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Another Man's Boots, A Short Story
Downtown Charlotte, Monday Evening
"So I guess you'll enjoy seeing your son and his family next month?" Dr. Janson asked.
"Not really." Bob said.
On this cool, early evening they sat outside. Their table in beautiful downtown Charlotte was near the gold disc that Bob always thought looked like a prop from a Star Wars movie.
"And how does that make you feel?" She asked.
"Lucy always gets her five cents upfront..."
" Lucy's out of business and Charlie Brown is still trying to get signed up for Obamacare." She said. "Let me rephrase. How are you feeling about the upcoming holiday season and your apparent discomfort of sharing it with ... what's his name again?"
"Jacob," he said. "I thought you people listened when patients talked about their issues."
"Patients pay. All you ever do is give me a load...besides about half the time your babbling sounds like the adults in those Peanuts cartoons."
"My son, Jacob, thinks I'm a first class prick." Bob said.
"At least he's not delusional."
"What about you?" Bob asked.
"I'm not delusional either," she said. "And I can't imagine anyone thinking you're first class."
People getting off work downtown hurried by headed for their cars, others hailed cabs or waited on buses. Sunset downtown in the big city brought a certain bitter sweet nostalgia and Bob remembered rookie afternoons like this as a young man walking this beat. Seemed like a different millennium.
Bob sighed. He pulled change from his pocket, sorted through it until he found a nickel, and then slid it across the table.
"What do you say to a man who is about to take a long walk on a short pier?"
Sunset Beach, Tuesday Afternoon
It was the following afternoon out at the end of the Sunset Beach Pier that the man showed up. I was sitting on a bench on the Ocean Island side, wasting shrimp on a rented rod, sipping a cup of hot coffee with cream. A second cup waited in Styrofoam splendor.
He wore wrinkled tan dress pants, a long sleeve blue button down collar denim shirt, a tan Cahart heavy jacket, and a pair of brown suede cowboy boots. The boots clumped out a hollow rhythm and as the man came abreast, I nodded. His dark eyes, framed behind the clear lenses of his glasses, were as hollow as the sound of his boots. He looked my way but I didn't think I registered with him.
It was cold. The wind blew mercilessly off the ocean and the moisture added a miserable quality. No one else was braving the elements.
Twenty or so yards out the man stopped to sit on the last bench. The man turned his back to the wind and, cupping his hands, lit a cigarette.
What do you say to a man who believes has nothing left to live for, a man who has less than five minutes to live, a man about to jump off the end of the pier?
I wedged my rod between the bench and the rail of the pier, picked up both coffees and headed down. On the horizon I saw a huge gambling boat headed out to sea from Little River. Apparently suckers are not seasonal.
"Coffee?" I asked.
He'd been staring down at his boots but I was sure that's not what he'd been seeing. He looked up at me. There was no alarm in his eyes at my sudden appearance, just mild curiosity. He shrugged and I handed him the unopened cup.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
"No sir," I said. "You do not."
He studied me, took the lid off the cup and blew on it. He sipped, made a face but nodded a silent thanks. He didn't ask me what I wanted. He simply turned and sat looking out at the ocean
"Thinking about my Mom," he said.
"She died ten years ago, thought I'd miss her forever. Now I go weeks without even thinking once about her."
I nodded, took a sip of my coffee. Waited for him to look back. Finally he did.
"I tried to tell him about that one day when we were eating lunch. He said he understood but I know he couldn't get his head around it. He was only twelve."
"I don't think jumping off this pier is the answer," I said. "Of course, I've been wrong before..."
Now I had his full attention. He stood, took a couple of steps back and stared at me.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Just a guy sticking his nose where it doesn't belong," I said. "Gotten pretty good at it lately."
We stood like that, neither of us speaking or moving for a bit and then he turned back to the bench and sat down. A breath of exasperation later he spoke.
"I don't know what you think you know about me or what you're talking about. I just lost my grand son and if this is some kind of scam, I ain't in the mood."
"You have a picture of him in your shirt pocket, and an Old Timer pocket knife in your left pocket," I said. "You don't plan to leave a note, but the picture with the knife lying on it on that bench will tell the story."
Now he looked a little bit concerned which I took as a positive.
Back in Charlotte, the day before:
Bob explained the vision he'd had the day before on his iPad: The man he saw walk out to the end of The Sunset Beach Pier and the way the man had sat for a few minutes before plunging off the end.
"There are many myths about suicide," Dr. Janson said. "Studies have been conducted, empirical evidence collected..."
"And it's all bull shit."
Bob reached across the table, put his finger on the nickel and slid it back in front of him.
"What, you're going down there to stop the guy?" she asked. "It won't matter. Once someone decides to do it, they will."
