This is the sixth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 6 Title — It’s A Wonderful Life — was chosen by Perry. I’ll choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same thing goes if you find yourself not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Perry’s submission.
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s Perry’s:
Jack, recently divorced, starts his second act. He finds a great new lady, only to lose her…inexplicably, to suicide. He has to know why, why, why she took her life. But that information will cost him dearly.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Copyright 2022 — Perry Broxson
(4,340 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Jack, recently divorced, decided to get back into the game. Actually, two games. The first and foremost was the dating game . . . but in order to get into some semblance of physical shape, he knew he’d have to rekindle his old flame, racquetball.
At 52, he was roughly 52 pounds overweight. He blamed his weight on a career of sedentary office jobs and a wife that fried everything from pork chops to Twinkies. Married at 21, they grew together in girth, but ultimately apart.
In the early days, his wife, Dianne, wanted to become an architect. Jack sacrificed, working three jobs to put her through University, yet she had a change of heart in her senior year. Psychology suddenly became her new academic passion – her “calling,” as she called it. Jack had gotten a promotion in the accounting firm to low-middle-management so he said, Sure, babe. The agreement was that he would work and she would study. And when she graduated, she could get a high-paying job, and he could pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering – his passion.
Such was the best-laid plan. Thirty years later, however, Jack was still working, and Dianne was still studying. To his credit, Jack had advanced his career as a CPA with certifications and sweat equity and was promoted to upper middle management. Dianne, on the other hand, had never quite completed a degree or gotten a job. She luxuriated in the campus lifestyle. Over the decades, she’d dabbled in Library Science, Art History, Egyptology, Jazz Studies, and finally, her current interest, Medieval Puppetry – none of which yielded a degree or a dollar.
One month after his father died, Jack had an epiphany: He was wasting his life; his one-and-only life. On that day, he declared his independence. He slapped a 3-ring binder on the kitchen table and announced to Dianne that he’d equitably and generously divided their assets and that he would be moving out immediately. The house was hers. The cat was hers. The thirty-seven thousand dollars of unread college textbooks were hers. He allowed himself one rehearsed scene of drama on his way out of the front door. He turned back to her un-crying eyes and quoted Vonnegut. “And so it goes, Dianne. And so it goes.”
The split was remarkably amiable. He soon discovered that she was involved with the young Puppetry professor, and that she was quite delighted with the new arrangement. Last Jack heard, the two were living in his old house and were considering adopting a special-needs Vietnamese child.
Happy, a friend had said, describing Dianne’s disposition. “Jack, she lost weight. Looks great. And just seems so damn happy.”
Of course, these words were daggers in his heart. He’d assumed she’d fling herself at his feet and plead for his love. No such luck. She’d transitioned as painlessly as a caterpillar to butterfly.
Now 52, fat, balding, mired in his upper-middle-management CPA job, and sorely inept at socialization, Jack returned to an old friend for solace: racquetball. He’d been decent at it in high school. Had it not been for catching mononucleosis in his senior year, he’d have lettered in the sport. But, of course, that was when the racquets were wooden, and Marty Hogan was king of the court.
It was Gay Dave in HR that called him out. “Jack, didn’t you mention you used to play racquetball? We need a fourth at the Y. Wanna join us?”
Jack put down his meatball sub and said, “Yeah, I think so.”
Dave laughed and said, “Show up tomorrow at six – as my guest. We’ll play doubles. Then, we can catch some singles afterward . . . you know, to really feel the burn.”
“You bet, buddy,” Jack said, shooting his finger-gun at Gay Dave, a man half his age and half his weight. “Be there or be square.”
“Square,” Dave said, pulling his salad out of the kitchen fridge. “What does that even mean . . . square?”
With his mouth full of saucy meat and melted mozzarella, Jack asked, “Wait. Do you mean six o’clock post meridiem?”
