New Life, an original story by Gary Craig. Here are the first three parts of chapter one.
Dennis Flannagan looked more like some of the barfly lifers that occupied the stools at Kelly’s on any given night, than the guy serving the drinks behind the bar. He has spent most of his adult life in that Back Bay Boston establishment, making just enough to survive, and not enough to leave. Jack, the owner at Kelly’s had grown complacent as well, but at least he owned something. He had fixed up a back room for Dennis, and made it livable. It was just enough for a guy that had no known family, and dozens of “friends” who showed up every evening for a drink and a story. Dennis didn’t have far to go to crash. It was a routine that he knew well, and had come to accept as his fate in life. During slow periods when Jack was at the track, and there was a lull, Dennis had the luxury of daydreaming of a way out, but never resolved as it was always interrupted by an equally miserable person in the middle of the day, fueling their own empty wants and wishes to get out of their own reality. Every day, as usual, mail call was around noon. Streams of sunlight would come through the front door and illuminate the dust dancing in the air of the bar. On this particular day, a shadowy figure approached the door, and as it got closer, Dennis could tell it was the mailman making his daily stop.
But as the man stepped into Kelly’s, it was not the mailman Dennis was used to greeting this time every day. “Hey,” Dennis said as his only greeting. The uniformed mailman responded, “Afternoon”, he said cheerily, “Got a few things here, and oh, I brought the racing form in. It was stuck in the door” Dennis remarked, “Where’s our regular guy, Ralph?” “Oh, yeah, Ralph..some kind of 24 hour bug… took over his route today. Anyway, have a good one”, he said with a grin, and quickly disappeared onto the street. Dennis looked at the packet of mail. The usual bills that Jack would have to address, and then the racing form. Jack was a degenerate gambler. Any possible profit that could be glommed from the bar, wound up placed on one horse or another, making it almost impossible to get ahead. But the bar, had a steady stream of cash flow so as to constantly feed the pig. Dennis also used the racing form, to try to handicap races and check the stats to see how accurate he was.
More often than not, he was able to predict outcomes with consistent accuracy, and would pass on his tips to Jack who would throw him a couple of bucks if he prevailed. Opening the form, Dennis took a look at the day’s field, following the names down to the bottom of the page. But something today was different. In the right hand corner, there appeared to be a classified ad. It couldn’t have been bigger than 1 inch by two inches. In the box, it only said NEW LIFE, and then just a phone number. He shrugged, closed the paper, and didn’t give it another thought. But as the hours and days dragged on, it particular posting kept sparking his interest, and on the second day after he first read it, Dennis Flannagan decided to call the number, a decision that would change his life forever.
It was the lull in the middle of the day, a period between hard core drinkers, and the martini lunch crowd that gave Dennis an opportunity to concentrate on something other than restocking. Cautiously he approached the black phone at the end of the bar. In a day when smart phones were the norm, Kelly’s still had a land line. The ad from the racing form, at this point, had been cut out, and appeared crumpled from spending several days in Dennis’ pocket. He didn’t immediately recognize the area code of 211 and instead of immediately dialing, walked over to the computer and entered the number into a search. What came up on the screen was equally as puzzling. It said 211 is a non-geographic code reserved in the United States and Canada as an easy-to-remember three-digit telephone number for information and referrals to health and human service organizations.
While the services and hours vary from region to region, 211 can refer callers to suicide prevention hotlines, parenting programs, job counseling, debt counseling, and other such outreach programs. “Why would an ad in a racing form, channel people to that kind of…..”, he thought. Dennis looked at the ad again and thought, “Who the hell is dialing this number?” “What is the point?” “It’s one of these scams”, he thought, “where you slip up and give your social security number to some asshole, and then next you know, your whole life disappears.” But as much as he tried to reject the whole idea out of hand, his curiosity got the better of him. Reluctantly, he picked up the receiver, and dialed 211-639-5433. The phone rang twice, in a ring tone he didn’t recognize. It sounded like something you might hear when calling a foreign country. A monotone female voice answered, “Hold Please” is all she said. There was no hold music, or any indication that anyone was on the line. Dennis was about to hang up when the voice returned and said, “When you’re ready, we’re here”.
