You’re a Great Guy, Jack Barnes!: A Short Story

Previously published with Thread Literary Inquiry Spring 2016.

In the mornings, Jack liked to peruse the local park outside his apartment building. A routine built to ease his anxiety; he hadn’t felt like himself. Three weeks went by without contact from his family and friends, and he began to confirm his suspicions since before he left home–he was neither significant nor missed by anyone.

It was a temperate morning, but particularly brighter compared to others since his arrival to Burlington. He wasn’t a morning person either. So, with heavy shoulders, he proceeded along–making a mental note of the unwanted, unwarranted sunlight droning on him. He cursed his hot cup of black coffee, the adequate representation of his mood, a sweltering mistake for his journey.

He sprawled out along the allotment as an impotent solar flare, drained from change, empty of the answers he thought would come. He reminisced among the city ambiance–mechanics and construction. The noises stabbed the fabric of his skin with the redundant sound waves of life as he rolled over into the shade of a small oak. Dewey blades of crabgrass pierced into his eyelids and insects buzzed all around; he laid face down in the world of continual light and sound. The yin to the overcoming yang society.

Nearby, the construction of a building distracted his thoughts. Instruments of different shapes and sizes clanked, hissed, whistled, and wheezed. They filled the atmosphere, enveloping him. He stared at the structure. Cool sweat released from his pores as steam spewed out from the building’s labor. It stood incomplete, but accepting to the renovation fabricating the solitude of its prior glory. He felt as hollow as the facade before him, desecrated of solace, but as society found value from the old complex, he too contemplated if the same can be done to him.

“They’re putting it back together, aren’t they?” An old man asked. He took a seat next to Jack.

Jack turned to acknowledge the man next to him, “I suppose.”

“It’s amazing! Beautiful, really.”

“What is?”

The old man extended an arm towards the structure. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”

“Figured out what?”

The old man laughed. Jack couldn’t help but squeeze a nervous laugh out as well. He didn’t know why they were laughing, but it felt polite. The morning sunlight began to slither off the ceiling of the construction zone onto their bodies. It cut through the shade of his oak shield. The speckles of light exposed them. Jack looked over at the old man. Wrinkles dominated his features. Each with a journey and tale carved another roadway into his face, each connected to his eyes. Prominent eyes bestowed an unspoken restfulness. The old man imitated a chaotic peace.

“You’re a great guy.” The old man said. “Say, what’s your name?”

“Jack,” he said softly, “Jack Barnes.”

The old man grabbed his hand. “You’re a great guy, Jack Barnes,” his grip was firm, energetic in his shake. He released Jack, exclaiming with his arms in the air. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

The old man placed his arm around Jack’s shoulder, his breath smelt of stale coffee, “We’re all beautiful people, in many different ways. You know, just the other day, this guy, John, well, I call him Johnny, he sits right here yesterday. You know what he says to me?”

“Can’t say I care to-”

“This guy, Johnny, he says he was in some sort of rut. So I says, Johnny, what makes you feel so rutty? And he says he can’t find no peace of mind around all this city hustle. You wanna know what I say?”

“Sure.”

“I says, city hustle? You’re in Burlington, Johnny boy! You want peace of mind you might as well run away to Canada.”

“And what did he say?”   

“He says, ‘which way?’ And once I pointed north he got up and starting walking toward  Canada.” he froze on the thought. “s’pose he’s up by Milton by now.”

Jack watched the old man’s face contort with a bright smile. The smile demanded vicarious attention, and Jack obliged; he studied each wrinkle as they changed and turned into unknown destinations. He dwelled on his age and pondered the life choices that brought the man to him. He wondered how the man could smile so deeply at a stranger.

The old man released his arm from Jack’s shoulder and covered his face. Jack took this moment to closed his eyes and listened to the construction and nature collide around him. For a minute, everything felt extravagant and pure.

“You’re such a great guy.” The old man whimpered. “Sitting here. Appreciating life.”

Jack opened his eyes to witness a new man completely broken, slouched as tears slid down a face of canals and levees; a flood of uncontrollable damage and horror. Bewildered, Jack placed a hand onto the man’s jagged burlap jacket to comfort him. Relatable sensations of dread struck him. Memories, fond and devastating, whirled around the two; different vassals of discomfort and joy, together they entwined between the men and levitated them into exhilarated content.   

“Appreciating life? I just want to start over, find some of that peace of mind you were talking about.” Jack looked down at his coffee. “Simplicity, the devastating path to Canada”.

The old man regenerated posture. His features glistened with different lights as the sun dried his canvas. He hummed a show tune. The sound of continual construction and throttle created an epiphany Jack had never felt before. He turned his sight and witnessed various insects find choreography between the frail old man and himself. They fluttered sporadically in the air, each landed randomly in the man’s silver hair, his fragile ligaments, and his tattered clothing. The act of nature left the two in a vacuole of non-happenings.

The man laughed, “Can you hear me now?”

Jack gazed once again at the vast sky above the building; the clouds and birds and horizon all blended into rebirth. It was a new day. He embraced another vapid engorgement of fresh air.

“Yeah, I think so” Jack said before getting to his feet. He left without another word, walking without direction.

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