Episode 5: Standard Ink

“Potter!” George called out to me across the aisle of cubes. He was walking my way, and he had a big smile on his face. I leaned on the edge of my cube wall as I waited for him to get to me. He ambled along the opposite corridor and turned the corner down from my cube.

He had an uneven and frenetic gait that seemed like he would fall down at any moment. He also sported a slight hunch forward, likely because of his huge gut, and his arms flung by his side as if he were attempting to take flight but couldn’t get his weight off the ground. His chubby face, adorned with a full, thick mustache, looked swollen and ruddy. His bushy, unkempt eyebrows danced above his bulbous eyes.

Today, he wore a light blue, short-sleeve dress shirt with a turd-brown tie that had diagonal, faded gold stripes on it. His shirt had a faded stain on the front of his belly that he likely couldn’t see given the curvature of his gut. He stopped short of me and levered his arm against my cube wall to steady himself as if the walk across the floor had exhausted him.

“You ready for lunch?” he asked. He seemed positively giddy, which perplexed me since our lunch would likely involve yet another lame sandwich from the shop in the lobby. No one at Standard Ink ventured far from the building it seemed. Most of the good restaurants and shops were down the street quite a ways where many of the new, modern office towers stood.

“Yep. Where do you want to go? Top Bread?” I asked, suggesting the sandwich shop in the lobby. I wanted to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Given the age gap, George and I had nothing in common, but somehow we’d developed a connection sort of like two people who are thrown into the same cell in prison.

“Nope. I’ve got just the place for you. Let’s go.” He walked past me and motioned for me to follow him. I fell into his wake and followed him to the elevators.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” He continued to wear that big, goofy smile. His eyebrows perched above his eyes like birds of prey. I felt mildly uncomfortable, but that feeling was fleeting compared to what was to come.

We were the only two people on the elevator for the whole ride down to the lobby, and I heard him chuckle to himself, as the bewildering smile danced across his face. I began to think that maybe he was a psychopath who preyed on new college graduates. After all, there had to be an explanation as to why there were no other new graduates in Inside Sales.

I put my reservations aside as we walked into the dingy parking garage and took the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor. I thought I heard another chuckle from him, but it was hard to tell. I noticed George had these unusual ticks where he made seemingly unconscious noises. He’d breathe heavily, snort, or make a popping sound with his tongue. I made small talk to fill the uncomfortable void.

“What’s good at this place?”

“Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot good there. I mean a lot.” His whole goofy demeanor spilled out as he said this as if he were in on some secret. I began to wonder if I were being hazed. I could tolerate hazing in the name of a good fraternity party, but being raked across the coals by some old dude violated even my fleeting youthful sensibilities. I heard him laugh out loud as we walked to his car, and I briefly considered excusing myself and returning to the office.

He walked in between a shiny, black Lexus and this cranberry-colored TransAm. I knew immediately which car was his. The TransAm hadn’t made it out of the 1970s. I’d seen two versions of this car in my lifetime – one that had been well-maintained and displayed in classic car shows and another that was one pothole away from being obliterated. George owned the latter. The car whined when he sat down in the driver’s seat and leaned over to unlock my door. I felt like I sat on the ground when I lowered myself into the seat. The vinyl seats had tears in them that pinched my legs. A stench similar to a microwaved Filet-o-Fish filled the air inside the car. Fast food wrappers littered the floor at my feet.

He looked at the wrappers as I kicked them out of the way. “Sorry about the mess. I haven’t had time to clean her lately.” It didn’t look like the car had been cleaned in a long time, and I wondered what George did with his time outside the office. Whatever he did, I was certain it didn’t involve any cleaning.

He cranked the car, and it’s engine roared to life. The whole car rattled and vibrated. The radio blared some indiscernible music from its tinny speakers before George flipped it off. He struggled to look back as he maneuvered out of the parking space. He gunned it forward once he backed out like he was trying to impress me with his muscle car. I felt more embarrassed than in awe.

Once we merged onto the street, his goofy smile returned. “Potter, I’m taking you to my all-time favorite lunch spot. You know what’s so great about it?”

“What?”

“Lunch is free.”

“Free? How’s that?”

He laughed as if he had told a joke. “You’ll see, my son. You’ll see.”

We rounded one corner and then another. I couldn’t help but think of a movie I had seen when I was younger where this child was abducted and taken to an abandoned warehouse by her captor. She was rescued eventually, but she was forced to stay with her creepy captor for a while until the cops found her. George could easily pass for that guy.

I saw the muted neon sign in the distance before we arrived, and as we puttered further along the street in the traffic and he started to slow down near the sign, a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness washed over me. I laughed nervously.

“Where are we going?” I asked. In my head I said “No. No. No.”

“Where do you think?” He turned to look me square in the eyes as he nosed the car into one of several open spots. He laughed out loud, and I thought I saw an evil gleam in his eyes.

“They serve lunch here?”

“Yep!” he said proudly. “Don’t worry, they keep the food separate from the dancers.” He laughed out loud, a big belly laugh that most people reserve for something so funny that they can’t control themselves.

I couldn’t believe that we were having lunch at a strip joint. I’d only been to a strip club once before when one of my older fraternity brothers had had a bachelor party, but that place had been somewhat posh, at least as much as these clubs could be. Fanny’s was the polar opposite of posh. It stood wedged into a semi-basement of a row of old buildings in the back alley of the city. The parking lot smelled of urine and vomit, much like the average city bus that trundled up and down the streets.

I wheeled around to observe my surroundings as I stood outside George’s car. This wasn’t a place I’d visit at night or any other time really.

Hesitantly, I asked. “What do they serve here?”

“Pizza.”

“That’s it?”

“They order it. There’s no restaurant here. It’s good stuff, and it’s free, but you have to pay for drinks.”

