Updated: Apr 6, 2021
On the last evening of my yearly one or two-day vacation from my life, I was closing up the family bar near last call. It hadn’t always been a bar. Used to be a restaurant, until my twin brother took it over after Dad died. Mother was riddled with arthritis and a love for the sauce, so my brother Cash took over.
Cash and I were always close, but we were different. Looked exactly the same, but we were different. Even so, once a year, about six months after our birthday, we’d switch lives for a day or two. I’d play him, and he’d play me. A vacation away from life. It might sound stupid, but identical twins have been doing this since the beginning of man. Part of being in the club. Some secrets aren’t for people without a twin, and this is one of them.
For my brother and me, it started out as a competition. As kids, we’d have five bucks that said, “You’re the one that gets caught first.” True to his name, Cash always claimed money talks. But those particular five bucks always stayed in our pockets. We never got caught. Our secret was never revealed. A part of me always wanted him to mess up though. Think about all the stories he and I could share if we’d finally ever gotten caught. Dad would’ve loved them. While it might have made mom sip her drink a little quicker, we’d have had dad cracking up for hours. Unfortunately, we never got to see that and still have to play this stupid game.
When I got married, it became kind of tricky at times, especially since the girl I married was the girl he dated most of the time I was in college. During those years, he was home taking care of the family restaurant that he’d later turn into a bar. They were broken up for a while before she and I started dating, but it was still a tricky thing. I trusted him though, more than anyone on the earth. He was my twin, and, until I’d gone off to college, we were inseparable.
This particular year’s switched-lives vacation came six months after our thirty-eighth birthday. It was the beginning of 2011. Now, over the years, there was very often one of us who wanted to blow it off for one reason or another, but the other of us would always talk us out of it. Never missed a year. A point of pride. No matter what, we had to play this stupid game.
This year though, he was really insistent that we skip it, more so than ever. He wouldn’t tell me why, so I put my foot down. No-the-freak-way was I giving up a chance to spend a couple of nights away from my wife Callie. I didn’t care that he used to date her. I was sick of her coldness and was miserable in our marriage. We hadn’t slept together in over a year, so I didn’t worry a bit about his sharing the bed with her. She’d become so cold I probably should have left him an electric blanket. I’d actually met with a divorce lawyer but discovered divorce was too great a commitment to the giving up of all I’d worked for, so I decided to suffer – just not through my yearly vacation though. Maybe it was just half my stuff, as they say, but it’s a lot more than that when you get right down to it. The lawyer never tells you that. Doesn’t even put it in the fine print.
I loved being Cash, probably more than he did. He was always the favorite. I was the smart one academically. He was smart, but his grades weren’t as good as mine. Probably would have been worse had I not helped him along and taken a few tests for him. But he was the hard worker. While I was studying, he was working in the restaurant, helping Dad keep the business afloat and developing his charismatic personality, which was needed to overcompensate for the personality of our mother. Her drunkenness was becoming more and more a problem.
So, it was nearing last call, and I was wiping down the bar when Jake Charm walked in. I hadn’t seen Jake since high school. His last name was actually Chambliss, but everybody called him Jake Charm. I didn’t like Jake Charm and was probably the only one who didn’t, but he and Cash were tight. Cash was the quarterback. Jake and I were his wide receivers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Jake and I didn’t get along, but I’ll tell you anyway.
Cash was an amazing quarterback. Senior year, we lost only one game, and it was a game he had to sit out with a sprained ankle. He was magic when he threw the ball. A talent to behold. He could have played just about anywhere in the NCAA, but he didn’t want to go to college. Just wanted to stay home and help our father. Me, I wanted to play in college. I was good, but I could have been a lot better – if I’d only gotten more of the throws. Cash liked throwing to Jake more though. I don’t know why. He just did. I was just as good. Had I gotten more passes, I might’ve had some recruiters looking at me. It wasn’t as if they weren’t trying to talk Cash into leaving.
He’d say, “Check out Curt.” That’s me.
But they’d say, “No, it’s you we want.” The golden arm.
So, I didn’t get to play in college. I could have tried to be a walk on, but I wanted to be wanted. I wanted them to be covering my college expenses. I was young and still a bit full of myself. Cash wasn’t. He knew where he was needed, and he was completely humble enough to ask for nothing more than just to be needed, even though he was really wanted elsewhere. While I just wanted to be wanted, he was needed and wanted. Always the favorite.
