The gentle sound of a piano bounces rhythmically inside my ears as my eyes—still heavy and tired—slowly open. As they attempt to adjust to the light and the setting in which they find themselves, the piano is now accompanied by the relaxed, liquid voice of Nat King Cole.
L, is for the way you look at me.
I find myself on the Vegas strip, late 1940’s, surrounded by the sound of slot machines and coins jingling as people joyfully collect them into little round buckets. I am in my happy place, playing Texas Hold’em with a group of strangers, chips rattling as they are carelessly tossed in the middle, cards shuffling and turning over in opponents’ hands, glasses of scotch tinkling as ice lightly rocks to the sides. And my beautiful wife stands behind me, hands placed on my shoulders.
O, is for the only one I see.
Four of the men around the table fold, and I find myself in the middle of a bidding match with a heavy-set, stone-faced man—maybe in his early 50’s—directly across from me. His face shows no sign of truth or bluff, but his stare remains deadlocked on mine as he slowly twirls a black chip in his left hand. I look down at my draw and see what I have. I am confident.
The man goes all in. Without hesitation, I match him. My wife winces and grabs my shoulders tightly. I wince as well.
V, is very, very…extraordinary.
We show our cards—the man first—and he displays two Aces of his own with a third Ace laid out by the dealer. Three of a kind. Very nice.
But not nice enough.
I look back at my wife with a faux look of worry, and the stone-faced man leans back in his chair, arms crossed and a little smirk forming on his lips. I turn, with a grin ear-to-ear, and lay out my cards.
The man scoffs and walks off. I chuckle and reach with giddy excitement for the tidy little pot that has collected in the middle, like a kid who’s been told he can have as much as he wants in a candy store. My wife grips my arms—half with excitement, half with relief. I bail on the table, cash in my chips, and head off onto the Vegas strip, one hand holding my winnings, the other hand holding my wife’s. I am on top of the world.
E, is even more than anyone that you adore..
My eyes finally adjust to the light and I am snapped back to reality.
The thick, dense air quickly hits me with a familiar feeling of suffocation, and the sand covering my body reminds me that I am far, far away from any Vegas casino.
Instead of smooth scotch and Long Island Iced Tea, I reach for my dusty canteen and gobble down gritty water like it’s my first drink in years.
Instead of money in my pocket, I grab for my compass and knife, sharp enough to kill anything and anyone who dares take my gritty water.
And instead of my wife, I have only the voice of Nat King Cole, the only voice I’ve heard in months. A voice that’s been dead for 60 years.
The batteries of my CD player die out, and I am left with only the screaming, regretful voices in my head and the whistling wind of wherever the heck I am.
I begin the day as I do everyday—rising with the sun, chugging down water I collected the day before, making myself aware of the surroundings and possible predators lurking around me. And, of course, reading.
I have been in this rusty shack for 3 days now—3 days too long to be in one spot—and most of what’s in it has been scavenged and cleaned out. All that surrounds me are opened tin cans, completely clean and licked out; a dirty, tattered mattress, spotted and stained with only God knows what; and a compact King James Bible that I have taken to reading.
I have never been a man of faith, and I sure ain’t now, but it’s one of the few books I’ve had to keep me company in months, and one of the few friends I’ve had that isn’t named Nat.
I flip to the book of Hosea, where I randomly opened to the night before and started reading.
I start where I left off, chapter 6:
“Come, let us return unto the Lord; for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up.”
I chuckle at the writings before my dusty, red eyes, mocking the supposedly ‘hopeful’ words my wife used to read daily. I must say, however, I do find myself in agreement with some of the words inscribed on these ancient pages. I hear myself audibly say, “Oh, I’ve been torn and smitten alright. At least this book is half true.”
I chuckle again to myself and shake my head, take a long drink of water to clear my parched throat, and finish reading.
As I close the book, I begin to collect my gear, knowing full well I can’t stay here much longer. I open my backpack and rummage through what I have left: a few cans of baked beans and corn, a razor, a machete that’s dulled down a good bit but still has the power to get whatever job needs done, an abundance of Triple A batteries I found in an abandoned garage a few weeks back, and a wedding ring, strikingly engraved with the Latin translation of Solomon 8:6 (which I had let my wife inscribe).
As I stare intently at the ring, our wedding day comes to mind: nervous pacing before, wondering if I knew what I was getting myself into; heart beating out of my chest as hundreds of people looked on.
And then, time stood still.
As she walked in, father on her right side, looking more beautiful than creation itself—my heart dropped and I knew I had made no mistake. I was the luckiest man on earth. And as we stood face-to-face, eyes locked on each other, it was just us. And that verse—no matter how empty its words may be—still speaks truth of how much I loved her and how I felt towards her in that moment: “like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame.”
I slip the ring on my finger and open a can of baked beans.
Refilling my backpack only takes a moment, but it takes several to get it on my back. Slowly sliding it over my tired, aching arms, the right strap slides smoothly over my right arm; but it takes great difficulty to get the strap over my left arm. I wince as the strap is secured on.
I load a few batteries into the CD player, place the stretched-out headphones in my ears, and allow Nat King Cole to take over my mind as I head back into the blistering wasteland.
The sun reflects brightly off of my wedding ring and hits my eyes as I take one last look at it sitting on my finger. I check my compass and begin walking east, all while praying to a God I don’t believe in to protect me.
“I’m coming honey.”