Meat (Vlees)

This is not your ordinary meat market.

This is not your ordinary meat market.

(2010) Thriller (Artsploitation) Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, Elvira Out, Kitty Courbois, Gurkan Kucuksenturk, Wilma Bakker, Jasper van Beusekom, Ali Sultan, Frans Bakker, Eric van Wijk, Taco Schenkhuizen, Guido Paulsen, David Jan Bronsgeest, Nadine Roodenburg, Philippe de Voogdt, Florian Visser, Maarten Wijsmuller, Cindy Robinson, Sander Schreuders, Piet Leendertse. Directed by Victor Nieuwenhujis and Maartje Seyferth


We are a carnal species, creatures of the flesh. Most of us are meat-eaters and all of us indulge in a healthy interest in sex and, occasionally, unhealthy. As civilized as we like to think ourselves to be, we are at heart animals with animal needs and animal desires.

In a small Dutch seaside town lives a Butcher (Muizelaar) who runs a small but tidy butcher shop. He’s a lonely guy looking for someone to love and who’ll love him back, but he’s not an exceptionally handsome, in good shape kind of guy and I suppose people just inherently don’t trust people who work with a lot of knives. He has a prostitute friend named Teena (W. Bakker) whom he has romantic illusions of but she turns out to be all business.

The butcher’s apprentice is Roxy (Benner), a comely student who has a boyfriend named Mo (Kucuksenturk) who is, ironically enough, an animal activist. Roxy has a handy-cam that she turns on whatever turns her fancy, whether it is the Butcher disconsolately shagging Teena in the freezer, or a tray of freshly butchered offal. When the butcher begins what can only be termed sexually harassing Roxy, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. In fact, the two begin shagging themselves, particularly after Teena starts flaunting her sexuality, having sex with clients and her pimp (who happens to be the butcher’s boss) in the freezer which seems to spur on Roxy, who is much younger than Teena, to initiate a sexual affair with her boss.

Parallel to that is Inspector Mann who has a startling resemblance to the Butcher – mainly because he’s played by the same guy. Inspector Mann seems to be floating along through life on whatever current might take him. His marriage to Sonia (Out) is disintegrating, largely because of Mann’s own disinterest. The only things that apparently interest him are watering his desultory office plant, and eating. Sex with his wife seems to frighten him. Even tragedy doesn’t move him much; he just seems to shrug his shoulders and move on.

The butcher’s tale (which sounds like it should have been written by Chaucer but in this case more like by way of Lars von Trier) intersects with that of Inspector Mann in an unexpected and somewhat horrific way. Once that happens, the lethargic Mann is moved to take action, but where does the connection truly lie?

This isn’t a horror film precisely. It’s more of a psychological thriller but on LSD. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a psychedelic thriller; some of the images resemble an acid trip and truly they speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot of dialogue here (a previous film by Seyferth had none at all) and indeed Roxy doesn’t speak until nearly halfway through the film. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on though.

There is an awful lot of naked flesh here, both of the human and slaughterhouse varieties. We see the butcher plying his trade which may make some sensitive vegetarian/vegan sorts more than a little nauseous. We see a lot of very graphic sex, almost to the point of pornography which may make some sensitive prudes more than a little squeamish. If you fall into either category, it would be a wise thing for you  to stop reading now and move on to something else because there’s no point in you seeing this movie at all.

Benner is a fresh faced beauty and certainly seeing her naked (as she is for a good percentage of the film) is no great hardship; Muizelaar is a fine actor and has two similar but disparate roles to work on here, although he is less pleasing naked. However, both Inspector Mann and the butcher have body image issues so the flab both of them display naked is somewhat necessary.

The movie doesn’t always make narrative sense and the ending is something of a bad trip. This isn’t a film for everybody – let’s be very clear about that now. It requires a bit of work to get into but I thought it well worth the effort. Not everybody will. This Meat is rather highly seasoned and spicy, but for those of that particular palate, this is a dish best consumed quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Benner and Muizelaar give sterling performances. The film keeps you off-balance in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it too “artsy fartsy.” A little bit on the disjointed side.
FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic nudity and sex, some disturbing butchery images, an attempted rape and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film is just getting released in the states, it debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival way back in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: Nick Cave: Once More with Feeling

The Drop

What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Morgan Spector, Michael Esper, Ross Bickell, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal, Patricia Squire, Ann Dowd, Chris Sullivan, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Jeremy Bobb, James Colby, Erin Drake. Directed by Michael R. Roskam

In an environment where crime is rampant and vicious ethnic gangs control the everyday goings on in the neighborhood, looking the other way becomes a necessary survival skill. Some things however cannot be looked away from.