I followed George to the door where a gruff, large man sat on a stool. He nodded to us and we passed by him without a word. On the other side of the foyer, the room was dark and loud. I could barely hear a word George said as we followed a scantily clad hostess to a table. There was only one stage in the dank room, which smelled of cheap pizza and alcohol. A single dancer stalked the stage, topless. When we sat down she confidently strolled toward us and began dancing on the stage in front of us. She turned around and bent over shaking her ass above us. George cheered and groveled. He pulled out some money and stuck it in her garter belt, while I just sat and watched the horror unfold.

I could only think of one person I’d be more horrified to have at my side in the presence of unmitigated sexuality – my mother. I felt about as comfortable as if she were sitting right next to me. George stood by the stage and groveled some more as the lady shimmied just inches from his fat face. When she strutted away to some other customers on the other side of the stage, George looked forlorn, but he kept that goofy smile on his face. You’d think a man his age would be numb to such things, but he looked like he’d just discovered it.

As he moved away from the stage, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Wow, she must be new here.”

I laughed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“I’m usually here once a week.”

“Really?”

“Potter, my son, a man doesn’t pass up free food. Speaking of food, let’s get some lunch.”

He wobbled past me to a long table against the wall. Heat lamps glowed above the boxes of pizza stacked on the table. George grabbed a flimsy paper plate, and surveyed the options before he grabbed several slices of pizza. I followed his lead and did the same before we returned to our table and ordered drinks from our waitress. George kept his eyes on the dancer as he shoved a slice into his mouth. He chewed sloppily and made noises as the lady gyrated on stage, which made me even more uncomfortable, if that were possible. I stared at my food only stealing glances at the dancer when she walked by us on the stage.

The dimly lit room made it difficult to really see the woman. She looked young, at least judging by her body, but her face looked tired and worn, which padded a few more years on her. She moved suggestively occasionally grabbing the pole in the middle of the stage and rippling herself up and down it, but something about her demeanor made her look disinterested as if she were in a morbidly boring job and was just trying to make it to the end of her shift. I could relate.

“Georgie!” a disembodied, female voice squealed in the dark. I twisted around in my seat to see this older dancer emerge from the dark and plop herself down in George’s lap. She seemed excited to see him in that fake way that many sorority girls greeted one another in college.

“Delilah!” George exclaimed. “How have you been?”

“Great, now that you’re here.” She pecked him on the cheek.

“You dancing?”

“I’m up next.” She stood up and adjusted her top, which barely covered her large breasts.

The smile on George’s face grew tenfold. “I’ll be ready for you.” He patted his leg in what I assume was a gesture to his money, or at least that’s what I hoped. She gave him another hug and scampered off toward the back.

I took another bite of pizza, but my stomach roiled. George leaned in and said, “Wait until you see her dance. She’s amazing!” His breath smelled of mediocre pizza and fruit punch. I wanted to vomit.

The irritating thumping music on stage segued to a stop, and the dancer strutted back stage like she was a fashion model. I watched the last of her bare ass disappear behind the velvety curtain that draped across the length of the back wall. The DJ announced Delilah, and even before she appeared on the stage, George stood, clapping and whooping like a college kid at a home football game. He was the only one who cheered, or at least he was the only one I could hear. The music throttled up and Delilah burst onto the stage in full stripper regalia. George almost fell over moving to the edge of the stage to greet her.

I couldn’t watch, and I couldn’t eat. I sat back in my chair and tried to look around for something else to occupy my attention, but my eyes kept falling on George behaving like a lap dog in the presence of this older woman who teased him from the stage. The whole scene was embarrassing as if it were my dad standing at the stage while my mom stripped for him. I wanted to leave, and I considered doing so. I could easily make my way to the main street and find one of those Lime scooters to get back to the office, but before I could muster the courage to take off, George returned to his seat.

“We should get going,” he said, still smiling and reeling from his encounter with Delilah. I could smell her cheap perfume on him as he squeezed past me. She had moved down the stage to another fawning, sad man.

“Yeah, lunch is almost over,” I said trying to encourage him. My feet were already pointed to the door.

We put some cash on the table to cover the drinks and a tip. I stood up to leave, but George walked over to the stage and waved to Delilah. She smiled and waved back to him, but she didn’t leave the man in front of her who had cash in hand. I made a beeline for the door only looking back to confirm that George was still following me.

I’d never been so glad to smell the dank air of a surly backstreet as I was when we emerged from Fanny’s. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. George came up beside me as we walked to his car and put his arm across my shoulder.

“Well, what’d you think Potter. I bet you’re liking this working life a lot better now, huh?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It was interesting.” I struggled to hide my desire to get away from him as quickly as possible.

“We should do this again sometime.”

I looked askew at him trying to hide my incredulity. I noticed some pizza sauce had dripped onto his shirt, but I didn’t say anything. I just promised myself that I’d never go to lunch with him again.

Episode 4: Standard Ink

“That’s what I do?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the gist of it.” Julie replied.

“It’s kind of boring.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

I stood up and peered across the sea of cubes. Heads poked above the short walls in just about every cube. I was, by far, the youngest person in the department. I saw more gray hair and bald heads than anything else.

“What about everyone else here?” I looked down at Julie who sat in a ragged chair she had dragged into my cube from the conference room across the hall. It was the last day of my training. I had spent three days with her, and I didn’t want it to end.

“What do you mean?”

“It appears I’m the only new college graduate in this department.”

“Inside Sales is the backbone of the company. A lot of people make a career of it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish the week doing this job, much less spend 30 years doing it, but some of the people I had met over the last three days had been at Standard Ink for their entire careers, and they were limping toward retirement spending their days calling prospective customers to sell them ink.

As Julie had explained to me, my job was fairly simple. I had a book, a literal notebook of printed pages, not a list on the computer, that contained the names of current, past, and potential customers. My job was to call on those customers and get them to buy more ink from us. Every day, I was expected to come in and spend the day on the phone trying to solicit orders for ink. That was basically it. Sadly.

