A Second ChancebyMoogPlayer©
I've heard it said that only the good die young. If that's the case then I understand why God called Kate (my wife) home at 35. As a God fearing combat veteran; I have to accept and believe it but I sure as hell don't have to like it. She died from a rare form of uterine cancer that, once discovered, was too late to do anything about. Kate's funeral was very sad. I felt like my whole world had come to an end and afterward for a while; all I did was work, work, and more work just to keep from having to stay in that house all alone.
My name is Tom McNeal. I'm 45 years old, 6'2" and I weigh 225 lbs. I have dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, slightly graying at the temples. I had retired from the Navy a few years earlier and now I'm self employed and living in the Florida Keys, Key West to be exact. I owned an underwater salvage company that, through sheer luck, managed to be very lucrative for both me and my partner. We'd been in business for barely a year when we stumbled upon, and secured an admiralty for, a sunken Spanish Galleon that turned out to be the flagship of the 1733 Spanish Treasury Fleet.
Once we'd excavated all the artifacts and everything went to auction. My partner and I ended up splitting 30 % of the haul, which was 972 million dollars, right down the middle which ended up being roughly a few hundred million each. We were both set for the rest of our lives but then Kate got sick and died just shortly afterward. I was thankful that she didn't linger in pain for very long and when she passed away; I was right there to hold her and kiss her good bye. She died in my arms at 4:06 a.m. on November 3rd, 2000 with a smile on her face so that I'd know she was in heaven. I was devastated but, through the intervention of a friend.....
When I was a child; my mother put me behind a piano under intense instruction at the age of five, where I remained until I was seventeen. The word prodigy had been mentioned by my teachers on more than one occasion. However; due to some trouble that I got into as a teenager, I had to join the Navy right out of high school, so that put all my ambitions where music was concerned on hold. But I still continued to play whether I was happy or sad and Kate always used love to hear me play for her. Through my own investigation I discovered that a close friend of mine named Michael Wells, whom I was in the Navy with, had moved to Los Angeles to get into the recording industry. So, I decided to look him up.
I knew that I would never be an entertainer at my age, which at the time was 40, but I was certain that perhaps I could get some studio work or something along that line.
I called Mike that afternoon and of course he was ecstatic to hear from me, which pleased me greatly. After all; we'd been friends for fifteen years. Mike and I were in the same SEAL Team for ten years and I'd known him for five years before that. After our ordeal in Panama in 1989; Mike was offered the option to get out and he took it. I stayed in until 1997 and by then; I'd been in the Navy for twenty years. I met Kate in the last two years of my enlistment when I was thirty-five and she was twenty-nine. She moved in with me a couple of months later, and then we were married the day after I got out of the Navy. She died in November of 2000, and for the first time in my life I was all alone. Rather than bore you with all the details; suffice it to say that I ended up selling everything but my personal items, pictures, mementos, etc... and within six weeks; I found myself at thirty-five thousand feet aboard a chartered Lear 210, bound for Los Angeles.
When I arrived at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport); Mike and his wife Sheryl were there to meet me. "Hey buddy! How in the hell are ya?" he said, as he put his arms around me and gave me a hearty hug that I gladly returned.
"I'm doing better I guess!" I replied.
He looked at me and, with a huge smile on his face, said, "Well, now that you're here with us; we're gonna take good care of you, old friend!"
As we released each other from the hug, I grinned at him and replied, "Old my ass! I'm only forty ya know!"
Mike giggled and said, "Tom, I'd like you to meet my wife, Sheryl!"
I went to shake her hand but instead, she stood up on the tips of her toes and kissed me on the cheek while she hugged me and said, "Around here we hug those who love us and whom we love in return!" Then she stepped back leaving me blushing slightly.
Sheryl was a striking woman that had long straight honey blond hair that hung to her waist and big blue eyes. She stood about 5'8" and weighed roughly 130 lbs. She reminded me of Kate and it gave me a pleasant and comforting feeling just being around her. I looked at Mike then laughed and said, "She's pretty. What the hell is she doing with you?"
He just grinned, and shaking his head, replied, "Beats the shit outta me! I've been asking her that ever since we got married!" Then Mike excused himself to go get the car while Sheryl hooked her arm in mine and led me to the baggage claim area of the airport to retrieve my luggage. If you've never flown in to LAX let me tell you, it is one big airport.
