Approaching the peak of his brief and beautiful bloom, Albert Meadows smiled serenely above the world. Nevertheless, nearing attainment of 120 college credits, he lost all balance of mind. In just under four years, he’d spilled sufficient sweat on a gym room floor to feel like a foreigner in his own skin, achieved enough academic accolades to excite even the most pedantic maiden, and ultimately prioritized perceptions over harmony.
Then, three weeks before anticipating crossing an ordinary stage with extraordinary honors, Albert verbally accepted a future entry-level position on Wall Street. In the predominantly sleepless nights that followed, however, he felt as if a suit of serpents had slithered connivingly around him, awaiting only some terrible occasion to constrict.
So, after setting the curve on his final collegiate exam, Albert renounced everything he’d become. And instead of attending graduation, he drove with rapturous speed and purpose to the Pittsburgh International Airport. Then, boarding the first flight to Hollywood and drifting deep into feverish slumber, he dreamed of resurrection.
Leaving behind the self-importance outside LAX, Albert entered the passenger seat of his uncle’s blue Prius, abruptly noticed an open beer in the cupholder, and exclaimed, “Holy crap, Neil! You’re not one of those casual drunk drivers now, are you?”
Ignoring his nephew, Neil finished his beer, threw the can out his window, and put on a political radio station. Then, turning from the road, he retrieved another beer from a cooler behind his seat, drank it until half empty, and reclaimed the wheel.
The dogmatic ramblings of a radio show host were all either man heard for some time. Then, disrupting an impassioned declaration with one of his own, Neil said, “America the great, alright—the greatest goddamned snowflake sanctuary on earth!”
“I just don’t get it,” said Albert, shaking his head incredulously. “You could study this douche’s melodramatic schtick for a lifetime and never learn anything but anger. I mean, wouldn’t you rather sing along to music than bitch along to politics?”
“Personally,” said Neil, turning proudly into his gated community, “I’d rather you shut the fuck up.”
Neil led his nephew silently up to his apartment and let him inside before removing two beers from his fridge, sitting on his living room couch, and turning on a political TV show. Over the next two hours, he ingested significantly more alcohol than Albert previously thought possible. Then, suddenly rising, slightly swaying, and stumbling uncontrollably into a wall, he knocked his only family photo to the floor and kicked it out of sight.
Still drunk by the time he woke up, Neil forgot his prior night’s conclusion. And after showering, brushing his teeth, and throwing up in the toilet, he brushed his teeth again, sighed, and entered the living room. Then, noticing what his nephew was doing, he indignantly exclaimed, “Are you seriously reading a Kindle on my couch right now?”
“Should I move to the floor?” asked Albert.
“Those things are nothing but beauty assassins masquerading as modern conveniences,” said Neil.
“Sounds like someone’s a little bitter about not being very tech-savvy,” said Albert.
“You know,” said Neil, suddenly in a sentimental tone, “I can still remember staying up late one night when I was sixteen, shedding tears of every sort at the loving confusion and frustration of The Catcher in the Rye. And after a few rereadings of the last page, I hugged that miracle of a book to my chest and felt understood for the first time.” He turned away and retreated into his bedroom before returning several minutes later and declaring, “Alright dumbshit, I’ve got to go get more beer, and like it or not, you’re coming with me.”
And almost immediately after joining traffic, a red Hummer cut Neil off. “Ass-eating swine!” he shouted, abruptly swerving into an adjacent lane without signaling. Then, accelerating alongside the Hummer and presenting two middle fingers to its elderly driver, he mumbled something under his breath and turned on a political radio show.
“Do you know what I think?” said Albert.
“All I know is I don’t give a fuck,” said Neil.
“I think politics are how you avoid confronting your own unhappiness,” said Albert.
“How profoundly college-educated and woke of you to suggest,” said Neil, seeming calm and collected though on the verge of losing his cool.
Eight hours after returning to the apartment with two more cases of beer, Albert followed his uncle outside to his balcony and asked, “Don’t you go anywhere to tell your jokes anymore?”
“I’ve still got my jokes,” said Neil, subtly failing to feign indifference. “I just don’t care to tell them anymore.”
“Don’t you remember how funny you used to be?” said Albert, sincere concern in his voice. “Anyone could see it. Even little kids could see it.”
“Alright already,” said Neil. “Enough with all the questions. You’re the one with almost everything still ahead of him. So what do you say I put you on trial instead?”