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) tends bar at a neighborhood Brooklyn joint called Cousin Marv’s. There is a Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – who is actually Bob’s cousin as it turns out – who lets Bob do much of the work around the bar. Bob is an industrious sort but is a bit dim-witted and socially awkward, but he’s a lot more street smart than you’d think. He realizes that Cousin Marv doesn’t own the bar that bears his name – Chechnyan mobsters do. And the bar is sometimes used as a drop for their ill-gotten gains.

Shortly after Christmas, two things happen. A couple of losers try to rob the bar, which puts Marv in the hole $5,000 to Chovka (Aronov), the charming but vicious mobster whose father is in charge of the whole show. Marv and Bob need to find the guys that robbed the bar but fast; what happens if they fail to do so is demonstrated to them rather forcefully.

On his way home from work a couple of nights later, Bob finds a pit bull puppy that’s been badly beaten in the garbage can of his neighbor Nadia (Rapace). She holds onto the dog for a few days while Bob dithers whether or not to keep the dog; he ultimately decides to and as Nadia needs some extra cash, she agrees to watch the dog while Bob’s at work. An awkward, halting romance ensues.

Into the picture comes Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), a psychopath who rumor has it murdered a pothead named Glory Days about ten years earlier after he’d left Cousin Marv’s to score some weed (the film opens up with a ten-year memorial tribute to the guy by his friends who are regulars at the bar). He is the actual owner of the dog (and responsible for its injuries) and also happens to be Nadia’s ex.

There are a number of twists and turns involving a plan to take the mob’s money on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most profitable days of the year for illegal sports gambling, and Bob’s budding romance with Nadia. There’s also an inquisitive cop (Ortriz) who thinks there’s a lot more going on at Cousin Marv’s than an ordinary robbery and Deeds threatening Bob – he wants him to stay away from Nadia and give him back his dog, or at least pay him for it. It seems like all the walls are closing in on Bob and he’s caught in a dangerous situation where a wrong move can get him killed.

I get the sense that Roskam – who directed the fine Oscar-nominated drama Bullhead – was going for a vibe not unlike early Scorsese a la Mean Streets. You get the tight-knit aspect of the neighborhood quite nicely and you get the overwhelming influence of the criminal element on everyday life. People don’t talk to the cops around there, and they don’t trust them all that much either.

This is definitely an actor’s movie and all of the lead roles are in capable hands. Gandolfini hits it out of the park as  Cousin Marv, a man who once led his own crew and in his own words, “I was respected. I was feared. That meant something.” However, when the Chechnyans moved in, Marv in Bob’s words “blinked” and lost the bar, becoming Banquo’s ghost in his own establishment,  Gandolfini gets the seething resentment under the surface of the hangdog expression that is perpetually on Marv’s face – he’s not the sort who cracks a smile often or easily.

Rapace, who burst out of Sweden in the filmed versions of the Millennium trilogy, is still trying to break through to American audiences. She shows how talented she is as Nadia but it’s not a role that has a lot of meat on it; Nadia has been through far too much and bears too many scars to allow much to show. Rapace makes us believe that there’s a lot more to Nadia than we can see; it’s masterful work but it isn’t the kind of thing that gets one noticed in Hollywood.

Hardy, however, definitely is getting noticed. This is his second really amazing performance this year and the two roles are completely different. Although most people think of him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is actually much more of a complete actor. When you look at the wide range of roles he’s undertaken in recent years – romantic comedy foil, quiet emotionally stunted businessman, charismatic criminal, rural gangster, MI-6 whistleblower – it’s a resume which gets more impressive with every movie he makes.

While the plot isn’t particularly astounding, the ending did grab me by surprise. I like also that Lehane and Roskam deliberately left things ambiguous at the end, which I think added a lot to the movie. There are a lot of subtle little touches too – the Schoenaerts character’s name is something of a clue to an important plot point and you won’t get it until after the movie’s over (I won’t spoil it by telling you how). And that dog is just so damned adorable.

