R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. His most recent publication is a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka, published through Fish Out of Water Books.
His work has been published in over 30 literary magazines.
He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival.
Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI.
His website is www.foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @foxwriter7.
My Funny Valentine by R.J. Fox
As Charlie Baker drifted off to sleep, his last waking thought was how at peace he was with the direction his life was finally taking.
So naturally, the next morning, when his boss/friend Brian called him into his office, Charlie didn’t think anything of it. He naturally assumed it had to do with their weekly lunch plans.
“Wherever we go, it better involve burgers,” Charlie began.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Brian said, fidgeting at his desk.
“Well, I’m open to other suggestions,” Charlie said, oblivious.
Brian covered his face with his hands.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
“No,” Brian began. “No, I’m not. I have to fucking fire you, dude.”
“You’re bullshitting me …”
“Wish it were so. You gotta believe me when I say it’s nothing personal – this is all coming from HR.”
“When did you find out?” Charlie asked.
“A week ago.”
“Fuck, indeed. I’m so sorry, man. I tried everything I could.”
“I don’t hold it against you. I understand how these things work.”
“Now, about that burger … it’s the least I can do.”
“As long as there’s a bar.”
“I am so fucking sorry.”
“On second thought, I think I just need to be alone. So how much time do I have?”
“You need to have your stuff packed by close of business.”
“I’ll be out of here at two.”
“Take your time.”
The last thing he wanted to do was take his time.
At 1:51 p.m., he was escorted out the door of the agency.
“Company protocol,” Brian assured him.
The same company where he busted his ass – slaved – for the last five years, making peanuts for a living.
He never once complained.
When he got into his car, he blasted some Charlie Parker and drove down the street to his favorite watering hole, hoping that he wouldn’t run into any of his co-workers.
Fuck them all.
He ordered his usual: a 7 & 7, knowing well enough not to exceed his personal limit of two and was holding up very well. He attempted to process his lay-off and realized that he shouldn’t really be surprised. Advertising was cut-throat enough during the best of times and especially not too kind to low-to-mid-level ad people. Charlie was stuck between a no man’s land of the two levels with no real hope for further advancement – at least not in this job market.
As he sipped his first drink, his stress and shock began to dissolve, looking through strained vision for the silver lining. He could still hang his hat on the impending publication of his book. Though not a source of income, it was his greatest source of pride. He suddenly began to see his firing as a blessing in disguise. Being out of a job meant he could now devote more time to writing his next book. Writing full time was something he always dreamed of. Now, he had his chance. Halfway through his second drink, he pulled out his phone and noticed a text from his publisher: “CALL ME ASAP.”
Under ordinary circumstances, he wouldn’t have thought much of it, but considering how his day had already transpired, his doom and gloom radar was on full alert.
He stepped outside and dialed his publisher.
“Hey, Charlie …” Henry began. Charlie could tell by his tone that this wasn’t good news.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more notes,” Charlie interjected. “I don’t know if I could handle any more notes.”
“No notes. In fact, there will never be notes again.”
“It’s finally done?”
“We’ve gone belly-up.”
“But you haven’t even started!”
“Trust me, we’re just as shocked as you are. Just know that we put our all into this. But unlike us, you can still live to see another day. You realize this means your book is free again. You deserve better.”
“You were my only hope. You know that.”
“We are devastated by this, too. You were depending on us for one book. We were depending on us for our livelihood. Now, we’re stuck in fucking academia from here to eternity.”
“Well, at least you got something,” Charlie said, unable to control his sarcasm.
“I’m certain advertising is far more interesting than academia.”
“I got fired …”
There was a long pause, before Henry summed it all up:
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Well, aside from that …”
“Please, no hard feelings.”
“It’s very hard.”
“Trust me. I know.”
“Any chance for any sort of Hail Mary here?”
“Trust me. We’ve used every last one.”
“Okay, well thanks for everything you’ve done. Especially for believing in me.” His words felt empty; his voice detached from reality.
“You wrote a kick ass book. Your dream is still alive.”
Charlie hung up the phone, and looked up into the starless, night sky, stunned and hopeful that it was all a dream – a nightmare. It was the only thing that made sense.