"Or they won't. Some people who actually make an attempt will try again. Some won't. It's a crap shoot, you never know. What I'm saying is there's no science for this."
Sunset Beach Pier
"So, you've been sent to talk me out of it?" He asked.
I smiled thinking about Michael Landon's Highway To Heaven then sat, uninvited, beside him on the bench. He propped his boots up on the lower rail.
"I honestly have no idea what I'm supposed to do, ... or say for that matter." I said. I poured the remainder of my coffee over the rail. "Maybe, I'm here to stop you and then again maybe if I do you'll go nuts next week and shoot up an old folks home."
"I don't think so," he said.
"Course you don't," I said. "They never do."
The man turned his attention to his boots which had darkened with a few tiny spots of the coffee.
"Great looking boots," I said. "New?"
" Lucchese," he said. "Got 'em on sale and I promised my grandson to get him some. I never got the chance."
"Sorry about the coffee but salt water will be a lot worse for them."
"Maybe you'll talk me out of it..."
"I'm not all that good at talking folks out of stuff," I said. "Besides, you may be right on target here. I don't think anyone knows what goes on in another fellows head, how bad things are ... or might get."
He sipped some coffee, nodded and waited. He was staring at me now, lifeless eyes searching for something and the responsibility of the moment settled on me.
"You religious?" I asked.
"Not at the moment," he said.
"Bet you will be when you hit that water," I said. He shrugged.
"Anyway, I talked to a defrocked priest one time about suicide. This guy had taken a job as a bartender at a cop bar in downtown Charlotte.He told me he considered it, even tried a time or two, but eventually he said what stopped him was the thought of it being a mortal sin."
"The body as the temple." The man said.
"I guess so. The point is if you're thinking this will reunite you with your grandson, maybe the opposite is true."
He took the photo out of his shirt pocket, looked at it but didn't show it to me. I was glad.
"That's all you got?" he asked.
"I guess I could play the guilt card," I said as I stood to leave. "Have you thought about how this will affect the rest of your family and friends?"
"I've thought about that but..." he said.
"Shame to waste that nice pair of boots," I said.
He pulled them off, first the right then the left, and dropped them behind us on the pier. "You're a piece of work," he said.
I knew that, had been told more than once and was about to agree when I saw them down the beach: a teenage boy throwing a tennis ball and what appeared to be a Boxer chasing it. The kid had a pretty good arm and the ball bounced on the hard sand. It was too far to hear but I imagined the dog panting, barking and charging after it.
"Hmmm." I said.
The guy looked down the beach where the dog had snatched up the ball and ran back to the kid.
"You haven't exactly denied that you're thinking about jumping," I said. "or asked how I know. Sometimes inspiration comes when you least expect it."
"We have a dog, never much liked him," he said.
"You're a piece of work." I said.
He smiled and I'm sure it had been a while. I nodded toward the kid and his dog on the beach.
"It just occurred to me that somewhere there's a kid who has lost his grandfather," I said. "Maybe that kid's world has become hell on earth. Maybe they had a fight just before, maybe harsh words were spoken and never taken back... Maybe that kid is in even more trouble than you."
"And what, you want me to go down there and ask that kid on the beach if he needs a buddy?"
"It's one thing to be suicidal, but don't be stupid." I said. "I showed up here today for a reason. Now, I don't have a clear idea what the reason is - but I've come to believe that there is one. If you choose to give life a chance, maybe you'll find out."
I turned then and walked away.
"Surely, there's more to this story," she said.
"Don't call me Shirley," I said. She rolled her eyes. They were the brightest shade of green I'd ever seen.
We were having drinks in the cop bar I was telling the man on the pier about. It was a little after seven a week and a half after my Sunset Beach trip. The day shift cops fresh from their tour were just getting into what Joseph Wambaugh called choir practice. A couple of them had nodded at me when I came in, all of them had checked out the good doctor when she arrived. I didn't blame them.
"I turned then and walked away... And that's the end of the story?" Dr. Janson asked. "Not and then I heard a splash, ran back, dove in and saved the man? Not and then I stopped to use the bathroom but saw him drive away?"
"Pretty much," I said and drank the last of my Jack Black and ginger ale.
"Just I turned then and walked away…" she said. "There's more." She settled back in her chair to wait and sipped her white wine. I wondered how she could stand the taste.
"The guy running the pier had his car parked on the ramp and there was only one other vehicle parked in the lot," I said.
"So you left a note with your personal info and he called you," she said.
"Nope." I pulled a box from under our table and opened it for her to see.
"These were delivered by UPS this morning."
How it all began:
- Target, A Short Story
An improbable revelation challenges a nameless retired police officer