It is the nature of all things to be circular; as one great performer leaves us, another emerges. The sting of the loss of James Gandolfini, who as Tony Soprano delivered one of the greatest characters  in television series history is mitigated somewhat in that his final performance, as this one is, may well be one of his finest. It is also comforting to know that as Mr. Gandolfini is gone, Tom Hardy is emerging to be one of the best actors in the world. With his performance here and in Locke he has cemented 2014 as his breakout year. This is a strong effort right up there with Mystic River, the movie Lehane is best known for  Hopefully you’ll get an opportunity to catch this while it’s in your local cinemas – it’s much better than most of the other films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by the leads. Nice twist. The dog is adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a few Brooklyn cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language as well as violence, some of it pretty strong.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on Lehane’s own short story “Animal Shelter” (and was originally entitled that) from the Lehane collection Boston Noir. Like most of Lehane’s work, the short story was set in Boston but the setting was moved to Brooklyn.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
NEXT: Tusk

The Way

The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.


TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes

Drive Angry

Drive Angry

Nicolas Cage can remember when it was his career that was on fire.

(2011) Supernatural Action (Summit) Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Todd Farmer, Christa Campbell, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins, Katy Mixon, Jack McGee. Directed by Patrick Lussier

It is said that a man will walk through the fires of Hell for his daughter. For some that’s more literally true than for others.

John Milton (Cage) has been away for a very long time. You might think he’s been in prison and he has, after a fashion; y’see, Milton’s been dead for several years – in the biggest, nastiest, prison of them all, Hell.

But he’s out now, walking the Earth from a place where you don’t exactly get paroled for good behavior. He’s a man on a mission; as it turns out, his daughter has been murdered by a charismatic cult leader going by the name of Jonah King (Burke) and not merely murdered, but butchered. To make things worse, her infant daughter (Milton’s granddaughter) has been kidnapped by King, earmarked for human sacrifice that will bring about a new world order – Hell on Earth.

Chasing him is the Accountant (Fichtner), an urbane demon who never gets ruffled but is someone you definitely do NOT want to mess with, as well as the police, as personified by the brutal Cap (Atkins). Assisting him is Piper (Heard), a waitress at a diner who Milton saves from being beaten up by her boyfriend (Farmer, who co-wrote the movie incidentally), and Webster (Morse), a former compadre of Milton’s.

Piper and Milton drive through the south, chasing the cult and trying to retrieve the baby before the full moon. Hell is walking the Earth and things are going to get strange before all is said and done.

Director Lussier has been impressive in some of the opportunities he’s had; this is very much a tribute to a variety of different grindhouse genres. Quentin Tarantino would have a field day with this kind of thing; in many ways, his Deathproof has the same pedigree as this does, which owes a little more to Race with the Devil in many ways with its satanic cult overtones.

Nicolas Cage has had a really bad run in terms of box office. The one-time Oscar winner and A-lister has taken on enough B movie projects to become in danger of becoming the next Steven Seagal. Milton is not really given much of a personality and Cage doesn’t really supply him one. He talks in a laconic monotone and doesn’t show very much anger or desperation. Maybe it’s because he’s dead, but he doesn’t seem to have much passion about…well, much of anything. The title of the film may be Drive Angry but Drive Irritated might have been more suitable to the tone as Cage projected it.

The movie is carried to a very large extent by Amber Heard. She kicks ass, but not in an unrealistic way; she gets beaten up early on but she takes no crap from anybody. The fact that she looks awesome in her Daisy Dukes (yeah, there are all sorts of references like that here) doesn’t hurt. She isn’t so much a damsel in distress, even though there’s a little bit of that here.

Fichtner, who’s created a nice niche for himself as a bureaucratic corporate sort, takes that role and plays it to the “nth” degree here, only with a certain amount of a sly wink. He has a good time with the role, giving it the right amount of attitude to make it memorable. I found myself looking forward to Fichtner’s screen time more than Cage’s.

Burke, best known for his work in the Twilight series, channels both Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as the cult leader. It’s not amazing work, but solid enough; fortunately Cage doesn’t provide enough fireworks to make their showdown more meaningful.

However, there is plenty of bang for your buck here. Plenty of things get blown up, lots of jiggling boobs (including a great scene when Cage is having sex with a barmaid (Ross) when his hotel room is attacked by a horde of farm tool-wielding cultists, Cage starts shooting at his attackers, all the while remaining inside his partner even when one hits him with a taser, giving the lady a good shaking) and enough bullets flying to make an NRA highlight reel.