The computer on my desk was used only to enter orders and respond to emails from my boss or customers. The order entry program looked like a throwback from the mainframe era I had read about in my history class, and that’s because it was. Standard still ran mainframes in a central room somewhere on the fifth floor of the building. The program ran in an emulator that produced a putrid monochrome green and black screen where I had to use the tab key to move among the fields to enter an order. The email client was also an anachronism from the days of desktop software. The only thing advanced about the computer was its security software, which prevented me from doing anything other than email and order entry. There was no browser installed, so I couldn’t waste time surfing the internet. I’m not even sure Standard had heard of the internet yet.  I felt like I was a little kid again when my parents used parental controls to limit my access on my computer.

I sat back down and looked at Julie. “So what’s next?”

“Well, it’s time to turn you loose.” She smiled at me and my heart melted a little. I didn’t want her to turn me loose. It felt like she was dropping me off at prison. I tried to remain hopeful in her presence.

“I can’t wait to get started.” I almost choked on these words.

“Good. You are going to do great. You’re just what this department needs.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. This department, this company, needed a lot of things, and I wasn’t it. “Thank you.”

She stood up and I joined her. For a brief moment, we looked at each other in a semi-awkward silence.

“Will I see you around?” I asked, stalling the inevitable.

“I’ll come down and see how you’re doing, but if you need anything, just give me a call.” She handed me one of her business cards. I cradled it in my palm and examined the raised letters on its surface. Her name, bold with a serif font, gave me small comfort in the sea of misery of Inside Sales.

She extended her hand and I shook it. I inhaled her perfume one more time before she turned and walked down the hall. I watched her walk away, enchanted by the purposeful sway of her gait. She was like a bright star in a singularly dark sky, and I wondered why she worked here. She could do so much better. I never asked her that. I filed that question away for the next time I saw her.

With Julie out of sight, the dreadfulness of Standard Ink seeped into my bones and pulled me down into the creaky chair in my cube. I sat down so hard that I thought the chair would break, but it only whined and crackled like the popping of tiny firecrackers. I stared at the ominous green screen on my computer and then the old, bulky phone on my desk.

My first call on my own went about as well as expected. My opening spiel was met with a click. I stopped mid-sentence to confirm that I had been unceremoniously dumped by the potential customer. I marked through the name in the call book. Half of my next ten calls ended in the same way until I reached a pleasant lady who sounded lonely. Not to brag, but my call definitely brightened her day. We chatted for over ten minutes about everything from the weather to my college mascot (the dodo). By the time I got to the punchline of my sales pitch, she was ready to order. She also asked if I planned to do a sales visit. She was disappointed when I told her no.

An hour had gone by, but it felt like a whole day. I felt bored, despondent. When I was a young kid and was learning to swim, I had ventured out into the deep end of the neighborhood pool one day while my parents sat in lounge chairs at the shallow end. I had confidently swam out to the deep end on my own, but once I was there, I suddenly panicked and thought I was going to sink to the bottom and drown. I wanted to call out to my dad, but fear had sucked all of the air out of my lungs and I was left paddling in deep water trying to stay afloat. I eventually mustered the energy to swim over to the wall of the pool and climb out, but I never forgot that feeling of being trapped on the deep end fearing for my life. I felt the same way sitting there in my cube. I was in too deep.

“How’s it going, kid?” George, one of my coworkers, said. He leaned against the edge of my cube with a stained, ceramic coffee cup in his hand. He took a sip while he waited for my answer.

“Okay, I guess.”

“It’ll get better.”

“I hope so. I only landed one order in an hour.”

“Where’s your trainer?” He gave a Cheshire Cat grin and glanced sideways up and down the corridor. George was typical of the people in Inside Sales. He was in his fifties, or so I guessed, bald save for the ring of wispy, gray hair that circumscribed his oblong head, and overweight. His gut hung so far over his belt that I couldn’t see the belt I supposed he wore. He wore short-sleeved dress shirts that had ghosted stains and frittered edges on the sleeves, not torn, but just just enough unevenness to make it clear that the shirt was well past its prime. He wore an outdated tie whose pattern may have been hip back in the 1980s, and his dress pants were too long as if he bought them with the intention of growing into them, like my mom used to do for me when I hit my growth spurt in my early teenage years. He didn’t wear his jacket once he reached his cube, probably because it was too small to button over his prodigious gut.

“I’m done with training, so she’s moved onto the next one.”

“They didn’t have trainers who looked like that when I started. I had some old fart train me.” He grinned wider than I thought possible. His leering look gave me the creeps. The thought of some old man pawing Julie, even with his eyes, disgusted me. I didn’t know what to say, so we stood there in an awkward silence filled only with George’s unspoken lust. I felt like I had stepped in a pile of dog shit and couldn’t wait to scrape it off my shoe.

“Hey kid, now that you’re officially one of us, we should go to lunch tomorrow. I’ll give you the run down on the inside.” His looked shifted from lascivious to hopeful.

I couldn’t imagine a more boring lunch partner, but I needed to get to know my coworkers if I was ever going to survive this job. “Sure.”

He looked relieved as if the seconds that passed between his suggestion and my answer were unbearable. “Cool, I’ll swing by tomorrow. I’ll take you to my favorite lunch spot.” He gave another mischievous grin as he turned to walk away. I didn’t know what he had in store for me, but I imagined it couldn’t be worse than the hazing I endured when I joined my fraternity in college. This was the professional world after all.

 

 

Legacy

This past weekend I, along with my family and brother, moved my mom to a new place. It’s much smaller than the old place, but plenty big enough for one person. Most importantly, the place is on a single level, which removes the danger presented by the steep staircase in her old place. When my kids were babies, I worried about their ability to maneuver stairs safely, but I had thought little about stairs since. Now that my mom is old, I can see how they present a serious obstacle for her. You really do come full circle in life.

