Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.

Push – Final Episode

Marvin Cantor pushed his way up the stairs leading out of the subway station. He felt like he was swimming against a school of fish that had surrounded him. Most people dodged left and right to avoid him as he rushed up the steps. He felt his right shoe flapping loosely against his foot, and he feared that he’d lose it, but with a thousand dollars waiting for him, he didn’t have to worry. Or did he? What if the strange man wasn’t waiting for him in the alley as he’d promised? A moment of panic washed over him. Had he killed another man for nothing?

The daylight flashed against his face as he stepped from the station’s exit. The crowded sidewalk crushed him, but people made way for him as he turned left and headed toward First and Macon streets. He turned left again and hurried through a narrow alley until he came out on 10th Avenue. He stopped for  a moment and observed the rush hour crowd walking by. He hesitantly turned and looked down the alley, but no one was following him as he had feared. He took a deep breath. The sweat beneath his layers of clothes chilled his skin. He’d use some of the money to spend the night in a hostel, maybe even get a shower. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a shower.

He walked as casually as he could down 10th until he passed in front of Schulz’s. He peered through the big windows, but he didn’t see Schulz. He walked by and turned down the alley next to the deli. Down a ways next to the dumpster, stood a dark figure leaning next to the wall. Marvin felt as if someone had trespassed into his home. This was his alley. He spent many nights here.

He had a sense of unease as he approached the dumpster. He could barely see the man’s face as he approached him. He waited for the stranger to speak to him as he stopped a few feet before the metal trash bin. The door to Schulz’s deli was to his left. The man stood up straight and took a step toward him.

“Did you do it?” he asked.

“Yes.” Marvin’s voice shook.

“Did he die?” The man seemed agitated.

“Yes.”

“Did you see the body?”

Marvin hesitated. “No, I had to get out of there before the cops came.”

The stranger sighed. “How do you know he’s dead?”

Many thoughts raced through Marvin’s head. His memory flashed back to the moment he had pushed the man onto the tracks. He remembered distinctly the wailing of the train’s horn, the screams of the crowd, the rush of the riders as they went to and fro on the platform. He had heard a sickening thud and a screech of metal on metal, but he didn’t turn around to see anything. He’d simply hurried away, too scared to see what had happened as a result of his actions.

The truth was that he regretted what he had done. He didn’t know the man that he had pushed onto the tracks, and the stranger hadn’t shared anything about the man to justify his killing, but Marvin was desperate. He needed the money.

“I heard the train hit him,” Marvin replied.

“I need more proof than that.”

“He’s dead. Now, where’s my money?” Marvin tried to sound confident, but it came out weak.

“You don’t get to decide when I give you the money.”

Marvin took a step back and stammered, “I did what you asked.”

“You’re nothing but some worthless homeless guy. You don’t get to decide anything.”

“Come on, man, I just need the money. I didn’t want to kill someone. I don’t even know why you wanted him dead. I don’t care. I just want my money.”

“I’ll tell you why. Because he was a worthless husband. His wife hated him. She wanted him dead.”

Marvin kept his eyes on the man. A fear rippled down his spine. He felt a breeze to his left and turned to see Schulz opening the back door to the deli. He thought to tell Schulz to go back inside, but as he turned to the old man, he noticed a long shiny object in his hand. Before he had time to react, Schulz plunged the knife into his chest. Marvin stumbled backwards and looked at Schulz in shock. He felt the warm blood run down his chest. He put his hand on the handle that protruded from his body, but he was too weak to remove it. The stranger moved closer to him and sneered at him as he fell to his knees.

The alley spun around him alternating between light and dark. He thought he could hear the rush of blood from his chest. He tried to put his hand on his wound, but both of his hands were too heavy to lift. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Feet shuffled near him. A car horn honked in the distance. The din of traffic echoed through the alley.

He heard muffled voices over him, but he couldn’t discern what they were saying. He opened his eyes and strained to see, but his eyes were blurred by tears. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t force any words from his mouth. He heard footsteps moving away from him. Nothing but the usual sounds of the city engulfed him as the blood drained from his chest.

His breathing became labored and his chest hitched and jerked before he took his final breath. His last thoughts were of the sound the man’s body had made when the train had hit him.

