Graham

Archive for the ‘short story’ Category

Searching for Savanna

In fiction, short story on September 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Copyright © 2010 by Tad Laury Graham

Searching for Savanna

I’m not planning to see her after all these years. At least, I don’t think I am. I guess I’m not sure what I think, other than it might be amusing to look her up—figuratively speaking, of course. Keeping my distance, I would insist.

As anyone can see, it isn’t much of a plan. It’s more like an opportunity that presented itself, both by my recently unencumbered retirement and by the invention and ubiquitous availability of the Internet. Frankly, I just went along for the ride.

The idea, such as it is, was born in a fog of uncertainty during one of the many domestic storms that accompanied my divorce. In the early stages of my discontent, I was motivated by the existence of a growing niche market, specializing in finding old friends—a market that is worth billions to the young technocrats who figured out there are a lot of lonely people out here.

That’s only part of the story. The rest was payback for all of those rotten things she did when we were kids. Then again, maybe the rest was just the opposite. Maybe in the beginning I was driven by guilt feelings for how I treated her. So while it began with my failed marriage and the estrangement I felt from my children, what it comes down to is that I want another shot. I think I can get it right this time. After all, we were childhood sweethearts in spite of the mistakes, and you never get over your first.

It was probably a little sadistic of me because I already got her back in ways I would like to forget. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to actually hurt her—not physically, anyway—maybe make her a little jealous, show her what she missed. I want her to know how much better things could have been had she recognized my potential, which today translates into a two million dollar house, a half million dollar summer cottage on the lake and an $80,000 car—my ex-wife got the $50,000 car in the divorce settlement.

I started down this path by doing the research to ensure that she wasn’t married to a bigger success than me, or heaven forbid that she isn’t a bigger success in her own right. I mean, what good will it do if I tell her how well I have done if she comes right back at me with how much better she has done? I’m not worried, just want to be thorough … no stone unturned sort of thing. I am certain that she hasn’t achieved much of anything. It just isn’t in her character.

I met her at summer camp the year I was at Big Bear. I was eleven and she was nine. I know what you’re thinking: she was too young for me, especially noticeable because she was too short for me. I didn’t care. My dad is two years older than my mom, and they seem to be O.K. with it. So I followed her around from a distance thinking I wouldn’t be seen, sporting a dumb look on my face (I was sure).

She was so cute that I couldn’t help myself. I could barely talk to her without freezing up. I used to lie in my bunk and dream up ways I might bump into her, casual-like, so as not to seem desperate. I settled on borrowing a camera from Randy, a rich kid who lived in San Francisco, and snapping some pictures from a distance. Looking through the viewfinder, I quickly figured out that the images in the pictures would come out too small, so I got this idea that I would wait until she went into her tent, then I would quickly stick the camera inside and snap the picture. I figured the light from the flash would momentarily blind her and I could get away before she figured out who did it. It was a good plan, and it would have worked except that she could run faster than me and easily caught up while the evidence was still in my hands.

“Give it to me!” She demanded.

“Give what to you?” I pretended.

“Give me the film in that camera.”

“Why should I?”

“Because one of the girls was undressing to get into her swimsuit, now give it to me.”

I stood there, searching for excuses, feeling humiliated, until she said, “Please.” I melted. I didn’t want to admit anything, but I couldn’t say no so I found myself rolling the film up into the camera, removing it, and handing it to her without a word.

“Thank you,” she said, and she pulled the roll open to expose it to the sunlight, then handed it back to me, turned and walked back to her tent.

“It wasn’t you, was it?” I called after her.

Without breaking stride, she turned and smiled, walked backwards a few steps, then turned back to the front and slowly walked out of my life. It was at that moment that Savanna became my Helen of Troy whose face had launched a thousand ships, and for that alone I knew that I had to find her again, someday, somehow.

I had no idea until now how many people-search companies on the Internet guarantee the best results—for a hefty price—and swear that their competitors are dishonest at best and outright crooked at worst. I wade through all the hits for Savanna Jones, which I would have thought was damn few, and I wonder just how many people with that name live in this moment, on this planet. More important, from a practical view, what is Savanna’s middle name, or her date of birth? If I like her so much, why don’t I know?

I pay my $39.95 for the midlevel package from three different companies to get  their “comprehensive, confidential reports,” which are full of significant omissions. This makes me realize that I need a more cost-effective approach. I abandon stealth and take up trolling. I join My Space and write a personal profile to kill for, provide a semi-pathetic exposure of my vulnerable side, and deck out my account with thoughtful-looking pictures—including one of me sitting behind the wheel of my car, the one my ex-wife was awarded in the divorce (a 3-series imola red high performance BMW). Then I sit back in my chair, my feet up on the desk, and wait for her to find me.

A few weeks into trolling, I realize it isn’t working. I think it’s probably because My Space is more of a gathering place for people who already know each other, than a place to make new friends; at least, that would be my opinion. Soon I begin having doubts that I will ever find her. Anybody would if they went to all of this trouble and got nothing much in the way of return-on-investment.

It would be just like her to keep to herself, like when we volunteered to decorate the main hallway as the “tunnel of love” for homecoming at the high school. Nobody showed up to work on it but me and Savanna. I worked really hard on that project because I knew it meant something to her, but when we finished and I suggested we walk through it from beginning to end to make sure we got it right, I will never forget what she said.

“O.K.,” she said, “but not together. I’ll start. When I get to the turn and you can no longer see me, you follow.”

“What’s the point of that?” I asked.

“Just in case any of my friends see us, you know, so they don’t think we’re together.”

I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that we both showed up at the dance with different dates. She came with Timothy Bradley, well-dressed, well-mannered, predictable in behavior and speech, and get this, never swears. I mean you could finish his sentences for him, he was that boring—anyone could, and often did.

I came with Elizabeth Freeport, a regular, the kind of girl your mother wants you to marry—according to my mother. Lizzy, we called her “Lady Lizard” when she was out of hearing distance, had no clue what we talked about all evening. She learned early, however, with uncanny precision, how to laugh in the right places—not one of those hearty guffaw laughs but not what I call the “falsetto cackle,” either. It was more like an educated laugh, quiet and dignified. I felt kind of bad because she acted like she thought I was going to ask her to go steady, like we were an item or something, but I never lost sight of the fact that I was using her to get to Savanna. Not that I felt good about it.

The dance broke up around midnight. Lizzy excused herself to use the restroom and while I was waiting for her, Jake Richardson and a couple of guys who hang around with him came running up to me. Jake said, “I just learned that a group of girls are having a sleepover at Savanna’s house.”

“So what am I supposed to do about it?” I said, “I wasn’t invited.”

“Follow me,” Jake said, and he bolted across the gym room floor before I realized he was talking to me.

“Come on,” he shouted.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, “but they aren’t going to let us in.” You see, I’ve been to Savanna’s house. It was way out at the edge of town in a small orange grove. It had two stories, with the old-fashioned raised porch that wraps almost all the way around the building on both levels. Today it’s a gas station and the orange trees have been leveled to make room for a housing development, but in 1959 it was a plantation owner’s palace. What I’m saying is that most likely they would be on the second floor where Savanna and her sister, Pepper, had their bedrooms. There’s only one way we could be going up there.

“I’m not climbing that trellis for any amount of money,” I told Jake.

“Who said anything about climbing the trellis?” Jake asked.

“Tried that a year ago, got up to her window and there she was, sound asleep, wearing nothing but panties. I got so excited I stepped off the trellis and fell, hit the lower porch railing and damn near broke my back.”

“Shut up and get in,” Jake said.

“This is a jeep,” I said. “Nice.”

“Nobody can put one over on you, can they?” Jake said.

I climb into the front passenger seat, and Jake’s friends pile into the back.

The next thing you know, we’re down in the wash, running through the dry river bed at 15 or 20 mph, sitting on the hood and fenders of Jake’s jeep, jumping off and running after frogs caught in our headlights, then hopping back on and stuffing the little green victims into a burlap bag.

“What do you want with all of these frogs?” I asked Jake.

“Count them,” he said.

“Why?”

“How many?”

Looking into the bag, I said, “I estimate about a dozen. No, wait. … more like a dozen and a half.”

“We have enough,” Jake replied, and he made a sharp turn to the right, up the shallow river bank, throwing one of the fender-riders off the vehicle. After expressing a heated opinion about Jake’s driving, he piles back on and we cut across the field to the highway.

“What do we want with the frogs, Jake?”

“You’ll see,” he said.

I hate it when people string me along, and I wasn’t making an exception for Jake Richardson. So now I start to seriously interrogate his motives, but all he says is, “Get ready.” I say, “For what?” Then he turns into the long, dirt driveway of Savanna’s family orange grove and shuts off his lights. About a hundred feet from the house he turns off the ignition and coasts up to the backyard fence. I’m getting this uneasy feeling in my stomach.

“I’ll bet you didn’t know they put in a swimming pool since the last time you were here,” Jake said.

I said, “As a matter of fact, I didn’t,” but by now I could hear the distinct sounds of a diving board and the ripple of the water, and the sounds of a party that we weren’t invited to, and I know we gotta leave while we still can, but Jake said, “let’s get closer.” So I get out of the jeep and follow him, crouching close to the ground. Now I really am curious, so I forget about Jake and sneak right up to the fence. The next thing I know, the burlap bag sails over my head, into the center of the pool. The jeep starts up and peels rubber, and I hear Savanna say, “What’s that?”