“Yes, Jack,” Dave said, regretting his recruitment. “After work. Six pm. At the YMCA on Garden Street.”
Jack flashed his colleague a Fonzi-style double-thumbs-up and the awkward interaction was done.
That evening, Jack drove to Play It Again, Sports and bought a slightly abused Ektelon racquet. At Walmart, he grabbed a can of racquetballs, two wrist bands, a headband, and a pair of rubber-soled sneakers. He was amazed at the size of the racquet’s head. It was twice the size of the old Spalding Striker he’d wielded in Reagan’s second administration. And the weight of the new racquet was half that of the old – the opposite of his personal age/weight progression.
“Hey there, killer,” he flattered himself, swinging the racquet in front of a crooked mirror in his small apartment. “Have you heard? Jack is back. Lock up your daughters, lock up your wives. Jack is back in town . . . don’t you mess around.”
This minor exercise left him winded. He leaned against the mirror and fogged it with hyperventilation. “Jack . . . is . . . back,” he gasped. He then showered, ate a pound of candied bacon, drank a pint of bourbon, and fell asleep watching black and white westerns.
The next day, at six o’clock post meridiem, Jack entered the local YMCA. He walked down the row of courts like a Correction Officer at Riker’s, peeking through the slits, searching for his quasi-companion, Gay Dave from HR. On the last court, he thought he saw him. Jack knocked, but the sound of rubber balls smashing against stone walls was deafening.
He decided to sit on the short bench and wait. In the very long and very sad nine minutes. Jack considered leaving. Running, even. Sprinting out of the musty dungeon and making up a story the next day.
Just then, Dave burst through short door, flushed and sweaty. “Jack! You made it. I had my doubts.”
Two other players disgorged from the door. “This is Ruben, my partner,” Dave said, introducing the wiry male. “And this is Elsa.”
“Elsa,” Jack said, not expecting a female – especially one near his age. There had been exactly zero women playing racquetball when he last darkened the court door in the mid-eighties. He held out his flabby hand and grasped her hot, gloved hand.
“Nice to meet ya,” Elsa said. “We grabbed a quick game of cut-throat to warm up. You may want to hit some. Want me to knock it around with you, Jack?”
Jack nodded, held her hand, and stammered. “I, uh. I, uh. Sure. It’s been awhile. I, uh. May need some reminders . . . rules . . . and where to stand. I’ve only played singles. Which I am now, you know. Single.”
“Okay,” she said, pulling her hand away. “Watch your head; that low door will conk your noggin.”
He laughed way too hard and repeated, “Conk your noggin . . . that’s hilarious.”
“Okaaaay,” she repeated, sliding her eyes at Dave.
“Yeah, Jack,” Dave interjected. “Elsa will walk you through it. Don’t worry. You’re in good hands. She’s single too.”
Elsa narrowed her eyes, shooting darts. She realized this was one of Dave’s devious attempts to match her up with a “nice guy.” He’d pulled similar stunts since her husband, Mason, passed of pancreatic cancer, some five years prior.
“You’re on my team,” she told Jack. “We’re gonna destroy these jerks.”
“Jerks?” Ruben and Dave rhymed.
“Jerks,” she grinned, her smile impish and vengeful. She grabbed Jack’s hand and tugged him through the portal, into her world.
From that moment, Jack was smitten.
No thanks to Jack, Team Elsa destroyed Team Jerk. It was all Elsa, of course. She was a blur, retrieving irretrievable balls, killing it in corners and cracks, making life miserable for her opponents.
When the foursome emerged from the short door, she high-fived Jack and celebrated. “Well done, partner.”
“Partner?” Jack asked. “But I didn’t do anything.”
“You stayed out of my way,” she panted, glugging water. “You know your limitations. I like that. Most men don’t.”
“Thank you,” he said, then muttered, “I think.”
She slapped him on the ass and said, “Let’s get out of here. Hit the showers and I’ll meet you at Quinn’s. You can buy me three tequilas and a Caesar salad.”