Having a bit of a distance between the terminal and the baggage claim area; we were afforded a few moments to talk while we walked. As we were making our way through the airport I felt Sheryl squeeze my arm slightly and then she said, "I've heard some pretty amazing things about you, Tom," and before I could reply she added, "Mike's been bouncing off the walls ever since you first called him!"
I simply smiled at the thought of it and said, "Mike's a good guy and a good friend. I just hope that you and I can be good friends too!"
Sheryl smiled and replied, "Ya know, Mike told me about Kate, your wife, and I am very sorry Tom!" She squeezed my arm again when I told her how much I appreciated her compassion. Then she said, "Don't tell Mike but, can I tell you something?"
"Of course!" I replied.
She stopped walking, causing me to do the same and then looked me directly in the eyes and, with tears beginning to form in her own; said, "Mike told about how you saved his life. He told me about what happened a long time ago, when you guys were on an operation. He said that you were all outnumbered and that even though you were pretty badly wounded yourself; you single-handedly took out twenty-eight bad guys, all by yourself, with only a rifle and a pistol, just to save him." And with tears threatening to spill down her face, she added, "I just wanted to say that, for saving Michael's life; I'm grateful and forever in your debt!"
The memory of that day painfully flashed into my mind but before I would let it adversely affect me; I pushed it out just as quickly, and then smiled, and with a shaky voice, I laughed and replied, "Oh Yeah? Well, first of all, Mike talks too much and secondly; you don't owe me a thing sweetie!" Then nodding my head I added, "Come on and let's get outta here!"
We got my bags loaded into the car, and then piled in ourselves and headed to Mike and Sheryl's house. Mike and I talked on the drive to his house about music. We'd played together a little bit when we were in the Navy. In the Officer's Club was a baby-grand piano and Mike used to bring his guitar in and we would sit and play and sing and drink together all night long until they closed the club. It was a lot of fun in those days. Mike was an exceptional guitarist then and I always knew that he would do well if he chose to follow it. Well, follow it he did and to my amazement and astonishment, I found out that Mike earned the title of a two-time, Grammy Award winning guitarist.
When we arrived at his house in Malibu; I was thrilled, enjoying the fact that they lived on the beach. As soon as we walked inside Sheryl took my hand and showed me where I would be staying, and I was told that dinner would be served in about two hours. She winked, then turned and left. The room I was staying in had its own bathroom and so I washed my face and decided to lie down for a few minutes. I must've been more tired than I thought because it seemed only a few minutes had passed after I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew; it was dark outside and I was being gently awakened by Mike, telling me that dinner was ready. I sat down to steak and lobster that was absolutely exquisite. Sheryl had gone all out to make a great dinner that I won't soon forget. Everything was very nice and after dinner; Mike poured us each a brandy.
As he stood up, he smiled, then looked at me and said, "Follow me, Bro! I've got a surprise for you!" I stood up and, with brandy in hand, followed Mike down a long hall way. At the end of the hall was a set of double doors made of polished steel. Mike smiled and, as he opened the right side door and turned on the light, he ushered me into his own home recording studio. I saw, at the far end of the open suite area of the studio, a baby grand-piano just like the one they had in the Officer's Club many years ago. The only difference was that this one was made by Steinway and Sons. That meant that it was one of the most expensive and one of the best pianos made. I looked at Mike and, before I could say anything, he said, "You need to sit your ass down and let's play together right now so my wife doesn't think I'm full of shit when I said we used to play together!" I laughed and walked over to the piano and sat down.
While I was opening the cover on it, Mike disappeared for a second to reappear wearing his guitar. He looked at me and said, "Go ahead and play something that we used to do and I'll come in behind you!" I started playing Leon Russell's 'A Song for You', and Mike's guitar sang the melody line and then some. The music flowed like water, gently and then swiftly, then gently again all together all in tune, rhythm and rhyme. When we ended the song; Mike looked at me and me at him, as I remembered the past and the goodness of renewing an old relationship with an old friend. As I looked down; tears filled my eyes and I began to weep softly. However; I just as quickly sat back up. But, before I could cover it, and in a flash; Mike was on one side of me and Sheryl was on the other, both with their arms around me. Mike just smiled and said, "It's okay to hurt and it's okay to cry, buddy. You're safe here and you're with people that love you very much my friend. So there's no need to put on that front of indifference that we both had to wear for so many years!"