My mom, who has had little change in her life or little that she has acknowledged, does not deal with change well at all. Her life-long battle with anxiety has become more pronounced in her later years. The smallest disruption to her daily routine can cause a tsunami of anxiety, so moving from one place, even if it’s one she’s only lived in for five years, to another just a few miles down the road provokes all sorts of hand-wringing. In the weeks since I told her she was moving, I’ve worked to quell her anxiety and assure her that my brother and I would take care of everything. That didn’t stop the worrying or the countless phone calls fretting over the impending move.

By the time moving day arrived, the tension was as thick as the fog rolling off the Golden Gate bridge on a chilly morning except not as peaceful nor as pleasant. In the weeks prior to the move, my brother and I had worked with my mom to winnow down her belongings. She’s something of a pack rat. She rarely throws anything away or donates things she doesn’t use even if they haven’t been used in years. Surprisingly, she seemed willing to turn a new leaf and had committed to sorting through her stuff to relieve the load quite a bit. We threw stuff away and made multiple trips to Goodwill, but come moving day, the amount of stuff still seemed overwhelming.

We had packed up most of her things the night before, but even the few things that remained unpacked seemed endless. A closet that didn’t seem so big the night before became an endless pile of stuff that stretched over the decades. Cabinets and drawers that seemed fairly innocuous in their contents felt like one of those circus clown cars where clowns keep coming out one after another. What seemed liked one more load became two or three more loads. By the end of the day, we were all tired down to our bones.

The hardest part of the move wasn’t even the physical labor or the jockeying about what to do with yet another unused kitchen item among the endless sea of unused kitchen items. It was the small things that reminded me of Dad. His watch, the one he received for working 30 years at Ford, almost reduced me to tears. The jacket he wore forever, tucked away in a closet, no longer had that familiar aftershave smell that rekindled memories from my childhood. I couldn’t even bear to open the garment bag that held his National Guard uniform. His presence and his legacy had been reduced to these inanimate things. Moving them or considering what to do with them felt like desecrating his memory.

A day that was physically exhausting quickly became one that was emotionally exhausting as well. As I lay in bed that night, before I quickly succumbed to sleep, I thought about how we will all be reduced to the things we leave behind. Our legacy will persist in those few things that only matter to a very few, and those few will hold in their hearts the memories of us that matter most to them. My dad’s legacy lives on within us. Sometimes, I fear it has faded too much, but then, I’m reminded he’s still there.

Episode 3: Standard Ink

In the weeks since my orientation with the indomitable Mr. Mullens, I had graduated from college and moved out of my parents’ house to an apartment just a few miles from the Standard Ink office. I had spent most of the holidays sitting on the floor of my sparsely-furnished living room playing video games and eating whatever I wanted, which consisted mostly of Cheetohs and Mountain Dew. Mullens had given me a thick volume on company policies and procedures before I had left the orientation, but I barely picked it up during the intervening weeks because there was too much going on, namely playing Red Dead Redemption 2.

When my first day at Standard Ink arrived a day after I welcomed a new year by playing video games for 18 hours straight, I struggled to get up on time. During my five years of college, I had purposefully scheduled my classes for late morning or the afternoon to avoid getting up early. I’m not a morning person. Nevertheless, I staggered out of bed with just 45 minutes to get ready and make the ten-minute drive to the office. I downed a couple of cold slices of pizza left over from New Year’s Eve and some Mountain Dew before I showered and threw on my suit, which really needed a good press.

My drive to the office was only a few miles, and at any other time of the day would only take  ten minutes, but the moment I nudged my car onto the main street toward downtown I met a long line of commuters edging their way down the street one car length at a time. It took ten minutes for me to get to the pizza joint down the street from my apartment, the same one I had walked to on New Year’s Eve for a late-night snack. By the time I pulled into the long line to get into the parking garage it was already 9:30 AM. Surely Mullens would understand I had misjudged traffic on my first day and give me a reprieve for being over 30 minutes late on my first day. Or maybe not.

I wasn’t the only one who was late. I stepped onto an elevator filled with grim-faced people in the parking garage and followed the flow of unhappy people into the office building like a school of spawning fish swimming toward our imminent demise. No one talked in the elevator on the way up to the 15th floor. Everyone just stared straight ahead or looked at the tiny screen on one side of the elevator that evidently played Standard Ink’s greatest hits from the 1950s. I was sure nothing good had happened at the company since then, but hey, it was a paycheck, and I had proven my dad wrong about my being capable of making it on my own.

The elevator spat me out on the 15th floor with a slew of others who quickly disappeared behind the door next to the receptionist’s desk. I stopped before the desk and waited for the rotund woman with the headset to get off the phone.

“May I help you?” she barked once she ended her call.

“I’m Travis Potter. It’s my first day.”

She didn’t seem impressed or the least bit interested. “Please have a seat,” she said nodding to my left. I looked at the tired chairs next to her desk, which sagged under a faded floral print several decades past its prime. They felt about as comfortable as they looked when I sat down.

I had barely relaxed in the rigid chair when a terminally old man trudged through the door next to the receptionist’s desk. His head slowly swiveled across the room until his eyes met mine.

“Potter?” he asked in a gruff, abrupt voice.

“Yes.” I stood up and smiled at him, but he didn’t return the favor. I stepped toward him and extended my hand.

He looked at my hand and then back at me. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry. I misjudged traffic.”

“We expect our employees to be at their desks at 9 AM every day. That’s stated very clearly in the policies and procedures manual. Did you get the manual at your orientation?”

I thought of the thick notebook sitting on the bar at my apartment where I had placed it the day I moved in. I hadn’t moved it since then. I had briefly looked at the first page of the manual in the elevator on the way out on the day of my orientation, but the densely worded pages had discouraged me from opening it again. It felt like that time my literature teacher had assigned Beowulf. I never read that either.

