James Daniel Walsh
CASEY FUMBLED for her keys, sniffing back tears and cursing her sentimentality. It was just a stupid movie after all, nothing but celluloid and light, an illusion. No one’s heart was really broken, so why was she crying?
This was all Johnny’s fault. Three years came and went since he left her, days before her 25th birthday, without any explanation. Since then, she noticed her once-light heart grow heavy with cynicism. Still, she was a sucker for a sad movie. Why, after a long shift waiting tables, did she drag her weary bones down to the cinema and watch a late-night movie she knew would leave her in such a state? Maybe she was looking for an excuse to cry. Maybe if she wept for the film’s poor abused heroine, she could cry out all the tears she had stored up.
The night air was thick around her, her dark shoulder-length hair glued to the back of her neck with sweat. The day had been miserable, a hot August downpour leaving Long Beach humid and muggy. Lakewood wasn’t much better tonight, but the trek here to the mall where she’d whiled away her teen years was a necessary one. There were a dozen perfectly good theaters in Long Beach, but Casey just didn’t want to be reminded of all those lovely moments with Johnny, sitting in those darkened auditoriums with his hand in hers. The thought brought fresh tears to her eyes as she silently cursed both her ex and the blasted key that fought sliding into the lock of her driver-side door.
“Excuse me, miss,” a voice said from behind her, “why are you crying?”
Casey turned around, and there stood a young man about her age. He was tall and lanky, his brown hair cut short and brushed back. He was dressed simply in slacks and a blue short-sleeved T-shirt, and was not altogether unappealing except for the goofy smile he wore on his clean-shaven face.
Casey laughed at herself, embarrassed that she’d been caught bawling over fiction. “I just saw a very sad movie is all. I’m fine.”
“Must have been some movie,” he said, his brow furrowing with curiosity. “Which one was it?”
“Prayer for a Holocaust,” she answered him, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
“Why, I just saw that one myself!” he said with a smile. “Funny I didn’t see you in the theater. But how could you say it was sad? I thought that was such an uplifting picture.”
“Did you say it was uplifting?” she asked in astonishment.
“Why yes. I feel wonderful having watched it.”
Casey’s jaw dropped at the statement. “Didn’t you pay any attention to the ending?” she asked in horrified outrage.
He nodded. “Why yes, it was the ending I found so uplifting.”
“The girl was left all alone!” she cried, and he nodded and smiled. “How can you be so cold?”
“Cold?” he asked, confused. “I’m not cold. The ending was absolutely joyous.”
“How can you say that?” she demanded to know, her face flushed with indignation. It may have only been celluloid pain, but she felt compelled to defend it against this awful man and his smile. After all, Casey connected with that pain for a time, made it her own. Wasn’t he than saying there was something joyous in her pain? “What kind of person are you who could take joy in witnessing such tragedy? You’re horrible!”
“No I’m not,” he said, taking a step toward her. “The ending was a happy one. Take a walk around the block with me and I’ll prove it.”
A lech as well! She should have known. “I’m not going anywhere with you,” she spat, looking him up and down with disgust.
He turned his back on her and nodded. “Just as I thought—a woman who can shoot her mouth off but won’t stand by what she says. …Typical.”
Now he’d gone and done it. Casey’s feminist pride would never let a challenge like that go so long as she had estrogen in her body. “Not only will I take a walk around the block with you,” she said, jabbing a challenging finger into his back, “but I’ll make a bet with you. If you can’t convince me that this movie had a happy ending, you give me the ten bucks my ticket cost me.”
He turned around, that smile never wavering. “And if I win, you’ll kiss me.” Now the smile widened and his eyes sparkled.
“Fine,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “You won’t convince me anyway.”
“The name is Sam,” he said, clicking his heels together and bowing. He looked up at Casey and held out his hand. “Shall we?”
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans and turned up her nose. “I don’t need your hand, thank you very much.” Sam shrugged his shoulders, and they walked away from the busy movie theater parking lot, headed off toward Lord knows what. “So what are you going to show me?” Casey asked with a sigh, partly regretting her decision to follow this stranger. But she was unable to tuck tail and run now that her pride was on the line—she’d show him that not all women could be swayed by toothy grins and sticky-sweet sentimentality.