“Go ahead,” said Albert. “I can take it.”
“Famous last words,” said Neil, smiling as if anticipating some secret punchline. “What’s your truest desire? It’s obvious you’re a dreamer, and I’m pretty sure your dreams haven’t always been of alarm clocks and suits.”
“It’s not like pursuing happiness and being successful are conflicting aspirations,” said Albert.
Staring at his nephew as though imploring his eyes to see what was clearly in front of them, Neil said, “Wall Streeters literally make nothing, Albert.”
“You want money because you want female attention,” said Neil, offering no apology for his interruption. “And trust me, convincing some long list of women to undress for an uninformed fantasy won’t make you feel any less lonely. Honestly, it’s best to be loved as you are. And how do you expect to attract anyone capable of that without living true to yourself? So allow me to ask again. What’s your truest desire?”
“Well,” said Albert, overcoming considerable shame, “I guess I have always wanted to be a writer.”
Late the following afternoon, Albert found his uncle awake in bed and asked, “Seeing how it’s my last day here and all, you wouldn’t mind going to the beach together, would you?”
“I suppose you’d like your balls rubbed and waxed too,” said Neil, nevertheless rising from bed and starting to pack his cooler full of ice and beer.
“I didn’t know you could bring beer on the beaches here,” said Albert.
“Anyone can do anything,” said Neil. “So long as no dumbshit snowflakes see them doing it.”
After driving, paying, parking, and searching, Neil unfolded two chairs and set them in a strategic spot of sand. Astoundingly, he’d found somewhere not only overlooking numerous bikini-clad coeds but out of the direct sight of any on-duty lifeguard. And so, celebrating his good fortune, he commenced drinking beer and ranking his favorite beach bodies.
Albert sat next to his uncle and read three chapters of Dostoyevsky’s Demons before losing focus and putting away his kindle. Then he approached the Pacific’s dynamic shore until a crashing wave wet halfway up his shins and anonymously redirected to the ocean, ultimately leaving his feet covered in sand. And finally, reacting to some strange compulsion, he turned, waved, and shouted, “Hey, Neil, care for a swim?”
Neil finished his beer, buried the can in the sand, and started toward the sea as though a prideful groom marching down his fateful aisle. Then, momentarily making eye contact with his nephew, he submerged steadily alongside him until swimming.
Turning and smiling, almost childlike, at his uncle, Albert asked, “Don’t you think there’s just something refreshing and free about swimming in the ocean?”
“Fuck no,” said Neil. “All I feel is the regret of having to dry off.”
Resisting a throat-heating rush of oncoming tears, Albert resentfully exclaimed, “I can’t believe I ever looked up to anyone as heartless and cynical as you!”
Neil’s eyes abruptly drained of observable humanity before he swam over to Albert, placed both hands on his shoulders, and forced him underwater. And despite desperate struggling, it wasn’t until nearly a minute later that he allowed him to the surface.
Lying in bed and staring at the nothingness in his ceiling, Albert heard a knock at his door without offering a reply. And a few seconds later, his mother’s voice said, “Something from your Uncle Neil came for you in the mail today. I’m just going to slide it under your door, if that’s alright.”
Albert waited for his mother’s footsteps to become silent before retrieving the envelope and laying back down in bed. Then, with trembling hands, he removed and read the following letter:
Don’t write me back. Seriously, don’t.
It’s no fun getting old. And it’s straight-up insufferable seeing yourself for the first time after almost two decades in denial. You left me with something, though, pal. I’m grateful you remember me happy. I hope you’ll always remember me happy.
For my money, you’ve got the only thing worth anything. And I’m sorry to say, but hanging onto it will be the struggle of your life. You must endlessly fight the endless fight to maintain the free spirit’s flame.
Whenever someone asks why I never made it as a comedian, I always feed them the same line of crap about not being good enough. But the truth is, for some reason, I was more afraid of failure than I was of giving up. I wish to hell I hadn’t given up. You couldn’t understand what years of dead living can do to a man, and I hope you never will.
Your heartless and cynical uncle,
Albert twice reread his uncle’s letter before hugging it to his chest and making the easiest decision of his life: he would devote himself entirely to something true. “Fuck it all,” he thought. “I’m going to be a great writer.” And with two tired eyes and no worries for the coming tomorrow, he smiled defiantly up at something.
Chester Holden is from Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. So far, in 2022, his works have been published in On the Run and Across the Margin. You can follow him on Twitter @ChesterHolden9.