“End of Season” By Joseph Grant
He had come back to that city of his youth, almost on a whim, a dare of memory, to see if it still existed, if it ever actually existed in the way he had once remembered.
Winter had come early that year. The streets were still wet from the hard, cold rain the night before. Ahead of him lay the austere, brown and thickly verdant mountains and the forest that had stopped the city in its nascent tracks and ceased it from becoming better known and better managed as its neighboring sister cities.
The downpour that had fallen had left snow deeper up into the mountains and the evergreens that lined the nearby ridges were silhouetted by the pristine, frozen tundra behind them. It was a picture perfect Ansel Adams postcard, if Adams had ever been thus inspired to photograph mediocrity.
Heavy mist hung in the air, chilling those who walked the wet streets below on this overcast, but brisk day. A cold wind bit down from the white mountains, compounding the raw effect, detaining the damp footprints of long-gone passersby on the gray sidewalk below.
The last time Jack had been in the city was when he was newly wed to his wife as well as many things that spring long ago. Many things had changed since as had the many seasons that had brought them.
Leaves scurried past him, whipped in miniature whirlpools by the wind at his back and he noticed how they landed in the wet and abandoned flowerpots that lined the café railing where the footsteps of many chose to walk past, but his own footsteps he chose to leave inside.
He maneuvered through the empty tables, their white, plastic chairs gathered and stacked together in the corner, a requiem to another season passed. The ashtrays were full of rainwater, the brown and tan checkered tablecloths sopped with water, limply clung against the marble table tops.
He followed a lone set of drying footprints into the warm and smoky café. Sunlight knifed down diagonally onto three large brown and green picture frames on the orange and red brick wall. Incense burned on the bar and gave off a pungent sensory memory of being back at church as a child. His boot heels echoed on the stone tiled floor the way they did in church as the proprietor looked up at him from behind the counter.
“Hello.” The man said pleasantly, but vacantly. Jack nodded.
“Hello, Phil.” He smiled. “It’s been a long time since being back here, you probably don’t remember me.”
“You used to come in here with that whole literary crowd. Of course, I remember.”
“That’s good.” Jack said and looked around. “It’s good to see the place hasn’t changed a bit.”
“No.” The man shook his head. “Change can stay outside the door, as far as I’m concerned.”
“That’s a good way to be.” Jack agreed. “Does Desiree still work here?”
“The brunette, the one who used to work here in the mornings.”
“I’m not sure who you mean.” He said and stopped.
“You know, the nice-looking brunette. She had the nicest smile.”
“Oh her.” He remembered. “No, she got pregnant and married some guy. Still sends Christmas cards. You want me to say hello for you?”
“Nah, she probably wouldn’t remember me, anyway. She was just very nice to me, that’s all. When I couldn’t afford to eat, she’d slip me a piece of pie or a free coffee. Like I said, she was nice to me.”
“Well, I could try. I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Jack.” He said. “Jack Bennington.” He said, now figuring out that the offer to say hello was probably a ruse to get him to say his name, which the man had apparently forgotten after all this time.
“Jack, that’s right, of course.” He nodded. “Now, I remember. What can I get you?” He said, moving away from the counter and the small talk.
“Caffe Latte, as usual.” Jack said, seeing if the guy would con him and say that he remembered as well.
“Caffe Latte it is!” He said and went about making the drink.
Absent-minded Christmas decorations hung overhead, even though New Year’s had been weeks past. Only three of the eight overhead lights were lit, the first, the fourth and the fifth, Jack noted. He had no idea why the others were not lit or why he had even cared. He looked to the wall for the infamous nude paintings, but they were gone and had been replaced by some awful reverberation of modern art.
“Tell me, Philippe, did you ever sell those paintings your brother-in-law did, you know the nudes dancing, like the ones in the Monet painting?”
“No, Señor.” He said with a look of painful resolution. “They never sold. They were put in storage.” He said and went back to making the steamed milk for the latte.
“Did your brother ever make a name for himself painting?”
“My brother is dead, Señor. He was a great painter. He sold many paintings during his life. Those I could never get sold.”
“I’m sorry, Philippe. I didn’t know.” Jack said. “My brother was a painter, too. I was reminded of the paintings by these on the wall. I remember when your brother’s paintings hung on the wall and the students from the Christian University came in from down the street and asked if you would take them down because they were offended by them.”
“Wasn’t it the magazines in the magazine rack?”
“No, it was the paintings. They found the nudity offensive and you told them: ‘Go somewhere else!’ I always found that amusing.”
“I don’t recall it being the paintings; it was a few years ago. I thought it was the magazines. Do you wish to buy them?”
“What? The magazines?” Jack asked, confused.
“No, Señor. The paintings.”
“That’s okay, Philippe.” He begged off.
“You could surprise that girl you brought in here every now and then. They could make a nice present for her, you know, the brunette. She was beautiful. Your wife, no?”
“No.” Jack said and looked at Philippe who stared at him perplexed. “Well, not any more I should say. We got divorced awhile back.” He said awkwardly. “Thanks, she was beautiful. Besides, I have no place to put the paintings in my new place.”
“That’s okay, Señor.” He shrugged. “You seemed interested and I know you always liked them. They’re just gathering dust in my garage. It was a thought, anyway.” He offered. “Here’s your latte. That will be five-thirty, please.”
Jack paid and sat down at a table. He spread out his notebook and took a pen from his jacket pocket and remembered all of the times he sat and wrote at the café. He smiled at the memory of the paintings and those ignorant students. College was for expanding one’s horizons, not limiting them.