“That tragedy isn’t quite as tragic as you might think,” Sam answered with a smile.
Pompous jerk. “I think you must not have known much suffering in your life,” Casey said with a disgusted curl of her lip.
“Only my share,” he answered.
They strolled in virtual silence for two blocks till they came to James Madison Elementary School. They walked onto the campus, their footsteps echoing as they clapped against the blacktop. They made their way to the playground, still radiating heat from the August sun’s brutal daytime assault.
“So what are we doing here?” she asked, looking around for some ultimate truth this stranger might have hidden between the slide and the jungle gym. She saw nothing.
“This is where I went to school,” Sam answered, looking around with nostalgia written all over his face.
Casey shrugged her shoulders. “So?”
“So…” he laughed, “do you know what the kids here used to call me? …Never mind, I won’t repeat those things. Let’s just say they weren’t very nice. Kids aren’t just cruel, they’re imaginative. That makes them more dangerous than adults in many ways.”
“And your point is?” she asked, unimpressed with his schoolyard philosophizing.
“My point is tears are cried here daily. They were cried here today, and they’ll be cried here tomorrow. But mixed in with those tears are laughter and friendship.”
How naive this man was. Casey almost felt sorry for him. “Laughter fades, and friendships don’t last.”
“You are far too cynical,” Sam said, trotting off to the monkey bars. She sighed and followed, watching as he clutched the metal bar and flipped upside down, hanging by his legs. “Do you remember the first girl who teased you?” he asked, swaying back and forth like a child having the time of his life.
“No,” she said with a shake of her head.
“No,” he repeated back to her, his face flush red as he looked up at her. “Do you remember the first time you scraped your knee?”
“No.” Sam tried to dismount gracefully but instead crashed to the rubber mat below like a sack of potatoes. He was on his feet a second later, his clothes dusty but that smile cemented on his face. “But I bet you do remember your first friend. Your first lunch box. Your first kiss.” His eyebrows jumped comically.
Casey smiled and nodded. “Yes, I remember all of that,” she admitted, fond memories sweeping her away for a moment back to a simpler time.
“I thought so,” he said and leaned in, lips puckered.
She put her hand against his face and pushed him away, snapping back to the here and now like a rubber band. “I’m not convinced yet,” she said, turning and walking away.
“I’m not done yet,” he said with a shrug and followed along behind her.
They walked out of the schoolyard and around the corner, the whole while Sam looking over at her with that insipid grin on his face. He thought he’d won the bet, but he hadn’t and wouldn’t. It would take more than silly childhood sentimentality to sway her.
A block from the school, Sam came to an abrupt halt. “You see that house?” he asked.
Casey looked across the street at a little yellow house in a row of little yellow houses that all looked the same. “Yeah,” she confirmed with a nod.
“That’s where my first love lived,” he said, his eyes far away. “Her name was Judith. She was so beautiful. I used to think it must have taken God an eternity to get that hint of emerald in her eyes just right.” He sighed at the memory, shaking his head and clutching his heart.
Casey waited for Sam to continue, but he just kept staring at that house, lost to childhood romance. “Did Judith feel the same about you?” she finally asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
“No, she couldn’t stand the sight of me,” he admitted, his smile wider than ever.
What a silly fool this man was. “Than what good came of it?” she asked, exasperated. “The pain you felt?”
He continued to look over at that little yellow house in the row of little yellow houses. “If I had married Judith and we’d had our two children—Melissa and Sam Junior would have been their names, by the way—I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.” He turned and gave her a wink.
Casey matched his wink with a sarcastic grin. “Tragedy still,” she smirked.
Sam shook his head and sighed. “You focus too much on the negative, on the things you don’t have. There are innumerable things you don’t possess that are worth nothing, but I bet you do possess one or two things that are worth a great deal to you. What would you rather have—a mountain of nothing or a few things of splendid value?”
Casey looked him up and down, raising a curious eyebrow. Was this guy for real? “You certainly are a chipper fellow,” she said with a laugh. “How do you manage to stay that way?”
Sam shrugged. “I have my bad days, like everyone else, but then there are days like today that make life worth living.”
“But it rained all day,” she argued.
“Ah, the rain!” he said, closing his eyes and remembering each falling drop with love.