This movie is essentially mindless fun. If you try to think about what the plot means too much, your head might just spontaneously combust. However, it’s fine grindhouse entertainment that stands proudly alongside the best of that genre from the 70s and 80s.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless entertainment, lots of things blow up and lots of sex and violence.

REASONS TO STAY: Little plot, zero plausibility and Nicolas Cage is strangely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: Hmmm, where to begin? There’s violence, sex, nudity, rough language and disturbing images. There’s also baby sacrificing going on but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Milton drives a 1964 Buick Riviera, 1969 Dodge Charger and a 1971 Chevy Chevelle.

HOME OR THEATER: I know I’m in the minority here but I think this is one that should be seen on the big screen.


TOMORROW: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

Fish Head Ed

Ed Montgomery was smiling gently as he shut his computer off. It was Christmas Eve and better still, it was quitting time. His fellow workers in the accounting department at Geniusware were doing the same, and the smiles were broad, laughter was palpable. Ed couldn’t help but steal a glance at Lisa, who was like Ed on the accounts payable team. Ed was the senior on the team and Lisa technically reported to him but in reality the structure was such that Gloria, the manager, was in charge of everybody and Gloria didn’t particularly like Ed.

But Ed liked Lisa, very much so in fact. She was always sweet to him to his face but all of his awkward overtures had ended with gentle but definite refusals. She was always very kind about it and never cruel – which was much more than he could say for a lot of other women he’d felt similarly about – but in the end the results were the same; she just wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship with him.

Ed could scarcely blame her though. Although he pretended not to, he’d heard the whispers ever since he was a boy and the nickname “Fish Head Ed.” While those who knew him would say he had a sweet nature and he was in general well-liked, he was not a handsome man. His eyes bulged a bit and the glasses he wore made them look even more distended. His cheeks were puffy and his jowls hung over his chin like jelly spilling over a jelly jar. He wasn’t fat really, but he was soft and had a pair of man-boobs. He had difficulty exercising because of a back injury he’d suffered in a car accident when he was a boy. Few knew that Ed spent nearly every day in some discomfort but he’d learned to live with it.

The cubicles were emptying out and a few of his co-workers stopped to say “Merry Christmas” to him. Ed responded with similar sentiments and only vague responses when anyone asked if he had plans for the holidays until Ed’s best friend, Rob Pincus, stopped by his desk just as Ed was putting on his overcoat. “Finally. I thought five o’clock would never come. Ready to leave dude?” Ed smiled. Robert was known around the office as Captain Oblivious. Normally he would have said something sarcastic in response but after all, it was Christmas Eve. “Yeah. It’s going to be freezing tonight. Didn’t you bring an overcoat?” Rob hung his head and shook his head no. “It’s been so warm out lately I didn’t bring one.” Ed sighed. His friend would have known if he read a newspaper or watched the television news that snow had been expected for that evening. A cold front was headed straight out of Canada with a brief stop in Winnipeg where every cold front winds up as if drawn by a magnet.

He took off his overcoat and handed it to his friend. Rob started to protest but Ed said “It’s okay dude. I have a sweater in the car and I’m parked 30 feet from the door. You have three busses to take and I don’t want you sitting in the snow in shirtsleeves. You’ll get pneumonia and who the hell wants to be sick on Christmas?” Rob shook his head sheepishly and put the coat on. “You’re amazing buddy. Thanks. So what are you doing on Christmas?” Ed’s smile faltered a little but he said simply “Ohhh, the usual I think.” Rob waggled a finger at him. “The Christmas Story marathon on TBS and take-out Chinese? Come on, buddy why won’t you come up to my place and celebrate for real? You know Jill and the kids would love to see you.” Jill was Rob’s wife and quite frankly, Ed had lived on hope for several years that if awkward Rob could find a woman to love him, maybe Ed could too. Ed shook his head no. “Actually, Mrs. Goldstein in 3A invited me to dinner and a movie with her family and I think I’ll take her up on it. Besides, this is Abby’s first Christmas and that’s special.” Abby was Rob’s new daughter, born just last June. Just mentioning Abby could bring a spectacular smile to Rob’s face and even though he wasn’t much to look at either, when he smiled that way he actually looked pretty handsome.

Rob nodded and shrugged. “Okay if you say so dude. The offer’s open if you change your mind. We’ve got plenty of room and more food than even you can eat.” The two chuckled. Ed’s ability to pack down gargantuan amounts of food was legendary. Rob had often said half-seriously that Ed could make a fortune on the competition eating circuit.

