The Big Wink

The Big Wink




On his way home from a forced vacation, Steven Arthur Drinkwater noticed that a brick wall was a target of a painfully literate and tidy graffiti artist. The brick wall faced the main country boulevard and was easily seen by all travelers; both pedestrian and driver alike. The phrase, cryptically written in Latin, was expertly centered and written in a clear and elegant manner by an author who seemed understand that the translation challenge needed mitigation by making the phrase exceptionally legible.

" Res nolunt diu male administrari"

Like most of his friends, Steven Arthur Drinkwater was a liberal arts graduate, from a medium sized college that prided itself on freedom of expression above core competencies. However, as most degrees state, a working knowledge of Latin was not required so Steven Arthur Drinkwater found himself on the verge of doing some linguistic detective work. He stopped in front of the message and dutifully copied it down and double-checked his penmanship to assure accuracy. If he was going to make an effort to investigate this, he had to make sure he at least copied down the mystery message correctly.

Once home, he searched the phrase on the Internet. There were many sources at his disposal in which he could translate that phrase and he was looking forward to the project. He was still politely reeling from a significant breakup of his first official girlfriend of his life and this unplanned activity fit in well with his weekend plans. It wasn't an emotionally damaging breakup; neither of the couple was moping around. In fact, she had already moved onto the next boyfriend. However, the anguish and emotional intensity of the breakup made Steve's nerves a bit raw to life's variables and he had chosen to retreat from the affairs of the heart, at least for the time being.

As he fished into his pocket for the note, the phone interrupted his train of thought and forced him back into the present moment to deal with the assumed telemarketer. ""Hello?" mumbled the man.

"Stevie?"

No one had called him 'Stevie' except for elementary school classmates. And he had not seen many of them in a long time.

"Yes?"

"This is your old friend, Mikey." Steve had quietly hoped that his elementary school friend was making a joke by using their kid monikers.

"Yes?"

"I need a favor."

"Mikey…I mean, Mike. I haven't seen you in twenty-five years and you call me up for a favor?"

It was Mike's turn to say "Yes."

"What do you want? Is everyone okay?"

"Everything and everyone is fine but let's meet. I would rather do this face to face instead of talking on the phone."

"I would rather hear the details now and then decide whether or not to see you face to face."

He hated the contrived phrase only heard, up to this point, on bad police shows. People would be lured into abandoned warehouses, miles away from safety, to be abducted, killed or sold insurance. He didn't know to say so he just said nothing.

A few minutes passed and Mike said, "Stevie?"

"Let me call you back, Mike. Something has come up."

Relying on some old Mannix dialogue himself, Steve had freed himself from the looming obligation and hung up the phone. It was time to get out of the apartment and his use of an old hackneyed phrase seemed to make the issue complete. He needed a plan and sat in his apartment, looking down onto the street at the semi-orderly lines of people heading off in various directions to various destinations. Not compelled to join them, he sat on his bed wondering what the rest of the day was going to bring. First things first, it was time to get going. He knew he would have to get back out into the real world, immediately in a physical sense and eventually in an emotional sense. It would be been convenient if he could sync up the two energies but in regard to his mental happiness, it felt like it was going to be later.

He placed the telephone back into its cradle and noticed the receiver was actually hot and upon future investigation, he realized that so was he. The nerve of some people to call out the blue and ask for something took a significant amount of crust. The momentary conversation seemed to have lasted over an hour. But during the call's duration, he switched ears for both heat relief to assuage the pain that seems to develop when hunched in a non-human posture for sixty minutes. But he knew down deep that, at best, the entire conversation took no more than five minutes. This person, a voice from twenty plus years ago, had no problem asking for a favor that Steve knew was strictly motivated by selfish self-interest. The call had robbed him of his only sanctuary of happy preoccupation and being drawn back into the mundane was an unfortunate result of not unplugging or ignoring the telephone. The next best thing to do, other than Latin translation, was to try to take a brief nap.

