Five close friends, affected by a war and the rigors of life, attempt to reconnect and reignite their brotherly bond…
by: Ben Macnair
It had been a while since I had last seen Jack. With him, though, that was never anything unusual. If you did not see Jack for a while, you knew that he was alright. When you saw him for longer than a month in any one place, that was usually where the trouble started.
I had last seen him three months prior after myself and some of our old friends had received a postcard. Jack had said that he had found himself a girl, and the girl had brought trouble. Jack needed a place to stay, and back home seemed like the perfect place. As he said, it was right on the harbor front, and just big enough to get lost in, but just small enough for someone in a room to know what you were getting up to. He called our little town home, but it was always somewhere for him to arrive at, or leave, it never seemed to be a place for him to stay. I cannot really remember the first time I had met him, and I was never sure if the last time I saw him would really turn out to be the last time I saw him.
It had been mid October, 1971 when that postcard had arrived. Jack always made an entrance, and the next time we saw him was no different. Dean and myself had seen him down at the seafront diner. He was playing boogie woogie piano, with an old jazz cat blowing away on a saxophone. In the corner, tapping her foot was a beautiful blonde, looking like you would expect Marilyn Monroe to look if she was in a place like this. You just knew that would be Jack’s girl.
Now, Jack was not what you would call a classically handsome man. He was a little on the short side, and he had a face that could be described as being lived in. Our parents had always said that he was trouble. At the time, I had defended him, but now I knew that they were right.
Dean and I had recently graduated. I was going to be a writer, Dean was going to work in defence. It had been what the president had promised was going to be a golden age. We had just seen Vietnam and as we were soon to find out, Nixon was one of the bigger liars going. The three of us had been for military training, but we never made the grade. I had been shortsighted, Dean had found out he was colorblind, and Jack, well Jack was a little too short.
No one had said that you had to have perfect vision, or be of a certain height, but those were the rules then. We had heard two of our closest friends who didn’t get so lucky with the vision and height problems had a tough time overseas. Rob had lost the use of a leg, and Charlie had seen things that he didn’t want to see.
We knew that we were lucky, but it had destroyed our friends’ lives. We always asked how they were. We felt bad, Dean and myself, but we chalked it up to Survivor’s guilt. That was all that we could do.
Rob tried to blank some of the pain with drink, but we were there for him when he realized he had a problem. He is on the mend now, but we have to keep an eye on him. As he said, the line is only so thin, and he needs help to stay on it. We are his safety net.
Charlie had not been seen for months. Last we heard, he was travelling, wanted to see some of the world. We waited for word from him, but it never came.
Dean had a job with the local army base. I had a staff job at the local weekly rag. I really wanted to write the great American novel, but at least this way, I get paid to write, and the characters, stories, and people that I will write about as fact, may some time work their way into fiction. I had my misgivings, after all, I had known the people here all my life, and it would seem wrong to write about them, even if I did do my best to hide their true identities.
Rachel, that was the name of Jack’s latest squeeze. She had been a singer, but owed someone dangerous some money and had to get away. Jack’s life had always read more like a movie than real life, but that was always the type of man that he was. When you were with Jack, you just couldn’t help but be whisked away by his ideas and his plans. Of course, none of them ever worked out the way that Jack would have wanted.
That was why he was never in one place for more than a week or so. He was charming, but his people skills were always somewhat lacking. Dean, Rob, Charlie, and myself we always tried to do our best by him, but he never saw our efforts as help. He always said it was charity, and when his luck came in, then he would repay us everything that he owed.
Luck never rode on a horse, or could be found in gambling, drinking, or womanising. Jack always attracted trouble. When he was around, it was always best to keep your head down, and your nose clean. Over the years, the four of us had always forgiven Jack, and that took a lot of forgiving.
He had taken Rob’s girlfriend while he was in Vietnam, and after he had his way he left her to make her own way home, on a twenty mile road at just after midnight. When I first started working at the paper, he pretended to be all types of people. I had followed the leads, only to find him there.
Then one day, I got a scoop, but it was so unbelievable that I knew it just had to be Jack. The junior I sent got the big exclusive story, and now he is on more money than me, and he has his own column. That was always the type of joker that our so-called friend was.
Dean had come into the office one day in October, with the postcard.
“Hey, do you think we should see him this time?” asked Dean, almost rhetorically.
“So he can spin the same lies and bullshit, say he is sorry, and then skip town with more of our money. No, he has had his chances with me this time.”
“Yeah, that was what Rob said. But, just for one night, it would be good to see him.”
“Yeah,” I said, almost laughing. “Be good to see him, spend a night with him, put the world to rights, but just one night, okay.”
“Yeah, alright. He will be in town early November. Says he has a new girl he wants us to meet. Her name’s Rachel, he says she looks like Marilyn Monroe. Just be his luck.”
One night in November, the four of us got together. We sat in the diner. There was early Elvis playing on the radio, and the Beatles had been on a little earlier. We had grown up on this music. The four of us had been to see Hendrix. We thought he was the golden boy, played some of the most soulful guitar imaginable. “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Purple Haze,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Little Wing,” “Foxy Lady,” countless others. Now, even he was gone, and the four of us as we sat there knew that things had changed.
Jack needed money to help Rachel. He knew that we wanted to help him, but not everyone could. Rob had been in no position to help. As he pointed out, now that he had lost the use of a leg he was of no use to anyone.