The two went to the elevator and rode down together, talking about inconsequential things. At last they reached the front door of the office. The snowfall was light but the sky was threatening and it was obvious even to Rob that they were in for a lot of snow that night. Rob stopped and shook his friend’s hand. “Thanks again for the overcoat dude. Next year, I’ll have a car for certain – unless Jill gets pregnant again.” Ed snorted. Rob had been talking about getting a car for ages but every time he’d saved enough for a down payment, Jill would get pregnant. They had four kids and Rob took the bus to work. He didn’t seem to mind though.

They walked outside. The bus stop was on the other side of the parking lot and at this time of day, there would be a bus every ten minutes. But at least the stop was covered. They stopped at Rob’s car and Rob said “You’re a life-saver dude, literally. I’ll bring the coat back on the fourth when work starts up again, okay?” Ed nodded. Rob might remember to bring it back on the fifteenth or the thirtieth or not at all unless Ed reminded him. It wasn’t that Rob meant to keep things; he just mislaid them or forgot he had borrowed them altogether. If Ed bitched about it, he’d bring it back with enough apologies to make Hugh Grant blush.

Rob spontaneously gave Ed a hug, which surprised Ed a little bit. Rob was normally more of a “dude” and less of a hugger, but the longer he’d been married to Jill the more he was changing in that direction. “Merry Christmas, dude” said Rob with a smile. “See you next year.” Ed pulled out his keys and unlocked his car, a Corolla. “Merry Christmas Rob. Have a safe trip home.” Rob gave him a lopsided grin and a thumbs up, then walked away to the bus stop.

Ed slid into the Corolla and closed the door. He watched his friend walk away in the snowy twilight, most of the cars already gone from the parking lot. He swallowed and whispered “Goodbye.”

Traffic was much lighter than Ed had expected; most companies had let their employees go early or had even given them the day off but Geniusware was not known for their generosity in that regard – or any regard for that matter. Still, the paycheck was good so Ed had remained there despite the fact that he should have been manager years ago and was woefully underpaid for his skill level. It never occurred to him to stand up for himself.

Ed’s apartment was empty when he got home, as it was every night when he got home. He was chilled to the bone, but oddly that brought a sense of clarity and focus to him. He had other plans for Christmas other than the ones he’d told his friend about.

He debated about fixing himself some dinner and then decided he was hungry, so he heated up some leftover pizza from a few days ago. It was probably stale but he didn’t really think about it too much, he just chewed automatically while watching a medical drama on television. He much preferred cop shows, but there was never a cop show around when you needed one. When he finished eating, he turned on the show he was only half-watching anyway and went to the sink to wash his dish. He put the plate away in the dish rack and wiped the countertop clean.

The apartment was just a one bedroom and not cluttered with a lot of furniture. Ed was a neat sort by inclination anyway and he had spent the night before cleaning his apartment until it was immaculate (which didn’t take long – it was only 700 square feet) and then that morning had finished getting some correspondence written. He mentally went over his checklist, satisfied that he had done everything he needed to do. Then he went to the window.

The apartment was on the tenth floor of a high-rise. It had a decent enough view that he could see the snow falling harder now and the streets were covered. The lights of the city were diffused by the falling snow, given a softness that was beautiful and serene. Ed felt a great sadness fall over him. He wished he could share the view with someone.

Even though the apartment was a little cold, he opened the window. There had used to be a screen over the window but it had gotten damaged during a bad storm a few years ago and had never been replaced. The bitter cold felt invigorating and Ed enjoyed the feeling on his arms. His back was aching quite a bit but that didn’t matter. Not anymore.

Ed nodded to himself. It was time. No sense in putting it off. There was nobody who would really miss him, not really. Rob, maybe. Rob would probably feel bad but there was no-one else. Ed’s parents had died in the same car crash that had ruined his back. He had no brothers or sisters, no girlfriend. In fact, Ed had never had a girlfriend. After all, who would want to be with Fish Head Ed? Unwanted, tears began to come. Ed shook his head savagely. This wasn’t the time for tears. This was the time to put all the pain, all the heartache to bed. One step out the window, a ten story drop headfirst and it would all be over. No more pain. No more humiliation. No more loneliness.