That was enough to push him over the edge, and he hung up. Seconds later he seemed to have an epiphany about his knee jerk decision to end the phone call. This was a pattern in his life, always bailing out just a little too early. There were lost opportunities, because of his hesitation of going with his own gut. He sat at the end of the bar, taking stock of his life, and recounting all the days and times he had let his chances slip by. Audibly, he made a deal with himself to get to the bottom of this mystery phone number. This time the phone only rang once when a man answered. “Mr. Flannagan, did we lose you?” he asked. “How do you know my name?”, Dennis remarked. “Well you dialed the number”, the man answered. “Well, we don’t have caller I.D. here, so there’s no way you could know my name” The man responded, “If there was caller I.D, the display would say Kelly’s, not Dennis Flannagan”. “This is bullshit”, Dennis continued, “The ad’s in the racing form, anyone could have called” “Mr. Flannagan”,. the man continued, the phone number is specifically coded just for you, and the ad only appears in YOUR racing form” Dennis had had enough. “Who the hell is this?? he exploded. “The question, Mr. Flannagan, you should be asking yourself is not who am I, but who is Dennis Flannagan. Am I the Dennis Flannagan who wants to continue wishing and hoping for something else? Or am I the person to leave it all behind, and take a journey that very few will be lucky enough to experience?” There was a long pause from Dennis’s end of the conversation as he tried to process what he had just heard.
After an uncomfortable silence on either end of the conversation, Dennis just hung up.
The whole thing sounded sketchy and intriguing at the same time. Days dripped into weeks and Dennis sunk into his usual routine, except for, an occasional trip to the track. On one such excursion, he tried to use his own handicapping skills to turn his meager “play money” into a windfall. But the odds were against him and he blew it all by the end of the day. Returning back to the bar, there was quite a commotion on the street. He saw people standing around on the curb, and heard sirens. As he turned the corner, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Kelly’s was completely engulfed in flames. Three hook and ladders were desperately trying to get the blaze under control. The fire captain was on a loud speaker trying to get people to move back and fire fighters wrestled the giant water hose shooting waves of water at the building. Then Dennis saw Jack, standing on the side of one of the trucks watching with his head in his hands. He walked over and saw the absolute horror on Jack’s face. Jack looked up momentarily to acknowledge him, then refocused his attention on what looked like a futile attempt to save Kellys. “You have insurance, right?, Dennis asked. Slow to answer, Jack replied, “I did, up until a month ago. I missed the premium, and they cancelled. Thought I could reinstate once I got ahead” All at once, Dennis realized his fate, as he saw everything he had, and everything he knew, smoldering before him. He had nothing to lose now. He could take a chance on anything, and no matter what the outcome, it would far outweigh what he had left in his life. He walked next door, and saw all of the employees of the Quick Mart on the street monitoring the flames hoping they would not ignite the grocery. Mr. Kim, the owner looked up to Dennis and said, “This something huh?” “You look worried”, Dennis asked. “Not worry, insurance pay for repairs”, Kim answered. That was the difference between Kim and Jack, Dennis thought. Kim did everything the right way. He knew how to run a business. Jack pissed away every dime that came into the place, and look where he is.
“Mr Kim”, Dennis asked, “Can I borrow your cell phone?” Kim handed him the smart phone, and Dennis once again, dialed the number. 211-639-5433. It rang three times before it was answered by the voice Dennis was familiar with. “Mr. Flannagan, so nice to speak with you again.” “I’m using someone else’s phone, how did you know it was…oh..right coded just for me”, Dennis realized. “I’m reconsidering this crazy offer of yours”, he continued. “Dennis,” the man continued, “You have to be sure..this is a life affirming change, one of which you could never return.” It was the first time he addressed him by his first name. “What do you mean”, Dennis asked. “It means, once you come to New Life, you can NEVER go back” Dennis answered, “Well there’s not much left to go back to” The man waited two beats and then continued, “We will hang up now, and I will call you with instructions”