 

Push – Episode 5

Fred stepped through the door of his home into the dark hallway just outside the kitchen. The garage door rattled shut behind him piercing the silence that otherwise engulfed him. Another dreadful week had come to a close ending with him exhausted and ready to go to bed at 8 PM. He crossed the kitchen diagonally and beat a hasty path to his office where he dropped his briefcase onto an empty chair. He shrugged off his rain coat and hung it on the hook behind his door before he returned to the kitchen.

He took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings. He listened for any signs of Shelly, but he knew she was out with friends for the night. She did that a lot lately, more so than she had before Alan moved out. When Alan lived with them, she spent more time at home with their son, cooking meals or just watching TV with him. They’d always been close, so much so that he often felt like a third wheel or an interloper in his own home. That had changed now.

The light above him struggled to fend off the darkness in the living room. The house felt somber and abandoned without his wife or son around. Fred pulled open the cabinet near the refrigerator and removed a bottle of scotch. He filled a small glass with the honey-colored liquid and gulped it down. The burn made him exhale loudly. He poured another and held it above his head, staring at the liquid through the kitchen light before he sucked it down too. He quickly lost track of how many drinks he had poured.

He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, and although he was hungry, he didn’t feel like eating. Exhaustion weighed on his shoulders and the alcohol made it worse. He felt lightheaded. His stomach rumbled like a volcano spitting hot lava. The scotch wasn’t settling well. A burp threatened to erupt into vomit. He braced himself against the countertop. In spite of it all, he downed another glass.

He didn’t want to end up on the floor again. Shelly had yelled at him before for passing out in the kitchen. He stumbled a bit as he stepped toward the stairs, but he managed to navigate them quite well. His feet felt like they were trudging through wet cement. His head undulated to a dull ache as his stomach protested. The door to his bedroom stood open, but it seemed smaller than usual. He bumped his shoulder against the door frame as he entered, which temporarily diverted his attention from everything else that ailed him. He yelped and rubbed his throbbing shoulder.

He stumbled to the bed and tried to remove his shoes before he fell on top of the comforter. His face smashed against the plush material of the bed covering making it hard for him to open his right eye. He couldn’t move or he didn’t want to move. The weight of the day overwhelmed him and crushed him into the bed. He just wanted to sleep, to give into the forces that threatened to drown him at that very moment.

Before he drifted into an intoxicating sleep, several thoughts drifted through his mind, but he was too drunk to understand them or grasp the consequences that lay before him.

Shelly wasn’t out with friends. She was having an affair with another man, a younger man. He knew this man but couldn’t picture his face.

Alan had left him a threatening message, but he had deleted it before he heard his son say what he had been thinking all along.

Paolo had accosted him outside his office at lunch. The big man had not been happy about losing the lawsuit and accused him of seedy tactics to win one for his wealthy client. He could still smell the cheesesteak on Paolo’s breath, and it made him sick.

His life spiraled out of control. He floated above his body and saw himself sprawled out on the bed below him. He looked around him and saw his wife embracing the younger man, his son loading a gun beneath the kitchen table, and Paolo walking toward him with a big stick in his hand. He turned away and drifted into a fitful sleep.

Push – Episode 4

Fred sat across the table from Paolo Fenta and his lawyer, Ricardo Montes. Montes looked ridiculous in his over-sized, double-breasted suit. The shoulder pads hung over the edge of his jaunty shoulders. His skinny neck struggled to fill the collar of his shirt. He looked like a bad mob character from the 1980s with his garish mismatch of colors – dark, blue satin shirt, pale green tie, and forest green suit. He was beyond naturally tanned and had dark hair greased back like some beatnik from the 1950s. The visual dissonance made Fred queasy.

Paolo offered no relief. He wore a tight, floral-patterned, short-sleeved shirt and dress slacks that were probably a size too small. Unlike Ricardo, he threatened to burst from his clothes given his considerable bulk. His belly protested against the table as Paolo leaned on his elbows to listen to what Fred had to say. Ricardo sat back as if daring Fred to say something that he didn’t like.

“This is my client’s final offer,” Fred announced as he slid the paperwork across the table to Ricardo.

Ricardo eyed him suspiciously as he pulled the paper toward him. “Where is your client?”