“And then it was smoggy,” she argued again.
He took a deep breath of night air. “To breathe!” he exhaled.
Casey laughed despite herself. “Such joy can be trying on one’s patience. What is the secret to such a positive attitude?”
Sam opened his eyes and took her hand. “I’ll show you,” he said, running off.
At first Casey resisted, but Sam dragged her behind him, and soon her feet were moving with his, traipsing through the night like children on an adventure through their backyard. He laughed and splashed in puddles and tried not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk, his spirit infectious. Casey soon joined in the merriment, dancing along behind him with fresh new laughter pouring out of her throat.
Naïve this stranger may have been, and no, he had not convinced her that Prayer for a Holocaust had a happy ending, but laughter was enough of a reason for her not to regret following him on this little odyssey. Since Johnny walked out on her, she wondered if she would ever laugh again or if she was doomed to an eternity of lonely nights sitting by the phone and hoping the object of her affection would come to his senses. Now here she was, hand in hand with a strange man, running through the night and laughing again.
Sam came to a stop a couple of blocks away from Judith’s house. They laughed and coughed and tried to catch their breath, still holding each others hands.
He pointed across the street at a blue house sitting in a row of blue houses. “You see that house?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Casey said with a nod.
“That’s where I grew up. I got this there.” He rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to show her a scar on his right shoulder.
“How did you get that?” she asked, still laughing. “Wait, let me guess: you got it when you fell off your bed, but there’s nothing tragic about it because you had fun bouncing first.”
Sam laughed and shook his head. “No, my dad hit me with a beer bottle,” he said. The answer stunned Casey into silence, and she stood there staring at his scar until he folded his sleeve down. “I remember that night,” he continued, still smiling away. “My father came home, drunk as usual, and the first thing he asks for when he walks through the door is his pipe and slippers. I was supposed to have them out whenever he got home, but that night I’d gotten caught up in my homework and forgot. So he took the bottle of beer he had in his hand, and he threw it at me. He was aiming for my head, but he missed.”
Casey looked at Sam and at the house, wondering if the beast that had treated his son so terribly still lived there. “How can you smile then?” she asked, looking back to Sam for answers, “when your father hurt you the way he did?”
“It’s for precisely that reason that I do smile,” he explained. “My father didn’t kill me—I’m still here, I’m still alive. That, my dear, is the whole point. I was teased on that playground, my first love couldn’t stand the sight of me, and my father liked to hit me. But I’m still standing. I still have laughter in my throat and love in my heart. That can’t be taken away from you. It has to be given away. I didn’t give mine away. Behold, I live. And because I live, there is no tragedy to speak of.”
Standing beside this man whom, less than a half an hour ago, she’d thought such a fool, made Casey feel so petty and cowardly. She could never be as brave and wonderful as to face such a past with a smile. She’d spent the last three years mourning a failed relationship that, in truth, wasn’t very good to begin with. To find joy in just being alive when so much of that life has been filled with such pain was a courage that humbled her.
“That woman in the movie,” Sam continued, looking down and into her eyes, “the one left all alone, the one that made you cry; she’s still alive. She gets to love again, so how can there be anything tragic about how that film ended? She still gets to live in this world that is so beautiful. All she has to do is choose to live.”
He opened his mouth to continue, but Casey silenced him with her lips pressed against his. She put her hands to his cheeks and pulled him close. Sam put his arms around her waist and kissed her back, so tenderly that fresh tears sprang to her eyes. Not tears of sorrow, but of joy.
He was right; he had been right all along. Whatever happens to us today can be burned away in the beautiful promise of tomorrow. Heartbreak and sorrow are but moments in time if we accept them and choose to find a new bliss to embrace. The ending of Prayer for a Holocaust was not bleak but uplifting, not tragic but joyous. There was hope in tomorrow, and life would go on. What happier ending could there be?
Their lips parted, and they rested their foreheads together. Sam looked into Casey’s eyes and smiled. “I win,” he said, and they both laughed and kissed again.
Look for this story and others in Manic Expression: A Collection – Tenderness now on sale.
Copyright © 2017 by James Daniel Walsh. Library of Congress Control Number: 2008903178 ISBN: 978-1-5215-0387-4 (Softcover)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.