As he lie in bed, he was using a simple but reliable projection technique to see himself, sometime in the future, walking down the street with a beautiful woman. They were laughing and by their pace, on their way to some fancy, exclusive restaurant or newly released movie. He smiled as he lied in bed, realizing that was his goal on the road to recovery. Just as the internal movie was reaching the next chapter, the telephone rang and he once again realized his lot in life. This time the call was from a struggling and monotone telemarketer and Steve's only solace was that there was someone else on the planet that was having a worse day than he.

As he attempted another rest, it was obvious that the day lay in front of him with only a few small obligations; dry cleaning, groceries, translation and perhaps a trip to the bookstore. The bookstore was a luxury as he had at least ten books piled up next to him, unsuccessfully demanding to be read. Going to the bookstore would only force that pile to increase and some of the most deserving books would likely get bumped down on the priority list and their eventual reading could be delayed even longer and run the risk of never being cracked open. The thought of disappointing an inanimate object was telling; he wasn't in the mood to disappoint anything or anyone so he scratched the bookstore off the list. The day would be geared towards stocking up on essentials and basic maintenance. Nevertheless, he had to move far faster than he wanted because Mikey might call back with some hackneyed dialogue from Angels with Dirty Faces.

He got ready to go out but didn't rush due to the cruel reality of the trip to the dry cleaners was constituting exactly a third of his day's activities. Nothing is worse than having your day done before lunch as the afternoon would lay there as a large, boring, dormant vacuum of time and energy. If he could space out his activities, it would only leave the evening to endure quietly and without needed interruption. He wasn't moping around but he didn't need to make the time seem completely empty by rushing through his chores. He could get a movie or try to find something on television but the largest challenge was to fill the day with simple activities that were assured of a successful completion.

Leaving the house with his pile of dirty clothes neatly rolled into an old sea bag, he decided it was better to wander to the dry cleaners and come directly back afterwards. He could lounge at a coffee shop with a bag drenched in character versus having to look cool drinking coffee with a raft of hangers bound together with banana tape in a large plastic sleeve flopped over the adjacent chair. The best plan was to meander out and once burdened with the embarrassing appendage of apparel, head directly home to unload. The sea bag continued to be a handy accessory, acquired in college, and still in use today as the default dry cleaning bag. There were no logos or clips to hold cell phones or water bottles; its function was exclusive to soiled clothing and its very nature made the image complete.

A fast walker by nature, he was constantly reminding himself to slow down on the upcoming trip to savor the diversion. At their heyday, he and his girlfriend were extremely busy and the thought of having to make efforts to fill time was almost inconceivable. Their agenda was so packed with all types of events: dinners with friends, vacations, conferences, shopping, movies, theatre and other cultural efforts. They were celebrity-like busy and when they broke up the relationship, everything stopped. In fact, it did more than stop suddenly, it screeched and skidded to an angry and clanking halt with no survivors. He remembered one time when they were both in the bathroom getting ready for a night on the town with friends.

"I am so tired," said the girlfriend. "We should stay in sometime."

"Stay in?"

"We have been out five times this week. The kitchen is filthy, the laundry is a mountain of dirty clothes, there is no food in the place and we haven't even opened our mail."

"We should stay in," said Steve. "I wonder how the famous people do it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," postured Steve, "There are movie stars that are out every night. Even if their assistants clean their place, take care of the dry cleaning, stock the shelves and handle the correspondence, that pace has to be crazy."

"I agree. Let's just stay in this weekend."

"We can't. We both promised everyone that we would be up for the new restaurant, the new bar and the new movie."

"Okay, the weekend after this one coming up."

Exclusive of Steve's epiphany about the movie stars, that above dialogue was played constantly between the two of them until they both got tired of their parts. The fatigue continued to build and subconsciously, they began to blame each other for the reduction in satisfaction and the increase in cynicism.

Now, with nothing but time on his hand, Steve intermittently wandered around to selective old haunts. These destinations were places in which he determined would be low risk of running into his ex-girlfriend. He was not vindictive or weepy; he just did not want to deal with the aimless small talk and exchange of pleasantries. She decided she needed to go one way and he decided that he wanted to go the other way so the decision was mutual and generally inconvenient. He selected places he liked and where she was at best, ambivalent about the destination and he had a feeling she was doing the same. She was likely spend time in over-priced restaurants that were more proud of their tragically hip status than their bill of fare. He was diagonally opposite in his thinking and decided as soon as she left that he was going to spend more time doing things that made inherent sense. If he were hungry, he would eat and if he were bored, he would go. The whole relationship was slowly being categorized in the "bad timing" category but it would be years before that would be official.