“He wasn’t able to make it today. He had an important meeting at work.”

“I’m sure he’s making six figures whatever he’s doing today. Meanwhile, Paolo here had to miss another day of work thanks to your client.”

Fred exhaled exasperation. “It’s a good offer. It’s much more than you’d get if this goes to court.”

Paolo leaned over his lawyer’s shoulder to glance at the paperwork. “How much is it?” he asked. He leaned in further almost pushing Ricardo aside.

Ricardo seemed aggravated but he quickly scanned the page. His eyes darted left to right until he hit the part of the page that warranted his attention. He paused and stared for a moment before he said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What? How much?” Paolo asked sounding like a kid whose parent wasn’t telling him something. Ricardo pointed at the amount on the page as he turned it toward Paolo. Fred could see the anger boil up in the big man. His face turned red and his eyes narrowed. “Fuck that!” he said as he looked at Fred.

“Mr. Gillian, there’s no way we’re accepting this offer. You must take us for fools.”

Paolo’s anger grew in intensity, but he seemed to struggle to find words to express it. He leaned into the table against his moaning gut and stared at Fred. His fists clenched. Fred heard his chair slide back against the carpet every so slightly.

“Mr. Montes, the accident was very minor. Paolo’s car wasn’t even totaled. He wasn’t even admitted to the hospital for his injuries. How can you possibly think you’ll get more in court.”

“I’ve missed a month and a half of work!” Paolo yelled.

Paolo threatened to bound from his chair, but Ricardo put his hand on his arm as if to calm him or restrain him in some way.

“Your client is immensely wealthy. This is chump change for him,” Ricardo said.

“My client’s wealth has nothing to do with what’s fair, Mr. Montes. That offer is more than reasonable given the circumstances.”

“Then, we’ll see you in court.” Ricardo stood up. When Paolo didn’t move, he tapped his back to get him to stand as well. Paolo kept his eyes on Fred, but Fred ignored him.

“Rachel will show you out,” Fred said to the men as he walked to the door of the conference room. Paolo maintained his angry stare and huffed as he walked past Fred into the waiting room. Rachel stood and greeted the men before she led them toward the exit. Fred shut the door and took the opposite direction toward this office.

He sighed as he returned to his desk. He hated dealing with the despicable personal injury lawyers. They gave other lawyers a bad name, especially when they sought big payouts for minor things. Fred knew Ricardo simply wanted a big payday for himself, but he also knew that his offer had been very fair. Any jury would see right through Ricardo and Paolo. He felt confident he’d win the case and that the men would receive far less than what he had just offered them. They’d regret their stance. He would make sure of it.

Push – Episode 3

Fred Gillian looked in the mirror and disliked what he saw. The young man he had always been had been replaced by an aging man with gray, receding hair, sagging jowls, and a spray of crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes. The soft, taut skin of his youth had roughened like sandpaper, and the glorious five o’clock shadow that had made him feel masculine in his youth troubled him with its patchy gray. He no longer sported a full beard because of the gray. On this morning, like every morning for the past ten years, he shaved his face clean in hopes of keeping himself youthful looking. It didn’t work.

He grabbed a towel from the rack near the sink and wiped the steam away from the mirror so that he could see to shave. The mirror cleared, but the steam gradually crept into his one visible spot. He cursed beneath his breath. He was going to be late for work. He pulled the razor up his neck clearing the hair in a sharp line and repeated several times until he nicked his neck.

“Oww! Fuck!”

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked from the bedroom just outside the door of the bathroom they shared. Her voice sounded concerned or bothered. He couldn’t tell which.

“I cut myself,” he said curtly.

“Oh.”

His wife of 30 years seemed not to care. She didn’t come to the bathroom to check on him, but he’d cut himself plenty of times, and by now, she was probably used to it. Nevertheless, something bothered him about it. Some deep-seated worry nagged at him like a sixth sense had detected something was wrong but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She had seemed aloof of late – a little less invested in him, a little less caring. Being together 30 years had blunted a lot of the charm in their relationship, but this felt different. Fred shook the thought from his head as he put a torn piece of toilet paper over his cut. How such a tiny nick could bleed so much, he had no idea.

