Authors: David Kersten
by David A. Kersten
David A. Kersten
All Rights Reserved
Darkness became light. He didn’t comprehend it, it just was.
Perhaps it hadn’t been darkness, but rather a lack of anything at all. There
was no understanding, no comprehension, no ability to ponder, and nothing but
acknowledgement that where once there was nothing, now there was something. This
went on for what could have been an eternity.
At some point, this acknowledgement of existence expanded,
coalescing into thought. It started with one thought:
. This turned
into other basic thoughts like why, how, what, and when. Slowly at first, then
steadily building to a torrential pace, the questions flooded this newfound
existence. Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here? Why can’t I feel, or see, or
smell? Did something bad happen? Am I dead? Is this heaven? Is this hell? One
after another the questions poured into his mind, increasing in complexity but
none with any answers.
Each question didn’t bring anxiety or stress, nor did it
bring answers. Instead of the flood filling his mind, it created an expanse of
emptiness that grew with each new question. As that emptiness grew, a vague
sense of time began to form, just enough to bring a sense of urgency.
There was something there, just out of reach, perhaps a
memory, but it was a phantom, a shadow, eluding his mental grasp, slipping away
each time he tried to grab hold. He struggled to grab hold, hoping to fill the
emptiness with something, anything other than another question.
He chased it for what could have been another eternity
before the futility of the pursuit dawned on him and he gave up. The shadows
were elusive, but the light was constant. His attention focused on the light,
he reached toward it.
Consciousness trickled into his mind, quickly at first, then
rebounding softly to a place where dreams and reality were intermingled in a
confusing mix of emotion, images, and even scents. The smell of her hair was
replaced by the smell of warm, dry dust, the warmth of her presence by the
chill of emptiness. The image of her face faded into the recesses of his
memory, replaced by a soft pink glow. The tranquility of this memory was
replaced with the cold knot of loss just below his heart. The reality of waking
securely in his mind, he cracked open an eye.
Sunlight seared his retina, chasing away the last of the
dream and snapping him to the present. He shut his eyes tightly and rolled
over, his hand swinging up reflexively to ward off whatever had assaulted his
eyes. Tentatively he opened them again to reveal his bedroom. The first rays of
sunlight were peeking through the wood blinds, illuminating the dust swirling
in the air from his attack and drawing lines of gold across the bed and up the
opposite wall of the bedroom.
It was absolute now – he was in his bed, alone, and it was morning.
The knot of anxiety eased as the memory of his dream faded, but it didn’t go
away completely. Part of him wasn’t ready to start his day, and a part was
simply unwilling. He lay there for another minute, searching his mind for a
reason to just roll over and go back to sleep, but the bed, and his life, felt
as empty as any excuse he could come up with. Worse, it was Monday.
The beginning of another week should hold the promise and
potential of an unwritten life, but it was an empty promise these days. The
bitterness of knowing the week would be filled with emptiness and loneliness
created despair from optimism.
With a sigh, he threw the covers back, rolled off the bed,
and planted his feet on the floor. The cold wood made him wince and hesitate
once more. The bed might feel cold but it kept his feet warm. Scouting the
floor with his toes, he searched for his slippers. He was as unsuccessful at
locating them as he was at coming up with an excuse to stay in bed.
With resignation, he planted his bare feet on the cold floor
and with a slight grimace, stood up. This wasn’t a graceful move. Knees popped
and his back groaned in protest, causing him to pause on his journey from
horizontal to vertical. He spread his arms wide in an attempt to stretch his back,
which nearly sat him back down as a sudden sharp pain caught him off guard.
night of sleeping on it wrong,
he thought to himself with a frown before
making his way down the hall. There had been quite a few nights like that
His morning ritual began in the kitchen with opening the
electric percolator, pouring in a healthy scoop of coffee grounds, and filling
it with water. Next was the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face in
an effort to chase away the last remnants of sleep then ran the hot water to
The mirror reflected a man who was at once both familiar and
a stranger. His short dark hair was graying above his ears. The wrinkles
between his eyes and around his lips certainly didn’t help. He had been
frowning a lot more lately, and it showed. Dark circles under his eyes betrayed
his inability to get a solid night’s sleep.
He examined the image in the glass as if trying to decide if
it was a reflection or some kind of window to another room where another man
stared back at him thinking the same things. The strong jaw, blue eyes, and
slender (if slightly crooked) nose, were all features that hadn’t changed much
in the last two decades. The thin scar running from the corner of his right
brow down the side of his face, where a series of smaller scars peppered his
cheek and neck – compliments of a mortar round that had landed a little too
close during his first tour in Korea – was a feature he had gotten used to over
the years and felt familiar enough. The crooked nose brought back the memory of
a fight at the age of fourteen. He decided, despite the signs of age, the man
in the mirror was indeed himself.