His friends were all in their various levels of personnel adventure. Some are married and unable to be outside after ten in the evening. Some are engaged and unable to think independently or logically, some are divorced and some are single. He felt he was between all groups: not as damaged as his married friends and not as happy as his single friends. He was placed squarely between all the bone fide groups in a limbo period with no real rules or timelines.

Steve, with sea bag in hand, began composing his circuitous route to the dry cleaners. The first thing he needed was a decent cup of coffee and something sweet to eat. And he felt this achievable goal was a good first step of his goal to become an official member of society again. This allowed him to engage from a distance in a community of individuals. He could sit all day long if desired and nurse a coffee for as long as the patience of the serving staff existed. If things were busy and he desired to stay out of the way, he could remain in the corner re-reading the paper or some novel as he quietly hoped for either inspiration or obligation to move him. These days, neither vector seemed too interested in moving him anywhere. But the anonymity of the shop comforted him; he was out in public with no interest in meeting anyone. The proximity to others was a good first step and enough extension of his psyche for the time being.

The national coffee chain had spent millions to decorate each store with a bohemian motif but each one of the stores looked uniquely similar. So, if someone visited several stores in the area, the inconsistent consistency of planned random colors and textures would be both sad and ironic. Steven Arthur Drinkwater, slightly jilted lover and the latest minor casualty in the war between men and women took the high road and ordered a large black coffee. He never liked all the boutique drinks with caramel, syrups, soy or whipped cream because the cheapened and broadened the grown-up world of coffee drinkers although most Dentists looking to purchase and furnish a second home, had to been happy with this trend. Today, it is common to see a gaggle of pre-teens ordering large Vanilla lattés with no respect for the theory of coffee evolution or preservation of their enamel. Any deviation from standard coffee consumption was heresy and these frou-frou concoctions were pumping in sickeningly sweet coffee-type drinks to the uneducated while at the same time, plugging up the line. He felt that if you were old to enough to drink coffee black, you were welcome but if you wanted cocoa or some kiddie concoction, go home and make it in your kitchen. He began to fantasize about a "black coffee only" express lane within the store complete with a spigot and change bucket; upon the realization of this activity, he quickly calmed himself down and remained motionless until it was his turn to order.

Once he was settled, his mind began to wander back to the phone call that violated his train of thought. As he concentrated on circumstances of the awakening, he tried to push back his preoccupation with his healing process and deal with the non-exotic demands of the phone call. It was fascinating that in the middle of his evolution from jilted lover to someone, who could jump back into the dating process, he still had to resolve other issues, no matter how mundane and pedestrian. But whatever Mikey or Mike wanted was almost inconsequential to his own issues. If the requestor was straight with him; such as a request for money or a ride to the airport, he was confident he would comply without a lot of questions but the hokey request to meet "face to face" invariably would be an awkward attempt at something else ranging from life insurance or bail money. The thoughts of Mikey, troubling coffee consumption habits and laundry had had its positive effects, especially when he had realized that most of the morning was over and he had not stewed much over his recent breakup. In fact, these diversions were nice little respites from sitting around his apartment, apoplectic with over-analysis and denial.

He looked around the shop and was envious of the group around him. Everyone was busy in conversation or consumption and the din was comforting. It showed him that even if his personal life is technically, by his definition, in shambles, the world continued with no real interest or concern. Steve did not want to be the center of attention, even in his own world, and the coffee shop allowed him to slip in the background and take on the role of returning sailor or brooding coffee addict. This liberation was self contained but he was growing tired of both his external and internal voices and it was time to introduce some new variables in his life.

That did not mean grabbing onto the first emotional needy woman or righteous cause he met. It was more to begin sampling people's conversations and opinions and look for some natural arenas to build up his self-esteem and refresh his internal energy stores. This would be a nice transition spot for him which allowed strategic interaction but didn't impose his own damaged goods on well-meaning people. He continued to drink his coffee with a professional and sensible style and made a conscious effort not to call attention to himself. That was the first, best step. The only thing that would have made that epiphany better is that if he had a hat.