Jake Charm, on the other hand, didn’t need to be needed or wanted, but, like my brother, he was both and by everyone. He went into the Marines or the Army and was rumored to be Special Forces. That’s the rumor anyway. He served in Iraq and then a whole bunch of other places that remain undisclosed, and then he disappeared. Word around the campfire was, he went AWOL, but no one really knew for sure and just about everyone was willing to forgive him. He’d served above and beyond, as far as anybody knew. His parents were gone and weren’t able to update the record. So, if he had gone AWOL, there must have been an acceptable reason.
Nonetheless, I had to hide my dislike for him at the bar that night and remember I wasn’t Curt Cutler. I was Cash Cutler, his actual friend. Now, I’m not a total jerk. I have my reasons for not liking the Pendleton, New York hero.
It was our last football game of senior year. It was the sectional championship game at Rich Stadium, the old name of the stadium where the Buffalo Bills play. With about a minute to go in the first half, we’re up 14 to 10 against Olean High School. We’re thirty-five yards from the end zone, and it’s 3rd and four. I’m open and in the end zone with my arms up. Cash could have made the pass with his eyes closed. Instead, when Jake puts his arms up on the ten-yard line in three-man coverage, Cash throws it to him. With three men covering him and me completely open, he had no business looking for the ball. Cash threw it to him, it was intercepted, and the guy from Olean ran it back for a touchdown and the lead going into half.
I was pissed. Sure, I should have been pissed at my brother, but I took it out on Jake. As soon as Coach Sark left the locker room, I walked up to Jake, slammed his head up against the locker door and said, “What the hell’s wrong with you? I was open in the end zone.”
Sure, he could have just said, “Ask your brother,” but he didn’t. He punched me so hard my nose broke, and it was gushing blood. A circle had formed around us, but Cash came in to break us up. “Quit it now. We got to win this game, and I need you both.”
He grabbed a towel and started wiping the blood off my lip, but, when he touched my nose, it hurt so badly I had to push him away. “I think my nose is broke.”
“Suck it up, Nancy,” Cash ordered, “No one’s going to know about it ‘til the game’s over. You tell Coach, he’s going to sit you both. I need you both. So, shut up.”
He was right. I wanted to win the game just as much as he did, but I was hoping to shine. I knew there were a bunch of scouts there, and I wanted a call later. We got the blood to stop, but, for the whole second half, my game was shot. I couldn’t run like normal. Every step was like getting punched in the face again. I got one pass, but Jake Charm got the rest. We did win the game, but I didn’t have much at all to do with it. It was all Cash and Jake. Cash threw for nearly 400 yards and we won 35 to 20.
We never told the coach about our dustup, and eventually my nose stopped hurting. Maybe it wasn’t broken. I don’t know for sure, but that was my last game of football. Even though Jake and Cash were friends for the rest of the year, Jake and I barely spoke again.
Oh, by the way, even though Jake Charm could have had any girl in the school, even in the county for that matter, he dated Callie Olmstead for most of high school and maybe some of junior high. They were voted most likely to get married, have a bunch of kids and grow old together.
After Jake went off to war, the two people who missed him the most started dating – Cash, his quarterback, and Callie, his high school sweetheart. Cash probably would have stayed with her, but when he turned the restaurant into a bar after Dad died, he drank a little too much. He had his own bar, where he was the home-town hero serving up drinks to people always wanting to relive the good old days. She left him.
During that time period though, she used to occasionally call me at college and tell me all her problems. Maybe she thought I could help him, but I was at college and probably drinking just as much as my brother. What was I going to say? I promised more than once I’d have a talk with him. I did.
It’d start out, “Hey Cash, it’s Curt.”
“Thanks for telling me. I wasn’t sure.”
“Callie thinks you’re drinking too much.”
“I know that too.”
“Okay, good,” I’d say, and then we’d have a conversation like any of the millions we’d had growing up, sharing the giant attic that we turned into a two-man bedroom. We called it the barracks. It was an awesome place to grow up.
