“Fantastic Something” by Mike Lee


Albeit slower than before due to age, Calvin, the tortoise gray cat gracefully traverses the whitewashed concrete, leaping off to eat from his dish set on the terrace. While he quietly ate, Mike gives him a gentle stroke behind his ears. Calvin shakes it off to continue eating.

The sunburst mid-century clock hanging on the wall behind the half-opened terrace door chimes another August morning. August: sun-drenched skies and the breeze from the shore spread seemingly endlessly below the mountainside house Mike has leased for a year.

Mike did not need to be reminded of the time, having finally achieved the temporary luxury to waste it; perhaps a week, maybe a month more, yet no further. Then, it was time to get a job, or at least substantial online gig work.

He leans back in this metal chair, hands clasped behind his head, in his mind recounting the money he earned. This small fortune was not at all easy to come by—nothing in his life ever did—but he realized this cash was only good for two years unless he found work, which he imagined would be problematic until his working papers were approved.

But he had Calvin, his books, a laptop, clothes and his sanity. Freedom was another matter. To paraphrase the Velvet Underground, one is set free to face a new illusion. Mike was a realist to cut through the illusory fogginess of his perceived surroundings. He had severance pay and opportunities, but the former will not last and the latter could be a mirage. But he certainly had will and charm that aged well.

Calvin finishes the half can of sliced chicken, and pads off to use the box in the far corner of the terrace.

That afternoon, Mike went into town. He spent two years planning to live on this island. Wanted someplace different for a change, so off to the Mediterranean he went.

He almost fell off the scooter taking the second downward curve on the road to town. He righted himself just in time, but the experience left him breathless.

Maybe he was too old at 55 for a scooter, but then again, he thought, how old is young? He wasted no time in getting a battered two-tone blue and white Lambretta TV200 from a bike shop he discovered online before arriving on the island. The sideboards were dented and scratched, and there was some rust on the floorboards, but the wiring was redone and it ran. Still, it is cheaper to maintain than a leased car.

He felt his strongest survival skill was attaching himself to the Mod ethos of clean living under difficult circumstances. This became was his guiding concept. He learned the concept as a teenager. While the punk rockers and longhairs at high school either grew up or stayed stupid, Mike maintained a stylish individuality, with occasional compromising nods to career advancement.

But one afternoon listening to stupid during a managers meeting was enough. Within weeks Mike applied for a buyout, received severance and moved on.

It took a year to be approved for the long stay work residence visa, and though the process of getting little slips of paper and all the approvals, but he had an efficient gestor, a local official who walked Mike through the process. Also, Mike had a freelance gig at the time, thus fulfilling his work requirement.

Even so, that job ran out yesterday. He had to hustle for another.

But he wanted a superlative coffee at the café he discovered on his first day on the island. The exhaust sputtered on the Lambretta; Mike missed nothing he left behind.

Her name is Romi. She sits, reading a book. It is In Love by Arthur Hayes. Mike recognized the cover was a photograph by Saul Leiter.

Romi left her job, too. Floating in the realm of early retirement brought on by office burnout and unchangeable transitions. Drinking coffee on the slate table outside the café. The red flower sundress is in season, and the white straw hat shields Irish skin in light shadows. She teases Mike over the beat-up Lambretta. She should talk: Romi drives an old Sunbeam convertible that is worth more in parts than in the sum total of her sentimental attachments.

Every morning since they met on Monday they sit in conversation.

It was Thursday. Tourist season starts in another month, so they hold the café to themselves.

The music was an avalanche of shimmering guitars.

Interesting music the café is playing.

I asked them to play it. Called The Thousand Guitars of St. Dominques. I have it burned on a CD.

I vaguely remember. Haven’t heard in 35 years.

The band was Fantastic Brilliance, Romi says.

Oh yeah. I had that Cherry Red compilation. Whatever happened to them?

They were overwhelmed by the future.

Faintly living on in the fragmented memories of our respective early 20s. Youth ages quickly, and we don’t notice until forced into denial. Then–

We have to accept the truth. We discovered there is no meaning in our lives, and so here we are.

Yes, here we are, Mike says.

It is not bad. The sun is out most of the season, and when it rains, the sounds of the drops comfort me to sleep.

We just do enough to stay busy with dreams.

Romi stares ahead: Like a pair of blue stars, trembling.

Then, we have stuff to do and magnificence to overcome.

Ya, we outgrew that notion of achieving that, now, didn’t we?

Let’s walk to the docks and watch the ferry come in.

Or sit and talk.

We will age with words, sentences structured into paragraphs.

Roni smiles. Declarations and oaths, spinning yarns.

Mike motions the waiter for more coffee.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

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