The table in front of him was a large parquet-style table and sipped at the steaming latte. He had spent many hours at this very table when he dreamt of writing short stories for a public who apparently no longer read, who got their literature from audio books, who read autobiographies from the latest 15 minutes and counting no name, no talent celebrity or would-be celebutante, which was probably ghost written, anyway, he smiled smugly. He had since moved on to journalism, then to real estate where fiction-writing was a well-paid art form. He wasn’t happy and wished he could write but he had traded in his dreams for a stable paycheck and a man without dreams is a man without a reason to wake up in the morning.
The clock outside tolled. It was not the bell on the nearby church that rang; that had been broken for as long as he remembered, but the bell on the bank next door. It always struck Jack as if God had ceased to remind people of their hourly time here on earth, that the people were responsible for themselves and that if they did not attend church, then that was their business and in that, the bank had the only bell that rang, for time was money.
The only thing that could not change was the mountains. Or so he had once thought, as he bristled with a pained memory. He remembered how they had dammed up his favorite river in the mountains and subsequently, relocated the fish elsewhere.
He noticed that many of the same prints still hung in the café, the Chinese print of the Master of War pulling into Bangkok Harbor and the way the bricks on the inside were still chalk-marked to keep the ants off the wall and tables against them. He remembered that Philippe was a Buddhist and wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone an ant. He recognized the full length curtains that hung from the poles suspended out from the ceiling, demarcating the public front area from the more intimate, darker ‘regulars’ area by the back fireplace.
Jack reflected on the many changes that had taken place since he last sat near the fireplace and held court with his literary crowd and how he had showcased many a short story there to good and sometimes not so well-received reviews.
He had buried his brother, a true artist of the mind and talent given if there ever was one and he thought of him and how he loved him and how he, along with all his hopes and dreams had one day ceased to be. It was that simple. It was also that complicated. He remembered the early morning his other brother had called and his wife had picked up the phone and his brother intoned: “I don’t know any other way to say this. Doug’s dead.” and then hung up. Those five seconds changed him.
He thought of her, the one he had loved more than any, even when it was not supposed to be, but it finally happened and went on fantastically for a while and then one day, too ceased to be. Death of love was also in some ways the same as the death of that person, as they stopped being who they were to you and this, in turn, makes you change and everything is changed because of it; whether the change is welcome, a long time in coming, unexpected or changes nothing for the other or in fact, everything it touches. The point is that the change has come at all and the person whom you have loved with every fire of your being loves somebody other and the love they had for you is as cold and as dead as the winter outside your door and as dead as the ashes that have welled up inside you and choked you from the relentlessly stoked embers that once were the flames of her love.
Jack thought of how everyone is surrounded by little deaths in life. Of how there is little permanence in who we are, what we do, how we live or where we go in life. It is that sense of love that creates importance, creates memory and with each person we love, we carry a piece of them with us and that makes us part of who we are, what we do, how we live and where we go and when that love is taken from us, we are once again alone, cut adrift from the umbilical.
Which is why Jack was once again in the city of his youth. Life has many seasons and each one of them different. People entered, stayed for the duration, left in mid-scene, reappeared in the last act or just had that one memorable walk-on part, never to be seen again. It was emotion that tied all the scenery, the entire plot, the people, all of the errata, however intricate or trivially woven together. Whether the emotion was one of happiness, sadness, a strong abiding love or an equal cistern of hate or worse yet, indifference, it made us who we were, defined what we did, taught us how we lived and only absence of love in one’s life affected that season.
A cold steady rain began to fall outside. Jack thought of his brother lying dead in the frozen ground and felt a twinge of guilt sitting inside the warm café. But that had happened before the war. A lot of young men were dying this winter.
He thought of his marriage and how it too had died and how the love his wife once had for him had died and how it had been reborn with someone else. The saying went that what did not kill one made one stronger. But when the one you loved more than any other, loved honestly and loved more than life itself no longer loved you in return, it was as if you had died instead of them.
Jack wondered why he had even stopped here to begin with, as this had been their place. No stone had been left unturned by her in his collective memory. The more he stayed, the more it would remind him of what had been lost to another’s kiss. The town hid too many ghosts, held all too many dreams un-tethered.
‘Would you like anything else?” Philippe asked, his voice echoing from the darkness.
“No.” Jack shook his head. It was a loaded question in a city that left too many answers from his past. “I’ll see you next time, Philippe.”
“It was good that you came. I’m closing down the café, Señor.
“No one comes around anymore.”
Jack nodded and slipped a couple of bucks onto the copper bar and waved goodbye to his friend, Philippe. As he left the café, a hard rain began to beat down on the cement, erasing the steps of those who had been. The rain could come down as hard as it wanted, as far as he was concerned, as it was only a fleeting moment in the season.
When he got in his car, he decided he would not stay, would not bear witness to another rainy season without her. In a few weeks’ time the rain would dissipate into memory and recall the mountainside lush and green as the first time he had seen it with her. It had been a mistake to come back here, to revisit the past, he knew that now.
The coming of the new season would find him far from here, while the coming seasons changed around him almost imperceptibly, one day to claim him dead many seasons on. But for now, Jack continued oblivious, unabated and unaware in the late summer of his life, the love that would define him awaiting only a season and a half off, erasing the pedestrian footsteps of all those who had come before. The cycle would begin anew and the seasons would continue with him and one day, without him.