I was close to leaving the late shift at the local drug store, the one with the neon lights plastered outside and all, listening to those ceiling speakers softly hum elevator jazz. It was pretty empty around this time and since nobody else was here and I decided to light myself a nice cig. They always made me feel a little bit less lonely cause smell of the smoke was one that I’d never forget, it always felt familiar no matter where I was. It really did. Anyway, I had no idea why they converted the store to a 24-hour shop because nobody really ever came in, except for men expecting late night rendezvous or drunks who were getting their daily nighttime dose.
You see, Candy, my co-worker, had needed to leave early for God knows what, so I took over her shift that day. The store was generally silent except for the deep rumble of the A/C and the whines of the fluorescent lights. I didn’t mind it at all, though. I actually kind of liked it, to be honest, because I was all by myself. The only thing was that it was real lonely because all I could really do was sit and wait for some troublemaker to come busting in for one of their 3 a.m. needs every once in a while or watch the desolate, kind of depressing security tape over and over.
A few minutes till three, the door chimed lightly signaling the arrival of my replacement. My strained eyes shot up to see Dan, in all his glory, coming in with a tipsy smile on his dumb face. “Hey,” he said a little too loud and I swear I could smell the beer saturated on his breath from where I was. He put on his nametag, ‘Dan’ printed nicely in Sal’s signature red cursive, and leaned over the counter. “I think I can take it from here. You can go home now.”
That was code for ‘get out, I want to sit down and you’re in the only seat in the entire goddam store’.
“For Christ Sake, it smells like ash. Are you smokin’ in here?”
I shook my head, and could feel the heat rise to my cheeks. Under the counter, I stomped on the bud and kicked it under the counter. I’m pretty sure there were at least fifty of my old cigarettes under there, to be honest.
“You gonna go?”
I nodded and hopped off the chair. I just wasn’t in the mood to be pulverized by his glares today, however, I would have loved to be burned with one look of his eyes, but today I wasn’t really feeling it. I scurried out, the door jingling behind me.
After I got kicked out, I went outside and looked up to the abyss above me. I hated whenever the sky was pitch black. For some reason it made me feel like I was lost, and like I’d be stuck in it forever.
And just to my luck, the sky was so dark that I couldn’t see anything but black. Usually there would be a couple of stars hanging around, so I’d feel like I had company, but tonight they were all hiding, which made me feel real alone. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like going home. It wasn’t like there was anyone to go home to anyways.
I decided that I would just follow the path of streetlights, but to be honest I had no real destination in mind. I just wanted to feel the wind in my hair, to remind me that I was alive. I had to do that a lot. I don’t really know why.
I think it was stupid of me to think that it would help, but there was something about lights that were comforting for me. I had always loved them as a kid. During my youthful days, I could never sleep without a nightlight, or always had to have some sort of lamp on. Of course, I got made fun of by all my friends because they thought I was some sort of pussy that couldn’t even sleep with the lights off, but I guess I didn’t really care what they thought. It just kind of showed me that they didn’t really understand me, and that they weren’t real. It’s kind of sad actually.
But, ironically, one of my favorite memories was when our electricity wasn’t working and the lights were completely off. I found myself left in the darkness and I don’t think I’ve had ever been so scared in my whole entire life. I cried and cried till my mother came in, and she found me curled up in a ball, and wrapped me in a blanket, till I was all cozy. She stuck these glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars and planets on my ceilings. I always loved to look at them because it reminded me that I wasn’t alone and she was always there for me. Maybe that’s why I look for those damn stars every night.
Anyways, I was walking along the edge of the park, everything lit by streetlamps and cars passing by, and small gusts of wind that sang sweetly in my ear with perfect harmony. The trees were dimly lit, and their usual bright green color was unnoticeable. It was kind of peaceful, because everyone was asleep, and even the bars that were usually filled to the brim with people, who drank alcohol like it was water, were closed.
I had been walking for no longer than seven or eight minutes when I saw a little pudgy figure, a few feet ahead, sitting alone on a bench and reading what looked like a pocketbook. As I inched closer, I peered at the peculiar woman in front of me from behind a large black trash can because I kind of blended into the darkness with my all black clothing, She was around 80 years old, had a small bowler hat on and was reading some book by some ancient author that people in her time had probably loved or something. It was quite odd for a person like her to be out in the park during the middle of the night. Certainly, I would be expecting an old person like her to be fast asleep in home in her, or watching soap operas in a big velvety chair, like my grandma used to do.
“Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to say something?”
I froze, and every single drop of blood in my whole entire body flushed to my cheeks. ”Uh, g-good evening.” I stuttered out incoherently.
She pushed her glasses up, squinting at me hard. She paused for a few seconds, contemplating on my face. “Do I know you, young man?”
“No,” I shook my head. “No, ma’am. B-but is it alright with you if I sit here with you for a couple minutes?” The thing that surprised me was that she didn’t look suspicious of me at all. I mean, if I were her, I would be skeptical as hell.
To be honest, I couldn’t really believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. I was never really that type of person to be so forward. Maybe it was the darkness, and I had been getting desperate from some company, but I had no idea what I was saying, and more so, why I was saying it. She kind of gave me a hard look, but scooted over a couple body lengths so the both of us could fit on the bench.