Then some screaming and fussing, and I distinctly make out, “How gross!”

“Really disgusting,” says another.

One-by-one they come through the back gate, where I am standing, completely alone, and I have no idea how to explain that I really was not a part of this.

It only took a few days for the story to get all over school that I was trying to break up Jake and Savanna. The story making the rounds was that I wrote Jake’s name on a burlap bag containing at least a hundred dead biology-class lab-frogs and threw the bag through the window of Savanna’s bedroom during the sleepover. Who would have thought they were an item, anyway? If true, why didn’t she go to homecoming with him? I could only surmise that he was the victim as much as I.

My next move is to check out the on-line alumni locaters, like Reunion and Classmates. Reunion looks promising. They advertise themselves as having the largest database of former students in search of a childhood sweetheart, and they keep sending me email about all the people who are looking for me, George Scott, by name. Only trouble is, George Scott isn’t my name, so I guess they must be looking for someone else.

Classmates is another story. She didn’t fill out any of the requested information for her profile or for her communities.  She provided no pictures (then or now), but there she was, Savanna Tucker (Jones), with her graduation date and the name of our high school. Tucker isn’t her middle name, of course. It’s her married name, and the name in parentheses is the name she went by in school. I am elated, not because she is married, but because I never really expected to find her.

Now that I know her current name, I gotta start over. I enter “Savanna Tucker” and press return. Up pops the standard 10,000 to a quarter of a million google hits, in only a few microseconds. I sift through the first 30 or 40 in hopes that the right Savanna Tucker will appear in at least one of these first few entries. Amazingly enough, my approach seems to work. I discover a program, a description for a stage performance at a community theater. Bit part, not enough of a part to include pictures, I guess. Wait a minute … what’s this? “Starring Brent Tucker as Aegean, in an updated performance of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.”

Sounds dashing. This one’s gotta have a picture. I mouse back to the credits, and sure enough, there he is: a picture of an over the hill, over weight, tired out, balding, perhaps arrogant man, who not only starred in the play, but also directed and produced it. On closer inspection, the program was dated 1972. I would have been 31, and she would have been 29. This guy looks to be in his 50’s. Most interesting, he’s definitely not rich. That was the last thing she ever said to me, and it still pisses me off when I think about it. Not so much for the way she used me, but that she thought she had to trick me into being used. What makes it worse is that it worked.

I asked her out, you know. “Would you like to go to a movie with me?”

Without resistance, and wholly uncharacteristic of her, she says, “Sure, pick me up at eight on Saturday.”

I say, “Great! I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“No biggie,” she says, “just don’t be late.”

“No problem,” I say. “I can come earlier if you like.”

“Good,” she says, “how about 6:30?”

“You thinking of having dinner before the movie?”

“More like breakfast.”

“Breakfast? I guess I missed something.”

“Why would you want to eat dinner at 6:30 in the morning?” She asked.

“Oh, … I sorta thought you meant Saturday evening.”

“I’ll be busy then. Besides, I want you to meet my parents.”

“OK, … I guess we can always grab a matinee later.”

“Then it’s decided,” she says, “I have to run. See you then.”

I guess I should have smelled a rat, but fancied myself too much in love to be thinking straight. It was sort of like the homecoming experience where she wouldn’t be seen with me. I guess I should have known because she never forgave me for the frogs, even though she knew more than she let on. For some reason, Lizzy wasn’t speaking to me either.

I showed up at exactly 6:30 am. Well, I showed up earlier, but I knocked on the door at exactly 6:30 am. I was wearing my best Sunday slacks and long sleeve dress shirt, the ones without holes in the elbows or knees. Savanna answered the door in blue jeans and a white blouse, with a little bit of red trim. I know immediately from the way she looks at me that I am over dressed. God, it’s hard to know what to wear and what not to wear when you are dating. Why don’t they just tell us what they want us to wear?

“I’m sorry,” I begin.

“Don’t be,” she said with authority. “Come  into the kitchen, breakfast is on the table.”

“Daddy, this is the boy I was telling you about.”

“Big strapping fellow,” her dad said. “He’ll work out fine. Have a seat, son. Help yourself to whatever you want. If you don’t see it on the table, we probably have it in the refrigerator or the pantry.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“This one has manners. I like that,” he said. “Mabel, get this boy a plate.”

I begin to wonder if everybody in this family isn’t just a bit of a screweball.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say to her mother.

“Oh, my,” she says. “You are welcome in this house, anytime.”

Breakfast is really good, and while I associate this with Savanna, I already know the only way I would ever taste a meal as good as this one again would be to marry her mother.

“Bout ready?” Her Dad asked.

I’m not sure what he’s talking about and I look at Savanna for a hint. She does a backhanded wave for me to follow him, so I get up and we go out on the porch.

“We’ll start with the rabbit hutches,” he says. “Ever cleaned a rabbit hutch before?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Nothing to it,” he says. “The cages are all on stilts and the floor is half-inch chicken wire, so most of the droppings fall to the ground underneath. All you need to do is put the rabbits in the holding pen while you hose off the cage. Then shovel the pellets into a bucket and dump them in the grove.”

I’m thinking that I knew this was bound to be a shitty date, but I could never have guessed just how bad it would get. After the rabbits, I helped him repair the fence, clean out the barn, and pick rocks out back of the grove where they were getting ready to plant more trees. Not a word from Savanna, not even a sighting. Her father didn’t have much to say either, except when he was giving careful and detailed instructions on how to do some particular chore. The sun was overhead, now and I had been sweating so heavily that my clothes were drenched, no longer clean enough for a movie, or much of anything else.

“It’s about time for lunch,” her dad said. “Run along up to the house … they’ll be calling us soon, anyway.”

I was feeling some relief because I wanted to know what the deuce was going on,  so I made no pretense such as offering to clean up. I dropped everything where I stood and hurried back to the house without breaking into a run. Savanna was on the porch swing, staring off into the distance.

“What’s this all about, Savanna?”

“What’s what about?” She says.

“I thought we were going to a movie.”

“Oh, that … I changed my mind.”

“The truth,” I say.

Her dad came trudging up the path, and we go silent to let him pass. He stopped and said, “We haven’t fixed on a wage for you. How does 85¢ an hour sound? I think that’s a little above minimum.”

“Whatever you think is fair, sir.”

“Then it’s settled,” he said, as he moved on.

When he was safely through the door, I said, “So that’s how it is. I’m your Dad’s hired hand.”

She didn’t answer right away, but then she said, “I can never marry you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Who said anything about marriage? I just want to take you to a movie.”

“That’s how it starts,” she said. “Then you begin hanging around, and telling dumb jokes, and soon you get jealous of my other friends and you make snide remarks and drive them away, and it ends up being ownership.”

“You have it all figured out, don’t you?”

“Pretty much.”

“Why me? Why am I the one?”

“You aren’t the only one,” she said, “I can’t marry anyone who doesn’t have money.”

I guess there were many things I could have said, but I didn’t. I just wanted to get away from her. Without looking back, I walked quickly to my car, slipped behind the steering wheel, slammed the door, and peeled rubber.

One of my friends forwarded an email to me that talks about an upcoming 50th Anniversary Reunion at the high school. I can’t remember when I have been more excited and I drop everything to read about it. It will be held at the school on a weekend, beginning on Friday with a tour of the upgraded facilities, and ending on Saturday night with a homecoming party. It’s déjà vu. Maybe they still need someone to decorate the tunnel of love! Then I notice that the weekend in question was last weekend.

I call my friend and ask him if he knows anything more about it and we speculate about why I didn’t get the email, and why he got it so late. There doesn’t seem to be an answer. I call the school and they act like they had nothing to do with it. “We don’t sponsor alumni parties,” they say. “We don’t even have an official web site.”

“Sure you do, it’s right here on the email,” I say.

“Read the disclaimer at the end.”

They are right, of course. It was the alumni for the class of 1959 who were sponsoring and running the whole event. I was referred to some guy named Jack, who was the school’s point-of-contact for the reunion. I called and asked him if Savanna Tucker (Jones) had attended. Jack really wants to help, but says he is obligated to protect the privacy rights of the attendees.

“That’s kind of silly, if you ask me,” I say.

“To you, it probably is silly. To me, it’s the rules.”

“What if I didn’t miss it? What if I had been there, and saw her there. Would you still say it would be a violation of privacy?”

“Of course not, but what if you attended and she wasn’t there? Would you still think it wasn’t a privacy issue to pass out personal information to the attendees?”

“Look, I’ll give you my email address,” I say. “You send it to her and tell her I am trying to reach her. Then we wait and see. No rules broken.”

I didn’t know what Jack would tell her, or even if he would give her the message, so I initiate a new search, but this time for Brent Tucker. I can’t believe how many hits this guy gets. Sure, many of the hits aren’t the right Brent Tucker, but enough are that I can piece together a chronology of mediocre and failed performances right up until last year. The theaters he plays are all within a few miles of each other, located perhaps fewer than 20 miles from where Savanna grew up. I suddenly develop an interest in community theatre, but before I can go down that path, Jack calls me back.

“There is no Savanna Jones in the class of ’59,” he says.

“What are you talking about? Of course there is.”

“Checked it myself,” he says.