Jenny used to say he was ruggedly handsome. He didn’t
exactly know what that meant, but he never seemed to have problems attracting
women when he was younger.
He wet a comb in the running water
and ran it through his hair, frowning as the comb passed too easily through a
thin spot on the top of his head.
I’ll be forty before long,
with a sigh. Scratching at his day old whiskers, he splashed the now hot water
on his face and shaved.
For over twenty years, Jack would start each day with some pushups
and sit ups, followed by a five mile run. He still ran occasionally, mostly out
of habit and sometimes just to try to run away from the pain that lingered, but
the rest of the exercises seemed pointless anymore. His interest in remaining
fit was fleeting at best. The lack of exercise occasionally showed itself when
he was buttoning his pants, but a lack of appetite and a job that didn’t allow
him to sit very often kept him pretty much within ten pounds of one-ninety.
After dressing, he made his way back to the kitchen, poured
a hot cup of coffee and unplugged the percolator. The thought of his appointment
this morning put a knot in his stomach just below the knot of anxiety in his
chest, and the normally comforting beverage wasn’t helping. After a few sips,
he looked at his watch and poured the remaining coffee in the sink. If there
was one thing he retained from all those years in the military, it was his
dedication to being on time.
The beautiful, sunny morning was lost on him as he speculated
on the upcoming appointment. With a grunt, he bent down to open the garage
door. Most mornings he would pause at this point to admire the car sitting in
the garage, maybe even brushing an imaginary speck of dust off the gleaming red
paint. Today it was just a mode of transportation to get him to somewhere he
didn’t really want to go. Without hesitation, he slid behind the wheel.
A moment to get settled in the seat, two quick pumps of the
gas pedal, and a quick flick of the key was all it took to get the well-tuned
small block engine to fire to life. The deep rumble of the exhaust was a
normally pleasing sound that, once again, went unnoticed. Pausing to let the
engine warm up, he rested his forehead on the steering wheel and let his mind
wander to the prior day’s events.
* * *
A small transistor radio was playing something new from the
Beatles, the music rattling like tin from the small speaker. Jack didn’t care
much for the ‘hippie rock-n-roll’ but it was the only station the small radio
would reliably pick up in the garage. He only knew the artists playing because
the younger folk he worked around all had transistor radios either strapped to
their equipment or hanging from a strap on their belt, and if they weren’t
talking about the girls they dated, they talked about the music. The only
reason it played was to keep a rhythm going as he worked. With a sigh he rubbed
the last of the dry wax off the cherry red paint. The August sun was out in
full force promising another hot day, but it was early yet, only eleven a.m.,
and he was parked under the shade of a large tree. Despite the cool temperature
and a nice breeze, he was still sweating. This kind of work wasn’t all that
strenuous, but there was a dull throbbing in his back, just above his belt. Stepping
back from the car, he reached both arms out wide and with a groan arched his
back to stretch. Not too many weeks past he could have waxed his car three
times in a row without any pain at all. Either he was getting old or it was
time to step up the morning exercises again.
He mopped at the sweat that beaded on his forehead like
water on his freshly waxed paint. The pain subsided as he took a final deep
breath then took a moment to admire the car. The 1965 Ford Mustang was the only
thing he had really treated himself to since the accident. When he saw one
sitting at the local Ford dealership, he impulsively pulled his 1958 four door
Chevrolet, a gift he bought Jenny after the honeymoon, into the lot. After
fifteen minutes of discussion with the salesman, he special ordered the car in
cherry red with the race tuned V8 and three speed Cruise-o-Matic transmission. It
took almost two months to arrive. To Jack, the car was a work of art; from the
red paint to the white vinyl bucket seats. Every Sunday at ten a.m. he washed
and waxed it in the driveway, unless it was raining or snowing, in which case
he used a spray bottle and a cloth diaper to wipe it down in the garage. This
was his ritual, his routine, the end result of twenty years of discipline in
the army, and the neighbors could probably set their watch to it.
A sound worked its way into his conscience, interrupting his
fascination with the freshly waxed thing of beauty in front of him.
the phone ringing?
“Who the hell is calling on a Sunday?” he said out loud
as he walked to the back door, which entered directly into the kitchen. “I’m
coming, I’m coming,” he mumbled impatiently to nobody in particular. He picked
the phone up off its cradle and said, “Hello.”