“I can?” he said.
Dave elbowed Jack.
“I mean, I will,” Jack corrected. “I’d be delighted.”
The couple retired to the Irish Pub and Jack had his first date in over thirty years. Initially, it was awkward and uncomfortable; Jack was certain that when she went to the restroom she’d smash the window and escape. But she didn’t. She returned to the table.
“I want to apologize,” he said, pulling the chair out for her. “I’m starting to think Dave set this up . . . this thing . . . you and me.”
She took one of his fried mozzarella sticks and pressed it to his lips. “Shush. Listen to me, Jack. Stop apologizing. You must have apologized a hundred times on the court. If you’re sorry for anything, be sorry for ordering this goopy garbage.” She pushed the greasy basket to the edge of the table and covered it with a napkin, unable to view its visage.
He waved down the waiter. “One more Caesar salad, please. Light dressing.”
“And another tequila, please,” Elsa added.
The two laughed and shared their stories. The evening flew by, and soon the waiter brought the bill. “We close in ten minutes,” he groused, looking at his watch.
Elsa snatched the check from the waiter and shoved a hundred dollar bill into his hand. “Keep the change. Service was excellent. What’s your name, young man?”
“Kenny,” he said.
“Kenny,” Elsa said, “you’re a terrific waiter and more importantly, a terrific human being. Your parents must be so very proud. Thank you for sharing the evening with us.”
“My . . . my pleasure,” he said, smiling like a child. “Thank you. Really. Thank you. That means a lot.”
As they prepared to leave, Jack took her hand. “How did you do that?”
“The waiter. He came to the table all grumpy – probably pissed at us for staying so late,” Jack said. “And he left on a cloud. You changed him . . . his whole attitude. With a couple dozen words.”
“That’s what I do,” Elsa beamed. “I’m magic like that.”
Jack laughed at her jest, but could not let it go. “Me,” he said. “Do you think you could change me? You know, for the better?”
She tipped back her fourth tequila and snapped her fingers. “Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.”
“I’m serious,” he said.
She dropped the frivolity and matched his tone. She pushed her finger into his sternum and pronounced: “It doesn’t work that way, Jack. Only you can change you.”
He slumped a little, unhappy with the answer.
Then she added, “But the good news is, you don’t have much to change. You’re an amazing man, Jack. Thanks for sharing the evening with me.”
In those moments, he leaped from infatuation into full-blown head-over-heels love. On the drive home, he planned his new life. Up at five; go for a jog. Light, healthy breakfast. Knock out a half day in the office; grab a salad. Finish work. Home by four. Hydrate. Hike. Hit the Y at six. Grill chicken breasts and avocado for dinner. Catch a western and hit the sack early. Rinse and repeat.
Donning his CPA cap, Jack wondered what the odds were that he could stick to this strict regimen. Six months later, the answer manifested. He had only cheated one day, and that was with Elsa. She’d treated him to an ice cream sundae for his 53rd birthday. They shared it. And when they finished, she kissed him with her chilly, vanilla lips.
It was all her, he knew. She’d deflected the responsibility for changing him, but in the end, she’d led from behind, steering him to success. He was forty-eight pounds lighter and healthier than he’d ever been. And more importantly, he was in love.
On Friday night, he showed up early at the Y, giddy to tell Elsa about his promotion from upper-middle-management to middle-upper-management. Everything was turning up roses. It was a wonderful life and more wonderful with Elsa in it. He was practicing his ceiling shots when he heard Gay Dave from HR.
“Jack,” Dave called through the slit in the court door.
Jack ceased practicing and stepped out. “What is it, Dave? You look like someone shot your dog.”
Dave’s head dropped as he placed both hands on Jack’s shoulders. “No way to say it but to say it,” he said to himself.
“Say what, Dave? Spit it out.”
Dave did say it. And Jack immediately wished he hadn’t.