I thank him and hang up. Then I realize of course he’s right. She’s two years younger than me. How did I forget that? Finding Savanna had finally become an obsession, but I know I am too close to throw in the towel.

Within a few minutes, I’m back on the phone, calling around to the theaters referenced in the google search and trying to find something in which Brent is currently appearing. It takes most of the morning, but I finally locate him playing Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House. It’s a little dinner theater, where you eat an evening meal while you watch the performance.

I order two tickets, thinking I should take a date just in case Savanna recognizes me. If someone is with me, I won’t look like the pathetic, divorced, middle age crisis that she will undoubtedly think I am—assuming she’ll be there. It isn’t a very safe bet because she never was one to sit around and wait for the world to come to her. Most likely, she will be out doing her own thing, not giving this event a second thought.

The night of the performance arrives quickly, but I have had no luck finding a date, so I am stuck with the extra ticket. I rationalize that it’s better this way because the evening was shaping up to be a bit of a snoozer. I had checked the collected plays of Henrik Ibsen out of the library and read A Doll’s House, in case I had to justify my interest in what appeared to be a women’s liberation drama—one of the first I overheard someone say. Personally, I don’t think I ever got all the way through the play without falling asleep. I mean, it was written more than a hundred years ago. It was all the more reason that she probably won’t be there. If I had any sense, I wouldn’t be there either.

I pull into the parking lot a little early, turn off the ignition and sit for a few minutes, trying to work up enough interest to see the over-the-hill Brent Tucker make a fool of himself. Remembering that I get dinner with his “Lard-ship the Ham” I get out of the car and head on over to will call where I pick up my tickets, then down the aisle to box seating, which it turns out is located on-stage, off to the side. I was the only one in the box. Feeling somewhat self-conscious I open my program to hide my face, just as the lights dim, and I read: “Featuring Savanna Tucker as Nora.”

Next thing I know, I have a lump in my throat. It never occurred to me to ask if Savanna had a part, so nobody bothers to mention that she has the starring role. As the curtain goes up, I am suddenly overwhelmed with how awkward this is going to turn out. I take my tickets out of my pocket and place them face down on the table. I quickly write “It was nice seeing you again” on one, and on the other “This one’s for you.” Then I get up and walk to the back of the room where I hide in the shadows for 15 or 20 minutes—just long enough to take a couple of pictures on my iphone, and to know that she was going to be stunning.

“You found her,” I say to myself.

“Now what?” I ask out loud, causing a man and his wife to turn and stare at me.

Outside, I pause to look at the sliver of bright light emanating from the new moon. It has a calming affect, which I associate with the phrase, “Light at the end of the tunnel.” I begin to consider the idea that it might be time to let her go. Perhaps it’s past time.

I begin walking to the car and pass a trash barrel where I test my new resolve by dropping the program guide in with the other discards. On reaching the car, I turn around and hurry back to retrieve it—not because I am any less committed, but because letting go is not the same as forgetting.

Advertisements

The Man Who Could Not Stop Talking

In short story on July 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

As far back as he can remember, family and friends thought of Leo as a pronounced introvert because he rarely felt comfortable when engaged in small talk. His closest friends went a step further and saw him as a case of arrested development, brought on by an overly strict mother and a weak father. By the end of his junior year in high school, he had formed his own opinion on the matter, as well as developed the courage to express it in this simple phrase: “small talk is a consequence of little minds.”

Having expressed this opinion more than a few times, albeit without much elaboration, he became more confident and more vocal about some of his other opinions. This newly found confidence encouraged him to believe that he might actually have important things to say. Starting with a theory that most people prefer to avoid conflict by hiding behind the trivial and unimportant, Leo saw small talk as the perfect mask—non-threatening yet full of hints and barbs—the ultimate vehicle for expressing disapproval where censure is considered to be inappropriate.

Family and friends marveled over the changes they saw in Leo’s behavior and once again began the inexact process of searching for a suitable label, large enough to summarize every facet of Leo’s character. Needless-to-say, he would henceforth be labeled an extrovert. Those who knew him said he had always been an extrovert, but had somehow suppressed it. “That’s the only thing that makes sense,” his high school counselor told his mother, yet he continues to be afflicted with undermining doubts and self-conscious limitations in expressing his thoughts. The problem remained. If anything changed, the difference was completely lost on Leo.

In his mother’s house, only his mother expresses opinions: “my house; my rules,” Virginia would say. “Everybody else is either a poor listener or a consummate bore.” It was insights like these that made Leo desperate to get out on his own, and that caused him to lie about his age on his application for a summer job with a wholesale grocer. When he actually landed the job he felt a glimmer of renewed pride—an awakening. The warehouse foreman wanted Leo to start immediately, but agreed to the following Monday so Leo would be able to move into his own apartment before starting work—coincidentally, about a year after his father moved out. Whereabouts unknown.

During his first week at AJ’s, Leo met Rick, a full-time order puller and part-time body builder who worked the graveyard shift. Leo was assigned to the day shift, so he and Rick attended the same transition meetings, where the outgoing and incoming crews share information. It was at the end of one of these sharing sessions that Rick introduced himself to Leo, volunteering that he was called “Brick” by his friends because they said he was “built like a brick shit-house.”

“I guess that would mean you should call me genius,” Leo says.

“Permanent or temporary?” Brick asks.

“Oh, I’ve always been a genius,” Leo says. “Definitely, permanent.”

“Your employment status,” Brick persists.

“Temporary,” Leo says. “Does it matter?”

“I just like to know who I’m working with,” Brick says.

Then he seemed to lose interest, and moved on to talk with another graveyard order puller—the one they call Cowboy.

Leo would replay meeting Brick in his head for the rest of the morning. Maybe Brick didn’t understand it was a joke. Something sure didn’t feel right. For one thing, you were too flippant. Probably thought you’re stuck-up. You need to correct that impression … tomorrow, if it isn’t too late.

So what now, motor-mouth?

Before Leo could find the courage and the privacy to apologize, Brick struck up a conversation and never once mentioned the self-perceived blunder. Leo wasn’t so sure how he should take that, thought maybe Brick didn’t respect him enough to call him out, but he kept his feelings to himself.

Because Leo was only a summer employee, he was assigned to help out wherever he was needed, which meant he got some pretty tough assignments. His first was to unload boxcars from factories in the midwest at the rail shipping docks on the west side of the warehouse. His job was to hand carry wholesale sized bundles and boxes to a waiting pallet outside the box car, and when the stack was high enough, someone would bring a forklift over, pick up the pallets and disappear into the warehouse. This went on for what seemed an eternity. When he finally finished and closed up the boxcar, one of the forklift drivers says, “hop on.” They zip across the warehouse to the east side and deposit Leo on the truck loading docks, where the big-rigs were loaded to make their deliveries to the retail outlets. And when they finished, they returned for another load, and then repeated this cycle again-and-again.

After the third repetition, the process seems irrational to Leo, and he loses no time sharing this opinion with anyone who listens. Already he holds an opinion that there must be a more efficient way to do these tasks, but Joe the union rep jumps in and says, “providing jobs for labor is just as important as working efficiently for management.”

Leo is dumbfounded. “Sometimes I think you are more of a socialist than a capitalist,” Leo says.

“Is that your way of calling me a communist?” Joe asks, obviously irritated.

“Hell, No!” Leo says. “I never argue with a man who understands his calling in life.”

Joe mutters something inaudible, and walks off disgruntled. He knows he has endured an insult, but is unsure of what it was.

Unloading boxcars and loading trucks is hard work, easily the hardest job in the warehouse, certainly the hardest job Leo ever held, yet he had no difficulty holding his own with the more experienced guys. He was particularly surprised that he unloaded and reloaded so fast that the order pickers had trouble keeping up with him. Leo ignored their complaints because he thought they were lazy. This little act of arrogance caused his coworkers to file their complaint with the union rep, who tried to slow Leo down with periodic talks in the break room. Joe even went so far as to suggest that Leo was taking the food out of some kid’s mouth because he was “trying to do the work of two.”

When the union rep finally figured out that he wasn’t convincing Leo he had a patriotic duty to work slower, he suggested to Bob, the warehouse foreman, that whenever Leo got ahead of the order runners, he should be required to run orders until he has enough dock work to keep busy. Joe was certain that it would take Leo at least a year—the average time required to fully learn the job—before he was any good at pulling orders, “and a lot can happen in a year.”

Bob liked the idea because he was saving the company a little money and could take credit with management for the savings. Leo liked it because there were over 5,000 items stocked in the warehouse, not including tobacco and hard liquor, and the sooner he accepted the challenge of learning every location by heart, the sooner he would be the best order runner in the house.

From everybody’s perspective the plan worked well until towards the end of summer when each of the participants got out of synch with the others. From Joe’s point of view, Leo let him down because he learned the whole warehouse in six weeks. Joe was frustrated that, in his opinion, Leo was still holding down two full-time positions for the pay of one. The foreman was impatient because he wanted to keep Leo on order pulling full-time to get his stats up with management. But the latest wrinkle was that Leo was unhappy because he wants to go back to high school for his senior year so he can graduate with his friends. He was especially torn between finishing school and keeping his apartment because: “my place; my rules” was a philosophy with strong appeal.

A few days before Leo would have to make his decision, he was sitting in the break room waiting for the transition meeting, when Brick walks in, sees him, and sits down at his table.

“You look like crap,” he says, “and your shift is just starting.”