Since the break-up, he took the criticism harvested in the series of penultimate discussions and wanted to use it as instructively as possible. She had hated his friends, his choice in music and literature, his clothes; his hygiene and his general narrow view of all things her. He felt his personality was an amalgam of life experiences that at worst were checkered and at best, eclectic. She found that conclusion a bit too gentle and made an effort to cloak her insights with some qualified constructive modifiers but her lack of happiness mirrored his. He wisely chose not to point out her shortcomings once he realized that he was inherently good at many things but his healing properties were always in doubt. Being faultfinding with someone that has chosen not be stay in love with you isn't the smartest strategy and absorbing ridicule and character assassination at least speeds up the process.

In retrospect, a series of painful experiences were slowly being lifted from his daily routine. Of course, he officially loved her but there was something to be said for going through a day and not being tormented at all. His loneliness would eventually subside but the burdens that continually battered him were no longer so strong or so insidious. Days would go by with deep and damaging conversations in which two people, so involved with issues, lost perspective that life is not to be lived if all it gives you is heartache and anguish. He continued to drink his coffee and tried to convince himself that he, indeed, was luckier than most folks as he at least saw the glass in the first place and at the very least, not half empty.

This mini-realization woke him up to the great possibilities in front of him. A person within fifty feet could be the one that could provide him with motivation and direction and there would be more and more of these potential lifesavers as he walked down the street or even at the dry cleaners. The haze was lifting because he could not go back into time and make everything all better with his old girlfriend but his direction was forward, into a land of unknown and opportunity. The lights went on a bit and the image of his old girlfriend faded a bit as he gathered ups his sea bag and walked out the door. This cup of coffee really hit both the literal and philosophical spot; he had to come back here very soon.

He also realized that this person could be anywhere or not yet exist. He didn't want to spend the day, bird-dogging or debating women all in the name of love as it would be nicer to keep his eyes open to the possibility of something dripping with karma would occur. He walked to the dry cleaners, dumped out his dirty clothes, and was pleased to see that the only thing he was picking up was several boxes of pressed dress shirts. He begged for an extra box and some twine as he fashioned a multi-tiered tower of shirt boxes, including one stuffed with his sea bag and tied it up with a handy little twine strap. Now, he looked like he was delivering a multi-tiered cake or something orderly instead of being flapped in the wind by a large transparent plastic bag. The aerodynamic annoyance was mitigated by his realization that this time, he wasn't showing his clean clothes to anonymous pedestrians, usually causing himself and his clothes to be vulnerable to their passing opinions. However, the boxes could be anything but at least they were not giving out a lot of information about his life, taste levels or opinions. In some ways, it was the best thing to tote around because it shows actual ownership but by its generic nature and it remained blissfully outside the world of quickly formed opinion.

It had been a hell of a day. A feeling crept over him that he was starring in a bad, dull movie that was a project of a well-meaning but light-handed fan of the cinematic theory of less being more. Embarrassed by the random fantasy, he couldn't argue that something like this couldn't be made, especially in the light of independent films. Dulling metaphors aside, he had a job to do: go home and lament. It had been a few hours since he felt horrible and he did not want to miss this appointment for grief.

As he walked home, he began to laugh about his movie analogy. The trouble about using the cinema for guidance, or at least partial guidance, is that movies are broken into three parts: a beginning, middle and the end. During the movie, there are mcguffins and director's tricks to keep things moving out of fear that the audience will grow bored. However, in life, there are many times when nothing happens for a long time and Steve was afraid of being a living example of this. As consumers, we watch television and movies and eventually equate the character to our own life and when we fall into that trap, we get frustrated. In two hours, an entire movie is laid out in front of you with the hero (or heroine), their accompanying character flaw, an adversary, a sidekick, life change events, handy circumstances, some laughs, some tears and a lesson learned. So far, in his movie, the ingredients were sorely lacking except for his numerous flaws. In a movie, the set up, conflict, and resolution are essential to a successful three-act dramatic structure. Starting with Aristotle in his "Poetics" and ending with Patrick Swayzee in "Roadhouse," this is how stories are told in our culture. However, in real life, the changes in scenes rarely result in snappy dialogue or dramatic movement but we seem to have an overabundance of conflict and self-introspection. We know what causes movement and change in a story but we aren't all not privy to a stable of screenwriters to introduce conflict and conflict resolution to our lives. In our personal role as the protagonist, we realize we want something (goal) and face someone or something that prevents him or her from getting it (obstacle or antagonist), then you are slapped upside the head with conflict. But in real life, all you got is dinner by yourself.

