Open mic night at Zoe’s Lounge often brought out some eccentric types. As an aspiring writer myself, I enjoyed the variety of characters I met in and out of the stories read each Tuesday night, but Jack Harrington seemed like Joe Anybody in his white t-shirt and faded denim jeans. The program listed him as a Creative Writing major at nearby Penn State University. Among the sea of bohemian skirts and interestingly placed body piercings, he looked like a prudish outcast.
When Jack got up to read his story, I was impressed at the lack of pretense about him. He brought up several white index cards and kept scanning the room nervously. It was a refreshing change. Most readings were performed with overdressed emotion along with looks of yearning that could be confused with constipation in another setting.
The piece was called “Final Chapter” about his college sweetheart who was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor just months before they were to get married. Their carefree evenings spent reading classic literature to each other over shared cigarettes ended. They traded wine glasses filled with full bodied reds for chemo cocktails that robbed her of her thick raven black hair and her lighthearted personality.
It was heartbreaking and he told the story with controlled emotion and vivid detail. He had to dropout of college to care for her, abandoning his dreams of writing, instead using the time and money to support their short life together. Now he wondered if he could ever love again. Could he? Would he? He wasn’t performing as much as he was asking us, the audience, as we dabbed our eyes and bobbed our heads with encouragement. When the readings ended, his story lingered in my mind as I pondered the fate of someone my age going through so much.
The tap on my window in the shadowed parking lot initially scared me. Jack stood behind the glass of my window mouthing something inaudibly. An electronic whir broke the silence and I let the window down and felt the cold crisp air rush into the warmth of my car.
“Would you like to go grab a drink or something?” he asked with a sheepish grin.
I felt my face pinch up as I thought about his reading wondering if I cared to sip a latte with this guy and his ghost of a fiancee. By the end of the reading, she had felt almost like a friend to me. I imagined him sitting on a plaid throw blanket as he recited Lord Byron to her under an apple tree. It all seemed so personal. Would she approve of his moving on? Was he ready to move on? Would he? Could he? As I pondered the morbidity of my competing with a memory I was interrupted by another rap on the window.
“So, how about it? ” he said with an optimistic shrug then showed me the dimple on his left cheek.
Not sure if I was asking out of pity for him or to protect myself I ventured, “How long ago since she - em - died?”
His answer was a look of confusion.
“Linda, your fiance,” I reminded him.
“There is no Linda,” he said.
This time I gave a look of confusion.
“I mean. Linda doesn’t exist. She never did. She is part of the fiction I write. I never had a fiancee, I never dropped out of college. I’m studying to become a fiction writer remember? I lie for a living - on paper that is,” he said and showed me the dimple again.
“One cup.” I said and wondered what I was getting myself into.
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