“I’ve got a problem.”

“What’s the problem?”

“You really want to know?”

“No … but you’ll tell me anyway.”

“I have to make a decision between quitting my job and staying in school, or quitting school and keeping my job.”

“So pick one and do what you want.”

“I want both: I want to work, but I also want to graduate. And I never want to live with Mother, again.”

“Then transfer to the graveyard.” Brick says.

“How?”

“All you have to do is convert to permanent employee and Bob will move you. Union Rules. It takes seniority in permanent status to work on an earlier shift.”

At first, Leo’s mother was against the idea, but then she realized with Leo out of the house she had more freedom. So by mutual consent Leo became what the lawyers call an “emancipated minor”—which gives him the right to maintain his own household and to choose his own path. When the union rep heard that Leo was becoming a “permanent” employee, he let him know immediately that he expected Leo “to join his brothers in protecting benefits and wages, and that in the future he expected Leo to behave more like labor than like management.” Leo was so turned off by Joe’s presumption that he pushed back, hard.

“It’s an open shop state,” he says.

“Is it?” Joe replies, taking great pains to achieve strong eye contact.

“Yes,” Leo says. “I have a choice, it’s my right to choose, it’s the law.”

“If you don’t join,” Joe continues in a slightly more belligerent tone, “you will be the only non-union member on this site. I would take that personal. I’m very proud of my record of 100% union membership. Are you sure you want to make me unhappy?”

It seemed like a threat, and Leo wondered how far Joe would be willing to go to carry it out.

“Think it over,” Joe says. “Better yet, talk to your buddies and let them explain the benefits of membership—that is, if you have any buddies, ‘cuz from what I’ve seen so far you don’t make friends easily.”

Leo’s first thought was to hear what Brick had to say about union membership.  Because he is one of three order pullers on graveyard and because Leo is replacing the one they call Cowboy (who has been waiting for the day when he could bump someone for the night shift), he felt it would be easier to find a place to talk candidly. Besides which Brick seemed like someone you can trust—a straight shooter. But on the flip side there was the rumor that Brick refused to join the union, then showed up one morning nervous and agitated, joined, and has been pro-union ever since. This gave Leo second thoughts about asking Brick. He guessed he already knew how the Brick would answer.

The third runner on graveyard is known by his religion, rather than by his given name. He started at AJ’s after coming off his two year LDS mission and continued proselytizing in the workplace until management told him to take it outside or they would have to let him go. Leo would learn from Brick that “Mormon” was named “Norman,” but rather than keep explaining the difference between his name and his religion, he started answering to either. Now all anyone ever calls him is Mormon.

Leo made the naive assumption that Mormon answers to a higher authority, and would probably say what he believed, rather than tow the party line. This god-like misconception made it difficult for Leo to approach him for a few days. Life being what it is, while Leo was working up an elaborate plan to justify “accidentally bumping into Mormon” He actually ran into him in the break room, alone, eating an early breakfast. From what little Leo knew about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he was surprised to see Mormon drinking coffee with his meal. Mormon apparently knew Leo was coming because, as Leo walked up to him, he said, “been a long time since we had a rebel in the house.”

“You from the south?” Leo asks, sitting down at Mormon’s table. “Been a long time since I heard a Southern accent.“

“Born and raised in Alabama. That far enough south for you?”

“That so? I was born in Missouri, but we left when I was pretty young. My daddy is the one with the accent in our family.”

“Naw … yawl the one with an accent, boy. Now, what dya want from me?”

“The answers to some questions.”

“You might not like the answers.”

“I don’t have to like it, I just need to know the truth.”

“Other people been down this road and don’t much care for the cost. You willing to take the crap that comes with the truth?”

“I’m through taking crap from other people, I just want the truth.”

“Everybody takes crap from somebody,” Mormon says. “It’s just the nature of how the game works.”

“Well I’m changing the rules of the game,” Leo says, leaning forward on both arms, hands clasped.

“Mormon shakes his head. “Suit yourself.” But he doesn’t continue. Instead he looks long and hard at Leo. Sizing him up. Trying to decide where the line begins and where it ends, and how you know when you’ve stepped over it.

“Well?” Leo says, with the impatience of youth.

“It was several years ago. Things are different now.”

“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

Mormon paused, looked like he had slipped into deep thought. Finally he says, “his name was Stanley, nice guy, probably still is for all I know. We called him Stanley Steamer, Steamer for short, ‘cause he was always getting worked up over nothing.” Mormon trailed off, becomes quiet, seems guarded about what he says. “In any case, it was an accident. Just a coincidence, I think, that he told the union to go to Hell on the same night he had the accident.”

“Riiiiiight,” Leo is no longer hiding his sarcasm.

Mormon’s eyes begin darting back and forth from the table to the door. He lowers his voice and leans forward. “Steamer was driving a forklift into a trailer, finishing up an order with maybe thirty or forty 48-pound boxes of Skippy’s, when the driver pulls forward. The forklift drops through the opening between the trailer and the loading dock, back wheels first. Steamer lands on his back, and is buried under a ton of dog food.”

“Did he live?”

“Yeah, he lived. … It took at least half an hour to dig him out because he broke his neck, most likely the back of his head hit the loading dock. In spite of how careful they were, he became a quadriplegic and never recovered.”

“Are you sure the union wasn’t involved?”

“Did I say anything about the union? I said it was an accident, Leo. Let it alone.”

Mormon stared at Leo for a little longer than was comfortable. “You should probably join the union,” he says. “You should definitely join, and then you should shut that mouth of yours because most people around here support the union.”

“Did anyone call the police?”

“The police filed the report.”

“Were there any arrests?”

“It was an accident. You gotta hearing problem?”

“But you and I know, twern’t no accident.” Leo says, consciously trying to seem like a good old country boy.

“All I know is I gotta get back to work. Seems some new guy has raised the bar on performance, and hanging around the break room talking dirt is a good way to get escorted to the door.”

“One last question,” Leo says.

“No more questions,” Mormon says. “You have enough information to make a decision unless you’re too dumb to get it. Either way, this conversation is over.” One of the day shift order pullers enters the break room. Mormon quietly stands up and walks out. Leo was lost in thought, It was an accident. You heard him. Accidents happen. But for Leo, nothing was ever that simple. He thought he could see his future and didn’t much like what he saw.

Leo’s first night on graveyard began with a transition meeting at 11:30 pm on Sunday. Both Leo and Brick were standing outside the break room, finishing up their coffee—the transition session completed—when Brick said, “How come you didn’t tell me you decided not to join the union?”

“Didn’t think it was any big deal,” Leo said, and then just to make his position clear he said, “Screw the union, anyway.”

“Did you hear that, Mormon? Leo just said screw the union and everybody in it!”

“Yas … I heard. He’s the man who takes no crap.”

“Just the union,” Leo says, “not it’s members.”

“But the union is its members,” Brick says.

“I say it’s time for a little game of hide and seek,” Mormon says.

“You don’t mean what I think you mean?” Brick says.

“Yas, I truly do,” Mormon says. “When he lets his guard down, we must remove his pants and throw them into the next van to lockdown.”

“Technically speaking, it’s too late,” Brick says. “His 90-day probation is up.”

“Doesn’t count, he was just a temp. He wasn’t one of us.” Mormon says.

“Sorry, little buddy,” Brick says to Leo, “He’s gotta point. We gotta do it.”

“You will never get away with it,” Leo says.

“You can yell for help, but nobody will come,” Brick says. “We’ve all been through it. Best to go with the flow.”

“You aren’t going to pants anybody,” Leo says.

“Maybe, but if you’re still wearing pants when we lockdown, it could be Texas before they find you.”

Brick takes a couple of steps towards Leo and says, “you gotta learn, boy, ”while poking Leo’s chest with his index finger.

“We’re all legally adults, here,” Leo says. “That means you even touch me and its felony battery. And I will report it.”

“It’s a joke, stupid,” Brick says, backing off.

“Yeah … a joke,” Mormon repeats.

“We do it to all the new guys … as an initiation,” Brick says.

“I’m not a new guy,” Leo says. “So you can forget it.”

“Suit yourself,” Brick says. “If you’re calling me out, you got it. You’re screwing with the best of AJ’s order pickers!”

Then Brick steps onto a Clarkette and takes off at full steam. Mormon follows. It takes Leo a few more seconds for it to sink in, and then he gets it … it’s a race to determine the best! Now Leo hops onto his Clarkette and gives it full throttle. But he doesn’t forget they might be hiding, waiting for him, so he remains cautious.

At first the scent of the hunt is exhilarating and the pumping adrenalin keeps Leo going. Then he settles down into a fast-paced but strategic run at the title. He soon notices that Mormon has two order pages and was pulling four carts, so he adds two more carts and takes one more page. The dock is quickly filled with groceries, and the shift lead is at first very pleased, but it isn’t long before he is buried and can’t dig his way out without assistance.

“Hey!” He yells. “Park your Clark and give me a hand.”

“I can’t,” Leo says. ”It’s a race.”

“I’ll catch those two on their next drop, but you’re here, so get off the Clarkette.”

Leo’s first thought is interference and he is feeling anger at this intrusion. But he knows he can’t win this one, so he throws himself into loading trucks. The shift lead makes good on his promise, however, and stops the competition long enough to catch the loading dock up. Not soon enough for Leo because Brick and Mormon have already gained advantage from the extra lap. Then he hears the shift lead shout, “New guy! Go get me some groceries.” That’s one devious puppy, Leo thinks, feeling elated that the shift lead would even out the odds. I guess he knows better than to make any of us a loser in this race because a loser won’t be back tomorrow night with the same level of enthusiasm.