The journey of the protagonist moves into more dangerous and challenging territory, leading to the final confrontation and resolution. Three-act structure is a tool for doing exactly this. The opposite of wanting to know what happens next is boredom, which is the worst thing that can be said about a story. Three-act screenplay structure precludes boredom by arranging story events in such an order that conflict causes change, which in turn causes new conflict, building and building until the story's final confrontation and resolution.

Once your heartbreaks, you subconsciously place yourself into the role of the victim and hope for the second act to start as soon as possible but luckily, life is not like the movies. There are many things that fall in life's in-betweens and we should allow them to stay there until it is time to do something about them. The traditional Hollywood formula film focuses on the central lead throughout the film. At certain plot points, something will happen to the lead, allowing the plot to develop. Unfortunately, so far in this movie, the supposed plot was not going anywhere nor had anything interesting to say.

"Life must be a French film," he thought.

What happened next lacked drama; he left his stack of laundry on the kitchen table and lay down in his bed. It was middle afternoon and he was stuck with filling out the rest of the day. He did not want to call any of his friends because of all the questions about the relationship and breakup. The other reason is that his energy was sapped; hooking up with a friend meant going out on the town and putting up with bars, loud music and lines. On top of his pre-occupation of his feelings, going into smoky bars listening to bands that didn't deserve to be discovered was not his idea of a way to pull out of his melancholy attitude. Either way, he was quickly becoming crappy company and there was never an excuse for that.

The telephone rang again and he let it ring. In fact, he had been letting the phone a lot lately because it hurt too much when it wasn't her. Too often, it was some poor telemarketer, cold calling and hoping that the person was interested in the siding, carpet cleaning, lawn service or financial planning opportunity. When you think about it, you might as well just walk down the street and stop people and just ask them if they want to buy insurance. You have just as much credibility stopping a complete stranger on the street because the only apparent qualification a telemarketer needs is whether a person owns a communications device.

He finally rolled over and grabbed Emerson for some enlightenment. Whenever Steve was stuck for advice, a quick labored read of one of Emerson's essays usually put him straight. The one that caught his eye was the subject of compensation and the balance of powerful but opposite forces on a situation. The one phrase stuck out which summarized all he had felt so far, "For every grain of wit, there is a grain of folly. For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something. If riches increase, they are increased that use them. If the gatherer gathers too much, nature takes out of the man what she puts into his chest; swells the estate, but kills the owner."

But then he remembered: "American movies are about what happens next."

The telephone rang, breaking the silence of his room as well as his concentration.

He picked it up. It was indeed a tired and completely dulled telemarketer. Steve was relieved to take this call and allowed the woman to finish the first line of her script.

"I appreciate the chance to hear all about this new and exciting refinancing opportunity on home mortgages but since I don't own a home, I will pass."

"Thanks."

"You got a tough gig," said Steve. "Please take me off your list and I think it is time you get another job. Maybe something that deals with happier people."

"I appreciate that," said the telemarketer. "I think you are right."

"I am going to get a cup of coffee," said Steve. "I suggest you finish your shift and go to a coffee shop and work there. It is slightly less thankless and coffee beans are surprisingly greasy but I think that would be fun to deal with folks face to face."

The telemarketer laughed and they both hung up.

It was about four-thirty in the afternoon and Steve decided go out and get that cup of coffee. He grabbed Emerson and a hat and wandering back to the neighborhood coffee shop. He got his coffee, sat down and waited for the first pretty girl that walked in.

About two minutes later, a dark-haired woman walked in and headed for the counter. She looked at him and he involuntarily winked.

She smiled.

It didn't matter if she would sit down next to him, as that wasn't the point. The point was that he was back.


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