There was a knock at the door. Ed froze in mid-step. Maybe if he didn’t move, whoever was at the door would think he wasn’t home and would go away. The knocking returned, more insistent this time. “Please. You have to be there” said a voice that Ed recognized. He realized it was Christine from down the hall. He’d seen her a few times in the hallway. She was pretty in a girl next door kind of way. She wore glasses and worked in a library, short brown hair, nice figure. Ed had spoken to her a few times but like so many other women, she seemed to look through him. She had a boyfriend in any case, or so Ed had been informed by Mrs. Goldstein who knew everything about everybody in the high-rise.

There was something in her voice though that raised alarm bells. Something was wrong. He thought he heard a sob from the other side of the door. He looked out the window one last time and then decided that what he wanted to do could wait until tomorrow. He closed the window and said “Coming” before walking to the door and opening it.

She burst through the door and into his arms, sobbing. With alarm, he noticed that she was bruised and bleeding, her clothes disheveled. Somebody had beaten her up. “Christine? Do you want to come in?” he asked, unsure of what to do. She nodded, sniffling. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here. You probably have someplace to go; it’s Christmas Eve after all.” Ed shook his head. “No, I really don’t have anywhere to go. I was just going to watch TV and go to bed. Please, come in.” She came in and he shut the door. She gave him a look and he said “Would you prefer I leave the door open? I can do that.” He started to open it up again and she put her hand on his wrist. He felt a thrill go up his spine. He hadn’t had a woman touch him on the wrist since…well, ever. “No, I’d rather you shut the door. Please.” He nodded and shut the door.

She went and sat down on the couch and started crying again. Ed pulled his one chair over from the kitchen and sat down next to her. He let her cry for a few minutes then said in a gentle voice “Do you want to tell me what happened?” She cried a few minutes, and Ed wondered if she was going to bolt. Finally she stopped crying long enough to say “My boyfriend…he…he…” before she broke down again.

It took about an hour for him to get the story out of her, but evidently Terry, her boyfriend, had gotten off work at noon and instead of going home had gone out drinking with his buddies. He had supposed to have been going with her to his parents place but instead had chosen to hang out with his friends. She had been fighting a lot with him lately and when he showed up with three drunken guys it had touched off another fight but this time it had gotten physical. This time his buddies got involved. This time she had been raped.

Once she told him all of that it was like the tears had dried up. She couldn’t cry anymore. Ed went into his bathroom and got his first aid kit out. He cleaned her up and put anti-bacterial ointment on her cuts and bandaged her. She looked up at him when he was done with an expression of gratitude on her face like a puppy that has been given a pat by a little boy. “Can I ask you another favor? Could I stay here tonight on your couch? I couldn’t go back to that apartment…and I don’t want to face my mom and dad. I can’t.” Ed felt awkward but his response was instant “Of course you can. I’ll get you some blankets and a couple of pillows.”

Ed didn’t have a lot of guests in his apartment; well, he’d never had any. He did have a spare set of blankets for his own bed that he used in rotation with the ones currently on his bed. He took a pillow off his own bed and brought them into the living room. He also gave her a terrycloth bathrobe – he had a lot of bathrobes, he had always been fond of them. She was already starting to drift off into sleep. As he turned off the lights and started to walk into his bedroom, he had a thought. He stopped and turned back to her and asked “Just one more question. Why did you come to my apartment? I’m glad you did, but you hardly know me.” At that she smiled for the first time and Ed was struck by how pretty she was when she smiled. “Don’t be silly. Everyone knows you’re the nicest guy in the building. Besides, I’ve always had a little crush on you.” Ed could only nod. Inside, everything was churning. Nobody had ever had a crush on him before and he didn’t know what to say.

He didn’t get much sleep that night. It wasn’t his back pain this time, although there was some of that. All he could think about was the girl sleeping on his couch. She had seemed so frail, so alone, so hurt. All he wanted to do was hold her. All he wanted to do was protect her.

But Ed was afraid. He had been hurt so many times in his life he couldn’t remember a time where his hopes for love had ended with anything other than pain and rejection. He couldn’t bear it again, he just couldn’t. The next morning, he would drive her to the police station to press charges against the bastard of a boyfriend who had done that to her. Then he would persuade her to call her parents. They would come get her. They would take care of her. They would be grateful, sure, but one look at his face and they would scoop her up and drive her off. He’d never see her again. That would be so much easier than hoping that she would like him until he heard those dreaded words “I don’t think about you in that way.” He’d be alone as always. No, this would be better. He would make sure she was going to be okay and then he’d come home and complete his plans. Christmas day was as good as any day to die.