“I did, but I haven’t finished reading it.”

“Hmm, the attendance policy is in the first chapter.” His eyebrows arched and his eyes narrowed at me. He knew I was lying.

“I’m sorry, it’s been a busy few weeks. I graduated, moved into a new apartment, and then the holidays happened. I’ll read it this week.” I scrambled to regain his confidence, but his facial expression remained the same, gruff and uninterested.

He considered me for a moment before he stepped back and opened the door. He pointed his hand toward the opening. “After you.”

I walked through the door and stopped. He walked past me and I followed him like a student going to the principal’s office. “My name is Mr. Smith. I am your supervisor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said to the back of his head as I walked behind him. We came to the end of the hallway and the floor opened up into a sea of cubes similar to the floor that I had been on for my orientation. The big difference was that this floor had people on it. As we walked down the corridor every cube had a person bent over an old monitor with a headset on talking quietly. The chatter rose and melded into a mere vibration across the low ceiling. I could only make out a few muttered words as we passed each inhabited cube.

Finally, Smith came to an abrupt stop at the end of one row of cubes and turned to face me. “This is your office.” He impatiently pointed me to the desk.

“You’re in luck today Potter. I’m in a generous mood, but going forward, you have to sign onto your computer by 9 AM every day. Today doesn’t count, but you get three late sign-ins and you’re fired.” He paused and looked at me, no through me. “Do you understand?”

“Yes. It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. This is the real world Potter. College is over. This is your life from now on.”

I smiled to try and lighten the mood, but Smith didn’t alter his mood in the least. “I understand.”

“I’ll let your trainer know that you finally obliged us with your presence.” He huffed as he walked away as if his annoyance wasn’t obvious enough. I put my bag on the floor next to my desk and sat down in the creaky, old chair, which tilted slightly to one side.

My cube looked like a yard sale from the late 1990s with a bulky monitor and an over-sized mouse and keyboard tethered to the boxy computer that sat under the monitor. It reminded me of some of the junk my dad kept in the basement, relics from the bygone days of his home office. I tapped the bulbous keys on the keyboard and they clicked loudly. I wanted to laugh because I felt like I was in a time warp, but mostly, I wanted to run from the building screaming because this nightmare was my reality now.

“Travis?” a feminine voice said behind me. I wheeled around in the chair to see Julie White standing at the entrance to my cube. All of my dread evaporated in her presence.

“Julie? I wondered if I’d see you here.”

She smiled, and appeared relieved that I remembered her. “Well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me this week. I’m here to get you trained.”

This excited me beyond any remorse I had about working in this dreadful, dying company. “Great! I can’t wait to get started.”

Her smile broadened revealing more of her perfect, white teeth. She had her long hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that really exposed her face. She had a soft, youthful face and piercing brown eyes that sparkled despite the dull fluorescent lights overhead. When I stood up from the chair, I was a good foot taller than she was. She looked up at me, and I felt my heart flutter. She was the only reason I was here. Why else would I subject myself to this misery.

“Do you want to grab some coffee before we get started?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a tour as we go.” She looked up at me and smiled again. I wanted to say something smart, but my thoughts tripped over each other in my head. I just smiled back at her.

She stepped out into the corridor and I followed her. She wore a white blouse and form-fitting black skirt that highlighted her taut figure. Fireworks popped in my chest when I caught the scent of her perfume, which rippled in her wake like a soft, summer breeze. She pointed out things as we walked down the corridor. I couldn’t recall anything of import she called out, but by the time we reached the tiny break room at the end of the floor, I knew I was in love.

Back at It

The holidays were a little more than disruptive to my writing. While I continued to write as much as I could, there was just too much going on to be fully immersed as I had been for much of the year. Now that the new year has turned and we’re getting back to our regular routines, I’m hoping to return my focus to the stories that I’ve been working on for the past few months.

My writing goals this year are very simple in terms of concept. I want to finish The Things We Cannot Keep and I want to attend the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Given everything else going on, I can’t imagine doing much more than that without spreading myself hopelessly thin. In between all of this, I’ll continue posting to this blog including the remaining episodes of the serials I started last year – Donna Quixote and Standard Ink.

Toward the end of last year, I reduced the noise and distractions that constantly begged for my attention by eliminating many of my social media accounts except Instagram and Twitter. I reduced the frequency of my posting and checking on these accounts. I did this to reclaim so much time I had lost to pointless frittering online. This has tightened up my routine and re-routed a lot more of my time in the morning to actually writing and/or reading, which are far more important than the latest viral videos.

Speaking of reading, I’ve done a lot more of that since I reduced my social media activities. I read 14 books last year including a new all-time favorite in Where the Crawdads Sing. I had a great reading year thanks to many wonderful authors who continue to release excellent work. I’m looking forward to releases from some of my favorite authors this year including Robert Dugoni’s latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and I’m glad to be back at it. Here’s to a happy, healthy 2019! Let’s get this year started!

Chapter 6 – The Things We Cannot Keep

“Remember the hideout?” I asked, mostly to Hank because Robbie never really spent much time there.

“What hideout?” Robbie replied.

I stared at Hank for a long moment hoping that recollection would prompt him to respond, but he remained propped stiffly in the Adirondack chair with his eyes closed.

“Hank.” I nudged him with my elbow.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Do you remember the hideout?”

Hank forced open his eyes as if he were wrangling over control of his eyelids. “Not really.”

“How could you not remember it? We spent so much time playing there when we were kids.”

He looked confused like he had just seen an image that didn’t make any sense. “I don’t know…I just don’t remember it.” He closed his eyes again and shifted in the chair to a supposedly more comfortable position.