Jake Charm walked into my bar, and I hadn’t seen him in about twenty years. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I didn’t quite react though. See, I’d heard he was back in town, and while I hadn’t yet seen him, that didn’t mean Cash hadn’t seen him. One of the things Cash and I learned from playing the stupid life-switch game is that people tell you everything you need to know if you just let them. Reacting too soon will cause you to make a mistake and lose your cover, but patience, masked as coolness, prevents you from making mistakes. Eventually, people will tell you everything you need to know. So, in addition to being a vacation from life, playing this game was also practice on how to go through life with the ability to know what to observe and how to interpret it.
He looked me in the eye a couple of times and then at the floor he was traversing. He’d come through the back door and had to veer around the pool table to get to the bar. There weren’t that many people left in the bar. Pacho, the kitchen boy, had already gone. The kitchen was closed.
After swerving around the pool table and the row of tables that stood between it and the bar, he took off his green winter jacket, set it on an empty stool and then swung a leg over the center bar stool. He landed with the agility of a gymnast. It was nothing like I’d imagined, having heard all the stories about how he’d become some legendary Special Forces killer of America’s enemies. No, he was smooth and agile like a ballet dancer and not all bulked up like I’d figured.
Even though it was winter, he was wearing a muscle shirt. He was ripped, but his muscles weren’t huge. He was probably six-two and two hundred and five pounds. Just not a bit of fat on him. There were some tattoos on his arms, like a green military symbol and some others that seemed to have something to do with his service, but his forearms were more interesting. They were covered with orderly scar symbols. It wasn’t like the random scars on a self-cutter. These scars were put there purposely, either with a knife or a brand.
I saw them and pretended not to notice, but he knew I had.
“What can I getcha?”
I gave him a Labatt’s Blue after popping the top with my church key, as our dad used to call it. He took three swallows and set it down. “You Cash or Curt?” He hadn’t yet seen Cash. Probably makes sense since Cash would’ve told me. The big question on my mind was whether he’d come back to reclaim my wife Callie. As part of me would be happy to give her back, no part of me would wish that curse upon anyone. She was no longer that sweet girl with which we’d all fallen in love.
“Which do you think?”
“You two haven’t changed much, I see.” He took two more casual swallows of his beer. “I think you should be Cash because you’re in this bar, but something about you reminds me of Curt.”
“What? You think I’m going to smash you upside the face?”
“Yeah, maybe.” A big old smile broke out all over his face, and I couldn’t help it – one broke out onto mine too. There went my cool. It wasn’t the smile I had to give because I was pretending to be Cash. It was the smile I had for a kid whom I’d missed for a long time. At that moment, I realized I had thankfully grown out of holding onto my childish grudge.
I dried my hands on the white rag and walked around the bar to his side. I then picked him up in a bear hug and said, “Welcome home Jake. We missed you.” I quickly realized I probably shouldn’t have been speaking for my brother too, but it was too late.
He hugged me back, once I’d put him down, and said, “Yeah, I’ve missed you guys too.” I knew he was talking about me and my brother. That’s how it’d always been. We were one and the same to just about everyone but Jake Charm. Jake had apparently set that stuff from youth aside and seemingly forgiven me for attacking him at halftime way back when.
“How’s your brother?”
“He’s fine. He’s good. The president of the bank. Pendleton Savings and Loan. PS and L.”
“Pendleton’s got a bank? What the heck’s going on? I’ve been gone too long, brotha.”
“You’ve been gone half your life, brother. Pendleton’s actually got two banks. My brother’s bank is in the middle of acquiring the other. What a can of worms that’s become. He’s miserable right now. Just miserable. The whole thing’s a mess.”
“I thought you said he was good.”
“He is. He’s just going through a tough time with this acquisition. He didn’t even want it. The board of directors is making him do it, and it’s getting a lot of pushback. Other than that, he’s good.” I realized I might have been saying too much about things Cash might not necessarily know. “You know he married Callie, right?”
“He married Callie? I thought for sure you’d have married her. You were together last I’d heard.”
“We were, but I went and messed that all up. Once I’d opened this bar, it all went to hell. Drank too much and partied too much. Knowing Callie, you can figure out why she left me.”
He smiled one of those fond-memory smiles, the kind that reminds you why we live. “Callie happy with Curt?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Tough question. How do you answer that, knowing she wasn’t but also knowing that Cash probably hadn’t any idea of how unhappy she really was? Strategy. It’s all a part of the game.
“Did you come back to reclaim Callie?”
“No, nah. I don’t think so. It was just time,” he said as if he wasn’t quite sure why he was back. “Something was calling me back. Been a long time. Wanted to see what I’d missed.”
