The Secret to Happiness

by Steven Cuffari

George finished washing the dishes in the kitchen then rejoined his best and oldest friend, Sam, at the dining room table. Sam was already smoking a cigarette and drinking a large glass of red wine. He took a deep and satisfying drag and flicked the ashes into the ashtray on the table.

“You know, Marla never lets me smoke,” Sam said.

“I shouldn’t either. Those things are evil,” George replied.

“Ha! But you’re too good a friend. You’d never do that.”

George waved the smoke out of his face. “No wine for me?”

“Oh, shit! Sorry.” Sam got up and poured another large glass. “I’m a bit woozy from that chicken. You should give Marla the recipe. Not that she cooks.”

“Cheers,” George said, raising his glass.

“Cheers, bro. It’s great to see you. Even though I have to come way out here to do it,” Sam said, clinking his glass with George’s.

“Come on, you love it out here too. Totally isolated. I don’t know why you don’t get a place out here.”

“Because I need contact with the outside world more than once a month!”

“That’s an exaggeration. I go to town at least twice a month.” George sipped his wine with a straight face.

Sam looked at George sideways and raised an eyebrow.

After a moment of silence, they both laughed, then clinked their glasses again.

Sam put out his cigarette in the ashtray then stretched and yawned.

“Let’s get some fresh air,” George said.

Sam nodded and took the last sip of his wine. “More?” he asked.

“I’ve still got some,” George replied.

“Okay,” Sam said, pouring himself another glass.

George led the way out onto the deck. The sun was just going down. “God, I love it out here,” he said.

Sam stood next to him and lit up another cigarette. He inhaled then exhaled a satisfying puff of smoke. “You really do, don’t you?”

“I do,” he said, taking a small sip of wine.

“After all these years, do you ever think about coming back to the city?” Sam said then took another drag.

“Sometimes, but not really. I’m happy out here. I can work when I want to. Do what I want to. And no one bothers me. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.” He took another small sip of his wine and didn’t take his eyes off the sunset even for a moment.

“Not even for your best friend?” Sam smiled wide and waited for an answer, taking a gulp from his glass.

George laughed. “Not even for my best friend.”

“Ah, you bastard!” shouted Sam.

“Hey, I love my life out here. Just like you love yours out there.” George pointed in the general direction of the city. “You’ve got Marla, your job, your brother, your sister. You don’t need me out there.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same! I can’t be myself around them!”

George laughed again. “That’s too bad. That’s sad, actually.”

“You know what I mean. I love my family, but you and me, we’ve been through a lot together. We know more about each other than anyone else in the world.” Sam finished his glass of wine and sucked down the last of his cigarette.

“You got that right. For better or worse.” George raised his glass to Sam.

“Wait, hold on,” Sam said. He rushed inside.

George said, “Alright,” then looked back at the sunset and smiled. He heard the cork pop out of another bottle and the sound of wine flowing into Sam’s glass.

Sam appeared again holding his glass out. “For better or worse,” he said, then they clinked glasses, beaming at each other.

They both turned to watch the sunset and enjoyed it for a few moments in silence.

Sam took a big sip from his glass, went back inside then brought the ashtray back out with him. He lit up a cigarette, took another sip from his glass then sighed. “You know I worry about you,” he said in a serious tone.

“Oh Sam, you always do this,” said George through laughter. “You drink too much, and then you get sappy.”

“What? I’ve barely had anything! This is my second one!” he shouted and took another mouthful.

“That’s your third.”

Sam looked at his glass, and a perplexed look washed over his face. “You might be right,” he muttered. “I guess it’s time for a fourth then!” he exclaimed and downed the rest of it.

“You silly bastard,” George said as he watched Sam go back inside. He took a big sip from his own glass, and the sun’s last rays disappeared below the horizon. The outside world finally went dark, and he took the ashtray to join Sam inside.

Sam was refilling his glass as George sat down at the dining room table. He brought the bottle over and waited a moment for him to finish his glass before refilling it.

Sam sat next to George and for a few moments, they sat together with just smoke and silence between them. Finally, Sam asked, “You remember that last time we saw Donna?”

“Oh here we go,” George said. “Please don’t get started with Donna. You know, maybe you love her more than I do.”

“See that’s just it! I know you still love her. You just said it! You’ve been pining over her for all these years.”

“You’re being ridiculous. As usual,” George said. “I’ve been over her for years.”