I sighed heavily. “Robbie, do you remember that old shack near the lake we used to play in?”

Robbie scrunched his face and looked up into the sky as if he were trying to pluck the memory from the air. “I think so. Didn’t it have a loft?”

“Yes.”

“And didn’t it have big warped door that we could never get open?”

“That’s the one.”

“I wonder if it’s still there.”

I left Robbie with that thought and turned back to sleepy Hank. “Hank, you don’t remember it?”

“Nope,” he replied after a delay.

I turned back to the lake, exasperated. Robbie’s float bobbed out of sync with the breeze.

“You might have something,” I said, nodding toward the float.

Robbie reeled the line in a bit, and then he jerked the rod. The float sank under the water, and he began to reel it in quickly. The rod bent toward the lake as the reel whirred. Robbie stood up and braced himself against the floor of the deck as the rod bent further and further under the weight of whatever was on his line. In the excitement I stood up from my chair and watched the water as the line and the submerged float came closer to the edge of the dock. Just as the tension reached its greatest, the line released and fell loose again.

“Damn it!” Robbie said. He reeled it in the rest of the way revealing an empty hook. “The fucker got away.” He pinched the hook between his thumb and forefinger and stared at it intently as if he could discern how the fish removed the bait and itself from the hook. He clipped the hook onto one of the loops on the rod and sat it down on the deck next to his chair.

“You’re not going to fish anymore?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Not now. I will later.”

“You never were good at fishing,” Hank interjected.

Robbie smirked. “That, you remember.”

Hank let out a half-hearted laugh, but the smirk didn’t leave Robbie’s face.

“We should go see if the hideout is still there,” I said, changing the subject before my brothers butted heads again.

“Why?” Hank asked. He still hadn’t opened his eyes.

I looked at him and then to Robbie. Robbie seemed uncommitted but willing to give it a go, which encouraged me to push my curiosity upon them.

I stood up from my chair and patted Hank on the knee. “Come on, let’s go.”

Robbie stood up behind me, and Hank finally opened his eyes into narrow slits as he looked up at me from his reclined position. “Do we have to?” he mumbled. His response immediately transported me across our collective childhood when our parents forced Hank to do something he didn’t want to do. Although his voice was deeper now, I still heard the preteen Hank.

“Yes, it will be fun.”

Hank groaned and I could feel the tension rising in Robbie behind me. He emanated his annoyance like a beacon, but to be truthful, he was looking for a reason to be annoyed with Hank. He wanted to confront him right away and get it all over with, but I stood between them, as I always had.

Hank stood up wavering like the breeze was too much for him to bear. He wobbled in place and I put my hand on his arm to steady him. “Are you okay?” I asked.

He nodded, forced open his eyes, and said, “Yup.” I held his gaze for a moment before I stepped past him and walked toward the porch at the edge of the cabin. I glanced back at him, oblivious, hopeful.

***

When we were kids, the hideout felt like it was deep in the woods. Hank and I crawled around the lake like seasoned explorers once our parents allowed us to wander off on our own. Dad would always warn Hank to look out for me when we trampled down the steps at the edge of the porch and stepped onto the soft patch of grass that separated the cabin from the woods that huddled around the lake. Mom, sitting on the sofa on the other side of the big, open windows in the cabin, would yell for us to stay away from the water, which seemed impossible given the size of the lake. Once we stepped into the thick underbrush, hacking our way through, we were in a different world, or so it seemed.

Hank always chose the path we’d take because he was older and knew more about the trails than I did, so I’d follow him. He’d decide that we’d climb a tree or build a fort out of old logs and fallen tree limbs. He’d take us to the lake’s edge to get closer to the ducks that glided along the grassy edge, and he’d lead me through knee-deep mud so that we could get to the other side for some mystical destination convincing me that it was worth our mother’s unyielding ire when we returned to the cabin with filthy, ruined shoes.

In the woods that surrounded the cabin, Hank and I were closer than we’d ever be. I felt like I was one of his best friends there because it was just the two of us. He talked to me like he wanted me with him. His whole demeanor changed. Back home in Portland, he often ignored me and hung out with his friends, who were his age. I was just his annoying younger brother who was too little to keep up and too dumb to participate in their games. Mom tried to appeal to him on my behalf to get Hank to include me, but he never did except when we were at the cabin. Obviously, he had no choice when we were at the cabin because it was just us. Mom and Dad were adamant that it was family time, so none of us were ever allowed to bring friends along for the trip. Hank was too social to wander the woods alone, so he had to hang out with me by default.

We didn’t discover the hideout until one spring when Dad decided to take an early vacation. Normally, our trips to the cabin occurred in the summer when the vegetation was at its thickest. Despite our wanderlust, we probably never made it very far from the cabin itself because the underbrush dragged us down, not to mention that there were many interesting divots and meandering trails to distract us from pushing further away from the cabin, but that one spring revealed a side of the woods we’d never seen before. It looked almost bare in the delayed bloom of that just-arrived spring. We could see further into the woods than we’d ever seen before, and that piqued our curiosity.

As Hank and I wandered along some nondescript trail that we didn’t recognize from our previous summer’s visit, he came to a sudden stop in front of me. My feet skidded on the trail as I almost bumped into him.

“Do you see that?” he asked.

I tried to follow his line of sight, but I couldn’t see anything but the dull gray of the tree trunks. The sparse foliage felt disorienting despite the preponderance of pine trees that surrounded us. “No, what?”

“Between those two trees.” Hank pointed to his right. I followed his finger until I could see something rust-colored between two large deciduous tree trunks whose limbs were still mostly bare.

“What is it?”

“Let’s go see.” Hank stepped forward with a look of determination, but a chill of the unknown slithered down my spine. I fell in step behind him after he got a few paces ahead of me. I feared being left alone in the woods more than I feared whatever was on the other side of the big trees.