“Makes sense,” I said, even though it didn’t. “I don’t know if you know this, but some of the people around here used to say you went AWOL when you disappeared. And since your folks were already passed, there was no one to say any different. Just thought you ought to know.”
“I didn’t go AWOL. I was honorably discharged. I just didn’t come right home, is all.”
“You didn’t come home, period. What are you talking about? You’d have been welcomed as a hero.”
“Didn’t need that,” he said. “Just had some things to figure out is all. Did it in my own time.”
“Where’d you go?”
“All over the world. I spent a lot of time in Africa and Europe, a little time in Asia. Just wandering.”
“How’d you make a living?”
“There’s always someone needing something done. For many of those things, I’m probably more qualified than most.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
Jake put a ten on the bar and said he’d have another beer. I looked at the clock and the rest of the bar. The last of the late stragglers had left through the front door. “It’s after last call. Your money’s no good here.” I popped open another and set it down after wiping the condensation off the bar in front of him. “It’s on the house.”
He picked it up and pointed the open top at me while winking his eye. “You sure I’m not keeping you up, Cash?”
“No, I’m good. I haven’t seen you in forever. I’m good as long as you are.”
“Well, have a beer with me.”
“I appreciate the invitation, but my stomach’s been acting up. I need some Pepto-Bismol more than I need a beer. ‘Sides, I have to get up early and meet my brother for breakfast.” Loose lips sink ships. The real reason I wasn’t going to drink is that it’s harder to watch what you say when you’ve been drinking. Jake Charm had already come closer than ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of the people ever get to figuring Cash and me out.
“No sweat,” he said. “I’d like to see your brother too before I leave.”
“Leave? You just got here. Where you going?”
“I don’t know where I’m going or even when, but I know myself better than anyone, and I never stay anywhere beyond my welcome.”
“You don’t think you’re welcome here?”
“I don’t know, Cash. I just got here, and, like you said, they thought so little of me they’d think I’d go AWOL. There’s more behind that than just a little gossip, I’m thinking. This isn’t the first I’d heard about the AWOL rumors, of course.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Just know that I never believed that bull. Benefit of knowing you, I guess.” And I meant that sincerely.
We sat for another hour and a half or so. He drank another three beers. We talked about the old days. Whether I was as tight with him as my brother or not, I was still there. I knew all the stories and enjoyed talking about them. The good old days in the local Starpoint bar. Starpoint is the name of our school.
Once he’d taken his last swig, he set his bottle on the bar with a thud. “That’s it for me tonight. Thanks again, Cash. It’s been a long time since I talked about the old times.”
“You need a ride home? Where you staying?”
“I’m at my folks’ house. Our neighbor’s been taking care of it for me. Looks just like it did the day I left.”
“You never even made it back for their funerals, did you?” His parents were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.
“Wasn’t even an option for me. I was in a deep-cover mission and eventually laid up in the hospital with a bloody bandage covering three bullets to the abdomen. I just couldn’t make it.”
“Well then, Jake, we’re not done,” I said. “I’ve got more questions for you. Three bullets to the abdomen. Make sure I see you again before you disappear.”
“You got it. It’s a promise.” And I didn’t doubt it for a second.
“You didn’t answer the question though. Do you want a ride? I can put you on the back of my sled. It’s cold out there.”
It was January. After I’d locked the door, checked the kitchen appliances and turned out the lights, he followed me out the back door. There was more than an inch of snow covering the seat of my snowmobile.
Before he answered my question, he looked around and breathed in the fresh cold air. He grew a smile while taking in that cold air. I know the feeling. There’s nothing like the chill of winter air in the lungs. “No,” he said, “I’m gonna hoof it. It’s snowing, and I haven’t seen much snow in a while. This is beautiful. I look forward to the walk.”
“Suit yourself, Jake. Have a good walk.”
I started up my sled and tied my hood up tight. I didn’t have a helmet, so I needed the hood to keep me warm. He walked around the front and off to the east. He grew up about two and half miles away from us. I had about a mile to get to my folks’ house, where Cash had been living since they died. It was all trails though. I could have driven the car over or the four-wheeler, but the snowmobile was my ride of choice when there’s snow. Pure speed. I knew right then and there that there was little chance I was going straight home. To do what, fall asleep, only to wake up and go back to my real life with my miserable wife? Pshaw.