It was right then and there that, for the first time in many years, I broke down and cried. I cried about Kate, I cried about the friends that I'd lost over the years, but most of all I cried because I was truly lost and didn't know what to do. Being the true friends that I now know them to be, Mike and Sheryl sat up with me most of the night as Mike and I played a little more, then talked and cried together about all the shit he and I both saw. They cried with me when I told them everything about Kate and about how she died. I finally fell into a deep sleep about an hour before the sun rose but not to wake before I fought my way through some very disturbing dreams.
When I woke up; it was 2:00 in the afternoon. I got up and put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt and made my way into the kitchen to find Mike and Sheryl sitting at the far end of the breakfast table drinking coffee. "Well, hello there sleepy head!" said Sheryl as she smiled and rose from the table.
Mike grinned and said, "Sheryl's gonna get you some coffee so, sit down here with us and enjoy it!"
"Okay!" I grumbled, smiling. Moments later; a cup of steaming java was placed in front of me.
As I took my first sip; Sheryl reached across the table and patted me on the arm and said, "Tom, you play beautifully. Mike used to tell me all the time how good you were but until I heard you last night, I never realized how good. You can make it in this town with your abilities!"
"How much college have you had?" Mike suddenly asked.
"Why do you ask?" I replied.
Then Mike grinned and said, "Don't get me wrong buddy; you're the best I ever heard. But, unless you've got at least a bachelors degree in music, any producer who's worth a shit around here isn't gonna give you a second thought, much less an audition!"
I sat up and scratched my head and replied, "Well, I've got all of my academics, done. I've got a Master Diver's Certification and I know that will account for some college credit but that's about it!" Mike giggled suspiciously making me ask, "What?"
He leaned back in his chair and said, "Well, the head of the Music department at U.C.L.A. is a good friend of mine and I'm willing to bet that he might let you take the necessary C.L.E.P. (College Level Examination Program) exams to get your degree in just a few weeks".
"How the hell can you do that? Don't you have to go to classes and all that?" I asked. Mike sat up straight in his chair and explained that, at my age and with, not only my military experience but most certainly, my musical abilities; universities sometimes allow their candidates to take all the necessary tests that, if successfully passed, allow them to earn degrees in their fields of expertise without the need of classroom instruction. I was all for it, so that afternoon; Mike drove me to the U.C.L.A. campus and also to my destiny....
I smiled as Mike and I sat in Dr. Marcus (Mark) Johns' office receiving word that all the college credits, from courses that Kate insisted I take, transferred. All I had left were my music major related courses to take. Dr. Mark, as he insisted that Mike and I call him, reached into one of his filling cabinets and took out a manila folder, then took us into one of the music rooms where a piano sat. As he asked me take a seat in front of the piano; he reached into his folder and pulled out a piece of sheet music then placed it in front of me and said "Play it!" It was a piece by Mozart that I'd played many times as a young teenager and I still remembered every bit of it.
I picked up the sheet music and looked at it then handed it back to Dr. Mark and said "I've got a better idea!"
He smiled and said, "What?"
"I'll play it note for note and you tell me if I miss one" I replied, hearing Mike snicker behind me.
Dr. Mark looked over at Mike, and then after raising one eyebrow he said, "Okay! This I've gotta see!" I played it perfectly. Little did either one of them know that when ever I wanted to warm up before I played, this was the piece I used. After I was done; Dr. Mark shook his head laughing and said, "That's the damnedest thing I've ever seen!" The he reached into his folder and pulled out a piece by Rachmaninov. It was the Etude in G#, supposedly the most difficult, to play, piano concerto ever written.
My mother had spared no expense when it came to paying for my instruction, as a child and on through adolescence. I was fortunate enough to be able to study under the best teachers in the country, so this particular piano piece, also, had been basically drummed into my head by every teacher I had once my abilities reached a certain level. So as before; I played it as flawlessly as the first piece. Dr. Mark looked at Mike and said "Bring him back here Monday morning at 8:30, Okay?"