He headed back inside the bar and promptly ordered another 7 & 7. He had reached the point of no return. Halfway to his 7th, he decided he was drunk enough to deal with returning home. It was close enough to the end of his usual 10-hr. workday to stave off any suspicion. But when – and more importantly – what would he tell Jenny? He hoped that the answer would reveal itself on his drive home. Instead, all he could focus on was losing his contract, which was even more shocking and painful than the loss of his job. Losing his job felt like losing a bit of his soul. Losing his contract felt like having his soul ripped through his asshole.
The signing of his contract was the biggest accomplishment of Charlie’s life. Despite the contract, he wasn’t naïve about the publishing business. He knew the pitfalls that came along with it more than anyone, as the hundreds of rejections could attest. However, the moment the ink dried on his contract, he felt like his time had finally arrived. His dues were paid in full.
Now he was bankrupt.
In reality, he should have known better. Signing with a husband-wife start-up who had hoped to launch their entire business on his travel memoir was a risky proposition to say the least. Signing with them wouldn’t have been his first choice … if he had other options. But he didn’t. He was rejected by everyone else. He realized now that he would have rather never signed a contract, rather than getting this far, only to fall flat on his face. The only positive he could hang his hat on was knowing that the book was better than ever due to the endless revisions his publisher put him through. It still had a shot.
Charlie paid his tab, which had a semi-sobering effect when he realized how every cent he spent was now on borrowed time. As he headed out to his car, he realized he might have been too drunk to drive, but was too drunk and exhausted to give a shit. He tried to imagine Jenny’s likely reaction, before realizing he was in too fragile of a state of mind to come clean. Her wrath was the last thing he could stomach. She nagged at him during the best of times. This was certainly not the best of times. So he made up his mind: he would keep his dirty little secret to himself for at least another day.
He realized his firing now meant he could write “full-time” – something he always wanted. This was quickly overshadowed by a sobering thought: Could I ever write again? It was one thing when he wrote under the false auspices of a wafer-thin publishing contract that his writing finally had a purpose. However, signing with a publisher was a game changer in how he approached the craft. Prior to the contract, at least he had the illusion of hope on his side. Now, he had nothing.
While driving home, he shut the music off and let the silence take over, hoping that it would somehow clear his head and find the right frame of mind to enter into the house in order to create the illusion that all was fine and dandy. He had to do everything in his power to maintain a poker face – which was never a natural skill for him. Typically, trying to cover up stress and anxiety segued into cheating accusations from his wife. In truth, he never once came close to cheating during their eight years of marriage. Yet, it wasn’t enough to ward off unprovoked accusations, which he always suspected said a whole lot more about her, than him.
After what felt like the longest ride home, he finally pulled into his driveway, took a deep breath, and entered. His wife was sitting on the couch, crying. A box of tissue sat by her side.
How does she already know?
“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, trying to feign both innocence and ignorance.
“I’m fine,” she said, failing miserably at showing it.
“You are sitting on the couch crying. How is this fine?”
She refused to tell him and quickly regained her composure. He debated if he should just come right out with his news, figuring that her vulnerable state would soften the blow against him.
“Jenny, I …,” he began.
“I’m leaving you,” Jenny said, before he completed his statement.
“Excuse me?” Charlie said in response.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, followed by a torrential downpour of tears.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Charlie asked,
“Do you really think I’d joke about something like this?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t understand …” Charlie said.
“It’s so complicated. I don’t even know where to begin …”
“You can start with why.”
“Please, don’t …” Jenny pleaded, as though she were the victim.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice here.”
“I met somebody.”
“Who?” Charlie finally asked after the shock passed.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“Please don’t make this more difficult.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Over a year. Almost two.”
He was too stunned to speak. He never felt more like a fool in his life. He considered dropping his bomb on her now, but what difference would that have made at this point? He decided not to waste his breath.
Frustrated by his lack of response, she headed upstairs. He considered chasing after her in an attempt to make things right. Despite everything else being so wrong.
In fact, he was certain that she would be expecting it. Instead, he stared out the window into the void that had become his life.
A minute later, she came down with a suitcase.
“Were you already packed?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’ll be back for the rest when you’re at work.”
“That’s mighty courteous of you,” he said, surprised at his ability to muster snark at a time like this.
She headed out the door. As he watched helplessly from the window as she pulled out of the driveway, the blinding headlights only adding insult to injury. He was surprised he wasn’t fighting for her – for them. But he felt so damn defeated.