“She’s dead, Jack,” Dave whispered. “Pills. Tequila. Just went to sleep. Her sister said she’d never really gotten over her husband’s death.”
“Our Elsa . . . yes,” Dave said, then buried his red face into his white towel and wept.
“Why, Elsa, why?” he sobbed at her graveside.
Everyone had long since left the cemetery. A Funeral Celebrant had lauded Elsa’s life, telling tales of her unwavering faith in humanity and her penchant for blessing those she met on her life’s journey. Some one-hundred people had shown up, each with a story of how Elsa had touched them – motivating them to live life to the fullest.
And now she lay in a coffin, in an open hole, in a cemetery, awaiting a stranger to bury her.
“Why, Elsa?” Jack repeated, dropping to his knees, watering her flowers with his tears.
A folksy voice answered: “T’was her time, is all.”
Jack turned violently, almost spraining his back. “Pardon,” he croaked, “didn’t see you there. Friend of Elsa’s?”
“Nope,” the man answered, “I’m nobody’s friend.” He was wearing overalls with one unbuckled strap. His shirt was flannel and the sleeves were rolled up, showing his dirty, burly arms. “Suffice to say, I know the type.”
“The type?” Jack asked, taking the man for a groundskeeper.
“Giver,” the man said. “I’m the sexton. I’ve buried more folks than you’ll ever know, so I know a giver when I see one.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said, reclaiming his grief. “I just need a few more minutes with her . . . alone. Can you give me some time?”
The man brandished a shovel, checked his pocket watch, and said, “Mister, time’s a’wastin’. I need to get on with it . . . unless . . .”
Jack wiped his eyes with his black sleeve and tilted his head. “Unless what?”
“Unless,” the man winked. His face was wizened and wicked. His iron-white hair was braided and long. “Unless you got somethin’ needs sayin’. Unfinished business.”
Impatient, Jack pointed to the open grave and then to himself. “That’s what I’m doing. What I’m trying to do, sir. Now, if you’ll kindly give me a few minutes . . .”
“Sorry, but you’re talkin’ to a box, Jack,” the sexton said. “Don’t you want to talk to Elsa herself?”
Jack lost it. “Of course I want to talk to Elsa! I loved her! I thought she loved me! I’d give anything to talk to her – if only for five minutes!”
“An . . . yyyy . . . thiiiing,” Jack cried, his face spoiling with emotion and moisture.
The old man fiddled with his loose strap and countered, “Would ya give five years for five minutes, Jack?”
Jack peered out through his wet hands and realized he’d never given the digger his name. He asked sharply, “What are you talking about?”
The sexton tapped the lid of the coffin with his shovel and repeated, “I give you five minutes with Miss Elsa here, and you give me five years of your life.” He extended his dirty hand and waited for a shake.
“You’re insane,” Jack replied. “Why would I . . . the whole idea is absurd . . . you’re a ghoul. A sick and insane ghoul.”
The man did not withdraw his calloused hand. “I can do it,” he gloated. “I can wake her up for five minutes and she’ll be as good as new. You have your chat, and I get my years. Done and dusted. Shake on it, Jack.”
“I’m not going to shake on it . . . why would I?”
“Unfinished business,” the sexton repeated, “you said it yourself. Tell ya what, I’m gonna step away. I’ll sit down under yonder shade tree and let you cogitate. If you change your mind, jump into the hole next side o’ her, and give the lid a knock. Shave and a haircut, should do it.” He pulled out his gold-plated pocket watch and finished, “Your five minutes starts now.”
Jack watched the sexton amble off, smelling flowers as he settled into a shady spot. From some hundred feet, Jack saw him hold up four fingers and knew what it meant.
“Can’t hurt,” Jack told himself. “Weird. Crazy. Creepy. But can’t hurt.”
After double-dog-daring himself, he did it. He jumped into the hole. As quixotically, he knocked on the lacquered lid, mouthing the words: shave and a haircut, two bits.