“Most certainly,” she closed her book with a soft thud. “I don’t think I’ve ever had company this late.”
“I don’t think I’ve been out this late.”
And get this, she then gave me a smile, but one of those real genuine, kind smiles, the ones that show you that they mean well. I hadn’t seen one of those in a very long time, and those made my hands sweat even more, cause only my mom used to smile at me like that. Nobody really smiled at me these days. And even if they did, I could always see right through them, and could tell that they weren’t real. But when she smiled at me, a familiar sense of warmth rushed through my body and embraced every single cell from my head to my toes. It almost made me want to start bursting out in tears, I was so happy. I almost did.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Well, it’s a goddam pleasure to meet you, Sam,” she stook her hand out. “My name is Janice.”
“Nice to meet you, Janice.” I shook it lightly.
“So what brings you out tonight on a warm, summer night, Sam?”
“I don’t really know.” I said. I really didn’t. “I just came off of work and thought that I’d take a quick walk.”
“You just got off of work? It’s—“ she looked at the watch. “Two past three! What on earth do you do?”
“I work at Sal’s.”
“The one a few blocks from here?” She motioned down the wide path I had just took sparsely lit with lights. She seemed surprised for some reason.
“Oh, I go there all the time to get my groceries. It’s a very nice place, that Sal’s.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I guess it is.”
There was a lull in the conversation, an impending silence for a few minutes. I think she was expecting me to say a little bit more, or bring up something else but I was trying my best not to sweat through my clothes, cause I was so damn nervous. I hadn’t really talked to anyone in a long time.
Janice coughed a little bit and pursed her lips together. “Well, Sam from Sal’s, I can tell you right now—I am a mediocre self-taught therapist.” She let out a small laugh. “And no man in his right mind would take a walk this damn late. Darling, if you need a walk at three in the morning something is very off. It is clear to me that something is on your mind, I can see it, you can feel it, hell, even a child would be able to tell that something is bothering you.”
“Well,” I wiped the sweat on my pants. “There’s always something bothering everyone. I’m not the only one.”
“You have a point there, Sam.” She put her wrinkled hand on my shoulder and gave me a small pat. “However, you made the mistake of saying everyone. There are people in this world, like myself, who do not find problems anymore. Let me tell you, I am old, I know that, but I have lived long enough where I can say all my problems are non-existent.”
Not true. “I-I mean, I guess.”
“Don’t be so closed minded,” she frowned at me disapprovingly. I looked down and kicked a nearby rock away. “Your problems are only created by your own doings.”
I grimaced. I don’t know what path she was trying to go down, the enlightened hippie grandma, or the wise beyond her years stereotype. I just knew that either way, it wasn’t doing much for me.
“That’s not true at all. If you only blame yourself for your problems how do you explain death? Life is never perfect. People die.”
I realized I was shouting. I was shouting real loud, so loud, that I think we both were afraid I was going to wake up the whole neighborhood.
“You know, people die,” I said a little bit quieter. “And it happens. And you can’t do anything about it and they can’t either. And when they’re gone, what are you supposed to do? Not miss someone you loved so much—”
Memories were coming back.
“And just forget her? You know, it isn’t my fault—”
All of them were coming back at once, like a flood.
“That I miss her, but it isn’t her fault for dying. So what am I supposed to do,” I was shouting again. “Which is it?” My voice kind of broke on the last note. I guess I was pretty upset for her giving me all this bullshit, but I was more upset at myself for some reason.
Janice gave me a concerned look. “Who are you talking about?”
I stayed silent.
“Alright. But to answer your question, it is normal to mourn someone, Sam. And if that person was close to you, I know it’s very hard to stop. I lost my husband a couple years ago to cancer. I was devastated for God knows long.” She smiled sadly. “But I told myself I couldn’t keep living this way. I couldn’t keep drowning myself in my own self-pity and melancholy, because the more I would, the deeper I would sink. And let me tell you, it was hell to make that swim back to reality. But I did it. And everything is so goddam beautiful, Sam, everything in some way has its own beauty. You have to look up and look at the goddam stars, and see that you everything happens no matter if you want it to or not. You can’t live your life worrying about your problems, because they’ll just die with you. You won’t be able to get rid of them, so just don’t create them for yourself. It took me nearly seventy years to see, but if you would only listen and see that they are always there and that something is always there for you.”
“Then, what do I do with myself? I’ve tried. I-I can’t keep living like this. “I’ve been waiting all this time and nothing― “ Nothing was changing.
She grabbed my hand with her own and squeezed it tight. “Change is always available. Sam, honey, you’re the only obstacle in your way, so get out and let yourself be. Make your own sunlight. You can do whatever you want. Nothing is stopping you.”
And all of the sudden, I was crying. It really came out of nowhere. It really did. And the tears weren’t just a few small droplets, but waves of whatever had washed over me. I hadn’t cried since she had died. And nothing felt better to let it all out, and to just feel like there was at least some hope in this world.
It was almost sunrise after we talked for a couple more hours and Old Janice had to get back to her house in order to make breakfast for her grandchildren. She said she was almost like a nocturnal animal, cause all she did during the day was sleep, but was restless during the night. She said that even if you couldn’t see it, there were always stars out during the night. She invited me to come over and meet her grandchildren, but I declined. I had another place I needed to be.