In comparison to the dual dissolution of his job and contract, when it came to his wife’s decision, the writing was certainly on the wall – he just had his back turned toward it.
In fact, his writing – specifically the failure that came along with it – played a tremendous part in the evaporation of his marriage. He certainly couldn’t blame her. How many times did he turn down sex because he was in a “writing groove”? How many times did he choose his writing over going out to a movie? Or, staying in for one?
When the writing wasn’t holding their relationship hostage, his job was. She was frustrated with his long hours and even longer hours spent writing. If there was anything she wanted more than for him to find a better job, it was to go cold turkey and quit writing. In order to keep the peace, he kept his writing hidden from her, creating the illusion that he was submitting to her selfish demands. His writing became his mistress. He committed fully to her during his lunch hour. It was the only substantial time he got.
Now, none of it mattered.
He headed straight to his king-sized bed – which felt empty enough when he wasn’t alone. He lay down, staring at his dust-covered saxophone propped up on a stand in a dark corner of the room, eerily bathed in moonlight. It was a golden relic of his past – a part of his life that he set aside to focus on his writing career. Now, it felt so far from reality, he wondered if he could even play it anymore. There would be only one way to find out, but it would have to be for another day. On that thought, he drifted off to sleep, before awakening minutes later with a jolt, as his new reality hit him like a brick wall. As he tossed and turned throughout the night, he tried to vacate his mind of all thought, but managed to only add to the load.
The next day was a complete blur, as were the next several weeks. A few months later, he finally unlocked the secret of his wife’s “mystery man” when he ran into her at a restaurant sitting in a corner two-top with one of her co-workers – a man he knew all-too-well. In fact, so well, it should have been no surprise that they were fucking right under his nose. He rather it would have been a complete stranger. She pretended not to notice him, but he knew otherwise.
He downed his drink, left enough money to cover his tab, and headed straight home. Sleep continued to elude him, so he tried straight shots of whiskey. When that didn’t work, he gave sleeping pills a shot. When that didn’t work, he made a cocktail out of the two, which helped him sleep, but left him with a raging headache. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the king-sized bed he had shared with his wife that sleep finally came to him, despite the guest bed being far more uncomfortable.
In the immediate aftermath of her walking out on him, he was confident that she would come home after a day or two. But even if she came back, how long would she stay once she found out that he was unemployed? As far as his book contract was concerned, she probably would have been relieved that he fell flat on his face. After a couple of weeks of ignored texts and phone calls, mild acceptance began to settle in. She did eventually reply back to a text begging her to at least tell him she was okay. She replied: “Please stop texting/calling me.” At least he knew she was okay.
It was time to move on.
Writing had a therapeutic effect on him, which he now needed more than ever, but he quickly realized the well had run dry. For once in his life, he finally had ample time to write, he couldn’t.
For the first time in his life, he was dealing with writer’s block.
He decided to put writing on the backburner for awhile, optimistic that it could stew into something later. In the meantime, he would turn his attention to accumulating a collection of one-night stands. If all else failed, he would resort to strip clubs. Or Asian massage parlors.
On a wintry Valentine’s night, Charlie headed downtown for some much-needed soul-searching. He cabbed it – a $45 dollar ride. He knew he shouldn’t spend the money, but didn’t want to take any chances. Not only was heavy snow in the forecast, but he was going to get shit-faced.
“So how you doing tonight?” the driver asked in a heavy, middle-eastern accent as Charlie took a sip out of his flask.
“Huh?” Charlie said.
“How are you doing?”
“Just fine,” Charlie said, staring out the window into the darkness, as static-infused lounge music played on an out-of-range AM channel.
As the cab entered downtown, a light snowfall punctuated illuminated the otherwise dark lonely Detroit streets. Despite its beauty, the snow made everything feel even more lonely.
“You can drop me off here,” Charlie said as the cab approached the center of downtown.
“Okay, my friend,” the driver said. “Have a good night.”
Charlie paid his fare.
“God bless,” the driver said.
“If only …” Charlie shut the door. The cab drove off, leaving Charlie feeling even more alone, as well as completely defenseless, which in this town, was never a good thing.
He looked around every which way to both get his bearings straight and to make sure he wasn’t being snuck up upon. He had no idea where he was going. He just knew that wherever it was would involve copious amounts of whiskey.