To Jack’s everlasting shock, the box opened.
“Jack,” a hoarse voice called. “Is that you?”
Jack pushed the lid against the wall of earth, propping it open. “Elsa,” he squeaked.
“Open my eyes,” she said. “So that I can see you, dear.”
Jack did as instructed. Her skin was cold. He thought of her chilly lips, after eating ice cream on his birthday. “You’re alive,” he said.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so. I’m mostly dead . . . like the character in Princess Bride.”
He recalled the scene where Miracle Max brought back Westley with the power of love. They both laughed until the absurdity of the situation ruined their mirth.
“I only have . . .” he peeked over the edge of the pit and saw the sexton holding up three fingers. “Three minutes. Can we talk?”
“Oh no,” Elsa said, “did you make a bargain with the sexton?”
“Never mind that. I have to know,” Jack demanded, “why you did it. Why you killed yourself.”
“Jack,’ she demanded, “tell me. Did you make a bargain with the sexton?”
He cupped her face in his hands and turned her head to see him. “That’s not important, Elsa. Tell me what you were thinking . . . why . . . a life with me . . . was unthinkable. Unbearable. Tell me why you killed yourself. Please. I have to know.”
Elsa tried to reach up, to clasp his hands in hers, but she was mostly dead. “It was my choice,” she said resolutely. “It was a promise I made . . . a bargain.”
Jack looked up from the grave and saw the sexton standing, staring, casting a black shadow. “One minute, love birds.”
“With him?” Jack asked.
“Yes,” she said. “He buried Mason, my late husband. There were words . . . unspoken . . . I needed Mason to know that I loved him.”
“Surly he knew,” Jack said.
“No he didn’t,” she said flatly, emphatically. “Because I resented him for the last few years. I hated him for leaving me . . . slowly dying and leaving me all alone. I was scared. I was unkind. Even cruel.”
Jack shook his head. “No, that can’t be. You’re the kindest person I’ve ever known.”
The sexton’s shadow grew between them like a wedge. “Thirty seconds,” he said.
The corners of her lips turned up. “It’s okay, Jack. I made the bargain. I traded twenty years for twenty minutes.”
Jack looked up at the interloper and screamed: “You cheat! You thief! You time robber!”
“Fifteen seconds,” the sexton chuckled.
Elsa shushed him as she did in Quinn’s Pub. “It’s okay, Jack. Those twenty minutes brought me more life than the million minutes before. I told Mason everything. I forgave him. I forgave myself. And he forgave me.”
“And that’s how you became the wonderful woman I met,” Jack said, as if to himself. “A giver.”
“You’re kind,” she said. “Now kiss me, Jack. Kiss me goodbye.”
He did. And when he finished, she was no longer mostly dead.
“She’s all dead now,” the sexton crowed, gripping his shovel.
Jack closed the lid and climbed out of the grave, refusing the sexton’s hand. “I should take that shovel and” –
“And what?” he asked, showing teeth as long as daggers.
“And nothing,” Jack replied.
The sexton tossed a load of dirt onto the coffin. The sound made Jack ill, to the point of nausea.
“Go ahead,” the sexton said, “sick it up. Better to hurl it than hold it.”
Jack collapsed and vomited until his sides cramped. “Now what?” he asked, wiping his mouth with his black sleeve.
“Now what what?” the sexton asked.
“Do I just wait . . . until you show up with a bottle of pills? A gun? A razor blade? How do I know when it’s my time to die?”
“You’re young,” the sexton said. “Young-ish. And relatively healthy. The damnable thing is, you were scheduled for expiration this very year. Then along came Little Miss Sunshine and inspired you to . . . what was her phrase? Live your best life?”
Jack nodded. The words were seared into his soul.
The sexton shoveled and ciphered at the same time. “’Cordin’ to my calculations, I won’t need to see you again ‘til Spring.”
