a prologue

“The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.” – Chuck Palahniuk

 

The red neon lights of the Melrose Diner flickered on the humid corner of Broad and Snyder Street.  I was alone again, tired, wielding a cigarette and peering through fog covered glass listening to melodic sounds of clinking forks and a familiar 1950’s tune, earth-angel, resounding from the juke box.  Sighing for the ninetieth time, I rubbed my bloodshot eyes and tried to remember the last time I slept.  Two hours ago I left Cape May in a car that’s air conditioner broke, so I could be here at this obscure hour to meet someone who needed to “give me a story.”  Usually I know who I’m going to set up an interview with, at least I get a name and some general background information but with this I didn’t have anything.  Which is odd to begin with, but it was even stranger that I kind of glumly agreed to it, as if in a daze.  I guess I figured I had nothing to lose, considering my rather desperate situation.

Lately I’d been so caught up in work and life, middle aged, suffering from depression, still single, not really advancing just staying in place, writing for the same magazines, going to the same bars and restaurants, just kind of “getting by” I guess you could say.  It was summer too, prime time, when I had the most work, tons of articles and stories to cover, yet since Spring I felt like I was just coasting along, no real interest in things that used to always rouse my attention.  More or less I was living in a dream state, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, a rudderless inconsistency.  Even my editor, Jack began to notice because my work wasn’t quite as “flavorful” and “witty” as it had been.  But maybe it was because the stories they were giving me just sucked.  Yeah, I think it was mostly because of that.  Night after night I’d toss out paper after paper of my unfinished manuscript.  “The Master Artist” seemed to have lost his art, because it was honestly like I had some rare writer’s disease, one in which made me outright incapable of producing any meaningful or life-changing story.  And really, that’s all I ever wanted to be a part of. So here I am, hot July night, pretty much lost faith in my “talent” or what I thought was my talent, waiting for this guy I don’t even know to show up to tell me his “story” which could be, well, anything.  But for some reason, as if all the stars were aligned with the full summer moon, I ended up where I guess I was supposed to be.

I opened the crumpled; coffee stained Inquirer and turned to the South Jersey section.  The headline story was one I covered for Exit Zero Magazine about the summer unveiling of the newest boardwalk attraction.

Turing in my seat, I flicked the cigarette into the ash-tray and stopped the waitress to refill my coffee mug.  She was pretty, slender with black hair parted across her forehead, mid-twenties, name-tag: Calli.  She smiled and leaned over my table, her arm grazing my furrowed moleskin notebook.  It gave me a chill, a prickle of goose bumps.  My eyes followed her across the diner towards the kitchen.  I would’ve loved to write her into my story.  But I didn’t know her at all, I merely found her attractive and that’s it.  In an instant I could create the most intricate idea of her and have married her in my mind in a matter of minutes, but the truth was, I didn’t know her.  But I wish I did, and maybe I would.

12:07 AM glowed on the front clock of my cell phone.  The guy was running late, and surprisingly I wasn’t, since on average, I was a half hour to forty minutes late, unless it was ridiculously important.  There was virtually no traffic on the Parkway or the AC Expressway aside from some quick road construction by the Walt; I made it in an hour and a half.  I preferred night driving, especially during the summer.  Though it would be nice to have someone in the passenger seat… (and air conditioning).

So, this is how it happened.  Randomly I get this phone call from an unidentified number, must’ve been from a payphone or something, like those things even exist anymore, the guy tells me he’s read my stories and column for years, likes my writing style, and wants to share a story with me that only I can know.  I’m the only guy he wants to share it with, says “It needs to be told, and you’re the guy!”  Doesn’t give me a name, number, any contact information whatsoever, just tells me to meet him here at midnight on this day.  Tells me it’s “what I’ve been waiting and hoping for.”  I tried calling back but only got a busy signal every time.  Normally, with no contact information and not knowing a single clue about what I’d be writing on, I wouldn’t have gone for it.  But like I said, the stars were aligned I guess, and in my dreary state and my spurred curiosity, there I was, sleepless, sipping coffee and lusting after this cute waitress, awaiting a mystery.