Leo beat Mormon by one page that night, and Brick beat Leo by two, proving to Leo’s satisfaction that Brick really is the best, and therefore the one to beat. It was on Wednesday that Leo nailed them both. Brick and Mormon were tied, but Leo was three pages ahead. By Thursday, the end of the week, Leo was unbeatable. Friday and Saturday were off days, when Leo did his homework, but he was right back at it on Sunday, which is why on Monday morning the graveyard shift started hearing complaints from first shift. Seems graveyard wasn’t leaving enough work to keep the day shift fully employed and they were getting restless.

The union rep was in the warehouse manager’s office banging on his desk and demanding that he stop “exploiting” the situation by encouraging the continuation of the contest. Joe kept talking about the “long haul” and not “burning people out.” He reminded management that the union only committed to five pages an hour in the contract and was already up to eight or nine. Management reminded the union rep that “five is the contractual minimum, and there is no maximum.” It was quite a ruckus, and Leo was glad that he had somewhere to be when he got off work.

The next morning, promptly at eight, the foreman called a brief meeting in the break room where he vented at the graveyard shift because they got him in trouble with both management and the union by letting the contest go on as long as it did. Mormon was relieved that he no longer had to work so hard and Brick was relieved that he didn’t have to prove he could catch up to Leo.

“Hey!  I’m talking to you, New Guy.”  Bob lands a piece of chalk on Leo’s head.  “Wake-up and join the team.” Leo had been dozing.

“My name isn’t ‘New Guy’,” Foreman Guy. “It’s Leo.”

“I know your name, dirtbag, and you are the new guy until we hire the next new guy. You keep it up and the next new guy could be your replacement guy. If you’re smart, you best start learning how to get along.”

Leo tried to stay focussed, but tuned out again. He was having trouble managing his time now that he was working 40 hours, up from 24, and attending classes full time. Suddenly Leo is aware of the foreman’s face, up close and looking directly into his face.

“My name is Bob, dirtbag. Don’t you ever forget it. And if you ever disrespect me in front of my crew again I will kick this boot so far up your ass you’ll be brushing your teeth with shoe polish. We understand each other, Leo?”

“Got it, Bob. No disrespect in front of the guys.”

“I’m impressed, Leo. Even a jerk like you can learn if he tries hard enough.”

The meeting was over. Leo was immediately conscious of being avoided, once again an outcast, especially by Brick and Mormon, who didn’t want to appear to be trouble makers like their new order puller. But Leo claimed he didn’t care. He thought about his situation most of the day instead of paying attention in class, and by the time graveyard rolled around, he made up his mind that he would continue the contest by himself. He would prove that he is the best no matter what those losers did.

So he hopped onto the Clarkette and opened her up. It wasn’t long before he was up to eight pages an hour, even with the shift lead making him load trucks every so often. When the shift lead left Leo alone, he moved up to nine pages, once hitting eleven in a single hour. He pulled into the bulk items aisle and slowed down to look for the pinto beans advertised on special. He found them stacked almost to the ceiling, 100-pound Burlap bags of raw palletized beans, but the only way he could get at them was to find a forklift and unstack the pallets.

He pulled forward to clear the aisle so that when he came back, he would be ready to break them down. But just as he went by he heard a rumble, followed by the sound of hundreds of marbles hitting the concrete floor. He turned around, and today’s special was piled in the aisle, blocking further access.

His first reaction was anger. “Somebody could get hurt!” He yelled, “maybe even killed! What’s the matter with you people?”

Then the thought occurred to him that these guys don’t care who gets hurt, as long as they make their point. He felt his heart pounding, he was breaking into a cold sweat and began shaking—a delayed reaction to the close call he had just had. Feeling dizzy, he sat down on one of the carts and watched Brick, from a distance, size up the damage at the other end of the isle. Then Brick walked up to where Leo was sitting and says, “Did you run into the beans, Leo?”

“Is everything a joke with you, Brick?”

“We don’t joke about a mess like this, a mess we’re going to have to clean up before the day shift clocks in. And as the senior order puller on this shift, I’m going to be asked some questions.”

“So why did you push it over?”

“What are you talking about? I’m strong, but even I’m not strong enough to push a 20-foot high stack of beans over into the aisle. Use your head, Leo.”

“You’re on their side,” he said.

“There are no sides, Leo. There’s only this monotonous, endless job that everyone tries to make the best of, except you. I’ve been cutting you a lot of slack because you’re still a kid, but it end’s here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean everybody in this warehouse is just another jerk in your life … all you see is people out to get you. Well it isn’t about you, asshole! There’s a lot of great guys working here. If you don’t see that, you shouldn’t be here.”

Brick was as angry as Leo had ever seen him. Red faced, breathing loudly, even shaking a little. Brick reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little tin of snuff. He takes a pinch and places it between his gum and cheek. He starts to put it back into his pocket, pauses, then offers Leo a pinch.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he says.

“Nothing to it.” Brick says. “Here, take some … whoa, too much … put some back, this stuff kicks like a wild horse.”

Indeed, it went right to Leo’s head. If he thought he was dizzy before, he was so dizzy now that he thought he would faint.

“Trying to poison me, Brick?”

“I forgot how strong this stuff is. You really should start out with chewing tobacco. I’ll bring ya some tomorrow.”

“I think I’m going to die before tomorrow,” Leo says.

“Come on,” Brick says. “Gimme your hand.” He pulls Leo to his feet. “You need to spit out the chew and walk off the dizzy feeling. It’ll pass, soon as you get the taste out of your mouth. … Maybe we can speed it up. Wait here,” Brick says. “I’ll get you some water.”

Brick was gone only a few minutes, long enough for Leo to realize that Brick isn’t actually against him. He’s just in a difficult situation. The beans will have to wait, but Brick is right about the mess. Graveyard would have to finish up their share of the orders, then the whole shift would be needed overtime for clean-up.

Leo came through the pinto bean experience no worse for the wear, but within a few weeks following the mysterious collapse of last month’s special, his hair turned white at the roots. As his hair continued to grow, the white part got larger until he no longer had even a single strand of brown hair on his head. He tried dying it because he wasn’t ready to be an old man, but the results were so tacky he had to give it up. Funny thing is, the girls seem to like his white hair. “Makes you look more mature,” they said.

Brick, true to his word, showed up with a pouch of Beechnut chewing tobacco the following day and gave it to Leo. He wouldn’t take anything in return because he had moved on to snuff, and “it’s just taking up space.” Leo had wondered why so many of the order pickers spit off the dock every time they emerged from the warehouse. Now it had become part of his ritual, though disgusting, a small price to pay to begin the process of making peace with his situation.

Even Bob seemed to be easing up on Leo. Once Bob got to know him, he decided to train him for pulling tobacco and alcohol from the cage. Brick congratulated Leo and said it was an honor to be selected for cage duty because it’s so easy to steal the stuff even with the safeguards they put in place. And on the black market one can make a killing. That’s why those in the know refer to the cage in hushed whispers, as Little Fort Knox. And that’s why no-one, not even the warehouse manager, can enter Fort Knox alone, but must always follow the “Two Man Rule.”

At the end of every month, the foreman and the warehouse manager inventory the cage and compare it to sales for the month—a precaution, should the Two Man Rule fail. It was during one of these month-end audits that a discrepancy was found. They were very hush-hush about it, but those who work in the fort share information—what little they have. Even those who have no access were beginning to suspect that something had occurred because the local police were called in to investigate, and they were asking a lot of questions.

When it is Leo’s turn to talk to the police, he is told that he should make plans to be late to school because order pickers in the cage are on average detained for up to three hours. Leo’s interview takes 4½ hours, starting right after his shift is over at 8:30 am on Thursday. The good cop / bad cop team is polite about it and explains that his interview is the longest because he is the last one to train for the cage.

“There hasn’t been an incident in 10 years,” the detective says.

Leo asks if this means he is a suspect and is told that he is a “person of interest.” When he asks, “what exactly does that mean?” He is told, “in due time.”

It was Brick who said that “persons of interest” is cop-speak for “guilty as hell.”

“Do you think I did it?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think, Leo. But for the record I don’t think so.”

“I don’t even smoke or drink. Why do they think it’s me?”

“People who steal from the cage aren’t users, they’re businessmen. They sell the stuff for a lot of money.”

“I wouldn’t even know where to sell it, Brick.”

“Don’t panic, it’ll make you seem guilty. They can’t touch you if they can’t prove it.”

Trouble was, even his mother thought he did it, and she told the police she thought he did it. “Who else had access?” She asked.“ Just that nice young manager who went out of his way to help Leo learn his job.”

It wouldn’t be long before somebody leaked the police investigators’ suspicions. Everyone except Brick avoided Leo, who stayed to himself while the investigation continued. Brick provided a stabilizing influence to help keep Leo from self-destructing. The pressure built for nearly a month, and at first he could deal with it by reminding himself of Brick’s words: they have to prove it. He knew they couldn’t because he knew he didn’t do it. But in the end it finally got to him when he overheard Mormon and Brick saying he was probably never going to be trusted again no matter what the outcome. Leo stepped out from the adjacent isle and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I didn’t do it! Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” This time, even Brick didn’t answer.