He finished shaving and wiped his face clean with a hot cloth avoiding the covered cut as best he could. He dried his face as he walked into the bedroom. His wife stood near the window looking outside.

“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” she said without looking at him.

“It’s about time. I’m tired of the rain.”

Fred heard a noise downstairs and perked up. “Is Alan still here?”

His wife finally turned to him. Her tentative expression answered his question before she said anything. “Yes.”

“Why? He should be on the way to work by now. Do we still have to make sure he gets up for work? He’s 24 years old!”

“Fred…”

“Don’t ‘Fred’ me. What is he doing?”

“He’s not working.”

“What? What happened?”

“He was let go.”

“Let go? Why?”

“You know how he and that boss of  his didn’t get along.”

“So he was fired?”

“No. He quit.”

“He quit again? You just said he was let go. Why wasn’t I told this?”

“It just happened yesterday. I’m not sure if he was laid off or quit. He hasn’t said much about it.”

“You didn’t say anything to me last night. Why not, Shelly? You could have told me then rather than let me figure it out on my own. That boy can’t keep a job. He can’t live with us forever!”

Fred stomped out of the room before his wife could offer up any response. He picked up the pace to his anger as he stormed down the stairs. Shelly trailed behind him trying to get his attention and calm him down.

“Fred, give him a chance to explain…” she stuttered behind him. He ignored her, blocked out all of her pleading words. He’d had enough. His son had pushed him to his limits with his irresponsible and reckless behavior. He may be 24 years old, but he had somehow never made it past 16 mentally.

“Alan!” Fred yelled when he stepped into the living room and didn’t see his son. “Alan!”

“What?” his son replied. He stepped around the corner from the kitchen.

“What the hell happened to your job?”

“I quit.” Alan spoke defiantly, but Fred could see the fear in his eyes.

“Why? What happened?”

“I didn’t want to work there anymore.”

“That’s it? You’re just too lazy to work?”

“No, it was a crappy job, so I quit.”

“How many is that now? Eight? Nine?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is what happens when you go don’t go to college. You don’t have many choices. You have to take what you can get.”

“I know. You keep saying that. I know.”

Fred took a deep breath and clenched his jaw shut. His son was a monumental disappointment. His only child was going nowhere fast, and worse, he still depended on his parents for support.

“You’re going to have to move out. I’ll give you until the end of the month.”

“What? No. I have no place to go. I can’t afford rent anywhere.”

“Then, get a job fast because you’re going to need it,” he said as he turned to leave the room.

“Fred!” Shelly said as he stomped past her. “You can’t do that to your son!”

“Dad, wait!” Alan pleaded.

Fred ignored both of them as he bounded up the stairs. He could hear Shelly comforting their son. He could hear him reacting out of anger, his words unintelligible but clearly angry. Fred didn’t care. His son had threatened him before, but Shelly had stepped in and defused the situation. She had a hold on him that gave her extraordinary powers it seemed, but Fred had been pushed to his limits this time. Nothing she could do or say would change his mind. He was kicking his son out of the house, and he was changing the locks. It was time for him to grow up and move out. Fred was determined this time. He wouldn’t change his mind. Not like the last two times.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 10

I woke up in the bed that I had shared with Barbara for so many years. My head felt heavy, cloudy, and a wave of disappointment fluttered over me when I looked at the empty space beside me. The pillow sat unmolested, still round and puffy as if it had never once been used. I sat up and looked around the room rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

The blinds bowed under the intensity of the sun outside. The muted light seemed filtered and eerily fragile. Spots danced in my field of vision blocking a clear view of the room. Darkness hunched in the corners and I could barely discern if they were empty or if something lurked there. A chill ran down my spine as if I just realized someone or something watched me as I sat there on the side of my bed.,

“Hello,” I called out, my voice raspy and barely audible. My throat hurt and my mind spun in circles. I wanted to lay back down. No answer came to me. I sat there for moments longer, waiting.