Fourteen years out of college, still couldn’t finish a novel.  I’d open too many doors, start too many projects, and the ideas would sit there stagnant in notebooks and untouched files on my laptop.  “I’ll get to it,” I’d say, but that day never came.  I always hoped to cover a big story for the magazine, but I’d never get those assignments.  Not like there were any real big stories in Cape May County anyway.  I just wanted to be at the center of an adventure, not for fame or money really, but just for the sake of the thrill.  To live dangerously with risk, instead of dolefully and safe, knowing others depended on you, and your decisions would shape history.  But those were roles for other people.   People knew of me, and I had a decent fan base, especially online, but mostly I was nobody.

The door opened, blasting a wave of humidity that quickly disseminated and vanished as it shut. This must be my guy; he looked both ways and saw me immediately, taking large strides towards my booth.  He was tall and scrawny, probably around my age maybe slightly younger, stubbly face, plaid collared shirt and skinny jeans with snakeskin cowboy boots.  I slithered out of the booth and stood up with a smile he didn’t return, just a head nod and a sudden sturdy handshake.  I introduced myself even though he knew me and asked for his name.  The guy just peered at me, lifeless and said with a hint of a Southern accent, “I’m just gonna tell yew the storya Mister Kenny, you don’t need’t know meh.”  Silence sat over the table for a moment like a bubble about to pop.  “Well how am I supposed to tell your story without your name?” I laughed, raising my coffee mug.  “Listen, you’re the guy,” he said trembling, his aqua blue eyes shifting all over the room, dark circles with jutting veins under his eyes, straggling auburn hair bouncing across his permeated forehead.  I was taken aback.  What had I gotten myself into?  I drove here to meet a crazy person, but who was crazier?  Questions flooded me and I started to get slightly nervous.  This guy wore terror on his face and it was evident in his shifty body language.  For a second his lips bounced as he stuttered for words, shaking his head and running his wobbly long fingers through his greasy hair.  When he lifted his arm I briefly noticed a rough black tattoo of a symbol I couldn’t make out.  After a few deep breaths and me just staring there from behind my coffee mug, the guy gained enough composure to speak.  Glancing from side to side he leaned forward, inches from me and snatched my arm, his grip tightening, whispering close.

“Listen, I’m givin yew this, I don’t want any trouble.  I know you’re the guy, you’ll hear me out but I gotta be kept outa this.  If they know that I know things…” he looked away and closed his eyes, gulping hard.  Oh God, I was meeting a crazy conspiracy theorists wasn’t I?  My nervousness evaded and I laughed inside.  My life is funny; maybe I did have a story after all.  “Listen pal, you’re the journalist, if yew don’t believe me yew find out fer yerself!”  Okay, maybe he did have a story, I don’t know, I was weirded out, yet interested, it was a strange night to say the least.  He released his grip leaving disappearing finger marks on my arm and sat back in the booth.  The cute waitress made her way over to us.

“Could I get ya something to drink?” she asked.  Her alluring presence was prickling.

“Coffee please, just black,” answered my guest.  Both of us watched her as she strolled into the kitchen and out of our line of vision.

“You have my attention, let’s hear your story,” I said removing my tape recorder from my bag and opening up to the first page of the notebook.  I didn’t have a clue as to what was going to happen next but I never could have imagined something that would change the course of the rest of my life.  There I was, lost and struggling, and then in a matter of minutes tossed into the center of truly an epic story that was bigger than I was.  Sometimes you have to work with what you have, what’s already been placed right in front of you by the vicissitudes of fate and make it into something bigger through the exercising of that muscle we all possess – imagination.  So here it is, just as he told me, the story of The Arrivals…

 

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