(This is my first entry in a weekly short story project my old buddy Steve Sykes invited me to participate in, called "The Spohn Challenge." The object is to write one short story a week for a year, any length and any subject. Not sure if I'll make it a full year or not but I'm going to try...)

The guy over there at the next table is coming on to the waitress, trying desperately to convince her that he loves some alternative music group that in reality he’s probably never heard of and probably wouldn’t much care for if he had. 

The poor guy has obviously seen better days; he’s also obviously drunk, which makes his continued presence in the restaurant difficult for the other patrons to tolerate. The question of why the manager hasn’t already come and escorted the jerk out the door seems to be the main item of discussion at several nearby tables.

The waitress, a pretty young thing who’s probably working her way through college,  smiles politely – that’s part of the job, though in this particular instance it obviously takes some effort on her part – as she tries to clear a few too many empty glasses from his table and rush off to take someone else’s order. But The Jerk offers her no such opportunity for a graceful retreat, verging on the obnoxious as he mutters something about how it’s a man’s duty to satisfy a woman.

As for me… well, I’m just sitting there with my wife and kids, trying to ignore what’s going on at the next table as I help my 7-year-old decide pick something from the children’s menu. All we wanted was to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the motel room and getting some sorely needed shut-eye; what we got was the table right next to The Jerk.

Try as I might, though, I can’t quite divert my attention from this unfortunate little melodrama. Maybe it’s just the reporter in me; it’s pretty obvious from the desperation in her eyes and in his voice that there’s some kind of a story here. In spite of myself, I find myself cocking a discreet ear in their direction as the poor slob stops hitting on the waitress long enough to tell it.

I learn, along with everyone else who might be within earshot, that he and his wife had never talked about divorce back in the days when they were first planning their wedding. Divorce was one of those things that only happened to other people; theirs was a love that would never die, even as their passionate youth eventually gave way to the tenderness of old age. The Love to End All Loves, he calls it in between mouthfuls of whatever poison he’s been consuming all evening. And it’s pretty obvious that he believed it, once upon a time.

He laughs as he recalls their first date. It was a disaster, set up by mutual friends who apparently thought they were destined for each other. But something had clicked and she agreed to see him again, so the next week he splurged a little and took her to the best steak house in town. From that point on, he tells the waitress, they were pretty much inseparable; a year later they were married and it was Happily Ever After time.

But Happily Ever After doesn’t mean what it used to. Nine years and two beautiful little children later, she’s told him that she wants out. She’s gone so far as to say that if were to be completely honest, he’d admit that he wants out, too. And the worst part, he says, has been the realization that she was right. 

There hadn’t any one big thing which had led to the disintegration of their union, no affairs or abusing behavior. For the most part they simply existed, a unit held together more out of familiarity and sense of duty than desire. And at some point, the minor slights – any one of which would have been more easily forgiven had they just taken the time to care – congealed and coalesced into an impenetrable wall of silence that eventually obscured the bright hopes which had been so clear once upon a time. They could find no way to undo the damage created by years of non-committal committment. 

He laughs now, and says that the marriage had turned out to be the emotional equivalent of financing a clunker through a used car dealer – too many payments on the interest, with no value at all on the merchandise he was supposedly paying for. And as he downs one last slug from his glass, he even tries to convince her – and himself, I’d wager – that this is really what he wanted all along. To be rid of the stifling existence of a married father, to go back to the free, casual way of life he’d known before he let himself get tied down that way. C’mon, folks, let’s party…

But the attempt falls flat, especially when he brings up the subject of his two children. A son and a daughter. Judging from his description of them, they sound to be about the same ages as my own little boys. Leaving them was not what he wanted. That much is obvious, despite the high consumption of booze and his desperate – and, by now, half-hearted – attempts to prove to the waitress that he is “still a man.” 

Tears come to his eyes now, and as cold as it sounds I find a way to use his sudden silence to everyone else’s advantage. Somehow I manage to catch the waitress’ and let her know that we’re ready to order. The good and gentle knight versus the pesky dragon, that’s me.
Her expression is one of extreme gratitude as she rushes over to our table, takes our order and rushes back into the kitchen. By the time she returns with our Cokes, The Jerk has somehow managed to rise from the table and stumble out of the restaurant, leaving a group of relieved restaurant patrons in his wake.

Me, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy. Or maybe it’s not so much feeling sorry for him as it is trying to put myself in his shoes and not liking how they fit.

My wife and sons mean the world to me. Maybe I don’t tell them often enough, but it’s true. Having to go through life with the knowledge that I had lost them – or, worse, had somehow driven them away – would be more than I could bear. The thought of not having my dearest confidante here beside me, or of having my relationship with my boys reduced to a series of weekend trips to the Dairy Queen, is enough to reduce me to tears.

So right there, in front of God and everybody, I tell them how much I love them. Little William giggles a response in that almost-intelligible way a two-year-old will; Melissa and Joshua both smile as if to say, “We knew that already, silly.” And I know that they do. But I’m glad I said it anyway…