The next morning he rose and got dressed. He went out into the living room and found the sofa empty, the blankets neatly folded on top of the pillow. Despite his intentions, tears began to fall. It just wasn’t fair. He was even denied that small little victory.

Just then there was a knock at the door. He opened it up and there was Christine with a shy smile on her face. She had a suitcase and several grocery bags and was wearing jeans and a Christmas sweater. “You didn’t have anything to eat in your refrigerator so I thought I’d go to the store so I could cook you breakfast. I saw the super on the way back up and he told me that Terry had gone off to his parents without me. He let me into the apartment and I got all my clothes and a few things. The couch and the chest of drawers the super is going to get a couple of guys to move into the basement while Terry is gone. I was hoping maybe I could impose upon you to stay a few days? Just until I’m ready to go face my parents.” Her smile was so beguiling that Ed couldn’t refuse her anything.

She made pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon. She put chocolate chips in the pancakes and covered them with sliced bananas and maple syrup. Ed was astonished. “How did you know my favorite breakfast is chocolate chip pancakes with sliced bananas?” Her smile was dazzling. “Because it’s my favorite breakfast too.” From that moment forward, Ed was in love.

They spent the afternoon talking and watching television. Ed had never felt so comfortable with a human being before in his life. It was like she belonged there. He sat on one end of the couch and she lay with her feet in his lap. He found himself absent mindedly rubbing them. She purred “You have very strong hands. You give a great foot rub. I like that in a man.” He was caught short. He was never much good at flirting with women but he didn’t feel like he was flirting with her. He was just being himself.

They went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant and she insisted on paying. Ed felt awkward about it but finally gave in. They stopped at a video rental store down the street and got a couple of movies; one of them was A Christmas Carol. He had wanted the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but she preferred the 1938 version with Reginald Owen so he gave in. He actually didn’t mind.

When the movies were done he got up to go to his room. She was looking up with him, her face lit up by that marvelous smile. “This was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had,” she said, “and it might have been the worst. It’s all because of you. Thank you, Ed.” She got up and opened her arms and Ed realized she meant to hug him. It had been the very best Christmas he had ever had by a mile. He smiled contentedly, eyes closed. “Merry Christmas, Christine” he whispered. “Merry Christmas Ed” she whispered back. Then she turned her head and brushed her lips against his. He felt this strange electric feeling, almost like a shock. He drew back and looked into her eyes. She looked into his. He felt drawn to her like a moth to a flame. He bent his head towards her and they kissed. Then, they kissed again. Good long kisses.

She didn’t spend the night on the couch.

They were inseparable after that. He had never felt love like that before in his life, had never felt loved. Not long afterwards, Rob and Jill had them over for dinner and Jill had whispered to Rob “My God! She really adores him!” Rob had beamed and flashed him the thumbs up sign.

At times the old fears would return. She was far, far prettier than he had a right to expect anyone to be who would love him. After all, he was still Fish Head Ed. As time went by, he finally broke down and told her about it, the years of pain and humiliation. She held him while he cried. They grew closer than ever.

When he proposed, it was almost an anti-climax. They got married on Christmas Eve, two years after that awful, wonderful night. Far from sweeping Christine away, her parents were overjoyed that she had found herself a good man. Ed got a new job as an Accounting Manager at Great Plains Software with a sizable salary increase, better benefits and a much better working environment. One of the first things he did was get his new employers to hire Rob for a job in marketing, also at a sizable salary increase.

Christmas would be a very special day for Ed and Christine. They celebrated it with friends and family, but always would spend at least part of the day alone, just the two of them. That would change when they had children, a boy and a girl. Ed didn’t think his life could be any better, but he felt a constant state of joy. Not every minute of course; nobody is joyful every minute of every day. There were times when money was tight, or there were crises in the family. Christine’s mother developed breast cancer and those were difficult days. Still, life was better than Ed ever knew it could be.

It was on their tenth wedding anniversary that Christine gave him the present. It was an envelope and he didn’t know what it was at first but then with a deep shock he realized it was his suicide note, the one that he had written all those years ago. “How….” he stammered. She held a finger to his lips. “That morning, I got up before you and I was tidying up when I found this. When I read it, I realized that I didn’t just go to your apartment by chance. I was sent. I was meant to be there. I needed to save you so you could save me, and you have, my darling. My life is wonderful, and it’s because of you.” Ed began to cry, remembering the pain. She held him then and what came after I will not say, because they deserve their privacy. It is Christmas, after all.