Leo was becoming depressed and keeping to himself. He would make sure no one was in the break room when he ate his sandwich, he avoided eye contact with everyone, and he was barely pulling the minimum number of pages. The feeling that he was a criminal followed him from the warehouse to his high school, where he was subject to panic attacks, and he returned to being an introvert with paranoid tendencies. He ended up quitting high school and resigning himself to his fate so he wouldn’t be arrested in front of his friends.

He had been entertaining the idea of also quitting the warehouse, and then wished he had when he heard that the investigation was over and they would be making an arrest this morning. Two police officers showed up promptly at 8:00 am and entered the warehouse manager’s office. Leo knew they were there for him, but he didn’t try to escape. He parked his Clarkette and entered the break room where he sat in the far corner and waited for his arrest. Within half an hour, he was summoned to the manager’s office. He didn’t care anymore. He knew it would be over soon.

He entered the office. The manager was behind his desk, the foreman was sitting on the manager’s couch, but the police were no where in evidence.

“Make yourself comfortable, Leo.”

“Yes sir,” he says, but he remains standing.

“Please,” the manager says, motioning to a chair.

He just stands there.

“Leo,” the manager involuntarily clears his throat, “this company owes you an apology,” he reaches for a tissue and blows his nose, “for what you have been through.”

At first, Leo didn’t understand the words. “An apology?”

“We were, perhaps, a bit more judgmental than was warranted.”

“I don’t understand,” Leo says.

“The police made an arrest this morning. You are no longer a “person of interest.”

As Leo pulled the office door closed behind him, he noticed Joe, who had been waiting outside on the “will call” dock.

“I’m too tired to talk,” he says.

“Then try listening,” Joe says.

“O.K. … what do you want to talk about?”

“I just want you to know that when your buddies sold you out, the union demanded fair treatment. You’re still working here because the union stuck up for you. That’s all I had, you got anything?

That evening, at the beginning of the shift, Leo joined the union, and Joe told everyone in the warehouse that it made his day to get back to 100%. Leo wanted to tell Brick himself and give what he said were his “well-thought-out reasons,” but when he catches up to Brick pulling orders at the back of the warehouse, Brick tells Leo that he saw two police officers go out into the warehouse the previous morning and handcuff Mormon, then they led him away to a squad car. That was all anyone ever said about it. I guess Mormon was right. Everybody takes crap off of somebody.

The Courtship of Douglas Péon

In postaweek2011, short story on June 30, 2010 at 6:38 pm

 

 

Copyright © 2010-2011 by Tad Laury Graham

The Courtship of Douglas Péon (Revised)

Douglas got out of bed one morning without the customary assistance provided him by his snooze alarm. His mother didn’t nag him. His father didn’t threaten him. He doesn’t feel the need for endless cups of strong coffee to motivate him; indeed, he has butterflies in his stomach and can hardly keep anything down, let alone coffee.

Douglas is excited about the next step in his life because today is the day it begins. He has practiced for more than a month and has his responses down cold for almost any form of resistance. He feels the confidence that starting over often brings, convinced that he will sway her to his way of thinking because he has learned from his failures. He is certain she will say yes, and with her at his side he believes that he will go places never before open to him.

He speculates that success with Rachel would be a major coup, would provide the basis for a strong marriage of two strong-willed minds. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but feelings often complicate reason. Emotions are what make it difficult to leave her after so many years, but logic declares the relationship already dead, having grown stagnant and indifferent in a profession that requires sustained excitement for success.

He knows he must do something to regain the excitement he once felt. He believes that Grace senses his distraction, and that she is probably of the same mind, as much as it were possible for them to share the ambition and drive of a single mind. Yet it is time. He can no longer hole up at his mother’s house and wait for destiny to arrive. He must be aggressive. He must make his first move and never look back.

 

Douglas begins this memorable event with a quick shower. There is no need for his usual morning ritual whereby he experiences a kind of half-awake / half-asleep semiconscious state, requiring a hot water massage from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet, to bring himself fully conscious. His mood is so elevated that he alternates between whistling and humming while he showers, starting with the Everly Brothers hit song, “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” then—as he steps out onto the bathroom tiles, “here Comes the Bride.”

Everything seems perfect, until something catches his eye in the bathroom mirror. He leans forward, both arms straight, hands flat on the counter, his head slowly turning from side-to-side as he inspects his face. Something is amiss that he can’t quite identify. Then he sees it, “My God! Is that a zit? At my age?” partially hidden under a lock of hair, perceived as gargantuan in comparison with the rest of his face. “It’s the size of a baseball!” He announced, to nobody in particular.

At first he studies it, as though he had never seen one before, but then he swings into action, stretches the skin around it, picks at it, rolls it between his forefinger and thumb, slowly breaking the skin, then applies some hydrogen peroxide with a Q-tip. There, he thinks. She will never know.

 

Over the weekend, to secure a good impression with Rachel and to cultivate the new image that he has chosen for himself, Douglas purchased a gray pin stripe suit, a pair of black leather wing tips, and a black feather-edged belt to go with his new shoes. To develop some familiarity with this new look before entering the combat zone, he hangs the suit on a doorknob and gives it the once over each time he passes it. This morning, as he examines this new look for what must have been the 20th time, he begins to dress with the care and expectation of a Spanish matador. Every item of clothing laid out on the bed, in the order in which he will dress. A serious demeanor has taken hold. He is ready to do battle to gain his new life.

Douglas turns the television on to catch the headlines while he dresses, so he will be up-to-date on the world scene. She seems to admire that quality. It would help his cause. Then noticing that his new shoes were a bit dull, he sits on the edge of the bed and gives them a hurried shine. Afterwards, he finishes dressing, turns the television off and steps back in front of the mirror to tie his tie and to check his appearance.

Power ties are a problem, he thinks—perhaps it’s better to be conservative than  to risk the wrong message. He returns to the closet and places the red tie on the tie rack, selecting a light blue to complement his gray suit. He threads it around his collar, and as usual ties the knot incorrectly on the first try. He pulls the knot apart and tries again. Douglas, you idiot … you look like a New England banker! Nobody in Southern California wears a three button suit. … listen to me … she’s got me talking to myself!

OK, deep breath … slow down, breath … don’t panic … try to make the best of it. Maybe I can make a joke of it, turn it into an ice beaker.

Douglas goes downstairs, puts his jacket on the back of a kitchen chair, turns the coffee maker on—more out of habit than of need—and pours himself a bowl of cereal.  While the coffee is brewing, he goes outside, finds the morning paper in the driveway, returns and scans the headlines, again to see if he can capitalize on a bit of current gossip or knowledge of world events, although this time he is somewhat more absentminded in approach—only as an afterthought finishing up by glancing at the business section.

“Good morning, Doogy,” his mother says, shuffling into the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers. “Oh, good, we have fresh coffee. Thank-you.”

“No trouble,” he says.

She takes a wooden tray from the cupboard and places two cups of coffee, a sugar bowl and a small creamer on the tray. Douglas folds the newspaper into its former unread size. “Thank you for letting me stay with you,” he says, handing her the paper.

“Of course,” she says, as she tucked the newspaper under her arm and picked up the tray saying, “I would never turn you away, Doogy. You’re my son.” Then her face reddened and she seemed to stumble for the right words. “I’m so rude,” she began, “I should have asked how it’s working out. I need to take more interest in your problems.”

“No problems, Mom. Everything is working out just fine.”

“Good for you,” she says, “I can hardly wait to meet her and I’ll be thinking of you all day, I promise.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Yes, I should have said that, too,” she mumbled, as she climbed the stairs.

Too excited to finish his breakfast, Douglas pushes himself back from the table, smiles his best salesman-like smile, and says, “Here goes nothing!” He gets up, walks to the front door, pauses, then goes up stairs and changes into a 2-button suit and his British walkers. He returns a few minutes later, walks outside to his car, starts the engine and backs out of the driveway.

Douglas arrives early and parks out back where he has always parked. Because the offices are not yet unlocked for business, he makes his way around front and enters where the company receptionist watches the comings and goings of everyone who works for the agency. As he enters the building, the receptionist comes out from behind her work station and pulls him aside.

“Good morning Mr. Péon,” she says. “John is looking for you and he is hopping mad about something.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Péon. The last time he came by here he said the minute you get here I should tell you ‘to get your ass down to my office. ”I’m sorry for being so crude, but he really did say it.”

“I see,” Douglas says. “Then I’ll just get a cup of coffee and head on down.”

“He also said that you shouldn’t stop for coffee.”

“No coffee?” … The last time John shut down the coffee pot, we had just lost an account.”

“I wouldn’t know about that, Mr. Péon. I don’t drink coffee, so that’s one problem I couldn’t have caused. Whatever happened, he’s plenty cranky.”

Douglas puts his briefcase in his office, removes his jacket and carefully hangs it on the hook on the back of his door. He picks up a pencil and a legal tablet and walks down the hall to the corner office.

“Go right in, Mr. Péon. He’s expecting you,” his admin says.

“Good morning, John,” Douglas says as he enters John’s office, trying to sound cheerful and in control of the situation.