I finally willed myself to stand up on my shaky legs. I wobbled like a strong wind had taken hold in my room, but I managed to stumble to the window. I braced myself on the window frame, stuck my thick fingers in between the blinds, and peered through the gap to the outside. A beautiful morning warmed my spirits, but the scene felt like one of those faded, old photographs that Barbara and I had in our photo albums we kept on the shelf in the living room. Something odd lurked beyond my window, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I shook my head and looked outside again hoping that my imagination had gotten the best of me. Nothing changed. The sunlight sparkled in an unnatural way. It reminded me of when I used to run among the bed sheets hanging on the clothesline as a kid – I could only see the world through the thin, white sheets.

Agitated, I turned away from the window and left the room. All of the blinds in the house were closed tightly keeping the light at bay. I could smell the hot vinyl of the blinds even though it didn’t feel that warm outside. My sense of smell surged like I had suddenly become more aware of the odors around me. The air I breathed felt cool and soft. I reached for my nose to touch the cannulas, but they were gone. I didn’t remember having them removed.

My gait felt unfettered, light, but I paid no heed to the strangeness of it all. I had some subconscious goal in mind; I just didn’t know what. When I walked into my living room, the door to the patio stood ajar. At first, concern flooded my mind. I swiveled around to see if someone else had come into the house.

“Carla? Rudy?” I said to the room.

I repeated myself, but no one answered. My heart raced in my chest. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could feel a presence. The sensation startled me. My breathing increased. An old man like myself couldn’t defend himself much against an intruder.

I stepped toward the door and peered out onto my patio. The old bench that Barbara and I often sat on in the mornings and evenings when she was around stood empty at the back of the patio. The sight of the bench calmed me down, and I decided to take a seat there. I needed to be some place close to Barbara. Nothing would make me feel better.

Once I sat down, I did feel better. Birds chirped in the bushes. A bee whizzed by making the rounds among the roses in my backyard. The grass seemed greener than I remembered, but maybe the odd, sparkling light made it appear that way.

I glanced up at the power line that swung between the poles at the back of my house. The clean black line sat empty barely swaying in the breeze. I exhaled and relaxed. I only momentarily looked at the patio door, still ajar, to see if anyone had decided to join me. I no longer felt fearful. I felt happy, content.

I heard an excited chirping and turned to find the bird that sang so forcefully. A lone cardinal sat on the wire now, looking and chirping at me. I smiled. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. The bird continued to sing, and I closed my eyes concentrating on his melodic song. The sun bathed my face in warmth, and the sweet smell of the roses swirled around me like the intoxicating perfume that Barbara often wore.

I opened my eyes ever so slightly and peered at the cardinal. It had been joined by another cardinal and they sang together side-by-side. I laughed to myself. My laughter belied pangs of loneliness. I missed Barbara.

“Jim, I knew I’d find you out here,” a voice interrupted me.

Startled, I turned quickly toward the patio door and saw Barbara standing there smiling at me and looking many years younger than she did the last time I had seen her. “Barbara…,” I said. I sat there with my mouth agape unable to form more words or get up from the bench.

She walked over to me and sat down beside me. She took my hand in hers. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”

I stammered as if I had seen a ghost, “I…missed…you, too.”

Her gaze moved to the cardinals sitting above us. She smiled and looked back at me. “I see the birds are back.”

I shook my head and gripped her hand harder. Her hand felt solid, real. I put my other hand to her face and rubbed her soft cheek. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been here the whole time. I’ve always been with you.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t really leave you.”

Confused, I stopped talking. My hand dropped to her shoulder, and I leaned in to kiss her. Her warm lips felt familiar and inviting. This couldn’t be a dream. Maybe I had dreamed that she was gone.

“We should call the kids. They’re worried. They think you’re gone. I need to tell them it was all a misunderstanding.”

She shook her head and pulled my hand to her heart. “Jim, the kids will be okay. They know we’re together now.”

“How?”

“They know. Just sit back and enjoy the moment.” She dropped my hand to her side but still held it firmly in her grasp.

“Carla will be upset.”

“She’ll be fine eventually.”

“How do you know?”

She laughed and smiled at me. “Mothers always know.”

I didn’t understand it at all, but I didn’t want to question it. Barbara was back. I squeezed her hand and sat back against the bench. She scooted close to me and I felt the warmth of her thigh against mine. So many beautiful memories with Barbara flooded my mind rollicking in succession like a movie reel. We sat in silence watching and listening to the cardinals sing. Somehow I knew she would never leave me again.