We descended a slight hill that was still slick with wet dead leaves from last fall, and I almost fell trying to keep up with Hank whose longer legs made his stride much quicker. “Wait up!” I yelled as he ducked between the trees. He didn’t stop, so I quickened my pace. A hollow feeling simmered in my stomach. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt like we were being watched.

At the foot of the hill stood, or, more appropriately, leaned this old building. It looked like an old barn, but it was small for a barn. Made of weathered gray planks covered with splotches of moss that crept up its sides and down from its roof line, the barn moaned from the weight of its age. The two gaping holes in the front that passed for windows had once been rectangular I imagined, but now, they were more like rhombuses. The big front door that probably swung open at one point had been pinched and warped so that it would no longer budge from its frame. The rust color came from the tin roof that was mostly covered with moss and dead vegetation.

When we first happened upon the old shack in the woods, it frightened me. The whole scene look foreboding. The shack itself looked like a decrepit old person with pits for eyes screaming for us to stay away. I wanted to run back up the hill as soon as I came to a stop next to Hank.

“Cool,” Hank said as we stared at the old building. “Let’s check it out.”

“It doesn’t look safe.” I tried to sound cautious, but my quivering voice betrayed my innate fear.

“Are you chicken shit?”

“No,” I lied. I was scared out of my wits, but I didn’t want Hank to know. He’d tell all of his friends back home and they’d make fun of me to no end.

“Then let’s go inside.” Hank looked at me as if he wanted me to go first, but there was no way I was going anywhere near that building unless I was pinned behind Hank.

He took a step forward and looked back at me. I quickly sidled up behind him. He sighed to convey his annoyance and then walked up to the shack like he lived there. He pulled at the crusty, old handle on the door, but the door just whined at his effort. He put his foot against the frame and pulled with all of his might. Nothing.

When we discovered what became the hideout, Hank was already 12 years old, which to me seemed big at the time since I was only seven then. He’d already experienced a significant growth spurt that made him about as tall as our dad, so when he couldn’t open the door, I knew it was permanently fixed in its position. I secretly hoped that’d put an end to our adventure, but Hank wouldn’t be deterred.

“It’s stuck,” he said, stating the obvious. He stood up tall again towering a good two feet above me. He looked to his left and then his right. “Why don’t you crawl through one of the windows?”

“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. I’m sure the fear flashed from my face like a spotlight.

Hank laughed. “Come on, Buster. It’ll be fun.”

“No. I want to go back to the cabin.” I took a step back in that general direction.

“This could be our new fort.”

I looked up at the ominous-looking structure, wilting under the weight of so many seasons. “I like our other fort better,” I replied referencing the one we had built the previous summer.

“I doubt that one is still there after the winter rain and snow.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

“No. I like this one better. Now, are you going to go in or not? Or are you just a baby?”

Hank knew how to push my buttons. I was forever searching for ways to prove that I could hang with Hank, and he was always saying I was a baby. The very word “baby” raised my cackles, and he knew it. I took a deep breath and swallowed all of my fears. “Okay.”

Hank bent down and I put my foot in his hands. He pushed me up to and through the window frame. Once my elbows were on the bottom of the warped frame I looked inside the shack.

Light filtered through the cracks between the planks of the walls. Hank’s attempt to open the door had stirred up some long-dormant dust that filled the air and floated through the beams of light like mist rising from the lake in the morning. I inhaled the dank, organic air and sniffed decomposition both of the building itself and whatever had crawled into it to die. Rusted hooks hung from the wall boards and some unidentifiable garbage gathered in the corner barely visible from the overgrown plants that covered the floor. A crooked ladder missing its bottom steps hung from a loft in the back of the old shack. It appeared that it was a barn at one point, just a small one.

“What do you see?” Hank asked from below. He had let go of my foot once I had propped myself into the window. I held myself firmly in place, but I suddenly feared falling into the barn.

“Nothing. Help me down.”

“No, let’s go inside.”

“No.” I could feel Hank climbing up the side of the wall beneath me. The barn creaked and whined with his added weight.

“Come on, stop being a baby and move!” Hank yelled. I feared his reprisal more than anything that lie in wait inside the barn, so I reluctantly pulled myself into the window and dropped down onto the other side. My footfalls stirred up more dust. I could feel the spores inside my nose. I coughed.

Hank pulled himself up and into the barn quickly landing squarely next to me. The beams of light cut lines across his face, but I could clearly see his smile as he panned across the barn.

“This is cool,” he said without looking at me. “Let’s see what’s up there.” He pointed to the ladder and before I could protest, he already had his foot on the first solid rung. I didn’t want to be left below alone, so I followed him up to the loft.

The floor of the loft felt unstable. The planks gave way to our weight as if we would crash through to the space below, but Hank didn’t care. He bounded from one end of the loft to the other, peering through the cracks in the walls as he did. He found something on the far wall and began yanking on it. The barn shimmied and whined against his effort. I thought he was going to send the whole structure clapping to the ground. I grabbed one of the ceiling beams to support me as he stepped back and kicked the wall. After a few swift kicks, a small, square board flew away from the wall and clattered onto the ground below. A rush of sunlight brightened the loft, and it didn’t look so scary anymore. Hank smiled at me and leaned out the window. I walked over to see it for myself.

We probably weren’t that high up, but to a seven-year-old, it felt precipitously high. I saw the board Hank had kicked laying on the throngs of dead leaves below, and I felt dizzy. I stepped back from the window suddenly fearful again that the barn would collapse and we’d fall to the ground.

“Let’s go,” I said. I knew my voice sounded shaky because it felt like it.

Hank just shook his head as he sat down next to the window. He scanned the woods around the lake as if he were seeing them for the first time. “This will be a cool fort,” he said without looking at me. And so it was.

