Harry Rechthart always knew how to laugh, but laughter can hide a lot of pain that’s drowned by the bottle and good times. He grew up the joker in the early 1900s in Cleveland, Ohio, but as he enters adulthood, conflict splits him inside. His once close relationship with his brother, Erik, is breaking as they come into their own and Erik goes off to college. No longer under Erik’s shadow, Harry feels he might finally shine and make others see him as someone to be proud of. Harry finds an unlikely comrade who understands how he feels — his younger sister, Hannah. Once free of high school, Harry and Hannah double date sister and brother, Kat and Will Jones, attending wild, extravagant parties during the years of Prohibition. Harry thinks he’s won at life — he’s found love in Kat, in a good time, and in the bottle. But all the light goes out fast when Harry’s alcoholism leads to disastrous consequences for him and Kat.
Harry thinks the joke’s on him now that he’s sunk lower than he ever imagined. He’s in jail. He’s pushed away his family. He’s a broken man, but in the darkest depths of even a prison cell, there is hope. Can Harry rebuild his life and ultimately learn that true laughter only comes from knowing true joy, or will he bury himself once and for all in this laughing matter of pain?
(The first draft of this story is complete as of February 2017.)
Damp. Dank. Dusty. Dirty.
It’s become a kind of game. I’m good at games.
How many words that begin with the letter “D” can I come up with to describe this place?
There’s another point for me. 1-0, Hank, old boy.
Of course, you never talk much. I’m lucky to get the occasional grunt from you, Hank.
I roll onto my side, the lumpy mattress beneath me protesting as it pushes back in all the
wrong places. Hank is sleeping, if you can call whimpering and moaning while he pisses himself again sleeping.
Nightmares, of course. Not that Hank ever has much to say about that.
But back to my game. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.
Dank. Yep, that smell of musty, rusty mold growing on mold has attached itself to my nose like a cold that doesn’t leave. It’s my constant companion, whether I want it or not. I suppose it’s like the games I’m so good at. So good, in fact, that when I lost one, boy, did I ever lose.
I don’t know what nightmares plague Hank. Maybe it’s what landed him here that’s got him all caught up in nightly visions of Hell. Rumors say he killed a man in cold blood, but a man who wets himself like that isn’t a cold-blooded killer in my books. Whatever his problems, I’ve got enough of my own.
I damn nearly laughed when the cop who swung by last week said Prohibition had ended. Damn, fourteen years of outlawing alcohol, and now part of what landed me here is legal again? How’s that for justice?
Alcohol is my problem, yeah, I admit that, but that’s not my nightmare. Green accusing eyes, cruel laughter falling from a red-lipsticked mouth that kissed me silly too many times to count, and the red hair to match… like flames that burn my insides every time I close my eyes. I don’t have to be sleeping to see her. Red everywhere, from the smashed in windshield to her smashed in face, decorated with shards of glass as her stunned expression stares back at me with those eyes. Always those damn eyes. Even empty, they accuse.
x x x
Eight years earlier
It’s late, but the dusk is still dimly lighting the western sky. Overhead, the stars are beginning to poke out from the black. I love looking at the night sky. Most wouldn’t believe I have the calm inside me to stop and even notice, but when the others aren’t looking, I steal away into the backyard, that dewy grass tickling my neck as I lie in it and just watch.
Footsteps disturb my concentration, and I bolt up, my eyes adjusting until I see his familiar silhouette against the freshly painted white siding of our house.
“What’re you doing, Harry?”
“What’s it matter? Is Ma looking for me? Tell her I already put the delivery away.”
“Ma said Mr. Morris was here hours ago and that you didn’t touch the stuff ‘til after dinner.”
I try not to roll my eyes. “Then why are you getting on my case, Erik?”
My brother plants himself in the grass beside me and sighs. I turn my eyes on him, and even in the near darkness, he’s the pretty boy every girl wants. He got all of Pa’s charm and looks: the blonde hair, the blue eyes, the smooth-talking ways with the girls.
“It’s tomorrow,” Erik says. “Graduation.”
“Yeah? And? You haven’t shut up about it for weeks, even months. What, you scared you won’t be the center of everyone’s attention anymore? No more calls from girls? Hell–”
“Harry, if Ma heard you–”
“Well, Ma’s not here, is she? Virginia Williams called again, didn’t she? I heard you,” I say lightly, jabbing him in the side. “‘Oh, Ginny, honey…’” I raise my voice an octave, but Erik cuffs me roughly. “Jeez, what’s that for?”
“Can you be serious for a second, Harry?”
I raise my hands and eyebrows at the same time. “All right, I surrender. You wanna wrestle it out for old times’ sake? This grass has our names written all over it.”
Erik glares. “This was a mistake. Goodnight, Harry.”
I watch him retreat, and the kitchen light goes off once he clicks the back door shut. I probably should be in bed, but that would mean facing Mr. Sunshine in there.
“What’s got his undies in a twist?” I mutter to the stars.
Erik and I were always scrapping in this yard as boys, always inseparable. Now, I’m just about to start tenth grade, and he’s off to college. Not only does he have the looks and the ways with girls all right, but he’s got smarts and talent on the field. Star pitcher of Benny Frankie High. Yep, that’s Erik Rechthart.
Tired of thinking about my older brother, I stand and brush the grass from my pants. I head inside and find my rather annoying little sister standing on the landing of the stairs. It’s Hannah, the older little sister, not Irma, who’s still so young that she really is little.
“Hey, Hannah-panna,” I say, smirking.
“Oh, stop it already, Harry. You think you’re so funny.”
“Ma was looking for you.”
“Wow, I’m a popular guy. I almost feel like Erik, I’m so popular. Did a pretty doll give me a call?”
Hannah places her hands on her hips in a manner that has suited her well for many years and sticks her tongue out at me. I laugh as she turns and stomps up the stairs.
“You know, for a young lady, you’re pretty immature,” I call up after her.
I quietly chuckle to myself. Hannah is always easy to get a rise out of. Sobering, I climb the stairs, and when the third step from the top creaks, I tip my imaginary hat at it in greeting.
“Goodnight, old friend.”
I turn for the second door on the right, ready to see my esteemed brother, but I’m not out of the woods yet as the door to my parents’ room opens and Ma steps out.
“There you are.”
I stare back at my twin — well, except that Ma is a good thirty-five years older than me and female, but the mousy brown hair, the square jawline, and the plain face, yeah… thanks, Ma. I got Pa’s baby blues, at least, but I’m not complaining, I swear.
I pretend to yawn. It’s a convincing act, my mouth all wide and my eyes screwed shut, but Ma doesn’t buy into my cheap acts.
“Tomorrow is an early day. I trust you’re on your way to bed.”
I smile easily. “Right-o. Erik’s big day. ‘Night, Ma.”
I’m suddenly kissing her uncharacteristically gently on the top of the head. I’m taller than her now, so she has to look up at me.
“What was that for?” she asks.
The question is so simple, but it’s not. Deep down, just like the times I seek out the stars by myself, some part of me reaches for my mother. I laugh instead.
“Can’t a son give his old ma a kiss? Maybe I’ll lay it on sloppy next time, like Flossie.”
Ma isn’t buying this, either. She doesn’t seem interested in anything I’m selling these days, but maybe what she’s buying into is more than just cheap tricks and one liners.
“Harry, are you all right?”
Her glistening eyes search me. This look unnerves me. All the times Ma has glared at me when she’s yelled at me for my shenanigans don’t probe me the way those hazel eyes see me now, like striping me bare to my soul.
I shrug and smile. That’s what she expects. What they all expect. Why give her anything else?