John ignores him, continues reading a document until he comes to a logical stopping place. Douglas is feeling uncomfortable, understands the pause as a slight, meant to put him in his place. It can’t be the Macmillan Account, he thinks. Then he switches tactics, Please, God, don’t let it be the Macmillan Account. John finally looks up and in one motion leans back into his chair, brings his right hand up to his face, fingers touching his cheek and chin, left hand crossing his chest and tucked under his right elbow, as if to say, what am I going to do with you? He doesn’t speak immediately, but then deliberately, “Are you leaving Grace?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Never mind, just answer the question.”

“I’ve been toying with the idea, John, but I haven’t decided.” Still standing, he casually slides both hands into his pockets and avoids eye contact by looking in back of John, eyes unfocused, rather than directly at him.

“I think you are lying.” John says, emphatically, as he leans forward, both forearms on his desk, hands clasped, eyes fixed on Douglas in a cold stare.

“You have no right to call me a liar, John.” Feeling the hackles of his neck tighten, his right hand unconsciously moves to the affected spot at the back of his neck and gently rubs. “Nobody has the right to call a man a liar without proof.”

“I didn’t say you were a lier, Doug. I said you lied. There’s a difference.”

“I am not a liar! Anyone who says differently better have proof. Just who the hell is spreading this malicious gossip about me?”

“I found your notes in your desk after you called in sick. Your action item list was right on top, and it says, ‘tell John I’m leaving Grace for personal reasons’, but it ends with a question mark.” Again, he leans back into his chair.  “Are you?”

“What are you doing going through my desk?” Douglas raising his voice, slightly more agitated.

John is livid. Coming all the way out of his chair, leaning still farther forward, hands firmly anchored to the desktop through his nuckles, “Looking for the sales pitch to Macmillan & Company!”—now escalating the volume—“and it isn’t your desk … as your employer, it’s my desk! While we are on the subject, you are quite lucky you still have a desk! Where were you yesterday? … You damn sure weren’t at home sick.”

“I moved in with my Mother last month!” Douglas blurts it out, then he stops himself for a few seconds. He begins to blush, to feel shame for having moved back home with his mother and her boy friend. “My present situation dictates that I make alternative arrangements,” he said softly, but he knew he had already gone too far. “Nothing is final,” Douglas says. “You’ll be the first to know when I figure it out.”

“Under the circumstances, we should delay the Macmillan dog and pony show a couple of days,” John says.

“I would agree,” Douglas says.

“You want my opinion? Of course not, but I’m going to give it to you anyway.

Compared to Grace, you’re still a kid in this industry. You’re nothing without her. She taught you all you know, literally made you what you are. But you think you did it all.”

“Please don’t make this personal, John.”

“It is personal, Doug. Personally, I never would have brought you into the family business if my father hadn’t made me promise on his death bed.”

“Don’t start on me, John. I honestly think if I hear that story one more time about Grace’s father I’ll go postal.” Again, Douglas had stepped over the line. He needed a way back, and quickly found it.

“What can I do to help with Macmillan?”

“Nothing. … I’ll handle him personally. It’s the only credible answer when he asks why they don’t get you.”

“You’re sure you want to do this?”

“I called them first thing this morning. You’re already off the account. The official story is that subsequent reevaluation of the requirements revealed the need for a more experienced principal consultant for the start up phase. They may also have gotten the idea somewhere that your stomach isn’t up to the challenge.”

Et tu, Brute! Douglas whispers.

Leave your mother’s address with my admin so I know where to send your personal belongings.”

“I guess that’s fair, John.”

“Get out, Douglas, before I pop a gasket and let you know how I really feel!

Douglas is already through the doorway when John takes his parting shot: “The next time you see her, ask her how long the last guy lasted.”

“What are you talking about?” Douglas says, coming back to the open door.

“Just go!”

Douglas, angry again, stomps off. He stops by his office to get his jacket and briefcase, then goes by the receptionist station and says, “Hold my calls. I’m gone for the rest of the day.”

“Oh, that reminds me … someone named Rachel called.”

“Rachel?” Douglas says, “What did she want?”

“She said you would know.”

“Well, I don’t!” He says, then heads for the parking lot.

 

Douglas spends the rest of the morning at the Starbucks down on Bitter Street near the office, where he decides that given what John already knows, he had better update his resume. This takes the form of enhancing his duties and playing down some of his weaknesses. Satisfied with his more impressive skills update—”more accurate,” he would say—he submits it to Kinkos over the internet, where it is printed, assembled, and waiting for him to pick up before meeting Rachel for lunch.  For now, his mind isn’t on the little lies he tells in his dossier. His mind is on Rachel, and to some extent Grace, and on how they both seem so different in what are similar environments, yet have the same fundamental approach to the industry. He begins to wonder if he really were able to dump Grace after all she has done for him, and questions how a relationship with Rachel might play out over time.

He decides to wait until he calms down before returning Rachel’s call. He is out of control and needs to “get his act together.” The coffee helps. For some unknown reason when he drinks coffee, unlike most people, it has a calming affect. As he starts his second cup, he pulls out his cell phone and speed-dials the number.

She is quite happy to hear his voice and had called only to ensure that they were still on for lunch. He says, “Yes” and she is all the more excited, for which she apologizes saying, “I guess I don’t get out much. More-and-more, it seems like my life revolves completely around my job.”

Douglas says, “We’ll have to change that, you need more balance in your life.”

After the call, time passes more quickly while Douglas engages in what he describes as one of his many bouts of ‘soul searching,’—because he wants to do the right thing. However, as the lunch hour draws near, he undergoes a transformation, a personality change of sorts, whereby he steps outside of himself and into his alter ego, the persona that plays to win, the one that will never be told no for very long. In this frame of mind, his first stop is Kinkos, where his newly acquired skills jump off the page, proclaiming winner to all who would see, and then onward to the Black Angus where he and Rachel will be having lunch and the most important conversation of his life.

The hell with John, he thinks. Who does he think he is? He has no right to butt into my personal decisions.

Once inside the restaurant, Douglas begins to psych himself up for the challenge. He soon finds himself talking to, and occasionally answering, himself out loud. He has been over his approach so many times that its beginning to sound like a script from a stage play, in which Douglas plays all the parts—until he begins to draw unwanted attention. He stops his rehearsal and quietly begins to meditate.

 

“Hi, Douglas! How are you?”

He didn’t see her come in. Mistake number one, he notes.

“Great! How about you?”

“Feeling good about this,” Rachel says. “I really have been looking forward to our lunch date.”

“Yes, me too!” Me too? I must sound like an over eager school boy. Trying to recover, he adds, “I see E&M stock is up a few points.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rachel says. “We just won a big contract, but you already know that, don’t you? … I’m impressed. It was only announced last night.”

“Yes, I know,” Douglas said, but he didn’t.

“I like to keep up on business and world events,” he added, but he could have just as easily said the Chargers, the Padres, or the ponies at Del Mar, all of which would have been accurate.

The waiter shows them to a table while they continue their small talk. Rachel, trying to seem more personable, begins describing her last vacation. She used her travel points to go “down under,” and spent a couple of weeks relaxing in the Cradle Mountain Lodge in Northern Tasmania. She especially enjoyed learning about the wild life, which was capped by a 4-wheeler night excursion into the habitat of the elusive Tasmanian Devil.

She was surprised to learn that she was spending her vacation in a tropical rain forest that was slowly disappearing because the road crews had cut a path through the trees, not realizing the damage they would inflict on the natural canopy. Once set in motion, each year it opens a little more on its own because the under belly of the forest bottom is exposed to the outside, upper world, and there seems to be no way to reverse the process.

“Goodness, she said, I’ve gone on and on. I must be boring you to tears.”

“Not at all,” he said. “I find it all very interesting.”

“How about you? Go anywhere interesting for your vacation?”

Douglas’ last vacation was to Las Vegas, but he didn’t think that would make much of a story so he described a neighbor’s trip to Africa to “save the children,” claiming it as his own. Rachel was impressed and said she would like very much to have taken that trip, and hinted that perhaps if things worked out between them they might both go there next year.  “I know its positively shameless to put in a plug for the company every time I see you, Douglas, but Edward & Martin is very keen on motivating employees to be active in community projects, so they might underwrite some of the out-of-pocket expenses.”

“Really?” Douglas says.

“Yes, really,” Rachel says.

Douglas had already settled on Cancun, should things work out, but he knew better than to broach the subject just yet.

Rachel continues, “E&M really is like family. I know it’s almost cliche in this business, but they do have a great bunch of people working for them. Only this morning, I was having trouble with a client, and two of our partners took time out of their busy schedules to blue sky the problem and to help figure out a solution.”

“You don’t often see that,” Douglas admits.

“I know,” Rachel says, “but it really helped to resolve the issues and to get back on track.”

“It’s exactly what I would have done,” Douglas says. “I believe in teamwork, and in supporting company success over individual success, because without the company, there are no individual successes.”

“I would agree, but wouldn’t you agree that success in anything depends mostly on finding the right individual—the perfect match who can make things happen?”

“Yes,” Douglas says. “In business, for example, every box on an organization chart is a problem and every candidate for filling that box is a solution. Your best fit would be a solution who truly understands, and is qualified to fix, the problem.”

“What a perceptive way to describe it,” Rachel says. “The only example I could think of is how important selection of a spouse is to a successful marriage. I have to ask, would you say that you, personally, are a good fit, within the boundaries of your own definition?”

“Absolutely! I’m both problem solver and confidant.”