"Gotcha, and thanks, Doc!" said Mike.
Dr. Mark turned to me and said, "You're the most gifted pianist I've ever seen. Why aren't you out on the circuits playing the concertos and/or conducting symphonies?"
"Whoa Doc, he just got to town yesterday!" said Mike grinning.
Dr. Mark shook his head and laughed then replied, "Okay then, I'll see you two on Monday".
As we walked back out to the car; I was more excited than I had been in a long time. Mike looked at me and said, "Well, its Friday night so we're gonna go out and paint the town!"
I looked at him and, remembering last night, said, "Why don't we do it from your house. My head still hurts a bit from last night."
Mike laughed and said, "I've got a better idea." Then, without saying another word; he reached for his cell phone on the console of his car and dialed a number. I heard the ringing sound come from a speaker beneath the dash then I heard Sheryl's voice say, "Hello?"
Mike smiled and said, "Hi Honey, it's me!"
"Oh hi!" she replied, and then she asked, "How'd it go?"
Mike laughed and replied, "Well let's just say that this time next week Tom will have his degree. Say hi to him. You're on the speaker phone!"
"Hi, Tom, and congratulations, sweetie, we're very proud of you," said Sheryl.
"Thank you, ma'am," I replied grinning.
Then Mike said, "Tom and I are gonna go out to an early dinner and maybe ride around L.A. for a while okay?"
I could hear the smile on Sheryl's face when she said, "I think that's a great idea. You two boys have a good time and don't get into too much trouble!"
"Okay! Thanks Baby!" said Mike, as he hung up. Then Mike looked at me and said, "I'll tell you what; there's an Italian place near the campus here that is out of this world so how about it?"
I've always loved Italian food so I replied, "You lead and I'll follow Bro!" Mike turned left at the next traffic light and drove another block to a valet stand beneath a bright red, neon high-lighted sign that read "Vincente's".
Once we were out of the car and seated in the restaurant, a cute little blonde waitress named Cindy greeted us and took our drink order. Mike ordered a bottle of Chianti and we proceeded to put a huge dent in it long before our food order was even taken. Halfway through the second bottle of Chianti; our food arrived. Mike had chicken cacciatore while I had shrimp scampi and chicken Marsala. It was extremely good and I found myself enjoying every bite.
As we ate; I saw two women coming through the dining room to sit at the bar at the far end of the room. One of them had the typical college girl look to her while there was something noticeably different about the other one. At first I was attributing it to alcohol induced horniness as I'd not been with a woman in any way, since a year before Kate died but, I felt myself being drawn to her. She stood about 5'9" 130 lbs. I'd say she had a bust size of somewhere between C and D cup, with measurements that, I later discovered, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself, were 38-24-35. She had waist length, dark brown hair and the most riveting blue eyes that I'd ever seen but she couldn't have been any older than twenty-one or twenty-two at the very most. It was almost like she could see into my soul when she glanced our way. I wasn't looking to be with anyone, but there was something about that woman so compelling. I couldn't quite put my finger on it nor could I explain what I did next.
I told our waitress to call the bartender to our table. Upon his arrival; I placed five crisp $100.00 bills in his hand and instructed him that the money was to be discreetly used to pay for the two young ladies drinks, dinner etc. and whatever was left over would be his tip. I knew that I would never know how much their tab was or how much his tip was but, I just couldn't help it. Mike took notice and, to his credit, said nothing but smiled real big. We paid our bill and left shortly after that, never to see the young woman again. I felt rather pleased with myself so I just smiled in silence all the way back to Mike and Sheryl's house. Mike and I ended up staying up late, playing music together and getting very drunk but, it was all in the safety of home. The rest of the weekend went about the same way until we went to sleep Sunday night.
The following Monday morning; Mike and I were in Dr. Mark's office at 8:30 am sharp. When Dr. Mark walked in he smiled and said, "Okay Tom, you and I are pretty much gonna spend the whole day testing, both written knowledge as well as hands on and/or oral knowledge." Then he looked at Mike, smiled and said, "I'll call ya when we're done, okay buddy?"