Such a Lovely Season

First published in Collateral, Issue 8.1, Winter 2023. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Teeming, pouring, relentless rain all weekend long. The downpour rattling windows, thudding on roof tops, pouring from gutter spouts, flash flooding streets. Until at last, the storm subsided, the merciful scent of petrichor filling the languid air.

“Or something like that, Steven muttered to himself. “Something like that.”

He’d spent the long indoor days reading, sleeping, reading. Occasionally, Steven wrote down his thoughts. Finally, the dark skies cleared, he washed, dressed, donned his favorite cap, jauntily walked out the foyer, locked the door, headed briskly down Smithson, past the strip mall and Taco Bell, to Joe Crawford’s Convenience and Novelty.

“Morning, Joe.”

Looking up from his paper, Crawford said, “Hi there.” The beefy, middle-aged man pushed down his spectacles, appraised Steven. Like clockwork, always a book under his arm—math, science, history. The man certainly read a lot—and each day bought one ticket. Just one.

“The new scratch-off,” said Steven, pointing to his selection in the clear plastic case beside the register.

Crawford folded his newspaper, placed it aside, separated the blue and white ticket from its orderly stack, waited for Steven to hand him two dollars.

“Thanks, Joe.”

And Steven slipped the fanciful ticket into his pocket. A regular customer. He never made small talk, never looked back.

As though blessing a supplicant, Crawford said, “Thank you.” He pushed his spectacles to the bridge of his nose, continued reading. The fresh air and sunlight further lifted Steven’s spirits. At Smithson and Broad he turned left, stepped over a knee-high fence, found the narrow dirt path preferred by locals, caught sight of the empty beach, the white-tipped waves, the far horizon. Deserted? Wonderful! He raised his right hand, pointed skyward, and whooped loudly, the brief echo immediately swallowed by the surf’s million grains of tumbling sand, the screech of startled gulls.

More good news: at the far end of the shore line the Nautilus Café had re-opened its seasonal doors. He plodded forward, the dry sand scrunching underfoot, not yet burning hot. Every few yards, as if searching for signs of life, he knelt to pick up bits of twinkling sea glass. Blue. Brown. Green. He inspected each colorful shard, pocketing a few, tossing the others aside. Spotting a horseshoe crab, anticipating the awful stench, he held his breath until the dead thing lay far behind him.

From thirty yards he saw the boy, step to the café door. He was taller now, had grown a full beard; colorful tattoos decorated his right arm from bicep to wrist.

“Good to see you,” said Steven.
“You too,” said the boy. “The usual?”

He remembered. His voice was deeper, thoughtful, self-assured. The  café was deserted. Too early for tourists,
thought Steven.

“Yes. The usual.”

Removing his cap, he sat at his favorite table. Searched in his pocket for the scratch-off ticket. Settling in, he savored the cafe’s enduring black and red tiled floor, its wainscoted walls, the black and white photograph of the very first opening day, Steven in the second row, third from the left, a closed smile turning up one side of his face.

“Here you are,” said the boy. “Coffee, black, no sugar.”
“Excellent,” said Steven. Thank you much.”

A fresh cup, a quiet room, a beautiful day. What more could one ask?

With a coin, Steven methodically scratched the colorful ticket. Match two numbers, win prize shown! As if more than money were at stake, he scraped the gaudy surface raw. Meanwhile, the boy set to work. One chair after another, he flipped each onto a table, ran the mop beneath and around it, worked his way throughout the room. By the time he’d finished, the floor had dried, and he reversed the process, lifting each chair from its tabletop, tumbling it over, setting it down. With a moist rag he wiped the table bright and clean. Table. Chair. Table. Chair. Mop and swirl and mop again. The boy’s unbroken regularity of action, his rhythmic balletic sway—the whole of it accomplished without worry—Steven wondered: what thoughts are going through his young mind? What ideas or desires does he have? A girl he hoped to meet? A book he wished to buy and read? Or a down payment on… Oh, who could tell? Anything was possible on a day like today!

He inhaled the earthy vapor of his coffee. Such good fresh strong coffee. After the first few sips his mind began to pulse, his fingers drumming the tabletop as he watched the boy at his chore. All labor, Steven realized, boiled down to nothing but plain, hard, suffering work. You arrive one day young and fresh and quick to learn. Eager to do what needs to be done. But when the first bullets sing, when the whistling shells fall, when young men, suddenly sheathed in red, twist and writhe, how can you not be shocked into infinite clarity? From that day onward you must concentrate. You must not look back or up or down or you will go crazy. Got that, boy? Do you read me loud and clear? Do you Roger that? Do we have solid copy? Now write this down, son: it is better to laugh loud and fucking clear than succumb to the muck of drudgery.

Steven leaned forward. Inhaled once more the aromatic vapor from his cup. Sipped and sipped the inky brew. Purposefully crossed his arms, stared at the blue and white ticket. In the eye of his mind, once more the lieutenant asked him to count the corpses.

“Can’t do it, sir,” said Steven. “They’re all mixed up.” And he saw, in that ghastly broken pile, the awfulness of combat. Its obscene dexterity. For what? He wondered. What?

The lieutenant glared at him. “You got a problem, sergeant? You can’t follow orders?” Swiftly, the young officer grabbed a naked foot, yanked with all his might. Instantly the enemy corpse—a man or boy he couldn’t tell—seemed to jump from the tangled heap, to wildly dance mid-air, rigid arms and right leg ghastly flapping, like sails in the wind.

“From now on,” hollered the gleeful lieutenant, clenching the left leg, snapped clean from the hip, “I will grab one leg, sergeant. You will grab the other. On my count, we’ll make a wish!”

At that, the exultant officer, the grinning platoon, exploded with laughter, and Steven laughed loudest of all.


“More coffee, sir? Then, on second glance, “Is everything all right?”

Steven looked straight into the youthful gaze, the sheer cliff of its civility, which blinked expectantly back at him. If only he could erase that time. If only part of it. Or should he write it down? Why not? Every last stinking word. To be read aloud each year by one hundred ardent students to their assembled ardent teachers. Wouldn’t that be something! Toss the whole bloody mess—patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon—from his psyche. Rid himself of its awfulness. But at his age? Wife deceased, children married, his life’s joys neatly framed on the living room mantle. Why stir up trouble?

In his best restrained voice, “I’m good,” he said, and folded his hands prayer-like over the crumpled ticket. “I’m good.”

top photo: Lewis Bay, Cape Cod. Egorova Svetlana / Wikimedia