“Confidant?”

“I watch your back, so to speak, and if you need someone to lean on, I’m the guy you can always count on.”

“I like the way you think, Douglas. My sources were right about you.”

“E&M sounds like a fine place to work, Rachel, and I know I can bring a lot to the table. … maybe even a client or two.”

“Did you bring your resume?”

“I just happen to have it,” he says, and he pulls a copy from his briefcase and hands it to her.

Rachel reads it over quickly, looks up and says, “Tell me Douglas, for the record, why are you leaving the John Grace Agency?”

“Grace has become very closed, not very flexible, spends too much time on internal politics and employee competition, rather than focusing on beating the market competition. Like E&M, Grace was founded by one man who attempted to run it like a family, but—off the record—it has often been a dysfunctional family. I think they are losing touch with their customer base.

“Dysfunctional?”

“I would rather not say too much about their internal difficulties. I make it a point never to discuss the shortcomings of my employers with the competition. You understand … you wouldn’t want me to speak ill of E&M.” He smiles, faintly at first, but then more broadly as he realizes he has just pulled off shifting the conversation away from criticizing Grace while showing himself to be fair and impartial.

“Of course. … just between us guys, Douglas, I’ve known John personally for many years. He was the one who gave me my start in the business.”

“Isn’t he the greatest? He was my first big break, too.”

“He is,” she agreed. “That’s why I have already taken the liberty to talk with him about this opportunity, to get his assessment of how you would do.”

“I trust everything is in order?”

“He speaks highly of you, says you deserve a shot.”

Why that sneaky little bastard! “Well, … as you probably know … I am the backbone of his organization.”

“It’s O.K., Douglas, you don’t have to sell me. John’s input alone makes the rest of this process not much more than a formality. Welcome to the family,” and with that she reached over the table and firmly shook his hand.

“Thank you,” he says, then he smiles. I guess leaving Grace is not so difficult, after all, he thinks.

Rachel returns the smile.  Now if only I can get him to dress more like a New England Banker.

Copyright © 2010-2011 by Tad Laury Graham

Leaving Home

In short story on July 31, 2008 at 10:41 pm

A Short Story by Tad Laury Graham

I am sitting on the steps out front thinking about the last time I tried this, and realizing that I failed because I’m weak.  I’m afraid.  I knew I had to do something, and the only thing that seemed “right” was to leave, but I wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t ready because I was only nine, but I think I’m ready now.

Pause

She was cold.  I never thought she wouldn’t even care.  “You want to leave?”  She said, matter-of-factly, “Here, let me help you,” going to the closet and taking down an old battered suitcase.

I should have left without telling her what I was doing.  That was my mistake.  But there she was, throwing all of my clothes into the suitcase, latching it up, and then going to the front door and setting it on the porch.  “Don’t write,” she said.  “I’ll be much too busy to have the time to write back.”

By now I’m crying because she doesn’t care and I’m committed to something I’m not ready for, so I go out on the porch and sit on the steps, and still crying I yell, “Don’t you think I won’t go because I will!”

My daddy comes out on the porch, looking a little confused, and says, “Where you going, Paddy?”

My mom says, “He’s leaving us, and not a moment too soon.  I was thinking of renting out his room, anyway.”

“Oh, hush,” Daddy says.

“I’m going,” I say, and I grab hold of the handle on the suitcase and start dragging it down the steps.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”  Daddy asks.

I’m angry, now.  So I say, “Yes,” still crying, and I start down the driveway, turn into the unpaved road up to the highway’s edge, and drag my suitcase about a block before I just can’t drag it any farther.  I sit down on the suitcase and try to fight back the tears just as my daddy drives up in the Nash and opens the door.

“Get in,” he says.

“I can’t,” I say.

“Why not?”

“Because Mama doesn’t want me anymore.”

“Your mama’s a bitch, Paddy.  I can’t change that … but I want you.  Now get in the car.”

I stop crying and get in the car, and my daddy backs the Nash up the whole distance I dragged the suitcase, right into our driveway.

“I know it’s going to take some courage, son.  But you square your shoulders and walk right in there and put your stuff away.  Don’t even listen to her.  She’s never going to be happy, no matter what either one of us does.  That’s just life.”

So here I am again.  Only this time I’m not crying.  Now that I’m twelve, I have some ideas about how this is done.  I can’t find the suitcase because I think Daddy threw it out after my last attempt, so I take two pillow cases from the laundry basket and I stuff them full with my clothes.  Then I follow the tracks heading down to the railroad yard, where I’ll hop a freight train to the coast of California.  I saw it in a movie, so I kind of know how it’s done.

It’s time, way overdue in fact.  It’s all well and good that my daddy understands my situation, but he’s never here and doesn’t have to put up with that bitch.  I was a bone fide hero, and she didn’t even say thank you, probably would have been happier with one less child.  Neither of them said thank you.  Come to think of it, Sean didn’t even say thank you and he was the one I pulled out of the river.

Pause

It’ll be dark soon, I need to get going.  I slowly swing the pillow cases over my shoulder and start off down the driveway and into the road, up to the end of the block where I had surrendered to the sergeant on my last attempt.  Pressing onward I realize I have passed a milestone, and I start to feel good about that.  I start thinking about how they will find out.  I didn’t leave a note.  Mom will be doing bed check, and she’ll see that I’m missing.  I don’t know where the Hell Dad is, probably at the base.

Looks like a great night for it, I think.  I never knew running away could be so exciting.  I start to whistle, which my brother Buck says I do whenever I have a secret that I can’t keep, but I think I do it more when I’m feeling happy.   It’s just that some secrets make me happy.

When I get to California, I’ll have to get a job.

Doing what?

I don’t know, but I have to make some money so I can eat.  I can always sleep out under the stars, but I have to eat.

Pause

Sleep under the stars.  It’s getting dark.  Should have brought a flash light … Moonlight helps, but not much.

Pause

I wonder what Buck will say when he hears I’m hopping freights.  He was always the one who was going to “ride the rails.”

Pause

You didn’t leave a note.  How will he know that you are riding the rails?  Probably thinks I’m dead … killed by a child molester.

Pause

Poor planning, I guess.  Half the fun is them knowing what I’m doing, but they don’t know … don’t know, don’t care.

This stuff is getting heavy.  Should have packed lighter.  I switch shoulders.  Never cared.  Never, ever, ever cared.  Not about me.  Wouldn’t care even if I died, which I almost did once ‘cause I thought it was chocolate.  She could have told me when she took it away and put it on top of the fridge.  But she went ahead and let me think it was chocolate.  So I climbed up on the counter, got it off the fridge, and ate the whole box of EXLAX.

Had to have my stomach pumped at the emergency room, which made me sick and on the way home I had to throw up, so they pull over near a railroad crossing and let me out of the car, and there I am heaving my guts, and she says, “Serves you right!  Maybe if you had died you would have learned something.”

Daddy says, “Oh, hush, Madge.  Let the boy alone.”

Man, this is heavy.  Got to do something.  I drop both stuffed pillow cases on the ground, sit down and rub my neck.  After a few minutes of sitting, wondering what to do, I start looking through each one and try to assess whether or not I really need everything I brought.  I really hate this pink and gray shirt I got for my birthday.  Only a sissy would wear pink.  Maybe I could just leave it here.

That’s all it took.  If I could leave one shirt behind, I could leave one whole bag behind.  So I resort my clothes into the two pillow cases:  one I hide under a bush, the other I swing back over my shoulder and renew my quest for the coast of California.

More like walking the rails than riding, I thought.  Can’t wait for the riding part, my feet are beginning to hurt, my neck still hurts and I’m getting hungry.

Pause

I wonder if I will see any hobos.  I hear they live around train yards in cardboard boxes, and they cook over open fires without even taking the food out of the can.  It must be a great life!

Getting cold out here.  Good thing I kept my jacket.  I stop to put it on.  That’s better.  It even lightens the load.  Should have put it on sooner.  Have to learn these things if I’m going to make it.

Pause

Was that a rain drop?  I can’t believe it’s going to rain.  I wonder how far I am from the train yard.  I stop and head for cover under a large, thick tree.  It isn’t a bad rain.  Should be over soon.  Then I can get on with it.

The rain continues for more than an hour.  I hunker down and try my best to stay dry, but soon realize I have no control over the elements and can only hope that it will end soon.  I doze on and off, withdrawing from the immediate reality of this stupid adventure and when it finally lets up, it’s nearly 9pm, and I wonder where the time has gone.  I’m soaked and shivering, frustrated with my inability to handle such problems, and I’m practically starving.

Maybe I should wait to run away until I have enough money, I’m thinking.  It takes money when you’re in a jam.  I should probably save up at least $40.  Maybe more.  Without conscious thought I start the long walk home, retracing my steps so I can find my other bag of clothes, but I never do because one bush looks like another and I had to be so clever to hide it without marking it.

I get home around midnight.  Nobody is waiting up for me, but the door is unlocked.  I sneak in and put away my remaining bag of clothes.  Wonder when they’ll figure out I lost the other half, I’m thinking.  Won’t be long because you can’t hide the fact a pink and gray birthday shirt is missing.  But if they knew, they never said, never even asked why I was out so late or where I had been … never really cared.

2007-0614 Once Upon A Time Copyright © 2008,2012 by Tad Laury Graham; Excerpted from my Novel, Leaving Home.