For Krista, the neon sign outside the Broken Soul had always been a source of comfort – like curling up under a fleece comforter on a chilly Saturday afternoon. Tonight hadn’t seemed any different than the third Saturday of every month had been for the last twelve, maybe fourteen months. Except for the sign.
When Krista pulled into the parking lot she was eager to meet a group of friends who had come to call themselves the Misfit Toys. Paul’s F150, a battered remnant of what had once been some lawyer’s idea of a pickup truck was parked near the front door, indicating, as always, he had arrived early. Its leather seats were now littered with specs of gray ash from Paul’s Kool Filter Kings, it mats irretrievably stained in a kind of Rorschachian way, evidence of Paul’s ineptitude at driving, smoking, and slurping from endless cups of cream and sugar laden cups of coffee. Krista smiled, finding assurance in Paul’s predictability and his haphazard treatment of material things.
She scanned the lot and saw David and Melanie’s silver Honda Odyssey. They had been together almost ten years, if you didn’t count the times Melanie had stormed off and spent a week or two with her mother. David wasn’t perfect, but neither was Melanie. He worked hard. He played hard – sometimes a little too hard. But he had never been unfaithful to Melanie. He wouldn’t talk about it, not even to Melanie, but something had happened in Iraq – or was it Afghanistan? – something dreadful. Most of the time David was happy and congenial – at ease in his own skin. But Melanie said there were times when he would withdraw, when he wouldn’t talk for days, and no amount of her begging or badgering him was going to help. So she would just leave.
It wasn’t until she had almost reached the door that Krista realized something wasn’t right. She looked up at the sign above the parking lot and realized two of it’s lights had blinked off. Broken So. Well, that’s weird. The two unlit letters unnerved her. But the sound of music and laughter emerging from the bar washed away her discomfort as quickly as it had arisen.
They were all there. Not just Paul and David and Melanie, but Jill and Taylor. Even Greg, the oldest of the “toys,” was there. A financial advisor with a client list that made him the envy of his peers, had missed their last outing. Greg’s mother had been ill and he had spent most of the last month making bargains with God to give her a bit more time. But God wasn’t making deals, at least not with Greg. He had told David, who told Melanie, who told Krista, that when his mother took her final breath, Greg was beside her. He had been weeping, overwhelmed by grief, guilt, and relief. After a few beers, Greg had confided to David that he hoped his relief was for his mother – not for himself.
They had all risen to embrace Krista as if she were the prodigal child returning home. Such greetings weren’t meant for just her. It was just what they did. Krista had often wondered how she had found herself in the company of such a remarkable group of people. Paul worked for the city. Melanie taught yoga. Krista worked at the bank. She had never been quite sure what Taylor did.
But regardless of how they had come together, this eclectic group, she knew no one really cared about how the others paid their bills. Nor did they care about her past. What she had done. Each of them had a story. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. But for one night each month, stories didn’t matter. They would sit and laugh and drink and talk about things large and small, offering one another friendship and knowing looks of acceptance. She looked forward to it all month long.
Tonight, they had talked about everything from betrayal to philosophy to the poor state of Texas football. They had downed pints of beer, feasted on hot wings and pork tacos and they had left full in both body and spirit. But on the way to her car, Krista felt a deep longing, an ache, working its way up from her belly and into her heart.
Maybe it was the music – that last song – that made her cry. But that would have been strange. It was her favorite song by her favorite band, in her favorite dive bar, with her favorite people. Maybe she was tired and had just had too much to drink. As she sat in her car, she tried to decide whether her tears were shed in pain or joy.
Krista chided herself for being foolish. Crying wasn’t her thing. She had told herself that so many times before – that she had shed enough tears. She had told herself that tears were a sign of weakness and that she was strong. She found a crumpled napkin from her purse and wiped damp cheeks. Sitting there in the silence and neon glow, Krista realized her friends had all pulled out of the lot and headed home. She decided she needed air, so she snatched open the door and stepped into chilly January night. Watching her breath appear and disappear, she saw frost gathering on the rooftops of the few cars left in the lot.
Looking up, Krista saw the sign again.
She stared at it. Broken So.
When she saw the sign this time, the comfort it had always given her returned. She had never given any thought to the name of the joint, figuring it was just a vague reference to some of the music played there. But whether the owner had realized it or not, the place had become a safe place for her and her friends. A temple for broken souls – for those who were broken so.
Her tears were replaced with a warm smile of compassion for the misfit toys – her fellow congregants – and gratitude for what they shared. Krista wondered if everyone would think she was crazy if she told them about the sign – about this holy moment. She wasn’t sure about that. She would have to think about it. But she was already looking forward to next month.