No Stew. I’m working.”
I thought because of the way he’d asked that he’d be surprised but he just nodded. “I thought so.”
“You did?” I was surprised. I had tried to seem like just another tourist in town. I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was appear to be the focused professional when I sat down at a poker table, most of the time at least.
He nodded. “You’re just a little too good. If you’re not doing it for a living then you probably should be. I do, but I think you know that.”
I nodded in agreement. Then out of guilt I guess, or feeling a need to explain I said, “My kids are all for it. They are not suffering or anything.”
“I never thought for a minute they were. It’s none of my business how you are managing yourself after what you’ve been through.”
“Maybe not but it’s part of the story and I think I’d like to talk about that too. How about if I buy you lunch and talk your ear off some more?” I said starting to feel a whole lot better. I felt as if a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. The ache was still there inside. I missed Amanda so much, more so on that particular day I guess, but I felt like I’d taken another step into actually moving on with my life.
“Fine but I’ll buy,” Stew said standing up.
“No you won’t,” I said with a grin. “My story, my treat. Don’t argue with me.”
He just raised his eyebrows and gestured for me to lead the way.