Over her? You haven’t had a single relationship since then. How many years ago was that?”

“That’s not true. You’re forgetting Alicia.”

“Alicia! Ha! You call that a relationship? That was a booty call extended over a decade. Didn’t she get engaged while you were together?” Sam made quotes with his fingers and took a hasty drag off his cigarette, smashing it into the ashtray.

George couldn’t help but laugh again. “That is true,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean I never got over Donna.”

“Okay, then why? Why after all these years are you still single!”

“Do you hear yourself? You sound like someone’s mother.”

“Wait. I know, you’re gay. Donna turned you gay! It’s all so clear now.” Sam took another swig of from his glass.

“So that’s why I’m single! Of course! Now you just sound stupid. If I were gay, I’d have a boyfriend!” George shook his head and sipped his wine.

“Maybe you’re depressed. Maybe that’s it.”

“Right, because depressed people can’t be in relationships. Have you met your brother?”

“Hey leave Billy out of this. He’s on medication now. I just think you’d be happier if you had someone in your life.”

George raised an eyebrow at Sam, an eyebrow that questioned his sanity.

“I mean someone besides me, of course.” Sam deftly pulled out another cigarette as he finished his wine.

“How did we get on this subject?” George drank from his glass and rubbed his head in frustration. “You always do this,” he muttered.

“Maybe we can call a specialist. Have you tried online dating? Prostitutes! Didn’t you see Pretty Woman? That can happen!”

George stood up and grabbed Sam’s glass. “I’m cutting you off, you sloppy bastard.”

“Ah, come on,” Sam groaned in between drags.

“I’m serious, and Marla won’t appreciate me dropping you off like this. I know her.”

“Marla! She loves you. And me. We all love each other! That’s why this is important. Just listen.” Sam’s speech was now noticeably slurred.

“I think you’ve got a problem, Sam. And you’re pissing me off now,” George said with his back to Sam.

“Whoa! Hey now!” Sam stood up and wobbled around his chair. “You calling me an alcoholic?” His voice went up in pitch on the last word. His face was angry as he pointed a finger at his own chest.

George turned his head slightly to look at Sam and they glared at each other for a moment before bursting out into laughter.

“You’re a sick man,” George said, laughing.

“Yes I am. And so are you. I know you are, but what am I?”

George chugged the rest of his second glass and lead Sam to sit down again. “I wish we could do this more often,” he said. “And without the alcohol. We don’t have to drink.”

Sam wasn’t in his seat for a second before he jumped up and shouted, “You’re right! We don’t! But we should!” He ran toward the liquor cabinet and whispered, “Tequila shots.”

“Holy shit, you are insane,” said George.

“No. You’re insane. That’s why we need tequila,” he whispered as he poured two shots.

George shook his head and covered his face with a hand as Sam tiptoed over with the liquor. “I’m gonna regret this,” George said.

Sam quietly lifted his glass and George followed suit. They clinked glasses and sucked them down.

Sam let out a groan of satisfaction, and George didn’t make a sound, he only grimaced at the burning taste.

“Wait! I know why you’re sad and alone!” shouted Sam.

George laughed until he heard what came next.

“It’s because Donna dumped you all those years ago.”

“We’re back to this again. I’m gonna kill you if you don’t stop. Seriously, you’re pissing me off.” The look on George’s face was anything but jovial.

“Wait,” whispered Sam. He tiptoed over to the liquor cabinet again and brought over two more shots, this time spilling a little on the way.

They clinked glasses and shot them down.

“Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna,” sang Sam. “She was your one true love, bro. Man she was beautiful, right. I mean, right?”

“You know what?” asked George. “You wanna talk about happiness? I don’t think you’re happy. You should have kids. You’ve always wanted them. I know you can’t have them, but you could have adopted. Fuck, you still can! Maybe you should get off my case and look at yourself!”

Sam was stunned by the comment. He wobbled over to the liquor cabinet and grabbed the tequila bottle. He leans up against the wall and slides himself down, sitting on the floor. He takes a swig from the bottle and begins to cry.

“Oh fuck, Sam,” George said, going over to him. “I’m sorry, man, but you just wouldn’t stop. You know me, I can’t take it. I’m sorry, really. I take it back.” He got on his knees and rubbed Sam’s shoulders.

Sam nodded and patted George on the chest. “No, no you’re right. I’m an asshole.”

