Hope floats like a buoy. Most of the time, it gently rocks up and down, but other times, when storms roll through, hope can drown in your heart.
This was one of those times. Mark’s hope was dead.
Credit card bills were piling up next to medical bills. His phone beeped incessantly with voicemails. He was waiting on one specific call, and he knew none of the voicemails were the call he wanted to hear.
One mistake. One simple misjudgment. Years of accomplishments vanished by an illusion contrived with a single error.
Mark was alone. No work. No family. No purpose. His world shrank. He was confined to a bedroom, a bathroom and kitchen.
When he was recovering from surgeries, he developed a habit of watching TV between long naps. The scars have since healed, but he can’t break old habits.
The glow of the TV filled the room with gray light. He sat up in his bed with a peanut butter sandwich waiting on his belly. Nothing was funny, but the studio laughter echoed in the empty room.
Mark’s phone rang. He waited. The answering machine would click over and accept the call. No need to get up.
Three rings. Silence. Studio laughter.
Mark’s eyelids were heavy. He let the sandwich ride on his belly as he reclined until his head laid on the pillow. He briefly watched the light move on the ceiling before closing his eyes.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Mark! Are you there?”
“Mark! I can see the lights on. I know you’re there.”
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“It’s Craig! I just called you.”
Mark slowly opened my eyes and directed his gaze towards the knocks. He hadn’t seen Craig in months. He assumed Craig, like everyone else, had simply forgotten about him. Mark took the peanut butter sandwich from his stomach and rested it on the bed. He dropped his legs over the edge, and he took his time standing.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Mark? Come on, Mark.”
He shuffled to the door. He grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and wrapped it around his shoulders.
Mark leaned into the peephole. Sure enough, he discovered the top of Craig’s balding head. His ear was pressed to the door.
“Craig?” Mark said.
Mark unlocked the door and pulled it open just wide enough for my face to peer through.
“What are you doing here?”
“Mark” A big smile lifted Craig’s thick glasses. “It’s so good to see you!”
“I asked what you’re doing here.”
“So much for being happy to see me,” said Craig. The smile slowly settling. “It’s been too long.”
He paused and studied Mark’s face. Mark could trace each scar on his cheeks with the focus in Craig’s eyes.
“Mark. I’m here to help you. I’ve made a discovery that’s going to save you. I’m taking you somewhere where you can feel whole again.”
Mark had barely left the house in months. He liked it there. He didn’t see a reason to leave.
“Where?” Mark asked.
“It’s not far. Come on.”
Mark nodded. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. He couldn’t invent a reason to avoid his oldest friend.
Mark closed the door and went back to his room. He pulled on some jeans, found a clean a dress shirt and ran a wet comb through his hair.
When he returned to the front porch, Craig was already in his car. The headlights of his yellow Corolla were shining into my neighbor’s yard. Mark slid in the passenger seat.
“Craig, I’m here. Happy? Now, what are we doing?”
“Mark,” Craig said as he slapped me on the knee. “I’m saving you.”
Craig proceeded to drive down my street. As he turned out of Mark’s neighborhood, he broke the silence. Craig recounted his recent engagement to Lucille, and how during that engagement his brother-in-law insisted on throwing a bachelor party.
“Mark, do you realize there is a place – in nearly every neighborhood – where woman get naked?” Craig said.
“Naked?” Mark said. “Why would a girl just get naked near me?”
“And it’s more than just get naked. These girls fall in love with you. They want to talk to you. They want to be with you.” Craig continued. He was full of a strange excitement. Mark leaned in closer. It even seemed like Craig was drooling.
“Oh come on Craig. You’re being ridiculous. If such a place existed, why would men live anywhere else?” Mark said.
“I wonder that too,” Craig said. The excitement seemed to settle as he began to contemplate. “But as fantastic as these women are, they are still a woman,” he said. “They are expensive. They are beautiful, but they’re expensive.”
They pulled into a dark parking lot. There was a neon sign flickering “OPEN” in the window. At the front of Craig’s bumper was the base of a tall sign. The light was broken on the top of the sign, but in the moon light, Mark could read “Full-Nude.”
Craig clapped his hands. His glasses shook on his face. He leaned over Mark and retrieved some cologne from the glove box. Tiss. Tiss. Tiss. The car filled with nauseating puffs of wood chips and sweetness. Craig handed Mark a piece of gum before nearly leaping out of the car.
Mark climbed from the passenger side. Craig skipped to the trunk and pulled out a briefcase.
“What’s that for?”
“I cashed in my 401K.”
“Craig, why the hell would you do that? You’re not even close to retiring.”
“It’s for you, Mark. You need this.”
“I don’t need your money,” Mark said. “I have insurance. I’m doing fine, and I certainly don’t need it here and now.”
Craig shook his head as he walked past Mark confidently carrying the briefcase. He made it halfway to the front door and turned over his shoulder. As if holding the briefcase put Craig in a rare business mood.
“Love is never free, Mark.”
He held the door open for Mark. Mark walked past him.