“Spring?” Jack gasped.
The old sexton laughed and slapped his patched knees. “Spring of 2047. Minus the five you owe me. Spring of ‘42.”
Jack sighed with relief.
“Of course, we could do it back-ards,” the sexton proposed.
The sexton smacked his lips and said, “Yeppir. You give me three years in a coma upfront, and I’ll cancel my five years on the backend. Some folks really like that package. Interested?”
Jack waved his hands. “No more bargains. Nope. Besides, they say the last few years are typically pretty shitty. You may be doing me a favor.”
The sexton tapped his skull with his dirty fingernail. “Can’t outsmart you, Jack Rabbit.”
“Tell me,” Jack said, looking directly into the sun. “Is this real? Are you real? Was that” – he pointed to Elsa’s coffin – “was that real?”
“Yep, yep, and yeppity yep,” the sexton said.
“So,” Jack asked, “what are you?”
“What am I? What am I? Better question,” the sexton corrected, “is when am I. See, I feed on time, Jack. You eat candied bacon and I eat time.”
“No,” Jack shouted. “Not anymore. She changed me. Helped me change myself. And you stole two decades from her. You’re a time thief. A time glutton.”
The old sexton smiled, showing his yellow fangs. “There’s hardly a snack for me here today. You’ve fed well, though. Haven’t you, Jack?”
The sexton fished his watch out, flipped the gold cover, and studied the numbers. “I netted a few months, is all. But it’s practically a wash.”
“A wash?” Jack asked, over the grumblings of the sexton’s stomach.
The sexton tossed him the watch. “Do the math, Mr. CPA. Elsa lost twenty years, and you . . . you essentially gained twenty. It’s a wash. Crumbs for me.”
“You’re saying,” Jack started, then examined the watch’s hands. “You’re saying she sacrificed her life . . . for mine?”
“Not for me to say,” the sexton snarled. “All I know is that givers give. And when they do, I go hungry. Because I get cheated.”
Jack spat in the man’s shadow. “Something you’d know a lot about . . . cheating.”
The sexton kicked dirt over the spit. “Twenty years, Jack. That’s nothin’ to me.” He snapped his grimy fingers and the coffin lid sprang open. The head on the silk pillow was not Elsa’s, but Jack’s.
“You don’t scare me,” Jack said, staring at his own corpse. “I plan to live my life like Elsa – to give others a better life, happier life, longer life.”
“Easy to say,” said the sexton. “But when that watch stops, you’re mine, Jack Rabbit. No more runnin’.”
“Unless you’re dead,” Jack responded. “Unless I starve you.”
The sexton laughed so hard that his black tongue lolled out like a necktie. “You don’t get it, Jack. As long as there’s scraps of time to feed on, I live. I feast on your wasted time.”
“I know,” Jack said, taking the shovel from the ghoul. He then swung it at the coffin lid, slamming it shut. “If we all reclaim our lives – our precious time – you’ll be the one in that casket.”
The sexton took a step back. The force of Jack’s passion unsettled him. His stomach cramped and a gassy whine erupted from his gut. He fiddled with the flap of his overalls then finally met Jack’s gaze.
“Givers,” he snarled. “I don’t have time for givers.” He pointed to the grave and said, “You fill it in, Jack Rabbit. After all she gave you, it’s the least you can do.”
Jack waved as the sexton stepped away, no doubt to make more bargains and to feed in the landfills of man’s wasted time.
“Bye,” Jack said. “See you in twenty years.”
He turned his back and stabbed the soil with the crescent blade and tossed its contents upon the lacquered lid. The noise did not sicken him this time. This time it emboldened him. “I promise, Elsa . . . I swear on all that is holy . . . I won’t waste a minute of your gift.”
He pulled the sexton’s watch from his pocket and sprung the cover. He laughed as the second hand moved backward, counter-clockwise. Then he tossed the watch into her grave and covered her casket with dirt
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