Disarming Disillusionment

A Short Story

Contest Winner Based on Opening Line

Hank waited impatiently in the drizzling rain for the taxi to arrive; he carefully gripped his battered briefcase, protective of its secrets. 

A chilling wind began to blow as Hank pulled his coat tighter around him.  I feel like a sponge, Hank thought, as the rain dampened him to the bone.  What I wouldn’t give for a warm fireplace and a glass of scotch. 

To say that life had been lousy in recent months would be the understatement of the year. The once fresh feelings of fulfillment, job satisfaction, knowing at the end of the day that he’d contributed to something–all vanished and continued to elude him, even now. There had been a time when his job title saw him through the rough patches: Chairman, Hope & Faith Organization. They helped addicts and alcoholics begin anew, start over. But as the rain soaked into his coat, he doubted he would ever feel positive again–all because of her.

Three months prior, he began what was to be another ordinary day. He went to the office, grabbed a cup of coffee, then began to visit the day’s target list. Someone mentioned the apartments on 4th Avenue were home to some prostitutes with drug addictions. He’d been so naive, facing that day with determination and hope. He smiled cynically as he remembered starting with her fifth floor apartment in order to work his way down. I should have started on the first floor.

A young woman answered the door. Her greasy hair fell over deeply stoned blue eyes, and she scanned him up and down. “You got any money, mister?” she asked, shifting in place like she was dancing to some distant beat no one could hear. He tried talking to her, offering to get her into rehab, speaking of a life without addiction. “Yeah, sure,” she mumbled, sauntering out to the balcony. She flashed an eerie smile at him before she jumped and plummeted to her death.  That second of utter shock had played over and over in Hank’s guilty head, his own personal film from hell. As often as he’d tried, he couldn’t erase the memory.

Now, in the drizzling rain, Hank was done fighting his demons. Facing his own inadequacies was too tiring, and he gripped the briefcase even tighter. Finally, a yellow taxi arrived. The insides smelled of cheap perfume and smoke. “45 Kirkland Avenue, and step on it, please!” At least he was out of the rain, though the perfume smell was giving him a headache.

The taxi drove toward the hotel, and Hank stared through wet droplets at the world outside. A young boy jumped in the puddles, his face beaming with glee while showing his dad what he could do. Such simple joys. Too bad the world isn’t like that anymore.  His friends walked the city streets. If only they knew how disillusioning life can be.  He would have spiraled into another cynic session if the taxi had not stopped.  He’d arrived.

Gripping the briefcase, he paid the driver and got out. Just a few more hours.  He entered the hotel, admiring the chandeliers and ornate paintings on every wall. A sign outside the main ballroom stated, “Kirkland County Chamber of Commerce presents awards to Hank Goodman and Dr. Charles Levin for outstanding service in the community.”  Yeah right. If only they knew how outstanding.

The cynicism had intertwined with his spirit, and tonight he would announce his retirement from public service when he accepted the award. People would presume he had burned out. They would never know the truth, that he’d caused a girl to kill herself. Grabbing a glass of champagne, he veered to the corner of the room, not wanting anyone to see his emotions that were surely etched across his face.

“Excuse me, Mr. Goodman?” a female voice asked.

Startled, Hank turned to see a woman in her early thirties with a boy about twelve years old. “Yes?”

She smiled, one of the most peaceful smiles he’d ever seen. “I don’t mean to bother you on your big night, but I had to thank you in person. Three months ago, your words turned my life around. I needed a new start, and your advice changed my life.”

Hank couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you.  I must say, though, that I am sorry but I usually remember most faces I speak with. I don’t remember you.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen me, Mr. Goodman.”

Puzzled, he asked, “How can that be?”

“She was my roommate, and she’d threatened suicide for weeks. It wasn’t your fault that she jumped.”

An eerie feeling pierced Hank’s spine, then surged through his entire body. “I…I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, miss.”

The woman smiled knowingly. “The prostitute on 4th Street, the one who jumped out the window. She was my roommate, but your advice gave me the help I needed.”

Was this some kind of sick joke? Had his past created ghosts who would follow him? With resentment and confusion evident in his tone, he said, “How could you possibly know what I said to her?  She was the only one in the room. I tried to help her, and she jumped. I haven’t been a help to anyone ever since.” His fingers clutched the briefcase, keeping it ever nearby.

The woman had the kindest eyes he’d seen in weeks. “She may have been the only one in the room, but she wasn’t the only one in the apartment. I’d passed out in the closet the night before. When I woke, I heard your voice. You changed my life, Mr. Goodman. I’ve been sober, I have a job, and my life is back on track. Thanks to you.”

Tears swelled in Hank’s eyes and a lump formed in his throat.  He looked into the sober green eyes of someone who had taken his words to heart.  That day did make a difference. He smiled, fighting off the tears. “Thank you. Today, your words have given me hope, more than you could possibly know.”

She stroked the young boy’s hair. “You’re welcome. I’m Catherine and this is my son, Josh. He’s quite talented in school, and his teacher says he has a great future ahead of him. I’m just thankful I’ll be around for it.”

The lump in Hank’s throat became bigger, making it difficult to breathe. For the first time that night, he loosened his grip on the briefcase. He placed it on a nearby table, opened it, and asked, “Why don’t you keep an eye on this while I give my speech? I won’t be needing it anymore.”

Catherine glanced at the contents. Surprised, she looked up at Hank.

“I guess we’re even,” Hank said, offering a grateful smile.

Catherine glanced back at the briefcase.  There were only three items in there – a suicide note, a gun, and a will.