“Is this Jack Taggart?” A woman’s voice.
Confusion best described his reaction – it was Sunday, and
this didn’t sound like a social call. “Uh, yes it is, how may I help you?”
“Please hold.” There was a click and some music, like you
would hear in an elevator. His heart rate elevated and his mind raced as he
tried to figure out why someone’s secretary was calling on a Sunday morning.
Vietnam was heating up, and some retirees were being called back to duty
it couldn’t be the military calling him, they wouldn’t have hold music. That
“Jack, sorry to call you on a Sunday. I-” Bill Callun. His
“Hi, Bill, how are you?” Jack interrupted, trying
unsuccessfully to feign enthusiasm.
“Good, Jack, thanks for asking. Say, I got those blood test
results and x-rays from your last visit, and,” a small hesitation, “well, can
you come in tomorrow morning first thing?” His already upset stomach gurgled,
and his dry forehead started beading with sweat again.
More confusion, this time with a knot of anxiety forming in
his chest. “Results? Bill, I... I don’t understand.” A little over two weeks
ago, Jack had started suffering some indigestion and spasms in his lower back. Fearing
it was maybe a kidney stone, he had gone to visit Bill. The doctor didn’t find
blood in his urine, a sure sign of a kidney stone, so he went ahead and gave
him a full physical, took some blood and urine for some more tests, and even
did a couple x-rays – just as a precaution of course. He was, after all,
getting close to forty and it was a good idea to start paying a little closer
attention to his health. Until now, he hadn’t heard anything and figured it
meant there was no problem. “Why are you calling on a Sunday for Christ’s sake,
and what is it you can’t tell me over the phone?” Jack wasn’t a particularly
religious man, but he was irritated at the trend of businesses starting to
remain open on Sundays. He could understand a grocery store being open on a
Sunday afternoon, but certainly doctors weren’t coming in to work on the day of
“Look I’m sorry Jack, I was out of the office most of last
week, and decided to come in to catch up on some work this morning, before
hitting the golf course. The test results were waiting on my desk. I... well I
didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to call, you know how hard you are to reach
at work, and I want to talk to you first thing in the morning about it.” He
hard to reach at work, especially when he was on the job site.
“Uh... sure, I can be there.”
Wait a second..
why did your secretary call me? Don’t tell me you dragged her in to work on a
Sunday just to help you make a couple phone calls.” Jack never missed a detail,
and was pretty good at reading between the lines. It had helped him to be a
good officer, being able to quickly read a situation, whether on the
battlefield or when dealing with the bureaucratic bullshit the army is built
“Uh... I...” Bill stuttered for a moment, then went silent,
then tried again. “She uh, knew I was going to come in to work, and um...
needed the overtime.” Jack didn’t buy it for a second. There were rumors that
Bill was nailing his secretary on the side, but nevertheless it still came as a
shock. He was a doctor, and he had so much to lose – Kathy, and the kids...
what an asshole
“OK Bill, when do you want me to come by?” He said it like
he no longer wanted to be on the phone.
Bill picked up on it, and hastily said, “Can you be here at
“I’ll be there.” Short again.
“Listen Jack, can we keep-”
. He hung up before
the doctor could finish. Bill’s personal problems were none of his concern, and
there were other things occupying his mind at the moment.
This can’t be
he thought as he stood there staring at the phone on the wall. The
sun had cleared the tree in the back yard and was now hitting the kitchen
window full force. He opened a couple windows and the back door. Cool air
breezed in and dried the sweat that had beaded back up on his forehead while he
stood there pondering the nature of the call.
Still a bit bewildered, he stumbled to the refrigerator and
pulled out a bottle of beer. Looking around for the bottle opener, he realized
it was in the garage and headed that way. His stomach gurgled again, and he
rubbed it even though he knew it wouldn’t make the nausea go away. The alcohol
wouldn’t help either, but at least it could do something about this knot of
anxiety. The bottle popped open with a hiss and he tossed the cap into a can he
kept next to the bench. He took a swallow, and sat down on a stool.
Trying to make sense of it, he ran the conversation through
his head a few more times.
It’s gotta be bad if he won’t tell me on the
. While he pondered the implications, his thoughts wandered, as they
often did, to his wife. If that excavator hadn’t broken down and cost him an
afternoon wading through the mountain of forms to get another machine allocated
to his crew, he may very well have never even met her. In fact, the more the
thought about it, it seemed like everything good that happened in his life came
about after some misfortune or other.