It began to snow harder, as the temp continued to fall toward zero. He didn’t have to walk very far to hear the faint, warm sound of booze-soaked jazz emanating from some unknown destination. He headed toward it, drawn toward it like a moth to light, until he reached the doors of Cliff Bells – an old school jazz joint that first opened in the 30’s, before closing its doors in the 80’s. It had re-opened its doors a couple of years back, rising out of the ashes.
Relieved that his search was over, Charlie entered the half-packed joint. He surveyed the round two-tops for a place to plop himself down for the remainder of the evening, as a jazz combo jammed on stage. He found the perfect spot in a darkened corner. A vintage, Jazz Age waitress approached. He ordered a vintage 7 & 7. As much as he longed for his whiskey straight, he knew he had to stretch himself thin lest he bring the evening to a premature end.
As Charlie waited for his drink, he sat back and grooved to the music that had been his lifeblood ever since he joined his middle school jazz band. It was Band-Aid over from his bullies – a muse when he wrote and the elixir he needed when he couldn’t. As the music soaked into his soul, mingling with the drinks he already consumed, he was hopeful his soul would catch a glimpse of salvation, despite the fact that writing never felt more distant and foreign. In fact, he felt no more qualified to write than to perform brain surgery. He was already accepting the reality that he wouldn’t.
As the band finished their set to take a short break, Charlie ordered his second 7 & 7, halfway between buzzed and loaded. He felt happy. Content. Rejuvenated.
When the band returned from their set, the trio introduced a singer – a curvy, redhead in a matching, red cocktail dress. She had a retro, throwback look that Charlie was instantly attracted to – not to mention a voice to match, which magnified her physical beauty on a deeper ethereal level. She was a vessel for the spirits of Ella, Billie, Bessie, and Sarah. Her voice filled his soul like whiskey filled his veins, hearkening him back to a much more glorious past.
As Charlie watched her perform one jazz standard after another, his initial curiosity morphed into a crush, which was quickly becoming an obsession.
Was he falling in love? And if not, then what in the hell was it?
He was well aware that she likely took no notice of him. As she sang, her eyes closed, making her even more tender, beautiful, and vulnerable to him. When she opened them again – though he couldn’t be sure – she looked his way, if only for a fleeting moment. However, he soon realized that that she seemed to be doing so to every customer. But even so, it still felt like she lingered on him longer than the others. He knew it was probably wishful thinking on his part.
Not wanting to appear like the stalker that he was certain he was becoming, Charlie looked down, honing in on a stack of white cocktail napkins, wielding the lounge’s art deco-embossed logo. He felt the square stack taunting him, daring him to fill their void with his words. And then, his attention was diverted as the band broke into his favorite jazz standard of them all: the seeping-with-melancholy “My Funny Valentine.” Her interpretation was the most haunting rendition he had ever heard, making Chet Baker’s version downright chipper by comparison. After the first verse, he returned his gaze to the cocktail napkins. They were no longer taunting him. They were beckoning him. Calling to him. He reached for one, removed a pen from his pocket – a habit he never shook, despite the fact that he was no longer writing. In fact, he had recently stopped taking a pen all together, having all but given up on ever writing again. Yet, something compelled him to take one along this time.
As the song reached its regret-soaked finale, Charlie looked up, making genuine eye contact with the chanteuse performing in front of him. A hint of a smile appeared on her luscious lips, before closing her eyes from the world as the song came to a close. He turned his eyes away from her before he could open them, for fear that when she re-opened them, she would no longer know he existed. He turned his attention back to the napkins, seeking in them traces of the former mistress who – until recently – had never let him down.
As he stared into the snow-white canvas of a solitary napkin, the equally snow-white chanteuse broke into yet another one of his favorite chestnuts: “At Last.”
At last indeed, he thought, as his pen dropped to the napkin right on cue like a needle to a record, freely moving on its own accord. He was simply the conduit. A vessel from which his words would flow, painting an all-too-familiar story about love and regret, loss and redemption, of love and regret. Never was he more in sync with both plot and theme, intertwined in such a way that they became one. In less than five minutes, every square inch of the napkin was filled, inside and out. He reached for another. Five minutes later and his pile quadrupled. He couldn’t remember the last time he wrote with such efficiency and precision. And he owed it all to his new muse in the red dress.