***

The hideout stood just as we had left it, which is to say it looked exactly the same as it had the last time I remembered seeing it many years ago. The wood had darkened, but it remained the creaky, old structure it had been in my memory. Seeing it after all these years left me flabbergasted. The thing had to have been built in the early 1900s, so it quite possibly was over a hundred years old.

“Holy shit,” I said because there was nothing else to say when we descended the hill and arrived at the foot of the old barn. “You still don’t remember this, Hank?”

“Nope.”

“Seriously?”

“I’m sorry, okay.” Hank went from laid back to annoyed in no time.

“I’m just surprised. We spent so much time here.”

The hideout didn’t seem scary at all now. Even after I had grown accustomed to its shadowy appearance as a kid, I had still feared the dark spaces within it. Now, I struggled to see what had been so fear-inducing. I walked up to the big, warped door and tugged on the handle. The wood groaned and whined. I heard a few cracks at each tug, but I could feel the door sway a little.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Robbie warned. “I’m not dragging your old, injured ass out of these woods.” He smiled mischievously at me. I smirked back at him.

I placed my foot firmly on the weathered frame and gave the door another forceful tug. The cracking noise sounded like a tree falling after it had been cut down, but the door popped loose from the frame and swung open. It didn’t open more than a couple of feet before the edge jammed into the damp earth beneath it. I couldn’t open it any further, but it was open enough for us to squeeze into the building.

I stepped back and looked at Hank. Robbie stood just behind him. “All of those years and we couldn’t get that door open,” I said. Hank just looked at me, dumbfounded.

I shook my head and stepped into the opening to check out the hideout. Nothing felt the same. The loft wasn’t as high as I remember. I reached up and touched the edge of the loft floor without using the ladder. It wasn’t as dark as I remember either. Maybe the wall planks had decayed more and now more light filtered into the hideout, but there were fewer dark spaces than I remember. Neither Hank nor Robbie followed me.

“Hank, you want to check it out? Maybe that will help you remember?” I yelled outside to them.

“No thanks,” Hank replied.

“That can’t be safe,” Robbie said.

I thought about calling them a couple of babies, but I doubted it would have the same effect it had on me a few decades ago. I looked at the ladder to the loft, which was missing a few more rungs. A couple of the planks in the floor of the loft had broken and now hung down from the ceiling of the floor below. The familiar, old smells still permeated the place. I couldn’t help but smile at the many fond memories I had of Hank and me playing games in the hideout even if Hank didn’t remember any of it. I took a deep breath and then stepped back through the small opening in the door.

Hank leaned against a thick tree in front of the hideout. He seemed out of it. Robbie seemed relieved to see me again.

“A lot of great memories here,” I said, looking pointedly at Hank.

“If you say so,” Hank said. He pushed himself off the tree and started walking up the hill back toward the cabin. I watched him walk away for a moment. Robbie fell in line behind him. I looked back at the hideout. I thought a stern push would probably bring it crashing to the ground, but something inside of me wanted to preserve it, keep it the way it was in my childhood memories. I stared a bit longer before I turned and joined my brothers on the path back to the cabin.

My New Favorite Book

Over the past decade, if anyone asked me about my favorite book of all time, I’d tell them about Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The story, set in Bombay, India, is about an Australian fugitive who flees to the country and gets involved with the local mob while making life-long friends and falling in love with a beautiful woman. On the surface it sounds as cliche as a story can be, but Roberts’ narrative style and masterful use of language takes the reader away to India and leaves him wanting more by the time the book comes to an end almost one thousand pages later. I loved that story from its poetic opening to the last heart-breaking pages, and it stayed as my all-time favorite until this week.

A week ago I began reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing, a story about a little girl who is eventually abandoned by her entire family in the marshlands off the North Carolina coast. She is forced to grow up on her own and learns resilience and self-reliance in the most extreme circumstances. It is equal parts heart-breaking and inspiring. Owens not only brings to life a beautiful, full character, but she paints the picture of the marshland so vividly that I can feel the Spanish moss whisking across my face as I float through the water with Kya, the main character.

The book follows Kya’s life as she struggles to survive and comes of age with no constant adult presence other than the sweet store owner, nicknamed Jumpin’, who mans a store/shack on the pier in the nearest town. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel become surrogate parents for Kya. To make the relationship even more interesting, Jumpin’ and Mabel are black and Kya is white in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina. There’s a symbiotic relationship between Kya and the couple because both are ostracized by the locals since neither is accepted or understood. The locals derisively refer to Kya as the “Marsh Girl” or swamp trash because she lives in a rundown shack, never attends school, and prefers to avoid contact with people. The reason the locals show disdain for Jumpin’ and Mabel needs no explanation in this unfortunate era of American history.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Kya survives and eventually becomes an expert on the creatures of the marshland. She falls into and out of love, and there’s an intriguing accidental death/murder that occurs in the marsh, which Owens expertly weaves into the narrative of her life. Just when you think you have it all figured out as the climax of the novel happens, there’s a twist and one final release that will leave you reeling at the end. I’m purposefully being very vague about the story line because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. It’s best read unimpeded by explanations. The beauty of the story is how it unfolds and toys with your emotions. I loved it. I felt sadness when I had to say goodbye to Kya after I read the last few words of the book.

I absolutely love books that paint a vivid picture of the setting and bring the characters fully to life as living, breathing people practically sitting next to you as you read. Owens’ prose is efficient and spare, not quite Hemmingway-esque, but certainly not as flowing as Roberts’ prose in Shantaram. Nevertheless, the narrative voice gives the reader plenty to like. The story stands on its own, somewhat complicated but not so much so that I had to flip back pages to keep it straight. Owens is a scientist and it shows in her efficiency. What she has created is a wonderful novel worthy of all of the praise she has received. I add to that the dubious honor of being my favorite book of all time. I’m sure she’ll take it to the bank. In all seriousness, thank you Ms. Owens for this beautiful story.