Jack still owed me big from the last time he had visited. He owed me more than 1,000 dollars. My job pays quite well, but not well enough to be able to write of a debt to a friend of that size.
Dean wanted to help, but he was in the same boat.
“Call yourself friends?” asked Jack.
“Yes,” I had replied, “but if you were any kind of friend to us, you would not keep taking money from us that you could not afford to pay back.”
“Hey guys, how are you, long time no see?” said a strange, yet familiar voice behind us.
We all turned and looked at once. It was Charlie. He looked better than he ever had before. We all stood to welcome him to the table.
“So, how are you all doing?” said Charlie.
“Not so well, to be honest,” replied Rob “I lost my leg in Vietnam, and now I can’t get a job.”
“Oh man, I am sorry to hear that. How is Sarah?”
“Sorry,” replied Rob, glaring at Jack. “I don’t know. We are no longer together.”
“Oh that’s rough.”
“No, not really. I think it is all for the best.”
“So Dean, you still going on strong?”
“I am working down at the army base.”
“It pays well, which is something.”
“And you, are you Hemingway yet?” he said looking at me.
“God, no. I work for the paper.”
“And Jack, still keeping to the beat?”
“I wish. I need a thousand dollars, and I need it now.”
“Well, I would help you if I could, but I don’t have that sort of money just to hand out.”
“Yeah. You’re as much use as this lot, aren’t you?” said Jack as he stormed out.
“Trouble, eh? He never changes,” said Charlie, to himself as much to anyone else.
We left the diner early and headed to the pictures. It was a Gregory Peck film, none of us could remember which one, but we queued in the rain just so the four of us could be together. Dean, Rob, Charlie, and myself watched the film, knowing that we were all on the cusp of adulthood, and knowing that the coming weeks would be full of trouble.
I was in the office the following Monday morning when the phone rang. It was the police wanting to know if I knew where Jack was. Rachel had been found by the side of a road, she was alive, and as well as could be expected, but had no memory of how she got there, or what she was doing there.
I explained that Jack was in some sort of trouble. He and Rachel owed some money, but I didn’t know who to, or how much. I also knew that I had not heard from Jack in more than four days, but that was part of the course with him.
I was in the diner with Charlie on the following Thursday when Jack walked in. He looked like hell. He normally looked bad, too much drink, too many cigarettes, too many late nights, but this time he looked worse than he had done in a while.
We made small talk until he offered a sort of mumbled apology for his behavior. He and Charlie had always been mates. That was true, it had been Dean and myself, Charlie and Jack, and Rob, who we had met at high school. It was only the five of us. I knew that it broke Jack’s heart to see Charlie like this. It broke my heart as well, but now I could see that Charlie was getting over the worst of his experience, and was able to face better days.
At the time, we never knew how few better days Charlie would have.
Jack had said that he needed to get away. Things were getting too heavy for him at the moment. He owed big money, and now that Rachel had been hurt, by the same men that had beaten him, the police were after him.
I knew it was serious this time. Jack had always tried to laugh things off in the past, but this time, I could tell that things were different.
He shook hands, but that soon changed to a hug. I liked Jack, he was trouble, but he was a friend.
“I will probably be away for a while this time. I will keep in touch. I will see you some time, probably be after the fall. I have never forgotten the money I owe you. When…”
“Your luck changes, you will pay us back everything you owe. I know you will,” I replied.
“I am giving Charlie I lift home,” said Jack, throwing his spare helmet to Charlie. “He is on my route anyway. It is the least I can do.”
“Yeah, he lives out by the main road.”
“Oh, of course. See you Charlie, thanks for the drink, I owe you one sometime.”
“Don’t worry. A pint of beer is a price worth paying for the therapy you have given me.”
Charlie put on the helmet and got on the bike. He smiled at me. Jack and Charlie both waved at me as they roared away. I watched them drive off, picked up my bag, and walked home in the light November rain that had just started to fall.
It was the last time I was to see either one of them. I had a call from the paper at 3 am that night. There had been an accident out on the main road. A motorbike had swerved to avoid a vehicle, and had run off the road. The driver had escaped, but his passenger had died on impact. I knew it was Jack and Charlie before I even got there. The copy that I filed that night was the hardest I have ever had to do.
Rob, Dean, and myself were at the funeral that Thursday. I had heard the ghost of Jack’s motorbike roaring through the hills. Nobody knew what had happened, only that Jack was missing, but Charlie was dead, and the motorbike ride that they shared destroyed the lives of all of their friends. We saw the wreckage of Jack’s motorbike on the news. Mum and Dad were both shocked, but they had both said he was trouble.
We never saw Rachel after the funeral. Word was that it was Jack who owed the money, and not her. He just used his girlfriend as a cover for all of his mistakes.
I visited Charlie’s grave a number of times. Each time, there were fresh flowers by it, and a blank postcard. Charlie’s family had moved away, and we had no idea who sent the flowers. We all suspected it to be Jack, but no-one ever said anything. Like Jack himself, it was a subject we never spoke about again.
I last received a postcard three months ago. Dean and Rob had both had one as well. We all knew what it meant, but could never find the words to express what was happening.
I had moved to a new house, just up the street. It was not a bigger or fancier house, just a different one. You need change, it makes you feel alive. Jack had told me he would be in contact, after the Fall. It is now November, a year since he last breezed into town. This time, I know not to hold my breath.