He wrote in perfect rhythm to the music, tune after tune, accompanied by jazz as hot as his pen. He had no idea what he was really writing about, or whether it was any good. But it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if his scrawls would be legible, which was often not the case during explosive, drunken handwriting sessions. He didn’t give a shit if it were the worse writing of his life. All that mattered was that he was writing again, which in turn made him feel alive again. An hour or so later, he realized he had lost track of time, as happens when soaring through the wild, un-patrolled universe of creativity. He was also out of napkins and asked the waiter for more, pausing a moment to shake the numbing cramps from his hand. The waiter seemed a tad annoyed at this whole napkin business, but Charlie didn’t give a shit. His train was back on the tracks and nothing could stop him from finishing his journey.
As he continued to write, he would come up for air on occasion to catch a glimpse of his new muse, sharing a smattering of fleeting, but no doubt meaningful glances before turning their attention back to their art.
Following the next, gem-filled set, the band took another break and Charlie realized he needed a break of his own, following four 7 & 7’s spread out over a two-hour period. The band’s break was a good excuse to take a breather himself. After guzzling down a glass of water, he headed down a hallway toward the restroom, feeling as though he were floating on air, thanks in part to the whiskey, but mostly due to the natural high of an artist working at the peak of his ability. These moments are rare for any artist – let alone one whose writing had come to a standstill.
On his way out, Charlie spotted his new muse sitting at the bar, sipping on an Old-Fashioned. His instinct was to immediately bee-line back to his table, but realized he had just enough confidence to attempt conversation. Just as he took his first step toward the bar, she got up and headed toward the stage. Charlie headed back to his seat like a limp, deflated balloon, before finally taking solace in his attempt and the prospect that he would have another shot after the show. The band started their final set and Charlie decided it was just as well. Writing sessions such as this were rare, even during the best of times. He wanted to milk it for as long as possible. In fact, his next set – like the music that accompanied it – was even hotter than before.
The waiter interrupted him to ask if he wanted another drink. Charlie gave it some thought, but realized it was time to put on the brakes and asked for more water instead. The high he was experiencing from his writing was far more intoxicating than any booze could ever wish to be. And he knew damn well enough that too much booze put his inner muse to sleep.
Toward the end of the band’s final set, he felt the writing well was beginning to run dry. He didn’t fret, because he knew that even the greatest writing sessions eventually come to an end. Besides, his blistered fingers needed a break, but like any good workout, it was a good kind of hurt. He gathered up his napkins and stuffed them into his pocket, before sitting back to let the music take over for the remaining half hour.
The band finished their last set with an effervescent rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” – another one of Charlie’s all-time favorites. When the song was over, the houselights came on and the band began to pack up.
Charlie was overcome by another unexpected wave of confidence. Just as he made his way toward her, his waiter intercepted him.
“Time to head out, bud.”
For the second time that night, an attempt to talk to the person who unknowingly resurrected his creative soul was thwarted. Though disappointed, he was proud of the strides he made tonight – on many fronts.
He threw on his coat and headed back into the empty night. A heavy snowfall greeted him. Not a cab was in sight. He should have asked the bartender to call him for one, but cast his fate to the wind to wait it out. After he waited five minutes in the white, lonely night, a sudden gust of wind ripped through his soul and sucked the napkins out of his pocket like over-sized snowflakes, dispersing in every possible direction. He desperately chased them down, realizing it was a futile effort, despite managing to salvage a few of them. Hopefully, he would have enough to cobble everything back together when his mind was clear and he returned to what was sure to be a new reality.
As he continued to gather his lost art, he saw a peripheral vision of red and white joining the night. He stopped mid-pursuit of a napkin, as she stood there, with a warm, inviting smile threatened to melt the snowflakes into rain. She then helped him gather a couple of stray napkins and brought them over to him as her band loaded up a van.
“You shouldn’t litter, you know,” she said with a seductive smile.
“Trying to quit,” Charlie said. “You guys sounded great, by the way.”
“Thank you,” she said, a tad embarrassed.
They gazed at one another through the falling snow.
Words weren’t necessary.
“Let’s roll!” the bassist said, as he climbed into his rusted-out utility van and cranked up some be-bop. The white angel continued to hold her gaze with Charlie, as she slowly walked backwards, before finally turning around and joining the rest of her crew.
The van disappeared into the dark vacuum of night, leaving Charlie waiting for a cab, as the snow fell around him.
He never felt so wonderfully, utterly, and equally alone.