“I didn’t call you an asshole.”

“You know, I am happy. But I’m also sad, because I know that Marla wanted kids of her own. She could never adopt. She said it wouldn’t be the same. She said she wanted to see our faces…”

He paused to choke down a sob.

“She wanted to see our faces in theirs. You know what I mean? And listen, bro, I’m sorry for brining up Donna. But you know, I feel the same way about you that I feel about Marla. I just want you to be happy.”

He choked down another sob. “I love you, man,” Sam said and began to sob uncontrollably.

George continued to console Sam, rubbing his shoulders, telling him it would all be okay. “Listen, Sam. You’re right, man. You’re right. I… I never did get over Donna. She was my one true love.”

He paused, took the tequila bottle from Sam and took a little swig from it.

“I’ve never loved anyone else, and I don’t think I ever will.”

This made Sam cry even more.

“But listen, listen. It’s okay. I’m okay. I just had to find another way to be happy. And I did.”

Sam began to calm down with those words. “You did?”

“Yeah, I did.”

Sam smiled and wiped his tears away, but they still streamed down his face.

“Do you want to know what it was? What it is? The secret to my happiness?

Sam, still teary-eyed, said, “Yeah, I do bro. I do.”

“Okay, come on. Get up.” Sam grabbed the bottle as George helped him up and led him to the living room. He made sure Sam could keep his balance before rotating a wall sconce forty-five degrees to the left which opened a door in the wall.

Sam’s eyes got wide as he watched the secret door open up. “I always thought there was one too many sconces in here,” he said and hiccupped.

“Come on,” whispered George, helping his inebriated friend through the doorway. On the other side of the threshold there was a winding staircase that went downward. George picked up an electric lantern and turned it on.

“Watch your step,” said George as he led the way. They went down the staircase that got darker and danker with every turn. They went so deep below the surface of the Earth that their ears popped.

“Are we going to hell?” Sam asked.

“We’re almost there,” George replied.

When they finally got to the very bottom, George lifted the lantern to reveal a brass bell hanging on the wall.

“What’s the bell for?” Sam asked almost unintelligibly.

George pulled the bell’s rope, and its pure metallic tone echoed through the darkness. It quickly faded into silence which was replaced by a raspy moaning, like a voice with damaged vocal chords.

“What’s that?” Sam asked.

“Just wait,” George replied.

As they waited, the sound only got louder. Soon it was accompanied by a shuffling that sounded like someone dragging their feet.

The unsettling sounds got louder and louder until a frail, naked man appeared in the circle of the lantern’s light. He came within inches of George and Sam and was finally stopped by a rope tied so tightly around his waist that it had dug into his skin so that it was almost a part of him.

“Please,” the man rasped. “Please.”

Sam was so horrified by the sight that it made him attempt to flee, but he was too drunk to do so.

George helped him to stay standing so that he could see the man as he begged.

“This is Harold Clement,” George explained. “You might remember him from the Winston College Blackhawks. He had a promising future once. He had everything going for him. But he wanted more. He wanted my Donna. And he had her, for a while. He took her from me. When I finally caught him, I thought she would come back to me. But she didn’t want me anymore. So keeping him was the next best thing. This is what makes me happy now, Sam. You don’t have to worry anymore. Do you understand?”

Sam was barely able to keep his drunken eyes focused on the wraith, but nonetheless, his face was mauled with an expression of horror.

“Sam?” asked George.

His eyes rolled back into the top of his head, and he blacked out.


Sam woke up later lying down in the dark. He shot up from his position, not sure where he was. Suddenly, a light flooded his eyes.

“Honey, honey, what is it?” someone asked him, concerned.

He was blinded by the light, but his wife Marla’s voice was clear to him. His head was spinning, and he held onto it as if it were going to fly off. When he regained some semblance of sight, he could tell that it was early in the morning.

“What’s the matter? What is it, honey?”

“George, where’s George?

“You boys must’ve had a good time last night,” she whispered. “George is probably sound asleep at home in Seven Hills. Why? What’s the matter? You should probably go back to sleep.”

Sam continued to hold his head. “Oh, my god. What happened last night? How did I get here?”

Marla rubbed his shoulders and soothed him until he lay down again. “George brought you home. You were out like a light. He said you were drinking tequila. But everything’s fine now, honey,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Sam rubbed his head and took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ll be fine in a few hours. I think it was just a nightmare.”